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Midway, true to its name, sits about halfway between Asia and North America. (Map courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Macaw left Pearl Harbor for Midway on January 3, 1944. Geologically one of the Hawaiian Islands, Midway began as a volcano that popped up over a plume or “hot spot” in the Pacific tectonic plate near the present site of the Big Island of Hawaii about 27 million years ago. As the plate drifts northwestward, new volcanos keep forming over the plume and the old ones drift off toward the summer sunset at the stately pace of about three inches a year. Eighty-two million years or so of tectonic sliding has brought Meiji Seamount (a seamount is an underwater mountain), the oldest and northernmost volcano in the chain, to the brink of the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench just off the coast of Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. By at least one account, the northern flank of Meiji has slipped into that trench and is undergoing subduction beneath the far western reaches of the North American Plate. If there were older peaks in the chain, they have already met that fate. Meanwhile more than 80 other volcanoes, almost all of them similarly submerged, are gliding to their doom behind Meiji in a line 3,600 miles long that describes the wings of a bird in flight, Meiji representing one wing tip and the Big Island of Hawaii the other; and a new volcano, Loihi Seamount, is building about 22 miles off the south coast of Hawaii. It has climbed about two miles from the ocean floor to within about two-thirds of a mile of the surface and, depending on high it gets, it may one day break that surface and give the state of Hawaii a new island or merge with the island of Hawaii and give it some dramatic new acreage.


Midway Atoll (Map courtesy of Wikipedia)

Often referred to as Midway Island, Midway is in fact an atoll containing two main islands, Eastern and Sand, and a smattering of tiny islets. An atoll is a more or less ring-shaped coral reef that encircles a lagoon. The coral that forms a reef consists of the aggregated calcium carbonate exoskeletons of primitive little sea creatures called polyps. A coral polyp has a profile not unlike that of a paper sack wearing a medieval jester’s cap. The cap, however, is no joke. It consists of tentacles equipped with venomous stinging cells called nematocysts by means of which the polyp seizes prey. As primitive as polyps are — they consist of little more than a mouth, a stomach and a mop of these tentacles, and have undergone no significant evolutionary change over the last half a billion years or so — the nematocyst is a barbed marvel of mechanical brutality straight out of science fiction. The polyp discharges it in a small fraction of a second, inserts a tube into its victim, injects it with a paralyzing agent, draws it in by its tentacles to its mouth and devours it.

Coral polyp (Diagram courtesy of Wikipedia)

Coral polyp (Diagram courtesy of Wikipedia)

Coral polyps grow in colonies, each colony or head consisting of hundreds or thousands of polyps. The polyps at the very bottom of the pile anchor themselves at their base ends, opposite their tentacles, to whatever surface they’ve chosen to adhere to; all the others attach themselves to their immediate neighbors. Coral grows only underwater, but not too far under. Though they will snag larger prey such as small crustaceans or fish larvae, most coral polyps feed primarily on unicellular photosynthetic algae. Because their main supply of food requires sunlight, coral polyps by extension do too; coral is seldom found at depths of more than 200 feet. And being stationary, they need a surface to grow on. Undersea surfaces less than 200 feet deep are most often found just offshore, which is typically where coral reefs form — just off tropical and subtropical shores; they don’t do well in colder water. Midway’s near neighbor Kure Atoll, about 70 miles west and 13 north, is the northernmost atoll in the world.

Once tectonic plate movement shifts a volcano off its fountain, it starts to erode and subside. Over time, the sea may swallow it back up. An atoll is a coral necklace encircling a volcano that has sunk back beneath the surface of the sea.

The volcanoes, mostly extinct and submerged, that constitute the Emperor Ridge and Hawaiian Chain appear in this NOAA image like the wings of a huge gull. Midway sits just east of the 'Bend.'

The volcanoes, mainly submerged and extinct, of the Emperor Ridge and Hawaiian Chain describe a set of gull wings in this NOAA image. Midway pokes through the surface just east of the ‘Bend.’ (Graphic courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

The two wings of the volcanic chain of which the Hawaiian Islands are a part — the Emperor Chain to the north, the Hawaiian Ridge to the southeast — form an angle of about 60 degrees. Midway sits on the shoulder of the southeastern wing, just west of the bend. First named Brooks Islands and Shore after the ship’s captain who discovered it in 1859, it took on the name merchant sailors applied to it because of its location about halfway between San Francisco and Tokyo. On August 28, 1867, Capt. William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna claimed the atoll for the United States on the strength of the Guano Act (see the Funafuti page), making its islands the first offshore islands annexed by the United States.

The most distinctive native resident of Midway is the albatross, or goony bird. Toward the turn of the century, Japanese sailors began harvesting goony eggs and feathers on Midway. Word of their depredations reached President Theodore Roosevelt, who issued an executive order in January 1903 placing Midway under the jurisdiction of the US Navy, reportedly to protect the birds. Three months later, the Commercial Pacific Cable Company set up shop on Midway, which became a relay station for its trans-Pacific cable, which ran in sections from San Francisco to Manila via Honolulu, Midway and Guam. The company began laying the cable from Ocean Beach in San Francisco in 1902. On July 4, 1903, President Roosevelt used it to send the first round-the-world cable message, which circled the globe in nine minutes.

In 1935 Pan American Airways moved in. Midway became a refueling stop, complete with a 45-room hotel on Sand Island, for Pan Am’s Flying Clipper service to Asia.

As war clouds loomed, construction of a naval air base began at Midway in March 1940. It was commissioned August 1, 1941. Japanese destroyers shelled Midway on December 7 while the bulk of their fleet was raining destruction on Pearl Harbor. Midway was a sideshow that day, but six months later the Japanese were back, and this time Midway was their primary objective.


Midway, within a year or so before the battle. The view is from the east, with Eastern Island in the foreground, Sand Island in the background, the channel between them, and surf breaking on the encircling reef.

