Archives For US Navy

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.

Confederate warship

CSS Shenandoah Captures Whaling Fleet in the Arctic Ocean

A central tenet of the nascent Confederate Navy’s strategy during the American Civil War was to make Yankee merchants howl from the loss of their vessels and cargos. In order to achieve this aim, the Confederates commandeered suitable vessels in Southern ports to convert to armed merchant raiders, issued letters of marque and reprisal and procured vessels abroad. Because the Confederacy was not recognized as a sovereign nation by Great Britain or France, the ships procured or built there had to be built ostensibly as merchant vessels and later outfitted with armaments after leaving British territorial waters. Among the ships acquired by Confederate agent James Bulloch was the steamer Sea King.

Launched in Glasgow in August 1863, the Sea King was a 1,160 ton steamer equipped with auxiliary sails. After being purchased by Bulloch, the Sea King put to sea in October and rendezvoused with another ship off Madeira. On October 19, 1863 after several days of transfering cargo and mounting her guns, the Sea King was commissioned as CSS Shenandoah after the beautiful and bountiful Virginia valley. The ship’s design was perfect for raiding merchant vessels as she could raise and lower her steam funnel at will in order to change her identity from steam vessel to sailing vessel.

From the Madeiras, the Shenandoah and her new captain, commander James Iredell Waddell sailed through the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and captured nine US vessels. Shenandoah called at Melbourne, Australia where she re-provisioned and added forty more men to her crew. After departing Melbourne, Shenandoah ravaged her way north through the Pacific Ocean capturing four more Yankee vessels en route to the lucrative North Pacific whaling fleet. Unbeknownst to the Shenandoah and her crew, the Confederacy had effectively collapsed with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. The news, though, would not reach the Shenandoah until after she had wreaked havoc among the American whaling fleet, capturing 24 ships in a period of 7 days from June 22 to June 28, 1865.

After learning of the Confederacy’s surrender on August 2 from newspapers aboard an English merchantman, Waddell successfully returned his ship to Liverpool where he struck the Confederate naval ensign and turned her over to the Royal Navy. An excellent account of the voyage, Last Flag Down, was published in 2007 by a descendant of one of the Shenandoah’s officers.

presidential yacht

For approximately 100 years, from the 1870s to the 1970s, US Presidents often feted various dignitaries or conducted diplomacy from the cabins of government owned yachts. The first of these, USS Despatch, was launched in November 1873 as a wooden hulled steamship. Acquired in 1880, the 174 foot ship first hosted President Rutherford B. Hayes on a cruise of the Potomac on November 9, 1880. The vessel went on to serve dutifully as a refuge and office for Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland and Harrison.

On the night of October 10, 1891, the Despatch was en route from New York City to Washington to pick up President Harrison and Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy for an inspection of the naval proving grounds on the Potomac. Unfortunately for the American taxpayer, the vessel ran aground in the shoals off Assateague, Virginia. The ship’s lieutenant confessed to having mistaken the Assateague lighthouse’s orange light for the red light of the Winter Quarter Shoals lightship – a 1.5 mile difference that cost the vessel her life.

The entirety of the crew were able to safely make it ashore, however, the Despatch was a complete wreck and was lost to the shifting sands off Assateague. In 1997, explorer Ben Benson mistakenly believed he had discovered the Despatch in 22 feet of water, however, he was incorrect and the vessel remains undiscovered.

frozen-in-time

Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff is a thrilling tale of survival, heroism and discovery. Set in Greenland, Zuckoff switches between World War Two and the present day to relate the loss of three American military aircraft and the epic search for both the planes and their survivors. Zuckoff writing flows smoothly between the historic loss of the planes and the modern day search and the book’s 330+ pages seem much shorter as a result.

Perhaps one reason for Zuckoff’s engaging style is that he accompanied the 2011 expedition in search of the Coast Guard float plane that had gone down while searching for the other two missing planes. While set in World War Two, the book is not military history, but rather reads more like heroic survivor stories such as David Howarth’s We Die Alone or polar exploration tales like The Last Viking.

