Archives For American Shipwrecks

battle of the atlantic

Blackett’s War documents the application of science to the Battle of the Atlantic and the outsized impact a small collection of British scientists had on its outcome. Author Stephen Budiansky charts the life of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Blackett, a British naval officer turned scientist, from his service in World War I to his 1930s academic life and conversion from civilian scientist to architect of a scientific method of fighting the Battle of the Atlantic. In the first section of the book, Budiansky follows Blackett’s World War I and inter-war experiences as well as those of the United Kingdom as a whole. In particular, Budiansky focuses on the deployment of the submarine as an unconventional offensive weapon and how it nearly brought Britain to her knees in World War I.

As the tale progresses, other scientists and historical events are woven into the story to add context and depth to the fascinating melding of ruthless warfare with statistical analysis, cryptography and electronic detection and countermeasures. While this often helps advance the storyline, at times it becomes difficult to keep track of the countless characters and events. If there is any flaw in the book, it is that the inclusion of these characters renders the title slightly misleading. The book is less about Patrick Blackett than it is about the scientific teams on both sides of the Atlantic that fought both their own civilian and military bureaucracy and the Kriegsmarine to win the naval war. Overall Blackett’s War is an intriguing read that provides a unique blend of scientific and military history.

war of 1812

In Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, Dr. Ronald D. Utt has produced a magnificent 500 page tome that provides readers with a well-researched and highly readable account of the War of 1812 at sea. As Utt masterfully argues, the United States Navy truly came into its own during the War of 1812, a conflict that is undergoing a renaissance in the pop history circle as the bicentennial of the war began in 2012.

Although the US Navy fought several notable battles during the American Revolution, including John Paul Jones’ famous duel with HMS Serapis, these were primarily performed with foreign crews and former merchant vessels adapted for naval service. The War of 1812 was the first time that the fledgling US Navy faced a first world power in a declared war and its spectacular results allowed the Navy to create epic lore and traditions in only three years.

Utt skillfully guides the reader from the opening salvos of the war through the US Navy’s early single-ship victories over the vaunted Royal Navy to the two squadron level clashes on the Great Lakes, privateer derring-do against the British merchant marine, and the later and lesser known naval actions of the war. Readers will be unable to put down the book at certain points, especially when reading the chapters concerning privateering and some of the lesser known single-ship voyages against British merchant and warships. The heroic and honorable actions of officers and sailors from both sides will keep readers captivated with tales of a breed of gentlemen warriors whose time has long since passed.

Among the many strengths of Utt’s work is his organization of the book into chapters that take the reader from events at sea to land and then back to sea. In most cases, Utt keeps his narration of the land war to only a few pages in order to give readers an idea of how the sea war affected the land war and vice versa. At times the land war descriptions can grow a bit tedious as Utt jumps between the numerous Indian tribes, Americans, Brits, and Canadians who intermingled in the land conflict. For readers concerned more with the war at sea, the land warfare chapters are sometimes roadbumps in the greater storyline. This minor weakness, though, does not overshadow the overall excellence of Utt’s book.

Another strength is Utt’s strong documentation and endnotes – he has clearly worked to craft a book that is both historically accurate and accessible to the everyday reader. Overall, in Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, Utt has created a fantastic piece that opens the naval battles of the War of 1812 to a wider audience.

SMS Adler

SMS Adler

During the last three decades of the 19th century, various Western nations carved up not just Africa, and the Near and Far East, but also various Pacific islands. In many cases, the smaller European powers sought to do empire on the cheap by not governing the islands but encouraging the installation of puppet governments. Thus, the nation could merely secure resources and coaling stations for its naval fleet. In the case of the Samoan Islands in the late 1880s, the German Empire encouraged a civil war between several tribes in order to weaken the tribes’ hold on the island and secure German concessions. Recognizing the strategic importance of the islands, the British and Americans shipped military assistance to opponents of the tribes aligned with Germany.

us gunboat samoa

USS Vandalia

As the conflict escalated, each Western nation dispatched naval vessels to Samoa and the three nations confronted one another in Apia Harbor during 1889. Britain sought to remain a peaceful arbitrator while America and Germany faced each other with the threat of belligerent action. The need for negotiations or military action between the American and German vessels, though, was swept away by the March 15/16th Apia Cyclone. Unbeknownst to either side, a cyclone had been bearing down on Samoa as each side scowled at one another across the harbor. Samoans awoke on the morning of the 16th to discover both the American and the German squadrons beached, sunk or wrecked in the harbor. The loss of the naval squadrons effectively defused the situation and the dispute was resolved by the Tripartite Convention of 1889 by which Samoa was divided between America and Germany.

wrecked german ships

SMS Eber’s Bow

Remember the Maine!

