Archive for the 'Merchant Marine' Category

Aug 15

99 Years Old: The Panama Canal

Thursday, August 15, 2013 2:00 AM

THE PANAM A CANAL OPENING.-With the successful passing of the Panama Railroad steamship Ancon through the canal on 15 August 1914, in nine and a half hours, the big man-made waterway, one of the wonders of the age, was officially opened to the commerce of the world, and is now ready for the use of all vessels drawing not to exceed 30 feet.-Army and Navy Journal.

SS Ancon passes through the newly opened Panama Canal

SS Ancon passes through the newly-opened Panama Canal

THE PANAMA CANAL’S NAVAL SIGNIFICANCE.-So much have the commercial values and aspects of the Panama Canal absorbed the interest of Americans that it may seem to many of them its opening for business in the midst of a worldshaking war partakes of the nature of an anachronism, even if the United States is not one of the belligerents. In reality there is a certain fitness in the realization of the dream of Balboa and the prediction of Goethe coming at this particular time. The canal is a great “short cut” open to the use of the world, but it is also a part of the scheme of the military defense of the United States. It doubles the mobility of both our land’ and sea forces, and was built with this consideration in mind. No event in our history gave more impetus to the construction of the canal by the United States than the voyage of the Oregon around Cape Horn to join our fleet in the Caribbean. The necessity of sending a battleship over so many thousand miles of ocean impressed the nation with the importance of having at our command a short route between the Pacific and the Atlantic. The arguments of war and peace are both represented in the canal, built, owned and managed by the United States in its sovereign capacity.-Boston Transcript.

Re-published in the ‘professional notes’ of the September-October, 1914 issue of Proceedings magazine.

Nov 17

Congress Allows Arming of Merchant Ships

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 12:01 AM

Prior to the official U.S. entry into the Second World War, American merchant ships carried needed supplies that supported the Allies in their desperate struggle against the Axis powers. Although German aircraft and submarines attacked American merchant ships when they entered war zones, the U.S. Neutrality Act of 1936 prevented them from being armed, even for self defense.

Pressure began to build for a change, and many sought to resurrect the idea of the Armed Guard Service, used during the First World War. Congress amended the Neutrality Act on 17 November 1941, barely three weeks before Pearl Harbor, to allow the U.S. Navy to arm merchant ships.

The section under the Navy Department for directing the Armed Guard Service during World War II, Op-23L, formulated doctrine, improved training, and overcame shortages of personnel and equipment. Primarily intended to protect the ship from enemy aircraft and submarines, the Navy’s standard Armed Guard detachment consisted of one 5-inch dual purpose gun, one 3-inch anti-aircraft gun and eight 20mm machine guns manned by one officer, 24 gunners and 3 communications personnel, the latter for liaison with Navy warships and shore stations.

The often overlooked service was a huge and expensive effort. Over the course of the war, the Navy armed 6,236 merchant ships and placed Armed Guards on almost all the 5,114 U.S. owned ships, a task requiring almost 145,000 personnel in service. Many of those ships were attacked at sea or in foreign harbors and the enemy sunk 569 U.S.-flagged ships at a cost of 1,810 men. Over 8000 of those that served in the Armed Guards received decorations or commendations, including five Navy Crosses, two Legions of Merit, and seventy-five Silver Stars.

The training and armament of these detachments gave U.S. merchant ships the chance to fight off enemy air attacks and the firepower to engage enemy submarines.

Sep 27

Lt.(j.g.) Kenneth M. Willett, D-V(G), USNR: Extraordinary Heroism and Conspicuous Courage

Monday, September 27, 2010 12:01 AM

Lieutenant (j.g.) Kenneth Martin Willett, D-V(G), had been born in Overland, Missouri, on 9 April 1919. He had attended Sacramento Junior College, majoring in Business and Geology, and had enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 9 July 1940. Accepting an appointment as Midshipman, USNR, on 10 August, and Ensign, D-V(G), on 14 November, he received instruction on board the miscellaneous auxiliary (ex-battleship) Illinois, being detached on the same day to report his first ship, the battleship California (BB-44), reporting on board on 1 December 1940. Detached on 24 November 1941, Willett left Honolulu on board the liner Lurline on 5 December, just two days before the Japanese attack upon Oahu. Following instruction at the Armed Guard Center at Treasure Island, he received assignment as Armed Guard Officer; he accepted an appointment as Lieutenant (j.g.) on 16 July 1942.

On the morning of Sunday, 27 September 1942, Lieutenant (j.g.) Willett was serving on board the Stephen Hopkins, a 7,181-ton Liberty ship, a freighter indistinguishable from hundreds of her mass-produced sisters, as she steamed at 12 knots through a smooth sea in the South Atlantic. She sailed in ballast, bound from Capetown, South Africa, to Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, with a crew of 42 merchant mariners and one passenger.

