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. Some said they felt the shock of the Spence’s boilers exploding as she drifted down to the bottom.
That same morning the Monaghan DD-354 a Farragut class destroyer and the Hull DD-350, another Farragut also foundered. Much of the first hand information we have comes from those who survived the three ships.
The rescue of the survivors of Hull and Spence by the little destroyer-escort Tabberer DE-418, which by chance stumbled upon a sailor struggling in the water at the very height of the storm and managed to pull him from the water. That was the first indication anyone had that the Spence was gone. They spent the next two days rescuing 55 men from the water. They did it in the teeth of a terrible storm, maneuvering the ship with a great deal of skill, ignoring orders to rejoin the fleet. She barely survived herself, being knocked down more than once by mountainous seas and screaming winds, once going over 72 degrees* on the inclinometer. Her Exec and one of her Bosun’s mates more than once dove into the raging water to rescue floundering men.
As the storm subsided in the late afternoon Halsey ordered the fleet to steam towards a new fueling point. The Admiral and his staff knew by this time they had ships not answering radio calls but turned away regardless, still intent on supporting McArthurs Landings on the 19th. Tabberer having lost her mast in the storm, something that almost certainly helped her survive, the missing top hamper reducing her upper weight finally jury rigged an antenna and reported her position and the fact she was searching for the survivors of the foundered ships. She was ordered to stop and follow the fleet. Lcdr Plage simply disobeyed and kept up the search. The next day Halsey finally ordered two other destroyers to the area to assist and the last survivors were picked up.
Lt. Alfonso Krauchunas
Lt. Alfonso Krauchunas, the only officer to survive the sinking, was pay master and supply officer, according to Torpedman 3rd class Albert Rosley jr. “I survived with him,” said Rosley, “he was a good one.” Al Krachunas was returned to the Pentagon, given a small office and personally wrote to the families of each man lost on the ship. Below is an excerpt from his personal account.
After being picked up 50 hours after the sinking, we were brought back to Ulithi and assembled on a transport after spending a week on a hospital ship. From the other 23 survivors, I was able to get a great deal of information as to who was seen in the water at any time. Those who were not seen could only have been in one place, below decks. It is hard to believe that anyone like Poley, Bean, Kleckley, and many others died as they did in their compartments, without any light and utter confusion and hysteria going on. All of this happened so suddenly that even the captain was not able to get off the bridge or Carrigan, or the Exec., Lt. Cmdr. Andrews, a new officer.
Krauchunas died in 1994 at his home in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was 71.
The survivors were shipped back to the states and given a 30 day leave. Most were returned to shipboard duty until the end of the war.
The Tabberer returned to Pearl Harbor for repairs. By February 1945 she was back in the western Pacific screening task Force 38 during the invasion of Iwo Jima. She remained in service until 1960 when she was decommissioned and placed in the reserve fleet. In 1972 she was stricken from the Navy list and sold for scrap. The little ship was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, presented by Admiral Nimitz for her actions on 18, 19 and 20th December 1944.
Captain Henry Plage
On December 29, Adm. Halsey visited the Tabberer and awarded Lt. Comdr. Plage the Legion of Merit for his “courageous leadership and excellent seamanship,” and commended the crew. Halsey who asked the skipper about his actions, was fully expecting that he would be an old salt but was told the Plage was a reserve and only on his second cruise. Henry Place left the Navy after the war and worked as a pharmaceutical distributor. He died in Ocala, Florida in 2003 at age 88.
After the disaster of Typhoon Cobra a court of inquiry was held and Admiral Halsey was found to be at fault by the examining board. Admiral Nimitz, Commander in Chief in the Pacific and Admiral Ernest King CIC of all Naval forces overruled the board in the interest of the war effort, feeling that the prestige of the service and prosecution of the war held more importance than the courts outcome. Admiral Nimitz left a note on the court proceedings report, it merely said B.S. Admiral William Halsey Jr. died in 1959 at the age of 77. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He is one of only four individuals ever to hold the rank oF fleet Admiral. PS: He hated the name Bull.
Of all the crew of the Spence whose names were mentioned in this story only the brother-in-law of Muriel Owens, John Ladd, who was transferred off the ship in October of 1944 survived. The dead of the Spence are memorialized on a plaque mounted in the Military Cemetery in Manila, Philippines.
In addition to DesRon 23’s Presidential Unit Citation, Spence earned 8 battle stars. Her loss was widely mourned and for the 1983 “Little Beavers reunion,” when Bath Iron Works wanted to present a model to Adm. Burke and asked Desron-23 shipmates which ship it should be, Spence was the answer. The model is now at the Navy Museum.
The Spence was stricken from the Navy List on January 19th, 1945. Its remains and those of the crew lie five miles down roughly 800 miles east of the island of Luzon, the Philippines.
Long before I knew about my cousin Donald, I read the Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Fred McMurray it chronicles the struggles of a destroyer in a terrific Pacific storm during WWII.
Herman Wouk was a Lieutenant in the US Naval Reserve and served on destroyer minesweepers throughout the War in the Pacific. He was present at the courts martial of one of the captains who lost his ship in Typhoon Cobra which was the seed for the book published in 1951 and the movie made in 1954.
A chance remark by my wonderful Aunt Pat Dilbeck led me to Donald Polhemus. She was appalled to learn the truth, the family having been told that he had been killed in combat and was a hero. As it turns out this is pretty standard military practice.
Thanks to the many shipmates of my cousin who survived and left a written and oral record for their help in researching this story.
- If you imagine an acute triangle as if it was a quarter of the clock face, 72 degrees is roughly a line drawn from the apex through two o’clock. This is the angle of the deck in a steep roll. For those who have never been to sea there is no way you can ever imagine the experience.
- The cost to the Navy was enormous. Three ships were lost and 27 ships badly damaged including the battleship Iowa. Many had to be taken out of service for repairs at Ulithi, Pearl or had to return to the west coast yards. 790 sailors died, the largest loss of life other than the 1st battle of Savo Island.