While there have been many interesting past owners of the Neebor Lee home and property, one of the more interesting ones was Ross Palmer Whitemarsh. He was born in Olympia, Washington in 1895, the son of a workshop machinist who emigrated to the Washington Territory in the 1870s. He pursued a career in the Navy and was a graduate from the United States Naval Academy in 1918. In his Academy yearbook, Whitemarsh was described as “one who says little but thinks and does lots.” As you are about to read, he wasted no time in living up to this reputation and continued to do so throughout his 35-year career in the Navy.
His graduation from the Academy coincided with the final year of the First World War, and soon after this boyish-looking young Lieutenant found himself part of a naval attachment that was assigned to the British transport ship, the Dwinsk. The Dwinsk was one of a number of foreign vessels that were chartered by the United States to transport American troops to the battlefields of France. To facilitate the communication of instructions and orders to the foreign ship captains, it was important to have one or two naval officers aboard. Lieutenant Whitemarsh was assigned to the Dwinsk to serve in that capacity as that ship’s Senior Naval Officer.
The Dwinsk sailed from New York on May 10, 1918 with thirteen other transports to deliver American troops to France. After the successful delivery of the troops, the now emptied transports began their return voyage home to the United States. On the return voyage, however, the ships became separated and the Dwinsk found herself sailing alone. Then, on Tuesday, June 18, approximately 600 miles east of Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Dwinsk was torpedoed. No one was killed or injured by the blast, but the damage was such that the ship’s captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. The crew thus climbed into the seven available lifeboats and pushed away from the Dwinsk.
Just as the last of the lifeboats was pushing away from the transport, the ship that fired the torpedo, a German submarine, surfaced approximately 3,000 yards from the Dwinsk. The submarine approached with its guns now trained on the crew of the Dwinsk, who were gathering together in their lifeboats several hundred yards from the abandoned transport. After asking the crew questions about the transport, including its name, purpose and destination, the submarine’s captain moved is ship about 1,000 yards away from the Dwinsk and fired its final shots, sinking the Dwinsk before once again disappearing below the ocean’s surface. The crew, floating in their lifeboats, were left behind to fend for themselves on the open sea.
Although the submarine submerged, it did not venture far. In fact, it stayed close to the lifeboats, intending to use the lifeboats as bait to attract other American and British vessels. Of one incident, Whitemarsh writes,
“Shortly after noon smoke was reported on the horizon to the Eastward. In short time a ship appeared and developed into a four-stacker of the von Stueben type. She was making full speed toward our boats and our wishes for an early rescue seemed about to be realized, But she suddenly stopped, avoiding a torpedo from an invisible submarine which was using our boats as decoy. The ship opened fire on the submarine’s periscope and fired five shots, the projectiles ricocheting over our heads. The ship then got underway quickly and soon disappeared.
The submarine came to the surface again over a mile astern, and approached our boat. She came alongside on our port hand and the Captain, who was burdened with iron crosses, asked us through this white-clad lieutenant what the name of the four-stacker was, and whether or not she was an auxiliary cruiser. I didn’t know. “
It was thus that the drifting crew of the Dwinsk found itself in a difficult position. Despite seeing a number of ships off in the distance and firing flares to attract their attention, no ship would approach the crewmen’s lifeboats for fear of getting torpedoed themselves. The crewmen were alone.
Lieutenant Whitemarsh found himself in charge of Lifeboat No. 6, on which there were twenty crewmen not counting Whitemarsh. The lifeboat was in poor condition: it was leaking and was equipped with a rotten sail that was full of holes. Due to the leakage of seawater into the boat, the crew had to continually take turns to bail out the boat, using hats, buckets and shoes, in order to keep the lifeboat afloat. Rations on the lifeboat were limited to 24 gallons of stale water and moldy sea biscuits. Slowed by the rotten sail, Lifeboat No. 6 soon lost touch with the other lifeboats.
