The Saga of the Swayback Maru
USS Salt Lake City CA25
by Haile Hamilton "Jake" Jaekel

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Chapter I

Do you remember that fateful day of infamy, December 7th 1941? The Salt Lake City was about 200 miles west of Oahu with a Task Group that had just delivered a dozen Marine Corps fighter planes to Wake Island. It was a stroke of luck and good fortune that Admiral Halsey decided to take a few more days to conduct training exercises that saved the entire Task Force from the fiery hell of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. About ten Salt Lake City crew members - among which Henry Dyjak, Ralph Horton and Jake Jaekel - were left behind to take care of two of the ship’s motor launches, the officers boat and the Captains Gig when the Task Force left for Wake Island.

It was about 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning and Jake had finished breakfast at the Marine Barracks in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard. None of the other crewmembers were around so he headed for the upper level of the coal dock to gain a good vantage point looking out the Pearl Harbor entrance channel to see if any ships of the Task Force were anywhere in sight. The Task Force had been due back yesterday and he was worried and puzzled. Jake was a 17 tear old boy raised on a sheep ranch and was used to the disciplines of farm life. He felt it was like milking cows every morning and evening at scheduled times, when the Navy told him his ship was due to return Dec. 6th 1941, it would unless something had gone wrong.

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He was not used to the complexity of Navy life, as he was an apprentice seaman eager to learn and do whatever was required as he had been brought up to do on the ranch. As Jake’s eyes strained looking out to sea searching for his ship or the distinctive profile of a carrier he saw and heard a large number of aircraft approaching overhead and wondered if they were from the USS Enterprise, the carrier in his ships Task Force. Some of the planes began to dive towards the battleships that were all moored in a neat row and in some cases two ships side by side at the same berth.

It was indeed an impressive sight! The planes appeared to be practicing some kind of exercise or maneuver before landing at Ford Island.

A bomb separated from one of the planes followed by a large explosion. Others followed and many more were strafing. More explosions could be heard coming from many locations. Several planes flew low out the channel strafing the coal dock and a number of small craft tied up there. The first plane was so close Jake could see the rear seat gunner struggling with his gun firing right at him and the distinctive red meat ball Japanese insignia on the airplanes wings and fuselage. The Captain of the Salt Lake City had spoken to the crew earlier in November about the possibility of a surprise hostile action by the Japanese.

The sound of bullets flying through the air, ricocheting and slamming into every thing around brought home the realization the area was being strafed. A critically wounded sailor fell out of the telephone booth with the vivid color contrast of blood on his white uniform. Two attractive young ladies were quickly ushered into a car by a young officer. The sound of machine-gun fire could be heard as somehow one of the small craft along side the dock was starting to return fire at the low flying Japanese airplanes.

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Jake’s emotions turned to panic as it became apparent what a vulnerable place this was and started running from the coal dock.

He ran until a big Marine Sergeant grabbed him by the arm and said, “calm down, son”! After asking a few questions and sizing Jake up he said to another Marine, “give this big kid a Browning Automatic Rifle and show him how it works”! About the time he got the BAR, planes flew overhead strafing but they received intense antiaircraft return fire from all around the Marine Barracks area. The Sergeant hastily demonstrated how to load and fire. One of the planes was evidently hit and started trailing smoke. Then it got quiet for a moment as the local ground fire diminished and the sergeant said “son you are now a BAR rifleman in the Marine Corps” and ordered him to go with four Marines. The corporal looked at Jake and said “come on swab-jockey follow me, you might accidentally hit something with a little more practice”! As they made their way back toward the ship channel Jake realized how heavy the bandoleers of ammunition were, but in a way it felt good and his feeling of panic seemed to be almost gone as he fought back.

They arrived near the coal dock and then noticed some sailors going to the motor launch storage area for boats left by ships at sea. The Salt Lake City motor launches were tied up there. A Navy lieutenant asked Jake if he was a crewman of one of these boats and then ordered him to join five other sailors to man three launches and go help those abandoning damaged and sinking ships. The lone man already had the engine running on one so Jake quickly put the BAR in the launch and manned the tiller. There wasn’t any thought of introduction as all felt the urgency of the assignment.

