THE FIRST STRIKE BACK
It was the 8th of February, 1942 when the USS San Francisco pulled up anchor and
departed Pago Pago. We were in the air, scouting the entrance area for submarines, as
always. Speculation had it that we were going to do some escort work down to the Fiji
Islands. A couple of days out of Samoa we joined up with Task Force 11, which was made
up of the carrier USS Lexington, 3 other heavy cruisers and eight destroyers. A few days
later did find us in the Fiji Island area assigned to routine patrol duty to the northeast of the
The next few days brought the usual submarine scares and destroyer action. The
destroyers would put on quite a show when they shot off their depth charge "cans", which
would explode a hundred or so feet down and raise a great foamy flow of belching salt
water. One would never know if they were effective or not. An oil slick was good
evidence that we destroyed a sub, but we didn't see many of those.
One day about mid afternoon, the bridge reported a plane crash two and a half miles off the starboard beam. We launched a plane to investigate for survivors and when we landed
on the water near an oil slick, all we found was a dazed radioman floating in his inflated
rubber life vest. There was no sign of the pilot or any other debris. We helped the fellow
up onto the main float of our plane and radioed for help. It wasn't long until a destroyer
came over the horizon, dropped a boat and picked him up.
The next day we joined up with the British ships, the HMS Australia, the HMS Achilles
and the HMS Leander. Lines were rigged between the ship to provide exchange of mail.
That being accomplished, they departed and disappeared over the horizon.
On the 20 of February at 09:00, I was ordered to the wardroom along with the officer
and flight crew staff for a briefing session. We were informed that the Task Force was
scheduled to carryout an airborne attack on the harbor at Salamaua and Lae, New Guinea,
just across the island from Port Moresby. This was to be followed by a shelling attack on
Rabual, New Britain. The Australians were to assist the attack with 14 of their flying
fortresses. At 10:30 that morning the Skipper passed the word over the PA system as to the
plan of attack. Everything looked like we were finally going to get some action.
The next morning at daybreak, we were about 400 miles south of the target area. At
11:00 that morning the radar of the USS Lexington picked up a search plane out of
Japanese held Rabual. A couple of our fighter cover overhead were vectored to the enemy
scout's position with the radio command from the Task Force Commander aboard the USS
Lexington - "Bandit, buster vector 295, 20 miles". Just 45 minutes later, a second enemy
scout was located and shot down. With the net result that our force had been discovered
and the surprise was lost, the Task Force Admiral ordered a course change to the north east
toward the Solomon Islands. At 16:45 that afternoon the antiaircraft battle station call was
sounded. That meant only one thing - enemy aircraft. I had just picked up my laundry and
had stepped out on the well deck. The enemy had found us for sure.
There were two waves of nine each Japanese Bettys about 10 miles out on our starboard
beam, starting their bombing run from about 9000 feet altitude. The Grumman F4F
fighters from the USS Lexington were as always, on station over the Task Force at an
altitude of about 10000 feet. The Task Force with the carrier at its center, the four cruisers
about a mile away in each direction and the destroyers forming an outer ring, waited for the
bombers to come into range of their antiaircraft batteries. The sky was a brilliant blue and
visibility was perfect, and from the well deck I had a ring side seat for the show.
About that time, the five inch antiaircraft batteries all let go at once. One wave of Bettys
were coming up on us from stern of our formation, while the second wave took a wide
sweep to the east of us. There was no evidence that our antiaircraft batteries were doing
any good, probably too much altitude. Then our F4Fs went to work. The Japanese Betty
was a plane not unlike the DC-3 but older, and was constructed with fabric covering on the
wings. The fighters had a field day. They would dive on a Betty, firing their 50 caliber
guns with tracers, then pull up for another run. There was no Japanese fighter defense
around other than the gunners aboard those Bettys. As the tracers would hit the tanks in
the wings, one could see the explosion and flame race to the wingtips, then it seemed as if
the aircraft would pause a moment in the air with the blue sky showing through all the
wing ribs, then literally fall from the sky, straight down, aflame all the way.
Although our fighters were doing their work well, three or four Bettys of the first wave
did get overhead to drop their bombs. Meanwhile, the Task Force was changing course to
confuse the bombers. The only problem of trying to dodge bombs from a high level
bomber is that the ship's movement relative to that of the aircraft is so slow that it doesn't
really do much good. However, what was left of the first wave did drop their bombs.
They all hit open water between the carrier and the other ships, sending up impressive
geysers but without casualty to our force. By the time they had completed their run, the last
of the first wave had been eliminated by our F4Fs.
During the time that all this action was taking place, fighter reinforcements from the
USS Lexington were moving into position to attack the second wave. This was the finale
to the air battle that made Lt. Butch O'Hare one of the first Navy Aces of the war. He and
his F4F pilots cleaned the sky of all but one remaining enemy bomber. Maybe they wanted
one to carry back the story.
As the last bit of action, we observed one Betty on a long glide, circling the Task Force,
finally coming across our ship's bow about 1000 feet in front of us and at an altitude of
roughly 250 feet. Our gunners were unloading 20 and 40 millimeter rounds directly into
what was probably one of the first Kamikaze attempts of the war; the pilot was trying for
the carrier. We clearly could see the pilot, looking very dead, on his way to his glory. As
the 40mm shells hit the side of the plane, they would explode, tearing away portions of the
plane's skin. About that time I heard a sharp staccato on the side of the USS San Francisco
close to where I was standing.
