Location: Memphis, Tennessee, United States

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

When Duty Calls - Part IV - Vella Lavella

Unaware of the tactical situation, the sailors arose from their exhaustion-induced sleep on the Japanese occupied island of Vella Lavella, in the Solomon island chain. Glad to be alive and on dry land, the survivors’ momentarily let their guard down and talked opening among themselves. "A native Melanesian boy of about twelve suddenly appeared from the trees," Cockran said. "The boy could not speak English, but he pointed to the northwest and said 'Japs'."

The group of survivors with Lt. Cockran followed the Melanesian native over a trail of pure coral. Most of the men were without shoes and the sharp coral soon lacerated their feet, which freely bled. Many cut up life belts and rubber rafts to fashion makeshift sandals, minimizing further injury from the coral.

Leaving the beach trail, the group headed into the jungle. The trek took the men over rough trails, across streams and through dense vegetation. Late in the afternoon they reached an area where several native huts stood on stilts. Here the natives had gathered other Helena sailors.

This was not the groups’ final destination. After a brief rest they started the final leg of the journey. The Helena survivors were being consolidated at the house of a Chinese trader, Sam Chung, under the supervision of an Australian coastwatcher, Rev. A.W.E. Silvester. This house was located in the mountains, and the exhausted sailors had to preserver a few more hours, climbing steep jungle slopes to reach Chung's house.

The Helena's Lt. Cmdr Jack Chew was the senior officer at Chung's. Here 104 survivors had congregated. Elsewhere on the island Ens. George Bausewine had another 50 survivors and CWO Dupay had another group of eleven. Another coastwatcher, Henry Josselyn, situated on the opposite end of Vella Lavella, had gotten Bausewine and Depay's groups off the beach, and into hiding, before the Japanese garrisoned on the island could locate them.

A room in Chung's house had been converted into a make-shift hospital for the most critically injured men. Corpsmen Vick Walker and Jim Layton helped tend to the wounded and injured. "We had a couple of guys with broken limbs and two or three that had water sores so bad they couldn't walk," Layton said. He would be awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his lifesaving service during their stay on Vella Lavella.

The natives shared what little food was available and built temporary shelters for the men of the Helena. Using coconut halves as bowls, the natives served a type of soup from a large pot. Rev. Silvester, known as 'Bish' for Bishop by the natives, held prayer services for the men and provided periodic updates on the Helena survivors on the other end of the island.

"Everybody loved the guy," Cockran said of Rev. Silvester, "he really took care of us." Layton described Silvester as a very energetic man. "He had a walkie-talkie radio and was always leaving the group to go off into the jungle to use his radio," added Layton.

One day turned into two and before they knew it a week had passed on Vella Lavella. At night the men could hear naval battles taking place in the contested waters off the islands. The monotony of the days was passed with talk of food.

Notification of a rescue plan was given to the officers and men on 13 July. Silvester had been in touch with Guadalcanal via short-wave radio and he and the Navy had concocted a plan to get the sailors off of the island. Chew organized the sailors into small groups, assigning an officer to each group. Meanwhile, Chung gathered other Chinese families on the island to partake in the evacuation.

On 15 July the evacuation plan was put into effect and the column of sailors, Chinese and Melanesian natives started to make their way down the mountain toward the beach. Progress was slow due to the terrain and the large numbers of people attempting to move quietly down the trail. The pace was also held in check by the injured requiring transportation via stretchers. Upon reaching the beach, the group waited in darkness at Lambu Lambu, a tiny trading village that contained a wharf at the mouth of a river. Here waited Rev. Silvester, the 104 officers and sailors of the Helena, 13 Chinese and a captured Japanese pilot brought by the natives. This was to be their rendezvous point with the Navy's rescue party.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

When Duty Calls - Part III - Afloat at Sea

"We ended up with thirteen in our life raft," Cockran said. All thought the destroyers would be back to pick them up the following day, but that did not occur. Due to the rapid currents the American search planes missed the tragic little fleet of rafts floating up the straights.

