By Ernest A. Herr
First Battle of Guadalcanal A Rude Awaking FREE TICKET TO A SHELLING We try (but fail) to blow ourselves up: The Boarding Party MEMORIES The sound gear has just gone out of order: MOVIE STAR ONBOARD Apprehension on the Bridge The Chase: The T-Shirt Episode
Many stories come to mind when I think back to those shipboard days during World War II. They seem of little significance today and hardly worth telling except perhaps as a historical record of combat conditions out in the Pacific at that time.
If we could read today the tales of Greek and Persian soldiers as they fought as opposing armies some 2500 years ago at Marathon and Thermopylae, how interesting their stories might be. So, if you find these stories lack interest, it could be that they need a thousand years or so to age properly.
My first incident deals with events of the First Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13th, 1942 and I title it: "Where were you when the 'stuff ' hit the fan":
It was at midnight that I was relieved from watch after spending four hours copying radio traffic (Morse code) from Honolulu. Tired and sleepy, I headed back toward the stern of the ship to my sleeping quarters with absolutely no idea that a large Japanese naval force was just over the horizon and heading our way. Ignorance can be bliss. Not a word of an impending battle was given to the enlisted personnel, no need to worry us, I guess the captain figured.
Usually, I headed to the emergency radio room which provided nice sleeping quarters for me considering that I only had the rank of second class radioman. These quarters came with the proviso that in event of an emergency, the equipment in the room would be in good working order and not have been vandalized or broken into by wandering crew members or poker players possibly under the influence of "torpedo juice." Since the enlisted men's sleeping quarters were less than luxurious, I felt the extra responsibility was well worth the price for having such a good place to sleep. But, not this night.
After dropping off to sleep, I was rudely awakened by a heavy pounding on the metal door a few feet from my head. This brought me back to a state of full alertness. At the door and demanding entrance was the first class radioman, the man in charge of our radio gang. He had the nerve to tell me to get back on watch and take over the incoming radio traffic.
He must be crazy, I thought. After just finishing four hours of that noise, I wasn't about to go back on duty, at least not without a argument. Fifty-five years later I still feel guilty for giving him such a hard time. If he had only been free to tell me of the impending battle, I would not have given him such an ear beating. He finally used the "that's an order" phrase so off I went and he stayed to catch a few winks evidently figuring he would need it to be ready for the impending battle.
After being on duty a short time at main radio, I heard the dreaded words come over the loud speaker system; "General quarters, all hands man your battle stations, now hear this, all hands man your battle stations." Funny how easy it is is to remember that phrase. After that came the loud nerve racking alarm designed to wake even the dead. You couldn't hear all this without getting a sinking feeling (very easily mistaken for a call of nature) in the pit of your stomach.
Before long, all hell broke loose on our ship as the battle started and we found that we were the lead ship heading directly into the waiting arms of two Japanese battleships, the four destroyers ahead of us already having been blown into oblivion. Their sacrifice provided our ship sufficient time to get so close to the first battleship (Hiei) that its guns could not depress low enough to hit us and other Japanese ships hesitated to fire on us for fear of hitting the Hiei. Our position provided us with some degree of safety from Japanese fire but not from American. One of our own destroyers (the Fletcher) was reported as having fired at us, but fortunately, missed.
Did this bravado really do any good. Well, the Japanese Admiral stated that our trip was in vain since our torpedoes either missed or were duds. In fact, his ship, the Hiei, was not damaged by any American torpedoes. Fortunately we did not know this at the time as we were busy claiming that we (the O'Bannon) had practically sunk the battleship single handily. We did put a lot of 5 inch shells into his ship but they could have just as easily been fired from our original location. How did we get out of the mess we had gotten into? The same way we got into it, we blundered our way out. On the way in we missed ramming one of the destroyers in front of us (while it was still afloat) by a scant thirty feet. On the way out, we did much better; there were fewer ships left to run into.
Incident Number Two: We try (but fail) to blow ourselves up:
It was about six in the morning and time for the day to start. On the equator, there is no such thing as morning or evening twilight. When it starts to get light, you can look to the horizon and "pop" up comes the sun. This morning, as it started to get light, I opened the hatch to the radio bridge and stepped out for a little fresh air. It was nice to get out even though it was plenty hot but at least at least it was smoke free. In those days, no one had ever heard of the dangers of smoking so, even though most were constantly puffing away (Wings brand cigarettes were only three cents a pack), all we worried about were the shells and bombs coming our way. How little we knew.
Quickly, (we were so tired in those days) I assumed a sitting position on deck with my back resting against the bulkhead. The ship was circling in Sealark Channel at a slow speed, about ten knots. Since this was not a harbor but just a channel, it was not possible to keep enemy subs out by using the customary steel nets so it was necessary to constantly patrol for them. This was accomplished by using a device known as the Sonar gear which bounced underwater sound waves (called "pings") off the sub's hulls and back to the ship.
About once a second, a "ping" was pulsed out under water. This "ping" was also sounded on a speaker for the Sonar man (and everyone else around the bridge area) to hear. The absence of an echo indicated that "the coast was clear" with no sub to be worried about. This was a nice sound as it indicated that all was well. Unfortunately this morning, this blissful state lasted only a few minutes before a return echo came bouncing back off something out there. Could be just a school of fish, which often was the case, or perhaps one of the subs that the Japanese were using at night to bring in supplies for their troops ashore. This would be about the right time for one to get back out of the channel before daylight might reveal the subs presence to our aircraft.
