Hurricane season has a special meaning for me. Whenever I see devastating video footage of such violent force, my thoughts go to those unfortunate souls aboard vessels being tossed like corks in raging seas, with no place to hide.
I would never have thought that Mother Nature could muster up a fear equal to the fear of Nazi U-boats and dive bombers during World War II's Battle of the Atlantic. That is, until Sept. 14, 1944.
I was aboard the USS Burrows, a destroyer escort that had just completed the eighth of 16 crossings to escort convoys to Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. We were off New England when our ship started to rock and roll. Then came the radio message from Washington warning of a Category 3 hurricane roaring toward the Northeast.
We were ordered to take shelter in a berth in New London, Conn. Our skipper went ashore and demanded to take his ship back out to sea. The request was granted when the port commandant finally realized our on-deck depth charges and ammunition could have blown the city into the harbor had we stayed.
As we were about to shove off, a sailor carrying full gear rushed aboard with his new orders. Anthony Pullano of Niagara Falls was to be joining me in the radio shack. The only words the seasick Pullano uttered for the next 24 hours were, "Why did I have to hurry aboard? I should have waited!"
Shortly after we left the State Pier and headed for the open sea, the barometer began its trip downward, registering its lowest point around midnight. The fury that is a hurricane at sea struck the Burrows with full force.
Imagine a 308-foot ship, displacing 1,525 tons, being all but overwhelmed by 135 mph winds. Visibility dropped to nearly zero. One minute we were looking at 55-foot waves above us, then seconds later we were looking down into a 55-foot chasm. That our crew managed to steer a course in those conditions was miraculous.
Because we couldn't stand watch topside, or maintain a radio watch, most of us were strapped into our bunks, fully clothed and wearing life belts. That's when near-terror gripped us. The ship would roll 50 to 60 degrees in the swells. Then it would stand on its fantail, almost perpendicular, shudder a bit, then come crashing down. We were actually standing on our heads while strapped in our bunks, wondering if the ship would continue to rise and flip over.
Five hours later, we entered the eye of the storm. We went topside to a most surreal scene. It was hauntingly silent and still, in a sepia surrounding, like a netherworld.
This hurricane had no name that I know of. I called it the Hurricane from Hell. It took its toll, and gained a ranking among the 10 deadliest hurricanes in American history, as 390 people were drowned that day -- 248 of them sailors from the destroyer USS Warrington. That 390-foot ship took on water, causing a loss of electric power that set off a chain reaction leaving the ship without propulsion or steering. Its radioman sent out an SOS as the crew abandoned ship, and minutes later the 2,425-ton Warrington went down.
Five destroyer escorts managed to save only 73 of its crew. The Warrington was struck from the Navy list on Sept. 23, 1944. The crew of her successor, the next USS Warrington, recently held a reunion in Buffalo.
FRAN LUCCA, a retired print, wire and broadcast reporter, lives on the West Side.