Thursday, October 12, 2017

One Century Ago: Naval Station Norfolk Officially Opens

As we turn our attention to the birthday of the United States Navy, October 13, 1775, we should also remember one of the most important milestones in the history of the Navy in Hampton Roads, which took place just one day shy of 142 years later.  Not only is it little-remembered today, but even the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot relegated the story of the event to page three.

The front page of the Saturday, October 13, 1917 edition was dominated by the headline “Dope in favor of Giants, Says Grantland Rice,” concerning the prognostications of the syndicated sportswriter about the ongoing world series championship between the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox (which turned out to be wrong), followed by news of the ongoing world war.  On page three was the headline: 

Formal Opening of Naval Base 

1,400 Sailors March from St. Helena To New Training Station

Simple Ceremonies Mark Great Event 

An early postcard for "Naval Operating Base Jamestown," later known as Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads and now known as Naval Station Norfolk, shows recruits marching across what was then called the Lee Parade Field. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
The following is an excerpt of the story:
“Early yesterday morning, a column of 1,400 United States sailors passed through Norfolk, moving from St. Helena to the government reservation at Sewall’s [sic] Point.  Headed by a drum and bugle corps and a band, the men turned into the entrance to the base at about 10:30 a.m., and a little later swung out upon the parade ground, where, awaiting them, were drawn up the ship’s company, stationed at the base, and reviewing officers of the navy, standing before the flag pole.  Following the sailors, a squad of air-men, training at the base, advanced upon the grounds.  The regiment drew long white lines against the green of the field and then, in regimental front formation, with flags flying and band playing, marched toward the reviewing officers.  The line halting and coming to the salute, Rear Admiral A.C. Dillingham delivered over the training station to Captain J.H. Dayton, commanding officer of the base and at St. Helena, orders were read, and the band broke into the national anthem, the Stars and Stripes were hoisted, and the training station at the base was in operation.  As stated by Admiral Dillingham to a Virginian-Pilot reporter, 'The base has begun to function, and is now fulfilling the use for which is was planned.’    

“The simplicity with which the great naval base was placed in operation was impressive.  Not a cog slipped as the wheels of the machinery began to move.  In the passing of only a few minutes the gray-green rows of barrack buildings, that had been empty, were teeming with occupants.  Officers went back to their desks in the administrative buildings, more busy from now on than ever before.  And the government wrote upon the map the name of its greatest factory for the turning out of sailors fully equipped for service.”

Albert Caldwell Dillingham (1848-1925) had been brought out of retirement to establish a naval training station at Sewells Point north of Norfolk, partially due to an influential article of his that appeared in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1910, alleging deficiencies in the training of Navy recruits, particularly in Hampton Roads.  At the time, a training station existed across the South Branch of the Elizabeth River from Norfolk Naval Shipyard, but Dillingham, who once commanded one of the receiving ships there, called it woefully inadequate. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
On October 12, 1917, Rear Adm. Dillingham succeeded in what the Virginian-Pilot called earlier that summer, “the fulfillment of the nation’s need- the building of perhaps the greatest naval base in the world, a task that would really cause Hercules to negotiate with Aladdin for the loan of his lamp.”

Friday, October 6, 2017

Body Washed Up on Beach Reminiscent of "Operation Mincemeat"

Last week's post touched on how a recent hurricane brought forth reminders of a past war upon nearby shores.  That same storm wasn't done reminding us of the past, however, because the day after two old sea mines washed ashore at different points on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the body of a "neatly dressed man" washed ashore in Nags Head.

The writer of a newspaper story on the incident speculated, "Whales, exotic shells and even bombs wash ashore occasionally on the Outer Banks, but this might have been the first time waves deposited a human body in a bag."

Maybe so, but it is far from the first time that bodies have washed up on the shores of what has long been called the Graveyard of the Atlantic.  Hundreds of wrecks, the vast majority of them merchant vessels, leavened by a sprinkling of ill-fated warships, dot the seafloor off North Carolina.  Many of the thousands who died aboard these vessels over the last half-millennium would presumably have washed ashore.  What set this body apart from a typical victim of the sea, however, was his attire.  He was apparently dressed for a special occasion.  Investigators were to surmise pretty quickly that he was in fact dressed for a funeral; his own, it turns out.   

