I don’t know what we had expected. Most of us were from the Middlewest and knew little if anything about ships and the sea: I was not the only one who was now seeing both for the first time in his life.
There were twenty of us who had come down to the docks to go aboard the Chevalier. We were just two weeks out of boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois, and as green as grass. Earlier that afternoon, in our barracks at the receiving station at Norfolk, Virginia, where we had arrived only the day before, we had found a dog-eared booklet about the Navy that someone had left behind, and in this we found a brief entry:
The ship got underway at dawn the next day, and it developed that we had come out for a day of anti-aircraft firing practice. A PBY towing a sleeve soon appeared on the horizon and began maneuvering to make his runs over the ship.
The greenhorns among us awaited the firing nervously. Few of us had even seen anything much bigger than a .22-caliber rifle before. I watched the 5-inch guns with their ugly snouts poked into the sky, following their target with blind, uncanny accuracy. The ship trembled and shook with their recoil, and seconds later black puff-balls bloomed high overhead, spattering all around the swiftly moving sleeve. The sound of the bursts echoed across the bay, muffled by distance.
When we picked up the sleeve out of the water later in the day, after the towing plane had cast it loose and returned to its base, we crowded eagerly around to see how much damage we had done. It turned out to be extensive: the sleeve lay in tattered, dripping ribbons on the deck. A carpenter’s mate who had come up from the repair party took one long look and turned away with an expressive grunt.
A couple of days later we were under way again at dawn. And at seven that night the glittering necklace of the lights along the Manhattan shore loomed out of the mist off the port bow.
We tied up at a dock where five other destroyers awaited us, and for the next week we worked like beavers. Stores and ammunition were brought aboard, and the fuel tanks filled to capacity.
“Now hear this,” said the omniscient voice. “Our next port will be in North Africa. The barometer is falling and rough weather can be expected. All hands are cautioned to stay off the main decks as much as possible and to use the lifelines when going forward and aft.”
The warning was not an idle one, and a day later the fate I had dreaded caught up with me at last. I was seasick.
I had been assigned a watch station on an anti-aircraft gun mounted over the superstructure deck and known as sky-aft. Here I clung with a death-like grip to the rim of the gun shield, bracing myself weakly against the wild roll of the ship.
In the face of my suffering, the gun captain insisted doggedly that there was no such thing as seasickness. It was all in my head, he said. Me stomach gave him the lie. I regarded him out of a bilious eye, too weak to argue.
After the excitement of the storm, the daily routine of shipboard life took on a certain monotony. The weather grew warmer, and the sea smoothed magically into a blue and shining mirror.
One afternoon a PBY appeared and circled the convoy inquisitively. We knew that land was near. Later in the day several ships loomed hull down on the horizon and heading in our direction. They closed us at length and a busy palavering with signal lights began. The two forces joined and then separated, while signals blinked furiously and incessantly from ship to ship.
Unscrambled at last, we found that we had taken over the outbound convoy and delivered ours into other hands. North Africa, so it appeared, was not for us. We listened to the inevitable announcement with feelings that approached disappointment.
“We are now heading for New York,” came the voice. “Our next port will be New York.”
The return trip passed without incident, though rumors spread that a map which the Captain had on the bridge with colored pins showing the reported positions of enemy submarines indicated no less than thirty lying in our path . . .
A week at the Brooklyn Navy Yard was in store for us. We tied up at the dock while workmen swarmed over the ship to repair the damage we had sustained in the storm. I shouldered a rifle and stood a sentry watch on the fantail.
I caught my first real glimpse of the Captain. He was a big man with a tired, worried look about his eyes and a general air of quiet efficiency. His name, I learned, was Commander (no Captain) E. R. McLean, Jr., and Annapolis man with a reputation among the crew for stern discipline tempered with an acute sense of fair play and justice.
As the week neared its end the workmen began clearing away their debris and the ship was readied for sea. “What now?” was in every man’s mind as we steamed out of the harbor once more and headed south in company with two other destroyers and a baby carrier.
At Panama we began the long, slow journey through the locks. A network of silvery barrage balloons floated lazily in the blazing blue vault of the sky, and Army bivouacs nestled in the dense green valleys between the reddish mound-shaped hills. On the Pacific side, we met the destroyers and the carrier again, and formed up with three troopships whose decks swarmed with khaki-clad figures. So that was it! We were taking the Army somewhere—and it was more than an even bet that it wouldn’t be San Francisco.
That afternoon the loudspeaker boomed an unexpected announcement: “All hands not on watch lay aft to the fantail.”
Something important seemed to be up. As the fantail slowly filled with men, the Captain appeared and climbed to the top of the after 5-inch gun turret. On watch in sky-aft, we crowded the edge of the gun-shield and strained our ears to hear. An occasional phrase reached us.
