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Sailor’s USS Phoenix tale: MacArthur’s cigar and surviving Pearl Harbor

Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid (left center) with Gen. Douglas MacArthur (center) on the bridge of the USS Phoenix during the pre-invasion bombardment of Los Negros Island, at the east end of Manus Island, Feb. 28, 1944.

Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, was known for his trademark corncob pipe.

But 89-year-old Frank R. Klinger, at the time a sailor on the light cruiser USS Phoenix that somehow survived the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, can attest that MacArthur also enjoyed puffing on a cigar every now and then.

It is a detail that Klinger personally learned when he wasn’t busy with his shipmates battling the Japanese naval fleet or helping pave the way for troops to storm various enemy-controlled islands in the Pacific.

Most of the time, Klinger caught only a passing glimpse of the famous general when he boarded the Phoenix, but one evening, the 18-year-old sailor, standing watch topside, was ordered to scold MacArthur – not realizing, of course, that he was the general.

Off the shores of New Guinea, Klinger recalls, he was gazing out into the twilight from his watch post taking in two Liberty ships from the Merchant Marine that had been badly damaged and were going to port.

“The torpedo holes in them were just above the waterline and so big that you could drive a semi truck through them,” he says. “I thought that they must have sealed off the other compartments and dumped the ballast to keep them afloat.”

But his ponderings were soon disrupted by a cabin door opening not far from his station. A cloud of smoke belched into the night air.

“You could see two people inside were smoking cigars,” Klinger says. “I was wearing a headphone set and reported it to the central station, the main battle room, that there was cigar smoke. I was told to go over and inform the people that there was no smoking allowed topside at night.”

Smoking, Klinger explains, was not allowed at night because the glow of the burning tobacco in the darkness might tip off the enemy to the location of a ship.

“As I got close, a Marine sentry put his rifle against my chest and stopped me.,” Klinger says. “He asked me what was I doing, and I told him that I was told by central station there’s no smoking topside. That’s when Gen. MacArthur heard me. He turned around and faced me, and I saw it was him.

“He saluted me, and I saluted him. MacArthur asked me what was going on, and I told him what central station had told me. MacArthur said to me, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was that dark out.’ My knees were shaking a little bit. I probably started stuttering.

“He thanked me and saluted me again, and I saluted him, and he went back inside the cabin.”

The Marine sentry then pulled the rifle away from Klinger’s chest, and he returned to his watch station.

It is a moment that Klinger has cherished his entire life.

And while he was nervous that evening, it does not compare with the emotional intensity he experienced battling Japanese kamikaze pilots who sought to sink ships on their suicide missions.

“You forget everything except concentrating on the mission at hand,” Klinger says. “I was setting fuses for 5-inch shells that weighed anywhere from 70 to 100 pounds. The Phoenix shot down a total of eight planes.”

But that was just part of the fierce action that Klinger and his crew members frequently experienced. There were battles with Japanese warships and invasions of islands.

For Klinger, the Battle of Surigao Strait remains among the most vivid. It was fierce and quick.

“It happened at night, and there were a total 48 warships involved,” he says. “The Americans and Australians had six battleships, eight cruisers and 22 destroyers, and the Japanese had two battleships, two heavy cruisers and eight destroyers. The battle lasted only 25 minutes.”

What happened?

“We sank all of the enemy’s ships or they were in the process of capsizing.”

When the smoke cleared, Klinger says, he was ordered to inspect the main deck of the Phoenix for fires and injuries.

“We weren’t hit at all,” he says, “but there were so many empty shells on the deck, it looked like cut firewood.”

Klinger says he considers himself fortunate that he survived the war with barely a scratch. His brother Benny also made it home safely from the war. The same cannot be said about their older brother Stephen, who served in the Army Air Forces in Europe.

“Steve was a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, and while they were over the bombing target, a German fighter plane started shooting its cannon, and one of the shells hit my brother and killed him,” Klinger says. “The B-17 pilot said Steve had been shooting at the plane when he was hit. That was in October 1943.”

The heroic tail gunner was later buried in Cambridge, England.

Back home, Klinger’s mother, Isabelle, also suffered an injury at a Buffalo war plant making machine-gun shell casings. Sections of three of her fingers on her right hand were amputated after being crushed in a stamping machine. But that could not begin to compare with the loss of her son Stephen.

“She would sit on the edge of her bed and cry and say to me, ‘Is Stephen ever coming back?’ I would tell her that where he’s buried, they will take care of him forever,” Klinger recalls. “He’s in a beautiful military cemetery … with all his buddies.”

Frank R. Klinger, 89

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Lancaster

• Branch: Navy

• War zone: Pacific

• Years of service: 1943-45

• Rank: Shipfitter second class

• Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with four ribbons and eight battle stars

• Specialty: Fuse setter on artillery rounds for 5-inch gun

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