The Battle of Boston Harbor

In maritime warfare, has there been a case where a United States Navy Midshipman was promoted to commanding officer? And then, upon losing a battle, was court-martialed? The answer is yes to both questions.

It was the War of 1812. The battle itself was very short and resulted in the deaths of many of the American crew and capture of the American vessel. Captain Philip Broke, commander of HMS Shannon challenged Captain James Lawrence of the Chesapeake – he had been her commander less that 2 weeks. The Chesapeake got underway to meet the Shannon and in the short conflict her masts and steering were damaged by the British warship and became inoperable. Two hundred-fifty of her crew were killed. Captain Lawrence was mortally wounded, and as he was taken below, he promoted the only surviving officer, midshipman William S. Cox to the rank of Third Lieutenant. Though ordered to continue the fight until sunk, she was captured, and the Chesapeake‘s remaining crew were imprisoned in Nova Scotia. After the war, a court martial found Third Lieutenant Cox guilty of briefly leaving his post during the engagement. He was stripped of rank and discharged. William Cox died in 1874, but 75 years after his death, in August 1952, President Truman signed a legislation posthumously restoring Cox’s rank of Third Lieutenant.

folding clothes and other lost habits

A popular video that still makes the rounds on the Internet, a now-retired Admiral and Commander of Naval Special Warfare (SEAL), shared that your best days begin by making your bed. Today, I read a post on Facebook from the Naval History and Heritage command which reminded me of my early Navy days. It has a series of illustrations of how a Sailor’s uniforms were folded so they would fit in a seabag. Folding precisely was necessary to fit in the minimum space provided (shipboard life has exacting space for each member). While many of us had parents who modeled that sort of self-discipline of making your bed, folding your clothes, taking out your laundry to be washed and dried, and other household chores growing up, many did not. But the military service branches, when we all entered recruit training, would change us all into the sort that had an eye for detail, precision in our activities, and ability to stow our military uniforms and personal effects in the space we were given.

More than two decades have passed since I was part of a shipboard crew, and half that since I last wore the uniform. While the attention to detail and attitude about priorities and performance may still be part of my DNA, sadly other habits have gotten sloppier. No sharp creases in my skivvies, nor do my belongings neatly fit in my much larger “coffin locker” (the small storage space below each sailor’s bunk aboard ship) closets and a 5 -drawer dresser. Linens on my made-up bed would never bounce a quarter, nor do I take 3-minute showers (spray to wet, soap down, spray to rinse, get dressed). I do not stencil my underwear, nor do I fastidiously clean floors, walls, showers to Navy standards. While standards have been stretched over the years, the habits of nearly 30 years do result in frequent “field days”. And I still have Army, Navy and Marine veterans who may visit from time to time. Informal inspections can happen at any time (and my spouse keeps me mindful that a clean home is an inviting home) so I am well-stocked with cleaning agents.

Camp feathers

A veteran friend of mine sent me the link to an article on the military use of pigeons back before Marconi’s invention revolutionized communications. The Navy employed pigeons to courier messages, even developing a Navy Rating with special training to care for and train the birds. If the world goes to seed, I may have some recruits for a new pigeon command here.

Doves at camp

I may not have been a Navy Pigeoneer in my career (I was a guy who maintained the electronics), though I am getting more into birds at home. With the change to some waterwise shrubs, my wife wanted to put seeds and sunflowers to bring them back. Recruitment seems to be working. Finches, hummingbirds, California Towhees, and mourning doves are again welcome guests at Camp Feathers. I had originally wanted to attract some nearby raptors, but these are perhaps following the gophers which have gone elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Mermaid of Mission Bay

I thought it might portend good fortune yesterday morning when my companions and I departed Mission Bay (San Diego) for a couple hours of fishing. A mermaid was taking in some pleasant weather in the middle of the channel. She hadn’t much to say as to where to find hungry fish. Perhaps she was just dreaming of our region’s famous fish tacos; the boats all sitting off La Jolla didn’t seem to have any better luck. (A mutual friend of ours once reminded me that the hobby was not called “catching” as it takes skill and proper timing.) But i will still go as often as I’m invited. A career Navy man, I need to put to sea every so often to refresh my retired Sailor “Saltiness”. And seeing a mermaid, gives me another sea story to share with my readers.

