Formal War Begins
Our state of belligerent neutrality was brought to an abrupt end by circumstances too well known to be elaborated up on here.

The Sterett was at anchor in the peaceful harbor of Bermuda when the news began to arrive about the Pearl Harbor disaster. It was late in the afternoon when we heard our first announcements. I personally received the news at first unbelieving, then as a matter of fact. There seemed to be no great deal of surprise or excitement throughout the ship; it was merely that the event of war with Japan, long expected by all Navy men, had at last become a reality. It is admitted that the news was received in general with a degree of smugness and a firm confidence that when the returns were in, it would be learned that our damage was not severe and that the attacking force had been sunk. We held movies on deck that night at dusk and the news reports came back to us periodically. An early report announced that the West Virginia had been sunk. We were a bit skeptical at the report. Our Chief Engineer, Sanders, was concerned especially, since he had served aboard the West Virginia before coming to the Sterett.

Our optimism was false. We had, indeed, been dealt a severe blow.

There was an unusually heavy flow of encoded messages over the Fleet broadcast schedule on the night of December 7th and Ray Calhoun, the Communications Officer, was busy most of the night breaking them. Most of the dispatches were of an operational nature and gave no details of what had happened at Pearl Harbor.

It was sickening and disgusting to hear the radio news commentators on the ensuing days, and even months, in selfish at tempts to goad the Navy into releasing the whole facts about Pearl Harbor. Without regard for military security, these drones loudly insisted on “freedom of the press,” and “the Public has a right to know” and other such clichés—at a time when it was obvious that if the Japanese had known the real damage done to the fleet and ground installations, the Hawaiian Islands might have been lost. And the Great American Free Press, in its characteristic “me, too” attitude, noisily shouted its condemnation of the Navy at the time of lowest ebb of our modern Fleet. The Army was given the same low brand of verbal abuse and General Short’s name was linked with Admiral Kimmel’s in terms of Arch-treason.

Important events followed each other in rapid succession following the December 7th attack. Japan announced her declaration of war against the United States and Great Britain soon after the first bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor. The next day Congress and Great Britain declared war against Japan. The one dissenting vote in Congress was cast by a woman who, in the face of reality, initiated on identifying herself to the end with the decadence and isolationism that was pre-war America. She was a sorry spectacle in an awakened Nation.

On 9 December, Germany declared war upon the United States, thus completing the picture. The struggle had begun in earnest.

The war’s beginning had immediate effect upon the operations of the Sterett. On December 10th, Destroyer Division 15 covered the sortie of the Wasp, Nashville, Savannah, and other heavy ships, and all in company set course South at 20 knots’ speed.

Our mission was Martinique, the French island in the West Indies where the French carrier Béarn and the cruisers Émile Bertin and Jeanne d’Arc had been anchored since the fall of France. Our intelligence had informed us that the French ships were going to make a break for it, if they had not already. The possibility of their attempt to join the Japanese or German Navies was considered strong enough to warrant our prevention of such action by any restraining measures that the Navy deemed appropriate. The Admiral of the French Squadron was Admiral Robert, a Vichy-Frenchman with known pro-German leanings.

At dawn on December 13th, our Task Force was in position off the coast of Martinique. Our plan of attack was simple: unless further instructions were received from Washington, the Wasp would launch her planes before dawn and the combined air and surface forces of the Task Force would destroy the French ships on sight. As for our special role in the proceedings, if the ships made a run for it, the Lang and the Wilson were to take one cruiser and the Stack and Sterett the other. There were no complications expected and the affair seemed to be a simple matter of air attack, surface shooting and torpedo work. At dawn, however, the Admiral cancelled his previous orders.

No offensive action was to be taken until further orders. The next two or three days were spent steaming up and down the coasts of the chain of islands of which Martinique was one. Then we found out the reason for our failure to attack the French force: the French ships had made no attempt to escape; the State Department had put the pressure on Admiral Robert and a positive assurance of his neutral intentions was made real by the removal from his ships of certain parts without which a ship cannot be sailed or fought. Inspection of the ships by representatives of our government confirmed their demobilization and a peaceful solution to the controversy was arrived at to the satisfaction of all concerned. The Task Force returned to Bermuda.