“We have now joined the Pacific Fleet,” we heard the Captain say. “Something I have been looking forward to for nineteen years … Our next port …New Caledonia … Keep your lifejackets at hand at all times … All hands be on your toes … We are in the Big Leagues.”
We steamed steadily on into the open sea. The carrier and the troopships rode in our midst, with the three destroyers fanning out ahead. in a protective spear-shaped screen. The dark loom of the coast receded and became a thin black line smudging the horizon. By late afternoon the land had dropped completely from sight and we were headed inexorably westward—into the setting sun and the vast trackless waste of the blue Pacific.
The crossing occupied the better part of a month, and we neared New Caledonia filled with curiosity and eager to see land again. The slender white spire of a lighthouse shot skyward from a tiny low-lying island at the edge of the encircling barrier reef guarding the approaches to Nouméa, the capital city, and as we glided gingerly past the treacherous shoals and rounded a promontory, we saw the city nestled snugly at the harbor’s edge. Steep hills rose sharply in the background, and beyond them the towering peaks of a mountain ridge lost themselves in clouds and the blue hazy distance.
A good part of the Pacific Fleet was berthed in the harbor, and we lined the rail while some of the old hands identified the ships. There was the Saratoga, the North Carolina, the Washington, and scores of smaller ships from heavy cruisers to harbor tugs. We realized that we were in the Big League, all right—and probably on the first team, too.
Two days later we were on our way again and headed for what was to be our permanent base at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. Here we were assigned to a cruiser task force, and took our place on the fighting front with the fleet—a full-fledged ship of the line at last.
Toward the last of January, we sortied from our base in company with the task force and headed north. Rumors of a climactic battle at Guadalcanal were in the air, and we knew that our first action might not be far away.
We were cruising steadily northward through a calm and quiet sea. The 29th of January came and went, and as the sun nodded on the rim of the sea at dusk, we languished on deck near our battle stations and waited for the usual routine call to general quarters. I lay at full length on the deck outside the forward 20mm clipping-room—my battle station—and enjoyed the first stirring of the cool night wind.
Suddenly in the gathering darkness, streams of red tracer bullets flared into the sky from the deck of a destroyer steaming in position two thousand yards off Chevalier’s starboard quarter. I jumped up, blinking unbelieving eyes while my stomach did a quick somersault. The electrifying clamor of the call to general quarters split the air. The general alarm! Our baptism of fire had come.
I made a dive for the clipping-room while feet began pounding on the ladders and the sound of hatches being slammed shut and dogged down echoed from below-decks. The ship had been galvanized into instant and frenzied activity. The 20mm gun crews had assembled at their guns outside, and I began feverishly pumping tension onto the magazines and slamming them out through the scuttle.
The 5-inch battery began roaring methodically, and a moment later the 20s added their staccato rapid-fire bark. Lurid flashes framed by the open scuttle threw the scene outside into stark relief every few seconds, and I could see the gun crews on the 20s going into action. The ship rocked and shuddered with the recoil from the 5-inch battery.
There was a lull in the firing, and the ensuing silence seemed eerie and unreal. I had no idea what we were shooting at: for all I knew, the whole Jap fleet was steaming toward us over the horizon. I stuck my head out through the scuttle long enough to shout a hurried question.
“What are we shooting at?” I begged.
“Planes,” came the terse reply.
It was a short-lived lull. “Plane coming in on the starboard bow!” cried the telephone talker. “Bearing 030, position angle 20.” And a moment later: “Commence firing!”
The 20s began hammering again and were immediately drowned out by the full-throated roar of the 5-inchers. I stole a hurried glance through the scuttle and saw red streamers lacing the sky, and one blinding flash high off the port bow lit up the sea for a brief instant.
The second attack ended. The OOD came down from the bridge to see how we were making out.
“Don’t hesitate to shoot when you get the word to commence firing, even if you can’t see anything,” he advised. “The won’t come down into our fire.”
I hoped he was right. I remembered the stories I had heard about Jap suicide pilots, and tried to control my shaking knees.
The OOD had scarcely returned to the bridge when the phone talker called out alarming news.
“We’ve got a surface target,” he cried excitedly. “Bearing 280! All guns train 280!”
The 5-inch battery was already lumbering around. The 20s quickly followed suit. We waited tensely for the command to open fire. Seconds passed, then minutes, while the tension mounted.
“We’re not sure what it is,” the talker offered in explanation. “It’s something small paralleling our course at about the same speed. It may be a sub on the surface.”
We continued to wait, nerves taut and straining. If the target was a sub, and close enough to be within range of the 20s, he must be dangerously near.
“Commence firing! Commence firing!” the talker shouted.
