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Some mariners are harder to kill than they look

The Australian War Memorial has this great (audio) show, Collected, where they talk about artifacts and the history behind them. The latest episode, below, runs 25 minutes and details the stories behind four maritime disasters and “the people who survived against the odds.”

Most interesting among them is the tale of the Dutch oil tanker Ondina which, escorted by the corvette HMIS Bengal (J243), stumbled across the path of two well-armed Japanese armed merchant cruisers, Aikoku Maru and Hōkoku Maru.

The two Japanese warships had eight 6-inch and four 3-inch guns between them as well as torpedo tubes and armed floatplanes while Bengal only had a single 4-inch deck gun and Ondina’s merchant sailors manned a 4-inch piece of their own. Incredibly, both the Allied ships survived a pitched sea battle that sent Hōkoku Maru to the bottom then managed to limp on to Australia.

The show is very interesting.

Dorie Miller to be remembered in a new carrier

The (A)SECNAV over the weekend announced that, in honor of MLK Day, USS West Virginia Pearl Harbor hero cook PO3 Dorie Miller will be the namesake of a new Gerald Ford-class carrier, the future CVN-81.

Of course, it does kinda rub me a skosh the wrong way as far as naming conventions go, with aircraft carriers generally named after famous battles, other aircraft carriers, and presidents. Traditionally, destroyers and frigates were named in honor of naval heroes up to and including Medal of Honor winners. In fact, Miller formerly had a Cold War-era Knox-class frigate named after him (DE/FF-1091)

USS Miller (DE/FF-1091) underway off Cape Henry, Va., on 20 May 1974. (U.S. Navy photograph K-103414, National Archives and Records Administration, Still Pictures Division, College Park, Md.) NHHC K-103414

Still, in my mind, it is far better to name a carrier for Miller than for Carl Vinson and John Stennis, as have been done in the past, just saying.

Sure, you can argue that Vinson and Stennis both held and pulled important purse strings while in Capitol Hill for the military– but they never had to face down an incoming Japanese Val with a machine gun they were never trained to use.

As noted by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly’s office:

This will be the second ship named in honor of Miller, and the first aircraft carrier ever named for an African American. This will also be the first aircraft carrier to be named in honor of a Sailor for actions while serving in the enlisted ranks.

“In selecting this name, we honor the contributions of all our enlisted ranks, past and present, men and women, of every race, religion and background,” said Modly. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, ‘Everybody can be great – because anybody can serve’. No one understands the importance and true meaning of service than those who have volunteered to put the needs of others above themselves.”

On Dec. 7, 1941, Miller was collecting laundry on the battleship West Virginia (BB-48), when the attack from Japanese forces commenced. When the alarm for general quarters sounded he headed for his battle station, an anti-aircraft battery magazine, only to discover that torpedo damage had wrecked it. Miller was ordered to the ship’s bridge to aid the mortally wounded commanding officer, and subsequently manned a .50 caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun until he ran out of ammunition. Miller then helped move many other injured Sailors as the ship was ordered abandoned due to her own fires and flaming oil floating down from the destroyed Arizona (BB-33). West Virginia lost 150 of its 1,500 person crew.

Miller’s actions during the attack earned him a commendation from then Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and the Navy Cross, which was presented to him personally by Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at the time.

Nimitz stated: this marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race and I’m sure the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.

“Doris Miller stood for everything that is good about our nation, and his story deserves to be remembered and repeated wherever our people continue the watch today,” said Modly.

In 1943, Miller died aboard USS Liscome Bay (CVE 56) when the ship was hit by a torpedo and sank off Butaritari Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.

The future USS Doris Miller and other Ford-class carriers will be the premier forward asset for crisis response and humanitarian relief, and early decisive striking power in major combat operations. The aircraft carrier and the carrier strike group will provide forward presence, rapid response, endurance on station, and multi-mission capability throughout its 50-year service life.

Meanwhile, USS Gerald R. Ford is apparently making good progress when it comes to launches and traps on Hornets, Greyhounds and T-45 Goshawks, working through teething problems on its Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS) and Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG), which is good news as far as the class itself goes.

Hopefully, they will get the bugs worked out before the next “big one,” a factor that could help deter just such an event.

Chester’s announcement, 78 years ago today

At the battered harbor just three weeks after the bloody attack that crippled the U.S. battleship force in the Pacific, Adm. Chester William Nimitz, Sr. (USNA 1905), who cut his teeth on cranky early submarines before the Great War and by 1939 was the chief of the Bureau of Navigation, assumed command of the U.S Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) on the orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, replacing the outgoing Adm. (reduced to RADM) Husband Edward Kimmel.

