Archive

Archive for the ‘Military’ Category

The Last U.S. Cavalry Charge

June 5th, 2011 No comments
The Cavalry Charge, Frederic Remington

The Cavalry Charge, Frederic Remington

You are all familiar, I’m sure, with the image of the horse-mounted Cavalry from movie Westerns. Care to guess in which war the last United States horse-mounted cavalry charge took place?

o Civil War (1861-1865)

o Spanish-American War (1898)

o World War I (1914-1919)

o World War II (1939-1945)

The answer may surprise you: it was during World War II. It happened January 16, 1942 near the village of Morong on the Bataan Peninsula, during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, when the U.S. Army’s 26th Cavalry surprised a Japanese infantry unit and scattered them. [1] A nice painting commemorating the charge can be viewed here. But didn’t they have tanks and jeeps and half-tracks in World War II? Sure they did, but while the Army began the process of mechanization during World War I, this process was not complete even at the start of World War II. There was still a little room for an old-fashioned cavalry charge. The U.S. example, by the way, is not the last in history. As with a lot of historical trivia, there’s a lively debate over when the last cavalry charge in the world actually took place.

U.S. Special Forces on Horseback

U.S. Special Forces on Horseback

The traditional mission of the cavalry was as a specialized scouting and quick assault force. Military commanders used the cavalry to find the enemy’s forces, screen the enemy from finding their own forces, and strike the enemy at focused points in a battle. This is not to be confused with the use of horses as a means of military transportation. Dragoons, or mounted infantry, use horses to get to the scene, but any fighting is done while dismounted. As the photo shows, there are some pretty recent examples of the military use of horses – such as U.S. Special Forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2006. Sometimes the terrain just isn’t suited to mechanized vehicles, as anyone who has hiked in the Rockies can attest.

Sources:

[1] The Last Mounted Cavalry Charge: Luzon 1942, The CBS Interactive Business Network
[2] Cavalry, Wikipedia

George S. Patton

April 30th, 2011 No comments

George S. Patton

George S. Patton

General George Smith Patton, Jr. was easily the most colorful and controversial American general of World War II. Part of the controversy around Patton concerned the fact that he could, and would, “curse like a stable-boy”. As related by Charles M. Province:

“Patton had a unique ability regarding profanity. During a normal conversation, he could liberally sprinkle four letter words into what he was saying and the listeners would hardly take notice of it. He spoke so easily and used those words in such a way that it just seemed natural for him to talk that way.

He could, when necessary, open up with both barrels and let forth such blue-flamed phrases that they seemed almost eloquent in their delivery. When asked by his nephew about his profanity, Patton remarked, “When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them double dirty. It may not sound nice to some bunch of little old ladies at an afternoon tea party, but it helps my soldiers to remember. You can’t run an army without profanity; and it has to be eloquent profanity. An army without profanity couldn’t fight it’s way out of a piss-soaked paper bag.”

“As for the types of comments I make”, he continued with a wry smile, “Sometimes I just, By God, get carried away with my own eloquence.”

Source:

[1] The Famous Patton Speech, by Charles M. Province

Noms de Guerre

April 30th, 2011 No comments

“Nom de Guerre” is a French expression which, translated literally, means “war name”. Think “Maverick”, “Ice Man” and “Goose” in Top Gun. From a more historical perspective, think of General Thomas J. Jackson. Almost everyone calls him only by his nom de guerre: “Stonewall Jackson”. Many of our better-known military leaders have had a nom de guerre. In fact, some have had several, which reflect the relative success (at least as perceived by the public) of their military careers at the time the name is conferred.

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee

Take for instance General Robert E. Lee. At the end of the Civil War, Lee was so venerated in the South (and pretty much in the North, too) that a small boy, learning about Lee in his classroom, asked his mother, “Momma, I’m confused. Was General Lee in the Old Testament or the New?” [1] But Lee was not always so lofty a figure in the public’s eye. At the start of the war, Lee was in charge of the disappointing Cheat Mountain Campaign in western Virginia. He was viewed by the public as being too cautious in battle, and was dubbed “Granny Lee”. After this campaign, Confederate President Jefferson Davis reassigned Lee (who had a background with the Corps of Engineers) to supervise the build-up of coastal defenses in South Carolina. This, and the construction of defensive trenches around Richmond earned Lee the sobriquet “King of Spades”, and it was not conferred in a positive tone. These early names gave way later to more positive nicknames later, after Lee’s brilliance as a field commander was established. Later we see him referred to affectionately as “Bobby Lee” and reverently as “Marse Robert” (marse is slang for master).

