At 19, Paul R. Adams painted ships for a living.
He’d go where the work was. Sometimes it was the Brooklyn Navy Yard, other times Manhattan.
His labors turned out to be good practice. About a year later, he was drafted into the Navy, and painting the ship he was assigned to, the USS Underhill, became a way of life.
“Every time we came into port, no other ships wanted to dock next to us. We looked so good. The captains on the other ships would put a crew together and start painting so that they could look halfway decent,” recalled Adams.
But even the best paint job in the world could not save the Underhill, a destroyer that provided protection for the naval convoys of World War II.
Its troubles began in the waters off Northern Africa.
“We were going into port and had a pilot aboard, and our captain asked him if he knew where all the rocks and sunken ships were, and as the captain asked, we hit something and it bent our propeller shaft. At the same time, the pilot said, ‘That’s one right now.’ ”
The Underhill had to be dry-docked to replace the shaft. Then it was back to the states, and there was some more trouble – an unexplained vibration rattling the ship. Thinking it might have something to do with the replacement shaft, the destroyer escort stayed in the waters off Connecticut.
It was eventually determined that the propeller had hit some mud and that the Underhill was seaworthy.
In the Pacific, the Underhill continued its mission of providing protection to a number of convoys headed to the different island battles fought against the Japanese. But the ship’s days were numbered.
At 3:15 p.m. July 24, 1945, the Underhill came under attack by a midget suicide submarine, known as a Kaiten.
“We were heading from Okinawa to the Philippines. We were escorting ships that had wounded soldiers from Okinawa. We were taking them to hospitals in the Philippines. It was going along normal, and then we came in contact with Japanese submarines. They were one- and two-manned submarines and, from what I understand, they were very hard to control,” Adams said.
But one of the tiny subs succeeded in striking the Underhill.
“I was on the starboard side on the fantail shooting off depth charges. Then the captain gave orders that he was going to ram the sub. There was an explosion, smoke and fire up in the air, and debris came down. There was so much fire and heat that I thought maybe I’d jump overboard if it got too damn hot.
“I headed to the end of the ship. My intention was to dive away from the screws, the propellers. As I started to go between the smoke tanks and racks of depth charges, there was a second explosion. I looked off to the port side, and I said, ‘Am I to die this way?’
“With that, I was blown down onto the deck on my right shoulder. Then there was more fire, smoke, oil, debris, what have you. When that eased off, I stood up and looked forward. Off to the right, it was bright and there was a ship, and I assumed it was the enemy.
“When I looked ahead, there was no bridge to our ship, and somebody said that’s our bow in the water. I thought it was the enemy, but it was our ship. We were split in half. We went down below to see what we could do. We went to the engine room, and I told my buddies to get out.”
Because of the water-tight compartments in the ship’s substructure, he explained, the two halves of the vessel stayed afloat.
Adams said he assisted medical personnel as other ships in the convoy dropped depth charges and conducted rescues from the Underhill.
The casualties were extensive – 112 sailors died, while 110 survived; 10 officers died, and four lived.
Despite burns to his hands and face and an injured shoulder, Adams was the second-to-last man to leave his half of the ship.
“I jumped onto a patrol craft,” he said.
After that, the two sections of Underhill were sunk by other Navy ships.
“You had to get them out of the waterways.”
For decades, Adams says he has attended an annual memorial service for those lost on the Underhill and for 25 years served as president of the solemn gathering.
“There aren’t many of us left. We’re getting old. Everybody sheds a tear when we get together at the service. You remember the people. So many things …”
Paul R. Adams, 90
• Hometown: Brooklyn
• Residence: Buffalo
• Branch: Navy
• Rank: Electrician’s mate
• War zone: World War II,
Atlanta and Pacific theaters
• Years of service: Drafted
1943 – 1945
• Most prominent honors:
Purple Heart; European,
African, Middle Eastern
Campaign Medal; Asiatic-
Pacific Campaign Medal
• Specialty: Engine room,
working the throttles of the