Our new Task Force 18, consisting of five APAs, one AKA, the Wasp, Quincy, Vincennes, San Juan, Buchanan, Farenholt, Aaron Ward, and DesDiv 15, left San Diego on July 1st. As Communications Officer, I usually knew where we were going soon after Captain Coward got the word, if the information came by written instructions, and before if it came by radio, but this time I knew no more than the deck hands did. I do not know if even the Captain had that information.
As the days passed and we curiously watched our daily position on the chart, the usual speculation arose. We were headed almost straight for Christmas Island, near the Equator, so the scuttlebutt had it that we would occupy that forlorn place. The only trouble with that reasoning was that it was too far from any place to have any particular value except possibly for an emergency landing strip.
Soon after we passed on by Christmas Island, however, our idle speculation was interrupted by a most unusual phenomenon: we were approaching the Domain of Neptunus Rex, Ruler of the Raging Main, feared by all landlubbers and “pollywogs” and held in reverent esteem by all Trusty Shellbacks. Crossing The Line was upon us, and under the direction of the King himself and of his Scribe, Davy Jones, the Pollywogs of the Sterett were to have a bad time before Neptunus Rex had fully subjugated and humbled all of the uninitiated. The proceedings began the day before the prospective date of crossing. All day long, from reveille to “darken ship,” strange sights were seen all over the ship; men in bizarre costumes dancing the Can-Can to the accompaniment of weird vocal discords; a man hard at the task of pushing a thin dime from the fo’c’s’le to the fantail with his nose; several men with “binoculars” (made out of two huge fire nozzles lashed together) standing lookout watch on the fo’c’s’le, looking for The Line, etc. I was placed in an undignified position astride one of the 5-inch guns and given a pair of the aforementioned “binoculars.” My function was to keep the “binoculars” up before my eyes and ride while some wiseacre trained and elevated the gun in as jerky a manner as possible. This sort of thing continued until sunset when out of a cloud of smoke and mist His Majesty’s Scribe Davy Jones climbed up over the fo’c’s’le with his Party.
He was greeted by the Captain in an official manner and soon made known his mission. He was to notify the Sterett that her load of low landlubbers and pollywogs had Incurred the Royal displeasure of Neptunus Rex, and that His Majesty would report aboard at 0830 the next day, the 11th of July, to attend personally to this deplorable condition, Davy served an individual subpoena to each man aboard—with all charges and specifications duly listed. With his departure, the Pollywogs (consisting of about 90% of the crew) breathed easily and braced themselves for the horrors, brutality and excruciating pain inevitable on the morrow.
Punctual as ever, the King and his Royal Party reported aboard at the time set. His Court consisted of as weird a bunch of cut-throats as will ever be seen in one spot; some of the most Important characters being: the Queen, the Royal Baby (a powerfully built Negro mess attendant, with biceps as big as an ordinary man’s leg), the Royal Chief of Police, the Royal Barber, the Royal Dentist, the Royal Photographer, the Royal Executioner, the Royal Chaplain and several lesser dignitaries. The King’s long, golden beard, hair and mustache strangely resembled untwisted manila line. It was an impressive sight.
The proceedings began after the Royal Party had been welcomed aboard by the Captain and the ship turned over to King Neptune. All of the uninitiated were herded up forward to reduce any temptation of mob violence. Being a Pollywog—and an officer Pollywog at that—I was one of the first to go through the unholy assembly line and experience the tortures and humiliations ordained to my despicable ilk. In full flight, I passed by about 100 feet of murderers with bludgeons made by splitting two foot lengths of old canvas and rubber fire hose. These they laid on my sore posterior without mercy until I arrived at the scene of major activity. Required to pose before the camera of the Royal Photographer, my eyes, mouth, nose and ears were promptly filled with a deluge of lubricating oil, which issued from the innocent-looking box camera. Thus effectively blinded, the remainder of the ceremony was somewhat vague to me, but I believe that something like this happened in rapid succession: the Royal Dentist laid me out prone and placed a large amount of some hellish concoction in my open mouth. Then I was passed on to the Royal Barber who did a very unprofessional job on my hair, followed by a shampoo of egg and thick “600W” torpedo grease. In the meantime I was being painted with oil and deck paint, but that was definitely anti-climax. The Barber turned me over backwards to the deck below. Fortunately, a net was rigged where I landed, with a couple of mattresses in it and three fire hoses playing into it. Still blinded with oil and befuddled, I couldn’t find my way out of this new difficulty. Assassins beat me with a vengeance until I finally rolled myself out of the net onto the deck in sheer desperation. But that was not all. I was then guided to my last barrier to freedom by two electrical spears; this was so constructed that it was necessary to slither through about 20 feet of garbage, chicken entrails, etc., on my belly while I was still blind and being beaten on. Once through that I became a Trusty Shellback, was handed a swatter, and turned to with enthusiasm upon my most recent compatriots who were still in the process of overcoming the stigma of being Pollywogs. The bloodshed was terrific . . . “it may be human gore.”
