From commissioning to her final day off Guadalcanal, I shared the life and death of the Meredith and the lives of her gallant crew. Six years of prior naval service qualified me to be a member of the experienced nucleus crew. As quartermaster second class, at the age of 25, I was older than ninety percent of the crewmen, a real “old salt.” The nucleus crew had scarcely reported on board when the Meredith was literally flooded with eager, dedicated young recruits.
Gradually we moved from a “hay foot-straw foot” aspect to an efficient fighting ship. Hard work and hard play in Boston’s Scollay Square were the routine. The comradeship, devotion to shipmates, response to duty and responsibility were something I did not again encounter during my entire 30-year career. She was a happy ship.
After commissioning, I was sent to Key West Sound School to learn the operation of our new gadget (SONAR). During one of my first sonar attacks, while on patrol in the North Atlantic, we killed a whale. At a special Captain’s Mast, I was presented with a “citation” and a small tin whale. During another submarine attack, Captain Mendenhall was certain we sank a German submarine. When the Navy refused to confirm a “kill,” the officers and crew presented him with a German U-boat captain’s hat to soften his disappointment. He was relieved by LCdr. Harry E. Hubbard, USN on 2 March 1942 at Norfolk, Virginia.
After a shakedown cruise in the Caribbean, the Meredith had been assigned to the North Atlantic Patrol operating out of Iceland from September 1941 to March 1942. Our mission was to trail German battleships around Greenland and spot subs operating in the Neutrality Zone. We braved the fog, storms, ice, minefields, and escorted convoys to and from England and Russia.
In March 1942, Meredith escorted the carrier Hornet from Norfolk through the Panama Canal, to Oakland, California, where the Hornet loaded the B-25 bombers for the Doolittle raid on Tokyo. We escorted the Hornet on that famous raid from “Shangri-La”; then sailed to the South Pacific via Pearl Harbor. There were tears in our eyes as we saw the remnants of our proud navy lying on the bottom. During the Battle of Midway, Meredith escorted the oil tankers used to re-fuel our battle fleet and the aircraft carriers, and on 18 September escorted a reinforcement convoy to Guadalcanal.
As conditions on Guadalcanal deteriorated, the measures to provide supplies and reinforcements grew desperate. The Meredith and the Nicholas were ordered to escort a resupply convoy consisting of two attack cargo ships, Alchiba and Bellatrix, PT boat tender Jamestown and the tug Vireo. Each cargo ship was towing a barge loaded with bombs and barrels of aviation gasoline. Our destination was Guadalcanal where planes were grounded for lack of fuel.
The Japanese first line carrier fleet had left Truk Island some 600 miles northward, heading for Guadalcanal. A force of enemy surface ships was reported operating to the East of us. Their main battle force was poised, ready to dash down the “Slot.” Eight Japanese submarines were ringed around the East end of the channel entrance. Admiral Yamamoto swore to obliterate the festering sore of our landings on Guadalcanal so he committed this massive array of carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines to attack our much smaller array of ships. He hoped to lure our fleet into a toe-to-toe slugging match and almost certain massive losses.
In view of the tactical situation, the whole convoy was ordered to turn back to Nouméa. Then, conflicting orders were given for the Meredith to escort the Vireo, which was towing a barge to Guadalcanal. Meredith and Vireo steamed into the jaws of the giant pincer, hoping against hope to deliver the sorely needed gas and bombs to Guadalcanal. This could indeed be termed a suicide mission.
At about 1140, our radar detected a new menace, a large group of enemy aircraft, 45 miles to the North, presumably searching for our carriers who had retired to the South. We alerted our carriers and received orders to take the Vireo crew aboard and retire southward at full speed, until the tactical situation was resolved. As we approached the Vireo to take off her crew, a PBY flew overhead and reported “two enemy cruisers 20 mile west and heading your way at high speed.”
Apparently the large group of enemy planes had not located our carriers, so all 38 planes (21 low-level bombers and torpedo planes, eight dive bombers and nine fighters) unloaded on the Meredith. In a matter of 4–5 minutes, hits were registered by an estimated 14 bombs and seven torpedoes. My battle station was Secondary Control, located on the open superstructure near the stern, so I had an unobstructed view of events.