Every gun spoke at once. A solid wall of flame leaped from the side of the ship and went hurtling into the darkness to converge on the target while the ship wallowed in the recoil.
It didn’t last long. The guns suddenly ceased firing and the talker began dancing around on the gun platform, yelling gleefully. “We got him!” he yelled.
We relaxed. I found that I was dripping with sweat, and wiped my face with a sleeve covered with grease. There was grease in my hair and all over my clothes from handling the magazines, and I could even taste it in my mouth. I must be a sorry-looking mess, I told myself.
The loud-speaker hummed into life, and we tensed again, expecting word of another attack. Instead the Captain’s voice came over the circuit, clear, steady and calm. We paused as one man to listen.
“This is the Captain speaking. All hands stand easy at your guns.”
We relaxed a little as the voice continued.
“We have been attacked by Japanese torpedo planes,” the Captain went on. “We ourselves have shot down two and a possible third. The Chicago has been hit by a torpedo but is still afloat though badly damaged. About forty men were killed in the explosion.” His voice gathered strength and seemed to expand with determination. “But they’ll pay for it!” he said grimly. “They’ll pay up! Now, stand easy at your guns. We have lost contact with the enemy, and word will be passed over this circuit of another attack appears probable.”
The loud-speaker hummed and faded. The Captain’s cool, steady voice had affected us like a shot in the arm. Let the Japs come! we thought jubilantly. We’d be ready!
But the night wore on, and the attacks were not renewed. We stayed at battle stations, exhausted but determined, until dawn broke at last and we realized that our first taste of action was over. In the gray light we saw the ships of our task force still steaming proudly in formation, with only the Chicago trailing behind and wallowing across the sea like some great wounded animal, her fantail almost awash. Later in the day she was detached for an attempted run back to our base, and our hearts went with her.
I went down to the ship’s office and found Chief Yeoman T. R. Weber recounting the night’s exploits to the office force. He was reporter on the bridge during general quarters and knew what had been going on.
“We accomplished our mission,” he said elatedly. “We were acting as a screening force covering troop landings on Guadalcanal. The Army went in this time, and we landed in force, so it’s only a question of time now until the whole garrison is wiped out.”
But the news wasn’t all good. The Captain passed the sobering announcement that the Chicago and her screen had been attacked again by planes; and crippled as she was, had been unable to fight them off and had gone down, while a screening destroyer [La Vallette] had taken a torpedo amidships. The enemy had exacted a high price for our victory.
Events on Guadalcanal moved rapidly to a climax, and the remnants of the Japanese garrison soon fell. Our first hand offensive of the war against the Japanese had been fought and won, and that bitterly contested little wasteland of mountain and jungle was ours at last—and for good, too.
On board the Chevalier we had become an efficient fighting force almost overnight, and the pride we took in our little ship was now tested and unshakable. We would need that pride and loyalty in the violent months that lay ahead.
The Slot has become a famous landmark of the Pacific war. It is the narrow sea-lane running up in a northwesterly direction between the two chains of islands forming the Solomons group—from San Cristobal on the northern hinge up through Guadalcanal, New Georgia and Vella Lavella on the southwest, Malaita, Santa Isabel and Choiseul on the northeast, to the big island of Bougainville at the northwestern tip. It had once been the undisputed right-of-way of the Tokyo Express, a fast Japanese task force which made frequent forays southward in a desperate attempt to dislodge our first tenuous foothold on Guadalcanal. A series of titanic sea battles had already been fought for possession of this little alleyway of water, and more were to come.
Both my watch and battle station were changed, and I found myself at last at the post I had long coveted—on the bridge. Here I became the Captain’s phone talker for the repair parties and for the engine-rooms, and I operated the annunciator, which signaled speed changes to the engineers. The bridge was the brain and nerve-center of the ship, and I was able to discover instantly what was going on whenever anything happened.
Our task force moved up to Tulagi as soon as Guadalcanal had been secured, and conducted operations from there. Preparations for the long-awaited drive into the Central Solomons were already under way, and our job was to blaze the trail.
On the Fourth of July, sometime late in the afternoon, the task force weighed anchor and steamed out of the harbor. Before sunset the Captain apprised us over the speaker on what lay ahead.
“Our task for tonight,” he said, “is to bombard enemy shore positions in Kula Gulf. Amphibious forces will follow us, and landings will be made immediately afterward at several points.” He paused and then added with a touch of grim humor: “This happens to be the Fourth of July.” We intend to celebrate it tonight in the usual way—with fireworks.”
Kula Gulf lay at the extreme north end of New Georgia, and was strongly guarded by Japanese airfields. Stiff opposition could undoubtedly be expected.
