Tales of the North Atlantic
The memories of Commander John Patrick Derr
Commander Derr was Abbot’s last commanding officer. You can also read his biography.
Learning the ropes
Destroyer skippers have many duties, and all too often with inexperienced crew. This can soon lead to the end of a promising career.
John Pirro was facing the need to train his XO (me) for the eventual assumption of command on my own. This can be a hazardous undertaking in the real world.
One night, Abbot was returning to port after some fleet operations and I was given the chance to both train myself and show off my high skills by docking the ship alongside another destroyer. All went well with a slow and easy approach using one or both screws as needed.
Some problem came up, diverting my attention and I left the starboard engine ahead slow, port engine stopped as we approached for a port side-to landing. Before I could correct this, the bow sliced along the forward deck of the other destroyer. MV = Momentum!
Several water mains or risers were broken with water under about 80PSI pressure shooting high into the sky. All that was lacking was some color to the fountains for more effect.
The damaged destroyer sounded general quarters and our loyal repair gang turned-to with welding torches and new valves to fix things.
I went over to the damaged ship to present my regrets and found the duty officer sitting at the wardroom table, head in hands thinking his career was ruined.
Neither John Pirro nor your writer were ever promoted to Captain!
High Jinks in Halifax
Abbot steamed in company with her sister ship, The Sullivans for Halifax on a reserve training cruise. The Sullivans was named after the five Sullivan brothers, all killed during WW II. The two ships were competitors and a race was organized.
Full superheated steam was poured into the turbines with a rooster tail some 8 feet high off the stern. It was not safe to trod the main deck as green water washed from the hawse pipe aft to the stern chaulk. All engineering, or black gang, were at their general quarters stations, combat ready and full alert.
True speeds obtained for this four-hour run remain a military secret, but as Admiral Arleigh Burke was want to say, 30 knots…and more.
The winner remains a secret, but let it be known that the black gang did noble duty — no explosions, no injuries, no major break downs and no deaths.
Abbot steamed proudly into Halifax and was berthed inboard of The Sullivans. This two-ship nest used Abbot as the tie point for the other destroyer. As lines were doubled up, some person or persons unknown tied rat guards to the lines, keeping any of The Sullivans’ rats from absconding for a nicer home aboard Abbot.
In a high spirit (and during darkness) some unknown person or persons painted over the words The Sullivans on the stern and replaced it with & COSTELLO, revealing the then well-known words for all to see: Abbot & Costello.
Later that day, The Sullivans held a personnel inspection of their crew on the topside decks. As this event was unfolding, complete with rat guards and the words “& COSTELLO” still obliterating the ship’s name on the stern, some of our crew were about to climb aboard The Sullivans undetected. The bridges of the two ships were close enough to allow ease of boarding from one ship to the other. The idea was to sound GQ (general quarters) from their bridge control while the ship watch was below on the quarter deck and the entire crew standing tall for inspection.
More mature hands surfaced at this moment and the event was canceled.
All of the above might reveal which ship won the full-speed run.
There were no UCMJ Courts Martial conducted…yet!
The primary duty of Abbot while in Philadelphia was a reserve training ship. We had a designated crew that we trained for rapid assumption of the ship if some national emergency so directed.
Relations grew from bad to worse, and an immature or superior attitude was allowed to fester, creating strife. One day while our captain was back in Newport with his family, LT(jg) George Steffencavage, the Chief Engineer and duty officer, came to me as the XO asking for permission to lock the quarter deck. I granted this thinking it a good idea.
Big George was an imposing man of about 6’4” and 240 pounds of AMERIND background and “take no prisoner” attitude. This meant as the reserve crew came aboard for their drill, they could not leave the ship for PX runs, beer runs, girl friends, etc., but were in effect prisoners aboard.
Big George stood tall on the quarter deck to enforce this control. Relations did not improve after that and since our primary mission was to train these men, I rue the day this was allowed to happen. These reservists were honorable, dedicated, loyal Americans giving their time for emergency response. They did deserve better handling.
Abbot was completing a rather long at sea period with a scheduled liberty port-of-call to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The last night before arriving in port was a time for some all-hands entertainment. Sometimes this consisted of boxing matches or perhaps a competitive effort by the crew, or the chiefs and the wardroom putting on some little skit.
The wardroom provided some light humor with a takeoff on Gilbert & Sullivan’s opera, “HMS Pinafore.”
Jack Kelleher the ship’s weapons officer and Mike Harris, the first lieutenant, were two of the main actors for this. Mike assumed the role of Little Miss Buttercup, using a swab as his wig and the title for his song as “I’m called poor little boatswain mate…”
This event was one small demonstration of the general line officers’ breadth of qualifications — one man for all seasons, so to speak! There were other officers taking various roles, but Kelleher and Harris were the ones whom I most recall.
I think Mike Harris went on to get his law degree. Both of these officers represented the high quality of individual that the navy recruited through the NROTC program.
Abbot’s change of command in January 1965 was a full dress affair with the captain, John Pirro, departing and Lieutenant Commander John Derr assuming command. Two months later, the decommissioning ceremony was more subdued; this is not a happy time in the history of any ship, and only the grave yard in the Inactive Fleet in Philadelphia awaited Abbot.
Some years later I had command of this 105-ship fleet of mothballed ships, and it was eerie to walk the decks of these silenced old grey ladies. One could hear whatever noises one could imagine.
Our crew were moved about in uncomfortable quarters, with poor civilian-prepared food. The civilian ship yard near Philadelphia was the scene of the final indignity of securing all equipment, with Big George the key officer overseeing this.
Captain Pirro had traveled to Washington and very successfully arranged for the officers to get orders for their next duty as they requested. That was a noble and loyal act on his part. To a lesser extent, we were able to match most of the remaining crew with their choice of duty. PN1 Ripperger was the key man for this operation and deserves recognition for preparing the many service records for our crew.
During the time that I had command of the Philadelphia Inactive Ship Facility, Abbot was stricken from the Navy List in December 1974 and sold for scrap, leaving the facility in June 1975.