Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Hero Next Door

I was going to hold this until December 17, but this is the weekend of the annual Army-Navy football game and I decided to go ahead and publish.

I read a book - “Halsey's Typhoon” - after meeting and befriending a man who joined the Navy as soon as his age allowed and boarded the same ship - USS Monterey (CVL-26) - that President Ford had served on during a terrible storm. Halsey's Typhoon caught the fleet by surprise and cost the lives of nearly 800 men in December, 1944.  My friend boarded while the ship was undergoing repairs of storm and fire damage at Bremerton WA and went on to survive kamikaze attacks in the waning months of the war. Lieutenant Ford left the ship at Bremerton on orders to the Navy Training Command.

Monterey was repaired; other ships were not so lucky. USS Hull (DD-350), USS Spence (DD-512) and USS Monaghan (DD-354) were lost. 98 men were pulled from the sea from those three ships (92 from Hull and Spence), 55 by the USS Tabberer (DE418).
USS Tabberer went from keel to commissioning in an astonishing four months - a tribute to American manufacturing during World War II. I'll come back to its story in a few paragraphs, but first:

A small, spare obituary appeared in the Ocala FL newspaper in 2003; A man died, and that was that. But what a man. Because of him, 55 men lived, most begat families, all had the utmost respect for a man who defied direct orders from none other than Admiral “Bull” Halsey to save men in peril on the sea. If you are ever in Ocala FL, stop by and read a plaque in the Silver Springs Shores Presbyterian Church honoring a quiet hero who lived, virtually unnoticed, in our midst.

Henry L. Plage, LCDR USNR

OCALA - Henry Lee Plage, 88, a retired pharmaceutical distributor, died Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2003, at Oakhurst Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
A native of Oklahoma City, Okla., he moved here from Inverness in 1980. Mr. Plage was a member of Silver Springs Shores Presbyterian Church. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Mr. Plage was a recipient of the Legion of Merit.


I'm inserting a photograph of Henry Plage here. My friends in Ocala may not recognize him from this one from 1945, so I'm also inserting a photograph taken from a more recent video on the History Channel. 

From the Congressional Record:

Thursday, November 14, 2002


Mr. Speaker, I appreciate this opportunity to share with my colleagues a story of heroism and to honor the bravery of Lt. Commander Henry Lee Plage who lives in my hometown of Ocala, FL. During World War II, he and his crew saved dozens of men from the water of the Pacific after a raging typhoon sunk three ships.

Henry Lee Plage started his military career as a member of ROTC at Georgia Tech and he joined the Navy in 1937 after his graduation. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Commander Plage immediately requested sea duty. His first assignment was commanding a submarine chaser. With only 4 days to get ready, he assumed command of a crew of 55. On February 18, 1944, the USS Tabberer (DE–418) was launched. She was commissioned on May 23, 1944, with Plage in command. By October the ship had joined Admiral Halsey’s 3rd Fleet, helping to supply crucial air cover for General MacArthur’s Land troops. On December 17, 1944, the USS Tabberer was east of the Phillippine Islands along with the 3rd Fleet, scheduled to refuel, when the weather began to deteriorate rapidly. The reason, Typhoon Cobra was heading directly toward them.

The high winds and choppy seas prevented the USS Tabberer from refueling and by the evening of December 17th, the full force of the typhoon was upon them. The Tabberer had to fight extremely rough seas—and by the 18th sustained winds had reached about 145 miles per hour, with wind gusts up to 185 miles an hour. Before the Typhoon had moved through, the USS Tabberer had lost its mast and radio antenna. Three destroyers from the fleet, the USS Hull (DD–350), the USS Spence (DD–512) and the USS Monaghan (DD–354), had gone down.
Tabberer, after Typhoon Cobra
About 9:30 p.m. on December 18th, the Tabberer rescued its first survivor from the water. It was then that Lt. Commander Plage learned that the USS Hull had capsized. Plage and the Tabberer immediately began an intensive search and rescue effort. These efforts continued for 3 days and nights. In all, the USS Tabberer pulled 55 men from the Pacific Ocean. All were from the USS Hull and the USS Spence.

Typhoon Cobra claimed nearly 800 lives. Only 92 survived (my note: from the 3 ships lost; other ships lost men as well.), 55 of these rescued by the crew of the USS Tabberer. Lt. Commander Plage remained on sea duty after the war and gave the Navy 14 years of service before retiring in 1954.

It is an honor for me to share this story of heroism and survival and I ask you all to join me in commending Lt. Commander Henry Lee Plage and the crew of the USS Tabberer for their dedication in saving the lives of 55 men from that terrible storm.

---------end Congressional Record---------

For more on the storm and interviews with Henry Plage:

Growing up, I spent my young life in the presence of special men and women who had come together from all walks of life to fight and win a war that did nothing less than save the world. Some of these were in my own family, many were teachers and coaches. We walked among them and never knew their stories. From age 10, in Ocala FL, I personally knew their most special kind; a survivor of Bataan, a Marine who island-hopped and fought in nearly every engagement in the Pacific, a teacher whose dreams caused him considerable anguish. A grade school classmate later distinguished himself in our generation's fight in Vietnam and died a dozen years after, a delayed casualty of that bitter conflict. Two of my college professors were World War II veterans, another served in the Korean conflict. Today, they all remain my heroes.

As my own shadow lengthens, I look back in awe at men like Henry Plage and feel more than a little humble and more than a little guilty that my own accomplishments don't hold a candle to theirs. I count myself fortunate to have known a few of them but even more fortunate that I inherited the privileges they left to me. 

This weekend, the football teams from West Point and Annapolis will square off in one of the iconic contests of the sport. They will strike each other and block and tackle and compete ferociously, and they will leave the field as one brotherhood, willing to die for each other if need be.

go army ... Go Navy.