Archive for the ‘And now for something completely different…’ Category

100 Years Ago Today: USS E-2 explodes in drydock

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jan 15 2016

Early in submarine history, submarines were more of working laboratories than anything else.  The men manning these boats were constantly working at the bleeding edge of science, and deadly consequences occurred with no enemy other than the basic forces of nature and chemistry.

Case in Point: the USS E-2

The e-2 on Navy Review on October 1912, three years before the explosion. So4urce, US Navy, via

The E-2 on Navy Review on October 1912, four years before the explosion. So4urce, US Navy, via


Originally named “Sturgeon” while under construction, the re-named “E-2” was commissioned on 14 February 1912, just eight weeks before the  great technical nautical wonder, the Titanic, would set sail on her maiden and final voyage.

She served for a number of years, patrolling around the New England coast, then Guantanamo Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Like most submarines, E-2 was an engine/battery submarine.  While on the surface she would run on her diesel engines (E-2 was one of the first to run on diesel, rather than the more unstable/explosive gasoline engines) and these engines would charge her batteries.  Unlike the engines, the batteries, producing no fumes and needing no oxygen, would run the submarine’s systems while underwater.  When the batteries ran out, the sub had to surface.

The trouble with these wet-cell batteries, however appeared frequently and caused some limitations in maneuvering. Submarines could only dive and surface at less than a fifteen-degree angle or the batteries would have trouble.  Any salt water at all hitting the batteries would cause deadly chlorine gas to form, asphyxiating the crew or even causing an explosion.

In fact, the first sub fatality in the American Navy, the F-4, in 1915, was partially caused by a corroded battery case, leading to a loss of control, and implosion during a dive.

These issues lead American Inventor, Thomas Edison, (yup, same Edison as in light bulbs and Nikolai Tesla’s rival ) as Chairman of the Naval Advisory Board,  to invent a new battery that would be more stable, less prone to the angles of a submarine’s dives and ascents, and eliminate the chlorine gas.  After five years of work, he believed he had a stable working model, which was photographed and proclaimed from this Washington Herald newspaper from October 1915 feature section:

Edison and Battery

Based on a nickel-potash solution, the battery could not produce chlorine gas, nor should it be unstable if doused with seawater for any reason[1].  Lighter, stronger, it could potentially allow submarines to maneuver at up to a sixty-degree pitch, allowing for faster, tighter, maneuvering.  Even more importantly, it could be charged within one hour, allowing submarines to remain hidden longer in enemy waters.[2] With WWI already in full swing, and the US likely heading to war, the possibility for greater flexibility and safety combined was enticing, even if the Edison battery was nearly three times as expensive as the current lead-acid batteries.

By this time, the E-2, the selected test submarine, already had two 400-cell Edison batteries installed,[3]  and was undergoing dock-side tests, charging and discharging her batteries under carefully controlled conditions.  [4]

Earlier Scare

E-2 already had one battery “incident” in her history. Thirteen months earlier, in September 1914, the E-2 was fifty feet underwater when, unbeknownst to the crew, the lead acid of the battery chewed through the battery tanks and into the seawater ballast tanks. Ensign Edward Gillam, E-2’s Commanding Officer, detected the feared chlorine gas leaking from the battery compartment, and drove the sub to the surface, using her pumps, rather than blowing the ballast tanks (the chlorine gas could have released inside in a cloud if he had, killing his crew).[5]  The crew managed to vent the gas but the brief exposure still injured and incapacitated nearly every one of the nineteen hands aboard[6], forcing the submarine to be towed back to port.  (Later tests would show the acid had deeply pitted the entire battery tank, making this leak an inevitability.  This discovery forced all D and E class subs to port to replace and double-line their battery tanks.)

Gillam’s lungs were badly scarred, and would need a year to recover.  E-2 couldn’t remain sidelined that long, so a new CO, Lt. (j.g.) Charles “Savvy” Cooke, was chosen to replace him.[7]

The Tests and Controversy

On December 7, 1915, the E-2 made her maiden voyage with the new batteries.  The initial test was successful: the batteries “produced better speed on less fuel.”[8] The experiments also proved that the Edison battery generated “nearly double the ordinary amount of hydrogen during the process of charging, but on discharge or while lying idle, gives off much less…observers aboard…reported that while in operation not enough gas was produced to be dangerous.”[9]

But Cooke wasn’t comfortable with the amount of hydrogen gas the batteries produced.  Dangerous as chlorine gas was, you could smell it and react, hopefully in time.  Hydrogen gas is odorless, and could build up with no one knowing.  Cooke requested the Navy’s Bureau of Steam Engineering install hydrogen gas measuring devices in the E-2 as a safety feature.  And was denied.  He suggested installing individual voltage meters for all 800 battery cells to see which ones produced hydrogen gas under certain conditions.  And was turned down. By both the Navy and the Edison Company.  (Miller Hutchinson, chief engineer at Edison’s lab, said they would increase the chances of a short circuit).[10]

More tests would be needed, but the early results were encouraging enough that the Edison Battery would be installed on one of the newest boats, the L-8[11], under construction in Portsmouth.  E-2, along with three other submarines, entered Brooklyn Navy Yard on December 30, 1915.  As a standard safety precaution, all four submarines were stripped of their torpedoes and drained of all fuel, and they were each about fifty feet away from her closest neighbor.

The Explosion

On Saturday morning, January 15, several civilian and Naval personnel went inside the E-2, down to the battery compartment.  New canvas pipes and fans had recently been installed to see if the new ventilation would cool the batteries uniformly, and so, that day, the men were measuring the voltage output and temperature of the batteries over a complete discharge, followed by a seven hour charge.[12]  For this first part at least, no one was expecting any hydrogen gas build up, though the fans and vent pipes were kept running as safety protocols demanded.  At least five men, two Navy sailors and three civilian contractors, were inside the after battery compartment, and another ten worked throughout the vessel on multiple projects.

At 1:16 pm,[13] there was a devastating explosion deep within the E-2. One man, standing the deck hatch, was blown twenty feet into the air, before landing on the drydock floor, thankfully with only minor injuries.  The ladder he had been standing on was also blown sky-high, finally landing 150 feet away.

One of the dozens of headlines from the E-2 disaster

One of the dozens of headlines from the E-2 disaster

E-2 roared, the sound of the explosion rumbling and bouncing around the confined space.  Within the battery compartment, four men, Roy Seaber of Cincinnatti, James Peck, civilian from Brooklyn, John Shultz, civilian from Brooklyn, and Joseph Logan, Civilian from Brooklyn, lay dead, and the man in charge of the discharging procedure, Chief Electrician’s Mate LL Mills, was badly injured.  Another nine men lay too injured to move, forced to breathe the searing gas fumes now surging through the submarine.[14]

From the outside, the E-2 looked was perfectly fine.  The hull designed to withstand the ocean’s pressures from the outside had contained the explosion within, though her internal space was “badly shattered.”[15]  Rescuers coming from the dry dock then discovered a new twist: the watertight hull trapped the gasses inside the sub, forcing would-be rescuers, led by E-2’s Cooke, to don diving helmets while other men tried to pump pressurized air into the E-2, forcing the gas out.

Ambulances and medical personnel were on hand when the first of the injured men were hauled out to the open air.  Many were badly burned.  When the bodies of the men near the battery compartment were finally retrieved, they spoke of the severity of the explosion: all were badly burned, one was missing an appendage, and another was crushed.

Within hours, reporters were clamoring for the reason why. The navy offered one initial suggestion: that the hydrogen gas that the batteries built up when charged, had somehow been ignited by a spark.  However “It is too early to state definitely the cause of the explosion,” Said acting Secretary of the Navy, (and future president) Franklin D. Roosevelt.[16]

Another insert from an E-2 article. New York Times, 16 January 1916

Another insert from an E-2 article. New York Times, 16 January 1916

What Happened?

The batteries, as it turned out, had been discharging, and shouldn’t have been throwing off enough hydrogen to spark anything, much less a massive explosion.  Soon, experts came up with other theories to investigate.

An explosion could have been caused by the diesel-oil engines.  However, there had been no diesel onboard to run the engines, and besides, the engines were still intact.  That couldn’t be the point of origin.


Original E-Boat Schematic from illustrated History of US Submarines, found on Labels and highlights were added by author.

Original E-Boat Schematic from illustrated History of US Submarines, found on Labels and highlights were added by author.


Perhaps a nearby air flask had exploded.  An explosion of an air flask, however, should have blasted metal shards throughout the battery compartment, which hadn’t happened. So that theory was abandoned. [17]

Like the previous diagram, labels and highlights of air flasks relative to battery position on the E-2 were added by the author.

Like the previous diagram, labels and highlights of air flasks relative to battery position on the E-2 were added by the author.


Another option, intentional sabotage, was ruled out by January 17.[18]

So what did happen?

That questions would be tackled by the required Naval Inquiry.  The coroner of Brooklyn also announced a civilian inquiry on behalf of the three dead civilians.

Despite not being on board the E-2 at the time of the explosion, and leading the rescue effort, as CO, Cooke’s career was potentially on the line.  Had he, at any time, though lack of training, lack of requested maintenance, lack of reporting, lack of security, lack of anything, put the E-2, and her crew, and the civilians, at risk?   As CO, he was answerable for each and every incident that damaged his boat or crew, though not necessarily responsible.  Responsibility could only be assigned by investigation.

Cooke needed a defense counsel, and chose a fellow submarine officer: Chester Nimitz, future WWII Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Court Case

Now Hutchinson, who lead the installation and testing of the Edison Batteries on behalf of the Edison Labs,  and Cooke, who’s boat and crew were damaged and killed, were at war, each believing the other’s people or devices had to be the cause of the explosion.  During the inquiry and the many press releases surrounding it, many conflicting statements were made:

  • Hutchinson, inspecting the E-2 the day after the explosion, stated that the batteries were intact and undamaged, proving that the explosion, even if it happened in the same vicinity, had to have come from somewhere else.[19]
  • Naval Lt. C.S. McDowell, stated that he too had inspected the remains of the E-2, and said the after compartment of the Edison batteries “were completely ‘blown up’ [and] the forward batteries also damaged.”[20]
  • Cooke revealed his requests for safety devices, each of which had been turned down. [21]
  • Hutchinson announced that the Edison battery was safe, and as proof, it was currently in use in three “non-German” European submarines, currently waging war in Europe.  One of those unnamed subs had sunk seventeen ships thus far.  This surprised many people, as it was assumed the US Navy would have exclusive rights to the Edison Battery if it passed its tests.[22]

While the investigation continued, a fifth man succumbed to his injuries.  But some of the others, crucially, Chief Electrician’s Make Lewis Miles, were slowly improving.

As soon as the survivors were stable, they started to give testimony.  Five men were able to speak, though from reports, they had to speak through a head-full of bandages, only their eyes and mouths visible.[23]

They were adamant about several points, however

1.)     No one was smoking[24]

2.)     There was a blinding flash, then they were all insensible[25]

3.)     There was no smoking or sparking wires on the E-2 on January 15[26]

The two critical testimonies came from Raymond Otto, a second class electrician’s mate from E-2’s crew, and Chief Electrician Lewis Mills, who had been in the battery compartment when the explosion happened.  Otto, who had been partially blasted through E-2’s hatch, and burned his legs, was able to testify around January 19, but Miles, forever confined to a bed, and whose voice permanently restrained to a whisper, couldn’t testify until early February.[27]

Both men, however, recalled the same unusual thing: four of the Edison Battery cells had depleted their charge, and were bubbling moments before the explosion.  The bubbling was hydrogen gas, being produced as the cells, depleted of their charge, had begun to recharge ahead of the others.  If they had produced enough hydrogen gas to stay ahead of the new ventilation system, a random spark (though from what, no one ever saw) could have, may have, caused the explosion.

By the end of January, the civilian coroner’s jury found that the cause of the civilians’ death was an “explosion of gases.” However, they also “were unable to determine the cause of the gases” [28] Despite testimony from naval and civilian experts, the civilian jury was not able to find any new conclusions regarding what gasses or sparks may or may not have sparked the explosion.

In the end, on the 19th of February 1916, the Naval Court of Inquiry wrapped up, though the results were strangely, not made public after conferences with officers of the Navy and Secretary of the Navy, Josephus  Daniels.[29]  The official conclusion did, however, absolve Charles “Savvy” Cooke from any blame.[30]

The press reported that the “court reached substantially the same decision as the board of investigation appointed by the navy commandant immediately after the accident” most likely buildup of hydrogen gas and a stray spark, though the “spark’s” origin was never discovered.[31]

It remained a mystery what happened the afternoon of January 15.


The Navy decided to pull the Edison batteries from the under-construction L-8 in Portsmouth, but turn the E-2 into a floating laboratory, testing the Edison battery further.

They also pulled Cooke from his boat, reassigning him as an engineering officer on the Receiving Ship USS Salem in Boston.[32]  It was a step down in career, though the worst, for Cooke, was the sleepless nights wondering if he could have saved his crew, somehow.  Four years later, he was in command of a submarine again.  This was the brand new USS S-5, and Cooke would be her first CO.  Six months after S-5’s commissioning, Cooke and his crew would be in the news again, for an incident that nearly killed them all. Quick thinking and luck, however, would save them.  Just watch.

(The whole video is worth watching, but the video is cued to the S-5 story which is only about 2 minutes long.)

Cooke would command ships and submarines throughout the 30’s.  On December 7, 1941, he was CO of the battleship Pennsylvania, in drydock when the Japanese attacked. Pennsylvania would survive, though damaged.  The Cassin and Downes, sitting in front of Pennsylvania, would not be so lucky.

As an Admiral through WWII, Cooke oversaw much of the Pacific and Atlantic wars, including witnessing landings at Normandy. He retired in 1948 .  He died on Christmas Eve, 1970, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  [33]

(His son Charles Cooke Jr. would follow his father into the military, and later, consider it “…a badge of honor to have earned a death threat from [President] Richard Nixon…”.  [34]  )

The E-2 would recover, and spend the next two years near the Navy Yards, testing the Edison and Ironside batteries thoroughly. Some naval records state that as the Edison batteries themselves survived the 15 January explosion, though this may be referring to the forward bank of batteries. The batteries were tested cell by cell to try and find the problem, or the origin of the explosion.  None was ever found.  Probably due to the inability to find the cause of the E-2 explosion, and thus, being unable to guarantee a repeat disaster, the Edison batteries were ultimately rejected and never installed in another American submarine.

USS E-2 was recommissioned in 1918, and served in WWI running anti-U-boat patrols off Cape Hatteras.  None the worse for WWI, and having completed longer patrols than ever before, E-2 was decommissioned on 20 October 1921, and sold for scrap on 19 April 1922.


[1] Hill, A.J. Under Pressure: the Final Voyage of the Submarine S-Five  2002, Free Press, New York, New York.

[2] “Battery Approved by Edison’s Expert” New York Times, January 20, 1916.  From New York Times Digital Archives, Accessed 15 January 2014:


[3] “E-2 Commander Testifies He Warned of Gas Menace: Asked Navy Department for Hydrogen Detector and Battery Charge, but Was Ignored” Chicago Tribune, 20 January 1916, Pg. 4.  Retrieved 15 January 2014 from

[4] Hill, A.J.

[5] “US Submarine Crew Had A Narrow Escape” 7 April 1915, New York Times.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from New York Times Digital Archives:

[6] “Blas Wrecks US Submarine While in Dock” Chicago Sunday Tribune, 16 January 1916, pgs. 1 and 2.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from

[7] Hill, A.J.

[8] “Explosion on Submarine Kill Four: E-2 Wrecked by Internal Blast Which Puzzles Experts; Diver Was Equipped with New Type Edison Safety Batteries” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 16 January 1916, pgs 1 and 15.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from

[9] Fort Wayne; 1916 pg. 15

[10] Hill, A.J.