The unfortunate gentleman who washed ashore last week was far from the first decedent carefully dressed for consignment to the deep.  A number of private companies perform the service.  One even features a proprietary shroud that is, according to their website, "weighted with traditional cannonballs ... created by the same blacksmiths that forge the ceremonial cannonballs for the oldest commissioned warship on the planet the U.S.S. Constitution, 'Old Ironsides'"
On February 14, 2004, a deceased U.S. Navy Commander is committed to the Atlantic Ocean during a burial at sea ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). At the time, Truman was undergoing sea trials after completing a six-month Planned Incremental Availability (PIA) at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Jose L. Barrientos Jr. (Wikimedia Commons)
If one desires a newer American warship to play a role in the final disposition of a loved one (as long as they meet certain requirements), the U.S. Navy performs burials at sea on a pretty regular basis, although the deceased has typically been cremated beforehand.  After all, one doesn't want your honored veteran's final journey to make an unscheduled return trip. There's probably some truth to the old sea story about the Marine detachment that had to put a few more holes in the floating casket of the honored service member with the same rifles they had used to render honors, thus preventing it from becoming a navigational hazard.  

There have been interesting variations of the burial at sea, including the Viking funeral the U.S. Coast Guard gave a veteran of Nordic descent in 2014. From the annals of military history, however, we have the story of a corpse that was taken out into the Atlantic on a naval vessel during World War II, not to be buried, but to play a central role in a secret mission. The body was also dressed to impress a particular target audience: 


Operation Torch, the simultaneous landings in North Africa of around 108,000 British and American troops in November 1942, about 34,000 of whom originated in Hampton Roads, had been a success.  By early 1943, the Allies had a springboard from which to launch further amphibious operations into  Nazi-occupied Europe.  The island of Sicily off the Italian coast made the most sensible next target for invasion planners, but that fact wouldn't be lost on the thousands of German troops occupying the island who would be expecting the invasion.

Enter Ian Fleming, a British naval intelligence officer who would one day achieve worldwide fame as the author of the original James Bond novels.  It is widely believed that it was he who conceived of the idea to plant misleading plans on a dead body that would then be found by the Germans. The plan was actually inspired by a detective novel he had read.

The essence of what became known as "Operation Mincemeat" was a simple idea, but in order for it to work, elaborate measures had to be taken.  Just as intelligence officers commonly assume a false identity in order to conduct their work, an identity was created for an unfortunate Welsh laborer named Glyndwr Michael, who was transformed by British intelligence officers from a dead itinerant laborer into Captain (acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines.
The false identity card of Captain (Acting Major) William Martin, one of the notional documents that established the bona fides of the dead officer for Axis agents, who then passed the deceptive information he carried to Berlin. (Wikimedia Commons)
When "Major Martin" was found floating off the coast of Spain by fishermen on April 30, 1943, ostensibly as an air crash victim, he had ticket stubs, letters from his fiancee, and even unpaid bills in his pockets, but the real intelligence bait came from the secret plans contained in a briefcase chained to his trench coat that purported to show that the British were planning to surprise the Germans in Greece and Sardenia, and not Sicily. 

The decision to deposit the counterfeit major into the sea off Spain via the submarine HMS Seraph was a practical one.  Spain was officially neutral during World War II and thus its waters would not be patrolled quite as vigorously as those of occupied France or other areas under Axis control.  Dictator Francisco Franco owed his victory in the Spanish Civil War in part to Adolf Hitler's Condor Legion and the Luftwaffe, however, so it stands to reason that any important intelligence Spanish authorities found would be passed to the Nazis. 
File photo showing the prepared body of "Major Martin" 
before it was deposited into the Atlantic Ocean in April 1943. 
(National Archives of Great Britain via Wikimedia Commons)

Of course just one body washing literally out of the blue bearing supposedly secret information was not going to fool everyone in the Abwehr, and it didn't.  What Operation Mincemeat succeeded in doing, as successful disinformation operations have always done, is to inject uncertainty into an adversary's decision making process.  This sews confusion and undermines confidence in enemy leadership, wastes their resources, and chips away at their ability to make war.  

In this case, the Germans, who had lost a quarter of their strength on the eastern front by February 1943 at Stalingrad, followed by the evisceration of their Afrika Korps later that spring, could not afford to reinforce the troops they had in the Mediterranean.  They could only shuffle them around.  The spurious information imparted by the notional British major forced the precious few troops the Germans had left to be moved from Sicily to Greece and Sardinia.  Whether Operation Mincemeat alone proved detrimental to the German effort to retain Sicily when Operation Husky began in July 1943 will never be known, yet casualties during the operation were lighter than expected.  

And so it was that hundreds if not thousands of Allied Soldiers and Sailors owed their lives to an officer who wasn't even recruited until after rigor mortis set in.  

Fittingly, his final resting place was not the sea, but the grave where he was placed not long after being found by the Spanish. There he remained under his assumed name, literally, until 1997, when his true identity was finally added. 
(Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Hurricane Maria Resurrects Ghosts of Wars Past

Although news reports about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, which recently made its closest approach to Hampton Roads, frequently center upon the destructive winds and tidal flooding that such a storm can bring, this week it has come to light that there were other less-recognizable threats unleashed by the storm as it made its approach to North Carolina's Outer Banks.  On Monday, beachgoers found a barnacle-encrusted sea mine near the town of Avon on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and another one was discovered nearly 80 miles north in Corolla, just south of the Virginia state line.

