Monday, December 31, 2007

USS Michigan

Figure 1: USS Michigan, date and place unknown. U.S. Navy photo from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Michigan, circa 1844. National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Wolverine (ex-Michigan, 1844) photographed in a Great Lakes harbor in 1913, while she was escorting the replica of Perry's flagship Niagara on her centennial tour. Wolverine was then assigned to the Pennsylvania Naval Militia. Courtesy of Tom Parsons, 2007. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: USS Wolverine (ex-Michigan, 1844) photographed in a Great Lakes port in 1913, while she was escorting the replica of Perry's flagship Niagara on her centennial tour. Wolverine was then assigned to the Pennsylvania Naval Militia. Courtesy of Tom Parsons, 2007. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

The USS Michigan was the US Navy’s first iron-hulled warship and was designed by shipbuilder Samuel Hart. The ship was built in pieces at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1842 and was shipped overland to Erie, Pennsylvania, where she was put together. While being launched on 5 December 1843, the Michigan slipped down the ways but stopped short of the water. Hart and the builders tried to force the ship into the water throughout the rest of the day, but the ship would not budge. As darkness came, everyone gave up and left. But when they returned the following day, they discovered that during the night the Michigan had slid down the remaining section of the ways and was floating peacefully some distance offshore in Lake Erie! The ship was retrieved and final construction began on the steamer. The USS Michigan was commissioned on 29 September 1844 and was almost 164 feet long, 27 feet wide, and had a crew of 88 officers and men.

The Michigan (which was armed with only one 18-pounder cannon) was built by the US Navy for the defense of Lake Erie against two armed British steamers that were based in Canada. The Michigan was based in Erie throughout her career and her patrols took her all over the Great Lakes. In May 1851, she assisted in the arrest of James Jesse Strange, who had created his own dissident Mormon colony on Beaver Island at the head of Lake Michigan. Strange was soon freed, but 5 years later on 19 June 1856 he was assassinated by two members of his “colony.” The murderers escaped to the USS Michigan for sanctuary but, for some reason, they were not arrested and were eventually freed.

Throughout the Civil War, the Michigan provided security and stability on the Great Lakes and made sure any British forces in Canada stayed in Canada. The Michigan also guarded against any potential attacks by Confederate spies or raiders who were plotting to attack Union ships on the Great Lakes. In the fall of 1864, a covert Confederate attack actually did take place. A Southerner named John Yates Beall, along with 20 of his men, boarded the steamer Philo Parsons on Lake Erie as passengers and quickly seized the ship. They then used this ship to capture and burn another steamer, the Island Queen. But in a separate incident, the Michigan’s Captain, Commander John C. Carter, managed to capture the Confederate agent for the Lake Erie region, Captain Charles H. Cole of the Confederate States Navy. After capturing Cole, Commander Carter discovered that Cole and Beall were going to use the captured Philo Parsons to free Confederate prisoners who were being held on Johnson’s Island (located on the coast of Lake Erie, 3 miles from the city of Sandusky, Ohio). When Beall discovered that Cole was captured and that the plot had been revealed, he took the Philo Parsons to Sandwich, Canada, and had her stripped and burned. After the failure of this mission, no further raids were attempted by Southerners on the Great Lakes.

After the Civil War, the Michigan continued patrolling the Great Lakes. On 17 June 1905, she was renamed USS Wolverine to free up her name for a new battleship that was being built. The Wolverine was decommissioned on 6 May 1912 and was turned over to the Pennsylvania Naval Militia as a training ship. She functioned in this capacity for the next 11 years. On 12 August 1923, a major engine breakdown ended the ship’s naval career. In 1927, the Wolverine was pushed up onto a sandbank in Erie Harbor and loaned to the City of Erie as a relic. She was sold to the Foundation for the Preservation of the Original USS Michigan on 19 July 1948. But when not enough money could be obtained to preserve and restore the ship, the Wolverine was cut up and sold for scrap in 1949. It was a sad end for the US Navy’s first iron-hulled warship, which had survived for more than 100 years.

Monday, December 24, 2007

USS Rich (DE-695)

Figure 1: USS Glennon (DD-620), at right, after her stern was blown off by a mine off Normandy on 8 June 1944. USS Rich (DE-695), a U.S. PT boat, a British motor launch, and a U.S. "Auk" class minesweeper are standing by. Rich soon hit another mine, which also destroyed her stern, and was then sunk by a third mine. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Rich (DE-695) strikes a mine, amidships, while operating off Normandy on 8 June 1944. She had previously hit another mine, which blew off her stern. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: “Christmas decorating at a Naval Hospital.” Ensign Audrey Etie, a Navy Nurse, and two patients decorate a small tree, 25 December 1944. Seaman Second Class Robert S. Whitaker, a survivor of USS Rich (DE-695), sunk during the June 1944 Normandy invasion, is at left. Another Normandy veteran, Ship's Cook Third Class John Elliot Hunter, is at right. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after Ralph M. Rich, a decorated naval aviator who distinguished himself during the Battle of Midway, the USS Rich (DE-695) was built at the Defoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan, and was commissioned on 1 October 1943. The Rich was a 1,400-ton Buckley class destroyer escort with a crew of 215 officers and men. Her primary missions were convoy escort and antisubmarine warfare and her armament consisted of three 3-inch guns, four 40-mm guns, eight 20-mm guns, two depth charge tracks, eight depth charge projectors, one “hedgehog-type” depth charge projector and three 21-inch torpedo tubes. The Rich was 306 feet long, almost 37 feet wide and had a top speed of 24 knots.

After a shakedown cruise off Bermuda, the Rich escorted ships along the East Coast of the United States until the end of February 1944. She then escorted ships across the Atlantic to England, completing three round-trip crossings by May. On 12 May 1944 she started her final trip across the North Atlantic, reaching England on 23 May. At that point she was assigned to “Operation Neptune,” which was the naval phase of the invasion of Normandy.

On “D-Day,” 6 June 1944, the Rich escorted and screened the naval bombardment group of Task Force 125, which was assigned to provide gunfire support for the landings on “Utah” Beach. She continued screening these ships until the morning of 8 June. She then was ordered to assist the destroyer USS Glennon (DD-840), which had struck a mine northwest of the Saint-Marcouf Islands off the coast of Normandy. Shortly after reaching the Glennon, and while trying to assist the damaged destroyer, the Rich struck two mines. The first blew off approximately 50 feet of her stern and the second one exploded under her hull, just forward of amidships. The order was given to abandon ship and a few minutes later what was left of the Rich sank beneath the waves. Of her crew of 215, 90 were killed and 73 were wounded.

In Figure 3, above, a survivor from the USS Rich (Seaman Second Class Robert S. Whitaker, who was still recovering from his wounds) celebrates Christmas 1944 with a US Navy nurse and another hospital patient who survived the Normandy invasion. Certainly Seaman Second Class Whitaker had a lot to be grateful for that Christmas, since so many of his shipmates were not as fortunate as he was. But this picture shows that, regardless of the war or the era, Christmas represents a little bit of home to our men and women in uniform. This Christmas, with US forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should all take some time to remember the many men and women in our armed services who are unable to spend the holidays with their loved ones. A safe and Merry Christmas to them all.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

USS Vixen (PG-53)

Figure 1: USS Vixen (PG-53) at Portland, Maine, in 1945. Photograph by YN3 Mell Nelson, who served on CINCLANTFLT staff under ADM Jonas H. Ingram during World War II. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: The Vixen at Philadelphia, 11 April 1944. US Navy Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: The Vixen in 1943. US Navy Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: The M/V Regina Maris (formerly USS Vixen) at Pireus, Greece, in 2001. Photograph by Alekis Lindström via Michael Vincent. Click on photograph for larger image.

