Monday, October 31, 2005

Diary Entry #3 July/August '43 Tulagi

. . .But now to get along on our voyage. Sometime in the latter part of July we met up with two other task forces consisting of aircraft carriers, heavy cruisers, innumerable destroyers and a couple of A.A. cruisers and nearly 20 transports and cargo ships.

The sea was burdened with fighting ships and fighting men. For all we knew we may be headed for Tokyo. We as yet had no orders.

After the first of August this force split up with our cruiser staying with the transports. Finally our orders arrived. Every man in our division rushed below to hear from our C.O. just where and how soon we would hit Guadacanal and Tulagi Islands in the lower Solomons, on August 7th. Well that didn't mean much to me at that particular time, but I have since learned and seen much of the Solomons.

Finally after three days and nights of condition II watch, four hours on and four off, every man and instrument ever on the alert for the enemy, we sailed into the large harbour which was later to be the scene of many a vicious and bloody battle. Just before day break a tin can ahead of us opened fire on a small Jap patrol vessel and scored direct hits. Then just before dawn our tin cans and cruisers opened fire on the beach. It was a beautiful awe inspiring sight to behold the brightly colored tracers of an eight inch projectile arcing across the water then crashing into the earth with a terrific explosion. We cruised up and down the beach for three hours shelling at anything and everything.

at 0900 the first waves of marines hit the beach without resistance. The Japs had withdrawn from the beach, but only temporarily. But that is not my story -- you all know of the courageous fight put up by the marines and later the army for possession of Guadacanal.

Over on the Tulagi side other cruisers, cans and transports were behaving in much the same manner as the ships on our side. But on the beach our marines and naval landing boats were met with stiff resistance. But our men were not to be denied for this was America's first attempt to invade enemy held territory. Only after months of heavy fighting large sea and air battles were we able to secure the lower Solomons.

Early in the afternoon of August 7, the Japs tried to drive our invading forces out with two waves of bombers and fighter-escort. This indeed was a thrill of a lifetime with ships steaming around the harbour with guns ablaze from stem to stern, as if they themselves were on fire. In the distance you could see dog fights now and a plane in a dog fight would receive a vital blow and go plummeting earthward like a great bird diving on its prey, only to crash, never to fly again. Our ships were also giving a good account of themselves. Jap bombers were everywhere being blasted from the skies. After the smoke had cleared away we could see Jap planes bobbing up and down in the water--some sinking, others smouldering or ablaze. Only one ship had been hit: the transport Elliot was burning. She was later abandoned, scuttled and sunk.

The rest of that day and night was spent with the transports still unloading their precious cargo and supplies.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Diary Entry #2: July 17 -- Crossing the Equator

Finally on July 17 we crossed the equator, the one spot in the whole universe that every true son of the sea dreams of crossing someday. Well, the equator looked like any other spot in the vast Pacific. On the eve before crossing there was much ado aboard the ol' Asty (Astoria), for there were nearly 100 men and officers who were still "polliwogs." We were served with subpoenas to be present at the court of King Neptune, the ruler of the deep; then came the initiation which lasted throughout the evening and the next day. The initiation consisted of unsightly haircuts, grease and various war paints, standing look-out watches on the after gun turret clothed in a watch cap and P-coats only, using two bottles for binoculars.

Then came the dawn. About 8:30 King Neptune took the chair surrounded by the royal guard. Polliwogs fell in on the foc'sle. Then after being duly tried the polys began their crawl from the foc'sle to the fantail -- 588 long feet. Boy, if you don't think it's long, just count your bruises when you pick yourself up. Just crawling through the paddle line didn't seem quite enough. When we reached the well deck we were met by the full pressure of salt water hoses drenching you to the bone, then with eyes smarting from the salt you ran into a net streched the width of the well deck and towering some 7 or 8 feet. Could we make it? You can bet we did for there were at least an odd hundred seasoned shellbacks goading you on with improvised paddles and clubs. The clubs, by the way, were made of canvas coverings stuffed with rags and soaked in salt water until they were as hard and stiff as baseball bats. Then with all of this, we started over the almost impassible barrier only to be met with new salt water hoses and more shellbacks with a vicious look in their eyes ready to pounce on you the moment you hit the deck. At long last we passed through the hanger on out to the fantail to join other "polys" drying themselves, lying in the sun and licking their wounds, for only on the fantail were we safe from the unmerciful onslaught of the shellback. And not till the dawn of a new day would we feel safe and be recognized as brother shellbacks.

[A little note -- about 46 years after my father's experience, I too became a "Trusty Shellback" (Crusty Shellback, in some sources) when I crossed the equator during a cruise through the Galapagos Islands. I'll be posting that in a bit when I enter my "Reality of Ecuador" journal on a separate blog. Needless to say, my experience pales in comparison to what my father went through. At least I'm not a Pollywog like you!]

Diary Entry #1, 1943: California to Pearl Harbor and Beyond

My father kept a diary of some of his experiences in the Pacific Theater during WW II. I'll try to break this up by chapters or dates, so the blocks of text aren't horribly long. I've put some things in parenthesis for clarification -- and I am typing this from something I transcribed a few years ago from the original diary (that had some water damage) so I may have mangled some of the entries. My father was educated in the early part of the 20th century, so he has impeccable spelling and grammar. Any mistakes in this diary are most likely my transcription and proofreading errors.

My Life in the Service
the Diary of John Wesley Brown
La Junta, Colorado

September 9, 1943

This is my first attempt to keep a diary. I should have started this upon my entering the service of the navy, but things happened so fast that I, in great haste and excitement rushed off to join my companions in the service of my country, leaving my diary behind.

I will only fill in up to this date the things that highlight my memory.

In the little over five months that I spent in Frisco, there is very little to write about (?)day but much that I shall long remember.

I easily made friends with all my shipmates aboard the Eider. Also made some very close buddies.

It was just a sad a day as it was happy when we steamed into Pearl Harbour. Most of my close buddies were transferred to other ships. Yet after six months of war we were to be given a chance to prove ourselves and to fight our enemies on a real man 'o war. Yes, a heavy cruiser, the Astoria. She was in dry dock when we went aboard, and our first look at a heavy was from stem to stern, and from keel to masthead. We were proud and confident when we went aboard, and rightly so for our ship had been tried in battle and had tasted the blood of the enemy. Many were the tales our new buddies had to tell us of the Coral Sean and Midway battles, of Jap ships sunk, of zeros and mitzis shot down, of the sinking of the Lexington and the rescue of her crew.

We were keyed up to do our bit which was not to be too far distant. On the morning of July 7 we steamed out of Pearl Harbour and made up a task force of a half dozen heavy cruisers, the Aircraft carrier, Saratoga, a dozen tin cans and the oiler Cimarron. We were sailing on sealed orders--not a man aboard knew our destiny. It was an uneventful voyage as far as meeting the enemy. Every day was the same as the day before. One hour before sunrise we are awakened by the general alarm bell and the rush to your C.Q. station, before you are shut off by the closing of water tight doors and hatches. The bugler blowing C.Q. bumping into someone in a dimly lit passage way. Watching the planes warm up and take off so early that only their exhausts are visible.

All during (the) day we would have various drills, torpedo defense, target practice, both A.A. and main battery.