BOOK REVIEW – The Zeebrugge and Ostend Raids, 1918

2794_001By Deborah Lake, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, UK (2015)

Reviewed by Joseph Moretz, Ph.D.

In a struggle of global proportions, minor acts at times achieve a resonance not measured by the ledger of gains and losses or the scale of their actual decisiveness. The Arab Revolt during the First World War may be cited as one such occurrence, but the raids on the Belgium ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend in April and May 1918 by the Royal Navy have claim to being another. Deborah Lake’s The Zeebrugge and Ostend Raids 1918 is a highly readable and well-illustrated narrative of a desperate action executed at the nadir of Allied fortunes on the Western Front when the question remained whether the army could win the war before the navy had lost it.

So held Admiral Lord Fisher, erstwhile First Sea Lord, and the peril facing Britain was the toll German submarines were exacting against the shipping that sustained the home front, no less than the greater war effort. A delayed and ineffective naval response to that threat spelt the end of Admiral Jellicoe’s period at the Admiralty and, in turn, that of his acolyte, Vice-Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon commanding the Dover Patrol. Into the void of the latter vacancy stepped Acting Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes, only recently promoted to flag rank and even more recently, Director of Plans at the Admiralty.

The idea of a combined operation against Zeebrugge predated the present U-boat challenge. Seen as one means of forcing a fleet action in 1914, a worry by late 1917 was of the German Army descending upon the exposed flank of the British Expeditionary Force through an amphibious assault. Such had been demonstrated against the Russians at Oesel in the Gulf of Riga. With Allied armies now reeling under the weight of the enemy’s spring offensives, denying the use of Zeebrugge and Ostend was always more than countering the single threat the author posits. As for those earlier schemes, Rear-Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly and Colonel Sir George Aston had considered a Zeebrugge serial in 1913 before the onset of hostilities and the point was examined anew by Admiral Sir Henry Jackson and his Committee on Combined Operations from December 1914 in the present war. The sticking point in the last instance had been acquiring the support of the French Army, no less than the reservations of Fisher.

All this is absent from Lake’s monograph and so too Bacon’s unconventional background of having obtained a colonelcy in the Royal Marine Artillery in January 1915, though a retired flag officer. This points to a central weakness of the work: though strong on discussing a specific operation, Lake is singularly disappointing on the background and experience of the navy in such ventures. This context is important for it says much about how the operations were planned and executed and why support from the War Office was discounted. For years the Admiralty had been trying to concert its strategy with the War Office, but the sights of the latter were firmly fixed on acting in company with France. As for that experience, the blocking operation directed against the Königsberg in East Africa in November 1914 or employing the River Clyde as an assault ship during the April 1915 Gallipoli landings are two episodes not explored for their lessons on tackling Zeebrugge and Ostend in 1918.

Given the scale of defences present, the dictates of tidal influences and the need for precise navigation, positioning cement-laden light cruisers and a submarine as block-ships to deny the enemy use of Zeebrugge and Ostend was demanding much of any navy. For the Royal Navy of 1918, it was a challenge much within its operational portfolio. Lake thoroughly describes the modifications to vessels made, the appliances developed and employed to screen the approaching force and the training of the assaulting troops. Meanwhile, preliminary steps included regular raids by aircraft and ships to accustom defenders to the presence of British forces operating in the area. Operation ZO, as the raids were styled, would see a mixed flotilla of destroyers, submarines, coastal motor boats and launches cooperate with the Royal Air Force to eliminate the ports as a source of worry. In the end, the goal proved elusive and the author is scathing in her criticism that so much blood and resources were expended for so little reward.

Lake’s particular bête noire is Keyes. Seen as a brave but essentially amateur protagonist in the deadly business of war, too often he played favorites at the expense of other worthy officers. His planning of the raids is held slipshod and directly contributed to the poor results obtained, never mind the excessive awards gazetted to those who participated. These are serious charges and not without elements of truth, yet they remain the voice of the prosecution. Little is cited in the way of mitigation. Namely, playing favorites was not a sin unique to Keyes and it was the amateurishness of the navy that had led to creation of an Admiralty War Staff and its associated War Staff Course. More troublesome though is the author’s penchant of biting sarcasm. ‘A commander must do more than just walk around in a big hat with gold braid on its peak and snap orders at deferential juniors’ is a tone too often present and could have been omitted with no loss of suasion.

Keyes was very much a product of his times and of his service and it is wrong to apply twenty-first century standards in military planning to the raids. The element of time dictated all and the reasons giving rise to the operations cannot be reduced to a single cause. If Keyes had many faults, then he possessed those traits of zeal and initiative which the service prized so highly in any desperate venture and, make no mistake, attacking Zeebrugge and Ostend was a desperate venture. Still, Keyes was no fool. When weather conditions proved unfavorable and dropped below the minimum required, the admiral aborted a first attempt. A second attempt quickly followed culminating on St George’s Day—April 23. It proved disappointing in the results achieved and, most especially, at Ostend, requiring yet another raid be launched. Even then, the navy and the Royal Air Force would return again and again to shell and to bomb.

Operationally, then, the raids failed to secure the ends desired, but wars are always fought for a higher purpose and to greater ends. Thus, the attacks on Zeebrugge and Ostend were painted as feats exemplifying ‘The Old Naval Touch’ offering cheer to a nation, to a cause and, yes, to the navy itself. Absent endnotes and with an incomplete bibliography, the professional and the academic will be disappointed in the accounting presented. For those who read to a lesser purpose, The Zeebrugge and Ostend Raids 1918 provides an earnest introduction to an action of high adventure and it is with those caveats the work can be recommended.


Dr. Moretz is with the British Commission for Military History.

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BOOK REVIEW – The U.S. Naval Institute on The U.S. Naval Academy: The History

The US Naval Academy HistoryEdited by Thomas J. Cutler, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (2015)

Reviewed by Michael F. Solecki

In 1839, the federal government established the first formal non-private naval school in Philadelphia called the “Naval Asylum,” a somewhat daunting name by today’s grammatical vernacular. The school, the actual forerunner of the U.S. Naval Academy, was an academic supplement to the “on the job training” (OJT) methods used for naval officers of the time.

Though there was a strong mindset that OJT was the only true training for naval officers there was a loosely regulated requirement for a formal education for midshipman candidates prior to their acceptance to the training program and a commission. As an example, the then future Admiral David G. Farragut (actual birth name was James) was home/ship schooled by his adopted father Captain David Porter and was only nine years old when he entered service and was commissioned. The staff hired for the “Asylum” was the best of the best of the time and in the right place at the right time for success. They established such a great reputation for the school through their students’ accomplishments at sea that the Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft lobbied to establish a full-time national naval college.

With much difficulty due to the “old school” thinking by the establishment, Bancroft was able to get just enough support to give it a try. By 1845, the land where the Academy still stands today, with a short move to Rhode Island during the Civil War, the former Ft. Severn on the banks of the mouth of the Severn River into the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Maryland, established a new national naval academy.

Nothing about the establishment of a permanent naval academy was simple. It was the teaching staff of the “Asylum” that was transferred to the new project and the discipline and determination of the first superintendent Commander Franklin Buchanan that made it happen. The old fort was a shambles, the grounds were overgrown, and the buildings were in horrendous and unsafe shape. They had to acquire bedding, boats and ships for shipboard experience and navigation training, books, desks and other necessary equipment; they were starting from scratch. The only thing that was not an issue was the enthusiastic staff. The early subject matter was basic, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, English, French and Navigation. Of course over the last one hundred and seventy plus years the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis has had many additions, renovations, academic revolutions and revelations. Over the years classes were broken up because of wars interrupting though not stopping the continued established traditions and adding memories significant to not only its alumni but to the national history as a whole. The U.S. Naval Academy today is one of the most prestigious academic and research institutions in the world not just from a military and naval aspect but, as a pure academic institution. As an additional note, in 1873 the U.S. Naval Institute was founded and is still housed there which shares in and feeds from its academic excellence, students, faculty and staff not to mention the many academics that it attracts from all over the world to further naval technology and the understanding of sea-power.

This edited collection includes twelve articles previously published in The U.S. Naval Institute journal publications Proceedings and Naval History dating back as far as 1899, as well as the hard-bounds: Guiding Lights and The U.S. Naval Academy: An Illustrated History, 2nd Edition. As my usual process, I read the book three times for the initial impact, technical/historic content and grammatical edit. The amount of information included here I will admit, was more than I expected for the size of the book. The authors kept each standalone article interesting by including the origins of traditions, why the buildings and grounds are aligned the way they are, and many more “nice to knows” and “oh, is that why.” Some sections had slow spots within the rhythm of the read and sometimes became wordy, most likely because of when they were actually written. The different perspectives from the different authors kept me interested in continuing in spite of some repetition of facts among the articles giving me a unique perspective of the institution. I have made many trips to the academy over the years and have a familiarity with the facility, traditions and history. A few illustrations and a panoramic or picture or two especially of the early days, that I know exist, would have been helpful additions by the editor for readers that have never been there. The history spans to the early 1990s and includes an interesting list and blurb of distinguished alumni. If you have an interest in a “quick read” of the first 150 years of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis I highly recommend this publication especially for the price offered.

Michael Solecki is a frequent contributor to Naval History Book Reviews.

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BOOK REVIEW – The Blockade-Runner Denbigh and the Union Navy: Including Glover’s Analysis of the West Gulf Blockade and Archival Materials and Notes

2800_001By J. Barto Arnold III and Robert W. Glover, Denbigh Shipwreck Project Publication, Institute of Nautical Archaeology, College Station, TX (2015)

Reviewed by Mark Lardas

In May 1865, a month after Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, the blockade runner Denbigh ran aground attempting to enter Galveston Harbor, and was subsequently destroyed by Union warships blockading the Confederate port. In 1998 an archeological study of the wreck began. On-site examination was conducted between 1998 and 2004. Analysis of these findings continues today.

The Blockade-Runner Denbigh and the Union Navy: Including Glover’s Analysis of the West Gulf Blockade and Archival Materials and Notes, by J. Barto Arnold III and Robert W. Glover, is the seventh publication of the Denbigh Project. It examines the Denbigh from the perspective of the blockading Union Navy.

The book’s first section reprints a doctorial thesis by Robert W. Glover: “An Evaluation of the West Gulf Blockade 1861-1865.” Originally written in 1974, it provides a clear and informative examination of the Union blockade during the Civil War. Its focus is the western Gulf of Mexico, especially the Texas coast.

One of the earliest studies of the Texas blockade, it was not replicated until Robert’ Browning’s Lincoln’s Trident: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron in the Civil War was published in 2015. Unfortunately, Glover’s work was largely unavailable until its reprint by the Denbigh Project. Despite its age, Glover’s work merits attention from anyone interested in the Gulf coast blockade. Brief yet comprehensive, it touches virtually all aspects of the blockade.

