Task Force 39 sortied from Casco Bay on March 26th and took an easterly course. The word was out now that we were heading for Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands for the purpose of operating with the British Home Fleet. We were to be the first United States Task Force to join our British allies in European waters.
On the second day out, a rather singular event occurred that shocked the entire Force. Sometime during the morning, signals were run up from the Washington announcing a “man overboard.” Some of the destroyers were sent back to search, and after giving the water a thorough going over, reported negative results. The sea was choppy as is usual for the North Atlantic, but only a moderate sea was running, and compared with the hellishly rough water that we were used to, the day was fairly calm. A man in the water, though, is a very hard object to locate even in a glassy sea and any waves or whitecaps make it a slim chance. Another factor is that the Labrador Current, which originates in the Arctic Ocean, sweeps down past the coast of Greenland and on down a few hundred miles off of the Maine Coast. Survival in this frigid water is measured in terms of minutes instead of days. Men have been known to last for about four hours if they were heavily clothed and had on life jackets and winter underwear.
The search continued and in spite of bad flying weather the Wasp put up two SBDs to join the search. One of these planes and two crew members were lost.
After an hour or so, the search was abandoned and the Task Force continued on its course. A signal came from the Wichita announcing the failure of the search and the name of the missing man. The man who had been lost at sea was the Task Force Commander, Rear Admiral Wilcox! Rear Admiral R. C. Giffen on the Wichita took command of the Task Force.
Later we found out what had happened—as far as anybody knows: Admiral Wilcox had a habit of taking walks on deck and casually inspecting the topside as he did so. He very often left his cabin without his orderly being aware of it, and proceeded about the decks by himself—often unobserved. On this particular morning, as stated before, a moderate sea was running—just enough to occasionally wash over the decks of the Washington. Someone saw a man fall over the side and gave the alarm. The search was conducted and the Washington held quarters for muster to determine the identity of the missing man. All hands were checked and rechecked but, apparently, no one was missing. Doubt rose that a man actually had fallen overboard, or that anyone had positively seen the event. With this negative information, the Captain went to make his report to the Admiral. But the Admiral was nowhere to be found!
As the story has it, Admiral Wilcox had an unusual dread of falling overboard and frequently expressed this fear. This may have had something to do with his losing his footing when close to the ship’s rail; or when a wave came over the dock, as the case may be.
This incident struck me as being extremely pathetic and rather futile. Here was a man who has devoted his life to the sea; he had worked and studied; he had made flag rank and was near the top of the ladder. Furthermore, he had realized the ambition of every Naval officer—to be in command of a Task Force in time of war. He had been given a powerful group of ships and was on his way to the war zone. Twenty four hours after he assumed command of his Task Force, the Admiral was lost at sea.
With our new Task Force Commander in charge, we proceeded on our mission assigned.
Early in the morning of 4 April, 1942, Task Force 39 was near the approaches to the straits between the northern tip of Scotland and the Orkney Islands—and Scapa Flow. The morning was foggy with visibility of about three miles; the sea glassy. It was an unusually still and quiet morning, in contrast to the hot reception we tenderfeet wore expecting as a matter of course from the Germans. We wore met and welcomed by the British cruiser HMS Edinburgh, which took the guide and led the Task Force through the channel, north up into the wide bay (the “Flow” proper) and on into the back channels in which the Home Fleet was anchored and moored to buoys. It is a real trick to get into Scapa past the anti-submarine and anti-torpedo nets and through the winding channels; of course, after you get past the numerous mine fields. We could not help expressing admiration for the German submarine skipper who sank the Battleship HMS Royal Oak inside of the Scapa Flow and then made his escape.
The Sterett was, at last, in a Theater of War. Upon anchoring, the British were prompt in welcoming us to the Home Fleet and in giving us preliminary Information. The first liaison officer aboard was a Viscount something-or-other—a Lieutenant Commander—with some special instructions, including a special ultra-secret code to be used only in event of invasion of the British Isles. The principal things that I remember about the Viscount was that he was quite helpful—and that he had the ability to grow whiskers high upon his cheek bones. I thought at first that he had a couple of hairy moles up there but upon close inspection I saw that the whole thing was deliberate, planned, and properly trimmed. It produced a unique effect—that of an eye-brow high upon each cheek. The Viscount also carried a handkerchief in his sleeve; but as I found out later, it was the accepted thing—and was no reflection on the fighting ability of the British Navy.
