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Navy History Matters – March 31, 2020

Compiled by Brent Hunt, Naval History and Heritage Command’s Communication and Outreach Division

Welcome to Navy History Matters—our weekly compilation of articles, commentaries, and blogs related to history and heritage. Every week we’ll gather the top-interest items from a variety of media and social media sources and then link you to related content at NHHC’s website (history.navy.mil), your authoritative source for Navy history.

WWII@75: Battle for Okinawa

On April 1, 1945, under cover of heavy naval gunfire from the U.S. Navy, U.S. ground forces began the invasion of Okinawa—the last major amphibious assault of World War II. The objective was to secure the island, thus removing the last barrier standing between U.S. forces and Imperial Japan. With Iwo Jima and Okinawa firmly in hand, the U.S. military could finally bring its full might upon the Japanese, conducting unchecked strategic air strikes against the Japanese mainland, blockading its logistical lifeline, and establishing forward bases for the final invasion of Japan (Operation Olympic), scheduled for the fall of 1945. The battle, which went into the month of June, was one of the most ferocious of the war with American casualties reaching a staggering 49,151, of which 12,520 were killed or missing. For more, read the Battle for Okinawa essay by NHHC historians Richard Hulver, Ph.D. and Martin R. Waldman, Ph.D. at NHHC’s website. Also, read Attack on Amphibious Assault Ship LSM(R): A Lesson in Courage, a new blog by NHHC historian Guy Nasuti at The Sextant

Answering the Nation’s Call: Stateside Deployments of U.S. Navy Hospital Ships

President Donald J. Trump announced recently Navy hospital ships Mercy and Comfortdeployed stateside in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mercy and Comfort are the longest serving hospital ships in continuous operation in U.S. Navy history. Both ships have vast medical capabilities that will serve as referral hospitals for non-COVID-19 patients currently admitted to shore-based hospitals. This will allow local health professionals to focus on treating COVID-19 patients. Hospital ships have long played an important role in naval operations. During the Barbary Wars, Commodore Edward Preble ordered that Intrepid be converted into a hospital ship. The reconfiguration of that ship marked the standard for almost all hospital ships used afterward. USS Relief is the first ship of the U.S. Navy designed and built from the keel up as a hospital ship. All other hospital ships were converted from troop transports, passenger liners, or super tankers, including Mercy and Comfort. For more on this topic, read the blog by André B. Sobocinski at Navy Live.

Honoring Our Navy’s Vietnam War Veterans

March 29 was National Vietnam War Veterans Day, a day the Navy and the nation honors Vietnam-era veterans for their bravery and sacrifice. During the Vietnam War, Sailors operated from the air, land, and sea. In addition to combat operations, Sailors were involved in numerous training, infrastructure, advisory, and civil affairs missions throughout the conflict. Although at this time in our nation’s history we cannot thank them in person due to social distancing requirements, NHHC’s COD recently requested users on its social media platforms to post pictures of their Vietnam War veterans and share a little about their service. To read a compilation of those posts, check out the blog at The Sextant.

Month of the Military Child

April is designated as the Month of the Military Child, highlighting the important role military children play in the Armed Forces mission and community. The Month of the Military Child is a time to recognize military families and their children for the sacrifices they make and the challenges that come with being a child of a servicemember. Although young, these brave sons and daughters stand in support of their military parents through moves and deployments. They make up a very special part of the nation’s population. To honor their unique contributions, April is designated to applaud military families and their children for the daily sacrifices they make and the challenges they overcome.

Naval Library Established 220 Years Ago

On March 31, 1800, President John Adams directed Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert to establish a naval library—now the Navy Department Library—that would contain “the best writing… on the theory and practice of naval architecture, navigation, gunnery….” From that beginning, the library’s collections have grown to 114,000 book titles, 374,000 manuscripts, and 189,000 issues of periodicals, including 5,644 rare and 11,011 special collections titles, with an emphasis on naval, nautical, and military history, including foreign navies. The library is home to the most comprehensive collection of historical literature on the United States Navy. More than 13.5 percent of the cataloged items are unique and located nowhere else. For more on the Navy Department Library, go to NHHC’s website.

NHHC Moves Navy Art Collection

Recently, before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, the Navy Art Collection suspended services and began renovations in an effort to store the collection in a climate-controlled environment more suitable for historical artworks. “The move will affect the Art Gallery loan program for office displays,” said Gale Munro, head curator at Navy Art collection. “High-level offices that are eligible for loans of original artwork will see significant delays, because we won’t be able to access our storage easily. Loans of reproductions may end entirely due to lack of facilities. Museums that want loans from Navy Art will need to plan far in advance.” The collection contains almost 20,000 pieces of art. The building where the art had been stored was originally constructed for industrial use, and the lack of insulation in the building made humidity uncontrollable. For more, read the article by Petty Officer 3rd Class Randy Adams at NHHC’s website

