Battle of the Coral Sea: Seventy-Six Years Later

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Battle of the Coral Sea Combat Narratives

 

Battle of the Coral Sea Infographic and Combat Narratives courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington DC.

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USS Helena (CL-50) Found Nearly 75 Years After Sinking During WWII Battle

https://news.usni.org/2018/04/12/paul-allen-finds-cruiser-uss-helena

USS Helena (CL-50) already had a long and proud history during the war before her tragic end. A survivor of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, she was the first ship to receive the Navy Unit Commendation award for her actions at Pearl, the Battle of Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal, the Solomons, and Kula Gulf.

Japanese propagandists also once complimented Helena’s gun crews. After a bombardment of Kolombangara Island in early 1943, Radio Tokyo announced that U.S. Naval Forces had employed a “new secret weapon-a 6-inch machine gun.” Although no such weapon existed, the Japanese were unwittingly heaping praise on the proficiency and speed of Helena’s gunners.

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USS Helena (CL-50) off Mare Island Navy Yard, California, following battle damage repairs and overhaul on 1 July 1942. Naval History and Command Photograph. NH 95813

Helena was sunk by three torpedoes during the Battle of Kula Gulf on July 6, 1943. Of the 900 men onboard that abandoned ship, all but 275 survived. Many were rescued by the destroyers USS Nicholas (DD-449) and USS Radford (DD-446). Some were not rescued for 11 days, after making it to Vella Lavella Island, where they evaded Japanese patrols, and received help from two coast watchers and several natives before they were picked up.

Read the sad, but interesting story of S1c General P. Douglas, a survivor of the sinking of USS Helena, whose remains were found on Ranongga Island in June 2006. See the link below:

http://www.douglashistory.co.uk/history/generaldouglas.htm

Hold the Potatoes: A Destroyer Officer’s Dream and His Legendary Crew

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USS O’Bannon (DD-450) moored in mid-1942. Wartime censors re-touched the image to remove her radar and Mark 37 gun director. She’s painted in Camouflage Measure 12 (modified). National Archives Photograph. 80-G-44177.

Seventy-five years ago today, on 5 April 1943, USS O’Bannon (DD-450), the legendary WWII destroyer, sank Japanese submarine RO-34 using a well-placed shot-and potatoes. Among the many sea stories of the US Navy throughout our nations history, the sinking of an enemy submarine from potatoes has become legendary. It sounds like something only Superman or Captain America could pull off, except in this case, what happened that day 75 years ago actually did occur. Minus the potatoes.

On 4 April 1943, several U.S. destroyers of Destroyer Squadron Twenty-One (DesRon 21) had shelled enemy shore installations on New Georgia. Among those destroyers were the USS Strong (DD-467), USS Taylor (DD-468), USS Nicholas (DD-449), USS Radford (DD-446), USS Jenkins (DD-447), and O’Bannon. All were steaming back towards their base at Tulagi Harbor after the mission, when at 0225 on the morning of 5 April 1943, O’Bannon proceeded to investigate a radar contact with Strong standing by to assist.

O’Bannon’s skipper, Cmdr. Donald J. MacDonald, received word from his radarmen of an enemy submarine running on the surface at 7,000 yards. He brought O’Bannon close enough to the enemy submarine that his lookout, the ship’s cook, from his watchstanding station on deck, later told his captain that he thought he could have thrown potatoes at the boat.

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Commander Donald J. MacDonald, Commanding Officer of USS O’Bannon (DD-450), received two awards of the Navy Cross, three Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit and two Bronze Star awards during the war. (National Archives Photograph. 80-G-44101-A). 

The legend holds that MacDonald prepared to ram RO-34, but suddenly worried at the last second the sub may have been in the middle of mine-laying operations. Fearing this would needlessly put his ship and crew in harm’s way, he ordered hard rudder left. Suddenly, O’Bannon was steaming parallel with the Japanese submarine. The American crew saw right away that the Japanese submariners were all asleep out on deck, but were unable to lower and fire their larger caliber guns at the sub, and did not carry small arms with them. The Japanese, finally waking up to Americans staring in amazement and curiosity at them, also had no weapons on hand. However, they did have a 3-inch deck gun that could fire upon the O’Bannon, and quickly made a run to reach it. In a newspaper article written some 40 years after the incident, some of O’Bannon’s veterans claimed the ship was able to fire “once” (they don’t say from which gun), took out the sub’s conning tower, and then found bins full of potatoes (why they’d be on the main deck and not on the galley deck is unknown) and began throwing them at RO-34, incredibly only “50 feet away”(!)

The Japanese, believing the potatoes to be either hand grenades, or having an irrational fear of vegetables, threw them overboard or back at the sailors on O’Bannon. But the sudden and inspired food fight worked. The Japanese were so distracted by the potato assault that every single one of them stopped running towards, or was unable to reach the 3-inch deck gun, and O’Bannon was able to pull away and then proceed to sink RO-34.

So what really happened?

