This is the story of a little ship that made like a fleet-and got away with it. The destroyer escort England (DE-635) was one of the smallest fighting ships in World War ll; yet within a period of 12 days she destroyed more enemy warships than any other vessel in the war, and threw a monkey wrench into Tokyo's strategic planning. No ship ever better deserved the Presidential Unit Citation she got, for it was a team job, not the work of any individual.
The England was commissioned on December 10, 1943, a quite undistinguished member of her class with three 3-inch guns and an old 1.1 mount removed from a cruiser. The ceremonies over, her skipper, Commander Walton B.
Pendleton, turned her over to his exec.
"Well, take her out." Pendleton left Williamson to contemplate the prospect of taking a brand new DE out through the maze of shipping that was San Francisco harbor in wartime. Not only was the ship untried as to mechanical performance; only 20 percent of the crew had ever stood on a deck before. Of the officers, only Pendleton and one newly hatched ensign were regulars.
Actually, Williamson was grateful for this assignment-on subchasers in the Caribbean he had gained the name of "Eager John." But for a skipper to turn over his first command to a man of whom he knew nothing but what was in tile records, was an unusual display of confidence. When Williamson told tile rest of the wardroom about it, they revised their unfavorable estimate of Pendleton. which his rather brusque insistence on the privileges of command had created.
The England ran her shakedowns at San Diego, and everyone got to know Pendleton better. It was standard procedure for each watch officer in turn to con the ship during simulated hedgehog and depth-charge attack, while an official observer made notes on his performance. The captain was not supposed to add comments of his own. But every man aboard expected the skipper to explode when Bob Webb, the first lieutenant. chose the wrong buoy at which make a moor. Especially since the flag promptly called attention to the error in a signal that was read all over the harbor and produced plenty of ribbing from the other ships. Pendleton said nothing.
Webb more than made up for his error, in his job of ship's housekeeper. From the beginning Pendleton insisted that the decks he washed down with fresh water. This is no easy trick on a DE, which makes barely enough fresh water for living purposes and where showers are usually taken under salt. Webb worked out an ingenious system of using two buckets, one with soap. which was used to soap the deck down. Swabs would then be used from the second bucket and wrung out in the first.
"How do you keep such a clean ship?" visitors would ask when they came aboard, and the gang began to feel pretty good about it. There was also the matter of the 1.1. Like all the examples of that unfortunate type of armament, it was disposed to fire only about half the time and from about half its barrels. Pendleton selected a couple of gunnery strikers, promoted them to gunner's mates and told them they would keep the rate as long as the gun fired; he didn't want any explanations. England soon had the best 1.1 record in the shakedown group.
It was pretty much the same all down the line. Pendleton put out few orders and never tried to tell a man to do things differently. As a result. both officers and men found they had a good deal more freedom of action than the men of other ships. By the time the ship reached Pearl, she was already known as "the cocky England."
Ashore, the men acted as though other ships and other crews were objects of sympathy. Expressing these sentiments in the beer joints sometimes produced rows that brought the shore patrol. At the necessary captain's mast the following morning, Pendleton would solemnly warn against brawling ashore. But when investigation showed that the cause of the row had been the relative merits of England and another tin can, the culprit found that the captain's yeoman had mysteriously forgotten to enter the arrest in his service record.
ln this way England was put together as a fighting unit. She went down to Purvis Bay in the Solomons to become part of Cortdiv 39, with two other DEs, Raby and George.
ln May 1944, the division was assigned as anti-submarine patrol for the new escort carrier Haggatt Bay. This carrier, which was to join them at Purvis Bay, had not vet arrived when a message was picked out of the air by "Magic," saying one of the big l-class Japanese subs was leaving Truk. southward bound. It was not hard to figure out that she would be carrying supplies to the Jap garrison isolated at Buin, on the southeast tip of Bougainville island. Admiral Halsey looked at his big board, saw he had three anti-submarine ships at Purvis, unemployed for lack of their carrier, and ordered them out to get the supply sub.
