Archive for April, 2013

Apr 29

CSS Alabama Britten Shell and Box

Monday, April 29, 2013 3:09 PM

CSS Alabama, a screw sloop-of-war, was commissioned by the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. It was built in Liverpool, England and launched on 24 August 1862. Alabama served the Confederate Navy as a commerce raider and captured more than 60 vessels during her two year storied career.

On 19 June 1864, Alabama left port in Cherbourg, France to engage the USS Kearsarge. Approximately an hour after the first shot of the battle had been fired Alabama began to sink. The commander of Alabama, Raphael Semmes, then surrendered and the ship’s survivors were rescued by Kearsarge and the British yacht Deerhound.

Semmes on Alabama

The wreck site of Alabama was discovered in 1984 by the French Navy mine hunter Circe, and an agreement was created between the French and United States governments to form a committee that would oversee any archaeological work on the site.

Several artifacts were recovered from the wreck site of Alabama, including a wooden box housing a shell which has been of particular interest. This is in part due to the unique nature of this set of artifacts. While it is not unusual to find shells, discovering a box built to house a single shell is not common. The box and shell are both currently being housed and studied at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory.

The box and shell were found in excellent condition and received prompt conservation treatment at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University. A lack of oxygen and cold temperatures both contributed to the exceptional state of preservation of the artifacts.

Alabama 021

The 7-inch Britten pattern shell and wooden box recovered from the CSS Alabama.

Research revealed that the shell is a 7-inch Britten pattern shell. Britten projectiles were patented in Great Britain in 1855 by Sir Bashley Britten. Britten’s patent for a new shell also introduced an innovative method for attaching sabots to shells in an attempt to increase the accuracy of the weapon. Both the Union and Confederate forces used Britten shells, however only the Confederate States purchased the shells in large calibers.

Information regarding the box, however, has proven more difficult to uncover. General references to boxes for shell and other ordnance storage have been found in multiple sources. These resources include the ordnance manuals for the Confederate and United States Navies as well as the writings of the chief foreign agent for the Confederate States, James D. Bulloch. However, research about the exact origins and purpose of the Alabama box is ongoing.

Alabama 023

Another view of the shell and box displaying the damaged portion of the box.

Specific information about the cargo and equipment aboard Confederate ships is frequently difficult or nearly impossible to find with the current sources available. Precise data was often not recorded for wartime security or has been destroyed over the years. For example, Confederate leaders were careful to not provide specific information regarding the sources of their supplies. In a letter discussing the purchasing of supplies and ships for the Confederate Navy, Bulloch wrote to a colleague, “The fear that this letter may fall into wrong hands induces me to withhold the names of the contractors.”

While the box and shell remain a bit of a mystery, conservation will be the key to uncovering more of their secrets. Only through proper conservation can we continue to research, study, and analyze vital artifacts.

Apr 18

71st Anniversary of the Doolittle Raid

Thursday, April 18, 2013 10:00 AM

April 18th, 1942

Launching of the Doolittle Raid

Seventy one years ago, the first American air raid on Japan was made, a little more than four months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The raid, for which Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle earned the Medal of Honor, was instrumental in lifting American morale at the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War II. In acknowledgement of the 65th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, the April 2007 issue of Proceedings included an article by Barrett Tillman, which documented the origins of the raid and its influence on American performance in the war. As Tillman emphasized in his article, the Doolittle Raid was not simply valuable for increasing American morale, but for uniting the various service branches in joint efforts to make the best possible use of limited resources in a large-scale war. According to Tillman’s article, the Doolittle Raid was the first of many successful joint efforts, and began a tradition of interservice alliances which continues today.

