Kula Gulf

June 23rd — we are heading south and hopefully out of danger when torpedoes manage to find the remaining ships of our convoy, the Liberty ships Diemos and Aludra. In an instant, they are on fire and exploding. In minutes, they are sliding under the water. The other escort in our convoy, the destroyer Radford picks up survivors while we search for the submarine that launched the torpedoes. The sub escapes. We are now heading toward our base empty handed since we have lost all the ships in our convoy. The soundman on duty refuses relief as he, and I guess everyone else on board, feels badly because the ships we were there to protect have been sunk. Our faithful sound gear produced no echoes of the sub so we assume the sub came in from the opposite side of the supply ships.

July 4th — fireworks tonight! We are back with our task group again (Task Group 36.1) and are far to the north of Guadalcanal as we move in to shell a Japanese troop build-up at the Vila-Stanmore plantation on the island of Kolombangara. It is a pitch black night as the moon descends behind the large mountain range on the island. As our cruisers and destroyers open fire, Japanese shore batteries open up with a heavy return fire. As we finish our part of the cannonade, we breathe a sigh of relief as we move out of the gulf. Word is received on the bridge that one of our group has not made it out of the Gulf. It is the destroyer Strong. It has been torpedoed and is sinking fast. Orders are for the O’Bannon along with the destroyer Chevalier to swing back into the gulf to rescue survivors on the Strong.

As we try to move in close to the Strong, a near collision with the Chevalier puts us dead in the water. Our position is made even more precarious since our 5-inch guns are overheated from the shelling and we are left with only one gun that will fire. As the Chevalier tries to move in along side of the Strong in total darkness, it collides with the Strong. Three destroyers are now dead in the water as the Japanese shoot flares to light up the area.

The Chevalier in a desperate rescue effort tries to shoot a hawser across the sinking ship but the stern of the Strong is already under water. Shore batteries open up with renewed fury as shells splash around the three destroyers with the Strong receiving a hit that blows off a gun mount. At 1:22 a.m. the Chevalier pulls away from the Strong as it plunges down stern first amid acres of hissing and bubbling foam and vanishes. (19) The torpedo that hit the Strong was fired from the amazing distance of twelve miles.

As the O’Bannon and Chevalier slowly pull away, the Strong’s depth charges go off shaking both ships severely but both destroyers are able to pull away with only minor damage. Many officers and crew from the Strong go down with the ship but the Chevalier manages to rescue most of the crew as the O’Bannon takes on the shore batteries with its one remaining gun. Fortunately, Japanese gunnery is not up to standard tonight. All but 46 survivors are rescued from the Strong.

July 6th — this night we encounter a Japanese force of ten destroyers in the Battle of Kula Gulf. The Japanese have troops on several of their destroyers as they do when using this type of ship as a troop transport. Our force consists of three light cruisers and four destroyers which gives us a considerable advantage in both size and numbers of ships. One of the light cruisers is the Helena.

Since joining Task Force 67 in November of 1942, our crew marvels at way the Helena is able to spit out shells out with such speed that it looks like water coming out a hose. While in the company of the cruiser Helena, we feel a certain degree of safety. But this night there is no answer from the Helena on a roll call of ships departing the battle area. A lookout calls out there is an object on the starboard bow and a spotlight flickers on briefly to reveal the bow of a ship sticking up vertically out of the water. “From the bridge they could see a jagged bow of a ship, the large numerals, 50, plainly visible. ‘Good God,’ MacDonald cried, ‘it’s the Helena.’”

We have seen most of the cruisers we accompany sunk by Japanese torpedoes but somehow this is different. If a ship as able as the Helena can finally be sunk, what are our chances. Before leaving the area, our force is able to save many of the Helena’s crew from a watery grave.

After the loss of the Helena, we seem to be living on a day to day basis when just hanging on is the best we can do. Daily we are tormented not only by the fear of losing our lives but by the fear of burning, drowning or being blown to pieces. We slowly realize that it is extremely unlikely that we will get out of this alive. The heat, along with boredom, bad food, frazzled nerves and the thought that the years are sailing by without us, are all part of the torment. Another horrible thought is that even dead, our bodies, or what’s left of them, are doomed to be here forever. After the Battle of Kula Gulf, our ship is placed on a steady twenty-four-hour-a-day duty.