The following story was recorded in 1994, from Bill Henderson's book "Escape From The Sea".
For information on Bill's book click HERE
John Lewis Chew, Vadm. USN Ret., Born Sept. 22, 1909. Died May 17, 1999.
SOPA Vella Lavella
We steamed to the south of the New Georgia Islands all day on July 6, 1943, and had some much needed rest after recent engagements with the Japs. In fact, I went so far as to shave. This I feel I never should have done, for in so doing I broke one of the rules of my superstitious ritual on board ship, which was never to shave before going into battle. I believe the average sailor is superstitious. I know that I am, I had a set routine which I went through every day. I wore a pair of old brown shoes to which I had become particularly attached. I always wore a flash-proof jumper which I had had on at Pearl Harbor. I thought it would bring me good luck and would not consent to its being washed in spite of the unpleasant odor which it had developed. I was never without the ordinary hunting knife which my wife had sent me. I carried my wallet which contained the usual odds and ends together with my wife's picture and the picture of my daughter. It also contained a four-leaf clover, which my wife's mother had sent me from California. Before going into battle, I always gave my wife's picture a husbandly peck.
Late in the afternoon word came that the "Tokyo Express," a variable force ranging from two or three destroyers to several destroyers and one or more cruisers, was on its way again down the "Slot." This was the V-shaped landlocked body of water extending from Bougainville to Guadalcanal and Tulagi. We were ordered forthwith to turn around and go up to meet the Japs. We had not had enough rest, for it was difficult to sleep in the daytime because of the heat. It cooled off very little on shipboard until three o'clock in the morning. The steel plates retained the tropical heat of the day that long, and made it almost unbearably hot below decks 24 hours a day.
To return a moment to the subject of superstition, I was for once in my life not completely afraid this time on the eve of battle. To say that I was not without fear would be a gross exaggeration, but comparatively speaking, this time I was going into action with little apprehension. Previously we had always been pessimistic as to the outcome of our bouts with the Japs. This time I thought we had everything to our advantage. We had an experienced, strong task force and we were just going to lick hell out of them. We had also come to regard the Helena as a lucky ship. The number thirteen had appeared with an amazing frequency in the affairs of this ship and her task force. Our ship's doctor, Commander Ivan King, (M.C.), U. S. Navy, an amateur numerologist, worked out a long list of examples of this, most of which I have forgotten. In the battle of November 13, the previous year, we had in our force thirteen ships, and the last destroyer had the number 445, the sum of which amounts to thirteen. Besides she was named after a man whose middle name was Friday, Frank Friday Fletcher, and she had thirteen officers on board. We opened fire in that battle at 0148, also making the sum of thirteen. Up to our last battle, we had had a total of two surface engagements, four air attacks, and six bombardments. One more would be, we thought, the lucky thirteenth. So we confidently steamed into the night ready to meet the enemy.
We picked up the Japs about 0157, making the sum of our lucky thirteen again. But this number was soon to cease being our ship's talisman, though the luck of some of us was to continue after the Helena was hit by three torpedoes from Jap destroyers. The noise of the battle was deafening enough, but the shock from the explosions of the torpedoes was terrific. As assistant Gunnery Officer, I was in charge of the anti-aircraft batteries. I was at my station, and was thrown against the overhead, but was not injured because of my steel helmet. There were numerous instances of men having their teeth knocked out and of broken bones and bruises and cuts. A column of water, possibly 150 feet high, went up over the bridge. One of the men thought we were sinking, because the water came into the top hatch. I was stationed just behind the bridge about amidships. After the noise of battle and the subsequent explosions of the torpedoes subsided, the silence which followed was something I shall never forget.
Most of us immediately realized that the ship was done for. I was ordered to get the life rafts off the forecastle. Fortunately there was no fire, and as far as I know there were no explosions of any sort following the torpedo hits. With the power gone, it became pitch black. Most of us carried little emergency flashlights with us, but we did not want to make too much light for somebody might take another shot at us. There was very little confusion on board. We had a complement of well over 1,000 men, of whom we lost eight officers 186 enlisted men and four Marines. I had no trouble getting the life rafts in the water, but I failed to secure one for myself. The ship's organization provided for each officer to look after a certain group of men, but when a ship is sinking you make out the best you can. Everyone had on his life jacket, which was always worn night and day. Some of us had on both the jacket and a life belt.
We were always rigged for abandoning ship. Nets were lashed to the sides which we could cut away and then use for climbing down into the water. I climbed down one of these nets to within a foot or two of the water and just let go. I remember well my sensations upon getting into the water. It was as if I were getting into a tepid bath. My watch stopped, I found out afterwards, at 0225. I had somewhat mixed feelings after I left the ship. Everything was quiet around me. The rest of our ships had passed us in the pursuit of the laps. The Helena was sinking rapidly, but she gave us plenty of time. I think we were in the water ten or fifteen minutes before she went down. She was a lady to the last.
A group of about 75 men collected around me. We swam about trying to keep together, in the hope of being picked up by one of our destroyers. That night in the water most of us were violently nauseated. The oil, which covered the water rather extensively thereabouts, combined with the choppy seas, probably caused this sickness. I had a beautiful handle-bar mustache, which turned out to be a great handicap.
It became completely saturated with oil after I got into the water. Every time I breathed I got the smell of that oil. I will never wear another mustache. Several of our officers had them. Lieutenant Richard Lull Cochrane had a fiery red one, which he always claimed was longer than mine, but I was sure that mine was at least more bushy. Very few had full beards. They were too uncomfortable in the heat of the tropics.
