The Salt Lake City|
February, 1940 to November 1942
Excerpt from “My Life as Told to My Son” by Bert Nave, Sergeant Major Retired, USMC
I initially signed up to join the Navy. But the Navy had a six year enlistment and that was a long time for a young man. I saw this Marine recruiter, Corporal Townsend, standing there with his blue uniform. I hardly knew anything about the Marine Corps. I asked him, “How long do you have to sign up for in that outfit.” He said, “Four years.” I said, “I just signed up in there for six years. That’s too long.” He said, “Well I can go in there and get your papers and you can go in the Marine Corps.” So that is what I did. I signed up in August, 1939 but didn’t go in until February, 1940 because there were too many people trying to enlist at that time. I went to boot camp in San Diego.
Sergeant Sprouls was my Drill Instructor, he had a corporal and a PFC working with him. Sergeant Sprouls was a buck sergeant. I thought they were real good to their recruits. You had to say “sir” and stand at attention and things like that, but the way they are portrayed in the media is just mistaken. Somebody running around yelling and screaming all of the time is just not how it is. I can’t stand that guy on “Mail Call”. There were a few Marines like him but most weren’t anything like that. It wasn’t the way it was when I went through boot camp and it wasn’t the way it was when I was a drill instructor. They never mistreated anyone. They had their military bearing and I respected that. I respected Sprouls and his corporal; although, I thought the PFC was an idiot—he was trying to show too much authority. Later on, when I was a drill instructor, I had a PFC that was much the same way. I came by one morning and saw him out drilling his troops by having them double timing around him while he was just standing in the middle. So I saw to it that that was his last day as a drill instructor. I was always told you could run people as hard as you wanted but you had better run with them.
After boot camp, I was selected to go to Sea School which wasn’t in my plans. Corporal Townsend got transferred down to this defense battalion in San Diego. He was a sergeant at that time. He came to see me when I was in boot camp and told me that when I was ready to get out of boot camp, he would transfer me to the defense battalion and get me my PFC rank right away and corporal stripes soon after. So that’s where I really wanted to go.
Master gunnery sergeant Martinez was in charge of Sea School. He was a Panamanian. You couldn’t understand him—he talked with a heavy accent. He had been in the Marine Corps for a long time and fought in the “banana wars” in Central America. He was loaned to the Panamanian Army and was a second Lieutenant in that army even while he was a sergeant in the Marines. He ran a tight ship. I was trying to get out of Sea School because I didn’t want to go to sea. I would get out of step on purpose and things like that. But he knew what I was doing and told me he was going to send me to sea if it was the last thing he did. He said “You don’t want to go to sea. I’ll send you to sea. I’ll put you on the nitro and blow you up.” (The “nitro” was an ammunition ship.)
When you went to Sea School from boot camp, they moved you across the street and gave you a blue uniform. Only Marines with sea duty wore the blue uniform. You drilled and drilled. The school was all about “spit and polish” and learning how they do things in the Navy. When you went aboard ship you had to talk like a sailor.
I accidentally spilled shoe dye on the deck of the barracks. They had me spend all of my extra time while I was in sea school polishing that deck to get that stain out. They wanted the deck so clean that you could see yourself in it.
After Sea School I had orders to go aboard the Phoenix, a cruiser. Myself, Lamansky and Ferris were all ordered to go. We were supposed to meet her in Pearl Harbor. When we got to Pearl Harbor, the Phoenix wasn’t there. I never found out why the Phoenix didn’t show up. We were assigned to the guard detachment in Pearl Harbor for several weeks. Then the cruiser, the Salt Lake, came to port and so we went aboard her.
Not too long after I went aboard the Salt Lake, we went to Mare Island for three months of overhaul. We slept on hammocks until we went to Mare Island where they installed folding berths. When in port, we usually just slept on deck because of the heat. Hawaii is hot and doesn’t cool off at night and had mosquitoes.
When I was on guard duty waiting for a ship, I had to choose between the mosquito netting, which made it hotter, or getting bit by mosquitoes. In the morning, there would be blood stains on the sheet where I rolled over and squashed a bunch of mosquitoes.
After refitting in Mare Island, we first returned to Pearl and then went on a three month cruise through the South Pacific. I was a PFC by then. It was the summer of 1941. We went to Sydney and Brisbane, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand; the Solomon Islands. That was when I got my Brisbane, Australia tattoo. We were with another cruiser, the Northampton, and several destroyers. It seemed like we were just taking a cruise; however, they were learning about the area because just a year later we were fighting all through there.
I can’t think of what island in New Briton we went to where they had bungee jumpers. People are doing it now for a sport. But on that island they were already doing it. They had these bamboo towers, at different heights, and the tallest was way up there—60 feet or more. They had vines tied to their ankles. They would jump off and the vines would go taut just when they touched their heads on the ground.
On this cruise, I was appointed Captain’s Orderly. I was his orderly until I made corporal. The Captain’s Orderly attended the Captain. I stood guard, and announced people coming to see him. I also drove the staff car when he was ashore. I think he treated me a little special.
