I wish you all a happy and uneventful Thanksgiving as our thoughts go back to a very eventful Thanksgiving Day 60 years ago. Just the other day, I was talking with a golfing buddy who asked me how I was going to spend this Thanksgiving. I told him that my daughter was cooking the turkey and that the family would dine with her but, in addition to that, I had been honored with an invitation to speak at a commemorative service of a battle I fought in during the Solomon Islands campaigns of World War II.
Without the slightest pause, he laughed, and said, “Honored, heck. Have you ever thought of how many there are left that they could ask?”
As I sat down to gather my thoughts about the Battle of Cape St. George, his joking remark came up on my memory screen, not as a sting, but as a forceful reminder of just how truthful his remarks were. We have lost many of our old shipmates since our last gathering. May we bow our heads for a moment of respect and remembrance of those who proudly did their duty for their country and who have gone before.
I was called to active duty December 7, 1942, September 1950, October 1961, and lastly in 1973. One could say that every time there was a national emergency, the Navy couldn’t get along without me.
I am forever grateful to the Navy and my commanding officers in Claxton for having the patience to allow me to grow up and become a naval officer. For, you see, I went aboard as a fresh caught, wet behind the ears ensign. Within a very few weeks, I knew how to run the ship better than Captain Stout; and on top of that, I was going to win the war in the Pacific all by myself. So don’t get in my way.
Upon completing torpedo school, I received orders to be the torpedo officer of the USS Claxton (DD571) I was somewhat taken aback to find when reporting aboard in Espiritu Santo Island in the New Hebrides that the Claxton already had a torpedo officer, and a darned good one. During the burgeoning build-up of our fleet, the Navy had a system of “numerical reliefs.” It turned out that I was the input to ship’s company that pushed the XO off the ship to his own command of a DD under construction. Our damage control officer fleeted up to XO and I fell into the open berth and was told that I would be damage control officer.
My first thought was, “What the hell is a damage control officer?”
The man I relieved, who was the new XO, was too busy to help me learn my job. So, like a lot of men new to the Navy, I commenced a long and tiring on-the-job training period.
Within days of coming aboard, Claxton fired her first shots in anger at the Japanese navy. Fortunately, the Japs couldn’t get the range on her, and I was given time to study the ship and run damage control drills so that we would be ready when, and if, that time came. And it was sure to come with all the bullets, suicide planes, bombs, and torpedoes that they threw at us.
One can begin to feel invincible pounding away at the enemy shore installations, shooting down his aircraft and torpedoing his ships. In addition, we had the best squad dog in the whole Navy and he loved to run fast and furious. A feeling actually began to exist on the ship that the Japs couldn’t touch us. I am sure some of you felt very much the same smug way, launching your Tomahawk missiles against Iraqi targets from the complete safety of the Cape St. George.
Trying to describe a sea battle fought in total darkness with reduced visibility from intermittent light rain is very difficult. That is how it was Thanksgiving, 1943; running wide open, looking for the Jap destroyers we knew were departing Buka Island, headed for Rabaul.
After firing torpedoes, sinking one DD and damaging another that later sank, we took off in hot pursuit after those that were trying to get away. It was breathtaking to watch our 5-inch rounds slam into one of the escaping DDs we sank with gunfire. I am reminded of how it might have been like the Indians surrounding a wagon train during the settling of the Old West, with all three ships running around banging away at the damaged DD. What a rush of adrenaline to see the tremendous explosions every time a salvo found its mark.
Then, off into the dark night again, chasing the two ships that were running hell bent for Rabaul, and safety.
Naval engineering experts will tell you that it is impossible for a Fletcher-class DD to make 39 knots, especially in the hot water near the equator. Believe me, Captain Stout ordered the safety valves lashed closed, if necessary, in order to get every ounce of steam possible. I was told that the log showed 39 knots a time or two while we were chasing the escaping DDs. I am a believer.
During that stern chase, the after guns could fire only when we zigged or zagged to avoid gunfire or torpedoes. As a result, the forward guns did most of the shooting and soon ran out of flashless powder.
Incidentally, have you ever seen a 5-inch 38 gun barrel glow red in the night from the heat of rapid, continuous firing? I have.
At this point, bridge and gunnery personnel were being blinded by the flashes from the forward guns. As damage control officer, I, and my team, were the only men free to move about the ship. I got orders from Captain Stout to have the repair party go to the after gun mounts and bring the flashless powder forward.
Try to imagine the situation on the main deck of a Fletcher-class destroyer at that moment. At the speed we were running, from amidships aft, the decks were almost below the surface of the ocean. The bow wave she made was over our heads, standing on the main deck, amidships in that pitch-black night. Suddenly, the ship would wrack itself into a hard turn at 37+ knots; and, immediately, all three after guns would come free from their stops and fire blindingly right in your face. Sailor, grab ahold of something strong or over the side you will go. Greasy cork particles would get in our eyes, nose and mouth as the sudden pressure forced itself into our lungs. Ears were blasted, too, damaging hearing in many cases.
