Our Converse


The officers assigned to the Converse were ordered to report to the Bath Iron Works several weeks before the ship was completed so that they could familiarize themselves with her. But the Converse still belonged to the Bath Iron Works, and because they might get underfoot, the shipbuilders did not permit the officers to board her. So her future officers sat around an office studying a set of blueprints of the ship, reading up on destroyer doctrine and drinking coffee.

The communications officer was a relaxed, not-very-bright Adonis whose previous duty as staff communicator for an admiral had required little more than showing decoded messages to the admiral two or three times a day, filing them and playing cards in the wardroom of the ancient battleship Arkansas. Commander Hamberger ordered him to go to the Boston Navy Yard to draw and organize the ship's codes and secret publications so that they would be ready for her arrival, commissioning and fitting-out there. He told his communications officer to submit a written progress report within a week.

Commander Hamberger is always to be admired for his leadership, ability and skill as captain of the Converse. He took raw recruits and "90-day wonders" and moulded them into the magnificent fighting team the men of the Converse became. He was a fine ship-handler too. He was indeed a superb naval officer. But he had absolutely no sense of humor, not a trace of it. He rarely laughed, never relaxed.

Ten days passed without a progress report from the communicator in Boston. Hamberger telegraphed him asking for it. (There was lots of telegraphing back and forth in those days.) The communications officer wired back that he was making good progress between visits to the racetrack.

Hamberger was not amused. He telegraphed the Bureau of Officer Personnel in Washington at once, asking for the immediate transfer of the officer to other duty. The green assistant communications officer suddenly found himself in charge, and with no assistant.


The morning after the Converse was commissioned in the Boston Navy Yard, a newly-minted “90-day wonder" ensign had the quarter-deck watch. He recalled having read somewhere that a certain pennant should be flown—or not flown (he couldn't remember which way it went)—when the ship was in port and the captain on board.

He knew the captain was in his cabin, so he ordered the pennant hoisted. Shortly thereafter the captain left the ship on business ashore, and the ensign ordered the pennant lowered.

An hour later a senior officer—a four-striper quite senior to Commander Hamberger—came to call on him, and was miffed to find him ashore. He gruffly asked why the ship's captain's absentee pennant was not flying. Later the visitor told Commander Hamberger about his O.O.D.’s sloppy error, and Hamberger was undoubtedly mortified at his ensign's gaffe.

Obviously the ensign had guessed wrong and gotten his sequence of pennants backwards. (Or does the writer have the sequence backwards?) With foul-ups like that, how did we ever win the war?


After the Converse had completed fitting-out at Boston Navy Yard, and with her largely-green crew, a few experienced officers and several "90-day wonders" aboard, she dropped anchor in freezing Casco Bay for shake-down and training. It was a frustrating experience. It was bitterly cold and much of the above-decks equipment froze. Thick mist rising from the frigid ocean was impenetrable; an SG radar was still in the future. Each morning, the Converse put to sea, but the gunnery target usually remained invisible in the fog. Wisely, whoever was in charge of the training program ordered the Converse to Guantánamo Bay so that training exercises could be continued and completed.

One or two afternoons before Christmas, the Converse topped off with fuel, weighed anchor and got under way for the Caribbean. Her bunkers were full to the very brim, and then some. The engineering officer was being conscientious. But he had forgotten, if indeed he ever knew, that fuel oil expands as its temperature is increased. When the ship entered the Gulf Stream, the temperature of the sea water rose more than 30º almost instantly. In accordance with the laws of nature, the ship’s fuel expanded and gushed through the vents of the fuel tanks, flooding some of the lower decks with an inch of thick, gooey #2 bunker fuel oil. The ship had to steam another hundred miles or more before using up enough fuel to make room in the tanks for the oil that was sloshing around on the decks below. Below decks it was an oily, messy Christmas Day!


