Warship Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018: One of the most unsung Boxers in the ring
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018: One of the most unsung Boxers in the ring
Here we see a 1908 postcard photo of brigantine-rigged training ship USS Boxer. At least the 4th in a long line of vessels in the U.S. Navy to carry the name and among the most under-recognized, which is odd because she had a very long and interesting career path that saw her on government service during both World Wars.
Constructed at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in 1904 at a time when the Navy had for a generation been busy constructing steel and steam warships with rifled modern breechloading naval guns, Boxer was something of a throwback to an earlier time. Some 125-feet long with a displacement of around 350-tons, she was steel-hulled but, in something not often seen in the fleet in a purpose-ordered navy ship since the 1840s, was sail-powered only as she was meant to provide a floating school for the instruction of landsmen and apprentices at Naval Training Station, Newport.
The first Boxer in the Navy was technically His Majesty’s Brig Boxer, of 14 guns, captured in a storied close-combat naval battle during the War of 1812 with the USS Enterprise (12 guns) off Portland, Maine, on 5 September 1813 that left the RN ship “a complete wreck, all of her braces and rigging shot away, her main topmast and topgallant mast hanging over the side, fore and main masts virtually gone, three feet of water in her hold and no surgeon to tend to her wounded.”
The prize was later sold in New England but the action was so fierce that a 14-gun brig constructed by C. and D. Churchill of Middletown, Conn. was commissioned as the USS Boxer in 1815. Finishing the war, she went to fight pirates in the Gulf of Mexico (Jean Lafitte, anyone) but was lost at sea off Belize in 1817. The 2nd and 3rd Boxers under the Navy Jack were a 10-gun schooner that served in the West Indies and African squadrons in the 1830s and 40s and a captured blockade runner flipped into federal service during the Civil War then disposed of in 1868.
A beautiful ship, the Boxer at the center of our tale was commissioned 11 May 1905 and sailed for Newport where she spent the next seven years on Narragansett Bay as relief for the old stationary training ship USS Constellation in her mission of schooling the bluejackets that the U.S. Navy would start the Great War with.
On 20 October 1912, she reported for duty at Annapolis, Md., to serve as a training vessel for Naval Academy midshipmen, a task she would complete in June 1914 that saw her take mids on a number of cruises in the West Indies that included at least one stop in the Panama Canal Zone.
Chopping back to Naval Training Station Newport, she would continue her duties in educating boots until she was declared surplus after just 15 years with the fleet.
On 14 May 1920, she was transferred to the Department of the Interior for use by the Bureau of Education in Alaska and would start a new chapter in her life. With a capacity of 500 tons, she would be used annually to carry supplies, equipment, teachers, and medical personnel to stations and distribution points along the coast of Alaska, to as far north as Point Barrow. During seasons when northern navigation was closed, Boxer served as a floating school to train local Alaskans in operating and maintaining the vessel and its equipment– what we would call STEM today.
Equipped with an auxiliary 450 hp. diesel engine while keeping her sail rig, she was to make two (sometimes three) trips per season from Seattle to Alaska carrying supplies and educators to establish and maintain schools and hospitals in the growing but isolated land.
Put into service as the BIA Motor Vessel Boxer, she was often still just referred to as USS Boxer in correspondence.
While in Navy service her regular crew amounted to 64 but while working for Ed it was decreased to a dozen officers and men.
S. T. L. Whitlam, Captain
O. J. Hansen, First Officer. (’24)
Arthur Friend, First Officer. (’25)
Elsworth Bush, Second Officer
Herman Selwick, Chief Engineer
Emil Holland, Second Engineer
Billy Woodruth (Eskimo), Asst. Engineer
Abraham McGamet (Eskimo), Asst. Engineer
Duff Barney, Steward (’24)
J. S. Clark, Steward (’25)
Alphonso Manuel, Asst. Steward
Carl Madsen (Eskimo), Asst. Steward
Harry Anakok (Eskimo), Asst. Steward
Eskimo Sailors and Deck Hands:
Ray Barster—from Barrow, Alaska.
George Porter—from Wainwright, Alaska.
Robert James—from Wainwright, Alaska.
Isaac Washington—from Kotzebue, Alaska.
Jack Jones—from Noatak, Alaska.
Dwight Tivick—from Wales, Alaska.
Roy Coppock—from Noatak, Alaska.
Sweeny Uluk—from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.
During the summer months, doctors and nurses aboard Boxer held clinics wherever the ship anchored. In 1925, the staff treated 500 children in the region and noted the following issues:
Her schedule the first year in service shows how busy this work was:
By 1927, her efforts helped support 93 schools attended by 3,660 pupils.
As noted by the report of the Commissioner of Education to Congress:
“To may settlements, the annual visit of the Boxer furnishes their only means of communication with the rest of the world. Its passengers are the teachers, doctors, and nurses going to or returning from their voluntary exile. Its cargo includes lumber and hardware for use in constructing school buildings at places hitherto unreached by the bureau, the coal and food supplies required for a year and a year’s supply of books, furniture and equipment needed by the schools.”
Boxer had some issues in the poorly-charted territory and ran aground at least three times with the most serious of these being on White Cliff Island Reef in British Columbia, although she was no worse for wear. In turn, she rescued the crew of the lost schooner Arctic in August 1924 after that vessel was crushed in the ice just south of Point Barrow and later did the same that season for the crew of the smashed Canadian coaster Lady Kindersley.
Remaining in active service with BIA through 1937, she also transported reindeer from one place to another (as well as reindeer meat and hides to market in Seattle obo small town vendors), and her crew installed a wireless station at the village of Savoonga on Saint Lawrence Island.
It was that year that her skipper reported something strange:
“The weather bureau here [Seattle] said today [November 3) it received a radiogram from the Bureau of Education ship Boxer describing a violent volcanic eruption on Yunaska Island in the Aleutian chain west of Unalaska. The Boxer said it passed 15 miles northwest of Yunaska and that the island was in flames from the eruption. The disturbance seemed to be the most violent in the center, diminishing on the east and west ends.”
A UP article published in the Nevada State Journal states that Isak Lystad, captain of the Boxer, reported the eruption sighted on November 2, and that “explosions could be heard from hundreds of miles” and that “smoke, fire, and ashes were ballooned thousands of feet into the air.”
Largely sidelined by 1938, (replaced by the purpose-built and much larger wooden-hulled North Star) Boxer was snatched up along with 16 other vessels in 1941 by the Army for use in the World War II Alaska Supply Service, shipping supplies up from the lower 48 to the territory that was then under threat from the Japanese.
All 16 of these vessels were liquidated by the Army after the war, leaving Boxer‘s ultimate fate unknown.
Little remains of the vessel today other than her log books (both Navy 1905-1920 and BIA 1922-1937) in the National Archives
Boxer, of course, has been remembered in two much more high-profile follow-on vessels, the Essex-class fleet carrier USS Boxer (CV-21), which joined the fleet in 1945 and remained in service until 1969:
And the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD-4), which has been on active service since 1995 and is going strong.
Displacement (tons): 346
Length: 125.3 feet oa, 108.0 feet, wl
Draft: 9.2-feet mean, 16.7-feet full load
Rig: Sail, hermaphrodite brig rig as constructed
Propulsion (HP): 450 hp., diesel after 1922
Complement: 4 officers, 64 men. Could carry as many as 100 cadets
Armament: none designed, later mounted 4-6pdrs after 1910 (removed 1920)
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