The night was unfortunately cloudless, and a bright moon threw us into sharp relief against the dark water. Despite this we reached the Gulf at midnight undetected and crept silently in column formation into the narrow waters between New Georgia and Kolombangara. A scout plane had been detailed to conduct an aerial reconnaissance before the firing run, and on the bridge we waited expectantly for the report.
The radio suddenly crackled.
“Hello, Hugo, this is Tex,” said a hollow voice. “How do you hear me? Over.”
Tex was the code name of the plane. Hugo that of the leading cruiser—the Honolulu, carrying the task force commander. In a moment the answer came back.
“Hello Tex, this is Hugo. I hear you strength good, modulation fair. How do things look down in Texas?”
“Everything looks O.K. All quiet below.”
Two brilliant shafts of light sprang upward at that moment from the dark shore. The plane had been detected, and searchlights fingered the heavens, groping to make contact. The Honolulu immediately opened fire, and smoke and flame belched from her side. Red tracers went arching shoreward, and the searchlights winked out abruptly. The whole column of ships now sprang into action, and the Chevalier’s guns thundered regularly with the rest. The familiar choking fumes of cordite rolled into the pilothouse.
There was an unexpected interruption. The TBS hummed, and a voice fraught with desperate urgency came over.
“Cary, this is Gay! We have been hit and we need help! Come at once.”
Gay was the USS Strong, a sister destroyer. The Captain leaped to the TBS and grabbed the transmitter.
“Gay, this is Cary. Hang on! We are coming right over.”
He gave the command to change course. We swung around and headed toward the stricken ship.
We reached her and began maneuvering to go alongside. She was listing badly to port and settling rapidly. Japanese shore batteries had taken us under fire, but it seemed unlikely that they could have caused such extensive damage so quickly. Torpedo mounts rigged on the beach seemed to offer the best explanation. A lucky hit had apparently blasted Strong’s hull and flooded her engine rooms.
Down on the main deck the repair parties had succeeded in getting a line over, and men were scrambling across from one ship to the other. A green flare dropped suddenly from directly overhead and lit up the surrounding sea for a thousand yards like a night football game. Planes! Our worst fear had at last materialized. Anything could happen now.
A stick of bombs dribbled from the sky and sent towering pillars of smoke and flame leaping from the water a hundred yards dead ahead. Another landed wider of the mark somewhere off the starboard beam.
The Captain leaped to the bridge communicator. “George, we’ve been illuminated,” he cried to the executive officer. “I’m going to get under way as soon as I can.”
The Exec—Lieutenant Commander (now Commander) George R. Wilson, USN—came out of the chart room to assist in directing the furious activity going on all over the ship. On the main deck the repair parties had picked up everyone in sight, and we were about ready to get under way.
Several tremendous explosions rocked the ship in rapid succession. It seemed certain that we had been hit at last. One of the quartermasters came running in from the starboard wing of the bridge.
“The Strong’s depth charges went off when she sank,” he explained breathlessly.
The rest of the task force had completed its firing run and was already on its way out of the Gulf. The Captain went to the TBS and picked up the transmitter.
“Hugo, this is Cary,” he announced. “We have completed rescue operations and are coming out.”
He gave the command to change course, and the helmsman spun the wheel around. Half an hour later we rejoined the task force and headed south at high speed. Our share of the operation was over, but back there in the hell from which we had just escaped, the first landing parties were probably already wading ashore, and I didn’t envy them their job. Ours had been hair-raising enough.
We returned to Tulagi, and the task force broke up. Orders came through detaching Captain McLean for other duty, and the Exec took over as skipper. The Commander left us with tears in his voice, if not in his eyes. He had seen us safely through hell and high water, and now he hated to leave as much as we hated to see him go. But our new skipper was equal to his job and now commanded our unswerving loyalty. We had seen him prove himself in battle, and our confidence in him was complete.
Destroyers began to play an increasingly important part in the Solomons campaign. They were fast and maneuverable and heavily armed, and the inevitable ship losses which Slot duty entailed were not the serious blows to fleet strength which the loss of battleships and cruisers would have been. It was a grueling experience but destroyers were tough and could take it.
We established ourselves in Purvis Bay, a snug, angular little harbor toward the southeastern end of Florida Island, the Tulagi base. In groups of three and four and five we made almost nightly runs up the Slot toward Bougainville, never knowing what we might encounter, and meeting usually anything from planes to Japanese task forces.
We were ordered one afternoon toward dusk to intercept a force of unknown strength coming down to attack our most recent landings on Vella Lavella just north of Kolombangara. Before midnight we established contact with a scout plane which relayed information on the size and character of the approaching enemy force.
“It appears to consist of four destroyers,” said the pilot. “Four destroyers accompanied by many barges.”
