From the very beginning of the United States, periodic naval actions in peacetime and war have captured national attention and highlighted the Sea Services’ role in the workings and affairs of the maritime republic. Proceedings authors have addressed such events, sometimes contemporaneously, sometimes decades afterward.
The Spanish-American War, 1898–1900, was a seminal event for the U.S. Navy, as it saw the service’s first significant combat since the Civil War. Twenty years after the event that sparked the war, in the February 1918 article “A Midshipman on the Maine,” Commander W. T. Culverius described being on board the battleship USS Maine on 15 February 1898 in Havana harbor. In a September 1900 article, Lieutenant John M. Ellicott wrote of his experiences as a young officer in Commodore George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron as ships left Hong Kong in late April 1898 for what would soon be the Battle of Manila Bay.
At 9 o’clock on the morning of that day the flagship [USS Olympia], Baltimore and Raleigh weighed anchor, formed column, and stood out of Hong Kong harbor, their bands playing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The sight of that intrepid squadron, seven thousand miles from all support, the ports of the world closed against it in cold neutrality, going forth undaunted to grapple with a remorseless foe in his own stronghold was too much for our Anglo-Saxon kinsmen to look upon unmoved. British sailors clambered into the rigging of their ships; British soldiers crowded to the edge of the cliffs, and cheer after cheer went after the gray, receding ships until they disappeared from sight, and the last door of hospitality was closed behind them. Then all the world waited and wondered. The most intensely peace-loving people on earth had been aroused to deadly combat. A nation which had not struck a blow in anger for a third of a century was about to meet in mortal struggle another inured to continual strife.
Half a decade later, the Russo-Japanese War culminated in the May 1905 Battle of Tsushima—the first, and last, major sea battle fought by steel battleships and arguably the most important in a century, since the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. American navalists took note. There were lessons to be learned, not least that the U.S. Navy should take small comfort in having defeated a relatively weak Spanish Navy. While U.S. Navy officers were still trying to ascertain the details of what happened at Tsushima from translated accounts from Russian and Japanese sources steadily becoming available, in the October 1905 Proceedings, Captain Richard Wainwright, in “The Battle of the Sea of Japan,” noted that superior Japanese naval officer training seemed to be a decisive factor: “Admitted that the Japanese fleet, as ships, was not superior to the Russian fleet, and I believe they were inferior, then the overwhelming victory of the Japanese must have been due to the better training of the officers, which produced better handling of the ships, better tactics, better fire control, and also to the better training of the men which produced better shooting.” Many other articles on the battle added analysis to the debate at the time as to how big and fast new U.S. capital ships should be, not least Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s April 1906 article, “Reflections, Historic or Other, Suggested by the Battle of the Sea of Japan.”
Mary Hannah Krout, the first woman to publish a Proceedings article, was a pioneering participant in efforts to look back at significant historical events with her 1921 article “Perry’s Expedition to Japan.”
In 1853–54, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry led a squadron of steam warships and sailing sloops, with the charge from President Millard Filmore to end Japan’s long history as a hermit nation and open her ports to free trade and ships’ coaling. He carried a letter from the President to the Emperor, and despite initial Japanese resistance, insisted on delivering the letter when he had anchored in Yedo Bay (Tokyo) and awaiting the Emperor’s reply.
The required preparations for the ceremony were promptly made, and on July 14 the historic landing took place. The ships in the harbor on the great occasion were the Susquehanna, the Mississippi—both steamships, the Plymouth and the Saratoga. . . . A salute, 13 guns, was fired as Commodore Perry left the flagship, and the bands which were with the boats played “Hail Columbia.”
The President wrote that he “was aware that ancient law forbade all trade except with the Dutch, but it was believed that free trade between Japan and the United States would be beneficial to both. He had learned that there was an abundance of coal and provisions in the empire. American vessels burned a great deal of coal. It was desired that they be permitted to stop in Japan and supply themselves, for which payment would be made in money, or other things that might be preferred. . . . The task assigned Commodore Perry was well and successfully performed.
In 1797, the fledgling Navy launched a heavy frigate, the Constitution. She would play a towering role in the War of 1812 and lives on today as the Navy’s oldest in-commission warship. Jon Brainard MacHarg published “The Story of Old Ironsides” in October 1931:
On February 3, 1794, General Knox, Secretary of War, wrote to Joshua Humphreys of Philadelphia, a famous shipbuilder, concerning ships for a navy, and on March 27 Congress passed an act for the construction of six frigates, following his plans, of which the Constitution to be built at Boston was one. Years after, when hot shot from the Guerriere fell harmless in the sea like peas from a sling, a sailor said, “Her sides are made of iron,” and ever since Old Ironsides has been her name.
