During our retirement, we counted six or seven ships still burning in Iron Bottom Bay. Some of those undoubtedly were our own, but the majority were Japanese. One largo Jap ship was watched for quite a long time. He was having great trouble with his fires; they would die down then blaze up again, brighter than ever before. This cycle repeated several times, until we saw a terrific explosion issue from his after-section. It seemed unlikely that a ship could survive an explosion of those dimensions—but it is extremely difficult to assess damage in a night action.
I took over the Deck from Herbie soon after we commenced retirement. One of the steering cables had been severed and soon gave way; that produced a steering casualty and the ship lost steering control for a few moments until I got it shifted to another station. That was just another small headache to add to our troubles.
At about 0400, I was relieved from the Deck. The ship had secured from general quarters as soon as we got into Lengo Channel for the reason that there was too much else to do and, at any rate, we had only two guns with which to protect ourselves; those remained manned. I was exhausted and somehow, involuntarily, got the notion to go below and try to get some sleep—nothing else occurred to me until I got down to the Wardroom.
I was horrified. The Wardroom was completely filled with the most gruesome assortment of broken bodies imaginable. Of course we had been hit . . . of course there were dead and wounded. Hadn’t I heard the screams when the 14-inch salvo hit us, and seen the death around the torpedo tubes? Why didn’t I think of that before? There was to be no sleep tonight. Doctor Harry Nyce and the pharmacist’s mates were hard at work; the Wardroom table was piled high with medical supplies; some of the men were receiving blood plasma.
As I entered the Wardroom, I saw three of my torpedomen who did such a grand job firing the torpedoes from the tubes, lying on the deck; they were in high spirits.
Rhodes yelled out at me, “There’s that man from Texas!”
Shrieves started talking about how “we gave them hell,” and asked, “Did you see us get that tin can?”
And Rhodes came back with a remark about “kicking the hell out of that battleship!”
Hawkins was silent; apparently more seriously injured than the others and doped up with morphine.
I asked the Doctor what I could do to help. He showed me a jar of sulfathyzol paste and said I could be patching up some wounds. There was one man sitting over on the transom who was able to move but with multiple shrapnel wounds; he was my first “patient.” It occurred to me that the first thing to do was carry him in and lay him on my bunk, where I could work on him better; but as I placed one arm under his legs to pick him up he let out a scream of pain. There was a deep gash under his left knee, another on the back of his neck, his left elbow was shattered, and fragments had pierced him in numerous other places. I managed to get him to my bunk by some means, laid him out and started cleaning up his wounds with warm water, spreading sulfathyzol over them and bandaging up. A radioman came in to help me, a man named Janzen.
When we got that man fixed up we went back into the Wardroom and got another. Some were suffering from shock, burns and terrible wounds of all descriptions, but not a whimper out of anybody.
While giving first aid, I told Harry Nyce that if he needed me I would be available and went about my work. I met Solloway in the passageway and he told me that Jackson, Smitty (M. E. Smith), V. R. E. Martin (a gunner’s mate) and almost the entire crews of the after guns were killed. This was the first realization I had on the extent of the casualties.
After a while Harry sent up and asked me to come back to Sick Bay. I finished up the man I was working on and hurried back. It was the first time I had been back near the heaviest damage and, as the Sick Bay was within ten feet of #4 Handling Room, there was a putrid odor all about characteristic of a combination of fire, burned flesh, blood and death. It was unbearably hot. In Sick Bay, standing by the operating table, was the Doctor, stripped down to his shorts for the heat. I followed suit.
In one corner of the Sick Bay, a foot and a section of leg hit my eye—it was thrown over in the general direction of the wastebasket.
“Whose foot is that?” I asked.
The reply stung me deeply. “Rhodes,” he said shortly.
“Are you sure you didn’t make a mistake, Harry? Rhodes didn’t act like he was badly hurt.”
I had a closer look at the amputated leg and saw that about 12 inches of the leg had boon hanging on by about an inch of flesh and muscle.
Hawkins was brought in and laid out on the operating table. The same condition existed with his right leg; it had to be amputated, too, and it was unavoidable if gangrene was to be prevented. The Doc stuck a hypodermic needle into Hawkins’ wrist; then gave it to me. “If he starts to pull out of it before we finish, give him another ‘cc’, Mac.” Hawkins quickly passed out as the pentathol sodium entered his blood stream.
Amputations, especially when done with greatest speed, are grim business. The Doc took his largest knife and cut through the flesh and muscle, all around the bone; then quickly, as soon as he had clamped off the blood vessels, he took his hand saw and hacked off the bone—the same thing exactly as someone cutting off a 2x4. This done, he placed great packs of gauze saturated with sulfa paste on the stump and bandaged it up. The leg joined that of Rhodes’ over in the corner. Hawkins had received a metal fragment in his left eye, seemingly piercing the cornea, a deep wound at his left cheekbone and numerous other wounds all over his body. The Doctor patched them up the best he could and called for the next patient. We were very apprehensive about Hawkins; he could well have died but some spirit held him on.
Next came Shrieves, still in good humor. “You are not going to have to cut it off, are you Doc?” he said with a touch of anxiety in his voice.