There were no rafts in our group, and very little wreckage floating around that the men could take hold of Besides it was very dark; this made it difficult to see anything on the water. Strangely, the next day I saw a letter floating on the water, which had been written to the Gunnery Officer. I remember having seen only one piece of wood. We had removed all wooden articles on board the ship before the battle. There was practically nothing left on the Helena that would float except the rafts. If we had had a line, it would have been of great aid to use in keeping our group together. As it turned out, men were continually drifting away from the group, and Lieutenant Commander Warren Boles repeatedly swam out to find them and bring them back. We doubtless lost several men that way during the first night. Of course, some of them had been injured and others were suffering from shock, but on the whole most of us were in fairly good shape. We sang some songs, such as "Hail! Hail! the Gang's All Here," to keep up our spirits.
I tried to signal one of the destroyers with my emergency flashlight, which continued to work for several hours after the sinking of our ship. Some destroyers came by us, but, after we had signaled and been discovered, the destroyer would be a mile or so beyond us. There being men scattered all about, they simply picked up those nearest to them. In fact, one destroyer nearly ran us down in the darkness. Rescuing survivors in enemy waters is a particularly hazardous undertaking, and our destroyers did a magnificent job in picking up as many as they did. As always, there was danger of enemy submarines, and in addition there were still enemy surface vessels in that area. Indeed, during the rescue operations it was necessary to delay picking up survivors in order to engage additional enemy ships.
Early the next morning, I found it difficult to see because of the oil that had gotten into my eyes. It was similar to the sensation of having soap in one's eyes-which one was unable to remove. About dawn we sighted a ship. She was an injured Japanese destroyer which had hidden in the lee of an island and was attempting to make a get-away. Our destroyers discovered her, and we soon found ourselves in the middle of a battle with the projectiles flying over us. We did what we had been instructed to do when underwater explosions occurred; we lay on our backs and crossed our legs to keep from being injured internally. One of our destroyers went past us at high speed, but could not pick us up. Finally the Japanese destroyer was hit and began to smoke furiously. We could not see very well from the surface.
Then in the early morning light, to our astonishment, we discovered that the bow of the Helena was still floating. I left my group and swam over to it. There were a few men hanging on to it, and some were even on top of it. This floating remnant of the ship was about 50 feet long, and its deck stood about 20 feet above the water. I was too nearly exhausted to pull myself upon it. There were some chains attached to it, and I was able to hang on to one of these and get some much needed rest. I concluded that, if we were sighted at all from the air, the floating bow would be the first object to be seen. And so it happened. About ten o'clock a Liberator flew over us and dropped three rubber boats. One sank, but we recovered the other two. There were no supplies nor medicines with the boats, but fortunately all our officers, medical corpsmen, and pharmacist mates always carried with them morphine surrettes or hypodermic needles for emergency relief in case of injury. These were to be of use to us. The rubber boats, unfortunately, were large enough to hold only about four men comfortably. By that time all the members of our group had swum to the vicinity of the floating bow. They had been reduced to about 50 in number. We had one man with a broken leg, and another with two broken arms and two broken legs. Chaplain H.J.R. Wheaton was suffering severely from shock. He had been in the lower part of the ship when she was hit and had managed to get out through an escape hatch. Another man was suffering severely from cramps, possibly caused by shock. We placed our sick and injured men in the rubber boats.
I began to realize that the floating bow, instead of being a place of refuge for us, might turn out to be the opposite. Jap planes were likely to come along soon, and either bomb or strafe us. In fact, a few came over us later, and one actually fired a burst in the water. Why they did not fire into us I shall never know. Perhaps they could not tell us from Japanese survivors because we were black with oil which completely covered us. I decided to get away as soon as possible, and try to reach the island of Kolombangara, which was only about 8 or 9 miles distant, I thought. I had previously studied the charts of that area, and knew that the island was occupied by the Japanese; but I hoped that we might land at night and then eventually make our way to our forces on New Georgia.
The two rubber boats were tied together with a line. With our sick and wounded placed in them we pushed off from the floating bow about eleven o'clock in the morning. I understand that it sank later that afternoon. All that day we slowly made our way toward Kolombangara. We had had no food nor water to drink since we left our ship. The ship's rafts had food, water, and medical supplies; but the rubber boats had none of these. We developed a system, according to which each man had his turn at resting on one of the boats. With the number of men we had, this amounted to only about ten minutes of rest to about two hours in the water. As one of our men who had been taking his turn on a boat slid over the side to begin swimming again, his knife caught on the boat and cut a hole in the rubber. We all thought this was indeed the end. But providentially there was a pump and a patching outfit in the boat; so with these we proceeded to try to stop the leak. This repairing outfit was practically the same as that used in mending an automobile inner tube. It included a patch and a tube of cement. We took turns with our knives, our teeth, and our fingernails at trying to get the cover off the patch, but it would not budge. In the meantime the air was leaking out; the boat had partially sunk and was rapidly filling with water. In our desperation we placed the patch over the hole with the cover still on, plastered the cut with cement, and pumped up the boat. Lo and behold, the raft held. We all heaved a sigh of relief. Suddenly, one of the men cried, "There goes the patch!" It just floated away. I think some of us offered a few prayers, then to our amazement the boat did not sink. What must have happened was that the hole in the inner tube and the hole in the casing became displaced in such a way as to seal up the cut and prevent the boat from leaking. After that, we did not have any more trouble with it. Incidentally, that night we said the Lord's Prayer as best we could all together. During the second night we tried to make Kolombangara. We could see the outline of the island in the dark, and the next morning it was quite clear to us. It is almost circular and has a mountain rising from its center, about 6,500 feet high. Its great height no doubt led us to misjudge our distance from it the previous day. Not only was the island held by the Japanese, but we learned later that it was their main base in the New Georgia group. Since we had a good breeze blowing up the "Slot" that morning, I decided to try to reach Vella Lavella. I knew this island was also occupied by the Japs, but I thought there might be fewer of them there and our chances of survival better than on Kolombangara.
