"A sketchbook is a secret thing, a collection of unfinished and often times abandoned ideas never intended for public consumption—at least not in their current state. It’s a private space for honing one’s craft and workshopping, separating good ideas from those best left unexplored." -Brian Heater at The Daily Cross Hatch.

29 October 2010

Work Doodles



Didn't get a lot of sleep last night, so by mid-afternoon I felt like the walking dead. I had a bit of free-time, and once secured from view, I commenced to doodle.

You'll notice a couple of Guernsey sweaters in there. Being a traditional sailors garment dating back to the 18th century as a uniform item for the Royal Navy, they're made out of "oiled wool", presumably for it's water resistant property. I just ordered one- didn't get the traditional Navy blue version, but Desert Rat-ecru. (Can't have all of my clothing looking like Navy surplus). Hopefully it'll get across the pond soon, because it feels like the snow is getting ready to fly up here.

On the lower right-hand corner is an image inspired by this passage from John Dos Passos' "1919":
"Joe Williams put on the secondhand suit and dropped his uniform with a cobblestone wrapped up in it, off the edge of the dock into the muddy water of the basin...he walked slowly out to the beacon and watched the fleet in formation steaming down the River Plate. The day was overcast; the lean cruisers soon blurred into their trailing smokesmudges." 

Having crapped out while reading "Manhattan Transfer", I'm only reading the "Joe Williams" chapters of 1919 (I'm skipping the "camera eye" parts and everything else) so I'm having a great time with it. I'm also rationing it out. I don't want to finish it quickly.

Joe is a great archetypal sailor- his life follows a pattern- he goes out to sea- eventually gets fed up with it- comes back to the beach and tries to get a straight job. But the pull of life at sea is always too irresistible and he always ships out again. The scene above describes his desertion from the Navy in the beginning of the book. Someday I'd like to make that an illustration...apologies to Reginald Marsh.

24 October 2010

Troubled Water


"If you doubt for one moment that I understand your problems, if you doubt for one moment that I am a sincere black man..."...He could see the contempt in their eyes, the way they looked at him with disgust and scepticism.
                With a sudden burst of resolve, Cloud reached down to a man...and took his weapon, a heavy piece of steel...
"The first man in this crowd that for one moment does not believe my sincerity, I hold this weapon and I bare my back for you to take this weapon and beat me into submission right here!"
...Cloud stood there for a moment, the weapon held high, his heart racing and his lungs heaving, wondering if one of the sailors would suddenly charge. He knew that if one man attacked, the whole crowd was likely to follow and he would die an agonizing death, right there on the deck of the Kitty Hawk, at the hands of his own men. -From "Troubled Water: Race, Mutiny and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk"  by Gregory A. Freeman

One thing I love about a good sea story is that it takes you away from your troubles. It doesn't put your mind on your money woes. It doesn't make you think about politics, health care or "the education crisis". It doesn't make you think about anything real, like military policy in Afghanistan, transnational Takfirist terrorism , or our ascendant peer-competitor, China. It doesn't make you think about anything too aggravating.
"Troubled Water " by Gregory A. Freeman is exactly the opposite of that kind of sea story.
This book cuts to the core of one of America's most turbulent times- the early 1970's, when the anti-war and civil rights violence of the 1960's was still fresh in the American consciousness. In 1972 Vietnam was still raging- even though American troops had been reduced by 2/3 from their peak- and ships like the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk were still sending in sortie after sortie over Vietnam.
It is often said that an aircraft carrier, due to the size of its manpower (5000 men) is a microcosm of American society- nothing could be truer here. "Troubled Water" details a "perfect storm" of 60's angst (the draft, racism, drugs, radicalism, anti-war sentiment) ,  the decline of military discipline and the strain of an incredibly long, extended deployment aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.
                Gregory Freeman writes that in the early 1970's race riots, radical activism and sabotage against military equipment- especially anything headed to Vietnam- were increasing in frequency within the US military. Aboard the Kitty Hawk anger over real and perceived racial incidents fueled an explosive atmosphere which erupted as the Kitty Hawk  cut short a much needed port call in Subic Bay to head back to Yankee Station.  Still tense over a racial incident which evolved into a riot in Subic, many (but not all) African-American crew members aboard the Kitty Hawk became worked up to the point where they picked up improvised weapons (everything from fog foam nozzles to tie-down wrenches) and started roaming through the ship severely beating any white sailors they came across- including those in showers, their racks or in sick bay- which was assaulted en masse several times throughout the night. Some sailors were beaten so seriously that they had to be medevac'd into Vietnam for treatment.
                On the military side of things, the book is a study in the failure of the unity of command. The riot evolved slowly and sporadically. Information was spotty, and communication between the Captain, the XO (LCDR Benjamin Cloud pictured above) and the officer of the Marine detachment, was non-existent during the crux of the violence.  So naturally, rumors flew and panic mounted. Officers were missing or not at their appropriate stations. Orders were given and countermanded over the 1MC. No plan had been created for this contingency, so none was implemented. Chaos and confusion reigned aboard the Kitty Hawk.  During the heat of the riot, some African-American crewmen voiced their intent to take over the Kitty Hawk and sail it to San Diego.
Mutiny you say? Definitely not, says the Navy. Since they were unsuccessful I think this only qualifies as an "attempted mutiny". Still- the Navy downplayed and buried the incident- as did the other services. "Chickens coming home to roost" after a couple hundred years of slavery, segregation and racist violence perpetrated against African-Americans? You can make up your own mind about that.
There's a lot more I'd like to say about "Troubled Water". Robert McNamara's Project 100,000 was also a factor in the Kitty Hawk riots, but time does not permit to muse on this anymore tonight. If you were in the military around this time, or have any reminiscences about racial incidents during the Vietnam War-era, please leave them in the comments.

