Mack Frost: Fueling the War at Sea

mack-frost-'boot'-fixedBy MACK FROST

As told to Barry Hillman

We then returned to Ulithi where a Jap submarine torpedoed and sank the USS Mississenewa while it was anchored about 1,500 yards from us. The sky turned black from burning oil, and it rained black rain. We sent rescue boats for survivors from the oiler.

Most of the crew on the stricken flaming ship escaped and were rescued. We watched the ship break in half and go down. It left us with a sickening feeling. It could have been us. Subsequently, three Japanese subs were sunk the following day.

— Mack Frost

Before the War

I was born on a small farm in Arkansas. We had the usual animals as was common in those days: a cow, a mule, pigs and chickens. A dirt road ran in front of the house to the coal mine where my father worked as an underground foreman.

Across the road was a very large cotton field, and we could see the pickers working picking cotton. Behind the farm was the narrow gauge railroad which carried the coal from the mine to its distribution point in Russellville.

On the property, my father constructed a bunk house in which several miners stayed.

As I recall my mother prepared dinner for them separate from the family. Electric power had not reached our area, so we had kerosene lamps and an outhouse.

My mother, of course, was a homemaker. I was the fifth of six children. We played and had our chores as was needed at the time.

This was 1925 rural Arkansas, and it is said my father enjoyed his share of corn spirits. He died when I was about six. As was the custom at that time, his body was kept in the house overnight, which was very scary for me and my brothers and sisters. We slept in the next room and did not get any sleep that night.

After my dad’s death, my mother married one of the miners. They sold the farm and my stepdad, being a miner, wanted to go to California and work in the gold mines.

The older three children went to live with relatives, and the three younger boys went to California. We missed them very much and kept in touch by mail since the telephone was not an option.

California

My stepdad was a tramp miner, never working at one mine or location for very long. So for us, it meant moving quite often to different places and schools. He would often abandon us for months. Most of the time we were very poor.

My mother finally divorced him and married another miner who provided a more stable lifestyle. Dad number two died in a mental hospital when I was 12 years old. I was very close to my mother and always went to church with her and tried to support her as best I could.

I can remember exactly where I was on Pearl Harbor day – December 7, 1941. My brother and a friend and I were walking to a little country store in Grass Valley when someone came by in a car shouting that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor.

Where is that, we asked?

At age 17 I quit high school and joined the regular Navy in April 1943. I had an older brother in the Navy and one in the Army. My brother in the Navy told stories of exotic ports: China, the Philippines, Pearl Harbor, and romantic islands.

These stories sparked a fantasy in me, so I envisioned myself on a Navy ship visiting these exotic places. Being under age my mother had to sign for me. She didn’t want me to go, but I pleaded with her to let me sign up.

We went by train to Farragut, Indiana for training. About two weeks before graduation, I passed out with appendicitis, was operated on and spent another two weeks in the hospital before I finished boot camp. Then I was granted a leave. I paid for my own transportation by train to Oakland, California, where my mother and stepfather lived. It was my first time in a Pullman car, and I remember my dinner in the dining car.

After my leave I went back to Farragut and was assigned as a crewman on a ship under construction, the USS Escambia. That was August of 1943. The ship’s crew was billeted on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. I had been there before on a school trip to the 1939 World’s Fair. While stationed on Treasure Island we had two weeks Gunnery School at Point Montara, fire fighting at Mare Island, seamanship, ship aircraft reconstruction, and other training.

The keel of the Escambia was laid December, 1942, at the yards of Marinship in Sausalito, California, and launched April 24, 1943. The vessel was then moved to the

San Francisco piers at the Matson Navigation Company for conversion to a Navy fleet oiler. The crew was assigned work parties on board ship in preparation for commission, and there was a lot of preparation necessary.

One day an officer asked for volunteers who could do the backstroke, overhand and Australian crawl. I raised my hand and was taken to an inside pool somewhere in San Francisco to act as a lifeguard during officer swim training. We went there every day for about three weeks. One day, an officer got into trouble and was floundering. I jumped in and pulled him out. The medics then took over. The poor guy was very scared. I never saw him again.

USS-Escambia

USS Escambia

The Ship

Our ship was a Fleet Tanker or Fleet Oiler, the first of its class, the USS Escambia; length 523 feet 6 inches, beam 68 feet, draft 30 feet ten inches, speed 16 knots, fuel capacity 140,000 barrels. Our mission was to refuel the fleet at sea during and after engagements.

