Now it was almost four years later; we had gone through the grind and the remaining 400 of the original 576 were soon to graduate; 347 of us were to be commissioned immediately as Ensigns in the Navy. The Marine Corps and physical examinations had accounted for the rest.
A rostrum was set up at one end of the hall and on it a large fish bowl. Inside the bowl were 347 folded slips of paper. Standing beside the rostrum was a blindfolded “plebe”—the person who was to decide between life and death for many of us, and the destiny of all. It was a tense occasion.
We had previously requested the type of ship we were to be sent to—and the ocean. The order in which those slips of paper were taken out of the bowl would decide the assignment precedence.
I had requested cruisers or destroyers on the West Coast, so as to be with the Battle Force. Craig Spowers, my roommate, had requested destroyers, East Coast, because he thought that the Atlantic Squadron would see action first. It was January of 1941 then and we were not at war—but to my classmates and myself it was inevitable; we would be the first “war class.” Our course had been cut short by half a year and, coupled with the trend of events, well . . .
The “plebe” put his hand in the bowl and handed one slip to the Class President. The name was read out, “Joe Gish—Number One!” “Gish shouted with joy and left the Hall. He would get the best duty in the type of ship that he requested. The lottery dragged on through what seemed like hours. Mine was number 256; Craig’s name had not yet been called. I waited with him as the class filed out, one by one, as their names were drawn. Finally there were only two more slips in the bowl—and the next one drawn was Craig’s. It was a bad sign. He would get what was left.
And so an important issue in the lives of many was decided. As in so many ways in a Navy at war or in peace, fate is entirely arbitrary. A man is arbitrarily assigned to a ship; when he reports aboard, he is arbitrarily assigned a battle station. An enemy shell wipes out his station while men on other parts of the ship receive not a scratch. Or it may depend on the watch he stands—or whether the watch was “dogged” the night before—or a thousand other things under the same general heading of “fate.”
Soon before Graduation, the ship assignments were posted. I was on my way to a “hop” (a Midshipman’s dance) when I got the word and ran for the bulletin board. On the line opposite my name was written the word “Sterett.” So—that was it! I looked up the data on her: she was a relatively new destroyer, commissioned in 1939—single stack—1,500 tons—good armament in torpedoes and guns, and one of our fastest types.
Craig drew the Reuben James, an old War I “four stacker.” Then in rapid succession came Exam. Week, the “No More Rivers” ceremony, Drill Week, “Sob Sunday,” June Week, Graduation, commissions, the Oath of Office, a leave in Texas, and then I found myself in San Francisco waiting for the transport U. S. S. Henderson to leave for Pearl Harbor.
>When the Henderson pulled into Pearl Harbor, the moon was just rising into a previously dark sky, silhouetting Diamond Head and nearby palm trees in a typical picture postcard fashion.
All of the “fresh-caught” Ensigns, including myself, were on deck “Oh-ing” and “Ah-ing” and taking in all of this scenic beauty with the Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce propaganda foremost in our minds. We were soon to be sorely disappointed, however, as Honolulu could not absorb even a fraction of the service men in the area.
The following morning, I started my search for the Sterett in company with a classmate who was going to a sister ship. Both ships were in, but the problem was how to get out there with our trunks and other baggage. We hit on the sound idea of getting a boat from our assigned destroyer tender and went to the Ship’s office of the transport to find out which was the proper tender. At the office, we asked a yeoman to let us see a Fleet Organization book. Before he could hand it to us, a Lieutenant Commander growled at us and asked, “What do you want?”
“We would like to see the Fleet Organization book,” I told him.
“What do you want to see if for?” he snarled.
We told him. Ho took the book out of the yeoman’s hand, looked through it and said sarcastically: “Your tender is the Dixie; you will probably have to get a Dixie boat. This is just one of life’s little problems that you will have to learn to figure out for yourselves.”
There being no apparent answer to this sarcasm, we proceeded along the lines previously determined, fully cognizant of where we, as new Ensigns, stood.
The Dixie motor boat headed for a nest of destroyers moored to a buoy in East Loch. As it passed astern of the nest, I picked out for the first time the ship that was in the future to gain the praise of Commander of Destroyers, Pacific Fleet, as “the outstanding destroyer of the Pacific Fleet.” Across the stern, in black letters, was painted the name “STERETT.”
Once aboard, I found that all the officers from the Captain on down were quite friendly to the new Ensign and seemed interested and helpful. It did not take long to get the idea of the brotherhood of destroyer life that makes a destroyer sailor scorn the conveniences of a larger ship. I soon got settled down in my now capacity as “man George,” the Wardroom flunky. My official jobs were as Assistant First Lieutenant and Assistant Torpedo Officer. I was interested in torpedoes.
