JUAN B. PESANTE, LT, USN
Juan Pesante '34
Date of birth: unknown
Date of death: November 15, 1942
From the 1934 Lucky Bag:
His wife was listed as next of kin.
This is long and indirect, but Juan is mentioned in this oral history of USS Preston from Destroyer History:
A Recollection by Robert B. Reed
I reported on board the USS Preston (DD379) on September 19, 1942. The Preston was a two-stacker Mahan-class destroyer built at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, and commissioned in 1936. She was armed with a main battery of four 5-inch/38 dual-purpose guns, twelve torpedo tubes, seven 20-mm Oerlikon antiaircraft guns and an array of depth charges for use against submarines The captain was Commander Max C. Stormes, USN, U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1924; very competent, yet outgoing and personable. As you will see, it was my good fortune that Captain Stormes was a “movie camera buff” and took amateur movies of his children at home. I had purchased a Bell & Howell magazine-loading 16mm movie camera in San Francisco with several magazines of film. The Captain informed me that cameras were illegal aboard Navy vessels, but that he would see what he could do. He went over to see CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz) and came back with an “Authorization to use personal camera for the convenience of the Navy,” together with a large stack of film magazines. We spent many enjoyable hours discussing photography. I would have my first opportunity to use my camera in the coming Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
Being a new ensign, I caught a lot of flack and all of the undesirable jobs they could lay on me. As an Engineering Officer trainee I started in the firerooms. In training we rotated through all the engineering spaces so we would know all the inner workings of the ship’s propulsion and auxiliary systems. My battle station for General Quarters was the forward fireroom. I hated the fireroom. You had to enter through an airlock since the firerooms were kept under pressure, and this ran your eardrums through an obstacle course. The Preston joined Task Force 16 on 4 October 1942 and after refueling and provisioning sailed for the Solomon Islands on October 15th. TF 16 consisted of the carrier Enterprise (“The Big E”), the fast battleship South Dakota, the heavy cruiser Portland, the antiaircraft cruiser San Juan and a destroyer screen consisting of the Porter (flag), Mahan, Cushing, Preston, Smith, Maury, Conyngham, and the Shaw. On Oct. 24 our Task Force rendezvoused with the Hornet’s TF 17, consisting of the heavy cruisers Northampton and Pensacola, the antiaircraft light cruisers San Diego and Juneau and six destroyers: Morris, Anderson, Hughes, Mustin, Russell and Barton. We had received reports that an enemy force was in the vicinity, but the action didn’t start until the morning of 26 October. Although the combined task forces were designated TF 61, they were separated by about 10 miles. TF 17 with the carrier Hornet was between us and the Japanese carrier force.
We went to general quarters an hour before daybreak. After daylight the captain relieved me of my fireroom duty, and I picked up my movie camera from my stateroom and repaired to the bridge so that I could listen to the action over the TBS radio channel. The Enterprise turned into the wind and launched her planes at about 9:00 A.M. (local time). Around 10:00 A.M. the Hornet reported that she was under attack by numerous dive bombers and torpedo planes.
Meanwhile we heard that the attack groups launched by the Hornet were working over the Japanese fleet. We on the Preston were sweating out the first attack on our carrier, since we knew it must be imminent. We had a little excitement when the Shaw reported sighting a submarine periscope. We heard that the Hornet had been severely damaged and that her returning planes, most low on fuel, were being diverted to the Enterprise. One of the planes ditched near us and we started over to pick up the pilot. Our Squadron Commander on the Porter directed us to return to the screen and said that the Porter would rescue the pilot. I was watching the rescue operation through my glasses, and no sooner had she stopped dead in the water than a torpedo hit her amidships. The explosion disabled her boilers and thus her propulsion system. I did not hear whether the Shaw’s submarine attack was successful or not. (Many years later it was reported by the Japanese that they had no submarines in this immediate area, and it is conjectured that it was a loose torpedo with a damaged gyro running wild.)