It is necessary to understand what was going on at Japanese high command at this time. In February the American conquest of the Marshalls had been completed by the capture of Eniwetok, and in April the MacArthur force had made good its hold on Hollandia, half way along the northern coast of New Guinea. The rhythm of the advance was such that a new attack was obviously imminent. But where? In the South Pacific, toward the Palaus and Philippines, or in the Central Pacific toward the main defense line of the Marianas?
To Admiral Toyoda, commanding the Japanese main fleet, it was vital that he have at least a few days advance notice, since it was his plan to make the American fleet fight a battle while it was still burdened by troop transports. He was anchored at Tawi Tawi, far in the southern Philippines, to be near his source of oil supply, and would need time to get to the scene of action. Scouting by air had become difficult and unreliable since the American carriers had grown so numerous and so aggressive; he decided to use submarines. Across the great ocean gap between Truk and New Ireland he stationed a line of six medium subs Ro-104, Ro-lO5, Ro-106, Ro-108, Ro-116 and Ro-117. It would probably be a suicide mission for the sub that found and reported the advance of the invasion fleet, but no Son of Heaven minded that. I-16, the supply sub, took a route that carried her just outside this scouting line.
England, Raby and George steamed out into the bright Pacific weather 4000 yards apart, sonar gear going. Flag plot had calculated the course of the submarine and the three were running it, England in the center. Figuring the speed these submarines normally made add the 18-knot cruising speed of the DEs, they should make contact about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning of May 20. There was a good chance that, at that time, their quarry would be on the surface and they could pick her up on radar.
A little after noon of May 19, while they were north of the passage between Bongainville and Choiseul, a sun sight revealed that the current had unexpectedly carried the England out of position. The bridge was discussing this when Soundman 2nd Prok reported: "I have an underwater object"
Williamson had the con and Ensign, Gus Daily the anti-submarine warfare station. Pendleton took just time enough to order the attack, open up TBS and say: "l have a skunk," then left the other officers and ran down to C1C. Ensign Daily ordered the rate of ping' increased as the ship reached 1,000 yards from the "underwater object." The sounds rang clear and true as they were fed into the recorder, surrounded by minor echoes that showed the sub was fish-tailing in an effort to deceive the hinter. Prok held her on.
"We'll make this a dry run," said Daily.
England swept over the submarine below, to which the sound of her screws must have been as audible as Prok's persistent pinging, came round in a graceful curve and back.
"Fire hedgehog," ordered Daily. The 'rocket launcher fired and the 24 projectiles soared over the bow. From below came a sound like that of a garbage can thrown on a sidewalk--a hit, a definite hit. Down on the forecastle the deck crew worked like mad to reload while a cluster at bubbles came up astern. But as England made her turn Prok picked up contact again. The hit had not been fatal.
George and Raby were in notion now. circling the area, using their sound gear and feeding the data to England. Williamson jockeyed the ship round and she made two more runs. No welcome sound of explosions followed the arching Mark 10s.
"We're hit!" someone shouted.
Williamson looked around. "No, we're not." he said. "That was
the sub exploding!"
But there remained a question. Was this the sub they were looking for? She was more than 14 hours early, not a usual habit with the Japanese, and eight miles off the proper course. The Japs sometimes ran these supply lines in chains. On the chance that this was the case here, Commander Hains decided on a farther run up toward Truk to look for the second sub.
The three little ships were moving along this line at 3:00 in the morning on May 22. when George reported a radar contact 14.000 yards ahead. Alarm bells rang general quarters as all three headed the the spot. England also picked up the contact. George switched on her searchlight; from England's bridge they could see the dark shape picked up by the beam. At almost the same moment it disappeared and the radar pip vanished from the screen. George ran in and fired a hedgehog salvo, with no result. Over TBS came her melancholy announcement: "We've have lost contact."
She had hardly reported when Soundman 3rd Bernhardt of England's night gang called: "Contact!"
"Take the con!"
