I joined the Naval Reserve in 1954, while still in High School. It assured me of being in the Navy if I were called up in the draft for the Korean War. I completed boot camp that summer, and Radar school the next summer. I was ready to start my training as a Radarman, on a real Navy ship. I had no idea what adventures lay ahead for me that summer when I shipped out on the Willett.
After you read this account there is now an update to this writing with more information.
USS Kenneth M. Willett (DE-354) in (1956). She was built in 1944, 300 feet long, 37 feet wide, and mounted 2 x 5-inch/38 dual purpose guns, as well as 2 x twin 40mm guns, and 10 x single 20mm guns. Her main duty was escort for fleets of merchant or naval war vessels. Guarding them from submarine attacks with her 2 x depth charge racks, 8 x depth charge projectors, and 1 x Hedgehog (24 bombs). But to me she was just a training ship on a training cruise in the Caribbean Sea.
It was a hot June morning when the Willett made its way down the Mississippi river from the New Orleans Naval Station to the Gulf. We were scheduled for two weeks of training with a short stop at one of the ports in Central America. We also visited Dry Tortugas for a couple of hours on the way.
The ship was on a war time training schedule. There were drills going on every day and some nights. General quarters or “Battle Stations” were sounded at least once a day. Along with gunnery practice, chasing imaginary submarines and plotting zig-zag courses.
Myself and another reservist, I didn’t know, were the only ones in radar training. There were two seasoned radarmen to train us. The watch schedule was 4 hours on, and 4 hours off. We were trained separately except for the “dog” watch which was 12midnight to 4am, when we were put together by ourselves. I can understand why the regulars didn’t want to do that watch.
Besides radar we learned to plot courses, run the DRT, fire control radar, fathometer, and read charts. The days were full of things to learn and not much time for sleeping and eating. But I loved the schedule, I felt important learning all these things.
The days passed quickly and we soon reached our Central America port to do some sight-seeing and stretching our legs for the day. It was fun, but not long enough. Again on the ship we started back to New Orleans, to do more training along the way.
Two days out, during the dog watch, I was manning the radar while the other reservist was reading a manual. It was a boring night, with no “blips” on the screen to chart, just empty ocean all around us. I started to play with the controls on the radar and switched the search range out to two hundred miles. On the left upper quadrant was the largest blip I had ever seen. I showed it to my partner, and we started to wonder out-loud what it could be when the OD (Officer of the Deck) walked over and asked us what was going on. Not being able to tell him, he ordered us to go wake the Chief Radarman to come take a look at the large blip slowly becoming larger.
When the Chief arrived, he peered over my shoulder at the screen, his face became an ashen white when he remarked: “Oh my God.” He asked me the ETA of the blip, to which I said “about 40 minutes.” He quickly turned to the OD and said “that is a Hurricane bearing down on us, I recommend going the General Quarters, Sir.” The OD asked him to wake the Captain, then stepped to the ship’s loud speaker.
“General Quarters, General Quarters, man your battle stations, man your battle stations, this is not a drill, this is not a drill.” All hell broke loose.
The next few minutes were controlled chaos. All water-tight doors and hatches were shut then locked down. All boilers were put on line. After steerage was activated. Damage control teams were alerted. All guns were loaded and locked, the crews looking for a target. The captain announced the approaching hurricane, told the gun crews to empty their weapons into the ocean and, if they were not in a protected mount, to get below deck. In less than 15 minutes the ship was ready to do battle with the storm.
Radar is no good in a storm where the ship is rolling and plunging up and down. Myself and the other radarman where ordered to report to the bridge for lookout duty. We were given full-length rain gear and hats, then tied with rope to the railing on the bridge. I was the port lookout and he the starboard lookout. The bridge was covered except for the far ends which were partially open to the sea. Sometimes called the flying bridge. I could see the full length of the ship on the port (left) side. My job was to locate and report any ships that were within eyesight. I was then tied in place for safety. When they tied me to the railing (stanchion) I was given a large knife in a holster. This was to be used to cut myself free in case the ship capsized. A frightening thought.
On the bridge were six of us. The captain who manned the ship’s radio; the helmsman, a career navy man; a backup helmsman, another old salt; a communications officer; and us two neophyte lookouts. From my position I could hear the radio communications, and the orders being sent and received on the bridge. This was somewhat of a mixed blessing, I knew what was going on, but some of the things I heard were not pleasant to my ears.
