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H-Gram 019: A Mysterious Swift Boat Loss, "Black May," and "Black Sunday"

22 June 2018

"Vigil," painting, oil on canvas board, by R. G. Smith, 1969 (88-160-FJ).


1. 50th Anniversary of Vietnam War: The Mystery of Swift Boat PCF-19

2. First Medal of Honor for Naval Aviator in Vietnam War: Lieutenant Junior Grade Clyde Everett Lassen

3. 50th Anniversary of Loss of USS Scorpion: Thoughts on U.S. Navy Non-Combat Submarine Losses and Accidents

4. 75th Anniversary of World War II: “Black May”—The Tide of the Battle of the Atlantic Turns

5. 100th Anniversary of World War I: “Black Sunday” and the Battle of Orleans—World War I Comes to American Waters


Download a pdf of H-Gram 019 (4 MB).


I regret that due to the IG inspection of Naval History and Heritage Command the commemorations for the Battle of Midway and the USS Scorpion (SSN-589), the untimely upgrade of my NIPR computer, and the press of my day job, I got behind. So, a couple of these items would have been better last month, but I hope you find them of interest anyway. As always, I produce these in response to the CNO “Campaign Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” task to “know our history,” with the intent of hopefully stimulating greater interest in U.S. naval history. I do not claim that these are “scholarly,” but I go to great length to make them accurate, and hopefully compelling, with a focus on the command-and-control challenges faced by Navy leaders who came before, and on the valor and sacrifice of U.S. Navy personnel, which should always be remembered. Further dissemination is encouraged and appreciated.


50th Anniversary of Vietnam War

The Mystery of Swift Boat PCF-19

Shortly after midnight on 16 June 1968, according to witnesses, the Swift boat PCF-19 “disappeared in a flash of light” while on patrol off the coast of Vietnam, just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Two badly wounded members of PCF-19’s crew were rescued, including the skipper, Lieutenant Junior Grade John Davis. However, four crewmen were lost, in addition to a South Vietnamese navy petty officer–interpreter. One of the American crewmen, QM2 Frank Bowman, is still missing in action. PCF-12 responded to the sinking and reported engaging and possibly downing a helicopter, presumably North Vietnamese. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Point Dume (WPB-82325) reported being attacked by rockets and automatic weapons fire, which missed.

At almost the same time the next night and in the same area as the loss of PCF-19, the Australian destroyer HMAS Hobart (D-39) was attacked by a jet aircraft and struck by three missiles, two of which detonated, killing two crewmen and wounding 11 others. As the aircraft closed for a third pass, Hobart opened fire with her forward gun and drove the plane off. At about the same time, missiles exploded close aboard the cruiser USS Boston (CA-69), spraying her with shrapnel. Shortly after, still in early morning darkness, the destroyer USS Edson (DD-946) came under aerial attack, but escaped damage. The subsequent court of inquiry concluded that Hobart and Boston had been hit by Sparrow air-to-air missiles (based on identifiable missile fragments found on board) fired by U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom jets from the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, which thought they were firing on low-flying helicopters. The court of inquiry also concluded that PCF-19 had been hit by friendly fire—and even conflated the two incidents—and the confusion persists to this day. In this case, the preponderance of reliable evidence suggests that the court of inquiry got it wrong. As rare as it was for North Vietnamese helicopters to engage in offensive action (they were used almost exclusively for resupply) it appears that was the case in the loss of PCF-19. (The UFO Community believes this is a case of extraterrestrials studying Earth’s defensive capabilities—not very likely, but it makes for entertaining reading.) For more on the sinking of PCF-19 and the attack on HMAS Hobart, please see attachment H-019-1.

First Medal of Honor for Naval Aviator in Vietnam War: Lieutenant Junior Grade Clyde Everett Lassen

Lieutenant Clyde Everett Lassen was awarded the Medal of Honor for a daring night helicopter rescue of the pilot and radar intercept officer (RIO) of a downed Navy F-4J Phantom II inside North Vietnam on 19 Jun 1968 (in the same confined area described in the PCF-19 article). A lieutenant junior grade at the time, Lassen made multiple attempts to extract the pilot and RIO, which were thwarted by collision with trees, dense jungle undergrowth, hills, darkness due to flares burning out, and enemy fire. With fuel running very low, Lassen ultimately had to turn on his landing lights, which drew heavy enemy fire, in order to successfully accomplish the rescue. Avoiding additional North Vietnamese missiles and antiaircraft fire on the egress, Lassen recovered on a U.S. Navy destroyer off the North Vietnamese coast with less than five minutes of fuel remaining. Lassen was the first naval aviator, and the only rotary wing naval aviator, to be awarded a Medal of Honor for action in Vietnam (Rear Admiral James Stockdale and Captain Michael Estocin would be the other two naval aviators to receive the Medal of Honor). Lassen’s co-pilot was awarded a Navy Cross, and his two aircrewmen/gunners were each awarded a Silver Star for their gallantry under heavy fire. For more on this heroic rescue and the text of Lassen’s Medal of Honor Citation, please see attachment H-019-2.

