U.S.S. Marblehead: Escape from the Jaws of Death

By Larry Neilson

USS Marblehead under way, c. 1944
USS Marblehead under way in the North Atlantic, 1944. US Naval Historical Center photo.

Whenever daring deeds of the sea are recalled, the saga of the U.S.S. Marblehead commands respect. Mauled by Japanese bombs just after the U.S. entry into World War ll, the ship was saved by her crew and -- after a 9,000-mile voyage to safety and a complete refit -- returned to the fight. At a time when many mightier warships were left rusting among the Pacific corals, the Marblehead was saved by courageous leadership, desperate toil, and good fortune.


Background

Chart: Battle of the Makassar Straits

Battle Report: Feb. 4, 1942

Damage Control!

Aftermath of Battle

Emergency Repairs

Homeward Bound

Bibliography

About the Author

Ship's Specifications

     

USS MARBLEHEAD w/tall pole topmasts, 1931
The Marblehead in near-original rig, at San Diego circa 1931. US Naval Historical Center photo.

Background

USS Marblehead was a light cruiser. Launched in 1923, she was built for speed -- 555 feet long, 55 feet in beam, and quadruple screwed. At 35 knots, she was a stirring sight: the slender bow threw up a dramatic wave, while above, bristling guns, spidery tripod masts, and four smoking funnels presented a dashing profile. She carried ten 6-inch 53-calibre guns, six mounted in swiveling casemates in the superstructure, four in twin turrets fore and aft. Seven 3-inch guns, eight 1.1" AA guns, eight 20 mm Oerlikon machine-guns, and six torpedo tubes completed her armament.

From 1938 on, the Marblehead was stationed in the Far East, a hotbed of confrontation with the Japanese. She helped protect American lives and property in this war-torn region. While the Japanese overran much of China and the Southwestern Pacific, the U.S. fielded only two cruisers (Houston and Marblehead), 13 over-age destroyers and minesweepers, and fleet auxiliaries, based at Cavite in the Philippines.

In November 1941 the Asiatic Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Thomas C. Hart, ordered the Asiatic Fleet dispersed. Hence, none of the important U.S. units were caught in surprise air raids on Manila, synchronized with the Pearl Harbor attack. The Marblehead was at Tarakan, Dutch Borneo, when news came of hostilities between the United States and Japan. Stripped for action, she sailed at dawn on December 8, 1941. Later that morning a flying fish sailed through one of her open portholes -- an omen of disaster in Oriental superstition. Soon after, the ship received a
radio bulletin reporting itself sunk!

Her duties in those first desperate months reflected the Allies' weakness in Asia. The Marblehead prepared for several missions which were aborted when the Japanese concentrated superior forces. Finally, in February, 1942, the Allies scraped together all their available warships in the East Indies for a sortie against Japanese shipping. The force -- including the Marblehead, the heavy cruiser USS Houston, the Dutch cruisers De Ruyter (flag) and Tromp, and six destroyers -- was known as the ABDA Force (American-British-Dutch-Australian). The ABDA fleet sailed for the Makassar Straits on February 3, 1942 under the command of the Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman.

According to the formulas of speed and firepower then used to calculate odds on naval engagements, this task force matched the Japanese fleet opposing it. But -- as the record showed -- surface forces in the 1940s required air cover, and there the Japanese held a decisive edge. Save for a few small scouting planes, the ABDA ships had no air support. When 40 Japanese bombers droned overhead enroute to Surabaja, the main Dutch naval base on the northern shore of Java, there were no Allied interceptors to challenge the lone plane which lingered to reconnoiter the task force.

Enemy Planes Were Sighted

Shortly after 9 a.m. on February 4, word arrived that Japanese planes had been sighted; at 9:49 the Marblehead's bridge lookouts counted 36 twin-engine Betty bombers, their wings emblazoned with the Rising Sun, symbol of Japan's awesome rise to Asian-Pacific supremacy.

The Air Defense alarm sounded through the ship. Half-dressed men dashed to their battle stations. The intercom barked, "Set Condition Zed!" and the crew made all compartments watertight. Topside, 4,000 gallons of aviation fuel was jettisoned to make the Marblehead lighter, more maneuverable, less flammable.

