EAST TO THE ORIENT
Part of the Saga of the U.S.S. WAKEFIELD (AP-22)
[3 November 1941 to 23 February 1942]
By Captain Quentin McKay Greeley
U.S. Coast Guard — Retired
This is the first of several stories of the Wakefield, the largest ship ever manned by Coast Guard personnel…..
Your attention is invited to the article in the January ’95 issued of the Retiree Newsletter concerning the U.S.S. Wakefield. The Wakefield was not bombed in Bombay, India; the West Point and the Wakefield, plus the transports added at Capetown, were in Bombay to put our complements of British troops ashore for R&R at Poona, India, which is about 35 miles SE of Bombay. The Wakefield suffered a horrific bombing in Keppel Harbour, Singapore about 28 January 1942. (More later.) The first bomb fell harmlessly in the water on the port quarter of the Wakefield; the next bomb pierced the weather deck at the port margin of #3 hatch (open), then through A & B decks and detonated in the sick bay on C deck, killing six of our men who were patients there. Electrical power, forward, had been knocked out by the bomb blast but our engineers quickly restored power forward by installing and starting a spare electrical generator.
I was Commanding Officer of the USCGC Dione, named for a mythical Greek Goddess, consort of Zeus. The Dione was on search and rescue duty and enforcement of neutrality law in Chesapeake Bay. I received orders in early October 1941 to report to the Wakefield. I phoned CGHQ to question the transfer; I spoke with the Division Chief of Officer Personnel who advised that I was the only lieutenant on the East Coast available to fill an existing vacant berth on the Wakefield. I complied with the orders and reported to the Wakefield about 28 October 1941. Upon arrival, I found Captain Scammel in the cabin and was welcomed with open arms, but the Captain posed the question, “What did you do?”
I made no reply, but later thinking about his question, I wondered if assignment in the Wakefield was a late punishment for something that had happened in my previous years of service! The XO, LCDR Roy Raney, USCG, who was in the cabin, advised that I would be the Senior Watch Officer, with Damage Control Officer as a collateral duty.
Four to five days prior to getting underway, seven U.S. Navy officers arrived on the Wakefield for duty: a Lieutenant in the Naval Reserve, who held a master’s license, unlimited, for all oceans (this officer fit nicely into the Wakefield group of deck watchstanders); a Lieutenant Commander M.D.; a Lieutenant D.D.S.; and four chaplains (a Catholic Priest, two Protestant Ministers, and a Jewish Rabbi).
We departed New York Navy Yard on 3 November 1941. When we cleared the harbor entrance, the ship headed on an easterly course, destination not revealed. Shortly after we passed Ambrose Lightship, the XO used the PA system to advise us that censorship had been established and was now in effect, and that diaries were not to be kept. On 6 November, we rendezvoused in Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia with five other Navy transports: General Leonard Wood, Dickman, West Point, Mount Vernon, and Orizaba. The Wakefield, Dickman, and Leonard Wood were Coast Guard-manned.
USS WAKEFIELD BRINGING TROUPS HOME – From U.S. Coast Guard in World War II by Malcolm Willoughby
On 7 November, British transports from England, with British Army troops of the 18th (East Anglia) Division, arrived at Halifax; the troops were transferred to the U.S. Navy transports, and we departed Halifax. Our ocean escort consisted of the aircraft carrier Wasp, two cruisers (Vincennes, and the other whose name I do not remember), and a division of destroyers. The Wasp had a Rear Admiral aboard—Commodore of the group of vessels. The admiral often admonished us to keep closed up, 700-yard interval between ships in column.
The ship ran darkened from the onset of evening twilight to sunrise; smoking was prohibited on open decks during those hours. Speed of Advance (SOA) was 10 knots, the best the Dickman and Leonard Wood could maintain.
After several days steaming south, we arrived in Trinidad to top-off our water and fuel and put our mail ashore. In my letter to Mary Nash, my beloved wife, I included my will. In writing the will, I used a sample from an old Reader’s Digest found aboard. We departed Trinidad on the 18th of November 1941, and a Navy fleet oiler joined the escort. After two days steaming south, we crossed the Equator and started the festivities to make all of us Shellbacks. This was cut short because of a message from the Wasp warning of a submarine in the area. Later, this was determined to be in error. This happened in the South Atlantic; perhaps we were in the Roaring 40’s, four days out of Capetown, Union of South Africa. During the trip into and out of Trinidad, the Wasp conducted aerial searches daily along our projected course.
On 7 December 1941, we received a message telling of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and ordered to place Plan No. (classified) into effect against the Japanese Empire.
On arrival at Capetown, the transports put their troops ashore for R&R. At this time, the escort was detached for other duties. The Leonard Wood and Dickman were also detached; their complements were transferred to other vessels suitable for entering Bombay Harbour. The Leonard Wood and Dickman were too deep-drafted to enter Bombay. At Capetown, I joined a group of officers from the transports and escort ships, entertained at luncheon by members of the American Club, Capetown. When we sat down to eat, we were advised of the loss of HMS King George V and the cruiser HMS Repulse; they were scouting north of Singapore and were found by Japanese planes, attacked and sunk. Japanese fishermen operating in the area saved some of the survivors of this debacle from the sea.
