“Lucky Phoenix” – Pearl Harbor Survivor
Barely three years old in 1941, the Brooklyn-class light cruiser USS Phoenix (CL-46) was homeported in San Pedro, California, and operated in the Pacific between Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. With the fires of war raging in the Western Pacific and Europe, the U.S. Navy was amid a build-up of both manpower and equipment and was conducting exercises to prepare for war in case the forces of Japan demonstrated aggression against American interests. USS Phoenix, since her commissioning in October, 1938, was heavily involved in training operations and fleet exercises, with considerable time at sea.
Months before President Roosevelt signed the executive order enacting the peacetime Selective Service Act, Vincent Burnell Gunderson enlisted into the United States Navy in Chicago, Illinois, on July 10, 1940. Upon completion of training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago, Apprentice Seaman Gunderson was transferred to the USS Phoenix, reporting aboard on October 5, 1940, soon after the ship returned from her summer South American goodwill cruise.
In the Far East, Japanese forces had a stranglehold on China, with nearly 30 divisions including artillery, cavalry and armored units expanding their grip. In addition, the Imperial Japanese Navy was an intimidating presence as it vied for control over shipping lanes. German raiders were operating in the Western Pacific, opportunistically seizing merchant vessels and crews, making the situation on the high seas and waters surrounding American-held territories tenuous. The War Department leadership began to bolster and reinforce military bases in the Pacific and increase the fleet presence at Pearl Harbor, shifting ships from the U.S. West Coast.
The Hawaiian Islands in the 1930s and through 1941 were truly an oasis. Bases were spread throughout Oahu and the outlying islands and American service members found an idyllic setting while serving, with a year-round pleasant tropical climate, beautiful beaches and plenty of leisure activities to occupy off-duty hours. Baseball was king of sports activities to play or to watch and more than 100,000 GIs were among the territory’s population.
In the spring of 1941, the USS Phoenix was operating out of Pearl Harbor and her baseball team saw sporadic action against Oahu-based service teams. Seaman 2/c Gunderson, a member of the Phoenix roster, likely participated in games on the island.
On Sunday, March 31, 1941, the USS Phoenix ball club was beaten, 6-4, by the Primo Beer nine, a team slated to enter the Oahu National League. Hal Crider and Sahoffer were the top hitters for Phoenix while the Primo batters stroked 11 hits off pitcher “Yank” Yonick. Phoenix batsmen touched Primo hurlers Frank Felles and Eddie Bahr for nine safeties in the loss. The 10-inning game was played at a ballpark in Waikiki near the old boat house.
“The sailors are touted as being big-timers,” The Honolulu Advertiser wrote of the USS Phoenix ball club as they were set to take on the 21st Infantry “Gimlets” on Friday, May 2, 1941. On Friday, May 10, 1941, Fort Kamehameha defeated USS Phoenix, 6-3, in a 6-inning contest that was the second game of a double-header for the “Kams.” The Gimlets were the eventual champions of the 21st Infantry League for the season.
The Phoenix battery of starting pitcher Joe Simone and backstop Hal Crider held the USS Richmond (CL-9) “Ramblers” to a single run on two hits in a 3-1 victory. USS Phoenix batters tallied three runs on six hits with Sandman and Lindsey each accounted for a pair of hits. Phoenix scored all three runs in the first and held Richmond scoreless until the fifth when a walk, a stolen base and a hit led to their lone run in their Thursday, May 30, 1941, game. By that summer, the Ramblers were out in front of Hawaii’s cruiser league and would advance to the Honolulu League, a longstanding, top-level circuit on Oahu.
Departing Pearl Harbor on September, the Phoenix was tasked to escort the USS Hugh L. Scott (AP-43) as she transported more than 1,100 men consisting of troops from the 1st Battalion, 200th Coast Artillery and 14th Bomb Squadron and other replacements to Manila. Leaving Manila Bay, the Phoenix provided escort to the Cimarron-class oiler, USS Guadalupe (AO-32) to Pearl Harbor.
The Sunday routine aboard a ship at anchor in 1941 was at a slow pace. The men who were in the duty rotation stood watches, prepared morning chow and did normal upkeep. Following breakfast and the changing of the watch, preparations were made for raising the colors, with men positioned on the ship’s stern and bow readying the Ensign and Union Jack at their respective staffs. Anchored northeast of Ford Island, the men of the USS Phoenix were awaiting the signal to smartly raise each flag when planes bearing rising sun markings descended and bore down on the central tower on Ford Island, opening fire. A seemingly endless run of attacking aircraft followed suit and commenced attacks on the ships moored along the east shore of Ford Island known as Battleship Row.
Gunderson, a non-rated seaman, was working that morning to finish his application for acceptance into the Naval Academy. “It never got there,” he told the Palm Beach Post December 2016. “Our boats were in the davits. Our plane was on the catapult. Our awnings were struck over the main deck.”
“We were 100 percent startled,” Gunderson commented about the beginning of the attack. He thought the approaching aircraft were part of U.S. maneuvers until he saw the Japanese markings on the wings.
The USS Phoenix crew, ahead of the call for general quarters, rushed to their battle stations to man their guns and take defensive actions against the obvious enemy attack. “We never got any word to do anything,” Gunderson said. “Our ammunition was all below.”
Her machine gunners and anti-aircraft and main battery gun crews worked tirelessly loading, training, aiming at and firing upon enemy bombers and fighters. The melee of anti-aircraft fire from ship and shore batteries left a shroud of doubt surrounding the USS Phoenix gun crews as to their effectiveness against the attackers. After the fight was over, her gun crews had expended 353 rounds of 5-inch, 35 3-inch, and 4,500 .50 cal. Rounds. Following Rear Admiral Leary’s orders, the Phoenix pulled up anchor and got underway at 11:15, three hours and 20 minutes after the attack began. The ship and her crew escaped completely unharmed.
The USS Phoenix’s operational pace throughout the war was such that little time was afforded for the ship’s baseball team to play.
Gunderson, born June 27, 1922, in Beloit, Wisconsin, lived in Lake Worth, Florida, after his 1946 discharge from the Navy. He had served his entire enlistment aboard the Phoenix, separating as a fire controlman second class on July 1. Ninety-seven-year-old Vincent Burnell Gunderson passed away on the 78th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 2019.
Gunderson’s early 1940s Wilson flannel jersey from the USS Phoenix, along with three of his dress blue uniforms and a flat hat with the USS Phoenix tally, were added to our collection in the spring of 2020 (see: Remembering Pearl Harbor and the Game).
Posted on December 7, 2021, in Equipment, Players and Personalities, Uniforms, WWII and tagged Baseball in the Navy, Military Baseball, Pearl Harbor Survivor, Pearl Harbor Veteran, USS Phoenix, USS Phoenix Baseball Jersey, WWII Baseball. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.