Officially it was the First Special Aviation Project, a bold concept devised by a naval officer—a submariner, no less—and executed by Sailors and Airmen. Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 18

Operation Praying Mantis, 18 April 1988

Thursday, April 18, 2013 6:40 AM

On 14 April 1988, watchstanders aboard USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) sighted three mines floating approximately half of a mile from the ship. Twenty minutes after the first sighting, as Samuel B. Roberts was backing clear of the minefield, she struck a submerged mine. The explosive device tore a 21-foot hole in the hull, causing extensive fires and flooding. Ten Sailors were injured in the attack. Only the heroic efforts of the ship’s crew, working feverishly for seven straight hours, saved the vessel from sinking. Four days later, forces of the Joint Task Force Middle East (JTFME) executed the American response to the attack: Operation Praying Mantis. The operation called for the destruction of two oil platforms being used by Iran to coordinate attacks on merchant shipping. On 18 April, the coalition air and surface units not only destroyed the oil rigs but also various Iranian units attempting to counter-attack U.S. forces. By the end of the battle, U.S. air and surface units had sunk or severely damaged half of Iran’s operational fleet. Navy aircraft and the destroyer Joseph Strauss (DDG 16) sank the frigate Sahand (F 74) with harpoon missiles and laser-guided bombs.


The main building of the Iranian Sassan oil platform burns after being hit by a BGM-71 Tube-launched, Optically-guided, Wire-guided (TOW) missile fired from a Marine AH-1 Cobra helicopter

The main building of the Iranian Sassan oil platform burns after being hit by a BGM-71 Tube-launched, Optically-guided, Wire-guided (TOW) missile fired from a Marine AH-1 Cobra helicopter

A laser-guided bomb dropped from a Navy A-6 Intruder disabled frigate Sabalan (F 73), and Standard missiles launched from the cruiser Wainwright (CG 28) and frigates Bagley (FF 1069) and Simpson (FFG 56) destroyed the 147-foot missile patrol boat Joshan (P 225). In further combat A-6s sank one Boghammer high-speed patrol boat and neutralized four more of these Swedish-made speedboats. One Marine AH-1T Sea Cobra crashed from undetermined causes, resulting in the loss of two air crew. Operation Praying Mantis proved a milestone in naval history. For the first time since World War II, U.S. naval forces and supporting aircraft fought a major surface action against a determined enemy. The operation also demonstrated America’s unwavering commitment to protecting oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf and the principle of freedom of navigation.

The Iranian frigate Is Sahand (74) burns after being attacked by aircraft of Carrier Air Wing 11 from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65).

The Iranian frigate Is Sahand (74) burns after being attacked by aircraft of Carrier Air Wing 11 from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65).

An aerial view of the Iranian frigate Is Alvand (71) burning after being attacked by aircraft of Carrier Air Wing 11 from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65).

An aerial view of the Iranian frigate Is Alvand (71) burning after being attacked by aircraft of Carrier Air Wing 11 from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65).

Sources: Edward J. Marolda and Robert J. Schneller Jr., Sword and Shield: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War (Washington, DC: GPO, 1998), 37-8; Michael A. Palmer, On Course to Desert Storm: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf (Washington, DC: GPO, 1992), 141-46; unpublished draft material from Mark Evans’ forthcoming naval aviation chronology.

For more information on Operation Praying Mantis,
visit the NHHC website:


Apr 11

April 11, 1900: The First Submarine of the Navy, USS Holland (SS-1)

Thursday, April 11, 2013 1:00 AM

This article was written by Captain Frank T. Cable as The Submarine Torpedo Boat Holland: First Submarine to Become a Part of the United States Navy for the February 1943 issue of Proceedings magazine.

The USS Holland, 1900

The USS Holland, 1900

My association with the inventor Holland dated from early in 1897. I was living in Philadelphia at the time as a technician connected with the Electro-Dynamic Company of that city. My first acquaintance with the submarine Holland was made through reading a graphic newspaper account of her remark­able features, as they were then regarded. It reminded me of Jules Verne’s Nautilus; one seemed as real as the other. I was asked if I would care to take an undersea trip in the Holland, and my answer was that not for anything would I be tempted to do so. Yet it fell out that in less than six months I found myself in command of this boat, and for twelve years afterward I spent more time under water than on top.

