VAN STOCKUM: My Marine Corps Journal 1937-42: Part 31, The last of the series – For those in peril on the sea!

-A A +A
By Ron Van Stockum

July 25, 1942


M.B. New River, N.C. – I was detached from WASP on 25 June after my request to remain on board was disapproved by headquarters.

On the sixteenth [July] I flew East to Washington en route to New River [NC]. I was happy to find Colonel O. P. Smith and his family in Alexandria and fortunate to be able to talk to the colonel who is one of my favorite officers. [Oliver Prince Smith later became highly regarded as Commanding General, 1st Marine Division during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Confronted by overwhelming Communist China forces, he declared “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.”]

Upon stopping at headquarters [Marine Corps in Arlington, Va.] I was temporarily attached pending consideration as a naval attaché to Mexico City or Santo Domingo. [I had studied Spanish in college] Believe I could have had one of those interesting jobs but I decided that duty with troops was more important to me just now and asked to have my current orders to New River [North Carolina, later called Camp Lejeune] put into effect.

So here I am in the sticks but with the job that I most wanted – command of a battalion weapons company, “D” Co. of the 21st. [I organized D Company, 1st Bn, 21st Marines. This was a heavy weapons company: mortars and machine guns.] The nucleus for this outfit was sent from the 6th [Marine Regiment] in San Diego and I am not without friends. Ed Clark, Fissel are here. [Fissel was later killed in action]

August 27, 1942

I spent the first two weeks of this month organizing the permanent Onslow Beach guard of some 150 men. I enjoyed the stay there a great deal – sun, sand, and salt water have always appealed to me. [Earlier in the year, there had been reports of Nazi saboteurs landed by submarine on one or two East Coast beaches. We established beach patrols in order to intercept any that should be landed there. I believe it was a threat that was exaggerated. I remember well receiving a report that a submarine was reported off shore. Then another call inquired what I was doing about it. My response was: I have doubled the guard.]

Also I was congratulated upon my return by the regimental commander, Col. Campbell, for doing a good job. [Most welcome after the continual criticism I had received from Captain Reeves in the Wasp]

A couple of weeks ago I accepted commission as Major, dating from 7 August.

September 6, 1942

These days of training and “marking time” there is not much to record. A great many of my friends are doing things worth writing about in the Pacific.

Bill Whitaker [Major, commanding 1st Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment] and I have become acquainted with some very fine families in Kinston but, without transportation, it is difficult to get into the social whirl. We did get up to Kinston last Wednesday afternoon to watch a tobacco auction – extremely interesting.

[This is the last entry in my Marine Corps Journal, which I had maintained from the date of my commission as a 2nd lieutenant on July 1, 1937. The Marine Corps had directed that such diaries or journals, even though personal, would not be allowed because of concern that they might fall into the hands of enemy.]

‘We’re still afloat and I hope we stay that way.’

By coincidence, on the same date, September 6, 1942, Captain’s John Kennedy’s last letter to me was mailed, undoubtedly having been sent ashore at Guadalcanal.

Kennedy, had replaced me as Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment when I went ashore in San Diego. In the letter, passed by the naval censor, he reported, “We’re still afloat and I hope we stay that way.”

Kennedy’s hopes dashed in less than 10 days

He was lost with Wasp when she was sunk by a Japanese sub on 15 September off Guadalcanal.

On that date, Hornet and Wasp were the only two American carriers remaining in the South Pacific. Steaming within sight of each other, in company with the battleship North Carolina and other supporting warships, they were escorting transports carrying the reinforcing 7th Marine Regiment to Guadalcanal.

At 10:50 a.m., Commander Kinashi, Commanding Officer of the Japanese submarine I-19, raised his periscope to view a submariner’s dream: a carrier, a heavy cruiser and several destroyers. He tracked them, plotted their course and speed, and at 11:45 a.m. fired a spread of six torpedoes at the carrier, at point blank range, only 985 yards distant.

Two or three torpedoes hit Wasp to start uncontrollable fires. One torpedo from this salvo passed by Wasp and hit North Carolina; one hit the destroyer O’Brien, and another just missed Hornet. It is doubtful if a single salvo of torpedoes, fired by either side during World War II, caused greater damage to the foe.

I-19 dived to 265 feet under Wasp’s wake and succeeded in surviving depth charges, which soon began to explode all around her.

Wasp was damaged beyond survival. At noon her aviation gas tanks exploded and at 3:20 p.m. Captain Forrest Sherman, later, as a four-star admiral, to serve as Chief of Naval Operations of the Navy, ordered “Abandon ship.”

Captain Kennedy had also written in his last letter to me:

“It looks like the admiral is here to stay, and I am certainly tired of him as everyone else is.” The admiral mentioned was Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, commander of a naval task force supporting Wasp and flying his flag aboard.

Kennedy’s opinion was shared by others. Two days after the initial Marine landing on Guadalcanal of August 7, 1942, Rear Admiral 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.

One of my best friends during my tour in the Wasp was a highly capable Naval Academy graduate, Ensign 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, 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.”

Afire from stem to stern, the proud ship refused to sink and had to be scuttled by five torpedoes fired by an accompanying destroyer. Wasp suffered 193 killed or missing, including Kennedy who had moved into the stateroom I had occupied, a couple of decks above one of the torpedo hits.

McCampbell survives, becomes the Navy’s ace

One of the survivors was Lt. Dave McCampbell, the Landing Signal Officer, who had brought Jerry Smith and his Spitfire in for a successful landing during Wasp’s Mediterranean trip for the “Relief of Malta” He had been a champion swimmer and diver during his Naval Academy days. It was reported, possibly with a little hyperbole, that he made a perfect dive off the ship’s fantail. He did survive to become the Navy’s top fighter ace with 34 kills, and to win the Medal of Honor during the battles of the Philippine Sea in 1944.

USS Hornet in the Crucible

The accompanying USS Hornet survived its ordeals until it too was sunk, the next month, on October 26. She had been on active service only one year and eight days, but an active and perilous year it was!

April 1942: Launched Doolittle and his Tokyo raiders.

June 4-6, 1942: Pivotsl Battle of Midway. Fifteen torpedo bombers of Hornet’s Torpedo Squadron 8 found the Japanese ships and attacked. They were met by overwhelming fighter opposition, and with no escorts to protect them, were shot down one by one. Of the 30 aviators participating in the attack only one survived.

Hornet’s bombers later attacked the withdrawing Japanese fleet with devastating effect.

October 26, 1942: Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands took place without contact between surface ships of the opposing forces. Hornet’s aircraft inflicted severe damage on enemy carriers and cruisers before being disabled by Japanese bombers, including two that deliberated crashed on Hornet inflicting serious damage. After the crew had abandoned the burning ship, efforts were made by American destroyers to destroy her, resulting in her sinking shortly after midnight on October 27.

My University of Washington roommate and great friend. Ensign Jack Quackenbush went down with Hornet, reportedly killed by one of the two crashing enemy bombers.

Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep;

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,

For those in peril on the sea!

In addition to his numerous columns and magazine articles, Brig. Gen. Ron Van Stockum has published five books, including Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers. Copies can be obtained by contacting him at ronvanstockum@mac.com.