AT THE EDGE OF HELL
The 30th day of October brought us back to Guadalcanal escorting transports loaded with
troops and supplies. This time, in company with a couple of destroyers, we made a number
of bombardment runs against the Japanese positions, shelling the area to the west of
Henderson Field called Kokumbona and Koli Point.
Lt. Thomas and I flew at an altitude of 2000 feet over the target area and provided
spotting service for the ships in directing their gun fire, reporting hits and misses and
pointing out of possible targets. It was a fairly safe operation because no enemy in their
right mind would want to reveal their position during a bombardment, or at least that was
our reasoning at the time. The ships were using five inch bombardment ammunition
which was aimed to go off right at the top of the coconut trees and spray the ground with
shrapnel. We stayed just high enough to be out of range of the blasts.
The area that we were working over was an old coconut plantation that was planted by
the Dutch or maybe German colonists many years before. The coconut trees were planted
roughly 50 feet apart on a grid and covered several square miles. The Japanese had moved
into the area, literally dug themselves in, and had them and their supplies fairly well
camouflaged. From there they would mount infantry attacks and mortar fire on Henderson
at night. I am afraid we didn't help their coconut harvest that fall.
We were now making routine convoy runs to the Canal. It was the afternoon of the 11th
of November and we were a couple of hundred miles south of Guadalcanal on our way in
with another convoy. We had been shadowed by a twin engine float plane all afternoon.
The Japanese knew that we were there and that could only mean trouble.
The evening passed without event and we sailed right into Henderson Field area early
the morning of the 12th and began unloading our troops and supplies. Later in the
morning, we received word from a hidden Australian coast lookout up in Bougainville,
that an air strike was headed our way from Rabual. Admiral Turner ordered the unloading
stopped and got the entire force underway to make for a better defense. Two of the ship's
aircraft were dropped in the water for flight over to Tulagi. The disposition of the other
two aircraft remain a mystery with me since I recall that all aviation personnel remained
aboard except for the crews of these two aircraft that ended up in Tulagi.
Lt. Thomas and I manned one plane, Lt. jg. Ratley and radioman Gannon took the other.
It was just a 10 minute flight to the north after which we tied up at the small island service
area and joined the Marines on the main Tulagi Island. It was only by the Grace of God
that I wasn't on that ship during the next twenty four hour period.
Back with the ships, an air defense formation was set up with the four transports and
two cargo ships at the center. Around them were the five cruisers, and on the outer edge of
the formation, the destroyers. At 14:10, a Japanese group of 21 twin engine torpedo planes
started their low altitude runs on our formation. The heavy cruisers fired their 8 inch main
battery into the water just ahead of the approaching planes causing huge water spouts, but
without results. The five inch antiaircraft guns came to bear with flak all over the sky, and
then as the enemy planes came into range, our 20 and 40 millimeter guns took over.
Tactical maneuvering of our formation of ships was credited with the successful dodging of
all torpedoes. The F4F-4 fighters from Henderson took care of eleven of the enemy, at a
cost of four of our fighters. The ship's antiaircraft guns accounted for nine of them, with
only one of the enemy torpedo planes able to evade our defenses.
While most of the vessels came through that engagement unscathed, luck was running
out for the USS San Francisco. Near the end of the engagement, one of the doomed
torpedo planes made a fiery crash into the secondary control station of the ship, just over
the hangar area. There was an installation of 20 and 40 millimeter guns on that deck
which, in part, were manned by personnel from the ship's aviation gang during combat
conditions. There were twenty one of my friends that died in that action, mostly from
burns, with another twenty eight wounded.
Even more serious to the ship's fighting capability was the fact that the secondary fire
control and radar was knocked out. As things quieted down after the attack, the wounded
sailors were transferred to the troop ship, the SS President Jackson, for medical treatment.
With the enemy air opposition taken care of, the convoy moved back into position off
Lunga Point and completed off loading the much needed troops and artillery. About 18:00
they got underway to return to Espiritu Santos.