Originally known as the Orion, this 3,097-ton steel hulled yacht was built in 1929 by Krupp Germania Werft at Kiel, Germany. An American wool manufacturer named Julius Forstmann purchased the ship and the US Navy then purchased it from him on 13 November 1940. The ship was renamed the USS Vixen (PG-53) and was converted into a gunboat by the Sullivan Drydock and Repair Company at Brooklyn, New York. The Vixen was slightly over 333 feet long, had a beam of approximately 46 feet and had a top speed of 15 knots. She was armed with four 3-inch guns, seven .50-caliber and 2 .30-caliber machine guns, and carried a crew of 279 officers and men. The Vixen was commissioned on 25 February 1941 and headed for her shakedown cruise in the Caribbean on 5 March.

After her shakedown cruise, the Vixen went to New London, Connecticut, where she became the flagship of Rear Admiral Richard S. Edwards, who was the Commander of Submarines for the Atlantic Fleet. While acting in the role of flagship, the Vixen traveled all over the eastern seaboard of the United States throughout 1941, returning to New London on, ironically, 6 December 1941, the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Vixen stayed in New London until 20 December and was then ordered to go to the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC, where she became the flagship for Admiral Ernest J. King, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet. She officially assumed this role on 30 December 1941 and would continue functioning as Admiral King’s flagship until 17 June 1942.

After a brief overhaul, the Vixen became the flagship for the Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Royal E. Ingersoll. Admiral Ingersoll boarded his new flagship on 21 July 1942 and immediately began visiting all of the naval bases under his command. The Vixen steamed from Maine to the Caribbean while Ingersoll directed operations against German U-boats that were decimating Allied shipping off America’s east coast. By maintaining close contact with all of his area commanders, Ingersoll was able to determine how and where to deploy his forces to combat the U-boat menace. Gradually, he was able to turn the tide against the U-boats, but only after terrible losses were sustained by the Allied merchant fleets.

Ingersoll was relieved as Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, on 15 November 1944 by Admiral Jonas H. Ingram. Admiral Ingram also made Vixen his flagship, using this tough gunboat as his base of operations against the German U-boats for the rest of the war. After the war ended in 1945, the Vixen remained in the Navy but was decommissioned on 24 May 1946. She was transferred to the War Shipping Administration and was sold on 21 January 1947. The Vixen was converted into the cruise ship Orion (her original name) in 1950. In 1964, the Orion was purchased by the Epirotiki Lines and was completely rebuilt and renamed Argonaut. She enjoyed much success as a cruise ship and in 1996 was sold to a company in Egypt. Renamed the MV Regina Maris, the old gunboat was used for cruises in the Red Sea. As of June 2002, she was laid up at Alexandria, Egypt, and was on the market for sale. Whether serving as a flagship (for four American admirals) or as a cruise ship (transporting people for over 50 years), the Vixen certainly had a rich and extremely long career.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

USS Marietta (PG-15)

Figure 1: Broadside view of the USS Marietta in Mare Island channel, 16 October 1897. U.S. Navy photo PG 15 001-10-1897. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: The Marietta circa July 1910. Courtesy U.S. Warships of World War I. Click on Photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: Bow view of the Marietta at Mare Island, 21 September 1897. U.S. Navy photo PG 15 001-9-1897. Click on Photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: A 26-foot steam cutter built by Mare Island for the Marietta. U.S. Navy photo PG 15 004-1895. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after cities in Ohio and Georgia, the USS Marietta (PG-15) was a 1,000-ton gunboat of the Wheeling class and was built at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, California. She was commissioned on 1 September 1897 and was almost 190 feet long, 34 feet wide and had a top speed of 13 knots. The Marietta was armed with six 4-inch guns, one 3-inch gun, four 6-pounders, two 1-pounders and one machine gun. She was a well-armed gunboat for her size and, with a crew of 140 officers and men, was well suited to protect American lives and property in unstable countries around the world.

After a short assignment with the US Pacific station, the Marietta left San Francisco on 19 March 1898 for Callao, Peru, where she was to obtain sufficient coal supplies for the US Battleship Oregon (BB-3). The Oregon was stopping there on its way to join the North Atlantic Squadron, which was steaming off the coast of Cuba at that time. The Marietta moved on to Valparaiso, Chile, on 31 March and finally rendezvoused with the Oregon on 6 April. The two ships then made a remarkable journey around the tip of South America and headed north, stopping in Bahia, Brazil, on 11 May. Once there, the Marietta and the Oregon parted company, with the gunboat headed for Key West, Florida, and the battleship moving on towards Cuba. The Marietta reached Key West on 4 June and, after a short stop there, quickly joined the blockade of Havana Harbor.

On 2 September 1898, the Marietta arrived in Boston for an overhaul but was sent right back to Cuba on 10 October. For the next eight months, the Marietta patrolled the Caribbean, visited numerous Latin American ports and helped clear mines from Cuban waters. On 17 October 1899 the gunboat was sent from Virginia to the Philippines via the Suez Canal. The Marietta arrived in Manila on 3 January 1900. While in the Philippines, the Marietta supported American troops in putting down the Philippine insurrection. She also patrolled the local waters, escorted ships within the Philippine Island chain and assisted various military expeditions and landings. The Marietta was sent back to the United States via the Suez Canal on 3 June 1901 and arrived in Boston on 17 September.

The Marietta’s next tour of duty sent her to the Caribbean, where she spent 17 months protecting American interests in Colombia, Haiti, Jamaica, Venezuela, Trinidad, Curacao and Honduras. She also carried mail to various American legation officials in the region and was sent back home to Boston 10 April 1903. On 9 March 1904, the Marietta was sent to Panama during that nation’s revolution against Colombia. She protected American interests there until June, when she was sent to Gibraltar to join the US Navy’s European Squadron. In December 1904 she was sent back to the United States and arrived at League Island, Pennsylvania, on 31 December. After being decommissioned for a while, the Marietta was recommissioned on 14 May 1906 and sent to the West Indies. For the next five and a half years the Marietta would patrol the islands in the Caribbean while also visiting numerous Latin American ports.

On 4 November 1911, the Marietta was sent to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and placed in reserve. On 27 May 1912, the gunboat was given to the New Jersey Naval Militia, but two days later was again recommissioned at the New York Navy Yard. For the next two years, the Marietta was assigned to the Caribbean and the western Atlantic and in February 1916 she was part of the American task force sent to fight Mexican insurgents in Vera Cruz, Mexico. The Marietta returned to the United States shortly before America’s entry into World War I and was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet for patrol and convoy duty. She was sent to Europe to escort convoys in 1918 and stayed there until being ordered to New Orleans, Louisiana, where she was decommissioned for the last time on 12 July 1919. The Marietta was sold on 25 March 1920. The USS Marietta may have been a small ship, but she had a busy, rich history that was common among US gunboats at that time.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

USS Indiana (BB-58)

The USS Indiana (BB-58) was a 35,000-ton South Dakota class battleship built at the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company in Newport News, Virginia, and was commissioned on 30 April 1942. Even though she was a large battleship (680 feet long with a beam of over 108 feet), the Indiana had an impressive top speed of 27 knots. She was heavily armed with nine 16-inch guns, 20 5-inch guns, 24 40-mm guns and 16 20-mm guns. With a crew of 2,500 officers and men, this was indeed a formidable warship.

