THE LAST VOYAGE
From the book," Tales of the USS CONKLIN DE 439"
by M. E. Oseas McNamara
( 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)
After a night of high seas, wind and storm, the typhoon of June, 1945 reached it’s 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 righting of the CONKLIN by a freak wave was not the only miracle that occurred that day.
There were two more.
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 gunner’s 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 couldn’t 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 -didn’t 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, that’s 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? -I’ve 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.
It’s 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 can’t 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 ‘I’ve got to take a chance and leap.’ I didn’t 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 that’s not true. It was more like 30 minutes. I wouldn’t have lasted that long. It wasn’t 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
Tuesday 5 June 1945.
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:
“They threw a line down. ..2 sailors, that were tied down to the ship from the inside. After I got on the ship I slept for 12 hours.”
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.