In attacking Midway, the Japanese hoped to secure the eastern frontier of their maritime empire, keep the Americans at a greater remove from the home islands (the Doolittle “Twenty Seconds over Tokyo” raid that April had shown they were vulnerable) and lure the American fleet into a decisive battle and destroy it. But by the time a massive Japanese fleet under the command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, one of the two officers who had overseen the Pearl Harbor raid, approached Midway in early June 1942, US Navy cryptanalysts in Hawaii, with the aid of their Dutch and British counterparts scattered about the Pacific, had broken the Japanese naval code — or enough of it to have a good idea where, when and in what strength the Japanese were planning to attack. The Japanese set up a picket line of submarines to detect U.S. fleet movements into and out of Pearl Harbor, but two of their boats were late getting into position, and the U.S. fleet put to sea undetected. This time the Americans enjoyed the element of surprise. Despite that, things did not at first go well for them. Many of the planes in the initial US aerial assaults on the Japanese carriers were shot down; one squadron of fifteen torpedo planes was wiped out. But a subsequent attack by divebombers from the carriers Enterprise and Yorktown caught the Japanese fighters defending those carriers out of position. When the smoke cleared after three days of fighting (June 4-6, 1942), the Americans had lost a carrier, a destroyer and about 150 planes. The Japanese had lost four carriers, a heavy cruiser, 248 planes, two thousand men, including many of their finest pilots and support crews, and much of their momentum in the conflict at large. For Japan, it was the beginning of the end.


Dive bombers from the USS Hornet attacking the cruiser Mikuma during the Battle of Midway, 6 June 1944

Paul Burton had been to Midway three times in the  thirteen months before the Macaw arrived there, in December 1942 and January and February 1943, all three times in the capacity of executive officer aboard the USS Tarpon (SS-175), a submarine under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Lincoln Wogan.

The first of those visits had not gone entirely smoothly. The Tarpon arrived there amid rain squalls and rough seas on the morning of December 10, 1942, at the end of an already disappointing war patrol, her fifth, and ran aground by the mouth of the entrance channel.





USS Tarpon (Photo courtesy of NavSource)

She did not run hard aground. She was able to back herself off with minor damage — nothing expected to delay her return to action.

Burton handled navigation duties aboard the Tarpon, but if he played any role in the December 10 grounding, Wogan, in an addendum he wrote to the fifth-patrol report, made no mention of it. The bigger setback of that patrol was a botched attack on a Japanese convoy. Burton was off duty when they encountered it, so it seems unlikely he bore any of the blame for their failure to inflict any confirmed damage on it.


Tarpon’s sixth patrol, from January 10 to Feb 25, 1943, was far more successful. By tonnage, it was the second-highest-scoring submarine patrol of the war to that point. For Burton, it was his last.



Thomas Lincoln Wogan

Burton and Wogan had much in common. Both were Naval Academy graduates — Wogan was class of 1930, Burton 1933 — both from the Philadelphia area, both married, both fathers, and both of their fathers had been career military officers, Wogan’s in the Navy, Burton’s in the Marines.

But apparently they had differences as well. Two weeks after the patrol ended — again at Midway — Wogan wrote to Rear Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, Jr., commander of the Pacific fleet’s submarine force, taxing Burton with “lack of judgment, indecision, inaccuracy, and an unfortunate personal manner which does not inspire confidence in either his superior officers or his subordinates” and recommending that his designation as qualified for command of submarines — and for service aboard them in any capacity — be revoked.

It was. Within another two weeks, on March 21, Burton was detached from the Tarpon and assigned to the command of the USS Macaw, then being fitted out at the shipyard of her builder, Moore Dry Dock Company, at the foot of Adeline Street in Oakland.

That was how Paul Burton came to the Macaw. As an officer of a submarine rescue vessel, he was still technically in the submarine force, but in all but that technical sense he’d been thrown out of it. Submarine rescue vessels have more in common with tugboats than with submarines. Despite the theoretical step up in the chain of command, from second in command of one vessel to command of another, his new assignment was in fact a humiliating demotion. He had been banished. At the end of his reply to his notice of revocation, he wrote:

After all is said and done I feel toward my submarine duty as the little lad must feel whose ice cream cone slips into the filth of the street on a hot summer day. Nothing was more cherished, and yet spoiled with such finality.

• • •

 The Macaw arrived at Midway without incident  January 8, 1944, and was in the lagoon there about 0230 on the afternoon of January 16 when she received word that a submarine, USS Flier (SS-250), Lieut. Cmdr. John Daniel Crowley in command, had run aground about where the Tarpon had thirteen months before, by the entrance to the harbor channel. Within about fifteen minutes, the Macaw was under way, Capt. Joseph A. Connolly, the commanding officer of the Naval Operating Base at Midway, on board, on the bridge alongside Burton. As she emerged from the channel, they found that the Flier had run aground backward, with her stern pinned to the coral reef about 100 yards east of the channel entrance and her bow pointing more or less south, out to sea.

It was standard procedure at Midway, foul weather or fair, for a harbor pilot to board an incoming submarine and guide the craft through the narrow entrance channel, which is lined with coral and subject to currents, including one that typically sweeps across the entrance from west to east. As the Flier approached that day, a harbor pilot started out toward her aboard a motor launch, but whoever was in charge of it apparently thought better of tempting fate amid the swells and turned back. A yard tug, YT188, then came out in its stead and, after trying and failing to get a message to the Flier by bullhorn, signaled by semaphore, “Follow me.”

If the tug’s skipper had any thoughts about putting the harbor pilot aboard the sub, he too apparently thought better of it, and with good reason — pulling a vessel the size of the yard tug alongside the submarine in seas that violent would have put both craft at risk. But the failure to put the harbor pilot aboard the sub posed another one. What the pilot would have known, and Crowley did not, was that to negotiate the channel safely amid a following current as strong as the one flowing that day, an inbound vessel had to do about 15 knots. Any less and the current might outrace the ship, depriving the rudder of its bite and the helm, or steering gear, of control. Concerned about the danger of colliding with the tug, Crowley ordered two-thirds speed — ten knots. The Flier had barely reached the channel proper, if she got there at all, when she began yawing. Crowley and his crew fought in vain to control her. Within minutes she had been swept about 100 yards east of the channel, spun about and dropped onto the reef.