While this was going on the first wave of Jap planes appeared overhead. It seemed as if all hell broke loose as the whole “trigger-happy” fleet opened up with everything they had. The air was instantly polka-dotted with black puffs of exploding antiaircraft shells. We only had our 20-nun Oerlikons and our 5-inch/38s, but they were going full blast. I wandered around the deck taking movies of the action. The torpedo planes were commencing their runs, and we were turning our fire power toward them when the range was clear of other ships. This was a problem since all ships maneuver independently when under attack, and the torpedo planes come in low, usually not over 50 feet. Dropping their torpedo from a higher altitude could damage the projectile when it struck the water. Thank heavens they were only interested in the carrier and larger ships. Apparently their torpedoes were set to run deep, somewhere around 30 feet, well below the average destroyer’s keel depth of about 13 feet. This doesn’t mean it didn’t have its hazards. A damaged torpedo can be broaching or loping along the surface and be deadly to a destroyer. The entire group was steaming at flank speed and maneuvering with maxim rudder to avoid the bombs and torpedoes. It was a sight to see the “Big E” making turns so tight that the flight deck looked steep enough for her planes to slide off into the sea. The weather as I recall was a low broken ceiling, and at the moment we were crossing the South Dakota’s bow, at perhaps 2,000 yards, a dive bomber came out of the clouds and dropped a bomb on her number two 16-inch turret with a tremendous blast of black smoke. I happened to be taking pictures at this instant and recorded the whole episode on film. As I recall, the bomber was shot down as it turned down her starboard side. He had approached and dropped his bomb from the port side. I saw several torpedoes apparently intended for the carrier running hot and straight toward the Preston only to pass under our keel. However, I must say it is very stressful to see that track of bubbles coming toward you straight as an arrow at 50 knots! Fortunately, we were blissfully unaware of the power of one of those Japanese “Long Lance” torpedoes. We later discovered that they would cut a destroyer in two pieces like a giant cleaver. As far as we could tell at that time the Porter had been torpedoed by a submarine and was finally ordered abandoned and sunk. The flag and all personnel were transferred to another ship and the Shaw was ordered to torpedo her. What followed caused an uproar that resounded all the way to Washington. The Shaw fired several torpedoes at the Porter in an attempt to sink her, but they all malfunctioned! It chilled us to think that we had 12 torpedoes and most of them could be defective. You risk your life and your ship to get within torpedo range and your torpedoes may be duds?! Food for thought.
The attack continued sporadically until about mid-afternoon. We became a little more relaxed when we realized that we were not the primary target. We fired pretty continuously as long as we were able to acquire clear targets.
I watched many 20-mm guns wear out their barrels. The gunner’s mate would then remove the old barrel with his asbestos gloves, throw it overboard, and install a new one. We had rescued eight or ten “fly boys” by late afternoon. Around 4:00 P.M. the OTC ordered TF16 to retire to the south toward New Caledonia to lick its collective wounds. The “Big E” had taken three bombs but was still operational. The Hornet had been so severely damaged that she had to be sunk by shellfire. Like the Porter our torpedoes rattled off her hull to no avail. A sad commentary on our readiness.
We proceeded south to Nouméa, New Caledonia, for reprovisioning and repairs. The Japanese Fleet, unsure as to how much damage we had sustained, was reluctant to pursue us and retired to the northwest. We thought we were going to have some time in port but it was short lived. I had intended to take my film over to the public relations officer, but other duties kept me busy. In general, the naval campaign in the Solomons was not going well at all. We had lost more than we could afford of our most important ships. We had lost one of the two carriers we had in the South Pacific as well as six cruisers, several destroyers and merchantmen since the previous August. We had only one operational carrier in the South Pacific, and she was damaged. A precarious situation at best. Our forces could not seem to get out of their complacent, overconfident, lethargic, peacetime mode. The Japanese had shown themselves to be competent, opportunistic “sharpshooters,” as witnessed by the wreckage left in what was to be called “Iron Bottom Sound.” My communication watch gave me a chance to read the top secret traffic and some of it was alarming. Admiral “Bull” Halsey was bent on keeping the Enterprise out of harm’s way, well south of Guadalcanal. In my estimation we would have lost Guadalcanal if we had not managed to retain air superiority, meager though it was. The Navy and Marine pilots based at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal were in the top echelon of the heroes who made the Japanese pay for every foot of their progress. They did this in spite of being half dead with malaria, dysentery, dengue fever and fatigue. It was difficult to get enough sleep with the nightly forays of “Washing Machine Charlie,” who would come cruising over the field during the late night hours and drop a random bomb or two. He didn’t do any real damage, but frequent trips to the foxholes took their toll on the already weakened personnel. More than one pilot presumed dead or missing-in-action came walking into camp two or three days after he was shot down. The Florida Island natives had suffered severely at the hands of the hated Japanese and helped whenever they could. They rescued many downed pilots and returned them to Henderson Field whenever they had the opportunity—sometimes even ferrying them across Sealark Channel at night in their dugout canoes.
