January 1, 1943, at anchor, Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides in French and British Oceana. I had the morning auxiliary watch, 04 to 0800.
We have entered the fifth year of the big war that so many in Congress had said was none of our business. Had that been accepted by everyone, this would be the year that isolation could be translated as surrender.
We held “field day” throughout the ship, a good thorough cleaning. Then Chief Freeman decided this was the day to solve that stubborn, weeping safety valve. To delay repairs could cause a deeper steam cut. When I say stubborn it means very slow work to efface the imperfection of matching, shiny faces of seat to disk that will hold six-hundred pounds pressure in steam. The hardened metal surface surrenders to fine lapping compound slowly. We lapped three valves for six hours until the ring of metal was polished and unmarred.
I brought the boiler steam pressure to 600 p.s.i. and went topside to look for a feather of steam at the atmosphere exhaust. I leaned on the lifeline for a half hour watching. It held for today.
I got into the shower at 11 p.m. Happy New Year!
Read a couple of chapters of Nana before sleeping.
January 2, 1943, at anchor as before.
I had the forenoon watch. We received a harbor fuel barge alongside to top-off our fuel tanks. We keep full to 95% at all times that fuel is available.
We reset No. 2 boiler safety valves to lift and reseat at the prescribed pressures, which took two hours.
We got a draft of 30 men who were consigned to us under the rubric, for hazardous duty only. That so offended my senses that I was pissed off for days. I imagined a fat personnel officer somewhere Stateside piously dumping his disciplinary problems on the Fighting Fleet.
I refused my share of them. Had I been Captain Brown, the whole mob would have been returned to the source with instructions for their employment.
January 3, 1943, steaming as before in company with vessels of Task Force 72. I had the midwatch, stayed up for dawn alert until after six. Slept in the forenoon, then back on watch. We drilled on a battle problem all afternoon. When I got off watch at four, I sat on a remote control valve next to the forward fireroom scuttle to cool off and talk Navy politics with Ira Allen: ladies we wished to have known.
Rain drove us below. It was too hot to sleep in the compartment, so without an alternative, I went to the steaming fireroom to work on my survival knife.
January 4, 1943, steaming as before with vessels of Task Force 72. I had the midwatch and stayed up for dawn alert to six.
We drilled all day, so only catnaps were possible. I had the afternoon watch. Then I found a place on the torpedo platform to sleep and missed chow to keep it. I slept until the prebombardment general quarters sounded at 2200. We manned battle stations and waited.
January 5, 1943, steaming as before with vessels of Task Force 72, all ships at battle stations. The cruisers moved into Kula Gulf while the destroyers patrolled the entrance from the “Slot.” The cruisers opened fire on Munda Airfield and continued over an hour before the Task Force retired southward.
I waited until after dawn alert to find a place to sleep, for I expected that we’d be hit at daylight.
The corner was found, and I had a nice three hours of sleep until the general alarm sounded just after nine: Air attack.
On their first run, they got into our formation and hit Achilles in the after turret. The smoke column went straight up as though the magazine had exploded. I could see it as I jack-rabbitted through the scuttle, down to my station.
We went to full power as rapidly as possible. The rapidity was increased by using the DesPac steam temperature equalization procedures. (Two years later in St. Louis I learned that the procedure was unknown to the cruisers.)
We stayed at 25 knots—with 35 knots available—until noon. Friendly fighters appeared on radar, then overhead. We opened formation from a tight circle and secured from battle stations.
As lookouts told it, they could only be sure of one enemy splash near the formation. There were at least three other splashes at unconfirmed distances, one pillar of black smoke. The Task Force score: one sure, four maybes.
January 6, 1943, steaming as before in company with vessels of Task Force 72.
I missed dawn alert, but I cannot imagine how. Ira knew where I was sleeping, and I guess, just let me sleep in!
Yesterday’s air attack was complicated by the fact that our SOCs (cruiser-based scout aircraft) were in the air, and they confused the lookouts. Visual warning was very late. But the SOC radiomen saw the incoming bogies and were signaling as best they could.
January 7, 1943, steaming as before in company with vessels of Task Force 72. I was up for dawn alert and the forenoon watch
At 0930 HMS Achilles left the formation to hold burial services for the eight men killed yesterday. The OTC signaled all ships to half-mast colors during the Achilles ceremony.
