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Authors: Bruce Henderson

Down to the Sea

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Down to the Sea

An Epic Story of
Naval Disaster and Heroism
in World War II

Bruce Henderson

For the men of the sea who served and died,

for the loved ones they left behind,

and for the children they never knew.

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;

These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves thereof.

They mount up to the heaven,
they go down again to the depths…

—P
SALM
107:23–26

Prologue

A
BOARD THE DESTROYER
S
PENCE
IN THE WESTERN
P
ACIFIC

December 18, 1944

It was shortly after 11:00
A.M.
when Water Tender 3rd Class Charles Wohlleb of West New York, New Jersey, left the after fire room and headed topside. He did so with two shipmates also not on watch that morning: Water Tender 3rd Class Cecil Miller and Boilermaker 1st Class Franklin Horkey. The three sailors had gone down to the fire room where there was
always a pot of coffee brewing, but they found the crowded space too uncomfortable with the ship pitching and rolling in mountainous seas—the worst storm any of them had ever been through. Before they left, Horkey put on a sound-powered phone headset and told the men who remained at their duty stations that he would let them know what was happening topside. They climbed a ladder and went through a hatch to reach the main deck.

Wohlleb, a shy, soft-spoken twenty-year-old who after high school had worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps before receiving his draft notice and thereafter enlisting in the Navy in January 1943, would never forget the names and faces of the four men he last saw attending to their assigned duties that morning in the fire room. Standing atop the narrow steel platform in front of the control panel of the Babcock and Wilcox oil-fired boiler, Water Tender 2nd Class Frank Thompson operated the oil burners that fed the fire inside the firebox. Fireman 1st Class Norman Small, “a Nebraska farm kid who was not small,” kept a close eye on the fuel-oil heater and pressure gauges. Fireman 1st Class Claude “Roy” Turner monitored the water levels and adjusted a valve whenever necessary to keep the right amount of water circulating through copper tubes above the boiler to ensure the generation of sufficient steam to drive the two General Electric geared turbines that powered the ship. Water Tender 1st Class Layton Slaughter, who was in charge, wore sound-powered phones in order to communicate with Horkey. Slaughter controlled the amount of air that went into the boiler and the color of smoke that came out the stack. In a war zone, releasing black smoke (not enough air in the boiler) was an unsafe proposition, as it could pinpoint the vessel's location to enemy warships and aircraft from miles away. As usual, no one on the “black gang”—so called from the days of coal-burning ships, when soot habitually stained the faces, hands, and clothing of men who worked in the fire room—was wearing a life preserver. The spaces where they worked were very hot, at times as much as 130 degrees, and they also wanted to be able to move around freely.

When Wohlleb and the other two sailors reached topside, they emerged under an alcove that blocked most of the howling wind and
rushing seawater swamping the deck. Their protected location was fortuitous, as no one could have stayed in the open for long without being swept overboard—exactly why earlier that morning all hands not on duty had been ordered to remain in the berthing compartments two or more levels below the main deck. During heavy weather, men not on watch typically climbed into their racks—whether they could sleep or not—and braced themselves to keep from being thrown around.

There was no visible horizon; the driving rain and blowing spray obscured where the sea ended and the sky began. From this swirling, grayish spume a colossal wall of seawater, taller than the ship's 50-foot mast, emerged off the bow every twenty or thirty seconds. The destroyer was riding unusually high in the water due to being dangerously low on fuel, bobbing in the turbulent seas like a child's bath toy. Each time
Spence
ascended up another wall of water, she was inundated at the crest, where she teetered briefly before pitching forward. On the thunderous ride downhill, the ship rocked, rolled, and yawed precariously. Once at the bottom of the trough,
Spence
heeled steeply in the driving winds until the next onslaught.

Wohlleb and his companions watched in horror as a depth charge packed with 200 pounds of torpex—an explosive 50 percent more powerful than TNT by weight—broke loose from its rack nearby, skipped across the deck, and slammed into bulkheads before washing overboard. An acetylene tank broke loose and did the same precarious dance across the deck before taking flight in the wind.

Over the headsets, Horkey was receiving news from below. “Jesus!” he yelled, his voice sounding muted and far away. “After fire room—swamped!”