I became the skipper of the Holland through being the accidental means of reconditioning her electrical equipment after she had sunk, when near completion, at the Crescent Shipyard, Elizabethport, New Jersey, then owned by Lewis Nixon. One night, when the boat was lying alongside dock undergoing minor changes, a careless workman left a small valve open. In the night the boat filled and sank. She remained submerged for about eighteen hours, during which her electrical equip­ment and machinery were at the mercy of salt water. At that time motors and gener­ators were not protected from the injurious effect of contact with salt water as they are today. The insulation was ruined and some means had to be found to restore it. To remove the electrical equipment and rebuild the boat meant a large outlay, as the entire upper part of the hull would have to be raised in order to take out the machinery. The Holland Company vainly tried every known method of drying out the motors and generators by applying heat externally. As a last resort the Elec­tro-Dynamic Company was notified, and sent me to investigate. After an examina­tion I decided that there was only one way of remedying the trouble, and if this course was adopted there was a chance of restor­ing the boat. The Holland Company assumed all responsibility, the work was started, and in four days completed and the job pronounced satisfactory.

The Holland was regarded as the most important contribution to naval science so far devised. The submarine problem, which had beset experts for a century, had at last come within the field of practical and successful application. We wonder at the perfection the submersible has reached today, but it was the result of the labors of inventors wrestling with the idea long before the time of Bushnell and Fulton. Holland picked up the threads which others had lost or could not grasp. Thus submarine navigation was no longer the ineffective pursuit of cranks who had not mastered its fundamentals.

No longer a fad or a toy, the submarine became, in the shape of the Holland, a “monster war fish,” a “devil of the deep,” a “hell diver,” as the vessel came to be called. Strictly speaking, the boat was a torpedo, but a torpedo controlled in all its workings by human agency inside the craft, instead of being automatic in its operations. The ordinary torpedo, by an arrangement of springs to counteract the water pressure, was made to go through the water at any depth. It had to follow a path fixed for it beforehand. When it had run its course it came to the surface or sank, in accordance with a predetermined plan. The men inside the Holland con­trolled her at will.

Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 10

April 10, 1963: Search for the USS Thresher

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 1:00 AM

This article was published in the May 1964 issue of Proceedings as “Searching for the Thresher” by Frank A. Andrews, Captain, U.S. Navy.

The Thresher search was very much an ad hoc operation. On 10 April 1963, the day of the Thresher‘s loss, there was no real search organization, no search technique, nor specific operating procedures for locating an object lying on the ocean bottom at 8,400 feet. In the first frantic hours after the Thresher‘s loss, a full scale search effort consisting of 13 ships was laid on with the aim of scouring the ocean for possible life or floating signs from the Thresher. Within 20 search hours, all hope for survivors had passed, and the entire Thresher project began to change character from that of a standard Navy search and rescue opera­tion to that of an oceanographic expedition. This special expedition soon consisted of three ad hoc elements, which, as later events were to show, combined in a most successful and harmonious manner in support of searching out the Thresher‘s hull.

Diagram of the search for the lost USS Thresher

Diagram of the search for the lost USS Thresher.

The first was the sea-going element. This group, called Task Group 89.7, was ever changing in number and types of ships. At its maximum at-sea size, it consisted of 13 men-­of-war (including two submarines) and many search aircraft rushed to the disaster scene on the day of the Thresher‘s loss. At its minimum, TG 89.7 consisted of one lone oceanographic vessel—the Conrad on one occasion, the Atlan­tis II on another—left toiling away on station while the task group commander and staff (usually one officer and one chief radioman) were ashore conferring with others in prepa­ration for the commencement of a new phase of the search. In all, 28 naval warships and five oceanographic research, or service, vessels participated in Task Group 89.7 from 10 April 1963 until 6 September 1963, when a substantial portion of the Thresher wreckage was located by the bathyscaph Trieste.

The second of the expedition’s three ele­ments was an 11-man shore-based brain trust called the CNO Technical Advisory Group. Its mission was to provide technical guidance to the at-sea search effort. In actual fact, this Advisory Group did much more than propose ideas. Its members also procured ships and hardware, and, in the case of certain indi­vidual members, came to sea with the ships to assist in searching. The Chairman of the Advisory Group was Dr. Arthur Maxwell, Senior Oceanographer in the Office of Naval Research. Captain Charles Bishop, U.S. Navy, the senior sub­marine officer in the Office of the Deputy CNO for Research and Development (OP-07), served as Co-Chairman and CNO liaison officer. The membership of the committee consisted of senior representatives from the Naval Oceanographic Office, the Lamont Geological Observatory, the Bureau of Ships, the Hudson Laboratories, the Naval Re­search Laboratory, the Oceanographic De­partment of the University of Rhode Island, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Naval Reactors Branch of the AEC, and the Oceanographic Group at the University of Miami.