As a nod to his early days (and because no battleships were available), Nimitz hoisted his flag first on the Tambor-class submarine USS Grayling (SS-209).

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN presenting awards on board USS Grayling (SS-209), at the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base, following ceremonies in which he took command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, 31 December 1941. The former fleet commander, Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel is standing to the right, in a white uniform with two-star insignia. Admiral Nimitz has just presented the Navy Cross to Ensign F.M. Fisler, USNR. Others receiving awards, standing left-to-right in line behind Nimitz and Fisler, are Ensign C.F. Gimber, USNR; AMM1c L.H. Wagoner (also awarded the Navy Cross); AMM1c W.B. Watson; R3c H.C. Cupps; R2c W.W. Warlick and AMM2c C.C. Forbes. They were the crew of a Navy bomber. USS Pelias (AS-14) is in the background. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NH 50799

USS Grayling (SS-209). The signed inscription reads, “At Pearl Harbor on 31 Dec. 1941 hoisted 4-star Admiral’s flag on U.S.S Grayling and took command of U.S. Pacific Fleet. C.W. Nimitz, Fleet Admiral, USN” NH 58089

Nimitz, of course, would be slightly better remembered than Kimmel and would hold his job until replaced at Thanksgiving 1945 by ADM Raymond A. Spruance. Interestingly enough, Nimitz would hand over command to Spruance in 1945 from the deck of another submarine, the newly-commissioned USS Menhaden (SS-377), a Warship Wednesday alum.

Sadly, Grayling would be lost off Manila around 9 September 1943 while on her eight and final war patrol. She racked up 20,575 tons of enemy shipping and six battle stars but is on eternal patrol and has never been located. Her legacy was carried forth by USS Grayling (SSN-646), a Sturgeon-class attack submarine which held the line in the Cold War and was decommissioned in 1997, her sail saved from the breakers and installed a memorial at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

 

Remembering CG1363, 55 years on

Near Strawberry Rock in Trinidad, California is the wreckage of an HH52 Seaguard with a sad story tied to it.

CG 1363, an HH-52 Seaguard helicopter that crashed in a severe storm during a rescue operation Dec. 22, 1964.

On Dec. 22, 1964, the helicopter crew was dispatched to Humboldt Bay, where roads were closed from flood damage, to assist with evacuations. At 2:48 p.m., the helicopter arrived in the Humboldt Bay area where Hansen, a local resident, volunteered to join the crew to help spot flood survivors and to help orient the crew to local landmarks. The helicopter crew, along with Hansen, began evacuating people from rooftops and flood areas, ultimately saving 10 lives.

At 6:03 p.m., weather conditions worsened and the Arcata Airport Flight Service Station (FSS) received a radio call from the helicopter, which was trying to land with three rescued people aboard in low visibility and high winds. Approximately eight minutes before the radio call the airport had lost power, disabling the radio navigation beacon that was necessary to navigate to the airport.

FSS instruments indicated that the helicopter was northwest of the airport. The controller continued to radio the pilot steering directions to help him land.

The pilot reported that he was at 1,000 feet and asked if that altitude would clear all obstructions along his path to the airport. The FSS controller replied that 1,000 feet might be inadequate due to high terrain just east of his bearing. A citizen living 12 miles north of the airport along the coast reported seeing a helicopter about one mile offshore and heading south. FSS attempted to relay the report to the pilot but could not regain communications.  Repeated calls to the helicopter were met with silence.

Three days after losing contact with the crew of CG 1363, a U.S. Navy helicopter from the USS Bennington located the crash and directed ground search parties to the site. The helicopter had crashed on a slope at 1,130 feet of elevation nine miles north of the Arcata Airport near a landmark today known as Strawberry Rock. Located with the wreckage were seven dead; the three crewmen, Hansen, two women and an infant girl.

Wreckage of CG 1363, an HH-52 Seaguard helicopter that crashed during a severe storm while conducting a rescue operation Dec. 22, 1964, as seen this week. (USCG photo)

Each year Sector Humboldt Bay honors the lost crew. USCG LCDR Donald Prince, from New Jersey; Royal Canadian Navy Sub-Lt. Allen Leonard Alltree; and USCG Petty Officer 2nd Class James A. Nininger, Jr., from Virginia, a Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco-based helicopter crew, as well as Bud Hansen, a citizen volunteer are remembered in an annual ceremony.

The Sector maintains a memorial at the installation, including some of the skin from the airframe of CG 1363.

