John Wendell Theobald

John Wendell Theobald

John (Johnny) Wendell Theobald, the youngest son of John and Fannie Theobald, was killed in an accident while serving in the Navy during WWII.  He had served for four and a half years on the USS Marblehead and had survived the attack of 37 Jap bombers during the Battle of Macassar Straits. Sadly ironic, John was killed in a dry-dock accident after the war.


The following is based on an article in the Lincoln, Illinois Courier, possibly appearing sometime in 1942 or 43, since it refers to the Battle of Makassar Strait which occurred in February 1942.

"The skipper's the best in the world and the Marblehead is a great ship. I hope I get sent back under his command and on the ship when it is reconditioned," declared Seaman John Theobald of Lincoln, a veteran of the Battle of Makassar Strait, near Java and a member of the crew which brought the USS light cruiser Marblehead limping, and at times all but sinking, 13,000 to a home port for repairs.

Seaman Theobald is spending a 30 day leave with his mother (below), Mrs. Fannie Theobald, on Palmer Avenue while the Marblehead is undergoing repairs an eastern port. Reticent as most service men are, Theobald said that, since his enlistment on December 28, 1938, he spent all of his time at sea on the Marblehead and this is his first leave at home since April, 1939.


John Wendell Theobald''s Career with the U.S. Navy

The Henderson

On December 27, 1938 , John Wendell Theobald enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an apprentice seaman at the navy recruiting station at S. Louis, Missouri , where he received training at Norfolk , Virginia . His first tour of duty began April 14, 1939 on the USS Henderson where he sailed from the United States West Coast to Hawaii.

The Marblehead

Three months later on July 9, 1939 he transferred to the Asiatic station aboard the USS Marblehead for foreign duty. The Marblehead was called to duty to transport U.S. Marines to Shanghai to bring the 4th Marine regiment to full force in event the Japanese tried to take advantage of the war in Europe . Theobald continued duty on the Marblehead as it patrolled water off China and while moored at Tsingtao until November 1941, just prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. As rumors of war spread, the Marblehead arrived at Tarakan, Borneo on the Celebes Sea along with five destroyers. The next month on December 8, 1941 , the Marblehead crew received the message that the "Japanese started hostility and you are to govern yourself accordingly". At this point the Marblehead crossed the equator and joined the Royal Netherlands and Royal Australian Navies to protect the Netherlands East Indies and to screen allied ships. The ships covered withdrawal of Dutch and American warships after they had attacked the enemy. On February 2, 1942 , the Marblehead , anchored at Bunda Roads, came under but eluded attacks by the Japanese. The Marblehead was lying in ambush for a Japanese armada off Balikapan with the USS Houston, four destroyers, three Dutch light cruisers and three Dutch destroyers when, without warning, a large formation of Japanese planes roared overhead. The anti-aircraft guns of the Houston hit one of the Japanese bombers as it tried to crash dive into the Marblehead . Thanks Houston ! The AA guns blasted the Japanese plane to bits and it fell within 30 feet of the Marblehead . One bomb, however, did strike the Marblehead causing heavy damage. The ship was flooded and two fires were started. Live steam was turned on full blast to smother the flames and apparently the Japanese, when they saw the steam, reported back that the Marblehead was hit and sinking.

Marblehead Bombed to Hell

At Makassar Straits, the Marblehead was "bombed to hell" on February 4, 1942 but refused doggedly to go down. Thirty-seven Japanese planes struck at the ship and the Marblehead leaped out of the sea like a wild horse as the first of three bombs hit. The Marblehead was without air cover and the ack-ack guns kept banging away keeping the enemy as high in the sky away from the ship as possible. Two direct hits and a near miss during the three our battle damaged the Marblehead badly, especially the near miss because it came under the water line and wrecked the rudder. With no way to steer the 7000 ton cruiser, the captain ordered "full speed ahead" and the Marblehead went careening about in rapidly widening circles which probably was the reason the ship escaped, as a cruiser chasing its tail is a hard target to hit.

