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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
Well, we all decided to stick together and try to secure the doughnuts so we wouldn’t drift apart and help the wounded guys as much as we could. Those of us who wasn’t so bad could float around and swim. The oil was so thick it sort of made everybody sick to their stomachs. So we decided to try to get out of the oil. Where the water was clear it didn’t bother you so much, but then we worried because we knew there were sharks in those waters.
This Lieutenant Blodgett, he was gunnery officer, he was a full lieutenant on the Juneau, he took charge of the party and he decided that we ought to try to paddle for land because we could see land when we first went down. And what we done, we secured the doughnuts together, one behind another in a line and the fellows that were able would get up in the forward ones and straddle legs over it [the floats] and paddle. And we done that all that day. We took turns. All that night we done the same thing. And the Lieutenant was supposed to be navigating by the stars in direction of land.
Well, we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere at all because the doughnuts were too clumsy, and on the third day a B-17 Flying Fortress flew over very low and it dropped a rubber life raft. [These inflate and provide a comparatively dry ride.] And we were all deciding what we should do about it—swim out and get it or what—because we were beginning to notice sharks. They were really sand sharks, the big sharks hadn’t come yet. The rubber raft was quite a ways off but it was yellow and you could see it once in a while, as it would come up on top of a wave. So we decided two or three of us ought to paddle over on one of these doughnut rafts and pick it up. So that’s what we done. We took this doughnut and we paddled over. There was a fellow named Hartney, and Fitzgerald, and there was a boy, a Mexican, I don’t know what his name was, but I know he was of Mexican descent.
And we picked up this rubber boat. I’d never seen one before and didn’t know how to do it but it had tubes to blow it up, some kind of, I don’t know what you call it, chemical or something, and we blew it up. One fellow paddled it back to the rest of the party. And we paddled our doughnut back.
In this rubber raft I noticed that there was little containers, I don’t know whether it was water, food or what was in them. We decided a couple of guys ought to go in this raft and paddle it with the oars that came with it and secure it to the doughnuts and try to do like we did before.
When we all got back together we thought we ought to put the worst of the wounded fellows in the rubber raft because they would be free of the water and it would be better for them. They would rest more comfortable there. So, this Lieutenant Wang was hurt very bad. He asked Lieutenant Blodgett if he could go in this rubber raft and Lieutenant Blodgett said yes, he could.
It was towards evening now, and there were three men in this rubber raft. [Instead of taking more wounded men aboard] they hollered back to us that they had decided to go for land, that it would be better that they go for land and send us help. But all these fellows that was on the doughnuts who were very sick and wounded didn’t want that. They wanted to be put in the rubber raft and all stay together. They felt, well, it was much easier there than it was on the doughnut. And why should those three go in that rubber raft and leave us here? It looked like we would just be goners that way, that’s what it looked like. Everybody figured that anyway.
Well, they said they were going anyway, so they unsecured this line and they paddled off. And all these fellows that was hurt bad was hollering for them to come back but they kept going.∗∗ The three made a small island safely, where friendly natives and a European trader nursed them back to life. A Catalina seaplane eventually brought them out. (Morison, op. cit. )
Well, after they went, we tried to get together again. The ones who were wounded that hadn’t died already had narrowed down to about fifty men. The ones of us who were in the best shape, we tried to swim around and help out the other ones. And some of the fellows, there was some planks there, they decided they’d try to swim for land on these planks. Well, they tried to do it and I never did see a couple of them again but this one fellow came back, he found out he couldn’t make it and he came back to our party on this big wooden plank.
Well, the sea began to get rough again. In the daytime the sun was very hot and I found out that the fellows who took their shirts off, or the ones that had them torn off by the explosion, their backs, their skin had all burned. They were in agony. And the ones of us who kept our clothes on were in the best shape because of the oil in the clothes. That protected us. At night it was very cold, you’d have to keep under the water to keep yourself warm. In the daytime the oil in the clothes would keep that sun off you, wouldn’t penetrate your body so much.
But then on the fourth day the sea was very rough, the doughnuts began to separate. There were about twelve on mine. There was a gunner’s mate second, his name was—it’s so long ago, I’m forgetting the names of all these fellows—well anyway, there was him, there was a boatswain’s mate and myself and this George Sullivan, he was gunner’s mate second. I think he was the oldest brother of the Sullivans, he was on the raft with me.†† All five of these famous brothers were lost on the Juneau or in the water afterward; a destroyer, The Sullivans, was later named for this family that gave so much. There was several others, there was a Polish fellow from somewhere in Pennsylvania. I remember him talking about he was a coal miner before the war. And then there was a fellow from Tennessee.