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The night of December 7, 1941, I was on a train bound for Washington. Early next morning found me camping on the doorstep of the Navy Department, seeking to be reenrolled in the Navy for active service.
After nearly thirty years in the regular Navy and in the Naval Reserve, I was a civilian at that moment. I had the year before resigned my commission as Commander in the Naval Reserve that I might be free to speak for armament against the Axis without compromising the then official efforts of the Government to preserve its neutrality, which involved situation need not be gone into here.
Being just over fifty and therefore in that physical group whose services were, to put it mildly, not much sought after, I was not in a very good position to get the chance I craved to hit back at the Axis, now that war had started, with something more than words.
Fortunately for me, on that Monday morning of December 8, 1941, Admiral Robinson, Chief of the Bureau of Ships, shocked by the reports pouring in of the wreck that Japanese bombs and aerial torpedoes had made of our battleships in Pearl Harbor, decided that regardless of age, any former officer versed in salvage might still be useful. So on his flat order to that effect and to expedite matters, escorted by my classmate, Captain Rosendahl of lighter-than-air fame, I was soon circulating through various offices, medical and otherwise, on my way towards being sworn in again as an officer of the Navy.
Here came a technical hitch. I had last resigned from the Navy as a commander, which rank had been bestowed on me some years before by special act of Congress as a reward for earlier salvage efforts. But under the law, no one coming from civil life could be first enrolled in the Navy in a higher rank than that of lieutenant commander. Would I take that lesser rank, or did I prefer to wait a possible change in the law, now that we were actually at war?
So far as I was concerned, with that burden of my fifty years weighting down my chances, I was willing to take any rank which offered a possibility for an active part in helping to roll Hitler, Hirohito, et al. into the gutter. Before any red tape experts might have opportunity to tie knots in Admiral Robinson's orders, I said, "Yes, any rank at all."
So before the gloomiest day the Navy Department had ever witnessed came to its close, I was sworn into the service again. For the fourth time in my naval career I became a lieutenant commander, which rank I had first temporarily achieved in my youth in World War I, nearly a quarter of a century before.
I took the oath amidst a flood of disastrous confidential reports pouring in from Hawaii on the haggard top command: "Battleship Arizona completely destroyed by magazine explosion under bomb attack." As an ensign long years before, I had assisted at the Arizona's launching. "Nevada sunk." Well I remembered her first commissioning. "West Virginia sunk." I had taken part in her first trials. "California sunk." "Oklahoma capsized and sunk." "Tennessee badly damaged, blazing from bow to stern." As a lieutenant, years before, I had helped build the Tennessee and had ridden that superdreadnought down the ways on her first dip into the sea.
Only Pearl Harbor itself, cluttered with the sunken hulks of torpedoed battleships and with the skies blotted out under a pall of smoke rising from the blazing hulks of those bombed warships still afloat, was a more dismal spot than the Navy Department as I held up my right hand and somberly swore to defend the United States against all its enemies. With a global war tossed suddenly into its unready lap, with its major fleet a funeral pyre for my old shipmates, now treacherously slaughtered, the United States had enemies enough on every sea to warrant the gloom on each face, from admiral to ensign, I saw about me there in Washington.
What next for me? An odd situation immediately developed. The obvious assignment for anyone as a salvage officer was Pearl Harbor. But by a freak, there was in Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning of December 7, a senior salvage officer of the Navy on his way by air to the Middle East, due that very morning to continue his journey by Clipper westward to the Red Sea. Naturally enough, the Clipper, in the face of a sky full of Japanese bombers, had not taken off. And the Navy with one of its few experienced salvage officers providentially on the spot, hastily canceled by radio his orders to the Middle East and assigned him the sunken mass of wrecks still blazing all over Pearl Harbor.
But that reassignment left what the day before had been the Navy's major salvage problem, hanging in the air. It was into this vacuum, so to speak, that I had thrust myself as a volunteer for active service, and the task was promptly offered me.
Would I go to the Red Sea, where the greatest mass of wrecks in the world (not excluding Pearl Harbor) then lay? Or, considering my age, might I prefer a colder climate, Iceland, where a much smaller but still important salvage problem due to U-boat warfare existed and would, no doubt, grow?
I chose the Red Sea.CHAPTER 2
The next few weeks were hectic ones. While what scant resources the Navy and the nation had in the way of divers, equipment, and repair materials were being rushed to California for work at Pearl Harbor, I had to organize a salvage force to go to the Middle East. There were now no salvage ships available for my task. There were no divers, there was no salvage personnel, there was no equipment.
To top off all, I learned there was a further handicap. As the project had been originally authorized while the country had been at war with nobody, it had been laid out under Lend-lease conditions. The intention was to have the work done, not by men in the armed forces of the United States, thus compromising our neutrality, but by civilians hired by a civilian contractor under naval direction for the salvage work.