[11] “Blame Battery Trouble for Explosion on E-2: Navy Board of Inquiry Says Excessive Gas was Generated nad Ignited by Spark” Chicago Tribune, 19 January 1916, Pg 2. Accessed 15 Janauary 2014, from

[12] “Navy Heads Warned of E-2 Months Ago” New York Times, 20 January, 1916, accessed 15 January 2014 from New York Times Archive:

[13] “Naval Board Named to Make Inquiry” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 16 January 1916, pg 15.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from

[14] “E-2 Blowup Due to Gas” Washington Post, 19 January 1916 pg 2.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from

[15] “4 Killed, 10 hurt by and explosion on Submarine E-2” The Atlanta Constitution; 16 January 1916, pgs. 1 and 3.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from

[16] Chicago Tribune, 16 January 1916.

[17] “4 Killed, 10 hurt in E-Boat Explosion: Mysterin in Disaster at New York Navy Yard” Washington Post, 16 January 1916, pgs 1 and 4. Accessed 15 January 2014 from

[18] “Court Named for E-2” Washington Post, 18 January 1916, pg 2.  Retrieved 15 January 2014, from

[19] “Edison Expert Asserts Battery Did Not Explode: Chief Enginner Says There Must Have Been Some Other Cause For Blast,:” Chicago Tribune, 17 January 1916, Pg. 4.  Retrieved 15 January 2014 from

[20] “Crew of the E-2 Showed Bravery” 19 January 1916 pg. 4.  Retrieved 15 January 2014 from

[21] Chicago Tribune , 20 January 1916.

[22] “Foreign Navy Uses Edison Battery Too” New York Times, January 17, 1916.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from New York Times Digital Archive:


[23] “US Submarine Survivors Deny anyone Was Smoking: Five of Crew, Recovering in Hospital Say there was a Blinding Flash—Then Lost Senses” Chicago Daily Tribune, 21 January 1916, Pg. 9. Retrieved 15 Janaury 2014 from

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “Navy Heads Warned of E-2 Months Ago” 20 January 1916, NY Times

[27] “Deny Exposed Lamp was Burning in E-2: Crew of Submarine presents 20 Points why it Should Be Held Blameless: Inquiy Board Held at Hospital—Take Testimony of Electrician Permanetly Injured in Explosion—Hearing Near the End”.  New York Times, 11 February 1916. Accessed  15 January 2014:


[28] “E-2 Blast Due to Gas: Coroner’s Verditct Condemns Authorities in Charge of Boat” Washington Post, 28 January 1916, pg. 2.  Accessed 15 January 2014 from

[29] “E-Boat Blame Unfixed” Washington Post 20 February 1916, pg 2.  Accessed 15 January 1916 from

[30] Hill, A.J.

[31] Ibid.

[32] ibid.

[33]  Wikipedia.  “Charles M. Cooke Jr.” retrieved 15 January 2016

[34] Smith, Chris.  “Open Space Powerhouse Dies” The Press Democrat, 16 December 2008, retrieved from:  15 January 2016

Veteran’s Day–Thank You

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Nov 11 2015

Veteran's Day poster

Today, 97 years ago, the guns fell silent across Europe.  The trenches could be emptied, No Man’s Land begin the process of grassing over, and the thousands of men and women who had left their homes all over the globe could begin the journey home.  For many other thousands, they would remain buried in cemeteries across Europe.  (A tradition begun by America’s over-fascination with war cemeteries, to European minds…then they started to do it to.)

Today, that day, Armistice Day, is celebrated my many countries to commemorate the war dead of all those who fell defending their country.  in England today, many stopped at 11:11 (Or 11 am)  local time to have a moment of silence for the dead.  Special services, wreath layings, and other commemorations will occur across Europe.  The Poppy, a flower commemorated in the now-famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”, is the flower of the war dead.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
–In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae.  In 2014, the Tower of London hosted this installation of ceramic poppies, one for each Commonwealth soldier lost in WWI.  It filled the moat.


But America never joined them.  Fifty years earlier, we’d torn ourselves apart in a conflict now called “The War Between the States” or the “Civil War” (among other names).  As part of the healing process, a “Decoration Day” in late May had been established, to decorate the graves of the fallen, and remember their sacrifice. Later, it was re-named, Memorial Day.  As the Spanish American war, and The Great War (WWI) followed, those dead were also remembered on that day.

So Congress established Veteran’s Day, a day to commemorate and honor all veterans and their service, those who returned, and those who didn’t.  (Though we did, in honor of the end of WWI, establish the Tomb of the Unknown Solider on November 11)

So please, take a moment today, to remember those in your family tree, community, neighborhood, who answered the call.  Remember all those who left their homes to defend them from various enemies.  No matter what conflict, it takes bravery, whether heading to sea, or the front, or donning a nurse’s uniform and heading to a medical unit, or taking to the skies in increasingly experimental airplanes, to leave the comforts of home for the discomforts and strain of war.

War is expensive, in every way possible.  But those who were willing to stand in the gap and go should be thanked and remembered.

If they are willing to talk, ask them about their services.  Remember the stories they are willing to tell.

But above all, thank them. Even if they came home, their service cost them.


Today, I’m remembering:


My grandfather, Al, who serviced in the 903rd HAM unit in North Africa.  His records, like most Army personnel records were destroyed in 1973 in the Nat’l Personnel Records Office Fire.  I’m still having difficulty discovering what all he did.   He never talked.  I wish he had.  But thank you Grandpa, for your service.

My “Grandpa” James Alls, who appears on this blog occasionally.  He served on the Flier which started this blog.  A bar fight he broke up while on Shore Patrol shattered his jaw.  That injury grounded him for Flier’s second, and as it turned out, final patrol.  I love to hear his stories.  Thank you Grandpa Jim, for your service.

My Uncle Jim, who served in the Air Force in the late 1960’s.  Thank you.

My second great-grandfather in law, Wilhelm Bergmann, who served in the 32nd Indiana Infantry during the Civil War, aka “The German Regiment”.  Thank you for being willing to serve a country in turmoil, just a few short months after coming.

My fifth great grandfather, Henry D, who, as a mulatto man, served three enlistments during the Revolutionary War.  Thank you for serving a brand new nation, even after what you’d been through, and what you would go through.  You still made a difference to your hundreds of descendants.

My submarine friends, both active and retired (hence the reason I’m not naming them here), who prowled the seas and still do so today. Thank you for your Silent Service.

A young man who I watched grow up and now serves somewhere in the world on a US ship.  Thank you, “R”.

A young woman who had to retire too quickly due to injuries, and now studies law. Thank You, “C”

An older man who served multiple deployments and still works with veterans and law enforcement.  Thank you, ‘T”

And my husband.  Who insists, as a former Marine Reservist who never had to deploy, he’s uncomfortable with the term, “Veteran”. Still, you were willing to go.  The fact that injuries forced your early retirement too, doesn’t negate the fact that you signed up, trained, and were willing to go. I thank you for that willingness.

And there are so, so many more.  But this blog entry must close.

For those who served, are serving, or will serve, Thank You.


Thank You All, who stood in the gap.

Have a safe and blessed Veteran’s Day.

If you want to leave a story of your time in service, or a story you’ve heard from a veteran, please leave a comment.  Let’s keep these stories alive. (There will be a lag between submission and posting as I have to screen out comment bots from around the world. I’ll clear you as quickly as I can.)





A Revolutionary War Requires a Revolutionary Submarine!

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jul 04 2015

In order to get this done by the 4th I had to forgo the pictures.  I’ll add those soon. For my American readers: Happy Independence Day!  For my international readers, I hope you had a good Saturday!  RJH.

In 1776, the British blockaded New York Harbor. It looked like a forest of trees sprouted just offshore.  The message was clear: nobody in, nobody out, without the King’s men knowing.  New York, and everyone it in, belonged to the crown, and soon everyone else rebelling against the crown’s authority would be forcefully reminded of that fact.

But an audacious plan, with an equally bizzare-looking boat had been hatched. Theflagship of this armada, the Eagle, would be sunk from a timed bomb beneath the water. A new invention, a new weapon, a new method of warfare in what was now, a new country. Many hopes were pinned on the tiny ship, and its new, volunteer pilot. Everything about her, from her construction to her weapon, was invented by one man.

David Bushnell, who wanted to avoid all fame and acclaim for his work.


Bushnell, and his Brother

Born to Connecticut farmers Niamiah and Sarah Bushnell in 1740, David Bushnell was quickly followed by four siblings.  As the oldest, and as was customary at the time, David shouldered a large amount of farm chores as he grew. But David wasn’t the farming type. The boy loved books and machines and any sort of mechanical works he could get his hands on (and probably drove his father crazy taking things apart.)

By all accounts, David was a quiet, introspective, though determined boy. He wanted to go to college, and worked at a shipyard in addition to his family’s farm to make money.

By the time he was 31, he was still at home in Old Saybrook. His father had died five years earlier, followed soon by two of his sisters. His mother remarried, and moved to her new husband’s home, leaving the Bushnell farm to David and his brother Ezra. (I have been unable to find the fate of the fifth sibling, or the names of the sisters. If anyone knows, feel free to contact me or leave a comment!)

David sold his half of the farm to Ezra, and with his savings, finally entered Yale. He was, by far, the oldest freshman there.

At this time, Yale students studied religion, history, natural sciences, mathematics, and a variety of subjects. Bushnell loved science in all its forms, and tried to figure out whether gunpowder could be detonated underwater. The only place to experiment was the school pond—and he apparently terrified a number of onlookers. Shortly after that, he figured out how to create a bomb triggered by a clock, which could be set to blow at a pre-determined time.  The timed bomb had been born.

Bushnell’s senior year was cut short by a little event now called The Battles of Lexington and Concord. While his former classmates enlisted, Bushnell believed he could use his inventions to sink the enemy ships that were continually arriving, if he could invent an underwater delivery device.

An Underwater Turtle

Diving bells, raised and lowered by ropes and winches, were already known. What the Bushnell boys were looking for was a vessel that could raise and sink and move independently.  David’s shipbuilding skills would come in handy, but there were a number of special problems this underwater ship would have that weren’t even touched on the sailing ships David knew!

After all, making a watertight hull was one thing: how to you read depth? And once you invent a depth gauge, how do you make it so you can see it in the dark underwater?

Once David and Ezra figured out how to attach two oars to make a device “that looked like the arms of a windmill” to propel the submarine (one of the first propellers!) , they had to figure out, how do you create water-tight bearings so the man inside can turn it?

How do you get air without opening your hatch? A snorkel complete with self-closing valve that worked to seal the snorkel once submerged.

They decided to use water as ballast, and invented a system of ballast valves and pumps to let water in or out. (Though, according to some records, the “ballast tank” was simply the bottom of the sub, and at times, the ballast splashed around the pilot’s legs as high as his knees! The Atlantic near Connecticut isn’t that warm even in summer!)

They found the depth gauge theorized by a previous inventor actually worked when constructed

The added six small portholes for the pilot’s use—though they still had limited use in the dark or underwater!

They even created an anchor that had a safety feature: if the craft became too heavy, the pilot could sever the anchor’s rope from the inside.  Free of the extra weight, the boat would be buoyant enough to surface.

It was an interesting little craft, all invented to attach a timed gunpowder keg to the hull of a ship.

As the craft looked like two turtle shells glued together,, the Bushnells called the craft “The American Turtle”. By this time, three more men, clockmakers Isaac Doolittle of New Haven and Phineas Pratt of Potapaug (modern Essex) and Dr. Benjamin Gale were in on the construction project. Without the clockmaker’s skills in crafting the machinery, it’s possible the Turtle would have remained forever in Ezra’s shack.

Ben Franklin Provides the Fire

How the Turtle came to the attention of the Continental Army is another story. Turned out, Dr. Gale had a good friend who was coming through the area in October 1775. His name was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin saw the potential of the Turtle, and is, by some accounts, the man who suggested attaching small pieces of a bioluminescent fungi known as foxfire to the various gauges, so you could see them in the dark. (The only problem Bushnell found was the foxfire stopped glowing once they got too cold…like when the Turtle was deep underwater for a long period of time!)

The Turtle was operated by Ezra Bushnell, more muscular and capable of long, hard work. Ezra, thankfully, was also dexterous. With winches and gears in multiple places, a man sometimes had to spin two different winches in opposite directions on two different axis to work the Turtle.

It was now the summer of 1776, and the Declaration of Independence had been officially signed. The colonies were in too deep now—either win, or be condemned as traitors. Under General Howe, Manhattan Island and Long Island were under military control. General Washington decided to try the Turtle to take out Howe’s flagship Eagle.

Turtle was taken overland to the harbor, to avoid the British. Through spy networks, Admiral Howe had already heard about Turtle’s existence, but thought the Turtle was heading to Boston, not New York.  They were not looking for the Turtle in New York’s Waters.

Hopes were high…so you know, things didn’t go smoothly.

The Eagle Mission

The scourge of the the Revolution struck.

Not the British.


Depending on the statistics used, between 50-100% more Continentals were lost to disease than to battle during the Revolution.

Ezra Bushnell came down with a terrible feverish disease, possibly “camp fever” or epidemic Typhoid, and people were not sure he would survive, much less pilot anything. A replacement had to be found.

Bushnell asked General Samuel Parsons, stationed with his men in Brooklyn, for volunteers. He suggested his brother-in-law, Ezra Lee.

Lee trained with the Turtle, and on September 6, took her out for the Eagle mission. In Lee’s words, things didn’t start so well:

“We set off from the City, the Whale boats towed me as nigh the ships as they dare go, and then they cast me off. I soon found that I was too early in the tide, as it carried me down to the [transport] ships. I however, hove about, and rowed for 5 glasses [2½ hours], by the ship’s bells, before the tide slackened so that I could get along side the man of war, which lay above the transports.”

Two and a half hours of treading water just to keep from being swept away…these men were tough.

Once he got alongside the Eagle, Lee discovered Turtle’s drill, that was supposed to help attach the depth charge, couldn’t get through something on Eagle’s hull. Some sources say that it was Eagle’s copper sheathing. Others say she had no such sheathing, but Lee might have accidentally found Eagle’s stern rudder plate.

Of all the rotten luck.

Lee backed up, and tried another section, but now he’d caught the eye of a group of British in a small, rowed boat. They didn’t know what this bizarre thing was, but they didn’t like it. There was no way Lee could outrun the boat, so he took off, releasing the time bomb in his wake. He hoped that, if they took him and the Turtle “..they would likewise pick up the magazine, and then we should all be blown up together…”

The watch didn’t know what that small barrel was, but they didn’t want to tamper with it. They gave it a wide berth, and were no doubt grateful when the timer ended and it blew!

Lee and the Turtle tried to sink another boat on October 5, but it too, was unsuccessful, since the sailors spotted him before he got to his target.  The Turtle was ultimately lost a short time later when the British sank two ships near Fort Lee. One carried wine. The other carried the Turtle.

David Bushnell was not done. He still had his underwater mines, which he called “torpedoes” and decided to set them afloat in strategic areas, using the current to let them drift to enemy ships. He used this technique in 1777 to blow the HMS Cerberus up. The next year, he continued to use the floating mines with enough success that the Royal Navy into ordered all floating wood in the rivers had to be shot at, just to be on the safe side!

During the war, David Bushnell remained with the Continental Army, eventually becoming a Captain.  The National Archives even preserved some of his pay stubs, which just goes to show, no matter how young a military unit it, the first thing they sort out after their founding, is their paperwork!

After the War

Ezra returned home, no one seems to know when.  He died in 1786, three years after the Revolution ended. He married and had children, and tended the family farm.

David Bushnell returned to Connecticut for a short time after the war. His neighbors apparently regarded him with that mixture of hometown pride and quiet laughter over their sadly-slightly-looney-local-mad-scientist.

He went to France, to try and promote submarines like Turtle, but there were no takers. It was still too much ahead of its time. From there, Bushnell disappeared.

During his life and the Revolution, he tried to deflect fame and notoriety as much as he could. Outside of his community, few knew about his unique contributions to the Revolution. The first large, public publicity he had was a speech Thomas Jefferson gave at the Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1798. But Bushnell wasn’t there to hear it. Some said he had been a victim of the French Revolution, now raging in Europe. There were many rumors about his fate, each as true as the next.

