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First Person by Walter Hassell

Awakened that morning by the mess cooks as they brought strong black coffee to help us wake up and to help settle our jittery nerves, we knew this was our day of battle in the Coral Sea–the day for which all our training and preparation had pointed. We hoped we had learned our lessons well.

We ate well that morning, May 8, 1942. Steak and eggs were served for all hands. They knew we would need all the energy we could muster. Up until that day, unlike the flight crews who had performed so well and valiantly, we of the ground crew and ship’s company aboard Lexington had been but spectators in the war. All this was to change, and we knew it would not be too many hours away.

We had time for a quick cigarette before flight quarters sounded. We then hurried to the flight deck to make last-minute checks and adjustments to our aircraft. Since our fighters had already had their ammunition loaded, there was little we ordnancemen had to do with them, except load the auxiliary gas tanks on the planes accompanying the attack group. But there had been some changes made in the dive bombers’ armament. One-half of them were loaded with demolition bombs, 500-pounders, and the other half with 1,000-pound armor-piercing bombs. They were going after big game, and although the demolition bombs were very effective, particularly if some aircraft were caught on the flight deck, a 1,000-pound armor piercing bomb could sink a ship.

The torpedo planes were loaded with their deadly cargoes, and although we had lost two from the squadron, we were still able to put up 10 ready and eager to go. Our hearts went out to the brave crews of these slow and cumbersome aircraft. The dive bombers and fighters had the ability to dodge and take evasive action, with the exception of the dive bomber’s final run. Even that was at a terrific speed and took at most about one-half minute. The torpedo planes had to make a long, slow approach to their target and could not take evasive action until after they had dropped their “fish.”

Either way, the time had come! The announcement over the loud speaker was “Pilots, man your planes.” It was a moment no man who was there that day would ever forget–a moment each and every man on that flight deck had etched in his memory. For this was to be our first battle, the first time in our lives that other men, with malice in their hearts, were to level their guns, bombs and torpedoes at us, with our death as their main purpose and desire. It was a moving moment, and of course those exact thoughts did not really enter our minds. We were too busy doing the jobs for which we had been trained, but I am sure that subconsciously our mind recorded thoughts along that vein.

The first aircraft launched were the torpedo bombers. As the slowest, they had to be given a head start toward the enemy, estimated to be at that time a little over 100 miles away. This meant about an hour after forming up as a group over our ship, Lexington, they finally would be in a position to start the long flight toward the enemy–to the end of their lives or the destruction of some of the first major elements of the Japanese fleet. The second wave to be launched consisted of the SBDs (dive bombers) laden with their demolition and armor-piercing bombs, a deadly armada that would soon join the torpedo squadron to coordinate their attack under the direction of the air group commander, who would direct the action once it had begun. One-half of the F4F fighters, with wing tanks to augment their gasoline supply, were assigned to protect the bombers and torpedo planes from enemy fighters protecting their ships, as our fighters would in turn be charged with the job of protecting us.

The odds were pretty close. Our air group, combined with the air group from Yorktown, put us at about the same offensive level as the Japanese. The key, it seemed, was to be defense. Would the air defenses of the Japanese prevent our assault forces from getting through? Or would our air defense drive the enemy aircraft from the skies before they could unleash their lethal cargoes on us and the rest of our task force? Fate, the ultimate referee in the deadly game of war, was to make the final decision.

With our aircraft gone, the flight-deck crews had no further duties until they returned. We were free to wander around, filling in time and doing whatever we pleased. We clustered about on the flight deck trying to make small talk, which fell pretty flat, while awaiting some word as to the progress of our group or the word of the expected enemy action. The ship’s company was at general quarters. All the armament of the ship was primed and ready for action.

The first word we received was that our aircraft had spotted the enemy fleet and were preparing to attack. This word came over the loudspeaker system from the bridge and was received with cheers and much backslapping and glee. Once the planes had started their attack there was no need of radio silence. The air group commander was sending back a blow-by-blow description in the clear.

This description was interrupted by an announcement from the flight bridge that our radar had picked up enemy aircraft approaching at about 65 miles away. This brought another cheer from the flight-deck cheering section. This entire group, fresh out of high school and thinking of war as a game, still had the feeling that this was a sporting contest rather than the deadly experience that really lay ahead for us all.

