Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: America's Cloak & Dagger School Began with Hard Hats & Dynamite

Naval Construction Training Center Camp Peary, along the south bank of the York River near Williamsburg, Virginia, on August 18, 1943. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Just outside Williamsburg on the Virginia Peninsula lies a large yet low-key government facility celebrating a quiet anniversary this week. The Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity at Camp Peary, Virginia, which began as a naval construction training center during the rapid expansion of U.S. Navy’s Seabees during World War II, was commissioned on November 16, 1942.[1]

Few Seabees alive today would remember it as a place where they received their initial and advanced military training before shipping off to Sicily or the Solomons, yet for generations of case officers and other unconventional warriors of the Central Intelligence Agency, this was where they completed basic training; a place they knew as "The Farm."

The rapid expansion of the Civil Engineer Corps during 1942 overwhelmed the capacities of the relatively new facilities at Camp Bradford (now a part of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story), Camp Allen (now a Marine Corps facility near the Commander Navy Region Mid-Atlantic headquarters complex on the Naval Support Activity Norfolk), and Camp Endicott, Rhode Island (which no longer exists). The functions of the three separate posts would be consolidated into an 11,000-acre facility, named for the explorer and Civil Engineer Corps officer Robert Peary, made up of an administrative area and four regimental areas with the capability of training 50,000 men. On December 1, 1942, the disestablishment process for Camps Bradford and Allen began, and by March 17, 1943, Camp Peary had taken over all primary Seabee training from both stations. In fact, all Seabee recruits underwent initial training at Camp Peary in 1943 and the first half of 1944 before moving on to more advanced technical and military training at camp Endicott.

The basic training for Seabees, many of whom were older than the average recruit, was arduous to begin with, but the terrain making up most of Camp Peary, giving it the moniker “Swamp-Peary” by members of the 87th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB), just made it more challenging. One veteran of the 63rd NCB, whose recruits arrived in December 1942, even claimed that Camp Peary was “known to Seabees throughout the world as ‘the land that God forgot.’”

“Thirty days is all it takes,” wrote one member of the 103rd NCB, which was formed at Camp Peary in October 1943. “Thirty days of sweat like you’ve never sweat before. Thirty days of hip-hup an’ a reep. Thirty days of forward march, column right, column left an’ to the rear. We’ll make a Seabee out of you, matey. We’ll take that fat off your belly.”

Of the advanced training that followed their “boot” experience, the writer for the 63rd NCB wrote:

In advance training many men made the acquaintance of Island X, that humpy, bumpy and breezy ‘proving ground’ for the real Island X. Water purification and other crews learned to set up and operate the equipment needed to supply and maintain a sanitary camp under all conditions. The proof of the pudding came in the results of these Seabee ‘schools.’ One crew of 50 men became proficient enough to erect a mess hall, galley, clear a camp area, set up a water tank, showers and drinking water units in 3 ½ hours.
An early map of Naval Construction Training Center Camp Peary (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Camp Peary also boasted specialized facilities in its advanced training area for special-duty battalions such as a full scale Liberty ship mockup for stevedores and facilities for mastering the construction of pontoon causeways. Seabees were trained in the art of combat construction and sustainment there, but it was also the place to learn the latest destruction techniques. Seabees bound for underwater demolition teams (the forerunners of today’s SEALS) passed through Camp Peary’s advanced training area, churning out Sailors adept at small arms and explosives. In all, over 90 Seabee battalions, amounting to well over 100,000 men, were trained there. In addition, nearly 5,000 men earned their commissioning from the officers’ school at the facility.

