Uniquely American war heroes

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Pearl Harbor attack is in the beginning of one of my favorite World War II movies, “In Harm’s Way.” The film depicts, during the attack, a Navy lieutenant junior grade, the most senior person on his ship (because everyone more senior planned to show up late after a Saturday night officers’ dance), ordering his ship to get out of the harbor and not pick up his superior officers.

If that scene were just a figment of the writer’s imagination, it still would have captured the American viewer’s imagination, because Americans have a soft spot for those who bend, twist or even ignore orders from above for a better reason. The most contemptuous feature of World War II atrocities was probably those in Nazi Germany who facilitated the Holocaust on the grounds that they were just following orders.

But the scene in “In Harm’s Way” was based on two actual incidents at Pearl Harbor. Professor Walter’s History Lesson explains the first:

The USS Aylwin (DD-355) was moored with her squadron, only a small boiler operating to provide power for auxiliary services.  About half of her crew was on leave that Sunday morning when, at 7:55 a.m., the sound of airplane engines caught everyone’s attention. Three minutes later the skeleton crew of the Aylwin returned fire.  Five minutes later the “black gang” lit the main two boilers, bringing them fully online in 15 minutes.  At 8:29 a.m. the commander of the fleet ordered all able ships to get underway.  At 8:50 a.m. a Japanese bomb went off 75 yards from the Aylwin’s bow.  Eight minutes later the Aylwin, leaving her stern wire and anchor chain behind, left for the open sea.

The 50% skeleton crew performed admirably in taking the vessel out to sea.  The only officers on board were four ensigns.  The senior most was Ensign Stanley B. Caplan, who had only served at sea for eight months.  They guided the ship out while maintaining continuous fire.  As they left Pearl Harbor the men topside were able to see a small motor launch 1,000 yards off the entrance buoys. In that launch they saw their captain, Lt. Commander Robert H. Rodgers, and other officers of the Aylwin in a small WWI destroyer following them.  Orders were to make way for the open sea so they could not slow down.  The officers were left behind on the their small vessel.  In the battle one of the screws was damaged.  For 36 hours the ship patrolled and worked chasing down a potential submarine before heading back to dock for repairs on December 12.  Lt. Commander Rodgers spoke highly of his men who continued without him:

The conduct of the personnel was magnificent…. Every man more than did his job and was eager to fight.”

Then went on to speak of Ensign Caplan:

“The conduct (of this man) … in superbly taking command for 36 hours during war operations of the severest type is a most amazing and outstanding achievement.”

Nate Nickel adds:

When the Japanese attack began, Ensign Caplan suddenly found himself in the middle of an unexpected war, with only a skeleton crew and no commanding officer. He was now the person who had to make the decisions and he had to make them fast.

The first thing Ensign Caplan did, without being told by any superior officer, was to order the ship’s boilers started so that they could get under way. Some 30 minutes later, he received formal orders to get the ship steaming and out of Pearl Harbor as soon as possible.

Since the boilers had already been started, the Aylwin was able to start moving, avoiding a nearby bomb blast in the process. In fact, the ship left the mooring pier so quickly that the anchor chain and a stern line were torn off. Other ships were not so fortunate that day.

As the ship was leaving the harbor, under full aerial attack, the crew saw a strange sight. Trailing about a thousand yards behind the ship was a small motorboat carrying the Aylwin’s commanding officer and the other senior officers, who had scrambled after the attack began to join their shipmates.

The officers were waving frantically for the ship to stop so they could get on board and resume command. (If you’ve ever watched the 1965 movie In Harm’s Way starring John Wayne, there is an early scene in it that’s based on this event.)

So what did the inexperienced young officer do when faced with this situation? Did he stop and wait for his commander to get on board? Under normal conditions, that decision would not have required much thought, especially if Ensign Caplan valued his future Navy career. In this circumstance, however, doing so would have jeopardized both the ship and the lives of the crew.

As a result, Ensign Caplan never hesitated in making his decision and continued at full speed toward the ocean, leaving the motorboat and its occupants bouncing around helplessly in his wake. The officers eventually had to quit the chase and later unceremoniously boarded another ship.

We can only guess, but it’s probably a safe bet that the commander and his senior officers used some choice language while watching their young subordinate leave them all behind without a second thought. Unlike many ships that day, however, the Aylwin made it safely out of Pearl Harbor, survived the attack unscathed, and was ready for further combat operations in the Pacific Ocean. …

So, what happened to Ensign Caplan? His commanding officer, the same one left behind waving and yelling for him to stop, recommended him for special commendation. He specifically cited Ensign Caplan for “superbly taking command” and his conduct aboard the USS Aylwin as “a most amazing and outstanding achievement.”

