A man who recorded part of the struggle of the Pacific conflict served on the U.S.S. Chepachet (A.O. 78) from July 8, 1944, to December 21, 1945, and experienced some very exotic ports of call. Bob Maynes recorded his thoughts and deeds and those of the crew in The Unofficial Log of the U.S.S. Chepachet.
A.O. 78 served the U.S. Navy from June 22, 1944, to December 27, 1946. She was built in Chester, Pennsylvania, by Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., launched March 10, 1943 and commissioned April 27, 1943. The ship was decommissioned May 15, 1946. In July, 1950, she was transferred to the Military Sea Transportation Service for service in a non-commissioned status as a Transport Oiler and placed in-service with MSTS as USNS Chepachet (T-AOT-78).
The ship was 528' long, 65' wide and carried a total of 109,330.04 gallons of black oil, diesel oil and gasoline--the ship was a huge floating gas station in the middle of war. The oiler and her crew of 251 received two battle stars for World War II service.
The oiler got its name from a river--frequently waterless --in Chepachet, Rhode Island. The Navy commissioned the ship because of the influence of former Rhode Island Congressman John E. Fogarty whose hometown was Chepachet. There is still a USS Chepachet display, including the ship's bell, at the Glocester Town Hall in Chepachet, hidden away in the town-council chambers.
Residents of the town once held horse races down Main Street in what was called the "Half Mile," ending in front of what is now the Brown and Hopkins Store. In the winters before 1922 prior to the town getting electricity and refrigerators, ice from ponds was sawed and stored in blocks in the ice houses covered by a thick layer of insulating sawdust.
Chepachet--the town--is also known for two events that happened: Rhode Island's own civil war that never quite happened and the murder of an elephant.
Up to the 1830's, landowners with property valued at more than $134 were allowed to vote. A vocal group called "The People's Coalition" rallied for the right to vote for all white males over the age of 21, regardless of land ownership. In 1842 they elected their own governor, Thomas Wilson Dorr. Rhode Island governor, Samuel Ward King, reelected two days later, was not amused, had Dorr supporters arrested and issued a warrant for Dorr's arrest. Dorr's supporters convened in Chepachet, 400 muskets strong. King played his trump card, sending in the state militia. Dorr's troops scattered and the only casualty was a cow.
Chepachet had another moment to remember on May 24, 1826, when an elephant named Betty was killed on the Main Street bridge over the Chepachet River. Betty was in town with a traveling showman and a group of young people tried to see Betty without paying. They were turned away, but later that night six of the young men took Betty to the bridge, leveled their muskets at defenseless Betty and shot her. A plaque on the bridge today commemorates "Betty the Learned Elephant."
Following her commissioning, Chepachet supported military and naval operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean, crossed the Atlantic in five convoys loaded with oil from West Indian and Gulf ports to Casablanca and Oran. In July 1944, Chepachet left Aruba filled with oil and gasoline, and in mid-August reached Humboldt Bay, New Guinea, for duty fueling combatant ships, small craft and merchantmen.
U.S.S. Chepachet, from an official Navy photograph
Bob Maynes served on the U.S.S. Chepachet from July, 1944, when she steamed from Norfolk to December, 1945, when he left her at Pearl Harbor. Bob describes his voyage as "peripatetic," which he defines as "vagrant, wandering, rambling and nomadic." He first reported for duty aboard ship on the fitting dock on July 22, 1944, amid rumors that the ship was destined for Southwest Pacific duty. Bob started his service aboard the ship in a "24-hour boat duty in either the launch or motor whaleboat." In the brief periods when he was not working or sleeping, he looked forward to playing pinochle and watching movies.
The ship broke down for the first time on July 10 in "threatening seas and rough weather." Bob's notes record that he hoped "this damn kettle has all her breakdowns in the Atlantic." He wrote that "this tub only does 17.5 knots at flank speed and she breaks down when she does it." He was learning to launder his own clothes, saying that the laundry "does not do a very good job on them." His first liberty came in Aruba, where the heat kept him from sleeping, but he did drink a couple of ice cream sodas, knowing that he wouldn't get those in the Pacific. Against regulations, he sent postcards home.
