Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, 1938–2014
The U.S. Naval Institute lost a longtime friend on 28 September with the passing of Colonel Joseph “Joe” Hammond Alexander, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired). A combat veteran and accomplished military historian, Colonel Alexander was a regular contributor to Naval History and earned the magazine’s Author of the Year award for his April 2010 article about the Battle of Peleliu, “A Bitter Hemorrhage of Fighting” (pp. 44–50). His last Naval History piece, a review of Albertus Catlin’s book, With the Help of God and a Few Marines, appeared in the October issue (p. 68). He also contributed articles to Proceedings.
The Naval Institute Press published several books by Alexander, including Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa (1995), which earned him the Press’ Author of the Year award; Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific (1997); and Edson’s Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II (2001).
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Alexander was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1960. During a 29-year career as an assault amphibian officer, he served two combat tours in Vietnam, served as the military secretay to Commandant General Paul X. Kelley, and was 3d Marine Division chief of staff. He earned master’s degrees in history and government from Jacksonville and Georgetown universities and graduated with distinction from the Naval War College.
In addition to his Naval Institute output, Alexander wrote or cowrote seven books and numerous official historical monographs for the Marine Corps History Division. He also contributed numerous articles to Leatherneck magazine and Marine Corps Gazette. In recognition of his contributions to Marine history, the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation created an annual Colonel Joseph Alexander Award, which is for a distinguished biographical or autobiographical book about a Marine. Alexander was also host or principal guest commentator on more than 20 documentaries that aired on the History Channel and the Arts and Entertainment Network and was the principal historian for the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia.
One Step Closer to Solving the Franklin Mystery
On 1 October, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the Franklin Expedition ship discovered three weeks earlier had been positively identified as HMS Erebus. “The locating and identifying of this ship goes a long way to solving one of Canada’s greatest historical mysteries,” Harper said.
Built in 1826, the Erebus was a Hecla-class bomb vessel. On 9 September Harper first announced the discovery of one of the Franklin Expedition’s two ships in the eastern stretches of the Queen Maud Gulf off the western coast of the Adelaide Peninsula. The find had been confirmed on 7 September using a remotely operated underwater vehicle recently acquired by Parks Canada, although it could not be determined at that time if the wreck was the Erebus or the Expedition’s other ship, the Terror.
In May 1845, the two Royal Navy ships set sail from Greenhithe, England, under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin in a quest for the Northwest Passage. Franklin and his crew of 129 officers and men were last seen in August 1845 entering Baffin Bay near Greenland.
Since 2008 Parks Canada has led six significant searches for the lost ships. This most recent successful Victoria Strait Expedition 2014 included a number of government agencies as well as private and nonprofit partners. On 1 September a Government of Nunavut (GN) archaeology team discovered an iron fitting from a Royal Navy ship’s boat-launching davit on an island in the southern search area. It bore two Royal Navy broad arrow markings. “These findings are important because the iron fitting is certainly from one of the Franklin shipwrecks,” a release from the GN stated. “This is the first discovery of its kind in the area in modern times. [It] is consistent with, and supports, 19th-century Inuit oral testimony describing a shipwreck to the south of King William Island.”
After this land discovery, Parks Canada’s team on board the survey vessel Investigator followed up on clues from the GN archaeology team. A side-scan sonar was the first to lay “eyes” on the 170-year-old ship, which was found in 36 feet of water and said to be in good condition. The team then used a remotely operated vehicle to take detailed photos of the site and confirm the ship’s authenticity.
In the days following Harper’s announcement, further exploration was stymied by poor weather conditions. But on 17 September, with winter closing in and the expedition set to end the next day, Parks Canada divers descended. Two teams explored the wreck from 0730 to 1930, and between dives the Canadian Hydrographic Service surveyed the wreck using a multi-beam that was able to cut through the surrounding vegetation, generating a high-resolution, three-dimensional image.
In 1992 the Canadian government declared the wrecks a national historic site. Eventually the remains of three crew members were found. In 1986 the bodies of Josh Hartnell and Royal Marine William Braine were exhumed, and in 1984 the remains of petty officer John Torrington were found, perfectly preserved.
“Finding the first vessel will no doubt provide the momentum—or wind in our sails—necessary to locate its sister ship and find out even more about what happened to the Franklin Expedition’s crew,” Harper concluded in his 9 September statement.
