Driving North
February 2nd to February 28th, 1943

February 2, 1943. (The ship’s log at midnight read): “Steaming in company with vessels of Task Force 67.5, Fletcher and Radford, at general quarters, patrolling between Russell and Florida Islands, British Solomon Islands.

You cannot log apprehension.

The enemy came early, shortly after midnight.

The first radar or visual sighting was not announced. Our first clue came as: “Prepare for high-speed torpedo attack! Target range 18,000 yards!”

My 1JV talker: “Bridge says put in smoke burners!”

The bridge doesn’t accept advice. If I explained that a smoke barrel installed reduced power they would not believe it. I signaled negative to the firemen. We would insert the smoke burners when the torpedoes were fired.

The engine order pointer went to Flank Speed with a ringing braanng. I looked at the clock on the gage board to anticipate the time of torpedo firing. We should make 33 knots and cover the run to target in about 15 minutes. I told the battle watch my numbers and to insert the smoke barrel when we smelled the gunpowder charge from the torpedo launching. The firemen alternated looking at me and their gages. I had no more information than that already given to them.

When the clock passed twelve minutes into the run I moved closer to the ventilator air stream so as not to miss the odor. Instead of gunpowder there came a speed change to One Third Speed in a noisy ringing. Machinery noises dropped away to a strained silence, and we waited.

The Commodore announced himself again on the 21MC. He explained that the enemy was grouped instead of a column, which didn’t facilitate a torpedo spread. But, if the formation did not change after a short time we would attack anyway. “God bless!”

It seemed a long time, then the engine order went to Flank Speed. Full power again, but the distance to target was not given to us. We watched glassy-eyed and pale-faced, the gages and the clock. The ammunition handling rooms, the steering aft watch had less company and nothing to look at, nor any consoling distractions All they could hear was the distant thrum-thrum-thrum of the screws fast or slow.

This time for sure. Look around lest something has been overlooked.

The ship turned so quickly that I had to grab the throttle wheel for balance. Rather than a high-speed turnaway, the ship slowed abruptly to standard speed. This cannot be a torpedo attack turnaway! You don’t clog the circuits by asking questions. Dumbly, you wait.

We waited. We waited forty minutes.

Then Flank Speed on the engine order. And, “All hands, for torpedo attack!”

The high-speed run-in for the third time this night. Pale faces again, glassy eyes. (Are eyes really glassy or is it the contrast to the pale skin?) My body ached and I didn’t know why. I thought to look for panic but saw none except in myself during the no-chance, no-hope torpedo attack: Boling and Berry on the saturated burners, Albin and Mauricio on the superheater burners and McKay and Treadway on the checks. I put on a face barely concealing weakness . . . And it seemed to me, that in all categories of duty, respect of your shipmates is uppermost. You realize, too, given the circumstances, who will be left to be critical? Not anyone who knew us would ever know.

I assumed that the Commodore had already radioed his message to history.

Over the howl of the blowers and fires came BRRAANNG—the engine order pointer dropped to ONE THIRD. It was unexpected and we were slow to react. Machinery noises fell to near-silence I felt pressure rather than release . . . What the hell is happening on the bridge?

Berry, down to one burner, throttled it lower and checked his steam gage. He was still pale, yet he grinned weakly and offered: “This is like waiting for Sunday dinner!”

It was four-forty a.m., and we waited to hear from the Commodore about the attack.

We are still waiting.

I believed that our Commodore dared not follow his mouth into battle.

The enemy retired long before dawn. Enemy air went off the radar screens. When we got off battle stations we were treated to a rare night air attack spectacle over Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, twenty miles distant.

As soon as daylight came we searched for possible signs of splashed aircraft from those fired upon during the night. The PT boats had attacked the enemy task force during the night, some were lost.

The squadron went to Tulagi in the forenoon to fuel from Erskine Phelps, then back to patrolling Sealark Sound and the entrance north of Savo.

At 1700 Grayson and Buchanan arrived and joined Cactus Striking Force.