Through the torturous days that followed, many of the critically wounded died. Several men drown when they could no longer hang on to the rafts, others succumbed to exposure in this tropical climate, and still others to sharks.

"We had no water or provisions," said Layton of this time in the water. "Our raft fell in the water upside-down, and the provisions were underneath the raft. We tried to get to the provisions and just couldn't do it." No food, no water, no help in sight, but the sailors did not despair. "We knew the Navy knew we were out there, and we felt it was just a matter of time before they came for us. We just hoped they made it before the Japs did," survivor Bill Edwards said.

Many of the rafts were donut shaped- canvas covered balsa wood floats, common aboard ships, others were inflatable rafts. Cockran described how they utilized the rafts. "The paddlers would sit on the donut and paddle, most we ever had paddling was four men. Some others sat on a grid in the middle of the raft in waist deep water. Others hung onto the side of the raft."

On Cockran's raft they had tied-off their food and water and had it trailing in the sea behind the raft, in order to make room for more men aboard. "(Our food and water) wasn't there the next morning," he exclaimed. Corckran went on to add, "By the second night we started hallucinating, and fatigue (from rowing) had set in. By the third night it was down to just me and another man paddling."

The men kept their eyes peeled for rescue planes and ships. "Three Jap Zeros came over in a strafing formation, and I thought we were done for," Layton said, "but they never opened up on us. One of the planes just tipped his wings; boy did I feel thankful."

The rafts got separated over the days and nights as they floated, carried by the current. By the third day they had lost sight of each other. Desperation was setting in when the island of Vella Lavella was sighted. The men thought this might be their last chance, so they paddled hard to get out of the current and make landfall. Little groups of survivors were scattered across the island, sepaerated by vast stretches of jungle, when the sun rose the following morning.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

When Duty Calls - Part II - The sinking of the Helena

On the night of July 6, 1943, the light cruiser, the USS HELENA, was sunk during the Battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands. She took three torpedo hits in a matter of minutes, jackknifed and sank.

Of the approximately 1,000 crewmen of the Helena, 168 perished. Destroyers picked-up the bulk of the crewmen from the dark waters throughout the night while the battle ragged around them. But a group of about 170 were taken by the current and washed up the 'slot' deep into Japanses held waters, and after several days adrift at sea, made landfall on the enemy garrisoned island of Vella Lavella.

"My general quarters station was at amidships," said Jim Layton, a Pharmacists Mate aboard the Helena, "The torpedoes hit us at amidship and it broke there. I was already knee deep in water when I went to the deck." As Turret Officer on #5 Turret aboard the Helena, Lt. JG Bin Cockran described his reaction to being torpedoed. "(I) could feel the ship lurch... then two concussions close together made the first one seem mild." Cockran went on to say, "Turret-five was the last turret aft. The middle of the ship went underwater and we were separated from the forward part of the ship. By the time I got out of the turret they were throwing the rafts overboard."

That summer night, the sky was black as coal with the only illumination being provided by the starburst effect the big guns gave off when shooting a salvo. Damage to the Helena occurred underneath the waterline and no fireball, which often accompanied a catastrophic hit, materialized when she sank. Other warships in the task force were busy engaging the Japanese and didn't realize for some time that the Helena had been sunk.

The bow, sticking up in the air, served as a life raft for approximately 200 sailors after the Helena was torpedoed, but it too was slowly sinking. A Navy Liberator (B-24) came to their aid by flying over and dropping lifejackets and their own life rafts. The wounded were placed aboard the rafts and the able-bodied survivors encircled the rafts and attempted to swim them free of the sinking wreckage.

When her bow was discovered, the destroyers USS Nicholas and Radford were ordered to pickup survivors. This rescue mission continued throughout the night, saving over 750 men from the gulf waters. Sending out their boats and dropping cargo nets over the sides, the destroyers pulled sailors covered in oil from the dark seas.

Several times during this mission of mercy the destroyers were forced to break-off from the rescue to defend themselves from Japanese warships who came within gun and torpedo range. "My group was along side a ship at one point in the night, but they had to leave us," Cockran said. "I had to leave the raft and swim hard to get clear of the screws, that happened twice."
Layton added, "I was fifty- feet from getting aboard a rescue ship. They yelled down to stay clear that they were ordered to get underway, and the next thing you know they are off chasing the Japs."

