March 2, 2022 | View PDF
Written by Calvin K. Sunderland
My dad was not a braggart. It was rare he would talk or write about his time in the WWII Navy on board the heavy cruiser USS Portland. What follows is one he wrote a few years before he died. I can only try to emulate the bravery it must have taken to weather events such as he experienced during the war. – Michael K. Sunderland
“One of the most frightful episodes while I was aboard came late in our North Pacific excursion. A storm at sea is one of nature’s more spectacular performances, and among the most memorable dangers a sailor encounters. The Portland rode out a dilly in late August 1943.
The wind rose steadily until it roared over gale force, 70-90 mph for a couple of days. The seas rose ever higher. The ship pitched and rolled alarmingly. Waves began breaking over the bow. Deck lines were rigged to give men who had to be on deck something to hang onto to avoid being swept away by wind and water. Finally deck activity and watches were suspended.
The waves grew to monstrous heights, breaking over the bridge that was 65’ above the waterline, burying lower topside decks as they washed the length of the ship. Pitching became so severe it threatened the hull structure. Wave length increased to a point where both bow and stern were in the water while amid ship in the trough the vessel was barely in the water. The danger was she’d break her back.
The skipper took her off head on to a quartering course. This eased the pitching to a degree but increased the rolling. There was talk that he might have to bring her stern-to and back down the waves as a last resort. By this time all hands were confined below deck. For 2 days the galleys were shut down. The best the cooks could manage was cold sandwiches and hot coffee in big metal pots suspended on long chains from the overhead. Several cooks suffered scald burns from getting in the way of flying pots of hot water.
As the storm built all hands lashed down gear topside and the stores below deck. We were holed up below, trying to avoid being thrown about. The mess hall, amid ship and 1 deck below main, had been cleared of all tables, chairs and equipment except for the swinging coffee pots. That’s where hundreds of us congregated during the most severe days of the blow. At the center of the ship the pitching was felt the least.
The few plank owners (men who had served on the ship since it was first commissioned) tried to reassure us newer hands. “Don’t worry. This ship is designed to take a roll of 45° without capsizing,” they said. That only made us more anxious when she began rolling through arcs of more than that.
There’d come one of 30°, the next 40°, then 45° and then ease back on the following series. The cycles began taking the ship through rolls over 45°, the highest recorded being 51°. Each time she heeled over the 45° mark we wondered if she’d come back. She’d roll, shudder to a stop, lie on her side for what was probably only seconds but seemed an eternity. Then we’d exhale when she began to right herself. A roll of 45-50° to one side was invariably followed by a like roll to the other. Bodies were flying through arcs of 90-100 degrees, equaling a distance of 120 feet if you happened to be crouched against the outside hull. For the men on the bridge it was worse.
Hundreds were seasick, including many of the old salts. I escaped the seasickness but was sore in body from the days of being thrown about and hanging on for dear life. The bucking, wrenching and twisting popped rivets and buckled plates on the quarterdeck just above us, allowing water to spill onto the deck below.
The storm finally passed and the seas gradually subsided. Scores of men sustained injuries of various kinds: scalds, burns, cuts, sprains, cracked heads, and a few broken bones. No one got off unbruised. A lot of topside gear was lost. Many splinter shields made of 1/4-inch thick steel protecting the 40 and 20 mm guns was bent or ripped loose.
Though scarred from the battering, the ship came through in good shape. The men who’d been on the bridge during the worst of it swore that some waves had reached a height of 80’. I had no trouble believing it, since I’d seen some myself that had to have been 50’ to 60’ high before the weather decks were secured.
After the sea returned to normal rough state, we were put to work restoring order in the holds. I spent a couple of days hunkered over in the 30” crawl space mopping up gallons of carbon tetrachloride.”
We need men and women of his caliber these days who will stand up and do what must be done to defend our liberties. Our founders fought and died to secure them for us. My father and many of yours fought against the tyrannies of the Nazis and Japanese in WW2. I’m not suggesting we take up arms, but am encouraging each of us to stand up and use all legal, Constitutional means of defeating the erection of a leftist tyranny. – M.K. Sunderland