Archive for October, 2010

Oct 26

Gus Widhelm and the Battle of Santa Cruz, October 1942

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 12:01 AM

Hornet’s initial strike group of fifteen VS-8 and VB-8 SBD dive bombers, led by Lieutenant Commander William J. “Gus” Widhelm, had been in the air about a hour and fifteen minutes on the morning of 26 October 1942, searching for the Japanese carrier task force, when Widhelm turned the group north to avoid several Japanese Zeros he could see attacking Hornet’s escorting fighters. Five minutes later, after passing through a cloud bank, he spotted some ship wakes and billowing smoke to his left, about twenty-five miles off. He had sighted the Japanese carrier Shōkaku and its still-burning companion, the light carrier Zuihō.

As Widhelm and his SBDs were overtaking the larger carrier from astern, a Zero from the carrier Zuikaku, that was flying combat air patrol, made an overhead firing pass that punctured the leader’s aircraft in the left wing, the tail, and the engine. Even as Widhelm attempted to keep formation, his now overheated engine seized up, and he was forced to drop away. He successfully ditched the aircraft, and he and his rear gunner ARM1c George D. Stokely were able to get into their life raft before the plane sank. But it was a close call. As he later told an audience of workers at the Brewster Aircraft plant, “My plane sank 15 seconds after it hit the water but the rear gunner and I got out on a life raft. The entire Jap force steamed right by us. One time we had to paddle with our hands to avoid being run down by a destroyer.” Nevertheless, the two men had a front row seat to see several of the planes of his strike group put three thousand-pound bombs into Shōkaku’s flight deck, setting off fires that crippled her ability to handle flight operations.

Three days later, Gus Widhelm and George Stokely were rescued by a PBY patrol plane. For his courageous leadership at the Battle of Santa Cruz, Widhelm was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Cross. A 1932 graduate of the Naval Academy, Gus Widhelm went on later in the war to command the first Navy night-fighting squadron in the South Pacific and to serve as Operations Officer for Carrier Task Force One during campaigns in the Central Pacific.

Oct 25

CDR. Ernest Evans, Skipper of USS Johnston (DD-557)

Monday, October 25, 2010 12:01 AM

At first light on 25 October 1944, huge geysers of water shot up near the destroyer Johnston. That ship and half a dozen other American destroyers were escorting half a dozen jeep carriers off Samar. A shaky voice on Johnston’s talk between ships radio reported “a major portion” of the Japanese fleet fifteen miles astern. Commander Ernest Evans, the skipper, burst out of his sea cabin, barking out orders: All hands general quarters! Light off all boilers for maximum speed! Make smoke!

Ernest Evans had come up the hard way, harder than most. His white paternal grandfather had married a Creek Indian woman just to gain control of her land allotment. He soon divorced her and disowned their child. That child grew up to be his father; his mother was a full blooded Cherokee. Born “into a world of low prospects and ill will,” Ernest beat what seemed impossible odds. Amid intense prejudice against Native Americans he graduated from a nearly all-white high school, joined the National Guard, transferred to the Navy enlisted service, won an appointment to the Naval Academy without political pull, and graduated with the class of 1931.

As the light grew, the pagoda-like superstructures of four Japanese battleships, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers appeared over the horizon. Johnston’s task unit, dubbed Taffy Three, were all that stood between the Japanese force and MacArthur’s troops on shore while the rest of Halsey’s Third Fleet chased a decoy force of Japanese aircraft carriers.

Without waiting for orders, Evans gave the command to commence a torpedo run against the enemy. Johnston steered toward her target, an enemy cruiser, veering and fishtailing toward enemy shell splashes in the belief that “lightning doesn’t strike twice.” Evans closed to less than 10,000 yards before loosing a spread of torpedoes. Several of them blew the bow off the Japanese cruiser.

