Category Archives: US Navy

Rest In Peace Captain Tom Sitsch USN

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Captain Tom Sitsch died by his own hand on January 6th outside a hospital Emergency Room in Littleton New Hampshire. Captain Sitsch was loved and respected by his sailors. As an Explosive Ordnance Demolition officer and expert he was deployed into harms way many times. As the commanding officer of Task Force Troy, a Joint Task Force in Iraq his expertise and leadership helped save countless lives from Improvised Explosive Devices or as they are more familiarly known “IEDs.”

He was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two in Norfolk. He took command from Captain, now Admiral Frank Morneau. Both men mean a lot to me. They were leaders of men and care for those who they commanded. When I collapsed from the effects of PTSD in June 2008 then Commodore Morneau made sure that I got the help I needed and worked with our Medical Officer to make it happen. Commodore Sitsch was one of the first men, maybe the first to ask me the hard question: “where does a chaplain go for help?”

Both were men of compassion, and Captain Sitsch’s suicide has stunned me. I learned of his death tonight on Facebook as I had lost track of him after he was retired from the Navy in 2009.

Evidently his demons were too much for him. He suffered from PTSD, which considering his vocation is not surprising. In 2009 he was relieved of his command and forced to retire after he was caught shoplifting a pair of shoes from a local Navy Exchange. Following his retirement he struggled and was in and out of trouble. He was estranged from his wife, and he was forbidden to enter the state she lived by a court order. Four weeks before he took his life he was arrested for shoplifting at a Fredericksburg Virginia Wal-Mart. When arrested he told the police that he was a kleptomaniac.

Some who do not understand will condemn him even as he lies in his grave. I cannot. I didn’t know Captain Sitsch well, but no matter what his flaws may have been, he showed me compassion when I needed it most. For that I am grateful. Many of his EOD officers and sailors, as well as the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force EOD technicians Who served alongside him will say the same thing.

The one question all of us are probably asking is “what could any of us done to prevent this?”

Truthfully I don’t know. Captain Sitsch is not the first and will not be the last legitimate American hero to fall victim to his own demons, or end his life by his own hand. The physical wounds of war, PTSD, traumatic Brian Injury as well as what is called “moral injury” not to mention the months and years away from hearth and home take a tremendous toll on our veterans and their families.

From my perspective it seems that rank, age and experience are not necessarily safeguards against any of these conditions. It is my opinion after over 30 years of service that our military bureaucracy and promotion systems contribute to tragedies like that of Captain Sitsch. As they are set up they ensure that those who admit to struggles are shunted aside even as equally damaged individuals who “suck it up” and say nothing move up.

I was able to chat with some EOD friends this evening. That was helpful. I pray for the soul of Captain Sitsch, as well as his family, friends, and shipmates during this time of inexpressible loss.

I pray that the soul of Captain Tom Sitsch and all the departed will rest in peace.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Never Built Battlecruisers of 1921: The G3, Amagi and Lexington Classes

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Artists Depiction of G3 Battlecruiser 

As the First World War ended a new Naval Race was heating up. The United States had announced its intention during the war to build a navy second to none while Imperial Japan was making plans for a fleet that would give it superiority in the Western Pacific. The British, though still be far the largest naval power in the world were burdened by the massive costs of war and empire, but also seeking to maintain their naval dominance.

The ships known as battle cruisers were first built by the British Royal Navy as a compliment to the all big gun Dreadnought battleships. The Battle Cruiser concept was a ship of roughly the same size and firepower as a Battleship but sacrificing protection for greater speed, endurance and range.  and Japan joined in the Battle Cruiser race before and during the war. The United States had concentrated on Battleships.

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HMS Invincible Blowing Up at Jutland 

During the war the weaknesses of the type were exposed during the Battle of Jutland where three British Battle Cruisers, the HMS Invincible, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary blew up with the loss of most of their crews of the  3311 officers and sailors on the ships only 26 survived. The HMS Lion was almost lost in a similar manner but for the heroic actions of her crew. The British ships had glaring deficiencies in armor protection and the arrangement of their ammunition magazines and hoists which certainly contributed to their loss. Their German counterparts on the other hand proved much tougher and though all sustained heavy damage while engaging British Battleships and Battle Cruisers, only one the Lützow was lost. She absorbed over 30 hits from large caliber shells and only lost 128 crew members.

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As the war progressed other Battle Cruisers were built, the British launched the HMS Repulse and HMS Renown and completed the HMS Hood shortly after the war was over. The Japanese built the four ship Kongo class from a British design. As the powers embarked on the next Naval Race planners and naval architects designed ships of massive firepower, better protection and higher range and speed. All would have been better classed as Fast Battleships.

The British designed and began construction on the G3 class in 1921, the Japanese the Amagi Class, and the United States the Lexington Class. However the construction and completion of these ships as Battle Cruisers was prevented by the Washington Naval Treaty.

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The treaty was ratified in 1922 limited the United States and Great Britain to a maximum of 525,000 tons in their battle ship fleets and 125,000 tons in aircraft carriers.  The Japanese agreed to a limit of 315,000 tons and the French and Italians 175,000 tons each. Tonnage for battleships was limited to a maximum of 35,000 tons with a limitation on guns size to 16 inches.  Since the bulk of the ships planned or being built by the US and Japan exceeded those limits they would be effected more than the British whose post war shipbuilding program had not begun in earnest, in fact the G3 Class had just been approved for construction.

The G3 class would have comprised four ships and been similar to the N3 Class Battleships. They were very well balanced ships and would have mounted nine 16” guns in three turrets on a displacement of 49,200 tons and deep load of 54,774 tons. They had an all or nothing protection plan meaning that the armored belt was concentrated in vital areas around the armored citadel, conning tower, turrets and magazines and engineering spaces. Their armor belt would have ranged from 12-14 inches, deck armor from 3-8 inches, conning tower 8 inches, barbettes 11-14 inches, turrets 13-17 inches and bulkheads 10-12 inches. Their propulsion system of 20 small tube boilers powering 4 geared steam turbines connected to 4 propeller shafts would have produced 160,000 shp with a designed speed of 32 knots.

The four ships, none of which were named were ordered between October and November of 1921. Their construction was suspended on November 18th 1921 and they and the N3 Battleships were cancelled in February 1922 due to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty. Many concepts of their design were incorporated in the Nelson Class Battleships.

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Amagi Class as Designed, Akagi as Completed (below) 

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The four planned Japanese Amagi Class ships would have mounted ten 16” guns on a displacement of 47,000 tons at full load. Their propulsion system 19 Kampon boilers powering four Gihon turbines would have given them a maximum speed of 30 knots, They would have had less protection than the G3 ships being more of a traditional Battle Cruiser design. As a result of the Washington Naval Treaty the Japanese elected to convert two of the ships, the Amagi and Akagi to aircraft carriers. Amagi was destroyed on the ways during the great Tokyo earthquake and Akagi was completed as a carrier. The other two vessels were scrapped on the ways.

