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The Second U.S.S. Montpelier, CL-57 - Personal Accounts

These are links to topics further down the page
  • Personal Account by Lieutenant John S. Stillman
  • Excerpts from Memoirs of a Navy Doctor Aboard a Cruiser in the Pacific War (1942-1944), by Rear Admiral Robert A. Conard, (M.C.)
  • Memories of David Cox, March 11, 2001
Excellent reading material on U.S.S. Montpelier history:
Pacific War Diary, by James J. Fahey, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963, I.S.B.N. 0-395-64022-9
Nightwork, by Fletcher Pratt
 
The following are actual accounts from Jim Fahey, hours after the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, written in his book Pacific War Diary (I.S.B.N. 0-395-64022-9).

"It is about 2:45 A.M. Tuesday, November 2, 1943, and all hell breaks loose. The battle is on. Our guns are pouring it on as they maneuver. It is very dark and heat lightening can be seen during the battle along with a drizzle. Our ship [Montpelier] did not waste any time in that it hit a [Japanese] heavy cruiser. Flames and explosions were everywhere. When it was all over, the ship was dead in the water. It finally sunk. [Japanese] shells were falling all around us and some of our ships were also getting hit. Both sides were firing away at each other. The water was full of American and Japanese torpedoes as destroyers from both sides attacked. The big eight-inch salvos, throwing up great geysers of water, were hitting very close to us. The water sprayed the ship just in front of our mount. There are great explosions as some ships sank very fast ... The cruiser Denver was hit and had another close call as a shell went through the smokestack. It would have been all over if it went down the stack. During this action our ship [Montpelier] was hit by two [Japanese] torpedoes but they did not explode. There was also a near miss for one of our own destroyers as it came out of the darkness and came close to ramming our starboard side. It was going in the same direction in chase of a [Japanese] warship. For while we thought it would crash into our ship."

"Later: Approximately 8:30 A.M. we were attacked by 70 [Japanese] planes. Our four cruisers and seven destroyers had plenty of target practice. The destroyer Foote, our eighth destroyer, is dead in the water as previously mentioned. All ships break loose as [Japanese] planes come in on us from all directions. We fire every gun on the ship at the [Japanese], even our big six inch guns. The first plane we hit was blown to bits by a 6 inch shell. [Japanese] planes can be seen falling all around us. The [Japanese] are also doing some damage and one can see many bombs explode very close to our ships ... Our ship is also hit by a bomb that destroys our catapults that we use for shooting planes off ... When the bomb exploded the stern of the ship was covered with smoke... If the [Japanese] send down any more warships, we will have to use potatoes against them. We must have fired at least 5000 rounds of five and six inch ammunition during our sea battle."
 
The outnumbered Task Force 39 forced a retreat on the large Japanese force sinking a heavy cruiser, Sendai and a destroyer Hatsukaze and downing 20 enemy planes, Montpelier shooting down 5. At the end of the battle, the Montpelier had 5 minutes of ammunition left and the destroyers only had star shells left, no ammo. The Montpelier and the task force eliminated a disaster that could have occurred to the landing forces on the shores of Empress Augusta Bay. The Marines and Army were able to visualize this entire battle from the shores and became grateful to the "Monty" and Task Force 39 for their brave fighting and saving the lives of the invasion troops. This became the famous Battle of Empress Augusta Bay. Later, Admiral "Bull" Halsey visited the Montpelier and commended Admiral Merrill and the crew for a brave job well done. The Naval Forces stationed in the Solomons, not only had the enemy to contend with, but the harsh elements of the equatorial habitat was a burden. Physical suffering from enduring such weather conditions were part of the existence here.

Excerpts from Jim Fahey's book Pacific War Diary, on conditions. (I.S.B.N. 0-395-64022-9).
"The men are having a lot of trouble with skin rash from the heat. This has been going on for some time. Out here you sweat 24 hours a day, and that makes it impossible to cure the heat rash. Some of the fellows are in bad shape but the Dr. cannot help them. Some of the men's rash gave turned into big sores ... My eye lashes fall out when I wake up in the morning I have to put some saliva on my eyes to loosen them because they are stuck together. Some days I have rugged time with my eyes owing to the pain... It is hard to breathe and you would wake up in a pool of sweat ... The steel bulkhead is so hot during the day you cannot touch it in the compartments ... We have been eating bread that is full of little hard bugs for quite some time and this will not change because of the heat. When you put a slice of bread up in front of you, there seems to be as many bugs as there is bread. The flour is full of these small bugs, it would be impossible to separate the bugs from the flour. The bugs breed very fast in the heat down here. The bugs in our bread do not bother us, we are used to them ... When you step into the mount, it is like going into a hot oven. You say to yourself, "How can anyone stand that terrific heat for four hours with the hot sun beating down on you and the heat from the blowers pouring on it, not to mention the hot steel of the mount that surrounds you...." The glare from the sun and the water is very tough on the eyes... You have had very little sleep to start with and while you are on the lookout for [Japanese] subs or torpedoes your feet just buckle under you. You are dead tired and actually fall asleep standing up ... You continue to doze off for a split second, your head droops, feet buckle under you and then you are awake again and do the same thing all over again."
 
