Typhoon was worst day of World War II for John Wisse

Seaman 2/C John Wisse is pictured at 20 in his Navy dress uniform. Photo provided

It wasn’t the bombing of the carrier USS Franklin off the coast of Japan on March 19, 1945, or the attack by 31 Kamikazes on the four destroyers leading the Franklin’s task force off Okinawa on April 14, 1945, that John Wisse of Rotonda, Fla. considers his worst day in World War II.

The former signalman aboard the destroyer USS Hickox, DD 673, says his worst day was Dec. 19, 1944, in the Philippine Sea, when his ship and the rest of the task force rode out a 135 mph typhoon for 15 hours.

Three of the four destroyers sailing with the Hickox in Task Force 58 commanded by Adm. William “Bull” Halsey went down with almost all hands. Wisse’s ship was the only one of the destroyers to survive the storm.

“The Spence, Hull, Monaghan and Hickox were put in one group to weather the storm,” he said. “Each ship had 325 men aboard and most of them were lost on the other three destroyers. Only 91 were saved. Halsey was brought up on a court martial because of the loss of these ships in the storm, but nothing ever happened.

The heavy cruiser USS Santa Fe (left) pours water on the 27,000 ton carrier USS Franklin after she was hit by two bombs from a low-flying Japanese fighter plane off the coast of Japan on March 19, 1945. In the background is the USS Hickox that John Wisse served on. He and his shipmates were credited with saving a number of sailors from the Franklin that day. Photo provided

“Halsey’s people had us make course changes to get us out of the storm. With every course correction, they put us closer to the eye of the typhoon,” Wisse said. “It got so bad there was nothing we could do. Waves were 50 to 80 feet high, we lost our steering and the destroyer was rolling almost 70 degrees, the limit for righting itself. We were in irons, which means we had no control when we were in the trough.”

All of the air intakes on the Hickox were rusted open and sea water was running into them and flooding the ship. Seawater was 3 feet deep in Wisse ‘s sleeping compartment.

“We were told to bail or sink. Everybody started bailing,” he said. “We had to take a single bucket of water at a time through an escape hatch that was an opening about 24 inches in diameter. Every time the ship would roll, everybody went flying. It was a mess.

“I got a call in the middle of the storm to go up to the bridge. I went naked, and when I got on the upper deck, the wind was blowing 150 mph,” he recalled. “I was happy to be up there because, if anything happened, I had a chance to go overboard.”

Eventually their ship survived the storm. Everything topside had pretty much been carried away. The boat davits were gone and the stanchions had been pulled out by the wind and waves.

DD 673 was a Fletcher Class destroyer that could do 30 knots or better at flank speed if called on. This was Wisse’s home afloat for 2 1/2 years. Photo provided

Wisse was cited by the Secretary of the Navy, along with many other Hickox sailors, for the part they played in the rescue of the Franklin sailors after the attack off the Japanese coast.

The USS Franklin

It was March 19, 1945 when Task Force 38 — which included the carrier USS Franklin and the destroyer Hickox, among others, commanded by Adm. Mark Mitchner — was conducting carrier raids on the Kyushu-Shikoku area when the carrier was hit by two bombs from a single Japanese plane that flew low over the fleet.

The Franklin was in the process of preparing for an early morning raid on the enemy coast when the attack occurred. The flight deck was filled with refueled airplanes loaded with bombs and rockets.

The perfectly spaced bombs hit the flight deck on both ends of the 27,000-ton carrier, turning its flight deck into an instant inferno. Sailors were blown into the air from the concussion, others were burned to a crisp in the fire and many more jumped over the side to escape instant death by immolation.

“We were 800 yards astern of the Franklin, acting as plane guard, when the carrier got hit,” Wisse said. “Our skipper ran the bow of our destroyer up under the stern of the carrier. There were 20 guys trapped on the deck because of the fires inside the carrier.

“We rigged up lines from the stern of the Franklin to the Hickox’s 5-inch number-one gun and pulled two stretcher cases across on those lines. The rest of the guys jumped off the carrier onto our deck below,” he said. “It was after that we put a whale boat in the water and I went out with it to rescue sailors.

“Some of them were in really bad shape. There was one pilot whose hands were badly burned. I grabbed onto his hands and started pulling him back into the boat and pulled all the skin off his finger. The only thing sticking up were 10 white stumps where his finger had been,” Wisse said as he lowered his eyes and shook his head.

By day’s end the whale boat he was in had rescued five boatloads of sailors. By then the Franklin had extinguished the fires aboard ship and a few hours later the carrier’s list was corrected and she was under power again.

The final toll: 832 killed or missing, 270 more sailors were injured in her 2,500 man crew.

Skipper was the Hickox’s mascot throughout the war in the Pacific. During the height of a typhoon that sank three other destroyers off the Philippines in December 1944 the pup was washed over the side, but wound up on the destroyer’s stern and was rescued. Photo provided

Among those who survived were two Marines who Wisse took under his wing for a few days aboard the Hickox.

“I gave them my underwear, socks and extra tooth brushes. We got to be pretty good friends for the five days they were on the ship,” he said. “One Sunday morning there was a knock on my parents’ door back in North Jersey. When they opened it, there stood two Marines in full dress uniform.

“They told my parents, ‘Your son saved our lives. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your son.’ My parents were flabbergasted,” Wisse said in a voice that cracked a little. “I’ve tried to find those Marines for almost 60 years with no success.”

Engagements he was in

John Wisse of Rotonda was a signalman aboard the Fletcher-Class destroyer USS Hickox, part of Adm. William “Bull” Halsey’s Task Force 58 and Adm. Mark Mitchner’s Task Force 38 in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II. He and his ship saw action at:

* Kwajalein and Majuro atolls

* Truk attack

* Capture of Saipan

* Battle of the Philippine Sea

* Capture and occupation of Guam

* Battle of Leyte Gulf

* Okinawa attack

* Assault and occupation of Iwo Jima

* Fleet raids against Honshu and Nansei Shoto

Wisse is pictured in his war room with a model and pictures of his ship the USS Hickox that he served aboard during World War II. Sun photo by Don Moore

Rescued sailor’s thank you note

John Wisse received this hand-written note from a sailor he rescued from the carrier USS Franklin a life time ago off the coast of Japan:

Dear Mr. Wisse :

This upcoming March 19, 1994, at about 1140 hours 50 years ago, you and two others of your USS Hickox (DD 673) shipmates pulled me aboard from the sea and to the safety of your ship. I’ll remember that time for all my days, as I’m sure you will also.

Your men treated me, then took me below, wrapped in blankets, to one of your shipmate’s bunks. I was forced from the USS Franklin around 10:35. I remember very vividly the great care I received from you and your Hickox shipmates. For years I wanted to say to you all, wherever you may be, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for your concern, care, kindness, thoughtfulness and sacrifice to those of us that you saved from the Franklin.

My best wishes to you and yours and godspeed.

Jim M. Stuart,
Vice president, McDonald & Co.


This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2003 and is republished with permission.

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Comments

  1. My Dad was on the Hickox and often told stories of swimming out to rescue pilots. He still talks about the typhoon and the dog as well.

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