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The United States Navy planned the six ship Lexington Class. These ships would have mounted eight 16” guns on a ship displacing 43,254 tons at full load. They would have had a maximum speed of 33 knots being powered by 16 boilers which drove 4 GE electric turbines producing 180,000 shp. It was a massive engineering plant and the class did not have as heavy armor protection as either the G3 or Amagi classes but were superior in speed as well as endurance. Upon ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty four of the six ships were cancelled and the remaining two, the Lexington and Saratoga competed as aircraft carriers.  Had any of the ships been completed as Battle Cruisers it is likely due to their speed that they would have operated primarily with the the carriers that the US Navy built during the 1930s.

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One can only speculate what the navies of World War II would have looked like had the Washington and the subsequent London Naval Treaties not been ratified. One can also only imagine how the war at sea would have been different had the ships completed as carriers been completed as Battle Cruisers.

However that was not to be, of the planned 14 ships of these three classes only three were completed, all as aircraft carriers. Thus they are an interesting footnote in the annals of naval ship design and not much more.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Salvaging the Fleet: Salvage Efforts after the Attack on Pearl Harbor

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One of the more interesting aspects of the Pearl Harbor attack were the efforts of the US Navy to salvage and return to duty the ships sunk or so heavily damaged that they were thought to be irreparable after the attack. 21 ships were sunk or damaged during the attack, roughly 20% of the fleet present.

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Of these were battleships, the USS Arizona sunk by a cataclysmic explosion, her broken hulk with her collapsed foremast the iconic symbol of the attack. USS Oklahoma was capsized on Battleship Row.  USS Nevada was grounded and sunk off Hospital Point after an abortive attempt to sortie during the attack. USS California and USS West Virginia lay upright on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, their superstructure, distinctive cage masts and gun turrets visible above the oily water.

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The former battleship USS Utah lay capsized on the far side of Ford Island while the light cruiser USS Raleigh was fighting for her life barely afloat near Utah.  The ancient Minelayer USS Oglala was laying on her side next to the light cruiser USS Helena at the 1010 Dock. She was not hit by a bomb or torpedo but was said to have “died of fright” when Helena was hit by a torpedo, the blast which opened the seams of her hull. The destroyers USS Cassin and USS Downes were wrecks in the main dry dock. USS Shaw was minus her bow in the floating dry dock after exploding in what was one of the more iconic images of the attack. Other ships received varying amounts of damage.

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As the engineers, damage control and salvage experts looked at the damage they realized that every ship would be needed for the long term fight. The building program of the US Navy was just beginning to pick up steam and it would be some time before new construction could not only make up for the losses but also be ready to fight a Two Ocean War. The decision was made to salvage and return to duty any ship deemed salvageable.

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Even the seemingly less important ships needed to be rapidly salvaged. Some which initially appeared to be unsalvageable needed at the minimum to be cleared from dry docks and docks needed by operational or less damaged ships. Likewise equipment, machinery and armaments from these ships needed to be salvaged for use in other ships.

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Even by modern standards the efforts of the Navy divers and salvage experts and the civilians who worked alongside them were amazing. In the end only three of the 19 ships never returned to service. The work began quickly and on December 14th Commander James Steele began to direct the salvage operations on the sunken hulks. Captain Wallin relieved Steele on January 9th 1942. Wallin formed a salvage organization of Navy officers and civilian contractors.The civilian contractors were instrumental in the operation. Many had experience in salvage operations that exceeded the military personnel.

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Wallin prioritized the tasks of his organization working to recover items that could be of immediate use to the fleet such as anti-aircraft guns and to salvage less damaged ships in order to return them to service. They worked at the task through 1944. The divers faced extraordinary dangers, poisonous gas, unexploded ordnance, treacherous tides and the uncertainty of the destruction of the ships below the surface that could not be ascertained apart from diving on the wrecks.

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The divers recovered bodies whenever possible, salvaged equipment, removed weapons and ammunition, made temporary repairs and help rig the ships for righting or re-floating. In each case the salvage experts, divers and engineers faced different challenges.

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Arizona was never raised. Her superstructure was cut down, main battery and some anti-aircraft guns removed. The main batter guns were delivered to the Army Coastal Artillery for use as shore batteries but none reached an operational status before the end of the war. The dives aboard were so dangerous that eventually the attempts to recover bodies ceased as several divers lost their lives in the wreck.  Over the years the National Parks Service has continued to dive on the wreck to assess it as a war grave and memorial.

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Utah too was not raised. She was righted in 1942 but efforts to do more were halted because the elderly wreck had no remaining military value. Her wreck along with that of Arizona are war graves, many of their crew members, including over 1000 of Arizona’s men forever remain entombed in their ships. When I visited Pearl Harbor in 1978 as a Navy Junior ROTC Cadet and visited both memorials I was humbled at what  saw. They are haunting reminders of the cost paid by sailors during wartime.

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The salvage of the Oklahoma was one of the more challenging endeavors faced by Wallin’s men. Hit by at least five torpedoes during the attack the great ship capsized, her tripod masts digging deep into the mud of the harbor as she settled. Over 400 over her crew lay dead inside the ship. Since it was apparent that the ship was a total loss the salvage operations did not commence until the middle of 1942. The primary goal of the operation was to clear needed space for berthing large ships along Battleship Row. The operation involved making the ship as watertight as possible, solidifying the bottom of the harbor around her to enable her to roll and emplacing a massive system of righting frames, anchor chains and shore mounted winches and cables. The process involved cutting away wrecked superstructure, removing ammunition, weapons and the bodies of those entombed in their former home. She was completely righted in July 1943, and floated again in November. Moved to a dry dock in December she was made watertight and moored in another part of the harbor. Following the war she was being towed to a scrap yard but sank in a storm in May 1947.

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Nevada was the first major ship salvaged. She was re-floated in February 1942 and after temporary repairs sailed to the West Coast on her own power. After repairs and a significant modernization of her anti-aircraft systems was complete she returned to action in 1943 in the invasion of Attu Alaska. She participated in many amphibious operations including Normandy, Southern France, Iwo Jim and Okinawa. She survived the Atomic Bomb tests in 1946 but wrecked and radioactive she was sunk as a target off Hawaii in 1948.

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California was raised in March and after temporary repairs sailed under her own power to the West Coast. Her repairs and modernization were a major undertaking. Fully reconditioned and modernized to standards of most modern battleships she returned to service in January 1944. She served in retaking Saipan, Guam, Tinian as well as Leyte Gulf were she had a significant part in the Battle of Surigao Strait. Hit by a Kamikaze she was repaired and returned to action at Okinawa and support the occupation operations of the Japanese Home Islands. She was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrapping in 1959.

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West Virginia suffered the most severe damage of the battleships returned to duty. She was raised in July 1942 and after repairs sailed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Like California she was completely rebuilt and returned to action in October 1944 in time to take the lead role in destroying the Japanese Battleship Yamashiro. She served throughout the remainder of the war in the Pacific at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the occupation of Japan.