That damage control crew didn’t even pause when I told them what we had to do. Run aft, grab a couple of 5-inch powder canisters, one for each shoulder, and run, yes run, forward as best you can. They busted elbows, knees, shins and butts, but that ammo went forward as they slipped in the slosh on deck, holding onto that ammo for dear life.
Somehow, our supply officer had managed to get some turkeys well in advance of Thanksgiving. The cook, one Joe Smith, had put the turkeys in the ovens before the battle began. They were cooking away when a full gun salvo shook the ovens so hard the oven doors popped open. Turkeys shot out all over the galley deck. Smith begrudgingly gathered his turkeys and put them back in the ovens. All went well until the next full gun salvo. Bam! The oven doors popped open. Out went the turkeys, and with the ship making radical turns at high speed, they slithered across the deck; back and forth with Smith, frustrated to the limit, chasing them down.
When he got the turkeys back in the ovens, he came out of the galley covered all over in turkey juice, and went into DC Central, where he knew we were in communication with the bridge. He screamed at me, “Tell that captain to knock it off. You tell him I’m cooking turkeys down here and his playing games is raising hell with my turkey dinners.”
That was my Battle of Cape St. George. Thank the good lord; I didn’t have to call on my questionable prowess for shoring shot-up bulkheads—this time.
When we got back to Purvis Bay and completed rearming, refueling and reprovisioning the ship, Claxton anchored and Ausburne and Dyson came alongside to port and starboard. Bows were pulled in snug to form a large foredeck space using the three ships’ forecastles. Crews from all five ships that were in the battle came aboard and the task force chaplain conducted a Thanksgiving service. As I look back on this unprecedented occasion, I have a much a greater appreciation for that opportunity to thank God for our deliverance.
There are many more stories that came out of that battle, but we don’t have time for them all. Rest assured that there were many moments when every man involved could tell you why he would rather have been somewhere else.
There were many hours before that battle spent at all-night GQ. When not at GQ, it seemed we were drilling, drilling, drilling. And then drilling some more. Drilling until you were dog tired and bitching with every breath.
We wonder how our men, and ourselves, will act when coming under fire, when the enemy strikes a wound into the ship. There really is no way to tell. But, like Admiral Burke admonished the crew of Arleigh Burke, “This ship is being built to go into harm’s way, and you had better know how to fight.”
You have demonstrated that you know how to fight while being on the offensive. Knowing how to fight in deadly combat includes licking your wounds, keeping the ship afloat and fighting back when the enemy damages your ship. Believe me, sailors; the enemy wants to hurt you in the worst way!
It is imperative to your survival in combat that you have a sound knowledge of the importance of damage control by everyone onboard, and that you have an outstanding damage control crew. If you can keep the ship afloat and her systems working, you can possibly win the battle; and, as a last resort, run like hell and return to fight another day.
Knowledge of every door, hatch, vent scuttle, valve, pump, every single compartment and what is in it is an absolute must.
I realize that Cape St. George is four times the size of a Fletcher-class DD. Locating and understanding all the various systems within the ship that affect flooding and the control of damage is a big job but, it is not overwhelming. It must be done.
One way I was able to become so intimate with Claxton, and I do mean intimate, was to challenge one member of the DC crew in his area of responsibility at each general quarters and setting of Condition Alpha. I had to find at least one fitting that was improperly set, or I forfeited a carton of cigarettes. Keep in mind that cigarettes in those days could be traded for almost anything. And I do mean anything.
It got to be quite a contest. I didn’t lose a cigarette for a couple of weeks, and then the crew began to take me to the cleaners. You can’t believe how great I felt, losing at this game.
What you must realize is that some days we went to General Quarters several times a day. Setting Condition Alpha each time and restoring systems on securing from GQ. You must understand the Japanese were just as hungry to bash us as we were to bash them. They were ever-present. They were close enough that we could, at high speed, run close and wash over their privies that were built out over the water.
Claxton received serious battle damage. On two occasions at Buka Island, Solomon Islands, we had the rear end of the ship blown out during a shore bombardment. We were able to self-repair the ship. The steering engine was demolished, so, we welded the rudder amidships and steered by engines back to the Navy shipyard at Mare Island, California, by way of New Caledonia, Tongatabu and Hawaii. One of the most disappointing sights I have seen was that of a new rear end sitting on the dock as we approached the drydock. They cut off the damaged rear end and welded the new one on in one day, ruining my hopes for a nice leave home.
After repairs and training with the new systems, we returned to the Pacific to fight another day.
The second serious damage was inflicted by a Japanese suicide plane in Leyte Gulf. The plane brought down a large bomb that blew a 15-foot hole in the starboard quarter at the waterline, opposite the 5-inch 38 upper handling room. The ship flooded from the after bulkhead of the after engine room all the way aft, except for the after 5-inch magazine. The reason it didn’t flood was that the petty officer in charge saw water suddenly coming in from above, closed and locked the hatch with three men inside and solid flooding above. There would have been no escape had the ship sunk. His actions actually saved the ship.
The righting moment of a Fletcher-class DD when fully loaded for combat was 2 87 feet after the flooding, we had a plus 2 ft. righting moment. Guess what the loss in righting moment would have been had the magazine flooded. You got it—2 ft. Not only that, that crew continued to push up ammo to the upper gun mounts and kept them firing during subsequent suicide attacks. That man didn’t have time to ponder the consequences of his actions. He reacted as he was trained to do.