On 28 November 1942, after a shakedown cruise in the Atlantic, the Indiana was sent to the Pacific via the Panama Canal and screened the carriers Enterprise and Saratoga for the next eleven months. The Indiana also supported the American naval campaign in the Solomon Islands. She returned to Pearl Harbor on 21 October 1943, but was sent back into action on 11 November to support the American invasion of the Gilbert Islands. The Indiana screened the carriers taking part in the Battle for Tarawa Island and then in late January 1944 she bombarded Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands for eight days prior to the invasion of that island, which took place on 1 February.

On 1 February 1944, the Indiana was given the risky task of refueling four destroyers at night. At 0420, she was steaming at nineteen knots when the Indiana’s Commanding Officer, Captain J.M. Steele, announced by radio to the other ships in the task force that he was turning left and slowing down to fifteen knots. Then, after seeing some ships in the task force bearing down on the Indiana, Captain Steele decided to turn his ship to the right. Unfortunately, he didn’t tell the rest of the ships in the task force that he was making this new turn. Approximately seven minutes after executing the second turn, the Indiana was rammed by the battleship USS Washington. Both ships saw each other seconds before the collision and tried to turn to avoid the impact, but it was too late. The Washington’s bow smashed into the after portion of the Indiana’s starboard side. Four men were killed on board the Indiana and six were killed on board the Washington. The Indiana’s starboard hull side was smashed in and carved open by the impact, while almost 60 feet of the Washington’s forward hull was sliced off, causing the main deck to slope down into the water. Fortunately, because of superb damage control on both ships, both the Washington and the Indiana remained afloat. The Indiana was sent back to Pearl Harbor for repairs, but the more seriously damaged Washington was sent to the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Washington State to have a new bow welded to the ship. It is a tribute to the industrial might of this nation that the Washington was repaired in roughly three months and the Indiana was back in action in only two months. Captain Steele, though, was not so fortunate. He was relieved of his command, court-martialed for his actions, and found guilty. Steele was never given another command at sea and he spent the rest of his career (which ended in 1946) on land.

The Indiana, meanwhile, went on to take part in the massive American attack on Truk (29-30 April 1944) and she bombarded Saipan on 13-14 June 1944 as part of the Marianas Islands campaign. The Indiana also screened the carriers that were part of the massive American armada and she endured numerous enemy air attacks, downing several Japanese aircraft. She protected the American carriers and remained part of this task force for 64 days. The Indiana then went on to bombard the Palau Islands and took part in the invasion of the Philippine Islands (12-30 September 1944). The Indiana was then sent to Bremerton, Washington, for a badly needed overhaul, arriving there on 23 October.

By 12 December 1944, the Indiana was back at Pearl Harbor and was attached to the American invasion fleet bound for Iwo Jima. She took part in the bombardment of Iwo Jima on 24 January 1945 and then, after providing gunfire support for that operation, went on to support and screen carriers during the invasion of Okinawa. From 1 July to 15 August 1945 the Indiana supported air strikes against the Japanese home islands and she also bombarded targets along the Japanese coastline. She steamed into Tokyo Bay on 5 September 1945, three days after the Japanese surrendered. With the war over, she was quickly sent back to the United States and reached San Francisco on 29 September 1945. The Indiana was placed in reserve and was decommissioned on 11 September 1947 and placed in the Pacific Reserve Fleet. This proud warship, which received nine battle stars for her service in World War II, was stricken from the Navy List on 1 June 1962 and sold for scrap. The USS Indiana was purely a wartime battleship that had an illustrious career during World War II, but wasn’t able to find a place in the modern post-war years.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Indiana (BB-58) steaming with Task Force 58.1 on 27 January 1944, en route to attack Taroa Island airfield, Maloelap Atoll, Marshall Islands. Taken by a USS Enterprise (CV-6) photographer. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): USS Indiana steaming with Task Force 58.1 on 27 January 1944, en route to attack Taroa Island airfield, Maloelap Atoll, Marshall Islands. Taken by a USS Enterprise (CV-6) photographer. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): USS Indiana at Pearl Harbor on 13 February 1944, showing damage to her starboard side received in collision with USS Washington (BB-56) on 1 February 1944. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Bombardment of Kamaishi, Japan, 14 July 1945. USS Indiana fires a salvo from her forward 16-inch guns at the Kamaishi plant of the Japan Iron Company, 250 miles north of Tokyo. A second before, USS South Dakota (BB-57), from which this photograph was taken, fired the initial salvo of the first naval gunfire bombardment of the Japanese Home Islands. The superstructure of USS Massachusetts (BB-59) is visible directly behind Indiana. The heavy cruiser in the left center distance is either USS Quincy (CA-71) or USS Chicago (CA-136). Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

USS Wachusett

Named after a mountain peak in north central Massachusetts, the USS Wachusett was a 1,032-ton Iroquois class screw sloop of war that was commissioned at the Boston Navy Yard on 3 March 1862. The ship was approximately 201 feet long, had a beam off almost 34 feet and had a speed of 11.5 knots. The Wachusett was heavily armed with two 11-inch guns, two 30-pounders, one 20-pounder, four 32-pounders and one 12-pounder.

As soon as she was commissioned, the Wachusett was assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. She reached Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862 and was sent to patrol the York and James Rivers in Virginia. The Wachusett supported Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign during the spring of 1862 and on 6 and 7 May this ship assisted in landing troops at West Point, Virginia, while under fire from Confederate shore batteries. The Wachusett moved deeper into the James River and on 15 May was part of the Union assault on Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia. The ship stayed on the York and James Rivers through August and also served as Commodore Charles Wilkes’ flagship as part of the Potomac Flotilla from 29 August to 7 September.

On 8 September 1862, the Wachusett was made the flagship of a special “Flying Squadron” that was put under the command of Commodore Wilkes. The primary mission of the Flying Squadron (which was made up of seven warships) was to hunt down and destroy the elusive and notorious Confederate commerce raiders CSS Alabama and CSS Florida in the West Indies. On 18 January 1863, the Wachusett and the USS Sonoma captured the Southern merchant ship Virginia off the coast of Mexico and on 25 March the Wachusett captured the British blockade runner Dolphin between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas Island. But even though the Flying Squadron managed to catch some Southern ships, it was unable to intercept either the Alabama or the Florida. In May the Wachusett returned to Boston for an overhaul and some badly needed repairs.

On 4 February 1864, the Wachusett was sent off the coast of Brazil to protect American merchant ships from Confederate commerce raiders, especially the dreaded Alabama and Florida, which were still on the loose. The Wachusett was now under the command of Commander Napoleon Collins, a tough US Navy veteran. Collins was born in Pennsylvania on 4 March 1814 and he became a Midshipman in the US Navy in January 1834. After being promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in 1846, Collins was very active aboard US warships during the Mexican-American War. After the Civil War started, Collins was given the command of several gunboats and was made a Commander in July 1862. Now he was in charge of a formidable Union warship that was hunting down two Confederate cruisers, both of which posed a very real threat to the Union’s shipping and commerce.

After searching off the coast of Brazil for many months, Commander Collins finally sighted one of his targets. On 4 October 1864, the Wachusett saw the CSS Florida entering Bahia Harbor in Brazil. The Wachusett stayed just outside the harbor but, since Brazil was a neutral nation during the Civil War, Commander Collins technically could not enter the port to capture the Confederate raider. Collins tried to goad Lieutenant Charles M. Morris, the Captain of the Florida, into coming out of the harbor to fight. Morris, though, wisely decided to stay inside the neutral harbor to avoid a confrontation with the Union warship. What could Commander Collins do? Sitting right in front of him was the CSS Florida, the dastardly Confederate cruiser that had captured or destroyed 33 Union merchant ships. Would he dare risk Brazil’s neutrality, risk his naval career and risk a court martial for breaking international law by entering a neutral port to destroy a notorious Confederate raider? What made matters even worse was that Brazil had positioned one of its own gunboats in between the Florida and the Washusett in hopes of keeping the two ships apart. What would Collins do if the Brazilian ship opened fire on his ship?