Truth, as many a storyteller knows, especially historian-storytellers, is more often than not, stranger than fiction.

The Kindly Doctor…Who?

In 1826, the town of Warrenton Georgia, mourned the passing of old Dr. Bush. He’d been living among them since the late 1790s, and had worked to incorporate the town, worked as a commissioner, founded a school, and practiced medicine. A confirmed bachelor, he was quiet, kind, unassuming, and well respected by the whole town. He had no family anyone knew of, so his friends were very interested in Dr. Bush’s will to see how they should break up his estate.

That’s when Dr. Bush sprang the best surprise of his life. He revealed in his will his birth name: David Bushnell of Connecticut. The well known inventor had lived among them for decades with no one the wiser. Dr Bush(nell) was leaving most of his estate to his late brother Ezra’s children. Among his belongings that were packed up and taken north were drawings and, according to some accounts, prototypes for a strange wooden invention.


Bushnell’s Connecticut farm still exists and is a National Landmark.  It sits in modern Westbrook, Connecticut, next to modern Saybrook.

A full-size replica of his Turtle is on display at thee Connecticut River Museum in Essex Connecticut, The Submarine Force Library and Museum on Groton Connecticut, and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, UK (At least the Brits are good sports about that whole Turtle thing 250+ years on!)

Due to his inventions like the propeller, the ballast pumping system and other innovations, today, Bushnell, the man who did not want acclaim for anything he invented, is known as the Father of Submarine Warfare.


Revolutionary War Statistics:

Normandy Invasion and the Cemetery

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 05 2015

Last year, I wrote this article about the invasion of Normandy, what went according to plan (some things) and what didn’t (most things). Quite honestly, if it hadn’t been for the dogged courage and sheer numbers of Allies that just kept running up that relatively-undefended beach, WWII might have gone on for much, much longer, or even ended differently.


Painted by military artist Joseph Gary Sheahan, 1944.

“Omaha”  Painted by military artist Joseph Gary Sheahan, 1944.  As usual with any image on this blog, click to see it at full resolution.

But no matter what, no matter how well the plan went, everyone involved knew that there would a a high cost in life. Even there, things did not always go as planned.  But how cemeteries like Normandy came about, had a long history, stretching back centuries.

What to do with the Battle Dead

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, in America and Europe, the battle dead were often buried near the battlefield, with little to no marker listing even a name. Most often, these graves were communal, so while you may know where your loved one was buried, he would not even have his own grave.

Taken from a 1905 archaeological excavation from the Battle of Visby.  The battle took place in 1361 on Gotland Island, Sweden.  These five mass graves are unusual as they were buried pell-mell while still wearing their expensive armor.   In most medieveal battles, bodies were stripped of their armor and weaponry before burial, but in this case, it appears that in the hot weather, 2,000+ bodies were more than the survivors or locals could strip before decomposition set in too they were buried wearing all their battle armor.  A tragedy in the 14th century is now a grisly archaeological treasure.  Photo Source: Wikipedia.

Taken from a 1905 archaeological excavation from the Battle of Visby. The battle took place in 1361 on Gotland Island, Sweden. These five mass graves are unusual as they were buried pell-mell while still wearing their expensive armor. In most medieveal battles, bodies were stripped of their armor and weaponry before burial, but in this case, it appears that in the hot weather, 2,000+ bodies were more than the survivors or locals could strip before decomposition set in too far…so they were buried wearing all their battle armor. A tragedy in the 14th century is now a grisly archaeological treasure. Photo Source: Wikipedia.

Only the most influential would be able to have their remains shipped home for a warrior’s funeral (and even then, the corpse would be pickled in a barrel, hello Admiral Nelson!)

In the American Colonies/United States, the dead were buried more or less where they fell. My own fifth-great-grandfather, a man named Henry Dorton (later Dalton), narrowly missed being killed in a 1777 battle/incident now known as “Foreman’s Massacre”. The 22 dead in that incident were left for 24-48 hours until Dorton and those who didn’t die were able to lead others back to the area. The men were buried in a communal, unmarked grave until 1835, when the grave was marked. It wasn’t until 98 years after their deaths that the men were disinterred and moved to a cemetery, again, in a communal grave.

Another example of this mass battlefield burials (or non-burials) in Europe comes from the pen of  Louisa Adams,  First Lady of President John Quincy Adams.  In 1815, however, that was still in her future as she and her son traveled from St Petersburg Russia to Paris, where her husband was now stationed as a diplomat.  During the carriage ride, they had tried to avoid the battlefields and carnage stills strewn across Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s first series of wars.  But they failed.

“About a mile before we entered the town [of Hanau] I had observed a number of mounds like graves with crosses at their feet, in the ditches on the sides of the roads–we entered on a wide extended plain, over which was scattered remnants of clothes; old boots in pieces, and an immense quantity of bones laying in this ploughed field…this was the field of battle in which the Bavarians had intercepted the retreat of Napoleon, and that in this plain ten thousand men had been slain.  Conceive my horror at the sight of such a butchery!”  

The Battle of Hanau, painted by Vernet.  It currently hangs in the National Gallery in London.

The Battle of Hanau, painted by Vernet. It currently hangs in the National Gallery in London.  The road Louisa and her son passed over is likely in the background, heading to the town in the far back on the left.

Louisa was seeing the results of the Battle of Hanau, which had taken place sixteen months earlier.  Obviously, many of the approximately 13,500 dead from that “minor” battle were still visible over a year later.   It didn’t help that, while Louisa and her son traveled across Europe, Napoleon escaped Elba to start the wars again!

Some of these mass graves still come to light even centuries later.  Another Naopleonic-war mass grave was found in 2001 in Lithuania, for example.


The Civil War

Fifty years after Louisa, the Civil War in the United States changed many things in the nation, and the disposition of the war dead was one of them.

For one thing, it was now the Victorian Age. Not that Victoria had anything to do with it directly (at least, not until her beloved Prince Albert died in December 1861, when she turned death and mourning into an intricate art form) but both the British and American cultures had embraced an ideal of “dying a good death”. That is, dying surrounded by family, saying last words, being buried with dignity and grace.

But in the melee of the North verses the South, where Industrial Age Weaponry met traditional battle tactics, the sheer number of bodies that were left behind was far more than even the most hardened war veteran had conceived.  Bodies could be left open to the elements for days. Letters were written of the horror of seeing men, friends and family, laughing and living just days before, now being eaten by wildlife, exposed to the wilderness with no provision for death, burial, or proper remembrance.  The advent of photography on a scale that allowed the aftermath of battles to be photographed in detail also brought home the magnitude of the problem.  (For more on this topic, I recommend watching Ken Burn’s fascinating Death and the Civil War documentary. It’s usually available through PBS.)

As the months stretched into years, small feats of humanity were often the least that could be done for the dead and dying.

So many nameless men come down to us, speechless and dying, that now we write the names and regiments of the bad cases and fasten them to their clothing, so that if they are speechless when they reach other hands, they may not die like dogs, and be buried in nameless graves, and remain forever missing to their friends.” -Katherine Wormeley, civilian volunteer, US Sanitary Commission, and author of The other side of war: with the Army of the Potomac

Still, things were often impossible. The winners would bury their dead with as much dignity and identification as possible, but the enemy dead on the same battlefield would be left exposed, or thrown into a communal grave with no name recorded (in part because the other side would not have the records of who these men were).

A mass of dead after the Battle of Antietam.  I do not know if this is a prepratory mass grave, or where the dead laid after the battle. (If you know the story of this photos, please comment!)   But it was images like this that brought home the horror of war and the desire to have cemeteries, not matter how far from home, that gave a dignified resting place for the soldiers fighting.  Brady photograph.

A mass of dead after the Battle of Antietam. I do not know if this is a prepratory mass grave, or where the dead laid after the battle. (If you know the story of this photos, please comment!) But it was images like this that brought home the horror of war and the desire to have cemeteries, not matter how far from home, that gave a dignified resting place for the soldiers fighting. Brady photograph.

People who expected to lay their families to rest in family graveyards now faced the possibility that their men, who had marched off to defend their way of life, could be buried in a graveyard far from home, be buried in a mass grave with no marker, or worse, be forgotten and left to decay and be scavenged.  The government who called these men up and asked them to fight should, at the very least, people said, make sure that for those who fought for their country, at least had a decent burial in consecrated ground.  And so, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln established the first National Cemeteries, owned and operated by the Federal Government, not churches or localities.  After the war ended, the temporary battlefield dead were exhumed, identified if possible, and re-interred with dignity beneath a single marker.

World War I

Fighting abroad didn’t change this policy.  After WWI, the Americans created twenty-two cemeteries and memorials for their 70.000 war dead. The British, who had not anticipated the sheer numbers of dead modern war could create (the Americans had the “advantage” of the lessons of the Civil War), started WWI with no means of sorting, recording or identifying their dead at all.  For them, battlefield burials had been traditional mass graves near the battlefield or in the nearest cemetery, with little to no identification. Such burials were the norm for the “business” of war in Europe for a number of centuries.

This ended with the establishment of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission under the guidance of Sir Fabian Ware.

The WWI memorials, mostly in France and Belgium, spent years gathering, identifying, and repatriating or burying the dead of WWI.

Sadly, some of the WWI memorials were finished and dedicated as late as 1937, when it was all but certain the “Great War to End All Wars” wouldn’t be.



Battle troops don’t carry coffins, or the means to bury the dead as a part of their primary duties. That was left to the Quartermasters, who also handled supplies. Thankfully, by WWII, military men carried “dog tags” on their person—a set of two. One tag remained with the dead, the second to go with the commanding officer, or burial detail. (Dog tags of various sorts were homemade during the Civil War, then manufactured by entrepreneurs for private purchase.  They became mandatory for the military in 1906 in the USA, were used by the Commonwealth from the beginning of WWI, and used by the Prussians as far back as the 1870s!)  This made tracking and naming the dead in both records and cemeteries much easier and more accurate.

So on June 6, 1944, as men landed on Normandy, the 604th Quartermasters were already assigned to land the next day, to take on the monumental task of burying the dead.

In the aftermath of the Omaha and Utah beach landings, the dead that could be located had been hurriedly buried by departing battle troops, often without the mattress cover to be used as a shroud. The arriving  Quartermasters were assigned to use land already selected near the towns of Cricqueville-en-Bessin and Sainte-Honorine des Pertes, but those towns still remained in enemy hands much longer than anticipated as the re-invasions slogged forward.

So the 604th Quartermasters continued to use the Omaha Beach cemetery.   As the battle troops drove deeper into France, then Belgium, then Germany, the 604th followed, burying men and recording names as they went.

This temporary cemetery would develop into the Normandy American Cemetery.  You can see just how close the cemetery was originally placed to the beach.  Taken 23 April, 1946, just after the war, and before any graves were moved or repatriated.  Photo Source:

This temporary cemetery would develop into the Normandy American Cemetery. You can see just how close the cemetery was originally placed to the beach. Taken 23 April, 1946, just after the war, and before any graves were moved or repatriated. Photo Source:

Following the war, with the heroic touchstone that Normandy proved to be, the decision was made to make Normandy one of two permanent WWII cemeteries in France.

To start with, each burial already in the temporary cemetery had to be exhumed, and families asked whether or not they wanted their loved one to remain in France, or be returned to a cemetery of the family’s choice.  In addition, there were single graves or small groups of graves buried with honor in village cemeteries all over France, where the local people had taken it upon themselves to bury airmen, paratroopers, escaped POWs, when they died in their locations.  These graves were often elaborately decorated with flowers and other remembrance tokens of the local French, who honored those who were fighting to re-take France from the Nazis.

Records differ, but between 60-66% of the American dead were returned home, those that remained in France were collected into the Normandy Cemetery and the Brittany American Cemetery.

In Normandy, the lawns of graves include the Garden of the Missing, for those who had been lost at sea, or whose remains had never been found in far-flung individual graves. Today, Rosettes are added to the wall if remains come to light and are identified. Just in front of the Garden, soars a 22-foot tall bronze statue: The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.

A chapel for prayer and reflection sits in the center of the cemetery.

Normandy American Cemetery was dedicated in 1957.  It covers over 172 acres, and still overlooks Omaha Beach, though it is now surrounded by a security wall.  The land it sits on has been gifted, in perpetuity, to the United States, which maintains the cemetery. Among the 9,387 graves include four women,  a father and son, and thirty-three sets of brothers.   One of these sets of brothers were the sons of American President Theodore Roosevelt.  Theodore Roosevelt Jr died of heart attack in July 1945, after helping lead the conquest of Utah Beach.  As he was to be buried in Normandy, his younger brother Quentin Roosevelt, who had died fighting WWI and was buried in a French graveyard, was exhumed and laid to rest beside him.  Quentin is the only WWI soldier to rest in Normandy Cemetery.

It is the most visited of the American Battle Monuments cemeteries.

Today, the dead are returned as part of war. Due to the constantly shifting battle lines of Korea, the dead were often shipped with the wounded to the closest MASH or secure unit to be sent home, rather than buried in foreign soil, which could then be re-taken by the enemy and desecrated or lost.  This is the pattern that is currently followed by the US Military.   There will, in most likelihood, but no more international cemeteries for American military.

But a little, shore-side temporary cemetery, begun in haste as the battle moved forward and left the shore behind, became one of the most famous cemeteries in America’s history.

The Normandy American Cemetery today.  Wikipedia.

The Normandy American Cemetery today. Wikipedia.



[1] A former intern of mine who went on to work at Fredricksburg and Spotsylvania, said that these mass graves still come to light from time to time.

[2] And again, sometimes these identities can be restored years later. In the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” actor Matthew Broderick discovered an ancestor, Robert Martindale, died in the battle of Peachtree Creek, but his remains had not been identified when they were re=interred in the Marietta National Cemetery. That identity was restored through paperwork alone…with the advances in DNA testing, more names can be restored in the future. Watch the exhumation of the Pearl Harbor dead as ithappens this year.

A Time to Remember…Memorial Day

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
May 23 2015
The Manila Cemetery, where the American War dead of the Pacific rest, and where those lost and not recovered are remembered on the "Tablets of the Missing"

The Manila Cemetery, where the American War dead of the Pacific rest, and where those lost and not recovered are remembered on the “Tablets of the Missing”


As we pause for a few moments this weekend to remember those who laid down their private civilian lives to take up arms, then never came home, let’s remember…

Each of those men and women had parents.

Some had siblings.

Some had spouses or fiances or other loved ones

Some had children.

Some had aunts and uncles and cousins.





Brothers and sisters in arms.



The truth is, the cost of war is higher than gold and blood. It can also be counted in the lives of those who receive that dreaded letter, or telegraph, or personal call at any hour of the day or night.

“We’re sorry to inform you…”

One life is over, and another life must begin living with a memory where a loved one once had been.

If the cost is so high, why pay it?

This temporary cemetery would develop into the Normandy American Cemetery.  You can see just how close the cemetery was originally placed to the beach.  Taken 23 April, 1946, just after the war, and before any graves were moved or repatriated.  Photo Source:

This temporary cemetery would develop into the Normandy American Cemetery. You can see just how close the cemetery was originally placed to the beach. Taken 23 April, 1946, just after the war, and before any graves were moved or repatriated. Photo Source:

Because of the value of freedom.

As a historian, I’ve read so many accounts from all over the world and time from different people. The freedom to become something that isn’t dictated by the status of your parents, or your “class” or what you look like, or where you live is so amazingly unusual.

And the ability to do that, to be free to become something radically different from where you started, no matter where, is worth protecting.  So much so, that men and women still voluntarily chose to give up their civilian freedom to become a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Coast Guardsman, or Marine.



As a country, we’re imperfect, because we’re made of imperfect people.

Thankfully, courage doesn’t rely on perfection.

Neither does love.

And neither does gratitude.

