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) cruised through the islands up towards New Ireland and New Britain. Their job was to interdict the flow of reinforcements and supplies coming down the slot. Moving at top speed in pitch black conditions in water barely charted it was an exercise in holding your breath. The steamed in a formation led by the Charles Ausburne and three destroyers in the right front, the cruiser division in the center and the Spence leading the Thatcher, Converse and the Foote in the left rear.

After every round trip The Spence needed to be refueled and provisioned. Exhausted sailors went ashore on work parties to load ammunition onto barges, shore loads were transferred to the ship then stored under the watchful eye of Don, Bean and the other storekeepers. After 36, 40 or more hours at General Quarters with perhaps just a catnap if you were lucky, they lived in a state of complete exhaustion. Sleeping on steel decks, fully clothed, waking up to run for cover during the frequent rain squalls time was blurred into an almost dreamlike state. Even moving in the debilitating heat was nearly impossible and sailors working moved as if they were wading through molasses.

The constant maintenance required for the ship to stay in operation never ended either. The men who tended the boilers and engines, the gunners mates, and the deck crew were constantly slapping temporary repairs on just to keep the Spence underway. If the were anchored, repairs had to be done on shipboard. If they were lucky they would go alongside one of the destroyer tenders for more serious repairs.

The tenders were converted merchant ships known as AD’s. None were purpose built but were acquired from the merchant fleet and outfitted as seagoing repair and provisioning ships. The cargo hold shad built in machine shops, blacksmiths forges, electrical shops, you name it they had it. The could fix or repair almost any part of a destroyer. In their cavernous holds they stocked tens of thousands of parts up to and including spare screws (propellers), solid bronze and weighing several tons each. Their holds held all the food a sailor could want. Eggs, bread, canned goods, flour, peanut butter, jelly as well as refrigerators and freezers full of meats and chicken. Even turkeys for thanksgiving and Christmas. They were a paradise for storekeepers who prowled these floating warehouses shopping lists in hand.

While at Purvis bay the Spence somehow wangled an ice cream maker which was promptly put to work on a 24 hour basis. Treats in the South Pacific were so rare that just a small cup of ice cream was delight.

The big AD’s were two thirds longer than the Spence and more than twice as wide in the beam. The ship that serviced the Spence in the Solomons was the USS Markab, (AD-21). Named for the third brightest star in the constellation Pegasus, she was built at Pascagoula, Mississippi in 1940 as an American Republics Line freighter but never saw service as she was commandeered by the Navy in the summer of 1941. Converted to an AD in Charleston Carolina, she was sent to the South Pacific to service the destroyer force.

USS Markab and her babies, Ulithi Atoll 1944. US Navy photo

These places were not your tropical paradise. Cruising around the Marshalls and the Solomons you could only marvel at the lush tropical growth. The sight of flocks of colorful tropical birds flying over and through the triple canopy was a visual delight as was the perfume of tropical flowers that wafted over the waters giving rise to an imaginary paradise of dusky maidens and other earthly delights. This was far from the case.

The islands were ungodly hot, infested with scorpions, snakes and billions of mosquitos and biting flies that made much of land nearly uninhabitable. There were places where the native population didn’t go. When sailors had time on shore they were restricted to particular areas and the rest of the islands were off limits. There was no relief from the enervating heat. Swimming in streams full of leeches or the ocean gave but little relief as the water was nearly as hot as the open air.

USS Abner Read DD-526 tied up at Hollandia, New Guinea. Note the rough condition of a ship engaged in continuous action. Streaked with rust and with her bedding drying on the handrails she is the picture of a hard used ship. The Abner Read was sunk by a Kamikaze on 1 Nov, 1944 with the loss of 22 young men.

Months of constant cruising, unrelenting heat and long hours of work wore the crews down to the point where any kind of action was a relief no matter what the danger. Up the slot they went, cruising through the inky blackness all night, perhaps firing at some remote shore installation and returning in the early morning to their anchorages, frequently fighting off Japanese air attacks all the way home. The “Lucky” Spence emerged practically unscathed due to a great deal of training and the skill of the skipper in handling his ship.

Attacks by air were nearly a daily occurrence on the trip home. The ships turned off their air search radar because the Japanese pilot could use the beam as a guide to the ships location. The destroyers kept their speed down so the ships wake would not leave a long white arrow which pilots could follow. The ships lookouts were the first warning of trouble and it came in a hurry. At deck level a man can see roughly five miles of ocean surface. At that level a fighter plane can cover that distance in less than three minutes and be on top of the ship almost before it can react. Hitting a small object at that speed, coming right at you is extremely difficult. It’s one of the reasons the Fletchers had so much firepower added as the war went on. A high volume of fire was the only defense against air attack. Lookouts who missed a tiny dot on the horizon could find a ship practically unable to defend itself until it was too late. Thats why the guns were manned at all times when at General Quarters.