We anchored in Tulagi at 2100, but a Condition Red came from Guadalcanal Signal Station, which hauled us out to battle stations. I had been asleep dreaming that I was awake, so there had been no change. After a half hour Condition Green was announced, and I found a place to sleep on the communications platform.

Beyond a point, like these past 36 hours, sleep becomes less restful because of nerves, dreams—and they may be the same thing—one is carried along in the imperative present:

1. You must be at battle stations however long the enemy operations keep you there; or, the foresight, hindsight, ignorance or brilliance of captain, commodore, task force or theater commander.

2. Then upon the respite of a stand-down, the boiler division has two more hours for refueling.

3. Then the machinery demands attention or it will quit. If machinery doesn’t get preventive maintenance it will require and get emergency repairs. These don’t occur in working hours. They begin when they happen and are worked upon until completed, perhaps forty hours later.

4. The preventive maintenance list grows until time is available in the rear: Espiritu Santo, Havannah Harbor or Nouméa. The work list always fits the time available, for free time is compressed or eliminated in accommodation.

No time for jokes... In the practiced tones of a seagoing petty officer: “Turn to! I want to see nothing but asses and elbows!”

We sortied from Tulagi under dispatch orders from ComSoPac, our course from the entrance was direct to Lengo Channel leading southward from Sealark Sound. While I was on watch it was announced that we were headed for Advance Base Button (Santos). If Button is advance base, what is Cactus?

But: that only proves how far we have come, the first 500 miles of’ the whole ten thousand.

February 3, 1943, at sea steaming singly enroute Button from Tulagi.

When I put No. 2 boiler on in 12 minutes the other day it strained some tubes. We checked it out with a limited hydrostatic test (6010 p.s.i.) and the leaks were visible but not overwhelming. However, someone up the line deemed the leaks require emergency repair.

I am reading Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, the last delivery from Book-of-The-Month Club.

My list of people to write concerning Old Settler’s wounds are all in Bath, Maine, so I can compose one and send copies.

February 4, 1943, at sea steaming singly enroute Button. Entered Segond Channel at 0800 and moored alongside USS Platte for fuel. Moved to mooring alongside USS Dixie (destroyer tender) to do the urgent boiler work. We furnish our own labor; the tender furnishes the tools and supplies. Sometimes the tender furnishes know-how, but they didn’t have the time. I got fifteen minutes of instruction and a power-driven tube expander. A powered tool to a destroyerman is like a carriage ride, we all took turns for the fun of it.

The chief sent me to visit La Vallette (a squadron-mate) that was torpedoed while screening Chicago. Since she is so damaged as to require a navy yard repair job, I was allowed to salvage usable spares.

I climbed down into the dark spaces of the forward fire- and engine rooms. The stink was pretty bad. The bodies couldn’t be removed for about three days while she was under tow to a base. The torpedo had penetrated at the exact line between the two spaces and had flooded both. The explosive force had folded piping and equipment inward like cardboard rather than steel. I found and removed parts that we needed. I could not reach the Leslie regulators because they were on the damaged side and folded into a sheet of the hull plating.

A ship’s officer told me that it was from this space that the first-class-in-charge had closed the main stop before leaving his station to climb out and collapse topside. Since that valve could be closed from the remote wheel topside, the guy was performing on instinct and balls alone.

I forgot the periscope mirrors and went below to salvage them also.

February 5, 1943. Moored to Dixie, Espiritu Santos, New Hebrides, British and French Oceana.

At quarters this morning the Dixie band led us through the colors ceremony. This morning La Marseillaise followed the Star Spangled Banner. Since New Hebrides are co-governed by the British and French, we are told that the anthems are alternated.

What a peacetime atmosphere that is!

An old song:

We’ll all go to colors in the morning,
And we’ll run Old Glory up the pole . . .
And we’ll all ship-over, we’ll all ship-over,
We’ll all ship-over in a pig’s asshole!

