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One Who Survived
SEAMAN HEYN’S STORY FROM THE NAVAL ARCHIVES OF WORLD WAR II
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
It was still so smoky and all, you couldn’t quite see, and I was still hazy and I knew I had to get up and get off of there. I was afraid the suction would pull me down. When I went to get up, I felt this pain in my foot and I couldn’t get my foot loose from the shield or something, it fell down on top of my right foot across the instep of it and I couldn’t get loose. It was only a few seconds, and the water was closing in around the ship and there was just this little bit of it left. And I knew that I had to get off but I couldn’t and there was a lot of kapok life jackets laying around deck.
I grabbed one of them in my arms and held it. I didn’t even put it on and the water closed in around the ship and we went down. And I gave up, I just thought that there wasn’t a chance at all, everything just run through my head. And you could see all objects in the water, all the fellows and everything and after we were under the surface I don’t know how far but the sheet of iron or whatever it was, it was released and my foot came loose and then the buoyancy from the life jacket brought me back to the surface.
It was like a big whirlpool. There was oil very thick on the water, it was at least two inches thick—seemed that way, anyway—and there was all kinds of blueprints and drawings of the ship floating around. And then there was roll after roll of tissue paper and that’s about all there was on top. I couldn’t see anybody. I thought, gee, am I the only one here? My head was very hazy and I didn’t think a thing about the other ships. I put the life jacket on when I came to the top, and I paddled around the water.
I don’t know how long, it wasn’t too long, when this doughnut life raft just popped right up in front of me. I don’t know where it came from, it just seemed to come up there. I grabbed it and held on and then I heard a man cry. I looked around and it was this boatswain’s mate second class. His name, I can’t quite remember his name. If I could see it, I’d recognize it. He was in the post office on the ship and he was crying for help. I went over to help him.
He said he couldn’t swim and he had his whole leg torn off, blew off. I helped him on the doughnut raft and then gradually one by one some more stragglers would come and we’d all get on.
Then we began to think about the other ships. When we were thinking about them, you could just see masts going over the horizon and it just seemed like they never scouted the area, they just kept right on going and we thought, well, they know we’re here, they’ll surely pick us up. So we all hung on this doughnut raft. There was so many of us that it was sinking way in the water, and there wasn’t much room.
Everybody was kinda scared at first. Some of them couldn’t swim, they were afraid they’d loose their grip and drown. So it went on that way and then these B-17 Flying Fortresses flew over the area. They just skimmed the water and they’d wave to us.∗∗ The Helena , whose captain was now senior surviving officer present, asked a Flying Fort to signal Comsopac that Juneau had been torpedoed and that survivors were in the water, but this message did not get through. Admiral Halsey later relieved the captain of his command for abandoning these survivors (Morison, op. cit. ). It can be argued that it was too hazardous to stop in these waters at the moment, especially for wounded ships, but lifeboats and rafts could have been dropped. Many much more hazardous rescues have been performed under threat of submarine attack.
Towards evening, the water was very calm and then it rained. You couldn’t see anything at all and every couple of minutes someone would say, well, there’s a ship and they were just thinking they saw it, it wasn’t there at all. And the rain stopped, and there were other doughnuts nearby and we paddled and tried to get each other together.
Well, by nightfall we were about three doughnuts together [the doughnut is a large circular float supporting a rope net, accommodating a good many partially submerged men]. It just lays on the water and you try to lay on top of it. Well, there was a lot of fellows on them. I should say there was about 140 of us when we all got together. Some of them were in very bad shape. Their arms and legs were torn off. And one of them, I could see myself his skull. You could see the red part inside where his head had been split open, you might say torn open in places. They were all crying together and very down in the dumps and wondering if anybody was ever going to pick them up. And they thought, well, at least tomorrow there will be somebody out here.
And that night, it was a very hard night because most of the fellows who were wounded badly were crying and, you know, groaning about their pains and everything. They were all in agony. And in the morning this fellow that I said that had his head open, his hair had turned gray just like as if he was an old man. It had turned gray right over night.
Everybody had so much oil on them, their ears and eyes would burn and the salt water would hurt so much that you couldn’t hardly look around to see if anybody was there. You couldn’t recognize each other unless you knew each other very well before the ship went down, or unless it was somebody that you’d recognize by his voice. So all these rolls of tissue paper were floating around there. If you unrolled them, in the middle they were dry and we’d take that and wipe our eyes out with them and ease the pain a lot and wipe our faces off a little.