Change of Command

When we got back to Pearl on 10 March, the whole Squadron went into the Navy Yard for two weeks for much needed repairs and installation of new equipment. After the steady steaming since November, the engineers had plenty of items that needed Yard attention. We also spent four days in the drydock getting the bottom cleaned and painted.

Among the new additions, we got our first radar, an SC-1 Air Search Radar and a man who knew how to keep it working. Horatio Seymour was a slightly balding Radioman 2/c, with a quizzical look and an absolutely overwhelming love and understanding for his electronic marvel. It was only after the war had started that the purpose of those strange “bedspring” antennas on the carriers and a few battlewagons had become known to the average sailor—to have one of our own was breathtaking. It was a mysterious “marvel” that could see in the dark, but its workings were beyond the capacity of the ordinary mind. It was replete with invisible rays and was rumored to be capable of frying brains or making one impotent. It was our first leap into the future, and RM 2/c Seymour, with his patient explanations, was there to lead the way.

More important in setting our minds at ease after our failure to handle the attacking planes at Taroa and Wake was the installation of six 20mm Heavy Machine guns to replace our four .50 caliber mounts. A spacious ”Gun Tub” was provided for each mount to give the two-man crew the greatest arcs of fire and some protection against blast and wind. Plenty of 20mm “ammo” was also provided in Ready Service boxes, and our Motion Picture room and workshop in the after superstructure was converted into a “Clipping room” for the 20 mm magazines. With a more important second caliber to be controlled, we shifted to the nomenclature of larger ships and started designating our mounts by a combination of caliber and location, so 5-inch mount one became “Mount 51” and 20 mm Mount #3 became “Mount 23.”

The yard replaced the barrel of Mount 51 and inspected it carefully. They’d had similar problems with a number of 5-inch/25 barrels from the Battleships during the Pearl Harbor attack, but our two failures were the first they’d seen in 5-inch/38s. They felt sure the problem was caused by copper from the Rotating Bands building up until a projectile jammed, but they didn’t know why it built up. Both types of guns had been in service for years and there had never been any trouble before the war. The Ordnance Shop built us a special tool to ream out the grooves after firing, and we all hoped for the best. Some time later, tests demonstrated that if a 5-inch gun were fired nearly continuously at a rapid rate, when the gun got really hot: after about 100 rounds, copper would build up and cause the gun to fail. The Bureau of Ordnance found adding lead foil to the powder charge would eliminate the coppering, so all ships were issued little packets of lead foil to be placed between the powder cartridge and the projectile. Replacement ammo was delivered with the lead already included.

At the end of our third month of the war, personnel changes started pouring in. Chet Brown had never returned to the ship after his escape to the Naval Hospital. At Hospital Point, right next to Shaw’s floating drydock, he was close to the center of the attack and must have been terrified, but he survived and was sent back to the states to other duty. “Freddy” Hilles was well established as our exec and his temporary assignment had been made permanent. We added a ship’s Medical Officer in the person of Lt. (j.g.) Gene Abts. Blackie Weinel departed for Flight Training and Bill Warren went to new construction, so suddenly, just about one year after I’d first reported, I was the officer, except for the Captain, who had been on the ship for the longest time! I also inherited Bill’s Forecastle and became First Lieutenant in addition to Assistant Gunnery Officer.

The V-7 program was churning out “90-day wonders” steadily and soon we had over a dozen officers in our Wardroom Mess. Hughson, Cheyney and Young were followed by Mykland, Winn and Pete Hamel. Ensign Charlie Leveritt, Naval Academy Class of 1942, which had graduated in December 1941, reported aboard and joined me in the Gunnery Department. Charlie had been the sole survivor of a horrible automobile accident in which his five Midshipman companions had all perished. He had spent months in the hospital recovering from his injuries and reported for duty several months after he graduated.

