The Naval Institute Press has graciously given this site permission to excerpt from BRAVE SHIP, BRAVE MEN the Dedication, Forward, and Chapter Six: Second Dog Watch. Copies of this book are still available . Please visit their website at www.nip.org. Reprinted , by permission, from Arnold Lott, BRAVE SHIP, BRAVE MEN (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press © 1964.)
TO THE MEN ON THE PICKET STATIONS,
WHOSE BATTLES WERE TOO SELDOM RECORDED,
WHOSE DEEDS WERE NOT OFTEN ENOUGH REWARDED,
BUT WHOSE ACTIONS WERE ALWAYS VALOROUS.
The Battle for Okinawa was the last major campaign of World War II. It was a bitter, hard fought contest in which for the first time during that war our landing operations met no surface opposition. The last serious surface effort of the Japanese Navy occurred on 7 April 1945, when the giant battleship Yamoto accompanied by the cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers was intercepted and destroyed by Task Force 58 as they headed for Okinawa. Only four destroyers survived. Not once during the four-month-long struggle for Okinawa was there an engagement between the remnant Japanese Navy and the powerful U.S. Fifth Fleet, yet the losses suffered by the Navy at Okinawa were greater than in any major fleet action during the war – 30 ships sunk, more than 300 damaged, and more than 9,000 men killed, missing, or wounded.
This destruction was wrought primarily by Japanese air attack, and in particular by suicide attacks. The greater part of it was inflicted on destroyers and smaller craft in individual engagements on the radar picket stations surrounding Okinawa. This was not a battle by vast opposing forces, but an unending series of small fights. Not one of them was important enough to become an epic in naval history, but each of them was highly important to the men who were involved. The Navy’s defeat of this desperate, vicious attack was due in part to the training, tradition, discipline, and devotion which made superb fighting teams out of what were, after all, rather ordinary ships and men, exactly like the ship and men whose story follows in these pages.
This ship was only one of hundreds of ships which took part in that long and determined struggle. If a book could be written about every deserving ship on the picket lines at Okinawa the shelves of naval history would indeed become crowded, for every ship there met the trial of battle with courage and bravery.
But Okinawa was twenty years ago. The logs have become dusty and our memories grow dim. This book may have to serve in place of many. The ship here is the USS Aaron Ward, but the story might well be about any ship and every sailor who fought on the picket line. The title applies to them all.
C. W. NIMITZ
FLEET ADMIRAL, UNITED STATES NAVY
Treasure Island, California, 1964
Second Dog Watch
18-20 Steaming as before. 1822, bogies reported bearing 90N T, distant twenty-seven miles. Sounded general quarters. 1928, all stations manned and ready, condition ABLE set. Bogies closing. 1830, enemy planes making run from starboard, low on water. Commenced firing. From 1830 until 1921, the ship and the formation was under constant air attack. This vessel took at least five direct hits from Japanese suicide planes, at least two of which were carrying bombs, and shot down four others. The engine of the first plane making a run on us came on board on the starboard side of the fantail. Little took two suicide planes amidships and went down at approximately 1900. LSMR 195 took one plane and went down. 1922, dead in the water, weather deck and superstructure deck aft of number 1 stack a complete shambles, blazing fiercely, number 1 fire room, number 2 fire room, number 2 engine room and compartment C-203-L completely flooded, six foot hole at the water line, port side at frame 81, deck and side plating blown loose, port side, from frame 129 to frame 158, and completely open to the sea. Mounts 1 and 2, main battery, still able to fire in manual, guns 41 and 42 still able to fire in local, and guns 21, 22, 23, and 24 still able to fire. Electrical power out, no pressure in fire and flushing mains. Repair parties fighting with handy billies and bucket brigades. Our casualties heavy, but not determined. 1935, LSC 83 tied up to our port quarter and commenced fighting our fires. Other remaining small craft engaged in rescuing survivors from Little and LSMR 195.
T. L. Wallace, Lt., U. S. Naval Reserve
Steaming as before. Section two was on deck for the second dog watch. According to the Plan of the Day, the routine for Thursday, 3 May, was nearly finished. About 1837 the ship would go to routine general quarters. The sun would set at 1907. About 1930 the ship would secure from general quarters and the condition watch would take over. Right after secure, they would make eight o’clock reports, the navigator would make another little mark on the chart to show the ship’s “2000 posit” and the third section would come on at 2000 to take the night watch. Drink coffee, watch the wheels go around, keep a bright lookout for four hours, and that would be the end of Thursday. As soon as the Exec and his yeoman could get out another Plan of the Day, they would see what was coming up for Friday.
Meanwhile, men killed a little bit of time. In the slanting rays of the sun, some of them perched on the superstructure deck watching the evening splendor spread across the East China Sea. Sunset was still an hour away. Some of them were not going to live that long. On the after deck house, Pete Peterson and Joe Zaloga played checkers. They were on their third game when the general quarters alarm interrupted them. Joe Zaloga never came back to finish it.
On the bridge, Chief Winston waited to help the Navigator shoot the evening star sights. The sky was clear all the way around; there would be a good horizon and plenty of stars. They could get fancy if they chose and shoot them alphabetically; Altair, Antares, and Arcturus would all be in sight. But Wallace and Winston didn’t get their star sights. The shooting that night would not be at stars. In his chair on the starboard side, Bill Sanders relaxed, enjoying a last pipe before GQ went. Fifteen hundred feet overhead the CAP– four speedy F6F’s– cut circles in the sunset sky. The chickens would be his for another hour yet, and then they would go home to roost.
In the CPO quarters, Shelley, Smith, Salisbury and McCaughey had a big game of hearts going at a penny a point. This was no way to make money enough to buy an avocado ranch; Smitty and Mick had the others down by only a thousand points when the alarm broke up the game and they never remembered to collect. There was a poker game going in the crew’s after bunk room; but next day no one could remember what happened to the pot.
Gunner’s mate Charlie Shea was in his bunk, reading The Fountainhead. He put the book down when the alarm went, and never did learn how it ended. Doc Barbeiri was in his bunk reading; he had been reading a medical text when he heard the war had started on 7 December 1941– but this time it was War and Peace. If this war went on long enough, he expected to finish it.
In the armory the minemen clustered around their coffee pot while John Brown tried to talk Medric Armand into swapping battle stations with him.
“How’s about it now, Medric? I’ve had the bridge control ever since we left Pedro, and all you do is ride around back there on the K guns.”
“That’s all right, Brownie. Me and those K guns get along fine.”
“Com on. Mr. Siler will fix it up. Take the bridge control for a while. That’s where the suicide planes always hit. It’s only fair for you to take your turn up there.”
“Nossir. I’m happy right there on the K guns.”
Within an hour a plane that missed the bridge would wipe out the men on the K guns.
In CIC the radarman watched the green line sweeping around the oscilliscopes, and suddenly stiffened. There was a blip, some seventy miles west of Station 10. It faded from the screen before they could plot a course for it. More geese, maybe. They all remembered the time, halfway between Ulithi and Okinawa, when a sudden blip on the screen sent the ship to general quarters in the middle of the day. While the gunners waited, ready to do battle, a lookout had suddenly shouted “look at the planes!” There they came, eighteen of them, in wing tip formation, flapping their wings. Flapping their wings? Happy shouts broke out all over the ship. “Geese!” “Wild geese!” “Give the recognition signal, you birds, or we’ll shoot you down.” The radarmen had been cautious ever since; they were not about to get the ship into another uproar over geese– Japanese geese, Chinese geese, or just plain unidentified geese.
Again in CIC the green finger of the sweeping radar oscilloscope painted a blip on the screen. Geese or not, there it was. The talker pressed the button on his phone and called the bridge.
“Bridge, CIC. Many bogies, many bogies!”
The CIC watch ran a plot– bearing, estimated speed, distance– and called the bridge again.
“Bridge, CIC. Many bogies, moving from south-southwest, will probably pass near next RPS south.”
The answer was calm, unhurried, “Bridge, aye.”
Throughout the ship the watch still went about its routine duties. In CIC the cryptic symbols on the plotting screen began to take on meaning. “Someone’s going to catch hell tonight,” said a voice. No one bothered to deny his statement.
Hal Halstead, the CIC officer, watched the plot for a couple of minutes and then called the bridge again.
“Bridge, CIC. Tell the Captain there may be a raid shaping up to the south of us. Suggest routine GQ be moved up a few minutes early tonight.”
