15 November 2011

The Legacy of Jeremiah O'Brien

By Garaidh Ó Briain

     From the shipyard at Philadelphia on 20 July 1914, a new ship was launched and commissioned as (DD-51) USS O’Brien and added to the U.S. Navy on 23 May 1915. The ship name for those citizens of New England was familiar, but to those people west of the Hudson River and in the western United States had no idea who Capt. Jeremiah O’Brien was, the man to whom the ship was named after and immortalized.
    Jeremiah O’Brien was born in Scarborough, Maine, in 1740;[1]  died in Machias, Maine on 5 October 1818. His father, Morris, a native of Cork, Ireland, brought with him from Ireland the O’Brien coat-of-arms which hanged in the living room, settled in Scarborough, was a volunteer in the expedition against Louisburg, and removed in 1765 to Machias, where he was engaged with his six sons in the lumber business when the Revolutionary war began.
     When the news came of the collision at Lexington of Massachusetts citizens and the British army, the people of Machias erected a liberty-pole in the town square. Captain Ichabod Jones, a leading citizen of Machias, was allowed by British Admiral Graves to bring provisions from Boston in his vessel, the Unity, on condition that he return with lumber which was much needed by the British army for the construction of barracks. To ensure the arrangement being carried out, he was accompanied by a small tender, the HMS Margaretta, commanded by Midshipman Moore, which arrived a few days after the liberty-pole incident.
     The town, being in great need of provisions and under the guns of the tender, agreed to the terms but Captain Jones refused to sell provisions to those who had voted against allowing him to carry off the lumber to Boston. Captain Moore, of the HMS Margaretta, ordered the liberty-pole to be taken down, threatening to fire on the town if it was not done. Angered at Jones’ conduct some of the leading patriots sent to the neighboring settlements for assistance.
     Patriotic minded citizens of Machias tried to capture Jones and Moore while attending church on 11 June, but the two saw the mob approaching and escaped to their vessel and dropped anchor down the river. Capt. Jones fled into the forest and several days later captured. The officers of the British ship evaded capture and made it to their ship. Moore then threatened to bombard the town.[2] A company of thirty-one volunteers, which included the O’Brien brothers: Jeremiah, Gideon, John, William, Dennis and Joseph, gave chase on the following morning of 12 June 1775 (five days before the Battle at Bunker Hill), in one of the lumber sloops named Unity.[3] Jeremiah O’Brien was chosen captain.

     While the HMS Margaretta lay becalmed in the bay, the sloop was towed up by boats, the English commander allowing her to come alongside, although he had sixteen swivel-guns and four-pounders. Some of the Americans had muskets, but only three rounds of ammunition; some were armed merely with pitchforks; yet after a sharp hand-to-hand combat that lasted about an hour they were victorious, having mortally wounded the English captain and killed the helmsman in the first fire. This incident is considered the beginning of the U.S. Navy. This was the first sea-fight of the Revolution, and called the “Battle of Machias.”[4] 
     What followed is thus described in a letter written two days later to the Massachusetts Congress by the Machias committee of correspondence:[5]     “About forty men, armed with guns, swords, axes, & pitch forks, went in Capt. Jones’s sloop [Unity], under the command of Capt. Jeremiah O’Brien; about twenty, armed in the same manner & under the command of Capt. Benjamin Foster, went in a small schooner. During the Chase, our people built them breastworks of pine boards, and anything they could find in the Vessells, that would screen them from the enemy’s fire. The Tender, upon the first appearance of our people, cut her boats from the stern, & made all the sail she could-but being a very dull sailor, they soon came up with her, and a most obstinate engagement ensued, both sides determined to conquer or die; but the tender was obliged to yield, her Captain was wounded in the breast with two balls, of which he died next morning; poor Avery was killed, and one of the marines, and five wounded. Only one of our men was killed and six wounded, one of which is since dead of his wounds.”
     The armament of the HMS Margaretta was transferred to the sloop Unity, which was rechristened the Machias Liberty. O’Brien took command, and captured the HMS Diligence, a British coast-survey vessel, and her tender HMS Tapnaquish, which had been sent out from Halifax to retake the HMS Margaretta. The Liberty, with Jeremiah O’Brien as captain and his brother William as lieutenant, and the HMS Diligence, on which his brother John was lieutenant, were commissioned by the provincial government, and ordered to intercept supplies for the British troops. Captain O’Brien cruised on the coast for a year and a half, taking several prizes. He then assumed command of a privateer called the Hannibal, which his brother John and others had built at Newburyport, but shortly afterward, while cruising off New York, his vessel was chased by two frigates and captured. He was confined for six months in the Jersey guard-ship, and then sent to England and detained in Mill prison, from which, after a few months, he succeeded in escaping. He resided for some time at Brunswick, Maine, and at the time of his death was collector of the port of Machias. His daughter was the mother of John P. Hale. His brother, John, while in command of a privateer called the Hibernia, captured an English armed vessel, the General Pattison, having on board a number of officers of the British army who were returning from New York to England. 