Ammunition for the Marblehead's 3" AA guns had to be passed hand-to-hand from the magazines; men bent to the task with a will as enemy planes began roaring over. On the bridge, a junior aviator advised Captain Robinson of the enemy planes' movements. As battle began, the four Allied cruisers scattered, and the Japanese planes divided into four squadrons, one for each cruiser.

Mitsubishi G4M Betty Bombers in flightAs the first squadron thundered overhead, the Marblehead heeled under hard left rudder, making flank speed. Within a minute, nine more planes bore down, straddled by puffs of flak. When they released their bombs, Robinson ordered flank speed and 15 degrees of right rudder. The bombs shrieked down.

"It's going to be very close," said Gunnery Officer Cdr. Nicholas Van Bergen.

"Bombs coming. Seek cover. Lie flat," came over the intercom.

Men looked up from quivering decks to see columns of foam leaping up just a hundred feet away. The captain's wily maneuver had spared them this time. As the Japanese planes passed, one began to trail smoke. Damaged, the plane veered around and aimed for the ship, intent on a kamikaze crash. Cursing, the gunners concentrated their fire on the wounded giant as it grew closer . . . closer . . . within machine-gun range. Then, abruptly, it dropped straight into the sea, blasted apart by American fire. Their spirits fully roused, the men cheered heartily.

But deliverance was only momentary. The bombers began a fresh run, releasing their deadly freight at 10:26. This time they would not miss.

actual photo from the Makassar Str. battle

In an authentic photo from the Feb. 4 action, warships scramble to dodge 500-lb. aerial bombs. At right, the flagship De Ruyter escapes a huge cluster of near misses; at left Tromp is seen heading obliquely away from the camera. Puffs of flak dot the sky in between.

The next instant, the Marblehead leaped clean out of the sea from the impact of three hits. Armor-piercing bombs hit forward, amidships, and aft. Wrapping himself around the wheel, Quartermaster Kelly alone on the bridge kept his footing. By the time the others staggered to their feet, their ship was blazing from every scuttle and ventilator.

In two minutes the ship was listing eight degrees to starboard -- within 15 minutes, 11 degrees. She was down by the bow, rolling sluggishly. Communications were out. Worst of all, she did not answer her helm, but continued circling madly to port.

Only Luck Could Help

As the ship's officers fanned out to assess damage, they were hampered by the lack of light and communications, the choking smoke and scalding steam, and wreckage blocking passages. Reconstructing the situation, we can see it was providential that the ship survived at all; any one of the three bombs could have blasted her to eternity.

The damage forward came from a bomb which exploded underwater and blew a nine-foot hole into the starboard side at the forward magazine. The incoming seawater wet the ammunition just in time to prevent the detonation of the magazine. But the ship began to flood rapidly as the big hole scooped in water under high pressure.

Montage of battle damage by Larry NeilsonThe second bomb -- detonated prematurely by striking the gunwale of a whaleboat opposite Number One funnel -- exploded in the wardroom one deck below. Had it simply pierced the deck this bomb would have gone off further below -- inside a half-empty oil bunker -- certainly dooming the vessel. As it was, the blast wrecked the wardroom, sick bay, and officers' cabins, setting everything ablaze.

The bomb which hit aft punctured the fantail, exploding inside the hand steering station two decks down. Foiled by the armored bulkhead protecting the after six-inch turret, the blast was deflected into the V-shaped stern, ripping away bulkheads and deck plating. Another armored bulkhead, whipping in the blast, smashed the steering motors, freezing the hydraulic rams that positioned the rudder, and locking the ship into her hard left turn.

In the CPOs' messroom two decks above the rudder, three men worked desperately to save the ship from annihilation. Flames threatened 18 cans of gunpowder left on the mess tables to help the after turret open fire promptly in action. Now the messroom was a nightmare of blazing oil and twisted steel. If that powder ignited, it would blow the stern off the ship and probably send her to the bottom of the sea.

Turret Captain Paul Martinek rushed into the breech with Shipfitter Paul Link and Seaman Claude Becker. A gorilla of a man, Becker wrenched open the jammed hatch by brute force. Stepping into the messroom, the men found the cans of gunpowder lodged immovably in the debris. Without hesitation Martinek opened the cans and removed the cloth bags of powder, which the men carried topside through the inferno and threw overboard. lt took three trips to dispose of all the powder. Here was heroism indeed: In a pinch these men had ignored their own immediate safety, "turned to" and saved their ship.

