This Week in Block Island's history, December 3, 1944: A bad night in the warm Pacific
This week in history, December 3, 1944, a Japanese torpedo killed a young Block Island man, Albert Gooley.
Of the 671 Block Island residents at the start of World War II, 96 fought in the war — virtually all the male high school graduates of the late 1930s and early 40s, and a few females.
Amongst those in the Armed Forces and the Merchant Marine, the island was lucky, losing only two.
Two-thirds of the way through the war, Albert Gooley — class of Block Island High School 1934 — found himself on the 376-foot Cooper, a destroyer destined to have a short nine-month life.
Launched in New Jersey only six months after her keel was laid, the Cooper had a quick shakedown and training period before leaving the Boston Naval Yard for the Pacific in mid-1944.
The Cooper made the trip to Pearl Harbor in less than a month, each mile being another mile Albert Gooley would never retrace back home. The ship was soon dispatched to provide protective screening for an aircraft carrier group heading to the new American landings in the Philippines.
While General MacArthur’s men were disembarking on one side of the island of Leyte, the Japanese were attempting to reinforce their men on the opposite.
On December 2, 1944, the Cooper and two other destroyers were sent to intercept five enemy transports in Ormoc Bay. Japanese planes were waiting, flying dozens of strafing attacks, landing on the island to refuel, then coming right back for the destroyers. Meanwhile the Americans were firing at targets throughout the large harbor, sinking five small freighters, and downing 10 of the planes. Such was Albert Gooley’s last hour.
Shortly after midnight on December 3, the Cooper’s radar located a Japanese destroyer at a range of seven miles. When you stand at the North Lighthouse and gaze northward to the nearest point on the Rhode Island mainland, that is nearly the same distance.
After nine minutes of shooting, the Japanese enemy was on fire and sinking. The Cooper’s guns shifted to a second destroyer and fired three rounds, but never witnessed the result. Seconds later she was hit amidships by one of the famous Japanese long-range torpedoes.
Author Theodore Roscoe, later a summer resident of Block Island, described the result in his all-encompassing 1953 book, “United States Destroyer Operations in World War II”:
“A huge explosion heeled the Cooper on her side. Fire and water swept over her superstructure, and within 30 seconds of the blast she broke in two. The survivors swam in swirling oil and hot foam under a fog of smoke. Division Commander Zahm on Sumner was faced with a bitterly difficult decision — to risk air attack and fire from shore batteries in an effort to save Cooper’s men, or pull out to assure the safety of his two remaining ships. Reviewing the case, an experienced destroyer officer wrote: ‘It was a tough decision. But, in deciding not to make the rescue attempt, the Division Commander did the right thing.’”
Some 14 hours later, Navy rescue planes saved 168 crew members found still swimming. One of the amphibious planes carried a load of 56 survivors, another had 48 — both amounts broke all known existing payload records. But 191 men had lost their lives.
A month and a half later, on January 18, 1945, Mrs. Emma Gooley, who would later be the Block Island postmaster, received a letter from the Navy Department “concerning the death of your husband Albert Francis Gooley, Quartermaster third class... a fine man and greatly admired by his shipmates... at his battlestation... in the vicinity of the explosion... he must have been killed instantly.”
The writer, a shipmate who survived, offered this reasoned finality:
“You undoubtedly know it is difficult for me to bring you this sad news, but it is not fair that you should maintain hope when the facts indicate none should exist.”
Enemy submarines lurked and fought near Block Island throughout the four-year war, one being sunk just five miles off Crescent Beach — but a torpedo fired thousands of miles away in the western Pacific was one that struck home here.
A memorial tree was planted, with an adjoining bronze plaque, on the south lawn of the Block Island school to honor Albert Gooley, the 1934 graduate. You may see the plaque anytime.