NAQT

CHAPTER ELEVEN

December of 1944 found the Spence operating with Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 58 off the Philippine Islands. Spence was one of the many destroyers acting as plane guards for air operations in Leyte Gulf during the invasion of the Islands. She was in an entirely different war now, no more the rag tag ship to ship surface actions of the Southwest Pacific but part of the Naval Juggernaut rolling across the Western Central Pacific. Numbers of ships had vastly increased. The Navy operated 377 Destroyers now whose primary role was to support carrier operations for the 28 fleet carriers and 71 escort carriers. A far cry from the end of battle of Midway in 1942 when there were only two fleet carriers afloat.

The support fleet for the warships was enormous. 500 tankers shuttled back and forth across the Pacific just to keep the fleet steaming. The Spence and her sisters now spent weeks and weeks at sea, replenishing from Carriers, Battlewagons and oilers every three or four days, almost never making port. When they did, it was likely Ulithi.

Ulithi Atoll is 1300 miles south of Japan, specifically Tokyo, 850 miles east of the Philippines, and 360 miles southwest of Guam. It is a classic Pacific atoll with coral reef, palm trees, and white sand. It has depths ranging from 80 to 100 feet; suitable depths for anchoring the largest naval ships. It was the only fitting harbor for 800 miles where the US Navy could anchor its ships. The coral reef is approximately 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, and there are over 30 little islands rising slightly above sea level, the largest only half a square mile in area.

Spence was tied up to the Tender Prairie, AD-15, rafted with three other Destroyers. Repairs and restocking were nearly complete and she was preparing to sortie with the 3rd fleet for the invasion of Luzon, the final campaign to secure the Philippines.

After returning from refit at Mare Island she had been re-assigned to the Third Fleet. Operating in the Leyte gulf she primarily served as anti-aircraft protection for the fast carrier force under Halsey. His Task force 38. deployed a total of 5 fleet carriers, 5 light carriers, 6 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 41 destroyers. They included the big fleet carriers who took their name from the famed batting line-up of the 1927 New York Yankees.

Murderers’ Row Third Fleet aircraft carriers at anchor in Ulithi Atoll, 8 December 1944, during a break from operations in the Philippines area. The carriers are: USS Wasp (CV-18), USS Yorktown(CV-10), USS Hornet (CV-12), USS Hancock (CV-19) and USS Ticonderoga (CV-14). On the left are the USS Langley (CVL-26) and the USS Lexington (CV-16).

After the battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest combined naval battle ever fought, which was a complete disaster for the Japanese, it effectively eliminated any possibility of significant offensive capability for the IJN.

Within a month of the American occupation of Ulithi, a complete floating base was in operation. Six thousand ship fitters, artificers, welders, carpenters and electricians arrived aboard destroyer tenders, repair and supply ships and floating dry docks. The USS Ajax AR-6, had an air-conditioned optical shop and a metal fabrication shop with a supply of base metals from which she could make any alloy to form any part needed. The USS Abatan AW-4, which looked like a big tanker, distilled fresh water and baked bread and pies.  The dry docks towed to Ulithi were large enough to lift dry a 45,000-ton Battleship.

Ulithi December 1944, third fleet anchorage. US Navy photo

An Ice cream barge might seem to be silly but the navy had an example of how important the treat was to sailors. The perfect example, the U.S.S Lexington, the second largest aircraft carrier in the Navy was sunk by Japanese torpedoes in 1942 during the battle of the Coral Sea, the first Naval battle ever fought where no ships from either side saw each other, being fought almost entirely by aircraft.. Before abandoning the ship, the crew broke into the freezer and ate all the ice cream, they then lowered themselves into the Pacific. This mark of dedication to the sweet treat shows just how sailors felt about it. In 1942 the Navy spent $1 million and created a floating ice cream factory out of a concrete barge. This could then be towed around the Pacific, providing allied ships with ice cream. The barge had a capacity of 2,000 gallons and created 10 gallons every seven minutes. Although the barge was a feat of manufacturing and engineering, it wasn’t the most practical vehicle as it didn’t actually have an engine. This meant that sea going tugboats boats were required to transport the barge around the Pacific. In addition, the Navy commissioned boats entitled refrigeration barges, also known as ice cream ships; these were equipped with ice cream production facilities and storage areas.

