Forrest Rene Morphew

Morphew photo

Forrest Rene Morphew
Lieutenant – US Navy: USS San Juan, Third Fleet
& US Naval Reserve, Unit 12-37
World War II (1941-1946) & Cold War (1946-1959)

Forrest Rene Morphew is a long time Marin resident, World War II veteran, and local author.  Morphew was fortunate to survive a typhoon in the Philippine Sea while aboard the USS San Juan during World War II, and was a distinguished member of Admiral William F. Halsey’s Third Fleet destroyer screen.  Morphew’s commitment to public service did not end with World War II.  After World War II, Morphew entered the US Naval Reserve where he served for an additional thirteen years and was elected to the Board of Directors of the Richardson Bay Sanitary District, where he has served for over 29 years, three times as President.

 Forrest Rene Morphew was born on July 1, 1919 in Texarkana, Texas to Franklin and Ada Morphew.  He was the second of three children.  Resilience and hard work was ingrained in Morphew at a young age; a characteristic that would serve him well during World War II.  He survived the tragic death of his mother at the age of 32, helped his disabled father and family after the death of his mother, and lived through the Great Depression by helping on his grandfather’s farm until he graduated from high school.  After high school, Morphew joined the Civilian Conservation Corps for three years and worked in the Cleveland National Forest in California building state parks, fighting fire, and forest fires.  From this point on, the Texas native would call California his home. 

After discharge from the Civilian Conservation Corps, Morphew enrolled at Healds Business College in San Jose, working at night to supplement his income.  He enlisted in the Navy on December 7, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Morphew was initially assigned to recruiting duty in San Francisco.  He was transferred to sea duty aboard the anti-aircraft cruiser, the USS San Juan, CL-54, the command ship of Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet destroyer screen in the Pacific.  The USS San Juan departed on June 5, 1942, as part of a carrier task group bound for the Pacific. The group got underway on June 30th from San Diego escorting a large group of troop transports destined for the Solomon Islands, where the Navy was about to launch the first major American amphibious operation of the war.

The San Juan also provided gunfire support for the landings at Tulagi in August 1942 while patrolling the eastern approaches to the transport area between Tulagi and Guadalcanal.  The action turned out to be the Battle of Savo Island, in which an enemy cruiser sank four Allied cruisers.  The San Juan was able to retire from the forward area with the empty transports and escorted them to Noumea.  The San Juan rejoined the carrier task group and operated for several weeks between the New Hebrides and the Solomons, on guard against a Japanese carrier attack.  Fortunately, the San Juan had withdrawn to refuel and missed the Battle of the Eastern Solomons.  The Enterprise (CV-6) was hit in the battle and the San Juan escorted the carrier to Pearl Harbor, arriving in September 1942.

In October, the USS San Juan again headed for the South Pacific and carried out a raid through the Gilberts sinking two Japanese patrol vessels on October 16, 1942.  Three days later, after patrol planes had made contact with enemy carrier forces, the Battle of Santa Cruz Island was fought in which the Hornet (CV-8) was lost and the Enterprise damaged, while the Japanese suffered severe losses in aircraft and pilots.  The USS San Juan, however, survived with only minor damage.  During the last dive-bombing attack on the formation, one bomb passed through the San Juan’s stern, flooding several compartments and damaging her rudder.  The San Juan then went to Australia for 10 days for permanent repairs.

The San Juan later joined the carrier, Saratoga (CV-3), in the Fijis in November.  From December 1942 to June 1943, the USS San Juan cruiser was based at Noumea and operated in the Coral Sea, both with carrier groups and alone.   In November 1943, the San Juan and the Saratoga group neutralized airfields on Bougainvi11e and Rabaul while Allied forces landed on Bougainville.  The task group also acted as a covering force for the occupation of the Gilberts.  The San Juan then joined the Essex (CV-9) on a raid on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands in early December 1943 where they fought off persistent torpedo plane attacks.  In December, the USS San Juan returned to California for an overhaul at Mare Island.

After the overhaul, the San Juan rejoined the Saratoga on January 19, 1944 off of Pearl Harbor and the force covered the occupation of Eniwetok in February.  The San Juan next escorted the carriers, Yorktown (CV-10) and Lexington (CV-16), in strikes on Palau, Yap, and Ulithi.  In April, the cruiser joined the new carrier, Hornet (CV-12), which covered the landings at Hollandia and Truk.  After returning to base in the Marshall Islands, the San Juan along with the Hornet group began support of the Marianas campaign in early June.  The San Juan participated in the strikes at Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima in the Bonins, while troops landed on Saipan.  The San Juan helped guard the Hornet group during the Battle of the Philippine Sea when American naval air power decisively defeated a Japanese counterattack to save the Marianas, and, in doing so, all but wiped out Japanese naval air strength.

