In little towns like ours as it used to be, friends were friends all their lives. The web of friendship stretched out to everywhere and nearly everyone.
These two guys, Manuel Francis Silva and my father, George Grey Shannon knew each other nearly all of their lives. To me they were alike as two peas in a pod. I learned from them that a friendship is not a commodity. It doesn’t depend on where you went to school, Manuel went to the eight grade, my dad graduated from Berkeley so it’s not that. My dad’s family came to America before it was America and was round about most of the great events in our history, Manuel’s father immigrated from Sao Mateus, the Azores in 1893. Big Manuel was a first generation American. My dad was at least an eighth. It’s obviously not the length or importance of your resume that counts.
Having coffee in our kitchen they ran this shared and refined dialogue like they were two old curmudgeons though when I knew them best I was a teenager and they were only in their fifties. They made each other laugh. I studied them because I wanted to be like them. I can still see them, Manuel with his back to the window that looked out on the fields along Branch Mill Road, the four corners in the background, my dad in his chair at the head of the formica kitchen table, his desk on his right hand, the black wall phone above and the NH-3 fertilizer calendar behind him. I don’t remember much of what they talked about. Farming mostly, it’s what farmers do. Crops, seeds, the weather and the vegetable buyers being cheapskates. Just a soothing mantra, heard like a familiar old song. Manuel would complain about the coffee but what he really meant was I love you, something that has to be felt and not said.
I went all the way through school with Manny Junior who turned out to be a righteous man himself. He fell directly in his father shadow. He too was well liked and a respected member of our community. In fact we both married girls named Nancy Taylor which became a reason for more jokes around the table.
Manuel passed away at eighty in 1991. He had the kind of funeral where every man felt that he was Manuel’s best friend. It should be on his tombstone. How rare is that? He wasn’t rich in the monetary sense but oh boy, he was richer than King Croesus in the things that count for me. The number of people who came to that little house on Sunset Drive where he and his bride Angelina lived, you might remember it was the one that had the little butterfly pinned to the outside wall, was legion.
My dad followed him nine years later. When you live until eighty eight most of your friends are gone, so we had a small graveside ceremony with a few family members and friends. My uncle Jackie gave a little speech where he said this, “He was a good brother.” Can there be any greater praise? When the ceremony was over a well dressed young man who we didn’t recognize came over and introduced himself as Manuel Francis Silva III, Manuel’s grandson. He said that even though he had never met my father, his father had called from San Jose where he was on a business trip and told him that he must attend the funeral as a representative of the family. He could have just left without saying anything but his fathers wishes that he represent were just as important to him as to his father, and as would have been to his father before him.
Twenty years have passed since that day and my brothers and I still think about that moment. That friendship between two people such as Manuel and George could mean so much to their children and grandchildren.
A small town kindness. Yes, it is that, for there is an old and unshakeable tradition that proper and well-raised people pay their respects to the family. Nothing less is expected.
If you lose something important to you, go back and search for it and you will find it.
The above is a quote attributed to a Lakota Sioux, the spiritual leader of the Hunkpapa Band. His Siouan language name translates as Slow, not because he was slow afoot or of mind, but because he was said to think deeply about all things.
The human brain and its processes seem incapable of understanding truths about the universe Our brains may never be well-enough equipped to understand and we are fooling ourselves if we think they will.
Why should we expect to be able eventually to understand how the universe originated, evolved, and operates? While human brains are complex and capable of many amazing things, there is not necessarily any match between the complexity of our world and the complexity of our brains, any more than a dog’s brain is capable of understanding every detail of the world of cats or bones. A dog knows nothing about the dynamics of stick trajectories when thrown. Nothing about deceleration, kinetic energy or the Coriolis Effect. Its just a stick, or so it seems to us. Dogs get by and so do we, but do we have a right to expect that the harder we puzzle over these things the nearer we will get to the truth? No, we don’t.
As has been famously said, “You not only do not understand the universe, you can’t even comprehend that you don’t understand it.”
Emotions and memories live in the present, the past and the future. Particularly in the past. When my grandmother Annie was an old, old woman, well in to her ninth decade her life in the present barely registered. She may or may not recognize you when you came in the room but she still smiled and if you sat with her on the couch whose upholstery was printed with red roses, she would lean on your shoulder and take your hand. That little hand with its tiny bones so thin it was almost possible to see through it. She didn’t say much but she took comfort from your presence. When she did speak it was from another dimension, a place she lived as a young girl, in the big house, Grandview, that overlooked our Arroyo Grande Valley. Memories of the young people she grew up with, her many brothers and sisters, her parents and her aunt and uncle who built the house. She spoke of things I didn’t know and I’m absolutely sure she would never have confided if she still lived in the present. You see, she was lady with a capital L, brought up in a time when secrets were kept. Perhaps for shame, perhaps guilt or simply because decent people never spoke of such things. She told us of uncle Pat, a prominent and well respected citizen spending too many hours in the Ryan Saloon and having to be carried out and poured into his Surry with the fringe on top. The horse knew the way home and into the carriage house where he was encouraged by his wife Sarah to spend the night. She would leave him snoring on the seat or if feeling kindly help him into the pile of hay in the corner. He wasn’t allowed in the house. She talked about the shame of the hired girl. Clara was just eight years older than my grandmother and a friend, judging from the inscriptions she left in Annies autograph book. She got herself “Knocked Up” as the old saying goes and had to be sent away. My grandmother whispered, “She married a Mexican.” She was an Irish girl far, far from her family in County Cavan. “At least she had enough sense not to marry the hired hand who made the baby.” He was sent packing. When she talked of these things eighty long years had passed yet to her they were as real as yesterday. Isn’t that time travel?
I lived in Hawaii when she died and is was nearly a year before I went out to the old house on the ranch. It was strange to walk through the rooms I had known my grandparents in. My uncle still lived in the house and nothing had changed. Everything was in its place. I walked down the hall to the back of the house and at the end looked into the room we stayed in a little boys, nothing was changed. The one twin bed I had slept in, the double for my brothers. The White treadle sewing machine still sat in the corner the only one she ever used. I went out into the hall and through the door to my grandparents room. The maple bedroom set they bought as newlyweds and slept in for 70 years. His high boy, her dressing table with her brushes and make-up still on the top, the box of white shoulders powder sat there undisturbed. I walked slowly to the close doors and pulled them open. The scent of them flooded me and I cried. They may have been gone but they lived. They still do as long as I live and people read these old stories.
One year when we were having my dad’s birthday dinner, the whole clan gathered around my grandmothers dining room table laughing and sharing family stuff my dad went silent. He sat staring straight ahead, not responding at all. As we learned later he had had a small stroke. I called the ambulance and he was rushed to the Arroyo Grande hospital. George Shannon was a tough guy and proud of it in the way many of the farmers we knew growing up were. He didn’t go to the doctor, they were not quite trusted. You see, he grew up before vaccinations, when here was no hospital here to treat you. Appendicitis was a near death sentence. Childhood diseases could ravage kids, Scarlett Fever, Cholera, Typhoid, Mumps and Measles were killers. If you were really sick Doc Brown came to your house to treat you or at least to make your mother feel better because there wasn’t much he could do to help a sick child. Diphtheria, Poliomyelitis and Tuberculosis stalked children. What my dad learned from this was, at least he believed, that the doctor was as likely to kill you as to save you. After all it wasn’t until sometime after the turn of the 20th century that the odds a doctor could save you passed the 50/50 mark. Tough was his mantra.