Colors were two-blocked at 0940. Then general quarters for a battle problem was announced, which continued until noon. Fletcher was sent out to rescue the crew of a disabled SOC aircraft. She recovered the crew and abandoned the plane.
January 8, 1943, steaming as before in company with vessels of Task Force 72. We rendezvoused with Minneapolis during the night to screen her. She is under tow by Victor. Her main plant has been damaged in a surface action three days ago in Sealark Sound.
Here was another San Francisco-class cruiser out of action. She was beaten up, and at the tow speed, she was an easy mark for a submarine. By late afternoon we had reached the entrance to Santo Harbor, which covered us. We let Victor and Minneapolis enter first, then we entered and fueled alongside USS Neosho.
January 9, 1943, moored in Espiritu Santo, N. H. in a nest with O’Bannon and De Haven. We are for once “taking in some slack,” i.e., resting. All day there was not one single call for urgent anything. I use two pairs of skivvies and two of dungarees; when I bathe I wash the set. No chores accumulate. If anyone were observed buffing up a dress uniform or shining his shoes, that would be evidence of an unbalanced mind.
I’ve got to get some teeth filled because three have become tender, at the point of a painful ache. But our stand-down status always carries a time element, x availability. It is measured in hours. For example, 12 hours’ availability means no equipment may be dismantled nor crew member missing that cannot be ready for action in the time allotted. If one person is sent to the dentist, there are a hundred more who need to go also. That could stretch out to more than 12 hours. But 12 hours will encompass a two-hour rec. party to the ball diamond on the island.
Knute Rockne was the film tonight, but I chose to sleep instead.
January 10, 1943, moored in nest with O’Bannon and De Haven, a routine day of work ensued. An auxiliary watch, eight hours on the floorplates doing preventive maintenance to the machinery.
I’ve tried my hand at barbering since so few are capable of doing a decent job—or maybe don’t wish to saddle themselves with additional work. Long hair has become a problem of comfort. Engine spaces, plus the tropics, plus the long hair—of the three only long hair can be controlled. My work had gotten so good that even Shoftstall came around for a haircut. And it takes the mind off the mundane lows between the highs up around Cactus.
January 11, 1943, moored with O’Bannon and De Haven, Espiritu Santo, N. H.
Strong scuttlebutt came down from the ComShack that we have a new assignment from Halsey, “a special.” I overheard a wise guy pronounce what he thought were all movements. ComSoPac staff doesn’t get that much information. I say bring back the battleships for the were doing fine. They have been missing recently ... (?)
We got a half hour at general quarters from the periodic visit of “Washing-machine Charlie,” the Jap observation aircraft who came to make his semi-weekly count of the ships-in-port. He always comes at noon. I’ve always wondered why we don’t bring him down, for his predictability and slow speed should make it easy. Do we want him to report?
January 12, moored with O’Bannon and De Haven in Espiritu Santo Harbor, New Hebrides, British/French Oceana.
Worked on preventive maintenance all day, then lounged topside without falling asleep (one all-night-in). I put a curve in my back from reading while seated against a versatile bulkhead.
Foster Hailey, a New York Times correspondent, is on board. He is, you might say, up front.
January 13, 1943, at anchor, Espiritu Santo. O’Bannon and De Haven went somewhere, probably on false submarine sounding outside the entrance. The false submarine echoes are as frequent as an antsy hunter sees deer, but there are enough real ones to do a lot of killing.
De Haven came back alongside to nest with us.
I went ashore on a swimming party. Afterwards, things got so quiet that the chiefs got up a game of quoits on the foc’sle. A game of quoits is not a game of quoits for sailors: it’s an excuse to assemble, and it’s something to do with the hands while telling outrageous lies (sea stories).
January 14, at anchor, Espiritu Santo, N.H.
We sortied alone in early morning to take patrol duty at the harbor entrance. Some delayed mail had arrived before we left the anchorage.
We cannot fault mail delivery, nor stores. Though late at times, it gets through as well as fuel and ammunition, and that is saying a great deal. Arriving on time has a lot to do with the enemy efforts in prevention.
I got Xmas letters from Sis (Cora), Bernice, and a card from Velma. Xmas gifts from Carl Anderson in Bath, Maine, brother Dean, and from Cavell McDonald.