Glover concludes the Texas blockade was ineffective. These may be overstated. Texas was sufficiently isolated from the rest of the Confederacy as to merit lower priority. Even a porous blockade yielded benefits to the Union. His arguments merit review though.

The book’s next section contains memoirs written by members of the Union Navy serving in the Gulf blockade and archival documents concerning prizes taken during the blockade. The memoirs are brief, reprinted from nineteenth century or early twentieth century sources, offering a blockader’s perspective. This is followed by extracts from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies relating to the blockade runner Denbigh.

The final and largest part of the book (over half) presents documentation associated with the capture of cotton jettisoned from Denbigh after running aground on one attempt to leave Galveston, and the papers associated with the capture of blockade running steamship SS Alabama (a merchant vessel owned by the same company which owned Denbigh, not the Confederate raider). It provides a bounty of records: deck logs, muster rolls, inventories, court proceedings, departmental correspondence, official memoranda, and more, offering a fascinating look at the prize process.

The book is well illustrated, containing hundreds of images. Many are photocopies of pages transcribed in the documents section. Others are period illustrations of the men, ships, places, and equipment of the blockade.

The Blockade-Runner Denbigh and the Union Navy is a specialized book with a narrow focus. It will appeal to those interested in naval activities during the Civil War. Anyone seeking to learn the details of the blockade, whether researching a history or writing historical fiction centered on the blockade will find it invaluable.


Mark Lardas is a frequent contributor to Naval History Book Reviews.

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BOOK REVIEW – Syren’s Song: A Connor Stark Novel

2779_001By Claude Berube, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (2015)

Reviewed by Nathan Albright

Claude Berube wrote this fictional novel as a reward to students of naval history. Many of the elegant touches, including the name of the ship, spring from the author’s own vivid experience within the United States Navy, where he is currently an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy, a Ph.D. candidate working on a dissertation on Andrew Jackon’s Navy at the University of Leeds, and the author and editor of several nonfiction books on naval history. He co-wrote A Call to the Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the USS Constitution (Potomac Books, 2005), as well as Congress: Games and Strategies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007 & 2009). He was also a co-editor of Maritime Private Security: Market Responses to Piracy, Terrorism and Waterborne Security Risks in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2012). His varied experience working for the United States Navy has included a stint as an intelligence officer, active duty assignments in Europe and the Middle East, and work with two U.S. Senators as well as the Heritage Foundation. He brings this varied experience with both active duty and the world of politics to this novel in a satisfying way.

Readers who enjoyed Berube’s first Connor Stark novel The Aden Effect will find much to relish here. The novel focuses on a small group of characters it is easy to relate to, with most of the attention here being given to the awkward bromance between Connor Stark and the prim and fashion-conscious psychopathic lawman-assassin Damien Golzari, who ends up being the surprising “bad cop” in this good cop-bad cop buddy adventure novel. Berube manages to pay attention to Golzari’s estranged ex-wife, a driven and talented journalist with her own demons, as well as a small host of recurring characters, including the real villain of the story, the Chinese businessman Hu, who promises to be a fixture in the future series if this novel is any indication.

Many have compared Berube to Tom Clancy, but unlike Jack Ryan, it is clear that Connor Stark has no particular political ambitions to serve as the leader of the free world.  Instead, Stark, Golzari, and the other protagonists of this story are people who have been broken in many ways by life but who still seek to serve others and fulfill their responsibilities within our broken contemporary world despite their warped nature and horrific past. This book is full of people haunted by demons—Golzari’s brutal childhood, and the book’s frequent focus on both his increasing ability to dissociate himself from the horror of executing bad guys in clinical fashion and his own repressed but fairly obvious homosexuality, so obvious that Melanie Arden, his ex-wife, feels it necessary to spell out in direct terms to Connor Stark during the book’s meet cute where all of the lead characters are brought together for the first time in Sri Lanka. Yet it must be said as well that not only the book’s protagonists, but also blocking characters, like the insipid Admiral Rossberg, who is blamed for the problems of the US Navy’s ittoral vehicle in the novel, and the would-be Marxist terrorist mastermind Vanni, who is perhaps a bit too invisible for his own good, who are all broken as well by their own vanities as well as the horrors committed against them.

Most people, though, will look at this book not for its vivid characters or the way in which they frequently share a sense of past scars and trauma, even though the author dwells long on these issues as a way of rounding and deepening our regard and sympathies, but rather for this book’s plot. Fortunately, this book delivers the goods on the level of plot as well. Connor Stark is reunited with his beloved borrowed ship from the The Aden Effect and uses its maiden voyage to good effect when he accepts the offer to become a privateer armed with a 19th century Letter of Marque from Sri Lanka’s navy after weaponized hafnium-based rockets cripple their navy in one well-aimed blow. With suitably technical gadgetry such as a faraday cage that serves to protect at least some of its electronics from the ravages of an amped-up EMP attack, to suitably low-tech methods of torture and revenge, like the use of a Scottish knife as a good luck charm, useful in slitting the neck of villainous guards, and with the author’s shrewd discussion of minority oppression, the inhumanity of Marxism, and the malign influence of contemporary China in spreading violence and trouble throughout the world, this is a novel that at slightly over 200 pages of reading is a fast-paced and dramatic read that demonstrates both opportunity and danger. Its suitably enigmatic ending shows a multi-story arc that is continuing that will show the US Navy, American political interests, and the noble mercenary Stark join together in future missions where the secret influence of China is present in more dark doings, something to look forward to reading in the next novel.

Nathan Albright reviews books from his abode in Portland, OR.

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BOOK REVIEW – The Ingenious Life of Melbourne Smith – One Man’s Revival of Historic Sailing Vessels

2791_001By Paul Wood, Woods Maritime, Kamuela, HI (2015)

Reviewed by Charles Bogart

Paul Wood has written an excellent biographical account of naval architect Melbourne Smith who is the President of the International Historical Watercraft Society, and serves as Advisory Board Chairman for the National Maritime Historical Society and trustee of the American Ship Trust. Born in Hamilton, Canada, Melbourne Smith went to sea as a teenager and thereafter never lost his love of being a mariner. His life at sea and ashore is the story of a larger than life person. The tale of Mr. Smith service with the Guatemalan Navy is alone worth the price of the book. However, the heart of the book is the story of Mr. Smith growth from an ordinary sailor to a world renowned naval artist and naval architect.

Mr. Smith has been involved in bringing to life of a number of replica historic sailing vessels as a naval architect. Starting in 1975, with the building of Pride of Baltimore, Mr. Smith’s reputation as a master wooden sailing ship architect has grown over the years. Among the other modern replica sailing ship he has been involved with are USS Niagara, Spirit of Massachusetts, Lynx, and Endeavor. His involvement in these projects has run the gambit of design of the ship, building the shipyard, hands on construction and fitting out of the ship, and the sailing of the ship. Mr. Smith is also one of the founders the American Clipper Trust, which plans to re-construct the 1845 clipper ship Sea Witch.

As an artist, Melbourne Smith has created various maritime paintings or ship profiles drawings that hang in noted maritime museums and art galleries around the world. Readers of this review may be familiar with the ship prints that he created for publishing by both the U.S. Naval Institute and the American Heritage Press.

To reflect on Melbourne Smith’s growth from child to a world renowned sailing ship authority, the author has divided his book into three distinct sections, each corresponding to a phases of Melbourne Smith’s intellectual development: sailor, shipwright, and designer. Each section is a joy to read and one gets the feel of how Mr. Smith’s life moves forward, part is due to happenstance but the greater part is due to his commitment and focus. When opportunity knocks, Mr. Smith reaches out with gusto to embrace and cultivate it. The book is a splendid and thoughtful read of a man enjoying to the utmost a productive civilian maritime life. Take some time to read this book and then pass it on to your local high school library. 


Charles H. Bogart is a frequent contributor to Naval History Book Reviews.

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BOOK REVIEW – The Kraut: On Being German After 1940

2787_001By Erik Jurgen-Karl Dietrich, Self-Published (2015)

Reviewed by Charles Bogart

This self-published autobiography tells the story of Erik Jurgen-Karl Districh who was born in Germany in 1940. After the war, he lived in England until 1957, when he immigrated to the United States at age 17. After arriving in the United States, the author served first as an enlisted man in the U. S. Army from 1958 until 1964. After his discharge from the Army, he went to college and in 1971 earned a Ph.D. in Literature. After teaching at various schools in Massachusetts for two years the author joined the U.S. Navy as an Ensign.

The author tells the story of his life and that of his family within twenty chapters. These chapters average ten pages in length and carry the story of the author’s life chronologically. The author’s time in the U.S. Navy consumes some thirty pages, covering mainly his shore duty in Public Affairs. The author was involved in the coordinating of the Navy’s participation in the nation’s bicentennial celebration. His story of the development of today’s Navy’s “Don’t Tread on Me” Jack is a thoughtful tale of staffing a program through the Navy and other Federal agencies. The State Department was against the idea of the “Don’t Tread on Me” Jack as they thought it was too provocative.

The author was also involved in the salvage of the sailing ship St. Mary, which in the 19th century had gone aground in the Falklands. This Maine-built ship, upon recovery, was transported to the Maine State Museum in Augusta, Maine. The author also participated in the failed recovery of the sailing ships Charles Cooper and Vicar of Bray and an unsuccessful voyage to locate the wreck of Bonhomme Richard.  I will let the reader decide if the story the author tells of why he did not make Captain rings true. The book closes with a chapter on the author re-connecting with God.

The audience the book is written for appears to be members of the author’s family and their extended network of friends. The book is an interesting and inspirational look at one man’s journey from a childhood of poverty, to a life of upper middle class prosperity. The book is illustrated with a number of half tone black and white photos. The book for its $9.95 price is a nice weekend read.


Charles H Bogart is a frequent contributor to Naval History Book Reviews.

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Tuesday’s Buzzing Had Deadly Precedent

By David F. Winkler, Ph.D.
NHF Staff

The video of a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack jet making close passes near the destroyer USS Donald Cook on April 12 in the Baltic brought back recollections from the early Cold War when such bravado demonstrations were frequently conducted by the naval air forces of both super power protagonists.

USS Essex (CVS-9) underway, circa 1967. (Image courtesy NAVSOURCE)

USS Essex (CVS-9) underway, circa 1967. (Image courtesy NAVSOURCE)

Such was the case on May 25, 1968 in the North Sea where the USS Essex was conducting anti-submarine warfare flight operations. The flight deck crew maneuvered Commander Russ Dickens’ S2 Tracker to the forward port catapult and there he waited and waited. Told to “hold up a few minutes” Dickens wondered the cause for the delay when suddenly he looked up to see the top ten feet of the tail section of a TU-16 Badger with its Red Star clearly visible pass ahead. “The fuselage of the Badger was actually below the flight deck level” the veteran pilot noted. Dickens observed the plane on its low level trajectory as it traveled about two miles out then recalled, “It appeared to me that after the initial low level turn, the pilot took a peek at is position with regards to the aircraft carrier, and that is when he dipped his wing into the water.”