The rapid pace of change in 1943 once again affected Camp Peary’s mission as the Pacific became the primary area for Seabee operations, and in late-1944, Seabee training was moved once again back to Camp Endicott. The development of Camp Peary was then shaped by the rapid expansion of other armed service branches on American soil: In particular, the Wehrmacht and the Kreigsmarine. The first of what would ultimately be nearly 135,000 German and Italian prisoners of war began debarking at the Newport News Port of Embarkation in September 1942 for points west, but by the latter part of the war, it became clear that some German prisoners, the most virulent of the Nazis in American custody, needed to be removed from the more docile Deutsche POWs in Colorado and Nebraska to a more controlled environment. That place turned out to be Camp Peary, which had a detention area already in place, right next to its advanced training area, which had already proved valuable in extracting intelligence from captured U-boat crews, who were held in secret to prevent their superiors from knowing they had been captured.

As the number of German POWs being held in Virginia surged towards around 17,000 in 1945, a select 1,000 or so were being held at Camp Peary. As the war in Europe ground to a conclusion that spring, the number there and the nearby Chetham Annex doubled, and the camp authorities begrudgingly began allowing some of them to perform general labor outside the camp, as had become common at other POW camps across the Old Dominion.

After the end of the Second World War and subsequent repatriation of prisoners of war, perhaps for a time the future of Camp Peary as a government reservation was in doubt. But the passing of one war only set the stage for yet another. As many of the former operatives who wore the spear point of the wartime Office of Strategic Services on their uniforms took up their professions once again as civilians under the eagle and compass rose of the Central Intelligence Agency, they needed their own highly specialized recruit training facility; one that would impart many of the same specialized skills Camp Peary once provided the Seabees.

[1] As recorded in a Fifth Naval District listing of bases produced in 1943 and held in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum files. According to a history produced by the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks in 1947, Camp Peary was officially established on November 4, 1942.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Counterfeit Brigantines of Safi and the Ranger Deliverer of the Wadi Sebou

By Reece Nortum
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator
USS LST 547 lands an Army M4A1 Sherman tank during training exercises at Camp Bradford, Virginia, in 1944. While the Sherman and the Landing Ship, Tank (LST) were some of the most recognizable staples of amphibious warfare during World War II, only the Sherman was in production in time to participate in Operation Torch, the largest amphibious operation the American  Army and Navy played a part in since the Civil War.  In only about three months, four military facilities, including Camp Bradford, were created along the south shore of the Chesapeake Bay (plus an Amphibious Force headquarters at the Nansemond Hotel) to prepare thousands of Army and Navy personnel for the invasion of French North Africa. In order to keep a November 1942 invasion deadline, existing vessels, including old destroyers, would have to stand in for more specialized amphibious vessels that would appear in the following year. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)  
Seventy-five years ago, the sprawling facility along the southern shore of Chesapeake Bay now known as Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story was composed of four brand-new bases: Camp Bradford, Camp Shelton, U.S. Naval Frontier Base, and Amphibious Training Base. These bases, Amphibious Training Base in particular, became the center for pioneering the new techniques of amphibious warfare for the equally new types of vessels that would be required to win the Second World War: the LSM (landing ship medium); LCI (landing craft infantry); LCU (landing craft utility); LCM (landing craft mechanized), and LCVP (landing craft vehicle, personnel). At the new bases, the techniques of training had to be developed almost from scratch. Only the doctrine (The Landing Force Manual) developed by the Marines between 1935 and 1939 existed before the war began in 1941, but little testing and training had been done. During World War II over 200,000 naval personnel and 160,000 Army and Marine Corps personnel trained at Little Creek.

An SBD Dauntless from USS Ranger (CV 4) flies an antisubmarine patrol over some of the 102 warships and transports of the Western Naval Task Force, which left Hampton Roads on October 24, 1942.  By November 8, they were in position to launch the invasion of French-held territory in Morocco under Operation Torch. (National Archives and Records Administration)  

To accomplish the invasion of North Africa, Western Task Force would have naval support, which would come from an American task force: one aircraft carrier, four escort carriers, three battleships, seven cruisers, and 38 destroyers, in addition to troop and cargo transports and auxiliaries, under Rear Adm. H. Kent Hewitt. The Navy would also provide air support during the landing phase until fields ashore could be secured for squadrons of the 12th Air Force.
ABOVE: Launched only four days before the end of World War I, USS Bernadou (DD153), shown here probably during the early-1920s, was transformed [BELOW] so that she would more closely resemble a fishing brigantine during the initial landings of Operation Torch on November 8, 1942. (Collection of Gustave Maurer, Naval History and Heritage Command image)

