She was literally torn to pieces and sank instantly. Many of her crew who were uninjured by the explosions and fire were unable to get clear of the unfortunate little ship. This event was the necessity for our next orders from Admiral Halsey. We were to proceed to Nouméa, pick up the Bobolink (a tug), and proceed to salvage the Vireo, which was unmanned and drifting, though undamaged by the above course of events. The Bobolink was maddeningly slow. To be forced to steam at 8 knots will drive any destroyer sailor out of his mind, but we made our plodding way northward. Before we had gotten half way, our orders were changed telling us to forget the Vireo, locate the gasoline barge (also adrift) and take it on up to Guadalcanal. We would take up where the Meredith was forced to leave off.
Half a day before we were to arrive at the last reported position of the barge another emergency came up calling for another change in orders: the Chester, one of our extremely valuable heavy cruisers, had been torpedoed by a Japanese submarine just a few hours to the eastward of our destination, and we were to proceed to give her assistance in making port at Santo. She had been hit in the engine room and was being towed by one of the destroyers. However, by the time that the Sterett and the Bobolink appeared on the scone, making our breakneck speed of 8 knots, the Chester had worked up to five knots under her own power. We fell in with her and followed her on in to Santo, as precaution against her breaking down enroute. It was a real relief to see the big cripple crawl on into the harbor and to safety.
Our three sets of orders on this assignment give a clear indication of how critical the situation was in the South Pacific at that time. At first, it seemed more important to rescue the Vireo, because in the overall picture she was vital in delivering future gasoline to the Marines. Then the situation developed that made immediate delivery imperative and the already loaded gasoline barge took first priority. Later when we were in danger of losing the Chester, there could be no doubt that even a temporary shortage of gasoline, however vital, was more desirable than the loss of one of our few remaining heavy cruisers at that time.
While these operations wore in progress, the survivors of the Meredith were suffering beyond the limits of human endurance in the hot, shark-infested waters of the Coral Sea. All available ships were employed on critical assignments so days elapsed before the Gwin and the Grayson were available to rescue the remainder of the Meredith’s crew. A best-seller titled Condition Red, written by the Captain of the Grayson, gives an excellent account of this rescue in great detail so I will not attempt to improve upon that, as it would be only hearsay at best. The facts on the sinking of the Meredith that I got firsthand from a survivor I shall touch on briefly.
On our next trip to Nouméa, to jump ahead a month, a member of the Class of 1942, an Ensign Kauffman came on board to visit our Assistant Gunnery Officer. He still appeared to be suffering somewhat from shock at the time. There were a few events that typified their experience under violent attack followed by the long days in the water:
A classmate of mine, Lt. (jg) Penrod was the Gunnery Officer. The attack developed so swiftly and from so many directions that the guns had little effect; with the first bomb hit all control was lost and in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, the ship was sunk. The Vireo, undamaged, drifted downwind faster than did the survivors in the water. It was Penrod’s idea to play a long shot and make an attempt to swim over to the Vireo, get it underway somehow and come back and rescue the remainder of the survivors. He left the rafts, swimming in the direction of the tug and was never seen again.
The hot sun, exposure, unbearable thirst and sharks have strange effects on men. After two or three days in the water, many of the men went out of their minds, with the attendant hallucinations. One chief petty officer, apparently bearing up well, suddenly announced, “Well, fellows, I just live over here a little ways. I am going home,” whereupon he swam away from the raft in a direction leading only to a thousand miles of sea and was never seen again.
One of the miracles of the survivor’s experience was the case of a pharmacist’s mate who ended up in the water a great distance from the remainder of his shipmates—and without a life jacket. Incredible even for the expert swimmer he was, this man swam without support for three days until a searching B-17 sighted him in the water and threw him a life jacket. He was later rescued by one of the destroyers.
Many of the survivors, a month afterwards, wore suffering from mental disorders brought about by injury, exposure and fatigue; most of the others were being hospitalized for more tangible injuries. (continued)