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VAN STOCKUM: The death throes of an aircraft carrier

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The USS Wasp, on which the author served, was sunk in September 1942. Here is the story of some of the men who were aboard that day and what they saw.

By Ron Van Stockum

As a result of my service aboard the aircraft carrier USS Wasp during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941 and 1942, I have developed a great interest in these powerful but vulnerable vessels that changed the course of naval warfare during World War II.

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In previous columns I have written about USS Wasp and USS Hornet. Both of these ships were sunk in the Pacific during the latter part of 1942, but later the larger, modern carriers that replaced them completely destroyed the Japanese fleet.

When I was detached from Wasp at San Diego on June 25, 1942, Marine Capt. John W. Kennedy Jr. relieved me as commanding officer of the Marine Detachment.

In a letter to me, dated Sept. 6, 1942, he wrote: “We are still afloat, and I hope we stay that way.”

His hopes were not fulfilled. Just nine days later Wasp had disappeared beneath the sea, taking him, along with many of my former shipmaates, to “Davy Jones’ Locker.”

Serving aboard Hornet at the same time and in the same waters was my former roommate at the University of Washington, Jack Quackenbush, a lieutenant in the Navy Supply Corps. He was killed when Hornet was sunk on Oct. 27, 1942, following devastating Japanese air attacks during The Battle of Santa Cruz Island.

Army or Marine supply officers, usually in rear areas, suffer relatively few casualties, but those that serve in this capacity aboard ship share a common risk with the admiral and the lowest seaman.

In earlier columns I have included a first-hand account of the efforts to rescue the Wasp’s crew, described inDestroyerManby John T. Pigott, who, as a boat officer from an accompanying destroyer, USS Lansdowne, had made several trips to pick up survivors.

Pigott provided ample detail about the rescue effort, but I needed information about what had happened on board Wasp during its ordeal. Accordingly, it was a pleasant surprise when I received from Art Nicholson, who is writing a book about Wasp, an eyewitness account of the sinking.

It was “Gentlemen, It is Time to Leave,” by Marine Corp. Clair Runyan, one of my best marines during my year and a half on board Wasp.I made an effort to locate him, but, alas, was too late. He had died in 2010 at the age of 90.

Marines serving aboard ship in those days were carefully selected for this duty, attending the sea school in San Diego following completion of boot camp. In my Marine Detachment aboard Wasp, those that I had selected to stand watch as Captain’s Orderly, like Runyan, were impressive in appearance. They also had to be mature enough to withstand the tirades of the ship’s first commanding officer, Navy Capt. John W. Reeves Jr., called “Black Jack,” with some justification.

Near the end of my tour aboard, I served under a new commanding officer, Capt. Forrest Sherman, who had replaced Reeves. Sherman was quiet and effective, admired and respected but not feared. I regret he was skipper only during the last six weeks of my service aboard Wasp.

Runyan’s article is well-written, setting forth the tactical situation that led to the sinking of the Wasp and describing the mayhem of its final throes.

It includes references to many of the officers with whom I had served. I have verified much of his narrative with reference, via the Internet, to the after-action reports of several officers, including that of Captain Sherman:

 

Capt. Forrest Sherman, commanding officer

Runyan writes that on Sept. 15, 1942, it was “a bright, sunny afternoon, the wind 15 to 20 knots, the sea not especially rough…blue skies with a white cloud here and there.”

At 2:44 pm the last of the planes had landed, and Wasp was starting its turn back to its base course. A minute later Captain Sherman, on the bridge, received a warning from the lookouts about "three torpedoes close aboard approaching from three points forward of the starboard beam."

Sherman shouted for full right rudder in order to present a narrower target, but this was too late. The ship received three hits, all close to the gasoline tanks and magazines, and the resulting explosions shook the ship convulsively.

In his after action report, written on Sept. 24, Sherman reported that the following took place very rapidly (quoting directly here):

a)     The ready ammunition at the forward starboard [5 Inch] guns commenced exploding throwing fragments over the forward part of the ship.

b)     Almost spontaneous fires broke out below decks and in the hangar.

c)      
Aircraft on both the flight deck and hangar decks were lifted and dropped down with sufficient force to break landing gears.

d)     Aircraft [secured] in the overhead broke loose and landed on those on the hangar deck.

e)      Water mains in the forward half of the ship were broken and no water was available to fight the fires

f)      The switchboard in the forward engine room was knocked down, the two forward auxiliary diesel generators were knocked loose from their foundations, and the forward turbo generator failed, leaving the forward part of the ship without light or power.

g)     The ship listed initially between 10 degrees and 15 degrees to starboard.

h)     Oil and gasoline on the water commenced burning.

i)      There commenced a series of explosions in the forward half of the ship believed now to have included gasoline tanks, gasoline from ruptured lines, ammunition in hoists and clipping rooms, bombs, torpedo air flasks and possibly a powder magazine although the last seems questionable.