Fort O’Brien

     Fort O’Brien was built in 1775 immediately after the first naval battle of the American Revolution took place offshore, Fort O’Brien was a four-gun battery that guarded the mouth of the Machias River in cooperation with Fort Foster on the eastern side.
     British forces destroyed the fort in the same year. This state historic site is one of few Maine forts active during three wars - the American Revolution, War of 1812 and Civil War. Fort O’Brien’s layout was altered several times over the 90 years it was active on this site. But the fort’s important role in protecting the Machias River and its towns remained unchanged. It was refortified in 1777.
     From 1808 - 1818, this was a four-gun crescent-shaped earthwork fort. In 1814 the British captured the fort and burned the barracks. It was returned in 1818.

The Canon

     In the middle of the earthworks of the Civil War era battery is a bronze cannon known as a “Napoleon” or 12-pounder. It fired 12 pound cannonballs, spherical case shot, or canister, the latter being made up of numerous small pieces of iron that tore through infantry formations or a ship’s rigging at close range. This cannon tube weighs 1216 pounds and was made at the Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts in 1862. It originally sat on a wooden carriage that weighed an additional 1128 pounds. In optimal conditions, this gun could fire a ball 1600 yards, just enough to reach across the mouth of the Machias River.[6]
     In 1923, the United States Government deeded the site of Fort O’Brien to the State of Maine. First administered as a State Historic Site in 1966, it is now maintained by the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
     A bronze tablet, mounted on a stone on the east side of Route 93 between here and Machias, reads:
Near this spot, in June 1775, the men of Machias, confronted by a peremptory demand backed by armed force that they should furnish necessary supplies to their country’s enemies, met in open air council to choose between ignoble peace and all but hopeless war. The question was momentous and the debate was long. After some hours of fruitless discussion, Benjamin Foster, a man of action rather than words, leaped across this brook and called all those to follow him who would, whatever the risk, stand by their countrymen and their country’s cause. Almost to a man the assembly followed and, without further formality, the settlement was committed to the Revolution.”

Naval Honors

     Five ships have been named after Capt. Jeremiah O’Brien in the U.S. Navy.

USS O’Brien (DD-51)

Built at the Philadelphia shipyards beginning 8 September 1913, and launched 20 July 1914. Commissioned 23 May 1915, and decommissioned at Philadelphia 9 June 1922, broken up for scrap 23 August 1935.

Armament: 4x4”/50.8x21’tt. Speed: 29 knots, crew 101.[7]

USS O’Brien (DD-415)

Built at the Boston Navy Yard 31 May 1938. Launched 20 October 1939 & commissioned 2 March 1940.
Displacement 2313 Tons (full), Dimensions: 348’4’ (oa) x 36’x12’ 10’ (Max).
Machinery: 52,000 SHP, Westinghouse Turbines, 2 screws.

Armament: 5x5”/38AA, 4.0.5’ MG 8x21’tt (2x4). Speed: 35 knots, crew 192.

Japanese torpedo hits the USS O'Brien on 15 September 1942.  USS Wasp burns in background left.
Fate: Torpedoed in extreme bow by Japanese submarine on 15 September 1942, off Guadalcanal Campaign, and sank 19 October 1942, en route to Pearl Harbor.[8]

S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien

     Built at New England Shipbuilding Corp. shipyard in South Portland, Maine, in 56 days and launched on 19 June 1943.
     June 1943, the Liberty ship S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien slid down the ways at the New England Shipbuilding Corporation in South Portland, Maine. Shortly thereafter she entered service, operated by Grace Line for the War Shipping Administration. Named for the first American to capture a British naval vessel during the Revolutionary War, the O’Brien made seven World War II voyages, ranging from England and Northern Ireland to South America, to India, to Australia. She also made eleven crossings of the English Channel carrying personnel and supplies to the Normandy beaches in support of the D-Day invasion. After the war, she was “mothballed” and laid up in the Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay, north of San Francisco.

