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.


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