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The Mahan Class destroyers Cassin and Downes were so badly damaged sitting in the Dry Dock Number One with Pennsylvania that initially they were believed beyond salvage. However after closer inspection it was determined that the hull fittings, main weapons systems and propulsion machinery on both ships were worth salvaging. These items were removed, shipped to Mare Island Naval Shipyard and installed on new hulls being constructed. The hulks of the old ships were scrapped at Pearl Harbor. Those ships were commissioned as the Cassin and Downes and served throughout the war.

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Both were decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1947. Their sister ship Shaw which had blown up in the floating dry dock was wrecked from her bridge forward. However the rest of the ship including her engineering spaces were intact. A temporary bow was fashioned and the ship sailed to Mare Island under her own power. Completely overhauled she was back in service by July 1942. She was decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1946.

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The ancient minelayer Oglala was raised in July and sent back to the West Coast where she was repaired and recommissioned as an internal combustion engine repair ship. She survived the war was decommissioned and transferred to Maritime Commission custody. She was a depot ship at the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet until 1965 when she was sold for scrap.

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The salvage feat to return these ships to duty was one of the most remarkable operations of its type ever conducted. Not only were most of the ships salvaged but most returned to duty. While none survive today many played key roles during the war. Artifacts of some of the ships are on display at various Naval Bases, Museums and State Capitals. They, their brave crews and the Navy Divers and civilian diving and salvage experts who conducted this task exhibited the finest traditions of the US Navy. The successors of the Navy divers at Mobile Diving Salvage Units One and Two still carry on that tradition today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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In Harm’s Way: The Ships that Got Underway at Pearl Harbor

They were an odd collection of ships. A battleship, two modern light cruisers, an elderly light cruiser and a collection of destroyers, destroyer minesweepers and destroyer minelayers. Yet in the midst of the din and bloody chaos of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor these ships, sometimes with only the most junior of officers in charge got underway and took to sea in order to seek out and engage the Japanese.

Their sortie is dramatized in the Otto Preminger film In Harm’s Way. 

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For the first forty minutes of the attack only two ships were underway. The USS Ward which had sunk the Japanese midget submarine outside the harbor entrance an hour before the attack began. The USS Helm was in the main channel as the attack began. They were joined over the next two hours by other ships.

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The USS Nevada was the only battleship to get underway that morning and though she did not get to sea her example served to inspire those on the battered ships in the harbor and ashore. Her commanding officer and executive officer were ashore, along with many other senior officers. However her Damage Control Officer, Lieutenant Commander Francis Thomas, a reservist took command and as the senior officer present on the the ship got her underway. Then as she was battered by the second wave of Japanese attackers he skillfully grounded her off Hospital Point to keep her from being sunk in the narrow main channel.

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The USS St. Louis was moored outboard of her sister ship USS Honolulu at the Naval Station. Her sortie was enabled by members of her crew who chopped down the gangplank and cut water lines to the shore. Under command of Captain George Rood she got underway at 0931 and was the first cruiser to get underway.

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USS Phoenix sortie at Pearl Harbor

She was joined by her sister ship USS Phoenix and the elderly light cruiser USS Detroit which was moored on the far side of Ford Island.  Phoenix survived the war only to be sunk in the 1982 Falklands war as the Argentine ship General Belgrano.

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The destroyer USS Blue got underway under the command of Ensign Nathan Asher, who had just three other ensigns with him as that ship got underway. She was joined by Monaghan, Dale, Henley, Phelps, Farragut, MacDonough, Worden, Patterson, Jarvis and Aylwin also under command of an junior officer, Ensign Stanley Caplan. Henley left without her commander under the command of Lieutenant Francis Fleck Jr.

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Others too got underway, The USS Mugford was the duty destroyer and got underway quickly, as did Cummings. The Ralph Talbot was underway by 0900. Conyngham got underway in the early afternoon. Perhaps the most interesting story was the USS Selfridge which got underway manned by a composite crew of 7 different ships.

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The cruisers and destroyers were joined by a number of elderly former destroyers which had been converted to Destroyer Minesweepers or Minelayers. The Ramsay, Breese, Trever and Perry all got underway, Trever also minus her commanding officer.

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Some of the ships formed in a vain search for the Japanese strike force while others conducted defensive anti-submarine operations in the waters off Pearl Harbor.

The fact that all of these ships were able to get underway and navigate through the chaos of the attack, often under the command of junior officers and without key crew members was a testament to the courage and initiative of US Navy Officers and Sailors. It is a courage and initiative still in evidence today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Battleship Row: The Story of the Battleships of Pearl Harbor

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“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…. The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost.” Except of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor Speech December 8th 1941

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Today is the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and as we were then we are at war. Of course it is not the same kind of war and most Americans live in the illusion of peace which makes it even more important to remember that terribly day of infamy.

I remember reading Walter Lord’s classic and very readable book about Pearl Harbor “Day of Infamy” when I was a 7th grade student at Stockton Junior High School back in 1972.  At the time my dad was on his first deployment to Vietnam on the USS Hancock CVA-19.  As a Navy brat I was totally enthralled with all things Navy and there was little that could pull me out of the library.  In fact in my sophomore year of high school I cut over one half of the class meetings of the 4th quarter my geometry class to sit in the library and read history, especially naval and military history.

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The main battery of either USS Arizona or Pennsylvania 

Over the years I have always found the pre-World War Two battleships to be among the most interesting ships in US Navy history.  No they are not the sleek behemoths like the USS Wisconsin which graces the Norfolk waterfront. They were not long and sleek, but rather squat yet exuded power. They were the backbone of the Navy from the First World War until Pearl Harbor.  They were the US Navy answer to the great Dreadnaught race engaged in by the major Navies of the world in the years prior to, during and after World War One.

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USS Pennsylvania passing under the Golden Gate

Built over a period of 10 years each class incorporated the rapid advances in technology between the launching of the Dreadnaught and the end of the Great War.  While the United States Navy did not engage in battleship to battleship combat the ships built by the US Navy were equal to or superior to many of the British and German ships of the era.

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US Battleships at the Grand Fleet Review of 1937

Through the 1920s and 1930s they were the ambassadors of the nation, training and showing the flag. During those years the older ships underwent significant overhaul and modernization.

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The Battle Force of the Pacific Fleet in 1941 included 9 battleships of which 8 were at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th.  In the event of war the US War Plan, “Orange” called for the Pacific Fleet led by the Battle Force to cross the Pacific, fight a climactic Mahanian battle against the battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy and after vanquishing the Japanese foe to relieve American Forces in the Philippines.  However this was not to be as by the end of December 7th all eight were out of action, with two, the Arizona and Oklahoma permanently lost to the Navy.

The ships comprised 4 of the 6 classes of battleships in the US inventory at the outbreak of hostilities.  Each class was an improvement on the preceding class in speed, protection and firepower.  The last class of ships, the Maryland class comprised of the Maryland, Colorado and West Virginia, was the pinnacle of US Battleship design until the North Carolina class was commissioned in 1941.  Since the Washington Naval Treaty limited navies to specific tonnage limits as well as the displacement of new classes of ships the United States like Britain and Japan was limited to the ships in the current inventory at the time of the treaty’s ratification.

