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Ferrisburgh vet survived two sinkings in 17 hours

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November 8, 2007

By ANDY KIRKALDY

FERRISBURGH — Sixty-nine years ago, Ferrisburgh’s John Lenk joined the U.S. Navy because jobs were scarce during the Depression, his older brother had already signed, and the Brooklyn native bought into a famous marketing slogan.

“There wasn’t much going on, and I said I’d join the Navy,” Lenk, now 89, said at his Basin Harbor Road home. “‘Join the Navy and see the world.’”

It was 1938. Lenk didn’t know that World War II loomed, and he would see more of the world than he ever imagined: Japan; China; Hawaii; the Phillipines, where a kamikaze and a torpedo gave him two unscheduled dips into the Lingayen Gulf; the Aleutian Islands; Panama; Leyte Gulf; the Palau and Admiralty Islands; Guam and Guadalcanal, to name a few stops.  

“I had no idea,” said Lenk, who served the Navy for 20 years in all — after the war he continued traveling the seas on two ships before ending his military career with California shore duty. 

During WW II he worked as a water tender and non-commissioned officer in the steam room of the high-speed mine-sweeper U.S.S. Long, keeping her engines purring as she cleared the way for Pacific Ocean invasions.

Before the war Lenk first trained at Newport, R.I., and Norfolk, Va., then headed to Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay. It was there he was assigned to the Long, a 314-foot  destroyer capable of 25 knots. The Long was soon converted to a minesweeper and sent through the Panama Canal to the West Coast, where it joined the Pacific Fleet.

OFF TO WAR

On Dec. 5, 1941, the Long was in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor and was sent on maneuvers 700 miles to the west. There, Lenk and his shipmates received the stunning news of the Dec. 7 Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor.

“We got word that Sunday morning, and nobody on board could believe it,” he said. “It couldn’t happen, something like that.”

Two days later the Long returned to a somber scene.

“We got to Pearl and we could see one plane that was ditched, and all the other ships were sunk. There was no fire or nothing, and it was all calmed down,” Lenk said. “It was very sad to see all those ships got all sunk like that in a surprise attack. We were up in arms about the Japanese doing that.”

The Long began making anti-submarine patrols around the islands and escorted convoys westward as the U.S. military began to gather its might. Later in 1942 the Long did patrol and escort duty in Alaskan waters, and swept mines for the invasion of Attu in the Aleutians.

Later that year Lenk and the Long steamed back to warmer waters and helped clear the way for invasions in the Mariana, Marshall and Palau islands, and saw action in Leyte Gulf.

For the most part, the Long did its job without getting in harm’s way, Lenk said. Minesweepers had equipment that could cut the mines’ moorings, so they would bob to the surface. Once the mines were in sight, the crew would turn guns on them to explode the devices.

“We were always like the silent people. We were always ahead the fleet. We were there three or four days ahead of the transports, any of the ships. We’d sweep mines so they could have a channel open for the LSTs (troop landing vessels) and the transports to get the troops into the islands,” he said. “We never had too much activity on that stuff. It always seemed kind of just routine stuff.”

DOUBLE-DIPPING

That routine stuff came to an end in the Lingayen Gulf on January 2, 1945, when the Long joined landings in the Phillipines at Lingayen Gulf. Japanese land resistance was minimal, but their tactics had grown desperate at sea: Kamikazes, suicide pilots who crashed their planes into ships, had been unleashed.

Lenk said the next 17 hours are seared in his memory. His duty began at noon; he was in charge of the crew in the fire room, feeding the engines. Lenk knew trouble was coming when orders came to hit full speed.

 “At about 12:15 they were bothering us pretty good then, and all of a sudden we got a bell to go to 25 knots … I said, ‘Something’s going to happen,’” Lenk said. “A kamikaze hit just below the bridge on the Long. It hit, and then all of a sudden, we had oil tanks ahead of us, and somehow they got ruptured, and the fire room caught fire. And me and five guys were there, and I said, ‘We can’t do nothing. We’ve got to get out of here.’”

Lenk ordered the crew up through the two hatches to the deck. More problems awaited.

