Our almost getting sunk occurred a couple of nights after the shellback initiation. General quarters sounded in the middle of the night. The chilling klaxon howled and I could hear the voice of the boson on the speaker throughout the ship saying, “GENERAL QUARTERS—MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS! THIS IS NO DRILL!” as, life jacket and steel helmet in hand, I shot up the long ladder from the hangar deck to the flight deck where my battle station was at the Number Four F4F.
I yanked the canvas engine cover off, pulled the propeller through, loaded the shotgun starter, and then scrambled into the cockpit ready to start the engine if the order came. While I waited tensely in the cockpit of the F4F, I could clearly hear the voices from the low bridge on the superstructure. Our radar had picked up a bogey ten thousand yards out off our port bow. It was apparently a large surface ship.
Sweat trickled down my face even in the cool of the night as I listened to the captain’s talker repeating the ranges and bearings of the unknown ship. It closed to within eight thousand yards (five miles) then the range opened while it moved around to our starboard beam where it once more started to close, apparently looking us over in the moonlight.
If the bogey was a heavy enemy warship, our little destroyer/escort would be badly out-gunned but COPAHEE was in his charge. When the unseen ship was again at eight thousand yards and still closing, the DE went to flank speed and took fof for the larger ship. The bogey continued to close as the talker read off the ranges—“seven thousand—six thousand—five thousand.”
At four thousand five hundred yards (less than three miles) the radar blip of our escort neared the bogey and the range and bearing became constant for a while. We still waited tensely. One hand was on the engine primer pump and the other poised to fire the starter cartridge.
It seemed like an hour but was probably not more than five minutes when a blinker light showed from the DC. The signalman was too fast for me to read the message but in a few minutes the ship’s speakers came alive, “SECURE GENERAL QUARTERS.”
After re-installing the engine cover on my airplane, I went to the mess compartment for a cup of coffee where I got the full story. The bogey was an American heavy cruiser on patrol alone that our schedule did not show, nor did the cruiser’s schedule show us in the area. When he had closed on the boy our silhouette appeared to be that of a RYUKO-class Japanese carrier.
The cruiser had opened the range then and moved around to our beam where he began closing with his guns manned and ready. He had intended to turn at the four thousand yards and fire a broadside at the carrier. Fortunately, at four thousand five hundred yards, less than a minute before opening fire, a telescoped picked up the white stars on the airplanes on our flight deck and that delayed him until the DE got there and confirmed our identity with the proper recognition signal for that date. I sat there and thanked The Man Upstairs that we had scrubbed the lampblack off those white stars.