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A Future CNO's Trial by Fire

March 13, 2019 | By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum
In 1930, Lt. Forrest P. Sherman authored an article for U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, one of many the prolific writer submitted to the journal during the interwar years. The title was "Some Aspects of Carrier and Cruiser Design," and in it Sherman outlined the various classes of aircraft carrier required in the fleet of the future, and provided a historical perspective on the evolution of navies, highlighting the "increased power of minor attack, due to the perfection of the torpedo." Twelve years later, Capt. Sherman stood on the bridge of USS Wasp (CV 7) as a spread of torpedoes launched from the Japanese submarine I-19 headed towards his ship.

On impact ammunition exploded, throwing fragments all over the forward section of the flight deck, and fires broke out below decks. To make matters worse, the hits knocked out the water mains in the forward part of the ship, which prevented effective firefighting efforts. With the ship listing to starboard, Sherman attempted to mitigate the effect of the flames and smoke putting the wind on the starboard quarter. "My object was to have the wind blow the fire away from the undamaged portion of the ship, keep the low side to windward, and back clear of the burning oil."

Despite Sherman's efforts on the bridge, fires below decks spread, triggering a new round of explosions that showered the island with debris. An officer recounted the aftermath. "On the port wing of the navigating bridge, I saw Capt. Forrest Sherman calmly conning the ship. Beside him lay the recumbent form of a young officer who, I later learned, had been blown up onto the bridge from one of the forward quad mounts. Around Capt. Sherman [was] flying all sorts of debris from violent explosions. None of these elements seemed to distract him."

Despite the best efforts of the crew, the fires could not be brought under control and at 3:20 p.m, just 36 minutes after the sighting of the torpedoes, Sherman gave the order to abandon ship. He made his way to the fantail, receiving reports from personnel there, and then walked forward on the hangar deck, where, as recounted in his action report, he "found no one except Chief Carpenter Machinsky, who was still engaged in collecting lumber and mattresses to throw over to assist men in the water. I ordered him over the stern and about 1600 lowered myself into the water." The next day, Sherman participated in the sad duty of burying at sea members of the crew who succumbed to their wounds after being rescued. "I cannot speak too highly of officers and men, particularly while we were in the water," he wrote of the crew on board Wasp. "The standard of conduct was excellently high."

Following Wasp's sinking Sherman spent the remainder of the war as a key deputy to first Vice Adm. John H. Towers and then Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, playing a key role in the planning of the great campaigns that led to victory in World War II. Present on the deck of the battleship Missouri (BB 63) for the signing of the surrender that ended the war, Sherman was destined to lead the Navy in the Cold War that followed.

In 1949, he became at the time the youngest ever Chief of Naval Operations, serving in that position until his untimely death from a series of heart attacks on July 22, 1951.