|EAST CAROLINA MANUSCRIPT COLLECTION|
|ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW #161|
|Captain Powell P. Vail, Jr.|
|USNA Class of 1941|
|January 23, 1998|
|[Interviewed by Dr. Fred D. Ragan]|
Captain Vail, would you begin simply by telling us something about your background: where you were born, your family background, maybe those influences that led you toward the Navy?
My parents were both Mississippians. I was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, but lived in Jackson until I was seven years old. At that time, I moved to a small town in Louisiana named Hammond. I finished grade school and high school in Hammond. I went to prep school at Georgia Military Academy in Georgia to prepare for exams, either at Annapolis or West Point. I did not receive an appointment that year. I enrolled in Mississippi State University and had been there half a year when I was notified that I had received an appointment to the Naval Academy. At that time, I transferred to Louisiana State University to be closer to home my final six months.
Insofar as what led me to the Naval Academy, I can only say that maybe it was the movies. There were no relatives of mine connected with the USMA [United States
Military Academy] or the USNA [United States Naval Academy]. For some time since high school, I had a desire to either go to West Point or Annapolis and that is where it all started.
Maybe you could tell us a little bit about your parents.
My father, Powell P. Vail, Sr., was a Mississippian from the date of his birth. He was born in Newton, Mississippi, and lived in Jackson, Mississippi, all his life. He was a self-made engineer and I used to marvel at the number of international correspondence school books I would see when I was a kid. He was proficient in cold storage, freezing, and things like that. The reason we moved to Hammond from Jackson was for him to build a new cold storage and ice plant there at which they also packed strawberries. Hammond was the center of the strawberry industry at that time. My mother was born in Vicksburg and lived in Vicksburg all her life until she married my father. I don't remember what date that was, probably 1916 or 1917 or somewhere in there. Soon thereafter, they moved to Jackson, Mississippi.
Tell us something about your years at the Naval Academy, while you were a student there.
I entered the Naval Academy in June of 1937. Unfortunately, I had had too much education. I found plebe year to be very easy academically; so therefore I didn't do much studying. On the other hand, come second year--youngster year--it was all new. I found myself in hot water very rapidly for the simple reason that I didn't apply myself properly. I spent that year getting out of trouble academically, for the most part, which I was able to do. It took a little hard work.
Second class year--our junior year--was sort of routine. It was a good year for all classes at the Naval Academy. It was excelled only by our first class year where we had the most privileges and thought we were the greatest in the world, since we had gotten through three years of that stuff. Unfortunately, we were the first class that was cut short. We graduated in February of 1941, rather than as normal in June of 1941. You probably have heard others talk about that. All in all, I enjoyed my time at the Naval Academy, except maybe for youngster year for the reasons I previously cited. I didn't find it too difficult one way or the other. I didn't mind the regimentation. I was fairly used to that, probably as a result of going to Georgia Military Academy, which was a pretty good prep school for kids.
I had aspirations of playing baseball at the Naval Academy. Unfortunately, at the end of the second year, I had to drop out due to academics. By the time I came back at the beginning of the next year, I had sort of been passed by. I had also visions of playing football, which were rather foolish since at the time I weighed a cool 140 pounds. I did make the second team on the plebe team for a while. It wasn't long before I was hurt with a knee injury. By the time I got back four weeks later, they didn't even know that I had been out there. I guess that sums it up.
Overall, I pretty much enjoyed the Naval Academy. I think it took me awhile to realize there are certain things that I had to do and not do. I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the discipline, to my own disadvantage, until I woke up to the fact that I had better. As you know, the discipline mark that we got counted to a certain extent on our academic standing. If you didn't have a good mark, as we called it a "grease mark," it could hurt your academic standing.
Which was your rank in the class? Was that it, the "grease mark"?
Yes. It was compiled, fairly important and significant. I have forgotten how much, but it was significant in totaling up and rounding out your standing. That is about it as far as the Academy is concerned.
After graduating then, what was your first duty assignment? That would have been in the spring of 1941, wouldn't it?
Yes. A great group of us went directly to the Fleet out in Honolulu. We gathered in San Francisco, took the transport HENDERSON out to Pearl Harbor, and reported to various and sundry ships. I reported as a brand new ensign to the USS WEST VIRGINIA. As you probably know, my stay on the WEST VIRGINIA came to a grinding halt December 7, 1941. It was one of the ships sunk out there.
Are there any things that you would like to relate or recall related to that duty assignment on the WEST VIRGINIA leading up to December 7, 1941?
Well, for the most part shortly after I came aboard, I was made the assistant navigator. There was always one of the junior officers that was assistant navigator. I held that job up until about a month before the war started. Ensigns aboard the larger ships used to be rotated, as you may have heard, for the idea of getting experience at all departments. I enjoyed my job as assistant navigator very much and learned a lot. It was lots of fun. One sideline was interesting. Our navigation room was on one side of the flag bridge, where the admiral and his staff were located when we were at sea. My battle station was junior officer of the deck, up on the bridge. One night we went to General Quarters for some sort of drills, which we seemed to have millions of them. While I was
tearing up the ladder, I had the privilege of knocking the admiral down. I kept moving so fast that he never knew who it was. That is one of the things I do remember.
He was standing right at the top of the ladder. I just came right on up and, I think, my head hit him in the mid-section. I saw that big broad stripe or whatever it was going down on the deck. Man, I picked up speed! There was nothing ever said or done about it. He may have realized that he shouldn't have been standing there at General Quarters.
Where were you on the infamous day of December 7, 1941?
As a result of being rotated out of my job as assistant navigator and I pridefully say much against the wishes of the navigator who wanted me to stay on longer--but they decided that is not what they wanted to do--I was sent to fleet machine gun school. This was with the idea of coming back and being in one of the anti-aircraft divisions. I had just completed fleet machine gun school and returned to the ship only a week or so before the war. Actually, when the war started, I didn't have an assigned battle station at the time because I had been away.
When the war broke out, I was knocked out of my bunk. I must say that was not a very good beginning, but I only can excuse myself by saying that I had had the midwatch the night before, which is from twelve to four. We are allowed to sleep in a little bit. The first torpedo knocked me out of my bunk. Then I heard General Quarters sound and automatically started to the bridge, because that is where I had always gone before. I really didn't know what was going on until on the way up I heard somebody say something about the Japanese; that we were being attacked. It was not until I reached the
bridge where I could look out and see what was going on that I realized we really were under attack.