To berth all these officers and our expanded crew, now numbering about 220, drastic changes had to be made. By shifting to “Cafeteria Style” Messing, we could feed the Crew in two shifts in the largest Mess Compartment just forward of the Galley, so we converted the Forward Mess Compartment into a Berthing Compartment. This, and a few additional berths in existing compartments and work spaces, took care of the enlisted men. For officers, we added upper “Pipe” berths in a couple of places and converted the unused Commodore’s Cabin into a Junior Officer Bunkroom which could accommodate six. A portion of the elegant Cabin had already been taken to provide a small Coding Room where our new Electric Coding Machine could be securely housed, so taking over the rest of the Cabin was not the original incursion. We had berthed a couple of officers in Chief’s Quarters when we first exceeded the limits of our Officer’s Staterooms, but now we had more Chiefs in the Ship’s Company than berths in their assigned Quarters. Maury was designed as a 1,500-ton ship at “Standard Displacement”— now with the added crew, weapons and ammunition, she actually displaced almost 2,000 tons!

By now, we were getting used to long periods at sea and short stops in port. Except when it was really rough, we no longer noticed the motion of the ship. When the seas kicked up and she rolled and plunged through the seas, we became accustomed to “One hand for the ship and one hand for yourself.” If a person wasn’t hanging on to something when she rolled deeply to a side, he could find himself flying through to air towards a lee bulkhead. At night, I’d wedge myself between the mattress and the side of the bunk to keep from being tossed out. We became completely adjusted to the endless round-the-clock routine of watches, ships’ work, meals and General Quarters. The routine was boring but at the same time very satisfying. Arriving in port interrupted “Life as it should be.” It was exciting and welcome, but disturbing.

Counting our pre-war excursion to Wake Island, we had been at sea almost constantly for nearly four months, so the opportunity for some Recreation ashore was very welcome. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel had been converted into a Fleet Recreation center and we were allotted a few spaces each night in port. Hilles worked out a system so each man in the crew would get a chance for at least 24 hours ashore at the “Royal,” but the officers would have to take care of themselves. While in the Navy Yard, the engineering plant was shut down for cleaning Boilers, so a liberal Liberty policy was in effect. Half the crew was permitted ashore at the end of working hours each day. Overnight Liberty was granted for anyone who had a place to stay, but there was a Curfew in effect and everyone had to be off the streets from dark to dawn.

We Junior Officers soon found the Moana Hotel was the center of action in Waikiki. Once in the hotel, we had a place to stay and we could party all night. The trick was to get a room, since the hotel would take no reservations- rooms were let out on a first-come-first-served basis. Each day we would find some pretext to get someone to the hotel early enough to engage a room. The rooms were rather large and furnished with twin beds, so with two J.O.s sleeping on the mattresses and two on the box springs, four of us could spend the night in one room. Food was no problem since the hotel had a good dining room, but with Prohibition in force, drinks were more difficult. The Army Air Corps came to the rescue in this department. It had been determined that Army Aviators led such perilous lives that they should not be deprived of alcohol during their recreation periods. We had thus to find a bright young Army Pilot equipped with his case of booze. Once done, a deal could be struck and everyone could be happy during his respite from the war.

Girls were a different story since most of the eligible young ladies we’d dated before the war had been shipped back to the States with the other dependents. The few girls still in town were booked solid and we could never plan ahead. One exception was a nice lady with an attractive niece of our age who ran a souvenir shop in the hotel and lived in the hotel. They were great company in the early evening, but always excused themselves after dinner and were never separated.

All military personnel were required to wear uniform and officers wore sidearms, even on Shore Leave. Thus, all the young blades careening around the Moana had pistols when they arrived. On several occasions, as night faded into alcoholic fog, shots rang out and all sensible people dove for the deck. The hotel management finally arranged for all armed officers to store their pistols while in the hotel, but there were moments of excitement.