The first bomb penetrated the bridge and exploded just above the keel. The ship was broken almost in two pieces and began sinking at once. We lost steerage, fire control and all communications between Primary Control (captain) and Secondary control (executive officer). Each half of the ship took over local manual control of the guns and continued fighting.
After the initial bomb hit, things seemed to occur in “micro-seconds.” The fuel tanks were blown open, scattering heavy fuel over the decks and surrounding water. A torpedo exploded near ammunition Ready Locker. This explosion apparently ignited the oil on the water’s surface. Each bomb hit or near miss threw the flaming oil all over the ship. When it came into contact with human skin, the oil continued to burn a hole almost a quarter inch into the flesh. I received extensive burns on the arms and on the legs below the knees while standing in the burning oil.
I saw a torpedo headed directly for the area beneath Secondary Control. I fully expected this one would completely obliterate that area of the ship, since it would strike a magazine. The time element did not permit extensive review of my past life—I was concerned with the immediate present. The torpedo detonator was defective, and the nose penetrated about three feet before it stopped.
I wore a large bell shaped helmet with earphones inside. I was standing next to the XO, who was directing the machine gunner’s attention to an incoming plane, when suddenly he slapped my helmet and yelled “duck.” I looked up to see a bomber in on a bomb run. It was headed right for my station and there was no place to escape. I watched the bomb as it fell toward me. About 300 feet up, it began to flutter and veered to the after part of the ship and hit on the deck about 20 feet behind us. As I whirled my face away and ducked, I was struck in the back of the head and was thrown against a 20mm machine gun shield about 10 feet away. By the time that I was able to stand up and look around, the XO, the machine gun Control Officer, all but two men of the number 3 5-inch gun crew, and all but two of the machine gunners had disappeared. The two remaining men of the 5-inch gun crew continued firing at incoming torpedo planes. Both men would load the gun, then one would look outside through the twisted gun shield, and tell the other when a plane was coming in and when to manually fire the gun. The two remaining men on the machine gun were firing as rapidly as possible. Their gun barrel was red hot before they ran out of ready ammunition.
At about that time, a rumble was heard deep inside the ship and everyone sense that the Meredith was sinking rapidly. The oil fires were dying out, possibly because the heavy fuel oil was cooled to below flash point by the bomb splashes. I do not recall hearing the order to abandon ship. Everyone, realizing that water was covering the deck, just stepped over the side and began to swim away.
One man, Joseph Roy Odum, gunner on the port 20mm machine gun, refused to abandon ship. He was heard to say, “I’m not leaving until I shoot down one of those bastards.” The next plane which came over strafed the after superstructure and Odum was observed to slump in the gun harness. As the ship sank, I saw him still slumped over his gun.
As I was swimming away an underwater explosion threw me several feet in the air, causing internal injuries. A shipmate, whose battle station was below decks under Secondary Control, suddenly popped to the surface right alongside me. The last bomb exploding on the deck had jarred the unexploded torpedo loose and it fell into the sea. He removed his life jacket and crawled out the hole left by the torpedo. Completely exhausted, he put his life jacket back on and began to swim away from the ship. Just then an enemy plane came over on a strafing run. It was deliberately shooting survivors, even after the ship was gone. I managed to slip my life jacket and submerge, but my shipmate was too exhausted. He was hit by two bullets and we became separated. Not until September 1988 did I find that my shipmate, Eddy Bernier, had survived.