January 15, steaming as before singly on patrol at the harbor entrance. Reentered the channel, alongside O’Bannon, Radford and De Haven. fueled and joined the nest We got paid, and I gave it ($6) to the lucky bastards, in blackjack.
Payday in Nicholas was no event, one merely got paid. In Omaha it involved the Supply Department, the Medical Department, the master-at-arms force, the bankers and a long line of indigent sailors.
On the Omaha gundeck were hammock nettings, inboard and outboard. The pay clerk set up a mess table just forward of the midship hatch and next to the inboard hammock netting. Seated alongside the pay clerk was a storekeeper disbursing assistant to double check the pay slips for accuracy.
Aft of the pay table two pharmacist’s mates assembled, the senior with a flashlight, the junior with a bottle of specimen slides a bundle of sterile depressor sticks. Forward of the pay table a row of creditors, some of whom were six-for-five bankers, which is 20% interest in-two-weeks.
“Payday” was blasted down the midship hatch by bugle, then the first five sailors in line dropped their trousers and hauled a penis for inspection. That’s when the name calling began. The pharmacist’s mate could delay if not postpone payday by spotting a “tear” or a lesion, the “tear” was a droplet gained by “milking.” Until a lab test proved otherwise, a tear or a lesion were prima facie evidence of venereal disease, whereupon pay stopped due to misconduct on the part of that penis owner.
On the other hand, sailors were reluctant to “milk” his white grub to the satisfaction of his opposite number in the Medical Department.
“Strip it out, goddammit, start at your asshole!”
“I’ll whomp up a hard-on and beat you to death with it, you fuckin bedpan mechanic!”
Tucking away his pride and joy, if he passed, Sam French could expect one-half $36, less the 40% he was paying monthly on a summary court martial sentence: a fiver, three ones and some change. payoff. I ranked Sam by three grades, and had no court martial to pay off. I usually got a ten and a five and a one, after deducting my allotment home.
A rich American sailor could get all the way Uptown on that if he rode the bus, and if he stayed out of places with clean table covers.
January 16, 1943, at anchor in destroyer nest with O’Bannon, Radford and De Haven.
A different squadron commodore came aboard: he is ComDesRon 5 (Captain R. P. Briscoe) instead of DesRon 21, so we are flying the pennant of DesRon 5, and we are designated Task Force 67.5, “Cactus Striking Group.” If Halsey calls you a Striking Group, I’d guess he had in mind a target to strike. On the new squadron staff was LCdr. Robert Montgomery, the actor.
Commissary Stew Haggerty left the ship, detached to new construction, leaving a vacancy for the next senior man, LaTour.
We got underway in company with O’Bannon, Radford and De Haven, OTC in Nicholas. The sweat quotient is up with a lot of anticipation due to recent enemy activity.
January 17, steaming as before in company with vessels of Task Force 67.5, enroute Tulagi, British Solomon Islands. Coming in from the south, both sides of Lengo Channel are low, green landfall of San Cristobal, then Guadalcanal and Florida Islands, with the blue-green of the high ground in the distance. Closer up the Florida Island side of Sealark Sound, we see Halsey’s sign in the distance, black-and-white, KILL JAPS . . .
It is remarkable how the contours of the islands revive the gut-level dread; the names and the shapes were menacing. Before the mind speaks, the vague pain starts on the stomach and is relieved only by action. There is no emotional stand-down near Cactus. How could it be otherwise with fifty ships lying on this bottom?
Sleep is not difficult, however, because it is overdue when events permit it. That “beep-beep-beep” or “all-hands” on a boatswain’s pipe have irresistible penetrating powers to a sleeping sailor.
We arrived in Tulagi Harbor at 1900. We are under 30-minutes notice and are keeping all boilers boosted between 500 to 600 pounds pressure; all departments are in Condition of Readiness Two with half the batteries fully manned.
January 18, at anchor Tulagi Harbor. The Force got underway at dawn and crossed the sound to bombard Jap lines.
We watched as Alchiba, torpedoed two months ago, was towed away from the beach (after some hull patching) by two tugs.
We came alongside a troop transport to take some of their fuel and top-off our own tanks. The transport was loaded with Marines leaving for good. After fueling we escorted the transports safely out of the restricted waters to the southward, then returned to our duty and the Tulagi station near midnight.
