USS Whitfield County replica at courthouse in Dalton brings back memories for crewmember who was at commissioning in 1954, then later made it safely through a hurricane while at sea
By MITCH TALLEY
A Wisconsin man recently brought a part of Whitfield County history back to life on his way to a south Alabama vacation.
To the ordinary visitor, the wooden and glass case on the second floor of the Whitfield County Courthouse might be just another display. But to Jack Kirmse of Campbellsport, Wis., the replica of the USS Whitfield County inside that case was more than just a model.
Nearly 67 years ago, Kirmse had walked on board the real USS Whitfield County, becoming one of the first crewmen of the ship that would go on to serve her country for nearly 25 years.
In fact, in his hand as he peered down at the replica, Kirmse grasped a copy of the program for the commissioning ceremony that he had attended on Sept. 14, 1954 in New Orleans, La.
“I’m a plank owner,” the nearly 88-year-old former sailor said proudly. “That custom comes from the old Navy when ships were made out of wood. If you were there when it was put into commission, you became a plank owner of that ship. So I own part of the USS Whitfield County.”
No one would argue with that assessment after hearing Kirmse talk about some of his harrowing experiences aboard the LST-1169 (Landing Ship, Tank), or the USS Whitfield County.
Asked what he remembers most about his time on the ship, he quickly replies, “The hurricane.”
Hurricane Connie was a Category 4 storm that brought high winds and significant rainfall to the East Coast, including North Carolina and Virginia.
As he recalls, the USS Whitfield County was in the midst of operations as the hurricane was brewing.
“We came out of Louisiana, went between Key West and the islands, and were gonna follow the coast up to Norfolk (Va.), “ he said. “We were almost ready to (stop instead in) Fort Lauderdale, but they wouldn’t let us come in because of the hurricane that was traveling at that time out of the Atlantic and heading more and more for shore.”
“That was a party!”
The storm then appeared to shift course and head away from land. “Well, that give us a little room to shoot up along the coast, so we got up quite a ways,” Kirmse said. “Then the storm says, ‘Uh, I don’t like this route.’ Uh oh, we had to turn around and go into the storm.
“That was a party!” he said with a chuckle.
“Yeah, I didn’t realize it was as bad as it was until I got out there with the Old Man (the nickname given to the commanding officer),” said Kirmse, who was in charge of the No. 2 engine. “We could control our engines either from down in the engine room, or we could control ‘em from the bridge. The first day we were out there in the storm, I had to go by the Old Man so he could give me the order directly. This way he could tell me exactly what he wanted; then I had the controls right there and could do it. Well, talk about rough! An LST is a flat boat on the bottom. It don’t fit in the water; it fits on top of the water, and you take one hell of a beating in a storm.” If the ship hit two waves at about the same time, it would bob and the propellers would rise out of the water.
“They’d be running like hell and then you’d get down into that slush and here comes the ocean!” he said. “Some of them waves were estimated at that time almost 80 feet high! We’d go down and just be covered with water. That was kinda continuous.”
The USS Whitfield County battled the storm for three days, “and they said we SKIRTED it!” Kirmse said. “As I remember, we were IN it! When you’re hitting waves that fantastic, you GOTTA be in it!”
The crew could keep up with the severity of the storm in the engine room, courtesy of a gauge that reported the degree the ship was rolling while being battered by waves.
“Once your roll is 60 degrees, more than 60 degrees, 61, 62, you WILL capsize, so you gotta watch out,” he said. “Three or four of us would sit there and watch (the gauge), then we’d bet how far we would go. My mark was this, his mark was that, and then we’d bet how far it was gonna go, hoping that it didn’t really go to 60. We did actually log a 60 degree roll-in – it’s in log records. One more degree would have capsized us. You can actually take more than 60 degrees sometimes as long as you’re not hit by a wave again. If a wave come from the side, it could push you over and then you’ll flop. That got exciting once in a while!”