The next report was that our fighters had intercepted the incoming enemy flight and had started an attack. There were one, two, and then two more reports of the enemy planes being shot down by our planes, and at each report the flight-deck cheering section gave vent to their emotions with loud cheers and clapping hands. The flight deck was full of crewmen who did not have battle stations, and the atmosphere was almost festive as the enemy planes drew closer and closer.

The next startling announcement was that torpedo planes were sighted on the port beam. We turned our attention to that area, and in the distance we saw the Japanese torpedo planes begin their long, low approach. Because of the nature of an aerial torpedo, it requires an extra long, flat approach so that the torpedo will run close to the surface and not dive to the bottom. At this time the guns of Lexington and the rest of the task force came into action. All the guns that could bear on the approaching planes were firing as fast as they could. It was amazing that through all that concentrated firepower the planes kept coming.

Soon, though, a hit was scored and an enemy went down in flames. The cheering section sounded off again, then for another and another. Our guns were getting the range, and with each hit the flight-deck cheering section gave its all.

Then another announcement came from the bridge. This one to strike a chill in our hearts. Dive bombers overhead! How could this be?

How did they get through our defensive fighter screen? I am sure the same thoughts were going through the minds of the deck crews of the Japanese carriers that our air group was attacking at this very moment.

As my eyes went skyward in response to the announcement, I saw a dive bomber release his bomb and pull out of his dive. The bomb was coming right at me, it seemed. I realized that being on the open flight deck was foolish and I looked for some place that had some protection. There was a door close by–I decided it was as good a place as any to go. I turned my head just before I entered the compartment and saw that the flight deck, which moments before had been filled with cheering sailors, was practically empty. For us, the game of war was over–it would be deadly serious from now on!

The din was terrific. With practically every gun on the ship firing as fast as it could, I could hardly hear myself think. As a crew member of this ship that was fighting for its life, I felt you had to join and help in its defense in any way you could.

As a member of the air group I had no battle station, and with our aircraft aloft my only obligation was to be ready when they returned to serve their needs. But I could not stand idly by while other men were fighting for their lives. Chance had led me to the door into the ammunition ready room of one of our pom-pom guns. This was the room where a supply of ammunition was stored above decks so that the gun could go into action until its supply could be replenished from the magazines below. It was a room about 20 feet square directly under the gun. There was a trestle (stand) about 2 feet high on which a crewman was standing and passing clips of ammunition up to the gun through a slot in the overhead.

I quickly decided the place I could be of most help was next to the man on the trestle, handing the clips to him as they in turn were passed to me. There were perhaps six or eight other men in the compartment opening cases and otherwise forwarding the ammunition to us. With the ship shuddering from all the guns firing, I braced my leg against the side of the stand to steady myself because the clips of six or eight rounds were quite heavy.

In minutes, the outboard side door of the compartment opened and other crewmen started to bring in the ammunition coming up from the magazines below. The next thing we knew, the compartment was filled with acrid-smelling smoke. Our first reaction was to wonder if it might be poison gas, and we, of course, had no gas masks but we settled down when we realized it was the smoke from the cordite of the 5-inch anti-aircraft guns on the starboard bow.

I was able to look up through the slot in the overhead and observe the demeanor of the young lieutenant junior grade who was in command of the pom-poms. I was very impressed with his calmness and the way he kept his crew and guns firing at maximum efficiency–a fine example of courage in this, his first taste of combat.

It was then we felt the shock of a torpedo striking the ship. Although my leg was braced against the side of the stand, I almost lost my footing.

I could not imagine anything that would take a ship almost 50,000 tons and shake it like a dog would shake a bone, but that one torpedo did it. I recall my first reaction was that we would probably have to go back to the States and the navy yard for repairs, and that didn’t seem bad. Later, another torpedo struck, and then in a few moments it seemed another. (Actually, two torpedoes struck, followed by bomb hits.)

We could feel the deck tilt as we started to list to port, and we knew we were in big trouble, and still it continued. By now, I wasn’t thinking about the navy yard. I was thinking about my life insurance policy and how long it would take care of my wife and two sons.

