Archive for February, 2014

Feb 28

Lest We Forget: The night of Feb. 28, 1942, USS Houston (CA 30)

Friday, February 28, 2014 3:08 PM

USS Houston off San Diego, Calif. Oct. 1935 - FDR on board

By Capt. R. Mark Stacpoole, United States Navy, American Legation, US Naval Attaché, Jakarta, Indonesia

Tonight, while you are at home or out, it might be appropriate to spend a minute in remembrance of the 1,082 men of USS Houston. It was 72 years ago tonight that she sailed for the final time into the teeth of enemy fire. In the Sunda Strait, and in concert with HMAS Perth, she ran into a main Japanese invasion force. Low on fuel and with her after turret out of action; this as a result of damage sustained at the Battle of Makassar Strait (where she lost 41 men), she entered the fray. HMAS Perth went down first, fighting to the end, and Houston was left alone surrounded by enemy ships and aircraft.

At some time after 1:30 a.m. after having been hit scores of times, and with fires raging out of control, the order was given to abandon ship. Houston was bathed in the light of Japanese searchlights, still under heavy fire and settling by the bow when her surviving crew gave her to the sea and scrambled over the sides.

As she began her final plunge one survivor wrote that “it seemed as a sudden breeze picked up the Stars and Stripes, still firmly blocked on the mainmast, and waved them in one last defiant gesture.”

Other survivors saw red tracer fire still flaring out of a machine gun platform as one lone Marine, Gunnery Sgt. Standish, continued firing till the sea took him. (Semper Fi, Marine!)

Some 675 Sailors and Marines died with Houston. Most of these men were either taken down with the ship as she sank or died when the pitiless tide washed them into the vast Indian Ocean. Still others were machine gunned as they swam helpless in the water.

Only 366 men were taken into captivity, but their ordeal was far from over. Most would end up in Thailand, where under inhuman conditions they were forced to construct the infamous Burma Rail Road. Of this handful of survivors a further 76 Sailors and Marines died of sickness, abuse, torture, hunger and neglect.

In 1945 only 290 men remained, many broken in body but not in spirit, to return to the United States. Think of them tonight for they paid the full price in defense of our freedoms.

Well Done Houston, Well Done!

 
Feb 28

Launching of USS Indiana (BB 1), the Navy’s first battleship

Friday, February 28, 2014 2:22 PM

USS Indiana (BB-1)

By Naval History and Heritage Command

NOTE: This blog posits that USS Indiana (BB 1) was the U.S. Navy’s first battleship. Why? The hull number, for one thing – BB 1. There’s also the fact that the ships after Indiana were called Indiana-class battleships. Also, based on the Naming of Ships Act of 1819, Indiana was a “first class” battleship based on her 42 guns. Texas was a second-class battleship with only 34 guns. Despite all that, we admit that Texas was commissioned three months before Indiana. No matter which side of that debate you fall on, no one can deny Indiana, which was launched on this date in 1893, was a great ship and those who sailed in her were great Sailors!

As the Navy’s first numbered-as-such battleship, Indiana (BB 1) was the heaviest such ship at nearly 10,300 tons, the longest and widest of any other ship, and outfitted with the most guns, 42. The downside to all of that was she was among the slowest, with a top speed of 15 knots compared to 17 for the lighter “second-class” battleships Maine and Texas.

Launched 121 years ago today, Indiana might have been slow, but her weapons and armor would serve her well during the critical Battle of Santiago de Cuba July 3, 1898.

Launch of the Indiana

Relaunching the Navy

Before you sail them, you have to build them. Years before President Theodore Roosevelt would introduce the world to the Great White Fleet, those ships had to be built. There were only two commissioned vessels in the Navy that could be considered warships at the time President Benjamin Harrison took office, March 4, 1889 – armored cruisers Atlanta and Boston. Two more ships were under construction, USS Maine and USS Texas, considered second-class battleships since they sported fewer than 40 guns, the requirement for ‘first class’ status.

Harrison’s commitment to growing the naval forces was evident in his inaugural address, stating “construction of a sufficient number of warships and their necessary armaments should progress as rapidly as is consistent with care and perfection.”

