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Vincennes was an imposing sight when I first saw it tied alongside a pier in the New York Naval Shipyard on January 6, 1942. The heavy cruiser had just arrived with gold shipped from the Bank of South Africa—lest the Nazis capture it. I had received my orders to report to the ship upon my graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy two weeks before. New to the fleet and expecting to serve on a ship ready for war, what I experienced on Vincennes would illustrate that I was not the only one who had a lot to learn about fighting a war against one of the most experienced navies in the world.

After reporting for duty, I began to learn my way around and in particular acquaint myself with the 1.1-inch anti-aircraft guns I would be in charge of, as well as other new installations. One of my explorations took me to the vicinity of the mainmast, where I noticed that yard workmen were running copper tubing up the mast, which was very puzzling. What little ship construction and damage control we had been taught at the Naval Academy stated that copper tubing was for salt water distribution or potable water; neither function seemed to apply in the mainmast.

Later I learned that the tubing was actually a wave guide run for the hush-hush radar equipment. The secrecy that surrounded radar was later to lead to its misuse and the consequent failure to detect a Japanese force that would bring Vincennes’ combat career to a fiery end.

With the overhaul completed we got underway for our shakedown cruise off South America on March 4, followed by a trip through the Panama Canal a week later. As the water in the canal locks was lowered, the ship’s deck came level with the dockside, which enabled the transfer of every type of animal or beverage from dockside to the ship. For many days thereafter, we had strange creatures running and flying around the ship, and junior officers like myself busily engaged in shooing them off.

Next we proceeded to Mare Island Shipyard, where further repairs were made before we anchored in San Francisco Bay. Soon after our arrival everything was ready for us to go to war. On the morning of our scheduled departure on April 2, we were enveloped in a thick fog. The aircraft carrier Hornet came close aboard and we could see the array of large twin-engine aircraft on its flight deck, which we assumed was for delivery to Clark Field in the Philippines.

We fell into formation astern Hornet and headed west. As we sailed along, it was decided to launch one of our Curtiss SOC (Scout, observation, Curtiss) floatplanes for training. I had been assigned as a catapult officer and had made several dummy shots, so I had a little experience with the necessary procedure. The aircraft was hoisted to the catapult and secured to the cradle. The pilot, though recently trained, had not yet made a catapult launch. On command, I launched him—a beautiful shot that led to a graceful water landing. The pilot had forgotten to put his flaps down, and did not have adequate lift for flight.

The ship circled and recovered the plane, an exercise that was deemed useful for training in hoisting aircraft onto the high catapults. The engine and instruments were salvaged and the fabric stripped from the frame. Later, when practicing hoisting the plane, we received a frantic message from our flagship: “Do not launch that aircraft! It appears unsafe!”

A few days later we joined another group of ships, including the carrier Enterprise. It was then that we learned that the aircraft we had seen on Hornet were not intended for Clark Field, but were B-25 bombers that were to be launched against Tokyo itself.

We refueled the cruisers and carriers to maximum capacity and headed for a launch point about 400 miles from Tokyo. Along the way we encountered a cluster of Japanese fishing boats about 600 miles from the Japanese capital and correctly assumed that our presence had been reported. Fortunately, Japanese bureaucracy was as inefficient as ours, and the message was not acted upon quickly.

The new light cruiser Nashville commenced firing on the largest fishing boat at very short range, which resulted in a nearly flat trajectory. The seas were so large that on a crest Nashville was shooting over the fisherman, and on a trough it was firing into the water below it.

Hornet soon commenced launching Major James H. Doolittle’s aircraft. I was not aware of the surface effect—extra lift created by the compressed cushion of air in very low flight—so the B-25’s takeoff began with the bomber dropping to just a few feet above the water. The whole thing seemed like a disaster in the making. You could almost hear the sigh of relief when the last plane had launched and they had all picked up speed and climbed to altitude and were on course for Tokyo.

After the launch, Task Force 18 turned about and headed back to Pearl Harbor, arriving on April 25. We had just five days in port before being ordered to sea again. We were headed toward the Coral Sea but arrived too late to take part in the battle. It was then back to Pearl, which we reached on May 26. Again our stay was short, departing for Midway on the 29th.