The Sonar man quickly increased the speed of "ping" generation and the echoes also shortened their time of return. We were quickly moving in on something big. I became more alert as I listened and worried how this drama might turn out. In an instant I was alarmed to hear the explosion of our "Y" guns as they fired out a pattern of depth charges. I knew that we were traveling far too slowly to be firing those things without the danger of blowing ourselves out of the water. I had heard many times that the ship should be traveling at a speed of 15 knots or better if they were to be fired safely. I would have estimated that we were doing less than 10 knots. I jumped to my feet to watch and wait for the underwater explosion that I knew would follow shortly and really worried for all those still asleep in the crews quarters at the stern of the ship.
Huge columns of water erupted from the explosions of the depth charges almost directly under the ship. The ship shook from stem to stern and was almost bad enough to knock me off my feet. The stern took quite a pounding and I wondered how the sleepers would survive. I didn't have to wait long to find out. Up the hatch they came with such speed that I thought they might become airborne. Kind of funny actually, but wisdom dictated that this would not be a good time to express a little laughter. Probably not even a good time for the officer-of-the-deck who gave the orders to launch the depth charges to go walking aft. Someone suggesting that these sailors "have a nice day" could have even ended up being thrown overboard.
How much damage was done to our ship and did we get the sub, if there ever was one? The engine rooms reported minor damages to gauges, etc. and the Chief Cook reported some broken plates, etc. but nothing major. We had survived the blast. No sub ever rose to the surface nor did we even find an oil slick so we never knew, it could have been just a school of fish. Did the officer of the deck ever get chewed out for this? Well, the captain rarely, if ever, confided to the crew in matters of this sort but I would imagine that the end justified the means here. The benefit derived from the sinking or even damaging an enemy submarine probably far outweighed the damage we sustained. Still, when I was at the stern of the ship later in the day and saw some of the crew sitting around still looking rather shaken, I wasn't about to pop the question, "Say, did that blast bother you guys much?"
Incident number three:The sound gear has just gone out of order:
Not good news to hear since a destroyer without sound gear is like a day without sunshine. On the other hand, it was not particularly bad news to me since it wasn't part of our radio gear so someone else could worry about it, not me. Wrong again, our radioman in charge (possibly a Chief Radioman by this time) came to me with the bad news that it was my job to fix it. Considering that I knew nothing about sound gear maintenance, I thought this was worth a laugh. As it turned out, there were no maintenance men provided for sound gear so if any repairs were needed, it was the radio group's responsibility to make them. Maybe that made sense but I wondered how I managed to fit into the picture.
Well, I had been given the rating of second class radioman because I had an amateur license which meant that I must have some radio maintenance abilities. This was correct since I (being a high school student and not flush with money) had to build my ham gear, so I must know something. It turned out that the Chief Radioman (I'll call him that but I'm not sure if he had the title yet) knew quite a lot about the sound gear but he was not going to fix it even though he believed he knew what the problem was. That's where I came in. But, why me. Well, I could see that the Chief was thinking the same thing, why him.
Understand the haggling between us comes clear when you understand why someone would be reluctant to fix the sound gear. The sound gear became inoperable because underwater explosions that had smashed the radio tubes. Someone would have to go down deep into the bowels of the ship to do this repair work. While deep in these bowels, the repair person would be down at the keel and at the bow of the ship. Well, that's were the sound gear is. Also, this was probably the most dangerous place on the ship to be as we were roaring through the water at high speed. And you would have to be all alone down there.
So, it wasn't because the Chief was lazy that he was sending me down but because it made good military sense. Why should he risk his life when he was of greater value to the navy than I was and he also could order me to go anyway. This time I made it easy for him and agreed to go without any argument. After all, I took it as an honor in that he believed that I could do the job and there was no doubt that it was imperative that this equipment be fixed as quickly as possible. Before leaving for the assignment he gave me excellent instruction as to what I might find and how I might fix it. And, a big plus, he would be on the phone circuit so that we could talk after I got there. So, off I went.
I can't remember the exact number of decks down that I had to descend but it was at least two, maybe three. Each level had to be entered through a hatch which had to be opened and again closed after passing through it. It was like a tomb, all air had been cut off since we were a general quarters, and there was little light and it was hot and humid. To say that I was scared was to put it mildly but that did give me the incentive to be speedy and that I was. It wasn't long until I was standing in front of the Sonar equipment.
As promised when I inserted the phone, I was in contact with the Chief, that was a comfort, at least someone knew I was down here. Quickly I removed the front panel from the gear and as the Chief had guessed, there were vacuum tubes that were smashed. I removed two tubes, rather large ones maybe ten or twelve inches long, and cleaned up the broken glass as much as I deemed necessary for a quick fix. Where were the replacement tubes? Again, the Chief knew exactly where the were and how to get to them. I removed a plate above a compartment that housed a spare parts box and inside were the tubes I needed. When I removed the box, I was aware I was staring at the keel of the ship. That was spooky for some reason, but I was happy to see there was no water (called bilge) there. Amazing that no water could seep in here, you couldn't do this on a wooden ship.
With great speed, I had the tubes out of their boxes and into the sockets after removing the smashed tubes, all the time talking to the Chief. Boy, I didn't want him to leave me without a voice to the outside world. When the tubes were in place, we fired up the gear and it worked perfectly. Wow, what a relief. In less time than it takes to type this sentence I had everything back in place and I was heading out of this potential tomb.