Early in November communications traffic indicated that a large enemy task force, consisting of battleships, cruisers and destroyers escorting many troop transports, was approaching Guadalcanal from the northwest. It didn’t take long for Admiral Halsey to react. One night I was sitting in the mess hall watching a Merle Oberon movie when a radioman came down from the communication watch and whispered that we had just received orders to standby to get under way. We had been replenishing our ammunition and had been flying “Baker” all morning. (Baker is a solid red flag flown from the yardarm, indicating to all hands that the smoking lamp is out, and notifying surrounding ships that we were loading explosives.) The ship had been refueled and provisioned, and we were ready for assignment. It was easy to see that the officers were rather apprehensive about our prospects for action with the exception of our Executive Officer, Lt. Juan Pesante, USN. He seemed quite unperturbed by the possibility of more action.
About mid-afternoon on November 8th we stood out of the harbor at Nouméa, New Caledonia, and formed up with Task Force TARE. We were in company with two cruisers with several transports and destroyers. We proceeded northwest toward Guadalcanal. We and another destroyer were detached to escort the fast minesweeper Southard to Aola Bay on the north coast of Guadalcanal to land the 2nd Marines behind enemy lines. While the Marines were debarking the Preston stood by to provide antiaircraft protection in the event of an air attack. I was on the fantail with several other officers watching the operations when we noticed a strange cloud formation approaching over the island from the west. It slowly formed a giant “V” with the sun at the bottom where the sides joined. It was so pronounced that several of us wondered if it was a supernatural omen of victory. I pondered its significance in the dark days ahead.
On November 10th we were detached from Task Force TARE and assigned to Task Force KING. This was the battleship attack force, under the command of Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr., USN. The situation was getting pretty tense. Our forces were planning to unload several transports of troops and supplies at Henderson Field and were expecting heavy air attacks and possibly an attack by naval bombardment force. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Callaghan’s cruiser and destroyer force from our base at Espiritu Santo was in position north of Guadalcanal to intercept any Japanese attempt at night shore bombardment of the landing area during the night of November 13–14, 1942. History records no other naval battle as fierce and destructive as the surface engagement of this night. It has been described as “a barroom brawl with the lights shot out.” Although our fleet had SG surface-search radar, and a few ships had fire-control radar, the outcome of the battle suggested that we did not use it effectively. On the other hand, Japanese logs indicate their lookouts with high power glasses detected our fleet visually before we spotted them with radar. This leads to many unanswered questions. The Japanese fleet was mainly west of Savo Island, and ours was east of Saw between Guadalcanal and Florida Island to the north. The fleets proceeded to close until they literally merged, although both sides had previously detected the other. The result was an unbelievable melee of friend and foe trying to identify and attack their enemy, each side sometimes firing on their own ships. The Japanese seemed to be more adept at night battles than we were. At around 7,000 yards a Jap destroyer would flick on his searchlight to illuminate his target, and the other ships that could bring their guns and torpedoes to bear would pour out furious and intensive fire of all calibers on the hapless vessel until someone shot out the searchlight. Thereafter the target usually provided sufficient illumination from its own fires and explosions to continue to draw enemy fire.
