USS Abner Read

USS Abner Read pictured before sinking during WWII.

KODIAK — Late one night in August 1943, far out in the western Aleutians, a US Navy destroyer ran a sonar search for Japanese submarines. The ship curved figure eight patterns across the surface of a calm sea outside Kiska Harbor, while a three-quarter moon flickered through broken clouds.  The Japanese Imperial Army had abandoned Kiska Island three weeks before, and the crew of the USS Abner Read believed that whatever enemy submarines there once had been in the area were probably now far away, and that the Aleutian war was over. 

But at 1:15 a.m., the port side of the hull banged against a Japanese mine anchored just below the surface and, in a moment, the war was back. 

A tremendous explosion sheared 75 feet off the stern of the 376 foot ship, including the twin propellers, rudders and a five inch deck gun. The stern remained tenuously connected to the rest of the ship by the starboard propeller shaft while a dense oily smoke issued from shattered smokescreen tanks on deck, and bunker oil from crushed ballast tanks poured into the sea. In the chaotic darkness men stumbled into the water and through open ruptured deck plates into fuel tanks below. Ninety men went into the water, or were marooned in the stern crew quarters. 

After a few minutes, the stern section sank, with dozens of men trapped inside. The remaining crew launched a rescue boat but the men were coated with oil, and hard to pull aboard. Twenty sailors were rescued and one body recovered. However, 70 men, from an original ship’s complement of over 300, were never found, The crew sealed off the exposed stern of the ship and pumped out flooded spaces. In a few hours another destroyer took them in tow to Adak, and eventually they were towed to the Puget Sound Navy Yard for repairs. 

The Abner Read had come north from California that June to help retake the islands of Kiska and Attu, which the Japanese had captured a year before. The ship had shelled Japanese positions on Attu, and after the last Imperial soldiers were killed or captured, was assigned to the upcoming Kiska invasion force.  

In late July, however, concealed by a heavy fog, the Japanese successfully evacuated Kiska before the American and Canadian forces could attack. Two weeks later, unaware that the Japanese had escaped, the Allies stormed ashore expecting heavy resistance and were met instead by the wagging tails of three dogs left behind by Japanese soldiers. 

Three days later, on August 18, in what was now an apparently peaceful theater of the war, the Abner Read struck its mine. 

The ship was repaired and sent back into the Pacific War. In November 1944, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the southern Philippines, a bomb came off a kamikaze aircraft as it crashed into the ship, dropped down the ship’s smokestack, and exploded in an engine room. Eighteen minutes later, the ship rolled over and sank by the stern. All but 22 of the crew survived.  

In August 2018, a team from several universities, and funded by NOAA, used side scanning sonar and a remotely operated submersible to find the severed section of the Abner Read in 290 feet of water off Kiska. In video available on YouTube, the ship’s stern gun is clearly visible, patrolled by sculpins and encrusted with coral and sea anemones. 

After the discovery, reporters tracked down a surviving crewman from the ship, 94-year-old Daryl Weathers. Nineteen years old on the night of the mine explosion off Kiska, and on radar watch instead of in his bunk in the stern of the ship, Weathers remembered the calm sea that night, the moon between the clouds and the slipperiness of the sailors in the cold oily water. He stayed aboard the ship while it was repaired, was wounded in the kamikaze attack at Leyte, spent seven months in a hospital, and then went on with his life, marrying and raising three children in Los Angeles. 

Asked about surviving two attacks on one ship, including the one that sank it, he said, “When your time is up, it’s up, and I don’t worry about everything in between.” 

Of his memories of the war, he said the only good part was that “I survived.” 

The stern section of the Abner Read still lies on the sea floor off Kiska. It is recognized by the U.S. Navy as the official war grave for the 70 sailors from the Abner Read who were never found.

 

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