NAQT

CHAPTER EIGHT

By the time Burke assumed command of Desron-23 on the 23rd of November 1943. A little more than year had passed since the first battle of Savo Island and the attitude of the Navy had changed considerably. As in every war recorded in history, the weeding out of commanders who were less than completely aggressive had begun. Timidity and fear were not the great problem. As always, the ability to think clearly in combat was and is always the deciding factor. As in the case of Lieutenant Commander Ernest Evans’s ship Johnston and Bob Copeland of the Samuel B Roberts DE-413, the “Sammie B,” in the battle of the Philippine Sea, turning and attacking an immensely more powerful force and fighting your ship to the bitter end was the requirement. No careful calculation of odds, simply the ability to subdue fear and react aggressively to the situation. The fate of these little ships was essentially sealed the minute the commanders ordered the wheel put over and began their runs against the Japanese battleships. By doing so they no doubt saved thousands of American lives by allowing the carriers to escape while fooling the Japanese Admiral into thinking he was being attacked by much larger ships. This was a calculated insanity and also what was necessary. Arleigh Burke was that kind of man. He told his skippers that turning towards the enemy could never be a mistake no matter the situation at hand or the confusion of combat operations. He meant it. Soon after taking command, Captain Burke, always in search of ways to weld his team together was walking the deck of the Destroyer Claxton and amidships he spied a young sailor painting something on the head of a torpedo. The seaman, James Bowler was painting a character made famous by Fred Harman’s Red Ryder cartoon strip. This cartoon series was very popular during the squadron’s operations in World War II.  Little Beaver was shooting an arrow at Japan’s Prime Minister Tojo. Due to the high tempo of operations during the squadron’s operations in the South Pacific, the ships’ crews often said they were busy as beavers. This sentiment led Captain Burke to adopt the logo (minus Tojo) for use by the entire squadron and it remains in use to this day. All the destroyers, including Spence soon sported Little Beaver painted on the bridge wings.

The bridge wing of the Charles Ausburne. Captain Burke reading, Little Beaver keeping watch. October, 1943. You can see one of his phone talkers leaning on the rail right behind him. DOD Photo

When you cram over three hundred men on a small ship, work them day and night and sail them into extreme danger, maintaining moral is terribly important. Boys in the service soon grow attached to one another in ways that civilians are not ever likely to do. The close proximity of the living and working spaces plus the need for the young to maintain some sort of connection to their former life opens the floodgates and personal details of the most intimate kind are routinely shared. Poley and the young guys he worked with in the supply department including Lt. Krachunas were on the low end of twenty. Two men in supply were only 17 in 1943.  Rosevelt Copeland from Mansfield, Louisiana whose mother Fannie had to sign for him in order to join the service. At sixteen he had to lie about his age, being too young to volunteer on his own. From one of the poorest parishes Louisiana, De Soto, opportunities for a better life were essentially nonexistent. Rosevelt’s father had been an army cook in WWI. He had served in France and while Rosevelt was growing up he cooked for the local hospital. The hospital itself was an old converted plantation house of two story and still an imposing building when Rosevelt was growing up. In this tiny town with unpaved streets where he lived, it was Jim Crow south every day. Sugar Cane was the business and antebellum south was visible all around. There were homes still standing from pre-civil war days  such as the famous Shadows on the Teche, a plantation dating back to 1834. Wakefield, Belle Grove and the Lady of the Lake plantations still dominated working life . Each one a constant reminder of his low place. By 1940, his father Edgar, was gone to Bossier City, no longer around. It’s hard to imagine what his mother thought about signing those papers. His older brother was married when the war started and had only completed the third grade and of his two sisters, Maggie was nearly illiterate and Mattie had died before her first birthday. Mansfield, with a population 80% black, the Navy must have seemed to the young man a sort of salvation. Perhaps the only way out.