Shortly thereafter in July 1944, the San Juan escorted carriers, Wasp (CV-18) and Franklin (CV-13), as they covered the capture of Guam with strikes on Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima.  On August 4, 1944, the San Juan headed back into battle escorting the Yorktown.  The San Juan joined the Lexington’s task group at Ulithi in November and in early December, the destoyer screened the carriers in strikes on Formosa and Luzon in support of landings on Mindoro.  During this operation, the San Juan was sent alone within scouting range of Japanese airfields in an effort to draw out Japanese aircraft by radio deception.  On December 18, 1944, while operating in the Philippine Sea, the San Juan was battered by Typhoon Cobra.  The Typhoon lasted three days and three of the destroyers in the group were capsized with the loss of 790 men. 

According to Morphew, this typhoon was the “most frightening experience of his entire service.”  Morphew explained that the crew aboard the USS San Juan initially thought nothing of the dark clouds on the horizon.  Soon, however, the wind became very strong, the waves deeper and higher, the clouds became blacker and daylight faded into the darkness of the night.  “The howling winds of 90-100 knots generated 70 to 90 foot tsunamis which battled the fleet viciously”, claimed Morphew.  The USS San Juan found itself “in a huge battle for survival, not against the Japanese and Kamikaze planes this time, but a force just as formidable, the awesome power of a typhoon”, exclaimed Forrest Morphew. 

For three days the San Juan battled the typhoon.  The rough seas made it difficult for the sailors to walk around the ship and most were seasick.  According to Morphew, “even the old ‘salts’ vomited all over the place.”  Given the gravity of the situation, Captain George H. Balm, sounded the alarm and called all hands to General Quarters.  Except for occasional catnaps, the crew of the San Juan didn’t sleep for three days, ate cold sandwiches and lived on coffee to stay awake.  Morphew described the San Juan as “bobbing like a cork in angry, churning seas…on the crest of a wave, like a seesaw on a fulcrum”.  Morphew distinctly recalled the San Juan atop a wave, shuddering violently, only to plunge forward under a 50-foot wall of water.  He did not expect the bow to surface again, but after what seemed like an eternity, the San Juan resurfaced, miraculously.  According to Morphew, “this awesome scenario was repeated over and over again during the entire typhoon”.

Morphew recalled one frightening watch on the bridge during the typhoon.  He was 75 feet above the water and the San Juan listed 70 degrees to port on the inside of a wave.  Morphew could reach out and almost touch the crest of the wave on the other side of the trough.  He described the water as an “angry monster frothing at the mouth.”  That same night, Commander Yancey, the navigator, came to the bridge and warned that if the San Juan listed another 5 degrees, she would probably capsize.  The Captain announced that the ammunition stored in the magazines below deck would save the San Juan from rolling over.  The San Juan was an anti-aircraft carrier and was a floating arsenal.  According to Morphew, the Captain’s weak reassurance was little solace for him.  At any moment, he expected an announcement to abandon ship and that the San Juan was sinking.  Morphew’s fear deepened when he heard that three destroyers in their fleet had just disappeared from the radar screen, and were lost at sea. 

After a three day battle with the elements, the USS San Juan survived.  The typhoon caused significant damage to the Third Fleet: the USS Monaghan DD-354 capsized with 6 survivors; the USS Spence DD-512 capsized with 24 survivors; and the USS Hull DD-350 capsized with 7 officers and 55 enlisted survivors.  Most ships in the task force lost gear or suffered major damage.  Although Morphew claimed to suffer from seasickness in the early days aboard ship in 1942, he was proud that he was able to endure the typhoon without any bouts of seasickness and help “the old salts” whom Morphew referred to fondly as “pollywogs”.  Today, Morphew thanks God, the Navy architects that designed the San Juan, the shipyard workmen that built the cruiser, and the capable and brave men in the crew who navigated the San Juan through this terrible experience.  According to Morphew, “without the courage and expert seamanship; we never would have survived such an ordeal and lived to tell about it”.  That year, Morphew received his “greatest Christmas gift ever from God, the gift of life, for which [he] will be forever grateful.”                