It was a dangerous position to be in. On the Navy’s 0-to-7 State of Sea scale, on which 0 represents calm, conditions at Midway that day rated a 6. The seas were rolling in from the southwest. The Flier, about the length of a football field, pivoted on her perch on the coral near her stern and swung at her bow through an arc of about 50 degrees as the huge waves smashed into her and Crowley and his crew fought to keep her heading into them. If they failed — if she turned broadside to the surf — she could roll, entombing her crew.

The Macaw dropped anchor about 200 yards windward of the Flier and set about trying to get a messenger — a line with which to begin hauling successively bigger lines and ultimately a towing wire — to the submarine.

A motor launch (apparently the same one that had reconsidered the wisdom of delivering the harbor pilot) was pressed into service — Connolly summoned it — to tow the buoyed messenger toward the submarine and release it close enough to float it to the stricken craft. The Macaw managed to get the messenger to the launch by means of a line-throwing gun, but the launch lost steerageway amid the huge seas and almost capsized. Connolly called for YT188, the yard tug, to convey the line, but when she approached, or tried to, and he saw how badly the tug and various other smaller craft on hand were struggling amid the enormous swells, he decided using them any further would be courting disaster and retracted his order.

He and Burton then decided to return to the lagoon, rig a messenger with little rafts of kapok life jackets and cork buoys at intervals of twenty feet and try to float it directly to the Flier on the way back out. Connolly went aft on the boat deck to check on the rigging project. In his absence, Burton concluded that the ship’s position was untenable and ordered the anchors hauled in to move to a new one. As crewmen began hauling in the starboard anchor, a wave lifted the bow, stretching the chain and snapping it.

They drew in what remained of that chain, weighed the port anchor and proceeded back up the channel at 15 knots, the ship yawing badly amid heavy following seas. About 1612 the ship rose on one such swell and landed on the reef at the entrance to the channel, on the east side of it, about 75 yards west of the Flier. William A. Dunn, the gunnery officer, later recalled the ship bouncing three distinct times before settling. After the first bounce, Burton ordered full speed ahead, left full rudder, hoping to clear the reef. About two and a half minutes later, that strategy having failed, he ordered full speed astern. That failed too. The ship was stuck.


USS Flier and USS Macaw aground at Midway, January 1944. The current from the entrance channel is clearly visible beyond the Macaw.

Ordered minutes later to make a thorough inspection, Dunn found flooding in the motor room, generator room and shaft alley. By about 1635, the main engines were flooded out and the ship had lost power. The coral the Macaw had hoped to rescue the Flier from now had both ships in its grip. And the debacle that had begun to unfold on the reef had claimed its first life. Aboard the Flier, shortly after she ran aground, a three-man anchor detail and two or three line handlers were assigned the task of making their way to the bow and doing what had to be done topside to set an anchor there — a move Crowley hoped would keep the boat headed into the waves and keep the waves from driving the boat farther onto the reef. Torpedoman’s Mates James Francis Peder Cahl and Joseph Lia (the latter of whom, by one account, had not even been assigned to the little task force but had gotten permission to go on deck for fresh air and tagged along ) had gotten to the anchor gear at the nose of the boat when an officer on the deck called the group back. Cahl and Lia didn’t hear him. The other men were headed back toward the conning tower when a huge wave broke over the bow. Lia managed to maintain his grip on the cable safety railing. Cahl, who had only one hand free for that task — he’d been carrying a wrench in the other — and Seaman Clyde Gerber were swept overboard. Motor Machinist’s Mate 2/c George Banchero of San Jose, California, one of the line handlers and reportedly the only one of the group who went on deck with a life belt, stripped off most of his clothes and managed to swim, wearing the belt — inflated — and carrying a cork life ring, to Gerber. Lia saw Cahl, arms raised pleafully, being carried off by the current. Having donned a lifebelt, and secured to the sub by a tether tended by Ensign Herbert Albert “Teddy” Baehr, Lia jumped in too, but was swept back toward the stern of the boat and hauled back aboard. Cahl by then had vanished. Berger and Bachero struggled onto the beach about three hours later. Cahl’s body washed ashore four days later. He was 21 years old, from South Holland, Illinois.

For six days the two vessels lay just east of the channel entrance, roughly parallel and pointing opposite directions about 75 yards apart. The Macaw having succeeded, after her grounding, in getting a messenger to the Flier at last, a wire was strung between the vessels, between a tripod on the Macaw and the Flier’s main periscope sheer (a tube it rises through), and on Tuesday, the third day of their captivity, the delicate process of hauling men from the Flier to the Macaw one by one in a bosun’s chair, a sort of dangling sling, began. With both ships subject to rocking in the surf, and the wire between them to going more slack or less accordingly, it made for an exciting and in at least one case a wet ride — the vessels exchanged an inward nod as Earl Baumgart of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, made the trip, the wire sagged and he dragged through the water briefly — but it proved safe enough. More than twenty men were transferred to the Macaw by this means, then shuttled ashore in a motor launch.

On Saturday afternoon, as black clouds loomed in the southwest, the Flier was hauled free at last by the USS Clamp (ASR-33), a salvage and rescue vessel not unlike the Macaw but a little smaller, and the Gaylord, a privately owned derrick barge, inspected, deemed seaworthy and taken under tow by the USS Florikan, one of the Macaw’s sister ships, for Pearl Harbor.

The Macaw remained stuck. She would stay that way for four weeks, during which the Clamp made three attempts to free her. The weather, the coral or a combination of the two defeated every one. Hauling wires snagged on coral heads or carried away. Pumps failed. The McCann submarine rescue chamber — a ten-ton, roughly pear-shaped diving bell designed to be lowered over the hatch of a sunken submarine and brought back up with her crew — tore loose from its deck mount amid a gale shortly after midnight on January 25 and floated off toward Eastern Island, leaving a five-inch gash in the deck and flooding in the crew’s quarters.



