The Last Day of the USS WASP
As related by Elwin S. Serrels to site author
In the South Pacific, days are usually sunny with clear skies and maybe a few fluffy white clouds. September 15, 1942 was one of those days with the aircraft carrier USS WASP stepping along quite smartly through clear blue tropical waters. At twenty five knots, a nice breeze fanned across her flight deck making it an almost perfect day as Elwin S. Serrels came off watch at noon and headed to the mess hall for a little chow. Afterward, the twenty year old sailor went into the crew's lounge looking for some of his buddies. He had joined the Navy early in 1942 after leaving his home town in Eaton Rapids, Michigan and had soon been assigned to the USS WASP as a first class fireman. The ship was to his liking and he didn't plan on leaving it anytime soon. But, how little he knew.
Unknown to Serrels, or anyone else aboard the WASP, the sound gear on the near-by Japanese submarine I-19 had picked up some propeller noises and the information was quickly forwarded to the captain of the sub, Commander Takaichi Kinashi. The Commander quickly raised the periscope and peered out to see what he may have happened upon. A nice trade wind was kicking up small white caps on the surface so he felt he could risk a good look. Much to his delight his periscope displayed a beautiful enemy carrier (the WASP) a little over a thousand yards away and, behind the Wasp, a shinny new American battleship (the NORTH CAROLINA). For a Japanese sub commander, it doesn't get much better than this.
For the Americans, things couldn't get much worse. The carrier SARATOGA had been torpedoed and the ENTERPRISE bombed weeks earlier in The Battle of the Eastern Solomons (August 24, 25). Both would be out of action for some time. However, the USS NORTH CAROLINA had emerged virtually unscathed from this battle after having taken seven bombs that were near misses and that "fountained" the sea around her washing portions of the weather deck with a foot and a half of water. Her 102 antiaircraft guns and great firepower were itching for more action. Unfortunately these guns would be of little use as it would be submarines that would be her enemy today. The ship had been really lucky in her last action but that kind of luck doesn't last forever.
Admiral Turner with the remaining carriers of Task Force 11 (the carriers WASP and HORNET) was heading for Guadalcanal. His immediate job was to get fresh troops and supplies to the beleaguered Marines there. The recent victory of the Marines over the Japanese troops under Major General Kiyotaki Kawaguchi had left the Marines in very short supply of just about everything needed to fight another day. To get fresh supplies and troops ashore, the Admiral would need all the air cover he could muster to protect his supply ships as they unloaded.
The instigator of all of these bad times that the Americans had been having lately was sitting aboard the huge Japanese battleship NAGATO at Truk Lagoon. His name was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. He had decided the US Marines wouldn't get as much as another can of spam to replenish their supplies and that he would rid himself of the American carriers for once and for all. He had dispatched what he believed to be more than enough naval ships and aircraft to insure the Marines would receive no reinforcements nor supplies and had ordered forward more crack troops to obliterate the remaining Marines on Guadalcanal.
When the WASP and HORNET had been sighted by his search aircraft some 150 miles southeast of the Solomons, he dispatched, in addition to all these other forces, nine submarines to the area. The Americans would be hit from the air, from the surface and from underwater. The submarine I-19 was one of the nine subs that Yamamoto had dispatched. Commander Komashi was just carrying out Yamamoto's orders as he fired a spread of six Model 95 torpedoes at the WASP only 1,000 yards away.
Aboard the WASP, the Air Officer was busy watching the recovery of eleven aircraft after just launching twenty six. The captain then began a maneuver that would put the ship back on base course. All operations were going well. It was at this moment that Ensign C. G. Durr pointed out to the senior officer aboard, Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes that three bright, shinny and fast moving torpedoes were coming their way. In these last moments of calm, the admiral took a look as the ensign let out a shout: "Those have got us!"
Only moments after the admiral braced himself, two of the torpedoes struck the ship on her starboard side forward, with catastrophic effect. One torpedo hit the gasoline storage tanks and the second torpedo exploded in the forward bomb magazine; both unleashed convulsive shock waves. When a huge gasoline vapor explosion jetted incandescent gases skyward, the admiral was burned about the hair and ears. Fortunately, none of the admirals remarks (if indeed he had made any) were recorded. But the admiral was not seriously hurt.