USS Bernadou (DD 153) rests upon the shore at Safi, French Morocco, after landing troops during Operation Torch in November 1942. Examples of destroyers being used in unconventional ways became much rarer after more specialized amphibious vessels became available to American forces in 1943.  (Gift of J. Everett Berry/ Naval History and Heritage Command image)
 Three of the task force vessels were specially modified for unconventional missions during Operation Torch; the old unsuspecting WWI-vintage destroyers Cole, Bernadou, and Dallas. These old four-stack destroyers were retrofitted with deception in mind. The Cole and Bernadou would have their smoke stacks cut, their bridge towers lowered, and holes cut into their decks. Doing all this would allow installation of masts with sails into the decks with the aim of making them look like fishing vessels in the early dawn of November 8. With this design the Cole and Bernadou, part of the Southern Attack Group, attacked the Port of Safi, a very strategic piece of the invasion. This port and several others were instrumental in off-loading tanks, personnel, and much needed supplies for the Allies’ push into Africa.
The destroyers Bernadou (DD 153) and Cole (DD 155) as they appeared during Operation Torch. (Naval History and Heritage Command images)
This composite of reconnaissance photographs taken between November 1942 (just before the Port Lyautey aerodrome at the center of this image was captured) and February 1943 (after it was renamed U.S. Naval Air Station Port Lyautey), shows the Wadi Sebou River surrounding the airfield, with the shoreline just visible to the northeast. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The destroyer Dallas (DD 199) had a very different and more dangerous mission. This ship was also altered in the previous manner. Stacks cut, bridge lowered, and many other “non-mission essential” armor and ships pieces were removed for much needed weight loss. This river was very muddy and had low water depth for any major Navy ship. A historic new unit’s creation, The Special Mission Naval Demolition Unit, was formed for this near impossible task. Consisting of only two officers and 17 enlisted men, their mission was to clear the way through the cables and booms in the Wadi Sebou River, left as a defense against all ships traveling up river. This would allow Dallas to charge to Port Lyautey airdrome with her cargo of US Army Rangers to secure for allied planes. This was just a small piece of a large historic mission and many other firsts for America.

Looking east, USS Dallas (DD 199) is anchored off Port Lyautey aerodrome (with its main hangars and control tower upper right background) on November 11, 1942, the day after she made her way up the Wadi Sebou River with the Special Mission Naval Demolition Unit to land Army Rangers at the airfield. U.S. Navy landing craft are beached at the facility's waterfront in the foreground, with seaplane hangars, shops, and an aircraft assembly plant beyond. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Confederate Engineer Communes with the Beyond

By Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Engineer E.A. Jack of the ironclad CSS Virginia would experience memorable naval combat aboard multiple ships during the American Civil War, but an experience during a séance in North Carolina would also stay with him for the remainder of his life. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
With Halloween upon us, we take a moment to visit a subject somewhat out of the normal realm of naval history and drift slightly into the paranormal. Spiritualism was a quasi-religious movement that saw its height of popularity from about 1840 into the early 20th century. By the 1850s, the movement had upwards of two million followers, mostly in New England. The movement itself was based somewhat in the increasing need to meld new scientific ideas with existing religious doctrine. Spiritualism was based in a belief that spirits of the deceased had both the desire and ability to communicate with the living. In her book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, historian Drew Gilpin Faust wrote, “By the time the war broke out, spiritualist notions were sufficiently common to influence and engage even those who were not formal adherents.” The rising popularity of those who practiced spiritualism and communicated with the dead saw an increasingly greater demand from a grieving public in the bloody wake of the American Civil War.

