Saturday, October 24, 2015

Artifact Spotlight: USS Lexington (CV 16) photo album

Captain Thomas H. Robbins must have felt a deep sense of gratification when he stepped down as commanding officer of USS Lexington (CV 16). Having assumed command in January 1945, he directed the ship’s operations during the last months of the war with Japan and witnessed the surrender in Tokyo Bay. When he was recalled to the United States in November following his promotion to rear admiral, his crew presented him with a personalized photo album as a going away gift. Luckily for us, this album recently found its way to the Naval War College Museum as part of a donation made by the daughter of Rear Admiral Robbins. It contains a wealth of photographs that document Lexington’s activities during the final battles of the war in the Pacific as well as peace time operations in Japan immediately following the surrender. Few, if any, of these photos have been published, and we are thrilled to have it as one of the newest additions to our collection.
The Japanese battleship Ise appears in the upper left corner of this photo. After the loss of four carriers at Midway in 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy converted Ise to a hybrid battleship-aircraft carrier to make up for the losses. Lexington teamed up with other carriers from Task Force 58 to sink her on July 28, 1945.
Refueling at sea is a difficult procedure even under the best of conditions. The risk of an accident grows even greater when it has to be done in stormy weather. Here, USS Ault (DD 698) conducts underway replenishment with Lexington.
Lexington’s pilots took this dramatic photograph showing one of their first overflights of Japanese prisoner of war camps in late August 1945. They immediately began round-the-clock flights to drop food, medicine, clothing, and even a letter from Robbins informing them that the war was over.
Lexington’s scoreboard at the end of the war shows the incredible amount of damage she did to Japan’s air and naval forces.

This donation is especially valuable given Rear Admiral Robbins’ close connection with the Naval War College. He graduated as a student in 1937 and returned in 1953 to serve as chief of staff. Robbins went on to become acting President before receiving his own appointment to the Presidency in 1956.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Alfred Thayer Mahan and the Battle of Valcour Island

If there is such a thing as a “good”defeat, the Battle of Valcour Island may be an example. The summer of 1776 found American forces in the Lake Champlain Valley in full retreat. Following an unsuccessful invasion of Canada the year before, two expeditions led by Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgonery returned to the colonies devastated by casualties, disease, and lack of supplies. Not far behind them were fresh British reinforcements recently landed at Quebec. The lake being the natural invasion route for an army moving south from Canada, Arnold recognized that in order to prevent an immediate disaster, he had to quickly build a fleet that was strong enough to slow the British advance, if not stop it outright. He established a ship yard at Skenesborough (present-day Whitehall, NY) and started building a fleet from scratch as fast as his labor and supplies would allow.

The British commander, General Sir Guy Carleton, hoped to capture Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of the lake before winter arrived and use it as a base from which to push further south, eventually cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies. Before he could advance, though, Carleton had to clear Lake Champlain of enemy resistance so that supplies for his army could flow freely from Canada. Like their American counterparts, the British spent much of the summer building a fleet, a task made all the more difficult by the remote location of their base at Saint-Jean. It was not until October 9 that the collection of gunboats, schooners, and large ships set sail in search of the Americans. Two days later, they found the rebel fleet anchored in a defensive position between the western shore and Valcour Island. When it was over, eleven of the fifteen vessels under Arnold’s command had been destroyed or captured versus only a handful of gunboats lost for the British.

Map of Lake Champlain showing the Battle of Valcour Island
William Faden, 1776

The remnants of the American army fled to Fort Ticonderoga while the British advanced as far as Crown Point, just fifteen miles away. But even as they did so, snow was already visible on the Adirondack mountain tops. Carleton decided that it was too late in the year to continue his offensive, so he returned to Canada and entered winter quarters. The army set out once again the following spring under the command of Lieutenant General John Burgoyne and made it as far as Saratoga before suffering defeat , again largely due to the actions of Benedict Arnold. Burgoyne’s surrender convinced King Louis XVI of France to openly support the Americans, an alliance which eventually resulted in another British capitulation four years later at Yorktown.

