A Personal History
of the USS Salamonie
From May 1942 - Until April 1945
Contributed by Robert G. Gehrz, LCDR USNR (Ret.) 42-45
Chapters I through IV
by Gordon Cook
NOTE: In the process of accum- ulating information to appear in this history of a mighty ship, I wrote to a shipmate, Robert G. Gehrz, who probably knew more about the USS Salamonie history during the WWII years than any other living person.
Bob lived in Milwaukee, WI before his naval experience, and in St. Paul, MN afterward. He was a young lawyer in late 1941 when he was inducted into the Navy V-7 program and spent 4 months at the Chicago Naval Reserve Midship- man School. He was commissioned an Ensign USNR in May 1942and ordered to active duty on the USS Salamonie.
One of his first duties was as Assistant Gunnery Officer. We became well acquainted during the next 16 months and have kept in touch with each other during all the years since.
After the war, he returned to law practice in St. Paul as Vice President and Legal Counsel to the Soo Line Railroad where he stayed until his
retirement. Bob and his wife had 6 children. His wife died when the youngest was only 8 years old. With the daytime assistance of a house- keeper, he continued to successfully
manage the upbringing of his chil- dren. Two are physicians, one is a PhD in Astro Physics, another a photojournalist for a major news- paper and another is a manager for a building contractor.
He sent me his completed manuscript just 3 weeks after my request. It was 137 handwritten pages on loose-leaf paper. His final letter to suggest some changes was dated November 17, 1999.
He died one month later on December 17, 1999. I am sure you fellow crewmembers will recognize his story as "the real thing" and you will treasure this narrative as I do.
A Personal History of the USS Salamonie
From May 1942 Until April 1945
Contributed by Robert G. Gehrz, LCDR USNR (Ret.) 42-45
Great to get your recent letter. I'm still doing very well, although a bit shorter of breath.
Regarding your request for anecdotes about the AO-26, I have no photos - never had a camera aboard or near the ship. Also my memory of the chronology of events and names of people is fading after 57 years. However, I'll try to recall a few major events and hope you can read my writing.
I Report to USS Salamonie AO -26 for My First Active Duty
I reported for duty aboard USS Salamonie AO-26 at the end of May 1942 after a four-month period of training at the USNR Midshipman's School in Chicago, Illinois, and a 10-day delay in orders. The AO-26 was being modified in the Ports- mouth, VA Navy Yard. Four S"/38 cal guns in turrets were being installed in lieu of three 3"/23 cal guns and one 5"/5l cal. This meant removal of heavy splinter shields
around the existing guns by chipping with an ungodly noise for several days. Two 1.1" quad mounts were also installed on the after top deck, and 12 20mm guns and associated
facilities were also installed.
About one half of the stack was removed to lower the ship's profile in submarine territory. Other repairs and painting were underway, and ordinary routine was disturbed
by utter chaos.
Ensign Grenley reported at about the same time, and LtCdr. Johns, then the Executive Officer, assigned me to the position of Assistant 1st Div. Officer under Ens. Gordon Cook. For a few weeks and a shakedown up the Chesapeake
Bay, I roomed with Gordon. Grenley was a chap who needed lots of sleep and he slept most of each morning after a night watch. This irked Cdr. Johns, and before our next
main trip (early July) to Iceland, he switched assignments, made me 2nd Div. Officer and placed me in the stateroom just abaft the Wardroom Pantry. My job in addition to others, from that day until I left in March of 1945 was to man Secondary Conn Control next to the stack, as a Special Sea Duty and to take the Conn if fire or other catastrophe ever prevented a senior officer from assuming the Conn at that station.
Several years later, I did handle the ship from Secondary Conn during exercises off the Virginia Capes, where we swung ship to calibrate the magnetic compasses. It was my job to adjust the binnacle magnets and spheres at Secondary Conn.
After completion of work in the Navy Yard in June, the ship sailed up Chesapeake Bay for the following purposes. 1 - Calibrate the de-gaussing system. 2 - check and test fire the new guns. 3-. Visit Annapolis for Captain Von Heimburg and LtCdr Johns. 4 - Have the crew and new officers go through drills and permanent
assignments. 5 - Stop at Yorktown to deliver some fuel.
On that trip, Lt.jg Lazott (Jr. Engr. Off), myself, and two others took the train to Baltimore and stayed at a nightclub so late that the last train had left. We had to hire a black market cab at a filthy cost to get back to the dock at Annapolis by 2 am when the liberty boat and Captain returned to the ship.
I am unable to recall how many trips we made to Texas for a cargo before we went to Iceland, but we did go to Galveston, Houston and on one occasion to Port Arthur.
Gordon's wife Betty stayed at the Chamberlain Hotel at Old Point Comfort, and I stood many port watches in his stead so that he could be with her. I was always happy to do that since we were good friends.
Chapter II - My First Trip to Iceland, July 1942
On this trip the AO-26, loaded with 100-octane gasoline, cargo fuel oil and Diesel, sailed to Iceland escorted by the destroyer Ingraham. We anchored at Reykjavik and delivered some cargo oil to a station tanker and to various escort vessels.
LtCdr. Johns took me and several other junior officers to the Borg Hotel dining room where naval officers took tables bought Icelandic beer (very low alcohol) and spiked the beer with whiskey smuggled in from a "store" rented by the Navy
in downtown Reykjavik, run by a boozy, rummy-nosed old Chaplain.
The Icelandic girls were brought to the Hotel Borg by their escorts, and would dance with the naval officers who asked them. Small wonder that the Icelanders were hostile to the Americans!
This visit was made at the peak of summer, and the sun set with its rim just barely showing above the horizon at midnight. The city itself is located just below the Arctic Circle.
After several days we were ordered back to the States alone and without escort via a very northern route stopping at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland where we picked up an escort. Nazi subs were sinking tankers in plain sight of our East Coast then. That trip was made in full alert you may be sure. For the first few days we never experienced darkness.
However, as we approached Newfoundland an overcast set in along with darkness and as a junior Officer of the Deck under Lt. Knowles, I experienced a most remarkable phenomenon of nature.... St. Elmo's Fire! There are two types - orange and blue - the color depends on the flow of electricity from cloud to ground or
vice versa. Ours was blue. All yard arms, rigging and masts were outlined in flickering blue small flames like those on a gas stove. I have never forgotten the sight!
At Newfoundland, the repair ship USS Vulcan AR-5 was tied to the dock with both anchor chains because of the heavy weather. I went ashore with LtCdr. Johns and several other officers and, to my shame, had so much rum and whiskey and other alcohol that it took the utmost concentration to get back to the liberty boat. I almost
had an unwanted fight with some LtCdr. at the bar - reason unknown.
LtCdr. Johns couldn't climb the Jacobs Ladder on return to the ship and was lifted up in a cargo net. I made it and went straight to my bunk and lay down. Then I experienced a complete loss of orientation in space. The cabin
whirled in every direction and I had to go out on deck and march up and down on the foc'sle to clear my head. Only one other occasion in my life caused similar feelings.
Departing Argentia, we picked up an escort and sailed for Norfolk with a short stop in Boston.
North Atlantic Hurricane
Other short trips were made to Texas and to Aruba. Shortly after we returned to Norfolk, we learned that the USS Chemung AO-30, one of our sister ships, had rammed the destroyer USS Ingraham and cut her in two with heavy loss of life on the "can" and many blast injuries to bridge personnel on Chemung. We had had some social port time with Chemung personnel and had friends among them and Ingraham.
In late July or early August, the AO-26 made another trip to Iceland. Our ship's Captain was the Convoy Commodore of a group of three Navy Oilers and two escort destroyers. The trip outbound was uneventful, but the trip back was a terrific experience, because we ran through the storm center of a violent hurricane - huge waves, great pitching and rolling. By the inclinometer, we rolled 47 degrees to starboard and 35 degrees to port. In the trough of a sea, the wave crests were higher than we, so we judged their height to be about 60 feet. The catwalk was submerged from time to time in green water, and personnel from aft, between 2000 and 0800 next morning could not relieve the bridge watch.
My stateroom was aft, and about 0100 I heard great banging on the gun deck over the wardroom. We had a large thwart-ship "clipping" room on that deck for the storage and
assembly of 1.1" shells. These armed when leaving the gun and
exploded on contact with a target. It turned out that the gunner's mate in charge had not properly secured several dozen heavy steel boxes of shells. A can of oil had spilled on the
rubber floor mat and everything slid from side to side as the ship rolled.
I tried to find help but was unable to rouse anybody in the dark, and hence undertook the job of securing the boxes of shells myself. I was afraid that some shells might arm themselves with tragic effect. The job was complicated by the need to work in the dark! Every time I turned on the lights, some rays shone in a vent
facing the bridge and I received phone calls to shut off the light, or else!
I finally managed in complete darkness, to sit on a table used for assembling clips and controlled the sliding boxes between rolls with my feet. I was able to jam them in a corner and used line to stop their movement. No medals but a good
An hour later, a messenger came and said that shells were loose on the deck in the handling room of #3 5"/38 gun. When I got there, I went in, closed the door, turned on the
light and found six 5" shells and a 50 lb., C02 fire extinguisher rolling around on the steel deck and banging against the bulkheads. Again, an order for "lights out" and I had to
work in total darkness. I felt it was my job (because it was my Deck Division), to solve the problem before damage or arming. Navy Regs required that a shell dropped 3 feet be thrown over the side. One by one I picked them up in the dark and threw them all overboard. I did the same with the C02 extinguisher, thinking that the banging may have
weakened the tank.
Since all were Title B equipment, I had to report to LtCdr. Johns next morning, fully expecting to get reamed out for failing to better secure the items. Because of the
tremendous rolls of the ship during the night, he was very understanding.
Next day I was told about two serious events during the night 1. A quartermaster striker had been sitting on a high stool in the chart house and was thrown over the banister to the Captain's deck (one deck below) during a roll. No serious
injuries though. 2. On the greatest roll - 47 degrees -a dough mixing machine in the bakery broke its fastenings where welded to a bulkhead and seriously damaged the bakery compartment.
We had quite a few army passengers aboard and they figuratively speaking, "lined the
rails" during the storm. (Actually, the rails were under water much of the time.)
After the storm abated, the "cans" begged our Captain to slow down since they were almost on their beam-ends. We reformed as a column with AO-26 ahead and resumed zigzagging.
At that time, I was splitting my 8-hour watches between the bridge as JOOD and the 5" gun control tower. We had no Director machinery in the tower at that time.
One night when I stood the 2000-2400 watch with Lt. Knowles, it was dark with no moon and visibility was bad. No ships had radar at the time. About 2200 we became aware of shadows on the sea. We stopped zigzagging and ran head on into a
slow convoy of eastbound cargo ships (40 or so). We threaded the needle with ships close at hand all around us. Four hours later, the Fox Schedule (radio) warned us about the possibility of our meeting a convoy!!
So much for that trip to Iceland. Thereafter, until we participated in the African Operation, we made various trips between Norfolk and the oil ports in the Gulf.
Convoy Duty - Slow Merchant Ships
During the month of June 1942, I spent 3 days at Dam Neck, Va. at classes for 20mm gunnery. I fired guns, learned maintenance, etc. Also I spent time at Norfolk Naval Base
attending a fire fighting school run by the Boston Fire Dept members. This stood me in good stead, as I will relate later.
Very early in November, the AO-26 was designated as the Commodore's flagship of a 50
ship Task Group of cargo ships (mostly Liberty ships) that was, with luck, to advance at 8 knots across the Atlantic to Africa. A white haired Naval officer, Commodore Cooke, (one wide gold stripe), recalled from retirement, came aboard with his staff and shared Capt. Von Heimburg's cabin.
It is my recollection that our group was the "Third Wave" destined for Casablanca and other cities on the Atlantic coast of Africa. We arrived shortly after the French agreed to a truce.
En route about 20 days, we had a number of "scares" where the escorts flew black flags warning of submarine contacts. But we lost no ships that trip. At each contact, Commodore Cooke gave signals moving the convoy 45 degrees to
starboard or port to avoid the escorts as they dropped depth charges That brings me to an interesting story. At times, we dogged the 1600-2000 watch, which placed me on the
bridge one evening as JOOD at 1800. We had a sub warning by the escorts and both our Captain and the Commodore were on the bridge. The Commodore had the signalmen
bend on "emergency turn" flags to halyards on each wing of the bridge, to save time. For this convoy's signals, we used the system known as Mersigs (Merchant Ship Signals).
A 45 degree turn to the Right, was signaled by hoisting the flag "Easy" - Execution of the simultaneous turn by all ships was signaled by lowering the flag. A 45-degree turn to port
was made using the "Item" flag. Hence on the starboard bridge wing, both Easy and Item were at the ready. On the port wing, both were also at the ready. This was done so that all ships to port and starboard could see the flags.
In the excitement of the moment, the Commodore, standing on the starboard bridge wing, shouted "Hoist Easy"! Up went Easy in front of him. Worried that ships to port might miss the signal, he shouted, "Hoist it up on the other side" and then, without looking, yelled "Execute". The signalman had hoisted Easy on the starboard side
and "Item" on the port side. Upon execution, both flags came down, and 25 ships sailed off to starboard and 25 to port and did so in miscellaneous fashion.
I remember Capt. Von Heimburg standing at the back of the Pilot House with a huge grin on his face. Since the bulk of the ships were slow vessels with maximum speed of 9 knots, it took several hours to get everybody back in formation. If
any submarines were present, I will bet the Germans were confused and thought we had a new way to make their life more miserable.