|EAST CAROLINA MANUSCRIPT COLLECTIONORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW|
|Capt. Alan Ray|
|USNA Class Of 1941|
|June 7, 1991|
|Interview Conducted by Morgan Barclay|
Captain Ray, can you tell me a little bit about your childhood, where you were born, your upbringing and maybe what things influenced you as a child that maybe got you to the Naval Academy?
I was born in New York City in 1920. My father, who was a West Point graduate, left the Army, but went back in during World War I. He was in California as executive officer of an air base in San Diego during that time. At the end of the war he came back to New York, which had been his and my mother's home, left the Army again, and went into business in New York. He was what they called in those days an efficiency engineer. I was born in the Bronx, New York. The family moved up about twenty miles north of New York when I was still an infant. It was there that I spent all my school years.
Where was that?
In Bronxville, New York, Westchester County. Actually, we lived within the city limits of Yonkers, so our schooling was Yonkers schooling but our postal address was Bronxville. That is where I spent the first fifteen years of my youth.
My father was active in business in New York City in all of those years and my mother, who was a college graduate, was interested in education. She was trained in government matters and in library and related things. She was the earliest influence on my life, I think even more than my father. She was interested in women's suffrage and became an active member of the Women's National Republican Club. She taught me an interest in civic affairs; she used to keep her own files. When I was, perhaps, seven years old, the public local library lost its quarters temporarily. The building was, for some reason, not available. She moved the library into our living room and acted as the community librarian. I learned something about books in those times, too.
My mother died rather suddenly when I was ten years old. That was right at the beginning of the Depression. I came from a family of five kids and I was the second to the youngest. We had our own gang, our own ball teams, our own whatever built in. It was a rural neighborhood and there were lots of large families around us. Being the Depression years, we sort of took it in stride that everyone recognized that we couldn't be wasteful and that we couldn't have everything that we might have wanted to have. We were not poor by any means, but we learned to be frugal.
One of the things we learned was that we must go on and get a college education. Both my parents having had a college education, it seemed normal. That was what you did. If there was not enough money for tuition, you did something--you went out to work or you got a scholarship. It was really expected that each of us would do well enough in
high school to get a scholarship and that we would earn some money toward tuition. Somehow or another, we would find a way to be educated.
My eldest brother was seven years ahead of me. The same summer that my mother died, he had won an appointment to the Naval Academy. I didn't really know how he went about it because I was too young to think much about it. It seemed to be a good thing to do. We spent our summers on Long Island, near the water. I liked the water, speedboats, and swimming. Here was a college that involved something about the water. I could see that. As I went on into high school, I learned more about the Naval Academy because I went down there to visit from time to time.
Other things were happening in the world in those days. By 1931, although I was only eleven years old, I was well aware that the world was not a very peaceful place. Japan and China were at war. It wasn't long after that that Hitler came to power in 1933 and I saw what was happening with Mussolini and Ethiopia. I believe there was war in South America--Bolivia and Paraguay were having border disputes. My father used to talk about these things and the importance of our keeping a strong defense. I never knew what was going to happen in our own country. I had a sixth grade teacher who talked about her brother who had been in World War I and had been gassed in the trenches. That was horrifying to me. In high school, I had a math teacher who was a victim of a gas attack, too. I saw what it did to his health.
All of these factors led me to believe that the United States was headed down the path to war, that war was almost inevitable. The best thing for me to do was to prepare myself for it one way or another. Instead of being drafted at the last minute and sent somewhere with no understanding of what war was, or what military life was, I thought I
should follow my brother's example and get some kind of military education at the same time. As I went through high school, I had my eye on the Naval Academy or perhaps a military academy appointment. I took courses that would lead in that direction.
To make it short, I graduated from high school when I was sixteen. I thought that was really too young to come to one of these schools. I would take another year and mature a little more. I really wasn't real mature for a sixteen-year old. So I went to prep school, took some exams, and won an appointment, and that is what got me started.
Which prep school did you go to?
I went to Stanton Prep School, which was the Military Academy prep school in Cornwall, New York, near West Point. It was established by a friend of my father's, Colonel Stanton. I am sure he gave us a special rate. It was a prep school aimed particularly at the military academies. The purpose was to train young men to pass the exams. Although we were close enough to West Point to have some coaches from the Military Academy come out and sort of stimulate some interest in athletics and do some searching for potential team members--we had that kind of athletic training--basically, it was a cram school, but it was a little more than that. Colonel Stanton knew the importance of discipline and leadership, he got us thinking about those things in the early years as well.
I couldn't get an appointment in New York State, but my father had another friend who lived in the state of Maine. The record showed that the senator from Maine had an appointment coming up--one for both the Military Academy and Naval Academy. I moved up to Maine to establish residence in the home of his friend. I took the senator's exams and won an appointment that way.
Was that a competitive situation where he had several people?
Yes, it was. I guess I scored top on the Naval Academy appointment and second on the Military Academy. There was somebody ahead of me at the Military Academy. It happened to be a classmate of mine in prep school. I knew him and I knew that he was going to make it. He was physically fit and would be able to go all the way. Since the senator said, “You take your choice between the first alternate to West Point and the principal to the Naval Academy,” I took the principal. That was in the fall of 1936. I spent the following winter both trying to earn a little money and trying to prepare myself better academically for entrance. I stayed on in Maine through the winter. I came home and got myself ready in other ways to go to the Naval Academy. I entered in June of 1937. I was not much past seventeen years old.
Were most of your classmates about your age or were some of them a little older? What was your impression when you got there?
My impression was that there were only a handful of us who were my age. The bulk of them were considerably older. A large number of them had a year of college. More than a few had a couple of years of college. I felt pretty young in this group. At that time, I was still growing physically and maturing. I wasn't a big athletic type then, now either. I felt that I had a lot of growing to do in many ways.
I had gone to school in New York. New York schools had a good reputation for carrying people forward to colleges. They had a system of regents' exams in New York and if you scored well enough in your high school regents, your entrance exams were much reduced over what they would have been otherwise. I can remember taking an exam, which was not too severe towards entrance. I had no doubt that I would pass that.
