Cuppa Joe?

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

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

Tabberer after the typhoon, photographer unknown

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.

Admiral Halsey

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.

The crew

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.
USS Santa Fe in a 45 degree roll. Imagine 75 degrees.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulithi December 1944, third fleet anchorage. US Navy photo

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

USS Ice Cream Barge at Ulithi. US Navy photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of the Abner Read DD-526

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

Reeling in downed aviators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spence, Dec 17th 1944. Unknown photographer

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

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

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

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

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

It was too late.

Spence Dec 18th 1944. Nav source photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Epilogue coming Saturday November 15th.




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 going to 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 .”

Torpedo Launch, US Navy photo

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.

IJN Heavy Cruiser Myoko

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.

IJN DD-7 Hatsukaze

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.”

USS Foote DD-511 battle damage. US Navy photo

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.

Burying the dead


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.


Found It

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.



Chapter Nine

The veteran sailors couldn’t wait to tell him about the relentless looking for the trouble the Little Beavers did in the Solomons. Pulling out of Tulagi or Purvis bay in the afternoon and hustling up the slot under cover of darkness on hunting expeditions looking for Jap ships or bombarding shore installations on occupied islands. Running at flank speeds in total darkness, the 9 ships of Desron-23 with the light cruisers Montpelier (CVL-57), Cleveland (CVL-55), Denver (CVL-58), and Columbia (CVL-56) cruised through the islands up towards New Ireland and New Britain. Their job was to interdict the flow of reinforcements and supplies coming down the slot. Moving at top speed in pitch black conditions in water barely charted it was an exercise in holding your breath. The steamed in a formation led by the Charles Ausburne and three destroyers in the right front, the cruiser division in the center and the Spence leading the Thatcher, Converse and the Foote in the left rear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands 1942. photographer unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




I always thought girls were smarter and braver than I am, I still do.

The Actress

Imagine an office building in old New York City. Outside a grand office with beautifully carved doors, two well dressed young executives in tweedy suits of the type worn by young up and comers are schmoozing about nothing in particular when one says, “Say, I hear the big boss is talking to that girl in his office about the merger.”

His sidekick is quick to answer, “Oh, don’t worry about that, she is just a             girl, she doesn’t know anything.” 

The girl in question comes out of the inner office and approaches the two young men, saying, “What are you two carrying on about?”

The taller of the two sleeks back his pomaded hair, touches his bowtie briefly, and says with a wink to his partner, “Honey, don’t you worry your little head about it, it’s man talk, you couldn’t possibly understand.”

They both laugh. She gives them a look, turns and stalks off with a slight huff. They laugh again.

It’s a movie scene. The early 1930’s. The two actors, long forgotten are completely gone from living memory. The girl? A 25 year old, who when she arrived in Hollywood to screen test at Universal, stepped down from the Super Chief and was surprised to find that no one from the studio was there to meet her. In fact there was someone there. When that man returned to the Universal offices without her, he told Carl Laemmle, the studio head, “I didn’t see anyone who looks remotely like a movie star.” As well he might, she was an unremarkable 5” 2”, 120 lb. blonde with too large blue eyes, she was no ones idea of a star. Six terrible films later, Universal let her go. She was lucky and  signed with Warner brothers. After more than 20 forgettable films, the role of the vBicious and slatternly Mildred Rogers in the RKO Radio production of Human Bondage, (1934), a film adaptation Somerset Maugham’s novel, earned her first major critical acclaim. Many actresses feared playing unsympathetic characters, and several had refused the role, but she viewed it as an opportunity to show the range of her acting skills. Her co-star, Leslie Howard was initially dismissive of her, but as filming progressed, his attitude changed, and he subsequently spoke highly of her abilities. The director saw something special in her. John Cromwell allowed her relative freedom: “I let her have her head. I trusted her instincts.” She insisted that she be portrayed realistically in her death scene, and said: “The last stages of consumption, poverty, and neglect are not pretty, and I intended to be convincing-looking.”

She spent the rest of her career playing unsympathetic sardonic and mostly unlikable roles and is still considered the finest actress of her generation. She was nominated ten times for an Academy Award and won two for Dangerous in 1935 and Jezebel in 1938.

Her name was Ruth Elizabeth Davis, you know her as Bette.

Ruth Elizabeth Davis 1908-1989

The Aviatrix

 Clad in her trademark plum colored flying suit which she had designed herself, she was the darling of the flying world. Growing up in Arroyo Grande California  with her parents, William and Ursula ,who owned a small farm that was a constant financial drain. When opportunity presented itself, William moved the family to Oakland, California. Her parents, William and Ursula owned a small farm that was a constant financial drain and when the first opportunity presented itself, William moved the family to Oakland, California. Living in Oakland she  successfully gave the impression she was from a wealthy family and was private school educated in the United States and France. Beautiful and poised, she easily carried out the charade. Encouraged by her mother to believe that she could succeed in any endeavor, she relied on her talents and wit to accomplish what few women of her time even dared to dream about. She was an anomaly for her time, and she willingly disregarded societal convention. She vowed never to marry and concentrated instead on pursuing a successful career.

 Harriet started work in California as an actress, but soon abandoned the stage for journalism. That life began in 1902, when she began writing for the San Francisco Dramatic Review and then contributing to the Sunday editions of the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Call newspapers. Pursuing a career in a field where there were few women, she stood out for a variety of reasons. While working in California, she was one of the first journalists anywhere to use a typewriter. She could often be seen driving her bright yellow automobile around town, a unique sight since automobiles were still a rarity at the turn of the century. In 1903, she moved to New York where she joined the staff of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly as a drama critic and editor of the women’s page. Not content with these tasks, she soon began writing feature articles for the magazine. She joined women writers who had published their stories in the weekly including Louisa May Alcott.

She was fearless and accepted any challenge if it made a good story. She took laps in a Vanderbilt Cup race car and hit the amazing speed of 70 MPH, sliding on two wheels and losing her hat. The driver even let her shift the gears.

