One Who Survived

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Day after day, the sun, the sea, and the sharks cut down the men who clung to the “doughnut” raft

Of all the men who have gone down to the sea in ships, none has clung to life with more tenacity, or lived to tell a more graphic story, than Allen Clifton Heyn, gunner’s mate second class, one of the ten survivors of more than seven hundred men aboard the U.S. light cruiser Juneau. AMERICAN HERITAGE is indebted to the Navy Department, and to the director of naval history, Rear Admiral John B. Heffernan, USN (Ret.), for this transcript of a recorded wartime interview between Heyn and a naval interrogator. Save for a few cuts to remove repetition or digressions, and for a few slight alterations in wording in the interests of clarity, nothing has been changed. This is a tale which loses nothing from the elementary English of the teller.

Heyn was a seaman aboard the Juneau when she took part in the complicated series of night and day actions which are lumped together as the Battle of Guadalcanal, from November 12 through 15, 1942. In this decisive struggle for the Solomon Islands, American surface and air forces succeeded in reinforcing their ground troops on Guadalcanal while largely preventing the Japanese from doing the same thing. But victory was accomplished at a terrific cost, littering the floor of the narrow seas between Guadalcanal, Savo, and Florida Islands with so many sunken U.S. ships that the Navy christened those waters “Ironbottom Sound.”

The Juneau fought in the cruiser night surface action of Friday, November 13. A U.S. force of five cruisers and eight destroyers under Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan was steaming northwest toward a larger Japanese bombardment group coming directly at them between Savo and Guadalcanal, hoping to shell our troops and airfield ashore. The American advantage of surprise was lost before fire opened at 0145, and both forces were soon intermingled in a bloody melee. Heyn’s story starts as, in the black of the midwatch, the Juneau finds herself picking her way across a hopeless checkerboard of mingled friendly and enemy ships.

 

 

LT. PORTER:

Heyn, you were on the Juneau in the Guadalcanal action, that was 13 November 1942, wasn’t it?

ALLEN HEYN:

Yes.

LT. PORTER:

What was your battle station?

HEYN:

I was on the 1.1 on the fantail. [A light gun at the stern.]

LT. PORTER:

What did you see of the action that night?

HEYN:

We were in a column of ships and we went in, in between these Japanese ships, and we got word down from the bridge to stand by, that they would challenge the enemy. And it wasn’t but a few minutes when everything just broke loose, flames and shots and gunfire all over. And they sent word all around to all the minor batteries like 1.1’s and 20 millimeters [antiaircraft machine guns] not to fire because the tracers would give away our positions.

So, we held our fire until the enemy knew where we were and the star shells [fired to illuminate or silhouette an enemy at night] lit us all up. Then we started firing and you could see the Jap ships so close that you’d think you could almost throw something and hit them. So we just fired our smaller guns right into the topsides [superstructures] of their ships, trying to knock off some of the guns on their decks. That went on quite a while and the ship maneuvered around a lot. It would turn sharply and the water would splash all over where I was, in the fantail. A lot of small bullets hit around me. I don’t know what caliber they were but you could see shrapnel laying all over the deck. And they sent word to take cover.

I don’t know whether they knew there was a fish [torpedo] coming or what, but all at once a fish hit. It must have hit up forward because it just seemed like the fish jumped out of the water.∗∗ It struck the forward fireroom. (Samuel Eliot Morison, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II , Vol. V.) And when it did, all of us fellows that were on the main deck, it stunned us like and knocked us down. The propellers didn’t seem to turn for a few minutes. Sounded like they were jammed or something. The ship wouldn’t steer, just seemed to skid through the water like. I don’t know whether it was a Jap cruiser or what it was, but it was on the other side of us and it just seemed like we were going to run right into it and ram it, but we didn’t though.

They got control of the ship from the after battle station or something. And they pulled around just in time. Just then I saw another ship right after us in our wake. It must have been a Jap tin can [destroyer] because it was coming right at us. Our after guns fired on it and some other ships fired on it and it just blew up, just a bunch of oil and flame. There wasn’t nothing left. And that was that.