“Oh boy, four cans! “the OOD exclaimed, and clapped his hands like a schoolboy. Our own squadron that night was composed of the same number: the fight at least would be even.
As we neared the point where the ships had been last reported, Chief Weber quietly asked the Captain for the usual data regarding weather and sea conditions, all of which was carefully recorded in his notebook.
“Put it down as bright moonlight, slightly overcast,” said the Captain, “and calm sea with moderate ground swells.”
Weber scribbled busily and peered at the luminous hands of the bridge clock. It was almost midnight.
Soon afterward we made radar contact. There were four ships, all right, and a host of smaller craft—evidently the barges. We began maneuvering to close in.
Several bright flashes sprang up on the horizon. The Japs had opened fire. Something went rushing past overhead with a frightening whooshing sound, and a blast of hot air seemed to pass through the pilothouse.
“Hmm,” the Captain said coolly. “That one was close.”
We arrived in position for a torpedo run, with the five-inch battery already taking the target under fire. The sleek bodies went hissing into the water, trailing pallid streams of phosphorescence. The Captain watched their progress with his eyes glued to his binoculars, and called out to the torpedo officer in a voice of measured triumph: “I think you got one of them.”
We ceased firing, changed course, and prepared for a second run. But the Japs had had enough. Before we could get into position, they had broken off the engagement and were hightailing it for home, leaving the barges to shift for themselves.
The barges had scattered the moment the firing began, and were now scurrying frantically in all directions. They evidently had been carrying supplies and reinforcements to the hard-pressed troops on Vella Lavella, or else were attempting an evacuation. Deserted by the destroyers, their slow speed proved a fatal handicap.
Our destroyers separated and began combing the sea in search of them. It was like shooting sitting ducks on a pond. Within a few minutes all but a few which had managed to make it to shore were burning brightly on the water, victims of the deadly accuracy of our five-inch batteries.
We headed south and began our run back to port. Our operations were confined to the hours of darkness, for Japanese air strength was still superior to ours, and surface ships in the daytime were too inviting a target. Even at night planes often plagued us.
On one occasion the Chevalier seemed to have been picked out as an especial target. A snooper plane dogged us persistently and was apparently bent on our destruction. The five-inch battery blazed away repeatedly but without success and we went through a series of evasive maneuvers which soon put us some distance away from the other destroyers. The squadron commander at length inquired politely but firmly over the TBS concerning our intentions.
“Cary,” he demanded, “are you going our way?”
The Captain picked up the transmitter. “Affirmative,” he said with some feeling, “but I’m trying to get this bastard before he gets me.”
Another time we made radar contact with some small surface target with we thought might be a submarine except for the fact that it was stationary. We were on the point of opening fire anyway, when the squadron commander offered an interesting but cryptic observation over the TBS.
“I think the contact is a piece of Gertrude,” he said.
It appeared for a moment that Slot duty was beginning to tell on the squadron commander’s nerves, too. The Captain, however, seemed to know what it was all about. He picked up the transmitter.
“I think you’re right,” he said.
It developed that Gertrude was the code name of another destroyer which had preceded us in the area and had been rammed by a companion destroyer during maneuvers to evade attacking planes. A part of her bow had been neatly sliced off and remained afloat, and it was this which had showed up on our radar screen.
The whole crew drew predictably closer during these arduous nights up the Slot. A spirit of comradeship flourished which has no parallel in civilian life. The constant proximity of sudden and violent death, the danger and excitement and sometimes terror of our precarious existence gave an added stimulus to the strengthening of brotherhood among us. We were a marked lot, and knew it.
A ten-day rest period in Sydney, Australia, was over before we knew it, and we headed once more for Purvis Bay to take up again where we had left off. As we steamed out between the headlands of Sydney Harbor, one of the quartermasters asked the OOD where we were going.
“Back to the salt mines,” the OOD said grimly.
At Purvis Bay another squadron waited for us to relieve them, and we watched them leave, thinking wistfully of Sydney.
We made a couple of runs up the Slot and encountered nothing beyond the usual snooper planes. Enemy activity along the little water passage seemed to have quieted during the interval of our absence.
Then, on the afternoon of October 6th, we received ordered to get under way for another excursion into the area south of Bougainville. Our force now consisted of three ships—the Chevalier, the O’Bannon, and the Selfridge, the latter of which was new to this theater, and with which we were operating for the first time. She carried the senior officer, Captain F. R. Walker, USN, who commanded our little group.
Before the night had worn very far along we began to realize with increasing uneasiness that there was something different going on from what we had been led to look for. There was too much activity, for one thing. The darkness seemed filled all around us with a secret, stirring life which was menacing and mysterious. Enemy planes were shadowing us. They stayed discreetly out of range of our guns and dropped flares—regularly and persistently. Strange yellowish lights descended and bobbed up and down far out on the water, winking on and off like signal lights with the rise and fall of intervening swells. They gave us the impression of being surrounded by unseen and intangible forces gathering quietly on the dark perimeter of our vision to close in suddenly without warning. Slowly, with mounting tension, we understood that the night might hold more than the expected routine patrol. Something was up!
