2/3/19

Son Tay Berets: Vietnam War POW Rescue Raid November 1970

In the early morning hours of 21 November 1970, arguably the first modern special forces operation was launched at the Sơn Tây Prison Camp in North Vietnam. Code named Operation Ivory Coast, US Army Special Forces with aerial support from the Navy and Air Force, launched a raid to rescue American prisoners of war held by the North Vietnamese military. Just 56 Green Berets would attempt to storm the compound, roughly twenty miles north of Hanoi, an area dotted with anti aircraft, SAM missile sites, and guarded by 40,000 or more North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and irregulars.

Son Tay Raid 21 November 1970


The impetus for a planned raid on Son Tay was the belief that 60-70 American prisoners of war were being held in this compound. Additional intelligence suggested that by the summer of 1970, more than 500 POWs (not counting those who were MIA) were being held in NVA captivity. Some, including USAF Major Wes Schierman, had been in captivity suffering immense physical and psychological cruelties since 1965. Military and public opinion was strongly in favor of rescuing any POWs that were being held and eventually both President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger supported a Special Forces operation to rescue at least some of these prisoners held in North Vietnam.


Composition of the Force, Training & Preparation

Organization for a potential POW rescue in North Vietnam was initiated by the Air Force in 1968, code named Polar Circle. Intel on the supposed POW camp at Son Tay was supplied by aerial reconnaissance conducted by both unmanned drones and SR-71 “Blackbirds”. USAF Brigadier General LeRoy Manor was placed in overall command with Army Brigadier Gen. Donald D. Blackburn tasked with the selection of the operational leaders. He chose Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons (b.1918-1979) to lead the operation on the ground.

Simons was a veritable legend, an old hard charger who had fought in the Pacific where he had been a member of Lt. Col. Mucci’s Raid on Cabanatuan, 30 January 1945. Armed with a .357 Magnum and perpetually chewing on a long cigar, Col. Simons had already been to Laos in 60’s before returning to Southeast Asia where he served with the highly classified Assistance Command’s Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG). Additional combat leaders were chosen from Ft. Benning as well, Lt. Col. Elliott “Bud” Sydnor, who was a Ranger, and Capt. Dick Meadow, one of the mostly highly regarded Special Forces officers of his day. The Son Tay Raiders began their training at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in September 1970, the original 103 volunteers (over 500 operators applied) were promised that they would be home for Christmas but knew little else of the operational plan at the outset. 

Col. Simons (R) & Col. Cataldo (L)

Preparations included heavy intelligence briefings with particular detail paid to the layout of the compound, the mock up itself code named Barbara, and the surrounding environs, which included a military school just 500 yards to the south. They trained predominately at night, always with live fire (this impressed even the hardest veterans among them),with an emphasis on flawless paradrops and a thorough but quick rescue of the POWs. Military psychologists briefed the Green Berets on some of the intricacies of the POW mindset as well. This included isolating prisoners who may have collaborated with the enemy as the other prisoners may have attempted to kill the supposed traitor. All of this training was done covertly with additional intelligence and strategic opinions supplied by the CIA.



October or November were gauged to be the driest and therefore best months to launch an operation on Son Tay. As the date of the mission drew nearer, final cuts were made from 103 down to just 55 Special Forces operators. All of these men had previous combat experience except for four, Sgts. Terry Buckner, Patrick St. Clair, Marshall Thomas, and Keith Medenski. Perhaps the most accomplished of these soldiers was then forty seven year old Galen “Pappy” Kittleson (b.1924-2006). A veteran of the Pacific Campaign, Korea, and now Vietnam, Son Tay would be his fourth and last POW rescue-op stretching back to Cabanatuan in ‘45. Col. Simons wanted tough and dedicated soldiers and that's exactly what he got. Another invaluable member of the unit was Col. Joseph R. Cataldo, the company doctor.

 "Redwine" Command Element

On 17 November the Son Tay raiders departed Eglin for what they later learned was a CIA compound at the Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in northern Thailand. Here the raiders prepped their weapons and gear and rested. Two days later, President Richard Nixon sent a letter of confidence to the command unit, now they just awaited the green light for the operation to commence. On the night of 20 November at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force, the Green Berets learned their mission and target. Sydnor and Simons briefed them beforehand, the latter stressing the danger of the mission. The raiders then boarded a C-130 from Udor to their objective at Son Tay.