Dave Wallington

By then the ship was listing 20 degrees to port. This complicated the delicate matter of human waste disposal. With that severe a port list, the ship’s sewage, which normally drained to starboard, wouldn’t drain. So the men did what they had to do in buckets and threw the contents overboard. With the crew’s quarters flooded, men slept where they could. Dave Wallington, gunner’s mate 2/c from Grand Rapids, Michigan, slept on the floor of a narrow magazine on the second deck and hoped none of the 20 mm ammunition hanging on the bulkheads would fall if the ship rocked and crush him. None did. Food, including sandwiches, K rations, coffee and canned pineapple-grapefruit juice, was ferried from shore. With a diesel welding machine generator supplying power, some of the food was served hot. But by and large, creature comforts, never abundant aboard the Macaw, were scarce indeed with the trapped ship undergoing a constant pounding by waves, and surfaces underfoot often sloping to one side or the other at angles sometimes exceeding 20 degrees.

On Saturday, February 5, an air compressor and new pumps were brought aboard, and a number of men went ashore for rest. Among them, apparently — the records are unclear — was Paul Burton. It may have been the next day that he assembled the Macaw’s shore contingent — more than half the crew at that point — and told them he thought the ship would go free on an extra-high tide expected later that week. He looked haggard. The ship, if she could be pulled free, would obviously have to go back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. Burton did not want to be towed there. He wanted her to get there under her own power — he wanted that so badly, he had, by one account, conceived a plan to rig the ship with sails and literally sail her back to Hawaii. He apparently returned to the ship on Monday.

On Tuesday, February 8, with the Macaw listing 7 degrees to starboard, pumping of her flooded compartments resumed, but another attempt to pull her free was abandoned when the port hauling wire was found to be fouled, the starboard wire eye missing and conditions too rough for the Gaylord to fill her role of holding the Clamp in place. The Macaw was flooded down to keep her in place, and the Clamp towed the Gaylord back into the lagoon.

Wednesday was too rough for salvage work. They tried again on Thursday. Pumping resumed, the Macaw’s list decreased to 2 degrees starboard and her stern came afloat. But a pair of newly laid hauling wires both snagged on the coral. The starboard wire was freed, but as night fell the pump being used on the generator room malfunctioned and the port wire remained snagged. That evening, the Macaw probably came as close as she ever did to getting free of the reef. In the words of Capt. Connolly, the base commander, the Macaw was “lively fore and aft,” but due perhaps to the weight of the water in the generator room one wire proved unequal to the task of pulling her free.

On Friday, February 11, the weather started getting ugly again. As dawn broke, the ship assumed a starboard list of about 5 degrees, and seas sweeping her starboard side frustrated an attempt to deploy a new pump to the flooded generator room. The wind and seas kept building. The forecast called for winds from the south averaging 18 to 20 knots, with gusts to 30 knots. By about 0900, Connolly and Curtis, the salvage officer, decided to keep everything in readiness but to flood the ship down yet again and defer another pull until the weather cleared.

By about 1015 the port wire was finally cleared of the coral head it had snagged on, but by then the salvage effort had been suspended.

By about 1030, the Macaw’s visitors — Connolly, Curtis, a salvage crew from the Clamp and any others who may have been aboard — had all left. Twenty-two men — Burton, Loughman, his executive officer, and 20 enlisted men — remained aboard. Burton wanted two twenty-man “sections” to stay aboard to prepare for another pull, but Connolly apparently persuaded him (perhaps with help from Curtis) that one would suffice. That decision almost certainly saved a number of lives.

Among the enlisted men aboard the Macaw that day were Augie Paul Koepke, the bosun’s mate who had survived two ship sinkings in 1942; Shipfitters Nord Lester of San Diego and Lewill Horsman of rural Lewis County, Missouri, who had gone to diving school together in Washington, DC, and become close friends; Robert Vaughn, the black steward’s mate from Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Radioman 2/c Stanley Libera of Fulton, New York, a Pearl Harbor survivor from the battleship USS Tennessee and more recently a submariner who had done a war patrol aboard the USS Sargo (SS-188) and reluctantly parted company with that vessel to undergo treatment in the hospital back at Pearl Harbor for a condition involving his posterior — in need of a new ship, he fell in love with the Macaw at first sight and was delighted to learn she was in need of a radioman; Radio Technician 1/c Lawrence Howlett Mathers of Hemet, California; Electrician’s Mate 2/c Charles Kumler of Sausalito, California; Quartermaster 2/c Herman Harold Ehlers of Beecher, Illinois, a member of a small-town banking family and, along with Bud Loughman, one of Paul Burton’s chess partners; Gunner’s Mate 3/c Albert Frank Bolke, who lived about half a mile from Lake Michigan in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side but had never learned to swim; Fireman 1/c Richard Blaine Williamson, a combine operator from Cedarville, Kansas ; Chief Bosun’s Mate Tom Emmet Brown of Jacksonville, Arkansas; Motor Machinist’s Mate 3/c Erwin Richard Knecht of Long Island; Bosun’s Mate 2/c Charles Arnold Scott of El Paso, Texas; Motor Machinist’s Mate 1/c Donald Ashley Whitmarsh, whose father spent an occasional night in jail for making moonshine whiskey in his basement in Russell, about 25 miles from the St. Lawrence River in far upstate New York; Fireman 1/c Lewis Andrew Kingsley, a farmer’s son from Posey County at the extreme southwestern corner of Indiana; Chief Pharmacist’s Mate William Roscoe Funk; and four seamen: Curtis Wainscott, a construction and factory worker from Cincinnati; George Washington Manning of Oregon; Joseph Theodore Verkennes of Flint, Michigan; and Edward James Wade, a former altar boy whose parents immigrated from Ireland to Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1923, three years before he was born.

Burton was 32. So, give or take a year, was Williamson. (His exact d.o.b. is unknown.) Kingsley had just turned 31. Vaughn had turned 16 two days before the ship ran aground. Most of the men were in their late teens or early twenties. At least nine of them — Burton, Loughman, Verkennes, Williamson, Scott, Brown, Koepke, Kumler and Mathers — were married. Burton’s marriage was not altogether happy. His wife had asked him, in a letter, for a divorce. This was not a well kept secret aboard the ship, perhaps due to the fact that Shipfitter Lloyd George Fox of Watford City, North Dakota, who served as the Macaw’s postmaster, had been opening Burton’s mail and reading it. At least one of the single men had gotten a Dear John letter, and another had gone home on leave and found that his girlfriend, whom he had entrusted with his car and planned to marry, had been cheating on him.

