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My Marine Corps Journal 1937-42, Part 23: Difficulties of an aircraft carrier

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By Ron Van Stockum

A Reminder: I have included only significant quotations from my journals and these appear in plain text. My current comments and explanations are in bold type between brackets.

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Create a nuisance by attempting escape

January 22, 1942

The item attached is rather amusing to me. I can see myself in a German prison camp with a guard to every hundred yards of barb wire fence, attempting to escape in order to create a nuisance.

[Here I pasted an item apparently clipped from the Wasp’s Plan of the Day:

“DON’T be downhearted if captured. Opportunities for escape will present themselves. It is the duty of prisoners to make such attempts, which in themselves have a very appreciable nuisance value.”]

January 25, 1942

[Headed for Argentia Newfoundland with four destroyers screening,] During the entire trip about four attacks were made with depth charges [by our destroyers.] And the best scuttlebutt [A cask on a ship used to hold the day’s supply of drinking water where sailors would exchange gossip]. is that two subs were destroyed, one of them having been blown to the surface upside down. Unfortunately no official information is being put out. However it does seem that enemy subs are destroying a good many ships off our coasts, but that the cost [to the enemy] in men and submarines is great.

January 28, 1942

We qualified our six TBD [Torpedo Bombers by Douglas] pilots Monday and lost another ensign in a scout. [SBD, Scout Bomber by Douglas] Conditions were very bad for flight operations. Yesterday we again got underway, launched a few planes and then returned to Ship Harbour. [adjacent to Argentia]

At 1830 we had orders to leave immediately in search of a Nazi raider.

Conditions were not good – dark, snow storm, and our stern was seaward. [But J. W. Reeves, Jr. , Commanding Officer of Wasp] did his usual masterly job of turning the ship with the engines and we got through the net and out to sea. Pea soup fog made it difficult to pick up our escort of Philadelphia and four destroyers.

January 31, 1942

Portland, Maine. We anchored here behind the net at Casco Bay yesterday. It was a clear cold day and snow covered Mt. Washington dominated the skyline. The day and night before coming into port we ran into the roughest seas the Wasp has faced. Some of the rolls aided by a steady 40-knot wind from starboard sent us over about 25-30 degrees. Sometimes the ship seemed undecided whether to continue the roll or return to normal. Spray came over the flight deck covering it with a coat of ice and making a “winter wonderland” out of the forecastle.

February 3, 1942

Received a letter from mum last night congratulating me upon my promotion about which she had read in the Seattle P. I. [Post-Intelligencer] A dispatch came in from USMC H.Q. ordering [Captain A. (Gus) Larson, the Marine Detachment commander] detached and mentioning Capt. Van Stockum as his relief – but still nothing official about my promotion. As usual, the person most directly concerned is the last to hear.

Captain, commander marine

detachment, USS Wasp

February 6, 1942

Accepted appointment to rank of captain yesterday with rank from 2 February. That evening Major Larson [He had been promoted, too. The Marine Corps was mobilizing] shoved off, leaving me with my first command of an outfit of Marines. It’s a big responsibility, especially on this ship, but I think that I shall prove equal to it.

February 11, 1942

Yesterday while on watch while we were carrying on flight operations off Casco Bay, I noticed an object that looked more like a periscope than anything I have yet seen. I loaded a gun and would have fired had not someone remarked that it looked like a marker buoy. It was apparently another one of these objects that are reported as “vertical pipe floating in water, bearing 315˚.”

Hazards of landing on a carrier

February 16, 1942

Today we were underway to launch VS 72 [Scout bomber squadron] and VF 5 [Fighter squadron] for shore status and land aboard VF 71. The latter squadron now has F4F4’s with six .50 m.g. and folding wings. Half of the planes landed with four barrier crashes [missing arresting wires and hitting barriers which kept them from running off the bow into the sea] so the rest of the outfit was waved ashore for more field carrier [practice] landings. While all this was happening our destroyer had made sound contact with subs, dropped depth charges – so we raced into port at 23 knots.

Singapore has fallen, Gneisanau, Sharnhorst, and Prince Eugen have escaped from Brest to Kiel, German subs have attacked Aruba. The international situation is “not so hot.”

Have enjoyed my first ten days as c.o. of the detachment and believe that I will like the responsibility accruing. I have a chance to carry into effect a few of my ideas about leading men, ideas much different from those of A. Larson. [Considerable “puffery” on my part. I couldn’t come close to measuring up to Captain Gus Larson, perhaps ten years older, a stoical and most considerate officer of Scandinavian descent, reliable, if not spectacular, and highly regarded in the service. He had been both a Distinguished Rifleman” and “Distinguished Pistol Shot,” a distinctive accomplishment. His advice to others less talented was “if you can point a finger toward the target, you can hit it with a pistol shot.”

The ultimate achievement for a service rifle or pistol shooter is to earn Distinguished designation. The Distinguished Rifleman and Distinguished Pistol Shot Badges are awarded in recognition of “a preeminent degree of achievement in target practice with the service rifle or pistol]

Fifth pilot lost in a year

February 24, 1942

We lost Frank Case in an F4F4 [Fighter] yesterday, the third one to go this cruise and the fifth in a year.

Wasp rams an escorting destroyer

March 17, 1942

Everything happens to the Wasp. At 0445 this morning I woke up and heard the sounds of men running around on the deck above. No alarm was rung so I turned on the reading lamp and turned over, waiting for the word to be passed to man the battery at about 0600 as scheduled. A few minutes later the word was passed “Fire, frame 7, starboard side.” That sounded close to home so I was on deck in nothing flat, even forgetting my swim-master in my hurry.

Apparently we had rammed the destroyer “Stack” while doing 23 knots in a dense fog with Stack and Sterett [Escorting Destroyers] ahead. We then broke loose and lost sight of her, contacted her with radio to discover that her forward engine room was flooded but that she could still steam. Steam from her boilers had given our O.O.D. [Officer of the Deck] the impression that we were on fire. Our stem was bent and we had a couple of holes torn in our side near the bow.

Research Note: Since my arrival in Kentucky in 1970, I have been closely associated with The Filson Historical Society of Louisville. During that time, this prestigious research organization has expanded exponentially and is currently moving into new state-of-the-art storage and research facilities. Knowing how papers of historic significance can be lost in the attics of heirs, I have donated nearly all my papers to the Filson. There, they are available to all family members as well as researchers and are properly stowed in temperature and humidity-controlled archives. This includes my Marine Corps Journal, which I quote, with the permission of the Society.

Next: Criticized by Wasp Commanding Officer, Captain J. W. (Black Jack) Reeves

In addition to his numerous columns and magazine articles, Brig. Gen. Ron Van Stockum has published five books, including Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers. Copies can be obtained by contacting him at ronvanstockum@mac.com.