Duty Station: WWII MM2c on the Potter

Kathy Wiedell wrote this newspaper article in her local newspaper about her Dad, Glenn Holmgren and his time on the Potter during WWII: Glenn Holmgren, 1943

Stephen Potter Reunion

They came by planes, trains and automobiles -- just like they had been coming every two years -- to commemorate and honor a time in their lives when they were young, their country needed them, and they needed each other. They are the men of the USS Stephen Potter, DD-538, a ship that had taken them to war and brought them safely home.

This is the story of one of those sailors and the day that journey began: It was a sunny June afternoon, that war year of 1943 and the train depot in Minneapolis was bustling with activity. Steam screeched from the waiting trains as scores of barely-men signed on the dotted line to fight for their country.

One of those recruits was a fresh-faced 17-year-old kid named Glenn Holmgren. “I was only 15 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor,” Holmgren, now a Crosby resident, said. “My brother was already in the Navy and I wanted to join too!’ “So as soon as I was old enough, I enlisted in the Navy.

“I remember going home to tell my Mother I was leaving to enlist. I had to go right away, I told her, so I packed up some of my stuff and gave her a hug and a kiss. I told her, ‘I’ll just say good-bye to you here. I don’t want to see you cry at the station.’

“I was just a kid but I didn’t want to be left behind. I thought, ‘It’s time for me to be on my own. I wanted to go and fight for my country.’“I was 17 and the Navy was taking 17-year-olds for a minority cruise, which meant I was regular Navy and I would get out when I was 21.

“I remember walking down the street and my Mother was standing there waving at me as I went to catch the streetcar to go to Minneapolis to get sworn in. They put me on the train going to boot camp in Farragut, Idaho.” The train trip was something Holmgren has never forgotten. “There were a lot of other guys going to boot camp in Farragut, too. We’d all been through the Depression and weren’t used to fancy things. “My family was so poor, we had never gone to a restaurant, never taken a vacation. Sometimes we’d only have lettuce with vinegar and sugar. Sometimes all we had was corn on the cob. “But here I was on the train -- a bed to sleep in, meals served in the dining room. We would be called for dinner and there was a linen tablecloth on the table, silverware and goblets and fancy dishes.

“A waiter would come and take our order. I have never forgotten that trip.” When Holmgren arrived in Chicago for his first reunion with his World War II shipmates, he found they’d been looking for him.

“ I hadn’t seen these guys for over 56 years,” Holmgren said. “A lot of us couldn’t remember each other, but we remembered what we had been through!” Shipmates and their wives huddled in the hotel lobby, welcoming each other as they arrived. For Glenn Holmgren, the last time he had seen these men, they were all young men.

Now they were white-haired and the years had given them a perspective that made them proud of all they’d accomplished together.

They’d been to sea for over two years together on the Stephen Potter.

Together they had worked as a team to defend their country against the Japanese attack at sea.

They arrived at the hotel proudly wearing their caps, their T-shirts, their jackets, little pins on their caps with insignia and pictures of the ship boldly declaring they’d all served aboard the U.S.S. Stephen Potter, DD-538.

Swede Molund, one of the Potter’s engine crew, was talking with Holmgren when a fellow shipmate and his wife arrived. Happy welcomes surrounded them as they came through the front door of the hotel. The group had been waiting for them. “Hey, Smith,” Swede called out enthusiastically, “you remember Holmgren?!”

The man called Smith came over, a broad grin on his face, his right hand extended towards Holmgren. “Glenn?! I’ve been looking for you for 50 years! Where have you been! I’ve been looking for you at every reunion I’ve been to! I’d say, ‘Anybody seen Holmgren? Is he here? And when you weren’t there, and nobody knew where you were, I told them, ‘Put him on the list anyway!’”

“For many of us, the Navy years were the best years of our life,” Holmgren said. “They fed us, they gave us clothes, they took care of us, gave us our training. I loved the Navy. It was the best time of my whole life.

