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USS Halsey Powell (DD-686) /
USS Hancock Near-Collision
- The Untold Story

by Capt Herschel A. Pahl, USN

My part in the Halsey Powell story began about dark the night before the historical event of a near-collision between the Aircraft Carrier USS Hancock (CV-19) and the Destroyer USS Halsey Powell (DD-686) on March 20, 1945.

In the afternoon of 20 March 1945, an enemy kamikaze that had been hit by the Hancock gunners was diving toward the ship. The ship's guns continued firing as the flaming wreckage seemed to be aimed at a sure hit on our carrier, USS Hancock. As it happened, it missed our ship and impacted on the stern of Destroyer USS Halsey Powell, which was alongside, all hooked up and refueling.

I was on the other side of the island structure1 dealing with a problem of my own so I was not aware that the Destroyer had been hit.

The next thing that I was aware of was the ship healing over2 in a sharp turn which they sometimes do during an air attack. It wasn't until I reached the Ward Room down under the 3" thick steel hanger deck which was being used as a pilots ready room, that I first learned that our ship had made a sharp turn to port to avoid contacting the Destroyer, which was directly in her path.

Soon I learned that the Destroyer had been hit by that diving enemy plane which caused her to be out of control thus causing the ship to make a sharp port turn directly toward the Hancock. The Captain and his crew on the Bridge of the Hancock had reacted quickly with the sharp turn to port and just barely avoided a sure disaster.

Everyone in the Ready Room seemed to be eye witnesses as they told their story in exciting detail. Some thought that the bomb and engine had hit and gone through the stern of the destroyer before exploding while others didn't even know that the bomb had gone off. The ships guns continued to fire throughout the incident which added to the confusion..

In the wardroom, no one seemed to care about the flight that I and a flight of Hellcats and Corsairs had just finished. The debriefing officers were more interested in the feat of outstanding ship-handling on the part of Captain Hickey and his crew on the bridge. Rightfully so, they were the heroes of the moment.

An eye witness photographer on a nearby ship in the formation photographed the event and his photo (shown below) answers some questions about what happened. It confirms that the bomb did go off and gives one an indication of where it hit. The photo also shows where the DD Halsey Powell and the USS Hancock were at the critical point in the event.

USS Halsey Powell (DD-686), refueling at Hancock's Starboard side, was hit by engine and possible Bomb from a Kamikazi which was shot down 700 ft above Hancock's Deck

Click Image for Larger View

From this photograph one can see that the bomb did go off and possibly an expert might be able to determine where it went off - on the ship or below the ship. Also the Destroyer seems to be farther forward than the normal position for refueling, which would show how a sharp left turn by the out-of-control DD would put it squarely in the path of the carrier where it was in danger of being cut in two pieces, unless the carrier did a sharp turn to port to miss it which it did. It also appears that the DD may have anticipated the serious situation and had executed an emergency break-away3 from the refueling position to get out of harm's way.

At this point in my story, one might ask what I was doing on the port side of the Island while all this was going on with the Halsey Powell. I had been the leader of a 12 plane search flight that had to come aboard while the ship was under attack rather than land the whole flight in the water because of fuel starvation. I had landed last after letting those low on fuel land first. That is why some of us were still out on the flight deck in an exposed position at the time the DD got hit.

My "Search and Rescue Flight to save Ensign Earnest R. Calcote

The story of the search mission began about dark the evening before (19 March 1945), while the Task Force was still in an advanced position near southern Kyushu, where it had been operating since the carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) was hit that morning.

Now the Task Force commander, Admiral Marc Mitscher4 was withdrawing the whole Task Force to a more defensible position in dealing with the enemy air attacks that were bound to come the following day.

While recovering the last flight of fighters about dark, Ensign Ernest R. Calcote and his F4U Corsair did not get aboard and went in the water somewhere inside the screen of destroyers. Even though the searching Destroyers from the screen plied the area with bright lights for some time, the pilot or the wreckage was not located or recovered.

During the night the squadron skippers and the air group commander got their heads together with the Carrier Division Staff and planned a search flight to go back up to that area and search for the downed plane and pilot.

They had decided that an area 40 miles by 40 miles was to be searched with the best calculated position of the accident in the middle. It was to be done by a 12 plane flight of fighters: Two divisions of F4U Corsairs and one division of F6F Hellcats.

While eating breakfast at 0400, I was notified that I was to be the leader with my division of Hellcats consisting of Daryl Grant, Dick Olson and Maurie Shay.

Hersch Pahl's Division on USS Hancock (CV-19) in Tokyo Bay Sept '45. L-R - Maurice Shay, Richard Olson, Herschel Pahl and Daryl Grant.

Click Image for Larger View

I got out my Mark 3 Plotting board and went to work. I had to calculate the fuel available and plot the sweeps to be made back and forth to cover the area, 40 X 40 miles centered on the position where the downed pilot was calculated to be.

