History has some onion like properties in that as soon as you peel away one layer there is another waiting for you. The experience of William J. Leach at Fort Hancock was something that he talked about and used to show the pictures of from time to time. Reviewing them we discovered that they were taken during his third year when he was a RED man. What had happened during the other years? Probably three out of his four years were served at the coastal forts around New York city but his first year was very different and we will tell that story here.
Popular history tells the story that the Japanese performed a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and totally surprised the United States of America starting World War II out of a clear blue sky on December 7, 1941. Although the Japanese achieved a great tactical victory and would spend the next two years – as they had spent the previous ten years – increasing their stranglehold on the Pacific the United States was not quite so surprised as watcher’s of the history channel and public television documentaries might suspect.
From 1923 until 1940, as the culmination of the Navy’s annual training maneuvers, U.S. naval forces would engage in mock battles in which one or more of the forces would play the part of a European or Asian navy. Interestingly enough the first fleet problem, in 1923, used battleships to represent aircraft carriers and tested the defenses of the Panama Canal. A single plane launched from Oklahoma — representing a carrier air group — dropped 10 miniature bombs and theoretically “destroyed” the spillway of the Gatun Dam effectively shutting down the canal. The first World War had proved that aircraft would be decisive in future conflicts and the Navy was learning just how important they would be.
The three fleet problems for 1924 were:
- Fleet Problem II simulated the first leg of a westward advance across the Pacific.
- Fleet Problem III focused on a defense of the Panama Canal from the Caribbean side. The Blue force was defending the canal from an attack from the Caribbean by the Black force, operating from an advance base in the Azores. It was to practice amphibious landing techniques and the rapidity of transiting a fleet through the canal from the Pacific side. In the exercise, a Black force special operations action resulted in the “sinking” of Blue force battleship New York in the Culebra Cut which would have blocked the canal.
- Fleet Problem IV simulated the movement from a main base in the western Pacific to the Japanese home islands — represented by islands, cities, and countries surrounding the Caribbean.
They were a dress rehearsal for World War II in the Pacific – twenty years before the fact.
For the creation of Panama and the realization of the Panama Canal – which reduced the oceanic distance from New York to San Francisco from over 13,000 miles to just over 5,000 miles – the United States is forever indebted to Theodore Roosevelt. In ways that people today are unable to understand it propelled the United States to the center stage of world affairs and led to our preeminent voice in them. From the landing of the Marines in 1903 to ensure US control of the railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific across the isthmus, to the appointment of Army Lieutenant Colonel George W. Goethals as chief engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 which changed the construction changed from a civilian to a military project, to the relieving of the Marines – to go fight Pancho Villa in Mexico – with the arrival of the first company of coastal artillery in 1914 the Panama Canal – which had been proceeding by fits and starts since 1881 – might never have been completed.
Concurrent with the Canal construction a number of defensive locations were developed to protect it, both with coastal defense guns, as well as military bases to defend against a direct infantry assault. Fort Sherman was the primary Atlantic-side infantry base and construction began in January 1912 on a tract of 23,100 acres of land, about half of which was covered by jungle. The developed areas included housing and barracks for 300 and would add a small airstrip and become the site of the US’s first operationally deployed early warning radar when an SCR-270 was installed there in 1941. In 1924 however the firepower included 7 batteries with the following armament:
- Baird 4 – 12 inch mortars
- Howard 4 – 12 inch mortars
- Stanley 1 – 14 – inch Disappearing gun
- Mower 1 – 14 inch Disappearing gun
- Kilpatrick 2 – 6 inch Disappearing gun
- Sedgwick Pratt 2 – 12 inch M1895 Barbette
- Alexander Mackenzie 2 – 12 inch Barbette
The Pacific side was covered by a series of forts built on the islands off of Balboa that hosted equally impressive firepower but William J. Leach served his training period at Fort Sherman after answering the enticements to live on rum and coca cola and meet pretty girls who loved the Yankee dollar. Considering that the Army was responsible, along with the Navy’s Blue group, for defending the canal from the Black group Fleet Problems I through IV certainly showed the need for more work. [Fleet problem V was an attack by aircraft carriers on Hawaii!]