Pendleton told Williamson, like a superstitious baseball manager who repeats the routines
he used to win yesterday's game.
England came round, slowing under Williamson's guidance. This time Daily gave her a little more lead. Eighteen seconds after the Mark 10s arched over the bow there came the sound of three sharp explosions. The sea boiled with a jar that shook the teeth of men aboard all three DEs. And that was the end of Ro-106.
Down in the crew compartments even the usual game of hearts was forgotten as the men debated whether any other ship had ever sunk two submarines in two days. Meanwhile, back at Admiral Halsey's headquarters, there were interesting developments. The day before a scouting plane from Manus had sighted a Jap sub on the surface and dived in to bomb. The sub went deep-and the pilot thought he had missed completely. But when the position reported was dotted on the big board with that where England had made her second kill, the plottings resembled nothing so much as the end of a scouting line, spaced so that no major fleet could get through without being seen. Halsey himself was fond of using submarines for this purpose; he concluded that the Japs were doing the same thing. He ordered Cortdiv 39-England, Raby and George--to go see.
Next morning at 0604, just after watches changed, Raby got a radar contact. She ran in and developed a sound contact. Raby fired her hedgehog; missed, swung round and fired again. It was not her day. After eight unsuccessful attacks, Raby began to run low on ammunition. The sub was still there, held by the sonar of all three ships, but he was tricky. Commander Hains called Raby out to the circle and sent George in for a crack. She had no better luck. Finally Hains gave England her chance.
"What do you suggest doing about it?" asked Pendleton.
"Make a run on search setting. It won't be easy to hit him, but he'll think we've
England bored in for the attack and fired her hedgehog. Twenty seconds later there was a deep, rattling jar, and the sea heaved astern. Just to make certain, England dropped a pattern of depth charges into the mess. Pieces of broken wood came up to certify that England's crew had something to be really cocky over, and after the war it was certified that this was the end of Ro-104: her torpedoes had exploded.
Hains held his course and cruising speed, now running with the three ships eight miles apart, as the stations of the scouting submarines might vary by this much. It was just before 2 o'clock on the next morning, May 24, when George reported a radar contact at 8,000 yards. Once more general quarters sounded through the three ships. The pip vanished, but England caught the enemy on sound dead ahead, and ran in to attack.
This sub was another tricky one. The fathometer picked him up at 168 feet, but he dodged just at the last minute as though sensing the intentions of the hunter above. Daily withheld the order to fire on two runs, but on the third he let go a full salvo of depth charges and got three possible hits at 170 feet. On the return run sound could not pick him up again.
Had he got away? The sounds from under water were so different from the other strikes that Commander Hains thought he had. The three ships circled the area until dawn, when the light showed a series of little pools of oil with broken wood floating among them. This was pretty good evidence that England had performed the incredible feat of sinking her fourth submarine. Boats were put out, and the men found pieces of deck planking, a chronometer case and part of a wooden bedstead.
That night they baked a cake aboard England and held as much of a celebration as was possible in a war zone, not knowing that they had done in Ro-l16, but certain that they had hurt somebody.
That night also brought an important decision. Calculations indicated that there ought to be at least three more submarines in the scouting line. But they were probably beyond the invisible boundary line between the areas commanded by Halsey and MacArthur, Third Fleet and Seventh Fleet. General orders were definite: Third Fleet ships were, under no conditions, to cross that line unless in "hot pursuit" of the enemy.
How hot was the pursuit of these subs? Commander Hains was willing to declare it very hot and take a chance on getting into trouble, quoting Nelson's remark that: "No captain can go far wrong who lays his ship alongside the enemy." But Pendleton came up with a more subtle suggestion. He pointed out that both Raby and England were low on hedgehog charges and all three ships on fuel. It was now a long way back to Purvis Bay. Why not request permission to proceed to Seeadler Harbor in the MacArthur area for a resupply of fuel and ammunition? The route would take Cortdiv 39 exactly along the line where the remaining Jap submarines ought to be lying.
