The Sinking of McKean, APD-5
By Gary E. White, © 1993
Like many of her sister ships, McKean, originally DD-90, a four-stack destroyer of the Wickes class, was laid down at the height of the "war to end all wars" in 1918. By the time she reached commission on 25 February 1919, peace was beginning to settle over Europe and her mission became one of routine tours off the Atlantic Coast with a single cruise to European waters in mid-1919. She was decommissioned in 1922 and placed in the reserve fleet at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where she rested for the next 18 years.
By mid-1940, with Hitler rolling across Europe and the potential threat of war with Japan looming larger each day, the Navy began recommissioning and converting four-stackers for duty as small, fast assault ships capable of transporting a moderate number of troops. McKean, one of the first six, was reclassified APD-5 on 2 August 1940 and recommissioned on 11 December of that year. Drawing 8½ feet and having a top speed of 35 knots (26 after modification to remove the forward fire room for extra troop-carrying capacity), these reconfigured four-stackers made up in speed and maneuverability what they lacked in armaments.
McKean arrived in the South Pacific in late July 1942, ready to take an active role as a member of Transport Division 12. With their camouflage paint schemes, a mottled green and gray in large diagonal stripes, the ships were promptly dubbed "Green Dragons" by the Marine raiders they transported. She landed her first troops at Tulagi on 7 August 1942 and for the next several months made escort and supply runs from bases at New Caledonia and the New Hebrides to troop positions in the southern Solomon Islands. She departed the Pacific theater in late January 1943 for an overhaul, returning in mid-June of that year to resume her escort and patrol operations. From July to November, she patrolled the waters around Guadacanal and up the "Slot", as well as landing troops on New Georgia and Rendova. In late October, she landed troops at Mono Island, and on 6 November landed Marines near Cape Tokorina, Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville. On 11 November, she made a second run with Marine raiders to Bougainville and returned to Guadacanal to pick up more "Fifth Echelon" troops bound for Cape Tokorina.
After embarking a 185 man contingent of the 21st Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, McKean, along with the other APD's of Transport Divisions 12 and 22, Stringham (APD6), Talbot (APD7), Waters (APD8), Dent (APD9), Kilty (APD15), Ward (APD16), and Crosby (APD17), sailed from Guadacanal late on 15 November 1943 for a dawn rendezvous south of Simbo Island with the remaining units of Task Group 31.6. It would prove to be McKean's 23rd and final mission.
The rendezvous, routine and uneventful, linked the six destroyers of Desron 22, Renshaw (DD499) with Commander Task Group 31.6 aboard, Saufley (DD465), Waller (DD466), Pringle (DD477), Conway (DD507), and Sigourney (DD643), as well as LST's 70, 207, 339, 341, 353, 354, 395 and 488 of LST Flotilla Five with the APD's. Shortly after departing the rendezvous point, the oceangoing fleet tug, Pawnee (AT74), joined the Task Group as its last member.
John Ryan, a Navy corpsman assigned to the 21st Regiment remembers "When we left the 'Canal', we were told that there was a good possibility we would be attacked by Japanese aircraft and to go below decks if an air raid should occur. Most of us ignored the advice and decided to stay on deck to watch the fireworks."
With five of the six destroyers forming an anti-aircraft, anti-submarine outer ring, and the eight APD's as an inner defense ring the convoy enjoyed a quiet passage. The eight LST's, in Charlie One formation (a box configuration with Pawnee in the middle) and Renshaw ahead of the starboard lead LST comprised the center. McKean, steaming at 13 knots, was zigzagging 30 to 50 degrees either side of the base course at the rear of the formation acting as anti-submarine patrol.
As the convoy approached Empress Augusta Bay, at 3:00 a.m. 17 November, radar detected several "bogies." Ten minutes later one of the "bogies," identified as a "Val" type Japanese torpedo plane attacked Waller, but was hit by gunfire and downed before releasing its torpedo. Thirty minutes later, another of the aircraft began what appeared to be an attack on Talbot, to starboard of McKean. Suddenly, the plane turned sharply to the right, directly at McKean. McKean's captain, LCdr. Ralph Ramey, ordered the helm "full left" to provide a smaller target for the plane. McKean opened fire with her starboard 20mm "pom-poms," choosing not to use her 4-inch main battery for fear of hitting Talbot.
Gene LaMere, an electrician aboard McKean, whose battle station was manning a searchlight on the mast recalls, "It was dark but I had a good view from the mast. I managed to see the plane as he dropped his torpedo." "I saw the torpedo wake go under the starboard quarter near the stern. It took a little time for the 'fish' to explode and I was starting to think it had run too deep and missed us, but at that time, it went off. It blew my searchlight off of the mast and stunned me."
At 3:50 a.m., the torpedo struck home, immediately exploding the after magazines and depth-charge stowage. This, in turn, ruptured the diesel fuel tanks, throwing burning oil throughout the after part of the ship. Aft of the No. 1 stack, the ship was a mass of flames; of the crew stationed aft, only three survived the blast and heat, having been blown overboard by the explosion. Debris falling across the siren cord caused the siren to sound continuously, giving the event an added touch of surrealism.
During the attack, the starboard 20mm mount continued to fire at the plane. They realized success too late - The "Val" crashed just ahead of the ship moments after the torpedo exploded.
John Wrocklage, assigned as a shell loader on the number two 5-inch mount aboard Conway says of the moment "We heard a tremendous explosion and opened the gun hatch, only to see that a ship had been badly hit, was all aflame and on the verge of sinking."
As McKean, now without power, began to slow down, some members of the troop contingent began to abandon ship. Nearly all who did so were dragged into the burning oil and perished. At 4:10 a.m., 20 minutes after being hit, "Abandon Ship" was ordered and all remaining crew and Marines went over the side. Five minutes later, the forward diesel tank and magazine exploded almost simultaneously, disintegrating the forward part of the ship. By 4:18 a.m., it was all over for McKean. She settled stern first, coming to rest in 75 fathoms of water about 22 miles off Bougainville. As she neared the ocean floor, two of her depth charges exploded; a final salute for a worthy ship. Of the six original APD's in Transport Division 12, only Manley and Stringham remained.
The survivors, now in the water, continued to tend to those more seriously injured or too tired to swim. Ordered by ComTaskGrp to stand off and pick up survivors, rescue personnel aboard boats from Waller, Talbot and Sigourney, reported many instances of being told by those in the water to pick up the injured first. The rescue, carried off without a mishap, was amazing given the fact that all three ships were under constant air attack as they maneuvered around picking up survivors. While waiting to be rescued, John Ryan says "While floating around out there one Marine said 'Hey Doc, would you like a cigarette?' I said 'Who the hell are you trying to kid?' The Marine replied 'No, I got a pack of waterproof cigarettes" and we sat out there and smoked while floating around watching the destroyers trying to shoot down the Jap planes." Enemy aircraft continued to attack the remainder of the convoy until after sunrise when fighters from Air Sols arrived to provide cover for the landing.
The final tally showed that of the 12 officers and 141 enlisted men comprising McKean's crew, 64 lost their lives as a result of the sinking. Among the 185 Marines who had embarked two days earlier, 52 died. Among the survivors, what has remained alive for the half century since the loss of McKean is a sense of mutual respect. Says Bill Hoysradt, a signalman aboard McKean, "I always have had a great respect for the Marines, as I felt lucky that all we had to do was get them there." And Jerry White, Sergeant, Headquarters Co., 3rd Battalion, 21st Regiment once said "The Navy, as always, did a remarkable job that night. It was the only reason I survived." That quote was spoken to me years ago by Sgt. White. You see, he survived to become my father.