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NHHC Director's Remarks: Dedication of USS Asheville (PG-21) Monument 

Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina, 3 March 2024

(Note: the wind rendered the use of the podium microphone and notes useless, so what follows is a close approximation of what I said, or in a few cases, meant to say).

Vice Mayor Kilgore, former commanding officers of USS Asheville (SSN-758), North Carolina submarine veterans, members of the Asheville Fire Department, other veterans and their families, ladies and gentlemen:

Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to remember and honor the valiant crew of a ship, lost in a battle against overwhelming odds, 82 years ago today, in a war that preserved the freedom we enjoy today.

As the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, one of my duties is to serve as the federal executive for the Sunken Military Craft Act. This makes my command responsible, as best we can, to protect all sunken U.S. Navy ships and aircraft from disturbance, a task we take very seriously—and this would include the USS Asheville (PG-21), lost somewhere in the great depths south of Java.

I have been asked on occasion, “Why care about lost ships—don’t those represent a defeat?” My response is that most U.S. Navy ships have been lost in the course of victory, and victory has a price, sometimes steep. Many of the U.S. Navy ships lost in a defeat displayed extraordinary valor while being hopelessly outnumbered or outgunned—such is the case with Asheville. Even in an utter defeat, such as Pearl Harbor, there is extreme courage that deserved to be remembered—at Pearl Harbor there were 15 Medals of Honor and 51 Navy Crosses­—there would have been many more had not so many witnesses been killed.

Sunken U.S. Navy ships are the last resting place of sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice, against the enemy, and sometimes a deadly sea. These ships are in effect the Arlington National Cemetery of the U.S. Navy and deserve to be treated with the same respect. There are no headstones at sea, and few ships have a monument to their sacrifice, such as the one we are dedicating here today.

When I first took this job nine years ago, I was visiting the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, which falls within my command. As we were going through the “attic” in which art and artifacts are stored and not on display, I saw out of the corner of my eye a painting that caught my attention, and I had the curator pull it out for a closer look. It showed what looked to me like a China gunboat, battered and burning fiercely, engaged in a battle against a couple of ships that were keeping their distance. But what struck me was that the ship was returning fire, despite the severe damage, and large battle flags were flying high from both masts. The painting was titled “USS Asheville’s Defiance” by the great maritime artist Tom Freeman.

I was perplexed because I have been reading naval history since I was in kindergarten, and I did not know of this action. So, I looked in the “gospel” of naval history in World War II, Samuel Eliot Morison’s 15-volume History of the United States Navy in World War II (Volume III, Rising Sun in the Pacific)—and all it said was “and USS Asheville was sunk.” After further digging and learning the whole story, I decided I wanted that painting to hang in the most prominent spot in my office because it told I story I believed needed to be told. As it turned out, the Freeman family very graciously loaned me a print.

So, let’s go back to the beginning, and in the interest of time (and many people standing), I’m not going to tell the entire history of the ship. The reason there was a ship named Asheville was because the good citizens of Asheville lobbied hard for one —and because the Secretary of the Navy at the time, Josephus Daniels, was from North Carolina and thought that was a truly fine idea. The patrol gunboat Asheville was authorized in 1916, before the U.S. entered World War I, but because building destroyers was the priority once the war started, Asheville was not completed and commissioned until after the war, in July 1920.

Of note, Asheville’s first commanding officer was Lieutenant Commander Elliot Buckmaster, who would become an early aviator and would be in command of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) at the Battle of Midway, where his skillful leadership kept the ship afloat despite grievous damage from Japanese aircraft, and would have saved the ship but for the late arrival of a Japanese submarine. Buckmaster would retire as a vice admiral. In fact, of Asheville’s 16 commanding officers, six of them would make flag rank, including two four-stars and two three-stars.

Asheville’s third commanding officer was Lieutenant Commander James O. Richardson, who took the ship from the East Coast through the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, and Indian Ocean for the ship’s first deployment to China in 1922. During the very chaotic situation in China following the fall of the Manchu Dynasty, Asheville repeatedly engaged in actions to protect U.S. lives and property, very literally meeting the definition of “gunboat diplomacy.”

Richardson would go on to be a four-star Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet/U.S. Pacific Fleet, and when President Roosevelt ordered the Battle Fleet to stay in Hawaii in 1940 rather than return to its home port in San Pedro, Richardson argued that the move was logistically unsound, was a provocation rather than a deterrent to the Japanese, and that Pearl Harbor was indefensible against air attack—for which he was fired. This resulted in Admiral Husband Kimmel drawing the short straw to be in command when the Japanese attacked, even though his views were much the same as Richardson’s.

