VIPER — Our world is full of untold stories or stories that are just not told enough. Some may be passed down generationally in a family line, while others may not pop up until notoriety is given to a character in that story. The Middle Fork of Maces Creek in Perry County is the starting point of one story such as this.
In 2012, the Herald reported that the Perry County Fiscal Court approved a bridge in the Middle Fork of Maces Creek to be named after Eugene Woods, a World War II veteran who survived an attack on a U.S. boat that killed half the crew.
“When I was drafted, they give me a choice of Army, Navy, or Marines, and I chose the Navy. I figured as long as I stayed afloat I’d have a dry place,” Woods joked.
A retiree who now lives in Viper, Woods chuckles while talking about an experience from his youth that could have just as easily taken his life as it did nearly 200 of the men he served with.
“Well, I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Woods said, remembering his first thoughts after the USS Cooper was hit in the Battle of Ormoc.
Woods explained that the Cooper and two other US destroyer ships, the USS Sumner and USS Moale, were sent to patrol Ormoc Bay in the Philippines around midnight on Dec. 2, 1944. Just 15 minutes later the Cooper was torpedoed.
“We was supposed to have a seaplane escort us in but it never showed up,” Woods recalled. “So, we was on a second round around the bay and got hit in the center of the ship. It broke in two and the back end went up and down and the front end went up and down, and according to the news reports after everything it was supposed to have went down in 36 seconds.”
The official action report read, “the Cooper was on her side and broken in two in less than thirty seconds,” and had sunk in less than a minute. According to the U.S. Department of the Navy, although the Cooper was lost “the destroyers were … able to sink the Kuwa, a Japanese destroyer.”
Woods said he and the other survivors floated in the Pacific Ocean for around 14 hours before he was rescued by seaplanes, called “Black Cats,” which were able to save 168 members of the Cooper’s crew, breaking all known records for the loads of men they carried that day. One hundred ninety-one of the Cooper’s crew were lost that morning.
Historian Irwin J. Kappes wrote that the Battle of Ormoc Bay, “one of the fiercest and most pivotal battles of the Pacific, is also one of the least known. It was, in fact, the only naval engagement of the war in which the enemy unleashed the full fury of shore, sea-based, air, and undersea weapons all in one short, desperate action.”
A native Perry Countian, Woods returned to Hazard after the war and began working at Mountain Wholesale in Lothair as a truck driver and has lived in Perry County since.
Woods, now 90, looks forward to being able to see the sign on the bridge commemorating him. It was placed Thursday morning on the Middle Fork of Maces Creek, just a few miles from his home.
“It was rough,” Woods said of life after returning from the war, but he is proud to tell his story and be remembered for his service to his country.