Freedom can get snuffed out in a generation, or even through an action, or inaction. Over the years of our history,  this country has put freedom to be who we can be as individuals living together to test after test. Those tests have stretched us, changed us, molded us, and even once, tore us apart.



One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States of America became divided. Over the next four years, the process of war killed more Americans than the previous wars.

The losses cut across state lines.

Class lines.

Racial lines.

Ethnic lines.

The losses were so staggering there was hardly a family who did not have a memory of a life cut short haunting them.


In the aftermath, there was one thing that unified nearly all American no matter where they came from or what they looked like:




It was a Reconstruction that was riddled with imperfections and even yes, injustices, but together we started with the one thing we could agree on: honoring our war dead as we had to move forward with only their memories.

Sometimes, in the safety and plenty here, we can forget it can vanish. We can forget that our freedom requires vigilance. It requires, at times, those who are willing to leave their homes and comforts behind and embrace the hardships of war. And some of those who make the sacrifice, sacrifice all.

And those left behind must rebuild.


Memorial Day used to be May 30, a day chosen, as the story goes, because all over the USA, flowers would be in bloom, allowing those who could, to honor their lost family members by decorating their graves, or their stones commemorating a lost grave, somewhere out there.


It turned into a three-day weekend in 1971, and unofficially became the start of summer.

But Memorial Day, born out of loss, was always meant to do three things:

  • Honor those who sacrificed all so we can live free.
  • Comfort those who continue to live and grow with memories where once there was a loved one.
  • Remind ourselves, and be grateful for the freedom we live under. Freedom that, at times, does require courageous people to choose hardship of war, or potential war, over comfort of home so that others will not have the war arrive at home.

Is it a time that we will gather with friends and family? Sure.

Is it a time we will open our grills and pools and laugh and enjoy some extra time together? Sure.

I don’t think any veteran would begrudge that. It’s part of what they chose to fight to protect.


For a moment, sometime this weekend, might I ask that we all pause and remember that freedom was hard to win, it’s difficult to maintain, and it’s impossible to guarantee without remembering how we got it in the first place, and what it cost on so many levels.

In 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act, signed by President Clinton, encourages all Americans to pause at 3p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in the service of our nation.

As a historian, may I also encourage you that if you know a veteran, and they are willing to talk about those who never made it home, ask for their stories, to keep these men and women alive.  It doesn’t have to be the story of how they didn’t return, but rather, who they were while they served together.

They deserve to be remembered.  And we, those of us who remain in our freedom in part because of them, need to remember, and remember to be grateful. Whatever our flaws as individuals, communities, and a nation, we still strive to preserve our freedom for ourselves, and our children.

The Razor’s Edge: the Most Dangerous U-Boat of WWII

And now for something completely different..., Lost Submarines of the World | Posted by Rebekah
May 18 2015

May 8, 1945: Victory over Europe Day. The day the German military laid down their arms and surrendered to the closest assigned base, or port.

Eleven days later the final German submarine surrendered.

Rare color photo (the Navy actually took a number of color photos and film during WWII, but a lot has since gone missing.)

Rare color photo (the Navy actually took a number of color photos and film during WWII, but a lot has since gone missing.) of the U-234’s surrender.  US Navy Photo


She was the largest U-boat left in Germany’s arsenal, and carried a number of high-profile passengers. The media went crazy over the Luftwaffe officers processing down the gangplank in their smart leather overcoats and visible medals.  Unlike previous surrendered submarines, no one was permitted to speak with these Germans on pain of death.  Still, the images made for great newsreels, and this was the fourth U-boat in port anyway.  The media was more than happy to take photos and footage and leave the interrogating to the professionals.

That frenzy covered the truly deeper, more terrifying story of what the U-boat had been doing, and what she was carrying when Germany surrendered.

Yanagi: The Secret Submarine Highway

Unknown to many people then (and even now), Japan and Germany had a submarine highway between their two countries. U-Boats and Japanese submarines would transit between each country by rounding the Horn of Africa and crossing the Indian Ocean[1].

Before the war, exchanges took place openly using cargo vessels. Then, parties resorted to the Trans-Siberian railroad across technically-neutral Russia[2]. That ended after the Nazis invaded in June 1941 and discovered Russians were no pushovers. The final resort, submarines, began making the trek. Soon, blueprints for U-Boats, Jet Engines, Enigma Machines, blueprints for Japanese weapons, experts in a variety of fields, even critical rare supplies, slinked around Africa, back and forth.

Many of these long-haul trips ended in disaster, with the submarines more often than not getting sunk on either the German or Japanese ends of the voyage by Allied submarines. Still, the transport continued.

And this is where the U-234 comes in. Originally a large minelaying submarine, the 234 was refitted in late 1944 as a Japanese-transport submarine. Her mineshafts were refitted into cargo holds, and she was fitted with a snorkel so she would not have to surface as she crept past the British Isles and out to the open sea.

By the time U-234 sailed on April 15, 1945, Germany was in a desperate state. It’s likely that U-234 was Germany’s last gasp to assist the only remaining ally standing against the Allies.

Dangerous Cargo

Besides carrying 6-9 months of fuel and provisions, U-234’s cargo included

  • The jet aboard the U-234.  You can clearly see the Swastika on the tail.

    The jet aboard the U-234. You can clearly see the Swastika on the tail.

  • An Me262 plane, disassembled and crated.  (This was the world’s first operational jet, see at right.  By some accounts, there were two aboard.)
  • Components for the V-2 Rocket/Missile
  • A Henschel glide Bomb,
  • new electric torpedoes (that did not leave a wake or warning when fired)
  • 26 tons of Mercury
  • 7 tons of optical glass
  • 74 tons of lead
  • technical blueprints and plans of various weapons (according to some accounts, this was not just a few drawings, but 6,615 POUNDS worth of such drawings), [3]
  • Over 1 ton of mail for various German diplomats, technicians and experts already working in Japan.
  • and a number of sealed barrels, weighing in at 1,200 pounds.


The High-Profile Passenger List: Possibly even more dangerous than the cargo.

  • Lufwaffe General Ulrich Kessler, to be assigned to Tokyo as an Airforce Attache, helping the Japanese create and train a jet-squadron using the crated craft and drawings on 234.
  • Oberleutnant (1st) Erich Menzel of the Luftwaffe. Attache to Kessler, Menzel was a skilled navigator and bombardier, with combat experience against British, American and Russian troops. and Lietenant of the Luftwaffe.
  • Colonel Sandrattz von Sandrart, of the Luftwaffe. Anti-aircraft Specialist, who was assigned to boost Japan’s defense systems against the constant bomber attacks.
  • Colonel Kay Neishling of the Luftwaffe; Naval Judical and investigative officer was heading to Japan to evict spies out of the German diplomatic corps.
  • Fregattenkapitan (Lt. Cmdr.) Gerhard Falcke; fluent in Japanese, was an architect and construction engineer who was to oversee building the new factories for jets and ships.
  • Kptlt (Lt. Cmdr) Richard Bulla. A former crewmate to 234’s captain, Bulla’s expertise lay in new armaments and weapons, and the latest in carrier aviation
  • Oberleutnant (Lt.) Heinrich Hellendoorn, an artillery officer, was to serve as Germany’s observer
  • Franz Ruf, civilian, industrial machinery specialist tasked with designing aircraft complenets and other small devices.
  • August Bringinwald, civilian, who helped oversee the jet’s production, and was to do the same in Japan.
  • Heinz Schliege, civilian scientist: a Radar, Infared and countermeasures specialist, his mission was the help the Japan manufacture many of the smaller devices depicted in the blueprints. He was also the custodian of the blueprints, and ordered to destroy them then kill himself if 234 was captured

Two Japanese Naval Officers,

  • Cmdr. Hidero Tomonaga, aviator turned submarine specialist who had come to Germany aboard the I-29 in 1943.
  • Cmdr. Genjo Shogi, and aircraft specialist who had spent years in Europe as a military attache in several countries.


The Japanese officers oversaw the loading of all the equipment for their military. The sealed barrels were of particular interest, and they painted “U-235” on them. The U-boat sailors laughed at this, believing the Japanese officers had already forgotten their proper hull number: 234. The officers had not forgotten-they were marking the barrels by periodic symbol. As in, this symbol:


Uranium Isotope 235 is fissionable, unlike most of Uranium's isotopes.

Uranium Isotope 235   (U-235) is fissionable, unlike most of Uranium’s isotopes.

The cargo manifest, known only to a few onboard, revealed these barrels contained 560 kilos of Uranium Oxide, aka “Yellow Cake Uranium”. To this day, there are debates about what this was meant for[4], but no matter what, its successful arrival could have meant the prolonging or even stalemate in the Pacific War.[5]


The Voyage

U-234 departed on her mission in April 15, 1945, commanded by Ly. Johann “Dynamite” Fehler[6], one of the top remaining U-boat commanders left in Germany. And yet, due to the high mortality of the U-boat service, this was Fehler’s first submarine combat mission.[7]

Despite the lofty goal of reaching Japan in three months time, many of the crew doubted they would succeed. As second watch officer Karl Ernst Phaff later said, “[We believed] ..the chances were fifty-fifty. In reality, they were much worse, but that we did not know. Because losses were never revealed.”

Another said, “It was clear that the war was lost, our morale was non-existent.”

Nonetheless, U-234 headed out, her bow for Japan. Fehler’s first order of business: use a different route than he’d been assigned, in case the Allies were listening and had set an ambush. It was a wise move, he avoided the first ambush by a British sub, and 234 made it to the Atlantic.

It was cold in the north Atlantic waters, unless you were in the engine rooms. The extra 12 people made a cramped situation even more so. Since 234 had to sneak around Britain, she ran deep most of the day, only coming close enough to the surface to expose her snorkel when she had to run her diesels. The air was typical submarine air: foul.

Still, many of the crew remember the initial part of the trip as working as well as it could. The Japanese lieutenants Tomonaga and Shogi were particularly remembered as being gracious and friendly, inviting many of the crew to visit their homes and families once the U-234 got to Japan.


Germany Collapses

Meanwhile, back in Germany, the two fronts from Russia in the east and the Allies in France, closed rapidly on Germany. On April 30, Hitler and his new wife Eva Braun committed suicide and their bodies were burnt by their comrades to keep them out of Allied hands. Many other Nazi High Command committed suicide or went into hiding (most of whom were captured, some were not.

May 8 was Victory in Europe day. All German military units were ordered to surrender. Millions of war survivors rejoiced.

VE Day celebrated in London, Imperial War Museum, Britain.

VE Day celebrated in London, Imperial War Museum, Britain.

Far out in the Atlantic, the U-234 missed the first announcement of Germany’s total surrender and continued on course for Japan. Two days later, Cpt. Fehler heard a shortwave radio transmission from Submarine Admiral Karl Donitz…”My U-Boat Men, six years of war lie behind us. You have fought like lions. An enemy with oppressive material advantage has contained us on our exceedingly small territory From this remaining base a continuation of our struggle is impossible. U-boat men, unbroken and immaculate, you must lay down your arms after a heroic fight. Long Live Germany. “

Fehler and his crew could not believe it. The tuned into foreign radio stations, including English-speaking ones. Each one announced Germany’s utter defeat.

Still Fehler refused to believe it. While this was his first U-boat command, he had been an officer aboard the infamous raider Atlantis, whose modus operandi was to disguise itself as a friendly merchant vessel to lure British ships within range before revealing her camouflaged guns. He knew all too well the power of a convincing radio message.

They managed to raise a fellow U-boat, the U-873, which had been en route to the Caribbean. 873’s commander was Friedrich Steinhoff, a dedicated (some said fanatical) Nazi. He confirmed the news: Germany was defeated, Hitler was dead (Donitz was, in fact, the leader of the German government, such as it was in these days), and all submarines were to surrender to the nearest Allied port. 873 herself was just 24 hours from Portsmouth New Hampshire, to join the already surrendered U-805, and the U-1228 was following the 873 by about 24 hours.

Now what? All German naval vessels currently at sea, were ordered to surrender as soon as possible. For the U-boats in the North Atlantic, they were to head to the closest of the four approved ports: Britain, Gibraltar, Canada, or the USA.

But U-234 was caught in a strange trap. She was nearly equidistant from them all, and with enough fuel and provisions to go…pretty much anywhere they wanted. No matter what they did, it would likely be days before they COULD surrender to anyone.

Some of the crew argued to go home. Others, to Argentina or the Caribbean. Whatever the decision, the crew had to decide where to go, surface and fly the black surrender flag before radioing their positions and course for Allied intercept. Anything else, and the 234 could be sunk as pirates.

All Fehler wanted to do was return home, and he reasoned that he might get home faster surrendering to the Americans.

Now for the final wrinkle: the two Japanese officers.


Surrender and Death

Japan and the Allies were still in open war. Once the U-234 was captured, these men would be taken as POWs, and high value ones at that, fully trained and versed in both German and Japanese technology, plans, and tactics.

Captain Fehler had to arrest the Japanese officers, as part of the surrender, and locked them in a cabin, but he wanted to reassure them and he wouldn’t just turn them over.

“ I informed the two Japanese about the situation. And I gave them my word that I would try my best not [to] let them fall into allied hands, but to try to put them ashore somewhere in neutral territory, as Spain, Portugal, Canary Islands or somewhere else. Apparently, they did not trust my word, or believed the idea was not feasible…” -Lettter from Capt. Fehler

But until they chose an option, they would have to remain confined to quarters, under guard.

Had this been a Japanese submarine, it is very likely the sub’s crew, would have scuttled the sub and gone down with her, rather than be captured with such valuable information. But this was not the German way[8].

So the Japanese officers took their own lives. According to Tomanaga’s widow, they chose to overdose on sleeping pills rather than any ritualized seppuku or bloodletting out of consideration for the boat and crew. They left behind a suicide note[9]. The also left behind wives and children in Japan who had not seen their fathers in years, and now, never would.


Funeral, then Surrender

Capt Fehler later remembered the next morning:

“When they were discovered on the next morning, nothing could be done for them anymore. We kept their bodies on board for 20 more hours until daybreak the next morning. I had them sewed up in canvas hammocks and they were given over board in the proper seaman’s way with prayer and covered by Japanese flags…We had to carry the bodies to the engine [room] as there we had sufficient space to sew them up in their canvas coffins.”-Letter from Capt. Fehler

It was May 13. , Germany has been defeated for a week. Occupation troops for Europe were being assigned. Calculations for Operation Downfall (the invasion of Japan) are being made. Non-occupation troops would be shipped to Japan as fast as possible to push the war’s end. [10]

In the western Atlantic, the race was on. Between Allied Intelligence before the surrender, and information gained after, both Canada and America knew the 234 was one of the most valuable submarines left at sea. Destroyers from both countries were out, intercepting and escorting enemy subs to Nova Scotia, Maine and Massachusetts. Whoever intercepted 234 first would gain her, her cargo, and her passengers. 234 radioed her position and course, with the orders to report in again within 24 hours.

Aboard the 234, Fehler, for whatever reason, jettisoned some of the cargo: acoustic torpedoes, Enigma machines, classified documents were thrown overboard. His choices of cargo to keep and cargo to retain was never explained, even by Fehler. The sealed containers marked U-235 remained in their hold.

May 14: The Canadians radioed 234 first, demanding she report her position, speed, and course again. Fehler radioed a position more northern than they were, and an 8 knot speed west, heading for Halifax. Canada sent ships to intercept, while Fehler, at almost 16 knots, fled SW to America.

In America, the destroyer SUTTON, escorting the U-1224 which had also surrendered, was re-routed back to sea to intercept the 234. The destroyer SCOTT remained with the 1224.

In an almost hysterical moment, SUTTON came upon Canadian ships WASKESIEU and LAUXON, in the search area based on 234’s initial report.  For over 11 hours the three ships co-operated in a search grid, until the Canadian Navy reported 234’s (supposed) position north.