During the afternoon, Admiral Callaghan, now aboard the ship as Flag Command, had
received several messages regarding a possible enemy surface force of two battleships, one
light cruiser and six destroyers headed for Guadalcanal. Our Task Force now consisted of
the USS San Francisco, the USS Portland, both heavy cruisers, the light cruisers USS
Helena, USS Atlanta, and USS Juneau, along with eight destroyers.
It was 22:00 when our surface Task Force left the transports on the east end of
Guadalcanal and turned back to meet the oncoming Japanese attack force. As found later,
the Japanese battleships were loaded with bombardment ammunition for their big guns,
and were preparing to give Henderson Field a major shelling that night. They were not
prepared to fight a surface engagement since bombardment ammunition is not nearly as
effective as armor piercing projectiles in ship to ship warfare.
At 01:24 the next morning, November 13th, our column of ships was off Henderson
Field when they first made contact with the enemy steaming in for their bombardment runs.
The Japanese were taken by surprise in thinking that we had retreated back toward Espiritu
Santos. There ensued one of the most violent naval battles of the war. It was a match
between the two Japanese battleships, the Hiei and the Kirishima, with fourteen inch
bombardment ammunition against our two heavy cruisers, the USS San Francisco and the
USS Portland, with their eight inch armor piercing ammunition.
From my ringside seat on Tulagi, I could see the sky filled with fierce gunfire and fiery
explosions. White hot shells, that were going for a few of the long range targets, formed
dotted lines across the sky. At night and at that distance no one could determine the
identity of a ship, or who was winning or losing. Occasionally a flare would light up certain
portions of the action for a few short minutes.
This terrible exchange of shelling with the big guns at point blank range, lasted for about
one hour, ending with the damaged Japanese battleship Hiei moving to the west behind
Savo Island for protection and the remnants of the Japanese force, including the Kirishima,
moving back to the north west. After confirming that those ships remaining in the
Guadalcanal area were all US ships, they were ordered to join up on the light cruiser, the
USS Helena, and to begin their retreat back toward Espiritu Santos.
Sketch of Battle of November 12-13, 1942
The descriptive details of this engagement, the awful toll of casualties, the damage to the
ship, and the horrible confusion of the battle is well told in an article written for The
Proceedings of the US Naval Institute by Rear Admiral McCandless, after the close of
World War II. Lt. Commander Bruce McCandless was the Communications Officer of our ship. He was the
surviving senior officer that took command after Admiral Callaghan and Captain Young
and their staffs were all killed on the bridge during the battle. Lt. Cmdr. McCandless was
responsible for bringing what was left of the USS San Francisco out of that melee, still
The ship's aviation gang - Casualties are X'ed
The damage to the USS San Francisco was incredible. She sustained some 45 hits in
all, twelve of which were 14 inch projectiles. If the Japanese had been using anything other
that bombardment ammunition, the ship would not have survived. The navigation bridge
and signal bridge both took numerous hits with 14 inch shells, killing the Admiral
Callaghan and his staff, and Captain Young and his staff. The five inch antiaircraft
batteries on each side of the ship were knocked out of commission, their crews, and
replacements having been killed or wounded or the guns damaged beyond use. Seven
Marines died manning those open guns, with twenty six more wounded.
That night 83 men lost their lives and 106 more were wounded. Many of those killed or
wounded had been members of the aviation gang, pilots and enlisted men, all close friends.
A pilot was killed and several aviation seamen were injured in the starboard silo under the
catapult. A shell had penetrated the top of the armor plated silo, and had exploded right on
top of them.
About the only areas that were not hit were the sick bay, although it was severely
flooded, the forward radio room, and the engine room. My radio repair shop, located in the
top side of the port silo was not damaged. The ship's electrical and communications
cables, even though they were all heavily armored, were in disarray throughout the ship.
