Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Navy's wooden boats - North state teacher on the history of minesweepers


Retired Navy commander David D. Bruhn now teaches at Las Plumas High School.

During his naval career he served aboard an ocean minesweeper (MSO) and later commanded mine countermeasures (MCM) ships. When he learned that the minesweeper Excel "had been decommissioned and relegated to the 'ghost fleet' at Suisun Bay, near San Francisco," he began to think of writing her story.

Eventually, his history expanded to include 65 MSOs and MCMs on which some 50,000 sailors served during the last half-century. The result is "Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The U.S. Navy's Ocean Minesweep-ers, 1953-1994" ($37.50 in paperback from, featuring a cover painting by Richard DeRosset of the USS Endurance (MSO 435) during the war in Vietnam. The book, encyclopedic in its coverage, contains numerous black and white photographs and maps and a comprehensive index.

Bruhn writes that "during the past 50 years, a total of 19 U.S. Navy ships were damaged or sunk by missiles, torpedoes, aerial attack, terrorist attack or mines. More startling than total numbers is that casualties to 15 of the ships, nearly 80 percent, were due to mines and not, as one might imagine, by & terrorist-employed explosives." The need for minesweepers seems obvious, though Bruhn notes in measured terms that "if the submarine force is the 'silent service,' mine warfare is the 'unknown service' within the Navy, receiving few resources and little publicity." He adds that "mine warfare has not traditionally been viewed by officers as particularly exciting or noble work, a perspective that is not unique to the U.S. Navy. A First Lord of the British Admiralty once characterized it as 'unpleasant work for a naval man, an occupation like that of rat-catching.'"

The turning point in the development of the MSOs was the Korean conflict in which "the ineffectiveness of older-type minesweepers with metal hulls was illustrated graphically in Wonsan Harbor, where such ships fell victim to magnetic mines. To combat a deadly menace it became necessary to construct a vessel displaying no magnetic characteristics, or 'signature.'" That led to a host of design problems since engines built of non-magnetic aluminum, bronze or brass didn't last very long. The boats leaked in storms.

The book goes into great detail about ship design, how minesweepers were used in salvage operations and the U.S.-manned space program and Atlantic and Pacific operations. (Whereas MSOs tried to locate mines and detonate them, MCMs used sonar to locate mines and steer around them.) Perhaps of most interest to the general reader are the last chapters, dealing with the U.S. involvement in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 (Operation Earnest Will) and in Desert Storm. Kuwaiti harbor areas had to be cleared of mines and the Persian Gulf kept open for shipping. Mine clearance is tedious and dangerous business and mines continue to be ideal "sea denial weapons" since they are cheap for the damage they can cause and they require a significant investment of "ships, helicopters and divers" to counteract them.

And that has Bruhn worried. What if an enemy were able to place mines near U.S. waters? The Navy, he says, is "woefully short of mine countermeasures ships." New technologies could produce safer and more versatile vessels; the author hopes that one day "sailors who go down to the sea in wooden ships will receive the same level of support and consideration for their service as those who sail in steel-hulls, upon or under the sea."

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to
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