Decatur and the Prisoners
William J. Prom
Frederick Leiner’s “Killing the Prisoners” from the December issue (pp. 26–31) provides a stark look at an often overly romanticized event in early U.S. naval history. Leiner does an excellent job demonstrating that people, and events, of the past are as passionate and complex as ourselves. The mission to burn the Philadelphia, however, was not the only time Stephen Decatur may have killed prisoners.
Decatur’s younger brother, James, was a lieutenant in command of Gunboat No. 2 in the 3 August 1804 attack on Tripoli Harbor. During the battle, the younger Decatur forced the surrender of a Tripolitan gunboat. When James came alongside to take possession of the vessel, several of the Tripolitan crew opened fire, killing him with a shot through the forehead.
Meanwhile, Stephen Decatur captured a gunboat of his own. Of the enemy vessel’s 36-man crew, 16 were killed and 15 wounded. Once Stephen Decatur heard of his brother’s death, he returned his gunboat to the battle to seek out the vessel James Decatur had attacked. The enemy gunboat had 24 men remaining on board when Decatur caught them. Only three survived to surrender when Decatur was done.
I wouldn’t say Decatur should be removed from the pantheon of U.S. naval heroes, but perhaps we should study his transgressions as well as his accomplishments.
Sparrow Put to the Test
Andrew R. Zagayko
Thomas Wildenberg’s “Armaments & Innovations” article about the development of the Seasparrow missile system was very interesting and informative (December, pp. 6–7). However, he failed to mention an important contributor to the advancement of the system—namely, the USS Norton Sound (AVM-1).
I served in the Sound when she was homeported in Port Hueneme, California, from 1965 to 1967. The most significant project we were involved in was the initial testing to adapt the Sparrow missile to a surface-to-air defensive system. As far as I know, we were the first ship successfully to fire the missile and destroy a target.
When we began the tests in late 1966, I was assigned to the engineering department as the damage control assistant. I was designated as the firing control officer stationed at the director along with a non-rated seaman who operated the director (presumably because the command figured if we could operate the system, anybody could).
We would get under way most mornings and once on the Pacific Missile Range near Point Mugu Naval Air Station conduct tracking and eventually missile firing exercises. Point Mugu air controllers would fly an old modified F9F drone as a target, and we would fire the missiles with dummy warheads and a built-in offset.
A test was considered successful if the missile passed the drone within the warhead’s designed kill range. On one occasion, something happened to the offset and the Sparrow knocked the drone out of the sky. Rumor had it that the flight control technicians wanted to see a “real kill.”
We fired at targets in a variety of conditions—high and low altitude, high and low speeds, and passing and closing tracks—and mostly were successful. We even fired at a small wooden torpedo recovery motorboat drone, leaving a perfectly round hole with four slots extending out from the hole where the body of the missile and its control fins passed through the hull.
I transferred from the Norton Sound in 1967 and lost contact with the progress of the system, but as far as the crew was concerned, we had developed a good, easy to operate, and effective point-defense system.
Manning the DEW Line
Master Sergeant Lawrence C. Simpson, ARNG (Ret.)
The October issue’s article about DERs and AEW aircraft brought back many memories (“Armaments & Innovations: Extending the DEW Line to Sea,” pp. 6–7). After graduation from Class A Radar School in Norfolk, I left in January 1958 for two years’ active duty, reporting on board the USS Thomas J. Gary (DER-326), Newport, Rhode Island.
On 3 August 1958, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) traveled under the North Pole ice cap. We were on station #1 and received a message that they wanted to conduct ASW exercises with us.
The next year, we were on station #4 when one of the Gary’s crew had a ruptured appendix. We traveled to Lajes Air Base in the Azores, where he made a full recovery. We had expended so much fuel we had to be refueled, and because the Gary had diesel engines, our options were limited. The Canadian aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure met us at sea and refueled us. They had a large canvas sign on the side of the ship that said: “Bonnies 24 Hour Service, all U.S. credit cards accepted.”
I left active duty, honorably discharged, in July 1962 as a radarman second class. I later joined the Ohio Army National Guard and retired after 20 years as a master sergeant E-8. Go Navy!
Blockade’s Long-Term Effect
Commander Robert C. Whitten, USNR (Ret.)
In his article “Analyzing Germany’s Downfall” (December, pp. 38–43), Norman Friedman fails to mention that nation’s dependence on Chilean nitrates for production of munitions and fertilizers. The British blockade interrupted such imports, which may well have hastened the war’s end, but German chemist Fritz Haber temporarily alleviated the nitrate shortage. Early in the war, he invented a large-scale process for “fixing” atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia and then nitrates.
The blockade thus had little short-term effect on Germany’s nitrate supply; however, despite this fix, the demand for munitions outpaced the production of nitrates later in the war, thus reducing the portion allotted to agriculture. The result was near starvation for a large segment of the German population.
An irony of Haber’s efforts was that he was Jewish. Unlike in the Nazi era, Wilhelmine Germany thoroughly had integrated Jews into society. Many of them served as officers up to field grade in the imperial army, and Albert Einstein, a Jew, published his general theory of relativity in Berlin in 1915.
Getting Ships Straight
It was with great interest that I read “Disaster at Cavite” (December, pp. 48–53); however, some information in the piece was in error. The submarine tender USS Otis was designated AS-20, not ARG-20, at the time of the attack. On 25 June 1945, she was redesignated ARG-20. Also, the submarine rescue ship USS Pigeon was not ASR-21. The Pigeon at Cavite that day was ASR-6, the former Lapwing-class minesweeper AM-47.