To put that goal into action, Harrison turned to another Benjamin — Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy — to work out the details. His first proposal a few months later was an ambitious 15-year program of 35 battleships and 167 other vessels, with 10 of those battleships designed for protecting American shipping interests around the world, while the rest would be built to protect America’s coasts and ports. It was a compromise for those who felt the United States should remain an isolationist nation rather than an imperialistic world power.

That bill failed. Tracy’s second attempt was far less reaching. On June 30, 1890, Congress approved a Navy Bill authorizing construction of three new battleships that were more of the coastal-protection design: heavily armored, plenty of weaponry, and while not speedy, a respectable 15 knots. Years later, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt would call them “sea-going coast-line battleships.” The first would be called Indiana, no doubt a nod to the president’s home state. By 1898, the Navy boasted 10 modern warships and turned the United States into a legitimate naval power. Seven of those would have begun during Harrison’s 4-year term, including the two other Indiana-class battleships Massachusetts (BB 2) and Oregon (BB 3).

Ironically, getting approval from Congress to fund the fleet took less time than building USS Indiana. Her keel was laid down May 7, 1891 by William Cramp & Sons out of Philadelphia. With just four days left in his presidency, Harrison attended Indiana’s launch Feb. 28, 1893, along with 10,000 others. It would be another two years before the “sea-going coast-line battleship” would be commissioned into the Navy.

NH 52644 Indiana bow view

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Indiana’s heavily-armored structure proved vital during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba. The battleship was part of Rear Adm. William Sampson’s North Atlantic Squadron fleet based out of Key West, Fla. The Spanish government had ordered Adm. Pascual Cervera’s 6-ship squadron to guard Cuba. Leaving from the Canary Islands, Cervera’s squad arrived at Cuba in late May, but two days later the Spanish ships were spotted by the Americans. USS Indiana was part of a squadron sent to blockade the Spanish fleet within the harbor at Santiago de Cuba.

After more than a month blockaded in the harbor, Cervera planned his escape. He hoped his faster ships could slip by the Americans while they were conducting church services on Sunday, July 3. Other factors worked in Cervera’s favor that Sunday morning: Sampson’s flagship was out of place to communicate with another ship and two vessels were being refueled at Guantanamo Bay.

As Cervera’s cruisers Infanta María Teresa and Almirante Oquendo fled, Sampson’s squadron took chase, sinking or running aground the two cruisers. Indiana and the armored yachts moved into position just in time to pound Cervera’s destroyers, Pluton and Furor, with gunfire, sinking them. By the end of the morning, Sampson’s ships sank or forced aground the rest of Cervera’s ships, Vizcaya and Cristóbal Colón. More than 323 Spanish crew were killed with 151 wounded. Adm. Cervera was one of the 1,500 sailors and officers taken prisoner. The U.S. lost one crew member with minimal damage to the ships.

After the battle, as the Navy continued to transform its fleet to fill a more global mission, Indiana would be used to train sailors. She was decommissioned Dec. 29, 1903.

 

NH 52653 USS Indiana forecastle view

That would last but three years. Indiana would be recommissioned Jan. 9, 1906, to serve with the Naval Academy Practice Squadron, sailing to Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. On June 22, 1911, while in Queenstown, Ireland, the “sea-going coast-line battleship” fired a 21-gun salute in honor of the coronation of King George V.

Indiana would continue training midshipmen until she was decommissioned again May 23, 1914, but again, her value to the Navy would continue as she was recommissioned three years later, serving through World War I as a training ship for gun crews off Tomkinsville, N.Y. and in the York River.  

She was decommissioned as Indiana for the last time Jan. 31, 1919, and the name itself was cancelled March 29, 1919, leaving the opportunity for another battleship to be named Indiana, one that would serve infamously during the naval battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II.

But the battleship formerly-known-as-Indiana continued to serve the Navy. Reclassified as Coast Battleship Number 1, she was used as a target for important aerial bombing tests. Finally, the ship’s hulk was sold for scrap March 19, 1924, just over 31 years after 10,000 people watched her launching Feb. 28, 1893, in Philadelphia.

