USS Mohican
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Ship Stories

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Autumn, 1941 in the North Atlantic
Fifty-one days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, USS Kearny (DD-432), a Benson class destroyer, was hit by a Japanese torpedo. The U.S.had not entered the war, but transport ships crossing the North Atlantic with desperately needed supplies for England were the constant targets of German U-boats and surface war ships, so the U.S. deployed destroyers, battleships, and cruisers to the North Atlantic to provide protection. USS Kearny was one of several with orders to strike.

USS Greer (DD-145) a Wicks class “four-stacker” launched in 1918, had been fired on by a German U-boat on September 4, 1941. Two torpedoes missed the Greer. Greer then discharged depth charges in response. This became known as the “Greer Incident.” Britain had been officially at war with Germany, but the U.S. had steadfastly stayed out of the war, except to supply Brittain. President Roosevelt, who believed that war with Germany was inevitable, issued a decree after the Greer incident stating that any Axis vessels entering the western part of the North Atlantic would do so “at their own peril” and ordered American war ships to shoot on sight.

The North Atlantic had become the first theatre of U.S. involvement in World War Two, with a number U.S. ships supporting the American occupation of Iceland in support of British and Canadian forces. Britain had occupied Iceland after the fall of Denmark to the Germans as a defensive measure to keep Germany from using Iceland as a North Atlantic base. Iceland had no choice but to cooperate with Allies despite its original declaration of neutrality.
USS Kearny DD-432
October 17, 1941USS Kearny DD-432) suffered a direct hit amidships from a German torpedo. Eleven of her crew were killed in the attack, and became the first U.S. casualties of the war. Kearny was able to make it to Iceland, where the photo above was taken, showing the damage to her starboard side.
USS Reuben James DD-245
October 31, 1941 USS Reuben James (DD-245), a 1919 Clemson class destroyer, was hit by a German torpedo that separated the bow when the forward magazine exploded. One hundred of her crew, including all officers, went down with the ship. Forty-four survived to be be pulled from the icy waters by sailors from other American destroyers. The Reuben James became the first American ship sunk in World War 2, just over a month before the Japanese Attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7. Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded a song, “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” that was later also recorded by The Kingston Trio, Johnny Horton, and the Chad Mitchell Trio. It is a stirring and emotional patriotic folk song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICy5P1pKy5A
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There are many more sea tales than could could ever be recorded on one web site. This site will start with excerpts from my dad’s memoirs, in which he describes how he happened to be present at both the very beginning and the very end of World War Two.
USS Idaho BB-42

Aboard the Idaho in an Undeclared War

Excerpts from the memoirs of Dwight Dickinson, my dad.

He did this writing shortly before he died. Without access to the Internet to check dates and other details, he was working from memory and may have been thinking that the Reuben James sinking preceded the attack on USS Kearny.
In September, 1941 USS Idaho sailed from Newport to join the Neutrality Patrol in the North Atlantic:

. . . . . . . .

Along with the other two ships of Battle Division Three, the USS New Mexico and the USS Mississippi, and a covering bevy of destroyers, we were escorting several troop ships carrying U.S. Marines to Iceland. Having already transferred fifty destroyers to the United Kingdom causing much uproar on the part of the isolationists, Roosevelt was now relieving the British troops in Iceland, freeing them for duty elsewhere.

We were already fighting an undeclared war with the German underseas Navy, and our destroyers picked up many contacts. Our slow progress northeast was punctuated — it seemed daily — by the muffled sounds and concussion of exploding depth charges, dropped by our escorts. On one occasion, an enemy sub fired two torpedoes at Idaho, narrowly missing us. I was on deck at the time and saw the wake of one of these, which passed just in front of us. It was just about this time that the destroyer Reuben James was sunk by a German sub, the first casualty of the undeclared war in the North Atlantic. Although we did not ourselves pick up the Reuben James survivors, some of them were later transferred to the Idaho for medical treatment.

Lieutenant Dwight Dickinson
We were already fighting an undeclared war with the German underseas Navy, and our destroyers picked up many contacts. Our slow progress northeast was punctuated — it seemed daily — by the muffled sounds and concussion of exploding depth charges, dropped by our escorts. On one occasion, an enemy sub fired two torpedoes at Idaho, narrowly missing us. I was on deck at the time and saw the wake of one of these, which passed just in front of us. It was just about this time that the destroyer Reuben James was sunk by a German sub, the first casualty of the undeclared war in the North Atlantic. Although we did not ourselves pick up the Reuben James survivors, some of them were later transferred to the Idaho for medical treatment.