The Converse was predestined to join the Pacific Fleet; that was general knowledge. But when and how this would be accomplished was unknown. After the ship's interlude of training at Guantánamo had been accomplished, she steamed to the Naval Operating Base at Norfolk, Virginia, and reported in, ready for duty. She was berthed at a pier near the mighty Royal Navy aircraft carrier H.M.S. Victorious, virtually rebuilt after being mauled and almost sunk by the Luftwaffe while convoying supply ships to Malta. Repairs had required many months. Captain Hamberger went ashore to get the ship's orders. To his astonishment the Converse was to escort the H.M.S. Victorious to Pearl Harbor. An aircraft carrier of the British North Atlantic Fleet was to join the U.S. Pacific Fleet!

Although the public had not been told, after the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, only one American heavy and two light aircraft carriers were combat-ready in the Pacific. All the others had either been sunk or were severely damaged and under repair in west-coast shipyards. None of the new generation of Essex-class carriers had as yet been commissioned, and the Pacific Fleet desperately needed carrier strength. So the US Navy borrowed the Victorious for six months. During this time the Converse and the Victorious developed a close and friendly relationship. The game-plan was for the Converse and the Victorious to arrive at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal at dusk, pass surreptitiously through the Canal at night and be out of sight in the Pacific before dawn, all in great secrecy. But when the Victorious arrived at the entrance to the Canal, it was discovered that she would not fit into the locks; she was ten to fifteen feet too broad of beam.

The Converse traversed the Canal late in the afternoon as planned but the Victorious remained behind to have her bulging gun sponsons cut off and placed on her flight-deck to be welded back in place on the Pacific side. Thus the men of the Converse had six unexpected, great days of liberty in Panama City.

There were three night-clubs in Panama City. One had an hour-long floor show starting at 8:30 p.m., one at 10:00 p.m. and the third at 11:30 p.m., and the show was the same at all three. The show-girls simply moved from one night-club to the next, and the men of the Converse followed. At the conclusion of the third show the final night ashore, one of the dancers planted a kiss on the middle of the bald head of one of the Converse junior officers, and he turned as red as the smudge of lipstick left on his pate.

Oahu landfall was dramatic. The Victorious had launched her pre-dawn search planes on schedule. As the sun rose astern, the profile of Diamond Head loomed up sparkling on the horizon ahead in the tropical dawn. An hour later the USS Alden, a tiny, graceful pre-WW I destroyer, the oldest commissioned ship in the Pacific Fleet, arrived to escort the flotilla in to Pearl Harbor. She danced on the waves like a figure by Degas, her signal flags of welcome snapping in the wind. There was a flurry of excitement as the Converse tied up to a Pearl Harbor pier for she was the first of the 2200-ton [sic] class destroyers to arrive at Pearl*, a harbinger of future strengths to come.”

While at Pearl Harbor a mysterious SG (surface) radar supplementing the bedspring FC (fire-control) radar was installed in the ship's pilot house, and a CIC (combat information center) was created in the chart room just behind it. The SG radar was a quantum leap ahead for the American navy. It put our warships light-years ahead of the Japanese. That the entire American task force emerged from the engagement of Empress Augusta Bay unscathed, that Desron 23 sank a flotilla of Japanese destroyers at the Battle of Cape St. George without being hit by enemy gunfire and that the Converse caught a Japanese submarine on the surface in the black of night was due in no small part to the presence of SG radars on the American ships, including the Converse.

The intricate electrical circuits of the SG radar were a mystery to all except Kozlowski who had a God-given ability to repair it. Whenever it malfunctioned, he would say in his squeaky, heavily-accented voice, "Don't worry, I fix." He would then operate on the wiring like a surgeon, and in a few moments the radar would be working again. Kozlowski had a magic touch with anything electrical.

The Converse and Victorious were components of the task force that gave long-range coverage to the amphibious landing on Rendova. The Japanese high-seas fleet was believed to be at anchor in its lair in the Truk lagoon. Had it ventured forth to try to break the supply life-line to the American troops ashore, or to reinforce its own, it would have more than met its match in the American combat task-force hovering in the wings.