In 1910, an International Aviation Tournament organized at Belmont Park found her in attendance. It was there that she met Matilde Moisant. Matilde’s brother Albert then owned and operated one of only two aviator’s schools in the US. She and Matilde decided right there that they would learn to fly. The other aviation schoo , the one operated by the Wright Brothers, refused to accept either woman as students, Stating that no woman had the stamina or intelligence to operate an airplane.” On August 1, 1911, she passed the her tests, earning the Federation Aeronautique Internationale’s License #37, and thus became the first American woman and only the second in the world to earn an Aviator’s License. Knowing the power of performance, she created a look for herself which became her trademark – a purple satin flying suit with a hood. With her slim, elegant looks, she instantly caught the public’s attention. She even chronicled her aviation adventures in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.

As a person always looking for new challenges, she was the first woman to fly the English Channel. In March 1912, she sailed for England to meet Louis Bleriot, a the time the most famous French flyer. She managed to convince Bleriot to lend her a 50-horsepower monoplane for her attempt to fly the channel. While Bleriot agreed to the arrangement, most everyone around her was convinced she would fail. Bleriot believed in her, having been the first to fly the channel himself and certainly knew the risks she was taking.

On April 16 she departed England for France in a plane she had never flown before, with a compass she had just learned to use. Despite poor visibility and fog, she landed 59 minutes later near Hardelot, France. She  was greeted with cheers by the huge crowd and was hoisted on the shoulders of residents. Sadly she would not receive the worldwide acclaim the flight deserved because it was so overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic just four days earlier.

Returning to America she flew in the annual Boston Aviation Meet near Quincy, Massachusetts. She was paid the hefty sum of $100,000. She was a worldwide celebrity now and the most famous woman pilot. She flew her gleaming new Bleriot Monoplane out over Dorchester Bay with the event’s organizer, William Willard in the backseat. As they were circling back over the bay, the plane suddenly pitched violently forward and down and Willard were thrown out of the plane, it then rolled on its back and, in front of tens of thousands horrified spectators, she plummeted to her death in the shallow waters of Boston harbor. Amazingly, the little Bleriot righted itself and landed safely in a nearby field.

Harriet Quimby, who had written about safety precautions important in flying, was not wearing her safety belt. The “Dresden China Aviatrix” or “China Doll,” as the press dubbed her because of her petite stature and fair skin was 37 just years old.

Harriet Quimby 1875- 1912

The Ugly Duckling

Anna wore frumpy clothes. Her teeth badly needed straightening. People would continue to attack her looks and she was very insecure, she believed what everyone said about her, admitting in letters to her mother that she was an “ugly duckling.” 

When she first met her cousin Franklin, she could not believe that a man was interested in her. Because he was Harvard educated and extremely intelligent, she wanted him to see her world, so instead of going to a fancy social event, she instead took him to the slums of the New York’s Lower East Side, where she did volunteer work, helping young immigrant women.

The young man, who had led a rich, sheltered life, saw things he would never forget — sweat shops where women labored long hours for low wages and squalid tenements where children worked for hours until they dropped with exhaustion. Multiple families lived in one cramped room with no plumbing. Most of the immigrants themselves were beyond help. little or no education, unable to speak the language, doomed to work themselves to death at an early age. It was the children that broke his heart for they both saw that they were the future of the country.

This walking tour profoundly changed the young man, moving him to say, that he “could not believe human beings lived that way.” It was a lesson he never forgot.

The young man’s name was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the young woman, who changed his life forever, who would change the world forever, her name was Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.

When the Daughters of the American Revolution boycotted the 1936 concert of African-American singer Marian Anderson, she would resign her membership and helped organize a new concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial that made history.She flew with black (male) pilots and helped the Tuskegee Airmen in their successful effort to become the first black combat piloShe would be nominated three times, during her lifetime, for a Nobel Peace Prize. She became a renowned social and political activist, journalist, educator, and diplomat. Throughout her time as First Lady, and for the remainder of her life, she was a high profile supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, of equal rights for women, and of social reforms to uplift the poor

After her husband’s passing, she remained active in politics. For the rest of her life she advised presidents and statesmen. President Truman would appoint her as a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations, where she would receive a standing ovation when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10, 1948.

She would chair President Kennedy’s ground-breaking committee which helped start second-wave feminism, the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. And, she continued supporting women, even personally assisting in the careers of many women, providing them with guidance, giving them hope.

She would still remember when they called her an ugly duckling when she was growing up, but to the world, she was and continues to be a beautiful swan whose beauty inside helped her speak the truth, making the world a little better for all.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt 1884-1962

Bebes Terribles

The Resistance movement in France that began in 1940 and was made up of active resisters in the four years before D-Day constituted not a small minority of the French population but a tiny one—perhaps as low as two percent of the population were actively engaged in publishing underground newspapers, sabotage operations, intelligence gathering, recruiting, or participating in one of the networks designed to rescue Allied fliers. About one in ten were women.

Simone Segouin 1925-present

Of a morning in France early in 1944, German soldiers emerged from a barracks to find all the tires of their bicycles and motorbikes slashed. One bicycle was missing – stolen. It wasn’t known exactly who the thief was, but it was a young French woman, Simone Segouin. She hid the bike and later repainted it to use as a messenger between Resistance factions.

Simone Segouin, just 18 years old, had met Resistance commander Roland Boursier in the countryside outside her village of Thivars near Chartres. They’d fallen in love, and it was Boursier who asked her to become a messenger for his unit. Eventually, he asked Segouin to join up. Motivated by the example of her farmer father, a medal-winning French soldier in World War I and her French Nationalist beliefs, Segouin adopted the nom de guerre Nicole Minet, received fraudulent identity papers, and joined the FTP, the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, the Free-Shooters and Partisans.

Partisans trained her to use captured weapons. She carried a Schmeisser MP-40 sub-machine gun, taken from a dead German soldier. Along with her messenger duties, Segouin started scouting out potential sabotage targets for the FPT. She began going on missions blowing up bridges, attacking German convoys and trains, and even attacking detachments of German soldiers.