     Thirty-three years later, skillful maneuvering by a U.S. Maritime Administration official (himself a former Liberty ship sailor) saved the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien from the scrap yard. In 1979, after hundreds of hours of labor by volunteer crew members to remove thick layers of preservatives, the O’Brien headed for San Francisco to be restored. No other ship ever has steamed out of the mothball fleet under her own power.
     Following dry-docking, generous donations of money and supplies by numerous individuals and companies, and thousands of hours of restoration work by her volunteer crew, the old ship entered service on San Francisco Bay in like-new condition. She is a steaming memorial to the seamen of the U.S. Merchant Marine who served on Liberty ships in World War II, to their Navy gun crews, and to the civilian men and women who built the largest single class of ships in history.
     In 1994, the Jeremiah O’Brien steamed through the Golden Gate, down the west coast, through the Panama Canal, and across the Atlantic to England and France, where the O’Brien and her crew (a remarkable collection of old salts whose average age was 70, and a few cadets from the California Maritime Academy), participated in the 50th Anniversary of Operation Overlord -- the Allied invasion at Normandy that turned the tide of World War II in Europe. Of the more than 5,000 ships that formed the original D-Day armada, the O’Brien was the only ship to return 50 years later

     The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien is approved by the American Bureau of Shipping, certified by the U.S. Coast Guard, and fully seaworthy -- the only active Liberty Ship in original configuration. Operated as the National Liberty Ship Memorial, she is moored at Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf and open to the public most days. Virtually the entire ship from engine room to flying bridge can be seen by visitors. Boilers are “lit off,” and the 2500-horsepower, triple-expansion reciprocating steam main engine is operated on Steaming Weekends (normally the third Saturday and Sunday of each month) so visitors can see the engine plant in action. Several San Francisco Bay cruises are scheduled each year, with occasional longer voyages to west-coast ports such as Sacramento.
     The ship relies on the work of her hundreds of volunteer crew members, funding from individual and corporate donations, and revenue from the thousands of visitors she hosts each year.[9]

USS O’Brien (DD-725)

     Ship building began on 12 July 1943, at the Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine. Launched 8 December 1943, commissioned at Boston Naval Shipyard 25 February 1944.


Joined convoy forces 14 May 1944, en route to Scotland and England, participated in a shore bombardment of Cherbourg, France, and the invasion of Normandy. During mine sweeping operations off shore by the BB-35 Texas, the Texas took fire from German batteries at Cape Levi. O’Brien’s gunfire was so accurate that enemy gunnery positions shifted from the Texas to the O’Brien. Took direct hit just aft bridge, but able to stay on station long enough to lay smoke screen for Texas. Thirteen men killed and nineteen wounded. Returned to Boston as escort in convoy and repaired. Escorted CV-14 Ticonderoga to San Diego via Panama Canal and joined the 3rd Fleet east of the Philippines. In early December the O’Brien joined the 7th Fleet assault forces at Ormoc Bay, Phillippines. The ship was under continuous air attack. Fought fire caused by suicide planes on 15 December 1944, and rescued 198 survivors. Following a brief patrol period of the Mindoro Strait, proceeded to Lingayen Gulf for invasion of Luzon. A suicide aircraft crashed into the port side off the fantail, but caused little damage. Several days of escort duty was involved in bombardment of shore before landing of army troops, later joined the carrier forces on 10 February 1945, for air strikes against Tokyo, Iwo Jima, and Bonin Islands. Off of Kenrama Retto on 27 March was attacked by aircraft which crashed into the water while another carrying a 500 lb bomb crashed into the port side amidships exploding a magazine. Fifty sailors killed and seventy-six wounded. Repaired at Mare Island Naval and training in San Diego. Returned to 3rd Fleet for end of war in August 1945 and was in patrol duty in Japanese water, later patrol duty in eastern Pacific. Decommissioned on 4 October 1947, at San Diego, California.


     Re-commissioned on 5 October 1950, at San Diego, the USS O’Brien was commanded by the Commander Chester W. Nimitz, Jr., and flagship of Destroyer Division 132. Joined the UN blockade and escort force and participated in the siege of Songin. The O’Brien was one of ships that involved in 4.5 hour Battle of the Buzz-saw on 17 July 1951, at Wonsan harbor. Provided covering fire in July and August for LSMR bombardment and coordinated rescue operations which saved three Navy pilots and one Air Force pilot shot down in open waters. Radio Moscow and Peking reported O’Brien sunk by North Korean People’s Army, the ship returned to San Diego for repairs and returned to Korea as part of Task Force 95 and participated in shore bombardment, interdiction and patrol duties near Wonsan Harbor. September 1952, joined mock invasion. In mid Janurary 1953, returned to San Diego. In 1958 was part of four ship squadron that was active off coast of China.
 In 1961 the ship was refitted for specialized antisubmarine warfare and deployed in western Pacific. O’Brien was one of the first ships to successfully refuel a helicopter in flight. Assigned to 7th Fleet in August 1965, and patrolled the waters around Taiwan. While patrolling the Taiwan Strait, she was ordered to rescue a Chinese Nationalist patrol craft under attack by Chinese Communist torpedo boats, only the O’Brien arrived late, the boat had sunk, but she rescued all fifteen survivors and was praised by the Nationalist Chinese Navy Commander-in-Chief.