Shortly after midnight on 7 October 1864, Commander Napoleon Collins made up his mind. He ordered the Wachusett to quietly steam past the Brazilian gunboat and enter the harbor. Collins wanted to ram the Florida and sink it, but as the Union warship approached the Confederate cruiser it was only able to strike it a glancing blow on its starboard quarter. The impact did a considerable amount of damage to the Florida, but both ships remained afloat and seaworthy. Fortunately, half of the Florida’s crew (including her Captain, Lieutenant Morris) was ashore while the attack was taking place and only a few shots were fired between the two ships before the balance of the crew on board the Florida surrendered. The Wachusett then quickly took the Florida in tow and literally pulled it out of Bahia Harbor. As the Wachusett and the Florida were leaving the harbor, a Brazilian coastal fort at Bahia opened fire on the two ships. No hits were scored and the two ships quickly left the area and headed north. On 11 November the Wachusett and the Florida reached Hampton Roads, Virginia.

An international firestorm erupted after this event took place. Brazil strongly protested this violation of its neutrality and the United States could only admit that it had indeed acted illegally in taking the Florida. The US Navy promised to return the Confederate raider to Brazil but on 28 November 1864 the Florida was rammed and sunk by a US Army transport in Hampton Roads. Whether this was an accident or a deliberate attack was never established, even though two courts of inquiry investigated the matter. As for Commander Collins, he was promptly courtmartialled for violating Brazilian neutrality. He was found guilty and sentenced to be dismissed from the US Navy. But the bold attack on (and the subsequent capture of) the Florida made Commander Collins a hero in the North and it neutralized one of the South’s main commerce raiders. The Union’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, seemed to agree with what Commander Collins did because he ignored the decision of the court martial and he restored Collins to active duty. Napoleon Collins not only remained in the US Navy, but in July 1866 he was made a full Captain. In August 1874 Collins achieved the rank of Rear Admiral, but he died only a year later on 9 August 1875 in Lima, Peru, while in command of the US South Pacific Squadron.

As for the USS Wachusett, in March 1865 she sailed around the Cape of Good Hope bound for the East Indies. Once there, she joined the USS Wyoming and the USS Iroquois in searching for another Confederate raider, the CSS Shenandoah. The Wachusett stayed in the Pacific until 1867, when she was sent back to the United States. From 1871 to 1874, the Wachusett was sent to the Mediterranean and then returned to the United States to patrol the waters off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. After being decommissioned from 1874 to 1879, the Wachusett was brought back into service to patrol the Gulf of Mexico. She also joined the South Atlantic Station in October 1879, but in May 1880 the Wachusett was transferred to the Pacific. She remained on the Pacific Station until September 1885 when she was decommissioned for the last time at the Mare Island Navy Yard in California. The US Navy sold the Wachusett to a private company on 30 July 1887.

How many naval officers today would risk their ship and their career (not to mention a court martial) to defeat a sworn enemy of this nation? Commander Napoleon Collins faced that exact problem on board the Wachusett and he decided that defeating the enemy was more important than any single person’s career, including his own. That was a tough decision made by a tough officer on board a tough ship.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Wachusett (1862-1887) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, with the city of Vallejo in the distance, circa 1880-85. She decommissioned for the last time in September 1885, at Mare Island. Photograph from the William H. Topley Collection, Courtesy of Charles M. Loring, 1969. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): USS Wachusett photographed at Shanghai, China, in 1867. Courtesy of Charles H. Bogart, 1973. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): "Cutting out of the Florida from Bahia, Brazil, by the U.S.S. Wachusett," 19th Century phototype print by F. Gutekunst, Philadelphia. It depicts the capture of CSS Florida by USS Wachusett at Bahia, Brazil, on 7 October 1864. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Commander Napoleon Collins, USN. Carte de visite print of a photograph taken circa 1864 by E. Anthony, New York. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

USS Plymouth Rock (LSD-29)

The USS Plymouth Rock (LSD-29) was an 11,270-ton Thomaston class dock landing ship and was built by the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The ship was launched on 7 May 1954 and was commissioned on 29 November 1954. She was 510 feet long, had a beam of 84 feet and had a crew of 766 officers and men. The Plymouth Rock was a modern amphibious assault ship that could steam at 21 knots, had an armament of four twin 3-inch/50 gun mounts (for a total of eight guns) and could carry approximately 400 troops plus 2,400 tons of equipment. She also carried 18 LCM(6) landing craft and four LCVPs, and had two large cranes that could handle roughly 50 tons each.

After being commissioned, the Plymouth Rock steamed to her new homeport in Norfolk, Virginia. After conducting a shakedown cruise off the eastern coast of the United States and in the Caribbean, she was assigned to the US Atlantic Fleet. In March 1956 she joined the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and supported the landing of US Marines in Lebanon in July 1958. This ship also made numerous trips to the Caribbean and was part of the Arctic Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line support operations in 1955 and 1957. The Plymouth Rock also was one of the pioneers in developing the concept of “vertical envelopment” by helicopter assault in early 1959 and she was part of “Operation Amigo,” which involved carrying support helicopters and other equipment for President Eisenhower’s trip to South America.

In 1961 the Plymouth Rock made several trips to the Caribbean and one voyage to the Mediterranean and she participated in the Project “Mercury” space flight support mission. In 1962 the Plymouth Rock was again sent to the Caribbean and she was part of the US Naval blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After that, she was sent back to the Mediterranean on 7 May 1963. In 1964 the Plymouth Rock took part in Operation “Steel Pike I” off the coast of Spain, which, up to that time, was the largest amphibious training operation since World War II. From 28 January 1966 to 7 March she took part in the H-Bomb recovery mission off Palomares, Spain, and during the latter part of 1966 she assisted the victims of Hurricane Inez in Haiti. For the remainder of her career, the Plymouth Rock made numerous training cruises to the Caribbean and Europe. The Plymouth Rock was decommissioned in September 1983. After spending more than 10 years in the US Navy’s Reserve Fleet, she was sold for scrapping in September 1995.

This tough and versatile ship was obviously named after the site of the landing of the first permanent settlers to New England in 1620. May all of you have a happy and safe Thanksgiving Holiday!


Figure 1 (Top): The insignia of the USS Plymouth Rock (LDS-29). This emblem was received from the ship in 1958. It features an alligator (symbol of the Amphibious Force) in Pilgrim dress standing on the ship's namesake, Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts. A depiction of USS Plymouth Rock is in the left background. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): The USS Plymouth Rock photographed circa the later 1950s or early 1960s, with a HUS helicopter parked on her after deck. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph from larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): USS Plymouth Rock photographed circa 1963, while she was fitted with a retractable sonar forward. The photograph was received with the annual ship's historical submission, dated 6 January 1964. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Amphibious Group at sea, 17 April 1964. The ships are USS Hermitage (LSD-34) in left foreground, USS Francis Marion (APA-249) in center, USS Plymouth Rock (LSD-29) in the left rear and USS Yancey (APA-93) in the right rear. Three UH-34 helicopters are flying in formation over the Francis Marion. Photograph received from USS Francis Marion, 1964. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

USS Aaron Ward (DD-773/DM-34)

Named after a famous US Navy Rear Admiral, the USS Aaron Ward was designed as an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer (DD-773) and was launched on 5 May 1944 at the Bethlehem Steel Co. in San Pedro, California. She was reclassified as a “destroyer-minelayer” (DM-34) on 19 July 1944 and was commissioned on 28 October 1944. The 2,200-ton Aaron Ward was approximately 376 feet long, 40 feet wide, had a crew of 363 officers and men, and had a top speed of over 34 knots. She was armed with six 5-inch guns, eight 40mm antiaircraft guns, 12 20mm antiaircraft guns, and 80 mines. The Aaron Ward was assigned to the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet and, after conducting several shakedown and training cruises off California and Hawaii, was sent on 5 March 1945 to Ulithi atoll in the Caroline Islands in the Western Pacific.

