On December 14–15–16, 1944, the Spence was operating in Task Force 38.2, acting as part of the screen. Halsey’s flagship was one of the battleships in this screen. During the above dates, we had conducted air strikes against Luzon and retired on the 17th to a fueling rendezvous. On the morning of the 17th, we attempted to fuel from the New Jersey, but the swells were too great. After breaking several fuel hoses, the attempt was given up. At the time we had 10% capacity, which was very, very low, and no ballast was taken on because further attempts were to be made later in the day, and possibly the next morning. It was finally decided that the destroyers who were below 40% capacity would remain with the tanker group and refuel the next morning, Dec. 18. The main part of the task force proceeded on their way after having completed fueling and they could take care of the smaller ships as far as fuel requirements were concerned when the water became more calm. So four destroyers, including the Spence, were sent off with the tanker outfit with orders to fuel as quickly as possible. After trying to fuel from a tanker the remainder of the day by the stern method, it was decided that any further attempt would be too dangerous since the swells were increasing in size. At this point, one should have taken on ballast to fill all empty tanks, but since the tank group commander said that it may be possible to fuel the first thing on the morning of the 18th, this caused the skipper to think that no ballast would be taken on, knowing the time it would take to unballast the tanks when the time came to fuel.
The morning of the 18th arrived and all hell broke loose about 0900. It was easy to see that no fuel could be taken on, so ballasting began. At 1000, one of the whaleboats washed away. The waves were tremendous, being at least 50 to 60 feet high. The gale was clocked at 115 knots and it was raining, making visibility less than 100 yards. Reports were coming over the TBS that several escort carriers had caught on fire after planes had broken loose on both flight and hangar decks. Reports were also coming that men were being swept overboard by the huge waves. The Skipper, hearing this latter report at least 10 different times, suggested that all men topside not on watch seek shelter in their compartments. Most of the men went down below decks.
Polhemus and Bean had been topside most of the morning standing close to the radio shack passageway, where I had been contented until about 1020. I left them and went below and hit the sack. Now during most of the morning, it had been impossible to eat anything on the wardroom table. All chairs were secured to the table, as was the lounge. The lounge had broken its fastenings and was running wild most of the night and morning before one of the mess boys could be found to secure it. (He was white as a ghost when he came in). At about 1100, Larry Sundin came rushing by my room saying that water was leaking into the fire and engine room. About 5 minutes later the lights went out and that was enough for me. I got up and went toward the quarterdeck, but stopped in the wardroom for a glance. I saw Bellion, Coach, Smith, and several of the new officers in there, but God said, “Al, don’t go in.” I started to go out to the main deck when I noticed Doc Gaffney, our new sawbones, sitting in the captain’s cabin. He was scared as all Hell, as was I, but there was nothing one could do. I sat down on the bunk with my back against the bulkhead. We were listing at this time toward the port side. Evidently it was the ballast washing around in the big tanks. Actually it became harmful instead of an asset, since water with much free surface is hard to keep under control.
At about 1100 we took a terrific roll to port and recovered. Later I found this roll was 75°. Before I could get my heart out of my mouth from that big roll, I was lying flat on my back on the bulkhead, and books and ash trays were falling all around. I knew that she had rolled on her side. I scrambled into the passageway and towards the entrance, but upon reaching there, found it was all full of water already. My whole life passed in front of one and I stared death right in the face. Suddenly I noticed light coming from above and saw that the radio shack passageway was still opened. I scrambled, still on my knees, around the ladder and out into the water. I took three long strokes when I heard gushing and sucking noise behind me and the suction was terrific. I swam as only if a tiger or crocodile was behind me and after swimming for a few minutes, which seemed like hours, I looked back and there was the Spence turned completely over. It was a tragic sight—one that will never be forgotten.
I swam to a floater net that contained about 15 or 20 other men, many of them I don’t remember very distinctly but neither Poley nor Bean were there. Chief Watertender Johnson handed me a life jacket that was floating by. I had thrown up several times by this time from swallowing oil and water and I think this snapped me out of the daze and shock that most of the others were in. Connolly, Signalman First, was right next to me in the net. His death was horrible. He gave up up almost immediately. Why, I don’t know. He would say, “I can’t go on any more, I can’t, I can’t!” I held him up for a while until a huge wave dragged this net completely under water tearing all of us from the net as if we were leaves. Upon breaking surface, we would all have to swim back and each time this happened, several wouldn’t come back. Connolly went the first time.
The wind died down some 8 hours later and only then could we begin to breathe freely. There were only nine of us left. Sehnert, Wohlleb, John Whalen, Ens. George Poer, Traceski, Rosley, Heater, Grounds, and myself. During that night, the next day everything was a horrible dream. Experiences that I won’t mention because they were numerous and too bad to recall now with my wife and little Karen sitting here in the room with me. I wish all this could be forgotten, but until several years have passed by, nothing can be forgotten.
Whalen, Poer, and Heater died on the morning of the 20th. At about 0300 an aircraft carrier slipped in view. We screamed as loud as 6 of us could and attracted their attention. They dropped smoke flares to mark our position and continued on their merry way. An hour later, a DE, USS Swearer, found us, and from then on it was life again.
From here, we were brought back to Ulithi and assembled on a transport after spending a week on a hospital ship. From the other 23 survivors, I was able to get a great deal of information as to who was seen in the water at any time. Those who were not seen could only have been in one place, below decks. It is hard to believe that anyone like Poley, Bean, Kleckley, and many others died as they did in their compartments, without any light and utter confusion and hysteria going on. All of this happened so suddenly that even the captain was not able to get off the bridge or Carrigan, or the Exec., Lt. Cmdr. Andrews, a new officer.
Source: Destroyer Squadron Twenty-Three.