Sunday, July 2, 2017

Alfred Crooks: A Sailor Lost at Sea

Through my journeys into local history, sometimes I find stories hidden within plain sight.  This was the case when I took one of my usual walks in Owingsville Cemetery not long ago.  While casually looking at the names of veterans who are buried there, I noticed  a large tombstone with a flag posted next to it that just kind of stood out from the others around it.  I read the inscription on the stone and noticed it read "Alfred Newton Crooks III, BM2C, USS Saratoga.  Born Nov. 21, 1923, died in the service of his country Feb. 21, 1945.  Buried at sea". 
I snapped a picture of Crooks' grave and set out to research him and the circumstances in which he was taken at such an early age.

Alfred Crooks was born in Bath County, the son of Robert B. Crooks, who was a deputy sheriff.  He entered military service with the United States Navy, being placed aboard the aircraft carrier Saratoga.  The Saratoga was a battled-hardened ship that had already seen action across the Pacific Theater of Operations by the time Alfred Crooks boarded her.  The ship was nearly sunk by a Japanese torpedo attack in 1942, but was repaired and returned to service shortly afterward.  The planes from the aircraft carrier were successful in vital missions in Guadalcanal, The Solomons and the Indian Ocean. 
In February, 1945, U.S. Forces began the Iwo Jima operation.  The U.S.S. Saratoga was dispatched to the area to provide air cover for the landings on the tiny island that would prove to be a bloody and hallowed ground for the U.S. Marines.  Alfred Crooks was a Boatswain's Mate, 2nd Class, performing general duties aboard the aircraft carrier and served as chief of a damage control party. 
The USS Saratoga during the Japanese Kamikaze attack
On February 21, 1945, the Saratoga and three escort ships broke away from the fleet anchored off Iwo Jima to set up night patrols for the landing parties.  Suddenly, around 5 p.m. local time, a squadron of Japanese planes began attacking the Saratoga, scoring five bomb hits within three minutes.  Damage control parties, including Crooks' crew, were alerted to try and put the fires out and save the stricken ship.  During the fighting, three Japanese kamikaze pilots intentionally dove their planes into the Saratoga, blasting through the starboard side, the flight deck and starting a huge fire in the hangar deck.  During this phase of the attack, thirty-six aircraft were destroyed, the flight deck was heavily damaged and 123 sailors, including Bath County's Alfred Crooks, were killed or listed as missing.  Another 197 were injured during the attack.  Two hours later, as the crew tried to mitigate the damage aboard the Saratoga, another Japanese kamikaze attack rained Hell upon the ship, further damaging the flight deck and rendering the carrier inoperable for the remainder of the Iwo Jima operation. There is a survivor's account of the attack that can be read at, and provides a great amount of information about the attack and aftermath.
The bodies of the sailors killed aboard the USS Saratoga being prepared for a burial at sea.
While in transit for repairs the next day, the remains of the dead sailors were ceremoniously buried at sea.  This was customary during times of war, and a long held Navy tradition.  The Crooks family was notified of their son's loss by the War Department and decided to place a marker in the family plot at Owingsville Cemetery.  Even though Alfred Newton Crooks III lies beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean, his memory is etched in his hometown and also at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.    
Fleming County's Franklin Sousley is no doubt the most famous Kentuckian who participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima; he was one of the men who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi and is part of one of history's most iconic images.  Nearby in Owingsville, the marker of another Battle of Iwo Jima hero stands nearly inconspicuous as  a testament to the courage, valor and sacrifice he and other fellow servicemen made to secure the Pacific during World War II.  

