Lincoln’s Secret Weapon
NOVA. PBS airdate: Tuesday, 24 October 2000 at 2100 ET. 60 minutes.
Hitler’s Lost Sub
NOVA, Lone Wolf Films. PBS airdate: Tuesday, 14 November 2000 at 2000 ET. 120 minutes.
Reviewed by Bruce Thompson
From the beginning of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s naval strategy integrated the revamping of the Navy Department, acquisition of numerous types of ships converted for war, and a plan to blockade ports from Texas to Maryland. By cutting off the South’s contact with European sympathizers, the Union was able to press its troops and technology to the task of constricting Confederate advances. John Ericsson’s 172-foot-long Monitor, the world’s first turreted iron warship, played a crucial role in this effort. The new technology eventually was tested in Hampton Roads, when the Monitor battled her Confederate counterpart, the 275-foot-long Virginia—a woodenhulled ship originally named the Merrimack and redesigned to support a metal casemate above her gunwales. The engagement was inconclusive, but it marked the beginning of the end for sailing ships of war. Nine months later, the Monitor was being towed south to North Carolina by the Rhode Island when a violent storm overcame the crew’s best efforts to save her, and the ironclad sank.
Discovered off Cape Hatteras in 1973, the wrecked remains of the Monitor (the most complete of all the 62 monitors built during the war) became the first National Marine Sanctuary. In 1975 the wreck site was placed under the stewardship of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Since then, many hours of underwater video have been gathered and dozens of research projects conducted to determine the rate of deterioration. This Public Broadcasting System documentary recounts the recent efforts to determine if parts of the deteriorating wreck could be retrieved and preserved for future generations. NOAA’s partner in this effort was the U.S. Navy’s Mobile Underwater Diving and Salvage Unit 2, which in the past was responsible for recovering more than 90% of the TWA Flight 800 remains lost off Long Island.
The documentary does an excellent job of illustrating the abilities of the Navy divers confronting a dangerous wreck site 70 meters down, swept by high currents and with highly variable visibility. After doing dredge tests on the turret, the crew of the project vessel Kellie Chouest concentrated on the recovery of the propeller. This was chosen for recovery because of its significance (Ericsson’s propeller design revolutionized the use of screw propulsion) and the threat its collapse posed to a major portion of the vessel’s hull remains. After an all-day effort that included seven sets of divers cutting away at the wrought-iron shaft, the propeller finally came free. The nighttime recovery went without a hitch, and the propeller now is at Newport News, Virginia, undergoing conservation.
Technically, the video is very well done and the underwater video is excellent. Unfortunately, the use of reenactments rather than period illustrations of the battle seems to take away from the substance of the past and keeps the viewer locked in the present. Finally, the models of the Monitor and her wreck site counterpart should have been crafted at the same scale to make comparisons more visible.
A second PBS special dealing with marine archaeology involves some underwater sleuthing. Some 60 miles off the New Jersey coast in 230 feet of water lies the remains of one of Adolf Hitler’s lost U-boats—and the 37 men who went down with her. In 1990, a commercial fisherman tangled his nets in the wreckage and pulled debris up from the site. Eventually, the site coordinates were given to Captain Bill Nagle, operator of the dive charter boat Seeker.
This documentary presents an excellent history of German U-boats while simultaneously telling the story of a group of divers who spent six years working and researching the wreck’s remains and history. Project team leader John Chatterton, professional diver John Eurobek, and businessman Richard Coller claimed to have no interest in salvage or treasure hunting. Motivated by curiosity alone, their efforts eventually paid off. This came at a high cost: three men lost their lives diving on this sub.