Later, the morning of the 13th, the dead were given military honors and buried off San
Cristobal Island in the Solomons. The severely wounded were transferred to the hospital
ship where they joined some of their shipmates from the previous afternoon's torpedo
It was on this same morning that a Japanese submarine had been waiting for the column
of US ships to return toward Espiritu Santos. The light cruiser USS Juneau was badly
damaged from the earlier morning engagement, and was trailing along with the rest of the
vessels. A group of torpedoes were fired at the two heavy cruisers but missed. One of
them did slam into the trailing USS Juneau apparently striking a powder magazine. That
ship exploded in one great ball of fire. When the smoke cleared it was gone, all 700 men.
The five Sullivan Brothers were on that vessel.
Meanwhile back on the Island of Tulagi, at the first light of dawn, Lt. Thomas and I
were in SOC-2 No. 9890 taxiing out of the Tulagi Island seaplane service area for takeoff.
With a glassy smooth ocean, seaplane flying there was simple. That feature paid off
handsomely the next hour and a half as we flew around, over, and through last night's battle
area at an altitude of about fifty feet, surveying the remaining situation and landing many
times to help the survivors.
The mortally wounded cruiser USS Atlanta was dead in the water, decks awash, with
the crew and many survivors from other vessels lining the decks, waiting for anyone to
rescue them. We came across a destroyer where the airtight compartments in the bow was
all that was keeping her afloat. The main deck of that ship was vertical now with only
about 30 feet of the bow sticking out of the water. Several sailors were hanging onto the
anchor and other lines dangling down from the bow. Debris was strewn over a number of
square miles of the ocean, with more than a few sailors clutching anything that would float.
One of our first moves was to get on the radio with Guadalcanal and with Tulagi to get
rescue boats on their way to help these people. Once the boats arrived we were able to
direct them in a somewhat efficient rescue operations. On several occasions we landed
and cut the engine to talk to a boat coxswain. There were seldom any Japanese survivors
left from naval battles, nor were there any now.
While we were finishing up what could be done from the air on the rescue operation, I
had noticed a thin wisp of smoke on the horizon over behind Savo Island about fifteen
miles to the northwest. On reporting it to the pilot, we were immediately on our way to
have a look. We climbed up to 1000 feet or so and flew out that way until we were about
five miles from what turned out to be a badly damaged Japanese battleship, which we could
not positively identify. She was almost dead in the water, making wide circles at about
five knots. The first sign of life were the explosions of a round of antiaircraft shells right in
front of us. With that we made a fast 180 degree turn, got some space between them and
ourselves, climbed up to about 5000 feet, and got on the radio with Henderson Field.
There were broken clouds scudding along just above 5000 feet so that gave us some cover
to get closer.
We did identify the vessel as the Japanese battleship Hiei. She looked like she had been
heavily damaged with some of her turrets askew and her small caliber guns and decks torn
apart. The fact that she was making slow circles indicated that she had major problems.
We reported all we were able to detect to Henderson Field. By that time, they must have
spotted us in the clouds because their antiaircraft fire began bouncing us all over the sky.
With that, we pulled back to better cloud cover for a short time and waited for the show out
of Henderson Field to begin.
The TBD torpedo bombers were first to make their runs. The Hiei fired what good 14
inch guns they yet had in operation into the water ahead of the TBDs. That was not
effective. They used their antiaircraft guns as the planes got closer in, but The TBDs
managed to get a torpedo or two into her side. Then came the SBD dive bombers. They
worked the dying ship over with big bombs, some of which made large white circles in the
sea as they missed their target, others raising columns of smoke and fire as they found their
I never knew the cost in American planes in that action on that day of November the
13th, 1942, but they did help to complete the task that the USS San Francisco started in the
wee hours of that morning. As a result of irrecoverable damage, the Japanese sailors
scuttled the Hiei that afternoon, sending her to join the many other ships on the bottom of
Iron Bottom Bay.
We had been flying since the first gray fingers of dawn and were getting low on fuel.
Seeing that the situation was in good hands, we returned to Tulagi, refueled our plane and
looked up our Marine friend, the mess sergeant, for some breakfast.
There we were in Tulagi, stranded. Our planes did not have enough range to reach
Espiritu Santos, and further, we had no idea of the condition of the ship, even whether or
not she was still afloat. The idea of our ship leaving the area for the States without us
aboard was devastating.
