( The USS Conklin DE 439 had been heavily damaged, nearly sunk in a typhoon off Okinawa June, 1945, and had to return to the United States for repair. On the last section of her trip, her last voyage, she was escorted by the Sullivan Squadron)
9 July 1945
The CONKLIN had been escorted from Pearl Harbor back to the United States by the Sullivan Squadron of 5 destroyers; consisting of the USS The Sullivans DD-537 with the USS Miller DD-535, USS Owen DD-536, USS Stephen Potter DD-538, and the USS Tingey DD-539.
The squadron was named for the 5 Sullivan brothers, Albert, Francis, George, Joseph and Madison, who had grown up together in Iowa, enlisted in the Navy together in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and had insisted on serving together on the same ship despite the Navys reservations.
The brothers were assigned to the cruiser USS JUNEAU CL-32, and in November of that year the ship was torpedoed and sunk. All 5 brothers were killed in that battle at Guadacanal in a story too sad for me to bear to repeat. Only 10 of the nearly 800 crewmen of the USS JUNEAU survived.
When President Roosevelt heard of the JUNEAU disaster and the fate of the five brothers, he was profoundly moved. He wrote to their parents that an entire nation shared their sorrows. The President directed that the next ship to be commissioned be named the USS THE SULLIVANS, not the more usual USS Sullivan. President Roosevelt wanted the name to capture the essential ingredient of the story - the commitment and self-sacrifice of a family of average Americans stirred to great deeds.
That the CONKLIN was escorted home from the war by the Sullivan Squad is replete with meanings. My Dad would have been 15 and a sophomore in high school when he learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many of those who became the crew of the CONKLIN were so young then. Imagine, if you cannot remember, the emotions of young men, and what urges to protect family and country must have been stirred in their hearts to hear of such an assault. Think what they saw next, as their fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, and neighbors changed before their eyes from someone they thought they knew into something else.
Ernie Pyle writes about it best, this transformation, in his book 'Brave Men'. Warfare reveals a deep part of a mans soul. A part he knows is always there, but that the rest of us rarely or never get a chance to see. And I think that part is his true self, for good or bad, and he knows it.
It is with a sense of wonder that I think about the men I knew as I was growing up, my relatives and neighbors, and try to imagine these family men who I remember from summer picnics and Thanksgiving dinners as they must have been in WWII. There is my Uncle Jimmie Rauch, paint salesman and football fan. I try to imagine him as a waist-gunner on a B17 Flying Fortress in North Africa as his plane screams through the air amid a hail of enemy fire. I think about my gentle Uncle Bob Frank, good father and husband, now so quiet, and I try to picture him in the middle of bloody chaos as an infantryman crawling through the mud of Europe, and as witness to hell when liberating the concentration camps at Dachau. And even now I look at my neighbor William Hultgren who lives alone with his cat, and who is getting a bit bent and gray with age. As he walks slowly in the slanting morning sun to get his mail I wonder what he did to win his Bronze Star at the Battle of the Bulge. He wont tell me.
I think about these things and I am jealous. And sad. Because I realize that I could know these men, or my Dad, for decades and still at some level never understand them as well as I would if I had spent one week with them in combat in WWII.
Something deep in Thomas and Alletas five boys responded too, when their close friend was killed on the USS ARIZONA during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Sullivan brothers became instantly famous when they enlisted together, and they appeared in moviehouse newsreels and papers nationwide, including my Dads hometown of Pittsburgh. I know this because a young woman from Pittsburgh, Margaret Jaros, wrote to one of the brothers, Joseph Red Sullivan, when she saw his picture in the newspaper. He answered her letter, and they corresponded frequently after that. In May of that year, 1942, JUNEAU shipmate Bob McCann headed home to Pittsburgh on liberty, and Red, with his brother Francis Sullivan came along. Red paid a call on Margaret, and after a brief courtship they became engaged.
Im sure, then, that the boys of my Dads parochial high school in Pittsburgh, almost all of them poor and Irish Catholic, were very aware of the Sullivan brothers who were so much like themselves. They must have had a special bond to them, seen them as symbols of who they were and who they hoped to be.
In the hearts of my Dad, Uncle Jimmie and all of boys of North Catholic high school of Pittsburgh, in the hearts of all the young boys of that generation, when they learned at the end of 1942 that the JUNEAU had been sunk and all five Sullivan brothers had been killed in the battle for Guadacanal? There had to be a wave of horror and fear at this terrible news. But you already know what they did. They enlisted. My father even enlisted prematurely, during his minority. And since most of the crew of the CONKLIN were young men his age, who had only turned old enough to enlist in mid-war, they must have been influenced by the sacrifice of the Sullivan brothers too.
Many years later, my Dads life would be touched indirectly by the Sullivan brothers again. Long after the war, two of my fathers close friends would be Mr. and Mrs. Bill Dietrich. Mrs. Angie Dietrich had been born Angeline Caracciolo in Galeton, Pennsylvania. Her brother, Anthony Tony Caracciolo F1c was lost on the USS JUNEAU along with the Sullivan brothers. Tears will still come to Angies eyes when she speaks of her brother, and not long ago she traveled half way across the world to place a wreath on the waters where Tony died. There is no sense of time in the heart. There is no past. It is all now.
