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Warship Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022: Hoagy, Shmoo, Winkle & the Forgotten Ocean

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Oct.5, 2022: Hoagy, Shmoo, Winkle and the Forgotten Ocean

U.S. National Archives photo 80-G-446967

Above we see the crew of the British Colossus-class light aircraft carrier HMS Ocean (R68) on deck for an inspection by Field Marshal Earl Alexander, the British Defense Minister, on 14 June 1952. Ocean was at the time off the Korean coast– a peninsula where she was highly active some 70 years ago– and she has Hawker Sea Furys of 802 Squadron and Fairey Fireflys of 825 Squadron aboard. It looks like the light cruiser HMS Belfast (C35) is off her stern.

Ocean is often forgotten when it comes to British carriers, as it seems everyone just cares about the ones that were active in WWII and the Falklands and forgot about everything between 1946 and 1982, however, she was important in naval history– being the first flattop to host a jet (intentionally) as well as probably the last to have a combat-ready biplane take off from her deck. As you can tell in the above, she also saw a good bit of combat as well.

Ocean was one of 16 planned “1942 Design Light Fleet Carriers” for the RN. This series, broken up into Colossus and Majestic-class sub-variants, were nifty 19,500-ton, 695-foot-long carriers that the U.S. Navy would have classified at the time as a CVL or light carrier. They were slower than the fast fleet carriers at just 25 knots with all four 3-drum Admiralty boilers lit and glowing red, but they had long legs (over 14,000 miles at cruising speed) which allowed them to cross the Atlantic escorting convoys, travel to the Pacific to retake lost colonies or remain on station in the South Atlantic or the Indian Ocean for weeks.

The classes’ 1946 Jane’s entry with 12 of the 16 sisters listed.

Capable of carrying up to 45 piston engine aircraft of the time, these carriers had enough punch to make it count.

The thing is, only seven of these carriers were completed before the end of World War II and even those came in during the last months and weeks. They effectively saw no service. Laid down beginning in 1942, most of the ships were launched but when the war ended, construction was canceled. Two were completed as a peculiar RN invention of a “maintenance carrier,” intended just to repair and ferry but not operate aircraft. Some were immediately transferred to expanding Commonwealth fleets. Suddenly, the Australians, Canadians, and Indians became carrier operators. The Dutch (later passed on to the Argentines) and Brazilians soon followed. Class leader HMS Colossus was even sold to France as Arromanches.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Our Ocean, a long time coming

The fifth HMS Ocean in the Royal Navy since 1761 was laid down in Scotland on 8 November 1942 at Alexander Stephen & Sons Limited in Glasgow. However, she was a slow build-out and wasn’t launched until after D-Day, with the Australians showing an interest in acquiring her. (While the Australian deal fell through, they did ultimately operate no less than three of her sisters after the war.)

Ocean was captured by noted English painter, Sir Henry George “Harry” Rushbury, at the time, while Sir Henry was working as an official war artist– a job the 56-year-old had done in the Great War as well– around the port of Glasgow.

Shipbuilding, Glasgow, a view looking up at the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean (R68) under construction from the quayside. A crane transporting a component onto the deck of the ship looms above while cables and wires cross from the ship to the quay, by Sir Henry Rushbury, 1944. © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23522

This left the Admiralty to commission Ocean on 8 August 1945, three months after the war ended in Europe and just a week before the surrender of the Empire of Japan in World War II was announced by Emperor Hirohito on 15 August.

The aircraft carrier HMS Ocean at sea, late 1945. IWM A 30618

HMS OCEAN, BRITISH LIGHT FLEET CARRIER. JULY 1945, AT SEA. (A 30619) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205161723

Although it had been intended to rush her to join the British Pacific Fleet as a dedicated night fighter carrier in the last push to take down Japan, that plan evaporated soon after she was commissioned and Ocean, therefore, spent the rest of 1945 in home waters at Rosyth as a trials ship, including the final embarkation of the iconic Fairey Swordfish “Stringbag” torpedo bomber that had won laurels at Taranto and against the Bismarck early in the war.

Capable of just 140 knots when wide open, while dated when it came to any sort of warfare in WWII, the Fairey Swordfish became a formidable ASW asset against surfaced U-Boats due to their low-speed and stable flight. Ocean was the last British carrier to operate the type. IWM A 24981

She was also the trials ship for the new twin-engine De Havilland Sea Hornet F.20, with prototype PX219– the full naval version– conducting carrier deck trials on board Ocean in late 1945 with renowned test pilot Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown at the controls. The plane was notable for being the fastest production piston-engine aircraft ever put into service.

The Sea Hornet was designed with cues from the successful De Havilland DH98 Mosquito and powered by a pair of massive 2,070 hp Merlin engines. Brown would later describe it as “Like flying a Ferrari in the sky.”

Winkle Brown also made a bit more history on Ocean in 1945, just before the year was out.

On 4 December 1945, he made the world’s first carrier landing by a jet, bringing the second prototype De Havilland DH.100 Sea Vampire Mk.10, No. LZ551, aboard HMS Ocean.

De Havilland Sea Vampire Mk.10 LZ551G catches the arresting wire aboard HMS Ocean, on 3 December 1945.

Peacetime service

Deployed to the Mediterranean Fleet in late 1945 with a wing of Seafires and Fireflys, Ocean left her aircraft behind in Malta to run troops to Singapore the next summer, then responded that October to the stricken destroyers HMS Saumarez (G12) and HMS Volage (R41), both of which had been damaged by Albanian infernal devices while conducting mine-clearing operations in the Corfu Channel.

HMS OCEAN, BRITISH LIGHT FLEET CARRIER. JUNE 1948, GRAND HARBOUR, MALTA. (A 31456) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205162475

In 1948, Ocean covered the British withdrawal from their troublesome Palestine mandate-– leaving the Jews and the Arabs to fight it out in the war that followed.

A rare sight post-1945: three British carriers at sea. HMS Ark Royal (R09), HMS Albion (R07), and the little HMS Ocean (R68) bringing up the rear. IWM

Korea

With the balloon going up at the 38th parallel in June 1950, Ocean’s sister, HMS Triumph, happened to be in Japanese waters with the rump occupation fleet of Task Force 95 and soon, in conjunction with the American Essex-class fleet carrier USS Valley Forge (CV-45), was performing air strikes on North Korean airfields within a week of the outbreak of the conflict. By October, another sister, HMS Theseus arrived in the Yellow Sea to join her, with her two dozen Sea Furys logging almost 500 sorties a month by December and a whopping 3,500 sorties in just 86 days. 

Soon, Ocean was being prepped to head to the Pacific to give her sisters some relief.

HMS OCEAN’S NEW COMMISSION. 1951, ON BOARD THE LIGHT FLEET CARRIER HMS OCEAN AS SHE RECEIVED HER NEW COMMISSION TO JOIN THE MEDITERRANEAN FLEET. (A 31944) Some of the aircraft of Nos 807, 810, and 898 Squadrons, were stowed on HMS OCEAN’s flight deck after the first landing on the light fleet carrier’s new commission. HMS OCEAN sailed from Portland and joined the 2nd Aircraft Carrier Squadron at Malta on August 3rd. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205162892

HMS Ocean. Firefly F.R.5s of 810 squadron ranged on deck, engines running ready for takeoff. Commander (Flying) observes from FlyCo. Working up in the Mediterranean from September 1951 to April 1952. Via The Royal Navy Research Archive.

On April 5th, 1952, HMS Ocean passes the liner Empress of Australia while leaving Grand Harbor, Malta for the Far East. Via The Royal Navy Research Archive.

HMS Ocean passing through the Suez Canal on passage to East Asia, May 1952. Via The Royal Navy Research Archive.

Her first tour off Korea would run from May to November 1952, with Sea Furys of 802 Squadron and Fireflys of 825 Squadron embarked.