On November 14th we were in company with the battlewagons South Dakota and Washington and the destroyers Benham, Walke and Gwin as we rigged for battle. In the afternoon we formed a column consisting of the Walke and the Benham first section, and the Preston and the Gwin second section at 300-yard intervals followed by the Washington and South Dakota at 5,000-yard intervals. Since there were transport ships as well as heavies reported in the Japanese attack group, the general consensus was that it was a resupply and bombardment mission focused somewhere around Cape Esperance for troop landing and resupply, with the bombardment force continuing on to within shelling distance of the airfield.
As it was getting dark the ship prepared to go to General Quarters. Things were quiet but there was a strange tension in the air. Captain Stormes seemed more solemn and concerned that usual. I was sitting in the wardroom having my “umpteenth” cup of coffee when Ensign Goldberg, our supply officer, came in and joined me. His face was flushed and he was visibly upset. “I have a feeling we’re going to get frapped tonight,” he said quietly. I replied “I don’t mow what to expect,” thinking of my battle station in the forward fireroom. Down there all you can do is say your prayers, stoke the furnaces to capacity and hope for the best.
The night had some low-hanging clouds and it was rather dark. You could make out a person standing near you, but you might not recognize him. Everyone looks the same in a helmet and a kapok lifejacket in the dim light. With overwhelming dread I was preparing to enter my “black hole,” the airlock, and descend to the fireroom when the captain called down from the wing of the bridge, “Ensign Reed, why don’t you stay on deck with the forward repair party and see if you can get some pictures of the action. This one is a big one!” I said the most fervent “aye aye, sir” I had ever uttered in my life. I retrieved my camera and took up my new battle station amidships, between the stacks. This was under the quad torpedo mount which stood about 10 feet above the main deck on the centerline. In this position I could move from port to starboard and back with no impediments among the forward repair party. I could hear the TBS radio circuit blaring on the bridge but couldn’t make out the words. I did hear Admiral Lee give the order, “Commence firing!” Looking aft along the starboard side, I could see the main battery trained out to starboard. At 5,000 yards I could still feel the concussion of her first salvo. What a sight! I could see the red tracers on all nine of the 16-inch shells, grouped together for all the world like a flight of airplanes. On the up trajectory the salvo disappeared into the low-hanging clouds, and an instant later I could see them emerging from the clouds on the down side of the trajectory. They hit their target some 9 miles away with devastating results, thank^ to our new fire-control radar. The target burned and exploded sporadically all night. About this time the Gwin fired a spread of starshells in the direction of the enemy ships hugging the southwest coast of Savo Island. In the light provided by the parachute flares of the starshells I could see Savo and flashes of gunfire along the coast. I couldn’t make out individual ships, but I could see streaks of tracers headed in our direction. By now the Preston had acquired her first target and had commenced firing the 5-inchers in the direction of the attackers. Neither our 20-m’s nor our torpedoes were within range. We had another great disadvantage in this kind of a night battle. We did not have flashless powder this early in the war, as the Japs did. So, as we opened fire we betrayed our position by the flashes that lit up the area around the ship and gave the enemy a good point of aim. Fear was rippling through the repair party, and personally, I felt the paralysis of fear engulfing me. Our group had no duties except to stand by until damage was sustained. This is much worse than being busy doing something you believe to be useful. You have too much time to think. Suddenly the Japanese cruiser Nagara got our range with her 5.5-inch guns, and her first salvo hit the firerooms. I felt the shock and the ship quivered and started slowing with the loss of steam pressure to the turbines. Steam, firebrick and debris came pouring out the stacks. We had been cruising at 23 knots, but now we were coasting to a stop. For some reason I turned to look aft, and at that instant I remember seeing an enormous yellow flash and then nothing. How long I was unconscious from the concussion I cannot tell, however it couldn’t have been long. When I came to I was lying on the deck a little to port of the centerline torpedo mount. The enlisted talker next to me was down and motionless. I never knew whether he survived or not. I looked aft and the No. 2 stack was tilted backward and seemed to be leaning on the searchlight platform.