Then it was over. The guns grew silent and a stillness seemed to settle over the ship. We shook hands all around, each of us glad to be alive. As I reached for the door to the flight deck, I was ready to do the job I was trained to do–to service the needs of the fighters of VF-2 and the other squadrons. Our part in the battle was not yet over. They had to find their way back to their floating home, to be refueled, rearmed and made ready to fight again. Then I opened the door!

The sight that greeted me was shocking! Our once neat and clean flight deck was littered with debris–empty shell casings, parts of aircraft, and shattered pieces of the teak that covered the armor plate of the flight deck. There were several small fires which crewmen with fire extinguishers appeared to be controlling. One of our F4F fighter planes, severely damaged, was sitting on the deck amidships, it landing gear damaged. Its pilot desperately had tried to get its engine started so he could join the fray. He had stayed with his aircraft until ordered out by the air officer when it became obvious it could not take off.

There were a few still mounds about the deck, covered with blankets, that dreadful sight that meant another human being was no longer going to join his shipmates at mess, at war, or at nonsense.

The ship was listing heavily to port, too much so for our precious aircraft to land. We were streaming a large oil slick. That meant the torpedoes had ruptured our port-side fuel tanks, but we were still afloat and steaming at a good speed, a good sign. The air was still full of the acrid odor of cordite, but the smell of death was there also.

I walked to the forward edge of the fight deck, where the Marine detachment was charged with manning two of the 5-inch anti-aircraft guns. That was where my friend Sergeant Larry Peyton was gun captain and in charge of the battery. The sight that met my eyes, and stunned my soul, was a gapping jagged hole in the deck just aft of gun No. 2. The way the metal around the hole was bent indicated that the explosion had come from below. It had to have been an armor-piercing bomb with a delayed-action fuse that detonated its deadly charge deep in the bowels of the ship (what I thought had been the third torpedo). The effect of the concussion on the Marine gun crew was beyond description. There were at least six or eight bodies lying around the shattered gun. There were still a few Marines from the sheltered side of the No. 1 gun sitting dazed and quiet beside their silent gun. My friend Larry Peyton was not among them. I knew then that he had been one of those who did not make it.

I tore my gaze away from the terrifying sight. We still had a job to do, and I hurried to join my other shipmates. Since the fighter aircraft that had been trapped on deck was beyond reasonable repair and was a hazard, it was decided to push it over the side. With the help of the list to port we were able to drag and push it to the edge of the flight deck, and with one last mighty heave, over it went. Its pilot helped us, and I could see the tears in his eyes as he saw his precious fighter sink slowly into the sea.

The flight deck was gradually beginning to level again. We learned the captain had ordered the starboard fuel tanks, and other empty space, flooded with sea water to offset the damages of the port side. The damage-control officer had reported that he felt unless something unforeseen happened we would be able to make it and keep our “Lady Lex” afloat.

The several fires throughout the ship appeared close to being under control, but we had lost pressure in our saltwater fire-fighting system. It seems the torpedoes had put the pumps out of commission, a grievous blow, but unless we had a major fire, the limited amount of fresh water from the smaller hoses and our fire extinguishers might suffice. The armor-piercing bomb that had devastated the Marine gun battery had penetrated deep into the ship before it exploded and the central station, the electrical nerve center of the ship, had received major damage. There were short circuits everywhere and the electricians were feverishly trying to eliminate the hazard of those sparking wires torn apart by the explosion. The danger was that our aviation gasoline might be ignited by a short circuit.

This was part of the scene when our airplanes were reported on their way in. As we prepared to receive them aboard, it was noon, just two hours since the first report of torpedo planes off the port beam.

The flight deck was cleared as much as possible and was declared safe for landings. The crewmen were still at their battle stations. Although radio reports from our air group commander claimed two aircraft carriers sunk, the Japanese fleet was still a formidable force (actually, one light carrier was sunk the day before; another was heavily damaged on May 8), and we had to be prepared to defend ourselves again if the enemy should mount another attack.

First aboard would be our own torpedo planes. Their heavy loads had left them dangerously short of gasoline. And now, of the 10 that had left that morning, only six returned. One had ditched at sea and three had been shot down during their final attack. The six were quickly landed aboard and moved to the forward end of the deck behind the protective barrier.