Frozen in Time showcases Zuckoff’s excellent attention to detail as the minutae of daily survival in a downed plane in arctic conditions is relayed to the reader; however, Zuckoff avoids the trap of losing the story (and the reader) in the minor details. The book also benefits from the generous use of photographs to document both the characters and the events described in the book. One amusing anecdote from the book is the author’s description of the whiskey his team chose to bring with them to Greenland – a modern recreation of Ernest Shackleton’s whiskey. Overall, Frozen in Time is a highly readable book that will appeal to anyone wishing to relieve the dog days of summer with a chilling tale of survival in a frozen land.

kickstarter

Kickstarter, the wildly successful crowdfunding website, is currently hosting two nautical themed projects. The first is “Twice Forgotten,” a documentary about the USS R-12, a training submarine that sank off the coast of Key West, Florida seventy years ago today. Forty US sailors and officers as well as two Brazilian officers went down with the sub and it was not until 2010 that she was re-discovered. Funding will allow the team to return to the site and conduct filming this summer to complete the documentary.

kickstarter

Instead of seeking to tell a true story from the past, the second project aims to produce a fictional film about a World War II submarine and its mysterious disappearance during the war. The film team has partnered with Battleship Cove, the home of the battleship USS Massachusetts and submarine USS Lionfish, to provide a filming location. If the project is funded, then the remaining half of the project’s expenses will be covered and the filming will be able to proceed as planned.

spy ship

USS Liberty
Photo Courtesy of US Navy

Today marks the forty-sixth anniversary of a tragic and deadly encounter between the US Navy and the Israeli Defense Force. Four days into the Six-Day War, the US Navy intelligence ship USS Liberty was operating off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula. The ship had been ordered to withdraw from the area, however, miscommunication had resulted in the ship keeping its station in an area hotly contested by Israeli and Egyptian forces.

Mistaking the vessel for an Egyptian warship, the Israeli Air Force and Navy launched an attack on the ship which left 34 American servicemen dead and 171 injured. In the years since the attack, anti-semites and conspiracy theorists have used the attack to paint the Israeli state as an enemy of the United States and a perpetrator of an assault on an unarmed vessel. Numerous investigations have refuted these allegations and, indeed, it would have been against Israeli interests to alienate the United States as the Israeli people faced threats from all sides. Ultimately, miscommunication and the fog of war resulted in a tragic loss of life and only fueled the fires of those who seek to wipe the nation of Israel from the map.

The Hunt for Hitler's Warship

Regnery History, a relatively new imprint of Regnery Publishing, has brought readers yet another fantastic offering in Patrick Bishop’s The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship. Previous books from Regnery History reviewed here include Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron and Fatal Dive. Over the span of ~400 pages, Bishop familiarizes readers with the epic saga of the Nazi battleship Tirpitz from her gestation in Wilhelmshaven to her cataclysmic death at the hands of British bombers in November 1944.

Bishop brings to life the tireless efforts of the Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Air Force and Norwegian Resistance to reduce Nazi Germany’s last remaining battleship Tirpitz to a worthless heap of scrap iron. The reader is also introduced to life aboard the Tirpitz through Bishop’s interviews with surviving crew and archival research. This aspect helps round out the work and present readers with a better understanding of both the dread struck in British military planners’ minds by the Tirpitz as well as the fear and trepidation experienced within the ranks of the Kriegsmarine at the prospect of the loss of the Tirpitz in a surface action.  Unlike Hunting Tirpitz, which I reviewed earlier last year and is essentially a compendium of after-action reports by the British Admiralty, The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship, is an engaging work designed to bring the story of the sacrifices of British and Norwegian sailors and airmen to life for modern audiences.

japanese submarines

Operation Storm by John J. Geoghegan relates the obscure story of Japan’s last ditch effort to launch an attack on American soil in the closing days of World War II. Geoghegan, the executive director of The SILOE Research Institute’s Archival Division, devotes much of his writing to white elephant technology and thus his choice of subject matter is quite apropos. Over the course of ~400 pages, Geoghegan introduces the reader to the Japanese naval officers and designers who helped craft a Hail Mary strategy of launching an airstrike on the Panama Canal from the largest submarines of the war. Each submarine was designed as an underwater aircraft carrier to carry two or three specially developed strike aircraft and the path of their development makes for incredible reading.

Geoghegan also tells the backstory of the USS Segundo (a sub that often operated in conjunction with USS Razorback) which captured one of the subs in the uneasy days following the capitulation of Japan. Relying on extensive archival research as well as interviews with survivors of the Japanese program, Geoghegan provides readers with a highly readable account of this overlooked aspect of World War II history. In addition to the strength of his research, Geoghegan integrates the story into the continued development of America’s submarine program in the years following World War II. Finally, readers are brought full circle to the present day via two modern points of reference. First, one of the subs (I-401) was re-discovered in 2005 off the coast of Hawaii where it had been used for torpedo practice by the US Navy after the war. Second, the Smithsonian Institution displays the only surviving example of the subs’ Seiran attack planes at its spectacular Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia near Dulles Airport. Operation Storm is highly recommended for anyone interested in obscure technology, warfare or a non-traditional history of World War II.

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.