What On Earth
I stayed in last night. I have been feeling unsettled- some vague nausea that kept me away from happy hour like usual. I was watching TV up here, since the satellite connection down at the farm is on the fritz, and I was down a quart on whatever the latest scandal of the century. I was listening to the economist who worked for Ronald Reagan, Arthur Laffer, who invented the “Laffer Curve,” among other things.
He has been in the politico-economo business for more than a half century, so he understands politics. He seemed a bit bemused by the toxic emanations from the Swamp that is fiercely fighting being drained. I certainly understand it- I was part of the dark green water for most of my professional career. With that said, I agree with Dr. Laffer. I have never seen anything like this circus-horror show.
With that, we still have to pay attention. Otherwise the cascade of emotion is going to be totally wasted. I give you my weekly slide that attempts to quantify what is going on.
Of course, we are now in a strange place where the regular ballet of media and government has been disrupted. The scandals and alleged scandals are now so thick that the litigation surrounding them is liable to last beyond our lives. Slower to sort out, but happening in a sort of avalanche of real and false data that an ordinary citizen could spend all day worrying about it.
Or just shrug and hope that somehow a grown-up is going to show up and sort this all out- and send the bad children to their corners for a time-out. Figure those odds.
I dare you.
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
The Copper Fish on Monday
(The bar in the back of the Copper Fish. We had the three stools to the right).
Jake sent me a note on Sunday, asking if I was in Culpeper to have lunch yesterday with him and his lovely wife. I suggested the Copper Fish at noon on Monday, since the flagship restaurant on the block (“It’s About Thyme”) is closed Mondays. I arrived a little before they do, and rather than sit at one of the high-top dining tables, I strolled back to the bar after being greet by Chrystal, one of a half-dozen attractive and personable servers.
Being the bar was Kristen, mother of a student at James Mason University who will graduate this week, part of the rhythm of the end of Spring and the beginning of the summer. I got a glass of crisp Chardonnay to sip while I waited, and began to engage Kristen in a spirited dialogue about life, education and winding up in Culpeper. She had a raspy smoker’s voice and brassy, confident personality. We had a riot- much more animated than I normally am until happy hour.
Jake and his wife arrived within a few minutes and we decided to stay right at the bar and talked up a storm about the nature of retirement: “Monday. The new Saturday!’ I declared and decided to have another glass of wine and the lunch special- pizza cooked in the little pizzeria-deli that separates The Fish and Thyme- and through which the three family-owned restaurants share kitchen space. It is a pretty slick operation, and what started the renaissance of Davis Street in the historic core of town twenty years ago.
It is still going on as we transition from being a sleepy rural County to something that is beginning to look ominously like Loudoun. But when I parked the Panzer, always pleased that two-hour parking was free, even right downtown. I noticed that there was more and welcome change. The old Hazel River Inn had closed last year, and finally a replacement start-up had moved into the historic block that George Washington had surveyed, the Culpeper Minutemen might have met there during the Revolution and the basement of which was used as a prison for both Union and Confederate forces. The Grass Rootes is at 195 East Davis Street in the historic building. According to Kristen at the Copper Fish, the place offers a wide variety of food, but offers it with a certain southern flair and emphasis on Kansas City style slow-cooked barbecue.
I am always pleased when new BBQ comes to town- and offers something more than the vinegary North Carolina version.
(The Exchange Hotel and former hospital in Gordonsville).
They were headed down to Gordonsville, home of the Exchange Hotel museum, one of the Exhange, named for the old hotel and Civil War Hospitalthat looms above it. It is one of the better BBQ joints in the region, and is a proud if somewhat battered relic transportation hub back in the days when Rail was king.
(The food is better at the BBQ version of The Exchange).
In fact, our Irish family worked on the Alexandria & Orange, the rails that led from the port at Old Town down to the junction to points west and east. Which is how the family wound up in Nashville, and all the crazy stuff that came from that. The war is always still with you in this part of the Old Dominion.
Anyway, we were fairly moderate in our approach to lunch, and eventually we bade farewell to our new pals. The Copper Fish is a great place for lunch, and a reason to be in Culpeper on a Monday, though I would not try to navigate back north without a nap back at the farm first. It was a perfect day for that, too, but I imagine it is time to drag my butt out to the car and head north to get back with the program and look interested.
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
Living on New York Time
New York Second:
The shortest possible measurement of time. Vis: Standardised as the time between the traffic light turning green and the taxi behind you beeping his horn.
i.e.: He only lasted a new york second in bed.
– Urban Dictionary
Relax. I am going to attempt to stumble through this morning without any cheap shots at any of the personalities on the graphic above. In fact, what it all reinforces for me is a demonstration of the truism attributed to JFK in his time in Camelot- that “Washington is a town that combines the charm of New York City with the efficiency of Savannah, Georgia.” We were never much for the efficiency part down here by the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, but I am getting positively dizzy with the way the news cycle raises us a Mike Flynn or Susan Rice, quick fries them under the Kleiglights for a day and then the hunt is on to something else salacious.
I am here to tell you that the events that went along with the endless bombastic campaign that Savannah time done lost here, and we are now in the grip of the second hand of the New York clock. Frankly, the changing time is causing cognitive dissonance on the part of many prominent residents of our Swamp.
It feels like we are being dragged through a vortex. The nation was intended to operate much more slowly- the whole checks and balances thing where important matters of state being studied with due diligence. Health care might be the poster child for change. The ACA has some fundamental flaws, many inadvertent but some intentional. The replacement- which will be completely re-written in the Senate- had about the same level of rational debate, all within one party. We are talking bout 20% of the American economy, so you would think it might be worth chatting about. But these days there is a startling inversion of the way the parties have interacted over the course of the previous two administrations.
