Aboard the destroyer Spence in the western Pacific
December 18, 1944
It was shortly after 11 A.M. when Water Tender 3rd Class Charles Wohlleb of West New York, New Jersey, left the after fire room and headed topside. He did so with two shipmates also not on watch that morning: Water Tender 3rd Class Cecil Miller and Boilermaker 1st Class Franklin Horkey. The three sailors had gone down to the fire room where there was always a pot of coffee brewing, but found the crowded space too uncomfortable with the ship pitching and rolling in mountainous seas – the worst storm any of them had ever been through. Before they left, Horkey put on a sound-powered phone headset and told the men who remained at their duty stations that he would let them know what was happening topside. They climbed a ladder and went through a hatch to reach the main deck.
Wohlleb, a shy, soft-spoken twenty-year-old who after high school had worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps before receiving his draft notice and enlisting in the Navy in January, 1943, would never forget the names and faces of the four men he last saw attending to their assigned duties that morning in the fire room.
Standing atop the narrow steel platform in front of the control panel of the Babcock & Wilcox oil-fired boiler, Water Tender 2nd Class Frank Thompson operated the oil burners that fed the fire inside the firebox. Fireman 1st Class Norman Small, “a Nebraska farm kid who was not small,” kept a close eye on the fuel-oil heater and pressure gauges. Fireman 1st Class Claude “Roy” Turner monitored the water levels and adjusted a value whenever necessary to keep the right amount of water circulating through copper tubes above the boiler to ensure the generation of sufficient steam to drive the two General Electric geared turbines that powered the ship. Water Tender 1st Class Layton Slaughter, who was in charge, wore sound-powered phones in order to be in communications with Horkey. Slaughter controlled the amount of air that went into the boiler and the color of smoke that came out the stack. In a war zone, releasing black smoke (not enough air in the boiler) was an unsafe proposition, as it could pinpoint the vessel’s location to enemy warships and aircraft from miles away. As usual, the “black gang” – so called from the days of coal-burning ships when soot habitually stained the faces, hands and clothing of men who worked in the fire room – was not wearing life preservers, as they wanted to be able to move around freely while they worked.
When Wohlleb and the other two sailors reached topside, they emerged under an alcove that blocked most of the howling wind and rushing seawater swamping the deck. Their protected location was fortuitous, as no one could have stayed in the open for long without being swept overboard – exactly why earlier that morning all hands not on duty had been ordered to remain in the berthing compartments two or more levels below the main deck. During heavy weather, men not on watch typically climbed into their racks – whether they could sleep or not – and braced themselves to keep from being thrown around.
There was no visible horizon; the driving rain and blowing spray obscured where the sea ended and the sky began. From this swirling, grayish spume emerged off the bow – every twenty or thirty seconds – a colossal wall of seawater taller than the ship’s fifty-foot mast. The destroyer was riding unusually high in the water due to being dangerously low on fuel, bobbing in the turbulent seas like a child’s bath toy. Each timeSpence ascended up another wall of water, she was inundated at the crest, where she teetered briefly before pitching forward. On the thunderous ride downhill, the ship rocked, rolled and yawed precariously. Once at the bottom of the trough, the ship heeled steeply in the driving winds until the next onslaught.
Wohlleb and his companions watched in horror as a Mark XI depth charge packed with 200 lbs. of torpex explosives – 50% more powerful than TNT by weight – broke loose from its rack nearby, skipped across the deck and slammed into bulkheads before washing overboard. An acetylene tank broke loose and did the same dance across the deck before taking flight in the wind.
Over the headsets, Horkey was receiving news from below. “Jesus!” he yelled, his voice sounding muted and far away. “After fire room – swamped!”
Wohlleb knew what that meant: seawater had gone down the stacks and probably also the fresh-air ventilators that went from the main deck to the fire room. Pumping would have to commence immediately to stop the rising water from shorting out the electric panels in the fire room and adjacent engine room, which could mean the loss of lights, power, steering – leaving Spence, a 2100-ton Fletcher-class destroyer with a crew of 339 men, dead in the water.
Not more than a minute later, Horkey yelled: “Control boards – on fire!”
Right up until that moment, Wohlleb had given no thought to the ship sinking. He and the veteran crew had gone through too much together to worry about a storm. Over a fifteen-month period they had been in some of the toughest naval action yet seen in the Pacific for which Spence had earned eight battle stars. They had come through their encounters with the Japanese Imperial Navy unscathed. Indeed, throughout the U.S. 3rd Fleet, Spence had a reputation for being not only a stalwart fighting ship, but also a very lucky one.
“Lights out below! Losing power!”
Spence’s run of good fortune was about to end.