NAQT CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FOUR

The small size of the Spence and all other destroyers and destroyer escorts served to foster a certain informality in naval custom. When planning for the Spence, the bureau of personnel or BuPers, allowed just about 11 square feet per man or roughly three feet by three feet nine inches in which to sleep, store uniforms and personal items.  In peacetime this allowed minimal but ample room for the crew but in wartime the complement went from roughly 226 men to 329 which strained accommodations to the limit. The crew “hot bunked,” sharing racks with sailors on duty while another slept. Very tight quarters. For their size, these warships carried very large numbers of crew. This was necessary in order to operate the ship at a high level of readiness when in a war zone. If you couldn’t bear to be bumped or jostled about by others you were in the wrong kind of ship. It took about two hours waiting in line for chow which you had to eat in fifteen minutes, crewmen did this three times a day. Tiny shipboard spaces coupled with very large crews wasn’t conductive to spit and polish. Oil, grease, tarred ropes and hawsers made it impossible to keep the summer uniform of whites clean on these small ships. The common uniform of the day was dungarees, a light blue chambray shirt, denim bell bottom dungarees and naval working shoes fondly referred to as“Boondockers.” Heavy duty work shoes, suitable for any job which never wore out, or as some sailors say, never broke in either. Dungarees were stored between the thin mattress ticking and the wire racks in crew quarters, giving them the appearance of laundry that was never, ever ironed. Scruffy in looks, comfortable to wear and eminently serviceable, sailors took a great deal of pride in their appearance and spoke of their belonging to “The Dungaree Navy.” “Tin Can” sailors were intensely proud to be a part of it and looked down on the swabs that rode around on immense flattops and mighty battleships with legions of “four striper” captains and Admirals looking down on them from sky bridges, ever critical and more powerful than the God himself. Is it any wonder then that Tin Cans had the highest casualty rate of any class of ship in the navy. They went to the sound of battle, always.  The Small Boys were the one ship that led the way, sacrificed for the safety of the glamorous carriers and battleships. Everyone in the Dungaree Navy knew what was expected of their ships and crews and they did it.

Sailors have long considered the Fletchers a very sexy ship with her raked stacks and aggressive profile it is easy to see why. With all of her boilers on line she could top out at 38 knots or roughly 44 miles and hour. The captain could ring up flank speed, the engineers would tie down the pop off valves to increase boiler pressure, the air intakes or blowers as sailors called them would begin to howl like hurricanes as they forced massive amounts of air to the burners in the boilers and the ship would begin slicing through the sea like a knife, shaking like a dog trying to pass a peach pit as the old saying goes, clouds of spray coming back over the bow hard enough to sting the face.  The ship would grab a bone in its teeth, settle at the stern as the twin screws pushed so much water out from under the keel that it partially sank. Swabbies loved them. Perhaps more after the fact than during, but still they were special ships manned by prideful young men.

USS Spence off Guadalcanal 1943 with a bone in her teeth.

Bigger warships called them “Small boys.” A term that was both envious and derisive. There is a story told that in the Fall of 1944,  a destroyer escort, smaller by nearly 80 feet than Don’s Spence, limped into Pearl to have extensive battle damage repaired, she received a semaphore signal from a massive battleship moored to Ford Island. The battleship division Admiral’s query? “What type of ship is that?” No doubt this accompanied by the admiral’s staffs little snickers as they peered down from the flag bridge high above the little DE as it passed. The Captain of the USS Tabberer, (DE-481) a Butler Class Destroyer Escort, Lcdr Henry lee Plage commanding, a ninety day wonder Naval Reservist, cheekily signaled back, “What type of ship are you?” to howls of delighted laughter from the sailors on the little Tabby’s bridge. The little “Tabby” just a fraction the size of the BB had won a Navy Unit Commendation, 4 battle stars and her captain, the Navy’s Legion of Merit awarded by Admiral Halsey himself who passed on Admiral Nimitz’s congratulations for tweaking the nose of the high and mighty battleship Admiral.

Typical of the officers that made the Navy great in WWII, Henry Lee Plage started his military career as a member of ROTC at Georgia Tech. He joined the Navy in 1937 after his graduation. Like many college grads during the depression his options were limited and a Naval officers career was appealing because the pay was steady and there were some options, though advancement was very slow. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Commander Plage immediately requested sea duty. As a reservist officer his chances of an important command were slim but by May of 1944 when he took command of the Tabberer, the naval service had discovered that these essentially amateur officers often outfought and out thought the Naval Academy boys who were often driven by career objectives and internal politics. The great strength of America lay with it’s amateurs.

