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USS Albert W. Grant Reunion
The USS Albert W. Grant
by Stoney Grant and Mark Hylton
Recently we were invited to attend a reunion of the crew of the World War II destroyer known as the USS Albert W. Grant. Our intent was to interview these men and gather stories about their time onboard the destroyer that bore the name of one of the Clan Grant, that of Rear Admiral Albert W. Grant. We received so much more than we had hoped for, not only in interesting stories about their service but an insight about the character of the men who were willing to place themselves in harm's way for their families and their country in a time of uncertainty and national emergency.
This is their story told in their words. It is not a story of a ship but rather a story of those that made the ship come alive and allow it to live on, years after it has been consigned to the scrap yards. We give you now, "The USS Albert W. Grant".
A Fletcher class destroyer with a hull number of 649 had its keel laid down on December 30, 1942 and six months later, on May 29, 1943, it was launched. On November 24, 1943 it was commissioned with the name Albert W. Grant and became one of many such ships that were produced during the war years that preceded and followed her commissioning. Like the other destroyers of the Fletcher class, this one was armed with 5 five inch 38 caliber deck guns, 2 five tube torpedo launchers, 10 forty millimeter and 7 twenty millimeter machine guns, and other weapons to accomplish her mission as a warship.
The ship could accommodate a crew of 329 officers and men. Even after the ship was commissioned it still was not really the USS Albert W. Grant, for a ship does not become a lady and earn the name she was given until a crew has taken her through her paces. That began on November 24, 1943 under the command of Commander T.A. Nisewaner when the ship got underway from Charleston, South Carolina for a shakedown cruise to Bermuda. Also onboard were Cecil L. Albertson, Emmett R. Crump Jr., James Bert Farley, Robert Kelly McGinnis, J.C. Moore, and Ralph E. Natali, all of whom, with the exception of J.C. Moore (who was represented by his daughter), were present at this years reunion. Ralph Natali, who is one of the plank owners (one who was assigned to the ship at the time of commissioning), spoke briefly about that first cruise. It was, for the most part, uneventful. Like most first cruises there were glitches in the machinery that would need to be repaired or altered. It was also a time of adjustment for the crew as they began to work with each other for the first time as a crew underway. Two months later the ship was back at Charleston for minor alterations and then headed for Norfolk, Virginia to join up with the new carrier USS Hornet to act as escort on the transit to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
They transited through the Panama Canal, which had only been completed about twenty years earlier. Other ships from San Diego, California joined the group before arriving at Pearl Harbor. It would not be long, just another month, before the crew would see its first action of the war. They would engage in picket duty, inshore patrol duty and help to cover the landing forces landing at Hollandia, New Guinea. Next the crew would be assigned to screen the carriers during air strikes on Truk, an island in the Carolina Island chain. It would be their job to confront enemy ships and planes in protection of the carriers. They would be the ones that would have to place themselves between torpedoes and the main battle group. They were truly expendable. After a brief stay back at Pearl Harbor, the USS Albert W. Grant set sail for Eniwetok in the Marianas and on June 11, 1944 sailed for Saipan to provide gun support.
|Kelly McGuinnis, Coxswain|
Kelly McGuinnis recalled for us an incident while the ship lay off the beach at Saipan. The ship was doing call fire in support of the marines on the beach. At one point a group of marines had cornered some Japanese soldiers high on a cliff. The fighting was fierce and the marines were held back. The skipper of the USS Albert W. Grant radioed the marines to back off to a safe distance so that the ship's guns could be trained on the enemy position but the marines refused the offer. This caused the standoff between the Japanese and the marines to continue well into the afternoon. The ship's lookouts saw an enemy soldier jump into the water and start swimming toward the ship. It must be an officer the skipper thought so he called for the whale boat to be lowered in hopes of capturing the Japanese soldier. Kelly was the coxswain for the boat crew. There was also a gun crew placed onboard to support the operation. As the boat drew closer to shore, a Japanese machine gun and mortar position open fired on them. Kelly looked to the boat officer for what to do next. While he waited, he continued to maneuvered the boat to avoid the enemy fire. He said the officer was most probably scared just like the rest of them, no super human courage reigned in that situation, just real men in real danger. The officer seemed confused and did not give any orders, either to continue or to turn back.
