THE TOYKO EXPRESS

By the end of May we were back in Hawaiian waters. This time it was in escort of a convoy carrying an Army Division bound for Suva, Fiji and then on to Auckland, New Zealand. Our stop in Fiji was just for a day but I did get out to one of the beaches there. We had occasion to meet a native scout that would later be called into service over in Guadalcanal. This fellow was only half civilized, stood a good seven feel tall, and had a wild mop of hair that stood out in all directions from his head. He had apparently been treated for lice by his superiors since his head was filled with white powder. If I had met him in the jungle, there would only be one of us around. The natives all chewed beechnuts, a local stimulant like tobacco only much stronger. It stained their teeth to a dark brown, and his was no exception. The Fiji Islands were famous for their cat's eye jewels, a semiprecious quartz gem. When light is reflected from it in a certain way it looks like the eye of a cat. I purchased a beauty but somehow over the years it has been misplaced.

Auckland was an adventure. It was like stepping back fifty years into Frontier Days to walk down the main streets of town. All the store fronts were fitted with big porches that served as weather protection, sidewalk and a place to set their long benches. It was cold when we were there in June, as a matter of fact, we had about a half inch of snow on the ground one morning. The buildings had no heat, and I was frozen stiff all the time. The New Zealanders and the Aussies were all strapping tall, hearty men. They liked their American friends and they also liked their "staike and aiggs" for breakfast. They all had bad teeth. By the time they were 21 years old, many of them had their first set of false teeth. Guess it must have been something in the water.

The highlight of the short stay in Auckland was a ride in a genuine British Mosquito. One morning the senior aviator asked if I would be interested in touring the New Zealand Naval Aviation Base with him and having a ride in a Mosquito Bomber. I jumped at the chance.

A Mosquito was a very lightweight twin engine plane of roughly 10,000 pound gross and constructed entirely of wood. It was quite a thrill to be aboard that plane at 5000 feet altitude and look out through the structure of plywood and sticks holding us up. It flew fine and served the British well as a trainer. I liked it for them. The scenery around Auckland with the snow covered mountains in the background was spectacular.

It was a routine trip back to Pearl after a refreshing visit in the land down under. With a couple of days in Pearl behind us, we were off again with two destroyers escorting a convoy to Suva. It was general knowledge that the Japanese had targeted the take over of Midway Island, of New Guinea, and as far east as Fiji Islands and Samoa. We didn't know it at the time but our convoy was a part of the invasion force that was to hit Guadalcanal. We had missed two decisive naval battles, the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway while we were in the states. Those engagements had been battles of the carriers, and had resulted in the turning point of the Pacific War. Even so, the Japanese were firmly entrenched in Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

It was a quick stop in Suva, then back to sea to join the Solomon Island Expeditionary Force. It was a comfortable feeling to be in the company of the big carriers and their aircraft again. The USS Wasp, the USS Saratoga, and the USS Enterprise along with several other cruisers and a screen of destroyers made up a formidable Task Force. The USS Lexington had been sunk and the USS Yorktown severely damaged in the Coral Sea action in May.

General Quarters sounded as usual, before dawn on August the 7th. Flight call wasn't far behind with Lt. Thomas and I being catapulted for routine air patrol on the south side of Guadalcanal. We flew quite a few hours the next few days, but the main show was on the north side of the island. Our Task Force had positioned themselves off the south coast and their planes were supporting the invasion on the other side of the island and on Tulagi, just 12 miles north of the Canal across the open channel. On the north side of the island, there was another task force of US cruisers and destroyers that had escorted our transports with Marines and supplies for the invasion.

During the day, we could hear frantic conversations and maneuvering instructions over the carrier aircraft interplane frequencies as our pilots would tangle with defending Japanese Zeros. "Hey Mike! He's on your tail!", "Joe! There's one behind and above you!" "Dive Ed, dive!" We were not close enough to the action to see it but at times it was furious. Our losses for the day were minimal. Some of the transports at the invasion site were hit by the air raids. By evening, the Marines had established a beachhead, and our Task Force had not lost a ship. The next morning was filled with about the same activity but with seemingly less air opposition. I was beginning to feel like we had the Japanese on the run, however we were not in a position to observe what was happening on the other side of the island.

