A 1943 Survival Story & Deep Gratitude

This unusual story begins in the fall of 1943. After completing Navy boot camp at Bainbridge, Maryland, I was processed through classification and promoted immediately from Apprentice Seaman to Machinist Mate without being sent to school for the usual three months. This was because of my having been a machinist at the Naval Torpedo Plant in Alexandria, Virginia. If I had been sent to school in the usual manner, I would not be telling this story.

One gray, foggy morning at about 6 a.m. I found myself on a dock at Bayonne, NJ. Alongside the dock, looming ominously through the fog, was the ship to which I had been assigned. Until now the war had seemed so far away, now it seemed so near.

The ship was the USS Turner DD648, a new destroyer, less than a year old. The ship's complement consisted of seventeen officers and two hundred nine enlisted men.

No one knew at that moment that the USS Turner would make the headlines of the nation's newspapers just one month from then. However, in one month the Turner would be at the bottom of Graveness' Bay, just a few miles from Bayonne. In it would be the bodies of fifteen officers and 138 enlisted men.

After a couple of shakedown cruises, we joined the three other destroyers of our squadron and escorted fifty cargo ships to the Med. We then proceeded to Casablanca where we spent several days. There we saw the remains of the Vichy French fleet sunk and beached in the harbor by the US Navy.

We had a brief liberty in Casablanca with strict orders to not eat or drink anything because of severe food shortage and because of the probability of food poisoning. Many people were dying of starvation because the city's population had increased greatly due to refugees from other countries fleeing from the east as Rommel advanced westward. The natives were very hostile toward us because the Navy had inadvertently shelled the city in the effort to destroy the Vichy French fleet. After seeing the incredible plight of these innocent victims of war, we returned to the ship. We had witnessed a facet of life that to Americans is incomprehensible--however-we saw it.

Upon leaving Casablanca, we picked up another convoy of cargo ships and headed back to New York. The Captain gave us several pep talks on how to get a German submarine in the event we had any sonar contacts on the way back. He wanted so badly to steam into New York Harbor with one in tow. We spent a lot of time at GQ, rehearsing often in order to be ready for the real event. We did have several contacts and dropped depth charges, but the results were doubtful.

The last sonar contact we had was on the day before dropping anchor at the entrance to New York Harbor. We did not know it then, but it was the one that set the stage for the enactment of a most horrifying drama.

In the early morning of January 3, 1944, we dropped anchor near Ambrosia light at the entrance to New York Harbor to await clearance to proceed into Ambrosia Channel. Shortly before 6 a.m. I was in line to get breakfast. This destroyer had two mess compartments. The men in line passed by the steam tables in the main mess compartment, filled their trays, and then sat down to eat in either the main or forward compartment.

After filling my tray, I looked around for a seat in the main compartment and saw one next to my friend, Ed Gutzler. At that moment the man behind pushed past and took that seat, so I went to the forward compartment and sat next to another friend that I remember only as Glen. I did not know then that the man who pushed past me inadvertently saved my life and lost his, because in the next few minutes everyone in the main mess compartment would die.

I was not hungry. I had taken one bite out of a piece of toast and was idly contemplating my teeth marks in the toast and thinking how nice liberty in New York would be. Then the lights went out--no pain, no noise, no sensation-just blackness. I heard later that the explosion was heard for 30 miles.

I estimated that I came to 5-10 minutes later. Two men were lying on top of me. I pushed them off, shook them, but there was no response. I looked around, seeing nothing but flames and heavy smoke. I heard screams of men who were trapped in the wreckage and were burning to death. I went to the door of the main mess compartment and looked in-- nothing but flames, acrid smoke, and screams of agony!

Breathing now was next to impossible, so I crawled with my face close to the deck for better air. I decided to crawl forward and feel around for the ladder up to the Chief Petty Officers' quarters which were on the second deck from there I would be able to take another ladder up to the fore deck and fresh air.

On the way, I found a ladder, but , unfortunately, it was a down ladder to the refrigeration compartment on the fourth deck. After falling down the ladder, I lay on the fourth deck and almost decided to call it quits. The excruciating pain that only burns can cause was now beginning to manifest itself. However, I suppose that it is a natural instinct to die trying rather than giving up. So , up the ladder I went to the third deck and found the ladder to the Chief's quarters on the second deck. There I found a battle lamp ( an emergency lamp that automatically comes on when the ship's power fails).