There was no further flying that afternoon. We did get a report of the fact that the Hiei
had been sunk. It looked like we were going to have to spend a few days with the Marines
until we could find a way back to the ship. The regular chow was rough. We had to use
military mess kits, cleaned after each meal in a big barrel of boiling water. That was
acceptable, but the food consisted of canned K and C rations, and on occasion, we were
offered stewed cow tongue which had been reclaimed from the Japanese supply. My newly
made friends, the Coast Guard crew of the LCI, saved my life. They produced some small
cans of C rations of cheese and corned beef hash which tasted like something from home.
These boat crews apparently had made sure that they, themselves, were well stocked during
the unloading of the supply ships during the invasion.
That evening, the LCI Coast Guard crew invited me to ride along over to Florida Island,
a short run to the north of Tulagi. There, they met a crew of natives at one of the creek
outlets and exchanged a package of cigarettes for a bag of freshly washed laundry. These
guys really had it made, but of course, any good sailor learned very quickly how to become
a first class negotiator. A couple of the natives had a dugout canoe along, filled with big
yams that they were trying to sell. These things were about four or five feet long and eight
inches in diameter, the biggest that I have ever seen. The sailors bought a couple, again for
the price of a couple of packs of cigarettes.
On the way back to Tulagi, the LCI crew circled a small bushy island about a hundred
feet across. As they neared the north side of this little atoll, I observed an entrance to the
middle of the isle. Sure enough, inside they went. The island was shaped like a doughnut
with an opening on the north side but a hollow space in the center of some fifty feet across
and ten feet deep. The bottom was pure white sand. There neatly stacked, out of sight of
passers by, on the bottom of the lagoon, under water, was a cache of shinny five gallon cans
of "torpedo fluid", which is pure 200 proof alcohol. That night we had martinis, with
limes but without olives, right there on Tulagi.
The sleeping facilities were strictly open air to get away from the heat and humidity of a
tent. Cots were equipped with four metal rods that supported a mosquito net to keep the
multitude of bugs off you. Malaria and dysentery were everywhere, carried by mosquitoes
and unclean mess utensils. That night everything went OK, except for one thing. It had
been a long time since I had a good night's sleep and I must have faded away fast. During
the night, I had somehow let my right foot slip out side the net. The next morning, my
entire foot was swollen. It had been bitten at least a hundred times by mosquitoes. From
that time forward, I took the drug atabrine, a yellowish tablet in great supply there in camp,
to stave off malaria.
That evening just after sunset, I heard an aircraft flying overhead. It appeared to be just
flying around aimlessly. No one was concerned about it. It turned out that what I had
heard was "Washing Machine Charlie". It was reported to be a Japanese scout plane that
made a practice of being up there all night just to frustrate the Americans. No one ever
bothered to shoot at it. He apparently never did any damage. It was kind of a standing
joke among the Marines.
The next day, the 14th of November, was quiet, no flying. We still had no way to get
out of Tulagi. Later in the afternoon, we received a report that the Tokyo Express was on
the way again with a Japanese battleship, some destroyers and troop transports. Late that
night, we witnessed another naval engagement from the hills on Tulagi. This time it turned
out to be the Japanese battleship Kirishima lined up against the American battleship USS
Washington. The Kirishima, the same battleship that had hammered the USS San
Francisco just a couple of days before, was sunk during that engagement.
We were up flying at the first streak of light on the morning of the 15th. We repeated
our rescue efforts of two days before but this time we didn't see many survivors. What we
did see was lots and lots of debris, pieces of varnished wood and some splintered boat
remains, along with numerous dead bodies. We gathered that several Japanese troop ships
had been sunk during the engagement.
