Storm in Narragansett Bay

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          On the afternoon of December 1, 1942, about three dozen sailors left the USS Gherardi for a few hours on liberty. The ship was moored to a pier at the Torpedo Station Annex, Coddington Cove. This is located about four miles north of the Government Landing, Newport, Rhode Island in Narragansett Bay. The sailors left the Gherardi in two motor whaleboats. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALester’s buddy Harry Haring was on duty as engineer in one boat. Off duty and taking advantage of his shore leave, Lester rode to shore in Haring’s boat. He welcomed the chance to stretch his legs on the streets of Newport and planned to shop for stationery and envelopes. Perhaps he also hoped to find a few gifts to send his family for Christmas.

        OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA    The sailors were to report back to the pier for a return to the ship by midnight. Sometime during the evening hours, a storm brewed at sea, moving into the bay. By midnight the waves churned wildly off the pier. Raymond Johnson, age 18, the coxswain of the second boat, conferred with Haring for a few minutes. Concerned about the inexperienced fireman on his boat, the coxswain requested assistance. Haring, confident that his friend Lester had mastered the skills needed to operate the diesel motor through any weather, asked Lester if he would lend a hand.

            Haring knew his friend well. Lester, a cheerful, easy-going and competent fireman, agreed to help. The whaleboat carrying seventeen sailors, including Johnson as coxswain and Lester, as engineer, launched at 12:05 a.m. the morning of December 2. The sailors hunkered down against the driving wind as the boat headed into the bay, toward the Gherardi.

            Haring’s boat left ten minutes later. After an hour’s grueling trip, an easy forty minutes in fair weather, they arrived at the Gherardi to learn the first boat was still at sea. The officer of the deck was informed and search lights were played on the water in the hopes that the men would see the lights in case they had blown off their course. After a half hour of no success, the naval and civilian authorities were informed about the missing boat. Eventually, the crew of the destroyer had to abandon efforts to locate the missing sailors when the storm intensified. In the early hours of December 2 it even threatened the safety of the Gherardi herself.  After a steel mooring cable parted, the unusual procedure of securing the USS Gherardi to the dock with the anchor chain was initiated.

            The following morning, the wreckage of the whale boat was found washed ashore. Two bedraggled sailors clung to the boat. Fifteen others were missing. Lester was among the missing.

            Though details of the whaleboat’s fate remain unclear, some believed that the whaleboat collided with an object in the water, a rock or a buoy. “The collision likely stove in the bow and stopped the motor,” Joseph Feingold wrote to his friend’s family. Lester must have worked madly to restore power to the diesel engine, but a large wave swamped the boat, followed by another which capsized it.

The diesel engine (under showcase for display) which powered the motor whaleboat.
The diesel engine (under showcase for display) which powered the motor whaleboat.

            The two sailors who survived the storm were identified as strong swimmers. Lester surely could swim, as he spent many summer hours in the river which ran through his family’s Kansas farm. But he was not lucky enough to cling to the boat, and he was hardly prepared for a dip in the December waters of an angry ocean.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

            Lester lost his life with fourteen other young sailors that fateful night off the coast of Rhode Island. I wonder how long he fought in the water. Was there a moment when he realized he was not going to make it home again? Perhaps his last thoughts turned to his family, their recent Thanksgiving dinner followed by his father’s fifty-first birthday on that very day. He might have imagined them, smiling and laughing around the dining table, his mother carrying in a basket of steaming butterhorn rolls, or pulling his father’s favorite pie from her wood-burning oven to complete the dinner menu. With his characteristic gentility, he might have found himself overcome with sadness for them. He’d not even had a chance to say good-bye. Perhaps in that last split second, he bid them a silent farewell as the waves tossed him mercilessly in the churning sea. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs he thought of his mother, he surely sensed the devastation she would bear at his death. Perhaps he spoke to her silently. “Mom! I’m sorry.”

            And then at the very end, perhaps his thoughts drifted with a heavy longing to Josephine, his beloved fiancé. What would she do now?

            Josephine.

                                    Josephine.

                                                                                Josephine.

Whaleboat on the Delaware River

Lester describes his first experience with the diesel engine whaleboats. He would become very familiar with these boats–perhaps too much so in the days to come.

The photos in this post all come from the USS North Carolina World War II museum in the Wilmington harbor, a fascinating place to visit for anyone in the area.