Smith and Holmgren were both machinist’s mates in the Potter’s engine room. When they learned they were both from Minnesota, they became friends. They were surprised to learn that they’d both been on the same train to boot camp. Ozzie Anderson had also been through boot camp at Farragut. “When we got off the train in Farragut,” Anderson said, “we went in and they gave us a physical. We were in this great big long hall and we had to strip down to our nothings. There were 100s of guys in there. Here comes four nurses coming through all these guys trying to hide themselves. “Then we got into our barracks. We got up at 4 a.m., washed up and then completely scrubbed the barracks and had a complete inspection.” The men remember the discipline of boot camp and those men stupid enough to defy it. “They were teaching discipline,” Anderson said. “We had two or three guys who never made their beds or cleaned up. We were all in this together and one guy kept getting us into trouble.

“We took him into the shower and scrubbed him down with a heavy bristle brush. Then we made him stand there for a while. We told him if he didn’t clean up and pass inspection, we’d do it again!” At Farragut, Holmgren learned a valuable lesson himself about getting along in the Navy. It happened in the mess hall. “The first time I ate at boot camp, I was given a tray to go through the food line. The guys dishing up the food kept putting more food on my tray so when I got to the end of the line, I thought, ‘I’ll just get a lot of bread to eat and I’ll throw this other stuff away.’”

When he sat down with his overloaded food tray, Holmgren learned that in the Navy, if you take it, you eat it! “That’s when I first learned that you better do what they say if you are going to get along good in the Navy,” he said with a grin. “They knew I had just gotten there and they knew I didn’t know I was going to have to eat everything on my tray, so they showed me. It was OK. I got by. “But I learned my lesson.” At Farragut, the men learned knot tying, navigation, flag signals, and they were tested almost every day.

“One test we had to pass was swimming. We had to swim 100 yards and if you failed that one,” Holmgren remembers, “you had to stay in boot camp until you passed!” At Farragut, the men signed up for the jobs they wanted to learn in the Navy. The classes they passed, the discipline they learned, molded them together as a team.

After boot camp, the men went by train to the San Diego Navy shipyards to join up with their ship. “The train went through the Redwood Forest,” Anderson said, “ -- and this really sticks in my mind -- the train came down the hill at an angle and you could see the ocean. It was the first time I’d seen the ocean. All we could see was water!” A brand new ship, the Potter had been built at the Bethlehem Steel yards in San Francisco. Holmgren and the others joining the ship would put her into commission.

In December of 1943, with six months of training under their belts, the crew sailed the Potter to Honolulu. “The destroyers were called tin cans,” Holmgren explained, “because they were made so light. They had only 5/8ths inch of steel on the side. They weren’t made like the battleships. “It weighed 2100 tons, carried 320 people, was 384 feet in length by 39 feet on the beam.” Holmgren rattles off the statistics like he’d just seen her yesterday.

The men in the group know exactly what he is talking about. This was their ship. Anderson, Smith and Swede Molund had served in the engine room and fire rooms together with Holmgren.

“I started in the forward fire room,” Holmgren said. “I wanted to learn all I could about the job. I always was amazed how quick we could cut all those burners out and cut them back in again and change them around. We had Babcock and Wilcox express-type small tube boilers. They had 600 lbs. steam pressure, ran at 850 degrees Fahrenheit under 400 pounds of water pressure, so they were a unique unit.” After training as a fireman, Holmgren wanted to work in the engine room.

Because of all he had learned about the boilers, and his special knack with the equipment, Holmgren was assigned to the fire room for his battle station.

There was one little problem many of the men on the Potter faced, however, as they steamed out to sea to join the war, they were polliwogs and that had to be remedied. “When you go out to sea and you haven’t been across the equator,’ Anderson explained, “you are called a polliwog.” Polliwogs had to go through an initiation to earn their Shell back certificate to prove they had what it took to be Navy. The initiation was so brutal, a doctor sat watch over the ritual.

“It was tough,” Anderson said, “but you didn’t get out of it, even if you were an officer. If you went over the equator, you had to go through it.

“Old Carl Ochs, one of our shipmates, built a little stool with some wires in it that would give you a shock. They would wash you down with salt water and sit you on top of it in your skivvies. But you didn’t sit there very long! Boy, you’d get a surprise!

“After that, you got down and had to crawl on your hands and knees and they’d whack you on your rump! They used heavy sticks but so many guys got welts on their rear they made them use softer stuff.