With visibility poor, five lookouts peered into the mist, three from the bridge, one at the bow of the ship, and one on the platform aft that contained the Stephen Hopkins’s main battery, a 4-inch gun. The rest of her armament consisted of two 37-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, four .50-caliber and two .30-caliber machine guns, the battery the responsibility of the 15-man U.S. Navy Armed Guard under Lieutenant (j.g.) Willett’s command.

Although the area was one “through which no ship ever passed,” the Stephen Hopkins encountered two: the German auxiliary cruiser Stier (Schiffe 23) and the blockade runner Tannefels lying-to and engaged in a transfer of supplies. The Stier’s main battery consisted of four 5.9-inch guns, two 37-millimeter and four 20-millimeter guns, in addition to two 21-inch torpedo tubes. The Tannenfels mounted one 5.9-inch gun and several smaller caliber weapons. The Americans and the Germans sighted each other almost simultaneously, but the Germans, who got underway soon thereafter, opened the battle at 0856 at a range of about two miles.

Lieutenant (j.g.) Willett emerged on deck just as the first German 5.9-inch shell exploded. Suffering severe abdominal wounds at the outset of the action, the 23-year old officer continued aft to the freighter’s 4-inch gun. The Stephen Hopkins began bravely answering the enemy’s attack at 0900 at a range of 1,000 yards as she maneuvered to enable her after gun to bear upon the enemy.

For almost 20 minutes, the Stephen Hopkins exchanged fire with her more heavily armed adversary and her consort, taking a heavy beating from the enemy’s heavier caliber guns and more numerous automatic weapons. Lieutenant (j.g.) Willett’s gunners, however, scored 15 hits of the 35 shells fired, disabling the Stier’s rudder and setting her fuel oil bunkers afire. Damage to the Stier’s electrical system prevented her from employing her torpedo battery.

The Stephen Hopkins, her speed reduced to barely steerageway by a hit on her main boiler, her topsides raked by machine gun fire and shell fragments, her sides and deck houses holed, nevertheless kept up the fight until the overwhelming firepower of the enemy silenced her. When a German shell exploded the magazine, Lieutenant (j.g.) Willett finally abandoned his gun and, although covered with blood, descended to the main deck. Although “obviously weakened and suffering,” he was last seen “helping to cast loose the life rafts in a desperate effort to save the lives of others…” 

The Stephen Hopkins’s gallant gunners, however, both naval and merchant marine, had inflicted mortal damage on the Stier. Holed and ablaze throughout her length, the German auxiliary cruiser began listing to port, down by the stern, having suffered three dead and 33 wounded. The fires consuming her fuel and ammunition rendered the ship beyond saving, and her survivors transferred to the Tannenfels.

The Stephen Hopkins sank at 1000, and her drifting survivors saw the Stier abandoned, and later heard an explosion in the distance some time later, signaling the enemy’s destruction. Of the 58 souls on board the Stephen Hopkins – 42 merchant sailors, the one passenger, and 15-man Armed Guard – only 15 (10 merchant seamen, 5 Armed Guard sailors) survived the harrowing 31-day, 2,200-mile voyage to the Brazilian coast. Lieutenant (j.g.) Willett was, sadly, not among them.

“The extraordinary heroism and outstanding devotion to duty off the officers and crew of the Armed Guard and the ship’s company,” one chronicler has written of the Stephen Hopkins’s battle, “were in keeping with the highest tradition of American seamanship. Their fearless devotion to fight their ship, and perseverance to engage the enemy to the utmost until their ship was rendered useless, aflame and in a sinking condition, demonstrated conduct beyond the call of duty.”

Lieutenant (j.g.) Willett was awarded the Navy Cross (posthumously). The Stephen Hopkins had fought like a man-of-war, and her adversaries believed her to be a “camouflaged enemy auxiliary cruiser.” The Navy commemorated Willett’s “extraordinary heroism and conspicuous courage” in naming the destroyer escort Kenneth M. Willett (DE-354) in his honor.

Jun 2

New Additions to the Navy Department Library

Wednesday, June 2, 2010 10:04 AM

Last week 230 volumes of nautical accident investigation reports from the National Transportation Safety Board were donated to the Navy Department Library. These reports detail the incidents and investigations into marine accidents for the period 1979-2006. Several of the reports focus on accidents involving US Navy vessels and other vessels. These reports detail such incidents as the sinking of small passenger vessels to groundings of large transport ships, to include the May 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez. The in-depth reports cover crew information, meteorological information, rescue efforts, and the testing and research done to investigate the incidents. These reports are a wealth of information from analysis to the findings of the investigations. These books are currently being processed and will join our collection some time in the next few weeks. We hope this exciting new addition will become a valuable resource for researchers in the very near future.

Mar 31

Meet WW II Merchant Marine Radio Officer Don Berger

Wednesday, March 31, 2010 7:48 AM

Naval History Blog recently caught up with Don Berger who joined the U.S. Merchant Marines in World War II when he was 16 1/2 and became a radio officer the following year. In addition to his service in WW II, Don served in Korea, Vietnam, and Gulf War I. Today, Don is volunteer aboard the SS American Victory in Tampa, FL – one of few WW II Victory ships available for tours and cruises.