During the Civil War, on the night of 27–28 October 1864, the Union Navy’s Lieutenant William B. Cushing acted on a plan of his own design, approved by the Secretary of the Navy. The Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle had been attacking Union ships in a North Carolina sound and then hiding upriver in shallows, with heavy defenses and wooded cover. Cushing rigged two launches with spar torpedoes, and he and his men at night, under fire, attacked and sank the ironclad. He would be hailed and, by formal resolution, awarded the Thanks of Congress. In 1912, Proceedings would publish Cushing’s autobiographic “Outline Story of the War Experiences of William B. Cushing, as Told by Himself.”
I discovered the unfortunate fact that there was a circle of logs around the Albemarle boomed well out from her side, with the very intention of preventing the action of the torpedoes. In another instant we had struck the logs and were over, with headway nearly gone, slowly forging up under the enemy’s port quarter. Ten feet from us the muzzle of a rifle gun looked into our faces. . . . Four more bullets now plowed through my clothing in quick succession as I stood in the bow, the heel jigger in right hand and exploding line in left. I ordered the boom lowered until the forward motion of the launch carried the torpedo under the ram’s overhang. A strong pull on the detaching line, a moment’s waiting for the torpedo to rise under the hull, and I hauled the left line just cut by a bullet. The explosion took place at the same instant that one hundred pounds of grape at ten-feet range crashed into our midst and a dense mass of water thrown out by the torpedo came down with choking weight upon us. . . .
Twice refusing to surrender, I commanded the men to save themselves, and throwing off sword, revolver, shoes, and coat, struck out from my disabled and sinking boat into the river. It was cold, long after the frosts and the water chilled the blood while the whole surface of the stream was ploughed by grape and musketry and my nearest friend was twelve miles away, but anything was better than to fall into rebel hands.
During World War I, the main action between battleships and battle cruisers was the 1916 Battle of Jutland between the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and the Imperial German Navy’s High Seas Fleet. As with the Battle of Tsushima, in the ensuing years, many Proceedings authors analyzed the battle for lessons for the U.S. Navy. In December 1921, Captain A. W. Hinds published “Practical Lessons for the American Navy from the Battle of Jutland.”
While the tactics and strategy of Nelson have been studied for over a hundred years, the Battle of Jutland is far more complicated than the whole of Nelson’s war experience, and it will take many years of faithful study to prepare us to reap the benefit of all the professional data furnished by this great sea fight. . . . The importance of the Jutland Battle to the naval profession is accentuated by the fact that it is the only naval engagement in which practically all types of modern fighting ships were used. . . . It is generally admitted that the Germans were ahead of the rest of the world in range finders at the beginning of the war, just as they were in advance of all other navies in the construction and handling of submarines. They had better optical instruments than the rest of us and, in consequence, they hit with more salvos early in the fight, than the British. The fleet that can land the first salvo has a marked advantage.
Major Navy accidents and disasters were global events in their own way, and analysis of them regularly appeared in Proceedings. For example, in February 1927, Captain Ernest J. King, commanding officer of the New London submarine base and future fleet admiral and Chief of Naval Operations, was officer-in-charge, salvage operations for the USS S-51, and presented a report in Proceedings. The submarine had left the New London base on the morning of 25 September 1925 and was sunk by the merchant steamer the City of Rome at about 10:25 p.m. Only 3 of 36 crew members survived. The courts found both City of Rome and S-51 at fault, and the incident led to restrictions on where submarines could operate during peacetime training. Salvage operations began soon after midnight.
The S-51, 240 feet long, lay in about 130 feet of water 12 miles east of Block Island. “When the S-51 hit the bottom,” King wrote, “she did so with her bow (forefoot) with such force that the divers reported heavy buckling in the plates on both sides in the wake of the bulkhead between the torpedo room and battery room, which is the point where the structure changes from double hull to single hull construction and indicated that this bulkhead was probably sprung.” King described the work done by the divers; the delay in planning to raise the submarine during winter months; the placing, lowering, and adjustment of the pontoons; arrangements for towing operations before the wreck left the bottom; and the raising, towing, and return to port.
