Monday, March 31, 2008

The USS Vestal

Cassin Young did not plan to go swimming but he had been blown over the side of his ship, the USS Vestal (AR-4), by a Japanese bomb that exploded the forward magazine of the USS Arizona (BB-39). Unfortunately, his ship was moored next to the big battleship and was taking collateral damage.

The Vestal was a repair ship. Her purpose was to provide the men and machines required to keep the fleet in operation, and on December 7, 1941, she was servicing the USS Arizona. She started life as a collier in 1909 but was converted to a repair ship in 1913. Her first commander as a repair ship was the father of submariner Edward Beach. Cassin Young was her commander when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. It could not have been a very glamorous command, but in the peacetime Navy between wars, an officer was probably lucky to command anything. Still, I can’t imagine it was what Cmdr. Young, at 47 years old and and with 25 years in the Navy, had in mind near the end of his career. Pearl Harbor was going to change that.

Cmdr. Young re-boarded his ship and ordered her to get underway. He then conned his damaged vessel to shallow water where salvage and repair would be easier. It also got him away from the bomb magnet that was the USS Arizona.

His action that day was to earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor. But more importantly, it may have had a greater impact on the war than you would first expect for a lowly repair ship. The Vestal was repaired and went on to service in the Pacific providing rapid repair services to the fighting fleet.

Cmdr. Young was promoted to Captain and given command of the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA-38). He was killed during the Battle of Guadalcanal on 13 November 1942 while commanding this ship. This was also the same battle where the Sullivan Brothers were lost off the USS Juneau (CL-52).

It is tradition in the Navy to name destroyers after people. The Navy named the USS Cassin Young (DD-793) after him. This ship is currently moored at Boston Navy Yard as a museum ship.

Dad served on this ship during the late 30's. She showed up during a read about the sinking of the SS-51 in 1925. Vestal salvaged the sub, which at that time had to have been a major feat. With a little more research I uncovered her entire history. I often think about this little ship whenever I feel that things are getting a little too boring or routine. You never know what will happen tomorrow or how you can affect the outcome.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Water, Water.....

Over at The Sandbox, I posted about Dubai's pending water problems. That got me thinking about a trip I made to Singapore. I was on a tour and to kill the time during the drive the guide was talking about Singapore's water supply. As you would expect, Singapore has water supply issues. Rainfall does not meet demands. There are two 48 inch pipelines from Malaysia that supply water, but as the supply agreements are due to expire soon and Malaysia is still unhappy about Singapore's separation and independence, the powers that be thought it best to move Singapore towards water independence. Therefore, every drop of water that passes through Singaporean kidneys is recycled. Sewage isn't just cleaned up for disposal. It is recycled all the way back to potable quality and pumped back into the reservoirs. So, if you are ever in Singapore, the water in your glass is pre-owned.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Last Submarine

6 May, 1945

Helmut Frommsdorf was not having a good day. He had been in command in his Type IXC/40 U-boat, the U-583, for 7 months. He had been on patrol for 72 days, having left Norway on 23 February 1945. He had only 2 ships to his credit and sinking the last one, the SS Black Point, had called the wolves down on his head. He was being depth charged by four ships, the USS Ericsson (DD-440), the USS Amick (DE-168), the USS Atherton (DE-169) and the US Coast Guard’s USS Moberly (PF-63) In addition to these four ships, two blimps, the K-16 and K-58 out of Lakehurst, NJ assisted the ships and were the eyes in the sky marking oil slicks and other suspicious spots. Caught in shallow water near Point Judith, RI, he was depth charged for 16 hours. The depth charging continued until debris, including Helmut’s cap, was recovered on the surface. His submarine was to be the last one sunk off the US coast. There were no survivors.

Helmut was a 24 year old Oberleutnant Sur Zee (senior lieutenant) on his first real combat patrol of his first real command. His previous submarine patrols were short, lasting less than a week and there had been only 2 of them prior to taking U-853 across the Atlantic. When he left on patrol in February 1945, he must have known that the war was not going well for Germany and he must have known that U boat losses had become very high in the past two years. But he may have maintained an attitude of hopeful optimism and the idea that the U boats could turn the tide of the war. In short, he was a newly minted junior officer on his first command who probably wanted to make a name for himself and didn’t have the world experience to see the reality of the times. It will never be known if he ever received Karl Donitz’s orders on 5 May 1945 for all U-boats to cease combat operations and Return to Base or if he ignored it. The fact that the crew’s nickname for their boat, “The Tightrope Walker”, may give a clue as to the personality of Captain Fromsdorf.

The US Navy ships involved had just returned from Atlantic escort duty from Oran, Algeria and were headed home to Boston. I imagine that everyone was looking forward to liberty. They must have known that the war with Germany had ended the day before and spirits were probably high. In fact, Cdr. Francis McCune, captain of the USS Ericsson had issued a challenge to the other captains to race him to the Cape Cod Canal. While in the canal, they got word about the sinking and were ordered to turn around and go hunting. I can only imagine the captain’s state of mind when one minute he was looking forward to seeing his wife for dinner and the next, ordered to put his ship in harms way against a known submarine threat that had shown no indication of surrender.