February 15, 2013 — Leave a comment
USS Maine

Remember the Maine!

In many ways, today marks the 115th anniversary of the beginning of the American “Empire.” In early 1898, the battleship USS Maine was dispatched to Havana, Cuba to protect American interests as Cuba was wracked by a war for independence from Spain. On the evening of February 15, 1898, an explosion ripped through the forward section of the Maine. The ship quickly settled to the bottom of Havana’s harbor taking with her 261 of 355 man crew.

Six weeks after the catastrophe, a US Naval Court of Inquiry determined that the sinking could be attributed to a naval mine. Popular opinion was quickly inflamed by the popular press and “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain” became a rallying cry for war with Spain. Two months later, in April 1898, war began as Spain declared war on the United States after the US issued an ultimatum to Spain demanding it grant Cuba independence. The war was an overwhelming American victory and had numerous domestic and international consequences. First, the war helped heal the wounds of the War Between the States as former Confederate General Joseph Wheeler (along with Robert E. Lee’s son Fitzhugh Lee, himself a former Confederate commander) proudly led US troops into battle. Second, the war helped propel Teddy Roosevelt to national prominence and ultimately the White House. Finally, the war in many ways marked the rise of the US as an international power as the US gained control of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.

The true cause of the sinking of the Maine remains a mystery, but modern inquiry by none other than the US Navy’s own brilliant Admiral Hyman Rickover has led many to conclude that the sinking was the result of spontaneous combustion of the ship’s coal bunkers and not a Spanish mine. The Maine was later removed from Havana harbor and scuttled off the coast of Florida in 1912.

french liner

Normandie Capsizes at Anchor

The late 1920s and 1930s marked the beginning of the brief reign of the super liner as the speedy behemoths of the sea. In moves foreshadowing the hostilities of World War II, the British, French and Germans all launched super liners in an effort to  win the battle for national pride. France’s contribution to the super liner race was the Normandie, a sleek technological marvel that was launched in St. Nazaire France in 1932. After final fitting out, Normandie began commercial service across the North Atlantic in 1935. During her 139 trans-Atlantic trips, the Normandie won the Blue Riband several times.

cruise liner fire

Normandie Aflame

The outbreak of World War II found the Normandie in New York City where she was interned by the United States. After the fall of France in 1940, she was taken over by the US government, renamed USS Lafayette, and efforts were begun to convert her into a troopship shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. On February 9, 1942 while the ship was docked in New York City undergoing conversion a fire engulfed the ship. Firefighting efforts resulted in the ship capsizing. Although the ship was salvaged, bringing the ship back to sailing trim was deemed cost prohibitive and she was scrapped after the war.


Normandie’s Drydock in St. Nazaire, France

While Normandie failed to make any direct contributions to the war effort, the dry dock built in St. Nazaire to accommodate her became an asset for the Nazis in the Battle of the Atlantic. The dock was large enough to fit the Kriegsmarine’s largest capital ships Bismarck and Tirpitz and the Royal Navy launched a successful commando raid (Operation Chariot) to demolish the dry dock.

ghost ship

Carrol A. Deering Run Aground on Diamond Shoals
Photo: Wikimedia

On the morning of January 31, 1921 the five-masted schooner Carrol A. Deering was spotted aground on Diamond Shoals off the coast of North Carolina. Coast Guardsmen from the Cape Hatteras Life-Saving Station rowed out to the ship only to find not a soul aboard and no sign of what might have happened to the crew.

Built in Bath, Maine, the Deering was designed to ply the trading lanes between the eastern seaboard of the US and South America. On her final, ill-fated voyage in January 1921, the ship sailed from Rio de Janeiro and, after a brief stopover in Barbados, continued her voyage north. The ship was last seen manned by the Cape Lookout lightship on January 28, 1921 and only 3 days later she was found run aground nearly 100 miles northeast on Diamond Shoals.