Aircraft & Equipment

A “fruit basket” of aircraft would play a critical role in the raid on Son Tay for both the extraction of the POWs and aerial support for the Green Berets once they touched down. The mothership was a heavily armed ‘Talon’ C-130 Hercules, it would lead the formation of one HH-3E, callsign Banana, and five HH-53s. These five Jolly Green Giants were codenamed “Apple” and would transport the POWs and special forces back to Thailand. 5 A-1E Skyraiders, callsign Peach, would provide close support air cover as would an additional C-130 Talon, callsign Cherry02. 10 F-4 Phantoms participated in the air cover operation as did 5 F-105 Thunderchiefs launched from Korat Royal Thai Air Force base. These Wild Weasels, codenamed Firebirds, were deployed against SAM installations and were to have a critical role in the operation being planned.

The Green Berets themselves were mostly armed with CAR-15s along with 4 M60s for heavy support, and 4 40mm grenade launchers. The raiders carried 400 rounds of ammo each for a kit weighing around 65 pounds per soldier. A cache of bolt and wire cutters plus crowbars and axes were brought along with two Oxyacetylene cutting torches (to cut through chains and prison bars), two chainsaws, and enough claymores, frag grenades, and demolition charges to level Son Tay twice over.

Son Tay Raiders check weapons and equipment before the Operation

Surplus World War 2 goggles were provided to the Son Tay raiders with orange lenses, as night vision was still in its infancy. In addition, private market hunting scopes were added to the CAR-15’s during training. Sgt. Buckner claims that after these scopes had been installed their accuracy on the nighttime firing range rose from around 40% to over 90%. Three different units comprised the force. Blue Boy was the assault group lead by Capt. Meadows. Their job was to kill the guards and then free and organize the prisoners. Greenleaf contained Col. Simons amongst 22 other Green Berets and was the support element. Redwine was the security element, led by Capt. Dan Turner. They were to provide cover for Blueboy and had to protect the landing zone and secure an alternate route of escape should LZ become exposed to the enemy.


The Raid Begins

The Navy created a massive diversion west of Hanoi on the night of the operation, utilizing 128 aircraft to scramble radar and misdirect any NVA aerial support away from the drop site. U.S. aircraft successfully scrambled North Vietnamese eastward while the the raiders came in undetected from the west. Without this distraction, the rescue armada would have been at the mercy of MIG night fighters and anti-aircraft on their flight around Hanoi. A-1E’s flew cover over the camp during the operation whilst the mothership C-130 dropped flairs to illuminate the compound for the landing of the “Blueboy” unit. SAMS were fired in the direction of Son Tay after the raid began with at least 14 launched at the Wild Weasels alone.


As planned, the HH-3E pilot, Major Frederic Donohue attacked the guard towers before executing a controlled crash landing into the compound. The blades of his Jolly Green Giant hit a massive tree, bringing the helicopter down quickly. This was the first intelligence failure as none of the pilots were aware that the tree they knew was there was in fact that large. Amazingly the only casualty in the rough dissent was an Air Force crewman who suffered a broken ankle. Blueboy's immediate target was the guard tower at the camp which was quickly neutralized. NVA troops were engaged almost immediately and thus began the assault and rescue that the Green Berets had rehearsed hundreds of times over at Eglin. The very first of the raiders on the ground (he literally fell out of the chopper) was 1st Lt. George Petrie; his cousin Navy Capt. James M. Hickerson was a POW and Petrie wanted to bring him home. Capt. Meadows was on the bullhorn immediately, telling the POWs to get down, and that they were Americans and there to free them.


Members of "Blue Boy" Assault Team


Unit “Redwine” H-53’s minigun destroyed the camp’s guard barracks in a matter of seconds. Redwine then went around the southwest of the compound and breached an escape hole in the wall, then they rapidly cut communications to the camp, securing the area with a brief but sharp firefight. Redwine had the additional task of cutting down the light poles surrounding the camp, however the poles were concrete, rendering their chainsaws useless. The Jolly Green Giants had flown about a mile away to a quiet plain were they awaited the call to disembark, cautiously scanning the jungle with searchlights for any NVA sneak attacks. Just eight minutes into the raid and all the buildings in Son Tay prison camp had been cleared.


Military School, Negative Items, & Return Trip


To both the surprise of Redwine and Blueboy, Col. Simons and his Greenleaf unit were nowhere to be seen. “Alternate Plan Green” went into effect as neither unit knew if Greenleaf had been shot down or simply been blown off course in another direction. The command chopper had indeed drifted significantly and landed at another compound entirely. Almost immediately Col. Simon’s unit opened fire on the first enemies they encountered, killing a number of hostiles before they were picked up and flown back to the camp. Though it's still unclear, the men that Greenleaf dispatched at the “military school” were most likely Chinese or other foreign officers who were likely in Vietnam for military training.