I had an interesting experience in that regard. As I said, I didn't have a battle station. Needless to say, there was nobody on the navigation bridge and I noticed the captain--Captain Mervyn Bennion, who hadn't been aboard too long--was standing on the flag bridge. I sort of took up a position near him with the idea that if he needed any help, I was there. Actually fortunately for me, I walked away from him to go look at something--I am not sure what--on the same level. When I came back, the poor man had been hit by shrapnel from a bomb that fragmented on the TENNESSEE, which was right alongside us. He was lying flat on his back, severely wounded. He later died as a result of that wound. A short time previous to that, I had been right by his side. It could have happened to me too if I had been there.
A certain amount of that is hazy to me, as I look back and try to recall. I remember also looking aft from the bridge to see if there was a possible way that we could get the captain down or at least to try to figure out what we were going to do. Although I should have known that the last thing you wanted to do was move a victim. When I was looking aft, we were either hit by a bomb or the ARIZONA blew up right behind us. I remember there was a heck of a big explosion. I never knew for sure exactly what I had heard or witnessed. Needless to say, I ducked pretty fast, but I never knew what that was.
It is hazy to me. There were people with the captain. I remember that one of the chief pharmacist's mates was trying to wrap him up, which it turned out to be just a housekeeping thing, if you want to call it that. It was no use, I suppose. Somewhere
along the line, the word was passed to abandon ship. I walked down the bow of the ship. I had taken off part of my white service uniform. I was going to go over the side and swim to Ford Island. We were not too far from the island. I remember that I had taken off my jacket, carefully folded it, and put my cap on top of it. I was debating whether I should take off my shoes for swimming purposes when alongside the bow came a boat. They evidently saw me and came alongside the bow. I jumped in the boat from the bow of the WEST VIRGINIA. Most of the people in it were WEST VIRGINIA people. We later gathered on the beach. That is how I ended up leaving the ship. I remember that I regretted leaving my jacket and my cap because it was not necessary. That was it.
I remember feeling the torpedoes hitting the ship. As I remember the story--this is not fact--the WEST VIRGINIA was right in the slot when the Japanese torpedo bombers came down. The ship, I heard, was hit with an estimated five to seven torpedoes and there was a hole in the side of the ship about one hundred and seventy-five feet long. Oh! An interesting fact that I happened to witness was while I was standing alongside the captain up there, Lieutenant Claude Ricketts--later Full Admiral Ricketts--the damage control officer, came up to the captain and asked permission to counter-flood since we were beginning to capsize. Lieutenant Ricketts asked the captain and the captain, of course, gave him permission because it was the thing to do. Lieutenant Ricketts and his damage control outfit went down and counter-flooded the ship. As far as I know--I have never read about this but it seems reasonable--he kept the ship from capsizing. We just straightened out and settled directly down on the bottom. As you may or may not know, Admiral Ricketts later became Vice Chief of Naval Operations and rightly so. He was quite a man. As a matter of fact, he was my first division officer when I first came
aboard for about a month before I was assigned as assistant navigator. I thought very highly of him and it turned out that my judgment was right in this case.
When you went ashore, the boat picked you up? You got off the bow . . . What did you do or do you recall the remainder of that day?
Well, it was an amusing proposition. To show you how confusing the whole thing was, first they gathered all the WEST VIRGINIA survivors in a building somewhere to count noses and see what the situation was. I remember the executive officer was the senior man there. Somehow or another, I got involved in a detachment of one young officer, twenty-some odd sailors, and one Marine, who were sent out in the middle of the housing area to establish a roadblock with one lousy, lone machine gun. There were all sorts of rumors, of course, that the Japanese were here and the Japanese were there. I ended up with that detachment the first night.
The rumors were so rampant. The first rumor I remember was someone coming along and saying, "You can't drink the water. All the water has been contaminated. We will bring you some water." Well, I think they brought soda pop, which was nice. That was one of the rumors. Then, I divided this motley crew up and put the one Marine in charge of the second outfit. I don't know to this day where that Marine came from. He may have been a Marine aboard the WEST VIRGINIA--most likely so--but he was the only one I had.
Finally, I went into one of the houses, which had been abandoned by then to get some sleep. We had been told not to let anybody come through this intersection without proper identification. These were the standing orders I left with the Marine in charge before I went to sleep. Shortly thereafter, I was woken up. Somebody was telling me
that the Marine, who I think was a corporal, wanted to see me out there. I went out to the roadblock. He had stopped a pick-up as I recall and wouldn't let it budge as he was carrying out the orders that I had given. I looked in to see who it might be and to ask for identification. I am pretty sure and I bet my bottom dollar on it--I can't even swear to it anymore--that it was some local admiral. He was laughing like hell because he thought it was funny that this motley crew was guarding this intersection like that. I am pretty sure he was an admiral, but I know he was a very senior officer. Of course, we passed him on in very short order. That is about all I remember about that night.
I think it was the next day that we really gathered in the building to count noses and see what we had. In the process, we were told that they needed some officers to volunteer to operate with the Army Air Force at that time. They wanted to look for the Japanese fleet and needed some naval officers to fly along and help identify. Well, I always thought I might be a naval aviator, so I violated the cardinal rule and volunteered. I should have known, for one, that there wasn't any Air Force left. Hickam Field had pretty much been destroyed. Three of us ended up with a coastal artillery outfit on the northern part of the island. To actually show you how things were, it was manned by Army field artillery, whose secondary mission, if necessary, was to man a coastal artillery outfit if it had been in place, but nobody was there on a full-time basis. We left at night. It took us until the next morning to arrive there. We left in somebody's private vehicle. My group got out there and three of us joined up to be naval liaison officers with this Army outfit. That was quite an experience. I was with them for about two or three weeks. It was deadly boring. We had nothing to do. I even got to the point where I was drilling Army troops on the coastal artillery gun, which was a laugh in itself.