Bombs dropped did not need to strike the ship to kill. A bomb hit less than a hundred yards away could still spray red-hot shrapnel. Closer, the underwater concussion produced a pressure wave of water that could crush the thin plating of a destroyer. In an action off Rendova a piece of shrapnel hit a boatswain mate in the lower abdomen. The piece of steel, the size of a saucer stuck part way into his intestines and the pharmacists mate, remember, these ships did not carry doctors, was afraid to remove it lest he be eviscerated. The sailor was transported back to the anchorage before he could be evacuated to a hospital ship for treatment. In one action a seaman was caught without cover during a strafing run by a plane and literally blown to pieces. The parts they could find were buried at sea. Don Pohlemus supplied the shroud. Ships did not stop, they couldn’t. A quick ceremony held by the captain with as many crew as had time to attend and a notation in the ships log of the name, rank, time, date, Longitude and Latitude and that was it. Sometimes sailors wrote about the overwhelming finality of the experience, a brief ripple on the surface and then nothing. There was no earthly way in which bodies could be shipped home. You were buried at sea or in small cemeteries located in some of the most remote places on earth.

A Quad forty in action. The concussion from these guns was terrific. The phone talker has his mouth open to keep his eardrums from bursting. It took 10 to 12 men to operate the Bofors and it was the most common anti-aircraft gun of WWII. US Navy photo

In the days before satellites and U-2’s, information in remote corners of the world was very hard to come by. The Navy depended a great deal on an Australian/New Zealand operation dubbed “Operation Ferdinand.” Lieutenant Commander Eric Feld, Royal Australian Navy, based in Townsville Queensland ran the entire operation.  Coastwatchers became particularly important in monitoring Japanese activity in the roughly one thousand islands that make up the Solomon Islands where “The Little Beavers” and the Spence operated.

The Australian military commissioned many personnel who took part in coastwatcher operations behind enemy lines as officers of Australian Navy to protect them in case of capture, although the Japanese Army did not always recognize this status, and executed many such officers. Escaped Allied personnel and even civilians augmented the coastwatchers’ numbers. In one case, three German Lutheran Missionaries assisted the coast-watchers after escaping Japanese captivity, even though Nazi Germany had allied itself with Japan during the war.

Feldt code-named his organisation “Ferdinand”, taking the name from a popular children’s book about a bull, The Story of Ferdinand. He explained this by saying: “Ferdinand … did not fight but sat under a tree and just smelled the flowers.” It was meant as a reminder to coastwatchers that it was not their duty to fight and so draw attention to themselves, but to sit circumspectly and unobtrusively, gathering information. Of course, like their titular prototype, they could fight if they were stung.

Established to monitor the operations on Australia’s far-flung outer territories as well as in the British-controlled Solomons chain (itself seized from the Germans in WWI), the Coastwatcher program proved a godsend to the Allies when these remote atolls and green archipelagos became prime real estate in 1942. In all, some 600 Coastwatchers and their native police and tribal allies provided yeomen work spotting Japanese planes and vessels. Arguably, had it not been for their intelligence gathering ability behind the Japanese lines, the Guadalcanal Campaign would have been a lot harder if not impossible.

As Halsey said later, “The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”

Besides operating the teleradio “tip line” that allowed the Cactus Air Force and Halsey’s South Pacific command to repeatedly jump incoming waves of Japanese aircraft and tin cans of The Tokyo Express coming down The Slot, the Coastwatchers shepherded downed Allied aircrews and shipwreck survivors.

Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands 1942. photographer unknown

Amazingly, some 165 crew of the St. Louis-class light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50) lost at the Battle of Kula Gulf, 6 July 1943, were rescued and cared for by Coastwatchers Henry Josselyn and Robert Firth along with Methodist Missionary Rev. A.W.E. Silvester and the natives of Vella LaVella until they could be picked up by a fast destroyer convoy under the cover of night.

Lt. (JG) John F. Kennedy, and the survivors of PT-109, sliced in half by the Amagiri, a Japanese destroyer, were saved by native Coastwatchers Biaku Gasa, Eroni Kumana and Reginald Evans.

Lest you think all these coast watchers were men, think again. Ruby Olive Jones had married Sydney Skov Boye in 1919. Skov Boye worked for the Lever Brothers plantation on the island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. In 1936, Skov became the Island Manager for the Kauri Companies logging operations on Vanikoro, one of the Santa Cruz Islands.The island was remote and mountainous, and completely surrounded by a coral reef. The reef is treacherous, had no good sized openings through which a medium size ship could pass and has claimed many ships; it was therefore avoided.

The island had no roads; logs were dragged down to the harbour by tractors and floated to await collection by a ship. These arrived from Melbourne four times a year, bringing the mail and supplies. The island workforce included about 20 Australians and New Zealanders, including a doctor, radio operator, storemen, stevedores, and woodcutters, and about 80 local labourers.

