America's Black Sea Fleet

The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution, 1919–1923
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Published:November 15, 2012
By Robert Shenk (Author)

SeaWaves Magazine’s “2013 Best Book of the Year Award”

NASOH'S 2012 "John Lyman Book Award - HONORABLE MENTION - for Best U.S. Naval History"

Named a "Notable Naval Book of 2012" by Proceedings Magazine

In a high-tempo series of operations throughout the Black Sea, Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean, a small American fleet of destroyers and other naval vessels responded ably to several major international crises including the last days of the Russian Revolution and the 1920–1922 Turkish Nationalist Revolution. Officers and men of the navy’s “four-piper” destroyers began by investigating circumstances on the ground in mainland Turkey right after World War I, and by transporting American relief teams to ports throughout Turkey and Southern Russia to aid the tens of thousands of orphans and refugees who had survived the wartime Armenian genocide.

Then the destroyers assisted in the final evacuation of 150,000 White Russians from the Crimea to Constantinople (one of the final acts of the Russian Revolution); coordinated the visits of the Hoover grain ships to ports in Southern Russia where millions were enduring a horrendous famine; witnessed and reported on the terrible dolorosa of the Greeks of the Pontus region of Turkey; and, in September of 1922, conducted the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Greek and Armenian refugees from burning Smyrna. This latter event was the cataclysmic conclusion of the Turkish Nationalist Revolution, which had begun in early 1920.

After Smyrna, the destroyers escorted Greek steamers in their rescue of ethnic Christian civilians being expelled from all the ports of Anatolian Turkey. As the conclusion of a long war between Nationalist Turks and an invading Hellenic Greek army, these people were being forced out of their ancestral homes by the Turks. Sometimes American destroyers carried hundreds of such refugees to friendly ports on their own weather decks.

Upon the burning of Smyrna in September of 1922, Admiral Mark Bristol’s small fleet had grown to some 26 naval vessels, most of them destroyers, although some cruisers, naval repair vessels and supply ships also came, and the battleships Arizona and Utah also appeared briefly. It was during 1922 that the destroyer Bainbridge rescued 482 of 495 men, women and children from the burning French transport Vinh Long in the Sea of Marmora. The destroyer accomplished this by the expedient of ramming the large French ship so the exploding ammunition could not continue to force the vessels apart. For this action, Lieut. Commander W. Atlee Edwards was awarded the Medal of Honor by America, and the Legion of Honor by France.

Over four years, Admiral Bristol maintained a strong grip on American naval and diplomatic affairs throughout the region. Headquartered at the American Embassy at Constantinople, Bristol also worked to further American business interests in Turkey, and tended to favor Turks over Greeks and Armenians in the process. Many Americans were convinced that Bristol was biased on behalf of the Turks, and a couple of navy captains risked their careers by speaking out about impending Turkish massacres that Bristol wanted to hush up.

Several later-famous admirals saw duty in Bristol’s small navy, including William Leahy, Thomas Kinkaid, Julian Wheeler, Tip Merrill, Japy Hepburn and Dan Gallery, while statesman Allen Dulles was one of Bristol’s key diplomats. Most of these men and most of the sailors, too, enjoyed the terrific nightlife of Constantinople that existed right alongside all the refugee heartbreak. When their duties kept them at sea or alongside grain ships in Russia or moored at the spartan Black Sea ports, the Americans kept their spirits up by racing ships’ boats, shooting game, sightseeing, and (especially) by playing baseball. Captain Pratt Mannix even took advantage of his ship’s briefly anchoring near the Gallipoli battlefield to become the first American to swim the famous Hellespont.