Asked once if she’d ever killed Germans, Segouin told of a July 14, 1944 ambush she and two comrades set for two German bike messengers. As the soldiers rode by, all three Partisans opened fire, killing them instantly. Segouin said she couldn’t say whose bullets killed the Germans; but expressed some regret, saying that it was a terrible way for them to die. “They were no older than I,” she said.

American Army correspondents first noticed her “eating a baguette with jam, as much on her cheeks as on the bread. With her machine gun slung over her shoulder,” wearing shorts, a jaunty military hat, and an FPT armband she still looked the part of a young girl, but still a dangerous one.  In the thick of the fighting for Paris, a photographer took a photo of Segouin dressed in her signature attire between two comrades taking cover along the side of a building. The photo of Segouin became famous as a symbol of women in the Resistance.

After the war Segouin was promoted to Lieutenant and honored by being awarded the French Croix de Guerre. She became a pediatric nurse. Her romance with Roland Boursier was long lasting too. While they never married, they had six children, all of whom were given Segouin’s maiden name.

Genevieve DeGaulle 1920-2002

The nineteen year old never saw herself as a gun-toting warrior. But when Marshall Petain, France’s revered WWI general ordered Frenchmen to lay down their arms on June 17, 1940 and to accept defeat , the willowy young history student resolved to free her beloved country from the Nazis.

Geneviève, her relatives, and countless others had walked 40 miles south from Paris to escape incoming German troops when a priest approached their caravan to tell them not to give up hope. He had heard a young French general speak on BBC radio encouraging the French people to never accept defeat and to fight on by any means they could find. “He said we may have lost a battle,” the priest cried, “but not the war. The General’s name was also De Gaulle.”

For Geneviève, the journey would test the limits of her endurance and her beliefs in humankind. Her defiance began with small acts such as tearing down swastikas and pro-Vichy posters. But it grew to include ferrying arms, ammunition, hiding allied flyers moving south towards Spain along the networks set up by resistance groups and creating false letters of transit to fellow resistants. She edited and distributed the nation’s largest clandestine newspaper, the Defense de la France. Moving from cellar to attic, constantly scrounging paper and ink, the paper publicized German atrocities in concentration camps, the roundups of jews, Hungarians, Romanians and other “undesirables,” by the Nazi’s. It posted the names of schoolteachers shot by French police for being too liberal and the movements and whereabouts of German troops.

Few Frenchmen knew who the General was until his niece popularized him in this influential journal. His growing legend made her a target of the Germans, and led to her arrest. She was betrayed by a Frenchman in the pay of the Gestapo in July of 1943.

She was jailed at Fresnes prison before being shipped north of Berlin to the Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. As a so-called political prisoner she witnessed and endured horrors that should have broken her spirit. Starvation, illness, beatings, shootings, overwork, cruel medical experiments and a simple lack of hope were all commonplace at this site known as “the women’s hell,” Inmates slept three to a bunk, fought for scraps of food and were mired in their own filth. She witnessed parades of prisoners being transferred to the death camps at Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau. She saw women forced to kneel in the dirt and then shot in the back of the neck. She witnessed rape. Yet some of the strongest friendships Geneviève would ever know emerged from this abyss and inspired her future activism.

De Gaulle survived her internment primarily because of her possible value as a hostage for her uncle. After her release in June 1945, she co-founded the Association of Deportees and Internees of the Resistance (ADIR), an organization that for 61 years provided female deportees and their families with free medical treatment, soup kitchens, short-term lodging, job training and other social services. Outside of its social work within France, the group waged two internationally renowned battles: one that forced the German government to pay restitution to a group of Polish women on which it had performed crippling experiments at Ravensbrück, and another that forced the French to acknowledge that the government had collaborated with the Nazis and turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. Her Uncle Charles loved her like a daughter, but he did not always embrace her public crusades. She would learn to press on without him, always striving to do what she felt was decent, appropriate and humane. She juggled this social work with her roles of wife and mother of four.

Ten years after her death in 2002, the president of France, Francois Hollande declared she would be interred in the Pantheon, the necropolis dedicated to honored French citizens. Her coffin was placed in the company of Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Antoine de Saint-Expurey, Emile Zola, Louis Braille, Andre Malraux and Alexander Dumas. This is as it should be.

PS: Resistants

The stories of women who resisted the Nazi’s occupation of France, and Belgium during the occupation from 1940 to 1944 is a tale of courage under incredible odds and included British, Dutch, Belgian, Hungarian, Romanian, Italian, Spanish,Canadian and American women. Many were very young and many paid with their lives. If you’d like to read further, Ronald C. Rosbottom’s “Sudden Courage” details the stories of the very youngest in the resistance, all under 21 who in many cases sacrificed their lives to help free France. High School, Grade School and the Boy Scouts all worked against the occupation. They were imprisoned, shot and beheaded if caught. The stories detail incredible courage.

“The General’s Niece” by Paige Bowers is biography that chronicles the life of an that extraordinary woman Genevieve DeGaulle.

The resistance stories of Violette Szabo, Nancy Wake, Jeannie Rousseau and Noor Inayat Khan are all the subjects of biographies.

“Eleanor” by David Michaelis is one of the most recent biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and is well worth the read. Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of America’s greatest biographers published “No Ordinary Time” about the Roosevelts during WWII and like all her work is beyond excellent.

Try one.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camp Farragut Training Ship. Navsource photo

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

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

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

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

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

On the Way West 1944. DOD photo

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

USS Isherwood DD-520. US Navy photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of the St. Lo, US Navy photo

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

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

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

Chapter Nine

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

Coming October 29th Friday


My Generation

The Two Kings

It was my mother, Barbara Ernestine Hall Shannon who said, “I get that.”