In those days, those seemed to be the main criteria. Since I had the appointment from the senator, all I had to do was pass an academic exam and a physical exam. Nobody was too much concerned about whether I could play football, or whether I had been involved in extra curricular things very much. I suppose in winning an appointment, some congressmen gave some value to that kind of experience. Many of the congressmen either gave their appointments on a political basis or turned to the civil service exam to sort people out. That was how it was in my case. I felt I was one of the younger members of the class and that I really didn't know much about what college life would be. I had a lot of growing up to do in the first years and beyond.
How did you find the Plebe Year then? Different people have different reactions to it.
I found I had to concentrate an awful lot on the academics. I knew that I must not “bilge out.” I had to pass every course--that was paramount. I had to study enough to get by. I didn't know at the onset how much studying I would have to do, but I recognized that some of my classmates had had this same work in college for years, and to me, most of it was new. To some extent there was pressure on me. I had to struggle in order to score high enough.
The whole atmosphere was competitive. We knew from the outset that class standing was important beyond simply being able to survive the attrition that inevitably took place. That would be important. In order to gain any rank within the midshipmen's organization, you had to be high academically as well as show some leadership along the way.
In Plebe Year, I didn't think anything about leadership. It was a matter of surviving academically. I didn't really have any trouble with the disciplinary things because I expected it, having had a brother and a father who had been through it, and, in the meantime, another brother had gone to West Point. I knew enough about those requirements that it wasn't too difficult. The social life our Plebe Year was just about non-existent. Even that didn't trouble me very much because I was concentrating on other things. I was determined then that somehow I was going to get through this academy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that halfway through the first year I was doing all right. My roommate bilged out after the first semester. He had also been a classmate of mine in prep school, so I had known him a few months before. I tried to approach him but he didn't make it. I knew that I didn't want to follow him.
Any particular events or incidents at the Academy that stick in your mind as you went through those years?
Yes, I suppose there are a few. I think that the summer cruise at the end of the Plebe Year was an eye opener to me. I had never been to sea and, although we had learned something about ships in the classroom, except for small boats, we hadn't had any exposure to a shipboard way of life. That was an eye opener. I could see something about how a naval officer's life was going to be. Of course, our duties were routine, as we finished our first year and started out as youngsters on this cruise. I enjoyed it. I liked the work and I felt that I was learning something that was absolutely essential to my career. I liked the idea of visiting foreign ports.
One of my impressions of that cruise--visiting the cities of Paris, London, and Copenhagen and some of the outlying districts in the summer of 1938--was seeing on
every street corner, especially in France, soldiers--people in military uniforms. Europe was rearming. Europe was getting ready for that something that clearly seemed inevitable at that time. Hitler was showing his intentions in various ways. Also the Spanish Civil War was in progress. There was a Spanish destroyer in the port of Le Havre, France. I saw the conditions in which those sailors were living. A dirty ship, with livestock on deck--chickens--and crews in rather disheveled uniforms, but I knew enough to realize that Spain was a poor country and they were struggling for some kind of survival. I guess that cruise made a big impression on me.
As I went on through the Academy, it was quite a shock to learn, at the end of three years, that our fourth year was going to be abbreviated, compressed. I knew that I had an awful lot to learn. We were going to be at sea in a very few months. I didn't think that I was ready for it.
I was twenty years old. I didn't look very old, and I was not recognized as a potential leader by other midshipmen. The people in the senior classes had the greatest influence on our grading in matters of leadership. Since we were in an organization, they had to take some positions of minor leadership. I realized that I was not being given high grades in what was called “aptitude to the service.” This troubled me. I thought in my heart of heart that I had some aptitude and I was going to make a go of this thing and I had to convince others of it. I had to find a way of demonstrating that I could contribute something to the Navy. I guess, I came out all right in the long run. I didn't expect that I would be in the top of the class. I was satisfied to be about a third of the way down from the top. I vindicated myself there.
How did you go about trying to persuade some of the upper classmen that you had that leadership potential?
My recollection is that I didn't ever find a good way. Obviously, I couldn't go up and talk to somebody and say, “Hey, I am really better than you are grading me here.” The best opportunity was, perhaps, on our last cruise in the senior year. We were the senior class on the cruise and the third class of midshipmen was with us. In my division on the ship was a young third classman named Jim Holloway. Jim Holloway, in some respects, looked like me. He was a youngish-looking guy. The upperclassmen in my class were riding him. I felt some empathy for him in that sense, but I thought that in addition to that he had potential. I observed him and worked with him, he among others, but he was one that stood out to me. I had the opportunity to recognize in grading him that he did have “aptitude for the service.” Incidentally, Jim Holloway later became, Chief of Naval Operations, just about as high as you can rise. I thought, at least there, I had the ability to see potential in people.
I gained more confidence, as time went on, in talking up to not only my peers but upperclassmen and officers as well. I recognized that there was no reason to be meek or take a back seat, I just should stand up. It was a matter of building self-confidence. Whatever uncertainties I had began to fade and yet, I suppose, I didn't feel like a fully confident and mature officer until I had been at sea for a year as an ensign.
Before we go on, are there any particular social happenings in the four years that struck you as being interesting, fun, or unusual?
I guess none particularly that come to mind. If they do, maybe I can talk about some later.
After graduation, what was your first assignment and what happened?
My first assignment was to the carrier LEXINGTON, which was not only one of our oldest carriers, but one of our few carriers. The call number was CV-2 meaning it was the second aircraft carrier of the U.S. Navy. It was built in 1924 and 1925, and it seemed like an old ship in 1941. Of course, aviation had progressed and this ship was built for 1920s-era aircraft. The armament was very ancient, too.
