Archives For American Shipwrecks

ship bombingThe late 19th century and early 20th century were the heyday of luxury trans-Atlantic steamship travel. Among the numerous liners plying the waters between New York City and Liverpool was the RMS Umbria, a Cunard luxury liner. Launched in 1884 the Umbria and her sister ship Etruria were named for regions of Italy and reflected the Victorian obsession with all things Egyptian, Greek or Roman. The two vessels were the last liners built for the Cunard line with auxiliary masts that could be rigged for sailing. Additionally, they were designed for easy conversion to armed merchant cruisers in the event of war. Both Umbria and Etruria held the westbound Blue Riband at points in their careers for being the fastest vessels on the Europe to New York journey.

Arguably the most intriguing anecdote in the Umbria‘s career was her being the target of a bomb plot by the Italian Mafia. On May 9, 1903, a letter was delivered to the New York police claiming a bomb had been placed aboard the Umbria. Incidentally, the chivalrous bombers claimed they had originally planned to target the RMS Oceanic but changed targets because Oceanic contained too many women and children. The police acted swiftly to prevent Umbria from sailing and a search of the ship revealed a 3×2 foot box filled with 100lbs. of dynamite and a fuse. The bomb was defused and police traced it back to the Mafia Society in Chicago. The ship sailed for Liverpool after only a short delay.

By the time of her scrapping in 1910, the Umbria had served the Empire twice as a troop ferry and auxiliary warship, been disabled in the North Atlantic, grounded herself on the wreck of a coal barge and even sunk another steam ship in a collision.

Jack Cheevers

The events surrounding the capture of the USS Pueblo, a US Navy spy ship, rank among the most ignominious in the storied history of the United States Navy. Jack Cheevers’ book Act of War brings to life the capture of the Pueblo, the torture and humiliation of her crew at the hands of the North Korean government and the efforts to secure their return to the United States. Relying on period documents, interviews with crew members and government records, Cheevers reconstructs for readers not just the “exciting” parts of the capture and torture, but also the bureaucratic decision making that led to the capture of the Pueblo.

Cheevers devotes special attention to the captain of the Pueblo Commander Lloyd Bucher, his background, the agonizing decisions he had to make while under fire and his subsequent pariah status within the US Navy. One of the strongest aspects of the book is how the reader is presented with the facts of the capture of the Pueblo and allowed to decide on his or her own where the blame should lie for the capture of the Pueblo and whether more should have been done to prevent her capture. While not a light beach read, Act of War is an enlightening tome worthy of one’s time, especially given the continued saber rattling by an increasingly unhinged North Korean regime.

War of 1812

Award winning author George C. Daughan’s latest book, The Shining Sea, is a timely narrative of the voyage of David Porter and the USS Essex from October 1812 until March 1814. As the bicentennial of the War of 1812 continues, Daughan’s book does an excellent job presenting the reader with an exciting tale of adventure on the high seas, a failed attempt at nation-building, diplomacy in South America and the South Pacific and, ultimately, the dangers of man’s hubris. Two particular points where Daughan’s work shines is his thorough but brief background to the War of 1812 as well as his vivid and readable descriptions of Porter’s voyage. Instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of how the War of 1812 came about, Daughan provides just enough background to bring the reader up to speed and then sets sail on Porter’s epic adventure. By the same token, Daughan avoids the trap of making the work too dense with nautical terminology and sailing jargon and instead focuses on the incredible actions of Porter and his men.

For twenty-first century readers, imagining a world where a merchant raider could disappear into the mists of the sea for months at a time and leave the entire British Admiralty perplexed is something near unthinkable, but this is exactly what David Porter did with the Essex. Porter and his men laid waste to the British whaling fleet in the South Pacific in a feat only rivaled in its completeness by James Waddell fifty years later in the CSS Shenandoah. Also foreign to twenty-first century readers is Porter’s ability to act without constant communication with his chain of communication. In an age when the President can watch a raid in Abottabad, Pakistan in real-time, the ability to act under only the loosest of orders is a stunning reflection of the weight of command and responsibility assigned to ship captains. Functioning as a double-edged sword, this responsibility allows for both innovation but also the opportunity for poor decision making. Daughan’s conclusion to The Shining Sea makes light of this double-edged sword and will leave the reader both entertained and cautioned against man’s failings.