    A week after the Chinese incident on 22 November 1965, ordered to the aid of outpost Thach Ten, Quan Ngai Province, which had been surrounded by a North Vietnamese regiment. Accurate fire helped turn back the NV army, and in January and early February 1966, supported carried operations, conducted search and rescue missions in the Tonkin Gulf, and provided gunfire support for the amphibious landing near Batangan in Operation “Double Eagle.” The O’Brien returned to operate on the west coast of America for the next eight months. Ordered as the flagship for Operation “Sea Dragon,” whose operation was off the North Vietnam coast, with orders to interdict enemy coastal traffic, which resulted in the O’Brien sinking more than twenty boats carrying war supplies to the Viet Cong. Three direct hits from coastal batteries north of Dong Hoi on 23 December 1966, killed two crewmen and four wounded. Repairs took place at Subic Bay, Philippines, and provided support for air strikes from the Tonkin Gulf guarding five different carriers in January 1967. Returned to Taiwan patrol in February and March, but reassigned as flagship for “Sea Dragon” operations in late March significantly slowing coastal supply traffic. During this time the ship was under fire by shore batteries seven times. In May 1967, the ship returned to San Diego for overhaul, and was assigned on 1 February 1968, to destroyer squadron 29, and put to sea joining 7th Fleet on 30 April 1968. Operating in the Tonkin Gulf, the O’Brien took part in month long bombardment duties of Army and Marine operations, and then returned to Japan, but returned to South Vietnam in August and participated in bombardment of South Vietnam in mid-October. The destroyer returned to San Diego until the late summer of 1969 returning to the Far East in early October. The destroyer served in the waters off South Vietnam, conducting carrier escort duties and naval gunfire in support operations through the end of the year. After brief winter exercises off of Japan, she returned to Long Beach for up-keep and retraining.   
     The DD-725’s last deployment was wrought with material and equipment failures. The worst being a six foot crack in the hull during gunnery operations on 13 January 1971, off South Vietnam coast. The ship sailed to Subic Bay for repairs, and returned to South Vietnam for a seven week search and rescue duty. Returning to Subic Bay for engine repairs, she then sailed South Pacific via Australia, New Zealand, and then to Pearl Harbor. Decommissioned at Long Beach on 18 February 1972, and sunk as target on 13 July 1972, off California coast. The USS O’Brien received six battle stars for World War II service, five battle stars for Korean Conflict, and three battle stars for Vietnam service.[10]

U.S.S. O’Brien (DD-975)

     The fifth and last ship in the U.S. Navy to be named in honor of Jeremiah O’Brien was the 13th Spruance class destroyer.

Begin of building on 9 May 1975, at Ingalls Shipbuilding, West Bank, Bascagoula, Mississippi. Commissioned: 3 December 1977, and Decommissioned on 24 September 2004, and sunk as target off Hawaii on 9 February 2006.

Displacement: 9,200 tons (full), Length: 564.3 ft (172 meters); Machinery: four General Electric LM 2500 gas turbines, two screws.; Speed: 30+ knots; Crew: 340.
Armament: two MK 45 5”/54 caliber lightweight guns, 1 MK 41 VLS for Tomahawk, ASROC and Standard missiles, MK 46 torpedoes (two triple tube mounts), Harpoon missile launchers, 1 Sea Sparrow launcher, 1 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) System, 2 20mm Phalanx CIWS.
Aircraft: 1 SH-60B Seahawk (LAMPS 3)