January 19, 1943, at anchor, Tulagi, B.S.I. Underway at battle stations at 0615 for bombardment. Ceased firing at 0645. Battle stations again at 1115 to 1215 to bombard enemy positions. There is a ground offensive underway. We fired 450 rounds of 5-inch this morning.
We had no sooner anchored in our berth at Tulagi than we got a dispatch to intercept a Jap cruiser-destroyer task force coming down the “Slot.” That brought a lot of anxiety for we number but four destroyers.
We passed Savo Island running north, with full power available to the engines. So as before, and so often, you find private consolation when in danger. I don’t remember a shipmate asking a shipmate how he handled it . . .
January 20, 1943, steaming as before with vessels of Task Force 67.5, patrolling a line northwest of Savo Island. Sighted two friendly vessels and exchanged recognition signals.
Before sunrise, we returned to Guadalcanal landing area at Lunga Point to embark Major General Patch, US Army, and some staff officers as observers for a bombardment action.
We fired at some designated jungle targets for five minutes and 55 rounds of 5-inch projectiles. We took the general and his people back to Lunga Point.
After noon we picked up General Patch again, and the staff, to observe his troops from the ship-board vantage point. He was returned to Lunga Point in late afternoon.
Received dispatch orders at 1650 to return to Button for ammunition and fuel. The Task Force 67.5 set course 102° True, speed 20 knots. Following were O’Bannon, De Haven and Radford.
January 21, 1943, steaming as before enroute Base Button, in company with vessels of TG 67.5. Arrived in Espiritu Santo Harbor at 1700 and moored alongside USS Pyro to take on ammunition; then underway to the tanker for fuel. After fueling we moored in the stream alongside O’Bannon. The Itzin brother in O’B told me how much money he had won. I’d seen his gambling boldness in Bath, and I knew he was not given to bullshit. I believed his $6,000.
I stayed up late and wrote to brothers, Bill, Dean and Tom. We have heard that Santos got a few bombs two days ago. Carriers in the area? We have had a back-base rest camp here for so long that we considered the only danger should “Washing-machine-Charlie” drop his binoculars.
January 22, 1943, underway from Santos at 0500 with Task Force 67 in a cruiser-destroyer force consisting of Nashville, Helena, Nicholas, O’Bannon, De Haven and Radford; Honolulu, St. Louis, Drayton, Lamson and Hughes. Destination secret, until at sea.
Destination announced: Bombard Jap forces on New Georgia.
There is a lot of surface confidence now, as though there is some good news we don’t know about. When steering northward it isn’t often that smiles are prevalent.
January 23, 1943, steaming as before in company with vessels of Task Force 67, proceeding northwest to New Georgia Group.
Captain Brown gave a speech over the 21MC about the bombardment and possible consequences.
The scuttlebutt is that Brown will go to a cruiser staff job and that Andrew Jackson Hill will assume command today. While at sea? Not likely.
While I had eight hours of watch and some four hours of repair work. I feel an energy sag.
January 24, 1943, steaming as before on base course 292° True (west northwest in company with vessels of Task Force 67 enroute to bombard Japanese positions of Kolombangara Island. We went to general quarters at midnight.
We went through the usual procedure of pre-action, check and double-check the machinery. Polish the burner atomizers, read the lube oil levels of the auxiliary machinery, study the fires through the peep holes.
And wait. And wait in the silence from the bridge.
Firing began distantly at 0150. We opened fire about ten minutes afterward, using rapid fire for about ten minutes. Jab, from topside Midship Repair, said we set something afire.
The Task Force began retiring at 0240, and then began the numerous aircraft contacts and harassment with small bombs. They pursued us until 0600 when it was light enough for our fighter cover to be effective. And the fighters arrived just at dawn.
When we secured from battle stations I had the regular watch. If not me, someone else. We were still north of Savo Island when I got off watch. I took a dive in some shade, judging the distance to Tulagi about one and a half hours of sleep.
We arrived in Tulagi Harbor at 1030 and fueled from Honolulu, moving to Nashville for ammunition replenishment. We got a signal to escort the cruisers to Sealark Sound. We got back to our anchorage at 1630.
The days become long and hot, for the area permits no stand-down. It helps to visualize a freshly bathed staff officer who invents our missions. Pissed-off is a position of strength; and it is mostly right . . . Who at ComSoPac would stay up all night just to empathize with Cactus Striking Force?
