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“I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight” John Paul Jones and the American Naval Tradition

 

                 Battle off Flamborough Head September 23rd 1779

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On October 13th the United States Navy celebrated its 244th Birthday. At Naval commands, stations, and aboard ships the Navy Birthday is marked by the cutting of a cake. Traditionally, the oldest and youngest sailors present make the first two cuts to the cake. This year, at the age of 59 I was the once again oldest, the youngest was a lad who just turned 19. I thought I would be retired by now but knee injuries and failed treatments I am still around. I thought that I would be retired on September 1st, but because of the knees that was extended to what the Navy calculated was my mandatory retirement date, to 1 April of 2020. I called Tuesday to find out when I would get my orders so I can start my medical process with the VA, and found out that they miscalculated, my new date is 1 August 2020. Unless we get in a major war and a “stop loss” is declared I should be retired by this time next year, but I don’t discount anything anymore about my career.

That being said, I have spent the better amount of this week moving out of my work office to home while waiting to see where I will be going. It looks like I will get orders over to the historic Norfolk Naval Shipyard within the next few days. The Chaplain billet there has been gapped for well over a decade. I will not have a Religious Program Specialist, but I will be doing ministry where it is needed and where I am wanted, in a very historic place. It is the oldest active Naval Shipyard in the country and since I am both a historian and a dinosaur in terms of my age and years of service it seems to fit. But, until I get orders God only knows, but I digress…

The Navy Birthday is a time for Sailors to reflect on their heritage by remembering the lives and actions of those who came before them. One of those men, in fact the man who represents the heart and soul of that tradition was Captain John Paul Jones. As the commanding officer of the Sloop of War USS Ranger he received the first salute of the American flag by a foreign power, in this case our first ally, France. There had been an earlier salute to the USS Andrea Doria, a converted merchantman which was one of the first four ships of the new Navy by the Dutch governor of St. Eustasius in the West Indies. That occurred on November 16th, 1776. But the flag she flew was the red and white striped banner of the Continental Congress, not the Stars and Stripes.

That is a story told well by Barbara Tuchman in her book The First Salute: a View of the American Revolution. Tonight’s essay is about John Paul Jones.

Two hundred thirty nine years ago a small naval battle occurred off the coast of Yorkshire England. From a purely military perspective the battle was rather insignificant. A squadron of five American and French ships intercepted a convoy guarded by two British ships. However, the battle was one that had immense psychological significance for the Americans as a ramshackle converted French East India ship with an inferior main battery forced a materially superior British warship to strike her colors.

In fact the battle is so significant to the United States Navy that the body of the victor, Captain John Paul Jones was returned to the United States in 1905 from an abandoned site in northeastern Paris known as the former St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants to be interred in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy.

Jones had an unusual career as a British merchant skipper accused of murdering a mutinous crewman at Tobago and escaped to Fredericksburg Virginia out of fear that he would be tried in a local versus and Admiralty Court.

Jones went to the United States and due to his friendship with Henry “Lighthorse” Lee and other friends in the Continental Congress including a man who became a lifelong friend, Benjamin Franklin obtained a commission in the Continental Navy as a First Lieutenant.  At that time the “First Lieutenant” was the senior officer among the Lieutenants on a ship and often served as the First Officer or Executive Officer.

His first assignment was on the fleet flagship Alfred where he hoisted the first US Ensign aboard an American Naval vessel.  He took part in the raid on Nassau and upon his return assumed command of the Sloop of War Providence where he captured 16 prizes of war and escaped capture by the a British Frigate. He then assumed command of Alfred for a brief time capturing a key supply vessel that had winter clothing for British troops commanded by General Burgoyne in New York.  Following this he took command of the 18 gun Sloop of War Ranger in France received the first ever salute to an American man-of-war by a foreign power 8 days after the French had recognized the American Colonies as an independent nation.

Ranger receives the first salute rendered to an American warship by a foreign power

The nine-gun salute fired from Admiral Piquet’s flagship recognized this and the new Franco-American alliance. Jones wrote of the event: “I accepted his offer all the more for after all it was a recognition of our independence and in the nation.” After this sailed directly in harm’s way making an epic raid on the port of Whithaven, and then defeating and capturing and the British 20 gun Brig HMS Drake in an hour long fight.