The men of the Victorious marveled at the American fleet's ability to operate for thirty days on the high seas, with tankers refueling and supply ships servicing the combat ships almost daily. The British were attuned to short, quick sallies forth from Scapa Flow or Gibraltar, and then a prompt return to port. Perilous as it was, a convoy to Gibraltar and return required only a few days.

After a month at sea the "Limies" of the Victorious held the American navy in greater esteem than they had before.

After Rendova had been secured, Admiral Nimitz released the Victorious and she returned to her home fleet. The battleship Indiana was needed elsewhere too, and the two mighty warships departed the South Pacific. Early one morning the Converse led the pair through the tortuous channel of Nouméa's outer harbor and the narrow passage of the barrier coral reef, escorted them east for several hours and then bade the Victorious and her consort farewell. It was another memorable sight. The sea was calm and the day brilliant. As the ships parted, the Victorious broke out a giant homeward-bound pennant and the Indiana fired salute salvo of every anti-aircraft gun it had, peppering the sky with countless shell-bursts. Ave atque vale Victorious! The next day the Converse steamed north from Nouméa to the New Hebrides and then on to the Solomons to begin her many months of glorious combat against the Japanese.


By the time the Converse reached the Panama Canal it was obvious that the ship needed an experienced signalman. There were several eager teen-age strikers, but no experienced leading signalman on board to train them. In Panama the Naval Operating Base personnel office was asked for a man who would fill the need. Within hours Signalman 1/c Wright reported on board for duty. Wright seemed the right man for the job. After only a few days at sea it was obvious that he was capable, alert, willing and agreeable. He promptly took the strikers in hand and started to make signalmen out of them. But, horror of horrors, a few days out of Panama, a crap game being played for money in the bowels of the ship was reported to the Captain, and Wright was alleged to have been a ringleader. The Captain wasted no time in ordering Wright court-martialed. A molehill quickly became a mountain. The court-martial proceedings were carried out in textbook fashion. The wardroom became a courtroom. Wright was given defense counsel and witness were grilled. Wright was found to be guilty of violating naval regulations covering gambling aboard ship, and was broken to signalman 2/c.

When the Converse reached Pearly Harbor, he was transferred off the ship, his ambition of becoming a Chief Signalman set back for years, if not ruined forever. Once again the Converse needed a leading signalman. Obviously the Captain made an example of Wright in order to nip shipboard gambling in the bud. He was apparently successful; at least gambling was never reported again. And in the navy there is no such thing as a private life at sea.


After an uneventful night up the "Slot" searching unsuccessfully for Jap evacuation barges, the Converse was headed back to Purvis Bay. It was still pitch black on the bridge; the first fingers of dawn were still an hour away. Only the faint sound of the bow wave could be heard as the ship knifed through a glassy-calm sea. Otherwise all was quiet; the voices on the bridge were subdued. The O.O.D. had the "con," the Junior O.O.D. was on the starboard wing of the bridge and Trelfall had the wheel. The weighty subject under discussion at that moment was whether or not women could become expert aviators. Various opinions were voiced. The Junior O.O.D. emphatically stated that they could not because every time a woman flew upside down, she had a crack-up. Great hilarity, and the discussion was switched to some other equally important and erudite topic.


In the early part of the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, Desdiv 46 steamed ahead of the cruisers, laying down a smokescreen. A large Jap warship, probably a cruiser, appeared on the screen of the SG radar on the bridge, and the Captain ordered a torpedo run. The Converse headed at flank speed for the Jap, the torpedo tubes were swung out to starboard and the range calculations cranked in. At just the right moment the Captain skillfully ordered left full rudder and gave the command, “Fire Torpedoes!” The silhouette of the Jap could almost be discerned through the smoke. The Torpedo Officer cried, "Fire one! Fire two! Fire three! Fire four!" The torpedoes didn't budge. They were frozen tight in the tubes. In seconds the Converse had swung away from the target. It was too late to try to fire again. The golden opportunity had been muffed. One wonders if this blunder—which was certainly not the Captain's fault—was ever mentioned in any of the battle reports submitted to Cincpac. Probably not.


