I had a Wonderful Crew on There
Excerpted by permission from “The Reminiscences of Vice Admiral Robert Taylor Scott Keith, U.S. Navy (Retired),” copyright © 1996 by the U.S. Naval Institute, 291 Wood Road, Annapolis, MD 21402-5034. For further information on this or other oral histories in the USNI collection, please contact the Naval Institute’s history division at the above address or at https://www.usni.org/.
Vice Admiral R.T.S. Keith

Vice Admiral R.T.S. Keith.

Commander R.T.S. Keith was Nicholas’s third CO, serving from 10 December 1943 to 6 February 1945. He later commanded Missouri and served as Superintendent of the Naval Academy and Commander of the First Fleet. He retired as Vice Admiral.
. . . I left the Naval Academy after that first tour and was fortunate to get command of the Nicholas, a ship that was one of the first of the modern 2,100-ton destroyers to report to Admiral Halsey when he was down to the South Pacific, fighting that battle for Guadalcanal. The Nicholas was lucky that it went through the war without serious damage. It had one overhaul of about four weeks in the States while I was skipper of it, and that’s the only one she had from when she reported in ’42 until the war was over. I think she got home before ’46 came in. I had a wonderful crew on there. They all knew their jobs.

The ship won a Presidential Unit Citation for a battle in the Solomons before I was captain of her. I was the captain that received the citation when we got to Pearl Harbor in 1944, January. Admiral Nimitz and Admiral Kauffman, who was Commander Destroyer Force, presented us, made a very fine talk, which I have a copy of. Admiral Nimitz praised the Nicholas’s fighting, and she fought all through Guadalcanal.

I relieved just after Tarawa and went back to the yard. Then I went back and fought the war in General MacArthur’s Navy in the Southwest Pacific. But when I first got out to the southwest, Halsey was still there, so I went to several of his morning conferences when we were down in Nouméa on an R&R. That’s where I got to know Admiral Carney and met Admiral Halsey. Admiral Felix Johnson was down there. He was secretary of the academic board when I was on duty at the Naval Academy my first tour.

One thing that had always puzzled me, when I was getting ready to fight the Nicholas, was that there were so many times that destroyers were illuminated by Japanese big-ship searchlights, and they were blinding. When a searchlight is so big that it blinds a destroyer, you know darn well it’s not coming from another destroyer; they just don’t have that much illumination. So you can figure you’re outgunned, and you’d better try to do something to get rid of that light so that you can go hide somewhere. So I figured that they were big and long, and the searchlights were pretty well out, and I put in plan four.

We had three different conditions of gun readiness. Mine was to take all the horizontal parallax out of the computer or the director, and just have all the 5-inch guns point straight out, so that they covered as much horizontal as they possibly could. Then we’d cut the fuzes—so that the projectiles would burst before they got to the range we had that target at—and just let fly, to see if some of these shrapnel things would knock that searchlight out for us. We never had to use it, but at least we were beginning to think ahead and see what we could find out to try and do.

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Captain Noble was in command of an amphibious group in the South Pacific when we went in to Aitape. I was in support and hadn’t fired a shot all day. He hadn’t needed any. We didn’t have very much difficulty in Aitape.

He finally sent me a message that said, “There’s an island over here that looks a little suspicious to me. Wish you’d go over and see if you can stir up a little fire over there. I think they’ve got something stored.”

So I steamed over, took up position, and let go. Sure enough, I hit some oil drums or something, because I started a fire. I was firing away, and finally he said, “I don’t want you to try to knock the island out of the water; just let up now.” [Laughter] But, you see, in those days, you’d go back to some association. He knew who he was giving that order to. He knew I’d been itching to shoot all day long, and he gave me a chance to shoot, and then he sent me a sassy message that said, “I didn’t tell you to try to blow the island out of the water.”

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The Nicholas had great competence. The men did their jobs extremely well. We took advantage of every bit of training that we had, the time that we had to improve what we had to do. Our gunnery was excellent. We wanted to show off. After MacArthur took the Admiralty Islands, we anchored destroyers off the island where the First Cavalry Division was located. I met General Swift at the club there. MacArthur didn’t allow any liquor in the forward areas, but the Navy did. So the destroyers were given a Quonset hut and established a club over there, which the Army was delighted to have on board the island. When we were in port, we would journey over there and have a libation before turning in at night, and tell a lot of lies about what great heroes we’d been. One night I was talking to General Swift. I said, “We’re going out tomorrow morning to shoot an antiaircraft practice outside the harbor. Would you like to go out and see it?”