I was assigned to the gunnery department. Five of my class went to the LEXINGTON at the same time. Maybe you met Bob Baughan, who was one of our LEXINGTON shipmates, and also Norm Ackley is here this week. He, too, was on the LEXINGTON. I was introduced to the gunnery department. The ship seemed to be limitless in area. It was really an enormous ship. In those days, it was absolutely the largest we had. It was built to go through the locks in the Panama Canal with no leeway, and this determined and established the dimensions of the ship. With at least three of my classmates, we went from being introduced to the gunnery officer back to the optical shop--the fire control office of the ship. I didn't really know my way there, but I can remember it was a long, long walk. As we went through compartment after compartment, we heard voices from the sailors relaxing or whatever nearby. The one common remark we heard again and again was “ninety-day wonders.” A “ninety-day wonder” was a new college graduate who was given a ninety-day indoctrination and commission in the Navy. I felt a little bit resentful; I was not a “ninety-day wonder;” I had four years of training.
I knew something about the theory of gunnery, but not a whole lot about guns at this time. I was assigned as a battery officer in charge of three five-inch anti-aircraft
guns. This was something I could take in stride. But I realized immediately that these particular guns were not very effective, although they were our most modern; and there was some likelihood we were going to have to use them more than just for target practice.
I soon got acquainted with the gun crews. I can remember one of my early assignments was to document--make some drawings and a description of--a device that one of the gunners' mates had developed for clearing some kind of jam in the gun. The gunnery officer, who was many years my senior, told me that he wanted me to write up for the Navy Department a description of this device and some drawings of it so that it could be considered for service adoption. I had never been asked anything like that before and I did it the way that it came into my head. I drew some sketches, I related how this gunner, who designed the thing, had made it of materials that were on hand--old pieces of scrap metal from this, that and the other place--how he put it together from salvaged parts and what its function was. I turned that into the gunnery officer. I thought I had done a pretty good job, but he said the Navy Department didn't care whether he made it out of a funnel or an empty oil can or whatever. “Just give us the dimensions and tell us how we do it and whether we make it out of this kind of metal or that. Somebody else is going to determine its adoption.”
He told me that my report was not properly written. It was written too much in non-engineering prose. That set me back a little bit, but he taught me a lesson. He taught me to study how Navy reports are written and I did that. This was in the spring of 1941 and the ship was in the Pacific. It wasn't very long after that when we had a chance to prove whether we could or couldn't handle the job.
The LEXINGTON was at Pearl Harbor, am I correct?
The LEXINGTON was at Pearl Harbor until the fifth of December.
It was one that went out?
Yes. We had been training in the Pacific and we were on somewhat of a war-time footing. We had high conditions of readiness whenever we went to sea during the year of 1941. I joined the ship in California. It wasn't very long after that when we went to Hawaii, in mid-1941. We worked out there. On the fifth of December, we left Pearl Harbor to transport some Marine aircraft to Wake Island to reinforce the garrison there. We were two days at sea when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
How did you find out and what was the reaction on the ship?
Well, I can remember it. It was dawn and we were west of Pearl Harbor. The attack took place not long after sunrise in Pearl Harbor and since we were further west, our sunrise was a little later. We were at our battle stations, because one of the likely times of attack at sea is at dawn and as a routine we manned all of our gun batteries before dawn.
I was at my battle station on the group control platform, high above the ship in the top when word came to me over the public address system, “Pearl Harbor has been attacked. This is no drill. We are at war!” It was very shortly after that the admiral aboard our ship hoisted some flag signals. Since I was stationed at the top of the mast, I could see these flag signals rising up the halyard. I knew that action of some sort was developing. The ship was turning and our force then turned in the direction to search for this Japanese force that had attacked Pearl Harbor.
During the remainder of the day we, the sailors and the young officers of the ship, had very little information about what was happening. It was clear that we were
changing our direction. We were no longer headed for Wake Island. We were gradually advised that we were searching for the Japanese force that had attacked. We realized later that it was fortunate that we didn't find them because they were considerable stronger than our force.
Did your force send up any planes, at this point?
They sent out some search planes. They did not, as I recall, sight any ships, but they did sight some unidentified search planes, patrol planes, from the Japanese force. I am not sure whether they were identified as such, but there were strange aircraft in the area. None of them got close enough to be attacked, as I remember.
Did you then head back to Pearl Harbor?
We did. Some time in the course of the next twenty-four hours, when it was clear that the Japanese force had completed their attack, we headed back to Pearl Harbor and I can only surmise what the orders were. We probably had to rearm. We were out on a mission to deliver these Marine planes. We needed to get our own aircraft back on board. The Marine planes flew off to some Marine air base. We got the regular carrier air group on board. We topped off on ammunition and fuel and, on the tenth of December, we left Pearl Harbor again. I can remember going back into Pearl Harbor on the eighth or ninth of December and seeing the destruction.
What was the impression there, coming in?
It was appalling. From a distance, we could see nothing but smoke. It turns out that some of that smoke was coming from the burning cane fields. With sugar cane it was a normal practice to burn off the leaves as they dried out and leave only the stalks to be harvested. It was not unusual to see smoking cane fields, but it was difficult from sea
to distinguish between smoke from cane fields and smoke from the harbor. It looked like smoke over the whole island. As we got into the harbor, we could see the capsized and grounded ships. I am quite certain that we did return to our normal berth at Pearl Harbor. We worked rather hurriedly to get the ship ready to go out somewhere again. I am sure that I didn't leave the ship during that period at all. Not many persons did except if they needed to arrange for re-supply. We did get copies of some newspapers that related what was going on in the city. We could see this terrible destruction around us. The hangars in Ford Island had been demolished and so forth. We heard a lot of rumors, too. There were rumors about the Japanese being in the hills and that sort of thing.
I gather from the comment you just made that a lot of your airplanes were on shore and you were transporting these Marines?
Did a lot of your planes get damaged?
I think not. They were probably not at Ford Island. I am sure that we got our full air group back afterwards. There were other air bases around there and I can't really explain or remember how they were distributed. It is such a large organization--the ship and its air group--that I didn't fathom the whole thing then. I was mostly concerned about the smaller unit within the ship.
I will tell you one other aspect of those early years of duty in that ship. That was my relationship with the commanding officer, Captain Frederick Sherman, who was the skipper. He was sort of a father figure or a king figure to me, rather distant and austere. He happened to graduate from the Naval Academy the same year my father had graduated from West Point. They were not acquainted but obviously of the same age
group. I had some of the same feeling toward him that I had for my father, except that I would say that Captain Sherman was somewhat more distant.