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

And how about Lee’s nemesis, General Ulysses S. Grant? After the successful investment of Fort Donelson, Grant received a request for surrender terms from the rebel commander, Simon Bolivar Buckner. Grant’s famous reply was “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” [3] The capture of Fort Donelson in 1862 was one of the earliest Union successes in the Civil War, when the North was hungry for good news. The press seized upon the term “unconditional surrender”, and since it fit neatly into Grant’s initials, U.S. Grant became “Unconditional Surrender Grant”. Later, during the long and bloody campaign against Lee in 1864, when the war seemed interminable and Northern morale was flagging, Grant was nicknamed “The Butcher” or “Grant the Butcher” due to the high number of Union casualties, especially at Cold Harbor. This was not any more descriptive of Grant than “Granny Lee” was descriptive of Lee, since Grant had shown time and again during the war his care of the troops under his command. When Grant was finally able to pin Lee down and force a surrender he offered generous terms, according to Abraham Lincoln’s wishes to “let ‘em up easy” and his own inclinations. After the surrender he was the “Hero of Appomattox” and once again the darling of the North.

George S. Patton

George S. Patton

In World War II, General George S. Patton was known as “Old Blood and Guts” because he was the most aggressive fighting general in the European Theater. Check out his speech to his troops upon assuming command of the Third Army just before D-Day, and you’ll get a little insight to his approach to war. In North Africa, he squared off against a wily opponent in Germany’s Erwin Rommel, respectfully called “The Desert Fox” by the British. Which reminds me of the unstated rule of noms de guerre. A regular pseudonym may be self-imposed, say for example “Mark Twain”, which Samuel Langhorne Clemens chose to commemorate his days as a Mississippi riverboat pilot (“mark, twain” was the boatman’s call at measuring two fathoms, a minimum safe depth for navigation). Not so a nom de guerre, which must be chosen by your friends, the soldiers under your command, the press, or perhaps by your enemy.

Sources:

[1] The History Channel Presents The Civil War, The History Channel DVD Collection
[2] Lee’s Nicknames, Son of the South
[3] Correspondence Between Ulysses S. Grant and Simon B. Buckner Discussing Surrender Terms at Ft. Donelson, CivilWarHome.com
[4] The Famous Patton Speech, by Charles M. Province

Worst U.S. Maritime Disaster

March 19th, 2011 No comments

I would make a bet that if you took a poll, asking the average Joe what is the worst U.S. maritime disaster, you would get “The Sinking of the Titanic” as the number one answer. I would agree that the RMS Titanic is by far the most famous, but it was not really a U.S. disaster, and not the worst in terms of loss of life (in U.S. History). That grim distinction belongs to the explosion and subsequent sinking on April 27, 1865 of the SS Sultana, a Mississippi River steamboat paddlewheeler.

SS Sultana on April 26, 1865

SS Sultana on April 26, 1865

The Sultana was a new, state-of-the-art steamboat, built in 1863. She had been making regular runs up and down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans during the last two years of the Civil War. On her last trip, she was commissioned by the Federal Government to carry Union solders upriver, on their way home as the war came to a close. In fact, most of the passengers were newly released prisoners of war, from the Cahaba and Andersonville prisons.
The high death toll was due to the fact that the ship was dangerously overloaded. She was by law limited to 376 passengers and crew. However, there were thousands of former Union prisoners at Vicksburg, Mississippi, anxious to take the first available ship and get home. The government was paying a lucrative $5 per soldier to get them home, so the ship’s captain, J. C. Mason of St. Louis, was incented to put as many passengers on board as possible. According to some, the military officers were being paid a kickback of $1.15 per person to look the other way and ignore the overcrowding. [2] At any rate, the Sultana was carrying 2,200 to 2,400 people at the time of the disaster, six times the legal limit. So many people were crammed on board they decided not to make out a passenger list. As you can see from the photo taken the day before she sank, the Sultana was packed with people literally shoulder-to-shoulder. Extra stanchions were installed to support the hurricane (top) deck, which was sagging from the weight of the passengers.
At Vicksburg, the engineers discovered leaks and a bulge in one of the boilers. Not wanting to lose time and take a chance on another steamboat getting the opportunity to carry the passengers, the captain decided to patch the boiler rather than replace it, which would have taken three days.

Sultana Burning, Harper's Weekly

Sultana Burning, Harper's Weekly

The Disaster: After stopping in Memphis, Tennessee, Sultana started upriver, headed for the next stop at Cairo, Illinois, where most of the passengers were scheduled to disembark. The spring runoff was underway, so the river was high and the current strong, which meant that the Sultana needed a higher than normal head of steam to make her way upstream. The steamboat, top-heavy from too many passengers, was careening from one side to the other. At 2:00 a.m. on the 27th, about seven miles upriver from Memphis, three of the four boilers exploded. The explosion tore a gaping hole in the Sultana and sent burning pieces of coal flying everywhere, which quickly caught the wooden ship on fire. Men were blown off the ship, or jumped into the icy spring water to escape the flames. Soldiers drowned, burned, died from hypothermia, or were crushed when the smokestacks collapsed onto the stricken ship. About 500 men were rescued from the water, of which some 200 to 300 died later from burns, hypothermia, or their general poor health resulting from their captivity. Altogether some 1,700 to 1,800 people died, making it the worst maritime disaster in American History.
The Cause: The explosion was likely caused by four factors: the steam pressure was probably abnormally high due to the need for extra power to overcome the strong current. The hasty boiler repairs were inadequate to insure safety. The careening could also have played a part – the four interconnected boilers were arranged side-by-side, which meant that water could flow from the highest boiler to the lowest as the ship tilted to one side then the other. If the water level was not properly maintained, hot spots could develop, where the iron boilers become red-hot due to lack of water, then when the water rushes back it would instantly turn to steam, causing a sudden surge in the overall steam pressure.

