“Oh…Do You Remember the Fun of Him?”

Today in History, January 6, 1919:

“Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

-Vice President Thomas Marshall.

President Theodore Roosevelt dies at Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, New York in his sleep of a heart attack. “Teddy” had taken every last drop of adventure and worthiness that he could squeeze out of life in the preceding 60 years.

Roosevelt had been a sickly child; constantly plagued by breathing problems, he could rarely play with the other children. His father, Theodore Sr., a remarkable man himself, told “Teedie” that if he wanted to have a successful life, he would have to take charge and force his body into the form he needed to match his intellect. Roosevelt did just that. He took exercise as his “raison detre” until he was barrel chested and of vigorous health. Each time he became sick during his life, he would simply work through it.

As a young man, while serving in the New York Assembly, Roosevelt was called home from Albany by an urgent message. After the train ride to NYC, he arrived home to be met at the door by his brother, “There is a curse upon this house.”

Roosevelt’s wife and mother died on the same day…February 14, 1884, within hours of each other. Writing in his diary only a large X and the words “The light has gone out of my life”, Roosevelt fled into the west, becoming a rancher and for a time a lawman in the Dakota Territory. The experience would strengthen him and give him a background people respected.

During his life he was a state rep from New York, the Police Commissioner for New York City, Governor of New York, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (he oversaw the building of a modern US Navy while his boss was not paying attention), he led the “Rough Riders” (1st Volunteer US Cavalry) up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, became Vice President, and the President after President McKinley was assassinated.

As President he defined the modern presidency, breaking up monopolies, seeing that mistreated workers got a fair shake, sent the “Great White Fleet” around the world establishing American as a world influence, saw the Panama Canal built, saw the establishment of the National Parks Service, and countless other accomplishments.

He worked tirelessly for the American people. After the Presidency he traveled extensively, going on an African Safari, and exploring an unknown region of South America, “The River of Doubt”; a region so treacherous that it was considered a no-man’s land. He nearly died in the mapping of the river, now called “Rio Roosevelt” in his honor.

All of his male children fought in WWI, and the only reason Teddy didn’t was because the Democrat President (Wilson) refused to let him, afraid Roosevelt would run against him in the next election and win. One of his sons, Quentin, would be shot down over France and be killed. That was the last straw for the “Old Lion”. He mourned dreadfully until his death.

One of his other children, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., would be the only General to go ashore with the troops at D-Day in WWII; Teddy Jr would die of a heart attack himself several weeks after the Normandy invasion. The entire world would mourn President Roosevelt’s passing; he had become larger that life, a hero to people the world over. The quintessential American. And in case you couldn’t tell, my favorite Hero.

At TR’s funeral at Oyster Bay, what I believe is the best, most heartfelt eulogy was spoken in passing. Walking from the church a New York City Police Captain who had served with Roosevelt more than 20 years earlier when he was Police Commissioner, was overcome with emotion. He turned to TR’s sister and asked, “Oh…do you remember the FUN of him?”

“Get off my Lawn!!” – The Roosevelt Corollary

Today in History, December 6, 1904:

The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine had been established to tell European powers to stay out…no Emperialism in the Western Hemisphere. When it was declared, the US didn’t really have the forces to back it up. But, conveniently the Royal Navy agreed and enforced it for their former adversaries.

In 1904 President Roosevelt made an addition to the Doctrine. There had been recent incidents in which European powers threatened actions against South American nations that they felt owed them money. In his annual message to the Congress, TR stated that, should any developing nations in the Western Hemisphere require intervention due to unrest or an inability to handle their financial affairs, it would be the US that would intervene, not foreign nations. This time TR had the Navy to back it up.

Many criticize Roosevelt’s assumption of police powers in the Americas as expansionist, and with the events surrounding the building of the Panama Canal, there is likely some validity to that view. However the primary objective was to ensure that foreign powers knew the US would not tolerate their use of military force in our backyard. And it kept the big kids from taking advantage of the still developing countries in the Western Hemisphere.


Shoot First, Ask Questions Later…

Today in History, November 28: 1941 –

Ten days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a Task Force built around the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) sailed from Pearl Harbor bound for Wake Island.

In response to a “war warning” the Enterprise had taken aboard a squadron of US Marine F4F Wildcat fighter planes and their pilots, with orders to deliver them to Wake to bolster the island’s defenses.

