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It still floated

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Chamblissburg man recalls service aboard Navy ship

By John Barnhart

    Destroyer sailors don’t expect a smooth ride when they ship out aboard a tin can, the nickname these fast warships acquired.
    With hulls that are long in comparison to their beam, destroyers are built for speed. Photos, particularly of older destroyers, will often show one of these ships riding over the crest of a swell with its bow completely out of the water. Back in 1952, Bruce Clarke, who owns a farm in Chamblissburg, had a rougher ride than normal when his destroyer struck a mine.
    When Clarke graduated from high school back in 1948 he figured that he would eventually be drafted into the Army. He did not want to be in the Army, so he enlisted in the Navy.
    Clarke describes this choice as the “best decision I ever made.”
    “I had a place to sleep every night,” he commented. “I traveled around the world.”
    He had a choice of ratings and he was advised to sign up to be a storekeeper. Storekeepers are the Navy’s supply workers.  Shipboard storekeepers order supplies for the ship, run the ship’s store and handle the ship’s payroll. They work under the ship’s supply officer.
    After completing boot camp, he was offered a choice of duty stations. He chose a destroyer, a choice that he was glad he made because a destroyer has a relatively small crew. This meant that he got to know most of his shipmates.
    The destroyer he picked was the USS Small (DD-838), a Gearing Class destroyer. Nearly 100 of these were built at the very end of World War II, but did not enter service until mid-1945, so few saw combat in WWII. The Gearing Class, along with the Allen M. Sumner and Fletcher Class destroyers, provided the bulk of the US destroyer fleet in the late 1940s and 1950s.
    These destroyers were much smaller that modern ships of that type. They were 390-feet long and displaced only 2,616 tons when fully loaded. They were propelled by two steam turbines fed by four boilers. These were divided among four compartments and, after checking these out, Clarke was glad that he followed the advice he got and did not sign up for an engineering rating as he had originally intended. To get into one of the boiler rooms, for example, a sailor opened a small hatch in the deck and climbed down a ladder.
    The ships were fast. They had a top speed of 36 knots.
    Clarke, along with ordering supplies for the ship, ran the ship’s store. This was just a cubby hole on this type of ship. Clarke said he could stand in the middle, stretch out his arms and nearly touch both sides. The compartment’s depth wasn’t much more than its width.
    He remembered that cigarettes sold for 70 cents a carton back then.
    “People would come up on payday and buy three cartons of cigarettes,” he recalled. “That would last them to [the next] payday.”
    Every sailor had a battle station for general quarters. His originally was on one of the 40mm antiaircraft gun mounts, the ship had a dozen 40mm guns,  but he was later moved to the Number 2 5”/38 gun mount. The ship had six 5”/38 guns in three twin mounts.
    “I was a sight setter and range finder up in that Number two mount,” he said.
    The Small was an East Coast ship but, with the outbreak of the Korean War, she was ordered to the Pacific, steaming through the Panama Canal.
    The Small took part in the Inchon landing in September, 1950. In October, 1951, she was providing Naval gunfire support to troops ashore at Hungnam. The 5”/38 gun fired semi-fixed ammunition. Men in the handling rooms below the gun mount sent the shell — Clarke said these weighed bout 56 pounds — and a brass canister, that contained the powder and primer to fire the shell, up two hoists. These were placed on a hydraulic rammer and placed into the breach of the gun.
    On Oct. 7, they were shelling a target ashore when North Korean shells, being fired at them began coming too close to the ship. The captain decided to pull farther from the shore, and that’s when the Small hit a mine. It blew a 50-foot hole in the side of the ship and broke the keel just forward of Clarke’s gun mount.    
    “Oh man, it shook that thing around,” Clarke said.
    Clarke didn’t see anything. His position didn’t provide any way to see outside of the gun mount. All he had in front of him were dials. However, he figured out what happened, although he was pretty dazed for about an hour after the blast. The explosion threw him out of his seat and he ended up with two knots on his head, that felt like they were the size of hen’s eggs, from having his head banged against equipment in the gun mount. He was also thrown face first into those dials. Clarke was awarded the Purple Heart due to his injuries.
    Nine men were killed in the blast, including the entire sonar room watch. Clarke said only two bodies were recovered. The rest were washed out through the large hole in the ship’s side and nobody ever saw them again.
    The destroyer, however, was in no danger of sinking. Because they were at general quarters, all watertight fittings were closed, so the seawater couldn’t get into the rest of the ship. The Small was still able to make way under her own power, and her skipper decided to head for a shipyard in Japan for repairs.
    The broken keel was a problem, however, and the forward part of the ship, roughly a third of its length, began to break off the ship after two days.
    “You could hear the metal crunching,” Clarke recalled.
    The captain, who Clarke described as a “pretty savvy skipper,” decided that he was going to lose that piece of the ship, so he sent most of the crew to the fantail, in life jackets, ready to abandon ship if need-be. He then backed the ship, allowing the bow to break off and float free. A sequence of photos published in the February 1952 edition of the All Hands shows this section of the ship rolling over as it breaks free and floating away on its side.
    “It was pretty weird, seeing part of your ship float away from you,” Clarke commented.
    The Small remained afloat, and the captain then attempted to steam the ship to port in reverse. With the bow gone, a thin interior bulkhead was left exposed to the sea and, while watertight, it wasn’t strong enough to withstand the water pressure against it that trying to steam forward would create.
    Backing didn’t work well as the shape of a destroyer’s stern wasn’t conducive to this and the captain finally had to call for a tow. The armed tugboat that came out to tow the Small also solved another problem. The tug fired at the floating bow section of the ship in order to sink it as it posed a hazard to other ships.
    The Small was towed to a shipyard in Japan where a temporary mini-bow was fabricated and attached to the ship. The Small then steamed back to California on its own power at about 10 knots.
    “If it got a little rough we slowed down to four knots,” Clarke said.
    They made it back to California where the Small went into a shipyard where she received a bow transplant that put her back in service for nearly 20 years. Contracts for a number of Gearing Class destroyers had been cancelled at the end of World War II and the Navy took possession of a few partially completed ships. One of these, the Seymour D. Owens (DD-767), was bow donor for the Small.
    Clarke, however, wasn’t on the Small for her return to service. Once she reached the shipyard, only a skeleton crew remained on board. The rest of the crew were dispersed to other ships in the fleet. Clarke was assigned to the USS Toledo (CA-133), a Baltimore Class heavy cruiser, where he spent the remaining six months of his enlistment.
    “But I liked the tin cans much better,” Clarke said.
    Today, Clarke has a farm in Chamblissburg where he raises Angus beef cattle.

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