It dawned on the several of us there on the well deck, that the carrier gun crews were
firing their 50 caliber guns at that same plane, and we were in line of fire. To fix that
problem, we dropped down below the solid steel rail of the ship's side. A couple of our
men on the bridge did receive wounds from that gunfire. The doomed bomber glided on by
to hit the water, about half way between the carrier and our ship, with one gigantic geyser
of water as the bombs went off at impact. After that there was quiet and clear blue sky
Our first action since Pearl Harbor. It was all very deceiving in that it was like a big
show where no one gets hurt. We lost no ships, no aircraft, the black hats were all shot
down, no one on our side got hurt, except a couple of sailors that were wounded by our
own guns. It was probably the cleanest scrap for us during the whole war. However, I still
to this day, vividly remember the scene of that dead pilot in that plane as it was gliding to
it's death, as well as the rest of that high altitude "turkey shoot". Those were real people in
those planes. It was all very real!
After the big air scrap we steamed south to position the Task Force clear of the area
around Rabual and out of bomber range. We found by official message from Task Force
Command, that the Japanese had sent out 18 bombers out to attack us, with one making it
back to their base. The following day we had a couple of calls to General Quarters but no
enemy planes. Most of the sailors were running on nervous energy.
By March the 6th we were on course to make another try at an attack on Salamaua and
Lae, where the Japanese had quite a concentration of shipping poised for further invasion
of the Solomon Islands. We launched two planes that morning on routine inner patrol
about 10:00. Around noon, the Task Force passed through a huge tropical rain storm that
lasted over two hours, completely obscuring the Task Force for that period of time.
Unfortunately, Lt. Thomas and a radioman by the name of Gannon flying our #15 were
returning to the ship, missed spotting the ship in the rain storm and overflew us ending up
way to the south of the ship's formation. We heard an emergency transmission from them
requesting direction finder lost plane procedure around 14:30 which meant that they were
in real trouble; lost and almost out of gas.
Radioman Gannon was given a few short dashes on 500 kilocycles from the ship's
transmitter, but he was not able to get a good bearing. The ship's captain had broken radio
silence in order to do that. I requested the senior pilot aboard to get me into the air where I
could get a bearing on him and home him in while he still was airborne, but his answer was
no. I gave up trying and went to the bridge to see if I could help in anyway. There, I
happened to get an audience with the Captain and did get permission to launch a plane for a
try at homing him in. Ltjg. Ratley and I launched immediately.
I got good bearings on them which placed their plane some 40 miles to the south of the
ship, and advised them immediately of their relative position. We received permission to
home in on them but it was too late. They ran out of gas, landed on the surface and
stopped transmitting. Without their transmission, the chance of finding them in that rainy
weather was nil. After searching as long as our own gas permitted, we reluctantly returned
to the ship leaving those two friends to hopefully be blown the 600 miles to Australia
before they sank. The planes all carried three cans of rations and two quarts of water which
would keep you going for a few days, along with a two man life raft. How long the
seaplane would stay afloat in the open sea was a matter of speculation.
The dawn of March 10th arrived while we were at General Quarters. One of the planes
was up on patrol. The carrier USS Yorktown had joined the Task Force giving us two
carriers now. It was a very comforting feeling to be in company with those carrier planes.
We were now in position for the strike on Salamaua and Lae from about 100 miles south
west of Port Moresby, New Guinea. At 08:00 the carriers launched some 72 Douglas SBD
dive bombers carrying one 500 and two 250 pound bombs, along with 36 Douglas TBD
torpedo planes bombers, half with torpedoes and half with three 500 pound bombs. A
fighter cover of 18 F4Fs went along. The target was still Japanese ships full of troops and
supplies set for the invasion of the Solomons. It was an impressive sight to see that force
The modern history books don't give that attack much weight but the reports that came
over from the Task Force Command that afternoon indicated that a heavy cruiser, two
destroyers, six transports were sunk, several more damaged along with numerous shore
installations being knocked out. It turned out later that this report was somewhat
overemphasized, but it was still a success. This was the U S Navy's first live aerial torpedo
attack, and it turned out that most of the torpedoes were set too deep to strike the target
ships, rather they ran under the targets and blew great holes out of the beach. The dive
bombers had done their job well with only one of the SBD failing to return.
The Australians did support us with eight of their B-17 flying fortresses out of
Townsville, Australia. Rumor was going around in the late afternoon that the B-17s went
back later and sank or damaged several more transports. That afternoon after recovering
our aircraft, we set course to the south and east. Two enemy search planes were spotted by
our radar in the late afternoon but nothing happened. We surmised that they had not seen
us. All through the action of the day, we had been busy flying patrol in the vicinity of the
Task Force searching for submarines and anything foreign that moved. That evening, with
the success of the day resting in the glow of our victory over the Bettys, our morale was
way up. It must have been welcome news for those back home to have a couple of
victories after Pearl Harbor.
We were informed that the Task Force Commander had setup our return course to
intersect the area where his navigator had estimated our downed plane to be. I was not
flying on the morning of the 13th of March. We were at General Quarters as usual when
the sun broke the horizon. I recall standing on the well deck admiring a beautiful dawn in a
crazy world. A couple SBDs flew low overhead on their way to search patrol, forming a
pretty picture against the morning sky.
I recall that the thought came to me clear as a bell, that Lt. Thomas and Radioman
Gannon would be found very shortly. At 07:30 that morning, their plane was sighted
almost directly ahead of us. Both men were very weak but OK. A week's beard on each,
and each very thirsty since they had consumed only a portion of their water and rations
during that week at sea. They had rigged one of their parachutes as a sail between the
wings and were headed for Australia. One of the wing tip floats was nearly full of water,
but more serious was that the main float was filling with water. It looked as if about one
more day and they would have been in their rubber raft.
Several days later I found that the Admiral's navigator had taken the position that my
radio bearings had indicated the lost plane to be and had set the return course to intersect
the spot where he had calculated their drift to have taken them during that time. He had
missed his dead reckoning by 1 mile! Those boys must have had the hand of God helping
just a little.