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Product Details
  • Subject: Naval History, World War I
  • Hardback : 390 pages
  • Illustrations: 23 b/w photos; 7 maps
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press (November 15, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 1612510531
  • ISBN-13: 9781612510538
  • Product Dimensions: 6 X 9 in
  • Shipping Weight: 0 lb
  • “Meticulously researched, extraordinarily detailed study, ideal for naval history shelves yet accessible to readers of all backgrounds. Highly recommended, especially for public and college library collections.” — Midwest Book Review
  • “Author Robert Shenk has done a superb job of casting a penetrating spotlight on this little-known enterprise…This is a first-ever book that chronicles a very interesting little-known Naval undertaking that, in falling through the cracks of contemporary history, makes you realize that somehow our Navy was always there when needed.” — Sea Classics
  • “Bob has gone to great lengths gathering and selecting interesting details and stories. Using crew lists and other references he located relatives of the officers and men and obtained copies of letters and diaries written at the time. This not only provides a contemporaneous account but also a very personal and presumably unbiased story. He has also digested written reports from other sources, such as the writings of John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway and the autobiographies of notables such as Rear Admiral Dan Gallery, Admiral William Leahy and CIA op Allen Dulles. Chapter 9 is devoted to ‘Shipboard Life.’ Throughout Bob gives attention to the daily life of the crew. The Admiral in charge made sure each of his ships got a chance to visit Egypt and Beirut for R & R. Liberty in Constantinople was at times good, particularly after the Russian refugees began arriving. There is the strange story of the storekeeper who thought a pig would make a good mascot. It barely got around by moving along the seams where the steel deck plates overlapped, until one day it went overboard. Throughout the book there are many interesting stories, as well as disturbing ones that remind one that the area of the Mideast continues to experience endless conflict.” — Hubbard Herald Newsletter, USS Harry E. Hubbard (DD-748), February 2013
  • America’s Black Sea Fleet is a highly readable account…This book will be of interest to students of American naval history, and readers interested in a troubled, exotic and endlessly fascinating part of the world.” — Defense Media Network
  • “Students of this ongoing controversy will find this to be an exceptionally useful addition to the literature.” — Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries
  • “I wrote the dust-jacket promotion blurb for this book where I suggested this book be considered for the CNO’s reading list – for good reasons – this book provides a historical account of the post-World War I history where revolutionary and nationalistic forces are rising to fill the voids left by the toppled Russian Monarchy and collapsed Ottoman Empire.”

    — Naval Historical Foundation
  • "This book is as much about diplomacy as it is about naval activities. Over all, America's Black Sea Fleet contributes knowledge about the Navy during a time and place that few historians have chosen to investigate. It shows how much more an American naval fleet commander can do than simply prepare his ships for battle."

    — The Daybook

  • “This book is an instant candidate for the CNO’s recommended reading list! Robert Shenk’s well-crafted narrative depicting the extensive yet nearly unknown U.S. Navy involvement the Black Sea region following the World War I is textbook material for Service Schools and universities here and abroad studying Military Operations Other than War (MOOW). Given recent crises in the Balkans and the Middle East having nationalistic and religious overtones, this book provides a classic case study on the appropriateness of intervention. Shenk’s compelling stories about naval operations in ‘peace time’ conditions are timeless and serve to remind why naval forces are such a vital component to national power.”

    —David F. Winkler, author of Cold War at Sea: High-Seas Confrontation Between the United States and the Soviet Union
  • “America’s Black Sea Fleet will be a revelation to most who open its pages. In the turbulent aftermath of the First World War, an American admiral commanding a fleet composed mostly of destroyers is also de facto ambassador to the dissolving Ottoman Empire. The exodus of White Russians from the northern end of the Black Sea fills Constantinople with aristocratic tea-room waitresses and princely musicians and gardeners. From the point of view of American sailors based there it is a fabulous party town. Meanwhile, though, huge numbers of Armenians and Greeks meet horrendous fates as Turkish forces insist they must disappear from Turkish soil. Anchored offshore from Smyrna, American and other allied sailors watch as the city burns and desperate women and children crowd the quay. While giving new perspective on the still-contentious issue of Turkish treatment of minority populations, Shenk raises questions about the role of external power in local and regional conflicts. His clear style, eye for telling detail, and meticulous research create a fascinating narrative; he brings to life a time and place for which ‘colorful’ is far too pale a word.”

    —C. Herbert Gilliland, author of Voyage to a Thousand Cares
  • “America’s Black Sea Fleet is most interesting, readable, and impressively researched. It tells the story of a little known episode of American naval history. It should appeal to both those interested in naval history as well as those fascinated by Near Eastern history, and even Russian history.”

    —William N. Still Jr., author of American Sea Power in the Old World: The United States Navy in European and Near Eastern Waters, 1865-1917

Robert Shenk is a widely published professor of English at the University of New Orleans, and is also a retired captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He served on a destroyer and on river patrol boats during the Vietnam War, and later taught at two service academies. He lives in Mandeville, Louisiana.

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