I heard they were assigning officers from the ships that had been sunk to temporary duty on destroyers because of the shortage of officers. These poor guys were running around destroyers before the war with five or six officers on board. It was a tough time. I prevailed upon my commanding officer, Colonel Anderson, to let me go into Pearl Harbor and investigate this thing, which I did. I found out that yes, they were doing that. I went to see my old boss, who was in the hospital for something at that time, but asked him if he knew of any commanding officers. Mind you, the vintage of commanding officers there at that time were Class of 1922 and 1923. He said, "Yes. I have a good friend, who has command of the USS FANNING. If you want to go aboard, I'll write you a note." I caught a ride out to the FANNING, which happened to be in the harbor. The FANNING number was DD-385. I presented my note to the captain and the captain thereupon said, "Yes. I'll be glad to have anybody I can get." He did not know me from Adam. He wrote a request to the people who were assigning personnel. I took the request back in. The next thing I knew I had been assigned to the USS FANNING on a temporary basis. At which time, I became “George”. Every dirty job on the ship was given to me.
But that brought you back to the Navy.
Exactly. That brought me back to the Navy.
What was the FANNING's role?
The FANNING was a general purpose destroyer. As a matter of fact in those days, they were all general purpose destroyers. We didn't have all these specialized different types. Its role was to torpedo attack the enemy, defend submarines, and render other defensive measures for the battleships and the cruisers. As I said, the destroyers
were so much in demand. We didn't have enough of them. This is all my opinion, you realize, not a matter of fact or as far as I know, it is not a fact. These poor destroyer guys would go out with one group of battleships, come back in, turn their boat around, and go out with a second group all the time. We were just forever going to sea and not having much fun with it because we were short. All branches were short of people. I marveled when I found out what they had been doing and how they did it. They just never got any rest or recreation.
I would say the Navy got a fair amount of drilling at sea before the war started. We won't get into who screwed up about not notifying whom when the war started. You've read about that, I'm sure, ad infinitum, but I'm sure we could have done a hell of a lot better job had we known what was going on.
Did the FANNING have some patrol duty then? Were you searching for subs?
No, the FANNING was operating with a carrier task force. I went on one operation with it, as I recall. We were to make a token raid. In effect, it was token because we had lost so many ships, but nevertheless a token raid on the Kwajalein Islands.
Was the name Kwajalein?
There was a Kwajalein island, but they are a group of islands. One night, on the way out before the group reached the attack point, it was raining and dark. As you know in those days, the destroyers didn't have any good surface search radar. In those conditions, where they were completely invisible, you just had to hope and pray that everybody was able somehow to maintain their position. It turned out during the night that I was knocked out of my bunk. We had made a right turn across the whole group and
one of the destroyers astern of us had been creeping up all during the night. He didn't know it since nobody could tell. You couldn't see with it raining and all. We made the turn and well, we were lucky. This is what saved us. We went bow-to-bow and it was almost a perfect bow-to-bow collision.
Needless to say, it created quite a bit of damage. We were detached and went into American soil in order to try to patch ourselves up. We poured enough concrete in the bow in order to get back to Pearl Harbor. That was the one operation I went on during my time on the FANNING. We spent an amusing time.
I don't how much you want these anecdotes. Do you want them?
First time I had ever been to Samoa and American Samoa was when I visited the capital. The capital had a beautiful harbor and the powers that be said “Well, we really,” as I recall, “don't want people ashore because we can't handle them here.” We would take the men ashore once in a while and give them a beer or something like that, but we'd never turn them loose. We weren't too far from the shore. Anyway, the natives had some of these makeshift showers, which consisted of a can and a tree. Sure enough, we saw it come one afternoon when some of the native girls would be out taking a shower, every gun telescope was then trained to take a good look.
The boys were pretty good, but one morning we counted noses and we were missing two or three. I have forgotten exactly how many. Their urge evidently had just gotten to them and had become too much to resist. That night I was the officer of the deck and I thought I heard or saw something in the water. I called the signal bridge and told them to put the searchlight on. Sure enough, we found a couple of crates out there. I
said, “Just keep the light on the crates.” Finally, I heard “Ok, we give up”. These guys had swum ashore and were trying to get back to the ship, you see. I said, since I knew who they were, “Did y'all have a good time?” One responded, “You will never know.”
Finally, we got out of there and stumbled our way back to Pearl Harbor. We couldn't make any speed because of the bow damage. It seemed like to me that the voyage took us forever. Back in Pearl Harbor, while our boat was being repaired, I received my new orders since I had only been assigned to FANNING on temporary duty. I received orders from the Bureau of Personnel to report back to the States. I say report back to the States because I suppose the scheme they were using then for junior officers was to get you back to San Francisco. You reported in at San Francisco because I suppose they also didn't know when you were going to get back exactly. The district commander would notify them, “Joe Blow is now here. What do you want to do with him?” Then at that time, they would give you your orders for your next assignment. Of course, this was not a bad arrangement, having been out there for a long time, too. I think I spent a couple of weeks in San Francisco. It was a grand time.
This would have been in 1942
I went back to San Francisco. I think I have all this written down somewhere, but we recently moved. It's all bottled up in some cruise box somewhere. Yes, I think it was in the spring of 1942 roughly. Maybe it was early summer. That's what I recall. I think after having served on the FANNING, I was assigned to the new construction of a destroyer being built in Kearny Yards, Kearny, New Jersey. The ship was built by Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. First, I had to go back to Washington, where I spent about four weeks learning the fire control system that was being installed.
Then I reported aboard the USS QUICK DD-490 as a prospective gunnery officer. Do you want me to continue on to career business?
Tell us about your assignment with the USS QUICK.
Well, it was a new construction ship. Most of the prospective crew gathered in the shipyard, ahead of time, observed how the ship was being built, and also started preparing the ship's organization. I remember when I was there, the executive officer and captain were there, along with maybe a couple or three other officers. I think the officers who were there, were principally those who were going to be department heads, like the engineering officer and all. This way, they could observe the ship while it was being built and tested. That was the primary purpose of the officers being there when the ship was tested to see if they were meeting specifications at the time. I used to remember this stuff pretty well, but I recall this was midsummer by then.
The ship was commissioned over in the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. We spent the next eighteen months aboard on fast convoy duty and troop transport type stuff. When I say fast convoy, this includes the landings we participated in as a gunnery fire support ship. The first one was when we landed in North Africa and for the second one we landed in Sicily. After the Sicilian landing, I came back to the States at which time I had had enough of this ship. I wanted to go to the Pacific where the action was. That's what I thought.
The landings in North Africa and Sicily then from your point of view were fairly routine and uneventful?