The hunt was on. On one side was a cohesive team familiar with operating together and had the latest in sub hunting technology and anti-submarine weapons. On the other was a single submarine captained by an inexperienced officer in shallow water. Captain Fromsdorf’s strategy was to sit on the bottom and try to hide rather than make a high speed run for deep water. It turned out to be his undoing. A submarine could no longer play possum in 130 feet of water. He was found and pounded. Lewis Iselin, Captain of the USS Atherton later said, “There was no doubt that by this time we knew we had it but it seemed everyone wanted to get into the act. I don't think there is a hull that took a bigger beating during the war."

Dad was a plank owner on the Ericsson. Plank owners are the guys who are on the commissioning crew. The Navy called him back into active duty when the war started, made him a Chief Machinists Mate and put him on the Ericsson. I asked him once about this battle. He told me that his post was in the engine room and that they knew nothing about what was going on topside. He knew they were dropping depth charges but they were too busy answering engine orders.

The U-853 is now a popular dive spot, but at a depth of 130 feet, is one best left to experienced divers.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Don't Leave Home Without It

There is one thing I always make sure is in my bag before I head to the airport. It may seem a trivial thing, but I simply must have a bottle of Baumer Food's Crystal Hot Sauce with me. While Tabasco is now almost universally available around the world, Crystal Sauce is not nearly as available and I can't count on it being available. When in third world countries where the food is described as basic at best, that bottle of Crystal is a lifesaver. I add it everything and anything.

Why Crystal you ask? Well, Crystal Sauce is made from cayenne peppers instead of tabasco peppers. It is not as hot as tabasco, even though they are rated the same on the Scoville Scale. Crystal adds more flavor than heat.

Baumer Foods is a New Orleans institution. Their trademark sign was always a feature above the Pontchartrain Expressway as you drove to the airport. It used to have steam emanating from the pot. Sadly, Katrina put an end to it. They produce over 3 million gallons of the hot stuff a year. For the oilfield hands, that a 200 barrel a day well of hot sauce. After Katrina, Baumer moved the plant out of New Orleans and upriver to Reserve, Louisiana to prevent it from flooding in future hurricanes.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Shooting Skeet in the Emirates

Last year, I had an assignment troubleshooting a fast track project being built in Dubai. The project wasn't all that complicated and I found I had to fill my weekends with extracurricular activities. After riding 4 wheelers in the dunes and abras on the Creek, there wasn't much left to occupy my free time. After all, how much time can you spend shopping in designer malls? Then I discovered skeet shooting. While I was pretty fair with a rifle and a handgun, I had never shot at things flying in the air. It seems the Jebel Ali resort, which was about 5 minutes from my construction trailer office, has a world class skeet and trap range. A member of the royal family, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Hashar Al Maktoum, won Olympic Gold in double trap shooting and he trains here. Hell, they probably built it just so he could train for the Olympics. I found that shooting a couple of boxes of 12 gauge bird shot was a great way to burn off the frustrations of the day. They provided a nice Beretta over/under shotgun and a "gun walla".

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mont St Michel, Dead Germans and Calvados

My wife woke up with the start of a bad cold. However, she was game to visit Mont St. Michel. I stopped on the way at a small town pharmacy and used my guidebook French to ask for cold medicine. The very helpful druggist asked several questions concerning Tana’s general health and then recommended a cough medicine/expectorant. Chalk up yet another positive encounter with the French.

We had been warned that traffic would be heavy and it was. After creeping along for about an hour we finally got to the end of the causeway to Mont St. Michel. It looked like we would be treated to about another hour in traffic followed by a search for a parking space. As it was lunch time, we decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant with a view of the monastery and call it a day.

Upon leaving, we saw signs to the German Cemetery. My wife decided she wanted to see what a German cemetery in France looked like. We had seen the British and American, so it was time to see the German. It turned out it was a large circular mausoleum made of dark stone holding 12,000 Germans. It was dark, ominous and depressing. The soldiers are buried above ground (My wife claims it was done like that so no German would rest in French soil), eight to a crypt. There were only a few visitors to this cemetery.

We also saw a sign pointing to another American Cemetery, so we followed it to the lesser known cemetery in Brittany. This is a smaller cemetery with about 4,400 graves.

With my wife feeling under the weather, we headed back early but first I had to stop at a roadside stand and buy some cider. Cider in France is fermented. It is NOT the bottled apple juice Americans are used to. They then take the fermented cider and distill it to make Calvados. (As a child, we used to leave cider that had "gone off" outside in the cold. The liquid that didn't freeze was called "Apple Jack" and was mostly alcohol) It so happened that the proprietor had a still and was giving away free samples of Calvados fresh from the condenser. Almost anyone in France is allowed to distill for personal use. Sometimes the French have some damn good ideas.