UNO Professor Publishes Naval Book on Black Sea Destroyers, Wins Award
A University of New Orleans professor recently won honorable mention for an international award, thanks to a book he wrote last year about a small fleet of Naval ships that sailed the Black Sea during World War I.
"I only won honorable mention, but I was delighted to win anything!" said Robert Shenk, a professor of English at UNO and a retired captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Shenk recently learned that he received an honorable mention award in the U.S. Naval History category of the 2012 John Lyman Book Awards of the North American Society for Oceanic History. His book, America's Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution, 1919-1923, was published by the Naval Institute Press in 2012.
An Officer and a Gentleman
The Naval Institute Press has previously published four Shenk books surrounding Naval life and history. Five years ago, the University Press of South Carolina also published Shenk's edition, Playships of the World: The Naval Diaries of Admiral Dan Gallery, 1920–1924.
As a naval officer, Shenk served as communications officer of the USS Harry E. Hubbard (DD-748) on service that included two deployments to the South China Sea in the late 1960s. He also spent a year on river patrol boats in the Mekong and Vam Co Tay Rivers of Vietnam.
Shenk not only continued inactive duty with the Naval Reserves, he later spent three years teaching English at the Air Force Academy and three years teaching English at the Naval Academy, while on 16 years of voluntary recall to active duty. Now, he coordinates the graduate English program at UNO.
Puzzling Through History
While writing his biography about U.S. Navy Admiral Dan Gallery, Shenk and his friend (and future co-author) Herb Gilliland discovered diaries from the admiral's youth in the stacks of Special Collections at the Naval Academy.
"When I read those colorful accounts of Gallery's first four years of commissioned service, I became intrigued by the young officer's description of his six-month tour of duty at Constantinople in 1922–23, this while serving aboard the old armored cruiser Pittsburgh," wrote Shenk in the preface to his most award-winning book.
"Clearly, most Navy people relished the uproarious highlife of Constantinople's European quarter, despite some of them having just witnessed enormous human tragedies only a couple of hours' cruise away. Fascinated, I began looking into why America had sent that very small fleet to its four-year home in the Bosporus Strait to begin with."
He knew nearly nothing then of "this important Naval episode," Shenk said this week.
"Lots of other people are surprised," said Shenk, a graduate coordinator at UNO. "I have since discovered that the United States once had a small fleet in the Black Sea!"
Threading Details Together
Shortly into his research, Shenk read a book on the burning of Smyrna, authored by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin and published in 1971, Shenk said. Tens of thousands died and suffered "miseries beyond imagination" in the crisis, he said, noting that nearly 200,000 ethnic Greek and Armenian refugees evacuated Smyrna, helped by officers and men stationed on American destroyers in the harbor.
Dobkin's account highlighted a U.S. Navy shore patrol of several dozen men and a civilian relief team sent by the admiral, whose American relief team was the only one operating ashore.
Shenk soon visited in Dobkin in New York to hear more of her compelling research.
"Not only her encouragement, but also her example of successfully searching for naval accounts beyond official reports were especially important in an early stage of this project," said Shenk. "Her example would stimulate me to similar efforts."
Early into his research, Shenk learned that the Smyrna catastrophe was only one among several great humanitarian crises, tragedies and atrocities the Bosporus-based American naval detachment encountered in four short years, he said. American naval vessels and troops also responded to an evacuation of more than 150,000 White Russians from the Crimea to Constantinople and endured a great famine in southern Russia. Both crises were outgrowths of the Russian Revolution.
Around the same time, tens of thousands of innocent Turkish minorities were killed deep in Anatolian Turkey in the region known as the Pontus, Shenk said. They were primarily ethnic Greeks.
"Two American destroyer captains recognized that they were witnessing something very terrible indeed and made fervent pleas for their admiral's intervention," said Shenk in the preface to his book. "Since the Navy detachment commander, Adm. Mark Bristol, was not entirely willing to entertain this viewpoint, both of these officers risked their careers by doing so."
An A-ha Moment
Shenk believed that the "Black Sea Express" mirrored the Yangtze Patrol that America maintained in China for decades during the same time period. A former destroyer sailor, Shenk had studied the Yangtze Patrol and knew that many of the fleets in the Black Sea Express were destroyers, "four-pipers" or "flushdeckers," he said.
"Increasingly, it seemed to me that someone ought to consider America's Black Sea navy at book length," said Shenk.
"...While I knew I certainly was not a novelist, and although I was a literature specialist rather than a historian, no doubt I write with more appetite for the sea story and colorful detail than some historians would appreciate," said Shenk.
"Eventually I considered that I might be able to portray well the various events that took place in that long-forgotten age."