Tower Hill Memorial, London, England

Jul 14
Posted by Dan Filed in Wartime Merchant Marine Action

Perhaps more than any other nation, Great Britain has relied on mastery of the oceans for her greatness. From the days of empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the days of fighting for survival during the brutal conflicts of the 20th century, the sailors of the British Isles left the ports of England determined to serve their country. Hundreds of thousands of these souls would never return to their homeland.

The Tower Hill Memorial is located across the street from two of London’s iconic sites – the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. Separated into two parts, the memorial commemorates the men and women of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who gave their lives during WWI and WWII protecting their nation and who have no grave but the sea.

The WWI Memorial is a vaulted corridor listing the names of thousands of ships arranged alphabetically. The names of the lost are listed below the name of each vessel. The ship’s master is listed first, with the remainig dead of each ship listed alphabetically below the Master. No rate or ranking other than the Master is indicated. 11,919 names are listed in this corridor.

The WWII Memorial is in the form of a sunken garden, the walls containing the names of nearly 24,000 souls lost at sea. Teak benches allow visitors to sit and contemplate their surroundings. In the center of the garden is a ‘pool’ of bronze, engraved as a mariner’s compass set to magnetic north.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this memorial is when one considers the scope of the sacrifice it represents. During WWI and WWII the British lost over 8,000 merchant ships alone. This staggering figure does not include fishing or military vessels. 49,000 British merchant seamen lost their lives in the two world wars – over 50% of those lost at sea. Each name on these walls represent a story, a life too short, a loved one missed. When I visited the memorial I greatly appreciated the decision to list the names without rate or rank. These sailors who rest in sea-locked graves are all equal in the hearts of a grateful nation…

 

Cambridge American Cemetery & Memorial, England

Jun 12

There are few more humbling experiences for an American than to visit one of the numerous American military cemeteries erected and lovingly maintained on foreign soil. I recently visited the American WWII Cemetery in Cambridge, England. Contained within its 30 acres are the graves of 3,809 Americans who lost their lives during WWII. Engraved on a 472-foot limestone wall on one side of the cemetery are the names of 5,126 others – missing in action, lost or buried at sea, or those “Unknowns” whose remains could not be positively identified prior to their interment in the cemetery.

Time seems to stand still within the cemetery. Familiar names can be found on the Tablets of the Missing – Glenn Miller, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. and others. Among the graves in the cemetery are the graves of “unknowns”. Their earthly remains were never identified, yet those remains are buried in the cemetery and their names are engraved somewhere on the Tablets of the Missing. It’s an eerie feeling standing over an unknown grave and then gazing at the thousands of names on the wall – wondering which name on the wall identifies the American who gave everything resting below your feet…

I saw the grave of an American who was serving with the American Red Cross. Hugh Foster ran what was said to be the finest Red Cross canteen in all of England. Stories about his canteen can be found in many WWII memoirs. Being a non-combatant did not spare Mr. Foster from the ravages and dangers of war, however. He died in a bombing raid. He is buried among the American military men who found his canteen a welcome refuge – a place of rest and relaxation. I am certain they are honored by his presence. He is among friends.

Etched in gold lettering on the memorial wall is the name “Lt. Col Leon R. Vance, Jr.” Vance is the only serviceman honored in the cemetery to be awarded the Medal of Honor. A copy of his Medal of Honor citation is on display in the visitor’s building at the cemetery. It speaks for itself.