Lingering until dawn, the destroyers were finally required to leave the area, being only sixty miles from the Japanses airstrip at Buin and exposed to air attack, but not before giving up their own whaleboats to the sailors still floating in the sea.

When Duty Calls - The rescue of the crew of the USS Helena.
Part I - "The Set-Up"

“Battle stations, battle stations!” Weary sailors jump to their feet, don life vest and man their post. A boggie, Jap zero, had been spotted by someone in the task force; just a ‘look see’, it never ventures within gun range. Seaman Clarence Hile secures from general quarters and resumes checking out his 30 caliber machinegun. He’s got a big night ahead of him.

With a brisk nod, Hile acknowledges the presence of the Boat Officer, Ensign Rollo Nuckles, approaching the LPCR. “Mister Nuckles, any idea how many Japs are on that island?” Nuckles grinned as he looked over at the seventeen-year-old sailor wiping down the barrel of his machinegun. “All I know for sure is that Vella Lavella has a Jap barge staging base there. Captain Wilhielm says to be ready for anything,” referring to the commanding officer of APD-9, the USS Dent.

The Dent along with her sister ship the USS Waters, both WWI vintage destroyers that had been converted to APD’s, destroyer transports, had been assigned the dangerous mission of going deep into Japanese held territory and rescuing survivors from a torpedoed light cruiser, the USS Helena, from the Japanese occupied island of Vella Lavella. Admiral R.K. Turner, commander of the Solomons offensive, had organized a task force of destroyers to rescue the group of sailors and Marines who were stranded on the island, having spent several days afloat at sea after the sinking of their ship.

To this point in time the Helena survivors had the local Melanesian natives to thank for their well being. Coastwatchers had witnessed the crew floating down the ‘slot’ and had sent loyal natives out in their canoes to bring the men ashore. The coastwatchers had radioed Guadalcanal as to the location of the marooned sailors. “We’ve got to get those men off; that’s all there is to it,” said Adm. Turner, as he briefed his staff about the operation. “This mission is for the moral of all the men in the fleet; it means a lot when you’re fighting under the conditions our men fight under out here, to know that if the worst happens, and you get blown off your ship and washed ashore somewhere, the Navy isn’t going to forget you.”

Nine days since the Helena had gone down in the darkness of night, during the pitch battle of Kula Gulf, the Navy was sending a task force of ships, no heavier than destroyers, into the enemy’s stronghold in the Solomon Islands, to execute the rescue. The ships were venturing into waters controlled by a concentration of Japanese air bases off the southern tip of Bougainville, to make a daring run ashore and attempt to save the service men that had endured a week of hiding from Japanese patrols in the mountains of Vella Lavella. The Melanesian natives had shared their food and built crude shelters for the sailors; they had tended to the salt-water sores and gashes inflicted by the sharp coral that infested the waters as best they could. Some had died and others would follow if medical care were not obtained for them immediately.

Ens. Nuckles was to lead the Higgins boats, LPCR’s, from the Dent through the poorly charted coral infested waters of Paresco Bay, up the mouth of the Paresco River to pick up the survivors. Hiles was familiar with the adrinaline rush of transporting Marines from the Dent to the beach, having crewed his LPCR on several amphibious landings, but this was something new. Under the cover of darkness, the Higgins boats were to sneak up to a Japanese held island, navigate up a river and covertly take on passengers, all without charts or guides. “I was a couple of shades past being scared,” Hiles recalled.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

USS Gridley DD-380

The guided missile cruiser USS Gridley (CG-21) was in the news often during the 2004 election season due to the fact that John Kerry served aboard the ship. This writing is about another USS Gridley, the one-stack destroyer of WWII - USS Gridley (DD-380).

No presidential candidates served aboard this ship during World War 2, just a bunch of outstanding sailors and officers attempting to do their part in defeating the Japanese menace. The Gridley served in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor through the end of hostilities, earning ten battle stars.

