Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Living Legend

By Elmer Lyle Jones

I was born June 7, 1920 Ottawa County, Kansas and nearly departed this world June 6, 1942 in the deep, deep water of the Pacific Ocean after the Battle of Midway.

I was the last of four children and my mother died when I was just six years old; my oldest sister was twelve. Believe me we were dirt poor. I heard a man say they were as poor as church mice and I told him that was nothing, the church mice brought us care packages. But, my father managed to keep us together and got us through high school during the terrible depression and horrible dust storms.

After graduating high school in Minneapolis, Kansas, there was not much to look forward to in the future. The economy had picked up a little by 1939 but not much. One of my classmates told me he heard I was a pretty good tractor driver and of course, not being the bashful type, I told him I was the best. He said his dad told him if I would help them harvest the wheat I could stay and help with the plowing and reseeding the next crop. That sounded real good, but the last day of harvest the old man told me that he and his son talked it over and they guessed they could put the wheat in by themselves.

Instead, when I got to town, I went right in and signed up for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Dad was not too pleased when I told him about it. In less than a week, I was in the C.C.C. camp at Marysville, Kansas. I wish to state right here, that was one of the most hard-working organizations I was ever connected with and I really enjoyed it. One day my barracks mate was reading the local paper and looked at me and said,"Jones, the Navy recruiting officer will be here next Thursday.  Let’s go down and join.”  Now, I only weighed 110 pounds soaking wet. I had never even seen a body of water bigger than the county lake.

On top of that, I was so afraid of water if I was watching a movie and it showed a ship sinking I would get up and leave, and come back in after I figured it was over. When we reported for our physical the recruiter told him he was too fat but looked at me and said, “We can build this boy up.” Six years and fourteen days later when I was discharged I weighed 118 pounds.

About a week later, I went home for the weekend and when I got back there was a letter for me telling me to report to Topeka, Ks, by 10:00 a.m. Monday. I had no automobile but I got on the train and when I got there the chief told me they already sent their quota. Then he said, "Have you got any money?" I said yes and he told me if I wanted to pay my own way to Kansas City someone might be rejected and I could take his place. The train was ready to leave, so he took my money and ran in to get the ticket. We were moving when he came out and handed me my ticket to K.C. Now I want you to understand I had not been on a train since I was four years old, so when the conductor came through and announced, "All off for Kansas City," I got off. I did not realize there was also a Kansas City Missouri. Where I got off I was told later was an elevated station and you could go down a stairs and catch a cab. Instead, I started walking down the tracks after my train.

Now I must have been about a mile into the town when I saw a building ahead with a sign that said “Swift and Company.”  I was going in to ask for help but when I got there a policeman was standing out by the building, so I told him my sad tale and he said, "You got any money?”  I told him I did so he called a cab and I heard him tell the driver, "You get this boy over to the federal building and don't spare the horses. If anyone says anything you tell them to come see me."  It was almost 5:00 p.m. but we made it. No one was rejected but they took me anyway. We got on the train for Chicago and when the porter came and made up the beds, I was standing in the aisle and there was no bunk for me. I had just made up my mind to go sit in the smoker all night when a kid named Alvin Gugelman from Bern, Kansas stuck his head out and said, "Don't you have a bunk?" I told him no and he said, "If you aren't afraid of me, crawl up here and sleep with me.” And I did.  We were together for four years after that. I did not know this boy and I do not believe I would do that in this day and age.

I did not enjoy boot camp. Although I did not particularly hate it, I certainly did not like getting up at 4 a.m. to take down my hammock and go to the basement and scrub it. We had to do this once a week.  After I got aboard my ship I recognized how important it was for them to teach us cleanliness. When you have that many men in close proximity cleanliness is a primary concern to all. If memory serves me right, training was twelve weeks, and then we were transferred to the outgoing unit. They put a list of the available ships on a bulletin board, lined us up alphabetically and told us to pick what ship we wanted to go to. There were four of us who had become good friends and wanted to stay together. The three of them wanted to go to a big ship, but I wanted to go on a destroyer. Well, most all the men wanted a big ship and I thought by the time we got our pick all the big ones would be taken as our names were Alvin Gugleman, Elmer Jones, Marshall Jones and Bernie Pierce. So I said if there is a big ship left when we get up there I will go on it with you but if there is not you will pick the destroyer USS Hammann (DD – 412), and of course I won.