Initially, as the ship sank, we swam away from the gasoline barge. We assumed the planes would set fire to the barge. This would spread fire and engulf all the swimmers. After the planes departed, we tried unsuccessfully to reach the Vireo and barge which were floating serenely nearby. At first we all tried swimming toward the Vireo, but we soon realized that it was drifting away from us. We then gathered all the wounded inside the rafts and tried towing and shoving them, but it drifted still farther away. Several good swimmers, who were not seriously injured, were selected to try shoving a single raft to the Vireo but this too failed and they returned to the group of rafts. Next several swimmers set out on their own, all but one failed. One man, swimming by himself, after five hours managed to reach the Vireo only to find five other men had arrived ahead of him. These five men had joined together to push a mattress to the tug. It was almost dark but they attempted to put a boat in the water to tow all the rafts to the Vireo. Unluckily, while lowering the boat it was damaged. Using a flashlight, they worked all night repairing it. Next morning they returned to the area where they thought the ship had gone down and searched without success for survivors. They thought that no one else had survived, so when they saw an enemy plane appeared they headed for Espiritu Santo. Four days later, they were sighted by a PBY and rescued.
On the rafts, realizing that the wind and currents were carrying the tug and barge away too rapidly for us to catch up, we began to gather the wounded in and around the life rafts. We managed to tie three rafts together and began loading them with the more seriously wounded. Other rafts, some distance away, gathered survivors. After the second day, neither group of rafts was aware of the conditions on the other rafts. Each thought themselves sole survivors.
During the next three days, the men were constantly attacked by sharks which had been attracted to the wounded. An aggressive shark jumped onto the raft. It bit a large chunk out of a wounded man’s leg before it could be hauled off the raft. This shipmate did not survive. At first, some rafts had up to 40 survivors, while others had only a few. Normally, life rafts have capacity for 10–15 people, and are equipped with first aid gear, fresh water and sea biscuits sufficient for several days. Unfortunately, all this gear, except one 5-gallon water keg and some malted milk tablets (in cans), and a few tins of salty corned beef, had been lost during the battle. The one water keg, milk tablets, and corned beef were the sole sustenance for three days.
Several of us were carrying hunting knives which we used to fight the sharks. The hunting knives had been given to the crew by Boy Scouts, each wrapped in a letter from a scout. I regret that when my ship was sunk, I lost the letter in which my knife had been wrapped and I was never able to tell my scout how his knife had helped to save the lives of my shipmates.
During the first night, several men swam silently away and were never seen from again. Many wounded shipmates died the first night. Their life jackets were removed and passed to some one without a jacket and their bodies consigned to the deep. A shipmate and I kept a friend’s head above water for almost two days, alternating our rest and keeping him tied to the raft. He imagined some compelling need to “go below decks” until the third day, when his hallucinations from a head wound ceased.
During the second day, we ran into a large patch of heavy oil. This was smeared all over us to protect from the sun. We packed all the wounds and burn holes with the oil to prevent loss of body fluids. I saw a submarine go by, close to our raft. It had no visible markings or hull numbers. I kept silent, thinking it must be Japanese. In 1988, I learned that we indeed had a submarine (USS Amberjack) in the area. Search of the rough deck log of the Amberjack shows her 950 miles to the northeast, circling Ocean Island from 15 October until 2000, 16 October. She then sailed for Espiritu Santo, arriving there at 0730 19 October. Reconstruction of her route indicates passage 350 miles to the east of the rafts early on the morning of 18 October. It may never be known whether the sub I saw was enemy or friendly, nor whether shipmates lived or died because I remained quiet. So far as I know, only two other persons have reported seeing the submarine. After the strafing by the Jap planes, we were convinced that capture was equivalent to a death sentence.
On the third day, the physical condition of the men had deteriorated to almost utter exhaustion. Some were tied to the raft to keep them from wandering away. Men would untie themselves and suddenly, with almost super human effort, begin to swim away never to be seen again. As a shipmate on the raft died, his life jacket would be passed along. After a moment of silence, his body would be sent to the deep and another shipmate would take his place on the raft. Some wounded men refused their place on the raft. In order not to jeopardize another shipmate’s chance of survival, they would swim silently away until they sank from complete exhaustion. By this time my thirst had reached the stage where I finally accepted my first water, about one tablespoon full.
On the fourth and last day I found myself floating away from the rafts. A shipmate rescued me and again tied me to a raft. Shortly thereafter I was hauled up into the raft for a short rest. My next recollection is looking up at a PBY flying low overhead.
