Category Archives: World War II

O/T… HMAS Perth wreck stripped by salvagers (A warning about Civil War wrecks, sites?)

This is a bit off topic for “To the Sound of the Guns” and the sort of news item I prefer to send over to my pal XBradTC.  However, I think this is a story those interested in Civil War shipwrecks, and beyond that even Civil War battlefields, should take interest.

On Friday the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran this story:

HMAS Perth: World War II warship grave stripped by salvagers

Survivors, historians and Defence personnel have been horrified to discover that the wreck of HMAS Perth, which was sunk by the Japanese in 1942, is being destroyed by commercial salvagers in Indonesian waters.

Australian authorities have tried to keep the scandal a secret, fearing the issue might add fuel to the ongoing diplomatic tensions between Australia and Indonesia.

The warship, which sank in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, is the last resting place of as many as 355 Australian sailors who went down with the vessel after it was struck by multiple torpedoes.

But it has never been protected as an official war grave.

Australia and Indonesia are yet to ratify the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage, a binding national treaty which would oblige both countries to protect such sites.

Since at least September, scuba divers have made official reports of large-scale damage to the wreck from a massive floating crane equipped with a salvage claw.

These reports have been made to the Australian embassy in Jakarta and to local officials in the Department of Environment and Heritage, and the Department of Defence.  (Read more.)

There’s a video segment and additional information with the news article.  As the citation above notes, there was no legal protection for this war grave.  So any action to block further salvage rests with the respective governments.

A bit of background, the HMAS Perth sank in the battle of Sunda Straits, fought during the opening phases of World War II.  The ship is well remembered by Australians.  A modern frigate carries the name and memory of the Perth.  So this is a touchy subject for many, to say the least.  Like many shipwrecks close enough to the surface, divers have visited the wreck… to include commercial sport divers from what I gather… but there has always been an effort to keep the activity respectful.

And we cannot say this is just an Australian-Indonesian issue.  The wreck of the USS Houston, another cruiser sank in the action, lays nearby.  I think, but have not confirmed, that the Houston is protected by the UNESCO treaty.

Furthermore, with the cost of scrap metal on the open markets, there is ever more a threat to other wreck sites around the world.  Although with respect to Civil War era wreck sites, it is more so the lure of “treasure” and “relics” as opposed to raw scrap metal.  Of course we have a set of laws and regulations which protect, preserve, and govern access to the wrecks in American waters.  Even when the wrecks are disturbed by officially sanctioned maintenance, reviews are made to ensure preservation and if necessary proper recovery.  (For example, the long running story of the preservation and recovery efforts of the CSS Georgia.)

Beyond that, what about on land?  Anyone who has picked up a National Park Service brochure knows metal detecting is illegal on the battlefields.  Same goes for most state and local sites (and lump in there most sites owned by preservation groups).  But with so much battlefield lands in public hands, “digging” does occur on Civil War battlefields.  And in most cases the work is done without any regard for the archeological context that lies beneath.  Or for that matter who’s grave is being disturbed.

I don’t wish to have readers interpret this as a “broad brush” condemnation.  I know many in the hobby who have done right, and in many cases helped efforts to preserve, protect, and interpret Civil War sites.   The hobby can and should police itself.  However, there’s little difference in my mind from the people hauling steel from the HMAS Perth for sale as scrap, and the fellow using the metal detector to find musket balls for resale at some trinket store.

OT… a little: Long buried Spitfires may fly someday

From the Telegraph (UK):

Squadron of ‘lost’ spitfires could be flying again in three years
A lost squadron of Spitfires buried in Burma after the Second World War could be flying again within three years, experts said today.

Archaeologists will begin digging for the historic hoard of at least 36 British fighter planes in January.

A proportion of the aircraft will then be carefully packaged and brought back to the UK next spring, where they will be restored.

David Cundall, a farmer and aviation enthusiast from Scunthorpe, Lincs, has spent 16 years researching the project after being told about the burial by a group of US veterans.
It was his tenacity and perseverance and his “obsession to find and restore an incredible piece of British history” that will finally see a team begin digging in the New Year.

The extraordinary treasure hunt was described as a “story of British determination against all odds”.

Surveys undertaken at one of three sites in Burma have shown that large areas of electrically conductive material are present underground at a depth of around 10 metres.

The location and depth is consistent with eight eye witness reports given to Mr Cundall that the rare Mark XIV Spitfires were buried there in August 1945.

“We put a camera down a boorhole and went into a box and through two inches of Canadian pine,” Mr Cundall disclosed.

“Yes, we did see what we thought was an aeroplane.”

Mr Cundall was first told about the fighters in 1996 and spent two years researching the claims. He found eight people who “told the same story” about the crates being buried and at what depth, all pointing to the same spot.