Aviation Chief Ordinance Officer Harry I. Penrod reported: "The explosion was like forty hells. The ship virtually lifted out of the water. I fell to my knees. I tried to get up. I only remember that before I could move a muscle there were two more explosions and I was still fighting to get up. All around us I saw white flashes. Two fighter planes were blown over the side. Some were thrown topsy-turvy. Part of the deck blew up past the bridge where captain of the ship, Captain Forrest Sherman, was standing. Suddenly, I got to my feet. You would have thought there would have been utmost confusion. There was absolute calm. The torpedo explosions were followed immediately by internal explosions. One right after another they came and seemingly, they never stopped. Oil floated on the water because the forepart of the ship had been ripped open and suddenly the oil became a sheet of flame. Only the presence of mind of Captain Sherman, who quickly maneuvered the carrier saved hundreds from dying in the flaming sea." The Wasp immediately took a 10 to 15 degree list and all electrical lines and fire mains in her forward half were severed.
In the crews lounge, Elwin Serrels had been sitting talking with shipmates. His words: "There was a terrific explosion and the ship leaped into the air, then seemed to dance and immediately began to list. Everyone in the lounge was thrown to the deck. As soon as I was able to get back on my feet, I ran to the hanger deck where everything was blazing away. Fire was setting off machine guns in the planes and bullets popped all around. I could see the bombs on the planes were getting too hot for safety."
"When the order came to abandon ship I jumped fifty feet into the sea rather than burn my hands going down the crowded ropes. The water was warm and the waves were not high but I had to swim about fifty feet to reach a life raft, luckily there was no oil on the water where I was." It was a three hour wait for Serrels and eight others before a destroyer was able to pick them up.
For Chief Ordinance Officer Penrod, there was three hours of miserable duty fighting fires, trying to save the ship. "Nearby were destroyers which couldn't get close because of the continuing explosions shaking the WASP and we knew we were in the midst of a pack of submarines gunning for the destroyer near us. Finally, we knew it was all over. The WASP was done and the captain gave orders to abandon ship. Already I had somehow grabbed a mattress and was ready to go. It was nearly dark and I didn't expect to be picked up that night at all. Then in the gathering dark a destroyer came along and picked our group up.
For Don Avery Elliott, a nineteen year old Seaman First Class from Knoxville, Tennessee, it was a five hours of hanging on to a life raft with ten other sailors before being rescued by a destroyer. He and the others watched as a sailor of rather small stature, threw a mattress over the side of the carrier and then jumped in after it. After climbing onto it, the sailor stretched out and got comfortable as he floated about and then starting singing 'Deep in the Heart of Texas' until picked up by a destroyer. Officer Penrod, maybe?
James Wilbur Turner, a twenty one year old Ship fitter Second Class from Atlanta, Georgia saw many sailors hitting the water singing and laughing when they were ordered to abandon ship. "You don't have time to be afraid" he said. "Those torpedoes came boom, boom boom. Just like that." Turner noticed that the destroyers paused now and then to shoot sharks that approached swimmers in the water.
Commander Kanashi was 'on a roll' that, if sustained, could have the Japanese winning the war in short order. By an incredibly twist of fortune, the three torpedoes that missed the Wasp went slithering toward the destroyer O'Brien and the battleship NORTH CAROLINA. The destroyer managed to avoid one torpedo with a sharp right turn, only to spot a second too close to evade. The O'BRIEN reeled as a shock wave undulated down her keel as the torpedo hit the bow. The point of impact was so far forward that no one was killed onboard and only two were wounded. The O'BRIEN survived the battle only to break apart a month later and 2,800 miles closer to the States where she was headed for repairs. The crew was taken off before she sank.
White caps hid the wake of another Model 95 torpedo which struck the NORTH CAROLINA on the port side by her number one main battery turret. The explosion tore a 32 by 18 foot hole 20 feet below the waterline and lifted a churning column of oil and water to the level of the funnels. The ship immediately took a 5 degree list but counter flooding quickly removed the list and the tough new ship surged forward at 25 knots. The explosion killed five men but the battleship was in no danger of sinking but would be out of service at a time when the ship was most desperately needed. The number of American battleships left to defend the Marines on Guadalcanal was just reduced from three to two. The Japanese had twelve battleships. The number of American carriers was reduced to one, the USS HORNET. The number of operational Japanese carriers left for the HORNET to face was six. For Admiral Yamamoto, it was a golden opportunity to push the Americans back to Pearl Harbor. Would he use it?
Of the WASP's crew of 2,247, rescuers saved all but 173 officers and men; the injured numbered 400, including eighty five hospital cases. Killed also, was a newspaper correspondent from the INS New service, Jack Singer. All but one of WASP's twenty six airborne planes were recovered, but forty five went down with the ship. Another Japanese submarine, the I-15 duly observed and reported to sinking of the WASP at 2100 by three torpedoes from the destroyer LANSDOWNE, as other American destroyers kept I-19 (the sub that launched the torpedoes) busy avoiding eighty depth charges.
For Elwin Serrels and other survivors, it was a thirty day leave back in the States before being going to another assignment. For the USS HORNET, the only operational American carrier at the time, it had a little over a month to go before sinking "wreathed in smoke and steam at 0135 on October 27 -- ironically, Navy Day in the United States." The HORNET would almost have the questionable distinction of being boarded by the Japanese sailors from the destroyers AKIGUMO and MAKIKUMO . These two Japanese destroyers arrived on the scene shortly after the HORNET was deserted by the US destroyers MUSTIN and ANDERSON. The HORNET just didn't want to sink even though burning and exploding. The Japanese were not going to risk boarding her so their destroyers dispatched the HORNET, each destroyer firing two torpedoes.
For those who made it back to the States for a thirty day leave and a new ship, there were those who were killed and went down with the ship. There are not many accounts that tell of how these men died but a pilot who viewed the starboard after 5 inch gun pocket left this account: Sailor's bodies were still in the gun gallery. Most of the men died from the concussion and then were roasted. The majority of the bodies were in one piece. They were blackened but not burned or withered, and the looked like iron statues of men, their limbs smooth and whole, their heads rounded with no hair. The faces were indistinguishable, but in almost every case the lips were drawn back in a wizened grin giving the men the expression of rodents.
The postures seemed either strangely normal or frankly grotesque. One gun pointer was still in his seat leaning on his sight with one arm. He looked as though a sculptor had created him. His body was nicely proportioned, the buttocks were rounded, there was no hair anywhere. Other iron men were lying outstretched, face up or down. Two or three lying face up were shielding themselves with their arms bent at the elbows and their hands before their faces. One, who was not burned so badly, had his chest thrown out, his head way back, and his hands clenched.
The blackened bodies did not appear as shocking as those only partially roasted. They looked more human in their distortion. For the pilot who witnessed this horrible scene, it would be a terrible memory that would be with him always.
For Admiral Noyes (the senior officer aboard the WASP), his fighting career would be over. He would never again command carriers in combat. A critical inquiry by Admiral Nimitz following the loss of the WASP and the torpedoing of the SARATOGA reported that the carrier groups had operated in the same waters for three weeks and that they had routinely cruised at speeds imprudently low for submarine infested waters.
For Admiral Turner (Task Force 11), he managed to salvage the day after all. The purpose of all of this action was for the Americans to get troops and supplies to Guadalcanal, without which a disaster was in the making. The admiral gambled, after reviewing all the intelligence information available, that the Japanese would head back north to regroup and lick their wounds. Without the safety of aircover, he sent the troop and supply ships forward to Guadalcanal where the 7th Marines, with equipment, were landed. When Japanese planes sent to disrupt the operation finally did arrive, they found cloud cover and could do little harm. When Japanese naval forces that were sent to do the same arrived, they were too late, the American ships had departed. The Americans on Guadalcanal were saved.