Prior to the Civil War, the act of dying had been a community or family affair and was mostly done near a person’s home, amongst loved ones. The recently deceased would be interred at a local burial ground and the family would be left with a tangible, physical monument to mourn their loss. The massive displacement of people and mobilization of enormous armies in 1861 changed that. The spiritualism movement was frequently embraced as a means for people to communicate with their recently deceased loved ones who were too often buried in unknown or unmarked battlefield locations, never to be recovered. 

Months after the battle of Gaines' Mill, Virginia (just east of Richmond), the unburied dead made a macabre subject for a stereographic card.  Those willing to buy such a card included the thousands of families who were wondering what might have happened to their loved ones.  (Library of Congress)

In his memoirs, former CSS Virginia engineer and Portsmouth, Virginia native Eugenius Alexander Jack recalled a séance performed by a “spiritualist” he witnessed in Wilmington, North Carolina, while he was awaiting assignment to the ironclad CSS North Carolina.
I will depart a little from this history of myself to tell of Mrs. Gilliam who was a most wonderful woman. Though not a spiritualist in faith she possessed the power of producing the manifestations of those mysterious knockings called ‘Spirits’. In fact while she was talking to people about other subjects entirely, these knockings could be heard on the back of her chair or on pieces of furniture in other parts of the room. These were the only manifestations of this kind that I had ever seen, and as I was not disposed to admit a superstitious reason for them, I sought a scientific one. I felt after these tests that somehow there was truth in the theory of Psychic Force. For how could the answer to my questions be correct when only I knew them. I could write of many more mysterious things that I heard and saw at these séances, but these are enough.[1]” 
The rise of the mid-19th century spiritualism movement provided both entertainment and a possible way to communicate with the dead. The cover of this popular sheet music from 1853 illustrates a séance. (Wikimedia Commons)

E. A. Jack, an educated man and an officer, would seem to have been made a believer after his experience. We are left to wonder what other amazing or frightful things Jack experienced while attending the séance at Mrs. Gilliam’s home. Besides the knockings, it would appear communication between the living and dead at the séance was “spelled out” out a planchette, the precursor to the better known Ouija Board. What the spirits revealed to Jack and Mrs. Gilliam’s other guests remains a mystery.
The planchette would be manipulated by the users in order to write out communications from the dead. A pencil would be inserted into the board and small castors would support the board while “writing.” (Wikimedia Commons) 
A planchette that was used in Great Britain during the 1860s. (Wikimedia Commons)

[1] Flanders, Alan E. Editor. Memoirs of E.A. Jack; Steam Engineer, CSS Virginia. White Stone, Virginia: Brandylane Publishers, 1998. 30

Friday, October 20, 2017

One Century Ago: Breaking Ground for an Assembly Plant of Doom

This map from May 1917 shows many of the facilities that would be built at the St. Juliens Naval Ammunition Depot during World War I, including buildings for the largest mine assembly complex to be built up to that time.  (Courtesy of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives)
Although the official opening of the new Naval Training Station at Sewells Point on October 12, 1917, made the front page (below the fold) of the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, it gave more prominent billing to a story about a new auto factory that was said to be in the works from Guardian Motors. A wire service story that ran in the middle of the page quoted the former head of Germany's Imperial Navy Office, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, as saying, “We can continue confidently to expect a final triumph over England as long as we continue to sink vessels faster then she constructs them.” At the time, he was technically correct about the ongoing unrestricted submarine campaign that had very nearly brought the British to the negotiating table earlier that year. But on October 24, ground was broken on a special type of assembly plant, the largest of its kind in the world, that would render the German admiral's prognostications to be about as prescient as those of Guardian Motors.

The year before, the Royal Navy had deployed a series of nets and mines close to U-boat bases along the Belgian coast, but their Vickers Elia mine was so unreliable that German submarine officers sometimes used their harvested casings to create punch bowls for their messes. After the American entry into the war against Germany in April 1917, Rear Admiral William S. Sims, who had recently reported to London as the liaison to the British Admiralty, subscribed to their view that “To absolutely blockade the German and Belgian coast against the entrance and departure of submarines has been found quite infeasible.” adding in a message to Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels a couple of months later, “Nets do not stop submarines. Mine barriers can not be wholly effective.”