Very late at night in a hospital room trying to get a little rest in one of the those chair specifically designed by paroled Nazi torturers. Very quiet, light down low, keeping one eye on my sleeping dad attached to monitors and Ringer bags a he lay quietly on his back. Then, in the blink of an eye, 70 years was whisked away as my father awoke, clutched at the tubes and wires and struggled from his bed. He stood shakily as I jumped up and ran around the bed and touched him trying to calm a very agitated old man who had just traveled down a wormhole to 1920. He was trying to get to his clothes, the short pants, stockings, white shirt and high top shoes he wore as an eight year old. As I struggled to restrain him, waiting and hoping the nurse was on her way he said, “Let me go Jackie, let me go. I’m going to be late for school and mommy will be mad.” For those few moments until he was calmed down he was in the second grade. I’d never heard him call my grandmother mommy and I saw how distressed he was. For those few minutes he lived-in another dimension which was as real to him as the one you are living in as you read this story. Finally the nurses got him tucked in and he went back to sleep. When I returned the next morning he had absolutely no memory of his little trip and in fact was as nearly sharp as he normally was. I told my brothers about it but the said, “Oh, he was just hallucinating.” I know better though. He was a little boy back in that little white house on the old state highway where he shared a room with his brother Jackie. It was completely real.
My mother drove this little Chevrolet car for the last few years of her life. I was designed by GM in a time when they used five year olds to draw new cars and save money on designers. It was the color of an old grey cat. It was neither unique nor had it even a hint of luxury. The engine was just a four cylinder put put, not loud but unusual enough that if you were listening inside the house he could hear it coming up the street we. She would cruise over from the home she and my dad lived in on Orchard Street. They lived across from the old Orchard Street school, just two houses from Maryjane Montgomery and within spitting distance of Maryjanes sister Georgie O’Conner. So she would show up about once a week or so to see her grandchildren and after a while, I’m sure you’ve had this feeling too, somewhere in the back of your mind you knew that today might be the day and the subconscious listened for that little car.
She died in November of 1993. She had cancer of the liver which is nearly absolutely fatal. When she was at Sierra Vista, the oncologist took me into the hallway and said she would never go home. Just like that, matter of fact, no emotion. I still hate him. The family gathered around, her room always had one or more people holding her hand, talking to her, sharing their days just as if she wasn’t in a coma. I was sitting with her holding her left hand late one afternoon, my aunt Pat, her baby sister in the chair opposite when I felt just the tiniest pressure from her fingers. Like the soft breath of a hummingbird. Just a touch. Over the next two days she slowly climbed out of the shroud and came back to us. We took her home. Hospice set up her living room with a hospital bed and for a week she had a steady stream of old friends come to say goodbye. Florence Rust, blind and ailing herself and June Waller, Hazel Talley, Ellie Matsoutek, Billie Swigert and the many women who had known her for decades. It seemed to me the last gasp of those oh so gracious women who were raised between the world wars. In a few years they were all gone and I can’t help believe that we will never see their like again.
Except; for many years afterward the phone would ring and as I took it off its hook in the kitchen I’d think it’s mom. Except it wasn’t. Once in a while I’d hear that little Chevy chugging up our street and head for the front door to go out and greet her. But it wasn’t her. I’m still waiting for them. I’m beginning to think the journey must go in the opposite direction. I am no longer myself, I’ve become someone else.
Every human being lives in a world of ghosts and shadows, we all listen to distant voices.
There is a photograph taken just outside my grandparents home. Its a man, a Hobo, a Bindlestiff, walking up Shannon Hill. Mount Picacho is in view just a the top of the grade. Cramer William’s home is nestled under a copse of trees on the right. The man wears bagged trousers, cuffs rolled above working mans shoes, a flat cap on his head. Slung over his right shoulder is a rucksack with all his worldly belongings, over his left, his bedroll. He’s walking away from yesterday, towards tomorrow.
Okies, Arkies, people starved out of Missouri and Texas have driven and walked half way across our country hoping for some opportunity so they could feed their families. The Haas family who worked for my grandfather, uncle, father and Ed Taylor came on an old broken down Model T truck from Joplin, Missouri, or “Missoura” as they called it. Ma and Pa, three teenage boys and sis. All their furniture, mattresses, a couple spare tires and what ever belongings they could stuff into every nook and cranny. They might as well have been the Joads or a least the family they were modeled on. We knew them. They were “Baked out, blown out and broke.” When they crossed the Colorado River in to California they saw the signs, “Turn Around, No Jobs in California.
There is no telling his age. He could be 30, he could be 60. If I was to guess, he’s just left my grandmothers kitchen door. Cap in hand, “If you please Ma’m, I’m lookin for work, mebbe a bite to eat? Sandwich in hand he walked up to the dairy barn and had a conversation with my grandfather who must have had no work. He’s headed towards the Nipomo pea fields, maybe his luck will improve. The migrant camp is under Eucalyptus trees on the old Rancho Dana where peas and beans are grown every year. A job there pays a few cents for each hamper filled. Men, women and children crawling on their hands and knees through the rough adobe fields, but they have to get by somehow and here, this, this is the somehow.
When FDR became president the country was in dire straights. Millions were unemployed. Not just unemployed but unemployable because the industries they had worked in were now gone and in many cases never to return. The tenant farmers in Oklahoma and Texas were “tractored out,” their leases cancelled, their houses bulldozed, the land consolidated for farming on a large scale. In the dust years, even those farms failed. Too much wind, dust storms brought by the devil as punishment for what they didn’t know. The cotton and rice fields of Louisiana and Mississippi lay fallow and the sharecroppers gone, unable to make even a trace of a living off the exhausted land. In Oklahoma alone more than 20% of the population fled the state, mostly headed west.
The financial system was in tatters. Credit was almost non-existent, the vast majority of local banks had failed, unable to meet the demands of their depositors. Congress slashed the budget of the military. The Army practiced their maneuvers with big wooden boxes mounted on Model T Fords and called them Tanks. The US Army was ranked 17th among the world military powers. The Navy, under the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Conference was scrapping more warships than they were building. The Army Air Corps was practically non-existent. Young men in particular had few opportunities in the military, schools or jobs other than subsistence work. Families literally put their older children out because they couldn’t feed the. Other kids left home to spare the family. William Wellman, one of the finest movie makers of the time and a great story teller made the best film about those kids. “Wild boys of the Road,” which premiered in 1933, is a film, not in the least romantic but gritty and mean and presents an honest look at those kids.
A story told by Franklin Roosevelt, a wealthy educated man is of his future bride Eleanor taking him down to the settlement house on the lower east side of Manhattan where she volunteered working with destitute mothers and giving him a tour. It was their first date and says a lot about both of them. He later said he had no idea that people lived like that. It colored his views for the rest of his life. The Roosevelt government recognized that something must been done and it needed to be on a massive scale. Working with congress numbers of programs were put in place to boost employment. Federal projects such as the Hoover dam on the Colorado River which was to irrigate southern California and send water into the Los Angeles which stimulated growth. The Grant Coulee Dam on the Columbia River provided electricity and water for wheat growing in the Palouse area of Washington state. The Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri. One of the most famous and successful projects begun by the federal government during the Great Depression was the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA. … The TVA aimed to help reduce these problems by teaching better farming methods, replanting trees, and building dams.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a voluntary public works relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942. It was for for unemployed, unmarried men ages 18–25 and eventually expanded to ages 17–28. The American public made the CCC the most popular of all the New Deal programs. the CCC led to improved physical condition, heightened morale, and increased skill levels. The CCC also led to a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors and the nation’s natural resources, and the continued need for a carefully planned, comprehensive national program for the protection and development of our natural resources. About three million men served in the corps until it was discontinued by act of congress in the spring of 1942. Those three million boys went to war, an invaluable resource for the military.
CCC projects are scattered throughout San Luis County and Arroyo Grande. The roof of the Paulding Middle School gym is a CCC project. My dad worked along with CCC boys and other local men to build it. The retaining wall along east Branch street by the same school is another. The old Odd Fellows Cemetery wall was also built by the CCC. As you drive around the back roads you can still see culverts and bridges with the CCC or WPA stamp on the concrete.
