USS Neunzer (DE-150)
Neunzer was named in honor of Machinist Weimar Edmund Neunzer, who was killed in action 2 July 1942 during the Aleutian Islands Campaign and was posthumously awarded the Air Medal. She was laid down by the Consolidated Steel Corp., Orange, Texas, 29 January 1943; launched 1 June 1943; sponsored by Mrs. Weimar E. Neunzer, widow of Machinist Neunzer; and commissioned 27 September 1943, Lt. John E. Greenbacker in command.
North Atlantic operations
Neunzer steamed to Galveston, Texas, and then to New Orleans, Louisiana, for fitting out. During October and November 1943 she went through shakedown off Bermuda. The new destroyer escort next visited Charleston, South Carolina, en route Quonset Point, Rhode Island. For 4 weeks she operated with an Atlantic Fleet research group, developing new equipment for antisubmarine warfare.
After escorting a group of troop transports from Boston, Massachusetts, to join a large convoy bound for England from New York City Neunzer proceeded to Norfolk, Virginia, joining TF 62 on 1 January 1944. With this group she escorted a large convoy to the Mediterranean, spending 8 days at Gibraltar before sailing for home.
Escorting Italian submarines
On her homeward voyage, she shepherded five Italian submarines to Bermuda for training purposes. During this trip, Neunzer carried out an operation which is believed to be unique for a destroyer escort. She refueled two Italian subs at sea, pumping 12,000 gallons of fuel through a fire plug and 200 feet of fire hose to the submarine.
In May 1944 Lt. Commander Virgil E. Gex became the skipper of the Neunzer. After two more voyages escorting convoys to the Mediterranean, Neunzer was detached from TF 62 to join escort aircraft carrier USS Guadalcanal (CVE-60) in a hunter-killer group. Following training at Casco Bay, Maine, and Bermuda, the task group made two search patrols for submarines in the Middle Atlantic, refueling in Bermuda. Neither of these patrols uncovered any submarines, and Neunzer returned to New York in late August.
During October the group put to sea again, this time searching for submarines in the North Atlantic. Although no submarines were discovered, the force ran through a very severe storm which damaged some of the ships. The patrol was finally broken off; the task group refueled at Ponta Delgada, Azores, before returning home early in November.
The antisubmarine group sailed from Norfolk 1 December for brief training in Bermuda en route Jacksonville, Florida, where for 5 weeks the carrier trained student pilots. The group proceeded to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, late in January 1945 for 2 weeks of exercises; then Neunzer returned to New York for a brief overhaul.
But now the Germans were ready for their final push, sending their new snorkel-equipped subs across the Atlantic to attack the east coast. Neunzer suddenly received a message at midnight 8 April to get underway 6 hours later for Newfoundland. After refueling and provisioning in Argentia, she left on the 19th and rendezvoused in mid-ocean with one of several carrier task groups strung out across the Atlantic between St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Fayal in the Azores as a net to trap the snorkels.
Battling German submarine U-546
USS Frederick C. Davis (DE-136) made contact with U-546 on 24 April and was proceeding to attack when the submarine fired a stern shot which tore the DE apart and sent her down with heavy loss of life.
Eight destroyer escorts immediately joined the action. Neunzer and USS Hayter (DE-212) conducted a search while USS Pillsbury (DE-133) circled the area and USS Flaherty (DE-135) picked up survivors. Flaherty made contact in less than an hour and with Pillsbury proceeded to attack. The U-boat went to 600 feet. Contact was lost from 1045 until 1201 when USS Varian (DE-798), USS Janssen (DE-396), and USS Hubbard (DE-211) began another attack.
Neunzer got into the fight after several attacks by the other DE’s, delivering a creeping attack with Varian and Hubbard while USS Chatelain (DE-149) directed. Contact was lost once more at about 1600, and Chatelain and Neunzer were ordered to return to the scouting line.
