RADM Sheldon Kinney Interview


Interview with RADM Sheldon Kinney USN (Ret.), first CO of USS Bronstein (DE 189), in his office at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), 1825 1 St., NW, where he is Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Maritime Training, reviewing the manuscript of “Battle — Three Weeks After Shakedown” for Jan/Feb ’85 issue of Surface Warfare magazine. 12-20-84

KINNEY. My thought is this, having been a great advocate of Surface Warfare all my life, I always try to put it in terms of what makes it interesting to the junior surface warfare people, that shows them — like aviation and submarines — a specialty here, and a career, and so on and so forth. These comments are made in that light, trying to encourage just what your magazine does.

(referring to the manuscript) Just personal preference, I don’t bother with the middle initial.

(commenting on HF/DF use in ASW) The humorous part of all this is that we thought we were being led to these subs by HF/DF. It was a long time afterwards that we learned we had cracked the (German Navy) code and that they were reading the noon report of every U-boat, with its latitude and longitude. So it goes. But it took a long time after the war to learn that.

Edsall wasn’t the first DE. I would put her somewhere around the fourth or fifth; I don’t remember the history of it. You could say “one of the first”. She was the leader of the Edsall class, and she was the first commissioned on the Gulf Coast. Orange Texas was her building area. They had turned out in Philadelphia a couple of the short-hulled DE’s that were originally given to the British, and a few of which were in the U.S. — like the Evarts (DE 5). We might have been the fourth destroyer escort to go through shakedown, which was in Bermuda — and interestingly run by CAPT Holloway, later Chief of Naval Personnel, and the father of the recent CNO. I worked for Jim Sr. — Jim Holloway — when he was Chief of Naval Personnel. We commissioned Edsall in April 1943 and I think there was probably somebody commissioned in March that year on the East Coast.

Just again, of interest to the junior officers, I was first lieutenant and gunnery officer of the Sturtevant (DD 240) until she sunk in April of 1942. At that time we had four officers on a destroyer. I had been engineer and I turned that over and then I was first lieutenant and gunnery officer. The Sturtevant was one of the old four-pipers left over from World War I. At that time I think it had four officers and 120 men.

You write “some of the crew” was seasick (in the Bronstein after a stiff gale and sailing into full scale ASW action). I’d say “any.” I think that out of that crew, though, there was one officer besides myself, and perhaps nine enlisted men who had been to sea before in the Atlantic. Or anywhere else. I think it is hard for people to realize now that these ships as they came out for the destroyer escort navy, the people had learned their jobs primarily in school.

You can get a bearing with sonar. You can get the bearing of torpedoes coning on. You could hear the whine of torpedoes on the sonar. And of course being dark you couldn’t see the usual bubble trail that they leave.

Yeah, the U-441 was interesting. You described it quite accurately. She was an unusual antiaircraft U-boat. She was designed to fight her way through the Bay of Biscay and then to go about her mission. She did make it back to France, but was so badly damaged that, as you say, she never got back in the war again. It probably cost them more than sinking her. Once she was back in the Atlantic, she just another U-boat; the antiaircraft capability was just to get her through the Bay of Biscay. The rest of her armament was the same.

It is interesting. This Robert C. Coe, here (XO of Bronstein) now a prominent surgeon in Seattle, Wash. Bob was a ROTC graduate at the University of Washington. A marvelous fellow; we remain the closest of friends, the closest friend I’ve got in the world.

When you mention the engines in Bronstein, I stuck in diesel/electric, because a lot of people don’t realize these were not steam ships. They were actually railroad engines. General Motors stole them from the railroads because the U.S. was so short on propulsion that is all they could find. The Edsall, when I had her, they were marine engines, they were Fairbanks Morse submarine engines, diesel gear. These were General Motors’ railroad engines, four of them, geared to electric.