The two Canadian ships departed, leaving SUTTON behind. Four hours later, SUTTON’s radar picked up the 234 running on surface. At 2241 (10:41 pm) the SUTTON overtook the 234. Once the ship and sub sized each other up, they discovered they were nearly the same size—if anything, the 234 was bigger.

U-234 pulls alongside the SUTTON.  US Navy Photo

U-234 pulls alongside the SUTTON. US Navy Photo

It would take five days to get back to the States, but the 234 was captured, along with her valuable cargo. 234’s Captain, officers, passengers, and most of the crew were transferred to SUTTON, and a skeleton crew was left to help the transferred American sailors sail the 234 back the States.

When the Canadians angrily radioed again demanding the 234 confirm her position and course and not slip away again , it was an American sailor who answered![11]


A Cruel Irony

The media went crazy over the high-ranking German personnel that disembarked. They were so top-secret that the Navy forbade the press to come within speaking distance of anyone. The Marines on guard duty were ordered to shoot anyone who tried. Nonetheless, the crew and passengers were paraded down the dock to the waiting bus in full sight of the cameras.

The Furor over the high-value prisoners, especially the Luftwaffe General, neatly hid the cargo within the boat. A cargo manifest that, after the war, mentioned the tech drawings, weapons, medical supplies, lead, mercury, steel…but no Uranium.

Truth was, at this time, no one knew how much Uranium would be needed to make an atomic bomb. Special units in Germany were collecting Uranium anywhere and everywhere it was abandoned in Germany’s unorganized retreat.   The U-234’s cargo was an incredible coup.

In the days following the surrender, Watch Officer Ernst Pfaff, in charge of the manifest, was ordered to oversee the opening of the sealed containers inn a closed room in front of a number of military and one civilian man. The civilian seemed to be in charge, or at least treated with great respect. Later, Pfaff learned this man’s name: Robert Oppenheimer. History calls him the Father of the Atomic Bomb.

While no one knows for certain, as the Uranium Oxide vanished, many historians believe it was purified into almost 16 pounds of weapons-grade uranium. And that 16 pounds could have become 10-15% of the warhead of “Little Boy”.


August 6, 1945.  Hiroshima's bomb, "Little Boy" had a Uranium core.

August 6, 1945. Hiroshima’s bomb, “Little Boy” had a Uranium core.

Thus, part of the cargo meant to help Japan win the war, became part of its destruction.

This watercolor painting by Naval Artist Standish Backus depicted scenes the Naval investigators found in Hiroshima a month after the blast.  From the Naval History and Heritage Collection.

This watercolor painting by Naval Artist Standish Backus depicted scenes the Naval investigators found in Hiroshima a month after the blast. From the Naval History and Heritage Collection.

Fallout and Epilogue

To this day, historians are divided about whether the cargo or the passengers of the 234 were more dangerous. Had 234 been sent to Japan in January, not April, and had she made it, it is possible the war could have concluded in a very different way.  The Japanese could either have had the components of a “dirty bomb” of their own to use, or even new jets and the ability to make fuel for them.

As had happened after WWI, all the captured U-Boats were thoroughly dismantled and inspected for new technologies. Not shockingly, German sub tech like Snorkels appeared within a few years aboard American diesel boats.

The U-234 was sunk as a target by the USS GREENFISH (SS-351) on 20 November 1947 off Cape Cod.

U-234's final moments.  The bow of the Greenfish is in the foreground.  USN Photo via

U-234’s final moments. The bow of the Greenfish is in the foreground. USN Photo via




For more Information:

A great article about U-234 with sketches done by men aboard the escorting ships.



Hitler’s Last UBoat Documentary (2001)

Tales from the Atomic Age by Paul W. Frame. Originally published in the May 1997 issue of Health Physics Society Newsletter. Accessed May 14, 2015 from :

Lieuteant Eliot Winslow Kaitanleutenant Johann-Henirch Fehler and the Surrenser of the Nazi’s Top-Secret Submarine, U-234. Originally published on Sea History, 142, Spring 2013

Letter from CApt Fehler, pg. 2. Accessed:

Wikipedia Entries on U-234; USS SUTTON; USS SCOTT; Karl Donitz

Scalia, Joseph M, Grmany’s Last Mission to Japan; The Failed Voyage of U-234. Naval Institute Press, 2000

War Diary of USS SUTTON (DE-771) 4/1/45 – 5/31/45. US Archives Via

Billings, Richard N;  Battleground Atlantic: How the SInking of a Single Japanese Submarine Assured the Outcome of World War II Penguin Group 2006

Johann-Heinrich Fehler:



[1] In case this seems overly long, this was the only route that avoided the Suez Canal and the heavily-patrolled Straits of Gibraltar, two choke points where they would be seen.

[2] Russia and Germany signed the German-Soviet Nonagression Pact in 1939. Then Hitler decided to throw it aside.

[3] Among these drawings were plans for everything the U-234 carried, plus building plans for the needed factories, plans for the newest ships and submarines on the Germany side, bombsights, analog computers for bombsights, airplane mounted radars

[4] Hitler and the Nazis had an atomic program for an atomic bomb, so this could have been weapon-grade uranium to give to the Japanese to complete their project. On the other hand, it is also possible that it was a catalyst for a type of synthetic aviation fuel. As we saw with the Musashi post, Japan’s military was suffering for a number of reasons, but lack of fuel was one of the greatest problems, and this would have helped.

[5] By some accounts, this was not the first time Uranium had been shipped to Japan from Germany.


  • In April 1944, the I-29, by some accounts, was loaded with uranium bound back to Japan. She was sunk in the Balintang Channel, Luzon Strait, on 26 July 1944 by American submarine SAWFISH.


  • August 1, 1944, the I-52 was loaded with nearly 1,000 pounds of Uranium Oxide in Lorient, France, (part of the Nazi dominions.) Due to Allied advancements from Normandy, the I-52 is directed to finish her loading and provisions in Norway. She departs for Japan instead, and rendezvous with the U-530 on June 22, for a top off of fuel and provisions. The radio traffic between the two boats tipped Allied Intelligence to their location, and five destroyers were dispatched to attack. U-530 escaped, I-5 did not. In 1995, her wreck was located was in 17,000 feet of water 1,200 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands.


  • Some accounts say that the U-1224 (re-commissioned in the Japanese Navy as RO-501)and the U-862 (surrendered to the Japanese Navy at Singapore and was re-commissioned as the I-502) were also involved in shipping Uranium to the Far East, but these accounts have fewer records at this time. At any rate, U-234’s shipment was at least the third try, they were so desperate for the stuff.


[6] He had gained his nickname because no matter what his assignment, he tried to find some way to incorporate explosives—much to the chagrin of his commanding officers.

[7] By this time, 70% of U-boats and 75% of U-boat sailors had already been lost. And the Allies were not letting up.

[8] Some people wonder why the Europeans and Japanese had such a different views to surrender and POW treatment in wars. While much has been made of the Samurai code of “bushido” which lionized death before surrender and the shame, not much has been written about the history of Europeans that shaped the opposite point of view, probably because to a European or American, not shame in surrender makes intrinsic sense. But the concept of surrender to POW status has a long history.

There were a few forces shaping attitudes to battle and warfare in Europe and the Christian ethic of a “Just War”, where you are trying to force your will on your opponent, but that, once that happens, killing and destruction for the sake of killing and destruction was horrific, and a warrior could not be honorable if he reveled in such a thing.   So if someone, or an army, or town surrendered to you, you had won the ‘Just War” as far as they were concerned, and no futher killing was necessary. Besides, there was money to be made at this point.


What you really wanted to do was capture as many people of status as you could.  You may not have killed them, but you had them, and if their families, towns, duchys, country wanted them back, they were going to have to pay a hefty fee.  (you might settle for a POW exchange if they had a bunch of yours they were trying to ransom to you, but really, everyone just wanted the ransom money.)

This ransom, depending on who they had captured, could ruin a family, a town, a county, or an entire country’s economy, which was kind of the point.  You’d be ridiculously wealthy, and they’d be too poor to engage in war with you again for a number of years, which maintains the peace you’d imposed on them anyway.


A famous example: when King Richard Lionheart was captured 1192, his captor, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI of Germany, demanded 65,000 pounds of silver in ransom. That was, at the time, three times England’s annual GDP. Everyone in England (plus the Aquitaine region of France which was part of England at that time), from the nobility, to the serfs, to the formerly-exempt clergy, was heavily taxed to raise these funds, and it was up to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Richard’s mother) and Prince John Lackland (Richard’s brother and legal regent of England) to enforce these taxes…plus invent new ones, plus confiscate Church treasures, plus sell properties… to raise these funds. (And now you know where the high taxes in the Robin Hood tales come from. In those stories, Prince John wasn’t evil for levying those taxes so much as he was for levying the taxes and seriously considering paying Henry VI a discounted rate if he KEPT Richard…which actually happened!)  It took two years to finally raise enough funds.  Holding a high-ranking prisoner could be a lucrative business.

And of course while you’re holding the King of England (or Earl, Duke, Count, or all the men of a certain town,) you had to treat them relatively well so they survive to the payment of the ransom. To be captured was not shameful in Europe, it was part of the “business” of war in a way.

Did the murder of POWs happen in Europe?  It did.  One has to look no farther than Henry V of England killing POWs after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 for an example.  He spared the highest nobles he had (for the ransom).  (Keep in mind, that at this point in time, while the English army is made up of English noble men -at-arms (knights in armor) the bulk of the army was peasant longbowmen.  On the French side, the peasants should never be trusted with any sort of weaponry, so the whole army was, in fact, feuding noble armies who were as busy fighting each other as the English.  This means where there were few hig-value POWs to be taken in the English army, EVERYONE in the French army was literally, worth taking…unless you are in a tight spot. )

In this particular case, however, Henry V had more French POWs than he had English Military under his command, and it was feared the POWs would figure this out, re-arm themselves and fight their way free, leaving the English, already deep in French territory, vulnerable or dead.  In addition, there were still free French troops in reserve in the area.  If the POWs started a fight, these reserves could also join in, killing the English.  and the Free French were making rallying calls nearby.

This was an unusual practice, and while Henry’s decision is highly criticized now, there appear to be few contemporary chroniclers, even French, who called him out at that time for any excessive brutality for this massacre.  That being said,  the English knights refused, point blank, to take part in the slaughter, which they viewed as un-chivalric , indicating that this was against some understood morals of the time.  The prisoners were therefore killed by English archers, who were peasants. By some accounts, after the free French troops fled, the killing appears to have stopped, so this tactic may have been a form of psychological warfare in a tight spot.  Records show that Henry V ended up shipping  hundreds of POWs home to wait for ransom, which proves the rule: in Europe, battle was meant to take prisoners and bankroll their release, not kill for the sake of killing.

It was this kind of battle, and this type of battle “ethic” (of a sort) that lead to the high proportion of POWs in European battles relative to Japanese.  Thus most of the German military (many of the enlisted of whom were Nazi in name only) were not fanatical enough to want to commit suicide—they’d be returning home, and there was no shame in that.

To be captured in Japan was to be shamed before your family, your community, and your nation.

In Japan, this disdain for POWs was a relatively new phenomenon in some ways.  The Japanese had participated in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) and in WWI (1914-1918 when the Japanese fought with the Allies to keep the Pacific clear against the German Imperial Navy) .  They took prisoners and were taken prisoner in turn.  These early 20th century POWs were treated with respect, and most were repatriated.

Under traditional Bushido (“The Way of the Warrior” ), surrender was apparently allowable, but death in battle was lionized.  Suicide after was permitted as a way to gain honor, especially if you were one of the few survivors.  Thus you could join your dead brothers-in-arms in a way, both in memory and legend.  Samurai and their families who performed ritualized suicide to join their masters were highly honored in Japanese society.

But as surrender was allowable, though not as honorable as death or suicide, POWs were treated with some respect, hence the better-treatment of the Russian/WWI POWs.

In the aftermath of WWI, Bushido apparently developed to be 1.) something all people could attain through the right behavior, allowing even the lowest-born Japanese person the ability to be honored like a Samurai if they followed Bushido closely enough 2.) the “new” Bushido was much more harsh.  Under the new Bushido, surrender was not something that was “less-honorable” but instead, “dishonorable”.  If you were captured, suicide was the only way to restore lost honor.  A surrendered person under this new bushido, was essentially selfish. It meant your own life was more valuable to you than protecting these people and communities. Therefore, many Japanese military people (and civilians, as the Allies advanced) preferred death to capture or surrender.  They were, in a sense, less than human.

Which is why, in a reflection of this philosophy, Allied POWs and captured civilians were treated so poorly.  (and no, I’m not excusing this treatment, just revealing some of the reasons behind it)

And why the Japanese officers aboard the U-234 chose to commit suicide, rather than surrender.


[9] Text of the Suicide Note Left by Lts. Tomanaga and Syozi according to Paul Tidwell and Richard Billings, authors of, The Secret of I-52”

 It was a great pleasure for us to be able to be together at all times with you and your boat, whether in life or death.

                  But because of fate, about which we can do nothing, it has become a necessity for us to separate ourselves from you and your boat.

                  We thank you for your constant companionship and request the following of you:

  1. Let us die quietly.  Put the corpses in the high sea.
  2. Divide our private possessions among your crew and please take the largest part yourself also.
  3. Inform Japan of the following as soon as possible:

“Cmdr (Freg. Kapt) Genzo Syozi

 ”     ”      ”   Hideo Tomonaga

committed suicide on     May 1945 on board U-234.”

                  In closing we express our gratitude for the friendliness of you and your crew and we hope that everything will go well for the Commanding Officer and all of you.

                                             (signed) Genzo Syozi

                                             (signed) Hideo Tomonaga”


[10] Italy surrendered to the Allies back on September 8, 1943, and Germany on May 8, 1945.   As recently as February 1945, at the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill talked about 1947 being the year to end the war with victory over Japan. At that time, they figured that they would have to transport every capable man, vessel and weapon to Japan and fight the Japanese (likely civilians as well as military) inch by inch across the home islands. At this time, while multiple countries were pursuing what would become the atomic weapons, no one had yet gotten to a point where it could be used.

[11] Even though the Germans gave up peaceably, not everything went according to plan. While collecting small arms from the Germans aboard the U-234, Radioman 3c Monroe Konemann was shot in the small of the back when “a German pistol went off in the hand of an American sailor,”. U-boat doctor Franz Walter treated Konemann, but quickly saw he needed surgery (no room on a U-boat) and another doctor’s assistance. Walter and Konemann were transferred to the hastily called Frigate FORSYTH, which had joined SUTTON during the boarding of U-234.   FORSYTH’s doctor, Ralph Samson of Columbus Ohio, and Waltar worked on Konemann, who was soon stable enough to be transferred to a hospital. FORSYTH was detached from the U-234’s escort, and transferred Konemann to a hospital in New Foundland. Sadly, Konemann died of internal hemorrhaging ten days later. Still, Waltar’s efforts to save Konemann were well noted by both the SUTTON and FORSYTH crews.

Sub Skipjack’s MIA …Toilet Paper?!

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
May 07 2015

Quick Note: If you haven’t seen NOVA’s “Nazi Attack on America” which aired last night ( May 6, 2015) on PBS , I really encourage you to catch it on or the PBS app. It’s an amazing story, about just how close the German U-Boat Navy got to our shores during WWII (which was largely hidden by the military/government/media for morale reasons) It also shows how history is made, then reconsidered as new evidence comes to light. Besides, who can resist a Ballard and Ritchie Kohler flick? (I doubt Kohler remembers me, but I was curator of the Silversides Submarine Museum when Kohler and John Chatterton came to film part of their Deep Sea Detectives show aboard our USCGC McLANE for the episode “Caught in a Killer Storm: Bedloe and Jackson” (Season 5, Episode 7). They were very professional, courteous, and shot some wonderful footage aboard McLANE on her second-to-last time out on Lake Michigan[1] .)