Warship Wednesday (on a Tuesday), Dec. 17, 2019: The Count’s Bones

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday (on a Tuesday), Dec. 17, 2019: The Count’s Bones

Photo by Ensign Richard D. Sampson, USN. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 51977

Here we see the aftermath of this very day in history some 80 years ago– the scuttled German “pocket battleship” SMS Graf Spee, resting on the bottom in 25 feet of water off the harbor of Montevideo, Uruguay, following the 1939 Battle of the River Plate.

While internet warships commentators and naval museum fans will fight to the death that Graf Spee and her fellow 1930s-era Deutschland-class “Panzerschiff” (armored ships) were an abomination when compared to regular battleships– vessels the Germans were unable to build due to Versallies limits– they did pack a half-dozen bruising 11-inch SK C/28 guns and another eight 5.9-inch SK C/28 guns in a 16,000-ton hull with a minimum of 3.9-inches of belt armor.

While incapable of holding off even a serious pre-dreadnought battlewagon, by nature of their 28-knot speed and amazing 16,000nm range (at 18 knots!) they were ideal for commerce raiding and able to chew up anything that could catch them that was smaller than a battlecruiser.

Admiral Graf Spee Preliminary artist’s impression of the ship by Dr. Oscar Parkes, Editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships, circa 1932. When completed in 1936, Admiral Graf Spee’s superstructure differed from that shown here. NH 91874

Named after Vizeadmiral Maximilian Johannes Maria Hubert Reichsgraf (Count) von Spee, who was lost at the December 1914 Battle of the Falkland Islands along with his two sons, our pocket battleship was laid down 1 October 1932 at Reichsmarinewerft, Wilhelmshaven when Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was still Germany’s president, she was commissioned 6 January 1936 after the Machtergreifung brought Hitler to power. In a nod to the latter, she picked up a giant bronze Nazi eagle on her stern to complement her Von Spee coat of arms on her bow, a blend of Kaiser and Fuhrer, if you will.

Admiral Graf Spee moored in the harbor, circa 1936-1937. Note the coat of arms mounted on her bow. NH 81110

Her brief peacetime career was filled with intrigues as the ship participated in the Spanish Civil War and the lead up to the Big One in 1939.

Kriegsmarine Panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee in Spithead U.K. 1937. Colorized photo by Atsushi Yamashita/Monochrome Specter http://blog.livedoor.jp/irootoko_jr/

With that, she was soon at her job of reaping British merchantmen in the Atlantic and had sunk nine such vessels (taking care to preserve the lives of their mariners) before a force of three much smaller British cruisers– HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax, and HMNZS Achilles-– fought a running battle with the big German at sea off the coast of Uruguay near the mouth of the River Plate on 13 December.

While all four ships involved were damaged, they were all still afloat at the end of the engagement with 36 of the Graf Spee‘s complement killed and the Royal Navy consigning 72 of their own to the sea at the end of the day.

Watercolor by Edward Tufnell, RN (Retired), depicting the cruisers HMS Exeter (foreground) and HMNZS Achilles (right center background) in action with the German armored ship Admiral Graf Spee (right background). Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. Donation of Melvin Conant, 1969. NH 86397-KN

HMS ACHILLES against the ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE off River Plate. by John S. Smith, via Royal New Zealand Navy

Admiral Graf Spee vs Ajax, Achilles, and Exeter, painting by Adam Werka

For a more detailed account of the battle, which would be wasted here, see the Royal Navy’s “The Battle of the River Plate: An Account of Events Before, During and After the Action Up to the Self Destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee, 1940” at the National Archives. It is 16-pages including three great maps.

Suffering from over 30 hits from the British guns, the German vessel needed time to lick her wounds and bury her dead ashore.

Admiral Graf Spee anchored off Montevideo, Uruguay in mid-December 1939, following the Battle of the River Plate. NH 59657

Denied a lengthy stay in neutral Montevideo, German CPT Hans Langsdorff believed a British bluff that a much stronger force was waiting for him offshore and scuttled his vessel on 17 December to comply with the local demand that he leave the port in 72 hours. This included misinformation that the battlecruiser Renown was offshore when, in fact, she was not.

With most of his crew looking on from shore, Graf Spee began to sink, ablaze. She would burn for three full days.

As Graf Spee only had enough fuel for about one more day of steaming anyway, and the Uruguayans would not transfer any more, it was an academically sound choice to scuttle the German ship. Even if it managed to break out, she would have been dead in the water the next day in a very unfriendly South Atlantic more than 6,000 miles from home. Instead of a watery grave, the surviving crew of the pocket battleship lived to see another day.