Two of our fighter pilots were wounded and requested permission to land immediately. The first one, weaving slightly as he made his approach was about to be waved off when he radioed he couldn’t make it around again.

The landing signal officer decided to take a chance and bring him in. He was too high and a bit too far to the right but seemed in control. As the landing officer gave his signal, the pilot cut his engine but swerved to his right and bounced over the arresting gear wires. We watched in horror. As if in slow motion he skidded up the deck, his right wing crashing into the base of the after turret, spinning him around and demolishing the aircraft.

The flight deck crash-and-rescue crew in their fireproof outfits quickly dashed to the plane and dragged the stricken pilot from his cockpit. His shoulder harness had saved his life. Although gravely wounded, he was quickly treated by the medical team, and I am happy to say he survived. The second wounded pilot reported that in addition to being wounded he was also out of gas, with his gauges on empty. He said that he could not stand a wave-off, but felt he should try to land rather than ditch in the sea. The signal officer had him lined up and about ready for his cut when the engine started to sputter. He was too close to do anything but desperately pull back on his stick and try to limp aboard. We watched as the nose of his plane came up just over the rear end of the flight deck with his aircraft at almost a 45-degree angle. At impact the tail section of the aircraft broke away and fell into the sea while the front end, including the cockpit, careened crazily up the deck. Again the crash crew were able to extract one of our pilots from a serious crash to live and fight again.

The flight-deck crew hastily pushed the debris off the deck, and the landings continued. As the fighters were the lowest on gas, they were brought aboard next. In spite of their fatigue, the pilots’ training and practice prevailed and they landed without further incident.

Our dive bombers also had suffered heavy losses. Out of the 30 that left that morning, only 24 returned. We all hoped that our airmen who had crashed or were shot down were able to bail out. They did have a small rubber dinghy attached to their seat as part of the parachute package. Indeed, many who we feared had been lost were later picked up by destroyers searching the area after the battle. (Three from the torpedo squadron were adrift in rubber rafts for three weeks before they were found.)

When the air group was landed, we quickly turned to reloading and rearming them. Not knowing what was coming next, we had to be ready for any eventuality. It was then I realized what a strain we had been under during the airstrike. Although I had not done anything requiring a lot of physical strength, I was totally exhausted. The ammunition cases for out .50-caliber wing guns, which normally we were able to handle with no problem at all, felt like lead. It was all I could do to lift them into the compartment in the wings.

While the ordnance crews were rearming the planes, the “mechs,” aviation machinist mates who were in charge of the engines and mechanical functions of the aircrafts, normally would have been refueling. Not this time. We were informed that with fires still threatening our gasoline supply, refueling was impossible. The aircraft were respotted on the after end of the flight deck, ready whenever gasoline was available.

I later learned that another tragic incident occurred that afternoon–a young crewman; assigned to help pass ammunition on one of the 5-inch guns on the port side, the side which was the focus of the torpedo attack, had panicked at the sight of those deadly white trails in the water heading directly for his station. Mesmerized by the sight, he froze, unable to move. When the gun captain in charge yelled, to shake him out of his stupor, the young man, his eyes glazed with terror, took a look at the gun and the approaching torpedo trail and then ran to the rail and jumped overboard. His body hit the water at the same instant the torpedo hit the ship. He must have been killed instantly in the explosion.

Had he stayed at his station, would he have lived? Many lived and many died that day. Fate is the one who called the shots. This was just another tragic incident in that senseless drama called war.

The galley had been put out of commission by the armor-piercing bomb that had done so much damage. The cooks were unable to prepare a hot meal, but they managed to secure a good supply of baloney and the bread to make sandwiches. Somehow they managed to make coffee, so that he hungry crew, officers and men alike, had their lunch at their battle station. We of the air department gathered around our planes and waited.

Our battle aboard the ‘`Lady Lex” was not yet over. The damage-control crews fighting fires in the forward part of the ship were, in fact, fighting a losing battle. Without the water pressure needed for our fire hoses, it was impossible to prevent the fires from spreading. Fire extinguishers were just not enough. However, because of the need to land our aircraft and get away from the area as fast as possible, it had been impossible to bring another ship alongside to give us the necessary fire-fighting assistance.