On 18 October, at about 0930, a “Black Cat” PBY piloted by ENS Allan Rothenburg of VP-51, flew over us at about 1000 feet. It circled and dropped down to just above the water, then dropped a smoke float. After circling the area looking for more rafts, the PBY flew low, dropping life jackets and rubber boats. It then headed straight North to obtain help in the rescue. What a welcome sight to our sore eyes and tired bodies.
We learned later the PBY crew sighted a lone man swimming by himself almost a mile from the raft. Having already dropped their emergency life jackets and rubber boats, the crew took off their own life jackets and tossed them to the lone swimmer.
So many men had still refused their water ration that we still had a few drops remaining. When we were rescued, one of the men held up the water keg, emptying the last few drops into the sea. Then I heard all the survivors yell: “MEREDITH-MEREDITH-MEREDITH.” It could not have been very loud, but it echoed among the survivors and the rescue ship like thunder. I believe that act was a fitting tribute to the courage and determination to survive which my shipmates had exhibited.
By 1030 that day, 75 survivors were picked up by the Meredith’s sister ship, Grayson. Another sister ship, Gwin, picked up another 5 while USS Seminole (AT 65) picked up 11 men. The six men picked up by the PBY on 19 October made for a total of 97 survivors from the Meredith and Vireo, instead of the first reported seven officers and 56 men.
As soon as the survivors were on board, Grayson’s doctor, Lt. Peek, and Chief Pharmacist Mate Crane checked each one for injuries. Then Grayson’s “angels in white hats and dungarees” took over. They wiped the oil from our eyes, ears, and mouth. They washed the fuel oil from our bodies with diesel oil, and then gave us a bath with saltwater soap. Then came a shower and clean clothes. Those who were able to eat were fed the most delicious chicken soup they had ever eaten. Each survivor was then helped to a Grayson sailor’s bunk. It did not end there—for the next eight hours, Grayson was at General Quarters most of the time, fighting off Japanese planes. For those survivors who were unable to care for themselves, a Grayson man stayed by his bunk to reassure him. At all hours, day or night, Captain Bell and the Grayson crew could be seen going from man to man to ensure that everything possible was being done to alleviate the suffering.
As soon as the medical corpsman reached me, he wiped the oil from my eyes and then gave me a shot glass of medicinal whisky, which immediately erupted back up, all over the corpsman. He refused my apology, saying “If I can’t legally drink it, no law says I can’t smell it.”
On 19 October 1942, at 0740, Jay Edward Maynard, Seaman First Class and William Stacey Marks, Seaman Second Class, survivors of the Meredith were buried at sea. There was not a dry eye on the ship as the survivors, some walking alone, some leaning on others, some carried by less seriously injured shipmates or Grayson crewmen made their way to the main deck to participate in the ceremony conducted by Captain Bell of the Grayson DD435.
The burial at sea had scarcely ended when Grayson began firing at an incoming Japanese bomber. On 20 October, 1942, at 1048, Lt. Dan R. Cockrill, USNR, Meredith, was buried at sea. Again the crew repeated the solemn ceremony. In February 1989, I learned that Seaman First class Lee Williams of Vireo was buried at sea near Tulagi on 19 October 1942 by Seminole.
One man, Wesley Hamilton Singletary, Boatswain Mate Second Class, stood out as a giant among men. For three days and nights, he assisted the wounded, fought sharks, and swam to recover those who could not hold on to the rafts or ropes. He brought them back and tied them to the raft. For his actions during the loss of the Meredith, shipmate Wesley H. Singletary was appointed to Warrant Boatswain.
As soon as all the survivors were on board, the re-supply effort to Guadalcanal began again. The tug Seminole recovered the barge, which had been towed by Vireo. The Grayson and Gwin, with survivors still aboard, screened the Seminole and the barge all the way to Guadalcanal. Thus the men of the Meredith and Vireo completed their original mission to transport aviation fuel to Guadalcanal.
Grayson was then assigned the task of recovering Vireo and the other barge, and returned them to Espiritu Santo. During her return, the Vireo was manned by a salvage crew from the Grayson and survivors from Meredith and Vireo. Marine Aviation crew from VMSM 232 was also aboard.