After two weeks in the Yard, we started going to sea for short training periods to sharpen our skills. As we were headed for the entrance buoys after a couple of days of gunnery, two SBDs had a mid-air collision at low altitude just off our starboard bow. Two parachutes broke—one just above the spray where both planes had power dived into the water—and we picked up the two pilots, shaken but otherwise unhurt. Both rear seat men went down with their planes. After entering port, as we slowed to drop a boat to return the two fliers to the Enterprise, we ran over a submerged buoy that had been used in salvage efforts on the Oklahoma. Captain Snare had to make several tries before he pulled the ship clear of the cables. As soon as we got back to sea, it was apparent that we had damaged our Sound Gear and our Starboard propeller was vibrating. They put us back in the drydock on the 4th of April and we found the underwater damage sufficiently extensive to keep us in the dock for a week. We missed the next sortie with Task Force 16, but we had ringside seats for the raising and drydocking of West Virginia on the 10th.

On the day we entered the drydock, Captain Snare, heaped with praise for his performance under fire, was relieved by a small, red-faced Lt. Cdr. from South Carolina. Gelzer L. Sims, USNA ’25, had been Skipper of one of the “Four Pipe” Destroyer Minelayers in Pearl Harbor during the attack. He had previously been Executive Officer of Mugford, a “Gold Plater” like Maury, and had as much experience in destroyers as anyone could hope for. Short, plump, scarred by acne and with two large front teeth that gave him a rat-like appearance, he was far from an heroic figure. With graying hair and thick spectacles, he read his orders with grim determination, saluted Captain Snare, and became our skipper. We’d forgotten how difficult Snare could be and watched this new little man with apprehension.

Once we returned to sea, mostly spent on Offshore Patrol while awaiting the return of Task Force 16, we quickly realized that Captain Sims was a master shiphandler. The reputation of a destroyer skipper is largely determined by the way he handles his ship and particularly how brings her to berth alongside another ship or a pier. With Captain Snare there had often been loud grinding and crunching amid shouts of, “Clear the Side,” as joined her mates in a “Nest.” With Captain Sims, the ship simply glided into her place where the mooring lines could be handed over. Though we had to find a box for him to stand on to see over the Bridge windscreen while handling alongside, his orders were crisp and his judgment unfailing.

Captain Sims was particularly interested in seamanship and, as First Lieutenant, his interest focused on me and my Deck Force. It was in mooring simultaneously to Bow and Stern buoys that I really entered the “Gelzer Sims School of Seamanship.” In making a pair of the Destroyer buoys in East Loch in Pearl Harbor, the wind is frequently blowing across the berth—only a minute or so can be consumed in connecting to the buoys before the wind blows the ship out of position. The ship’s whaleboats are used to take “messenger” lines to the buoys, but in the end the ship must be secured to the forward buoy with her anchor chain and to the after buoy with a 3/4-inch wire. A destroyer’s anchor chain weighs about 40 lbs. per foot and the shackles used to secure it to the buoy weigh as much. The standard Navy Mooring Buoy is a flat cylindrical float, about 10 ft. in diameter, with a battleship-size mooring swivel with several mooring rings in the center. The whaleboats had to drag the messenger lines to the buoys where two men would climb aboard the buoy to haul and attach the lines as necessary. If the ship put an inadvertent strain on the line, the buoy could be pulled over and even submerged. The men wore lifejackets, but they had to be nimble to keep clear of the lines and avoid being tossed off the buoy.

The first time we had to “Snatch” two buoys simultaneously after I became First Lieutenant, I went to the Chief Boatswain’s Mate in charge of the Forecastle and asked him to explain to me how he planned to handle the chain. He replied, “The same as usual.” When I pressed him to explain further, he obviously resented my inquiry and said, “Just Watch!” He’d been the Chief of the Forecastle ever since I’d been aboard, so I said, “O.K. Chief, you handle it.”

Captain Sims put the ship into place perfectly about ten yards to windward of her final position, but the boats were a bit slow getting the lines to the buoys. When the forecastle gang tried to haul the chain out to the bow buoy, the lines were crossed and had to be untangled. We had to run an extra mooring line to the buoy to hold the ship while we got the initial line and chain untangled. It took over a half hour from the time we arrived at our berth until we were securely moored. Captain Sims called me to the bridge to explain the delay. He was obviously irritated, but patient, and just told me not to let it happen again.