In the camp, Col. Sydnor radioed what many at first refused to believe, “NEGATIVE ITEMS”. The POW’s were not there and had seemingly been moved quite some time before the raid. This was perhaps the most precarious moment of the operation; Col. Simons was still missing while the Green Berets awaited their extraction huddled in the prison cells with the threat of a potential counter attack looming. Directly above the prison camp, North Vietnamese SAM’s were fired in a low trajectory at the Wild Weasels with several near misses observed, though two of the Firebirds were eventually hit. One of the Firebirds experienced a flameout however the crew was rescued without incident from the Plain of Jars in Laos the following morning. If one of these missiles hit a helicopter however the raid would have a taken a drastic turn.


Around the 27 minute mark the helicopters circled back around and picked up the Green Berets. Excess non essential items were discarded and the downed HH-3E was rigged with timed explosives. Just two wounded raiders were reported after landing at Udorn, Air Force Sgt. Wright suffered a broken ankle during the rough landing and Sgt. Joseph Murray suffered a bullet wound on the inside of his thigh which proved to be minor. Lt. General Manor remarked, “At Udorn I met a dejected force of raiders. They were disappointed because our hopes of returning with POWs were dashed. We had failed. This thoroughly dedicated group expressed the belief we should return the next night and search for the POWs. Admiral McCain, who’s son, Lt. Comdr. John McCain (b.1936-2018) was a POW himself, told the Green Berets of Son Tay, "Don't let anyone tell you that this mission was a failure. We will learn, as the results develop, that many benefits will accrue as a result of having done this."


The prisoners had in fact been relocated in mid-July and were dozens of miles away when the Operation Ivory Coast had been launched. With mounting diplomatic pressure, the bombing raids of Operation Linebacker and the Christmas Raids of 1972, coupled with the logistical realities of housing such a large number of POW’s, the North Vietnamese were forced into prison camp consolidation and reform. Prisoners gained better medical treatment and began to receive letters from home. In 1973 following the Paris Peace Accords, 591 POWS were ultimately freed, including the survivors of Son Tay and the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” (Hỏa Lò Prison).


Admiral McCain’s departing exhortation likely felt hollow to the 56 Green Berets but they proved to be ultimately correct. Besides helping to alleviate some of the tremendous suffering of the POW’s, invaluable lessons were learned in what was truly the beginning of modern special operations. From the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda, to Operation Neptune Spear in 2011, the Son Tay Raid remains an influential study in modern special forces warfare.


Suggested Further Reading

Son Tay: The Most Daring Raid of the Vietnam War, Sergeant Terry Buckner, USAHEC's Annual Army Heritage Day, Youtube.


Son Tay, By Lt. General LeRoy J. Manor (United States Air Force Retired), www.vnafmamn.com


The Raid, By Benjamin E. Schemmer, Avon Books, (1976-1986)

3/22/17

All Hands For Texas: The First Texas Navy and the War on the Gulf of Mexico, 1835-1843

The history of the Texas War for Independence is heavily entrenched in the land campaign fought between the Texas rebels led by Sam Houston and the Mexican Army led General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The ‘Last Stand’ at the Alamo and the wars’ penultimate battle at San Jacinto being the two most popular and well studied events in both academic and popular histories to date. The history of the First Texas Navy (1835-1837) and its very small fleet of brigs and schooners is nonetheless highly important to the study of the conflict and the eventual success of the Texian revolt against Mexico in April 1836. As both a blue water (ocean) and brown water (rivers) naval force, the Texas Navy fought many small engagements and carried out several blockades before, during, and after the Texas Revolution in defense of the young Republic of Texas and its ally, the short lived Republic of Yucatán (1841-1848).

See, Texas Revolution 1835-1836: Battle for North Mexico and the Birth of the Texas Republic, for more. 

The Invincible of the First Texas Navy, Galveston April 1837


Formation of the First Texas Navy, 1835-1836

The genesis of the Texas Navy began with outbreak of hostilities between Anglo-American settlers in Northern Mexico, the Texians, and Mexican colonial authorities and the Mexican military. In September of 1835 just before the Revolution began, Texians aboard the merchant ships the San Felipe and Laura, captured the Mexican treasury vessel Correo de Mejico off the coast of Brazoria. Accusing them of piracy, the Texians took the San Felipe to New Orleans where it was held until the Mexican government could ransom it. Though these sailors had been acting in an extrajudicial manner, the Correo de Mejico Incident seems to have made a Mexican land invasion of Texas inevitable. Following the seizure of the formerly American ship Hannah Elizabeth by the Texian privateer ship William Robbins on December 19, 1835, Mexico soon placed a token naval fleet in the Gulf of Mexico to protect its fishing and merchant fleets from piracy.


