The morning after my arrival at Casco Bay, I received a visual signal from Craig Spowers. The Reuben James was in! He asked me to come over to his ship as he had the day’s duty. Our ship was on four hours’ notice but in the late afternoon, I got permission to leave the ship and soon I was climbing aboard the ancient decks of the Reuben James. Craig, of course, took the first opportunity of showing me about his ship. The Reuben James had seen better years. Craig showed me the “lizards” on the main deck—hand-straps on a trolley arrangement which were necessary for men to hold onto when walking along the main deck underway, to keep from losing their footing and being washed overboard. Their necessity was obvious: four-pipers are the first cousins to submarines in the North Atlantic. He told me of a persistent leak in a fuel-oil cofferdam and how he, as First Lieutenant, finally “remedied” it satisfactorily after the Engineer Officer and even the Captain had given up. The leak led into one of the crew’s living compartments. It couldn’t be welded; the pressure would force putty out of the crack. Craig concocted a mixture of putty, aluminum powder and some other unidentified ingredients. This he put in the opening and from the center of the mass he led a small rubber tube. This arrangement accepted the inevitable and drained the escaping oil into a bucket, which was emptied back into the fuel-oil tanks every couple of hours. Even though this “chewing-gum” repair job looked like an appendectomy, it was effective—and it took ingenuity to keep that old ship going after 25 years of faithful service. The Engineer Officer had more weighty problems to keep his plant going—and it was rumored that some of his pumps were held together with the ever-trusted bailing wire, and the pumps were started by a sharp rap with a Stillson wrench. The decks at the foot of the ladders wore worn through after 25 years of wear. Craig showed me the guns (he was the gunnery officer as well as First Lieutenant). The old 4-inchers and their meager, outmoded control looked strange to me, being used to the precise 5-inch battery of a new destroyer. Yet in spite of all the materiel failings of his ship, she was seaworthy and Craig was proud of her. His skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Edwards, was a fine officer, the Wardroom congenial, and it was a “happy ship.”
We went down to the little wardroom and continued our chat. Craig explained that the big radio-phonograph there was promoted by him—having managed to get it through Welfare funds. It was a special set that had speakers led to various parts of the ship: the crew’s quarters, the quarter-deck, etc. And inasmuch as it was actually for the crew’s welfare, Craig had bought over $100 worth of records with Welfare money. This was something of a Utopian idea as Craig was an incurable record collector. He had a couple of mess-boys trained to operate the machine and it was a huge success, with music throughout the ship practically all the time. His current favorite was Dinah Shore’s recording of “Jim.”
We had dinner in the Wardroom alone. Naturally talk drifted to the War in Europe and of our participation. It was inevitable. I ventured the prediction that we would be in it the second week in September. This was August 23rd. (As events bore out my pre diction, the “shoot to kill” order from the President came during the second week of September—and the “Battle of the Atlantic” was on.)
After dinner, Craig called away his gig for me and was standing at the gangway when I got in the boat—capless, with a “Lucky” in his mouth. So with a familiar “Good-night Osborne” in my ears, I left. We had planned to get together on the following Wednesday. I never saw him again.
Argentia Bay was no prize as a naval base. It was a harbor—and little else can be said for it. The northeastern side of the harbor is protected from the weather only by a low sand-spit, and this spit afforded the only feasible site for shore installations. It was no relief to put into Argentia. On an average of every, other day the wind blew up a gale—often as high as 50 or 60 knots. The holding ground in the anchorage was fair, but the winds necessitated veering out maximum anchor chain and dropping a second anchor underfoot. At all times it was necessary to stand underway watches and when the winds were worst it was necessary to steam slowly into the wind to reduce the strain on the anchor chain.
The British had driven a hard bargain for our use of Argentia. In addition to the deal of 50 four-pipe destroyers, the US Government was required to pay a high yearly rental (said to be $4,000,000) for the use of the above-described sandspit for shore facilities (and the wharf we built) and for the use of the harbor in general.
In attempting to go alongside a tanker one day, a combination of wind, tide, and a poorly-charted harbor put the Sterett aground on a rocky shoal spot. There was some touch of humor in the poor situation, however, when we saw from the bridge some of the off-duty engineers in a mad scramble out of the engine room, steering flats and living compartments as soon as the screws and hull scraped the rocky bottom.
With the aid of a tug we were soon off the rocks, however, and with no apparent damage except for an excess vibration which indicated damaged screws.
It was at about this time that I assumed the duties of Torpedo Officer which carried, in addition, depth charge maintenance and control. Those were the jobs that I particularly relished as it placed me in control of the torpedo battery as well as making me responsible for supplying the Captain with the best possible information in the execution of a depth charge attack. It was the direct contact with these offensive weapons that was especially appealing to me with the knowledge that a successful attack with depth charges was, to some extent, dependent upon my judgment, and the directing of the torpedoes was my responsibility entirely.
