Thanks,Dad! Veteran’s Day, 11/11/11

Navy Lieutenant Jack Newkirk, the Admiralty Islands, 1944

I believe I learned what the term ‘degaussing’ meant way before I learned barely any childish vocabulary at all.

In 1944, my father, John Newkirk, was 24 years old. Nearly five years previous,at age 19, he had  completed an epic Harley ride across the country, riding his 1930 Harley Davidson VL Big Twin  30V8229C. He went from the 1939 world’s fair in New York to the 1939  World’s Fair in San Francisco.  This unique journey was chronicled in my brother John Newkirk’s  inspirational biography The Old Man and The Harley. (Thomas Nelson, 2008) 

After that remarkable ride, he went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and graduated with a degree in metallurgical engineering in 1941.

(I’ll hawk my brother’s wares any day. Get the book. It’s on Amazon, and is a wonderful, uplifting read with terrific photo essays. )

Dad decided to join the Navy, and was ranked a lieutenant almost immediately because of his degree. He had many jobs that I really wonder if 24 year olds are brave enough now to undertake.   I think the most interesting one was his job leading a degaussing crew in the South Pacific. To save your curiosity, here is what it means

de·gauss (d-gous)

tr.v. de·gaussedde·gauss·ingde·gauss·es

1. To neutralize the magnetic field of (a ship, for example).

Dad’s technical background, water skills, weapons expertise and physical fitness qualified him for a position in an elite Naval Diving Unit in San Francisco Bay. Part of his training there including degaussing.

Our naval vessels at the time were ferrous, or mainly iron. Iron has a magnetic field,  and iron ships act like a giant magnet. Our German enemies ingeniously developed mines that would be attracted to iron objects, or at least have triggers that would detonate these bombs if something iron passed nearby. Here is a picture of a trigger that was removed from this bomb.

Now, I’d encourage you to stay with me, because this is actually pretty interesting stuff. Refer to a website called, a fascinating site that has all to do with ship history, for more details.
 At the start of WWII, the Germans developed a this kind of  magnetic trigger for mines- one based on the mine’s sensitivity to the magnetic field of a ship passing nearby. (The trigger is the first picture, the mechanical looking device)  The design of such mines fortuitously fell into British hands, allowing them to develop countermeasures for such mines:

The British experienced a stroke of luck in November 1939. A German mine (you see that in the segmented black eggshaped object) was dropped from an aircraft onto the mud flats of the Thames estuary during low tide. As if this was not sufficiently good fortune, the land belonged to the army, and a base with men and workshops was at hand. Experts were dispatched from London to investigate the mine. They had some idea that the mines used magnetic sensors, so everyone removed all metal, including their buttons, and made tools out of non-magnetic brass. They disarmed the mine and rushed it to labs at Portsmouth, where scientists discovered a new type of arming (How lucky was that? And how brilliant?) 

So, if we understand that a ship is basically a giant magnet, then we can more easily imagine that the trigger would be set to a unit of measure called the ‘milligaus’. Gauss is a measurement of the strength of the magnetic field; the ship would concentrate the field at that point. The mine’s detector was designed to go off at the mid point of the ship passing overhead. How brutal.
Now, before we go on with the lecture, just picture that for a minute. In World War Two, our navy had ships of all kinds. Relatively little ones, with names like ‘escorts,’ ‘frigates’, or ‘corvettes.’ These were of the two thousand to five thousand ton variety. Lightly armed, they were maneuverable and fast.
The broad category of  enormous warships includes battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and submarines — all of which saw active service against enemy craft during World War II. These ships were among the most enormous of the time, often in the eighty to ninety thousand ton displacement category.
Both of these categories of ships, and everything in between, were costly assets for the navy, and damage or destruction of these things could heavily influence the war.
Picture being an active duty sailor on a mission. You are innocently escorting a destroyer when your world is obliterated. Your escort has passed over several of these mines, and they have exploded as your ship crossed them.
You can now see the importance of degaussers.
Dad likes to call his time in the South Pacific things like “a cake walk”, or ” time in a country club.” Typical of the greatest generation, they like to minimize their accomplishments. I have found that the most interesting people are always more than they appear to be.
The picture you see here is Dad in the Admiralty Islands, a group of eighteen landmasses and atolls in the South Pacific, north of Papua New Guina and the Solomon islands. Manus island was the largest. A shallow channel separated Manus from it’s nearest neighbor, Los Negros. Together they formed Seeadler Harbor, where countless ships were demagnetized, or degaussed.

Dad wasn’t shot at, and never really feared for his life in the most immediate sense. But in a very real way, he and his crew saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers who manned these ships, by demagnetizing  them and keeping them from blowing up. Remarkable.

Dad on Manus Island. With a mustache never seen before or since!
Dad Returning to the Admiralty Islands, Fifty Years Later
I wish I could say I had the same faith in our young men now as I did then. I am afraid for this generation. Afraid for their sense of justice, and their sense of selflessness. The young men of World War Two had a clear sense of right and wrong, and didn’t hesitate to risk their lives to preserve it. I don’t see the same sense of manliness, the same sense of respect for women, or the same desire to protect the weak and the powerless. I see men more entitled, men used to the gratification of the now.
I have a man in my house, next February Christopher will turn 20. I think, and this is just a guess, but I think that Chris and I did our part with Christopher. Generally, he is a young man with a sense of right and wrong, and a sturdy respect for women. He is careful with other lives that are less powerful than his, you can see this in his gentleness with small children and animals. He stands up for his convictions, but gives mercy and grace when needed. He is interested in pleasing God and his important adults, and finding his place in the world.
Perhaps there are more like him, perhaps they are even in the Navy. I hope so, as history tends to repeat itself, and we will surely need them.
Much love,

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