Discovery Stirs Echoes of Ancient Roman Naval Battle
Archaeologists working in the Mediterranean Sea have found the sunken remains of an ancient warship that is believed to be from the Battle of the Aegates Islands, the decisive Roman naval victory in 241 B.C. that brought an end to the First Punic War.
The discovery, made off the island of Levanzo west of Sicily, joins other recent finds in helping to confirm the location of the major battle that heralded the rise of the Roman Republic and the concomitant decline of the Carthaginian Empire.
Rome, which had suffered a humiliating naval defeat at the hands of the Carthaginian fleet seven years earlier at the Battle of Drepana, resurfaced as a sea power in 242 B.C. with a fleet of about 200 quinqueremes, built entirely with private money (from wealthy, patriotic Roman citizens) and crewed by sailors thoroughly trained through extensive practice drills. On 10 March 241 B.C., the new Roman fleet engaged a Carthaginian fleet that was numerically superior but less soundly built, less maneuverable, and hastily crewed. Facing strong winds and rough seas, the Roman ships had been stripped of sails, masts, and all extraneous gear. Carthage’s ships, lugging more weight and manned by raw recruits, fell prey to the adroit rowing skills and devastating rams of the smartly handled Roman warships. In the crushing defeat that ensued, Carthage had half its fleet destroyed or captured, and, having lost control of the sea, was forced to sign a treaty, bringing the war to a successful conclusion for Rome.
The Carthaginians’ loss had come as a result of resting on their naval laurels; they hadn’t expected Rome to make such a comeback at sea, and therefore had let their own fleet strength wither. The Carthaginians, according to Polybius, “owing to their never having expected the Romans to dispute the sea with them again . . . had, in contempt for them, neglected their naval force. So that immediately on engaging they had the worst in many parts of the battle and were soon routed, 50 ships being sunk and 70 captured with their crews.”
Time, tide, and underwater microbes have left few remnants of that epic sea-clash of the ancient world. The most recent discovery by archaeologists at the supposed battle site is a bronze ram, having survived the ravages of millennia while the rest of the vessel rotted away. In fact, such rams (and occasionally, some vestiges of the bow structure) are all that have been found of antiquity’s warships. Discussing the latest find, archaeologist Jeffrey G. Royal of the Florida-based RPM Nautical Foundation told LiveScience.com, “There’s never been an ancient warship found—that’s the Holy Grail of maritime archaeology.”
Royal and his team also made a similar discovery near the latest wreck site in 2008—another ram, this one with some wood still attached; carbon-dating verified the mid- to late-3rd century B.C. time frame. In 2005, fishermen working the same waters also found a ram, and it bore an inscription dating it to the same period.
The inscription was in Latin, tagging it as a Roman artifact. The two more recently discovered rams bear no such obvious clue; perfunctorily made with no adornments, they bespeak hasty workmanship, and archaeologists are going on the hypothesis that they are Carthaginian in origin. All other factors aside, more Carthaginian ships were sunk in the battle, making any remains more likely to be Carthaginian.
Historic Ship’s Flag Returns Home to Russia
The flag of the Russian cruiser Varyag, a ship celebrated in Russian song and story since her defiant last stand in the Russo-Japanese War, was presented to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by a South Korean delegation during a ceremony at the 2010 G-20 Summit in Seoul in November.
The flag had been in the possession of the Koreans since 1905, when it was raised from the sea floor and subsequently housed at a museum in the nearby city of Inchon (then still known as Chemulpo).
On 14 February 1904, in the Battle of Chemulpo Bay, the Varyag and the Russian gunboat Korietz took on a 14-ship Japanese squadron in a brief but fierce firefight and incurred heavy casualties. The crew of the Korietz scuttled her and blew her up, and the Varyag also chose scuttling over inevitable capitulation.
“The Varyag did not surrender, even though it was battered in combat and practically sinking,” said Vladimir Sotnikov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in an interview with The Voice of Russia. “The enemy suggested surrender and offered to send boats to pick up the sailors and officers who were alive, but the Russians proudly refused.”
The surviving crewmen, rescued by French and English ships observing the battle, were hailed as heroes in Russia. Soon, a poem called “In Memory of the Varyag” appeared in the German magazine Jugend; once it was translated into Russian, it was put to music and became a sort of unofficial national anthem. “Even today every Russian knows the words of this song,” said Sotnikov.
The Varyag was successfully raised, repaired, and reincarnated as the Imperial Japanese Navy training ship Soya. But her fight at Chemulpo became the stuff of Russian legend—imbuing a relic such as her flag with a totemic national resonance. “This is indeed a symbol of Russia’s unbending willpower under any circumstances,” Sotnikov said. “And not only in the Navy, it is a symbol of the unbending Russian character. The memory of the Varyag inspired Soviet sailors and officers when they fought against Nazi Germans in the Baltic and the Black Sea during the Great Patriotic War of 1941 to 1945.”
In 2009 the flag made a temporary visit back to Russia as part of a traveling exhibit. The 2010 handover, marking the 20th anniversary of the opening of Russian–South Korean diplomatic relations, is in the form of a two-year renewable loan. During that time, the flag will be displayed at the Central Navy Museum in St. Petersburg.
Canadian Navy Centennial Celebrated
Canada’s navy—Canadian Forces Maritime Command, formerly the Royal Canadian Navy—marked its 100th anniversary in 2010, and to honor the occasion, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa has launched a new online exhibit, “Canada’s Naval History.”
The exhibit site is packed with hundreds of objects and images from the collections of the Canadian War Museum and others. Vintage photographs, uniforms and insignia, artwork, posters, documents, letters, and more are all woven into a keyboard-accessible tapestry of Canadian naval history.