(On the Polish gold run) My orders actually came from the President. I don’t know where those figures (on the value of the Polish gold) came from; they’ve been quoted a lot. I don’t know what we carried; I know how many boxes and this kind of thing. But I could not say it was $65 million. I think author Robert Leckie was guessing when he came up with that amount, because I wrote an article for the Naval Institute called “The Can Gold Rush” in which I researched it and reported it, and I’ve never been able to find the value of the gold. The Federal Reserve doesn’t record it, even though I had to sit there while they with a feather duster opened all the boxes, took the sawdust off the gold, weighed it and so forth. I’d say that the figure of $25 million, the amount Bronstein was to have transported, as half of the Polish treasury, is a gross understatement. I signed for 480 boxes — they said of gold. I got them to change it, because I didn’t know what was in those boxes. So I signed for 480 boxes “stated to contain gold.”

Returning to the U.S., carrying the boxes, we encountered the enemy sub. My orders said “avoid submarine action.” I really didn’t have any choice: my orders told me what to do: Don’t mess with U-boats; avoid them. Because the U-boats were after this gold. Germany had continued to follow; they knew where the gold was. And they knew it would be taken out of there (Dakar), and they had their picket lines across, so they were looking for us. I have no doubt that was a valid submarine contact, but I can’t prove it because I didn’t investigate it and pursue it.

Now, thinking again of the junior officer and items of interest. You’re always trying to show that you can make a great career out of the surface navy. I commenced as a bluejacket, a high school dropout, on the cruiser Omaha in 1936, and retired, after 11 commands of surface ships and units as Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Force Pacific. You went from bottom to top in the very outfit you started out in. You keep telling them: “Fellows, the horizons are unlimited; all takes is a sense of responsibility and a lot of drive.”

The other thing that might be of interest in the magazine is that when I was head of Education and Training I established the Surface Warfare Officers School. We couldn’t get an appropriation. We tried and tried and tried before my watch, so I finally went up and talked to CAPT Neal Maul, the head of the OCS, and I said, “Neal, we’re just going to carve out our own school.” So we took two of the old wooden buildings opposite the OCS headquarters for the new schools. And out of our own hide we converted them into school buildings for Surface Warfare and command, I think, with a class of 24 or such. John Chaffee, who was then Secretary of the Navy, now a Senator from Rhode Island, came and gave the kick-off; he was very happy with it. And once the school was in being, and operating, and value proven, then the funds later followed, and the construction began, and away it went.

At that tine the Chief of Naval Personnel was Charlie Duncan, and ADM Duncan was a great advocate of Surface Warfare School, and I had his complete blessing as head of Education and Training. It was just before Bud Zumwalt’s watch, so it must have been ADM Moorer (who was CNO). CNO didn’t really have any involvement in the school. It was not a matter he got involved in — not because he wasn’t interested; it a matter of carving it out of existing funds. And the person who gave the blessing to it was ADM Duncan. As the Chief of Naval Personnel, he was the person I cleared it with. And the person who really did the job on the scene, carved it out, was CAPT Neal Maul. He is now at New York State University at Stony Brook as one of the leading administrators. He could enlarge on that; he did quite a job. If you want to pursue that, I can put Ray (Kemerowsk in touch with him. He was at that time head of the Officer Candidate School at Newport.

Going back to the story, the officer complement of the Bronstein was something like 16 to 18 and perhaps 260 to 280 men. I’m sure the log would show the exact count.

Whatever happened to the gunnery officer, LT Richard Roe? I didn’t follow Dick Roe; I don’t know what happened to him. You mentioned LT Walker Youngblood in the story, the engineer. He’s another doctor. He’s in Richmond, VA. He had been a pharmacist before the war. That’s always the interesting kind of history — from pharmacist to chief engineer in a destroyer escort, to civil life, and then graduated from medical school of the University of South Carolina and commenced practice and is now a general practitioner in Richmond.

Dick Roe, by the way, was awfully good at what we were talking about, for he had served as an armed guard officer on merchant ships in convoys before coming to commissioned ships.

