Archives For Pacific Ocean

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Eric Jay Dolin, whose previous work includes Leviathan and When America Met China, has generated yet another meticulously researched and well narrated piece of nautical history. Focusing on America’s lighthouses from inception to the current day, Brilliant Beacons is a sweeping, majestic piece that encompasses technology, material culture, engineering, personal histories and the strategic role lighthouses have played in America’s development and growth over the last three plus centuries.

Writing with the passion of someone who has long had a love affair with the sea and her incredible stories, Dolin draws the reader in with the origins of American lighthouse design and tirelessly waltzes through topics that lesser authors would render dry and boring. This is the second of Dolin’s books reviewed on this site and both have held particular meaning for me. The first being When America Met China, which, for someone who majored in Chinese language at America’s ninth oldest university, was of particular interest and is a phenomenal read. Having grown up in North Carolina, I have always had an affinity for lighthouses, especially given that I was a young teenager when the iconic Cape Hatteras light house was moved 1,500 feet to save it from being engulfed by the ravaging waves of the Atlantic. Thus, the subject of Brilliant Beacons more than intrigued me and, while I didn’t have the opportunity to read it at the beach, I read the first 25% from my home overlooking the Port of Tampa and the remaining 75% on a round-trip flight to New York City, a city forever linked with the sea.

Overall, Dolin’s narrative style enables the reader to make quick work of the book’s 400 plus pages. Saying Brilliant Beacons is the perfect beach read might sound a little cliche, however, the book is both illuminating and entertaining and the timing of its release at the height of the summer months could not have been better planned. Pick up Dolin’s latest and read away, you will be glad you did.

 

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Robert Wells, a retired US Navy captain, recently released his first book, Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea | The Untold Story of America’s Largest Chinese Emigrant Disaster, an intriguing investigation into the tragic sinking of the SS Japan in the late 19th century. Leading the reader through a wealth of primary sources and photographs, Wells pieces together the origins of Chinese emigration to the US in the mid to late 19th century. Tales of the wealth of Gum Shan (Gold Mountain, aka the United States) lured thousands of Chinese residents of Guangdong province to the California coast as laborers for farms and the infant transcontinental railway system.

Wells relates the travails a Chinese emigrant would endure from leaving his farm to boarding the vessel to finding work in Gum Shan as well as his return journey with, hopefully, a money belt full of silver coin. A notable discussion from the book is the shipping of the bones of Chinese who perished in the United States back to China for permanent burial in their native land. This practice was most recently in the news in November of last year when a documentary of the SS Ventnor aired in New Zealand. The Ventnor was carrying the bodies of 499 Chinese miners back to China when she sank in 1902.

Overall Wells has done historians and casual readers a great service by documenting a little remembered part of Sino-American history as the SS Japan was the deadliest maritime disaster of the 19th century Chinese emigrant wave. Readers will enjoy the numerous illustrations, tales of sunken treasure aboard the SS Japan and general machinations of the Chinese emigrant trade covered in Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea | The Untold Story of America’s Largest Chinese Emigrant Disaster.

aircraft carrier

USS Wasp Ablaze – 9/15/1942

On September 15, 1942, a powerful task force of US naval vessels steamed towards Guadalcanal Island in the South Pacific. Consisting of the aircraft carriers USS Wasp and Hornet, the battleship USS North Carolina and ten other vessels, the task force intended to land a regiment of US Marines on Guadalcanal to reinforce the US troops already vying for control of the island. As mid-afternoon approached, a Japanese submarine, I-19, maneuvered within firing range of the squadron and loosed a volley of six torpedoes at the Wasp. Despite attempting to outmaneuver them, three of the torpedoes slammed into the Wasp while a fourth missed and struck the North Carolina. A mighty conflagration quickly ensued as the torpedoes had detonated close to the ship’s fuel stores and magazines. Damage control efforts and maneuvering into the wind proved fruitless and within 35 minutes of the torpedo strikes, the order for abandon ship was given. When the Wasp finally slipped beneath the Pacific Ocean’s waves, 193 souls followed her leaving approximately 1900 survivors with 366 of them wounded.

Unfortunately for the Wasp and her crew, the Wasp had been built on the tail end of the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. As a result, the ship had minimal armor and suffered from a poor design for ammunition and gasoline storage in order to fit the ship into the tonnage restrictions left to the US Navy under the treaty. Sadly, the US Navy lost 193 good men, 45 aircraft and a valuable ship to the good intentions of a treaty designed to prevent conflict – a treaty which proved to do nothing but force allied naval forces to fight with one hand behind their back for the first years of World War Two.

pacocha-3fn-993x652Today marks the 28th anniversary of the sinking of the Peruvian Navy submarine Pacocha which was lost off the Peruvian port of Callao near Lima. Running on the surface on the night of August 26th, 1988, the Pacocha was accidentally rammed by a Japanese fishing trawler. Mistaking the conning tower of the sub for a small craft and thinking the two craft would pass one another harmlessly, the trawler’s crew did not take evasive action and the trawler struck the sub’s hull. The Pacocha‘s captain, Captain Daniel Nieva and six crew members were killed immediately while twenty-two sailors were able to successfully abandon ship. The United States immediately dispatched an underwater rescue team, however, the Peruvians quickly deployed a diving bell and, within 24 hours, gained access to the sub’s trapped crew through one of the Pacocha‘s hatches. The remaining twenty-three crew were safely brought to the surface, escaping an excruciating death of painful asphyxiation from chloride gas or drowning as the sub’s remaining compartments slowly filled with water.

