Horror at Guadalcanal
Steaming rather blissfully into this caldron [Guadalcanal] is the brand new destroyer USS O’Bannon fresh from the Iron Works of Bath, Maine. Although approximately 70 percent of the crew are raw recruits, myself included, training has been continuous and morale is high. On arriving, all eyes scour the shoreline for a view of the fierce battle we know is raging. Newspaper headlines back in the States had thoroughly prepared us to witness this horrible battle but the only thing we see is dense jungle with an occasional wisp of smoke rising through the trees. Luckily, we can’t see the suffering by the troops on both sides.

On board, training procedures covering severe burns, severed limbs, concussions, poison gas attacks and other unhappy situations are received with little enthusiasm. Placing a gas mask among your personal possessions does nothing for your day. Surely, we are not going to be so unlucky as to need one of these things. Everyone knows you can get hurt out here and maybe even killed but these are things that happen to the other guy, not to you. Nevertheless, a smile or a laugh is becoming a rare item.

The old timers (those over thirty) bolster moral by describing what a great ship we are on. This destroyer is fast and hard to hit, it has lots of guns and torpedoes and submarines actually run from us. This is good to know, so maybe we have a good chance of staying on top of the waves. The ship is a beauty and everyone aboard seems proud of it. From the bridge, it looks great. From up here you have a sweeping view of the full length of the ship and can see just about anything that’s happening on deck. It’s really quite a nice view. Little wonder that the captain is always up here.

The next deck down is the radio bridge where we radiomen hang out when not on duty. The view is not nearly as good but still we are up and out of the deck traffic and if there is any breeze to be had, you get it here. There is a nice big hatch that goes directly into the main radio room so it’s no effort to go in for a cup of coffee (always available) or to check the time (got to know when to go on watch).

The radio room is a busy place where Morse code messages are constantly coming in from Honolulu. If the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Area (Admiral Chester Nimitz) has orders for our ship, we’re on duty twenty-four hours a day so we’ll receive them. Well, of course nobody’s perfect; we do miss a few. Static and an occasional dozing off by the radioman are the culprits. And do we get the radio traffic—it never stops.

Of course all messages are encoded so you can’t read them but it’s up to the radiomen decode the headings to see whom they’re addressed to. And if it happens to be to us, we pass it to the decoding officer who takes it from there. We also have an emergency radio room located near the stern of the ship, which is activated any time the ship is set for battle. This is just in case the main radio room is ever blown up or knocked out of action. Hopefully, this will never happen, especially if I happen to be on watch there.

Sitting outside the radio shack in the shade from the bridge (directly above) and on the relatively cool deck (over 100 degrees), it is easy to reflect on our ship’s relatively short career before our voyage to this battle area.

Commissioned in Boston on June 26th, 1942 we spend the next month and a half in training exercises and trial runs. Finally, ready for duty, we take on board the last of our provisions and personnel. Struggling up the gangway, a young ensign is piped aboard. He is loaded down with his personal luggage including golf clubs and tennis rackets. On this optimistic note, the ship slips away from the dock to start on its great adventure. By the middle of August any thoughts of rest and relaxation are forgotten as we search for subs around Haiti and Cuba.

In the early morning hours, just before dawn on the 15th of August, we encountered our first German subs. In the main radio room we were at General Quarters (rigged for battle) when we heard several loud thumps. It sounded as if the side of the ship was being hit by a gigantic hammer. At the first light of dawn we could see what had caused the noise. Five merchant ships had been torpedoed as they came out of the harbor at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

On the calm surface, there was the debris from the wreckage of the ships such as mattresses, tables, chairs, books, papers, and just about anything else you could think of. And, there were bodies and parts of bodies. It extended as far as you could see. One of the destroyers of our group picked up several boatloads of survivors. It was scary and sobering. We searched the area for the sub or subs that had done this but came up empty handed.

After this unpleasant experience, we, along with another destroyer, escort the battleship Massachusetts from Norfolk to Casco Bay, Maine. It was nice to be back in a cool climate again after our sojourn to Cuba, but this was to be the last experience with cool weather for a long time. From Maine, we went to Norfolk, Virginia where we stayed a few days and then departed September 4th, 1942 on a trip that lasted a month and a day and took us to Nouméa, New Caledonia. It was a very long voyage.

We started our voyage by escorting a supply ship down the east coast accompanied by another destroyer. We sailed through the Panama Canal to the city of Balboa, still in the Canal Zone. We had the chance to see what was to us a new and exciting city (foreign, at least to us) and had the chance to enjoy what was to become a rare item, rest and relaxation. And we had a chance to see a few cock fights. Well, you don’t see those in the States. And we had a chance to become a little more worldly. Figure that out for yourself.

