“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).
Remembering Pearl Harbor and the Game
A conversation with an American adult in the age range of 18-35 regarding history would be very eye-opening for any World War II living veteran and possibly alarming. Imagine being a veteran who met the enemy on the field of battle in places such as France or Belgium let alone Morocco, Algeria, Leyte or the Aleutians and discovering that the person you are conversing with has absolutely no knowledge that the battles in which you fought either have no meaning or are completely unheard of. It is a difficult concept for people in my generation (born two decades after the end of World War II) that there are Americans who have graduated from high school and university and are detached from their nation’s history.
Arguably the most tragic American event in the Twentieth Century is the one that catapulted the United States into the Second World War and its memory is slipping away from the consciousness of her citizens. With more than 78 years elapsed since the Day of Infamy, the handful of survivors remaining alive at present are rather few as are nearing their tenth decade of life. They still remember that fateful day. Ninety-seven-year-old Seaman First Class, Donald Stratton, the only USS Arizona survivor to publish a memoir (All the Gallant Men, November 22, 2016), passed away just a few months ago on February 16 leaving just two men, Lou Conter and Ken Potts, as the last living survivors from the battleship.
Whether it was the first of several visits to the USS Arizona Memorial or the most recent one, standing above the hulk of the ship that was at the epicenter of the start of World War II (for the United States) is incredibly emotional to consider the violence that engulfed the harbor and very somber realization that one is immediately above the final resting place for the 1,177 men who perished that day. Looking down into the water to see the rusting twisted steel covered in sediment and marine growth as bunker fuel oil slowly seeps to the water’s surface, one can imagine the enemy planes flying in low for torpedo runs or looking into the skies to see high-altitude bombers overhead releasing their deadly destruction. Picturing men being blown over the sides of exploding ships or jumping into the inferno of burning oil atop the water’s surface amid the cacophony of machine gun fire and screams of burning and wounded men, isn’t difficult to envision from the decks of the memorial structure.
“Remember Pearl Harbor” and the sneak attack has been a fading klaxon call for Americans over the last few decades with a brief reminder when the United States was surprise attacked again on September 11, 2001.
A visitor to the USS Arizona Memorial will be initially introduced to Pearl Harbor’s history in the shore-side visitors center which includes a fantastic film about the attack. The center is filled with artifacts (many of which belonged to individual crew members) from inside the ship allowing visitors to see a more personal side of the carnage.
For many collectors of antiques and military artifacts (militaria), items from a veteran or pieces that are attributable to December 7, 1941 are highly sought after. Photo albums, medals or uniform items obtained from a veteran who was present on that day provide historians and militaria collectors with a tangible connection to this considerably pivotal moment in history. No doubt, there are dome concerns regarding the ethics and morals surrounding a private citizen possessing an unrelated veteran’s medals which is a topic of separate discussion (see: The Merits of Heart Collecting). Those visits to Pearl Harbor both as an inquisitive historian and as an active duty Navy veteran left this author inspired and on a perpetual quest to secure a Pearl Harbor-connected artifact for our collection.
The attack on Pearl Harbor along with several key military installations throughout the Island of Oahu would seem to provide an ample field of artifacts from which to source over the course of a decade.
With 100 ships present (and thousands of service men and women) around the harbor that day, it would seem to make sense that an artifact of note would surface in that time. Sadly, the timing never seemed to work and if it did, the bidding-competition was far to fierce and would drive cost (to acquire) the item out of the range of possibility as was the case for the pre-war USS Arizona enlisted man’s flat hat, including the ship-named Talley (see: A Piece of the Day of Infamy or Simply a Connection to an Historic Ship?).
One Saturday morning in early May, I awoke to find a private message from a colleague (a fellow Red Sox fan) who has an extensive and incredible baseball memorabilia collection. The tone of the message was an excited urgency from my friend who told me about a baseball jersey that, rather than pursue it himself, remarked that he thought of me immediately. It seemed that one of his local colleagues came across the jersey in the course of his business and texted his baseball-collector friend with the details and a few photos. What was relayed to me certainly held my interest and I wasted no time in responding.
Armed with a phone number, I reached out to the man with the jersey, who then mentioned that he obtained the the artifact along with a few Navy uniforms. The man was contracted by by the surviving family of a recently deceased elderly WWII Navy veteran to remove what remained of the decendent’s personal effects from his home. Over the course of carrying out his cleanup tasks, the man discovered the aforementioned jersey and service uniforms left behind to be disposed of (either through sale or other means). Understanding the historical nature of the pieces, he retained them and reached out to our mutual colleague. Our conversation was brief as the man described the items and mentioned that he would send the photos of the jersey and take (and send to me) additional pictures of the veteran’s dress uniforms when it was convenient to do so.