LCDR Henry Lee Plage

The crews called them “Tin Cans,” for they were so lightly built with less than a half inch of steel plate that hard service would dish the hull between frames so the sides would look like waffles. They were the thoroughbreds of the fleet. They suffered more casualties than any type of ship during the war. Early in the war, the Navy took horrific casualties in the battle for Guadalcanal. Heavy cruisers were decimated by the Imperial Japanese navy and the roles they would normally have played were filled by the little ships which were forced by high command to take on not only IJN destroyers, but cruisers and battleships.

The sailors who rode these ships were men like Henry Plage and Ernest E Evans. Ernest Edwin Evans, a half-Cherokee Indian and one-quarter-Creek Indian, was born on 13 August 1908 in Pawnee, Oklahoma. He graduated from Central High School in Muskegee, Oklahoma and May 1926 and enlisted in the US Navy. After a year’s service as an enlisted man, he was appointed to the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, from the Navy at large. Enlisted personnel take a written exam and present evidence to the examiners as to their fitness. Evans entered as a Midshipman on 29 June 1927. The Academy yearbook, “The Lucky Bag,” described him thus:

As a plebe, Chief thought his military life was just “one bust after another”, but coming through that year with a philosophy of “life is what one makes it”, he established himself in the heart of every Middie. 

Endowed with an exceptionally brilliant mind, he advocates and practices a minimum of study and a maximum of reading and pleasure. This policy has enabled him to develop a shining personality and pleasant nature, together with a knowledge of psychology, religion, philosophy, love, or most any subject about which one desires to converse. 

As a wife he is reliable, big-hearted, and consistent, full of good jokes, “lend me two bits, pal, so I can call Baltimore,” laughs and sorrows, never gripes, always ambitious.

The Big Chief graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Science and commissioned Ensign in the US Navy in June 1931,

During the commissioning ceremony of the Destroyer Johnston, DD-557 in September 1943, Commander Evans a made his mission clear to the Sailors assigned to his ship: “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now.” No one did.  They did go too. In the battle off Samar, Philippines, Lcdr Evans, without waiting for orders flung his little ship against a Japanese fleet of 8 cruisers, 20 destroyers and 4 battleships including the two largest and most powerful ever built, the IJN Musashi and the IJN Yamato. The Imperial Navy’s Yamato weighed more than all the ships of the American task force, more than two hundred forty time than the Johnston alone. The Yamato fired a projectile that weighed over a ton. The Johnston fired one that weighed 55 pounds. The little ships from Taffy 3 that attached the IJN fleet had to run for over seven miles under fire before they were close enough to shoot. The men of the Johnston, the Hoel and the Samuel B Roberts fought their ships until they were destroyed. In a battle lasting over  two and a half hours the Johnston and the other destroyers of his group, Taffy 3 savaged the Japanese fleet. At the end, Evan’s and the Johnston were beaten to a pulp, nearly dead in the water, topsides blasted into a smoking ruin. As Capt. Bob Copeland, the commanding officer of Samuel B. Roberts, describes the moment, he watched Johnston limp slowly by, with Captain Evans standing on her fantail, calling orders down the hatch where her sailors were trying to turn her rudder by hand. Captain Evans was stripped to the waist and covered in blood. His left hand, missing two fingers and wrapped in a strip of his shirt. When he saw Copeland, he grinned and waved.  At the end, the Johnston rolled over and sank taking 186 men down with her including Capt. Evans. Not long after, the Sammie B. was also gone, blown to pieces by shells from the battleships weighing almost 1,500 lbs each. LCDR Evans was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Lest we think Evan’s action was a rarity, Bob Copeland who waved back at Ernie Evans wrote in the after action report of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, “The crew were informed over the loud speaker system at the beginning of the action, of the Commanding Officer’s estimate of the situation, that is, a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected, during which time we would do what damage we could.  In the face of this knowledge the men zealously manned their stations wherever they might be, and fought and worked with such calmness, courage and efficiency that Captain Copeland felt that no higher honor could be conceived than to command such a group of men.

Medal of Honor, the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal and Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon, *

This is the Navy Donald Polhemus entered, the Tin Can Navy. His ship was to go in harm’s way too. More than once.