On the fourth day since abandoning the Dwinsk the winds picked up and by late afternoon the crew of Lifeboat No. 6 found themselves battling strong gale-force winds and heavy seas. The crew initially took turns at the helm, but controlling the lifeboat in the heavy seas proved difficult and exhausting. When it came time for the helm to be turned over to a 17-year old English crewman, a large cross-sea swamped the boat, washing the 17-year old overboard, thereby becoming the boat’s only casualty. Several additional swampings by sea waves would follow before Lieutenant Whitemarsh took control of the tiller. Whitemarsh writes:
“I took the tiller and stood up in the boat in order to see the waves and to feel the wind to better advantage. The men sat down in the bottom to improve stability, and three of them appointed themselves my protectors by hanging onto my feet and knees. They evidently didn’t want a second casualty.”
Whitemarsh remained at the tiller through the hellish night and, at about 1 AM the following morning, the winds and sea suddenly calmed. It turned out that the calm would only be temporary; Lifeboat No. 6 apparently had managed to enter into the eye of what later became recognized as a hurricane. Within the next hour, the winds and seas would soon pick up again and the crew of Lifeboat No. 6 would again be fighting for their lives. The crewman suffered through two additional hours of gale-force winds and heavy seas before the seas began to calm once again. Through it, Lieutenant Whitemarsh remained at the helm for 11 straight hours, keeping the boat steady and afloat and keeping the remaining crewmen on board alive.
The young Lieutenant’s bravery and perseverance during the storm earned great respect among the hungry, depressed and desperate crewmen, and thereafter the crewman were eager to execute every order given by the young Lieutenant. This allowed the young Lieutenant to maintain discipline despite the ever-worsening conditions on the lifeboat. Whitemarsh writes of the conditions after the storm,
“But the men were depressed in spite of it all. The sun would bake them mercilessly, and later, cold winds would chill them to the bone. One man made an attempt to drink salt water, an another thought it would be better to go over the side in the night and end it all. Discipline was insured only by the unchanging severity of the command, combined with the proper regard for the welfare of the individuals in the boat.”
Ten days after the sinking of the Dwinsk, with the daily rations for each crewman having been cut to two-thirds of a biscuit and a quarter pint of water, and with the exhausted crewmen of Lifeboat No. 6 beginning to accept their forlorn fate, a steamer appeared approaching from the east. The crewmen gained the attention of the steamer and were finally rescued.
The surviving crewmen of Lifeboat No. 6 would later demonstrate their appreciation of Lieutenant Whitemarsh’s service on the lifeboat with a testimonial. That testimonial reads,
“We the undersigned, survivors of the torpedoed steamship Dwinsk, which to show our undying appreciation of the conduct of Lieutenant (j.g.) R. P. Whitemarsh, U.S. Navy, who, under the most trying and perilous conditions, set an example of courage and bravery beyond all praise, and we feel that his conduct and devotion to duty when face to face with destruction from a raging storm in an open boat, when most of us believed that the end had come, carried us through until the storm passed, and later, after many days in this boat, when all hope of rescue seemed small, he was always cheerful and hopeful, and encouraged us to further efforts.”
That wasn’t the end of the accolades. Lieutenant Whitemarsh’s brave exploits were published in almost every major American newspaper. For his distinguished service in saving the crewmen of Lifeboat No. 6, he was awarded the Navy Cross by the U.S. Navy. In addition, because the Dwinsk was a British ship and 18 of the 20 survivors of Lifeboat No. 6 were British seaman, he was also awarded the Silver Medal for Gallantry by King George V of England.
And this was only the beginning of Ross Palmer Whitemarsh’s extraordinary and illustrious naval career. Years later, in 1933, as the Lieutenant Commander and executive officer of the U.S. Navy tanker U.S.S. Ramapo, he demonstrated that he was more than just a brave man in a uniform. He demonstrated that he also had a keen scientific mind. On passage near Cortes Bank, a sea mount located in the Pacific Ocean approximately 96 miles west of Los Angeles and a location recognized today by serious surfers as a location of unusually high waves, the USS Ramapo would find itself in the middle of a sudden and severe storm. Lieutenant Commander Whitemarsh, being no stranger to severe storms at sea, took advantage of this situation and began making empirical observations and taking measurements of the waves that were being formed by the storm. He published his observations in 1934 in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings in an often-referenced scientific paper entitled “Great Sea Waves”. In that paper, Whitemarsh presents not only a scientific analysis of sea waves, but he describes his measurement of a 112 foot wave, which today still remains the tallest wave ever measured. At the end of his paper he wrote.