The line was expanded, and the ships began a sweep through the area, determined to prevent the submarine’s escape. Varian made contact once more at 1731 and Flaherty was ordered to attack. She fired at 1810. Four minutes later a small oil slick began coming to the surface. Flaherty made another hedgehog attack at 1828, and at 1838 the U-boat broke surface.
Every ship in the line within range began firing. At 1844, after more than ten and a half hours of attacks, U-546 rolled under for her last dive. Thirty-three of her crew, including the captain, were taken prisoner.
After V-E Day, Neunzer returned to New York for 2 weeks and left on 25 May to escort the last Atlantic convoy of World War II from New York to Southampton, England. She returned without a convoy, and remained in New York harbor from 15 June until 6 July.
In July the ship trained at Casco Bay, Maine, and served as target for the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Center, Melville, Rhode Island. On 1 August she sailed to New London, Connecticut, to escort U-505, captured by Guadalcanal’s task group in June 1944. The sub was exhibited along the east coast and the Gulf Coast throughout the end of 1945 in a drive to sell War Bonds.
After operations along the Atlantic coast, Neunzer decommissioned in January 1947 and entered the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. Into 1970 she remained berthed at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On 1 July 1972 she was struck from the Navy list, and she was sold 1 November 1973, and scrapped.
Neunzer Newspaper articles
1943 (Feb 07) - Lt. Gex
Dec 6 - https://www.newspapers.com/image/332856595/?clipping_id=36359255
- Sep 1943 to June1944 : Lt. (jg) Lawrence Preston Gise (born 1915) , who became AEC director, and who is the maternal grandfather of Jeffrey Preston Bezos .
- (captain) Virgil Gex Obituary - https://www.newspapers.com/image/102535763/?terms=USS%2Bneunzer
From the book - this is just one section. Lots of history about the Neunzer in here.
“Set the Watch”
The birth of a warship, 1943
t ’ k ‘ k
Most destroyer escorts were namedfor menwho hadalready died in the war the ships were goingto help fight.
Machinist Weimar Edmund Neunzer was killed in July 1942 while dive-bombing a Japanese submarine. The ship that would carry his name was built by Consolidated‐my father saw it taking shape while he was trying to get to sea‐and on April 27, 1943, Ruby Iris Neunzer, the flier’s widow, broke a champagne bottle against the newborn’s bow. The Neunzer slid backward into the Sabine River and bobbed and steadied, riding very high in the water because she was still just a hull, not yet both a working town and an engine of destruction. Accomplishing that meant not only adding the guns, but typewriters, filing cabinets, staplers and mimeograph machines, radios and anchor chains and blowers, soup pots and soup bowls, fire hoses and life jackets, signal flags and elegant, hand-wound chronometers that kept time at sea just as their forebears had when our new heavy frigates were alarming Englandin theWar of 1812.
The start of this familiar process on DE 150 would have had no special significance for my father, but then his superior, who liked him, hinted he might be assigned to the Neunzer. The moment it happened, he was sent up to firefighting school in Norfolk, Virginia. This was a serious and spectacular course: “Today we put out great big oil and gasoline fires and got hot wet and dirty during it. The instructors are fine, all experienced firemen from various big metropolitan fire departments, and they are eager to help and advise.”
Then he brought his singed eyebrows to New York for three weeks’ leave with my mother‐Oklahoma!was a particularly bright moment of
it‐before heading back to Orange, where he found the Neunzer the brief center of attention in that whole great forcing-bed of warships. She was still enmeshed, as she had been for months, in hoses and cables, but the tempo of the work had increased and engineers and officers with clipboards and flashlights moved among the welders andpainters.
On September 26, my father wrote, “Our crew arrived today and we were busy all day loading the ship. I have a very young skipper, Lt. Greenbacker, U.S.N., and I amvery nervous about satisfying him.”And everything else, too: “I am nervous as a cat about the way things are going to go. There is so much that only experience afloat can teach me, andI amshy onthat.”