On leave in Reykjavik
We spent most of our time in Iceland anchored, with a large armada of American naval vessels, in Hvalfiord, a high-walled sea canyon some twenty or thirty miles from Reykjavik. Liberty in that city was achieved by destroyer, which covered the distance quickly, but rolled heavily in the rough seas. There was little to do in Reykjavik. The people, not happy with their occupaton by first the British, then the Americans, wre not particularly friendly. We never saw the inside of any of their snug-looking homes. We young officers could go to the Borg Hotel, and ancient establishment, where we danced with Icelandic girls. The latter barely talked to us, and, as soon as a dance piece ended, returned to the tables where their eagle-eyed chaperones were waiting. This wasn’t much fun, although I had no ulterior motives with respect to the young ladies, and I soon gave up trips to Reykjavik entirely. I did manage to catch a few trout in a lake on the plateau above the fiord.

USS Kearny
One sad task I had was to represent my ship at a funeral service for eight men of the destroyer Kearney, which had limped into the fiord with a big hole in her side., the legacy of a German torpedo. The biggest threat of the North Atlantic, however, was the German battleship Tirpitz, sister ship of the legendary Bismarck. This modern vessel was even more heavily armed than we and considerably faster. In lightning sorties from German occupied Norway, only five hundred miles away, the Bismarck, by now sunk by the British, had created havoc among allied merchant shipping. A lucky salvo from one of her twelve-inch guns had dropped squarely down the funnel of the British battleship Hood, sinking that unlucky vessel within minutes. In the icy water, there were only three survivors.

Chasing the Battleship Tirpitz
One unhappy day, the entire off duty crew of the Idaho was ordered to assemble on the ship’s fantail , a most unusual procedure. There, as we stood in hushed expectation, our Captain addressed us. The Tirpitz had sailed from Norway and was headed toward Iceland. We had been accorded the “honor,” he announce proudly, of going forth to intercept and sink her. An audible sigh of resignation from the crew, no cheers, greets this lugubrious announcement. One of the two other ships of Bat Div 3, TheMississippi, accompanied us along with two heavy cruisers and twelve destroyers forming a hastily assembled task group under Admiral Ike Griffin. I remember the terrible punishment our escorting destroyers suffered as we headed north into the Denmark straits,through mountainous seas. While the Idaho plowed through the great waves, bows undertaking white water over both forward turrets, the destroyers rolled to the point that their keels were clearly visible. North of Iceland, north of the Arctic Circle we went. There to the secret relief of all, with the possible exception of our ambitious captain, we made no contact with the Tirpitz. It was satisfying, if unheroic, anticlimax to our great adventure.

The Strange Incident of Pearl Harbor
I must reiterate here that we were not yet officially at war with anyone. It was, however, the custom of the junior officers who had been with the ship in Pearl Harbor to contrast our perilous and often-uncomfortable North Atlantic service with the lot of the comrades they had left behind with the bulk of the fleet in Honolulu. These men are frequently visualized basking on the beach at Waikiki, while we fought the “real” war of the North Atlantic.

On the evening of December 7, 1941, while I was quietly reading in the Junior Officers’ Mess before dinner, I overheard three of my young shipmates, academy graduates all, planning a hoax they intended to play on the other members of the mess. Just after the evening meal had begun, one of the conspirators was to ring up the mess on the bulkhead telephone. Another, a mischievous red-headed fellow, was to get up, answer it, and report to the thirty or forty young officers that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

I said nothing to anyone, and at the appointed hour, sat down with my shipmates to dinner. In a moment, the phone rang. The red-headed officer got to it first, listened a brief moment, then turned to the mess,
his face drained of color, and said quietly “The Japanese have just bombed Parl Harbor!” Prepared though I was for a hoax, I knew at once that he was telling the truth. It was about six p.m. in Iceland and seven a. m. in Hawaii.

We spent all of the following day preparing to return to the United States. No battleship in PearlHarbor was either still afloat or not in need extensive repair before returning to battle readiness.
Bat Div 3 was needed in the Pacific.
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Except for a bad case of Malaria he got in Guadalcanal, my dad was very fortunate and came through the war alive and uninjured. Having been present for beginning of the war in the North Atlantic before Pearl Harbor, he found himself oddly present in the moment that the war really ended, when President Truman got word of the successful use of the fearsome new weapon that forced Japan’s ultimate surrender.