Incident Number Four: The Chase: The O'Bannon and two other destroyers, hell bent on destroying Japanese barges that are moving troops from island to island under cover of darkness, encounter a gunboat.
October 3-4, 1943. The gunboat, not wanting to be blown to smithereens, takes off hugging the shoreline. The chase is on with the gunboat speeding to the opposite side of the island. Sensing that our group of three destroyers could easily spend the night circling this island hunting this fast boat, our commander splits the force sending our ship on alone while the other two destroyers (the USS Chevalier and USS Selfridge) double back to catch the boat while coming in from the opposite direction. The gunboat being small and with a shallow draft gets in close to land and is hard to pick up on radar. So it's anyone's guess which ship will be the first to spot it.
If I hadn't had the radio watch, I probably would have not remembered this incident, but sitting there waiting to hear from the other ships burned this occasion into my memory forever. I hoped the gunboat would run into the other destroyers because I knew the Japanese would not give up without a fight and a three inch shell coming in through the paper thin bulkheads around the radio shack could be just as deadly as a large caliber shell. Also, getting killed while battling a little gunboat wouldn't even make the news. There would be no glory in this battle, in fact we might feel a little shame for picking on such a small boat but, we could live with that.
If, and when our radar picked up the gunboat, we in the radio shack would know firing was eminent when we heard the clatter of the empty powder cans hitting the deck as they were ejected from the 5" gun mounts. The shells and powder would be used as the gun fired but the empty cans that held the powder had to be disposed of and rather noisily. So far, so good -- no powder cans hitting the deck as yet. Finally the message that I had been sweating out came through in plain language (no time to encode). One of our destroyers had located the gunboat. This was good news, somebody else's problem, not ours.
The next message came through with a statement that, for some reason, I would never forget. It said: "We are absorbing hits." Gee, what a strange statement. "We are absorbing hits." No doubt they were being hit by shells from the gunboat, but it seemed strange to say they were absorbing them. Well, I hated to say it but, better them than us. The gunboat was going down but not without a fight. Just as I figured, they would dish out some kind of punishment with their one or two little guns before being blown to pieces by the five 5" guns of the U.S. destroyers.
Two barges that the gunboat was there to protect also went down that night along with the troops that were crammed in them. But there were a lot of barges out there so many did make it safely to their destination. Which of our ships was hit and how many, if any, of our guys bought the farm that night? We in the radio gang never found out and really didn't want to know anyway. We already knew more than we really cared to know. The less you knew, the easier it was to get by.
Two nights later (October 5-6, 1943), the brand new and radar equipped Japanese destroyer Yugumo would exact its revenge for the loss of the gunboat and barges by charging into our little force of three destroyers and torpedoing both the Chevalier and Selfridge. The Chevalier would be blown in half with the stern portion thrown into the path of the speeding O'Bannon. This collision meant all three ships were in big trouble but not before our destroyer group had poured enough shells into the Yugumo to turn it into a flaming wreck. This would be known as "The Battle of Vella Lavella." Historians would conclude that our group came out second best in this battle. Well, you can't win them all.
The Chevalier would sink below these waters just a short distance from the spot the gunboat went down but the Selfridge, with considerable loss of life, would live to fight another day. Our ship, though damaged, would be with these two great ships in their desperate times and would be privileged to carry back most of the Chevalier crew (all but 51) to live and fight another day. The Selfridge, traveling at three knots, would eventually make it back to base. No one was killed or injured on our ship. Our only loss was any extra clothes we might have as the Chevalier crew being dragged aboard was oil smeared and needed clean underwear, shirts and pants. These we were happy to give. The old saying, "It is better to give rather than receive" made good sense here.
In an unusual ending for this tale, our captain decided to leave behind the O'Bannon's two whaleboats (lifeboats) for any possible Chevalier survivors that we may have missed. These boats would end up in the hands of the survivors of the Yugumo and twenty-five Yugumo survivors would reach shore using our lifeboats along with seventy-eight of their shipmates picked up from the water by our PT boats the following day. All were taken prisoners.
After the war was over and the Yugumo survivors returned home, the crew would met and share their experiences much as would the Chevalier, Selfridge and O'Bannon crews. In later years, they would put together a book of their account of the war and would send a copy to the O'Bannon's Captain MacDonald expressing appreciation for his concern for the welfare of possible survivors of ships that had been lost. Although the captain really wasn't worried about surviving Japanese sailors, his concern for those American sailors who might be left behind worked to their advantage and they wanted to show they appreciated it. Strange world, isn't it?
Incident Number Five: A Rude Awaking.
While this incident actually occurred on the aircraft carrier USS Hoggatt Bay, there was no mention of it in the ship's log when I read a copy of it recently. Why not? Well, it's the kind of thing that the captain of an aircraft carrier and the flight officers would just as soon forget. Therefore, somehow over the years, the event has been dropped from the log and lost to history. That is, until someone comes along who wants to set the record straight. At this late date, I don't think anyone will be hurt by this revelation.
This tale begins in the middle of a deep and restful sleep after the noon meal. This was a routine that many on the ship were quick to fall into. Blame it on the long hours and warm tropical breezes or maybe we were just a lazy lot. Anyway, it seemed to be the most pleasant time of the day and we pushed this privilege to the limit.
