I had graduated from high school in 1942 too young to be considered for the draft, or to volunteer for service. Like many, I thought the war would end before I would be called. After all, the First World War only lasted from April 6, 1917 to November 11, 1918, about 19 months. I was a senior in high school and only 5 months into my 16th year, when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7,1941. Should World War II only last 19 months, I would only be reaching my 18th birthday in the month the war would end. Naturally, I hadn't thought that I would be in the service, but rather I would be on the home front. I remember delivering an oration in my senior year which I had titled "Our Part in This War" and I talked of collecting scrap metal, saving on gas and such supportive activities.
Since I was not yet 17 when I graduated, I entered a junior college with the thought of going on to the University of Michigan to study engineering. By the end of my first semester, I began to feel guilty not being more actively involved. Like many of my friends, I dropped out to join the Navy. I was rejected. I had flat feet. I had insisted that flat feet would only help me to stick to the deck of a rolling ship better. No one bought it. I wouldn't be going in and I was too late to re-enter college for the second semester.
My brother was on the delivery crew for Defoe Shipbulding and would soon be entering the Navy. Before the year would end I would lose one of my friends who was on the USS Buck on the invasion of Salerno Harbor, Italy. A second sailor from my hometown was in the same battle on the USS Bartlett and never returned. All of my male classmates from high school, except one, was not in service or soon to enter. I felt that I should be doing something, so I asked my dad if he would sign for me to enter the Merchant Marine. He knew this was a risky assignment and talked to a friend of his who was an executive at Defoe Shipbuilding Co. He called me to see if I would like to deliver ships to the Navy. It sounded good to me, and I signed up to begin on my 18th birthday.
Makeup of the Delivery Crew
My time as part of the delivery crew was from July through October of 1943. In that time my best recollection tells me that I was on the delivery of three DEs and several PCs. That sounds like a lot in so few months, but we were kept quite busy.
When we were delivering a DE we were one crew under Captain Bill Booth with his son Bill, Jr., acting as First Mate. I don't recall what the size of crew was, but it was just enough to make the ship for its delivery from the yard to Lockport, IL. A PC is a much smaller ship and we would divide the DE crew into two crews and deliver two PCs at one time. One PC crew would be under Captain Bill Booth and the other was under Bill, Jr., his son. I was in Bill, Jr's, crew. As the most junior member of the crew and without any skills, I was on the galley crew. They were kind to call me the 3rd cook. What that really meant was that I knew how to take orders, but didn't have to know anything about cooking. I still don't. I could make coffee and put a sandwich together without any guidance. Beyond that, they told me exactly what to do and I did it.
The USS Rich Underway
For me to explain the trip that the USS Rich, DE 695, took from Bay City to New Orleans is only possible as I think of it as part of several trips that I made. In the short several months that I was part of the delivery crew for Defoe Company, I made several trips and they included both the DE and PC classes. From the records in the booklet Destroyer Escorts of World War Two, the Defoe Yard built 13 DEs and I don't know how many PCs and other classes.
My son, Tom, searched some records for me on his computer and learned the following: "The first Rich (as Ed Black notes in his book a Destroyer Class was later given the name Rich) was laid down on 27 March 1943 by the Defoe Shipbuilding Co., Bay City, MI; launched 22 June1943; sponsored by Mrs. Ralph McMaster Rich; and commissioned 1 October 1943, Lt. Comdr. E. A. Michel, Jr., USNR in command."
That short time for construction of the USS Rich hull with compartments from March 27 to June 22 is not a misprint. A very creative construction design was developed at Bay City which scheduled a Destroyer Escort launching every 20 days.
"Mr. Harry Defoe, (primary owner of the shipyard), conceived of a unique roll-over process of hull assembly, which was credited with reducing production costs sharply by conserving space, eliminating scaffolding and cutting labor expense.
"Construction of the hulls of sub chasers and Destroyer Escorts started upside down on a flat deck on which bulkheads are placed. Plates, set by overhead crane, lay in position by their own weight and permitted downhand welding piece rates (which cost) just half of overhead welding. In addition, plant records show that man hours required are but one-third to one-fourth of the total needed in following conventional methods.