We were down at the southern end of the Atlantic force at a place called Asapi--I think it was--Morocco. There wasn't much action as far as we were concerned. There
was a lot of action in some other places; but I think we saw only one plane flying around, which we shot at a little bit. The plane was not threatening. As far as we were concerned, the action was pretty slim, if any, down there. The landing in Sicily was the same. The destroyers were assigned to fire support missions or some of them were.
The night before the landing, we were all cruising around where we were supposed to be, waiting for the next day, I think, for landing. All of a sudden--you talk about an incident--I remember I heard an airplane go overhead and it dropped flares. It was a German aircraft. I have never felt so exposed in all my life. I was sitting up in the top of the director. I remember these flares being the most beautiful flares I have ever seen. You could read a newspaper by them; they were so bright. Well, fortunately, he dropped flares and maybe all he wanted to do was see what was down there. We expected somebody to come along in a little bit and drop a few bombs on us, but nothing happened. It turns out that the action, which I would have loved to have taken part in, was taking place further north. I must admit I should have read up on this incident, but that is how the story goes as I can remember it. After the troops got ashore initially, lo and behold, out of the hills came the German Panzer tanks. Here they were coming down the road toward these defenseless guys, who had just come ashore. The destroyers had a great time. They were able to shoot at tanks on the beach. I would have loved to have done it. It would be like shooting fish in a rain barrel, I always thought. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong end in the wrong place. I didn't get any fun out of that one either. That was about it. I can't say there were anymore that happened. The convoys back and forth were dead as a dog, yet exciting because those were the days of the German wolfpacks.
Did your ship meet up with any of the German subs on those convoys?
One night we ourselves were not close enough, but we operated with a squadron as part of the escort force then. One night, I believe, shortly after a few destroyers had received surface radar, we caught a German wolfpack type on the surface. As I recall, there was a lot of shooting going on up there and I think they sank the thing. It was across the formation from us and that was the only time. However, it did happen where we would see some on the radar because otherwise we wouldn't have seen it, you see. Those guys, as I recall, would sit on the surface at night because they could move faster on the surface and choose a reasonable attack position. The Germans had their intelligence on convoys, which was pretty good, too. To my knowledge about the troop convoys we escorted, most of them went as fast as they could because of the men they had aboard. We never lost a ship to my knowledge. Now the slow convoys did lose a lot of ships. It was a lot easier for the Germans to get in position to make attacks on them. I'm pretty sure, though, we never lost a ship with any group that I was with. I think part of that was plain luck, if you want to be honest about it.
Well after duty then in the Atlantic, you came back to the States?
I came back to the states after the Sicilian thing was over. I went down to see a friend of mine in the Bureau of Naval Personnel and said, “Look, I want to go to the Pacific. I have had enough of this stuff. I have spent eighteen months roughly aboard that ship. Send me to the Pacific where I can be a hero and win the war, you know.”
I was then ordered to new construction again for a new class of destroyer, which was another reason why I wanted to move. It was built in the Bethlehem shipyards on Staten Island. There again a few of us gathered there, like the captain and the heads of departments. The crew was being gathered, trained, or whatever they did with the
executive officer down in Norfolk, Virginia. They came aboard, I think, after we went over to the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. I don't know how the contract read, but I think the contractor's people didn't get off the ship until we were safely tied up in the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. Then, they said, "Okay, this belongs to the Navy now.” We went down to Bermuda for a shakedown cruise because that was where we had been having our shakedowns. Here is an event you might be interested in. We got back to New York on Christmas Eve night or maybe it was the night before Christmas Eve because I went to Washington on Christmas Eve.
That would have been 1943?
I guess so. Yes. I think the ship was commissioned in August of 1943.
I went to a very fine prep school called St. Stanislaus, located in Bay St. Louis,
Mississippi. It was run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. This is why later on military life didn't bother me because they ran the toughest, tautest ship I have ever seen in my life. What I was going to tell you was simply the fact that one of the courses we took at that school was an excellent course in ancient history. I enjoyed it. I won't ever forget that school because there you either learned because you were intelligent or you learned out of sheer fear. Those Brothers made sure the parents got their money's worth.
I'll tell you a couple of stories if you want to hear it. I remember we had this algebra teacher. Of course, all people are big to you then, but he was an imposing looking man. I suppose he was in his thirties then, maybe forties. I wouldn't want you publishing any of this because I wouldn't want to embarrass the good brothers. Like all prep schools, it had a lot of rich spoiled boys or boys with problems. One day, we were taking a test and this particular lad, who was later expelled from the school, was
obviously cheating. He was sitting in front of me, so I could see what he was doing. I watched the brother. He was looking at the boy. The brother walked around to the back of the classroom, at which time of course I lost track of him. The next thing I knew, the brother walked up, hit this boy upside his face with his hand, and knocked him plum out of his chair. That's the kind of outfit they ran in a way. This guy was particularly tough, but it was a good school and I enjoyed it.
The school also had an excellent athletic department. We had had really good teams. Some of the colleges actually put boys in there for a year or so to get them ready for college. I remember one boy in particular from Tulane. They sent him there, so he could qualify to get in Tulane. Tulane was a good academic institution in those days. They ran a very tight ship and it was during an interesting period. I only spent one year over there because I wanted to go back to my little hometown and go to high school with my friends. But I don't regret having gone there for that year.
While we were down in Bermuda undergoing our shakedown exercises, all of a sudden one day, the captain got called over to headquarters. Three destroyers were down there for our shakedown cruises. All three ships were suddenly ordered out to sea and headed east. Of course, everyone asked the captain, "What are we doing?" He responded, "I'll tell you in a little while." It turned out that we were going out to meet Roosevelt, who was coming back from one of his trips over there during the war on one of the battleships. I should remember the name of the battleship. It was either IOWA, MISSOURI, or one of those big babies. It turned out what they did was they had destroyer escorts out there. I think there were three all the way across the Atlantic. This battleship was doing 25-35 knots as fast as she could go. It didn't make any difference to him, but
the destroyers were being beaten up to a fare-thee-well and also burning up a lot of fuel. They spotted relays. We were their last relay, so we joined up. I can recall one of the senior officers of the group we relieved just sending a flag saying, "Thank God you're here. Good-bye." We found out why soon enough. The weather got bad and cold. We were steaming along there and the ship was just taking a beating. As a matter of fact, the gyroscope jumped plumb out of its gimbals down below. We got into Norfolk the next day and Mr. Roosevelt was in good shape, but the three destroyers weren't. We had to be passed up. In the meantime, it had turned cold. When we got in the navy yard, we looked like one sheet of ice. That's pretty cold because that's salt water ice.