“This online exhibition is both an innovative means to preserve and share Canada’s naval history with all Canadians, and a wonderful way to mark the Canadian navy’s centennial,” said Mark O’Neill, director general of the museum.
The exhibit allows users to explore Canada’s naval history from its origins to today. One particularly stirring part of that history is World War II, when the Canadian naval contribution, “like the country’s contribution in general, was indispensable to the Allied victory,” notes Michael Whitby, senior naval historian for the Canadian Department of National Defence, on the exhibit site’s introductory page. While Canada’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic was particularly crucial, “No matter where or in which nation’s ships they served, Canadian sailors made an essential contribution to the final victory and added an important chapter to Canada’s rich military heritage.”
That heritage extended past World War II to the Cold War and beyond. “At various times during the first century of its existence,” Whitby remarks, “the Canadian Navy has enhanced Canada’s international reputation, helped to spark economic development, fought with courage and tenacity, and reflected the qualities that Canadians want to promote and see from their military. At 100 years of age, the Navy remains comparatively young, but it will remain an important ingredient of our national fabric so long as the seas meet our shores.”
To explore “Canada’s Naval History,” visit http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/navy/home-e.aspx.
Mass Burial Sites Unearthed on Iwo Jima
Field researchers working for the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare have located a pair of mass grave sites on Iwo Jima, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported in October. The island, which the Japanese government now officially refers to as Iwoto, was the scene of 6,821 American and 21,570 Japanese battle deaths during the fierce fighting that raged there from February to March 1945, as World War II in the Pacific wended its way inexorably closer to Japan’s home shores.
The latest mass-grave discoveries are part of an ongoing effort by Japan to find the remains of about 12,000 Japanese soldiers who are still classified as missing and presumed dead on Iwo, a status they share with 218 unaccounted-for American troops. Armed with military-report information about “enemy cemeteries” provided by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Japanese search team excavated at a spot near a runway and another location at the base of Mount Suribachi. Japanese officials confirmed in October that 51 sets of remains have been recovered so far. Considerably more appear present—possibly up to 200 at the Suribachi grave and as many as 2,000 at the other site.
Saigon Rescue: Kirk Documentary Premieres
April 1975: Panic and hysteria ruled the streets of Saigon as North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded the city. Americans and South Vietnamese sought escape by any means possible. The USS Kirk (DE-1087) and her crew of 260 would play an unexpected but pivotal role in Operation Frequent Wind—the evacuation of personnel from Saigon. The heroic story of the Kirk in those tumultuous days following Saigon’s fall is chronicled in The Lucky Few, a new documentary that premiered at the Smithsonian Institution in November.
Produced by the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, The Lucky Few tells the story of how the Kirk rescued South Vietnamese military personnel and civilians and escorted them to freedom and a new life.
As Operation Frequent Wind began, U.S. helicopters loaded with evacuees began heading out to sea, where a Seventh Fleet task force awaited them. Suddenly, as the ships’ radar screens went wild, it became apparent that South Vietnamese army and air force Hueys, packed with refugees, were following the American aircraft out to sea.
The Kirk quickly jumped into action and began landing aircraft on her tiny flight deck. First one, then two helicopters were on deck. With several more helicopters approaching, the commanding officer quickly made the decision to start pushing aircraft over the side once the men, women, and children were safely on board, to make room for more incoming.
Then the unthinkable happened: The Kirk’s crew heard another helicopter approaching, and it was a twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook—the largest helicopter in the South Vietnamese inventory. The crew tried to wave off the chopper, but instead its pilot expertly hovered over the fantail while the refugees jumped or were dropped into the waiting arms of Sailors. After everyone was on board, the Chinook pilot ditched his aircraft in the water.
Several Kirk crew members jumped overboard and rescued the pilot from the vortex of the sinking helicopter. By day’s end, the Kirk had landed a total of 13 aircraft; remarkably, there were no deaths or injuries.
The next day, after transferring the refugees to another vessel, the Kirk was tasked with escorting 16 South Vietnamese navy ships, laden with 30,000 refugees, to the Philippines. Initially, the Kirk was the lone U.S. ship, responsible for providing security and engineering support to the Vietnamese vessels, while also feeding the evacuees and providing medical care.
The Kirk’s two hospital corpsmen faced a daunting task. Using a commandeered swift boat, they conducted daily rounds to each of the ships. Supplies were short and sanitary conditions were less than ideal, but despite this, the Navy docs did everything they could to take care of their patients.
After five days and 1,000 miles, the flotilla ended its odyssey in the Philippines. But for many of the disembarking refugees, it had only been the first leg of the journey. Many would make their way to the United States, where to this day—and on-screen in the new documentary—they express their deep gratitude to the crew of the Kirk who provided their deliverance.
The Lucky Few can be viewed online by visiting http://www.navytv.org. Click on “Navy Ships,” then scroll down and select “USS Kirk,” where the film is presented in chapters.
Alexander Named Naval History Author of the Year
Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), was named Naval History’s Author of the Year at the annual U.S. Naval Institute Honors Night in Annapolis, Maryland, on 20 October. Colonel Alexander was honored for his vivid article on the Battle of Peleliu, “A Bitter Hemorrhage of Fighting,” in the April 2010 issue of Naval History. One of America’s premier Marine Corps historians, he is also the author of a number of highly regarded books, including Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa (currently on the Marines’ professional reading list) and, with the late Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons, Through the Wheat: The U.S. Marines in World War I. Both books are published by the Naval Institute Press.