“Any commander who fails to exceed his authority does not do right by his subordinates.” Admiral Arleigh Burke
Destroyers have been around for over a hundred years. Originally called “torpedo boat destroyers”, they have improved in size and in efficiency. In the Great War (now called World War l), the first ships sent to England were destroyers. “Four-pipers” they were called because they had four smokestacks. World War II began in 1939 and the United States soon had transferred some of the old four-pipers to England and had recommissioned some for the U. S. fleet.
When the Atlantic War began in earnest, convoys were escorted across the vast wastes of the Atlantic by destroyers. Soon, though, it was decided that there could be a better and cheaper ship, so designers came up with the destroyer escorts.
A destroyer escort (DE) could be built in two months. They were smaller than destroyers. Their top speed was usually listed as twenty-six knots (nautical miles per hour), which was fast enough to tend the flocks of slow merchantmen that typically proceeded at less than half that speed. Welded together, they were intended to last five years.
The DE could turn tighter than the longer destroyer, and could stay “on top” of attacking U boats. Torpedoes were mounted alongside on the main decks and depth charges in racks where they could roll off the stern in pairs into the waters. K guns were added, and so were hedgehogs. Hedgehogs were mounted on boards and were fired to right and left, and only exploded when they hit, as opposed to depth-actuated depth charges.
Destroyer escorts also served in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, protecting convoys and running plane guard with their larger cousins. With the deck guns, ranging up to five inch thirty eight caliber, they were also effective in shore bombardment and surface action. Destroyer escorts served as guards, watching as flight operations sent planes into the air or retrieved them on their returns from battles like Midway.
Always there was the weather: strong winds and high waves that developed because of the reaches of the ocean. The cyclonic storms brought stronger versions of the Atlantic Ocean’s hurricanes. One of these will forever be known as “Halsey’s Typhoon”, because Admiral Bill Halsey misjudged the direction, disregarded information from weather forecasters and consequently lost several small ships under his command. Refueling had to be postponed, and many destroyers and destroyer escorts were damaged or sunk because of this.
The USS Tabberer (DE 418) was one of the ones damaged. The “Tabby”, as it was known throughout the Pacific Fleet, was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage, a Georgian who held a Reserve commission. Plage had volunteered to go on active duty, with his initial assignments involving placing new construction in readiness for the active fleet.
Finally, he had the opportunity for his first command: the USS Tabberer, DE 419. When he raised his flag, he had only about twenty men and officers under him that had ever had sea duty. Almost all were reservists from all parts of the country, all trades and professions. But they did have a mascot: a little terrier whom they named “Tabby”. Tabby was a favorite, and had the run of the ship.
The Tabberer was assigned to Admiral Halsey’s fleet. It performed the humdrum tasks expected of it until that day in December 1944, when Typhoon Cobra hit. Small ships were awaiting refueling underway. Some made it, some didn’t.
Three destroyers went down in the same area where Taberer was: USS Spence, USS Hull, USS Monaghan. Tabberer was badly damaged from the main deck up, but she stayed afloat, even after surviving a seventy-degree roll. However, all communications antennas were lost, so there was no contact with other ships or with Halsey’s fleet.
When the storm abated somewhat, a lookout on the Tabberer spotted a light in the ocean and sounded “man overboard”. The first pickup was difficult, with Captain Plage almost losing his ship several times, but the crew pulled the survivor of the HULL aboard. Soon other lights were spotted, and soon other survivors from the other two lost ships were aboard.
Then Captain Plage, with radio working again, received orders to proceed to Ulithi Atoll. Reluctantly he set course, but then his men spotted more lights, more rafts, and they stopped to take on board more swimmers, for a total of fifty-five rescued.
Plage had disobeyed orders from Admiral Halsey, but he said, “To hang with that, we are going to stay here,” and they remained in the waters until other ships arrived, and fifty-five men owed their lives to him and the brave crew of the “Tabby”.
Remember the first part of this story? Recall Admiral Arleigh Burke’s admonition: “Any commander who fails to exceed his authority does not do right by his subordinates”?
Fifty-five men, rescued in the midst of Halsey’s Typhoon, were ever grateful for a captain who exceeded his authority.