Essex’s rescue helicopter, already airborne as a safety measure during flight operations, rushed to the scene of the crash and found no survivors. Small boats were placed in the water to recover debris and human remains. Concerned that the crash could be interpreted as a shoot down, flash message traffic was sent to Washington to explain the circumstances to pass along to Soviet authorities. At sea some 100 miles from the crash site, the destroyer Warrington flagged down a Soviet destroyer to pass along the same message. That destroyer immediately proceeded to the vicinity of the Essex.

As the Soviet warship arrived and took station astern, the operations officer, Commander Edward Day was given the solemn task of transporting by small boat, the aircrew remains to the Soviet warship.  As the boat made its way aft, S-2 Trackers flew the missing man formation overhead to pay homage to the lost Soviet aviators.  The Soviet destroyer rendered honors with a gun salute.

A month earlier, following a continuing series of incidents at sea such as the one discussed above, the United States had approached the Soviets on safety at sea talks. Finally, after a Soviet destroyer collided with the HMS Ark Royal on November 9, 1970, the Soviets agreed to discuss negotiating an accord that would modify the behaviors of their respective naval forces.  Signed on May 25th, 1972, by Secretary of the Navy John W. Warner and Admiral of the Fleet, Sergei Gorshkov on behalf of their presidents, the Incidents at Sea Agreement ended the days of Cowboys and Cossacks on the high seas.

Soviet Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov (Image courtesy SIMSEC)

Soviet Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov (Image courtesy SIMSEC)

One of the turning points during the negotiations came during the discussions on aviation operations where the negotiators seemed to be talking past each other. The American negotiator, Captain Edward Day decided to relate his experience of May 25, 1968 to his counterpart, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Naval Aviation General Major Nikolai I. Vishensky.  Day concluded that the purpose of their talks was to prevent such needless tragedies in the future. Vishensky became emotional. He then informed Day that the body he returned was that of his son. From then on the two men talked to each other and achieved the necessary progress to complete an agreement that remains in effect today.

One difference between today and the Cold War era is social media. During the Cold War such low overflights would be filmed and discussed at the annual review sessions out of view of the media and the political establishment. Today, such incidents can be transmitted via social media by some crewmember or embarked reporter with a smart phone and find there way into the 24 hour news cycle. Unfortunately, the short term frenzy created by such exposure could have a corrosive effect on long-term behavior regimes.

For sure, the overflights will be discussed at the next annual gathering of senior naval officers from the United States and Russia. If the pattern from past talks continues, those discussions will be frank with mistakes admitted. Furthermore, those deliberations will be kept in private. During duty with “OPNAV” Staff I once came across a stamp the read: FOR US-USSR EYES ONLY.  I would not be surprised if today it has been replaced with a FOR US-RUSSIA EYES ONLY stamp.

Dr. Winkler wrote his dissertation on the Incident at Sea Agreement that was published by the Naval Institute Press in 2000 as Cold War at Sea.

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CHOW: Creamed Sliced Beef on Toast (S.O.S.)

chow cover logo
CHOW is a new blog and video series exploring the history behind U.S. Navy culinary traditions.

By Matthew T. Eng

Let’s face it: if you’ve served in the Navy during the twentieth century, chances are you’ve eaten sh*t. “Sh*t on a Shingle,” or creamed chipped beef on toast (S.O.S.), that is. The term derives from any brown creamed substance (sh*t) on top of toast (shingle).

The exact origin of S.O.S. is fuzzy. According to Wentworth and Flexner’s 1967 Dictionary of American Slang, no specific origin is known. The dish, which consists of sliced dried beef mixed in a thick creamy gravy, appeared in military cookbooks at the start of of the twentieth century. Some cooking sources, such as the online website “Seabee Cook,” claim the dish came from the Army. Steve Karoly, who authored an article on the subject, claims the “Army favorite” has become “the most popular version of SOS.” Some Navy veterans may disagree.

One of the original versions of chipped beef from the 1910 Manual for Army Cooks used beef stock, evaporated milk, and parsley added to flour, butter, and dried beef. According to Karoly, a creamier recipe using salty chipped beef was adopted during the Second World War. This style is clearly evident with Navy cookbooks as well. The 1944 Cook Book of the United States Navy recipe for “Creamed Sliced Dried Beef” includes a hefty amount of dried beef (7 lbs.) added to a paste-like roux and boiled milk.

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Variations of the recipe exist. Navy cookbooks also used a similar recipe for minced beef on toast, which had a tomato-based sauce with ground beef and sautéed onions. Some recipes for minced beef used a can of tomato juice for the sauce. E. Jon Spear’s 1960s memoir Navy Days stated that most sailors on his ship referred to the dish with the dysphemism “Red S.O.S.”

The popularity of creamed chipped/sliced beef soon extended beyond the military. Like the explosion of popularity in pizza after WWII, sailors and servicemen craved the warm and filling dish when their time in the military ended. Home recipes of creamed chipped beef published in the later twentieth century included S.O.S. variations using other meats such as tuna and sausage in a white sauce. Stouffer’s still makes a “classic” creamed chipped beef frozen meal to this day.

And then there were the nicknames. Food is a social experience, so it makes sense that camaraderie would come from finding common ground in the like or dislike of certain meals. When looking through the memoirs, diaries, and personal reminisces of sailors, it is clear that creamed sliced beef has the title for having the most nicknames, ranging from humorous to unsavory. Some of the nicknames simply play on the S.O.S. alliteration and assonance: Stew on a Shingle,” “Same Old Stuff,” and “Save Our Stomachs.” Others, like “foreskins on toast,” emit feelings of anything but hunger. Robert A. Maher and James E. Wise’s memoir Sailors’ Journey Into War said it well (warning: language):

“Another food that was enjoyed by both the army and navy was chipped beef on toast. There has been, and still is, a constant battle about what it was called. My army friends say SOS or shit on a shingle. My navy friends and I say FSOT, which I won’t translate.”

The terms grew in popularity in chow halls and mess decks around the Navy and soon became part of the legend of the dish itself.

Whatever you called it, creamed chipped beef was a staple for many sailors throughout the twentieth century. Love it or not, most sailors had to at least tolerate its taste. As former sailor Michael Gring commented in a 2015 interview of Navy chow in general, “you ate well, whether you liked it or not.” Gring had a recent experience with S.O.S. that brings back memories of the “weird comfort food” of his past life:

“About three or four years ago, I had S.O.S. I hadn’t had it since I retired eleven years ago. I ate a little of it – that was it. It didn’t taste that good, or at least the same. I thought it tasted better when I was in the Navy. I remember it being warm and filling you up, even if they often had to improve on the standard recipe.”

No standard recipe for S.O.S. exists, unless you consider the recipe for “Chipped Beef on Toast” (Recipe No. L 052 00) included in the Armed Forces Recipe Service, or AFRS, in 1969. So the question then is, what does it really taste like?

I had to know. Not only did I want to taste it, I wanted to cook it exactly to the specifications that the Navy had in mind. And since I work for an organization specializing in naval history, I figured I better use a historic recipe.


I decided to go with the recipe for creamed sliced beef on toast found in the 1944 Cook Book of the United States Navy (shown above). Unfortunately, that specific recipe presented a LARGE problem: quantity. Like most Navy or Armed Forces cook books, the 1944 edition included recipes catered to large groups. The S.O.S. recipe was designed to feed 100 at a time. I didn’t plan to purchase seven pounds of dried beef for this specific experiment, so I had to scale down.

Thankfully, our STEM-H program came to the rescue. Several years ago, teacher Greg Felber of Ledyard Middle School in Ledyard, CT created a mathematics lesson plan titled “Cook For a Submarine Fleet.” The lesson plan helped students learn fractional proportions to find the right amount of ingredients needed to feed everything from an entire submarine crew to an individual family. The program was so successful it was tested in a 7th grade classroom. After a re-introduction to dimensional analysis with our STEM-H coordinator John Paulson, I was ready to do some math for the sake of history:


I had originally designed the recipe for 10 people, which was 1/10 the amount needed for the 1944 recipe. I decided to half that, making the full recipe I used as:

5 oz. dried beef (1 package)
4 cups milk
1/3 stick butter (fat)
½ cup flour
¼ tsp. pepper
5 slices of bread, toasted


Using a nonstick skillet, I proceeded to follow the directions based of the 1944 recipe. I first sliced the package of dried beef and set it aside for later. Next, I melted the butter on medium heat and added the flour to make a roux for the milk. In reality, the mixture (which was supposed to resemble a “thick paste”) came out more like a paste because of the high proportion of flour to butter. More butter would certainly lend a smoother consistency. The milk was then added and boiled, stirring constantly to thicken.

When the white sauce was thick and gravy-like, the dried sliced beef and pepper was added. The temperature was lowered to medium low,  and the mixture was simmered for 10 minutes. Last, the mixture was finally spooned on top of white toast.

Bon appetit, Navy style.

The Taste Test

I smelled it before I took a bite. Somehow, it smelled salty. The dried beef poked through the white gravy in shallow peaks. The consistency was thick and rich. I could see why sailors wouldn’t mind something like S.O.S. on a cold morning at sea. I took my first bite. It tasted as salty as it smelled. In fact, it reminded me of a much saltier version of biscuits and gravy. It is certainly not for everyday consumption. The toast was a welcome addition to the meal to help cut the taste a little (but only a little). My wife, who also was on hand to taste test, referred to it as “Bisquick with salt.”

The full video and recipe is shown below.

If you have your own personal stories about S.O.S., please include your story in the comment section below or email Matthew T. Eng at We would love to include it in the ongoing narrative of the social history of the United States Navy.

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Submarine History Seminar Recap: Burke, Missiles, and Rickover Reminiscences

End Slide

“I don’t give a damn whether it is a ballistic missile or an air breathing missile, or both, so long as it will go about 1500 miles and hit the target with a warhead capable of doing the job.”

Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, USN, Chief of Naval Operations to Henry H. Porter, Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University, 26 September 1955

By Matthew T. Eng

The United States Navy kept busy during the Cold War. Between the “hot conflicts” in Korea and Vietnam, the United States Navy created the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) program to meet the need for a credible sea-based deterrent. Under the consistent threat of nuclear war, the United States needed to act fast, and did so accordingly. Its chosen platform for the missiles was the nuclear submarine. Both swift and silent, these newly classified ships could fire submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) against any foreign threat with remarkable accuracy and at great distances.