In May 1940, we were sent to the Norfolk Navy Yard to pick up our ship. We had to take a Ferry across the bay and when we got off as we were waiting for the bus I told Marshall Jones, “Let’s get off this floating dock.” He looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with you? This is a concrete pier." It felt to me like I was just floating up and down and by the time we got to the base I was so sea sick I could not eat supper. I thought, "My god, I signed up for six years of this."

Our first foreign port was Guantanamo, Cuba. When you go through the locks of the Panama Canal you have to keep up steam as though you were at sea. A little old destroyer, when it is down in the bottom of the locks is just like hell, as far as heat is concerned. It got so hot one of the fire extinguishers popped off. I for one was glad when that was over.

We finally ended up in the south pacific and all we did was train, train and train. If you had the 12 to 4 watch you would just about get in your bunk and they would sound “General quarters, general quarters. Man all battle stations.” Then they would say, “This is a drill.” If the big ships went into Pearl Harbor we had to be on patrol to guard against attack. That was why it was so hard to believe it when we heard about the attack. I remember one time Marshall Jones, (no relation) and I were sitting on the after deck house in Pearl Harbor waiting for a movie to start and he remarked, "Elmer, you know the (Japanese) could come right over those mountains from the north and we would not even know it till they hit us".  I do not think he realized how accurate he was. Marshall Jones was killed at Midway.

I am sure it was at Christmas Island where we made our first stop and in those days when you were in port the tables were set with china plates. They no sooner had the tables set when a huge ground swell came in and tipped the ship over to such an angle all the plates slid off the tables and most, if not all, were broken. That is the last time I saw china plates in the Navy.

One day the engineer officer, Lt. Marvin G. Kennedy stopped me on topside and said, "Jones, I have checked the liberty list and you have not been ashore lately."  Now can you imagine him doing that? He was strictly regulation, if the (regulations) said you should be hanged he would do it without a second thought, but if they said you got a break he would be just as quick to do everything in his power to see you got it. I always told my buddies if you know the regulations you know exactly where you stand with Kennedy.

Any how, he told me we were having a beer bust and a ball game this afternoon and I said, "Mr. Kennedy, I do not drink beer and I do not play ball." He informed me there would be soft drinks and sandwiches, and made it perfectly clear that I would be there. This little harbor we were anchored in was called La Haina Roads, Hawaii. There was a big hotel there as I remember and it is the only building that I remember.  In there they had a bar and I got started drinking Tom Collins and got drunk as a skunk. Who do you think was officer of the deck when two of my shipmates, one on each side helped, actually carried, me up the gangway. I had acquired a coconut and in my drunken attempt to salute the Flag and the officer of the deck I dropped my coconut and dropped down on my knees and went crawling after it. The last thing I remember was hearing Mr. Kennedy say, "Get him below decks." He would not speak to me for two weeks after that.
Mr. Kennedy was a submarine man and I thought nothing could ever affect him. After the Hammann sank and we got back to San Francisco, The Yorktown and Hammann pooled their ships’ service funds and rented a ballroom. There were more U.S.O. girls there than I had ever seen.  Mr. Kennedy was there and as he shook hands with us there were big tears in his eyes. He really was human after all.

In May of 1940 we got orders to go to the Atlantic on neutrality patrol escorting ships taking supplies and troops to Europe. So, we went back through the Panama Canal. The North Atlantic was the most horrendous physical duty of my six years in the Navy. It was the only time I even considered missing the ship intentionally. When they told us we had to make another trip to Iceland most of us would have given anything not to go. Anything you did on topside you risked you life. You could not eat or sleep in a normal manner; you had to strap yourself in your bunk. Sometimes they just strapped large pans of boiled potatoes and Beef and bread on the mess tables and you walked by to grab some bread and meat for a sandwich then grab a cold potato to go with it and then look for a place where you could brace yourself until you finished eating.

In the engine room on the centerline of the ship is an instrument, I do not recall what it is called, that records the list of the ship. You cannot force it to go out further but you can bring it back to zero. Once we rolled over to 69 degrees. I am pretty sure that is correct. When we got in to port and entered the Boston Navy Yard they read it and said that was impossible and if we did then we would not come back up. But we did. The men in the fire room said we dipped water in the boiler stack. It was certainly not a pleasure cruise. One man went topside to get to his watch station when a big wave caught him and threw him over a gun mount. Luckily it slammed him down on deck. He broke his shoulder and I was told the movement of the ship was so painful they strapped him down in the commander’s chair and kept him doped up so he could stand it. I do not know what happened to him after that.