The third special element was the Thresher Analysis Group which set up operations in the Walsh House at the Woods Hole Oceano­graphic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachu­setts. This Group soon became known as TAG WHOI, pronounced Tag Hooey. Its leader was Mr. Arthur Molloy of the Navy’s Oceanographic Office in Suitland, Maryland. TAG WHOI had a varying complement but, over-all, 15 civilians or naval officers spent three or more weeks with this element. These men represented the Submarine Development Group at New London, NAVOCEANO, NEL, NRL and WHOI; they were all obtained from their many parent organizations simply by asking. Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 6

April 6, 1909: Commander Robert E. Peary Reaches the North Pole

Saturday, April 6, 2013 1:00 AM

This article was originally published in the April 1959 issue of Proceedings as “Peary at the North Pole” by Hugh C. Mitchell

On September 5, 1909, the steamer Roosevelt reached Indian Harbor in Labrador, and Robert E. Peary, a com­mander in the Civil Engineer Corps of the U. S. Navy, wired the secretary of the Peary Arctic Club in New York City a cipher message which, being decoded, read, “Pole reached. Roosevelt Safe.” And at the same time a message went to Mrs. Peary: “Have made good. I have the pole. Am well. Love.”

These messages announced the success of Peary, after many years of tireless effort, in reaching the north geographic pole of the earth, the goal of many intrepid explorers in years gone by, possibly the greatest and most sought for geographic prize of all time, and also the most difficult of attainment.

Peary had striven for this prize over many years of heroic effort—years of trials and dis­appointments, but not of failures, for his motto was, “I will find a way or make one!” Peary never quit trying! During all these years of effort he was learning more about the conditions affecting the problem he was seek­ing to solve-the way to the Pole. He was learning more about the Eskimos, about their capabilities in handling dogs and sleds in all kinds of ice and weather conditions, and, even more important, he was winning their affec­tion and loyalty by his own acts of friendliness and humanitarianism. He was learning more about the ways of the weather, overhead and underfoot, for upon such knowledge would depend important decisions which might mean success or failure. Many years later, a naturalist, considering another matter, wrote, “It is useless to blame Nature, it is better to work with her. She will not change.” And Peary, knowing nature to be a capricious mistress, was matching her whims with ex­perience, surer methods of ice travel and im­proved equipment.

All these years Peary was both finding and making a way to the Pole, so that when men and dogs were in readiness, when wind and ice conditions were favorable, and equipment was complete and in the best possible condi­tion, he made the great effort and on April 6, 1909, after five weeks of sledging over the polar ice, he took an observation on the sun which gave him a position line of 89° 57′ north latitude. Supported by similar observations made by other members of his party on the way up, by direction of march obtained from the sun when it was on his meridian of travel, and by estimated distances of travel, this posi­tion line assured Peary that he was quite close to the North Pole, that imaginary point on the earth at latitude 90° north where all meridians meet and all directions are south.

Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 1

USS Thresher (SSN-593) 3 August 1961 – 10 April 1963

Monday, April 1, 2013 1:00 AM
The USS Thresher (SSN-593) is shown before her loss, underway in the North Atlantic in this painting by Carl Evers.

The USS Thresher (SSN-593) is shown before her loss, underway in the North Atlantic in this painting by Carl Evers.

by E. W. Grenfell, Vice Admiral, USN & published in the March, 1964 issue of Proceedings magazine:

On 10 April 1963, the U. S. Navy suffered the loss of the nuclear submarine Thresher, the nation’s third peacetime sub­marine loss since World War II, and by far the United States’ greatest single submarine disaster in terms of loss of life. The public, both in the United States and abroad, reacted with compassion for the fam­ilies of these men who gave their lives in the cause of freedom and pioneering. Seamen the world over have expressed reverent respect for these gallant men who paid part of the eternal tribute demanded by the sea from those who dare to venture on, or beneath, the trackless waters. Read the rest of this entry »