Archive for the 'world war II' Tag

Ho Chi Minh & Company

As the U.S. considers directly arming rebels in Syria, it would do well to heed the lessons of history and examine the positive, negative, and almost entirely unpredictable outcomes of such efforts. History is replete with such lessons including not only the obvious parallels to arming of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan but also the original story of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In September 1940, the Japanese took control of French Indochina which had, during the Second World War, been governed by the Vichy government in France. To the north was pre-Maoist China, with Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces working with the U.S. military. General Claire Chennault’s 14th Air Force was based in Kunming, China, along with the area’s headquarters for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS.) The head of OSS, Major General William Donovan, was a highly decorated veteran of the first World War. When it came to Indochina, his direction to the base in Kunming was clear: “use anyone who will work with us against the Japanese, but do not become involved in French-Indochinese politics.”

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He didn’t set out to make history. Joining the Navy just seemed like a good way out of the racist South. But fate and circumstance deposited Lanier Phillips on the frigid coast of Newfoundland when his ship, USS Truxtun (DD-229), ran aground in a vicious storm in 1942. As one of few African-American crewmembers, he was the only one of his fellow mess attendants to abandon ship. They were afraid to go ashore for fear of being lynched. But Phillips took his chances and jumped aboard a life boat. Beached at the base of terrifying cliffs that looked impossible to breach, Phillips and 45 other survivors had no choice but to wait for rescue or die of hypothermia.

Much to this desperate group’s dismay, a team of enterprising Newfoundlanders from the small village of St. Lawrence repelled down the cliffs, hauled the men up and proceeded to nurse them back to health – including Phillips. In working to wash and warm up the men, the villagers were convinced the oil that coated the shipwrecked survivors had seeped into Phillips’ skin. Wounded, frozen and helpless, Phillips was terrified to identify himself as a black man, but he had no choice.

Despite having never seen a black person, they treated him just as well as the other surviving crewmembers. Indeed, the Newfoundlanders treated him like family: giving him their beds in which to recuperate, feeding him like a child and personally nursing him back to health. They gave him the best care they knew how to give. “Not only did they save my life,” Phillips said, “they gave me a sense of value I had never had before.” As he described the experience, being treated as an equal encouraged him to start acting like an equal. He returned home, vowing to challenge the Navy’s prejudice and to return the kindness he had experienced in Newfoundland.

From that point forward, he was emboldened and determined to be in the vanguard of the civil rights movement. He wanted to challenge himself and to resist the professional barriers that were in front of him. He became the first African-American Navy sonar technician – despite his lack of higher education. He marched with Dr. King. He worked on the ALVIN deep-water submersible team and with the pioneer of undersea exploration, Jacques Cousteau, on the development of deep sea lamp technology.

And he made good on his promise to the villagers in Newfoundland. He started a scholarship program for the residents and built a playground for the town’s families. Until his health started to deteriorate, he traveled extensively to tell his story and spread the word about the good and kind people of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland. He is their de facto ambassador. “Whatever I can do for St. Lawrence is not enough. They changed my entire philosophy on life.” I’m sure he changed theirs, too.

On September 15 in Washington, D.C., the United States Navy Memorial will honor Lanier Phillips with the Lone Sailor Award, along with entertainer Bill Cosby and former Washington Redskin and Dallas Cowboy Eddie LeBaron. Cosby served in the Navy and LeBaron served in the Marine Corps. Learn more about the Award, the honorees and the Awards Ceremony at and

Lanier Phillips in his Navy uniform.

We’re always told that life is short and we should appreciate each and every day we have on this earth. But, sometimes we are reminded that a lifetime can be very long, and that the daily stresses of our lives today will eventually fade into a distant memory. Spending some time at retirement home, especially one that cares for veterans, reinforces that lesson.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home is a pastoral oasis nestled in the heart of urban D.C. It has a storied past that dates back to 1851, when it was established as the “U.S. Military Asylum” in what was then a rural area of Washington, D.C. Among its historic buildings is a cottage that was used by President Lincoln as a summer getaway. But some of the best stories at the Home come from its residents. This week, the oldest one celebrated his 105th birthday. Navy Chief Steward Lorenzo Senires, who was born on August 10, 1905, was joined at a ceremony attended by his sons, grandchildren and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick West, as well as a team of Seabees who were on hand to dedicate a ship’s anchor they recently planted on the grounds of the Home. Lauding this Navy veteran’s longevity, the story of his life was recounted by David Watkins, director of the Home’s Washington campus. A Philippine immigrant who came to the U.S. as a stowaway on a cruise ship, Senires was hired by an American housewife to be a “houseboy” for her. Her husband, a naval officer, was either overtly or obliquely influential because Senires enlisted in the Navy in 1926. He failed his first medical entrance exam because he did not weigh at least 100 pounds.