When the Coast Guard was finally able to board the ship on February 4, the Coasties found the ship deserted, the crew’s belongings, navigational equipment and lifeboats gone, and the ship’s galley appearing as if a meal was in the process of being prepared. Despite numerous inquiries at various levels and branches of governments, the mystery of the crew’s disappearance was never solved. The most likely explanation is that the crew mutinied as mutinous comments had been overheard by some observers when the ship was last in port. Other explanations offered over the last 90 years have included piracy, a Communist plot, the Bermuda Triangle and even that the crew was the victim of some paranormal phenomenon. The ship herself survived her crew by only a month as, unable to be re-floated, she was dynamited to prevent her from becoming a hazard to navigation.

spy ship

USS Pueblo
Photo: US Navy

On January 23, 1968, the US Navy intelligence ship USS Pueblo was gathering signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) in international waters off the North Korean coast. Within a matter of hours, the Pueblo and her crew would have their lives turned upside down and become players in an international drama.

The Pueblo began life as a cargo and passenger ship in 1944 and spent 20+ years as a logistics ship for the US Army before being transferred to the US Navy in 1966. Pueblo was then converted into an intelligence ship and deployed to the Pacific Ocean to monitor Soviet and North Korean activity in the region.

For reasons that still remain unclear, the North Koreans decided that the capture of the Pueblo would be either a propaganda or intelligence coup (or perhaps both) and thus deployed multiple subchasers, torpedo boats and even air assets to capture the Pueblo on the pretext of violating North Korea’s territorial waters. Faced with destruction or capture and no prospect of armed relief, Commander Lloyd Bucher ordered the destruction of all sensitive materials and submitted to the North Korean demand for surrender.

The crew and ship were then paraded before cameras multiple times as a propaganda tool. They were also subjected to physical and psychological torture, but, much like Admiral James Stockdale, refused to allow the North Koreans to defeat their spirit. In fact, the crew became even more famous for displaying the “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign” in photos taken of them by the North Koreans. Demonstrating the ineptness of the North Korean intelligence system, the photos were published because the North Koreans didn’t understand the meaning behind the gesture.

uss pueblo middle finger

Hawaiian Good Luck Sign

Eleven months after their capture, the officers and crew were released and returned to the United States. Today the Pueblo is the only active US naval warship in captivity. The North Koreans use the ship as a “museum ship” to further the propaganda campaign necessary to keep their own people in chains and transnational elites duped into thinking the North Korean regime is merely a victim of capitalistic bloodlust and excess. While tenuous diplomatic talks have occurred about the return of the vessel to US hands, none have been successful and the ship remains a pawn in North Korean diplomatic efforts.

North Korea spy ship

USS Pueblo in North Korea

confederate fort

Fort Fisher
CC Photo Courtesy of NC Culture on Flickr

At the beginning of 1865, General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan was slowly suffocating the Confederacy and only one major port, Wilmington, NC, remained open in defiance of the Yankee invaders. Wilmington’s location made it one of the South’s most successful ports for blockade runners. The city itself lay 30 miles up the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic Ocean and blockade runners had two islets from which to enter the Atlantic and evade the Union blockade fleet.

Early in the war, Confederate forces recognized the importance of securing the mouth of the Cape Fear. By 1865, what had begun life as a small artillery battery had become Fort Fisher, one of the largest coastal emplacements of the 19th century, and had been dubbed the Gibraltar of the South. Fort Fisher was shaped in the form of an L with a northern land face and a westward facing sea face.

In addition to its fearsome batteries of heavy guns, the fort’s commander, Colonel William Lamb, created a roving artillery unit equipped with advanced breech-loading Whitworth cannon. Colonel Lamb utilized the squadron to drive off Union warships that sought to attack blockade runners steaming through the surf zone or beached during an unsuccessful run.

On December 24, 1864 the Union Army and Navy attempted a combined operations attack on the fort, but were driven off thanks to the effective command of Colonel Lamb and the incompetence of the Union ground commander, Major General Benjamin “Spoons” Butler. Less than a month later, on January 12, 1865 a larger, better equipped Union force arrived off Fort Fisher determined to carry the fort regardless of the cost. On January 15, after a 60 hour bombardment, 8,000 Union troops surged forward and captured the fort after a fierce 6 hour battle. Fort Fisher’s capture sealed the fate of Wilmington and ensured that no more foreign war material would reach General Robert E. Lee’s beleaguered troops in Petersburg, Virginia.