Wohlleb knew what that meant: seawater had gone down the stacks and probably also the fresh-air ventilators that went from the main deck to the fire room. Pumping would have to commence immediately to stop the rising water from shorting out the electric panels in the fire room and adjacent engine room, which could mean the loss of lights, power, steering—leaving
Spence
, a 2,100-ton
Fletcher
-class destroyer with a crew of 339 men, dead in the water.

Not more than a minute later, Horkey yelled: “Control boards—on fire!”

Right up until that moment, Wohlleb had given no thought to the ship sinking. He and the veteran crew had gone through too much together to worry about a storm. Over a fifteen-month period they had been in some of the toughest naval action yet seen in the Pacific, for which
Spence
had earned eight battle stars. They had come through their encounters with the Imperial Japanese Navy unscathed. Indeed, throughout the U.S. Third Fleet,
Spence
had a reputation for being not only a stalwart fighting ship but also a very lucky one.

“Lights out below! Losing power!”

Spence
's run of good fortune was about to end.

One
P
EARL
H
ARBOR

December 7, 1941

The greatest generation's first day of war dawned bright over Oahu.

Although sunrise came officially to the Hawaiian Islands at 6:36
A.M.
that morning, Pearl Harbor remained shaded to the east by the 2,000-foot volcanic twins, Tantalus and Olympus, for another half an hour. As the sun crested the low-slung mountaintops, its brilliance washed the sky with bold streaks of light and painted in emerald the endless sugarcane fields stretching up the lush slopes above the nearly landlocked home port of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet.

The destroyer
Monaghan
(DD-354) was tied
up to a nest of three other destroyers:
Aylwin
,
Dale,
and
Farragut
. The four vessels, which made up Destroyer Division 2, were moored side by side in East Loch off the north end of Ford Island—less than one square mile of land situated in the middle of Pearl Harbor—home to a naval air station, warehouses, and oil storage tanks. Several dozen other ships, including three other destroyer divisions, were moored on that side of the island; however, most of the fleet's anchorages (including an impressive lineup of America's biggest warships on Battleship Row), dry docks, and repair facilities, along with a sprawling oil-tank farm, were located along the harbor's expansive southeastern shores.

Monaghan
had been the ready-duty destroyer since 8:00 the previous morning, meaning that for twenty-four hours the ship was “in readiness to get under way on one hour's notice” should her presence be required outside the harbor. To ensure a quick getaway,
Monaghan
was moored in the outboard position of the nest and singled up (with only one mooring line rather than multiple tie-downs), with a fire under one boiler and the full crew aboard. In the event of hostilities, enemy submarines were believed to be the most serious threat to the flow of ships that came and went from the harbor, so there was always at least one destroyer patrolling outside the entrance. Another destroyer was on standby to assist with any emergency outside the harbor.

Monaghan
belonged to the
Farragut
class (named for the first U.S. Navy admiral, David Glasgow Farragut, a Civil War hero credited with the legendary battle cry “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”), which were the first modern destroyers built for the U.S. Navy since the end of World War I. A total of eight ships in this class were launched in 1934–35. Designed to carry a crew of 150 men (wartime complements exceeded 200), the vessels were dubbed by sailors as “gold platers” because they were so plush compared with their predecessors. Representing the peak of technology and naval design for their era, these 1,395-ton two-stackers with a flank speed of 37 knots
*
(43 miles per hour) were originally armed with five 5-inch deck guns (two forward, two aft, one amidships),
*
four .50-caliber mounted machine guns, eight torpedo tubes, and a pair of depth-charge tracks.

The last
Farragut
-class destroyer built,
Monaghan
was launched on January 9, 1935, in Boston and christened by Mary F. Monaghan, niece of its namesake. Like all destroyers,
Monaghan
was named for a hero; other ships were named for states (battleships), cities (cruisers), famous ships (aircraft carriers), and fish (submarines). Ensign John R. Monaghan had served aboard the cruiser
Philadelphia
during a native uprising in Samoa in 1899. Monaghan had joined a landing party assigned to restore order among the natives, and his small band was returning to the ship when they were ambushed, during which a lieutenant was badly wounded. Despite the lieutenant's order to leave him and save themselves, Monaghan and two sailors stood by their wounded officer, fighting until overpowered, killed, and beheaded by the natives.