In World War II, the Navy was fighting across the globe, with major challenges and triumphs unfolding in battles that would be named for their geographic locations—e.g., the Java Sea, Guadalcanal, Sicily, and Bougainville. Several naval officers’ oral histories, portions of which have been published in Proceedings, inform the next paragraphs.
In his oral history, then-Lieutenant William P. Mack recalled the 1942 Battle of the Java Sea, when he was gunnery
officer on the four-stack USS John D. Ford (DD-228):
We went up to Macassar Strait, sighted our first Japanese destroyers, started in among them, and fired all twelve of our torpedoes. We were undamaged, but had expended our torpedoes, a goodly number of four-inch rounds, and a number of hand grenades. This was the first time anybody had used hand grenades against another ship. The director-operator was my baseball pitcher. He was a right-hand pitcher, and I was a left hander. We actually got some hits. We’d see them bounce on the deck. I just can’t believe how close we were.
In the Guadalcanal campaign, Commander Roland Smoot was skipper of the destroyer USS Monssen (DD-436) escorting a cargo ship bringing supplies to the Marines fighting ashore, providing gunfire support, and taking on board the wounded. His crew saw a man wigwagging high in the hills, got recognition confirmation, sent in a boat, and out came Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Chesty Puller. He said, “I’ve got to get some men out of trouble; they’re trapped there.”
So, he went into control with my gunnery officer, and we just turned loose on this island, ploughed it with bullets, straight up and down the middle. Then we spread the firepower up two sides, and the Marines came down to the beach between. We sent for landing boats. Chesty was duly thankful, and we became great friends.
After he had a shower and a great dinner, we steamed back to the landing area. As he went over the side. He said, “Thank you very much. I wouldn’t have your job for anything in the world.” I said, “You’ve seen the kind of life I lead out here, and you prefer yours?” He said, “I sure do. When you get hit, where are you? When I get hit, I know where I am.”
As an ensign, Phil H. Bucklew became an amphibious commando, a member of the Scouts and Raiders. He participated first in the Operation Torch North African landings and then in the allied landings at Sicily and Normandy—and was twice awarded the Navy Cross. After the war, he was the first commander of SEAL Team One, rising through the ranks to captain. In 1987, after his retirement, the Phil H. Bucklew Center for Naval Special Operations was dedicated at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado.
In July 1943, Ensign Bucklew and his Scouts-and-Raiders unit had the job of guiding 15,000 allied troops through the dark onto Red Beach in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, as I recounted in the May 2018 Proceedings. In his oral history, he explained:
You had to get your troops in and make sure they were not off target 100 yards—make certain they hit the beach where their little charts said they would so they could move inland as planned. We would come in at night in advance of the landing force, center the beach, locate our flanks, and drop a man off at each flank. We would then back off until we received flashlight signals from each flank.
At Sicily, I put my flankmen ashore, both Army types, and got my two signals. At one flank at almost the same spot I was receiving my signal, the enemy opened fire. I was getting my flank signal with machinegun fire coming right over it, and it was steady. I found my sergeant on the beach next morning and said, “What the hell were you doing?” He said, “Well, the pillbox was occupied. I felt the safest thing to do was to get my back right up against it.” He was sitting there with a shielded light. He was right under their fire. We landed the troops.
The world would change on 6 August 1945, when the Army Air Forces B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. In his 2008 article “Deke,” Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler told the story of Navy Captain William “Deke” Parsons, who armed the bomb airborne while the B-29 bomber was
en route from Tinian Island to target. Earlier in his career, he had played a key role in the development of the proximity fuse for combat and had been drafted into the secret Manhattan Project creating atomic weapons.
The bomb, codenamed “Little Boy” was eleven feet long, weighed 9,700 pounds, and took up most of the bomb bay space. Parsons worked in the now frigid bomb bay with the two uranium masses inserted in the weapon, separated by a hollow tube less than five feet long. Amid bucking turbulence in the extremely cramped space, with his fingers close to frost-bitten, Deke carried out the tasks he had rehearsed hundreds of times in the 100-degree heat on the ground.
Sometimes lying under the giant bomb, sometimes straddling it, he tested barometric switches, wired complex circuitry, removed various pins, and gradually transformed the tungsten cylinder into the most deadly weapon yet devised by man. Parsons was arming the atomic bomb in flight because of the very real possibility that an electrical discharge or a sudden jolt could cause a premature detonation. Better to lose 12 men and a single B-29 than the entire island of Tinian.