Working just under Poley was Paul Haefemeyer a storekeeper third class from Fairibault Minnesota. He joined up just a month after graduating from Fairibault high school on July 19th, 1943. He would celebrate his 18th birthday in January 1944. He was sent to boot camp at the Naval Training Center Farragut, Idaho. Due to the uncertain intentions of the Japanese, it was decided to build a training center away from the west coast to be certain it couldn’t be invaded or bombed by the IJN. Farragut is in the panhandle of Idaho and adjacent to lake Pend Orielle, a large body of water surrounded by mountains and what has to be the most spectacular views of any Naval facility in the United States. Pend Orielle, the name literally means “earloop” or “hangs from ears” in French, was given by voyageurs after meeting members of the Kalispel Tribe who wore dangling shell or bone earrings. The lake is fed from the Clark Fork River and drains down the Pend Orielle River to the Columbia.  Framed by the Cabinet Mountains on the east and the Bitteroots to the west it as about the opposite of what a boot might expect a naval facility to look like.The base was named after David Farragut (1801–1870), the first Admiral in the U.S. Navy and the leading naval officer during the Civil War. On August 5, 1864, Farragut won a great victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay. Mobile was then the Confederacy’s last major open port on the Gulf of Mexico. The bay was heavily mined (Anchored naval mines were then known as “torpedoes”). Farragut ordered his fleet to charge the bay. When the monitor USS Tecumseh struck a mine and sank, the other ships began to pull back. From his high perch, where he was lashed to the rigging of his flagship, USS Hartford, Farragut could see the ships pulling back. “What’s the trouble?” he shouted through a trumpet to USS Brooklyn. “Torpedoes”, was the shouted reply. “Damn the torpedoes.”, said Farragut, “Four bells, Captain Drayton, go ahead, full speed. The name “Farragut” was chosen for this station by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Commander-In-Chief of all U. S. Armed Forces. Divided into different basic training camps, the third camp built, Waldron, honored the late Lieutenant-Commander John Charles Waldron, U.S.N., who was the Commander of the famous Torpedo Squadron 8. Lieutenant-Commander Waldron led his squadron of 30 men and 15 planes against the IJN fleet during the Battle of Midway, an action credited as establishing the turning point in the engagement. Every plane in the attack was shot down and only one member of the squadron, Ensign Gay survived.

Photographed on board the USS Hornet, shortly before the Battle of Midway. Ensign George Gay (Circled) would be the only survivor of his squadron’s attack on June 4, 1942. (U.S. Navy)

For his heroism, Waldron was  posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Camp Ward where seaman recruit Paul Haefemeyer trained was named for Richard Ward, who during the attack on Pearl Harbor was aboard the battleship Oklahoma. When it became apparent that the  Oklahoma was about to capsize, the order came to abandon ship. Ward, a Seaman First Class, calmly remained at his turret post, ignoring his own safety., he held a battle lantern so that the rest of the men in his turret crew might see to escape. The 76 man crew was able to scramble out the turret door as the mammoth battleship rolled over into the mud. Ward died at his post but saved his shipmates. He was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

Farragut, being so far from the sea with no possibility of using any real ships for training, the Navy imported a shipment of 75 lifeboats, removed from passenger liners held in port by war restrictions. A local girl made good from the nearby little town of Wallace, Idaho, who happened to be on a war bond drive across the country accompanied the boats much to the delight of the recruits.

The base eventually had a population of 55,000, making it the largest “city” in the state. At the time, Farragut was the second-largest training center in the world behind Naval Training Station Great Lakes just north of Chicago. After graduation Paul followed the confusing Naval logic of posts. He went to Memphis Tennessee for Storekeeper school, then Dallas Texas on recruiting duty and finally to Camp Shoemaker near Livermore California where he received orders to the Spence.  Spence was at Hunters Point shipyard in San Francisco for a long overdue refit. He joined the ship in September, 1944. He had three months to live.

Camp Farragut Training Ship. Navsource photo

Paul picked up his new ship at Hunter’s Point. The Spence was undergoing a general overhaul after spending more than a year at sea. Serious repairs were done on mechanical systems that couldn’t be repaired by the fleets destroyer tenders (AD’s) In addition she was being fitted with new and more secondary armaments, fire control and radar apparatus. The adding of this extra weight topside was to make her even more tender in any kind of seaway. The Fletchers were notorious for being wet ships to begin with and as the war progressed they became even more so.