An object (above) presumed to be a sea mine was found near Avon on Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the morning of September 25, 2017, and another one was found near the town of Corolla about 80 miles north on the Outer Banks of North Carolina that same morning. They were subsequently turned over to military explosive ordnance disposal technicians.  Thankfully, the Corolla mine turned out to be a training target.  (National Park Service)

During the last century, mines have posed some of the gravest enemy threats to shipping in our home waters.  During both World Wars I and II, German submarines deployed mines along the Mid-Atlantic.  It was an effective, albeit unpredictable tactic.  The Naval History and Heritage Command is currently helping lead an effort to survey USS San Diego, which ran afoul of a suspected mine off the eastern end of Long Island on July 18, 1918. We are also approaching the 99th anniversary of the second such incident that took place during the First World War, not far off the eastern seaboard. On September 29, 1918, the battleship Minnesota (BB 22) ran into a mine only 20 miles off the coast of Delaware.

Photographed in 1911 by O.W. Waterman of Hampton, Virginia, the battleship Minnesota (BB 22) appears somewhere in Hampton Roads, flying the flag of Rear Admiral (Upper Half) Aaron Ward, Commander, Battleship Division 3, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
Built at Newport News Shipbuilding and commissioned on March 9, 1907, just in time for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exhibition and the epic circumnavigation of the globe with the Great White Fleet that followed, the veteran of the 1914 Vera Cruz expedition was assigned to Battleship Division 4, mainly to provide practical gunnery and engineering training for the tens of thousands of new recruits the Navy was taking in during World War I.  She was sailing off the Delaware Breakwater when she struck a mine that had been deployed earlier by U-117

Miraculously, only three days after striking a mine off Fenwick Island on the Maryland/ Delaware border on September 29, 1918, USS Minnesota (BB 22) was safely ensconced in a dry dock at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the serious damage that had been inflicted by a to her bow by a German mine could be ascertained.  She would remain there for five months. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph
Despite sustaining heavy flooding to her bow, there were no casualties and the battleship was able to make it to Philadelphia under her own power.  She would remain at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for five months, during which time the war ended.  In January 1919, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels visited the battleship and personally commended 27 crew members for their "courage and efficiency." After leaving Philadelphia, Minnesota would do her part bringing thousands of American soldiers home from Europe. 
Several thousand troops from Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's celebrated "Rainbow Division" (42nd Infantry Division, U.S. Army National Guard), crowd the decks of USS Minnesota (BB 22) upon their return to New York from France in 1919. (Donation of Dr. Mark Kulikowski, Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
The Minnesota incident of 99 years ago ended happily, but it stands out as the exception and not the rule in the long, violent history of what was originally called the "torpedo" by its inventors during the American Civil War. Although enemy mines did the worst damage to American vessels during both Twentieth Century wars, not to mention in the Middle East during the latter part of the century, it should not be forgotten that American-made mines were also deployed in large numbers along our coasts, particularly during the Second World War.  Although intended to protect American merchant vessels and warships from the enemy submarine threat, they too caused damage to American shipping when merchant vessels strayed off course or their captains and pilots did not possess the latest information.  

While waiting for a harbor pilot to arrive on the "dark and stormy night" of February 16, 1942, the one-year-old, 554 foot-long tanker SS E.H. Blum of the Atlantic Refining Company, described as "one of the largest and finest tankers in the world" in the War Record of the Fifth Naval District, was ripped in two after drifting into a Navy minefield only 950 yards off the Cape Henry lighthouse.  On June 11, the SS F.W. Abrams of the Standard Oil Company "through a combination of unfortunate circumstances which included bad weather, a misconception of escort duties, and lack of proper navigational information, strayed into the Hatteras Mine Field and was eventually lost."  

Just three days later, on June 15, two American ships and one British vessel ran into a German minefield within sight of Virginia Beach that had been set by U-701, killing 17 on the British vessel, HMT Kingston Ceylonite, and one on SS Robert C. Tuttle.   

The heavily damaged Esso tanker SS Robert C. Tuttle appears in dry dock at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in July 1942.  After preliminary repairs, she was towed to Newport News for completion. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
Despite a concerted effort to sweep the area for German mines, SS Santore encountered another of U-701's mines while assembling to leave Hampton Roads in Convoy KS-511 on June 17, listed to port, and quickly sank, taking three crew members with her.  

Before the month was over, the 7,256-ton Norwegian passenger-cargo vessel MV Tamesis became the second ship sunk by the "friendly Hatteras Mine Field."  The American tug Keshena became its third victim on July 19 while attending to the Panamanian-flagged J.A. Mowinckel, that had itself been damaged by torpedoes and mines.  Three were killed in the tug's engine room.