USS Ice Cream Barge at Ulithi. US Navy photo

Beyond the ice cream and baked beans came the serious work of war. Fully loaded oilers sailed from Ulithi and rendezvoused with various task forces to refuel warships just a short distance from war zones. This was something entirely new: basically a floating refueling station allowing the Pacific fleet to operate at unheard of distances from major land bases such as the ones in San Francisco. By comparison and to visualize the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, London, England, is as far from San Francisco as Ulithi was from the major Navy bases in San Francisco. Our adversary, the Japanese, had figured that same vastness would make it near impossible for the U.S. Navy to maintain operations in the western Pacific Ocean. Tiny Ulithi enabled our warships to remain at war for a year or more without having to return to Pearl Harbor for refitting and repairs. For seven months in 1944 and 1945 Ulithi lagoon was the greatest anchorage the world has ever seen.

One of the small islands that made up Ulithi was Mog Mog. It was converted to a rest and recreation site for sailors, chiefs and officers.

There were no liberty towns in the pacific, and during the seven months that Ulithi served as a base, tiny Mog Mog was the only land that most men of the Pacific fleet set foot on. Don Pohlemus and his friends from the Spence made it to Mogmog after Leyte Gulf, but it is doubtful that they had any real interest in returning. During the eight or ten days that the destroyer was in the harbor, each crewman was allowed one or two days ashore. After the third fleet arrived at Ulithi harbor, a parade of LCIs and LCTs pulled alongside and 100 men would climb aboard each boat and shove off for Mog Mog. As many as 15,000 eager sailors a day swarmed onto the small, sixty acre island. They arrived at about 1:00 p.m. and stayed until 6:00 p.m., when everyone was required to return to his ship. So many men were milling about on the island that, according to one Navy report, Mog Mog resembled a sandwich discarded near an ant heap. The report continued stating that a sailors favorite activities on the island were the four B’s – bathing, baseball, boxing, and above all beer drinking. Oh, and don’t forget the other major activity, fist fighting. Young men cooped up for long periods of time have lots of stored energy and plenty of petty quarrels to settle. If that isn’t enough, every sailor thinks his ship is the best in the Navy and will fight to prove it. Add in two beers; the limit for each man unless he can find someone who will sell theirs for five dollars cash money, where else could they spend it, and you have all the right ingredients.

 Mog Mog offered a small staff built chapel, a movie theatre and refreshment stands that provided thirsty sailors with beer and soft drinks but no hard liquor. Rank had its privileges even on Mog Mog. A superior area, known as Officers Country, was off limits to enlisted men and allowed officers to lounge about in thatch-roof clubs, many times enjoying the music provided by a volunteer band of black sailors. Junior officers such as ensigns and Lieutenants Junior Grade, Were assigned a separate club from the lieutenants, captains, and admirals. It was called the Fleet Officers Club, Ulithi. On the Spence, formalities of rank were ignored but on shore the Navy resorted to its strict segregation of officers and men. Navy nurses were the only women allowed on the island and they were no exception to the rigid caste system, off-duty Navy nurses were allowed to circulate freely among any of the officers clubs, but were expected to strictly avoid social encounters with enlisted men. If Don and the other storekeepers even saw a woman it was a minor miracle, although they did see some Navy nurses going swimming on Guadalcanal once, with officers of course.

Ants on a sandwich, Mog Mog December 1944. US Navy photo

On December 10th, 1944 Halsey’s third fleet which now included Don Polhemus, sortied from Ulithi and headed west to support the allied landings in the Philippines. The final and biggest battle was the invasion of Luzon and the re-capture of Manila, the Bataan peninsula and Corregador. Operating with other destroyers, Spence was part of a ring of ships protecting the big fleet carriers from attack by Kamikazes. The Kamikaze war had begun on November 1st, 1944. On that Friday the Japanese launched attacks the first suicide attacks on ships patrolling lower Leyte Gulf to protect the beachhead. Around 13:41, a plane dove toward Abner Read, one of the picket ships for the task force. Abner Read′s antiaircraft guns blew a wing off the dive bomber, but a bomb from the plane dropped down one of the destroyer’s stacks and exploded in her after engine room. The plane, in the meantime, crashed diagonally across the main deck, setting fire to the entire aft section of the destroyer. The ship lost water pressure and this made firefighting efforts impossible. At 13:52, a tremendous internal explosion occurred, causing her to list about 10° to starboard and to sink by the stern. At 14:15, Abner Read rolled over on her starboard side and sank stern first. Other destroyers quickly came to the aid of survivors and rescued all but 22 members of Abner Read′s crew. She was the first known deliberate casualty of the Kamikaze war which was the to inflict more damage on the US fleet than all other actions of the war.

Death of the Abner Read DD-526

The Spence had two jobs. As part of the picket line of ships which protected the carriers she was part of the outer ring of ships stationed as much as twenty miles away. The outer ring of ships were almost all destroyers which were to attempt to stop in the inflight of Japanese planes. The rings closer to the center were made up of cruisers and battleships. The big battlewagons were now loaded with antiaircraft weapons on every surface that could be found to mount a gun, served almost exclusively as protection for the carriers.