ON BOARD HMS OCEAN DURING OPERATIONS IN KOREAN WATERS. 10 JULY 1952. (A 32250) A Firefly of 825 Squadron landing on HMS OCEAN on return from attacking enemy targets. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205163137

HMS OCEAN IN KOREA, 1952 – 1953 (KOR 32) A Hawker Sea Fury, with RATOG (Rocket Assisted Take Off Gear), taking off from the carrier HMS OCEAN in Sasebo Harbour, Japan. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205191739

THE ADMIRAL PAID A VISIT. 11 JULY 1952, ON BOARD THE LIGHT FLEET CARRIER HMS OCEAN. DURING PATROLS OFF KOREA REAR ADMIRAL A K SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, DSO, FLAG OFFICER SECOND IN COMMAND, FAR EAST STATION, TRANSFERRED FROM HIS FLAGSHIP HMS BELFAST TO HMS OCEAN AND SPENT 4 DAYS ABOARD WHILE HER AIRCRAFT ATTACKED TARGETS IN NORTH WEST KOREA. (A 32243) HMS OCEAN at speed, with planes ranged on deck, in the Yellow Sea. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016293

HMS OCEAN TAKES PART IN LARGE RAID ON PYONGYANG. 11 JULY 1952, (A 32259) HMS OCEAN at speed about to catapult her aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016296

HMS OCEAN TAKES PART IN LARGE RAID ON PYONGYANG. 11 JULY 1952, AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHS OF, AND ONBOARD THE LIGHT FLEET CARRIER HMS OCEAN, AS SHE TOOK PART IN OPERATION PRESSURE PUMP, TARGETING THE NORTH KOREAN CAPITAL OF PYONGYANG. (A 32261) HMS OCEAN at speed about to catapult her aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016298

HMS OCEAN TAKES PART IN LARGE RAID ON PYONGYANG. 11 JULY 1952, (A 32262) Sea Furies and Fireflies ranged on the flight deck of HMS OCEAN. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205163145

HMS OCEAN TAKES PART IN LARGE RAID ON PYONGYANG. 11 JULY 1952, (A 32260) HMS OCEAN at speed about to catapult her aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016297

The Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Belfast (C35) approaching the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean (R68) off Korea, before the transfer of RADM Alan Kenneth Scott-Moncrieff, Flag Officer, Second in Command, Far East Station from his flagship Belfast to Ocean to observe air operations against targets in north-west Korea. IWM A 32244

HMS Ocean at flying stations, a Sea Fury is on the catapult ready to launch. Via The Royal Navy Research Archive.

West coast of Korea. At least 33 Sea Furys and Fireflies with WWII D-day style invasion stripes were applied to avoid misidentification as North Korean aircraft, ready to launch as part of Operation Pressure Pump, on 11 July 1952, targeting railways outside the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. IWM KOR 27

On 9 August 1952, FAA LT Peter “Hoagy” Carmichael, who flew Corsairs at the end of WWII, was at the controls of his Sea Fury and logged the only official victory of a piston-engine aircraft over a jet fighter during the Korean War. His four-plane section was attacking railroad facilities near Chinnampo when they were jumped by eight MiG-15s, leaving at least one of the latter burned into the countryside and two others reportedly smoking. While today the kill is usually credited to Carmichael’s young No. 4, Sub-LT Brian “Shmoo” Ellis, the fact remains that on that day a Sea Fury from Ocean bested a MiG and all four British aircraft returned safely to their carrier, where they received a “pretty euphoric” welcome, whereas the MiGs could not say the same. 

From 802 Squadron’s War Diary for the Day: 

Lieutenant Carmichael, Lieutenant Davis and Sub-Lieutenants Haines and Ellis started the ball rolling this morning by flying the first AR of the patrol. By 0600 they had entered the area and had commenced their Hanchon and Pyongyang to Chinnampo rail search. By 0630 they had reconnoitered as far south as Chinji-ri, a small village about 15 miles north of Chinnampo. As they meandered down the line, checking the bridge state as they went, they suddenly saw eight jet bogies to the north. Almost immediately the bogies were identified as MiGs – and were closing. By this time drop tanks were fluttering earthwards and the flight had assumed proper battle formation and No.4 – Sub Lieutenant Ellis – had noticed a shower of red tracer streaming past both sides of his fuselage. He cried “Break” over the R/T and the flight commenced a “Scissors”. It was soon apparent that four MiGs were after each section of two Furies but by continuing their break turns our aircraft presented practically impossible targets to the enemy who made no attempt to bracket.

‘On one occasion a MiG came head-on to Lieutenant Carmichael and Sub Lieutenant Haines – they both fired –  it broke away and proceeded to go head-on to Lieutenant Davies and Sub Lieutenant Ellis – they both fired and registered hits. On another occasion, a MiG pulled up in front of Ellis with its air brakes out and he was amused to find the range closing. He gave a long burst and noticed hits on the enemy’s wings. The aircraft then proceeded northwards and a reduced speed with two other MiGs in company. Meanwhile, the flight, still in its battle formation, managed a dozen or so more firing passes at the MiGs head-on. The dog fight lasted 4-5 minutes and then the MiGs disappeared as quickly as they had arrived – as they departed an aircraft was seen to crash into a hillside and blow up. At first Lieutenant Carmichael thought it was one of his flight and ordered a tell-off. However when No.4 came up “loud and clear” it was realized that the Royal Navy had shot down its first communist aircraft. Lieutenant Carmichael as flight leader is being credited with its destruction officially but the rest of the flight are claiming their quarter as well’

“Sea Fury – MiG Encounter” by Robert Taylor: Flying an 805 Sqn. Sea Fury from HMS Ocean in Korean waters, 1952, Hoagy Carmichael became the first piston engine pilot to destroy a jet aircraft during the war, when he downed a North Korean MiG-15.

Royal Navy Fairey Firefly FR.IV from 825 Naval Air Squadron flying a reconnaissance mission from HMS Ocean (R68) along the eastern seaboard of Korea. 16 September 1952. IWM KOR29

In all, Ocean would log 5,945 sorties in her first Korean tour, dropping 3,884 500/1000-pound bombs and launching 16,490 rockets– not bad for a light carrier with just two squadrons of single-engine aircraft embarked.

After some downtime, she would return to Korean waters from May to November 1953 with two new squadrons aboard– 807 (Sea Furys) and 810 (Firefly).

The British and Australians would keep a light carrier or two off Korea throughout the conflict, all from the same class. Besides Theseus, Triumph, and Ocean, HMS Glory would clock in for a tour in 1951 while the Australian HMAS Sydney would also get into the act. Lending a hand, the Canadian sister, HMCS Warrior, transported replacement aircraft to Korea from Britain. Another sister, the Centaur-class maintenance carrier HMS Unicorn (I72), spent most of the war ferrying aircraft, troops, stores, and equipment in support of Commonwealth efforts in Korea and became likely the only aircraft carrier in history to conduct a shore bombardment when she engaged North Korean observers coastwatchers at Chopekki Point with her QF 4-inch Mk XVIs.

In all, FAA and RAN pilots flew at least 25,366 sorties from these budget flattops during the Korean conflict.

The war is over – HMS Ocean moored at Sasebo in October 1953.

HMS Ocean with her paying off pennant streaming from her mast sailing from Sasebo on October 31st, 1953, for the voyage home to the UK, via The Royal Navy Research Archive.

One last hurrah for Empire!

By January 1954, with a glut of flattops and peace in Korea, the Admiralty decided that Ocean and her sister Theseus should be re-tasked from operating fixed-wing aircraft and refitted for helicopters and a battalion-sized element of marines, then deemed “Commando Carriers,” a concept akin to a U.S. CVHE of the period or later LPH.