In the span of seven years (1958-1965), forty-one nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) were built in four shipyards around the United States. The U.S. Navy accomplished the nearly impossible task of creating the sea-based deterrent ahead of schedule. Both more accurate and less expensive than the intercontinental ballistic missile  (ICBM) , the SLBMs included in each of the aptly titled “41 for Freedom” submarines greatly increased the Navy’s own capabilities and the country’s need for nuclear deterrence. Veterans, scholars, active duty military, and members of the Naval Submarine League and Naval Historical Foundation met last Wednesday for the annual Submarine History Seminar honoring the men and machines that protected all Americans within our shorelines throughout the Cold War.

Guests socialize during a reception held in the Cold War Gallery before the Seminar began. (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

Guests socialize during a reception held in the Cold War Gallery before the Seminar began. (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

This year’s program built on last year’s seminar which focused on US-UK strategic missile and submarine development and cooperation over the course of fifty years. Part of that cooperation over that time period included the development of the POLARIS, POSEIDON, and TRIDENT missile systems, which were featured prominently on the “41 for Freedom” boomers before their retirement.

Several former SSBN veterans, crewmembers, and shipmates socialized before the seminar began in the South gallery of the National Museum of the United States Navy. Some attendees took a moment to view the impressive exhibits highlighting submarines in the North gallery, including the expansive “Covert Submarine Operations” exhibit featuring a strategic missile video, model display, missile tube, and a S5W submarine propulsion plant maneuvering room (steam plant, reactor plant, and electric plant control panels).

After welcoming remarks by Naval Submarine League President and CEO Rear Admiral John B. Padgett III, USN (Ret.) and Seminar Chair and Moderator Dr. David Rosenberg, the formal presentations began.

Dr. Rosenberg envisioned presenting attendees with a well-rounded approach to understanding­­ the vast and multifaceted world of ballistic missiles – from their creation and construction to the maintenance and performance of the Navy’s great underwater force for peace. Unlike previous seminars, several presentations were recorded before the event ­due to the rigors of travel for our speakers to and from the Washington Navy Yard.

SSP Archives – Strategic Submarine Programs Perspective, 1955-1963

The formal presentations opened with a brief video explaining the historical antecedents of the Fleet Ballistic Program from the point of view of the organization tasked with creating the weapon system itself, Special Projects, now the Strategic Systems Programs office.

The video came from the archives of SSP, which Dr. Rosenberg remarked was “a piece of 30-year old history itself.” It was narrated by former SSP Director Vice Admiral Ken Malley in honor of SSP’s 35th anniversary in 1990. The video included rare interviews about the FBM program from Admirals Arleigh Burke and Hyman G. Rickover.

“For practically unlimited distances under the water, I consider that she’s a new weapon, and that she may have as profound an effect on naval tactics and strategy as the airplane has had on war.”

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover

The video details the impressive feat done by SSP and their brilliant and innovative leader Vice Admiral William “Red” Raborn to create an operational system five years ahead of schedule. The video is posted below.

Dr. David Rosenberg – Polaris: Why, What and How


Dr. David Rosenberg (NHF Photo)

Dr. David Rosenberg next educated attendees with background to the Navy’s POLARIS missile as a weapon of deterrence and its inclusion in the FBM program under the direction of Admiral Arleigh Burke. Burke, a naval officer who “knew technology,” helped the Navy toward a path of adopting ballistic missiles. In the words of Rosenberg, an expert on Burke, Admiral Burke wanted to develop a program before the rival Air Force because he felt it was unwise to “put all missile deterrent in one land-based basket.” Thankfully, Burke was right. He knew that submarines [then SS(G)N)] would be the “optimum launching vehicle in terms of survival and economy of force.” As a man who was as wise as he was opinionated, he also understood the importance of leadership, which is why he chose former WWII Aviator “Red” Raborn to lead the program.

Rosenberg talked briefly on Burke’s own leadership style and direction. His dry humor is clearly evident in the last line of what Rosenberg called then Rear Admiral Raborn’s 2 December 1955 “Hunting License:”

The next report on this should be made by somebody who is enthusiastic, who gives evidence of his enthusiasm, and whose knowledge demonstrates that he has a thorough grasp of the problem and is pushing ahead a little bit faster than anybody else could.

He ended his talk with a discussion of the first operational patrols of SSBNs with POLARIS A-3 missiles in 1964 and 1965 in the Pacific Ocean. These patrols helped make POLARIS a name synonymous with the “41 for Freedom” ballistic missile submarines.

Captain Patrick G. O’Keefe, USN (Ret.) with Rear Admiral Millard S. Firebaugh, USN (Ret.) – Submarine Construction, Maintenance, and Modernization


Captain Patrick G. O’Keefe, USN (Ret.) with Rear Admiral Millard S. Firebaugh, USN (Ret.)

The next presentation came from a recorded oral history interview with former shipbuilding supervisor Captain Patrick G. O’Keefe (Ret.) and former ship superintendent of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Rear Admiral Millard S. Firebaugh, USN (Ret.). O’Keefe and Firebaugh approached the history of the “41 for Freedom” ships from a construction, maintenance, and modernization perspective. Both men played a heavy hand in each integral part of the SSBN life cycle. O’Keefe had notable experience for the job, as he took part in the first nuclear refueling of USS Nautilus, a feat never done before. Laughing reminiscently to himself, O’Keefe remarked after discussing the refueling of Nautilus that the “next big jolt” was the conversion of an SSBN, once again never before done in history. As he later said, the SUBSAFE overhauls specifically were always “full of adventures” due to the “tremendous amount of ripout” required to safely and properly outfit the ship for operation. These first SUBSAFE overhauls, nuclear refueling, and conversions Rear Admiral Firebaugh mentioned could include anything from messy cleanups due to a runaway sanitary tank hose to middle-of-the-night shouting matches over pipe fitters. Captain O’Keefe helped put all of that necessary work performed at the shipyards into perspective:

“At that point, we were scared to death of what the Russians were doing, and we needed SSBNs on station. When they put one into a shipyard [. . .] you gotta get it out on time and it’s got to work, so the pressure was pretty severe.”

Firebaugh ended the video with a commentary on the growth of the program from the early days. At the time, only a small contingent of leadership existed, which “intensely coordinated” all of the necessary activities for boomers. “In that era of NAVSHIPS,” he said, “there was one engineering duty Captain responsible both new construction and overhaul and maintenance of those ships.” Today, there are two completely different organizations that run these tasks, complete with Flag officer and staff members. “It’s a commentary on what happens to programs as they mature,” he said.

Captain James C. Hay, USN (Ret.) – Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine Command and Operations

Jim Hay

Captain James C. Hay, USN (Ret.)

Captain James C. Hay, USN (Ret.) discussed the performance of the “41 for Freedom” submarines from the command and operational perspective over the course of his illustrious career in his video interview. Hay commanded two SSBNs from 1967 to 1972, USS Daniel Boone (SSBN 629) and USS George C. Marshall (SSBN 654). Interestingly enough, Hay had never stepped foot onboard an FBM submarine until he took command of one! From a command perspective, Captain Hay had interesting remarks about the “BN business” in the U.S. Navy. After the previous discussion about their maintenance and construction by O’Keefe and Firebaugh, it is easy to understand why Hay had such a glowing review of the FBM subs:

“The 640s were beautiful ships. They were easy to drive, easy to run, and they were all built as POLARIS A-3 boats. Everything ran well in the FBMs at that particular time. The first five (Washington-class) had to pioneer what was to be done and what the meaning was of ‘full readiness:’ every second ready once you were on alert. Things got much better as the boats improved through the 608s [. . .] Finally with the 640s, it was very well done and everything ran beautifully on the ships.”

But things didn’t always go smoothly for the SSBNs. Hay’s personally recalled a situation on one of the Benjamin Franklin-class submarines when both of the Ship’s Inertial Navigation System (SINS) went down. “You are really in a big problem when that happens,” Hay said. The executive officer of USS Stonewall Jackson, then LCDR Bob Bovey, went into the software himself to examine the equations for earth rotation. He personally found an error and corrected it, bringing up both SINS. There is certainly a reason why Hay referred to Bovey as “one of the smartest guys in the United States Navy.”

Although he had initially requested command of a fast-attack submarine, Hay felt SSBNs were “exhilarating,” and felt there was an awful lot to know and teach to his sailors. In his words, he “did not lack for something to do on patrol, nor did any of our guys.”

Vice Admiral James A. Sagerholm, USN (Ret.) – SSBN Command and Operations, Part II


Vice Admiral James A. Sagerholm, USN (Ret.) (NHF Photo)

The final presentation of the night came from the personal experiences in command by Vice Admiral James A. Sagerholm, USN (Ret.). Vice Admiral Sagerholm did not take the normal route to the Navy’s gateway to the SSBNs, the U.S. Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. After enlisting in the Navy in 1946 and graduating from the Naval Academy in 1952, Sagerholm served in the surface fleet aboard cruisers, minesweepers, and destroyers. It was not until 1963 as a LCDR did he finally go to submarine and nuclear power training. Interestingly enough, his first introduction to the nuclear power program  came from then Captain James L. Holloway III. Holloway was in Washington and set to become the commanding officer of USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Holloway sat down with Sagerholm before his infamous selection interview with Admiral Rickover to tell him the ropes of the dreaded sit-down. “Whatever you do,” Holloway told him, “make sure you answer his questions completely.” Sagerholm did. According to him, he was asked how long he had been married. After a verbal tug of war between the young LCDR and fiery Admiral, Sagerholm answered him to the hour correctly, thus earning him a spot in the coveted program.

After completing the nuclear training program, Sagerholm was amazed by the level of cooperation and sophistication given to the submarine fleet. Like Hay, Sagerholm had nothing but good remarks to make about the “brilliantly constructed organization” of the nuclear fleet. “Unlike the surface fleet,” said Sagerholm, “you had everything available to you.”

The 2016 seminar was filmed for the Naval Submarine League (NSL) by Empire Media Group, and will be available through the NSL as are recordings or transcripts of all past Submarine History Seminars.  The seminars began with the 29 April, 2000 three session: “Rickover, Submarines, and the Cold War” at the Navy Memorial Theater and Heritage Center: Nuclear Power Comes of Age, Designing and Building the News Subs and their Payloads, and Silent and Stealthy Sentinels-Their Contributions to Cold War Victory.  All past seminars were summarized in our Spring 2014 issue of Pull Together.

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NHF Celebrates its 90th Anniversary

Members and friends of NHF came together for an evening to celebrate the accomplishments of the Foundation over nine decades and to honor its celebrated leaders.

The original seven signee of the Naval Historical Foundation certificate of incorporation typed from the first meeting minutes on 23 March 1926. (NHF photo)

The original seven individuals who signed the Naval Historical Foundation’s certificate of incorporation typed from the first meeting minutes on 23 March 1926. (NHF photo)

By Matthew T. Eng

It all began with a number: 7.