It was about 11:00 that morning, having returned from an early patrol, I remember standing on the well deck and just happened to be looking over at one of our carriers. She was sending a blinker message addressed to our ship so I paused a moment to read it. The message was from the Task Force Commander and started out - "We regret to inform you of the loss of the USS Quincy, USS Vincennes and the USS Astoria - - -". I couldn't believe it. There were no communications drills now, this had to be for real. The USS Quincy and USS Vincennes were cruisers just like ourselves. What happened? Later, we found that they, along with the USS Chicago, the USS Patterson, the USS Talbot, and the Australian cruiser Canberra, while protecting the transports, had retired to the east end of the island at night fall. A Japanese force of battleships and cruisers were alerted earlier by their own aircraft scouts as to the ship's movements and were waiting for them. About 1:30 am the Japanese opened fire, at close range, on a totally surprised group of these warships. They were reported to have gone down with their guns trained fore and aft. We lost 1800 men that night. Only the USS Chicago survived that attack to fight again.

Needless to say the news of the loss of those cruisers sobered every one on board to the fact that we were playing for keeps. The crew had generally felt up to now that we had been leading a charmed life. It was probably a good thing that the crew did not have full visibility as to the strength of the Japanese and their determination to hold their gains.

On the 3rd of September, we put into Noumea, New Caledonia, for fuel and provisions. I don't recall a whole lot of detail about Noumea except that the store fronts had that early frontier look much the same as Auckland. French was spoken although we hardly had time to bother. They understood the American dollar. We didn't get ashore that much in the few days that we were there.

By the 12th of September, we were back with the Task Force maneuvering in the Coral Sea south of the Canal. The carrier USS Hornet had joined our Task Force now. As a measure to preserve radio silence, we even practiced message drops from our planes onto the carrier deck. Enemy submarines were always a threat. The destroyers, equipped with sonar, formed an outer screen around the task force and kept up a continual watch for them. Every day brought sub alerts with the destroyers firing their depth charges which would send up an eruption of water on explosion.

On the 15th of August, again a sub alert. A submarine had somehow managed to get past the screen and fire a couple of torpedoes into the USS Wasp. The destroyers went into action by firing depth charges in the area where the torpedoes were launched. This time we did see debris rise to the surface. The USS Wasp was less than a mile off our starboard beam when she was hit. A carrier those days as now, was a veritable fire bomb in itself. They had to carry thousands of gallons of high octane gasoline for fueling the aircraft, not to mention the oils required for the engines. Their magazines were loaded with the bombs, torpedoes and other ammunition necessary to rearm the planes as well as the ammunition for their own ship's guns. Once a fire got a good start it was almost impossible to control. That happened on the Wasp.

We observed a small fire just after she was hit. It appeared under control but numerous small explosions finally erupted into a major fire and the ship was abandoned late that afternoon. She was given the Coup de Grace by one of our own destroyers. I suppose the other three carriers somehow handled the aircraft from the doomed carrier, I never knew. Survivors of the ill fated carrier were transferred to the destroyers and taken back to Noumea.

After a brief interlude in the harbor area at Espiritu Santos, in the New Hebrides, we were back at sea with a new surface screening and attack force made up of the cruisers USS Salt Lake City, USS Boise, USS Helena, USS Minneapolis, USS Chester, a destroyer squadron and ourselves. Rear Admiral Scott was now aboard our ship as the flag command for Task Force 64. The Japanese were running successful nightly reinforcement to Guadalcanal from the Rabual and Bouganville area making our hold on the Canal very difficult to maintain. The Japs had simply moved to the west on the island and were being reinforced by night on the west end beaches. That reinforcement line had to be stopped and it was going to take a night surface engagement to stop it.

