by CPL. WALTER CABOT PAINE
OKINAWA, October 12, 1945
DEAR MOTHER AND DAD: I know you must be worrying. We are all, by a miracle of luck, alive! This has been, and probably will remain, the most tremendous experience of our lives, so I will try to tell you a little of what took place. Today is Friday. We are back at our anchorage, having come in this morning.
Last Sunday morning we got the first warning. The skipper was ashore, but ordered “Steam up” by radio; he returned by helicopter. We lashed everything down and put to sea, heading north up the Okinawa coast on the China side. She rode well Sunday, and Monday we rounded the north end of the island, heading back on the Pacific side. We were halfway down the island and 85 miles to the east when it happened. The typhoon which started at Guam and described a large semicircle toward the East China Sea recurved unexpectedly. We already knew from reports how bad it was, but, heading south as we were, expected it to pass without doing much harm, going northwest on the other side of the island.
We got no warning till too late. It recurved. The Navy told us to take a southeast course, but the typhoon curved till the center was sure to pass between us and the island. It was a sharp curve; usually they buffet out on the China coast.
All Tuesday morning the wind and the sea rose gradually; the barometer jumped erratically. By noon the sea reached 15 feet, and the wind was around 50 miles per hour. All meals ceased and sandwiches started. She began to pitch heavily (we were heading right into it). Premature darkness fell at 4.00; the sea was streaked with off-white froth, and some waves were starting to break on themselves. All watertight doors were closed, all portholes clogged; all men were ordered below or, if on deck, to wear preservers. Some of us who knew what was coming were afraid; others laughed, saying it would be just like the last four. (We thought we were used to them. Later those same men were on their knees!)
At 8.00 P.M., the wind started its rise from a howl to a tearing screech. She started to shudder, rolling heavily, but, because we are fairly light, riding, not plowing, the seas. I never sleep below, but have a sack on a steel shelf under the flight deck protected by another shelf over my head and raised above the main deck. It used to be used for carburetor repair; now I inhabit it.
She started to roll frightfully at 9.00, almost dipping up water in her rails 40 feet above the sea. Some large oil drums near me broke loose and started to careen crazily about the decks, spilling their contents and making kindling of 4” x 4” timber benches that we use for repair stands. Several of us succeeded by flashlight in trapping and lashing all but two. Those two did untold damage all night. Originally they were secured with l½-inch manila rope; believe it or not, such was the snap of her roll, they broke loose!
After securing the drums, I glanced at the rails. We had to crawl about — she would have thrown us and broken every bone if we lost our balance. Oil, 100-octane gas, and acetone covered her forward. All smoking was forbidden. Seas, huge beyond anything I had ever dreamed, hung over us, broke, buried us in froth, and streamed down the deck. After each, she slowly shook herself all over, the tremble starting at the bow and running along the keel till the screw came clear out of the water as she plunged to meet the next one. I couldn’t stay on my sack, but got up, crawled and clawed my way to the waist, avoiding the drums and 500-pound rolls of cable that charged around on deck.
Every roll she made brought more cans of paint and other inflammables down from their storage under the flight deck; they have to be put there, as you cannot have inflammables below on a ship. The roll was 35 degrees each side. We could not understand why we didn’t go right on over. We heard one good reason later — the skipper let sea water, 1000 tons of it, into two of the oil tanks, cutting down our fuel but probably saving our lives and the ship.
Terror had most of the men by the throat. I was scared, but knew she would be O.K. if only he could keep her into it. Somehow I reached the bridge ladder — this was around 12.00; the center was supposed to be upon us at 1.00 or so. With a hell of an effort I made it up to the flying bridge and was stunned by what I saw. Thank God the men below could not see it. Our bridge is about 60 feet off the water. As I looked out, the air was filled with driven foam and those wave tops were breaking, curling, and reaching for us level with my knees!
Every plate in her groaned, and the twisting, shuddering, suffering of the hull could be heard over the gale and the bullish rushes of shifting cargo. We did a drunken polka between mountains of water. Never have I tried to hold to such an elusive deck. On every step and crawl it went out from under, left me fallen forward on my chin, with my nails digging into the tar covering.
MY FRIEND Reno was on the wing in great peril of his life answering the SOS of a wretched LST ahead which lost a screw and its front doors. While he worked the blinker, stabbing, in between the mountains, then waiting till they passed, another man knelt behind him, arms around his legs, holding him on. It’s easy to tell this now — calm, sitting in the harbor — but at the time, I cried and choked inside to see the courage of these men. I wanted to see them all, their faces, and hear their thoughts. Losing my footing on the ladder (I had oilskins and boots on) I swung out, but only for a moment.
As I entered the bridge wheelhouse, the binnacle light reflected off several tense faces.
The Captain stood next the helmsman, saying, “What’s she heading now?” He would reply, “One hundred and twenty-five degrees, sir.”
The Captain would say, “More right rudder.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“What’s she heading now?”
“One hundred and twenty-two, sir.”
“My God! My God!” Almost in a whisper, he would say it over and over, till finally the rudder would be in the water long enough to take hold and she would painfully put her nose into the wind again.
At times three men would grab the wheel. No matter how far right they spun it, she would still keep falling off till in your heart you knew she was going sideways, done for. You closed your eyes — silence from all — till you felt her suddenly lurch, shake herself, and wearily face it for the hundredth time! She is brave, this ship, but no more so than these men, who with SOS’s all around, kept her from throwing in the sponge.
The wind instrument was playing “Oh, Promise Me” at 120 knots! I heard the Captain say as the canvas flying-bridge cover left us, “In all my thirtyseven years of sail and steam, I’ve never seen a worse one. I tell you, if she throws the screw, we’re done.”
You see, we couldn’t speed her up, because the screw spent most of the night out of the water racing the air, and would have vibrated off if we were to try to make more headway. I stayed on the bridge and in the radio room for the height. What I heard over the radio was an agony I couldn’t bear — good men and ships calling for “immediate assistance — I’m sinking.”
As I left the bridge, the worst had passed, though I still could not see the main deck for spray and flying parts. Passing the Chaplain’s office on the main deck, I saw a wonderful sight. There on their knees, hands clasped, were two men. The Chaplain held the men upright and read from a little book. One was a Catholic about thirty years old. He told me next day he thought the last was at hand and had made a confession. Poor Chaplain — comes from the Midwest and was probably as terrified as anyone in the ship, but he held services.
About 3.00 the wind let up — to around 90! Sea was still what the Navy called “phenomenal” — over 45 feet. I hit the sack, and even amid the crash of gas drums, paint cans, crocks raining acid, shattering wood, was able to sleep. My berth on the shelf was far enough above the deck to avoid all but the highest waves that might wash over her. A few did — one carried my shoes away, but I retrieved them after 15 minutes of feeling around.
Dawn came. I got up and went below. The shops defied description — huge lathes had come loose; welding rods covered every square inch of floor. Test instruments broader than they are high lay uprooted on their narrow sides. Oil and gas covered the whole interior with a slick film. But she stood it with about $50,000 damage and no lives lost. Magnificent seamanship and luck pulled us through.
We heard the island’s fate today, after cruising since Tuesday. In the whole six days we made one complete circle of the island. The news (as you probably have it) is 90,000 homeless on the island and all construction destroyed. The dead number over 100; seven ships (so far unknown) went down with a loss of 85 officers and men. Bodies are washing ashore. It looks now as though most troops may leave the island, leaving only 36,000, as there’s no food here, and no tents. Everything must be flown in by B-29 from Manila and Guam. Looks as though we shall go to Guam very soon.