On that 'Day of Infamy', 7 December 1941, The Gridley was screening the carrier Enterprise (CV-6), the flagship of Admiral 'Bull' Halsey, on it's return trip from Wake Island. They had cleared Pearl Harbor 28 November transporting aircraft to Wake. The task force was returning to Pearl on the morning of 7 December when the astounding message heralding the beginning of the war was received: "air raid on Pearl Harbor, this is no drill." Gridley entered the harbor the next day to help protect against renewed attack.

The crew saw the massive devastation of the sneak attack the preceding day. Crews of men spent hours recovering bodies of their slain comrades and transporting them to a makeshift morgue. "It was so sad," said one sailor, "We stacked the dead bodies on carts that ran on a narrow rail track that was used to transport pineapple crates from the warehouse to the docks. The warehouse was being used as a temporary morgue."

Early on in the war, in January 1942, the Gridley was involved in an accident at sea with the USS Fanning (DD-385), which badly damaged both ships. The accident turned out to be good fortune for the Gridley, for it enabled the ship to receive radar long before other ships of its class.

W. H. Mathews, a member of the Gridley crew, described what occurred. "While engaged in a night attack off of the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, the Gridley was rammed forward of the number one gun turret by another ship, in a blinding rainstorm. The Gridley put into Pago Pago for emergency repairs and trolled back to Pearl Harbor, unescorted at 5 knots, where it was fitted with radar at Pearl when the bow was replaced making it one of the first ships to posses this valuable tool."

On 5 June 1942 she arrived at Kodiak, Alaska, with the cruiser Nashville. Here they patrolled the Japanese-held islands of Kiska and Attu, and bombarded Kiska 7 August 1942.

In July 1943 the Gridley took part in the rescue of the crew from the cruiser USS Helena in Parasco Bay. Mathews described what happened.

The USS Helena was sunk near an island. A lot of the crew had swam to shore (est at around 200) in Parasco Bay. Captain called the crew to the fantail and asked for volunteers for a suicide mission to rescue the stranded crew of the USS Helena for a Japanese held island. If you were not to volunteer, you were to step forward. Nobody stepped forward so I didn't either, therefore I volunteered. Two "four stackers" and two new destroyers, the USS Gridley and the USS McCall, headed out that night Plans were to get into the harbor by 4am and out before sun up, approx an hour and a half. Remember this was a Japanese held island. The 4 stackers were slower and had a shallower draft than we did so they went to the beach. The survivors of the USS Helena came out of the jungle and started climbing aboard the ships, which increased the ships weight and pushed the hulls into the muddy bottom of the harbor/beach. One of the 4 stackers got stuck in the mud and it took the two extra destroyers to pull it free from the beach. This ate up our time and we were at least 30 minutes over our preplanned departure time. The lookout in the guard destroyer, the USS McCall stationed at the mouth of the harbor, saw enemy ships on the horizon. We departed the harbor in convoy running wide open but had to allow for the slower 4 stackers with the USS Helena survivors on them. Radar picked up enemy aircraft coming from the island. We requested fighters from Guadalcanal to intercept the Zeros, we could hear what was happening because the skipper had the command radio being piped over the loud speaker. The Zeros overtook the convoy and commenced to bomb it, then we heard "P-38's were in sight" and knew we were to be saved. If it hadn't been for the P-38's we would have never made it. Due to our maneuvering not a single bomb dropped by the Japanese hit a ship.

While protecting the large ships off Luzon 28 October 1944, the Gridley and fellow destroyer, USS Helm, detected and sank Japanese submarine I-4 with a series of devastating depth charge attacks.

Add countless patrols, escort assignments, ship-to-ship naval engagements, kamikaze attacks, amphibious invasions and bombardments over the war years and you get a good picture of what a typical destroyer endured in the pacific theater of operations during WWII. The Gridley, like all the 'tin can' fleet, performed its duty to bring the war to a close.

No 'John Kerrys' served on THIS Gridley, just TRUE American patriots.

For more photos of the USS Gridley (DD-380) visit: