Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Christmas Truce of 1914

It was an amazing spectacle and must arouse bitter thought concerning those high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded such men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand. 
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's quote refers to an event that took place a century ago on this date in 1914. A remarkable "Christmas Truce" was unofficially observed between opposing soldiers of the Great War. It was a profoundly symbolic and poignant moment of peace in what was to become one of the worst conflicts in history.

In the fall of 1914, German armies invaded France through neutral Belgium. Britain was immediately drawn into the war to halt the German invaders. By that winter, both sides reached a stalemate and constructed 450 miles of trenches stretching from the English Channel to Switzerland. At points along the line, the 2 sides were as close as 100 feet or less, separated by a "No Man's Land" in between. At this point, World War I had been underway for less than 5 months, but already it had claimed a million lives. 

Exactly when and where the spontaneous cease-fire started is lost to history. But apparently, German troops started it. British soldiers noticed their German enemies decorating the tops of their trenches with candles and Christmas trees. Then followed the singing of "Stille Nacht." When British soldiers responded with "O Come, All Ye Faithful," the Germans joined in with the Latin words. And then, somewhere on Christmas Eve 1914, it began. A few at first, then 100,000 soldiers along the Western Front laid aside their arms, ignored orders, and met their counterparts in No Man's Land. The soldiers told jokes, exchanged food, and in one area even played a game of soccer. It was, as Doyle wrote, “one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war.”

Nowhere was there an officially organized truce that Christmas, but many similar and spontaneous events took place along other fronts. The remarkable truce lasted through Christmas Day and even a few days longer in some sections. Men from both sides were reluctant to return to the business of war and had to be spurred to return to hostilities by firing artillery overhead.

Sadly, this amazing act of peace on Christmas 1914 was not to be repeated for the remainder of the war. In April 1917, America finally was pulled into the war in Europe, and, suffering over 100,000 of her own killed, was able to help tilt the balance in favor of the Allies. By the time the Great War ended in 1918, more than 7 million soldiers died. Overall, 16 million people perished, and another 20 million were injured.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like countless other parents, lost a son in the "war to end all wars." In a generation before, American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, also had a son who served (was severely wounded) on another battlefield during the American Civil War. Longfellow reflected on war in his well-known poem, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Later set to music as a beloved Christmas carol of the same title, the words describe the narrator's despair at hearing Christmas bells, reminding him that "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men." But he also sees beyond the despair to hope and comfort. The carol concludes with the bells ringing even more loudly with renewed hope in ultimate peace found in God's righteousness and justice:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Monday, December 22, 2014

Repair work on the San Jacinto

In 1944, during operations against Japanese air bases on Luzon, the Third Fleet's Task Force 38 encountered a devastating typhoon on December 18, resulting in 3 ships lost and many others damaged. On today's date in 1944, those damaged ships, which were sent ahead, began reaching their base at Ulithi for repairs. The remainder of the fleet arrived a few days later. Fleet repair ships and other auxiliaries began work immediately.*

One of those injured ships, the light carrier USS San Jacinto, came alongside the repair ship Hector, on which my dad, Frank Dolan, was stationed. Hector's crews began major repairs immediately for damage received from the typhoon. Much of the damage resulted from planes in the hanger deck breaking loose and destroying air intakes, vent ducts, and the sprinkling system. There also was widespread flooding and water damage to electrical, ventilation and power systems, and 2 doors had to be made watertight. Carriers were essential to the ongoing operation in the Philippines, and Hector labored to complete its work by December 29th.

USS San Jacinto, 1944
Source: NavSource

Launched in September 1943, San Jacinto arrived in the Pacific war zone in June 1944 to take part in the Marianas Campaign and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Throughout that summer, her planes struck targets in the Palaus, Bonins, and the Caroline Islands. During October, she participated in raids on Okinawa, Formosa, and the Philippines, and the famous Battle of Leyte Gulf. She was then part of the task group that continued the Western Pacific offensive against Japanese targets in the Philippines, Formosa, and throughout the South China Sea.