   Back to work. We pressure tested the two forward boilers at 150% of working pressure with cold water. I found that all the superheater tubes leaked and so reported, a direct result of my 12-minutes-to-full-power caper on February 1st. I listened carefully but heard no complaint.

When I saw a copy of the official action report I understood more: Full power and 30 knots coincided with the dive of the first of eight dive bombers, and the closest of all the 1000-lb. bomb near-misses. The difference between 25 knots and 30 knots is 8.44.feet per second. The closest bomb was 20 feet on the beam during a high-speed turn, and the one that riddled the after deckhouse with shrapnel.

Since Dixie had spare tubes we proceeded to remove the worst tubes and to replace them. We finished the superheater tubes, then checked out and replaced some water tubes.

February 6, Saturday. Moored to Dixie. We are still inside No. 2 boiler, the worst because it was cold at the start.

Some scuttlebutt going around about a Stateside availability, the only thing they can hang that rumor on is, our gun barrels are worn beyond peacetime standards.

We worked on the boiler until 2100, not yet finished.

February 7, Sunday. Moored to Dixie. Finished work on No. 2 boiler, hydrostatic test with cold water held at 700 p.s.i.

February 8, Monday. Moored to Dixie. Started work on No. 1 boiler. Worked until 2230 that night, put a hydrostatic test on and left it. If it holds in the morning, fine. If not we’ll fire up anyway, for we have orders to get underway.

February 9, 1943, moored to Dixie. I had five hours sleep, and got back to the forward fireroom to light off. No. 1 boiler had lost 20 lbs of pressure, which is below standard but it won’t leak steam. After lighting-off I went back to the sack. Lavender will take her out.

We sortied full power available and at 27 knots proceeded to look for the transport we were to escort. In the afternoon we found it near Selwyn Straits—reversed course back to Santos.

February 10, 1943. At sea enroute to Espiritu Santo escorting Bustagi. Stood in to Segond Channel at 0830, anchored. An AO came alongside and delivered fuel.

I was given a motor whaleboat to go back to La Vallette to look for specific parts. I brought better lights, a couple of white battle lanterns, and made a search. I could see patches of skin on the handrails. But the parts I had come for couldn’t be removed.

February 11, 1943, Thursday, at anchor in Berth D 24, Segond Channel, Espiritu Santo.

We began transferring fuel to USS Cony, 38,000 gallons. We then maneuvered alongside Neosho to take on that same amount. Was it because Cony couldn’t make that maneuver? I had been hearing some strange stories about ships arriving in the area unfit for operations for lack of experience and training. I went to visit Cony to see an old Omaha shipmate, Torpedoman Freddy Leroy Smith. The log showed him detached one hour before!

I don’t know why the supplicants come to me . . . I should have a cassock and a screen . . . But I don’t ridicule anyone, is the reason, I guess. Today, while I watched the jungle shoreline of Segond Channel, a first class P.O. moved in with his complaints. He said that he needed rotation Stateside before he cracks up. Surely he knew that all I have to give is sympathy, and I gave him that. I don’t have influence, for I can’t get promoted, locked up or discharged. I was reminded of long-gone Eddy, and that Eddy didn’t cry out loud.

February 12, 1943, at anchor Espiritu Santo. Still working on No. 1 boiler. Cony and >Reid underway from the destroyer nest.

Ships arriving in the forenoon watch were: San Diego, Enterprise and Hughes, followed by Russell, Morris, Mustin and Zane.

The Second Section got ashore to the new Recreation Area—softball and rationed beer. The combat ships ration the beer tickets; Dixie sells the beer at regular prices.

We finished No. 1 boiler before chow—hydrostatic test is still holding.

Had a long conversation with Shofstall, part of which concerned his Bath girlfriend. She was a politically-conscious lady and far-left. I remembered her very well because in spite of her politics she was very bright. I enjoy putting passionate politicos to the test to see how deep it goes: the super-patriots who don’t know even the second verse of the Star Spangled Banner, or the leftist of roaring argument who don’t know the Internationale. Shoftstall’s girlfriend knew the Internationale.

