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Sailor survived 4 days stranded at sea after ship was sunk
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Sailor survived 4 days stranded at sea after ship was sunk

Charles Wohlleb woke up one morning in December 1944, and for some reason, he felt like he should put his life jacket on.

He was working in the engine room on the USS Spence, a Fletcher class destroyer, near the Philippines, which was occupied by the Japanese at the time. He was not on duty, and the seamen were not required to keep their life jackets on.

“Something told me to put it on,” he said.

And then the typhoon came.

U.S. Navy World War II veteran Charlie Wohlleb during his time in the military. Rebecca Noble / for Arizona Daily Star

Wohlleb, now 91 years old and living on Tucson’s west side, is one of only 24 survivors from the ship, which capsized and sank; 315 others aboard died.

Typhoon Cobra, which he later found out was responsible for capsizing the Spence, sank two other ships, the USS Monaghan and the USS Hull.

The Spence was desperately low on fuel at the time, he said. It tried three different times to fuel up from bigger ships, but failed because of the high winds and waves.

“The ship was rolling something terrible,” he said.

U.S. Navy World War II veteran Charlie Wohlleb’s life preserver that helped to save his life when the USS Spence capsized in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1944 on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Rebecca Noble / for Arizona Daily Star

He and two other seamen went up to the deck as the storm was getting nastier. They were up there for about 15 minutes when they heard “Fire!” in the phones, which one of them remembered to bring. But the men didn’t know where the fire was.

“There’s a lot that I would like to know,” Wohlleb said.

Then the ship began tilting, he said. Stacks, which are chimneys on the ship, collapsed. And suddenly, he couldn’t see his friends anymore.

Wohlleb said he went about 20 feet underwater when he remembered he was wearing a life jacket.

“I squeezed it and went up like a rocket,” he said.

He saw the ship tilt until it turned upside down with everybody inside.

“That’s the part that gets me,” he said.

He spent the next four days in the ocean with other men who survived by clinging on to a net. He said when the ship first sank, there were about 35 men on the net.

By the time they were rescued by another ship, there were far fewer. The heavy storm and waves claimed the lives of those who couldn’t cling to the net any longer.

U.S. Navy World War II veteran Charlie Wohlleb tries on the life preserver that helped to saved his life when the USS Spence capsized in 1944 on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Rebecca Noble / for Arizona Daily Star

Wohlleb, being the only one with a life jacket, tried to help sailors who were slipping from the ropes of the net. He held one man, who seemed unconscious, against his chest to keep him warm.

But in the end, “I couldn’t help them,” he said.

When the surviving men saw an aircraft carrier passing by on the fourth day at sea, the sky was pitch black, he said.

“We yelled and we yelled and we screamed,” he said.

Many of them didn’t think they could be seen or heard, especially in the darkness, but someone in the back of the ship was alerted to their presence.

“The guy next to me started to cry,” he said.

Upon his return to the U.S., he was discharged and returned home to New Jersey. In 1948, he married May. He went on to open an automotive transmission shop before moving to Tucson in 2003.

U.S. Navy World War II veteran Charlie Wohlleb’s Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism and other decorations on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Rebecca Noble / for Arizona Daily Star

Wohlleb said it took more than 20 years to come to terms with what happened when the ship capsized.

Family and having a business helped him get through it. He joked that his kids, when they were growing up, gave him enough trouble that he couldn’t worry about anything else.

“You never forget it, though,” he said. “It’s with you all your life. I think about it every day.”

Contact reporter Yoohyun Jung at 520-573-4243 or yjung@tucson.com. On Twitter: @yoohyun_jung


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Data reporter on the investigative team for the Arizona Daily Star

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