It was the summer of 1944 and we had the Japanese on the run in the Central Pacific, or so we liked to think. Japanese subs were always lurking around though and undoubtedly would have liked to even up the score with our task group since we had sunk two of their subs recently. If they could put a few torpedoes into our slow moving hull, it would certainly make their day.
Everyone on board our ship had heard how the escort carrier LISCOMBE BAY (a carrier just like ours) had gone up in one huge explosion after taking a torpedo hit. When walking along the hanger deck it was easy to see how this could happen since all that could be seen were bombs, depth charges, rockets and torpedoes lining the bulkheads in storage bins. Sloshing through high octane gasoline leaking from gas tanks on damaged planes just lowered from the flight deck added additional awareness of how fragile a hold on life a person on a carrier really had.
Of course by this time on this cruise our pilots were well trained and getting pretty cocky. This was evident when, showing their oats, a half dozen of our planes came roaring in firing rockets and flying not more than fifty feet over the flight deck. Scary for sure but not something they did every day, thank goodness, but they had to show how good they were getting. Things had been going well for our ship and by this time in our cruise we were having many good days. This was not going to be one of them.
So, as I slumbered blissfully, some bad thoughts undoubtedly were lurking in the deep recesses of my brain. Suddenly, there was an explosion that jarred me and everyone else around and brought everyone into a state of full alertness. Maybe alertness would be putting it mildly, maybe panic would be a better word to use, but controlled panic though. In an instance, everyone was up and running to their battle stations and at top speed. Running along through various passageways I could see no damage nor smoke. So far, so good. When I arrived at main radio (my battle station), I could see no damage there either. Great, so where was the explosion.
Word from the bridge quickly arrived to inform us in main radio as to the status of the ship. Not too good. One of our torpedo bombers (armed with a torpedo) had just crashed at the fantail. When the pilot cut the engine for his landing on the flight deck, he did so too soon and missed the ship altogether. Instead of dropping about ten feet to the flight deck, his plane dropped about fifty feet down into the ocean missing the ship completely. The force of the impact ejected the plane's torpedo and launched it. On the bridge, no one knew that the torpedo was off and running. So while the Officer-of-the-Deck knew he had just lost a plane he had no idea that the ship might be next.
A shout from one of the lookouts informed the OD (Office-of-the-Deck) that a shark was swimming along side our carrier. Shark hell, it was a torpedo with only moments to go before arming. Worse yet, it was a magnetic torpedo that, when armed, automatically would home on our ship. Whoever had the conn (control) of the ship, probably the captain by now, quickly realized the danger and ordered a ninety degree course change sending us in a direction away from the torpedo. But, by this time the torpedo had armed itself and was heading directly for the ship. The chase was on. "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."
Since the magnetic torpedo had a top speed of about eight knots, our ship should have had no problem outrunning the thing. However, the abrupt course change had brought the ship to a dangerously slow speed, not a good move and maybe the reason for the disappearance of the log entry. Obviously our planes circling overhead believed the ship was in danger and that possibly they might be left without a place to land since we were far at sea.
Maybe we had some smart pilots up there as several of them came in on depth charge runs in an attempt to explode the torpedo. These explosion are what shook the ship. Depth charged by our own planes -- that doesn't look good in the ship's log, I don't think. Torpedoed by one of our own planes -- looks even worse. Since, we were able to outrun the torpedo, the story does have a happy ending. Of course, if we had been hit by the thing, it is not likely I'd be around to write the story. Which leaves me with the thought of how many great stories there might be out there but unfortunately no one was left alive to write them.
Did the pilot that dropped fifty feet into the sea survive? I'm afraid I can't answer that since the information was not forwarded to us in main radio. It is apparent to me some fifty years later that it was better not to know and we really didn't want to know since the truth was often very painful. In not knowing, we could assume the best.
Incident Number Six: The Boarding Party
Who is it that hasn't seen a movie about pirate ships with sailors swinging across from one ship to another as a boarding party. Well, that's what sailors do or, at least, used to do. You would be hard pressed to find anything like that that took place during World War II, but it did happen. Included in this bundle of stories is one describing a Japanese naval officer jumping aboard a New Zealand ship, sword in hand, only to be captured by the New Zealanders. My story however is a little less adventurous and the band of boarding sailors looked less than ferocious. However, this story did take place and, if not swash-buckling, at least it is true.
It was a quiet night in the South Pacific probably in the harbor of New Hebrides (the base for supplying Guadalcanal). It was a night without moonlight nor starlight and since there was a total blackout from any artificial light, it was really and totally black. Cables running along the deck from stem to stern allowed you to feel your way making it easy to get around in total darkness. It happened that this night our ship, the USS O'Bannon, was tied up along side of a supply ship taking on food and whatever else was available. This was not an unusual occurrence since there were no loading docks nor cranes in this area and this was the easiest way for ships to be resupplied. Supply ships remained in the area over long periods of time serving as floating supply depots.
Given the two circumstances, total darkness and a supply ship along side, I was not surprised when I was approached by two adventurous shipmates (pirate types) with the proposition that if I would provide the storage space (I happened to have a small space, the emergency radio room, under my control), they would swing over onto the supply ship and confiscate anything (food-wise) that they could get their hands on. For supplying the storage space, I would be cut in for one third of the loot. The loot in this case being food or beverage. Since we were perpetually hungry (you can't get fat on a diet consisting dehydrated eggs and dehydrated potatoes), I, without giving the matter proper thought, agreed.