Officially, the First Texas Navy was formed on November 24, 1835, by a degree from the ad interim president David G. Burnet. The first secretary of the Navy was Robert M. Potter (b.1799-1842), a North Carolina native and U.S. navy veteran. The first "commodore" of the First Texas Navy was Charles Edward Hopkins, a New Yorker by birth who had served in both the U.S. and Mexican navies in the 1820’s. The first ship acquired for the tiny Texian “fleet”, which it can be named in alliteration only, was the former U.S. treasury ship the Ingham, renamed the Independence. Cruising between Galveston and Tampico during the first three months of 1836, Commodore Hopkins captured a number of smaller merchant vessels and fishing craft, generally disrupting the seaborne communications and resupply of Santa Anna's army.

A larger schooner, the Brutus, was commanded by Captain William A. Hurd, a privateer on the William Robbins, which was renamed the Liberty by the Texians and captained by William Brown (d.1838). Capt Hurd and his Brutus patrolled the mouth of the Rio Grande River. William's elder brother Jeremiah Brown received command of the schooner Invincible. Both the Brown brothers and Hurd had privateer experience previously and definitely had reputations for roguish behavior; though very little was recorded about them. The Texas Marine Corps was created during this period and eventually consisted of 350 enlisted men and 18 officers.

The Texas Navy schooner Brutus


The war was proving costly for the Texians after proclaiming independence officially on March 2, 1836. Defeats and subsequent massacres at the Alamo and Goliad had shaken the would-be republic to its knees. The subsequent “Runaway Scrape” saw thousands of Texians; soldiers, pioneers, citizens, and their slaves, flee to the coast. Some left for New Orleans or Mobile and many took refuge on Galveston Island until the end of the conflict. Despite this seemingly doomed situation; volunteers, material, supplies of war, and foodstuffs continuously poured into Texas through the seaports of New Orleans and Mobile, Mexico’s tiny naval force unable to stop this large influx of contraband vessels. Conversely, Texas privateers and Navy ships captured thousands of pounds of military supplies sent from New Orleans to Mexico flying false flags and carrying forged manifests. In fact, this interruption of the Mexican-New Orleans trade outraged many Americans especially the ship's owners and insurers who did business out of the Crescent City. The small but capable First Texas Navy made sure that Mexican and American ships holding their supplies would be frequently molested in the Gulf of Mexico throughout the conflict.


Either Take it or be Taken: Battles At Sea & River, 1835-1840

The Texian navy played a decisive role between March-April of 1836 during the final stages of the Texas Revolution. Capt. William Brown's Liberty whilst on patrol off the Yucatán captured the Mexican merchant schooner Pelicano near the fortress at Sisal, directly off the northern coast of Yucatán. Their plunder consisted of military supplies, smuggled contraband, and a large quantity of gunpowder concealed inside the ship which had come from New Orleans. These supplies most certainly aided General Houston in his victory over Santa Anna at San Jacinto on April 21. Capt. Brown told a New Orleans newspaper, “My situation requires that I should keep a constant look-out, and when I see a Mexican Flag flying, I shall either take it or be taken. I cannot fly from a Mexican, and will not.” The Pelicano was then sailed to Matagorda, Texas, where it was lost on a sandbar just weeks later.

Undoubtedly the most important action of the First Texas Navy was their victory in the Action of April 3, 1836 off the coast of Matamoros at Brazos de Santiago on the mouth of the Rio Grande River. Here, Capt.Jeremiah Brown’s Invincible met the General Bravo, trading broadsides for over an hour before the Texian schooner broke off battle from the damaged Mexican warship. Just an hour or more later, the Invincible came across an American merchant ship, Pocket, which they soon captured. More than a ton of supplies and foodstuffs were found, as well as several Mexican naval officers, who Capt. Brown had flogged, and dispatches from Santa Anna detailing a planned amphibious landing near Galveston.