Of course, the Battle of the River Plate was the first chance since the loss of the auxiliary cruiser HMS Rawalpindi the month before for the Royal Navy to exact some measure of revenge for that ship’s heroic stand against the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst.

And on the 18th of December in a broadcast to the Nation, Churchill would compare the tragic but heroic end of Rawalpindi to the inglorious scuttling of the German pocket-battleship Admiral Graf Spee in Montevideo Roads (the day before) with the comment, “Once in harbour she had the choice of submitting in the ordinary manner to internment, which would have been unfortunate for her, or, of coming out to fight and going down in battle, like the Rawalpindi, which would have been honourable to her”.

On 19 December, two days after Graf Spee settled in the muck of the river, Langsdorff led 1,038 men across the border with Argentina into exile, where they would be held together under local custody. Despite telling the local press that he was “satisfied,” Langsdorff, a Great War veteran who earned his Iron Cross at Jutland, fatally shot himself in his Buenos Aires hotel room with his Mauser pocket pistol. He was lying on Graf Spee‘s battle ensign.

Some 300,000 Argentines attended the 45‐year‐old captain’s funeral.

Funeral procession of Captain Hans Langsdorff NH 85636

On 2 February 1940, just six weeks after the German ship was scuttled, the brand new light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50), with the U.S. Navy still officially neutral in the conflict, called on Montevideo while on her shakedown cruise. Soon, a boarding party that included ENS Richard D. Sampson motored over to the wreck and boarded her to collect what intel they could. After all, the Germans still had two other sisterships to Graf Spee in active service at the time.

Ship’s Number Two 10.5cm/65 twin anti-aircraft gun mount (port side, amidships), photographed on board her wreck on 2 February 1940 by Ensign Richard D. Sampson, USN, of USS Helena (CL-50). The shield of her Number Four 15cm/55 gun is partially visible in the lower right. Her port side crane is in the upper left. NH 50959

Photograph of the mounting for a 20mm machine gun, on the upper platform of the ship’s forward superstructure, with a sketch showing the location of that platform’s two machine gun mounts. NH 51979

Photograph of the ship’s forward broadside (15cm gun) director, with a USS Helena crew member sitting on it. The view looks aft, with the forward superstructure in the background. The director has partially collapsed to starboard. The sketch below shows the director’s arrangement, extending down to the main deck. NH 51982

Photograph of a shell hole in the ship’s forward superstructure tower, made by an eight-inch shell fired by the British heavy cruiser Exeter. The hole was described as large enough to crawl through. NH 51986-A

Photograph of the interior of the ship’s forward superstructure tower, showing damage caused by an eight-inch shell fired by the British heavy cruiser Exeter during the Battle of the River Plate. Cut wires and the absence of a fire control tube were noted on the original report in which this image appeared. NH 51987-A

Photograph of the ship’s partially collapsed smokestack, with its searchlight platform, seen from the after port end of the forward superstructure. The aircraft recovery crane’s boom is in the lower right. NH 51991-A

Graf Spee would be partially broken up above the waterline in situ, with its good German steel ironically– according to legend– going on to be used to make Ballester Molina M1911-ish pistols in Argentina for a British SOE contract.

Ian McCollum over at Forgotten Weapons opines on that in the below:

As Graf Spee‘s 1942-43 salvage was done by a British contractor, much of her salvageable secrets were uncovered.

Today, numerous parts of the ship are on public display around Latin America including a large salvaged optical rangefinder, telegraphs and several small deck guns. One of her anchors stands at a memorial in Montevideo. Further, hundreds of small relics of the vessel are in personal collections around the world.

Her 880-pound stern eagle was recovered by divers in 2006 as part of a government effort to further scrap the ship but has been the subject of much bickering over its final ownership, and it has been in storage onshore ever since.

It is set to be auctioned off in the coming weeks to comply with a court order with possible winners paying upwards of $30 million for the item, which includes a large swastika in the dirty bird’s talons.

Of Graf Spee’s foes at the River Plate, HMNZS Achilles‘ Y-turret was preserved when (as the Indian cruiser INS Delhi) she was scrapped at the end of the 1970s, and since the mid-1990s has been sitting outside HMNZS Philomel (a Royal New Zealand Navy shore station) at Devonport, Auckland. HMS Exeter (68) was sunk during the Second Battle of the Java Sea, 1 March 1942 and her wreck has been destroyed by illegal salvagers. However, Exeter’s bell, removed in a 1940 refit, is on display at the White Ensign Club in Portsmouth. HMS Ajax (22), scrapped in 1949, has her bell on a monument in Montevideo, donated by ADM Sir Henry Harwood and Sir Eugen Millington-Drake, the latter responsible for circulating the rumors that a large British force was off the port in 1939, waiting for Graf Spee.