Reeling in downed aviators

The second job for the Spence was to pick up downed flyers who crashed into the water. Many a grateful aviator was hauled aboard the Spence and other destroyers during air operations against the Japanese. The pale and shaken pilots, and who can blame them, were bundled up, given a bowl of ice cream and a glass of “Medicinal” whiskey and then hi-lined back to their carriers where after a short talk from the doctor were cleared for flight status and right back in the air.

 The Navy air bosses were not tender with their aviators. If it was thought they could still fly, they did. The aviators themselves knew the stakes and rarely demurred.*

The Spence and three of her sisters screened the carrier Independence CVL-22. The light carrier was responsible for nighttime air patrol over the fleet in order to stop any Japanese plane finding and locating the strike force. Being relatively close to a major occupied island group was very hazardous because of the number of airfields and land based planes the Japanese could put up in defense.

After three days of almost continuous airstrikes against the enemy, at 1900 hours on the evening of 16 December 1944, TF 38 turned and steamed southeast, retiring to refuel with the oilers before returning to the launch area to resume airstrikes on the 19th. Halsey had promised General McArthur that his planes would be providing cover on invasion day. This was the first step toward what would become a catastrophe. The task force reached the tanker group (TG 30.8) the next morning and commenced refueling operations at 1000. “As fueling began,” observed Adm. William F. Halsey Jr., Commander Third Fleet, from his flagship New Jersey (BB-62), “a wind, varying from 20 to 30 kno and a moderate cross swell began to make fueling difficult.” Running dangerously low on fuel, Spence came alongside the New Jersey to replenish at 1107, but only twenty minutes later, both the forward and after fuel lines parted. The growing swell and gale force winds caused the small boy to pitch, roll and yaw to the extent that she couldn’t stay in position next to the huge battleship in the growing storm. For two hours, the ships attempted to reconnect the Spence, but even with chief quartermaster Carrigan on the wheel and the engineers below responding to the call for rapid changes in speed the bouncing little ship was unable to maintain her refueling station. On one swell the Spence rose up alongside the New Jersey so that her captain could look directly at her deck only about a hundred feet away. Grabbing his megaphone he shouted at the Captain Andrea to, “Get that God damned ship out of here.”

Having received numerous reports from his warships of similar problems with their attempts to replenish, Halsey called off general refueling operations shortly before 1300 and, believing that the storm would curve around to the northeast instead of continuing northwest, ordered the task force and the oilers to proceed westward to a new rendezvous point to resume fueling in the morning. Given her fuel situation, however, Spence was instructed to try to refuel again with the first available oiler. At 1443 she came alongside Cache (AO-67) but once again the growing swell and high winds made simply getting a line between the two ships impossible. After a half hour, Captain Paul Anderson told the Spence to drift behind the bigger ship where she might get some protection from the wind and now mountainous seas. The oiler then rigged for the astern fueling method. The Spence tried to tuck in astern of the Cache and take the fueling hose over her bow. For two agonizing hours she tried to maintain position long enough to hook up to receive fuel from the oiler, but the effort was finally discontinued at sunset. Spence, along with several destroyers and destroyer escorts were directed to remain with the tanker group and try to refuel again in the morning.

She was in a terrible situation. The Oil King reported less than 12% to 14% fuel remaining in the tanks. He asked for permission to take in seawater in order to add ballast to the wildly careening ship but the Captain, fearing that when he attempted to fuel on the morning of the 18th the seawater might contaminate the fuel oil denied the request. The little ship was now riding high in the water and being top heavy to begin with was in near desperate straits.

A Typhoon, which it now clearly was, is the greatest of storms that can be encountered at sea. The ocean surface responds to wind and the more wind you have the more water is piled up, like ripples in a pond, the closer the storm is to a ship the greater the wave. Not only does the sea rise to monstrous heights but the swells are closer together when you near the eye. Because storms are circular, wind and swell also come from different directions creating cross swells in what is know as a confused sea state. At first the wind sings through the rigging, a not unpleasant or uncomfortable sounds but as it increases in intensity it changes pitch. An old sailor can estimated velocity by listening to the sound it makes as it cuts through the rigging. In a Gale the wind howls. In a full gale it shrieks like all the banshees in hell. As it wind up to typhoon velocity, it takes on a higher pitched keening sound and at its most terrifying, then it pitches down to a moan as if the entire world is groaning. Terrifying, the sound of devils invading the rational mind. The world shrinks and the mind, which can barely comprehend the reality it is in, shrinks.