We were somewhere southwest of Choiseul. The sky was overcast, but the clouds were scattered and the night was not completely dark. Visibility was fair. By straining your eyes, you could distinguish the faint line of the horizon where the sky came down to meet the quiet, black water below. The sea was calm, with a few moderate ground swells, the weather hot and muggy. There was sultriness in the air, and occasionally the sky lightened for a brief moment with the flicker of heat lightning in the far distance. Low-lying cloudbanks held a promise of rain.
The three ships cruised in column formation—the Selfridge in the lead, then the Chevalier, and last the O’Bannon. Behind us, a luminous path in the water, the white glimmer of our wake betrayed our passage and dwindled to nothingness far astern.
The task force commander in the Selfridge gave the signal to change course.
“Something’s in the wind,” he advised over the TBS. “After we’ve made this turn, be ready for anything.”
We swung sharply to the left. The Captain quietly told the bridge talkers to pass the word for all hands to stand alert. We did so. Someone on my circuit immediately queried, “What’s up?” I said I didn’t know.
The hands of the bridge clock pointed to twenty minutes to twelve. There was a sudden stir of excitement, and the bridge communicator buzzed into life.
“We’ve made radar contact with four ships, Captain,” came the Exec’s voice.
The Captain received the news calmly. He had evidently been expecting something of the sort. We changed course on a signal from the Selfridge and swung in toward the contact without slackening speed.
We were outnumbered this time—four against three. On a previous occasion we had been even up, and had routed the enemy without difficulty. Maybe this slight tipping of the scales in their favor wouldn’t make much difference. Maybe they would turn tail and run.
But the worst was yet to come. The Japs had no intention of running this time. The scales were tipped more than slightly—they were practically standing on end.
Five more ships showed up on the radar screen—four destroyers, and what appeared to be a light cruiser. Nine ships—eight destroyers and a cruiser—against three destroyers. The odds now were more than overwhelming. They were astronomical. If we had any sense, we were the ones to turn tail and run.
Nine ships! Holy Christopher! The sweat broke out on my forehead.
I had already passed the word over the phones that we had encountered the enemy. Now the men below-decks were clamoring for more news. How many ships? What were they? Were we going in? What was happening?
I relayed the information quickly. We were going in, no doubt about that, though it looked like a suicide mission. These Navy skippers were fire-eaters. They wouldn’t back down in the face of the whole Jap fleet, regardless of odds.
We closed in rapidly on the enemy ships, and they swung around to meet us. We were almost on top of them.
Both sides began firing at once. The quiet darkness of the sea was suddenly transformed into a flaming hell of fire and thunder. The Japs were so close you could hear their guns roaring between the salvos from our own, and the flashes of their gunfire were great read splotches spreading in a long line directly off the port beam. We were firing at murderously close range.
A tremendous explosion flamed among those hulking black shapes paralleling our course and spitting death as they passed. One of them was immediately enveloped in an inferno of smoke and fire. It swerved and fell behind, burning fiercely. It was the only one I had seen hit, but my range of vision was limited to a narrow field framed by the open port hatch. There may have been others. I couldn’t tell.
Things went suddenly black. I reeled off into a great empty void, where I seemed to float like a disembodied spirit. I could see nothing. I wondered vaguely where I was, and how I had got there. Everything was strangely quiet.
My brain struggled desperately to adjust itself. Dimly I remembered that I was supposed to be wearing phones, and that we had been in the midst of battle.
I groped shakily in the darkness. Very faintly I thought I heard the tinkle of falling glass. My hands reached my head and I felt for the phones. They were still there. But one earpiece was missing, and that side of my face was warm with sticky wetness. Slowly my head cleared, and I could see a little. I was half-sitting on the deck, yards away from the annunciator. I got up painfully and stumbled back to it, wading through a pile of debris with which the deck was littered. My head began to pound. I put a hand to my forehead, and encountered a lump the size of a hen’s egg on my right temple.
I reached the annunciator and leaned against it for support, fighting panic and nausea. The quiet was unearthly. I couldn’t hear a sound.
Full consciousness gradually returned. I looked around, to find that the pilothouse was a mass of wreckage. The radio had been blasted off the bulkhead and lay on the deck in twisted ruins. The binnacle was smashed. The navigator’s desk hung grotesquely by a single remaining shred of steel. A 20mm gun mount had crashed through the forward bulkhead. Pieces of glass and other unrecognizable debris covered the deck.