The ship was placed in commission on October 28, 1943. The name “Escambia” was taken to commemorate the Escambia River which flows through Florida.

We met our Commanding Officer, Lt. Cmdr. John M. Paulsson. Finally shipboard we found ourselves in mass confusion learning our way around the ship.

We left San Francisco Bay on November 13, 1943.

During sea trials it took some time before we got our sea legs and began to adapt to a new way of life. Aboard ship it was a whole new world.

We also learned that it was tricky getting fuel lines across 50- to 75-foot expanses of water while moving at 16 knots. It took a lot of practice before we could do it correctly. By the time we reached San Diego on November 16, we were beginning to learn our way around the ship but still had not mastered transferring fuel.

After sea trials we went on a fully loaded shakedown cruise to San Pedro and had our first refueling experience on November 19. The victim was the USS The Sullivans, a destroyer named after five brothers lost in the sinking of their ship.

I have already mentioned that it was tricky getting those fuel lines across to the ship we were refueling. It was also difficult to secure a connection. Well, we had a bad connection and we sprayed that beautiful ship with black oil…what a mess. The captain was really upset, and we did much better after that.

We took larger ships, carriers, cruisers, and battle ships on the port side and smaller ships on the starboard side. I shot the first line across to the ship we were refueling so that its crew could pull the fuel line across. I got pretty good at it. We often had two ships refueling at the same time.

Operations

We returned to San Diego on December 1, and two days later left for San Pedro for a load of fuel and ammo. After leaving San Pedro on December 7, we headed to Pearl Harbor to complete our shakedown cruise. When we arrived in Pearl Harbor on December 13, they were in the process of raising the Oklahoma. Our first refueling assignment was the USS Maryland, and we were all thrilled with the opportunity.

We were only in Hawaii about 10 days before we sailed back to Alameda, arriving on December 23, when the ship went into dry dock to correct shakedown bugs. We all got a month of liberty that we had not anticipated.

It was back to sea again on Jan.  24, 1944, for a sail back to Pearl Harbor, and then on February 3, we headed for the war zone loaded with fuel and ammo. We arrived at Majuro Atoll on February 9, 1944, and began refueling the Alabama and then the Iowa.

We arrived at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands just hours after the islands had been bombed the previous night, so there was fear of an attack on the fleet. We refueled eight ships and were vulnerable at all times. When we next returned to Majuro, we fueled 24 ships in the lagoon.

We then crossed the equator on March 11 and went to a forward base in Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Islands to refuel the task force assaulting Palau and then on to Truk in the latter part of March. We next went to Manus Island in the Admiralty Islands shortly after their invasion and refueled the fleet assaulting Hollandia.

In early May it was on to Purvus Bay in the Solomon Islands. After that it was back to Espiritu Santo on May 8, where we tied to Buoy Number 17 in Segond Channel and fueled 36 ships during nearly a four-month stay. On June 3, 1944, Lt. Richard Goorgian relieved Cmdr. Paulsson as Commanding Officer.

After loading the ship, we left on August 30, arriving in Guadalcanal in the Solomons on September 1, and then refueled 13 ships at Purvus Bay until September 11.

Philippines

Our next operations took us to the Philippines, where we fueled over 30 ships before heading to Ulithi Atoll in the Western Carolines and some repairs while alongside the USS. It was then we headed to Palau then to Seedler Harbor in the Admiralty Islands again.

We next moved to refuel the fleet assaulting the Philippines, then to Ulithi Atoll in the western Carolines. Refueling the fleet was obviously an essential task, so we were moving all the time to support operations.

We then returned to Ulithi where a Jap submarine torpedoed and sank the USS Mississenewa while it was anchored about 1,500 yards from us. The sky turned black from burning oil, and it rained black rain. We sent rescue boats for survivors from the oiler.

Most of the crew on the stricken flaming ship escaped and were rescued. We watched the ship break in half and go down. It left us with a sickening feeling. It could have been us. Subsequently, three Japanese subs were sunk the following day.

Our ship had engineering problems due to the long time spent at sea. We were sent to Eniwetok Atoll for a load of oil from a merchant. When we arrived back at Ulithi, we received news that we were leaving for the States for repairs. We spent a month in the Navy yard at Pearl Harbor on liberty.