By 1604 the Clamp had secured the hauling wires to spring buoys, from which they were to be retrieved as soon as the weather allowed the operation to resume, and headed back into the lagoon. The Macaw, and the 22 men aboard her, were on their own.

At 0700 on the morning of the 12th, the Macaw reported a shift in her heading of 30 degrees from the day before and a list of 20 degrees. The hauling wires, she reported, were too slack to hold her steady. She had no power. She would need six 100-ampere-hour batteries. She suggested that if an 8-inch line could be passed to her and anchored east of the No. 2 buoy (one of the buoys that marked the entrance to the channel to the lagoon), she could try to decrease her list.

But powerful current action and seas had effectively closed the channel. The wind was blowing at 20 knots, with a forecast of 23 knots and gusts to 32 knots for that day and somewhat lower velocities the next. That was rough weather, but as Capt. J.A. Connolly, the base commander, noted later, the Macaw in her three weeks of captivity had weathered worse. “At this time,” he wrote, “no concern was felt for ship or safety of personnel.”

At 0900 the Macaw reported: “Coffee machine running again … Please float 50 gallons diesel oil to us before sunset X This urgent X”

The men needed diesel oil for the welding machine generator, from which they were drawing power — for the coffee machine, apparently, and for a submersible pump. They had been getting diesel from the ship’s tanks, but apparently that option was closing or closed as of 0900. The coffee machine’s “running again” apparently reflected their success in restarting the generator after seawater knocked it out earlier that morning.

The following are entries from the report Capt. Connolly prepared for the subsequent board of investigation:

• 1000 Salvage Officer inspected channel in vicinity of MACAW and considered conditions unsafe to board or work on MACAW. Seas were such that boat would have swamped in any attempt to plant anchor which was not considered feasible or useful. Seas prevented floating oil drums to ship.

• 1500 Although wind was from West at 20 knots, seas from South seemed to be getting heavier around MACAW. Heavy seas breaking over Northwest reef and water in lagoon rising.

• 1600 Sent MACAW message “Sea conditions prevent delivery of oilX Will send out at first opportunity.” Seas began to break over entire length of ship on starboard side and list was about 20 degrees starboard.

• 1700 Received message from MACAW “…list to 23 degrees X No power or pumps X Buda has gone X Personnel safe”. Seas were increasing in height and force.

The personnel did not remain safe for long. The following is from the executive officer’s report:

During afternoon seas began breaking over starboard side in force. List increased to 23 degrees starboard due to generator room overflowing the main deck, water rising in … CPO Mess and Berthing, eetc. … All power gone. Ship suffering heavy beating. HORSMAN later reported the Buda Air Compressor … had crashed through bulkhead of recompression room.

Commanding officer ordered all hands to bridge deck, food and clothing having been brought topside. Spirits of men excellent. Around 1800, it was apparent ship was slowly being forced into deeper water. Water rose from main deck to boat deck in less than an hour. By 1800 water was coming up inside ladder to bridge deck. After bulkhead in chart room pierced and leaking but was shored up with brass rail from Navigator’s desk and mattresses. Water had now reached coaming leading into pilot house. Commanding Officer ordered chart house abandoned, although he stayed in chart house attempting to make door to pilot house watertight.

— Loughman

 The Macaw was sinking. Mobile searchlights were set up on the beach shortly about 1915 and trained on the ship. To Connolly, monitoring the situation from ashore, it looked grim early that evening but not yet desperate. (His report has two entries for 1800, the second following the 1830 entry, as below):

• 1800 MACAW list reduced to about 10 degrees starboard and appeared to have returned to original heading of 030 degrees T. Stern was under water but ship was sighted by land markers to be in same position as during day. Seas were still increasing in force and heighth. Since wind was still West at 20 knots it now became apparent these huge waves must have been caused by some disturbance at considerable distance from these shores.

• 1830 Seas became mountainous and MACAW straightened out to about 5 degrees starboard list.

Searchlights played on MACAW. Salvage Officer stated that her negative buoyancy would keep her in this cradle, and that she could not possibly move aft. Realizing this negative buoyancy condition and from previous experience here I agreed.

• 1800 Received message from MACAW List has decreased to 5 degrees starboard X Deck housing pierced sea breaking over bridge X All hands are on pilot house level notify us if we drift off X Heading 050 degrees true” Salvage Officer and I decided that added water would increase negative buoyancy and that ship could ride out the heavy seas and that personnel would be safe so long as they remained on ship.

• 1835 Sent message to MACAW “Keep all hands well secured X Under no circumstances try to leave ship” …

But circumstances aboard the ship were becoming untenable. She was sliding aft into deeper water. As she did, the water rose within her through her gouged hull. About 1600 Burton ordered the men to congregate in the pilot house, the highest enclosed space in the ship. Each of the men who were there and survived was asked to write an account of that night. The following is from Ehler’s account:




Herman Harold Ehlers

Approximately 1730 the water began rising above the deck of the Captain’s cabin, Executive Officer’s room etc. The storm at this time was reaching a very high intensity and the breakers were very high and powerful. The ship was going steadily into deeper water and the breakers were coming up around the pilot house. By about 2000 the water reached the deck of the pilot house, coming up the ladder from the deck below. The door between the chart house and pilot house was then closed but since it is not watertight the water continued to come through and the water level began to rise in the pilot house. An effort was then made to bail the water out through a forward port but since the water was seeking the level of that in the chart room it proved impossible to hold the water down.

— Ehlers


The chart house was immediately aft of the pilot house, a little narrower than the chart house and downslope from it as the ship slipped backward off the reef. The pilot house had three doors, all in the back wall, one at either end opening onto the deck, and one in between, just inside the port side deck door, opening onto the chart house. All three opened outward. The two deck doors were watertight. The chart house door, as Ehler noted, was not — a fact that assumed great importance shortly after 2000 or thereabouts when the after bulkhead of the chart house ruptured and an attempt to shore it up with mattresses and railing from the navigator’s desk proved less than entirely effective.