MacDonald was a fighting captain (and an extremely highly decorated one to prove it). He immediately went into action. Attacking RO-34, he dropped three depth charges and also ordered his 20-millimeter and 40-millimeter gun crews to open fire. The depth charges straddled RO-34, while 16 rounds from the 20mm and 40mm guns struck her conning tower. O’Bannon came around for a second pass and dropped more depth charges while firing again from both of her 20mm and 40mm guns. RO-34 began to sink by her stern. By the time O’Bannon circled around and came in for her third attack, she reported the target “blew up as a result of firing.” The crew on deck watched as RO-34 jumped out of the water and was slammed down again, settling by her stern moments before feeling a violent explosion underwater.

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View of ship’s after 20-millimeter battery, on the fantail, while at sea, c.1943.
 (National Archives Photograph. 80-G-K-3975).

At 0250, she reported to the task group that the enemy vessel was still on the surface and damaged but “unable to dive.” Cmdr. MacDonald later wrote: “This contact may be considered a destroyer officer’s dream…First there were radar contacts, then sight contact, then the submarine was hit and remained dead in the water while the O’Bannon came in close enough to throw depth charges at her and finally send her to the bottom.” RO-34 sank shortly after with all 66 hands. Already by 1943, O’Bannon’s crew, under MacDonald became legendary fighters, never losing a single man during the war. Their skipper recalled, “All I had to do was say, ‘Commence firing!’ and they put on a wonderful show.”

When daylight finally arrived on 5 April, pilots reported a thick oil slick, as well as debris from the location, giving O’Bannon credit for a probable sinking of the submarine. However, the American press quickly picked up the story, and printed it as the epic tale of an American destroyer that attacked an enemy submarine by throwing potatoes at surprised Japanese sailors standing around on their ship. O’Bannon even received a plaque from a group called the Maine Potato Growers, to honor the occasion. The tall tale began taking on such a huge life of its own that even some of O’Bannon’s own former crewmen began telling and re-telling it to audiences, making it more difficult to disprove. But long after the war, MacDonald himself admitted, “I’ve been trying to drive a stake through this story for years.” He agreed that he maneuvered O’Bannon close to RO-34, but explained that even the crewmember with the best throwing arm could not have tossed a potato or anything else across the gap. “From that single remark [of the cook] has grown the entire legend of the use of Maine potatoes to sink a Japanese submarine.”

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Commander Donald J. MacDonald, CO, USS O’Bannon (DD-450) (left), and Captain Thomas J. Ryan, CO, Destroyer Division Twenty-One (DesRon 21) (right). Commander MacDonald received the Navy Cross on board his ship on 22 August 1943. Captain Ryan presented the award. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. 80-G-56139).

Bibliography:

Colleen Johnson, “This Spud’s For You: Shipmates Recall Holding off Japanese Sub,” The Pittsburgh Press, July 14, 1984.

John Sherwood, “The Legend of the Deadly Potatoes,” Washington Times, April 17, 1974.

John Wukovits, Tin Can Titans: The Heroic Men and Ships of World War II’s Most Decorated Navy Destroyer Squadron (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2017), 132.

USS O’Bannon (DD-450) War Diary, Monthly War Diary, June 1942 to October 1945

“The Battle for Tarawa” by CM3 Claude Hepp

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Drawing, charcoal on paper, by Kerr Eby, 1944. A Marine continues forward in grim determination, rifle in hand, as he struggles out of the surf of Betio Atoll and onto the beach to fight the Japanese.

November 20th was the 74th Anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa. A young American named Claude William Hepp, born in Iowa, enlisted in the Navy on 13 January 1943, and became one of the famed Seabees (serving in Naval Construction Battalion 18) that fought throughout the Pacific in WWII. A Carpenter’s Mate third class, his unit was assigned to the 18th Marine Combat Engineers, (3/18), Second Marine Division, and sent to the South Pacific.

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WWII recruiting poster for Navy Seabees

CM3 Hepp wrote this poem after participating in the bloody battle at Tarawa from 20-23 November 1943. Claude died of wounds he sustained during the bloody invasion of Saipan on 16 June 1944, and was buried at sea just two days after his 22nd birthday. His name is among those listed in the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (“The Punchbowl”). For all the Marines, Navy Corpsmen, Seabees, airmen and others that suffered and bled at Tarawa, I’ve added CM3 Hepp’s poem in full in honor of their memory.