“I don’t know, old man,” Harry said. “I’ll do all I can to save it.” This was just small talk because the Doctor knew it was hopeless.
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed, Doc!” And as Shrieves passed out from the pentathol sodium I gave him, his fingers were still crossed, in a futile little gesture. They remained crossed throughout the operation.
Shrieves had the whole lower side of his leg, above the knee, ripped open. The bone was not broken but it was impossible, oven with the best surgery facilities, to save his leg. It came off.
Shrieves had just fired his torpedoes at the Jap destroyer when two 5-inch shells struck the port torpedo tube and exploded. Large fragments were thrown across to the starboard side, shattering the metal seat that he and Hawkins were sitting on. In danger of bleeding to death, Shrieves stayed on his seat until he saw the torpedoes strike home. Our Chief Gunner’s Mate came by, applied tourniquets to Shrieves’ and Hawkins’ legs and had them carried up to the Wardroom.
The next man on the operating table was L. A. Martin. He was on a morphine jag, and in spite of his multiple wounds ho was singing out that his name was “L-a-a-a-a- Martin.” He had a shattered left leg, injuries around his head and chest, and some ominous shrapnel holes in his abdomen. We get to work on his leg first. I got down at the end of the operating table, took a firm grip on his leg and pulled it for all I was worth, in the proper manner to set the bone while the Doctor applied a plaster cast. It seemed hours before the cast was applied and set; in the meantime, I could not slack off for a second for fear of giving him a crooked bone set. Sweat poured down my face and body; I was trembling with exertion and the unbearable heat and was near heat prostration when Harry said that it was OK to turn loose.
The Doc and I were smoking one cigarette after another during all of this time. They helped enormously. The Doc was doing a masterpiece of first-aid surgery—not a slack or hesitant motion throughout the ordeal. He was fighting hard for the lives of our shipmates.
There was an incident at this time that did cause him to stop temporarily. He spilled some alcohol on the front of his shorts and the stuff flowed down to his crotch. He howled with pain and danced around before he washed it off and cooled it down with water. None of us could keep from laughing at him—at the most un-funny time of our lives.
“Red” Spaulding was brought in next. He was in such a bad shape that the Doc held him until almost last, knowing that he did not have a chance of living. “Red” was one of the most unforgettable men of my life. He was a red-headed, freckeled-faced kid that I had known over since he came aboard as an Apprentice Seaman; courteous, hard-working, with a personality that made me want to “run” him as I would a good “plebe” at the Academy. As an officer, of course, I had to treat him with the usual formality, but there was no doubt that I liked him and he liked me. I had personally given him his semaphore and blinker tests a couple of months before when he was going up for his rate of Coxwain. A little coaching and he made it in a breeze.
Back in the Wardroom when we first began carrying men back for operations, Red remarked, “I wonder why they don’t take me now?” Then he thought a little while and said, “Well, I guess those other fellows need it worse than I do.” Though he was being given large amounts of blood plasma, he did not realize that the real reason was that his case was hopeless, and that death was certain. When he was carried in and stretched out on the operating table, he was still conscious and in good humor. Just then we dropped some depth charges in an embarrassing barrage at a submarine. The ship shook as the big charges blasted away. It was unexpected and since we were jittery anyway from our recent surface, action, I was afraid that it would disturb Spaulding.
To reassure him I remarked, “We are just kicking the hell out of their submarines now, Red. Just routine. Nothing to worry about.”
He might well have been calming me down when he replied, “Sure, Mac. We will get ’em the same way that we did last night.”
Then we passed a few more remarks. When I was trying to get a morphine serrette through his skin and the Doc was having trouble pushing the hypodermic needle through, Red remarked, “That arm is a tough one, Mac!”
I agreed, “Just like iron, Red,” and I wasn’t just talking either.
“When old Doc Nyce gets through fixing you up, you will be like a new man, Red.”
“I hope so, Mac!” Then the anesthetic took effect and Red passed out with a faint smile on his lips. It was the last thing he ever said.
Harry Nyce began the hopeless task of doing what he could for Spaulding. He had two good-sized holes in his abdomen; part of his bladder was frayed and sticking through one hole while through the other protruded a section of his colon. Peritonitis and multiple injuries in the abdominal cavity. The Doc shook his head as he tied off the end of the bladder, cut off the ragged end and pushed it back through the wall of the abdomen. Through the hole could be seen nothing but a pool of blood. I was holding Red’s hand with the hypodermic needle still in the vein of his wrist all through the short operation. Then I felt his pulse stop and told Nyce. He confirmed it; Red had bled to death internally, in spite of the blood plasma. Red Spaulding was dead.
During this time in the operating room, Red Spaulding had paid me the greatest compliment I have ever received; courteous to the letter and always respectful during normal times, Red had repeatedly called me “Mac” while he was dying, with a naturalness in his voice as if he had always called me that. “Mac” was the last word he uttered.
Harry Nyce patted him on the arm and said solemnly, “You were a great boy, Red.”
And those were the sentiments of all of us who watched him die; and of all who knew him. (continued)