Max Thelen, Jr.
Lieutenant—U.S. Navy—USS Heermann
World War II (1941-1946)
Max Thelen, Jr. was born on August 18, 1919 in Berkeley, California. He lived in Berkeley for his entire childhood and adolescence. His father was a graduate of Harvard Law School and practiced law. He also was a California public servant, and later a surveyor of contracts for the War Department during World War I in Washington D.C. After that his father was the Chairman of the Railroad Commission, which is now known as the Utilities Commission. He also was the senior partner at the law firm Thelen, Marrin, Johnson & Bridges LLP. Thelen’s father retired when he was 88 years old. His mother raised four children.
Thelen was an “outstanding scholar.” He graduated high school at the top of his class. He then went on to U.C. Berkeley where he majored in economics. He graduated in 1940, and once again, he was at the top of his class. He was a Junior Phi Beta. Thelen attended Harvard Law School before enlisting in the military. In the summer of 1942, Thelen worked in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California. He worked in the Mold Loft, which is where the patterns for the ships were made.
Thelen wanted to be a Naval Aviator, but he failed to pass the physical in Boston. He went to New York and Washington D.C. and failed the physical for Naval Aviator in both places. He later took the physical for the V7 Officer-Training program (which was commonly referred to as the “90-day Wonder Program”) and passed it. He was not put on active duty right away so he continued to attend law school for three months. He was later notified that he was disqualified from the V7 program because he had taken a trigonometry class in high school, and the program only accepted the course from colleges. Thelen returned to UC Berkeley, took the trigonometry course and finished with an A. He was then readmitted to the program. It then took even longer after he had been readmitted because the program had lost his papers. In August 1942 he finally was able to start the V7 program at Columbia University. His parents were supportive of his enlistment because they were glad that he was “doing his part.”
The V7 program was an academic training program. Thelen was one of the Student-Officers, which brought about some added responsibilities. There was no shooting nor were there onboard activities during the V7 program; it was a purely academic training program. He then went to teach at the Hollywood Hotel in Florida. He then went to Washington D.C., where he went to gunnery school. It was basically a fire-control program. Thelen became a Fire-Control Officer and an Assistant Gunnery Officer. After his completion of gunnery and fire-control school in Washington D.C. Thelen went to Treasure Island, California, where he trained the crew for the USS Heermann, which was being prepared for war in South San Francisco. Once the destroyer was ready, the crew went to San Diego for some more training. They then returned to Treasure Island to get the destroyer equipped with some more guns and radar and meanwhile the crew received more training. The USS Heermann set out for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on October 1, 1943 with the rest of the destroyer squadron. Once they reached Pearl Harbor, the squadron joined the Naval Task Force that sailed to capture the Island of Tarawa. At this time, Thelen was the Fire Control Officer as well as the Assistant Gunnery Officer. Thelen stood watch in three, which meant he would be on watch for four hours in the fire control station at the top of the ship, and then he would be off watch for eight hours.
In 1943, while en-route to assist at the Battle of Tarawa, the ship ran aground due to a bad map. The Heermann was aground for an hour or two while it waited for the tide. Because the destroyer had run aground, the sonar on the bottom of the ship had been scraped off. The ship could no longer assist in anti-submarine warfare, so the USS Heermann went into the lagoon at the Island of Tarawa, where the crew gave fire support to those who were landing on the shores. They gave fire support into the next day. Thelen was in communication with the Marines and then Thelen ordered the crew where to shoot so they could best help the Marines charging the land. After the battle, “the ward room became an operating room” because many of the injured Marines went to the USS Heermann as it was closer to the shore than the hospital ship was. The USS Heermann got out of the lagoon unscathed.
After the Battle of Tarawa, the 7th Fleet went back to Pearl Harbor. The USS Heermann was dry-docked for five weeks for repair, and more guns were added to it. Thelen went to gunnery school. He was assigned to the Bachelor’s Officer’s Quarters. While in Pearl Harbor, Thelen went to school, got to know some fellow Naval officers, and he even got to spend some evenings on Waikiki.
After the USS Heermann’s stint in Pearl Harbor, it rejoined the other ships of its squadron. Once reunited, the USS Heermann went through the South Pacific Islands. They spent a few nights in Fiji as well as Guadalcanal. The USS Heermann and the rest of the squadron relieved the destroyers who had fought the Guadalcanal Campaign against the Japanese. The Pyrrhic victory in this campaign over the Japanese left the American forces depleted and drained, so the 7th squadron took over. The 7th Fleet under General MacArthur started to move up the north coast of New Guinea while the Army would land with fire-support of the Navy. The USS Heermann also screened merchant carriers. One of the major landings that Thelen was involved in was the landing at Palau. The USS Heermann supported an aircraft carrier. They also gave fire-support for the troops landing. They stayed in this general area until the Battle off Samar.
During the Battle off Samar in 1944, both the 7th Fleet under the command of General MacArthur and the 5th Fleet under General Halsey were present. The USS Heermann served as a part of a screen for merchant ships for the first part of the battle.
