By the end of the second week of October 1942, the U.S. toehold on Guadalcanal was beginning to appear tenuous. When the U.S. Marines had come ashore there on 7 August, they faced minimal Japanese opposition and soon seized a key objective: an unfinished airfield south of Lunga Point. They finished its runway within a few days, and newly named Henderson Field was ready for operations by 18 August. However, landing on the island and holding it proved to be two very different issues.
The problem was that the enemy was bringing in reinforcements at a faster rate than the Americans. If that continued, the future looked bleak. However, neither side was getting enough supplies landed to satisfy the needs of its fighting men. As early as 19 August, Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, in charge of supply missions, sent a message to Rear Admiral John S. McCain, commander of Allied land-based aircraft in the South Pacific (ComAirSoPac), explaining that supplying food to the Marines was the priority.1
From McCain’s point of view, food was important, but keeping Henderson Field’s “Cactus Air Force” (Cactus was the Allied codename for Guadalcanal) in the air was even more critical.2 And its first aircraft, F-4 Wildcat fighters of Marine Air Group 23, arrived on 20 August. The air force needed aircraft, spare parts, ordnance, lubricants, and aviation gasoline (avgas). The aircraft had to be delivered from out of theater. Spare parts could come from the growing boneyard of damaged aircraft accumulating at the end of Henderson’s runway. The remaining consumables had to be delivered regularly from depots at Nouméa, New Caledonia; Luganville, Espiritu Santo; or Port Vila, Éfaté.
The typical loadout of the pairs of destroyer-minesweepers that made the supply runs to Guadalcanal would keep the Cactus Air Force flying for three days at the most. Moreover, the matériel had to be unloaded quickly, because supply ships, which arrived off Lunga Point at first light, had to clear the area before dusk to avoid nighttime Japanese destroyer sweeps. Dependance on the old, converted flushdecker destroyers’ supply runs and their strict timetable was so frustrating and dangerous, Turner decided it was worthwhile, while risky, to mount a small convoy carrying several weeks’ worth of consumables to temporarily ease the pressure.
Thus, on 12 October, Task Unit (TU) 62.4.5 departed Luganville for Guadalcanal. The convoy comprised two cargo ships—the USS Bellatrix (AK-20) and Alchiba (AK-23)—escorted by the converted yacht Jamestown (AGP-3), the oceangoing tug Vireo (AT-144), and the destroyer Meredith (DD-434). PAB No. 4 and PAB No. 6, two large Pan American Airlines barges loaded with drums of avgas and various munitions, were towed by the Bellatrix and Alchiba, respectively.3 Persistent problems with the Alchiba’s tow of PAB No. 6 further reduced the cargo ships’ already slow speed to an average of 9.5 knots. At 1600 on 14 October, while still 25 nautical miles east of the tip of San Cristóbal Island, the convoy was joined by the new destroyer USS Nicholas (DD-449).4 The convoy continued a slow zigzag advance along a base course of 320 degrees approaching the entrance of Indispensable Strait between San Cristóbal and Malaita until orders from Turner arrived at 1855. In accordance with those orders, the entire convoy reversed course.
Enemy in the Area
Turner knew that a large Japanese troop and supply convoy was expected to arrive off Guadalcanal that same night, which prompted his turnaround order. However, South Pacific Area commander Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley was still concerned that abandoning the convoy’s mission would leave Guadalcanal desperately short of fuel and ordnance for its aircraft. At 2212, several hours after Turner’s instructions, Ghormley ordered the convoy to split. The Vireo would take over the tow of PAB No. 4 and turn back toward Guadalcanal escorted by the Meredith; most of the convoy would continue to Espiritu Santo. The Vireo and Meredith separated from the rest of the convoy early the next morning.5
Despite Ghormley’s decision to disperse the convoy, Japanese aerial reconnaissance quickly would find each part. The larger part, with the two AKs, was first spotted shortly after 0700, 95 nautical miles southeast of the tip of San Cristóbal. A snooper was able to keep contact with the convoy as it steamed toward the southeast. At 0950, the single enemy floatplane, apparently at the end of its endurance, attacked the Bellatrix, dropping a bomb that missed astern, and then departed.6 That attack and an 1134 sound contact made by the Jamestown were enough to convince the officer in tactical command on board the Bellatrix that the convoy was not exiting the area fast enough. At 1324, the Alchiba cast off her tow of PAB No. 6, and the speed of the convoy increased to 14 knots.