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 5 June 1944, when he led a Heavy Bombardment Group, in an attack against defended enemy coastal positions in the vicinity of Wimereaux, France. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by antiaircraft fire which seriously crippled the ship, killed the pilot, and wounded several members of the crew, including Lt. Col. Vance, whose right foot was practically severed. In spite of his injury, and with 3 engines lost to the flak, he led his formation over the target, bombing it successfully. After applying a tourniquet to his leg with the aid of the radar operator, Lt. Col. Vance, realizing that the ship was approaching a stall altitude with the 1 remaining engine failing, struggled to a semi-upright position beside the copilot and took over control of the ship. Cutting the power and feathering the last engine he put the aircraft in glide sufficiently steep to maintain his airspeed. Gradually losing altitude, he at last reached the English coast, whereupon he ordered all members of the crew to bail out as he knew they would all safely make land. But he received a message over the interphone system which led him to believe 1 of the crewmembers was unable to jump due to injuries; so he made the decision to ditch the ship in the channel, thereby giving this man a chance for life. To add further to the danger of ditching the ship in his crippled condition, there was a 500-pound bomb hung up in the bomb bay. Unable to climb into the seat vacated by the copilot, since his foot, hanging on to his leg by a few tendons, had become lodged behind the copilot’s seat, he nevertheless made a successful ditching while lying on the floor using only aileron and elevators for control and the side window of the cockpit for visual reference. On coming to rest in the water the aircraft commenced to sink rapidly with Lt. Col. Vance pinned in the cockpit by the upper turret which had crashed in during the landing. As it was settling beneath the waves an explosion occurred which threw Lt. Col. Vance clear of the wreckage. After clinging to a piece of floating wreckage until he could muster enough strength to inflate his life vest he began searching for the crewmember whom he believed to be aboard. Failing to find anyone he began swimming and was found approximately 50 minutes later by an Air-Sea Rescue craft. By his extraordinary flying skill and gallant leadership, despite his grave injury, Lt. Col. Vance led his formation to a successful bombing of the assigned target and returned the crew to a point where they could bail out with safety. His gallant and valorous decision to ditch the aircraft in order to give the crewmember he believed to be aboard a chance for life exemplifies the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Leon Vance survived ditching his aircraft in the English Channel, although he would lose his right foot and lower leg. After receiving medical treatment for almost two months in England he was sent back to the United States for further treatment and the possible fitting of a prosthetic foot. In one of the cruel ironies of war, the C-54 Skymaster transport on which he was flying disappeared and was presumed to have crashed in the Atlantic between Iceland and Newfoundland on July 26, 1944. No trace of the aircraft has ever been found. Leon Vance and all aboard were lost at sea…


 

Fleet Air Arm Memorial – London

May 27

In the Victoria Embankment Gardens along the river Thames in London is a memorial to the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. The memorial is a striking bronze figure of Daedalus, the ingenious craftsman of Greek legend who created wings to escape King Minos of Crete, only to lose his son Icarus when he flew too close to the sun and his wings melted. Icarus plunged into the sea…

The memorial was designed by Royal Academy artist and sculptor James Butler as a tribute to the more than 6,000 individuals who have given their lives in Royal Navy Air Service since World War I – 1,925 of whom have no graves except the oceans of the world.

Butler’s own words best describe the power of the statue: “I wanted Daedalus to appear mighty, strong and capable, a man and yet half machine, with wings which are an integral part of him and yet still clearly man-made and fastened crudely to his arms. He must have an air of tragedy in his countenance, after all he is mourning the death of his colleagues. With his arms outspread in this position and his head slightly bowed, there are suggestions of crucifixion which signal the sacrifice of the brave men and women in their Naval Service over the years.”

When I saw the statue a few weeks ago on a visit to London with my wife, I noticed some very small, individual tributes left at the base. One was a small wooden cross in memory of “Lt. Commander ‘Barry’ Knowles, RN”. I did some research on Commander Knowles on my return to the United States. David Barry Knowles and his crew mate Ian E. Shaw were lost in the crash of a Sea Vixen aircraft in the Irish Sea on December 4, 1967. The Sea Vixen was a beautiful but exceptionally unforgiving aircraft operated by the Royal Navy off their aircraft carriers for over a decade. Almost 60 Royal Navy aviators lost their lives flying the Sea Vixen.

The Fleet Air Arm Memorial is a truly moving and powerful symbol of the sacrifices of David Barry Knowles, Ian Shaw, and the thousands of others who gave so very much in the service of their country…

H.M.A.S. Perth Memorial – East Rockingham, Australia

May 5
Posted by Dan Filed in Wartime Naval Action

The names of honored Australian warships can sound like the reading of names of Australia’s most prominent cities from a map – Sydney, Canberra, Perth. These beautiful cities personify the swagger and pride of all Australians. But add the simple preface phrase His Majesty’s Australian Ship to those famous city names and a somewhat different image results – an image of bravery, dedication, sacrifice, suffering, and loss. During World War II the sacrifices of the Royal Australian Navy and her brave sailors were second to none.

A previous post on this blog covered the HMAS Sydney and the stunning memorial to her memory. The HMAS Canberra was lost off of Guadalcanal in 1942 in the Battle of Savo Island. The United States Navy named a ship in her memory – the only U.S. Naval ship ever named after the ship of another country. Such was the esteem the Americans held for her sacrifice.

