Sunday, August 28, 2016

ENS Nathan F. Asher, USN - Unsung Hero among Other Heroes of Pearl Harbor 1941

During my active career in military systems engineering, and as a naval intelligence officer I had the opportunity, and significant honor, to meet and work for genuine acknowledged military heroes. Two immediately come to mind; VADM Lawson P. “Red” Ramage, USN, MOH (Medal of Honor), 2 Navy Crosses and a Silver Star, and RADM Eugene B. Fluckey, USN, MOH and 4 Navy Crosses. For readers in the United Kingdom and the former Commonwealth, as well as others who may not be familiar, in order of precedence the Medal of Honor ranks equivalent to the Victoria Cross, and the Navy Cross equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross. Both were redheads and both were exemplary combat submarine commanders during WWII. VADM Ramage subsequently served as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations and RADM Fluckey as Director of Naval Intelligence, United States Navy.

VADM Lawson P. "Red" Ramage, USN MOH

RADM Eugene B. Fluckey, USN MOH

However, one of the most memorable heroes of WWII that I knew and worked with for a number of years, was to the best of my knowledge, totally unrecognized and unsung, to all but his closest friends and acquaintances. His name was Nathan Frederick “Fred” Asher. For the nearly 20 years I knew Fred, he had retired from the United States Navy, and worked as a marketing representative for Honeywell Marine Systems Center, later renamed Training and Control Systems Center, in West Covina, California. Both names were thin cover for an operation that designed and produced naval weapon systems (certainly not thermostats). These included the RUR-5 ASROC ASW missile system, major components for the Mk-46 acoustic homing torpedo (one of ASROC's payloads), dual-yield fuzing design for the W-44 nuclear depth charge (ASROC's other payload), the SEAFIRE Electro-optical Fire Control System, and the ASW Underwater Fire Control System, MK-116 (the first US Navy digital fire control system for ASW).

With sincere apologies, in some ways it seems both ironic and appropriate that I cannot provide a single photograph of Fred for inclusion in this article.

Over time his associates all came to realize that he had absolutely expended his entire lifetime supply of adrenaline during the day of 7 December 1941, at a place called Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Nothing, and I mean absolutely NOTHING, could phase Fred!

As a young Ensign, just having two years previously graduated from the United States Naval Academy, Fred was the senior officer present, in a group with three other ensigns in the duty section (all the others were reservists), and the designated Command Duty Officer, in the USS Blue (DD-387). The USS Blue was the fourth ship of the USS Craven Class, and had been commissioned in 1937. The ship was independently moored to a buoy adjacent to the USS Phoenix (CL-46) (later ARA General Belgrano). Both the Commanding Officer and the Executive Officer of USS Blue were ashore for the weekend. The Commanding Officer had directed in the Night Order Book, that under no circumstances whatsoever was the ship to get underway without either he, or the Executive Officer being onboard.

Note mistake in article not recognizing that at least one of
the ensigns, namely Fred Asher, was regular Navy

USS Phoenix (CL-46) underway with way on, as well as
under Japanese naval air attack, main channel, US Naval
 Base, Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941

The following is taken from official US Navy documentation;
 “Blue saw Utah torpedoed at 0800, and sounded General Quarters. Although undergoing buoy upkeep, she prepared to get underway. At 0805 she opened fire with 50 caliber machine guns, and about two minutes later with 5-inch guns. The ship got underway at 0847 and continued firing at enemy planes while steaming out of the harbor. Blue passed the channel entrance buoys at 0910 and proceeded to the patrol station of sector three. Here Blue claimed one midget submarine, and possibly two more, due to depth charge attacks, Oil slick and air bubbles were in evidence.

It should be related that the Acting Commanding Officer of Blue was Ensign Nathan F. Asher, only two years out of the Naval Academy. The other officers aboard were in large part Reserve Officers. The ship got underway promptly, opened fire with its machine guns at once, and got the 5-inch anti-aircraft battery firing within a few minutes. They shot down at least one Japanese plane, probably sank one enemy submarine, and acted as screen for fleet cruisers searching for the Japanese Fleet. When the gun captain of number 1 gun went to repair the ammunition hoist of number 2 gun he got on his knees and prayed, "Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Make this ammunition hoist work just this once." While he was praying with tears coming from his eyes, a tall colored man stationed in the handling room looked down and said, "Why, Smith, you got the oil turned off."

The following graphic shows USS Blue (DD-387) at the ship's initial moored position (Berth X-7, upper center right) Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, prior to commencement of the attack. Note the distance it had to transit in the channel, under continuous threat and intermittent direct attack, prior to clearing to seaward (in the graphic diagonally all the way down the channel past Ford Island to the lower left center).

This is a copy of the forwarding endorsement to Commander-in-Chief , U.S. Pacific Fleet by the Commanding Officer of the USS Blue, and Fred’s original report of what had occurred;

Serial 062

ltr of Ens. N.F. Asher,
USN, to Cincpac, dated
Dec. 11, 1941.
U.S.S. BLUE (DD387)
Pearl Harbor, T.H.
December 12, 1941

Commanding Officer.
Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet.

