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 afloat.


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 plane crash.

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 mark.

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 plane.

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 here.

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.

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