Continental Navy gunboat Philadelphia, sunk on October 11, 1776
Model by Frank Niziolek
Gift to the Naval War College Foundation

Historians of the American Revolution credit Arnold’s fleet with saving the Revolution through its sacrifice. In doing so, many use quotes from Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence. Published in 1913, this book was a revised version of a chapter that Mahan wrote in 1898 for William Laird Clowe’s multivolume history of the Royal Navy. Mahan’s description of Valcour Island as a “strife of pigmies for the prize of a continent”[1] is a favorite of contemporary writers, as is his argument that no other fleet in history “lived to better purpose or died more gloriously, for [the American fleet] had saved the Lake for that year.”[2]

Alfred Thayer Mahan, c.1904
Library of Congress

While Mahan certainly believed that Arnold’s ships prevented the early collapse of the Revolution, his ideas went even further than that. In the introduction to Major Operations, he observed that wars have a fearful tendency to spread beyond their original boundaries. After starting with the series of crises then unfolding in the Balkans, Mahan took up the American Revolution as an earlier example of a war that began as a limited conflict but ultimately involved multiple European powers fighting in many parts of the world. The purpose of Major Operations was to highlight the global nature of the conflict and impress upon American readers “the vast extent of the struggle to which our own Declaration of Independence was but the prelude.”[3] It is instructive to take one of the aforementioned quotes and present it in a fuller context:

The little American navy on Champlain was wiped out; but never had any force, big or small, lived to better purpose or died more gloriously, for it had saved the Lake for that year. Whatever deductions may be made for blunders, and for circumstances of every character which made the British campaign of 1777 abortive and disastrous, thus leading directly to the American alliance with France in 1778 [italics added for emphasis], the delay, with all that it involved, was obtained by the Lake campaign of 1776.[4]

Mahan’s main point about the Battle of Valcour Island was not merely that it contributed to the surrender of Burgoyne’s army, but rather that a naval battle brought about the conditions that resulted in the French alliance. Writing in the years just before World War I, Mahan argued for maintaining a strong navy in order to keep foreign conflicts from spreading to U.S. shores. But as he observed, navies could embroil nations in war just as easily as they could prevent them. His thoughts on the Revolution are best summed up in one sentence from the chapter on Lake Champlain:

That the war spread from America to Europe, from the English Channel to the Baltic, from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, from the West Indies to the Mississippi, and ultimately involved the waters of the remote peninsula of Hindustan, is traceable, through Saratoga, to the rude flotilla which in 1776 anticipated its enemy in the possession of Lake Champlain.[5]

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

[1] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1913), 18
[2] Ibid., 25
[3] Ibid., 3-4
[4] Ibid., 25
[5] Ibid., 7

Friday, October 2, 2015

ISIS as a Proto-state
It is difficult for the majority of people in the United States to understand how ISIS could appeal to such a wide audience, drawing adherents from the West, from multiple countries in the Middle East, and Africa.  Yesterday, October 1, at the Eight Bells Lecture held in Brett Hall and sponsored by the Naval War College Museum, Mr. Haider Mullick provided an overview of the topic and gave perspective to the mayhem and brutality of the entity known as ISIS.
Mr. Mullick is presently a PhD candidate at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.  In addition, he is a senior lecturer at the Naval Post Graduate School and adjunct professor at the Naval War College where he teaches a course on ISIS/Modern terrorism.  As president of Red Teaming Associates, he has worked with various think-tanks and also advised the Department of Defense on US-Middle East relations as a senior advisor.
Organizing his lecture around four key points, Mullick described: firstly  the broad appeal of ISIS, as well as the weaknesses; secondly,  understanding the many moving parts in the Middle East; thirdly, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his rise and ultimate death in 2006, and his legacy; and finally, how U.S. involvement has contributed to the present state of affairs in the region. 

The genesis of ISIS began with Zarqawi.  To follow his life is to see the blossoming of a radical philosophy that has continued to grow even after his death.  He learned to fight with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Then, gaining funding, he exported his terror to his home country Jordan.  His big opportunity to expand his influence came with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the exploitation of Arab-Kurdish and Sunni-Shiite tensions.  The organizational structure, the infrastructure built upon captured wealth and territory, the use of social media promoting the ISIS agenda and recruiting, and establishment of municipal administrations providing basic services and food to the local population are all remnants of his vision for establishing a modern caliphate.

ISIS is an example of “crowd-sourcing” terrorism; but, above all, it is a military campaign that values action and victory over discussion.  To defeat ISIS will require a coalition of seemingly unlikely partners and, although all wars end, the disenfranchised will continue to struggle and be a fertile field for continued strife.

The next Eight Bells Lecture will be held on October 22 with “The role of Los Alamos in the Atomic Age it Introduced to History” by Dr. Ron Barks.  For more information, call 841-4052/2101.