I’m breaking from the MUSASHI posts for reasons detailed below[2], but while I’m prepping the wreck phase of the Musashi, I thought I’d share one of the most unique and well-known WWII-era letters in the submarine force. (This story even has its own Snopes Entry!) And it concerns this “unidentifiable” item:

2015-05-07 13.38.06 HDR

Nothing compares to the original letter, Cmdr James Coe was very…eloquent.


The Letter


SS184/SS36-1                                                                                                                                     June 11, 1942

From :                   The Commanding Officer

To:                          Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island, California

Via:                        Commander Submarines, Southwest Pacific

Subject:               Toilet Paper

Reference:         (a) (4608) USS HOLLAND (5184) USS SKIPJACK

(b) SO NYMI cancelled Invoice No. 272836

Enclosure:           (a) Copy of cancelled invoice

(b) Sample of material requested

  1. This vessel submitted a requisition for 150 rolls of toilet paper on July 30, 1941 to USS HOLLAND. The material was ordered by HOLLNAD from the Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Iland, for delivery to USS SKIPJACK.
  2. The Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island, on November 26, 1941 cancelled Mare Island Invoice No 272836 with the stamped notation, “Cancelled—cannot identify”. This cancelled invoice was received by SKIPJACK on June 10, 1942.
  3. During the 11 ¼ months elapsing from the time of ordering the toilet paper and the present date, the SKIPJACK personnel, despite their best efforts to await delivery of subject material, have been unable to wait on numerous occasions and the situation is now quite acute, especially during depth charge attack by the “backstabbers”
  4. Enclosure (B) is a sample of desired material provided for the information of the Supply Officer, Navy Yard, Mare Island. The Commanding Officer, USS SKIPJACK cannot help but wonder what is being used in Mare Island in place of this unidentifiable material, once well known to this command.
  5. SKIPJACK personnel during this period has become accustomed to the use of “ersatz” i.e. the vast amount of incoming non essential paper work, and in so doing feel that the wish of the Bureau of Ships for reduction of paperwork, is being complied with, thus effectively killing two birds with one stone.
  6. It is believed by this command that the stamped notation “cannot identify” was possibly an error, and that this is simply a case of shortage of strategic war material, the SKIPJACK probably being low on the priority list.
  7.  In order to cooperate in our war effort at a small local sacrifice, the SKIPJACK desires no further action to be taken until the end of current war, which ahs created a situation aptly described as “war is hell”


Skipjack TP Crisis

The Original Letter, from the Navy History and Heritage Website.


And if you just read it and said, “The Navy can’t identify toilet paper?!” You read it right. The story gets even funnier with more research.

 Before the War

Coe wasn’t the CO of SKIPJACK in July of 1941, when the requisition was made. SKIPJACK was in Mare Island California under overhaul.

Cmdr. Charles Freeman became CO of SKIPJACK on July 29, and based on the requisition, asking for 150 rolls of TP was one of the FIRST things he did (was this a continuous problem?)

Ten days later, SKIP left California, heading out to patrol Wake, Midway, the Marshalls, among other things, ultimately heading to be part of the sub fleet in the Philippines. and by December 6, 1941, was sitting in drydock in Cavite Naval Yard, Manila, with her engines disassembled for repairs, still no requisitioned toilet paper in sight.

Unbeknownst to SKIPJACK, while she was doing all this, back in California, someone in supply stamped the usually-routine requisition form “ Cancelled-cannot identify” and shipped it off to Manila and the SKIPJACK.

And then December 7 happened.


The War…and still no “relief” in sight…

Pearl ii

Digital Photo Collage of Pearl Harbor, colorized.  Own Work.


We talk about Pearl Harbor here in America, but it was really just the first in a series of attacks the Japanese carried out in 24 hours on December 7 (in the Philippines it was already December 8, due to the International dateline. ) SKIPJACK survived the attack, and headed out on patrol a day later, on only one of four engines, (the other three were reassembled and repaired at sea on patrol by her crew) and yes…still no toilet paper.

She completed two war patrols as the Americans scrambled to evacuate south as the Japanese landed and advanced too quickly for reinforcements. SKIPJACK refueled wherever the American base was when she needed to come in: Manila, then Balikpapan in Borneo,  then Darwin, Australia, then finally Fremantle, where the second-largest submarine base in the Allied Pacific would be located.

It was now March, 1942…and STILL no toilet paper!

Cmdr. Freeman was detached, and Cmdr. Coe, formerly of the S-39, came aboard as CO, and SKIP headed out on her third patrol, sinking four ships over 50 days….yup, you guessed it, still no single, double or any ply.

SKIP returned to Fremantle, where I’m sure her crew was happy to depart for the various hotels and resorts the Navy had rented for them…all of which would have toilet paper!

As SKIP was prepping for her fourth war patrol, the requisition form, with its cancellation, (having likely bounced all around the Pacific pursued by the Japanese and trying to trace the sub base’s constantly mobile location), finally reached SKIPJACK.

And the next day, Coe’s most famous Naval correspondence was born.


A Legend is Launched

The scuttlebutt goes that Coe wrote it up, passed it to the boat’s Yeoman, Evert Tuttle, to type up and send out. Tuttle did so, but before sending it out, asked the XO and OD (Executive Officer and Officer of the Deck, for civilians) about it for advice.  The three of them went back to Coe and asked, “Do you really want to send this?”

Coe allegedly replied, “I wrote it, didn’t I?”

The letter was sent, and SKIP headed out on patrol….you guessed it, STILL no toilet paper (I have to believe the men of SKIPJACK by now were hoarding any TP roll they came across at their hotels!)

Cmdr. Coe of the Toilet-paperless SKIPJACK was awarded the Navy Cross eleven days after composing that letter for his leadership of the S-39, but I think he and his crew should be commended for working under such additionally arduous conditions…but as the letter states, at least this deficiency allowed the SKIP to find a use for all the additional (and useless) paperwork the SKIP was given! (I’ve held some of the original papers from submarines, the onion skin was quite thin…)[4]

Sent through official channels, hundreds of people heard about (and read) the “Toilet Paper Letter” long before it officially arrived at Mare Island. President Roosevelt’s son aboard the USS WASP  even heard about it, and got his father a copy! The reaction at the Mare Island Supply Depot when the letter finally arrived was spectacular: according to the one member of that office, all the officers of the Supply Depot were compelled to “stand at attention for three days because of that letter.”

It was way too late by then, the letter was legend.[5]

Now normally, when submarines came into port, they were met with a band, their mail, fresh fruits and veg, and ice cream.

But due to the letter, the SKIPJACK received an unusual greeting: pallets and pyramids of toilet paper rolls stacked on the dock, seven feet high. Toilet paper streamed from the dock lights. The band wore toilet paper neckties, and the brass section had toilet paper rolls instead of dampeners in their horns! The crew said TP continued to stream out of the horns as the band played.

And that became her signature return all during the war. Other sbus might be greeted with fruit and mail, milk, and other culinary delights. The Navy made damned sure the SKIPJACK never went without the other end of the necessities of life ever again.


SKIPJACK survived the war after ten patrols. Sadly, Cmdr. Coe was detached from the SKIPJACK and became the first CO of the new submarine CISCO. CISCO was lost during her first patrol, her circumstances and resting place still a mystery.

But his infamous, sarcastically humorous letter survives…everywhere.[6]



“The Infamous Toilet Paper Letter” (accessed 7 May, 2015)

Wikipedia entries for SKIPJACK, James Coe, USS S-39

Official Navy History for USS SKIPJACK; War Patrol Reports of the Same

USS Skipjack Toilet Paper Memorandum:



[1] Bedloe and Jackson were sisters to the McLANE, hence the reason they came. The particular day they were scheduled to shoot, was also part of our window to tow/push McLANE to Grand Haven for the Coast Guard festival, so they actually got shots of McLANE out at sea (or rather, lake) than simply docked as she usually is. To my knowledge, after she returned from that festival, she’s never moved again.

[2] I’m breaking from the Musashi in part because my computer decided to blow the motherboard hours after posting, and now, of course, my wonderful computer-tech savvy husband is reloading programs and drivers and the remnants of the hard drive from my old computer to the new one (and discovering just HOW MANY large psd files, duplicate files, ect that I have put on the old machine…sorry dear!)

So while I’ve only just gotten to the point where I can create the images for the Musashi wreck post, it’s going to take a while…and this is one of my favorite sub stories from WWII.

[3] Well known enough to have its own Snopes Entry!


[4] Now, was the SKIP without Toilet Paper entirely? I doubt it. Checking the “Habitability Remarks” sections of her first four patrols reveals no complaints in this area. That being said, subs were notorious wheelers and dealers (think Radar and Klinger on M*A*S*H). They likely traded some of their high-end goodies for some TP and resorted to the reams of “essential paper” the Navy supplied when that ran out. Still, having to give up some good supplies for what should have been a basic supply (and easily identifiable) must have been aggravating. I sure would like to check SKIP’s Deck Log, which had more of the personal day-to-day records form this time…there might be some choice remarks in there!

[5] That letter would eventually become the basis for a scene from “Operation Petticoat”, as well as a part of Edward Beach’s book, Submarine!

[6] Another copy of that letter hangs on display at the Navy Supply School at Pensacola Florida with a nearby sign: DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU! The original letter from Coe is, according to my resources, in the archives of the Bowfin Museum at Honolulu. And of course, the Internet. It will never go away now!

Musashi: The Final Days

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Apr 21 2015




“In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” —Quote attributed to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, in an interview with Japanese Cabinet member Shigeharu Matsumoto, 1940.*

It would prove to be prophetic.

Having been educated in the United States, and lived and worked there as part of the Japanese Naval Attache, Yamamoto knew the American culture. He also knew that, unless the US, Britain, and the Netherlands (the major naval and colonial powers in the Pacific in 1940) were knocked out so hard and fast they sued for peace (and left Japan alone with all her new territories), Japan would ultimately be doomed.

Created for a presentation, this shows the rapid expansion of the Japanese Empire (red circle)  from December 7/8 1941 to the cusp of the Battle of Midway, June 1942

Created for a presentation, this shows the rapid expansion of the Japanese Empire (red circle) from December 7/8 1941 to the cusp of the Battle of Midway, June 1942.  (click to see animation)

And sure enough, for six months the Japanese appeared invincible. In the USA, we talk about Pearl Harbor, but the truth is, PH was the first of a series of attacks, on Wake, Midway, Manila, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia. Three weeks after Pearl, the Japanese Empire stretched south to the Malaysian Islands, east to Wake Islands, deep into China (where the Japanese had maintained control of Manchuria since 1931) and into Singapore, Burma, and more.  (click on globe to see animation of Japanese Empire Expansion for the six month window Yamamoto mentioned)

But Japan’s Achilles heel was supplies. They had no oil or any way of getting any in the homeland. They did not have enough mines for the raw metal needed for modern warships. These they could get from their new territories, shipped aboard hundreds upon hundreds of freighters. But while they practically invented WWII aerial combat, they did not foresee the submarine’s future role slicing through these ocean highways, and destroying Japan’s newly-needed lifeblood.

By October 1944, Japan was fighting a more and more defensive war, desperately trying to make continuing the fight so costly to the Allies that they would settle for peace on somewhat favorable conditions for Japan. The unconditional surrender the Allies were determined to gain was unthinkable and so Japan used every resource to delay, to push back, to bloody every battlefield, to gain leverage for a treaty, not a surrender.

The Philippines were the largest of the last conquered territories protecting Japan and her remaining resource highway from Singapore to home. If the Americans re-took the Philippines, the highway would be under direct attack.  The Americans landed on Leyte Island with 1,500 ships: carriers, battleships, destroyers, carriers, tankers, troop ships, supply ships, all determined to take back the Philippines.

The Musashi and her sister Yamato, bigger than any ship in America’s arsenal in the Pacific and with larger and heavier guns, could pound Leyte apart, so Japan created a three-pronged attack: Sailing from Borneo, Musashi and her battle group would split in two: Musahi and Yamato both forming a “Center Force” that would eventually attack Leyte from the north, after sailing through the Sibuyan Sea. This force would be commanded by Adm Takeo Kurita from his flagship, Cruiser Atago.  Another force, mostly made of smaller, outdated battleships, would attack from the South (the Southern Force).

But these forces were doomed, unless the bulk of the aircraft carriers, battleships and destroyers, now supporting the landing, were off hunting even larger quarry than the biggest battleships ever afloat.

leyte Gulf Map


Hence the “Northern Force”, made up of the remaining four aircraft carriers, plus enough escorts to make it convincing.

Aircraft Carriers of Pearl Harbor

After the Battle of the Philippine Sea four months earlier, the Japanese had lost the vast bulk of their planes and pilots.  Both were scarce back home, even the gas needed to fuel the training planes so the new pilots could learn to take off, maneuver and land in the most basic of ways was hard to come by. The remaining hundred or so planes available at sea were prominently displayed on the four decks of the incoming carriers, to make their bluff look like the actual threat to the Leyte Invasion was sailing south from Japan herself, not from Borneo.

And to make sure the Americans would pay attention, front and center of the Northern Force sailed the most delectable bit of floating battle bait the Japanese had left:  Zuikaku, the final remaining aircraft carrier that participated in Pearl Harbor. Every American, from  Admiral “Bull” Halsey on down,  really wanted ZUIKAKU.  If the warships could be pulled away to fight this incoming threat, only troop, supply, and other support ships, with their auxilliary defense would remain: easy pickings for the Japanese

The trap was set, and sprung.  ZUIKAKU and her Northern bluff force set sail from Japan on October 20, chattering on the radios, trying desperately to catch attention.  MUSASHI and her sisters set sail from Borneo On October 22 under radio silence. If all went well, the American war fleet would intercept the Northern Force’s communications, and head out to intercept, leaving Musashi, Yamato, and her sisters to sneak in behind and  strike the landing force, driving the now-undefended Americans off the Philippines.



The plan was nearly scuttled by submarines before it got started. Darter and Dace were patrolling Palawan Passage during the October 22-24 window.  A huge patch of reefs, atolls, and other shallow water (known as Dangerous Ground) sits in the eastern part of the South China Sea, forcing every ship to either sail near modern-Vietnam, or through this  deep channel.  It was a great hunting ground, and today was no exception. Just after midnight on October 23, submarines DARTER and DACE saw this sight:


Taken a few hours earlier, this is just a small portion of the Center Convoy photographed leaving Brunei in October 1944.  Wikipedia Commons

Taken a few hours earlier, this is just a small portion of the Center Convoy photographed leaving Brunei in October 1944. Wikipedia Commons

Thirty one heavily armored surface ships in mostly two columns traveling together against two submarines.  Submariners have a term for this:  gift-wrapped.

Making a long story short, over the next few hours, the sisters shadowed the force, then ran ahead and waited for the task force to come to them**.   At 5:24 am, Darter sank the Atago, forcing Adm. Kurita to swim for it, and establish a new flagship aboard Yamato.  Ten minutes later, Darter hit Cruiser Takeo, setting her on fire, leaving her heavily wounded.   Twenty minutes after that, Dace hit the cruiser Maya with four torpedoes.  She must have hit the magazine, for Maya exploded and sank in minutes.  Akashimo rescued 769 surviving Maya-crewmen.

On the left, the same photo, labeled with casualties.  On the right, a diagram of the convoy's layout at the time the Darter and Dace struck.

On the left, the same photo, labeled with casualties. On the right, a diagram of the convoy’s layout at the time the Darter and Dace struck.

Takao was unable to continue, and two destroyers, Naganami and  Asashimo, were detached to escort her back to Singapore.  Akashimo transferred her Maya crewmen to the Musashi, supplimenting her own crew for the coming battles. Naganami, Asashimo and Takao turned back south, while the remaining convoy raced north.

So as dawn broke, of the thirty-one warships, twenty-six remained.  Darter and Dace, assigned to patrol Palawan, decided to take off after the wounded Takao, where shortly thereafter, the Darter would run aground, to become a seamark to this day. (An interesting story all of its own)


Darter aground, taken 14 October, while Musashi was under attack in Sibuyan Sea.  Even today, parts of Darter's hull remains perched on the reef, despite several demo attempts and subsequent salvage by multiple parties.  Photo from Naval History and Heritage Command.