Unwelcome Visitors to the USS Houston
In 2013 an Australian scuba diver inadvertently discovered the wreck of the USS Houston (CA-30), a cruiser sunk by Imperial Japanese Navy ships in one of America’s earliest World War II fights, when he found a bent trumpet 120 feet below the Sea of Java. But an association of Houston survivors has warned the Navy that the wreck is at risk to less scrupulous divers.
“[There] has been a longstanding concern over allegations [divers] were salvaging and pillaging that wreck,” said John Schwarz, executive director of the USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association & Next Generations.
The U.S. Navy’s official examination of the wreck in June 2014—in a diving exercise with sailors from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1 (MDSU), the Indonesian Navy, and the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC)—confirmed that there has been systematic unauthorized disturbance at the site. The Navy surmised that additional disturbance of the wreck would “potentially impact human remains within or adjacent to the hull.” The site is the final resting place of hundreds of U.S. sailors and Marines.
Before World War II, the Houston was famous for transporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt on several long-distance cruises and eventually became flagship of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. When war broke out between Japan and the United States, the Houston—whose crew would nickname her “The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast”—joined the early American-British-Dutch-Australian fleet, part of a short-lived Allied command based in Australia that suffered massive losses early in the war. She and the light cruiser HMAS Perth were lost early on 1 March 1942 during the Battle of Sunda Strait. While attempting to transit the strait and head for Australia, the pair had encountered a Japanese amphibious force in the process of landing troops on Java. There ensued a bitter, close-range night action with its covering force.
On that March night, retired Rear Admiral Robert Fulton was a 31-year-old lieutenant serving on board the Houston as an assistant engineering officer. From where he was stationed, in the forward engine room manning the numbers one and four propellers, Fulton was unaware of the ship’s peril. “Everything was working perfectly fine, but we knew we were closely engaged by the sound of the guns. We were firing the 1.1s and the 5-inchers,” he told Naval History. His first clue came from the engine auto-telegraph, which sends the speed wanted from the CIC or bridge to the control engine room. “It was on all speed, until all of a sudden it went crazy, and went halfway from one-third to all the way back down.”
When the call to abandon ship came in, he was shocked. “I sent back a message to verify and repeat the command. It took about maybe five minutes to get that confirmation. What none of us knew was that the hit that knocked out the after-engine room also knocked out the general announcing system. Any time we had been told to abandon ship before, it came out over the general announcing system. The captain ordered a bugler to sound retreat instead of using the system,” he recalled. At his abandon-ship station on the port side of the forecastle deck Fulton assessed the situation. “We did not have any life rafts, so I told the crew who joined me that we were on our own and wished them all the best. A few minutes later, I went over the side after the port catapult. I took off my shoes and pants so I could paddle, and asked the Lord to help me, and started swimming.”
The ship’s skipper, Captain Albert H. Rooks, died during the battle and posthumously received the Medal of Honor. Seven hundred sailors and Marines either died during the fight, went down with the ship, or were lost after she sank. For decades, the Houston lay at the bottom of the Java Sea, mostly undisturbed, until about the early 1970s. “Diving and indications of diving on that ship go back at least into the ‘70s,” Schwarz said. “It was 1973 when the original bell of the ship, that had been brought up by pilferers and was located somewhere being sold in an auction.”
Schwarz’s father, Otto, the association’s founder and a 17-year old singalman second class on board the Houston when she sank, was able to recover the bell and have it installed at a memorial for the ship in Houston, Texas, but other artifacts from the ship keep appearing on the surface.
The Navy sent divers to examine the hull as part of June’s Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercise with Indonesia. The Indonesian and U.S. Navy divers found “systematic, methodical and ongoing unauthorized” efforts to salvage the wreck. Evidence included loose plates where the rivets had been removed to provide easier access to the interior of the ship, dive hoses to support crews from the surface, and tools to clear sediment from the wreck. The divers set up buoys to mark the site and the NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch issued an interim report on the findings.
The Navy is still deciding how it will proceed with the wreck, but a growing majority in the Houston association feel the wreck should be off limits to not only salvagers but also recreational divers, Schwarz said.