 
Feb 20

Destroyer duty ‘made me who I am’

Thursday, February 20, 2014 1:24 PM

Hard work, sense of community just two reasons why Sailors are passionate about their tours on destroyers

By Naval History and Heritage Command staff

It’s been said that if aircraft carriers and big deck amphibious ships are like cities on the sea, the destroyers represent the small towns where everyone knows everyone and Sailors often do more than one or two jobs on the ship.

And when destroyermen talk about what they liked during their time on these Greyhounds of the Fleet, they will almost inevitably bring up the comradeship they shared.

“The destroyer is the hardest working asset in the fleet,” said Marc Tuell of Deltona, Fla., who served from 1993 to 2013. “Often called with a moment’s notice to deploy, the Sailors you serve with are the most steadfast and devoted of shipmates and friends. The bond that is built is stronger than any other bond in the Navy.”

Tuell, who served as a fireman recruit on USS Hewitt (DD 966) in Japan, learned the ship “inside and out.” But when he was assigned to VF-154 aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), he found a very different culture “full of individuals,” and a clear segregation between the ship’s company and the Air Wing.

His final duty station in 2010 was aboard the destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62). Tuell said the ship “consistently outperformed the other ships” despite what he describes as manning challenges.

“The crew of the Fightin’ Fitz’ always took assignments, on short notice, and always executed them with a pride and professionalism that was truly amazing to be a part of,” he said.

Tuell said he would never trade the “difficulties we face during my time as a destroyerman,” on the “hardest working ships in the fleet,” both at the beginning and end of his career in the Navy. “It made me who I am.”

Billy Miller, of Ingleside, Texas, was fond of the Fletcher/Gearing class of ships serving on USS Hamner (DD 718) from 1971-72.

“The crew was very tight and incredibly hard-working. No one had time to carry a slacker,” said the Navy veteran, whose email moniker is bilgewaterbill. “We might fight amongst ourselves, but Lord help you if you wore another ship’s patch and picked on one of ours!”

John Shanahan Jr., who served as a radarman (now operations specialist) on USS Taussig (DD 746) and USS Haynsworth (DD 700) in 1962-63, whose missions included astronaut recovery.

“The crews were small enough so that you got to know pretty well all on board and the missions were versatile and exciting,” Shanahan, who now lives in Ireland, said.

Destroyers during the Vietnam-era were deployed to South Vietnam to help keep enemy ships away and remove contraband weapons from shipping traffic, said former destroyerman Jose Hernandez, who served for more than five years on USS McGinty (DDE 365) from late 1959 to mid-1965. The ship, which had survived World War II kamikaze attacks, served as the flagship for Task Element 95.21 in Wonsan, Korea, and was the “pivotman” in what was called the Irish Triple Play: O’Malley to McGinty to O’Bannon. Lt. Francis J. O’Malley, a pilot from the carrier Essex, was rescued at sea by McGinty, which delivered him to the destroyer O’Bannon.

Scott Welsh, Petaluma, Calif., who served from 1982-85 on USS Benjamin Stoddert (DDG 22), an Adams-class guided missile destroyer, also said his time on destroyers were among the best in his life.

“Nothing against the frigates and gator big decks I served in, but Stoddert looked and performed like a warship. Built for Arleigh Burke’s Navy with design values that stressed speed and hitting power over habitability. Having been around for nearly 20 years, she had a strong culture of excellence, a high-performing crew and during my time, superb leadership at every level.

Life on a destroyer, he added was “where ‘pride and professionalism’ was not a slogan, but a way of life.”

To read more about the evolution of destroyers, visit the Association of the United States Navy’s website for 110 Years of Tin Cans: http://ausn.org/NewsPublications/NavyMagazine/MagazineArticles/tabid/2170/ID/34672/110-years-of-Tin-Cans.aspx

 
Feb 16

In Harm’s Way: Lt. Decatur Avenges Capture of The Frigate Philadelphia #WarfightingFirst

Sunday, February 16, 2014 8:00 AM
Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli By Edward Moran 1897 U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection

Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli
By Edward Moran 1897
U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection

On Feb. 16, 1804, Lt. Stephen Decatur burned the frigate, Philadelphia, in Tripoli Harbor. British Adm. Horatio Nelson called it, “the most bold and daring act of the age.” One wouldn’t think an officer burning a Navy ship would garner such an accolade, but the capture of Philadelphia had been an embarrassment to the young U.S. Navy.