The Aaron Ward arrived at Ulithi on 16 March 1945 and was added to the giant naval task force that was being created for the invasion of Okinawa. By 25 March the Aaron Ward began the dangerous assignment of picket duty off the coast of Okinawa. On 28 April she shot down several attacking Japanese planes and drove off others. During this attack, the USS Pinkney (APH-2) was hit by a Japanese “Kamikaze” suicide plane and the Aaron Ward rescued 12 of its survivors and assisted in bringing the Pinkney’s fires under control.

While on picket duty, the Aaron Ward successfully fought off numerous air attacks, but her luck ran out on 3 May 1945. That day the ship was attacked by a large number of Japanese suicide planes. Although the gunners on board the Aaron Ward managed to shoot down two of them, a third one smashed into the ship’s port side and the bomb the plane was carrying went through the ship and exploded in the forward fireroom. As a result of the explosions, the Aaron Ward eventually came to a stop. Damage control parties worked heroically to fight the fires and stop the flooding, but soon the ship was under attack by even more Japanese warplanes. The gunners on board the Aaron Ward shot down two attacking Kamikaze aircraft, but another two suicide planes managed to get through the antiaircraft fire and both smashed into the ship. The Aaron Ward was also hit by a bomb from one of the planes which exploded and blew a large hole in the port side of the ship. Most of the crew were either killed or wounded because of these attacks.

Remarkably, after sustaining all of this punishment, the Aaron Ward was still afloat. Initially assisted by LCSL’s 14 and 83, the Aaron Ward was taken in tow by the USS Shannon (DM-25) and brought to Kerama Retto for initial repairs. The ships arrived there on 4 May. After making sure that the ship was seaworthy, what was left of the Aaron Ward then went on a remarkable journey that took it across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal and north to the New York Navy Yard. The Aaron Ward arrived at the New York Navy Yard in August 1945, but the war was almost over and the US Navy didn’t think it was worth the expense to rebuild the ship. The Aaron Ward was decommissioned in late September 1945 and was sold for scrapping in July 1946. For her amazing conduct during the battle for Okinawa, the Aaron Ward received the Presidential Unit Citation and one battle star. The courage and dedication of the crew of the Aaron Ward kept the ship afloat and this destroyer-minelayer proved that a small ship could take a tremendous amount of punishment and still make it back home.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Aaron Ward (DM-34) photographed on 17 November 1944. The ship is painted in Camouflage Measure 32, Design 11a. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1975. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): USS Aaron Ward in the Kerama Retto anchorage, 5 May 1945, showing damage received when she was hit by several Japanese suicide planes off Okinawa on 3 May. Note three-bladed aircraft propeller lodged in her superstructure, just forward of the after 5"/38 twin gun mount. Collection of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): USS Aaron Ward in the Kerama Retto anchorage, 5 May 1945, showing damage received when she was hit by several Kamikazes off Okinawa on 3 May. Collection of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Damage amidships received during Kamikaze attacks off Okinawa on 3 May 1945. View looks down and aft from Aaron Ward's foremast, with her greatly distorted forward smokestack in the lower center. Photographed while the ship was in the Kerama Retto on 5 May 1945. A mine is visible at left on the ship's starboard mine rails. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

USS Yankton

The USS Yankton was originally a yacht named Penelope and was built in 1893 by Ramage & Ferguson in Leith, Scotland. The Penelope was a 975-ton, steel-hulled schooner that was 185 feet long, almost 28 feet wide and carried a crew of 78 officers and men. When the Spanish-American war started in April 1898, the US Navy was short of warships and decided to purchase the Penelope and convert it into a gunboat. The ship was acquired in May 1898 and was renamed the USS Yankton after a county in South Dakota. The Yankton was armed with six 3-pounders and several other smaller caliber guns. She was commissioned on 16 May 1898 and was sent to Cuba on 18 June.

The Yankton arrived off Santiago de Cuba on 25 June 1898 and was assigned to Rear Admiral William T. Sampson’s North Atlantic Fleet. She then joined the blockade of the southern coast of Cuba near Cienfuegos. Patrolling that area of Cuba, the Yankton came into contact with the enemy on three separate occasions. While steaming towards the coastal town of Casilda, the Yankton saw another converted American yacht, the USS Eagle, bombarding a Spanish artillery battery on Cape Muno. The Yankton quickly came to the Eagle’s assistance and opened fire on the battery. After 20 minutes of shooting, the battery was destroyed. The Yankton also assisted the gunboat Dixie in shelling several Spanish gunboats that were anchored near Casilda. Finally, the Yankton spotted an unidentified ship heading for Cienfuegos. She chased the ship for two hours but the enemy ship was faster than the American gunboat and was able to escape. The Yankton’s skipper, Lt. Commander James D. Adams, identified the mystery ship as the Spanish auxiliary cruiser Alfonso XII, but that claim was never confirmed. After making a brief trip to Guantanamo Bay on 21 July, the Yankton returned to her blockade duties off Cienfuegos. She remained there until the end of hostilities on 12 August 1898.

After returning to the United States for maintenance, the Yankton was used to perform coastal survey work off the coast of Cuba. She was based in Guantanamo Bay and returned to the Naval Base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, once a year for her annual overhaul and repair. The Yankton continued operating off the coasts of Cuba and Puerto Rico until 1903, when she was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, and used as a fleet tender to battleships. She continued being used as a tender until 16 December 1907, when she was added to the “Great White Fleet” that was being sent on its famous around-the-world cruise. The Great White Fleet was a large collection of American warships that was sent on a good-will visit to ports all over the world. The Fleet visited such countries and islands as the British West Indies, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Ceylon, Egypt, Italy, France and Gibraltar. The Fleet ended its journey at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 22 February 1909. It was an amazing accomplishment for any fleet and it proved to the world that the United States was now a major naval power.

From 1909 to 1917, the Yankton resumed her duties as a tender for the Atlantic Fleet. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Yankton was initially assigned to patrol the waters along the coast of northern New England. In August she was sent to Gibraltar to help protect Allied shipping from German U-boats. The Yankton escorted merchant ships in the Straits of Gibraltar as well as the western Mediterranean. On 5 May 1918, while escorting an Allied convoy that was steaming from Bizerte, Tunis, to Gibraltar, the Yankton spotted the German U-boat U-38. The U-boat managed to hit the Italian steamer SS Alberto Treves with one torpedo, but, fortunately, it didn’t sink the merchant ship. The Yankton immediately started shooting at the U-boat, which quickly submerged and got away from the elderly gunboat. For the rest of the war the Yankton did not see any more German U-boats, but it assisted several merchant ships that were victims of U-boat attacks.