Spence had just returned from convoy escort duties to Casablanca, Morocco with a brief stop in New York for a brief refit.. Leaving Newport News, she headed for the Naval Training Area located between the Outer banks of the Carolinas and Bermuda. At a distance of over 700 miles across, this area was chosen because it gave sailors, particularly new ones an opportunity to get their sea legs. You see, the gulf stream traveling north off the east coast of the US bounces off Cuba and Florida, accelerating around the curve of the coast at Cape Lookout, North Carolina and is compressed between the Cape and Bermuda. This makes it a place where rough water is sure to be found. Running gunnery, overboard, anti-sub drills in these water is meant to test crews limits under some pretty harsh conditions. With perhaps two thirds of the crew staggering seasick, training forces men to perform under very rigorous conditions. Not the least of which is showing them the importance of getting along and helping each other. They learn they must operate the ship no matter how many bumps and bruises or buckets of vomit they toss over the side. Running at flank speed of 38 knots a Fletcher class destroyer in a tight, hard over turn can roll up to 60 degrees, surely a terrifying experience to young farm boys or city kids who have never been to sea. A turn like that puts the lee rail underwater and causes anything on board not tied down to careen across the deck. Crockery in the galley is sacrificed, open lockers spill their contents, unsecured depth charges spill out of their racks, crashing against bulkheads, altogether a frightening experience for the new crew but eminently satisfying to the veteran seamen aboard who know how to move around with one hand for the ship and one hand for themselves. They have practiced walking down a corridor with one foot on the deck and one on the bulkhead, a trick demonstrated by Fred Astaire in his movie “Royal Wedding where he dances on the wall and the ceiling. The cuts, bumps and bruises will eventually seem like nothing to these boys getting their initiation to sea life. It’s a highly instructive object lesson for the crew on the value of securing anything not in use. A good master can forge a tight knit crew only by forcing them to be proud of the hardships they must endure. They learn the old seaman’s adage about seasickness, “First you think you’re going to die, then you hope you’ll die soon.” 

Steel ships are not built with comfort in mind. Everything below decks seems to be designed to poke, scrape and cut the unwary. There are no cushions or bumpers on anything. Passageways are festooned with thousands of electrical wires left exposed for ease of maintenance. A ship built in Bath, Maine will have had all it’s welds ground smooth which is not the case with vessels from other yards. The Boiler room is hotter than Hell on a summers day. Live steam leaks from pipe fittings, the deck is slippery and there is a cloudy haze floating in the air. The engine rooms are nearly as hot and the sheer number of fittings, gauges and control wheels boggles the mind. There is a constant oily haze in the air and the engine room crew is liberally coated with it. The noise is deafening, the big turbines produce a high pitched whine, the reduction gears grind and the sound of the forced draft from the blowers sounds like a hurricane when the ship is traveling at a high rate of speed. Blowers are a constant. Ships did not have air conditioning in WWII and the constant sound of the blowers trying, without much success to cool the air is deafening. An off duty sailor in his rack can hear the water gurgling and hissing as it flows over the hull.

Worst of all, for the new kid it all happens at once. The rolling gait of an old seamen is hard earned. Of course there is a method to this madness, taking a ship into the roiling Gulf Stream. There is no time for coddling. Junior officers, Chiefs and veteran rating push, shove, shout and lay the hard word on confused young sailors until they finally begin to resemble a functional crew. Almost nothing they learned in boot camp applies to their new jobs.

Chief Quartermaster Harlan Carrigan, a black haired Irishman from Maine man was in charge of teaching the seamen who actually steered the ship. Peter Paul Manghisi from New York was a seaman who was “Striking” for Quartermaster, at just five foot three and 120 pounds Peter must have been quite a contrast to Chief Carrigan who stood six two and weighted in a 200 plus pounds. Nevertheless Harlan Carrigan saw something in the diminutive Manghisi worth cultivating.

Striking is a naval term for a sailor who has qualified through study and experience for a rate, but has not yet become a petty officer. The Chief himself, might not be the best steersman. Qualifying as a Quartermaster takes much more than just mastering the nuts and bolts of the skill. The man who steers a ship must develop a sense that anticipates the movements of a vessel. Its an intuitive skill which involves all the senses. Seeing the sea state, reading the instruments before you and feeling the movements off the deck under you are what makes a good helmsman.