This particular task was part only of a gigantic Lend-lease operation. Under overall Army supervision, civilian contractors and their employees were to cover the entire Middle East with airfields, ordnance depots, and support bases, both land and sea. These were intended originally to back up British arms afloat, ashore, and in the air, in their desperate struggle in the Libyan Desert to throw back Rommel and the combined German-Italian effort to isolate Russia from the world on its southern border, to lay India and the East open to Axis land attack from the west.
Now with Japan assaulting from the opposite side and threatening to form a junction through rebellious India with its Axis partners, the strategic importance of the area suddenly was intensified enormously. But with what slight forces we had under MacArthur already facing overwhelming Japanese strength in the Philippines, with the British and Dutch empires in the Far East crumbling like houses of cards, and with our fleet battered into impotence at Pearl Harbor, the situation had undergone a sharp transformation. Dazed Washington awoke suddenly to the bitter realization that it was unable to furnish to the Middle East the men and materials it had so confidently contracted, out of its seeming abundance, to supply short weeks before.
Under these conditions, we of' the Middle East project were ordered to proceed as before laid out, with civilian personnel, in spite of all the drawbacks involved in their use under war conditions. In the holocaust which had so unexpectedly enveloped us, our trifling existing armed forces, whether on sea or land, were already being mobilized to save Hawaii and even America itself from threatened invasion.
We did the best we could. Under the overall direction of Major General Russell Maxwell already in Egypt (who commanded the entire project and to whom I was ordered to report for duty), those involved, both Army and Navy, proceeded to gather up what scraps they could obtain for the work in hand.
My part got under way under particularly depressing circumstances. I was informed by the Navy Department that other than my own assignment, the Navy was in no position now to lend aid to the Middle East task. No other naval officers, trained or untrained in salvage, were available for assignment to me as assistants. No naval enlisted personnel, salvage or otherwise, were available for detail then, nor were any to be expected later. For help, if any, I must look to the Army, where naturally enough it did not exist, or to such civilians as I might hire before the Navy, badly pressed itself for salvage men, snapped them up for its own overwhelming problems.
In the Navy Department I was handed my orders. I was directed to report in Egypt to General Maxwell, commanding the North African Mission, to act as Officer in Charge of the Red Sea salvage operations and as Commanding Officer of such naval bases as might be established there. With that piece of paper as the solitary aid the Navy was able to lend then or ever to the project, I left the Navy Department and reported myself to the Army for duty.
One thing only lightened the gloom of my complete lack of any naval assistance. Rear Admiral Bruce, giving me my orders, informed me that in view of the importance of my double assignment, the Navy Department was promoting me immediately to my former rank of commander. This, he thought, might help me somewhat in my dealings both with the Army and with the British, where, no less than in the Navy itself, rank was not wholly ignored.
What was intended? I learned quickly enough from my Army associates in the Mission. Prime Minister Churchill, master of Allied strategy, had put his finger on the Middle East as the crucial area in this war.
There a century and a half ago, Napoleon, in an earlier effort to make himself ruler of the world, had sought to crash through Egypt and Syria to India until Admiral Lord Nelson had crushed his fleet and his hopes at Aboukir Bay. There in World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Turks combined had sought the same object till stopped by Lawrence in Arabia and Allenby in Palestine. There Hitler and Mussolini now, with their joint forces under Rommel, ace commander and military idol of the totalitarians, were preparing to drive eastward through Libya toward Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the overland route to India and the East.
Britain, already strained to the breaking point by Dunkirk and the aerial blitz of England by Goering's bombers, by her disastrous rout in Greece, and her bloody defeat on land and sea at Crete, was fighting now in the Libyan sands a last-ditch battle. At all hazards, she must avoid the certain ruin that would follow the irruption into Egypt and then into Iran and India of Rommel's legions and all that would ensue.
For that meant making of the Mediterranean an Axis lake. It meant the loss of the priceless oil fields of Irak and Iran to the Nazis who most of all needed oil for their war machines, and would no longer have to stage a major campaign to wrest Baku from Russia to get it. It meant the severance of the solitary supply line into southern Russia via the Persian Gulf, through which both we and Britain were pouring aid through Iran to the hard-pressed Russians fighting desperately to stem the Nazi armies driving on Moscow, and that severance meant the collapse of the Soviets.
Lastly, it meant the loss of India, the loss of all contact with the Far East, the loss of all possible bases and routes for the supply of China which was holding in combat and away from us, the bulk of the Japanese army. Briefly, the loss of the Middle East meant the swift loss of the war and it meant a totalitarian and Axis world.