On the bridge Sanders nodded to Lieutenant Wallace,
who spoke to quartermaster Thorpe. “Sound general
the ship games, books, letters and coffee cups were dropped
as men dashed to their battle stations. By the time Thorpe
had scribbled in the rough deck log the entry “1822. Went to GQ.” bells
and buzzers were sounding all over the ship as phone lines
and firing circuits leaped into life.
Within five seconds battle stations began reporting to CIC and the bridge: “MOUNT 51 MANNED AND READY. . . . . GUN 44 MANNED AND READY. . . . .DIRECTOR MANNED AND READY. . . . .SKY CONTROL MANNED AND READY. . . . .GUN 42 MANNED AND READY.”
In Mount 52 Boles watched Van Paris, the hot shellman, hurriedly cross himself. Van had a big family at home and wanted desperately to go back to them. Well, he’d done everything he could at this point. . . . . “MOUNT 52 MANNED AND READY.”
The Exec, Karl Neupert, was in CIC now, watching the plot, keeping all the details of the guns, damage control, fire fighting equipment ready in his mind for instant use. CIC was jampacked with men. Bill Sanders would be there too, at first, intently watching the radar screen. Other skippers fought their ships from the bridge, but Aaron Ward’s captain fought his ship from both bridge and CIC, with radar and radio to give him an instant picture of the situation. It would have been all right with the crew if Sanders and Neupert had decided to do battle from the ship’s laundry room for they had seen their Skipper and Exec in action enough by now to know that they were an unbeatable team, no matter where they fought.
All in the few moments since the alarm went, every man on the ship had moved to a battle station. Still the reports came in: “FORWARD ENGINE ROOM MANNED AND READY. . . . .AFTER STEERING MANNED AND READY. . . . .MIDSHIPS REPAIR PARTY MANNED AND READY. . . . .MANNED AND READY. . . . .MANNED AND READY. . . . .READY. . . . .READY. . . . .READY. . . . .READY. . . . .” In the after engine room Pete Peterson checked his phones and then turned to Duriavig. “Bob, help Macukas light off the other feed pump. They’ve got about twenty-five bogies up there and we’ll need al the speed we can get.” Then he started making a fresh pot of coffee. Let ’em come. Aaron Ward was ready.
Again, for a moment, time seemed to stop as the white wake rolled longer behind the ship and men turned their minds and hearts to the secret thought which always followed the unspoken “This is it!” even as they automatically checked firing circuits, steam pressure, frequency settings, ammunition supply or plasma bottles. Only the shining gun barrels moved, probing and weaving black muzzled patterns against the sky, and the radar antennaes, silently whirling as invisible electronic beams now followed the unseen enemy.
Radarman Hosking, standing near the Captain, watched the blips which showed that “Freddy” was vectoring the fighter planes to meet the enemy. The bogies were still circling, way out. Topside, the fire control director searched the sky and the six 5-inch guns swung with the director as one. Aaron Ward had encouraged enemy planes to keep their distance before; the gun crews were confident they could do it again. Then, while Hosking was still panting from his dash to CIC, one of the blips headed in toward the full center of the screen. Attack!
“CONTROL, CIC. TARGET BEARING 250 SPEED 180 CLOSING RAPIDLY!”
“CONTROL, AYE. TRACKING, TRACKING!”
On the bridge, Thorp logged the time. 1829. Seven minutes since GQ went. Bright eyes bridge lookout Gerald Simons spotted the plane first and shouted the alarm. It was away out at 22,000 yards– eleven miles away– but coming in.
“ALL GUNS. AIR ACTION STARBOARD. AIR ACTION STARBOARD.” In Control, Rubel and Lavrakas watched the guns slue around in automatic control to follow the director. The main battery guns lifted tier muzzles, ready, all pointing at the target the director had picked up for them.
On the guns, men stood with ammo chips in their hands, with tense fingers on firing keys, with quick eyes on target cross wires, with their pulse beating in their ears and with unspoken thought now pushed to the back of their minds. Ready. Be ready.
Suddenly in the sunset sky a dark pinpoint appeared, took on substance, grew solid, moved.
“Oh, boy!” shouted Tom Whelan in Mount 51. “Here he comes!”
“All engines ahead flank!” ordered Wallace, on the bridge. The engineers spun the throttle valves, the turbines howled, and Aaron Ward leaped ahead at thirty-two knots.
Ten thousand yards out on the starboard quarter now, the plane, a Val, headed in. The others wheeled in circles, waiting. First it was merely a dot creeping across the back drop of the evening sky, then it was moving, moving fast– 3000 feet high and coming in.
“RANGE NINE 0 DOUBLE 0. . . . .RANGE EIGHT 0 DOUBLE 0. . . . .RANGE SEVEN 0. . . . .DOUBLE 0.
“COMMENCE FIRING, COMMENCE FIRING!”
The main battery guns roared into action at 7,000 yards. Below decks, engineers who fought without ever seeing the enemy judged the course of battle by the sound of the guns. While the 5-inchers slammed out their shells with a dull ba-ROOM ba ROOM, the enemy was still too far off to worry about. Topside, men watched the fiery tracers streak up and out in red curves, fade to hot points of light and then hover in space until the plane flew into the cone of fire.
Hit! Smoke trickled, then poured from the plane, but it kept coming, and in the director the range dials spun madly down– 6,000 yards, 5, 500 yards, 5,000 yards, 4,500 yards. Four thousand yards!
At 4,000 yards the smoking plane dipped over into its suicide dive, and the 40mm guns opened up with their stacatto a-WHOOMP a-WHOOMP a-WHOOMP. Below decks men grew tense; the sound of the forties meant the plane was maybe a couple of miles away, due to arrive in less than a minute, and the next shot had damn’ well better be a good one.
“RANGE THREE 0 DOUBLE 0. . . . .RANGE TWO FIVE DOUBLE 0. . . . .RANGE TWO 0 DOUBLE 0!”
Two thousand yards! Now or never! All along the starboard side the little 20mm guns burst into their frantic y-APPITY! y-APPITY! The plane skimmed the water, coming fast.
“RANGE ONE 0 DOUBLE 0. . . . .RANGE EIGHT DOUBLE 0. . . . .RANGE FIVE DOUBLE 0.”
Get him! In Mount 53 gun captain Dial and his crew pumped out a 5-inch projectile and the plane blue up almost in their faces. SPLASH!
“We got him!” yelled Dave Rubel in Control.
“CEASE FIRE! CEASE FIRE!”
The flaming wreckage tipped into the sea a hundred yards from the ship, and as the planed ended its death dive, startled gunners saw the pilot catapult from the cockpit. With an unopened parachute trailing behind him, he hurtled high across the ship and smashed into the water on the opposite side. To Bill Rader, about to feed a clip of shells into gun 42, it looked like a mess of raw hamburger. One kamikaze pilot had met his ancestors.
Most of the plane disappeared on impact, but the engine, propeller and right wing section skittered the last hundred yards to crash into the Aaron Ward. The engine slammed into Mount 53, which had shot the plane down, while the propeller twanged into the after deck house like a giant harpoon and pinned shut the door to the after passageway. Later, as men cleaned up the wreckage there, they found a pilot’s boot with a foot still in it.
The men in Mount 53 were still bouncing from the sledgehammer blow of the airplane engine crashing into their mount when the thing suddenly crunched to a halt.
“Training gear jammed!”
Shorty Abbott, gun captain on the left hand gun, jerked open the hot shell hatch, peeked under the mount, and saw a smashed airplane engine almost under his feet.
“Get it out of there!” yelled Dial.
Like a pack of frenzied ants, the men swarmed out of the mount and attacked the smoking engine, then jerked back in pain.
“Damned thing’s hot!”
They went after it with bare hands and dragged it out of the way, then piled back into the mount nursing their blisters. But the engine had given them more than blisters. No power!
“CONTROL! MOUNT 53. HYDRAULIC-ELECTRIC SYSTEM OUT. SHIFTING TO MANUAL CONTROL.” This meant the pointer and trainer now had to move the 10,000 pound mount themselves by hand gears, blisters or no. This was no time to stop, the fight had just started.
Keep that ammo coming!
The crash set the after battle dressing station on fire and completely destroyed it, but somehow the chief, Tedford, and his helper Fletcher got out. Tedford made it to the main station in the wardroom. Fletcher was killed before he had run a hundred feet. Doctor Barbeiri was already there; he had brought War and Peace along with him in case he needed something to help pass the time. Kennedy had borrowed a book from the wardroom library and had a soft chair by the time Doc arrived. Chief Shelley and Gunner Siler hurried in– the early arrivals all got the best chairs– and settled down to wait until the midship repair party had need of them. Not until they heard the phone talker in number two handling room shout “Action starboard!” did they know this was anything more than routine sunset GQ.