Only six days after surviving the typhoon, the San Juan covered the occupation of Luzon with strikes on Formosa, Okinawa, and Luzon in January 1945, and then helped raid ports and shipping in the South China Sea, particularly Saigon, Cam Ranh Bay, and Hong Kong. After replenishing at Ulithi, the San Juan escorted the Hornet in air strikes on Tokyo during the Iwo Jima operation in February.  The San Juan also operated with the Hornet to the north and east of Nansei Shoto, supporting air strikes and replenishing at sea, and participated in the bombardment of Minami Daito Shima, a small island about 180 miles from Okinawa in April.  Planes from the San Juan’s group helped sink the giant Japanese battleship Yamato.

The San Juan joined the Hornet off Nansei Shoto for strikes on targets in Japan and the Bennington (CV-20) for more strikes on the Japanese home islands.  On August 27th, after 59 days at sea, Morphew and the crew of the San Juan joined the forces of the Third Fleet for the triumphal entry into Sagami Wan, just outside Tokyo Bay.  One of Morphew’s proudest moments was when the San Juan protected battleship Missouri in Sagami Wan, when General MacArthur accepted Japan’s surrender.  Thereafter, the San Juan was assigned responsibility for freeing, caring for, and evacuating Allied prisoners of war in Japan. The San Juan was responsible for liberating prisoners at camps at Omori and Ofuna.  Prisoners were also liberated from the Shanagawa Hospital Camp. 

According to Morphew, one of the biggest surprises during the liberation and evacuation of Allied POWS from the prison camps was the discovery of Marine Corps flying ace, Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.  Major Boyington had been the Commander of the “Black Sheep Squadron” and was reported as killed in action.  The Medal of Honor and Navy Flying Cross had even been awarded to Major Boyington posthumously.  To the surprise and delight of the United States, the San Juan and her crew discovered Major Boyington alive and well in the Amori Prison Camp in Tokyo.    

After evacuating the POW camps, the San Juan moved to the Nagoya-Hamamatsu area to the south and then to the Sendai-Kamaishi area to the north.  During the occupation of Japan, Morphew was recommended by Captain George H. Bahm for a commission for “Outstanding Service to the Country and Navy during Time of War.”  The commission was approved by Chief of Naval Operations and Morphew was promoted to Lieutenant (JG) USNR.  

Upon completion of her liberation duty, the San Juan sailed for the United States on November 14, 1945, disembarked Commodore Simpson at Pearl Harbor, and continued to the mainland with homeward bound troops.  The San Juan’s final resting stop was Bremerton, Washington where she was inactivated on January 24, 1946, decommissioned, and placed in reserve.  The San Juan received 13 battle stars and one Navy Unit Commendation for her World War II service.

Forrest Morphew was released from active duty on February 26, 1946 and received the Navy Good Conduct Medal, the American Area Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with 5 Battle Stars, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with 1 Battle Star, and a World War II Victory Medal.  He also published a book, History of USS San Juan (CL-54) Operating in the Pacific, which chronicles his experiences aboard the USS San Juan during World War II and Typhoon Cobra.  Morphew continued his service with the Navy in the Naval Reserve where he served from February 1946 to March of 1959.  He was the Executive Officer of Naval Reserve Unit 12-37 at Treasure Island in San Francisco.  Morphew also served at the Naval Reserve stations in San Francisco, California and Phoenix, Arizona.

In addition to his service in the Naval Reserve, Morphew resumed his education using the benefits of the G.I. bill.  He enrolled at San Jose State and graduated with Honors in 1948 with an AA degree in Natural Science and Business Administration.  He continued his education at Stanford University where he graduated in 1950 with an AB degree.  In addition to his career in the Naval Reserve, Morphew was employed by the Richfield Oil Company, which later became Arco, in research and development and sales.  Upon retiring from the Naval Reserve in 1959, Morphew married Ephima Enepekides.  Morphew continued his employment with Arco, purchased the Arco Marin County Distributorship, installed the first 24-hour commercial card lock fueling system in Marin, and built the Oil Warehouse Corp.  Morphew was also elected to the Richardson Bay Sanitary District in Marin County, where he has served for over 29 years, three times as president.  Morphew retired in 1996 and resides today in Tiburon, California.  He is a Director of the Navy League of Marin County, a Director of the San Juan Shipmates, Inc., a member of the Marin Military Officers Association, and a former member of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary. 

Forrest Morphew has certainly made his mark in life and dedicated himself to the service of our country and protection of our natural resources.  He has come a long way from working on his grandfather’s farm in Texas during the Depression to a prosperous life in Marin County.  Morphew’s hard work and resilience has served him well.

Narrative by Nicholas Elsbree on October 25, 2011.       

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