The United States was in her first Barbary war with Tripoli, and back then Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and Morocco were independent North African kingdoms that frequently employed piracy in the Mediterranean unless they received regular payments. The Tripolitans had captured Philadelphia four months earlier in October 1803, humiliating the Navy. Now that she was in enemy hands, the frigate was also a potential threat. Should the Tripolitans fully fit the frigate, they could navigate her out of the harbor and attack other United States ships blockading the harbor.

Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and Morocco had been preying on weaker navies by capturing their ships, taking their crews captive, and then extorting their countries’ governments for their return. Between 1801 and 1816, United States and European ships would fall victim to these pirate raids in the Mediterranean, resulting in two Barbary Wars. As with Europe, the United States had been repeatedly forced to pay for the release of any captives from any merchant trade ships. The Pasha of Tripoli had declared war on the United States claiming “late payments on tributes owed” to him, and he had made his intentions clear by cutting down the flagpole in front of the United States’ consulate’s residence on May 14, 1801.

In Oct. 1803, Capt. William Bainbridge had been Philadelphia’s commander and was ordered to blockade Tripoli’s harbor in hopes of ending the thug-like tactics the Tripolitans had been using in the Mediterranean. While chasing an enemy ship in the harbor, he miscalculated the low tide and beached Philadelphia on what is now known as the Kaliusa reef, which at the time had not been charted. Before she was taken, Bainbridge ordered a large amount of her guns be thrown overboard in order to free her from the reef. This left Philadelphia defenseless, and Bainbridge had no choice but to surrender the ship. He and his officers would remain prisoners until the Barbary War with Tripoli ended in June 1805.

The thought of allowing Philadelphia to remain in enemy hands was intolerable to the Navy. So much so that the Commander of the Third Mediterranean Squadron, Commodore Edward Preble, commented that Capt. Bainbridge and his crew should have “chosen death over slavery.” The ship now posed a threat to all U.S. vessels. Within weeks of her capture, Philadelphia had been quickly fitted as a gun battery by the Tripolitans. Once complete, the frigate could become Tripoli’s most powerful corsair.

The Navy and Decatur had had it. Neither had any intention of paying any more “tribute” to any of the North African kingdoms. However, they also weren’t interested in attempting to retake Philadelphia, because Tripoli’s harbor was heavily fortified, and retrieving her once the tide receded would have only risked repeating the same mistake Capt. Bainbridge made four months prior. The Navy instead assigned Decatur to burn and destroy the frigate.

Decatur took a simple 60-ft ketch that he had seized from the enemy and renamed Intrepid. With a crew of 80 from two other U.S. ships, he sailed on Feb. 3 from Sicily to Tripoli posing as fishermen. Decatur and his crew endured two weeks of severe storms, gale force winds, lack of food, and filthy conditions in the tiny ketch. Finally, on Feb. 16 with only moonlight to guide them, Decatur and his men navigated into Tripoli harbor and slowly made their way towards Philadelphia. Decatur’s ruse on acting like poor fishermen tricked the Tripolitans and got them alongside Philadelphia. They told the guards they had lost their anchors from the storms and needed to tie up alongside Philadelphia. By the time the Tripolitans saw the anchors and sounded the alarm, they were too late. Decatur and his men were already too close to Philadelphia for the Tripolitans to fend off any attack. Many of them ended up jumping from Philadelphia, and within 20 minutes, Decatur had set fire to the ship. She eventually burned to the waterline and sank. None of Decatur’s men were injured.

Decatur would serve the Navy through both Barbary wars, the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812. He would go on to defeat Algerian warships and capture hundreds of prisoners of war. His actions placed the Navy in more formidable diplomatic positions to negotiate with the Barbary rulers. Decatur was able to obtain the release of not only all U.S. prisoners from the other Barbary rulers, but also the release of European prisoners. Naples dubbed him the “Terror of the Foe.” Pope Pius even congratulated Decatur and the United States and commented, “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble and humiliate the barbarians on the African coast in one night than all the European states had done for a long period of time.”