Captain C. O. Cobb,
the Marine Captain, was also good to me. I was well treated aboard the Salt Lake.
One day, a Commander W. A. Kitts barged in to see Captain Zacharias and I wouldn’t let him pass because I had to announce him first. This really made him angry. He put me on report. So the next thing I knew I had to attend Captain’s Mass. They reduced me one stripe. That really made me mad—I was just doing my job. So I went down to my compartment, and I got out my razor blade to take my stripes off and the Marine Captain came by and said, “Don’t do that for a while, Nave.” I had the Salt Water rank which you had to hold six months before you got your regular rank. About three or four days later they awarded me the regular stripes. I said, “I thought I got busted.” They said “You did, but you got promoted back..” Kitts was kind of a wild man and the ship’s captain had to do something so they did it to appease Kitts. It never appeared on paper. Kitts was the same guy who was an admiral in China after the war. Then he treated me like an old friend. He was the one who got me aboard the Duluth.
Kitts made admiral and Captain Zacharias didn’t until he retired right after the war. I think Captain Zacharias was held back because he put his foot in his mouth about December 7. He spent time as an interpreter for Hirohito. He knew the Japanese. He was really intelligent. Before becoming ship’s captain, he was in Naval intelligence in Japan. When I was on guard duty outside of his office, I could hear him talking to the other officers. He had a mock up of Pearl Harbor on the table. I could hear him say, “They are going to come in from here and they are going to hit Pearl. It’s going to be about 8:00 A.M. on a Sunday morning.” I heard him tell them that he was going to present this at a staff meeting at Pearl to the base commander, Kimball. That’s what he did after we arrived in Pearl. When he came back, he was mad. I could hear him storming around his cabin. They seemed to have laughed him out of the meeting. They acted like he was nuts.
I still think it was all a put up job and that Kimball and Cook took the wrap for FDR. He wanted something that would fire up the American people. There were too many warnings that were ignored. They expected that attack. I think the whole top command were expecting an attack. I heard much later that both FDR and Churchill knew that the Japanese fleet was out there and headed toward Hawaii. The Salt Lake and the Northampton and a few destroyers were supposed to have run into them when we were headed out from Manila. We would have been the small fleet sacrificed in the initial engagement to wake the American people up and started the war but we just missed them.
After that cruise, we went back to Pearl Harbor. That’s when I made corporal. I made corporal because I did the best on the test. I was a junior PFC and Captain Cobb was a bit hesitant about me; he gave me a long lecture about leadership.
I was only a corporal six days when I had the opportunity to be made sergeant. I never even got to put my corporal stripes on. You usually had to be corporal for about six years until you made sergeant. But they had too many vacancies. Captain Cobb announced he needed a sergeant and that he didn’t have much to choose from and so he would give a test to the corporals and the highest score would become the sergeant. Captain Cobb was a stickler for going by the book. The answer had to be verbatim—exactly like what the book said. So I knew I had it made. The other guys really never applied themselves. But then something else happened that helped me even more.
A friend of mine was the company clerk by the name of J. W. Hays, Sgt.. He came aboard ship the same time I did. He had a little office and would let me go into the office and study. It was the red book. It was the night before the test and the first sergeant came by and kicked me out. After I got out of there I realized I had left my book in there. So I went back but the sergeant was still in there working. I hung around waiting for him to leave. When he finally did, I went in and got my book and started studying. There would be a little mark by places in my book. The next day I took the test and all of the questions came from those marked places. I guess he used my book thinking it was his when he made up the test. I aced the test.
I started off on the 5 inch gun crew as a loader. The 5 inch guns provided the anti-aircraft flak. When I made buck sergeant I became the gun captain. The gun captain had the ear phones on and would be the one giving orders to “fire”. Four guys wore ear phones—the fuse setter, the trainer, the pointer and the gun captain. The gun captain would relay the orders from the fire control center. The fuse setter would set the timing for the air burst. The trainer would set the horizontal coordinates and the pointer the vertical. The number one loader was the biggest and the strongest. All of the other loaders just passed the ammunition up to him. The fuse setter would dial the fuse and then the rammer would close the breech. The hot shell man had asbestos gloves all the way up to his shoulders. His job was to catch the heavy hot casing and throw them in a special place where they wouldn’t damage the deck. I tried it but I couldn’t catch a shell.
Then they moved us to the 1.1s. The 1.1s were also anti-aircraft. There were four guns that rapidly fired clips of shells. The 1.1s took more men than the 5 inch guns. Towards the end of my tour of duty, I was assigned to the 20 millimeters. Those guns are actually aimed at the planes rather than just setting up a field of flak. I never got to shoot at any planes with the 20 mm. They were all too far out of range.
In November of 1941, we were on our way to Manila when we received orders to join the Enterprise at Wake Island. The Enterprise dropped off some planes at Wake Island and when we joined them, we headed back to Pearl—the Northampton, the Salt Lake and a couple of destroyers. The Salt Lake had been at sea longer than the others so we broke loose to head into the harbor first—it was December 7, 1941. We were just out of the harbor waiting for daylight to get through the submarine nets. That’s when the Japanese planes came by us after the air raid at Pearl and we shot at them. But it was useless—all of our ammunition had been sabotaged. We pulled away from Pearl and began looking for the Japanese fleet. I don’t think we really wanted to find them because of our bad ammunition and we would have been so far outnumbered.