Map of the major events of the First Texas Navy, 1835-1836

In April of 1836, Brutus, Invincible, and the Independence were moored close to the Galveston Island citadel by Commodore Hawkins. Galveston had become the last redoubt of the Texian cause and the navy was both the defense and safety net for the military and civilian populace residing there. Following the improbable Texian victory at San Jacinto both the Brutus and Invincible set sail for New York City for repairs and to be re-outfitted. After the Revolution had been won, President Sam Houston appointed Samuel Rhoades Fisher Secretary of the Navy. Rhoades set out to regulate and rebuild the infant nations’ depleted flotilla, though he was quickly reeling following the capture of the Independence within sight of Galveston harbor on April 17, 1837. Fisher vowed revenge for both his own honor and the honor of the Texas Navy.

Samuel Rhoades Fisher, Secretary of the Texas Navy, October 1836-Oct.1837

Commodore Hawkins would never return to sea as the leader of Texian Navy, perishing from smallpox in February of 1837. Capt. Jeremiah Brown was dismissed in the same year as was W.A. Hurd for insubordination. Capt. William Brown was sacked as well but served as a sanctioned Texian privateer until his death in 1838. Both the Brutus and Invincible were held in New York City due to the debts incurred against them and would not return to the Gulf of Mexico until June of 1837. In remarkably maverick style, secretary of the navy Fisher ordered the captains of the Brutus and Invincible, J.D. Boylan and H.L. Thompson, to pull their anchors and sail for the Gulf. Fisher boarded the flagship Invincible with Commander Thompson, who was placed in overall command. Thompson was apparently a volatile drunk and a poor officer, though Judge Fisher, as he was known to the sailors, was likely the de facto commander.

This unsanctioned raid on the Gulf down to Veracruz and back was quite an effective sea raid, if wholly unorthodox and illegal. Fisher’s Raid was essentially an unsanctioned military operation carried out unilaterally by the Texas naval department’s highest civilian authority. The 'Fisher Raid' pillaged several seaside villages, taking six ships and boarding several others at sea, in direct violation of President Houston’s orders they boarded British, French, and American ships in the process; netting close to $10,000 in prize money and confiscated goods. The flotilla attempted to besiege the fort at Sisal, to little success, later claiming Cozumel for Texas in July, and making a documented landing at the village of Dzilam De Bravo, where the Texas Navy was viewed as a curiosity more than a real threat by the local populace. At Telchac on the Yucatan, Fisher's raiders were chased back to their boats by Mexican cavalry, not before Judge Fisher fired on the Mexican cavalry with his pistol. The Texians stole many sea turtles wherever they disembarked for a readily available source of meat at sea [Jordan, Lone Star Navy], there was likely little else of value in most of these small seaport villages which they visited. On the return to the Texas coast, both Texian vessels were wrecked on sandbars and by October 1837, the First Texas Navy was no more. Fisher was sacked by President Houston, though he had the support of the majority of Texas and some members of congress as well, his career was effectively over. In addition both Thompson and Boylan were relieved of their commands. Fisher was shot and killed in a duel (or perhaps an assassination) in Matagorda just two years later.


The Commodore as His Lone Star Navy: The Second Texas Navy, 1838-1841


Additional privateer ships were given letters of marque by the Texian government to fill the role of the destroyed First Texas Navy, these ships continued to harangue Mexican and American ships throughout this antebellum period. Between 1839-1840, six well built ships were commissioned in Baltimore and delivered to the Republic of Texas. Led by a new Naval department chief, William Shepard, and later by Memucan Hunt, John Grant Tod, the Naval Yard commander and later acting navy secretary, and with a pro-naval President in power from 1838-1841 in Mirabeau Lamar (b.1798-1859), the Second Navy of Texas of 1839-1843, was born.

After initially languishing for two years with no ships and without a commanding officer, the Texas naval department found their commodore in Lt. Edwin Ward Moore (b.1810-1865). Moore came from a family of Revolutionary and War of 1812 veterans, joining the U.S. navy as a midshipman in 1824 and serving until 1839, when he resigned his commission and sailed for Texas. Soon recruits began to trickle in from all corners of both the United States and Europe. By the early 1840's a more professional corps of officers was being fostered, as many of the buccaneers and swashbuckling rogues like the Brown brothers and Hurd had been purged during Houston's first presidency.


Commodore Edwin W. Moore, the Admiral Nelson of the Texas Navy

The Texas naval department also placed an order for Colt Paterson revolvers and Colt Model 1839 Carbines for use by their sailors and marines. These small arms made in Connecticut and designed by Samuel Colt’s engineers gave the Texas Marine Corps and naval boarding parties a key advantage in close quarters combat. In a letter to Colt sometime in the 1850-60’s, Moore himself exclaimed to the guns inventor, “the confidence that your arms gave the officers and men under my command when off Campeche in 1843-opposed to a vastly superior force is almost incredible, I would not sail if I could possibly avoid it without your repeating arms and I would have no other.”