Stephen Decatur by Alonzo Chappel 1828-1887 Library of Congress

Stephen Decatur
by Alonzo Chappel
1828-1887
Library of Congress

 
Feb 14

USS Essex rounds Cape Horn to sail into history

Friday, February 14, 2014 1:01 PM
Sailing frigate USS Essex (1799), from port side view, as a stylized illustration of the ship by Joseph Howard (1789 - 1857), with cannon ports visible, in configuration at the Galapagos Islands. Gift of Paul E. Sutro, 1940. Current locationU.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection

Sailing frigate USS Essex (1799), from port side view, as a stylized illustration of the ship by Joseph Howard (1789 – 1857), with cannon ports visible, in configuration at the Galapagos Islands.
Gift of Paul E. Sutro, 1940. Current location U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection

By Naval History and Heritage Command

Finding the right person to command the first U.S. Navy ship to round Cape Horn and sail into the Pacific Ocean required a captain of considerable experience. So it is with little wonder Capt. David Porter was chosen for that daunting task. Certainly little wonder perhaps on Capt. Porter’s part, whose self-confidence and ego, with a great deal of luck, made the trip successful for those who survived the Feb. 14, 1813 passage through the Le Maire Straits into the Pacific Ocean.

While history has put Porter’s face on the success of the frigate Essex crossing into the Pacific Ocean, the unsung heroes, of course, were the Sailors who went through incredible hardships to get the job done. In Porter’s own journal, A Voyage in the South Seas, he documented how his crew suffered through few layovers, light rations, terrible storms and intestinal disruptions from eating too-fresh fruit that didn’t settle well with their diets of salted meat and hard tack.

Passage to the Pacific

Capt. David Porter

Capt. David Porter

After gaining experience fighting Caribbean pirates in the Barbary Wars, Capt. David Porter aboard USS Essex was quick to begin harassing British merchant and warships after the War of 1812 was declared June 12. He and his crew sailed from New York harbor July 3, where for two months the crew had taken 10 prizes, including HMS Alert, the first British warship captured in the war.
Then Porter and Essex were reassigned to join Constitution and Hornet in the South Atlantic, and then sail to Santa Catherina Island to intercept homeward-bound British East India ships. Onboard was Porter’s 11-year-old foster son, David Glasgow Farragut, who would later become the first admiral in the U.S. Navy.

USS Essex and her crew left Oct. 28, 1812, two days after Commodore William Bainbridge’s squadron with Constitution and Hornet. Initially, the trip started well, with Porter’s crew taking the British mail packet Nocton carrying $55,000 in gold bullion. When Constitution and Hornet failed to meet at the rendezvous point, Porter decided the South Atlantic was too dangerous for a single American ship, where few ports would be safe for the ship to harbor. So he strayed from his orders to head further south – into the South Pacific – where Essex could wreak havoc on the British whaling industry. And he would command the first American warship to go around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean.

The frigate left its last port at St. Catherine’s on Jan. 26, 1813. Almost as fast as the gale winds that sped them along, a malady was overtaking the crew. At first Porter’s surgeon thought the vomiting and diarrhea was caused by bad rum laced with lead, otherwise known as “painter’s cholic.” But a quick recovery determined it was the “the overloading the stomach with unripe fruit and vegetables,” Porter noted. Having been in port only seven days in the past three months, Porter was proud none of the crew had scurvy. At the time, only one Marine suffered from a pulmonary complaint. “Indeed the extraordinary health of the crew surprises me, and I can only attribute it to the steady attention to cleanliness, and to their comfort, and to their cheerful disposition,” he later wrote.

The ship sailed into more unsettled waters with strong wind and rain, punctuated by periods of calm. Porter attributed the weather to the upcoming Feb. 1 eclipse of the sun. By Feb. 3, the weather had settled and Porter hoped for a “speedy and pleasant run” to the Le Maire Straits. Having gone so far off their original course, the captain addressed the crew of their mission with a note:

“Sailors and Marines!
“A large increase of the enemy’s force compels us to abandon a coast, that will neither afford us security nor supplies; nor are there any inducements for a longer continuance there. We will, therefore, proceed to annoy them, where we are least expected. What was never performed, by a single ship, we will attempt.
The Pacific Ocean affords us many friendly ports. The unprotected British commerce, on the coast of Chili, Peru and Mexico, will give you an abundant supply of wealth; and the girls of the Sandwich Islands shall reward you for your sufferings during the passage around Cape Horn.”

