The DPAA’s Battleship USS Oklahoma Underwater Disinterment and Recovery Project has recently hit the 200th identification, and the agency is now moving forward with plans to do the same for those unidentified Sailors and Marines from USS West Virginia and USS California as well.
“Over the years, America has faced many conflicts: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam and more. Unfortunately, sometimes service members do not come home, their whereabouts unknown. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) had made it their mission to use improved technology to help reunite service members and their families. Recent advances in technology have allowed scientists and researchers to explore underwater landscapes in search of the remains of missing Sailors. Video by Petty Officer 2nd Class Taylor Stinson / All Hands Magazine”
The illegal scrappers of the Malaccan Straits and Sea of Java, in the search for cheap “low background steel,” have notoriously broken many of the venerated shipwrecks of the 1942 naval clashes of the area to include desecrating the graves of the Royal Navy’s E-class destroyers, HMS Electra and HMS Encounter, along with the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (of Graf Spee fame). The Royal Netherlands Navy’s cruisers HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java, and HNLMS Kortenaer were likewise plundered, with some wrecks reportedly disappearing completely.
American and Japanese ships have similarly been vandalized.
Many of these ships have simply vanished from the seafloor, to include the human remains resting inside their compartments for 70 years.
“We often found the bones,” an Indonesian ship breaker told The Guardian in 2018. “We worked here all the time, so we didn’t pay attention to them, whether there was bones or no bones, it made no difference to us.”
“There were plenty of human skeletons inside that ship. They gathered them, put them in a sack, and buried them here. I think there were four sacks,” another man told the Guardian. “Like the ones used to carry rice.”
Closer to Singapore, Malaysian junkers have hit the wrecks of HMS Repulse, HMS Prince of Wales (of Bismarck fame), as well as HMS Tien Kwang and HMS Kuala.
Add to this list, according to Dutch media, are the lost submarines HNLMS O 16 and HNLMS K XVII, along with the 79 men they carried.
At the start of the war in the Pacific, the Netherlands had at least 15 submarines based at Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies (O-16, O-19, O-20, K-VII, K-VIII, K-IX, K-X, K-XI, K-XII, K-XIII, K-XIV, K-XV, K-XVI, K-XVII, and K-XVIII.) While they fought hard against the Japanese and got a lot of licks in, O-16, O-20, K-XVI, and K-XVII were all lost early in the conflict while K-VII was later sunk in harbor by Japanese bombs, and K-X, K-XIII, and K-XVIII was scuttled at Surabaya to prevent their capture.
Many of these lost onderzeeboten are now gone in every sense of the word.
Now more than ever, the expression “On a sailor’s grave, there are no roses blooming (Auf einem Seemannsgrab, da blühen keine Rosen)” remains valid.
D-Day, as seen below in eight, often haunting, paintings from U.S. Army combat artist Mitchell Jamieson, who landed in Normandy on Utah Beach with an M1 Garand and a sketchbook on 6 June before making his way to Omaha, where he remained with Navy Beach Battalions for a week living in a foxhole on the beach before eventually moving inland to continue his war.
Dawn of D-Day Off The Coast of France:
“At this moment, the first assault waves and demolition parties are on their way and these men, who are to go in later can only wonder what awaits them and stare at the distant coastline, barely discernable. The boats suspended on davits above their heads with their dark shapes oddly express the taut, waiting threat of this dawn off the Normandy coast.
The far off rumble of explosions could be heard and mysterious processions of small invasion craft crossed the ship’s bow. Each ship with its barrage balloon, gleaming above it in the faint light, seeming to be symbols designed to ward off evil spirits rather than objects of modern war. Now and then flashes appear fitfully on the horizon and, in the sky above, our fighter planes sweep by to support the invasion.”
Morning of D-Day from LST:
“Coordination is an important part of the invasion. As the LCTs move in formation to execute a turn to head towards the coast with their assault troops, the transports and LSTs are seen in the distance. Overhead a P-38 Lightning used as a fighter and bomber aircraft during the invasion has just been hit, trailing a stream of white smoke and flame with a cruiser and destroyer to right, bombing objectives ashore.”
Burnt Out LCT on American Beach
“This is typical of some of the gutted wrecks along this most tragic of beaches. It had mobile anti-aircraft vehicles aboard and had been so completely ravaged by flame after being hit that its agonies had left it with a look somehow permanent and fixed in rigidity, as though suffering rigor mortis, in a way like a human corpse. A smashed LCIL is in the surf beyond the pontoon barge and an LCVP, or the remains of it, is in left foreground”
[Of note, the Gleaves-class destroyer USS Corry, nine LCILs, 21 LCTs, USS LST-715, and USS PC-1261 along with the Royal Norwegian Navy destroyer Svenner and RN destroyer HMS Wrestler were all lost off Normandy on 6 June 1944.]