Grand Old Flag

You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of
The land I love.
The home of the free and the brave.
Every heart beats true
'Neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
Should all acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag. 
-George M Cohan, composer

Composer George M Cohan wrote these lyrics more than a century ago, at a time when the United States flag was a rallying symbol for a nation of “Americans” formed out of immigrants.  Over millennia, flags have been the banners under which people have rallied to wars of liberation and independence, as well as peaceful demonstrations for equality. Some deliberately provoke anger as their banners recall times of injustice or genocide. Though any student of history can dwell on the sins of a nation, the United States being no exception, the advances in medicine, agriculture, industrial output, other sciences, in education and literacy, in the United States made our national ensign a symbol well known in every part of the world. As a veteran and history buff, the history of the American flag is interesting and remains a symbol of pride. How did our national ensign emerge?

St Andrews cross
Grand Union Flag (pre-revolution)

For a century prior to the Revolutionary War, the American colonist flew a derivation of the ensign of Great Britain with various symbols that were historically significant in Britain, such as the cross of St. Andrews or the cross of Saint George.  The Union flag, which first flew on British naval ships in 1634. With several changes instituted and then reverted by monarchs for the next century, the colonist adopted flags with these designs and colors, until the unrest prior to the revolution, variations on merchant ships and to rally the colonists to their aims for independence carried mottos in Latin such as “conquer or die” or other provoking mottos (p. 135, Naval Ceremonies, Customs and Traditions, Naval Institute Press, 2004) and designs such as the Pine Tree. The Philadelphia Troop of Light Horse when it escorted General Washington to New York to take command of the Continental Army was first to bear thirteen stripes, representing the original colonies, in alternating blue and silver stripes. Commodore Hopkins raised a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag with thirteen stripes, a rattlesnake, and this motto on his ship the Alfred on 5 December 1775. During the bicentennial Independence year in 1976, it flew again as the jack on all Navy ships. In 2002, in response to the War on Terror, the “Don’t Tread on Me” jack was again flown. John Paul Jones, of whom so much of early American naval tradition rests, was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the new American Navy on 22 December 1775. From commissioning, in the company of Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock, he went aboard Commodore Hopkin’s flagship, the Alfred. Directed by John Hancock, with the Commodore and ship’s captain ashore, as senior officer John Paul Jones directed the first “American” flag, be hoisted from the mainmast. This is significant as the first American flag flying from a warship. From historical accounts, this ensign was likely the same flag raised by Washington’s troops in Boston a couple weeks later. The adoption of the national ensign, with the 13 alternating red and white stripes, with stars in a blue field representing the union occurred on 4 June 1777.  As for John Paul Jones, he received orders to command the Ranger the same day, and afterward he always believed his future and that of the new national ensign were linked. In the sea battle with the HMS Serapis, both ships were severely damaged.  As he transferred with surviving crew to the captured British vessel, the last view of sinking Bon Homme Richard was the “defiant waving of her unconquered and unstrucken (sic) flag as she went down” (report of John Paul Jones, ibid, p143).

Flag (top): flown from the Bon Homme Richard during battle. (bottom): the “Serapis” flag, when Jones sailed the captured ship from the Netherlands after the battle

With the admission of new states into the ‘united states’ in the last years of the Eighteenth Century, the design of the nation’s flag was subject to some controversy, over the number of stripes and stars.  The final design was established by Congress and signed into law in 1818 by President Monroe.  From that time forth, the stripes remained fixed as they appear today, but an additional star would be added to the blue field for every new state admitted.  

fishing tales

A fisherman, a boat captain, and me put out from Dana Landing just before first light on a gray Saturday morning. The fisherman was experienced, the boat’s owner, a former Navy man but not a fisherman, was hoping for a large catch and me, a retired Navy Senior Chief, neither boat owner nor fisherman, was keeping a weather eye on the horizon. With choppy seas ahead, the fisherman brought along Dramamine. (We all took it.) Had I brought along any bananas? To the fisherman’s question, I responded none.

luck and bananas

Apparently, sailors should not bring bananas on a voyage if we wanted fishing luck. With eight years at sea in the Navy, the thought crosses my mind, had I “ever” seen bananas in the fresh fruit available on the mess decks? Apples and oranges, I remember, but never bananas. Sailing superstition links bananas to lost ships and cargoes. (I looked it up online.) I heard that overcast days are pretty good days for fishing. Our companion, a passionate fisherman, who knows where he has had success and what signs might mean good fishing, provided me a rod and reel. He also showed me how to properly tie a weight and hooks. The rest was left for me to figure out. Fish are not waiting for the unsuspecting fisherman to drop his line and jump on the hook.

