I felt the concussion and shock on the deck under my feet. I lost my balance and landed in the starboard 20mm mount between the two guns. I vaguely remember water coming over me or splashing on me, because I was holding my breath. I have no idea where the water was coming from. I was being bumped around under the guns but I had my helmet on and was wearing my “Mae West Jacket.” I couldn’t see forward because of the 20mm mount’s water shield. I just hung on until all the motion subsided so I could get up.
I knew we were mortally hit, but I figured the torpedo struck us in the forward fire room or forward engine room, which was my watch station.
My first thought was the depth charges, because of our experience with the USS Strong when she went down beside us. Some of her depth charges had gone off with men in the water.
I started to the port side when something made me turn. I saw the USS O’Bannon crash head on into our starboard side at the 20mm mounts, just where I had been. She knocked those guns and shield up against the after deckhouse and on top of the after engine room’s forward escape hatch on the main deck, jamming it shut. Her overhanging bow wiped out the K-guns on the starboard side as we slid past her. I didn’t know at the time that she had broken the sea into the after engine room and fire room. I don’t know how much time elapsed after the torpedo hit ’til the O’Bannon rammed us but I would guess under a minute.
I ran to the port side and started checking the depth charges. Other crewmembers were doing the same thing. Most were the other damage control members, but some of the gun crews were checking, too. The damage control party had practiced this before and knew which way to turn the detonators to safe. The first five or six that I checked were set at 30 feet. I caught up to the man setting them wrong and told him what he was doing. He snapped out of it and started doing things right.
About this time we saw a ship coming up on our port side from aft at a good rate of speed. I thought, “My God! It’s the Japs!” I hid down behind the depth charges. I don’t know what good that would have done. I didn’t recognize the USS Ralph Talbot (one of three destroyers sent to our aid). When a 2,100-ton destroyer went by next, I knew it was all right.
I went back over to the starboard side to check on things over there. I ran my hand under the smashed water shield of the 20mm mounts to see if anyone was under there. Thank God I didn’t find anybody!
Coming back again, I saw three or four chief machinist mates standing by the after torpedo tubes—Marsella, Harrison, and I thought Burden.
[May I pause here for a moment. After all these years I thought I had talked briefly with Burden. I called Marsella after 42 years and asked him. He said Burden wasn’t standing there with them, it was Hampston. Burden’s loss has troubled me for all these years. Maybe I can put it to rest soon!]
Now back to the story. When it became clear that we weren’t going to sink right away, someone ordered us to take the detonators out of the depth charges. I got a screwdriver and crescent wrench somewhere and started the operation.
I hadn’t got too many out when the executive officer came aft and asked me if I would stay aboard, close the ship up, and we’d try to save her. I guess they had been taking the wounded and other shipmates off the ship over to the O’Bannon.
I had started to close things up aft when an officer came back and said, “Abandon ship, we can’t save her!” (I can’t remember whether it was the executive officer or not.)
I don’t remember anyone else back on the fantail when I took off my helmet and laid it on a float net tray next to the lifelines. I just had to step in the water by then, off the port side.
I had paddled only a few yards when one of the whaleboats picked me up. If I remember correctly, the whaleboat proceeded amidships of the Chevalier and took aboard the skipper and a couple of men that were with him.
When we climbed aboard the O’Bannon and looked back and saw our ship with the bow blown off clear back under the bridge and laying low in the water, I knew then how badly she was damaged.
I went below to the dirty clothes bin of the O’Bannon and looked back and got myself a dry shirt and dungarees. I remember we had had to do this with the Strong survivors.
After going topside again, I found our dead comrades laid along the portside aft. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but I remember I attended the burial services at Tulagi, where the grave sites were surrounded by red hibiscus bushes.
Now that I have finally taken the time to recount these experiences after all these years, I feel that the doubts and the uncertainties have at long last been laid to rest both for myself and for my shipmates.