Few people knew that we were engaged in a sea war with German submarines at that time. As I understand it we could take convoys of ships over to England but as long as we did not go within a set distance from shore they were not to fire torpedoes at our Navy ships. But when we got to Iceland, I believe the USS Kearny was there with a hole in her side from a German torpedo. One strange sight was an old whaling ship that can drop the stern of the ship down and pull a whale in for processing. I do not know if the ship had listed just as a torpedo hit or if the torpedo skipped but the torpedo was a dud and was sticking about half way into the ship, I would judge, about six to eight feet above the waterline.

We were in Iceland when we were told the (Japanese) hit Pearl Harbor, which I believe is about as far as you can get from Pearl Harbor on this earth. It turned out to be a little more of a job than we thought. That is one time I was glad to be in Iceland. We returned immediately to Charleston South Carolina.

When we heard we were going to Charleston S.C. I among others thought “good we will be down south where it is warm”. Did we ever get fooled. We tied up to a dock and went on cold iron watch. For those who are not familiar with that statement that means we secured our boilers and took steam from the yard facilities. You cannot imagine on a completely metal ship how penetrating the cold can be.

I had been working cleaning and painting the bilges all day and wanted to take a shower before going ashore. Someone told me there was no hot water but I said I would not put on my dress blues without a shower.  You talk about cold; it made Iceland feel like a tropical paradise. I went right over to the Charleston hotel rented a room, filled the tub full of hot water and jumped in. Do not remember how long it took me to thaw out.

We went back through the Panama Canal and I thought we would really hit full speed and go directly to Pearl Harbor but we just eased along at 2/3 speed and the water was so smooth it was monotonous. After two days we went to full speed and when we to Mare Is. they made a lot of repairs and changes. I do not remember how long we stayed there but I do remember that the full impact of how serious things were had not sunk in on us yet.

When we got to Pearl Harbor we could hardly believe our eyes at the devastation the Japanese had caused. I have always been of the opinion that if they had brought with them to Pearl Harbor what they brought to Midway they would have taken Hawaii. That would have made a different war of it.
I do not remember when we left Pearl and headed out to the southwest Pacific. I think everyone was rather apprehensive about this trip. It was certainly a new experience for all of us. It was like on the job training but if you don't do your job right you might all die. I really thought we would go right out, hunt them down and slug it out. Had no concept of how much jockeying for a favorable position they had to do and how important that would be for the pilots who had to know where the enemy was and wonder if they had gas enough to make it there and back. It seemed like we sailed around day after day doing nothing but drills and staying alert.

We set a record for continuous days underway, 111 or 117 I cannot remember for sure but heard that record was broken later. We would take oil from a tanker at sea and sometimes we would even get mail. I was glad when we would go along side a British supply ship for supplies because they would usually give us honey and the cooks would make soda biscuits and that was a treat for me. When they gave us a bunch of mutton, I was upset. There was even a story going around that Gen. MacArthur had a sheep ranch in Australia and we were required to use so much mutton. When they put mutton in the stew I usually would try to steal some Spam and bread to take to the engine room and fry the Spam and have a sandwich. We were underway so long the devastation we saw at Pearl Harbor seemed almost unreal. Was this a ghost war?  I remember a kid from Chicago and I were laying on the deck up forward and they had music playing on the loud speaker system and the sea breeze was really nice. He said to me, "You know kid, this is the easiest war I have ever fought." We had a good laugh about that. About two hours later we were fighting for our lives.

My battle station was on the lower deck on pump watch. I saw nothing that went on topside. It is hard to be a coward on a ship. A destroyer is only 327 feet long so you can't run anywhere, you just stay on your station and sweat a lot more than usual. You soon develop an attitude that the only thing you can do is your particular job and you hope everyone else does too. If any man fails to do his task right it can cost the ship and many lives.

After the battle was over I went down and went to bed. The Lexington had been badly damaged but they made some repairs and I believe were making 15 knots. I had just gotten to sleep when someone woke me up and said, "Do you want to see the Lexington go down?" I thought he was kidding but went topside and the Lexington was a mass of flames. The word to abandon ship had been passed and we had a boat in the water to pick up the men. If I remember right we lost that boat and its crew. As I recall the destroyer Morris was in close to the carrier and when planes started exploding they got excited and backed out so fast it tore a section of his bridge off.

