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home : considered comment : july 2007 May 24, 2016

7/3/2007 1:47:00 PM
Survival at sea: World War II battleship loses bow in storm

Walter Keim's life of 70 years was not without its distinctions.

He sired three lovely daughters upon whom he doted; he originated Rochester's Culligan soft water service in 1948 and operated it for 11 years; he was a founder and first president of the Rochester Rotary Club, and he served nearly two years of World War II in the U.S. Navy during which his most significant achievement occurred:

With his 600 shipmates, he survived a vicious Pacific Ocean typhoon that blew 100 feet off the bow of his 575-foot long battleship, the heavy cruiser USS Pittsburgh. It was a specific event unparalled in the naval war. Even more surprisingly, the Pittsburgh did not sink.

It happened on June 5, 1945, the final spring of the war against Japan. The Pittsburgh was protecting U.S. aircraft carriers during the campaign to seize the island of Okinawa for the base to invade Japan. Its capture turned out to be the last battle of the war; two atomic bombs in August brought the Japanese surrender.

The Pittsburgh was a part of Admiral William (Bull) Halsey's Third Fleet in the Okinawa campaign. The fleet was taking a break from action when the small, violent typhoon struck on June 4. All of the ships were pounded severely by the vicious winds. Then, at 6 a.m. the next morning, an 80-knot wind turned up a mountainous wave that tore off the ship's bow just ahead of the forward gun turret.

The ship's officers and crew met the crisis. Watertight bulkheads had been closed and all hands sent to battle stations, so no lives were lost. That left only a half-inch of steel holding back the ocean. Still, the ship not only rode out the rest of the storm but made a five-day, 950-mile trip to Guam for a temporary bow and then steamed to the U.S. for a new bow. The ship later served in the Korean war and was not retired until 1956.

The lost-bow event was recalled this spring by the family's rediscovery of Keim's diary that he kept while aboard the Pittsburgh. He was a cook there, his battle station being in a gun turret, passing shells to the gunner.

Keim recorded going topside at 5 p.m. the day the bow was lost: "Quite a sight. Tore off ladders, life boats and nets, mashed steel shields on guns. One man cracked and cried and cried. This morning it was said we were expected to sink but are making out OK now. Storm subsided about 10 oclock and this evening sea is just a bit choppy."

Surprisingly, the ship's bow also remained afloat after its separation. The fleet's tugs towed it to Gaum for salvage.

Keim kept almost daily dairy entries during his Pittsburgh cruise. The ship was on duty during the Iwo Jima island invasion and later stood by as Navy planes and bombers attacked Japan's home island.

One other diary entry is significant. March 19 was daughter Donna's birthday, her father noted, and then went on to record the disastrous attack on the aircraft carrier Franklin as it was close to the Pittsburgh. While launching bombers against Japan's home island from only 50 miles out at sea, the Franklin was hit by two armor-piercing shells from a Japanese plane.

The attack left the carrier disabled, killed 724 and wounded 265. While listing at 13 degrees starboard, the carrier was taken in tow by the Pittsburgh until it could regain enough power to sail to the Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Aboard the Pittsburgh, Keim and his fellow cooks became stretcher bearers for the Franklin survivors. He wrote: "We closed in and picked up about 35 men in water with whale boats. Their cries and whistles easily drew our attention to them even though some were 1/4 mile away. Some swam directly to our ship. One, after swimming all the way, slipped out of life belt when only 20 feet from bow of ship and sank. All we could do was look."

Keim was 33 and left a wife and two daughters when he was called to war, two years after its beginning, in December, 1943. His elder daughter now is Mrs. Jacqueline Beall and husband Robert of Lafayette. Second daughter Donna now is Mrs. Jerry Hermann of Rochester. The daughter born after the war is Carol Foor and husband Myron of Stokes, N.C.

The diary had been written into a no-longer-used computer 20 years ago by Carol, but overlooked until husband Myron discovered it and printed her copies. She sent these to her sisters and to their children. Donna called it to my attention.

As a child, Donna often looked at her father's war scrapbook and asked to be told more about the events. The loss of the bow often was discussed. Walt always was proud to mention that he and other cooks fed the sailors every day after the event "and nobody ever missed a meal, even though a food locker in the bow was lost."

Keim recalled that one Pittsburgh sailor had a leg broken by a loose shell bouncing around the deck during the storm. He also remembered, with amusement, that a fellow sailor jumped on top of one of the galley's big stoves "and rode it like a horse during the ship's pitching."

The loss of the Pittsburgh's bow, the Navy concluded, "dramatically demonstrated both the power of nature and the sometimes unreliable strength of contemporary welding." Technology that was not yet matured and the pressures of rapid wartime production (4,600 ships in five years) contributed to the event.

Walter Keim's war has been over for 62 years and is largely ignored in the wake of four other U.S. wars that have followed it. Yet World War II was the greatest war in history and winning it saved mankind from unspeakable evils. A total of l6 million Americans served in it, more than 400,000 died. Walter's diary is a reminder that their descendants are in their debt forever.

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