It was these seven notable Navy civilian and military leaders who signed the certificate of incorporation ninety years ago on 13 March 1926 that created the Naval Historical Foundation. For members of NHF, we owe our thanks to those seven individuals who saw the need to create an organization “in the interest of American Naval History and of the fostering of patriotism, the collection, acquisition, and the preservation” of the “history and traditions of the United States Navy.”

That guiding principle has remained the same over the course of nearly a century of preservation, education, and commemoration. Friends, colleagues, and members of the NHF family came to the National Museum of the United States Navy on 23 March to honor that legacy and look towards a bright future for the organization and its constituents.

The NHF anniversary reception held in the National Museum of the United States Navy’s Cold War Gallery was for the Foundation’s many members, and attendance that evening represented a remarkable cross-section of naval history. Each member plays a pivotal role in how we continue to understand and support our naval heritage. Indeed, it is no surprise then that NHF has remained a cornerstone for the creation, publication, and dissemination of naval history for nearly a century. Former employees of the Foundation, several who currently work for the Naval History and Heritage Command, came to the event to show their support as they continue to work in the naval history field. Several prominent naval historians representing the past and present scholarship of the United States Navy were also present, including four former recipients of the Dudley W. Knox Award for Lifetime Achievement in Naval History; Dr. Craig Symonds, Dr. Harold Langley, Dr. Bill Dudley, and LCDR Tom Cutler.

Festivities began with a special birthday video greeting by NHF Chairman Emeritus Admiral James L. Holloway III, USN (Ret.), who recently turned 94 and was unable to attend the the events at the historic Washington Navy Yard.

Knox Medal recipient and award-winning author and historian Dr. Craig Symonds followed with a brief yet insightful lecture on the history and significance of the Foundation’s 90-years, noting several individuals who “played important, even essential, roles in founding, maintaining, and sustaining the Foundation.” The first individual Symonds mentioned among his list of influential members was Dudley Knox, one of the seven original signatories of the Foundation’s 1926 Charter. He described the naval officer and historian and his enduring legacy to NHF:

“It was his enthusiasm and determination that was the driving force behind not only the founding, but also many of its early accomplishments.  All naval historians will be forever in his debt.  The sources we now often take for granted might not exist at all if he had not sounded the alarm, and they might not have survived if the dedicated group of founders did not have the clarity of vision to see that the past needed to be preserved, not merely in the form of several iconic and historic vessels like “Old Ironsides,” and places like the Decatur House, but also and perhaps especially in the paper record of the Navy’s founding, its rise, its occasional lapses into torpor, its internal quarrels, and its external triumphs.”

The reception also served as an opportunity to welcome the Foundation’s incoming chairman, Admiral William J. Fallon, USN (Ret.). In December 2015, Admiral Fallon took the helm of the Foundation from Admiral Bruce DeMars, USN (Ret.). Reception guests joined Mrs. Margaret DeMars in witnessing Admiral DeMars receive the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award from Director of the Navy Staff, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas.

Admiral DeMars' DPS certificate and photo with Director of the Navy Staff, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas. (NHF Photo)

Admiral DeMars’ DPS certificate and photo with Director of the Navy Staff, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas. (NHF Photo)

Such an award is truly fitting for the body of work completed by the Naval Historical Foundation under DeMars’ tenure. During his seven years as Chairman, the Naval Historical Foundation initiated several new awards and programs, most notably the aforementioned Knox Award and STEM-H Teacher Fellowship Program. NHF also completed a series of major exhibits in the Navy Museum’s Cold War Gallery. DeMars leaves the Foundation on course to return to its core mission to educate, preserve, and commemorate naval history with a goal of increasing our presence in the digital sphere and creating new educational initiatives.

DeMars, in his usual cool and calm demeanor, humbly accepted the award by thanking the Foundation’s loyal and generous membership base and staff members who continue to keep the Foundation going at full speed. Although Admiral Fallon acknowledged the “big shoes he has to fill” following DeMars’ tenure, the former Chairman made note that his successor is the “perfect candidate” for the job. From one four-star to another, NHF remains in good hands. The anniversary reception ended with a ceremonial cake cutting by admirals DeMars, Fallon, and Thomas.

NHF Chairman Adm. William J. Fallon, USN (Ret.), NHF Chairman Emeritus Adm. Bruce DeMars, USN (Ret.), and Director of the Navy Staff, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, USN cut the NHF birthday cake.

NHF Chairman Adm. William J. Fallon, USN (Ret.), NHF Chairman Emeritus Adm. Bruce DeMars, USN (Ret.), and Director of the Navy Staff, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, USN cut the NHF birthday cake.

Following the reception, Foundation leaders, advisors, donors and volunteers came together in the main Navy Museum for a special anniversary dinner.

Dr. Robert Ballard (NHF Photo)

Dr. Robert Ballard (NHF Photo)

National Geographic Explorer in Residence and Ocean Exploration Trust Founder Dr. Robert Ballard took time out of his busy schedule to speak to guests at the dinner about the ongoing work done by his “Corps of Exploration.” Dubbed the “Victory at Sea” Task Force, Dr. Ballard has a robust plan to range across the Pacific Ocean in the next few years to search for geological and biological features as well as locate a variety of ship wrecks from the Second World War, including most notably the enigmatic USS Indianapolis. This is a remarkable new initiative for Ballard, known for his discovery of RMS Titanic, German battleship Bismarck, Battle of Midway aircraft carrier Yorktown, and President John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 and his frequent deep dives to examine deep ocean vents and the remarkable life forms that inhabit their vicinity. NHF staff members have been working with both Ballard’s team and the United States Navy to help pinpoint a high probability search area for Indianapolis. Stay tuned to both the NHF homepage and the Nautilus Live website for updates as Ballard’s expeditions continue along the west coast of North American and then head west into the vast Pacific. Dr. Ballard also took time to reminisce about his experience working with Admiral DeMars years ago, detailing how a covert, Navy-authorized mission to survey the wreckage of U.S. nuclear submarines led to the discovery of Titanic.

Following the riveting dinnertime lecture, Admiral DeMars presented Senator John Warner with the Foundation’s inaugural Chairman’s Award for recognition of his lifelong support, both in uniform and in Congress, for naval history and heritage in general and the Naval Historical Foundation in particular.

Warner warmly accepted the award from DeMars and took no time at all in making good on that continued promise of support by donating two items from his personal collection to NHF: a wooden chair used at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, during the peace negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War, and a one-of-a-kind, oversized Under Secretary of the Navy flag produced for prominent visibility during James Forrestal’s visits to the troops during the Second World War.

Senator John Warner with the Chairman's Award in the background. (NHF Photo)

Senator John Warner with the Chairman’s Award in the background. (NHF Photo)

In his brief acceptance speech, Senator Warner made a point to first recognize his wife Jeanne, who he affectionately called his “chief of the boat.” and whom he praised for her guidance and thoughtfulness over the years.

Taking a cue from Warner, Admiral DeMars concluded his remarks by thanking his wife Margaret and all Navy wives and partners who stood the long watches at home while their spouses carried out the Navy’s business around the world.

Admiral Fallon then closed out the evening by thanking the 60 plus guests for their attendance and their long term support for the Naval Historical Foundation—and asked that that support continue as the Foundation embarks on new projects in support of the mission to “preserve and honor the legacy of those who came before us, and educate and inspire the generations who will follow!”

A special thank you to Jim Devito and Kyle Nappi for their help in putting on this event.

Posted in Awards, Donation, Featured, Fundraising, History, Membership, Navy Museum, News | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mysterious Loss of the CONESTOGA Solved (Guest Post)

Ship's Officers at San Diego, California, circa early 1921. They are (from left to right): Machinist Louis A. Liscomb, Engineering Officer; Lieutenant Ernest L. Jones, Commanding Officer; Boatswain Harvey H. Reinbold, Executive Officer; and Boatswain Roy E. Hoffses, Ordnance Officer. All were lost when Conestoga disappeared after leaving San Diego in March 1921. Courtesy of W.P. Burbage, 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Related Content

Ship’s Officers at San Diego, California, circa early 1921. They are (from left to right): Machinist Louis A. Liscomb, Engineering Officer; Lieutenant Ernest L. Jones, Commanding Officer; Boatswain Harvey H. Reinbold, Executive Officer; and Boatswain Roy E. Hoffses, Ordnance Officer. All were lost when Conestoga disappeared after leaving San Diego in March 1921. Courtesy of W.P. Burbage, 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.
Related Content

This was originally posted in the July 2008 issue of the USCS Log, the award-winning philatelic journal of the Universal Ship Cancellation Society (USCS). USCS is an international society that collects naval postal history.

(Author’s note:  This is a story of tragedy and loss.  It is told in narrative form, the events are factual except those actually aboard CONESTOGA from the time of getting underway until her loss. The events aboard CONESTOGA described from her underway to loss are the author’s conjecture based on his twenty-nine years of service, most of which was at sea, including two tours of duty in towing ships (RECLAIMER ARS-42 & COUCAL ASR-8).  The author’s towing experience is substantial, and includes being in-charge of the longest post-WWII casualty tow, that of USS NEW ORLEANS LPH-11 in 1976.  NEW ORLEANS lost a blade from her propeller and RECLAIMER had to tow her 700 miles at about four knots to Pearl Harbor.)

By Glenn Smith
Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy (Retired)
Universal Ship Cancellation Society

In the 1800s, Conestoga wagons, built mostly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, “sailed” west from frontier towns.  Untold numbers of people lost their lives on these westward journeys.  In March 1921, the Navy namesake of these wagons, USS CONESTOGA (AT-54), sailed west from San Francisco Bay.  She was never heard from again, and all hands were lost.

May 17th, 1921.  The venerable merchantman/passenger ship, SS SENATOR is underway about 200 miles south-southwest of Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of Baja Sur California, Mexico.  SENATOR has been plying the Pacific waters from Alaska to Central America for almost twenty-five years, carrying passengers and cargo.  Today, the crew sights debris and stops to recover a damaged lifeboat.  The master immediately recognizes it as being of the type used by naval vessels.  The boat has a brass letter “C” on its bow.

Figure 1:  SS SENATOR in an Alaskan ice floe, unused postcard. (USCS)

Figure 1: SS SENATOR in an Alaskan ice floe, unused postcard. (USCS)

Earlier, at 0815, Friday, March 25th, 1921 – Mare Island, California.  USS CONESTOGA (AT-54) backs gingerly away from her berth.  Made up “Chinese” (bow to stern) on her outboard side is a heavily laden barge full of coal.  CONESTOGA has been assigned as the station tug at Tutuila, Samoa, and she is on her way towing her load of coal to take up that station, with orders to stop at Pearl Harbor to refuel & replenish.  The trip across San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay require her to keep her barge tow alongside for maneuvering in restricted waters.  Once outside the Golden Gate (the famous red-orange bridge had not yet spanned the opening from San Francisco Bay to the Pacific), she would slow and stream her tow astern for ocean towing.