For the Japanese, this period found them in high spirits since they had sunk so many American ships with relatively few ship losses but would find eventually that they had paid a terrible price in the loss of their best trained pilots. The American ships were eventually replaced but the skilled Japanese pilots proved to be irreplaceable. For the American Marine, Navy and Army pilots, they emerged as real heroes for they had met the best the Japanese Naval Air force had to offer and showed they were more than a match for them.
For a fourteen year old girl in a small southern town, the real meaning of war came home to her in a way she would never forget. With windows and doors open on a warm afternoon, a terrible scream and cry was heard throughout the neighborhood. When the women of the neighborhood hurried out to see what had happened and how to help, they found a woman collapsing by her home crying that her son had just been killed on the Hornet. Quickly, all of the neighbors were experiencing her suffering. Perhaps some of the worse suffering of these disasters was born by the mothers and families of the victims far removed from the battle scene.
Ken Fairbrother <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Saturday, May 19, 2001 12:49 AM
Combat stories of WW II...by Ernie Herr
What a great of storie(s) you have. Someone just slipped your URL (?) down to me because of the story.. ..LAST DAY OF THE USS WASP CV7... Wow....I was there...as a WeatherGuesser 2nd P.O. (AerM2c)
Will send this copy onto our Eitor..."The Stinger" magzine which comes out three time a year....with about 80-95 pages...Lott'a History ...... Will send of for your CD Rrom soon.... We cannot find Elwin S. Serrels on our roster...he may have passed away...so manyof our group are gone....Attrition is high...
Ken Fairbrother <email@example.com>
Saturday, May 19, 2001 7:10 PM
And many thanks for the comeback
Like all Airedales, I have a few stories around....re WASP CV7. The next Reunion is on Sept 13-16 in San Diego. Am not sure if the data is on our Web page, made up by a Son of one of our shipmates....but if you are interested in San Diego, give me a jingle ..916) 853-2100, or Email it. I'll attach the WASP CV7 Web page.
Our Historian is:.... (Not on line. Most are not) ED ZARN ....(Yeoman type and good !) 4136 Elmway Dr Toledo OH 43614 Ph (419) 382-0750
I am asking Ye Editor the next issue of the Stinger (three time a year), to ask members if they have the back issues of 1988-89 which was loaded with History....I only have one, but recently he scraped up an issue for someone else...and I'll pass it down on Our E-line (all 30 ?). When I can get one, I'll send it you for your Perusal (my new word of the week...love it !).
So...You were on the Carrier CVE75.."Hoggatt" .. (Casablanca Class) None left now...all scrapped...the Brits gave their some 35 CVE's back to us for more scrap... I was one of those, The PYBUS CVE34. After we commissioned (Tacoma), it cruised right to Pearl...delivered & dumped all Airdale Equipment....thence to Panama to Brooklyn ....and the Brits took us over. It became the "HMS EMPEROR"
While the Pybus ran around the oceans...we had NO escorts for anti-submarine. But we had a two Piper Cubs to take for look see when in close to busy traffic. And at AR & LTV Pearl , we had a one day tin can escort. Up the East coast to Brooklyn, we had a Blimp over most of the time.
SO what were you on the Hoggatt...you mentioned the Wetback....that was my Bag for the whole 20...a weatherglass. On the Hogatt, I think it was just under the flight desk, forward, port side, close to the Catwalks.... I slept on the Catwalk under the steel netting... in tropic weathers ...Cool !
Real old timer and good friend of mine, he swam off the WASP and thence after out of Hospital ...he got assigned to the "Liscome Bay...CVE56. He and another weatherguesser from WASP CV7 were on it when it went down
.....They just left the WxShack, into the Catwalk, and walked off.... It was that fast.
This coming weekend, in San Diego, all the old weather-guessers have their Annual Reunion....It should be fun.
Where do you live at ??
Enough chit chat...and questions...you are doing a great job...Good and easy reading ! Adios for now....Ken
To Elwin S. Serrels for his help and for the use of his material that he collected from newspaper accounts at the time of the action.
To Richard B. Frank and his book "GUADALCANAL The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle." A great and complete account of all of the action in and around Guadalcanal.