I remember as a watch officer on the bridge during those months that he [Captain Sherman] smoked cigarettes with a long cigarette holder. He sat in his chair on the bridge quietly smoking his cigarette and speaking to the officer of the deck without taking the cigarette out of his mouth. I had a terrible time understanding what he was saying. So did the officer of the deck. The officer of the deck used to station his assistant, myself in some cases, right behind the captain wherever he went, to try to understand what he was saying and to help interpret things as he was speaking through this cigarette holder. My ears were pretty good in those days, even if they are not today, and I remember that one of my duties was to listen to what the captain was saying.
He was a remarkable man. He was not only qualified in aviation but also in submarines. He wore the wings and he wore the dolphins and now he was commanding an aircraft carrier.
He was a great seaman. He had already established, before I arrived on board, a record of performance on the ship. He would bring the ship into Pearl Harbor--a very narrow entrance--and bring it into Ford Island. He became the first captain to bring a carrier into Pearl Harbor. Previously, they used to anchor out and bring the crew and supplies in by boat. He used to moor the ship with little or no assistance from tugs, although he had the tugs there in case they were needed. He could maneuver that ship like a destroyer. He would stand on the bridge and be approaching another fleet formation or whatever he was going to be joining up with. He would squint through his binoculars and seldom ask for advice. He would give course and engine orders. He
always had an officer of the deck with a plotting board to give him advice on courses to steer and whatnot. The officer of the deck would go to work on his plotting board, and he'd come up a few minutes later and he would say, “That should do it.” The captain had calculated the computation in his head and the officer of the deck had worked it out on his plotting board. He almost invariably confirmed what the captain had said was going to put us right on the button. I learned a good many things from him about ship handling.
I wonder how much of that was a natural ability or how much of that was learned. I don't know, I am just curious.
I am sure having handled airplanes, submarines, and perhaps other surface ships that he had an enormous amount of experience. By this time he had been at sea for thirty years. I don't mean to say that he didn't have any natural ability, but I think experience had an awful lot to do with it. I must say that I learned very early to enjoy ship handling as a skill and took a really great pleasure in knowing that I had done a job well and handled a ship well. When I didn't handle a ship well, I felt a certain chagrin and I was just determined to do better the next time. I learned from him, and I think I did a pretty good job of ship handling over the years.TAPE 1, SIDE 2
I gather from my reading that the LEXINGTON was trying to make it look to the Japanese like we had a lot of Navy left. You did a lot of traveling.
Well, we did. We went immediately to the South Pacific. The Japanese had moved into the Philippines and they were down around Singapore. They were threatening Australia, so we went down to the Coral Sea in the vicinity of New Guinea
where the Japanese were advancing. During those first months, in January and February, we made two attacks. One was to attack Japanese forces that had landed on the north coast of New Guinea, another involved their landings in the Solomon Islands. I guess the New Guinea attack took place in January and our meeting with them near the Solomon Islands was in February. The air group attacked a Japanese amphibious force at Salamaua in New Guinea. We on board ship didn't see the enemy at that time.
It wasn't long afterwards when we were in the Coral Sea that the Japanese detected us. They had these heavy patrol bombers, they were mostly reconnaissance planes, that located us. Having seen their search party, we knew that an attack was imminent. They sent over some Betty bombers, twin-engine land-based planes that came over at high altitude. That was the first time that I saw a Japanese enemy. We opened fire with our five-inch gun. Our gun bursts never came close. We couldn't reach their altitude. Our guns had short barrels and they were really ineffective. The fighter planes off our own decks were effective. The best thing to do was to stop firing the guns--risk hitting our own planes--and allow them [the planes] to take care of the problem.
During that attack I watched those Japanese bombers come down one after another. One of our pilots was “Butch” [E. H.] O'Hare, who later lost his life in the South Pacific. O'Hare Airfield in Chicago is named for Butch, who scored five kills on that first day. I saw four of them first hand.
We went back to Pearl Harbor after each of these engagements and replenished and had to go all the way from the South Pacific thousands of miles back to our base, because there were no forward bases established as yet.
During these battles, the LEXINGTON was almost a sitting duck because the only protection you really had was your own air group, basically?
They were pretty effective protection under some conditions. By today's standards, they are rather primitive but they were fighting an equally primitive enemy.
Did you take any hits during this action?
In the first action, no. The captain maneuvered radically and there were many bombs exploding around us and in the wake of the ship. We saw and heard the explosions. There was no damage to the ship during those early months to the war.
Maneuvered radically, is that trying to do a zigzag pattern or trying to get out of the path of the bombers?
These bombers had to settle on an attack course and fly directly over the ship. They were not dive-bombers, they were bombing from high altitude and there was a relatively long interval of time between bomb release and impact. The captain was able, through his own experience, to estimate when the bombs were being released, and then to change course radically to get out of way of the bombs. I am not sure he could see the bombs, but at least he was able to estimate that. It was a big ship and, in some sense, relatively cumbersome but we could do thirty knots. In whatever interval it took for those bombs to drop, he was able to get clear enough so that we didn't take any hits.
The other ships in the force were maneuvering with us. I can remember one of the officers of the deck relating, later on, that he was concerned that the destroyers would be in trouble. Here the captain was giving these emergency steering orders to protect the ship and the officer of the deck was concerned about the destroyers being able to follow us. He said, “Should I give them a signal now?” “They can see what I am doing,” was
the captain's answer and, of course, he was right. A good destroyer skipper could follow our maneuvers.
You mentioned avoiding the bombs of the Japanese bombers. You also mentioned the long supply line, so in effect you would have to go all the way back to Pearl Harbor to re-supply.
Yes. We did get fuel down there on occasion. Not frequently. We did get both aviation gasoline and fuel for the ship. We didn't really have aircraft parts and supplies other that what we carried. We still had to go back to replenish. It was during those years that radars first became available. As I recall, we went back in the spring to get the first radar installed on the ship.
That would have been spring of 1942?
Did you lose a lot of your aircraft during the battles down here?