Whether the mines that emerged from the depths off North Carolina this week present a renewed threat from a past war has yet to be ascertained, but one thing is for certain: the story of mines off the East Coast is far from over.  

Friday, September 15, 2017

Gurney Edwards and the Day that Shook Norfolk

By Julius J. Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

(Photo by Rita Hayden/ Findagrave,com)
Among the trees, manicured lawns, and gardens of Forsyth Memorial Park in Winston-Salem, NC, lies the grave of Gurney Eugene Edwards. The inscription reads “Gone but not Forgotten” with a date of death of September 17, 1943.  This man was a casualty of the Second World War, but he did not die on the beaches near Salerno, far off in the Solomons, or even on Papua New Guinea. Instead, he died a hero on Naval Station Norfolk, the first victim of an accident that eventually killed 40, and wounded 386 others.

In this November 1942 oblique aerial photo looking north-northeast, the fire station (R-43) has not been built yet, but the row of wooden barracks and Hangar V-30, which would become total losses because of the depth charge explosions that took place ten months later, are clearly visible.  The red dot marks roughly where the explosions occurred on September 17, 1943, leaving a crater some five feet deep and 20 feet across. (National Archives and Records Administration/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Gurney Edwards. (Courtesy of Rita Hayden)
September 17, 1943, most likely started like any other day for Mr. Edwards, an assistant fire chief with the naval base fire department. Perhaps he was doing paperwork or conducting training for the men under his charge, but one thing is certain: around 11 am, he was alerted by an ordnance truck driver of a potentially deadly situation. The driver informed him that one of the depth charges he was transporting from Pier 2 on the Naval Operating Base to the Naval Air Station magazine area had fallen off the trailer and been dragged along the road. This same depth charge was now smoking due to the friction. Edwards jumped into action and boarded a fire truck alone. He raced to the scene and began trying to cool down the smoking piece of ordnance with a fire extinguisher, but it was all in vain. The depth charge exploded, killing him instantly and vaporizing his fire truck. This single depth charge then detonated 23 other depth charges containing over a ton and a half of the inherently unstable explosive Torpex.
The eastern side of the closest aircraft hangar to the accident scene, Building V-30, was blown away by the explosions.  Shrapnel also killed numerous personnel working on aircraft between the hangar and Chambers Field. Note the propeller sheared off below the hub on the nearest aircraft. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
While the initial blast created a crater five feet deep and a fireball 500 feet high, the subsequent explosions destroyed 33 aircraft, between 15 and 18 buildings, and shattered windows eight miles away. Fire trucks and ambulances from all surrounding areas, as well as many Sailors stationed on the base, rushed to the scene to lend assistance. They attempted to put out fires, evacuate personnel, shore up damaged structures, and search for both survivors and victims trapped in the rubble or caught outside.
As seen from the lower roof of Fire Station 2 (Building R-43, the three-story corner visible to the far left) looking north towards Chambers Field, the cleanup process has already begun just days after the incident. The barracks buildings were a total loss and those that remained standing were torn down. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
These innocent lives would not be the last lost to a Torpex mishap. The chemical compounds and characteristics that made Torpex so useful as an explosive also made it more unstable than TNT, another explosive known for its sensitivity. Less than two months later, Hampton Roads was again struck by tragedy when six African-Americans were killed in an explosion at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown. The losses at Naval Station Norfolk and at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown pale in comparison to the 320 lives lost, mostly African-Americans, exactly ten months later in an explosion in California. The Port Chicago disaster would go down in history not only for the loss of life and the destruction it caused, but also for the mutiny it inspired a month later and the metaphorical firestorm that would lead to the desegregation of the US Navy in 1946.
Only a month after the accident, hangar V-30 and the barracks complex have been razed, and it appears that construction has already begun on the barracks site. There remains however a dark area where many of the explosions took place. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
While those who lost family members in the explosion or who were victims themselves will never forget this harrowing day, the censoring inherent with wartime reporting caused the story to vanish from headlines in the coming days. Even now, there is no monument or memorial located on base to commemorate the tragedy. There is only a small memorial plaque for Gurney Eugene Edwards on the side of Fire Station 2, near the location of the disaster 74 years ago, the first victim of one event that has faded from memory during a war that cost the lives of tens of millions.
Building R-43, the newly-built fire station, as seen on September 17, 1943, from the side opposite the blast, which occurred about 40 yards away.  Although damaged, the station served as a natural command post for fire and rescue personnel during the recovery effort, and the building still serves as a fire station today. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Naval Station Norfolk's Fire Station 2 as it appears today. (Photo by M.C. Farrington)
The memorial plaque for Gurney Eugene Edwards, which is embedded in the south wall of the fire station.  (Photo by M.C. Farrington)