Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Ready or Not, Here Alabama Comes!

Exactly six months after she was launched on the Elizabeth River, the ship's company of USS Alabama (BB 60) and guests assembled on her stern during the battleship's commissioning ceremony at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. Note that  Turret Number Three has yet to be finished. (Naval History and Heritage Command image
Six months ago we briefly covered the launching of USS Alabama (BB 60) at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.  Of course the launching of a warship does not mean she is ready for the Navy to take possession by a long stretch.  A great deal of fitting out had yet to be done over the spring and summer of 1942 to complete the 35,000-ton battleship, which was approaching fruition on this date three-quarters of a century ago.  

In any event, her commissioning ceremony took place six months to the day after her launching, ready or not.  This photograph indicates that for certain parts of the ship, it was the latter.  For example, notice that the battleship's Turret Number Three has yet to be covered with armor plating.  It is perhaps for that reason that nothing about Alabama's commissioning appeared in either of Norfolk's major daily newspapers that week.  Of course, wartime censorship regulations might have been a significant factor as well, but it is a pity that the event's particulars were not recorded by the press for posterity, as Alabama was the last battleship built at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. 

She would finally complete her fitting-out and begin shakedown maneuvers in Chesapeake bay in November.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Vacation Plans Dashed by the Navy, for the Duration

This postcard depicts the Nansemond Hotel in the West Ocean View section of Norfolk, Virginia, before it was selected to became headquarters for Amphibious Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet in August, 1942.  It would not welcome vacationers again until after the war. (  
No one likes to have their vacation plans dashed, but anyone taking time off for some beach fun in the Ocean View section of Norfolk 75 years ago should not have been surprised.  After all, there was a war on.  August 1942 was also shaping up to be the rainiest on record, but those vacationers spending their hard-won off-time at Ocean View's largest hotel, which advertised itself as "A Bit of Old Spain" would be in for a rude awakening on August 15 for other reasons.  That morning, the Navy officially took over the hotel, located on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, and any remaining guests would have to clear out of the hotel that afternoon.  A three-sentence story buried on page 11 of the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch on Monday, August 17, revealed that "Mrs. Walter C. Brick, manager of the hotel until the Navy moved in, said all guests of the hotel left Saturday."

Rear Adm H.K. Hewitt (NHHC Image)

Amphibious Force Atlantic Fleet (AMPHIBLANT) had been established five months earlier under Rear Adm. Roland M. Brainard, who was replaced by Rear Adm. H. Kent Hewitt the following month.  Its headquarters was originally posted to Building 138, near the docks of Naval Operating Base Norfolk that was already functioning as headquarters for the Subordinate Command, Surface Force Atlantic Fleet.  "It was like the Joads moving in on country cousins," wrote one junior member of the staff of the experience of trying to coexist in a "two-story wooden shack... that bulged with more life than a guinea-pig hutch."  When Hewett arrived to inspect his new office, wrote the lieutenant, "[t]he admiral said nothing, but in his astonishment, he replaced his pipe in his mouth, bowl first."

Hewett quickly came to the conclusion that a larger headquarters would be required for his joint Navy-Army staff.  "Early steps were inaugurated," he wrote later, "to find a satisfactory location which would give us what our enemies would have called lebensraum."  No larger buildings could be secured on NOB (now known as Naval Station) Norfolk or the adjoining naval air station, so he turned to the nearby Nansemond Hotel, built on the site of an earlier Nansemond Hotel that had been erected to welcome visitors to the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, but had burned to the ground in 1920.  The 125-room hotel already housed an Army squadron headquarters, but that was to change after AMPHIBLANT came knocking.  

By the time it was officially established as Headquarters, Amphibious Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet in early September, the hotel had been transformed into a garrison.  Nissen huts to billet enlisted Soldiers and Sailors were also constructed next door at the Susan Constant Shrine Park, advancing the military mission of the former vacation retreat.  With its red tile roof, Moorish architectural features and stucco exterior, surrounded by barbed wire fences and armed sentries, the hotel became Norfolk's latter-day version of the Alamo.  Like the Alamo, it was prepared to be attacked.  Troops stormed the beach in front of the hotel, day and night, over the following months.  Unlike the Alamo, it was all for training. 
The lobby and registration desk of the Nansemond Hotel in 1940. (Courtesy of the Ocean View Station Museum, Norfolk, Virginia)
Within weeks of its opening as a headquarters, Maj. Gen. George S. Patton would arrive from California to help plan the invasion of Vichy French-held Morocco during what promised to be the biggest amphibious operation originating from Hampton Roads since the attacks upon Fort Fisher, North Carolina during the Civil War.  Hewlett recalled, "[Patton] and his staff were fine soldiers and fine gentlemen but, initially, at least, were handicapped by being almost completely ignorant of the technique and requirements of amphibious operations."