A large portion of the scouting fleet was made up destroyers designed for use in the first World War that were called four stackers because of their distinctive configuration of four smoke stacks but with a flush deck configuration and capable of a speed of 35 knots these ships were greyhounds used for escort and scouting duties. Their speed would almost be their undoing when, in September 1923, seven were lost in a twenty-knot run south from San Francisco that included a night passage through the Santa Barbara Channel in a heavy fog. Relying on early RDF gear before the invention, let alone the deployment, of radar and traveling in a column they fell victim to the Navy’s greatest navigational tragedy.Of the three classes of four stackers 273 destroyers were built. No new ones were built after the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty where we joined a bankrupt Europe in burying our heads in the sand and a large number were sold for scrap after the 1930 London Naval Treaty allowed us to unilaterally disarm since there would never be another war. While the United States was short in the aircraft carrier department – we had exactly ONE, two more would be built in the 1920’s, three more in the 1930’s and two more in the 1940’s prior to the commencement of the Pacific war [five of the eight would be lost in the war] – there were still a large number of ships in the fleet including the SC [submarine chaser] classes. These ranged all the way from 110 foot ships armed with depth charges and machine guns that operated as minesweepers as well up to 190 foot patrol craft that would see service all the way through World War II answering the U-boat threat in the Gulf and along the East Coast.
While these exercises were meant to try and test the latest tactics and so many of the shore batteries and ships both reflected the best of the available technology of the day it is surprising how limited the forces were. In this photograph we have a series of destroyers and patrol boats laying down a smoke screen. The simple method that was used by these ships was to restrict the supply of air to the boiler. This resulted in incomplete combustion of the coal or oil, which produced a thick black smoke. Because the smoke was black, it absorbed heat from the sun and tended to rise above the water. This is no longer done – intentionally – and if you have ever been on board a ship that did it because some third assistant had forgotten everything he ever learned you will have endured a choking, gasping, coughing fit made all the richer by the high sulfur content of the fuel oil and you will wonder at the thought that allowed it as a tactic outside of desperate circumstances. While the enemy may not have been able to see you neither could you see them and manuevers had to be carried out with split second precision to avoid catastrophe.
The USS Parrott was a Clemson class destroyer that displaced 1,190 tons, was 315 feet long by 31 feet wide and drew close to 14 feet of water at deep draft. She was commissioned in 1920 having been named for George Fountain Parrott who had won the Navy Cross after perishing in the World War. She had one of the longest careers of any of the four stackers and we will close this post be giving some of the details of her service.
In 1922 she served with the U.S. Naval Detachment in Turkish Waters at Constantinople to assist American Relief Agencies in aiding political refugees and protecting American lives and interests. From time to time, Parrott served as communications and station ship in the Black Sea, Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. From the 13th of September to the 25th of October, she evacuated refugees following the Smyrna fire, and escorted ships sent by other nations to help persons who had asked for protection.
From the 6th of July to the 24th of August in 1923, Parrott made courtesy calls to Greece, Turkey, Roumania, Bulgaria and Russia showing the flag. During the following year (1924) she made similar visits to Bizerte, Tunis, Leghorn, Genoa, Patmos, Villefranche, Cagliari and Sardinia, returning to New York in July in time to participate in that year’s exercises and Fleet Problems.
Reassigned to the Asiatic Fleet, Parrott departed Philadelphia on the 3rd of January 1925 for Pearl Harbor via the Canal Zone and San Diego. She made a training stop at Pearl Harbor on the 27th of April and proceeded on the 29th of May, via Midway, to join the Fleet at Chefoo, China on the 14th of June. Because of unsettled conditions in China Parrott, with other units, sailed to Shanghai and put ashore a landing force. Parrott remained in the area until the 31st of July, and returned on the 10th of September to Shanghai for duty with the Yangtze River Patrol until the 16th of October when she departed for the Philippines.