I should drop the word “startled” from my vocabulary altogether. I think the element of surprise has been knocked clean out of me. I am only mildly disconcerted at the daily cycle of antics and pranks being played out in the rarified arena on the East side of the Potomac.
As an independent voter not beholden to either of them, my high-level consolidated opinion is that I want to be left alone by the IRS, the FBI, the Russians, the Chinese and the dizzying number of non-state and terrorist actors.
I had a late dental appointment that I had calculated would enable me to get to The Front Page in time for Happy Hour at vodka-thirty. The apex of the bar- “The Bevel” filled up nicely and we were yacking about how the day had gone and the latest madness de jour. Liz-with-an-S glanced up at the CNN banner that floated across the bottom and the screen and grabbed my arm.
“Look at that!” she exclaimed as the yellow script tracked across the bottom of the screen. “They fired Director Comey!”
Considering the number of news cycles that Director Comey has dominated over the last few years, it is clear that sometimes he was the hero and sometimes the goat- considered as such by exactly the same people, depending on whose ox he was goring. I am confident that the Director was convinced he was saving the Republic, just as surely as others may say he was usurping it. That is sort of the “we had to destroy the village to save it” I recall from my younger years.
When I got home and checked the news, I saw that Dick Nixon was the last President to sack an FBI Director. Judge Webster had some interesting ethical challenges, and of course it was possible that he could have brought about the downfall of the Administration, which he did not have to do. Things were still on Wasington time then, which is to say glacial. So there were convenient reasons to get rid of him.
But the FBI as we know it has not been around much longer than the most iconic of the Directors: J. Edgar Hoover. Ask anyone of our generation what they thought about the man, and we would probably all agree, and not in a good way.
If you use Mr. Hoover as the benchmark for how to do things that should get you fired (but didn’t), the contrast between slower time and the news cycle today is clear. As such, the President did to Comey what no president had the courage to do to J. Edgar Hoover. No less than five Chief Executives wanted to fire Hoover, who made a point of letting the incoming Administration know what he had on them that they might not want to see in the Post or the afternoon Star. No less a light than Harry Truman accused him of “running a police state” and that Hoover routinely used of blackmail and extortion in accomplishing his mission, which was full lifetime employment for the Director and his pals.
Everyone in this town was justly afraid of Hoover, so he died in office. I stop by to see him when I am close to Congressional Cemetery. Hoover is buried there not far from his long-time associate Clyde Tolson, which is kind of touching, I suppose.
A group of former Special Agents got together and purchased a nice bench near the grave on which the weary might rest.
I always try to sit there quietly, and meditate on the nature of time. I mean, Mr. Hoover has been gone a while. I normally don’t need my cane all the time, but when I walk the uneven ground I find it useful to have with me. Plus, as I sit and watch, I am totally alert just in case he tries to come up again. Given the times, New York or other, it is only prudent.
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
The Crescent Club
There is a work trip to Industry Day in Tampa for the CENTCOM JIOC Support contract- not the 600 Full-time Equivalent (FTE) job that it was when the command was running two full-up wars, but at 250 is still nothing for the Parkway Patriot crowd to sneeze at. There are partnerships to pursue and options to consider.
One of them involves options, big time. I turn 66 in a short while, and I think each time I attempt to rise from slumber how much the legs hurt. There is an answer to that, of course, and one of them is to relax a bit, and not worry about the winter in Washington, or the prospect that sooner or later someone is going to do something nasty to your nation’s capital. Could I leave this place where I spent so much sweat and tears chasing contracts and money? I would hate to leave Big Pink, but maybe it is time.
Or maybe not. It is certainly worth contemplating. Accordingly, I am extending my stay in the Tampa area in order to look at real estate in Sarasota.I had been looking at the Clearwater area, but it seems the values are better across the causeway to the south. My search terms have the Realtor (TM) a little baffled, since my three search terms for property are simple but vital. I would like to have a refrigerator with an in-door ice crusher. A community pool that is at least six feet deep so I can tread water and listen to my audiobooks. And a decent place to go to happy hour. The house or condo is really sort of secondary to the important social and exercise amenities, while making the search a little more complex from a distance. So, I thought perhaps we would start with the basics.
Siesta Key- nestled in Sarasota, fairly close to the McDill AFB military complex with its Commissary, Class Six and Exchange- also hosts the Crescent Club, a bar used as a prop by famed mystery writer John D. MacDonald who featured it in several of his books under a variety of names. “Condominium” might be the one most notable novel. MacDonald placed the action of his stories in Ft. Lauderdale, but that was just to keep his readers away from Siesta Key(the club masquerading as a place called the “Sand Dollar.”)
“Inside the ceiling was hung with nets, with glass and cork floats. Harpoons were chained to the walls. The low-power wall sconces held orange bulbs with orange shades. Overhead prisms shone puddles of white light down on the black Formica bar. The front edge of the bar and the barstools were upholstered in red Naugahyde, spotted with cigarette burns and old stains.”
According to my research, with just a few minor changes, MacDonald’s description still fits, though I will have to scope it out in person. The fishing nets have apparently been replaced with banners from various colleges, but they still hang from the ceiling. During the day, two shafts of lights stream in from the open doors — always been the mark of a real, old Florida place: doors open with the air-conditioning on — and there’s a drive-up window to purchase liquor, one of the things that made Florida appeal to me when we lived in Jacksonville while I was on the Carrier Airwing SIX staff. There is another old-timey touch- a liquor drive-through, which is how I remember the old-timey Citrus State, when Great Aunt Bly and Uncle Joe lived in the Orlando that once existed before the Mouse arrived.