Paul began to get to know his shipmates in the supply department, Poley and  Bean, whom he worked for and Bob Craver, Shelby Ryals and John Kaufmann the Bakers. The Cooks too, Stan “Ski” Jankowski, because if you didn’t know, every man of Polish decent who has a name ending in Ski is invariably known by that appendage. Duane Stalder, Kermit Thomas, Harold Orasi and Andy Martin were the regular line cooks. The other two cooks were the officers mess men, Rosevelt Copeland and Larry Jackson.  

Paul must have been excited, he was still very young and though he had been to boot training this would be his first time at sea. Pretty exciting for a young guy. Being sent to a destroyer must have satisfied his imagination, Destroyers being the darlings of the press and public, fast and deadly and always where the action was. 

As the Spence collected her crew which had scattered all over the United States while they were in drydock, she began loading ammunition and supplies of all kinds. She also took aboard about 100 extra men to be transported west for other duty. The naval war was in full swing now and massive amounts of men and material were being moved by any means possible. The battles of Peleliu, Palau and the march up the Philippines Islands were underway.  Iwo Jima and Okinawa were in the planning stages for the spring of 1945. The Kamikaze threat was very serious which is one of the reasons the ships of Desron-23 which had been out in the fleet since ’43 were sent home. This was done in order to upgrade their armament and radar. 

Under the Golden Gate. The photo illustrates the length to width ratio of destroyers which made them so tender.

On the Way West 1944. DOD photo

As Paul Haefemeyer worked his way into the crew he began to hear “Sea Stories.” Sailors are some of the worlds greatest liars and because they spend so much time at sea they have plenty of time to work and re-work their tales. Off the west coast the Spence was running under condition three which meant standing regular watches and they actually had a little free time. Poley and Bean must have used this time to break Paul in by “educating” him in the ways of the sea. Hanging around the Storekeepers office, swilling gallons of coffee they began to explain things like the way of the ship. They said the the Spence was like all Fletchers, half submarine and half porpoise and when they hit the Pacific he’d better grab a bucket and live on deck for a while, because she would start bucking like a wild horse, first jumping out of the water then diving under it. She would yaw, pitch and roll like she was determined to throw them all off, There were standing orders to never go forward of the bridge in even the least of seas because it was underwater all the time. They told him of a seaman who was caught on the foredeck deck of the Dyson in calm seas and was swept aft, hitting a stanchion and eviscerated. He died before the Pharmacist mate could do anything to save him. The told him of men washed overboard at night and never found. During fleet actions no ship could or would turn or stop to pick up a sailor swept away.  During very heavy weather an officer on the USS Monterey (CVL-26) was knocked down on the flight deck by 100 mph plus winds and slid across the heavily rolling deck only managing to save himself when his feet hit the four inch coaming at the edge. Lieutenant Gerald Ford USNR, one of the Monterey’s gunnery officers saved by a minor miracle.

USS Isherwood DD-520. US Navy photo

And how about the sailor on the USS Guest who went stark raving mad, stole a knife from the galley and attacked and tried to murder another. They had to lock him up in the Lucky Bag for safety because there is no brig on a small ship. He rode around in there for nearly three weeks before they could put him ashore.

Paul learned about all the great fun he would have when he was able to go ashore on a tropical isle for recreation. Most of the reserved places for sailors were enclosed by chicken and barbed wire and on some islands armed Marine guards. “They’ll give you two bottles of warm beer and you can drink ’em or sell ‘em. Wait til you see how drunk guys can get on warm beer when it’s hot as hell. They’s always a baseball game too, if you play. Those games are darned good too. We saw Bob Feller pitch at Purvis Bay. He struck out 29 guys in two games. He’s off the Battleship New Jersey, he’s a gun captain there. Sometimes when you are on a work party you can walk around, maybe swim or go into the jungle and look around. Can’t believe the Marines had to fight in there either. Those Marines are pretty good for trading too, they’ve got all kinds of stuff they took off the Japs, flags, swords, knives, you name it. It’s all for sale. The officers have their own club, Cloob des Slot, you can see them up there drinking whiskey and plotting against the Japs.”