Lexington, which was built in the late 1920s, had a lot of the “Old Navy” habits–paint, something of an institution in the Navy, was a never-ending project. To keep the crew busy and out of mischief, it seemed, the brass had decided to paint the ship from stem to stern and when that was finished to do it over again. Coat after coat of the best oil-base enamel, thinned with turpentine, had been applied to her bulkheads and overheads. Great to look at, it sparkled at captain’s inspections, but it was flammable, every ingredient was flammable. The decks were covered with battleship linoleum, the ultimate in floor coverings. But it, too, was flammable.

Slowly the fire worked its way aft. A compartment would be afire and it would be sealed off; however, in a few minutes the bulkhead of the next compartment would start to blister. Without the water needed to cool that bulkhead, within moments it would burst into flames. On and on it went. We on the flight deck were not aware of the problems the fire-fighting members of the damage-control part were experiencing. We were getting some reports, but were unaware of the seriousness of the situation. We had other worries–could we get enough gasoline to somehow get our precious aircraft aloft and on to another, less hazardous landing site?

I was on the flight deck next to the elevator. The flight deck was full of aircraft, and there was even a dive bomber parked on the elevator. I do not know why it was parked there. Perhaps the flight-deck crew felt that we were not going to use it anyway. Nearby was a group of pilots discussing the possibility of taking off and flying the aircraft to Australia. We in the Coral Sea were not too far away, probably a few hundred miles. But it was beginning to look more and more as if we could not again refuel our aircraft.

I went over to the plane to check its compass. Its wing was lower to the deck than the F4F’s I was used to, and I was just about ready to hop up on the wing to look in the cockpit and check the compass when a huge explosion occurred below decks. The elevator seemed to jump several feet. Since I was standing on it at the time, it seemed to me that it had jumped a mile. I skittered under the wing of the plane, a reflex action, I am sure. It probably would not have mattered where I was if it had really been my time. The explosion was the beginning of the end.”

After that, Captain Frederick Sherman decided we were far enough from the Japanese to heave to and have one of the destroyers turn its water pumps on us to help us to stay the spread of the fire. This was midafternoon of the 600th day I had been a member of the crew of USS Lexington. We were able to transfer several of the wounded to the destroyer that so valiantly was trying to stem the advancing flames.

It was a traumatic time for us on the Lex. We knew if we were able to stop the spread of the fire we could make it. However, there also was the specter of 24 torpedo warheads that we had stored in the torpedo shop at the rear end of the hangar deck.

The scene on the flight deck, meanwhile, was a drama all its own. The aircrews had seen that their chances of takeoff were between zero and none and were resignedly waiting. Captain Sherman had determined that the Japanese did not know of the mortal damage Lexington had received. His strategy in the country’s interest was to keep it that way, so we broke away from the futile efforts of the destroyer gallantly trying to help us stem the spreading fires. We picked up speed and continued the charade, steaming at about 25 knots, losing oil all the way, but to all appearances a viable, fighting, first-line aircraft carrier.

Because of the situation below decks, we had not had an opportunity to return to our compartments to retrieve any personal belongings. What we had on our bodies or in our pockets as we dressed that morning was what we would take with us. We were about to abandon the ship! It had become not a matter of if, but a matter of when. The captain had decided that under the circumstances saving the ship was impossible.

The flight deck–at least the after port side where I was waiting–was fairly quiet. Men spoke softly to each other, each trying to buck up the courage of the other. Some were quietly sobbing, others praying and some others just sitting there deep in their own private thoughts. I recall thinking at the time what a stupid way war was of solving the world’s problems. It started back in the Stone Age when they used to go at each other with sticks or rocks. As the years went by, the weapon became more and more lethal and sophisticated, and here we were in the 20th century still at it–with weapons bigger and bigger. It had not and would not solve the world’s problems, but still it continues. I still think it is stupid!

One of the greatest tragedies of the fire was that it had sealed off the exits of many of the magazines and other spaces below the waterline that could have been flooded. By now, there was no way the crews manning those spaces could get out. Our gun crews were in telephone communication with their shipmates below, and I am sure that one of the hardest things the men on the telephones ever had to do was to keep from breaking down and adding to the horror of the trapped men. Preserving a sense of hope when there was none was too large a burden to put on such young shoulders!