'With each boat was a couple of poles intended to be used as paddles. We lashed two of them together in the form of a crosstree, and improvised sails by taking off our shirts and tying them by the sleeves to the poles. By that time the men had become greatly discouraged because they had been in the water more than 24 hours without any food or drink. The Helena sank about 0230 on Tuesday morning and it was now daylight on Wednesday. Our number had been further reduced. The man with the two broken arms and two broken legs had died the preceding day, and several more had drifted away and been lost during the night. One man died of shock or cramps, quite unexpectedly to me, just after he had been given a rest in one of the boats and was getting into the water again.
When we got under way on the new course toward Vella Lavella under a good breeze, the spirits of the men rose and they seemed more hopeful. The boats were no longer tied together. One seemed to make a little better time than the other, and I told Lieutenant (7G.) J. B. Anderson, who was in charge of that boat, to go ahead and try to make the island. That morning a crate of potatoes floated near us. We opened it and ate the potatoes raw, after considerable discussion as to their probable effects on us. Some of the men were refreshed by the water they contained. But the only effect on me was that they made me sick. Strangely enough, on the second day I was not thirsty, and I did not hear any of the men speak of wanting water. Possibly, as a doctor suggested later to me, some water had been absorbed into our systems, particularly through the wrists. Few of us had been out of the water for more than very short periods.
For some time Vella Lavella had been clearly visible in the far distance; but we found it impossible to reach the island on Wednesday evening and were forced to spend another night in the water. By Thursday morning, most of us were getting near the point of exhaustion. I thought the island was then only 2 miles distant from us. That was a mistake, for it turned out to be 6 or 7 miles away. To us in the water it looked like a very desirable place to reach. Beyond its beaches could be seen the green jungles reaching to mountains about 2,500 feet in height. The island, I afterwards estimated, was approximately 25 miles from the place where we last saw the floating bow of the Helena. I decided early Thursday morning that I ought to try to swim to the island where I might possibly get aid from the natives in rescuing my men. I asked if anyone would like to try to make the attempt with me. Lieutenant Commander Boles and T. E. Blahnik Boatswain's Mate Second Class, agreed to join me. Boles was a typical New Englander, who took things in stride; he was a very strong man and an excellent swimmer.
We still had on most of our clothing, though by that time it was completely oil-soaked. The water near the floating bow had been free of oil, but we repeatedly were running into large quantities of it. I remember swimming through one patch, late Thursday afternoon, 200 or 300 yards wide. It was this oil and not the sharks that caused most of our trouble. But probably it protected us from the sharks. It is possible they do not like their food served with a heavy oil dressing. I saw some of them, and our marine officer, Major B. F. Kelly, had a shark take a nibble at his foot. Somehow, after we had been in the water for many hours, we did not seem to give much thought to the sharks. I think our uppermost thought was how to get our boats to land. Of course, we thought of food too; and we worried about our families and what they would think if we were reported missing.
Lieutenant Commander Boles, Blahnik, and I started swimming toward Vella Lavella about six or seven o'clock that Thursday morning. I had by that time discarded my life jacket. It was very heavy with oil and water, and had but little buoyancy left. By adjusting my life belt around my chest I could rest much more comfortably and swim more easily. I swam breast stroke, as did the other men. The men around the boats just paddled along, though some of them varied their swimming by using the side stroke, or an occasional dog paddle. It turned out to be a long, long swim for the three of us. Sometimes I must have been only half awake, as I found myself more than once swimming in the wrong direction. I began to have hallucinations, or perhaps I was dreaming. Repeatedly I thought I was to meet a man who was to take me to a cocktail party at the Residency. I had heard that name applied to a British Government House somewhere. I even found myself diving and swimming under water to meet this man. Blahnik, later, told me that he had a similar experience. He said that he was swimming under water to meet a man who, he thought, was going to rent him a bunk for two bits. A part of the time during this long swim I must have been completely out
of my mind. We swam on and on and on until about four in the afternoon-approximately ten hours. And we had thought we were practically exhausted when we started!
As we approached the island in the later afternoon, I saw a canoe coming out from the beach with two natives in it. They took one look at me when they came alongside, examined my identification tag, and asked, "You Melican?"
I replied, "you betcha" And the next thing I remember I was on the beach, where I found that a few of our men had arrived already on some of the Helena's rafts. The next thing I recall, a native was giving me a drink of coconut milk from a shell. It tasted like the nectar of the Gods; it was wonderful. I had had no food nor drink since the sinking of our ship very early on Tuesday morning; it was then late Thursday afternoon about 62 hours later.
Meanwhile the natives in their canoes picked up our rubber boats and brought them with the other survivors to the beach. Boles and Blahnik had reached the island just ahead of me. After my drink of coconut milk, I found a pool of fresh water and went into it with my clothes on to try to wash off the oil.
Providentially we had landed on the beach opposite the side of the island where the Japanese garrison headquarters was located. Fortunately there were none of their patrols out at that time on the side of the island where we landed. It is remarkable that the Japs did not discover us as we swam toward the island that afternoon, but we were very small objects out at sea. Apparently the natives did not see us either until we were quite close to the beach.
When we were finally ready to leave the shore for a hideaway in the hills, a native asked me if I thought I could walk. I said, "Sure!" got to my feet, and immediately fell flat on my face. Then I was placed in one of the litters of copra bags and poles which had been made for those too weak to walk, and was carried up into the hills.
The natives took us about 2 1/2 miles from the beach. It was a pleasant excursion for those of us in the litters who were merely too weak to walk, but tough going for the others. First it was necessary to cross a thick swampy jungle, into which one sank up to the knees. Then we followed a very rough winding trail along the mountain side. The island had been occupied by the Japs for about a year and a half. When they first came, they killed 25 or 30 of the natives for no apparent reason. This wanton murder fostered a deep hatred of the Japs, and the natives abandoned their villages along the beach and sought relative safety in the hills. Before Vella Lavella was invaded, the natives supported themselves largely by raising coconuts and selling them to island traders. They are also fishermen, and most villagers had small garden plots. All these had to be abandoned when they retreated into the bush.