Coal Torpedo

Coal Torpedo

Sabotage? Another possible cause for the boiler explosion was reported in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in an article on May 6, 1888. [4] In this article, William C. Streetor, a resident of St. Louis, reported that while he worked as a clerk and assistant keeper in the Gratiot and Myrtle street prisons, an ex-Confederate Secret Service agent and boat-burner, Robert Louden (or Lowden), claimed he had smuggled a coal torpedo aboard the Sultana at Memphis. The coal torpedo was a small explosive device made to look like an ordinary lump of coal, but would explode in a coal furnace, causing a secondary explosion of the boiler. (During the Civil War, a broad variety of explosive devices were called “torpedoes”.) Some sixty Union steamboats were destroyed by Confederate agents during the war. [5] The sabotage theory was called “wholly baseless” in one source [2], and given credibility in others. [5]
Why is the Sultana Disaster unknown? When the Sultana’s boilers burst, the nation was inundated with news. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, and John Wilkes Booth had been caught and killed on April 26th, the day before the Sultana exploded. Also on the 26th, the last major Confederate Army, under Joseph E. Johnston, surrendered to William T. Sherman. Possibly because of the shady nature of the circumstances around the overcrowding, the Army was not anxious to publicize the story. The public was either tired or desensitized to news of death, having just gone through a war in which at least 618,000 soldiers were killed. Finally, anything which happened in the West received less coverage in Eastern papers.
Vox’s Take: Whether the sinking of the Sultana was accidental or deliberate, it was an especially tragic end for the Union prisoners of war who survived incredible deprivation in Southern prison camps, only to be killed when they were so close to getting home. In a small way, the incident helped bring former enemies together: the people of Memphis cared for the survivors and raised funds to help them. [3] One ex-Confederate soldier in a small boat is said to have single-handedly rescued fifteen Union survivors. [2] Perhaps someday this incredible story will find its way into the history books. Interestingly enough, the remains of the Sultana may have been found in 1982, 32 feet under a soybean field in Arkansas. [3] The Mississippi River has changed course many times, and the wreckage is now two miles from the current location of the main channel.

Sources:

[1] Remembering Sultana, National Geographic News
[2] Death on the Dark River, The Story of the Sultana Disaster in 1865, ancestry.com
[3] SS Sultana, Wikipedia
[4] Sabotage of the Sultana, Civil War St. Louis
[5] The Boat-Burners, Civil War St. Louis

Four Famous Flags

February 27th, 2011 No comments

I love the red, white and blue image of the “Stars and Stripes” against a sky-blue background. Our flag produces a positive visceral reaction for me, as I suspect it does for a lot of Americans. As with any nation’s flag, our flag is more than just the symbol of our country, it becomes a visual representation of our feelings of patriotism and love of home. Certain individual flags, in time of crisis, become a physical channel for our collective passions.

The Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner

Star-Spangled Banner: One of our most famous flags is the Star-Spangled Banner, the popular name given to the 15-star, 15-stripe flag which flew over Ft. McHenry while the British bombarded it on September 13-14, 1814 during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. The sight of the huge garrison-sized (30 by 42 feet) flag defiantly flying over the fort as the sun rose on the morning of the 14th after an all-night bombardment was witnessed by Francis Scott Key, who was inspired to write the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry”. After being set to the tune of an old British drinking song it became our National Anthem. The flag itself was not well treated during the 19th Century. Modern sensibilities about the preservation of historical artifacts were not widespread, and bits of it (including one of its fifteen two-foot-wide stars) were snipped off and given out as souvenirs, eventually reducing the flag’s length by eight feet. What remains of the original flag is now preserved in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Ft. Sumter Flag

