The Champions of the South Pacific
March 20, 1945, Ascension Island
The Oklahoma was a sleek tanker, her bulbous bow set her apart from most ships in her class and made her instantly recognizable as a product of the Sun shipyards. The Oklahoma was the flagship of the Texaco Tanker Fleet. She had been torpedoed and sunk once on April 8, 1942, raised, repaired, made seaworthy and put back into service again.
I, of course, did not know the ships previous history. In addition to being slightly superstitious, especially about sailing on `ghost ships' (ones that had died and then fully recovered) the fact that she ran alone, without escort, and carried a load of high octane gasoline would have made me doubly apprehensive about being a member of her crew. When compared to the number of ships that were being sent to Davy Jones Locker, during the first years of the war I would have felt safer on a tugboat.
The history of the Oklahoma was well kept in the offices and archives of the Texas Co. The ship was a marvel of comfort for the Officers and Crew, even the Ordinary Seaman had his own room aboard ship. When I first visited her, I didn't hesitate about signing on as a member of her crew. Near the end of the war in Europe I was still a member of her crew and enjoying every minute. We were on our usual trip carrying a load of high octane gasoline from Galveston,Texas to Dakar, Africa when we were diverted to Ascension Island for some special briefing. This was about the forth or fifth time that we had been diverted in this fashion. Ascension Island was the British Admiralty Control for ships running between the Americas and Africa.
Within the hour everyone on the ship knew where we were heading and the groans were heard up on the flying bridge. "Not again," complained the quartermaster, as he changed course, "we are the unluckiest ship on the Atlantic. Damn! Must it be us all the time?" he asked.
I was parked at my favorite position at the bow, the wind split across my face and made a soft crackling sound, then swished past me... I pushed myself harder up against the bow and felt a drowsy limpish kind of feeling that matched the movement of the ship as she plowed through the rolling seas, her bulbous bow slapping every other wave and looking like she was doing the breast stroke. The ship seemed to dive into the waves and then lift itself up and out of the water, making a soft squishing sound as the bow raised up and then dropped back down into the waves. I would spend hours of my free time hanging on the bow and day dreaming about our next port of call and what kind of adventure lay ahead.
Suddenly I awoke from the daydream and felt the hands of the Oiler, Smitty, shaking my shoulder and asking the same old question of me. "Sparks, how about asking the skipper for shore leave for the crew this time? We've been here four times and never got a chance to go ashore! Please? See what you can do to get us a little shore leave this time -Just enough to get a beer or something, is all we ask!"
Rather than argue with Smitty, whom I personally liked, I said, "OK! Smitty, I will ask the Skipper again, although you know that the last few times he said the same thing! The guys on shore don't like us and have refused us four straight times. I think the skipper is to embarrassed to ask them again - they just don't want us ashore! Period! and that's it!!" I could see the other two seamen with Smittty starting to speak and argue with me again, so I said, "OK fellows, I will try again and I'm sure the Skipper won't mind asking them again."
I know he really hated asking for shore leave for the crew because he didn't like being refused and he knew that is what was going to happen. The Dock Officer just didn't like American seamen and whenever he could refuse them anything he relished the opportunity to do so.
The crew knew that I was going to the ships conference with the Captain and we would be staying ashore for at least eight hours.
"Com-m-me on Sparks," they said, "give us a break. Try asking them again, they might let us, this time." With that, I joined the Captain as the shore barge came along side to pick us up for the morning conference meeting.
The launch slowly approached the landing and the Port Officer was waiting there as usual, his hands outstretched and mumbling how he was glad to see us. I grabbed the Skippers arm and suggested in a low breath that this might be a good time to ask for shore leave for the crew. He shrugged me off and said under his breath that he was not going to be embarrassed again, by asking for crew leave. So that was that!
A Jeep pulled up, we both got into it, and it whisked us off to the conference, which was usually in the town hall, A red brick building, with one large conference room, holding a large table with a dozen chairs set about it. The Captain and I walked in and took our seats at the center section. Apparently we were the only ones at this conference. We sat with pencils in hand and a blank sheet of paper on the table in front of us, ready to be scribbled upon.