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USS Oklahoma

The ships at Pearl Harbor included the two ships of the Nevada class, the Nevada and Oklahoma they were the oldest battleships at Pearl Harbor and the first of what were referred to as the “standard design” battleships. The two ships of the Pennsylvania class, the Pennsylvania and her sister the Arizona served as the flagships of the Pacific Fleet and First Battleship Division respectively and were improved Nevada’s. The California class ships, California and Tennessee and two of the three Maryland’s the Maryland and West Virginia made up the rest of the Battle Force.

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USS California passing under Brooklyn Bridge

The Colorado was undergoing a yard period at Bremerton and the three ships of the New Mexico class, New Mexico, Mississippi and Idaho had been transferred to the Atlantic before Pearl Harbor due to the German threat.  The three oldest battleships  ships of the New York and Wyoming Classes, the New York, Arkansas and Texas also were in the Atlantic. Two former battleships, the Utah and Wyoming had been stripped of their main armaments and armor belts and served as gunnery training ships for the fleet. The Utah was at Pearl Harbor moored on the far side of Ford Island.

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The ships that lay at anchor at 0755 that peaceful Sunday morning on “Battleship Row” and in the dry dock represented the naval power of a bygone era, something that most did not realize until two hours later. The age of the battleship was passing away, but even the Japanese did not realize that the era had passed building the massive super-battleships Yamato and Musashi mounting nine 18” guns and displacing 72,000 tons, near twice that of the largest battleships on Battleship Row.

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USS Nevada at Pearl Harbor

The Oklahoma and Nevada were the oldest ships in the Battle Force.  Launched in 1914 and commissioned in 1916 the Nevada and Oklahoma mounted ten 14” guns and displaced 27,500 tons and were capable of 20.5 knots. They served in World War One alongside the British Home Fleet and were modernized in the late 1920s. They were part of the US presence in both the Atlantic and Pacific in the inter-war years. Oklahoma took part in the evacuation of American citizens from Spain in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

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USS Oklahoma Capsized (above) and righted (below)

 

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During the Pearl Harbor attack Oklahoma was struck by 5 aerial torpedoes capsized and sank at her mooring with the loss of 415 officers and crew. Recent analysis indicates that she may have been hit by at least on torpedo from a Japanese midget submarine. Her hulk would be raised but she would never again see service and sank on the way to the breakers in 1946.

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USS Nevada aground off Hospital Point

Nevada was the only battleship to get underway during the attack.  Moored alone at the north end of Battleship Row her Officer of the Deck had lit off a second boiler an hour before the attack.  She was hit by an aerial torpedo in the first minutes of the attack but was not seriously damaged. She got underway between the attack waves and as she attempted to escape the harbor she was heavily damaged. To prevent her from sinking in the main channel she was beached off Hospital Point.

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USS Nevada at Normandy 

Nevada was raised and received a significant modernization before returning to service for the May 1943 assault on Attu.  Nevada returned to the Atlantic where she took part in the Normandy landings off Utah Beach and the invasion of southern France.  She returned to the Pacific and took part in the operations against Iwo Jima and Okinawa where she again provided naval gunfire support.  Following the war the great ship was assigned as a target at the Bikini atoll atomic bomb tests. The tough ship survived these tests and was sunk as a target on 31July 1948.

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USS Arizona

The two ships of the Pennsylvania Class were improved Oklahoma’s.  The Arizona and Pennsylvania mounted twelve 14” guns and displacing 31,400 tons and capable of 21 knots they were both commissioned in 1916. They participated in operations in the Atlantic in the First World War with the British Home Fleet. Both ships were rebuilt and modernized between 1929-1931.

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They were mainstays of the fleet being present at Presidential reviews, major fleet exercises and making goodwill visits around the world.  Pennsylvania was the Pacific Fleet Flagship on December 7th 1941 and was in dry dock undergoing maintenance at the time of the attack. She was struck by two bombs and received minor damage.

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She was back in action in early 1942. She underwent minor refits and took part in many amphibious landings in the Pacific and was present at the Battle of Surigao Strait.  She was heavily damaged by an aerial torpedo at Okinawa Pennsylvania and was repaired. Following the war the elderly warrior was used as a target for the atomic bomb tests. She was sunk as a gunnery target in 1948.

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Arizona was destroyed during the attack. As the flagship of Battleship Division One she was moored next to the repair ship USS Vestal.  She was hit by 8 armor piercing bombs one of which penetrated her forward black powder magazine. The ship was consumed by a cataclysmic explosion which killed 1103 of her 1400 member crew including her Captain and Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, commander of Battleship Division One.  She was never officially decommissioned and the colors are raised and lowered every day over the Memorial which sits astride her broken hull.

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The Tennessee class ships the Tennessee and California were the class following the New Mexico class ships which were not present at Pearl Harbor. These ships were laid down in 1917 and commissioned in 1920. Their design incorporated lessons learned at the Battle Jutland. They mounted twelve 14” guns, displaced 32,300 tons and were capable of 21 knots. At Pearl Harbor Tennessee was moored inboard of West Virginia and protected from the aerial torpedoes which did so much damage to other battleships. She was damaged by two bombs. California the Flagship of Battleship Division Two was moored at the southern end of Battleship Row. She was hit by two torpedoes in the initial attack. However, she had the bad luck to have all of her major watertight hatches unhinged in preparation for an inspection.

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Despite the valiant efforts of her damage control teams she sank at her moorings. She was raised and rebuilt along with Tennessee were completely modernized with the latest in radar, fire control equipment and anti-aircraft armaments. They were widened with the addition of massive anti-torpedo bulges and their superstructure was razed and rebuilt along the lines of the South Dakota class.

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USS California following Modernization

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USS Tennessee with another ship, possibly California in reserve awaiting the breakers

When the repairs and modernization work was completed they looked nothing like they did on December 7th. Both ships were active in the Pacific campaign and be engaged at Surigao Strait where they inflicted heavy damage on the attacking Japanese squadron. Both survived the war and were placed in reserve until 1959 when they were stricken from the Navy list and sold for scrap.

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USS West Virginia 

The Maryland and West Virginia were near sisters of the Tennessee class.  They were the last battleships built by the United States before the Washington Naval Treaty. and the first to mount 16” guns. With eight 16” guns they had the largest main battery of any US battleships until the North Carolina class.

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They displaced 32,600 tons and could steam at 21 knots. Laid down in 1917 and commissioned in 1921 they were modernized in the late 1920s. They were the most modern of the Super-Dreadnoughts built by the United States and included advances in protection and watertight integrity learned from both the British and German experience at Jutland.

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USS Maryland behind the capsized Oklahoma

At Pearl Harbor Maryland  was moored inboard of Oklahoma and was hit by 2 bombs and her crew helped rescue survivors of that unfortunate ship.  She was quickly repaired and returned to action.  She received minimal modernization during the war. She participated in operations throughout the entirety of the Pacific Campaign mainly conducting Naval Gunfire Support to numerous amphibious operations. She was present at Surigao Strait where despite not having the most modern fire control radars she unleashed six salvos at the Japanese Southern Force.

