Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Broken noses, heroes, Pearl Harbor

John Shaw was just another Irisher who set out for America and found a far better life than he could have imagined.

Born in 1773 at Mountmellick (Móinteach Mílic), County Laois, in east-central Ireland, Shaw came to America in 1790 as a lad of 17. He settled in Philadelphia and joined the merchant marine.

He was appointed Lieutenant in the US Navy in 1798, and his first assignment was to the USS Montezuma, a converted cargo ship in Commodore Thomas Truxtun’s squadron in the West Indies during the early part of the Quasi-War with France. The 350 ton trans-Atlantic merchant ship mounted 20 nine-pounder cannon and had a crew of 180. Shaw saw considerable action, and did well enough to gain his own command, the USS Enterprise, a 14-gun brig-rigged schooner.

Shaw fought the Enterprise against French privateers in the Caribbean for more than a year, protecting United States merchantmen. During that period, Enterprise captured eight privateers and liberated 11 American vessels from captivity. The ship's fame was such that she was one of only 14 ships retained in the Navy after 1900.

The name Enterprise has been continuously on the rolls of the Navy, having served eight ships since 1775. Today's Enterprise is a nuclear aircraft carrier (CVN-65) home ported at Norfolk, Virginia.

To honor the plucky Irishman, two destroyers were later named for him, USS Shaw (DD-68) and USS Shaw (DD-373). In an odd coincidence, both destroyers lost their bows in action but were repaired and continued to serve, each fighting actively in a World War.

The first USS Shaw (DD-68) was a Sampson class destroyer which fought in a pair of convoy actions in World War I. In early October, 1918, while escorting a convoy southwest of England, she suffered a jammed rudder and was struck by the huge liner Aquitania (at 46,000 tons, she was as big as the Titanic). The collision ripped off 90 feet of the Shaw’s bow, mangled the bridge, and set her afire. Though 12 sailors were killed in the accident, Shaw’s heroic crew managed to save their little four-piper. She made Portsmouth under her own power, received temporary repairs, then returned to the US for permanent repairs at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. She was decommissioned in 1922, but transferred to the US Coast Guard in 1926, where she served on the rum patrol until the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933. She was returned to the Navy but stricken in 1934 and scrapped.

The second USS Shaw (DD-373) was a Mahan-class destroyer. Commissioned on September 18, 1936, she was a fairly new ship when she entered a floating dry dock at Pearl Harbor for hull work in late November, 1941.

Struck by three bombs when the Japanese attacked on December 7, her forward magazines exploded, producing perhaps the most spectacular series of photographs made during the raid.

The USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes in dry dock during the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Photo credit U.S. Naval Historical Center, in the public domain.
When the smoke began to clear, the carnage in the dry dock was terrible. The formerly sleek and beautiful ship was now an awful mess, her bow seemingly gone from the bridge forward, and much of her interior burned out. But a spark of life remained in the ship; her keel, protected by the flooded dry dock, was sound and true, and her boilers, turbines and running gear were all intact.

With all US battleships out of action, every ship became a vital asset, and Shaw was no exception. She received temporary repairs in Hawaii, then sailed to Mare Island at San Francisco for a new bow and completion of repairs. By August, 1942, she was better than new. She returned to Pearl Harbor and rejoined the war. She escorted convoys and fought in the Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Marianas and Philippine campaigns, earning 11 Battle Stars. She was decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1946.

There were more than enough heroes to go around on that “Day of Infamy” in December, 1941. Peter Tomich was a Chief Watertender stationed on the battleship USS Utah (BB-31).

Born in 1893 in the tiny village of  Prolog in Austria-Hungary (present day Bosnia-Herzegovina), he came to America in about 1910. He was drafted and served in the US Army during WWI, then joined the Navy in 1919.

When the Utah was bombed and torpedoed on December 7, she began to capsize. Tomich remained at his station in the boiler room to secure the boilers and help his shipmates escape. His actions cost him his life and earned the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor. The medal was never presented because none of Tomich’s family could be located. It remained in storage over the years.

To close the circle on this story of broken noses, devastating attacks, and heroic immigrant Americans, Tomich’s family was finally presented with the medal aboard the modern-day USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 2006, 64 years after his heroic deed.

It's easy to forget that America has always represented a wonderful dream to people around the globe. John Shaw and Peter Tomich are only two examples of “foreigners” who came to the states with air in their pockets and made not only themselves, but their new country, a far better place.

During this first week of December, 2011, when we remember the attack of 70 years ago, it’s a good time to remember what the opening phrase of the US Constitution, “We the People,” really means.

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