Sowere most of his shipmates. Of the 209 officers and men who had just arrived aboard, perhaps 30 had seen sea duty. John Greenbacker most definitely had.The son of aConnecticut dairy farmer, he had been so eager to join the navy that as early asjunior high school his friends were calling himAnnapolis. He got to the academy in 1936 and, assoon as he graduated, was posted to the carrier Yorktown. The ship ran convoys in the Atlantic before Pearl Harbor, then went to the Pacific and the Battle of the Coral Sea, where a near miss ruptured a fuel tank, and to Midway,where Japanese torpedo planes sank her.
Greenbacker, one of the last men off, was ordered to the new subchasing school in Miami and eventually transferred to the Stewart, becoming executive officer of the first destroyer escort built by Brown Brothers of Houston. Brown Brothers was a good example of the pressure of war measures at the time: before the company bid its way into the DE program, the closest it had come to building a ship was winning the contract to put the concrete capping on the locks of the Panama Canal. The neophyte builders took a while to get the hang of it.
“I went to Houston,” said Greenbacker, “and got there in February of 1943 and the ship didn’t go into commission until something like the first of June.” After a Shakedown cruise, he was ordered back to Texas, this time to Orange, to take over another brand-new DE. Consolidated made a faster job of finishing its ship than its Houston rivals had theirs:
“I was only there for four weeks beforewewent in commission.”
By the early afternoon of Monday,September 27, 1943,the last of the hoses and welders and men with clipboards had left the ship. A theaterful of folding chairs hadsprouted on the dock by her stern. They were occupied largely by friends and family of the crew, and by a band.
Behindthe chairs stood the workers who hadput the ship together. The crewwas gathered onher fantail, andher officers stood at attentionby a podium set up there. The band played in the cool September sunshine, and my father was surprised to realize that he would miss Orange‐or, he hastily modified this extravagant reaction, the friends he had made working on the shore detail there. A little after two o’clock the band subsided. A Consolidated official approached the podium and turned over the ship to the US. navy in the form of Captain J. M. Schelling, USN, representing the commandant, Eighth Naval District. Captain Schelling read aloud the orders authorizing himto accept i t , did so, and said, “Hoist the colors.”
At the how the UnionJack blossomed‐white stars, navy blue fieldwhile aft a sailor ran the American flag up the staff. Amidships, the commissioning pennant, a long ribbon with one red stripe, one white one, and a narrow blue field with seven bars, broke from the mast. In that moment the Neunzer became the USSNeunzer. Captain Schelling turned her over to Captain Greenbacker, who gave his first order as commanding officer: “Set the watch.”
“Set all regular port watches,” begins the DE 150’s log, which would be kept hour by hour, day by day, all the years she was in commission.
But even before that the first entry reads, “The following men were received on board for duty (see attached list).” The roster of those who were to give a soul to the machinery begins, “ADAMOVICH, John 646 40 49 [the serial number of the “name, rank, and serial number” that is all the information you’re supposed to give your captors], USNR; ADAMS, Trenouth A., 875 49 20, FC3c, USNR”; and right on through two hundred names until “WHITMAN, Arthur R., 245 03 59 Szc, USNR; WINIEWSKI, Louis E, 224 10 80, SF2c, USN [a valuable man: that USNasopposed to USNRmeans he is regular navy, not just called up aspart of the naval reserve; so is his successor]; ZONFRELLO, Peter, 376 58 15, 82c, USN.”
The logmakes the next day sound awfully quiet, although it hadto be one of constant tumult as people were set to newjobs and put into new accommodations. But the whole entry, under the frowning “CONFIDENTIAL” that will head every page for the rest of the war, begins, “0000‐0400. Moored stbd side to dock at City Docks, Orange.”
At four-hour intervals this is followed by the stolid phrase “Moored as before.” It concludes with the final watch report of the twenty-four-hour day: “2000‐2400. Moored asbefore.” This is signed bymyfather, and it is a thrilling surprise for me to see his handwriting, which would change not a bit for the rest of his life, fresh, black, immediate, put down there on his spanking new ship, with the familiar glare and clamor of all-night Orange already part of another existence. He had a sense of the occasion. In the months ahead he would sign all the hundreds of logentries he made “R.B. Snow Lt USNR.” But for this, the last watch of the ship’s first full day in commission, he is “Richard BoringSnow Lieutenant USNR.”