Once they were at sea, the TF commander, Admiral William F. (Bull) Halsey signed off on Battle Order #1, which put the Enterprise and her supporting Cruisers and Destroyers on a war footing.

The crew began adding armor behind the pilot’s position’s in the ship’s fighters, painting them in combat colors, and arming them for combat.

More than a week before the Japanese attacked, the Enterprise TF had orders to shoot first and ask questions later should they encounter any foreign ships or planes. The CAP (Combat Air Patrol) kept watch overhead.

The Big E would deliver the Marines and return to Pearl on Sunday, December 7. Her scout plane pilots would fly ahead, ending up right in the middle of the air raid. But that’s another story.

But on this date, Admiral Halsey and Captain Murray closed by telling their sailors “Steady nerves and stout hearts are needed now.”

USS Oklahoma

Today in History, November 3: 1943 – The USS Oklahoma (BB-37) is re-floated at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii after a months long salvage operation. She had been on Battleship Row on December 7, 1941 when Japanese torpedoes caused her to capsize quickly. After being decommissioned, the ship was sold for scrap, being too old and too damaged for further service. En route from Pearl to San Francisco, the Oklahoma slipped the line from her tow ship and sank to the bottom of the Pacific. I guess she didn’t want to end up in a scrap yard.


Oklahoma Proud – The Battle Off Samar

Today in History, October 25, 1944:

A desperate fight for survival, The Battle off Samar.

The Battle off Samar was only one of several major naval conflicts that constituted the Battles of Leyte Gulf. A few days previous, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had returned to the Philippines and invaded Leyte. His invasion was supported by what is likely the largest assembled fleet in history.

In the days since the invasion began, the Japanese Navy had sent 3 battle groups to intercede. One group of Battleships, cruisers and destroyers were to approach the landing forces in Leyte Gulf through Surigao Strait, another built around the massive IJN Yamato was to approach via San Bernadino Strait, and the last, built around Fleet Carriers with few planes left, was to sail far to the north and make sure they were seen, so that major US forces defending the thin skinned landing ships would leave them unprotected.

The Japanese fleet approaching through Surigao Strait was decimated by American Battleships raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor in the last Battleship vs Battleship engagement in history (US Cruisers and Destroyers were key also).

Admiral Kurita’s force around Yamato was bombed on the 24th and turned back.

Admiral William F. Halsey, known to Americans and Japanese for his aggressive nature (By the time we’re done, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell) commanded the US 3rd fleet…4 battle groups of 4 fast carriers each, and another of fast battleships.

He took the bait, going after the Japanese carriers that were actually playing no combative part in the battle.

This left only cargo ships, small combatants, and “Jeep Carriers”, or Escort Carriers…basically cargo ships with a flight deck built atop their small, thin hulls. The escort carriers were tasked with close support for troops ashore, and were not equipped for a sea battle.

So far, I’ve just set the stage for the events of the Battle off Samar Island…now for the good part. There were 3 small escort carrier task forces left in Leyte Gulf…Taffy 1, Taffy 2 and Taffy 3. As they began operations on the morning of the 25th, Admiral Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague and the men of Taffy 3 were shocked to find that IJN Admiral Kurita’s task force of fast battleships, cruisers and destroyers, who had turned around in the night, bearing down on them. I recently finished “Last Stand of the Tincan Sailors” by James Hornfischer, and although I knew about this battle, I found out much more, and Oklahoma connections.

The entirety of Taffy 3…6 jeep carriers, 2 Fletcher class destroyers and 3 destroyer escorts…did not match the tonnage of the Yamato alone. And Yamato was joined by several other Battleships, Cruisers and destroyer task forces. The Japanese could manage much more speed than the small American ships, and their guns (18 inch for the Yamato, 14 and 8 inch for the others, out-ranged the American’s 5 inch guns by MILES. As the long range rifles (22 miles avg) began dropping shells around the carriers and destroyers, Admiral Sprague ordered the small destroyers and destroyer escorts to lay smoke and attempt to delay the inevitable. Oklahoman Harold Kite, loading a 5 inch gun on the stern of the carrier USS Fanshaw Bay, watched the tiny escort ships turning to race towards the huge enemy ships, and likened them to the horses that had raced across the plains of central Oklahoma as he was growing up, and marveled at their courage.