Of the more than 1,000 Graf Spee sailors shipwrecked in South America in 1939, nearly 200 managed to escape their loose Argentine custody and, either make for Chile and other points North, or return to Germany by other means. One of these, KKpt Jürgen Wattenberg, reached Germany in May 1940 and would join the U-boat arm only to be captured again in 1942 when his submarine was sunk by the British, spending the rest of the war in the clink in Arizona. Another, Oblt.z.S Friedrich Wilhelm Rasenack, managed to make it back home by June 1941 and would later write a book about his former ship.

In all, between the sailors who never left and those who returned to Latin America after seeing how bad life was in post-war Allied-occupied Germany, some 500 survivors settled in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. They established large colonies in Bariloche, Villa Belgrano, and Cumbrecita, among others. The Waldschanke club in Buenos Aires still held raucous Graf Spee crew reunions well into the 1970s.

The last survivor of pocket battleship’s 1939 crew died at age 89 in Montevideo in 2007.

As for Langsdorff, to this day, his crew’s descendants regularly visit his grave in Argentina’s La Chacarita National Cemetery in Buenos Aires to commemorate him, with many holding that his decision saved their father’s or grandfather’s respective lives.

“The affection, gratitude and unwavering trust of many former Spee soldiers in many encounters over the years have made me proud and defined my joy at the rescue of the many men by my father,” the Captian’s 82-year-old daughter, Nedden, recently told German media. “So I hope one will find a way for him to be honored publicly as well.”

His actions are still celebrated in the German navy today.

“In this respect, it is a historical example of timeless soldierly virtues,” the spokesman for the German Defense Ministry said. “These are recognized in the Bundeswehr and his example is used at the naval school in Mürwik, in teaching and training, to support the young officer candidates in their personal confrontation with the political, legal and ethical dimensions of the military and naval service.”

Meanwhile, in Germany, the Internationales Maritimes Museum in Hamburg has an extremely detailed 1:100 scale model of Graf Spee, built by master Helmut Schmidt, on display on deck 5 of the museum. It is the closest thing to a memorial to the ship in her home country.

Photo: Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg

Specs


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Last Arizona Vet, arriving via Mark V

The ashes of Lauren Bruner, a survivor of the 7 December 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and Oahu, be placed inside the wreckage of the USS Arizona (BB-39) in an interment ceremony at the USS Arizona Memorial on Oahu, Hawaii, Dec. 8. Bruner is the 44th and expected to be the last, crew member to be interred in accordance with this U.S. Navy ritual.

As noted by the AP, 

“On Dec. 7, 1941, then-21-year-old Lauren Bruner was the second-to-last man to escape the burning wreckage of the USS Arizona after a Japanese plane dropped a bomb that ignited an enormous explosion in the battleship’s ammunition storage compartment.

He lived to be 98 years old, marrying twice and outliving both wives. He worked for a refrigeration company for nearly four decades.”

The last three living Arizona survivors plan to be laid to rest with their families, but Bruner decided to rejoin his old friends.

The dive was accomplished by U.S. Navy divers and Army personnel of the 84th Engineer Battalion’ s 7th Dive det– the latter of which have been training this last week to use two spun copper Mark V dive helmets and matching suits in the ceremony.

 

A Handgun That Saw Hell

On 7 December 1941, the Mahan-class destroyer USS Shaw (DD-373) was in the old New Orleans YFD2 drydock at the Pearl Harbor Naval Yard. Soon after the Japanese attack began, she suffered three direct hits by 500-pound bombs and two more that landed inside the dock itself. Within 20 minutes, the resulting inferno, fueled by wooden shoring and blocks under her hull, reached her forward magazine.

The resulting spectacular explosion, caught on cameras across at Ford Island, blew Shaw’s bow off and filled the holed dock with  water and blazing fuel oil.

USS SHAW exploding Pearl Harbor. NARA 80-G-16871

In the days after the attack, a civilian employee at PHNY found a battered and burned Colt M1911 transitional model on the deck of YFD2 that remained above water. Besides Shaw’s 1936-dated bell which is at the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington, the pistol is part of the destroyer’s legacy and remains at Pearl today.

(NPS)

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