U.S.S. Blue -- Action during December 7 Air Raid, Report of.

(a) Cincpac Despatch 102102 of Dec., 1941.
  1. Forwarded with great pride in the excellent and efficient manner in which all officers and men in the Blue at the time conducted themselves.
  2. Summarizing the basic letter to accord with reference (a) and clarify certain items, the following is submitted.
    1. Offensive measures.
      1. Fired .50 caliber machine gun and 5"/38 AA batteries at enemy planes presented as targets while moored at Berth X-7 from 0805 to 0847, and during sortie via South Channel to entrance buoys from 0847 to 0910.
      2. Dropped 4 and 2 60-pound depth charges in two successive attacks about 0950 on underwater sound contacts approximately 4 miles, bearing 190°, from Diamond Head Light. Dropped 2 600-pound depth charges in attack on third underwater sound contact approximately 6 miles, bearing 200°, from Diamond Head Light about 1020.
    2. Damage to enemy.
      1. 4 planes under fire by 5" battery and 1 under fire by .50 caliber were observed to crash in the following places: 2 near Pearl City, 1 on stern of U.S.S. Curtiss in West Channel, 1 Middle Loch near P.A.A. Landing, 1 in cane field on Waipio Peninsula.
      2. One submarine either sunk or severely damaged by depth charging in approximate location 4 miles, bearing 190° true, from Diamond Head Light.
    3. Own losses and damages -- none.
      1. Three men received minor injuries, two of them a burst eardrum and the third a bruised foot.
      2. The material casualties mentioned under the citations of Millard and Shaw in the basic letter were a gun stoppage due to loading a grommeted projectile, and a torpedo running in its tube after being struck by a second torpedo inadvertently partially ejected from an opposite tube.
      1. Attention is invited to paragraph 3 of the basic letter, to which should be added Ensign N.F. Asher, U.S.N., who, as acting commanding officer from the commencement of the raid until the ship returned to Pearl Harbor the following evening, performed most commendably and efficiently in assuming prompt offensive action, conducting emergency sortie under existing trying conditions, attacking submarine contacts in offshore area, screening heavy ship proceeding to attack a reportedly greatly superior force off Barber's Point, and subsequently standing watch and watch as O.O.D. for a period of 30 hours at sea.
      2. All personnel conducted themselves in an eminently satisfactory manner, and the commanding officer has not heard of a single adverse criticism.
    5. To date there have been found no evidence of any hits of any sort on this vessel, although several shrapnel or bomb case fragments, and two spent .450 caliber projectiles have been picked up about the decks. Enemy planes made several attempts to bomb this or nearby vessels during sortie in an apparent attempt to block the channel; the nearest miss from such bombs was about 100 yards.
Copy to:


U.S.S. BLUE DD 387
Pearl Harbor, T.H.
December 11, 1941

N.F. ASHER, Ensign, U.S. Navy.
Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Commanding Officer

Air Raid on Pearl Harbor, T.H. December 7, 1941 -- report of action by U.S.S. Blue (DD387)
  1. Summary of actions:
U.S.S. Utah torpedoed.
Ensign N.F. ASHER, U.S.N., Ensign M.I. MOLDAFSKY, U.S.N.R., Ensign J.P. WOLFE, U.S.N.R., and Ensign R.S. SCOTT, U.S.N.R., while seated in the wardroom, received word from the bridge that the U.S.S. Utah had been torpedoed by Japanese airplanes. The general alarm was sounded, and word passed throughout the ship to man battle stations and prepare to get underway immediately. Stations were taken immediately as follows:
Ensign ASHER -- on the bridge -- in command.
Ensign MOLDAFSKY -- forward machine guns -- in charge.
Ensign WOLFE -- control -- in charge.
Ensign SCOTT -- repair party -- in charge.
Opened fire with 50 cal. machine guns on Japanese planes diving on ships in harbor.
Opened fire with 5"/38 cal. guns on Japanese planes. The engine room was ordered immediately to light off No. 2 boiler (No. 1 already steaming), and made all preparations for getting underway. Repair party cleared the ship for action, and made all preparations for slipping quickly from the mooring.
Underway--upon execution of signal to get underway--from Berth X-7, Ensign N.F. ASHER, Commanding. Maintained fire on enemy planes with main battery and machine guns while steaming out of harbor. Four planes fired on with main battery were later seen to go down in smoke. It is claimed that two of these planes were definitely shot down by this vessel. one was seen to crash in field on Waipio Pena., and the second crashed into crane on stern of U.S.S. Curtiss. Two planes that dove over the ship were fired on by the 50 cal. machine guns. It is claimed that one of these planes, seen to crash near Pan American Airways Landing at Pearl City, was shot down by this vessel.
When abeam of Weaver Field landing, went to twenty five knots, and maintained this speed while steaming out of the channel.
Passed channel entrance buoys, and set course 120 true. Proceeded to sector three to patrol station. Upon reaching station commenced patrolling at speed 10 knots.
Good sound contact on submarine. Maneuvered to attack and dropped four depth charges. Regained sound contact on same submarine. Dropped two depth charges. investigated spot where the second attack was made, and observed a large oil slick on the water, and air bubbles rising to the surface, over a length of about 200 feet. it was first believed that the submarine was surfacing, due to the appearance of the air bubbles, and all guns were ordered to train out to starboard, so as to be ready to open fire. It is felt that this submarine was definitely sunk. Approximate location: 21°-11'-30" N and 157°-49'-45" W.
Obtained a third sound contack on a submarine that was apparently heading for the U.S.S. St. Louis, which was at the time steaming at high speeds on a course of approximately 150 true. Signal "EMERG. UNIT 210" was hoisted, and attack on submarine made. Two depth charges were dropped. Upon a return to the spot where the attack was made, a large oil slick was noticed on the surface of the water. All contacks were made at about 1400 yards, and the submarine tracked before the charges were dropped.
It is claimed that one submarine, and possibly two were sunk.
Upon completion of the attacks, the Blue screened the St. Louis upon orders from that vessel.
All four boilers on the main steam line.
  1. Ammunition expended during engagement:
5"/38 caliber
50 cal. (machine guns)
Depth charges