And I want to meet one of the character-actor waitresses MacDonald described so vividly: mature beach bunnies, still tanned and golden and with a smile that would melt 6’4″ private detective hero Travis McGee’s heart.
The current cast of characters is described as ‘regulars,’ the way I understand them from Willow and The Front Page in Arlington. Some of them are waiting every morning for opening at 1000, plus the snow-bird seasonal regulars, since the Crescent Club is located in that part of Siesta Key where all the little motels are located. They say there are no colorful Key West-style barflies or bikers playing pool. Not a theme bar- and he people are pretty ordinary-looking. But then, isn’t that Sarasota? Mild-mannered on the outside, seething with passion on the inside?
They say the CC is the place where everyone in town meets sooner or later. Some are on an important errand. Some are in the throes of a new and reckless love affair. And some are entering into a scheme that promises to turn into an adventure.
Next year I want to have a hell of a year. One of the curious things about the passing of time is that John. D. MacDonald, a wildly successful writer of decent pulp fiction, died at seventy. Turning 66 next month, I think it may be time to relax in the dimness, and watch the rays of the sun pour through the open door and the march relentlessly across the floor toward dusk.
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
The Armada and Me
(A photograph, taken in 1901, of Fort Hill Cemetery in County Galway. The cemetery contains Saint Augustin’s Hill and is the resting place of a number of Spanish sailors of the Spanish Armada of 1588. Image courtesy of the Galway Library).
“The Spaniards cast ashore at Galway were doomed to perish; and the Augustinian friars, who served them as chaplains, exhorted them to meet death bravely when they were led out, south of the city, to Saint Augustin’s Hill, then surmounted by a monastery, where they were beheaded. The matrons of Galway piously prepared winding sheets for the corpses, and we have heard that two of the Spanish sailors escaped death by lurking a long time in Galway, and afterwards getting back to their own country.”
– Galway Library
OK- The Derby is over, and despite my frantic cheering, my horse- “Battle of Midway-” could do not better than third. It was fun to get dressed up, and the Mint Julep’s (Woodford Reserve Bourbon is the official whiskey of the Kentucky Derby) were quite tasty.
I woke a little foggy, but that is a hazard of the Gold Cup and Kentucky Derby weekend. I was adrift on topics that would not instantly alienate half of our readers, so while I thought I had subjected you to the worst of my experience with DNA analysis, apparently I lied. There is more of interest- and mystery to be examined. The Socotra Tribe’s roots are distressingly white-bread, with over 95% of the ancestral line being from Northwest Europe, and a majority of that being from the Celtic portions of the British Isles. I was not surprised, though I thought there might be more Scandinavian heritage than the .8% would suggest.
My expectation was that there would have been some comingling between the influx of Viking raiders and traders in the 9th and 10th centuries. After all, we hailed from Galway on the west coast of Ireland before the Diaspora of the 1840s, and most of the Irish coastal cities- like Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Waterford were founded by the visiting Berserkers.
As it turns out, we have only a smidgen of DNA that traveled in the Long Ships to the Emerald Isle. The Vikings left little impact on Ireland other than towns and certain words added to the Irish language, but many Irish taken as slaves inter-married with the Scandinavians, hence forming a close link with the Viking settlements in Iceland.
What did surprise me was the percentage of Iberian blood in my veins- 3.3%.
There were no family stories about any Spanish ancestors, though the more I thought of it, there was a likely explanation for that, since the British rulers of Ireland made a regular practice of beheading any Spanish who survived landfall. The term for the descendants of intermarriage between Spanish and Irish is Black Irish. It is an ambiguous one, sometimes used (mainly outside Ireland) as a reference to a dark-haired phenotype appearing in people of Irish origin. According to enlistment papers, we have tended toward the bluff blonde on Mom’s side of the family, though Dad’s line leans toward the “Tall, dark and handsome” side of the house. Mom used to say that the younger Bill was a dead ringer for Gregory Peck, and I suppose that is how all of us get started in the process of passing the DNA along.
I know, I know. There is research discrediting the impact of the Spanish survivors on the Irish gene pool, but I will go with the DNA evidence and circumstance to narrow the possibilities.
1588 was a big year for England, against all odds. Imperial Spain was at its zenith of prestige and influence. His empire included territories on every continent then known to Europeans, including his namesake, the Philippine Islands. Scholars term the period of Philip’s reign a “Golden Age,” in which the sun never set. Philip II had prevailed in the Low Countries of Europe, and the next item for acquisition was England across the Channel.
The people called him “Filipe the Prudente,” which is not the boldest of nick-names, but for all the patience, he had his eyes set on the conquest of England. The King dug down in the pockets of his breeches and raised a force of 130 ships of the line to conduct the assault. His fleet- the Armada of lore- was anchored near Calais when the out-gunned British attacked.
One of the most effective means of conducting war at sea in those days was use of the Fireship. These were hulls packed with incendiary materials, set alight, and with a skeleton crew to guide itself against the foe. It was a particularly effective weapon against a fleet at anchor, and the Brits achieved tactical surprise as the blazing hulks set fire to the Spanish sails.
In order to escape the flames, many of the Spanish galleons cut their anchor lines, leaving the great iron weights on the sea floor. Most escaped, but with the anchors left behind, they had to stay in motion and underway. To return to Spain, the fleet would have to circumnavigate Scotland and Ireland, and the prevailing winds forced the Armada to flee north. The rocky coasts and the predictably abysmal weather did far more damage to the Armada than the fireships had. As they proceeded south after rounding the northern tip of Scotland at Dunnet Head, the strongest storms in a decade rose, raking the ships with icy breath and tumultuous seas.
