NOAA observes World Hydrography Day by honoring lost crew members of the Robert J. Walker

Today, June 21, is World Hydrography Day. Hydrographic offices in over 80 maritime nations observe this day every year, since 2005. It is our special day to tell the public what hydrography is, and how it is employed to make navigation safer. Simply, hydrography is the science we use to obtain the data needed to create nautical charts. NOAA’s 200-year history is proof positive that those charts – and therefore hydrography – are a national investment that pays off daily with navigation safety, efficiency, and coastal protection from accidents at sea.

But today’s observation of World Hydrography Day is more profound. It is personal to every person who works in or supports hydrography in the United States.

It was 153 years ago, to the day, that the U.S. Coast Survey experienced the largest single loss of life in our history. In the early morning hours of June 21, 1860, on stormy seas, the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Robert J. Walker was hit by a commercial schooner when she was transiting from Norfolk to their homeport in New York, after surveying in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship sank quickly, and twenty crew members died. Another man died from his injuries the next day.

Martin painting of the Walker
In 1852, W.A.K. Martin painted this picture of the Robert J. Walker. It is now at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

Today, we honored the lost crew members of the Robert J. Walker for their service to the nation.

The NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson is currently working near where the Walker sank. They are taking a couple of hours to survey the area, with multibeam and sidescan sonar, as part of a NOAA Maritime Heritage effort to pinpoint the exact location and confirm the identity of the Walker wreck. (While NOAA nautical charts show a seafloor obstruction, we have not positively identified the Walker.) For the survey, Thomas Jefferson commanding officer Larry Krepp welcomed two “wreck experts” on board: Joyce Steinmetz, a nautical archaeology and maritime history expert from East Carolina University, and Vitad Pradith, the technical director with Coast Survey’s Navigation Response Branch.

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Joyce Steinmetz, Vitad Pradith, and Cmdr. Lawrence Krepp on board the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, as they departed on the survey leg that included a search for the wreck of the  Robert J. Walker.

Honoring the memory of the 20 USCS crew members who perished the morning of June 21, 1860, the Thomas Jefferson’s newest hydrographer, Ensign Eileen Pye, laid a memorial wreath on the waters above the sunken wreck of the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Robert J. Walker.

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Cmdr. Larry Krepp, Lt. Cmdr. Chris van Westendorp, and Ensign Eileen Pye during the honor ceremony onboard the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson.
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Ensign Eileen Pye, the Thomas Jefferson’s newest hydrographer, lays the wreath over the waters where the USCS Robert J. Walker sank.
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Seaman surveyor Anthony Teele rings the Thomas Jefferson ship’s bell, honoring the Walker crew.

At the same time the Thomas Jefferson was memorializing the crew at sea, NOAA employees gathered at NOAA offices in Maryland. Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, led the ceremony and reminded the assembled group, “With leadership comes an obligation to honor these men who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation.”

RDML Glang
Rear Adm. Gerd Glang noted that this year’s celebration of World Hydrography Day was “more profound,” as it was “personal to every one of us who works in or supports hydrography in the United States.”

David Moehl, a senior survey technician on the NOAA Ship Ferdinand R. Hassler, rang an historic hydrographer’s bell, once for every man who died that day, as Cheryl Oliver, the president of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Historical Society, read each man’s name.

Meohl rings bell in honor of the men who died
Senior survey technician David Moehl rang an historic ship’s bell as Cheryl Oliver reads the name of each Robert J. Walker crew member who died.

Rear Admiral Michael Devany, director of NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, talked of connections. “Despite the time that has passed, today’s NOAA employees, mariner and non-mariner alike, share a unique connection with these sailors. The common heritage of love for the sea and sky bond us with the men of the Robert J. Walker regardless of time.”

“The sacrifice paid by these 20 men reminds us of the dangers intrinsic with operations at sea,” Devany said. “We cannot go back and undo the events that took the Robert J. Walker and her crew from us, but I believe they would be honored to know the work they set out to accomplish over a century and a half ago continues today by NOAA ships and the people of NOAA.”

RADM Devany
Rear Adm. Michael Devany noted that the crew of the Walker would be honored to know that their work continues today.