LT Ernest L. Jones, CO, CONESTOGA

LT Ernest L. Jones,

Aboard CONESTOGA was a veteran crew, led by a wardroom of all “mustangs,” former enlisted men who had risen through the ranks.  Commanding was LT Ernest L. Jones, r>who had enlisted in 1902 and was appointed as warrant officer (boatswain) in 1913.  Within five years, Jones had become a Lieutenant, and in March 1920 assumed command of CONESTOGA.  With him in his wardroom was Boatswain Harvey Reinbold (XO & Navigation), Boatswain Roy Hoffses (Ordnance), and Machinist Louis Lipscomb (Engineer).  Enlisted leadership was provided by four chief petty officers (boatswain’s mate, carpenter’s mate, machinist’s mate, and water tender) and several first class petty officers, including a quartermaster.

Built in 1904 as a civilian tug, CONESTOGA entered naval service in 1917, and served mainly as a harbor tug at Norfolk until she was fitted out for open ocean service in 1920.  She displaced 420 tons, was 170’ in length, normal draft was 16’, max speed was about 13 knots, and she mounted two 3” guns and a pair of machine guns.  By modern standards, CONESTOGA would be considered to be too small for open-ocean towing.  By comparison, today’s Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tugs of the POWHATTAN class have a displacement of about 2260 tons, about five times the size of CONESTOGA.

Towing any vessel in the open ocean is an inherently dangerous operation, arguably one of the most difficult of seamanship evolutions.  Towing speeds vary based on the prevailing sea and wind conditions coupled with the power of the tug and size of the vessel towed.  CONESTOGA was not a particularly powerful ship, but a barge is a relatively small vessel to tow.  In ideal conditions, CONESTOGA might be expected to tow a barge laden with coal at about six to eight knots.  Rough seas or high winds would reduce that speed to three or four knots or even lower.

(AT-54) Deck Division posed beside the ship, at San Diego, California, circa early 1921. Seated in chairs are (from left to right): Chief Carpenter's Mate John Wesley Powell; Boatswain Harvey H. Reinbold, Executive Officer; Boatswain Roy E. Hoffses, Ordnance Officer; and Chief Boatswain's Mate Elias Melvin Zimmerman. The Sailor marked by an arrow (top row) may be Seaman 1st Class W.P. Burbage. Courtesy of W.P. Burbage, 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. (# NH 71507)

(AT-54) Deck Division posed beside the ship, at San Diego, California, circa early 1921. Seated in chairs are (from left to right): Chief Carpenter’s Mate John Wesley Powell; Boatswain Harvey H. Reinbold, Executive Officer; Boatswain Roy E. Hoffses, Ordnance Officer; and Chief Boatswain’s Mate Elias Melvin Zimmerman. The Sailor marked by an arrow (top row) may be Seaman 1st Class W.P. Burbage. Courtesy of W.P. Burbage, 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. (# NH 71507)

In late afternoon on March 25th, CONESTOGA approaches the Golden Gate.  About two miles inside the Gate, Captain Jones orders the ship slowed in order to stream the coal barge astern in preparation for ocean towing.  He keeps the barge at “short stay,” about 250 yards astern with tension on the towing line for control while passing through the Gate.  At about 1800, with CONESTOGA two miles west of the Gate, the barge’s tow line is slacked until it has a sufficient catenary (a curve or slack in the line between the towing vessel and the barge) to act as a spring.  Satisfied that the barge is riding well, Captain Jones directs the normal at-sea towing watch be set.  CONESTOGA’S towing watch consisted of one of the warrant officers (or perhaps Chief Boatswain’s Mate Elias Zimmerman) as officer-of-the-deck (OOD), a helmsman, messenger, quartermaster, and a lookout on the bridge, two or three men in the engine room, and an experienced seaman on the fantail as a watch on the towed barge and towing equipment.  The crew assumes the normal at-sea watch rotation of four hours on and eight hours off.  Additionally, sailors off-watch during the day put in a normal work day.  What this means, for example, is that if you have the 4-8 watch in the morning, you rise at 0330, stand your watch, work all day, have the “first dog watch” from 1600 to 1800, and after the evening meal you might be able to get 4 hours rest before being called for the mid-watch at 2330.  As you might imagine, by 0200 on the mid-watch, one is likely to be very tired.  Judgment clouded by fatigue will play an important role in this hypothetical scenario.

Figure 4:  Cover cancelled March 25th, 2008 in CONESTOGA’s namesake town commemorating her departure from Mare Island.  The stamp is appropriate, marking her destination of Diamond Head, Hawai’i.

Cover cancelled March 25th, 2008 in CONESTOGA’s namesake town commemorating her departure from Mare Island. The stamp is appropriate, marking her destination of Diamond Head, Hawai’i.

Boatswain Reinbold sets a course for Pearl Harbor, aiming to take CONESTOGA south of Oahu and around Diamond Head.  The planned projected track uses a speed of advance of seven knots, which means that the ship would travel about 168 nautical miles per day.  The distance along normal shipping route from the Golden Gate to Pearl Harbor is about 2100 nautical miles, making CONESTOGA’S voyage one of about 12.5 days.  Authorities in Pearl expect CONESTOGA and her tow on the morning of Thursday, April 7th.

Maritime radio communications in 1921 was in its infancy, and was highly unreliable.  In fact, the Navy rating of Radioman had just been established in 1921; however, none were aboard CONESTOGA.  Captain Jones, both boatswains, and Quartermaster 1/c Martin McKeigh all could manage the rudimentary Morse key that transmitted & received signals to & from distant land stations, one of which was KPH (originally located in the Palace Hotel, San Francisco). Station KPH started maritime commercial operations in 1917 from a transmitter in Bolinas, CA.   Typically, one of these men would stop by the small radio set a couple times a day to send or check for radio transmissions.  Many times, they could not send or receive signals because of distance or weather.  This was considered normal, and not hearing from a particular vessel for days or even weeks did not raise any serious alarm at shore headquarters.

The 20-24 watch on Sunday March 27th was unremarkable.  Boatswain Reinbold’s evening star sighting showed that CONESTOGA had traveled about 345 miles since passing between the Golden Gate.  This put the ship in the California Current which is part of the North Pacific Gyre, and typically sets southward along the California coast.  Captain Jones spent most of the evening working on administrative matters, but around taps (2200), he made a walk-through of the ship.  Even though there had been a full-moon on March 23rd, it was now fast waning, with a ¾ moon rising at about midnight.  Dark cumulus clouds were rolling in from the west, making the sky even darker than normal.  Jones could barely make out his towing charge, now about 400 yards astern, riding at the end of his towing wire.  He chatted briefly with the seaman on the fantail watch, satisfying himself that the seaman knew what to look for and that he moved the towing wire in and out from time-to-time to reduce chaffing of the wire.  Returning to the bridge, Jones sat in his chair for a while, talking with the OOD until about 2300.  Assuring himself that there were no other ships in sight (radar had not been introduced in ships), Jones retired to his cabin for the evening.

The mid-watch (00-04) took over at midnight on Monday, March 28th.  Still in the cooler waters near San Francisco, the watch, particularly on the fantail, was unpleasant, at best.  The fantail towing watch stepped inside the deck house to the galley fairly frequently for coffee, and to simply “warm his bones.”  Even in these cooler temperatures, the engine room was extremely hot; ships in this era had no air conditioning.  Because the seas were relatively calm, the deck house doors on the main deck remained open to provide some relief for the engineers and crew’s quarters.

At 0200, the fantail towing watch looked astern and could not see the barge, it was extremely dark by now, the barge had been riding low in the water because of its heavy load of coal, and the black coal pile did not reflect light well, so this was not unusual.  It seemed quiet and normal, so the tired and bored seaman stepped into the galley for coffee.  What he did not know was that a seam had ruptured on the barge, and even now it was sinking fast.  As it sank, the sudden downward strain on the towing line brought the fantail of CONESTOGA down, and the sea surged over her aft gunwales.  Like a wave at the beach it headed forward toward and through the open aft deckhouse doors and burst through them, the barge towing wire parted under the strain, sending the barge to the sea floor, but the sudden release of tension tossed the stern of CONESTOGA violently upward and her bow down, and all of the water that had accumulated in the fantail and in the deck house flooded into the engine room and crews quarters, trapping men in both places.  As the fantail rose, the bow scooped in more sea water, adding to the already bad situation.  In a matter of seconds, CONESTOGA was doomed.  She went down like a rock. There was no time to launch her lifeboats, they were literally ripped from their davits, shattering them in the process.  All hands on the main deck or below could not make their way against the on-rushing waters, only the bridge and fantail watch, and perhaps the officers and chiefs whose berthing was higher in the deck house, managed to make it into the sea alive.  There was absolutely no chance to attempt a radio transmission.

The few men that managed to get off the sinking ship had only one chance for survival, a passing ship.  They were not expected in Pearl for at least another ten days, so there would be no organized search effort until then.  With the lifeboats shattered and being in relatively cool waters, they had about two or three days at most.  No ships came.

When it finally became apparent that CONESTOGA was overdue, somewhere around April 8th, a search was launched and lasted until CONESTOGA was declared lost without a trace on June 30th, 1921.

USS BROOKS commemorative cancel  for the loss of the CONESTOGA. Even President  Harding seems to have a sad countenance.

USS BROOKS commemorative cancel
for the loss of the CONESTOGA. Even President
Harding seems to have a sad countenance.

The author recognizes that there could have been other causes for CONESTOGA’S loss.  Among them might have been a collision at sea, but this is discounted because no other vessel was reported lost nor did any report a collision.  A catastrophic fire in the engineering spaces is possible, but would not have likely resulting a sinking.  A fire might have reached the ammunition storage area causing a fatal explosion, but it is not known if CONESTOGA had a below decks magazine that could have been flooded to mitigate that possibility, or simply deck ammo storage lockers.  However, the ship had only three-inch and machine gun ammo, which would not normally cause an explosion of the magnitude necessary to sink even a small ship.  Whatever happened had to be catastrophic, otherwise, the experience deck crew of CONESTOGA would certainly have had time to properly launch lifeboats and rafts, and the rescue of at least some of the crew would have been possible, if not likely.

When SS SENATOR found the drifting debris, including the boat bow with the letter “C,” the master of SENATOR sent that part to the Navy Department.  The Navy was unable to conclusively confirm that it was from CONESTOGA.  However, the location of the find is consistent with CONESTOGA having a catastrophic event and sinking between about 100 and 400 miles off the California coast on or about March 28th, with the debris drifting with the southward setting California Current until discovered by SENATOR on May 25th.