There was an ASW officer on Bronstein: Shulford(?) Wyatt. Because of the nature of fire control instruments or anything else it was bow-and-arrow tactics. The commanding officer took the appropriate lead on the submarine and estimated drop by such rule of thumb as lost-contact-in-yards as depth-in-feet; you know, highly inaccurate, but at least a rough gauge of where to set the depth charges. So in effect the ASW officer was the commanding officer in that he took the shotgun and pulled the trigger at the right time and led the bird by the right amount.

Now the real key — Usually, of course, you made an attack and then you had to regain contact, having lost it, as you do in short range and gone over and disrupted the waters. The real whiz at regaining contact was the executive officer, who was also CIC evaluator. That fellow was an absolute demon in leading me back to the submarine each time after an attack.

I’ve forgotten the name of the SOM2 who was in charge of the sonarmen but I do remember his father was on Broadway, I think as a music director. This fellow had grown up around music and the stage and he had a particularly good ear. That was no small item in his ability to pick this out. The name doesn’t come back. I’ve got the roster of that ship someplace, but I’m afraid there isn’t time to track it down and look through it.

There was an inference in the “All Hands” article that except for me everybody in the crew was a Naval Reservist. We did have about nine regular Navy enlisted, starting with the chief boatswain’s mate and the first class electrician. They were quite incensed at “All Hands”, you know “What do you mean he was the only regular!”

The only person had been to sea before — except for armed guard, which is a different category; they had been gunnery passengers in a merchant ship — was Bob Coe who had commanded a subchaser in the Atlantic. For everybody else, it was their first time aboard a ship. I don’t think there is an awful lot of value in playing up the inexperience of the crew. After all, we’re talking now to people and saying, “You’ve got to be highly professional and you’ve got to be trained to do this sort of thing.” (At the same time, this was a special set of circumstances. In WW II people went into uniform that had no sea experience and had no time to be trained.)

I think the reason why we got along so well in that war was simply the enormity of it in a way; they don’t have any inhibitions when it comes to mechanical things or anything going — unlike a lot of other nations where they might be fine rote soldiers and they’ll obey commands, but didn’t have the ability to think or reason or to learn new things. Look at a pharmacist who was chief engineer and later a doctor; and a chemical engineer who was the executive officer and now a doctor. Nobody in that ship remained in the regular Navy.

The other thing was the skipper was the product of a very highly professional pre-war navy where every officer and every man went on to fill jobs way above what he had done in the permanent navy. And I think that’s one of the real lessons if something like that happened again. The junior officers in these surface warfare ships, if we get into a major conflict, they’re going to accelerate rapidly in their responsibilities.

The night of the U-144 action was described as being very black. It was pitch black. It was in the North Atlantic. No moon and a darkened ship. A U-boat, you know, with its conning tower only awash — because that’s the way they operated. The submarine in World War II and at that time was not really a submersible. A submarine was a surfaced ship with a very limited capability to submerge on its batteries. It operated primarily on its diesels. The submarines got in amongst the convoys that I worked with for years, primarily on their diesels, with the conning just barely awash. In other words, hardly even the deck showed. They were operating on diesels, which gave them reasonable speed. The minute they had to submerge, they were trapped: they either had one hour at full power or they had 12 to 24 hours barely creeping along. So, particularly in the North Atlantic at night, they very rarely submerged. They would come in on a convoy with conning tower awash. They would make their attack and then they probably pull the plug and go down under the convoy and let the turmoil go on past them and sneak quietly away. They are very difficult to see, because you can imagine the size of a 500-ton submarine’s conning tower. And in the North Atlantic they are almost impossible to see.

So that was why you fire a star shell. And then you’d be very damned lucky to have the star shell be on and in line with, and illuminated and got a look at it (the submarine before he goes down. The minute that star shell goes off it’s going to be “Dive! Dive!”

