Survivor's Story of Guadalcanal
A Chance Meeting
My husband met a survivor of the battle at Guadalcanal in WWII at a doctor’s appointment at the Veteran’s Administration on recently. The man told his story of that event to my husband. My husband was very touched by the man’s experience, and he wrote an account of that meeting a few days later.
As my husband was sitting in the waiting room an older gentleman walked in pulling his oxygen tank behind him, and he sat next to my husband, which was the only available seat. My husband noticed the man was having some difficulty breathing, so he did not speak to him right away. He also noticed a tattoo on the man’s right wrist, which was a navy anchor with the words “USS Atlanta CL-1942.”
At this time he didn’t know what to do. I think I said, "Were you on the Atlanta in the battle of Guadalcanal?” He answered yes. My husband said that he had just finished the second of two books about the naval battles at Guadalcanal, and I would like to hear about what happened. He didn’t look at me, but he said OK. This next section is what my husband told me the man said.
"I can only tell it the way I remember it."
I suggest you go to the web site ussatlanta.com and read the battle report to understand some of the terms I will use in this story. The following is primarily the words of the elderly man and a few underlined phrases that are my husbands.
The Battle Begins According to the Old Man
"The night of the battle is not when our boat sank (in the Atlanta). It was the next day, and I did not see her go down. We had been at general quarters-battle stations for about three hours. The night was so dark, and we were all so scared; you couldn’t see anything.
The man said I was on the number five 1.1 inch AA-anti aircraft gun. The gun captain told all of us in the gun tube that targets unknown had been sighted. Unknown targets will scare the sh** out of you if you can’t see them. We had all guns loaded but had not been given the open fire order yet. When the lights came on all hell broke loose. If you read the battle report on the website you will know what he meant when the lights came on."
"Every gun that could started shooting at the lights, because when you are in the lights you are the target. I don’t know how long this went on; it felt like hours. It seemed like every ship was shooting at us, and we were shooting at every gun flash we saw. Our gun was not on radar control. We had not been given the order to open fire, but when someone is shooting at you, you shoot back. The ship was taking hits all over above the water line. Then, there were two big jolts that I now know were torpedo hits. The first was kind of light, but the second was pretty big."
"The whole gun crew were cussing the guys in the ammo handling room for being slow to get us ammo. Shortly after the second torpedo hit there was a big explosion, and the next thing I know I am in the water. Evidently the whole gun tube was blown off the ship. I don’t know how many men were killed outright, but I and the gun captain were the only two men from that tube that were rescued the next day. When you are in the water staying alive is the only thing you think about. The battle was still going on with everybody shooting at everybody. Ships came by me so close you could reach out and touch them."
Map of Gaudalcanal
I'm in the Water
"The battle started moving away from us and the first thing I thought is that they left us. We could see muzzle flashes from the guns on all the ships moving away, and they were getting farther and farther away. I don’t know how long or how far that went on. It seemed like a long time. When I saw the gun fire coming back I thought rescue; then, it dawned on me that no one is going to stop for a rescue while the battle is going on. At this point he went silent. I couldn’t speak and when I looked up at him. He was wiping tears from his face. It was only then I realized I was crying too. I didn’t ask any more about the battle but in just a minute he started talking again."
"At this time the ships and the battle were far away. I noticed that there were ships on fire, some dead in the water. Some ships were sinking, but I don’t know if they were ours or theirs. By the time the battle started coming back I had drifted close to other survivors of the Atlanta and other ships. Some our guys and some Japanese."
"When the ships came back, guns blazing, men in the water were bound to be run over. One ship, I don’t know who’s it was came within about fifty feet of me, right through the middle of maybe thirty men in the water. When the ship cleared there were maybe ten men left. The next thing I remember is two maybe three ships dead in the water and on fire. I could see men jumping over the sides. The battle kept on moving farther away and the guns finally stopped. This time there were a lot of men in the water. We were all just trying to stay alive. The groups of men drifted closer and closer."
Surviving a Night in the Water - Sharks!
"As the groups got larger and larger, we became a mix of Japs and our guys. Some of the Japs started trying to drown us. More than a few men were killed, ours and theirs. Finally, things started to calm down. It got to be almost quite. Some of the ships had explosions going off, but other than that it seemed quite."
"After a while I heard someone scream. It was a short scream. Then not long after that I heard someone else scream and someone yelled shark. This happened a few more times that night. I felt something bump up against me, and I thought it was a shark. I think I sh** my pants. Turns out it was just a body drifting into me. I don’t know if it was ours or theirs. I remember it was so dark and that made thing worse. As the ships close by sank, and the fires went out. it got even darker. I got more and more scared. I don’t think anything could scare me that much ever again."
"In a while I drifted into a man that was on my gun crew. Turns out, he and I were the only men from my crew that lived. We stayed together, and I don’t know how long it was. We drifted into some men on a copack flotation raft. Someone still had their shoes on, so he took off his shoe laces, and we tied ourselves to the raft. Odd thing was they had pulled one Jap out of the water and when we got there, they put him in the water and tied him to the raft. One or two men were burned really badly, so we put them on the raft first. One man died, so we took his life jacket off and let him go under. We had to, the raft was overloaded as it was.
As we drifted through the night we became more and more scattered from the other groups. It got quieter and almost silent. The silence was terrifying. One thing I remember is when we were in the water, and the battle came close. Some of the shells meant for ships would fall in the water. When they went off the pressure from the explosion would knock the breath out of you, and we couldn’t breathe. Man that was bad. The night seemed a month long, but finally the sun started coming up."