In the Indian Ocean, one day north of Madagascar Island, a message was received detaching the Mount Vernon. She was to be routed to Mombasa in Kenya. Her troops were to be landed and transported to the Suez and Cairo area to augment British forces there. We had the division commander, Maj. General Smyth, on the Wakefield, and he was very angry at this further dissipation of his division. We entered Bombay on 27 December 1941 and put the troops ashore for R&R at Poona, a small British army garrison about 35 miles southeast of Bombay. After four days, the troops returned aboard. The troops discarded their wool blankets to barges brought alongside. It was amazing to see the piles of blankets grow into mountains aboard the barges.
We departed Bombay for Singapore. At the western entrance of Sunda Straits, we were met and welcomed by vessels of the English Navy, whose Commodore apologized to us for the poor showing of vessels of the Royal Navy in the prosecution of the war to date. As we steamed through Sunda Straits, I pointed out to bridge personnel the island of Krakatoa, where there had been a volcanic eruption in 1880; there was great destruction and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Literature of the present day has described the pall of debris, which circled the earth for some time.
During our first day in the Java Sea, there was a message from CGHQ containing serial numbers between which officers were given promotions. Our commanding officer, CDR Scammel, was promoted to Captain. The CO of the West Point sent a congratulatory message to Captain Scammel on his promotion.
Steering was quite difficult in shallow waters of the Straits of Selat Bangka and Selat Berkala leading to Singapore, as well as in Singapore. It is believed that we had only two feet of water under us. We arrived in Singapore and put our troops and their gear ashore. The following day I relieved the deck (Richard Foutter, a ’31 classmate) at 1150, saw the Japanese plane approaching and ordered all bridge personnel and others who were in the open to get inside the ship for safety.
Later in the watch, my signalman, Koch, a USCG CPO, told me that I was angry that he had not obeyed my order immediately, and that I had picked him up and thrown him on the deck in the pilot house. (Koch was about 6’2” and about 220 pounds; I was 5’8˝” and weighed about 140 pounds).
After the bombing, the CO and XO went ashore to make arrangements for the lifting of women and children—243 dependents of military personnel station in Singapore. One of these women attempted to toss her golf clubs aboard the ship. The effort failed and she asked our people to recover them, which were at the bottom of Keppel Harbour. This woman paid no attention to people of our crew, who were working their guts out, getting the women and children aboard.
We had one male stowaway who was found among the evacuees and brought to the bridge by our First Lieutenant, who had welcomed the evacuees aboard and attempted to meet whatever needs they had. Mast was held, the stowaway, a major in the Indian Army who was a self-admitted deserter from his duty station with the British forces at Singapore, was found guilty of desertion by his own admission, and sentenced to duty in the Wakefield scullery for as long as we held him.
The Wakefield departed from Singapore and headed into the South China Sea. During the 2000-2400 watch, the Captain directed the OOD to reduce our speed to bare steerageway. This was to ease burden of the pallbearers carrying our dead shipmates. Their bodies had been carefully and completely wrapped in canvas and weighted with spare furnace bars or scrap iron to ensure their sinking to the depth of the sea. Eight pallbearers brought the bodies of our shipmates to an open area of the weather deck (this was the starboard and lee side at the time) from which burials would be made. Our Catholic priest conducted a funeral service for each of our dead. The pallbearers, Chaplain, and I witnessed the burials.
The ship then resumed our SOA, 18 knots, as we headed to Jakarta, Java. We picked up a man at Jakarta then set a course of Colombo, Ceylon, where we put ashore the Singapore evacuees, the stowaway, and the passenger from Jakarta, into the keeping of British army personnel at Colombo for further, proper disposition. We stayed overnight then headed to Bombay for temporary repairs of bomb damage. When repairs had been completed, we headed for Capetown, where we picked up men, women, and children, about 200 citizens of the United States who were most anxious to get home. From Capetown, we traveled alone, but when we approached the coast of South America, U.S. Navy planes (from Belize, I believe) provided escort as far as Cape Hatteras, where a Navy destroyer took over as escort for the remainder of the trip to New York.
In January 1942, we learned of the destruction and sinking of the German battleship Bismarck, which had exited from a Norwegian port into the North Atlantic; she was found by Sunderland planes from shore and planes from the English carrier Ark Royal. English planes and ships of the Royal Navy sank the Bismarck; the coup de grace in the sinking was delivered by a torpedo fired by an English cruiser (whose officers we had met in Capetown on the outbound trip) into the rudder area of the Bismarck. [Several years ago, I saw a TV show which covered the finding and sinking of the Bismarck. The lead male actor had a son in the Ark Royal.] Had the Bismarck escaped, she would have played havoc with merchant ships carrying supplies to England for the prosecution of the war.
On arrival in New York, 23 February 1942, the Wakefield was given a heroic welcome by all the ships in New York Harbor.
I had won the arrival pool of $200.00; the time of arrival was 1349 when the pilot stepped aboard. I had picked the number 49 only because the Kansas City Star named its usual area of circulation the 49th state. As a boy in Fort Leavenworth, I had a paper route for the Star; the pay was good—$18.00 a month.
Footnote: One of my daughters, Marie Barnes, feels the title of this saga is poor, reminding me, a much traveled sailor, that sailors in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries sought a water route to the exotic Far East after the overland route—the “Silk Road”, in use during and since the time of the Romans—became hazardous for merchants and their goods when it fell under the control of marauding bandit gangs. Today’s travelers would find a sea voyage to the Far East too time-consuming, perhaps hazardous, for initiates; U.S. travelers would jump on an airplane and head West.
Captain Quentin McKay Greeley is a retired U.S. Coast Guard Officer. He was in the Academy class of 1931.