Darter aground, taken 24 October, while Musashi was under attack in Sibuyan Sea. Even today, parts of Darter’s hull remains perched on the reef, despite several demo attempts and subsequent salvage by multiple parties. Photo from Naval History and Heritage Command.

But the damage had been done.  Not in the sinkings, not in the damaged ships or even subs.  Just as patrol boats are dangerous not for their weapons, but for their radios, so are submarines. Darter and Dace sent warnings of the  coming battle convoy, and now the Americans were on alert.

Intrepid, Enterprise, Franklin, Cabot, Essex, and Lexington, already scouting with planes, put more into the air, sending them deeper west into Philippine territory hunting this war  convoy. Task Force 34 (four battleships, five cruisers and fourteen destroyers) were sent south through the Surigao Strait in case Yamato’s convoy came that way.

October 23 ended, October 24 dawned, and the scouting planes found their target sailing through the Surabaya Sea.


Taken from the scout planes, this was one of the first photos taken of Center Force on the morning of October 24, 1944.  One of these is Musashi.  From

Taken from the scout planes, this was one of the first photos taken of Center Force on the morning of October 24, 1944. One of these is Musashi. If you think it’s hard to see them here in this photo, imagine how difficult it was for the pilots–and there’s no risk of anit-aircraft fire from my blog, unlike these ships!  Image taken from”USS Intrepid Report of Air Ops in Ryuku Is, Formosa and Philippines 10/10-31/44 Including Action Against Jap Fleet 10/24-26/44″  National Archives via

Six Flights of Death for a Tough Ship

Since this post is concentrating on the fate of the Musashi and how it plays into what the Allen Team found last month, this is an abbreviated record of M’s last day,  culled from; the book Battleship Musashi, and Naval Anti-Aircraft Guns and Gunnery.  As the story of Musashi’s final hours come from men on two sides of the war, under enormous stress at the time, details will vary.  Nonetheless, what you will see is that before she went down, Musashi took more damage than any other ship up to  that time and kept going.  I’d argue, perhaps, that she took more damage before sinking than any other warship of WWII.  The first scout plane to find Musashi and her force was from carrier Intrepid, so her planes got first crack at the two biggest battleships afloat.

First Wave

10:30 AM:  Intrepid’s planes  hit many of the ships in the convoy, and Musashi was no exception.  Four bombs narrowly miss, two striking the water on either side of Musashi. A fifth smacks Musashi’s no. 1 gun turret, bouncing off the armor plate and into the sea, leaving a perfect circle of popped paint as its only mark.  One torpedo strikes starboard amidships, forcing her into a 5.5 degree starboard side list.  Counter-flooding reduces the list to just 1 degree. All in all, she barely felt it



The following diagrams are drawn from information provided in several sources, including Musashi’s Tabular Record of Movement from; Musashi’s entry on Wikipedia, and the book, Battleship Musashi by Akira Yoshimura.


List after attack 1

List figure 1



Second Wave

12:03 PM: Nearly 100 Intrepid fighters hit. Several bombs explode within M, forcing her crew to abandon some of the port-side engine rooms, and losing the inboard port prop (this prop was seen on the Allen film footage starting around 56:30 mark). Another strike floods MUSAHI portside, forcing her to list to the OTHER side now. After counterflooding and balancing, she is only 1 degree to port list, but her bow is six feet lower.

Just to keep up with her convoy, Musashi’s remaining three props are throttled up, but she can only make 22 knots…she’ll be left behind.

Taken from the air, this shows the MUSASHI under attack.

Taken from the air by an INTREPID pilot, this shows the MUSASHI under attack.  Note the battle name this was going under when the report was written: the Second Battle of the Philippines.

A stray bomb fragment flies into the middle gun of #1 turret, and detonates the shell just loaded inside, disabling the whole turret.

She’s down, but she’s not out, and can still fight. Admrial Kurita, in charge of the central Force, slows everyone down to 22 knots to keep Musashi within the convoy.

Musashi Torpedo Damage 2

Second wave, at this point, suffering five torpedo hits, most ships would have succumbed.


List AFter Attack 2

From this point forward, Musashi will list to the portside, some planes will concentrate on the portside to try to take her down


Third Wave

1:30 PM: The wave from the Essex and Lexington arrive. After straifing, Helldivers score two hits starboard abreast the #3 turret.The TBM Avengers score four starboard hits,

  • Starboard forward of #1 Turret
  • Starboard Bow area, flooding storerooms.
  • Portside forward of #1 Gun Turret, destroying fuel tanks, flooding log and sounding rooms (knocking out SONAR and destroying records, and filling the tempory hospital area with carbon monoxide.
  • Portside, Amidships

And still more hell in store for Musashi and her crew: Three flights of Helldivers hit, scoring:

  • 4 portside bomb hits near #1 turret
  • Torpedo Hit, Starboard Bow area, flooding storerooms
  • Portside, forward of #1
  • Portside, Amidships
Musashi tortpedo damage 3

How much damage Musashi suffered in the third wave is still debated.

List AFter Attack 3

By now, Musashi is several thousand tons heavier than she’s designed for. Even in the intact engine rooms, this is putting more pressure and stress on Musashi’s engines and systems.



1:50 PM. All that damage, just 20 minutes. Several pump rooms are damaged, but by filling nearly every intact trim and void area, the Musashi now can only make 20 knots, and her bow is 13 feet closer to the water than it had been three hours earlier.


Fourth Wave

2:12 PM: And again! 8 Hellcats, 12 Helldivers from Essex arrive, but concentrate on Yamato and Nagato, ahead of Musashi. The pilots are amazed that Musashi is still afloat. Any other ship would have sunk long ago, but not only is Musashi still afloat, she’s still under power, and apparently valuable enough several ships of the convoy have surrounded her to provide air cover.  During the fight, Musashi still fires with her anti-aircraft guns, and frantically repairs her systems.


Fifth Wave

2:55 PM: Now the Enterprise and Franklin send in their fighters. Enterprise pilots radio thatMusashi  (or rather, a Yamato-class battleship) was lagging behind the convoy and trailing oil. By now, she appears to only make 8 knots speed.

Nine Helldivers score 4 hits:

  • 3 in the port bow, causing internal damage
  • 1 destroys the Chief Stewards office.

Eight Avengers soar in and score three torpedo hits:

  • One hit on starboard bow
  • One hit portside bow
  • One hit starboard abreast of M’s funnel
The entire Central Force maneuvering during the attack, including Musashi.  Taken bya  USS FRANKLIN pilot

The entire Central Force maneuvering during the attack, including Musashi. Taken bya USS FRANKLIN pilot

Within Musashi, the crew shores up damage in Damage Control Central, but the lose the No. 3 hydraulic room to flooding. Above, the American pilots later reported “Several bombs and torpedo hits were scored and after the attack, [Musashi] was reported burning, dead in the water, and down by the bow.” (Rep of Ops in the Philippines Area, including attacks on Jap Fleet, USS ENTERPRISE, October 1944)  Probably the pilots expected she’d be gone when they returned.

But they were wrong.

Musashi tortpedo damage 5

Now damages is piling up in certain areas, carving out huge holes.


Musashi was still making 16 knots on her three remaining props. With counterflooding to correct her starboard list to 1-2 degrees, she slows to 13 knots. She’s not yet down for any count.

But the day was still young, and the next flight of planes from the Intrepid, Franklin and Cabot flew in as the Enterprise planes left…there would be no break and no time to repair or recoup.

Musashi at 315 detail

Taken at 3:15 PM, this is MUSASHI, under attack


Sixth Wave

3:25 PM:. Of the 75 planes from three carriers that drop over Central Force, 37 take on Musashi directly. And they were brutally accurate:

  • 500 lb bomb strikes the right wing of the air defense station and destroys the first bridge. “One of the bomb hit the anti-aircraft control room over the No. 1 bridge. The bridge let out a huge roar as it collapsed like a demolished building…took the lives of the chief navigator and anti-airaft commander as well as five other senior officers. Captain Iguchi sustained serious injuries to his right shoulder”( –Battleship Musashi: the Making and Sinking of by Akira Yoshimura).  Adm Inoguchi would have to move to the second bridge to command MUSASHI.
  • Three bombs detonate in a row portside and abreast of turrest #1 and #2, ,destroying two single and one triple Anti-aircraft guns and mount, plus the main comm roon telegraph room #1, and telephone room, PLUS penetrating boilers #4 and #8.
  • Two bombs explode forecastle deck starboard abreast starboard area, taking out two single and one triple 25 MM AA guns.
  • Another bomb hits in the middle anti-aircraft shelter, damaging the flag deck.
  • Bom hit explodes in the portside crew space, and destroys the nearby ship’s hospital.
  • Bomb strike on Turret #1
  • Bomb Strike starboard in the Officer’s Wardroom,

Then the Avengers with their Torpedoes strike:

  • Portside, flooding #8 Boiler Room
  • Portside, abreast of #1 turret
  • Three torpedoes striking Portside Amidships, also flooding No 8 boiler and No 12 as well as Engine Room 4, killing the outboard Portside prop.  a 30 foot long hole is open along Musashi’s portside.
  • Last two torpedoes strike the portside near the #6 magazine, flooding both the magazine and the nearby gyro room.
Musashi tortpedo damagei 6

The final attack, the amount of damage is really astonishing.

List AFter Attack 6

By this time, many men were moving everything movable, including equipment, gear, even the wounded and, sadly, the dead, to the starboard side, in a vain attempt to keep Musashi from capsizing.



Yet the crew cannot believe she’s still going.  They counterflood and fire-control for all they are worth.

In an attempt to save the Central Force, Adm Kurita orders the rest of the force to head west, as though in a retreat, leaving Musashi to her fate.  The planes report this maneuver to HQ, and the flights are called off.  Three hours later, they would discover the Northern Bluff Force…too late for Musashi.

on the left, Musashi, shortly before she sank.  On the right, Musashi, taken as she left Brunei two days earlier.

On the left, Musashi, shortly before she sank. On the right, Musashi, taken as she left Brunei two days earlier. If you look, the strange angles of the superstructure compared to the Brunei photo show the severe list Musashi is fighting.


The End

Still, it took three hours for Musashi to give in.  All counterflooding efforts were taken, including moving the dead and injured starboard side to try and add weight there, and releasing the portside anchor and chain.  But she kept taking in water, it was hopeless.

As the crew prepared to abandon Musashi, those who had fought the whole battle below decks came out into the air, and were shocked at the sight that met them: “Oil and sweat stained sailors emerged from various hatches. They hesitated for a moment when they saw the carnage above, and then, with pale faces, they emerged onto the blood-spattered deck. The crewmen in the ship’s stern had mistaken the explosions of the torpedoes and bombs as fire from the ship’s own guns—they had no idea how bad the damage was. Over 200 injured men were carried from the rear hatches.”  (-Battleship Musashi)

Thankfully, Admiral Kurita returned within two hours, and detailed three destroyers to remain with Musashi.  If she could beach herself, she could still be repaired and saved.  If not, at least someone was there to take on the survivors.

Her Port list remained between 5 and 10 degrees for three hours, then suddenly, rolled to 30 degrees in 15 minutes.  At 7:30 pm, the crew started sliding into the sea, some injuring themselves on the barnacles that clung to Musashi’s hull.    Second in command, Capt. Kato, assumed command on orders of Adm Inoguchi, who chose to go down with the Musashi.

“The ship tilted suddenly, stirring up a large wave as the vast hull swung to port. The bow pointed down into the water, with the stern towering prominently above the rest of the ship. The crewmen still clinging to the wreck under the darkening skies of sunset were moving further and further toward the stern as the bow plunged into the sea…after the bow had sunk below the ocean’s surface, the ship’s bridges were submerged, and only the stern remained above water.”

Musashi vanished, leaving 1,376 survivors, from both her own and Maya’s crews, behind on the surface.  She would take 1,023 men with her to the depths. Moments after she disappeared, her survivors felt one (some accounts say two) explosion(s) from underwater.

List AFter Attack final

In many ways, these diagrams are still too clean. By this time, Musashi was heavily smoking, putting out a number of fires, and the superstructure was partially collapsed.



There were still three battles to go in the fight for Leyte Gulf, but Musashi’s time was now up.  The total number of torpedo and bomb hits she took is debated, but nonetheless, is impressive.  By some accounts, it took 19 torpedoes, 17 bombs and 6 near misses to take her down…other accounts vary, but not by much less. In addition, her crew took down 18 American planes while fighting.

That’s where Muashi’s story according to the eyewitnesses ends, and the examination of her wreck begins…more to come….




Wikipedia Entries on IJN MUSASHI, IJN YAMATO, Adm. Yamamoto, Leyte Gulf, USS DARTER, USS DACE,

Battleship Musashi: the Making and Sinking of the World’s Biggest Battleship by Akira Yoshimura

Battleship Yamato by Jamusz Skulski

Naval Anti-Aircraft Guns and Gunnery by Norman Friedman; particuarly the entries on MUSASHI, YAMATO, TAKAO, ATAGO, MAYA, the Battle of Palawan Passage and The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Sibuyan Sea

Presentation on Kenneth Gwinn of the USS FLIER; personal work created for Henry County Library Presentation, New Castle, IN; 2014

Documentary “Battle 360: Battle of Leyte Gulf” 2008

Documentary: “History of Battleships: Bismark to Yamato” 2002

Documentary “Yamato: Sinking the Supership” NOVA 2005


*Yamamoto and MUSASHI were actually connected.  Yamamoto had actually disliked YAMATO and Musashi’s construction, saying that investing so much capital into a ship which could not be replaced in case of loss, was a folly.  That being said, Musashi was Adm. Yamamoto’s official flagship.  She’s the one that dropped him off for a tour of the troops in 1943, and the one who picked up his ashes for transport back to Japan after Adm. Yamamoto’s plane was shot down.

**A Maneuver called “End Around”


And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Mar 19 2015


UPDATE:  This post was supposed to be all about MUSASHI (and it will be) but first I want to acknowledge the passing of an amazing lady in the submarine community: Mary Bentz.  Mary lost her uncle aboard the submarine GRUNION, and helped locate surviving family so they could stay informed of the hunt and later memorial after GRUNION was found.  Not satisfied with stopping there, Mary and her husband Dick became part of a small, tightly knit community of genealogists who worked constantly (but went into overtime when a sub was discovered) to find surviving family members of the 52 lost subs of WWII.  When FLIER came to light in 2009, she joined my small FLIER group, finding the final families.  She was amazing, and so encouraging to someone like me, young and in my first museum/research job following college.  She even pulled records out of the National Archives for me once, since I live too far away to go.  The memorials for submarines GRUNION, WAHOO, LAGARTO, FLIER, R-12, PERCH and others, could not have happened as well as they did without her.  Even though she was not a sailor, I feel it’s okay to say, “Sailor Rest Your Oar”.  Know that you’ll be missed deeply,  Mary, not only by me.  I can only hope to have half the impact you did. Rest in Peace. 


Musashi Depth ChartI know I usually talk subs, but when any WWII wreck comes to light, it’s exciting news, and the MUSASHI is no exception!

One of the last, large WWII battleships still hiding is hidden no longer.  After eight years of research in three countries, the team of Paul Allen has found the MUSASHI and are currently surveying the wreck (or rather the large debris field near the two largest parts of the MUSASHI remaining.)  And even better still, rather than sharing selected clips and images for press releases then saving most of the footage for a documentary (where only a selection of footage will be used) the Allen team gave a live tour, including clips from earlier dives so the average person could see MUSASHI all for themselves if they wanted.

First of all: depth.  How deep is MUSASHI, visually?  According to the Allen team, she’s 3,887 feet/1,185m  deep, or almost 3/4 mile down (1.185 km, gotta love metrics here!)