I had seen these two sailors at work before when they had invited me to join them to swing over to a supply ship that we were tied up to one night. But it was a night with plenty of moonlight so it was possible to swing across with little danger of dropping between the two ships and ending up in the water. But, since it was a bright night, there was little chance of pilfering any food supplies. We had to content ourselves with a trip to the ship's crew's quarters to enjoy their fine accommodations. Since this was a commercial vessel, they had such luxury items as a refrigerator full of soft drinks and nice soft chairs to sit on so we enjoyed our stay, short as it was. The crew treated us special as if we were heroes even though they were running as much risk, maybe even more, than we were of being bombed or torpedoed. The big difference perhaps was that they were receiving good pay for being out here while we were not.
But on this totally dark night, the interest was not in socializing but in lifting any food supplies that were not nailed down. This proved to be not too difficult and before long the emergency radio room (my part of the deal) was filled from deck (floor) to overhead (ceiling). What booty had these shipmates been able to loot? Well, the best was large cans of boned white meat chicken, undoubtedly officer chow since we had never seen anything like it. Really delicious eaten straight out of the can. Plenty of canned fruit also, again officer food. Alas, in the dark they had unfortunately confiscated a lot of "C" and "D" rations -- famous army and marine food for the enlistees - not stuff for officers. Hard to believe but we found that the C and D rations were not all that bad when compared with what we had been living on for the past year. All things considered, not a bad haul and for awhile we may have actually been putting on a little weight. But before we could put any meat between our ribs, we ran out of these ill gotten gains.
Were we ever able to repeat this neat trick again? No, fortune smiled upon us but once and never again. Perhaps it was just as well, as next time we may have been caught and have ended up having to walk the plank or being given some other form of punishment.
Incident Number Seven: MOVIE STAR ONBOARD
Let's face it, unless someone is shooting at you, life onboard a destroyer in wartime is boring, very boring. And since most days no one is shooting at you, you are hard pressed to amuse yourself. Looking out at the ocean for the first time can hold your attention for many moments, but when it becomes your major past time year after year -- as I said, boring. Sure, occasionally a school of flying fish will take to the air to amuse you, or maybe a few whales will come to the surface to flip by and hold your attention for a few moments, but even that's a rarity. You might think, well why not read a book or play cards or something. The answer to that is that when you are in a combat area, it just seems impossible to relax. Some guys did manage to play a little poker but even that was a bit rare for most sailors. Mostly, we just stood around waiting to be blown up by some gigantic explosion. This thought always seemed to be in your subconscious mind.
So, when word got around that we had a real live movie star onboard, we knew that was about a good as it gets. Who was the star? Well, back in the forties, Robert Montgomery was one of the big time leading men although he might better be remembered today as Elizabeth Montgomery's father. I know that I had seen him in a couple of movies and had to admit he was a handsome dude and seemed to be quite a good actor. When I learned that he was up on the bridge, I had to go see what a movie star looked like when in combat.
Well, oddly enough, Mr. Montgomery was a naval officer and somehow he had managed to get himself assigned to a combat mission on our ship -- must have had a death wish. Someone said that he was a friend of the captain but I don't know if that was true. One thing for sure, he was aboard and he was a naval officer, I saw him but I can't remember his rank. It had to be up there somewhere or he would not have made this assignment.
Being a second class radioman and doing a lot of the radio maintenance and repair, I was able to snoop around just about anywhere there was radio gear, so snooping about the bridge was no problem. I'm sure the officer-of-the-deck and others on the bridge were not fooled by my snooping but they were not about to say anything to me for fear that their favorite radio gear might not work the next time they tried it. So I was able to take a good look without being too obvious.
I'll have to say that Mr. Montgomery was conducting himself in the best naval tradition. He appeared calm and relaxed and in good control of all his faculties. Of course, so did I so what did that prove? Anyway he was doing his job well (whatever it was -- observer, I guess) so I could find no fault with him. He did look quite a bit older than in his last movie (a bit of a pot belly and some gray hair) so I deduced no more movies for him after the war -- providing he makes it through the night. Wrong, he was in more movies after the war and managed somehow to regain his youth, at least for awhile.
Incident Number Eight: FREE TICKET TO A SHELLING or The night I was blown to pieces -- well, not really.
Northern Solomons, April 27, 1943, we're heading up the slot again for the sole purpose of shelling the new Japanese airport at Munda, northern Solomons. As usual, with darkness setting in, we all start to get a little nervous. Well, who wouldn't be nervous? Do you think the Japanese are going to stand still for another shelling of one of their precious airfields. I don't think so.
But, maybe they won't spot us or pick us up on their radar, so we can sneak in, shell their airport and then duck out before they get really mad. Today I guess the proper phrase would be: dream on. Fortunately for our nerves at the time, we didn't know the Japanese had a sub out watching for us this night and reporting our whereabouts long before we reached our target. And sitting back well out of range of our accompanying cruisers, were Japanese destroyers and cruisers with torpedoes that could easily cover the range of over ten miles from their location to ours. They probably fired as many torpedoes as they could afford to expend and just hoped for a lucky hit over such a great distance. This night our force would be lucky but on other nights the destroyer STRONG would be picked off and at a later time the cruiser HELENA would meet its end.