General Halsey left the San Bernardino Strait unguarded. The Japanese then went through the San Bernardino Strait “unopposed.” While this section of the Japanese Navy was moving towards Layette Gulf, they encountered the task force that the USS Heermann was part of. The Japanese were able to close the distance because the merchant carriers were only able to move at twenty-two knots, while the Japanese ships could sail at thirty knots. The merchant carriers set smoke screens to throw off the Japanese and the Japanese were thrown off. Thelen believes that their radar must have been having problems. Two of the destroyers of the task force went on the offense and attacked the Japanese. The Japanese targeted the merchant carriers. The Japanese sunk one of the carriers and severely damaged three of the destroyers, which eventually sunk. Many of the other destroyers were damaged. The Japanese were using armor piercing ammunition because they thought that the ships were big battle ships, but this just meant that the ammunition would enter one side and exit the other without exploding. Thelen says that they were fired on a lot, but “the Japanese aim was terrible.” Early in the battle, a Japanese projectile destroyed a part of the range finder, rendering it useless. This meant that they had to rely on their radar only, which meant their shooting was not as accurate. The USS Heermann suffered damage to the bottom of the ship in the beginning of the fighting, and later there was a large projectile that went right through the main deck. Another projectile went through a supply room that was full of potatoes. After about two and a half hours later, the Japanese just turned around and went back through San Bernardino Strait for reasons unknown to the task force.
All of the sudden, five kamikaze planes were spotted, and they were aiming for the already wounded carriers. Four of the planes were shot down, but one hit the USS St. Lo. The bomb penetrated the flight deck and exploded below which caused even more explosions inside the carrier. The USS St. Lo sunk, and the USS Heermann along with the other ships in the task force rescued some of the 889 men onboard. The USS Heermann had sustained a big hole in the bow about five feet in diameter, which was right at the water level. The USS Heermann had to go slowly because of this. The USS Heermann had escaped the fighting relatively intact while suffering only three casualties, which was few as compared to the other ships in the task force. Even though the USS Heermann had been able to get out of the battle safely, the large hole rendered the ship useless for battle, so they were sent to Palau to get the hole temporarily repaired. They then traveled to Pearl Harbor overnight, where the hole was completely repaired. They then rejoined the squadron. In 1945, Thelen became the Gunnery Officer. With this added responsibility, he had to, “stand watch in four,” which meant he would stand watch on the bridge and have control of the ship. The ship then when back into service and rejoined the 7th Fleet.
The day after peace was declared on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, a kamikaze plane attempted to strike the USS Heermann. Thelen regards this as the scariest moment during his service. The crew was able to shoot down the plane before it crashed into their destroyer. They then went to Tokyo Bay, where they stayed for about three weeks. They then went directly back to the United States. They reached Portland, Washington on October 26, 1945. They then went to Long Beach, CA, where the ship was decommissioned.
During Thelen’s time at sea, the USS Heermann endured three or so major typhoons. Thelen says that the waves looked 50 feet high. Three destroyers were sunk as a result of typhoons. On the bow of the USS Heermann, the railings were bent because of the strength of the waves.
Thelen recalls that the ship was on limited rations at times when they would go for extended periods without replenishments from the supply ships.
At the end of the war, the Navy asked him if would stay, and offered him a promotion to Lieutenant Commander, but Thelen decided to finish law school. He went into the Naval Reserve. Thelen remained in the Reserve until the end of the War, but latter discontinued because it required two weeks of active duty every year, and he thought he would spent his vacations doing other things. Thelen remained on a less active section of the Naval Reserve for many years after the war. He was 55 years old when he officially left the Naval Reserve.
Thelen was released from active duty on the first day of February, 1945. Thelen visited his family, and stayed there for a little bit because he had acquired leave days that he could now use. His car had been in his family’s garage in Berkeley for the entirety of his service; so he went up to the Bay Area, got his car, and then drove it down to southern California. He then drove across the country with a friend. They picked up his friend’s wife in Missouri, and went on to New York, and then to Cambridge, MA. He signed up to resume his study in law school, which was scheduled to start in a couple of days. He then went skiing until school started.
After two more semesters, Thelen received his law degree. He did very well at Harvard Law School. He went on to practice law in San Francisco for 40 years. He got married in 1952 and later had four children.
Thelen went to two or three Naval reunions, but later “lost interest.” He went down to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego when they had a commemoration for a new monument for the Battle off Samar. He was the only one from the USS Heermann who attended the commemoration.
Thelen says that he now “counts his blessings” because he knows how fortunate he was to have gotten through the War relatively unscathed. Since his service in the war, Thelen has been active in disarmament organizations, most notably Ploughshares, and he has “worked for a war of peace ever since.” Thelen believes that “service in the armed forces is part of the duty of being an American.” Thelen hopes that the younger generation will prepare themselves for their life through education and their summer work. He says they should listen to their parents, be a supportive part of their family, and be prepared to serve.
Interviewed by James Stanton Leavitt on August 31, 2012.