Kamikazes

Once we were seaworthy it was back to Ulithi, then on to the fleet assaulting Okinawa where we met the tanker we were relieving. They had taken a kamikaze hit on the fantail. The fleet was in serious need of fuel. Our captain volunteered to assist, and we were selected to go. We were there for three days and observed constant attacks by kamikazes on our ships as they bombarded the island. We were anchored near the battleship California, which bombarded Okinawa all night long. We refueled 22 ships in the fleet during the day and anchored during the night.

We had to constantly be on the lookout for magnetic explosives that the Japanese floated and which would attach to the hull of ships before detonating. In addition to the mounted guns on board, we were issued small arms and formed a picket guard around the ship. During the night we shot at any threatening object, some of which turned out to be floating dead bodies and empty boxes.

We were at General Quarters while there, with no sleep for three nights. I was gun captain on the Number 3 and Number 4 twin 40mm guns. I remember banging my chin from nodding off at one point. Everyone was exhausted. What a relief to leave Okinawa on May 2.

Typhoons

We had experienced several small typhoons during our time at sea but nothing like the storm that hit on June 5, 1945. Our Task Group 38.8, after refueling the fleet striking Leyte, was hit by a violent typhoon. I was on watch on the Number 3 and Number 4 40mm guns when the ship took a 47-degree roll. Moments later we found ourselves rolling and plunging into 60- to 90-foot seas. The ship would shudder as it was struck by a wave, and the screw would come out of the water.

The winds were blowing 115 miles per hour, and the rain felt like bullets. I requested of the bridge that the gun crew be allowed to go below for safety. The bridge said that everyone except the gun captain, me, and a talker, could go below. The wind and rain was so severe that when we lay down in the gun turrets, we had trouble breathing because the wind created a vacuum.

By the time the storm passed, all of the ships were heavily damaged. Below decks was a mess. One of the carriers had its flight deck destroyed, with 33 planes lost and another 45 damaged. Six sailors lost their lives. The bow of a cruiser, the USS Pittsburgh, completely broke off the ship. I will never forget that storm.

We finally arrived at Ulithi on June 11, and following repairs, we left on June 24 to refuel the task force headed to Leyte. Halsey’s Third Fleet was then headed to Japan, and we met them 200-300 miles from Tokyo. We spent 29 days at sea and fueled 38 ships. We were only about 120 miles from Tokyo when the Japs surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945.

After making port in Okinawa, which had been flattened, we arrived in Wakayama, Japan on October 15. We then headed to Tokyo, arriving on the 23rd and were given liberty in Yokohama. What an experience!

Life aboard ship

Daily life aboard ship involved reveille, then refueling all day. Chow, stand watch, and then a little sleep. We slept in our clothes most of the time while at sea. We showered every other day and changed clothes usually twice a week. There were no recreation facilities. There were also no lights topside so you often had to feel your way around.

I first served as a seaman scraping paint, swabbing the decks, and stood many watches in the aft crow’s nest. I climbed the ladder up the main mast in some very rainy and windy conditions with the ship rolling far below me. I would then spend four hours at a watch, scanning the horizon.

I then transferred from Deck Division to Gunnery Division, repairing and maintaining all of the guns on the ship. My General Quarters position was trainer on the five-inch dual purpose gun. I turned the gun to get on target. The gun captain was a chief boson’s mate, and he would screech orders.

I soon received a second promotion to 2nd Class NCO. I became a pointer on a twin 40mm anti-aircraft gun. I controlled vertical movement and also fired the gun. I then became gun captain on two twin 40mm guns, which means I was in charge of two guns while I was on watch. These guns were manned 24/7 when at sea. Sometimes when the moon was full and the sea like glass, the stars looked like diamonds that you could reach up and pluck from the sky.

All of us whose duties were topside carried a hunting knife in a sheath. I once had a sailor assigned to one of my gun crews because he had screwed up on another assignment. One night he went to sleep on watch. When I woke him up, he lunged at me and grabbed me by the throat, choking me and trying to push me over the side. I couldn’t breathe. I was holding him back with my left hand and holding on to the ship with my right. Then I released my grip on his hand, pulled my knife, and held it against his side. When he felt the tip he let go. I couldn’t talk so I couldn’t report him. But the next day I replaced him.