Following the other two launches they made their way toward the battleships; smoke was billowing from several ships and they were firing at any plane they could see. The closer you got the smoke and damage looked worse. Other boats could be seen helping men out of the water and from the side of a ship. The battleships were damaged beyond Jake’s imagination as he was told these dreadnoughts were practically unsinkable! He didn’t know exactly what he was supposed to do but realized the situation was such that it appeared neither did anyone else.

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Heading for the nearest men he could see in the water Jake slowed the launch to almost a stop; then they started bringing men aboard. Some were injured and those able helped bring more aboard. It appeared some were in shock and had been blown or jumped overboard. Others were sick from the thick oil on the water.

When the launch was full they headed for the Navy Yard Hospital at Hospital Point. Several passengers noted that there was an urgency to leave the area,

which soon became apparent as the number of enemy planes passing overhead had dramatically increased. Explosions and return anti aircraft fire from all over the area had become more intense. Debris and shrapnel was falling all around. Jake felt a hot stinging sensation as a small piece of shrapnel tore into the calf of his left leg. It was soon forgotten as a low flying plane was coming straight at the boat. Jake could see and feel everyone’s desperation including his own anxiety and fear when momentarily you know that something has to be done or you’ve had it! Everyone’s adrenaline was extremely high as the plane passed to the rear. It was not after our boat but was concentrating on a bigger target.

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Near the dock at Hospital Point the engine sounded different. Jake signaled to slow speed then neutral but realized that the motorman already was shutting down, as the engine was overheated. They coasted to the dock, tied up and unloaded. The injured were being laid out on the lawn in front of the hospital until they could be moved inside. Jake got a dressing for the gash in the calf of his leg. He then took the BAR and left the motorman and the launch tied up at the hospital boat landing.

Army units were now starting to come into the Navy Yard and set up anti- aircraft guns. After numerous other events he was told he could obtain clean clothes including dungarees at the receiving station. It was late evening when he finally got rid of his dirty, oily, bloody and torn white uniform, showered, put a clean dressing on his leg wound and had something to eat. He was also issued a gasmask and steel helmet.

Jake threw his uniform away and started walking back to the coal dock to see if the boats from Swayback Maru were damaged. It was getting dark when he arrived at the boats. None of the Salt Lake City boats were visibly damaged; however a few others were, probably from strafing. He noticed several other men doing the same thing but none from his ship; however one of the motor launches looked like it had been used recently. Later Jake learned that Ralph Horton; Henry Dyjak and several other shipmates had similar experiences.

It was now dark and you could hear occasional gunfire from various directions by nervous individuals whom if in doubt would shoot and ask questions later. Jake sat down in the Captain’s Gig thinking he had better stay there tonight, as his orders were to take care of the boats while the ship was at sea.

As he sat there in the dark exhaustion began to set in and thoughts of what happened that day started running through his mind. He heard many remarks about those sneaky Japs. Jake had grown up with Japanese American friends and you could compare them to the German Americans. He, however, concluded that revenge would be required against the Empire of Japan after the cowardly and sneaky deed they did today!

Jake spent the night with little or no sleep as sporadic firing kept going on all night. It became apparent that the Task Force with the Salt Lake City was close by as the carrier USS Enterprise planes had tried to come into the Ford Island Naval Air Field that night.

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They were easily identified in the searchlights but trigger-happy gunners shot them down killing and wounding some of our finest aircrews. Only a few were able to land and some of them were wounded or had their planes shot up. One of the SBD dive-bombers crash-landed in shallow water just off Hickam Field near the channel entrance to Pearl Harbor. It sat there for some time as a reminder of the confusion and fear of more Japanese attacks that night.

Early the next morning one of Jakes shipmates returned. Ships from the Task Force started coming up the channel into Pearl Harbor. They were riding high in the water obviously low on fuel. Jake and his shipmate got the Captains Gig underway and followed the Salt Lake City to where it tied up to a buoy.

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As they secured the anchor chain the gangway was lowered and they were ordered to come along side. The Captain came down the gangway followed by two officers and the regular crew of the Captain’s Gig. The Captain asked a series of questions and then said return to your duty stations and get some rest. Jake felt like a walking zombie, slept the rest of the day and all night waking up the next morning confused as to what day it was, he couldn’t believe that he had slept that long.

After refueling and taking on supplies, all of our boats were brought aboard. We left with the same Task Force on our first war patrol north of Hawaii to guard against a reappearance of the Japanese Fleet.

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Chapter 1   Chapter 2   Chapter 3   Chapter 4  

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