Some of the enduring elements during battle are explained by Fahey:
"Our battle station is only a few feet from the big guns and when they fired, the big flashes were blinding. We were so close to the guns that we could look down the barrels. The concussion was awful, it felt like our eardrums would be blown to bits, and the pain in our throat and chest was almost unbearable. The cotton and rubber plugs in our ears did not help, because we were too close to the guns. When these guns fire like this, they even snap the steel plates and ladders that go up to the mount ... Our ship [Montpelier] has close to a hundred guns on it ..."

The Island Hopping Campaign was underway and began to march north in the Pacific. The "Monty" still stationed in the Solomon's, sailed down the famous "Slot" [the Slot is the area where President John F. Kennedy's PT 109 was sunk and numerous warships as well - it is also known as "Iron Bottom Sound"] bombarding shore emplacements in Bougainville.

The Montpelier's task force was one of two, which would relieve each other. Each force would deploy north from Tulagi, sail several hundred miles, engage in battle and then south back to Tulagi for supplies and ammunition and do it over again. Since war resources were limited and most of those resources were deployed to the Atlantic for the defeat of Germany, the Pacific Fleet had to perform with much less in war material until the defeat of Germany. This was part of the reason for night fighting. There were no extra ships to increase the number of task forces to equally match the Japanese. The US Navy in the Solomon's had to depend on sheer strategy and talent of the Officers and Crew to defend positions.

It was not until after the Solomon Campaign when US Warships became more available did daytime fighting take place. During this time the Japanese were not aware of the small amount of ships that were defeating their forces, for they were under the impression that large US Naval forces were up against them. It was the brave and courageous crews of the ships like the Montpelier who stayed the Japanese until Germany was defeated in Europe. The pressure was on these heroes.

Rear Admiral Aaron Stanton Merrill would be transferred to the states for reassignment. Since January 1943, Admiral Merrill was aboard Montpelier as his flagship where all battles were commanded.

Excerpts from Jim Fahey's book Pacific War Diary (I.S.B.N. 0-395-64022-9), on the spirit and the confidence the crew had of the Officers in Command.

"Sunday, March 26, 1944: ... At 10:30 A.M. all hands assembled aft on the fantail to see Rear Admiral Aaron Stanton Merrill for the last time. Uniform of the day was whites. Everyone on board would rather hear him say that he was going to stay with us than to say goodbye. They don't come any better than "Tip." We all thought the world of him, and would do anything for him He was a person one could not help but like. He will be very hard to replace. We will never forget him…As he spoke to us on the fantail, he read his orders and then a little speech followed. He made it known that he did not want to talk about all the big things we accomplished since coming here, almost a year and a half ago. He thought that it would be bragging. He said that if we did not do anything else from now until the end of the war, what we have already done would be more than enough. When he neared the end of his talk, he told the different means of the Hawaiian word "Aloha" which means a quick return or return soon. He finished by saying, 'Aloha to every goddam one of you." He walked to the quarterdeck as side boys stood attention and he was piped over the side. He walked very slow down the gangway. He had to hold his lips tight and his eyes were moist. So were the crew's. He boarded a PT boat that was waiting for him and as it pulled away, he stood leaning against a long pole with one hand and waving to us with the other. All hands waved back. He kept staring at the ship until he was out of sight. We will never see another one like Tip. May the Good Lord always watch over him ... We [Montpelier] have the distinction of being in the Pacific longer than any allied force. Tip Merrill is the only squadron commander, Japanese or American, who never lost a ship in the Slot."

Naval and Marine forces began to invade north in the Gilbert Islands at Tarawa and Makin where the American escort carrier Liscombe Bay was sunk. Jim Fahey's brother was aboard Liscombe Bay, and received word of this news. At that time he did not know of his fate, until later he received a message that his brother was one of 200 survivors of a crew of 900. His unconscious body was tossed overboard by an unknown sailor as the carrier was sinking. She went down in 18 minutes.

