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Wexford Ireland's Ties to U.S. Naval History

July 18, 2018 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
The question "Who is the father of the U.S. Navy?" will likely provoke a food fight between those who would say, "Captain John Paul Jones," and those who would say, "Commodore John Barry" (actual historians are likely to say, "President John Adams," or would reject the premise of the question altogether). Both naval officers fought with great valor and skill against overwhelming odds during the American Revolution, each with a string of "firsts" to his credit. John Barry was a tall, muscular man of few words. John Paul Jones was a short, high-energy man of many words, many of which were definitely "quotable quotes" that generations of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy have had to memorize and recite. However, to the good citizens of the town of Wexford, Ireland, there is no doubt as to the answer to the question: native son John Barry.

Born in 1745 in the village of Tacumshane outside Wexford to poor tenant farmers who were kicked off their farm by their British landlord, John Barry sought escape from the starvation and privation that characterized that period of British rule of Ireland. He escaped via the sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship and eventually earned command of his own ship before the age of 30. He would carry his enmity for the British to his adopted home in the American colonies, where he would volunteer to serve in the Continental Navy with great distinction, and would become the first - and highest-ranking - officer in the newly established United States Navy in 1797 (following the disbandment of the Continental Navy in 1783 after the Revolution).

To the people of Ireland, and Wexford in particular, John Barry is a national hero, a destitute Irishman who persevered against all odds to rise to a position of great importance and responsibility (although not great wealth). On the waterfront in Wexford is an imposing statute of John Barry looking out to sea, a gift of the United States to Wexford in 1956. Every year, there is a large commemoration, attended by Irish dignitaries.

Although early commemorations included participation by President John F. Kennedy (whose family, like John Barry, had emigrated from Ireland to the United States) and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in recent years regrettably few Americans attend. This year's ceremony, on June 24, was no different in that regard. Irish Minister of State at the Department of Defence Paul Kehoe gave the keynote speech, accompanied by the minister of finance, the mayor of Wexford, other town luminaries and veterans, and a splendid 11-man honor guard of the Irish Naval Service. The ceremony included the laying of wreaths in honor of John Barry and for the 86 Irish Defence Force personnel who have lost their lives in multiple peacekeeping operations. I had the privilege to represent the U.S. Navy at what was actually a deeply moving ceremony.

What was different this year was a concurrent ceremony honoring the 100th anniversary of the establishment of a U.S. Naval Air Station seaplane base in Ferrybank, directly across the river and easily visible from Wexford. The town of Wexford had just completed a small park and monument adjacent to the site of the still-existing, but unused, seaplane ramp, and had erected a historical marker on the boardwalk on the Wexford side of the river. I had the privilege to be the keynote speaker for the unveiling ceremony of the marker, immediately preceding the Barry ceremony a few yards away.

The marker was sponsored by the Wexford County Council, the Naval Order of the United States, the American Legion Post in Dublin, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (United States), and the Friends of the Naval Station Air Station, Wexford. As the director of Naval History and Heritage Command, it was indeed gratifying to see these diverse and dedicated groups come together to preserve a part of U.S. naval history that is now largely forgotten.

In the spring of 1918, the issue of which side would win World War I was still very much in doubt. There was a great sense of urgency in the U.S. Navy to establish seaplane bases in Ireland to provide air cover for Allied convoys and shipping that were under frequent attack by a rapidly growing fleet of Imperial German Navy U-boats. The U.S. Navy would establish five such bases in Ireland, with construction commencing in the spring of 1918 and achieving operational status during the late summer. Wexford was chosen because the river estuary provided optimum conditions for seaplane operations - not too choppy and not too glassy.

Like the other bases, NAS Wexford would operate four of the new American-produced Curtiss H-16 twin-engine seaplanes, which represented the apogee of world seaplane design during World War I. The United States would produce several thousand seaplanes during the war (although comparatively few of the more advanced H-16), a far cry from the less than 100 obsolete aircraft that existed in the U.S. Navy at the start of the war. Under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Victor D. Herbster (Naval Aviator No. 5 - although he actually was No. 4, but there was a paperwork foul-up), the 20 naval officers and 400 men of NAS Wexford commenced combat operations one day after the seaplanes arrived on September 20, 1918.