The Converse was anchored in Purvis Bay and, after several nights of patrolling the area northwest of the “Slot” watch-on-watch, the ship's company was getting a well deserved 48-hour rest. The Captain decided that the men could have a swim between 1500 and 1600 and he told the O.O.D. to sound swim call a few minutes before 1500.

This the O.O.D. did, and moved the watch to the quarterdeck to act as supervisor of the swimming. It was a beautiful, hot afternoon, and the O.O.D. wanted a swim too. The longer he watched everybody else in the cool water, the more he itched to be there too. Finally at 1545 his relief appeared, the usual courtesies were exchanged, our man was relieved and he rushed for his bathing trunks below. He dove into the water at 1555; the swim for all was over promptly at 1600. He was the last out of the water, and as he climbed to the ship's deck, he couldn't resist turning around for another quick dive. He surfaced, swam to the ladder and climbed aboard. It was 1602.

The Captain was watching from the heel of the bridge, called the officer to his cabin, reprimanded him for disobedience and put him in "hack"—ordered him to spend the evening in his quarters. This was all right with the officer for he had planned to write a letter home anyway.

A few evenings later the ship was underway and the Captain was musing on the wing of the bridge. The same officer was O.O.D. and had the "con." At sundown he passed the word, "The smoking lamp is out."

Five minutes later, without thinking, the Captain lit a cigarette.

The O.O.D. promptly said, "Captain . . .  Captain . . .  remember my swim!"


The ship's cooks on the Converse did a great job. Chow that was generally good and well prepared, often under adverse conditions, was served piping hot from the tiny galley but naturally the fare sometimes got monotonous. At one point in time the ship had received a quantity of—to American sailors—rather tasteless New Zealand mutton in a Purvis Bay provisioning. A few weeks later a goodly quantity of the mutton still remained in the ship's frozen food locker. Upon returning to Purvis from a foray up the "Slot," the Converse was ordered to tie-up alongside a New Zealand destroyer.

The ANZAC destroyer had recently been provisioned by a US Navy food ship and had received a quantity of steak, rather tasteless to the New Zealanders. The cooks of the two ships compared notes, learned of the situation, and word was passed on to Jack Heald, the Converse supply officer. He arranged a magnificent swap, pound for pound. The New Zealanders exchanged their American steak for the New Zealand mutton on the American ship. Everybody came out ahead; everybody was happy.


"Tiny,” a chubby, pink-faced lieutenant (j.g.) was one of the two assistant engineering officers on the Converse. Like the captain, he had a Teutonic surname, but unlike the captain, he had a ready wit, an ebullient personality and a twinkle in his eye. Habitually, shortly before dark, he would repair to the fantail to joke with the off-watch men in his division and sing arias from Italian opera. His "Figaro-Figaro-Figaro" was memorable. Of all the Converse officers he was the closest to his men, possibly too close for the proper military conduct of his division's affairs. Tiny came from the merchant marine which rendered him a social pariah to the captain and the two disliked one another.

Somebody on the fantail came up with the thought one evening that there should be a ship's newspaper, and sounded Tiny out about the idea. He was enthusiastic, so a draft of an initial issue was prepared. Fortunately Tiny showed the draft to the communications officer. To the latter's horror, there were several paragraphs of caustic, derogatory remarks about the captain. Quite obviously they came from Tiny's hand, or were written at his suggestion. If ever they had appeared, Tiny or somebody would have been court-martialed. Minus the cutting remarks, copies of the little newsletter, now largely a collection of corny jokes, were run off on the ship's mimeograph machine and circulated to all hands.

When he saw a copy, the executive officer seethed because he had not been consulted about the paper, as he should have been. The communications officer had simply not thought about mentioning it.

The exec damned the sheet as a "rag" unworthy of the ship and called the communications officer to account. The communications officer thanked God that the exec had never seen the original manuscript. The executive officer gave orders that the next issue must be a top-quality literary undertaking, one worthy of showing to the Squadron commodore, the task force admiral, and other important people, and that he approve every comma and period before publication.