What alarmed me most was two of the torpedo warheads had been ripped open and were rolling around on the deck with the exposed TNT on fire. The thought of that fire reaching the detonators was a chilling proposition. Canned goods, potatoes, cabbage and all manner of food provisions were falling straight down out of the sky, having been propelled upward by the explosion of the after magazines. They pounded my steel helmet and shoulders as I ran for the ladder to the bridge on the port side. As I reached the first level, the same level as the #2 gun, I encountered a seaman who I later surmised was one of the gun crew. He was screaming that he had been hit. I tried to quiet him and get him to lie d m until I could get the doctor. At that time I had no idea how badly we were damaged. I raced up the remaining ladder to the starboard wing of the bridge, intending to report to the Captain and receive orders. There wasn’t a soul on the bridge. The Captain had already ordered “Abandon ship.” My quandary lasted I would guess less than a minute as the ship slowly capsized to starboard. My questions were all answered by circumstance. I climbed down through the rigging and dropped into the warm tropical water of Iron Bottom Sound.
The next concern I had was the depth charges. Having killed fish in White Oak Creek with the shock of a rifle bullet, I had the notion that if the Preston’s depth charges exploded it would be like “shooting fish in a barrel” and would kill all the survivors in the vicinity. But Captain Stormes, God rest him, had sent the Chief Torpedoman aft when we went to general quarters and had him pull the booster charges out of our depth charges, set them on safe and throw them overboard. They were now as safe as if they were filled with sawdust. However, I didn’t know this when I abandoned ship so I swam away toward Savo as fast as I could, supposing that it was not occupied by the enemy. At perhaps a couple of hundred yards I stopped and turned to look at the ship. By this time the bow was sticking straight up out of the water and was silhouetted against the night sky. While I watched there was a soft “pop,” and she slid silently under the waves, gone forever.
Then, looming out of the darkness as big as a mountain came the battleship South Dakota heading straight toward me. For some reason I was not greatly disturbed at the time. It seems that at times like this we traverse the entire length of our emotional spectrum so there is no response left. We do whatever we can automatically without thought. I paddled back toward the Preston, about 10 or 15 feet out of her path. As she passed I was caught up in the giant bow wave created by her high speed and was carried clear of the suction of her screws. I learned later that we apparently lost several men including Captain Stormes to the South Dakota. They had been seen in the water prior to the time she came through the survivors but were never seen again. The Washington, on the other hand, had discreetly come left to port to clear the foundering destroyers and leave them on her starboard side. She had then resumed course, continuing the battle with her secondary batteries as she passed the burning ships on their port side well clear of the survivors.
It is interesting to note that the subsequent action report by the Preston’s senior surviving officer, Lt.(jg) Woods, indicated that naval gunfire was witnessed on the port side of the ship and that the Preston was hit by a salvo on the port side. I personally saw flashes from the port side which I assumed was another enemy ship holding us in a crossfire. However, after studying the Washington’s action report I now believe that this gunfire came from her secondary 5-inch batteries firing over us as she passed the destroyer column to her starboard. For the remainder of the engagement the Washington found no enemy vessels in this sector, lending credence to my theory.
There were conjectures that the Preston had been torpedoed, but from my later investigations I believe this to be the scenario of what really happened. Upon acquiring a target visually under the Gwin’s starshells the Preston opened fire with her main battery. Using the flash of our guns as an aiming point, the enemy ship (later determined as probably the Japanese light cruiser Nagara) commenced firing at us. In the flash from our guns I could see geysers of water on both sides of the ship as she straddled us. Moments later she was on target. When she hit our firerooms the ship started slowing as she lost headway. The Nagara continued firing, and the ship’s forward motion brought the after deckhouse and magazines in line of fire. The magazines exploded with the devastating effects witnessed by the surrounding ships. Massive holes were ripped in the deck and adjoining structures. Undoubtedly it violated the watertight integrity of every compartment aft of the #2 stack. I believe this accounts for the loose and ruptured torpedo warheads rolling around under the mounts. The top deck of the after deckhouse was the storage area for the ship’s fresh and canned provisions as well as secondary conn. When I regained consciousness after the explosion it was raining cans of condensed milk, potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables straight down out of the sky, implying an explosion under the deckhouse. Other shells hit aft, killing the gun crews and exposed personnel. Lt.(jg) Woods, who was in charge of the after repair party, told me this story while he was in the hospital in Tulagi a few days later. He was standing near the port side of the after deckhouse when the explosion occurred. The sudden upward movement of the deck injured the joints in his ankles, knees, and hips, but he managed to get to the rail so that he could abandon ship. He reported a large hole in the deck with a beam across to the scuppers. In trying to cross on the beam he lost his balance and fell into the engine room. Burned and further incapacitated by escaping steam he abandoned hope. He told me, “I gave up and knew I was a goner—so I decided to get it over with by taking a deep breath of saltwater. I took a deep breath and it was air! To my amazement the incoming rush of water as the ship settled had floated me up through the same hole in the deck!” Some of the men in the water took him in tow and put him in the life raft dropped by the South Dakota as she plowed through the other survivors.