Everyone from Adamovich to Zonfrello was busy the next day asthe ship absorbed all the proteins of war. The log's sparse report says, “0822 commenced loading ammunition; 0947 commenced fueling ship.”
With the ammunition they would likely have started with the 20mm rounds,which came in olive-colored magazines.Once they were stowed, sailors carried aboard shells for the three-inch guns, each man cradling a single tall, brass-jacketed cartridge while constantly being instructed to “keep those noses up now, goddamn it.” Whenthe ready ammunition had been housed near the guns, the rest came aboard in wooden crates, the 20mm magazines in square boxes, the three‐inch rounds in long, coffin-like ones.
The job took a little less than three hours. Meanwhile a thick black hose came aboard and the DEsucked in diesel oil, eighty-two thousand gallons of it in four hours.
Then came the first of what would be many hundreds of generalquarters drills: the alarm agitating in shrill bursts, sailors punching their arms into life jackets, running past each other to their battle stations, putting on helmets, while, on the bridge, the telephone talker relayed reports from the stations‐“Condition Able set forward. Depth charge manned and ready. Engine room manned and ready”‐until the ship abruptly fell silent, and the perpetual noise of the Consolidated yard insinuated itself again, and the talker said, “All stations manned and ready.”
The ship secured from the drill forty-five minutes later and hurried on toward another milestone. “Made all preparations for getting underway,” the log records.
“Now go to your stations, all the special sea details.” This was a bosun’s mate, over the ship’s loudspeakers. Once again men swarmed the decks; once again, the bridge talker passed along reports. “Fo’c’sle manned and ready, sir. Fantail manned and ready. Engineering spaces manned and ready.” When everything was manned and ready, Captain Greenbacker gave the order: “Single up your lines.”
Twelve paired lines held the ship to six bollards along the dock.
Consolidated-yardmenthrew offone from each mooringpost. “All lines singled up, sir,” said the bridge talker. Greenbacker spoke again, the remaining lines fell from the dock into the Sabine to be quickly pulled aboard, and the log reported, with “Captain conning and Navigator on the bridge,” as the Neunzer moved out from the dock.
It wasn’t much of a voyage, just a few hundred yards to tie up alongside another DE, the Peterson, still at the capacious City Docks, but the ship had been under her own power and worked by her own crew.
Nobody spent any time celebrating the maneuver. My father went back to his endless tasks. On the twenty-ninth he spoke of the routine in the first letter my mother received whose envelope carried the return address “USS Neunzer (DE 150) Fleet Postmaster NY.” It was also the first to bear the rubber-stamped passed bynaval censor circling the initials of the censoring officer.*
His inaugural shipboard letter was brief and far from happy.
“Another very busy day! Not as much accomplished on the ship as I should have liked but will have a crack at it tomorrow. My gear is all crammed into various drawers in an ungodly fashion. When the ship gets straightened out I hope to do likewise but I’m afraid it will be not until!
“What astupid letter. I guess I AM tired.”
A few days later he was just as busy, but more cheerful about it: “There must be something very dire impending‐because it isn’t normal for me to have twenty minutes to myself‐Ever since I talked with you on the phone from Orange we have been on the run‐myself perhaps more than some of the others, for there have been so many small hull items to design, rip out, or finish up which involved telling somebody how long or how wide at all hours of the day and night. I have a splendid chief boatswain mate who runs things admirably from the seamanship point of view and of course I’d be making a monkey out of myself without someone like that to help out. Among other pedestrian jobs which have fallen to my lot is that of sorting and distributing about 500 keys, something that would try the patience of the most hardened shipping clerk. Other items which weigh very heavily on me are a leaky toilet, a leaky steam valve, more shelving, less heat etc. etc. So you can see the life of a First Lieutenant is in some respects not very different from that of an architect. However‐a watch on the flying bridge is another story. Our executive officer is an ideal person to have charge of the shaping up of such a motley crew of officers and men as are in his charge‐patient, experienced and tactful. I feel be fully appreciates whatever capabilities his officers already have and is very willing to work to develop those which come only with experience.”