A Fletcher class destroyers primary wheel is located on a console mounted to the deck on the bridge. The console also has two compasses, a gyroscopic which indicates true north and a magnetic which indicates magnetic north. The north pole, magnetic north tends to drift with the movement of the universe and can be unreliable. It’s never used unless there is some failure of the gyroscope. There is always a rudder repeater which tells the man steering two things. One is the angle of the rudder caused by turning the wheel and the other is the true angle of the rudder. There is a time lag between turning the wheel and the rudder responding and there is a much longer time before the ship begins to turn. This is where intuition comes in. A helmsman must be able to anticipate what the ship is going to do in any sea state. A Fletcher is 376 feet long and only 39 feet wide. Its like a floating pencil. Being long and thin the expectation would be that they want to move in a straight line but that was not the case. Sometimes it simply defied reason to determine why she wandered of course.To be a good helmsman required very sensitive physical senses and a keen mind. It was necessary to predict what she is about to do in the next several seconds and take corrective action before it happens. Once the ship slides off course the rudder cannot be moved quickly enough to avoid wandering. A good helmsman has to be able to second guess constantly. The worst sea state is when the swells are abaft (Behind) the beam. As the swell begins to lift the stern the bow buries itself and the stern begins to slide off to one side or other. In a very heavy swell the ship can broach, or turn sideways to the swell and possibly capsize. As the ship slides sideways the helmsman must correct. If he overcorrects the ship will roll as well as pitch. All over the ship you will hear, “Who the Hell is on the wheel?” Peter Maghisi began his instruction in calm seas for obvious reasons.

Spence in heavy weather

Soon after completing at sea training, the Spence was assigned to the Pacific Fleet and sortied through the Panama canal and up the west coast to Mare Island Navy Yard Annex at Hunters Point, San Francisco, for a three week overhaul. Don was able to take the train down to Anaheim to visit his parents and get the family news. His brother Henry and his brother in-law CB Cotton, who had married his older sister Evelyn in 1933 were both Naval officers and in the Pacific. Evelyn was living with her parents while her husband was at sea and it must have been frightening to have two family men in the war zone and the youngest, Don, soon to be on his way.

Anaheim like most towns in mid 1943 would have exhibited a curious quiet. There were very few school friends about, most were in the service. Not just the boys either. Married men, men with children and those that failed physicals in ’41 were now considered healthy enough to serve were being caught up in the draft. Women entered the Waves, WACs and the Women’s Marines. There was almost no unemployment on the west coast. The industries that produced war material operated 24 hours a day sven days a week. When Don left his parents house to walk around town it would have seemed almost like a ghost town.

It is so hard to imagine today what it was like for mothers to have one eye out the window all the time looking to spot the boy delivering telegrams on his bicycle, coming up your street, praying that the sadness he was bringing was for some other poor mother and not you. There is a magnificently poignant scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the Ryan’s mother sees the sedan coming up the drive and seems to float out to the porch waiting for what news it brings. When the family’s minister opens the door, she slowly collapses, floating to the floorboards to slump heavily as if weighed down by impending grief. It’s heartbreaking to see. It happened 1,089,918 times in WWII. Read it again, one million, eighty nine thousand, nine hundred eighteen telegrams for the dead and the wounded and the missing. All those parents, brothers and sisters, wives, children, grandparents and friends, they were casualties too. 

 Spence left San Francisco and Hunter’s Point for Pearl and the western Pacific theater on 25 July and steamed into Pearl Harbor on August 3rd, 1943. She was slated for further training. In fact the training never stopped, she was headed into harms way and she could never be prepared enough. 

Spence leaving San Francisco 25 July 1943

chapter five

Rounding Oahu, slipping through the Molokai Channel and turning Northwest, she passed Diamond head, Honolulu and came to the entrance of Pearl Harbor. She lay off the entrance until the harbor pilot came aboard and steered them through the minefields, torpedo nets and in towards the Destroyer anchorage in the Middle Loch. As they slid past Ford island the destroyed Arizona, BB-39 stood as mute testimony to the savage attack of December 7th just two years before. Just forward, the massive salvage operation to raise the capsized Oklahoma BB-37 was still underway.* Rounding Ford Island to their designated anchorage they pass the old Utah, BB-31 rolled over and rusting away. Some of it’s crew still entombed inside.

The crew, dressed in crisp whites stood at attention and saluted. Tears flowed unashamedly from both sailors and their officers. Prewar servicemen almost certainly knew some of those lost men.

To Be Continued Friday October 2nd.

*One of my high school classmates father was trapped below decks on the Oklahoma for four days until salvage crews managed to cut through the bottom of the ship and get him out.

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