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Bill Thayer

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On September 15, 1942, the U. S. S. Wasp was torpedoed by the Japanese and sunk in the Solomon Islands. Here is a letter sent shortly afterwards by naval aviator LT Harold E. Brown, U. S. N. to his parents:

It was truly a fine ship in every respect. The ship's crew and all squadron personnel had been intact for more time than any Captain could hope for. This was due to the fact that we had spent a lot of time outside continental limits and when we did return, there was little time for any exchange of men and officers. Any team that has played together for a long period of time with the utmost stress and coordination cannot help but be good. I knew this to be true for I have watched carrier operations on four other ships. Since the success of attacks and therefore the chances of returning home are wholly based upon coordination, there was not another ship in the world upon which I would rather have been sent to war. Captain Sherman was the best. He had proven many, many times that he was outstandingly capable to handle our ship and home in any emergency.

On the afternoon of the fifteenth of September, we were engaged in about the same type of work we had been doing since we gave the Marines air support. The fact that some submarine might get us at any moment had become a threat that was well calloused. We had just launched twenty six planes consisting of the afternoon scouts and the protective fighters above the ship. The wind was the same as it had been every day of the previous six weeks, twenty knots from the southeast.

As the ship started its turn to port to get back to the base course, people on the starboard side of the flight deck saw the fish coming. They yelled to the bridge and ran from that side of the ship. Since the torpedoes themselves were far ahead of their visible wake, they had found their mark before the sound of the voices hardly reached the bridge.

I was in the ready-room which was just one deck below the flight deck on the same side as the torpedoes hit. Many pilots were playing cards and chess while remaining in a ready condition in case our scouts found a target. I was asleep in my combination seat and flight gear locker. It was a terrible awakening, much the same as a super-super earthquake. As the second fish hit, a split second after the first, I remember holding on to the seat which was bolted to the deck, to avoid being thrown so far into the air again. All the lights were out and smoke was pouring into the room. It didn't take us long to put on our flight jackets and get to the flight deck. By the time the bombs in the storage compartments below were going off, the aviation gasoline had exploded and was burning with flames higher than the ship. Number two elevator was first blown below the flight deck level and then above with another explosion. Small gun ammunition was exploding and whizzing over our heads and the large five inch stuff was going off and exploding in the water about us.

Injured people and quite a portion of the Air Department had joined us on the flight deck. Since the explosion had caused the landing gear to collapse on all the planes on the flight deck, we kept pretty busy pushing them over the side to avoid more fire, for the gasoline was draining from many of them.

All the lighting and communication circuits were out, but in spite of this, Captain Sherman had maneuvered the ship perfectly. He had stopped the ship in the water with the wind coming over the stern and blowing the fire and smoke forward away from what seemed to be the best remaining part of the ship. When it was apparent that the fire could not be controlled even if the fire-fighting lines were repaired, the word was passed to "Abandon Ship". By this time many had been forced to jump over because of bad fires and explosions in the ship where they had been.

There were many hundred men on the flight deck at this time, and going down lines or jury ladders would take a long time. The stern was at that time probably seventy or eighty feet above the water with the ship down by the bow as it was.

Just before the word came to leave, we were all on our bellies to avoid any flying shrapnel. Twice some sailor would make some comment about when we should "Abandon Ship". A couple of times everyone seemed to know that they would find out in no uncertain terms when and if the real dope came back. When it finally did come, two sailors stepped a little closer to me and one said: "Is that the straight dope, sir?" When I assured him it was, he turned to his buddy and with a push in the back, he said: "He said to abandon ship, Joe" and both went sprawling into the sea.

Another sailor who had probably been a great swimmer at some time, stood beside me, peeled off his clothes, and did the most beautiful "swan dive" I have ever seen. He looked for all the world like Tarzan. I later saw him on the after turret of a destroyer that I missed as it steamed past, avoiding more torpedoes. I guess he was my inspiration, for after thinking the thing over in my shattered mind, I tried to duplicate it. On the way down I seem to remember thinking that perhaps such a poor athlete as I always have been, and learning to swim in probably the driest part of Nebraska, I was sort of stretching my luck a bit.