With less than five minutes to target, Captain Parsons completed his work. The rest was up to “Little Boy.” At 0915, the bomb dropped from the belly of the silver plane and plummeted toward Hiroshima.
The Nuclear Age began in 1945 but had its most terrifying moment in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Admiral George W. Anderson Jr. was the new CNO. In his 1983 oral history, Anderson recalled the evening of 21 October when, during an Executive Committee meeting with President John F. Kennedy, he briefed how the Navy would enforce the quarantine of Cuba: “As we left the White House after the meeting, the President said to me, ‘Admiral, this is up to the Navy.’ And I said, ‘Mr. President, the Navy will not
let you down.’”
Anderson later explained an awkward encounter he had with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara when the latter came to the Navy’s flag plot in the Pentagon with staffers who were not cleared for sensitive intelligence about Soviet submarine movements:
We knew where one of these particular submarines was located. We had that information from the most highly classified intelligence that the Navy had at the time. . . . We had a destroyer sitting on top of this submarine. . . . I took [McNamara] into a little inner sanctuary where only the people who had clearance for that particular type of classified information were permitted, and I explained the whole thing to him and to his satisfaction, as well. He left, and we walked down the corridor, I said, “Well, Mr. Secretary, you go back to your office and I will go back to mine and we’ll take care of things.
In 1974, the United States led a clearance operation of the Suez Canal, closed since 1967 because of war between Israel and Arab states. In his February 1976 article “Nimrod Spar: Clearing the Suez Canal,” Navy Supervisor of Salvage Captain J. Huntly Boyd Jr., wrote:
In early 1974, the United States agreed to carry out the removal of the wrecks. . . . In planning the clearance operations, we determined that nine of the ten wrecks could be removed by lifting, either intact or in pieces, and transported to three designated dumping areas. Lifting operations were to be accomplished through the use of two U.S. Navy-owned heavy-lift salvage craft (YHLC) and two heavy cranes chartered especially for this operation from the German salvage firm Bugsier. . . . The Suez Canal clearance project was an excellent opportunity to put into practice the many skills of the salvor’s art. Under less-than-ideal conditions, the salvage teams completed this complex task on schedule in less than seven months—and only four months after arrival of heavy salvage equipment.
If other nations had blocked the Suez Canal, the U.S. Navy did the blocking off Libya in the Gulf of Sidra. Lieutenant Commander Robert Stumpf described some of the action in his August 1986 article “Air War with Libya.”
[The] exchange between F/A-18 Hornet strike-fighter pilots during the closing moments of an intercept was typical of the second phase of Operations in the Vicinity of Libya (OVL-II) in February 1986. The Hornets were part of a combat air patrol barrier set by the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) across the northern Gulf of Sidra. The MiG-23 Floggers had launched from Misratah, one of several coastal Libyan Arab Air Force (LAAF) bases on the Gulf. This tense but non-shooting air war, in which large numbers of encounters occurred between U.S. Navy and LAAF fighters, was characteristic of OVL-II. . . . After the December 1985 [terrorist] massacres in the Rome and Vienna airports, in which Libya was directly involved, the Sixth Fleet redoubled its preparations for possible conflict with states supporting worldwide terrorism. On the Coral Sea there was great anticipation that the United States would make good its pledge to confront this threat.
The 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War eventually involved the U.S. Navy. In 1987 the service was tasked to escort and protect reflagged Kuwaiti tankers. Retired Admiral Wesley McDonald described this mission in his article, “The Convoy Mission”:
To escort the reflagged Kuwaiti vessels and to protect against these Iranian threats, the United States had committed, as of the beginning of this year, more than 30 naval ships in the area. The ships of the Middle East Force itself operate continually in the Persian Gulf, while those in the carrier battle group remain in the North Arabian Sea. Up to February of this year, the combined force consisted of a carrier, a battleship, their supporting escorts, additional destroyers and frigates for escorting, minesweepers for route and channel clearance, an LPH helicopter carrier with the embarked RH-53 minesweeping helicopters, a number of light attack U.S. Army helicopters, a contingency Marine air-ground task force, and a contingent of naval special forces.
Operation Desert Storm began 17 January 1991 with U.S. and allied air and Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against Iraq. Vice Admiral Stanley Arthur, who was Commander, Seventh Fleet, and Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, at the time, wrote about the conflict in “Desert Storm at Sea.”