Today the sea has claimed much of the fort and what little remains is a museum and historic site run by the state of North Carolina. Visitors to the museum should be sure to stop in at the world-class Fort Fisher Aquarium just down the road.


Maury River Flowing Through Goshen Pass
Photo: Brightman Thomas

Matthew Fontaine Maury is relatively unknown today, but his contributions to oceanography continue to impact modern mariners. Maury was born in Spotsylvania County, Virginia on January 14, 1806, but spent his formative years in Tennessee. Seeking to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Lieutenant John Minor Maury, Maury attended the Naval Academy through an appointment by US Senator Sam Houston. Upon graduation, Maury was assigned to various ships throughout the Navy and was aboard the USS Vincennes when it became the first US naval vessel to circumnavigate the globe.

Maury quickly developed an interest in the scientific aspects of sailing and became even more engrossed in the subject when a leg injury rendered him unfit for duty at sea. Appointed to command the US Naval Observatory in 1842, Maury published several seminal navigational works including Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic, Sailing Directions and Physical Geography of the Seas and its Meteorology. Many of Maury’s achievements came through his collecting of data from whalers, merchant captains and naval warship logs.

Maury became internationally recognized for his work in the field that became known as oceanography, but unfortunately his research was interrupted by the coming of the American Civil War. Maury, considering himself a loyal Virginian, volunteered his services to the fledgling Confederate Navy. Appointed Chief of Sea Coast, River and Harbor Defences, Maury applied his brilliant mind to the protection of the Confederacy and developed a torpedo (forerunners to today’s naval mines) that wreaked devastation on invading Union ships. Maury also leveraged his international reputation and worked abroad on behalf of the Confederacy’s diplomatic efforts to procure weapons and foreign recognition.

Following the war, Maury retired to sleepy Lexington, VA where he chaired the Virginia Military Institute’s physics department. Around the same time, General Robert E. Lee arrived next door,and began his transformative presidency of struggling Washington College. Maury continued his contributions to scientific advancement with the publication of a book categorizing the mineral deposits of Virginia and how best to exploit them. Maury passed away in 1873 and was buried in Richmond. Today, Washington & Lee students (and VMI cadets when they can get off post) enjoy lazy Spring Term spring days tubing along the Maury River which was named in his honor.


Marine Raiders embarked aboard US Navy submarine

Today marks the 69th anniversary of the disbandment of the US Marine Corps’ four Marine Raider Battalions. The Battalions were initially formed to conduct operations behind enemy lines in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The Raiders are perhaps most famous for their operation in August 1942 against Japanese forces on tiny Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.

In order to gather intelligence on enemy forces in the area and to sow confusion in the Japanese command as to where the main Allied thrusts would occur, Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered the 2nd Marine Raiders Battalion, better known as Carlson’s Raiders, to assault Makin Atoll on August 17, shortly after the initial invasion of the Lower Solomons by US forces. On August 8, companies A and B of Carlson’s Raiders were embarked aboard two submarines, USS Nautilus and USS Argonaut, and stealthily made their way to Makin Atoll.

Going ashore in small combat rubber raiding craft, the two companies quickly became intermingled in heavy surf and lost the element of surprise shortly after landing. Over two days of fighting, though, the Raiders annihilated the Japanese ground force and fended off multiple air attacks – all while losing only eighteen dead and twelve missing. Additionally, their supporting submarines sank several small craft with fire from their deck guns. Carlson’s Raiders then re-embarked and made their way to Pearl Harbor to a hero’s welcome. Unfortunately, in the chaos of combat, nine Raiders were left behind and later beheaded after they surrendered on August 30th.

During their brief existence, the men of the Marine Raider Battalions earned seven Medals of Honor and several dozen Navy Crosses and one member went on to earn the Medal of Honor in the Korean War. Today, the spirit of the Marine Raiders live on through their sister WWII unit, the Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, which has since become Force Recon; as well as through the MARSOC units stood up as part of the US Marine Corps contribution to SOCCOM. The Marine Raiders accomplisments are also remembered through the US Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island. The units have also found their place in popular culture with Makin Atoll missions being featured in the wildly popular Call of Duty and Medal of Honor video game franchises.

amphibious assault ship

USS Makin Island
Photo: US Navy