May I also here tell the young and foolish who belabor under such illusions of past and present that the brave, handsome, innocent, muscular, strong, funny, frightened, loving, determined young men of the CONKLIN are all still here. When a man ages, the young man does not leave but is merely added-on-to. We dont loose parts of our soul, we only acquire them. If you are speaking to a silverhaired grandfather and fail to see the passionate serviceman within him, it is not because that brave young man has gone, it is only because of your own failure to evoke him.
So perhaps in some symbolic way the Sullivan brothers that led the young sailors of the USS CONKLIN DE 439 out to the war also brought them home. When I try to picture it I see the CONKLIN in her haze gray and black camouflage paint and battered decks steaming across the huge flat expanse of the Pacific seas, the waters slate gray and embroidered like swiss lace with small white burst of sea foam. Around the CONKLIN like guards around a quarterback I see the 5 ships of the Sullivan Squadron, bright in the morning sunlight. But as quick as I imagine them, I cant help it, I see the shades of the Sullivan brothers themselves, so tall they could hold the destroyers in their hands like toys. Maybe they do. They are wearing their jaunty blue dress uniforms with those improbable ribbons on their hats, and have that gregarious smile the Irish have even when they are sober. Especially then, perhaps. Looming over the Sullivan brothers I see more figures. These figures are incredibly tall. I have the sense that they are protective, and gentle, but they are so huge that I cant make them out. I dont think Im supposed to be able to make them out. Not yet, anyway. I think they are angels.
Typhoons are a common event in the far Pacific, but 2 typhoons in particular are remembered for the devastation they caused the United States Navy in WW2. The first of what have been called Halseys typhoons occurred in December of 1944, during which 3 destroyers rolled over and sunk. Despite the efforts of Admiral Halsey and the nascent meteorological service he instituted, the US Navy was caught in a second severe typhoon in June of 1945 when ships from Admiral Jocko Clarks Task Group 1 which had been bombing Okinawa sortied east to meet a huge fleet train of supply ships several hundred miles east of Japan.
The following, is just one of the thousands of stories of courage and heroism that occurred in both typhoons as men battled for their lives and the lives of their fellow sailors.
After a night of high seas, wind and storm, the typhoon of June, 1945 reached its peak in the dark early morning hour of 5AM, at which time a freak wave hit the destroyer escort USS CONKLIN DE 439 and rolled her onto her side. The ship rolled more the 72 degrees, and lost all power. By rights the ship should have continued to roll and sink. A freak wave reportedly knocked the ship upright again.
Inside the crippled ship men were tossed like matchsticks in the dark, and Anthony J. Monti S1c was killed when he was thrown violently against a bulkhead. Outside, 4 brave men who had been attempting to pilot the ship were swept overboard from the Flying Bridge. Two of these were Lt. Peter Nicholas Meros, Gunnery Officer, and Rudolph Andrew Slavich S1c, who gave their lives. Also swept overboard were the young sailors Bridge Talker Frederick Morris GM2c and Signalman Striker Clifford Farr S1c. This is their story.
The CONKLIN had a rubber raft with an outboard motor. The raft was tied to the side of the ship. They had traded the Seabees for it, giving them a water motor-scooter they never used. It was strictly illegal, but ...
The CONKLIN also had regulation life rafts, rectangular and made from cork. When the ship rolled onto her side in the fury of the typhoon, a life raft tore loose from the starboard side, and the rubber raft tore loose as well. Because of these rafts, two lives were saved.
Ray Hoelzle S1c:
A gunners mate was washed over the side and washed back onto the fantail. I think his name was Morris. He was a bridge talker.
What follows is the story of Frederick Morris after he was washed overboard. To listen to him narrate his story in his deliberate, thoughtful, and wondering tone gives chills down the spine. His own incredulity at what happened, 55 years after the fact, is evident.
Bridge Talker Frederick W. Morris GM3c: **
I was on watch on the Flying Bridge. You couldnt talk to the other people on the Bridge because of the noise from the storm. I had speaker phones on. I saw this huge wave coming, and I thought -didnt everybody see it? I had to push Lt. Meros to get his attention, and I pointed at this huge wave off the port bow. Then this monstrous wave flipped us over on our side.
The water pushed Meros and me into a corner. It was so terrific I thought - how can we take it? I thought our ribs might break. Then I was floating around on the top of the ship. All I could see was white. I was holding onto the phone, it was all I had to hold on to. I figure I got this phone so I pulled on the wire so I could pull myself over to where it was plugged in. I pulled on it, and I just got a dead end.
Then I was just going over the side of the ship. There were two openings, one on each side of the Flying Bridge to come in and out, thats where we came out and down of. I was frightened I would hit something on the way down the side of the ship, but there was nothing, the ship must have just laid down on her side.