Then the guns began. The 5-inchers. The forties. When the twenties opened up they put down their books and waited. This was getting close. Suddenly they felt the ship tremble and shake as the engine from the first Val hit the after mount. The damage control people rushed out on deck. Doc and his helpers put down their books and commenced preparing the wardroom table for surgery. Under their feet the ship twisted and turned and above their heads the guns roared again. The second attack was coming in.
Time 1830. In CIC Glenn Newman on the ground search radar was checking positions of other ships on the station when he heard radarman Beadel, on the air search radar yell, “here comes another one!” Beadel began calling out the range while topside the director wheeled around to face the attack coming in on the port bow.
“ALL GUNS ACTION PORT, ACTION PORT!”
“RANGE EIGHT 0 DOUBLE 0 . . . . .RANGE SEVEN 0 DOUBLE 0 . . . . .RANGE SIX 0 DOUBLE 0.”
“COMMENCE FIRING, COMMENCE FIRING!” Again the 5-inchers opened up, followed by the forties and the twenties. When the range closed to 4,000 yards, Beadel jumped off his seat and as the plane moved in to 2,000 yards, he crouched behind the radar, still calling off the range. On the bridge, Winston watched the intense cone of fire reaching out to port, and felt that the plane, another Val, was riding directly down the stream toward him.
“RANGE ONE FIVE DOUBLE 0 . . . . RANGE ONE TWO DOUBLE 0!”
SPLASH! Mount 52 got that one.
“CEASE FIRE CEASE FIRE.”
A few cheered as the flaming wreckage tumbled into the sea. In the gun tubs, gunners kicked empty cartridges aside and checked the ready ammo racks. In CIC men watched the green fingers sweeping the radar scopes; around that sudden battle ground more enemy planes were waiting.
Time 1831. Short seconds after the last plane had disappeared, men on the bridge and in control were startled by a furious burst of fire from Mount 42, the port twin 40 millimeter just aft of the bridge. Gun captain Larson had spotted the plane before the radar picked it up and opened fire without orders. Frantically the director and the main battery guns swung around to fire on this new attacker, a Zeke 6,000 yards out and already in its suicide dive. The guns zeroed in, all the 5-inchers, the port side forties and twenties, and the plane started smoking. Hit! Hit! Hit!!!
Still it came on, growing larger, seeming to increase speed. There was a bomb, a big, mean looking one, hanging under the plane’s belly, and in the last hundred yards it dropped loose, curved down and hit the port side of the ship under gun 44 just as the plane flamed into the superstructure.
Willand, the pointer and one lucky man on gun 44, watched the plane coming in, and watched the tracers from his gun slicing into it, right into it, but it kept coming, the prop spinning slower and slower. Although the flash of fire from the twin 5-inch mount on the fantail reached out in front of gun 44, Willand was so busy keeping the gun on the approaching plane he never noticed whether Mount 53 was firing or not. Finally the plane loomed up and Willand yelled “We’re not going to get him!” He started to jump out of his seat but it seemed as if a hand touched him on the shoulder and pressed him down again. An instant later the plane hit and a big ball of fire went up in front of him. The explosion blew him out of the seat; he crashed into a ready ammo rack which kept him from going overboard and bounced him back on deck minus both shoes and one sock.
The vast, dull thud shook the entire ship. Lavrakas in the director felt the ship tremble and watched a mass of flame tower above the superstructure deck. Under it was only black smoking wreckage and crumpled bodies. Almost every man around gun 44 had been killed instantly.
On the bridge Winston had spun the wheel for a hard left turn and suddenly felt it go dead. The ship had lost steering control, with her rudder jammed hard left and commenced chasing her tail in tight port circles like a mad dog.
Except for Rawlins and Willand the gun 44 crew was wiped out– smashed, burned, or blown overboard. The gunners on the four after 20mm mounts had the plane blow up in their faces. Ladon Jones, on gun 28 to starboard, had his gun jam just before the plane struck. He started to dash forward, fell to the deck, looked back, saw Rawlins who had been blown off gun 44 jump up and take over his gun.
“Damn’ thing’s jammed!” Jones yelled, then grabbed his phone talker, Hendrickson, whose forward dash had suddenly ended when he reached the end of his phone cord, and it jerked him back again, and together they helped Rawlins slam a clip of shells into gun 27 and started firing. The next crash blew Rawlins off that gun too and he was never seen again.
The bomb smashed through the ship’s hull below the water line, exploded in the after engine room and ripped a hole fifty feet long through her port side. The ship reeled and shook under the blast. The engine room and fire room flooded, the port engine stopped and the ship soon slowed to fifteen knots. Ruptured oil lines poured more fuel into the fire raging topside, and ammunition commenced exploding in the fierce heat. Telephone and power lines were broken, circuit breakers and fuses went out, and trouble lights began flashing all over the fire control switch boards.
Pete Peterson, in the engine room where the 500 pound bomb exploded, somehow failed to hear it. He was leaning against the cruising throttle waiting for his coffee to perk when he saw a sheet of flame ripple across the forward bulkhead and felt himself sailing through space. He woke up seconds later slumped against a piece of machinery ten feet away. Everything was dark. Instantly he knew that with the emergency lighting system out the after emergency diesel was gone and decided it was time for him to go somewhere else. He scurried for the escape trunk, found it, and clambered up, the last man out of the engine room alive. On the way up Pete passed Ensign Paine who was helping Stole up. Topside, Paine felt that everyone in the black gang had walked up his back bone on the way out. He had lost his right shoe on the way up. On the main deck he met Harry Salisbury, from the damage repair gang, who had lost his left shoe.
“Here, Sal,” said Pine, handing over one shoe. “You can wear mine but I can’t wear yours.” He went barefooted the rest of the night.
The main deck was almost as bad as the engine room. It was sheer catastrophe: wrecked gun mounts tipped at crazy angles, torn steel plates, twisted cables, fire, smoke, exploding ammunition, sprawled dead bodies and men with broken arms or legs trying desperately to crawl out of the way of shipmates battling the roaring flames.
Right in front of Pete lay Moose Antell and Duriavig, who had passed him in the mad scramble to get out of the engine room. Moose had had every bit of his clothing blown off, was wearing only his shoes and a belt with a big sheath knife on it. The next time Pete saw them would be in a hospital. In the same instant he took in the scene around him, he looked outside of it to see a plane crash into the Little, a mile or so away, and a big ball of fire unfold above the ship like a deadly blossom.
Pete’s shirt and pants were nearly ripped off his body, and as he methodically took his ring, lighter, pen and pencil out of the pockets so he wouldn’t lose them, he saw Stefani, who must have made it up from the after fire room, standing beside him.
“Here, Steve,” he said, “hold this for me.”
Steve put the stuff in his pocket, and just then another explosion lifted him off the deck and he went over the side like a Roman candle.
Steve lost his shoes when he hit the water. The ship was still making plenty of knots and the helmet cut his head. One hand was full of shrapnel, one leg was injured, and his life belt had been torn apart. His biggest worry was the sharks which followed the ship, waiting for the garbage the mess cooks threw overboard every evening just at dusk. He devoutly hoped they had been fed that night. Several hours later Steve was fished out of the water by a rescue ship, but by that time Pete’s belongings were at the bottom of the East China Sea.
Just ahead of Pete, Coltra had crawled to the ladder top and “Sparky” St. Clair took his arms to help him on deck but the burned flesh came off in his hands. Silently, Coltra shook his head and painfully made it by himself, then dropped to the deck as wildly exploding ammunition sent everyone diving for shelter. Next, Sparky saw Coltra crawling, inch by inch, toward the sick bay, and with another man he helped carry Coltra there.
When the bomb exploded in the after engine room, electrician’s mate Allan Curr was standing by the switchboard there. Chief Mann had just borrowed his flashlight to check the reduction gear– right where the bomb hit– and Jerry Smith in the emergency diesel room had asked for a repeat on a phone message that Mount 53 had been wiped out. Curr had a momentary impression of standing within a gigantic bell while someone slugged it with a mighty hammer, then the lights went out, someone walked over him in the dark, and he heard a voice yelling down the starboard escape hatch to get out. Curr made it. Mann and Smith didn’t.