The next morning we entered Pearl. We were picking up supplies, fuel and changed every round of ammunition. Everyone, no matter what rank, helped with the resupply. It took 24 hours with all hands working. All of the time you are watching the sky because you didn’t know if they were coming back. Then there was all of the smoke and the bodies floating in the harbor, all of the sunken ships--it was a mess.
The following day, about 9 or 10, we left the harbor with two sub chasers. We were supposed to cruise toward San Francisco looking for two man subs. General quarters meant that all of the battle stations were manned. Condition 2 meant that half were always being manned.
Condition 3 meant that one third were being manned. We were on condition 2. Our gun crews were supposed to shoot at anything unusual in the water because if you took too long the subs could submerge. So we would shoot and the sub chasers would race over and cover the area with depth charges. They said we sunk a lot of two man subs based on oil slicks and other debris. But I think a lot of them were porpoises and whales. A whale spout would look like a periscope and a porpoise looked like a torpedo wake. We did this all the way until we could see the lights of San Francisco and then we headed around and did the same thing on the way back to Pearl.
We pulled in to Pearl and just a few days later we went out with the Northampton and the Enterprise and went out to Wake Island just after the Japanese had taken it. Planes off the Enterprise dive bombed it. We came back to Pearl and then we went down to Samoa. the Marshall and the Gilbert Islands—Wotje Island. We dived bombed that. Afterwards we were always in a hurry getting out of there because there was usually a Japanese bomber coming out to try to drop a bomb on us. From there we went to Pearl for a few days and then to Marcus Island—same thing. These were just raids to keep the Japanese off balance.
Soon after we went out again, the Salt Lake, the Northampton, the Enterprise and another carrier with some cruisers. Jimmy Doolittle and his bombers were aboard the carrier. The carriers and the cruisers headed for Tokyo at full speed leaving our destroyers behind because they just couldn’t keep up. The next morning we encountered a Japanese fishing boat. The boat would have had a radio so a cruiser went over and sunk it. They were worried that the fishing boat had radioed ahead. We weren’t close enough yet for Jimmy Doolittle’s bombers to make their run and still have enough fuel to land in bases in China. He decided that they would go anyway. So they took off. Every time a plane took off, I held my breath because those heavy bombers would sink toward the water. But all of them got off all right. As soon as they took off, we turned around and headed back at full speed to join the destroyers. We really had to work to keep up with the aircraft carrier. We had four planes on the Salt Lake, two on the starboard and two on the port. They secured them to the catapult and turned on their propellers. Our top speed was normally 31 knots and I think they helped us get up to 35. After Jimmy Doolittle bombed Tokyo, he flew his planes over China. Many of them had to ditch in Japanese territory because they ran out of fuel.
We then headed South and got in on the last of the battle of the Coral Sea. We then were assigned to the Australian Fleet at Brisbane Australia. This was August of 1942, just a year after we had been cruising through the same area. We sat for a while. We were putting supplies on the dock. Then one day everybody was called back to ship from shore leave and got underway in a hurry. We left all of our supplies on the dock. We joined up with the landing force in New Zealand. There were all kinds of ships. The Salt Lake supported the landing at Tulagi. There was not much resistance on that landing. We stayed offshore in support of those Marines. There were night battles but the Salt Lake didn’t get involved in too many of them until the second battle of Savo Island in November. All of this time, we had no supplies—rice every meal. I had enough rice during that time to last a lifetime.
In the second battle of Savo Island, I was on the 20 mm by the bridge. I could hear everything that was going on. The flag ship was the San Francisco. There were two destroyers in front, then the San Francisco, the Boise and the Salt Lake, the Northampton, and three or four other destroyers. I could hear the admiral coming over the speakers on the bridge. He said we are going to go left and anything on our flanks are enemy. He didn’t take into consideration that there were destroyers out in front. So the San Francisco made the turn and we made the turn. Suddenly, there was the silhouette of a ship. The Boise opened up. I could tell that was one of our destroyers by the outline. Then the Boise turned search lights on it and so then the Japanese could see the destroyers and so they started shooting at them. So the gunners on the destroyers started shooting at the searchlights on the Boise. Then the Boise started catching it from the Japanese.
I was on the 20 mms and there was nothing for us to do. But I was right by that 8 inch gun. I think that’s when I lost my hearing. The Boise was hit bad. She was on fire from the bow all of the way back to the bridge. She got out of formation and pulled back, but as she did so, she silhouetted us. That’s when we got hit. We were hit in the boiler rooms and lost several sailors. But it didn’t hinder our speed. The Boise fell back and I didn’t think she stood a chance. However, in the morning the Boise was still tagging along.
After that we headed back to Pearl with the Boise for repairs. That’s when I got off the ship.