The Yankton was sent back to the United States for repairs in September 1918. When the war ended on 11 November 1918, the Yankton was still part of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. In January 1919 she was sent to Plymouth, England, to carry two naval officers to Murmansk, Russia, where they were to serve as American port officers. On 8 February the gunboat reached Murmansk, which by that time was involved in a tense standoff between Allied troops and Bolshevik Army units. When Rear Admiral N.A. McCully arrived to take command of American forces in northern Russia on 23 February, he used the Yankton as his headquarters. McCully eventually transferred his flag to the cruiser USS Des Moines, but the Yankton continued being used as a patrol boat and fleet tender for the remainder of her time in Russian waters. On 9 July 1919, she was ordered to return to England and stayed in European waters until the end of 1919. She was sent back to the United States and arrived at the New York Navy Yard in January 1920. The Yankton was decommissioned on 27 February 1920 and was sold on 20 October 1921. She was converted into a merchant ship and was seized two years later by the federal government for, of all things, transporting illegal rum! Evidently the once proud US gunboat had been converted into a rumrunner during the Prohibition Era here in the United States. After being held by the US government for a number of months, the Yankton was sold once again for use as a merchant ship. This time she was able to end her days as an honest merchantman and was finally sold for scrap in Boston in 1930. Thus ended the amazing career of a ship that was never even designed to be in the US Navy. The Yankton went from being a yacht, to a gunboat, to a convoy escort, to a rumrunner, and, finally, to a law-abiding merchant ship. No ship today could ever hope to match a career like that.


Figure 1 (Top): The USS Yankton shortly after the Spanish-American War. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle): The Yankton circa 1906. Courtesy U.S. Warships of World War I. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Bottom): The Yankton photographed on 22 May 1919 while operating with U.S. Naval Forces in Northern Russia. Courtesy the Sub Chaser Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

USS Erie (PG-50)

Designed as one of the last true gunboats for the US Navy, the 2,000-ton USS Erie (PG-50) was built by the New York Navy Yard and was commissioned on 1 July 1936. Her main function was to “show the flag” and protect American lives and property in South and Central America. To accomplish this mission the Erie had an all-gun armament of four 6-inch guns. She was rather large for a gunboat (almost 329 feet long and more than 41 feet wide) and had a crew of 243 officers and men.

Ironically, the Erie’s first mission sent her to Spain on 31 October 1936, where she was part of an American task force assigned to protect US citizens during the Spanish Civil War. After visiting numerous European ports, the Erie evacuated refugees from the northern coast of Spain. She then returned to the United States by the end of December 1936.

After briefly being used as a training ship for midshipmen at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the Erie was sent to Balboa, Panama, on 3 February 1938. While there, she served as the flagship for the Special Service Squadron, which operated along the coasts of Central and South America. The primary function of the Special Service Squadron was to conduct exercises with various ships within the fleet and to protect the Panama Canal.

After America entered World War II on 7 December 1941, the Erie was based in Panama where she continued to patrol the coasts of Central America. On 10 June 1942, the Erie rescued 46 survivors from the torpedoed merchant ship SS Fort Good Hope and, six days later, rescued another 53 survivors from the SS Lebore.

By this time, the Erie was converted into a convoy escort and, although she only had a top speed of 20 knots (which made her unsuitable for fleet operations), she proved to be useful for escorting slow-moving convoys. She escorted convoys to the Yucatan Channel and to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On 28 September 1942, after successfully escorting approximately 11 merchant convoys, the Erie left Coco Solo, Panama, to escort yet another convoy to Trinidad.

After completing this mission, the Erie was to act as Escort Commander for convoy TAG-20 sailing from Trinidad to Aruba and then on to Guantanamo Bay. On 10 November 1942, the convoy left Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and consisted of 13 merchant ships. Two days later, four tankers from Aruba joined the convoy and then another five tankers were added to the convoy after leaving Curacao. A total of seven warships were assisting the Erie as escorts (five American and two Dutch) by the time all the ships left Curacao for the final leg of the journey to Guantanamo Bay.

At approximately 3:30 PM on 12 November 1942, the German U-boat U-163, while operating independently, located the convoy and fired torpedoes at the merchant ships. Fortunately, all of them missed. But a few minutes later, the U-163 fired another three torpedoes at the convoy and one of them hit the Erie in her starboard quarter. A 45-foot hole was ripped below the waterline and the resulting explosion ruptured oil tanks and set off massive fires that ignited the charges for the Erie’s 6-inch guns. Seven men were killed and 17 others were injured. With the fires spreading out of control, the order was given to “abandon ship.” After the Erie was abandoned, the surviving crewmembers were picked up out of the water by the Dutch warship HMNS Van Kinsbergen.

Incredibly, the Erie remained afloat and continued to burn for four days. A salvage ship was sent to put out the fires and determine if the ship could be brought back to port for repairs. After the crew from the salvage ship boarded the Erie and put out the fires, the gunboat was towed to Willemstadt Harbor in Curacao for repairs. However, before the repairs could be completed, the burnt out hulk of the ship began to list to starboard and then suddenly capsized, sinking on 5 December 1942. Although there were still a number of gunboats sailing throughout the world, the loss of the Erie somehow symbolized the passing of an era. Newer antisubmarine destroyers and destroyer escorts were now in demand and the old “all gun” gunboats that were made so famous in places like China, Mexico, and South and Central America were no longer needed. The few that remained would soon disappear into the pages of naval history.


Figure 1 (Top): The USS Erie at sea in May 1940. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): The USS Erie off Coco Solo, Panama, after completion of long-range battle practice, 7 April 1938. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): The USS Erie traversing the Panama Canal, circa 1939. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Photograph of the damaged and burning USS Erie taken by a Dutch photographer. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

NOTE: If you would like additional information on the USS Erie, please go to:
It is an excellent web site that has an enormous amount of data on and photographs of the USS Erie.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

USS Panay

Named after a Philippine island, the USS Panay (PR-5) was one of six American gunboats built by the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works in Shanghai, China. Commissioned on 10 September 1928, the Panay was part of the US Asiatic Fleet and was built specifically for patrolling China’s Yangtze River. American ships that were assigned to the Yangtze were part of the famous “Yangtze Patrol,” which existed for almost 90 years. The Panay was 191 feet long, had a beam of 29 feet, but only had a draft of 5 feet, 3 inches, making her ideal for steaming in some of the shallower waters of the Yangtze. She was armed with two 3-inch guns, eight .30-caliber machine guns and had a top speed of 15 knots. Panay also had a complement of five officers and 54 men.

As with most US gunboats, the Panay’s primary mission was to protect American lives and property during the turbulent 1920’s and 1930’s in China. During this time, China had been engaged in a massive civil war between Nationalist Chinese warlords and Communist Chinese. Then, in the 1930’s, Japan invaded China and the carnage in this troubled country reached extraordinary proportions. During all of this fighting, Western gunboats (from countries including Britain, the United States, France and Italy) had to protect their citizens and national interests from the devastation that was taking place around them. From 1928 to 1937, the Panay played an important role in protecting American lives, property and merchant ships from Chinese bandits and warlords that threatened the commerce on and along the Yangtze. The Panay was shot at on numerous occasions and she always fought back. Fortunately, the ship was not seriously damaged in any of these bloody skirmishes.

But in December 1937, the Panay’s luck ran out. The Japanese Army was sweeping through South China and was about to begin an assault on the city of Nanking. Most of the American Embassy staff had been evacuated in November, but a number of individuals remained behind to keep the embassy open until the last possible moment. The last group of 15 Americans left the Embassy and boarded the Panay on 11 December. The following day, 12 December, the Panay moved 15 miles upriver from Nanking so as to avoid the fighting that was consuming the city. She was also escorting three American oil tankers (the Mei Ping, the Mei Hsia and the Mei An) out of the area to protect them from Japanese artillery fire coming from shore.

