Monthly Archives: May 2014

Pirates, Spies, and Submarines (Part 2 of 2)

When you visit St. Augustine, Florida, the most prominent building, is the fort Castile De San Marcos. The flags of several nations have flown over the fort, but it has never been taken in battle. This is the fort’s great claim to fame. The Castillo was built between 1672 and 1675 using local materials. But, what most people do not know is that the fort was not built to protect St. Augustine from foreign nations, it was built to protect St. Augustine from pirates and privateers (at the end of the article I will explain the difference between a pirate and a privateer).

The first to attack St. Augustine was the privateer Sir Francis Drake. Though to the Spanish he may have been thought of as a pirate, Sir Drake was indeed a privateer. It was not until the next time the city was sacked that the Castillo was finally authorized by the queen to be built.

In 1586, Sir Drake, with over 20 ships and approximately 2,000 men, sacked and burned the city of St. Augustine. He was only the first.

On May 27, 1586, Sir Drake’s fleet spotted a watch tower on the island of Anastasia, an island which protects St Augustine from the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean. Unaware of any settlements in this area, Drake went ashore to explore. On the inland side they spotted a wooden fort a short distance from a small village. That night a group of men went, in small boats, from the island to the mainland to reconnoiter St. Augustine and the fort.

The soldiers and the villagers fled when they found out the English had landed on Anastasia Island. When Drake’s men arrived they found fourteen brass cannons and a chest with 2,000 pounds sterling in it, pay for the 150 man garrison. The men took twelve of the cannons and the silver. They search the village, but found little of value. Then they set fire to the fort and village. There was a skirmish between Drake’s men and some Spanish snipers, and a few of Drake’s men were killed.

Next came the pirate Robert Searle in 1668, who sometimes also went by the name John Davis. Searle was originally a privateer. But his privateer commission was withdrawn and returned so many times; it is hard to tell if, technically, Searle was a privateer or a pirate at the time of the St. Augustine raid. Searle decided on the St. Augustine raid, in part as revenge for the Spanish sacking of an English settlement in the Bahamas at New Providence, and in part because of the silver the raid would net him.

During the days of Spanish treasure fleets; St. Augustine was a small outpost of the Spanish Realm. It was the last Spanish city the treasure fleets would sight before turning eastward for Spain. St. Augustine had a small garrison of Spanish soldiers to protect the town.

The Royal Treasury in St. Augustine kept the silver used to pay the soldiers of the garrison, and handle transactions for the crown. Occasionally, silver would be delivered to St. Augustine to wait for ships returning to Spain.

It was the silver in the Royal Treasury that English pirate Robert Searle was after. In 1668, he sailed from Jamaica to loot St. Augustine. Searle sailed into St. Augustine harbor in two Spanish ships he had captured. When the harbor pilots did not return from the two ships, those in St. Augustine thought the pilots were merely waiting for better weather, or for the morning before returning to shore. The pirates attacked the city that night. The next morning sixty men, women, and children lay dead in the streets. Searle sailed away with silver and non-Spanish residents of St. Augustine, whom he planned on selling into slavery or holding for ransom. Searle’s men took soundings of the harbor and did not burn St. Augustine, which led many to believe the pirates planned on coming back. The pirates also took every ship in St. Augustine that was seaworthy and all the food and water they could, along with anything else of value.

On his return to Jamaica, Captain Searle was arrested for his raid on St. Augustine and held while the governor of Jamaica waited to hear from England what should be done with Searle. Several months later Searle was freed to take part in Sir Henry Morgan’s famous raid on Panama City. Searle commanded one of Morgan’s ships and was a lieutenant of Morgan’s. Searle distinguished himself during the raid.

Searle would die, years later, in a duel on Honduras. The small sandy inlet where he met his death became known to pirates as “Searle’s Key.”

It was this raid on St. Augustine by Searle that compelled Queen Mariana of Spain to authorize the construction of Castile De San Marcos (the Fort of Saint Mark).

In 1683, came the next pirate attack. But, the pirates lost the element of surprise, and the Spaniards under estimated the size of the pirate force. The pirates moved on, and the city remained on alert, lest the pirates decided to return.

The final pirate attack came in 1686 by the French pirate Michel de Grammont. Grammont was a French nobleman who fled Paris after killing his sister’s suitor in a duel. He arrived in Hispaniola and was commissioned as a privateer.