The request was put on the air. The people at MacArthur's headquarters probably saw through the scheme, but they had been getting the word about England's unlikely achievement and were willing to give her a chance to round it off. Permission was granted. The DE Spangler set out from Purvis Bay to Seeadler with the supplies, and the little squadron continued its cruise, eight miles apart again.
It was nearly midnight, May 26, when Raby and England simultaneously picked up radar contact on what could only be a surfaced sub, seven miles distant.
Both put on speed. At 4,000 yards the radar contact disappeared, but
almost immediately Soundman Prok had his contact.
From below came a deep, heavy rumbling, like a train crossing a bad switch. "We got her!" men shouted along the dark decks. Williamson called the black gang on the intercom to tell them the good news.
The three DEs stayed in the area until dawn, getting their confirmation--a huge oil slick. In the middle of it floated a meat-chopping block and various other oddments that could only have come from inside a submarine. Ro-108 was gone.
They reached Seeadler Harbor without further incident on Sunday afternoon, fueled, took aboard the hedgehog charges Spangler had brought from Purvis Bay and spent one comfortable night, wishing regulations did not forbid them to tell what they had done. In the morning Commander Hains shifted his flag to George for luck, and the three set out for their home base, accompanied by Spangler.
Their route carried them back across the scouting line they had almost obliterated. At 2 o'clock in the morning of May 30 they heard from two Seventh Fleet destroyers, Hazelwood and Heerman, which had made contact on a submarine and attacked it with depth charges, but without positive result. The destroyers requested two of the DEs to take over the contact. The George and Raby were ordered over to help out.
The story of the hunt for that submarine shows how hard it was to do the things England had been making look easy. The four ships cruised the area till dawn, holding the submarine down, then George went in for a hedgehog attack. The sound of an explosion indicated a hit, but the contact continued. Rabv tried next and made four runs without a hit or a sign of a hit. The destroyers in turn made depth-charge runs; after each one, when sound could be used again, there would be a contact. All day contacts were made and lost and the sea was hammered with explosives. No oil, no debris; the sub was still there.
Just at twilight there were three heavy explosions from below and it looked as though they might have her at last. But when the details were fed into plot, they didn't check. All three explosions came from different directions, and two of them from impossible distances. The sub's skipper had set off some of his own torpedoes in the hope that the hunters would think they had got him.
The two DEs and two destroyers formed a 5,000-yard circle for another night of waiting. England and Spangler, which had heard the others talking on TBS, ran down to join them. Daylight brought better sound conditions, and now contacts were so frequent that there was no doubt of the submarine's continued presence. George went in for the first hedgehog run. A miss. Raby tried and also missed. Giving everyone a chance, Commander Hains sent Spangler in, but she missed too. It was now full daylight, and a message from Admiral Halsey advised that the little ships would probably be attacked by planes unless they cleared the area quickly.
"Oh, hell," came Commander Hains's voice in a resigned tone over the TBS.
"Go ahead, England."
The DE swung round, slid in for the contact, and her hedgehogs soared. BERROM! There was a ship-shaking blast. A minute or two later various forms of garbage--all that was left of Ro-105- began to boil to the surface.
England had sunk six submarines! Nothing like this had happened before in this war, or in any other war, for that matter. The cocky crew of the little DE were well aware they'd done' something outstanding, but even they did not know how important it really was.
For Ro-117, the only sub in the scout-ling line that England failed to get, never
His bomb hit her, causing so much damage that she had to go in for repairs. On
So Admiral Toyoda's scouting line was
wiped out in less than 12 days, and not
Toyoda ordered his own fleet to get
up steam for the run to the Palaus. All
As for England's cocky crew, they went down to Sydney and had a hell of a fine liberty.--Fletcher Pratt
This story appeared in the September 1956 edition of True magazine. True "the Man's Magazine" was published by Fawcett Publication, Inc., Fawcett Bldg. Fawcette Place, Greenwich, Conn.
The magazine was provided for scanning and optical text recognition by Richard J. Ward, the son for crew member Calvin Ward.