Jones’ raid on Whithaven struck fear into the British populace and forced the British to allocate more resources to the defense of British seaports than had previously been the case.  The capture of the Drake was of immense psychological importance and along with Jones’ other victories would ultimately lead to the formation of the United States Navy.

Bonhomme Richard

Jones’ exploits made him a celebrated figure. He gave up command of Ranger to take command of a powerful frigate under construction in Amsterdam, but the British pressured the Dutch into preventing the transfer of the ship. Instead, Jones took command of the Bonhomme Richard a converted 42 gun former French East India ship. He named her after Benjamin Franklin’s book “Poor Richard’s Almanac” and he became commodore of a mixed squadron of American and French ships including the 36 gun American Frigate Alliance, the 32 gun French Frigate Pallas and two 12 gun warships the Vengeance and Le Cerf. 

His orders were to provide a diversion for a combined French and Spanish fleet the squadron menaced Ireland and Scotland before moving into the North Sea. As they came into English waters the Americans intercepted a 50 ship convoy on September 22nd. The convoy was enroute to the Baltic was escorted by the 44 gun two-decker HMS Serapis. Serapis was brand new and more powerful than Bonhomme Richard. A second ship, the 20 gun privateer Countess of Scarborough accompanied Serapis.

Jones directing the battle from the Bonhomme Richard

The battle was joined about 1800 on the 23rd of September. Serapis which was more maneuverable than Jones’ flagship, pounded the Bonhomme Richard holing her below the waterline and seriously damaging her, suffering little damage to herself. Jones’ s problems were compounded when with the first broadside two of Bonhomme Richard’s elderly 18 pounders burst damaging the ship and killing most of the gun crews on the lower deck.

Jones attempted to close the range in order to grapple Serapis and make the battle a close aboard action. Eventually the bow of Bonhomme Richard ran into the stern of Serapis and Jones’s crew succeeded in grappling the British ship. With cannons blazing the two ships were locked in a struggle to the death. Firing at point blank range the ships tore great holes in one another, though the Serapis, built as a warship suffered less than Richard.

As the cannonade raged, the Marines of Bonhomme Richard swept the decks of Serapis killing and wounding many of her crew. A grenade thrown by one of her Marines sailed down an open hatch on the British ship and landed on a pile of powder charges. The explosion set off a chain reaction which disabled many of Serapis’s guns, killing and wounding many of the gunners.

In the confusion and carnage, thinking that Jones was dead, the Chief Gunner of the of Bonhomme Richard cried out for “quarter,” meaning surrender. Hearing this, Jones threw a pistol felling the man. Likewise, Richard’s colors were shot away giving the impression that she make have struck her colors.

The Captain of Serapis Captain Richard Pearson hailed Jones to ask if he had struck his colors (surrendered.) The First Lieutenant of Bonhomme Richard Richard Dale recorded Jones’ response for posterity “I have not yet begun to fight!” Another account recorded Jones as replying  “I have not yet thought of it, but I am determined to make you strike.” 

The battle continued and the Alliance under the command of a Frenchman with an American commission, Pierre Landais, having been absent for most of the action came up and delivered a devastating broadside much of which hit Bonhomme Richard, holing her again below the waterline and causing her to settle rapidly. At the same time she caused additional damage to Serapis. Jones loaded and fired one of the 9 pounders whose crew was killed or wounded, striking the mainmast of Serapis twice and causing it to fall over the side.

Alliance pens fire on Serapis and Bonhomme Richard

Bonhomme Richard had taken a severe beating with most of her guns knocked out, taking water and burning from fires ignited by the British onslaught and Alliance’s devastating broadside. With his ship badly damaged and Alliance threatening Pearson stuck his colors in person at 2230 hours.  Pallas forced the surrender of the Countess of Scarborough, but the convoy escaped.

Jones took possession of Serapis, but the badly damaged Bonhomme Richard sank the on September 25th despiteher crew’s best efforts to save her.  Jones made temporary repairs to Serapis and sought refuge in the Netherlands.

The battle was militarily insignificant but again a major psychological victory as Jones had for the second time defeated a British warship in British waters within sight of the local population.  Even though Jones had taken Serapis the British warships completed their mission of protecting the convoy.