All over the vessel, men were pulling trapped shipmates out of the wreckage, fighting the fires, bailing water. Electricians struggled to rig emergency power for portable pumps. Chief Electrician Walter Jarvis improvised lighting and communications. But as the pumps began sucking, he hurried aft to supervise attempts to free the rudder. Only when steering was restored could the ship hope to escape further bombing.

When he arrived in the stinking, half-flooded hell-hole over the rudder, men were already at work. Floating corpses were illuminated eerily by intermittent flashes of gas leaking from shattered batteries and ignited by frayed electric cables. The plan was to drain hydraulic fluid from the system, freeing the jammed rams and working the rudder amidships. Men had to immerse themselves in a chest-high mixture of seawater and fuel oil and grope for the plugs on submerged machinery, while oil inflamed their eyes unbearably.

Meanwhile, the Houston also suffered a serious hit, knocking out the aft 8" turret. The flagship De Ruyter was under determined attack. For the moment, the enemy planes ignored the Marblehead.

Aftermath of Battle

The bombers had departed shortly after noon, when the rudder was moved to an amidships position. At last the engines could steer the ship.

Now Captain Robinson considered how to save his command. The fires were under control, but 26 compartments were flooded, and 8 others were leaking. Patching the hull was top priority. The ship now drew too much water to negotiate the channel at Surabaja, the nearest port with a dockyard. The alternative was Tjilatjap on the south coast of Java, but to get there, the rudderless ship would have to pass through Lombok Strait, known for its treacherous currents.

The plight of the wounded -- many badly burnt, Iying in the filthy torpedo workshop -- convinced the captain to try Tjilatjap; there was a Dutch hospital not far away. At 12:55 the Marblehead wheeled and headed there, escorted by two destroyers.

At dusk she arrived at the Strait. It took two tries to head her in, bucking the powerful currents. The destroyers dodged ahead, blinking instructions to the Marblehead as she threaded between coral heads in the tropical night; with her navigational systems out, she could be conned by sight alone. Rain squalls blinded her, but as the second squall passed, she emerged into the Indian Ocean.

Below decks, the crew manhandled a monstrous steam pump out of the engine room and installed it forward. By dawn it was gaining on the waters. Electricians were rigging communications between bridge and guns, and the captain had just finished his coffee when a messenger handed him a radio signal: 40 Japanese planes were headed straight for him.

As Air Defense sounded, the dog-tired men tumbled to their stations, knowing this might be their last fight. No need for ammunition trains now; all the undamaged shells were piled on deck. The crew knew a single hit could doom them.

WWI 4-pipe destroyer USS ROPER, c. 1918But the Marblehead's luck held. Omaha class cruisers such as the Marblehead resembled World War I-era four-stack destroyers (at left, USS Roper). The Japanese pilots, sighting the old destroyer Paul Jones some miles astern of the Marblehead, mistook the"tin can" for their intended target and mounted a furious attack, ignoring the bigger quarry limping along ahead.

Lt. Cdr. J.J. Hourihan put his little destroyer through its paces, twisting, turning, and doubling back at breakneck speed while the Japanese threw everything they had at him. At times fountains of spray straddled his ship, entirely hiding her from sight. The feisty commander relayed a blow-by-blow account over the ship-to-ship radio to the Marblehead. After an hour of high-speed horseplay, the irreverent Hourihan reported, "Planes gone. Seven runs. No hits. All errors."

Emergency Repairs Made

The next morning, February 6, the Marblehead made Tjilatjap, drawing 30 feet forward, 22 aft. (Her normal draft was 17¾ feet at this time.) The crew of the Houston cheered as their disabled but game companion was towed into the anchorage. A hospital train took off the wounded, and Admiral Hart flew in. Quickly inspecting the damage to the Marblehead, he summed up his feelings by saying, "I'm proud to be in the same Navy with you."

Actual photo of MARBLEHEAD's damage at Tjilatjap

Actual photo of MARBLEHEAD's fantail
The Marblehead's mangled fantail after the battle. Upper photo: Don Belillo Collection. Lower: US Naval Historical Center.