The ship steamed through the Panama Canal, although Bob spent most of his time below deck fixing a diesel pump. When he did come to the deck, he realized that the ship was proceeding without an escort. On past Equator and across the equator where "pollywogs" became "shellbacks," including both Bob and the ship's captain. For the ceremony, Bob and the other pollywogs wore skive shirts, shorts and old shoes. Bob lost all his hair and was painted, "mercurochromed, soaked, paddled, beaten and made to crawl through a long canvass tunnel half filled with seawater." The ship continued sailing with hatches closed to "darken" the ship. Bob dropped sweat in droves as the primary mission of refueling "battlewagons, cruisers and destroyers" continued.
The monotony of sailing unescorted in the Pacific theatre continued, as the Chepachet pushed on. The same three movies soon became memorized word for word and pinochle was the only diversion, other than an occasional ice cream, as clocks were turned back to "time zone 9." Nights at the end of July were scary under the half moon. It was just "too bright for comfort." Bob wrote that it would only take "one fish to blow us out of the water, as we are loaded down with high-octane aviation gas in the fore hold."
The August payday came and Bob collected his long-awaited $58 for the entire month of July. He immediately spent "about eight bucks" on a pair of "shoes, two hats, dungarees and socks." The weather below the "Tropics of Capricorn" was turning cold. He proudly bought a "waterproof, non-magnetic, Swiss shockproof LEMONIA watch" for "35 bucks," just in time to turn the time back once again. On August 3, 1944, the ship and crew crossed the International Date Line and "missed Sunday" and the "Sunday routine." Instead, he worked until 23:00 on his day of rest.
In the cold winter during mid-August below the equator, the Pacific waters were extremely rough. Bob Maynes usually slept on his stomach to keep from being tossed out of his bunk. The rough waters made it impossible to walk without holding something. The men standing deck and gun watches wore winter clothing under their pea coats to fight back the cold. Watches were turned back once again and it was now nine hours behind EDT and one day ahead as the ship sailed into enemy waters heading for their destination of Milne Bay, Louisiade Archipelago of Papua New Guinea. Just before landing in New Guinea, the destination was changed to 350 miles north of their planned docking, and there was only time to swap movies with another ship and to gaze at the ships, "mostly Liberties," in the harbor. "The whole place was lit up like a Christmas tree," and one would never suspect that the enemy was only 600 miles away.
Bob marveled at the mountains of the southeastern tip of New Guinea rising from the sea to rainforests at elevations of 10,000 to 11,000 feet in the Owen Stanley Range, the highest peak being Mount Victoria. In 1942, Japanese forces had begun to march across the range in an attempt to capture Port Moresby, but they were turned back by Allied troops, Japan's first land defeat of World War II. On the beach, Bob could see areas where severe fighting had taken place and at night the sailors saw gun flashes in the hills. The landing of Chepachet at Humbolt Bay was interesting, resulting in hitting a submerged reef, watching sea turtles, refueling a "Limey tanker" and trading clothes for a "Limey beer," which Bob shelled out $2 to get. He watched a movie on deck, appropriately named Hellzapoppin and lamented that he got no mail.
Throughout the log that Bob maintained he describes the work that he did. An example is from the log of August 19, 1944, in which he notes that the "damn pump broke down on my watch this AM while we were pumping aviation gas." The pump was located forward but "way down in the bilges." The sweat poured off him and he had to come to the surface frequently because of the gasoline fumes. He became dizzy and sick, partially because a blower to circulate air was broken. Bob felt that he had lost 20 pounds since coming aboard. His regular bed turned into a hammock, swinging under "#2 gun." The leeward side of the island, around the Port Moresby area, was wet from January to April, while on the windward side, scene of most of the ground fighting during 1942-1945, rainfall amounts were as high as 300 inches per year. One sailor wrote, "It rains daily for nine months and then the monsoon starts." Monsoon rains of eight or ten inches a day turned torpid streams into impassable rivers.
