“Cactus,” Carney Field, Guadalcanal
Bob Edgar awakened me at six this morning saying excitedly that one of our planes was wanted immediately over the Kula Gulf area to report the position of various naval units, Jap and ours, which were stranded on reefs after a big naval battle last night. As I was on strike-standbye, I was the chosen party. The opportunity I’d been waiting for! However, at the last minute, Moffett, sniffing the faint chance of a commendation for some decent work, decided to take it himself. Of course, if it’d been a night strike in lousy weather — a really dirty and dangerous job, he’d never thought of taking it. I hope the son-of-a-bitch gets shot down up there.
Was pretty mad when I wrote the above and have changed my opinions completely, especially since I did finally get to go out anyway. The scene of last nights battle was the entrance to Kula Gulf. The respective losses of both sides are as yet undetermined. Rumor has it that the Japs lost seven ships (2 CL, 4 DD, 1 unidentified) against our loss of one.
Our task force consisting of the light cruisers Helena, St. Louis, and Honolulu, with five or six supporting destroyers, lay in wait for the Japs after dark as they steamed down the Slot to bring supplies into Kolombangara. The resulting action was a free-for-all in which the Helena met her end.
One VB-102 plane and one VB-101 plane (Moffett) were sent out early this morning to locate ships and wreckage still in the battle area. The 102 plane was first on the scene and spotted three groups of survivors, positions of whom he radioed in. Continuing on up the Slot he spotted two Jap ships (doubtful as to whether they were two DD, two CL, or one DD and one CL) headed for Shortland. As he started a bombing run on one of the ships, he was jumped by five Zeros. The first inkling he had of their presence was when a 20mm shell hit the top turret, destroying it and killing the gunner, who fell to the floor of the radio compartment. In the ensuing fight he jettisoned his bombs, two more of his crew were wounded, one Zero was shot down, and his plane was thoroughly shot up. A hit on one of his engines wrecked it and cut the prop control line. The prop refuse to feather and the engine froze it solid. The resulting air resistance cut down his flying speed to a bare minimum as he staggered home.
Moffett in turn failed to see any of the debris of the battle, but did see a ship north of Vella Lavella headed for Shortland (probably one of the two previously spotted). Returning to Kolombangara he spotted a Jap destroyer beached about 7 miles NE of Vila Field. As he finished a bombing run (no hits) he was jumped by four Zeros, but escaped safely in the clouds and headed home.
At this time I was detailed to go up and get more information on the survivors previously reported.
Reaching the Kula Gullf area a little before noon I first saw three motor whaleboats, loaded with oil-blackened survivors, in a group and headed for Visuvisu Point on North New Georgia — a spot garrisoned by a small body of Japs. Whether they knew that or not I don’t know, but as their speed was slow they may have been rescued in time by the Higgins boats and two destroyers which were coming up the Slot slowly so as to reach the area under cover of night.
Proceeding on I spotted something sticking out of the water about 8 miles offshore of NE Kolombangara. It was about 20 feet of the bow of the light cruiser Helena projecting vertically out of the water. It must’ve been floating as the depth of that position was over 500 fathoms (3000’). An amazing example of watertight integrity. Perched on, and clinging to the bow were about 30 to 40 black, oily, figures who waved madly as I passed. The number ‘50’ was just barely visible above the water, definitely identifying the ship as the Helena — 10,000 ton light cruiser; 614 feet in length; 100,000 horsepower; 32 knots; 15 6-inch guns, crew of 900 men.
In the surrounding area, extending in a smear of oil, life rafts, timbers, powder bags, shell cases and other debris for a distance of 10 miles to the NW were total of about 150 men, including those clinging to the Helena. Supposedly about 650 had been rescued the night before. Blown far out of reach of these pitiful oil-covered figures in the water were empty life rafts and a motor whaleboat in good condition. The worst thing was the fact that the wind of 12 kts was blowing survivors and life rafts toward the nearby shoreline of Kolombangara and 10,000 Japs. There is no doubt but that anyone reaching shore would be butchered.
I sent in a message to ComAirSol advising immediate rescue by PBYs with fighter coverage to prevent any of the survivors being blown ashore into Jap hands. (To my knowledge, no PBYs were ever sent.)
Dropped three rubber life rafts upwind of the ship. One sank, but the other two inflated and floated down on the hulk where they were eagerly seized and filled. When I last passed the Helena, the men had all taken to the two rafts and were paddling NW (away from Kolombangara) from the projecting bow. I guess they were only too glad to get away from that steel tomb, which at any moment might plunge under, sucking most of them along with it.
Dropped my last life raft of the original four to a group of men floundering about in their kapok lifejackets. Also dropped 5 rubber lifejackets.
Turned homeward about 1500, and hours later have not been able to stop thinking of all those poor devils up there. On my way home I did see two destroyers 20 miles north of the Russells heading up the Slot.
The part that made me feel worst was that after I got back and was thinking about those fellows, I realized that it had been within my power to save every one of them. There was an element of chance involved, I’ll admit, but it would’ve been worth anything to have saved those fellows. The thought that occurred to me was that one of my mechs and I could’ve parachuted to that empty motor whaleboat in good condition, started it up, and picked up every one of those poor devils before dark. The only risk would have been parachute failure or the impossibility of starting the whaleboat engine, both improbable. I felt like hell when I realized it, and asked Moffett if he’d let me go up and try it. He refused, saying that it would probably be dark by the time I got back up there. I could kick myself.
The skipper of VB-102, Van Voorhis, failed to return from patrol this evening. His intention to attack Kapingamarangi may have backfired on him. A damnfool and senseless stunt which cost the lives (apparently) of 10 good men. Nobody much gave a damn about Van Voorhis himself, though.