In those battles, no. There were some losses. I can remember one loss from the attack on New Guinea. It was not one of our planes. It was a scout plane from a cruiser that was lost. It went down at sea. It literally lost its navigational bearings and couldn't find its way back to the force and went down for lack of fuel. This was prior to the attack on New Guinea. The navigator in the LEXINGTON was acting as the navigator for the force, so we proceeded on to the launching point for the attack on New Guinea. The following morning, the navigator brought the force back through the area where we had been at the time the float plane had been lost. He calculated where the plane would most likely be, where it went down. It happened that the cruiser that lost the plane hardly had to change position and formation, but steamed right up and there was the plane. They
brought it on board and the pilot and his radioman had survived. They had landed on the surface. They were out of fuel and they had no power for their radio.
They stayed afloat?
They stayed afloat overnight and were brought on board. I am impressed by the skills of our people who operated without all the modern equipment that we have today and knew something about how to maneuver ships, even under what we would consider primitive conditions.
That is amazing.
It is. We had relatively few losses there. There were some accidents from time to time. There was no major loss. That is up until May of 1942 when we went down to what developed to be the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Maybe we can go ahead to that point and describe the LEXINGTON's activity in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May of 1942.
I was still an assistant gunnery officer, about number twenty in the department, so I was not a very senior person, but I had a position up on the fire control station in the top of the ship operating one of the fire control directors--supervising its operation. During the day on the seventh of May, we were searching in the Coral Sea for the Japanese force that intelligence information told us was moving in toward Australia. Late in the afternoon of the seventh of May, our scout planes did, in fact, detect a Japanese force. It was almost dusk and our planes were recalled. The force commander made the decision not to conduct a night attack, but rather to remain in the vicinity and to launch an attack at dawn. Similarly, the Japanese had detected our force and obviously made a similar decision. Here were two surface forces that had not sighted each other but were aware of
the presence of one another. This information was broadcast to the crew and we were aware that the next morning, the eighth of May, we were clearly going to have a major battle.
Until this time, our aircraft had done all of the fighting. We had fired our guns a few times, but not effectively. Our planes were launched at dawn on the eighth. Search planes in short order found the Japanese force and we followed up with the launching of the attack planes, the dive-bombers and the torpedo planes. At least some of our fighters remained in the vicinity as a defense for the carrier and for the ships in the area. Some accompanied the bombers. Well, again we were at our battle stations early before sunrise. It wasn't long after sunrise that we got word that our radar had detected some unidentified planes coming our way.
I have some rather vivid recollections of the battle but I don't have all the details minute by minute. I can recall clearly the dive-bombers attacking our ship and the bombs landing in the water near by, followed almost immediately by some hits on the ship. Looking from my position down onto the flight deck, I remember one very damaging explosion on the flight deck near one of the gun batteries. Splinters of wood from the teak flight deck were thrown up eighty or a hundred feet in our direction. A man stationed ten feet away from me was struck by one of these splinters. By splinter, I mean a piece of two by four that is a couple of feet long with jagged edges. It tore open his abdomen. He was not killed immediately, though it was clear that he couldn't survive his wounds. That was my first sight of a war casualty at close hand. We went on with our gunnery work while one of our corpsmen came to his assistance.
The dive-bombing was followed by torpedo bombing. We were firing our guns at these torpedo planes, but equally ineffectively. During the early months of 1942, during one of our trips to Pearl Harbor, we had installed some new automatic guns, some machine-gun-type twenty-millimeter and forty-millimeter guns, which were better than our old heavy five-inch guns. They did some damage to the Japanese but still those torpedo planes bore down on us. We felt several explosions. As big as that ship was, when it was struck by a torpedo, it shook. Being eighty feet up the deck, I still knew that we were hit by something, yet those of us on the gun station were not too disturbed. We went on about our business. We knew the ship was invincible. We knew that it would last forever and that a few torpedoes and bombs weren't going to destroy it. I was not really thinking about injury to myself there. Why I wasn't, I don't know, because there was also some strafing with machine guns and we did have a few men killed by that. I was more intent on concentrating on bringing the guns to bear on these targets. As quickly as this attack began, it seemed to fade out. I mean, all of the Japanese attack planes had expended their bombs and torpedoes and they were gone. There was a lull.
How long did the battle last?
It seemed forever, but it seemed on the other hand to end abruptly. It seemed it was over, but we didn't know whether there would be another flight of planes coming in. Although we didn't relax, we had a chance to catch our breath and look around and see what was happening. By that time, it was clear that the ship was in trouble. We were still making pretty high speed because we could still launch planes, but there was some damage at the water line. The ship was not at full speed, we were not listing at that time,
we were still on an even keel. There was smoke coming from holes in the ship where the bombs had exploded.
We began to feel more shocks, almost like torpedoes again, yet there were no enemy planes there. Somebody who was more alert than I said, “It is the gasoline tanks exploding.” Aviation gasoline. It was clear that there were fires below deck. We knew that the fire fighters were at work on them and many people who were not otherwise involved were called to join in fighting these fires. Those of us who had gun-control duty stayed on our station. Others were fighting the fires. The smoke didn't seem to subside. The ship continued to make high speed, but I believe there were times when the captain slowed the speed in order to reduce the wind that may have been fanning the fires.
It was a long day from there on. Somewhere during the early afternoon, I guess, the word reached us that the fires were out of control and we were going to have to abandon the ship. I don't have any real knowledge of what was happening below decks, but that is on record at other places, I am sure. We were ordered to abandon our ship stations. The first thing to do was to help the wounded. The wounded were put over on a destroyer that came right under the stern of the ship so there was no need to transfer them over high lines. The stretchers were almost lowered directly by hand from our deck onto the deck of the destroyer.
Much later, after the wounded were removed, we had our instructions to leave the ship. I was stationed back on the port quarter, almost all the way to the stern as far as you could go, doing what I could to help organize the evacuation of the crew. We had some lines that we could throw over and climb down into the water. By then the ship was listing some, but not too seriously, and we were able to climb down lines. We had
launched some life rafts and one of the priorities was to get the remaining life rafts into the water. I remember clearly working on releasing some of those life rafts.