Even though the jersey was described to me, I was quite moved to see the photos of the heavy wool flannel with the lettering spelling out, “U S S P H O E N I X” arched across the chest. Internal questions as to the age of the jersey and the validity of the verbal story regarding the veteran’s connection to the ship swirled around in the sea of excitement surrounding the possibility that we were on the verge of acquiring artifacts from a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Over the next few weeks, conversation regarding the arrangements ensued as research was performed on the veteran to validate the information regarding the uniforms and jersey. Not only did we verify the details within the veteran’s obituary, but also the service details before making the final decision to acquire the group.
Due to mismatching schedules, it took some coordination to make the appropriate arrangements to bring the Phoenix jersey home (along with the veteran’s sets of dress blues and his flat hat (see: An Old Bluejacket Tradition Long Gone: Tar Hats to Flat Hats). After nearly a month since we initially spoke and a lot of nervousness during the shipping transit, the package arrived safely. The anticipation to open the package required restraint (to avoid damaging the contents with the knife) as the box was very securely sealed.
The very first garment withdrawn from the packaging was the road gray jersey that was somewhat dingy and clearly aged (and in need of cleaning). A thorough inspection and assessment of the baseball shirt showed that there were no personal markings, names or other inscriptions and that the overall condition was excellent (save for a lone moth-nip). All of the stitching seemed to be quite strong with no signs of separation or failing threads. Each of the athletic felt letters show no signs of decay or moth damage (they are commonly a target of insects). The condition of the lone numeral on the back matched the front lettering. The Wilson manufacturer’s tag matched the period of the veteran’s naval career showing that the jersey dates from as early as 1942.
As each successive garment was withdrawn from the package, it became apparent that there were more Navy dress uniforms in the box than was expected. Each jumper top bore the sailor’s rating badges and service stripe (“hash mark”) indicating that the veteran served for at least four years. A fourth uniform in the package differed from the first three. Instead of the fire controlman rating badge on the left sleeve, this one and the rating badge of a first-class electrician’s mate (EM1/c). The garment tag bore the same last name as the other three but with differing initials for the first and last name. A cursory research check showed that this uniform was issued to the veteran’s older brother who also served during WWII (though he enlisted nearly two-and-a-half years later).
Laying out the entire group, I considered all that this sailor, Fire Controlman Second Class Vincent Gunderson witnessed and experienced during his naval career. According to our research, Gunderson was born in Wisconsin in the year 1922. In July 1940, the 18-year-old Gunderson left his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin (this small city, less than 23,000 residents in 1940, is the home of seven Medal of Honor recipients) and traveled 90 miles to the east to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Upon graduation from boot camp, Apprentice Seaman Gunderson reported on board the 2-year-old Brooklyn-Class light cruiser, USS Phoenix (CL-46) on October 5, 1940.
Though we were unsuccessful in locating artifacts or articles that would lend insight as to the ship’s baseball team roster configuration, we were able to find a few news stories about the squad. In the spring of 1941, the USS Phoenix nine embarked upon the season of play within the Oahu National League. On March 31, the ship’s “Phoo- Birds” team faced the Primos in a 10-inning 5-4 loss. A few days later, the Phoenix battery of Joe Simone and Hal Crider went up against the Richmond Ramblers, dropping the game, handing them a 3-1 loss. Simone pitched a two-hitter as offensive support came from six Phoenix hits (two each by Sandman and Carpenter’s Mate 3/c Bill Lindsey).
The USS Phoenix was a state-of-the-art light cruiser (“light” indicates that the main battery or principal gun bores were less than eight inches) assigned to the Pacific Fleet’s Cruiser Division Nine under the direction of Admiral H. Fairfax Leary. Of the division’s five cruisers, the USS Helena (CL-50), USS St. Louis (CL-49) and the flagship, USS Honolulu (CL-48) were at anchor in Pearl Harbor along with the Phoenix. USS Boise (CL-47) was off the Philippine Island of Cebu having completed convoy escorting duties.
“Phoenix saw planes proceeding to Ford Island at 0755. She got underway at 1010, temporarily returned to its moorage as ordered, but eventually joined other cruisers at sea. The ship fired eighty rounds of 5-inch between 0900 and 0915 on planes dive-bombing Ford Island and the battleships.” – “Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal” by Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, USN (Retired)
On the morning of December 7, 1941, just before 0800, the lead Japanese aircraft of the first attacking wave appeared over Pearl Harbor, men working topside on the USS Phoenix spotted them. Laying at anchor a half-mile to the north of Battleship Row (just off the shoreline of Aiea’s McGrew Point), the men of the Phoenix had a front row seat to the carnage that was unleashed upon the Navy’s capital warships. With bomb and torpedo explosions amid enemy aircraft machine gun strafing, USS Phoenix’s commanding officer, Captain Herman E. Fischer, commenced with getting his ship underway in order to clear the harbor as well as prepare to repel an enemy landing. Ordered to return to moorage, Captain Fischer followed the order as the gunners battled the attacking aircraft.