50th Anniversary of Loss of USS Scorpion

On 27 May 1968, the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) became officially overdue when she did not arrive in Norfolk as scheduled, having been lost with all 99 of her crew in an accident at about 1800Z on 22 May 400 nautical miles southwest of the Azores while returning to the United States from a Mediterranean deployment. The loss of Scorpion, along with the earlier accidental loss of USS Thresher (SSN-593) on 10 April 1963 (with 129 aboard), resulted in lessons learned that led to an extremely rigorous program of submarine safety (the SUBSAFE program) including rugged design, rigorous quality control, procedural compliance, oversight, and selecting and training the best possible people. The result has been that no U.S. submarine has been lost in the 50 years since the Scorpion disaster, although there have been several close calls. This compares very favorably with the Soviet/Russian navy, which has lost ten submarines since Scorpion. The year 1968 was a particularly bad year for submarines: The Israeli submarine Dakar, the French submarine Minerve, and the Soviet Golf II–class ballistic missile submarine K-129 were all lost to accidents. The 50th anniversary of the loss of Scorpion provides an opportunity to remember and honor the courage of those who have served in harm’s way under the sea, and to particularly remember the extraordinary sacrifices made by their families.

The reality is that submarine operations, whether in peace or war, have always been inherently and extremely dangerous, and that remains so today. The fact that no U.S. submarines have been lost in 50 years is not the result of chance, but to the lessons learned and incorporated from previous accidents. Prior to the loss of Thresher, the U.S. Navy lost over 21 submarines to accidental causes (not counting “friendly fire” or circular-running torpedoes). The number may be even higher, because eight submarines are assessed to have been lost to Japanese mines, but the exact cause (and location) of their loss is unknown. In fact, the very first U.S. Navy submarine, USS Alligator (and you probably thought it was Holland—SS-1) was lost in a storm while under tow off Cape Hatteras on 2 April 1863. There was also a dozen or so significant submarine accidents resulting in fatalities, but not loss of the boat. In several instances, lost submarines were raised and returned to service; the most noteworthy example of this was USS Squalus (SS-192), which sank off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 23 May 1939, with the loss of 26 of her crew, but was raised, repaired, and renamed USS Sailfish (SS-192). The boat then conducted 12 war patrols and earned the Presidential Unit Citation as the first submarine to sink a Japanese carrier (Chuyo). Of the 52 U.S. submarines lost during World War II, only 33 are known to have certainly been sunk as a result of enemy action, although others are probable, and some others were combat-related, such as USS Tang (SS-306) and USS Tullibee (SS-289), sunk by their own circular-running torpedoes.

For more on the history of U.S. Navy submarine non-combat losses and significant accidents, please see attachment H-019-3.

75th Anniversary of World War II

“Black May”—The Tide of the Battle of the Atlantic Turns

On 9 June 2018, at the age of 105, Reinhard Hardegan, the last-known surviving German U-boat commander passed away. Kapitän-Leutnant Hardegan commanded the first German U-boat to reach American waters after Pearl Harbor and commenced attacks on 15 January 1942, achieving significant success thanks to U.S. unpreparedness (and the lights of U.S. cities that silhouetted his targets) and resulting in what became known as the “Second Happy Time” for the U-boats and months of extremely heavy Allied shipping losses in the western Atlantic. (Of note, at the age of 100, Hardegan had a great quote in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Now I sink putts. Not ships!”—Washington Post obituary, 19 June 2018.)