This exemplary officer was Virgil Gex, andmy father’s regard for him did not wane during the war, or for the rest of his life. The son of a Missouri farmer, Gex was appointed to the NavalAcademy, but a failed eye exam put him into the Naval Reserve. He took ajob at Procter and Gamble, but by December 1940 the increasingly hard-pressed navy decided his eyesight wasn't sobad after all, andhe was sent asan ensign to the four-stacker Chew. December 7, 1941, found the Chew in Pearl Harbor moored four hundred yards away from the Arizona. Gex saw
the bomb that exploded the battleship’s magazine pierce her deck. The Japanese aim was all too good, and they weren’t interested in World War I destroyers, so the Chew survived to operate out of Pearl for the rest of the war. Virgil Gex, risen to a gunnery and senior watch officer, was detached in May1943to help puttheNeunzerin commission.
“Our Captain and Executive Officer beingboth absolutely of the first rank in experience and ability (althoughboth are only slightly too old to be my nephews!) the ship’s organization should develop very satisfactorily.”
Quickly, too, because when my father wasn’t occupied with the familiar tasks of formulating measurements and attending to plumbing, he found himself put into the swim of naval life with unusual speed.
Reminiscing years later, Captain Greenbacker said he and Lieutenant Gex “and, I think, the chief engineer, were the only [officers] that had ever been to sea at all. I knew that in some of these cases the captain and the exec would stand off-and-on watches”‐that is,one relievingthe other in four‐hour rotation. “I didn’t do that. I said, ‘You get on out there, you be officer of the deck. Call me if there are any questions. Call meif you sight anything.”
It was a new world, and not a simple one to my father. “The ship organization is hardly less complicated than the social structure of India, and castes among the petty officers must be as strictly observed.
Any deviation from the proper chain of authority causes ripples which eventually rock the whole ship‐and it is of great importance to learn the proper channels of activity assoon aspossible.”
A couple of weeks later, in aletter hehopedwas “not too expository,” he gave his wife an admirably clear account of shipboard routine. “We have had a good deal of steaming since I last wrote you, and all of us have had to stand deck watches night and day, as our turn comes up.
The officers are divided up into groups of two, an Officer of the Deck and a Junior Officer of the Deck, and watches are usually four hours, during which the normaloperation of the ship is in charge of the GOD.
The Captain and the Executive Officer come to the bridge from time to time and are always there in any unusual situation, but in normal steaming the COD has charge of the handling of the ship and her routine. Of course this is intensely interesting‐always a grave responsibility and a job in which experience counts for almost everything, andwith the constantly recurring watches, experience is the one thing of which there is plenty to be had. Off watch all the officers are busy with organizational and administrative affairs. My departments are Construction 8:Repair (C&R) and damage control, and I am Division Officer of the First Division‐in general the Deck ratings forward. What a lot of detail there is to be straightened out in all that! I am fortunate in having a seasoned and very able Chief Boatswain’s Mate, who has the happy faculty of instructing me under the guise of conferring with me. He has never even so much as hinted that he has forgotten more seamanship than I’ve ever known, which I think indicates great good feeling, and is probably more than I could manage under reversed circumstances. He is well satisfied with the assortment of green but willing seamen under his charge‐and the boys are all coming along extremely well in their line handling, and chores about the ship.”
He concluded, “Good night, my dearest‐I love you and think of you ‘at all times’‐which is the Navyway of saying ‘Always.’”
Despite this authoritative summary, hewrote afew days later, “Time certainly rolls along‐but I don’t feel my age as I should. Just when I might begin to feel a certain degree of achievement and settledness (no such word I presume) I wander into an entirely newtrade, start in at the bottom of the ladder in competence, if not in rank, and spend my waking hours (and they are many) with youths in their early twenties.