Fortunately for us these natives were not cannibals. They had been converted to Christianity by Protestant missionaries, Baptists from New Zealand, I believe. Their headquarters had been at Munda. They had translated the Bible into the native dialect, called Roviana. The language was not unpleasant to the ear, though it was somewhat guttural and the sound "mb" was frequently repeated. With us the natives talked Pidgin English, the general language of the South Seas. This is a mixture of English and the native tongue, or a very simplified native adaptation of English. Our friendly islanders were reasonably well civilized. They were having considerable trouble because of the Japanese invasion, for they had been dependent upon the inter-island steamers for salt and their supply had become exhausted. They had, in other respects also, been reduced to the barest essentials of primitive life.
The natives had a hard time moving our 104 exhausted men into the hills. They took us up to Tom's house, around which we established our camp. Tom was a Chinese, who became our strong defender. We found that there were about 35 Chinese on the island, who had been traders before the Japs came. They had fled to the hills along with the natives, probably in advance of them. Tom's cottage, which he placed at our disposal, looked like a typical summer vacation shack on Chesapeake Bay. It had a porch and a galvanized tin roof. There was only one room, in which was one large bed and another smaller one. On the porch was a cot. There were, of course, no modem conveniences, such as a kitchen and bathroom. But Tom had a table, a couple of chairs, one or two spoons, and, believe it or not, a clock, which had been made in Hong Kong, according to an inscription on its face. As far as I remember, we had only one watch among the survivors which was still running after being so long in the water. It was a self-winding wrist watch, and kept perfect time. We placed our three wounded and ill men on the beds. Nine or ten more men slept on the floor in the house and on the porch.
Adjacent to Tom's shack was a small native hut of a rather strange construction. It looked like a chicken house. The front was open, and it stood above the ground about 2 feet. One side was raised another foot or so. It had grass or rattan walls except in the front which was entirely open. There was also a sort of a little porch, directly behind which was a room completely closed off except for a door. Maybe this was for the women, who we learned were kept quite secluded by the men of the island. Strangely enough, we never saw one woman the entire time we were there on Vella Lavella. The native house, though it looked like an open front hen house, was very comfortable with floors of split bamboo or of similar material. In this house about 30 of our men slept on the floor. The natives have no chimneys for their houses, but build a fire inside the main room. The smoke goes out the door or through the cracks. We did not need any fire, even at night. It was just cool enough to make the cover of a burlap copra bag seem comfortable.
The natives came the next morning after our arrival, and hacked off some palm leaves with their knives, cut down some poles, lashed all these together with vines, and put up one half of a lean-to. Then they quietly went away. It looked as though they were members of some labor union with extremely limited hours for working. But the next day they returned and finished the job. Under this grass or thatched roof the rest of our men slept. These three strangely assorted buildings constituted our quarters while we remained on the island.
The only natives whom I learned by sight were the chief and two others, who were very helpful to us. I had no fear of the islanders, except a slight uneasy feeling when some of the older people were around, who I imagined eyed us as if they were wondering how well we might taste in a stew. Previous to 1912 when the missions were first established on the island, cannibalism had been practiced by the natives. Although very black, our islanders were the counterparts of some white people that I had seen. Of course their noses were flat and their hair was bushy, and one's imagination had to be stretched a bit to discover any likeness, still as our saviors they looked mighty good to us. We estimated that there were about 3,000 natives on the island. Vella Lavella is one of the Solomons which belong to the great mass of islands as Melanesia. The Gilberts, the Marshalls and the Carolines belong to the basic Micronesian group of islands. The Samoans belong to another large and more highly civilized group known as Polynesians. The latter are very hospitable, and as a mark of their hospitality turn over to a visiting dignitary a number of their women. But that was not the custom of our islanders. Besides, we were not exactly what might be called "visiting dignitaries."
Our food problem was one of our major difficulties. As the natives had given up their fanning plots and their coconut groves along the beach, they were short of food themselves; but they managed somehow to bring us potatoes, taro root, and tapioca from their meager supplies. The taro root looks like a big potato, but it has an indescribable taste unlike that of any other vegetable I have eaten. There are two varieties, one red and one white. We did not have a chance to taste individual vegetables much, for we collected all these strange foods and threw them into a big pot. This native pot, incidentally, looked just like the ones I had often seen in cartoons in which cannibals were roasting missionaries. Possibly it had served that purpose in years gone by; but when we fell heir to it, I think it had recently been used for boiling clothes. Our men who had escaped to the island on rafts brought some of our emergency rations. These included canned meat, somewhat like spam. One can of this was supposed to be enough for four men per day. But we had so little food that we issued only four cans a day for 104 men. This meat we threw into the pot with the other stuff, and made a kind of weak stew. For flavoring we had one small piece of rock salt which we found in Tom's cottage; but this did not last long. We found two or three kinds of aromatic leaves which we thought improved the stew a little. The natives also brought us papayas and bananas. This fruit, if ripe, we gave to our invalids. The green fruit we found we could eat when it was cooked; so this also went into the stew. With such limited food supplies, we could have but two meals a day, and only stew for each meal. The men used coconut shells as dishes, but we did not have enough of these to go around; so we ate in relays, but did not bother to wash the shells until after each meal. Most of the men still had their knives with which they made themselves wooden spoons.
We had one real feast on the island. There were some cattle in the hills, we were told; but they were wild and could not be secured without being shot. We were not strong enough to go cattle hunting, and besides, the Jap patrols were between us and the cattle. But some of the natives managed to kill a cow. They had difficulty in getting the meat to us because of the Japanese; but at last two groups of our friends got over the hills, each carrying a joint of beef in a sling made of palm leaves. We had no way of preserving this meat; so it all went into our pot, and we had a grand one-course banquet. There was one joint of meat that was exceptionally high. I inquired of J. L. Johnson, SI/c, our head cook, 'What do you think about it?"