"When the hull is completed, two 50-foot eccentric steel wheels are clamped into position. Actual roll over, controlled by a single locomotive crane, requires but five minutes and the work of only a dozen men. The two huge wheels roll on tracks to right the hull setting it in position for other work which precedes the ship's sidewise launching into an adjoining slip (quoted from an unidentified newspaper source).
When we delivered a DE we would have from twenty to thirty Navy sailors aboard with us who would make the trip from Bay City to New Orleans who would then be assigned to the DR upon its commissioning. We delivered the PCs without any Navy crew members aboard.
During the time I was with Defoe, the USS Bunch (DE 694), the USS Rich (DE 695) and the USS Spangler (DE 696) left the yard for New Orleans. For those of the USS Rich crew that went down the river with us, you will have to sort out from my memory what did or did not apply to the deliver of the Rich.
The First Leg of the Trip from Bay City to Chicago
Leaving the yard was always a thrill. We would back out of the slip and into Saginaw River with a few blasts of the horn and all the yard workers would wave a proud good-bye to the ship they had crafted. For a young kid like myself' it sent shivers up the spine to feel that you were part of the delivery crew.
In just a few minutes we would be in the Saginaw Bay and then out into Lake Huron. We would leave Lake Huron and go through the Straights of Mackinaw and out into Lake Michigan on our way to Chicago. Each trip would include a company shake down of the ship, running at full speed forward and then reverse, rapid turns and all those maneuvers to make sure everything was running right. the trip from Bay City to Chicago by the lakes is probably 550 miles. Since the Buckley Class DE had a top speed of about 23.5 knots (26.5 mph), and we probably averaged about 20 knots an hour, the trip to Chicago would take about 24 to 25 hours.
Coming into Chicago Through A Smoke Screen as Part of a Mock Invasion
Our arrival at Chicago was carefully orchestrated. The war was on and they were trying to sell war bonds. Our scheduled arrival was often coupled with a dramatic show. As we arrived on our routine trip, we would be joined by landing craft, maybe a patrol craft or two and whatever was handy to dramatize the event. One Chicago Tribune headline on September 24,1943 read "The Treasury - Navy - Tribune War Show Opens-Ships, Planes and Weapons Display in Profusion." We knew very little about it except that it would be set up for our time of arrival.
The beaches of Chicago would have thousands upon thousands of people watching the show. Leave it to the government and the press to turn an uneventful entry into a dramatic war bond sale. The ship would tie up just outside the first bridge near the Tribune Building and a ramp would allow people to view the ship from about the level of the pilot house. when people would ask us what was under the traps, we would spin wild tales about the kind of weapons we had, typical sailor stories.
Through the Chicago Drainage Canal
That narrow strip of water that runs from the Lake to the South of Chicago in the 40s would have been more accurately called a sewer than a drainage canal. It was a thick sludge of waste flushed form the bowels of the city. On one occasion one of our crew returning from a night on the town fell off the gangplank. When he was fished out, he was sent to the hospital to have his eyes washed clean and given shots of everything imaginable.
Before we left the shipyard, the mast of the ship was placed along the side of the ship to make it possible to pass through the canal and under a few horizontal lift bridges. It would be replaced in New Orleans. From Chicago we went a short distance to Lockport.
Floating down the Illinois and Mississippi
At Lockport a major change would occur. The DE would not be under its own power any longer. Large pontoons were brought along each side of the DE. They would be filled with water to sink them to water level. They were then attached to the sides of the ship (3 or 4 on each side). The pontoons were then pumped dry . As they were emptied of water the DE would rise a few feet and have a shallower draft than its usual 12 feet. The Mississippi River twists and turns on its long journey and at times it has sand bars or shallow spots that could not take a barge or ship with more than a few feet of draft.