“Then,” Anderson explained, “we went down the line and they made corn boiled with quinine and stuffed that in your mouth it -- tasted like manure -- “ “And you didn’t have a choice,” Holmgren said. “You did it!” “Then,” Anderson continued, “they had the a sailor dressed up as King Neptune and another as the Royal Baby, who was usually the fattest guy on board, and they put him in a sheet and greased his belly and we had to kiss his belly! “After you kissed the Baby” Anderson said, “we had to crawl through garbage and then they washed us off with high pressure salt water. They figured if you made it through all of that you had what it took!

“They gave each of us a fancy diploma for making it through. We were now officially shell backs!” “We were a close group,” Holmgren said. “One guy at the reunion said it was the best time of his life . We went through so much -- so many battles that we had to be close. We went 250,000 miles out there. It seemed like we were always in a battle of some kind. “The destroyers went in before anyone else in battle,” Holmgren remembers. “We had 21 destroyers lined around the cruisers as guards and when the planes came in they always came over the destroyers first. We would start firing first,” Anderson added. “We were under attack all the time,” Holmgren said. “When they rang general quarters, we’d all run to our battle stations.

“When you think what we were involved in out there in the Pacific. It’s unbelievable! When we were in the Philippine Sea, we heard the Jap fleet was coming in and we left Saipan -- went full-steam ahead for two days. Our pilots off the carriers in our fleet would go out and they sank one or two enemy carriers and then came back. “Some were out of fuel and they’d crash in the ocean. We’d steam out and pick them up. As the shipmates share their stories at the reunion, a sense of family pervades. They each played a part in each other’s safety. They each carry a piece of the story. They had come through many battles and storms together.

“We helped each other,” Anderson said, “we needed each other. We all knew what we were supposed to do.” “Remember the typhoon?” Holmgren asks. The typhoon! Everyone’s head bobs in remembrance. It was an event they had survived by God’s mercy and they all knew it. “We took two 76 degree lists,” Smith said. “And 90 degrees is flat over,” Holmgren said. “If you took any water down the stacks, you were gone. “We’d been out for days and needed to refuel to keep going. Some of the ships had refueled, but we hadn’t finished refueling. So, our oil king had filled our fuel tanks with water, giving the ship ballast.” “We had burned up all our fuel and we were coming in on 1500 gallons of diesel fuel. That fuel ran our condenser to make fresh water -- but we carried 150,000 gallons of crude oil to burn in the boilers and 15,000 gallons of diesel to burn in the diesel generator and water softener and we came in off that typhoon on only 1500 gallons of diesel. “The typhoon was above what the ship was rated to handle and we couldn’t even go topside. They had more water over the ship than under it. We had 70 foot waves and 140 MPH winds. And we were taking over 70 degree lists.

Now the ship could sink on a 56 or 57 degree, but if we didn’t have the power to keep moving you would just lay over the side and sink. “But when you come in on 1500 gallons of diesel fuel ...”

The men shake their head in disbelief and simple gratitude for the miracle.

“I remember the ship nearly standing on end,” Smith said. “We’d come down a trough with the bow straight down almost, and then we’d ride over the wave and the bow would go straight up. I don’t know how we survived it!” “Three ships went down,” Holmgren said. “They just rolled over and were gone. When you’re empty on fuel, you ride high. You’re out of fuel, you’re done. You can’t keep your bow into the waves. Seven hundred and ninety men died -- just like that. They went straight to the bottom.” Four ships made it back to port. The typhoon’s furious claim of those three destroyers is one of the great tragedies of the war.

As the men gather together in the Hospitality Room of the hotel, pictures are brought out of past reunions and shipmates now gone. The Potter, by all accounts, was a special ship. A ship they felt was charmed and protected.

No one was lost on the ship, except one mate who washed overboard and was never found. “The good Lord was watching over us,” Anderson said. “We had torpedoes and typhoons, kamikaze attacks and different invasions the Potter was part of.

When they bombarded Iwo Jima during the invasion, we were running submarine guard for the battle ships.” Out on the South Pacific, Holmgren had time to think about what he believed. He had along the Bible his Mother had given him. “I was out in the middle of the war zone and I needed to make some decisions about what I understood about God. I had heard the Gospel growing up, but it was just time for me to make a decision.