The Dragon – Wrecked M4 Tank
“This burnt-out General Sherman tank was evidently hit by a German “88” [a high-velocity 88mm anti-aircraft artillery gun which was also used as an effective anti-tank weapon] and set afire. It was then partly covered with sand, probably by our bulldozers clearing an exit from the beach. A little further back from the water, a tank ditch extended for a considerable length. Part of the tank’s amphibious air-intake duct, which allowed the tank to be driven through shallow water from ship to shore, was broken off. To the right, a group of African-American troops, amphibious “duck” [DUKW – a type of wheeled land and water vehicle] drivers, gathered around a fire.”
The Sea Wall At the Eastern American Beach (Utah Beach)
“This was the scene at the easternmost of the two American beaches (Utah Beach) at about 3 p.m. on D-Day. The fighting had moved inland, but all along the seawall, which extends a considerable length of the beach, men dug themselves in – hospital corpsmen, beach battalion members, Sea Bees, and anyone whose work was on the beach itself. The beach first aid station was a short way down from here, and the wounded and dead are in the sand in front of the sea wall. The tide was out at this time, and the wounded could not be evacuated back to the ships because of the difficulty in getting landing craft in and out. An enemy artillery battery, located some distance inland from the beach but still in range, sent shells steadily over the Americans, impeding work. An ammunition truck was hit and burned at the beach’s far end. A lone LCI unloaded her troops and the men filed across the beach and started inland. In this section, beach obstacles were not as formidable as in other areas, and the demolition parties were able to clear the way for landing craft with few losses.”
First Aid Station on the Beach
“These wounded were awaiting evacuation to the ships, but the difficulty was in getting craft to the landing beaches to take them. It was low tide when many landing craft were stranded in the shallows by the swiftly subsiding water. In the meanwhile, the medics did what they could for the wounded and tried to get them out of the line of fire. A trawler was set afire just behind the sea wall and exploded spasmodically with a shower of steel fragments whining overhead. One man died, and a corpsman covered him with a blanket. Wounded were being brought back from the fighting inland, but at this stage of the invasion the wounded did not receive anything like prompt care and evacuation, although the medics and corpsmen did everything in their power.”
[Note: Of the 156,000 Allied personnel who hit the beaches on 6 June, over 10,000 became casualties, half of those killed in action. One unit, A Company of the 116th Regiment, part of the 29th Infantry Division, lost 96 percent of its 197-strong complement to death or wounds on the morning of D-Day in the surf line at Omaha Beach. “Within 20 minutes if striking the beach, A Company ceased to be an assault company and had become a forlorn little rescue party bent upon survival and the saving of lives,” noted one contemporary Army report. ]
Burial Ground Above the Beach
In the center of Omaha or Western American beach sector, the ground is fairly flat for perhaps two hundred yards, then rises sharply in a series of hills which command both the beach and the valley exits from it. Here the land levels off and fields, bordered with hedgerows, stretch back inland towards the little town of Colleville-sur-Mer and the Cherbourg road. In June 1944, if you followed the slender white tape through the mined areas up one of these hills, it was not long before you found yourself in a different world.
This was because it really belonged to the dead and because the transition from the active clatter and dust of the beach was so abrupt. This field, high over the Western American beach, became the first U.S. national cemetery on French soil of World War II. Up here the beach sounds were faint and the German prisoners digging graves seemed to be unaware of them. Over the field, there was the sound of pick and shovel and the oppressive, sickening stench of corpses, brought in for burial in truckloads, each wrapped in a mattress cover with his I.D. tag and a little bag of personal belongings to be sent to his next of kin. In the center of the field, the diggers worked in a new section while a guard with a Tommy gun looked on with expressionless features. One soldier who spoke German went around with a long stick for measuring the depth of graves and gave instructions with a great concern for details.
The work had a steady, slow and appalling rhythm. At intervals a corpse was borne on a stretcher by four Germans to a freshly dug grave and lowered without ceremony, then the earth was shoveled in again. Some of the prisoners stopped work for a moment and watched as this was going on. Others mechanically went on with digging.
In this picture a truck has come back from the front, the vehicle brutally and grimly called the “meat wagon,” and prisoners take off the corpses, laying them side by side, row on row while darkness set in over the field.