Ft. Sumter Flag

Ft. Sumter Flag:When the seven states of the deep South seceded following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Federal installations in the South were marooned. Most, such as Federal armories, were easily accessible to the Confederates and were quickly taken. A few Federal forts in and around Charleston Harbor, however, were isolated from land approaches and remained under Union control. The Union officer in charge, Major Robert Anderson, moved his garrison to Ft. Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, as hostilities became increasingly likely. After Major Anderson refused their ultimatum to evacuate, Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard gave the order, and the Confederates fired the first shots of the Civil War at Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861. On the 14th, after some 34 hours of bombardment, out of food and with parts of the fort burning (but with no casualties), Major Anderson was compelled to surrender. He requested as part of his surrender terms permission to fire a 100-round salute to the flag which flew over the fort, which Beauregard granted. Unfortunately, a shell exploded prematurely on the 47th shot, killing one man and wounding another, and the salute was reduced to 50. After lowering the flag, the Union soldiers were allowed to simply board a ship for the North, taking their ensign with them.
Major Anderson was proclaimed a hero in the North, and he and the flag went on a fund-raising tour where the flag was “auctioned” off (and then promptly re-donated by the winner) again and again to raise funds for the nascent war effort. After the four bloodiest years of our history, with the South beaten, (now) Major General Anderson returned to Ft. Sumter with the same flag and raised it again over the fort. The dramatic flag-raising ceremony was on April 14, 1865, four years to the day after the fort’s surrender. Ironically, it was also the night Lincoln became the first U.S. President to be assassinated.
U.S. Marines Raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi

U.S. Marines Raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi

Iwo Jima Flag: One of the most iconic images of World War II (or any war, for that matter) was captured by photographer Joe Rosenthal at the height of one of the fiercest fights, the Battle for Iwo Jima. Four days after landing on Iwo Jima, amid terrible fighting, Marines of the 5th Division reached the top of Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island. Actually the second flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi that day (February 23, 1945), the moment captured on film was on the front page of newspapers across the country within 18 hours. President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately saw its value in helping the war effort, and the inspiring image, along with the three survivors of the six soldiers who raised the flag, were soon on a tour to sell U.S. War Bonds. Roosevelt was right: the 7th Bond Tour raised an incredible $24 billion for the war effort, the largest borrowing from the American public in history. To put that amount in perspective, the entire budget of the U.S. Government in 1946 was $56 billion.
Raising the Flag at Ground Zero

Raising the Flag at Ground Zero

Ground Zero Flag: Out of the tragedy of the September 11, 2001 attacks came a new iconic image for a new generation: the sight of three dust-covered New York firefighters raising a flag on an improvised flag pole at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center. Shot by Thomas E. Franklin of The Bergen Record, the resilience and defiance this photo conveys lifted our spirits even as we mourned the victims of that senseless act of terror. Shortly after the 9-11 Attacks, my son Michael, who was a Damage Controlman (firefighter) in the Navy, deployed on his ship the USS Theodore Roosevelt in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the War on Afghanistan. Soon after the ship embarked, the Navy asked to borrow the Ground Zero Flag, and so New York City lent the flag to the Navy who forwarded it to the Theodore Roosevelt, then in the Arabian Sea supporting the air war in Afghanistan.
On September 30, 2001 a ceremony was conducted on board the Theodore Roosevelt wherein the Ground Zero Flag was presented to the Theodore Roosevelt firefighters. I’m proud to say that Michael was one of the firefighters to participate in that ceremony. On this deployment, the Theodore Roosevelt remained at sea for 159 consecutive days, longer than any warship since World War II. I remember Michael saying they worked 16 hours a day for 79 straight days before they got a day off. When the guys on the ground need air support, they need it now.
Flying the the Ground Zero Flag

Flying the the Ground Zero Flag

While participating in Operation Enduring Freedom, the Ground Zero Flag was flown from the Theodore Roosevelt’s halyards, an especially poignant reminder to the sailors and airmen what we were fighting for, and an especially “in-your-face” reminder to the Taliban what we were fighting for. At the end of Theodore Roosevelt’s deployment, the flag was formally transferred back to police and firefighters representing New York City. There’s a sad footnote to this story, however. In August 2002, New York City lent the flag back to the original owners prior to its transfer to the Smithsonian. To their dismay, the owners realized that the flag the city returned to them was not the flag taken from their yacht the Star of America and hoisted by the firefighters at Ground Zero. They have tried to force New York City to find the original flag, but so far have not met with success.
Vox’s Take: I think it’s a shame that the original Ground Zero Flag has been lost, just as it’s a shame part of the Star-Spangled Banner was cut up for souvenirs over 150 years ago. I hope the Ground Zero Flag can be found. Despite this, both flags have served their purpose, and the images they have given us, which can never be lost, are just as powerful as the actual artifacts.