A lesser known outcome of these attempts to jumpstart the economy were a variety of programs to support the arts. People were sent into Appalachia and the deep south to find a and record old timey music before it was lost forever. They sought out storytellers and recorded legends and fables that were about to be lost. The old timers who knew them would soon be gone and that part of our heritage simply gone. Actors troupes were formed and toured small towns across America bringing Shakespeare and the plays of the greatest writers to all corners of the U S. Painters were employed to paint murals in public buildings. They went out across the country to record our marvelous natural resources. Photographers loaded their cars and set out to document the life of the people.
Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White photographed cities and farms. Maynard Dixon, and Georgia O’Keefe painted and Diego Rivera created murals. Their work is now cataloged in the National Archives, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.
Two things I must say. First, the Republican and very conservative farmers I grew up with were not OK with these programs. I heard many disparaging comments about the CCC, the Works Progress Administration and the Farm Security Administration which funded them at the Federal level. Resistance was intense at the congressional level each time they came up for renewal and all were eventually stricken from the federal budget. By 1946 they were all gone. “Waste of money they said, nobody cares about taking a bunch of pictures of Okies,” it’s government overreach. The government has no business telling us what to do. One of the things that always struck me about the time, was that my dad and grandfather would have been the first to pull a dollar from their pockets to help someone in need. They helped me learn the vast difference between casual spoken cruelty and who they really were. Socialism by the government, Socialism by the individual, there is a big difference between the two.
The second thing is this, families who lived and worked here volunteered meals, food and clothes to the refugee camps. A school was established for the children of migrants who lived in the camps. Today we have an elementary school that my wife taught at named for Dorothea Lange who took so many of her iconic photographs here. I’ve met her son who spoke at the dedication and presented a print of her most famous photograph to be hung in the school lobby. The photo that heads this piece is hers. Local people take a proprietary interest in her legacy. We are proud of her and by extension, proud of those she pictured.
All of the people mentioned here and many other who worked for the FSA left an indelible record of America. They worked for peanuts. They had no pension, no retirement and took a great deal of abuse in the conservative press. But what they left us has no equal. Those that opposed it are all dead now and mostly unremembered. History marches onward, constantly shedding, constantly adding.
The list that follows are some of the most iconic historians of all of those that worked for the FSA. You can Google all of them. Please do so.
First a little history. In the year 1925, Ford produced the Model T-based, steel-bodied, half-ton with an adjustable tailgate and heavy-duty rear springs. Billed as the “Ford Model T Runabout with Pickup Body”, it sold for $281; 34,000 were built. In 1928, it was replaced by the Model A which had a closed-cab, safety-glass windshield, roll-up side windows and three-speed transmission. In 1931, Louis Cheverolet produced its first factory-assembled dedicated pickup, a vehicle built from the ground up as a truck not a modified car. They’ve been with us ever since.
This is about perhaps the most important use a farmer and rancher has for them. For most of my life they were a utility vehicle. They had a myriad of practical uses on the ranch. They were used to haul hay out to the pastures to feed livestock. They were driven down to the old Loomis Feed Mill to pick up salt licks, rolls of barbed wire, bags of fertilizer and sacks of seed. Old Ralph Kitchel would come out in his knee length leather apron and a handcart, load ‘er up and being it right out to the truck to be loaded. The bags were casually tossed into the bed right on top of the little drifts of hay and oats left from days past. Binder twine, rolled up in neat little hanks, the odd tool or shovel and please try and miss the dog.
The little truck was also home to uncle Jack’s ranch cats who slept in the safety of the cab or climbed up on the engine block where it was warm on a cold day. Occasionally dogs were locked in the cab to keep them away from bitches in heat. My brothers dog, a beagle lab mix taught himself to blow the horn until my dad got out of bed and went outside at 2:00 am, trailing blue clouds of swear words to let him out. “If you get yourself killed it’s your own damned fault, Fred.” Fred just grinned and ran off to join the others in the pack of hopefuls.
Dad almost never drove a the car. The pickup hauled produce to the docks where it was loaded on semi’s and taken to market in Los Angeles or San Francisco. He would load it up with enough bean poles to bottom out the springs and make the front end so light the wheels barely touched the ground. He would make me ride on the front bumper to put enough weight on them so he could steer..There was no job too dirty or too low for the little trucks. They slogged through the adobe mud in the winter and were slathered with dust in the summer. They never, ever got washed. Dad always said it was a waste of time and besides, “The dirt protects the paint.”
In the 1970’s the first of the four wheel drives came on the market. To some, that sounded great. Why they could drive into the fields or out to the pasture in the wintertime. “Stupid,” dad said, “Just tears up the road so’s we’ll have to grade it in the spring, nothing growing out there anyway, it’s winter.” On the ranch it didn’t work either, Herefords have enough sense to come down from the pastures at feeding time, don’t even have to call them, they know. “Seen a city farmer get his four wheeler stuck up a Big Al Coehlo’s place, stuck right down to the frame rails,” He told me, “Tried to pull her out in the spring and pulled the body right off the frame, had to get a backhoe to dig ‘er out.” He laughed right out loud.
You could nap on the front seat, bucket seats were in the future. The bench seats held the driver and his three sons on occasion, squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, warm and loving. Going for a ride to check the creek on rainy days. Down to Kirk’s liquor for the morning LA Times and a Hershey bar for the sidekicks, there was purpose to those trucks, they worked hard and were utterly dependable.
If my dad saw a neighbor or friend coming the other way on one of the two lane roads around our valley he would simply slow down and the other truck would do the same and the two farmers would lean on the window sill and shoot the breeze for a bit, exchanging farm news, who was planting what and what the market was for pole tomatoes or in one case learning from Vic Burgia that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and the war had begun. Country people knew how to just drive around. A man who lives on the land works awfully hard, seven days a week but between serious things that need to be done there is always a little time to “throw the bull.”
When the old girl gave up the ghost she was hooked up to the John Deere and dragged up to the back of the ranch to the gully by the old stage road and left to rust away alongside old cars and trucks. One old milk truck that had been there for decades. There was an 1920’s Ford tractor, some old disc blades and a John Deere two bottom plow dating to the teens. Each rainstorm in winter slowly helped rust thin the metal until it collapsed into a jumble of unidentifiable old rusty red parts. The old leather seats served as nests that were built among the springs for mice and little ground perching birds. Little boys with their twenty-twos used them for target practice. They served unto death.
Before pickups became something else, only about 6% are still used for real work, they were built close to the ground. It made them easy to load from the side and perhaps best of all. just the right height to put your elbows on when you were having a palaver with your neighbor. Imagine my uncle Jack’s white Chevy, he on one side and me on the other, our pickups parked one behind the other and Pat Williams, who parked his ranchers flatbed behind us. He got out leaving the door open, why close it, you’ll just have to open it again, and joined us, lying against the tailgate with his head hanging over and down he joined us talking about the various merits of Polled Herefords vs Back Angus cows. You could spend an entire afternoon before feeding time gently speaking, not really saying anything too important just basking in neighborliness. Time spent with two men, one your uncle and the other your neighbor whose family you have known your entire life. Whose father knew your father and whose grandfather and great-grandfather knew yours. Sometimes you can get a glimpse of a perfect world.
Just did it the other day talking to Fred Ormonde about his tomato crop up on Oak Park road. Seems like some things will never change. Good.
When I was a boy I used to ride with my dad whenever he went somewhere. It was part of my education. My favorite place to go was the box company in Oceano. Oceano is a little town built along the Southern Pacific tracks at the west end of the little valley I grew up in. In the fifties it was the center of the farming industry. The vegetable packing sheds were there, the big ice plant, very important in the days when freight cars were stilled cooled by ice and best of all the box company. It was in a large warehouse located right next the main railroad line and the sidetracks where the little yard goat steam engine shuttled boxcars around as they were filled.