“We came out of the hatch, and that was on fire. That was burning from all the gasoline from the kamikaze … I was the last one out. I was the top guy, and I got the guys out first. And as I came out of the hatch … the ship just rolled a little bit and some gasoline came down and hit my face and hands and burned them,” he said. “When I got out of there I had to go through a little passageway, and that was on fire and when I got back aft it was OK, but the whole bridge was just burning.”

About 20 men were lost; the remaining 100 or so of the Long’s crew hit the water. 

“The skipper thought the ship was going to explode. We had ammunition exposed on deck and stuff, so the skipper gave the word to abandon ship,” he said.

After a few hours of hoping not to see shark fins, another minesweeper, the U.S.S. Hovey, picked up the Long’s crew. who joined the ongoing naval battle. 

“The Japanese were making torpedo runs on the battleships and other ships, and we were taking care of aircraft. If any came around, we were firing at them,” he said.

Finally, Lenk and his crewmates called it a night. But Lenk’s burns woke him up early. 

“The next morning may hands were all swollen up like bananas and they were bothering me, and about 5 o’clock I got up, and I went topside. There was a full moon, real bright … I walked back aft, then back to amidships, and then all of a sudden I turned around and another ship was firing anti-aircraft. You could see the red bullets,” he said.

Then Lenk had another near miss. 

 “All of a sudden they hit this Japanese plane, and he was circling around us, and he was trying to dive-bomb into the Hovey. And in the meantime … there was a torpedo plane making a run on the Hovey, and we took a torpedo in the aft compartment, and it blew the aft engine room,” he said. “And five minutes ago I was where that torpedo hit.”  

The Hovey broke in half and sunk in minutes. The Long’s crew dove back into the drink just 17 hours after their first leap, and it was several hours again before a small tender ship plucked them out of the water. 

Lenk said he and his fellow Long crewmates always had special status at reunions with the Hovey crew.

“We were called the double-dippers because we went in the water twice,” Lenk said.

After the Lingayen Gulf the powers-that-be decided the Long’s crew had had enough. Lenk spent a week in the Admiralty Islands, then was shipped back to San Francisco. After than he took a 30-day leave back to Brooklyn.

“I got a break,” he said.

Lenk had just gone returned to San Diego when the atomic bombs that ended the Pacific conflict were dropped on Japan.

Like most other Pacific veterans, Lenk supported the fateful nuclear decision. He thinks it prevented an unbelievably bloody invasion of Japan.

“It would have been disastrous for both sides,” he said. “The Japanese wouldn’t have been taken prisoners. They would have killed themselves.”

AFTER THE WAR

Post-war Lenk received extra training was assigned to the President Hayes in Oakland and the Piedmont in San Diego. He made runs to Pearl Harbor, Guam, Tokyo and Hong Kong and 13 trips through the Panama Canal, among other stops, and did shore duty in San Francisco, where he completed his 20-year stint in 1958.

Lenk settled on Long Island and operated a hospital’s power and water plant in Central Islip, N.Y., before moving to Vermont in 1974. For another 30 years he worked at River’s Edge Marina on Otter Creek, maintaining the facility and doing its carpentry and repair work. He survived his first wife, Betty, and is now married to Beverly, with two stepsons.

None of that would have been possible without good luck on Jan. 2 and 3, 1945, Lenk said.

“Each time I happened to be in the right place. In the fire room, if the hatch was damaged or something and I couldn’t get out, I wouldn’t be talking to you,” he said. “It’s just a matter of feet and inches. You just didn’t think about it.”

Lenk said he can remember those 17 hours like they happened yesterday.

 “I can still visualize every step I did, and the wounded guys on the Hovey. I was trying to help them get off, but the Hovey was just, whoosh. Five or 10 minutes, and it was just, whoosh, right down,” he said. “I can remember all the details of what I did. One thing I remember is I came out of the fire room, and then, whew, look at this, my hands.” 

 As fewer from WW II march every Veterans’ Day, Lenk believes it’s more important than ever for those who remain to share their stories.

“It’s 60 years (later), and the kids don’t know about it,” he said. “I was probably the same way growing up. I didn’t know much about World War I and stuff like that. I like to let people know what a lot guys went through. Because now, look, we’re losing a thousand a day or more of WW II guys.”

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