At 2030 the base had good news for the Macaw: “Weather moderating X Wind Northwest 15-20 knots X Barometer rising” But the men aboard her apparently never got the message. By about that time radio contact between ship and shore had been lost.


The batteries for the TBY radio became wet and they were thrown through the port as they commenced to burn. Our last contact with the beach was at 2000 and an attempt to contact them at 2030 failed. Soon after this our last battery was thrown out.

— Ehlers


Ever now and then the batteries we had sitting around would get salt water in them and catch on fire, they would have to be tossed out a port.

— Wainscott


The TBY batteries became wet and started smoking. Communication with the Naval Operating Base ceased in the early part of the evening. You could hear the ship straining, as she slipped into deeper water.

— Loughman


• 2100 Seas and height of water over reef now submerged MACAW to boat deck. Ranges from shore indicated MACAW on original heading but had moved aft about half ship’s length X Last radio communication check received with no message to or from MACAW.

— Connolly


The forward porthole on the port side of the pilot house played a crucial role in the struggle that unfolded there that night. It gave them a hole to stick the antenna out while the radio was still working, and an opening through which water could be bailed out and oxygen taken in between waves. The cover was hinged at the top and opened inward.


We had shut all the doors and ports leading to the outside but one. This port we kept open for the radio antenna and later on in the evening we used it to let in air and try to bail out water. There were two of us on the port for awhile and then two more took over our place. We were placed there to open and close it when it needed to be.

— Wainscott


We started bailing with an empty five gallon can, putting the water out a port hole.

— Kumler


At 2000 the water was up about half way on the ladder from the deck housing to the chart room. Shortly after 2000 the after-bulk-head in the chart room gave way. The ship began to list to the starboard, and the water rising slowly in the pilot house. Everyone made themselves as comfortable as possible, talking, kidding, and taking turns at the port, on the port side forward, that we had loose, holding the sea out when the breakers came, and letting air in and water out when the sea subsided.

— Horsman


The ship’s list increased to such an extent it was thought she would go over. … Water had by nine o’clock forced all hands to the port side. The port to the left of the foremast was used for an air supply and bailing purposes. Three men would hold it shut when tremendous seas would cover us.

— Mathers


Work of attempting to keep the water level in the pilot house down by bailing water out the forward port hole had been carried on since early … [that] night …. Water was thrown out the port hole between breakers, and then the port was held shut against the sea by the men inside.

— Scott


The other avenue of egress for water was the main avenue of ingress, the doorway to the chart house.


We were about waist deep in water on the port side of the pilot house. The captain was at the door leading to the chart room an kept opening and closing it to try to let the water recede as much as possible. According to my standards there never was a better or more courageous man.

— Scott


… water started to enter the Pilot & Chart house, all Hands started to bail water, emptying the water out a port in the Pilot house between waves. The water continued to raise. All hands now were standing in water up to about their lower ribs, on the Port side of the Pilot house, as this was the high side. The Captain was at the door between Pilot House & Chart room, this door being used as a valve to stop water from coming in, and to let water out, when the water outside receded.

— Lester


As the water continued to rise, the chart house door was left shut. Bailing through the port was abandoned in turn about 2200 — due by one account to the ship’s slippage leaving the port submerged too much of the time, and by another to the loss of the bailing cans. (Whether they had the use of just one bailing can or two or more is unclear.)


At about 2200 we had to give it up. The water was above the ports in the pilot house, and the sea level was over the ports on the outside.

— Kumler


After losing our bailing cans, the port was dogged sufficiently to let it act as a valve.

— Loughman


According to Loughman, the executive officer, the port was opened about a quarter of an inch for fresh air between waves — any wider an opening would have risked letting too much water in. The air pressure generated in the pilot house by a wave swelling up through the gouged hull would then force the porthole cover shut, and it had to be manually reopened and “dogged down” or secured with a separate handle or wrench. After about nine hours, he said, the man wielding this handle dropped it. The water in the compartment had gotten deep enough by then that the attempt to retrieve it meant diving for it and groping in the dark. Not surprisingly, it failed.


But apparently they still got some fresh air. By a strange quirk of engineering and barometrics, the port apparently continued to act as a valve on its own. By chance or design, it was dogged down just enough to give it some play in response to air pressure, popping open when a wave receded and the pressure dropped, shutting again with the next swell just in time to keep to keep the outside water out and a pocket of air within.


After a long time, water reached (our) waist and then they had dogged down the port and it worked by itself from then on.

— Wainscott


Eventually the water level seemed to be above the pilot house over two thirds of the time so the port was dogged down just tight enough so that air came in through it as the water dropped below it every now and then, sort of a breathing effect.

— Ehlers


That “breathing effect” may have indeed been the breath of life, but it would last only as long as the port remained at least occasionally above water.


Despite their desperate predicament, the morale of the men aboard the ship remained high. Horsman wrote days later of “talking, kidding” in the pilot house. Lester recalled 55 years later that the men were joking and smoking and kept on smoking until their cigarettes got wet. Mathers wrote: “The captain (P.W. Burton), and the executive officer (G.F. Loughman), worked throughout to keep the morale of the men up, and the enlisted men present on their part showed no sign of panic at any time.” According to Williamson, “everyone was cool headed.”


But as lighthearted as the men aboard the ship may have been or purported to be as the night wore on, the prospect from the shore grew increasingly dismal.


• 2130 Water now breaking green seas over pilot house and estimated to be waves 30-35 feet high reaching to top of foremast. Wind now Northwesterly 18 knots.


• About 2230

At this time it was thought that pilot house had carried away and I requested CTG 17.5 that patrol boat and GREENLET at sea be ordered to patrol off entrance to channel and that small boats go out inside channel to pick up any men who may have washed off ship. CTG 17.5 and Salvage Officer at this time said that no ship could approach the reef without great danger and could not come close enough to MACAW without hazarding ship and additional personnel. When the request was reiterated and that I be permitted to go out in LCM the answer was definitely in the negative.

— Connolly


In fact the pilot house was still intact, though as a whole the ship was not.


The ship had attained by midnight a starboard list of some thirty to forty degrees. The seas were breaking with great force against and over the pilot house and flying bridge. By this time the railing around the bridge deck had been swept away.

