Lieutenant Frank Gillan, of the Perth

This man’s odyssey is covered in just three pages of Ship of Ghosts (pp. 158 – 160) but it is so remarkable because of how it began: he was the last man off the Perth, and “rode a series of floating vehicles to survival, each one more seaworthy than the one before: a wooden plank, a Carley float, and finally a lifeboat, where he joined about seventy of his shipmates. An able sailor, Gillan got the mast and sails up, fashioned a tiller out of driftwood, and turned toward Sumatra before adverse headwinds forced him to shape a course back toward Java. Going slowly blind from the bunker oil clotting in his eyes, Gillan turned over the tiller to a sailor named McDonough. When the wind died at nightfall, they had to row. They were soon desperate with exhaustion. One sailor who started vomiting up oil was relieved of rowing but sat there for a time still pulling an invisible oar until someone eased him to the bottom boards, slick with the blood of the injured, to sleep.”

And then they made land. Gillan, who was still blind, found his hand held by a stoker named Bill Hogman who, unasked, “served as his eyes, leading him after the others all that day and far into the night, guiding his steps, explaining what the country looked like.”

Meanwhile, In the Engine Room

The Houston‘s still chugging along at twenty-one knots. The dozen-odd men in the forward engine room have no idea what is going on and find it odd when they hear the bugle tone to abandon ship. A man calls the bridge and asks for verification. What follows is “several minutes of chafing silence.” (You see what self means about Hornfischer’s writing?) Then, a second order to abandon ship is received. The men in the engine room finally commence the shutdown. The process goes like this:

  • Shut down the burners under the boilers.
  • Leave valves open to bleed off the high-pressure steam in the system.
  • Lower life rafts over the side.
  • Get into life rafts.

Unfortunately, “ten-thousand tons’ worth of inertia” meant that the Houston continued to plunge forward even after the life rafts were lowered, meaning the crew had no time to climb into the rafts. Chaos! Fortunately, the chain of command is preserved by a Commander Roberts, “the ship’s senior surviving officer,” who takes charge at 12:29 a.m. and reverses the order to abandon ship.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Ship of Ghosts, Chapter 20

As late as February this year, James D. Hornfischer was still tweeting as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Self can’t find a cause of death listed anywhere. Whatever. Self salutes you, sir. Two of your books provided capital reading to close out her 2021.

An hour after battle was joined on the Sunda Strait at 11:15 p.m. on Feb. 27, 1942, it was over. The Perth went under, bringing Captain Waller with her. The USS Houston was completely encircled. No word about Captain Rooks, who had written his wife so lovingly about the time remaining on his two-year assignment.

A man who’d been standing next to Rooks on the bridge recalled how the Captain summoned the ship’s bugler and told him, “in a strong, resolute voice: Bugler, sound abandon ship.” The tones went out over the ship’s PA system. Again, the writing:

  • Surrounded by enemy ships on all offshore bearings, the Houston was about five miles northwest of Panjang Island and about the same distance east-northeast from St. Nicholas Point, on an eastward course at twenty knots. It was a little after midnight. The ship was taking on water and listing hard . . .

Survivors later told of seeing Rooks being cradled in the arms of a mess attendant named Ah Fong, probably dying. Ah Fong refused to leave him.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Quote of the Day: Third Monday of December 2021

“Christ, that’s torn it. Abandon ship.”

— Captain Waller of the Australian destroyer, the Perth, after a torpedo “lifts the ship from under the bridge and” throws Waller and his nine officers and chiefs upward. “They fell down again, knocked to their knees.”

What self is learning from Ship of Ghosts: ships do not just sink, no. First, they explode.

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