With all boilers on line and full speed ahead the ship was turned into the direction of the hurricane. The fastest way out of a storm is straight through it. There was no course to take, only to keep the bow of the ship headed straight into the waves coming at us. To get broadsided by a big wave would mean going over, then under.
The wind was becoming stronger and the waves higher as I watch intently for other ships. Soon the wind was howling, and the waves growing larger by the minute. Ten, twenty, thirty, even forty-foot waves were washing over and crashing down on the Willett. This was just the beginning of the perfect storm. The worst was yet to come.
As the waves became larger, I saw the other lookout untie himself and run below deck. I don’t know if he was ever disciplined for deserting his post or not. The first main concern was flooding. The waves now fifty-feet high were sending large amounts of water into the ship. The air vents, stacks, and uncovered stairwells were being flooded with water making its way into the bilges of the ship. I heard the bilge pumps start earlier, but they were not pumping enough water, there was more water coming in than being pumped out. I was listening to the communications from damage control. The helmsman yelled “use the fire hose pumps.” The pumps used to fight fight fires onboard the ship were put into action pumping water overboard through the fire hoses. This stabilized the amount of water in the bilges, for now.
The Captain was radioing our position to the Coastguard every five minutes, so if we capsized they would know where to look. I heard the Coastguard radio back to ask if we could help another ship floundering about 15 miles from our position. Our Captain yelled into the microphone: “hell no, I can’t help myself.” Then he turned his eyes upward and said: “God help us through this,” something he would say over and over through the duration of the storm. At this time in my life I was agnostic, but praying like a preacher, it was the common thing to do that night for all.
Being a lookout was impossible, I was staring into the oncoming wave one moment, the total blackness of the sky the next moment. If there were anything in between I couldn’t recognize it. The ship would plunge into a wave, roll and wallow down into the trough and then slowly rise up again to plunge into the next wave. The maximum number was 35 degrees, if the ship rolled as much as 35 degrees it would capsize. I could watch a roll meter close to me, I could see we were taking 25 degree rolls regularly with an occasional 30 degree roll. The time between when the ship rolled, to the time it righted itself seemed endless. It was a breathless time, a time for intense faith.
The waves, now sixty-feet high, were causing havoc below deck in the crews quarters. The heavy rolling of the ship was throwing sailors off their racks (bunks) into the bulkheads and onto the steel deck. The injuries were mounting. Those that could were using sheets, rope, anything they could find to tie themselves into the racks, or onto pipes running through the quarters. Most of the sailors were seasick by now, and the decks of the crew’s quarters was awash with vomit.
I heard a loud crack, like an explosion. I turned just in time to see a wave of water crush our motor whale boat.
The motor whale boat can be seen amidships hanging from the davits in the full picture of the Willett. It was used to take officers and crew ashore when docks were unavailable.
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The wave cut through the motor whale boat like an axe through butter. The front part of the boat went into the ocean and quickly sank. The back part including the motor fell down to the deck of the ship still being held by the davit ropes. Then it started to bang against the side of the ship with every wave. The Captain ordered it to be cut loose to prevent any further damage to the Willett. A group of sailors in black and yellow foul-weather gear began to come out onto the deck. They were all tied together with rope, the first man bearing a fire axe to cut the lines holding the remnants of the motor whale boat to the davit. They made their way slowly, carefully out onto the deck, looking like a giant centipede. As they approached the davit the first man started swinging the axe at the rope. It wasn’t long before the rope parted and the remains of the motor whale boat slid into the ocean waves, but not before catching and crushing the hand of the axe holder. He was hurried below for treatment.
Upon the 01 deck things were not so good either. This is the deck above the main deck. Life rafts, shark nets, flags, and rigging are stored there among other things. I liked to go to the 01 deck when not on watch, to lie on the ropes, and watch the stars. In the middle of the ocean, at night, the stars are brilliant, so beautiful and calm. But tonight we were in the middle of a raging hurricane, with no peace or calm in sight. The sixty to seventy-foot waves had washed overboard everything on the 01 deck that was not made from steel, and welded down. All the life rafts, shark nets, rigging, flags, and flag holders were gone. Everything vanishing into the ocean of waves gone mad. When the Captain heard about the 01 deck he remarked: “how am I going to explain the loss of a million dollars worth of gear.”
Throughout the whole ship, anything not bolted down, was flying through the air, rolling across the deck, or being washed overboard. It was not safe to go below deck, or anywhere else on the ship. I was scared as much as anyone on board, but I was tied in place, for which I was very grateful.