— Mathers


About eleven o’clock, I noticed through a port that part of the shield around the pilot house had been torn from the deck and was hanging over the antenna wire but soon fell over the side.

— Wainscott


The spray shield along starboard side of bridge deck, about thirty feet in length carried away. It rose on a strengthner about twenty feet into the air and wavered as if it would fall against the ports of the pilot house.

— Loughman


By about midnight, Connolly, the Submarine Division 45 commander, looking on from the beach, had come to fear the worst.



The situation looked hopeless as it was manifestly impossible for anyone to have left the ship without being killed either clearing the ship or in the tremendous surf.


No one had yet left the ship, but they would all soon have to. By about 0200 on the 13th, the men, by various accounts, were hanging from overhead pipes, struggling to keep their chins above water and sometimes being submerged completely. If the forward port side port was still “breathing” by then, it was not doing so enough for the men themselves to do likewise much longer. What little air remained under the pilot house roof was becoming poisonous with CO2. If the men remained there, they were sure either to drown or asphyxiate.


At approximately 0200, the water was so high that it was very hard for everyone to keep their head in the air. At about 0230, the air gave out altogether. Most of the men who could get air, couldn’t breath.

— Kumler


We waited in water up to our necks …

— Bolke


… there was very little air space left in the pilot house due to flooding.

— Brown


The water kept rising in the pilot house until the Air space in the upper port side of the pilot house was almost gone.

— Koepke


We stayed in the pilot house until the water was up to our chins and the air was filled with CO2, everyone was breathing in short heavy breaths. Everyone was calm and never said much …

— Horsman


… at about 0200 the ship had settled so far down that the water level in the pilot house rose until it was impossible for us to remain and live.

— Ehlers


According to Williamson, it was Funk, the chief pharmacist’ mate, who suggested to Burton that they had better leave. According to Loughman and Libera, Loughman broached the idea. Perhaps one seconded the other’s opinion. Loughman’s exact words, according to Libera (recollecting them 67 years later) were “We better get outta here or we’ll die in here like a bunch of rats.” Burton concurred. About 0230 on the morning of Sunday, February 13, Burton gave the order to go topside.


Their escape route was by way of the port door to the deck. It was reluctant to open.


The Captain then gave the order to open the pilot house door, Brown & myself had been watching the door for hours & We had all the dogs released but three. We quickly released these dogs & put our shoulders to the door & shoved as hard as we could. The door [opened] about two inches. I put my fingers in the crack trying to pull as well as push a wave caught the door & forced it shut mashing my fingers. I remarked then that the door wouldnt open & hollered come on everybody shove on this door. We pushed & finally the door flew open.

— Koepke


At approximately 2 a.m. the water level had risen to the point where there was barely room for the heads of the officers and men between the surface and the overhead of the pilot house. At this point the fact became apparent that we must try to open the port hatch of the pilot house and attempt to reach the flying bridge.

— Mathers


On the night – Feb 12 & morning of Feb – 13 there were 22 men in the Pilot house the ship had a list of approximately 30 degrees to the starboard We were all on the port side of ship every one was cool headed there was considerable pressure as the ship rocked. At about 2.30 Chief Funk said to the Captain don’t you think it is about time to open the hatch & abband ship & the Captain said yes the men next to the hatch tried to open it but they couldn’t get it open. At that time the water level was above the top of hatch and the water level was about 1 ½ foot from the over head. At this time the ship rooled & every one was under water but it rolled back and that give all of us a chance to get our breath then we all pushed and the hatch came open

— Williamson


The water was getting higher and higher in the pilot house all the time. … After a while, the water reached our shoulders. We then took a little list and that is when we started to leave. They had trouble at first getting the door open but when a few men got behind it, it soon opened. When the door opened every one started to leave one by one.

— Wainscott


We could no longer use the ports; Green water was continually covering even the high ones on the port side. Around two thirty (we at the time thought it was earlier) on 13 February, the air space was less than twelve inches to the overhead. Occasional lurches would fill that space with water. The carbon dioxide content became untenable. The Commanding Officer ordered the dogs of the port door released. The door opened with difficulty and stopped when two inches open. The handles were then pushed back an extra inch and the door was pushed open. The Commanding Officer told us to make for the foremast. He waited for the last man to leave before leaving.

— Loughman

The port hatch was then, after some difficulty, opened and the water level outside just happened to drop at this time allowing us to file out. Just prior to the hatch being opened the water where I was, forward in the pilot house, reached the overhead, cutting off my air but as the hatch opened the water dropped quite a bit and gave me an opportunity to reach the hatch with little difficulty.

— Ehlers


Horsman wrote days later that he pushed Verkennes and Loughman ahead of him toward the open hatch, Lester following behind, and that Loughman, upon reaching it, stood off beside Burton. As Loughman was about to leave, a wave forced him back inside and cleared the foul air, allowing him and several other men to get fresh air in the space between the door and the overhead. Loughman and Burton left the pilot house together. Burton was the last man out.


Their objective, per Burton’s instructions, was the crow’s nest on the foremast, the highest place of refuge the ship afforded. Three of them — Scott, Manning and Wade — made it there. Manning stopped en route to assist Vaughn, whom he found hanging onto the railing forward on the search light platform. Manning was the second man to go to Vaughn’s aid. Brown had seen Vaughn in trouble, apparently hanging onto something just below the flying bridge deck, and called to Koepke to go to his aid. Koepke hauled Vaughn up onto the flying bridge, and together they proceeded, during what Koepke recalled later as a lull in the assault by the waves, to the foot of the mast. The lull apparently did not last long. A big wave struck about as they got there, washed Koepke off the deck and left him dangling by his submarine jacket from the upright barrel of the starboard 20 mm gun. He freed himself by throwing his arms over his head and slipping out of his jacket, a maneuver in which he also, inadvertently, unhooked his life vest. Borne aloft on the next wave, he hollered to Vaughn, who was still standing by the mast, to give him a hand. Vaughn left the mast — the pathway to the nearest thing to safety under the circumstances — and managed to grab hold of Koepke’s arm, but then another wave hit, tore Koepke loose and swept him overboard. It was about then that Manning found Vaughn and tried to help him get back to the mast. Vaughn never made it. A wave picked him up and smashed him against an upright gun barrel, likely the same one Koepke had been suspended from. Vaughn hit the barrel so hard, he dislodged it from its locked upright position. His body was recovered four days later.


