USS Underhill (DE-682): Lost 24 July 1945

Muster Roll of Underhill dated 1 July 1945

An “Arrow” pointing to a sailor’s name indicates a survivor. * This is not a confirmed or complete list of survivors.

Report of Sinking by Harold E. Matter

On July 24, 1945, I was on the bridge as starboard lookout on the USS Underhill, a destroyer escort sent to Okinawa, when our sonar detected submarines in the area. I spotted a periscope at a distance of about 300 yards off our starboard beam.

General quarters was sounded immediately. As soon as I was relieved at lookout, I hustled to my battle station. After an aborted “stand by to ram” order, we heard and felt depth charges exploding. This was quickly followed by another “stand by to ram” order, and we felt a minor bump.

As we began to relax, thinking that the ramming was over, we heard and felt a deafening explosion that tossed us about and left us in the eerie light of our emergency lanterns. We all eventually went up on deck and quickly discovered what had happened. Our ship was in utter shambles.

The bridge from which I had reported sighting a periscope was gone; in fact, the entire bow of the ship was slowly sinking off the starboard side. We had been hit by a Japanese suicide sub and the explosion cut the USS Underhill into two pieces. We lost 112 members of our crew that day, including the man who had replaced me as lookout minutes earlier.– Harold E. Matter, Rockville. (The Washington Post 28 May 2004)

Press Release and Joe Timberlake Account

“A Hero Among Us” Report of Sinking by Bill Varroso

It was July 1945 and a US destroyer escort, The USS Underhill DE682, had just been sunk in the Pacific Ocean. Of the 236 men aboard the Underhill, only 122 survived. One of those survivors was Braintree resident 92-year-old Bill Varroso.

Bill credits the love of family, as well as his awareness of family circumstances, for the drive that was instilled in him at a young age. Born in 1925, Bill was the oldest of four boys. He had watched as his father succumbed to the long grasp of alcoholism eventually bringing about his parents’ divorce. The disease tore apart the marriage and, as the oldest son, Bill felt the responsibility to step up and do what needed to be done. Alcoholism had ruined the marriage but he was determined that it would not ruin his family. Bill was 16 when he left school and started working at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy. With the possible entry of the U.S. into World War II, there was great focus on shipbuilding. At the time, Bethlehem Steel was America’s second largest steel producer and the Fore River Shipyard was the largest shipbuilder.

Shortly before the entry of the United States into the war, the Navy had begun designs on destroyer escorts and commissioned Fore River to be the major contractor. Destroyer escorts (since renamed frigates) were the US Navy’s mid- 20th century classification for a warship designed with endurance to escort mid-ocean convoys of merchant marine ships. Destroyer escorts were mass-produced for WWII as a less expensive anti-submarine warfare alternative to previously used fleet destroyers. They proved very successful in spotting enemy submarines, distracting and destroying them. Unfortunately, along the way the Japanese had developed their own strategies in spotting and destroying and we’ll delve into that at a later time in this story. During his two years working at the Fore River Shipyard, Bill was trained in skills that would benefit him throughout his life. Not the least was the skills he learned during his electrician training. He was very appreciative of the opportunity to learn the trade, but foremost on his mind at the time was the opportunity to help out with family finances back home. He worked alongside men willing to share their experiences and thoughts on the ongoing war. When the time came and Bill was drafted, he was more than ready to serve his country. By the age of 18 he had helped build the ships, he had listened to the stories of others and he was ready to serve and fight for his country. When given a choice of which branch of the service to join, Bill chose the Navy. Ironically his time at sea during the war was to be spent on the very ship he had helped build during his time at the shipyard, the USS Underhill DE682. The Underhill was known as a well-run ship. The 48-year-old captain had the respect of his crew. Those aboard were regarded as confident and capable. They had a good sense of duty resulting in a great rapport onboard the ship. Bill was assigned to the forward part of the ship and was responsible for the onboard shop. He took great pride in his position and to say everything in that shop was shipshape might prove an understatement.

The USS Underhill had spent her first year serving as a member of Escort Division 56 with escort duties in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean. In January 1945, the Underhill was transferred to the Pacific and assigned to the Seventh Fleet, also known as “MacArthur’s Navy.” It was shortly thereafter that Bill was transferred from his shop in the bow of the ship to new duties located in the aft. And though he would miss the camaraderie of running the onboard shop, he was ready for the challenges of his new assignment. He had no way of knowing then the challenges that lay ahead.

On July 24, 1945, the Underhill was the lead ship in a convoy from Okinawa to the Philippines. It was a convoy of LSTs (landing ship, tanks) loaded with troops of the Army’s 96th Infantry Division. The soldiers on board the LSTs had seen heavy combat in Okinawa and were on their way to a rest area in the Philippines. The Underhill was the lead ship and responsible for the practice drills. These included zigzagging and other maneuvers that ensured the ship was ready for any evasive action that might be necessary. These drills continued on a regular basis throughout the sailing. After a week at sea the Underhill radioed patrol there was an unidentified aircraft on her radar. The aircraft did not approach and soon disappeared, leaving some disappointed that their hours of practice were not put to use. They continued on their way with those outside enjoying the great weather and those on duty watching closely for a possible floating mine or, worse yet, a Japanese sub. The Japanese were well known for their suicide aircraft missions, known as the kamikazes; they now had implemented that tactic and a new weapon system called the kaiten. The first prototype was completed in July 1944. After much hit-and-miss training, and much loss of Japanese life resulting from the suicide training missions the kaiten was introduced in combat in November 1944.