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From Bermuda the Sterett returned to Argentia—and the anti-submarine patrolling and heavy winds. On 10 January, we departed in company with the Wasp and other ships to rendezvous with Task Force 15 in waters about 300 miles to south of Newfoundland.

It was an impressive force that we met at our rendezvous—the battleship Texas, a couple of cruisers (Tuscaloosa and Wichita, as I remember), some other destroyers and four transports. Our assignment was to convoy the first contingent of American troops across the Atlantic!

The trip was rather uneventful. We took maximum precautions with that outfit . . . it would have been of great propaganda value to the Germans to have been able to claim that the first contingent of the new AEF had been destroyed in passage. The Wasp flew daily anti-submarine patrols in spite of bad flying weather. After a few days on our way the Wasp left the formation and returned to base.

Our orders wore to escort the transports to a MOMP, which, to get away from Navy abbreviations means “mid-ocean meeting point.” This point was a few hundred miles due south of Iceland. We reached the MOMP early in the morning of 23 January. There was no sign of the British ships that were to take our transports on from there. Our Task Force steamed around until about noon when the British destroyers were sighted. The British “force” which was to relieve our big outfit consisted of exactly two of the old four-pipe destroyers that we had given them a few months before!

When the British got within visual range of us, one of  the ships flashed us the following message: “May I have my ships now?” The situation had a ridiculous twist to it, but nevertheless we turned two of the transports over to him and he went on his way toward Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

We took the other two transports on to Iceland, arriving there on January 25th.

The temperature of Iceland is not the bitter cold that the name suggests—the gulfstream passes near enough to give it a mild climate, comparatively speaking. The names of Greenland and Iceland were apparently interchanged sometimes in the past. Hvalfjord Harbor is a large natural harbor of glacial origin surrounded by a plateau of green grass, farm houses and some scrubby variety of livestock. In the background are some rugged foothills leading to the surrounding white mountains. But, as is to be expected, the wind blows with a frequency and violence that compares with, if not exceeds that of Newfoundland. Various merchant ships cast grotesquely high and dry upon various points of land bear testimony of the force.

The wind is habitually such that two days out of three, small boats cannot be operated out of Hvalfjord, and almost as often in Reykjavík Harbor. The ship moved down to the latter place after a couple of days in Hvalfjord.

Liberty and shore leave were granted in Reykjavík. On the second day, two others officers and myself and about 30 enlisted men went ashore. When we got back to the dock, we found out that the Sterett had shoved out without us! It was a sensation hard to describe. We were reassured, though, when we learned that all the destroyers had been ordered out on a submarine hunt and would be back upon completion. The Alexander Hamilton had been torpedoed and sunk only a few miles to the eastward of the entrance to Hvalfjord.

That left me with a peculiar problem on my hands: how could I quarter and feed 30 men and three officers ashore until the Sterett returned? I first went to see the Operations Officer on the staff of the Commander of the Naval Operating Base. Arrangements were made for the officers to stay on the ComNOB’s flagship, the old yacht Williamsburg. A suggestion was made that I try to get the men quartered on one of the merchant transports that had come up with us, the SS Borinquin.

A sojourn to the Borinquin (a former liner on the West Indies run) proved more difficult than I suspected. The Purser was worried about the pay for the men’s rations and the Skipper was just worried and, what was more, didn’t want to be bothered. I finally won him over to my way of thinking and convinced him of the urgency of the situation . . . and the men were given fairly comfortable troop bunks, blankets and, as I understand, quite good food. They took it as sort of vacation and had no complaints and actually enjoyed the break in routine.

On the Williamsburg, there were quite a number of officers who were stranded as we were, including the Captains of some destroyers. The next two days passed pleasantly enough with some impromptu get-togethers on a British minesweeper and the traditional hospitality of a British man-of-war.