Golly, I thought, there must be something to do beside sit at a conference table and listen to boring talk about the fierce competition and skills of the local teams involved in the island baseball championship. This was apparently the pride and joy of everyone on the Island and replaced the War as the number one topic during this period. There were four local teams vying for the island championship and that was the big news on the Island today. Suddenly the door opened and in whisked the British Admiralty Commander with a sheaf of papers under his arm and speaking as he seated himself at the head of the table.
"Greetings, Gentlemen," he said as he sat down. "I must apologize for our staff, but we have to cut this meeting short due to important events taking place on the island today!"
We all looked alive and attentive, despite the fact that we knew just what he was about to say. We knew he was going to talk about the local baseball game that was headlined in the local newspaper and large signs and posters plastered around up and down the main street of Georgetown, the local metropolis.
When the ships' conference was finished, I stood up and addressing the Admiralty Commander said, "Our ship's crew was particularly interested in your local baseball championship game. We appreciated the skill involved in high level baseball competition." I said further, "our crew was very anxious to see the game and looked forward to being allowed ashore to view the competition, because, afterall, they held the title of `Champions of the South Pacific,' which they had recently won and were very proud of."
The Admiralty Commander's mouth dropped open and he stammered, "You? You're the Champions of the South Pacific?"
"Oh yes," I said, "I thought everyone knew that"
"No we didn't," he said, "and under these special circumstances we would certainly like your crew to view the game."
At this point our Captain entered the conversation. Addressing me directly he said, "Sparks I don't think our crew will be able to spare the time on this trip to come ashore and spend the day. We are considerably behind in some of the ships repairs and I don't think we can spare the time." With that, he stood up and started to leave the room.
The British Commander would have none of that and said, "I'm sure your men would enjoy seeing the Island and we might even be able to give them a visit to the Giant Bamboo Forest on the top of Green Mountain."
"You know, that is a very special sight, that all visitors to the Island are anxious to see," He continued, "I will arrange to have your team picked up by eight bells in the morning and we would be happy to have you join us for breakfast." Then he said, "We might even arrange for your team to play our new champions - an exhibition, of course - later in the day!"
Our Captain blurted out, "Sparks," he said, "I think our men have much work to do and I don't think they will have time for shore leave, maybe some other time."
The Commander responded, "Captain I'm sure you can spare them a few hours and allow them to come ashore for a day? We would love to set up a match between your team and the local winner of the Ascension Island Baseball Championship. I can have a barge ready to pick your men up in the morning and we would further invite all to a tour of the island and a trip to the high bamboo forests on top of Green Mountain."
Our Captain staggered and stammered some incoherent words and then turned to me and said, "I will leave it all up to you. Set it up and go if you want to. I'm to busy to attend any games."
When the conference was over and we were returning to our ship the skipper lit into me with a vengeance! "What the hell were you thinking about when you made those statements back there," he said, "We have no baseball team! We were never in the South Pacific! We never played baseball with anyone! And especially: we were never Champions of Anything! In addition to which we have no equipment or anything for that matter."
I felt kind of stupid to have gotten ourselves in this situation but thought a bit and answered him. "Captain! The crew has been complaining about no shore leave on this island every time we come here, but they never get ashore. Two years ago we were here for over four days and everyone got stir-crazy with four fights developing on board. I realize that the situation is peculiar but they have been pestering me to ask you for shore leave every time we get here and now at last they can get it! It's true we don't have a baseball team and maybe no one aboard ever played the game but these guys are a bunch of Rubes and if they beat us by a large score they will think they won a great victory and be very happy about it. I don't care if we win or lose or look terrible out there - the shore leave, will be well worth it and I'm sure the crew will jump at the chance to get ashore and see the Island, they have been on the ship for almost three straight weeks now and will jump at the opportunity."
The captain threw up his hands and said, "OK, if that's the way you want it, go ahead, but count me out. I will not go ashore and make a fool of myself over a stupid baseball game."