On the afternoon of 11 October we received information that a Japanese force of two cruisers, six destroyers and several transports were headed down "the slot". At that time we were southwest of the Canal. By 23:00, our column of cruisers was moving along close in to the west end of the island near Cape Esperanse, and hoping that the island background would reflect and confuse any radar that the Japanese might be using.

Radar was a new technique and not a general facility, however our carriers and we were equipped. Lt. Thomas and I had been launched earlier that night about 21:00. We were flying at an altitude of 1500 feet and were scanning the northwest beach of the Canal to identify any enemy. There was no moon, only starlight, and it was dark. You think about things like - "Will the enemy be able to detect the engine exhaust flame to get a bead on you?"

At around 23:15 we spotted what we thought was a beached transport unloading its supplies. We reported the activity to the admiral aboard ship with deliberate, slow Morse code. There was no answer, nor did we expect any. We continued our surveillance of the area in complete darkness until 23:30 when all hell broke loose below us. The anticipated Japanese force had continued straight ahead from the northwest toward the Canal and our column of ships had turned to take up a northwest course in the opposite direction with just a few thousand yards of separation. Traditional naval engagements were always fought in the daylight hours and at long range. Our gunners were trained to fire eight to twelve miles from the target. This was a point blank duel with eight inch rifles and somebody was going to get hurt. There wasn't much that we could do from the air other than report what we saw, if we could see it.

As the battle started, the destroyer USS Duncan operating near the rear of our ship's column, pulled out and made a speed run between the two columns in order to launch torpedoes at the lead enemy cruiser. She got caught in the direct fire of both columns, taking a full salvo of shells into her bridge area. That punishment started explosions and fires that burned all night until she sank the next morning. In the meantime the Japanese were losing a cruiser, a destroyer and several transports. By twenty minutes past midnight, the engagement was over. What were left of the Japanese were retreating to the northwest. Our Task Force was moving back to the south of Guadalcanal. We found out a couple of days later that the USS Salt Lake City and the USS Boise suffered minor damage that night.

The Battle of Cape Esperance was over. There were a few fires on ships other than the big one on the USS Duncan. We really didn't know the condition of our ships or the outcome of the engagement. Our problem was that we were low on gas. It was inky dark and we had to land in strange unknown water, somewhere. A night recovery under the conditions that prevailed was not even up for consideration.

Lt. Thomas selected what he thought was the harbor at Tulagi which was just north of Guadalcanal. He flew a low, straight course over the guesstimated landing area and had me drop float lights, or water borne flares at the beginning of the proposed landing area and at the end. When they both hit the water and lighted, we knew that we had at least, a clear run of water for landing. They also gave a good altitude reference by which to land the plane. We didn't know what signals we were sending to possible enemy troops on the beach if we had misjudged our position.

The landing went remarkably routine, the water was absolutely calm and the float lights gave enough reflection to accomplish the task. After we were down, we cut the engine and drifted dead in the water for a while. We could make out the outline of the island but not well enough to plot our location. I recall occasionally getting down on the main float and paddling with my hand to move us away from the beach, and as I would move my hand through the water, a brilliant phosphorus effect trailed behind my hand revealing every eddy in that tropical sea.

Daylight did finally arrive. As soon as we identified the shore line as our being about five miles west of where we should be, we started up the plane and taxied on down to Tulagi Harbor. We tied up at a makeshift dock on a small island in the bay where the Japanese seaplane service area once stood. There was nothing left, just burned out shacks and destroyed remains of Japanese seaplanes.

Fueling the plane was a chore. All aviation gas available in the forward area came in 56 gallon drums. There were barrels everywhere, they were used for everything. In order to get fuel into the aircraft one had to hand it up, usually in five gallon lots, to a man on the plane who used a big funnel covered with a chamois skin. All gas was thus hand filtered to remove the rust and water. We both worked hard that morning on an empty stomach after a sleepless night, but got the job done, all 100 gallons of it.