HMAS Perth also had a distinguished career and a tragic end. Built in 1936 at the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard in England, the Leander class light cruiser was acquired by the Royal Australian Navy in 1939. Early in WWII she saw action in the Mediterranean Theater of War – supporting actions in Greece, Crete and Syria. In early 1942 she was transferred to waters closer to home.

On February 14, 1942 HMAS Perth and the USS Houston were the only large Allied ships to survive the Battle of the Java Sea. After the battle the two ships attempted to resupply, but fuel and ammunition shortages left both cruisers critically short of shells and fuel when both were ordered to sail for Yjilatjap via the Sunda Straight two weeks later. Shortly after midnight on March 1, 1942 both ships were attacked by a superior Japanese naval force in the Sunda Straight. HMAS Perth was hit by four enemy torpedoes and was lost. USS Houston was sunk a short time later.

353 of HMAS Perth’s crew of 682 died on the night of the Battle of Sunda Straight – almost all lost at sea. Of the 329 survivors, most were taken prisoner – sent to live and die in yet another hell, as forced labor in the building of the Burma Railroad made infamous in the book and movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. Only 218 of HMAS Perth’s original crew were repatriated after the war.

Those interested in the Battle of Sunda Straight and the Allied survivors later ordeals in Burma are encouraged to read Australian writer Mike Carlton’s fine book Cruiser about the HMAS Perth and James D. Hornfischer’s equally fine work Ship of Ghosts, detailing the story of the USS Houston.

The Sunda Straight is the tropical body of water separating the islands of Sumatra and Java. It is the final resting place of hundreds of brave sailors from His Majesty’s Australian Ship Perth…

 

 

 

 

 


TWA 800 Memorial, Long Island, New York

Apr 7
Posted by Dan Filed in Air Crashes

The recent news that some of the wreckage of Air France 447 (lost on a flight from Rio to Paris) was located in the Atlantic Ocean has turned my thoughts to the 1996 crash of TWA 800 – a Boeing 747 lost with 230 souls on board on July 17, 1996. The aircraft was on a scheduled flight from New York Kennedy airport to Paris when it exploded in mid-air a few minutes after departure.

This is perhaps the most thoroughly investigated commercial air crash in history. 95% of the aircraft was eventually recovered from the Atlantic waters, 14 miles east of Long Island. While numerous theories of what caused the accident abound on the Internet – terrorism, a U.S. Navy surface-to air-missile strike, explosives strapped to a dog, and others – the official National Transportation Safety Board report found that an explosion in the center wing fuel tank caused the destruction of the aircraft. The ignition source for the explosion was never determined, although spurious static electricity or faulty wiring were named as likely culprits. The NTSB and the FAA have repeatedly attempted to implement safety measures to reduce the potential for this type of accident – generally nitrogen or other inert gases pumped into aircraft fuel tanks as they empty. To my knowledge no aircraft have been retro-fitted with these devices, nor are these devices required on new aircraft. The reason cited for inaction is generally excessive cost.

The TWA 800 International Memorial is located at Smith Point Country Park, which fronts the Atlantic Ocean on the east end of Fire Island – central Long Island, New York. The memorial location faces the actual accident location in the Atlantic Ocean.

The memorial itself extends over two full acres. Included are paths which lead through over 10,000 donated plants and vegetation surrounding a main central plaza. A large curved granite wall is the focal point of the plaza. On one side of the granite wall are engraved the names of the 230 victims of the loss of TWA 800. The other side of the granite wall is an illustration of 230 seagulls released into the sky, particularly striking when viewed at night. Flags of 14 nations, representing the countries of passengers and crew, are set near the central plaza. In 1986 an abstract lighthouse was added. Below the lighthouse is a tomb holding the personal effects of many of those lost on that July night.

