USS Stephen Potter Association 8th Reunion September 1995 Boston, Massachusetts
MEMORIAL SERVICE - George Cline, Officiating
In visiting and talking with different people at this Reunion, the one word which was discussed more than any other was MIRACLE; the miracles that happened during the time that we were on the USS STEPHEN POTTER during World War II.
The POTTER was commissioned in San Francisco and after a shakedown cruise we sailed on to Pearl Harbor. We had a happy ship, a good ship. The men were happy and that means a lot on a ship at war. We had a crew that was very, very young. I was only 18 at the time, having served on the destroyer STRONG with Carroll Byrum and some of the others. When she was sunk in the Kula Gulf, we came back and were assigned to the STEPHEN POTTER. There were very few men on this ship who had ever even been to sea before. We came out of the corn, tobacco, and peanut fields and we came from the shoe factories. We came out of high school and out of college.
Most of the young men who came aboard ship were men just like me when I first went aboard the STRONG. When I became 17, on 5/17/42, I grabbed a flag and took off to the recruiting station like many other young boys were doing right from high school. Do you know that a few days ago I found out that there was one man on the STEPHEN POTTER who was only 15 years old? Fifteen years old! And I believe there were 2 who were only 16 and became 17 after we went to sea! Now, this is how young we were. And the officers many of them were young. We had a few experienced officers, like our Captain and Rural Meadors, the Chief Engineer. We had so many men on there that did not know what was going on, but our officers did. Now, of course, at the time, we didn't think they knew too much but later on we found out that they knew more than we thought. And, folks, we went to sea! We learned to fire the guns, to right. We drilled, drilled and then we drilled some more. We learned to shoot the torpedoes, although I don't think we ever had to fire upon the enemy with those.
One of the first MIRACLES I think we had was when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. With as many ships as were sunk, as many bombs, torpedoes and so forth, that were fired at our ships and our planes; we only lost two major ships. The ARIZONA and the OKLAHOMA did not return to service. During this time, it was a miracle that we did not lose any more men than. One of the greatest MIRACLES, I think, was the Japanese not coming back for the third wave and blowing up our fuel supply. Had they blown up the fuel supply, we would have been, you might say, paralyzed.
Now, these stories I'm telling and these points I'm making are not necessarily in the order that they happened. These are just some things that stand out in my mind. One of the first engagements we were in with the STEPHEN POTTER, around the first of 1944 was the Marshall Islands. With the help of God we got through there and didn't have any problems that I can recall. After that engagement one morning as we were steaming at full speed, I remember someone telling me we were going to Truk Island. Now, Truk Island was to the Japanese what Pearl Harbor was to the Americans. We had always heard it was very strong, had a lot of ships and planes up there, because it was one of the main supply points. Well, another MIRACLE happened. We sailed in and we sank everything that could be sunk, shot down planes, destroying everything. We came out of there with, as far as I know, no injuries. Now, that was a MIRACLE. That was a MIRACLE, indeed!
We went on to take Guam, Saipan and Tinian and that was a lot of fighting, much fighting. You know, at times it just seemed like the skies were afire with planes and shells bursting in the air, the projectiles going off and it just seemed like there was no way anyone could get through. But, you know, once in a while one of them did get through and some of our ships were hit. Some of them were sunk. I remember a time with the carrier FRANKLIN. We had just secured from General Quarters, I believe it was, and did you know that at that time, a plane slipped in and I believe she dropped a bomb. I don't think it was a suicide, but she dropped a bomb and hit right on the main deck, the flight deck, and she began to blow. She blew and smoke and fire came out, big balls of fire came out of her and there was just no way that we thought that ship could be saved. But she was. I think it was in the afternoon that day that we picked up 117 survivors from this ship who had jumped over the side when the fire and heat got too much for them and they had to abandon her. This old FRANKLIN she just kept on going. I believe it was one of the most historic actions in the whole war. She was towed for awhile and came back to the states and then reconditioned to go on and right again.
The carrier BUNKER HILL had almost the same thing happen to her. She got hit then she blew and it just looked like she was going to rollover and go down into the depths of the sea. But she did not. She was saved and we picked up many men (the official Navy history of the Potter gives a number of 107 crew members of the Bunker Hill and 83 from the Houston were picked up by the ship). This was in the Philippine Sea near Formosa. As we would go beside these big carriers, do you remember the odor there was from the men who had been killed in a flash? You could see the way that the fire hit them and they were just in that same position, running or however they would have been. Folks, it was a terrible thing. But you know, the STEPHEN POTTER went right through the whole thing and as far as I know, without injuries. Those MIRACLES right there just seem like they were unreal, that these ships could still be saved after sustaining such damage.