During the subsequent battle, I discovered that our anti-aircraft weapons were not as effective as they should have been. The principal anti-aircraft weapon of the day was the 5-inch/25-caliber or 5-inch/38-caliber. The projectile had a nose fuze that was set mechanically by ranges sent down from the optical range finder. The projectile was then lifted from the fuze setter and manually loaded into the breech of the gun. This system was no match for an enemy aircraft diving on a carrier; it was basically useless. We were able to knock a Kate (Nakajima B5N2) torpedo bomber into the sea, but our actions during that epic battle were largely confined to dodging torpedoes and helping our sister ship Astoria protect Yorktown until the carrier was torpedoed.

After Midway we refitted and repaired, and on July 14 left to rendezvous with American ships participating in the Guadalcanal landings. Great emphasis was placed on secrecy of the task force’s movement, so when we detected a Japanese patrol aircraft coming over the horizon we headed at high speed for a large rainstorm for concealment before the size of our force could be observed.

As we steamed along, someone concluded that the crew’s prewar standard uniform of white T-shirt and dungarees was highly visible to search aircraft. An immediate order was issued that all T-shirts should be dyed a dark color, but the only “dye” we had on board was mess hall coffee. So into the coffee pots went the T-shirts, and out came a variety of colors and patterns—most a sorry mess, but supposedly we were less visible. We entered the channel off Guadalcanal on August 7, just as day was breaking. It looked like a peaceful tropical setting until the cruisers began shore bombardment as a preface to the Marines’ landing.

The first Japanese attack was by high-altitude bombers. That was followed by a wave of twin-engine torpedo-launching Bettys (Mitsubishi G4M1s). As they came in, the ships fired the 8-inch guns for effect, with some success. The 5-inch anti-aircraft guns also scored, but did not knock down all the attackers. One flew directly astern at very close range. The main battery firing had jarred loose the ammunition clips in my 1.1 AA mount, so it was useless. All I could do was watch helplessly as the Betty lost altitude and crashed. Afterward the bullet marks on the superstructure behind me showed that the Betty’s gunner was aiming for me.

Late in the afternoon, all officers not on watch were summoned to the wardroom. The exec told us that coast watchers had spotted a Japanese task force headed for us at high speed. However, Naval Intelligence had advised that the Japanese ships did not have sufficient fuel capacity to continue at the reported speed, and would have to slow. Their arrival was estimated at about 1100 the next morning.

That night we formed up with Quincy and Astoria, repeatedly steaming a square in Guadalcanal Sound just off Savo Island. Destroyer pickets were put farther up the slot to intercept Japanese forces, but the lack of training in radar returns made them ineffective.

I went on watch at midnight as the watch officer for the 1.1-inch AA battery. At about 0200 hours, a small, single-engine aircraft showing blue flames from its exhausts flew directly overhead at slow speed. I reported it to the bridge and was told that the captain, Frederick Lois Riefkohl, had decreed that it was friendly. That conclusion was incredible considering there was no friendly airfield from which it could have come, and our one carrier had withdrawn a long way. The overflight by the aircraft did not even trigger General Quarters; we remained with only half the guns manned. The decision reflected years of peacetime conditioning to not take any risks, and the intelligence estimate we had of a late-morning as opposed to such an early arrival by the Japanese.

The Japanese aircraft had ideal conditions for observation. The night was clear, the water highly phosphorescent so our wakes were easily seen, and the pilot had plenty of time to look as we steamed the same square repeatedly.

My watch station was in machine-gun control in the mainmast structure. At one point, a searchlight illuminated us and I shouted: “Turn off that damn light! The Japanese will see us!” Just then the general alarm went off throughout the ship, including a unit right at my station. The deafening racket from the persistent alarm made it impossible to hear any reports from the gun crews or to ask any questions over the sound-powered phone system.

My division officer relieved me, and I started for my General Quarters station with the two 1.1 mounts on the fantail. If I went down to the main deck I had to go through the hangar, which was pitch dark and full of equipment to fall over. I chose to go across the boat deck, which was slippery with oil leaking from the boat cranes. The ship had gone to full speed and was making radical turns. Each turn slid me across the deck, until finally I reached the after end and the ladder leading to the fantail.