At the beginning of the war in 1942, Initially, Ruby’s reports were sent to Tulagi, but it was occupied by the Japanese in May 1942, and after that the reports were sent to the New Hebrides and only in Morse Code. Vanikoro became completely isolated. At one point they went without supplies for ten months, subsisting on locally grown and raised fish, chickens, sweet potatoes and bananas. The radio was for military use only, and Ruby received only three personal messages during war, advising her of the deaths of her father, mother, and sister. Her activities became known to the Japanese, who at one point broadcast a message to her in English: “Calling Mrs Boye, Japanese commander say you get out or we get you.”

3rd Officer Ruby Boye at Vanikoro Island, 1943. Imperial War Museum photo

Admiral William Halsey flew in and paid her a visit, arriving on the island in a “Dumbo” Catalina flying boat to personally thank her for her services in 1943. When she became ill with shingles in late 1943, he arranged for a PBY to fly her to Australia for hospital treatment, and for four US Navy sailors to man the radio station until she returned.

After the war she was awarded several serious medals in recognition of her bravery and service to the empire but, interestingly enough, as her rank as a third officer was, unlike that of her male counterparts, considered honorary she never received any pay.

The Coastwatchers and their radios were the reason the “Little Beavers” knew when Japanese planes or ship were coming down the slot. It gave them scant warning but it was enough.

Adrenaline. Adrenaline effects include increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, expanding the air passages of the lungs, enlarging the pupil in the eye, redistributing blood to muscles and altering the body’s metabolism, so as to maximise blood glucose levels primarily for the brain. Combat veterans know this feeling full well. If you weren’t keyed up enough, the pharmacists mates kept bottles of amphetamines available in his medical office and they were free to all. The Navy, Army and Air Corps shipped them to combat zones by the truck load.

Spence, traveling with the “Little Beavers” and task force 39 on the night of November 2nd, 1943 knew, because of coastwatcher’s reports that the enemy was steaming down the slot under cover of darkness looking for a fight. Matching two heavy cruisers and two light cruisers escorted by six modern destroyers against task force 39’s four light cruisers and nine destroyers the Japanese had every reason to think that the heavy fire power of the bigger ships would overpower the smaller ships of the force coming north to meet them. Closing at a combined speed of nearly eighty miles per hour the two forces closed each other in the moonless night. In 1943 the IJN ships radar was inferior to the ships of task force 39 and this gave Admiral Merrill and Arleigh Burke a small advantage if they could “see” the Japanese fleet first.

Donald on the bridge and his storekeeper shipmates scattered at their duty stations must have felt the exhilaration and anticipation of the impending action. Trying to stand still and gasping for breath they waited. At 02:31 the radar operator in the Spences CIC room called out ships approaching at high speed, distance, 28,000 yards (16 miles). With a gunnery range of about 10 miles or 18,000 yards the little Destroyer hurtled through the night making maximum revolutions the crew knew that if the Japanese saw them they would have to wait under enemy fire for the range to close enough to return fire.

A destroyers only real defense was her speed and maneuverability. The steel used for plating was a bare three quarters of an inch thick which made the ship light but provided almost no protection from high velocity armor piercing shells. The front door of a house has twice the thickness.

As the Spence closed the distance between, the Captain turned to the watch and ordered the telegraphs rung up to flank speed. The assistant helmsman pushed the twin handles back to alert the engine room and then shoved them forward all the way forward. Tuning to Polhemus his said tell the chief to “Tie ’em down.”

Down below in the engine rooms the telegraph on the overhead indicated flank speed and the phone talkers order to tie down the “Pop off valves” told the engineers that the captain wanted every ounce of speed the Spence’s boilers could produce. Stripped to their skivvies in the steaming extreme heat the enginemen shut the valves that let steam overpressure escape and allowed the boilers to produce enough high pressure steam to send the gauges far beyond the red lines. On deck, sailors could hear the whine of the blowers that fed oxygen to the burners in the steam boilers twist up from a whine to a roar as the fans gulped all the air they could. Spence began to vibrate in all her parts as the noise rose to a thrumming roar. Most of the crew worked in near darkness under the dim light of red colored battle lanterns and could only use their senses to understand what was happening on deck. The blowers, the grinding of the gears as the 5 inch 38 turrets turned on their gearing, the sound of the water racing down the hull plating were their signals. They could see nothing as they worked, eyes blind as as the little ship headed for the Japanese fleet. Imagination can be a terrible thing for those working below.

As the Spence dug in her stern, vibrating in every weld and making as much speed as she could Donald Pohlemus, Bean, Haefemeyer and every other sailor held their collective breath.


The torpedomen bent over their charges inspecting each detail while the gunners in the five turrets nervously fingered and caressed their firing keys. Poley stood by next to Captain Armstrong, intently watching him for the signal to fire. Carrigan, the Chief Quartermaster ran his hands over the brass wheel in nervous anticipating any order to change course. The entire crew was on their toes, eyes staring into the darkness for the first sign of…



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