Hamilton: Modern motto: Don’t mess up the agreement!
“Don’t give up the ship! Fight her ’till she sinks!” were the dying words of U.S. Navy Captain James Lawrence on June 1, 1813, as his ship the USS Chesapeake was being boarded by saber-wielding sailors from the British warship HMS Shannon. Thus was born what many Americans like to think of as the unflinching fighting spirit of the U.S. Navy: “Don’t give up the ship!”
Unfortunately, as we saw on January 12, 2016, when two of America’s heavily armed Riverine Command Boats (RCBs) surrendered without a fight to two, lightly armed Iranian patrol boats in the Persian Gulf, “Don’t give up the ship!” appears to now ring hollow. Yet, in the early days of our conflict with the Islamic pirates of Tripoli, giving up our merchant ships, and then paying bribes to Islamic rulers to get our captured sailors back was the all-too-common practice.
Disgusted by paying tribute to the Arab nations lining the southern rim of the Mediterranean Sea, President Thomas Jefferson persuaded Congress to fund a small fleet of warships to confront and, eventually, defeat the Tripoli Pirates. How America event ually snatched victory from the jaws of defeat is well told in: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger (2015).
But Jefferson’s early efforts to pacify the Mediterranean for the pursuit of badly needed trade for the struggling American economy did not go well. Jefferson dispatched our Navy’s finest man-o-war, the USS George Washington, to make a show of force to the ruler of Tripoli. The USS George Washington was under the command of Captain William Bainbridge whose earlier command, the USS Retaliation was, in 1798, the first American ship given up in the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800).
In 1800, Bainbridge continued his string of “bad luck” by allowing an Arab pilot to guide the USS George Washington into the harbor of Tripoli where the pirate pilot cleverly placed American’s finest man-o-war directly under the almost 200 cannons looking down from the Fortress of Tripoli. From the moment, Bainbridge dropped anchor, his ship was captive to the dey of Tripoli who put his own crew on the George Washington and used our warship to transport sheep, goats, and African slaves to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Later, the hapless Bainbridge ran the USS Philadelphia aground on a rock outside the harbor of Tripoli. Bainbridge’s failed attempt to sink the Philadelphia to prevent it from suffering the same fate as the USS George Washington set the scene for then Lt. Stephen Decatur to lead a daring nighttime raid to burn and sink the USS Philadelphia. Ironically, Decatur’s second-in-command was Lt. James Lawrence who, later, would immortalize the words: “Don’t give up the ship!”
Fast forward to late February, 2016, and we still do not have a report from the Obama Administration to the Congress as to how and why our two Riverine Command Boats were given up to the Iranians on January 12, 2016, without a fight. In the context of the Obama Administration’s then on-going nuclear-agreement negotiations with Iran, it appears for now that our Navy may have a new motto forced upon it: “Don’t mess up the agreement.”
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, is a laureate of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma University Army ROTC Wall of Fame, and is a recipient of the University of Nebraska 2015 Alumni Achievement Award. He was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the Infantry School, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.
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