(On the lifesaving medal) That incident occurred in the Sturtevant before she was sunk and probably around January or February of 1942. We were escorting the Hornet from the U.S. Naval Shipyard to the Canal Zone, through which she went on out into the Pacific. We later learned it had Doolittle aboard on the way to the attack on Japan. We didn’t know that; all we knew was that taking the Hornet to the Canal Zone, turning her over to the Pacific destroyers to take her on out. We had no idea this was going to be an attack on Tokyo.

In the Atlantic, en route, while we were going between San Juan — the destination was to pass through the Windward Passage between San Juan and Cuba. Not too far south of Norfolk — in the good North Atlantic weather still — we were in plane guard position. To show you the vintage: an observation aircraft with two open cockpits — biplanes — made three passes and got the waveoff each time. On the fourth pass pulled up to go around again, ran out of fuel, stalled, dropped the nose, went down like a fencepost, came back up and fell ever on her back.

We headed over in her direction to recover them. I was the officer of the deck. Just as we got near her we got a sonar contact. So, you know, off to the sonar contact. So the skipper at that time was at the conn. I went over the side and the ship went after the submarine. I got the pilot and his observer out of the plane — in fact, I had to pull the pilot’s head off the gunsight telescope, for it was through his forehead. She was an observation plane, and photographic, and so forth. His observer in the back seat — I loosened his safety belt and got them both out from under. The observer regained consciousness and he was able to keep himself afloat; I kept the pilot afloat. The contact proved false and (the Sturtevant) came back and picked all three of us up.

The pilot lived (as did the observer). His name was ENS Gregg. The last I heard of him he was back in aviation and a Commander. We took him to the hospital in San Juan; the destroyer just ran him right on in there. They didn’t take him back to the carrier. The (carrier) doctor said, “Go for it. We can’t help him.”

When Bronstein was attached to Task Force 21.16 some 550 miles north of the Azores, that was considered the North Atlantic — in the ASW business. We used to say North Atlantic in the true sense of north of the equator. 550 miles north of the Azores is a nasty body of water, and you’re talking in general about the convoy routes between the United States to the United Kingdom. This all occurred in the final days when we were building up the supplies for the invasion of Europe. That was why the U-boat picket line was out there, trying to break up the flow of supplies….

Our instructions were throughout the war: No cameras; the great secrecy of war. When we look back on it, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference, but we carried out our orders. The official photos you had were few.

(Discussing depth charges) By everybody working overtime, we doubled this pattern (shown on page 55 illustration in Roscoe’s “U.S. Destroyer Operations in WW II”). We layed this pattern but we did it too deep. We’d guessed his depth at 200 and set one pattern 50 feet less and one pattern 50 feet more. Our crew got so efficient they could reload it, a K-gun, in twos and lay them 100 feet apart in depth. I don’t know if other ships did that, but we wrote it up in our Action Report.

We were ready to launch a torpedo on U-441, but she dove so quickly we didn’t get it away. Of course, those were only surface torpedoes and unless you had the submarine on the surface it didn’t do any good. And with the confusion that night, we could have hit one of our own ships if we did launch it.

Interestingly Bronstein was the doctor in the destroyer Reuben James, which was a sister ship to Sturtevant. And the two of us were alongside each other in the Brooklyn Shipyard in 1941 before the war when there was a German U-boat reported off New Jersey. She was a little further along in repairs than we were and she got off, underway, and got sunk and they were killed.

The Bronstein now is Destroyer Number 1 in the Uruguayan Navy and is the Jose Artigas. I’ve been aboard her. The first time they came to the U.S. for overhaul they had me down and made me a big hero, and they had the Presidential Unit Citation in Spanish on the wardroom bulkhead — and oh we had quite a party.