David Kennedy, deputy under secretary for operations at NOAA, spoke to the heart of the accident: the need to honor all federal employees. Kennedy explained that the men who died were not the scientific or naval elites: “They were the the guys working below deck.”

“At NOAA, we celebrate the science, we tout the satellites and the surveys — and, above all, we are always mindful that we are a team. The stewards and cooks and firemen from 1860, and the technicians and support staff today, are the reasons we are able to accomplish what we do.”

“The crew of the Robert J. Walker, and the people who have followed them on hundreds of thousands of hydrographic surveys since, have served the United States government in our many hours of need. Their work – your work – has improved the welfare of our people over the centuries, as our hydrographic missions improve the safety of navigation.”

“Today, we thank and publicly honor the crew of the Robert J. Walker for their service to the nation. And, in that,” Kennedy told the NOAA hydrographers, technicians, and support staff, “we honor and thank you all as well.”

David Kennedy
David Kennedy, Deputy Under Secretary for Operations, told the NOAA audience: “Today we thank and publicly honor the crew of the Robert J. Walker for their service to the nation. And, in that, we honor and thank you all as well.”

Two other federal programs are also involved in the nation’s hydrography. We were very pleased that representatives from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency attended the NOAA event. In a show of solidarity, the hydrographic office of the U.S. Navy held their own simultaneous ceremony at their location in Stennis, Miss.

Naval Oceanographic Office
The Naval Oceanographic Office joined NOAA in honoring the Walker crew on World Hydrography Day. AGAA Jahmal Moore, Steven Harrison, NAVOCEANO Hydrographic Department Director, and Michael Jeffries, technical director of the Fleet Survey Team, lead the ceremonies.

Walker Ceremony 06212013 USCG Honor Guard Retires Colors 2_DHall NOAA

Rear Adm. Glang also read from a letter that Admiral R.J. Papp, Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard, wrote to Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA’s acting administrator. “I want to add my tribute to the memory of the sailors who perished in that accident, ” Papp wrote. “Coast Guardsman are always saddened by the loss of life at sea and especially so when those lost were working to make the lives of other mariners safer by charting the waters of the United States.” (Read his full letter, especially for more about the history of the Walker.)

In honor of the strong ties — historical and contemporary — between NOAA and the Coast Guard, a USCG Honor Guard proudly posted and retired the colors for the ceremony.

Back in 1860, the U.S. Coast Survey never published the names of the lost crew members. However, the New York Times, on June 23, 1860, wrote about the accident and published this list.

“The following list of the missing crew has been supplied by Mr. CHARLES GIFFORD, Quartermaster on board of the Walker, to whom we are also indebted for the particulars of the collision:

Marcus (or Marquis) Buoneventa, ward-room steward.

Michael M. Lee, ship’s cook, (colored.)

James Patterson, ward-room cook, (colored.)

Henry Reed, second mate.

Timothy O’Connor, second gunner.

John Driscol, seaman.

Michael Olman, seaman.

George W. Johnson, son of Mr. Johnson, the actor.

Charles Miller, ordinary seaman.

Robert Wilson, seaman.

John M. Brown, captain of after guard.

Jeremiah Coffee, cooper.

Cornelius Crow, landsman.

John Farren, fireman.

James Farren, fireman.

Samuel Sizer, fireman,

George Price, fireman.

Joseph Bache, fireman.

Daniel Smith, fireman.

Peter Conway, fireman.

            Total 20.”

For more information, see nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/RobertJWalker.

Also, listen to this recent National Ocean Service podcast interview of Rear Admiral Glang.

There’s a fascinating story behind (literally) the painting of the Walker. See A Good Story, from the Mariners Museum blog.