However, any doubts I may have held as to whether I am growing old were dispelled by a glimpse of the commissioning picture of the USS Neunzer, in which I look like a not too able character actor of 50, surrounded by ruddy and unlined adolescents not yet approaching the prime of life.”
Still, there were compensations: “I have a very snug little cabin forward of the wardroom. My cabin mate is a very long and attractive young man, who has to fold up like a jackknife to get in the upper bunk, but as he is junior to me, that’s where he goes (the advantage of my great age).”
My father had finally got his belongings‐shirts, shoes-“put away in a magnificently orderly fashion.” He was in good company: “Mr. Gex is extremely attractive and so are the other officers. I don’t know whether it is just because they are my shipmates or whether they actually are as a group superior to some of the others I’ve seen. In any case, they all seem 0.81. to me.” And “our food continues to be excellent and plentiful."
The food was good. The first supplies to come aboard the freshly commissioned Neunzer‐before ammunition, before fuel‐were, the log records, 210 pounds of bread “received from the Fehr Baking Co inspected asto quantity by RM.Turner, Jr. , Lieut, and asto quality by Y.R. Tate, PhM 1/c [pharmacist’s mate first class].” Three hours later Turner and Tate were called upon to inspect “8 gal ice cream from Stewart Dairy Co.” The navy had long had the reputation of being the best-fed service, and meals improvedthroughout the war.
The 1940 edition of The Cook Book of the United States Navy is a skinny 164 pages. Although it reflects a diet far better than many Americans were enjoying in the final years of the Great Depression, the recipes‐“ALL FOR 100 MEN”‐are workmanlike to the point of drabness: “Cut 60 pounds of mutton into 5-pound pieces and wipe with a clean damp cloth. Place in boiling water and boil for five minutes.
Then reduce to a simmering temperature and let cook until tender.
When about halfdone season with salt.” In fairness to the Supply Corps officers who assembled the book, the result should be “serve[d] with caper sauce,” but this is also pretty rudimentary: “2 pounds flour. 3 pounds chopped pickles or capers. 2 pounds butter or shortening. Salt and pepper to taste.” Manyof the recipes are even less inspiring‐“Lima Bean Loaf‐and some are actually dire: “Canned Creamed Codfish” (which employs the only fish mentioned by name other than “Canned Salmon”; the rest of the piscine world is covered by the twin entries “Baked Fish” and “Fried Fish”). One of the seven sandwiches recommended is this imaginative confection: “Put between these slices [ofbread] three slices of crisp lettuce leaves.”
The Cook Book of 1944 has grown to 430 pages, nine of them devoted to dozens of sandwiches. The lettuce filling has been augmented with tomatoes and bacon; the mutton recipe has disappeared. There are fifty pages of desserts. Fish are cited by species:
“Fillet of Flounder,” “Baked Halibut and Tomatoes.” The creamed codfish remains among the manifold hardships of war, but a typical “winter menu” runs:
- Navy Bean Soup
- Fried Pork Chop Gravy
- Hominy Spoonbread
- Buttered Green Peas
- Apple Cole SlawSalad
- LemonCream LayerCake
- BreadButter Coffee
Among the Neunzer’s crew were hill-country boys who had got the worst of the Depression since they had been three or four years old. My father rememberedthem ballooning under the impact of their new diet, giving the ship a population of fat men for a few weeks until their young metabolisms caught up.
A month after Consolidated turned the Neunzer over to the navy, Lieutenant Snow described a scene in which food and shipmates and growing competence had combined to produce, for the moment at least, an obviously contented man: “Last night I had the mid watch with Lt. Gear‐midnight to 4AM‐or 0000‐0400 in navy figures It was a long watch, but uneventful, and we stood all the way topside on the ship under the stars. It was most impressive to look back occasionally and see the tall mast swaying back and forth against the dark star-lighted sky. When I came down offwatch I found the steward had left steak and potatoes in the pantry oven, soI hadavery early breakfast before I went to bed for two or three hours sleep.”