From there, it was a fourteen day jaunt from the canal to the Island of Bora Bora in the Society Islands. We had to cruise at 14 knots to enable our ship to cover such a vast distance. As we entered the harbor there, everyone became very quiet as if it was the only way you could take in the overwhelming beauty.

The water was crystal clear and, except for a deep channel which the ships used, was only a few feet deep. The bright sun reflected off the white sand on the bottom making an exceptionally beautiful scene. There were many small islands rising a few feet out of the water with no soil around and just a few palm trees in the center. Nothing but pure white sand without a speck of dirt. In the center of the main island, there was a mountain that rose almost vertically on one side for several thousand feet. Many of the old timers on board said this was the most beautiful spot in the world. No one disagreed.

The captain managed to give us a few hours ashore here to see a world we had never encountered before and would probably never encounter again. Our servicemen stationed here must have taught the Polynesian men how to play softball because they were busy playing with the enthusiasm usually reserved for a World Series game. Some older men were busy making little souvenir outrigger canoes (for sale, I guess, and wish I’d bought one). Wandering down to a small stream, I watched some women washing clothes the old fashioned way. I didn’t see any soap, they just seemed to be soaking the clothes in the water awhile and then they slapped them against rocks to get them clean. I couldn’t talk to them as they spoke no English.

Then I wandered into a clearing that had quite a few huts with grass roofs. These were very small. A little old lady sitting on her heels out in front of one handed me a coconut. I said thanks but I knew she didn’t understand even that little bit of English, as she said nothing. But she did manage a nice smile even without teeth. I looked toward the entrance (no door) to inspect the place a bit and she made a gesture indicating ( I think ) take a look inside, if you like. I looked and saw the place was completely devoid of furniture of any kind and had only a sand floor. No stove, no bed, no bath, I guess you would have to call this “unfurnished.” Where did she sleep? In the sand, I guess, and where were the other amenities? The ocean was just a stone throw away so I guess that was the bath. No trouble with soap scum here.

As my few hours of shore leave were up, I headed back toward the ship. I was enjoying the walk back traveling along a nice wide lane. It was rather quiet when I heard a rather melodious voice call out “Hello boy.” Turning around and back a bit, I saw a grass shack with a nice shady porch on which a young lady sat as she munched on a large banana. I gave a weak wave and a faint hello and keep walking toward the ship. She could speak English quite well (at least two words, anyway). I guess she learned that from the sailors that manned the fuel depot or the pilots that flew the patrol planes.

She eventually meandered down from the porch and toward the road. Gee, this could be “Mutiny on the Bounty” all over again I thought as I continued toward the ship. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed the hula girls, the grass skirts, the grass shacks and even enjoyed some of their delicious fresh pineapples. This was with somewhat dire results after such a long time on bland seaboard chow.

Our exit from Bora Bora came after a sea going tug entered the harbor and questioned our being there. Seems we had missed the radio message that gave us our orders to depart. Embarrassing moments were experienced as a search was made to find who missed the message and why. It turned out to be one of the older experienced regular operators who fell from grace. While pouring himself a cup of coffee and copying code at the same time, he copied one letter incorrectly which in turn caused the message to decode incorrectly. Since the other destroyer accompanying us had shut down its radio watch (they were depending on us for their radio traffic), there was no second chance to receive it. We made a hasty exit from Bora Bora.

On to Nouméa, New Caledonia, but after Bora Bora this place looked a bit drab. Later, we could reflect that at least no one shot at you there. Nouméa is considered a combat area but is pretty much out of range for enemy aircraft but certainly not out of range of enemy submarines. When you exit here and head out, you had better be ready for combat.

Our first assignment at this location was to convoy a light aircraft carrier (the Copahee) to a position that would enable it to launch 20 planes to fly to Guadalcanal. This was mid-October. Our next trip was to provide safe escort into hostile waters for two of our submarines. This was to insure that friendly forces would not try to sink them. We took them to their assigned area where they submerged and were on there way. These were nice assignments for us. We had the feeling we were fighting a war but somehow it seemed safe enough. Before long though, we were getting a bit bored. Where was the action? Our next assignment supplied the answer. We were heading to Guadalcanal with a convoy of supply ships. So, this is the place where the heavy fighting is but were in the heck is the place?

Well, it is just one island in a chain of islands known as the Solomons which stretch some 675 miles from north to south and are located about 500 miles east of New Guinea and about 1000 miles northeast of Australia. There are other important islands in this chain where the Japanese have landed or plan to land. Starting in the south and heading north, these are the islands of Russell, New Georgia, Rendova, Kolombangara and Vella Lavella. These are strange sounding names for strange looking places and before long we are wishing we never heard of them.