If our Intelligence people had only known the range of Japanese torpedoes, we might have had a chance to take some evasive action that would have given us a better chance of getting out of there alive. This ignorance would prove costly for the ships and lives that would have to be forfeited in this forsaken place. But ignorance can be a blessing too and for those of us who managed to get out of there alive, I would have to say that our nerves were much the better for not knowing.
Those of us with battle stations without a view of the outside had to depend on second hand stories from those stationed at better vantage points. On most navy vessels, or even with an army tank on land for that matter, there are those that have a good view of the battle and those who get only second hand information. Sailors located in engine rooms, radio shacks or other places below deck were often amazed to find everything smashed to pieces when they came up on deck (usually to abandon ship). Often at their battle stations there may have been little or no damage.
On this night, we were cruising at high speed and quickly closing toward our objective. This was to be an occasion for me, for I was going to be on standby and not assigned to any radio circuit at the moment. It would be a good time and one of the rare times that I could get out on deck and watch a real live shelling of the Japanese, not that I was bloodthirsty or anything but you always had in the back of your mind that when (if) you returned from the war someone might asked you for some war stories. How embarrassing to have to say, I was located inside and missed the whole thing.
Those that had witnessed a good naval shelling said that it was a good show; a beautiful display of fireworks. Now was my chance to find out if the show would live up to its billing. When I left the radio shack to do my spectating, it was quite dark. The ocean was calm but with enough light for me to see the outline of the ship from the foam of the water on the sides of the ship. No waves were coming over the deck as we maneuvered so there would be little chance of being washed over the side. That's something a sailor always had to watch for because if you were washed overboard at night, no one would know it and you would soon be on some shark's dinner table.
At night, being out on deck by yourself always seemed a little spooky, at least to me. You can't see anyone or anything for no one is out roaming the decks -- especially during general quarters. You can't hear anything either as the noise of the engines and the noise of the water rushing by drowns out all other sounds. So you're really alone and unaware as to what activities the captain might be planning and no one knows your whereabouts -- or perhaps even cares - for that matter. But, these are some of the risks you have to take if you want to see a bit of action. On a battleship or cruiser, it is really dangerous if the guns are fired while your out there, you would probably be killed. On a destroyer though, although plenty annoying, it is not deadly. So far, so good.
The first thing I had to do was to find some place where I could watch both port and starboard sides. It would be no good to be on the port side when all the shelling was going on at the starboard side. Immediately behind the radio shack there was a break in the superstructure that would allow a person to see out from both sides of the ship. This was a very good place but had blind spots when looking forward or aft, so a little running about would be necessary if one wanted to be sure not to miss anything. Don't remember how long it was that I had to wait but it couldn't have been too long. And there it was, a truly fascinating sight as red hot shells arched across the water.
At first, the shells arched very little as they zoomed toward their target, then many more shells came a flying. This time they went high into an arch before coming back down presumably finding the airport. The lower arced shell had to be from ships close by while the higher arched shells had to be from ships much further back. This made sense as the cruisers were able to fire their shells from a much greater distance. All shells appeared at a considerable distance to the rear of our ship. This was good as it indicated that our ship had already passed the airfield location and we were on our way out of there. All was going well as I could see no return fire and we were already leaving the area. The scene had developed into a really spectacular display as the light from the shells light up the area behind us and the noise of our ship's engines and the rush through the water drowned out noise of the shelling and left only the fireworks to be enjoyed.
Then it happened; a staggering blast and explosion wiped me out. In an instant, it seemed as my world had exploded. Everything was gone in one blinding flash. So this is what it is like to be blown apart and killed. I am now dead and in an instant, will know nothing ever more. Proof that I was dead was that I could see nothing, could hear nothing and could feel nothing. I had to be dead. This is what dead is all about, just nothing, no angels, no pearly gates, no welcome into heaven or anywhere else, just nothing. Not much to look forward to. But I still had an awareness. This too would be gone in an instant I thought.
Then it happened again; another gigantic explosion, but I was able to see the flash, hear the blast and was aware I was lying on deck after somehow being knocked there. Gee, I wasn't dead after all. I felt a lot of comfort in knowing that. What had happened was that our ship had held its fire until it was on the way out of the channel and was therefore the last to fire and I had ventured too close to one of the five inch guns for comfort. The captain, as per usual, hadn't confided in me as to when he was going to commence firing much to my displeasure. One good thing though, it did cure me of a lot of my desire to wander about to see what our ship might be up to at night. Luckily, on this night any torpedoes fired at us had missed and we were able to slip away unscathed after the shelling.
Incident Number Nine:MEMORIES
Strange stuff, memories. Kids have great memories, ask kids what they had for breakfast yesterday and they give you a quick and accurate answer. Find an old person down in the basement looking for something, ask them what they're looking for, they can't remember. The older you get, the worse it gets. Some memories though, you just can't get rid of. This is one of those memories.
It was the summer of 1943 (it's always summer in the tropics) and our ship (the USS O'Bannon) was heading south from Guadalcanal toward the island of New Hebrides for a little rest and relaxation. What could you get in the way of entertainment there? Well, if you didn't mind standing in line (actually sitting with your back against the bulkhead but in the shade) for at least an hour, you would eventually be able to purchase (for the price of one thin dime) a small container of ice cream. Ice cream happened to be one of the things we were
fighting for out there.
