Saving Jenkins

This story I am about to relate is still painful almost 57 years later, but I am sure it’s not nearly as hurtful to me as it was to some of my shipmates who went through so many battles on the Jenkins prior to the one in Borneo.

In April 1945 we left Subic Bay in the Philippines and steamed down to the island of Tarakan in Borneo. They told us this was a very important oil field still in the hands of the Japanese and we were to help destroy their defenses prior to our troops landing. I can still see the huge oil tank burning after strafing by our P-38s and our bombardment.

At my first reunion in 1982 in Marietta, Georgia, I found out that Pat Weir was one of the men trying to get the hatch closed. Pat told me a mattress cover had lodged in it. He also told me the man helping him was named Jones. From all my conversations with some of the men in the mess hall (it was reported to be 70), no one but me witnessed this heroic deed. A number of shipmates know we tried for years to get these men the rewards they so richly deserved. Finally, after the navy brass continued to say “too many years have passed,” Pat Weir did receive a letter of commendation from the Navy but nothing remotely near to what he deserved. (Our shipmate Jones had passed away by this time.) Pat Weir will always be my hero. Part of my appreciation to him is on the first page of our Jenkins songbook which I developed a number of years ago.

We were firing in the landing area for several hours along with other destroyers including some from the Australian Navy. As we started to leave the harbor, chow time was announced and down I went to the mess hall. I had just picked up sandwiches and sat down to eat when there was a big explosion. Every mess table hit the deck. The lights went out but almost immediately came back on. I recall going to the ladder regularly used to go down to the mess hall. The hatch was closed. I then went to the ladder where we normally exited the mess hall. It is not clear to me but I think it was gone. By this time the mess hall was almost empty and I could see the men going forward. Also by this time the sea water and oil were almost knee deep and I can still hear some of the men yelling “hold your head, hold your head.” Finally the single line of men moved through the bunking compartment and I saw the ladder and hatch where the men were exiting. However, with so many men in front of me and the water and oil rising so fast, I realized that my chance of reaching the that small opening before the compartment flooded was impossible. Since I was the last man out of the mess hall and last in line with no hope of getting out, for some reason—and I don’t know why—I looked behind me. Two men had dropped out of line and had the hatch door almost closed from the bunking area we had exited. I remain fully convinced today that this single act saved not only the lives of these two men but at least 15 more of us, because just moments later the compartment was flooded (see box, above).

After getting topside, a number of the last ones were covered with oil. We were told we’d blister in the hot sun and to shed our oil-soaked clothes. Somewhere I got a towel and rubbed off as much oil as I could. Since I was on the fantail, close to the compartment where I bunked, I got tired of walking around with no clothes on so I decided to go below and find a pair of dungarees. (While that area of the ship was not damaged, we were fearful of going below because there were rumors we could go down.) That was a fast trip below. Also, somewhere in this area were men from the fireroom who were burned, laying on the deck and being attended to. I had stepped over one of these men and came aft from the mess hall and always thought he had died. I found out later it was Charles McArthur. I could not believe it when I saw him at our reunion in San Luis Obispo, California, in the early nineties, and shed some tears of joy that all the men who were burned and laying on the deck had survived.

Sometime later that afternoon I remember a couple of attempts to tow us out of this Jap-held harbor but the two ropes broke. I remember being told that a sounding procedure showed the bow of our ship was resting on the bottom of the harbor. In all the confusion, I understand a chief named Cash put on a diving helmet, went into the flooded compartment and was able to get some hatches closed. Some of the crew started pumping and at daybreak we were still afloat. I tried to sleep on the deck that night and didn’t dare go below. I had plenty of company around me. I’ve often wondered if we were the only ship in the US Navy in World War II whose bow rested on the bottom of an enemy harbor, came back to life a few hours later, and was not boarded by the enemy.

I’ve also continued to wonder why every ship in this invasion force went out to sea and left us in that harbor alone overnight. This was before D-day, we had no defense, just a sitting duck for the Japs to board us. We, to my knowledge, did not know for sure that we would be afloat next morning. Someone had to be watching over the Jenkins crew. I remember the next morning some kind of ship came alongside and many of us went aboard a cruiser, either the Boise or the Phoenix (I cannot remember which one). What I do remember is being allowed to take a freshwater shower to remove the oil and grime and being furnished with clean clothes. I also remember how well the crew of that cruiser treated us on the way back to Subic Bay in the Philippines. Just a few days later, we were so happy to witness, from the deck of that cruiser, limping into Subic harbor the oil-stained, crippled Jenkins, our home. It didn’t look a lot like a Mighty J at that time in her career.

When the Jenkins went into floating drydock and the water and oil drained out of her, some shipmate came to me and said, “Mahan, we found your wristwatch down in the mess hall.” I was shocked but happy because I had missed my wristwatch. (Prior to going aboard the Jenkins, I had served with a detachment of men who landed just behind the army on Manus Island in the Admiralties. There we set up a torpedo shop and furnished at ready torpedoes to the fleet and air force for the Philippine invasion. One of the motor macs had made me an aluminum watch band from a damaged aeroplane wing and had inscribed my name on it. This it was returned to me by one of the crew.) All I could ever figure out was that the mine explosion blew the watch off my wrist there in the mess hall, yet I was not injured.

I recall the happy day when temporary repairs were finished and we left Subic Bay for home. Thanks again to Bob Rinde, my shipmate from North Dakota, I still have a small portion of the homeward bound pennant. I also recall such heavy seas we encountered as we were leaving the Philippines. Here we were, a seriously damaged ship, now in a serious sea condition. One night we were rolling and pitching so much I couldn’t stay in my bunk. Finally I just strapped myself in and went to sleep and woke the next morning to a much more friendly sea. The repairs at Subic must have been good.

We were happy to see Pearl Harbor. We spent a night there and left for the mainland next morning with one of our crew missing at muster. Somehow during the night one of our shipmates had exited the Jenkins and drowned. That brought a somber note to the crew in view of what we had just been through.

Since we had no refrigeration, we ate spam every day I do believe. I cannot recall the number of days from Subic to Long Beach. California, but it seemed forever. One thing I do remember is when we tied up at the pier in Long Beach, several men jumped off the Jenkins and kissed the ground.

Finally, do I want to go on a cruise ship to some exotic port? Never. Do I want to watch some of the recent popular movies about ships sinking? They are still to painful. When I was first approached about coming to a Jenkins reunion in the eighties, I was most reluctant because of the Borneo experience I have just described. Now, however, I am so glad some of our crew, and especially Bob Rinde, kept after me to attend. The reunions have been such great ones with such a wonderful crew; I wish they could go on forever. The people at the Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas, where our beautiful plaque is located, told me many times that I served on a famous and highly-decorated ship. What a crew.

So to those of you I sailed with, I salute each and every one in a special way. To the men of the Korean and Vietnam Wars and in peace, who came behind us and also served their country aboard the Jenkins, we give you the same salute. We know you will keep the Jenkins name forever afloat long after those of us in World War II are gone.