He replied, "I don't think we had better take a chance on it." So we gave it a decent burial. But that night, B.G. Atkinson, MM2/c, a pleasant sort of fellow who had lived a very rough life as a miner in the Yukon, asked me what we had done with the piece of meat. After I told him, he said, "Give it to me and I'll fix it." I consented, and we disinterred the meat. He washed it off and cooked it for about two days, making the most delicious broth you ever put in your mouth. At least, that is how it tasted to half-starved men. After having this one good meal of beef, we all felt that life was really worth living.
Our water problem was quite simple. Tom had put galvanized iron gutters on his cottage, which conducted the rain water into a barrel. As it rained about three times a day, the barrel was always practically full. There was a stream at the foot of the hill below our encampment. As mayor of our town, I had made a law that only those who could carry a breaker filled with water back up the hill to camp would be permitted to go to the stream. Every one wanted to go down there to bathe, but I was somewhat afraid they might be discovered by the Jap patrols. These water breakers were wooden barrels with a tap on one end for drawing water. They had been brought to the island on the ship's rafts. When full of water, each weighed about 50 pounds. Very few of our men at that time were strong enough to carry that much weight up the hill, although the distance was but a mile and a half. I succeeded in doing it, but it took me fully a day and half to recover from the effort.
Very fortunately for us, five 25-pound cans of coffee washed up on the beach below our camp. This was a luxury which helped greatly to sustain the morale of our men, as we had no cigarettes nor chewing tobacco - a great deprivation. Tom had a book of Chinese cigarette papers in his cottage, and one day one of the men came up to me and said, "How about a cigarette paper, sir?"
I replied, "Fine, but what for?"
"Well," he said, "I am going to make a cigarette out of coffee. Would you like to try one?"
I excused myself by saying, "I have given up smoking for a while." So he made coffee cigarettes for himself. Later one of the natives brought us a twist of tobacco, which had been grown on the island. It was the strongest I had ever tasted and hardly suitable for cigarettes. The men, after trying it, decided to mix the tobacco half and half with the coffee. This was an entirely new blend, I assure you. They would smoke these cigarettes down to the point where they had to get a piece of straw with which to extract the last puff of smoke.
When we first arrived on the island, we were all suffering from an ailment known as "immersion ankles." These sores, which made walking very painful, were caused by our being so long in the water. After cleansing the open sores, the medical corpsmen treated them as well as they could with sulfa powder. We had some medical supplies which had been brought to the island on the rafts from the Helena. The corpsmen rendered invaluable aid to us. They made a syringe with which they washed out the men's ears and removed the accumulated oil. They treated the sick and the wounded man, whose broken leg they kept packed with sulfa. His wound was wide open with the bone showing, when he reached the island. They drained about a cup and a half of water from the hole. Very likely the salt water prevented gangrene from developing. Although he suffered terribly, he survived this ordeal without losing his leg. The chaplain only partially recovered from shock before we were rescued. There was another group of survivors from the Helena who had landed around a small point of land from us. There were 61 of them. We never saw them, but carried on communications with them through notes carried by natives. One day, the man with the stomach ailment became quite ill, and we asked a native to inquire if they had any medicine which might help him. He returned with a bottle of Scotch. It was never opened, and we left it on the island when we departed - Mr. Ripley will kindly take note. In spite of poor food, we had no dysentery or other disease of any sort. But later, after we had left the island, several of the men came down with dengue fever and malaria. The mosquitoes were very obliging. Around sunset they would come out in swarms. Once I counted about 15 on my wrist at one time. They were very active from about sunset until dark; then they would go away and did not bother us any more during the night. They never disturbed our sleep.
As mayor, I depended a great deal on Major Kelly of the marines, whom I appointed my chief of police. He saw to it that my rules and regulations were carved out. He was also in charge of the sanitary arrangements for our encampment. These were in accordance with Marine Regulations, but he forgot that some of our men were too weak to walk 40 yards. So it became necessary to set up an emergency can in the middle of the camp. It was a large 5-gallon job lined with leaves. Then I made a regulation that any one caught defiling the camp would be punished by being forced to carry the emergency can every morning out of the camp and empty it. One poor devil about six feet two was caught by our efficient police force violating the regulation. Though very tall, he then weighed only 110 pounds and looked like a thin man in a circus. It certainly was a sight to see him with that large can on his shoulder, taking his punishment. There were no other violators of our sanitary regulations. Our laws were simple and few in number - just those necessary for safety's sake.
Major Kelly and his police force, which consisted of marines, gunner's mates, and experienced deck ratings, were in, charge of the defenses of the camp. Kelly carefully placed his fire points and cover points, and kept a regular watch. No city ever boasted a more efficient police force. But our armament approached the ridiculous. We had one lap rifle with thee rounds of ammunition, and Tom had a shotgun with one shell in it. We also had a 44-caliber carbine, a Remington, a Springfield, and an English rifle with a curious assortment of ammunition varying from one round up to 30 rounds per gun. There was one 38 revolver and a 45 automatic. The 45 had its clip, and the 38 its magazine. The marine corporal, M.F. Frisbee, took charge of all these assorted firearms for "Kelly's Irregulars," as we called them.
By this time we must have looked very much like Falstaff's famous company of thieves, cutthroats, and jailbirds. My oil soaked clothing had been discarded. Tom gave me a pair of Japanese shorts, and that was my sole article of apparel. Like most of the other men, I had made a pair of wooden go-aheads or clogs, which gave some small protection to the soles of my feet. We had very soon run out of soap. Some of the men tried to wash the oil out of their clothes by rubbing them on the rocks, but they gave this up as a hopeless job and made themselves new clothing out of burlap copra bags, furnished by the natives. A hole was cut at the top for the head and two holes on either side for the arms. A piece of vine was used to tie them around the middle. Frankly, they looked like hell.