Most of the eighty-four remaining ships avoided land, and most of those in turn made it home, although in varying degrees of material readiness. Nearly thirty of them were forced toward the coast of Ireland including several galleons and many merchantmen. The latter had been converted for battle and were leaking heavily, making sail with severely damaged masts and rigging, and of course without their anchors.
One of the ships pressed toward Galway Bay was the Falco Blanco Mediano, a 16-gun, 300-ton ship carrying a crew of 103. Near our ancestral home, Falco Blanco was wrecked on a reef near Freaghillaun in Ballynakill Bay between Clifden and Renvyle. The survivors were looked after by the Connely clan- before they became prisoners of the Crown.
Sir William Fitzwilliam, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, was alarmed, and considered that the Irish might rise if the Spanish landed troops. Not knowing the real state of collapse in the fleet, the harshest punishments were prescribed for the sailors and families like the Connelys.
The survivors of Falco Blanco included several Spanish noblemen, the most renowned of whom was Don Luis de Cordoba, his nephew Don Gonzalo and the captain Pedro de Arechaga. I had no idea we might be associated with the nobility- if anyone had the time for romance, anyway- but as they say, where there is a will, there is a way.
Another ship- the Cocepcion Delcano- had ground ashore at Ards near Carna, not far away and at the head of a natural harbor. As they transited at night in rough weather, the crew saw fires on the shore. Thinking the fires were to guide them in they followed them, little realizing that the bonfires were set by wreckers who deliberately intended to lure the ship to shore and then plunder the contents. Cocepcion Delcano carried two hundred and twenty five souls on board. Captain Juan Delcano went down with the ship. The surviving sailors were greeted in traditional fashion: they were beaten and robbed. Those who survived were brought to Galway, among them being the swaggering Don Diego Sarimento.
In Galway the jails were soon overflowing. Spaniards from wrecks in Mayo had also been sent there, numbering as many as three hundred and fifty. The Lord Deputy had given the order to execute all Spanish captives, regardless of rank and even to use the methods of the Inquisition to get answers, torture. He came all the way on bad Irish road from Athlone to Galway to personally oversee the executions.
At least three hundred Spaniards were taken to a hill at St Augustine’s Monastery (now called Forthill) where the executions would be held. The Augustinians gave the condemned men the last rites and then they were beheaded.
Forty noblemen were set aside for ransom of the nobles. When news of this reached Fitzwilliam he was furious and ordered them to be executed immediately. The order was carried out. Included in the executions were six Dutch boys, who had been on the ships. It is said that two Spaniards were saved and hidden in the city.
This is probably a reference to DeCoroda and his nephew, whose lives were spared. De Corboda had made no secret to his Irish protectors that he was a wealthy man in Spain and doubtless the prospect of a big payday for them was attractive, and probably kept them alive. Nothing survives in the literature I reviewed to outline the dating scene in Galway, so our association with the two noblemen is entirely speculative. They were both repatriated after ransom was paid.
Unsurprisingly, his later writings about his visit to the Emerald Isle reveals he was still quite cross with the Irish.
For my part, the DNA is not prescriptive as much as it is descriptive. But if the DeCordas managed to stay underground for an extended time in Galway, it is at least possible that they are the cause of the Iberian blood in our family veins. It certainly is interesting how that stuff gets around, isn’t it?
Victor DeCordas Socotra does have a certain ring, you know?
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
(Cimmarron-class fleet oiler Neosho (AO-23) during her fitting out in New Jersey in 1939. Photo USN).
Yesterday I celebrated the extraordinary career of ADM Noel Gayler, Naval Aviator extraordinaire and hero of the Battle of the Coral Sea, a tactical draw between the navies that saved Australia from the predations of the Empire of the sun. Naval Aviators get a lot of ink- they earned it. I grew up in a household headed by one, and heard it all. But that was not anything like the whole story.
USS Neosho (AO-23) was a Cimmarron-class fleet oiler, second ship to be named for the Neosho River that flows through Kansas and Oklahoma. She was new construction (1939) and known affectionately to her crew as “The Fat Lady” for her beamy aspect and ungainly sea-keeping.
She and her crew had been in Hawaii and survived the attack on Pearl, and was one of the high-value units of the American fleet. A mobile gas station to keep the carriers stocked with fuel and aviation gas was absolutely vital to successful operations. She was at the Coral Sea when the Japanese arrived. The significance of their advance was that the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand were at risk of being cut off, at a minimum, and invasion was a strong possibility.
At all costs, the sea-lanes to the Dominions had to be kept open, and they had to be protected against attack and possible amphibious assault.
As the American and Japanese fleets sought each other out on 6 May 1942, Neosho refueled the carrier Yorktown and the heavy cruiser Astoria, and then retired from the carrier force with a lone escort, the destroyer USS Sims.
While independently steaming, Neosho was spotted at 1000 on 07 May by Japanese search planes and misidentified as a carrier with her escort. 78 aircraft from the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku were scrambled to search the area in vain for an American flat-top. Despite the high-value nature of her vital capabilities, Neosho was not what they were looking for. Eventually they abandoned the search for combatants, and returned to sink Sims and hit Neosho seven times, leaving her adrift and ablaze.
One Japanese pilot, his Val bomber disabled by Neosho’s guns, rode it down into the target, an early example of the Kamikaze tactic that later ravaged the Americans at Okinawa.
(Last known picture of Neosho after the attack. Photo IJN).