After operations out of Manila from the 19th of October to the 15th of March 1926 she reported to the Commander South China Patrol at Swatow remaining until the 14th of June. At this time revolution in China caused intense naval activity resulting in practically the entire Asiatic Fleet assembling in Chinese waters. Parrott carried out a rigorous schedule in again aiding and protecting the interest of Americans and other neutrals. She was relieved on the 25th of October 1927 and sailed south via Hong Kong, Bangkok and Saigon to Manila, arriving on the 18th of November.
During 1928, Parrott made many calls to Philippine ports least frequented by American ships. From 1928 into 1934 she remained on Asiatic Patrol operating from Manila. In 1935 she was ordered to French Indochina to collect hydrographic data in and around Saigon. She resumed neutrality patrol in 1936 and by 1940 had served successively as station ship at Amoy and Swatow, China. From the 7th of July to the 4th of October, Parrott cruised China waters based at Tsingtao and then made calls to other northern Chinese ports, returning to Manila on the 11th of October.
In Cavite Navy Yard, Parrott spent the first two months of 1941 having anti-mine and sound detection gear installed, after which, she trained with destroyers and submarines. She assumed duties as off-shore sound patrol picket at the entrance to Manila Bay on the 6th of October, and late in November joined Task Force 5 at Tarakan, Borneo. The Task Force was still operating in this area when Japanese hostilities began. When the Philippines fell to the Japanese, the Asiatic Fleet moved south and operated from a base at Surabaya, Java.
After dark, on the 23rd of January 1942, Parrott with John D. Ford (DD–228), Pope (DD–225) and Paul Jones (DD–230) entered Balikpapan Bay where, lying at anchor, were 16 Japanese transports and three 750-ton torpedo boats, guarded by a Japanese Destroyer Squadron. The foursome fired several patterns of torpedoes and had the satisfaction of seeing four enemy transports and one torpedo boat sink as the Japanese destroyers searched aimlessly in the strait for non-existent submarines. Parrott returned to Surabaya on the 25th of January and sailed five days later as part of the escort for two Dutch ships as far as Lombok Strait. She then swept through the South China Sea with the combined naval force, fighting off three Japanese aerial attacks on the 15th of February, as the Allies attempted to intercept and prevent a landing on the east coast of Sumatra. She came into Surabaya for fuel on the 19th February opening fire on enemy planes there before departing with other destroyers for a night attack on Japanese forces off Bali. Contact was made with two Japanese destroyers and a transport just past midnight on the 19th-20th February, and in the ensuing fight, which left the Dutch destroyer Piet Hein at the bottom of the sea and the Japanese destroyer Michishio dead in the water, Parrott struck ground in the treacherous shoal water off Bali but was able to churn herself free and retire with the rest of the force to Surabaya. Parrott was delegated the task of escorting SS Seawitch into Tjilatjap the 28th of February and then proceed to Fremantle as her brave consorts made a last gallant stand against Japanese invasion forces in the Battle of the Java Sea.
Parrott returned to the States for repairs, left the yard in July and commenced the first of eight convoy escort voyages between San Francisco and Pearl Harbor. On the 21st of May 1943 she sailed for New York arriving on the 12th of June and reported for transatlantic convoy duty. She completed one convoy passage before joining Paul Jones and Belknap (AVD–8) in a “HunterKiller” group with Croatan (CVE–25). She operated with this group until the 15th of October when she transferred to another Hunter-Killer Group formed around Block Island (CVE–106). Parrott participated in sinking U–220 on the 28th of October, but by March 1944 Parrott reported back for convoy assignment. As escort for Convoy UGS–35, she reached Casablanca on the 26th of March, then bombarded the coast of Spanish Morocco, south of Cape Spartel, on the 27th of March before escorting convoy GUS–34 back to Boston, arriving on the 15th of April. While getting underway for Norfolk on the 2nd of May, Parrott was rammed by SS John Morton, and was so severely damaged she had to be beached, towed to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, she decommissioned on the 14th of June 1944 and struck from the Navy List.