January 25, 1943, at anchor Tulagi Harbor in Berth D in 18 fathoms of water.
Haidukewitch left the ship for the hospital, and he left me those “Golldarn econ-non-izers!” Duke could spell it but he couldn’t pronounce it.
Tulagi Harbor and Purvis Bay looked peaceful if you excluded the Japanese destroyer, nose up on the jungle edge, its curiously shaped cutwater an instant recognition line. I wanted to go over to prowl the hulk, but with our mission such a project would be considered frivolous. Maybe in a year.
There was a strip of white sand about ten feet wide edging the water under the jungle overhang where the destroyer rested. It continued along the shore and framed the small coves and points of land. Shaded and cool, it was physical invitation to nap. I couldn’t create a higher purpose in our circumstance—romance was too far away.
ComDesRon 5 (Captain Briscoe) shifted his pennant to Fletcher.
Lt (jg) Reidler told me that Robert Montgomery left some of his expensive, imported pipe tobacco behind. He’ll never recover it.
At 1340 Condition Red over Guadalcanal, and at 1344 we sortied at maximum speed for the channel width. Our purpose was to help out the covering screen at the landing area off Lunga Point. By the time we arrived friendly fighters had regained control.
1510 Condition Green was announced; we returned to the Tulagi anchorage.
Supplies now are unloading at Lunga Point seven days a week: Avgas, ammo, food and all the bulk; airplanes can be flown in.
January 26, 1943, at anchor Tulagi, B.S.I.
After several days’ delay, we held the change of command ceremony. Brown is going to the staff of CruDiv 12, mostly new ships out from Stateside.
There is always trepidation at such an important change, but it could be for the best. The ceremony was brief and informal.
At 2030 general quarters sounded. We had the scuttlebutt in a few minutes: Coastwatcher said one cruiser and seven destroyers were coming down the “Slot.” Cactus Striking Force sortied in formation, and the patrol was laid between Savo and Florida Islands. During darkness we got a lot of aircraft radar contacts, and the ships of the squadron did a lot of firing without observed results.
One of our 20mm gunners was injured by a round that exploded in the gun’s chamber.
January 27, 1943, on patrol with vessels of Task Force 67.5 in assigned area.
Still getting radar contacts of enemy air. At 0230 a reconnaissance plane dropped a small bomb (200 lbs.) about 50 yards abeam, BOOM! A flash in the dark. He got away.
At daylight we set Condition II Mike (for modified) so we could get some brief naps. The patrol continued to the north of Savo Island, which covers access to Sealark Sound.
Back to general quarters at sunset. All hands got a cumulative four hours sleep during the day. I got more, but the longest period was two hours on the Communications Platform.
When there is time to sleep, on each occasion, a place must be found in the shade on the steel deck. (A “caulking mat” like in the old PacFleet would have been a boon.) The living compartment was out of the question for the insulation could not block the heat absorbed by the steel deck plates, 120° to 150°F. If the ambient temperature topside was 85°F., the compartment would be ten to fifteen degrees higher.
When the ship turned, what had been shade became sunlit, except some very few places: under the 5-inch gun mounts and a narrow area on the Communication Platform. The portable pillow was your forearm.
January 28, 1943, on patrol between Florida and Russell Islands with vessels of Task Group 67.5. We are covering the width of the “Slot” north of Savo.
We have gotten lots of aircraft radar contacts and sound contacts from possible submarines. A wise-guy said, among all these tigers it’s best to pretend you are one too. And Moynihan told me that the Gun Boss asked for permission to open fire on the aircraft. Andy Hill replied, “They don’t know we are here and we aren’t going to tell them.” Some encouraging good sense. But something different is happening.
At daylight, back to Condition II Mike, with friendly aircraft on call.
We maintained the patrol all day and after dark, back to battle stations. stronger Either I slept more today or slept better, because I feel stronger.
Around midnight De Haven reported a near-miss from an aircraft bomb. Now, the experts say the night flash of an aerial bomb gives no clue to its size. Conclusions from a laboratory test, I suppose.
January 29, 1943, steaming as before in company with vessels of Task Group 67.5, patrolling northwest of Savo Island, across the access route to Sealark Sound.