That was the most interesting thing that happened down there during the shakedown period. The other was routine stuff you go through. We came back into the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. I think we either got in there the morning of Christmas Eve or the day before. I was going down to see my current girlfriend, so I know it was around then. We had worked so hard. The trip up hadn't been pleasant, so I didn't realize how tired I was. I caught the train at Penn Station and went down to Washington. I was to meet her later on, so I went to the Army-Navy Club to freshen up. I stretched out across the bed. The next thing I knew, it was Christmas morning, so I didn't show up for the date.
We stayed in New York for three or four weeks, getting ready to go to sea. At that time, they were sending all of this class of destroyers around to the Pacific because they were five-gun ships with five-inch guns plus torpedoes. It was a good ship. We went down to Norfolk for our first stop. We waited there until they were ready to form some sort of convoy going south or wherever. We went as far as the mouth of the
Mississippi with them. Maybe they were going in there, but I don't know why. I remember we went up the Mississippi to New Orleans. I was, of course, then able to see my parents because my little hometown was only fifty-five miles north of New Orleans. In due time, we were again waiting for the convoy. It may have been a relay situation. We left New Orleans to join up with them after maybe forty-eight hours. We headed with this convoy to Cristobal. We had to wait to go through the canal because the canal was pretty busy.
I always argue with my wife now. She once said, “I would like to take a canal trip.” I said, “I took one. It took from eight in the morning until eight at night and I was standing on my feet. I'm not going to take another one.” That's what it took, too. They were taking all the ships they could through the locks at the same time, you see. There was a lot of waiting. You had to be on deck to occasionally handle the many lines in the locks. That was a strenuous trip and I wasn't anxious to repeat going through the canal again. In the first place, the scenery wasn't very nice anyway.
My wife likes to take cruises. I say, “Look, I spent all my life at sea. I don't need a cruise.” Finally I relented. Last summer, I said, “Okay.” I realized I had never been to Alaska, so I said, “Let's take one of those cruisers out of Vancouver. Holland-America takes the Inside Passage and goes up there.” We did, but it was for the birds. As far as I'm concerned, they could have put a Sheraton Hotel on a barge and hauled it out to sea. That's all it was. To me, it was just not thrilling. We spent half the time lining up to get into the dining room. Afterward I said, “Okay, when I save enough money, we can go first class on a QET. That's the next time I'll go, but not before.”
We left the canal and went up to San Diego to pick up a small detachment of Marines. Here again, we talk about a story. For some reason or another, they wanted to send the detachment of Marines to Pearl Harbor. We picked them up there one day and left the next morning to go to Pearl Harbor. From Pearl Harbor on, we were in the middle of the raids with the Third and Fifth Fleet of Halsey and Spruance, who respectively, were running the two fleets at the time. Coming in from one of the operations in the atolls, Ulithi was a great hang out. I remember I got pretty sick of Ulithi. That's when I made up my mind I would never stand in line again. The best you could do theoretically was go ashore and stand in line with a bunch of clowns to get a beer. I don't stand in line.
We went through the Pacific Operations. We were with the carriers most of the time. We were down in the Philippines when they made the landings. We were up north unfortunately of where the Japanese tried to come up the Lingayen Gulf area. The old battleships had been reassembled and they actually crossed the “T” by just putting the battleships across where the Japanese had to come. The Japanese came up and were pretty much in single file because they had to be. Again, it was like shooting fish in a rain barrel. They killed the Japanese down there. You remember that it was the Battle of Surigao Strait. We were on the way down, but we didn't get there in time. It turns out they didn't need us.
Were you with any of the later invasions in the Pacific--the island hopping?
Well, no. Oh, sorry. We were in the invasion of Saipan in the Mariana Islands. We were the gun support ships. I remember the first forty-eight hours we fired every bullet we had on board supporting the troops. That was very interesting. We got so tired
that I remember that was the first time in my life I could go back to sleep while they were firing the five-inch guns aboard the destroyer. You were just exhausted because you were up so long. I don't know how long we were off Saipan , but we fired almost continuously for forty-eight hours.
I remember one incident you made me interested in hearing again. I wouldn't want to necessarily be quoted, but we ran out of the ammunition we fired, which are five- inch bullets that we had on board ship. We had a merchant ship, who was carrying ammunition. This was right off Saipan in the middle of the thing. We went alongside to load ammunition. Now you can't quote me on this, but I got aboard to see what they had since I was the gunnery officer again. Lo and behold, we found out that they weren't going to help us because it was their break time. Here we were out in the middle of the war. It's an honest-to-God fact and I've hated their guts ever since. We had to send more of our people over there to do their job of getting the ammunition loaded. They could not do it because of the union rules. Can you imagine this in the middle of the war? I can remember it. I would have hated to have been held in court about it.
I can't remember much else what we did on the ship. We carried further propositions. I remember coming back into the Ulithi atoll one time. All of a sudden, I got orders as executive officer of the new type ship. It was a DD-725 USS O'BRIEN. It was a 2,200-ton ship where previously they were 2,100 tons. It was the first squadron of this type that had been sent to the Pacific. Well, I got my orders and said, "Oh baby, that's good. I'll be going back to the States." At least I'll get a little break because I had been out there then close to eighteen months, I think. We went back into Ulithi as we generally did. Lo and behold, in comes steaming DesRon 60, which contained one of the
ships I had to go to. It took me five minutes to go from one ship to another and to a new job. Needless to say, I wasn't too happy, but that's the way it went.
We continued to do the same thing. We were involved in the Philippines again. We went down to Lingayen Gulf and then went around to the landings in Mindoro. This is where I first came into contact with the Japanese banzais in a big way. They were bouncing off big ships, like rubber balls. It was incredible to watch it. You just couldn't believe what was going on--human beings deliberately committing suicide as it were. I think it was off Mindoro some battleship got hit about three or four times by these guys.
That attack went on for a while. Then we went up to make the invasion at Okinawa. Again we were in the fire support group. Again the Japanese banzais were all over the place. They were coming full force because they were really desperate by then.