I wanted to steer the ship. One of my buddies told me to come to the bridge about 2 am. It was totally against regulations, but I spent about four hours at the wheel. I got caught by the duty officer and really got chewed out. But at least I steered a fully loaded ship.

Card games and haircuts

There was always a poker or crap game going. The debts piled up and to keep peace, the Captain cancelled all debts several times, much to the relief of some.

We had a small barber shop and a crewman who acted as barber. The crew pitched in and bought a beautiful barber chair. When the typhoon hit, the chair spun off its pedestal and was completely destroyed, along with all of the barber’s foo-foo water. The place smelled like a French house of ill repute on a Saturday night.

While still a seaman, a couple of bullies picked me up while we were docked in port Espiritu Santo and threw me over the side of the ship into shark-infested water. I swam for dear life, and someone threw me a life ring.

The second time they did this I fought them. They finally pushed me over the railing, but my foot caught and my head hit the outside of the ship. It knocked me out. I hung there upside down bleeding from a cut in my scalp.

I ended up in sick bay for three days. My ankle was weak for months. I finally found out who these guys were 50 years later at a reunion, but nobody ever talked about it.

In Espiritu Santo there was a small island where we could go for recreation, play softball, drink and relax. We could purchase three beer chits and three ice cream chits. Several times I got shore patrol duty guarding a native village. There was a beautiful lagoon there, so I would often wear my swim trunks under my dungarees so I could swim. The water was so clear you could see the coral on the bottom.

Lost at sea

My bunk was in the Forward Crew Compartment. At sea the main deck was awash much of the time. To go aft to the Mess Hall, Sick Bay, or the General Quarters Station, I would go up one deck, get on the catwalk, watch the sea for large waves and then run aft, open the hatch and duck inside.

My biggest fear was not of the suicide planes and bombs or torpedoes but of being washed overboard. The thought of seeing the ship leaving you and being eaten by sharks was always on my mind when I was on deck.

We lost two men at sea while underway. We had a large cargo deck where we carried drums of oil. One day in heavy seas a drum broke loose. The Bosons Mate in charge, Alfonso “Ski” Povalansky, was knocked overboard, but we could not stop to pick him up. The other was a guy, Woolridge Proffitt, who fell overboard at night. We heard him call for help, and a life raft was launched, but he never got it.

Salty showers

If you’ve never taken a saltwater shower with saltwater soap you have never lived. We were low on fresh water several times due to a breakdown of the evaporators which convert sea water to fresh water. After bathing I always felt sticky and never refreshed.

On the ship I discovered that the small smoke stack was built in two parts, the main stack and an outer stack. Between these two was a space about two feet wide. I discovered a small door opening into this space. I could fit in there and it became my hiding place for valuables.

We were involved in operations besides just refueling. Once we delivered three aircraft and crew to an island somewhere in the South Pacific. Another time we delivered a very large supply of much needed materials to Marines on an island. We could hear the battle. Some of the Marines came aboard, and we fed them and let them take a shower. They were happy Marines.

We not only transferred fuel but also mail received from other ships and personnel. Once Admiral Spruance was transferred at sea from a carrier to us, and then we transferred him to his Flag.

Tulagi

On another occasion, we anchored at the mouth of a river at Tulagi, which is across Iron Bottom Sound from Guadalcanal. The natives came in wooden canoes and traded fruit for articles of clothing and bleach for their hair. I traded a shirt for a war club.

The ship returned twice during the war for repairs at shipyards. We were out 11 months the first time before we came back. The ship was tired from long refueling operations and had several major problems. Also, the crew was just worn out.

While coming into port in San Francisco Bay, the pilot missed the estuary entrance. We dropped both anchors but still ran aground. With engines in full reverse, we ran over one of the anchors. It tore a hole in the bottom of the ship, and we began taking on water. Tugs finally pulled us off. We were sinking in the Bay as we made our way to port. One of my buddies and I went under the ship while it was in dry dock and observed several large holes torn in the hull.

We were out to sea for nine months the second time. On one occasion, my refueling station was shooting quarter inch nylon cord to other ships. The line was then attached to a another line, which pulled the boomed hoses over to the other ship being refueled. Refueling at sea was 24/7 day after day.

One day we had a large fleet carrier on port side and a destroyer on starboard. The carrier picked up bogies and launched planes to intercept. The destroyer captain kind of panicked and cut the lines, disconnecting the hoses and spraying oil all over his ship. Before we could shut down the flow from the hoses, there was a large oil slick on the water. Our captain was absolutely furious.