seabirds and dolphins

Nine miles off Pacific Beach at mid-morning, the swells were past tolerable, and the overcast remained. With a couple larger boats in the distance, and seabirds, pelicans and dolphins for company, we found some floating kelp and put down our lines again. We took it for a good sign when the captain caught a seabass and the fisherman brought up a rock cod a little later. We decided against going farther out. (One of us admitted to being queasy.) We put down our lines again off Sunset Cliffs and determined the fish finder was not malfunctioning; it had not detected fish all morning. (The seabirds told us as much as neither tern, gull nor pelican were seen retrieving fish from the water at any point.) Back in the channel leading to Dana Point Landing that afternoon, I snagged two mackerel. No fish were worth keeping.

I learned a few things from our adventure. Overcast days do not suggest good fishing weather. The lack of bananas does not conversely bring good luck. Neither does bringing a large cooler. Dolphins do not mean lots of fish are about. And a bad day fishing is better than a good day working. Twelve hours after suggesting to our wives we’d be fishing “three or four (hours)” we got home. The fisherman is one I admire. He intended to play softball all the next day. I slept for ten straight hours. And might go to bed early tonight. But I have Craigslist and OfferUp dialed in; I’m looking for a rod and reel at the right price.

Sunday underway

Our plans for an after-church lunch with friends at our house was almost cancelled today. “Almost”, in that the guest list coming for lunch, as well as one of the hosts (me) changed. Friends who were planning to come felt ill this morning and asked for a raincheck. With no plan, or so I thought, just as church concluded, another Navyman like me, invited me to come out on his boat that afternoon.

I immediately accepted. I hadn’t spent a lot of time in recent years with Mike other than at church. Plus, he said, getting a little “sea” time, for me, a retired Navy Chief, would put a little saltwater back into my veins. Another of our friends, also a Navy veteran, was supposed to be joining us. However, calling to verify he was on his way, we learned his spouse had also made lunch plans. Her guests were at their house.

This Senior Chief and “Cap’n” Mike went bouncing across San Diego Bay in the powerboat and getting some needed fellowship. The time put much needed salt spray back in this Old Salt.

Where’s the Photography Mate? Sailors piloting a boat is a lot easier than taking selfies.

Ask the Chief: Ceremonies in the life of a naval ship, Part 2

Continued from Part 1:

Commissioning

After christening and launching of a naval ship, commissioning is the next major ceremony in its life. The builders turn over the ship to the Navy, to an authority who will bear responsibility until the ship is commissioned. Prior to commissioning, no pennant, jack nor ensign is flown from the ship and no honors are rendered, other than courtesies upon his or her arrival. Honors are rendered at his departure. The ship is turned over to the commanding officer who accepts her and assumes command. Invitations reflect the host of the ceremony, including the crew among the hosts. Invitations are issued in the form, “Commanding Officer and Ship’s Company” or “Commanding Officer, Officers and Crew”. This is the first time that the title “USS” or United States Ship may be used as it is a commissioning ceremony. Established practice is to have a basic, official ceremony and when the ship is officially in commission, to continue with official speeches, personal remarks, and presentations. It is during this latter part of the ceremony that officers and crew are on duty and manning their station as in-port watches. This process adheres to Navy Regulations regarding commissioning. Officers fall in aft by dress parade stations on the quarterdeck or at the fantail, and the crew is marched aft, by division, to assigned stations. The ceremony begins with an invocation by a chaplain. The executive officer reports to the prospective commanding officer that the officers and crew are at their stations and everything is ready for the commissioning ceremony. By seniority, the official party, the admiral or designated representative and the prospective commanding officer arrive at their places on the ceremony platform. The officer conducting the transfer reads the orders delivering the ship and the orders to commission the ship are relayed from the commanding officer to executive officer to the navigator. At the “attention” signal, the national anthem plays, and ensign, commissioning pennant, and jack are hoisted at the same time. The commanding officer reads orders to assume command and orders to set the watch. The Officer of the Deck takes his (her) station and makes the first entry in the ship’s log: ” The ship is now officially commissioned.” Speeches, addresses and presentations by the official guests continue; the ceremony concludes and the official party departs. A reception usually follows.