He has since been to Burma 16 times conducting surveys and negotiating with the authorities.

When sanctions forbidding the movement of military materials in and out of the country were lifted earlier this year, he knew his dream could be realised.

“Hopefully, they will be brought back to the UK and will be flying at air shows,” he said.

(Full story here)

This would be cool to the power of 10.

Not uncommon in any war for equipment to be buried or otherwise discarded in caches like this.  Who knows what Civil War equipment was just packed away in the corners of garrisons and forts.  There was some question about just such artifacts in regard to Fort Monroe.   And there was some question recently about buried cannons at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia.   But, in my opinion, we should turn to the archeologists to explore these possibilities.  Often the “treasure” isn’t just the physical artifact but the story it can tell.

150 years ago: Moving trains by water to supply the army

Yesterday I left off noting that armies on the move need support in order to keep up momentum.  Even without suggesting General Sumner should have crossed the Rappahannock and occupied Fredericksburg – just to stay in front of Fredericksburg – the Army of the Potomac needed logistic support.  To continue the offensive, the army needed everything from axle grease to hard tack to bullets, and even more in-between.

However by early November 1862, the logistic tail following the Army of the Potomac lay back along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  Engines and their rolling stock worked the rails extending to the southwest of Alexandria.  With the change of objective, the army no longer needed depots at places like Manassas Junction or Warrenton.  Rather the army needed a line running due south towards Fredericksburg.  For General Ambrose Burnside’s plan to reach Richmond through Fredericksburg to work, the rail road had to move.  Problem was the old Fredericksburg railroad was not in shape to support anything, having suffered damage due to the war.  And even if built, railroaders feared the line was exposed to irregular activity.

To resolve the problem, the U.S. Military Railroad came up with a novel solution.  General Herman Haupt wrote of this in his reminiscences:

The reconstruction of the wharves and track from Acquia Creek to Fredericksburg was prosecuted with unprecedented expedition.  It was on November 10 that I directed W.W. Wright to hold himself in readiness to commence work so soon as General Halleck should decide upon its necessity. It was November 11 when a telegram was sent to Colonel Belger at Baltimore to provide canal boats, and five days later, November 17, considerable progress had already been made in the work of reconstruction.  The Superintendent reported that, in five days after commencement, a section of the wharf 1,000 feet long was completed, and a locomotive and cars landed and trains commenced running to Potomac Creek.  In five days more trains were running to the Rappahannock.

The Schuylkill barges answered admirably, and thus was formed a new era in Military Railroad transportation.  Two of these barges were placed parallel to each other and long timbers bolted transversely.  The length of the barges was sufficient for eight tracks carrying eight cars, and two such floats would carry the sixteen cars which constituted a train.

In this way hundreds of loaded cars were transferred from the advanced location of the Army, on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, loaded on the floats, towed sixty miles to Acquia Creek, transferred from river to rail, and sent to Falmouth without break of bulk, in about the same time required to march the army across the country by land.  Supplies were at Falmouth as soon as there were forces there for their protection.

We might fact-check Haupt’s claim about the arrival of supplies and troops coinciding.  Still the point made is valid – the railroad system shifted with remarkable speed and flexibility.  While the repair of port facilities was certainly nothing new, the use of barges to move the rolling stock was a new practice at the military operational level.

One wartime photo shows a pair of barges, as described by Haupt, with eight box-cars loaded.

Rolling stock on barges

Another wartime photo shows perhaps a variation on the theme – three lashed barges with more tracks.

Three barge floats

I’ll defer to the railroading experts out there.  But this seems to me a likely means to transport the heavier locomotives.

As a “trained” logistician, I’d point out the genius of this operation was not just floating the rolling stock, but alluded to in Haupt’s closing – no breaking of bulk cargo.  In other words, the cars were packed at a depot or warehouse and then shipped directly to the front without cross packing.  Such was a significant time savings. And time is everything when discussing transportation and logistics in the military context.

Fast forward a little over eighty years.  Different location, similar logistic problem, but larger scale.  For the armies going into Normandy in June 1944, logistic support was more so a monumental task.  A modern mechanized army requires more than just hay and hardtack.  No doubt, you’ve seen the D-Day documentaries that cite tens of millions of tons of supplies going ashore at the Mulberry harbors.  But just getting those supplies to the beach didn’t meet the needs of the front line soldier.  As the beachhead enlarged and extended, the supplies had to be transported over one-hundred miles (excuse me… kilometers) to the front line areas.  As with the Civil War days, the logisticians needed to save time by avoiding the practice of breaking bulk.  So they did this:

Rails allowed the LST to carry the cars from English ports to the French beaches.  There the LST opened its bow doors and the stock rolled down onto a pre-fabricated line across the beach.

Take away the trucks and helmets, and you have a scene not too far removed from Acquia Landing in November 1862.