HMS OCEAN’S NEW COMMISSION (circa August 1954). (A 31947) Naval air-sea rescue Supermarine Supermarine Sea Otter taxis into a pickup position alongside HMS OCEAN before being hoisted on board. The Supermarine Sea Otter was the last biplane amphibian in Fleet Air Arm service. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205162895

This brings us to the Suez Crisis (Operation Musketeer). After Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, our two new commando carriers were part of the Anglo-French intervention, embarking troops and stores for passage to Cyprus and then on to North Africa. There, Whirlwinds and Sycamores from their decks took part in an early combat experiment in vertical envelopment from the sea, seizing Port Said.

Royal Navy commando carrier HMS Theseus (R64) is shown with a crowded deck of Westland Whirlwind and Bristol Sycamore helicopters of the joint RAF/Army unit which operated alongside Royal Navy helicopters from her flight deck, November-December 1956. Note the French hospital ship in the background. IWM A 33639.

A member of 45 Royal Marine Commando priming a grenade [actually a mortar bomb] before disembarking from HMS THESEUS for the landing beaches at Port Said. Note his sand goggles, Pattern 37 webbing, and Denison smock– all looking very WWII. IWM A 33636.

Captain Griffiths inspecting troops of 45 Royal Marine Commando in full battle equipment, preparatory to their being landed at Port Said from HMS THESEUS. Note the desert goggles and MK V STEN gun of the Marine closest to the camera as well as the 2-inch patrol mortar with bomb tubes on deck. A 33635

British Royal Marines of 45 Commando loading into Royal Navy Westland Whirlwinds aboard the Colossus-class light fleet carrier HMS Theseus (R64) to assault Egyptian positions during the Suez

Royal Navy Westland Whirlwind helicopters taking the first men of 45 Royal Marine Commando into action at Port Said from the commando carrier HMS Theseus (R64) during “Operation Musketeer”. November 1956. IWM A 33640.

A Westland Whirlwind helicopter of the joint Royal Air Force/Army unit is leaving the Royal Navy commando carrier HMS Ocean (R68) with troops for Port Said during the Suez Crisis. November 1956. IWM A 33643

With the Egyptian affair wrapped up, the British chose to pull back “West of Suez” in 1956 and, other than a Baltic cruise that gave the Soviets some heartburn when she called at Helsinki, just over the horizon from Leningrad, Ocean’s days were numbered. Just 13 years old, she was laid up in 1958 and soon nominated for disposal, being sold for scrap in 1962.

Epilogue

Few relics of Ocean remain today.

A large scale model of Ocean is on display in the city of her birth, housed at the Glasgow Transport Museum.

She is remembered in maritime art.

“Ocean Firefly” HMS Ocean in the Korean war, by Roy Gargett

She was outlived by the legends that flew from her deck. 
 
“Winkle” Brown went on to be dubbed the “world’s greatest test pilot,” a title he earned after flying a whopping 487 types (a record verified by Guinness) over his career, interrogating Goering, becoming the only Allied pilot to fly both the rocket-powered Me 163 and more advanced Me 262, and making 2,407 carrier traps while testing the arrestor wires on more than 20 British flattops. He died at Redhill, Surrey, England, on 21 February 2016, at the age of 97 years. The Vampire he landed on Ocean is preserved at Yeovilton. 
 

Captain Eric M. Brown with his De Havilland DH.100 Sea Vampire Mk.10, LZ551, at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton, Somerset, England. (Nigel Cheffers-Heard, Fleet Air Arm Museum)

 
Commander Peter “Hoagy” Carmichael, OBE, DSC, would go on to command 806 Squadron in the 1960s and retire from service in 1984. He passed in 1997, aged 73. His young No. 4 over Chinnampo (now known as Nampo) in 1952, Sub-LT Brian “Schmoo” Ellis, was still alive as late as 2018 and being hailed for his deeds over Korea. (For the record when it comes to prop vs. jet combat, a Marine Corsair of VMA-312 would also later down a MiG in Korea and U.S. Navy Skyraiders would bag a MiG-17 over Vietnam on at least two occasions in the mid-1960s)
 
Meanwhile, Ocean’s four hard-working Korean War squadrons– 802 NAS and 807 NAS (Sea Fury); along with 810 NAS and 825 NAS (Fireflys)– would endure for the most part long past the time their carrier was scrapped: 
 
  • 802 Squadron would fly Sea Hawk FB5s from HMS Albion on top cover during Suez and was then disbanded in 1959. 
  • 807 Squadron would upgrade to Supermarine Scimitars and became well-known for running their new jets hot in airshows across the UK. They would also fire the first British Sidewinder in 1961. 
  • 810 Squadron would fly Hawker Sea Hawks from HMS Bulwark in the Suez, ending several Egyptian MiGs on the runway. Later flying Fairey Gannets before transitioning to become a rotary winged unit, they would fly Sea Kings as late as 2001. 
  • 825 Squadron became a helicopter squadron in 1960 and, after flying Sea Kings during the Falklands, is still around as the Royal Navy’s Operational Conversion Unit for the new AW159 Wildcat. 

As for Ocean’s sisters, the last of her class in the Royal Navy, Triumph, was kept around as a repair ship until 1975 and then scrapped. The Australians kept HMAS Melbourne (R21)/ex-HMS Majestic, on hand until 1980, including using her with A-4 Skyhawks and S-2 Trackers in the Vietnam-era (her bones, sold for scrap for a paltry A$1.4 million, would be slowly picked over by the Chinese for 15 years, jump-starting their domestic carrier program). The third-hand ex-HMS/HMAS Vengeance/ex-NAeL Minas Gerais, also a Skyhawk/Tracker carrier, was sold for scrap by the Brazilian owners in 2004, torched to man-portable pieces on the beach at Alang. The Indian ex-INS Vikrant/ex-HMS Hercules, which has used Sea Harriers as late as 1997, was saved briefly as a museum ship and then scrapped in 2014 ending the era of these well-traveled light carriers. While no less than five American carriers of the same vintage are preserved, there are no British-built carriers as museum ships.

The Admiralty in 1993, perhaps in recognition of Ocean’s work as a commando carrier at Suez, named the new 23,000-ton Vickers-built one-of-a-kind helicopter carrier HMS Ocean (L12). Although not capable of launching heavily loaded Sea Harriers due to the fact she didn’t have a ski-jump, the new Ocean would for a time be the only British flattop in operation, following the decommissioning of the old Harrier carrier HMS Illustrious (R06) in 2014.

Capable of hosting as many as 20 helicopters including a mix of Wildcats, Merlins, Chinook, and Apaches, HMS Ocean (L12) was in active service with the Royal Navy between 1998 and 2018, the last four as its fleet flagship and the closest thing the Brits had to a carrier.

Decommissioned in 2018, both Brazil and Turkey wanted the ship with the former winning out. She currently operates as NAM Atlântico with an airwing of EC725s, S-70B Seahawks, and AS350s.

The Royal Navy has not had an “HMS Ocean” since, something that should change, in my opinion.


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Seabees, still ready to Build & Fight After 80 Years

​Arising from a need to rapidly build bases on remote islands for the push across the Pacific during World War II, today’s Seabee force turns 80 this month.

Tracing their unofficial origins to 300 skilled artisans who built an advance base in 1813 for Captain David Porter’s squadron operating against the British along South America’s west coast, the Navy officially formed and christened its first Naval Construction Battalions in March 1942.

Recruited from tradesmen in 60 skilled trades– both “vertical” such as in building construction and “horizontal” such as in the construction of roads and airfields– the new “Seabees” were also trained to defend their positions as the islands and beaches they would land on would often still be very much in an active combat zone. Fitting the job, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell set their motto as “Construimus, Batuimus” roughly meaning “We Build, We Fight.”

Early members received only three weeks of training and were sent overseas. They carried at one time or another just about every rifle and pistol in the Navy’s inventory and pioneered such exotic arms as the Sedgley Glove Gun/Haight Fist Gun.