The nearest corner of the area to be searched was 60 miles away from the Task Force which was intending to move further away during the day.

We had a calm sea with no wind which would simplify my navigation problem; however, there was a heavy haze which restricted our visibility to less than 1000 yards.

With the poor visibility, I realized that I was the only one who could navigate. Every one else was going to have their hands full keeping position and searching.

As we reached the near corner of the area to be searched, I had the flight deploy in a left echelon formation and spread out or spaced at about the limit of visibility between planes and flying about 300 feet above the "mil-pond-like" surface. Everyone had to concentrate in order to stay in sight of the plane next to him and keep from flying into the glass-like surface of the water. I cautioned them several times to watch closely and maintain their altitude.

As the guide, I had to concentrate on my navigation and in maintaining the correct heading, speed and altitude. As we approached the end of each sweep, I would give the flight a count down and commence a tight rendezvousing turn and they, in turn, would join on me. I would then move the whole formation over to the start position for the next sweep in the opposite direction and deploy the planes again in a searching line.

After rendezvousing, deploying, and sweeping back and forth several times, I started hearing little comments on the radio like "I hope Ol' Hersch is doing a good job on his navigation" etc., indicating that they too, realized that this was a navigator's night mare. I was using our standard Mark III plotting board; a stop- watch and the two lapse-time push-buttons on my plane's clock. I was thankful that we had a no-wind condition, which simplified my navigation problem.

On one sweep I calculated that we should pass over the spot where Calcote was lost. I then gave the flight a "mark" when I calculated we were there. A short time later one of the searchers sighted a fuel tank and some wreckage. He kept his eye on it and the rest of the flight joined on him. After we all had a chance to see it and were convinced that there was no sign of life present we redeployed and continued the search.

We ended the search of the 1,600 square miles in the far corner of the designated area. Then I had the flight close to a more comfortable flying position and plotted a course back toward the fleet, which would take us back over the center of the area where we had spotted the tank and wreckage earlier.

As before, I gave them a mark when I calculated we were near the spot and shortly after, one of the searchers shouted "there it is!" I told him to look at it good and we would all continue on toward home.

Everyone's faith in my navigation (including my own) was confirmed when that tank and wreckage was sighted the second time.

On my first radio contact with the ship we learned that the force was located 20 miles further away that what we anticipated. Also the force was under enemy air attack. At first we were denied permission to land because the force was under attack. I told them that we were all short of fuel and would just have to take our chances and come on in or else start landing the whole flight in the water due to fuel starvation.

It is a well known fact that the last man in a formation usually burns more fuel than the plane he is flying on and the next one the same way so I inverted the flight so that the last man would be landing first and me the leader would land last. This should improve the probability that we would all get aboard.

As we entered the traffic pattern, all the ships seemed to be firing at something in our direction but we came on in anyway and all landed without any missed approaches so we all got aboard safely and were being parked forward on the flight deck when a diving enemy plane got hit by the ships gunners. Pilots from my flight were running for cover, but I tripped on something and fell head long on the deck.

As I got to my feet I was met by one of the junior staff officers that I knew from the CarDivCdr's5 staff who wanted to know the results of the search - "Positive or Negative?" I told him "Negative" and we both headed for better shelter. I should have said that it was successful even though we did not find the downed aviator, Ensign Calcote. .

There had been so much noise from the guns close by that I was not an eye-witness to any part of the attack, so I didn't learn much about what had been going on, other than the ship making some sharp turns, until I arrived in the Ward Room down below the armored hanger deck. Here, everyone seemed to be experts and were telling their versions of what had happened.

No one seemed interested in debriefing us so I met briefly with the pilots of my flight and discussed it briefly and gave them my thanks for a job well done. I recall that one of the F4U pilots patted me on the back and thanked me for inverting the flight as he landed with only fumes in his tanks.

I guess this flight went down in the record book as one of those necessary thankless jobs that take place in the time of war; however, the outstanding performance demonstrated by our Captain and his crew will go down in the record book as a mighty fine piece of seamanship to be remembered by all sea going captains and ship handlers from now until eternity.

- Hersch Pahl


1. The "Island Structure" is that part of the superstructure of an aircraft carrier above the flight deck, where the Con (Bridge) and Wheel House, along with other important operational areas are located.
2. "Healing over" is a Naval term meaning the ship was making a hard turn either to starboard or port. At this time, sometimes the ship is at a near 45 degree angle to the level of the sea.
3. An "Emergency Break-away" is an emergency procedure which ships use to break the connection being kept by both ship's Underway Refueling personnel. It is a speedy way that both ships can be free of each other to make emergency turns, etc., without causing either of the ships damage.
4. To read more about Admiral Marc Mitscher go

5. CarDivCdr =- Carrier Division Commander.


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