“Since time immemorial, seafaring men have been telling the world in their inarticulate way that storm waves attain heights that seem incredible to the rest of mankind. The privilege of viewing great storm waves of extreme height is a rare one indeed. Furthermore, we have no assurance that the highest waves of the ocean have been observed or measured. If such a wave should ever be encountered, it is probable that all hands would be chiefly concerned with the safety of the ship to the exclusion of any scientific measurement of the phenomenon.
Perhaps authorities in the past have been radically conservative in the treatment of sea waves. A 60-foot wave as the highest of all time lacks conviction… The theory and law of waves are excellent guides, but, in accordance with the present custom, if the laws cannot be enforced, they should be repealed.”
Seven years later, in 1941, Commander Whitemarsh found himself in another war. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii commanding Mine Division TWO , which was a U.S. Navy Division that included four minecraft including the USS Gamble, USS Ramsey, USS Montgomery and USS Breeze. He was thus present at Pearl Harbor on the bridge of the USS Gamble on December 7th when the American naval ships stationed in the harbor were subjected to a surprise attack by Japanese aircraft. Commander Whitemarsh described the attack in a report that he prepared three days later for the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy:
Japanese Air Raid on Pearl Harbor, T.H., December 7, 1941 – Report of.
- When the first Japanese planes were observed to attack Ford Island at 0756, December 7, 1941, all vessels of Mine Division TWO went to general quarters, set condition AFIRM, and opened anti-aircraft fire with 3″-23 calibre and .50 calibre guns within an average time of four minutes. Boats were sent for liberty parties and information concerning the raid telephoned to personnel ashore in accordance with doctrine. These measures were effective since but one officer and a handful of men missed the sailing of the Division which effected the sortie a relatively short time after it was ordered. The sortie plan designation was received at 0850 and vessels got underway from Buoy D-3, Middle Loch, as follows: – Ramsay0855; Breese 0917; Gamble 0930; Montgomery
- While at the buoy, offensive measures consisted of anti-aircraft fire directed at Japanese strafing planes by all means available. No bombs were dropped near the division although enemy small calibre machine gun bullets as well as shrapnel were observed to fall on and near the ship. While a number of planes under fire by the Division were seen to crash, gunfire of other surface vessels contributed to their destruction. One dive bomber, however, passing near this Division which was the last unit to take it under fire, was observed to be hit and to crash nearby in Middle Loch. Individual ships reports of action as well as my mailgram 140135 covering the air raid have been forwarded under separate cover to the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet.
- Main radio antennae were partly shot away on two of the ships, probably by their own machine gun fire and the Gamble had a foremast stay stranded by enemy machine gun bullet. Enemy action caused no injury to personnel either on board ship or in boats returning to the berth.
- Shortly after the Gamble got underway a number of communications were received. The Curtiss reported a submarine in sight and submarines were reported both inside and outside the harbor. Japanese planes were dropping heavy charges which did not explode off the harbor entrance, and vessels were warned to watch for mines. Battleships were ordered to stay in the harbor while destroyers were to proceed to sea in order to destroy submarines. It was apparent that the term destroyer included minelayers, and the last two ships of the Division cleared the harbor at speeds up to fifteen knots. Just the previous day, Commanding Officers of the Division had been informed that they would be assigned duty with the Off-shore Patrol on M-day, and they accordingly proceeded to search for submarines off Pearl Harbor entrance in the Off-shore area. All ships of the Division made repeated depth charge attacks during the next few days on supersonic indication of the presence of submarines. While submarines may have been destroyed during these attacks, positive proof is lacking. The deterrent effect on any enemy submarine present, however, must have been considerable.