The Mystery of Cassandra Deye Cockey Owings Pradelles

 The Owings family is etched into Bath County history with the Bourbon Furnace and namesake of Owingsville, but another member of the Owings bloodline has an intriguing tale of mystery and romanticism.  Tales of swashbuckling adventure and prestige have always held a certain fascination, and the story of Cassandra Deye Cockey Owings Pradelles has all the markings of such adventure.
Cassandra Deye Cockey Owings was born Christmas Eve, 1772 in Baltimore County, Maryland to John Cockey and Colgate Deye Owings; the first of eight children.  Her younger brother was Thomas Deye Owings, who came to Kentucky and gave Owingsville it's name.  John Cockey Owings served in the American Revolutionary War and became acquainted with Benedict Francois Van Pradelles, a French lieutenant.  Van Pradelles became enamoured with Cassandra and the couple married August 29, 1790 in Philadelphia.  
The couple moved to France soon afterward and started a family which would eventually consist of ten children.  During the French Revolution, the family fled France and came back to the United States, first in Baltimore, then in Philadelphia around 1795.  
Around 1804, Cassandra petitioned Kentucky Legislature to free her of her husband's debts and liabilities, and shows her living in Lexington at the time.  By July, 1805, the Van Pradelles family was again on the move; this time to New Orleans.  The journey took three months of floating down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers on either flatboats or makeshift sail boats.  Once in New Orleans, Benedict Van Pradelles became a prominent figure within the city, becoming Register of the Board of Land Commissioners upon his arrival.  He also was named Notary Public for the City of New Orleans and Justice of the Peace in 1808.  Cassandra and Benedict enjoyed a successful and wealthy life during their time in New Orleans, so much that when her father, John Owings passed away, he willed her nothing, citing that she had "received other considerable fortunes from other inheritances". 
Benedict Francois Van Pradelles contracted yellow fever and died December 12, 1808, only a few weeks before the birth of his youngest daughter.  Cassandra, now a widow with six young children still living at home, stayed in New Orleans and opened a boarding house.  It is known that around 1811, Cassandra traveled to Maryland and left her children in the care of her sister Frances.  It is unknown why she chose to do this, but court documents show several legal actions involving Cassandra and others staking claim to her late husband's estate and land settlements which may have had some impact on her decisions.  Cassandra's health began to fail during this time, and a will was drafted in July, 1813; her mystery and legacy begins here.
At the advice of her doctor, Cassandra decided to return to Baltimore sometime between July, 1813 and March, 1814.  Her journey would be by sea, up the East Coast aboard a ship named the Corinthian.  A nightmare haunted Madame Van Pradelles just before she boarded the ship; a dream that her ship was captured by pirates and she was bound, blindfolded and made to walk the plank into the ocean along with other passengers.  She relayed this nightmare to friends, but continued her journey regardless.  Famed pirates Jean Lafitte and Dominique You were known to travel the waters along the North Carolina coast during this era, but by the time of Cassandra's journey, activity had dwindled to a minimum according to reports.  The Corinthian docked at the port of Beaufort, North Carolina, according to some official records that survive.  Sometime after this stop, the ship, and passengers, vanished into history.
Dr. John Moore, who married Cassandra's daughter Mary Marie Penelope, allegedly came into contact with a old pirate who made a stunning confession just prior to his death.  The pirate, who some believe was Dominique You, told the doctor that he was present when Lafitte's crew took the Corinthian near it's last known port call.  He  said he had taken jewels from a "pretty young thing from Baltimore" before she and the others were made to walk the plank to their deaths in the churning waters.  
Members of the Owings family were returned a trunk, silver and jewelry that were identified as Cassandra's that was located at a stronghold owned by Jean Lafitte sometime after her disappearance, bolstering the claim of the confession.  Her remains, nor the others, have ever been found.
A book was written about Jean Lafitte in 1930 by Lyle Saxon.  It offers a romantic view of the pirate and tells a version of Madame Pradelles' fate, but notes the date as being 1815.  The first record of Cassandra's will being probated was on March 9, 1814, and was presented to a Maryland court by her daughter.  Lawsuits would follow the disappearance, with Benedict Francois Van Pradelles, Jr. claiming he was the rightful and sole heir to his mother's estate.  Another legal action was taken over the disposition of land and slaves which Cassandra still laid claim to at the time she disappeared.  Another book, Cassandra Lost, written by Joanna Catherine Scott also gives a romantic view of the legend, but is more of a novel love story than an accurate historical account.  A movie was made starring Yul Brenner, aptly called Lafitte the Pirate and alludes to the fact that others took Cassandra's ship and killed the passengers, unjustly placing the blame on Lafitte. 
There is a memorial marker at an empty grave in the Sherwood Episcopal Cemetery, Cockeysville, Maryland, that simply reads, "Cassandra D. Pradelles, Lost at Sea in 1815, Age 40 Years".  This monument was erected by Cassandra's sister, Francis.  There is, however, an age discrepancy; in 1815, Cassandra would have been 43 years old, not 40.
 We may never know what really happened off the coast of North Carolina, but it is most definitely a tale of intrigue during a romantic age, and one with a touch of local notoriety.

The Owingsville Inquirer's Perilous Beginnings

Ahh, the modern age of communication.  At the stroke of a keyboard or scroll of a mouse or screen on a portable electronic device, we can have the latest news and weather.  Traditional ways of publishing news has nearly fell by the wayside; the large block printer presses and typesetting machines are almost archaic by today's standards.  Simply setting up a newspaper business was a task in those early days.  For Bath County's first news publication, the Owingsville Inquirer, just getting the equipment to begin publishing was a perilous task.
According to John Richards' An Illustrated History of Bath County, The Owingsville Inquirer's debut edition hit the stands on February 2, 1869.  Louisville publishers S.K. Bangs and W.H. Boblits purchased a Franklin Press and other materials necessary for printing the weekly paper, opening the business on the second floor of the old Honaker building, which was located on present day North Court Street.  The first edition consisted of four pages with seven columns.  In that first edition was a colorful account of how the Owingsville Inquirer came to be, with a harrowing journey from Lexington to Owingsville via horse and buggy.  The following is quoted from the February 2, 1869 edition, which was reprinted in the Richards book.