Recently in Mau-Mau(?), which is where I am most of the time (I formed the world Maritime University for the United Nations to help developing nations), and there was a captain there who was in charge of the Uruguayan Naval Academy/Merchant Marine Academy, and I asked him “Is the ship Artigas still in commission?” And he says “Oh, yes.” I said, “I was her original commanding officer.” He shook my hand and said, “I, too, have been a captain of that ship.”

…After we delivered the gold we went back to work again with Card (CVE 11). The Block Island had had her flight deck torn up, as you know, in heavy seas, so she went into Norfolk for repairs and were sent back out with the Card. We went out to chase the Japanese submarine that was returning with strategic materials way down in the Atlantic. Finally we were pulled off from that and we went up off Halifax. The ship next to mine on the scouting line sank a German minelayer that was mining the entrances to Halifax. We came back from that one and did a convoy run to Bizerte, Tunisia, in which there were some ships lost in submarine action, but my ship didn’t happen to take part in that. When we returned from that one I was transferred to the staff of Commander Destroyer Force, Atlantic as the ASW officer in the Atlantic, just at the end of the war.

It was very unusual, apparently, for a Japanese submarine to be operating in the Atlantic. We were told that it was a Japanese submarine and it is my belief now that they know it by communications intelligence. We never saw it and, to my knowledge, nobody else did. We were just told they were tracking a sub returning home around the Cape of Good Hope to Japan, the comment was that it carrying some very strategic items, or something quite important, to Germany from Japan.

Destroyer tenders in the Atlantic. My first recollection is that we first start moving north before the war. Prairie was sent up to Argentia, Newfoundland. She was our source of repair and supply, together with the Vulcan, which was a repair ship in Argentia. Then we commenced escorting the British convoys (unbeknown to the great American public by order of the President) our advance base at the other end was Reykjavik, Iceland. Now we’re talking pre- and very early World War II, for about the summer of 1940 on, until the U.S. and Britain divided the responsibility and we moved, in general, south, and the British did the very north Atlantic; we did the hunter-killer and the convoys right across to the Mediterranean while they took the northern approaches. And up there was the same thing: there were repair ships and tenders that were your only source of voyage repair and damage repair. You read of Kearney (DD 432) being torpedoed up there before the war, south of Iceland? I can remember seeing her alongside the tender there in Iceland being repaired enough to make it to the States. The Reuben James (DE 153), our sister ship in our division, didn’t make it at all, was sunk. But the tenders were the source of repairs.

In Casco Bay, Maine, the tenders were the source, and also the flagship for Commander Destroyer Force. All the tenders were under command of the Commander Destroyer Force and that continued to be true. When I was COMCRUDESPAC in ’72 I still commanded the tenders, as well as the escorts, destroyers, cruisers, and so forth. At that time we kept one destroyer tender in Subic Bay, and we kept one destroyer tender in Taiwan. There was not a destroyer tender, but a repair ship, during the Vietnam War that was always kept in Sasebo. There were always tenders in Hawaii, in Long Beach, and a tender, and sometimes two, in San Diego.

Other than the places I mentioned in the Atlantic, there was a destroyer tender in Bermuda, the Hamil, that was both the headquarters for the Shakedown Group for destroyer escorts and the repair facility there. But we didn’t normally see them overseas in any numbers because you went into places like Casablanca and Bizerte, Tunisia, or you went into a French shipyard. Your histories of Commander Destroyer Forces should be your history of tenders, when they talk about the operational deployment of ships.

In the Pacific, it was a different kind of war. The tenders were more active because of the vast ocean areas covered and the nature of the operations.

I’m 14 years out of date in Pacific employment of tenders, but I don’t think it varies a great deal. There are ships like the Samuel Gompers (AD 37), which I used from time to time as flagship. It has marvelous capability. Normally you rotate them to the Western Pacific; they take their turn deploying out there, just as the other ships.

There is quite a history in the Mediterranean, since we kept a presence in the Med, kept destroyer tenders deployed over there, quite often anchoring an awful lot of the time in Naples as a central spot, but then deploying also to parts of the Med.