Amid the topside chaos, Curr stood watching more suicide planes diving on destroyer Little a mile away. The red hot tracers from Aaron Ward’s guns zipped into the night like furious bees, slowed, then seemed to hover in space before they floated down past the planes.
In the few seconds after that bomb explosion, many men had fleeting glimpses through fire and smoke of Little valiantly fighting off her attackers, but to each of them the immediate danger was so great that Little’s battle was unread and of little import, as if it were a movie sequence.
In the forward engine room the whine of the turbines was suddenly interrupted by a thumping noise when the bomb went off and the ship seemed to shudder and jump three feet sideways. A fine sprinkling of dust from overhead beams sifted down on their heads.
Machinist’s mate Berry whirled on chief McCaughey, and shouted in fury “Mick, that sonofabitch hit us!”
“Yeah!” Haubrick added “If this keeps up we may have to leave her!”
Mick laughed at him. “Are you crazy? Until the water gets up to our chins we ain’t going to leave her. The ship won’t sink– the old man wouldn’t stand for it.”
But she was slowing down. They stood there with the Chief Engineer and watched the revolution indicator for the port engine in the after engine room unwind, all the way down to zero revolutions. Weyrauch, on the phones, automatically checked the circuits.
“AFTER ENGINE ROOM?” No answer. “EMERGENCY DIESEL?” No answer. They were in trouble.
“AFTER FIRE ROOM?”
“AFTER FIRE ROOM AYE.” The voice was gasping, choking. “WE’RE FILLED UP WITH SMOKE BACK HERE. PANERO THINKS THE ENGINE ROOM IS ON FIRE. NO ANSWER IN THERE.”
“SKI? THAT YOU? MR. YOUNG SAYS SECURE THE BOILERS, GET OUT OF THERE, HELP TOPSIDE.”
Topside could use help. On the bridge, with the view aft blanked out by fire and billowing smoke, no one could see what had happened. There was no communication aft. The phones were knocked out.
“MOUNT 53! CONTROL.” No answer.
“They got the after mount,” Rubel shouted to Lavrakas. Just then they saw a plane start a run on Little. “Here we go again!”
“AIR ACTION PORT. ALL GUNS, AIR ACTION PORT.”
Again the 5-inchers opened up, the forties join in. Mount 53, not having heard Dave Rubel announce their destruction, swung around to port, the men cranking frantically by hand, and joined in.
While the guns barked and roared above their heads, the damage control and repair gangs on the main deck rigged fire hoses, ran emergency phone leads where they could, fought fire and helped wounded men to the battle dressing station.
First to reach the wardroom was Moose Antell, stark naked, skin hanging in shreds from his arms, hair and eyebrows gone. Behind him came a gruesome parade– Coward, Peterson, Parker, all in nearly the same condition. The medics prepared themselves for a long night.
Wounded men seemed to be flooding into the wardroom by that time. Doc sent Kennedy aft to help with minor first aid cases on the fantail and Kennedy worked alone there for part of the night. Ensign Rosengren came down from the sound room to help. Eddie Gains, who had only been trained to wait on tables and clean staterooms, worked with the doctor the whole night long, a medic like the rest of them. Eddie’s big hands were gentle and tender. Men remembered him as the blackest angel they ever saw.
Soon the wardroom was jammed with wounded. Doc sent Tedford down to set up another emergency station in the mess hall, and as men were treated in the wardroom those who could make it were moved to the mess hall and laid out on deck. Others were dropped into convenient bunks in the officers’ rooms. One of these was Paine, who sometime during the night woke up, looked around, and stared in dismay. He was in the Captain’s bunk.
“What the hell am I doing in here?” he asked himself, and without waiting for an answer jumped up and got out of there. He spent the rest of the night huddled in a corner on deck, cursing those who stepped on him in the dark, and being greeted in kind.
In the wardroom dressing station, Doc and his helpers worked as hurriedly and efficiently as possible, but certainly not according to the teaching of Lister.
“Plasma!” “Right here.” “Sulfa.” “Coming.” “Penicillin.” “I’ll get it.” “Morphine.” “Here ’tis.” “Another morphine.” “No more needles!” “Use the one you have!” “It’s not sterile!” “Sterile hell! Wipe it on you pants.”
By that time their pants were not sterile either. By the following morning, Doctor Barbeiri, his assistants, their pants and the entire wardroom would have created antiseptic dismay in the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. But none of their patients died of infection, that night or later.
Neupert, in CIC, with communications out aft, sent messengers scrambling through the flames and wreckage with word for Biesmeyer and Rainey, and to check on the after engine room. Rubel in Control set up his own emergency system. Brown, on the bridge, could whistle louder than any man in the Pacific Fleet; each time an attack came in Control passed the word to Brown who whistled at the nearby guns and pointed out the target to them.
Yeoman striker Deacon, phone talker for the Assistant Gunnery Officer, Ensign Ferguson, was still in touch with the radar room and CIC, and over the next several minutes began to gain a fair idea of the plight as messages trickled in . . . . .after engine room flooded . . . . .after fire room flooded . . . .port engine out . . . .fire out of control aft . . . .fighter director radar out of commission . . . .fire in the after clipping room . . . .steering control lost.
The phones to after steering were also out, and the Exec started another messenger back there, but the sudden eruption of fire on the main deck stopped him. Ten minutes passed before he worked his way aft with the word for Flinn to take over the steering control. During the rest of the battle, locked in their stifling hot steel box, Flinn and his gang steered the ship by hand.
The bomb that wrecked the after engine room knocked out the gas ejection system for the 5-inch mounts and they filled with hot choking fumes. Stacy, hot shellman on Mount 51, passed out and slumped to the deck. Whalen motioned another man into his place, opened the side door and dropped Stacy out on deck. The guns kept on firing. In other mounts men choked, retched, stumbled.
“Open the door. Throw him out!”
“It’s against regulations to open the door when firing!”
“Hell with regulations. Open the door.” Out they went.
The guns grew hot. With the gas ejection system out, unburned gases rolled into the mounts when the breech blocks flew open, and erupted into thin wisps of flame. If a powder can split or spilled, a flashback would roast them all crisper than potato chips.
“Damn the flashback! Keep on loading!”
With the loss of power, the Mark 14 director was out of action, Mr. Tiwald sent Eves down to the clipping room a deck below to help pass out more 40mm ammunition. By this time the stench of burned flesh and ruptured bodies filled the air, and as he felt his way down the ladder Eves stepped on something horribly soft and yielding. He couldn’t see what it was, and he didn’t want to see; sheer dread of what it might be filled him with unreasoning terror. Then a roaring fire broke out just aft of the ammo storage. Frantically, he began heaving the cans overboard, as far from the ship as he could. Two men usually handled the heavy cans, but Eves was all alone there; he had to do it by himself. The next morning, he forced himself to go back to the ammo storage to see what he had stepped on. Only a couple of life jackets.
In CIC, Neupert and the “Freddies” watched the green fingers of the search radar. The blips had moved well out of gun range for the moment. The lull was welcome, but suspicious. Watch them– they’re up to something. The planes circled the formation, like Indians around a wagon train, getting up courage for the next attack. The night was far from over; they were bound to come back. With Aaron Ward heeling to port and still steaming in a circle, the Japanese figured she had had it. They would reorganize, bore in for the kill. Quickly, quietly, Sanders and Neupert went over the situation. The Exec had every detail of damage, destruction, and casualty on the tip of his tongue . . . .port engine out, rudder jammed, fire mains out, loss of power, Mount 53 in local, the Mark 14 director out, fire in the after clipping room, the port quad forty wrecked and most of the crew killed, Doc and his gang swamped with wounded men.
Bill Sanders decided that although the ship was still fighting, she had perhaps a little more fight than she could handle, and that some assistance would be more than welcome. He put Woody Woodside on the TBS to call Commander Task Force 51 back in Kerama Retto.
“DELEGATE, THIS IS MONGOOSE, OVER . . . .DELEGATE, DELEGATE, THIS IS MONGOOSE. OVER.”
Finally DELEGATE came up on the circuit. “GO AHEAD MONGOOSE.”
“DELEGATE, THIS IS MONGOOSE. WE ARE IN TERRIBLE SHAPE AND ARE SINKING. WE HAVE BEEN HIT TWICE AND ARE STILL UNDER ATTACK.”
The voice came back in calm, measured tones.
“WE KNOW IT MONGOOSE, WE KNOW IT . . . .BLUENOSE IS ON HER WAY TO HELP YOU.”
