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Book Review – America’s Black Sea Fleet

America’s Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution, 1919-1923, by Robert Shenk; Naval Institute Press; 400 pages

In the aftermath of World War I, a U.S. Navy squadron, “America’s Black Sea Fleet,” was forward-deployed to the Turkish Straits in the midst of wars, famines, epidemics, ethnic cleansings, and assorted horrors we would label today as “complex humanitarian emergencies.”  American sailors performed with professionalism and compassion, as they always do, and still managed to have a good time, as they used to do, in that more innocent era.

America’s Black Sea Fleet is a highly readable account of this history based on new research into primary sources, including the letters and memoirs of participants. Characters who appear in the story include Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Allen Dulles, and naval officers who went on to achieve fame in World War II: notably William Leahy (1875-1959), Daniel Gallery (1901-1977), Robert Ghormley (1883-1958) and Thomas Kinkaid (1888-1972).

Vice Adm. Mark Lambert Bristol who led America’s Black Sea Fleet. Library of Congress photo

Rear Adm. Mark Lambert Bristol, who led America’s Black Sea Fleet. Library of Congress photo

The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, but unlike Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, it never declared war on Germany’s ally, the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Although the Ottoman Sultan’s government broke off diplomatic relations with the United States on April 20, 1917, the Embassy in Constantinople remained open. The Navy steam yacht USS Scorpion was interned by the Turks, but continued to serve informally as embassy “station ship.” American interests in the collapsing Ottoman Empire included valuable trade in Turkish tobacco and the protection of many Protestant missionaries, who were forbidden to convert Muslims, but allowed to operate schools and hospitals.

Rear Adm. Mark L. Bristol (1868-1939), Naval Academy class of 1887 and a veteran of the Spanish-American War, commanded the fleet. Strongly pro-Turkish, Bristol was unsympathetic to the Greek and Armenian minorities who faced brutal treatment under Turkish rule. As a sailor-diplomat, he was thrown into an environment of intrigue, political maneuvering and Great Power rivalries. France, Britain, Italy, and Greece were intent on carving up the Ottoman Empire, and their admirals and diplomats regarded Americans as naïve idealists and do-gooders. Bristol would eventually be appointed U.S. High Commissioner to Turkey and later commanded the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.

 Why does Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”

 – Lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy music by Nat Simon (1953)

The Russian Civil War (1917-1922) and famine (1921,) flooded Constantinople with waves of desperate refugees, ranging from aristocrats to peasants. Russian princesses working as waitresses in Constantinople’s nightclubs and cafes met and married American sailors. Millions of Russians were saved from starvation by relief shipments of American grain (brilliantly organized by future president Herbert Hoover). Destroyers of the Black Sea Fleet ensured that the grain ships were protected, and their skippers negotiated harbor access with hostile and suspicious Soviet officials at Odessa, Sevastopol and other ports.

americas black sea fleet cover

America’s Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution, 1919-1923;by Robert Shenk; Hardcover; Naval Institute Press, 2012: 400 pages

Most of the ships in the Black Sea fleet were wartime “four-stack” destroyers of the Wickes and Clemson classes. USS Denebola (AD 12) a new destroyer tender and repair ship, proved to be extremely valuable. A few armored cruisers rotated through the area and there were even brief visits by the battleships Arizona (BB 39) and Utah (BB 31). Although the fleet never fired a shot in anger, there were opportunities for heroic action.  Walter A. Edwards (1886-1928), commanding USS Bainbridge (DD 246) was awarded the Medal of Honor for the daring rescue (Dec. 16, 1922) of 500 survivors from a burning French transport loaded with ammunition.

America’s Black Sea Fleet is illustrated with good maps and period photographs. Being focused on the personal stories of participants, it is a little short on historical background;  reading it sent me back to re-read Alan Palmer’s excellent Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, in order to better understand the context of the events recounted. The author, Robert Shenk, is professor of English at the University of New Orleans and a retired U.S. Navy captain.

This book will be of interest to students of American naval history, and readers interested in a troubled, exotic and endlessly fascinating part of the world.