Navy ‘Band Of Brothers' Seeks Honor For Their Captain
Late Adm. Atkins, who grew up in Old Lyme, was in command of possibly only destroyer to sink an enemy battleship in WWII
By STEVE SZKOTAK
& ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published on 12/11/2005
Richmond, Va. -- They were young men under the command of a man only a few years older, all players in an epic sea battle. But it would be years later before these men would realize they also made naval history at the Battle for Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.
Military historians believe the USS Melvin is the only destroyer to sink an enemy battleship in World War II — in this instance, the Japanese Fuso — in what was the maritime equivalent of a lightweight boxer knocking out a heavyweight.
Adm. Barry K. Atkins during World War II
In the early hours of Oct. 25, 1944, a torpedo fired by the Melvin at a distance of approximately 11,000 yards hit the Fuso broadside, starting an explosive chain reaction that ultimately would split the battleship like a piece of cordwood.
The Melvin's crew of 300 would wait another 14 years before the Navy released a classified tactical analysis of the battle by the U.S. Naval War College, confirming the ship's role in the Fuso's sinking. Two other destroyers also fired torpedoes at the Fuso, missing.
Now, the old men of the Melvin are waging a new battle to have a Navy ship named in honor of their captain, the late Adm. Barry K. Atkins, who was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in the Pacific.
Alex Parley, 79, is retired from a career in public affairs, which he has put to good use in tirelessly promoting his former commander. He has written stirring narratives of the battle, enlisted the aid of a congressman in Connecticut and personally lobbied the Navy.
When he first approached Atkins about a ship named in his honor, “He was a little bit modest with it,” Parley said from his home in Windsor, Conn. “Actually, I think he was quite excited about the possibility.”
Atkins, 94, died Nov. 15 in Richmond. He grew up in Old Lyme, the son of Capt. and Mrs. Arthur K. Atkins. Atkins considered Old Lyme “home,” Parley said.
“Oh, I think it would be great,” Dr. Edgar A. Hawk, 88, of Indianapolis, then a medical officer on the Melvin. “He well deserves it.”
The Melvin's sinking of the Fuso was an exclamation point to an Allied rout of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the biggest naval battle in history.
The Japanese were vastly overwhelmed in their efforts to repel or destroy an Allied invasion intent on recapturing the Philippines two years after Japan's occupation. The U.S. and Australian forces had 17 aircraft carriers and 12 battleships to the Imperial Navy's four aircraft carriers and nine battleships. In the air, the Allies had 1,000 aircraft to Japan's 200.
At the end of the three-day battle, Allied forces reported 3,500 dead to Japan's 10,000, including virtually all 1,400 crewmen aboard the Fuso. Many refused rescue.
The Melvin's role in history was etched in the narrow Surigao Strait. The Melvin and two other destroyers, the McGowan and the Remey, fired a total of 27 torpedoes at the Fuso. Ten were fired by the Melvin, with one misfiring.
Hawk recalls the 80-degree night as the 24-foot torpedoes were dispatched.
“Six's gone, seven's gone, eight's gone ... Let's get the heck out of here,” Hawk said of the moment the torpedoes were unleashed.
At the same time, star shells — flares fired high over the Pacific by the Fuso — illuminated the skies. “That meant that they were on to us,” Hawk said.
“The next thing I know a salvo of shells hits the water,” he said.
Bursts of orange flame on the horizon signaled the Fuso's engagement, and the Melvin's escape.
“The old man had thrown it on full rudder and we're getting the heck out of there,” Hawk said of Atkins, only six years his senior. “He was zigzagging up a storm.”
The Melvin put up smoke screens as it steamed north, its fantail fishtailing and its 2,000-ton hulk violently vibrating, one crewman recalled.
“We pulled out the stops getting out of there,” said Brinton Turner, now 84, and a retired civil engineer in Palo Alto, Calif. The radar information officer was to celebrate his birthday the next day.
“It occurred to me briefly whether I was going to see my birthday,” Turner said.
Atkins remained calm and in command.
“I told the bridge crew not to worry — they won't hit us. But I had no reason to think they wouldn't,” he said in “The Last Epic Naval Battle, Voices from Leyte Gulf,” by David Sears.
But the Fuso had been mortally wounded. The torpedo ruptured fuel tanks, which ignited an ammunition magazine.
“Fuso's severed torso and trunk drifted on the surface, disgorging dead, wounded, and dazed Japanese sailors, most destined for the bottom of the Strait,” Sears wrote.
“This was a real historic moment,” Hawk said.
“It's a big deal,” agreed retired Capt. Frank Snyder, who taught at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., for 10 years.
The Naval War College analysis of the Battle of Surigao Straight concluded that “the Melvin was on her correct target ... and was the only one of the above destroyers which correctly interpreted the target designation order and fired at the correct target.”
While the crew of the Melvin contends the Fuso's sinking was unique — the only destroyer to sink a battleship — historians are more measured, careful to avoid superlatives.
“The Melvin probably was the only destroyer to sink a battleship in World War II,” spokesman Jack Green of the Naval Historical Center said, carefully quoting historians at the center.
“That is probably correct,” Snyder said, adding after further consideration, “I'm not sure that I can confirm that.”
The Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard is the first stop for any proposal to name a ship, and Atkins' name is known there and at the office of the Secretary of the Navy.
“We are fully aware of Capt. Atkins' exploits and he certainly is a Navy hero,” Green said. “And he is one of many Navy heroes who would be considered in the future naming of ships.”
Capt. Kevin M. Wensing, who corresponded with Alex Parley as a special assistant to the secretary of the Navy, said having a ship named after a person or place has become more difficult. The Navy's fleet after World War II of approximately 4,500 vessels has shrunk to just under 300, with eight to 10 ships named annually.
“Even if a name is not selected for a ship, it always impresses me their (crewmen's) devotion and loyalty,” Wensing said.
Sue Keener, who attempted several times to arrange an interview with her ailing father, said, said in an e-mail, “They are like a Band of Brothers that went through so much together and the events created a bond and connection that none of us can ever understand.
“I think it was a life-altering experience and the entire crew are ALL heroes, not just my Dad.”