Aboard the Augusta at the dawn of the Nuclear Age

Excerpts from the memoirs of Dwight Dickinson, my dad.
USS Augusta CA-31
Although the war had ended in Europe with the death of Hitler and the German Surrender, Japan still remained to be dealt with. It was, nevertheless, with high spirits buoyed by my successful oral that I reported, I think on 29 June, to the U.S. S. Augusta. Great activity was apparent, as she was obviously being provisioned to put to sea. I was puzzled by the cases of bourbon stacked on deck, but too busy getting settled in to the ship to dwell long on a possible explanation.

The following day, June 30, President Truman, Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes, various advisors, and a press pool embarked and we immediately put to sea. The passage was uneventful for several days, with members of the President’s party, notable among them Chip Bohlen, shooting skeet from the fantail. About three days out, word was received that the U.S. press and radio silence which had surrounded the President’s departure had been broken by Drew Pearson in his newspaper column. Cursing this breach of faith, the reporters accompanying us abandoned their unaccustomed but much enjoyed leisure and, leaping to their typewriters, began to file stories transmitted by the ship’s radio.

Our European landfall in early July was in Antwerp, where the President left us for Potsdam, where he was to meet with Churchill and Stalin to decide the fate of Germany and the newly liberated parts of Europe.

The Augusta remained in Antwerp for about three weeks, during which we had much free time to wander the streets of the bomb-damaged city and to see even a bit of the countryside, including a short foray into Holland. My most memorable experience, however, was a trip by jeep to the utterly destroyed city of Cologne. Passing through the remains of the town of Aachen, we found Cologne only a vestige of the city it had once been. Block after block of apartment houses had been reduced to rubble with the people living in basements, which they entered and left by holes in the ten-foot high piles of concrete and brick. Only the great cathedral soared relatively intact above the flattened city. It had reportedly taken several direct hits, but the bombs had apparently not detonated.

President Truman aboard USS Augusta
From Berlin the President and his party were flown to England, and we sailed from Antwerp to Plymouth to await them. While in Plymouth, I got a long enough leave, about twenty hours, to take the train up to London, where I hired a cab at the station for a drive around the city. I saw all the principal buildings and sights and views the bomb damage, which, however extensive, paled as contrasted to that of Cologne.

In early August, we re-embarked the President and his party, sailing a southern route toward the Caribbean, in order to confuse the Japanese, if they should have any submarines in the North Atlantic, the normal route from Europe. We again had good weather and made the longer trip to Norfolk in some five days, said to be a record for an Atlantic crossing.

Again, the passage was uneventful, except for one truly exceptional occurrence. On August 5th (August 6th in Japan) we ships officers were at lunch in the ward room, when
a door burst open and there stood an excited and beaming Harry Truman. “Gentlemen, remain seated,” he commanded, adding with all the drama he could muster, “We have just dropped a bomb with twenty times the power of dynamite on Hiroshima!”

I do not recall whether we cheered this announcement when its meaning had sunk in. I do know that we were astounded, perhaps as much by the way in which we had received this news as by the fact itself. We had all assumed that the ship would proceed to the Pacific, after delivering the President safely home. We had fully expected to participate in a bloody invasion of Japan, in which many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of American lives would be lost. Now we realized that this new atomic weapon, of which neither we nor the American people had previously had the slightest inkling, would surely end the war in a matter of days.

Meanwhile, buoyed even further by the dramatic effect he had had on the ship’s officers, the President rushed off to repeat the announcement successively to the Warrant Officers’s Mess, I later learned, the Chief Petty Officers’s Mess, and the Crew’s Mess. In the latter, he climbed on top of a mess table, from which he jubilantly addressed the astonished sailors.


Editor’s Comment:
My dad described the war as a sort of gentleman’s affair. He was a young Harvard grad and Naval officer. And though he dove into muddy fox holes when the Japanese bombed Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and drove a jeep on an emergency mission across the field one night as bombs were exploding to his left and right, his war seems to have been a jolly great time. Of course that could not be true, but that is the kind of life he led. I know the war was a nightmare for the world and and extremely horrific experience for so many Americans, many of whom took their last agonizing breath at a very young age. While thinking about the triumph of American determination makes me proud, so does thinking about the suffering of so many makes me immeasurably sad. Truman and basically all Americans should be forgiven for being cheerful about the success of the bomb because it meant the end of a horrible war that might well have killed hundreds of thousands more people, but it is not possible to feel cheerful about it looking back. We can and should celebrate our achievements as well as honoring our veterans, but we should never lose perspective. Nothing about war is wonderful.
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