My dad would head into the office of the box company to talk about ordering any of the different types of boxes produce was packed and shipped in. In the early fifties most vegetables were packed right in the fields or in sheds we had on our farm. He needed different kinds of containers for different crops. Crates for Lettuce or Celery, Lug boxes for Tomatoes or Flats for Chinese Peas. Inside the warehouse there were two main areas, one where finished boxes were stored, nested together and stacked clear to the rafters, leaving only narrow passage ways between the different kinds just wide enough for a man to walk through. Down the center there was a wide alleyway for the forklifts that did the moving. Parked here and there were big clamping handcart dollies with jaws to grip the boxes loaded on them. A man would load the dolly and then step on a pedal at the back and the jaws would clamp the bottom box so the load could be moved without sliding the whole load off. We would go over and jump on the foot pedal but even with the two of us we couldn’t make them work. A great disappointment.
At the opposite end of the warehouse was the place where the boxes were assembled. Great stacks of pine. all precut were placed on tables and nailed together. When the man finished his box he placed it on the roller conveyor, gave it a big shove and it spun away on the rollers until someone working at the other end end picked it up, placed it with other boxes in it’s nest where it was then moved into the stacks.
Best of all was the smell of the place. Nearly every box was made of fresh cut pine and the smell of the place was sweet almost beyond imagining. You could, and we did stand there and inhale the air and it seemed almost good enough to eat. The old heavy plank floors, worn smooth by decades of use were buttered with pitch and polished by the wheels of the forklifts which motored about moving tall stacks of boxes from the warehouse to waiting trucks ready to haul them out to farmers fields.
When dad came out of the office, order in hand he would holler for us and then have to chase us down in the labyrinth of crates. We always gave up in short order because we knew he had things to do and we wanted to be with him anyway.
Outside the box company there were steel rails to put pennies on, stray railroad spikes lying abandoned in the cinders along the rails and other divers and unidentified things that stimulated the imagination of kids.
Sometimes the little yard goat steam engine would be scuttling about, moving loaded freight cars from one place to another, busy making up consists which would be shuffled into place on the big freights that stopped every day. Dad gave us pennies to place on the tracks to be squashed by the little engine as it passed by. You were sure to get a wave from the engineer because he had been a kid too. His dreams of becoming a railroad man had come true so he knew what it was like for little boys.
When the Southern Pacific first came it was the main transportation hub along the central coast of California where we lived. Typical in type, it had a line of warehouses on one side of the tracks and the sheds where produce was delivered from the fields to be washed, sorted and packed for shipment.The big packing sheds were all the same with an office at one end where the salesmen and secretaries worked and the boss sat at his desk with his feet up and thought great thoughts, or so it seemed to us. The processing floor had conveyors and bins everywhere. The men and women who worked there wore rubber boots and aprons, some carried knives for trimming vegetables, that seemed faintly dangerous but, of course we all wanted to carry them too. A goal for nearly all little boys is to go heavily armed. The boxes all carried labels, colorful advertisements for the growers and shippers. Ed Taylor and Gus Phelan’s “Taylor Made” and “Phelan Fine,” Oceano Packing Companies “Oceano” label, Sal Reyes and Gabe DeLeon with its crossed Bolos reflective of their shared Philippine heritage and the Japanese growers POVE brand, Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange. The labels were stuck on the ends of the crates as they were loaded onto boxcars or semi-trucks headed for the Los Angeles or San Francisco markets. Some crops were shipped in used boxes with multiple labels plastered one over the other forming a virtual road map of the boxes travels.
Anchored at one end was the old depot building painted in the ubiquitous SP yellow and brown. In my grandparents day it was also a passenger depot. My grandmother and her family traveled to the bay area where her sister Sadie lived in Oakland and when she was matriculating at the University of California, the train was how she traveled back and forth to school. Someone the family knew always traveled with her, no lady traveled alone in those days.
Once in a while we would be down there when a fast freight rattler would pass through. We always tried to count cars but rarely ever did we make it before the cabooses passed us by with a wave from the brakeman perched up in the window of his cupola. One of the best things to do was to read the names on the boxcars. Each one represented a far off place of the imagination. “The Pine Tree Route” all the way from Maine, The Saint Louis-San Francisco, “The Frisco,” outlined in big white letters on a red shield. Not a popular name with hoity-toity San Franciscans but OK with us. The big Railroad states were all there, the Pennsy, Texas Southern, New York Central, Baltimore and Ohio, the Milwaukee Road, The Dixie Flyer, the Cotton Belt and The Katy. You might get glimpse of less well known roads, their boxcars still in use long after they folded like the Delta-Yazoo RR, nicknamed the old “Yellow Dog” and memorialized in songs from the Delta Blues to Bob Dylan. The proud white mountain goat emblazoned on cars from the Great Northern, the SP and the UP, and AT & SF, immortalized by songwriter Johnny Mercer in 1946 and first sung by Judy Garland in the movie “Harvey Girls.”* We once saw a blue freight car emblazoned with Susquehanna Railroad on one end and a female figure holding a railroad lantern who said, “Ship with Susie Q,” get it?
Very so often you could spot someone standing in the doorway of a “Side Door Pullman,” going from somewhere to someplace, a Bo, a Knight of the Road, seeing the country, didn’t cost a dime neither. Perhaps one of the last of the throngs of men, women and children who drifted around the country looking for work during the depression.
It was altogether a marvelous place for little boys to hang around. The depot was closed permanently closed, passenger trains didn’t stop there anymore but you could climb on the old freight wagon and peek inside through the dirty dirty windows and imagine the days when it was busy with people preparing to go somewhere much more exciting than the place we lived. You could almost see the conductor wave his red lantern to signal the engineer to open the throttle and hear the full throated cry “All Aboard for Salinas, San Jose and San Francisco, and all points East.” The sound of the locomotive beginning to move, the deep, throaty cough from the stack, the hiss of high pressure steam, the metallic grinding of the drive wheels slipping slightly as she gathered way and the crash and clank of the couplers as the slack was taken out of the cars. Bystanders would invariably stand and watch until the caboose faded completely into the distance and sigh, they were staying home. People my age are the last generation who witnessed train travel when it still carried the mail, nearly all the freight and most passengers. The rise of the trucks and the airplane would nearly doom railroads by the 1970’s. Today the depot is a museum, the sheds are closed and the freight trains pass us by without even slowing down.
*In case you feel like singing.
Do ya hear that whistle down the line? I figure that it’s engine number forty nine She’s the only one that’ll sound that way On the Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe See the old smoke risin’ ’round the bend I reckon that she knows she’s gonna meet a friend Folks around these parts get the time of day From The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa FeHere she comes Whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo Hey, Jim you’d better get the rig Whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo She’s got a list o’ passengers that’s pretty bigAnd they’ll all want lifts to Brown’s Hotel ‘Cause lots o’ them been travelin’ for quite a spell All the way from Philadelphiay On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa FeAll aboard, all aboardHere she comes Whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo Hey, Jim you’d better get the rig Whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo She’s got a list o’ passengers that’s pretty bigAnd they’ll all want lifts to Brown’s Hotel ‘Cause lots o’ them been travelin’ for quite a spell All the way from Philadelphiay
Some believe that the origin of “cup of joe” stems from a 1914 ban on alcohol on U.S. Navy ships imposed by the Secretary of the Navy Josephus “Joe” Daniels a notorious teetotaler. After his order, imposed near the beginning of World War I, the strongest drink a sailor could get on a ship was black coffee. So it began.
When you watch a home improvement show and the host points out the “Farm Kitchen” you should know that they are very wrong every time. No farm kitchen ever looked like that. The one thing that took pride of place wasn’t the Sunbeam mixer or the International Harvester refrigerator but the coffee pot. Right there on the back burner of the old enameled General Electric range, watched over by my mothers glass figurines in the windows over the sink. The little glass bulldog, exposed to the sun for fifty years and slowly turning purple, its little glass eyes surveying all the goings on of a family of five. His gaze scanned all the things that made it our kitchen. The old chipped cast iron sink set in a solid painted counter top, a single cupboard on each end, the pull out breadboard where my mother rolled her pie dough and were we clamped the hand cranked meat grinder, an antique even 75 years ago. A half turn and he could see the drawing over the steel enamel cabinet that came from my grandmother Annie’s house on El Campo road. The drawing above was a Chinese peasant mom had done from a photograph in the National Geographic. He carried his basket and pitchfork on his way somewhere, reminiscent of a Pearl Buck story.