Panic was an understandable result of the encounter, and the close-aboard explosion and sinking of the Sims. Neosho’s condition was dire. Captain Phillips sent word from the bridge to his XO, LCDR Firth: “Make preparations for abandoning ship and stand by.”
Firth had been injured during the attack and was fading in and out of consciousness. Seeing the loss of their escort, some of the sailors began jumping over the side and floundered in the five-foot seas that pummeled the hulk.
On the bridge, Captain Phillips called the communications officer and ordered him to destroy all classified material, particularly Neosho’s code books. The compromise of that material would have been disastrous. Seeing that crucial step in the abandon ship drill, sailors on the bridge deserted their stations, shouting that it was “every man for himself.” The officer of the deck, who was also the navigation officer, was among those who panicked. He left the bridge after he heard the captain give the order to flood the ship’s magazines.
Forward, men were throwing the life rafts overboard, and leaping after them. The Navigator warned them that they risked losing the rafts. Other men were trying to launch the Number 1 motor whale boat, and he ordered a life raft moved so it could be swung out. Thinking twice about his actions, he then headed back for the bridge, but as he moved up, he heard more men coming down, crying “every man for himself” and rushing to throw themselves into the water. The Navigator then leaped into the water, along with the enlisted men, as the radio officer and several others tried desperately to launch another boat.
Seeing officers abandoning ship, the men lost all discipline. In a few minutes, the water and the rafts were filled with escaping seamen, who were certain the Neosho’s end had come. That was the crucial moment in the disaster.
With heroic effort, Philips and his crew- the part that had stayed with her, anyway- managed to keep her afloat until the American destroyer Henley found them on 11 May 1942. After transferring the survivors aboard, she sank Neosho with gunfire. What the Japanese could not do, we had to do for her.
The rescued men of Neosho and Sims now safe onboard the Henley said an emotional goodbye to their ship and watched it slip beneath the waves.
But there was the matter of the men who had abandoned ship immediately after the attack. Their rafts had been dispersed by wind and sea and were no longer in sight. Henley set a course that would follow the apparent drift track of Neosho in reverse, in an effort to find them.
The search went on for three days, but she found nothing, and eventually Henley set a course for Brisbane to land the survivors.
As that search went on, the men aboard the rafts were dying. It had been a week already drifting at sea. What supplies they had were quickly consumed without stiff rationing. Men dying of thirst drank seawater, and died more quickly. Sailors fought over what food there was, and the officers failed to impose discipline to preserve what there was.
As Henley returned the bulk of the survivors to Australia, the destroyer Helm was directed to sortie from Noumea to continue the search. Three days out, Helm came upon four rafts lashed together bobbing on the waves. Four men were alive on these rafts, all that remained of the 68 who had been on them when they abandoned ship. Of the nearly one hundred others who had been on single rafts, no trace was ever found.
There was talk of an official investigation into the conduct of those who had abandoned ship, but Higher authority felt it best not to stir up new problems. Neosho was lost, and assigning blame to anyone but the Japanese would only bring bad blood between professional line officers and naval reservists, since all the officers who abandoned ship were both reservists and dead. Actually, in these early days of war such events were only to be expected. There was no time for niceties.
At Coral Sea, the carrier Lexington had been lost, and Yorktown needed repairs. The Japanese were on the march again, this time headed for an unknown target in the mid-Pacific. In the Dungeon at Pearl, Joe Rocherfort’s code-breakers Jasper Holmes, assisted by ENS Mac Showers, on the job for almost two and a half months, were in the process of unraveling the identity of the target as the Neosho’s crew drifted.
The Battle of Midway was just a month away.
So the matter of Neosho’s crew was dropped.
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
A full account of the loss of USS Neosho is described in the book, Blue Skies and Blood by Edward P. Hoyt.
The Last Hero of the Coral Sea
(ADM Noel Gayler in his office at Camp Smith, HI, 1976. An authentic hero and warrior, he was proud of being the first no-nucs officer to head the Pacific Command. Photo New York Times.)
It is appropriate to look back to the battle before the battle that changed everything in the Pacific.
I hope you saw RADM Paul Becker’s reminder the other morning. Now the 75th Anniversary is here, and I looked back through my archive of TAPS obituaries. This one called out to be remembered.
14 July 2011. ADM Noel Arthur Meredyth Gayler, 96, Alexandria, VA, of natural causes. He was the sixth Director of the National Security Agency (DIRNSA) at the height ot the Vietnam War, and followed a unique career path to four-star rank.
He began his service as a surface warrior- a Deck Officer of the time, like our pal and mentor Mac Showers. Noel became one of the highest –decorated fighter pilots in Navy history, and retired as the ninth CINCPAC from 1972 to 1976. His story-book career spanned 46 years of active duty and three wars, a unique wartime flight in a Japanese Zero fighter over the US Capitol, complete with the round red meatball of the Empire painted on the fuselage, and his position as the first anti-nuclear commander of CINCPAC, the military minister plenipotentiary for the United States at the zenith of its power in the Pacific basin.
Noel Arthur Meredyth Gayler was born in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 25, 1914, one of three children born Ernest and Anne Roberts Gayler. His father was a naval officer, who inspired him to enter the US Naval Academy in the class of ’35. His first assignment as an Ensign was in the Engineering Division on the battleship Maryland (BB-46). After an initial stint in the “Gun Club,” he transferred for his department head tours in the destroyer Maury (DD-401) followed by service as the Gunnery Officer on the destroyer Craven (DD-382).
Life as a “Tin Can” sailor paled for ENS Gayler, who saw that there was a new path to success in the service as the carrier air capability was ramped up in anticipation of war.
