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October 24, 2014

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Combat Information Center

From the Archives - Ensign Hederman Blocks up the Panama Canal

Between 1923 and 1940 the U.S. Navy carried out 21 major exercises called "fleet problems." These involved virtually the entire disposable force of the fleet, and sprawled across literally hundreds of thousands of square miles. What were perhaps the most realistic maneuvers ever engaged in by the Navy, the fleet problems helped train the generation of officers who won World War II – Ernest J. King, Thomas Hart, William Halsey, to name but a few – while introducing the fleet to new technologies and tactics, including aircraft carriers, underway refueling, amphibious operations, and more.

Fleet Problem Fleet Problem III, one of three held in 1924, had Blue defending the Panama Canal from an attack in the Caribbean by Black, operating from an advanced base in the Azores. The object was to test the defenses of the Canal Zone on the Caribbean side, to practice amphibious techniques, and to study the ability of the fleet to transit rapidly from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

In the course of the exercise, Black engaged in a number of highly creative "special operations," most notably one conducted by Ens. T.H. Hederman, a 1923 graduate of the Naval Academy (a classmate of the great Arleigh Burke), as told in his official report.

UNITED STATES FLEET
The Scouting Fleet
U.S.S. Wyoming, Flagship

Colon, P.R.
13 January, I924.

From: Ensign T. H. Hederman, U. S. Navy
To: Lieutenant Hamilton Bryan, U.S. Navy, Fleet Intelligence Officer.

Subject: Operations as a spy in Canal Zone, report on.

1. In compliance with Commander SCOUTING FLEET’s order I left the U.S.S. Wyoming on l5 January 1324, proceeded to the U.S.. Richmond, and hoisted on board a sloop, 15 feet overall, 6 foot beam, the property of a native of Bocas del Toro, who was also present. The Richmond proceeded to a point 20 miles northeast of Toro Point Light where we took off, reaching Colon at 1000, 16 January, 1924.

2. At the Hotel Astor I shifted into the uniform of an enlisted man carrying my officer's uniform with me. I then proceeded to Miraflores Locks and received information concerning the passage of ships through the canal.

3. The first battleship to go though was the U.S.S. California at 1600. In devising a scheme to board her, I found it very impracticable due to the possibility of recognition by my classmates on deck at the time. Therefore I waited for the second battleship in line which was the U.S.S. New York. As she lay in the lower lift of the Miraflores Locks I threw my package containing the officer’s uniform on deck, proving that the conveyance of any package on board was possible. I then climbed hand over hand to the main deck up a fender line.

4. I remained on board over night in the capacity of an enlisted man. On 1? January 1924 at 0840, I shifted into may officer's uniform in a trunk outside of No. 3 Handling Room. I then sent for the Magazine Gunner's Mate. At 0810 the Ordnance Gunner appeared and upon my informing him that I was making a Fleet inspection of powder, he opened up a magazine (G-35P) and also a can of powder. In my left hard I carried the wrapping paper concealed in my handkerchief which might have been a detonator charge. At this time the ship was approaching Culebra Cut and a five minute fuse would have exploded the charge as the ship passed through the Cut.

5. I then reported my act to the Commander of Battleship Division Three who made me a prisoner of war under sentry's charge and to be treated as such.

6. I was released from strict confinement, at 1100, 18 January 1924, and given parole aboard the ship. I was released as a prisoner of war at 1000, 19 January, 1924.

T. H. Hederman.

The official adjudication of the exercise determined that Ens. Hederman’s little adventures had led to the destruction of the battleship New York, leaving her sunken hulk to block the Culebra Cut, and thus rendering the canal useless.

The resourceful Hederman went on to greater things. A lieutenant commander with his own destroyer at the outbreak of World War II, he later commanded a destroyer squadron in the Third/Fifth Fleet, rose to rear admiral after the war and retired in 1953. He died in 1960. His equally innovative boss, Lt. Bryan (USNA, 1913), had a less splendid career; retired for reasons of health in 1941, he died in 1944.

 

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