I know many loved my “Sub Wreck Depths” diagram, so I made it a sister with famous battleships (plus the Submarine FLIER, of course, this is a USS FLIER blog, or a FLIER-inspired blog!).  Up on the upper right you can also see a scale model of the MY OCTOPUS, the ship that’s the base for the ongoing survey of MUSASHI  (the size of the wreck insignias are not in scale to each other, but the depth is at the correct scale, and OCTOPUS is correct scale for the depth.)   I was going to put the German Battleship BISMARCK on this diagram, but quickly discovered it would have to be much, much, much taller.  As it is, the original document was nearly 100 cm long!  (In the original document, the OCTOPUS is 4 cm Stem to Stern–if you click on the image, it’ll show larger)

The OCTOPUS herself is a fascinating vessel, and she’s already been used for other vessel surveys and recoveries, including HOOD (see bottom of chart).  I loved the portions of the tour that included the OCTOPUS itself and the technology that made finding MUSASHI possible.  The amazing improvements in sonar tech and HD camera ROVs was incredible as well.

When FLIER was located, the search ship essentially gridded out the most likely area based on the best research available from survivors, and “mowed the lawn”–moving back and forth across the planned grid dragging the sonar array behind it.  Doing this can be somewhat risky.  Most Sonar has to be a minimum distance from the sea floor, and cannot work past a certain height above a seafloor.  This makes working in any wreck or underwater mountainous areas very difficult to accurately depict. The new Sonar, in use on the OCTOPUS is FREE SWIMMING.  They program the grid location and parameters in, program what height they want it to remain above the ocean floor (say, 500 feet) then let her go!  She swims off, and uses her Sonar to maintain that consistent distance from the ocean’s floor, giving the resulting Sonar images STARTLING clarity.  Even seeing them on the screen aboard the OCTOPUS through a camera and on a youtube window, it was so crisp.

While MUSASHI sank in one piece, she is savagely broken on the ocean’s floor.  About her forward third is still intact (Bow to first Barbette) but the stern is upside down, and the items on the stern deck are found hundreds of meters away.  The Bridge is an astonishing distance away.

Below you’ll see some rough notes I took on the wreck survey as it happened, and later, during a re-recording.

Over the next few days, I’ll do more posts about MUSASHI’s wreck, similarities between her wreck and some other WWII wrecks (especially YAMATO, there are some surface similarities between the wrecks of the two sisters.)  For those who don’t regularly dig through wrecks, I hope, considering MUSASHI’s smashed condition, that what I write and diagram out will serve as a guide to help understand the Paul Allen team’s footage and photos.  There is, of course, no substitute for the original footage and their narration thereof, I can’t recommend it enough.  See their youtube channel here, and their official website here.

Hey Mr. Allen, if you’re looking for another challenging shipwreck in the Philippine area, ever hear of the SUBMARINE ROBALO?  We don’t know where she sank (and there’s lots of debate over when…which directly affects where!).  Finding her wreck would settle a lot of questions, not to mention bring peace to the eighty-one families who lost a man aboard her…we still don’t definitively know what happened to the four named survivors…Musashi Diagram i

These were some notes I took about the M. while I watched the live recording, and the available photos and footage that the Allen team made available.  These are moy obersations only, but I thought it might help to see the various pieces of the M. agasint this plan of her in her approximate 1944 configuration.

These were some notes I took about the M. while I watched the live recording, and the available photos and footage that the Allen team made available. These are my observations only, but I thought it might help to see the various pieces of the M. against this plan of her in her approximate 1944 configuration.  Click on it for a full size version (large)


Veteran’s Day and the Tomb of the Unknowns…or how “The War To End All Wars” was initially remembered, and how that eventually evolved into America’s Veteran’s Day, and Memorial Days around the Globe.

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Nov 11 2014

Before I get to the end, I just want to say, “Thank you” to all Veterans, past, present and future.  As a civilian, I want to say thank you for being willing to do what you do and allow me and my family to live in freedom safe from war on my doorstep.  I hope everyone enjoys this post detailing the memorials that sprang up after WWI, and how they developed into Veteran’s Day as we recognize it today.


Memorial Day, (in America celebrated on the last Monday in the month of May) began as a way to honor the fallen Union and Confederate soldiers. Graves were decorated, people remembered those who lost their lives in the conflict, and honored the Civil War dead  Before long, the war dead of 1812, Barbary and the Revolution were also being honored.  But then a conflict known as WWI began.  Though the United States mostly stayed out of the conflict until April 1917, WWI raged across Europe for four years, destroying pretty much anything in its path.  Even 90 years later, portions of France are still pockmarked from exploding mines and bombs, and the re-buried trenches have started to collapse on themselves, snaking their way across now-peaceful farmland. To look at these photos now, and realize just how terribly torn the land had to be in 1918 to remain so marked now, is sobering.

While the final treaty ending WWI wasn’t signed until 24 July 1923, the fighting ended (temporarily then permanently) on 11 a.m., November 11, 1919.  On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, arms were laid down and the soldiers began the long process of returning home, and remembering the nearly 35 million souls, both civilian and military who had perished.

File:Frederick Etchells - Armistice Day, Munitions Centre.jpg

Armistice Day, Munitions Centre, painted by Frederick Etchells. Oil Crayon on canvas, currently in the collection of the Canadian War Museum, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art. This painting, depics the celebrations in Canada when the announcement of the Armistice was announced. The crowd waved flags of the many Allied nations, while dancing to the music of the organ grinder. Image from Wikipedia.

It became known as Armistice Day at first, and was celebrated as the end of the War to End All Wars.  The effects of WWI were long, and far reaching, and even a year later in 1919, and people all over the US and Europe sought a way to celebrate and commemorate their lost men.

The concept of a Tomb of an Unknown Soldier or Unknown Warrior was also started at this time.  A British Chaplain by the name of David Railton was working in France and came across a rough wooden cross marking a grave.

The war Grave of an unknown soldier of WWI. It was such a grave as this that inspired the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Britain and France, and later, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in America. Image from the National Library of Scotland


The cross read “An Unknown British Soldier”, and Railton had the idea of bringing one of these unidentified boys back and burying them in Westminster Abbey, alongside the Royalty, artists, explorers, authors and other notable and distinguished personages of Britain, to stand for all the men who would never come back home.  It took a very short while for the idea to take root and get going, and on November 11, 1920, both Britain and France laid an unidentified man to rest in locations befitting the highest honors their countries could bestow. (In England, inside Westminster Abbey, in France, Under the Arc de Triumphe.)

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in France, as it appears today. Image Source: Wikipedia.


In France, eight bodies were exhumed from the fields of Flanders , Artois , the Somme, Ile de-FranceChemin des Dames , ChampagneVerdun and Lorraine , placed in oaken caskets and brought to a bunker in Verdun.  The caskets were rotated and shuffled many times until no one could remember which casket’s remains came from which battlefield.  The next morning, during the ceremony, the orphaned son of a lost fighter of WWI, Auguste Thin, was handed a bouquet o red and white carnations and asked to select one of the caskets on behalf of France.  Now a soldier himself, Auguste chose the sixth one he passed in honor of his own Sixth Corp and 132nd Regiment (1+3+2=6, or so his logic went).  The chosen remains were interred under the Arc De Triomphe, where the flame is still re-kindled every night by French veterans.

In the British case, a set of unidentified remains were exhumed from the battle graveyards of the four major British Graves, Aisne, Arras, the Somme, and Pyres.  Each set was covered with a Union Jack flag and taken to a chapel where Brigadier General Wyatt and Colonel Gell of the Graves Registration Department placed their hands on one set, neither knowing anything about which remains came form which battlefield.  Those  remains not selected were respectfully reburied, but the chosen one was placed in a plain coffin and escorted with full honors to a castle in Bologne. There, the coffin was further enclosed  in a  casket made of timbers from the Royal Palace of Hampton Court, bound with iron and a Medieval sword, selected by King George V from the Royal Collection, and a shield bearing an inscription “A British Warrior who fell in the Great War for King and Country.”

A replica of the oaken coffin the Unknown Warrior was placed in. One can see the Iron banding, and the sword beneath the epitaph shield. The replica is on display in in railroad car in which the original casket with the Warrior was transported from Dover to London. The car was also used to transport many remains repatriated after WWI including executed nurse Edith Cavell and executed civilian ship’s captain Charles Fryatt. This photo, taken by Hugh Nightengale on June 5, 2012, shows the sixty red poppies adorning the replica are in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. The Queen’s Mother lost her brother during WWI, and left her bridal bouquet on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on her way out of the chapel after her wedding–a tradition continued by every royal bride since, including her Majesty Elizabeth and Kate Middleton. Image Source, Wikipedia.

He was laid to rest, after a long, ceremonial trip, in the West Nave of Westminster Abbey, where soil from each major battlefield covered his grave and 100 women who had lost their husband and all sons to the war stood in attendance, along with the Royal Family.  Today, he rests beneath a black granite stone, engraved with brass melted down from war ammunitions, and wreathed with silken poppies.

I got to see the grave a few years back when I spent an incredible five hours touring Westminster (and it wasn’t nearly long enough).  There are graves EVERYWHERE there, and despite what my parents taught me about being polite in graveyards and not deliberately walking on anyone, you can’t help it.  Except for that grave.  No one, king or commoner, Brit or foreigner, is allowed to step on it, and it’s just incredible how it sits at  the Western door to the Abbey and despite the babble of voices checking out the graves of the Tudors, Edwards the Longshanks, Oliver Cromwell, Chaucer, Dickens, and so so so so many more, that section of the church, voices just fall silent, and people so very carefully, respectfully, move around the soldier, and give him his peace. Foreign heads of state often lay wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and he has been decorated with many foreign decorations and awards in the 91 years he’s slept, including the American Medal of Honor. (The only time any of this caused a problem was when a Nazi official laid a Swastika wreath at the tomb in 1933.  A British WWI Veteran  threw it in the Thames.)

File:Tomb of the Unknown Warrior - Westminster Abbey - London, England - 9 Nov. 2010.jpg

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior a it appears today. The wreath of silk poppies is a permanent fixture, the three wreaths at the foot and the candelabra bases were placed there the day this photograph was taken–the 90th anniversary of the Warrior’s internment. Image Source: Wikipedia

To this day, November 11 is Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom, and the day to honor Britain’s fallen.  This year, with the Centennial anniversary of the start of WWI, the Tower of London hosted a new public installation, “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Read”.  It’s field of poppies–888,246 handmade ceramic poppies were planted in the dry moat, each memorializing a men who was killed or went missing during WWI.  It’s taken from August to November 11 to install each Poppy..  The last was placed this morning at 11 am in Britain.

All 888,246 poppies have now been planted in the dry 16-acre moat, heralding the completion of the poignant memorial

The field of poppies circles the ancient castle. It put things in perspective, at least, for me. This photo is from this article in the UK’s Daily Mail.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior idea soon inspired America.  Four of America’s  warriors from different battlefields were disinterred  and brought to a city hall in Chalon-en-Champagne, where US Army Sgt. Younger laid a spray of white roses on one casket, which was returned to the USA and laid in state until Armistice Day, 1921, when he was laid to rest among the best and brightest of our honored military dead in Arlington National Cemetery.  The ceremony was attended by US President Harding, and, representing WWI ally Britain, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty, who awarded the American Unknown with the highest honor Britain can bestow, the Victoria Cross, which was placed with him before burial.  The marble sarcophagus was built over top his grave in 1926.

The Casket of the WWI Unknown, as he disembarked from the USS Olympia on the shoulders of his fellow servicemen. Colorized Photo, Wikipedia.

The marble for the grave was quarried in Vermont, and it known as Yule Marble, among the whitest, purest marble available.  The Unknown is buried in the earth, with the tiered monument placed above and around him.   Most visitors to Arlington National Cemetery can see the writing on the original tomb: “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God”.  on the reverse of that, on the side facing the Capitol, are carved three allegorical figures:  A female Victory flanked by a male Valor figure, and a female Peace figure.

The rarely-photographed east and southern sides of the Unknown’s original Tomb. Here you can clearly see the Allegorical figures and the inverted wreaths and doric columns that adorn the side. Image from flickr, taken by Tim Evanson. Date of photo: 5 April 2012.


After WWII, the Tomb was expanded.  One unidentified soldier from the European Theater and one from the Pacific Theater was exhumed, placed in identical caskets aboard the USS Canberra, where corpsmen and Medal of Honor recipient William Charette, not knowing which casket was from which theater, chose one to join his WWI brother.  A similar method was used to selected the Korean unknown from four candidates as was the Vietnam Unknown.  (In 1998, using DNA technology, the Vietnam unknown was identified and released to be buried with his family)

At first, there was no guard at the Tomb, but as reports came in of people standing on, or even eating Picnics on the Tomb (!) a guard was posted during the public hours.  This guard was expanded to the current 24/7 watch on July 2, 1937, and it has been guarded continually ever since.  Very few of the volunteers who come forward to be one of the guards make it through training, and even fewer are accepted.  Those who are live in a barracks below the Tomb, and must abide by strict rules, some, (like the prohibition against alcohol and swearing) for the rest of their lives.  The pin designating such a guard is the second most rarely awarded pin in the military*.  If, at any time during their lives, both active and retired, a guard, current or former, conducts himself in such a way as to dishonor the Tomb, the pin is revoked.

Their uniforms are unique, lacking all marks of the guards’ own ranks, lest they inadvertently outrank any of the Unknowns.  The changing of the guard is a carefully orchestrated, precise ceremony that is counted down to the second.  The guards change every 30 minutes to 2 hours (depending on the time of day and the weather) and continues around the clock regardless of weather.   While there is a contingency plan for the guards to watch over the Tomb from a special location in the Trophy Room overlooking the Tomb in case of inclement weather (provisions specifically mention winds in excess of 120 mph) , no one has yet done so…despite blizzards, hurricanes, and superstorm Sandy.

A Changing of the Tomb Guard in the midst of winter. Photos alleging to be during Superstorm Sandy are posted on the Internet, but most are not real…though the Old Guard reported that the guard went on through the storm. Image Credit: US Army

One final interesting fact about these devoted guards is their uniform must be absolutely perfect at all times,in honor of the fallen Unknowns.  Such meticulous attention to detail means they spend FIVE HOURS A DAY on maintaining their uniforms to the proper standard for guard duty.  That’s in addition to their actual guard duty, and assisting with the many wreath laying ceremonies that take place at the Tomb.


Armistice Day was supposed to help us remember the war that ended all wars, but sadly, WWI ended up being a prelude.  After WWII,  Armistice Day developed into a National Day of Veterans Remembrance in many countries of the world.  It is Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom which celebrates with two minutes of national silence.

But since the US already had a “Memorial Day” to honor our war dead, Armistice Day evolved rather differently here.  With more veterans in the American population due to WWII and the the Korean conflict, Armistice Day officially changed to Veterans Day in 1954, a day in which we honor all our veterans, those that died, and those that lived and returned.  In the USA, it is celebrated through a variety of observances, the most famous of all has to be the laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  This year (2014) as President Obama is abroad, Vice President Joe Biden will lay the wreath.


So today, I honor all those who have served, are serving, and will someday serve in our Armed Forces, keeping us safe and defending our freedoms with their years, training, and sometimes, their lives. May we keep reminding ourselves of history so that you may never again find yourselves in another World War.

You, and your services, are Never Forgotten.

More Links:

Photos of WWI Battlefields, 90 years on

Underground tunnels discovered in WWI Battlefields

Newly uncovered WWI Diary with haunting drawings made at the front

Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary Soldier

Facts about Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Website of the Old Guard, the men who guard the Tomb of Unknown Soldier

Other photos and links to various Tombs of the Unknowns around the World

As an end note, America founded more Tombs for Unknown Soldiers int he latter half of the 20th century.  In 1954, America  founded a Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary Soldier in Philadelphia, and the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier in Biloxi Mississippi in 1981.  (Arlington National Cemetery, of course, was founded as a burial site, originally, for Union Soldiers, many of whom were also unidentified.)

*In case you’re curious about the rarest award in the military, it’s the Astronaut Pin.