Hard on the heels of the Viscount came a deluge of British Signal Publications; eighteen bags of them! That was the last straw for a new communicator. There was no place to put them except in my room and for several days, until I got them all straightened out and accounted for, a person would break their leg coming into my room—with publications about a foot deep over every inch of floor space. They were in my custody and were to be strictly accounted for to the British Admiralty.
To help us get broken into the ways of the British Navy, we soon received aboard six British signalmen and six radiomen, who were to be attached to the ship until such time as our own ratings had mastered the British communication system. I was impressed with the efficiency of these men in their specialties. This is thrust upon them by necessity. The British officers assign much more responsibility to their ratings than our Navy does. Another important factor is that the men are enlisted as early as 12 years old and are put through an extensive and thorough training period, amounting to years, before they are ever aboard a man-of-war. (While in Portsmouth, England, during my “youngster” year, I visited the Navy Signal School of St. Joseph’s where the British signal ratings are trained, and I can attest to the length and completeness of their training in that specialty.)
A British Lieutenant attached to our destroyer squadron was especially helpful to me in getting reoriented to their ways.
Our now Allies greeted our Task Force with open arms. We were there only a few days when invitations came pouring in, inviting our officers over to the Wardrooms of various British ships. A reception was given for us by the Lyness (the Naval Base at Scapa) Officers’ Mess. It was a huge success. I am afraid that our group drank up most of the Scotch whiskey that the mess possessed. The poor devils had to drink Irish whiskey after we left. It was a noble sacrifice and was well appreciated. They showed further consideration for us by having ice for the drinks, which the British never use themselves. Their beer, however, was putrid—an ungodly swill that tasted and looked like spunkwater. But in any case, they welcomed us aboard in fine style with the best they had, and our officers and theirs became fast friends. A good start.
When the party was over, the weather outside was in direct contrast to the mood of the occasion; a cold driving rain and high winds blew over the Flow, We were taken back to the ship in a “drifter”—a cabin craft of about 50-foot length. The old Scotsman who piloted the boat had great difficulty in bringing it alongside our ships in the choppy water and low visibility and to add to his troubles, one of his men up on the forecastle turned on a bright light, blinding the skipper. When this would happen the old man would yell out into the wind, “Put that light doon, matey! Put it DOON! Put it DOON! Those words still come back to me when I am on the bridge or in a small boat during a pitch black night, with cold rain in torrents and heavy seas.
“Drifters” seem to be endemic to the Scapa Flow area; I have seen them in use in no other place. Actually they are a type of motor fishing boats, perhaps taken over by the British Navy for use as described above. In true British style, the dirtiest and most insignificant of the lot proudly bore the name of HMS Magnificent!
There were many interesting things about Scapa Flow that were new to us. Spaced at intervals around the Scapa Plow area were a number of small, circular towers about 20 feet high and 15 feet in diameter made of stone. These are called Martello Towers and were intended to be small forts. Their history dates back to the Napoleonic Era, when they were built to repel an invasion by Napoleon. Of course In this modern war the Martello Towers were absolutely useless, but they remained standing as symbolic relics of the day when Britain was once before threatened by the possibility of foreign invasion.
Numerous barrage balloons floated in the skies above Scapa Flow, This also was something new for us. On clear days the balloons were released to an altitude that made them appear as silver specks in the sky; when there was a cloud cover they were hauled down to a position just below the clouds so as to not present a made-to-order marker for any German plane who happened by. A strange sight was to see a small coastal convoy steaming along, each tramp steamer with a barrage balloon in tow! Talking to an officer on the beach, I was surprised to learn that there hadn’t been an air raid on the big base for over a year. The reason given was that the raiding planes could not come down low enough to hit a ship for the balloons, and the numerous Spitfires based all around the Flow made such a venture extremely unprofitable. So except for an occasional high flying reconnaissance plane leaving long, white vapor trails in the sky, Scapa Flow was unmolested.
Sitting on the muddy bottom of the harbor, but still in full commission, was the HMS Iron Duke—the Flagship of the Grand Fleet in the Battle of Jutland in the First World War. In another part of the harbor, sunk and with its rusty bottom showing above the water was the Flagship of the German High Seas Fleet in the same battle—the Derfflinger. Significantly, the latter was being raised for salvage scrap metal, to be hurled back at the Germans in various forms.