About a half-hour later, I started to notice the waves receding in height, thinking we may have reached the eye of the storm. Hoping we had reached the eye of the storm. Still the waves continued getting smaller, becoming less violent, and the wind was subsiding. Could it be we were through the hurricane. In a few minutes I had my answer, we had passed though the hurricane and were sailing into calm waters again. Time seemed to be at a standstill during the storm, everything moving in slow motion, so I had no idea of how long we were in the hurricane’s path. My best estimate was three to four hours. However some were saying as high as six hours. It was still dark, but only about an hour to daylight.
I untied myself from the railing and slid down to the deck, I would sit there until first light. The Captain went back to his quarters and became very sick. The helmsman was relieved and went below, the bridge was manned by a new team, including lookouts. I struggled to my feet and went to CIC (combat information center) where the radar equipment is located. The radar was out of commission due to storm taking the radar antenna with it as it passed. I went over to the DRT (dead reckoning tracer) to find out where we were in the Gulf. Our location was over 150 miles from where we should have been without the storm. I also noticed a course had been set to return to base, and we were going there at full speed ahead.
I started to go below deck to my rack, but the stench of vomit stopped me cold. So instead I climbed up to the 01 deck and sat against the mast, one of the few things left intact. As the sun came up it revealed the devastation to the equipment of the Willett. I could also see the hurricane had turned the Willett into a ghost ship. The salt deposited by the waves as they crashed over the decks had turned the ship a ghastly white, sparkling in places the sun hit the salt crystals. I was reminded of movies with ghost ships. The Willett looked just like them.
The clean-up began. The sailors that weathered the storm in the 5-inch gun mounts faired the best. They led the efforts to make the ship livable again. All those who were able pitched in. I returned to CIC to do clean-up work there. Picking up the books, logs, and other objects thrown on the decks by the storm and sweeping and mopping up.
The clean-up continued into the afternoon. The galley (kitchen) announced it was ready to serve sandwiches to those that wanted them. This was around 3:00pm. The navy sandwich, at that time, was two pieces of white bread with a slice of bologna stuck between them. I declined. Most others did also. But I did go for coffee with sugar. No longer having a job, I attempted to go to my rack again. This time the smell of disinfectant was strong, but the lack of sleep for almost 24 hours compelled me to hit the rack. I knew we wouldn’t reach port until noon tomorrow.
I awoke early, declined the offer of sandwiches from the galley, and made my way to CIC. The regular radarmen were there going over the supplies and equipment. I worked with them learning a lot more about the total operations of the combat information center than I would have otherwise. Before long we heard the communications officer announce the mouth of the Mississippi river. We were not far from our base. It is customary when entering port for sailors to put on their dress whites and stand at attention along the railing. This time it was not mandatory, those who wanted to could. There were about 25 sailors who did. I went up to the 01 deck to observe the entry into the mighty Mississippi.
As we entered the river and started up the winding path to the Naval Base, it became obvious the ghastly white of the Willett was attracting attention. People were gathering on the river banks, and pointing their fingers in our direction, so all could see the Navy ghost ship entering port.
Finally the Naval Base came into view. As we neared the dock, ambulances, and medical personnel lined up to board the ship. When the gangway touched the dock, medical personnel rushed aboard the ship to help the injured. Four stretchers were used to carry to ones off that couldn’t walk. The ones that could walk were helped off the ship and into an ambulance. This included the Captain who was helped off the ship by two medics. The extent of the injuries were not known, but none of them were life-threatening. There where many x-rays to be taken, and wounds dressed. Some, like the Captain, were just so sick they needed time to recover from the experience.
After the injured were taken off, buses came to get the rest of us. We were taken to a barracks where we would spend the night. The regular sailors would stay in the barracks, while us trainee reservists were sent home to our loved ones the next day. That evening I ate my first meal after the storm in a base cafeteria. I was ready to return home.
In summary, we were all glad to still be alive. There were many times I thought it was over for me. The ships crew was to be commended for their quick, expert actions that saved the ship from loss of life. I learned later that at least three commercial ships had gone done in the hurricane. It is said that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. I came out of that experience a much stronger person.
While I was looking for a picture of the USS Willett, I learned during WWII she had weathered a typhoon off the coast of the Philippines at the time of the battle of Leyte Island. She was a tough ship.
There is now an update to this writing with more information.
I also wrote a poem about this encounter with Hurricane Audrey.
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