Sources:
[1] Battle of Baltimore, United States History.com
[2] Star-Spangled Banner, National Museum of American History
[3] Battle of Fort Sumter, Wikipedia
[4] Oral History- Iwo Jima Flag Raising, Naval History & Heritage Command
[5] Battle for Iwo Jima, 1945, Navy Department Library
[6] Bond Tour, IwoJima.com
[7] Raising the Flag at Ground Zero, Wikipedia
[8] Operation Enduring Freedom, Wikipedia
[9] Help Find the Flag, findthe911flag.com

Sinking of the Lusitania

February 13th, 2011 No comments

The RMS Lusitania, launched in 1907, was one of the fastest ocean liners of her time, holding the Blue Riband for fastest Atlantic passenger liner crossings along with her sister ship, the RMS Mauretania. With the help of state-of-the-art Parsons steam turbine engines generating 68,000 horsepower [1], fed by 25 boilers and turning four huge screws (propellers), she regularly cruised at 25 knots.

RMS Lusitania coming into port

RMS Lusitania coming into port

On May 7, 1915, during World War I, she was nearing the end of a crossing from New York to Liverpool. South of the coast of Ireland, her lookout saw a trail of foam rapidly approaching the ship and shouted “Torpedoes!”. There was just one torpedo, but it slammed into the starboard side and detonated. Moments later a huge secondary explosion rocked the ship. She sank in just 18 minutes amid a chaos of trying to launch lifeboats, killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people on board, including 128 Americans. [2]
The torpedo came from the German submarine U20. The sinking of the Lusitania outraged Americans and helped turn the national sentiment, which had been very isolationist and neutral regarding the great European war, decidedly against the Germans. The Lusitania incident contributed to America eventually entering the war on the side of Britain and France. Why would the Germans attack a passenger liner with innocent women and children on board? Was this a wanton case of barbarism, as the English news stories claimed?
As always, there is more to the story than this. Near the start of the war in August 1914, the British, wanting to leverage the might of the Royal Navy, imposed a blockade of German ports. This blockage was very effective, causing starvation in Germany and the eventual deaths of 763,000 civilians, according to official statistics [3]. Germany responded with the only advantage she had, which was her submarine service, the most advanced in the world. Germany declared the North Sea and the area around the British Isles a British “military area” and warned that any ships entering this area, including those from neutral countries, were subject to submarine attack. The British admiralty responded to this declaration with orders for a merchant ship who encounters a submarine to steer straight for it at utmost speed – in effect instructions to ram the small and vulnerable submarine. The “rules of war” up to this time called for warships intercepting merchant vessels to stop them and allow for passengers and crew to disembark before firing on the ship, unless the ship resisted, attempted to flee, or was part of a convoy. The Germans were aware of the British admiralty instructions and the extreme vulnerability of a submarine on the surface. In addition, a submarine with a surface speed of 15 knots could not possibly keep up with a fast liner like the Lusitania. In light of this, in February the German government announced that allied ships in the war zone would be sunk without warning.

German warning notice

German warning notice

Most passengers were unaware of two crucial facts about the Lusitania. First, she was secretly subsidized by the British government, and in return was built to meet with specifications to allow her to be converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser if the need arose. She had magazines for powder and ammunition, and gun mounts concealed underneath her decks. Second, on her final voyage she was carrying contraband (military cargo), including 4.3 million rounds of Remington .303 cartridges, used in both rifles and machine guns. Passengers were not aware of the contraband, but the Germans, via their spy network, almost certainly were. In fact, the German Embassy in Washington took out an ad in the New York newspapers, warning people not to book passage on the Lusitania. The German notice was printed next to a Cunard Line advertisement for the voyage, and caused a stir. Many people took heed, and the Lusitania was only at about half capacity on the final voyage.

All of these factors combined to a situation where the U20 issued no warning and simply fired a torpedo when the Lusitania came within range. The propaganda offices in both Britain and America were quick to portray the attack as a war crime. The Kaiser was quick to defend it. So the question for discussion is: was the commander of the U20 justified in this situation to fire on the Lusitania, or were the newspapers correct, and this was a barbaric act and a war crime?
Vox’s Take: War is a very difficult thing to conduct in a “civilized” manner. In the words of William T. Sherman, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” [4] Certainly, it’s hard to see how the sinking of a passenger liner loaded with civilians is justified. But did the Germans, with their people starving, have a right to enforce their own blockade in the manner they could, as the British were doing? And what did the Brits intend to do with the 4.3 million rounds of ammunition? Why, shoot them at the Germans of course. It can be argued that the Germans did indeed give warning, not on the high seas but before the voyage even began. My take is that the sinking was not “civilized”, but was not a war crime, given the conditions in which it occurred. What’s your take?

Sources:
[1] The Sinking of the Lusitania, Eyewitness to History
[2] RMS Lusitania, Wikipedia
[3] The blockade of Germany, Spotlights on history, National Archives
[4] Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, AmericanCivilWar.com

Evolution of Naval Armor, Part 4: “Big Stick”

January 18th, 2011 No comments

(To see all the posts in this series, click here: Naval Armor.)
In our evolution of naval armor series, we’ve so far looked at battleships – those warships built around armor and cannon, designed to be able to survive a “shootin’ match” with another warship and deal a deadly blow to their adversary. As we mentioned in Part 3, the attack on Pearl Harbor spelled the end of the battleship as the premier fighting ship of the World’s navies. The aircraft carrier, with its ability to launch scores of aircraft to project its power, has been the standard ever since. Let’s take a look at the carrier my son served on: the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).