 

Air Force Cmdr. Mike Kernodle

Kernodle, universally known aboard ship as "the ugliest man in the Navy," a sobriquet in which he seemed to take a greatdeal of pride, was at his battle station in air plot, where he directed the air operations of the ship. He heard a warning immediately followed by a series of explosions. In his report, he wrote:

“Fixtures and equipment were torn loose and heaped on the deck, all instruments to lighting were blasted out of commission and all personnel thrown about, but no serious injuries to personnel resulted.”

Kernodle immediately checked the ready rooms and found that all aviation personnel had moved out onto the flight deck or had gone aft.

He found that fire and explosions were rendering the forward part of the flight deck untenable. Looking down, he saw a repair party had led out fire and foamite hose but could get no water. Kernodle further reported:

“Having expended all the CO2, they ran over to the port walkway just forward of number two elevator and were leading out another hose when a terrific explosion occurred apparently almost exactly underneath the midship elevator. All steel plating, expansion joint covers, barrier stanchions and plating about No. 2 elevator was blown high into the air, possibly 150 feet. Some of the men were blown into the air and I did not see them again. I was thrown back from the walkway into the island doorway and landed on deck in a squatting position provided I was not temporarily knocked out, for that is the position and place I found myself in after the explosion.”

 

Navy Lt. Benedict J. Semmes, assistant gunnery officer

Arriving on the forecastle, Semmes found about 150 men there, cut off from the rest of the ship and threatened by the fires and explosions marching relentlessly toward them.

Semmes took chargeand with a group of other officers had the men "cut down life rafts to make ready to launch, get mattresses from living spaces…break down stages from the overhead, and rig trailing lines over the bow.

Flames and smoke were now licking among officers country passageways, while a burning pool of oil formed around the bow, blowing asphyxiatinggases continuouslyover the men huddled there.

Semmes tried "to contact thebridge or any station, but all communications were cut. By this time, he recalled, "the forecastle and the 150 men there were isolated from the rest of the ship.”

Semmes recommended to the senior officer present that the group abandon ship and the exodus over the side began.

 

‘Gentleman, it is time to leave’

Captain Sherman wrote:

“By about 1515 [3:15 p.m.] the fire had spread through the forward half of the ship and was burning fiercely. It had become necessary to evacuate the interior of the island. Numerous casualties were being inflicted by exploding ammunition and by the fire. The reports received from below and the results witnessed on deck showed that efforts to combat the fire were futile due to lack of water. Efforts to couple hoses together and get water from aft had not been effective because lack of water pressure. The main engines had been able to meet the initial demands made upon them and the stern was still tenable except for the hazards from flying fragments.

“The fire was completely out of control and was working steadily aft. After receiving reports from both the Air Officer [Kernodle] and the Air Group Commander who had just returned from the hangar deck, and after consultation with the Executive Officer, I reluctantly decided that the ship could not be saved and that men must be gotten off promptly if unnecessarily heavy loss of life were not to be incurred. After consulting with the Task Force Commander, and with his approval, about 1520 I issued orders to abandon ship.”

Runyon described this final departure:

“On the fantail, the group of officers and men grew smaller until there were only seven or eight left, clustered around Captain Sherman.

“Chaplain Williams, who was among them, remembered that ‘…we reported to the Captain that the wounded were evacuated and the men over the side.’

“Captain Sherman's reply was a simple: ‘Thank you.’And then he said, ‘Well, gentlemen, it is time to leave.’”

The captain’s report adds more details:

“All injured men were gotten onto rafts or rubber boats. All the occupants of the sick bay were cared for and all were rescued. Rafts and float nets were used as far as possible, but the fire in the ship and on the water forward required most men to leave from aft with life preservers only, or with mattresses or other substitutes.

“…About 1600 [I] lowered myself into the water. At this time the list to starboard was increasing steadily.

“While swimming away from the ship I observed the fire working aft in the hangar and on deck, the list increasing, and continued explosions.

 

Afterword

In a desperate time for the crew, its training, efficiency and courage enabled it to create a semblance of order in the midst of chaos. Thus, it is remarkable that of the 2,247 officers and men aboard the Wasp that day, only 193 were killed and 83 seriously wounded.

Also it is a tribute to the dedicated rescue efforts of the crews of accompanying destroyers. They had to stop to pick up survivors and load casualties aboard in waters where enemy submarines were actively present.

Several of those on the Wasp went on to significant accomplishment.

Forrest P. Sherman (1896-1951) in 1949 became chief of naval operations, with the rank of 4-star admiral, at that time the youngest man to serve as head of the Navy. Nearly two years later, at age 54, while on a military and diplomatic trip to Europe, he died in Naples, Italy, following a sudden series of heart attacks.

Michael H, Kernodle won the coveted Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for his heroism during the sinking. I was unable to locate a photo of the “ugliest man in the Nay.”

Benedict J. Semmes, an impressive lieutenant during my tour in Wasp, always was willing to explain patiently the duties of an officer of the deck while under way. He retired in 1972, having served in the rank of vice admiral (three stars) as deputy chief of naval operations and as the president of the Naval War College. In 1967, just before my retirement, I had an opportunity to call on him and discuss our time together in Wasp.