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Home > March 2014 > This Month in <em>Intrepid</em>’s History
This Month in Intrepid’s History
Posted: 3/17/2014 9:17:01 AM

Intrepid at War: March 1944

USS Intrepid was commissioned seventy years ago this past August 16, joining the U.S. Navy in the middle of World War II. For the next two years this ship and crew trained, fitted out and then fought their way across the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, the contributions the ship and crew made to victory were vital and the price they paid heavy. Travel with our Museum Tour Guides here each month as they follow Intrepid’s journey and its crew’s experience throughout World War II.

Intrepid at War

Photo taken in Hunters Point dry-dock shows the temporary hull patch on Intrepid. Parts of the jury-rudder are also visible in the background. (Collection of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum)

March 1944: The Journey Home

While stories of wartime are often dominated by violence and the excitement of battle, in reality, for the soldiers and sailors involved, more time is often spent waiting or recovering from battle than actually fighting. For Intrepid on February 17, 1944, after only one month in the combat zone, a torpedo hit at Truk forced the ship to retire. Thus, the crippled carrier began one of the longest and most dangerous journeys of its career. Over the next 33 days, Intrepid slowly made its way first to Pearl Harbor and then on to Hunters Point, California for five months of major repairs.  Along the way, Intrepid’s crew experienced the dangerous uncertainty that comes with waiting, but also found time to celebrate one of the more lighthearted traditions of naval culture.

After the successful raid on Truk Atoll and a late night torpedo hit, Intrepid struggled with a disabled rudder. At the moment of impact, the ship was in the midst of a left turn and the rudder was jammed in that position.  Without steering control, Intrepid sped past its sister ship USS Essex, narrowly missing collision. Intrepids continuous turn took it safely past the rest of the ships of the Task Group, but also took it out of the protective formation, further exposing the wounded carrier to more attacks by airplanes and possibly submarines. A crippled carrier would be an easy and valuable target.

In an effort to regain control of his ship, Captain Thomas Sprague ordered the two port-side propellers to rotate faster while reversing the two starboard-side propellers to counteract the jammed rudder. Slowly, Intrepid was brought back to a relatively straight heading and headed toward Pearl Harbor where the damage would be further assessed.  Along the way, strong wind gusts threatened to blow the ship off course. Years later Captain Sprague explained, “The ship kept turning west towards Tokyo, but right then, I wasn’t interested in going that direction.” After meeting with the ship’s damage control officer, Commander Philip S. Reynolds, Sprague ordered a canvas “sail” be rigged in the anchor chain room in the forecastle. Mostly sewn together from hatch covers and scrap canvas, the jury-rigged sail helped to pull the bow of the ship back on course. When they arrived at Pearl Harbor on February 24, sailors joked that Intrepid was the only aircraft carrier to have ever “sailed” into port.
Intrepid at War

A jury-rigged sail in the ship’s forecastle helped Intrepid navigate with a crippled rudder. The sail was constructed mostly from scrap canvas. (Collection of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum)

Despite the dangers of this slow and erratic journey, the crew took the opportunity to celebrate a time honored maritime tradition: the Crossing the Line ceremony. According to this tradition, if a sailor has crossed the Equator or “line” on board a U.S. Navy ship, he is considered a Trusty Shellback. If not, he is considered a Lowly Pollywog and must first answer for his “crimes” before the Court of King Neptune. Intrepid had crossed the equator while en route to the Marshall Islands on January 23, but the pending battle forced the ceremony be postponed to a later date. Now, with the slow journey home, several Shellbacks portraying King Neptune’s Court commenced the ceremony.

First, the existing Shellbacks accused the Pollywogs of invented crimes that usually had a comedic twist. Intrepid sailors faced such accusations as “laughing at stale jokes” and “doubting the word of a shellback.” Once convicted, the Pollywogs were subsequently punished for their crimes by passing several “tests” often involving tasks like crawling through garbage and being sprayed off by fire hoses. Upon completion of these “tests,” the sailor became a Shellback and a more trusted member of the crew. While the Crossing the Line Ceremony may seem strange to some, it is an important moment in a sailor’s career and serves a practical function. For Intrepid’s crew, this ceremony was all the more significant as they slowly withdrew from their first combat and experience with loss. Intrepid was a combat ship that had already seen some serious action, and for the men on board, trust in shipmates was a key element to their survival, which built a sense of unity and morale on board. For that reason, although it has never been officially sanctioned by the U.S. Navy, versions of this tradition still occur today.
Intrepid at War

Intrepid crew members are sprayed with fire hoses after crawling through garbage during the Crossing the Line ceremony. This unofficial ceremony helps to build camaraderie amongst the crew. (Collection of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum)

Upon arrival at Pearl Harbor on February 24, Intrepid entered dry-dock for a complete damage assessment. The crew soon found out their journey was not over. Five days later, with a temporary patch on the hole and the crumpled rudder removed, Intrepid was deemed seaworthy and ordered back to San Francisco for more extensive repairs. However, after only a few hours at sea, a sudden storm swept over the ship and with no rudder or maneuvering capability, Intrepid dangerously bobbed around in the high winds and heavy waves. Captain Sprague determined Intrepid needed a rudder in order to continue the journey and waited for a chance to return to Pearl Harbor. While waiting off the coast, former crew member Raymond Stone later recalled listening to the famous nightly radio broadcasts of Tokyo Rose, a Japanese radio personality portrayed by various English-speaking women. While playing popular music, she included propaganda messages intended to demoralize Allied personnel. Stone recalled one special message:

“This next song is for those lonesome sailors on that carrier offshore Oahu. We know where you are and will send our submarines to sink you. Be sure to say your prayers before you close your eyes tonight.” 

Normally, having a ship’s exact location called out by enemy forces over the radio would have been unnerving. But for Intrepid’s crew, many understood Rose’s comments were just propaganda. After all, Pearl Harbor served as a major base for the U.S. Navy and it was a safe guess that at any given time there would be a “carrier offshore Oahu.” Nevertheless, the incident served as another example of just how dangerous the journey away from battle was for the crippled carrier.

When the weather improved, Intrepid returned to Pearl Harbor to receive a temporary rudder, which provided some maneuverability. On March 16, Intrepid once again left Pearl Harbor for San Francisco. Finally, on March 22, 1944, after a relatively uneventful six-day cruise, the ship slid safely into dry-dock at Hunters Point, California. At last, Intrepid’s long and dangerous journey was over. Over the last month, the crew had experienced both the fearful uncertainty that comes with long periods of waiting and the importance of brotherhood during tough times. Now began an even longer waiting period while their ship received a complete five-month overhaul, and those aboard prepared themselves for the next foray into the Pacific War.

Read the previous installments of "This Month in Intrepid's History":

October 1943
November 1943
December 1943
January 1944
February 1944



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