On the night of the second day we got word that the Sterett was standing in and would fuel from a designated tanker. It was one of those miserable cold, rainy nights—better spent inside—by a fire and with a hot buttered rum. Nevertheless, we rounded up our men and out we went. We boarded our ship from the tanker and very glad to get back we were.

During our stay on the beach, the Sterett had launched two depth charge attacks on good sound contacts, with only probable results. The Stack had seen the sub on the surface just prior to our attack. The only hitch in the attack was the fact that the officers conducting weren’t at all acquainted with my system and its advantage was lost . . . for whatever it was worth.

The troop convoy job completed, the Sterett returned to the States and New York, for Navy Yard availability in the Brooklyn Yard. While in the Yard, the Gunnery Officer was transferred and Ray Calhoun was moved up to the gunnery job. Joe Marver, the Ass’t. Comm. Officer, took over the Communications. In about a couple of weeks the Captain called me up and told me that he was giving me Communications. Marver was snowed under right up to his ears and hated communications with a vengeance—almost to a point of cracking up. When I took over from Marver, he showed me the dope. The confidential files consisted of two jackets: the “To be filed” file and the “To be filed in the to be filed” file. It was strictly a one-man; system and it worked like a charm . . . for Calhoun. When somebody asked to see a particular letter, Cal would just put his finger to his forehead and think for a few seconds, then pull it right out. But it was murder for anybody else.

The big surprise came when Marver casually mentioned the matter of corrections to publications that were outstanding at the time. These consisted of a stack of pamphlets at least six inches high. These jolts, added to the fact that I knew exactly nothing about communications, were enough to make me tear my hair and swear to myself.

Realizing that the Communications were more than a full time job, the Captain planned to have another officer take over my torpedoes. On my insistence, however, he permitted me to retain the job of Torpedo Officer in addition to my new duties. For that I was glad

To add to my difficulties, Marver applied for and was given the duties of Assistant Gunnery Officer. That was the last straw for me but, undoubtedly, a very good thing for him because communications were getting him down in a big way. I could understand why. When he was put into gunnery, he insisted that he would continue to give mo a hand in getting squared away . . . but that was the last I heard or saw of it.

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Our availability over, we went up to Boston for a rather unusual job with “MADAM X.” That, as we soon learned, was the code name for the Queen Mary.

We joined MADAM X at the Boston Harbor breakwater; took a course of southeast, speed thirty knots! The Stack was the other destroyer escorting this seagoing brute . . . and our stations were on the big ship’s bow, as is usual. Thirty knots was not just the speed for getting clear of the land . . . it was standard speed for the Queen Mary. The sea was fairly rough and it was a hectic day and a half that we had to splash around and keep up the pace that was being set for us. We were glad when we turned back and assumed a comfortable speed back into Boston. The MADAM X disappeared over the horizon, still at the same speed and taking the sea just as if it were a mill pond. A few days later the Germans announced that they had torpedoed and damaged the Queen Mary somewhere in the Atlantic. There was no basis of truth to the report; the Germans were just fishing for information, as it would be the remotest chance that any submarine could get close enough to that baby to put a torpedo in her.

In a couple of weeks after our job with the Queen Mary, we went down to the Norfolk Navy Yard for another short overhaul. I had the duty one night when a long twist of an Ensign came aboard in a raincoat and shyly announced that he was reporting aboard for duty. That was undoubtedly the only time before or since that Herbert A. May, Jr., could ever be accused of shyness. He was a welcome sight—I had an assistant!

While sitting in the yard, there was much speculation about where we wore getting ready to go. We knew that we wore getting ready for some special assignment with the Wasp—but where? This was soon after the time that our Asiatic Squadron was annihilated in the Java Sea—and a division of old four-pipe destroyers had turned in a brilliant performance in the vain attempt to break up a Japanese landing in the Makassar Straits. It was only natural to assume that we were being sent to Australia—and the usual “scuttlebutt” which mysteriously passes around made it almost a certainty. It was not a pleasant prospect. But we were wrong. (continued)