Next time, I reviewed the whole procedure with the Chief over his constant objection, but our second mooring was almost a carbon copy of the first. This time the Captain blew up and said, “You and your foc’sle crew have held up the whole ship for more than thirty minutes. If there’d been another ship waiting to come alongside, we’d be the laughing stock of the whole Fleet! You and your men stay up on the foc’sle until I tell you that you can secure.” We waited for more than an hour for his release!

Next morning I went to the Captain and asked if he knew a better way to get our chain to the buoy than the one we were using. He replied that he’d seen some ships pull their bow to the buoy with a wire and slide the chain down the wire, but he didn’t know any details. I went back to the Chief to see if he knew anything about such a method, but he said he’d never seen any other ship use such a system and he didn’t think it could be done with our heavy chain. I asked Mr. Hilles, but he’d never heard of such a system, but said anything would be better than the system we’d been using. I went to my stateroom and started sketching out a method that might work. I then called Scaldoni, the senior Boatswains mate next to the Chief on the forecastle, to check out the idea and see if we had the wires and shackles. He thought it would work and he had the needed equipment. I then sent for the Chief, gave him the drawing, and told him I wanted to use the new method the next time we had to snatch a buoy. He grumbled and left.

Several days passed before we had another go at the buoys, and I was still on the Bridge with the Deck Watch when the word was passed to rig for mooring to two buoys. When I arrived on the Forecastle the lines and chain were already laid out and the Chief reported he was “Ready.” I looked at the layout and realized it had been laid out the old way. I asked the Chief why he had not followed my orders. He replied, “I’m in charge of this foc’sle and I’ll handle it my way!” I answered, “You used to be in charge!” I relieved him of his duties and ordered him off the forecastle. I then told Scaldoni to rig the wires and chain in accordance with my drawing. It took a bit of doing, but he soon had everything rigged. Meanwhile, I was instructing the Coxswain going in the whaleboat how to handle the lines to the bow buoy.

The Captain placed the ship perfectly as before, the Coxswain hopped aboard the buoy and shackled the wire in no time, we took a strain on the wire, released the chain and it slid down to the buoy as we had hoped. The chain was shackled to the buoy ring before the ship had drifted half way to its position! We were actually secured forward before the Fantail crew had gotten their wire to the stern buoy! The Captain smiled and gave the Forecastle a “Well Done.” We arranged a transfer for the old Chief before our next war cruise. Scaldoni took charge of the forecastle.

On the 18th of April the news was full of a raid on Tokyo by American land based bombers! It was wonderful news and obviously shocked the Japs, but was it true and where did they come from? President Roosevelt confirmed the attack, but just mused that the planes must have come from the mythical land of “Shangri La.”

Task Force 16 returned to port on the 25th and we learned what they had been up to. When they left us in Pearl, along with the other ships of DesDiv 11, TF 16 headed northwest into colder, rougher seas. A few days later they were joined by the new carrier Hornet, cruisers Vincennes and Nashville, destroyers Gwin, Grayson, Meredith and Monssen, and the fleet oilers Sabine and Cimarron. The two groups combined into one large formation and headed almost due west. Hornet was not operating aircraft and her flight deck was loaded with 16 Army B-25 “Mitchell” Bombers! On the 18th, in gray stormy seas some 600 miles to the east of Tokyo, the B-25s, under command of Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, struggled off Hornet’s spray-drenched deck and headed for the heart of Japan. Task Force 16, though sighted by a Jap Picket boat, reversed course and returned to Pearl without further incident.

During one of our stays in port while awaiting the return of the Task Force we joined two “Four Pipers” just returned from the Asiatic Fleet in a nest alongside Dixie. Their stories of the night attack with torpedoes at Balikpapan and the battle of the Java Sea were the first tales of surface battles we had heard. It was breathtaking to hear of actual ship-to-ship battle, but it seemed to us that the result of their torpedo fire was not very clear. Target ships were supposed to explode and sink when hit by our fish, but the stories didn’t contain much spectacular sinking.

