Sailors remember fallen comrades
Utah man survived sinking of destroyer 60 years ago today
By Matthew D. LaPlante of The Salt Lake Tribune
When the young sailor came to, he was lying 20 feet below the engine room catwalk. The overhead lamps were out. Steam and smoke were filling the cabin.
Eugene Wagstaff climbed to his feet and reached for the radio, still unsure of what was happening. His eyes stung. He was having trouble breathing.
Suddenly, a hatch swung open. As the smoke cleared, he could see the olive face and jet-black hair of Paul Amato, known to the crew of the USS Underhill as "Blackie."
"Is anyone down there?" Amato screamed.
"Where the hell do you think we would be?" Wagstaff yelled.
Amato smiled at the sound of his best friend's voice.
"OK, smartass," the Italian-American sailor shot back. "Get out. We're sinking."
Much of what has happened in the intervening years has been lost in Wagstaff's mind, but the details of those moments remain hauntingly clear. Before the day was over, 112 of his shipmates would be dead. And the Salt Lake City native would watch from the deck of a rescue ship as the once mighty destroyer disappeared into the dark blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Today, the 60th anniversary of the sinking of the Underhill, Wagstaff will join Amato and other survivors at the U.S. Naval Academy to pay homage to their lost shipmates - those killed on that day and those who have since died.
About half the 122 men who survived the sinking are still alive. Like Wagstaff, most of those who remain are in their early to mid-80s.
"They look so old to me now," Wagstaff says. "Yet you can still see a resemblance to the men I knew."
Wagstaff is still burdened by the memory of those who never grew old. The men he ate with, quartered with and went on liberty with. The men who fought for days through a gantlet of Japanese bombers and mines before being surrounded by up to three submarines, about 200 miles northeast of the Philippine Islands.
Wagstaff was in the engine room, in the stern of the ship, when the alert came over the radio. "Periscope bearing zero-nine-zero."
With the Underhill's sailors at general quarters, Wagstaff listened intently as Petty Officer Robert Lacey described the fight. A depth charge had blown one of the subs to the surface. The ship's captain, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Newcomb, was preparing to ram the disabled boat.
There was a moment of quiet as the bluejackets braced for impact. Then the radio hissed back to life with the sound of fear and anger: "That son of a bitch is coming right at us," Lacey yelled.
The impact of the blast from the Japanese suicide submarine - known as a Kaiten - knocked Wagstaff from the engine room catwalk. It wasn't until he made it outside, however, that he realized what had happened - and saw the extent of the damage.
The destroyer had been ripped in two, with the fore section shorn off just above the superstructure. The bow was sticking straight up out of the water, bobbing alongside the aft section like a great steel tombstone.
The section of ship on which Wagstaff stood dumbfounded remained afloat. But there was chaos on the deck.
Wagstaff wandered about in a daze. A few sailors formed small groups to battle fires that had broken out on the ship. Others formed search parties to look below deck for trapped shipmates.
A young ensign named FrankĀlin Kearney performed last rites on one man, dangling rosary beads over the wounded sailor as he prayed. Another sailor stumbled past, the muscles and tendons in his back exposed through large, deep gashes in his skin.
"What can I do?" Wagstaff asked himself as he slowly recovered from his daze. "What can I do to help these guys?"
For three hours, the 21-year-old sailor - an electrician with no medical training - assisted the ship's pharmacist, Petty Officer Joe Manory, and others as they tied splints on broken arms and legs, washed oil from other men's wounds and administered morphine for those in greatest pain. When a rescue boat arrived, Wagstaff helped transfer the injured sailors from deck to deck.
The dead were left behind.
Shortly past 7 that evening, firing teams from three ships sank what remained of the Underhill. Sixty years later, Wagstaff still chokes up when he thinks about that moment.
"I can still see it," he says. "It almost looked like slow motion, that steel flying up in the air, spinning around and burning as it came down. Then the two screws on the fantail of the ship came right up out of the water.
"Then it just slipped underneath."
At 3:15 this afternoon - 60 years to the minute after the Underhill was struck by its suicide attacker - Wagstaff will listen as his shipmates read aloud the names of those killed on that day. Afterward, he says, he'll seek out family members of those who were killed in the attack or who have died in the intervening years without their story becoming known.
"It just breaks you up to think about it sometimes," he says. "I want them to know about these men who were their fathers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins.
"I want them to know what happened."