We had taken numerous gunfire hits by this time from a powerful enemy force of six cruisers and one destroyer. One of the hits had set our observation planes on fire and illuminated the ship, which made us an easier target. Astoria and Quincy had experienced similar hits and they too were now blazing.

We were next hit by torpedoes, causing loss of power. By the time I reached the fantail, we were dead in the water and beginning to list to starboard. Someone yelled at me that the order had been given to abandon ship. I did not realize how badly the ship had been damaged and was reluctant to believe the order. A sudden roll to starboard convinced me, and I jumped into the water.

I was wearing an issue .45 pistol, which dragged me down. I started to unbuckle it but hesitated, remembering the procedure that dictated I keep it. In a flash I forgot all that and let the pistol sink to the bottom by itself. I joined other survivors, including several wounded who were put in a life boat. It was around 0230 and within 20 minutes my first ship rolled over and sank. Worried that the blood would draw sharks, we did not have much of an opportunity to ponder Vincennes’ fate. Fortunately, the gunfire and torpedo explosions seemed to have driven any sharks away. Our next concern was that we were drifting toward Savo Island, which we knew was held by the enemy.

About dawn, the destroyer Mugford approached and began recovering survivors. Almost as soon as it reached us, however, it dashed off to drop depth charges. Eventually, the destroyer returned and put over cargo nets that enabled the crew members and Vincennes survivors to boost the wounded to the deck and then climb up themselves. It was a terrible sight to see the wounded sitting propped up against the deckhouse or sprawled on deck. Some died as you looked at them; others moaned in pain; many just suffered and waited for the overwhelmed hospital corpsmen to get to them.

Mugford then went alongside the troop transport Barnett, which had brought Marines in for the invasion. Even with Barnett’s facilities, the ship was very crowded with its load of survivors from the four cruisers that had been sunk the night before. I was appalled at the crowded conditions in sick bay when I checked on some of our crew.

Many of the survivors were immediately ordered to other ships in the Pacific and transferred by any available vessels. Barnett went into Noumea to refuel and provision. The captain’s yeoman was swamped with demands for immediate typed copies of the action reports required from each survivor able to write one. After finishing my own report, I had nothing to do, so I volunteered to type drafts of the handwritten reports. That expedited the final typing, and gave me a chance to learn about what had happened elsewhere on my ship.

The light I had seen on the morning of August 9, 1942, was from Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa’s advancing fleet of cruisers, which had already pummeled the Australian cruiser Canberra and USS Chicago. Just after lighting us up, a Japanese salvo struck the ship with a barrage of shells. It was this salvo that had ignited our aircraft. Lit up in the darkness, we continued to be struck by enemy shells and were then hit by Japanese torpedoes, which knocked out steering control and left us dead in the water. Our ship went down at 0250. It had not been an auspicious combat debut, but at least I survived.

I did not remain an “ensign typist” for long. Already jittery from the losses suffered at Savo, someone suggested that a Japanese submarine might penetrate the channel leading into Noumea. A night patrol was established to prevent such an occurrence. The “fleet” that was gathered for this operation consisted of two tired LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle, personnel), each with several depth charges and a boat crew drawn from the survivors on Barnett.

The channel was not deep enough for a submerged submarine, so the depth charges were more of a threat to the boat crew than the enemy. There seemed to be perpetual cloud cover in the area and the channel was pitch-black. The great challenge occurred when it was time for the standby boat to relieve the duty boat at the channel mouth. It was not possible to see your hand in front of your face; channel navigation was by the feeble phosphorescence of the waves lapping the water’s edge. A collision between the duty boat and the relief boat was a distinct possibility. Frequent stops to listen for shouts or engine noise were our only means of a successful encounter.

Somehow I survived this duty without incident and eventually made it back to Pearl Harbor with the rest of Vincennes’ survivors. We were greeted by Admiral Chester Nimitz, who made the best of the disaster at Savo by giving us a warm greeting. At the end of his speech he ordered all the junior officers to report at once for submarine physicals, as there was a desperate shortage of officers to man the new boats coming into the fleet. I did not qualify, so I went on to a new heavy cruiser under construction in Boston, and in a few months went back to the Pacific a wiser and more experienced officer.


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here