Every morning for the 18 years I lived in that house my father would roll out of his warm bed an hour before dawn, dress in the dark in his Levi’s and Pendleton flannel shirt, the uniform never varied in all the time I knew him, he then made his way to the kitchen, pushing through the swinging door turning to his right and switching on the burner under the coffee pot. Then, and only then would he turn on the lights.
We perked our coffee. No French press or Kuerig ever saw the light of day in our kitchen. We kept a big red can of Hill’s brothers coffee at the ready. I have no idea why it was Hills Brothers. Maybe because it was a California company from San Francisco, a city that held a special place in Shannon family lore. The shipbuilder Austin Hill Sr. built clipper ships in New England. He emigrated with his sons to California in 1873. Two of his sons, one his namesake, Austin Herbert Hill and his brother Reuben started a small company in 1878, as the Arabian Coffee and Spice Mills. In 1900, Hills Bros. began packing roast coffee in vacuum sealed cans. This allowed them to ship all over the west and still keep the coffee fresh. They incorporated under the Hills Bros. name in 1906. In 1926 Hills Bros. moved its operations to Harrison Street in San Francisco, into a solid brick building on the Embarcadero. The roasting operations once made the entire surrounding area smell like coffee.
A symbol of an Arab drinking coffee called “the taster” was designed by an artist named Briggs in 1906. A strange bearded fellow now more than 100 years old , he stood perfectly still, wearing a sunny floral robe and a turban, a coffee bowl perpetually held to his lips. His expression was one of either deep contentment or otherworldly knowledge. Morning, noon and night he stood there, a strange and familiar family icon who job was to wake us up.
My grandparents, a full two generations older still seriously boiled their coffee. At 212 degrees and bubbling hot, they poured it into a cup and saucer. Hot enough to scald, they would spill a little into the saucer until it cooled a tad then drink from the saucer. My grandmother, an expert in the ways of Ladyhood, being raised in the latter part of the nineteenth century by her wealthy aunt and uncle never stooped to the plebeian use of mugs. That was for the shanty Irish .
Mom and dad were much more egalitarian. My mother, from a family that lived in 72 houses while she was growing up, carting around something like fine china just wasn’t possible. My dad, of course knew about fine china but he was always an unpretentious and practical man and mugs it was.
Visitors to our kitchen shook hands first, drank coffee second. In this order, you would be offered coffee, a chew of gum and in return some friends would offer in return, a smoke. Matters of great import were then discussed. How much rain, what was the harvest date for celery, a little gossip about other farmers, but no too much mind you, we lived in a small community and things got around. My father and his friends weren’t much for that anyway, a farmers world is very serious. Every day can ruin you. Too much rain, too little rain, keep an eye on the barometer, bad markets, hope for a better one. Much of a farmers life is held in the palm of fate and no one knows what tomorrow might bring. Crops ruined in Michigan, good news for California, bumper crops in Florida, not good news. Every woman in the grocery store holds a farm families life in her hands.
As kids we didn’t drink it much and if we did it was heavily laced with milk and sugar. We thought is was sour and nasty. My dad liked it though, especially when it had been perked down to a viscous, muddy sludge. His cups, if left on the tabletop when he went outside actually stuck to the table.
Surfing was the thing when I was in High School. Beach Boys and Dick Dale on the radio, we were all going to Surf City where the girls were two to one which I was to learn to my sorrow wasn’t exactly true. In the sixties the ocean was cold, very cold though, it may surprise people to know that before wetsuits this was not considered a great obstacle to the joys of waveriding. Cars that you paid a hundred dollars for had great heaters that could steam up the windows in a hurry, blue feet and numb fingers were quickly restored to pink. The perfect anecdote was the short walk to the Sea View Cafe just a hundred yards from the beach where you could get a donut and a steaming mug of coffee poured by Diane Frederick a gorgeous girl just a couple of years older than we were and thus unatainable. Hey, a perk is a perk though and you could consider that one.
When I was in the Navy I learned how serious coffee could be. My first duty station was at the Naval Hospital in San Diego. A beautiful old building of pink stucco built in the Moorish style to match the buildings in nearby Balboa Park, the site of the Panama-Pacific exposition held in 1915. The hospital first opened for patients in 1925. Our clinic was in the original building and featured terrazzo floors, lath and plaster walls, fifteen foot ceilings and being a navy building was kept in beautiful condition. Decks (floors) were waxed and buffed by night duty sailors every single night. The only way this could be interrupted was by emergency treatment requiring our doctors and scrub nurses (OR Techs) to head down to the surgery wing.
Night duty was simple much of the time. After a day of work you simply spent the night in the clinic on an on-call basis. We had a little room with a single bed, a head and a bank of lockers for each of the enlisted staff. It was shared by both sailors and waves though the waves returned to their barracks at 22:00 hundred hours. In the corner of this little room stood a small cabinet which was the base of a sort of shrine on which stood the coffee maker. When reveille was piped at 06:00 and you rolled out, your first duty wasn’t unlocking the front door or turning on the lights or making up the rack, it was starting the coffee. Every enlisted sailor came in, opened their locker, hung their coat or dixie and poured a cup. Everyone, every time.
The pot itself belongs in the Smithsonian. Lord knows how old it was. It carried its dents proudly, waxed and polished on every field* day it shone like a diamond. Beware the inside though, all it ever got was a quick rinse with cold water. No soap was allowed anywhere near it for it might corrupt the taste. Imagine that. The interior was coated with a layer of what looked like shellac and I was warned by Chief Bosse on my first day on duty that it had to stay that way, it was never to be touched. I often wondered if the Captain ever took the lid off for inspection and if he did what did he expect to see. He was a medical doctor and had spent many years at sea so I imagine he knew what to expect and never peeked.
How did this ever come about. In 1793 the Continental Congress, wishing to thumb it’s nose at King George after the Boston Tea Party when the Sons of Liberty threw the British East India Company’s entire shipment of imported teas into Boston Harbor, declared Coffee to be America’s national drink. The rebellion to come was being planned in the coffee houses of Boston by Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and John Hancock a trio of non-tea swilling, no nonsense, no pinky finger in the air patriots. Not like those effete southern planters like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, nope, those men would have to drink coffee like the rest of us.
John Hancock was a ship owner and international trader, read part-time smuggler, and the primary reason he was a patriot was because he owed old King Georgie oodles of pounds in unpaid taxes. A good revolt would clear his ledgers and keep him out of an English jail. As a “Good” patriot, one of the first things he did was to outfit some of his ships as privateers and start nipping the odd British merchantman. Not for profit, mind you, but a way to thumb his nose at the King. From these humble, but very, very dangerous beginnings sprang the Continental Navy. If you get a look at the things that were shipped aboard the original Wasp and Hornet you will see beans, flour, sugar and coffee, lots of coffee.
Five things have driven the Navy, Coal, Diesel, Uranium and a cup of Joe. It is said that when Admiral Thomas Dewey ordered his battleships into Manila Bay in 1898 he turned to Captain Charles Gridley of the USS Olympia and said, “You may fire when ready Gridley.” Historians have failed to note that Captain Gridley replied, “Gotta finish my coffee first Admiral.”
American sailors always in the alert for ways to make a hard life easier quickly made coffee messes an omnipresent feature of ships afloat and berths ashore. By the time of WWII, there were coffeepots on the bridge, chartrooms, in the engine and boiler rooms, the ships supply office, in the magazines and the machine shops. Ships distilled water being typically rank, naval geniuses devised ways to make it palatable. In the machine shops, machinist mates turned out intricate devices meant to boil the finest brew possible. After Pearl Harbor, the Navy established its own roasting plants in Oakland, California and Brooklyn, New York. Typically the services bought the cheapest coffee it could get but in a boon for the Pacific Fleet, the Navy contracted for the entire state of Hawaii’s Kona Coffee crop for the entire war. Sailors were vey happy, sort of. You see, water distillation units on ships were only partly efficient at removing all the salt from seawater which gave the coffee a salty flavor which you had to get used to because sugar and cream were almost nonexistent on warships, especially ships with no Admiral aboard.
