- Historic Sites
Ordeal At Vella Lavella
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Six thousand miles southwest of San Francisco lie the Solomon Islands, scene of perhaps the bitterest fighting ever waged by Americans at war. Here, in 1942-43, the United States and its allies battled the empire of Japan for mastery of the South Pacific.
Geographically, the Solomons are a majestic chain stretchingfnm Buka and Bougainville, just below the equator, to San Cristobal six hundred miles to the southeast. For most of this distance the chain splits into two parallel lines of islands separated by a corridor of water known as “The Slot. “Strategically, the Solomons are a spear pointing directly at the line of communication between Australia and the United States.
Both sides recognized this, but the Japanese got there first. Continuing the relentless advance that had carried them from Pearl Harbor to the approaches of Australia, the emperor’s forces began moving into the northern Solomons toward the end of March, 1942. The handful of defenders could do nothing about it. Their antique weapons were no match for the conquerors of Singapore.
Sensing disaster, most of the European settlers—several hundred planters, traders, and officials—fled south, but here and there a few stayed behind to weather the invasion. Some were missionaries, held by the call of God; a few were volunteers answering the more terrestrial orders of an Australian naval officer, Commander Eric Feldt. These were called Coastwatchers.
Aided by friendly natives and equipped with “teleradios”—remarkably durable sets that would transmit by either voice or telegraph hey—the Coastwatchers lived by their wits behind the Japanese lines, sending a steady flow of priceless information. Their mission was to observe, not fight; and to remind them, Feldt called his operation “Ferdinand” after the peaceful bull of fiction.
One such observer was Henry Josselyn on the island of Vella Lavella in the central Solomons. A small, spry Englishman, Josselyn had served in the local colonial government before the war. Unlike most of the Coastwatchers, he was not already at his post when the Japanese came. He was slipped in by submarine in October, 1942, of ter the U.S. Marines had landed on Guadalcanal to set the stage for a great counteroffensive.
During the following months Josselyn organized a network of native scouts, radioed regular reports on Japanese plane and ship movements, rescued thirty-one downed American flyers, and kept an eye on the enemy outposts on Vella Lavella. InJuIy, 1943, he was based on a mountain that directly overlooked the main Japanese camp. At this time he was assisted by a young Australian, Robert Firth.
But they were not the only men operating secretly on Vella Lavella. Also on hand was the Reverend A. W.E. Silvester, a Methodist missionary from New Zealand who had remained on the island, eluding Japanese patrols with the assistance of his flock. “Wattie” Silvester was a dedicatedman of the cloth, but more than once he found himself quietly helping Josselyn and Firth.
In the early days of July, as the Allied advance brought the fighting closer, these three men suddenly faced a challenge unparalleled even in the dangerous and sometimes bizarre world of the Coastwatchers. It all began with one of those slam-bang naval actions in The Slot that were so much a part of the war in the Solomons.... W. L.
Later, after it was all over, Lieutenant Commander John L. Chew decided that his big mistake was shaving that day. Chew was assistant gunnery officer on the light cruiser Helena and a typically superstitious sailor. He always wore the same pair of old brown shoes and flashproof coveralls. (The coveralls, in fact, were so important he wouldn’t let them be washed.) He always carried his lucky hunting knife on his belt, his lucky four-leaf clover in his wallet, his lucky silver dollar in his pocket. And he never, never shaved before going into battle.
This time it had seemed perfectly safe to spruce up a little. After a hard night’s work supporting the landings on New Georgia, the Helena was steaming south, away from the action, presumably for a few days of rest.
Then late in the afternoon of July 5 came word that the “Tokyo Express” was on the move again. Ten destroyers were heading down The Slot, bringing reinforcements for Major General Noboru Sasaki’s hard-pressed defenders at Munda, the main Japanese stronghold on New Georgia. The Helena , along with the rest of Rear Admiral Waiden L. Ainsworth’s force of cruisers and destroyers, was ordered to turn around immediately and intercept. For Jack Chew the word came too late—he had already shaved.
By 1:30 A.M. on the sixth the force was off the mouth of Kula Gulf, racing up The Slot at 25 knots. Clouds hid the moon, but the towering volcanic cone of Kolombangara Island loomed to port. At 1:36 the radarman made contact—seven to nine ships coming out of Kula Gulf, hugging the Kolombangara shore.
Japanese lookouts soon sighted the Americans, too, and when Ainsworth’s force opened fire at 1:57, the enemy destroyers had a nice aiming point for their “long lance” torpedoes.
At 2:04 a roar split the night, and the Helena gave a sickening lurch. One of the torpedoes had found its mark, completely tearing off the ship’s bow. Thirty seconds later a second torpedo hit… then a third. The Helena sagged, back broken amidships. All power was gone; guns were silent; communications cut; lights out, except for a few dim emergency bulbs.