The Crossing the Line Ceremony just described may sound rather childish to landlubbers; but to sailors everywhere it is a very real and necessary thing. It goes far in developing sportsmanship and a feeling of a brotherhood of, the sea. In spite of the foul play and rough tactics, it does help build morale. There is no distinction made between officers and men—both get the same treatment and like it. Captain Coward was himself initiated at this time. He was not required to “walk the plank,” but he took all of the rest in accord with the traditions of the sea.
With the humdrum and confusion of the Crossing the Line Ceremony somewhat dissipated, we sighted the first of what the travelogue commentators fondly call the “South Sea Islands.”
These had a very lovely appearance from seaward, although such things had long since failed to excite any great interest for me. It was the Tonga Island group, located to the south of Samoa. The Task Force steamed in through the natural barrier reef common to the South Pacific Islands and anchored in the harbor of Tongatabu.
The Tonga Island group is a British protectorate, largely self-governed by the native queen. She is reported to be large, dusky and authoritative and has her own Royal Guards. Tonga was but recently taken over by the United States as a well-needed base, when we arrived.
Being in port for a few days, liberty parties were sent ashore to afford some relaxation. In spite of an attempt at enforcing prices, inflation was very much in evidence. The natives knew the word “dollar” and priced everything in that term, however hazy in meaning it was to them. For example, the more or less standard price for a tour of the island or to rent a horse was $5.00. One of our seamen though approached a native with the object of renting a horse. He was offered the horse for the reasonable sum of $2.00, and took it at once. When he had ridden as much as he felt like (probably with a couple of other sailors on with him most of the time) he took the nag back to the native who told him that the sailor had bought the horse instead of rented it! Thus passed into the ownership of a member of our crew, one steed of quality. The ride and liberty hours were concluded simultaneously and the horse turned loose to graze—saddle and bridle still in the maximum condition of readiness. To this day, the Sterett owns a horse In Tongatabu.
The few days around Tonga were spent in serious preparations for events to come. Amphibious rehearsals with bombardments were conducted on nearby uninhabited islands of the Tonga group. Then Task Force 18 again put to sea. On the second day out, we met up with what looked like, to us in those lean days, to be a magnificent array of ships.
It was the most ships in one force that we had seen since the days of Fleet maneuvers in Hawaiian waters before the war. It included Task Force 11 with the Saratoga, Task Force 16 with the Enterprise, their supporting cruisers and destroyers, the Australian cruisers Australia, Canberra and Leander, various destroyer transports (APDs), and some other vessels beyond my present recollection. But as stated previously, to us it was a tremendous outfit; at least it was due to give the Japanese a real jolt. Then I had the thrill of reading my first Operation Order—the plan for the first American offensive of the war. The combined force was designated as Task Force 61. Our mission was to capture and defend Florida Island and certain sections on the northern coast of Guadalcanal, in the southern Solomon Islands. The objective came as no particular surprise to us as we had heard rumors from aviators and had received dally aircraft reconnaissance reports on the Guadalcanal-Florida area.
This area constituted one of high strategic importance. Its naval possibilities long recognized, it had once been referred to by the German Admiral Scheer as “the finest natural fleet base in the world.” The Japanese, very receptive to such advice, recognized this fact and it was from Tulagi, Florida Island, that they fought the ill-fated Battle of the Coral Sea.
The Japs had advanced down from the north, taken Rabaul, New Britain, the northern coast of New Guinea and all of the Solomons. They were smugly and confidently building an airstrip on Guadalcanal (the progress of which we received daily reports). This airstrip, when operational in a few days, would give the Japs command of the air over the New Hebrides, preparatory to invasion, and also command of the air over sections of our supply routes from the east. Observation planes operating out of Guadalcanal would be of immense value to the enemy. The airstrip was almost complete. The time had come for us to deprive the Japs of the fruits of their labors.
D-Day was set for August 7th—just eight months after Pearl Harbor. (continued)