I immediately instituted a different system of mechanical plotting of submarines. This system I soon replaced with a refinement based on a mechanical aid that I devised.
Another advantage in ray new job was that, for the first time, I had my own gang of men. That was a gang to be proud of too, as it comprised one of the smartest and most technically efficient groups on the ship—as is generally true of all Ordnance ratings.
The gang was bossed by an “old-timer,” Chief Torpedoman G. R. Jackson. “Jack” had been a Staff Sergeant in the World War and wore battle clasps for participation in four of the bloodiest of battles, including Marne, Château-Thierry and Argonne. Jackson always had a tale to tell over his cup of “Torpedo Shack” coffee. He liked to tell the story of how he joined the Navy. When he was shipped back from France, he had every intention of staying in the Army. But he fell for a “hasher” on the East Coast, got his discharge from the Army and followed her to Oklahoma. He broke up with the “hasher” quite unexpectedly one day, told her to “gotahell” and left her in the street. The first thing that caught his eye when he stalked away was a Navy recruiting office—so he did a “hard right,” entered, and joined the Navy! Jackson was easy-going, likable, had thorough knowledge of his beloved torpedoes and the “kids” liked to work for him.
Another mainstay of the Torpedo Gang was Keenum, a TM 1/c who was to later make Chief and later still received his commission. An outstanding man in any group. Then there was James—a real character. He was a horse of a man and a horse for work, stood about 6'2", 220 pounds and as hard as nails. Jensen, another TM 1/c was a quiet, easy-going Scandinavian with a long service, and a man dependable in emergencies. I made him my talker and firing-switch operator on the torpedo directors and also the operator of the depth-charge release mechanism. Solloway and Hollingsworth were two very clean-cut fellows . . . outstanding 3/c. Solloway was my torpedo director pointer. The Torpedo Gang was more than any torpedo officer could ask for. I considered myself very fortunate. The Navy was engaged in a shooting war all right—our formal entry was sure to come. I looked up the mean drafts of every known ship in the German, Japanese and French Navies and placed them carefully in my notebook. It might be useful information later for torpedo depth-settings.
Operating out of Argentia one night, the Sterett struck its first blow. The sound gear got a good metallic “thwaak!” in return for its usual monotonous “ping!” The “dit-dit-dah” U-boat warning was sounded on the chemical alarm. The Captain took the conn as we went in for the attack. The interval between the “ping” and the return echo steadily decreased until they wore almost one. “Fire a full pattern,” yelled the Skipper, “COMMENCE FIRING!” As I called them out to Solloway and Jensen, the big charges in the racks were dropped and the side throwers fired in accordance with our pre-arranged plan that we had rehearsed so often. Then we heard the explosions and felt the ship jump as each charge went off in turn. We ran out a distance then returned to try to develop another attack. Sound contact was not regained. When the ship passed through the water where our charges were dropped, the faint glow of moonlight enabled us to see an oil slick on the water and the pungent odor of some form of petroleum filled our nostrils. There was no other evidence. Failing to reestablish contact, we increased speed and rejoined our task group.
Seldom is there anything conclusive about a depth charge attack. Unless you see the sub surface and then plunge on end, or unless the ship is fortunate enough to take prisoners, you are never quite sure of complete destruction. The incident described above was assessed as “probably damaged,” which is as- much as any destroyer would dare to claim under the circumstances. Sometimes German subs discharge oil out of an empty torpedo tube in order to trick their antagonist into giving up the chase. Subs with fuel tanks torn open sometimes get back to base and repairs. It is exasperating to try to fight something you cannot see. The satisfaction of victory is denied to the victor.
It was this uncertainty of the target that made unrestricted anti-submarine warfare so easy for a nation not officially at war. We had full right to hold depth charge practice as we saw fit. If our unseen target happened to be a German submarine, then he was in our waters and on our shipping lanes and the responsibility for his destruction rested with the German government. And then, how could we be sure that we were not his target? No German submarine commander would discriminate at night, and it is to be doubted that daylight would make much difference.
Submarines were plentiful in the Newfoundland area of the North Atlantic. On almost any night our radio direction finder could pick up several subs close aboard; transmitting back to Germany on their radios. We would follow the bearing of the closest of them until they were well abaft our beam. We would notice the water temperature as recorded in the log: 31 degrees Fahrenheit was normal in the Labrador Current as it swept southwestward around Cape Race, Newfoundland. The sea was constantly rough, as only the North Atlantic can be. A steady stream of salt spray drenched the bridge and often waves of green water lunged over the director platform above the bridge, breaking the windows of the pilot house and freezing on all weather surfaces after the bulk of the water had drained off. On several occasions, rolls up to 40 degrees wore experienced. A man’s survival in those waters for longer than a few brief minutes was purely an academic question. His chances of being located even if he did survive were quite as slim. The Sterett would take no chances. We would continue to attack first. We, as the German themselves, believed in Nietzsche’s theory on “the survival of the fittest,” and if it came to the test, there was no doubt in our minds that we would prevail.
