November 8, 2004
Douglas Roberts of Scottsdale was going through his late mother’s papers when the letter popped up. Inside its red and blue borders, a tight cursive script told a tale of sailors in a typhoon’s path.
"I imagine King Neptune or whoever runs the winds . . . aimed one right at us," the letter said. "As I came on watch, things were getting pretty nasty and we were swinging wildly on the anchor. Just about that time we were told to execute the typhoon plan, where all the ships were to sail out of the harbor. Since we were not thought to be in seaworthy condition . . . we were told to seek shelter."
It was September 1945. World War II was over, but American soldiers were still spread across the globe. The executive officer of USS PC 1178, a 70-man escort vessel, was recounting a typhoon that had hammered Okinawa, Japan.
"It really surprised me to find it," Roberts said. The letter rekindled a dimly remembered chapter of the war, but he already knew the end. The author, a 22-year-old executive officer, was Roberts himself.
HANGING BY A TETHER
Thursday is Veterans Day. It was originally Armistice Day, commemorating the soldiers who died in World War I, but in 1954 Congress expanded the holiday to honor soldiers and sailors, like Roberts, who perform more roles in more far-flung places than anyone can possibly imagine.
"Not many people know about the typhoon," Roberts explained. "Attention shifted from Okinawa once the Japanese left." Only 23 feet across and a rough ride even in good weather, PC 1178 was docked at shallow Buckner Bay to support the invasion of Japan, which never came.
"We had no concept of an atomic bomb," he said. "We were just delighted we didn’t have to invade Japan. The loss of life would have been enormous." So PC 1178’s crew went about its duties, happy the worst was behind them. When the easterly winds rose on Sept. 15, PC 1178 was ordered to lead other ships to the safest part of the harbor.
"We finally succeeded in getting our anchor off the bottom," young Roberts wrote. "The (anchor) chain has a way of breaking when the ship is being bounced around by the sea. . . . We started out through the harbor. It was rather funny to have whole lines of various ships with the same idea . . . getting in each other’s way. Out in the middle of the harbor the seas were running about 20 feet high, coming right in the mouth of the bay."
When the squall struck, its stinging spray blinded the ship’s lookouts. Between blasts, they discovered they were bearing down on a destroyer 150 yards away. With ships on either side, they couldn’t turn, so they had to drop anchor in the middle of the harbor.
"We finally found what we thought was a good place to anchor, in nearer the island, and stood by praying our little anchor would hold." Others were not so lucky.
"The radio became full of distress calls," he wrote. "Many of the smaller ships around us were parting anchor chains or dragging badly, but much to our surprise, our hook still held firmly in the ground."
Fifty-nine years later, Roberts still isn’t sure how: "I don’t know if we caught part of a reef or we just got lucky, but we were barely hanging on." By midday, PC 1178 was snapping violently from side to side on its tether as the typhoon wrecked everything around them. Winds rose to 80 knots, the barometer fell too low to read.
"The cries on the radio got more frantic as more ships were pounding to pieces on the reefs," Roberts wrote. "One small ship had to be abandoned at sea, without much hope of rescue. It was awfully depressing, especially when were were afraid we might be next."
The heaving deck required Roberts to stand watch through a porthole. At 10 o’clock, a series of barges blew past them. One barge, swinging a huge derrick, came so close that all hands were summoned on deck for impact. "Everybody cheered as it passed, but the wind wouldn’t even let a cheer be heard."
Just after midnight, the wind reversed. Howling suddenly from the west at 100 knots, it swung them dangerously close to other boats. At 4 a.m., PC 1178 hit its engines to clear another barge blowing toward them. It missed by a scant 10 feet as the typhoon carried it out to the ocean.
"From there on to daylight, the storm continued to subside," he wrote. "This morning, the results were visible and not too encouraging. Ships are aground all over the place."
DEATH BY FOOTNOTE
The executive officer is a retired dentist now. PC 1178 is a tattered flag on his wall. Stateside papers, thick with home front news, did not cover the typhoon. "It didn’t even get a name," Roberts recalled. "Typhoon Louise, which hit us three weeks later, was the worst loss of ships in the war."
But Roberts’ letter became an ironic reminder of how close he came, at 22, to surviving Hitler’s Uboats and the D-Day landings, only to perish in a historical footnote.
"Tonight the moon is out," he wrote. "It makes it seem impossible that last night this time the bay was such a madhouse."
"I’m far enough away from it now, so I don’t have nightmares," Roberts said. "Though I do have vivid memories of how close those ships came to crushing us."
While Memorial Day honors those soldiers who fought and died on America’s behalf, Veterans Day extends the nod to those who served and lived. The ones who weathered typhoons and became dentists. The ones who held Bastogne and built Levittown. The ones who wintered in Korea or Khe Sanh or Fallujah, and then modestly returned to homes and families. It’s a low-key holiday with minimal fanfare. But it deserves the kind of quiet appreciation young Douglas Roberts demonstrated after his ship had weathered the storm.
"By next week, it’ll be just another experience," he wrote. "But right now, the feeling is one of thanksgiving."