The direction Halsey turned the fleet in made it worse. At best the meteorologists on the flagship were just guessing which way the storm was moving. Forecasting in the Pacific was rudimentary at best. The Navy had no integrated system of weather forecasting. The distances were so vast that most of time local indicators were all they had to rely on. The Pacific ocean is so enormous that all of the landmass on earth would fit into it. Weather forecasters on the New Jersey had spoken to the Army weather center in Pearl who had warned them that they were sure there was a major Typhoon in the area but the Officer in Charge on Halsey’s ship said, “We don’t believe you.” When they looked out the bridge window of the giant ship on Saturday the 16th they saw a slow rolling swell and only scattered clouds in a bright blue sky. There was no typhoon. It was the Army talking after all. Who could believe them?

Spence, Dec 17th 1944. Unknown photographer

Running the fleet southwest did no good in what the Admiral thought would be escaping Typhoon Cobra. The massive storm, with an almost sentient malevolence refused to co-operate and turned with the fleet. During the morning of the 18th the weather relentlessly deteriorated. An attempt to fuel the small boys was begun at 0700 but was almost immediately cancelled. Visibility in the driving, horizontal rain and spume blown of the wave tops was less than a hundred yards. The Spence and the other struggling destroyers, using all their engine power and maneuvering skills were unable to keep station off the tankers in the huge sea, sometimes topping 70 feet. Pitching until the bow or stern was completely out of the water, yawing sideways under immense pressure from the wind and rolling as much as 70 degrees which put the top of their stacks nearly underwater the small boys struggled for their lives. The Spence was now less than 35 miles from the eye wall of the monster typhoon.

For the remainder of the morning and early afternoon the Third Fleet fought a battle against an enemy which neither bombs nor guns could defeat. In this combat in which marksmanship had no part, only superb seamanship and leadership might save your ship. Hammered by seas higher than the mainmast the Spence bucked and rolled. As her bunker fuel diminished her top heavy design worked against her. Even the massive battleships and fleet carriers rolled like canoes in heavy rapids.

USS Langley CVL-27, 45 degree roll, Typhoon Cobra. Navy photo

During the long night of the 17th, some of the destroyers who were desperately low on fuel pumped out their tanks of water ballast in preparation for fueling in the morning and were now riding dangerously high in the water. Trying to maintain station with the rest of the fleet as they had been ordered to do they struggled with ship handling in condition which were not ideal for safe operations. Running at an angle to the huge seas the Spence rose up the waves stern first exposing her spinning propellers briefly at the top and lost way. The force 4 winds, of 130 to 156 mph shoved the ship around like a weather vane if the quartermasters on the wheel and the skipper ordering one screw or the other to be backed in an attempt to keep the ship stern to the wind was successful. Twenty hours of being slammed around inside the ship, no food and sleep was takings its toll. The entire crew was beyond exhaustion. Everything inside the ship was adrift including the crew. Those in their racks had taken their belts off and tied themselves in their bunks. It was even worse for those on duty, especially for the engine and boiler room crews, where danger was always present from twisted or broken fittings. A broken steam line could scald a man to death in an instant or slice off a hand as clean as a butchers cleaver. Above decks, sailors were attempting to hide in the lee of the deckhouses. They tied themselves to the potato locker and huddled together in the rear of the radio shack.

On the Spences bridge, Lcdr Andreas could hear over the TBS, captains all over the fleet reporting on the condition of their ships. The small boys were taking a brutal pounding. Motor whaleboats were being torn away, searchlight platforms yanked over the side, The Tabberer lost her mast and with it all radio and radar contact with the fleet. The light carriers Monterey and Cowpens had planes break their moorings and careen across the hanger deck, crashing into each other and the bulkheads. Ruptured gasoline lines started major fires below decks. Damage control officers Lt. Gerald R. Ford and Lt Derek Price, USMC raced with their crews to try and save the ship. The carrier Cape Esperance lost most of its tethered planes, one of which started a fire on deck as it skidded over the side. The little Escort Carrier Kwajalein lost steering control and was wallowing dangerously, a derelict ship. The Rudyard Bay lost power and was adrift, nearly rolling her flight deck under with each passing wave. Finally at 1300 on the 18th Halsey radioed all ships to break formation and to take all the measures they thought necessary to save their ships.

It was too late.

Spence Dec 18th 1944. Nav source photo

What follows is the written eyewitness account of Ltjg Alfonso Krauchunas, Spences supply officer and Donald Polhemus superior and department head. The only officer and one of only 24 men to survive the Spence.