The Nansemond Hotel entrance, taken sometime during the 1940s.
(Courtesy of the Ocean View Station Museum, Norfolk, Virginia)
For awhile, Patton and his staff resisted moving to the Nansemond Hotel, preferring instead to be nearer the War Department in Washington, yet as the operation neared, Patton relented.  "Shortly after our move into Nansemond, General Patton and his staff did shift headquarters to Hampton Roads, thereby greatly facilitating the final planning," recalled Hewlett.  At dawn on October 24, Hewett left the commandeered hotel in the hands of his deputy, Rear Adm. Lee Payne Johnson, and boarded the heavy cruiser Augusta (CA 31) to take Gen. Patton and his 34,000 Soldiers of Task Force 34 across the Atlantic during the first big amphibious operation of World War II, now known as TORCH.
The heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA 31) in April 1942. (NHHC Image)
Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Commander, Western Task Force, shares a light moment with Rear Adm. H. Kent Hewitt, Commander, Western Naval Task Force, aboard USS Augusta (CA 31) before going ashore in Morocco during Operation TORCH in November, 1942. (NHHC Image)  
After Adm. Alan G. Kirk took command of AMPHIBLANT in February 1943, the Nansemond Hotel continued as the planning venue for the invasions of Sicily, Italy, Southern France, and, ultimately, Normandy.  The hotel finally reverted to its former role as a vacation destination on August 20, 1945. 

In addition to an "Operation Torch Room," a "Casablanca Room" was also dedicated at the Nansemond Hotel many years after the operations planned in secret there became public knowledge. (Courtesy of the Ocean View Station Museum, Norfolk, Virginia)  
Needless to say, its military trappings were gone, yet its historical role in the defeat of Nazi Germany would not be forgotten.  An "Operation Torch Room" was dedicated at the hotel in October 1969 to commemorate the special role the hotel played in retaking North Africa and Europe from the Axis powers.  Tragically, many of the artifacts and mementoes put on display there were themselves torched as the 52-year-old hotel went up in flames in November 1980.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Major Milestone for Captain Lee Duckworth

By Joseph Judge 
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Curator

Hampton Roads Naval Museum Education Director Lee Duckworth pauses during a rare quiet moment at his desk in downtown Norfolk.
The Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM), the museum profession, and the Navy historical community is bidding good-bye to our beloved Director of Education, Lee Duckworth. Lee directed the museum’s education programs since 2008, making them a model for the command and one of the best education programs for a small museum in the United States. Prior to that achievement he worked for HRNM as the Operations Manager for the battleship Wisconsin.
Lee and his team have highlighted lessons from the past to teach and promote leadership in the future.
The museum’s education programs have provided outstanding professional service to the Navy and HRNM. Lee and his team have highlighted lessons from the past to teach and promote leadership in the future.

Lee Duckworth with HRNM Exhibits Specialist Don Darcy (center) and Deputy Education Director Laura Orr (right). 
Lee confirmed to the group that the vessel in the background was not his first ship. 
"At least I'm pretty sure because there is no helo pad," he told them.  

It was with grace, humor, and dedication that Lee coordinated programs over a wide range of venues with civilian and military staff and volunteers. Museum educators under Lee’s leadership provided programs in the museum gallery, schools, and other locations for military and civilian groups. In just one year, for example, 133 on-site programs reached 7,125 visitors while 351 off-site programs reached 31,662 people, mostly students. Those statistics represent a monumental record for a museum that has a total staff of 13.  

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum's annual "Brick by Brick" event (left), held in February, and CPO Heritage Days, held in August, are two signature programs that Lee oversees.   
Lee and his team developed and expanded the signature “Brick by Brick Lego Shipbuilding” into a regional event that drew 2,936 people last year. Lee was also instrumental in the planning and execution of Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Heritage Days presentations to Chief Petty Officer selectees. His efforts resulted in the largest and most renowned program to provide this service to the US Navy. In 2016 the museum staff interacted with each of the 768 CPO-selectee participants who represented 20.28% of the entire 2017 Navy CPO selection list.

Lee developed, scheduled, and executed Battle of Midway presentations for a wide variety of military audiences over several years. Ever-expanding the program’s reach, Lee and his team provided a total of 18 presentations for 1,115 personnel in the weeks surrounding the battle’s 75th anniversary.

