Off in the dark distance the black calm of the night was suddenly ripped apart by distress signals from merchant ships under attack
The sleep-shattering sound of General Quarters squawked it's urgent summons through the ship as the KEARNY headed full speed towards the scene of the attack
The glow from the rockets over the convoy seemed to linger and then flare violently. A tanker was suddenly blazing, her burning oil spreading out on the water as the hulk began to sink. Against the glare the KEARNY'S men could see a corvette idling in circles, trying to pick up survivors. The destroyer sprayed a pattern of depth charges from the fantail in an effort to dispense submarines which were likely to be lying deck-awash to avoid detection.
Somehow, one of the submarine pack either managed to maneuver to a position between th convoy and the KEARNY, or else caught the destroyer bearing down upon it in point-blank range. A lookout shouted his warning of a torpedo track-two-three-a fan of torpedos.
Lieutenant Commander Danis ordered the wheel hard over to port. The ship heeled to the rudder. A foaming streak shot across her bow, and the the destroyer lurched farther to port as a torpedo crashed into her starboard side, piercing a great hole just below the water line. The force of the explosion was foreward and upward. Four men who were on the deck were hurled over the side as the fire-room below them was blown open with such force that wreckage was thrown onto the bridge>
The detonation not only tore open the starboard side of the ship and ripped open the deck plates, but it blew away the starboard wing of the bridge and crumpled the deck hhouse. The foreward stack was broken and thrown back. The roar of the explosion was succeeded by a demoniacal screching that drowned out cries of pain and bellowed orders; the steam siren had jammed wide open.
Down below, the foreward bulkhead of the boiler room was broken through and the compartment where seven scalded men were trapped was flooding. But the after bulkhead, although deflected, held firm, leaving the foreward engine room intact. Lieutenant Robert J. Esslinger, USN, the engineering and damage-control officer and Chief Machinist's Mate Aucie McDaniel, were credited with saving the engine room. Seeing the last remaining bulkhead, bulged by the explosion, giving way under pressure of the inrushing sea, they shored up the danger point and saved the vital engines in the face of immediate annihilation. Another man, Harold C. Barnard, S1/C, although stunned by the explosion, groped through the foreward compartments checking all watertight fittings, realizing that at any moment the ship might sink.
Engine-room controls, compass and steering gear had been smashed on the bridge, and, to make things worse, the men on the bridge could heaar nothing nor make themselves heard above the scream of the open siren. For long minutes the wounded ship seemed to be without movement; then the bridge saw a feeble wake. The engines were still running and the shattered ship was still underway.
When he saw that the explosion had cut off control of the ship from the bridge, QMC H. McDougal knew what to do, and did it. By the time the engines were again pushing the destroyer through the water, he was able to steer by hand from the second conning station aft. Also responsible for the ship's remaining in control was another QM, J. Booth, whose battle station was in the after steering engine room. Alone, and trapped if the ship went down, he went to work to make the shift to hand steering. A third QM, M. Holland, saw that Booth was alone and would be unable to get out of the compartment if the ship were abandoned. He ran to the escape hatch which opened from the outside, unbolted it, tossed Booth a life jacket, and then stood by to lend what assistance he could in bringing the ship under control.
Without a compass, McDougal steered by the flag, using it as a windsock to determine direction by the way the wind was blowing.
The signal rockets were wet and misfired. The only signaling device that could get word to the KEARNY'S sister ships in the convoy of her situation was a Very pistol. In a few moments another destroyer came steaming over to the KEARNY'S side in response to the flares. The word passed that the KEARNY would be able to make port under her own power but the other destroyer was asked to search the area for the four men blown over the side when the torpedo struck. That dangerous mission was destined to be without success.
So the KEARNY began the long, limping voyage into port. All hands remained at General Quarters from midnight until six o'clock in the morning following the attack. Their ship had been cut almost completely through from the turn of the bilge on the starboard side. Only the heavy deck edge and side plating on the starboard side remained intact. Despite the fact that the foreward boiler room was flooded, the ship remained upright with very little change in trim, and although the foreward engine room was just abaft the shattered compartment, the machinery was so well built that the engine continued to run even though its foundation was twisted off center.
"In so far as I have been able to discover," said Under Secretary of the Navy james Forrestal, at the time the KEARNY reached port, "there is no record of any destroyer sustaining a direct torpedo hit in so vital a part of the ship being able to proceed to port."