About the Ship’s Coat of Arms

     USS O’Brien’s official crest, symbolizes the rich tradition of courage and determination initiated by the ship’s namesake, Captain Jeremiah O’Brien, and continued by those ships that proudly bore his name.    
     The golden pile and its associated elements are resplendent in symbolism. The pile, in conjunction with the wavy bars, represents a ship at sea, symbolic of the grand tradition of the US Navy. Taken by itself, the pile also represents the Roman numeral “V” equaling the total number of ships, including DD 975, to be honored with the name of “O’Brien”. The shamrock centered at the top of the pile alludes to Jeremiah O’Brien’s Irish ancestry and the arms of the previous O’BRIEN (DD 725). The crossed nautical tridents are overlapped by a single cannon dedicates the first naval battle of the American Revolution in which Jeremiah O’Brien and his men defeated the British warship, HMS Margaretta. O’Brien and his men, armed with only limited muskets, axes, and pitchforks (represented on the crest by the crossed tridents) boarded the HMS Margaretta and defeated an enemy armed with muskets, grenades, and cannons.
     The battle took place at Machias, Maine. The state of Maine is symbolized by the pine trees on either side of the cannon. Reflected in the ship’s motto “Loyalty, Unity, Freedom” are the qualitatively describe Captain O’Brien’s contribution to the American Revolution.


     USS O’Brien (DD-975) deployed to the Persian Gulf as a member of the Joint Task Force, Middle East and participated in combat action against naval forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran during Operation Praying Mantis on 18 April 1988. O’Brien along with USS Joseph Strauss (DDG 16) and USS Jack Williams (FFG 24) formed Surface Action Group Delta which engaged and sank the Iranian guided missile frigate SAHAND.
     Again the Chinese rattled sabers at Taiwan announcing missile tests and military live-fire exercises conducted in the waters surrounding the island of Taiwan. The US responded by dispatching naval ships including the USS Independence (CV 62) and other combatants to the area to monitor the situation. Operating in international waters, the USS Independence and other units in its battle group, including the USS O’Brien, were on the scene since the exercises began.
     The USS O’Brien took part in Exercise Valiant Blitz ‘94 in November 1993. During the exercise, sailors and Marines from the United States and the Republic of Korea operated as an integrated force from the Sea of Japan. The week-long exercise successfully demonstrated the bilateral cooperation required to effectively coordinate and conduct a combined amphibious landing and follow-on operations ashore with ground forces.
     As part of a 1995 reorganization of the Pacific Fleet’s surface ships into six core battle groups and eight destroyer squadrons, with the reorganization scheduled to be completed by 1 October, and homeport changes to be completed within the following year, the USS O’Brien was reassigned to Destroyer Squadron 15.
     The destroyer took part from 5-12 November 1998, in a large bilateral maritime exercise in waters around Japan. The routine exercise was designed to improve both navies’ capability for coordinated and bilateral operations in the defense of Japan.
     In 1999, the O’Brien, forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, was given diplomatic approval by the Chinese government to make a four-day port call to Hong Kong. The ship arrived in Hong Kong on 31 October and departed on 4 November. The USS O’Brien was the first U.S. Navy warship to visit Hong Kong since the May 1999 Chinese Embassy bombing in Belgrade.
     While on a regularly scheduled two-month deployment to the Western Pacific Ocean, the USS Kitty Hawk and Carrier Air Wing 5, accompanied by the guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville and the USS O’Brien, on 9-23 May took part in Exercise Cobra Gold 2000, which tested the U.S. and Thai military to ensure regional peace. This annual joint exercise was one of the largest military exercises involving U.S. forces in the Pacific Command that year, and it involved units from the Thai and U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines. Armed forces from Singapore also participated for the first time that year.
     In February 2002, the last detail of the O’Brien was its participation in an anti-ship missile defense training exercise as part of a Commander Task Force Seven Five - Multi-Sail battle group exercise. It was one of nine ships that participated in the exercise.
     The USS O’Brien (DD-975) was decommissioned on 24 September 2004, and sunk as a target ship off Hawaii on 9 February 2006.[11]
     Currently the U.S. Navy has no ship bearing the name of Jeremiah O’Brien, the first American to capture a British warship in the Revolutionary War.


[1]  Some accounts list his birthplace as Kittery, Maine (Maine at this time was part of Massachusetts). (All data from this source unless otherwise noted.  http://www.famousamericans.net/jeremiahobrien/).
[2]  Coll. Maine Hist. Soc., vi (April, 1895), 124-130.
[3]  The Unity is not considered a Navy vessel, but the U.S. Merchant Marine’s consider the Unity the beginning of their fleet.
[4]  First known incidence where the British colors were stricken and replaced by America’s.
[5]  http://www.state.me.us/doc/parks/programs/history/fortobrien/index.htm
[6]  http://www.state.me.us/cgi bin/doc/parks/find_one_name.pl?park_id=61 &
[7]  http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/051.htm.
[8]  http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/415.htm.
[9]  http://knowledgerush.com/kr/encyclopedia/Jeremiah_O’Brien/.
[10]  http://www.ussobriendd725.org/page21.htm
[11]  http://navysite.de/dd/dd975.htm.

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