Grammont’s land attack failed, so he decided to blockade St. Augustine. But, one small ship managed to escape and sail to Cuba for aid. When Grammont found this out, he decided to sail away towards the Carolina’s. It is not known what happened to Michel de Grammont. Shortly after leaving St. Augustine it was rumored that Grammont and his ship were lost in a storm. Neither Grammont nor any of his men were ever heard from again.

Pirate or privateer, what is the difference, and does it really matter? It most certainly mattered to any man who found himself on trial for being a pirate.

A privateer was not a criminal, whereas a pirate was a criminal and could be hanged on capture. Privateers were a part of naval warfare from the 16th to 19th centuries, though they did not take orders from naval authorities. Privateers were private citizens, given a letter of marquee or commission by the crown to raid enemy ships. It was a way for a country to bring more guns to bear against any enemy in time of war, without any cost to the country itself.

There were specific rules a privateer must obey, rules of war for privateers. The man receiving the letter of marquee would have to sign a contract that specified what he was allowed to attack and what he was not allowed to attack. In addition to this, the privateer normally had to pay a bond as well. If a privateer attacked a ship or town not covered by his letter of marquee, he would find himself in court. If it was the judgment of the court, that the attack was due to mistaken identity or some other accident, restitution would be paid to the victim from the bond which had been posted by the privateer. If the court judgment was that the privateer was fully aware of his error before the attack, he was convicted of piracy and hanged. All costs of the privateer were paid for by the privateer or investors. As a reward, they kept a share of anything they captured and could be paid a share of the value of an important ship they sank.

Privateers were required to return to port and have their prizes divided by the court, a share for the country issuing the letter of marquee and the rest for the privateer.

The letters of marquee were usually issued for the duration of the war. Also, privateers were only allowed to attack the property of the enemy countries of the country issuing the letter of marquee.

Attack a ship not at war with your sponsoring country, and you are a pirate forfeiting all the protections the letter of marquee provides. Pirates and privateers did the same thing; the only practical difference was in the targets they attacked. But, muddying the waters even further were the very governments of various countries as well. Quite often, acts of piracy would be over looked against countries not at war, but which had hostile relationships with each other.

A perfect example of this is Spain, England and the island of Jamaica. Even when England and Spain were not at war, they were still somewhat hostile towards each other. It was common in the 17th and 18th centuries for piracy against Spanish possessions to be over looked. Jamaica was a known haven for pirate/privateers who operated against the Spanish. Sometimes these men were even given letters of marquee even though Spain and England were not at war at the time the letter of marquee was issued. This would continue until the Spanish monarch protested loudly to the English monarch. The pirate/privateers would be reigned in, sometimes someone would even be hanged. The Spanish crown would be appeased, and then it would start all over again.

Sir Henry Morgan is famous as a pirate, but technically he was a privateer and not a pirate. Later Morgan became the governor of Jamaica. Sir Francis Drake is sometimes called a pirate as well. But again, his actions were always against the Spanish and covered by a letter of marquee issued by Queen Elizabeth of England.

Many privateers became pirates, and many pirates became privateers. When a war ended, so too did the letter of marquee. All of a sudden the privateer was out of work. This led many privateers to piracy.

At the start of a war countries would be looking to bring as many guns to bear on the enemy as possible, and were quite willing to issue pardons and letters of marquee to pirates.

International treaty officially ended letters of marquee in 1856. But the practice continued in one form or another until almost the end of the 1800s. Some of the most valuable documents of the American Civil War are letters of marquee issued by the Confederacy to privateers during the civil war.


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Pirates, Spies, and Submarines (Part 1 of 2)

I have said it before but it is true, Florida (in the 1960s & 1970s) had to be the best place in the entire world for a small boy to grow up. We had it all; our own climate, culture, traditions, architecture, vocabulary, history, animals (including our cracker cattle, a breed of wild cattle descended from the cattle of conquistadors hundreds of years ago). But that’s not all; we had our own style of cowboys, known as crackers, because of the sound of the bullwhips they used to herd cattle in the dense pine forests. Our cowboys are not famous for fighting Indians; they fought alligators, poisonous snakes, bears, and panthers; and all of that before lunch just to get the herd to market. We also have the only Indian tribe that never signed a peace treaty with the United States government, led by the great Seminole war Chief Osceola (he led them in the Seminole Indian Wars of which a future president fought in). We had gangsters, John Dillinger used to hide out in Florida and Al Capone had his summer house there, not to mention the mobsters in Miami.

