Archives For US Navy

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.

Advertisements
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.

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.

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.