There were few Old Salts left from the war when I was in but you might see an old Chief Petty Officer over in the Chiefs mess drop a pinch of table salt in his mug. Old habits die hard.
It has been written that, “For any sailor, coffee is a Holy substance blessed by king Neptune himself and gifted with the power to jumpstart a watch-stander to a level of alertness that ensures success. Ships may run on diesel but Boatswains mates sure run on coffee.”
When we had visitors to our house who couldn’t abide the mighty strength of Shannon coffee, it was considered funny. It provided a healthy feeling of superiority. When you left the table with coffee still in the cup you were automatically branded as a person of weak constitution. I once supposed that my mothers parents rated their future sons-in-law by the way they drank their coffee. Perhaps thats why they married a rancher, a farmer and a sailor.
The same can be said of farmers and ranchers as of sailors. No matter the kitchen in our family, the pot was always on. Coming in from the fields and wrapping your hands around a hot mug of steaming coffee is one of life’s quiet joys.
*Field day is a day in the service given to cleaning. When I was in the service we did it every Thursday after noon chow. Everything was cleaned dusted and the brass polished. Decks were stripped and then waxed and buffed ready for Friday inspection. If you think the movie joke about white gloves is funny, it’s not. The inspection officer comes aboard, ostentatiously pulls on his gloves and goes to work. The best time to attack the US Navy is on field day because everyone is doing maids work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 anticipation of any order to change course. The entire crew was on their toes, eyes staring into the darkness for the first sign of gun flashes in the distance.
The throttle men stood before the great brass wheels ready to turn them left when the Captain ordered speed increased. The long propeller shafts rotating in their bearings, wipers checking lubrication, spun the screws driving the Spence through the smooth dark ocean. A new moon barely gave any light, just enough to add the barest shimmer to the oily surface of the Solomon Sea. Poley repeated the skippers order to make turns for 28 knots and the wheels turned, the shafts spun faster and the ship plowed ahead.
The Spence and the Little Beavers had patrolled the Slot for months shooting up shore installation, sinking supply and troop barges, protecting herself from marauding Japanese aircraft but this night promised to be something quite different. Coastwatchers had reported a major Japanese naval force heading down towards the Allied Landings at Cape Torokina in Empress Augusta Bay. A scout plane also alerted the allied command to the presence of an enemy force steaming southeast.
Standing southeast in the darkness, Admiral Santaro Omari, flying his command flag in the heavy cruiser IJN Myoko. Although he commanded two fewer ships than Merrill their firepower was far, far greater. Based on the latest reports, Omari expected that the American light cruiser force had retired and that all he had waiting for him off Cape Torokina were some puny attack transports, a few cargo ships and a small destroyer screen. He imagined he could blast them to oblivion with his much heavier armament and then bombard the defenseless Marines who were barely hanging onto the beachhead. Squeezed between Japanese land forces and the large Japanese ships they would be quickly annihilated.
As the forces closed each other Arleigh Burke was very concerned with the crews of his ships. They had been steaming, fighting and fueling at General Quarters for over 48 hours. The tension aboard was well-nigh intolerable.
Not knowing when action might commence the ships were in their highest state of readiness. The boilers were completely compartmentalized, pipes and passages blocked, all connecting doors closed and dogged tight; living space blowers were off and the maximum degree of water-tight integrity was in force. For men ready to drop with massive fatigue, GQ was pure murder. It seemed almost impossible to get from one part of the ship to another, following the circuitouis routes from one section to another simply took more effort than a man had to give. In the boiler rooms, water tenders sat on the gratings watching the water in the tubular glass gauges in front of them, eyes red-rimmed, gulping salt tablets as if they could somehow help with the overwhelming fatigued and the debilitating heat and humidity below decks. As the RPM’s climbed, so did the heat, 130 degrees and above, half-naked firemen tried to focus on the valves and gauges before them, sweat pouring into their eyes, even their hands wet from the constant wiping of their brows. The Chiefs and officers , hollow-eyed and silent themselves, constantly patrolled their stations, so tired that speaking reduced energy and they had none to spare. On deck, the men were silent, sitting in the gun tubs or at the torpedo mounts licking their cracked lips, eyes darting over the sea seeing only the occasional shimmer of heat lightning, wide-eyed and staring in the brief flash of light. In the galley, Pharmacist mates and storekeepers set up the tables for casualties, laying out instruments, bandages and spreading salt on the deck so not to lose footing in spilled blood. Locked in the 5″/38 turrets, gun crews could only sit quietly and try and supress their imaginations as they waited. These men were not frightened in the sense that an amateur might be, they had all seen action before and had some idea of what lay ahead. But they were terribly tense, the kind of tense where every muscle in the body hurts from the accumulated stress, terribly keyed up, and terribly tired. They longed for the first gun to fire. They longed for the adrenaline rush which would, at least for the moments of wild activity, block out the bone tiredness they felt.
Radars searching, the columns scanned ahead for any sign of the Japanese fleet. Burke gave the order to slow his ships in order to reduce their wakes in case Japanese search planes were overhead. Long white arrows pointing the Americans out was to be avoided if possible. Quartermasters on the bridges reached out to the Engine Telegraphs and pulled the handles through indicating half-speed. The engineers ordered the shafts slowed to make just 23 knots.
Arleigh Burke had no need to ask permission from Admiral Merrill to turn toward the Japanese, doctrine had long been worked out between them and the first order was to go towards the enemy. As Admiral Horatio Nelson said at the captains meeting before the battle of Trafalger in 1805, “No Captain can do very wrong if he puts his ship alongside the enemy.” He wanted his commanders to be free to make decisions without interference, counting on their training and courage above all. Admiral Merrill felt the same.
A course revision set the Little Beavers on a collision course with the Japanese, the fleets closing at nearly 50 knots (58 mph), the Japanese Admiral still entirely unaware of the American ships headed his way.
During the 15 minutes it would take Desron-23 to reach the point where they could launch torpedos, Commander Armstrong on the Spence gave his orders and the formation he led moved into battle formation. Heinie Armstrong realized that “This was it.” Was it possible that this was a moment of panic? Captain Armstrong was at times rather stern and perhaps an overly strict disciplinarian but he was not the panicking kind. He might have searched his heart for a moment, was there any untoward concern in facing his task? He had studied war intensively for decades and had much experience behind him, but Heinie Armstrong had never fought a naval battle at night. It was the truth that command responsibilities should be uppermost in his mind and he reminded himself that he had over three hundred mother’s sons on his beautiful little ship. What was he goingto do about it? He turned to his phone talker Poley Pohlemus and said “All hands prepare for action, torpedo’s set for launch, Safeties off, good luck men, may God be with us.
Standing in battle the USS Spence was a well trained, sound ship. She would have need to be to face the harrowing punishment just ahead of her. As in all wars, plans go right out the window when the firing starts.
In a quirk of the sea, the speeding ship, slicing like a knife through the darkling sea made no sound. Sailors could feel a slight vibration but heard no sound. They waited. The ships stood on.
At 02:35 Admiral Merrill ordered an 180 degree turn and all the ships in the Spence’s column swung to starboard, the ships leaning hard to port causing the crew to grab onto anything they could to stay upright. The second destroyer, Thatcher, turned directly in the wake of the Spence as did the Converse, but the Foote didn’t wait but turned immediately and separated herself from the column. She would soon live up to her nickname, “Foote– the-unfortunate .”