When a chance came to go ashore, Bob leaped at the opportunity even though leaving the ship meant that they would be landing where "thousands of Japs were killed and buried and a road built over their graves." Bob looked for souvenirs from Japan and although 40 soldiers had been killed in that spot less than a month before, he found nothing on that trip but coconuts. Later, he found a little Japanese invasion money. There were other diversions, too. On August 22, 1944, Bob attended a USO show with Bob Hope, Jerry Cologna and Francis Langford. Admiral King and General McArthur were there--although Bob did not see them--and in a rare day of complete relaxation, Bob watched Charles Chaplin in the Wax Museum, and heaved a sigh as he realized that it was time to shove off toward the "fighting zone." It had been a month and a half since he received any mail. Bob knew something big was about to happen as "convoy after convoy" left every day. One bright spot: a new skipper was about to arrive, and Bob wrote, "Hope we like him better than this SOB."
The World War II effort in New Guinea is just a faint memory except for those who served there, eclipsed by battles at places like Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Saipan. But what happened in New Guinea was essential to the Navy's advance across the Central Pacific and to the U.S. Army's liberation of the Philippine Islands from Japanese occupation. The advance of the Allied forces along the northern New Guinea coastline toward the Philippines diluted Japanese ships, planes, and men who could have been used in other locations in the Central Pacific front.
New Guinea is the second largest island in the world and the north coastline extends nearly 1,600 miles. Disease was rampant on New Guinea, nasty stuff like malaria. The armed forces reported 27,000 cases of the disease during World War II, and dengue fever, dysentery and scrub typhus were constant problems. Scattered settlements dotted the north coastline and attempts to go inland often resulted in the tropical jungle swallowing both men and equipment.
The Allied and the Japanese forces facing each other the January prior to Bob's arrival off New Guinea were like exhausted heavyweights. The Americans and Australians won round one when they ejected the Japanese from Papua, New Guinea. About 13,000 Japanese troops perished during the fighting and about 8,500--including 5,698 Australians--on the Allied side died in battle. The bloodied Japanese were ready for round two.
Japan had the advantage in January, 1943, of air, naval and ground strength in the Southwest Pacific. The Battle of the Bismarck Sea in early March, 1944, resulted in eight transports and four destroyers lost. Meanwhile, Europe was first priority for the Allied troops from February to June 1943, where bombers and fighters were needed in North Africa.
During much of September, 1944, the crew of the Chepachet and other ships of the area maintained heavy firing at the Japanese, with "guns going all day" as they refueled minesweepers, transports and other ships. At night, Bob continued to sleep on the deck in his hammock, and as usual it rained. Bob lamented that a letter sent home was returned because he mentioned "big invasion convoy shoved off today." On Sunday, Bob attended Mass on shore where "the alter was really rugged: just two planks and two sawhorses." The Padre sat on an ammo box to hear confession. The few minutes of leisure time for Bob were taken up with movies, and he saw "Northern Pursuit" for the third time, and "Lady Be Good" for the second time. Other shows didn't work out as well when the projector would break or the rain would cancel the showing. Air-raid alerts also interfered. Bob began spending more time on a ship model he was building. On September 25, 1944, while in Hollandia Bob received six letters and one "VI" mail in the cargo of 8 bags of mail that the ship received: "Happy days are here again." A new skipper reported on board September 30, and following General Quarters, fire and abandon ship drills he said "he had never seen a better crew in five years of Navy service. A movie Bob didn't like was Typhoon, all about South Sea islands, which Bob noted was "malarkey." For the record, the movie was about two men searching for black pearls who are marooned on an island when their crew mutinies. There they run into a beautiful girl who had been washed up on the island in her childhood. They must fight angry natives and a typhoon in order to survive.
During early October, 1944, Chepachet accidentally rammed a Landing Ship Tank (LST) during refueling. The other ship ended up with a "hole in her," and "we bent our forward boom like a 'Z.'" Bob wrote that Chepachet ran around the bay "like a taxicab" refueling Destroyers (DD) and LSTs. The log by this time had become a little laborious for Bob and he began using abbreviations like "ST," (slept topside), "R" (rain) and "NR" (no rain). Swimming in the ocean was now off limits since the water was contaminated.