He said, “I certainly would.”

So I sent a boat over for him. Before he left, I said, “Maybe you’d like to bring some of your men along.” So he brought about 20 soldiers with him. When they came aboard, I asked them if they’d had breakfast.

They said, “Oh, yes, we’ve had breakfast.”

I said, “Did you have eggs for breakfast this morning?”

They said, “We haven’t seen an egg for two months, three months.”

So I said, “Well, go on down. We just got alongside a supply ship, and we’ve got a lot of eggs.” Not a one of those soldiers ever saw a gun shoot; they stayed there and ate the whole time they were on board! [Laughter] But they had a good time.

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We picked up two Japanese submarines. Our submarine policy on the Nicholas in my day was that unless we were protecting someone, then we would not make urgent depth charge attacks, because they disturbed the water so much that it was hard to regain contact and to make a deliberate attack. Both submarines that we had, we got well away from the ship on radar, and then got a sound contact subsequently.

We were in Hollandia one day in November of ’44 when I got orders to go with the Taylor to Ulithi. We were to meet the St. Louis, which was rejoining the fleet from battle damage and was assigned to the Southwest Pacific Navy, and escort her from Ulithi to Kossol Roads. We sailed somewhere around sunset from Ulithi.

Somewhere around 8:00 o’clock in the evening, the Nicholas picked up a radar contact, and our SG radar really was well operated. They got this contact at over 21,000, 22,000 yards. We closed, and we found that we had a disappearing contact. We went in and got sonar contact. About 8:30, we dropped one depth charge pattern. We continued to pick up intermittently an echo on our sonar, and we never could get him dead to rights, get a good lead on him. We figured afterwards that we had damaged this sub in our first attack, when we had rolled or thrown 18 or so depth charges at him. He was probably using the disturbed water from that first attack to try to sneak away from us. A depth charge does leave roiled water around, which you couldn’t range through. But we were so clever that he couldn’t get away, so we were patting ourselves on the back.

About two hours later, we got a contact, and we had him pretty well dead to rights and had a good lead on him, which you had to take in those days to drop. As we went in, we had a left lead. We got to about 175 yards, which is about the shortest range you could get, and you were committed when you got there. Then my sonar officer said, “Captain, that bastard is going right as hard as he can.” We spun the wheel right, backed on our starboard engine, and let go with depth charges, because we were practically right over him then. Sure enough, several minutes later, after the last depth charge had gone off—how many minutes, I can’t say now; it’s in my battle report—we got one of the durnedest underwater explosions you ever heard. I was standing on the pelorus, watching to see when to make my next turn to try and regain contact, and I was almost lifted off my feet up in the air. I couldn’t have been lifted off my feet, because some damage would have been done to the hull, but none was. But it was a terrific explosion, and you could feel it. It lifted the ship somewhat.

Immediately the St. Louis and the Taylor, which had withdrawn to the south of me, called me and said, “Are you all right?” They could feel it that quickly, the concussion through the water, 25 miles away from me by this time. So it was quite an explosion.

Well, after the war, we found out that we had sunk the Japanese I-37. Until this year, I thought that we had damaged him and that he had been trying to escape us all this time. One of my young sailormen on the Nicholas, that I saw at a reunion down at Jackson, Mississippi, asked me if I’d read a book called Suicide Torpedo, Suicide Submarine. I said I’d never seen it. So he sent it to me. He said, “You’ll be interested in it, because it talks about the I-37 being sunk by us, and it was one of the carriers of the suicide torpedoes.”

This young Japanese tells about being recruited into the secret weapon system that was going to win the war for the Emperor in June of 1944. They carry him across Japan and out into one of the outlying southern islands, and he goes down, gets there at night. The next morning he goes down, and he sees this great Long Lance torpedo, with a compartment on it and with a periscope on it. He says, “Oh. I’m going to ride a suicide torpedo.” That’s what they told him: that they were going to carry him in and give him a steer for his target, and he was going to then be able to go and deliver a 3,000-pound warhead and destroy anything that it hits, big enough to really blow them out of the water—100 hits, and 100 ships would be sunk.