Caplan wasn’t the only ensign suddenly in command of a destroyer. Seymour Brody writes about the USS Blue:

Ensigns Nathan Asher and Milton Moldane were aboard the U.S. S. BLUE, a destroyer that was at sea protecting the shores of Pearl Harbor. That morning, the BLUE was docked for refueling. The skipper of the destroyer was on shore and Ensign Asher was in charge of the ship.

Ensign Moldane was a graduate of the Washington University Law School and a native of St. Louis. Ensign Asher was a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Both men were having breakfast when they were informed that the Japanese had attacked the battleships anchored at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor and that they were to take the BLUE out to sea.

Asher directed the crew in heading the BLUE out. Moldane took charge of the forward machine guns and watched the ARIZONA, a battleship, take a direct hit and sink. He describes what he saw as the BLUE battled its way out to sea:

“I could see Japanese planes coming down about 30 or 40 feet over our heads. dropping bombs and shooting at anything that happened to come along. Our ship kept firing at the planes as it headed out to sea. I went out to the bridge to help Asher when we both saw a Japanese plane that the BLUE’s guns had hit go into a pineapple field. The men gave out a cheer when they saw the plane burst into flames. It took the BLUE one hour and a half to reach the open seas.”

Anthem Jim adds this detail:

Both the Commanding Officer and the Executive Officer of USS Blue were ashore for the weekend. The Commanding Officer had directed in the Night Order Book, that under no circumstances whatsoever was the ship to get underway without either he, or the Executive Officer being onboard.

Said commanding officer later wrote:

Attention is invited to paragraph 3 of the basic letter, to which should be added Ensign N.F. Asher, U.S.N., who, as acting commanding officer from the commencement of the raid until the ship returned to Pearl Harbor the following evening, performed most commendably and efficiently in assuming prompt offensive action, conducting emergency sortie under existing trying conditions, attacking submarine contacts in offshore area, screening heavy ship proceeding to attack a reportedly greatly superior force off Barber’s Point, and subsequently standing watch and watch as O.O.D. for a period of 30 hours at sea.

Anthem Jim, a civilian coworker of Asher’s, adds:

Over time his associates all came to realize that he had absolutely expended his entire lifetime supply of adrenaline during the day of 7 December 1941, at a place called Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Nothing, and I mean absolutely NOTHING, could phase Fred!

Meanwhile, obviously the Navy saw command potential in Ensign Caplan, who became a lieutenant and came to command the destroyer USS Long. Wartime Express explains what happened three years later:

They were on screening station when that suicide plane suddenly jumped down at them from a low cloud bank and landed right smack on the deck. There wasn’t much left of the plane, but the gas caught fire; the bombs the pilot hadn’t dropped yet exploded, and in less than a minute the Long was sheathed in flames from stem to stern. With a bone in her teeth the Hovey raced to the aid of her sister, but even her hoses, added to those of the long, couldn’t stem the fire. After a heroic fight, Lieut. Stanley Caplan, the skipper of the Long, had to give the order to abandon ship. The Hovey had meanwhile taken off the casualties; now she took aboard the rest of the survivors.

Still, Lt. Caplan did not want to leave his ship, and asked Lieut. Ben N. Cole, the skipper of the Hovey, to stand by a little longer. Slowly, the fire was burning itself out. There was a slight shift in the wind, and a salvage party volunteered to be put back aboard. They had barely reached the deck of the disabled ship again, when another Jap flier buried himself deliberately in the floating wreck. It was a death thrust. Somehow the magazines that until then had escaped the effect of the fire, were touched off. The LONG burst asunder.

It was not the end of the harassing day. That night the Hovey, her decks filled with the wounded and dying and those who had escaped with their bare lives from her sister vessel, became the victim of another Jap attack. It has never been established whether the attacker was aircraft, surface craft or submarine. The end came even faster for the brave twin than it had come for the long herself. The few survivors, including the two skippers, Lieut. Cole and Caplan, were picked up by the boats of the California.

Asher retired as a commander in the Navy in 1960. He died in 2005. I was unable to find any details about Caplan’s life after his service.

The other common thread with Caplan and Asher is both were Jewish. Readers know what Nazi Germany was doing to Jews at the time.

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