WWII Seabee posters
Seabee recruiting posters of the time, aimed at pulling often-draft-exempt skilled construction workers into the service, also emphasized the carpenters and heavy equipment operators would be expected to fight if needed, ready to leave the controls of their crane or grader, grab a carbine or Tommy gun, and get to work. 

Seabees marching WWII

“The Navy Seabees build a naval base in the South Pacific. These Navy Seabees march to work with rifles and bandoliers of ammunition. Seabees are trained to fight and work.” On numerous occasions, Seabees fought beside Marines in hand-to-hand combat against the Japanese troops, particularly on contested Henderson Field in Guadalcanal, then returned to their work once the attack was over. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Seabees drill at a U.S. Navy base in Alaska.1943

“Seabees drill at a U.S. Navy base in Alaska. These sailors are training with guns and tools for construction duty under combat conditions, April 13, 1943.” Note the M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifles. (Photo: U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.)

Seabee Water Tender Second Class operating pump for water and manning an M1917 Browning machine gun in the Solomon Islands, 1944. 

Seabee Water Tender Second Class operating pump for water and manning an M1917 Browning machine gun in the Solomon Islands, 1944. 

Seabees unload pontoons and LSTs on Angaur in the Palau Islands,1944

“Seabees unload pontoons and LSTs on Angaur in the Palau Islands, converting the island into a formidable base. Also seen are bulldozers and cranes, photograph received 27 December 1944.” (U.S. Navy Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

“US Navy Seabees, who landed with the first wave of Marines, stand guard over a Japanese naval floatplane at Sasebo, Japan. Photographed by Private First Class C.O. Jones, September 1945.” Note the M1 Carbine. (Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy)

Seabees repair airstrip on Tarawa with heavy grading equipment and trucks. November 22, 1943

“Operation Galvanic, Invasion of Tarawa, November 1943. Seabees repair airstrip on Tarawa with heavy grading equipment and trucks. November 22, 1943.” (Photo: U.S. National Archives)

“Battle of Peleliu (Operation Stalemate), September-November 1944. Group of African-American Seabees acting as stretcher-bearers for the 7th Marines.” (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.)
Seabee sign Bougainville Island 1944
“This sign, near the Torokina fighter strip on Bougainville Island testifies to the U.S Marine Corps admiration for the Navy’s construction battalions.” (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Three U.S. B-29 Superfortresses roar over a Navy Seabee working on an unfinished section of the new U.S. base at Tinian

Three U.S. B-29 Superfortresses roar over a Navy Seabee working on an unfinished section of the new U.S. base at Tinian in the Marianas Islands. With their lumbering bulldozers and other heavy equipment, Seabees have enlarged and constructed airfields on Saipan, Guam, and Tinian, from which those huge planes are conducting large-scale attacks on industrial areas in Japan. (U.S. Navy Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

During World War II, some 350,000 men served in the Seabees, organized into no less than 315 regular and special construction battalions. They would construct over 400 advanced bases spanning from Iceland to New Guinea and Sicily to the Aleutian Islands, operating in all theaters. 

In the Pacific alone, they would build no less than 111 airstrips while suffering over 200 combat deaths. A further 500 Seabees were killed during their highly dangerous construction work under adverse field conditions. In addition to 33 Silver Stars and 5 Navy Crosses, ‘Bees also earned more than 2,000 Purple Hearts in WWII, the hard way. 

Korea and Vietnam

Drawn down to a force of just 3,300 by 1949, the Seabees remained a “Can Do” part of the Navy and Marines’ shore establishment and would rapidly expand to serve in the Korean War and Vietnam. During the latter conflict in Southeast Asia, the Seabees expanded to over 26,000 men in no less than 23 assorted Naval Mobile and Amphibious Construction Battalions by 1969.

In most cases, the bases in which Marines fought from during those conflicts were constructed and improved by Seabees, often, as in WWII, under threat from the enemy. 

The Cold War, Desert Storm, and Beyond

Besides service in Korea and Vietnam, the “Fighting Seabees” engaged in new frontiers around the world during the Cold War, constructing bases everywhere the Navy went including in remote Diego Garcia, Greece, Spain, Antarctica, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. They served in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Restore Hope, in Bosnia, in Panama, in Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

Seabees Desert Storm
“Capt. Mel Hamm, left, commander, Fleet Hospital Operations and Training Command, and Lt. Vic Modeer of Reserve Naval Construction Battalion Hospital Unit 22 discuss the construction of Fleet Hospital Six during Operation Desert Shield.”

NavSeabee Det Sarajevo in blown up church. Feb 1996 Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina

“NavSeabee Det Sarajevo in blown up church. Feb 1996 Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina” (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

“Deh Dadi TWO, Afghanistan (Feb. 28, 2011) Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 40 begin their journey back to homeport in Port Hueneme, Calif.” (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Michael B. Watkins/Released)

Seabees laying concrete in Djibouti 2011

“Djibouti (Jan. 20, 2011) Builder Constructionmen Diana Aceves, right, and Daniel Fuentes, both assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 74, Detail Horn of Africa, pour concrete during a construction project at Ecole 5 Primary School.” Note that Seabee construction rates have been open to women since 1973. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Lindsey/Released)

The Seabees today still train to “build with rifles on their back.” 

Seabees with M240 machine gun Hunter Liggett, 2016
“Camp Hunter Liggett, Calif. (April 27, 2016) A Seabee assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5 yells out enemy locations to his teammates during a simulated attack during a field training exercise. The exercise prepares and tests the battalion’s ability to enter hostile locations, build assigned construction projects and defend against enemy attacks using realistic scenarios while being evaluated.” (U.S. Navy photo by Utilitiesman 3rd Class Stephen Sisler/Released) 

Seabees Camp Shelby 2018 in a trench

“Camp Shelby, Miss. (Aug. 20, 2018) Seabees stand inside their fighting position during Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 133’s field training exercise (FTX) at Camp Shelby. FTX provides a robust training environment where Seabee forces plan and execute multiple mission essential tasks including convoy security, force protection, and camp buildup before deployment.” (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class George M. Bell/Released) 

Seabee jungle training Okinawa

“Okinawa, Japan (Jan. 12, 2016) Ensign Frank S. Sysko assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 holds his breath while he exits a mud-filled trench during a jungle warfare training evolution hosted by Marines with the Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC).”  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Gomez/Released) 

The unique Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist insignia, issued to qualified Naval Construction Force members since 1993, tells a bit of the unit’s history. 

Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist insignia
It incorporates the old-school WWII Seabee “We build, we fight” motto of the sailor bee with a Tommy gun as well as an M1903 Springfield (one of the few times the Springer makes it to patches or insignia) and a cutlass. Interestingly, Seabees often carried all three weapons in WWII, using M1928 and M1 Thompsons, the 1903A3, and, on occasion, ship’s cutlasses (the latter as machetes).

 

WisKy Delivering in the ROK

80 years ago: The Iowa-class fast battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-64) fires a three-gun salvo from her forward 16″/50 caliber gun turret, during bombardment duty on the “bombline” off Korea. The original Kodachrome color photograph is dated 30 January 1952.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. 80-G-K-12103

Reactivated from mothballs, Wisconsin was recommissioned on 3 March 1951, and, arriving at Yokosuka, Japan, on 21 November, she relieved USS New Jersey (BB-62) as flagship for VADM Harold M. Martin, Commander, Seventh Fleet. By 2 December, she was providing naval gunfire support for the Republic of Korea (ROK) Corps in the Kasong-Kosong area. She would continue this spate of inshore bombardment for her Korean stint.

Via DANFS

After disembarking Rear Adm. Denebrink on 3 December at Kangnung, the battleship resumed station on the Korean “bombline,” providing gunfire support for the U.S. First Marine Division. Wisconsin’s shellings accounted for a tank, two gun emplacements, and a building. She continued her gunfire support task for the 1st Marine Division and 1st ROK Corps through 6 December, accounting for enemy bunkers, artillery positions, and troop concentrations. On one occasion during that time, the battleship received a request for call-fire support and provided three starshells for the 1st ROK Corps, illuminating a communist attack that was consequently repulsed with considerable enemy casualties.