It was at this point that Kelly took it upon himself to turn the boat around and head back toward the ship. To this day he just has to close his eyes and he can clearly see the soldier motioning for them to come back. When they got back to the ship, the officer regained his composure and asked the skipper if the skipper wanted them to go back and pick up the enemy soldier. The executive officer, Hunt Hamill, who passed away earlier this year, talked with the skipper about the machine gun fire and mortar rounds that the enemy had brought to bear on the boat the first time and that they had been fortunate to get back to the ship. The skipper decided to abandon the attempt at capture. Kelly said, "I believe that we were saved by the XO that day and we will never forget him for that." When asked about John R. Pratt, Sr., the father of John R. Pratt, Jr. (who is a member of Clan Grant), Kelly told us that John R. Pratt, Sr. was a good friend of his and that John is a great person. Kelly was sad that John could not attend this year's reunion, because of health concerns. John is remembered for being the high diver of the ship. He would climb up on the upper lookout platform on the ship during swim call and do a perfect swan dive into the water. Kelly said that John is someone that you can be proud of knowing.
While at Saipan the USS Albert W. Grant was involved in action against Tinian, also part of the Marianas Island group. Ralph Natali tells of a radio communication between two marine units that he had overheard. Someone yelled into the radio that he thought he saw someone moving around outside the perimeter. Thinking it was a Japanese soldier, the marine was preparing to shoot him, just then another marine told him that because the first marine was off watch he needed to go out and capture the enemy soldier. When the first marine got to where he had spotted the movement, he found out that it wasn't the enemy at all but instead it was just a cow that had gotten loose. He was going to shoot it but then the second marine said, "No, lets milk her first. I'm an old farm boy and I sure could use some fresh milk, then we can shoot her." Ralph Natali didn't say what finally became of the cow but she probably supplied a steak dinner and a large cup of milk to those marines on the beach.
The USS Albert W. Grant next saw action in the Palaus conducting preinvasion bombardment and supporting the landings on Peleliu and Angaur. The next stop was the Philippines for the landings at Leyte Gulf and the invasion of the Philippines to liberate the Philippines from the Japanese. The USS Albert W. Grant provided protection to the USS Crosby, a fast transport that landed troops on Suluan Island, Philippines. Gun support for those troops was the USS Albert W. Grant's main focus.
|Thomas McGrady, FC3|
Thomas McGrady recounted an episode while operating off the coast of the Philippines during this invasion. The USS Albert W. Grant, the USS Pennsylvania, and the USS Honolulu were maneuvering along the coast with the USS Pennsylvania off their starboard quarter. The USS Albert W. Grant was running close in just off the beach with the USS Honolulu up ahead. Suddenly planes came in from over the island. They had come in so fast that it was hard to identify them at first, but when the planes dropped two bombs that just missed hitting the USS Pennsylvania, there was no longer any doubt as to the planes identity. Torpedo planes then dove for the USS Honolulu and let go with its payload striking the USS Honnlulu, which suffered only minor damage. Meanwhile the USS Albert W. Grant was taking fire as the planes strafed the ship. They were able to maneuver to escape any major damage.
|Cecil Albertson, MM3|
Cecil Albertson remembered that while they were firing the main guns in support of the landings, that a cease fire was ordered. The guns were hot because of the firing and they had just been reloaded for the next salvo. The guns had to be cleared. Just then the fire control officer spotted an enemy ship making a run down the coast. The fire control officer then ordered all five gun mounts to come to bear on the enemy ship and fire. They blew a huge gaping hole in the side of the enemy ship and sent her to the bottom. After seeing that, it brought home just how much more damage those shells were doing to the island. Cecil said talking about the Japanese ship, "They had sent him on to heaven where he said he wanted to go and we haven't seen him since." Their next taste of battle would place them on the receiving end of the gun.