After the South Dakota left us behind our battleships continued to engage the enemy in a running battle. The Washington fired her main battery of 16-inchers at the Japanese battleship Kirishima. Each 9-round salvo hurled over 10 tons of armor-piercing steel and explosives at the enemy vessel. The target was soon steaming in circles with her steering machinery damaged, many fires and severe internal damage. She sank later in the early morning hours of November 15th. The South Dakota had a run of bad luck. She was plagued by several electrical failures at critical times during the battle, and in one period when she had no surface-search radar she strayed into searchlight range of the enemy and took a heavy shelling of large caliber shells into her superstructure with a substantial loss of life. The Washington, though she had many close calls from torpedoes, sustained no damage at all.
The Japanese retired back northwest toward their base at Rabaul, New Britain Island, and we were credited with winning the battle. It is sad to relate that during the battle the Japanese used their torpedoes effectively, while our torpedoes were too underpowered and short of range to be useful at all. Admiral Lee was celebrated for this victory and his very effective use of radar. In addition to the warships lost by the Japanese, their transports with reinforcements of men and supplies for the suffering Japanese troops fell upon evil days. Only two of the eleven that left Rabaul made it to Cape Esperance as the result of our surface and persistent air attacks. One was the Yamazuki Maru, and the other was the Kinugawa Maru. They were beached at full speed early on the morning of the 15th. They passed me while I was floating in the water at about 200 yards. I could see troops frantically running up and down the decks in preparation for the landing. They appeared to be in full battle gear. No one paid any attention to me—I was just another survivor floating around and represented no threat. Those ships are still there today, two rusted-out hulks partially carried away by salvagers and souvenir hunters. But wait, I’m getting ahead of my story.
As soon as the excitement of the South Dakota’s romp through our survivors died down I commenced swimming slowly but resolutely toward the distant shadow of Savo Island. I entertained the illusion that it wasn’t very far and that I could make it by morning. Thank God I didn’t reach it, for it was crawling with Japs! I was alone and still wearing my helmet, and I had my Colt .45 automatic strapped to my waist. My clothes were the usual officer khaki pants and shirt and low-cut shoes. Somehow I felt better wearing shoes and sox.
When the day dawned bright and clear it brought some new fears. At night I couldn’t have seen a shark, but now I could see smut 100 feet down into the crystal-clear water. I forced myself to look down once in a while, and you can imagine my relief when I didn’t see what I was expecting. I formulated a plan in case I saw a shark. I would pull out my .45 Colt, shake out the water, and fire it toward the shark from about a foot above the water, hoping the shock wave would scare him off. Thankfully, I never had to try it. Apparently the shock of all the heavy explosions of the night battle had cleared them out of the immediate area. The Savo Island area was known to be heavily infested with sharks since it was traditional for generations of Islanders to set their dead adrift for the sharks.