Porter was pleased the note “procured the happiest effect, as it diffused a general joy throughout the ship” and gave comfort to the captain that he “had nothing to apprehend from their disaffection.”
Porter had a lot on the line, since he had departed from the letter of his instructions and was in “prosecution of a plan which might not prove successful, or meet the approbation of my commanding officer, or the navy department; and, however justifiable my conduct may be, the apprehensions of censure could not otherwise than produce their effect on my mind.”

Since Porter’s decision to venture into the Pacific was his own, and “having taken on myself the responsibility of proceeding into the Pacific, I have, in some measure, engaged to answer for the success of the enterprize, to which every other consideration should now be subservient; and, if we were subject to evils, that no other ship yet had to bear up against, it only required, that we should summon up the more fortitude and determine to subdue them, to trust much to future, and enter boldly into the attempt.”
In other, less-grand, words: Porter took great risk in going against his orders, and only success would keep him out of hot water with his commanding officers. So failure was not an option.

 

Map of USS Essex's cruise where she rounded Cape Horn Feb. 14, 1813, the first American warship to sail into the Pacific Ocean.

Map of USS Essex’s cruise where she rounded Cape Horn Feb. 14, 1813, the first American warship to sail into the Pacific Ocean.

Rounding the Horn

Le Maire Strait is a narrow passage of water created between the coast of Terra del Fuego and a tiny island called Staten Land. It is further south than the Magellan Strait, an intracoastal waterway that cuts through Argentina to the Pacific with protection from stormy seas. Despite the hazy skies and rain that accompanied northward winds, Porter had “confidence of being able to see the land in sufficient time to haul-off to clear it.”

But strong currents, dying kelp and flocks of birds gave Porter pause, so he ordered a good lookout be kept as a precaution. His hunch was right: “We had approached so close to the breakers that we had not room to wear; there was a tremendous sea running, the ship driving forecastle under.; no change of weathering the land, which could not be seen ahead and surrounded by dreadful breakers.”

With a jib “blown to pieces,” Porter held the ship off the lee shore until the wind changed. After an hour, the water began to calm, and the appearance of whales gave Porter hope they were in the Le Maire Strait. By 9 p.m., boosted by the tide, the ship was “swept through with great rapidity” and Essex was clear of the Strait.

Porter’s greatest regret, he noted, was the weather did not permit them the leisure of seeking the Bay of Good Success so “minutely described by the celebrated (Capt. James) Cook,” who had sailed a similar route Jan. 16-20, 1769.

Porter wrote that “no part of the world presents a more horrible aspect than Staten Land,” with its dreadful” coastline, “violence of wind” and “foaming of the breakers.” Seeing the verdant hills of Terra del Fuego, Porter added no one could “conceive the excess of our joy in discovering the land, unless he, in an instant, has been snatched from the danger of destruction which seemed pending over him.”

Being off by just a mile farther north, Porter admitted he would have steered a course “that would have entangled us in the night with the rocks and breakers about Cape Horn; and had this happened, thick and hazy as the weather continued, our destruction would have been inevitable….”

Although Porter’s ship had survived its journey through the Strait, they had simply crossed from one treacherous situation into “that part of the ocean so celebrated and dreaded for the violent gales and tremendous irregular seas which prevail.”
As the 14-year-old frigate headed into the unknown, Porter contemplated the journey ahead and the shape of his ship, which hadn’t seen an overhaul in five years and suffered from numerous leaks.

“We had no certainly of meeting with provisions or stores, or a hospitable reception in any port should we arrive in the Pacific, and should we fail in our attempts to get round, we have no port that we can go into to recruit our stock; we are beyond the reach of assistance from every quarter, and remain solitary and dependent on our own resources, and the precarious supplies which the enemy may afford; and should we go into port, we have not ground tackle on which we can rely.”