Lee with a hat modeled on one from the popular Harry Potter books. Its size is
due to the fact that he used it for filling all his training certificates required by
headquarters.  "They are right here," he assured everyone. 
Some attribute his success to the benign influence of a turkey sandwich, a banana, and healthy lunchtime walk, a routine that the staff has admired for many years. Not to be forgotten is his steadfast encouragement of “Aloha Friday,” which upped the fashion ante of the museum’s male contingent.

Lee has also been an unfailing source of calm and grace under pressure. As Operations Manager for the battleship, museum management knew that Lee Duckworth and only Lee Duckworth should be assigned to handle showing the battleship Wisconsin to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, husband and consort of Queen Elizabeth II, and sometime media personality. Characteristically, Lee returned from the tour with a smile and the comment, “He seemed like a nice enough fellow.” The author has relied on Lee as an honest and invaluable sounding board for every issue that the museum has faced over the past several years.

Captain Lee Duckworth’s contributions to the museum’s growth have contributed to the success of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum beyond measure. His passion, generosity, intelligence, work ethic, love of naval history, and dedication to the team is the very model of character and professionalism.

Lee (center) during an assist visit to the ship Kalmar Nykel in Wilmington, Delaware. 
His advice was sought by many, near and far. 
We have no doubt that Lee will continue to make the world a better place as he enjoys his new retirement. We expect no less from this Nebraskan, Academy Midshipman, Navy Captain, combat veteran, businessman, and educator. Fair winds and following seas!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fifty Years Ago: Eyewitness to an Inferno Finds "Blue Eyes"

By Julius J. Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

While attending Recruit training at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, every potential sailor goes through basic firefighting and damage control training. Among their lessons is a film called Learn or Burn. This film, along with the training film, Trial by Fire: A Carrier Fights for Life, tells the story of a tragedy that brought about sweeping changes to the United States Navy. While these films give today’s sailors a glimpse into the terror and chaos of the event as it unfolded, for others that glimpse is a memory that has yet to be erased from their minds.

This undated photograph showing launching operations aboard USS Forrestal (CVA 59) during the mid-1960s shows a similar aircraft spotting configuration to that used on the morning of July 29, 1967, off the coast of Vietnam.  Just before 11 am local time, an unguided Zuni rocket accidentally launched from the rearmost F-4 parked at the aft stern quarter into one of the A-4s lining the port quarter, which were each fully loaded with two 1,000-pound bombs and a centerline external fuel tank. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file photo)    
In 1967, a young rifleman in the United States Marine Corps named Jonnie Allen found himself as a member of the Marine Detachment (MARDET) onboard USS Forrestal (CVA 59). His duty, like the other Marines on board, would be to staff the ship’s brig, or jail. Allen, a veteran of the guided-missile cruiser USS Albany (CG 10), was not an enthusiastic “sea duty Marine.” Though he understood the reasons for and the necessity of it, he was always fearful of being trapped in a space so that watertight integrity could be maintained in order to save his ship and shipmates. He hated that he could have been trapped without any knowledge of what was going on around him. But, he was glad he was on a bigger ship since he considered being on a smaller ship in storm-tossed seas “no fun...rough…and scary."