For more than three hours Johnston engaged the enemy. Evans’ aggressiveness, along with that of other American destroyermen and aviators from Taffy Three, led the Japanese to believe they were facing a much larger force and caused them to turn away.

The price was steep. Evans and many of his shipmates were killed as Japanese fire eventually overwhelmed Johnston, sending her to the bottom. Although severely wounded early in the battle, Evans pressed the attack until he vanished when his ship went down. For his “valiant fighting spirit,” he received the Medal of Honor.

Oct 23

Remembering the 1983 Beirut Barracks Bombing

Saturday, October 23, 2010 12:01 AM

The Navy’s 1983 report on the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing, including homecoming for the wounded, and a memorial for those killed.

Oct 22

Frogmen in the 1950s

Friday, October 22, 2010 10:20 PM

Here’s a snippet of history from Navy TV – a 1959 newsreel about Navy Frogmen, that demonstrates a long-endurance dive by Underwater Demolition Team “frogmen” who stayed underwater for a record 48 hours. Yes, dated and funny!

And another one -about the UDTs (the precursor to the Seals) this is supposed to be a recruiting film – makes you think twice!! Hell Week, the Tower – the whole 1957 Underwater Demolition Team training. Dated, but exhausting.

Oct 22

Cordon of Steel, The U.S. Navy and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Friday, October 22, 2010 12:01 AM

The cover art of the popular Naval Historical Center monograph, “Cordon of Steel, The U.S. Navy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” by Curtis A. Utz.

“In the fall of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came as close as they ever would to global war.” So begins the monograph published by the Naval History & Heritage Command “Cordon of Steel, The U.S. Navy and the Cuban Missile Crisis” by Curtis A. Utz. First printed in 1993, this booklet was a yearlong effort by Utz to chronicle the Navy’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Because this historic event was a dramatic example of how the U.S. Navy enabled the nation to protect its interests in one of the most serous confrontations of the Cold War, it was considered an ideal subject for the first work of a new series of monographs titled “The U.S. Navy in the Modern World.”

Broad in scope, these booklets were created to address such activities as the Navy’s deterrence of war, support for U.S. foreign policy, refugee evacuations and other humanitarian activities, joint and multinational operations, ship and aircraft development, the projection of power ashore, ship, aircraft and weapons development. Heavily illustrated and in short booklet form, they were specifically designed to appeal to the Sailor and junior officer.

Hoping to correct what he saw as a strategic imbalance with the United States, Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev began secretly deploying medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) and intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) to Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the summer of 1962. Once operational, these nuclear-armed weapons could have been used against cities and military targets in most of the continental United States. Before this happened, however, U.S. intelligence discovered Khrushchev’s brash maneuver.

At that time, by forcefully employing U.S. naval forces, President John F. Kennedy was able to achieve his strategic objectives and deal with a dangerous and well-armed Soviet Union without war.

Naval forces under the U.S. Atlantic Command, headed by Adm. Robert L. Dennison (CINCLANT), steamed out to sea, intercepting not only merchant shipping en route to Cuba, but Soviet submarines operating in the area, as well. U.S. destroyers and frigates, kept on station through underway replenishment by oilers and stores ships, maintained a month-long naval “quarantine” of the island of Cuba.

Radar picket ships supported by Navy fighters and airborne early-warning planes assisted the U.S. Air Force’s Air Defense Command in preparing to defend American airspace from Soviet and Cuban forces.

Khrushchev, faced with the armed might of the United States and its allies, had little choice but to find a way out of the difficult situation in which he had placed himself and his country. In a face-saving trade, the Soviet Union agreed to remove all offensive weapons from Cuba in exchange for the removal of obsolete American Jupiter missiles in Turkey.

The monograph “Cordon of Steel, The U.S. Navy and the Cuban Missile Crisis” can be ordered from the Government Printing Office’s online bookstore.