The DE would make the rest of the trip tied alongside of huge barges coupled in two rows of as many as six or eight in each row. The ship being delivered would take the place of one of the barges and be pushed leisurely down the river. The "Pushers" were part of the Federal Barge Line of St. Louis and were not called tug boats as some would think. They were appropriately named "Pushers" because that is exactly what they did. They would be behind the entire fleet of barges (with a DE or PC included in the train) pushing them along. Out at the front barge was a leadsman who would swing out the leadline and call the depth back to the pilot house of the "Pusher".
At Lockport, the Defoe crew would be downsized since the ship was no longer under its own power. Most of the crew would return to Bay City to deliver a couple of PCs. The remaining delivery crew would be just a few men to care for the maintenance details and a small galley crew to feed those riding on the DE.
Sight Seeing on the Mississippi
As you might gather from the name, there was a set of locks at Lockport and we would have to be locked through to a lower level of the Illinois river. To my memory, we only had this one lock to pass through.
We traveled the length of the Illinois to Its southern end in the small town of Grafton, IL., where we entered the Mississippi about 30 miles above St. Louis, MO.
From St. Louis to New Orleans was one beautiful sight seeing trip. About 115 miles below St. Louis on the Missouri side was the college town of Cape Girardeau. All the sailors would line the decks to wave at the college girls who would always be there to watch the DEs. Much of the trip did seem like a sightseeing cruise. Ships work seemed to take up such a short time and the scenery was wonderful along the river. There were the other barge trains being pushed up or down the river the old side wheelers and stern wheelers with the twin stacks belching out the black smoke. At some point we would usually see The Admiral, that very modem, solid aluminum, streamlined, cruise ship that was the talk of the river. Today, The Admiral is still tied up at St. Louis. I am told it is now a gambling ship.
After Missouri and Illinois, we would see a small piece of Kentucky, then Arkansas to the West and Tennessee to the East. There might be a short stop at Memphis where we could watch them loading bales of cotton in the right season. From Memphis to New Orleans the Mississippi River is one constant twisting and turning ride. It seems that you are going east and west as often as you are going south. It adds to the beauty, but it makes that part of the trip extra long. Next came the state of Mississippi to the East and on occasional stop at Vicksburg to drop a barge or two and add a new set. By now Louisiana was on the west bank of the River and we were nearing the end of the trip. About 80 miles before we reached New Orleans we would see the state capital buildings of Baton Rouge. Now we knew that we had to get busy to put everything in order because the end of the trip was near.
New Orleans had its quaint southern charm and was worth a sight seeing trip into the French quarters and along Canal Street. But for the Defoe crew it was time to pack and get to the train station to head back to Bay City for another trip. The ships were delivered to the Todd Johnson Shipyard at Algiers on the west bank of the Mississippi across from New Orleans. It was time to say our good-byes to whatever Navy crew took the trip with us and wish them well.
News of the Fate of the USS Rich (DE 695)
At the end of October, 1943, I made my last delivery trip and entered the Navy. After boot training In Farragut, Idaho and Quartermaster school in Great Lakes, IL, I was assigned to the USS Coffman (DE 191). It felt like I was back home again. The major difference was that this was a diesel powered DE. I spent my entire duty aboard the Coffman escorting small carriers and chasing German U-boats.
Around the time that I boarded the Coffman, I learned of the sinking of the USS Rich. I don't recall exactly how the news got to me. I think it had to come from my family back in Michigan. I recall that I was sent the story that was printed one year later in the 'Defoe Rollover' titled "How DE Rich 'Died' - Defoe Workers Hear Story of Last Battle". The story was told to the Bay City shipbuilders over the public address system during their lunch hour by George E. 'Ted" Lucas, electricians mate first class, who was home in Port Huron, MI, on leave. He had been on the delivery trip to New Orleans.
I learned of the Survivors of the USS Rich through the DE Sailors Newspaper and wrote to Dan Schmocker to learn more about the survivors of the sinking. Since then I have gotten to know Carl Boedecker and his wife from nearby Madison, WI, and have corresponded with Ed Black and visited with him by phone. It has been an honor for me to keep kinship with you.
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