Historical Potpourri and Miscellany

It’s been a slow week in the history of maritime medicine–an opportunity to reflect about other things.

Well, maybe there was some history-of-naval-medicine news of note: the release of a new book “Battlefield Angels” by Scott McGaugh (see a review of the book here). It’s a popular history of American medical and not-really-medical people who suffered and sacrificed to give aid to comrades fallen in combat since our War of Independence and up to Afghanistan. That former U S Navy Surgeon General Vice Admiral Harold M Koenig wrote the book’s foreword is significant: there are many maritime medical connections in the book. Chapters with significant navy medical historical content include “Fighting Infection-World War II: The Pacific“, “Battle Burns-World War II: Iwo Jima” and “Helos and Hospitals-Vietnam War“.  I purchased my electronic copy last week for just $0.99, but I see that today, the price has jumped to the electronic standard $9.99. I’d be happy to post a review of the book if any of my readers would like to write one.


Of late I’m being wakened in the middle of the night by ruminations on the tragedy of the Battle of the Java Sea at the outset of World War II. I had my attention drawn to the forlorn battle (as Winston Churchill wrote of it in The Hinge of Fate) when I did a post on the story of Dutch hospital ship op ten Noort (March 2011) during, and in the months and years after the battle.

One very early Japanese war priority was to secure the abundant oil resources–essential for her war effort–in the Dutch East Indies, especially the island of Java. To this end, she mounted a three-prong naval approach on the entire chain of islands now known as Indonesia, sending fleet elements and invasion forces south through the South China Sea, the Makassar Strait and the Molucca Sea. Facing this onslaught of modern and efficient forces (including abundant naval and land based air assets) was a ragtag fleet of American, British, Dutch and Australian cruisers and destroyers with no organic air forces, quickly thrown together in less than a month. While Dutch commanders were committed to a fight-to-the-end defense of their colonial territory, their allies were less enthusiastic. The Americans in particular were ambivalent about supporting Holland in her efforts to preserve control over colonial possessions. The British, who had only recently lost Singapore in a humiliating defeat, had little enthusiasm for continuing the fight in the area. The Australians were presumably a bit more committed.

The ABDA Command was stood up on 15 January 1942, with U S Admiral Thomas C Hart as Commander Naval Forces serving under Supreme Commander (British) Field Marshall Sir Archibald Wavell.  From the outset, communications among the allies was less than ideal.  Less than a month after the ABDA Command was established, upon the urgings on the Dutch government in exile, the Americans pulled Hart out. He was replaced by Dutch Vice Admiral C E L Helfrich, himself born and bred in the Dutch East Indies. Helfrich’s naval subordinate, Dutch Admiral Karel W F M Doorman, was from the outset placed in command of the newly established Combined Striking Force. Among the problems Doorman faced were–in addition to the lack of air assets previously noted–a bilingual (multilingual if you include the Indonesian personnel serving in the Dutch ships) force with different electronic communications gear, no common codes or even flag signal protocols,  no radar, and no time to even work out a set of tactical policies. This force went bravely out to face overwhelming odds to try and delay or prevent the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies.

Source: David Thomas, "Battle of the Java Sea" (see citation below), courtesy of L. L. von Münching

Fighting blind, with no air support, in old and already battle-damaged ships with exhausted crews, Doorman faced superior Japanese forces possessed of air power (with airborne spotters) and  heretofore unknown oxygen-fuelled “Long Lance” torpedoes that had more than four times the range of British and US devices, and that left no track of bubbles that might permit potential victims a chance to see and avoid them. From the outset, Doorman’s Combined Striking Force suffered one disaster after another, while being absolutely ineffectual in its few attacks on Japanese naval elements. The main battle, 27 January 1943, and subsequent actions in the next day, resulted in the sinking of every ship in Doorman’s fleet, save four old U S destroyers released early because they had expended all their ammunition. The gallant but doomed Admiral Doorman went down with his flagship, the cruiser De Ruyter. More than half of his crew perished, and this was typical of all the ships sunk, including the British cruiser Exeter and the American cruiser Houston. For their gallant but futile actions, Doorman and the men in his commanded delayed the Japanese invasion by fewer than 24 hours.

