Tragedy at Honda

I first met the late Captain James Harvey Tomb, U.S. Navy, a few years before he became Superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. That is a fact that is not generally known and probably of no consequence to anyone but me.

I was a student in Brooklyn Technical High School and the owner of Marine Press, a miniscule small business that I operated off and on whenever word-of-mouth advertising drove printing jobs my way. The name of my after-school enterprise was a reflection of my innate interest in maritime affairs. At that time my goal was a seagoing career via the New York State Merchant Marine Academy. In 1940, Captain Tomb was retired from the Navy and was that school’s Superintendent.

Two years before, when informed of the Academy’s entrance requirements I discovered that my brother, then in Brooklyn College, already possessed them. To me the next best thing to shipping out was having a brother at sea. Thus, in what sounds goofy despite it being true, because I had convinced him to apply for the Academy he was following in my chosen vocation two-and-a-half years ahead of me.

Due to my brother’s referrals, I regularly performed printing work for the Cadet Corps’ Canteen and various dance committees.

While I was obtaining particulars for the invitation to a formal dance scheduled for 16 March 1940, a member of the committee suggested that the Academy’s emblem appear on the invitation. I explained that incorporation of the emblem would increase the cost because I would have to special order an etched zinc cut. Another member of the committee spoke up, “There’s one in Captain Tomb’s desk drawer. I saw it when I was working off demerits. I had to clean his office.”

I advised, “If you can borrow it, you will save five bucks.”

Within a few days, the cut was made available. When I attempted to return it the same cadet who gave it to me said, “I didn’t borrow it from the Captain. I took it when he was not in his office. It’s too risky to put it back, so keep it.”

I was concerned. If I returned the cut to the Captain, the culprit might be expelled. Also the cadet’s idiotic act could jeopardize my attempt to enter the Academy. The competition was keen. Any such association was enough for rejection. Since I didn’t know what to do, I did nothing.

A few weeks later when I was delivering stationary the Canteen’s manager, Lucian Pineda, advised that Captain Tomb wanted to see me. I was nervous when I entered the Superintendent’s office, but was soon put at ease by the kind white-haired gentlemen when he said, “I once had a thing that was used for printing the Academy’s emblem, and the firm that does our graduation books recently asked for it. I noticed that you used one for the dance invitations. May I borrow yours?”

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With a sigh of relief that he didn’t seem to notice, I promised to deliver mine during the next weekend. Afterwards, Captain Tomb personally returned his to me and thanked me for lending it to him. I went away with the feeling that I owed him something.

The opportunity to square away my debt to Captain Tomb arose more than twenty-years later. The circumstances were very different.

When I had been a high-school senior, instead of applying for the New York State Merchant Marine Academy, my original goal, on the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor I sat for the competitive examination for entry into the miniscule U.S. Maritime Commission Cadet Corps. The Corps was then situated in one section of Fort Schuyler in The Bronx. The Fort was also the home of the much larger State Academy.

There were three reasons for my decision to change goals. The tuition at the New York State Merchant Marine Academy was then seven-hundred dollars per year; in the Maritime Commission Cadet Corps each cadet was paid sixty-four dollars and ten cents per month. I would go to sea in a matter of weeks rather than years. And, the State Academy cadets whom my brother had hazed, were then upper-classmen who would be especially delighted to pay special attention to me.

The Maritime Commission Cadet Corps was reformed as the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York soon after my entry. Also, there were no distinct graduating classes during those war years. Upon completion of our sea tours, they usually ranged from six to nine months, we drifted back to Kings Point. Whenever twenty to twenty-five of us of one specialty, engine or deck, were so gathered a section was formed. Each section was routed through six months of classes like a boxcar being shunted through a switchyard. Other cadet sections were ahead and behind. Study was focused on preparation for the third-assistant engineer’s or third-mate’s license examination.

There were no graduation ceremonies. Upon passing the license examination that was given in the Manhattan office of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, we each returned to the Academy, checked out, and went back to sea in merchant or naval ships. It was on my last full day as a cadet in July 1943, that I again met Captain Tomb.

I had vacated the room that I had been assigned and was in the process of moving to my folks’ home in Brooklyn. I planned to return to the Academy the next day in order to complete the prescribed checkout procedure.

Four of us, with our luggage, were under the arches between Jones and Barry Halls waiting for a ride that would take us to the Long Island Railroad’s Great Neck Station. Captain Tomb, who had become Superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy while we were at sea, came walking by and stopped to chat with us in the friendliest manner. He asked about our plans for returning to the war, “Who among you are going into the Navy? Who are returning to merchant ships?”

After we responded he added most pathetically, “I want to go to sea again, but they won’t have me.”

We had heard the rumor that he was forced into retirement from the Navy many years before for having run a destroyer squadron aground. I could think of no words to say that would relieve the sadness that he was manifestly feeling. Elderly Captain Tomb wished us luck and slowly walked away.

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Years later, after the Captain died, I learned from the book Tragedy at Honda* that the rumor pertained to the losses sustained by Destroyer Squadron 11 in 1923 when two of its three divisions followed their leader in fog onto the rocky coast near Point Arguello, California. The authors also disclosed something else. Captain Tomb was commander of Destroyer Squadron 12, not the one that met with disaster!

The book noted , “Captain Tomb, Commodore of Destroyer Squadron 12, against which DesRon 11 competed during the 20-knot engineering run that had such a disastrous ending, put his cards openly on the table before the Court of Inquiry when he declared that, if Congress had not refused to grant the funds for proper equipment of destroyer squadrons, the disaster would never have taken place.”

In a fine display of leadership (know your stuff, take care of your people) the Captain had blamed politicians while knowing that he was sacrificing the remainder of his naval career.

During a visit to Kings Point in the mid 1960s, I browsed through the Academy’s library and found a copy of Tragedy at Honda. I showed it to the Officer in Charge who was also the head librarian. I directed his attention to the passages that advised that Captain Tomb was not responsible for the disaster. I noted especially that the Captain had given up his naval career in order to improve conditions for others, beau geste!

The librarian admitted that he too had heard and believed the untrue¬†rumor. Somewhat ardently, he said, “I will make sure that Tragedy at Honda comes to the attention of all cadets and staff members.”

At last, I had squared away my debt to Captain Tomb.

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* Tragedy at Honda, by Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, U.S. Navy (Retired) and Colonel Hans Christian Adamson, U.S. Air Force (Retired); Chilton Company, Philadelphia and New York, 1960.

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Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo


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