USS CUMMINGS'ORDEAL


Submitted to me by Robert A. Vehse



I enlisted in the Navy on April 10, 1940. In April 1941 I was assigned to duty on the Destroyer USS Cummings E Division. I had been through boot camp in San Diego and was schooled as a radio striker. I was just beginning to be trained to work in the fire room. Working with the Black Gang was a hot and dirty job. Our task was to keep the drafts and fires in sync with the speed of the ship. The slower our tin can went the hotter the fire room got. But I liked this job.

On the morning of December 7th, 1941 the USS Cummings was tied up at the Navy Yard for major repairs and modernization. Work was well under way and the mast that had been stabilized by three spars was replaced with a center mount. Guns were being replaced and relocated on the ship and the work was incomplete. The vessel was entirely dependent on shore power.

On this Sunday morning I had showered and dressed and was sitting in the sun on the quarter deck reading the Honolulu Star Bulletin. I was waiting for time to go ashore and meet an old buddy from Seattle. He was a Marine. We were going to go to Waikiki. As I and the other crewmen were lounging in the sun we saw planes fly in low, dropping loads into the water. This was not unusual since our US Planes often dropped flour or water bombs for practice but looking back again we saw black smoke rising. Within seconds alarms sounded and people were yelling "The Japs are attacking. Man your stations." As I ran down to the fire room crewmen were scrambling in every direction. It was totally dark in the fire room since the shore power had been cut off and we had no power of our own.

It was down in the black fire room that I felt the raid. I couldn't see it but I felt it! Our job was to get the burners in working condition to draft the fires which had to be started. My job was holding the flashlight for others to work. The Black Gang kept yelling "I need light here!" I felt like a swivel as I turned this way and that way to answer their shouts. Every time a bomb hit in the Navy Yard the fire room shook and vibrated from the concussion. We could judge the closeness of the bombs by the intensity of the shaking. The tension of wondering how soon a bomb would hit the Cummings was almost unbearable. I honestly thought that I was going to die. Two things eased the tension. One was our concentration on the fire boxes that would get us out of the Navy Yard. The other was something humorous that happened.

One of the Black Gang was fair skinned with light hair. Nature called and he had to go to the head. Of course that was impossible. We had a five gallon bucket that was used to collect the soot accumulation from the fire box. It was a regular chore and by now the bucket was about two-thirds full of an ashy,light weight soot. This fair skinned sailor pulled his pants down and squatted over the bucket. Our concentration on work lapsed as we watched black puffs of soot from the bucket spurt high in the air. We even turned our flashlights to get a better look. When natures call was finished the sailor got up and turned his back to us to pull up his pants. We saw a black bucket sized circle on his posterior. Work stopped completely as we all burst into uncontrolled laughter at the sight of black on white.

Luck played a part in whether you lived or died during that bombing. As it happened the destroyers Shaw and Cummings had exchanged locations in the Navy Yard due to the kind of repair work needed. The Shaw suffered heavy causalities and the Cummings had only a few injuries.

It was more than three weeks after the attack that I contacted my parents. The Cummings was assigned to return evacuees to the States. I had attempted to send letters but the censorship was so tight that my letters were returned.

As for my Seattle Marine buddy, I ran into him about three months later at Mare Island. We didn't get to Waikki that day but we did get to celebrate and exchange stories about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Growing up in Seattle I spent a lot of time at the waterfront and fished among the rocks. It was not an accident that I joined the Navy since I enjoyed the sea so much. And in 1943 I discovered that the Navy and fishing do mix. The Cummings had been assigned to transport President Roosevelt from Juneau Alaska to Seattle. One morning just before the ship departed we saw fishing lines dangling from the stern. Yup! It was FDR. He got skunked but a fishing boat came along side and handed up a 50 pound salmon.

2000 taskforce-17@msn.com