BLUENOSE! That was Shannon, with Commander Edward Foster as skipper. Shannon was supposed to be blessed with the luck of the Irish. “Uncle Ed” and his boys were on their way, and Aaron Ward needed all the Irish luck the Shannon could carry.
Shannon had just put in to Hagushi Roadstead, on the western coast of Okinawa, when she got the word. Snoopers were about, and the familiar old FLASH RED, CONTROL YELLOW had sent all hands to general quarters. Five minutes later, she got the word from DELEGATE. Guns bristling, Shannon plowed out and headed for RPS 10, out beyond Kume Shima. She had a couple of hours to go before she could be of any help to the hard pressed Aaron Ward; enroute Shannon sailors prepared for anything– fire fighting, transfer of casualties, rescue of survivors, towing– whatever it was Shannon could do it. Whatever it was, Shannon had done it. Shannon first got into the rescue business on 26 March, when a kamikaze got the destroyer O’Brien out near Kume Shima, and she escorted the wrecked ship into Kerama Retto. A week later, Shannon’s crew watched kamikazes hit three transports– Henrico, Dickerson, and Goodhue, all at once, and had again helped fight fire, treat wounded, and care for the dead.
As Shannon plowed westward, her bridge crew listened to the TBS. Out on the same station with the Aaron Ward,, the Little had been hit and had gone down. Aaron Ward was damned near to sinking, too . . . . no, belay that last word. She was still afloat, and still fighting, too. The Japs were all over the place, holding a field day. Aaron Ward had already knocked down five of them. This last news put the Shannon definitely in second place, so far as Aaron Ward was concerned, for although Shannon had fought at lots of enemy planes, so far she had only managed to fight one of them down for a kill. Oh, well, the night wasn’t over yet.
“Shannon’s coming to help. Shannon’s on her way.” The word ran around the ship to a few people who still had phones tied in to CIC. But Shannon was a long way off. Time was fast running out on Picket Station 10.
In what time there was, Aaron Ward’s men fought fire and flood. Doc and his men got the wounded a little better disposed and the repair parties on deck moved some of the dead out of the way of the living. Neupert in CIC, Biesmeyer in damage control, Sanders on the bridge matched information, played what they had against what they could expect. It was going to be close. DELEGATE ordered the small boys to move in and support Aaron Ward and Little with gun fire as possible. The small boys had anticipated him and were already on the way. The CAP still orbited overhead, but time was running out for them too. “Freddy” sent up the warning about 1855.
“BRIDGE, CIC. SUNSET DUE IN A FEW MINUTES. I CANNOT HOLD PLANES ON STATION MUCH LONGER.”
“CIC, BRIDGE. ROGER. GIVE US ALL THE HELP YOU CAN.”
The sun was nearly down now, but there was plenty of light from fire leaping up above the wrecked engine room, and in the red glow the damage control and repair gangs worked like demons, dumping hot ammunition, rigging emergency circuits, getting portable fire pumps onto the flames.
Here was a chance, Doc decided, to get back to the mess hall and see how Tedford was making out with the patients there. With Crider, he hurried out, checked over the men, started back to the wardroom. They were just at the galley when the next plane hit and the explosion threw them all the way to the wardroom and through the door. Crider was knocked out. Doc stretched him on the deck and left him there; he was busy. An hour later, Crider finally woke up and went on tending the wounded as if nothing had happened.
Time 1859. The lull was finally over. The kamikazes had been milling about, some five miles off the starboard quarter, 10,000 feet high. Now they broke it up and suddenly swooped down in a vicious, well coordinated attack which hit the entire formation. Guns on all the ships roared into action, but the planes plummeted down and nothing could stop them. Little got it first. She had taken one hit on her port side, several minutes earlier, with no great damage, and she had knocked one down. But this time they rushed her, one right after another. Nothing could stop them all.
The first plane hit. The second hit. The third flashed down in a vertical dive– hit– and vanished amidships in a tremendous explosion. Lefty thought perhaps Little’s torpedo warheads had exploded. Actually only their air flasks went up. But the plane’s engine or a bomb went into Little’s after engine room and her boilers blew up. The high pressure steam ripped the ship open like a sardine can. She blazed brilliantly from stem to stern for a few moments, then folded up and disappeared. In less than ten minutes it was all over for Little and thirty of her men.
Among the men who watched Little go down, none felt quite like Harry Salisbury. He had originally been detailed to the Little in Norfolk, but uncompleted dental work made him miss the draft when they left for Bremerton to put the ship in commission and he got the Aaron Ward instead. Only the grace of God and a lucky toothache had kept him from going down with Little.
“CIC, BRIDGE. LITTLE HAS GONE DOWN” reported Deacon.
“WE’RE NOT INTERESTED IN LITTLE NOW. WE’RE TRYING TO KEEP OURSELVES AFLOAT” Neupert shouted back to him.
As the planes smashed into Little, the small boys, LCSL 25, and LSMR 195, were racing toward her, steaming side by side. Another plane loomed up out of nowhere, just cleared the 5-inch mount on 195's fantail, and then crashed amidships. The “R” in LSMR’s designation stood for rockets, and she was loaded with them. They went off in all directions like a Fourth of July celebration. But when the show was over LSMR 195 was gone.
“There goes the ‘95!” shouted someone else on the bridge. Lavrakas saw a ball of fire float up from the little ship. He watched for an instant, then turned to look at Little but she had nearly disappeared. Only a bit of her bow pointed to the sky and that slipped out of sight as he watched. Next a plane went to work on LCSL 25, whose guns killed the pilot, for it zoomed, wobbled, and then overshot the ship but sliced off her mast. LCSL 25 stayed afloat, but the next time Lavrakas thought to look for the ’95, she had gone to join the Little.
About this time it seemed to Deacon on the bridge that all hell broke loose. A Val, buzzing about the amphibs, suddenly turned on Aaron Ward and commenced a suicide dive from about 8,000 yards out. Again the guns ran through their gamut of defiance, the 5-inchers roaring, the forties barking, and twenties yapping. The planes started smoking as the shells smashed in, but it came on until several hits by the 5-inchers blew it to bits and it splashed, 2,000 yards out. Four down! . . . .but more to come.
In Mount 52, the twin breeches were eating up the big 54 pound projectiles when suddenly one of them refused to slide into the firing chamber. The fuse in its nose had jammed, the shell would not go in. Boles and his crew looked at one another in a lightning flash of understanding. The fuse had been set down in the handling room under instruction from Control. No one in the mount knew how many seconds the fuse had been set for, or if it would wait to go off until it was fired, but they all knew if the shell was still in the gun when it went off, Mount 2 would have had it. Together Boles and Van Paris wrested the shell loose and dragged it out of the gun. Boles undogged the side door. Van stood there, holding the thing in his arms while it counted seconds to itself. The other men just stood there; either Van heaved it out or he didn’t. Finally Boles wrenched the door open and Van heaved the shell overboard. All right, you guys. Don’t just stand there. Didn’t you ever see a loading casualty before?
Load! Load! Load!
Boles was glad Van Paris had taken time to cross himself before the action started. There hadn’t been any time for it since, and certainly whatever grace Van had won for himself had spread very thin in Mount 52.
Time 1904. On the air search radar screen in CIC, another blip started for the center. Attack! The ship was still circling and the plane seemed to be maneuvering for a run-in from astern. Finally CIC got the control crew looking in the right direction and they spotted the plane, a twin-engine Betty, 14,000 yards off. The 5-inchers began firing at 10,000 yards, a long five miles, but had difficulty keeping on target, due to the smoke still rolling up amidships and the constant turning of the ship.
The forward mounts continually slammed into the stops which limited their field of fire aft, over the ship, and the gunners had to frantically whip their guns all the way around to the other side to take up fire again. This could be as dangerous for the bridge crew as for the enemy; a couple of weeks earlier, in the same situation, Sanders had been knocked down by the muzzle blast of a gun firing almost directly into his face.
Finally, at 5,000 yards a 5-incher made connection. The plane smoked, flamed, and went into its death spin. “Such a beautiful sight,” Rader thought, while around him men who had sweated at their guns for half and hour yelled and cheered. Five down!
Just then a flight of Marine F4Us, sent out to help Aaron Ward, came in low over the sea with their running lights on to show they were friendly, but a nervous gunner opened up on them anyway, the other guns joined him, and the Marines fire-walled their throttles getting out of there. Aaron Ward was still ready, still fighting. The battle was not yet over. In a few minutes the sun would slip below the horizon. A mile or so away the remaining amphibs huddled together in the dusk, and around the rim of night the kamikazes still droned. Would the damned things never stop coming? The fight had gone on just a little more than thirty minutes, yet it seemed like hours– days– an eternity filled with the clamor of guns and roar of planes, the stench and reek of burning oil, powder, and flesh. For some of the crew eternity had already come; for more of them it was surely to commence in a few short minutes.