Surigao Straits, the narrows south of Mindinao, was a vital seaway through which the Japanese task force was determined to pass and thwart the efforts of the Allied forces landing on the beach. The Philippines was a strategic base of operations for the Japanese and must be defended at all cost. The American task force was divided into three separate groups. The squadron, that the USS Albert W. Grant was assigned, was commanded by Captain Smoot. This is where the USS Albert W. Grant would show what kind of character she had, what her crew was made of, her finest hour. It was around four o'clock on the morning of October 24, 1944 when the USS Albert W. Grant, along with the USS Richard P. Leary and the USS Newcomb, was ordered to attack the Japanese fleet. Thomas McGrady told us that the destroyers followed the torpedo boats into the battle. The cruisers and battleships brought up the rear. The USS Albert W. Grant was the last "Tin Can" on the run through the straits. "Tin Can" was an affectionate term given to destroyers because of their thin hulls. There was only a quarter inch of steel between the men and the open sea. The USS Albert W. Grant came within 1700 yards of the enemy fleet, under the big guns where only the deck guns could bear down. A shell fired from a deck gun is what hit the ship first, knocking out the communication antenna. The ship ended up on the battle line between the Japanese task force and the American task force. The torpedoes were fired at the enemy but Thomas McGrady did not think they had hit their target. Others said that three of the torpedoes did indeed find their mark to inflict at least minor damage to the enemy.
|Edmund Gangl, Seaman|
Edmund Gangl recounted that the USS Denver, mistaking the USS Albert W. Grant for an enemy ship, fired upon and hit the USS Albert W. Grant "a couple of times". In fact the USS Denver inflicted more damage on the USS Albert W. Grant than did the Japanese, hitting her with six inch shells a total of eleven times. J.C. Moore, who was represented by his daughter, was trapped below decks when the ship was hit during the battle. She told us that he thought the world of the men whom he served with while aboard the USS Albert W. Grant. She continues to honor him and the crew by being present for these reunions. Harold "Baldy" Carlson, who was represented by his daughter as well, wrote in his diary that he had joined the Navy so that he could get three square meals a day. Tragedy struck early on for Harold. While he was at the torpedo training school his wife passed away. He had only a short time to grieve at his loss and to attend his beloved wife's funeral. All too soon duty called and he had to endure that long, lonely, cross country trip from Massachusetts to California where he joined the crew of the USS Albert W. Grant. During the battle at the Surigao Straits, he witnessed his friend Armand Couette being killed in action. Armand was at his post on the torpedo launcher when a shell exploded around him. Until Harold's death, he would visit his friend Armand's grave. Armand had no other family except the family he had become a part of while serving on the USS Albert W. Grant.
During the battle, the ship's doctor and corpsman were killed. This left only the pharmacists mate William H. "Bill" Swain to tend to the wounded. This was a big job for only one man as there were thirty-eight men killed and 104 wounded during this action. Others such as Ralph Natali, who himself had been wounded, and Harold Carlson did what they could to care for the lesser injured so that Bill Swain could concentrate on the seriously wounded. The damage to the ship was horrendous. The ship was down by the bow and listing heavily to port. Fires broke out and the ship lost steering control and all electrical power. She was helpless in the middle of the battle but the men never gave up. Ralph Hamill, the son of Hunt Hamill, the executive officer, told of a precarious moment during the battle, that his father had related to him. Because of the smoke, confusion, and early hours it was next to impossible for any of the ships to be identified by sight. The Japanese used this to their advantage by using signal lights. They would signal, using the name of one of the American ships engaged in the battle, requesting that the signaled ship respond with its identification. As soon as the other ship would respond, the Japanese ship would open fire, knowing that it had acquired an enemy target. It did not take long for the American force to realize what was going on. The USS Albert W. Grant required assistance but her captain knew that if they tried to signal that they would be fired upon.
Hunt Hamill came up with the idea that instead of just asking for help, they would include in their message that no reply was requested. As it turned out, because they specifically said that a reply was not requested, it had saved the ship from bombardment by the USS Pennsylvania, which had trained her fourteen inch guns on the ship that had begun to signal them. Quick thinking under fire had saved the ship from almost certain death. This quick thinking was not limited to just the officers on the bridge. Edmund Gangl helped bring up ordinance and get it over the side before the fires set it off.