Meaning “Turning of the Heavens,” the kaiten was a suicide submarine. It was built as a small submarine but proved to be more effective as a manned torpedo. It had room for one occupant and the nose assembly was packed with more than 3,000 pounds of high explosives. The kaitens could be detached from submarines in quick fashion and were capable of inflicting devastation on an unsuspecting ship. Needless to say those onboard the Underhill that day were diligent in their search for any foreign object in the water threatening the ship’s safe passage. And though the officers and crew on board the Underhill were aware of the submarines in their area, they had no way of knowing if any of those subs had manned kaitens aimed in their direction. They soon found out. A sub was spotted near the Underhill; depth charges were dropped. The resulting debris that floated up was a sure sign that they had hit their target. As the crew set about repairing some damage on the Underhill caused by the depth charges, word came that there was another submarine sighted nearby and approaching at a fast pace. The order was given to prepare to ram, and that is the last thing Bill remembers hearing before the ungodly loud BOOM that shook his world and his life.

It was 3:15 pm when the Underhill was struck; when time stood still. It is believed that the ship was struck by not one but two kaitens. These suicide craft had rammed into the starboard bow just forward of engine room 1 and had split the ship in two. Bill recalls that along with the loud noise, people were thrown about the room and struggled to right themselves. He remembers running forward to mid ship and seeing only sky and ocean where the bow of the ship had been. He recalls seeing a large hunk of metal sinking and yelling, “At least we got that son of a bitch!” Then reality settled in. The hunk of metal he watched sink beneath the water was not an enemy ship but the bow of the Underhill. Slowly his hearing returned and it was then he heard the banging coming from the sinking bow. And as if in slow motion, he realized that the banging and noises he heard was coming from within the bow of his own ship as it sank into the depths of the ocean. The cries for help from within the sinking would not be heard that day but Bill could hear and feel them in his heart. These were the young men he had served alongside when stationed in the shop. He had come to know and love them like brothers and he felt helpless.

In recounting the story of that fateful day in 1945, Bill’s eyes water and he slips into momentary silence. Clearly he not only recounts the facts as they happened but he relives those events-the sights, the sounds and the brief delay in comprehending what was happening, and what it all meant. The tears that were not shed that day have been spread out over a lifetime. The 306-foot escort ship weighing in at 1,400 tons had been struck by two kaitens and was now split in two with the bow sinking and the aft still afloat. Calls from the stern to the bridge went unanswered. There were no orders or response coming from the Captain and ever so slowly the remaining crew onboard the Underhill came to understand their new reality. There would be no guidance from the bridge, they were on their own. They would eventually learn that 112 of the crew had perished in the explosion and 10 of those were the officers in charge. Without training, orders or guidance, they set about saving the lives of their shipmates blown into the water from the explosion.

The previously calm waters of the Pacific were now filled with debris, oil and fires and now, fellow sailors. Quickly 19-year-old Bill and other brave young men set about doing all they could to rescue as many of their shipmates as possible. The call went out to lower the motor whale boats. Bill grabbed his helmet and jumped in the craft to help with the rescue. Many, without fear for their own safety and resulting injuries jumped into the steaming hot water and set about saving others. They were able to follow the cries for help and a number of young lives were saved. Bill and other young men that jumped into the scaldin’ water that day have carried the scars of their efforts these many years. And, Bill states they do so with no regrets. They were able to rescue shipmates who would eventually return home to family and friends. Their personal sacrifice and effort was not in vain. Sadly some rescued that day died as a result of their injuries and were later buried at sea. Theirs was a quiet burial with their brethren standing by saluting them for their sacrifice and praying for their souls.

The nearby patrol craft attempting to help with the rescue efforts where hindered by the heightened activity of subs and kaitens in the area. They were forced to alternate between assisting survivors and attacking the remaining subs. The injured were transferred to one of the accompanying LSTs with the more seriously injured brought to the one LST having a doctor onboard. The convoy continued its course and proceeded to its destination of Leyte. It was determined that the plane spotted earlier on that fateful day was not as harmless as was believed. It succeeded in its mission and radioed their position and direction back to the Japanese Army. Many hours later, in the dark of night, the aft of the Underhill sank. By mid-August 1945, all Japanese subs were ordered home. The sinking of the Underhill was the only sinking by a kaiten.