The first ship purchased and armed was the steamship Zavala, built in Philadelphia and refitted in 1837, Lt. John T.K. Lothrop was given command after first being granted captaincy of the San Jacinto. A New Englander, Lothrop had served as a midshipmen on the Brutus and Independence and was the most capable and seasoned junior officer in the Texas Navy. The flagship of the fleet was the Austin, a 125 foot sloop-of-war armed with sixteen 24 pound cannons and two 18 pound cannons. Schooners San Antonio, known as the fastest ship in the fleet, San Bernard, which was armed with four 12 pound guns and a 9 pound ‘Long range’ pivot gun, and the San Jacinto, a 66 foot long schooner which was identical to both the San Bernard and San Antonio, formed the vanguard of the new Texas Naval fleet. The armed brigs Wharton and Archer served as well. Commodore Moore’s first cruise took place in the spring of 1840 and lasted until February of 1841. The Second Texas Navy took several small ships in this patrol, selling at least one as a prize in New Orleans and also blockaded Veracruz for a short time.

Texas Navy captain armed with a Colt Paterson by Bruce Marshall (Schiffer Military History)

In the Tabasco River Incident, Zavala was used to ferry both the Austin and the San Bernard roughly 70 miles up the Tabasco River (Río Grijalva) from the Bay of Campeche. The Texians aided a column of 150 Yucatecan rebels who forced the surrender of around 600 centralist soldiers defending the regional capital at Villahermosa San Juan Bautista on November 20, 1840. Moore and his crew were promised $25,000 in silver as tribute for sparing the city a naval bombardment, though he was originally only paid $10,000. The Commodore threatened the Yucatán generalissimo Anaya with a blockade and bombardment of the Tabasco region if the Texians were not paid in full. In December, Moore’s flotilla, now decimated by Tropical fever, was paid off and departed for Galveston.

The Texian Flotilla 1841-1843, Naval Battle at Campeche

After Commodore Moore’s cruise of the Gulf in 1840-1841 to aid the rebellious Republic of the Yucatán, the San Antonio was used for coastal mapping and survey of Texas coast. On the day that President Houston was sworn into office for a second time, the Austin set sail to aid their allies across the Gulf yet again. A new deal with the Republic of the Yucatán promised $8,000 a month for the Texas Navy for protection of the region from the Mexican navy and its ships. The federal navy had acquired the Guadalupe in 1842, a massive British-built iron ship, 200 feet long, and armed with two 32 pound cannons and two 68 pound French made Paixhan pivot guns, which could launch an explosive shell over a mile and a half. The other was the wooden steamer Moctezuma, armed with Paixhan guns and six 42 pound guns. Both of these ships were worth four each of the Texians smaller and under-armed wooden sloops-of-war. These new Mexican vessels were staffed by a contingent of British officers and sailors who had deserted or were on leave from the Royal Navy.

The Guadalupe, ironclad steamship made in Birkenhead, England for the Mexican Navy

Unfortunately the Second Navy of Texas was hamstrung before it could be fully brought against the might of Mexico’s new fleet of ships in a Battle of Jutland of the Gulf of Mexico. Economic shortfalls meant funds were in short supply, as a result ships’ crews were underpaid and their vessels went without repairs. The Commodore put himself in nearly $50,000 debt borrowing money in his own name to pay for the repairs of the Republic’s ships. Moore and Houston loathed each other with the President threatening on several occasions to scrap the navy completely (which he eventually did). 

The Zavala and San Antonio around 1840

There were significant mutinies on both the San Antonio and Austin as well, the latter of which Commodore Moore personally put down; executing four Marines and flogging several more sailors on the eve of the Battle of Campeche. The San Jacinto was wrecked in 1840 on the Cayos Arcas west of Campeche and the San Bernard was beached near Galveston and later transferred and sold by the U.S. Navy. San Antonio was lost at sea with all hands on a diplomatic mission to the Yucatán sometime in September of 1842, its whereabouts are still unknown as of 2019. The Zavala was scrapped in 1843 after the damage it incurred on the Tabasco River expedition in 1840 proved too numerous and therefore costly to fix.