In the days before distraction fragmented family home life, before Little League, Nintendo and Gameboys life for kids was lived closer to home. The major social events in our house revolved around Sunday School, school activities and family. We played outside in good weather and sometimes bad, we did chores, we washed dishes and set the table and when mom could catch us we polished silver, which we all hated. Grandpa Jack taught us to mash potatoes when we were tall enough and to carve a turkey, all things that you could measure on the chart of growing up. We sang around Grandma Annie’s piano, songs from their lives, some written before the turn of the century or from the days when my parents were young. We learned the words and melodies to Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Gershwin  and Broadway shows from the thirties and forties.

yes sir thats my baby

Nearly everyone in the family played the piano. We had my mother’s, a Gulbransen upright her father bought for her when she was twelve for what seems to me the astronomical sum of $300.00. That was in 1930 because we still have the receipt to prove it. Mom had supple hands with long fingers and she could tickle the ivories. My dad, though I didn’t know it for many years, wrote original music when he was a young man. None of it published but his sheet music is carefully stored away to remind us that our old, official, adult parents were once young dreamers.

We always had a radio in the kitchen, and before TV became common it was always on. It would be tuned to a station that my parents liked and the music we first heard was theirs. A teenager in the late 1920’s and a college man in the thirties, he loved the honey dripping voice of “Der Bingle,” Bing Crosby, “Satchmo,” Louis Armstrong and the Big Bands of Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers. Going dancing was a very big activity in those days of the Lindy Hop, swing dancing and the Foxtrot.

I try to imagine my dad, a farmer in flannel shirt and muddy boots, raising three boys on a farm, ever spinning girls across the dance floor at college but I suppose he did. My mom though, it’s no problem at all. She and her sister Mariel, used to take the Pacific Electric Redcars from Long Beach to the Biltmore ballroom in downtown Los Angeles just to go dancing. They could ride the cars from Long Beach through Compton and Watts to Hill Street station in downtown LA and directly to the Biltmore Hotel ballroom where you could swing to the most famous big bands in the country.  

When my parents were courting here in our little town they went dancing in Pismo Beach at the pavilion, cutting a rug, amend that, sliding on the Cornstarch spread on the wooden planks so your feet could slide and glide across the floor. They danced at parties at their friends homes and sometimes in the living room of our house. Mom taught us to Charleston, Foxtrot and as much Jitterbugging as little kids could do.

Our piano benches could be opened to find sheet music, some of it  more than a century old. My grandmother would sit at the piano and play while my grandfather sang in his bass voice, all the hits from their youth. The entire family would stand around her exquisite old upright, from little Cayce to my Grandfather Jack, the Aunts and Uncles and even the Mynah bird sang.  Born in the 1880’s they still loved that music and we learned them too. As kids we were rooted in the music of our family.

Casey would dance with the strawberry blonde, I’m in love with Harry, Lets Do It, Your the Top, Lets call the whole thing off, Oklahoma, I’m gonna’ wash that man right outta my hair, The way you look tonight, and then Stone soul Picnic, Danny’s Song, House on Pooh Corner, Desperado, Tiny Dancer, “Oh, Blue Jean Baby, LA Lady, seamstress for the band.”

When we finally had a television it was Lawrence Welk, Mitch Miller, and Ed Sullivan. Mom taught us “Mairzy Doats” and dad, “Funiculi, Finicula,” although I never did know how he knew a song written in 1880’s Naples. He would whistle Dvorak’s Humoresque; I still do in fact.

As we entered the teen years we listened to what is now known as top forty music. It came over the little transistor radio my dad kept on the kitchen table. The four Tops, The Coasters belting out Charley Brown and Little Eva doing the Locomotion which is where I discovered Carol King, and then Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Pony’s.

impactsIn high school surfing was the thing for me. My surfboard went everywhere in the back of my 1949 Woody. It sat in the school parking lot alongside 2 or 3 others and the old sedans with the back seat removed so those old long boards would fit inside. The Surfari’s, Dick Dale, Jan and Dean and especially the Beach Boys who for a time we thought actually surfed. About to be born was a new direction in music for me, buying my first Jazz album, “Sketches of Spain” and playing it for my friends. 

I was coming off the highway in Pismo Beach in my ’57 Chevy Belair on the way to work in the Chevron Station on Price Street when I first heard the Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Not a spectacular piece but it opened the door to the British Invasion. We heard the Yardbirds, John Mayall, the very young Rolling Stones and Petula Clark. The Kinks, Procol Harem and Eric Clapton. We didn’t know yet that the roots of that music came from the Juke Joints of our own rural south and the Blues clubs in Kanas City, Chicago and uptown New York, Harlem.

When I lived on the North Shore of Hawai’i in the sixties and seventies, we had no television. Think about that no TV. It seems strange today but it was true. The only dependable entertainment was National Public Radio, FM radio which could be heard over the mountains from Honolulu. It was a marvelous musical education. Each block of time was a different genre. There were all the classical ages down the centuries, There was a show that consisted of nothing but music written for medieval church choirs. They played Gregorian chants, Canticles, Madrigals and common plainsong. There were programs featuring all the ages in the development of Jazz. You could listen to the Duke and the Count, listen to Lady Day sing and the Prez make love to his Saxophone. Charley Parker, Rhaasan Roland Kirk, and The Jazz Messengers.  The inimitable MJQ. The old timers too, Satchmo, Bix, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith Sings. Raunchy, Sexual and real. This wasn’t the Louis Armstrong you heard on Ed Sullivan, Oh no, this was the real, dyed in the wool New Orleans street kid playing the original Beale Street Blues.

We could listen to Mariachi and the songs of Latin America and Spain. Reggae from Jamaica Mon. Toots, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. From Cuba that fine Afro Cuban rhythm, a  mix of American Jazz, West African and Cuban percussion.

From West Africa, Habib Koite and his band Bamada out of Mali. You won’t find it strange at all. It explains the roots of Jazz and Rhythm and Blues.

I learned that there is no style that can be claimed by anybody or any  ethnicity. The native drums in the background of the 1933 version of King Kong can be heard in Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” which they played at Woodstock. 