Commander True then moved Hammann in close and continued to pick up survivors. I remember a mess attendant came down a rope off the flight deck and the rope ended about 6 feet above the water. He would not let go and all the time explosions would shoot burning parts out over the Hammann. Finally someone jumped in the water and swam under him and told him to let go and he would help him, so he did. We were all glad that was over. I heard that as it was getting dark we torpedoed the Lexington so the (Japanese) would not see it burning and that ended the Coral Sea Battle.

After the battle we were all low on oil and the (Japanese) had sunk our tanker so we had to lay in port at the Tonga Islands to wait for another tanker. They had sent the tanker Neosho to where they thought it was out of danger from air raids and the destroyer Sims was with it to protect it from submarines but the (Japanese) did find them and sent planes which sank them both.

After we had refueled and headed for Pearl Harbor we knew the Yorktown had been badly damaged so we figured we would all get a nice long rest. We did not know what was planned for us. We did think it was strange they brought some engineers out to meet the Yorktown but later we learned of the urgency involved. Midway beckoned.

It was time to head for Midway.  We were reluctant to do so nearly 60 years ago. We knew something big was about to happen but they did not tell us what it was until after we got underway and in the interest of security I can understand why. Surprise was about the only thing we had going for us. We can all thank commander Joseph Rochefort for that, he was the one who tricked the enemy to reveal where they were coming to and even figure out where they would first be sighted. The American people can be thankful to this day that we had admirals like Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance and Fletcher to mention a few to figure out what to do. We must remember this was a lot like on the job training for most of those involved. The Japanese had done some of this before but we had not.

The only thing that made you aware of the battle was the frenzy of speed and if their bombs missed the carrier and we had a near miss and you might hear or feel the jar. We were always screening the carrier Yorktown and of course they were not going to waste a bomb on a destroyer if there was still a Carrier afloat. As Norman W. Shaw, one of our signalmen wrote in his book "Screened Her Going Down" That is exactly what we did.

We were elated when we heard the results of the battle. I was on the 1JV phones, which was the communication between the bridge and the controlling engine room and what little I could hear during the battle was rather discouraging. But it was hard to believe our ears when we heard the final reports. When they passed the word on Yorktown to abandon ship we pulled in close to pick up the survivors, I do not know how many we picked up.

After things settled down and they decided to try to salvage the Yorktown, Hammann’s commander was picked or volunteered to take the able-bodied men who had gotten off Yorktown and go back to see if they could save the Yorktown. Hammann tied up to the injured ship so we could furnish electric leads to submersible pumps and fire hoses to fight the fires that were still burning. That is why we sank so fast. We had no watertight integrity whatever.  I have read where we sank anywhere from 90 seconds to 4 minutes.

All morning I had manned the foam generator to fight fire on the stricken ship. We had a twin cartridge unit where you could switch back and fourth to replace one cartridge while the while the other was being expended. The crew who were on the 8-12 morning watch was there and I remember the Chief of the watch was just pacing back and forth with an agitated look on his face and I saw something hard to believe. Enlisted men were never to touch a commissioned officer and vice-versa, but the engineering officer Mr. Ray, walked around in front of the CMM took him by the shoulders looked him right in the eye and said "Chief, settle down there is nothing to worry about. If anything should happen we have a tug out here that can pull us out of here at a moment’s notice.” I do not believe Mr. Ray saw me there or he would have called the chief to one side first. The chief did not want to close that bulkhead steam stop. I thought Mr. Ray was correct. I felt just as safe as if I was standing out in the middle of a Kansas wheat field. Within six hours Mr. Ray was dead. The next time I saw the chief he was sitting in a bar called "The Lodge" at the corner of Turk and Larkin street in San Francisco and he was wearing a Warrant Officers uniform.

I have read some articles by a Japanese submarine commander and believe he said he launched the first torpedo around 1 p.m. so they must have been using a different time than we were. I am sure that I had 4 8 p.m. watch and I had been on pump watch on the lower deck about 10 minutes when I heard the 20 mm guns firing and thought my god it is an air raid but was sure there were no more enemy carriers in the area. The bridge rang up emergency astern but of course there was no steam. About that instant a torpedo hit and things flew everywhere. It was instant darkness; the generators were probably thrown out of alignment and stopped immediately. I am sure a second torpedo hit or went off underneath the Hammann and that is probably what broke the keel. I do not remember hearing abandon ship; it was obvious that we would have to. They always said wear your life jacket at all times, but few if any did. I always hung mine on the handrail and said I would grab it as I went up the ladder. That did not happen. When I got topside it suddenly occurred to me I had no life jacket. I saw a great big black lump on the deck and it dawned on me that it was the life jackets the Yorktown survivors had left there and they were completely covered with old black oil that flew all over when the torpedoes ruptured the fuel oil tanks. I rammed my hand in as far as I could and pulled one out and saint be praised it was a good one.