There were those within the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd), however, who did not agree with this assessment. Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, its chief, was convinced that mines, properly designed, constructed and deployed in sufficient numbers, were key to neutralizing the "hornet's nests;"a term President Woodrow Wilson was fond of using to describe the U-boat bases. Planning began at BuOrd for much larger and more sophisticated mine barrages, both in the North Sea and in the Adriatic, before the ink was dry on the declaration of war against Germany. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt was a fan of the plan, but his boss, Josephus Daniels, was not, at least at first. He called the plan “A stupendous undertaking--perhaps not impossible but to my mind of doubtful practicability. North Sea too rough & will necessitate withdrawing all our ships from other work and then can we destroy the hornet’s nest or keep the hornets in?”

By September, President Woodrow Wilson had had enough with the British Admiralty’s handling of the war and agitated for a more proactive, assertive approach to be led by the U.S. Navy. Meanwhile, Sims, ostensibly in command of all the American naval forces being sent to Europe, was still maintaining the British line, telling Rear Adm. Earle, “It is by reason of the very bitter experience which the English and French have had in this particular respect that they are reluctant to accept a mine which is believed by those having no war experience to be superior to theirs. . . this is a good scheme if it works but a very expensive one if it does not.”
A diagram of the operation of the Mark VI mine. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
By then, however, Earle was well underway with producing a mine far superior to that which had been produced by the British; which would make the idea of a barrage long enough to block an entire sea possible. Unlike the “horned” British and German mines with firing mechanisms that required close proximity to detonate, BuOrd pioneered the Mark VI mine and its “K-pistol” mechanism, which utilized copper wires extending above and below the mines to enhance its sensitivity. This would make it possible for fewer mines to deny a larger area to U-boat traffic.

As indispensable as he was as liaison to the British, Sims would not be the man to finally bring the Admiralty around to the more audacious American approach towards dealing with the submarine threat. President Wilson and Secretary Daniels dispatched Vice Admiral Henry T. Mayo of the Atlantic Fleet to London that month.  Daniels later remembered Wilson's exhortations to Mayo about the “absolute necessity of finding and ending the hornet’s nest, & destroying the poison or removing the cork. [Wilson] impressed upon them the need of an offensive and reiterated his view that we cannot win this war by merely hunting submarines when they have gotten into the great ocean.”

A diagram of the North Sea Mine Barrage shows the general location of the mines and antisubmarine nets crisscrossing the sea. The mines were spread in an area approximately 230 miles long from Norway to Scotland. The first operation in June 1918 laid 5,500 mines. The mines were laid in three areas titled “A” “B” and “C”. “A” was the center, and largest, section, “B” went towards the Orkney Islands, and “C” went towards Norway. Section “A” was purely American, but the Americans also provided mines to sections “B’ and “C”, which were mined by the British. Due to the efficiency and production of the Americans, the US Navy provided more mines to both “B” and “C” than the British. The width of the barrage went from 15 to 35 miles. The depth of the mines ranged from 45 to 260 feet.(Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
At a “War Council” convened in London in September, Mayo made little headway with Russian, French, and Italian representatives, but crucially he was able to convince the First Sea Lord, Admiral John Jellicoe, to accept the plan. They ultimately settled upon a nearly 300-mile stretch across the North Sea, between the Orkney Islands north of Scotland and Norway. To him, its most attractive feature was that the barrage would be nowhere near German-controlled waters, where they had so effectively swept British mines the year before. But both men realized that if the plan was to work, an unbelievable number of reliable mines would have to be produced first. In any case, BuOrd had not waited around for the dithering British to make up their minds. The first contract for 10,000 Mark VI mines had been awarded on August 9, 1917, before Mayo even left for London. Even so, planners estimated that it would take a staggering 100,000 mines to block the North Sea.  On October 3, a contract for 90,000 more mines was approved.
Mine casings and other components on flatbed railroad cars await assembly at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in July 1917. (Courtesy of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives)
Norfolk Naval Shipyard already possessed some mine construction capability, but there was no infrastructure in place there that could carry out such an ambitious plan. In any case, there was not enough room, so BuOrd turned to a Naval Ammunition Depot along St. Juliens Creek, about a mile south of the shipyard, which had existed there in one form or another since 1895. “A loading plant of this type and scale had hitherto been unknown not only in this country, but abroad,” wrote Earle of the undertaking. Some buildings could be upgraded, but almost two dozen new buildings would have to be built for mine assembly, the melting of trinitrotoluene (TNT), and filling of the mines, which contained 300 pounds of TNT apiece, plus cold-storage buildings to store the completed mines until they could be shipped. Railroad spur lines would also be required to deliver the mine components to assembly buildings. The shipyard continued to produce the casings for the mines, but BuOrd contracted other components out to different automobile manufacturers, making use of the private sector’s production capability for consumer goods, already the best in the world, for destructive ends.