Texaco-Oklahoma

March 27, 2014 — 1 Comment

oil spillOn the night of March 27, 1971, the oil tanker SS Texaco Oklahoma was ploughing its way through heavy seas about 120 miles northeast of Cape Hatteras. Laden with 33,000 tons of crude oil bound from Port Arthur to Boston, the tanker was suddenly rent in two. The bow rolled over but stayed afloat while the stern section drifted for 32 hours. The thirteen crew members sleeping in the bow of the ship were never found, however, the remaining crew were able to abandon the stern section in a lifeboat. Unfortunately, only thirteen survivors were picked up.

The wreck resulted in extensive changes to American maritime safety regulations, including the decommissioning of 200+ WWII-era vessels. Five years later a memorial was erected to the fallen in Port Arthur and an annual memorial service continues to be held for all seaman lost at sea.

Royal Navy

HMS Exeter Sinking

In the months following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese juggernaut swept through the Pacific in an all out quest to secure natural resources and eliminate its opponents. A prime target in the Japanese crosshairs was the Dutch East Indies – modern-day Indonesia. In February 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy dispatched a task force consisting of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 14 destroyers to escort an invasion force of ten transports. Opposing the IJN task force was a motley assortment of Dutch, US, British and Australian naval assets including two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers.

The Allied force was outmatched in numbers and firepower as the Japanese heavy cruisers possessed more heavy caliber guns than their Allied equivalents. Additionally, they were also hampered by communication and coordination issues stemming from trying to integrate ships from four navies into a single task force. In a desperate attempt to destroy the Japanese invasion force before it offloaded its troops, the Allied force sailed into the teeth of the Japanese task force late in the afternoon on February 27, 1942.

The Allied force tried vainly to close within gunfire range of the Japanese transports, but each time they were rebuffed by a hellish rain of gunfire from the Japanese escorts. As the afternoon progressed the Japanese advantages began to tell with Allied ships succumbing to torpedo attacks, gunfire and even mines. By midnight, three destroyers and two cruisers, HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java, had been lost along with the Dutch admiral in charge of the Allied task force.

Later the next day, two of the surviving three cruisers were annihilated in a follow-on battle in Sunda Strait. Only a day later, on March 1, in the Second Battle of the Java Sea, the remaining Allied cruiser, HMS Exeter, and her two destroyer escorts were sunk. In just three days, the Allies had lost five cruisers and another six destroyers while the IJN had suffered the loss of only a few escort vessels and transports sunk or damaged.

With Allied naval power in the region either destroyed or driven off to Australia, the Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies was virtually assured. Not only did the battles of the Java Sea and Sunda Strait represent a stinging defeat for the Allies, but it also signaled the beginning of the end of Dutch colonial power in Indonesia.

george washington

Portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale
Washington & Lee University

Today marks the official celebration of Washington’s Birthday (aka Presidents’ Day). Lighthorse Harry Lee described George Washington as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” a fitting description for a man who personally shaped many of America’s first martial and political traditions. While George Washington and tales of cherry trees, providential safety in battle and his wooden false teeth are typical textbook fare, less well known is the story behind the Washington family’s emigration to the colonies.

Born around 1633 in England, George Washington’s great-great grandfather Lawrence Washington embarked aboard the Seahorse in 1656 to trade tobacco with Virginian colonists. As the Seahorse neared the Virginia coastline, the ship was caught in a storm and wrecked near The Clifts, a plantation owned by one Nathanael Pope (part of the plantation later became the Lee family home of Stratford Hall). Instead of returning to England, young Lawrence grew enamored with Nathanael’s daughter Anne and married her in 1658. Lawrence served his adopted colony of Virginia in her militia as well a the House of Burgesses and died with 8,500 acres to his name. Thus, if it weren’t for a shipwreck and a beguiling Southern belle, an English born George Washington may very well have been leading British and Hessian troops against the colonists in 1776.

message in a bottle

Sister Ship of SS Naronic

“Feb.  19, 1893- Naronic sinking. All hands praying. God have mercy on us.”  ~L. Winsel

On February 11, 1893, the White Star Line steamer SS Naronic departed Liverpool for New York with 74 crew as well as 3,600 tons of general cargo. Built in 1892 by Harland and Wolff, the same company that would build the ill-fated Titanic, the Naronic measured 470 feet in length and had twin coal fired reciprocating engines capable of propelling her through the waves at a steady 13 knots. Although the ship had been built as a cattle vessel, additional passenger accommodations were added to permit her to earn extra revenue on non-New York routes.