In the early months of 1945, San Jacinto's planes raided the Japanese home islands and assisted with the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Remaining off Okinawa, she battled suicide planes and helped destroy the final Japanese surface warship attack in the Pacific. She again struck targets in Japan during July and operated in the area through the final days of the war.

Lt. (j.g.) George H. W. Bush
One of the more famous men to serve on the San Jacinto was future President George H.W. Bush. Bush's first assignment after finishing flight training was with a torpedo squadron based on the San Jacinto in 1944. San Jacinto was part of Task Force 58 that participated in operations against Marcus and Wake Islands in May, and then in the Marianas during June. On June 19th, the task force triumphed in one of the largest air battles of the war, the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Three months later, Bush piloted one of the aircraft that attacked the Japanese installations on Chichi Jima. His plane was hit, although he was able to complete the attack. The crew was forced to bail out several miles from the island, although, sadly, his other 2 crewmen were killed. After 30 days on his rescue sub, USS Finback, Bush was returned to San Jacinto. He saw action in the Philippines before returning to Guam, where his squadron, which had suffered heavy losses, was replaced. Bush flew 58 combat missions and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for the Chichi Jima raid. He also earned 3 Air Medals.

After Japan's surrender, San Jacinto returned to the U.S. She was decommissioned 1947. In 1959, while still in the Reserve Fleet, she was reclassified as an aircraft transport. Finally in 1971, the ship was sold for scrap. The USS San Jacinto earned a Presidential Unit Citation, 5 battle stars, and other medals for her WWII service.

*While the Hector was repairing the San Jacinto, the repair ship Ajax worked on the escort carrier Altamaha and the fleet tug Jicarilla. The destroyer Dewey was tied up to the destroyer tender Prairie for repairs. The destroyer tender Cascade had the destroyer Buchanan alongside, and the destroyer tender Dixie was repairing the destroyer Dyson.

Sources: USS Hector War Diary, December 1944; Short History of the USS San Jacinto, 3 May 1944 15 August 1945; USS Hector AR7- Ship's Log (WWII); Naval History and Heritage: Biographies in Naval History; Military Wiki Encyclopedia

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Halsey's Typhoon Cobra

On today's date in 1944, the Third Fleet, commanded by naval hero Admiral William Halsey, encountered the full force of Typhoon Cobra northeast of Samar in the central Philippines. Disaster soon followed for many of the ships in its path.

A few days earlier on the 11th, Task Force 38 of the Third Fleet had departed the U.S. Navy base at Ulithi Atoll for the Philippines to provide carrier air cover for the army's Mindoro Invasion. The fleet sailed from the harbor in clear weather, little knowing that a typhoon was beginning to form about 175 miles northeast.1 On the 16th, the center of the storm passed north of the atoll, heading west toward the Philippines in the direction of the fleet.

Halsey's Task Force was comprised of 7 fleet carriers, 6 light carriers, 8 battleships, 15 cruisers, and around 50 destroyers. The carrier aircraft had been successful in conducting raids against Japanese airfields on Luzon, and now planes and ships now were trying to refuel about 300 miles east of Luzon. It was there that the worst of the storm hit. In spite of earlier warnings of severe weather, the admiral had led his force into the center of a severe typhoon, the worst of which hit the fleet on this date.

The damage was severe. One hundred mile per hour winds, high seas, and torrential rain battered the fleet. Three destroyers—HullMonaghan, and Spence—capsized and sank with almost all hands.

Twenty-one other ships were damaged. Fires broke out on 3 carriers2 when planes broke loose in their hangars. Some 146 aircraft were lost or damaged by fires, destroyed by impact, or were simply swept overboard. Even more tragically for the fleet, 793 officers and men were lost in the storm, and at least 80 more were injured.

USS Cowpens experiencing the effects of Typhoon Cobra, December 18, 1944.
Some ships experienced even greater rolls, while 3 capsized and sank.

Concerning the typhoon's destructive impact Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remarked that it "represented a more crippling blow to the 3rd Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action."