Rocked By Explosion

The official navy report said the Marblehead was "rocked by explosion, swept by fire and threatened with flooding and apparently this was not the half of it! It was dogged determination of Captain Robinson and his crew to fight again, that the Marblehead did not sink beneath the waves." Some of the time the sailors were pulling and hauling in oily water up to their necks. The pumps failed and a bucket brigade was formed and the men worked for hours hailing. Out of the Straits of Makassar and heading for Tjilatjap, two destroyers of the U.S. Navy moved in and ran interference for the Marblehead to fend off the rocks. Steering was done by the motors, first kicking in the left propeller and then the right and when the ship had a straightaway, orders for full speed ahead were given.

Repairs Made

Minor repairs were made by the crew at Tjilatjap, Java by the crew. In a run of 2400 miles the Marblehead made its way to Ceylon but repairs could not be made there so the Marblehead limped along 4000 more miles and finally made Simonstown , South Africa on March 24, 1942 . The ship was dry-docked for a patching job after which it limped home to New York where Theobald was able to receive all his awaiting mail. One correspondence told him of his father John Henry Theobald's dying two days after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Theobald Home to Lincoln , Illinois

Theobald returned to his home in Lincoln , Illinois for a joyful reunion with his Mother Fannie Lawrence Theobald and his sisters and brothers. The long treks to Java, to Ceylon , to South Africa and then home again for Theobald who "just hoped he can get his old berth back" show Theobald's loyalty to his navy.

Other than to speak of the twenty men who were killed outright and the thirty-one badly wounded, and the ship damaged and disabled by bombs, Theobald had little say of the actual brush with the Japanese in the Makassar Straits. Although badly burned during the battle, Theobald remained with the ship after it had escaped and left its wounded in a Java port and then set sail for home.

Captain Robinson Praises his Crew

In press dispatches, Captain Robinson gave full credit to his magnificent crew who toiled day and night against heavy odds in bringing the ship safely home. He said, "the safe return of the Marblehead is a tribute to the courage and the stamina and resourcefulness of the American officer and bluejacket. Nothing bur the heroism of every man aboard has impressed me so much as the cheerfulness of this crew of mine. They worked in fuel oil, water and debris and slept in their oil-soaked clothing when they could find a place to lie down.

Theobald Rejoins the Marblehead

Reconditioned a refitted, Theobald rejoined the Marblehead in the Atlantic Fleet for duty operating from Recife and Bahai, Brazil until the ship participated in the naval action in the invasion of Normandy where the Marblehead was anchored off Belfast, Ireland, ready if needed. Later, Theobald while on the Marblehead saw service in the Mediterranean with the invasion of southern France with operation Anvil on August 15-18, 1944.

Theobald Leaves the Marblehead

Theobald left he ship on which he had served nearly four and a half years at Naples, Italy and flew to Miami, Florida where he joined the crew of the USS Holly, a net layer/tender that was based in Astoria, Oregon. VE Day came on May 5, 1945 and the USS Holly's orders came to set sail for Pearl Harbor to dismantle nets on the harbors. The Harbors now opened and VJ Day past, the Holly returned to Astoria , Oregon on the Colombia River.

The Accident

On May 25, 1946 as Theobald was helping prepare the USS Holly for dry dock in Astoria , he was fatally injured in a dockside accident where he fell. He died of head injuries at the Navy Hospital in Astoria . His funeral was held at the Lincoln Christian Church in Lincoln , Illinois . Military services were held at Lincoln ''s Union Cemetery where John Wendell Theobald was buried. Theobald had been involved in a motorcycle accident in Astoria three weeks prior to the dock accident and this may have been a contributing cause of the dock accident. Theobald received a purple heart for his heroism and a place in his family''s heart forever. The Marblehead received two battle stars for its WWII service bringing an important climax to Marblehead and its crew's two-ocean war service.

Courtesy of the John Wendell Theobald webpage