Assigned to patrol duties outside Pearl Harbor that morning was the destroyer
Ward
(DD-139), “an old World War I vintage” vessel that could barely make 30 knots. The old ship had a new skipper, Lieutenant William W. Outerbridge, who had taken over this, his first sea command, two days earlier. Since the issuance of a war warning from Washington, D.C., in late November, the ships on offshore patrol were under orders to depth-charge any suspicious submarine contacts operating in the defensive sea area outside the harbor.

At 6:40
A.M.
, the crew of an auxiliary ship,
Antares
(AKS-3), towing a 500-ton barge toward the entrance to Pearl Harbor, spotted an object 1,500 yards off its starboard quarter. When the report reached
Ward
, the destroyer changed course to intercept the object, identifying it as a small
submarine attempting to enter the harbor behind the barge. Given his shoot-to-kill orders, Outerbridge did not hesitate to commence an attack.
Ward
's forward deck gun fired a shell that struck the base of the sub's conning tower. The submarine submerged or sank, and as
Ward
passed close by, the destroyer's crew released a depth charge, rolling off a rack at the fantail a 600-pound cylindrically shaped “ashcan” packed with TNT and a fuse set to go off at a predetermined depth.

Outerbridge at that point radioed a report to Pearl Harbor communications: “We have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive area.” The message from
Ward
filtered up the peacetime chain of command that Sabbath morning with glacial speed before orders went out to the ready-duty destroyer to assist
Ward
, which would be credited with sinking a Japanese midget submarine and firing the first shots of the war.
*
At 7:51
A.M.
Monaghan
received a dispatch from the Fourteenth Naval District Headquarters: “Proceed immediately and contact
Ward
in defensive sea area.”

At 7:53
A.M.
, the first wave of 181 Japanese planes—launched in the predawn darkness from six aircraft carriers operating undetected 275 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor—began their coordinated attack on the ships in the harbor and surrounding military bases and airfields. To further confuse the situation and keep their carriers from being located, many of the attacking planes flew around Oahu and approached Pearl Harbor from the south.

With the sound of church bells ringing in nearby Honolulu for eight o'clock mass and sailors in dress whites coming on deck preparing to hoist the colors on many of the seventy combat ships and twenty-four auxiliaries in the harbor, little attention was paid to the circling and diving aircraft. Army and Navy pilots were often up at dawn buzzing
the beaches and engaging in playful dogfights, and heavy bombers were regularly being flown over from the mainland. Then, across the island in paradise, ripped a cacophony of explosions.

Aboard
Monaghan
at 7:55
A.M.
, an excited crewman reported the air raid to the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander William P. Burford, who before being notified about
Ward
's message had been preparing to go ashore when
Monaghan
was relieved of duty at 8:00. In fact, the gig to take him ashore was already alongside. Stepping onto an outside catwalk, Burford saw a spiral of black smoke rising from the vicinity of the Army's Schofield Barracks. At the roar of a nearby plane, he turned to see a black plane with a bright red circle on its fuselage passing alongside
Monaghan
50 feet above the water. The goggled pilot could be seen through the open canopy, and he lifted one hand in a wave as the plane swooped by. Burford realized the torpedo plane was taking aim on the battleship
Utah
(BB-31), moored several hundred yards to the south. Then, as if in slow motion, the plane dropped its torpedo.

“Sound general quarters!” the square-jawed Burford hollered.

A few seconds later, a loud explosion erupted from
Utah
.

Upon reaching the bridge, Burford's first order was over the junction box phone that served as the main shipboard communications system. Normally, a duty “phone talker” would relay the captain's orders to other sections of the ship, but this morning Burford took the phone himself. To the engineering officer, Ensign G. V. Rogers, already working in the engine room to get the ship under way to join
Ward
, the skipper ordered: “Get up steam on all boilers for emergency sortie!”

Picking up a radiophone receiver for the talk-between-ships (TBS) radio, Burford checked the status of the other three destroyers in the nest. Finding that most of the key officers and chief petty officers—the most experienced enlisted men and traditionally acknowledged as the backbone of any seagoing navy—were on weekend liberty, leaving junior officers in charge (a common situation aboard many vessels that morning), Burford directed the other ships to commence firing at the attackers as soon as they were capable of doing so.