The jungle noises at night were terrifying at first, but the men soon got used to them. I do not know what varieties of animals made those strange noises, as the only wild life we ever saw was an occasional bird. But, of course, we did not move far from our hideout, and did not see much of the island. Our greatest fear was that of being discovered by the Japanese and of being surprised and overpowered by them. Though Major Kelly was a typical fighting marine, and there was plenty of fight left in our men, yet in our weakened physical condition and with practically no arms, we could have put up but little resistance. We had planned, in case we were attacked, to retreat farther into the hills. We were not to attempt to fight it out, but to hold and then retreat, hold and retreat again and again until the Japs, we hoped, would give up the pursuit in fear of being ambushed. They could not afford to extend their lines of communication too far as there were only 300 to 400 of them on the island, we were told. After retreating, we planned to establish another hidden camp with the aid of the friendly natives. These islanders continually assisted us in numerous ways. There was a Jap landing boat or barge about 6 miles up the beach from us, which gave us a great deal of concern. Just what it was doing there we did not know, nor did we know if it had armed men in it. We began to imagine that the enemy knew that we were on the island and were only waiting for a favorable opportunity to pounce upon us. So we prepared for the worst.
Usually we were not much concerned about a Japanese attack at night. We did not believe that they would go into the jungles then in search of us, as they were probably afraid to go out among the natives in the darkness. They had reason to fear them, for the standard native weapon was a long sharp knife, similar to a machete. Each native always carried one of these knives with him, and held it suspended from the little finger of the right hand. I have heard that the little fingers of many of the islanders were permanently curved from this odd custom.
We established a daily routine. I tried to keep the men occupied as much of the time as possible. We got up with the sun, about six o'clock. After a prolonged period of stretching to get the kinks out after a night on the ground or on the equally hard and uncomfortable floor, we washed ourselves as well as we could without any soap. The problem of cleaning our teeth became very annoying, until we found that an excellent cleanser was a piece of lime peel. Fortunately the natives brought us a lime occasionally. Then we began to wonder when breakfast would be ready. This was one of the main events of the day. Of course, breakfast and dinner were exactly the same, but the morning meal came first and we were somewhat hungrier at that time. Breakfast was usually not ready until about ten o'clock, when Chief Cook Johnson would announce ceremoniously, "Chow is ready." After this meal, we had to clean our wooden spoons and the coconut shell dishes. Everyone was then required to walk around the camp at least two times for exercise. After that, we proceeded to sweep the camp and put everything in shipshape order. By that time we would have the first of what we called "air raids."
Almost every day planes would pass overhead, and we would duck under cover for we did not want to be seen by either friend or foe. Our own aviators might have mistaken us for Japs and bombed us. The "air raid" would usually last about 5 or 10 minutes. There were five or six of them a day, and we became so experienced that after awhile we could tell from the sound of the motors whether the planes were Japanese or American.
Occasionally we were given a special treat of an air baffle, either over the island or the near-by waters. We would stand around and watch, and every time a plane was shot down we would cheer, although we could not be sure that the victor was one of our planes. Of course, we restrained our cheering when the Jap patrols were reported to be in our vicinity. By the time we had had two or three "air raids" and had gotten our camp cleaned up, it was time to begin to worry about our afternoon meal, which was usually not ready until after two o'clock.
Throughout the day there was a lot of talk about food. The men abandoned entirely the standard topic of conversation almost universally heard on shipboard-women. Instead of hearing somebody ask, "Do you remember that little blonde you saw me with at the movies in Norfolk'?" all you could hear was something like this `Do you remember that little place in San Francisco? They sure served swell steaks all smothered in onions. God what I wouldn't give for one of those right now.' The men also talked about their families, and worried about them being notified that they were missing. They had a very deep and genuine concern for their loved ones. There was not much talk about the chances of our being rescued. They did not seem to be particularly concerned. I suppose they felt, as I did, that we could stay there indefinitely. If we could have continued to get enough food, we could have survived until the island was captured by our forces about a month later.
In our camp we had a cross section of the crew of the Helena. Besides the Marines, we had pharmacist mates who were busy all day long. We had several cooks, who were not kept so busy unfortunately, and a metal smith who repaired our large copper kettle. We had a barber, seamen, fire control men, firemen, machinist mates, a turret captain, storekeepers and two yeomen. We did not have much paper work for the yeomen, I assure you. There was a chaplain too, but he remained too ill to be of much aid. Most of our men were fully and heartily cooperative, and did everything in their power to make our camp as pleasant as possible. Of course, some were more helpful than others, and some naturally were more ingenious than others. I suppose the one who contributed most to keeping our spirits up was Atkinson, the oldest man among us. He had many stories to relate. He had been a miner, and said that, as far as he was concerned, being a castaway on a Japanese occupied island was much more pleasant than mining for gold in the Yukon.
To demonstrate how efficient our Marines were, here is a little story about Major Kelly. One day he came to me and said, "Mr. Chew, are you not in command here?"
I replied, "I suppose I am."
Then he continued, "Someone has stolen a can of our emergency meat. If I find out who it is, will you sentence him to death? If you do, I'll kill him myself."
I had made no law covering such a crime, and refused to commit myself as to the punishment. Fortunately, we never discovered who stole that can of meat. But I believe my conversation with the Major got around. No more meat was stolen. Probably the guilty man had no evil design. He was doubtless so hungry that he just took it without thinking of how he was wronging the rest of the men.
Our camp was pleasantly located on the slope of a hill which was heavily wooded. The trees were large and tall, most of them rising to a height of 125 feet. I did not know their names, as I am acquainted with only common trees; such as, oak, pine, elm, cedar, and birch. They were different from all of these. Their leaves were very large, and they afforded good shade and excellent cover from the planes and the enemy patrols. Though we were not in the jungle, there was a thick undergrowth with many long tough vines, which the natives used in building their houses. The sun did not penetrate much through the trees and vines. From our camp we had only two small restricted views of the beach and the sea beyond, one to the east and another to the southeast. We were on that side of the island. The other group of survivors were to the north of us, on the opposite side of a small point from where we landed.