When it seemed that the wounded were gone and the life rafts were in the water and everybody around me had a life jacket, I just thought it was time for me to go. Many of the crew lined up their shoes along the deck edge. We knew that our heavy shoes were not good for swimming so we left the shoes behind on deck. They were all lined up in formation.
We were wearing tropical khaki uniforms. I don't remember whether they were long-sleeved or short-sleeved. We used long sleeves to protect against flash burns. We had kapok life jackets. Kapok is a fluffy material, the forerunner of foam rubber, except it is a natural material.
I can remember somehow climbing into the water and that it was quite a long way down from the deck into the ocean. I looked around and the nearest ship was a cruiser, which turned out to be the PORTLAND. It was probably a mile away. The destroyers had done their job in picking up the wounded by then and were picking up some of the able-bodied people who were in the water near the ship. I swam over to a life raft, which by then was loaded with men. Although there was no room on the raft, there were float lines attached to this raft and I was able to hold on to one of these lines. Those of us who were in the water were able to make this life raft move by kicking our feet. We headed toward the PORTLAND.
I suppose we were in the water about an hour when a whaleboat from one of the ships came and took the life raft in tow. It took some of the people into the boat and
towed the life raft over to the cruiser, which was apparently the closest ship at that point. They had rope ladders as well as cargo nets over the side so that we could climb up. I never felt so weak in my life as I did trying to climb up on the deck of that ship after that hour's swim. I was absolutely exhausted. I made it up on the deck. By the time I reached the deck, my legs were like rubber. It was partly relief, partly realizing there were a lot of sharks out there where we were, and the fate of that ship which we would have been in--all of these emotions put together. It was both exhausting and relieving to know that I and those around me were safe and wondering about the safety and fate of the others.
I can imagine at this point you had no idea how many casualties there were?
No. I didn't really. I knew there had been casualties, but I didn't know how many of our planes got back. It turned out that many of them landed on the YORKTOWN, another carrier that was in our force. I neglected to tell you a little additional sideline. Can we backtrack for a moment?
During these months that I was in the LEXINGTON, my older brother, who had proceeded me in the Naval Academy, was a destroyer engineer officer. His ship had been in the North Atlantic and came around to the Pacific to join up with our force a few days before the battle in the Coral Sea. When I had a watch on the bridge, I got a record of what ships were in the area, and here was the USS HAMMANN, my brother's ship. I hadn't seen my brother in years.
Shortly after they joined with us, they delivered mail that they had brought from Pearl Harbor to the various ships. I learned that his ship was bringing the mail and they
were going to be coming up to the LEXINGTON. I went back to the station where the mail would be passed from ship to ship. Of course, he knew he was coming to my ship so he was on the bridge and I was back where I could wave to him. I saw him for the first time. It couldn't have been more than a couple of days later that this battle occurred and he knew the LEXINGTON was hard hit and his ship came to pick up survivors of the LEXINGTON. I was otherwise occupied. Finally, after I got on the cruiser, I was able to send a message over to the HAMMANN and let him know that I was aboard. He responded and said that the force was going to an island nearby to anchor, transfer people around, and put the survivors on the transports and so forth. He said, “When we get to that island of Tongatapu, try to get over to see me.”
They had to redistribute all the people? That must have been a logistical nightmare?
It was. There were some empty transports in the area. The whole force proceeded to this island, Tongatapu, and there we joined these transports. I did visit my brother. Incidentally, his ship went on to Midway as most of that force did. At the battle of Midway, his ship was sunk and he was lost.
So that was the last time you saw your brother?
It was. I hadn't seen him for some years before that. I visited with him in his cabin for less than an hour. At least it was an opportunity. He advised me, “Don't get involved with another aircraft carrier. They are no good. Ask for a destroyer when you get back to the States.” Of course, his destroyer did not survive the next battle. That is just a little irony.
We want to continue here, Captain, where we left off with the LEXINGTON sunk.
After a short leave spent getting reacquainted with my family and my parents at home, I had orders to a new destroyer being built in Charleston, South Carolina. My assignment was as gunnery officer of this destroyer, which in itself was a bit of a shock. I had been number twenty in the gunnery department on the LEXINGTON and now I was to be the gunnery officer of a destroyer. Smaller, of course, but nevertheless, it was a different responsibility. In fall of 1942, in September, the ship was commissioned. We were off on a shakedown cruise to Casco Bay.
What was the name of the ship?
The PRINGLE--a distinguished Navy name. It was my first destroyer duty. Most of the officers and crew were uninitiated in destroyers at that time. We were novices in every respect. We did our shakedown in Casco Bay, Maine, during the months of December and January, which is clearly bitter winter there. Fortunately, we had a captain and executive officer that were experienced in destroyer duty. It was through them that we learned in a hurry.
Shortly after the beginning of our shakedown . . . we had barely begun to learn about our ship when we received word that a convoy coming back from Murmansk to Halifax, Nova Scotia, was under attack by a wolfpack of German submarines. We were ordered out to assist with our new ship and inexperienced crew.
We had on board a division commander. The ship was also unique in that it was the first destroyer to operate an airplane. We had a catapult on deck and float plane that we could fire off. It would search, do reconnaissance work, return, land in the water, taxi
up to a net which we dragged from a boom, hook onto the net, and then we lifted it on the deck with a crane. This catapult was part of my department, the gunnery department. Because I had so much experience in an aircraft carrier, of course, I was qualified to do this sort of thing.
We went out to find this convoy. Having searched in the foggy, stormy North Atlantic at the point where it was reported to be and not having found it, the division commander decided that we would launch the seaplane to search. He called the pilot to the bridge and told him that he recognized that the recovery conditions were not very good, but if we didn't find this convoy within an hour he felt compelled to launch the plane, well-knowing that it would be practically a suicide mission. Fortunately, it was in the last few minutes before that hour expired that we were able to make radar contact, pick up the convoy, and come back. That cruise, in itself, constituted a shakedown for the ship.
It wasn't long after that that we went out to the Pacific and back to the Solomon Islands area, not far from where the LEXINGTON had been. Within a year, I was executive officer of that ship, having turned over the gunnery duties to another junior officer.
