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My last column reported the sinking by a Japanese submarine of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp on Sept. 15, 1942. Marine Capt. John W. Kennedy Jr., who three months before that had relieved me as commanding officer of the Marine detachment on Wasp, had gone down with the ship.
During World War II, capital ships, such as aircraft carriers and battleships, included in their crews a Marine detachment carrying three officers and about 82 enlisted men. Their principal functions were to provide the ship’s guards, man 5-inch guns and provide landing parties when needed.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941, the detachment commander on Wasp was promoted to major, and I, recently promoted to captain, took his place.
Kennedy, a first lieutenant reported aboard at this time and became my second-in-command. We served together for several months before Kennedy, promoted to captain, relieved me at San Diego on June 26, 1942. Promotions were coming rapidly as the corps expanded to wartime strength, and in a month, I became a major.
Recently, while perusing my military papers, I came across a letter from Kennedy, dated Sept. 6, 1942, and stamped “Passed by Naval Censor.” His remarks take on a unique perspective, given how the war played out.
The crew of the Wasp
After complimenting me upon my promotion, Kennedy in his letter discussed in general terms his relationships with some of the ship’s officers, whom I remembered well. Though he was not allowed to mention names of senior officers, he did identify them in other terms, which I understood.
His impression of the “skipper” (Capt. Forrest Sherman, Wasp’s commanding officer) was most favorable, as mine had been during the few weeks I had served under his command.
During most of my 18-month tour in the Wasp, the “skipper” had been Capt. J. W. Reeves, nicknamed with some justification “Black Jack,” or “Blackjack,” who had made life miserable for many of his subordinates, and he had focused much of his ire upon me.
Kennedy indicated that the “Gun Boss,” the ship’s gunnery officer, was still difficult to please.
I recall being with him in the gunnery office on one occasion when the dreaded message was heard over the ship’s general announcing system, “Gunnery office, dial 222.”
Black Jack was calling from the bridge with a question about a gun that was out of his sight. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Gun Boss, seated at his desk, immediately responded, “Captain, I am at the gun platform and have the situation under control.”
He had thus placed his career at stake, for had Black Jack learned of this deception, he would have “exploded!”
Kennedy also wrote of problems with pleasing “Fred,” the ship’s executive officer (second in command).
I remember Fred well, “Fearless Fred,” we called him.
One night a sailor standing watch near my cabin accidentally discharged his Colt .45 pistol. The bullet entered my cabin, ricocheted once or twice and then dropped on the floor.
In the Marine Corps, this was a serious offense!
I immediately put the offending sailor on report and had him brought before Fred the next morning for disciplinary action.
Rather than punishing the culprit, he turned to me and said, “Captain Van Stockum, take this man out on the fantail and teach him how to handle a pistol.”
An unpopular admiral
Kennedy, however, reserved his harshest criticism for Rear Adm. Noyes, who flew his flag on the Wasp, where, from his “flag bridge,” he directed the operations of the carrier and its escorting cruiser and destroyers. Remarkably, in a letter passed by a censor, Kennedy wrote:
“It looks like the admiral [not mentioned by name] is here to stay, and I am certainly tired of him as everyone else is.”
His opinion was shared by others.
Two days after the initial Marine landing on Guadalcanal of Aug. 7, 1942, Rear Adm. Fletcher, Noyes’s superior officer, ordered a withdrawal of Naval support.
This left the Marines, defenseless against Japanese air and sea attack, except for a few Marine aircraft and their heroic pilots, operating from the improvised airfield on Guadalcanal.
A friend’s perspective
One of my best friends during my tour in the Wasp was a very talented Naval Academy graduate, Ens. Tom Weschler, who remained aboard after I departed the ship in June 1942, and was one of those who survived the sinking.
James D Hornfischer in his definitive Neptune’s Inferno: the U. S. Navy at Guadalcanal, published this year, quotes Weschler, later a vice-admiral, as follows:
“[Captain Forrest Sherman of the Wasp] was always trying to get Admiral Noyes’s attention about the kinds of things Admiral Noyes ought to be thinking about” – including reversing Fletcher’s decision to withdraw from Savo Sound [Guadalcanal] after the battle of August 9.
Weschler further reported, “Three times during the night, Captain Sherman said to Admiral Noyes, ‘I recommend that you tell Admiral Fletcher that we should turn around and go back in there. They need our support.’ But Admiral Noyes never sent a single one of those messages forward.” Weschler further observed, “ I always thought that Noyes was afraid of his own shadow.”
Included in Kennedy’s letter was a veiled reference to the campaign for Guadalcanal: “You have been reading the papers lately, I suppose.”
Near the end of his letter, he writes: “We are still afloat, and I hope we stay that way.”
His hopes were not fulfilled. Within nine days the Wasp had disappeared beneath the sea, and Capt. Kennedy was MIA (Missing in Action).