Although Asheville spent most of her career on the China Station, she also served along the coast of Central America, particularly protecting U.S. interests in Nicaragua in the early 1930s. By the late 1930s, Asheville was back in Chinese waters, and in 1937, a sailor reported aboard Asheville named Richard McKenna. He would subsequently serve aboard the destroyer USS Edsall (DD-219) and the river gunboat USS Luzon (PR-7/PG-47) on China Station. He would retire as a chief machinist’s mate after the Korean War and would subsequently write the award-winning novel The Sand Pebbles, which was made into the 1966 movie starring Steve McQueen and Candice Bergen. The book and movie depict the fictional U.S. gunboat “San Pablo” on the Yangtze River during the onset of the Chinese Revolution in 1925–1927. (So, if you think the “San Pablo” in The Sand Pebbles looks a lot like the Asheville, it is not a coincidence.)

As tensions between the U.S. and Japan intensified in the summer of 1941, the commander in chief of the Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, withdrew the Asheville and other ships from Chinese waters to the Philippines. By the fall of 1941, there was extensive intelligence to indicate that war would break out in the Far East, and Hart sent most of his ships farther south, out of range of Japanese bombers from Formosa, thereby sparing the fleet the debacle that befell General MacArthur’s air forces in the Philippines. However, the Japanese quickly achieved air supremacy and as a result, the U.S. ships, mostly World War I–vintage destroyers, were constantly under threat or attack by Japanese aircraft. The Allied effort in the Dutch East Indies quickly collapsed into an utter rout in the face of the Japanese onslaught. On 27–28 February 1942, a combined U.S., British, Dutch, and Australian force was decisively defeated in the Battle of the Java Sea. On 1 March, surviving U.S. forces were ordered to withdraw from the Dutch East Indies (including Java) to Australia.

During the period January–February 1942, Asheville conducted patrols out of a port on the south coast of Java that no one can pronounce (Tjilatjap) and that the sailors called “Slapjack.” As ordered, Asheville commenced a transit toward Australia. Her power plant had always been cantankerous, and Asheville suffered an engineering casualty that reduced her speed even below her normal maximum of 12 knots. As a result, Asheville was transiting alone, heading for a rendezvous point that had been compromised by communications security violations, and the Japanese were waiting.

On 3 March, Asheville was sighted by a Japanese scout plane and then intercepted by two Japanese destroyers, backed up by the heavy cruiser Maya. The Arashi and Nowaki were among the most modern destroyers in the Japanese navy, each armed with six 5-inch guns and powerful torpedoes, compared to the elderly Asheville, which was armed with three antiquated 4-inch guns. Admiral Hart had once described the Asheville as “lacking the speed to run and lacking the guns to fight.”

Running was not an option. Surrender was an option, but Asheville’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Jacob “Jake” Britt (USNA ’29) chose to fight. From the Japanese perspective, the battle that followed was a total fiasco. It took the two Japanese destroyers more than 300 rounds to get the Asheville to stop shooting back and to finally sink it, a ship that was not deemed worthy of expending a torpedo.

As Asheville began to sink, sailors from the engineering spaces came on deck to find the bridge and forecastle mostly blown away, and most everyone who was topside was already dead. Once in the water, a Japanese destroyer rescued one survivor, Fireman Second Class Fred Brown (later promoted to first class while missing in action status), presumably so they could positively identify the ship they had just sunk. The other survivors were left behind, and all perished along with those who went down with the ship. Brown was treated decently on the destroyer, but would ultimately die in a Japanese prison camp from the combined effects of beatings and disease. Brown related his limited view of the battle to a survivor of the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30). That would become the only account of the battle from the U.S. side and would not be known until after the war.

There is no way of knowing what Lieutenant Commander Britt did, other than choosing to fight, or how long he even survived the onslaught of Japanese shellfire. But as an academy graduate of the interwar years, he was steeped in the tradition of John Paul Jones (“I have not yet begun to fight!”) as well as the immortal dying words of Captain James Lawrence in the War of 1812, “Don’t give up the ship!” Jake Britt was true to those words.

It may be possible to extrapolate Britt’s actions from those of another academy graduate, Lieutenant Joshua Nix (USNA ’30), who was in command of the World War I–vintage destroyer Edsall in an action against the Japanese south of Java on 1 March 1942. Edsall was believed to be responding to the distress calls of the oiler Pecos (AO-6) sunk by Japanese carrier aircraft. In addition to her own crew, Pecos had on board the survivors of the seaplane tender (and former first U.S. aircraft carrier) USS Langley (AV-3, ex-CV-1). The destroyer Whipple (DD-217) managed to rescue 233 survivors before sonar contacts on a Japanese submarine forced curtailment of the rescue, leaving about 500 survivors behind in the vast Indian Ocean, none of whom were ever found, despite a search.

In her effort, Edsall ran right into the Japanese carrier force: four carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and six destroyers. Edsall came within 12 miles of the Japanese carriers before being spotted. The incensed Vice Admiral Nagumo (who had commanded that Japanese carrier force during the attack on Pearl Harbor) sent the two battleships (Hiei and Kirishima) and both heavy cruisers (Tone and Chikuma) to dispatch what they misidentified as a light cruiser.

