Roy A. Riley, S1c, VS-71 Radioman Striker
Please accept the following information in regard to Sept. 15th, 1942, the afternoon that I experienced aboard the USS WASP.
I am honored to have the memory associated with the history of the USS SLC CA25. They too were in "Harm's Way" that day, and I'm glad they were in the neighborhood. God Bless each and everyone of them. Thank you for this opportunity to be a part of their history.
Tue. Sept. 15th, 1942-Task Force 61
Payday and Small Stores opened at 0900. I checked the posted Pay Roster, then went on to draw a new pair of dungarees and flight jacket (only olive green available) and immediately stenciled my name on the back, with VS-71. My pilot, staying aboard, gave me the day off. The day was warm with a few lazy clouds. The sea was rolling and Levi blue when we picked up speed preparing to launch aircraft for an afternoon patrol. Plane guards joined in with prows knifing the waters as they accelerated. The "Hornet", a mile or so abeam on our starboard seemed to be widening away from us, arching clear of our launching operations.
I made my way to the Small Arms shop aft of the island structure and remained there until all aircraft departed and the flight deck was cleared. About 1430 I descended the ladder to the flight deck and headed for my ready room off the port catwalk.
BOOM!!! The ship actually bounced as I dropped to my knees. An F4F Wildcat parked starboard of the elevator buckled as its landing gear collapsed. Sirens and whistles screamed!! The No. 5 pennant broke open on the halyards. BOOM!! Again, the entire ship shuddered as flames, metal and ship innards skyrocketed as we took a torpedo amidships. With a fire forward, huge clouds of gray and black smoke billowed out into the wind. The P.A. systems ordered all damage control parties to their stations. The ship slowed, quivered and halted for a moment, then began backing down to about 4 knots, listing four or five degrees starboard. The captain was trying to keep the fire and smoke forward.
In the hangar deck all hell has broken loose as the armament on the aircraft caught up in the flames began exploding. I stayed topside on the fight deck. The ready rooms were filled with smoke, making it impossible to get to life jackets or Mae Wests. Marines in all gun galleries were heaving 5 inch shells to the sea. There was an explosion, (torpedo?), sending flight deck planking and personnel out to sea. Destroyers and cruisers, maybe 300 yards away, circled. The HORNET had cleared the area and was out of sight. The battleship NORTH CAROLINA came into view and almost immediately took a torpedo on her armor belt which sent a water spout above her conning tower. A message from her later said "Caught fish, scratched paintwork". Aircraft (possibly from the HORNET) began dropping life rafts and as the ship, now dead in the water, burned furiously, belching great plumes of smoke - over the P.A. system came, "All Hands, Abandon Ship!"
Time to leave the ship. One thing bothered me... I never learned how to swim! At enlistment time no one asked me, I probably would have lied anyway. With no life jacket or Mae West, I pondered my next move. A hawse line was secured to a gun mount on the catwalk and thrown down. It seemed safer than the dozen or so "rat" lines for descent. I kicked off my shoes and slid down the hawse to an eyesplice, fifteen feet above the water. Alongside of me men were slipping down the lines wearing kapok jackets and or lifebelts. Within fifteen minutes the lines were empty. I swung with one foot in the eye of the hawse and reached for an empty line, at the same time searching for some flotsam that would sustain my weight. Floating wood... I dropped to the water, being careful not to let go of the line. A length of two by four will NOT support your weight... no matter what Hollywood portrays.
I climbed back up the line, wrapped several turns around my left hand and elbow that kept me chest high in the water. I spotted a yellow rubber raft 20 to 30 yards away. I glanced skyward and simply asked God to help me. Within a "blink of an eye" I found myself running my left hand through one of the straps of the liferaft. No one behind me or at my side. O'Brien, a B'osun, was curled in the center with knee problems. Two other men were clinging to the other side. Two officers with empty 5 gallon honey cans were approaching and the Exec. was swimming toward us. My flight jacket was heavy with water and I discarded it. We were STILL at least thirty yards from the burning ship!!
We paddled away from the listing, burning ship. Someone noted that a destroyer circling at 1000 yards was weighing a whale boat and gig. Within minutes a man at the prow of a double ender called, "Someone call for a taxi?", and threw us a line. I was the second pulled aboard as I landed atop another man; "Sorry" I said as my head fell at his shoulder. A blanket was thrown over me and another man until there were six of us as we motored to the destroyer LANSDOWNE.
That evening, 1800 or so, the LANSDOWNE finalized the burning WASP with two torpedoes. The old girl just rolled over and settled in the deep.
On Wed., Sept. 16th, 1942 aboard the USS LANSDOWNE
Approximately 0730 this morning several loud "gongs" followed by a P.A. announcement "All hands, man your battle stations!... all passengers lay below! - Sub contact!" Deck hatch covers were dropped and were dogged. We sat silently on the edge of the bunks; some were at prayer. minutes crept by - BOOM! The ship rocked a bit. Again, BOOM!!. We picked up speed. On the weather deck directly above our quarters was stationed a Y-gun. The noise of the firing, so near, came as a shock. As we gathered speed the P.A. announced "Secure General Quarters!".
We were now on our way to a base at Espirito Santo to transfer some wounded to a field hospital. While at dockside, clothing was brought aboard and distributed; there were "extras" offered from crewmen of other ships in the Task Force. The host Quartermaster presented me with a pair of shoes and two pairs of socks. In addition, I received a blue denim middy with "Sullivan, F." neatly stenciled on the back, from the accompanying cruiser " JUNEAY" no doubt. This afternoon at 1400, as we ran the slot to Noumea, we slowed to about ten knots and committed to the sea three men who were brought from the waters yesterday. One was the Yeoman I had landed upon as I was hauled aboard the whaleboat.
Only one incident occurred as we raced to Noumea.... we sharply rolled around a floating wooden crate which was then blasted by an accompanying destroyer. (Floating wooden boxes have been used to house "wild" mines and laid in ships' lanes by enemy subs.)
The following day, all 88 passengers mustered topside for departure of the LANSDOWNE and assignment to the USS PRESIDENT POLK, an empty Army transport, to await further orders. Friday the 18th, Captain Sherman came aboard and at an assembly gave us his thanks and prayers for our safe future - a "raise" of one rate - and promise of a double sea bag as soon as possible. Like the others, I saluted him with pride as he left the ship for the States. his handling of the whole situation of the past few days had been an ordeal of "exact timing" of sequences that saved many lives.
Roy A. Riley S1c, USN