The Royal Netherlands Navy have named three ships for Admiral Doorman, the last a multipurpose frigate of the Karel Doorman class. Commissioned in 1991, the ship was sold to Belgium in 2007 and now serves in that nation’s Naval Component as Leopold I.  The Karel Doorman monument at the center of the Netherlands’ Kembang Kuning war cemetery at Surabaya in the Indonesian province of East Java commemorates the Battle of the Java Sea.

We can only hope that a later race of people,
who have no need for battle, remember how it
used to be, and tell their children:
that there were heroes then, young and real, who
were greater than the world could stand, who
stood up for justice in doing their duty, and who
did their duty until their deaths;
that there were mothers then, who saw the
suffering they had already endured worsen, with
a loss so unfathomable and cruel, a loss which
only a mother could bear so proudly;
that there were battles all around then, and
sadness for those who could not save themselves
from the battle; that not a day went by without
someone, somewhere, shedding tears.
People of the later years, if you are lonely and
feeling sad on a quiet evening, think then of the
sadness of this time, and how many hearts were
then crushed…..
H.J. Scheepmaker
From “Het Gedenken”
(from the flyer "Netherlands war cemeteries in Indonesia", hyperlinked above)


And, another Naval Cemetery story. It is traditional that U S Naval Cemeteries come under the purview of U S Naval Hospitals, presumably under the doctrine of “If you can’t cure them, then you’re responsible for burying them”. Thus was the case with the Naval Cemetery on Mare Island, California which had its first burial in 1854. The Mare Island Naval Hospital closed in 1957, and it’s not clear to whom care of the 900+ grave property then fell until 2002, when title to the Cemetery devolved to the City of Vallejo, California. The cemetery lies within a National Historic Landmark district which preserves buildings and artifacts of the Navy’s first shipyard on the U S west coast.

Located in the cemetery are 6 graves of Russian sailors who died during the Russian fleet visit of 1863-64, and in a nearby part of the cemetery, two more sailors from the Russian ship Lena which was interned at Mare Island during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Of the 1863-64 graves three were originally marked by simple marble stones with rounded tops and Cyrillic markings. One theory holds that they were purchased and placed by the deceased mens’ shipmates. These markers, tipped and broken, were spirited away from the cemetery and stored in a private home until last year, when they were returned to a museum on the island. The other three graves were marked by stones of standard early VA issue and labeled, simply, “Russian Sailor”. The 1904 graves are marked with 3 foot granite crosses on granite foot-high bases.

Some time last year, in a process that appears to have bypassed a statute requiring review and approval by the city’s Architectural Heritage and Landmarks Commission, markers in the 1904 style were stealthily placed over all six of the 1863-4 graves. The three extant VA stones were removed and stacked against a nearby tree. This grave stone swap out, and the manner in which it was carried out, has, needless to say, produced controversy. The more historico-preservationist oriented citizenry are calling for removal of the new markers and restoration /replacement of the old ones with historically accurate copies. On the other hand, some members of the local Russian-American community express the opinion that the old stones were decrepit and neglected and that the new ones show respect for the men over whom they stand watch. Do you have an opinion? Do you know people in the “cemetery community” who might be able to weigh in on this controversy? The city Commission is due to hold a hearing on the matter on 18 August. I’d like to bring the opinions of interested people and experts to the meeting with me. Write your comments and expert referrals in the Comments section, below.


Finally, a word about “Subscriptions” to this blog. I notice that a few have signed up for this service, which automatically sends a notice to you whenever I put up a new post. Subscribing is easy: just utilize the “Sign Me Up!”  button to the left of this post. Henceforth, you won’t miss a word from “Of Ships and Surgeons”.

Sources for my reflections on the Battle of the Java Sea are: van Oosten, F C, “The Battle of the Java Sea (Sea Battles in Close-Up-15)”, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1976; and Thomas, David, “Battle of the Java Sea” (1968),  Paperback edition, London, Pan Books, 1971.

© 2011 Thomas L Snyder

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