UPDATE: AUG 28, 2013NOAA announced that a wreck located off the New Jersey shore has been positively identified as the Robert J. Walker. This summer, a private-public collaboration sought to find the Walker, as experts zeroed in on where the Walker was reported to have gone down. Those experts included Joyce Steinmetz, a maritime archeology student at East Carolina University, who briefed NOAA staff on government records and newspaper accounts she had unearthed in her studies. Capt. Albert Theberge (NOAA, ret.), from the NOAA Central Library, brought his research of the early years of the U.S. Coast Survey, including correspondence between various Coast Survey officials and the ship’s officers. James Delgado, director of NOAA’s Maritime Heritage program, added his expertise gathered from years of discovering and documenting wrecks. Vitad Pradith, a physical scientist with NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, provided technical expertise in using NOAA’s multibeam and sidescan sonar systems — onboard the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson — to locate and image underwater structures. (Thomas Jefferson was in the area conducting post-Sandy hydrographic surveys.)

The site of the collision and location of the wreck is plotted on this nautical chart from 1852.
The site of the collision and location of the wreck is plotted on this nautical chart from 1852.

“Before this identification was made, the wreck was just an anonymous symbol on navigation charts,” said Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of Coast Survey. “Now, we can truly honor the 20 members of the crew and their final resting place. It will mark a profound sacrifice by the men who served during a remarkable time in our history.”

NOAA’s intent is not to make the wreck a sanctuary or limit diving, but to work with New Jersey’s wreck diving community to better understand the wreck and the stories it can tell.

“We want to enhance the dive experience and support the dive industry with enhanced access to this wreck,” said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “New Jersey is home to some of the most accomplished wreck divers who not only understand history and wrecks, but who have also been in the forefront of wreck exploration. We look forward to working with them on the Walker.”

For more information, see the National Marine Sanctuaries report, Rediscovering the Walker.

Listen to a podcast from two of the experts who found the Walker. See video of what the divers found, on Finding the Robert J. Walker.

A nation pays final tribute to Civil War sailors interred at Arlington National Cemetery

Last week we blogged about the Civil War sailors whose remains were being interred at Arlington National Cemetery on March 8. The funeral, for unknown sailors who were lost when the USS Monitor capsized, was solemn and stirring, and reflected the nation’s great esteem for our fallen patriots. The unknown sailors were lost along with 14 of their shipmates when Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., on Dec. 31, 1862.

All 16 sailors will be memorialized on a group marker in section 46 of the cemetery, which is between the amphitheater and the USS Maine Mast memorial.

Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, Coast Survey’s director, was honored to represent NOAA in the officer escort for the caissons. Glang and Rear Admiral Anthony Kurta (USN) served as Escort Commanders, and were joined by Capt. Gary Clore (Navy Chaplain) and Cmdr. Nathaniel Standquist (U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard), as the nation paid a final tribute.

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, acting NOAA administrator, spoke at the chapel service preceding the procession and burial. (See NOAA: Remains of USS Monitor sailors interred for highlights of Dr. Sullivan’s remarks.)

Thanks to public affairs officers David Hall (NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations) and Lt. Lauryn Dempsey (U.S. Navy), we are able to provide a photographic montage of the burial ceremony.

Transferring the caskets for funeral procession
After a moving memorial service in the Fort Meyer Chapel, the caskets are transferred for the funeral procession. (Photo: Lt. Lauryn Dempsey, U.S. Navy)
Casket teams position the caskets on the caissons, while the escort team salutes.
Casket teams position the caskets on the caissons, while the escort team salutes. (Photo: David Hall, NOAA)
Caisson platoon members
Members of the elite Caisson platoon at Fort Myer draw the caissons to the burial site. (Photo: David Hall, NOAA)
Officer escorts
Capt. Gary Clore (Navy Chaplain); Rear Admiral Anthony Kurta (USN); Rear Admiral Gerd Glang (NOAA); and Cmdr. Nathaniel Standquist (U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard). (Photo: David Hall, NOAA)

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The funeral procession arrives at the burial site. (Photo credit: David Hall, NOAA)
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After the graveside religious service, casket teams remove the flags from the coffins. (Photo: David Hall, NOAA)
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Folding the flags. (Photo: David Hall, NOAA)
Escort officers and caskets
A final moment. (Photo: David Hall, NOAA)

NOAA Coast Survey director to escort caissons for USS Monitor sailors’ interment at Arlington

On Friday, March 8, a NOAA Corps admiral will have the honor of doing something extraordinary. Coast Survey’s director, Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, will be the NOAA Escort Flag Officer for the full honors funeral of two unknown sailors who went down with the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor in 1862. Rear Adm. Glang will join Rear Adm. Anthony Kurta, U.S. Navy, as the two officers escort the caissons during the somber event at Arlington National Cemetery.