Sitting on an improvised seat at all-night battle stations in a seesaw combat zone, and I found myself wondering about a second front in Europe! Reading Churchill addled me that way. In his concluding paragraph of World Crisis—1915, he argues that it takes the artist to see the big picture. Maybe that makes me an artist, looking straight through the Globe!
Again a stand-down at daylight to Condition II Mike. More sleep today than the previous day; events must have worn the Old Man down, which gives respite to the troops. If he feels good its full power with the guns trained out. But then, this is Andy Hill, and we’ll by necessity wait and see.
January 30, 1943, patrolling northwest of Savo Island and Guadalcanal with vessels of Task Group 67.5, Nicholas, O’Bannon, Radford and De Haven.
We had a whole day yesterday without an emergency!
Fletcher rejoined the force. During the day one of her lookouts spotted a survivor in the water who turned out to be a Jap pilot.
Old Settler showed me his chagrined chronicle of Solomon Island events: Should Nicholas paint Washington’s silhouette or vice versa for the damage we did to each other? Can we claim oil drums (Japanese’s new supply method) that we have sunk as trophies of war? How about the troops we see swimming on the beach during working hours—dock their pay? His summary had productivity as the priority. It was a good laugh.
January 31, patrolling in Sealark Sound with Task Group 67.5. We have taken a patrol line parallel to the shore. I could see the troops’ tents at what was supposed to be the combat front, above the jungle line about eight miles inland. No camouflage at all!
We learned at dawn alert that Chicago was sunk somewhere up the “Slot” by dive bombers. I remembered how handsome I considered Chicago and Indianapolis back when I first saw them. A very good sign from our new skipper: he has caused to be erected a suggestion box alongside the forward fuel trunk. I lost no time in submitting a letter, “Keep us informed! Always, during action . . .”
Crossed to Tulagi and fueled ship from Erskine Phelps. This is a designated XYO ship, constructed of cast concrete and serving, not as a mobile tanker, but as a fuel depot. I cannot guess why it doesn’t get more Jap air attention since we are so dependent upon it for destroyer refueling. A fleet tanker can come in at night and replenish E. Phelps, and we are restocked for a few days of high-speed activity.
She is so low in the water as to be difficult to see.
February 1, 1943, Monday, steaming as before in company with vessels of Task Group 67.5, Fletcher (OTC), Nicholas, De Haven and Radford, patrolling between Cape Esperance and Russell Islands.
At daylight we left the formation to pick up two LCTs and escort them to the landing area at Maroor, west of Cape Esperance. The LCTs were carrying Army troops who were doing a flanking movement below and westward of the Jap lines.
At 1130 general quarters sounded because of a Red Alert on Guadalcanal. We took two horizontal bimotor bombers under fire and saw one fall. When we passed close to the wreckage, both crewmen were dead in their life raft. At 1230 we secured from battle stations.
I was asleep under No. 1 gun when the general alarm beeper sounded at the same moment the gun buzzer warned for training out on a target. Instinct adds quickly. I missed several rungs of ladder and braked with my hands on the handrail to the floor plates. Jab Bauer already had put a fire under No. 2 boiler. He had a foot on a ladder rung when I arrived.
“Give me another minute, Jab!”
I ran behind the boiler reminding myself, the last header drain is the next-to-last bottom valve. I opened it wide, then ran back to the floor plates. “Go!” Jab went up the ladder like a squirrel. The checkman dogged it closed after him.
“Bridge wants emergency full power!” from the 1JV talker.
We already had 50 pounds and climbing. Berry was on No. 2 boiler. I signaled one more burner and the dial pointer went up like the second hand on a clock. I was watching the one small burner on the cold superheater. The steam pressure had passed 200 pounds before I saw the first flicker of movement on the superheater dial.
“Bring down the superheat on No. 1!” The gage board clock read 1447, I knew for sure because I had to time the sequence: bring down the temperature on No. 1 and bring it up on No. 2. The five-inch guns began to blast . . . Concentrate!
No. 1 superheat at 500 degrees at 1452; No. 2 pressure 400 lbs 425 degrees of superheat. The checkman was standing with a hand on the main boiler stop wheel waiting for a signal. I added another burner on both sides of No. 2 boiler, and the pointer almost jumped over 600 to 610 . . . “Crack the main stop!”
As soon as the pressure dipped proving steam flow, I signaled the wide-open whirling motion over my head. The gages steadied and matched up. “Tell the bridge we’ve got full power.”