Bathed and wrote a letter to sister Verta.

Watched part of the topside film until it became predictable, then to bed.

February 13, 1943, Saturday, at anchor in destroyer nest, Espiritu Santo.

Underway at 0730, taking anti-sub patrol between Arabe and Malo Islands.

The news carried the speech of the president on our Japan raids.

February 14, 1943, Sunday, at sea patrolling before Santo’s Segond Channel.

Sometimes we pass close to a pristine beach, a half-moon of white sand, tall palms overhanging like a cheap, stylized painting—too perfect. We are conditioned to distrusting the jungle, ominous and dark behind it. Rather than enjoy the scenery, there is an urge to warn the bridge, “too close! There might be a sniper in there!”

We tested the main battery and machine guns in the afternoon.

At 1700 we stood in to anchor in Havannah Harbor, Éfaté, New Hebrides. Well, well, here are all the battleships! We had been wondering, for it has been sometime since they were part of a task force.

February 15, 1943, Monday, anchored as before in Havannah Harbor. We got underway at 0700 to take the anti-sub patrol before Hilliard Channel.

There is reflection and discussion about the new area of combat to the northwest. We don’t control it in daytime as in Sealark Sound. If the ship goes down it is in enemy-controlled waters. So you have to survive twice, which is a lot of luck for one basket.

February 16, 1943, Tuesday, steaming singly as before on anti-sub patrol. I had a few hours of dreary and painful self-doubt, self-pity maybe. Hard to shake.

At 1330 we got a sound contact and dropped charges. Again at 1425, same action and no results.

We went into the idle boilers to spray Consol oil—a new product said to have good cleaning properties.

Back to anchorage in the afternoon. Chiefs Scott and Omarah got a whaleboat and a fishing party was on. We caught a lot of fish, and the only recognizable ones were mackerel. The rest were near rainbow in colors. A beer would have helped, but we had fun.

February 17, 1943, Wednesday, at anchor Havannah Harbor, in nest with Fletcher.

Underway at 0700 to patrol the entrance. Blue mood again . . .

Reflected on the role of destroyers as the protector. We have the heavy punch in torpedoes with the battle line, and the cavalry parallel of disruption. We go in first; we have the weapons and the sound gear to protect from submarines; and when the heavy ships stand-down we maintain the patrol.

No contacts all night. So it was rather routine.

February 18, 1943, Thursday, relieved at sea by Waller. Fueled from a fleet tanker that had a lot of merchandise in her ship’s store. I bought a long-needed fountain pen. Having owned four, the only pen that worked right was a Chilton that I mail-ordered from France in 1939.

This day was hot like in H-O-T. I couldn’t bring myself to call the bridge and ask for the ambient temperature. What difference is a weather report 15 degrees below the equator? Because I am here?

Last night while taking the air on the fantail I overheard a couple of sailors talking: “This is as dark as the inside of a black cat!”

The other guy drawled, “You sure got a good memory!”

Still reading The Web and the Rock. Wolfe perceived The Rock to be Manhattan. When I get as much shore duty as he had maybe I’ll look beneath the streets at the rock.

February 19, 1943, Friday, at anchor, Havannah Harbor, Éfaté Island.

1030 Underway with Task Force 68, Montpelier (OTC), Columbia, Cleveland, Denver, and DesRon 21: Nicholas, O’Bannon, Fletcher and Radford.

Don’t know where we are going but it has very un-dull trappings.

February 20, 1943, Saturday, at sea in company with vessels of Task Force 68.

Added on all boiler power, and we are due off Tulagi at dawn.

As soon as we look upon that landscape the gloom descends.

The radio news has the story that we have surrendered 80,000 men to the Germans in Tunisia! I had begun to think we were on the move forward.

February 21, 1943, Sunday, at sea in company with vessels of Task Force 68. Entered Purvis Bay, Tulagi at 0830 and fueled from USS Tallulah.

Sortied at 1000 to anchor in shallow water and conduct a sound search.