We’d been having trouble with the automatic fuzesetters on our two after 5-inch mounts. Almost every day at sea, one or the other would be out of commission and Copeland would have to open up the controller and reconnect the tiny linkage to the Fine Pilot Piston. Maury had a significant vibration peak at about 18 knots and we had been steaming in that range much of the time. When the Fantail shook, the Loader’s Platform on the open mounts shook even more and you could hardly read the dials on the fuzesetter. After hours of steady shaking, the linkage would shake loose and our fuzesetter had to be shifted to the less accurate manual mode. There was no way we could avoid steaming at the critical speed, we had to find a solution to the vibration.

As we studied the mechanism and mulled over possible solutions, I noticed several large bolts holding the Loading Platform to the Gun Pedestal. Modification of BuOrd equipment by shipboard personnel was a “Capital Crime,” but if we could brace the Loading Platform more rigidly, perhaps we could reduce the vibration. We could use the existing boltholes for our braces and not have to do anything to the BuOrd parts! We got busy with measurements and sketches and within a few hours the Tender’s machine shop had produced two sets of sturdy steel braces with the necessary bolts to install them. When we returned to sea, the Fuzesetters no longer vibrated and we had no more trouble with the linkage. This was my first contribution to better ordnance and it gave me a great deal of personal satisfaction.

About this time the Japanese seized a small island named Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. It took a bit of searching in the wardroom Atlas to find Tulagi, but the Jap move was clearly a threat to our route to Australia. Our Tender period was cut short and Task Force 16 headed southwest towards the trouble zone. It was beautiful cruising over warm tropical seas, much nicer than the dash towards Japan.

On the 4th of May message traffic indicated an attack by planes from Yorktown on Tulagi, sinking a Destroyer and shooting up some planes. Halsey increased our speed, but we had many days steaming before we could reach the area.

On the 6th, the sad denouement of the American presence in the Philippines was punctuated by the surrender of Corrigedor. “Dugout Doug” McArthur made some statements from the safety of Australia, but the American disgrace hurt. Except for the indecisive probes into the Marshalls and Wake and the spectacular raid on Tokyo, the U.S. Forces hadn’t done much to stop the Japs.

On the 7th and 8th a series of confusing dispatches came in from Admiral Fletcher’s Task Force 17. It was clear that the Japanese were making some sort of move towards New Guinea and that both American and Australian forces were involved, but the only hard news was about strange places named Kavieng, Rabaul, Lae and Salamaua. On the 9th, the Press news announced a great American victory at the Battle of Coral Sea in which several Japanese ships, including a carrier had been sunk. Tokyo Rose announced a Japanese victory in which two U.S. carriers and other ships had been sunk. During the next few days, we decoded messages that made it clear that Lexington had been sunk, Yorktown had been hit and damaged and the oiler Neosho and its escorting Destroyer Sims had been lost. The only clearly good news was that Butch O’Hare, a fighter pilot out of ’37, had shot down six Japanese planes and had become the Navy’s first Ace!

After patrolling near the Solomons for a week or so to guard against further Japanese moves, with Enterprise flying off a Squadron of Marine Fighters to reinforce Éfaté, we moved north to protect Ocean and Nuaru Islands. Enterprise planes made contact with a Japanese force on the 15th and sent in an attack, but little came of it and on the 16th we broke off contact and headed back to Pearl, arriving on the 26th. I got a chance to see brother Bill, but he was under orders not to talk about Coral Sea, so we just had a great reunion and a fine evening at the Moana.

For reasons that weren’t clear, orders were issued for all ships to expedite loading stores and be ready for sea on short notice. Task Force 16 sailed on the 28th and headed west in the direction of Midway Island. Our task force had been augmented by the carrier Hornet and we were under command of RAdm. Raymond Spruance, our cruiser commander.

Copyright © 2003 Capt. Russell S. Crenshaw, Jr., USN (Ret.)