This Week in American Military History:
Feb. 13, 1861: U.S. Army Assistant Surgeon Bernard J. D. Irwin takes voluntary command of combat troops, leading an expedition to rescue some 60 men of the 7th Infantry who are trapped and surrounded by Apache Indian forces under Cochise. According to his citation: “Irwin and 14 men, not having horses began the 100-mile march riding mules. After fighting and capturing Indians, recovering stolen horses and cattle, he reached [2d Lt. George N.] Bascom’s column and help break his siege.”
Though the Medal of Honor does not yet exist, Irwin will receive the new decoration in 1894. And his actions at “Apache Pass” will prove to be the first in history for which the medal is awarded.
Feb. 13, 1945: USS Batfish (the first of two so-named American submarines) sinks her third Japanese submarine in four days.
Feb. 14, 1778: The Continental sloop-of-war Ranger (the first of 10 so-named American warships) under the command of Capt. John Paul Jones fires a 13-gun salute to French Adm. Toussaint-Guillaume Picquet de la Motte’s fleet anchored in France’s Quiberon Bay. The French return the salute with nine guns. It is the first time America’s new flag – “the stars and stripes” – is officially recognized by a foreign power.
Feb. 14, 1814: The American frigate USS Constitution captures Lovely Ann, a British armed merchant vessel, and HMS Pictou, a Royal Navy schooner, within hours of each other.
Constitution (known affectionately as “Old Ironsides”) is the oldest ship in the American Navy. Launched in 1797, she serves today as a duly commissioned ship crewed by active-duty U.S. sailors and Naval officers in order to further public awareness of American Naval tradition.
Feb. 14, 1912: USS E-1 (SS-24), the U.S. Navy’s first diesel-powered submarine, is commissioned in Groton, Connecticut. The sub is skippered by an almost 27-year-old Lt. Chester W. Nimitz, destined to become the famous five-star fleet admiral of World War II.
Feb. 14, 1968: As the Battle of Hue rages (part of the broader Vietnamese TET Offensive), Capt. Myron Harrington and his Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines prepare to assault the city’s Citadel with its commanding Dong Ba tower.
Harrington is ordered to attack, to which he responds simply, “aye aye, sir.” Harrington’s Marines take the tower and other objectives in fierce fighting. Harrington will receive the Navy Cross for “extraordinary heroism” in an action on the 23rd, and ultimately rise to the rank of colonel.
In a PBS documentary Harrington recalls:
“Throughout all of this, you constantly had this fear. Not so much that you were going to die, because I think to a certain degree that was a given. This was combined with the semi-darkness type of environment that we were fighting in because of the low overcast – the fact that we didn’t see the sun – gave it a very eerie, spooky look. You had this utter devastation all around you. You had this horrible smell. I mean you just cannot describe the smell of death especially when you’re looking at it a couple of weeks along. It’s horrible. It was there when you ate your rations. It was almost like you were eating death. You couldn’t escape it.”
Feb. 15, 1898: A terrific explosion rips through the bow of USS Maine anchored in Havana Harbor, Cuba. Almost everyone in the forward third of the vessel is instantly killed. Black smoke and seawater begin pouring into the remaining spaces. The dying ship, its bulkheads groaning under the stress of collapse, is then rocked by a series of jarring secondary explosions. Capt. Charles Sigsbee, the Maine’s skipper, orders “Abandon ship!” Within minutes, 260 U.S. sailors and Marines are dead.
Convinced that the explosion (the cause of which is still being debated) is the result of a mine or the work of Spanish saboteurs, American newspapers will demand vengeance. America will soon be at war with Spain.
Maine is the first of three so-named American battleships and one submarine.
Feb 16, 1804: U.S. Navy Lt. (future commodore) Stephen Decatur sails a captured Tripolitan ketch he renames USS Intrepid into the harbor at Tripoli. There, Decatur and a volunteer force of sailors and Marines board the frigate USS Philadelphia (the second of six so-named American warships), which had been previously captured by Tripolitan pirates. After a brief but violent close-quarters struggle – in which several pirates but no Americans are killed – Decatur orders the Philadelphia burned.
In time, Decatur will be referred to as “America’s Lord Nelson,” an affectionate comparison to Britain’s legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson. In fact, when Nelson himself learns of Decatur’s action at Tripoli, he says it is “the most bold and daring act of the age.” And contemporary British historian John Keegan will describe Decatur as “the most dashing of the frigate captains whom the Corsair and 1812 Wars produced.”
Destined to be killed in a duel with fellow Naval officer Commodore James Barron in 1820, Decatur is author of the famous aphorism, “Our country, right or wrong.”
Decatur has had five American warships and numerous American towns and counties named in his honor.
Feb 16, 1945: American paratroopers – members of the U.S. Army’s famed 503rd Regimental Combat Team – jump over the Philippines’ “fortress Corregidor” (also known as “the Rock”) in one of the most difficult airborne operations of the war. Jumping in relatively high winds, the paratroopers hit the ground hard, fighting Japanese soldiers who had been ordered to fight to the death. For the next 11 days, the Americans will root out the enemy (deeply burrowed in a labyrinth of caves and tunnels) and beat back multiple banzai attacks before wiping out almost all of the 6,500-man enemy garrison.
Feb. 17, 1864: The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley – a pioneering vessel designed to help break the Union Navy’s blockade of Southern ports – sinks the Federal sloop-of-war USS Housatonic in Charleston (S.C.) harbor, becoming the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship in action. It is a pyrrhic victory however: the submarine also sinking – either with its victim or soon after the attack – with the loss of all hands.
The submarine is named for its designer and builder, Tennessee-born engineer Horace Lawson Hunley, who incidentally was killed during one of the submarine’s test dives.
Feb. 17, 1865: Exactly one year to the day after Hunley’s famous attack in South Carolina waters, S.C.’s capital, Columbia – site of the first secession convention – falls to Union Army forces under the command of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Columbia is burned. Both sides blame the other for the destruction of the city, fueling a controversy that continues into the 21st century. Sherman will withdraw from Columbia within three days, and continue his march up through the Palmetto state. He will write in his memoirs, “Having utterly ruined Columbia, the right wing [of the army] began its march northward toward Winnsboro.”
Feb. 18, 1944: U.S. Marines land and quickly capture Engebi island, the first obstacle to seizing Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshalls. The following day, U.S. Army forces strike Eniwetok – a tougher fight – and soldiers and Marines seize the island in three days.
Feb. 19, 1945: One year after the Eniwetok landings, the first two of three dispatched U.S. Marine divisions begin hitting the beach on day-one of the epic battle for Iwo Jima (one of the great U.S. Marine Corps victories which we will expound on over the coming weeks). Described as “throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete,” the battle is best remembered by the dramatic photograph of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi and the 27 Medals of Honor awarded. But it will not be without great cost: Of the 21,000 Japanese diehards defending Iwo, some 20,800 will be killed. Almost 7,000 Marines will lose their lives. Another 26,000 will be wounded. Aside from Marine losses, a handful of casualties will be suffered among the ranks of U.S. Army, Navy, and Coast Guard personnel who also were there.