To back up Britain for the coming blow in the fall of 1941, and to save Russia, Averell Harriman, President Roosevelt's agent, had arranged as a Lend-lease project the North African Mission which was intended first only to provide the bases from which hard-pressed Britain might fight. But now that we were in the war, these were bases from which we also might fight when the day came that we had mustered some land and air forces to fight with, provided meanwhile we could keep Britain hanging on by her fingernails till that day came.CHAPTER 3
Specifically, my job was to create a naval base at Massawa in Eritrea on the Red Sea and to salvage the wrecks there. The salvage was partly to clear the harbor of Massawa, partly to recover the priceless ships the Axis had scuttled, for further Allied use.
Massawa, thoroughly sabotaged by the Axis, lay two-thirds the way down the Red Sea from Suez toward Aden. It had the best harbor in all the Red Sea and practically the only one suitable for a naval base able to support operations in the eastern Mediterranean.
Ancient Massawa lay on the hot Red Sea coastal desert, athwart the traffic stream passing via Suez between Europe and Asia. The north coast of the Red Sea bordering Arabia has no harbors at all. The south coast has only two, Port Sudan in the Anglo-Egyptian condominium of the Sudan, and Massawa in Eritrea, far superior to Port Sudan in natural facilities, in strategic location, and in protected berthing space for large ships.
In 1881, Italy had bought a foothold on the arid Eritrean coast line from the impoverished Turks who saw no value in it at all. This was the first step in the crack-brained Italian dream of building up again an African empire. Suffering even then from the delusions of grandeur which later were to flower fully under Mussolini, Italy had then set out from Massawa to conquer the hinterland, Ethiopia. However, at Adowa, in 1896, the spears and guns of Ethiopian warriors had slaughtered King Humbert's army and put an abrupt period to Italian ambitions in East Africa. Not again for forty years did Italy venture away from the barren Eritrean coast line.
But in the early 1930's, Mussolini, deluded by the screaming mobs before the Palazzo Venezia that he was Caesar reincarnated, destined to revive the glories of vanished Rome, started again on the path of East African conquest.
Italy was bled white to provide the gold poured into the ancient slave-trading Arab village of Massawa to convert it into a modern port from which a new Ethiopian campaign might be launched and supported. And even more important, from Mussolini's viewpoint, to build in Massawa a strong Italian naval base. From that, submarines, destroyers, cruisers, and novel fast motor torpedo boats could dominate the vital Red Sea route.
It was Mussolini's belief this would blackmail Britain into keeping her hands off while Ethiopia was being overrun. Otherwise she ran the risk of having her exposed lifeline to the East severed by that well-protected Italian hornets' nest planted in the north harbor of Massawa, invulnerable behind extensive mine fields, reefs, and sheltering islands to any attack from seaward by Britain's fleet.
The scheme had worked. After years of preparation, during which Italian matrons had been stripped even of their wedding rings to get the gold to pay for it, Massawa had blossomed into a modern harbor. Everywhere sprouted massive stone quays, electric unloading cranes, substantial naval shops, warehouses packed with naval stores, airfields, submarine piers, mine and torpedo depots, coast defense guns, and—most sinister of all—a magnificent automobile highway leading inland over the mountains toward the Abyssinian frontier.
In the fall of 1935 came a three-pronged attack. First, in Geneva, Fascist orators poured out poisonous sophistries to benumb the conscience of the world. Next, from Massawa, Italian submarine flotillas straddled the trade routes to the East to point up the unwisdom of British interference. Then in Ethiopia Mussolini's cowardly legions assaulted the natives with poison gas from planes against which the guns, the spears, the shields of Haile Selassie's valiantly resisting warriors were no defense.
So Mussolini (though not without great difficulty due to Fascist incompetence even in so unequal a battle) had conquered. And after the conquest, in preparation for the economic exploitation of Ethiopian resources, Massawa, the solitary Italian outlet to the sea from that rich plateau, had been developed even further as a port.
Thus matters stood when Adolf Hitler, in 1939, thrusting unceremoniously into the background Europe's first loudspeaker for totalitarianism, started World War II. Promptly into Massawa harbor had rushed for sanctuary such German vessels in Red Sea or Indian Ocean waters as could get there. In Massawa, safe under the neutral and friendly Italian flag, they were to await the overthrow of Britain.
In the spring of 1940 came Dunkirk. Mussolini, fearful that he might miss even the crumbs of the French and British debacle, plunged uninvited by Hitler into what was left of the conflict, lest he get no glory or loot at all in the death of world democracy. Put pending the dying gasp of Britain, which at sea was still potent, every Italian vessel east of Suez had rushed also for the protection of the mine fields of Massawa before Mussolini took the plunge. There in safety they awaited the swift capitulation of the defeated French and British.
Excerpted from Under the Red Sea Sun by Edward Ellsberg. Copyright © 1946 Edward E. Pollard and Ann P. Heilakka. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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