With the sole exception of SENATOR’S grim find, the search for CONESTOGA netted nothing.  Navy, Coast Guard, and merchant ships scoured the ocean between California and Hawai’i, with no luck.  There is one incident involved in the search that, were it not for the terrible tragedy of CONESTOGA’s loss, would be very amusing.  With more than 86 years having passed, it is probably OK to smile at the story of the USS R-14’s search efforts.  R-14 was an old submarine, and herself very small, 569 tons surface displacement, which made her close in size to CONESTOGA.

R-14 had a diesel fuel capacity of about 18,800 gallons, but had deployed from Pearl Harbor hurriedly on the vital search mission for CONESTOGA and had only about 10,000 gallons on sailing.  About half of her fuel was in the R-14’s reserve fuel tank.  On May 10th, her normal on-service fuel tank ran dry, so her commanding officer, LT A. D. Douglas, ordered a shift to the reserve fuel tank.  That tank, for reasons still not known, had no fuel.  R-14 was adrift, with only what “juice” she had in her battery (which was enough for only about two hours of propulsion).  Again, the vagaries of maritime radio communications came into play.  R-14 sent a message, which they believed was received by her sister, USS R-10.  If it was, it was never relayed to the proper authorities in Pearl, and R-14 was also thought to be overdue.  Submariners are noted for ingenuity, and R-14 bolstered this tradition by rigging sails from sheets and mattresses, attaching them to her periscope, and sailing for five days.  Finally, on May 15th, she was off the breakwater at Hilo, Captain Douglas ordered the batteries brought on line, and R-14 came into port on her own power.  Imagine Captain Douglas’ embarrassment on having to explain to the admiral that his reserve fuel tank was empty, and he did not know it.  It is not known if LT Douglas’ naval career suffered from the “fuel shortage,” or prospered because of his ingenuity!


(1). The US Naval Observatory James Melville Gillis Library for on-line astrological observations of 1921 may be accessed at:

(2). Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships at:

(3). The Devil’s Triangle to the Devil’s Jaw by Richard Winer, Bantam Books, Inc., New York, 1977. pp. 210-12.

(4). Naval Historical Center (Now Naval History and Heritage Command) at: and other related pages.

(5). US Navy Towing Manual, SL740-AA-MAN-010, Rev. 3, 2002, accessible on-line at:

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The Import and Export of Creativity: Popular LEGO Program Debuts at Kalmar Nyckel Foundation

A visitor to last week's LEGO Shipbuilding event at the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation builds a ship in the "free play" area (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

A visitor to last week’s LEGO Shipbuilding event at the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation builds a ship in the “free play” area (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

“It’s not every day you build a battleship.”
–  Sam Heed, Director of Education and Senior Historian, Kalmar Nyckel Foundation

By Matthew T. Eng

It is always refreshing to see childhood imagination pop up in the most unlikely of places. Whether in the main stream or off the beaten path, a child’s growing mind will always flock to new opportunities to learn and explore wherever available. LEGO bricks, the popular pieces of stackable plastic that have entertained millions of children and adults alike the world around, are one of the best ways to boost that budding interest. In recent years, programs supporting LEGO bricks and their many uses have cropped up around the United States, from Robotics Leagues in schools to enthusiast clubs and hobby groups for experienced builders. Navy STEM and STEM-H programs utilizing LEGOs are no different. The Navy’s commitment to these building blocks is bigger than ever. Indeed, if there is an outlet for education to “import,” young creative minds will undoubtedly “export” fun and learning.

This past weekend, the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation debuted its first annual LEGO Shipbuilding Program in picturesque Wilmington, Delaware. Their inaugural event was based on the popular shipbuilding event held at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) in Norfolk, VA. Staff at HRNM helped “import” many of the buildable sets and instructions developed and used for their own annual event, including their large collection of over 30,000 “free play” bricks. The event proved to be a great success for both the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Nearly 250 people came to the event, which elated staff at Kalmar Nyckel. It is more than a great start for an organization whose location may have been hidden to the local population. The hope is that more families will be interested in future events and build up credibility through word of mouth and social media.

A Kalmar Nyckel volunteer works with a participant as he builds Battleship Wisconsin. (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

A Kalmar Nyckel volunteer works with a participant as he builds USS Cumberland. (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

Sam Heed, Director of Education and Senior Historian at the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, wanted to bring the skills and expertise of HRNM educators up to Delaware to help their Foundation receive higher visibility and to showcase their excellent facility and budding educational programs. As evident by the hundreds of individuals to came to the Wilmington waterfront last Saturday, creativity knows no geography.

HRNM Deputy Education Director Laura Orr (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

HRNM Deputy Education Director Laura Orr (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

As HRNM Deputy Education Director Laura Orr suggested at the event last Saturday, their shipbuilding program is the perfect import to any maritime or naval museum. “This is the first time we have used the basis of the program we have developed at HRNM at another location outside of Hampton Roads,” said Orr. “We hope this provides a model for future collaboration with other maritime or naval museums.” The dedicated team at HRNM continues to develop new ships and models for their competition every year. No longer are they simply using graph paper and colored pencils to design ships. The process is now completely streamlined and digitized. The creativity never stops, and Sam Heed and Kalmar Nyckel was smart enough to pick up on that when at the 2015 LEGO Shipbuilding event in Norfolk. Sam mentioned that he knew he had to have something like it for his location. The gamble paid off, and his Foundation has the honor of being the programs first satellite success story.

Those that came on Saturday were not disappointed. Several kids (and adults) commented how realistic the ships they built resembled the real ones from American naval history. Like any seaworthy vessel, the program is clearly one well oiled machine. The Naval Museum brought seven of the eleven ships from their annual event up to Delaware for kids to appreciate, built, and admire. HRNM Director of Education Lee Duckworth spent most of the day helping kids build historic Navy ships. “It was a huge compliment to hear how excited the kids were to build the ships,” he said. “For any LEGO enthusiast,” implored Lee, “it’s the highest honor.”

Like the event down in Virginia, there was a shipbuilding contest for participants to enter. Ingenuity was on full display for ships built at home and on site. The entries in Delaware were no different both in level of creativity and smartness of design from those in past Norfolk events. Several of the designs in the 17+ category was built in the exact likeness of the Kalmar Nyckel docked only feet away from the building. One of the volunteers pointed out how one ship went so detailed as to use LEGOs to display the ship’s famous “angel faces” depicting Delaware’s elected officials and benefactors.

The "Angel Faces" of Kalmar Nyckel in real life and in LEGO form. (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

The “Angel Faces” of Kalmar Nyckel in real life and in LEGO form. (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

The greatest moment of the day by far came from the excited face of Sam Heed himself. For most of the day, he looked like a kid in a candy store. He commented on several occasions how excited he was to bring an event like this to Delaware, and how much he is looking forward to future events to build on this year’s momentum. “It’s not everybody you get to build a battleship,” he told a group of young builders piecing together Battleship Wisconsin. Look for future events at the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation to highlight LEGO and STEM initiatives.

A replica of Kalmar Nyckel in the 17+ contest category. (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

A replica of Kalmar Nyckel in the 17+ contest category. (NHF Photo/Matthew Eng/Released)

As for Laura Orr, she will be returning to the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation next month to speak about their success with the LEGO Shipbuilding program at this year’s Council of American Maritime Museums (CAMM) Conference. We look forward to hearing more about the “import and export” of both the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and Kalmar Nyckel’s respective programs.

A special thanks to the staff and volunteers at the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation and the educators of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

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U.S. Navy Baseball History Exhibit Opens at Puget Sound Navy Museum

Photograph of new exhibit at Puget Sound Naval Museum (Photo by Megan Churchwell/Released)

Photograph of new exhibit at Puget Sound Naval Museum (Photo by Megan Churchwell/Released)

By Megan Churchwell
Museum  Curator
Puget Sound Navy Museum

The Puget Sound Navy Museum in Bremerton, Washington is excited to announce the opening of a new exhibit on March 4th. “When Baseball Went to War” explores the history of U.S. Navy baseball from its earliest years through World War II.

Baseball was among the earliest team sports played at the U.S. Naval Academy, getting its start around the 1860s. By the late 1800s, there were many ship-based teams and leagues. Quickly, the excellence of a ship’s ball team was seen to reflect the excellence of their command.

During World War I, baseball truly became integrated into Navy training. The exhibit features a World War I-era Navy aviator’s baseball uniform. By the 1930s, sailors had brought the game to dozens of countries, including Japan, China, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil.

Though most ships did not have enough space for a baseball diamond, ballgames while on dry land - and games of catch while at sea - kept sailors in shape. Baseball games were even played on the deck of aircraft carriers. (Puget Sound Naval Museum)

Though most ships did not have enough space for a baseball diamond, ballgames while on dry land – and games of catch while at sea – kept sailors in shape. Baseball games were even played on the deck of aircraft carriers. (Puget Sound Naval Museum)

America’s involvement in World War II resulted in an unprecedented explosion in Navy baseball, making wartime and baseball forever linked. During World War II, more than 500 major-league players traded their baseball uniforms for military uniforms. The stories of Navy baseball players including Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams are highlighted in the exhibit.

Baseball was a major morale booster throughout the war years, both on the home front and on the fighting fronts. “Reading about the Yankees or the Dodgers made the deck of a destroyer in the middle of the Pacific seem a little more like home,” said sailor Richard Nowak. Sailors could pick up a ball, bat, or glove in foreign theaters and feel like they were back in their neighborhood sandlot. They played baseball whenever and wherever they could. When Americans went to war overseas, so did baseball. Service baseball flourished in both the European and Pacific theaters, as well as Navy bases throughout the United States.

“When Baseball Went to War” opened on March 4, 2016 and will remain on view for two years.

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A Pilgrimage to Honor and Remember My POW Husband

In 2016, the Naval Historical Foundation is celebrating its 90th year as a non-profit institution. We are highlighting stories that honor our commitment to preserve, educate, and commemorate naval history. Retired Navy Captain and former Vietnam POW Ken L. Coskey remains a central figure in the storied history of this Foundation. This  onth marks the 43rd anniversary of the return of Captain Coskey and the other of the Vietnam POWs to the United States from their long captivity.

On 6 September 1968, then-Commander Coskey was shot down in his A-6A Intruder over North Vietnam during a night reconnaissance mission near the city of Vinh. After being captured by the North Vietnamese Captain Coskey spent four and a half years imprisoned in Hanoi. He was released alongside 590 other Americans during Operation Homecoming in the spring of 1973.