We had brought on a boiler with climbing superheat in 12 minutes, from cold!
The ship heeled over in a sharp turn at the same instant the machine gun batteries opened fire with their “tonk-tonk-tonk” stitching noise. Then the ship heeled in the opposite direction, and I knew that was bomb release time.
Squeeze the metal handwheel and wait . . .
Two blasts came close together and the ship leaped. Dust cascaded, falling debris, long-lost bolts and nuts and welding stubs from the builder’s work. Light bulbs broke and I was positive I heard the tinkle of falling glass over the howling machinery and gun blasts.
The 1JV telephone talker was standing wide-eyed at the gage board. He translated his fear from what he heard on the circuit: “We’re hit!”
Bullshit! We hadn’t even slowed down. “Stop it!”
“Crew’s washroom flooding!”
“Get over here! Don’t say another word!”
Flooding is a panic word. It came to me then that we had never even thought of instructing the telephone talkers. How they repeated information could cause problems that didn’t exist.
The gunfire slowed and stopped. The 1JV taker pulled my sleeve, “We splashed one . . . two!” Then he gaped at what he had heard, his eyes widened: De Haven down! Gone! No shit, we got hit aft!”
After a short interval word was passed, as good as any all-clear: “Standby to unload all guns through the muzzle.”
Then the bridge began to disseminate the names of the wounded: Fox and Smith . . .
“Moir killed.” It took me some minutes to remember who Moir was.
The 21MC announced: “Maintain battle stations. Ten percent stand-down and be ready for instant action.”
“Hey, the bridge says we’re laying-to . . . ”
“Cut out the superheaters!”
I sent a checkman and a fireman topside for air, while I stood waist-deep in the watertight scuttle at the main deck, starboard.
Jab Bauer and Lavender of Midship Repair were busy cleaning the faces and eyes of De Haven survivors and wounded who were coated in black fuel oil. Pharmacist’s mates and corpsmen strikers were tending the numerous wounded, ours and De Haven’s.
Jab came over to me and said, “God, I watched while the De Haven got it... and I don’t want to see it ever again. They were still running to their battle stations... The ship hadn’t even speeded up. The first hit was right between the stacks, and the second into the bridge. There were two columns of smoke and steam, and when they cleared she just wasn’t there anymore!”
Boatswain’s Mate Nick Carter had organized some seamen who were walking backwards with buckets of sand, sprinkling it on the puddles of oil and blood. Lavender threw a piece of oil soaked gauze he had been using over the side, and came over to where I leaned in the scuttle. He just shook his head; his little smile was not there. Lavender still wore his helmet backwards after nine months since its issue, disagreeing with the whole Army and Navy on which end is front.
“Which Smith?” I asked Jab.
“It was him, Settler... And pretty bad!”
Sam Grey was my checkman, allowed up for air. “It’s inhuman!”
He looked around in a dazed manner. To me it seemed he had awakened; here was another tough-talker finally discovering there is neither referee nor three-minute rounds in warfare.
I saw a De Haven man, still oil soaked but his face clean, he leaned on a deckhouse handrail. He seemed to have a torn and dirty skivvie shirt hanging loose below his waist. I realized suddenly that it wasn’t cotton but his skin hanging loose from the third-degree burns on his upper torso.
Settler was carried forward in a Stokes stretcher and placed in the shade of the Comm Platform near to where I stood. A Medical Department blanket covered him, but I could see that his left foot was reversed, toe down.
An announced “Secure from general quarters” came and I went to the sickbay to volunteer to help out. I at least knew sterile technique and could give some shots. As I was entering the passageway they were carrying Furman Fox out on a Stokes stretcher. His color was yellow. It only occurred to me later that the yellow color was his tan, the undercolor was gone.
Fox was holding his upper body up on his elbows and grinning self-consciously. Chief Dunn followed the stretcher to the door, then he gestured to the door when it closed, and told me: “Fox won’t last the day.” He didn’t last the hour.
Chief Dunn declined my services saying that first aid was already finished.
I went back to see Settler, and sat down next to him on deck.
“Just what I was afraid of,” he said, “to get myself mangled . . .”
