In the Highest Degree Tragic: The Sacrifice of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the East Indies During World War II
Reviewed by James R. Holmes
The U.S. Navy long has constituted the gold standard for sea power. Its history commands intrinsic interest. Foes study it in hopes of figuring out how to defeat it. Would-be imitators study it in hopes of replicating its success. They pattern their nautical exploits on the U.S. model, just as navalists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan looked to the Royal Navy in the Age of Sail for insight into the United States’ high-seas destiny. That being the case, you would think every widget, feat of arms, and personality had been scrutinized in minute detail and recorded in the pages of history books.
You would be wrong.
Maritime historian Donald Kehn retells a mostly missing part of the U.S. naval saga: the life and death of the Asiatic Fleet. The fleet existed for four decades, from the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt until its demolition at Imperial Japanese Navy hands in 1942. Yet it merits just one mention in George Baer’s masterful history One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890–1990 (Stanford University Press, 1993). William Braisted comes closest to doing the topic justice, but even his three-volume cycle on the U.S. Navy in the Pacific cuts the story short in 1933—long before Japanese blows fell on the Philippine Islands, in ensuing minor actions, and at the battles of Sunda Strait and the Java Sea—the latter of which sealed the Asiatic Fleet’s fate.
Why does the Asiatic Fleet languish in obscurity? For one thing, it was not a battle fleet. It wasn’t even a naval fleet in a strict sense. It was a diplomatic implement based in the Philippine Islands. Its commanders, such as Admiral T. C. Hart, responded more to the wishes of the U.S. State Department than to the Navy Department. (Often to commanders’ chagrin.) For another, it was made up of misfit vessels that patrolled the Yangtze River, plied the China coast, and tarried in ports from Japan to Guam to Hong Kong. Having built up no battle lore, the fleet lacks the renown and glamour imbuing forces such as the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Even the fleet’s name sounds archaic; who says Asiatic nowadays?
Rediscovering the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, then, represents a worthwhile enterprise. Kehn does a deft job of it. First, the author is a fluent storyteller. To pick a couple of nifty turns of a phrase, he maintains that the Asiatic Fleet comprised the “steel backbone to America’s occasionally slouching diplomatic posture.” Japan pressed its claims with “polite criminality” during the late 1930s, after the Imperial Japanese Army invaded China proper while the Imperial Japanese Navy fixed its gaze on the “Southern Resource Area” in the South China Sea basin.
Second, Kehn conveys how hard it is for a diplomatic force—a force meant to help accomplish strategic and political goals in peacetime—to repurpose itself for wartime missions. Not only were the fleet’s prospects for reinforcement doubtful, but its logistics were tenuous at best. It joined an allied “ABDA”—American, British, Dutch, Australian—fleet to defend the Malay Barrier against the Japanese onslaught. But this project was foredoomed with little time to sort out command and logistical arrangements in the face of a strong, resolute enemy.
Third, the Asiatic Fleet underperformed because it suffered from the same maladies wracking the U.S. Navy as a whole. While the surface force was indeed composed of obsolescent vessels, mainly of World War I vintage, its submarine arm featured some frontline craft. Yet faulty doctrine and tactics were baked into the “silent service” from the interwar years, as Clay Blair shows in Silent Victory (J. B. Lippincott, 1975), while Asiatic Fleet torpedoes were no better than their counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. Navy. It took the service until deep into 1943 to fully sort out such problems. By that time the Asiatic Fleet had long been reduced to wreckage. Time—not just Japan’s navy—represented its mortal foe.
The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution
Steven Park. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2016. 188 pp. Map. Notes. Biblio. Index. $26.
Reviewed by Commander Benjamin “B. J.” Armstrong, U.S. Navy
When Americans think of the start of the American Revolution, the engagements at Lexington and Concord in 1775 dominate their understanding. However, years before the Minutemen of Massachusetts resorted to violence in defense of colonial interests, Rhode Islanders already were attacking British forces. The reason so few Americans remember these first violent acts in the approaching struggle for independence is likely because they occurred on the sea. The 1764 burning of one of the boats belonging to HMS St. John, and then cannon fire directed at the schooner from the fort at Newport, was followed by the 1769 attack on the revenue vessel Liberty in the same port, which left her aground and aflame on Goat Island. But the most daring and violent of the attacks on the Royal Navy in New England waters was the maritime raid on His Majesty’s schooner Gaspee in June 1772.
Steven Park, a historian with the University of Connecticut’s maritime campus, has studied the Gaspee incident extensively, and his concise book attempts to explain the event and its role leading to the Revolution. The book is short—barely 114 pages of text with the remainder taken up by extensive notes. This effort at brevity becomes both the work’s greatest strength and most telling weakness. The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee offers an excellent short summary of the attack that occurred near midnight on 9 June 1772 and a vital examination of the political and legal consequences.