Chief Steward Lorenzo Senires

Senires served under Adm. John McCain on USS Nitro (AE-2) 1932-33 and says that he voted for Senator McCain for president because he had so much respect for his grandfather. He also served on USS Indianapolis (CA-35) before Pearl Harbor and lost many shipmates when the ship was sunk several years later. He was later assigned as a steward to a naval officer in Washington, D.C., and remained there for the majority of World War II. Senires obviously made a strong professional impression during this stint, as his son Dave Senires recalls his dad telling him that he later spent some time working for President Truman, fishing with him on the presidential yacht Sequoia and at Truman’s “Little White House” in Key West.

For those of us who have lived for less than a century, centenarians like Senires give us some perspective on our own lives. Think about how much change he has seen in his life: World War I and World War II, Pearl Harbor and 9-11, the advent of flight, computers, changes in race relations, the women’s movement, rock ‘n’ roll – the list is endless. What does it feel like to look back on a century of living? Senires is a bit hard of hearing now, but seems to have most of his faculties and certainly has retained his sense of humor – something many elderly people say is the key to surviving old age. When his son asked him what he wanted for his birthday, he answered unequivocally that he wanted a young woman and his driver’s license.

Lorenzo Senires, his family and Navy Seabees at the Armed Forces Retirement Home on Senires' 105th birthday.

I visited Norway last summer and was struck by the unanimous kindness of every single Norwegian I met. It was truly remarkable that every stranger on the street, behind the counter and in the next seat was friendly, helpful and politely deferential to me and my fellow traveling companions. It was amazing. So it was not surprising to me to read a true story about a Norwegian resistance fighter in World War II who was saved from capture and certain death – solely by the kindness of Norwegian strangers.

Norwegian exile Jan Baalsrud volunteered for a military mission in World War II that had only a small chance of success. And all 12 of the men who volunteered with him knew that failure meant a certain death. They were tasked with sailing from northern England to Nazi-occupied Norway to train resistance fighters and stage resistance operations in-country – behind enemy lines. The most challenging and dangerous part of the operation was the landing. Unfortunately, their cover as fishermen was blown and they were ambushed by the Nazis. Jan was the only survivor and his harrowing tale of surviving, foiling the Nazis and crossing to neutral territory in Sweden on foot is the stuff of legends. But, his story is all true.

Despite being shot at and chased by a small army of Nazis, he evaded capture on the coast by enlisting the help of some village children who stumbled onto his worn out body. Amazingly, the children and their family took him in and revived him – much to their own peril. This family was the first of many who risked their lives to save his and to ensure his safe crossing to Sweden. Each of several families would patch him up, stuff provisions in his pockets and send him on his way – until he became incapacitated and had to be carried.

Frostbitten and snowblind by an avalanche, he literally stumbled into a house of Norwegians who happened to be friendly to the resistance movement. This family hid him in a remote cabin and then physically carried him on a gurney up a mountain to be passed off to another group of resistance fighters who lived in the village on the other side of the mountain plateau. Through a variety of circumstances, he was forced to remain on the plateau for more than a month, while the weather improved and an adequate team could be assembled to transport the crippled Jan to Sweden. His stories of self-amputation in order to prevent gangrene from killing him, abating his hunger and warding off severe depression during this period of isolation in the wintry tundra are unfathomable. But, his survival could never have happened without the good Samaritans and Norwegian “neighbors” he encountered on his journey. It reminded me of the Underground Railroad in our own country, although I wonder if the risk to the Railroad hosts was as high as it was during World War II. Resistance fighters who were discovered by the Nazis were swiftly sent to concentration camps, tortured and killed. After meeting so many Norwegians from a variety of backgrounds last summer, I am not surprised by their daring attempt to save him and transport him to safety.

We Die Alone was first published in 1955 by a World War II veteran who ran a spy ring, David Howarth. A prolific writer of more than two dozen books, he died in 1991. The book was reprinted in 1999 with an introduction by Stephen Ambrose, which undoubtedly gave the book a bit more notoriety and reintroduced this unbelievable story of pluck, determination and survival to a new audience. But why isn’t Jan Baalsrud’s survival story more well known?

Sumatra at sea in English waters, May 1940

Sumatra at sea in English waters, May 1940

If you are a World War II history buff, the Royal Netherlands Navy Warships of World War II is a web site that might be of interest to you. 

I stumbled upon this outstanding site while thumbing through the bibliography of Vincent P. O’Hara’s The U.S. Navy Against the Axis.

Royal Netherlands Navy Warships of World War II is the project of Jan Visser, an IT auditor in the Netherlands. 

I urge you to check it out. Plenty of photos and ships’ histories about one of our Allies…



December 2008


Welcome to the Naval Institute blog

Sixty-five years later and with emotions still raw, Wilbur Wright fights to maintain control as he recalls his personal experience on board the USS Ogala at Pearl Harbor the day after the Japanese attack: