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Portrait of a Shipmate
Robert J. Howard

For most of the first six years of HOLDER's service her Chief Master-at-Arms was Chief Torpedoman's Mate Robert J. Howard, U. S. Navy. Bob was a survivor of the USS REUBEN JAMES (DD 245), the first U. S. warship sunk in World War II. Actually the ship was sunk 37 days BEFORE the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the nation into the war. The "RUBE" was one of 119 of the flush deck, four stack destroyers that had survived the years since they were built for WW I (she was commissioned 24 Sep. 1920). She had left Argentia, Newfoundland on 23 October 1941 as one of 5 escorts protecting a 42 ship convoy, HX 156, bound for Great Britain with lend lease materials. Three of the escorting destroyers were "modern....BENSON (DD 421) flag, NIBLACK (DD 424) and HILARY P. JONES (DD 427). REUBEN JAMES and TARBELL (DD 152), another four piper, made up the balance of the escort Task Unit. In the early morning hours of 31 October, the convoy was approximately 250 miles south of Iceland where they were to meet the Royal Navy escorts which would take the convoy the rest of the way to England. At 0525 TARBELL, the Radio Direction Finder guardship, intercepted a series of numerals and long dashes, bearing 241 degrees True, roughly the port quarter of the formation, REUBEN JAMES' position. This type of signal was frequently used by U-Boats calling others to assist in attacks on convoys. Upon being notified of the contact, the escort commander ordered all escorts to commence patrolling stations (i.e. zigzagging ). About 0530 the REUBEN JAMES began a turn to port and added turns to increase speed, possibly to investigate a sonar contact. At that moment she was struck portside, in the forward fireroom by a torpedo fired by U-562.

Bob (TM3 at the time ) had been relieved of the helm and lookout midwatch about 0400 and had decided to try to catch a few winks in the torpedo shack in the after deckhouse, rather than go to his bunk in the forward crew's quarters. Dawn General Quarters was due shortly and it made little sense to go below when there was a comfortable pile of kapok life jackets on the torpedo workbench aft. Shortly after he had drifted off to sleep, Bob was jarred awake by a tremendous explosion and a heavy jolt (the ship's forward magazine exploded just seconds after the torpedo struck, killing all but two men forward of number two stack). When he opened the door to the shack all he could see was a sheet of fire. In a moment the entire forward part of the ship from number four stack was gone, and with it the fire that had threatened to ignite the bunker fuel already in the water. He grabbed a life jacket, then began passing the rest of them to his shipmates coming up from the after crew's quarters. No one was left to give the order to abandon ship, but it was obvious that it was necessary as the stern was settling fast. Only three of the six liferafts could be cut loose and it has been estimated that about 60 to 70 men went into the oil covered, 37 degree water. The day before the tragedy a sonar contact had been attacked on very short notice. To preclude launching depth charges still set on safe, the safety forks had been wired to the tracks. As a charge rolled, this safety device would automatically be removed, arming the charge. Charges were set to explode at 50 and 100 ft. alternately in accordance with standard doctrine. As the stern sank, at least two of the charges exploded when they reached their set depth, killing many of the men in the water, badly injuring many more. The survivors pulled themselves together, putting the more seriously injured aboard the rafts. There was no panic, every man reacted exactly as though it was a routine abandon ship drill.

Because there was danger of another attack from the U-Boat, rescuing the men in the water could not be accomplished in a normal fashion. NIBLACK and H. P. JONES rigged cargo nets over the side and made runs toward the survivors at 15 to 20 kts.. They would back down, snatching a few men with each pass, then speed away to make another pass. Swimmers rescued many of those unable to help themselves, while able bodied survivors themselves helped their mates grab heaving lines with lifejackets tied to them. NIBLACK rescued 36 men, JONES pulled 11 from the sea, but found that one man was already dead (he was buried at sea later in the day ). By 0858 there were no more survivors and the OTC ordered NIBLACK to rejoin the formation, while JONES was ordered to remain in the area to continue the search for additional survivors and the U-Boat. The British escorts showed up around noon, relieving the American ships who turned north for Iceland. On 2 November one of the survivors aboard NIBLACK died and his body was transferred to the USS IDAHO (BB24) at the Fleet Anchorage in Iceland. 45 men survived. By some miracle, two men survived the explosion of the forward part of the ship. The Bosun's Mate of the watch had been in the well deck and was about to ascend the ladder to the bridge. The explosion of the torpedo blew him overboard, well clear of the ship. The helmsman was thrown to the deck by the torpedo blast, and when the magazine blew up he was thrown through the pilot house canopy and into the sea. Although neither man had a life jacket, they were able to stay afloat long enough to join their mates on one of the rafts. All seven of the officers, 12 CPO's and 79 of the other enlisted men, plus one enlisted passenger perished.

Thirty six hours after the incident, President Roosevelt placed the Coast Guard under control of the Navy where it would remain until after the war. Two weeks later the Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of the Navy appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urging repeal of the Neutrality Act of 1939. It was repealed, of course, but too late to save lives. Bob Howard went back to sea in another destroyer after a brief leave to see his family in Buffalo, New York. Throughout the remainder of the war, Bob never slept below decks, regardless of how bad the weather might have been. By May of 1946, when he joined the commissioning crew of HOLDER in Orange, Texas, he had more or less gotten over the experience, but he always remained super cautious. As Master-at-Arms, he was not always the favorite Chief on board, but he was always fair and the first to show youngsters the ropes ( no pun intended ) or lend a helping hand in any situation. To this day, as a member of our Association, any one of us can count on Bob Howard.



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      was last Modified: 16 April 2008

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