Upon our return from Argentia to Norfolk, the Sterett was assigned to operate with the USS Long Island during her shakedown training and practice flight operations. This ship was the first in a new experimental type of naval vessel, which was to play a big part in the coming war in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Long Island was the CVE #1, a converted Moore-McCormack freighter. After working with her for a few days, the success of her type and her value for anti-submarine escort work was obvious to the most casual observer.
After another trip or two to Argentia, the Sterett picked up the Long Island at Norfolk and got underway for Bermuda, B.W.I., another of the bases contracted for in the over-aged destroyer deal.
Bermuda, and the town of Hamilton, is a picturesque place with its brightly painted limestone houses and rather Victorian due to its lack of automobiles and prevalence of great numbers of bicycles and horse-drawn conveyances. The harbor is fair with a large outer anchorage. The sleepy sub-tropical climate and the activities ashore, however limited, were a respite for all hands and a big relief from the rigors of the North Atlantic.
It was in Bermuda that the Sterett first began operating with the Wasp, an assignment that was to last, virtually unbroken, for almost a full year and in all fleets and war theatres.
None of the destroyers in our squadron liked operating with the Wasp. This was partly due to the fact that operating with any carrier is an extremely strenuous job for a destroyer, but the principal reason was that the Captain of the Wasp was considerably more exacting than is usually the case and a little Iess considerate of the limitations of a destroyer. Captain J. W. Reeves of the Wasp was very jealous of the safety of that great ship, and his every movement as a hard task-master was directed along those lines. The Wasp would not fall prey to submarines if it was humanly possible for the Captain to save her by any precaution. The Sterett soon became imbued with that same spirit and our determination to give the Wasp maximum protection made efficiency in that duty second nature. “RIGHT FULL RUDDER AND 29 KNOTS!” became a standard order when the Wasp would turn into the wind for flight operations. To refer to an old Navy axiom, we found out what the Wasp wanted and we gave it to her.
Then one day in October, we got news of the destroyer Kearny being torpedoed in the Northern waters. The incident caused little excitement among naval personnel at Bermuda. It was to be expected sooner or later—and the ship had been saved. The eight enlisted men that were killed on the Kearny were the first American casualties of the war.
The newspapers and the radios in the States went wild over the Kearny incident. The American public was at last waking up from a long and degenerate period of pacifism. Then the merchant ship Robin Moore was sunk in the South Atlantic.
Walking aft to the quarterdeck on the morning of 31 October, I was stopped by Hugh Sanders, our Assistant Engineer. I roomed with “Sandy” and he knew of my search for the Reuben James since we entered the Atlantic.
“Had you heard that the Reuben James was sunk?” he asked.
Not knowing when to take him seriously, I replied, “No . . . you’re kidding me.”
“No, I’m not,” he said. “It was torpedoed up north last night.”
“But that’s impossible,” I answered, still thinking this was his poor idea of a joke. “Craig is the First Lieutenant of the Reuben James. He wouldn’t let her sink!”
I ran up to the radio shack to confirm the story and try to get some details of her sinking and of her casualties. She had sunk all right; about 40 enlisted survivors had been picked up. That was all . . . the search for survivors was being continued. This was inconceivable. It was a long, anxious three days before the search was abandoned: the final total of survivors was 40 enlisted men and no officers. The ship had been struck just under the bridge structure and the bow had sunk immediately. Officers’ quarters were forward.
A couple of weeks later when the ship was in Norfolk for a few days, I obtained a back issue newspaper which carried the complete casualty list, and confirmed Craig’s death: one of the first officer casualties of the war.
It was a blow to me. It seemed so ironical that my closest friend, whom I regarded almost as a brother, should have been killed as a result of enemy action even before war was declared. I had lost a friend; the Country had lost a fine young officer patriot, the likes of whom America sorely needed in the trying days ahead.
The memory of Craig Spowers immediately brought to mind his motto: “THE ONLY TRUE SIGN OF PATRIOTISM IS SINCERE SERVICE!” With our first casualty list, the time had come for all Americans to think in these terms. In an attempt to get that idea across to the public and in my small way to set forth my impressions of the character of Craig Spowers, I wrote an article about him, which was published in the magazine Shipmate and the Houston Post, and was placed in the March 4, 1942 edition of the Congressional Record by Craig’s Congresswoman, Mrs. Mary T. Norton, under the title of “TRUE SIGNS OF PATRIOTISM.” If Craig had lived a moral, that was it. (continued)