Destroyer escort USS Tabberer, December 1944
Tabberer lost her mast and radio antennas in the typhoon. Although damaged and unable to
radio for help, she remained on the scene to rescue 55 of the 93 survivors of the 3 sunken ships.

By Christmas Eve, most of the returning fleet had arrived at Ulithi, the most crippled arriving first. The USS San Jacinto was one of the carriers damaged in the storm. Hangar deck planes broke loose and destroyed air intakes, vent ducts, and sprinkling system, which caused widespread flooding. The injured carrier was taken alongside my dad's repair ship, Hector, whose crews worked until December 27th repairing the ship.

The Navy soon convened an 8-day court of inquiry at Ulithi and found Halsey had committed an error in judgment in heading into the storm, the "preponderance of responsibility" resting on him. However, it stopped short of recommending discipline. It cited "errors of judgment committed under stress of war operations" rather than "offenses." Admiral Nimitz was satisfied that any mistakes Halsey may have committed were done so "under stress of war operations and stemming from a commendable desire to meet military requirements." Therefore, no action was taken against him.

Amazingly, only 6 months later, Halsey again sailed the fleet into the path of a typhoon. While ships again sustained crippling damage from Typhoon Viper, none of them were lost. Six men were killed and 75 planes were lost or destroyed, with almost 70 badly damaged. Another court of inquiry was convened, and it suggested that Halsey be reassigned. However, Admiral Nimitz again chose not to take action against Halsey.

1 The Mighty90 webpage, the Official Website of USS Astoria CL-90, provides a very helpful chart and description of the path of Typhoon Cobra.
LCDR Gerald Ford
38th U.S. President
2 One of the light aircraft carriers to be damaged was the USS Monterey. The carrier suffered a hangar deck fire as aircraft broke loose, crashed into each other and the ship’s structure, and ignited aviation fuel. On board was future President, Lieut. Gerald Ford, who assumed responsibility to go below to assess the conflagration and report back to the captain. Although the fire killed 3 sailors and injured nearly 40, and the ship went dead in the water for more than an hour because of smoke being sucked into the engineering spaces, the crew extinguished the fire and got the damaged ship underway to Ulithi, and then on to the West Coast.

At one point or another during the war in the Pacific, my dad's path crossed with those of 3 future U.S. presidents: Ford, Bush, and Kennedy.

Sources: Halsey's Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue, Bob Drury & Tom Calvin; Sea Cobra: Admiral Halsey's Task Force and the Great Pacific Typhoon, Buckner F. Melton, Jr.; Naval Historical Foundation: "Lieutenant Gerald Ford and Typhoon Cobra"

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mindoro Campaign, 1944

Having begun his invasion of the Philippines with the landing on Leyte, October 20, 1944, Gen. Douglas MacArthur now set his sights on the main Philippine island of Luzon. But first he needed a closer base of operations, a stepping stone to a successful land invasion. For that he chose the smaller island of Mindoro, directly south of Luzon.

Task Force 38 of Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet sailed from Ulithi on December 11th. Sailors, like my father, Frank Dolan, on the repair ship Hector, cheered as the 90-ship flotilla steamed out of the harbor, west toward the Philippines. Halsey's fleet will hit enemy air bases on Luzon, thus providing additional protection for Vice Admiral Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet's amphibious invasion on Mindoro.

On December 13, the Japanese detected the Seventh Fleet convoy, and their fighters attacked. The light cruiser Nashville was badly damaged by a kamikaze, with 133 killed and over 150 wounded. In another attack wave, a kamikaze hit the destroyer Harden, killing 14 and wounding 24. On the 14th, Japanese aircraft made a full-blown attempt to destroy the invasion force, but suffered heavy casualties instead, losing 46 aircraft.