The ship was filled to "full capacity" and the crew prepared to "leave with the invasion fleet on the 13th" of October. The "Salomonie" passed the ship on the way out, but "we came in too fast and rammed the dock very hard almost killing a PT boat tied up there." It all happened so fast that the skipper of the Salomonie ordered his crew to abandon chip and the crew, expecting to be blown "sky high" dove into the contaminated waters. The Salomonie was the same ship that in February, 1943, rammed the S.S. Uruguay, creating a 70-foot-wide gaping hole killing 13 Army soldiers and injuring more than 50 soldiers.
Sleeping outside was now banned because of malaria and dengue fever. Bob spent one night in a motor launch and was very happy to see the dawn of the new day. The invasion of the Philippines would be mild compared to this, Bob thought.
Chepachet was assigned a key support role in the invasion of the Philippines. The ship left New Guinea in mid-October 1944, steering for Kossol Roads in preparation for the assault. Chepachet was to be the first tanker to arrive in the Philippines and the crew was warned to expect a lot of action from aerial action. Bob suddenly understood why so many Abandon Ship drills were necessary and he felt it would be lucky if he ever reached home. Three Navy oilers and one merchant tanker sailed in convoy formation escorted by DDs and DEs. There would be no movies on this operation and Bob slept in the machine shop as the ship crossed the Equator, but not before he took the time to play pinochle for the first time in months, winning "6 out of 7 games."
Weather continued to be a problem and boat crews going ashore had to constantly bail with buckets because of water coming over the sides of the boats. Bob watched smoke from a Japanese plane that crashed only miles from the ship. Bob was again allowed to sleep topside, but sleep was fitful since the Japanese fleet was only thirty miles away and headed toward the Chepachet.
Chepachet arrived in Leyte Gulf October 23 to assist the ships which fought the Japanese to a decisive victory in the Battle for Leyte Gulf (October 23-26). All around the ship, Japanese held all land in sight as the six BBs, 10 American and Australian cruisers and about 50 DDs and destroyers sailed in. Bob remembers refueling the U.S.S. Pennsylvania (BB38) during this operation, taking the entire afternoon to accomplish it. The Pennsylvania later was one of the first ships to return fire at Pearl Harbor and fired more rounds than any other ship in Naval history. The ship suffered 24 men killed, 14 missing in action, and 38 men wounded in that encounter.
On the morning of the 24th of November, Bob noted that the Japanese "really gave us hell" hitting a Liberty ship and sinking a LCI. Bob knew they would have given "their eyeteeth to get one of these fleet oilers" and knew that the Navy would really be "up against it" if that happened and listened in dismay as Radio Tokyo claimed to have sunk nine oilers in Leyte Gulf. "They hit us with torpedo planes" and "came in through the smoke just like on the newsreels." One torpedo plane hit the Fleet Oiler (AO 51) U.S.S. Ashtabule forward of her engine room, but 20 and 40mm guns from the Chepachet "made him a flamer."
During the days during the invasion of the Philippines, Chepachet transferred fuel to 34 different ships as her men manned antiaircraft guns and fueling lines. At the end of October, Bob resolved that if he got out alive he would never use an alarm clock with bells, it would have chimes. Every two to three minutes, General Quarters would be announced and his log records that they lost two "BB's, 2 cruisers, 4 DDs and some unidentified craft" in one disastrous day. A DE sailing along side of the Chepachet brought down a Japanese torpedo plane at the last minute that was "trying to make a run on us." Bob spent a restless night knowing that a Japanese submarine "is somewhere around here and we can't locate him." Bob realized that the Japanese had elected to "risk their fleet."
The next morning, on the 26th of October, 1944, word came over the radio that the backbone of the Japanese fleet was broken over the past three nights. Three battleships were sunk, 8 cruisers and 9 destroyers with no Japanese survivors. Bob heard that the Americans shot 30 Japanese planes to "six of ours," but Bob expected to "catch hell tonight," since it was a full moon, which Bob referred to as a "bomber's moon." Still the crew was treated to salmon and ice cream, a huge treat compared to the roast-beef sandwiches served to the crew for the past four days: "Hot or cold, depending upon whether we are at General Quarters or not"). With all the excitement, Bob and the crew didn't realize that typhoon season was about to hit with a bang!