In the late morning a couple of cruiser float planes entered the area to assist with the rescue, and a little after noon the destroyer Meade (DD602) came over from Tulagi on the rescue mission. But first they had to try their hand at the “sitting ducks.” They shelled the two transports for about 45 minutes before they decided they had had enough fun. The Meade then lowered two boats which went around methodically picking up the most seriously wounded and taking them back to the ship. The float planes gathered three or four people at a time by having them hang on to their float struts and then taxiing close to the boats where they were let go. Somehow I had drifted much further out than most of the survivors, and I was getting concerned that they might miss me. I believe a Douglas SW spotted me and radioed my position to the boats, for I saw one of the boats turn and head in my direction and keep coming until they saw me. I was very low in the water by this time. The kapok jackets finally got watersoaked. I probably would have lasted another 3 or 4 hours at most. I waved frantically, and at last I heard someone yell, “There’s one.” What lovely words! It took two seamen to drag me into the boat. I was so stiff and waterlogged that I couldn’t stand or walk without help. But thank God there was something solid underneath me at last. I was more fortunate than most because I had inadvertently stayed out of the fuel oil which covered much of the area. Some of the men got fuel oil and saltwater in their eyes, causing excruciating pain. I was fortunate in that my major discomfort was sunburn on my face. The action of the direct sun coupled with the reflected sunlight off the water made a vicious combination. Occasionally, the salt water would lap at my face, removing skin oils and making it even more susceptible to burning. By the time I was rescued my cheeks were bleeding. However, this was nothing when compared with the misfortunes of other survivors.
The Meade was taking survivors aboard as fast as her boats could deliver them. I was carried on board, taken to the fantail and stripped down to my skivvies. There were piles of oil-soaked clothing everywhere. We had another scare when a Zero came over Cape Esperance at low level and strafed us. There were some casualties. I was carried forward in my shorts wearing only my .45 automatic.
As I entered the wardroom an appalling sight greeted my eyes. Around the bulkheads in a sitting position sat the seriously injured. Corpsmen were frantically administering morphine from little throw-away dispensers to whoever moaned. Two doctors were working frantically over two men on the wardroom dining table with corpsmen standing by as stands for plasma bottles. The general scene looked like a slaughter house. The steel deck was covered with blood and slick enough that occasionally someone would slip and fall. The grisly sight of bones projecting from compound fractures, skulls lacerated and bleeding were the person’s face making them unrecognizable and broken and twisted legs left me humbly grateful that I had been delivered from such a fate.
After a quick once-over that revealed no apparent injuries I was unceremoniously dumped into the first available bunk in officer’s country. No sleep here. The shock of the wardroom carnage and the prospect of another Zero attack left me wide eyed with nerves as taut as fiddle strings.
Late that afternoon the Meade entered Tulagi’s harbor and tied up. By this time I was able to walk without help. The Marines who had taken and occupied Tulagi came swarming around eager to help in anyway they could. They were grateful that the Navy had saved them from taking another pounding from the Jap bombardment force. A Marine Captain took me in tow and delivered me to the Marine Quartermaster to outfit. Now this quartermaster was a clown. He would ask you what you wanted, but before you could get words out of your mouth he would interrupt with a “We ain’t gottim.” He asked me what size shoe I wore, and before I could answer—“Twelve’s, that’s all we got,” he said with a grin (I wear an 8½). Big shoes do have one advantage; you can carry an extra pair of socks in the toes. The Captain was in charge of White Beach Barrage Balloon #9, and he and his officers were kind enough to find a bunk for me in their tent. At this time I hadn’t begun to experience the effect of the shock and exposure that was to follow. By the next day I started having breathing difficulties and checked in at the medical facility. I had some relief from my breathing difficulties, but sleeping became so difficult that I dreaded to see nightfall.
Tulagi (code name “Ringbolt”) is a beautiful little island off the southwest coast of Florida Island. It is approximately 2 miles long and about 4 mile wide. It lies about 22 miles, slightly northeast, across Iron Bottom Sound from Lunga Point on Guadalcanal. It is said to be one of the best natural harbors in the world. Its Japanese garrison had been attacked the same day as the initial landing on Guadalcanal. After they had cleared away the main resistance they still had problems with snipers. At night they would come out of the caves where they had been hiding and climb to the top of coconut trees. Then they would patiently wait, out of sight in the foliage, until daybreak when they would try to get an officer in their sights. Platoon leaders and squad leaders were their favorite targets. One captain told me that 2nd Lts. were referred to as “the vanishing Americans.” They countered by removing all their officer insignia and uniforms and wearing regular enlisted uniforms.