"Big Stick"

Big Stick

The Theodore Roosevelt, launched October 27, 1984, was the fourth of the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers, our current class of supercarrier. The offensive power of the aircraft carrier is, of course, based on the air wing that it carries, and we won’t go into those details here. But how about defense? What does a modern aircraft carrier do to protect itself? Well, there’s not a continuation of the thicker, stronger armor paradigm. With two nuclear reactors for propulsion, the design could have called for thick steel armor all around the ship. But the ship’s designers recognized that a big, passive coat of armor was both wasteful and inefficient. There’s no armor plate, but the Theodore Roosevelt does have a double-hull design and 2.5 inch Kevlar armor around especially critical areas.
Rather, today’s carriers rely on active defensive systems to counter threats before they reach the ship.

Mark 15 Phalanx CIWS

Mark 15 Phalanx CIWS

Closest-in is the Mark 15 Phalanx, or Close-In Weapons System (CIWS, pronounced “sea-whiz”). This unit features its own searching and tracking radar control directing a six-barrel, 20 mm gatling gun. The gun fires heavy-metal (tungsten or depleted uranium) projectiles at either 3,000 or 4,500 rounds per minute. This incredible rate of fire puts a veritable wall of metal out in front of a close incoming threat such as an airplane or anti-ship missile.
Further out, up to 10 nautical miles, the Theodore Roosevelt uses the RIM-7 Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile system for airborne threats. In addition to shooting at incoming threats, there are a number of deceptions the ship can employ, including chaff and infrared flares to confuse missile guidance systems and underwater towed decoys to defend against torpedoes. But all of these are defenses of last resort. Optimally, no threat could get close enough to challenge the ship directly. A Nimitz-class carrier has a capacity for 90 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, some of which are offensive and some of which are employed in a defensive air umbrella around the ship.

USS Theodore Roosevelt

USS Theodore Roosevelt

Finally, the Navy does not send a five billion-dollar ship out to face danger alone. The carrier has never fought alone – we saw in Part 3 that part of the USS Missouri’s duties was to protect the carriers. Today, the carrier is in the center of a carrier strike group (CSG). The composition varies, but a CSG might consist of the carrier, two guided missile cruisers, two anti-aircraft warships, one or two anti-submarine destroyers or frigates and possibly a submarine. Together these ships provide mutual support, forming a multi-layered defense that would present a formidable challenge to any opponent.

Sources:
[1] USS Theodore Roosevelt Official Website
[2] USS Theodore Roosevelt, NavSource Online
[3] USS Theodore Roosevelt, Navy Site, Department of Defense
[4] USS Theodore Roosevelt, Wikipedia

Evolution of Naval Armor, Part 3: “Mighty Mo”

January 17th, 2011 No comments

(To see all the posts in this series, click here: Naval Armor.)
In part three of our survey of the evolution of naval armor, let’s look at the pinnacle of the heavily armored ship, the World War II battleship. The last battleship commissioned by the US Navy was the USS Missouri (BB-63). The Missouri – nicknamed “Mighty Mo” – was numbered the third of four Iowa-class battleships, but was the last one completed. She was launched January 29, 1944, at the height of World War II.

USS Missouri after modernization

USS Missouri after modernization

The USS Monitor, which we discussed in Part 2, was a radically new design, an untested experiment which during the pressure of war went from laying the keel to launch in 118 days. The Missouri on the other hand was the culmination of all of our years of experience and evolutionary development of big-gun, heavy-armor warships. Her main armament was nine 16-inch “Mark 7” guns, arranged in three turrets of three guns each. Each individual Mark 7 is 66 feet long and weighs 267,900 pounds with the breech. A Mark 7 can hurl a high-explosive shell weighing 2,700 pounds (a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle weighs 1,764 pounds) some 24 miles, and land it in an area the size of a tennis court. Just one salvo from one turret exceeded the normal 6,000 pound bomb capacity of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
A two-shot salvo at night in 1944

A two-shot salvo at night in 1944

As for armor, she carried 7.5 inch steel deck armor, a 12.1 inch armor belt to protect against torpedoes, and her gunners enjoyed 19.7 inch armor on the turrets. Her turrets had nearly the thickness of the USS Constitution’s sides, but with steel, not oak. This was not even the most armor seen during the war. The largest battleship ever, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Yamato, had 26 inch armor on the face of her main turrets.
A Zero about to impact the Missouri

A Zero about to impact the Missouri

Remember in Part 2 the dents in the turret of the Monitor, caused by Confederate shells? The Missouri also suffered a dent in her armor, caused not by shells but by a Japanese Zero in a kamikaze attack on April 11, 1945. The dent remains to this day.
Japanese Surrender Delegation