|William W. Nagle, TM2|
William W. Nagle received the bronze star for kicking five torpedoes off during the battle. The crew effected temporary repairs, fought the raging fires, and was assisted by the USS Newcomb in getting to the relative safety of the American controlled waters, where they could be towed to a repair facility at Leyte. It would be several days later before some of the dead could be removed from the damaged areas within the interior of the ship. Men such as Ralph Natali would be assigned the task of burying the dead and saying goodbye to a shipmate. Even while in the relative safety of a friendly port, the USS Albert W. Grant was not immune from tragedy. George Pong told us that while the work of making the ship ready for battle again, his friend Homer McIlroy, one of the shipfitters, was performing structural repairs with an arc welder when something went wrong and he was electrocuted. It was a sad day not only for George but the whole crew. They had lost so many during the battle they had just gone through and now to lose someone in the relative calm of the rear area only served to further drive home to the men that the way of a sailor is inherently dangerous and death can strike at any time. You learn to live with the danger and try not to dwell on might happen or what has happened.
The USS Albert W. Grant survived the battle of the Surigao Straits not because of the construction of the ship but because of the determination of her crew. They would see other action and live through other battles but this is where the crew's true character had shone through.
|Earl Parris, Shipfitter|
There were other times aboard the USS Albert W. Grant that were not life and death struggles. The everyday life of watches, refueling, replenishments, just the sheer tedium of life at sea for a sailor. Earl Parris was standing lookout at just such a time. The ship had gone through a repair period and was heading back to rejoin the fleet. He was the forward lookout and there were two others, standing watch as lookouts, both of which could only see about ninety degrees to either side from where they were stationed. As Earl was observing the horizon, he spotted a fleet of ships and promptly reported this sighting to the bridge. Everyone looked in the direction that Earl had said he had seen the ships but no one saw anything. Some thought the sea must be playing tricks on him, some probably wondered if he had gotten into some of the "Torpedo Juice" rumored to be onboard, but no one believed he had seen those ships. Earl was understandably upset because he was sure he had seen what he said he had seen, but he could not get anyone to believe him. About 15 minutes later he saw the ships again and reported the sighting. This time, however, everyone saw the ships. He is still not sure why he saw the ships the first time but after that, whenever he said he saw something people would believe him.
|Ralph Natali, GMM1|
|Benny Havenner, WT2|
There were stories about those times when supplies were brought on. Both Ralph Natali and Benjamin "Benny" Havenner described to us how the crew would form a long line from where the supplies were to where they would be stored. It is said that things such as canned peaches, condensed milk, and maybe a canned ham or two, would come up missing somewhere along the line. It would not be polite to mention any names at this late date but it would seem that this procurement went something like this - the items that were prized would be hidden in places like the bilge under the deck plates or under deck plating in the gun mounts but then other items such as cans of peas, creamed corn and the like would be stashed in air ducts, cabinets, and dark corners where the Master-at-Arms was sure to find them. The Master-at-Arms, thinking that he had retrieved the misappropriated supplies, would unintentionally leave the valued items to those who had procured them. Benjamin Havenner, who served below decks as a water tender for the boilers, told us that the "Torpedo Juice", that was rumored to exist, was said to have been manufactured using a makeshift "still" constructed of two metal pails and a funnel. A smaller pail was placed inside a larger pail. The funnel was placed above the small pail and as the concoction in the larger pail was boiled, using steam, it would condense on the funnel and drip into the small pail as "pure Torpedo Juice".
|George Pong, CM2|
George Pong told of a small slice of what it was like to live in the cramped spaces aboard a destroyer. He was assigned a lower bunk in the berthing compartment. The man that had the upper bunk was Homer McIlroy. George described Homer as a tall rather large fellow. The bunks at that time were little more than hammocks and whenever Homer would get into his bunk it would sag. This made it hard for George to squeeze into his own bunk. He was worried that one day Homer might fall through and crush him while he slept. Earl Parris described that age old ritual of crossing the equator for the first time. He had endured the humiliation of those who had crossed before and toward the end of the initiation, he said that he was placed atop a crate with a rope around his neck, there was no malicious intent just mischievous intent. He was made to stand there as still as he could and then someone came up to him from behind and shocked him using a battery. He had to keep from falling off the crate and he said that for a time after that he just absolutely hated that guy but it wasn't long after that all was forgiven. At the end of the ritual Earl was forced to crawl through garbage that had been saved just for that purpose. When Earl came up out of the garbage at the other end, he told the men, who were in charge of the initiation, that they had better just leave him alone. He had completed the initiation and was in no mood for any other nonsense. This is said to show that what these men experienced was not always horrible. There were good times that were shared as well, but when placed in harms way, these men performed with valor and distinction.