The interment will be open to the public.

facial reconstruction of lost sailors
Facial reconstruction of the two sailors found in the Monitor’s turret (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gina K. Morrissette)

The Monitor sank southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, during a New Year’s Eve storm, carrying 16 crew members to their deaths.

The wreck was discovered in 1973, and confirmed in 1974 by John Newton and a team from Duke University. The ironclad was lying upside down with the turret separated from the hull, resting in 230 feet of water approximately 16 miles off Cape Hatteras. In the late 1990s through 2002, experts recovered iconic Monitor artifacts, which are now conserved at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Two skeletons were discovered in 2002 when the turret was raised from the seafloor, and efforts to identify the remains have been unsuccessful so far.

To protect this national treasure, Congress created the nation’s first national marine sanctuary. The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1975.

The U.S. Coast Survey was intricately involved in the Civil War, creating the Slave Density Map, making thousands of copies of maps and charts for the war effort, embedding with the Armies and supporting naval operations, writing and distributing Notes on the Coast (which were essential for the blockades), and documenting the war’s successes and failures. Coast Survey had no involvement with the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack (or Virginia), but NOAA historian Albert Theberge tells us that the unpublished autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris, a Coast Surveyor and future railroad magnate of the late 19th century, has an interesting story…

Harris was assigned as the officer-in-charge of the Coast Survey steamer Uncas, which was supposed to be Admiral Farragut’s primary Coast Survey vessel during the bombardment of Fort Jackson and subsequent attack on New Orleans. The Uncas left New York in late February 1862 but had to put into Hampton Roads because of storms and low coal. It was determined at that time that the Uncas was not seaworthy, so Coast Survey secured a second vessel. That vessel, the Sachem, left New York, apparently in company with the Monitor, on March 4, 1862, for Hampton Roads.

The trip was exceedingly stormy. Harris writes:

“Her [Sachem’s] captain, a former merchantman, told me of their voyage down… On their way down, probably on the night of March 4th, the Monitor telegraphed to the Sachem to come and take off the crew as the vessel was sinking. Just then the band which encircled the head of the Sachem’s rudder slipped, and the vessel became unmanageable. It took perhaps an hour to secure it, and when the Sachem was laid along side the Monitor, it appeared that the panic was past. A heavy sea had gone down the smokestack, the gas forced out from the furnace had overpowered the engineer and the assistant engineer, and left the engine in the hands of a young man just making his first voyage who became badly scared. By the time an hour had passed the fear had passed too, and they were willing to try their fate further, but the Captain told me that if the rudder band had held the Monitor probably would have been abandoned that night. On how small occurrences great events turn! In that case the Merrimack would have had no competent antagonist, and the Government might have lost control of Hampton Roads. The Captain, whose name I immediately forgot, seemed like a reliable person and I have no doubt he told me the truth.”

Theberge explains that “Harris was not one to embellish his stories, as is shown by his description of what he saw in Hampton Roads” during the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. “Although Harris reported that he entered Roads on the night of March 9, he apparently erred in his date” as he reports:

“We headed about for Hampton Roads which we reached early on the evening of March 9th. [Theberge points out that this had to have been March 8.] We noticed during the latter part of the night a bright light evidently from a fire ahead and supposed a barn was burning, but it turned out to be the U.S. frigate Congress, set on fire by the C.S. steamer Merrimack, and in the morning about 8:00 A.M. we saw firing from vessels a few miles to the S.E., which I thought was artillery practice of our own vessels, but which was the battle between the Monitor and Merrimack…”

Tomorrow’s interment of the two unknown sailors from the Monitor represents the nation’s enduring commitment to our men and women who serve in uniform. We are proud that Rear Adm. Glang will represent NOAA, the NOAA Corps, the National Ocean Service and Coast Survey in honoring the memory of fallen comrades at sea.

More resources:

Coast Survey Civil War Collection

War Record of J.W. Donn

Coast Survey and Army Operations during the Civil War