A deadly typhoon struck off the coast of the Philippines in mid-December, 1944. U.S. Navy Water Tender 3rd Class Charles Wohlleb was just 20. The only one in his small group of survivors with a life jacket, Wohlleb describes, in his own words, three days surviving at sea floating in shark-infested water rife with the blood of his fallen shipmates.
"Middle of the ocean. 500 miles off Luzon, that's where we were, the Philippines. The day of that storm, the waves were like 75 feet to 100 feet high. Yeah, 100 feet high. It's hard to believe, but it's true. One of the depth chargers breaks loose from the ship and bounces around the back of the ship and does a dance and splashes into the water. And the ship is going like this… So then it went dead. We're looking at the mast and it goes all the way over to the starboard side, and as it's coming back, Horkey says ‘Holy sh**, we're going to go over.' We went over to the port side, and we didn't come back. I don't see Horkey and Miller anymore. I never seen them anymore.
"So I got this life jacket on… I squeeze that thing and say ‘God, please make this thing work.' And I go up like a rocket. And I hold my hands up… so I wouldn't hit any gun or anything.
"Every time a wave would come, we'd all take a deep breath. And down 20 feet and back up again. And every time that happened, you'd lose 2 or 3 men. By the time the storm ended at 7:30 at night, we only had 9 guys left. The next day, like nothing happened. Like nothing ever happened.
"The first day, this kid Heater, I didn't know him that good, but you know how it is on a ship… he swam from underneath the ship while it was upside down. So I happened to grab him… So I hug him all day, his chest against mine, and his legs hanging down this way. And I said to Mr. Krauchuanas the surviving officer, he says to me how is he doing Charlie? I says I don't think he's alive. I think he's gone. He has no pulse, he's turning white. So we had to, I let him go. And that turned out to be a big thing, too, later on in life.
"How deep you think the water is? 7 miles deep. That's 35,000 feet. In other words, we have a mountain range down there. 35,000 feet!
"Bodies were all over. You know, I told you one guy swam out. He says, ‘I'm going to go get a malted milk.' He swam out at nighttime, I never seen him anymore. Another guy says I'm gonna go down to the scuttlebutt and get a drink of water. He went down, comes back up and he says, ‘Come on down, get some fresh water down there.' See, but they drank the salt water. Salt water… they tell you don't drink the salt water. In 2 hours, these guys are nuts. They don't know what they're doing. I really mean it. You know, we were all kids… 18, 19 years old.
"We were in the water for 3 days. The third night, going on the 4th day, we prayed. We all prayed. We got in a circle and we prayed. This was it. We knew we couldn't go another day. We were all broke out with sores, any place there was an opening, the salt water just… between your toes, you know, and your ears and nose and eyes. Everything just comes off. Thank God my pants didn't come off. My shirt was off, my socks were off. The only thing I had on was my pants. So 3:00 in the morning, I see an aircraft carrier. But we were seeing things, you know, so they didn't believe me at first. So they pass us and we're yelling and we're screaming. Guy in the back on the fan tail of that boat says, ‘We hear you, we hear you!' So I felt good right away. I knew we were going to get picked up.
"And they finally got us so now we let all the guys go up, the worst ones up first. And these guys are coming down the rope ladder and picking us up – we didn't have the strength to go up the side of a ship. I couldn't even walk! So they grab me under the arms, and I'm so sunburned, I yell. And they both let go! And I went right to the floor. They put me in the officer's quarters right there on the deck. And my bunk is right next to a water fountain, you know, a sink. So all I did all night is (fill up my cup and drink). You don't know how much you want water when you can't get it.
"They say to me, ‘Did you hear about the other two ships?' I say, ‘What?' Three of us capsized in that storm. Three destroyers. I was one of the lucky ones. Out of the 350 men, 24 of us survived on our ship. On the Hull, only 6 survived. And on the Monaghan, only 40 survived. So out of those 3 ships, 700 some odd men went down. And every day to this day I keep thinking of it. That's 1944… that's 70 some years. My buddies, they all went down. I say that to this day – I have nobody to write letters to. I could have grew up with them like a lot of these guys did, you know what I'm saying? They all went down.
"We stayed on the Swearer, but they didn't bring us right back. We stayed out there and seen some action, they did, pushed us aside like we were in their way. So they bring us back to the hospital ship, and we're on the hospital ship that night, and I'm sitting on a bunk and I started crying. Because I'm starting to realize what happened because I'm relaxed. I wasn't the only one crying, some of the other guys, too. So just finding out what really happened and the whole story is how come me, you know? When the other guys were much better than me. I mean, like Thompson, Frank Thompson never cursed. Then you wonder all these different things, you know? They all thought the same thing. You never was right for a while."
The USS Spence and its crew earned 8 battle stars for their service.
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