“Damn the Torpedoes!”

Today in History, August 5, 1864:

“Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead!!”

The Battle of Mobile Bay. During the Civil War, Confederate “blockade runners” (Rhett Butler types) kept the South in vital supplies by running past the Union Navy blockade from Cuba to ports like Mobile Bay, Alabama.

US Navy Admiral David Glasgow Farragut was tasked with closing this last Confederate source of supplies. His fleet had to fight past the Confederate fleet of ironclads and two forts that guarded the bay. As the battle progressed, the Union fleet began to fragment, until Farragut rallied his sailors with famous admonition, winning the battle.

Mobile would remain in Confederate hands, but access to it was cut off for the duration. Farragut was the adopted son of US Naval Officer David Porter, who also raised his biological sons, famous Naval officers David Dixon Porter, and William Porter. One family played such a vital role in the glory of the US Navy. Can you imagine being a part of it?

The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

Today in History, June 19, 1944:

Reversal of Fortunes, exhibited by “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”, or the First Battle of the Philippine Sea.

US Marines, supported by their parent service, the US Navy, are invading Saipan and other islands in the Marianas Islands, which is such a threat to Japan that the Imperial Japanese Navy finally comes out to fight a definitive battle.

When the war began the Japanese had the most advanced aircraft available, while the US Navy lagged sorely behind. The Japanese Zero, for example, was much faster and more maneuverable than the American Wildcat fighter. But by 1944 the American industrial complex had engaged fully. As late as 1943 the USS Enterprise stood alone in the Pacific against numerous IJN Carriers.

But by June of 1944 the Americans put to sea 15 Aircraft Carriers in 4 Task Groups equipped with modern aircraft that far out matched Japan’s aircraft, which had not been updated since the war began. In addition, Japan’s air service had lost nearly all of it’s experienced pilots, while the Americans had thousands of combat hardened, well-trained pilots and crews.

When the IJN sent it’s carriers and their crews against TF 58, they were massacred. In two days the Japanese lost over 400 aircraft and their crews, 3 aircraft carriers they could not spare, and the Americans lost 29 aircraft (some of the crews were rescued) and no ships. So many Japanese aircraft fell from the skies that a Lexington pilot referred to it as an old time turkey shoot, and the name stuck.

The air crews of the task force had been launched late in the day on the 20th to attack the Japanese fleet. When they returned, it was well after dark and they began landing their planes in the sea, unable to see the carriers well enough for landings aboard.

With the threat from enemy submarines and aircraft during the war, blackout conditions were the rule. Admiral Marc Mitscher wasn’t going to lose his boys and their planes, however. With his order the fleet lit up, and the planes began landing on fumes.

A Fight to the Death

Today in History, April 16, 1945:

Picket duty in the seas off of Okinawa was a very dangerous place.  Destroyers were stationed in exterior positions from the US fleet to provide radar warnings for the carriers, bombardment and landing groups.  That also made them the first targets for Japanese Kamikaze aircraft inbound.

The USS Laffey (DD 724) was on picket duty.  She was already a veteran of D-Day where she served with Pearl Harbor survivor USS Nevada, and then several other actions in the Pacific.

A flight of approximately 50 Japanese suicide planes attacked the fleet, and many of them chose to target the tiny destroyer.  Val diver bombers and others repeatedly dove on the desperately maneuvering ship while the Laffey’s gun crews kept up a killing fire.  The crew kept fighting, shooting down several of the bombers, taking numerous bomb hits and being impacted by six of the Kamikazes.

A flight of 4 Grumman Wildcat F4F’s and a squadron of 12 F4U Corsairs from nearby carriers raced in the help, shooting down some of the attackers.  A couple of the fighters went down in the melee, including one Corsair which clipped the destroyer’s antennas before crashing into the sea.  Fortunately all of the flyers were rescued.

The Navy’s most notable Historian, Samuel Eliot Morrison, said, “Probably no ship has ever survived an attack of the intensity she experienced.”