Ironically, prior to its service in  the Peruvian Navy, the Pachoca had been the USS Atule, a Balao/Guppy class diesel submarine whose sole kill during World War II was a Japanese merchant vessel, the Asama Maru. Later, the sub torpedoed and sank the former Kriegsmarine U-boat U-977 during naval exercises in 1946. After thirty years of service in the US Navy, the sub was sold to Peru where she was named after a 19th century Peruvian naval battle. Following the rescue of her crew, the sub was later salvaged and scrapped.

CC Image Courtesy of goodhugh on Flickr

CC Image Courtesy of goodhugh on Flickr

As her sister ship USS Saratoga slowly makes her way to the scrap heap, USS Ranger (CV-61) sadly awaits the same fate. Launched in 1957, the Ranger was one of four new Forrestal-class super-carriers and the seventh US Navy warship to bear the name Ranger. Like an earlier USS Ranger (CV-4) which had been the first American aircraft carrier designed from the keel-up as an aircraft carrier, the Ranger was the first American carrier to be designed from the keel-up as an angled deck carrier.

During her nearly forty years in active service, the Ranger supported bombing sorties in North Vietnam, responded to unrest in Kenya/Uganda, deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Shield/Storm. On her final deployments, the Ranger assisted humanitarian efforts in Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope, enforced the No-Fly Zone in Southern Iraq and launched a B-25 bomber in commemoration of Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 raid on Japan. While never being actively attacked, the Ranger’s crew suffered at least 7 deaths during her service to accidents onboard.

In addition to serving on the frontlines, Ranger also served as a floating movie set for such notable movies and television shows as Baa Baa Black Sheep, Flight of the Intruder and Top Gun. While decommissioned in 1993, the ship remained part of the US Navy’s inactive reserve fleet. Despite a proposal in 2010 to convert the vessel into a museum ship, today the Ranger is slated for the scrap heap. A dedicated group of veterans and fans have recently stepped up in an effort to save the ship and breathe life back in to the museum ship proposal. Their petition can be found here on change.org.

Cape Rachado CC Image Courtesy of M. King on Flickr

Cape Rachado
CC Image Courtesy of M. King on Flickr

From August 16th to 18th, 1606 the seas off Cape Rachado (Tanjung Tuan) in modern-day Malaysia echoed with the sounds of naval gunfire as two European fleets wrestled for control of the Straits of Malacca. The Dutch East India Company had dispatched a fleet of eleven ships from Holland in mid-1605 in an effort to pry the Portuguese from their strongholds in the East Indies. The Dutch besieged the Portuguese garrison at Malacca in May 1606, however, in August a Portuguese fleet of twenty ships from its colony in Goa, modern-day India arrived to lift the siege.

The two fleets engaged one another for several days with long-range cannon barrages but neither fleet gaining an advantage over the other. Finally, the Portuguese decided to close the distance and use their numerical superiority to overwhelm the Dutch fleet. Early on August 18th, the Portuguese closed with the Dutch and boarded the Dutch vessel Nassau. As additional ships from both sides sailed into the fray the cannonade set the Dutch ship Oranje ablaze threatening both the Nassau and the Oranje as well as the two engaged Portuguese vessels. Eventually all four of the vessels were set ablaze and a truce was declared to allow the fleets to lick their wounds and repair back to their respective anchorages. While the battle was a defeat for the Dutch as the siege of Malacca was relieved, it enabled the Dutch to gain favor with the Sultan of Johor, the local leader, and when the fleet returned two months later it destroyed a much reduced Portuguese fleet.

The dates of the final sinking of the four vessels lost in the battle: Sao Salvador, a Portuguese galleon, Nassau and Middelburg vary from August 18th to 22nd. Some sources claim the wreck of the Nassau finally succumbed to the sea on the 22nd, but what is not in dispute is that they were located in 1995 by British marine archaeologist Mensun Bound and successfully excavated. Some of the artifacts from the wrecks are now on display at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur.

Glorious Misadventures

Glorious Misadventures, by Owen Matthews, is a fascinating glimpse into a little remembered aspect of American history – the Russian colonization of what is now Alaska and California. Matthews details how, spurred on by eccentric Russian nobleman Nikolai Rezanov, the Russian-American Company established outposts throughout the American Pacific coast. Flowing between America and Russia, the book weaves a tragic tale of initial success but ultimate failure as Rezanov’s dreams are undone by his own flaws and environmental conditions. For history buffs looking to learn more about the settling of the American West or Russia’s colonial history in the western hemisphere, Glorious Misadventures is a great read.