Flying continuously during daylight hours in good weather and conducting maintenance at night, which required 18-hour work days, the four flying boats conducted four attacks against German U-boats, achieving multiple near-misses. None of the attacks actually sank a U-boat, but the Germans very quickly quit operating U-boats within flying range of Wexford. Sources conflict regarding how many U-boats were sunk by aircraft during World War I. Some sources say one, others three. But the salient point is that no convoy that had air cover suffered a loss to a U-boat.

The Germans gambled that even if the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 caused the United States to enter the war on the side of the Allies (and it did), the U-boats would be able to strangle the British Isles and knock both Britain and France out of the war before U.S. troops could arrive in France in any significant numbers. Their strategy almost succeeded as the U-boats sank massive amounts of Allied shipping, and the collapse of Czarist Russia freed up hundreds of thousands of German troops to launch a massive offensive on the Western Front in the spring of 1918 that almost reached Paris. However, by early summer of 1918, convoys protected by U.S. Navy and Allied destroyers were bringing over 200,000 American troops per month to Europe. After several more months of the bloodbath in the trenches, the German High Command did the math and realized they could not win. The result was an armistice on November 11, 1918.

Chart of German submarine activity in the Wexford area, 16-21 September 1918.

The arrival of U.S. Navy seaplanes at Wexford, to the other bases in Ireland, and to about 25 more on the continent of Europe was arguably too late to make a decisive impact in the war against the U-boats. However, after the stalemate between the British and German battle fleets that followed the bloody battle of Jutland in 1916, the Germans concluded that their battleships were largely useless and they embarked in a U-boat building binge. Had the U.S. Navy not been able to get about two million U.S. troops to France without loss to U-boat attack as fast as they did, the war might have gone on longer and the rapidly evolving capability of U.S. naval aviation might well have been the difference against Germany's expanding submarine fleet.

So, those U.S. Navy personnel operating from NAS Wexford, and the citizens of Ireland who welcomed them and supported them, did play a role in ending what to that point was the bloodiest war in human history. And, just to close with Commodore Barry: At the time of their respective deaths, Barry was much better known than John Paul Jones, who actually died in obscurity. However, when President Theodore Roosevelt wanted Congress and the American people to support a major expansion of the U.S. Navy after the Spanish-American War, he needed a naval hero to provide inspiration. Roosevelt couldn't pick anyone from the Civil War era, but the discovery of John Paul Jones's grave in France - and with quotes like "Give me a fast ship, for I intend to go in harm's way" - Jones's legacy was just what the President needed.

John Paul Jones vaulted to posthumous fame, while the memory of John Barry faded by comparison. Nevertheless, John Barry was the first captain to receive a commission in command of a Continental Navy warship (Lexington), the first to capture a British warship (HMS Liverpool) on the high seas; he captured two other British vessels despite being badly wounded in battle; and eventually captured a total of twenty ships. He put down three mutinies (and despite the mutinies, he was ahead of his time in his humane and caring approach to his crews). He fought ashore with General Washington at the battles of Trenton and Princeton when his ship was laid up. As captain of Alliance, he fought the last sea battle of the Revolutionary War in 1783.

When the American navy was re-established in 1797, President Washington gave him the first commission, backdated to 1794 and command of the frigate USS United States in the Quasi-War with France with the honorary title of commodore, making him the senior officer in the Navy, and first flag officer, until he died in 1803. He also authored the Navy's first signal book. So, although the title "Father of the U.S. Navy" may be debatable, a stronger case can be made that he is the father of U.S. naval communications and cryptography (since the flags were a form of code). Four U.S. Navy ships have been named after him including an Arleigh Burke?class destroyer (DDG-52), commissioned in 1992 and still serving.

Although not offering pithy quotes like John Paul Jones, Barry made one of the most memorable comments in U.S. naval history. During the American Revolution, the British offered Barry command of any frigate in the Royal Navy and the hefty sum of 100,000 British pounds if he would desert (like Benedict Arnold). Barry responded that all the money in the British treasury and command of the entire British fleet could not make him disloyal to his adopted country. Hard to top that.