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USS West Virginia, sunk, raised and in dry dock, note the massive damage to Port Side

West Virginia suffered some of the worst damage in the attack. She was hit by at least 5 torpedoes and two bombs. She took a serious list and was threatening to capsize. However she was saved from Oklahoma’s fate by the quick action of her damage control officer who quickly ordered counter-flooding so she would sink on an even keel.  She was raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor and after temporary repairs and sailed to the West Coast for an extensive modernization on the order of the Tennessee and California.

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USS West Virginia after salvage and modernization 

West Virginia was the last Pearl Harbor to re-enter service. However when she returned she made up for lost time.  She led the battle line at Surigao Strait and fired 16 full salvos at the Japanese squadron. Her highly accurate gunfire was instrumental in sinking the Japanese Battleship Yamashiro in the last battleship versus battleship action in history.  West Virginia, Maryland and their sister Colorado survived the war and were placed in reserve until they were stricken from the Naval List and sold for scrap in 1959.

The battleships of Pearl Harbor are gone, save for the wreck of the Arizona and various relics such as masts, and ships bells located at various state capitals and Naval Stations.  Unfortunately no one had the forethought to preserve one of the survivors to remain at Pearl Harbor with the Arizona.  Likewise the sailors who manned these fine ships, who sailed in harm’s way are also passing away.  Every day their ranks grow thinner, the youngest are all 89-90 years old.

As this anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack passes into history it is fitting to remember these men and the great ships that they manned.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Awarding the Heroes of Pearl Harbor

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On the morning of December 7th 1941 aircraft from the Japanese First Air Fleet attacked the United States Pacific Fleet as it lay at anchor at Pearl Harbor.

The attack inflicted great damage and casualties on the Pacific Fleet as well as the Army Air Forces based on Oahu. On that fateful Sunday the US Navy had 19 ships sunk or damaged. The Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Corps lost 188 aircraft destroyed and another 159 damaged. 2402 American Sailors, Marines and Soldiers, including members of the Army Air Corps lost their lives and another 1247 were wounded.

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It was a day where men, suddenly shaken from their peacetime routine by bombs, bullets and torpedoes conducted themselves in in an extraordinary manner. When the last Japanese aircraft turned away the previously placid waters of Pearl Harbor were littered with wrecked and sunken ships, blazing fires and the bodies of sailors and Marines. Desperate rescue efforts were already underway even as undamaged ships sortied to attempt to find and engage the Japanese fleet.

The next day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked the Congress for a Declaration of War.His speech, immortalized in its opening words galvanized the nation.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan….” 

It was also a day where heroism was acknowledged. In the days and months following many Sailors, Soldiers and Marines ware awarded for their heroism, posthumously. 16 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded, 15 at Pearl Harbor and one at Midway Island which was attacked the same day. Of those 10 were to men killed in action.  There were 51 awards of the Navy Cross, four Silver Stars and three wards of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. One of the Navy Cross awards was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

The ranks of the awardees ranged from the Commander of Battleship Division One Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd to killed on the bridge of his flagship the USS Arizona to Seaman First Class James Ward who died on the USS Oklahoma. Kidd’s body was never found, his Naval Academy ring was found fused to a bulkhead on the destroyed bridge of the Arizona.

Ward was a gunner in one of Oklahoma’s main gun turrets. His citation reads:

“For conspicuous devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and complete disregard of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty, during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on 7 December 1941. When it was seen that the U.S.S.Oklahoma was going to capsize and the order was given to abandon ship, Ward remained in a turret holding a flashlight so the remainder of the turret crew could see to escape, thereby sacrificing his own life.”

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One of the Navy Crosses was awarded to Mess Attendant First Class Doris “Dorie” Miller. Miller was the only African American to win such an award that day. Miller who was assigned to the USS West Virginia received the award from Admiral Chester Nimitz for his efforts to assist his mortally wounded Commanding Officer, Captain Mervyn Bennion and manning a .50 caliber machine gun on his ship, possibly shooting down a Japanese aircraft.

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Nimitz remarked at the ceremony “This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.” Miller died less than two years later along with 645 other sailors when his ship the USS Liscombe Bay was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine near Tarawa. Miller’s Navy Cross citation reads:

“For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.”

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Others who survived the Pearl Harbor attack including Captain Cassin Young of the USS Vestal were later killed in action, Young while in command of the Heavy Cruiser USS San Francisco at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 13th 1942. Captain Young’s Medal of Honor citation reads:

For distinguished conduct in action, outstanding heroism and utter disregard of his own safety, above and beyond the call of duty, as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Vestal, during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by enemy Japanese forces on 7 December 1941. Comdr. Young proceeded to the bridge and later took personal command of the 3-inch antiaircraft gun. When blown overboard by the blast of the forward magazine explosion of the U.S.S. Arizona, to which the U.S.S. Vestal was moored, he swam back to his ship. The entire forward part of the U.S.S. Arizona was a blazing inferno with oil afire on the water between the 2 ships; as a result of several bomb hits, the U.S.S. Vestal was afire in several places, was settling and taking on a list. Despite severe enemy bombing and strafing at the time, and his shocking experience of having been blown overboard, Comdr. Young, with extreme coolness and calmness, moved his ship to an anchorage distant from the U.S.S. Arizona, and subsequently beached the U.S.S. Vestal upon determining that such action was required to save his ship.

The Fletcher Class destroyer named after Captain Young, the USS Cassin Young DD-793 is now a museum ship in Boston Massachusetts.

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The individual bravery of these men was remarkable and many more did equally heroic things but for whatever reason were not recognized.

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The citation of Lieutenant Jackson Pharris at the time of the attack a Gunners Mate on the USS California is typical of the actions of so many men on that desperate day. He was first awarded the Navy Cross but the award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. That citation follows:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while attached to the U.S.S. California during the surprise enemy Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, 7 December 1941. In charge of the ordnance repair party on the third deck when the first Japanese torpedo struck almost directly under his station, Lt. (then Gunner) Pharris was stunned and severely injured by the concussion which hurled him to the overhead and back to the deck. Quickly recovering, he acted on his own initiative to set up a hand-supply ammunition train for the antiaircraft guns. With water and oil rushing in where the port bulkhead had been torn up from the deck, with many of the remaining crewmembers overcome by oil fumes, and the ship without power and listing heavily to port as a result of a second torpedo hit, Lt. Pharris ordered the shipfitters to counterflood. Twice rendered unconscious by the nauseous fumes and handicapped by his painful injuries, he persisted in his desperate efforts to speed up the supply of ammunition and at the same time repeatedly risked his life to enter flooding compartments and drag to safety unconscious shipmates who were gradually being submerged in oil. By his inspiring leadership, his valiant efforts and his extreme loyalty to his ship and her crew, he saved many of his shipmates from death and was largely responsible for keeping the California in action during the attack. His heroic conduct throughout this first eventful engagement of World War 11 reflects the highest credit upon Lt. Pharris and enhances the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

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Those awarded the Medal of Honor are listed here:

Bennion, Mervyn, Capt., USN, CO of USS West Virginia, casualty of USS West Virginia 

Cannon, George H., First Lt., USMC, casualty of Midway Island NAS

Finn, John W., Lt.(jg), USN, NAS Kaneohe Bay, from Los Angeles, CA (20 shrapnel wounds from firing at Japanese planes)