You were knocking at the door by then.
Yeah. That's where we became a cropper in broad daylight. My battle station as the executive officer was in the combat information center. Sometimes you could tell what was going on and sometimes you couldn't. It just depended on how good your radar was and how much action there was. I heard the guns start to shoot, including the twenty millimeters. Whenever you hear the twenty millimeters going off, you know things are pretty close because they can't see very far. They were worthless as far as I was concerned. Sure enough, we had been hit by a Japanese banzai. He flew pretty much right between the stacks, pretty much under our number one stack about main deck level. A part of the plane came out the other side. We had two forty-millimeter guns with ready service ammunition on each side and one blew up. When it blew, it knocked down a corner of the CIC. I am not bragging here, but here again the Lord took care of me. I had
people killed all around me. A lot of them died of sheer concussion. There wouldn't be a mark on the outside of their body, but of course we had a lot of people on the deck that were killed. As I recall, as a result of that incident we had--I used to know the figure exactly--but let me say around thirty-five to forty killed and seventy-five wounded. Needless to say, it tore up the ship. There's no question that we had to go all the way back to San Francisco to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard to get repaired.
I was slightly wounded and we found out that they wanted one officer to bring the damage report into Pearl Harbor. As I said, I had been wounded slightly as I had suffered second-degree burns and had a bunch of stuff thrown in my face. I was extremely lucky. I'll tell you this aside. After I was hit, I came to in complete darkness. I had been knocked out. I really didn't know what had happened; but when I came to, we had lost all power. Combat information was completely dark. I couldn't tell who had gotten out. I don't blame them a bit. There was no use for them to be there. They didn't know whether I was dead or alive because there were a lot of other guys right around there. I remember getting out of there. When I saw the light of day for the first time, I was blinded. There had been all that blackness and then I knew I had been knocked out. When I got out and saw the light of day, I never felt so great in all my life.
I said, "Captain, you're not going to do anything but steam all the way back to San Francisco. You don't need me. How about letting me go to Pearl Harbor with the damage report? I'll meet you in San Francisco." He said, "Well, sure." He didn't know what kind of shape I was in. Neither did I, but there was no reason why he shouldn't have let me go as opposed to sending someone else. I had made the request and he granted it. I went back to Pearl Harbor. In short order, they said, "We can't fix you out here. You
know we got a shipyard in Pearl, but your damage is too extensive. You are going back to Mare Island.” The next thing I know I was on the plane heading for San Francisco as happy as I can be. I spent a couple of weeks in San Francisco all by my lonesome doing nothing, but having a good time, until the ship got back. Actually, I landed one day. They gave me one night. I remember the fellow I reported to the next day said, "How long have you been out in the Pacific?" I said, "Well it's been about eighteen to twenty some odd months now." He says, "I won't send you out to Mare Island today. I'll let you have a night in town." I said," Thank you very much." Again all I thought about was getting in a hotel and sleeping. The ship went there for extensive repairs that lasted six to eight weeks, I suppose.
This would have been roughly what time?
It was spring of 1945. While I was there, I received orders to the Naval Postgraduate School. I had previously applied for the postgraduate course in ordnance. Well, I was there. I got my orders back to the Naval Academy. In those days, the postgraduate school was in Annapolis as opposed to Monterey, where it is now. I got no farther than Mare Island, knowing I wouldn't have to go back out again. Then I went back to the Naval Academy, where I spent two years at the postgraduate school and then a year in graduate school at Purdue University. I got a master's in engineering from Purdue in 1948. The war ended in 1945, right? We're in the right year.
What do you want to know now?
Just continue on with your career if you would.
Well, I don't want to make a long thing out of this. Having gone through the ordnance course, I was then assigned to an organization called the Operational
Development Force. It was in Norfolk, Virginia. That force had been established during the war as I remember to test new weapon systems or new radar. It was a seagoing testing organization. I think I spent two and a half years in the gunnery department of that organization. At times, we would ride out on two or three of our ships. For instance, if we had a new three-inch gun mount, they would install it on one or another of our ships. That ship would operate under our command going through the actual firings at the targets. Theoretically we would give it as good a test as we could from an operational standpoint.
An amusing incident occurred while I was there. You may be interested. I thought it was interesting. We had a British ship come over, the HMS BROADSWORD. Theoretically they had the newest fire control system that the Brits had. Of course, the Brits had a lot of good stuff. We had received a lot of good stuff from them, but we were smart like Lenny was with the approach signal carriers, radar, and a few things like that. The British wanted to come over and go through our course because we had the drones and the facilities, which they didn't have. I was assigned as the liaison officer from COMOPDEV 4 to ride the ship during a test. Well, there were two reasons I was there. One was to help them go through the routine. The other was to take a look at their ship and see if they had anything really good. Well, I found it very interesting to go to sea in a British ship. It was a destroyer type. They pretty much operated like gentleman. Sometimes I was amazed to see that no matter what the hell--this will sound extreme-- was going on, if it was time for tea, we would stop and have tea. The Brits knew how to live aboard their ships as they had done it for years and years. For instance, I was
amazed when I saw a bathtub aboard a destroyer. Lo and behold, they had a bathtub! I guess it was kept pretty busy. I don't remember whether they had showers or not.
I got a big kick out of the British because I could stop the exercises whenever I wanted to. Naturally, they didn't want me to stop them, so they treated me very well. One of the ways they treated me very well--which is all right to a point--was they had their liquor aboard. The nominal cost was just fantastic. You wouldn't believe it. I think a drink of scotch was a nickel and a drink of gin was two pennies. Well, I rapidly found out that some guy would offer me a drink before dinner. Shortly thereafter, another guy would offer me a drink. What they were doing was to see if they could get old Vail properly snookered, you see. Then I would not call the ship off. Well, I was very careful about it.
What was interesting was to watch who's drinking this stuff. Somebody had to be on duty. I found out that those who were coming out for duty during the course of the evening never had a drink. It was those who were off for the rest of the night that drank. They controlled the alcohol very well. They had a tremendous executive officer on this ship. He came from an old British Navy family. I got to know him pretty well since I admired him so much. I was a lieutenant commander and I guess he was, too. I asked, "How do you control this whiskey business?" or maybe I was talking about something else that had to do with discipline. He said, "Oh, it's easy. All I do is cut off their whiskey supply. I don't have any trouble with them, because that's the last thing in the world they would want to have happen." I gathered he was right. I guess that was one of the most interesting things that happened to me while I was on staff.