In March 1940, Gayler entered Flight Training at NAS Pensacola, the cradle of Naval Aviation. He was designated a Naval Aviator in November 1940, and was assigned to the Pacific in Fighter Squadron THREE (VF-3). He joined one of the most storied ready-rooms in Navy history. The “Felix the Cat” squadron was commanded by the legendary Jimmie Thatch, credited with inventing the “Thatch Weave” formation for air combat patrols, and who would later also go on to make four stars and command naval forces in Europe.
Another squadron mate was Medal of Honor recipient Edward “Butch” O’Hare. You have doubtless had a bad encounter in the Windy City airport named in his honor.
(VF-3 Squadron portrait. Noel Gayler is third from left in the first row, immediately next to Skipper Jimmie Thatch. Medal of Honor winner Butch O’Hare is sixth from left.)
VF-3’s “Fightin’ Felix” pilots were mentored by Thatch into a fighting machine that was prepared to take on the undefeated Japanese carrier force and it’s nimble fighters and demonstrate that the rugged Grumman fighter was in fact superior to the Mitsubishi Zero-sen aircraft when properly employed.
(Felix touched my life, too. Re-designated “VF-31,” the Felix squadron was part of Airwing SIX on our 1989 Cold War-ending Med cruise).
After Pearl Harbor the first important sea battle between American and Japanese forces was shaping up, and US Naval forces began to probe the perimeter of the massive new Japanese empire. Noel Gayler’s first Navy Cross was awarded after:
“…his ship was attacked by eighteen Japanese bombing planes on 20 February 1942. In the face of heavy antiaircraft fire, Lieutenant Gayler intercepted a formation of nine enemy aircraft and succeeded in shooting down one twin-engine bomber and a seaplane fighter, and aided in the destruction of two other twin-engine bombers, and bombed and strafed two enemy destroyers.”
In March of 1942, planes from the Enterprise had hit Japanese-occupied Wake Island, and Lexington (CV-2) teamed with Yorktown (CV-5) to strike enemy bases at Lae and Salamaua on the island of New Guinea.
Naval Intelligence was beginning to demonstrate significant contributions to the war against the Empire of the Sun. Intelligence derived from Station HYPO decrypts of JN-25 Naval Code indicated that the Japanese were planning to invade Port Moresby, near the eastern tip of New Guinea. The main body of the task force would sortie around this eastern tip, into the Coral Sea, and then attack.
Port Moresby was vital to Allied strategy, since if the Japanese established a presence there the strategic sea-lanes to Australia and New Zealand would be compromised. ADM Chester Nimitz made a bold role of the dice, ordering the bulk of his carrier force to engage. Lexington and Yorktown were ordered into the Coral Sea to intercept the Japanese battle force.
On the morning of May 5th, the two carriers heard a report from Lieutenant Commander James “Jimmie” Flatley, who led the Yorktown’s fighters. He was flying on Combat Air Patrol (CAP), and had spotted a Kawanishi flying boat spying on the task force.
“Where is he?” inquired Combat on Lexington.
“Wait a minute and I’ll show you,” radioed Flatley.
A fireball erupted in the clouds as his Wildcat gunned down the lumbering flying boat.
On its way down, the big plane almost struck LT Noel Gayler’s Grumman F4F Wildcat where he was orbiting near Lexington.
“Hey, Jimmy,” he yelled, “that one almost hit me.”
“That’ll teach you to fly underneath me when Japs are around,” Flatley quipped on the tactical frequency.
During the Air Battle of the Coral Sea three weeks later, Gayler’s aggressive courage earned him another Navy Cross, where with
“…utter disregard for his own life…he succeeded in destroying two enemy Japanese aircraft and in damaging two others.”
Three days later, he gained a third Navy Cross when on 10 March he intercepted and shot down an enemy seaplane fighter.
“In the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire he (then) conducted a vigorous and determined dive-bombing and strafing attack on two enemy destroyers, causing many personnel casualties.”
(IJN Kawanishi flying boat. Photo US Navy.)
In June 1942, on the eve of the Battle of Midway, Gayler was transferred to NAS Anacostia in Washington, DC. The U.S. Navy pulled its best combat pilots out of action to train newer pilots, while the Japanese kept their best pilots in combat. At NAS Anacostia he served as the Fighter (VF) Project Officer at BuAer From June 1943 to June 1944 to develop the improved Grumman fighter- the F6F Hellcat.
He had a stake in the new aircraft, since subsequently served as a test and evaluation pilot at NAS PAX River. He returned to combat as Commanding Officer of VF-12 from June 1944 to February 1945, and was Air Ops for the 2nd Carrier Task Force from March 1945 through the end of the Pacific War.
It was in his capacity as Task Force Air Ops that Gayler was able to commandeer an aircraft do conduct an aerial tour of Hiroshima. He was not the only interested tourist to visit- Chuck Sweeney, pilot of Bock’s Car, the B-29 that dropped the second atomic device on Nagasaki toured the city a few months after the peace. He took the other view, and for the rest of his life continued to believe the strike was the right thing to do, and that it had saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Gayler did not see it that way. He flew over Hiroshima six days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945. “He was stunned; he saw nothing moving,” his widow Jeanne commented later. “It was imprinted on his mind, and he vowed to work to eliminate nuclear weapons.”
Gayler was present on the USS Missouri (BB-63) for the official surrender ceremony, and Operation MAGIC CARPET whisked him and millions of other servicemen home that November.