After being relieved on the gunline by the heavy cruiser St. Paul (CA-73) on 6 December 1951, Wisconsin retired only briefly from gunfire support duties. She resumed them, however, in the Kasong-Kosong area on 11 December, screened by Twining. The following day, 12 December, saw the embarkation in Wisconsin of Rear Adm. Harry R. Thurber, Commander, Battleship Division Two (BatDivTWO), who came on board via helicopter, incident to his inspection trip in the Far East.

The battleship continued naval gunfire support (NGFS) duties on the bombline, shelling enemy bunkers, command posts, artillery positions, and trench systems through 14 December 1951. She departed the bombline on that day to render special gunfire support duties in the Kojo area, blasting coastal targets in support of United Nations (UN) troops ashore. That same day, she returned to the Kasong-Kosong area. On 15 December she disembarked Rear Adm. Thurber by helicopter. The next day, Wisconsin departed Korean waters, heading for Sasebo to rearm.

Returning to the combat zone on 17 December 1951, Wisconsin embarked U.S. Senator Homer S. Ferguson (R., Michigan) on 18 December. That day, the battleship supported the 11th ROK division with night illumination fire that enabled the ROK troops to repulse a communist assault with heavy enemy casualties. Departing the bombline on the 19th, the battleship later that day transferred her distinguished passenger, Senator Ferguson, by helicopter to the carrier Valley Forge (CV-45).

Wisconsin next participated in a coordinated air-surface bombardment of Wonsan to neutralize pre-selected targets. She shifted her bombardment station to the western end of Wonsan harbor, hitting boats and small craft in the inner swept channel during the afternoon. Such activities helped to forestall any communist attempts to assault the friendly-held islands in the Wonsan area. Wisconsin then made an anti-boat sweep to the north, utilizing her 5-inch batteries on suspected boat concentrations. She then provided gunfire support to UN troops operating at the bombline until three days before Christmas 1951. She then rejoined the carrier task force.

On 28 December 1951 Francis Cardinal Spellman, on a Korean tour over the Christmas holidays, visited the ship, coming on board by helicopter to celebrate Mass for the Catholic members of the crew. The distinguished prelate departed the ship by helicopter off Pohang. Three days later, on the last day of the year, Wisconsin put into Yokosuka.

Wisconsin departed that Japanese port on 8 January 1952 and headed for Korean waters once more. She reached Pusan the following day and entertained the President of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, and his wife, on the 10th. President and Mrs. Rhee received full military honors as they came on board, and he reciprocated by awarding Vice Adm. Martin the ROK Order of the Military Merit.

Wisconsin returned to the bombline on 11 January 1952 and, over the ensuing days, delivered heavy gunfire support for the First Marine Division and the First ROK Corps. As before, her primary targets were command posts, shelters, bunkers, troop concentrations, and mortar positions. As before, she stood ready to deliver call-fire support as needed. One such occasion occurred on 14 January when she shelled enemy troops in the open at the request of the ROK First Corps. Rearming at Sasebo and once more joining TF 77 off the coast of Korea soon thereafter, Wisconsin resumed support at the bombline on 23 January. Three days later, she shifted once more to the Kojo region, to participate in a coordinated air and gun strike. That same day, the battleship returned to the bombline and shelled the command post and communications center for the 15th North Korean Division during call-fire missions for the First Marine Division.

Returning to Wonsan at the end of January 1952, Wisconsin bombarded enemy guns at Hodo Pando before she was rearmed at Sasebo. The battleship rejoined TF 77 on 2 February and, the next day, blasted railway buildings and marshalling yards at Hodo Pando and Kojo before rejoining TF 77. After replenishment at Yokosuka a few days later, she returned to the Kosong area and resumed gunfire support. During that time, she destroyed railway bridges and a small shipyard besides conducting call fire missions on enemy command posts, bunkers, and personnel shelters, making numerous cuts on enemy trench lines in the process.

Wisconsin arrived off Songjin, Korea, on 15 March 1952 and concentrated her gunfire on enemy railway transport. Early that morning, she destroyed a communist troop train trapped outside of a destroyed tunnel. That afternoon, she received the first direct hit in her history, when one of four shells from a communist 155-millimeter gun battery struck the shield of a starboard 40-millimeter mount. Although little material damage resulted, three men were injured. Wisconsin responded by shelling that battery and destroying it with a 16-inch salvo before continuing her mission. After lending a hand to support once more the First Marine Division with her heavy rifles, the battleship returned to Japan on 19 March.

Relieved as flagship of the Seventh Fleet on 1 April 1952 by sister ship USS Iowa (BB-61), Wisconsin departed Yokosuka, bound for the United States.

Arisakas Still at Work

The Japanese Type 38 (as in the 38th year of the Meiji period) rifle, was first adopted in 1906 by the Emperor’s troops after feedback from the recent wars with Qing-dynasty China and Imperial Russia. Almost 3 million of these simple bolt-action 6.5x50mm rifles would be made at three Japanese arsenals (Tokyo, Kokura, Nagoya) as well as one in Japanese-occupied Korea (Jinsen) and Manchuria (Mukden) until as late as 1944. While you would think that these all went into Japanese military hands, you would be incorrect as lots were exported abroad including 728,000 to Russia of all places during the Great War; 150,000 to the UK to arm British sailors in the same conflict; 200,000 to Republican China in 1917-18; 24,000 to Estonia in the 1920s.

One of the lesser-known Arisaka rifle contracts was from the government of Siam, now Thailand, which had ordered several aircraft, naval vessels, and small arms from the increasingly powerful Asian power in the 1930s. The Thais bought 50,000 “Type 66” (Type 38s chambered in Bangkok’s domestic 8x52R caliber) in 1924 from the Tokyo Army Arsenal. These were later augmented by a smaller quantity of 6.5×50-chambered guns provided as military aid in WWII. Post-war, some of each were converted to 30.06 M2, of which the government had a lot of due to close relations with the U.S., and dubbed Type 83/88s. They even carried them to war in Korea in the 1950s. 

It would seem that at least some of those (probably non-firing) Arisakas are still soldiering on in Thailand as training rifles, as witnessed by these recent photos:

The above green-uniformed/bereted troops are members of the NST, or Military Student Training Supervisory Authority. The program, which runs for five years, is coordinated by local Territorial Defense Commands in the country and trains young men and women 17-25 with some 40-to-80 hours of field/classwork per year instead of joining the military proper for a period of active service (Thailand has conscription). After completion of the NST period, members transition to a non-drilling reserve. 

Besides the Arisakas, the NST also uses lots of M1 Carbines, M1 Garands, and M60 GPMGs in their live-fire and fieldwork, which is run by local cadres from active-duty units. Besides the Vietnam-era hardware, they also run locally-made ALICE gear, M1956 style bottle canteens, and the like. 

Queen City Slammer

Here we see, 70 years ago today, the Cleveland-class light cruiser USS Manchester (CL-83) alongside the ammunition ship USS Mount Katmai (AE-16) at Wonsan Harbor, Korea, on 3 May 1951. To save time the re-arming took place within sight of enemy-held Wonsan. Rows of propellent canisters can be seen on the deck of Mount Katmai, projectiles, and canisters on the deck of Manchester.

NARA 80-G-428168.

USS Manchester (CL-83) replenishing ammunition while alongside USS Mount Katmai (AE-16) in Wonsan harbor, North Korea, within sight of enemy gun batteries, circa early 1951. Note projectiles on deck on both ships, powder tanks stacked on Mount Katmai, and wooden planks laid on Mount Katmai’s decks. It appears that projectiles are being brought on board Manchester, while empty powder tanks are being carried off of her. Projectiles are being hoisted into Manchester’s turret number two (in the lower left). NH 97184

Completed too late for use in WWII, Manchester was commissioned on 29 October 1946. All of her 26 sisters were decommissioned before the Korean War with Manchester being the only active Cleveland during the conflict.