Early 1944 the Montpelier covered Marine Amphibious landings in the Bismarcks and then attacked shipping enroute to the Gilberts just south of Truk Island. Truk Island is the Japanese largest naval base also known as Japan's "Pearl Harbor". The Montpelier then entered the Mariana's Island Campaign by shelling Saipan and Tinian to prepare for invasion.

During the summer of 1944 the Montpelier participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea engaging in the famous "Mariana's Turkey Shoot" where Japanese air groups took heavy casualties. Following this battle the "Monty" returned shelling Saipan, Tinian and Guam.

Early August she departed for the United States for refitting.

Returning in November to Leyte Gulf she was attacked by and fought Kamikaze planes. She then supported the invasion of Mindoro again fighting off suicide planes and protected troops invading Lingayen Gulf and later Corregidor, Palawan and Mindanao. She was reassigned to home port in Subic Bay, Philippines and sailed to Brunei Bay in Borneo attacking Balikpapen and provided support for amphibious forces, mine sweeping operations, and landings for Austrailian troops. Montpelier then patrolled the East China Sea for enemy shipping.

At war's end she sailed to Japan for the evacuation of the Allied prisoners. Montpelier's crew went ashore to view Hiroshima after the atomic bomb and supported the occupation of Japan.

December 1945 Montpelier was transferred to the Atlantic Fleet and in 1947 was decommissioned at Philadelphia.

The U.S.S. Montpelier, CL-57 "Legend of the Solomon's" ended her career as a United States Naval ship, 22 January 1960.

Thirty years later, Montpelier resumes her patrols. The third Montpelier, SSN-765 provides our country with naval support in undersea warfare.

The U.S.S. Montpelier, CL-57 received 13 Battle Stars for World War 2 and is one of only a few ships with the highest number of such stars. She was in the first Allied Offensive of the Pacific War, participated in 26 invasions, 42 operations, 30 campaigns, sailed nearly one quarter of a million miles, She was the first to engage in night battle, and probably the only ship to be struck with 6 torpedos in different battles without one detonation.

What a heroic ending.
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The Following is a Personal Account by Lieutenant John S. Stillman; November, 1943; Battle of Empress Augusta Bay:
"I was on the bridge as Officer-of-the-Deck. Normally, in dangerous waters, we would have on the bridge: a duty Head of Department, representing the Captain and generally supervising, especially at night; the O.O.D. a junior O.O.D., and enlisted helmsman, usually a rated Quartermaster, two enlisted signalman and lookouts, and perhaps one or two 'Talkers'.

Our usual task force steaming formation was our four destroyer division screen in an echelon anti-submarine screen ahead, followed by the four cruisers of CruDiv12 in column. CL-57, the flagship, would be in the lead, followed by Columbia, Cleveland, and Denver. When our Admiral decided he wished the Task Force to reverse course in a hurry, or in a narrow channel, instead of doing a gradual column-movement turn to either side, with the cruisers following the destroyer screen around, he would order a 'CORPEN WILLIAM' maneuver.

This entailed each destroyer in the screen simultaneously executing a 'Turn 180' and coming back towards the line of the cruisers in a reverse course and combing by them - on a parallel, opposite, courses. Then after the destroyers had passed, the cruisers would turn 180 successively in a column movement, so the line of cruisers would be again behind their screen, going now in the opposite direction.

At the time in question, I believe it was after dark, we were watching the screen on the surface radar screen in a unit mounted on a pedestal on the port side of the bridge. The Duty Commander sat on a fold-out seat on the starboard side of the bridge, often semi-dozing. After the CORPEN WILLIAM order was given and executed, as O.O.D. I watched the cans reverse course and turn towards us, both on radar and visually. I could see only the loom of the ships ahead of us, as naturally, all were "darkened ship". I could make out that the second can from the left was not coming back toward us on a strictly parallel course, and pass us port-to-port, but was slanting across our bows. While it was still some distance ahead of us, and on the left of our bow, the Duty Department Head became aware of it and told the helmsman to turn to starboard. However, he had not realized that the destroyer was coming towards us at an angle. I realized this, and knew that by turning right we risked being hit amidships to port. As the D.D.'s were closing the cruisers at a relative speed of about 60 knots, this jeopardized our ship and its 1,300 man crew.