But mark that the company and crew held together as well as the ship. Eleven men were dead or missing, and fully as many more wounded. Every man not rendered helpless turned to in the terrible emergency, and many had to do the work of two. So well had LCDR Danis organized his team that every member knew his job and the job of the man next to him, and did it without being told.
Danis won the Navy Cross for that. Two other men received the Navy Cross: MMC A. McDaniel, and the engineering officer, LT. R.J. Esslinger, who had prevented the engine room from flooding at risk of their lives. Letters of commendation from the Secretary of the Navy and an advancement in rating came to Paddock, Booth, Holland, Barnard and a third-class shipfitter, S. Kurtz.
Letters of commendation were sent from the Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet to McDougal, Blake, Chief Yoeman H. Leenknecht and TMC C. Mann. LT. E. Sarsfield, USN, the executive officer, and Ensign R. Perley, Jr., assistant engineering officer, were also commended by the Secretary of the Navy. It was Sarsfield's after-battle report that told the story of Kurtz and Leenknecht.
"Kurtz was on his station on the depth charge release when the explosion occurred, and was critically wounded. In spite of the loss of blood that nearly cost his life and terrible pain from the compound fractures of both legs, he remained quiet and calm and the display of courage made by him as he lay waiting for medical aid was of invaluable aid to the morale of all those on the bridge. His attention to duty and exceptional courage when wounded was a splended display of naval discipline which had its effect on the crew."
YM Leenknecht rescued Kurtz, who was on the verge of falling overboard from the shattered bridge as the wounded destroyer struggled against the sea. Leenknecht, without regard for personal saafety, crawled out on the swaying starboard wing of the bridge, which had been almost completely shot away, gave his shipmate rough-and-ready first aid and carried him to safety.
The wounded men were turned over to the attention of a first-class pharmacist's mate, R. Paddock, who was commended and promoted to a chief's rating with the following citation:
"By his untiring efforts, constant vigilance, cheerful giving os himself without rest, and knowledge of his duties he was able to keep alive the wounded and aid the mentally shocked so that all were kept alive and comfortable until the ship's arrival in port and transfer of the patients to the hospital. The doctors who later took charge of the patients highly praised his work."
One of the men whose life was saved was BMC L. Frontakowski. He was not injured in the explosion of the torpedo attack, but later, when he was struck by a lifeboat that was torn from it's moorings and swept across the deck of the ship as the damaged destroyer rolled in the rough North Atlantic seas. He was carried to a temporary dressing station and given first aid, but he had lost so much blood that a transfusion was needed as quickly as possible if he were to live.
Another destroyer which hove in sight eighteen hours after the attack was signaled with a request for blood plasma and a doctor. The doctor was on board, but not the blood plasma. An urgent request was radioed for a patrol plane to bring out the plasma, and the surgeon, LT.(JG) R.W. Rommell (MC), USNR, was lowered over the side of the destroyer in a whaleboat into pitching high seas to reach the KEARNY.
The passage between the two destroyers was rough, slow and dangerous, but successful. Dr. Rommell had scarcely completed his examination of Frontakowski, when the patrol plane was sighted. It circled and banked low over the injured ship. Then a package was dropped. It missed the deck of the destroyer and landed in the waves far astern. Men sprang to a boat while others strained their eyes to keep in sight the bobbing parcel that meant a shipmate's life. Fortunately, the package had been wrapped in a watertight oilskin and the plasma was safe.
But Frontakowski was certainly dying. The first transfusion showed no effect, the second likewise. But with the third vial, he began to come-to. when the ship reached Iceland, he was rushed to a service hospital where he received the final care that placed back on active service a few months later. It took all the efforts of two ships, and an airplane, besides the blood of three anonymous civilians back home, to do it.
In a few months, working under extremely hard and unsatisfactory conditions for the type of repair work needed, the KEARNY rejoined her Atlantic Destroyer Squadron.
A glimpse of the difficulties involved in returning the destroyer to active duty is contained in a letter from Admiral E.J. King to Captain Fiske:
Appreciating that the temporary repairs were rapidly accomplished in an open, notoriously rough harbor in icy water at a latitude and season where the available hours of daylight must have been very few and when the dangers and difficulties of working within an improvised caisson under such conditions were great, the successful accomplishment of this feat of repairs merits the sincere admiration of all, and is an inspiration to those in the Naval service ashore who are building and repairing units of the fleet.