WWII veteran served on a sinking ship

Gale Rose
Pratt Tribune
Retired Navy Petty Officer Second Class Steve McPherson points to Admiralty Island where he was stationed during World War II. McPherson, who will be 95 in December, served on ABSD2 a vessel.

Being on a sinking ship in World War II was a frightening, sometimes fatal, experience for sailors. 

For Prattan Steve McPherson, being on a sinking ship was a regular occurrence for the 94-year-old veteran of World War II who will be 95 on Dec. 12. 

McPherson was drafted at age 18 just after graduating from Fort Cobb, Okla. High School in 1944. He joined the Navy and was sworn in on D-Day, June 6, 1944 when the Allies invaded France at Normandy.

After two and a half months of basic training in San Diego, Calif. he headed for the harbor at Admiralty Island that is just off the northeast coast of New Guinea. He was assigned to the USS ABSD2, a unique barge that could partially sink to create a dry dock on the ocean where ships could be repaired or painted. 

The ABSD2 had 200 sailors. It was a rectangular platform 900 feet long. On each long side of the barge were 10 air ballast tanks (lettered A through J) each 90 feet long and 30 feet tall.

The bottom of the barge contained living quarters in each self contained ballast section with galley, sleeping room and its own engine room. 

“Each section could operate by itself if it had to,” McPherson said. 

The ballast tanks were flooded so the vessel would partially sink, allowing a damaged ship to be positioned above the barge and made secure. Water was pumped out of the tanks and the vessel would rise to create a floating dry dock on the water where repairs, that could take from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, were made to damaged vessels, McPherson said. 

During sinking and floating, a process that took about two days, McPherson was assigned to the radio and in constant contact with the bridge to give vital information on progress of the process. His position was under the platform that was under the bow of the ship. He was actually 20 feet underwater during the sinking and re-floating process. 

McPherson’s other duty was being in charge of paint supplies that were used to paint the understructure of ships. He never got to paint. He worked with Chief O’Connell and First Class Petty Officer Quay Metzger. 

If a ship was to be painted, the ship’s crew would use bosun’s chairs hung over the side to scrape off the paint so the ship was ready to be painted when it arrived. For battleships and cruisers, the paint was 200 degrees so it would adhere better. 

The battleship USS Iowa was one of the biggest ships ABSD2 serviced. It’s damaged propeller was replaced. The Iowa took up the entire work area on ABSD2 but it could hold up to four smaller vessels like escorts or mine sweepers, McPherson said. 

They often did repair work on ships with torpedo damage. They would patch up a ship so it could make it to a ship yard for more extensive repairs. 

“We did all kinds of repairs,” McPherson said. 

The ABSD2 had to make repairs on itself once while it was servicing other ships. A Japanese plane torpedoed ABSD2 at night. The torpedo hit one of the ballast tanks. No one was injured in the attack and the damaged section was removed. It took about two weeks for the crew to make repairs to the tank. During that time, repairs continued on a pair of smaller ships. 

One of the hardest parts of working on ABSD2 was that damaged ships came in with wounded and dead sailors. Some of the dead were still in damaged sections. As the water was removed from the damaged areas, the dead sailors, some of whom had been dead for days, were recovered. The sailors were identified and cared for then placed on a small barge, taken out of the harbor and in a little ceremony, were buried at sea, McPherson said. 

Seeing these dead sailors was quite emotional, McPherson said. 

McPherson did his entire service on ABSD2. After serving 23 months, including two and a half months of basic training, McPherson got his points and left the Navy on June 28, 1946 having reached the rank of Petty Officer Second Class.