Another good thing about this place was that you didn't have to worry about enemy ships, planes or submarines. This alone was worth the trip down. And you could watch movies from Hollywood on the fantail of the ship every night. In those days, there wasn't such a thing as a lousy movie. They all seemed good. During the day, it was swimming on Paradise Beach after a nice walk through the jungle, and on the way, you got to see some B-17 bombers, usually with some crew members lounging on board while waiting for their next bombing mission. One time, a pilot asked me if I cared to join them as their plane was almost ready for take-off and they were short a gunner. It would be just a milk-run he said. I remember being nutty enough (still only about twenty years old) to consider it. Then I thought maybe it would be unfair to my family and parents for me to take unnecessary risks just for thrill seeking. This was my first experience in acquiring a little wisdom.
So, as the O'Bannon crew sailed toward our rear base, we were already enjoying just being away from the proximity of Guadalcanal and its oppressive heat and dangers. In the open sea, with the ship moving along at a good clip, a nice breeze made sitting on the radio bridge, almost enjoyable. To add to our day, an announcement was made that our ship would be part of a training session with some friendly aircraft. We wouldn't know when the attack was coming but it would be in the next few hours. This would be a good chance to see how fast we could react to an American ambush. We awaited with some apprehension but for the radio gang, there would be nothing for us to do but spectate.
Don't remember how long it was that we waited but it couldn't have been too long. Suddenly, there was the General Quarters alarm and the attack was on. By the time the gunners were able to get to their posts, five planes were hurtling straight down on us. Boy, these pilots were good. They came straight in and our gunners were mock firing (no shells) at them. As everyone watched, the five American planes flew straight into the ocean and disappeared. In disbelief, our crew was struck dumb. Five of America's best has just been wiped out in an instant. Total silence swept the ship as no one could utter a word. Heads were bent in awesome sorrow for what we had just witnessed. No words were being spoken. There was nothing that could be said.
We searched for some time and were guided to different areas as planes from the nearby base flew to the scene. All that we were able to recover was one helmet with goggles and one bomb sight. That was it. Finally, we had to give up the search and proceed on our journey as planned.
Nowhere in the many writings about the adventures of the O'Bannon was I able to find mention of this incident. It was as if it never happened. In wartime, it is not wise to dwell on incidents such as this. In fact, by the time we got to New Hebrides, it was almost as if it never happened. Recently, something jolted my memory and again I was forced to relive this incident. If it hadn't been for all the researching of these stories and in trying to jog my memory, maybe this incident would have never returned to my consciousness. Don't know what good comes from such memories but at least it provides a moment to remember and honor those great young Americans again. They were our finest.
Incident Number Ten: Apprehension on the Bridge.
Mentioned in the "Stories That Perhaps Should Remain Untold" was that we had some problem with homosexuality on the O'Bannon. Not wanting to stir up any controversy about the subject, I did not give any names or places. By now, however, it is not likely that giving names and places would be a problem since those involved are probably resting comfortably in the kingdom of Valhalla. Well, that's were old warriors are supposed to go.
Although there was only one "gay" aboard that I was aware of, there could have been, and probably were, others who, and with good reason, preferred to remain "in the closet." Not so for the one that I knew (not mentioned anywhere in my stories) who was actually in the radio gang. Why he happened to be placed in the radio gang I'm not sure, but sailors coming aboard without ratings were given a choice of where they might like to work (or at least occupy their time). Being in the radio gang was probably one of the safest places to be if there were to be any kind of controversy. Radiomen are generally mild in nature, usually kind of skinny and not likely to pick a fight with anyone. Our gang fit the mold. So our "gay" fit in quite well and did a commendable job doing what "strikers" (those aspiring to get a rating) do -- mostly decoding the headings on the radio messages to see if they are directed to our ship or squadron. Also they personally carry those messages (after being decoded) to various departments that might need to be informed of their content. Did I mention, the strikers were responsible for keeping the coffee pot boiling?
Some time after we had been in the Solomon Island area for many months, the Chief Radioman came to me to see if I would be interested in a change of battle station during general quarters. He was interested in having a radioman (me) in control of the TBS (Talk Between Ships) radio on the bridge. This was the Captains private phone line to nearby ships and was "line of sight" communications and generally safe from enemy interception since the high frequency radio signals traveled just to the horizon and very little beyond. During battle, this line was constantly buzzing and its overuse could jeopardize the operation as happened in the first naval battle of Guadalcanal.
Since this assignment did not require Morse Code skills, I felt it would be a waste of my talents -- one of the decoding officers confided in me that he was happy to see that I was on watch when it was his turn to take the decoding duty. He said that my messages were free of copying errors and therefore "broke down" into English text quite easily making his job much easier. Also, I didn't relish standing on the bridge in the dark for long hours along side the captain and others on the bridge. Not that the captain was an unpleasant person but the strain of the operation placed him and others located on the bridge in a constant state of anxiety. By now the situation down in main radio, or emergency radio, was under control enough that it was possible to rest easy (sleep, or at least have a coffee and chat) during the long hours we were required to be at general quarters. Up on the bridge, this would not be possible. Besides, I told George (the Chief Radioman) that we had someone more imminently more qualified than I -- this would be, you guessed it, our "gay" striker.
I was not being facetious. Our striker was quite old for our gang (mid twenties, perhaps) and was more interested (and as a striker, had a lot more spare time to keep up on things) in the makeup of ships in the various task groups that we were involved with. He was aggressive and knowledgeable and spoke distinctly so he should be able to hold down the job well. But, the chief hesitated and mauled over my suggestion. He liked it as he didn't like losing one of his Morse code men during battle but, gee what if our boy made some kind of advance on the captain -- big problem. Since I knew the gentleman much better than he did, he was hanging on my every word. I said, "No, he wouldn't be that stupid." So, good decision, our striker was given this prestigious assignment and he loved it. All involved seemed happy with the decision.