To keep from breaking in half, the ship had expansion joints in strategic spots, he said. “On my rack, two decks down, was one of the expansion joints, so two or three of us would mark it as it opened and closed. Everybody would throw their quarter in and bet how far it was gonna open and close. That was our excitement … and hang on! I mean, you could hardly walk, and the ship was being thrown around violently.”
A coffee break to remember
Indeed, the first morning they were in the storm, Kirmse and his best friend were trying to eat breakfast, not an easy task with all the movement. “All of a sudden, just like that, the whole bottom-end dropped out. My coffee was up here and I grabbed it, but that’s all I got ahold of! The rest was all over – all the food the guys were eating. Immediately, breakfast was cancelled! Them big pots where they put coffee – there was coffee all over the ceiling, food all over, guys hanging on! Those ships are so flat-bottomed – it’s like a cork. They are good riders … if you enjoy riding like that! I didn’t mind; I was too damn young to know any better!”
Another time, during his service aboard the USS Whitfield County, Kirmse proved to be a lifesaver for a fellow crewmember.
“It was very noisy – you got two main engines and usually two generators running at the same time,” he explained. “You didn’t hear nothing – it’s just noise. And at that time, nobody wore earmuffs like they do now. If you wanted to talk from the engine room to anywhere else on the phone, there was a booth you could stick your head in and it would absorb the noise so you could actually talk on the phone. Wasn’t clear, but you could talk if you wanted to to any other part of the ship.”
One day, an electrician stopped by and shouted in Kirmse’s ear that he was going to install some safety precaution signs on some of the big electrical panels nearby.
“I said OK and sat back in my easy chair – which was a wood stool,” he quipped. “I had four engines running. It was noisy because the two main engines are 16 cylinders each. He comes up and tells me about the signs, I say OK, go ahead, and that’s the last I seen of him. All of a sudden, I heard doink. Amidst all this tremendous noise, if you tapped on the wall, you’d be able to hear that because it’s not the same kind of noise. I could even tell when somebody would come down the ladder when their feet would hit the steps.”
What had happened in this instance was that the electrician had a 440 panel open, drilling a couple of holes on the door of the electrical panel to attach a sign.
“So when the ship rolled, he must have lost control and grabbed right inside of the box,” Kirmse said. “He was a little heavy-set and fell right into the box. When he fell, he dropped that drill – that’s what I heard! I’m sitting there – what the hell was that noise? All I seen was legs. I jumped up and he was hanging from the box, sitting partway on his knees, but he’s trapped in the box, right on the main.
“I’m looking at him, and I’m having a hell of a time standing still. I can’t touch him – they warned you, do NOT touch anybody. Get a rope and pull him off, but his shirt was hooked up and he was a pretty heavy man. So when the ship rocked backwards, I pulled but he didn’t come loose! But as the ship went back down again, the forward weight must have pulled him back past that weight point. And off he came, flop on the deck.”
The rescue was just starting
But that was just the beginning of the rescue.
“They got the corpsman down right away,” he said. “He says, you check his heart? It’s still beating, so they laid him out. We got to rope him out of there, and we’re three decks down. I said, I’ll put my shoulder on his rear end, and you three guys will be above with ropes so we could get him out of there.”
Before they could do that, though, the electrician suddenly came to, got up, and said, “What happened?”
“I said, well, you just got electrocuted.”
“Aw, you’re kiddin’ me.”
“I said, look at your hands – they were burned right across where he had grabbed.”
“Then he got bully about it. The corpsman says, if he wants to walk up, let him. He actually walked up, slow, but we got him on the second deck, got him on the top deck, and he passed out again – didn’t wake up for three days!”
They never figured out why he had regained consciousness below deck, making his rescue much easier. “His shoe was a little wore out, had a hole, and that’s where the electricity grounded on his hand. His hand was in bad shape, and his foot heel was pretty bad. If I hadn’t heard his drill drop, he wouldn’t have made it. It’s amazing that I even heard that. When it’s a steady noise and there’s no change, then you take a hit like that and you will hear it. Throw the slightest different tone of noise, you’re gonna hear that.”