When we got back on board, I quickly called a crew meeting and gave them the news. There were cheers and groans at the news and then the questions started coming at me in machine-gun fashion. What baseball team? When did we ever play baseball? Who's stupid idea was that? Why can't we go ashore like everyone else and just enjoy ourselves? What does the Captain think about this? I shushed them all and finally got the floor and started answering the questions.
"Firstly," I said, "who cares if we ever played baseball before? What we all want is shore leave and a chance to got off the ship for a day or so, right?"
"Right!" they agreed.
"As for baseball," I continued, "everyone has played the game sometimes, and who cares if we look like a bunch of clods out there? I don't - do you? If you get shore leave!?"
"No!" came a chorus of answers, "Lets do it! What do we have to lose?"
And so began the great preparation for the coming match between the 'Champions of the South Pacific' and the Champions of the Ascension Island League.
We decided that the only thing we had that represented a uniform was a white tee shirt and brown khaki pants. So that would be our uniform. Now the problem of equipment. I decided that the local team would be happy to share their equipment with us for the privilege of playing us, and when I contacted the dock officer, he agreed, they would be happy to supply any equipment we wanted.
We heard the game announced on the local radio station with great fanfare and it became the immediate talk of the town.
Everyone on shore was excited about the contest. They all wondered how their team would stack up against an area champion like the `Champions of the South Pacific! Our hosts agreed to supply us with gloves, catchers gear and bats, and so we were off.
At the meeting we had to decide who would play and who would watch. At first all the guys in the crew wanted to be Watchers but I put my foot down on that and implored them to join in the effort and at least make a game out of it. They finally agreed and we decided to make up some sort of team for the game. At a special crew meeting, later that day, we selected eleven men who said they had played the game at various times in their lives.
When I looked at what we has selected for the baseball team, I got sick to my stomach. I decided I would play left field, as that was my position on scrub teams we used to make up at the local park in Brooklyn.
Gordon our First Engineer agreed to play right field as he had played that position as a kid in high school. Slowly we selected the remaining players. Our engine room Wiper was our designated pitcher, as he said he had pitched a couple of games when he was a teen-ager, many years back at his Alabama High School.
And so we spent most of the night picking, changing, and finally got fourteen players who owned up to having played a little baseball when they were home. Red Hornsbarger, the engine room Wiper said he would do the pitching and everyone was glad to give him the job with no questions asked!
Red was about 30 years old and had spent most of his life going to different southern colleges playing football and getting paid under the table. He never graduated from anything but had credentials from six different schools he attended. Welselka, the deck A/B said he would catch and that made the rest of the team selection easy.
I complained about a fever and didn't think I could make it. But the groans of the crew and the threats that followed changed my mind very quickly. I got the crew into this mess and who knows what they would do if I left them now.
The same barge was right on time and almost all the crew including the officers were waiting to jump on board. Our Navy Armed Guard Officer would have nothing to do with the affair, despite his gun crew's pleading to allow them to join in the fun. I really counted on them being part of the team as they were all young and had played baseball as civilians, but it was not to be. Swanson, their officer, felt he would have to uphold the honor of the U.S.Navy and not partake in such a farce. He refused to allow any of his men to join in the game and activities. However he did allow them to go ashore to see the match. So we had a built in rooting section from our Armed Guard gun crew. He stated
emphatically that he wasn't going to let the US Navy be part of or associated with such a farce. So that was that! The Merchant Crew would have to go it alone.
By now I was getting sick and tried to hide from the questions that were coming from all sides. Everyone wanted to go ashore and enjoy the day but no one wanted to be associated with the team or its problems. The Captain made a special point of calling me in and telling me that he was going to hold me responsible for the outcome and any repercussions that resulted form this affair. I really had a headache and decided that this was the last time I would stick my neck out. I retired to the radio shack and it's peace and quiet.
The next morning at four bells the barge pulled along side and met most of the ships crew waiting, in clean white tee shirts and khaki's to board for the trip ashore and shore leave. The selected baseball team agreed that they would do their best and so off to the battle we went.