Week after week, the Chief and I held our breath as we awaited any possible precarious developments. Although walking the plank had long been abolished by the World's navies, we were pushing the envelope to the limit here. One does not mess with the Captain of the ship. After months had passed without incident, the Chief and I were confident that we had made the right decision in sending our man to be the Captain's talker for the TBS radio. We could take confidence that our judgment had been sound that our man did not make any advances on the Captain. Or....
Incident Number 11: The T-Shirt Episode
There are some things that happen and once forgotten, should stay that way. This O'Bannon incident is one of those things. But once remembered, damned if it can be forgotten the second time. Perhaps it was the sheer stupidity of it that keeps it bouncing back. Since I was one of the two characters involved in this episode, and the captain of the ship was the other, it's really hard for me to forget. Actually, when it happened Captain MacDonald was still Executive Officer and my sea time could be counted in days.
To understand my side of the story (I'll need all of your sympathy that I can muster), one has to return to the times of the early 1930's to acquire the proper flavor for the story. In those days, everyone was poor, at least in the neighborhood that I lived. Fortunately, we were too dumb to know it. If you were living at that time and were a boy not yet in his teens and you happened to look down to inspect your shoes, you would see that the knees were out of your pants and your toes were out of your shoes. Well, that's what a depression is all about.
If you looked around at your friends, you would see most looked just about the same, knees out, toes out. Worse to see though, were the kids with somebody else's clothes on. If the clothes were too big, that wasn't so bad, the long sleeves could be bunched up and held in place with rubber bands or with cut up inner tubes. This worked out quite well and wasn't too terribly noticeable. Of course, this produced a somewhat sloppy look but was deemed by many to be fashionable or perhaps 'cool' in today's terms.
Small clothes were another story however. Even the dumbest among us knew that a long sleeve shirt should come down to the wrist. A sleeve that only came down to a little below the elbow just didn't cut it. If you couldn't get your arms down to your side, and maybe even your arms would be sticking out at a forty-five degree angle, you could be laughed at by your buddies. A bare midriff and exposed naval only added to the humiliation. No one thought you looked sexy -- just funny.
Undershirts went right along with the times. T-shirts were unheard of. They wasted too much cloth and therefore would be too expensive. We had what were just called undershirts and practically no cloth was required to make one. Like a muscle shirt or tank top, bare skin was their strong point. And they were cheap and never wore out since there was nothing much to wear out. But they had their draw backs. How often in the winter kids would be standing out in the cold shivering and shaking and with runny noses. Those were the good old days though.
So perhaps you'll be a little sympathetic when you realize how reluctant I was to throw away my undershirts when the Navy said to switch over to T-Shirts. Who would ever know you were out of uniform anyway? Nobody sees your undershirt, no use wasting a perfectly good sets of underwear. This worked out quite well up in Bath, Maine while waiting for the O'Bannon to be built. No Navy barracks there so everyone lived wherever they pleased. No one went parading around in their underwear in Bath. This was a conservative town and besides it rarely got above freezing when we were there.
After five months of living the good life ashore in Maine, it finally came time to put to sea. Oddly enough when our ship got underway, most everyone that I was in contact with paid no attention to my civilian undershirts. This might give you some idea how many of us were really boots. However, all went well until we sailed into warmer waters. Since it was early summer when we finally got the word that we were now well enough trained to venture into territory where we might encounter the enemy, we must have been a little south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. This is the location was where cool turns into warm and one could venture out and about deck without wearing a dungaree shirt. T-shirts were considered uniform as one traversed the short distance between aft crew quarters and the lavatory. Beyond that dungaree shirts were necessary unless someone was sun bathing on the fantail while off duty. That's how it was as you headed out to start your day.
So, on this fine sunny with very good visibility day, I ventured out, toiletry kit in hand, toward the lavatory. Perched high on the flying bridge on his favorite haunch, Captain MacDonald (still just the Exec at that time) scanned the ship with sharp eyes to make sure everything was 'shipshape.' Alas, he was in for a great disappointment this day as one of his 'boot' seaman ventured across the deck at the stern of the ship. This 'boot' (me) unbelievably was wearing a civilian undershirt. This was not going to be a good day for Commander MacDonald. Me either.
Someone soon tapped me on the shoulder and indicated my attention was desired at the bridge. There, jumping up and down, (just kidding) was our Captain to be, obviously having a bad day. I hurried toward the bridge to see what possible help I could offer having no idea what his problem was. I was soon to find out.
"You are out of uniform," MacDonald quickly informed me. Well, naturally I thought, since I was standing there in my underwear. It didn't take a genius to figure that out. "Get rid of that civilian undershirt," he quickly informed me. "Very well," I replied. Wrong answer from me, I could see as Commander MacDonald started turning blue (a little exaggeration here). "I say, very well, you say, yes sir," he quickly informed me. He's certainly very touchy this morning, I thought as I answered with a quick, "Yes Sir!" Right answer this time from me and I could see that "Mac" as we liked to call him when we were not in his presence, was finally returning to his normal peaceful state. I'm sure as I left the bridge he was thinking: "We've got a lot of training ahead here."