"Arriving at Lexington we found our type boxes broken and
the type scattered in every direction. After much trouble and annoyance,
occasioned not only by the condition of the material, but
by the loss of an indispensable article in our business, we succeeded
in packing the whole G.d. lot into a wagon that would convey it
to Owingsville. We found it necessary to follow after the wagon
on foot to see that none of the loose type played truant by the
roadside. Leaving Lexington at an early hour on the morning of
January the 15th, a damp, drizzling, disagreeable day, we jogged
along at a funeral march, our 'composing stone' keeping time,
'In a sort of Runic rhyme' against the side of the overloaded wagon.
Unexpected demands on our pocketbook had divested it of our
last nickel, and, on reaching the first toll-gate, we resorted to an
innocent little stratagem on the credulous Irish lady who came
to the door — 'Pay you on return this evening'.
"Hardly had we reached the first milestone when a crash occurred,
and down came the wagon on a broken wheel. Nothing
daunted, we scoured the neighborhod in the quest of a wheel that
was a wheel. Failing in this, we returned to the scene of the disaster,
carried the hub and broken spokes to a blacksmith shop
some distance away, and had the thing repaired. Blacksmiths are
proverbially good-hearted men; but it was no Joe Gargery we had
to deal with in this case. However, earnestly protesting that we
would not fail to settle the matter on reaching our destination, Vulcan
grumblingly consented to let the 'veel go'. In the intermediate
time, between riding to and from the wagon, through sleet and
rain, we had become drenched to the skin, and resumed our journey,
in the expressive language of Mr. Santalina, a 'demned, damp,
moist body'.
"At a late hour we reached Winchester. Through the kind
and generous aid of our whole-souled friend, Commodore Parris of
the Clark Democrat, our wants were provided for. With light
hearts we took up our line of march on the following day for Mt.
Sterling, which we reached about 2 o'clock, still pushing on with
the intention of reaching Owingsville by nightfall. Man proposes
but outrageous fate disposes. Wearily we climbed hill after hill,
and anon the shades of evening gathered around us. Just before
reaching the second toll gate, and when within six miles of our objective
point, another wheel was smashed and a portion of our
material dumped into the road.
"Fortunately the accident occurred near the farm of our worthy
representative, Hon. George Hamilton, whose amiable, accomplished
and excellent wife extended to us every courtesy and the
hospitalities of her home. We shall ever remember with deep and
sincere gratitude the kind welcome and assistance so cheerfully
given us by Mrs. H.
"With a new wagon and a pair of mules and horses we were
confident of completing our journey without further mishaps. Our
route lay over a dirt road, in many places axle deep in mud, rendered
so from recent rains and melting snow. It is a good enough
road in summer they tell us, and that's a sound argument against
pikes. This apathy of our good people in this regard to a matter
of such vital importance as good turnpikes, is very like the fellow
in the dialogue of the 'Arkansas Traveler'. In bad weather it was
impossible to cover his house; in dry he had no use for it.
"But we digress. Of course our wagon stuck fast ere we had
proceeded two miles. Coaxing the horses and breaking numberless
rails over the backs of the mules proved to no avail. Unloading a
portion of the materials we again essayed to pull out, but the horses
understood the situation and the mules coincided. It was 'No go'.
"On applying to Mrs. J. A. Marks for an ox team to extricate
us from the difficulty, she kindly consented to loan them. Her
servants were away from home and it devolved upon us, agreeable
to instructions, to hitch the whitest ox on this side and the other
on the t'other. As we could distinguish little or no difference
between the browsing, bullheaded twain we gave it up. In the
meantime our wagon with half of its load had pulled out of the
mud and mire. As luck would have it further down the road we
met our clever countryman, Robt. Clarke, who loaned us his oxen
and wagon to bring up the debris in the rear. Oxen seldom give
vent to their feelings even under the most trying circumstances,
but on this occasion it was too much for brute nature. The 'off ox'
under the terrible strain and distention of muscle and hide, bellowed
lustily. It was only by the wildest and most threatening demon-
strations of a young country gentleman who attacked the oxen
with the apparent intention of 'busting' something, that the wagon
moved off, amid the yelling of the boy and the bellowing of the
brutes. At last we reached the pike and our troubles in a measure
ended. On our arrival at Owingsville we found our type in a mess
of 'pi' and ourselves in a sad plight, which has occasioned a delay
in the appearance of the paper." 

The subscription price for the Owingsville Inquirer was $2.50, and according to some, was a fine newspaper.  Most of the early businesses advertised with the weekly publication, but only a year later, the Inquirer closed down. S.K. Bangs went onto become a successful publisher and head of the Frankfort Democrat paper, and employee David Williamson went onto to work for several newspaper publishers in Bath County over the years.  
There have been many newspapers published in Bath County since 1869, but it's unlikely any of those had such a story of origin.