At 1626, a radar contact revealed aircraft approaching the convoy fast off the starboard bow. These proved to be five Type 99 Val dive bombers, part of a much larger strike from the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Carrier Division 1. This unit, comprising the bulk of Japanese carrier strength—the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and the smaller Zuiho—was approximately 200 nautical miles north-northeast of the avgas convoy’s position. Two of the Vals went after each of the AKs. One of the bombs dropped by the pair that attacked the Bellatrix missed her by only 10 to 20 feet, close enough off her starboard quarter to damage her shell plating and cause a slow leak into a previously empty deep tank.7 Neither of the two bombs intended for the Alchiba fell close enough to cause damage. The fifth Val overflew the convoy and then looped back, approaching the Nicholas from her starboard quarter. The destroyer went into a hard right turn, and the plane’s bomb missed aft by 100 feet. The convoy continued toward Espiritu Santo, arriving on 17 October.
The Less Lucky Half
At 1050, two Japanese aircraft had found the Meredith, Vireo, and PAB No. 4, which had turned back for Guadalcanal, and attacked, but their bombs missed. The trio continued to the northwest, when, just before noon, they received word of approaching Japanese surface forces. Lieutenant Commander Harry E. Hubbard, the Meredith’s commanding officer, realized if the two vessels reversed course and headed toward Espiritu Santo, the Vireo’s slow speed, with or without her tow, would doom her. In his judgment, the best hope for saving men and cargo was to cut the barge loose, scuttle the tug, and head off to the southeast at high speed. Acting quickly, PAB No. 4 was cast off, the Vireo’s crew was transferred to the Meredith, and the destroyer prepared to torpedo the tug.
But the efforts were too late. At 1215, the Meredith’s radar detected a large flight of incoming aircraft—a strike of 8 A6M Zeke fighters, 21 Vals, and 9 Type 97 Kate torpedo bombers.9 The contact was at short range. As Lieutenant (junior grade) Charles J. Bates was making his way to the destroyer's command bridge to report the contact to Hubbard, the first bombs were falling. One plunging through the deck nearby Bates threw the lieutenant into a corner of the flying bridge.10
I saw one bomb hit in the water about 10 feet from the port bow; the bow went up and then settled down with a small list to port. I noticed about one foot from where I had been standing a hole in the deck where the bomb that had knocked me down had gone through, exploding somewhere below.11
That bomb explosion might have been enough to doom the Meredith, but the Japanese attack continued. Within a few minutes, the destroyer had been hit by at least one and possibly as many as three torpedoes and perhaps one more bomb. Bates found his feet again and reported to Hubbard, who had been horribly burned. By that time, the ship obviously was sinking by the bow, and the word was passed to abandon ship. With no time to launch boats, all that could be done was get the men and any intact rafts into the water. By 1230, the Meredith had sunk bow first, but not before her gunners had managed to shoot down three of the attacking aircraft.
Bates set about getting as many of the seriously wounded men as possible onto the two rafts in his immediate vicinity. Both Hubbard and the gunnery officer died within a few hours, leaving the lieutenant the senior surviving officer. Less seriously wounded men and the uninjured hung onto the ropes at the rafts’ sides, taking turns sitting on the sides of the rafts to get some rest. Bunker oil that leaked from the destroyer formed a five-inch-thick surface coating on the water inside the rafts and a three-inch coating outside of them, making even the act of treading water difficult. One of the rafts’ supply of food and water had been lost in the sinking, forcing the immediate rationing of the remaining supply.
The Vireo, drifting nearby, had survived the attack untouched. A group of six men made their way to the abandoned tug and boarded her. To the rest of the men on or clinging to the rafts, the tug was a tantalizing vision of safety, but not for long. The steady trade wind pushed her away from the men in the water. Within hours, she was no longer visible.
The Long Ordeal
The men with the rafts settled in to wait. They knew that regular flights by search planes out of Espiritu Santo overflew their location, but those were often at night and generally at high altitude, which would make sighting rafts difficult. There was no certainty word of their attack had been received, but the next morning they would be overdue at Tulagi, the naval base across Iron Bottom Sound from Guadalcanal, which should trigger a search. In the meantime, they had to stay alive.12 Thirst, made worse by saltwater and oil immersion, became a problem, but Bates ensured the small supply of fresh water was doled out in minute quantities. When the sun set, matters worsened.