From being on the staff there, I was then ordered to USS RICHARD E. KRAUS. It was DD-849 and I was assigned as commanding officer. The KRAUS was one of the ships that operated continuously under the command of COMOPDEV 4 as a test ship. Since I had been there, that was one of the reasons why I got the job. I spent about eighteen months aboard her working for the Operational Development Force. After eighteen months, I said, “I've had enough of this.” I wasn't in a Fleet destroyer and I wanted to get in a Fleet to fill in that square while I had the chance.
I went up to the fellow who later never made vice admiral to plead my case. He questioned me a little bit, saying that I already had command of a destroyer. I said, "No, this is not a Fleet destroyer, you know that. I want a fleet destroyer." I had a fairly good record, so he said, "Okay, I'll give you one."
In effect, he gave me a new 2,200-ton class ship that had been converted to what we call a radar picket ship. All it meant was that we had a couple of radars on board, which were put on for air defense purposes. It was better search radar, height finder, ship radar, and so on. We went through a long conversion--I don't know about a year--and I was ordered to the USS FISKE, DD-842. We were put out of commission during the long conversion processes. We recommissioned her in December of 1952. We went through the usual situation to Guantanamo Bay for the shakedown cruise. We had our homeport at Newport, Rhode Island. We operated with the Second Fleet and Sixth Fleet.
The Sixth Fleet was the Mediterranean outfit. I found that to be quite interesting. We did a pretty good job when we were with the Sixth Fleet. We received a letter of commendation. Nothing great happened, because I had been an ordnance PT as I mentioned. I was supposed to serve over in the Bureau of Ordnance for a term of duty
because I had been an ordnance PT and they are the ones who theoretically paid for my education. I went to the Bureau in Washington, DC, in the old Navy Department for my first shore duty, other than the school shore duty.
What was your impression of Guantanamo? When were you there? Did you spend enough time there?
Oh yes, we were there for six to eight weeks. I thought that was ideal for the purpose that the Navy uses it. I mean it really was. I hope we never give it up. I don't know how much they're using it now, but it's very easy to get in and out of the harbor. You don't waste a lot of time getting out of the harbor and steaming for umpteen miles before you could do anything. It was very handy and confined. There was nothing there, except us Americans as it were and a few Cubans, who worked on the base. Now there are not a few, but a lot. For its purpose, it was great. You could get really concentrated training with very little distraction down there, which they used to give you. I remember one incident while we were there. It really doesn't matter. We were there for a long period of time. During the period of training, they would give you two weekends off, which meant Friday after Friday when you are at sea off Guantanamo. Then you could go to such garden spots as Jamaica or anywhere else near by for the weekend. Well, I decided I was going to work them straight through, not go for the first time and a half. I would just work them as hard as I could until I thought the roof was going to blow off the ship as it were. Then we would take the first weekend. We would take another weekend later because I had to let them let off the steam later in the period. I think this worked out all right.
On the way to our first weekend, we were just making the short trip from Guantanamo to Montego Bay, Jamaica. We just killed time going over there because you didn't want to arrive before eight o'clock in the morning since you weren't supposed to. In the middle of the trip, the executive officer came and woke me up. He said, "Captain, we have a problem." I said, "Well, what is it?" He said," We have a man on board, who has appendicitis. The doctor is pretty sure he has appendicitis. He needs to be operated on." I said, "Well, how long has this guy been under observation?" The exec responds, "Oh, we've been watching him for six to eight hours." I said, "My God, you are just telling me now!" Well at this point we were halfway roughly. I said, "Well, there is no sense trying to go into Montego Bay. The best thing to do is to go back where we know we can get some good care." I turned around and went full speed back into Guantanamo. We got back in there about three in the morning. Of course, we talked to them ahead of time. They had a boat and an ambulance there. Sure enough, the guy was operated on in short order after we got back: that was our first weekend!
We completed our training and then went back to our home base. From there, we operated with various and sundry task forces. We had one long Mediterranean cruise while I was captain, which I found to be very interesting. I liked it a lot and the boys did a heck of a good job. I think I mentioned that the ship got a letter of commendation out of it from Commander of the Sixth Fleet. No sooner had we gotten back, that I was down in the Bureau of Ordnance. For the first year or so, I was an executive assistant or whatever I was called for the Bureau of Research and Development. We had all Round D projects. When my executive got ready to leave, I said, "Please get me out of here
because I don't know the next guy. I want to go into missile business." He arranged that I would spend the next year and a half in the missile business, which I did.
This would have been in the mid fifties, about 1954 or 1955? Wasn't it 1952 roughly you went on the FISKE?
I'm talking about the 1954 to 1957 period. I did routine duties in the Bureau of Ordnance, you might say. In the summer of 1957, I was ordered to the Naval War College. I don't know how fast you want to go through some of this. Some of it is not interesting, even to me now. I spent a year at the Naval War College and I found that I liked it. Theoretically, we took a course called Strategy. We had a lot of good lecturers come in. The State Department people were telling us about the national interest and what they were looking for. We had an excellent bunch of lecturers. We also had some, which were just terrible. I was amazed. How did you reach your position and you can't even get up and talk? I'm Catholic. We had Archbishop Spellman of New York come up. He ran a good show. He was a tremendous administrator and was in charge of all military chaplains during WWII, for instance. They came under him. He came up to talk to the President of the War College, who was not a Catholic and was determined to get the Archbishop up there. He came up to give his lecture. I don't think he had ever looked at the lecture before. Somebody else must have written it. I don't know. It was such a poor delivery. Then these lectures were subject to a question/answer period. They would ask him a question and he seemed to be at a loss for words. I said, "I don't understand how you can be such a great mogul in the church and obviously a great administrator, but you are not a talker." Maybe he didn't want to.
I'll tell you another instance, but don't quote me on this one. We had LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command. Some of us Navy guys were out to pin him down. You talk about a man who avoids the question. We'd ask him a question. He would say, "I don't want to answer that. Next question." He was blunt, opinionated and the whole nine yards, as they say.
There was a variety and it was interesting to see some of the guys. Of course, some of the guys were excellent to regular. It was an enjoyable year.