Chief Weber appeared suddenly beside me and asked if I was all right.
“I guess so,” I said. “What happened?”
“Torpedo,” he said briefly. “Go and take a look up forward.”
I realized that we were not alone. Others were stirring in the semi-darkness of the ruined pilothouse and out on the wings of the bridge. The Captain was on the port wing, shouting orders to someone on the main deck below. The explosion had thrown him to the deck between the bulkhead and the binnacle, seriously injuring a knee. He had got to his feet and was limping around giving directions, trying the get the ship under way again.
I went out on the wing and looked over the side. The whole forward structure of the ship was gone, clear back to the bridge. Dark whirlpools of water gurgled along the crumpled steel plates below. The bridge itself hung precariously over the water.
The phone circuits were dead, and the Captain had sent a messenger to the engine-rooms to see if there was any chance of restoring power and saving the ship. It would have been impossible to go ahead, since the ruptured forward compartments formed a gigantic scoop which would have sent the ship plunging downward with the application of momentum, but we might be able to proceed backward at reduced speed and make port.
The messenger came back with disheartening news. The O’Bannon, which had been following directly behind us at high speed, had been unable to stop or swerve aside in time to avoid hitting us. The torpedo had stopped us dead in the water, and the O’Bannon had plowed into us amidships, smashing her bow and stoving a gaping hole in our hull plating. The engineering spaces were filling with water; the hole was too big to shore up. The Chevalier was doomed.
The Japs were nowhere in sight. The blazing wreck of one of their ships still lit up the sea far behind, but the rest were gone. It seemed inconceivable that such a tiny force as ours had put them to complete rout, but they had apparently cleared out and left us in undisputed possession of the surrounding sea.
But we had paid a price. The Chevalier was sinking, and the Selfridge had taken a torpedo in her bow, but was still afloat and could make it back to port. Even the O’Bannon was so badly damaged that she failed in her attempts to maneuver alongside and finally stood by a thousand yards off the port beam, ready to give us any assistance she could.
A tiny signal light began winking on the O’Bannon.
“They want to know if you think we can stay afloat much longer, Captain,” one of the signalmen said.
“Tell them ‘negative,’” the Captain said. “Tell them our engineering spaces are flooding, and we are settling slowly.”
The signalman went to work with a blinker light. He finished the message and waited. In a moment the answer came back. The tiny light winked rapidly on and off in the darkness and then vanished.
“They say, ‘We are standing by,’” the signalman interpreted.
The heartbreaking work of collecting and caring for the wounded had begun. Our port whaleboat had been destroyed by a shell hit, but the starboard whaleboat was successfully lowered, and the O’Bannon sent her two boats to help. The three plied back and forth between the two ships, carrying their tragic cargoes.
The Captain gave the order to abandon ship. Reluctantly we assembled on the fantail and slipped over the side to rafts and floater nets, or striking out by ourselves toward the O’Bannon.
I reached her at last, and clambered up a cargo net that hung from her deck. I turned to look back.
The Chevalier lay low in the water, a dim, black shape against the faintly luminous sky. The missing forward structure gave her a curiously truncated appearance. She looked like the ghost of a ship, dark and lifeless and without motion save for a sluggish roll as the ground swells caught her and set her to wallowing idly. I thought of the day I had first seen her, a proud, trim little greyhound of the fleet tied up at a dock in Norfolk on a chilly evening in late October. Almost a year had passed, and during that time I had known no other home.
I took a last, long look and turned away. I knew that I would never see the Chevalier again . . .
The O’Bannon was a remarkable little ship. She had been in the South Pacific before our arrival and had been in the thick of the great sea battles off Guadalcanal in those early desperate days when the Japs had hurled their fleet against ours with reckless abandon and precipitated the most furious naval engagements of the entire war; and she was still jauntily, proudly, unbelievably afloat. Her luck and courage had made her name a legend. It was said that an angel rode upon her foremast.
We disembarked at Tulagi as passengers two days later and set to work preparing a list of the dead and wounded to be sent by radio dispatch to Washington. It was a saddening task and one that we were glad to see finished. Out of a crew numbering 287 men, forty-five were missing. Five more had been already dead with they were found in the twisted wreckage of the Chevalier, and three had died en route on board the O’Bannon. Of twenty men with whom I had gone aboard at Norfolk, five were missing.
Burial services were held in Tulagi’s neat little military cemetery for the eight whose bodies had been recovered. The survivors lined up in double ranks before the open graves while the chaplain faced us calmly and then read briefly from the Bible.