Jeanne Mallette Thompson Galyer’s recollection of Gayler’s memories of Hiroshima (Gayler’s first marriage ended in divorce) may contain a bit of historic revisionism, since despite his qualms about the horror of Hiroshima, Noel Gayler was destined to become the navy’s consummate nuclear warrior.
With the return to CONUS, he was assigned as Executive Officer and then Deputy Director of Special Devices Center on Long Island, NY, 46-48. The Center had been in the center of technology throughout the war, growing in prominence from a Section to a full-fledged Naval research center. It had explored technologies like television and innovative training devices for precision bombing and terrain modeling for aerial targeting.
The latter was a key element of Air Intelligence Targeting and was one of the key product lines of the CINCPACFLT intelligence division. In addition to the general knowledge of what Special Intelligence- the ability to accurately forecast enemy intentions to permit the bold strike- Gayler was attuned to the value of technology. Gayler’s Center was on the cutting edge of everything, and was also the home of the Navy’s first mainframe computer.
The command was also not far from the estate where Naval Intelligence exploited captured Nazi and Japanese technology, and there was frequent interaction. He also deployed from the Center to observe the third US atomic test series: Operation SANDSTONE, a three detonation series to test the effects of atomic weapons on surface ships.
(Operation SANDSTONE blast at Eniwetok Atoll, 1948. Official US Navy photo.)
In 1998, he commented to interviewer Steve Sapienza that: “I saw Hiroshima. Utter desolation. Not a thing moving. A little old dinky bomb did that. I participated in a second, I think it was, group of nuclear tests in the South Pacific, the Sandstone Series and I first saw what these things looked like, little thing from nineteen miles away is like the end of the earth. And I realized that the ideas about protection of ships — Navy — run away from the base surge, wash down of decontamination — all of that stuff was just nonsense. And I think — I think — by the way, something funny happened. Hard to believe you could be funny about nuclear testing, but we discovered that the sailors were kind of disappointed with us after all the work they’d done, washed down and whatnot, nothing much was happening until finally some character put a Geiger counter on the top of the cabinet [inaudible] and by golly, a passing sea gull had made a deposit there and it was radioactive. And everybody was happy.”
He managed to internalize his misgivings about the nature of his profession and was a consummate Navy leader in his combat and peacetime assignments afloat. These included duty in increasing levels of responsibility as Operations Officer in USS Bairoko (CVE 115) ‘48-49, CO of the deep draft USS Greenwich Bay (AVP 41) 56-57, Major command of USS Ranger (CVA 61) 59-60, and Flag command as Carrier Division (CARDIV) TWENTY, 62-63.
His shore assignments attuned him to technology, acquisition, politics and Human Intelligence operations, and the expose to the nature of how the Navy’s nuclear capability kept it at the heart of the strategic balance between the warring services.
Ashore, he headed the Fighter Design Branch in Washington, D.C., ‘49-51, and commanded VX-3 at Atlantic City, NJ, 51-54. In that job, he once flew from NAS Oceana east of Norfolk, Virginia, to Denver, Colorado and returned nonstop. The entire flight was flown below 200 feet in altitude to demonstrate feasibility of low-level penetration and attack. Gayler reported “Lots of astonished cattle” on his return.
He finally emerged from the cockpit to serve in the pressure-cooker OpNav Staff in the Pentagon, 54-56, He was Operations Officer for the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, from February to June 1957, and then served as a Naval Aide to the Secretary of the Navy from June 1957 to April 1959. He was selected to be the U.S. Naval Attaché in London, England, from August 1960 to August 1962, a job that required regular intelligence reporting on events in the Court of St. James. He returned to the Pentagon late that year to become Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Development.
Misgivings about weapons aside, his office was in the middle of the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile program- in August 1967. He was Deputy Director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, from September 1967 to July 1969.
JSTPS was charged with planning Doomsday. It was the high-custodian of the Single Integrated Operation Plan, or “SIOP.” On a regular production cycle, the staff constructed the nuclear target deck for the manned bombers, submarine-launched and silo-based ICBM force.
In a 1976 interview after retirement, Gayler mused about his time there: “A very few persons go about the grim, necessary business of nuclear planning. Fewer still have seen a bomb tested: the light of a thousand suns, searing heat, immense shock, a wicked flickering afterglow manifesting in intense residual radiation. That’s a pity. We and the Soviet Union have tens of thousands of weapons. We better get them under control.”
From that position, ADM Gayler was nominated by President Nixon to become the 6th Director of the National Security Agency in July 1969. Nixon, urged by his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, to assign officers with broad operational experience- not intelligence professionals- in order to better control the intelligence community.
Gayler presided over the NSA SIGINT program, including clandestine and space-based reconnaissance, until Nixon nominated him to be chief of the U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC) in August 1972. In that capacity he managed the closing act of the Vietnam War.
In that post, the Admiral was in charge of all American armed forces in a 94-million-square-mile area from the west coasts of North and South America to the Indian Ocean. He was the American military adviser to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). He was no opponent of conventional bombing, and oversaw the American air campaigns against North Vietnam and the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos.
He retired from the Navy the year after Saigon fell to Communist forces, and in the same year wrote an Op-Ed article for The New York Times he was critical of the American nuclear posture, and increasingly too a position at variance with the official national strategy of massive retaliation.
His activism gained him notice as a military maverick. In 1986, he received an invitation from Jeanne Malette Thompson to join an organization she had founded (with activist Carl M. Marcy) called “The American Committee on East-West Accord.”
According to the mission statement, the organization intended to “promote rational relations with the Soviet Union and to work toward nuclear disarmament.”
