Category Archives: Merchant Marine

The Soviet Navy’s Caribbean Outpost

The Soviet Navy’s Caribbean Outpost

Naval History Magazine, October 2012

After ‘defeat’ in 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis forestalled a massive Soviet military buildup in the island nation, Moscow relied on its navy to re-establish its political-military presence there.

The Cuban Missile Crisis often is remembered in the context of U.S. naval forces conducting a quarantine to prevent Soviet strategic missiles from being transported to the island nation. A critical factor during the blockade was the presence in the area of several Soviet Foxtrot (Project 641)–class dieselelectric submarines.

Former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy later wrote of the concern that his brother President John F. Kennedy had for those submarines during the tense crisis: “Then came the disturbing Navy report that a Russian submarine had moved into position between the two ships. . . . I think these few minutes were the time of gravest concern for the President. . . . I heard [him] say: ‘Isn’t there some way we can avoid having our first exchange with a Russian submarine—almost anything but that?’” 1

Those few boats were to have been the precursor of a massive naval force that the Soviets planned to base in Cuba. Operation Anadyr—the Soviet codename for the movement of strategic missiles and protective air, ground, and naval forces almost 8,000 miles from the USSR to Cuba—was one of the most remarkable undertakings of the entire Cold War. Earlier, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States had on numerous occasions transported hundreds of thousands of troops and their weapons across oceans and seas, but they were traditional sea powers with large navies and merchant fleets.

The Soviet Union had neither a major surface fleet nor a large merchant marine in 1962. Indeed, its navy did not possess a single ceangoing amphibious or landing ship. Further, beyond military advisers, the USSR had never sent troops great distances by sea. Under these severe limitations, the Soviet Union had begun the massive movement of troops and weapons from its home ports to Cuba. While the Soviet leadership realized that the shipments could not be hidden from the prying eyes of U.S. and other NATO nations’ intelligence services, Kremlin officials believed that their precise contents could be kept secret. Indeed, even after the weapons and troops arrived in Cuba special efforts would be made to keep their numbers and identification secret from Cubans as well as Americans.

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The Senkaku Islands Dispute: Risk to U.S. Rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific?

The Senkaku Islands Dispute: Risk to U.S. Rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific?

In September a major diplomatic crisis erupted between China and Japan over a group of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks located 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles southeast of Okinawa and 200 nautical miles east of China. Collectively these islets and rocks are known as the Senkaku islands in Japanese and the Diaoyutai in Chinese. Japan, China and Taiwan each claim sovereignty over the Senkakus/Diaoyutai.

Historical Background

Japan acquired the Senkaku Islands in 1895 after defeating China in the First Sino-Japanese War. Under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, China transferred sovereignty over both Taiwan and the Senkakus to Japan. The Senkakus came under U.S. control when it occupied Japan and Okinawa in 1945 at the end of World War II. In 1972 the U.S. returned Okinawa and the Senkakus to Japan. The Senkakus are presently administered as part of Okinawa prefecture.


View Senkaku Islands in a larger map

In 1969 a survey conducted under the auspices of the United Nations determined that there were potentially large oil and gas deposits in the seabed surrounding the Senkakus. According to Japanese sources, the discovery of hydrocarbons was the catalyst that reignited Chinese claims to the Diaoyutai. Both Taiwan and China claim sovereignty based on Ming Dynasty documents listing the Diaoyutai as prized possessions of the Chinese emperor.

In September 1972 China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations. Six years later both sides signed a bilateral fishing agreement and reached an understanding to set aside their dispute over the Senkakus/Diaoyutai as a matter for future generations to decide. In 2008 China and Japan agreed to jointly explore for oil in waters off the Senkakus; but that undertaking was never implemented.

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False Flags: A History

False Flags: A History

The term False Flags has been used frequently related to the recent Taliban assault on Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. We present other instances of False Flags in history.