Time 1908. “AIR ACTION PORT, AIR ACTION PORT!” There they came, two Vals, with a pair of the Marine fighters hot on their tails. The planes mixed up in a brief dog fight out of which one Val plunged in flames, but the other one slanted down in a very steep dive, coming fast. Again the guns took up their chant as the range dials whirled down– the computer said this one was coming in at almost five miles a minute. The guns hammered and roared but the plane jumped and rocked through the storm of fire and kept coming, heading for the bridge and the main battery director, kept coming, kept coming!
“Hit the deck!” yelled Sanders, and men piled into corners, behind equipment, anywhere but where they had been. Everyone had the same impression, that the plane was heading right at him. Lefty Lavrakas watched the stream of tracers burning into the sky and stood transfixed as the plane seemed to lock onto them and ride them down to the ship. When it was 300 feet away he turned his head from the sight and made his peace with God.
Danny Danford on top of the wheel house knew he was a goner and said his prayers. Ladon Jones, on one of the twenties, knew the plane was going to hit him; in the last fleeting instant he snatched up his shrapnel shield and heaved it at the pilot’s face. Brown, on the bridge, knew the plane was going to hit him; it loomed up suddenly as big as a house, right on him, with two exhaust pipes spitting blue fire. He hunched his shoulders and waited for the crash. In CIC the assistant “Freddy” Lieutenant junior grade Fred Koehl, could see nothing but he listened as the roar of the plane drowned out the guns and thought to himself “Why in hell didn’t I stay in Ashland, Ohio, where I belonged, instead of volunteering for this mess?”
Then the plane was on them, the roar of its engine filled the night, its wings spread across the sky. Here he comes! Suddenly as if a mighty hand had pushed down the right wing, the plane twisted in flight. It banked slightly and roared flat across the bridge. The left wing ripped out the signal halliards, clipped the port forestay, carried away most of the radio antennae, smashed the top of the forward stack in a tremendous metallic scrunch and the whole thing went cartwheeling into the sea to starboard. Larson, on gun 42, almost had his hair parted by the landing gear as it roared past. The broken forestay lashed Rader across the face. He saw it coming, but was too frightened to move– too frightened, in fact, to feel it.
In the plane’s wake, bits and pieces of wreckage rained down and men stared at each other, dumfounded, in a perfect bedlam of noise. The crash had opened steam lines to the whistle and siren and they joined in the tumult to deafen everyone.
Even men floating in the sea where the Little had gone down could hear the whistle bellowing, although they could not see what had happened. By that time, what men could see and hear; and what in the shock of battle, they believed, made for oddly contrasting viewpoints. Weeks later, an Aaron Ward sailor who came from the same town as a Little sailor received a news clipping from home. The Little sailor got home first, and gave the press his account of the battle at Picket Station 10. After his ship sank, he reported, all those Aaron Ward sailors did was sail around in a circle, tooting their whistle. Fortunately, for him, the Aaron Ward sailors were still in Kerama Retto when he said it.
In the hideous uproar of escaping steam and bellowing whistle, the gunners seemed to be doing a grim pantomime, firing their guns silently. A sheet of flame flashed through the radar room and many of the radarmen, with nothing better to do at the moment, rushed out to help the gunners. They were none too soon.
Time 1913. There came another Val. This one streaked in from ahead and again aimed at the nerve center of the ship, the bridge structure. Despite the steam and smoke swirling around the ship and the fact they had no warning from director control, the eagle-eyed gunners on the after 5-inch mount picked the plane up visually and opened fire. Larson’s gun joined in furiously. The plane streaked in, maybe seventy-five feet off the water, and 2,000 yards out its machine guns commenced spitting death. A strafing run! No one could see the bullets coming, but a man could hear the WHACK PINNNG after they went by.
At that instant the pilot raised its nose slightly, aiming right at the upper bridge and director. Dave Rubel, in the director, stood and watched it come– there was nothing else to do and nowhere to go– and shouted to Lefty “This is IT, boy!”
Gun 42, below and in front of Rubel, was pouring out a solid stream of fire– that gun alone fired a thousand shots during the entire battle– with thirty-four-year-old Larson working as calmly as if it was just another drill. Frozen by the thought of what he knew was about to happen, Rubel watched the enemy pilot’s goggled head coming nearer and nearer and braced himself for a flaming death. And then he saw Larson do something he would remember all his life. Larson raised his gun until the stream of fire flowed just above the wing of the onrushing plane. And then coolly, as methodically as if he was back home slicing cheese in the kitchen, he lowered the gun again and the fiery stream of hot bullets literally sawed the wing off.
That man deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor! Rubel said to himself. The crippled plane faltered, swerved, tumbled, just missed the bridge and ended up in a fiery furnace on the main deck near the forward stack, very nearly on top of gun 42.
In the instant before impact, the plane released a bomb which exploded a few feet from the side of the ship, blasted the port side with a hail of shrapnel and blew a hole into the forward fire room. The fire room flooded, the boilers drowned out, the last engine stopped, and Aaron Ward was without all power, coasting to a dead stop.
Flames from the burning plane leaped as high as the top of the director and the concussion knocked some men off gun 42 and injured others. Out of the fire and smoke a man scurried forward, unharmed, but with the entire seat of his pants missing. Again the switchboards lit up like Christmas trees with circuit overload lights. Men were still picking themselves up from that explosion when another plane, four seconds later, hurtled out of the cloud of smoke and fire and crashed on the main deck. Absolutely not a man on the ship saw that one coming; what with the exploding bomb and raging gasoline fire from the prior crash it made little difference– some of them never knew what hit them.
At that moment, the chaos and destruction topside seemed to have reached an absolute peak. But at least a man could see it, he had something to worry about. Things were worse below decks. Down thee, all men knew was that terrible things had happened or were undoubtedly about to happen, but no one knew what, when or where.
In the wardroom, each time the roar of the guns began as another plane came in, a whole mass of humanity– patients, corpsmen, volunteer assistants, the Doctor, everybody able to move- piled under the operating table in one big bloody heap. Men who had been burned left skin and flesh in their tracks, the deck grew sticky and slippery with blood and worse. There were no lights except the small portable electric battle lanterns. In the midst of the noise and confusion, in the fetid air and faltering light, the door opened and Kennedy found himself facing a ghastly apparition, a man with anguished eyes but no face. His mouth and nose were torn away, his jaw hanging loose on one side, he was choking to death.
Again the guns roared, the ship shook. Doc, Kennedy and the bloody man all crouched under the table. Doc could find no surgical scissors in the insane clutter. Kennedy held a bandage over the man’s eyes, Doc wiped his shark knife on his pants, and cut away tissue so the man could breath through the gaping hole where his face had been.
As they sought to stop the gush of blood, another sailor burst into the wardroom!
“Hey, Doc! Ballard’s up by Mount 52, bleeding like hell!”
“You, Kennedy,” said Doc. “Go fix him up.”
Kennedy grabbed soap, sulfa powder, gauze and ran up and out into the battle. Wounded men were all over on deck, he jumped over and among them. As he passed underneath the muzzles of Mount 52, the guns opened up on another plane and nearly blew his head off. He grabbed Ballard, dragged him feet first back to the spray shield, bandaged a gash in his upper arm, and then hauled him aft toward the wardroom. At the moment they moved in off deck a plane hit number one stack and fire and wreckage came down all over the spot where they had been.
In the forward magazine, Philip Rapalee and his four man crew were completely isolated from topside and without any knowledge of what was going on. They had been worried enough and the last explosion very nearly spooked them; Rapalee tried again to find out what was happening.
“Hey, you guys in the handling room! What the hell’s going on up there?”
“You just keep that ammo coming, Rap! Keep that damn’ ammo coming!”
“Okay, so they want ammo! We’ll give them ammo!”
Everywhere below decks, where they could see nothing, hear very little, and only surmise what was happening by distant thumps and a few terse words over a phone now and then, men lived in a dreadful state of suspense, trying not to let their fears overwhelm their hopes. When the plane wrecked the forward fire room, the men working in the magazines and handling room under Mount 52 were as close to it as they could be without actually being in the crash. All they knew was, something terrible had happened. They never stopped passing out ammunition; Marquoit just had time, between shoving powder cases into the hoist, to say sadly to himself, “You aren’t going to see home again.”