IMAGE CREDIT: US Navy photo by MS1 Ernesto Bonilla, USS Daniel INOUYE, DDG-113 (navy.mil)

Ask the Chief: Ceremonies in the life of a naval ship, Part 1

Image (Christening), DD-462, FITCH, from US Naval History and Heritage Command

There are four traditional ceremonies in the life of a naval ship: the keel-laying, christening and launching, commissioning, and the decommissioning. The keel-laying ceremony is relatively simple, with formal invitations made to interested parties for the “laying of the keel of Name or designator and hull number (e.g. DD-123), if not yet named. Notably, prior to commissioning, “USS” is not used in conjunction with the ship name. At the shipyard, after invocation, an official such as the shipyard president welcomes guests and introduces a guest speaker. After remarks, the speaker may direct or affix a nameplate or weld his or her initials on the keel. Finally, the keel is moved into position by shipyard workers, and it is announced that “the keel has been truly and fairly laid.”

When a ship is christened today, the event continues the long history in maritime cultures of ceremony. Originally a dedication to maritime deities, the ancient Greeks and Romans, Chinese and Polynesian cultures used water or wine or blood (Polynesia) in the ceremony honoring the gods. In France, sea-going vessels were blessed by Catholic priests; wine was not splashed against the ship but was reserved for the guests! Beginning in the early Nineteenth Century Europe and America, with Queen Victoria in Britain, naval ships’ sponsors increasingly became women. US Navy ships were initially christened with water though wine or champagne has christened ships for almost two hundred years except for the period of Prohibition in the United States. Interestingly, Naval Ceremonies, Customs and Traditions, Sixth Edition, (Naval Institute Press) recalls a story where USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) failed to launch when water was used, twice. It only slipped down into the Boston harbor when a bottle of choice Madeira wine was splashed against it. The ceremony itself is a dedication and named, involving speakers who will relate historical or other association with the person, place or event for which the ship is named. The sponsor is introduced and then the actual christening occurs. And again, until the ship is in commission, “USS” is not associated with its name.


Talking like a Sailor: Navy terms and acronyms

For 2022, I wanted to introduce readers (and recall or reinvigorate in my case) terms, acronyms and abbreviations used in the Navy. Earlier today I was reminded of the times I used to talk on the phone with our son while he was serving in the Army, and how his mother found Army jargon unintelligible. However, I would run everything he said through a translator in my head. After a quarter-century of serving with or working with other service veterans, I put others’ jargon into Navy-speak, and pretty much follow along.

Terms

  • Alive. Usage includes “look alive, shipmates!” (energetic, move quickly)
  • As you were. Order to carry on with what you had been doing.
  • Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS). Food allowance (pay) received when no military galleys are present/ authorized to mess separately.
  • Black shoe. Slang term for a surface Sailor (ship’s company). Its opposite is Brown Shoe.
  • Brown shoe. Slang term for an aviator.

Acronyms

  • AOE. A combat support ship and the fastest auxiliary ship in the Navy. It provides fuel, missiles, ammunition and general stores.
  • CCOL. Compartment Check Off List. Part of the Planned Maintenance System. There must be a CCOL located in every compartment and weather deck area where a Damage Control facility is located.
  • COSAL. Coordinated Shipboard Allowance List. Contains the nomenclature and nameplate data on equipment, identifying repair parts and materials, and provides for the allowance of such to be in the unit’s supply storerooms.

Ask the Chief: honors and salutes

The United States Navy has a tradition and a future. We look with pride and confidence in both directions

Admiral Chester Nimitz, USN

Honors and Salutes

Aboard a naval vessel, an officer serving as the Officer of the Deck (OOD) must ensure that all proper traditions, courtesies and ceremonies are observed. The overall effect of these properly executed conveys discipline and close attention to detail of that military unit. Some of these courtesies and honors the OOD is aware, by current instruction, instructs the rendering proper honors by signalmen. Additionally, the OOD ensures lookouts observe, and pass to the Officer of the Deck, approaching dignitaries and senior officers; and acknowledges senior (command) authority aboard passing vessels through use of “attention” and “carry on” signals.

Sailors in today’s Navy should still be aware of the history of customs and traditions that are part of their “DNA”. A book I have had on my shelf for the last fifteen years is Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions, Sixth Edition, written by CDR Royal Connell, USN (Ret) and VADM William Mack, USN, (Ret), published by Naval Institute Press (2004). One of the introductory passages in this edition speaks to the evolving history of the United States Navy. The Navy today has, in the last fifty years, experienced two of the pivotal transition periods, namely, the post-Vietnam era and the Global War on Terror – from first Gulf War, piracy in the Horn of Africa, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq following the attacks on September 11, 2001.