I took the battle lamp, went back below to the third deck and found five men who were trying to find a way out and showed them the up ladder. While I held the light they pushed the most seriously hurt man up the ladder. At the top he passed out, blocking the hatch, and trapping us below. It was at this moment that I fervently wished I had not come back below with the light.

Since we felt surely that the ship would explode again, we spent an additional 5-10 minutes of anxiety while we extricated the unconscious man up to the Chief's quarters

Eventually we arrived topside on the fore deck and found ourselves in a howling blizzard. I will never forget the exquisite sensation caused by snow coming into contact with red hot skin.

Looking aft with one eye open, I saw the sight of a destroyer completely out of operation. Both sides of the ship had huge holes blown out; the number two 5" gun turret had disappeared; the number one turret had been forced upward , and flames were rushing out of the holes in the sides and on top of the superstructure.

As I looked, a man on fire jumped from high in the superstructure into the water. There were rapid explosions of ammunition as the fire got to it, and shrapnel was rattling over the deck.

To the great credit of the men on the fore deck, there was no panic. A few did jump into the water and some died there-- the cold water with their burns was too much. Glen was one of these- later his wife would come to see me in the hospital to ask about him.

A Coast Guardsmen brought his boat, approximately 60 feet in length, up to the port side of the fore deck. His crew threw lines up to us and eventually we all boarded and got safely away. Those Coast Guardsmen were extremely courageous--they spent 20-30 minutes alongside the ship rescuing us, knowing of the imminence of the next explosion, and realizing that they had hundreds of gallons of gasoline on board the boat. However, they stayed alongside until the last man was taken off. The US Coast Guard deserves a great deal of credit for their part of the rescue.

We were about 30 yards from the Turner when the second major explosion occurred. We watched her sink quickly, and when some of the depth charges were under water, there was a tremendous blast. When we had the submarine contact the day before, the depth charges had been armed to detonate at thirty feet and they had not yet been disarmed. It seemed as if acres of water rose 30-40 feet at the time of the third explosion.

We were six miles out and were being taken to a Army hospital at Red Bank, NJ. It was the most agonizing six miles of my life; the searing pain of the burned areas of my body was incredible. When we reached the dock, I had passed over my threshold of pain and mercifully gone into shock, feeling nothing and seeing nothing-- the other eye now blistered shut.

The treatment at the Army hospital was outstanding. The personnel met the emergency of many difficult medical cases (one man had 90 % second and third degree burns and survived) with expertise and cheerfulness. We each had a medical corpsman at our bedside 24 hours a day for 4 days, checking our blood count every three hours, carefully measuring our fluid intake and outgo, and swathing us in petrolatum and bandages to avoid death from shock. The danger of burns is the loss of body fluids via the burned areas and causing the loss of equilibrium between the red and white corpuscles. We required hundreds of quarts of blood plasma to help with the blood count and the hospital did not have it.

Commander Frank Erickson of the Coast Guard Aviation Unit at Floyd Bennett Field rose to the occasion and brought the plasma from New York to the hospital, through a blizzard, using a new experimental helicopter. One gain-- our eternal gratitude to the USCG.

Later we were transferred to Brooklyn Naval Hospital where most of us developed complications from the injuries received in the blast. At Brooklyn Naval Hospital, we received excellent treatment and nursing. In time our complications were cured. No one was lost.

Four months later, it was back to regular duty: two months of special school in Miami; a year of sea duty in the Pacific; and the on to the Occupation of Japan.

What about the men who were blown to bits, slowly burned to death, drowned, or suffered severe injuries that morning of January 3, 1944? We were not performing any heroic deeds or engaging the enemy in a battle at sea. We were at anchor waiting breakfast. We were not killed ot wounded by the enemy, but by our own weapons-- an accident. There were no citations, no glory, no recognition. We were just performing a necessary , though very dull, routine duty-- escorting supply ships across the Atlantic and an accident occurred.

I do not know if the Coast Guardsmen manning that 60 foot rescue boat received any commendation for their heroic rescue of us. Nor do I know if the medics at the Army hospital at Red Bank, NJ received recognition for the excellent care they gave us.

It is hoped that this story will express deep gratitude to the CG and the Army and serve in a small way as a memorial to those men who were serving their country aboard the ill-fated USS Turner when they died.

Robert Freear, MM2/c
Survivor, USS Turner DD648

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