The land surrounding Scapa Flow was barren and desolate and covered with heath in the manner typical of Scottish moors. To stand looking across the fields of heath (not yet in bloom) and the rugged hills in the background, it was easy to see that a more dismal setting was not to be found for stories such as the Hounds of Baskerville and Wuthering Heights. The air was a dry cold. A small group of sheep were engaged in the thankless task of grassing in the moors. There was no other sign of life inland except an occasional anti-aircraft gun position and a barrage balloon control station.
The Sterett soon swung into the routine of operating with the British Home Fleet, and under the orders of the Admiralty at Whiteside, London. We were assigned a code name of “HMS Steadfast.” Almost every day, we would go out on maneuvers with the King George V, Victorious, Rodney, a host of other British heavy units, destroyers and the rest of our Task Force. The ships were mixed up in order to get us used to the idea that we were operating as one fleet rather than as two. The idea was highly successful and demonstrated to us all the unprecedented degree of cooperation that was to be of such value in the years of war ahead.
On the days when the Fleet did not operate, often we would go out into the Flow and have A/S training with a submarine . . . or stay in port and attend some of the British A/S or AA training classes. The British were good at Anti-Submarine work.
During this routine, the Wasp was missing from our group for ten days or two weeks. She returned to Scapa on the 27th or 28th of April. On the morning of the 29th, the Sterett, Wasp, Lang and the British destroyer HMS Blackmoor formed up and headed for Greenock, Scotland, on the River Clyde. Upon arrival, the destroyers anchored off Greenock and the Wasp proceeded on up the river to Glasgow. The purpose was fairly obvious to us all: the Wasp had left her own air groups behind at Scapa. She was now loading Spitfires for a ferry service to hard-pressed Malta! This was to be a real assignment—probably our first tough one.
While waiting for the Wasp to load and return, I managed to take an overnight trip up to Glasgow. The city was dirty and not at all impressive. At a large hotel that night I had my first taste of the British war-time diet. There was only one thing on the menu; when it was brought out, it was a piece of calf liver with a big pile of mashed potatoes. It was ample food as far as energy value goes, but not the fancy dishes characteristic of peacetime England. As a matter of fact, I didn’t expect the quantity that was served me. The dinner was made somewhat appetizing by some Guinness Stout. The Wasp, Lang, Sterett, HMS Echo and HMS Intrepid* departed Greenock on 3 May and headed south for the Straits of Gibraltar.
On May 7th, the destroyers were relieved by a group of British “tin cans” from Gibraltar. We then proceeded ahead of the Wasp to Gibraltar for fuel, getting there in the early afternoon. We got our fuel according to plan and stood by for a sortie at about 2000 the same night, at which time we and the rest of “FORCE W” were to meet the Wasp as she passed through the Straits. The operation was naturally of highest secrecy, but in spite of it all, something happened to us during the sortie that was at once embarrassing and immensely funny. In clearing the dock the Captain ordered one short blast on the whistle blown to warn a ship astern that we were moving out . . . and the whistle stuck! It seemed an eternity before an engineer could climb up the mast and cut off the steam. The extra-loud and extra-long toot must have sent all the inhabitants of the Rock scurrying for their air-raid stations. However, we did not wait around to see the commotion we had caused, so we steamed out and joined the “Snafu Maru.”
In addition to our original group, Task Force W now had the following ships: the battleship Renown (with the Task Force Commander aboard), the small carrier Eagle, the cruiser Charybdis and the destroyers Salisbury (the former USS Claxton—in which I made my Second Class cruise), Partridge, Itheriel, Vidette, Georgetown, Wescott, Wishart, Antelope and Wrestler. It was a sizeable force and adequate for anything we would run into in the Mediterranean in the way of surface forces or submarines. The Germans were reported to have at least 50 submarines in the approaches to Gibraltar, but the Task Force got through without so much as a good sound contact.
The following day was spent in peaceful cruising in the Mediterranean. All of our common sense expectations of the Germans throwing the book at us were for nothing—to our relief. It was a little uncanny for there to be no air opposition. The Germans had complete control of the air in the Mediterranean at that time. Malta was being given a daily pounding by both German and Italian planes. Invasion was expected. Those were the worst days of Malta. The British only expected 50% of supply convoys to reach the island and counted on those huge losses every time they sent supplies there. But we had steamed for a whole day without anything more than a couple of reconnaissance planes sighted. Nothing developed from that, however, and our combat air patrol chased them away.