Six days later, on July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis sank in the same waters. Her demise was not brought about by a kaiten but two torpedoes. Some of the Underhill survivors feel that the radio silence regarding their situation should not have been in place. Had this been so then it’s possible many lives could have been saved. It was too late for the Underhill but not the Indianapolis. After delivering the final components of the atomic bomb, and nearing their destination, the Philippines, the Indianapolis was hit by two torpedoes and sank in just 12 minutes with disastrous results.

The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and Japan surrendered.

And while all the survivors of the Underhill received the Purple Heart, it was not until early 2001 that they received the much deserved Navy Unit Commendation for their “outstanding heroism in action against the enemy.” Upon his return home shortly thereafter, Bill joined the Braintree Police Force. He was the town’s first safety patrol officer. He takes great pride in the program he set up. “Officer Bill.” as he is fondly referred to these days, remains active. At 92, he enjoys his volunteer work at two local nursing homes and his time spent helping and supporting his beloved Parish of St. Clare. He is actively involved in, and has held many official positions at the American Legion Post 86, Veterans of Foreign Wars as well as the Braintree DAV. He treasures his family, his only daughter and his four sons, their children and grandchildren. He cherishes time spent with them as well as his two surviving brothers, and he is quick to note that he has been blessed with great friends and neighbors. And all would agree wholeheartedly that the feelings are mutual.

By Rose Barrett 11 Nov 2017:

Rose Barrett is a former editor of the Braintree Historical Society’s quarterly newsletter, the Lantern.

“Sailor survived blast in Pacific that tore ship in two” Report of Paul R. Adams

At 19, Paul R. Adams painted ships for a living. He’d go where the work was. Sometimes it was the Brooklyn Navy Yard, other times Manhattan. His labors turned out to be good practice. About a year later, he was drafted into the Navy, and painting the ship he was assigned to, the USS Underhill, became a way of life. “Every time we came into port, no other ships wanted to dock next to us. We looked so good. The captains on the other ships would put a crew together and start painting so that they could look halfway decent,” recalled Adams.

But even the best paint job in the world could not save the Underhill, a destroyer that provided protection for the naval convoys of World War II. Its troubles began in the waters off Northern Africa. “We were going into port and had a pilot aboard, and our captain asked him if he knew where all the rocks and sunken ships were, and as the captain asked, we hit something and it bent our propeller shaft. At the same time, the pilot said, ‘That’s one right now.’ ” The Underhill had to be dry-docked to replace the shaft. Then it was back to the states, and there was some more trouble – an unexplained vibration rattling the ship. Thinking it might have something to do with the replacement shaft, the destroyer escort stayed in the waters off Connecticut.It was eventually determined that the propeller had hit some mud and that the Underhill was seaworthy.

In the Pacific, the Underhill continued its mission of providing protection to a number of convoys headed to the different island battles fought against the Japanese. But the ship’s days were numbered. At 3:15 p.m. July 24, 1945, the Underhill came under attack by a midget suicide submarine, known as a Kaiten. “We were heading from Okinawa to the Philippines. We were escorting ships that had wounded soldiers from Okinawa. We were taking them to hospitals in the Philippines. It was going along normal, and then we came in contact with Japanese submarines. They were one- and two-manned submarines and, from what I understand, they were very hard to control,” Adams said. But one of the tiny subs succeeded in striking the Underhill.

“I was on the starboard side on the fantail shooting off depth charges. Then the captain gave orders that he was going to ram the sub. There was an explosion, smoke and fire up in the air, and debris came down. There was so much fire and heat that I thought maybe I’d jump overboard if it got too damn hot. “I headed to the end of the ship. My intention was to dive away from the screws, the propellers. As I started to go between the smoke tanks and racks of depth charges, there was a second explosion. I looked off to the port side, and I said, ‘Am I to die this way?’ “With that, I was blown down onto the deck on my right shoulder. Then there was more fire, smoke, oil, debris, what have you. When that eased off, I stood up and looked forward. Off to the right, it was bright and there was a ship, and I assumed it was the enemy.

“When I looked ahead, there was no bridge to our ship, and somebody said that’s our bow in the water. I thought it was the enemy, but it was our ship. We were split in half. We went down below to see what we could do. We went to the engine room, and I told my buddies to get out.” Because of the water-tight compartments in the ship’s substructure, he explained, the two halves of the vessel stayed afloat. Adams said he assisted medical personnel as other ships in the convoy dropped depth charges and conducted rescues from the Underhill. The casualties were extensive – 112 sailors died, while 110 survived; 10 officers died, and four lived. Despite burns to his hands and face and an injured shoulder, Adams was the second-to-last man to leave his half of the ship. “I jumped onto a patrol craft,” he said. After that, the two sections of Underhill were sunk by other Navy ships. “You had to get them out of the waterways.”

For decades, Adams says he has attended an annual memorial service for those lost on the Underhill and for 25 years served as president of the solemn gathering. “There aren’t many of us left. We’re getting old. Everybody sheds a tear when we get together at the service. You remember the people. So many things …”

By Lou Michel, The Buffalo News 11 Aug 2013

Happy survivors of the Underhill tragedy

Links to Oral History Recordings