 

Saturday Night.   October 10, 1942

Dear Folks,

What is everyone doing?  I’m in the duty section this week-end so I’m staying aboard tonight.  I guess I have told you that I am in the auxiliary crew. We don’t have to stand any watches yet but we have to stay aboard so they can call us if we are needed.  The chief in charge of the engine and firerooms asked me if I wanted to get out of the auxiliary into a fireroom but I didn’t think I wanted to change. I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning my job and I didn’t want to have to learn another new one so soon.  He changed some of the others without asking them and they didn’t like it very well at first but they really have it easier where they are now.  Haring got changed to one of the firerooms.

I have a Jewish buddy that I run around with. We work together nearly all the time.  His name is Joe Feingold.  He is a second class motor machinists mate so he has charge of the diesel boats.  I am the only other one in the auxiliary gang with diesel experience or school so will probably help with the boats.

A whaleboat such as the one Lester mentioned in his October 10 letter. This one is on display on the deck of the USS North Carolina museum, Wilmington, NC.
A whaleboat such as the one Lester mentioned in his October 10 letter. This one is on display on the deck of the USS North Carolina museum, Wilmington, NC.

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Four of us, two coxwains, Feingold and myself, took one of the boats today and went up the river to town.  I had never run the boat before so I took care of the engine.

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The boats are steered by a coxswain who handles the rudder.  He rings a bell to signal to the engineer.  One bell means go ahead slowly, two means stop, three means reverse and four means full speed.  I enjoyed it a lot.  Some places the water was a little rough, but not bad. The waves weren’t over a foot high.  The most fun was when we would meet another boat and their waves hit us.  We always headed into a large wave so it wouldn’t come over the side and swamp us.  When we hit a large wave it would pick us up then drop us.  We planned on going out all afternoon but we had to bring the boat aboard after dinner so didn’t get to go.

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I don’t know why my letter was so long in getting to you.  Yours usually get here in two days though it sometimes takes longer.

I lost my watch tonight but it was my own fault.  I had taken it off in the washroom and was washing when chow call blew.  In my hurry I forgot to pick it up.  A bunch of apprentice seamen came aboard this evening and some of them came in just as I left for the mess hall.  I didn’t miss it until I had finished supper but it was gone when I got back there.  If some of the older crew had found it, they would have turned it in and I could have claimed it.  It may turn up yet.

How is the scrap drive turning out back home?  You should see the junk that is piled up in the streets here in Philly.  They had a big drive for scrap and there is sure lots of it.  It has been accumulating in the streets for almost two weeks.

Yes I got the cake from Frances okay.  It was mashed a little but it was still fresh–and good!

Yes the trains are crowded and so are all other means of transportation.  Quite often I stand up because I haven’t learned to shove quite as well as most of the people here. I also don’t like to occupy a seat when some ladies have to stand.  Men around here wouldn’t stand for their own grandmother.  Sometimes I feel like knocking their teeth out for them.

There aren’t any mountains around here or on the way to Washington.  There were some hills but no mountains.  I did see some mountains around Johnstown in western Pennsylvania as we came from the Lakes.  They weren’t very large though.  Yes, Philly is on the Delaware river.  I don’t have a map either so I don’t know much about the size of the states or the route I traveled.

(Sunday night)

I didn’t get to finish this last night so will try again tonight.  We fueled ship today for several hours.  A tugboat brings the oil barge alongside then the oil is pumped into our tanks.  No smoking is allowed while fueling ship.  Wednesday we are to go down the river for a trial run.  It lasts only a day, tho.

I’ll have to close now.

Love to all.

Lester

 

 

On Board the Gherardi

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Lester’s life changed quickly from study and preparation in Detroit to assignment on a battleship in World War II. His ship, the USS Gherardi, was a Gleaves Class destroyer. It served through WWII and the Korean War, later being pulled from service. Its story ended in June 1973 when it was sunk off Puerto Rico as a target ship. Since the Gherardi no longer exists, I will illustrate many of Lester’s upcoming letters with photos from the USS North Carolina, now a museum in the harbor at Wilmington, North Carolina. Though the North Carolina was a different class ship, one can imagine Lester roaming its decks like he did the Gherardi.

Thursday morn

Aug 20 – 1942

Dear Folks.

I have a few minutes before going to work so I’ll write a few lines.  I’m working in the sail locker now so I won’t have to do any mess cooking.  The sail locker has charge of all hammocks, seabags & ropes.

