"STANDBY TO TAKE TORPEDO"
‑‑In his memoirs of his time aboard the STEPHEN POTTER, Lieut. John P (Jack) Underhill, our communications officer, then an Ensign, relates his recollections of the Potter's early days after joining the Pacific fleet in January 1944.
Not long after we had formed up Task Force 58 with the fast carriers early in 1944 as the Central Pacific Force, our first sortie out of Majuro was to hit the feared Japanese naval stronghold at Truk on February 12.
The STEPHEN POTTER joined up with Task Group 58.2, departing January 17, headed for the Marshall Islands. Three aircraft carriers, two battleships, three cruisers and a dozen destroyers made up our force. Enroute, we were joined by Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, the Central Pacific commander, aboard the INDIANAPOLIS, together with four more battleships and additional cruisers and destroyers. "FLINTLOCK" was the name of the campaign.
Enroute to our initial deep‑water anchorage at Majuro atoll we crossed the equator on January 23. As two‑thirds of the crew and officers weren't 'shellbacks’, having never crossed the equator at sea, this called for the time‑honored ritual of inducting us lowly peons into the domain of King Neptunus Rex, Ruler of the Raging Main. Subpoenas were issued, mandating our appearance before the "king."
(Underhill's subpoena, branding him "Jumping Jack”, accused him of decoding orders which took the ship away from the States. Ordered to strip to the waist, each of us was sheared by the Royal Barber and with Shellbacks whacking us with paddles, made to crawl through a hail of garbage, fuel oil, soapy water etc. to face King Neptunus Rex. When the ceremony ended we were then Shellbacks.)
Task Force 58 sortied from Majuro headed for a strike on Truk on February 10. The strike force consisted of three of the four task groups making up the Central Pacific Force. Meantime, a fourth carrier group covered the landings at Eniwetok on February 17. Truk was a well‑fortified, major Japanese fleet base. It had the name of "The Gibraltar of the Pacific."
It was hoped to catch a major portion of the Japanese fleet at anchor there as well as prevent any air support from Truk during the Eniwetok assault.
After Task Force 58 planes had inflicted heavy damage on the surprised Japanese fleet caught at anchor in the Truk harbor, our foes sought to strike back that night with a vengeance. Japanese torpedo planes attacked our carrier task groups which had retired east of Truk. This was the first time the STEPHEN POTTER fired her guns at the enemy.
Out of the blackness of the night, a torpedo launched by one of the Japanese planes came coursing at our spot in the destroyer screen and appeared to have the STEPHEN POTTER'S name on it. Our alert Captain Crichton had spotted it, and ordered the word to be relayed to all ship's stations.
"Stand‑by to receive torpedo on the PORT side," over the ship's PA system is how David Stevenson, then an F3C, remembers the message coming to the crew.
Bob Smith, then an F3C, remembers the order from the bridge a little bit differently: "Stand by to take a torpedo on the STARBOARD side." And Smith, like a number of others aboard the POTTER, remembers a sickening swishing sound from under the ship.
Ty Tyler, then assigned to Repair One, recalls when the word of an approaching torpedo went out, he asked Art McDearmid, the First Lieutenant, if he would sign a leave a leave chit for him. "Not only will I sign it, I'll go with you," replied McDearmid.
Within a few moments, we heard the Aircraft Carrier INTREPID was hit, taking the torpedo that went under the POTTER, and was steaming out of control. Hit in the starboard quarter, the INTREPID's steering engine room had been flooded and its rudder jammed, so that it was steaming in a circle.
The STEPHEN POTTER, with another destroyer, was directed to stand by and screen the damaged carrier.
Underhill relates in his personal memoir:
It was pitch black, and we could barely make out the carrier. We were still at general quarters where I was at my station as GQ bridge officer. In those early days, Captain Crichton took the conn during general quarters. As we turned toward the INTREPID to take station on here port bow, Captain Crichton asked me, “Underhill, what side of the INTREPID is the superstructure on?”
I didn't know, so I turned to First Class signalman Duffin and asked him. He didn't know either. By that time, the INTREPID was dead in the water. We could not determine which was the bow and which the stern in the darkness. Fortunately, the other destroyer headed for the starboard bow and solved the problem for us.
INTREPID did manage to get steerage using her port and starboard engines and began making headway at 20 knots. Detached from the task group, INTREPID was told to return to Majuro, and we were ordered to accompany her. After refueling and provisioning at Majuro, we were detailed to take the INTREPID back to Pearl Harbor.
Our short stay in Pearl turned out to bring a total, and welcome, surprise, and one time that it was handy to be a "small boy." The battleship WASHINGTON had collided with another ship during an air attack and had to be sent back to the States for repairs. We got the assignment to be her escort and take her to Bremerton Navy Yard, but to hotfoot it back to our destroyer division in the Central Pacific.
As soon as we hit Bremerton, Cupid worked wonders for one of our lovesick officers. Right away, Roy (Ensign) Bellin got on long distance telephone and proposed to Peggy, back in Milwaukee. She joyously accepted, and Roy asked her to immediately to jump on a plane for San Francisco, where we would go on leaving Bremerton the following day.
During our two‑day layover in San Francisco, Roy and Peggy were married. Doc Delaney helped out by fudging on their blood tests to expedite matters. Nostalgically, when we had the STEPHEN POTTER reunion in Seattle in 1983, Roy took a picture of the telephone booth at Bremerton Navy Yard from which he asked Peggy to marry him.