Mariah, GaGa, Nina, Whitney, Christina at the “Car Wash,” Muldaur, Janis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jewel, Emmy Lou, Gloria, Gwen, LeAnne, Pink, Chrissy Hyde, Grace, Joni, Anne Wilson who’s “Crazy on You.”

Listen to the lovely Slack Key guitar of Gabby Pahinui and Peter Moon when they play “Wiaalae.” That ain’t no Don Ho white man BS. Apologies to poor Don, he had to make a living. He was actually a very fine Jazz singer and you could catch him in the little clubs around O”ahu after hours. His mother actually had a club on the Windward side called Honeys, where he grew up and began his career. You could cruise over there and here the best kind of Hawaiian music, the old time stuff.

On a Sunday afternoon, dollar pitchers on the Hawaiian Village Lanai with Trummy Young and Kid Orey, old time Jazz men who had played with all the greats in the Jazz world when they were young. You’ve heard “Muskrat Ramble,” that’s Kid Ory.

 When I was a kid we never listened to country music, my dad would turn it off when it came on. But in the Islands I heard the Outlaws for the first time. Willy, Waylon, Merle, Kristofferson and the silvery voice of Jessi Colter. Throw in some Texas gravel sung from the back of the throat and you have Tanya Tucker. Then Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys with his fiddles which led to Stefan Grapelli and Django Reinhardt. Asleep at the Wheel, Gram Parsons and that lovely girl from Tucson, Linda Rondstadt.

Chopin had the chops, Franz lizt and Sergei Rachmaninoff had the big hands. Lizt had pinky fingers like superman. Try Lizt’s Camanella, Wow. Can’t imagine Ludwig Von laying on the floor feeling the vibration he couldn’t hear, deaf you know. The Devil knocking on the door, Da, Da, Da, DA. What an entry. 

You can disagree with Rap but oh my goodness, if Tupac isn’t a poet, who is. Think about this, where does it come from anyway? In the old south where white men owned black men as property, the same as they owned mules, slaves were forbidden to sing at work. Overseers would allow chants called out by senior field hands which they figured would help get the work done. Those field hand chants, sailors chanties, Railroad Gandy Dancers and the scat singers of the twenties and thirties spoke over the music. The speaking slowly took on an importance, an importance that transcended the melody.

It’s all connected. You can hear the seed for Mancini’s Pink Panther in Schumann’s No.7. Just a taste but it’s there. After all, it’s all done with only eight notes. 

But I digress, this entire piece is about metaphor. My mother said, “I get that,” she really did. She said it about the Who’s “My Generation” when she heard them on Ed Sullivan’s show. She meant she understood how kids felt about the time they lived in. It made me love her even more. You see, she never talked down to kids. She kept those doors to new experience open all of her life and I’ve tried to do the same. She taught me not to close off just so I could have a safe place to be. It’s why I don’t look back at a time and say, “It was better then” because it wasn’t. The time is now, always has been. As my friend Roberta says, I wouldn’t go back. She’s right too.

Honey, Melva and Don Ho, Honolulu Advertiser photo



Chapter Seven

Steaming down towards the southwest, caracoling around the transports and carriers the Spence crossed the line for the first time. In the time honored tradition of seamen everywhere, King Neptune Rex ruler of the Raging Main swung himself over the side bringing with him his Royal Court to initiate all the “Pollywogs” aboard into the mystery’s of the Noble Order of the “Shellback.” All of the crew and officers who had never crossed the Equator needed to be introduced to the mysteries of the deep. Arm in arm with His Grace strode Amphitrite, Goddess Queen of the Sea and the Royal Baby wearing his diaper. Stalking the deck, Davy Jones, the mythological evil spirit of the ocean deep was accompanied by the Chief Bear, the Doctor, the Royal Jesters and the Devils.

Neptune seats himself on his throne, Amphitrite seated at his side. Rex bangs his trident on the deck and the Royal Clerk calls for the lowly, slimy pollywogs to be brought before the court to be judged. Their crime? Taking liberties with the piscatorial subjects of His Majesty Neptunus Rex.

The Royal Policeman drags each miscreant before the King of the Bounding Main where he is forced to kneel while his Noble self confers with Judge Davy Jones. Sentence is then pronounced by the Royal Clerk and the victim is dragged away to his appointment with the Royal Barber. Thus begins the initiation rite.

The Dunk Tank, US Naval Archives Photo

Once the Barber has clipped the hair of the Pollywog into a fantastic parody of barbertude, the Chief Bear and his Bearlings begin to administer much further punishment for daring to invade the Royal Realm. Dunking in a mixture of galley slops, grease and garbage then running the Royal Gauntlet, kissing the greased belly of the Royal Baby and drinking of his milk, a concoction best left only to the imagination and any other diabolical punishment the Shellbacks can dream up. No one on the crew is exempt, not even the captain and the officers. When the mayhem is complete, the Royal Court disappears into the sea from which it came and the newly initiated shellbacks spend the next few days trying to clean the slop and grease from their bodies and then patiently and hopefully waiting for their hair to grow back. Proof of this wondrous ordeal given to each newly minted shellback in the form of an official document signed by the senior officer aboard attesting to each sailors entry into the Noble Order of Shellbacks.

Kissing the Baby 1943 Photographer unknown

The earliest verified line crossing ceremony occurred in 1529 in a French vessel named the Parmentier on a voyage to Sumatra. But the ceremony is undoubtedly a far older tradition where seasoned mariners would call upon landlubbers to prove their worth at sea and to show that they can put up with boisterous shipboard humor. It is also possible that the ceremonies hark back to ancient practices where a sacrifice was made to a deity.

The first recorded ceremonies in the 1500s were religious. The rite aboard the Parmentier consisted of reciting prayers, eating a raw fish, and dropping silver coins into the ocean. By the end of the century, the ceremony had evolved into the familiar tradition of today which included a visit by Father Neptune who demands a punishment from the pollywogs for invading his realm..

No one is really sure when or how the Line Crossing Ceremony, “Order of Neptune” came about but the ritual dates back at least 400 years in Western seafaring and was practiced by the Norsemen, Phoenicians, Chinese and Polynesians in some form or other. 