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I eat chow at six, ten-thirty & three-thirty.  Pretty early isn’t it?  I like it pretty well here now.  By the way, I think that I misspelled the name of my ship.  It is spelled “Gherardi”.  It will be quite a long time before she will be ready to leave.  It is all steam so I won’t have a chance to use my Diesel knowledge.  Maybe I can get transferred later to a Diesel.  I’m studying on steam every night.

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Its time for me to go so I  must close.

Love to all

Lester

 

 

The Gherardi, second from left, waits in harbor with other ships in its class. 1942
The Gherardi, second from left, waits in harbor with other ships in its class. 1942

In a document stored with Lester’s letters is a page of specs on the USS Gherardi. There is no indication who might have written this description, but it was obviously someone very familiar with the ship. The Gherardi was 348′ 3 5/8″ long, with a width of 36′ 1″. The tonnage, fully loaded, would approximate 2600 tons with an expected mean draft of 13’8″.

Additionally:

“The ship will be driven by twin screws, turbine driven. The rudder is of the balanced type on a streamline form, carried entirely on the rudder stock. There are two bower anchors, one port and one starboard–each weighing nearly 3000 pounds and each bent to 109 fathoms of 1 1/8” steel die locked chain.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA On each side is carried one 26′ Diesel powered motor whaleboat with a capacity of 24 men each. There are also 8 balsa wood floats, capacity 25 men each.

A Whaleboat
A Whaleboat

“There are two firerooms (boiler rooms) and two enginerooms divided from forward aft into fireroom, engineroom, fireroom, and engineroom in that order. The forward engineroom drives the starboard shaft and propellor, and the after engineroom drives the port shaft and propellor. Each fireroom has two high pressure boilers, numbered in order, 1 and 2 forward, 3 and 4 aft. If it is desired, boilers 1 and 2 may be used to drive the after boilers and similarly, boilers 3 and 4 can be used to drive the forward engine. Under wartime conditions we use both engines with one forward and one after boiler.

“The tank capacities are: Fuel oil and reserve–129,373 gallons; fresh water and reserve feed–25,442 gallons; Diesel oil (can be also used to mix with fuel oil for boilers)–11,336 gallons.

 “Contrary to many rumors, the Gherardi will not exceed a maximum speed of forty knots by much. However, that is very fast for a surface ship of this size and type.

“The main battery of the Gherardi will consist of 4, 5″ 38 caliber guns in mounts, two forward and two aft. These guns can be elevated to 85 degrees, almost straight up, for fire at planes and are the main defense against high level bombing attacks as well as surface targets. The maximum effective range of the 5” 38s is about 15,000 yards on the surface and with their director and computor are the last word in naval gunnery.

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“The anti-aircraft battery is also the latest type and consists of four 20 MM Oerlikon anti-aircraft machine guns and two twin mount 40 MM anti-aircraft machine guns. The 20s are located, one on each side of the superstructure deck and one on each side of the admidships deck house. These 20MM guns shoot a maximum of 450 half-pound high explosive shells per minute each, and are very effective against dive bombers and low-level attacks. The 40 MM anti-aircraft machine guns, located on the top of the after deck house, shoot a larger projectile and have a longer range. They fire at a maximum rate of 80 rounds per barrel per minute.

“One quintuple tube torpedo mount is located on the centerline admidships between the stacks and can be trained for attacks on either side of the ship. The latest type 21”, 21 ft. torpedo is fired from this mount on the Gherardi.

“On the fan tail are two depth charge racks holding eight 600 lb. depth charges for rolling off the stern. On each side of the after part of the ship are three “K” guns for projecting the 300 ob. depth charges to each side.

“Also on the fan tail is located a smoke screen generator, for laying down a screen. This device can be rolled off the stern by pulling a lever in case the dangerous chemicals contained are let loose by accident.

“The Gherardi, as a typical destroyer, will carry no protective armor plate that will stop any projectile larger than a .50 caliber bullet. However, a very extensive damage control system and water tight integrity have proven to be effective on similar ships so that they have been able to sustain direct hits from torpedoes and remain afloat. The well-designed sprinkling and flooding system, if used correctly, should prevent any loss by fire.”

 

The Gherardi under construction in the Philadelphia harbor, 1942. Photo credit LIFE.
The Gherardi under construction in the Philadelphia harbor, 1942. Photo credit LIFE.