Leon “Van” Vander Schaaf saw firsthand one of the great naval rescue operations of the Second World War, a harrowing 51-hour ordeal in which his battered ship combed an aquatic graveyard looking for survivors when no one else in the Navy knew there were survivors to find.
In the wake of a devastating typhoon, sailors and officers from sunken ships including the U.S.S. Hull were down in the water dealing with exhaustion and dehydration while Vander Schaaf and his shipmates aboard the U.S.S. Tabberer battled roiling seas and a ship that could not steer properly as they tried to rescue their capsized comrades.
Although the Tabberer was disobeying orders by sticking around its patch of the South Pacific to look for survivors from the Hull and other ships, the scrappy destroyer escort rescued 55 men after the fleet was taken by surprise by Typhoon Cobra.
The Tabberer’s crew was honored with a unit commendation for its actions in December 1944.
Vander Schaaf died on March 31 at age 95, having rarely recounted the story to his family or his co-workers at Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods, where he spent decades improving production lines for Spam. Vander Schaaf’s son Steve, a St. Paul resident, said he only discovered the significance of the Tabberer’s history after seeing a special about it on the History Channel.
“We had a picture of the ship framed,” said Steve Vander Schaaf. “I remember him telling me, just mentioning, that not long after he was assigned to the ship that they were in a pretty bad storm. That’s all he said.”
Leon Vander Schaaf was born in 1924 in Fulton, Ill. He enlisted in the armed forces at age 18, but he didn’t get called up for service in the Navy in 1944.
He went through the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in three months’ time, and by early December 1945 he was riding in the same Pacific fleet as Gerald Ford, holding the same rank as the future U.S. president — lieutenant (junior grade), or LTJG.
The two men were among the thousands of sailors and officers on an armada sailing toward the Philippines, conducting air raids and bombing submarines.
The top-heavy ships were refueling when the massive Typhoon Cobra struck, sinking the Hull and two other major warships, killing more than 800 men.
History did not record what Vander Schaaf did during the rescue operation.
Steve said his dad would have been working in the engine room, but other accounts describe all the men heading above deck to scan for survivors.
“Every man on board showed a wonderful spirit during the storm. … Most of you went for a total of three days and two nights without sleep or rest,” the Tabberer’s commanding officer, Henry Plage, later wrote.
In the postwar years Vander Schaaf, who went by the nickname Van, held engineering and management roles at Hormel over the course of 37 years. Hormel says he retired in February 1985.
Ray Asp, a former group vice president of processed foods for Hormel, recalled that Vander Schaaf had a knack for incorporating new technologies in automation.
“Any time we designed a plant or designed a department within a plant, Van was the one who had the responsibility of working with the engineers to find out how we could improve,” Asp recalled. “He was very, very good at that.”
Later in life, Vander Schaaf found solace around bodies of water. After retirement, he and his wife, Joy, moved from Austin to Pequot Lakes, and they split their time between Big Pelican Lake near Brainerd and the Gulf community of Fort Myers, Fla., where services were held April 13.
Vander Schaaf is survived by Joy, three sons, two stepsons, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.