It was very dark in those woods after nightfall, and as we had no light we lay down to sleep early. Each day, about 5:30 in the afternoon, we held an evening prayer service.
Every man in camp was always there. They needed no urging. Some of the natives whose names I knew were usually there as well as others whose names I never knew. The Chinese did not join us in these services as they usually kept pretty well to themselves. Various people led our prayers. We did not have a single English Bible among us, but the natives read from their Bibles at the services. We always sang a hymn, usually "Rock of Ages," which the natives knew. They sang in their native language and we in ours. It made an unforgettable scene in the midst of the dark green forest. I shall never forget the earnest faces of the natives as they sang. Equally serious and sincere were our men as they joined in the prayers and the singing. Shipwreck and danger, hunger and loneliness had brought most of them nearer to God than they had ever been before. Some were so overcome that they broke down and wept like little children.
On the seventh day after we reached the island, word was brought to us that we were going to be rescued. The instructions were that our group as well as the one across the point us was to be picked up early the following Friday morning. We were to be on the beach where we had landed at four o'clock in the morning. We were ordered also to take all the Chinese on the island with us when we were evacuated.
We had a hard time getting down to the rendezvous on the beach. We started from the hills around three o'clock in the afternoon so that we might reach the beach by dark. We were afraid that, even with the native guides, we would get lost at night. It was all that we could do in the daytime to get through that jungle, which was between the hills and the beach.
It would have been impossible for us to pass through it at night. We arranged for the strongest of the able-bodied men to be stretcher-bearers for the sick and wounded. Unfortunately, all the Chinese could not arrive at the meeting place at the appointed hour, but we took eleven or twelve with us. Major Kelly's "Irregulars" brought up the rear as our covering force. We did not want to get down to the beach too early, because once we arrived we could not get back into the hills again until the next day, if we were discovered by the patrols of the enemy.
Finally, we got under way. Major Kelly's force marched between us and the known position of the barge and the Jap patrol. Incidentally, that barge had caused us constant anxiety while we were in camp. We had even been tempted to go down one night and try to push it off into the sea. Then one day an American plane riddled it so that it could not have been gotten off the shore.
As we were going down the hill, I lost my entire group of about one hundred people. Taking a native for a guide, I thought I would go down by a little shorter route and get to the beach somewhat ahead of the rest. When I got there and rested for awhile, I began to worry about the non-appearance of my party. I could not see them, though I knew exactly where they should be. They had seen me but thought that I was a Jap and had turned back into the jungle again. This is an excellent example of how thick that jungle was. Eventually we all got together again on the beach about an hour later just as darkness set in.
Lieutenant Commander Boles had been sent down ahead to act as a pilot for the rescue ships. He had an unusual experience. He was a very large man and suffered greatly from lack of food. I gave him eight malted milk tablets, which had been among our emergency rations, to last him from three in the afternoon until four the following morning. When he arrived at the deserted village on the beach, he generously gave the tablets to some natives who happened to be there, and then lay down to get some sleep on the porch of a native hut. After a while he was awakened, and saw eight or nine islanders. Each carried some article of food carefully wrapped in leaf slings as a token of appreciation of his generosity. For a moment he thought he was still asleep and dreaming, for there before him were baked sweet potatoes, papayas, bananas, etc. Warren told me that he had the greatest feast he ever had in his life, better even than the cow we ate in our encampment. When he had finished, he mistook the approach of our party for a large Jap patrol. He hastily scrambled into a native's canoe, and hurried away up a creek to hide in the jungle. After a while he discovered that it was a false alarm.
The plan to rescue us was a bold one. We heard later that Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner initiated the plan. It was a difficult scheme, for aside from the fact that the enemy was in control of the waters around Vella Lavella and Kolombangara the available charts of the narrow channel into the former island were unreliable. The rescue too had to be made at night because daylight would have exposed the ships to air attacks.
Captain Francis McInerney, U. S. Navy, a former neighbor of mine in Annapolis, was then commander of a destroyer squadron. He was placed in charge of the expedition. He arranged for two destroyer-transports to handle the actual rescue work and four destroyers to screen them. The transports were the Dent, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Ralph Wilhelm, U. S. Naval Reserve, and the Waters, under command of Lieutenant Commander Charles J. McWhinnie, U. S. Naval Reserve. Captain Thomas J. Ryan, U. S. Navy, commanded the destroyer screen, and Commander John D. Sweeny, U. S. Navy, the destroyer transports.
At the appointed time, Lieutenant Commander Boles went out to guide the boats to the beach. The transports moved in as far as they dared in the shallow coral-studded waters, and then Higgins boats were lowered. I assure you it was the most wonderful feeling in the world to see those boats coming in to our beach. They came rushing in with all their guns ready for a fight. Our hearts filled with pride Then the full realization of what was being done dawned upon us, as we had considered ourselves as expendable. The fact that our Navy could and would attempt such a daring and hazardous undertaking under such conditions was beyond our wildest dreams. Without any confusion; we were all quickly embarked, and away we went from Vella Lavella. The group north of us had been picked up previously about midnight. With them was one of our Army aviators who had been shot down over the island. When I got on board a destroyer, my first thought was of food. The crew of the ship had prepared big pots of soup for us. I consumed five big bowls full, and drank I do not know, how many cups of coffee. My second desire was for a bath. I wanted to get under a real shower again with plenty of soap to wash away the oil and grime. After these primary needs had been satisfied, the doctor attended to the sores which still afflicted my ankles.
Although I had not had any sleep for more than 24 hours, the excitement of being rescued drove all thought of sleep out of my head. We just sat around in the wardroom talking. We had been completely cut off from the world. We knew nothing about the invasion of Sicily. We did not know what naval actions had taken place in the South Pacific while we were on the island. We did not know how our force had made out the night the Helena was sunk. So we got all the news then and there, and of course had a lot to tell our friends about our recent adventures. We spend the remainder of the night talking.