“The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me: Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”
Overhead the sky was blue and brilliant, and a few white clouds hovered above the green hills in the background. Behind us a gentle surf lapped the shore with barely perceptible murmurings, and far out to sea a line of ships moved over the calm water like toys on a painted ocean. Above them, a speck against the blazing sky, a plane circled in soundless flight.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The chaplain stepped back and a Marine guard of honor fired three volleys across the graves. A Marine bugler sounded Taps, and the services were over. A few of the Chevalier’s men had come to rest forever in the quiet soil of a little tropical island overlooking the placid sea.
The Captain worked on his action report and we typed it page by page as it came from his bedside table in the hospital. He told of his last tour of inspection, just before he had abandoned ship, when he and two signalmen named Sims and Westphal were the only ones left aboard. The report was couched for the most part in coldly official language, but between the lines I thought I detected a note of regret. He had hated to leave
I found everything forward of frame X almost totally destroyed. Masses of wreckage blocked the passageways and it was impossible to investigate beyond them. I reached an arm through the escape hatch to the plotting room and encountered fuel oil up to my elbow. I decided to explore no further in that direction.
He has proceeded aft, alone, and surveyed the damage wrought by the O’Bannon when she rammed. He had seen the great hole in the hull and had climbed halfway down one of the ladders leading to the engine-rooms.
The engineering spaces were flooded waist-high and the water was rising steadily. I realized that it would have been impossible to save the ship. The main deck on the starboard side was awash and she rolled sluggishly. I returned to the quarter-deck to find Sims and Westphal still waiting for me, and we abandoned ship together.
His first though on reaching the O’Bannon, like the great skipper he was, had been of his men.
Commander MacDonald assured me that he would stand by until a thorough search of the area had been made for any remaining survivors.
He praised the O’Bannon’s commanding officer for the gallantry he had displayed during the action and immediately following it, when the Chevalier lay stricken and helpless and unable to defend herself.
I cannot praise too highly the gallant action of Commander MacDonald, his officers, and his crew, in standing by for some two and one-half hours in the presence of a superior enemy force which might have returned at any time. To their intrepidity and heroism the Chevalier’s surviving personnel undoubtedly owe their lives.
And finally he expressed his feelings with regard to the ship he had commanded and the men who had served under him.
In conclusion I wish to say that I had the honor to command one of the best-officered and best-manned ships in the Pacific Fleet. I should like to request that the entire crew, both officers and men, be returned to the States as a unit to put a new destroyer in commission. They have all expressed a desire to do so. If this done I can guarantee that the Fleet will have an efficient, fighting ship from the day she is commissioned.
But this last request could not be granted. Experienced men were too sorely needed on too many ships, and we would be split up into small groups to form the nucleus crews of a dozen new warships still on the ways.
From Tulagi an evacuation ship took us to New Caledonia, and there we boarded a converted liner for the long voyage home. In the States we would be granted a survivor’s leave and then sent to various receiving stations for reassignment.
The trip proved uneventful. The weather grew perceptibly cooler as the days passed, the sea choppier. We knew at last we were not far from land.
Some of us stayed up all night before the day we were scheduled to arrive, eager to catch the first glimpse of the lights along the shore. Early the next morning the rails were lined solid, and there wasn’t a porthole that didn’t have a grinning head sticking out of it. Every man on the ship was straining his eyes to see the Golden Gate Bridge. When it did swing into view at last out of the haze far ahead an audible sigh swept the crowded decks. It was a goal that every American in the South Pacific dreamed some day of attaining.
We drew closer, and the great spidery framework of the bridge loomed larger on the horizon. We passed a few fishing boats on their way out of the bay and waved to them with hysterical delight. The fishermen probably thought we were crazy.
Now we were under the bridge, and the muted roar of traffic overhead came down to us like the reverberation of hollow thunder. The city of San Francisco lay spread out before us. A few puffing little tugs came out to meet us, hooting importantly, and began maneuvering the big ship alongside the docks. A few blocks away, between rows of buildings, I saw a busy street thronged with traffic and hurrying crowds, and on Telegraph Hill high above, Coit Memorial Tower stood guard like a gray and lonely sentinel immobilized in stone. The constant hum of the city’s ceaseless activity came to us faintly across the water. We moved in slowly toward the docks.
And so the career of the Chevalier was ended. In a few days her crew would be scattered all over the country, and in another month or two they would be reporting to new ships building at shipyards from Mare Island to Newport News.
I thought of the men we had left behind. Some slept in the bosom of Tulagi’s quiet hills, and others lay in the dark waters at the bottom of the Solomons Sea. For them there would be no return; for them the way, like life, was over. But against the background of a great city I saw the shining reaches of the blue Pacific, the green fastnesses of the tropic jungles; and rising above the throb of the busy port I heard the sound of far-off, happy voices.
And it seemed to me that the laughing, boyish ghosts of all the Chevalier’s men who had not come home were with us still.