Crewmen cleaning up the port side gun battery after a kamikaze hit on
December 13, 1944, while en route to the Mindoro invasion


As the amphibious forces sailed toward Mindoro, Task Force 38 arrived in the Philippine Sea, east of Luzon. From its position, carrier aircraft covered enemy air bases in Luzon. By continuously patrolling the air over these airfields the Japanese were prevented from launching any serious sorties toward the invasion force. American carrier planes continued to control the air corridors over Luzon, destroying per 270 enemy aircraft, sinking 18 ships, and damaging 37 more.*

On today's date in 1944, the Allied land invasion of Mindoro began. Completely surprising the Japanese defenders there, the invasion force quickly overcame the weak resistance without the loss of a single Allied soldier. Engineers soon began construction of an airfield, which was operational within a couple of weeks.

By the 16th, Task Force 38 was low on fuel. Halsey ordered it 400 miles east into the Philippine Sea to refuel so it could return to guard the skies over Luzon. However, on the 18th a violent typhoon struck the Task Force while it was attempting to refuel. The fleet experienced devastating damage and loss, and was forced to return to Ulithi.

In the days ahead, the Japanese responded to the invasion with air and sea attacks. While American carrier aircraft flew above, a few kamikaze pilots slipped their planes through and attacked Allied forces en route to the Mindoro beachhead. Many of these suicide pilots tried hitting the escort carriers but were shot down or otherwise missed their targets. Others got through to the invasion force and destroyed 2 LSTs (tank landing ships).

Several days later on the evening of December 26th, a Japanese naval task force attempted an ambitious bombardment of Allied shore installations. However, during its approach to the beachhead, the enemy force lost a destroyer and received damage to other ships by the Allied response. The Japanese also made several attempted torpedo strikes against American ships at anchor, but they were not effective. This was the last time that major units of the Japanese fleet tried to interfere with Allied shore operations in the Philippines.

USS LST-738 burning after she was hit by a kamikaze off the Mindoro landing beaches,
December 15, 1944. Smoke in the left distance may be from LST-472, which was also
hit by the kamikaze attack

Source: Naval Historical Center

The Mindoro Campaign continued through January 1945, when MacArthur's forces invaded the main Philippine island of Luzon, and then began their advance on Manila.

*Tragically, unknown to Halsey's pilots, one of the Japanese ships struck by navy bombers was the cargo ship, Oryoku Maru, in whose hold were crammed 1,620 POWs, survivors of the Bataan Death March, awaiting shipment to Japan as slave laborers. Around 270 men died, either from the appalling conditions, or were killed in the bombing or shot in the water as they tried to escape. Experiencing even greater deprivations and death in the months ahead, only 403 of the original 1,620 POWs survived to be liberated from camps at the war's end 9 months later.

Sources: The Two-Ocean War, Samuel Eliot Morrison; Halsey's Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue, Bob Drury & Tom Calvin; The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia; Reports of General MacArthur: The Campaigns of MacArthur in the Pacific

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Pearl Harbor Day

Seventy-three years ago, Americans relied on the assumption that an enemy would announce its intentions before it attacked. On this date in 1941, however, they were to be disabused of that notion.

Frank Dolan, 1941
On that Sunday morning, just as the flag was to be raised on my father's repair ship, USS Vestal, the Japanese attack came without warning. At 7:55 AM, the first wave of enemy aircraft began hitting the U.S. Navy ships anchored in Pearl Harbor and the army air base there. Dad's ship was one of the many that were hit.* Torpedoes also passed under his ship to strike the battleship Arizona, to which Vestal was tied alongsideSeveral other ships were destroyed along with hundreds of lives lost.

Even while Japanese envoys were negotiating in Washington, their high command had directed its fleet to launch the strike. The American people were outraged beyond the comprehension of the policy makers in Tokyo. A generation of Americans brought up on peace was going to war.

The day after the attack, the president delivered his famous speech to Congress and to the American people. About that address, author Walter Lord wrote: "The speech was over in six minutes and war was voted in less than an hour, but the real job was done in the first ten seconds. 'Infamy' was the note that struck home, the word that welded the country together until the war was won."

USS Arizona Burning

*My dad, Frank Dolan, recounted his personal experience of the attack in his narrative, Pearl Harbor: As I Remember.

Sources: Day of Infamy, Walter Lord; Frank L. Dolan's Service Records and oral account