I instructed the men they were to say nothing to anyone and leave the taking to the ships officers - especially any explanations regarding previous experience and the title of 'Champions of the South Pacific.' All questions were to be referred to me.
After a hearty breakfast given by the British Officers Club, we all started for the baseball diamond, which was just behind the clubhouse. Our game was to start at two bells, 9AM, and the stands were filled to standing room only. I think the entire town had come out to see the contest. Everyone I met said the same thing, "What's wrong with you Sparks? Your face is all green - you better watch what you eat."
Our team trotted out to take the field. As Captain I elected to take the field first. I thought it would be best to give the men some practice handling the baseball. I must admit that our team on the field snapped the ball around pretty well and soon we heard the command 'play-ball' and the contest was on.
The stands were filled to capacity with standees filling the last row. The Ascension Island Champions stepped up to bat, facing Red, our engine room wiper. Red really surprised us by sending three straight pitches over the plate and striking out the first man.
Well, now that wasn't to bad. The second man up hit the first ball pitched to the left field fence for a double and the crowd in the stands started cheering and stomping their feet. The next two men hit singles and they had scored two runs in a few minutes of the start of the game.
I envisioned never getting them out and the score going into astronomical figures when Red settled down and struck out the next two batters to end their turn at bat.
I was first up for our side and hit the first pitch over the right field fence for a homerun and as I rounded the bases listened to our few supporters whooping it up. Out next batter was the Second Engineer Gordon I told him the pitcher threw a very mild straight ball and it was easy to hit. He stepped up to the plate and promptly blasted the first pitch over the right field fence just as I had and that made the score two to one. The next three batters hit a double, a triple and a home run giving us five runs. Before they got our side out we has scored nine runs.
I couldn't believe it! What the heck was happening here? Suddenly our entire team was whooping it up and shouting support for everyone and everything at the ballfield.
At our second time at bat we scored eleven more runs. We looked at each other with quizzical eyes and wondering what the heck was going on?
By the fifth inning our men were complaining of being tired and wanting to go to the clubhouse for a beer. I screamed at them that they must continue the game. For the next four innings our team scored sixteen more runs while the local Champions scored only two more runs off Red the Wiper.
Finally the game ended with the score Locals 4 and Champions of the South Pacific 36. As we left the field we could hear the comments from the stands. What a Team! No wonder they won the South Pacific Championship.
Everyone lauded our team and said it would stand as a historic item in the sports history of the Island. So reported the local newspaper.
The rest of the day, for us, was spent in celebrating. People invited the players into their homes, begging for their autographs. We made the arduous journey up to Green Mountain and generally had a very interesting time. The local citizens were great and couldn't do enough for us.
The day ended with many goodbyes and friendly feelings between the British and American seamen from the S. S. Oklahoma. The only group restrained was the Oklahoma Armed Guard Crew and their Officer. All he wanted to know was why we didn't tell him that we had such a fine baseball team.
The Oklahoma left Ascension Island on March 24 with everyone praising the hospitality of the British and hoping to return soon. We certainly were a happy ship that day, everyone joined in the celebration and couldn't understand how things had turned out the way they did.
The Skipper was so amazed, that he kept saying how, if the crew had only told him, he would have loved to have seen the game and especially the rout because he was always made to feel inferior to the British Officers, when he was on the island.
On March 28th the S. S. Oklahoma, a Texaco tanker carrying a full load of high octane aviation gasoline to Dakar, Africa, was struck by a torpedo from a German submarine at position 13 37 N 41 43 W. 50 of the 72 man complement died in the explosion. Unknown to most people and omitted from the reports was the fact that with the exception of two members, the entire team of the 'Champions of the South Pacific' died a fiery death that night. Only Sparks, left field, and Kearns, second base, were to survive the catastrophe.
Twenty-two survivors of the torpedoing spent eighteen days in a lifeboat and sailed over eighteen hundred miles into the Caribbean where they were finally picked up by a sister Texaco tanker, the SS Delaware.
The Champions of the South Pacific left an enviable Record:
Davis I. Rawal, Chief Radio Officer of the Oklahoma