Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.
(Orland Park, IL) Thomas “Tom” Maloney is proud to have served during the Korean War alongside his fellow “tin can sailors,” the nickname given to the crew of a destroyer. The U.S. Navy played a critical role in the war, protecting and transporting U.S. troops to the peninsula while fending off communist forces attempting to thwart the UN intervention.
Tom and his younger sister, Patricia, grew up on Chicago’s South Side. Following the death of his father when Tom was just four years old, his mother eventually remarried and their stepfather helped raise Tom and his sister. In 1950, he graduated from St. Rita of Cascia High School, where he was active in track and swimming. Tom had committed himself to an electrical apprenticeship with his uncle, just as hostilities began in Korea. Two years later, with the war dragging on, Tom chose to enlist rather than wait to be drafted. “All the guys were getting drafted,” he says. “I figured I was a better swimmer than a runner, so I signed up with the Navy.” Tom entered the Navy in April 1952, while three of his closest friends enlisted in other branches at the same time. “I didn’t see them again until the day I got out of the Navy.”
He traveled to Great Lakes Naval Training Station in North Chicago for 13 weeks of boot camp before shipping off to Naval Station Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. Next, Tom headed to Naval Station San Diego to join the crew of the USS Southerland (DDR 743), part of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet which joined Task Force 90 to prepare for a landing at Inchon in September, 1950. Tom worked as a sonar technician on the 321-feet-long radar picket destroyer, a fast and maneuverable ship designated to escort aircraft carriers and battleships, while defending those warships from attacks by sea, air and submarine. The destroyer was equipped with radar towers capable of scanning a wide area, which “picked up radar from all over and sent it to the big ships to fire on the targets,” Tom says. “We would take the torpedoes first, but we mostly chased submarines and mines.”
Because the ship was small, the crew could feel all the waves, Tom says. He “got his sea legs” during his first cruise on the Southerland, while patrolling the Pacific Ocean near the San Francisco Bay. “I’d never been on a boat before, and those waters were some of the roughest I would ever experience. Everyone got sick. It was horrible.” Some days the seas would get so rough, they had to close the mess hall, and the crew was forced to eat sandwiches. He had to strap himself to the bunk just to sleep.
Soon, the Southerland received orders to head to the dangerous waters around the Korean peninsula. Although U.S. warships had quickly chased North Korea’s small navy into Chinese waters, they still encountered threats from Russian and Chinese warships and submarines, as well as North Korean mines and shoreline batteries.
On July 14, 1952, Tom and the rest of the Southerland’s crew found themselves under attack. “When we entered Inchon Harbor, we turned the radar on, and they spotted us right away,” says Tom. “We got hit on the back end of the ship as we sped away.” The destroyer took four direct hits, and eight sailors were injured. The ship suffered minor damage, which the crew repaired at sea.
According to Tom, life aboard a destroyer took some adjustment. The small size of the ship meant tight quarters, and the sonar crew was “relegated to the very bottom of the boat.” The sonar operators “listened” for enemy ships by broadcasting intermittent soundwaves called “pings,” which would bounce off objects in the water and return to the ship where electronic equipment would display the object’s position on a small monitor. The sonar men called their work space “the shack,” and slept in quarters outside the door. Tom says the crew routinely practiced deciphering the sound waves. The supervising officer would play old sonar recordings, then, they needed to identify the difference between a submarine and a whale.
Despite all the work and drilling, Tom says there was time for socializing onboard the Southerland. “We’d walk around the boat with empty coffee cups, and people would invite us into their quarters for coffee.” The crew would also “hang out” on the ship’s fantail—the furthest point aft on the main deck where the men were free to smoke or get exercise. They were also treated to weekly movies, but because of the dangers, sailors couldn't take shore leave. Tom also served as the ship’s mailman, which gave him the chance to socialize with the crew. “I was everyone’s buddy. Everyone was eager to get their mail.”
Despite the signing of the armistice on July 27, 1953, the Southerland was tasked with patrolling the waters of the South Pacific. The ship took tours off Japan, Midway Islands, Guam and the Philippines. Later the destroyer was scheduled for a $5 million upgrade in anti-submarine weaponry and the Southerland put into the San Francisco Naval Shipyards at Hunter’s Point, his first shore duty. “We got to sleep in barracks, which were nicer.”
During his third year of service, Tom’s grandfather passed away. The Navy flew him home from Pearl Harbor to attend the funeral, but he had trouble returning to his ship because the Southerland’s itinerary was kept secret. “I flew to San Diego, but missed the ship there,” Tom says. “After a week, I flew to San Francisco but missed it again. I finally caught up with them in Manilla.”
In April 1956, Tom was discharged from the Navy at the rank of petty officer, second class. He returned to Chicago and resumed his electrical apprenticeship with his uncle. In 1957, Tom met his wife, Joan, while attending his cousin’s wedding and they were married six months later. The couple honeymooned in California, making stops at several of his old Navy posts, and then returned home to an apartment in South Shore. In 1960, he and his buddies formed Cullen Electric Company, located on Chicago’s East Side. They worked on industrial and commercial projects, including Ford City Mall and Comiskey Park. Later Tom and Joan moved to South Holland where they lived for 28 years and raised six children, three girls and three boys. In 2000, he sold the business to his partner’s son, retired and later moved to Orland Park. They now spend time with 12 grandkids and enjoy golfing.
Thank you, Tom, for your service. Enjoy your well-deserved Honor Flight.