Then almost as far as you could see, there were men and things from the ships that had sunk. That was all you could see. When it got light enough to see better, some of the Japs in the water started attacking us again. I thought what the hell. We were all just trying to stay alive, and these monkeys were trying to kill us. The sharks came back from time to time but not one came at me. I don’t think they even came close to our raft. The little Jap in our group was just as scared as we were. We were all just trying to stay alive.
John F Kennedy Boat
"Then almost as far as you could see, there were men and things from the ships that had sunk. That was all you could see. When it got light enough to see better, some of the Japs in the water started attacking us again. I thought what the hell. We were all just trying to stay alive, and these monkeys were trying to kill us. The sharks came back from time to time but not one came at me. I don’t think they even came close to our raft. The little Jap in our group was just as scared as we were. We were all just trying to stay alive."
"Finally, an hour or so after daylight, boats from Guadalcanal, Savo Island and Tulagi came out and started picking up men from the water. It seemed like they were all moving in slow motion. It might have only been a few hours after we first saw the boats coming out that they got to my group. When they got close I heard someone scream, and I knew a shark had got him. I don’t know if it was ours or theirs, but I thought, after living through the night and with help in sight a damn shark had to take just one more."
"I think the closer it got to be my turn to be pulled out, the more scared I got. By the time they got to me I can’t remember the feel of anyone helping me. I think about being pulled from the water, and its like I had no feeling in my body. I have wondered about that many times, and I just can’t feel anyone touching me; yet I know they did. I don’t know what happened to the Jap that was with us. He might have been taken prisoner or maybe he was shot in the water. Some of that went on also."
"My gun captain and I wound up on the canal. The doctors didn’t see us for a couple of days. We both weren’t hurt more than scratches and bruises. There were so many of our guys that were bad off, and they had wounded men from the fighting in the jungle. They couldn’t get to us. We were good anyway."
"When we were in the water and our raft was overloaded, we had taken our trousers off and made flotation devices out of them. So when we first got to the canal the only thing I had on was my shirt. I had lost my skivvies somehow. So for about a day and a half I went around naked from the waist down. Sh**, I didn’t care. I was on dry land and that was good enough. Besides there were some other guys that had done the same thing. We must have been a sight. Going from place to place, standing in the chow line with our fun guns sticking out. That must have been a sight."
My husband stated, "I looked up about this time and I saw a little smile on his face. That smile I got to see is priceless. I will remember the smile and carry it with me until the day I die."
Surviving on the Island
"The Marines there did give us some pants but they were only rags. They had been there for months with very little resupply. Ammo and food was more important than uniforms. We stayed on the canal for about a week, and every night the Japs made air raids, small ones, but when the bombs are falling it doesn’t seem small."
"My buddy and I, plus, some other guys were shipped to Pearl Harbor, and after a week I was given leave to go home. I asked if I would have to come back, and they told me yes. I thought about it, so I volunteered to stay. I wound up on the Air Craft Enterprise. I wound up as a loaded on a 40 MM. Boffer. Boffer is an anti-aircraft gun. I had never even seen a boffer, but they said they would train me on the way back to the canal. I stayed because I knew if I ever got home I would die before they could make me come back. The trip back was short and not much happened. We did hlow up some for air strikes on some islands on the way."
Air Craft Enterprize
I remember thinking, at least I am on a bigger ship. We got to the invasion of Truk, and the Jap fighters and bombers came at us. Then, I realized, we were just a bigger target. I think it was on the second day my gun tube was strafed pretty well, and I got my million dollar wound. The shell fragments broke my leg and hip.
I was sent to the states, and when I healed enough they assigned me to the quartermaster part of Treasure Island in San Diego. That’s where I spent the rest of the war. Keeping track of things being combat loaded, that is for fast unloading, when the ship gets to where it’s going. I said "I know what combat loading is", and he said, “sure you do.”
My Husband's Words
Our conversation was broken up several times when we were called in for vital signs, and he had to go back in for blood to be taken. Somehow we managed to sit next to each other, so we could talk some more. At one time I saw a young African American girl that limped when she came in. I noticed at one point she was wiping tears from her face. Guess she was listening. I know other people there heard at least part of his story. Maybe that is why we got seats together.
I knew our time together was coming to an end. I thanked the man for telling his story, and he said, “Thank you for caring and asking, I have told you things that I never told before. I can tell you have been in the sh** too, so I knew I could tell you.”
With that I said to him “I was enlisted and you were too, neither of us were officers but it would be my honor to salute you.” He just smiled through his tears and said “it would be my pleasure to return the salute.” Then, I stood and he tried also, but I told him to sit it would be OK.
Then, when I started to come to attention for the salute, the young African American girl asked if it would be OK if she saluted as well. We both said "hell yes". She stood, came to attention with me and with the best salute I was able to give I saluted the old man.
His face went stern and eyes straight ahead, he returned the salute. In my four years in the military I have had return salutes from many officers, some good some great and some real sh** heads. That salute was the best I ever received. We must have been a sight. One young black female, one old man and one very old man. All of us with tears on our face, in the middle of the VA waiting room, giving each other salutes. I don’t think anyone stared at us, and no one said a word. I like to think they all knew whatever was going on, we were OK.
My Husbands Comments Driving Home
When I got into my car I sat there and recorded notes on my phone recorder. I knew I would forget if I didn’t. It was a long ride home and halfway there I realized I didn’t ask his name. I will probably never see that man again, but I can tell you one thing. If I ever see him again I will know his face. I can see him sitting, stern faced, and returning my salute is burned into my memory and will never be lost.
The reason we are a free is because men like him were willing to sacrifice everything for their country. There were 1,592 US men killed fighting on Guadalcanal, but what is basically unknown is 5,041 sailors lost their lives supporting those men.
I hope you enjoyed reading this true account of one man's sacrifice for his country. It made me cry.
© 2013 Pamela Oglesby