Ironically, the German U-boat strategy met with similar results. The Germans were able to manufacture numerous U-boats early in the war because they were inexpensive to build. For the first two years of the war U-boats had virtual control of the sea. So devastating were the U-boats’ attacks that at one point in January 1942, one sub (the U-552) sank ten ships in one week. By 1943 the tide of war had changed, and the hunters became the hunted. Protected convoys, improved depth charges, and enhanced detection systems by U.S., British, and Canadian forces helped turn the numbers around. By the end of the war the Allies had destroyed 825 of 1,100 German U-boats; 70% of U-boat sailors never came home.
Serendipity played a major role in the eventual naming of the Type XI-C sub, initially referred to only as U-Who. Chatterton’s divers found a table knife with an inscription “Horenberg” carved on the handle. Horenberg turned out to be the radioman on the U-869, a boat that records indicate was lost off Gibraltar on 23 November 1944. The story of how they eventually identified the sub takes up much of the second hour of the documentary.
This is great mystery story and an excellent history of U-boats and war strategy, but many questions remain unanswered by the program: Was the information important enough to dive beyond U.S. Navy recommended dive limits? Did the team ever consider involving archaeologists or Navy divers? How many artifacts eventually were pulled up? Were they given conservation treatment? Where are they now? Is there a museum where the public can see the items, or have they been sold to offset project costs?
Off Soundings: Aspects of the Maritime History of Rhode Island
Alexander Boyd Hawes, Elizabeth P. Wiesner. Chevy Chase, MD: Posterity Press, 1999. 323 pp. Photos. Notes. Bib. Index. $39.95 ($35.95).
Reviewed by James Bradford
Until now Rhode Island, the Ocean State, has not been the subject of a monograph on its maritime history similar to Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Maritime of History of Massachusetts or William Rowe’s The Maritime History of Maine. Thirty years ago, following retirement from a legal career, Alexander Boyd Hawes undertook the production of such a book. Indeed, he planned one even more ambitious than those of Morison and Rowe, because Hawes planned to cover a longer period of time, beginning in the 17th century when Rhode Island was even more dependent on the sea than Massachusetts, and ending with the twilight of commercial sail nearly two centuries later. Hawes also wanted to examine a wider variety of topics, including shipbuilding, whaling, and fishing. At the time of his death a quarter-century later, Hawes had completed the research and drafted the essays that form the basis of Off Soundings. These trace the history of piracy and privateering, the slave trade, and commerce with the Far East. Prosperity Press employed a team to standardize Hawes’s notes, smooth the text, and locate illustrations. The result is an attractive volume that contains a wealth of information.
More anecdotal that analytical in style, Hawes relates the details of specific voyages by privateers and slave traders, and discusses the participation of leading Rhode Islanders in both businesses—even after peace treaties were signed making privateers pirates and commerce in human cargoes was banned by law. A number of individuals invested in both privateering and the slave trade, both of which came to an end at about the same time. Privateering ended with the close of the War of 1812. Slave trading stopped when two of the state’s most prominent practitioners left the business—James D’Wolfe, because he had made his fortune, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1821, and wished to secure his respectability; and George D’Wolfe, because he went bankrupt in 1825.
Rhode Islanders entered the China trade in 1787 when John and Nicholas Brown withdrew from the slave trade and, following the lead of merchants based in Philadelphia, New York, and Salem, sent a ship to Canton. A decade later the firm of Brown and Ives opened trade with Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. Members of the Brown family participated in the trade until 1838. Trade with the Far East at first was less unsavory, though equally as risky, as slave trading. And it could be almost as profitable as either slave trading or privateering. In 1806, Edward Carrington of Providence expressed an interest in the opium trade, and by 1816 he had become a participant. It was a lucrative, if disreputable, business about which Rhode Islanders (unlike Englishmen and Bostonians) showed no shame. Businessmen from the Ocean State “were apparently content to be in the trade if it paid,” and made no excuses. On this note Hawes brings his work to an end. It is a shame that he did not live to complete work on additional topics.
All in all, Hawes gleans a great deal of information from widely scattered sources and brought it together in a highly readable volume more than worthy of standing on the shelf beside those of Rowe and Morison.