I started aft and went from port to starboard at mid ship and this put me directly under our nest of torpedo tubes. Now I knew next to nothing about them, but there was a cable that ran from the torpedo back to the tube they were in and I had asked a torpedo man what that was for and he told me that when they were fired that would pull a strip of metal out of the torpedo and then they were armed. All of these cables had been pulled. The motors, or whatever they are called, were running wide open and made a hell of a noise and I thought good lord if they have magnetic warheads they could go off any time. I do not know to this day if they were magnetic or not. I ran as fast as I could for the stern and it was already about 15 feet out of the water. I saw four other men who had not jumped yet. One was a torpedo man who was checking the safety settings on the depth charges.  The other three were taking off their shoes so I did too and we placed them all in a neat row, don’t ask me why, and got ready to jump. If I live to be 100 I will never be able to describe the feeling at that time.

If you jump in the ocean, the ship could suck you down or if it blew up it would probably kill you, but if you ride the ship down you knew damn well you were dead. It did not take long to decide. All four of us jumped at the same time. The ship had started sliding bow first and we all yelled for the torpedo man to jump but it was too late. He was killed. About that instant there was a terrific explosion. Great walls of water and fuel oil rolled over us and about the time you caught your breath and wiped the oil out of your eyes another wave would hit you. I came nearer to drowning than anything. I remember saying to myself ‘Mildred, your little brother will never be 22.’ (Mildred was my older sister.) Someone should have been baking me a birthday cake instead of trying to kill me. As you may remember I was born on June 7th.
When the waves quit hitting us one of the men next to me said, “You have blood running out of your nose, ears and mouth.” I replied, “So what, you do too.” We could not tell it ourselves. What really hurt on me was my back. I do not think it was injured but between the nerves and cold water I thought my back would break.

I finally got a hold of a raft and hung on until the USS Benham picked us up. The Benham had rigged cargo nets over the side for us to climb aboard. Now, a rope cargo net is not the easiest thing to climb when you are well and I got almost to the top and just gave out. One of our fire room men who had made it aboard saw I was about done for and he said, “Here, Jonesie, give me your hand,” and he pulled me aboard and laid me down by the fire room hatch. He set on the other side and the next day I asked someone where Carl Hunstein was and they told me he got killed. I told them I knew better because he had helped me aboard and they said right after that someone went over to talk to him and he was sitting there dead. Anyhow, after he laid me down some men came by with a stretcher and were taking me aft to the crew’s quarters and they had already started dumping dead ones over the side. When they were ready to dump one they would blow a whistle and everyone was supposed to come to attention. They set my stretcher down, I raised my head and they had me lying right in line with the dead bodies. I made sure to let them know I was still alive. Of course I was covered with oil and they were taking my clothes off and were going to take my bill fold when I said wait a minute and took a $20 bill out of it. About two weeks before we were hit I smoked Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco and on watch one night, my tobacco can was empty and I took the lead foil out of the can and wrapped the $20 bill in it and the electrician on watch wanted to know what that was for so I told him you never know when something might happen and I would have a clean bill to spend and it did keep it clean. Premonition? I forgot to tell that they came down through us dropping depth charges and said they sunk the Sub. But that proved wrong. Remember all this happened in four minutes or less on account of having no water tight integrity. I do not know how I could move so fast.

When the Benham started for Pearl Harbor they went up to flank speed and when you do that on a destroyer the crew’s quarters really shake, but they thought the main thing was to get us to the hospital. Finally the doctor asked the commander of the ship to slow down because the vibration was killing the men. The doctors had no experience with these types of injuries so they cut one of the dead men open to see what they were dealing with and they said their intestines looked like they had been shot with buckshot and were full of holes. On the way in, one of the men gave his keys to another man and told him, “If they don’t do something for me soon, I will jump over the side.” The next morning at role call he was not there. When we got to Pearl Harbor Admiral Nimitz was there to greet us. They sent me up to a mobile hospital that they called the Red Hill.  I was there about two weeks and then we were all sent back to Treasure Island.  There was a new ship ready to go into commission, and said all who wanted to stay together could go aboard it. The new ship was the USS Gansevoort DD 608 so my days on the USS Hammann (DD 412) were done.

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