- While conducting a depth charge attack shortly after noon off Diamond Head, the Gamble received three dispatches from the Commander-in-Chief addressed to All Ships Present in the Hawaiian Area. Ships were ordered to attack transports reported four miles off Barber’s Point. All vessels which had departed from Pearl Harbor were to organize as Task Force ONE with Commander Destroyers assuming command and reporting to Commander Task Force EIGHT. Ships of Task Force ONE were ordered to take course West after clearing the harbor entrance and to report position, composition and speed. The Gamble continued with the depth charge attack until all contact was lost and then proceeded toward Barber’s Point where no transports were found. She continued westward until at 1735 contact was made with the Enterprise and Commander Aircraft Battle Force ordered her to join that vessel as part of the anti-submarine screen. This duty continued until 0723 the following morning when orders were received to report to the Off-shore Patrol at Pearl entrance, informing the Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District and the Commander-in-Chief. By this time temporary emergency repairs had been made to the main radio antenna and communications were reestablished. it was learned that the other three ships of the Division had received orders to maintain stations with the Off-shore Patrol. The Division continued with this duty making investigations and anti-submarine search and attacks until shortage of fuel required return to port on the evening of December 12, 1941.
- While no individual were conspicuous or distinguished in their action during the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor, the conduct of the personnel was uniformly courageous, energetic, steady and effective. Without exception, the behavior of the crews under fire was excellent.
ROSS P. WHITEMARSH.
Commander Whitemarsh would later be promoted to the rank of Captain and would serve as the Chief-of-Staff to the overall Commander of the Mine Group of the United States Pacific Fleet. He would later lead mine-clearing operations in Iwo Jima and Okinawa where he faced intense artillery barrages and a kamikaze strike that nearly sunk his ship. His service during WWII earned him two Legions of Merit and many other citations. Ross Palmer Whitemarsh retired at the rank of Rear Admiral in 1949 after 35 years in the Navy.
I’m sure that at this point in the story you may be wondering how an old sea dog like Ross Palmer Whitemarsh would settle in Pennsylvania at the Neebor Lee home with its many acres of farm and pasture. The answer to this question is by marriage. In 1923 the twenty-eight year old naval Lieutenant married Rebecca Bird Gumbes, who was the daughter of Francis Macomb Gumbes, owner of the Broadview Mansion, and the niece of Charles Wetherill Gumbes, then owner of the Neebor Lee Mansion. It just so happened that coinciding with the Rear Admiral’s retirement from the Navy, Charles Wetherill Gumbes was incapacitated by a stroke. With her uncle having no direct heirs to care for him during his illness, Rebecca and her retired husband and her daughter Frances “Taffy” Whitemarsh moved east to assume that care. With Broadview Mansion by that time no longer in the hands of the Gumbes family (more about that in a future post), the Whitemarsh family moved into the Neebor Lee in 1949 and remained there until the retired Rear Admiral’s death in 1977. In that span, Ross Whitemarsh would make a significant mark of the Neebor Lee and in the town of Oaks, itself. His influence on the Neebor Lee is still visible today. One only needs to go into the Mason Lodge to see the British Naval flag still hanging from the wall, or the ship’s wheel and a picture of the USS Maine hanging near or above the Mason Lodge’s front door, or the old heavy wooden ship doors that still cover the front of the old fireplace in the Servant House.
Its interesting to note that just before the Christmas holiday I received a letter from Ms. Taffy Wells, daughter of the late Rear Admiral. Now 85 years old and living in Honolulu, Hawaii (where she was living on December 7, 1941!), she apparently still has a close emotional attachment to the Neebor Lee house. She had previously corresponded with the previous home’s owner and indicated a desire to continue that correspondence with my wife and I. In her letter, recalled annual family 4th of July gatherings and included two photos of the Neebor Lee taken from the air sometime in the 1960s or earlly 1970s. She appeared to be happy to hear that we were renovating the home and preserving many of the old elements of the house. I plan on keeping in touch with her to assure her that the house remains in good hands.
Dixon, Chris (2011) Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth. Chronicle Books, LLC, San Francisco, California. 272 pp.
Hurd, Archibald (1920) A Merchant Fleet at War. Cassell and Company, Ltd, London. 139 pp.
Whitemarsh, Ross Palmer (1934) “Great Sea Waves” in The U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings 60, No. 8.