Remember when we sailed into the South China Sea? As we patrolled off the starboard side of the battlewagon, NORTH CAROLINA, that big old wagon would come up and go down into the sea and just roll a little ship like us traveling along side. We would just roll with it as she came down. One of our greatest enemies at this time was the weather itself. There was a typhoon in December of 1944 that was so strong that we lost 3 ships. At the beginning of the typhoon, we were trying to refuel our ship. We were fueling from the big battlewagon, NEW JERSEY, I believe, and after taking on just a very small amount of fuel, the hoses snapped. The sea was so rough that we could not stay close enough to receive fuel, so we had to cast off and try to make it on our own. Yes, we had a small amount of fuel, enough to go through the storm with, as it happened, but at that time, we just didn't know. During this time, I was oil king. The oil king takes care of the fuel oil on the ships. I had pumped all the oil into the main reservoirs from which we pull. The tanks that normally have fuel oil in them were empty, but after we could not take fuel on, we had to pump seawater back into tanks to keep us from rolling. This made us ride heavier and lower in the water and not be tossed about like a can being thrown into the water that rolls from side to side. One reason we were called tin cans was because of how we would roll. We pumped our tanks fore and aft full of ballast and this made us ride heavier. We did roll sometimes as much as 70 degrees. We took water down our stacks. Lifelines on the topside as you would hold onto them going forward and aft were washed or crunched off. Many of the ships lost their motorwhale boats. A lot of life rafts were washed over the side. Gun turrets just caved in from time to time, but the old STEPHEN POTTER, she just sailed right on through all of them. A MIRACLE!
Yes, it was rough, very rough. I have read that the wind was up to 135 miles per hour in that typhoon and, you know, those 3 destroyers just rolled over and sank down into their watery graves. Of the 3 ships, 790 men were never accounted for. I believe that in one case there were only 3 men who were saved off one ship and another time there were only 44 men saved. Altogether, I think other destroyers might have picked up somewhere around 79 men from those 3 ships. I believe some men stayed in the rough waters as long as 4 days. We lost something like 200 planes on the carriers that were washed over the side or just crushed beyond repair. Many ships were torn in different places. This typhoon did what the Japanese had not been able to do during the whole war. Yes, it was a MIRACLE that we did not lose more ships. And think about this -a big task force like we were in, a fleet of ships sailing, it was a MIRACLE that none collided, for had they collided, I don't believe they could have been saved. It was so rough, it was just unreal. But we came out of there and we sailed right through the depths of the valley of death, without a doubt.
Yes, we sailed through that valley. We came out without anyone getting hurt. We came out to go and fight again, going back to bomb close to Formosa. A new cruiser, the CANBERRA, was torpedoed and then another new cruiser, the HOUSTON, was sent in as her replacement. A Japanese plane also torpedoed her and it just looked like she was going to go down. We had feelings for the HOUSTON because the Chief Engineer on the HOUSTON had been the First Chief Engineer on the destroyer STRONG, Commander Rosenburg, I believe his name was. Being a destroyer, we tried to protect the HOUSTON. We shot down planes as they kept coming in, but one plane slipped and I believe I witnessed that torpedo going into the HOUSTON. There's a book, Save the Houston, and the MIRACLE that happened. Photographs in this book show the STEPHEN POTTER and some of our men pulling her men out of the water to save them. Now, we had all said, "Well, that's it". We were even going to take her in tow. But you know, that lady, she just kept on sailing. Water washed over her deck at times, but with the great help of God and the skill of the men aboard her, they saved their ship. Yes, that was a MIRACLE. It was a MIRACLE WITHOUT A DOUBT.
Later on as we came into different islands, Iwo Jima and others, we were in 10 major engagements, like the great turkey shoot (Marianas Turkey Shoot -Battle of the Philippine Sea). Planes were falling all around us and again it looked like the sky was on fire, but the old STEPHEN POTTER sailed right through.
We went to Okinawa toward the end of the war. I think in over a year and a half, we had sailed 25,000 miles. And do you remember the MIRACLE we had at Okinawa? I think there were 9 destroyers, some of them brand new just brought out from the states, no knowledge, you might say, and they were hit. Within moments some of them went to the bottom carrying most of their crew. It is said that at Eniwetok, the suicide planes had hit so many ships that the harbor looked like a junkyard. A junk yard! And the STEPHEN POTTER was sailing right on. Oh yes, we had planes that tried to hit us, that crashed toward us. We managed to shoot them down and they would fall a few yards off to port or starboard. One 500pound bomb hit so close to the rear fantail, I've heard that the steering was knocked out momentarily. We went sailing on.
Something to consider here is how our ships were built. The big battlewagons had 16 inches of steel armor around them, but the little destroyers like the STRONG and the POTTER had only enough metal around them just to keep the water out. We had something much more protecting than a little bit of armor or a thin sheet of metal around us to keep us together. I want you to think about this. You mayor may not agree with this, but this is the way I think about it, this is what I believe. It was sometime later before I ever realized this. In Exodus, Moses brought the Israelites out, and it's said that as they would come into the different cities and so forth, and go to war with these people, the people of these cities would say, "There is no way you can defeat these people, they have their God with them." God was indeed with them at these different places traveling in the desert. It is written "the cloud of the Lord was on (them) by day and fire (by night)". Well, I think God was watching over the STEPHEN POTTER just as He did the Israelites.