The closest escort ship to the Japanese fleet, the USS Johnston, was commanded by another Oklahoman…Commander Ernest E. Evans, known to his Annapolis classmates as “Chief” for his Cherokee heritage. His crew knew what they were in for. Cmdr. Evans had been there for the American defeat during the Guadalcanal campaign, and took his warrior heritage seriously.

When he took command of the Johnston, he told her crew, “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now. Now that I have command of a fighting ship, I will never retreat from an enemy force.”

And he didn’t. Under the fire of longer range, larger guns and other fast destroyers, he raced in close, ordering his gun crews to fire constantly, which they did with amazing effect, and launched his small ship’s torpedoes against the enemy, achieving strikes that disabled cruisers. Fighting to the end, Evans was looking after the survivors of his sinking ship when a Japanese shell destroyed the part of the superstructure he was in, and he went down with his ship.

The other American destroyers and destroyer escorts (even smaller) followed suit, delaying the Japanese ships and confusing them to the point that the Japanese thought they were actually fighting American cruisers and fast carriers…heavies in Navy parlance.

The Jeep carrier’s aircrews were launched in desperation as the battle began…armed with whatever they had…depth charges, anti-personnel bombs, but nothing that was designed to sink ships. The aircrews, flying torpedo bombers, dive bombers and fighter planes, attacked the Japanese ships with desperate ferocity. They dropped the depth charges as best they could beneath enemy ships, dropped their bombs, then came back and made runs against the enemy ships without arms because it would mean the IJN ships had to evade (and slow down) since they didn’t know there were no torpedoes or bombs on the American aircraft. One pilot, out of ammunition, flew alongside a Japanese heavy, opened his canopy, and emptied his .38 revolver into the ship’s bridge to the amazement of her crew.

The flyers then flew to a land base on Leyte and re-armed to attack again. In the end, Admiral Kurita, believing he was attacking a much larger force, ordered his massive force to turn about and retreat.

As for Halsey, who couldn’t leave even his Battleships, or even 4 of his 16 Carriers to defend the Taffy’s and the all but defenseless cargo ships in Leyte Gulf….he received a dispatch from his boss, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, asking, “Where is Task Force 34? All the world wonders.” The story is that “all the world wonders” was just jibberish added to transmissions to confuse the enemy…but the result was an angry Halsey throwing his cap to the deck and spewing a string of invectives. Of the destroyers, including the Johnston and the Samuel B. Roberts that went down in the battle? Amazingly, many of their crew were lost to sharks before they were rescued in the days hence, the result of faulty reports of their locations. So many brave heroes.

Halsey Takes Command – Its All About Attitude

Today in History, October 18, 1942:

Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey is named commander of the South Pacific forces.

Things had not been going well after the invasion of Guadalcanal; a series of losses due to indecision by the previous commander, Admiral Ghormley, had left the troops demoralized.

CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific) Chester Nimitz knew the man for the job and appointed Halsey. Halsey was a no nonsense, get er done leader.

He had issued orders to his task force to shoot first and ask questions later if they spotted Japanese ships or aircraft…on November 28, 1941, ten days before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

He was famously quoted as saying, “Before we’re done with ’em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell.” His operational order for his command was simple: “Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill more Japs!” In retrospect, this attitude made be considered harsh or even racist. But during the largest conflict in human history, it was all about winning.

The demoralized Sailors and Marines serving on and around Guadalcanal had a sudden burst of confidence when they heard Halsey was their new boss. Things turned around almost immediately. The people under Halsey’s command knew he was willing to take chances for them, and they returned the sentiment.


Today in History, August 1-2, 1943:

PT-109 (Patrol Torpedo) is patrolling Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands when it is rammed and cut in half by Japanese Destroyer Amagiri.

Two of the crew are killed outright, but 11 others survive, although some are badly injured/burned. Their very young commander carried one of the injured on his back in the mile + swim to a nearby island. He then took turns with the boat’s exec swimming back out into the channel attempting to signal other PT’s at night while avoiding Japanese patrols.

Finally they were rescued thanks to natives working for an Australian coast watcher. Lt. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who could have easily sat out the war due to his wealth, displayed incredible courage and loyalty to his crew.

One question not asked in the propaganda of his Presidential campaign was, how does a craft that is basically a speedboat, navigated by an experienced sailor, get rammed by a slow moving man-of-war? That aside, nobody can deny President Kennedy’s courage.