The Equator itself s an imaginary line that runs from east to west on Earth’s surface and is exactly halfway between the north and south poles (the northernmost and southernmost points on the Earth). It is about 40,075 km (24,901 mi) long, of which 78.8 % lies across water. This geographic, or terrestrial, Equator divides the Earth into the Northern and Southern hemispheres and forms the imaginary reference line on the Earth’s surface from which latitude is reckoned; in other words, it is the line with 0° latitude. Along the Equator are the imaginary perpendicular lines that run from pole to pole and represent Longitude. Latitudinal and Longitudinal lines form a grid on the earths surface used to determine where, at any given time, a ship is.

The Spence had a principal navigator as did all ships in the Navy. Lieutenant Commander Frank Van Dyke Andrews was the Exec on the Spence. His primary job as the third in command was to Navigate the ship which may sound relatively easy but of course a ship is barely a fly spec on the surface of the sea. There are no landmarks by which to determine direction, no trees, hills or buildings. Lcdr Andrew’s province was the bridge and most especially the chart house. The pilot house  and the chart house are the haunt of the quartermaster for routine upkeep. The chart house is exactly what it sounds like, a small room built into the rear of the pilot house/bridge where navigational instruments, logbooks and charts are kept. The Chief Quartermaster is the navigators assistant. In addition to his duties supervising his department he sees to it that the chronometers are wound each morning and this momentous bit of news transmitted to the Officer of the Deck, OOD, so that at exact noon he may inform the captain. “Twelve hundred hours, sir; Chronometers wound” in the exact way it has been done since the time of Paul Jones, Edward Preble and Horatio Nelson. He looks after the navigator’s personal instrument, watching that newly minted Ensigns never commit the grievous naval offense that causes the navigator to jump in the air and shout, “Who the hell has been using my sextant!” Making sure the ratings never use the Exec’s dividers to stir their coffee.

The chronometer might seem like something that doesn’t require this kind of care but without knowing the exact time it would be impossible to find exactly where you are on the sea. 

Before the first successful sea-going clock, the navigator could only estimate where he was by using a system of Ded (Deduced) Reckoning. Using an hourglass which was turned: yes, every hour, an educated calculation of one’s position on the basis of compass readings, speed, and the distance run from a known point, with allowances for drift from wind, currents, etc. could be made. Chinese mariners from the Song Dynasty began using them in the eleventh century though they had been invented nearly a thousand years earlier, again by the Chinese. This is exactly how Vasco de Gama, Amerigo Vespucci and Cristofor Colon found their way. Colon did not guess, as every sailor knows, he had a map and he simply sailed west on a line of Latitude until he ran into something. His Ded Reckoning was wrong but that was the Greek mathematicians Ptolemys fault, for he miscalculated the circumference of the earth. 

Ded Reckoning was an imperfect system and the sea is littered with ships which made assumptions based on flawed information. On the evening of September 8, 1923, seven US Navy destroyers, while traveling at 20 knots, ran aground at Honda Point, a few miles from the northern side of the Santa Barbara Channel off Point Arguello, California. An educated guess on position was risky in the days before radio, radar and todays satellite positioning systems.

It is fairly accurate in calculating Longitude to simply use a sextant to measure the Suns angle above the horizon but Longitude was impossible until the advent of an accurate timepiece. By WWII advancements in technology made chronometers extremely accurate, though by that time radio signals broadcast from England were in standard use for setting sea going clocks. Unless atmospheric conditions made this impossible then the chronometer served its purpose.

On the Spence, Chief Quartermaster Carrigan, Mr Andrews and the other, more junior officers would have practiced with their sextants day and night. Using the Sun, Moon, the visible planets, the North Star (Polaris) and many of the lesser known stars as reference for finding precisely where they were. Spherical Calculus was a requirement at the US Naval Academy. All souls depended on the skills of the navigators in knowing where they were.

Polaris fixed position, Night Sky. Northern Hemisphere.

When they crossed the Equator at 0.0 degrees the north star had dipped below the visible horizon and they had their first sight of the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross was the principle navigational star cluster south of the equator. It presented a problem for navigators because it oscillated around the heavens unlike Polaris which remains fixed. If you go outside, find Polaris which is just off the tip of the dipper and you will see it never moves. The stars in the heavens rotate around it like a wheel. 

When a seaman learns navigation he is introduced to the wondrous heavens by which mankind has found his way around all the worlds oceans for millennia. Just the names of stars hint at their discoverers and down through the centuries each of the 57 listed stars used for navigation has a story. Consider Deneb, in Chinese folklore, Deneb was associated with the myth of the weaver girl and the cowherd – represented by stars Vega and Altair – they were two separate lovers who could only reunite once a year. Deneb represented a bridge over the Milky Way that allowed the lovers to meet. One of the older names of Deneb is “Arided”. It is also a word derived from Arabic and it translates to “the follower.” The brightest star in the night sky is Betelgeuse, also called Alpha Orionis, it’s in the constellation Orion, marking the eastern shoulder of the hunter. Its name is derived from the Arabic word bat al-jawzāʾ, which means “the giant’s shoulder.” In fact many of the primary stars were named by Arab astronomer mathematicians. During the eight centuries in which Arab scholars led the world in mathematics, astronomy, literature and medicine the heavens were actively studied and mapped. The Astrolabe, the precursor to the Sextant was primarily developed in the medieval Islamic world. Every voyage of discovery up until the middle of the eighteenth century used the Astrolabe until the Sextant came into common use. 

Practically unknown to the world at the time, the Spence’s navigators were passing into the realm of the greatest navigator’s who ever sailed the ocean sea. The Polynesian seafarers sailed entirely by the sun, moon and stars using no instruments. They used their hands to test water temperature and the surface and color of the sea to find their way across the vast reaches of the Pacific. They had no written language and passed the accumulated knowledge down from generation to generation. What they could do made a mockery of all the mechanical instruments, star tables and charts carried on the Spence. At the beginning of the war the navy had almost no existing charts of the islands they were to fight in. They actually used copies of National Geographic maps and charts dating from Captain Cook’s time. They had no depth soundings or ocean current direction flows. This made operating in these waters exceedingly dangerous.