Actions of Commodore Moore's flotilla, 1840-1843

In late April of 1843, Commodore Moore took his now depleted squadron back to the sea in order to aid the Republic of Yucatán. His flotilla consisted of the Austin, Wharton, and a small Yucatán gunboat squadron, including the Sisaleno, commanded by the French Captain LeRoy. Commander Lothrop, former captain of the San Jacinto and the Zavala in the Tabasco Expedition, was given command of the Wharton. From April 30 to May 16, 1843, the Texian Navy fought its largest and well remembered battle at the Naval Battle of Campeche against the Mexican navy squadron led by Commodore Tomas Marin. Commodore Marin's flotilla was comprised of the Moctezuma, Aguila, Mexicano, and Guadalupe, amongst several other ships.

The Battle of Campeche was stagnant for nearly the first two weeks as the small Texas flotilla and their wily commander looked for favorable winds to outmaneuver the heavily armed Mexican squadron led by the armored flagships the Guadalupe and Moctezuma. The guns began firing at 7:35 on the morning of April 30th, the Guadalupe and Moctezuma's Paixhans overshooting the Texas flotilla from some distance in their opening salvo. When they were close enough for their long range guns, the Wharton and Austin fired sporadically, careful to stay out the immediate distance of the devastating Mexcian Paixhans. Unfavorable winds brought the battle to halt from May 7 to the 16th. Moore used this time to outfit both of his ships with long range guns loaned from the fortifications at Sisal.

The Austin at Campeche, 1843

On the final day of the Battle of Campeche, after 11am the Wharton hit the Guadalupe with a lucky shot and destroyed its flagstaff though both the Texian ships were now at the mercy of the Mexicans guns, who nonetheless missed many shots and fired with relatively poor accuracy. At one point in the in the battle as the Wharton trailed behind, its small guns essentially useless, Moore’s flagship charged the Mexican squadron, firing maybe dozens of broadsides in between the ships before chasing the Mexican ships towards the coast, breaking off in a feigned retreat.  The ships traded shots for several hours before the Mexican squadron began to separate. By 3pm on May 16, the battle was over. The Mexican navy fled with their crews decimated by both disease and cannon fire whilst the "pirates" aboard the Wharton and Austin counted their dead, cared for their wounded, and celebrated a steadfast victory.

Moctezuma’s British Captain had died of tropical fever as had dozens of other British sailors during the battle, and it's reasonable to believe that the Mexican navy squadron at Campeche suffered well over 60-100+ casualties due to Texian shells alone. Five Texas navy sailors and marines were killed and 21 wounded, including several who had to have their legs amputated. The Wharton had only minor damage, firing just 65 rounds during the engagement. The ships only casualty was due to friendly fire. The Austin had taken twelve major hits off Campeche, it’s starboard side and the rigging veritably destroyed by a couple of direct Paixhan hits, whilst firing 530 rounds against the Mexican squadron during the engagement. [Jordan, Lone Star Navy]

Campeche was a very important battle for several reasons. Historically it is remembered as yet another improbable victory in the annals of Texas military history. Arguably, it saved the Texas Republic yet again from a greater Mexican intervention by land or sea just as the First Texas Navy had done in March and April of 1836. Campeche certainly checked Mexican naval power in the Gulf, assuring that a large scale amphibious invasion of Texas would never be mounted while also aiding the Republic of Yucatán, who would not return to the Mexican federal government until 1848. There certainly can be some debate whether the battle was a draw or an outright Texian victory as the Mexicans celebrated the battle as a victory as well. The Naval Battle of Campeche is most notable for being perhaps the only battle in history in which wooden ships defeated armored steamers and for being the first battle in naval history in which explosive Paixhan shells were used by naval vessels. Samuel Colt later immortalized Campeche on every one of the over 250,000 Colt 1851 “Navy” pistols that were made in his Hartford, Connecticut factories.

Conclusion

The fall of the Texas Navy was swift following the Battle of Campeche. What followed was the dismissal and court martial of Commodore Moore, 1843-1845. Charged with treason, murder, and piracy, Moore was dishonorably discharged on these trumped up (except piracy) charges levied at him by President Houston. Most Naval officers resigned in protest and within a year the last ships of the Texas fleet were put up for auction in Galveston; though patriotic citizens refused to buy them or let them be sold. Following the annexation of Texas to the United States in 1846, the last remains of the Texian Navy were transferred to the U.S. Navy, the poorly kept fleet of the Wharton, San Bernard, and Archer, were soon sold by the naval department for several hundred dollars. Commodore Moore was eventually cleared of the charges though he had to fight for over ten years to gain compensation for his service and debts incurred in the service of the Republic of Texas Navy from the now state of Texas and the U.S. Government.