“During the night, men would lose hold of the raft and be carried away by the current,” Bates later wrote. “Those who could not find the strength to swim back would cry and call for help but no one dared go after them because it would have been virtually impossible to locate them and then after reaching them, to find the raft again. I have never seen such black nights.”13
The oil on the water’s surface made matters worse; even strong swimmers could make only little progress through it. However, it did have the beneficial side effect of discouraging sharks from attacking. But according to Bates, that soon changed:
It was about noon on the 16th when we had our first casualty from sharks. From that time on we could see the sharks circling the raft anywhere from 10 to 50 yards away. During the balance of the day and evening there were four or five more men bitten by sharks. On the second night, several of the men became delirious; they would request permission to do such things as go below to close the main steam line or to go to the scuttlebutt.14
Late on the 16th, the failure of the Vireo and Meredith to arrive at Tulagi began to raise concerns from Espiritu Santo to Pearl Harbor.15 At 0100 on 17 October, Commander Harold R. Holcomb at Santo received orders from Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, who had replaced McCain as ComAirSoPac, to form a task group (TG 63.10) with the USS Grayson (DD-435), Gwin (DD-433), and the tug Seminole (AT-65) to search for survivors and salvage the Vireo and PAB No. 4.16
The Grayson and Gwin had just arrived at Luganville, so organizing the task group took a bit of time. By 0835, the trio had cleared the northern tip of Espiritu Santo and assumed a sweep formation with the Seminole in the middle and the destroyers on either wing, heading 300 degrees at the tug’s best speed—17 knots.
Meanwhile, Bates wrote, the survivors’ nightmare continued:
Late in the afternoon of the 17th, a B-17 went over too high to see us. Sharks continued to occasionally bite a man. Once a shark about 4 feet long struck at the raft and, going right over my shoulder, slid into the raft. It took a big bite out of the thigh of one man. One of the men and myself caught the shark by the tail and pulled him out of the raft. . . . It rained that night; the shower lasted about five minutes. We all held our heads back and mouths open to relieve our dry throats. I held a meat tin up to catch some rain but a wave came over and filled it with oily saltwater.
It was while sitting huddled with the rest that I found myself getting delirious. I could see brightly lighted drive-in stands with their barbecues, hamburgers, and malted milks.17
Dawn of 18 October found the survivors in desperate shape. Bates had no recollection of the sun rising, but he did recall feeling warmer. Sometime later, a PBY flew low over the rafts and dropped a smoke float. Help was on the way. The Grayson’s war diary continues the story:
0905 Changed course to 244 true. SEMINOLE reported sighting empty life jacket.
0920 Sighted body in life jacket to starboard. Numerous other life jackets and bodies in area.
0947 PBY dropped smoke bomb bearing 295 true. Went ahead at flank speed, heading for smoke bomb.
0957 Sighted life raft with survivors bearing 303 true. Maneuvered to pick up men.
1003 Rescued 7 men from raft. Men are from MEREDITH and VIREO.18
The three TG 63.10 ships rescued 75 Meredith crewmen and 16 Vireo sailors from seven rafts. With all survivors rescued, the three ships reformed their sweep line and at 1145 headed off to the west in search of the Vireo and the barges. Earlier, the six men who had managed to reach the Vireo had set out in one of the tug’s remaining whaleboats; they were found and rescued by a PBY.
Delivering the Goods
At 1220, lookouts on board the Grayson sighted the adrift PAB No. 4 straight ahead, and, six minutes later, the Vireo was spotted. The Gwin was ordered to close the tug and send a boarding party across, while the Seminole was to take the barge in tow. No one was found on board the Vireo, and she again was abandoned. The two destroyers and the Seminole then set off to deliver the barge and its invaluable cargo at Tulagi. This was accomplished late the next day, 19 October.