“I realized I would never be able to figure out where God could have come from, but I understood enough to know He was there. In my own life, I knew that I was there -- I just realized the greatness of God and Jesus Christ and I accepted Him as my Savior. “I started reading the Bible Mother had given me and I’d get together with three or four other sailors and we’d talk about the Bible.

“Once in a while,” Holmgren remembers, “a fellow would go by and say, ‘What’s the good word, Glenn?’ And I would say, ‘Jesus Saves!’

“I felt secure because if anything happened to me out there, I knew I would go to Heaven.” “We had so many experiences,” Holmgren remembers. “We were just kids. I remember when the aircraft carrier, Franklin, was hit by steel-piercing bombs. Over 700 people died from the attack. We tied up alongside to render assistance and passed over coffee and supplies.

“The Franklin had the most damage of any ship that was ever returned to active duty,” Holmgren added. “I’ll never forget the sight of her listing in the water.

“Then, when the aircraft carrier, Bunker Hill, was hit,” Holmgren said. “I was standing on the fantail and I saw two kamikaze planes dive into her.

“The ship was burning and listing. I didn’t know if it was going to make it. “We picked up over 100 survivors. I was down below in the engine room, but when I came up, I saw where the planes had hit. The men were jumping off the ship, off the flight deck, out of the holes in the side of the ship. “We went over to pick them up. We put a rope net over the side of the Potter and we helped survivors climb up. I pulled a couple of guys out of the water. One of the men I pulled out had his skin burned so badly, it folded backwards over his arms as I grabbed him.

“His arms were burned so badly, they were white. The doctor gave him whiskey. They were using sulfur for an antibiotic. Guys were coming up the net with shrapnel holes in ‘em. It was awful.” When two of the fleet’s cruisers Canberra and Houston were hit by torpedoes, the Potter steamed alongside as protection for the ships towing them away from the battle zone. That time, Japanese planes again attacked the damaged ships, this time coming in so close over the Potter, Holmgren saw the pilot’s face. He has never forgotten it. “It took us four days to cover the 500 miles out to sea to meet up with the tugs,” Anderson remembers. “We were under constant attack.

“Okinawa was one of the last major battles, and the last one we were in on the Potter before we headed stateside. Japan sent out 3500 suicide planes and most of them didn’t know how to fly back. It was their last big stronghold. It wasn’t long after that that Hiroshima happened.” “When the Potter came back in summer of 1945, we had our first leave in two years,” Holmgren said. “When I got back off of leave, I’d been transferred off the Potter because I was in the regular Navy and had another year to serve out my enlistment. “

That September, when the war over, the Potter was decommissioned. The men whose enlistment was over with the war stayed with the ship to take her out of service. At the closing night’s dinner, a mural-sized photograph of the Potter and the men who had been there at the end hung on the wall in the banquet room. Smith and Holmgren, who were regular Navy, still had more time on their enlistment. They had been reassigned to other ships. They weren’t among the sailors in the photograph. They expressed their regret that they hadn’t been there to decommission their ship and be included in the only picture taken of the Potter and her crew before she was moth balled.

“I felt like we got cheated out of something when we didn’t get to decommission the ship and weren’t there for the picture of the ship and the crew,” Smith said. Holmgren nodded in agreement. “We felt we missed out on something. That ship was very special. We were all family.” “We didn’t even get a ship’s picture,” Holmgren said. The Potter’s crew were family and the final picture was missing some of its members. When Holmgren got back from his 30-day leave, he began the final months of his enlistment. After serving seven months on the USS Barney, a World War I four-piper ship that escorted shakedown cruises, Holmgren was assigned to the seaplane tender, the Cumberland Sound. “I served on the Cumberland Sound as a machinist’s mate 2d class,” Holmgren said. “We were part of Operations Crossroads, the atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in July of 1946.” Smith and Holmgren were surprised to learn at the reunion that they had both been there at Bikini, but on different ships. 250 ships were at ground zero in the atoll at Bikini Island in the Marshall Islands. They were about to take the full force of two atomic bombs -- one from the air, one underwater.