"Bull" Aschenbrenner, the burly, brawling shipfitter who had worked tirelessly in patching the ship and fighting her fires, cut up the jagged remains of the fantail (above) while the officers consulted with the Dutchman responsible for Tjilatjap's floating drydock. Unfortunately, it was too short to receive the cruiser's hull. It would be possible to raise the bow for emergency repairs, but the stern would remain partially afloat, and gravity would tend to re-launch the ship in an uncontrolled fashion. Yet since the alternative was to admit defeat, the officers elected to take the risk.

After two false starts, the bows came clear, ammo belts dangling from the great hole forward like seaweed. Explosives were removed from the magazine and a temporary patch was welded on fast, for Tjilatjap was vulnerable to air attack and Japanese scout planes visited daily. A makeshift deck was rigged on the fantail, as was a device constructed from piano wire to gauge the working of the hull. Life rafts were installed topside, just in case. By February 12, the captain itched to get away.

On Febuary 13, the re-floated Marblehead stood down the harbor in tow. Suddenly the towline parted just outside the harbor: The rudderless ship was adrift in a minefield! Backing towards the still moving cruiser, the tug holed her forepeak. When the tug slipped astern, it was already too late to pass a fresh line to the Marblehead. But the unfazed Dutch pilot maneuvered her safely through the channel, steering by engine.

Because of the lively sea, it was impossible to repair the new leak, so the ship made for Trincomalee, Ceylon, where there was a naval dockyard. During the vovage, makeshift steering engines were improvised from bits of other motors wrecked in the battle. Electricity and fresh water were returned to parts of the ship, and a crude ice machine was fashioned.

On February 21, the ship steamed into Trincomalee, only to find the coveted dockyard already booked for weeks to come. In harbor the new hole was patched by the Bull, who proudly welded on his initials when finished His workmanship was impeccable: The patch was left in place permanently.

By departure time on March 2, the rudder had been repaired, boosting morale and saving the turbines from the excessive wear caused by rapid reversals in steering. On March 15 the ship made Durban, South Africa, and liberty parties set out to celebrate. The Bull lived up to his reputation, overcoming five assailants single-handed and cutting off their neckties as souvenirs.

USS TRENTON at sea, beautiful aerial shot

This photo of the Marblehead's sister ship Trenton -- taken in the Gulf of Panama in 1943 -- suggests how our favorite light cruiser may have looked at sea in wartime. Though far from the oldest warships employed in the War, the ten Omaha class sisters were among the first to be sent to the scrapyard after V-J Day. US Naval Historical Center photo.

Homeward Bound

The crew could breathe easy at last when the Marblehead docked at Simonstown, near Cape Town, South Africa. In the Royal Navy drydock a welding crew -- including the Lord Mayor of Simonstown -- worked around the clock. For several of the Marblehead's crew, their liberty proved to be a romantic interlude, as they struck up relationships with local women. Some 20 marriages were performed!

Leaving for New York on April 15, the ship had an uneventful passage, touching at Recife, Brazil, for fuel. lt was an emotional moment for the men when they steamed under Miss Liberty's upthrust torch, three months to the day since the desperate morning of February 4.

The crew's exploits were well-known because President Franklin D. Roosevelt had singled them out as the subject of one of his fireside chats. In holding up the Marblehead's men and those of the Houston (now sunk, fighting to the last shell together with the Australian cruiser Perth) as an inspiration to their countrymen, F.D.R. chose well. In that dark hour their determination, courage, and self-sacrifice shone with extra luster, providing genuine heroes for America.

The bells of Abbot Hall pealed the news to the Town; in time the ship's bell came to rest in Abbot Hall, but in the meantime the ship which bore the Town's name had rendered useful service to her country. She emerged from Brooklyn Navy Yard in October 1942, modernized throughout, to patrol the sea lanes off Brazil. Later she escorted North Atlantic convoys and supported the invasion of France, earning two battle stars before being decommissioned in 1945. These three years of outstanding service were made possible by the skill and determination of her indomitable 1942 crew -- ordinary men who, impelled by extraordinary circumstances, overcame their limitations and worked as a team to save their ship, regardless of personal risk, dedicated to a common cause.

2-color print propaganda flogging the MARBLEHEAD's exploits

Wartime Navy recruitment poster featuring the Marblehead helped boost morale during the initial, disastrous phase of WWII. It is part of the USS Marblehead exhibit at Abbot Hall. Scan courtesy of Dennis Curtin. Color balancing by Larry Neilson.