Served his country 27 years
Kirmse joined the Navy in 1951 and served 33 months with Naval Ordnance in Key West, Fla., helping with top-secret work with guided torpedoes before transferring to the USS Whitfield for 15 months. In all, counting 23 years of service in the Naval Reserve, he served his country for 27 years. “I got in during the Korean War, and in the reserve program, I went through the Vietnam War,” he said.
His time aboard the USS Whitfield County is special to him, especially considering that the ship had been built in his home state at Christy Shipbuilding Corp., in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., in 1952.
He remembers “a lot of training for the whole crew to get used to an LST.”
LSTs were first developed during World War II to support amphibious operations by carrying tanks, vehicles, cargo, and landing troops directly onto shore with no docks or piers, allowing amphibious assaults on almost any beach. Their highly specialized design allowed ocean crossings as well as shore groundings. The flat bottom allowed the ship to be beached and stay upright.
“We’d pull up in Charleston on the Marine base,” Kermse recalled. “We’d shoot up on the beach as far as we could go, usually at high tide, open the doors, drop the ramp, and you could take 500 Marines aboard with all their equipment.”
At one point, Kirmse and the USS Whitfield County actually turned into movie stars of a sort.
“When we were down in the south Caribbean, almost to the equator but not quite,” he recalled, “they were producing a movie called ‘Away All Boats,’ a story about the USS Randall during World War II with Jeff Chandler as the main actor. Well, the producers wanted to take pictures of the fleet going off to war. Seventy or eight ships came in for that photo run. They were above us taking pictures of the fleet with the Randall.
“The problem was,” he continued, “we got in trouble with the Old Man because he had to go to a meeting with most of the ship commanders, telling how the movie went. Well, when they came over us taking a picture, here the guys were just sitting back, smoking cigarettes, laying on the deck. Oops, that doesn’t look like a warship! Oh was the Old Man mad!”
A few sidenotes about the movie from Wikipedia. Producers originally wanted Clark Gable for the lead role. Even though the armed services had not been pleased with their portrayal in “From Here to Eternity” or “The Caine Mutiny,” the Navy cooperated fully with Universal Pictures with “Away All Boats” because of declining recruitment numbers and allowed the crew to photograph maneuvers and mock attacks in March 1955 in the Caribbean. The film earned praise for its realistic and terrifying depictions of Japanese kamikaze attacks on U.S. Navy ships during the last year of World War II in the Pacific Theater; in fact, the kamikaze attack scene was later reused in the 1976 film “Midway.” And lastly, legendary actor Clint Eastwood had an uncredited role in the movie, playing a Navy medical corpsman helping the ship’s captain after he is severely wounded while trying to save his ship.
A flood of memories for Kirmse
As Kirmse looked at the model, memories of his time aboard the USS Whitfield County flooded back. “Whoever built this model did a good job,” he said, pausing to comment about the placement of guns on the top deck. “I don’t remember these guns being there. We had guns, but I remember walking and sitting on the back deck and the guns were behind me. I wonder if they redid that after I left….”
Little white boats on each side of the deck also caught his eye. “They were personnel boats,” he explained.
“Them are boats you carry Marines on if you’re taking ‘em ashore. When we came out of that hurricane, them were gone on both sides, and some part of the mast broke off, too.”
The USS Whitfield County carries family ties for Kirmse, too. He got out of the service on Sept. 15, 1955, and then married his high school sweetheart, Carol, exactly one year later. Seven children later, they’ll be celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary this year.
“We met in high school,” Carol recalled. “I was a freshman and he was a senior, so we’ve known each other ever since. He graduated in June 1951, and in September he shipped out. We kept in touch with a lot of letters, and when I graduated from high school, he sent me a telegram! That was a big deal to get a telegram.”
Their marriage has far outlasted the USS Whitfield County, which was eventually sold to Greece in 1977 and served that nation for decades before being sunk to make a coral reef in 2004.
“Someday if I’m alive long enough and you want to throw (the replica) away, let me know,” Kirmse said with a laugh. “The (Wisconsin Maritime Museum in) Manitowic would love to have it, I’m sure, so people can see what was built in Green Bay.”