The Heartbeatof the Pings : The importance of sonar, 1941‐45
The Neunzer’s sea career had begun on October 1, when she left the Orange City Docks, bound for Galveston: down the Sabine River, past Port Arthur, shimmering in the perpetual stink of its oil refineries, and out into the Gulf of Mexico, where for the first time the ocean swell lifted the new ship. The sea was not running high that day, but those who were going to get seasick began to. My father could report with satisfaction to my mother, “It appears that whatever other limitations I may have to contend with (and they are legion) sea sickness will probably not beone of them.”
The men went to general quarters, and for two hours the ship steamed through a racket of its own making as all the guns were tested and the torpedo tubes swiveled this way and that. By late afternoon the DE was moored at Galveston, and the next day she ventured into the mawof the Todd construction company's Floating Drydock 3, a topless, steel shoebox hundreds of feet long and halffull of water. The Neunzer inched in amid an ecstasy of shouted instructions and orders between dock and ship. Tall steel gates closed behind her stem, and pumps began to empty the dock, gentling the ship down to rest on keel blocks and cradles. In less than half an hour the Neunzer was standing like a model on a mantelpiece.
For two days it was like Orange again, with workers everywhere and the ship drawing its power and water from shore while final adjustments were made and weaknesses disclosed by the brief voyage set aright. Then the DE was refloated and put to sea, bound for Bermuda andher Shakedown cruise.
At 2 2 0 2 on October 15, with supper already hours in the past and taps just sounded, the sonar man made a sound contact.
The navy had been trying to listen for submarines underwater since World War I, when operators strained to make sense of the noises picked up by an “S.C. [sub-chaser] tube,” which was more advanced than atin-can-and‐string telephone, but not by much. Betweenthe wars the British and American navies developed what they called asdic and we called sonar (for “sound navigation and ranging”). This could passively listen for engine noises, but it also had the capacity to hunt a submarine by emitting a sharp ping from a retractable dome in the ship’s hull. If this pulse of noise hit an object, it would bounce back an echo, which the gear amplified and transmitted to the sound shack up near the bridge. The man listening to the echo could tell from its pitch where and how far away the object was. That is, he could tell if he had an exceptional ear and alot of training.
By the late 19305 our old four-stackers were being fitted with sonar, and two schools had been established to train operators. The first students helped develop the technique even as they learned it:
“Everybody in antisubmarine warfare at that time was an inventor,” one of them remembered happily. This was surely what my father was referring to when, during his training days in Florida, he had written my mother cryptically, “In one of the courses my accurate sense of relative pitch (not to be confused with my intonation when performing on the violin) is going to be a great help. Isn’t that a surprise!”
The electronic chirp became as much a shipboard constant as the engines or the sea itself. Wirt Williams, who served in the North Atlantic aboard a four-stacker and wrote a novel about it called The Enemy, remembered, “Each ping was like the sound a rock makes dropped into a lake, silvery, searching, and finally vanishing but never dying. The pings were seconds apart, like a dead-slow heartbeat. They were our eyes, and ears, and nose, under the sea.” To Williams, the sonar was the most important piece of equipment on his destroyer:
“The heartbeat of the pings was her reason for existence. When they stopped, she was nothing.”
Now the pings had told the Neunzer, on her nineteenth day in commission, that a submarine might be out ahead of her under the night waters. The alarm began its clamor and sailors rushed to their stations.
When hewas still outfitting destroyer escorts my father had written his wife that “the DEwhichjust left hadonboardtwo of the tiniest most appealing little kittensyou ever saw. They were not fluffy ones, but thin wistful little things with large ears and beautiful ascetic faces‐they are very tiny, and very calm, don’t scamper about, but walk around deliberately or lie in what shade they can find. There was something delicious in seeing one of them carefully select the shade of a 300 lb. cylinder of TNT to lie down for a little rest. Somehow the kitten looked normal and made all the rest of the show look alittle absurd‐but don’t say I said it.”