The captain told me one interesting story about a tough old Marine Sergeant and his men treeing a sniper one night. They couldn’t shoot because the gun flash would give away their position. The sniper, who spoke perfect English, began talking to them from his perch somewhere up there in the dark. “You Americans will never get me. I’m smarter and better educated than any of you. I have a degree from the University of Washington.” The old Sarge told him, “You might have gone to the University of Washington, but you are going to hell in the morning.” With the first light the Marines started methodically machine-gunning the top of all the palms in their vicinity until he fell out of his hiding place. The most disagreeable situation I found on Tulagi was the drinking water.
I surmised that General Vandergrift had become tired of having so many men out of action from bouts of malaria because they wouldn’t take their Atabrine (a quinine substitute to prevent malaria, which was indigenous to this area). His solution to the problem was to lace the drinking water with this foul-tasting medicine. So all day long you couldn’t get away from its unpleasantness; from brushing your teeth, your morning coffee, breakfast eggs (a mixture of powdered eggs and water), koolade and whatever else used water. The tropical climate required us to drink a lot of water, so General Vandegrift had us trapped. At that time it was hard to appreciate that it was for our own good, and he probably got “cussed” as much as the Japanese for his drinking water.
One day my Marine captain friend decided that it was a propitious time to celebrate our naval victory by breaking out a pint of bourbon he had hidden in his duffle bag. We didn’t intend to ruin the last drop of decent whiskey on the island by mixing it with that damned water. The best we could come up with was canned grapefruit juice, warm at that. After the first couple of drinks it wasn’t all that bad. A couple of hours later he was taking me down to the beach to let me fire the 20-mm machine guns under his command. Fortunately for us we ran into one of his buddies returning from the movies who talked him out of it. If we had fired those guns the whole island would have gone to “Condition Red,” the Marines would have headed for their battle stations, the torpedo boat squadron stationed in a nearby cove would have come roaring out looking for the enemy. We would have been court-martialed, and I would probably still be in the brig!
My breathing difficulties increased to the point that they decided to evacuate me to our advance base at Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, on the first available ship. This turned out to be the USS Ballard (AVD-10), a WWI “four-stacker” destroyer converted to a seaplane tender. While en route we received a radio message to look for the survivors of the light antiaircraft cruiser Juneau, severely damaged in the night surface action of November 12–13 in Iron Bottom Sound. Later, she took a torpedo from a Jap submarine east of San Cristobal Island and sank with few survivors. After searching for about a half day one of the lookouts spotted something on the horizon. It turned out to be one man on the rim of a balsa wood life raft with a net bottom. As we approached we could see twelve or fifteen sharks swimming lazily around the raft, apparently waiting for their next meal. We lowered a boat and rescued the man. His name was Allen Heyn. After he got over his delirium and became rational he told a grim story. The sharks had picked them off one at a time until he and a good friend were the only ones left. Heyn said that he held on to his friend as long as he could until his legs dangled in the water. The sharks then ate away his legs and finally dragged him off the raft and devoured him. Heyn was a big strapping specimen who looked like a weight lifter. I remember that he had a broad face and a wide gap between his two front teeth and a head of jet-black hair. The sharks had taken a big bite out of his left buttock about the size of ones hand. I remember visiting him in sick bay where he would sit up in bed yelling for more water while sitting on his injured buttock. The loss of the Juneau and most of her crew of 700 was one of the great tragedies of the war.
We arrived at Espiritu Santo without further incident, and I was transferred to the hospital ship Solace. The Solace dropped me off at an Army hospital at Suva in the Fiji Islands. I spent about a month there before boarding the transport Mt. Vernon for my return to the States (Mare Island Hospital, Vallejo, California). Three months later I returned to active duty, helping to commission the USS Hopewell (DD681), and two more years of the Pacific War.