We were rescued early on Friday morning, and arrived at Tulagi the following night. Upon arrival, we had a great celebration on board. There were several war correspondents there. They said we could send a Red Cross cable to our families if we wanted to, but that our individual stories would be published in our home-town newspapers. So all the survivors were listed by name and address. The Helena had been announced as sunk on Tuesday morning. That was Monday in the States, and the story had appeared in all the Wednesday papers. One of our chief worries on the island was whether or not the Helena had been reported as sunk. I had assured the men that she would not be so reported for at least a week or perhaps longer.
The next morning the task force commander called up and congratulated us on our escape. At Tulagi there was a regular survivor's camp where we were provided with food and clothing.
Each man was given a clean suit of dungarees and some skivvies. The American Red Cross supplied an excellent kit of toilet articles, which included tooth paste, toilet soap, laundry soap, and shaving gear. We were well taken care of.
After the war is over, I should like to return to Vella Lavella, and see the natives again who befriended us in our time of great need. In their treatment of us they exemplified all the Christian virtues. I shall never forget how they aided us and how they generously shared their own meager supplies of food with us. Before we left the island, we gave them all the money we had, some of us having as much as $15 or $20. I hope they made good use of it when our forces took over the island a month later. My feeling for the kinky-haired, dark-skinned islanders is like that expressed by Kipling for Gunga Din: "An' for all `is dirty ide, E was white, clear white, inside."
Vice Admiral John L. Chew was interviewed by John T. Mason, Jr. in 1945 and the preceding account of the sinking titled "Some Shall Escape" was published in the August 1945 issue of Proceedings and is "Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; copyright © (1945) U.S. Naval Institute."
Mr. Mason's interview of Vice Admiral Chew continues and is reproduced below as written by Mr. Mason.
Q: It's good to see you again this morning, Admiral. Last time, you concluded by reading your talk to the 1st classmen made in 1945.
A. Yes Dr. Mason, and I did leave out as I told you, a few things I'd like to tell you now, since I'm not inhibited in any way, either by security regulations or audience.
In the talk there was no mention of coast watchers or "Gish", the Reverend Sylvester. During the war their identity, and even the knowledge of the existence of coast watchers was held very closely. And for good reason, since the information they furnished was invaluable to us and their safety in enemy held territory was, to say the least, precarious. I thought Bish, whom I knew was a missionary, was the coast watcher also, but found out just recently from talks with Walter Lord who is now writing a book about them, that he was not, but just a dedicated missionary who had elected to stay to be of assistance to the natives and to the coast watchers. As senior survivor on the island, I was never told by Bish of the existence of the coast watcher nor did I ever see him, so tight was the security. He, Bish, acted as a relay and, of course, was of tremendous help to us both in dealing with the natives, and advising us on every day life in that isolated part of the world.
The other significant incident that was omitted in the talk was that concerning the Japanese patrols that made routine sweeps along our beach. One night one of them strayed too close to camp and with the help of the natives was captured. After a hurried meeting of the Mayor's Council I asked for recommendations. They said "We don't take prisoners. We can't. We haven't even enough food for ourselves." My answer was "That seems sensible. Make it merciful, but he must be killed."
Q. You couldn't let him go.
A. I couldn't let him go because there was a Japanese garrison on the other side of the island. We couldn't take him with us. We couldn't even feed ourselves. I suppose, in after thought, we could have, but at the time it seemed the only sensible decision to me, just as I'm sure it seemed the only sensible decision to Captain Hoover to leave the scene of the Juneau. And if you think back afterwards and say, well, maybe it might have been this way, it could have been that way, all you do is confuse yourself.
So, he was killed. I have his sword right now. I don't know where it is, but somewhere or other. He was carrying an old beaten-up Japanese sword, with all the wrappings off the hilt but the wooden scabbard was still there and the blade was intact. Whether he was an officer or not, I don't know. In any event, without the help of our native friends, he would not have been captured and who knows, he might have disclosed our camp location, and I might not be here today.
I also forgot to mention that when we landed at Tulagi there on the packing case that sewed as our dresser, or what ever it was, in the quarters, was a bottle of whiskey from Admiral Halsey.
We spent a day or so on Tulagi and then went over to Guadalcanal, where they dutifully had an air raid the night we were there. I thought, gee, it will be bitter irony after having gone through all this, for somebody to drop a bomb into the middle of Guadalcanal and end it all. Fortunately, they didn't hit anything, and, boy, when that air raid warning went I dove for those trenches like nobody human.
Within a day or so we were back in Noumea which, at that time, was Admiral Halsey's headquarters. We had an exciting trip in an old DC-3 going to Noumea. The plane inadvertently strayed over one of our own carrier task forces, and was intercepted by our own fighters. Fortunately they recognized us in time and held their fire. The crew had neglected to turn on their IFF. (Identification Friend or Foe) It was scary.
I believe I mentioned that after staying the night on Tulagi we were immediately taken to Guadalcanal for air evacuation, and subsequently evacuated to Noumea. At that time, there was really no hospitalization involved. As I mentioned before, I had rather severe immersion sores, and I think I told you that the corpsman said, "You'd better get your Purple Heart," and I said, "What for?" He said, "Well, you've got immersion sores." I said, 'took, I'm so happy to be here. Just give me an aspirin and forget it."
Q. No, you didn't relate that. I'm glad you have done so.
A. Well, it was true, and he said, "Here's your form." I said, "I don't want any form. I'm delighted to be here and I appreciate Admiral Halsey's bottle of whiskey far more than your offer of a Purple Heart."
This, I might add, was not heroics but just happened to be the truth. When you've survived a period in your life, including many hours in the water and days on a hostile island, and you return to your own service and your own people, you're so happy that you're alive, these little amenities, I think, are suddenly put aside in the larger context of just being there.
Q. A sense of gratitude overwhelms you!
A. A sense of gratitude completely overwhelms you, and a sense of well being and happiness pervades to such an extent that you lose sight of the little things some people consider important.
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