The Grayson and Gwin were detached, with orders from the new South Pacific Area commander, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, to return to Espiritu Santo. Early the next morning, the pair sighted the other abandoned PanAm barge, PAB No. 6. At this point, Holcomb received orders from Guadalcanal for the destroyers to return there for shore bombardment duty. Assured that other ships had been tasked with the recovery of the barge and the Vireo, the commander decided his orders from Halsey took precedence, and the two destroyers continued toward Espiritu Santo without PAB No. 6.19 The destroyer-minesweeper USS Southard (DMS-10) was tasked with recovering the barge and began towing it toward Éfaté at 1815, but an hour later, she was ordered to drop the tow and proceed to the island without PAB No. 6.20
At 1940 that night, Holcomb received yet another change of orders, this time from Halsey. The Grayson and Gwin were again to search for and recover the Vireo. The hunt proceeded slowly during the night, and the pair sighted Rennell Island at 0926 the next morning without having seen any sign of the tug. At 1103, they were assisted by a PBY, which reported the Vireo 45 nautical miles to the south. The ships sighted the tug at 1326, and she was boarded again at 1445. Attempts to tow the Vireo toward Espiritu Santo were without much success because of rising seas, but a boarding party was able to get her engines started, and by 0416 on 22 October, the Vireo was again steaming under her own power. That afternoon, PAB No. 6 was sighted, and by 1830, the Vireo had it under tow.
With the situation apparently in hand, the Gwin was detached to proceed to Espiritu Santo. Arriving there the next morning, she transferred the survivors she had picked up and those she had taken from the Seminole to the hospital ship USS Solace (AH-5). The Grayson remained with the Vireo, which was progressing toward Espiritu Santo at 4 knots. Help arrived at 2105 on the 22 October in the form of the USS Hovey (DMS-11).21 By 2335, the destroyer-minesweeper was towing the tug and PAB No. 6 at 7 knots. On 26 October, the three arrived safely at Espiritu Santo.
The Vireo served out the war in the Pacific, performing the mundane duties of an oceangoing tug and earning seven battle stars along the way. After nearly 27 years in service, she was decommissioned in 1946 and transferred for disposal the following year.
1. CTF 62 to COMAIRSOPAC, AUG 19 0323, Command Summary of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, (hereafter Nimitz Gray Book), vol. 1, 655, ibiblio.org/anrs/docs/D/D7/nimitz_graybook1.pdf.
2. COMAIRSOPAC to CTF-62 infor COMSOPAC, AUG 20 0310, Nimitz Gray Book, vol. 1, 657.
3. USS Bellatrix, Report of cargo of PAB barges #4 and #6, Report of Operations of Task Unit, 12 October 1942, Enc. C, RG 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).
4. USS Nicholas, War Diary from 1 October 1942 to 31 October 1942, RG 38, NARA.
5. USS Alchiba, War Diary from 1 October 1942 to 31 October 1942, RG 38, NARA.
6. USS Alchiba, War Diary from 1 October 1942 to 31 October 1942. It is more likely that the snooper was dropping a target marker than a bomb.
7. USS Bellatrix, War Damage Report, 19 October 1942, RG 38, NARA.
8. Theodore Roscoe, United States Destroyer Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1953), 184.
9. IJN Zuikaku (“Happy Crane”): Tabular Record of Movement, combinedfleet.com/Zuikak.htm.
10. History of USS Meredith (DD-434), Ship’s Section, Office of Public Information, U.S. Navy Department, RG 38, NARA.
11. History of USS Meredith (DD-434).
12. In the Gray Book entry for 14 October 1942 (Honolulu time/date), it was noted that the Vireo should have arrived at Guadalcanal the next morning. Nimitz’s Gray Book, vol. 2, 1,091, ibiblio.org/anrs/docs/D/D7/nimitz_graybook2.pdf.
13. History of USS Meredith (DD-434).
14. History of USS Meredith (DD-434).
15. In the Gray Book entry for 15 October 1942, it was noted: “It now seems probable that the MEREDITH was lost and the VIREO towing avgas to GUADALCANAL was damaged by enemy air,” Nimitz’s Gray Book, vol. 2, 1,093.
16. USS Grayson, Copies of War Diary for September–December 1942, RG 38, NARA.
17. History of USS Meredith (DD-434).
18. USS Grayson, Copies of War Diary for September–December 1942.
19. USS Grayson, Copies of War Diary for September–December 1942.
20. USS Southard, War Diary from 1 October 1942 to 31 October 1942, RG 38, NARA.
21. USS Hovey, War Diary from 1 October 1942 to 31 October 1942, RG 38, NARA.