I awoke with a start. Being awakened out of a dead sleep at night by the loud speaker system is usually associated with the emergency command for sounding “General Quarters”—meaning “Man your battle stations” My sack was ringing wet with perspiration. I rolled over hoping this was just a dream.
“First division man the crash boat!”
I was up! Hands, feet, body and eyes were all working at top speed. The entire crew sleeping below decks were in the same state of shock. In seconds my pants, shirt, socks and shoes were on. My bottom bumk was right next to the compartment hatch. I started to lace my shoes and found myself trapped, sitting on the bottom bunk with just my feet sticking out over the edge. Men in varying states of dress were running frantically by in a steady stream. I waited for just the right moment slipped between two fast moving crew men, bolted through the compartment door, nearly clipping my chin on someone’s outstretched foot as I zipped past the emptying bunks flanking the dark passageway, up a double ladder and through an open hatchway into the cool, pre-dawn air.
It was still pitch dark out. The sky was flecked with dots of uniform patterns of light coming from the exhausts of the fighter planes still taking off from the aircraft carrier at the center of our task force formation. The black sky looked like a hot summer night filled with regimented fire flies. It was an awesome sight. My eyes were just beginning to adjust to the dark. The faint breath
of morning light barely began to insinuate itself against the low hanging clouds on the horizon.
I had a long way to go from the fantail of the ship to the bow where all the activity could best be viewed. I cautiously moved along the starboard side of the ship, feeling my way behind many other shipmates moving in the same direction.
“What’s going on? Did one of the planes crash?” No one answered. I continued to follow the men in front of me, touching familiar projected shapes of metal along the way. Rushing in the dark can be just as dangerous as facing gunfire from the enemy. One miscalculation against a 20mm machine-gun shield can cause a fatal blow to the head in a blind collision, for which reason I always respectfully walked with great caution, feeling my way as if I were blind. It always made me think the same thoughts. “Is this what it must be like without sight just feeling your way?” How horrible it would be in totally unfamiliar territory. I quickly dismissed the thought because this could be my own destiny as a result of this war.
A strong hand gripped my arm. “Hey, Eisey!” It was Blacky Engles.
“What’s going on, Blacky?”
“Look just ahead to the right of the bow.”
It was pitch black. A flash of light and a momentary glimpse of white smoke coming from the smoke pot illuminated the location of the downed crew of the carrier plane. They were dead ahead in the water, sporadically cutting off the view of the flashing signals. The ship slowly closed in and now we could make out the three survivors in a life raft silhouetted against the glow of the smoke pot. I climbed up the ladder onto the superstructure on the starboard side of the radio deck past the 40mm anti-aircraft guns and stood beside the huge ominous box-like 5-inch gun cab, holding onto the “dogs” of its open hatch to maintain my balance in the moving waters. This huge cannon sat guardingly just below the bridge of the ship. I could see and hear everything from this vantage point.
We were closing in seemingly much too fast and heading directly for the survivors. Just above me, I could hear the Captain shout, “All engines astern full!” The ship vibrated under the great strain. The water churned into a swirling mass of foam. We were almost on top of them by the time we came to a stop, then the ship began to draw away from the three men bobbing in the life raft.
“Throw them a line! Get the cargo net over the side! Lend a hand!” bellowed a gruff voice from the wing of the bridge. “Hey, down there on the forecastle, man your phone!”
Again from the bridge, “Hey, you spectator, clear the way, get over a line get it over!” Swooey… the line fell short. The ship began to back down again. “Get another line over. ” This time a life ring went over but fell short.
“Hold on down there!” came the voice of encouragement from Fred Leslie, leaning over the life lines. “You’ll be O.K.!”
Suddenly a burst of approving voices cheered in unison. The three survivors caught a line and moved towards the side of the ship. It was a moment of great exultation for all of us watching. Another small but important frustrating victory.
Then, above the drone of laughter and excited voices of the crew, we all responded to sounds incongruous with cheering. Someone was hurt. Someone was crying. It brought us all back to a sense of reality. All voices quieted as we watched the first survivor come over the life line.
“All right, grab him!” A pharmacist mate broke through the congested circle and wrapped a blanked around the wet pilot. The sky began to glow with dawn light.
“Hey down there, don’t try to climb up. Grab hold of the net. All right you guys, start pulling up this cargo net!” The second survivor, an enlisted radio man, was caught under each arm by the boys and lifted onto the deck. The crew hovered around him. The noise level began to rise again, reflecting the intense but suppressed glee for having saved these boys. “There but for the grace of
God go I” is a thought that often traces though our minds when we bear witness to such near tragedies.
“O.K. Doc.” Broken parts of conversation were barely audible above the hubbub. The third man was pulled up and over the life lines and whisked down to the sick bay. The ship began to move away from the life raft.
A voice of angered authority crackled. “Get that life raft or sink it!” One of the seamen tossed a heaving line at the drifting target in an effort to snag it in some way. It missed.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Get a grappling hook!”
Nobody really knew or cared who said it but little time was wasted. Leslie, chief boatswain’s mate quickly wheeled back and flung the grappling hook onto the raft. The line paid out and the unheard-of happened. Swish… and over went Leslie, hook, line and himself. “Man overboard!” someone shouted. It was funny, yet could have been tragic in these shark infested waters.
“Throw him a line… a line!” Witten yelled.
“Here!” One of the seamen grabbed the line and over it went, unravelling at high speed weighted by a hefty lead “monkey fist.” Witten’s foot was caught in the line. It nearly took him overboard. He was shot three feet into the air and came down with a thud. Leslie splashed around in the water. The cargo net was quickly lowered again.
While the amused crew smiled, out there gutsy Fred Leslie was doing a man’s job. When he got close to the ship, he grabbed the net and very soon our soaked hero came lumbering over onto the deck, wet, unsmiling and disgusted. He didn’t say a word, but by golly he had that cotton pickin’ life raft hook, line, secured and safe!