History repeats itself, doesn't it? Here is a MIRACLE that I believe with all my heart really happened. I believe that God sent down from Heaven a host of angels, an army of angels, that formed a circle around our ship that no projectile, no plane, no torpedo could get through, because we had the protection of God with us. Now you think about that. I believe this with all my heart. Of all the ships that were out there, of all the ships that were sunk or damaged, other ships shooting into our ships, we didn't have (as far as I know) a single person that got hurt, as far as the War goes, on our ship. I don't think anyone on our ship received the Purple Heart. Yes, we lost a few men. We lost one chief torpedo man who fell over the side one day and I witnessed that. Maybe a couple of others died from various causes. But in a year and a half, I would say that out of 325 men; losing 3 is pretty good odds. But see the MIRACLE was that God was watching over US just a few weeks before the end at Okinawa, I think God looked down and said, "I'm going to send my children home. I'm going to send them home because they've been out here long enough, they need a rest. " And we were sent home. We came back as men, but many of us had left as children. A lot of us came back to our sweethearts, wives, and our loved ones. But, you know many of us little boys just came back to Mommy and Daddy. Think about it.
Yes, the war was over and we weren't there for the end. STEPHEN POTTER and her crew had been apart of the MIRACLES. I want to say that you men who put her in commission the second time, as shipmates, we may not have told you this, but you know we're just as proud of you as we were when we were first commissioned. From what I've been told, she was in pretty rough shape after being laid up all that time in moth balls, and it took a lot of work to get her going again. You took out from San Diego, shook her down real well, then you went on to Pearl Harbor and out to Korea and engagements there. It's a MIRACLE that you didn't get hurt, but then God was still looking after her and her crew. After sailing her around the world, you might say, she was decommissioned again and later sold for scrap. Do you know what she really brought for scrap? Our STEPHEN POTTER brought $151,000 plus change. No, we couldn't save her but she had saved us. The MIRACLES that happened on her I will never forget as long as I live.
I would like to say also that the United States has been lucky, very lucky. My Daddy fought in World War I and I fought in World War II thinking there would be no more wars. But then came the Korean War in which we had to fight those who were our allies in World War II. Then, Viet Nam. Many of your own sons were in the Viet Nam war. They did well, but you know, they had a rough time over there. Then, Desert Storm. Yes, we only lost a few men in Desert Storm. God was watching over them and it's a miracle that we didn't lose more. I want to add that I believe the fighting in Bosnia now is very bad, very bad indeed. But folks, let our President, leaders, generals, admirals, and others, sit at the table and talk peace for a long time. No one knows better than you sitting in front of me today that Old Men start wars, but Young Men fight wars.
As the STEPHEN POTTER sailed through the different waters, God watched over us as we passed through the valley of the shadow of death and He loved us so much that he kept watch over us to perform these MIRACLES. According to 1st Peter, we’re strangers, pilgrims on this earth. We're just passing through and for many of us, our visit will end soon and we will return to Heaven. I want you to think about this. Of all the cities that we have bombed and destroyed in these wars that I've just mentioned, I don't believe that we've ever had an enemy bomb fall on the United States of America except for Pearl Harbor.
Let us close in prayer.
Almighty God, we thank thee from the depths of our hearts for all that You have done for us, for all the MIRACLES that You have performed. Lord, we know that there is not enough space in the universe or time on earth to share all the MIRACLES that Your Son, Jesus, performed during the very short time He was on earth. Father, we thank Thee for life itself, we thank Thee for our health. We know that many of our shipmates could not be here today. Several of them are sick; we pray that they can be healed. Father, just reach down from Heaven and lay Your healing hands on them so that they can be made whole again. We know that we cannot argue Your will; that sometime we have to move on and make way for others, but we do appreciate our health and our life here on earth. We know that some would be here if they weren't sick, because they did love this ship so much, just like many more of us did. And Father, for all the others who have been mentioned this morning, some twenty that we know are sick, we pray that You will be with each and every one of them. For the one who just had a stroke and then a heart attack, we pray, Lord, that You will lay your healing hands on him that he may be made whole and that his visit on earth will be extended. For the ones who will be flying out today to return home, we pray that You give them a safe flight and a happy landing. And for the ones of us who will be driving home, we pray that You give us a safe journey on the road. For the one who has just left knowing that his brother has come to be with You, we pray, Lord, that You give him a safe journey home. Please watch over him as he travels down the road. Father, we thank Thee again. And we ask all these blessings in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And all God's people said "AMEN"