At dawn on the 9th, we were at our flying-off position about 450 miles from Malta and southeast-by-south from Sardinia. We turned into the wind and the Spitfires took to the sky. The Wasp flew off 48 planes and the Eagle 18. Those 66 fighters were sorely needed at Malta in its fight for its life. It was a magnificent sight to see that group of planes form up and then disappear from view as they streaked for their new operating base. With this mission accomplished successfully, all of us had a feeling of satisfaction that we had at last done something that had a direct bearing on the course of the war, however small our part in it had been, Task Force W reversed course and headed back toward Gibraltar—mission completed.
That day and the next were as peaceful as the last day had been in the so-called “Mare Nostrum.” Again as we neared the Rock the destroyers went on ahead for fuel. When we got in port and tied up to the dock, we got word on the results of our recently completed assignment: The Germans and Italians had been caught completely by surprise, expecting no opposition from the air over Malta. Their bombers came down as usual in force, but with apparently little fighter protection. Our Spitfires arrived while a big raid was in progress, and fought their way in. Then they refueled, immediately took to the air again and worked the bombers over in fine style. The score for the weekend by those Spitfires stood at 69 bombers and fighters!
In standing out of the harbor before dawn on the 11th, the Sterett fouled the starboard screw in the anchor chain of a diving barge. This delayed us in joining up with the Wasp, but we cleared the screw and rejoined the Task Force on the following morning. While enroute, we received the following message signed “Winston Churchill”: “WHO SAID A WASP CAN’T STING TWICE.” (The Wasp had made one previous trip to Malta.) While in the Mediterranean, we got another congratulatory message, this one from the British Admiral on the Renown—congratulating our Navy on the Coral Sea battle. The boys in the Pacific were beginning to kick back!After dark on the day following our return to Scapa Flow, I broke down a dispatch indicating that we were to leave there early the next morning. The message indicated that it was more than just a short trip. The question at once occurred to me, “What to do with my 18 bags of British publication?” I jumped into a boat and wont over to our squadron flagship, the Lang, to find out. I had cut the squadron communicator’s throat because he had not yet received the message. After an hour or so of waiting, I finally got the decision that we would transfer them immediately to the Issuing Office on the beach. While waiting for a decision though, I had sent a visual signal back to the ship telling Herbie May to get busy on inventorying the publications. I got back after a while and Herbie and I got down to business. We finished our inventory and making our list at 0800 the next morning, the Publications Officer at Lyness signed for them, and several hundred potential courts-martial were off our hands.
We took the Wasp back to Greenock, joined the Brooklyn and four other destroyers, and put to sea on May 20th. Our orders were to go back to the States. That phrase was becoming increasingly important to us, and was one that the “boys in the South Pacific” gave up all hope of hearing.
Norfolk on the 27th. Even Norfolk looked good after seeing nothing but the drabness of the Orkney Islands for two months. The trees and shrubs in new leaf at Old Point Comfort were especially beautiful. The ship was sent without delay into the Navy Yard at Portsmouth. We had a top priority for repairs, and installations of our first radar. It was a rush job; we were only allowed a week to be ready to go. This time something pretty hot was in the wind; messages to the Wasp were being sent for information to Commander of Carriers Pacific Fleet.
On the 3rd of June, Task Force 37 got underway and stood out of Hampton Roads. Our new outfit was composed of the Wasp, the North Carolina, Quincy, the new anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan, and DesDiv 15 plus the new destroyers Farenholt and Buchanan. When formed up we took a course south, enroute to the Panama Canal—and the Pacific wars beyond.
We passed through the Canal on June 9th. For the Sterett, that represented almost an even year to the day since our first passage between oceans. It had boon an even six months of peace and six months of war in the Atlantic. It was with some pleasure that we again felt the slow swells of the Pacific under our feet, and thought back over the long days and nights in the Atlantic when there was no respite from violent rolling and pitching; when 35° rolls were commonplace (and once even 48°); of green water, freezing cold, beating against the bridge and spraying in sheets high over the director platform; of balancing our plates on our laps as we tried to eat in the Wardroom while hanging on by our legs; of the struggle it was to try to stay in our bunks at night, let alone getting some sleep; of the U-boat alarms in the middle of the night that sent us running to our battle stations as we fastened up our life jackets—with a subconscious thought of that cold, black water. We were glad to be back in the Pacific where the real naval war was—but also where you could see what you were fighting, and where the water was warm enough that a man would have a fighting chance of survival If his ship was shot out from under him. (continued)
* Note: We had operated extensively with these two ships before—as a division. The Admiralty announced them both sunk a few months later—along with our old friend, the Edinburgh—much to our sorrow.