Japanese Surrender Delegation

The Missouri participated in many of the famous battles of the Pacific in World War II: Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the Japanese home islands. She became famous as the site of the Japanese surrender ceremony on September 2, 1945 while anchored in Tokyo Bay, ending World War II. The Missouri fought again in Korea, supporting the Incheon Landings, screening aircraft carriers and bombarding North Korean positions. With the end of the Korean war, she was mothballed (put into the reserve fleet) in 1955 after only 11 years of service. There she remained until 1984 when she was reactivated and modernized as part of the “600 ship Navy” program. She last fought in Operation Desert Storm – the 1990 Gulf War in Iraq. During this fight she had far greater firepower than the Mark 7 guns, for during her modernization she was fitted to launch “Tomahawk” cruise missiles. On March 31, 1992 she left active service again – as the last United States battleship to be decommissioned. Today she is a museum ship anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, watching over the USS Arizona Memorial. It is fitting that our last battleship resides at Pearl Harbor, because the Japanese carrier attack of December 7, 1941 proved conclusively that the battleship had been superseded. The aircraft carrier, not the battleship, was to be the future means of projecting naval power.

Sources:
[1] USS Missouri (BB-63), 1944-1998, Selected Views, Naval Historical Center
[2] USS Missouri BB-63, Wikipedia
[3] Battleship Missouri Memorial, USSMissouri.com

Evolution of Naval Armor, Part 2: “Monitor and Merrimac”

January 16th, 2011 2 comments

(To see all the posts in this series, click here: Naval Armor.)
The birth of “modern” naval warfare is sometimes traced to the first engagement between two ships protected by iron armor – the “ironclads”. The Battle of Hampton Roads, more famously referred to as the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac, occurred on March 8-9, 1862 during the U.S. Civil War.

CSS Virginia

CSS Virginia

CSS Virginia (Merrimac)
The USS Merrimac was a wooden-hulled screw frigate launched by the U.S. Navy in 1855. She was in port, due for an engine overhaul at the outbreak of war on April 12, 1861. When the Gosport Navy Yard (later Norfolk Navy Yard) was in danger of being overrun on April 20 by Confederate land forces, the Navy set fire to and scuttled her before abandoning the yard. The Merrimac sank in shallow water without burning completely. The Confederates, desperate for ships, were able to salvage the hulk. Afraid that the North was planning a fleet of ironclads, they decided to rebuild her as an ironclad ram. She was fitted with a four-inch thick iron deck and a sloping casemate (fortified enclosure or roof) of two two-inch plates of railroad iron backed by 24 inches of pine and oak. They mounted ten guns (cannons) on her, four along each side and one swiveling gun each for the bow and stern. Finally, she was fitted with an eight-foot long, 1,500 pound iron ram at her bow. They renamed the rebuilt ship the CSS Virginia. The additional weight was almost too much for the Virginia, whose keel was of course not designed for it. The Virginia also had to make do with the original steam engines meant for the much lighter Merrimac, and so she was woefully underpowered and slow. The additional weight also caused her to draft deeper than before at up to 22 feet, limiting her use in rivers and coastal waters. She was top-heavy, and between the underpowered engines and deep draft she was ”little more manageable than a timber-raft” – she required 45 minutes to turn a complete circle. She wasn’t fit for the open ocean either, so her prospects seemed iffy. In fact, some Confederate newspapers had already pronounced her a failure before her first battle.
USS Monitor

USS Monitor

USS Monitor
The North did not actually have plans in motion to build an ironclad, but they heard about the new ironclad being built by the Confederates, and so embarked on a crash program to produce an ironclad of their own. The Navy employed Swedish engineer John Ericsson who came up with a radical new design. The USS Monitor featured just two large-caliber (11 inch) Dahlgren guns, but these were mounted in a swiveling turret so they could fire in any direction. Most of the ship lay under the water line beneath a flat deck of one inch armor supported by heavy timbers. Her sides had five inch-thick iron plates, backed by oak. The turret was comprised of eight layers of one inch iron plate, bolted together. A ninth plate inside acted as a sound shield. This new style of ship was like nothing anyone had seen before. One Confederate officer thought she looked like a “cheese-box on a raft”. The Monitor had a very modest seven to eight foot draft, making her very suitable for rivers and shallow coastal waters. Like the Virginia, the Monitor was not fit for the open ocean – with the armored turret she was top-heavy, and with the shallow draft she was vulnerable in rough seas.
Battle of Hampton Roads