Flaherty, Francis C., Ens., USNR, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Fuqua, Samuel G. (Glenn), Capt., USN, USS Arizona, from Missouri

Hill, Edwin J. (Joseph), Boatswain CWO, USN, casualty of USS Nevada

Jones, Herbert C., Ens., USN, casualty of USS California

Kidd, Isaac C., R. Adm., USN, from Ohio, casualty of USS Arizona

Pharris, Jackson C., Gunner, USN, USS California, from Columbus, GA

Reeves, Thomas J., Chief Radioman WO(RAD), USN, casualty of USS California

Ross, Donald K., Lt.Cmdr, USN, USS Nevada

Scott, Robert R., Machinist’s Mate first class MM1c, USN, casualty of USS California

Tomich, Peter, Chief Watertender, USN, casualty of USS Utah

Van Valkenburgh, Franklin, Capt(CO), USN, CO USS Arizona, casualty of USS Arizona

Ward, James Richard, Seaman first class, USN, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Young, Cassin, Capt., USN, Washington DC, USS Vestal

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Those awarded the Navy Cross are listed here: 

Austin, John A., Chief Carpenter, USN, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Baker, Lionel H., Pharmacist’s Mate second class, USN

Bolser, Gordon E. Lt.(jg), USN

Bothne, Adoloph M., Boatswain, USN

Burford, William P., Lt. Comdr., USN

Christopher, Harald J., Ens., USNR, casualty of USS Nevada

Curtis, Ned B., Pharmacist’s Mate second class, USN

Daly, Edward Carlyle, Coxwain, USN, casualty of USS Downes

Darling, Willard D., Cpl., USMC

Davis, Frederick C., Ens., USNR, casualty of USS Nevada

Dickinson, Clarence E. Jr., Lt., USN

Douglas, C. E., Gunnery Sgt., USMC

Driskel, Joseph R., Corporal, USMC

Dunlap, Ernest H. Jr., Ens., USN

Edwards, John Perry, Ens., USNR

Etchell, George D., Shipfitter, USN

Fleming, W.D., Boatswain’s Mate first class, USN

Gombasy, L.G., Seaman second class, USN

Graham, Donald A., Aviation Machinist’s Mate first class, USN

Hailey, Thomas E., Sgt., USMC

Hansen, Alfred L., Chief Machinist’s Mate, USN

Huttenberg, Allen J., Ens., USNR

Isquith, Solomon S., Lt. Cmdr. USN

Jewel, Jesse D., Comdr.(MC), USN

Kauffman, Draper L., Lt., USNR

Larson, Nils R., Ens., USN

Ley, F. C. Jr., Fireman second class, USNR

McMurtry, Paul J., Boatswain’s Mate first class, USN

Mead, Harry R., Radioman second class, USN

Miller, Doris, Mess Attendant first class, USN 

Miller, Jim D., Lt.(jg), USN

Moore, Fred K., Seaman first class, USN, casualty of USS Arizona

Outerbridge, William W., Lt. Comdr., USN

Parker, William W., Seaman first class, USN

Peterson, Robert J., Radioman second class, USN

Pharris, Jackson C., Gunner, USN (upgraded to Medal of Honor)

Phillips, John S., Comdr. USN

Riggs, Cecil D., Lt. Comdr. (MC), USN

Robb, James W. Jr., Lt.(jg), USN

Roberts, William R., Radioman second class, USN

Ruth, Wesley H., Ens., USN

Singleton, Arnold, Ens., USN

Smith, Harold F., Boatswain’s Mate second class, USN

Snyder, J. L., Yeoman first class USN

Taussig, Joseph K. Jr., Ens., USN

Taylor, Thomas H., Ens., USN

Teaff, Perry L, Ens., USN

Thatcher, Albert C., Aviation Machinists Mate second class, USN

Thomas, Francis J., Lt. Comdr., USN

Thomas, Robert E. Jr., Ens., USN

Vaseen, John B., Fireman second class, USNR

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The Silver Star was awarded to:

Kiefer, Edwin H., Lt.(jg), USNR

Marshall, Theodore W., Lt., USNR

Owen, George T., Comdr., USN

Shapley, Alan, Maj., USMC

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The Navy and Marine Corps Medal was awarded posthumously to: 

Day, Francis D., Chief Watertender, USN, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Schmitt, Aloysius H., Shipfitter first class, USN, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Wright, Paul R., Chief Watertender, USNR, casualty of USS Oklahoma

Note: The Awards listed are also complied at the website http://pearlharbor.org That site also has one of the most extensive searchable casualty listings available on the web. 

As we remember the attack on Pearl Harbor, or for that matter any battle we cannot reduce them to the number of ships, aircraft, tanks or equipment lost. Likewise when we talk the raw numbers of casualties the temptation is to treat them as impersonal statistics. However behind each of those numbers is a name, a man or woman with a life, family and friends who died in the service of their country.

The same is true today of men and women who will be unknown to most Americans.

Please do not forget them.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Pearl Harbor, the Missing Carriers: USS Enterprise, USS Lexington and USS Saratoga

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On the morning of December 7th 1941 8 of the 9 Battleships assigned to the US Pacific Fleet were in Pearl Harbor. Seven, the USS California, USS Maryland, USS Oklahoma, USS Tennessee, USS West Virginia, USS Arizona and USS Nevada were moored on Battleship Row. The USS Pennsylvania was in the massive dry dock which she shared with the destroyers USS Cassin and USS Downes. The USS Colorado, a sister ship of Maryland and West Virginia was at the Puget Sound Naval Yard being overhauled.

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USS West Virginia sinking at left and USS Tennessee burning at Pearl Harbor

At the time both the United States Navy and the Japanese Imperial Navy still viewed the Battleships as the heart of the fleet and the essence of naval power. Aircraft Carriers were still viewed as an adjunct and support to the traditional battle line.

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Thus as the Japanese Carrier Strike Group, the Kido Butai under the command of Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo approached Pearl Harbor and intelligence reports came in indicating that the carriers were not present the Japanese were not overly concerned. The lack of concern was in a sense ironic because the force they assigned to destroy the Battleships of the Pacific Fleet was the carrier strike group, not their battle line.

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The Kido Butai enroute to Pearl Harbor

Comprised of six carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku the force embarked over 300 first line aircraft. The aviators of the air groups aboard the carriers had been training for months to attack Pearl Harbor. Their aircraft had been specially outfitted with Type 91 Model 2 aerial torpedoes designed to run in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor and Type 99 Model 5 armor piecing bombs modified from battleship shells. These weapons would be employed with a devastating effect on the morning of December 7th 1941.

The three carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet, the USS Saratoga, USS Lexington and USS Enterprise had been dispatched on missions that took them away from Pearl Harbor that fateful Sunday.

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USS Lexington

The Lexington and Task Force 12 had departed Pearl Harbor on December 5th to ferry 18 SB2U Vindicator Dive Bombers of VSMB-231 to Midway Island. Saratoga was entering San Diego to embark her air group and Enterprise which had left Pearl Harbor on November 28th to deliver VMF-211 to Wake Island was due to return to Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December. As such none of these ships were in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. Their absence helped save the United States and Allied cause in the Pacific.