And she was very active.

Operating with TF 77, she provided support for the Inchon landings in September 1950, go on to bombard North Korean troop concentrations on Tungsan Got, supported the invasion at Wonsan, stood by for the evac of Hungnam then switched back to the Wonson area to lend her guns to the blockade there.

In her second tour in Korea, the cruiser covered the grounded Thai corvette Prasae where she prevented the vessel from being swarmed by Norks. In addition, “Manchester patrolled along the Korean peninsula shelling military targets in areas such as Chinampo, Chongjin, Tong-Cho‑Ri as well as regularly returning to Hungnam, Songjin, and Wonsan to add to the destruction of those tightly held enemy positions,” notes DANFS.

Although completed with catapults for seaplanes, they had been removed by Korea and replaced with a wooden deck for a whirlybird.

Sikorsky HO3S helicopter, of squadron HU-1, lands on the cruiser’s after deck after a gunfire spotting mission off the Korean coast, March 1953. Note Manchester’s wooden decking with aircraft tie-down strips and hangar cover tracks; 6/47 triple gun turrets; 5/38 and 3/50 twin mounts in place of WWII-era 40mm Bofors– the only such Cleveland to receive this conversion. NH 92578

Speaking of which, one of Manchester’s choppers, an H03S1, flown by enlisted pilot Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic ADC(AP) Duane “Wilbur” Thorin of HU-1, became a lifesaver of international renown. Besides earning a DFC in saving 126 Thai sailors from Prasae over the course of 40 sorties, the NHHC elaborates that he:

[M]ade over 130 rescues in hostile territory before his helicopter crashed under fire during an attempted rescue in February 1952 and he was captured. He escaped from a POW camp in July 1952 but was recaptured. He was awarded a Silver Star and two more DFCs for his rescues. With his trademark green scarf, he was the inspiration for the fictitious Chief Petty Officer (NAP) Mike Forney in James Michener’s book, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, played by Mickey Rooney in the movie adaptation. Thorin was commissioned after the war and served as an analyst at the National Security Agency.

On Manchester’s third Korean war tour, she was again a regular sight on the gunline, often dueling with enemy shore batteries.

USS Manchester (CL-83) returns enemy counter-battery fire with her forward turret’s 6/47 guns, while operating off the North Korean east coast, March 1953. Note life rafts and floater nets stowed atop turret two. NH 97186

USS Manchester (CL-83) fires the left 6/47 gun of turret three at enemy shore batteries while operating off Wonsan, North Korea. NH 97185

USS Manchester (CL-83) engaging shore batteries off Wonsan, North Korea. Note splash from an enemy shell that has hit over. The small island on right is Hwangto-Do. 80-G-483203

She wrapped up her last tour just a week before the truce at Panmunjom.

A lone sailor observes the enemy coastline as the cruiser USS Manchester (CL-83), her shore bombardment completed, steams away from Wonsan Harbor. Photo and caption released by Commander Naval Forces Far East, under date of 7 July 1953. NH 97187

In all, she earned nine battlestars for the conflict and suffered no major battle damage. It would be her only war, being decommissioned 27 June 1956 after just 10 years of service and was scrapped four years later.

Of the rest of the Clevelands, most never left 1940s mothballs and were sent to the razor blade factory by 1960. Five were given a new lease on life and modified post-Korea as Galveston- and Providence-class guided missile cruisers, going on to see duty in the Vietnam era– with some receiving shells from USS Mount Katmai (AE-16) ironically. Just one of the class, the converted USS Little Rock (CL-92/CLG-4/CG-4), is preserved, serving since 1977 as a museum ship at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park.

Referred to as the “Queen City” reportedly due to being the most populous city in northern New England, Manchester, New Hampshire’s name is currently carried by an Independence-class littoral combat ship, LCS-14, commissioned in 2018.

Warship Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020: A Snowball in Hell

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Dec. 30, 2020: A Snowball in Hell

Photograph A 31788 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Here we see the crew of the Royal Navy light fleet carrier HMS Theseus (R64) tooling up snowballs while frosty Fleet Air Arm Sea Furies and Fireflies sit by in cold storage, some 70 years ago this month. Don’t let the snap fool you, the British carrier at the time was off Korea, which was ridiculously hot when it came to combat, and both her crew and airwing were doing their part.

Theseus was one of 16 planned 1942 Design Light Fleet Carriers for the RN. This series, broken up into Colossus and Majestic-class sub-variants, were nifty 19,500-ton, 695-foot-long carriers that the U.S. Navy would have classified at the time as a CVL or light carrier. They were slower than the fast fleet carriers at just 25-knots with all four 3-drum Admiralty boilers were lit and glowing red, but they had long legs (over 14,000 miles at cruising speed) which allowed them to cross the Atlantic escorting convoys, travel to the Pacific to retake lost colonies or remain on station in the South Atlantic or the Indian Ocean for weeks.

Capable of carrying up to 52 piston engine aircraft of the time, these carriers had enough punch to make it count.

The classes’ 1946 Jane’s entry. Click to very much big up so you can read the details. 

The thing is, only seven of these carriers were completed before the end of World War II and even those came in during the last months and weeks. They effectively saw no service. Laid down beginning in 1942, most of the ships were launched but when the war ended, construction was canceled. Two were completed as a peculiar RN invention of a “maintenance carrier,” intended just to repair and ferry but not operate aircraft. Some were immediately transferred to expanding Commonwealth fleets. Suddenly, the Australians, Canadians, and Indians became carrier operators. The Dutch (then Argentines) and Brazilians soon followed. Class leader Colossus was sold to France as Arromanches.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Laid down 6 January 1943 at the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in Scotland, the same yard that built the famous Cunard liners RMS Campania and RMS Lucania, the mighty 32,000-ton carrier HMS Implacable (R86), and two-thirds of the infamous “Live Bait Squadron” cruisers, HMS Cressy and HMS Aboukir, Theseus came too late for the war, entering the fleet 9 February 1946. She was the third RN warship to carry the name of the mythical Athenian king, following in the footsteps of a ship-of-the-line that fought at the Nile and a Great War-era protected cruiser of the Edgar class.

Originally assigned to serve in the British Pacific Fleet, she sailed for Singapore to serve as the flagship for the 1st Carrier Squadron in the Far East. The brand-new carrier made a splash in Australia and the Western Pacific on her arrival.

HMS Theseus, Gibraltar 25th February 1947 on the way to the Pacific. Deck hockey on the Flight Deck, on the port side of the carrier island. Note the Sea Otter amphibious aircraft

HMS Theseus (R64) 11 July 1947 arriving in Australia. State Library of Victoria – Allan C. Green collection of glass negatives. H91.250/183

The same day, H91.250/181. Note her starboard elevated 40mm Bofors mounts.

And another, H91.250/179. Again, note her Bofors and extensive raft collection. Keep in mind that, while this was 1947, there were still plenty of unaccounted-for sea mines left around the world from the war, and tensions between the East and West were ramping up, with the Berlin Airlift approaching.

However, as soon as she arrived, the Admiralty was forced, due to dire post-war cost-cutting measures, to pull most of its capital ships back to Home Waters. Subsequently, the Fleet Air Arm Naval Air Bases in Ceylon and Singapore were closed, and Theseus returned prematurely from abroad.

Nonetheless, she would be back soon enough.

Korea

With the balloon going up at the 38th parallel, Theseus’s sister, HMS Triumph, happened to be in Japanese waters with the rump occupation fleet of Task Force 95 and soon, in conjunction with the American Essex-class fleet carrier USS Valley Forge (CV-45), was performing air strikes on North Korean airfields within a week of the outbreak of the conflict.