Captain Coskey (1929-2013) served in leadership roles at the Naval History and Heritage Command (then Naval Historical Center) from 1979 to 1982 and as Executive Director of the Naval Historical Foundation from 1987 to 1999. He was a strong supporter of National History Day held each year for thousands of middle and high school students at the University of Maryland in College Park. As a testament to his steadfast commitment to history, the Naval Historical Foundation helped establish the Captain Ken Coskey Naval History Prize to recognize outstanding achievement in the field of naval history to aspiring young scholars. Mrs. Rosemary Coskey, his wife of 27 years, remains an active participant in the event each year.

Mrs. Coskey recently returned from a “Back to Vietnam” trip in January of this year. She has graciously agreed to share her experiences of traveling to Vietnam to honor her late husband and reflect on his incredible life story.

Mrs. Rosemary Coskey at Hoa Lo Prison (Photo courtesy Rosemary Coskey)

Mrs. Rosemary Coskey at Hoa Lo Prison (Photo courtesy Rosemary Coskey)

By Rosemary Coskey

Vietnam is a very popular destination right now.  When I was in Croatia in October our local guide said that was where she had picked for her vacation in January.  Many friends have recently gone there or have plans to visit in the near future.

Because my late husband spent 4.5 years there as a POW, I had been curious.  We had never talked of going there together although many POW families have since been back.  I do wish I could have gone with him but it did not work out that way.

Two years ago my neighbors told me about the recent tour they had just taken with a group of returning veterans.  The trip was such a success they all got together and rented a house on the Outer Banks the following summer to have a reunion.  What bonding!    With such high praise, I decided to take a look at the specifics.


CDR Coskey aboard USS America (CVA 66)

At first I had grave doubts. Would there be too much emphasis on the war in the the south?  That really wasn’t my main interest.  The big negative was that Hanoi was not included on the itinerary.  How could I go to Vietnam and miss Hanoi?  No way.  I decided it would not be the trip I needed to take.

Fast forward two years.  I was in my exercise class talking with a friend about our travels.  She had been on the 2014 trip with my neighbors and casually remarked it had been the best trip of her life!  Wow.  I went home and got in contact with the tour leader to ask about plans for the 2016 trip.  Yes, there was space for one more.  I knew that was my opportunity for an amazing experience.  My doubts receded.  After a couple of weeks in Vietnam with the group, I decided I’d have built up the necessary confidence to proceed to Hanoi on my own.  So, I signed on.  And that’s how I ended up in Pleiku on January 18, on what would’ve been our 30th wedding anniversary.

The group I joined was so gracious and accepting of me.  I didn’t quite fit in but I was wearing my husband’s POW bracelet so they quickly understood.  My fellow travelers were mainly GIs with experiences confined to the war in the south and who had little interest in Navy’s role up north.  There was one former Marine and one Navy corpsman, but the rest were Army.  One man was the son of a pilot whose plane crashed into the side of a mountain in bad weather in 1967.  Sixty years old, he was on the mission of a lifetime to visit the actual crash site, which he did.  It was very moving for him, of course.  He shared his deep emotions with us, as well as some poems he had written describing how it was for a son to lose his father years before.  He now volunteers at the Wall in Washington and is active in the organization Sons and Daughters in Touch.

The tour ended in Nha Trang where the group split up and people went their separate ways.  There were lots of photos and hugs all around.  We had become a big family.  I headed Cam Ranh, the large former U S Army air base now in civilian use.  It was now time to begin my personal journey.

Commander Coskey escorted to airplane at Hanoi's Gia Lam Airport, 1973.

Commander Coskey escorted to airplane at Hanoi’s Gia Lam Airport on the day of his release, 1973.

My days in Hanoi went without a hitch.  A personal guide had been hired for airport transfers and a full day of touring major sights.  He was a 40-old Vietnamese man, husband and father of two young sons, who spoke quite good English.  His father had been a career Army officer serving on the “other” side.  He was kind and showed no animosity toward me, wife of one of the “air pirates”.  I learned that the Vietnamese have great respect for their elders so he was constantly looking out for me.  A very kind soul.  I saw most everything on that one day, including the Hoa Lo Prison.  It was a bit overwhelming, even though just a shadow of its former self.  A new hotel towers over it, taking most of the land it formerly occupied.  I naturally wanted to photograph everything and so my phone battery died midway through.  My faithful guide offered to take whatever additional pictures I wanted on his phone and email them later.  So thoughtful!

After visiting the famous Halong Bay the following day, I still had one more free day to walk around the city alone.  That allowed time for one more visit to the prison where I could spend as much time as I needed to really try to take it all in.

Ken and Rosemary Coskey, 2002 (Photo Courtesy Rosemary Coskey)

Ken and Rosemary Coskey, 2002 (Photo Courtesy Rosemary Coskey)

It’s hard to describe the feeling you get visiting the cells and seeing the displays.  The prison was built in 1896 by the French and most of the focus is on Vietnamese prisoners and their treatment.  But eventually the visitor comes to the spaces devoted to prisoners held during the “American” War.  I had read about and was prepared for the communist propaganda that describes how well the POWs were treated and how content they were—able to practice their religion freely, attend church services, celebrate Christmas, decorate a Christmas tree, receive gifts from home, play chess and basketball, etc.  Indeed, there were photographs and a video playing on a flat screen TV, backing back up their claims.  Of course, we know better but it is their museum after all, not ours.  Visitors should prepare themselves, but that’s another subject.

I was able to walk into dark, dank cells with concrete slabs for “beds” and try to imagine what it must’ve been like to face the heavy door, bolted shut, and those 4 walls for days, months, or years.  The weather was unseasonably wet and cold that day and I was bundled up.  But the prisoners were issued pajamas and rubber sandals.  It made my heart ache for them.  It was quite interesting to overhear comments of other visitors, mostly Americans.  At times I felt the urge to say “My husband was one of them.”  But I didn’t want to interfere with their visit or distract from my own purpose.

What I missed most, of course, was the company of my husband.  It would have meant so much to hear his personal recollections.  On my own, however, the visit was certainly the best it could be and well worth the trip.

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New Masters Degree in Naval History Offered Through Distance Learning at University of Portsmouth

A squadron of the Royal Navy running down the Channel and An East Indiaman preparing to sail, by Samuel Atkins (Christies/Wikimedia Commons)

A squadron of the Royal Navy running down the Channel and An East Indiaman preparing to sail, by Samuel Atkins (Christies/Wikimedia Commons)    

The University of Portsmouth is currently preparing a new program for students interested in British Naval History beginning in September 2016. The course offers real-life learning experiences working with archives and museums, as well as the opportunity to develop key transferable skills, such as independent learning, written communication, textual analysis and time management. This course also assists you with refining key research skills appropriate for progression to PhD level research.

Steven Gray, Lecturer in the History of the Royal Navy, took some time to share with us why this new MA program could be your next educational opportunity.

Why take this course?

  • ​What was the Royal Navy’s role in British history, and that of its empire?
  • What did a naval surgeon carry on the Mary Rose?
  • Why did Nelson become such a hero and how was he depicted?
  • What was it like to be stoker on the first Ironclad, HMS Warrior?
  • Why was the navy used to advertise cigarettes and biscuits?
  • How did it feel to be a sailor in the world wars?

Through a unique partnership with the National Museum of the Royal Navy, this programme, based at the home of the Royal Navy, answers these questions through exploring over 400 years of naval history. The course establishes the importance of the Royal Navy to British and global history, and its interaction with other navies and empires, providing a unique insight into the political, military and cultural contexts of the day. Importantly, it also explores the life of the ordinary sailor in peace and war, the cult of the naval hero, and the navy – and its sailors – in popular culture. To do so, it will draw on a range of naval experts, curators, and primary sources, including access to the rich collections of Portsmouth’s naval museums. Through a flexible distance format, students will learn from short videos of leading naval experts as well as the latest scholarship and debates in the field, providing a well-structured and engaging history of the Royal Navy.

What will I experience?

On this course you will:

  • Access the rich archives and expertise of the National Museum of the Royal Navy to support your study.
  • Undertake study through flexible distance learning techniques, with the option to blend this with study days in Portsmouth.
  • Take advantage of unique connections with both Portsmouth and international maritime museums, with opportunities to go on field trips and experience behind the scenes tours.
  • Train in historical research and the interpretation of multi-archive sources.


You will study the following core units:

The Wooden Walls – The Royal Navy under Sail, 1509-1815

The navy changed immensely from that of Henry VIII, and his Mary Rose, to that of Nelson and Victory. Britain went from being a second rate European power to the sole world superpower by 1815. This module explores the changes which both navy and nation experienced in the early modern period. To do so, it looks at key events, including battles such as the Armada and Trafalgar, but also assesses how the navy was supplied and manned, and how the experience of the sailor changed in this period. Using the collections of the museums on the University’s doorstep, as well as the historic ships in Portsmouth, the course will look to understand what it was like to serve aboard a wooden sailing ship, and how the navy, and its heroes and ordinary sailors, were portrayed to the nation at large.

Rise and Fall – Naval Hegemony and Decline, 1815-1960

Emerging from the Napoleonic Wars as the dominant naval power, the Royal Navy assumed a role of imperial protector and global policeman. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, Britain began to be challenged globally, and found itself at war twice in the twentieth century. The rise of the USA, and the decline of its empire meant that, although victorious in both World Wars, Britain’s global power had disappeared soon after 1945. This module looks to understand how the navy fits into these wider trends, and the role it played in both peace and war. Using the collections of the naval museums, and those historic ships on our doorstep, including the first British ironclad, HMS Warrior, the course also looks at how technological change influenced its role, and how it changed the lives of those aboard.

You will also be able to select from a small range of optional units provided by specialists in their field of study.

Teaching and Assessment

The course can be studied entirely by distance learning through access to high quality interactive resources online, including unique primary sources, secondary literature, and video clips of world renowned experts. Dr Steven Gray, Lecturer in the History of the Royal Navy, will also be on hand to guide you through the course, as well as provide regular feedback and opportunities to discuss your work. Students will also be welcome to join optional campus based elements in Portsmouth, which will allow students to meet others on the course, participate in seminars, and access the resources, archives, historical artefacts and expertise of the naval museums in Portsmouth. There will also be optional field trips further afield, including abroad, that will further students’ understanding of the Royal Navy, and its role in the world. The MA is taught by specialised academics in naval history and staff from Britain’s premier Naval Museum and students will enjoy unprecedented access to the archives, galleries and expertise of the museum’s staff.  This flexible programme of delivery enables participation from students all over the UK and beyond.

How are you assessed?

The course offers opportunities for regular informal feedback on assignments based on each block’s topics, which will include using primary documents, objects, and artworks to explore key questions. Formal assessment will comprise essays, document analysis, and book reviews. Students will be able to utilise the university’s unique access to the collections of Britain’s premier Naval Museum in order to complete these assessments. The course also requires a 15,000 word dissertation based on original research, offering students opportunity to explore firsthand the history of the Royal Navy.

For more information, go to their website and course overview HERE.

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