With his speed already impaired by previous damage, Lieutenant Nix had no hope of outrunning the Japanese battleships and cruisers. Yet in the face of such overwhelming odds, just as Lieutenant Commander Britt would two days later, Nix chose to fight rather than give up the ship. And, for almost two hours, with use of skillfully laid smoke screens and extraordinary ship handling, Nix caused more than 1,400 Japanese 14-inch and 8-inch shells to miss, suffering only one hit—and Edsall nearly hit one of the cruisers with a torpedo. Finally, completely embarrassed by the dismal showing of his surface ships against what they now knew to be an elderly destroyer, the apoplectic Admiral Nagumo launched 26 dive-bombers from three carriers. Even so, Nix maneuvered to cause most of the bombs to miss, but there were just too many.

As Edsall began to sink, Nix turned the bow of the ship toward the Japanese in a final gesture of defiance, a Navy equivalent of—well, you know. The survivors of Edsall conducted an orderly abandon ship, and the Japanese observed an officer then proceed to the bridge, presumably Lieutenant Nix, who went down with his ship. The Japanese rescued only seven survivors, a mix of crew and U.S. Army Air Forces pilots who had been aboard. Although treated decently aboard the Chikuma, all would later be executed by beheading in a Japanese prison camp. As a result, no one from Edsall survived the war.

There is a postscript to the loss of Asheville. Three months later at the decisive Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942, despite having the advantage of surprise, the battle was going badly for the Americans. The air group of Hornet (CV-8) had overshot the Japanese carriers, as had the two dive-bomber squadrons from Enterprise (CV-6). The torpedo bomber squadrons from the three U.S. carriers had become separated and engaged the Japanese piecemeal. Almost every torpedo bomber was shot down. At that time, only one dive-bomber squadron from Yorktown was actually heading directly toward the four Japanese carriers.

The leader of the Enterprise Air Group, Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, knew his planes were already past the point of no return regarding fuel and he would have to decide whether to land on Midway Island or turn back and hope the U.S. carriers had closed the distance. At that critical moment, McClusky sighted a lone ship transiting at high speed. He correctly deduced that the ship was trying to return or catch up to the main Japanese force, and he chose to turn in the direction the ship was heading. The result was that the two Enterprise dive-bomber squadrons and the Yorktown squadron arrived over the Japanese carriers at the same time, resulting in mortally wounding three of the four.

What had happened was that the U.S. submarine Nautilus (SS-168—Lieutenant Commander William Brockman [USNA ’27] in command), despite being repeatedly strafed, bombed, and depth-charged, kept trying to get in range of the Japanese carriers. Finally, Admiral Nagumo directed a destroyer to stay behind and keep the submarine pinned down. That destroyer was the Arashi, one of the two that had sunk Asheville. It was her high-speed transit back to the carriers that was instrumental in changing the course of the battle, and of the war.

Arashi would be sunk in 1943 in the Battle of Vela Gulf. Nowaki would be sunk in October 1944, with the loss of all hands, including all the survivors of the cruiser Chikuma that were aboard.

The fatal flaw in the Japanese plan for the Midway operation was written right into the operations order: “The enemy [the Americans] lacks the will to fight.” Had the writers of the order in Tokyo paid attention the reports of the actions of Asheville, Edsall, Pecos, Houston, Pillsbury (DD-227), and others in the fall of the Dutch East Indies, they should have reached a far different conclusion. The U.S. Navy was in fact willing to fight, even against the greatest of odds.

So, to bring this to a close: At every memorial service to sailors lost in battle or to the sea, the Navy makes a promise to them and their families that we will not forget their sacrifice. And if we expect sailors to fight and die for this country, the least we can do as a Navy and a nation is to remember them. In the case of Asheville and Edsall—and Pillsbury—there were no surviving American witnesses. As a result, there are no Medals of Honor, no Navy Crosses, no Presidential Unit Citations, or even Navy Unit Commendations for what by the Japanese accounts were among the most valorous actions in the history of the U.S. Navy. Neither Lieutenant Commander Jacob Britt nor Lieutenant Joshua Nix was ever honored by the name of a ship, but both are at the top of my short list of recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy for future ship names.

The reason the painting of “Asheville’s Defiance” is on my wall is because she is representative of a number of ships and submarines from which none of the crews ever came home. There was no one left to tell their story, so as the director of Naval History, I consider it my duty to tell their story, and to ensure the Navy keeps our promise never to forget. I deeply appreciate your presence here today, to help me keep that promise. Thank you.

(Sources include: Naval History and Heritage Command Dictionary of American Fighting Ships (DANFS) for U.S. ships; “Tabular Record of Movement” for Japanese ships; Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The Disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II by Jeffrey R. Cox, Osprey Publishing, 2014; In the Highest Degree Tragic: The Sacrifice of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the East Indies During World War II by Donald M. Kehn, Jr., Potomac Books, 2017; The Fleet the Gods Forgot: The U.S. Asiatic Fleet in World War II by W. G. Winslow, Naval Institute Press, 1982; The Lonely Ships: The Life and Death of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet by Edwin P. Hoyt, Jove Books, 1977.)

Published: Tue Mar 05 10:10:48 EST 2024