As for Theseus, she had served in UK waters as Flagship of the 3rd Aircraft Carrier Squadron, Home Fleet, and trained with Vampire jet aircraft. On 14 August, she cast off from Plymouth to relive the understrength and rapidly wearing-out Triumph.

HMS Theseus arrived in the Yellow Sea carrying 23 Furies from 807 Squadron and 12 Fireflies from 813 Squadron, 17th Carrier Air Group, beginning strikes on North Korean targets on 9 October 1950. The day before, RADM William Gerrard “Bill” Andrewes, a Jutland veteran on his third war, arrived aboard and raised his flag.

THE KOREAN WAR 1950-1953 (KOR 638) A raid in progress on warehouses on the waterfront at Chinnampo in North Korea by Fairey Firefly aircraft from HMS THESEUS. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205020623

By 10 October, one of her planes, Sea Fury VW628, had been lost in a strike against the Chang-you railway bridge but its pilot, LT Stanley Leonard, was recovered by an American helicopter, a novelty, and returned (eventually) to the ship.

Speaking of helicopters, a U.S. Navy HO3S-1 (Sikorsky S-51) was assigned to Theseus to act as a ResCap plane guard in place of Sea Otter floatplanes, a mission they had also conducted with Triumph.

As noted in an excellent article on the subject by the Fleet Air Arm Association of Australia:

HU-1’s first RN plane guard detachment consisted of one helicopter a few mechs, who doubled as aircrew, and one pilot, a Chief Petty Officer, Aviation Engine Mechanic Dan Fridley. Fridley was called a naval aviation pilot, to distinguish him from a naval aviator. Naval Aviators were officers, and Naval Aviation Pilots were enlisted men. ADC(AP) Fridley went the whole hog for Theseus, painting the Union Jack, “ROYAL NAVY” and “HMS THESEUS” on the side. The British tars, having no previous close-up experience with this new-fangled thing called a helicopter dubbed her “The Thing,” an appellation Fridley and his crew quickly embraced, going so far as to add that name to the rest of the whirlybird’s livery.

A USN HU-1 aboard HMS Theseus in the Korean campaign. Christened “The Thing” by RN sailors who had never seen such a contraption, the helicopter was on loan for SAR duties. Note the nickname painted on the side, and, further aft, the Union Jack and the words “HMS Theseus”. The helicopter transferred to HMAS Sydney when first Theseus and then Glory were relieved on Station. Via Fleet Air Arm of Australia.

As noted by a reunion site for the carrier:

The American helicopter rescue service cannot be too highly praised. Lts. Leonard, Humphreys, Keighley-Peach and Bowman were picked up behind enemy lines by these grand helicopter crews and Lts. Hamilton, Pinsent and Mr. Bailey and Acmn. II Loveys were picked up out of the sea by them. Lt.-Cdr. Gordon-Smith and Lt. Kelly were picked up by destroyers.

It was the stuff of newsreel footage.

The Thing was not the only American whirlybirds carried by Theseus. She also embarked helicopters from USS Worcester (CL-144) who specialized in counter-mine operations, another innovation.

By November 1950, with the North Koreans on the ropes, things kicked into high gear as hundreds of thousands of Chinese “Volunteers” poured across the Yalu River, starting an entirely new war for those tired of the old one.

And all of it in bitterly cold winter weather with snow and ice present.

HMS THESEUS IN WINTER WEATHER OFF KOREAN COAST. 8 DECEMBER 1950, ON BOARD THE LIGHT FLEET CARRIER HMS THESEUS OFF THE WEST COAST OF KOREA. (A 31790) On the flight deck of HMS THESEUS, Firefly, and Sea Fury aircraft covered with snow on the deck. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205162768

From Air Space Historian on the intensity of air ops from what was essentially a CVL:

Between 9 October and 5 November 1950, Theseus’ Furies (avg 19.3) made 492 sorties. From 5 December to 26 December, 423 Fury sorties were flown by an average of 19.6 aircraft. From 7 January 1951 to 23 March, 20.8 Furies flew 718 sorties, for a total of 1634 sorties over 98 days of operation (of which only 65 days were suitable for flying). All told, Theseus launched 3,500 sorties on 86 days during its seven-month deployment. During the first six months, Theseus’ air wing dropped 829,000 lbs. of explosives and fired 7,317 rockets and “half a million rounds of 20mm ammunition.” In recognition of these efforts, Theseus and the 17th Carrier Air Group was awarded the Rear-Admiral Sir Denis Boyd trophy for 1950 for “outstanding feat of naval aviation”

HMS Theseus Operating in Korea. 18 March 1951, on Board the Carrier at Sasebo, Japan. Vice Admiral W G Andrewes, KBE, CB, DSO, Commander of the British Commonwealth and Allied Fleet in Korean Waters, also responsible for the naval blockade of Korea, inspects the Marine Guard onboard HMS THESEUS. He is accompanied by Captain R S L Muldowney, RM, who commands the Marine detachment in THESEUS, and the Commanding Officer Captain A S Bolt, DSC, RN. The Marines are, left to right: Bugler J Noyes, Windsor, Berks; Sgt J Money, Deal, Kent; Marine G A Reckless, Rochdale, Lancs; Cpl A R Mead, Budliegh, Salterton, Devon; Marine J Neal, Portsmouth, Hants; Marine A D Whicker, Finsbury Park, London; Marine G P Quinn, Liverpool; Marine G Stevenson, Hatfield, Herts.

The British light fleet aircraft carrier HMS Theseus (R64) approaches Sasebo, Japan at the end of her deployment in Korea. Admiral A.K. Scott-Moncrieff, Flag Officer, Second in Command Far East, inspects the ship’s company who are formed up to spell out the ship’s name for the camera. April 1951. IWM A31901.

A stern-shot of the same image. Note the recognition stripes on her air wing, an easy solution borrowed from 1944 to try and avoid blue-on-blue air combat with so many different types of planes aloft over Korea

On 23 April 1951, sistership HMS Glory arrived from the UK to relieve her, with Bill Andrewes remaining behind to carry on the British efforts with the UN forces. Throughout the war, Commonwealth-manned Colossus and Majestic-class light carriers endured off the coast– the Admiralty tasking them rather than larger flattops to save money– with Glory being replaced by HMS Ocean and HMAS Sydney, while HMCS Warrior transported replacement aircraft from Britain. In all, FAA and RAN pilots flew at least 25,366 sorties from these budget carriers during the Korean conflict.

Her epic Korean tour over, Theseus sailed back for Portsmouth, arriving 29 May 1951, having been away from home for 285 days. In 215 days at sea, rotating back to Japan five times to re-arm and re-provision, she steamed 36,401 miles. She is mentioned extensively in the U.S. Navy’s history of the conflict.

Her Korean Campaign saw:


Number of Deck Landings: 4,594
Number of Catapult Launchings:  3,593
Number of Hours Flown: 10,189
Number of Flying Days: 114
Average number of Hours per Pilot: 268
Her scorecard:

Destroyed— 93 Junks, 153 Railway Trucks, 25 Railway Bridges, 485 Buildings, 73 Road Trucks, 66 Store Dumps, 6 Railway Tunnels, 17 Warehouses, 33 Gun Positions, 16 Road Bridges, 13 Railway Engines, 8 Tanks, 3 Railway Stations, 19 Factories, 5 Power Stations, 10 Command Posts, 4 Railway Sheds, 2 Jetties, 3 Cars, 1 Hangar, 5 Roadblocks, 12 Carts, 51 Barrack Buildings, 2 Steam Rollers, 2 Omnibuses, 1 Tug, 1 Excavator, 1 Floating Bridge, 1 “Bulldozer,” 1 Pump House.

Damaged— 18 Road Bridges, 77 Junks, 69 Railway Wagons, 1 Gun Position. 35 Buildings. 2 Store Dumps, 22 Warehouses, 34 Road Trucks, 1 Tractor, 15 Railway Bridges, 5 Railway Tunnels, 1 Airfield Runway, 4 Tanks, 18 Barrack Buildings, 1 Excavator, 4 Railway Sheds, 5 Factories, 10 Vehicle Revetments, 42, Sampans.