Did you see any action there in the Pacific?
Well, during that first year, when I was gunnery officer, we were essentially in constant contact with the Japanese. They had occupied most of the Solomon Islands. The ground fighting was going on in Guadalcanal. Our job was to intercept Japanese re-supply convoys that were coming down to Guadalcanal and to prevent them from landing on another island. Night after night, we made runs up the “Slot,” as it was called,
which was a channel among these islands. Night after night, we had contact with Japanese planes and submarines and ships. For a full year, we were there in the Solomon Islands. I gained plenty of training and experience in gunnery tactics. I also became the senior watch officer on the ship. I was responsible for training the other watch officers and preparing the battle bill, which is the schedule of all the crew's battle and watch assignments. I was fairly well prepared at the end of that year to assume the duties of executive officer when the executive officer then on board fleeted up to become a commanding officer.
What time frame was this?
We are talking about the fall of 1943. I was a twenty-three-year-old executive officer, with a crew of some 250 to 280 men, still learning. I had suggested earlier in our discussion that there was a maturing process that had to take place with me and others that was rather accelerated by the war. Going from a midshipman in the protected walls of the Naval Academy to becoming second-in-command of a destroyer in combat was a fairly rapid transition.
I would like to backtrack a little. What were your activities during your attempts to disrupt the Japanese re-supply?
We were searching for their re-supply convoys and shooting at them, mostly at night. We were further supporting additional amphibious landings on the islands as we pushed our limits westward. For the occupation of the northern Solomons, island after island, we escorted the transport groups in there. There was barely a night went by that we were not in action of some sort.
Did the destroyer take any hits or have any sustained damage or anything?
We took hits on at least two occasions. They were fortunately small-arms fire mostly, from barges and small escort ships. We had some splinters from bombs and artillery. We lost only a few men in all that time. Less than six, I would say, were killed in action, and a few wounded. It was enough of a reminder each time that we had to be on our toes. From the Solomon Islands, that ship went on into the Mariana Islands in 1944 for the landings in Saipan and Tinian, which later became the bases for the nuclear attacks on Japan. Finally, the PRINGLE participated in the reoccupation of Guam, which had been an American base before the war started.
At the end of two years in the PRINGLE, I was reassigned as executive officer to another new destroyer built in New York. I returned to the Pacific area in time to become involved in the occupation of Okinawa.
What was the name of the new destroyer you were on?
That was the JOHN A. BOLE. It was a somewhat larger destroyer than the earlier one.
Off Okinawa, we learned of the death of Franklin Roosevelt and ultimately of the nuclear attack of Japan and, in time, of their surrender. All of that came in rather rapid succession. During the months that we were working off Okinawa, we were subjected to kamikaze attacks almost nightly. We knew the war wasn't over until it was over.
So you had to face that danger on a nightly basis?
We did. Yes. And we were in contact with the Marines and Army on shore. We provided support fire when they ran into resistance. Often times, during a lull, some of them would say, “We would like to get out to your ship and have a hot shower sometime.” We arranged for some of them to come out. The same night they were there,
we were under kamikaze attack and they found that it was not easy to dig a foxhole in the steel deck of a destroyer. They were happy to get back on shore.
So they had a little learning experience?
They did. They envied the Navy for having good food and showers, but there were not many places for us to hide.
You managed to avoid hits during that time?
Yes. My ship avoided hits. The PRINGLE was at Okinawa and sunk there. I was, of course, not on board at time, but that is where that ship was lost.
That was a fairly new ship, right?
Yes. It had been commissioned in 1942 and was sunk in 1944.
Was that a result of a kamikaze attack, too?
Yes. I still attend reunions with the crew of the PRINGLE. They are a good group to be acquainted with.
So you were sitting off shore supporting the Marines, basically. How long did that go on?
We were supporting both the Marines and the Army. We arrived out there in April of 1945, and the war ended in August, so that was about four months. After the surrender, JOHN A. BOLE, the destroyer I was on, was ordered to Korea on various occupation duties. We went into the southern port of Pusan, where the U.S. Army was occupying some of the military facilities. That was the first time I got ashore anywhere in that part of the world. It was not a very recreational sort of visit.
Then we went to an island south of Korea, an island called Cheju-do or Saishu-to, the Japanese name. Saishu-to Island had been a kamikaze base. The JOHN A. BOLE
was ordered in to demilitarize that island, so we proceeded to the principal port. The captain of the ship advised me that he would go to the military headquarters and I would go to the naval headquarters, each to contact the commander of the Japanese forces there, ensure that they were aware of the surrender, and oversee the demilitarization of the island.
With a couple of young officers' assistance, I went ashore and found my way to the naval headquarters, where I met a Japanese officer who introduced himself as a commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy's forces on Saishu-to. He invited me into his headquarters and offered me lunch. I declined. I was, for no good reason, suspicious of what he was offering, but I am sure that it was good and favored Japanese food that he had saved for a special occasion, yet I didn't participate. I was interested in getting the job done. I learned that he had been to school in Ohio. He was about fifteen years my senior. He did speak some English, but he also had an interpreter.
After the formalities of getting acquainted with him, he took me out and showed me what was left of the airfield and a few kamikaze aircraft that were remaining. They were their oldest decrepit planes. By that time, anything that could fly they would load up with ammunition. These wouldn't even fly. There were also suicide boats on this island. They were like small versions of PT boats. They were carried on dollies, on two-wheel carts, down to the waterfront. They loaded them with explosives and hoped, though, I think never succeeded, to drive them into the center of our fleet and ram the side of a ship--another sort of suicide effort. By the time we arrived on the island, the boats had been burned. You could see the charred hulls of them, but the carts that carried
them in the water, made of bicycle wheels and pipe, were still there. He said, “We will dispose of them, we will get rid of them.”
I looked around and saw the Japanese farmers and, mostly, the farmers' wives pulling heavy loads on their backs--seaweed that they brought up from the sea for fertilizer and bags of rice. I said, “No, there is no need to destroy those. You can leave those two-wheel carts there.” He said, “But the Koreans will get them.” I said, “That is fine.” Obviously, they didn't have military value and it would be senseless to destroy them.