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Sinking of the HMAS Sydney – Posing as the Dutch merchant ship Straat Malakka, the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran was challenged by the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney off the south west coast of Australia on November 19, 1941. The Kormoran continued to give signals that it was only a merchant ship in distress until the two ships were sailing parallel to one another at close range. After the Sydney demanded further proof of identification, the Kormoran raised the German Kriegsmarine ensign and uncovered its hidden guns so quickly that a German officer noted that the Australians were slow to react because they did “not seem to have grasped the spectacle of the transformed merchant steamer.” The Kormoran opened fire and scored several hits, but the Sydney hammered back. The encounter would prove fatal to both ships, but the Sydney was lost with all hands.

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Searching for Nelson's Quote

Searching for Nelson’s Quote

Rising young U.S. Navy officer Stephen Decatur earned famous praise for ‘the most bold and daring act of the age’—or did he?

Lt. Stephen Decatur, Naval History and Heritage Command

Lt. Stephen Decatur, Naval History and Heritage Command

Late in the evening on 16 February 1804, the ketch Intrepid , commanded by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, entered Tripoli Harbor. Almost becalmed in the dying breeze, the Intrepid drifted with agonizing slowness toward the captured American frigate Philadelphia , lying under the massed guns of the bashaw’s castle and harbor fortifications. As the Intrepid approached, a Barbary lookout on the Philadelphia spotted the Americans and cried out the alarm. The Intrepid tied onto the frigate. Decatur and 60 men boarded the Philadelphia , scattered or killed her harbor watch, and burned the ship. They then made good their escape in the Intrepid, with only one sailor slightly wounded.

The raid into Tripoli Harbor helped establish the reputation of the U.S. Navy, small as it then was, and is an iconic part of the service’s history. Almost equally known in American naval lore is that Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, upon learning of the raid, called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” It’s no wonder such a statement has assumed a hallowed aura. Nelson was a brilliant and daring naval officer, perhaps the greatest admiral in the long maritime history of England, and if he said the raid was without equal, his audience (posterity) can accept it as truth. Equally important, there is the sense of a laying-on of hands by Nelson, who died 18 months later in the moment of his greatest triumph at Trafalgar, “blessing” a seminal event led by one of the dynamic officers in the rising navy from across the Atlantic. It’s a dramatic story, loaded with symbolism.

But did Nelson actually call the burning of the Philadelphia “the most bold and daring act of the age”?

No contemporary or near-contemporary biography of Decatur, and no early account of the Barbary Wars, contains the Nelson quote. In what may have been the first attempt to provide the public with an account of Decatur’s life, Washington Irving’s 1813 article in the widely read Analectic Magazine , Nelson’s comment is absent. An 1819 collective biography of early American military and naval officers, written when Decatur was alive, makes no reference to the Nelson quote. The first full-scale biography of Decatur, published in 1821 (just after his death), contains no hint of it, nor does the first great history of the U.S. Navy, James Fenimore Cooper’s, the first edition of which appeared in 1839. 1

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An Alternative Piracy Defense

An Alternative Piracy Defense

somalForce, or the threat of force, is an important factor in countering pirate attacks off Somalia.

That unsurprising conclusion can be inferred from the International Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) global piracy report for 2011. IMB noted that incidents off Somalia increased in 2011, but the number of successful hijackings decreased from 49 to 28. Pottengal Mukundan, director of IMB’s Piracy Reporting Center, credited “pre-emptive naval strikes, the hardening of vessels in line with the best management practices and the deterrent effect of privately contracted armed security personnel” with the drop in successful hijackings.

Vigorous action by international naval forces in the Gulf of Aden and northwest Indian Ocean, weather, and shipboard defensive measures likewise helped reduce attacks year-over-year during the first quarter of 2012. Increasingly, those defensive measures have included armed security teams embarked on merchant vessels; anywhere from 15 to 35 percent of the ships transiting the region now rely on them. And according to industry sources, no ship embarking armed guards has been hijacked to date.

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