The gravitas of the board that Admiral Gayler joined is unassailable. It included such Cold War giants as: Robert Strange McNamara, George F. Kennan and John Kenneth Galbraith, all of whom had crises of faith in the doctrine of containment and mutually assured destruction (MAD).
Soon after joining the board, he married Ms Thompson.
In December 2000, working with an organization called the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Admiral Gayler wrote a proposal for the elimination of all nuclear arms. “When a target country can be destroyed by a dozen weapons,” he wrote, “its own possession of thousands of weapons gains no security.”
He continued a vigorous campaign against nuclear weapons until shortly before his final illness.
He died peacefully at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2011, the last and most prominent of the remaining heroes of the Coral Sea.
For all of them who were at the Coral Sea on this day, three quarters of a century ago.
With things nuclear so prominent these days, it might be worth thinking about the men who actually knew what it was all about.
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
May Third Thursday and a Sunny Wednesday at Refuge Farm
(A placid farm on the way down to the Shenandoah. Image Steven Christie).
It is unusual to be down at the farm during the week, but there was a ceremony marking the 5th Anniversary of the company’s presence out in Page County at ten this morning, and I took the opportunity to beat rush hour out of the Imperial City and situated in a place where there would not be gridlocked while attempting to break out.
It was a great decision- the weather was magnificent on the drive down and the evening splendid as happy hour washed over me. The trip to Luray this morning was a piece of cake- though driving over the mountain is always a little exciting while assaulting the summit of the pass.
I was listening to the satellite radio on the way, tuned into the testimony o FBI Director James Comey as I did the disorienting hair-pin turns near the top. I actually was getting a little bilious as I drove. I could not tell if it was the blather being spewed on the radio, or the impact of the twisting forward motion on my inner ear.
As I cam down the slope into the Shenandoah Valley, I was taken by the pastoral beauty of what had been the ‘readbasket of the Confederacy,” and the privations visited against the American people who lived there. They say Winchester changed hands more than fifty times over the course of the war. It was a sobering consideration, considering what is going on all over.
Down in the country, though, It is feeling almost like summer. The grass and foliage are roaring with life, and it is all as green as can be. Life is spectacular- though it will be even better when this accursed proposal is done and submitted to the government!
Meanwhile, the Director of the Navy History and Heritage Center has agreed to come and ‘talk-story’ with us for Third Thursday on 18 May at the historic Sonoma Cellars in Old Town.
This will be one not to be missed- no one but Sam Cox has the kind of visceral appreciation for how we all arrived at this place in time and history!
Hope to see you there!
The Battle of The Coral Sea’s 75th Anniversary: Intelligence Lessons For Today
Editors Note: With the public spotlight in the US on the upcoming Midway commemoration, the memory of the vital pre-momentum shift represented by the Battle of Coral Sea has been muted here. That event solidified the commitment of the U.S. to the independence of Australia, and the unique bond between our nations.
RADM Paul Becker, one of our finest, contributes this article to put the event in the historic context it deserves. Our pal Mac Showers had just arrived in February before the battle, so with sixty days on the job, he often remembered to us the whirlwind of activity that happened in the Dungeon at Pearl, and the joint SIGINT acticity with the Aussies at Fleet Radio Unit- Melbourne (FRUMEL) that helped the USN to be ready for action and all hands at General Quarters. As maritime tensions rise in Northeast Asia today, it is a matter of ‘Lest We Forget.’
The Battle of The Coral Sea’s 75th Anniversary: Intelligence Lessons For Today
May 4th marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, an epic maritime engagement between the U.S. and Imperial Japanese Navies in early World War II. This was history’s first sea battle where opposing ships never saw or fired upon each other and only carrier-based aircraft engaged the enemy.
The outcome was a tactical draw (each side lost one aircraft carrier) but a U.S. strategic victory for three reasons:
• 1) It foiled the Japanese attempt to capture Port Moresby, New Guinea, which would have in turn threatened northeastern Australia,
• 2) It was the first setback for the Imperial Japanese Navy which seemed unstoppable early in the war with triumphs ranging from Ceylon to Hawaii, and damaged two other Japanese aircraft carriers which would subsequently be unavailable for action in the Pacific’s next major sea battle,
• 3) The breakthrough role that Pacific Fleet Intelligence personnel played in deciphering Japanese code allowed the U.S. Navy to arrive at the right place and right time to engage a numerically superior enemy on our terms.
Intelligence lessons learned from Coral Sea are relevant today.
The painstaking efforts by Pacific Fleet Cryptanalysts and Intelligence personnel to fuse radio signals with other sources of information (Human, Photographic, Media, etc) resulted in a timely, relevant product called “Operational Intelligence (OPINTEL).”
Just as single-source radio intelligence did not offer complete understanding of the adversary then, modern single-source cyber access does not offer complete understanding of an adversary now.
Mastery of the all-source art of OPINTEL is just as essential for maintaining battle space awareness and enabling a commanders’ decision advantage in 2017 as it was in 1942. The tools and speed of collecting and processing raw data have changed, but the imperative for critically analyzing, evaluating and adding “so what?” and “what’s next?” judgements has not. Training and employing seasoned intelligence professionals with a broad range of experiences and a comprehensive historical and cultural understanding of our adversaries is just as essential for warfare commanders today as it was for warfare commanders in World War II.
The Navy’s next opportunity to apply the decision advantage made possible through OPINTEL following Coral Sea would be at the monumental Battle of Midway in June 1942 … more on that next month!
– Rear Admiral Paul Becker, USN (Ret) is the former Director of Intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Command and Joint Chiefs of Staff
Rear Admiral, USN (Ret)
CEO, The Becker T3 Group LLC