As a footnote, Maryland-born Jamieson studied at the Abbott School of Art and the Corcoran School of Art and in the 1930s was hired by the Treasury Department’s Art Project to paint murals in public buildings across the country. Volunteering for the Army as an infantryman in 1942, the 27-year old artist was soon reassigned as a combat correspondent. After the war, he continued painting and died in 1976. He has a number of works in the Smithsonian as well as in other museums.
Too often, in our rush to squeeze in summer activities this three day weekend, we forget the reason we are observing it.
Here we see the Essex-class attack carrier USS Bennington (CVA-20) as she passed Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor on 31 May 1958, Memorial Day.
Just under the surface to her port is the wreck of the Pennsylvania-class battleship USS Arizona (BB-39) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Memorial Day, 31 May 1958. Note the outline of Arizona‘s hull and the flow of oil from her fuel tanks.
Bennington‘s crew is in formation on the flight deck, spelling out a tribute to Arizona‘s crewmen who were lost in the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
During the opening stages of the horror that was the Rwandan genocide, the French moved in with a muscular response that, sadly, had too narrow a focus to make a difference for the local Rwandans.
Sparked by the dual April 1994 assassination of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, both Hutu, in the same aircraft shootdown, the respective Rwandan and Burundi civil wars kicked into overdrive with violence aimed at Tutsi tribe members.
Two days after the shootdown, some 500 French paratroopers based in the nearby Central African Republic, consisting primarily of members of the 3e Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (3e RPIMa) but with some members of the 8eRPIMa and artillerists of the 35e RAP (Régiment d’Artillerie Parachutiste), were deployed to Rwanda on orders from Paris to affect a non-combatant evacuation of French and allied nationals.
Lead by Col. Henri Poncet, 3e RPIMa’s commander, the light battalion-sized force managed to evac some 1,417 people– including 445 French– to Bujumbura in Burundi and Bangui in the CAR within a week.
Dubbed Opération Amaryllis, the mission was a success when judged by its immediate tasking, but history, sobered with the fact that an estimated 1 million Tutsi perished in the ensuing genocide as the French beat feet, has left that benchmark somewhat hollow.
Similarly, the UN mission in the country, UNAMIR, which was established to help implement the Arusha Peace Agreement signed by the Rwandese parties the previous August, commanded by Canadian MG Romeo A. Dallaire, dropped its authorised strength from 2,548 military personnel to only 270 in late April 1994 as Belgium and others pulled their troops from the blue berets– showing it was not just the French who pulled stumps at the onset of the crisis in Kigali.
The French paras did return a few weeks later, as part of a 5,500 military personnel expedition, dubbed Opération Turquoise, near the end of the 100-day genocide, and established the so-called Turquoise Zone meant to stop the mass killings and give a safe haven to refugees. French President François Mitterrand at the time hailed the move and Radio France said that tens of thousands were saved through its efforts– although Turquoise has since joined Amaryllis on the heap of “mistakes were made” operations when judged by after-action historical documents.
For a haunting further look at the international cockup by all involved in 1994 Rwanda, read Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, by LG Roméo Dallaire.
Notably, while United Nations peacekeepers have been deployed for more than seven decades, it was only in 1999– five years after Rwanda and four after the horrible failure in Bosnia that led to the Srebrenica massacre — that the UN Security Council issued resolutions (1265 & 1270) which put the Protection of Civilians (POC) at the heart of UN Peacekeeping. Today, peacekeepers have an actual mandate to protect civilians.
As a kid, I was a naval film junkie and the War and Remembrance, and The Winds of War miniseries along with Humphrey Bogart’s The Caine Mutiny were standard fare. Who can ever forget the ultimate toxic skipper that was LCDR Philip “Old Yellowstain” Queeg?
With that, the bell should be rung at the passing of author, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and WWII destroyerman Herman Wouk who shipped out for that great Libo call in the sky at age 103 last Friday.
Born in 1915, Wouk, a 27-year-old radio dramatist, signed up for the U.S Navy Reserves shortly after Pearl Harbor and was soon bobbing around on the aging WWI-era destroyer-minesweeper (“any ship can be a minesweeper, once”) USS Zane (DMS-14).
Wouk had a very active war, participating in eight invasions from New Georgia to Okinawa and later becoming XO of Zane‘s Clemson-class sistership, USS Southard (DD-207/DMS-10). While aboard the latter, he survived numerous kamikaze attacks and Typhoon Ida. Importantly, his fictional USS Caine was a destroyer-minesweeper in WWII whose pivotal “mutiny” scene revolves around a Pacific typhoon.
He said of his time in the Navy during the war, “I learned about machinery, I learned how men behaved under pressure, and I learned about Americans.”
Wouk reportedly passed in his sleep.
Be sure to have a nice bowl of strawberries sometime this week in his honor.