But wait, there is more. We had conquistadors who fought battles against European armies on our beaches (the same beaches crackers would herd cattle on hundreds of years later, and I would play on as a child). We have pirates and sunken treasure ships. The oldest masonry fort in the United States is in the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States, St. Augustine. Castillo De San Marcos was built in 1672 – 95 by the Spanish using coquina, a building material made by nature from crushed sea shells and dug from under the beaches. We had cities attacked by pirates, and yes we had spies and submarines.

No, I am not talking about the submarine base that used to be in Key West. I am talking about German U-boats.

German U-boat, U-123, a type IXB submarine on its second war patrol against the United States and eighth overall war patrol, was cruising along Florida’s coast just off Ponte Verda Beach. Almost four months to the day after Hitler declared war on the United States, U-123 sank the tanker Gulfamerica. The evening of April 10, 1942 was a normal Florida spring evening. The United States was at war, but that war was being fought in Europe. That is until residents saw the sky light up with an explosion just off the beach. A crowd gathered and watched as the submarine surfaced, and then used its deck gun to attack the sinking tanker.

The submarine commander maneuvered his submarine between the beach and the stricken tanker, because he was concerned one of the shells from his deck gun would miss the tanker and kill civilians. This was a dangerous move for the submarine. By being between the tanker and the beach, the submarine was silhouetted against the burning tanker, and had no place to run if allied warships arrived on the scene. Unable to submerge or run, the submarine would have been a sitting duck for any warship.

It was this sinking which caused Governor Holland of Florida to order a blackout along Florida’s coasts to prevent merchant ships from being easily spotted by their silhouettes off Florida’s coasts. This was long before the United States took action about the bright lights of the East Coast cities. When action was finally taken, Admiral King the Chief of Naval Operations, did not order a blackout of the East Coast but instead ordered the lights dimmed. After the war it was discovered from the U-boat commanders, dimming the lights did little to prevent the merchant ships from being easily spotted by their silhouette.

Two months later on June 16, another German U-boat was on the beaches of Ponte Verda, only fifty yards from the shore. This time however, it was U-584, and her mission was different.

German U-boat, U-584, was a type VIIC U-boat commissioned August 21, 1941. It would be sunk sixteen months after its trip to Ponte Vedra Beach. On October 31, 1943, three Avenger aircraft from the escort carrier USS Card in the North Atlantic, dropped torpedoes on U-584 sinking it. During its career U-584 sank three merchant ships for 18,478 tons, one warship for 206 tons, and landed four spies on my favorite beach, Ponte Verda Beach.

The four were part of Operation Pastorius, a plan approved by Adolph Hitler to commit sabotage in the United States. Edward John Kerling, the leader of the four, had lived in the US for 11 years, working as a chauffeur for wealthy residents of New York City. The other three men had also lived and worked in the United States. Werner Thiel had been a toolmaker in Fort Meyers. Herman Neubauer had been wounded on the Russian front by artillery fire. Herbert Hans Haupt wanted to be a Luftwaffe pilot.

The four men made it ashore and buried a stash of weapons and United States currency. The four spies then made their way to a general store on Ponte Vedra Boulevard owned by Alice and Roy Landrum. Three of the men waited outside while one went in to ask about the bus to Jacksonville. Alice Landrum later said the man had no accent, and she thought they were laborers working on a nearby hotel that was under construction.

When the bus arrived an hour later, the men took passage to downtown Jacksonville where the four did some shopping before splitting up into two groups of two. Kerling and Neubauer checked into the Seminole Hotel. Haupt and Werner checked into the Mayflower Hotel. The next morning the two groups boarded trains, one headed for Cincinnati and the other for Chicago. All of the men were arrested before they could do any harm.

As a part of Operation Pastorius another group of four men had been landed by submarine on Long Island. But, two men in this group, fearing they could not succeed, turned themselves into the FBI. They were hoping for leniency by giving themselves up.

After the men were captured, Edward Kerling led the FBI to a spot in the Ponte Vedra Beach sand dunes, about four miles from the present day Ponte Vedra Inn. At this place, buried in water proof boxes, the FBI found a cache of weapons and money. Among the things the FBI found were: TNT shaped like laundry soap, what appeared to be pens that were really for starting fires, a watch that was in actuality a detonator for a bomb, four bombs that looked like coal, and large sums of cash. Altogether, the eight men had almost two hundred thousand dollars in cash (a very large sum of money, particularly for 1943).

