An anonymous letter to the Bureau of Naval Personnel, dated 16 March 1944 and excerpted here, was included in Vice Admiral Felix Johnson’s 1976 Naval Institute oral history. “From dates, we were able to determine which ship he was talking about,” Admiral Johnson wrote. “It was the USS Monssen (DD-436), and the captain, his beloved captain, was at that time Lieutenant Commander, later Vice Admiral, Roland Smoot.”
I am a survivor. I am a survivor from a destroyer sunk in Old Ironbottom Bay in the South Pacific. . . . I have a story to tell about a ship, a grand little ship, and her skipper.
That ship lived. It lived and breathed and had a soul, just the same as any human being. And its soul and spirit were that of her skipper. The ship has since been lost, and the skipper left us just three short weeks before, and when he left there were 200 men and officers topside to see him off, and not a word was spoken—the most eloquent tribute to the grandest shipmate a fellow ever had.
You see, the skipper gave birth to this ship. He was a tall, gaunt westerner with a soft-spoken voice and a smile that made you feel like one of his best friends. But his eyes flashed hell, fire, and brimstone if you let him down. He gave his soul to that ship. She absorbed his quiet dignity, his strength and character, and when she was attacked, she fought with this hell, fire, and brimstone.
With him on board, the ship was a living soul. Without him, she was an empty shell. When he went over the side for the last time on that unhappy day last October, it was as though he took some vital part of each of us with him, as if the soul that made her the grand old craft she was had curled up and died and let her spirit wither and her body tire.
He’d had her through a year and a half of hell on earth. He’d fought the German U-boat in the North Atlantic. He’d pushed her through days and weeks of the cruel winter gales that howl down through the Denmark Strait. He’d kept our interest and loyalty up through months of the worst kind of operations, far from home, when food was scarce, when there was no mail, where liberty meant an hour in a cold Nissen hut. Still, we had our ship, our snug little ship, and we had our skipper.
After Pearl Harbor, they needed a good ship, and so we went west. There we hit the works. After Tokyo with Jimmy Doolittle, the fringe of the Coral Sea action, then Midway, then through the entire Solomons campaign, shooting, hunting, fighting, screaming, fueling, working our hearts out and glad to do it, because up there on the bridge, getting thinner and thinner and grayer and grayer, was our grand old man guiding our destiny, cheering us on, keeping our hearts busting with pride in the way he fought her, the way he handled her, the way she answered his every whim.
And through it all, through all the battles, never a man was hurt. Oh, there’d been some close ones alright, but, God, the way he’d charge in, parry like lightning, and dash out, using her like she was designed to be used. And there up on her director were beautiful painted tokens of his fighting and organizing skill, pictures of two enemy subs.
Then there were nine Japanese flags representing all the hell and havoc we wreaked on Tulagi, Tanambogo, Gavutu, Mokambo, and Guadalcanal in the Solomons. 111,000 miles of ocean he pushed us through, two shiploads of ammunition, three major battles, many minor engagements, literally hundreds of beautiful maneuvers, all in about 17 months of high-strung exciting adventure.
That, my friend, is service, and perhaps it wouldn’t be so remarkable if you hadn’t lived aboard this sweet little ship that gave us the service and the man that made her tick. Teamwork, organization, skill, and, above all, pride, unbounded pride and joy, throbbed in her. You don’t have that without a leader, a hell-for-leather, God-fearing leader. My friend, we had the original.
So, then he left us. His body was sick, but his spirit and soul never let any of us down for one second. He had to go, and his eyes were red, and so were ours as we helped him over the side into the little boat that took him away. The last picture we had of him was his tall, straight body, stooped a little in pain, standing in the cockpit of the gig, smiling through his tears with that warm smile that said you were his personal friend.
For going on two years I served in the grandest ship and worked for the greatest skipper this Navy ever had, and I think you ought to know about him.