And now, the decision had been made. Captain Sherman ordered the engines stopped and advised all hands to prepare to abandon ship. Orders were given to lower the life rafts. Those from the starboard side were brought over to port since the Lex was by this time listing quite badly. The port edge of the flight deck, normally about 80 feet above water, was only 30 or 40 feet above the sea. Lines were provided by the deck gang, with knots every two feet or so to prevent our hands from slipping. When not used to climbing down a rope, it is easy to slip and badly burn the hands.

All of the boats from the ship soon had been lowered. The other ships of our task force also put boats in the water and were positioned close by to render assistance.

Lexington was by now constantly being racked by internal explosions, probably by exploding ready rooms, and ammunition stored above the waterline. However, the big danger, the one that could absolutely doom Lexington, were those torpedo warheads in the torpedo shop–still okay, but barely so.

With all the preparations that had been made, thank God, we had the time for an orderly abandonment. Captain Sherman, so we were told, had the torpedo gunner, the warrant officer in charge of the torpedo shop, make one last check. When he reported that the warheads were too hot to hold his hand on them, the captain acted–it was time to abandon ship.

The evacuation was as orderly as was possible under those conditions. The flight crews had taken all the flotation gear out of their aircraft and with that on their backs climbed down the lines. When they hit the water they had their own little rubber rafts. The remainder of us, after carefully removing our shoes. . . and I was amused to notice that the waterway at the edge of the deck was neatly lined with shoes, most with a blackout flashlight tucked in them, exactly the way we normally stowed them under our bunks so that we would know just where they were in the dark. Habits are hard to break. And now, the sight of those shoes provided a comic relief to the tragic event taking place.

I took my place in line and down I went. The temperature of the water was quite mild, almost pleasant. Soon after hitting the water, I started swimming toward a life raft about 50 feet away. We all had life jackets on, of course, and although they were bulky and not conducive to swimming, we were only too glad to have them. I reached the life raft and hung on to the side; I did not try to get aboard. There was still enough room, but I had always been a good swimmer and thought I would wait to make my move.

From my vantage point as we drifted away from Lexington, I was able to see the lines of men coming down the ropes and the smoke pouring from the many uncontrolled fires.

The sun was getting low on the horizon and we knew that the sooner we would make our way to a rescue ship the better. The ships circling around, well away from the men in the water, were careful not to get too close because of the danger of their propellers to the swimming men and rafts. I saw that a cruiser, with cargo nets hanging from her side to provide a means for the men swimming to get aboard, was very slowly approaching our area. I slipped out of my life jacket and, using my fastest overhand swimming stroke, headed for it. Luckily, I timed it just right and got alongside just about amidships. I grabbed the cargo net and started to climb up.

Aboard and alive, I wrapped myself in a blanket one of the crewmen handed me and sank down on the deck to rest. Another kind soul brought me a cup of coffee and gave me a cigarette, both of which I sorely needed. It was 7:30 p.m. I had been in the water one hour and 40 minutes. My watch had stopped. It was not waterproof and must have stopped running shortly after I landed in the water.

The rescue was proceeding as quickly as possible because of the approaching darkness. We had a good look at Lexington. She was about a half-mile away, and we were gratified to see that most survivors in the water were well clear by this time, although there were still many not yet aboard a rescue vessel.

Then it happened! The final blow was delivered by one of our own, the US. destroyer Phelps, with torpedoes again. The after end of Lexington’s flight deck disappeared in a huge cloud of smoke. The heavy cloud of smoke gave way to raging flames, and as dusk diminished the details, the ship was silhouetted in a rim of fire, and from each doorway, hatch or open space came the terrible sight of blazing aircraft gasoline. Our beloved Lady Lex was meeting her end, and forever afterward, the men who had been privileged to serve on her, the lucky ones, the ones who swam away, would always remember that it was the Lexington that had led this valiant Pacific Fleet in its first major battle since Pearl Harbor–not an overwhelming victory, but not another defeat by the Japanese, either. The tide was now turning.

For further reading, please try: Eagle Against The Sun, by Ronald Spector; The Longest Battle: The War At Sea, 1939-45, by Richard Hough; and The First South Pacific Campaign, by John B. Lundstrom.