I was standing next to that hatch, assessing damage, and removing the dead and wounded when the ship turned hard to port to avoid another suicide plane. In my first report to the captain on arriving at the scene I advised the captain not to turn to port for the ship would surely flood when heeling over in a tight turn. The captain had no choice but to turn to port to avoid another suicide plane.
Immediately, the after one-third of the ship flooded with free surface effect water up to within a foot of the overhead, with the ship down by the stern.
Remember, I said it was imperative to know your ship. I knew that there was a scuttle from the handling room to the aft 5-inch gun mount through which ammo was passed if the hoist should fail. I hollered for everyone to follow me, dive down, swim into the handling room and come up into the gun mount through the scuttle.
During all this, the Abner Read came alongside and sent over her repair party and medical team. While trying to help us, she was hit by a suicide plane, blew up and sank alongside in less time than you could think.
With the ship in lolling condition, down by the stern, we began very carefully to improve our stability. A collision mat was fabricated by lassoing mattresses to bed frames and lowering them alongside the hole. The assistant damage control officer, Tiedeberg, dived into the compartment, pulled the mats over the hole and secured them in place.
With flooding controlled, we could begin pumping the water over the side. An escape scuttle over the starboard shaft alley was opened by again diving under water, removing the scuttle and allowing the water to flow down into the shaft alley, where the engine room bilge pumps could pump it over the side.
With the ship dewatered and stable, we began scouring the harbor for steel plating with which we welded the hole shut. Our own repairs were good enough to get us to drydock in Manus, where 82 frames on the starboard side were replaced.
We had again, saved the ship so it could return to fight another day.
Now, take the advice of a sailor who has been swimming inside a destroyer. Drill, drill, drill; then drill some more so that when a crisis occurs, you perform by habit. If you have drilled enough to where your actions become habit, you won’t take time to think, and you probably won’t experience bad actions and reactions to critical situations. The skippers in DesRon TWENTY-THREE drilled our fannies off, morning, noon, and night, and at times in between we bitched because it was hot as hell down on the equator with the ship buttoned up in Condition Alfa. And, incidentally, we did not have air conditioning and, yes, there were many times when colorful descriptive adjectives were hurled in the direction of the bridge.
No matter, that tyrant of a skipper was at it again.
At the University of Pennsylvania there was, and still may be, a theatrical group called the “Mask and Wig.” Members wrote their own songs and book for yearly musical comedy productions. On board the USS Columbia there was an officer who had been active in those productions. The captain prevailed upon him to write and produce a show on board the ship. This resulted in several songs being written. Most were sung to well-known tunes.
During a lull in our active pursuit of the Japanese Navy, the Columbia show went on. A small number of men from each of the ships in the task force were in attendance while the squadron was anchored in Purvis Bay, Solomon Islands.
These men were entertained with such songs as “C.I.C.”—“Testing, testing, one, two, three, let’s all go up to C.I.C. to see what C.I.C. can see tonight.”
Then there was “Fantail Fanny”—“Fantail Fanny, the girl with the quadruple screw.” This was written in memory of a visit to Sydney, Australia.
Another favorite of the show was, “Sonia” —“Sonia, oh, Sonia, of New Caledonia. The belle mademoiselle of the isle.” This was written in memory of a visit to Nouméa, New Caledonia, where there was a cute little French barmaid.
And there was one song that all Little Beavers should know—“DesRon TWENTY-THREE.” It’s not often that I get an audience that can’t run out on my singing. So, bad voice and all, here goes:
“Oh, the cruisers stay in Purvis Bay and bitch because it’s hot.
They sit on their twats, and wonder what’s happening up the Slot.
They’d find out quick if they stood a trick at the wheel of a good DD-ee-ee,
And did some work with Captain Burke in DesRon TWENTY-THREE.
Oh, DesRon TWENTY-THREE, DesRon TWENTY-THREE.
Captain Burke and his Little Beavers, DesRon TWENTY-THREE.
Oh, the Jap tin cans they haven’t a chance against this mighty crew.
They love to fight, and don’t feel right, if they’re not at all-night GQ.
Each Sunday morn at the break of dawn in the O.D.’s log you’ll see-ee-ee.
Underway at the break of day, DesRon TWENTY-THREE.
Now, one night these ships were looking for Nips, a-steaming up the line.
When the Japs they found with their pants way down, revealing their yellow behinds
They chased their ass from Buka Pass, clear out of the Coral Sea-ee-ee.
If they’d had the fuel, they’d have taken Rabaul, DesRon TWENTY-THREE
I am sure you recognize that the ass-chasing in the song took place at the Battle of Cape St. George.
History tells us that the Battle of Cape St. George is one of the most perfectly executed naval battles. The part I like best is that nobody on our side got even a scratch, except for Joe Smith’s meandering turkeys. Those of us that were there are getting fewer in number, and our memories are being tested to tell it like it actually was. Please forgive any poetic license I may have used in telling my tale.