09 October 2010

The Battle of the Atlantic: Hell and High Water



"...for it was the weather that was the most violent enemy of all. For eight days they steamed straight into a westerly gale: five hundred miles at a grindingly slow pace, buffeting through a weight of wind that seemed to have a personal spite in every blow it dealt." -Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea.

It was the logistics train that saved Europe. From 1939-1945, lightly armed, newly built Liberty Ships  and an array of Allied (mostly British and Commonwealth)  naval vessels with air support constituted the "sinews of war" that brought gas, guns, food, ammunition and everything else a ground army needs to win, to the shores of Britain, Africa, North Russia and then later, continental Europe.

German Admiral Karl Donitz identified the logistics lines across the North Atlantic as the center of gravity for the Allied war effort against the Third Reich.  He then set about to sever them. U-Boats hunted the Allied merchant ships in groups called Wolf Packs and sent 36,200 Allied civilian and military sailors to their deaths. My Great-Uncle (an engine room snipe) was one of them. U-482 put two torpedoes into the side of his bulk-fuel carrier, the SS Jacksonville, 50 miles north of Londonderry. Two men survived, only because they were topside.

But the U-Boats weren't the only enemy. The weather and sea conditions also tormented the Allied crews as we can see in another passage from The Cruel Sea (whose author lived it, by the way):

"Aboard Compass Rose conditions were indescribable. She rolled furiously, with a tireless malice allowing no rest for anyone. Cooking was impossible...Everything was wet through: some water had come down a ventilator and flooded the wardroom: forward, the mess-decks were a crowded hell of saturated clothes, spare gear washing around their feet, food overturned- and all the time the noise, the groaning slamming violence of a small ship fighting a monstrous sea. Compass Rose caught in a storm that could take hold of her bodily and shake her till the very rivets loosened: a storm that raged and screamed at her until they were in the shelter of land again: Compass Rose adrift on a malignant ocean, seemed doomed to ride it together."

The Cruel Sea is full of passages like that. U-Boats aside, it is a testament to the skill and the emotional endurance of those sailors that they went through horrendous conditions like that, day in and day out for 6 years, all the while being hunted by submariners of the German war machine.

Technological advances made dominance in the Battle of the Atlantic go back and forth. Radar and sonar were a great boon to the Allies, but then the German schnorkel and the acoustic torpedo swung the balance back momentarily. In the end, it was the compromise of the German Enigma code that many historians credit with giving the Allies the best success in hunting, finding and killing German submarines. There were a plethora of other stratagems such as the convoy system and the coordination of air and sea power that drove the rest of the nails into the coffin of the U-Boat service of the Kreigsmarine.

But again, I think we have to give the most credit to human endurance in the face of "wrath of god"-style weather that enabled the Allies to succeed in the Battle of the Atlantic.

"...he...felt the gale whipping and tearing at his face...Compass Rose lurching under his feet as if the world itself were drunk, it was with a body from which every instinct save dumb endurance had been drained...the water crashed and thudded against their side, and the wind howled at them out of the blackness as if it had a conscious intention of terror. Round them there was nothing but a waste of sea, a livid grey whipped up here and there to white foam; and then beyond it, like a threatening wall, the surrounding dark, the chaos and  flurry of the night."