After that, I spent a year as a commander of an escort squadron--Desert Escort something 16, which were DE radar pickets. Our function was to man a picket line from Newfoundland all the way across the Azores in the days when they thought they might be subject to a bombing attack by Russia. The Navy had a barrier force out there; these were ships and airplanes. They converted constellations. The idea was we could intercept radarwise any airplanes that tried to get through this barrier and have a certain amount of warning. The poor destroyer escorts used to have to spend, I don't know how long, sitting on various and sundry stations out there in the middle of the ocean in the most godawful weather being bounced around like a tin can. I used to feel sorry for those guys. In the meantime, there were two of us squadron commanders. The other one happens to be here, a classmate of mine. We would spend half our time up in Argentia, Newfoundland. I used to have to think about it, but I thought the end of the world was almost at Argentia, Newfoundland. It reminded me of my first year in college. Mississippi University was in a place called Startville, Mississippi. It was the most aptly named town in the world. It was Startville. I tell you a couple of lies he'd forgotten to tell you yesterday or whatever it was.
We were taking steam engineering at the Naval Academy with a professor by the name of Black Jack Thornton, he was a lieutenant working with Naval machinery. You remember we had to sketch and describe these things on the blackboard. I think it was Bob Strieter, don't tell him this, but the lieutenant had this board time of what we did at the Naval Academy. Half the class would go to the board and write this stuff down on the board. The other half wrote it on a piece of paper, I guess. When it came time, the guys who went to the board had to recite what they had put on the board. I think it was Strieter. He had left out a lot of stuff. He'd get so far and say, "And I might add so and so." Then he would read a little more. I remember this. He did this about three or four times before he got through. Old “Black Jack” said, "And I might add that your mark for the day is 2.0." I will never forget that. That's the last "I might add" I bet Strieter ever made in his life. He was a bright guy. It was funny.
The radar pickets.
I had that job for a year. It was very boring and primarily because of the time I had to spend up in Argentia, Newfoundland. After that, I went down to the Pentagon. I was in the group called the weapons system evaluation group, as part of the offices of Secretary of Defense. It was a combined group of civilians and all the military. Our job was to produce studies for both the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of various and sundry missiles and systems. They were huge products, like the Minuteman program or Polaris program, that sort of thing. We would make our studies for the Joint Chiefs and the Defense Department and turn in our recommendations. That was interesting for a while.
Oh, I went back to the weapons system evaluation group. It was very instructional and very interesting. I learned a whole lot; but as I say, it got tiresome. After there, I was ordered to a command of a destroyer tender called the USS GRAND CANYON in Newport, Rhode Island.
This would have been early sixties?
Yes, I think so. I spent almost three years in the weapons system evaluation group. This was 1961. AD-28 was my vessel and we had a list of all our duties. I was going to bring it to you, but it's packed. Where am I now?
USS GRAND CANYON.
Oh yes. That was a routine job. The purpose of the GRAND CANYON was--stop me any time you don't want hear what I got to say--as a repair ship for destroyers. We had pretty good capability. The general rule was next stop was the shipyard. If we couldn't do it, then they had to go to the shipyard to get it done. The most interesting part of my tour with the GRAND CANYON was the fact that we were what we call one of the deploying tenders. Most of them stayed at home tied up to a dock. We deployed to the Mediterranean in order to take care of the destroyers in the Mediterranean. As a matter of fact, I relieved over in the Mediterranean, and then, later on, took her back for a full tour. Oh, the other facet that was interesting was that during my tour in the GRAND CANYON, we had the confrontation between Kennedy and Khrushchev on the missile thing. I went down to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to be able to take care of the destroyers, who had come in off the line. Fortunately, that thing was resolved. We went back to Newport and that's about it.
Next, I went to Chief of Naval Operations. His office was the headquarters. The technical name is the Headquarters of the Navy. Here again, I was in the R&D section, in which I took care of surface armaments, guns and surface-to-air missiles. I could tell you a lot of stories about that, but none of which I would want you to quote. I guess I might as well quit on that. I spent about two years there. Then I got command of a missile ship squadron. We were based in Charleston, South Carolina. They were all brand new missile ships. Again, I wasn't with my ships all the time. Half the time half of them were deployed because we didn't have that many missile ships in those days. The ones they had, they split up in various deployments in the Mediterranean. Half of my people were gone when I was back and when I was deployed over there--I was deployed over there on one cruise--and half of them would be with me. We did the regular Sixth Fleet business again. We were operating with the carriers. I spent a fair amount of time in the Mediterranean, which I enjoyed. I like the Mediterranean; I will probably take a cruise back there.
Did you work with the Turkish Navy?
Yes, every now and then we would have combined exercises. As a matter of interest, just before I returned home, we ended up in Istanbul, having some kind of combined NATO operation in which the Turks were involved. Were Turks part of the NATO? I forgot. They must have been. Well anyway, they were involved in this thing in a minor sort of way. Our last port of call was Istanbul, Turkey, before we started back to the States.
What was your impression of the Turks that you worked with?
I tell you an interesting story that happened. You know they were on the fence between Russia and us at that time. The Sixth Fleet commanders at that time put out an order in effect that the whole group up there would entertain high mucky mucks for lunch one day. We were told to spend our money on “diplomacy” in effect. We were ordered that we had certain civilians and others had certain military. The day we had the luncheon, we got word that none of the Turkish officers showed up. They didn't want to be involved that closely with the Americans because of situations they had going between America and Russia at the time. Not a single one of them showed up.
None of the Turkish officers?
None of the Turkish officers showed up for the luncheon. That's how close they were playing it. I don't know what they were doing frankly. But they failed to show. We got word of it ahead of time and sure enough they didn't show up.
Well, when we got back from that, I operated out of Charleston for a while. I had my last tour of duty with the Naval Ordnance System Command, which is the successor to the old Bureau of Ordnance where I had started out. In that business, I was in R&D missile business with surface warfare. I guess I got ahead of myself. No, that was C&O. That business was when I was in the Bureau of Ordnance. I was in the surface warfare again in the fact that I was in charge of the proper installation of these various and sundry systems aboard ship. Some battles we won and some we didn't. But you had to fight with your own contemporaries. I retired in 1971 after a little more than thirty years since we graduated in February 1941.
[End of Interview]
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