The natives had been relocated and the island turned into a scientific laboratory to research the effects of the atomic bomb. In the center of the formation stood the Japanese battleship, Nagata. It had received the “Tora, Tora, Tora” message from Admiral Yamamoto’s flagship that Pearl Harbor was a “go.” Other captured enemy vessels were also anchored at the test site. “The first bomb was dropped from a B29,” Holmgren said. “Before the bomb went off we had to have sunglasses on. It was about 130 degrees in the shade and when we looked at the sun with the special glasses on, it was just a little speck of light out there. “But when the bomb went off, it looked like the whole world was lit up with fluorescent lights.” A second test was then prepared to explode the bomb under water.

“We had the scientists on our ship that controlled the bomb,” Holmgren said. “We sent in a radio-controlled speed boat from our ship to ignite the bomb underwater. When it was in position, the scientists detonated the bomb from our ship. “When the bomb went off under water, it raised the water so high up in the air that the water froze into 100 pound pieces of hail that fell on the decks of the ships.” Smith remembers the animals that had been tethered to the deck of some of the ships to test how the bomb would affect them.

“All the animals died several weeks later after the bomb test,” he remembered at the reunion. “In the third generation, all of the animals died off who had been exposed to the radiation. “The goats went blind. Their eyes were pure white after the test. And on the decks of the ships, part of the deck was burned -- like in stripes -- some of it burned here, other places not burned.” “All the ships, including the battleship Nagato, went right up in the air and down,” Smith remembers. “The aircraft carrier was beat up.” “We stayed there a couple of months examining things and cleaning them up.

There were quite a few ships out there to monitor the tests,” Holmgren said. “Afterwards, they asked for volunteers to clean the radioactivity out of the condensers that changed the salt water to drinking water. I was one of the volunteers. They told us there was nothing to worry about, that it was safe. “A few years ago, I was at the Vets Hospital in Phoenix and when I told them I was a survivor of the Bikini Atomic Bomb test, they wanted to run some tests to see if I had any radioactivity in me. It turned out I did. “The doctor said it would probably bother me when I got older but I’m 75 and the only thing that happened is I’ve just lost my hair. No one else in my family lost their hair. I had cataract surgery in my 50s, too, that is probably related to the blast.”

For Holmgren, those two years serving with his shipmates on the Potter were some of the happiest days of his life. His family was Navy -- his Dad served on a destroyer in World War I and his brothers were on destroyers just like he was in the Second World War. He had been proud to serve his country. “I’d join up again if my country needed me,” Holmgren said.

On that closing night, the USS Stephen Potter family sang hymns and old favorites. The patriotism in this room of veterans and their families was very real and very important.

“We knew who our enemy was,” Smith said, “not like today with the terrorists. Our biggest battle was the Marianas turkey shoot where 450 Jap planes were shot down in one day.” “We went through a lot in the war. I had no regrets being out there. I was a young boy when I went in and it made a man out of me,” Holmgren said.

“I grew up quick. We all felt the responsibility of the war. I knew the country was counting on me. We were a close group on the Potter. “ Out on the Pacific Ocean, the boys who rode the train to boot camp had returned men. They had done the job they were sent to do. And now, 56 years later, they were commemorating those life-changing months and years -- time they would give all over again if their country needed them.

As the years have passed, the number of Potter veterans has dwindled. Each reunion, they meet to remember a ship that took them to war and back; a time when together they had some of the best years of their lives. “Being in the service gave you a different perspective on life,” Ozzie Anderson reflected. “You appreciated more the things in the country because you had been a part of the effort to keep the country safe.

“It was a time when everybody cared about everybody else. We all worked together. “It’s like being reunited with your family when we come to the reunions,” Anderson said. “It’s something I can’t explain. You cannot tell the bonding that you have with the guys that were on the ship.” “We were a group of men depending on each other,” Holmgren said. “In the middle of the ocean, if we didn’t care for each other, we weren’t going to make it. Our lives depended on each other. “I was raised poor. It was the first good job I had. It was helping my country win the war. And I just loved the Navy. I still love the Navy.

How could you have a greater job than fighting for your country?”

Written by Kathy Wiedell
Please email comments to: sojurner@emily.net