Therefore I countermanded the order and told the helmsman to turn left, so we would be on a reciprocal course to the approaching D.D. so it would pass close aboard to the starboard, but clear. I don't now recall his name, but the helmsman, a very experienced Senior (1st Class) Quartermaster Petty Officer, as he also had been watching the approaching ships, realized that my order was the correct one, and instinctively obeyed it, turning left. After the can passed clear, we all breathed a sigh of relief. The duty Commander said no more about my order that had contradicted his. Of course he could have had me court-martialed for disobeying an order. However, it was worth that risk in order to save the ship and its crew."

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Excerpts from Memoirs of a Navy Doctor Aboard a Cruiser in the Pacific War (1942-1944), by Rear Admiral Robert A. Conard, (M.C.)

On Medical Problems:
"We had a number of acute appendicitis cases requiring surgery. Performing such surgery when the ship is rolling and pitching at sea, requires good balance and precision. I will never forget one of the appendectomies done in rough weather. We had just removed an appendix when a sudden lurch of the ship caused my assistant to drop the infectious, untied stump into the abdomen. With apprehension we found the stump, tied it, poured in some sulfa drug, and sewed him up and kept our fingers crossed. He made an uneventful recovery."

On Stress
"I remember the feeling of trepidation as I stood on the deck of the darkened ship speeding up the 'slot' in the black of night through poorly chartered waters where hidden shoals and reefs lurked. Along the starboard side, ghost-like mountains of the islands could dimly be seen. I hoped the phosphorescent wake of our ship could not be seen by possible enemies ashore. I tried not to think of having to abandon ship in these hostile waters. In these very waters, Jack Kennedy had to abandon his P.T. Boat. I had an eight inch knife in a leather case attached to my life belt for use should I have to abandon ship."

"As an example of the tension we were under. I remember one night while asleep dreaming that the Japanese were chasing me, someone tried to awaken me for an medical emergency by grabbing my foot. He was astonished when, for a moment, I started hitting him. On another occasion while sleeping, one of our destroyers dropped a depth charge on a submarine near our ship. I was rudely awakened by the crash of the concussion wave on the bulkhead of my bunk. I thought the ship had been hit!"

Doc Conard's Post Script
"The ship was decommissioned in 1946. Later I had the urge to see the ship again. I found her tied up to a dock in a "moth ball fleet" in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. There she was still proudly displaying on her side the painted tally of enemy ships sunk and planes downed. A feeling of sadness came over me mixed with nostalgia for the exciting days when she had been my home. As I gazed upon the ship, she seemed to assume a human quality - forsaken and forlorn. What got to me most was the inactivity aboard the ship and the deathly silence. In my minds' eye, I could see and hear the sailors on board swabbing the deck, shouting at each other as they lined up for chow and above the officers with their binoculars scanning the distant sea for the enemy, hear the fearful beeping of the alarm for general quarters with all hands scurrying to their battle stations, manning the gun mounts and the firing of the big guns. As I stood there I knew those days were gone forever, but never to be forgotten. Time marches on."
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Memories of David Cox, March 11, 2001

"It was on this day 57 years ago. There were only about 5 enlisted men. The transport had brought us to Guadalcanal, where we were to catch the U.S.S. Montpelier, we had waited the biggest part of the morning. The 'Monty' was on gunnery practice. We went to Purvis Bay, approximately 35 miles. When I first saw the Montpelier chills went up my spine. What a beauty she was. I was completely surprised how large she was. Slick battleship gray.

After coming aboard her I knew I was welcome and was a part of this proud fighting ship. A lot of time has past since the days of her glory. But sometimes I can still feel and hear the sound of engines. What they seemed to say to me, 'take care of me and I'll take care of you'.

A lot of our mates have past on. But now and then I can hear the boats whistle blow for chow, mail call, and the dreaded call to general quarters and hear the sound of the then young men answer the call. Also, the calm voice of the Captain letting us know what was going on. Yes, there are many moments I thought I would never see America. But there was something or someone who was on the 'Monty' stronger than any Japanese forces could show us.

As far as I'm concerned every man aboard the 'Monty' felt that she was the hero and we were her tools".

David Cox was 20 years old when he boarded U.S.S. Montpelier. Since then David has a proud family of 6 sons, 3 in the Navy, 1 Air Force, 1 Army, 1 Paratrooper; and 3 grandsons, 2 in the Navy, 1 in the Submarine Forces, and 1 in the Army. David also had a 3 brothers serve in World War 2, aboard U.S.S. Saratoga, U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, and another on a Landing Craft Infantry [L.C.I.], and his sister in the WAC's [Women Army Corps].