Meanwhile, the British Admiralty dragged their feet. They did not officially allow the North Sea mining plan to go forward until November, weeks after construction began on the mine plant. Even with the necessary political will and financial support (on the American side, anyway), other obstacles remained. Not only were the ranks of able workmen drained by the ongoing Army draft, the workers who remained labored through one of the worst winters ever recorded in the Hampton Roads area, and construction nearly ground to a halt until February 1918.
This rare image shows the giant conveyor used to load minelaying ships and mine-carrying freighters at the St. Juliens Creek Ammunition Depot south of Norfolk Naval Shipyard. (Courtesy of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives
Miraculously, the mine plant began producing the undersea death dealers in March. With a staff of 16 officers and 525 enlisted men, the assembly plant at St. Juliens turned out to be better than Rear Adm. Earle had even hoped, easily able to meet or even exceed their quota of 1,000 mines per day. During the remainder of the war, the facility assembled and shipped 73,000 mines, plus shipping an additional 17,000 that had been assembled at a smaller facility in Wisconsin. The conveyor system used to load the vessels on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River was the largest of its kind in the world.

By the time hostilities ended on November 11, 1918, 56,611 American mines, most of them assembled at St. Juliens, guarded the depths of the North Sea, with only 6,400 mines left to deploy before the American segment of the barrage was complete. All told, the North Sea Mine Barrage was credited with sinking six U-boats and damaging an equal number. It remains unclear how many submarine commanders avoided the open ocean because of the silent but deadly underwater wall, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that, at the very least, they finally developed a deep respect of the Allied mines. The following passage appeared in a history of the barrage that was published in 1919:
In connection with the enemy’s attitude toward anti-submarine measures taken by the Allies, it is interesting to note the statement of a captured German submarine commander who had had considerable experience on that particular type of vessel. He expressed the opinion that of all the anti-submarine measures which had been taken, mines were by far the most dreaded by the German submarine personnel, principally because there was nothing to indicate their presence. Also, because the quality of allied mines had recently been improved in a most unpleasant manner, the former practice of fishing them up and taking them home for conversion into punch bowls for submarine messes had now been entirely abandoned, he said.
Paraphrasing Sun Tzu, breaking an adversary’s will to fight without direct conflict and the perils that go with it is preferable to undertaking a direct assault. As expensive as it was, the construction of a mine barrage would have been less expensive than, for example, attempting a series of amphibious raids against U-boat bases. This massive yet invisible submarine barrier made possible what President Wilson had wanted all along: A way to neutralize the “hornet’s nests.” While Wilson had originally wanted the U-boat bases attacked directly, the more economical way to go, in terms of both blood and treasure, was deploying these mass-produced mines to form a great underwater wall, modifying the behavior of German commanders, eroding their will to fight, and ultimately neutralizing the threat they posed to the Allied war effort.