Vail Daily column: The sinking
August 29, 2014
Everyone has a special event in their lives that is an anniversary especially for that person. I was very lucky, because I had a very special event occur at approximately the same time as one of the biggest events of my lifetime. Those two events happened very close to each other on July 11 and Aug. 6, 1945. In perspective, in 2 1/2 months I would turn 21 years old and could finally vote.
Our small sub-chaser was en route to Pearl Harbor from Guadalcanal via a small island in the central Pacific called Funafuti. And I really wanted to survive the next few months until I was of voting age.
Our ship and crew were scheduled to become part of the invasion force of Japan. The death toll estimates ranged somewhere around a quarter of a million American Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel.
The reason I write about this episode in my life is that on Aug. 6, 1945, America dropped the big one on Hiroshima and Japan capitulated five days later.
Six days before that atom bomb blast, everyone on our ship was fighting nature for our lives in the center of a tropical typhoon with wind velocities in excess of 80 miles an hour.
For three days, the wind had been mounting in velocity until the ships in our convoy were disappearing in the troughs between the 40- and 50-foot high waves.
Our small 110-foot-long wooden hulled sub-chaser had been stationed in the South Pacific almost immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor happened in 1941. The wooden hull was full of worms and dry rot.
About an hour after I went off watch at noon, we sprung a seam and started taking on water into the forward ammunition magazine.
When the captain and I climbed up to the flying bridge, I was surprised to see the sub-chaser opposite ours in the convoy completely disappear for long periods of time in the troughs of the giant waves. At the same time the top 10 feet or so of the waves were blowing off and the high velocity drops of water stung when they hit you.
When another sub-chaser crested a wave more than half of the boat including the keel was completely out of the water and would come crashing down in the trough.
We had a small portable gasoline powered high-capacity pump but the motor mechanics could not get it to run. It was obvious that we could not stay ahead of the incoming water by bailing so we turned our attention to emptying the magazine of ammunition and putting it on the stern of the boat in order to weigh down the stern and help keep the boat more level in the water. By this time it was almost dark and lurching along the deck of a rocking, rolling and pitching small boat in the dark with one or more 40-millimeter shells in your arms while trying to hang on somehow was a little spooky and very dangerous.
It became obvious to me that our major problem was going to be trying to stay afloat until dawn, at which time I hoped that the typhoon would pass overhead and the wind and waves would begin to diminish.
It was at this time the captain and I had a very intense conversation about how we would get the 27 crew members off of the sinking sub-chaser without losing anybody in the mountainous waves.
It was approaching dawn when we discovered that 11 members of the crew had faked their swimming test in boot camp and could not swim a single stroke. The ship was way down by the bow by this time; the front of the ship was awash halfway back through the pilothouse. The chief motor mechanic had kept the fire and bilge pumps running in the engine room because every time the boat went up over a wave the water rushed through the gap between the supposedly watertight bulkhead and the hull of the ship.
There was only one life raft on board so the only way to get everyone off safely, I convinced the captain, was to put the raft over the side of the vessel then tie two 60-foot heaving lines or maybe even three together, tie one end onto the raft and the other to the ship. Then have half the crew hang onto the life raft or climb into it and drift downwind until they could be picked up by one of the other sub-chasers following us in the convoy. Once they were picked up, we could haul the life raft back to our ship, that hopefully was still afloat, and the rest of the crew could climb onto it and drift down to another sub-chaser.
This idea worked without a hitch and when the crew was safely aboard other ships, the chief boatswain’s mate, the chief motor mechanic, the captain, and I were the only ones left on board.
The boat had absolutely no steering ability and was being battered by giant waves hitting it at random angles as it drifted. The front half of the boat was completely awash when the four of us decided we better get off quickly now that everyone else was safe.
The captain of another sub chaser in the convoy was so good at handling his ship that he was able to come alongside to leeward of our boat and as the two boats rose and fell on the same wave, he eased up alongside. As he came within less than 2 feet from our ship, he hollered, “You guys better jump now, because I’m not going to do this again!”
When I finally settled down on the deck of the rescue ship and counting my possessions, I realized that I had my health, a pair of swim fins, four candy bars, a hundred feet of fishing line, a dozen fishhooks, my sneakers, my baseball cap, a T-shirt and a pair of shorts.
One-hundred percent of the crew survived and the convoy was ordered to turn back to Guadalcanal for the board of inquiry to find out whose fault the sinking was. On the way back within days of that sinking, the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima and the war was over as Japan surrendered, unconditionally.
We had sunk on Aug. 5, 1945, so we were very relieved we weren’t going to be in the wave of Americans that would undoubtedly die invading Tokyo. Too many had been killed during the war years already.
Two months later, I would celebrate my 21st birthday in Pearl Harbor.
All of my records had been sunk in the typhoon so it was impossible for me to get any clothes from the Navy nor get any money to go out to dinner on my birthday. However, I did have my swim fins and my shorts and the warm tropical water of Waikiki Beach and Makapu was great comfort to my just becoming an adult.
As I watch the television news this morning and chronicle a hurricane hitting the Hawaiian Islands again, I’m certainly glad that a full typhoon didn’t hit the islands because the wind velocity in ours was significantly higher than a hurricane.
Everyone on board the ship looked on the sinking in retrospect as good fortune along with the war ending five days later.
On Oct. 15, 1945, I was finally an adult and could vote in a national election, even though I was penniless in paradise.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net.