About 7:00 we did identify the American destroyer USS Meade moving in around the
east end of Guadalcanal. In flying on up toward the west end of the island, we observed
several transports, obviously Japanese, beached and unloading troops. Communication
with Guadalcanal got us in touch with the USS Meade who was already moving to take
action against the transports. As the USS Meade moved into position and began firing
their five inch battery at the transports, we took up a spotting position over the Japanese
troop ships, and helped direct the fire. On one occasion during a break in the firing, we
even got a chance to do a little of our own strafing. This show went on for about one and a
half hours after which there was no more activity around the transports, they were afire and
settling back into the sea. They were just rusty hulks when we left Tulagi a few days later.
We returned to Tulagi harbor after the action and tied up to the seaplane service ramp.
As we stepped out of the plane, we were met on the dock by a doctor that was looking for a
quick ride over to Guadalcanal. The plane had about an hours gas left, so Lt. Thomas
agreed to fly the doctor over. I helped the doctor get into the seat which I normally
occupied. He then slipped into my chute, and accepted a short safety checkout. With that,
I stood on the dock and watched Lt. Thomas make his takeoff run in a very normal fashion.
It was about thirty minutes later that a Marine communicator came rushing up with
word that the USS Meade had just reported a plane crash. Lt. Thomas and the doctor had
crashed in a nose down attitude from low altitude, near the USS Meade, whose men had
recognized the plane as the one that had earlier helped them with the spotting. Nothing but
one wing tip float was recovered. The why of the crash remains a mystery to this day. The
plane had been subject to a good deal of antiaircraft flak during the last few days of action.
A control cable must have been damaged and let go to cause such a crash. I said a couple
of prayers that night, one for Thomas and one for myself.
That afternoon, Lt. Jg. Ratley, our other pilot, had arranged a ride down to Espiritu
Santos in a Navy PBY, leaving the next morning. Our hopes surged in that we knew now
that the USS San Francisco was intact enough to operate and was going to the States to be
rebuilt. This flight might make it in time.
On the morning of the 16th of November, Lt. Jg. Ratley, Radioman Gannon and myself,
were on the dock at 6:00 ready to go. We had no luggage. We boarded the same LCI, with
my Coast Guard friends as crew, and were taken out to the PBY. There were several bags
of mail bound for the States along with eight passengers and a plane crew of five. Quite a
load even for a PBY. The PBY is a twin engine craft with a big wing and was built for
long range patrol work. This particular plane was fitted with depth charge racks under each
wing section and carried two 325 pound depth charges. The sea surface that morning was
very quiet, mill pond smooth. With everything loaded and all the passengers belted in
place we were ready for takeoff.
The pilot taxied the seaplane south toward Guadalcanal to make room for his takeoff
run to the north. On his first try, the plane would not come off the surface. We were all
concerned that there was too much weight aboard, as was the pilot. At the north end of his
takeoff run, he cut the engines to slow for a turn. In the middle of the turn, he released both
his 325 pound depth charges, just to lighten the load. What he didn't anticipate was that
the depth charges were still fully armed from his last patrol flight. They both behaved just
as they were designed, and exploded when they reached their preset depth, right under the
I remember the starboard engine tearing loose and it, along with its propeller, coming
down through the right side of the cabin just in front of me, and then the sea water gushing
in under my feet. Gannon and I were sitting on the port side of the aircraft, just down and
behind the pilot. I chose to go forward and Gannon went aft to exit the plane. The pilots
had a small escape hatch over the cockpit that they were going through. The last thing I
recall of that cockpit was that of the second pilot literally standing in my face as we went
out through that small hatch. The next thing I knew I was sitting on top of that big wing
with my feet over the edge in the water.
I had lost all account of the whereabouts of Ratley and Gannon. As a precaution, I
pulled the cord to inflate my life vest. All I got in return was a "raspberry" as the CO2
fluttered out through a big gash in the side of the vest. It was about fifteen seconds later
that the plane began to sink taking that big wing down with it.
We were all in the water together, but in a situation like that, panic takes over and it is
every man for himself. I had worn a service .45 automatic on a custom made belt from the
beginning of the war. I had heavy regulation service boots on. They both were almost my
undoing that morning. I did manage to strip off the belt, ridding myself of the automatic,
and then in a submerged position, I finally got the shoes off. When I came up for air, it
was none too soon.