However, on 24 May 1943— in what the Germans referred to as Schwarzer Mai (“Black May”)—Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz issued a general recall message as U-boat losses in the Atlantic reached unsustainable levels without inflicting sufficient losses on Allied shipping. “Black May” is generally considered the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic, and it happened with surprising rapidity given the brutal see-saw convoy battles that characterized the first months on 1943 and saw very heavy losses on both sides. In May 1943, 43 U-boats were lost to all causes, equaling 25 percent of the operational force. Losses included Dönitz’s son, aboard U-954, in an attack against convoy SC-130, in which five U-boats were lost without sinking any of the Allied ships. March 1943 had actually been the peak of the Atlantic convoy battles, with the Allies losing 120 ships and Germany losing 12 U-boats (15 in some sources). In May, the Allies lost 58 ships, while the German losses were three times greater than the worst month since the war began.

The Germans never really recovered after “Black May,” although they were pursuing advanced technologies that had the potential to turn the tide back in their favor, but were unable to bring those on line in sufficient quantity before the war would end. There would still be hard-fought battles and losses on both sides in the Atlantic, but U.S. and Allied hunter-killer task groups would be on the offensive for the rest of the war. As important as the Battle of Midway was, a strong case can be made that the Battle of the Atlantic was even more important. Although not won in a single day as Midway was, had the Battle of the Atlantic, which stretched over the course of the entire war, been lost, Europe would likely be speaking German (or possibly Russian) and our world would be a very different place. For more about the turning of the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic, in particular the critical roles of intelligence, and advanced technologies, please see attachment H-019-4.

100th Anniversary of World War I

“Black Sunday” and the Battle of Orleans—World War I Comes to American Waters

On 2 June 1918, in what would become known in the press as “Black Sunday,” the Imperial German Navy “U-cruiser” U-151 sank six ships off the New Jersey coast in a single day, bringing World War I to American waters for the first time, and provoking public hysteria up and down the eastern seaboard. Actually, the war had arrived on 21 May, when U-151 (under the command of Korvettenkapitän Heinrich von Nostitz und Janckendorf) laid 18 mines off the Delaware capes and cut the submerged telegraph cable between New York and Nova Scotia. On 25 May, U-151 stopped three U.S. schooners off Cape Hatteras, sank them with gunfire, and took all 26 U.S. fisherman on board in order to remain undetected.

Actually, U.S. Navy officials were well aware of U-151’s transit and arrival, having been kept informed by regular updates from British Royal Navy intelligence, which had broken the German codes. However, in order to preserve the secrecy of the code-breaking success, no operational reaction was authorized based solely on the code-breaking intelligence. Aside from its foreknowledge, the U.S. Navy would discover that despite having built hundreds of submarine chasers and commandeered (and armed) over 500 yachts for just such an eventuality, trying to find a single submarine cruising up and down the U.S. east coast was an extremely difficult task with the technology of the time. U-151 would go on to sink 23 ships on this deployment (mostly fishing boats), but the howl from the public and politicians to bring back the U.S. Navy destroyers from European waters was intense. Although there had been significant opposition in the Navy to the deployment of most of the Navy’s destroyers to Europe in 1917, that opposition had faded once it became better known just how desperate the situation was in the spring and summer of 1917 due to U-boat depredations. Although political pressure in the United States was intense, the Navy stayed the course with the strategy of escorting convoys as they entered the approaches to the United Kingdom and France.

With the apparent success of U-151’s mission, she was followed by U-156, which operated off the U.S. east coast in July and August 1918 with equal impunity. U-156 laid the mines off Fire Island, New York, which were probably responsible for sinking the armored cruiser USS San Diego (Armored Cruiser No. 6), the largest U.S. Navy warship lost during the war, although casualties were relatively light at six sailors killed. U-156 also engaged in what became known as the Battle of Orleans, when she surfaced just off the coast of Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, and sank a tug and three barges with gunfire in plain sight of the shore, with some of her shells going long, although they caused no significant damage to the village. Nevertheless, this was the first shelling of the U.S. mainland since the Mexican War. U.S. Navy seaplanes from the newly established Naval Air Station Chatham sortied and attacked the U-156 with bombs. Unfortunately, most of the bombs were defective, but they drove U-156 under. However, U-156 resurfaced and reloaded her guns with shrapnel rounds and engaged the aircraft, with equal lack of success. This incident was the first time U.S. Navy aircraft attacked a submarine in the western Atlantic. Despite the apparent success of U-156’s mission, a key metric was that during August 1918 U.S. convoys delivered 286,375 U.S. troops aboard 140 transport ships, without loss to U-boats. U-156, on the other hand, struck a mine in the North Sea mine barrage and sank with all hands while trying to return to Germany. For more on “Black Sunday” and other U-boat operations along the U.S. east coast, please see attachment H-019-5.

Published: Fri Mar 20 14:24:25 EDT 2020