A situation that immediately seemed rather extraordinary to me was the fact that we had British code aboard; also a Commander, David Cairns, R.N., who was an observer of our fleet operations. It looked as if the alliance with Britain was already formed.
I began a diary in which I intended to keep all of the important happenings of my now life; unfortunately censorship soon put an end to the diary but on the first page I wrote this:
“This is a journal which disregards the unimportant days and happenings and begins what promises to be some interesting memos in the perhaps near future.” Little did I realize how near.
The Sterett soon went to sea for operations with major units of the Fleet. These first days at sea I still refer to, in my mind, as “dog-days.” It seemed that on the least provocation the ship would swap ends, “sunfish” and do a one-and-a-half somersault with a half-twist all at one time. On the bridge, while I hung on to a stanchion partly due to the lunges of the ship, but mostly because I was too weak to stand, the Captain, Commander Atherton MacCondray, sat in his chair ignoring the sheets of salt water coming over the bridge and calmly remarked, “It’s dusty on the road today, Mac !”
I felt like turning in my suit.
But in spite of the initial encounters with “mal de mer,” I soon found the Sterett to be an interesting as well as “happy” ship. My now shipmates, officers and men, were capable and efficient, well above the normal expectancy of a ship’s company as a whole. Coupled with efficiency was, strangely enough, an unusual degree of informality and fun. There were remarkable personalities aboard and idiosyncrasies abounded. The Executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Singer, never ran out of screwball stories, (true stories with himself as the principal character), each one of which sounded like Thorne Smith or Damon Runyon situations. As he would tell them, he would laugh until tears ran down his cheeks—and everyone else in the Wardroom was equally helpless. Ray Calhoun, the Communications Officer, was not far behind in tales of the same caliber.
Calhoun was from Philadelphia—U.S.N.A. Class of ’38. He was an easy-going sort of a fellow, level-headed and efficient, very popular and liked by every officer and man on board. I was assigned to his watch section underway and soon got to know him quite well. It was a sure way to break the monotony of a long mid-watch to get Cal to telling stories of his bachelor days (the settling down he did when he was married was truly miraculous); about his excursion to the Mauna Loa volcano; his midshipman cruises; Army games; frequent races with the Academy “Jimmy legs”; commonplace things turned into a circus by a fantastic sense of humor and a lively imagination. This was the man whom I usually turned to when I had questions about shipboard duties and, even though he was a contemporary, he was fully as expert in shipboard duties as he was in how to raise hell ashore. He was understanding and helpful and I learned a lot from Cal, the model of a good shipmate.
The Fleet was on a wartime basis at sea. All ships were darkened at night and watches were stood on the guns. Sometimes we would stand “watch on, watch off” for days at a time. Radio silence was maintained. Some days we practiced such wartime necessities as fueling at sea. The operating schedule was rough and the Navy prepared for war.
One day we were sent to investigate a Japanese sampan that had been suspiciously floating around in our operating area for a couple of days. Our Assistant Engineer Officer went over in a motor whaleboat to board it. Nothing out of the ordinary was observed but the Jap did succeed in selling our officer a miserable string of fish. Very nice Jap. Kept his bright-work quite shiny for a little fishing smack though.
After operating in and out of Pearl Harbor for about two months, our outfit put to sea on a supposedly routine operation. We were to return to port on the following Tuesday. Then late one afternoon a destroyer passed some secret mall to us. We formed up with a battleship, a cruiser and two other destroyers and set course 155°. These were our first secret orders. Since our new Captain, Commander Jesse Coward, would not divulge our destination, wild speculations arose. Some guessed that we wore going to occupy Tahiti or go through the Canal and take Martinique. Others thought that we were just going around to the Atlantic—and they were right.
During our long trip to Panama there was little of interest except for the various drills and competitions that the Division devised. A prize crew was organized enroute. We passed through the turtle country around Clipperton Island—without turtle soup—and arrived at the Canal at dark on June 6th.
Our ships’ names and numbers were painted out and we were not allowed to divulge them, much to the consternation and annoyance of the Army patrol boats and shore batteries. In any case, the Admiral finally pacified them and the Sterett made a six-hour transit of the Canal.
Once through, we fueled and headed for Guantánamo Bay; then pushed on north, through the Delaware Capes to Philadelphia. A port in the States was never more welcome, as all hands shared the dislike for anything outside of the U.S.A. in general and Hawaii in particular. Even staid old “Philly” had its attractions and our stay was pleasant.
A big news story broke while we were there: Hitler had invaded Russia.
We were shortly sent to Norfolk and went on to Charleston for overhaul—to be rearmed for anti-submarine duty in the Atlantic. During this overhaul, I spent my time at the Torpedo School at Newport, Rhode Island. This was a break for me as it put me in line for Torpedo Officer—and torpedoes are the big wallop of destroyers. (continued)