I was right. Even though the water had been well beaten up before I got there, it was pretty hard. My left arm was thrown back over my head and I received a dislocated or just wrenched shoulder (I'll never know for the doctors were far too busy on bad cases).

We spent from thirty minutes to three hours in the water, depending upon how many of us the destroyers would pick up before having to leave and avoid being hit themselves. I was one of the unluckiest in this respect. A twenty knot wind kicks up quite a sea and just paddling or drifting was as satisfactory as clinging to the life rafts which were already terribly crowded with the badly injured and those without life jackets. There was plenty of fuel oil and it was hard to avoid taking in some in a sea like that. Many were vomiting; a few sharks were shot by the boat officers, so you can imagine our bathing facilities were not ideal.

We all helped each other and were helped when the going was rough. I helped one fellow with a broken arm get clear of the ship and to a raft. In doing so, I nearly exhausted myself and probably would have drowned if Lieutenant Commander Nieberle​a hadn't helped me onto a kapok mattress for a rest. After this bit of support for awhile, I got some good air and was able to turn it over to someone else for the remainder of the swim.

After we went aboard the destroyer (I wish I could give you its name),​b we found a crew of 100% Americans. We crowded over four hundred into a small ship that was already crowded with a few over one hundred. They didn't mind the fuel oil with which we covered their very clean ship. They gave us clothes to cover our nearly nude bodies (out of their personal supply). They gave us food even though they were terribly short. They gave us bunks as far as they could and couldn't feel they had done enough. I'll never forget that ship and the fine crew.

Later that evening, the destroyer that I was on, launched five old torpedoes at the already badly burning Wasp. It sunk about nine that night.

In Esperitu Santos,​c we were transferred to one of our heavy cruisers and again found treatment that puts tears in my eyes, every time I think of it. They met us at the gangway with little cartons each containing cigarettes, toothbrush, and toothpaste. Later they gave us shoes for our already blistered feet. It is people like that, that will win this war in spite of any odds.

Before we left, Captain Sherman came aboard and gave a short talk to the survivors. The men were still cheering until his boat had left the ship and was over a mile away. He was a great man and I know that there is not one Wasp survivor that would not love duty with him again. We are all hoping he will make Admiral soon​d and feel sure he will be able to accomplish great things like the best Admiral in anybody's fleet, W. F. Halsey.

The loss of our carriers is not too disappointing to me for I know as well as anything that a Marine will never "Gloriously Retreat" and for that reason there is no chance of our losing our foothold in the Solomons. Admiral Halsey is now out of his sick bed and has taken over​e in place of "Dugout Doug"​f and we'll see some true American results from now on.

The Navy is now using some good planes which heretofore have been given only to the Army. They will be used in that area in place of carriers and thereby take care of the Jap fleet including their subs.

The Solomons like the Aleutians, have been a death trap for the Japs. I'm sure our major naval losses in that area are over and from now on it will be all on the credit side.

Thayer's Notes:

a Carl F. Nieberle, 1906‑1980; a lieutenant at the beginning of the war, he seems to have retired after 1949 with the rank of Captain.

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b Several destroyers picked up the crew of the Wasp, but the next paragraph identifies the one that rescued LT Brown: it was USS Lansdowne that fired the torpedoes to sink the hulk of the Wasp.

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c Espiritu Santo, the forward naval base in the Hebrides (now Vanuatu) built during the war.

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d LT Brown was spot‑on. Others recognized Forrest Sherman's worth as well — four short years after the war, he ranked as a four-star admiral and was Chief of Naval Operations, commanding the entire U. S. Navy.

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e See Halsey's autobiography, p108 f.

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f This is Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Douglas MacArthur, of course. Like many Navy men, Brown despised him: "I will return" — when the general abandoned the Philippines and thousands of Americans to the Japanese — did not play well in the Navy.

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Page updated: 14 Jul 21