The morning of the 18th arrived and all hell broke loose about 0900. It was easy to see that no fuel could be taken on, so ballasting began. At 1000, one of the whaleboats washed away. The waves were tremendous, being at least 60 to 70 feet high. The gale was clocked at 115 knots and it was raining, making visibility less than 100 yards. Reports were coming over the TBS that several escort carriers had caught on fire after planes had broken loose on both flight and hangar decks. Reports were also coming that men were being swept overboard by the huge waves. The Skipper, hearing this latter report at least 10 different times, suggested that all men topside not on watch seek shelter in their compartments. Most of the men went down below decks.

Polhemus and Bean had been topside most of the morning standing close to the radio shack passageway, where I had been contented until about 1020. I left them and went below and hit the sack. Now during most of the morning, it had been impossible to eat anything on the wardroom table. All chairs were secured to the table, as was the lounge. The lounge had broken its fastenings and was running wild most of the night and morning before one of the mess boys could be found to secure it. It was Rosevelt Copland and was white as a ghost when he came in. At about 1100, Ltjg Larry Sundin came rushing by my room saying that water was leaking into the fire and engine room. About 5 minutes later the lights went out and that was enough for me. I got up and went toward the quarterdeck, but stopped in the wardroom for a glance. I saw Bellion, Coach, Smith, and several of the new officers in there, but God said, “Al, don’t go in.” I started to go out to the main deck when I noticed Doc Gaffney, our new sawbones, sitting in the captain’s cabin. He was scared as all Hell, as was I, but there was nothing one could do. I sat down on the bunk with my back against the bulkhead. We were listing at this time toward the port side. Evidently it was the ballast washing around in the big tanks. Actually it became harmful instead of an asset, since water with much free surface is hard to keep under control. 

At about 1100 we took a terrific roll to port and recovered. Later I found this roll was 75°. Before I could get my heart out of my mouth from that big roll, I was lying flat on my back on the bulkhead, and books and ash trays were falling all around. I knew that she had rolled on her side. I scrambled into the passageway and towards the entrance, but upon reaching there, found it was all full of water already. My whole life passed in front of one and I stared death right in the face. Suddenly I noticed light coming from above and saw that the radio shack passageway was still opened. I scrambled, still on my knees, around the ladder and out into the water. I took three long strokes when I heard gushing and sucking noise behind me and the suction was terrific. I swam as only if a tiger or crocodile was behind me and after swimming for a few minutes, which seemed like hours, I looked back and there was the Spence turned completely over. It was a tragic sight—one that I will never be forget.

I swam to a floater net that contained about 15 or 20 other men, many of them I don’t remember very distinctly but neither Poley nor Bean were there. Chief Watertender Johnson handed me a life jacket that was floating by. I had thrown up several times by this time from swallowing oil and water and I think this snapped me out of the daze and shock that most of the others were in. Connolly, Signalman First (John Emmett, Chicago Illinois), was right next to me in the net. His death was horrible. He gave up up almost immediately. Why, I don’t know. He would say, “I can’t go on any more, I can’t, I can’t!” I held him up for a while until a huge wave dragged this net completely under water tearing all of us from the net as if we were leaves. Upon breaking surface, we would all have to swim back and each time this happened, several wouldn’t come back. Connolly went the first time it happened.

All the men below the main deck, passageways, radio shack, the bridge, berthing compartments, C.I.C., wardroom, and boiler and engine rooms went down with the ship. Trapped in the darkness with the world turned upside down.

Mother is God on the lips of and the heart of all children.

    Epilogue

Al Krauchunas and fifty or so men were able to get off the foundering ship. They clutched life rafts, floater nets, life jackets and whatever they could get their hands on. The wind blew them out of sight of the ship immediately and none saw the ship go down. The last they saw was the upturned, and rusty red hull, the screws still slowly revolving. Sailors caught on wave crests without a handhold were blown likes leaves, skittering across the water and out of sight.

*I had a personal friend who flew off one of Halsey’s carriers in WWII. He had no love or use for the Admiral who turned the fleet away from naval aviators returning from a raid on a Japanese islands and forced many of them to ditch their planes. They ran out of fuel in the darkness. He was one. Most were never picked up. He said no matter your condition, if you could walk you had to fly. He was very proud of his service but said that too many fine men were simply wasted for the ego of Admirals.

POLHEMUS, JOHN DONALD, Storekeeper First Class, (no. 5630359), US Navy Reserve, [Family] Parents, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dean Polhemus, Rt. 4, Box 86, Anaheim, Calif. [Location] Philippine Sea, missing, date of loss December 18, 1944, Memorial: Manila American Cemetery.

Epilogue coming Saturday November 15th.

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