Dangers at Sea
I could not have believed it possible for the wind to blow as it did. Stevenson borrowed a foul weather jacket and came to stand with me in the turret. We were grateful we were not back in the furnace room for now the ship was pitching and listing so violently there was no mere shovel that could have kept us from falling into the open flames. On deck it was less frightening. At first, we thought it was fun. “Whoa, holy hell, look at that wave, over there,” we’d cry and found it all amusing. But when the wind increased, and tore at our bodies, we now looked at each other in dismay. Was this really happening? Soon we stopped laughing. “I had better get back inside,” Stevenson said and I was alone. I was going to call him chicken but I knew in my heart I wanted to be with him.
The wind grew even more frightening. There’s no describing it. How can one describe a nightmare? It tore at my clothes, threatening to rip the buttons from my jacket.
I felt the flesh on my face distort with each blast of wind and I had to turn away to breathe. It was a monstrous thing, and the most monstrous thing about it was that it increased and continued to increase.
It was incredible! The sea, which had risen at first, was beaten down by that wind. It seemed as if the whole ocean might be sucked up into another sphere, another world. There could be no force now that could control this hellish thing we call a typhoon other than, perhaps, the very sea itself. The storm reached a point where the driving wind actually flattened the sea, but it did not reduce the swell. Often when I tried to find the LST to our starboard it had completely vanished from view, lost in the trough between two mighty waves, and then it would reappear, shedding water on every quarter as is it rose. How high were the waves? The masts on the LST were at least 40 feet above water. God forbid, when I looked again I remembered that LST. It was carrying 3rd Phib Corps Motor Pool, and Sammy was aboard. Poor Sammy. I knew him from Okinawa. Samuel Carver Washington. He was a driver and a mechanic with Motor Pool, a black man from Alabama. Blacks were not part of the fighting corps, but they did serve as drivers in motor pools. I saw Sammy at the docks when we were hipping out, and he said he was going to sleep on his 4X4 on deck. No way was he going below deck. The very thought of the ocean made him seasick. I wondered where he was now. I wondered if maybe even his 4X4 had washed overboard.
As time passed, it became so dark it could have been another day and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I had to get away for a spell and see what was happening below deck. I really wanted to be with my buddies. I told the deck officer I had to make a head call.
I descended the five sets of ladders and worked my way to the bow where my bunk was located. Here the ship tossed and heaved at its worst. The bow dropped so violently, it momentarily took one’s breath away. There was vomit everywhere, down the sides of the bunks, on the bulkheads, over the floors. It was dreadful! It made walking slippery, almost impossible. Men lost their balance as they dashed for the head, and they came down the isle head first, feet first, sidewise, rolling over and over, twisting and squirming. Now and again a man caught a grip on a bunk; but the weight of the bodies behind tore his grip loose. It was a melee, a curse, but as terrible as it was, there was still bantering and joking among the downtrodden men, even some laughter when someone went tumbling by.
I hadn’t been to the galley but we heard that it suffered the worst damage of all. A heavy cooking range broke away from its fastening and crashed from one side of the galley to the other taking out all the tables. It had to be lassoed like a wild steer before it could be stopped. They said Stretch should have been the one to do it, but at the time he couldn’t get out of his bunk.
I knew at once, no matter how terrifying the sea might be, I would be much better off topside. I went back to my turret. What happened next I shall never forget. The turret where I stood was a good 50 feet above water, but when the first sea-there were three that I recall-broke over the entire deck, in one mighty flush it flooded the turret. I was swept from my feet but managed to grab on to the railing. The second sea sent the LST to our port-Sammy’s LST was to our starboard-so far over in a roll that her whole underside became exposed. I was certain she would continue to roll and not right herself but she miraculously rose again. The third and worst sea was yet to come.
The situation continued to worsen. Had we not been in the path of the storm, conditions may have been better. “Who makes the decision for the Navy?” Stevenson asked when he came back on deck between lulls. He answered the question himself: “Someone back in the Pentagon says ‘steam ahead at all costs,’ and that’s what they do, at all costs. Would a day or two or three make any difference? Would those guys called communists do any more than they have done already?” He continued to rant about miscalculations and military ineptness, about the thousands of Marines who lost their lives at lwo because no one took time to consider the tides. He ranted but I lost his words in the roar of the sea, or maybe I just stopped listening. I was shaking from something more than the cold.
Stevenson had joined me during a lull, but in the absence of the wind and pressure, the sea rose. It jumped! It leaped! It soared straight up! It sprang up from every point of the compass. We had passed through the eye-when the wind temporarily stops-but leaving the eye of a storm is far worse than entering. We were about to meet the full onslaught of wind and wave.
Just at that moment the USS Napa flung down to starboard.
The third sea hit us. It didn’t merely hit us, it struck, it slammed, and it bombarded, all at once, in one powerful, mighty blow. It came so violently, so shocking, that it felt like the earth might have fallen from its axis. There was no system to the waves now, no stability. They were hollow, maniacal seas. They were higher than forty feet now, or fifty, or a hundred. What did it matter? They were not seas at all but mountains of rumbling water.