About an hour after the catastrophic flight deck fire began, the destroyer Rupertus (DD 851) makes her approach in an effort to help combat the fire still consuming not only Forrestal's aft flight deck, but many of the spaces above the carrier's Hangar Bay Three. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Unlike other Marines, Allen’s Vietnam experience would be short, but no less dangerous. In June of 1967, Forrestal departed Naval Station Norfolk for Vietnam and reached “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin on July 25 to begin her rotation “on the line.” After 150 bombing sorties against targets in North Vietnam, Forrestal’s ordnance stores ran low, requiring an underway replenishment on July 28 with the ammunition ship USS Diamond Head (AE 19). Among the transferred ordnance were 16 AN-M65 1000-lb bombs, which were designed during World War II and manufactured in 1953. They were reportedly in such a corroded state that the Forrestal's commanding officer, Capt. John Beling, only accepted them as a last resort because they were needed the next day for missions and because of the complete lack of newer Mk 83 bombs available for issue in theater. He ordered the bombs stowed on deck to prevent the incineration of the ship if an accident occurred in the ship’s magazines.
On the afternoon of July 29, 1967, hose teams continue to douse the flight deck of USS Forrestal (CVA-59) with seawater after bringing the fire under control as the destroyer Rupertus (DD-851) in the background hoses down the port quarter alongside the carrier.  Many of the highly-trained members of the carrier's crash and salvage crew, including its leading chief, Aviation Boatswain's Mate Handling Chief Gerald Farrier, were killed only a minute and a half after the fire began by the initial bomb detonations.  As evinced by the various modes of dress and equipment worn by those manning the hoses, many of the Sailors who jumped in to replace the fallen damage control team members lacked the equipment and training to go up against a major Class Bravo (flammable liquid) fire. The lack of coordination between teams dispensing fire suppressing foam (designed to smother fires) and those fighting the fire with water caused the foam to be needlessly washed overboard, prolonging the disaster. (NHHC image)
Jonnie Allen began his morning on Saturday, July 29, at around 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., as was normal. Like most days at sea, this one was shaping up to be routine and tedious. Allen was sitting in a chair around 11:00 a.m. when he heard a noise and felt the ship shudder and shake in a way that made clear that something awful happened, or as Allen put it, “it seemed the ship got hit hard for that ship to do that." What Allen experienced was the destruction of two fully loaded and fueled aircraft, the detonation of eight of the sixteen 1,000-lb bombs that had been loaded the day before, and the sympathetic explosion of a 500-lb bomb. The explosions instantly killed almost all of Forrestal’s flight deck firefighting team and tore large holes in the ship’s armored flight deck allowing burning fuel to pour into the interior of the ship.
This forensic photograph taken after Forrestal's return to Subic bay shows that the carrier's armored flight deck was no match the 1,000-lb bombs that detonated in the burning jet fuel, opening the way for thousands of gallons to pour into machinery and berthing spaces below. (HRNM file photo) 
Of Allen’s memories, there is one that has remained etched in his mind for the past fifty years: the eyes of an acquaintance. “Paul Newman had blue eyes, Frank Sinatra had blue eyes, I had never seen eyes like that,” remarked Allen in his description of this “good looking, young fella.” His acquaintance, a tall 18 or 19-year-old Sailor, was one of the clerks in the ship’s store, which was located below the flight deck aft. As Allen and his damage control party waded through knee and thigh-deep water, they would bump into floating corpses of fellow crew members who were in various states. Some of the victims they encountered had faces and bodies that were charred by the inferno, while others were missing limbs or had their bodies torn apart by the explosions. The men snaked through dark and mangled corridors that were “so hot, steamy, with water dripping and running all over the place” until they reached the ship’s store, which was completely unrecognizable. There Allen encountered the young clerk lying as if asleep, with no visible marks, no cuts, or burns. Instead of dying through smoke inhalation, burning to death or being blown apart by the force of the explosion, the man was killed simply by the concussion of the detonations. After seeing the man, the young Marine began to wonder, why him? Why did this young man die while he survived? Allen said that he normally went to the ship’s store around the time of the explosion and, in fact, was in it the day before, and by sheer luck he was not in it that day. 
This forensic photograph taken at Subic Bay in August 1967 shows one of the berthings on the 03 level below the flight deck where approximately 50 airmen and seamen lost their lives after working a long night of flight operations. (HRNM file photo)
The men of the Forrestal struggled to save their ship throughout that afternoon and through the night, and the many fires that erupted from the explosion were not declared out until 4:00 a.m. the next morning. The young man with blue eyes, along with 133 others, died on that solemn day. 161 more men were injured and twenty-one aircraft were destroyed outright or damaged enough to be declared total losses. Capt. Beling, offered these words that evening after personally directing damage control efforts for the previous ten hours:
Our heavenly Father, we see this day as one minute and yet a lifetime for all of us. We thank you for the courage of those who gave their lives in saving their shipmates today. We humbly ask You to grant them peace and to their loved ones the consolation and strength to bear their loss. Help us to renew the faith we have in You. We thank You for our own lives. May we remember You as You have remembered us today. From our hearts we turn to You now, knowing that You have been at our side in every minute of this day. Heavenly Father, help us to rebuild and re-man our ship, so that our brothers who died today may not have made a fruitless sacrifice.

A burned-out flight deck tractor is the only recognizable object within a hellish scene that only hours before had been a busy workplace for hundreds.  (HRNM file photo)
Indeed, the sacrifices made by the Sailors aboard Forrestal 50 years ago were not fruitless.  The disaster taught the Navy many hard lessons, but it was the impetus for a revolution in damage control training, technologies, as well as shipboard organization and regulations.  Without the changes made since then, the stories of other incidents rooted in accidents and attacks aboard USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Stark, USS Cole, and, most recently, USS Fitzgerald might have been much more tragic than they were.  

Author’s note: This story was written, in part, from an oral history collected as part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s ongoing project to record the first-hand experiences of local Navy and Marine Corps veterans of the Vietnam War. If you are a local Navy or Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and you would like to contribute, please contact our Deputy Director of Education, Laura Orr, at: LAURA.L.ORR@NAVY.MIL .