At 8:27
A.M.
,
Monaghan
got under way—the first ship in the harbor to do so that morning—backing clear of the nest of destroyers, then turning to come about and head out the narrow north channel on a southwest course between Pearl City and Ford Island. The destroyer's guns were firing at last, the booming of her 5-inch deck guns interspersed with the throaty rat-tat-tat of mounted .50-caliber machine guns. Although the ship was in readiness to respond to an emergency outside the harbor, the live ammunition was stored in locked magazines several decks below. When no one could quickly find the keys, someone with bolt cutters had hurried to the magazines and snapped off the locks. A line of sailors quickly formed to pass the ammo topside.

Clearing a thick column of smoke,
Monaghan
slipped past
Utah
's anchorage. Everyone topside was stunned by the sight before them: the 21,000-ton dreadnought had capsized, with only the bottom of her hull showing out of the water like the shell of a monstrous turtle. No one who saw the sight could help wondering how many men were still trapped inside the wrecked vessel. Adjacent to
Utah,
the light cruiser
Raleigh
(CL-7) was down by the bow after being hit by a torpedo, and several other nearby ships were listing badly. The tropical breeze, normally fresh and pristine, stank with smoke and oil—and death. Burned and broken bodies floated by like logs drifting to a downriver mill.

As
Monaghan
steamed down the channel with Burford at the conn “wanting to get out of that damn harbor as fast as possible,” a signalman observed the seaplane tender
Curtiss
(AV-4) flying a pennant indicating the presence of an enemy submarine.
Curtiss
had fire under her boilers that morning, too, and had gotten under way soon after the attack began. (By then, many moored ships—desperate to get up steam so as not to remain stationary targets—were pouring out heavy black smoke from newly lighted boilers.)

“Well,
Curtiss
must be crazy,” scoffed Burford, a former submarine commander, who knew well that standard submarines were too large to operate in Pearl Harbor's shallow waters.

Just then,
Curtiss
' deck gun boomed.

“Okay, Captain,” said the signalman, “then what is that thing dead ahead of us?” He pointed off the starboard bow.

Burford was amazed to see through the smoke a small submarine moving toward them on the surface several hundred yards away. In the sub's bow were two torpedo tubes, not side by side as usual, but one directly above the other like “an over and under shotgun barrel.”

Monaghan
headed for the submarine. As the destroyer closed, Burford saw through his binoculars the submarine turn sharply toward them and fire a torpedo. The torpedo porpoised twice, then settled on a straight course. It passed just wide of the destroyer's starboard bow, ran up on a nearby beach, and exploded. Not intending to give the submarine a second chance, Burford ordered up flank speed. “Prepare to ram! Stand by the depth charges.”

Passing over the midget submarine caused a slight vibration to be felt on the destroyer. Seconds later, the submarine's stubby bow was observed close astern in
Monaghan
's roiling wake, canted up crazily out of the water. Two 600-pound depth charges were released in rapid succession off the destroyer's fantail. Burford knew that putting down depth charges in such shallow water risked blowing off his ship's stern, but he felt he “had to depth charge close to my own ship under the circumstances if I were going to destroy that sub.” When the ashcans went off nearly simultaneously with violent concussive effect at a depth of 30 feet, the explosions lifted
Monaghan
's stern clear out of the water and knocked down nearly everyone on deck. A cascade of blackish mud was thrown high into the air.

The sub popped to the surface, floating on its side like a dead animal.
*

The destroyer sped on, going too fast to make the turn into the main channel leading to the sea. Burford at that instant realized they were about to collide with a derrick barge moored at the west side of the channel. “Full left rudder! All engines back emergency full!” Although his orders were carried out promptly, it was too late to check the ship's headway.
Monaghan
struck the derrick a glancing blow on her starboard hull, sustaining damage that was later found to have caused minor leakage below and salt water contamination in one fuel tank.

The destroyer came to a gradual halt as her bow struck bottom on the sandy shoal at Beckoning Point. Attempting to back clear,
Monaghan
became entangled in the derrick's mooring lines. Changing directions, the destroyer pulled ahead slowly and cleared the lines but was still aground. On the bridge, Burford ordered the ship backed slowly again to try to regain deeper water.

BOOK: Down to the Sea
12.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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