The Battle for Tarawa by CM3 Claude Hepp

“The time has come,” the commander said,
“When we must fight once more;
So pack your gear and shoulder your gun,
We will board the ship at four.”
We boarded the ship in New Zealand
For a place we knew not where.
But deep down in our hearts we thought
Of the hardships we’d have to bear
Twenty long days and twenty long nights
It took to reach the Atolls
We wiped off our guns and counted our shells
And loosened the straps on our rolls
Then came the word, “All hands topside”
And our boats were lowered to sea
I’ll tell you every man was scared
And we prayed for the things to be.
Our fleet was constantly pounding the isle
To make things easier on shore
Then they finally slacked up around noon
To let our fighting men score
The first wave shoved off for “Helen”
The coral reefs made it tough;
The tank bogged down, the boats were sunk
My God, those boys died rough.
Machine gun nests were thick on the beach
But our men struggled nearer the sand
Some of them died in the water
Some of them died on the land.
That was the first wave I have told about
Then the second wave moved in
‘Twas the same thing, but their lines grew weak
And some of the boys wore a grin.
Now the Marines kept pouring in
From the places a rat wouldn’t go
They tromped over bodies of dead Nipponese
And onward to finish the foe.
Then our boys had formed a line
And darted from tree to tree
But the Japs were camouflaged so slick
It made them hard to see.
Jap snipers in the tree tops
Pill boxes on the ground
Mortar shells were flying everywhere
Hell was all around.
Those pill boxes I spoke about
Were concrete, logs and steel
And the contents of the hole below
Our bombs could not reveal.
Our tanks pulled right up to those holes
And fired again and again
Now you can bet that it made Hell
For those stubborn Japs within.
Flame throwers left a path of death
And burned everything in sight
It didn’t take long for those Japs to decide
That the Marines, too, could fight.
Imperial Marines the Japs called themselves
They were supposed to be tough
But they soon found out that U.S.M.C.
Was built of the rugged and rough.
Do not under-estimate our slant-eyed foes
They were fortified to the tee
But it took the Second Division
To set up another V.
Exterminated Japs filled every hole
And soon began to smell
On blood-stained coral we made our beds
And slept in that living Hell.
Four thousand Japs were slain on that island
Pill boxes numbered five hundred
Soon the air strip was repaired
Again our Air Force thundered.
More than eleven hundred Marines lost their lives
They put up a damn good fight
I salute each and everyone
Whom we buried the following night.
Just one word for the Seabees
In discussion they’re always left out
But the fighting 18th was there from the first
And they were the last to move out.

1 bn 8 rgt 2nd Marine Div in lcvp headed to Tarawa 21 Nov 43 vargas pinup

Marines from 1st Bn, 8th Rgt, 2nd Marine Division, in an LCVP headed for Tarawa on 20 November 1943 look at a Varga pinup girl.

Bring the Bell Up?

USS Indianapolis Found

Due to the recent discovery of USS Indianapolis resting 18,000 feet at the bottom of the Philippine Sea by billionaire Paul Allen, some people have already called for one particular object to be raised from the depths.

Recent photos released by the submersible visiting Indy’s watery grave show one particularly interesting photograph of a ship’s bell. But it is not THE ship’s bell, which has been on display at the Indiana World War Memorial in Indianapolis.

Should they still bring the bell up?

USS Indianapolis ship’s bell

USS Bunker Hill Veterans Reunited

Norm Lasman was a 21 year-old sailor down below in an engine room onboard USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) when the ship was hit by two Japanese kamikazes in less than 30 seconds on May 11, 1945, just off the coast of Okinawa. In the deadly minutes that followed, he heard someone pass the word over his sound-powered headset to “Abandon ship.” (Note: This was the CO, Captain George Seitz, who ordered those at the aft ends of the flight and hangar decks, where flames and smoke were heaviest, to abandon ship; the order no doubt added to an already highly confused situation to those that heard it, and even to those who did. Quickly, the rumor spread around the ship that she was to be abandoned, and there were a few incidents of sailors and officers that were not in immediate danger jumping into the sea or onto ships that had come alongside to provide assistance. There was at least one court-martial case brought against a junior officer for abandoning his men and post, and may have been others).

Lasman made his way up a ladderwell and almost out onto the flight deck towards relative safety, when suddenly he heard the Chief Engineer, Commander Joseph Carmichael, tell his engineers “We are not abandoning ship. We are going to stay at our posts and keep the ship afloat.” Lasman, realizing he most certainly would die by doing so, took one last look at the sky, closed the hatch and climbed back down the ladderwell and into his workspace to do his job and help save his ship.

Some 19 hours later, Lasman woke up on the flight deck, surrounded by his dead shipmates. With no recollection of who saved him that day, he spent the next several decades with issues of short and long-term memory loss, and later discovered he had suffered severe issues from carbon monoxide poisoning. It wasn’t until the book Danger’s Hour by Maxwell Kennedy that he finally began to fill-in some of the blanks from before and after the events of May 11, 1945. A neighbor of Lasman began to do help him do some additional digging online, and with additional help provided by Chicago’s Channel 9 WGN News, they were finally able to track down now 97 year-old Al Skerritt, one of Lasman’s former shipmates and the man that pulled Lasman out of the engine room that fateful day. Skerritt lives across the country from Lasman in Seattle, but see the link below to watch the phenomenal reunion between the two World War II heroes.

 Bunker Hill vetsUSS_Bunker_Hill_hit_by_two_Kamikazes