So then he goes on to say that they put these torpedoes on the first three Japanese submarines, and they carried four of them. They had four hatches connecting the torpedoes to the steerers’ compartment on the torpedo, and they had four cables on to hold them down. They sent out the first three of them, two of them to go to Ulithi, and one of them to go to Kossol Roads. He said, “My friends that were in the one headed for Kossol Roads were unfortunate. They met the USS Nicholas and never came back.” It was in there, four young men with their swords in their hands, a picture taken before they went out to ride these torpedoes, and that’s the first time I’ve ever seen anybody that I killed. So it was a new experience . . . to see four nice 17-, 18-year-old boys, 19 years old, that were your victims.

One of the others went to Ulithi, and it was the one that sank the Mississinewa, and the other one got in an attack on a smaller vessel and damaged it; it didn’t sink. The Japanese story in that fits in with what we have recorded in the war in the Pacific from our friend Morison.

Before I had believed that that fellow was damaged. After reading this book, I realized that it was the responsibility of the captain of the submarine to get his submarine in position so that this guy in the torpedo could steer from that position. He would get it into initial course so many thousand yards, and then at a certain point, he put up his periscope and homed in directly on the target. This was after having been positioned and giving the initial steer and the last contact with the Japanese sub as his steer to the target.

So now that I look at it, I think that we were fighting a battle with this sub skipper this whole time. He was trying to get into position so that he had enough distance from me to launch his suicide torpedo and to give it a steer. But with me continually circling him, and him using the waters to get away from me, he never could get distance enough away from me to launch his torpedoes. I think the terrific underwater explosion now came from those torpedoes in some manner being set off by our depth charges, and that they sank a little bit lower, and then they blew. So it gives you quite a different visualization of your encounter than the one that you visualized from such knowledge as you had without any knowledge from the other side.

I never thought that I was in any real danger. I thought he was the one at first. I thought I was on search-and-destroy, and this duel idea is something I think about now in the peace of my home.

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I have written and I have talked about the men who make up a ship: the people who, in time of battle, can hear the guns going off but their job is in the engine room; their job is in the radio shack; their job is down in the bowels of the ship somewhere. All they know is that they’ve got this job in front of them, and if they don’t do it, then the people up there that are fighting the ship probably won’t get to the point where they should be in order to fight. But they can’t see what’s going on.

I had a wartime officer of the deck who is now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and I had a helmsman who was my general quarters helmsman. They had to stay in under the bridge when the kamikazes were coming down. All they could do was stand there at the end of the telephones and hear what my talker was telling them to do. The officer would repeat it, and the helmsman would carry it out. But they didn’t come running out to see why we were huddled down and hoping that kamikaze wasn’t going to hit us. They stayed by their jobs. It’s just so essential that we recognize the great contributions made by every man in the ship, and how important it is that the pieces fit together in order for a ship to fight.

I went back to commission the Herbert J. Thomas at Bath, Maine, in the spring of 1945. Having left the Nicholas in January of ’45, I was able to go and talk to the family of one of her radar maintenance men who came from Bath. I told them that we were alive, I felt, because of the genius of their son in maintaining the SG radar. He had never been to a school, but he just lived inside of that thing, and he knew every tube, he knew every wire, he knew everything that was in it. When something went wrong, he could find it. It would go down at night, and you’d wake up the next morning, and there it was working again. I was able to talk to his family about it.

When V-E Day came, we were still in Bath, and they were very much afraid that they would just pull out and say, “Well, the war’s over, as far as we’re concerned. Stop building ships.” So with the war going on, they wanted us to talk about it to the workers and see if we could get through and keep the ships on the schedule of one a week being delivered from Bath, which it was at that time. I told them about the war, standing up and talking about their sons to these men and women who were making the ships in Bath. I told them what I thought of this radar maintenance man’s competencies and how long he worked and how hard he fought for them. Bath didn’t lose any time. But things like that, that you can see a man and cite him, it makes a lot of difference when you’re talking to people who know him.