After landing her pilot at Point Lynas, Wales, the Naronic sailed for New York and entered the mists of history as neither she nor any of her crew members were ever seen again. On March 3, a bottle washed ashore in Bay Ridge, New York with the contents “Feb. 19, 1893 – Naronic sinking. All hands praying. God have mercy on us.” The note was signed by a L. Winsel, but there was no L. Winsel on the Naronic’s manifest – the closest name being John L. Watson. Three more bottles were found over the next six months – one in Virginia, another in the Irish Channel and a fourth in the Mersey River. None were signed by identifiable members of the ship’s crew, but two contained generally the same story – the ship had struck an iceberg in a storm and sunk over the course of a few hours.

A subsequent British Board of Trade inquiry dismissed the iceberg theory as not fitting the weather patterns, but local reports in New York placed icebergs in the general vicinity of where the Naronic was sailing. Two separate reports were made of ships sighting lifeboats from the Naronic but the exact location or cause of her sinking has never been determined – it was even speculated that the ship was the casualty of a terrorist bombing.

L'Insurgente

USS Constellation Defeats L’Insurgente

Though largely forgotten today, in the closing years of the 18th century, the newly formed United States Navy fought an unofficial war with the French Navy. Dubbed the Quasi-War, the conflict gave the fledgling US Navy the opportunity to cut its teeth in preparation for later conflicts with the Barbary Pirates and the Royal Navy. Fittingly, the US Navy’s first victory also belonged to its first warship, USS Constellation.

While sailing off the coast of Nevis in the Caribbean on February 9, the Constellation came upon an unidentified frigate and immediately gave chase. Over the course of the next hour and a half the two vessels danced across the sea in a deadly waltz. As the vessels attempted to outmaneuver one another, a gale came up and damaged the L’Insurgente’s main topmast which enabled the undamaged Constellation to gain on the French ship. In an engagement lasting less than an hour and a half, the Constellation made quick work of the French and the L’Insurgente struck her colors. Marking the first victory of the US Navy, the French vessel was commissioned the USS Insurgent and the Constellation’s commander, Commodore Thomas Truxton, and her crew were celebrated as heroes upon their return.

Book Review – Mayday

December 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

naval power

Seth Cropsey’s Mayday is a well argued account of the decline of America’s seapower. Cropsey, a former Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy for four presidential administrations, is highly qualified to comment on the state of American naval power and makes a compelling case for America’s (and the rest of the free world’s) need for alarm. Cropsey opens his argument with a survey of current American naval power and the crumbling edges of America’s superpower status. Any significant exposition on modern naval doctrine would be incomplete without a discussion of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Cropsey devotes an entire chapter to Mahan, his theory and its continued relevance to American naval strategy today.

The latter half of the book nicely pulls together various threats to American naval power from China’s emerging regional dominance, piracy, Islamic fundamentalism, increased costs of weapons systems and America’s growing debt problem. Instead of simply bemoaning the loss of American naval dominance and its dire consequences to the freedom of the seas, Cropsey examines multiple proposals for a new way forward and offers several solutions to halt the decline in America’s seapower. Overall, Mayday delivers an evenhanded analysis of the crossroads faced by America’s politicians and naval strategists that is well worth a read.

Mississippi

The Mississippi River is the fourth longest river in the world with a watershed encompassing all or parts of 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces – 1.2 million square miles worth. 1,200,000 square miles is a lot of territory to cover and yet in his latest book, Old Man River, Paul Schneider provides readers with a sweeping overview of the river from its geological origins to the taming of the river by the modern US Army Corps of Engineers. Schneider serves up a veritable feast with an appetizer of geology, a second course of pre-historic and Indian tales, a main course of 19th and 20th century stories spiced with liberal helpings of Mike Fink, Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain and finished off with a dessert of modern events.

Interspersed throughout historical tales of floods, Indian raids and keelboats, Schneider weaves in his own odyssey on the Mississippi and her tributaries. From kayaking the Ohio alone to drifting down the Mississippi with his son, Schneider brings to life the various locales he visits. For those who have spent any amount of time living on the River, Schneider’s book will especially resonate as he perfectly captures the feelings and color of the River’s varying culture. Although a couple passages inadvertently come across as elitist and preachy, overall Old Man River is a beautiful ode to one of America’s defining geographic landmarks. For those looking to lazily drift from the breadbasket plains states past Mark Twain’s Hannibal, St. Louis’s Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium, the antebellum homes of Natchez, the bluffs of Vicksburg where the blood of men in blue and gray flowed and down to the Cajun culture of the Delta, Old Man River is a highly recommended read.