Had there been more conviction in his voice I’d have accepted his words at face value. He was out of the war and knew it. Sharkshit Scott came by, and when Settler made the same comment to him, he laughed and replied: “Don’t shit an old shitter . . . you’re going home and you’re glad!”
Settler blinked but he didn’t reply.
He had been thinking through the morphine, for he told me to go to his locker and remove all the letters there and burn them in the boiler. “All the letters?” How many women had he been romancing at the same time?
I did as he asked, and when I returned topside the ships were already laying to off Lunga Point. Landing craft churned into position around the three destroyers. Our two dead, wrapped in blankets were lowered into an LCVP, which shoved off for the beach with full power. The wounded were transferred in Stokes stretchers into the hands of dungareed corpsmen in an LCM alongside. Settler was already lying in the well of the boat. He gave no sign that he saw me at the rail.
We were in shadow now, from the high peaks beyond the jungle. I left the port rail when I heard, “Set the special sea detail.”
As I crossed to starboard I could feel the oil, the blood and sand underfoot. My sensation was of physical weakness. I hadn’t seen any enemy fall, which is what the mind and the senses require in exchange for the fear. Hunkering down and performing a blind, disagreeable duty returns no reward nor solace.
Under the bridge ladder was Torpedoman Rooney belting on his elaborate survival gear. I stopped.
“We won’t be going up [the Slot] tonight,” I said, but only guessing.
“No. They’re coming down!”
My expression must have prompted him. “Haven’t you heard? Coastwatcher says a 19-ship Jap task force is on its way down!”
I knew that when Coastwatcher counted ships, the number was correct. With high-flying aircraft, maybe a mistake or two.
Due to our speed there was a breeze on the foc’sle, and I joined three chiefs sitting around and on the capstan. I sat on deck looking aft, glancing frequently at the bridge. There had to be a three-way huddle with the Commodore by radio.
The law was clear: the Commodore was obliged to engage unless Halsey ordered him to stay clear. Without specific orders . . . But Sharkshit had it: nevertheless, the Commodore would find a way.
General quarters sounded at sundown. When I got below Jab Bauer had all boilers on the line and the superheat was climbing to normal at 850ºF. Burners were newly cleaned so there was a heavy odor of fuel oil and steam. I watched the faces of the sailors as they came down the ladder, and those who climbed out: they were pale, taut and reflective. They understood perfectly.
“I’ve got the watch, Jab.”
“Hang onto your left nut!” he said, and mounted the ladder to topside.
Hardly five minutes later the engine order pointer moved to Full Speed, which was 25 knots. As the machinery settled to the new speed, a voice came over the 21MC: “Attention all hands!” Pause. “This is the Commodore speaking . . .” Confirming that 19 ships were coming down, size unknown, probably destroyers, he continued: “It is our duty to inflict as much damage as we can with our small force. We will attack the enemy with torpedoes and gunfire, and we will attempt to escape under a smokescreen. Our chances are very slim, but Americans know how to make a fighting sacrifice . . . God bless you all, and good luck!”
Until this moment there had been no commitment. Now there was an irrevocable historic Duty laid out for all to see. There was no return to an option, no way to disavow the commitment.
The six pairs of eyes on the floor plates understood. I looked up at the checkmen and they were staring back at me.
The 5-inch guns fired intermittently on radar control at the ever-present snooper aircraft. We could see them on radar; they had us by our phosphorescent wake. I moved around making double checks on gages that were scanned ten minutes before. When I looked at the clock reading 2100 and the messenger sitting on the rag can beneath it, I looked at the log column for nine o’clock. Nothing had been entered, no readings taken.
“Where are the readings?”
“What for? We won’t need them . . .”
“Take the readings now!”
He was right—I needed to know what for, too.
All the while I was mentally multiplying nineteen by the number of guns and by the number of torpedoes I thought the enemy had. I tried other distractions but my mind went back to checking my totals.
Each firing undertaken was by salvo, and I counted up to five: “BLAM-BLAM-BLAM-BLAM.” Then a long silence would ensue. They would come at the mid-point of darkness, but I had forgotten to check the time of sunset. The talker repeated a word from the bridge, “Hey, we splashed one!”
The news even raised a weak smile or two. Then it was back to introspection in every face. At five minutes to the hour at ten, at eleven and at twelve, I pointed at the clock to make the messenger remember.
February 1st, 1943, in Time Zone minus-ten, had expired.