Vince Gunderson recently promoted to fire controlman 3/c was most likely operating the directors for the guns in order to target the aircraft. Though he was trained during peacetime conditions, he was now learning his job in ways that he never previously imagined. From that day on, the Phoenix was continually operational and often at the tip of the spear.
During the battle of Surigao Strait, the closes that Phoenix came to any real danger was when two American torpedoes passed close astern (they were inadvertently launched by one of the sinking DESRON 24 destroyers. Later, while screening USS Nashville (CL-43), a kamikaze struck the Nashville while just missing the Phoenix. The Phoenix continued to skirt damage elsewhere. En route to Lingayen, Phoenix warded off multiple kamikaze attacks and was bracketed by four enemy torpedoes (two passing astern and two raced ahead of the bow). Her avoidance was becoming noteworthy as she again dodged shore-based artillery fire that straddled the ship near Corregidor and Balikpapan. Her reputation for evading enemy targeting was continually building among the fleet and back home. The moniker, “Lucky Phoenix” was becoming commonly used when discussing the ship’s exploits.
In every campaign, operation and battle, Gunderson was there manning the targeting directors for the ship’s guns, ensuring that every round fired would find its mark. When the ship came off the line for refit and resupply, at times the crew may have come ashore for recreation. Though we have yet to uncover any documentation regarding specifics for the men of the Phoenix, narratives from shipboard-serving players such as Seaman First Class Duke Snider and Chief Gunner’s Mate Bob Feller include periodic instances of R & R on American-held Pacific Islands where highly competitive baseball games were played (often with significant bets and bragging rights on the line). It is a safe assumption to consider that Gunderson saw game-action in similar fashion. Following the Phoenix’s support of the retaking of Bataan and Corregidor during the latter half of February 1945, Gunderson was detached from the ship (on March 24) to proceed to advanced fire control school in Washington D.C. for training. He made his way back to the states riding first the USS Boise and the carrier, USS Wasp (CV-18); the latter was returning for repairs following damage sustained in the Ryūkyūs campaign. Gunderson arrived at Puget Sound Navy Yard (Bremerton, Washington) on April 13, 1945 for further transport to the nation’s capital.
For Fire Controlman 2/c Gunderson, the war was effectively over in terms of combat operations. He completed his training and returned to the Phoenix (nearly six months later) on November 2. However, following Gunderson’s departure, the Phoenix continued operations in support of removing enemy strongholds in the Philippines for the next few months.
During break from action in early May, the Phoenix lay at anchor in Subic Bay affording the crew some much needed rest. While attending a baseball game on May 10, one Phoenix’s crew members, 24-year-old Radio Technician 2/c Aaron Abramson suffered a fatal head injury when he was struck by a baseball. On May 11, the crew mustered for funeral services to honor their fallen shipmate. RT2/c Abramson of Brooklyn, New York, left behind his wife of nearly four years, Shirley.
Phoenix continued supporting operations surrounding the Philippines until she was directed to the waters surrounding Indonesia and Borneo to support landing operations in June. By early July, Phoenix was back in Philippine waters. In need of overhaul the Phoenix was directed to proceed to San Pedro, California reaching home by late August (the atomic bombs were dropped during her transit). After a short visit in port, the ship was ordered to the Philadelphia Navy Yard (by way of the Panama Canal). Prior to transiting the canal, Phoenix anchored at Acapulco for a port visit during September 1-2. During her visit, Japanese officials signed the instrument of surrender in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri.
The war was over. Gunderson was still attending school as the Phoenix was on her way to the East Coast. Rather than undergoing an overhaul in Philadelphia, the ship received minimal upkeep. When Gunderson returned to the ship from school, he found the Phoenix transitioning to a modified decommissioned status as crew were being discharged and sent home. Gunderson remained aboard the ship until she was officially decommissioned on July 3, 1946. Two days later, on July 5, Fire Controlman Gunderson was discharged from the Navy.
After a long life, 97-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor Vincent Gunderson passed away on the 78th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Saturday, December 7, 2019.
Acquiring the Gunderson group provides us with the opportunity to share with our readers as well as our local in-person audiences who can see the artifacts during our public showings. With the addition of the Gunderson Navy uniforms, our militaria collection is wonderfully enhanced affording us the ability share a Pearl Harbor veteran’s story. As to our collection of service baseball uniforms, Gunderson’s USS Phoenix jersey is truly a centerpiece in telling the story of the intertwining histories of baseball and the armed forces.