It took the rescue launch about twenty minutes to reach us. In the meantime, I had
found that Gannon had been injured. He had started to leave the plane through one of the
after turrets. On moving aft, he had apparently been caught under a breaking structural
part of the plane and suffered a deep gash in his head. The sailors in the back of the plane
had helped him deplane and were supporting him in the water until a boat arrived. Lt. Jg.
Ratley was OK. Later that afternoon, sick bay there on Tulagi, reported that Gannon had
remained unconscious and had passed away. It was ironical that Lt. Thomas and
Radioman Gannon had come through that week of being lost at sea only to have met death
On the 18th of November, there was a destroyer that had lost the mid part of her
topsides, the galley area being among the shot away portion, and an old Australian 300 ton
merchant vessel that were leaving the Tulagi area for Espiritu Santos. It was going to take
five days enroute at a very slow speed, true submarine bait, but Lt. Jg. Ratley and I
enthusiastically boarded that destroyer. By this time, I was beginning to feel weary, the
malaria must have been working on me. We were given two brief meals a day, consisting
of mashed potatoes and coffee. Toward the end of the five day trip, I was so sick that I was
foregoing any food, and by the time we got to Espiritu Santos, I couldn't stand on my feet.
When we finally arrived in Espiritu Santos, we found that the USS San Francisco had gone
on down to Noumea, New Caledonia.
Lt. Jg. Ratley was still in pretty good shape. He arranged for transportation on another
PBY to Noumea yet that afternoon. I vaguely recall the flight. It was all a kind of an
unrealistic, ethereal feeling. We landed in Noumea harbor after an uneventful flight. A
boat must have picked us up and taken us over to the USS San Francisco, I don't remember.
I was later told that they carried me aboard in a litter.
The next thing that I was aware of was that of "coming to" in a sick bay bunk with
several tubes plugged into my body. I was told that I had uncontrollably jumped up and
down four or five inches off the bed when the first glucose hit me. Everything was all
right now, we were on board, going home. I had boarded the ship at about 18:00 the
afternoon of the 22nd. The USS San Francisco departed Noumea for the States at 6:00 the
morning of November 23, 1942. By the grace of God, I had just made it.
The sick bay on the ship was clean and orderly. From my bunk, I could see no evidence
of a brutal naval battle. The dead had been buried at sea and the wounded had been
transferred to the hospital ship. Those left aboard were able bodied seamen. Within a few
days, I was up and around. They fed me a great deal of that yellow anti-malaria stuff,
atabrine, and best of all, some real food for a change. As I got to feeling better, Cmdr.
McCandless was eager to debrief me on the happenings of the past week around
Guadalcanal and Tulagi. We had a couple of one-on- one sessions on the steps of the
forward radio room, where I gave him all that I could remember.
The ship had been patched up with steel plates here and there. Both the signal bridge
and the navigation bridge were still in shambles. The scars were all there. Below decks,
the propulsion machinery was all intact, and with the steering system repairs that had been
made, we were able to proceed at normal cruising speed. There was no flying. We had no
aircraft. The last one was abandoned at Tulagi when we left on the destroyer. It was just
as well, since our aviation division had been decimated to just a handful of sailors and
crewmen. I was certainly not up to it for quite a few days. When I checked out of the sick
bay, I tipped the scales at a cool 120 pounds of inactive tiger meat.
Today's historians credit these decisive naval actions and the Guadalcanal campaign as
being the turning point of the Pacific war. Many good men spilled a lot of blood that fall,
but there were many engagements yet to be fought, many just as bloody but now with more
confidence and strength. Out of this experience, I could only conclude that God wasn't
through with me yet. But for the Grace of God, there go I.
On the 11th of December, 1942, The USS San Francisco sailed
under the Golden Gate Bridge, returning to the city for which she was named, to a colossal
hero's welcome. The city of San Francisco exploded with gratitude. The Mayor and the
people of the town literally gave us the keys to the city. For me, it was great to be home.