Jones’s post war career left him embittered. His opportunity to command the first US Navy Ship of the Line, the 74 gun America disappeared when that ship was given to France after the war. He was made a Chevalier of France by Louis the XVI and awarded a gold medal by Congress, but the U.S. Navy was disbanded. Unable to serve his adopted country, Jones found employment in the Imperial Russian Navy of Catherine the Great. Though he was successful against the Turks, jealous Russian commanders conspired against him and had him removed from command of the Black Sea Fleet.  He retired to France where he lived on his Russian pension. He was appointed to serve as Counsel to the Dey of Algiers to negotiate the freedom of captive American merchant mariners in June 1792. Before he could take up that position he died in his Paris apartment of interstitial nephritis of on July 18th 1792.

Frenchman Pierrot Francois Simmoneau donated over 460 francs to mummify the body. It was preserved in alcohol and interred in a lead coffin “in the event that should the United States decide to claim his remains, they might more easily be identified.” He was buried in the St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants which was owned by the French King. After the French Revolution the cemetery was abandoned and forgotten.

General Horace Porter, the United States Counsel to France spent six years and his own money to locate and identify Jones’s body in 1905. His coffin was transported aboard the USS Brooklyn in 1906 and his body was interred at the United States Naval Academy. President Theodore Roosevelt spoke at the internment. He noted something of profound importance for anyone sworn to defend this nation and its Constitution:

We have met to-day to do honor to the mighty dead. Remember that our words of admiration are but as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals if we do not by steady preparation and by the cultivation of soul and mind and body fit ourselves so that in time of need we shall be prepared to emulate their deeds. Let every midshipman who passes through this institution remember, as he looks upon the tomb of John Paul Jones, that while no courage can atone for the lack of that efficiency which comes only through careful preparation in advance, through careful training of the men, and careful fitting out of the engines of war, yet that none of these things can avail unless in the moment of crisis the heart rises level with the crisis. The navy whose captains will not surrender is sure in the long run to whip the navy whose captains will surrender, unless the inequality of skill or force is prodigious. The courage which never yields can not take the place of the possession of good ships and good weapons and the ability skillfully to use these ships and these weapons.

In the years since that victory the United States Navy went from a militarily insignificant force to the most powerful Navy in the world. Jones and the ships that he captained would not be forgotten. Two Aircraft Carriers were named after Jones’ Sloop of war Ranger, while several destroyers have born his name.

The odds against Jones in his battle with Serapis were heavily weighted against him. Jones’s victory over Serapis was another demonstration that the Americans should not be taken lightly by the great powers of Europe. It helped begin a tradition of valiant service for the Navy that has endured throughout the centuries.  The victory off Flamborough Head reaches into the present as American sailors and their ships ply the world’s oceans keeping the sea lanes open and protecting American interests abroad.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Battle of Savo Island and Threats to the U.S. Navy Today

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                         USS Quincy under Attack off Savo Island 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight I am going back to my World War II vault and reposting an older article about the Battle Of Savo Island off Guadalcanal. It was the most lopsided defeat in modern American Naval history. It happened a long time ago and in an age where the United States Navy has not lost a ship in combat, other to mines since August 6th 1945, we forget to remember that should a war break out with a near-peer competitor, like the Chinese Communists or the Russians in waterers where they can gain local superiority, or even regional powers such as Iran which could use asymmetric means of large numbers of small missile equipped ships and attack boats, costal submarines, and land based anti-ship missiles in “swarm attacks” to overwhelm technologically superior American ships in confined waters. We have come close to losing major ships, the cruiser USS Princeton and Helicopter Carrier USS Tripoli, to very primitive moored mines during the First Gulf War, the USS Ruben James to a mine during the tanker wars, and the USS Stark which was hit by Iraqi Exocet anti-ship missiles in 1987. Likewise we have come close to losing the Guided Missile destroyers USS Cole (Terrorist attack), USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald (avoidable collisions with merchant ships). 

We have been lucky. We won’t be as lucky in a real live shootout today. Ships will be lost, damaged, and sailors will die. Compounding the problem for the United States is that years of focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, failed experiments with reducing crew size (smart-ship), reductions in numbers of ships and sailors to satisfy the budgets needs to the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, and the stress put on remaining ships and aircraft have worn us down. Readiness rates remain down, and we no longer have the shipbuilding and repair facilities to replace losses and repair damaged ships, especially in a war with China. 

