The Whaleship Essex

Today in History, November 20: 1820 –

Loss of the whaleship Essex. Since 1711, the whaling industry had been an important aspect of the American economy. This was the time before crude oil, and the oil, blubber and bone from whales brought good money. Hundred of ships from New England made a living sailing to the Pacific and back.

The Essex had sailed from Nantucket and was hunting 2,000 miles west of the South American coast when and angry whale struck the ship twice, capsizing her and setting her twenty man crew adrift in open long boats.

During the next 83 days three of the men would be marooned on a South Pacific island. Only five others would survive after being picked up by other ships near the South American coast.

The ordeal would inspire Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.”

US Exploring Expedition 


Today in History, August 18: 1838 – At Hampton Roads, Virginia, The United States Exploring Expedition, consisting of USS Vincennes, USS Porpoise and others, weighs anchor and begins a four year adventure. The US government had made the decision to fund a scientific venture around the world, but specifically to explore the Pacific. Also known as the “Ex. Ex.” and the Wilkes Expedition after it’s commander, US Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes, the group of sailors, scientists and artists would face terrible weather, murderous natives, intrigue and sometimes poor leadership. 

 Not all of their ships, nor all of their crews would make it home. On the way they discovered parts of Antarctica, previously unknown species and islands. They collected thousands of samples, many of which would be lost. 

 America was placed on the scientific map by the men of the expedition. If you want a good read, it’s “Sea of Glory” by Nathaniel Philbrick, which details their exploits.

Wilkes place in history did not end with the Expedition. He would operate in the Naval Observatory in Washington on the scientific side. Then during the Civil War he would create an international incident when he commanded ships which would stop an English ship and sieze two Confederate emissaries enroute to London. The US would eventually release the Confederates…preventing England’s entrance into the war. 

PT 109


Today in History, August 2: 1943 – Lt (jg) John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the crew of torpedo boat PT-109 are on patrol in Blackett Strait of the Solomon Islands when they are rammed by a Japanese destroyer, IJN Amagiri. The destroyer continued on her way; the crew of the plywood patrol boat began a days long ordeal of survival at sea. Kennedy, in spite of a bad back, towed a wounded crewman by a strap for two miles to a nearby island. He and another officer took turns swimming out into the strait attempting to flag down help. Eventually they encountered natives who were working with an Australian Coast Watcher, who arranged rescue. There was no doubt JFK’s actions were heroic, but heroes were everywhere during those years. His exploits were used during his presidential campaign to great success. He kept the coconut upon which he had written a message to the coast watcher.