A common theme among these men continued to be spoken by one and all. Each one had admiration for every other man that he had served with. There is a bond that exist between them that time and circumstance cannot break. Emmett Crump, who, while standing a night watch while they underwent repairs in Pearl Harbor, rescued a forty-eight starred flag consigned to disposal, a flag which had flown from the mast of their beloved ship. He also rescued an officer's bedspread, possibly that of their beloved executive officer who had saved them, many believe, from certain death off a little known island. He had for many years told Hunt Hamill that the bedspread was indeed the executive officer's own bedspread from the ship.
|Emmet Crump, Coxswain|
Emmett Crump continues to hold them together by arranging these reunions so that their fallen shipmates might be remembered. The extended family that has grown up with the stories and the affections of these men, have all benefited from their knowing such as these. These men effected the lives of men unknown to the crew of the USS Albert W. Grant. Emmett told the story behind a model of their ship that was given to him. A man had contacted Emmett because of the announcement about the reunion that had been placed in the paper. That man had built the model because of what the USS Albert W. Grant had meant to him, though he was not a crew member. He had, for fifteen years, searched for someone to give the model to and knew that he had to give it to Emmett when he read of the reunion. It was an emotional time for both men. Emmett never did get the name of the man who had done this act of kindness for him. Others, who were not part of the crew, have attended past reunions. Those that helped the USS Albert W. Grant to get back to a friendly port and those, whose ship had been sunk in battle, the crew of the USS Albert W. Grant had rescued from the sea. Ralph Hamill received, with pride and honor, the bedspread that Emmett Crump had rescued. He said that it would hold a place of honor in his family not just because it might have been his father's, but because it would serve as a reminder of what the men of the USS Albert W. Grant meant to him. These are men of honor and integrity. Many have said that if they had to do it all over again that they would gladly do so. They would willingly lay their lives down for their country and each other.
The men, who made up the crew of the USS Albert W. Grant, were not professional sailors but rather men from various backgrounds who came together when their country called. There were some that were born into families that had for generations mined coal from the hills of Pennsylvania, still others that came from the hills of the Carolinas and Kentucky. Some of the men hailed from the Mid-West and still others from the Northeast. A diverse group of men that came together, aboard one of many destroyers, to become the USS Albert W. Grant. After the war was over, some of the men chose to make the Navy a career, while others went back to their families and friends they had left back home. All were changed in some way, all knew that they belonged to another family. Benjamin Havenner has taken up clock repair and he has Captain Nisewaner's Annapolis clock to remember him by. William Nagle went on to be appointed as Post Master for Wellsville, New York. There was a bond that had been forged in the heat of battle that would never be broken. The USS Albert W. Grant, DD649 was just another Fletcher class destroyer until her crew made her a lady. Although the ship was struck from the Navy list on April 14, 1971 and sold for scrapping, the USS Albert W. Grant lives on because of the crew that had made hull number 649, the "USS Albert W. Grant". Clan Grant can be proud of the men that served aboard the ship that bore the name Grant, for in times of trial and testing, they lived the Clan Grant motto "Stand Fast".
DD SIX FOUR NINE
DD stands for "Tin Can"
649 is her proud number,
Named after a fighting man,
And commissioned on 24 November.
With her skipper and crew ready
Looking daring and mighty terrific,
Took a course true and steady
And headed for the South Pacific.
She has slung a lot of lead
At the sneaky and treacherous Jap.
You can find many of them dead
On these islands on your map.
She went first into Saipan;
Helped with landings at Peleliu;
She battered up all Tinian
And at the Philippines, she was too.
On the morning of October twenty-five,
No torpedo-run was ever made finer.
A Jap battleship took a dive,
Thanks due skipper T.A. Nisewaner.
She was hit by many a Jap shell,
Her repairs are coming along fine;
She'll be back to raise more "hell"
This destroyer, DD Six Fofur Nine.