Then we went on to the port of Inchon, Korea. I navigated the ship into Inchon, where the tides rise twenty feet and the mud flats are treacherous. I did learn something about the entrance to the port of Inchon so that, five years later to the day, in 1950, I commanded another ship and led the invasion forces into the port of Inchon when General MacArthur selected it as a site to land behind the enemy lines. It was because of my experience that I was chosen to lead them in.TAPE 2, SIDE 1
You were involved in Inchon, going back again and leading the night force in?
Yes, I was then commanding a high-speed transport called the HORACE A. BASS, a destroyer escort hull that had been converted into a transport. Most of the first year of the Korean War, we were landing reconnaissance forces on the coast. When General MacArthur decided that we had to land behind the enemy line, an amphibious force was put together at Pusan and my ship carried the spearhead company of Marines into Inchon. In addition to carrying the Marines in, we were the navigational leader and guided this
force up the channel, along the tortuous channel into the port of Inchon. We went in under the cover of darkness, without incident, incidentally. The Koreans had left the navigational lights on most of their buoys, so it was not quite as difficult as it could otherwise have been. The company of Marines that we had on board were among the first to land and occupy the principal island of Cheju-do [Saishu-to], which covered the approach to Seoul, the capital of Korea. A full day after arrival there, we were not only landing Marines but also guiding the other landing craft into the beach using our radio control methods.
Without fire at first?
Yes. There was essentially no resistance, as far as the ships were concerned. There were a few mines in the channel and we were fortunate in not having contact with any of those. The Marines had some resistance on shore, not severe, but they definitely had resistance. They quickly drove that back.
As far as the ships were concerned, our enemy was the tides. We had to stay in deep water as the water receded and, after landing craft beached themselves to disgorge their cargo, they had to get back into deep water before they were stranded. Otherwise, they had to wait for the next high tide. They were vulnerable, not only vulnerable, but it interfered with the unloading process.
We stayed on until all the heavier ships had been unloaded and finally went on and resumed our duties of demolishing railroads along the coast of Korea by sending landing parties in at night. We had Marine reconnaissance and underwater demolition teams on board ship that would seek out the railroad tunnels, plant explosives, and blow them up. Then we would retreat and go to another site for the next night.
So you dropped them off and then picked them back up?
We did. They went in in rubber boats that we launched anywhere from a half a mile to a mile off shore. We kept in radio contact with them while they were ashore. Their missions usually lasted between one and two hours, then we guided them back to the ship. Meanwhile, we had selected a new location for the following night. We went up and down both coasts of Korea, pretty close to the Soviet border. We had some sort of recognition from the commander of the Far East Air Forces for having stopped the railroad traffic on those coastal lines that his heavy bombers had been unable to stop. We were able to put demolition crews on the scene that could get into those tunnels, where bombs couldn't reach. They didn't have smart bombs then--so they couldn't find those tunnels as well as we could.
My first post-war duty was in that ship and it was one of my most interesting assignments, not only during those eight months in Korea, but in the months building up to Korea. Although it was not combat duty during the latter part of 1949 and into early 1950, my ship was the station ship in Hong Kong, meaning that we were permanently based there over a period of months. We didn't move around much during the winter of 1949 and 1950 but since the U.S. State Department had evacuated all of its stations in China, we became the communications base for the U.S. consul in Hong Kong and he in turn represented the eyes and ears of the United States in that part of the world.
Chiang Kai-shek had been driven back from central China and the remnants of his armies were along the coast. Communists had occupied almost the entire mainland and eventually toward the end of 1949, the Nationalist Forces moved over to Formosa. The HORACE A. BASS was ordered up to Shanghai to evacuate the American nationals who
remained there. This little ship could carry only one hundred people, but the Navy Department sent two landing ships down from Tokyo, manned by Japanese crews. They came down to provide extra carrying capacity for the American families. I was to be the American commander on the scene, as captain of the HORACE A. BASS. I met these Japanese ships in the shallow estuary of the Yangtze River and we waited for the State Department to clear the arrangements for us to go up the river to Shanghai to bring out the Americans. For a month, we were wallowing in the shallow China Sea and had a rather boring time. The crew went fishing to supplement our food supplies. I had a hard time with the Japanese commanders of those ships, having them anchor in a safe way. In spite of various cautions, they did in fact both loose an anchor and, finally, one of them lost his second anchor. Then we were really in serious trouble. We had to transfer an anchor from my ship to their LST. Moving a two-thousand-pound anchor over without a boat that could carry it took a little bit of planning.
You told them if he lost that one he would just have to go home?
I would have. We figured a way to drop the anchor to the bottom of the sea, buoy it, and rig a line so that they could connect up to it and take it on board, and so salvage the expedition.
Was there a lot of tension there in trying to figure out what was going on and when things were going to happen?
I wouldn't say there was tension. I didn't feel tension at any rate. I wasn't the kind of guy who would be tense under those circumstances. I found it challenging. I had learned through the earlier years of my Navy upbringing enough to plan for all the exigencies. If you lost an anchor, you had a back-up plan to take care of it.
It was also during that period that my ship was ordered to Bangkok, Siam. No American ship had been in Thailand since before the war. The channel into Bangkok was silted in. The American fleet commander was to fly into Bangkok to arrange for helping them dredge the channel and open it to commerce. He needed a flagship. He couldn't get any other ship in there. My ship had a shallow enough updraft to cross the bar at high tide. We did, in fact, go into Bangkok and establish ourselves as the flagship of the Seventh Fleet. The admiral met with the premier of Thailand aboard ship and with the commander of the Thai Navy. For our young officers and crew, this was an exciting time to see a different part of the world and a different level of diplomacy.
What time frame was it that you were in Thailand?
That was in January of 1950, which puts it five months before the Korean War started. It was immediately after mainland China fell to the Communists and it was five months before the Communists invaded from North to South Korea. Those were busy times, although it was not always apparent to others.
Yes. It was obviously an important political mission, even though you might not have known it at the time.
[End of Interview]
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