It is well known that Desert Storm was planned as a four-phase evolution. The strategic air campaign found all six carriers fully integrated into the structure together with our Tomahawk cruise missile launch platforms. . . . While the world through the eyes of CNN was riveted on the air campaign, the Storm at Sea was off and running. After reports by strike aircraft of receiving fire from oil platforms, the guided-missile frigate USS Nicholas (FFG-47) with her embarked Army OH-58D helos along with a Kuwaiti Navy patrol boat cleared the platforms and captured the first enemy prisoners.
Battleships made significant contributions. First, their presence off Khafji shored up Saudi defense along the coast. This gave the Marines confidence that their flank was secure. . . . Finally, 16-inch gunfire contributed mightily to the amphibious deception. . . . Four carriers operated inside the Persian Gulf and conducted heavy air operations for extended times.
In “The Recovery of Basher 52” in the November 1995 Proceedings, Marine Brigadier General Martin Berndt and Major Michael Jordan told the Navy–Marine Corps story of rescuing downed Air Force F-16 pilot Scott O’Grady during the 1990s Balkans conflicts.
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Amphibious Squadron Eight, commanded by Commodore Jerome E. Shill and consisting of the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), USS Nashville (LPD-13), and USS Pensacola (LSD-38) were the prime players in the rescue. . . . In the mid-1980s some visionaries in the Navy and Marine Corps foresaw the need for MEU expeditionary forces with the right people, equipment, and training for several missions, including the
tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP).
As the rescue team approached the objective area, the Cobra helos pushed out in front of the CH-53E transport helos to provide protection and search for the pilot. O’Grady, using his survival radio, guided them to his wooded hillside location. The CH-53Es landed as close as possible. Simultaneously, O’Grady came running from the tree line. The helo crew chief grabbed him and pushed him aboard through the starboard gunner’s hatch.
Enroute back and still over Serb-held territory about 30 miles from the coast, the TRAP force was taken under fire. Small arms fire slammed into both helos. Then there was the double-thumping of a twin-barreled antiaircraft artillery weapon. The mission commander directed the entire flight to press on, not returning fire, toward the safety of the Adriatic. At 0730, two-and-one-half hours after launch, the force returned without loss to the Kearsarge.
Americans have images etched in their minds from the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. A year later, in the September 2002 Proceedings, 1994 U.S. Naval Academy graduate Lieutenant Kevin Shaeffer authored “I’m Alive,” in which he recounted his horrendous ordeal. After he and his colleagues watched in horror from the Navy Command Center in the Pentagon as a second airliner crashed into the World Trade Center in New York:
Most of us returned to our desks not considering our location a risk. But that changed in a flash. At exactly 0943, the entire command center exploded in a gigantic orange fireball, and I felt myself being slammed to the deck by a massive and thunderous shock wave. It felt to me as if the blast had started at the outer wall blowing me forward toward Commander Dunn’s desk. I never lost consciousness, and though the entire space was pitch black, I sensed I was on fire. While still lying on the deck, I ran my fingers through my hair and over
my face to extinguish flames. Simultaneously, I tried to roll my body in order to smother the fire I felt burning my back and arms. As I stood to get my wits about me, I could make out just barely, through thick, acrid smoke, the carnage of what had been just moments before a space full of
Because of 42 percent body burns and lung damage, Lieutenant Shaeffer was medically retired with the award of the Purple Heart, presented to him by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark.
In January 2010, Proceedings presented the 50th-anniversary, first-person recollections of one of the world’s great explorers, retired Navy Captain Don Walsh, on his 23 January 1960 dive with Jacques Piccard in the bathyscaphe Trieste to the deepest known point of the world’s seabed—35,840 feet—the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.
In “A Dive to the Bottom of the Sea,” he recalled:
In 1957 the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research chartered the Trieste for a five-month series of sample scientific dives at Capri. Oceanographers of various disciplines had the opportunity to assess how such a scientific platform could support their research interests. . . . Shortly after I joined the Naval Electronics Laboratory, I was designated officer-in-charge of Trieste. It was after I joined the project that our chief scientist revealed the intention to make the deepest dive. To say the least, the idea of a dive seven miles deep was a surprise of major proportions. . . . On [19 January], the Trieste was towed to Apra Harbor to begin the slow 200-mile trip to the Challenger Deep dive site. The dive began shortly after the submersible arrived on site on the morning of the 23rd. The round-trip to history took us 9 hours—5 hours down, 20 minutes on the bottom, and 3¼ hours to come up.”