About the Author

Larry Neilson, BigBadBattleships.com's Honorary Armchair Admiral, is a photographer, writer and filmmaker who lived in Marblehead for 10 years. Now based in Seattle, he is a graduate of Vassar College, where he received honors in History, and has lived and studied in Japan. At the time this article was written he was employed by the Ocean Research and Education Society in Gloucester, Mass., owners of the tall ship Regina Maris, which was engaged in cetacean research. Neilson has authored several articles on jazz; the story above was his first to reflect a lifelong interest in maritime history. It was originally published in Marblehead Magazine, May 1984 issue.


Bibliography

Perry, George Sessions and Isabell Leighton, Where Away: A Modern Odyssey. New York: McGraw-Hill), c. 1944.

Department of the Navy. Naval History Division, Office of the CNO. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, Vol. IV Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969.

Wiper, Steve, Omaha Class Cruisers: Warship Pictorial Vol. VI. Tucson: Classic Warships Publishing, 1999. The author is indebted to this publisher for gracious permission to re-use photos and statistics originally printed in their book, an excellent pictorial source which may stand as the definitive work on the subject.

Erwing, Steve, American Cruisers of WWII. Annapolis: Pictorial Histories, 1984.


Specifications for the Omaha Class

The Omaha class consisted of ten light cruisers laid down in 1918-20 and completed in 1923-25. They were USS Omaha, CL-4; USS Milwaukee, CL-5; USS Cincinnati, CL-6; USS Raleigh, CL-7; USS Detroit, CL-8; USS Richmond, CL-9; USS Concord, CL-10; USS Trenton, CL-11; USS Marblehead, CL-12; and USS Memphis, CL-13. All ten ships conformed to the following specifications.

Dimensions: 555'6" x 55'4" x 15'. Displacement (as built): 8,015 tons standard, 8,960 tons deep laden. As the ships were refitted and their radar and AA armament improved, their draft and displacement grew steadily: to 17'9"/9,508 tons in 1942; to 18'9"/10.243 tons by 1944. Armament (1942): (10) 6"/53 cal (varied from 8 to 10; see Note, below.) (6 - 8) 3" AA; (8) 1.1" AA; (8) 20mm Oerlikon AA; (6) 21" torpedo tubes. Armor: 3" belt, turrets & casemates 1", conning tower 1.2", bulkheads 1½" - 3". Aircraft (WWII): (2) Vought-Sikorsky OS2U Kingfishers. Fuel capacity (1942): 1,850 tons No. 2 bunker oil. Propulsion: 12 Yarrow boilers. Four 93,000-SHP Westinghouse steam turbines; quad screw. Top speed: 35 kts. Endurance (as built): 9,000 nm @ 15kts; 7,200 nm @ 20 kts. Crew: 458 (1925), 814 (1945). Original Cost: $6,500,000 (1925).

Forward 6-in casemate mounts on Omaha-class cruiserNOTE: The design of the Omaha class had several quirks, not least the placement of the 6" guns, the result of a short-lived fad for end-on (i.e., straight ahead or astern) fire. As had been common for some decades, guns were mounted low in the ship in an attempt to crowd more aboard without affecting the vessel's top-weight and stability. The result was that the lower and forward guns were often "washed out" and inoperable due to seas and spray. As a result of hard experience, many original gun positions ended up being plated over and the guns removed in warships of the pre-dreadnought and WWI periods. For instance, the dreadnought battleship USS Texas was originally equipped with twenty-one 5"/50 cal. QF guns, but ended up fighting WWII with only six. Although it was not possible to remove so much of their firepower, the Omaha class cruisers underwent much modification and experimentation to optimize placement of their main armament. One photo of the Marblehead from the early 1930s shows her with eleven 6-inchers, the only Omaha ever to be so configured. In truth, the choice of casemate mounts (right) was anachronistic even when the Omahas were built. To add more firepower, the designer stacked 2 mounts at each corner of the superstructure, the lower of which was frequently subject to interference from spray and green seas, especially when operating at speed or in rough weather. Partly for this reason, the Navy was dissatisfied with the Omahas as fighting ships, though gratified by their speed. Their twin turrets were also filled with quaint features, such as the torpedo-shaped water tanks atop each for a gravity-fed sprinkler system to control damage in action. With only 1" of armor over the mount, it is doubtful if any sprinkler system would have offered significant protection in the event of a hit.


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