Wayne Schaefer, who was handling ammunition for Mount 52, had nearly the same thought. His wife Marjorie was back home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with their young son Thomas who was just exactly two years old. He had seen the baby only once, Schaefer said to himself, only once.
Down in the forward emergency diesel room, Cezus and Lunetta also fought without ever seeing anything. They were sealed up in a steel compartment below the water line with a diesel driven 150 KW emergency generator which automatically cut in if all other power went out, as happened when the forward fire room flooded. When their generator lit off they knew things topside were bad. Laboring to supply power to the guns, the generator was running in overload condition and should have automatically tripped out, but Cezus held the overload trip in by hand– if the gun crews needed juice, he would give them juice until the generator blew itself to bits. He knew that if the ship sank he and Lunetta were going down with it, for they couldn’t get out until someone came to let them out.
The shock of the crash rattled things all over the radar room, and Pete Aitchison yelled at Beadel.
“Beadel! You know what? Here we are getting the hell beat out of us and I bet they don’t have a dime’s worth of insurance on this ship!”
When the radio and radar antennae were wrecked, Reichard, Phillips, and Thibodeau scrambled out of the radar shack and set about trying to rig an emergency antennae. They were working by the forward stack when the second explosion blasted the area with shrapnel. Reichard was pinned to the stack by a splinter of steel through what he thought was his sleeve, until he ripped away and found his arm dangling loosely with blood pouring down over his hand. He watched a gunner, still too young to shave, cruelly burn his hands dragging a wounded shipmate from the flames around a wrecked gun. The boy tried to hold a fire hose but his hands were too raw to manage that, and when a bullet whizzed through the hose and punctured it, he plugged the hole by sitting on it while someone else fought the fire. Rader, blown off his gun and wounded, dashed to the bridge. Then he thought, no, they’ll hit the bridge next, and ran back to his gun. He was still scared stiff, but he felt safer there.
Seaman Thomas Erin had been in CIC, but with the TBS wrecked he had nothing to do, so went out on deck and took the place of someone on a 40mm gun. Fighting was better than nothing.
The wardroom filled with smoke after the last explosion and the wounded men were near panic. Doc called the bridge for “the word.”
“Bridge, battle dressing. Ask the Captain are we going to abandon ship.”
“Sir, the Captain says, hell no!”
But somehow, in the chaos and confusion, someone misunderstood someone else and the word did get out.
“Skipper say we’re going to abandon ship!”
A couple of men ran from the forward superstructure deck all the way to the fantail and jumped overboard. That they could have jumped from where they were, without scrambling through fire, explosions and torn wreckage, somehow never occurred to them. Before the battle ended a few more went overboard intentionally, some through accident. Later, as the ship floated and refused to sink, some of them gave up waiting to be rescued and climbed aboard unaided.
Mount 42 got the word to abandon ship too. It never occurred to Blunck that he might abandon ship, but he was certain the rest of the crew would go. “Don’t leave me,” he kept telling Larson. “Don’t leave me. I don’t want to be left here all alone.”
“Who the hell’s going anywhere?” said Larson.
Brown, on the bridge, was still hunched over waiting for that first plane to hit him when the second one crashed four seconds later; more 40mm and 20mm ammunition blew up and a rain of fire and hot metal washed over the ship. A red hot jagged piece of the plane, perhaps the size of a silver dollar, pierced the back of his neck and Brown said to himself “I’m dead.” But it went on burning like hell’s own ashes, so he decided he was alive after all and tore it off. By then there were so many badly wounded men needing care far worse than he did that Brown refused to bother Doc for treatment, and so he never got the Purple Heart medal he should have had.
Instead, he asked Sanders for permission to disarm the depth charges– if the ship did sink, they might detonate in the water and kill more men. With Hitchcock and Mogensen he hurried aft, pulled out the arming pistols and heaved them overboard; then the depth charges, each loaded with hundreds of pounds of high explosive, followed. There went one hazard for a ship which needed all the luck there was if she was to survive. Suddenly they became aware they were not the only men on the fantail; there were dark shapes, stretchers filled with wounded men, where the medics had placed them to keep clear of the fire and destruction amidship. Brown nearly stumbled over the nearest stretcher.
“Who the hell is this?”
Someone bent down, peered into the face. “Zaloga.”
Even in the darkness, they could see he had one arm shattered, one leg hanging by a tendon, a piece of steel speared through the other. But he stirred, recognized Brown’s face bent over him.
“Brownie, look at my legs for me, “ he pleaded. “They hurt. Tell me how badly I’m hurt.” Brownie felt sick all over. No wonder the poor devil’s legs hurt; both feet were gone, the legs so badly mangled there was no place to put a tourniquet. A great pool of blood glistened under the stretcher.
“You’re Okay, Joe,” Brownie lied. “You’ll be up and around in a month.”
Joe would have been okay if he had stayed back on the fantail, but there was nothing to do there and he had tried to get forward to help, just as a plane hit the port quad 40 and the exploding ammunition cut him down. The campaign was finally over for Zaloga.
The other men held a battle lantern while Brown sprinkled some sulfa powder in Zaloga’s wounds. Then someone yelled “Lights out!” and the guns opened up again.
Time 1916. That one was a Zeke, coming in astern at high speed in a steep glide. None of the 5-inch guns could bear on him. Gun 42, with the indomitable Larson still shooting, took him under fire but without result and the plane slammed into the ship near gun 43.
Gasoline from the plane’s belly tank sprayed the area and started another raging fire. No man from 43 was ever seen again. Larson on gun 42 was hit in the face by what he thought was a slab of bacon until he remembered that bacon didn’t bleed. Many men on nearby guns were killed outright and some of them were blown overboard. Those who did not die in the blast floated around in the dark ocean until the “picker uppers,” the small amphibs, fished them out. Lefty Lavrakas looked down at the smashed gun which gunner’s mate Long had kept always ready and thought to himself I’ve lost a fine shipmate and the best gunner the Navy ever had. If there is a Valhalla, Long has earned it.
By now the ship was dead in the water, the weather decks and superstructure aft of the bridge were a complete shambles, dead and dying men were tumbled in the wreckage, fire raged uncontrolled and in the inferno exploding ammunition made existence uncertain for those still left.
Through the chaos the repair parties fought fire, rigged pumps, and dragged out the wounded. The repair gang, Lieutenant Biesmeyer, Chiefs Offins and Gains, St. Clair and James and others, were bruised, burned and bleeding; they had already out-labored Hercules but there was still work to do. The ship was low in the water, going over to port, but she was still afloat, still fighting, and they intended to keep her so. The enemy had other plans.
Time 1921. “Here comes another one!” yelled Beadel in CIC.
“God, we can’t take another one!” groaned Neupert.
There he came, out of the darkness, low over the water, masked by the smoky haze drifting away from the burning ship.
“AIR ACTION STARBOARD, AIR ACTION STARBOARD.”
Guns still on power from the forward emergency diesel trained around but the crew could see nothing. Baffled, they stood waiting. They knew that this time they might have only a few seconds to get the plane before it got them.
“FIRE AFT, FIRE AFT,” ordered Control. The forties opened up, shooting blindly.
Suddenly the plane loomed into sight and all the remaining guns trained aft in one supreme effort to knock it down. Relentlessly it bored in, while the gun crews fed shells to the bellowing guns.
For the tenth time in less than an hour they stood at their stations and looked death right in the eyes. “The way to handle enemy planes, “ Bill Sanders had told them the first time the ship went into combat, “is to shoot them down, one at a time.” Aye, aye, Sir. One at a time it is! Number ten coming down!
Down it came, down the stream of tracers, down the length of the wrecked ship, and down right into the gunners’ faces, with the big bomb under its belly looking bigger every second. The plane crashed amidships, at the base of the after stack, with a blasting, searing flash of exploding gasoline and bomb, and then plane, stack, searchlight tower and guns leaped into the air and smashed back on the shattered deck with a great tumultuous din as if the world had ended. For more of Aaron Ward’s men, it had.
On the main deck, Tony Macukas, who had escaped fiery death earlier by scrambling out of the blazing engine room, yelled “He’s coming in!” and pointed. All around him men dived for shelter, but Tony was still standing there, pointing, when the plane smashed down on him. Some of the men dived the wrong way and went overboard. The first thing Frank Ceckowski remembered after the crash was Tony pleading for help, and a man kneeling nearby praying. Frank prayed too, but stayed on his feet, just in case.
