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[[from the late Stanley G. DeBoer’s in-retirement writing class in the late 1990’s.]]
CRISIS AT SEA
As World War II neared its end, I was Master-at Arms on the ARD-13, an auxiliary repair dock. Thirteen may be an unlucky number, but that was a lucky vessel.
We had reached Okinawa and neither I nor the ship had been endangered by enemy action. We soon would, however, face a day of real danger, but it would come from the sea.
When the shooting stopped, we were ordered to Tokyo Bay to begin hauling other vessels back stateside or to Hawaii. About halfway to Japan we ran into strong winds and high seas. Just as dawn was breaking one morning, the Battle Stations gong brought us flying up to the deck to face a serious problem.
Here I should explain how our ship moved. We had no means of propulsion; no propellers nor engines to drive them. Every place we went we were towed by a huge, powerful ocean-going tug on the end of a half mile of cable. In the high seas, somehow the cable had parted and now we were adrift, sliding up and down thirty foot waves.
The ship’s speakers shouted, “Damage control party to the fo’c’sle deck!” Men went running and I went along with them. The tow cable hung limp, straight down from our bow. The wheelhouse ship-to-ship radio was switched to the deck speakers so we could hear messages coming from the tug captain. He had hauled in his end of the cable and found the huge iron swivel coupling in the middle had mysteriously broken. He advised us to take in our cable and stand by to receive his heaving line after he circled back to come alongside.
We were lucky this occurred at dawn; darkness would have made such operations far more difficult.
Seeing we were in no immediate danger and noticing we were all in our skivvies and barefoot, our captain ordered the steward to bring clothes for him to the wheelhouse and sent everyone not on watch below to dress warmly and then return to damage stations.
As the tug came up near our bow, about one hundred feet off our starboard side, his heaving line cannon fired and the line arched toward us, but struck the ship’s side a foot below our deck. You could hear the tug captain’s unprofessional, but highly appropriate curses as he moved past and began a second wide circle toward our stern.
Again he moved up along-side, closer this time. The heaving line cannon barked, the line arched toward us and, again, hit just below our deck. Again, he veered off. As he did his voice came over the speakers, “Captain, this time I’m coming along-side so damned tight I can kiss you; stand by!” This time he moved up along-side and, true to his word, he was only ten to twelve feet away; literally under our overhang as we rode about twenty feet higher than the tug.
The little cannon cracked again and this time the heaving line shot clear across our deck. A dozen anxious hands grabbed the line and took a quick turn around the deck cleat. The first step had been taken.
At that moment there came a rending crash under our bow. The huge waves had lifted the tug up just as our ship slid down another wave. The railing on the port side of the tug had come up like a huge ice cream scoop, scraped our side, caught the edge of a steel plate and peeled it out as rivets popped!
The loud speaker boomed, “Captain, I’ve holed your hull, but I think it’s above your waterline. Better lay below and check it – fast! We are bending on a light hawser on the line. Heave away.”
Tying a line around his waist, our captain leaned far out over our life lines, looked at the damage and shouted, “Damage Party to the chain locker, crash mats and timber!” Half the men on the bow deck rushed aft and down ladders to the chain locker two decks below.
As emergency repairs began below, the rest of us began reconnecting the cable. The light hawser was reeled in on our second power capstan, bringing aboard a heavier manila hawser. This was secured to a heavy bow cleat with about twenty feet of the end free. Then, as the tug slowly pulled about two football fields ahead of us, we wound that hawser around our power capstan and slowly hauled it in, hundreds of yards of it, until we captured the new heavy iron swivel coupling on the end of the tug’s steel cable.
It took three strong men to heave this swivel coupler into place, but we got it fastened to our cable.
All of this had taken a couple of hours. Now came the tricky, dangerous part. We were being slowly towed by the large four-inch hawser which now was under tremendous strain. Somehow we had to transfer that strain to the steel cable.
Against all Navy regulations, our captain grabbed a fire axe, told four of us to hold the line around his waist, braced himself against the roll of the deck and drove the axe into the hawser. Fibers flew as the axe severed about half of it. He swung again and the axe cut through more. In a pinwheel of flying wet fibers, the cut virtually exploded, throwing the axe out of the captain’s grip and over the side. The hawser went limp, the cable snapped taut and took the strain. Our crisis was over!
Over the next hour, the tug slowly pulled ahead to the desired half mile and we gradually resumed speed to ten knots. The seas continued high all day, but now we moved through the waves and our twenty degree roll ended.
We secured everything on deck and learned it was now past noon. Suddenly we were terribly hungry, but leave it to our skipper to take care of his crew. Shortly the loudspeakers announced, “First table chow down.” There the crew found a special heavy meal with, of all things, mounds of Vienna sausage!
All was well again on the ARD-13!
- - - - -
[[ addendum: Dad told me that the executive officer proposed writing up the captain’s brave action for a possible commendation or medal and was told “Don’t do that! You might get me court-martialed!”
I regret that have not been able to discover the captain’s name.
However, a further insight into his character was gained when, on the long slow trip back from Tokyo Bay, he ordered a stop to the sailor’s busy-work of painting: on the grounds that “If you put any more paint on this old tub, she’ll capsize!”
For any surviving crew members who might see this, S. G. DeBoer was 30 years old in 1946 and also known as “Whitey”. He got the nickname as a child and young man because his hair and eyebrows were extremely blond (Swedish & Dutch ancestry). I don’t think the term entered the black vernacular until the ‘60’s. ]]
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