Battle of Hampton Roads

Battle of Hampton Roads
On March 8, 1862, the Virginia was supposed to go out on sea trials, but the captain instead decided to contest the Federal blockade of the waters around Norfolk and Newport News, Virginia – a body of water called Hampton Roads. The wooden Federal fleet saw an approaching ship that looked like a “barn roof” and soon realized that they were up against the rumored Confederate ironclad. They joined in battle, but they were completely outclassed. The shells from the Union guns simply bounced off Virginia’s sloping iron casemate. Ignoring a small union gunboat, Virginia first attacked and sank the USS Cumberland by ramming her below the water line. The ram became stuck in Cumberland’s hull and nearly dragged the Virginia down with the Cumberland, but then the ram broke off and Virginia backed away. The Cumberland died fighting, firing her guns as long as they were above water.
Next, Virginia engaged the USS Congress. After an hour, the Congress was badly damaged and surrendered. At this point a Union shore battery fired on the Virginia and she retaliated by firing “hot shot” (cannon shot heated red-hot) at the Congress, which caught fire and burned the rest of the day. The Virginia then tried to engage the USS Minnesota, which had run aground in shallow water. But because of her deep draft, the Virginia was not able to get within range. The battle was suspended when Virginia’s captain became concerned they would miss the high tide and not be able to make it over a sand bar and back to port.
At dawn the next day, March 9, Virginia returned to finish off the Minnesota. During the night, however, the Federals had managed to reach the scene of battle with the new USS Monitor. As the Virginia approached the Minnesota, the Monitor interceded. The resulting engagement lasted most of the day, with the Monitor and the Virginia pounding each other, often at point-blank range, with little effect. Despite their other flaws, each ship’s armor was very effective against the other’s shells. At one point the Virginia tried to ram the smaller Monitor, but without her iron ram this tactic failed. At the end, the Monitor and the Virginia disengaged, each thinking the other was quitting, and each claiming victory.

Turret of the Monitor, dented by shells

Vox’s Take:
You know how some innovations can go for decades before they catch the world’s attention? That’s not the case here. News of the “Battle of the Ironclads” sent a shock wave through the navies of the world, as everyone recognized immediately that wooden-hulled ships were hopelessly obsolete compared to the ironclads. The revolving turret was also an extremely important innovation, because for the first time you did not have to position the whole ship in order to bring your guns to bear on an opponent. This made the Monitor, not the Virginia, the model for future warship development.
Neither ship fought again, and neither survived the year. In May, the Virginia was ordered blown up by her own Navy in order to avoid capture, and in December the Monitor foundered and sank in rough seas. However, their one battle changed the course of naval warfare as radically as the switch from sails to steam.

Sources:
[1] Battle_of_Hampton_Roads, Wikipedia
[2] The Battle of the Ironclads, CivilWarHome.com
[3] USS Monitor (1862-1862), Naval Historical Center
[4] National Archives

Evolution of Naval Armor, Part 1: “Old Ironsides”

January 9th, 2011 No comments

(To see all the posts in this series, click here: Naval Armor.)

USS Constitution in Boston Harbor, September 2006


Battle ship design is a series of trade-offs: heavy armor and armament (and thus great weight) vs. speed given the available room for sails or engines, size (and target profile) vs. maneuverability. The various design compromises – light, fast and maneuverable vs. heavy, slow and powerful are the reason we have such a variety of ships in naval history – patrol/torpedo boats, destroyers, frigates, light cruisers, heavy cruisers, dreadnoughts, and battle ships. During our revolutionary period, the heaviest and most powerfully armed ships were called first-rate ships of the line, meaning that they could hold a place in a battle line of ships and face any opponent. The fledgling United States did not have any ships-of-the-line, but we did produce three heavy frigates: built for more speed and maneuverability, but still fairly heavily armed.

Most everyone has heard of “Old Ironsides”, the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the World. She is properly the USS Constitution, one of three completed (the other two being the USS United States and the USS Constellation) out of the six heavy frigates commissioned by Congress in 1794. Named by President Washington, she was launched in September, 1797. She was one of the nascent Navy’s capital ships – the best our young country could produce.

Action between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, August 19, 1812

Action between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, August 19, 1812

But did you know that she does not have iron sides? Constitution is sixty-five years ahead of that innovation. She earned her nickname in the War of 1812, in a battle with the HMS Guerriere. As the story goes, a British sailor observed their cannonballs bouncing off the side of the Constitution, and exclaimed “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” The nickname stuck, helped along by an 1830 poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Her sides are actually southern live oak, a very dense wood which can weigh 75 pounds per cubic foot. Also, in an age where ships of the line had 18 inch thick sides, the Constitution had 21 inch sides. Of course this made her very heavy, and she actually drove her launch rails into the mud and got stuck at her first launch attempt. However, the heavy oak sides paid off, and she survived 42 battles in her combat career. She still sails – her career continues to this day as a Navy training vessel and museum ship.

Sources:
[1] Celebrating the History of the USS Constitution, Marblehead Magazine
[2] USS Constitution, Wikipedia
[3] USS Constitution, Naval Historical Center
[4] USS Constitution, Official Website of the United States Navy