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USS Saratoga

The United States had other carriers but all were assigned to the Atlantic Fleet due to the belief that Nazi Germany was a greater threat than Japan. The USS Yorktown was at Norfolk in between deployments in support of the Neutrality Patrol. USS Ranger was returning to Norfolk from a patrol, USS Wasp was at Grassy Bay Bermuda and the newly commissioned USS Hornet was training out of Norfolk. The USS Long Island, the first Escort carrier was undergoing operational tests and training out of Norfolk.

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Had any of the three carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet been in Pearl Harbor on the morning of the Japanese attack the results would have been even more disastrous for the United States. Instead the carriers began operations against the Japanese almost immediately. Carriers based on the East Coast including Hornet, Yorktown and Wasp were transferred to the Pacific. In the perilous months following the Pearl Harbor attack the US carriers took the fight to the Japanese conducting raids against Japanese held islands. In April 1942 the Enterprise and Hornet, the latter with 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers under the command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle struck Tokyo.

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USS Hornet launching the Doolittle Raiders

The result was that Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto decided to attack Midway Island to force the US fleet and its carriers into a decisive battle. Although the Japanese had lost a good number of aircrew from Shokaku and Zuikaku at the Battle of Coral Sea, while sinking the Lexington Yamamoto remained committed to the decisive battle. That battle was decisive, but not in the way Yamamoto had planned. Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu were sunk by aircraft operating from Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet. Yorktown was lost in the battle bat it was a decisive defeat for the Japanese.

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Sinking the Akagi at Midway

In the succeeding months in the vicious battles around the Solomon Islands the remaining US carriers proved decisive. Although Wasp and Hornet were sunk in those battles and both Saratoga and Enterprise often heavily damaged they held the line. The carriers that the Japanese missed proved decisive in turning the tide and winning the war.

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Raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor the USS West Virginia in Tokyo Bay

Though Yamamoto did not realize it the attack on Pearl Harbor signaled the end of the supremacy of the Battleship and the ascendency of the Aircraft Carrier. By 1943 Battleships were regulated to escorting the fast carrier task forces or conducting shore bombardments. The ultimate irony was that the last battleship engagement in history was won by the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Raised from the mud the West Virginia, Tennessee, California, Maryland and Pennsylvania joined by the USS Mississippi rained destruction on two Japanese task forces attempting to penetrate Leyte Gulf and destroy the US invasion force transports at the Battle of Surigao Strait.

The ironies and intricacies of war. They are amazing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Humble Harbinger: The USS Langley CV-1

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Last week the US Navy’s newest Aircraft Carrier the USS Gerald R Ford was launched and christened. Looking at the behemoth it is hard to believe that nine decades ago the US Navy was experiment with its first aircraft carrier the USS Langley.

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Now Langley was not the first aircraft carrier. That honor went to the Royal Navy’s HMS Furious. The HMS Argus, a converted passenger liner was more comparable to Langley and served many of the same purposes for the Royal Navy.

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Langley was not much to look at, her nickname in the fleet was the “Covered Wagon.” She was not built as a carrier. Instead, like most of the early aircraft carriers in the US Navy, Royal Navy, French Navy and Japanese Navy she was converted from a ship built for a different purpose. Langley initially took to the water as the USS Jupiter, AC-3 a Collier, or coal ship in the days before oil replaced coal as the fuel for warships. Her more infamous sister ship, the ill-fated USS Cyclops disappeared with all hands in what is called the Bermuda Triangle in March 1918.

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She was converted into a carrier in 1920 and joined the fleet again as Langley on March 22nd 1922. At 542 feet long and 65 feet in beam she would fit several times over on the flight deck of any current US Navy carrier. Her slow speed of 15 knots meant that she would be relegated to training aviators, participating in fleet exercises and testing new aircraft.

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Lieutenant Commander Godfrey DeCourcelles Chevalier

The first takeoff from Langley was on 17 October 1922 when Lieutenant Virgil Griffin flew a Vought VE-7 off her bow. It was the beginning of carrier based aviation in the US Navy. Nice days later Lieutenant Commander Godfrey DeCourcelles Chevalier made the first landing on Langley landing a Aeromarine 39B trainer on a deck equipped with experimental arresting gear. Chevalier died less than a month later when his Vought VE-7 crashed on a flight from Norfolk to Yorktown Virginia. Langley was the first carrier of any navy equipped with a catapult and on 18 November 1922 her Commanding Officer, Commander Kenneth Whiting was the first aviator to be catapulted from a ship.

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Commander Kenneth Whiting

Whiting is considered by some to be the “father of the aircraft carrier” and had been instrumental in the selection of Jupiter for conversion, the conversion process and the continued development of carrier aviation following his command of Langley.

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Langley remained the primary training carrier for the Navy until 1936 when she was converted into a Seaplane Tender. In the decade and a half that she served in this role she was used to test various catapult and arresting systems the knowledge gained being useful in the development of new carriers. Likewise the aviators trained aboard her would go on to help develop US Navy Carrier aviation before and during the Second World War.

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Langley served in the Southwest Pacific during the opening months of the war and was sunk on 27 February 1942 after being attacked by Japanese bombers near Tjilatjap Java.

When the Gerald R Ford enters service in 2016 she will continue a tradition that began with the humble USS Langley, the illustrious Covered Wagon.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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103 Years of Naval Aviation: Celebrating Eugene Ely and the First Flight on and Off a Ship

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On a blustery November 14th in the year 1910 a young civilian pilot hailing from Williamsport Iowa became the first man to fly an aircraft off the deck of a ship.  At the age of 24 and having taught himself to fly barely 7 months before Eugene Ely readied himself and his Curtis biplane aboard the Cruiser USS Birmingham anchored just south of Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads.

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Eugene Ely (above) Captain Washington Irving Chambers (below)

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Ely was there because he was discovered by Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers.  Chambers had been tasked with exploring how aircraft might become part of Naval Operations. Chambers had no budget or authority for his seemingly thankless task nor any trained Navy aviators. But when he heard that a German steamship might launch and aircraft from a ship Chambers hustled to find a way to stake a claim for the U.S. Navy to be the first in flight.

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Weather was bad that day as is so typical for Hampton Roads in November. Between rain squalls Ely decided to launch even though Birmingham did not have steam up to get underway to assist the launch.  Ely gunned the engine and his biplane rumbled down the 57 foot ramp and as he left the deck the aircraft nosed down and actually make contact with the water splintering the propeller. The damage to his aircraft forced Ely to cut the flight short and land on Willoughby Spit about 2 ½ miles away. This is not far from the southern entrance to the modern Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel.

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Chambers would talk Ely into making the first landing on a Navy ship the Armored Cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay on January 18th 1911. In this flight his aircraft was modified and equipped with an arrestor hook, a standard feature on carrier aircraft since the early days of US Navy aviation.

