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By Mike Sunderland
Thoughts from a Grey-haired Point of View 

More Than a Lady

 

November 10, 2021 | View PDF

She’s a real lady and for as long as men have gone to the sea, they continue to fall in love with her.

For quite a number of men she was their first love. She is built. I mean really built! Her pictures grace a thousand museums and thousands of guys’ fondest memories are filled with the times they’ve spent with her.

She can be a real tough cookie when she has to be, and still give a man a safe home and a warm bed. She can be fast, and men love fast women. She can be a lot of things to different men, but to every one of them who fall in love with her there can never be another.

So it was with my father and his first love. Their affair lasted a little over 2 years. During that time they shared some uniquely beautiful moments among the South Pacific islands not to be shared with those who were not there. There were also many fire lit nights in the moonless Pacific that could drive a man to heights never dreamed of. Their fervor reached its climax during the torrid nights in the Solomon Islands. Theirs was a wartime relationship forged in fire and desperate passion. Dad never forgot her.

After separation from his Pacific love, Dad married Barbara, the sweetheart he met at a U.S.O. dance a few months before he was discharged from the Navy. They had a wonderful marriage that lasted 63 years. Yet dad never forgot his first love. In the days before he died, dad talked of her and the longing in his voice echoed that longing in his heart. He was not afraid to hang her pictures on the walls of his nursing home room for all to see.

Dad did not keep her a secret and everyone in the family knew of her. Through the years he told me a few tales of their times together and I came to know her almost as well as he. Dad described their journey through heavenly South Seas beauty and wartime’s hellish havoc such as few ever experience. Their voyage together began at the docks of Mare Island Naval Shipyard, across the bay from San Francisco, California. They met in April 1943 at the shipyard. For my father it was love at first sight.This lady was sleek and shapely. The gleam in dad’s eyes as he described her was something to behold. From stem to stern this gal was really built – she had lines that Dorothy Lamour and Marilyn Monroe would die for. After dad died, I received all his pictures of her, and I must concur in his appreciation of her beauty. She could take you around the world slow and easy, like sitting in a rocking chair. But when the time was right she was ready for action. To say she was fast would be an understatement and an insult to her abilities. Dad knew from his first look that she would receive his attentions and affections, and would also demand his utmost devotion and effort.

The happy couple sailed for a fog bound rendezvous in the Aleutian Island chain that extends from southwestern Alaska. Together they faced raging storms in the Bering Sea, and together they faced the deadly dangers posed by the Japanese occupation of the Aleutian islands of Kiska and Adak. During those hellishly cold, bitter days and nights as together they fought oceanic winter storms and faced enemy fire that the bond between the two lovers was sealed. It was there they first proved themselves faithful and true to each other. From that time on there would be no other that could replace her in dad’s heart and life.

They cruised and fought from the freezing waters of Alaska and through dozens of major and minor engagements in the South Pacific.

Together they sailed with fast carrier groups in Task Force 5 making strikes on Truk, Palau and Pelileu, and supported several amphibious assault landings, including Hollandia, New Guinea, Tarawa and Kwajalein. It was at Guadalcanal during a night fight against overwhelming odds that even tough talking Admiral Bill “Bull” Halsey came to appreciate dad’s lady love for her many fine qualities. In this battle the couple found themselves facing the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Hiei, a battlewagon sporting 14-inch main guns. Yet they were not dismayed and stood fast. Together, knowing they might not survive, they faced and fought against this brute.

Early in the engagement dad’s lady fair took a Jap Long Lance torpedo in the stern that bent her hull plates and jammed her rudders so that she could only steam in circles. Her fiery response to this insult, a salvo of 8-inch shells, hit true on the Hiei and knocked him dead in the water. The two adversaries could not get away from each other and they spent the next 5 hours slugging it out.

When morning came planes from Henderson Field came out to support her, they found the Hiei all but demolished and severely listing. Dad’s consort had taken a hell of a beating, but was still afloat and dishing it out as fast as ammo could be brought to the surviving guns. When it was over they limped away under their own power, headed to Sydney, Australia for initial repairs. For most of his life, dad kept this special night to himself, and only briefly alluded to that night’s torrid exploits.

Dad’s stories of his love affair with this great grey lady had much to do with my decision to follow in his footsteps. When it came time for me to serve my country I chose the Navy. Years later, while researching this part of dad’s life, I learned of the special commendation that Admiral Halsey wrote to her. The officers and crew of the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Portland were singled out for their heroic stand during that night’s fight at Guadalcanal. Halsey specifically related that the ship and crew prevented the Jap battlewagon from shelling Henderson Field and the Marines that night, enabling the embattled fighters to successfully complete their mission of securing Guadalcanal. The Portland and her young men stayed and fought, though they could have out run the overpowering IJN Hiei.

Dad was separated from his seagoing lover shortly afterwards and went on to academy prep school prior to being assigned to Annapolis. He never saw her again, until many years later. Dad married Barbara, raised a family and retired from a successful career in newspapers and commercial printing. The U.S.S. Portland Memorial is in Portland, Maine, her namesake. There on a rise overlooking the bay at Fort Allen Park on the Eastern Promenade is all that remains of this once proud fighting lady.

Arranged on a concrete circle the aft mast, ship’s brass bell, and a portion of the flying bridge watch station enclose a small stone pillar. Fastened to the pillar are two plaques, one listing the 16 major battles the Portland participated in and the other is a memorial to the valiant ship and her crew.

Some time after dad died, Dorothy and I visited the site. I cannot describe the incredible feelings I experienced as I stood on the same watch station as my father stood upon more than 60 years earlier. The feeling of gratitude I felt towards the U.S.S. Portland, that grand grey steel lady, for bringing my father safely home, was and is too much for words. In a small way I, too, fell in love with her.

Never forget the sacrifices our brave men and women in uniform have made so you and I can live free from dictators and evil regimes. It is now our turn to face the fires of adversity in order to protect the freedom of our children and their children.

 

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