Commander J.J. Hughes, the Panay’s skipper, was bringing the little convoy further upriver when, at 9:40 AM, Japanese soldiers on shore signaled the gunboat to stop. Commander Hughes hove to and a boatload of Japanese soldiers came towards the ship under the command of Lieutenant Sesyo Murakami. Murakami and his men boarded the ship and were immediately brought to Commander Hughes. The American officer informed Murakami that he was on board a neutral American warship transporting civilians and escorting three American merchant ships. Murakami was searching for Chinese soldiers and, after seeing that there weren’t any on board the ship, thanked Hughes and left. The American ships kept going up the river for five more miles and then anchored, hoping that they were well clear of the fighting that was going on in Nanking.

At 1:37 PM lookouts on board the Panay reported Japanese aircraft approaching the ship. A large number of Japanese naval fighters and bombers suddenly attacked the four ships. Unfortunately, these were aircraft from the Japanese Navy and, even though the Japanese Army had just boarded the American gunboat and released it, this information was not given to the Navy, which had orders to attack all ships next to Nanking. Even though it was a very clear day and the white American gunboat had two large US flags painted horizontally on her upper deck awnings (with another big American flag flying from its flagstaff), the Japanese planes came in for the kill. Bombs started falling all around the ships and two of them scored direct hits on the Panay. One of the bombs destroyed the gunboat’s forward 3-inch gun and the bridge while the other bomb caused severe damage to the midsection of the ship. Several near misses also sprang leaks in the ship’s hull and soon the small gunboat was beginning to sink. Crewmembers quickly manned the Panay’s eight .30-caliber machine guns, putting up some anti-aircraft fire that prevented the planes from scoring even more hits. Commander Hughes was injured with a broken thigh and 43 sailors and 5 civilian passengers were also wounded. Three crewmembers died in the attack. Fortunately, Lieutenant C.G. Grazier, the ship’s medical officer, was not injured and was able to keep many individuals alive until the entire incident was over.

Less than thirty minutes after the attack had begun, it was clear that the Panay could not be saved. Abandon ship was ordered and the Panay’s small motorboats and the captain’s gig transported the civilian passengers and crew to the nearby shore. Soon everyone was off the stricken gunboat. At 3:45 PM the Panay rolled over to starboard and sank bow first. She was the first American warship to be lost in action in the 83 years that the Yangtze Patrol had been in existence. The three oil tankers the Panay was escorting were also lost in the attack.

Unfortunately, communications in the area were almost nonexistent and it took a while for news of the attack to reach Asiatic Fleet Headquarters. Once it did, a small combined task force of two British gunboats (the HMS Ladybird and HMS Bee) and the US gunboat Oahu quickly headed for the area. After waiting for help for three days, the small Anglo-American “task force” finally made its way to the battle ravaged area and rescued all of the survivors.

American reaction to the attack was quick and sharp. Open conflict with Japan was avoided only after the Japanese apologized profusely for the attack and vowed to pay damages for the sinking of the gunboat and the oil tankers. The Japanese claimed that their Army troops had never informed the Navy that the Panay was in the area, even though the weather was good and the neutral American gunboat was clearly marked with American flags. On 22 April 1938, the Japanese government paid the United States $2,214,007.36 as compensation for the loss of the Panay, the three oil tankers, personal losses and personnel casualties. Japan didn’t want to fight the United States yet, so they believed this was a small price to pay to maintain America’s neutrality in the Pacific. Ironically, almost four years to the day after the attack on the Panay, the US Fleet was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

Despite the payment, the attack on the Panay swayed public opinion in the United States against Japan. It also encouraged Congress to start enlarging US armed forces, even though money was scarce because America was still in the midst of the Great Depression. America may not have been at war with Japan, but the Panay incident brought that war one step closer to each country.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Panay on patrol, date unknown. U.S. Navy photo from the July 1978 edition of All Hands magazine. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): Panay underway on 30 August 1928. National Archives photo. Click on photograph for lager image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): Panay’s Decks awash, following fatal bombing by Japanese aircraft. U.S. Navy photo from the July 1978 edition of All Hands magazine. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Panay sinking on 12 December 1937. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

USS Monocacy

Named after a Civil War battle, the USS Monocacy was built at A. & W. Denmead & Sons in Baltimore, Maryland, and was commissioned in early 1866. She was a 1,370-ton Mohongo class sidewheel “double-ender” gunboat and was 265 feet long and had a beam of 35 feet. “Double-enders” were unique ships invented by the talented Union engineer Benjamin Isherwood during the Civil War. These ships were designed for coastal work, especially on rivers. They were side-wheelers and had rudders at both ends of the ship, thereby enabling them to go forwards or backwards without turning, making them ideal for work in narrow waterways where turning was not always possible. They were usually armed with several guns, carried a crew of approximately 160 men, had a shallow draft of nine feet, and could steam at a speed of 11 knots.

The Monocacy was immediately sent to join the US Asiatic Station and was part of a squadron of warships representing the US Government at the opening of the ports of Osaka and Hiogo, Japan, to American commerce on 1 January 1868. Japan was an isolationist nation at that time, so the opening of Japanese ports to US merchant ships was an important event. The Monocacy went on to do some survey work in the Inland Sea between Nagasaki and Osaka to locate appropriate sites for lighthouses, another critical development for merchant ships steaming in the area. From 1869 to 1870, the Monocacy spent most of her time protecting American trade interests by steaming off the coast of Japan, which was experiencing some political turmoil at that time.

After undergoing some repairs in Shanghai, China, the Monocacy began charting the Yangtze River for the US Navy in March 1871. In May she was sent as part of a five-ship expedition to survey the Salee River in Korea. While on this mission, Korean shore batteries fired on the Monocacy. The Monocacy (with Commander Edward P. McCrea in charge), as well as the other ships in the expedition, responded quickly to this attack. Approximately 576 sailors and 110 marines from the five American ships landed on shore and stormed the Korean forts along the Salee River on 10 June, with three Americans killed and ten wounded. The Korean forts were silenced and the American ships left in July after completing their surveying mission. The Monocacy then returned to China and resumed its duties on the Yangtze River.

Beginning in 1872 the Monocacy patrolled the coasts of Japan, Korea and China, protecting American lives and property in that volatile part of the world. In 1900 the infamous “Boxer Rebellion” gripped China (which was a national uprising that attempted to expel all foreigners from China). The USS Monocacy was part of the naval task force of Western warships that was quickly formed to help put down the rebellion and rescue Western citizens that were trapped in China because of the uprising. On 14 June 1900, the Monocacy captured seven small craft in a battle off Tongku, China, where a Chinese cannon shell also hit her. Most of the fighting ended after Allied land forces of the China Relief Expedition captured Peking on 14 August. Once the conflict was over, the Monocacy was ordered to remain at Taku for the destruction of the Chinese forts there. The destruction of the forts was part of the formal settlement signed between China and the Western Powers in September 1901. The Monocacy’s career ended on 22 June 1903, when she was struck from the Navy list and sold to Hashimoto and Son in Nagasaki, Japan. All of her amazing 37 years of service was spent in Asian waters and she was by far the longest-lived of the nearly four-dozen “double-enders” built for the US Navy during the Civil War era. For many years the Monocacy was one of the most enduring symbols of the US Navy’s “China Station” and she also proved to be one of the toughest.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Monocacy (1866-1903) dressed with flags in the Pei-Ho River, Tientsin, China, in 1902. Photo printed on a stereograph card, copyrighted in 1902 by C.H. Graves, Philadelphia, PA. Donation of Louis Smaus, 1985. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): USS Monocacy towing landing boats in the Han River, during the Korean expedition of May-June 1871. Collection of Rear Admiral Ammen C. Farenholt, USN(MC). U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): Ship's officers and crew on deck of the USS Monocacy during the Korean expedition of May-June 1871. Standing to the left front, wearing a sun helmet, is Monocacy's Commanding Officer, Commander Edward P. McCrea. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Monocacy at the landing with a hole through her bow made by a Chinese shell during the burning of Tongku, China, June 1900. Photo printed on a stereograph card, copyrighted in 1901 by Underwood & Underwood. Courtesy of Commander Donald J. Robinson, USN(MSC), 1982. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