“We’ve come to learn over the years that literally tourists’ dive trips are sponsored and run using our ship as an attractive dive destination. It’s not sitting well with a growing majority of our group,” he said.
Of the divers and pillaging, Fulton solemnly said, “To me it’s a tomb of my friends and shipmates. I just want to see it left alone.”
Testing the Waters
In September, a replica of the French navy frigate Hermione set off for sea trials to prepare for her maiden transatlantic voyage, which will trace the steps of the Marquis de Lafayette’s 1780 journey from France to assist American revolutionaries in their war against the British. After departing the port of Rochefort, France, she made her way to the Atlantic Ocean, where she spent several weeks near the Ile-d’Aix preparing for her longer trip to the United States in April 2015.
Spearheaded by the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette, a joint American and French volunteer effort, construction of the 213-foot wooden ship began in 1997 using the plans of her sister ship, La Concorde, and 18th-century shipbuilding techniques and materials. The replica, also named the Hermione, was completed in 2011 and cost about $32 million to build.
Her maiden voyage is scheduled to take 42 days. She will port in Yorktown, Virginia; Baltimore and Annapolis, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; New York City; Greenport, New York; Philadelphia; Boston; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
2014 History Conference: Leaders in Action
On 1 October, thanks to the support of the William M. Wood Foundation, the U.S. Naval Institute partnered with the Naval Academy to host the 2014 Naval History Conference, “Leaders in Action: Ordinary People Doing the Extraordinary.” Throughout the day, attendees learned of historical examples of heroism as well as heard accounts of present day courage, perseverance, and achievement.
Author James D. Hornfischer delivered the morning’s keynote address, “Heroism at Sea: Commander Ernest Evans at the Battle of Leyte Gulf,” which focused on the skipper of the USS Johnston (DD-557) during the fight off Samar. Hornfischer urged the audience to “take Commander Evans’ history and make it your own.”
Joseph Thomas moderated a panel with three Medal of Honor Recipients: Corporal Hershel “Woody” Williams, USMC (Ret.), who earned his medal for actions in the Battle of Iwo Jima; Lieutenant Thomas Norris, USN (Ret.), for his ground rescue of two downed pilots in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam in 1972; and former Army Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha, for actions during the Battle of Kamdesh, Afghanistan, in 2009. Opening the conversation, Thomas proposed, “Instead of treating heroes as an anomaly, we should treat them as that which we all should aspire to be.” The men reflected on what motivated them to serve, their life experiences before and after combat, the idea of leadership, and the responsibilities that accompany the Medal of Honor. “None of us believe we are heroes. None of us believe we did anything extraordinary. We don’t wear the medal for ourselves. We wear it for those who can’t. We did what we were trained to do. We did the best we could,” Norris said.
During his lunch keynote, Captain J. Charles Plumb, USNR (Ret.), a former Navy fighter pilot and POW, took the audience inside his 8x8-foot cell at the “Hanoi Hilton.” He did not merely recount experiences during his six-year captivity. Instead, he led the attendees on a journey of self-reflection, urging them to consider what kind of midshipman, parent, spouse, and human they want to be.
Finally, Lieutenant Trevor Thompson, SEAL program director at the Academy, moderated a discussion with five wounded warriors from Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom: Navy Explosive Ordnance Technician First Class Chris Andrieu; Marine Corps Captain Matthew Lampert; Lieutenant Jason Redman, USN (Ret.); Lieutenant Bradley Snyder, USN (Ret.); and Army Captain Nicholas Vogt. The men shared their stories of injury and recovery, how they charted a new life path post-injury, and what the community can do to better support our veterans. These men were a most fitting end to a day dedicated to ordinary people doing the extraordinary.
In conjunction with the conference, the Naval Institute and William M. Wood Foundation cosponsored the 2014 Naval History Essay Contest. Navy Captain Richard Miller’s article “A Perfect American Victory: Transformational Leadership at Vella Gulf,” earned first prize ($5,000) and appears in the October issue of Proceedings. Dennis L. Noble’s essay, “The Enlisted Force’s Scribe,” won second prize ($2,500), and Navy Ensign Sam Oat-Judge’s article, “Nathaniel Fanning: Revolutionary Sailor, Prisoner, Captain, and Spy,” third prize ($1,500). Their essays will be published in upcoming issues of Naval History.