Though small in number of ships, led by mostly immigrant sailors, privateers, midshipmen, and mercenaries, the Texian Navy performed admirably during and after the Texas Revolution, playing a critical role in the “cold war” period with Mexico 1837-1843. The Texas Navy and its sailors showed incredible pluck and resilience, as sailors have been want to do from Trafalgar, to Hampton Roads, and Midway. Several excellent books are available on the subject of the Texas Navy, including the Fighting Texas Navy 1832-1843, by journalist and historian, Douglas V. Meed, and Lone Star Navy: Texas, The Fight for the Gulf of Mexico, & The Shaping of the American West by Jonathan W. Jordan (see below). Jordan sums it up best, “[their success helped establish] the Texas Navy’s reputation as an effective, semi-piratical force that made Mexico’s supplier think twice before shipping goods across the Gulf.”


Suggested Further Reading


Lone Star Navy: Texas, The Fight for the Gulf of Mexico, & The Shaping of the American West By: Jonathan W. Jordan (Potomac Books, 2006)



Uniforms of the Republic of Texas And the Men Who Wore Them 1836-1846, Illustrated and written by Bruce Marshall (Schiffer Military History, 1999)

2/25/16

Book Review: Redeye: Fulda Cold, A Novel By Bill Fortin

Redeye: Fulda Cold, A Rick Fontain Novel. Written By Bill Fortin, 2013, (Cold War Publications, June, 2015). Available in print or as an eBook.

Fortin's Redeye: Fulda Cold

Redeye: Fulda Cold is author Bill Fortin’s military history novel detailing events during the Cold War 1969-1970. FIM-43 Redeye designed by General Dynamics from 1959-1967, lends its name and iconography to this exciting and personal military history fiction story filled with action-adventure, Cold War military intrigue/tactics & strategy, and the everyday high and lows of military life. As this novel depicts, the Cold War was not so stagnant for the men and women who served on both sides of the conflict during the 1960’s-1980’s. Throughout this story the reader follows Sgt. Rick Fontain, call sign Sparrow6, of the HHC 1st/48th Infantry Brigade stationed in West Germany as he leads the “Redeye” Fire Team at the Fulda Gap, the strategic bridge between East and West at the height of the Cold War the late 1960’s.

US Airborne Soldier with a FIM-43 "Redeye"

Fortin most certainly utilized his own experience stationed in Germany from 1968-1970 (the same time frame that the book takes place), in the Army’s 3rd Armor Division, in writing this book. More than 260 and citations and footnotes give the reader a great influx of definitions and explanations of various military procedures, jargon, historical notes of importance, and the author's own observations. This novel rectifies many similar works by other authors which often lack background material on the relating subject, Redeye: Fuld Cold War offers the reader a varied but complete and engaging work of historical military fiction. Through Sgt. Fontain’s eyes the reader sees the stark reality of danger (MAD) faced by the military forces of both sides during the Cold War.

We travel with Fontain throughout his training, personal, and military life, depicted in daily journals and memos which are mostly cleverly written; visiting a multitude of foreign and domestic armed forces bases. The two most important being Fort Bliss, Texas, and the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), New Mexico, basic training and live fire testing for Redeye gunners respectfully. Private First Class (PFC) and eventually Sergeant Fontain quickly learns the weapon system’s intricacies despite the steep learning curve and is soon after posted to Germany, where the reader is treated to a well written story line overall and plenty of military action along the way.

US Army Test of XMIM-43A, precusor to the Redeye used by Sgt. Fontain

In the early stages of research and development the “kill probability” of FIM-43 Redeye tested very high against drones and enemy helicopters but much lower against Russian MiG 22/23’s and comparable jet aircraft. Eventually however the Redeye does see real world service with the Dutch and West German armies as allies of the U.S. Armed Forces in Europe, in Nicaragua in the 1980’s during their civil war, and in Afghanistan where the mujahideen used them to shoot down dozens of Soviet aircraft (mostly helicopters) in the late 1970’s and early 80’s.

Fortin’s novel is highly recommended to anyone looking for a easy reading, thorough, and thoroughly engaging Cold War history novel that is not at all espionage or spy related. This story may interest those who would like to learn more about hand held surface-to-air technology and its first applications, Cold War military doctrine and procedures, or for those who just want to read an engaging and fictional but informative U.S. military chronicle.