The leading column of destroyers led by the Charles Ausburne reached her firing point at 0245 and fire the first salvo of torpedo in the direction of the Japanese. Each succeeding ship in her column, Dyson, Stanley and Claxton, “Click-with-Claxton,” did the same. Captain Burke spoke over TBS, “My guppies are swimming.” At the same time, Admiral Omari, whose ship was equipped with an early type of unreliable radar which only worked intermittently, was suddenly able, through a break in the haze to see the columns of American destroyers. Omari instantly knew what was happening, the main armament of destroyers was the torpedo and they had to be in the water headed for him. Three and a half minutes after the launch, Omari ordered his columns to turn about, reverse direction to avoid the fish he knew were headed his way. Being Dutch, Arleigh Burke was not to be the recipient of the “luck of the Irish.” All the torpedoes would miss.
Like all great military plans, it immediately dissolved into chaos the moment the first shot was fired. The American fleet quickly began to suffer from a major shortcoming in communications. The “Talk Between Ships” had a problem. The speakers called “Squawk Boxes” were mounted throughout the ship with each department able to speak, sometimes all at the same time. Furthermore, every ship in the squadron was connected through TBS. The minute the action commenced, everyone began speaking at once and the ability to understand orders went by the wayside. Captain Armstrong and Commodore Austin were just getting snippets amongst the crowd of voices and static. Austin’s division had already lost the Foote which was frantically trying to catch up and orders from Burke and Merrill were either missed or garbled. He did the only thing possible, the thing which he had been trained to do, he engaged the Japanese. He ordered Captain Armstrong to change course west and engage. Captain Armstrong ordered Carrigan to put the wheel over and Poley to order the gun captains to standby. Carrigan swung the Spence around, the other two destroyers, Thatcher and Converse following right in her wake. As the 5″/38 turret swung out to face the Japanese the gunners in the port side 40mm gun tubs ducked below the splinter shields knowing what they were about to receive. Concussion and blast from the big guns could blow the clothes off a man, burn the exposed part of his skin and deafen and cause his nose and ears to bleed. Those cannons did not make a bang bang sound, they roared like thunder from lightning striking right on top of the ship. They sucked the wind from your lungs and when they started firing it would be a shell every 4 1/2 seconds for as long as the action lasted. Five turrets could blanket an enemy ship with 100 plus shells a minute and unlike the japanese who still depended on visual sighting the American ships fired using radar range finding. In the Combat Information Center, CIC, an analog computer calculated all the parameters needed to get on target. Radar sighted the target and the computer calculated range, distance, the speed of the opposing ships and the coriolis* effect in order to put the shells on target.
At 0249 the order came by TBS, “Commence firing” and all hell broke loose. All four cruisers, led by the Montpelier and the three remaining destroyers, Foote still trying to catch up, opened on the Japanese ships of the northern column. A holocaust of 5 and 6-inch shells walked right across the surface of the Solomon Sea and to the light cruiser Sendai leading the column. Sendai was on the receiving end of a hurricane of high explosives and at 0252 a direct hit on her after magazine tore out her guts leaving her dead in the water on fire and sinking. Her gunners didn’t hesitate though and kept up a vicious rerun fire targeting the gun flashes of the American ships. Steaming in column right behind the Sendai, the Japanese DD’s were thrown into a melee of high explosive, the ocean surface torn to pieces by exploding ordinance. Scattering, trying to avoid running down the Sendai, the Samidare and Shiratsuyu collided at maximum speed and reeled out of the fight to the northwest.
Admiral Omari in the center column turned his ship, Myoko followed by the heavy cruiser Haguro toward the American ships and opened up with his 6 and 8-inch batteries. They were right on target but their shells were falling a mile to a mile and three quarters short of the Spence and her column. He had the searchlight turned on and they swept toward the US ships until they were able to illuminate them and the shooting rapidly improved. Not for long though. The big lumbering heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro sliced across the third Japanese column led by the Agano and the Myoko promptly hit the destroyer Hatsukaze forward and sliced her bow section off leaving part of it stuck in the bow of the larger ship. The Hatsukaze staggered out of the battle and slowly retreated out of the area. Three Japanese ships were out of action without a single American hit.
Burke found himself out of the action because of garbled TBS talk when he spotted the two damaged destroyers, Samidare and Shiratsuyu limping away at about fifteen miles distance. He turned his column and went tearing after them at 38 knots.
With Burke speeding away, the scene of the battle suddenly transformed into dazzling and diabolical beauty. Admiral Omari gave orders for his five inch batteries to fire illumination shells. Almost instantly the impenetrable darkness which cloaked the American ships was ripped away by the superior pyrotechnics of the Japanese. Floating lazily overhead on their parachutes each star shell, brilliant and unwinking produced a million candlepower of light. The silhouettes of the US ships, even the threadlike stays, aerials and spars were etched in black by the brilliant light above and behind them. Don Pohlemus turned to look at the Japanese ships, suddenly turned pale white by the light. Every man above decks on the Spence instantly felt naked and exposed.
Suddenly the battle, at first only illuminated by gun flashes became the world of the devil himself, a garden full of multicolored fountains and fantastic blossoms of fire had sprung to life at the touch of a wand. Impossibly tall geysers of water flashing red, green and yellow sprung from the waters surface as Japanese shells splashed short or over, painting the ocean with their brilliantly colored spotting dyes. From the Americans, brilliant golden tracers arched out towards the Japanese ships. Long fiery red tongues belched from the turrets and over it all a cacophany of almost unbearable sound. The Japanese big shells came in sounding like freight trains on a downgrade, cracking sonic booms as they flew over the ship; the tearing, ripping sound of high explosives passing overhead as the sailors in the gun tubs who weren’t able to fire back yet were rocked by concussions, some curled on the decks weeping and vomiting with fear, their shipmates looking away to spare them the shame. They were just as afraid.
There was little form to the battle now. The Spence was making turns for 35 knots, the Thatcher and Converse following, all loading and firing at maximum speed, the loaders and gunners in their turrets gasping for breath in the superheated air, choking on cordite fumes and running oceans of sweat, working at the very limit of human endurance. As Omori’s 8-inch shells crept closer, landing in tighter and tighter patterns indicating they were finding the range, Admiral Merrill ordered all ships to make both chemical and funnel smoke to try and obscure the cruisers and destroyers.
Poley stood on the bridge wing with Captain Armstrong, fascinated by the wild panorama going on around him. He heard Commodore Austin say to the captain, “Heinie, those japan boys can shoot all right. They’ve just been un-lucky so far but if they hit us with one of those 8-inch shells they can tear us up pretty bad.” The Spence, foaming through the sea continued to dance with the Devil.
The Foote rolled into a 25 degree turn to Port, making 374 turns on her polished propeller shafts passing through 34 knots straining to catch up with her division lived up to her nickname, “Foote-The-Unfortunate.” A Long Lance torpedo fired by one of Omori’s destroyer hit her at the turn of the bilge near the after 5″ gun. I a slit second, less time than it takes to think she was a wreck. Her radar mast whipped for and aft with a crack. A column of water shot more than the height of a seven story building, pausing at the top for a heartbeat and then in almost slow motion cascading down on the remains of her afterdeck sweeping men and blasted fragments of the ship away. A seaman stationed the after 20mm gun mount was blown high into the air. With an awful, seemingly slow motion deliberation his body cartwheels forward over the after gun mounts, hitting the rear stack and crashing down on the torpedo tubes a bloody unrecognizable pulp. The after three compartments of Foote completely disappeared, her starboard screw and her rudder blown away in an instant. The after crews quarters, the steering room and the after ships store room were obliterated. In the after 5-inch ammunition handling rooms, shells and powder bags leaped from their storage racks in a shower of steel and coarse granular explosive. Of the two men in the space, only one escaped. The other crushed under the weight of the ammunition. Her main deck aft was buckled upward and the side of the ship bulged out as much as twenty feet. The ship was lifted upward and then crashed down with the remains of the stern underwater and began to list to Port. Her engines were stopped cold, she had no rudder and all communications and radar were lost. Three enlisted men were dead on board; one officer and fifteen enlisted men had either been blown overside and lost to the sea or so fragmented that none of their remains were ever found. Two more officers and fifteen enlisted men were severely wounded.