I’ll bet the cylinder of TNT didn’t look absurd to him that night. The kitten had been taking its ease beneath the DES main antisubmarine weapon, the depth charge. A sailor would have referred to it asan ash can, and compared with other fixtures on the ship‐the sonar, for instance‐it was asprimitive asthe nickname makes it sound. For the first years of the war our ships had been outfitted with the Mark 6, which, unlike the sound gear, had changed scarcely at all since Armistice Day 1918. Rolled off racks at the stern of the ship, or shot out from its sides with K-guns, it would tumble down to a preset depth, where water pressure ignited it.
If simple, the weapon was far from feeble. E. J. Jernigan had received a vivid demonstration of its potency while he was still aboard his new battleship Washington in the North Atlantic. His ship was sailing through heavy fog in company with four British destroyers some two hundred yards astem of the battleship King George V. One of the destroyers blundered across the bows of the George V and, said Jemigan, “the huge battleship cut her completely in two.” As the Washington steamed between the two halves, the destroyer’s depth charges began to explode. Their effect on the accidental and un-submerged target‐one of the largest and heaviest warships afloat was that “all 1900 tons of the number 2 turret jumped the track. The range finder went out and two-thirds of all the light bulbs were broken.
The after-steering engine room crew was so badly shaken that they got out in a hurry thinking we had been torpedoed. The screws came out of the water while exploding depth charges drove us high in the air.
We finally began to settle by the stem and felt like we were falling. The screws ran away until they bit into the water again.”
By the time the Neunzer put to sea the Mark 6 depth charge had been replaced by the Mark 9, which was streamlined ( i t looked like the atomic bomb envisioned by newspaper cartoonists in the 19503), sank faster than its predecessor, and ignited with a far greater concussion.
The Mark 9 was said to be lethal to a submarine if it exploded within thirty feet, but nobody knew this for sure, and there were other problems.Throughout the war, sonar could tell where asubmarine bore on the pursuing ship, but not how deep it lay, so setting the proper depth on a charge was largely a matter of instinct; sonar lost contact when it got within 150 feet of its target; and when the charge burst, it deafened the equipment for long enough to allow a good U-boat commander‐and they were all good‐to pivot and sneak off in another direction while the shattered water gave the listeners only scuffling, sterile noise.
So the Neunzer went into its first attack with hedgehogs. As the homey descriptive name might suggest, the British had developed this weapon, an odd, busy-looking machine. Wenty-four steel “spigots” reached up from the cradle in which it was mounted, each one topped with a projectile that carried thirty pounds of explosive. That was a tenth asmuch asa depth charge packed, but still enough to crack open a submarine with a direct hit. Contact-fused, unlike the depth charge, it would explode only if there was a direct hit. Because of this, and because the bombs fired forward, throwing their projectiles in a semicircle 250 yards ahead of the ship, sonarmen could keep contact with the target while it was under attack.
The Neunzer had all her battle stations manned and ready eight minutes after the alarm and began her first run. The hedgehog projectiles went off in pairs, quickly, throwing a lariat of twenty-four splashes. That was all they accomplished. The contact remained strong.
Another twenty-four rounds went out into the dark. They, too, failed to disturb whatever they were fired at, and the Neunzer made one more unrewardedhedgehogrunfour minutes later.
Captain Greenbacker decided to shift to the depth charges and dropped eight of them. The sea bulged and then broke into hundredfoot- tal] spars of foam behindthe ship. The contact disappeared but, the log says, "with no evidence of damage to target.”
Sonar was a highly exacting discipline. The Neunzer could have been attacking a shoal of fish, or a stream of colder water flowing beneath the surface, or any number of the other bounteous distractions the ocean had to offer (among them “snapping shrimp,” whose conversations produced a noise that could confound the inexperienced operator).
“There was a lot of activity with whales,” Greenbacker said of those early days aboard. “The whales took alot of beating, I’msure.”
The Neunzer secured from general quarters half an hour after midnight and steamed on, if unvictorious also unharmed, to learn its business in Bermuda waters.