The Near Sinking of the Sally Maru


Charles Howell AG2, OI Division
USS Salisbury Sound (AV-13)

I relate the following incident with the caveat that it is drawn from memory 53 years after the fact and that it is my perception of what occurred. Therefore, it may not concur with the perceptions of others. I believe the incident took place in April of 1956 aboard the sea plane tender USS Salisbury Sound (AV-13), during its return to NAS Alameda after a tour of duty in the Far East as the flagship of the Taiwan Patrol Force.

As a ship approaches the coast of California, the ground swells in the shallower water can often become quite large, and in this instance the vessel was pitching and rolling actively. The time was in the early hours of the morning, and I, along with those of my shipmates who were not on watch, was fast asleep in my rack in our berthing compartment two decks below the main deck and midway between the fantail and the hangar. We had moved to this compartment from another one over the fantail during our recent overseas tour, and since it was further down in the bowels of the ship and not over the ships screws, the ride was somewhat more tranquil.

The down side was that our new home was said to be below the water line, and the hatch cover over the ladder leading down to our compartment was hydraulically controlled from the Bridge. The flip of a switch could close the hatch and perhaps save the ship from sinking. However, those hapless souls caught on the other side of the hatch were left to the clemency of Neptune.

I was aware of one other opening to the upper deck. It was a narrow escape hatch with a wheel controlled hatch cover that was just over the tier of racks in which I slept. Unfortunately, my best buddy, who slept in the rack just under the hatch, was somewhat sturdier of build than I, and I knew that he would reach it first and plug it up. I had thus already written that off as a viable escape alternative.

To this day, I do not know what awakened me, but it was probably the sound of water rushing into the compartment. At any rate, I rolled over and looked at the deck. The deck was awash with water, and debris was floating back and forth. My first thoughts were that we were sinking, and that I wanted to be on the other side of that hatch cover. I leapt to the deck and ran for the hatch at flank speed. I am not sure if I was first up the ladder or only among the first.

The sound of running feet on the deck was similar to that of a herd of buffalo in a stampede. We wound up on the open main deck, aft of the hangar, in nothing but our skivvies, and it was windy and cold. After a short period, the word was passed that it was safe to go back down to the compartment. Apparently, as the ship had heeled over, a tremendous ground swell had entered one of the air vents leading to our compartment, and that was the source of all the water.

When we arrived back in our quarters, the deck was still awash, and we had an awful mess to clean up. Lots of deck swabbing and many wet blankets. To add insult to injury, I also discovered that my best buddy, who slept above me, was still in his rack fast asleep. He had slumbered through the whole thing. I was somewhat disturbed that I had run off and left him to his fate. I had abandoned my shipmate and the man who was later to be the best man at my wedding.

There may have been some among us who paused to awaken their buddies before taking their leave. Given the speed of that troop movement, I congratulate them on their efficiency. As for me, I have long since concluded that given time to think it through, I might have chosen to do something a little more heroic. However, when I am awakened from a deep sleep and perceive myself to be in imminent danger, it is every man for him-self.

Needless to say, the ship arrived in sound condition at NAS Alameda, and my best buddy never attached any blame to me for leaving him in the lurch. Good buddies like that are not easy to come by.

As of this date, I have no idea how many of those who participated in that marathon are still extant. If you are among them, I wish you well.



About the Author

After leaving the Sally Maru in Subic Bay, Charlie went to Los Angeles, where he married his waiting sweetheart. He attended Cal Poly, Pomona for four years and earned a B.S. in Biological Sciences. He then went North to Washington State University in Pullman, Washington for another four years, emerging with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. He was hired by the USDA as a Research Plant Pathologist, and he spent the next 40 years working on the biological control of cotton seed and seedling diseases and on soil microbiology. He also served as an adjunct professor in the department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology at Texas A&M University. He then retired in Bryan, Texas, where he and his wife enjoy the company of their 4 children and 4 grandchildren.