“Ogden Sailor Receives High Heroism Award” 75 Years Ago

U.S. Cruiser Claimed Sunk Tokyo Says Marblehead Lost in Action off TOKYO (From Japenese Broadcast March 11 (AP) Imperial Headquarters declared today that a Japanese cruiser squadron operating in the Indian ocean west of Australia had sunk the United States cruiser Marblehead. The sinking was said to have occurred March 2.

Standard Examiner – Wednesday March 11, 1942 

Japanese Imperial Headquarters had gotten one thing right. The Marblehead had been attacked. The date, however, was February 4th, not March 2nd and the ship did not sink.

The attack on the Marblehead produced one of Weber County’s first World War Two heroes, Seaman First Class, Claude Becker.

Taken from the Marblehead Magazine:  “Whenever daring deeds of the sea of recalled, the saga of the USS Marblehead commands respect. Mauled by Japanese bombs just after the US entry into World War II, the ship was saved by her crew and after a 9000-mile voyage to safety and a complete refit, returned to the fight.

“She, along with the heavy cruiser Houston, two Dutch cruisers and seven destroyers sailed for the Makassar Straits on February 3, 1942. Shortly after 9 a.m. on February 4, word arrived that Japanese planes had been sighted at 9:49.  The bridge counted 36 twin-engine bombers. The alarm sounded through the ship. Half-dressed men dashed to their battle stations. The intercom barked, ‘Set Condition Zed!’… “As the battle began, the four Allied ships scattered and the Japanese planes divided into four squadrons, one for each cruiser.”

The captain ordered the crew to dump 4000 gallons of aviation fuel to make the Marblehead lighter and more manageable and through clever maneuvering veered the ship, safe from the first attack.

“As the first squadron passed the Marblehead heeled under hard left rudder, making flank speed. Within a minute, nine more planes bore down, straddled by flak. When they released their bombs, the Captain ordered flank speed and 15 degrees of right rudder. The bombs shrieked down….’Bombs coming. Seek cover. Lie flat’ came over the intercom. […]

“As the Japanese planes passed, one began to trail smoke. Damaged, the plane veered around and aimed for the ship, intent on a kamikaze crash. […]  The gunners concentrated their fire on the wounded giant as it grew closer, within machine-gun range. Then abruptly it dropped straight into the sea, blasted by American fire […]

“But deliverance was only momentary. The bombers began a fresh run, releasing their deadly freight at 10:26. This time they would not miss.

“The next instant the Marblehead leaped clean out of the sea from impact of three hits.  Armor-piercing bombs hit forward, amidships and aft. […] By the time the crew struggled to their feet, the ship was ablaze. […] In two minutes the ship was listing eight degrees to starboard – within 15 minutes 11 degrees.

“As the ships’ officers fanned out to assess damage, they were hampered
by the lack of light and communications, the choking smoke, scalding steam and wreckage blocking passages. […]

“In the CPO’s messroom two decks above the rudder, three men worked desparately to save the ship from annihilation. Flames threatened 18 cans of gunpowder left on the mess tables to help the after turret open fire promptly.  Now the messroom was a nightmare of blazing oil and twisted steel.  If that powder ignited, it would blow the stern off the ship and probably send her to the bottom of the Pacific. Turret Captain Paul Martinek rushed into the breech with Shipfitter Paul Link and Seaman Claude Becker.  A gorilla of a man, Becker wrenched opened the jammed hatch by his brute force. Stepping into the messroom, the men found the cans of gunpowder lodged immovable in the debris. Without hesitation Martinek opened the cloth bags of powder, which the men carried topside through the inferno and threw overboard. It took three trips to dispose of all the powder. Here was heroism indeed: In a pinch these men had ignored their own safety and saved their ship.”

After emergency repairs were made, the Marblehead eventually made it back to New York.

“It was an emotional moment for the men when they steamed under Miss Liberty’s up-thrust torch, three months to the day since the desparate morning February 4. “The crew’s exploits were well-known because President Roosevelt had singled them out as the subject of one of his fireside chats.”

On July 12, 1942 Standard Examiner printed an AP story from New York.

“A navy coxswain who risked his life to save men aboard his ship while under Japanese dive bomber fire received the Navy Cross at the Brooklyn navy yard today.  The medal, one of the highest military honors the country can bestow, was given to Coxswain Claude Becker, 24, of Ogden, Utah, for bravery on the U.S. cruiser Marblehead last February 4.

“Rear Admiral E. J. Marquart, commandant of the Third naval district, presented the award at a special noon ceremony at the yard where Becker is now on detail. Several thousand workers, navy officers and men were present.

“Becker, then a seaman first class, reluctantly told reporters how he climbed into a smoke-filled compartment with three others and helped carry about 20 men to safety when an explosion started a fire in the magazine below his gun turret.

“Rear Admiral Marquart declared Becker also assisted in the removal of gunpowder in the wake of fires and by ‘his strength and tenacity of purpose opened a hot and heavy hatch which permitted men to escape.” 

A son of Mr. and Mrs. William F. Becker of 1909 Wall, also had two brothers in the navy, Leo and William.  When Leo joined William Becker told the newspaper, “Claude’s decoration won’t be the last to be heard from us.  The Becker’s are just starting to give.”