President Roosevelt was afraid a civilian court would be too lenient with the men. So, for the first time since the assassination of President Lincoln, the eight civilians were given a military trial. Their lawyers filed motions to have the trial moved to civilian court, but the United States refused to review the case. This attitude would change sixty years later, when terrorists were tried in military courts during the War on Terror.

All of the men were convicted of spying and given a death sentence. However, President Roosevelt commuted the sentences of the two men who had turned themselves in, and cooperated with the FBI to catch the other six men and expose the plot. In 1948, President Truman would send these two men to West Germany.

On August 8, 1942, the six men were executed at 14 minute intervals, on the third floor of the District of Columbia’s jail, in the electric chair. The most men ever executed in such a short time.

Next week the pirate half of this series.

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The Article For Sunday 18 May 2014

This Sunday will be the first in a two part series “Pirates, Spies, and Submarines.”

The series is centered around a city I grew up in, and as the title implies, it is about pirates, spies and submarines.

See you Sunday, have a great day.


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Fair Winds and Following Sea to Sara

Joe C Combs 2nd First offical navy portrait November 1980.

Joe C Combs 2nd First offical navy portrait November 1980.


This week’s article was written, but on Friday I scrapped it when I heard of the sad demise of a veteran. Sara was six years older than me, but you would have never known that when she was on active duty in the Navy. She served for thirty-eight years, and took part in action from Vietnam to Operation Desert Storm, but she spent most of her time in the Mediterranean. During the 1980s, when Navy planes were called upon to take action in the Middle East or North Africa they most likely came from the decks of the mighty USS Saratoga, CV-60. She Was a Forrestal class carrier and unlike the newer carriers was a conventionally powered ship. The newer carriers are all nuclear powered. But this did not slow her down at all; she could make 35 kts. or better.

She was the sixth US Navy ship to be named for the Battle of Saratoga in the American Revolutionary War, and the second aircraft carrier. She was decommissioned in 1994 and since then there have been many attempts to preserve her as a museum, but Friday the Navy announced it paid one cent to ESCO Marine of Brownsville, Texas to dismantle and recycle her.

She had a colorful career. In 1960, she was involved in a collision with a merchant ship. There were also a few shipboard emergencies during her career, like all ships. One fire in 1961 claimed the lives of seven crewmen. The Sara returned to the shipyard for repairs after she completed her patrol in the Med.

In 1967, just after she arrived in the Med, she was called on to care for the crew members of the USS Liberty after the Liberty was attacked by the Israeli’s during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

President Nixon, the second president the Sara hosted, was onboard the Sara in the Mediterranean when President Gamal Nasser of Egypt died. The concern was his death could plunge the entire Middle East into a crisis, and the president left the next morning.

It was seven F-14 Tomcats from the Sara that caught up with the terrorists from the Achille Lauro and forced them to land their plane in Italy, where Italian authorities arrested the terrorists. This was on orders of President Reagan. President Reagan used the Saratoga quite a bit. When Libya declared the international waters of the Gulf of Sidra were the territorial waters of Libya the Saratoga was sent into those waters.

The Sara made many firsts during her career and broke numerous records; and on more than one occasion off-loaded less ordinance than she on-loaded. A book could be written about the exploits and career of the Saratoga. We did not even touch on the daring rescue of one of her downed pilots in Vietnam. He was snatched from in front of the enemy by helos and returned to the Sara. We also did not talk about the time an enemy president claimed to his people on TV the Saratoga had been sunk.

The Saratoga should have been made into a museum. She was a great symbol of war time and peace time history. She weathered real and metaphorical storms, but she always came out on top and was always on the front lines ready to defend the people back home when needed.

So long old girl, you served us faithfully, fair winds and following seas my lady.


USS Saratoga CV-60

USS Saratoga CV-60



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Father’s Day in May


As many of your already know April is a very hard month for me. But, May? Ah!

Today was the first Kentucky Derby in decades I have not watched, and I didn’t even notice. My baby, my little one, the babe I held in the palm of one hand (in what seemed like just last week) turned nine years old today. My daughter’s birthday is always the best father’s day of the year for me.

Which brings me to a question for all you dad’s out there.

Dad what do you do when your daughter gives you a pink friendship bracelet?




You wear it – of course.

Love you Pumpkin, Happy Birthday Sweetheart.

This one is for you, you will never know how happy you make me.

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