World War II carrier Intrepid returning to her berth of honor

JACKSON – After all the grim economic news out of Wall Street, there was at least one cheerful story last week: following a two- year facelift, the tough old aircraft carrier Intrepid came back to its New York waterfront home, soon to again host thousands of visitors.

The 36,000-ton World War II flattop in 2006 made network television news when tugboats started to move the old carrier from its mooring downstream for overhaul when the storied vessel stuck in the harbor muck.

As a crowd of celebrity guests watched in dismay, efforts to dislodge the carrier came to naught. Eventually it took a month before Navy divers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged thousands of tons of mud to finally dislodge the ship and moved it to dry-dock in Bayonne, N.J.

The Intrepid has long held a special spot in my heart because the big flattop 64 years ago in the central Pacific War zone took the Japanese torpedo that could very well have ended my life. I’ll explain.

On Feb. 17, 1944, our Task Force 58 strike had surprised and battered the Japanese fleet harbored in their central Pacific stronghold at Truk Island and we were retiring toward our forward area base when the angered Japanese at nightfall struck back at us with a vengeance.

Out of the blackness, a “Betty” bomber launched a torpedo at our position in the destroyer screen.

“Stand by to receive torpedo on the port side,” came the word over the PA system from our alert skipper, Capt. Charles Crichton. We crew members of the USS Stephen Potter grew tense, not knowing where it would hit.

Ty Tyler, a member of Repair One, turned to the first lieutenant, Art McDearmid, and asked if he would sign a liberty chit for him. “Not only will I sign it, I’ll go with you,” replied the good-natured McDearmid, (who unfortunately is among our deceased Potterites.)

Some crewmen down in the ship’s fire-room remember a sickening, swishing sound from under the ship. The big silver fish had missed us.

But within moments, we heard that the Intrepid had been hit in the stern and was steaming out of control. It’s steering engine room flooded; 17 of the Intrepid crew had died. The Potter, with another destroyer, was directed to standby and screen the crippled carrier.

When the carrier did manage to regain steerage and make headway, the Potter was told to accompany her to Majuro in the Mariannas Islands for refueling, and then we delivered Intrepid safely for extensive repairs in Pearl Harbor, limping across 1,000 dangerous miles of the Pacific.

The Intrepid would not only live to fight again, she would come to be called the “ghost ship” by the Japanese for surviving pounding from bombs and two Kamikazes. She was switched later into a different task group from the Potter and we were never called again to render aid to the Intrepid. But we rescued dozens of survivors from two of her fellow carriers when they were hit by Kamikazes.

Poetically, Intrepid became one of the very few ships that fought in World War II to be saved from the scrap heap and preserved, winding up at Pier 86 in New York 26 years ago as the centerpiece of a WWII museum.

Thanks to friend Marshall Bennett, who in 2003 gave up his safe seat as Mississippi’s State Treasurer to join a New York law firm, I had a heads-up several weeks ago about the Oct. 2 return of the Intrepid as a fixture on the New York riverfront.

Bennett is a member of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum support group which, he informed me, is planning a grand re-opening of a bigger and better museum on Nov. 8.

The formal reopening will be preceded by a “Salute to Freedom” dinner two days earlier on the flight deck attended by special guests and sponsors of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. It provides aid to families of crew members who lost their lives during the carrier’s wartime service and former crew members still alive.

Guest speaker for the fund-raiser dinner will be Bill Clinton, who in 1996 became the first sitting president to visit the Intrepid, landing by helicopter on the carrier’s flight deck and greeted by 1,500 U.S. military personnel.

It seems fitting that the oft-battered Intrepid – which has a special meaning to me – remains a poignant reminder of what we fondly call the Good War.

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through edinman@earthlink.net.