USS Kearsarge

Named after a mountain in New Hampshire, the 1,550-ton steam sloop of war USS Kearsarge was built at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Portsmouth, NH, and was commissioned on 24 January 1862. She was 201 feet long, had a beam of 33 feet and carried a crew of 163 officers and men. The Kearsarge was armed with two 11-inch guns, four 32-pounder guns and one 30-pounder gun. On 5 February 1862, the Kearsarge was sent to Europe to search for Confederate merchant raiders. Confederate commerce raiders had taken a heavy toll on Northern merchant ships and one of the highest priorities of the US Navy at that time was to hunt them down and sink them.

The Kearsarge soon reached Spain and her primary mission became searching for the new Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes. For the next two years the Kearsarge hunted for the Alabama in a cat-and-mouse chase that took them all over the Mediterranean, around the northern coast of Europe and to the Canary Islands. During this time, the Alabama captured and destroyed more than 60 Northern merchant ships with an estimated worth of more than $6,000,000.

On 11 June 1864 the Alabama arrived at Cherbourg, France, for some badly needed maintenance and repairs. After two years of hard sailing and fighting, the Alabama was almost worn out and Captain Semmes knew that if he were to continue harassing Northern shipping he would have to overhaul his ship. The USS Kearsarge was in the area and received word that her nemesis, the Alabama, was in Cherbourg. The Kearsarge’s commanding officer, Captain John A. Winslow, had taken command of the ship in April 1863 and had always kept his crew well trained and prepared for battle. Captain Winslow took his ship outside of Cherbourg and waited for the Alabama’s next move. Winslow was careful to keep the Kearsarge in international waters since French warships were nearby to guarantee that no fighting took place within their neutral territorial waters. But Captain Semmes knew that the game was up. He could either surrender his ship to US authorities in France or he could fight. Captain Semmes wasn’t the type of person who would surrender to anybody, so he decided to fight.

After four days of drilling and preparing his men and his ship for action, Captain Semmes took his ship out of Cherbourg Harbor on the morning of 19 June 1864. The Alabama was escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which stayed in the area to make sure that the Confederate raider reached international waters before any shooting started. Captain Winslow on board the Kearsarge steamed further out to sea so as to lure his opponent away from the shore. This would prevent the Alabama from quickly returning to port in case of an emergency. The Alabama took the bait and headed for the Kearsarge.

What followed was one of those rarities in modern naval warfare, a duel between two warships. In theory, the two ships were about equal in strength, although the Kearsarge had a slight advantage in cannons and speed. But the biggest advantage the Kearsarge had over the Alabama was that Captain Winslow had ordered that layers of iron chains be draped in tiers over the sides of the Kearsarge, giving the Union warship a layer of armored protection against enemy shells. This precaution would have a huge impact on the course of the battle.

At 10:50 AM, Captain Winslow turned his ship around and headed for the enemy. Once the Alabama was about a mile away from the Kearsarge, Captain Semmes gave the order to fire. Captain Winslow on board the Kearsarge held his fire until he was about a half a mile away from the Alabama and then he gave the order to start shooting. Both ships were firing at each other while steaming in a large circle and maneuvering to get into a better firing position. The Alabama scored several hits on the Kearsarge, but because of the poor quality of its gunpowder and shells, the projectiles caused only minor damage to the Union warship. In addition, the iron chain armor that protected the Kearsarge deflected many of the Confederate shells, making them bounce harmlessly off the sides of ship. One shell even hit the Kearsarge’s sternpost and failed to explode. (The sternpost and unexploded shell are preserved at the Navy Memorial Museum at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC.)

The Kearsarge, however, was scoring numerous hits on the Alabama. After almost an hour of shooting, the Union warship’s accurate gunnery reduced the Alabama into a sinking hulk. Several crewmembers on board the Alabama were killed and many more were injured. Captain Semmes struck his flag and ordered his men to abandon ship. As the Alabama went down, the Kearsarge picked up most of the survivors in the water. But in one of those strange quirks of 19th century warfare, Captain Semmes and 41 members of his crew were rescued by the British yacht Deerhound which was in the area to observe the battle. Like many 19th century battles, this fight was treated like a spectator event, with people on both land and sea watching to see who would win. After picking up Semmes and some of his men, the Deerhound headed for England, preventing Semmes from being captured by Winslow and the Kearsarge (since Winslow couldn’t board a neutral ship, let alone stop it from heading to a neutral port). Semmes and the men with him made it to England and eventually escaped back to the United States to fight with what was left of the Confederate Navy. Although Semmes escaped capture and imprisonment, the CSS Alabama would never again attack another Union ship.

This was considered a major victory for the Union Navy, making Winslow and his men heroes back home. The Kearsarge spent the rest of the war looking for Confederate raiders in the Caribbean and in European waters. She wouldn’t return to the United States until August 1866, when she was placed out of commission.

From 1868 to 1894 the Kearsarge was placed in and out of commission on several occasions. She was used as a typical gunboat, showing the flag and protecting American lives and commercial interests all over the world. The Kearsarge sailed to such places as Chile, Peru, Samoa, the Fiji Islands, Australia, New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands. In 1874 she also spent three years as part of the US Asiatic Fleet, visiting Japan, China and the Philippines. From 1879 to 1886 the Kearsarge patrolled the North Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the waters off the coast of Africa. From November 1888 to January 1894, the Kearsarge protected American interests in the West Indies, off the coast of Venezuela and in the Atlantic off Central America. On 2 February 1894, the USS Kearsarge was wrecked on Roncador Reef off Central America. Although her officers and crew made it safely to shore, the ship was a total loss. Congress appropriated $45,000 to raise the Kearsarge and tow her home, but the salvage company hired to do the job discovered that the ship could not be raised and it was left where it was. The ship’s amazing 32-year career had come to an end.

Some ships never fight in battle, while others fight in many battles. Seldom has one ship become so famous for fighting in only one battle. But, sometimes, winning one important battle is enough for a ship to secure its place in naval history.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Kearsarge photographed in New York Harbor, circa 1890. Her rig had been reduced to a bark in 1886-88. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): "The action between the Ironclad Federal steamer Kearsarge and the Confederate steamer Alabama, off Cherbourg, June 19th 1864." Print after a painting by W.F. Mitchell. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. Beverly R. Robinson Collection. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama, 19 June 1864. Painting by Xanthus Smith, 1922, depicting Alabama sinking, at left, after her fight with the Kearsarge (seen at right). Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York. Official U.S. Navy Photograph. Click on the photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): USS Kearsarge (1862-1894). Ship's officers pose on deck at Cherbourg, France, soon after her 19 June 1864 victory over CSS Alabama. Her Commanding Officer, Captain John A. Winslow, is 3rd from left, wearing a uniform of the 1862 pattern. Other officers are generally dressed in uniforms of 1863-64 types. View looks aft on the port side. At left is Kearsarge's after XI-inch Dahlgren pivot gun, with its training tracks on the deck alongside. The original glass negative is held by the Library of Congress. Click on photograph for larger image.