A few U.S. Navy “tin can” sailors gathered at Punta Gorda’s Veterans Memorial Garden the other day to commemorate shipmates and a unique class of ships that helped win the World War II battle of North Atlantic.
Having served briefly, and proudly, in the Destroyer Escort fleet, I attended the ceremony to share memories – convoys, German submarine encounters and shakedown cruise mishaps.
World War II began in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. None of the allies were prepared. France surrendered. Russia and Britain retreated. The United States geared up for war production to aid the beleaguered nations.
Most immediate need was protection of ships carrying munitions to Britain, an island country accessible only by sea. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt “loaned” it 50 overage destroyers to protect war shipping.
He also began a crash program to build “escort destroyers.” This new type of fighting ship — designated DE for Destroyer Escort – was smaller, thinner skinned, driven by slower diesel-electric engines and carried less top-side armament.
Nevertheless, DEs were fitted with the latest anti-submarine equipment and could be produced in eleven months for one-third the cost of a regular destroyer.
The ships varied slightly in dimensions but generally were 308 feet long, 36 feet wide and 12 feet in draught. Average complement was 15 general officers, 20 petty officers and 180 seamen.
In all, 563 DEs were built. Seventy-eight were transferred to Britain. Three were given to China, six to the Free French navy and 12 sold or leased to Brazil. The latter maintained a critical staging area at Recife for convoys to Dakar and the allied North Africa campaign.
As new DEs were completed, crews for them were transferred from other duties, or from boot camps, to six weeks at the Norfolk Destroyer School to get acquainted with the specifics of a particular ship.
Thus, it was a green crew that took possession of the U.S.S. McCann DE-179 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in October 1943.
As a petty officer, yeoman first class, I was one of three assigned to prepare and safeguard the mountain of records necessary to a modern fighting ship. My battle station was the bridge. My duty was “captain’s talker” to relay orders via an inter-com system to stations beyond the bridge.
DE 179 was commissioned – “given life” by Navy custom – on Nov. 10, 1943. We immediately set to sea for a shakedown cruise.
Those of us who had never seen the ocean were astonished at the beautiful, dark blue color of the deep sea. We arrived at the Bermuda fleet maneuvers and firing range for battle practice. “Piece of cake,” we told each other.
Our drills were cut short to carry out our first assignment – escort a crippled Liberty Ship freighter to Norfolk. We came abreast of our charge by early evening in a gathering storm.
By moonless midnight we were fighting for our lives in the worst North Atlantic storm of record. It was reported that 13 ships sank. We lost sight of the Liberty Ship and never learned its fate.
Our conning bridge was open to the elements – a cost-saving arrangement but damned uncomfortable for sailors required to stand duty there. The bridge parapet was 65 feet above the water line, and we were taking waves into the bridge.
Every Navy ship during fitting out is tested for its capsizing point measured by a plumb bob hanging over a protractor. The McAnn’s capsize was 47 degrees.
We exceeded capsize several times – once “losing feet” which is an eerie, floating feeling signaling roll over. We were saved by sliding down the back of the wave.
In the midst of the storm fury, our entire electrical system was disabled – lights, intercom, radio, radar, SONAR, depth finder, gyro compass – everything. The only navigating aid available was our magnetic compass and hand-held sexton.
At daylight, we determine by sexton that we were far south and east of our intended route. The captain ordered due west 270 degrees to find shore line. All hands maintained battle stations, four hours on, four hours off.
As we proceed at half speed, the forward lookout reported, “Object dead ahead.”
“Aye, aye,” acknowledged the officer-of-the deck as he turned his binoculars forward.
For a half-hour we watched the object – a huge 40-foot sea-buoy – as we drew near. The helmsman became alarmed and kept asking for a repeat of the heading. Each time the answer was “Steady as she goes.”
As were about to crash head on, the deck officer ducked behind the parapet, buried his head in his arms and cried, “Oh, my God!”
At that moment, the captain came on the bridge, saw the problem and yelled, “Hard right!” I was only a half-syllable behind the captain in repeating the order, and the helmsman was only a half syllable behind me in obeying.
The ship veered just enough to side-slip a direct crash. However, it took a glancing blow from the buoy which left a dent and long, red streak on our hull.
The hapless officer – formerly a pay officer at a shore base — said he had been afraid to change the captain’s order for a 270-degree course. The captain chewed him out with a wide range of explicit language and confined him to his quarters.
Next morning we ran into dense fog. The captain ordered idle speed, bells and a sharp lookout. Pretty soon the aft lookout reported our screws were “kicking mud.”
“All engines stop,” the captain ordered. “Throw a lead line.”
There was barely a foot of water under the keel. While pondering the situation, we heard rhythmic, rowing noise. Out of the fog came a fisherman in a skiff, his back to us.
“Ahoy,” shouted our captain. The fisherman turned his head and did a double-take at seeing our huge vessel. “We are disabled. Which way to Norfolk?”
After getting directions, the captain backed the McAnn slowly into deeper water and waited for the fog to clear. With clear visibility, magnetic compass, and sexton our navigator set course for the Norfolk area to try and reconnect with the Liberty Ship.
We sailed all day and well into the night. About 3 a.m., a lookout reported a lighthouse beam. The navigator was called to the bridge to match the beam pulse to chart descriptions.
In the dark, and too far out to sea, we overshot Norfolk and reached Cape May, New Jersey.
“To Hell with it,” said the captain. “Let’s go on to Brooklyn for repairs.
The Chief Boatswain Mate set up a $1 pool for the exact time our Union Jack at the bow passed under the leading edge of the Brooklyn Bridge. One of the cooks won $154.
We arrived at night and signaled by light flashes for a pilot. He took us to a T dock where we secured after four hectic days. The captain put on his dress-white uniform and disembarked to report to the yard’s commanding officer. Distracted, and in the dark, our immaculate captain walked off a short leg of the dock.
“Help, damn it!” he shouted.
The gangway watch fished him out, speckled with green algae; but he didn’t seem grateful.
Our equipment was repaired, and the restricted officer was transferred back to shore duty. We were sent back to Norfolk to join a high-priority convoy of Marines and munitions on its way to the Pacific.
North Atlantic DEs took the ships to the Panama Canal. South Pacific DEs on the other side escorted ships to their destinations.
As we approached Palm Beach, Florida, all ships went to general quarters. The stretch of waterway beyond that, and past the Keys, was “U-Boat Alley.” German submarines waited there – silent and motionless – to torpedo passing ships.
Not far south of Miami, our SONAR operators detected a sub. We chased it while the convoy moved on. We made two runs over the target, bracketing it with depth charges by roller racks, side throwers and forward-throwing “hedgehogs.”
On the second run, the sub’s engines fell silent. We stopped also. The convoy commander ordered us to hover for 24 hours to make sure the sub was not playing cat and mouse.
As the convoy moved over the horizon – about 15 miles away – one of the rear echelon ships exploded in a tremendous fire ball. This indicated a munitions ship rather than troops. Nevertheless, the crew deaths must have been horrendous.
Our quarry did not move in 24 hours so we scattered a few more depth charges for good measure and returned to Norfolk for further orders. We were credited with a “probable” kill.
The McAnn made two runs to Recife without incident then was sold to Brazil. Crew members were transferred to other ships. I was assigned to the frigate U.S.S. Eagle 27 at the Key West Submarine Base. We helped train SONAR operators by playing electronic hide-and-seek with Free French submarines.
My sea duty was tame, but many DEs were in the thickest of fighting.
July 2, 2000
Click here to see this article on Lindsey Williams’ website.