War’s end

The war finally ended in 1945, and we went to the small town of Yokohama, south of Tokyo. We were given liberty, but we were only allowed to take 300 yen, one pack of cigarettes and one pack of gum. The civilians wanted the cigarettes or American dollars for trade. I borrowed some large shoes from a shipmate and put four packs of cigarettes in each shoe. I wanted to trade for a sword, but my feet got wet on the way over and the cigarettes were destroyed.

I went down the street asking “Katana?” – the word for a traditional Japanese samurai sword. Someone told me to ask the kids, so I did. A boy took me down an alley to a house where a man had a beautiful sword. I wanted it so I put down my 300 yen. Not enough. My Gruen watch. No. My wet cigarettes. No. My ID bracelet. He finally brought out a small sword. OK.

I left the house and a lady indicated that she wanted the wet cigarettes. I suppose she dried them and reclaimed the tobacco. I can still hear the schoolchildren marching to school in their wooden sandals – clop, clop. We next went to Tokyo Bay and had liberty. I saw the results of the air raid bombing.

We left Tokyo Bay November 4, 1945, and sailed the Great Circle Route to San Francisco, 4,536 miles in rough seas over 14 days. We sighted the Golden Gate Bridge at 0600 November 17. WOW!

The Escambia was turned over to the Army during Vietnam and used to supply power to a base near Da Nang. She was left there when the war ended and cut up for scrap by the communist government. It was a sad ending for a ship that did so much to help defeat our enemy during WWII.

We earned several medals, including the American Theatre Medal, the Philippine Liberation Medal, Asian Occupation, Asiatic Pacific Medal with five battle stars, the World War II Medal, and I also received a Good Conduct Medal.

Eunice and Mack

Eunice and Mack

Civilian life

I was regular Navy so I finished my enlistment at Camp Shoemaker, California as Master-At-Arms (Base Police) and was discharged in November 1945.

I joined the Naval Reserve but wanted to finish High School. I did not want a GED, so I became a high school student enrolled in the community college but quit in the second semester due to personal problems.

I continued to serve in the Naval Reserves for four years while working at various jobs. I was hired by the California Department of Forestry as an equipment operator. I went on many fires and had my share of close calls. My partner in my first year was burned to death fighting his first grass fire near Lake Don Pedro. It is a dangerous occupation.

I got married to Eunice Bernice right after I left the Navy in 1947. Bee, as she was known, was born in New Mexico but was raised in Grass Valley.

She graduated from Columbia College and Stanislaus State with a teaching degree and worked as an Early Childhood Education Director.

We had two wonderful children. I was so proud of my sweet girl Deborah and wonderful son Steven. Bee died of cancer in 1982.

My daughter graduated from Chico State cum Laude with a degree in social studies. She worked at several large independent living facilities where she served as activity director. She had two children, a son and daughter.

My son graduated from Stanislaus State with a degree in physics. He retired from Columbia College where he was an Adjunct Faculty Member. He died of cancer in 2012.

Mack and Joyce

Mack and Joyce

‘A wonderful marriage’

I married my current wife, Joyce, a longtime friend of Bee’s, in 1986. Joyce had retired from a large company in the Bay Area. Our wedding was at the City Hotel in Columbia, and the reception was at nearby Angelo’s Hall.

That was also the year that I had a major heart attack, but I survived in good shape. Joyce had a daughter who has since passed away. We have a wonderful marriage. We have an RV and have traveled extensively over the years but are now settled down in our little house in Jamestown.

Mack-frost-2013

Mack Frost, 2013

I graduated from Columbia College and earned my full-time, lifetime teaching credential  from UC Berkeley. In 1970 I was offered a job at Columbia College as the fire chief and fire sciences instructor.  The second year I became assistant chief and spent all of my time developing the fire department and heavy equipment program.

The welding program at Columbia grew out of the heavy equipment program. Due to low enrollment, I retired from full-time teaching in 1985. I still teach part-time as an adjunct faculty member in the welding program and enjoy meeting the students.

Frost-Medals-copy

Medals Awarded to Mack Frost

The American Theatre Medal

The Philippine Liberation Medal

Asian Occupation

Asiatic Pacific Medal with five battle stars

The World War II Medal

Good Conduct Medal

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