With the plane refueled we took off again to see if we could find out anything about the results of the action. There were all kinds of debris and a few bodies floating in the water where the action occurred. We saw no survivors. Having found no ships still in the area except the abandoned destroyer USS Duncan, which was about ready to go down, we returned to the Tulagi base and tied up to the dock.

Before we left that captured seaplane base that morning, we did stop to look at the junk pile of wrecked Japanese seaplanes that were lost in the attack on Tulagi. We concluded that they had used a high percentage of magnesium in the manufacture of their engines. They looked as if they were consumed in fire. We couldn't help but notice what looked like wooden bullets which were strewn all over the area. We were told that the Japanese did use them in the defense of their base during the invasion. The enemy even had some kind of an officers club on that little island, most of it now gone.


Pilot Thomas on Tulagi Island


P.A. in the rough on Tulagi

The Coast Guard sailors were assigned the mission of operating the LCI landing barges during the invasion activity and then continued on as taxi service around the island. We were able to bum a ride with one of these LCI crews to the main island of Tulagi where an obliging Marine mess sergeant saw to it that we got some breakfast. It seemed that everyone did their best to help the flying crews with what ever they needed or wanted. Then with another LCI ride back to the plane, we readied the plane again for takeoff.

It occurred to me that we didn't know the condition of our ship or even what her position was in order to find her. Thomas reassured me that we would find her OK, anyway we took off and flew around the east end of Guadalcanal then to the south west. It was two and a half hours later when we circled the cruiser USS Helena. The skipper obligingly invited us to execute a Cast recovery and come aboard, which we did. We refueled the easy way that afternoon and spent the night on the USS Helena. The next day, with fresh information on the position of our ship, we catapulted, made a three and a half hour flight, landed and was hoisted aboard the USS San Francisco once more.

Once aboard, we learned that the ship had sustained no damage in the Battle of Cape Esperance, nor had the USS Helena. We found that two more battle damaged Japanese destroyers, had been sunk by air action out of Henderson Field the day following the engagement. Successful as that action was, it didn't seem to change the Japanese determination to keep Guadalcanal provided with fresh troops and supplies. The enemy's efforts was dubbed appropriately - "The Tokyo Express". By the 20th of October we were on our way back to Espiritu Santo to take on more munitions and fuel.

In company with us that evening were the USS Chester, and the USS Helena and the usual destroyer screen. I was standing watch atop the boat deck just over the hanger area and was connected to the ship's central control through sound powered headphones. We were there to spot anything irregular. Most of the time we scanned the ocean surface for submarines. The night was fairly well lighted by moonlight over a somewhat hazy sea and I could see the other ships in formation very easily.

It was 21:20 when a sub alert was passed over the phones. Just moments later the engine room reported that a loud thud was heard as if something had hit the ship's side. Something had, indeed. It was a torpedo that had failed to explode. A few seconds later, it did explode behind the ship showering the fantail with water. The USS Chester was not so lucky, however. She took a hit amidships but did continue under her own power. Several other torpedoes were seen running on the surface but missed their mark. We moved through the mine field into the forward area harbor at Espiritu Santo the next day grateful for whatever protection we could get.

Espiritu Santo was not much of a place to be, just a harbor between a couple of islands in the New Hebrides that served as a makeshift supply base which was out of reach of the enemy aircraft. It was on one of these visits to Espiritu Santo that we had a weird experience. We had made a few short time friends with the Marines there, finding that they were very curious about what was going on up at Guadalcanal. That afternoon we were walking a mile or so from their camp, really into the edge of the jungle, when we happened upon a giant boa constrictor. I was for clearing the area fast but these guys scoffed and took after this thing. It was roughly fifteen feet long and a foot in girth. They managed to kill it and stretch it up in a tree for all to see. It was about the biggest snake that I had ever seen dead or alive. The snake episode turned out to be the biggest news item of the day around the island.


"V Mail"

Copyright © 1999 CommPro International
All Rights Reserved