That is why instead of commenting on today’s news I write about the worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy in the modern era, which I label from World War II to the present. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

On August 8th 1942 the U.S. Task Force supporting the invasion of Guadalcanal was tired. The crews of the ships had been in continuous combat operations conducting naval gunfire support missions, fending off numerous Japanese air attacks and guarding against submarine attacks for two days. The force commanded by Admiral Richmond K. Turner was still unloading materials, equipment and supplies needed by the men of the 1st Marine Division who they had put ashore on the morning of the seventh.

On the afternoon of the eighth Turner was informed by Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher that he was pulling his carrier task force out of action. Fletcher alleged that he did not have enough fighter aircraft (79 remaining of an original 98) and as low on fuel. The carriers had only been in action 36 hours and Fletcher’s reasons for withdraw were flimsy. Fletcher pulled out and left Turner and his subordinate commanders the responsibility of remaining in the area without air support with the transports still unloaded, and full of badly needed supplies and equipment.

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                                          Admiral Gunichi Mikawa

As the American drama played out, the Japanese moved forces into position to strike the Americans. Admiral Gunichi Mikawa commander of the 8th Fleet and Outer South Seas Force based at Rabaul New Britain quickly assembled a force of 6 heavy cruisers, the 14,000 ton Atago Class Chokai, and the four smaller ships of the Kako Class, the Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa and Furutaka, the light cruisers Yubari and Tenryu and the destroyer Yunagi. Mikawa raised his flag aboard Chokai and the force sped down “the slot” which ran the length of the of the Solomon’s chain mid day on the seventh.

The Americans had warning of their coming. The first sighting was by B-17s before the Japanese forces had reached Rabaul. The second was the elderly U.S. Navy submarine S-38 at 2000 on the 7th when they were 550 miles away not far from Rabaul. This report was discounted because it would not be unusual to find a number of fleet units steaming near a major naval base and fleet headquarters. The last which should have alerted the allies was a sighting by a Royal Australian Air Force patrol aircraft on the morning of the 8th. However the pilot did not report the sighting until he returned from his mission returned to his base and had his tea. The eight hour delay in reporting the information as well as errors in it which reported 2 submarine tenders as part of the force lulled the Allied forces into believing that the Japanese were setting up a seaplane base and posed no threat to the invasion forces. It was a fatal error of reporting and judgment by the pilot.

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USS Astoria on August 8th off Guadalcanal and USS Chicago (below)

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In the absence of good information Turner deployed his support ships to cover the three entrances into what soon would be known as Iron Bottom Sound. He placed the Anti Aircraft Cruiser USS San Juan and Australian Light Cruiser HMAS Hobart to the east with two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott. To protect the south west entrance into the sound south of Savo Island Turner placed the Heavy Cruisers USS Chicago, HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral R.A.C. Crutchley RN who in theory commanded the screening force. To the north of Savo he deployed the Heavy Cruisers USS Vincennes, USS Astoria and USS Quincy and two destroyers under the tactical direction of Captain Frederick Riefkohl aboard Vincennes. To the west of Savo he placed two destroyers to act as picket ships. Unfortunately these ships radar sets were insufficient and would fail to pick up the approaching enemy.

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                                                   Allied Dispositions

During the early evening Turner recalled Crutchley to his flagship for consultations of what to do regarding Fletcher’s retreat. Crutchley came over in his flagship the Australia denuding the southern force of its commander as well as one of its three heavy cruisers. He left the commanding officer of Chicago Captain Howard D. Bode in tactical command but Bode did not have his ship take the lead position in the patrol assuming Crutchley would return bymidnight.

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USS Vincennes (above) and USS Quincy (below)

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HMAS Canberra Sydney Harbour

                                                    HMAS Canberra 

Mikawa launched float planes to scout the locations of the American ships and to provide illumination once the battle began. Some of these aircraft were spotted but no alert measures were taken as many assumed the Japanese to be friendly aircraft. Many commanding officers were asleep or resting away from the bridge of their ships, lookouts were tired and not expecting the Japanese and Condition Two was set in order to provide some of the tired crews a chance to rest.