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Ely landing on USS Pennsylvania (note the “arrestor cables” on the deck)

Ely desired employment in the Navy but the Navy Air Arm had not yet been established so he continued his exhibition flying around the country. Ely died in a crash while performing at the Georgia State Fairgrounds on October 11th 1911 less than a year after his historic flight off the deck of the Birmingham.

Ely would not be forgotten. Though he was a civilian he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Congress in 1933. The citation read in part: “for extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy.”

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It is hard to believe that Naval Aviation traces its heritage back to this humble beginning. However the next time you see whether in person or on television aircraft taking off and landing from a modern super carrier remember the brave soul named Eugene Ely who 103 years ago gunned his frail aircraft down that short ramp aboard the Birmingham. To Ely and all the men and women who would follow him as Naval Aviators.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part VI: Collegiality and Relationships

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With my Friend Fr Jose Bautista at  Habbaniyah Iraq 2007 

“A free theologian works in communication with other theologians…He waits for them and asks them to wait for him. Our sadly lacking yet indispensable theological co-operation depends directly or indirectly on whether or not we are willing to wait for one another, perhaps lamenting, yet smiling with tears in our eyes.” ― Karl Barth, The Humanity of God

This is fifth part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the fifth of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. As I wrote this tonight I thought of one more installment so I expect soon that I will write it, but not tonight. The first three parts are linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart 

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part Three: The Minefields of the Soul: Power and Arrogance

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part IV: The Minefields of the Flesh, Sex, Alcohol and Money

Letter to A New Military Chaplain Part V: Count it All Joy

Karl Barth’s words about how free theologians work in communication or community with other theologians is equally true for those men and women who serve in the secular and pluralistic ministry of the chaplaincy, particularly the military chaplaincy.

This was something that I learned early in my theological education in seminary as well as my more practical ministry lessons at the Army Chaplain School and during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency.

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Army Chaplain Officer Basic Course with LTC Rich Whaley (C) and CPT Bill Blackie (L)

Collegiality and relationships cannot be over-valued. In fact they are vital if we are to care for the people that are entrusted to us, men and women who volunteer to serve our nation in time of war and peace. Unfortunately they are probably harder to do now than they were when I first became a chaplain back in 1992. Harder but certainly not impossible.

I think part of this is due to how theological education has changed in the last 20 years. For better or worse for many people it is hard to attend seminary in residence. I did and it was painful. I would never want to do it again but it was important in my formation and I think indispensable. However many seminaries have placed much of their theological education, even the Master of Divinity online or via other distance education formats. The result is that many theological students do their seminary education isolated from collegial relationships with professors and other students. This isolation is often compounded in churches, especially mega-churches which have little use for seminary students who will leave them in order to become chaplains.

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With CAPT John Kaul and LT Romeo Biala at Camp LeJeune 1999

Another issue is the fact that the Chaplain Corps of the various services are not as reflective of the religious population of the services as they used to be. Part of this is because the mainline Protestant denominations in their cultural opposition to war and in some cases the military itself stopped sending as many chaplains as they once had done. Likewise due to the continuing clergy crisis in the Roman Catholic Church that institution has seen a marked decline in number of serving chaplains. On the other side of the coin many conservative denominations and independent churches increased their numbers of chaplains. The number of Jewish chaplains has declined and there are just a smattering of Islamic or Buddhist chaplains.

While the demographics of the Chaplain Corps have changed there has also been a shift in the religious demographic of the military population have shifted the fastest growing group being the “no religious preference” demographic. Of course I have found that in many cases that “no religious preference”  is not that they have no faith but that they go to church but are not terribly concerned about the denominational label. That being said there are lot more servicemen and women who are atheists, agnostics, free thinkers, Pagans, Wiccans or members of other groups traditionally overlooked.

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In this setting the collegial relationships that chaplains maintain with one another irregardless of our denominational or religious traditions in order to serve and care for those men and women who volunteer to serve our country.

In my now rather lengthly career in the military as well as my time growing up as a Navy “Brat” I can say that I have been blessed by friendships and relationships with chaplains who have cared for me. Likewise I have had the chance to be there for chaplains when they needed someone to be there for them.

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With Korean and American Chaplains 2001

The way this has worked has been fascinating. My best friends in Army Chaplain school when I was in an independent evangelical church were Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopal Priests. One, Father Jim Bowman saved my ass when I was having a major meltdown and ripping my rank off after a near altercation with a numbskull in the Chaplain Officer Basic Course. Likewise the course director, Chaplain Rich Whaley an LDS (Mormon) Chaplain was there for me on more than one occasion and probably was the man that ensured that I was not tossed from the program. I stay in contact years later with these men.

As a Army Chaplain in the National Guard, Reserves and as a mobilized Reservist it was Lutherans, Catholics and Episcopalians who were there for me. As I became more seasoned and was promoted to Major and placed in supervisory billets I enjoyed good relationships with junior and senior chaplains across the denominational spectrum. Two of my enlisted assistants, one Army and one Navy both went on to become chaplains, both are much more conservative than me but stay in contact.

In the Navy due to our often very isolated duty in independent billets this is harder to do. There is a certain community that you have when you serve in the Army or as a Navy Chaplain serving with a Marine Division, or expeditionary force. However many Navy billets are stand alone billets on ships. Once again this is not impossible to do in the Navy, it is just harder.

The Chaplain Corps is a small community thus when you have good relationships with others, take the time to build friendships and care for people who are not like you there is a payback. That payback comes in the form of maintaining those relationships throughout a career. I constantly run into Navy Chaplains who I became friends with while serving in my first tour with Second Marine Division. Those guys tend to be like brothers to me and it is a good thing. Likewise some of my supervisory chaplains, men like Father John Kaul a now retired Catholic Priest and Navy Captain have been more than supervisors but mentors and friends.

As a practical matter the collegial relationships we build with other chaplains are important for a number of reasons.

First it is about caring for our people and when you have the relationships with other chaplains who are not like you you have a ready referral source. If I have a Mormon Sailor or Marine come to me I know Mormon Chaplains. If I have a Roman Catholic or Orthodox service member come to me seeking a type a Sacrament that has to come from their church I can contact people I know to help them.

In another way it is about having relationships with people who are safe to talk to and believe me this is important. I have a lot of chaplains who confide in me because they know that I am safe, that I will listen and care irrespective of any theological or even political difference. I have a number of Chaplains that I can do this with myself and it does help. There have been times where due to the isolation of my assignment or the inability to be around some of these guys that I have suffered. When I came back from Iraq and in the midst of a PTSD induced spiritual and psychological crisis I didn’t have this, in fact at that time the first person who asked me how I was doing spiritually was my first shrink. When I was able to re-connect with some of my older friends, my “go to” guys they shared similar experiences.

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Now I do work hard to build these collegial relationships. They matter to me.

Collegiality and friendship are at the heart of the military chaplain ministry. Without them we become the promoters of our agenda often at the expense of those that we serve or serve alongside. Since our Constitutional reason for being in the military is to provide for the religious and spiritual needs of our people regardless of their religious affiliation and perform the rites or sacraments of our own religious traditions it is imperative that we build these collegial relationships and friendships with any chaplain that we can.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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