The entire crew was working, practicing the skills they were going to need in combat. Seemingly endless drills were called. General Quarters, Anti-aircraft drills, submarine sightings, launching torpedos, damage control, training each crewmen in a number of jobs until he could do them in his sleep. Damage control parties crawled around below decks with blindfolds on until they knew every nook and cranny of the ship by feel. Phone talkers, the men who called out course changes, engine speeds, navigation directions and relayed messages all over the ship were tested again and again until the right men like Don Pohlemus were found who could stay calm and relay orders clearly under pressure. 5”/38 loaders and handlers practice endlessly until they could keep up the required 15 shot per minute. Some gun mounts could even achieve as much as 22 rounds per minute for short periods. Young men in the prime of their lives were trained to act seamlessly as a team.

The turrets on a Fletcher class destroyer used a team of 27 men working in harmony to fire every single shot. With four turrets, a full two thirds of the crew were employed in operating just this aspect of the ship. This explains the seemingly massive number crew member aboard. Ten men inside the turret itself and more than a dozen down in the handling rooms and the magazines which were located below the waterline. At speed, a fifty-five pound shell and its fifteen pound powder casing went from the magazine, up the hoist which carried it to the turret, into the gun and was fired every 2.7 seconds. Do this in an enclosed steel box with almost no elbow room, choked with acrid smoke, half blind, deafened and unable to see what is happening outside and do it all in 130 plus degree plus heat.  All the while knowing that a direct hit on your mount will slaughter every man in it. You must work fast. Outgunning the foe is how a fleet action is won. So they practice and practice, endlessly.

Up on the bridge Captain Armstrong was surrounded by the men who followed his orders and directed the ship in all its operations. The signalmen handling all forms of communications, quartermaster attending to steering, phone talkers who relay commands, messengers who deliver written notes but mostly keep the coffee pot going and fetch cups for the officers and senior Petty officers. They were surrounded by sonar and radar techs, the fire control team which pointed the guns and the lookouts which constantly scanned for real and perceived enemies.

Stories abound about firing antiaircraft guns at the planet Venus, dropping depth charges on Blackfish or firing the quad-forties at coconuts. Distant porpoises look like periscopes and in a hilarious story, the Port bridge lookout reported a Japanese bomber headed toward the ship, Captain Armstrong ordered his phone talker to ask the fantail lookout if he could see the plane, his answer was yessir, then a pause, “Sir, The plane, it’s flapping its wings.” Funny , but at the same time, not so.

On September 18th the Spence finally arrived at Havannah Harbor in the French New Hebrides. After a voyage lasting 24 days Spence was entering an active war zone. Six days later she escorted ships north to the Solomon Islands. On the second day Spence opened fire on two enemy planes near Guadalcanal. For the first time in the war she fired in anger.

Spence was under orders to to join a squadron of destroyers which have entered naval history as the most successful and decorated small combat units who ever operated in the Pacific. Commanded by Captain Arleigh Albert Burke, a sailor man who would rise to become the Chief of Naval Operations, the highest command in the Naval service. Burke, was born in Boulder, Colorado, on October 19, 1901. Due to the 1918 influenza outbreak, schools were closed in Boulder and he never graduated from high school. Burke would later win an alternate appointment to the United States Naval Academy given by his local congressman. He graduated from the academy in June 1923, and was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Navy.

Over the next 18 years, Burke served aboard battleships and destroyers, and earned an MS degree in Engineering at the University of Michigan. When the war came, he found himself, to his great disappointment, in a shore billet at the Naval Gun Factory in Washington DC. After persistent finagling efforts on his part, in 1943 he received new orders to join the fighting in the South Pacific. Because the Bureau of Personnel Admiral had forbidden him to go, a friendly secretary slipped his orders in with other paperwork placed on the admirals desk. When she handed Burke his orders she suggested he immediately bolt from Washington and get out of town and to the west coast before the Admiral found out he had been hoodwinked. Burke took her advice but not before stopping at a local florist and sending her a bouquet of roses.

Ensign Arleigh Albert Burke 1923 US Navy photo

At the time of his arrival, destroyers were being used as convoy escorts and being carefully husbanded by the Admirals commanding the southwest Pacific theater. Burke had other ideas. As the new commander of Destroyer Squadron 23, or DESRON 23 in the language of the navy. He meant to free himself and his squadron from what he considered hum drum back and forth convoy duty where only the occasional Japanese snooper plane was seen. Burke commanded eight Fletcher Class destroyers, His flagship was the Charles Ausburne, DD-570, the Dyson, DD-572, Claxton DD-571, Spence DD-512, Converse DD-509, Aulick DD-569, Thatcher DD-514 and the Foote DD-511. The squadron was further divided in two equal divisions numbered 45 and 46. Spence was in division 46.

When Captain Henry Armstrong had his ship underway and heading up the Slot toward operations the entire crew was on alert, sometimes for days. When leaving its anchorage and heading to sea, Condition Zebra would be set. This was the highest level of security and alert other than General Quarters. At General Quarters all watertight doors belowdecks and topside were secured. Through the hull fittings were locked down and open hatches were secured. All guns were manned, torpedo tubes readied and each crewman on board reported to his duty station. Normally on what are known as Port and Starboard watches, four hours on, four hours off with a full workday in between, a sailor could be on continuous duty for days and when steaming often was. Even very young men can grow so exhausted, they forget to eat and learn to sleep standing up. The Captain has a makeshift cot on the bridge. The Exec and First officer have temporary rack in the chart house. Gunners slept in their gun tubs, Snipes crawled out of the engine rooms and slept in the passageways, too tired to make it to their racks. Officers thinking could and did become fuzzy with fatigue. A diet of the occasional sandwich, coffee and cigarettes barely nourishes the body. Even smoking was difficult, a match or the glow from a cigarette can be seen for miles at sea on a very dark night. On top of all this, the Japanese, contrary to home front propaganda were not the nearsighted monkeys, technically deficient and sub-human as portrayed in the American press.  Far from it, they had been at war in Manchuria, China since 1928 and had a great deal of experience at their craft. The Imperial Japanese Navy may have been the best in the world at the beginning of the war. They possessed the finest torpedo of the war, the Long Lance, their ships were equal to or better than the US Navy’s and their tactics, particularly at night were vastly superior. In the beginning, good old American pluck was given short thrift by the Japanese and a series of tactical disasters by American commanders decimated the Southwestern Pacific fleet. They had routed the Navies of the Dutch, the English, Australia and New Zealand and the United States in every surface action they had fought.