Koepke stripped off his shoes and shirt and tried to swim back to the ship but found himself fighting a losing battle with a current. That may have been just as well for him. The ship was a dangerous place to be, or to try to get to. Manning, having gotten to the crow’s nest, saw Whitmarsh trying to swim to the ship and yelled to him to swim out to sea instead, that he would get picked up there in the morning. If Whitmarsh heard this advice, he ignored it. Manning threw him a halyard. Whitmarsh tried and failed to grab it, and vanished in the surf.


Koepke meanwhile found Wainscott in the water and told him he had lost his lifebelt. “That’s O.K.,” Wainscott replied as Koepke recalled it a few days later. “You stick with me, my jacket will hold us both up.” Koepke did, and it did.


Of the men who survived that night, Koepke and Wainscott were among the more beaten up. Koepke, after getting his fingers mashed by the pilot house door, hit his head on a radio fixture above the doorway on his way through it. Wainscott joined two other men in grabbing an antenna bar on a bulkhead just outside that doorway while a third clung to his shoulders. Then a wave hit, and the two men with him on the bar were gone. He made his way to the signal bridge, from which he too saw Vaughn in trouble and made a move to help him, only to get swept overboard in his turn. It may have been then that he suffered the leg injury that left him in a cast with crutches in the crew shots taken several days later. He got swept off to the port side of the ship, around her bow and out to sea. Somewhere en route he encountered Koepke. The two of them congregated first with Brown, the chief bosun’s mate, then Ehlers, Kumler and Mathers. They saw Burton in the water. Koepke invited him to join them. He declined. According to Koepke, he said he could make out all right by himself. Burton talked in the water with Loughman, too. Each assured the other he was well. Then a wave submerged Loughman, and when he regained the surface, Burton was nowhere in sight. That was apparently the last anyone ever saw of him.


Some or all of the men in Koepke’s group saw two men (Loughman and Lester) on the starboard entrance bouy and tried to join them on it but had no more success getting to it than Koepke had had in getting back to the ship. They eventually gave up that effort, formed a circle, hands on one another’s shoulders, and spent the next four hours or so drifting in circles. That proved to be a sensible strategy, but it was not comfortable. They were cold. Koepke may have felt additional strain in supporting himself as he did, hanging onto Brown’s coat collar and Wainscott’s waist and wrapping his feet around Mathers. Twice during the night Koepke, who had survived eleven days adrift on a lifeboat a year and a half before, wanted to swim off and end it all, but Brown retrieved him both times and refused to let him sink.


Kumler blacked out after three hours or so afloat. Days later he had no recollection of the spotter plane that found them about 0700, or of the crash boat that picked them up, or of anything else until he found himself drinking coffee in the base hospital about 1130.


Mathers had gone topside with Funk and said later he thought they were both swept overboard simultaneously. Funk was never seen again.


Knecht, after leaving the pilot house, managed to get to the peak of the massive tripod amidships and saw Kingsley clutching one of the legs of the device and calling for help. Knecht started down to help him, but before he could reach him, a massive wave swept over the ship. When the water receded, Kingsley was gone. Kingsley drowned.


Williamson, Horsman and Libera swam or washed ashore on Eastern Island — Horsman, who had lost his life belt, after hitching a ride part of the way with Bolke. Bolke was picked up there just offshore by a rubber raft. A nonswimmer, he claimed later to have hit the sea floor and just started walking. Williamson was gathered in there by a chain of Marines who stood in the surf holding hands, some if not all of them in water almost neck deep.


Verkennes made his way to a sand bar between Sand and Eastern islands.


Wade leapt from the crow’s nest around dawn and swam ashore.


Scott dove from the main mast at 0730 and swam out to sea. He was picked up by a boat.


Loughman and Lester were picked up from their buoy by the same crash boat that then retrieved Koepke and Brown and their companions.


Washed overboard in his attempt to get to the crow’s nest, Libera grabbed a stray antenna cable and spent half an hour or so swinging from one end of the ship to the other, hitting his legs several times and finally his head on the searchlight platform en route. That last blow having broken his grip on the cable, he swam for shore and was picked up by a rubber life raft about 25 yards off Eastern Island.


Three sailors from the submarine base — Seaman 1/c Leroy Lehmbecker of Hopkins, Minnesota, Seaman 1/c Ernest David Samed of Fayetteville, Ohio, and Seaman 2/c Howard Eugene Daugherty of Caryville, Tennessee — drowned that morning attempting to rescue the men from the Macaw when the two rearming boats they took out into the towering surf overturned.



Robert Vaughn’s burial at sea, c. February 18, 1944

After about a month’s stay on Midway, the surviving crew of the Macaw were sent back to Pearl Harbor aboard the submarine USS Nautilus and reassigned.


A board of investigation convened at Midway shortly after the sinking determined that Paul Burton was at fault in attempting to re-enter the channel at the angle he took when the Macaw ran aground.


Having sunk as she did at the entrance to the vital Midway harbor channel, the Macaw was deemed a hazard to navigation and her superstructure blown away, a task that took the crew of the USS Shackle (ARS-9) several months and more than two and a half tons of explosives.


The hull of the Macaw remains intact. It is a destination for divers and frequented by a variety of fish.

The Macaw, February 13, 1944

USS Macaw, February 13, 1944

One Response to Midway

  • Donald Frederick Whitmarsh says:

    70 years and 10 months and almost 10 days ago, my Uncle Donald A. Whitmarsh died at sea during world war two. A young man at that time. After all of these years i now can rest knowing how and when my Uncle died. He died trying to save others that was in harms way. I always knew he was a war hero. This family has a long history of serving the Great U.S.A. To the one’s that made this possible so we (others) can know how our loved ones fought and died for our freedom. Thank you very much. Donald F. Whitmarsh This day in December 2014 on the 3rd.

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