The book spreads Park’s narrative over five chapters. He begins with a broad brushstroke background of Rhode Island in the decades before the incident, describing the conflict between local desire for unregulated trade and British need to collect revenue. The second chapter describes the incident off Namsquid Point, when several long boats full of colonials attacked the grounded warship. After shooting and wounding the warship’s commander, Lieutenant William Duddingston, the colonials boarded, captured the crew, and took possession of the ship. Duddingston was arrested for overstepping his authority while performing maritime security functions, and after the crew were removed, the attackers set the schooner ablaze. She burned through the night; nothing but the hulk below the waterline remained in the morning.
Park then spends two chapters examining the political and legal history of the Royal Commission of Inquiry established to investigate the incident. The final chapter uses a sermon by a Baptist preacher from Boston about the Gaspee and the commission to illuminate the incident’s relationship with the Boston Tea Party the following year and the march toward revolution.
Park’s narrative is well written and engaging. Because of the book’s brevity, it can be devoured in a weekend’s read. Some of it, however, will leave naval and maritime historians wanting more. There is only a marginal examination of the place of maritime smuggling in the late 18th century, and no recognition that the Royal Navy conducted revenue missions all over the world, not just in the Americas. The British Isles have not had a revenue service, or a coast guard, like the United States, and a slightly wider examination of the naval missions of Duddingston and his crew would have improved the first chapter. Likewise, the book makes it appear that the smuggling was an American problem rather than something the Crown dealt with from the coasts of England to the Irish coasts, the West Indies, and the North American colonies. Some historians have claimed that up to 80 percent of the tea consumed in Great Britain in the late 18th century was smuggled past tax collectors. Adding a wider discussion of these points, however, would have challenged the author’s effort to produce a concise book.
The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee offers a quick and well-researched examination of an important and all-but-forgotten moment in U.S. history. Park points out that many Patriots appeared to think the Gaspee would be remembered as the start of the coming revolution. The war against the Crown began at sea, and vital elements of the American Revolution remained a maritime conflict, the logical result of a conflict between two maritime nations.
Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic
William M. Fowler, Jr. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. 358 pp. Photos. Notes. Biblio. Index. $30.
Reviewed by A. Denis Clift
In Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic, William M. Fowler, Jr., professor emeritus at Northeastern University, takes us on a great race for power and ocean dominance in the decades of the mid-19th century.
Samuel Cunard, 1787–1865, whose forebearer Thones Kunder emigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania in colonial times, rose to become a shipping magnate in Halifax and founder of the British North American Steam Packet Company, better known as Cunard Lines. American Edward Knight Collins, 1802–78, a rising member of New York’s maritime community, recruited U.S. Navy explorer and ship designer Nathaniel B. Palmer to help him build a new fleet of ocean steamers for the Dramatic Line, better known as the Collins Line, to challenge and best Cunard.
This was the emerging era of ever-bigger, more powerful, more capable, side-wheel paddle steamers. Robert Fulton’s 1807 Clermont had disproved the naysayers with her first commercial run 300 miles up and back on the Hudson River in 62 hours. More and more paddle-wheel steamers entered coastal and riverine operations in Europe and North America.
In 1848, steamers were racing gold-rushers to the Isthmus of Panama where they debarked, struggled across the land, and reembarked on new steamers on the Pacific side to press on to California. On the transatlantic runs, U.S. and British sail packets for decades had been racing each other carrying royal mail, U.S. mail, dispatches, passengers, and cargo.
Fowler relays this broader history nicely, taking us into the heart of his work: the steamship duel between Cunard and Collins. Here, he moves ahead with good research and rich detail to describe the strategies of the two men and their companies, the political, financial, commercial, shipbuilding, fueling, wharfing, and myriad other complexities at either end. Cunard shaped a route connecting Liverpool with Halifax and Boston. On 5 February 1840, his steamer Britannia was launched for the transatlantic run, with his new steamer Unicorn ready for the Halifax-Boston leg. He was on his way with a virtual monopoly.
There was unhappiness in the United States as the nation lagged behind the British. In 1847, Congress authorized a subsidy for the building of steamers, which was awarded to Collins. In 1849, the Atlantic—the world’s largest steamship with berthing for 150 passengers—was launched. By the end of 1850, Collins’ quartet of steamers had completed a dozen round-trips on the New York–Liverpool run.
While his ships were elegant and fast, they were expensive to maintain. Collins and his line would be driven under a decade later by debt, and he would fade into obscurity. “While Collins struggled to remain afloat,” Fowler writes, “Cunard always cautious and keeping a steady eye toward economy and safety, steamed ahead,” with a fleet of more than 20 ships at sea by 1857. He would retire in 1863. On his death, his grave at Kensington would be marked by a dignified monument.
Cunard Lines would continue through its 20th-century glory days with a splendid fleet to include the Queens, Mary and Elizabeth. This reviewer had the pleasure of being on board the Queen Mary in 1967 on her third to last Atlantic crossing. By then, the new jet airliners were stealing the ocean liners’ passengers. The age of steam was completing its run.