2000 Condition Red signaled from Guadalcanal Signal Station. The ship stayed at battle stations for two and a half hours. We received no information as to where the enemy air was, near or far.

After GQ I wrote letters to brother Dude and sister Eva.

Two years ago I was enjoying (while it lasted, and I knew it would not last) a good period in New York while Omaha was undergoing alterations and overhaul. Then there was a couple of months in the Brooklyn Naval Hospital on a very cushy complaint. Two years before that, exactly, was the finest ever on the French Riviera. All pretty distant now.

Today is my birthday, give or take 24 hours in this time zone. Twenty-seven years old; nine and a half have belonged to the Navy.

February 22, at sea in Sealark Sound in company with vessels of Task Force 68.

Condition Red came over the Cactus Radio just after midnight, so we went to battle stations again. There were a lot of aircraft contacts on the Sail Charlie radar. Their night tactics are pretty brazen, and when we are at sea they are always scouting us. We stayed at general quarters until 0430.

We entered Purvis Bay and fueled from Tallulah, then went to the assigned anchorage. It was raining topside after I finished fueling; all the sheltered spaces were taken on the superstructure and under the guns. No place to sleep unless I go below.

Dr. (Lt j.g.) Doyle was transferred to the cruiser Montpelier. Underway to sortie at 1800. Patrolled the entrance while the heavy vessels sortied.

February 23, 1943, at sea patrolling Sealark Sound.

Worked the hours off watch on a fuel pump almost torn apart by a careless fireman (started with the discharge valve closed).

We got some mail today, and I got two’ new books from Book-of-the-Month Club, The Song of Bernadette and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

February 24, 1943, at sea patrolling Sealark Sound. Still working on the fuel pump repairs, so far sixteen hours. We held general quarters for drill and a battle problem. I just kept on the pump during the drill. If there is a question to answer my JV talker can bring it to me.

February 25, 1943, at sea patrolling Sealark Sound. Still working on the fuel pump. An arbor press would solve half the time we spend dismantling the parts before fitting new ones.

There was a period when I tried to track and calculate sleeping time vs. working, watches and battle stations. I can nap for twenty minutes and leap to the alarms, and when it is nap time again the writing to keep track is hard work. I get the diary done on watch when there are long stretches of boredom, and there is no napping on watch. At a back base six hours at a time for sleeping is the norm, taking into account auxiliary watches. I do believe that my inner clock needs ten hours, for I don’t remember being over-rested since I took the oath.

We have been detached to escort Columbia back to Santos.

February 26, 1943, steaming in company with USS Columbia en route to Santos. Arrived off Santos 1030; we went alongside the cruiser and received orders to rejoin Task Force 68.

Battle exercises 1530 to 1700.

I crapped out on deck after the exercises, and when it became cooler at sundown, I went below for the luxury of a mattress and to absorb some of that heat.

February 27, 1943, .steaming singly en route to Cactus.

0620 Sighted warships and identified them as vessels of Task Force 68. We rejoined the screen taking No. 4 position.

1520 went alongside USS Platte, fleet tanker, to fuel ship in an underway replenishment maneuver.

I had the 20 to 2400 watch, then read an hour before sleeping

February 28, 1943, at sea in company with vessels of Task Force 68. USS Wichita has joined up to replace Columbia. Wichita has just come from Europe and maybe not yet “attuned.”

Sleeping on deck, it is a hard bed but cooler, and interrupted often by rain (rain in the tropics is no event, just happens very frequently). You call the petty officer whom you are to relieve: “Gone below due to rain.” You find it too hot, so back topside to note that someone has abandoned a sheltered spot for whatever reason . . . You call again, “I’ll be under the starboard spud locker for sure, it’s rain-proof.”

0840 A radar contact, enemy air, battle stations for an hour. I had the forenoon watch so no sleep was lost.

1210 Again battle stations, this time it was friendlies forgetting to show their IFF.

I slept four hours in the afternoon, sometimes in the shade while the ship followed the zigzag plan.