Partial remains of almost all of the 230 victims were recovered and eventually identified through DNA testing. These remains were returned to the victims’ families. This process took almost one year. No remains of two victims (one American and one French) were ever discovered. They lie at the bottom of the Atlantic off the east coast of Long Island – forever lost at sea…


 

 

 

 

Aircraft Carrier Accidents – 1972 – U.S.S Roosevelt (CVA-42)

Mar 13
Posted by Dan Filed in Peacetime Naval Accidents

Today’s post was submitted by an old friend, Robert Schnell of Redding, California. Bob was a Radar Intercept Officer in the early 1970s, flying F-4 Phantoms with U.S. Navy Fighter Squadron 84 assigned to the aircraft carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42). I’ll let Bob tell the rest of his story…

The flight deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier has been described as the most dangerous square footage you may trod. During flight operations ear-splitting jet engine noise, aircraft in motion, searing exhaust, jet engine intake forces so powerful it can suck a 200 pound man off the deck in a split second, spinning propellers and flight deck personnel moving among all this machinery on a confined area of about an acre in size demand a careful, deliberate choreography. It takes professional skill, knowledge and no small ability for all this activity to occur so as to get the primary mission accomplished: launching aircraft off the ship and into the air safely and efficiently. Recovery of those same aircraft during the landing sequence has its own set of rules. Even when all is done properly, as safely as possible and as efficiently as only time, training and practice may allow there still is the unknown, unforeseen circumstance that causes tragedy. Such was the case on board the USS Franklin Roosevelt aircraft carrier (FDR), CVA-42, in 1972 during a Sixth Fleet cruise in the Mediterranean Sea.

VFP-63 was a photo reconnaissance squadron flying RF-8’s which were unarmed Crusaders re-equipped with photo gear. The F-8 was equipped with an ejection seat that only promised a safe ejection if the plane was flying at least 200 feet above the surface and at a speed of at least 200 knots. It needed that much speed and altitude for the seat to function properly. The F-4’s ejection seat, by contrast, had a later model “0-0” seat; i.e., one could eject from the Phantom on the ground with no altitude or airspeed necessary. During an otherwise normal launch of an RF-8, one of those unforeseen acts happened. The plane was accelerating down the deck being pulled by the catapult. Then a portion of the underside where the catapult bridle attaches to the plane broke away. The plane was going about 100 knots and was about half the distance to the bow of the ship: moving too fast to brake and too slowly to get airborne.  Without a more up-to-date ejection seat there was no way for the pilot to survive an attempted ejection. So he rode the plane until it fell over the bow into the water and was run over by the carrier. There was no hope of recovery. Lt. M.C. Steams was lost at sea.

The other accident involved an A-7 Corsair II from Attack Squadron 87 (VA-87). It also happened during a catapult launch sequence. In the Mediterranean during the summer the air is hot and humid. When a jet goes to 100% power for the catapult launch it also starts to pressurize the cockpit. Through a here-to-fore unknown set of climate-control switch positions the compression of the air inside the cockpit caused the humid ambient air to lower to the dew point where it turned instantaneously into fog. This blinded the pilot and he flew off the deck right-wing down and into the water. If he had any time to blow the canopy will never be known. It all happened in less than 5 seconds. Again, there was no hope of recovery. Lt. C.L. Nelson was also lost at sea.

Those involved in Naval Aviation who lose their lives in the performance of their duties, whether in peace or war, will always be remembered. In these two cases their coffins are the planes they flew, their tombstones are the waves of the Sea above and their memorials are the people who will never forget their ultimate sacrifice.”


Guadalcanal American Memorial – Honiara, Solomon Islands

Mar 3
Posted by Dan Filed in Wartime Naval Action

On a hill overlooking the beautiful and tranquil Pacific Ocean in Honiara, Solomon Islands stands an American Monument to the Naval and Marine Corps nightmare known as Guadalcanal. The first major United States Pacific offensive of WWII was ultimately successful, but at a cost that was horrific. Twenty-four U.S. naval vessels were lost – aircraft carriers, heavy cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers. Their names echo in American naval history – Astoria, Hornet, Wasp, Atlanta, Cushing, Porter, Preston, Juneau, and on and on. The human cost was even higher – 1,592 Marine and Army troops and airmen killed in action – 5,041 U.S. Naval officers and sailors killed, most of those lost at sea in some of the most heroic and brutal naval combat in human history. One must add to that total the thousands of equally brave Japanese and Australians who also gave their lives in 1942 and 1943 in the tropical waters off Guadalcanal that came to be known as “Ironbottom Sound” to those who survived the carnage.

It’s been almost seven decades now – the brutality and death of the Battles of Cape Esperance and Savo Island and Tassafaronga have been replaced by the lush green background of the Solomon Island hills – and the once blood-stained waters washed clean by a deep calming blue marking the common resting place of men once mortal enemies, now resting together in peace. The words of Joseph Conrad were perhaps meant for this very place more than any other…

“May the deep where he sleeps rock him gently, gently, until the end of time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I encourage every reader of this blog to read James D. Hornfischer’s book “Neptune’s Inferno” to learn much more about the U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal. It is superb history, written by a master of the English language.