Though the Spence and the ships of Desron-23 weren’t all in the southwest Pacific theater at that time, they knew about the first great ship to ship battle in the Solomons.

The first Battle of the Solomon Sea, Savo Island, known colloquially among Allied Guadalcanal veterans as The “Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks,” was between the Japanese and allied naval forces. It took place on the night of August 8–9, 1942, and was the first major naval engagement of the Guadalcanal Campaign. It was the first of several naval battles in the straits later named Ironbottom Sound, near the island of Guadalcanal. Over fifty Allied and Japanese ships lay on the bottom there.

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in response to Allied amphibious landings on Guadalcanal, and Tulagi in the eastern Solomon Islands, mobilized a task force of seven cruisers and one destroyer under the command of Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa. The task forces sailed from Japanese bases in New Britian and New Ireland down New Georgia Sound (also known as “the Slot”), with the intention of interrupting the Allied landings by attacking the supporting amphibious fleet and its screening force.

The Allied screen consisted of eight cruisers and fifteen destroyers under Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley, but only five cruisers and seven destroyers were involved in the battle. In a night action, Mikawa completely surprised and routed the Allied force, battering the Australian Light Cruiser Canberra, Hit 24 times in less than five minutes, the Canberra was quickly turned into a blazing inferno. The Chicago, hit by a torpedo in the bow, failed to make contact with the Japanese cruisers as they sped past. Captain Howard Bode of the Chicago, left in charge of the south force by Crutchley, failed to send out a warning to Captain Riefkohl aboard the Vincennes in the northern group.

USS Chicago CL-29 after Savo Island 1942

The Astoria commander made it to the bridge and immediately ordered his ship into battle foreshadowing aggressive tactics the Navy would show in later battles. After hammering out a few salvos’, the Captain ordered a cease fire, worried that his men were in an accidental fight with friendly forces. The Astoria ceased firing for vital minutes. It didn’t resume firing until 1:54 am, 14 minutes after the fight began. It cost him his ship. The Japanese heavy cruiser Chokai kept sending rounds at the Astoria until the fifth salvo hit home, piercing the Astoria’s superstructure, midships, and then the bridge itself. The Astoria would hit the Chokai once before it was too damaged to keep fighting. Torn to pieces the “Nasty Asty” survived until mid-morning the next day before rolling over and sinking. She left 219 mean missing or dead.

Meanwhile, the heavy cruiser USS Quincy was also under fire and would get the worst of it. Its commander also worried that it was suffering friendly fire, and the commander ordered his guns silent, and the ship lit up to identify itself. Japanese shells tore through an aircraft hanger and set a plane on fire. It was too hot for the crew to push overboard, and Japanese ships leaped on the chance to fire on a lit up target. Shells landed just short of the Quincy, then just long, and then began raining down on it. Japanese torpedoes set off the forward magazine. The ship’s captain, Capt. Samuel Moore, ordered the surviving gunners to “Give ’em Hell,” just moments before the bridge was hit by an exploding shell. As he lay dying, his body torn to pieces by steel shrapnel, Moore ordered the ship beached, but another officer realized it was already lost and ordered it abandoned. As the Quincy, Vincennes, and Astoria began sinking, the Japanese fleet called off the attack, beginning its withdrawal at 2:15. It had suffered no serious damage, could see that at least three U.S. ships were sinking and had rendered the Australian ship Canberra dead in the water and the Chicago severely damaged.The  battle last just 35 minutes. It cost the Allies 1007 men dead or missing at the cost of one light cruiser and 3 heavy cruisers sunk, two destroyers damaged and the USS Chicago damaged and out of the war for six months.The Japanese fleet suffered only light damage in return. The battle has often been cited as the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy. Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of the carrier force said, “The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise”. The saga of the Chicago continued. In 1943 when a Naval inquiry board finding was leaked which would have censured  its former captain for not warning the other ships during the early part of the action. He shot himself to death for the shame of it. The US fleet suffered from poor co-ordination, lack of preparation, and was thoroughly humiliated.The battles off Guadalcanal in the 1942 were a very steep learning curve for commanders in the US Navy. The primary weapon of IJN destroyers and cruisers wasn’t their guns, it was the years of practice in fleet maneuvers, night fighting and fire control.

HMAS Canberra on fire and sinking. Photographer unknown

The Canberra had turned her turrets to try and keep her on an even keel as she was flooding. Her damage control teams worked feverishly to save the ship but were rapidly losing ground. She could not make steam and therefore was dead in the water and could not be left afloat so she was scuttled as a hazard to navigation.

Admiral Turner ordered that badly damaged and burning Canberra  to be abandoned and sunk. Once all survivors had been evacuated, USS Selfridge, DD-357 fired 263 5-inch shells and four torpedoes into Canberra  in an attempt to sink her. She wouldn’t go down. Finally a torpedo fired by the destroyer USS Ellet DD-398 administered the final blow. This was the last act in the first battle of Savo Island.

Chapter Eight, Friday October 23rd

By the time Burke assumed command of Desron-23 on the 23rd of November 1943. A little more than year had passed since the first battle of Savo Island and the attitude of the Navy had changed considerably. As in every war recorded in history, the weeding out of commanders who were less than completely aggressive had begun.