The wounded were taken to the galley and Lieutenant Moffitt, the ships doctor went to work. The Foote was in imminent danger of sinking. The stern was underwater and the bow was nearly out of it. All the depth charges on the Starboard side had gone overboard and as damage control teams raced aft to try and save their ship they began going off deep under the ship. Any survivors in the water were certainly killed by the blasts pressure waves. Nearly every sailor on the ship was rushed aft to shift weight forward, pump out fuel tanks and rig pumps in the flooded compartments. Captain Ramsay, with his ship horribly stricken and lying helpless in the midst of a raging battle, ordered that his torpedos not be jettisoned as “We may get a shot at them yet.”
At this point, Admiral Merrill ordered Spence and her two remaining ships to launch a torpedo strike against the IJN heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro. Both ships had turned toward the American cruisers, were coming at high speed and firing fast. Spence ordered a turn to bring the torpedo mounts to bear on the Japanese ships, “Stand by to execute, turn nine!” At that moment the TBS again failed and the Thatcher following heard only “Turn nine!” Chief Quartermaster Ralph Lampman put the wheel over and Thatcher made her turn. In less than 60 seconds she was slicing along a course that would take her into the side of the Spence, right between her stacks. Thatcher and Spence were saved by Admiral Omori’s illumination rounds. Both skippers saw each other at the same time and threw their wheels over to try and dodge a collision, Thatcher backed her engines full to try and slow down, the ships coming around on roughly opposite parallel courses, bow to bow at a combined speed of nearly seventy miles and hour. As the bows sped toward each other the Spence veered just enough so the compressibility of the water between the ships cushioned the blow. Sparks flew wildly in the night and the two ships made a “Chinese Landing,” bow to bow and raked each other from stem to stern as they plunged past making enough fireworks to qualify as the fourth of July. Poley, Bean and the others stared at the Thatcher as she careened down the side just twenty feet away screeching and grinding like a thousand squealing pigs.
Thatcher received severe damage to its framing and had her Starboard propeller shaft was knocked out of line causing severe vibration but she was able to keep steaming. Spence had her Port motor whaleboat crushed and her Starboard shaft bearing fell out. She suffered only superficial topside damage and sailed on.
Austin managed to collect his division and radar gave him the location of the crippled Sendai with two of the other Japanese destroyers who were standing by to help, the Samidare and Shiratsuyu, and he rang up flank speed and went after them with Spence, Thatcher and Converse. He didn’t get far. Spence was hit by two very close near misses and took solid hit from heavy cruiser Myoko in her Starboard side at the crews mess hall, the bakers living quarters and the Starboard outboard fuel tank below. St. Christopher was doing double duty that night because the heavy 8-inch shell was a dud and did not explode. Damage control parties raced to the seven foot long gash, two feet below the water line and quickly stuffed bags of beans from the storekeepers lockers and mattresses backed up with wooden braces and brought the flooding under control. Unfortunately seawater was able to contaminate the fuel tanks and the ship nearly lost suction and wobbled out of line, almost dead in the water, the Thatcher and Converse racing past in pursuit of the Japanese. The Spence was now down by the stern with her decks awash. This threatened the handling room storage for the 5-inch gun above. Two sailors timed the roll of the ship, opened a hatch and dropped into the magazine below and with only a battle lantern for light, frantically shoveled ammunition up the hoists, working at a breakneck pace to keep the guns going. Both were awarded the Silver Star and according to Captain Armstrong, “symbolized the spirit of the Spence’s crew.”
The Spence finally got her engines going and ran on after the other two destroyers. Coming in the opposite direction, Burkes division spotted a target only 7000 yards away. Burke went on TBS to query, “What ship is that?” When there was no reply from the other captains in his division as to the target he said, “OK, let him have it” and the Little Beavers opened up with a storm of high explosive steel.
In less than 60 seconds a dozen or more 5-inch shells ripped the sea close aboard the Spence. Action on her bridge was instant, Captain Armstrong grabbed the TBS transmitter from Poley and yelled, “Who the hell is that?” He turned-on his battle lights and rang up full speed on the engine telegraph. “Lets get the hell outta here,” He said. To Burke, he said, “We’ve just had some close ones, hope its not you.”
“Are you hit?” from Burke
“Negative, but we can hear them and they’re not all here yet.”
“Sorry” in what has become classic Navy deadpan humor, “but you’ll have to excuse the next four salvos, they’re already on their way.”
Turning to to Captain Reynolds of the Ausburne, he said, “At least we know where Spence is now.
Burke then raced northwest following a rain cloud which showed on his radar until they figured it out and retraced their course towards Spence who was now involved in a furious gun duel with the damaged Hatsukaze.
Hatsukaze had wandered slowly around in circles, her bow sliced off still trying to escape until she encountered Spence. They were now involved in a blazing gun duel at close range with the Spence nearly out of ammunition and fuel. Burkes column steamed up and opened fire on her and in just a few minutes, her bridge demolished, Captain dead and a smoking ruin she rolled over and sank.
The battle was effectively over. With the Japanese slinking off to the northwest, the Americans needed to be concerned with the coming dawn, the severely damaged Foote and little ships literally shaken apart by the constant hammering of the fighting. They turned for home.
On the Spence the crew was almost incapable of further movement. Poley and all the other sailors literally asleep on their feet. Exhausted men lay on the deck oblivious to the world. Gunners who had been in their turrets for four straight hours crawled out of the hatches puking and shaking with fatigue, temporarily deaf. Engineroom crews fell to the steaming hot decks, glassy eyed and just able to function enough to keep Spence moving.
In the late afternoon of November 3rd they limped into Purvis Bay, the Foote in tow. They had been constantly under way for 65 endless hours. They had just fought one of the longest battles in the history of the South Pacific war. They had sunk two enemy ships and severely damaged several others at the cost of nearly a thousand Japanese lives. Officers and men alike were anaesthetized by overwhelming fatigue. They hauled themselves about the decks and up and down ladders, their brains seeming to come from mush. Yet many of them couldn’t sleep; not yet. Fueling and supply started as soon they tied up to the Markab. Repair parties went to work. Ammunition reloading began from the ammo barges and there were harbor watches to stand both above and below. In the Navy way, Poley, Bean, Paul and Lt. Krauchunas began accounting for every item used, broken or destroyed. A routine day no matter how tired.
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.
To Be Continued November 13th
*When talking about ballistics, the Coriolis Effect refers to the deflection on the trajectory of the bullet generated by the spinning motion of the Earth. Its effect is negligible at medium distances, but becomes important around 1000yds, a little more than a half mile and beyond, especially because it can add to other minimal errors and miss the target.
My wife wants a Bidet and who can blame her. I’ve spent some time reading reviews trying to ferret out the ones written by manufacturers employees. Thats not always easy, so I tend to scroll down to the bottom of the list. Today I must give and award to NHix of Sac-Town Cali for a brilliant piece of writing. We buy this one for sure. It’s titled “No Barnacles on the Hull.” Enjoy.
I just got this today and my girlie bits love this! First things first, I have the Neo 120. Very easy install. My cat supervised. Directions super easy to understand even for those not mechanically inclined. One nozzle, one temperature. Apparently I have excellent water pressure because on the “maiden voyage” I nearly blasted myself off the crystal ship and started laughing so hard I’m sure my apt. neighbor’s heard me. And that was on the LOW setting! I had concerns about the cold water, but it’s spring in NorCal and honestly, the cool water isn’t so bad. In summer I’m betting it will feel like a gift from the Gods! Ladies, you will need to adjust your seating position a smidge to get all the important parts clean. For bigger voyages be sure to “bear down” to make sure you clean all the barnacles off the hull. You should have smooth sailing from here on out.
If you are a reader you sometimes stumble over unsung authors. Thanks NHix.