Florida Fishermen Lost at Sea Memorial – Tampa Bay

Feb 2
Posted by Dan Filed in Commercial Fishing, Recreational Boating

Almost all lost at sea memorials begin as a vision in the hearts and minds of family, friends, and shipmates. The journey from the initial vision of a memorial to final completion can be long and difficult, requiring constant dedication.

The image on the left is a small model of a proposed sculpture by Florida artist Robert Bruce Epstein entitled “The Hand of Fate”. A dedicated group of citizens of John’s Pass Village on the west central Florida coast hope to turn this beautiful concept into a permanent memorial. Families and friends of Florida fishermen lost at sea are intimately involved in this effort.

The web site for the memorial contains a listing of almost 150 individuals who died at sea sailing from the west central Florida coastal area. The remains of most of those victims are lost forever in the waters of the Gulf. These include commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, divers, Coast Guard crews, and others. Looking through that list is a sobering experience. A fully realized memorial would be a most appropriate way to honor their memory. Perhaps some readers of this blog will be able to contribute.

Please visit the memorial’s fine website at: http://www.floridafishermenlostatsea.com/

An extensive newspaper article on the proposed memorial can be accessed at: http://www.floridafishermenlostatsea.com/pdf/times2010.pdf. This article can also be found on the memorial website.

5/26/12 – The Memorial is now completed and is beautiful. Please see the comment below from the artist Robert Bruce Epstein and these first photographs. More to follow in a future post.


Sundial Memorial to Alaska Airlines Flight 261, Port Hueneme, California

Jan 26
Posted by Dan Filed in Air Crashes

On January 31, 2000 Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific Ocean near the Channel Islands off the beautiful beaches of Southern California. The aircraft was a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 on a scheduled flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to Seattle, Washington, with an intermediate stop at San Francisco. All eighty-eight passengers and crew aboard the aircraft were killed, many lost at sea.

This accident is one of the most written about in recent memory, mainly because it was determined to be caused by a mechanical failure that could have been prevented. A simple jackscrew mechanism that controlled stabilator trim on the aircraft failed – resulting in a total loss of pitch control. The aircraft plunged nose first into the water, despite all efforts to regain control of the aircraft by the flight crew. This tragic loss was due to a failure to perform routine maintenance by Alaska Airlines and a failure to conduct adequate oversight of maintenance by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Sundial Memorial at Port Hueneme Beach Park is a beautiful combination of remembrance of the dead and a vision of hope for the living. Designed by Santa Barbara artist James “Bud” Bottom, the memorial consists of a 20 foot diameter base and an 11-foot tall bronze arm. The names of the victims are found on bronze plaques circling the base. Every year, on January 31st, at the exact time of the crash, the shadow caused by the bronze arm darkens a special plaque on the sundial’s face.

Port Hueneme was the base of operations for recovery efforts after the crash. On the one year anniversary on the crash, a boat from Port Hueneme ferried family members to the crash site near Anacapa Island. The boat was surrounded by a pod of approximately 1,000 dolphins at the crash site – an enduring memory for all those on that ferry that day.

Dolphins, according to legend, help transport the souls of people lost at sea. Attached to the bronze arm of the sundial are dolphins, free of the water and soaring high. It’s a most fitting image on a memorable memorial…


A Short Editorial

Jan 20
Posted by Dan Filed in Uncategorized

I have been, and will continue to be, very careful about invoking politics, religion, or other controversial topics into this blog. Such discussions have no place here. This is a site to remember and honor the souls of those lost at sea – and to marvel at the beautiful memorials created by survivors, family members, friends, governments, talented artists, and the many generous contributors and volunteers who work so long and hard to make these memorials grow from an idea to reality.

Unfortunately, the dedication of any memorial is not the end of the journey. Most memorials are designed and constructed using private funds. Often, not enough thought is given to the long-term funding and maintenance requirements of the memorial. Human traffic and the natural elements will take their toll – the memorial can become weathered, eroded, or damaged by vandals, with no funding available to repair the damage or even to provide minimal upkeep.

If you live near one of these beautiful memorials, please consider volunteering your time and energy towards maintaining the site in its original state. If you’re a visitor, then please give whatever money you can to the foundation responsible for its upkeep.