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Light Cruiser Yubari illuminating American cruisers at Savo Island

Admiral Mikawa now new the Allied disposition and ordered his ships to battle stations at 0045. At 004 he sighted and passed astern of USS Blue the southern picket which also failed to detect the Japanese force. Mikawa assumed that the destroyer might have reported his presence, briefly turned north but turned back to his original course when a lookout allegedly spotted a destroyer to his northeast. He gave the order to attack at 0132 and promptly spotted the American destroyer USS Jarvis which had been heavily damaged and without radio communications was making her way toAustralia for repair and passed her after some ships fired torpedoes and raced toward the southern force at 26 knots. With the southern force just a few miles away Mikawa ordered his ships to commence firing at 0136 and at 0138 torpedoes had been launched.

Mikawa’s lookouts spotted the northern group at 0144 and changed course. The maneuver was badly executed and left the Japanese in two columns as they swiftly closed on the Americans. Mikawa’s flagship Chokai launched torpedoes at 0148 and Astoria the cruiser closest to the Japanese set general quarters at 0145 and at 0150 the Japanese illuminated her with searchlights and opened fire. Astoria under the direction of her gunnery officer returned fire at 0152 ½ just before her Captain came to the bridge unaware of the situation. He ordered a cease fire until he could ascertain who he was firing at assuming the Japanese to be friendly ships. He delayed 2 minutes and ordered fires commenced at 0154 but the delay was fatal. Astoria had opened fire on the Chokai which then had time to get the range on the American cruiser and hit her with an 8” salvo which caused fires which provided the other Japanese ships an aiming point.

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Japanese artist depiction of attack on US Navy Cruisers at Savo Island

Astoria was left burning and heavily damaged barely maintaining headway but attempted to fight on scoring a hit on Chokai’s forward turret even as the Japanese opened up on the next cruiser in line the USS Quincy. Quincy caught between the two Japanese columns. Aoba illuminated her with her searchlight and Japanese forces opened fire. The gunnery officer order Quincy to return fire getting two salvos off before her skipper Captain Samuel Moore came to the bridge, briefly ordered a cease fire assuming that he was firing on Americans and turned on his running lights. Quincy was ripped by salvo after salvo which killed Captain Moore and nearly everyone in the pilothouse just as a torpedo ripped into her engineering spaces turning them into a sealed death trap forcing the engineer to shut down the engines. Burning like a Roman candle Quincy was doomed she was ordered abandoned and capsized and sank at 0235. However Quincy did not die in vain, at 0205 two of her 8” shells hit Chokai causing enough damage the Admiral’s chart room that Mikawa would order a withdraw at 0220 which spared the now defenseless American transports.

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Vincennes, the lead ship and flagship was next in the line of death. Captain Reifkohl order General Quarters sounded not long after the Japanese illuminated the southern group. At 0150 Vincennes was lit up by the searchlights of three Japanese ships which opened fire on her. Vincennes returned fire at 0153 hitting Kinugasa before she was hit starting fires on her scout planes mounted on their catapults. The Japanese mauled Vincennes, three possibly four torpedoes ripped into her as shells put ever gun out of action. At 0215 she was left burning and sinking by the Japanese who soon withdrew from the action. Ordered abandoned she sank at 0250.

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         HMAS Canberra being evacuated by the Patterson and Blue

Canberra struggled against the odds but was abandoned and was sent to the bottom by an American torpedo at 0800. Astoria also struggled for life but the damage was too great and she was abandoned sinking at 1215. Mikawa withdrew up the sound but on his return the Heavy Cruiser Kako 70 miles from home was sunk by torpedoes from the American submarine S-44 sinking in 5 minutes.

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The Americans and Australians lost 4 Heavy Cruisers sunk and one heavily damaged. Two destroyers were also damaged. Casualties were heavy; Quincy lost 389 men killed, Vincennes, 342, Astoria, 235, Canberra, 85, Ralph Talbot, 14, Patterson, 10, and Chicago, 2.

It was an unmitigated disaster, an allied force destroyed in less than 30 minutes time. Boards of inquiry were held and Captain Bode hearing that he shouldered much blame killed himself in 1943.

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     Wrecks of the USS Quincy, Astoria, Vincennes, and HMAS Canberra

It was a rude awakening to a Navy which had believed that technical advances would give it victory and which  in the words of Admiral Ernest King  was not yet “sufficiently battle minded.” It was the first of many equally bloody battles in the waters around Guadalcanal which in the coming campaign became known as Ironbottom Sound.

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