First Female Commanding Officer of a U.S. Navy Ship

In 1990, Lt. Cmdr. Darlene Iskra—the first female commanding officer of a U.S. Navy warship—reported for duty onboard USS Opportune, serving until 1993. “I hadn’t realized what a big deal being the first woman to command a ship would be until I arrived in Naples, and on my desk was a stack of congratulatory cards and letters from people I didn’t even know,” she said. “I also got a few cards from people I hadn’t heard from in literally decades.” Iskra, during her 21 years of service, made several firsts for female Sailors, including qualifying as a surface warfare officer, service as a sea-going officer, as well as one of the first three female Sailors to attend the Naval School of Diving and Salvage. Recently, personnel at Veterans Affairs had the opportunity to sit down and speak with her. To listen to the podcast, go to the “Borne the Battle” page. For more on women in the U.S. Navy, go to NHHC’s website.

Navy General Order Establishes Chief Petty Officer

Tomorrow, April 1, marks the 127th anniversary of the chief petty officer rank. General Order 409, signed by President Benjamin Harrison, officially established the rank on April 1, 1893. The rank petty officer first class was shifted to chief petty officer. The chief rank initially only applied to nine ratings: chief master-at-arms, chief boatswain’s mate, chief quartermaster, chief gunner’s mate, chief machinist, chief carpenter’s mate, chief yeoman, apothecary, and bandmaster. The chief rank has since expanded to all ratings. In 1958, the Career Compensation Act was amended to add two new pay grades—senior chief (E-8) and master chief (E-9) and six new rating titles. To learn more, read the History of the Chief Petty Officer Grade and check out NHHC’s Chief Petty Officers infographic.

Navy, Marines Struggled With 1918 Influenza Pandemic

In 1918, as the Spanish influenza epidemic raged, Navy doctors advised personnel to wash their hands often and to isolate the sick from the healthy. Despite their best efforts, Navy medicine had trouble containing the epidemic. In 1918, Navy hospitals admitted more than 120,000 patients with influenza. Inflicted patients spent more than 1 million sick days in medical facilities worldwide. Navy medical personnel were familiar with smart practices, like decrying Sailors’ “promiscuous spitting,” to keep hygiene and sanitation standards high and to reduce the risk of contagion, said André B. Sobocinski, historian with the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. Medical personnel used circulars and notes to keep people informed about best practices. Still, Navy medicine struggled with the realities that faced them. For more, read the article at USNI News.

Hoarding During Coronavirus: Not Much Has Changed Since WWII

In this time of crisis, the mad dash for toilet paper and hand sanitizer reminds us of our predictability as humans. The global pandemic has produced an industrial shift not seen since the global war phenomenon of the 1940s. During World War II, companies such as Ford and General Motors shifted production to meet the needs of the war. Instead of constructing vehicles, car companies shifted to the production of tanks, boats, and aircraft. Similarly, industries of today are shifting to meet the needs of the dwindling supply of medical equipment. Several companies have pledged to divert resources toward the production of ventilators and CDC-approved facemasks. Industrial similarities of the two eras are evident, but how does today’s culture stack up to the WWII American citizenry from a standpoint of hoarding, rationing, or even bootlegging? To find out, read the article at Military Times.

NHHC Webpage of the Week

This week’s Webpage of the Week takes us back to the early 1800s when President Thomas Jefferson sent two explorers to newly acquired land purchased as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Guide and interpreter Sacagawea was a Native American who helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition into the Pacific Northwest. Sacagawea grew up near present-day Lemhi, ID, but was kidnapped by a rival tribe during a buffalo hunt in 1800. Her captors brought her to a settlement near what is now Bismarck, ND. In 1804, Sacagawea became property of fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau. During that year, Lewis and Clark reached the settlement where they lived and instantly recognized the potential value of their combined language skills. In the spring, Sacagawea, her newborn baby, and Charbonneau headed west with the explorers. Lewis and Clark named a branch of the Missouri River for Sacagawea in appreciation of her help. USNS Sacagawea proudly bears her name as well.  

Today in Naval History

On March 31, 1992, USS Missouri, the last active American battleship, was decommissioned. Commissioned in June 1944, she served during World War II, notably as the location of the official Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. Although most remember Missouri as the symbolic end of the war, she was a highly decorated battleship that earned eight battle stars during her service to the nation—three during WWII and five during the Korean War. Missouri was also the first battleship to fire Tomahawk-cruise missiles at Iraqi targets at the commencement of Operation Desert Storm. Today, “Mighty Mo” is open for visitors in Pearl Harbor, HI, as the Battleship Missouri Memorial, under the care of the USS Missouri Memorial Association, Inc. For more, check out the USS Missouri: “Mighty Mo” page at NHHC’s website

For more dates in naval history, including your selected span of dates, see Year at a Glance at NHHC’s website. Be sure to check this page regularly, as content is updated frequently.  

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