Porter noted all those who had gone before him, such as British Commodore Lord George Anson, known for his circumnavigation of the world in 1740 during Great Britain’s war against Spain. Anson spent a year planning the route, traveling on a larger ship, escorted by a fleet of six ships of war with 1,800 men. While going through the passage, Anson lost four ships, with the remaining three suffering “miserably shattered hulks” and only 335 crew surviving. Just one ship made it back to England with 188 crew.

Spanish Adm. José Alfonso Pizarro, who sailed in pursuit of Lord Anson, twice attempted to take passage through the Le Maire Strait and Cape Horn, along with a fleet of six men-of-war-ships and 3,000 men, but failed both times, after losing several ships.

The mistakes of those before him did little to keep Porter from his quest: “But instead of deterring me from the attempt, or damping my ardour, served only to rouse my ambition and induced me to redouble my precautions and my efforts to arrive in this sea, where Lord Anson has rendered himself so justly celebrated by his indefatigable perseverance and ultimate success against the Spaniards.” And he added, “make the name of the Essex as well-known in the Pacific Ocean as that of the Centurion (Anson’s 60-gun flagship).”

After preparing the ship for impending disaster, Essex entered “the bourn of all our dread” with a pleasant breeze and smooth seas. As the crew was “felicitating ourselves on our fortune and pleasant passage” through the straits, Porter wisely decided to keep the ship “aloof” from the land, steering more southward.

And so it was on Feb. 14, with a clear horizon, moderate winds and the sun shining brightly, USS Essex sailed into the Pacific. But with the cape in sight, so, too, were black clouds. Yet in the moment of having achieved what no Navy warship had done before, the crew rejoiced. “It was everything we had expected and pictured to ourselves, so we could not but smile at our own credulity and folly,” Porter recalled. The disasters and misfortunes written by other captains were due to their own “imprudencies and mismanagements.”

“We flattered ourselves with the belief that fortune would be more favourable to our enterprize than he had been to theirs,” Porter wrote.

But while celebrating their cleverness, the black clouds hanging over Cape Horn burst upon the ship, bringing with it violent winds, a dangerous sea that “threatened to jerk away our masts at every roll of the ship.”

Essex would suffer gale after gale over the next two weeks as they traveled north, including one on Feb. 28 that “blew with a fury far exceeding anything we had yet experienced bringing with it such a tremendous sea, as to threaten us every moment with destruction, and appalled the stoutest heart on board. To attempt to convey an idea of the fury of this gale by description would be fruitless; let it suffice to say that is was rarely equaled, and I am sure never was exceeded.”

Porter wrote the gale continued to batter Essex March 1-2 and taking a toll on his crew. “Many had been severely bruised by being thrown by the violent jerks of the ship down the hatchways.”

Porter had suffered three falls himself that kept him from going on deck. “The oldest seaman in the ship had never experienced anything to equal the gale,” Porter wrote.

Just as the crew felt the worst of the storm was over, at 3 a.m. on March 3, “an enormous sea broke over the ship, and for an instant destroyed every hope” the ship would survive. The gun-deck ports burst, boats washed away and the ship was water-logged and deluged. The Marine, who had been confined for pulmonary disease, died at the height of the storm. But then the gale began to abate and the crew quickly went about repairs. Porter rewarded those who worked the hardest by advancing them one grade, “rebuking … the others for their timidity.”

Porter recorded the crew was in better shape than when they started, with the exception of the Marine, Lewis Price, who was quickly buried at sea. The surgeon recorded several contusions of the hand, wrist and arm, shoulder and foot, one who suffered from diarrhea, another with an ulcer on the leg, two with pain in their sides, one with pain in the bowels, a sprained ankle, two with rheumatism and one with venereal disease. Porter was pleased to note not a single case of scurvy.

Porter took pride in pointing out Essex went through the Le Maire Strait, around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean up to the parallel of the Magellan Strait in just 13 days a month later in the season than the celebrated French captain Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse did in 14 days Jan. 25-Feb. 9, 1785.

“And as my passage, against violent gales, was made in one day less than his, I am at a loss to conceive what should have occasioned his delay,” Porter wrote.

By March 5, the ship sailed into calmer waters, and the next day anchored about two miles off the Island of Mocha off the coast of Chile. But Porter, his crew and Essex had woes yet to come. More on that as the story continues in March!

 
 
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