 

Peace

After an extensive refit and working back up, Theseus was assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet in February 1952 to relieve sistership HMS Ocean, which was being prepared for service in Korea.

HMS THESEUS AT TRIESTE. NOVEMBER 1952, THE LIGHT FLEET CARRIER HMS THESEUS FLOODLIT DURING A VISIT TO TRIESTE. (A 32386) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205163257

The aircraft carrier HMS THESEUS leaving Grand Harbor, Valletta, Malta. Astern are HMS GLASGOW, HMS CUMBERLAND, and HMNZ BLACK PRINCE. July 1953 IWM A 32611

In September 1953, she responded to the Paphos earthquake in Cyprus, which had left 50,000 without food or water. Her crews and embarked Dragonfly helicopters were just the ticket in the humanitarian crisis, buzzing around lending a hand while bringing aid and medical attention.

Theseus entering Malta starboard bow circa 1953 via Clydeships 201607061331400.C3

By January 1954, with a glut of flattops and peace in Korea, the Admiralty decided that Theseus and her sister Ocean should be re-tasked from operating fixed-wing aircraft and refitted for helicopters and a battalion-sized element of marines, then deemed “Commando Carriers,” a concept akin to a U.S. LPH. 

This brings us to…

Suez Crisis: Operation Musketeer.

After Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, our two new commando carriers were part of the Anglo-French intervention, embarking troops and stores for passage to Cyprus and then on to North Africa. There, Whirlwinds and Sycamores from their decks took part in an early combat experiment in vertical envelopment from the sea, seizing Port Said.

Royal Navy commando carrier HMS Theseus (R64) is shown with a crowded deck of Westland Whirlwind and Bristol Sycamore helicopters of the joint RAF/Army unit which operated alongside Royal Navy helicopters from her flight deck, November-December 1956. Note the French hospital ship in the background. IWM A 33639.

A member of 45 Royal Marine Commando priming a grenade [actually a mortar bomb] before disembarking from HMS THESEUS for the landing beaches at Port Said. Note his sand goggles, Pattern 37 webbing, and Denison smock– all looking very WWII. IWM A 33636.

Captain Griffiths inspecting troops of 45 Royal Marine Commando in full battle equipment, preparatory to their being landed at Port Said from HMS THESEUS. Note the desert goggles and MK V STEN gun of the Marine closest to the camera as well as the 2-inch patrol mortar with bomb tubes on deck. A 33635

British Royal Marines of 45 Commando loading into Royal Navy Westland Whirlwinds aboard the Colossus-class light fleet carrier HMS Theseus (R64) to assault Egyptian positions during the Suez

Royal Navy Westland Whirlwind helicopters taking the first men of 45 Royal Marine Commando into action at Port Said from the commando carrier HMS Theseus (R64) during “Operation Musketeer”. November 1956. IWM A 33640.

After the Suez Crisis abated, she withdrew elements of the Army’s 16th Parachute Brigade from Egypt to Malta.

Troops, probably from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers at Port Said Egypt embarking on HMS THESEUS for the journey to Malta after the withdrawal from the crisis zone. Note the MK III “turtle” helmets on their packs and all of the No. 4 Enfields. The Brits had officially adopted the inch-pattern FN FAL, the L1A1 SLR, two years prior but they were not widespread at the time of the Suez and the old bolt guns were still around for some time, especially in support units. IWM HU 104203

After spending another year at Portsmouth in the Training Squadron, Theseus was mothballed in October 1957, having served just 11 years with the fleet. Paid off the next year, she was laid up until sold to BISCO for breaking-up at Inverkeithing, arriving at the breakers yard on 29 May 1962.

The last of her class in the Royal Navy, Triumph, was kept around as a repair ship until 1975 then scrapped. The final vessel of her class sent to the breakers, the third-hand ex-HMS/HMAS Vengeance/ex-NAeL Minas Gerais, was sold for scrap by the Brazilian owners in 2004, torched to man-portable pieces on the beach at Alang.

Since 1958, there has not been a Theseus in the Royal Navy.

A memorial marker to the six men lost from Theseus in Korea is in Cobham Hall at the Fleet Air Arm Museum.

She is also remembered in maritime art.

HMS Theseus by John S Smith. Via the Illustration Art Gallery https://bookpalace.com/acatalog/info_SmithJSCarrierLL.html

HMS Theseus by Ivan Berryman. Two Fairey Firefly fighter-bombers of 810 Sqn, Fleet Air Arm, overfly the carrier HMS Theseus during the Korean War. Via Ivan Berryman.com https://www.ivanberryman.com/ivan_berryman_art.php?ProdID=3212

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The Far-Reaching UN Forces in Korea and the Things they Carried

With this month being the 70th anniversary of the rush by the Free World to help keep the fledgling Republic of Korea from forced incorporation by its Communist neighbor to the North, it should be pointed out that the UN forces that mustered to liberate Seoul and keep it so carried an interesting array of arms. Gathered ultimately from 21 countries you had a lot of WWII-era repeats such as No. 3 and No. 4 Enfields carried by Commonwealth troops as well as M1 Garands/Carbines toted by American and a host of Uncle Sam-supplied countries.

But there were most assuredly some oddball infantry weapons that were used as well.

One historical curiosity was the initial contingent supplied by the Royal Thai Army, who left for Korea in October 1950 wearing French Adrian-style “sun” helmets and armed with 8x52mm Type 66 Siamese Mausers that were actually versions of the bolt-action Japanese Type 38 Arisaka built before WWII at Japan’s Koishikawa arsenal.

Note their French-style helmets, U.S.-marked M36 packs, and Japanese Showa-period rifles. Ultimately, more than 10,000 Thai troops would serve in the Korean War alongside U.S. forces, fighting notably at the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. (Photo: UN News Archives)

More in my column at Guns.com. 

Coming home from the Forgotten War

As appropriate with the 70th anniversary of the Korean War this month, the DOD reports: 

In the largest repatriation of South Korean soldiers’ remains from the Korean War, 147 such remains were returned to South Korea following an honor ceremony last week at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and [South Korea’s] Ministry of National Defense Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification have jointly worked on the remains, as being ROK soldiers who had often died alongside U.S. troops.

MAKRI and DPAA scientists have conducted joint forensic reviews and validated 147 remains as being of South Korean origin.

In a mutual exchange, six Americans identified on South Korean battlefields were transferred to U.S. custody at Osan.

Honor Guard from UN countries participates in a dignified transfer as part of a repatriation ceremony at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, June 26, 2020. The United Nations Command in Korea remains committed to enforcing the 1953 UN Armistice Agreement and overseeing activities such as this repatriation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Noah Sudolcan)

2019 Coming in hot!

Happy New Year to one and all, hope yours gets off to a bang.

Battleship USS New Jersey BB-62 firing a six-gun salvo at an enemy troop concentration near Kaesong, Korea, 1 January 1953.

And also a happy 131st birthday to the man, the myth, the legend, John Cantius Garand, the ultimate New Year’s Baby

The Canadian-born engineer worked at Springfield Armory starting from 1919 (a century ago this year) until he retired in 1953, first on a number of full-auto light machine guns, then on his more famous semi-auto in its various forms.

Always remember to put them up clean

If ever there was a lesson in why you should store your guns in good condition, here we see the Iowa-class battlewagon, USS New Jersey (BB-62), as she was put to pasture after her WWII service.

The Sailors are removing the muzzle seals from two of her forward turret’s 16″/50cal Mark 7 guns, while she was being reactivated at the Naval Supply Depot, Bayonne, Oct. 1950, for use in Korea.

New Jersey, of course, would go back into retirement following Korea, only to be recommissioned a third time for Vietnam, and a fourth in the 1980s to help the Reagan-era 600-ship Navy make weight.

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