Cloob Des Slot 1943. Arleigh Burke 3rd from left, Lcdr Armstrong of Spence far right. US Navy photo

“Now Paul, it’s going to be rough. The ship gets so hot no one can sleep below decks. You can’t even touch the hull it’s so hot. At night the deck is covered with sleeping sailors. We sleep under the turrets, depth charges wherever we can find an open spot. It rains all the time too. If you can get to sleep, ten minutes later you have to wake up and run for cover. No one takes their clothes off, sometimes for a week at a time. Guys get crotch rot from the heat and sweat and we’ve had guys transferred because their skin can’t take it. When we are in the Slot we’re lucky to get an hour or two of sleep at night. When we’re at General Quarters, no one sleeps, everyone is at their combat station. Maybe you can catch a cat nap on the deck of your gun tub or under the torpedo racks; maybe the depth charge racks but if your on the bridge or engine room you have no chance. Ask Poley there, he’s a phone talker and he never has a chance. As long as the skipper is on deck so is he.”

“We’ll get you all squared away before we reach Pearl. What to do in your day job and at Condition Red (Condition One) or General Quarters. (GQ) When the general quarters gong goes off your first job is to haul 40 pound bags of salt from the foreword stores up to the galley, then run back down and get the scoop shovels.” Paul had to have asked what all that was for and they would have told him the Pharmacist Mates (corpsmen) needed the salt spread on the decks so they didn’t slide in the blood and the shovels to clean up after action. Swallowing hard, but trying to remain calm, he must have thought that perhaps the romance of being a Tin Can sailor might come with a very steep price.

He heard about the very young man who was a loader on the Port foreword 40 millimeter gun mount openly sobbing as he fed ammunition clips into the gun during a Japanese air attack. Not one man on that gun said a word about it. They all, to a man, knew that terror. They all did their jobs, and so did the boy.

They warned him about the newest tactic being used by the Japanese, the Kamikaze suicide plane. The Spence had been at the battle of Leyte Gulf off the Philippines when on October 25 the Light Carrier St Lo, (CVL-63) was sunk by a suicide plane crashing through its flight deck and into the ships torpedo and bomb storage. Crewmen on the Spence watched her burn from the massive explosions and sink in less than 30 minutes. She was only the first.

Death of the St. Lo, US Navy photo

Squadrons are like small towns. Desron-23 was made up of nine small ships with a total population of about 2,800 men and officers. They tied up together, they were alongside the Destroyer tenders together, they were on the beach together and no ship was a stranger to them. Don Pohlemus had three shipmates he went to high school with on his ship. It was the same all over the Navy. Sailors were recruits together, went to training together and served on the same ships. They transferred from ship to ship. In many ways it was a small world they lived in and when a ship was lost many crewman knew men that were on it. It was a loss to all and emotions ran very high in the Fleet.

The Spence is a lucky ship in a great squadron they told him. “She’s only been hit once and that was a dud. So you’re lucky. Take the Abner Read (DD-526), she got her stern blowed off by a mine in the Aleutian Island campaign and the Japs woulda got her but the Bancroft managed to tow her away. They fixed her up at Mare Island and sent her back. We’re not going anywhere ’til it’s over,” they said. “There’s guys and ships been out her since ’42. Captain Armstrong says we have to beat the Japs so bad they could never in their wildest dreams ever think of starting another war against us.”

Abner Read DD-526 at Adak Alaka. US Nancy photo

Chapter Nine

The veteran sailors couldn’t wait to tell him about the relentless looking for the trouble the Little Beavers did in the Solomons. Pulling out of Tulagi or Purvis bay in the afternoon and hustling up the slot under cover of darkness on hunting expeditions looking for Jap ships or bombarding shore installations on occupied islands. Running at flank speeds in total darkness, the 9 ships of Desron-23 with the light cruisers Montpelier (CVL-57), Cleveland (CVL-55), Denver (CVL-58), and Columbia (CVL-56) went looking for prey.

Coming October 29th Friday

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