  1. There were no material or personnel casualties.
  2. Special commendation should be given the following officers and men for their extreme heroism, courage, and fine cooperation, during the conduct of the battle, and until the Blue returned to port, on the night of December 8, 1941:
Ensign J.P. WOLFE, U.S.N.R., -- is responsible for the excellent shooting of the Blue during the conduct of the battle. Ensign WOLFE's duties as control and gunnery officer were performed to perfection. Ensign WOLFE also acted as assistant communication officer.
Ensign R.S. SCOTT, U.S.N.R., -- did an excellent job as damage control officer. Ensign SCOTT was detailed to maintain the spirit of the men on battle stations, and to look after things about the ship while the other officers remained at their battle stations from the time that the Blue got underway, till she returned to port.
HAMMOND, J.P., 233-63-83, CQM, USN, -- provided valuable assistance to me, and loyally remained on the bridge till the Blue returned to port. I give HAMMOND great credit in aiding me considerably in the swift and safe manner in which the Blue proceeded out of Pearl Harbor.
KITZER, H.M., 102-87-19, CMM, USN, -- did an excellent job as acting engineer officer of the Blue, for the two days that we were out to sea. KITZER is greatly responsible for the excellent performance of the engineering department.
KETCHUM, F., 102-39-98, CBM, USN, -- performed in an excellent manner with the repair party, and proved invaluable by assisting in general tasks throughout the ship.
MILLARD, M.L., 355-54-90, CGM, USN, -- performed in an excellent manner throughout the conduct of the battle, and whom I give great credit for the fine performance of the firing. He cleared a loading casualty at Gun 2 at great danger to himself, after sending all men from the gun and handling room.
SHAW, C.H., 200-79-90, CTM, USN, -- performed outstandingly both in refilling depth charge racks, and preparing torpedoes for firing while the ship was proceeding in heavy seas at high speeds. During a casualty in which a fired torpedo remained in the tube, and a live warhead fell on the deck, his quick action at personal risk to himself prevented any serious damage to material and personnel.
MATTHEWS, W.J., 273-82-86, CRM(PA), USN, -- who remained on watch continuously manning sound gear and radio equipment. While manning the sound gear, he picked up two submarines, and gave the information leading to the successful submarine attacks. His work on radio equipment as well as on sound gear was extremely well done.
  1. I wish to commend all the men who were aboard the Blue for their courageous and excellent performance during and after the engagement with the enemy.
[signed] N.F. ASHER

It is contended by many that because Fred had directly disobeyed the commanding officer’s standing orders, that he was not recommended for, nor obviously receive, a well-deserved Navy Cross. I have rigorously searched all available U.S. Navy records for the award of the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, and the Silver Star (three highest awards for valor in actual combat), without finding Fred's name. 

It is also widely held that during the course of clearing the channel to open water, and close proximity attacks by Japanese aircraft, that Fred in abject anger and frustration, threw the pair of binoculars he had on, directly at one of the planes. Nor was it ever confirmed that his meager ensign’s pay was docked for the replacement cost of a pair of 9x50 Bureau of Ships, Bausch & Lomb prismatic binoculars, lost overboard. He was a fine naval officer and gentleman, in the truest sense of John Paul Jone's words. Truly unfortunate is the fact that there are so many more "Freds" out there who have also been forgotten. 

For those readers who might be interested in a greater in-depth analysis, see the attack on Pearl Harbor , in this blog.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Outstanding summary of Fred Asher. He is one of the many unsung heros of WWII. His leadership under pressure should be the model of what every military officer should strive for. Fred Asher is a true American Hero!

Post a Comment

Post a Comment