Jack St. Clair rushed to help Macukas– the plane had pinned him down by his left leg– and yelled at the top of his voice for help but no one heard him. Then Jack realized he couldn’t even hear himself, and thought for a second he was dreaming, until he realized that a steam line had broken and the roar of escaping steam was so loud it had absolutely stopped all sensation of sound. Only later did he notice the searchlight tower had smashed on the deck near him without his hearing it.
The tower fell on Jim Berkey; it was on fire and so was he until someone drenched him with a fire hose. When they lifted the tower off, Jim jumped up off deck, ran, and passed out. An hour later, he woke up with someone shooting morphine into him. As he helped lift the burning plane to rescue Macukas, Ceckowski’s feet slipped and skidded. He suddenly realized he was standing in the middle of what had been a Japanese pilot a moment before and hurriedly stepped aside. Grim men were frantically pushing and heaving the wreckage overboard and Ski saw a man pick up a leg and toss it into the sea without even noticing what it was.
Gunner’s mate Jack Shea, standing with Macukas when the plane hit, could think of nothing better to do than crawl under a portable quarterdeck desk. Burning gasoline ignited his dungarees and he jumped overboard– the ship was so low in the water all he did was walk off to douse the fire. In the water he remembered his flashlight didn’t work, but the burning ship made light enough for one of the “picker-upper” boats to find him soon afterward.
The time was now 1922– exactly sixty minutes since the first bogies had been reported. The once trim Aaron Ward resembled a gloating junk pile from the bridge aft. Stacks, guns, searchlight tower, boat, everything was smashed and battered beyond recognition. Fires raged on deck, in the officer’s and chief’s quarters, in both clipping rooms, and in the after engine room. The main deck was only inches above water, both fire rooms flooded, after engine room flooded, after diesel engine room, machine shop, shaft alleys, crew’s bunkroom, all flooded. Dead and wounded littered the wardroom, mess hall, sick bay, fantail and passageways.
The night was black and deep, except where the Aaron Ward
burned like a devil’s barbecue. There was no electricity, no lights, no power, no pressure on the fire mains. Men fought fire the way they fought fire in Homer’s day, with water. There was still plenty of water.
The wrecked decks weren’t much of a place to be, but better than where they would be if she went down . . . . “All right, sailors. Over here. Grab a bucket and get in line. Keep them buckets coming. There’s lots more water in the ocean . . . .” and plenty already in the ship, too. Back aft another party worked at bailing out a flooded compartment. “But chief, we ain’t got no more buckets” . . . .” Use empty shell cases, we’ve got plenty of them.”
And by that time it certainly looked as if she might go down. Water was lapping across the fantail where some wounded men had been carried out of the way. Sanders sent messengers scurrying around the ship to find Biesmeyer and Doc, and the three of them met just outside CIC so Neupert could join in the discussion. About the only thing in their favor was that the sea had calmed down until it was like a black mirror. But the stability factor was critical. Biesmeyer ticked off the damage– forward fire room flooded, after fire room, after engine room flooded, after diesel flooded, the big after crew’s compartments flooded, machine shop, shaft alleys, all flooded. If a bulkhead gave, she’d be a goner.
“What do you think, Surge?”
“We still have some life rafts. We can load patients onto them. They’ll be as comfortable there as anywhere else.”
“Good. We stay with her.”
Doc and his men bundled some of the badly wounded onto life rafts, and tied them alongside so they wouldn’t get lost. They didn’t have to reach down to the rafts; the ship was so low in the water they just reached across. The fire fighters, the repair gang, everyone able to help, fought fire, dumped hot ammunition, pushed weights overboard in an effort to help keep the ship afloat. They were going to stay with her.
One of the helpers was Bill McKanna. Bill was a sonarman but his GQ station was in the handling room for a twin forty. When the last plane crashed in, debris put the gun out of commission, so Bill went down to the wardroom to see if he could help with the wounded.
Doc needed no more help then, so he sent Bill up on deck to help Kennedy. The wounded men were all over the place, it seemed. It was dark, except for flickers of light from the fire, and the ship had a sluggish feeling about her. There were some life rafts in the water alongside, looking very small and inadequate.
“Here, Bill,” said Kennedy. “We gotta get these men onto the rafts. See if you can get someone to go with them.”
Bill yelled for help, but the few men he could see failed to hear him– either they were furiously fighting fire, heaving around on wreckage, or they were just standing there, filled with momentary hysteria.
“I’ll go,” Bill said, and climbed up on the rail. Just as he tensed himself to jump, someone yelled “Take off your helmet!” That was a good idea. Stefani had been nearly knocked silly earlier when he went overboard with his tin hat on and it konked him a good one. So, Bill threw the helmet on deck and jumped.
His feet had no more than left the railing when the voice yelled again: “Look out for sharks!”
It was too late. Bill was on his way down. He hit the water and piled out on the raft so fast his shirt never got wet. Then Wayne Schaeffer jumped down to the raft with him, and between them they got Turner and Veiga on board. Veiga looked as if a 20mm projectile had gone right through him. It seemed awfully lonesome down there on that raft.
Suddenly there was a hail out of the darkness: “AARON WARD, AHOY THE AARON WARD!” and there came the crummy, dirty, lovely little LCS 83, creeping into the circle of fiery light with her fire hoses streaming water and her crew ready to duck in case Aaron Ward’s gunners still had itchy fingers. She eased up on the port quarter– the ship was now so low in the water that once her bow slid right up on the deck– and men piled on board the stricken ship to help. Among them were a few Aaron Ward sailors who had been blown overboard, had been picked up, and were now coming back for more. There was a fierce fire burning forward, and the 83 boat pushed her nose into the middle of it. Just then ammunition in a 40mm magazine commenced exploding and the men on the 83's bow dropped their fire hose and ran. McCaughey wished he could have got hold of that hose, but he didn’t need to; the skipper of the 83 boat, Lieutenant Faddin Jumped off the bridge, ran forward, and took the hose himself. Just in case the ship did decide to go down, Doc and his helpers moved a few wounded men from the deck of the Aaron Ward to the 83.
A sailor needed lots of friends on a night like this, and there came some more– the little LCSL 14 snuggling up to the starboard side of the ship. More fire fighters. More pumps. Aaron Ward’s medics hurriedly slung a couple of stretcher patients aboard the LCSL 14 too. One of these was Turner, gun captain of the starboard quad 40. As Boles helped lift him aboard, Turner whispered “Tell my mother my body wasn’t mangled.”
“Sure, Jack. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”
But Turner wasn’t fine. His legs had been nearly torn off in the explosion. No doctor could help him. He died aboard the LCSL 14 a couple of hours later.
The time was 2000. The second dog watch was over. The battle was finished. The enemy had gone. Yet men still fought, silently, desperately, against man’s fiercest enemy, fire; against the sailor’s greatest enemy, the sea; against the one who had taken many of them and still might get the others before the night had ended, death.
Black night crowded close around the wounded ship, a backdrop to a Greek tragedy. Leaping red flames painted crazy shadows against the sky and exploding ammunition rocketed toward the stars. But finally the planes were downed and the guns were stilled. The gods of the battle and the breeze marched back to their celestial mountains to consider what they had seen. Aaron Ward had met the test and Aaron Ward had won.
The sea lay black and flat in the night. The ship hung there, motionless. The routine had run out. The wheels had all stopped. Time had ceased to exist there, long ago; now even the wind had gone. In the stillness, in the silence, men at last had time to think. Radarman Bell had been too busy to know fear for the past hour, but now he knew he was scared as hell. He was not alone.
The time was 2000. No one passed the word to relieve the watch. No one made eight o’clock reports. No one stopped for a cup of coffee or a game of cribbage. There was no coffee and no time for it. No one knew how much time they had left, but in what time there might be they fought to save the ship.
A century had passed since Lawrence said “Don’t give up the ship.” This night Bill Sanders and his men gave the words meaning for another century. A century had passed since John Paul Jones said “Give me a fast ship for I intend to go in harm’s way.” In the respectful silence of the crypt at Annapolis where his bones still lay, one might almost expect the little fighting man to step out of the shadows to study those thunderous names immortalized around his tomb: Ariel . . . .Alfred . . . .Alliance . . . . Providence . . . .Serapis . . . .Ranger . . . . Bon Homme Richard . . . .and then say “Boatswain! Another name here. Make it read Aaron Ward.”
The time was 2000. The second dog watch was over. For most of the crew, it was the longest watch they would ever live through. It had been the last watch for the rest of them.
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