The communications officer, an unreconstructed civilian at heart, replied that it was a free country, that the men should be permitted to create whatever newspaper format they wanted and that the exec's restrictions would kill the project. The communications officer was right. No second issue of the Converse ship’s paper was ever even started.


Each time the Converse anchored or tied up in Purvis Bay, the whaleboat was called away and a party sent ashore to pick-up the ship's mail, personal and official. The party was always in charge of the communications officer as he had to sign receipts for official registered mail at the fleet post office. On one such occasion he wandered around the periphery of the enclave that was the shore establishment at Purvis. Two small tents near the beach somehow seemed out of character, and he strolled over to them. They turned out to be the nucleus of a medical mission to the natives that had been supported by the Anglican Church of New Zealand for many years. When the Japanese came ashore, the three missionaries manning the establishment fled to the hills and were hidden by the natives. The Japs burned the mission to the ground.

Now Father Edwards, his two co-missionaries and a gaggle of natives had begun to rebuild the mission; and the two rude tents were the start. The communications officer chatted briefly with Father Edwards who was obviously devoted to his mission—his mission in life and the rebuilding of the Christian mission at Purvis Bay.

By coincidence, the day after the task force returned victoriously to Purvis from the Battle of [Cape St. George] was (American) Thanksgiving Day. Signal flags were hoisted on the flagship that read, "Thanksgiving Divine Services at 1000.” There were, of course, several reasons for the services: battle survival, victory and then Thanksgiving Day itself.

Word was passed that those wishing to attend the services were to muster on the quarterdeck, and five men, including the communications officer responded. The whaleboat was called away.

The signal from the flagship indicated the time of the services, but not the place. It never occurred to the communications officer, who was senior man in the party, that there was a US Navy chaplain on the flagship and that the services would be there. He ordered the coxswain of the whaleboat to steer for the Purvis Bay dock, and he took the party ashore to Father Edwards.

The missionaries were taken completely by surprise. Thanksgiving is not a New Zealand holiday, and they had not planned any services. But Father Edwards rose to the occasion magnificently and conducted a beautiful Thanksgiving communion in a grove of palm trees by the beach. At its conclusion he gave each man three fresh, ripe pineapples that he had grown and picked himself. For the five from the Converse it was truly a memorable Thanksgiving.


The Converse was bound for Sydney and long-awaited, well-earned liberty for all hands. New Caledonia had disappeared astern and all hands were relaxed. After many nights of watch-on-watch, it was a watch-in-four.

In the wardroom a white cloth covered the long center table for the first time in months, and all the officers not on watch, in freshly laundered, starched and pressed khakis, were having lunch. The captain sat at the head of the table, the Division Commodore to his right, and the junior officers congregated at the other end. The commodore was a self-appointed expert on all subjects, and during this particular meal he pontificated on higher education. He concluded his monologue with the assertion that the United States Naval Academy was the finest educational institution in the world. The captain nodded his head in solemn agreement. An ensign at the lower end of the table, recently graduated from Harvard, Princeton or some such, snorted. There was a stony, strained silence. The chasm between reserves and regulars was never deeper or wider.


She was famous throughout the South Pacific. Finally the Converse got to know her too, or at least one of her signalmen did. The luscious blonde stood in the park opposite the Woollammoo docks watching the Converse tie up. At the appropriate moment, she unfurled her semaphore flags and wigwagged for attention. All binoculars on the bridge were riveted on her. A signalman acknowledged her call and she spelled out to him, "Do-you-want-to-go-to-bed-with-me?" He signaled back a quick, "Affirmative, affirmative, your message understood, affirmative." A few more messages back and forth firmed up the date. When liberty was sounded, the young signalman was one of the first down the gangplank. The blonde was waiting for him at the end of the pier, and they disappeared together.

*Earlier ships of this class had sailed from the Panama Canal directly to the South Pacific, by-passing the Hawaiian Islands.