Then I was in the water and I saw a cork pontoon floating by me, and a rubber raft we had got a couple weeks before. They were both right there, can you believe it? I had to make a choice; which one do I grab? I got on the rubber one, which was probably the worst thing you could possibly do in a typhoon in those 120 mile per hour winds because they would flip it and send it flying. But the ship had rolled over starboard and believe it or not the water behind it was as calm as a millpond because of the how the wind was playing and the ship was like a wall.
I saw the ship -rolled to her side - coming at me. I could reach up and then all of a sudden I saw the ship coming down some more and I gave a leap and grabbed a scupper but the ship kept rolling over and I went underwater.
There were some life lines underwater and I grabbed a rail wire on a post and hung on. I could hold my breath pretty good. I was thinking How deep am I? -Ive got to let go, is the ship sinking? That would be the end of me so I let go and came up 50 to 80 feet away from the ship. I had my life jacket on and I had my rain gear on over that, but the life jacket made me pop right up to the surface.
Its just unbelievable what happened next but when I came up God help me the raft was right behind me again -can you believe that? I grabbed it and jumped up.
The ship was going past me. I was about 20 feet out and I saw guys running out on deck and hollering at me to jump, but I said I cant jump, it was too far. Then believe it or not the ship drifted aft back at me. Now I was about 10 feet out and I waited to the last second and I thought Ive got to take a chance and leap. I didnt have much time. A wave came at me again. I got a little closer and gave a leap and I grabbed a gunnel. Some man grabbed my arm. Then I was laying on the deck heaving water. I didnt know I had even swallowed any until it came up.
George Nelson M2c:
On the stern of the ship, at the rear ,was a Screw Guard, made out of 2.5 inch pipe. The propeller goes outside the hull, and the Screw Guard was a pipe frame welded to the hull around the propeller to keep it from hitting anything when we came into dock.
I was standing with the depth charge racks between us, which was safer and we saw this fellow coming to us on a raft. We were still rolling pretty hard. I went over the side rail and dropped down on the screw guard and put my arm out and grabbed him.
But the young signalman Clifford Farr was still lost.
The teenage Farr had washed off the other side of the ship than Morris, into turbulent, raging seas and lashing rain. That, or the swirling currents had spun him around to the other side of the ship. All he knows is that one moment he was standing by Lt. Heller on the Bridge, and the next he was hurling through the air. A split second later he was plummeting into the dark waters. He fought his way to the surface. He was close to the overturned vessel, and saw a cork raft being buffeted against the side of the ship. He grabbed it and tried to hold on.
Ray Hoelzle S1c:
Another look out striker, no older than me, got washed off the Conklin and made it to a cork life raft. It was a net of ropes with cork . We had a chance to talk to him. He said when he was in the water he couldnt breathe because of the spray and the raft kept turning over.
In the darkness of early morning the boundary between sea and sky itself must have been blurred and almost lost for the young sailor, with the foaming, breaking waves and torrential rains spun horizontal by the force of the typhoon. Clifford Farr was saved by the cork raft, and by his own determination.
Clifford Farr S1c:
I read somewhere that I was out there 3 hours, but thats not true. It was more like 30 minutes. I wouldnt have lasted that long. It wasnt the cold, it was that it took so much energy. I was a good swimmer, but that would have been too long for anybody.
During the typhoon the ships of the convoy had tried to stay miles apart to avoid collision. Farr was an almost invisible single point tossed in dark night seas, lost much of the time below the line of sight in the depths of the troughs of the waves. Without signal lights or flares, and with the howling winds obliterating any shout for help, his chance of rescue was virtually nonexistent. But in the third truly inexplicable event of this day he was seen and rescued by another destroyer escort, the USS Donaldson DE 44.
DECK LOG: DONALDSON DE 44
0715 - Sighted man on raft dead ahead all engines stopped. Maneuvering to pick up man.
0720 - FARR, C.S. off CONKLIN taken aboard, treated for shock and immersion.
Clifford Farr S1c:
The typhoon continued for hours, but the worst was over.
(Footnotes) Morris had gone over the side of the ship that was rolling into the water. In eerie coincidence the USS Donaldson DE 44 had a virtually identical experience in the typhoon of 12/44 as the Conklin had in the typhoon of 6/45, including the loss of 3 men and a roll of 78 degrees. When I suggest the hand of God saved Farr, Morris and the CONKLIN, in no way do I mean to imply that He abandoned Meros, Slavich and Monti who died. God reminded Job that we can not understand His ways. For all we know, these three men are much more fortunate than we are.
Update May 24, 2001
Since this article was written, Ms. McNamara has learned that George Caracciola, the brother of Tony Caracciola of the USS JUNEAU who died with the five Sullivan brothers, is a member of DESA. He served aboard USS HAMMANN (DE131). Angie (Caracciola) Dietrich says that George was reading his copy of DESANews (where this article first appeared in the Sept.-Oct. 2000 issue) and saw her and his brother's name and called up Angie.
Update January 30, 2003