The Presidential Unit Citation awarded to the Laffey’s crew read:

CITATION:  “For extraordinary heroism in action as a Picket Ship on Radar Picket Station Number One during an attack by approximately thirty enemy Japanese planes, thirty miles northwest of the northern tip of Okinawa, April 16, 1945. Fighting her guns valiantly against waves of hostile suicide planes plunging toward her from all directions, the U.S.S. LAFFEY set up relentless barrages of antiaircraft fire during an extremely heavy and concentrated air attack. Repeatedly finding her targets, she shot down eight enemy planes clear of the ship and damaged six more before they crashed on board. Struck by two bombs, crash-dived by suicide planes and frequently strafed, she withstood the devastating blows unflinchingly and, despite severe damage and heavy casualties, continued to fight effectively until the last plane had been driven off. The courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men enabled the LAFFEY to defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds, and her brilliant performance in this action, reflects the highest credit upon herself and the United States Naval Service.”

For the President,

/s/ James Forrestal
Secretary of the Navy

You can still walk the decks where these brave men fought and several died aboard the Laffey at Patriot’s Point in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.  Her museum location is significant as she was named for US Navy Seaman Bartlett Laffey, who earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, which began in Charleston Harbor.

A Senseless End for a Pioneering American Naval Hero

Today in History, March 22, 1820:

Stephen Decatur, Naval hero of the first and second Barbary Pirate wars, and of the War of 1812, hero and example to many of the U.S. Navy, is killed in a senseless duel.

In 1807 Commodore James Barron refused to defend his ship, Chesapeake, against British attack and was court-marshaled; Decatur sat on the court-marshal board.

Suspended from the Navy for 5 years, Barron chose to wait until after the War of 1812 to be recommissioned.

His cowardice was called, and he challenged Decatur, a former comrade, to a duel. Decatur, U. S. Navy hero, was mortally wounded. Such a shame. Decatur was a swashbuckler, a fierce fighter for his country.

Shared Army & Navy History

Today in History, March 16, 1802:

Connections through history.

The US Congress approves legislation creating the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York…now one of the oldest military academies in the world.

The post had been created during the Revolutionary War on the Hudson River…Gen. George Washington at one time used it as his command post…and Gen. Benedict Arnold betrayed his country when he connived with the British in an attempt to give up the post.

One of the first superintendents of the USMA, Sylvanus Thayer, is credited with establishing the high standards now famous for West Point.

One of his instructors, Dennis Hart Mahan, was so impressed with Thayer, he named his child after him…Arthur Thayer Mahan.

Arthur Thayer Mahan would go on to be the author and creator of US Naval strategy in the 19th and 20th Centuries. He authored the Influence of Sea Power Upon History, which was considered a Naval Bible by the world’s navies and was read by the world’s leaders, and thus influenced the creation modern navies.

The End of an Era – The Age of Sail was Over

Today in History, March 9, 1862:

The Battle of Hampton Roads.

Few are able to be part of a truly history changing event.

When the Civil War began, the Union abandoned the Naval Base at Norfolk, Virginia, burning everything they could in retreat.

The Confederacy took the base, and raised the sunken Union USS Merrimack. They then rebuilt her into the ironclad CSS Virginia.

The Union Navy placed an embargo on all Southern ports, including the entrance to the Southern capitol of Richmond. The South attempted to break this embargo with their new ironclad ship, sinking two Union wooden “ships of the line” in the process.

The Virginia returned to base for the night, then returned to finish off the last major embargo ship on 9 March, 1862.

She was confronted by the Union version of the ironclad…the USS Monitor. The two new iron ships battered away at each other for over three hours without seriously damaging each other, and then withdrew.

The Virginia would be scuttled at her base as the Union advanced…the Monitor would be lost at sea.

But more importantly….navies worldwide…Britain, France, Spain, the Far East, watched and realized that their wooden navies had suddenly become obsolete.

1st Joint Navy & Marine Amphibious Op…in 1776

Today in History, March 3, 1776:

The Continental Navy transports a contingent of Continental Marines to Nassau, Bahamas where the Marines make their first amphibious landing. The mission was to raid and capture gunpowder and munitions stored at the British possession for use in the American Revolutionary War. The Continental Navy and Marines are of course the origins of the US Navy and US Marines.