I stand at the USS Portland memorial in Fort Allen park to watch the perigean moon rise over Casco Bay. A few dozen like-minded people scattered about the park quietly watch as the golden moon spreads a broad shimmering path across the peaceful bay.

In the stillness, a fellow moon gazer begins to softly sing the Navy hymn in a plain and perfect voice:

“Eternal Father, strong to save/Whose arm hath bound the restless wave/Who bids the mighty ocean deep/Its own appointed limits keep/O hear us when we cry to thee/ For those in peril on the sea.”

I lean on the bulwark that once protected the bridge of the USS Portland, a proud ship that, with her gallant crew, fought her way across the Pacific in World War II. Now her last remnants are earthbound, standing watch over Casco Bay.

But in December 1944 in the South Pacific, there was war. Flaming cannons, thundering warplanes, speeding torpedoes and tons of black powder, ready to destroy. The campaign to return to the Philippines was in full swing. The Navy’s 3rd Fleet, including the USS Portland, was there to support the invasion.

But the Japanese were not the only enemy. On Dec. 18 there came a storm, a monstrous typhoon. There were towering waves, howling wind and stinging rain. And a wartime fleet unprepared for Nature’s fury.

Many reasons would later be found for the disaster: the weather observations were sketchy; the ships were top-heavy with gun turrets they were never meant to carry; many vessels had too little fuel in their tanks to provide ballast; orders should have been given to allow captains to alter course. The reasons mattered not to the tempest-tossed sailors that night. They were faced with a more immediate reality: Their ships were no match for these restless waves.

So it was that the raging storm capsized the USS Hull, the USS Monaghan and the USS Spence, rolling them over as a curious dog might upset a turtle. So it was that 793 men went to the bottom. Only a few dozen souls were saved by the heroic efforts of fellow sailors, diving into shark-infested waters to rescue brethren too weak to grab a line after days of immersion in the merciless sea.

In a Bataan battlefield sermon, military chaplain the Rev. William Cummings observed, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Likewise, there are no atheists in a storm-tossed ship.

In their last hours, sailors gathered in cramped quarters to sing in trembling voices, “Eternal Father, strong to save …” For most, there was no salvation, at least not in the earthly realm. Human frailty was no match for a sea determined to exceed its appointed limits. For those in peril on the sea that night, a fervent hymn was not enough to save.

In the stillness of this soft night, I stand in awe of a tranquil moon, a haunting hymn and those sailors’ abiding sacrifice.

Marcel Moreau is a resident of Portland.


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