Oct 21

Recipient of the Rear Admiral Ernest M. Eller Prize in Naval History Announced

Thursday, October 21, 2010 10:07 AM

The Rear Admiral Ernest M. Eller Prize in Naval History for the best article on the history of the United States Navy published in a scholarly journal in 2009 has been awarded to Trent Hone for his article “U.S. Navy Surface Battle Doctrine and Victory in the Pacific,” published in the Winter 2009 issue of the Naval War College Review. The prize is sponsored jointly by the Naval History and Heritage Command and the Naval Historical Foundation and includes a monetary award.

Congrats again to Trent Hone!

Oct 19

“They Would Be Amazed”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 12:01 AM

“Navy admits Negroes into the WAVES:” so read the headlines following the Navy Department’s October 19, 1944, press release announcing this change.

This was indeed good news to the civic, religious, and civil rights organizations, the Afro-American sororities, Mary McLeod Bethune and others who had urged the Navy to have an integrated female reserve program since its inception. Captain Mildred McAfee, the director of the WAVES program, also advocated for their inclusion. The White House received petitions and numerous letters from whites and blacks a like arguing that not allowing blacks in the WAVES was discriminatory and inconsistent with America’s democratic values. Thomas Dewey, President Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1944 election, also supported their cause. He asked the audience during a speech in a Chicago suburb why they wanted to vote for President Roosevelt when his administration had excluded blacks from the WAVES. Within weeks, the Navy announced its intention to have black WAVES.

Harriet Ida Pickens, the daughter of William Pickens who was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Frances Elizabeth Wills, a social worker were sworn into the Navy on November 13, 1944, and entered the last class of officer candidates to be trained at Smith College, Northampton, NTS in Massachusetts. Pickens’ father encouraged her to apply. Wills read the announcement in a newspaper. Having no brothers to serve, she decided to do her part for the war effort. Like those who volunteered before them, they left their jobs and lifestyles to submit to naval rules and regulations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the duration of the war plus six months. Moreover, they entered the Navy knowing its record of institutional racism against blacks. They became the Navy’s first black female officers on December 21, 1944. The Navy assigned both to the WAVES enlisted naval training station at Hunter College in Bronx, New York. Pickens taught physical fitness training and Wills administered classification tests. By the war’s end 2 black officers and 70 black enlisted served among the Navy’s 90,000 WAVES. Four blacks joined the Navy Nurse Corps and the Coast Guard’s female reserves. The Marine Corps remained all-white until 1949.

Pickens, Wills and the other black women in the sea services may not have fully appreciated the historical significance of their participation or seen the struggle for their inclusion as an important chapter in the civil rights movement during World War II. The fight to integrate the WAVES is a reminder that change is sometimes possible during an election year and a war that otherwise would not happen. Moreover, persistent agitation for change keeps the issue alive and emphasizes the activists’ determination to succeed. The diversity of the advocates committed to this cause and the various methods used strengthened their message and carried it to the right halls within the White House, the War Department, the Navy Department, and the Congress. Support from McAfee and other significant persons within the Navy and the endorsement of their cause by Dewey proved critical to effecting this policy change.

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Oct 19

Navy Medicine at War: Final Victory

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 12:01 AM

This 2009 Navy documentary chronicles the compelling stories recalled by Navy Medical Department personnel – physicians, dentists, nurses, and hospital corpsmen during the final year of World War II. 

Part 1 begins with the invasion of Okinawa, and includes an interview with Hospital Apprentice First Class Robert Bush, awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry on Okinawa. 

Part 2 includes emotional interviews with Navy veterans who survived kamikaze attacks while serving on board ships stationed off Okinawa . 

In Part 3, former American POW’s recall hearing the news of Japanese surrender while being held in prison camps, and the subsequent air drop of relief supplies by American aircraft. 

Part 4 details the medical conditions and treatment of released American POW’s at the end of World War II, as well as their difficulties on arriving home. 

Part 5 concludes the film with closing thoughts from veterans of World War II.



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