- Historic Sites
Ordeal At Vella Lavella
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
All that day they inched toward Kolombangara, but it was hard, exhausting work. Chew tried to ease the strain by developing a system of rotation. Every so often one of the swimmers would take a turn in the raft itself, along with the injured. But there was room for only one or two at a time, and as things worked out, a man could expect only ten minutes of rest every two hours.
Nightfall, and Kolombangara seemed as far away as ever. One of the injured men died, and all were badly off. It had now been eight hours since they had left the dubious refuge of the Helena ’s bow. They were bone-tired, hungry, and utterly discouraged. Under a tropical sky blazing with stars that seemed far nearer than the island they were trying to reach, Chew led them all in the Lord’s Prayer.
As the night wore on, the yearning for sleep grew overwhelming. No matter how hard they fought it, some succumbed, loosened their grip, and were gone for good. Major Kelly knew the danger, and tried desperately to stay awake. Once he nodded, found himself floating away from the group, and barely made it back. Next time, he stayed asleep, and when a mouthful of salt water woke him up, it was almost dawn and he was alone in the sea.
He started swimming north, and if he needed any stimulus, it was provided by two fish, about three or four feet long, that showed great interest in his bare feet. He splashed, shouted, kicked, and they departed. He continued swimming and finally lucked into one of Chew’s two rafts. They had become separated, and this was not Kelly’s original one, but no sight was ever more welcome.
By now it was clear to the men on both rafts—and also to the Helena survivors clinging to other rafts and bits of wreckage—that they would never get to Kolombangara. Both wind and current were carrying them steadily northwest. Their best hope lay in Vella Lavella, the next island up The Slot.
On Chew’s raft someone suggested rigging their shirts as a sail. Two paddles were lashed together to form a crosstree, and the shirts were then stretched between them. Warren Boles was the guiding light. He was from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and had known how to sail before he could ride a bike.
The men’s spirits rose, and they perked up even more when a crate of potatoes floated near. For most it was their first food since leaving the Helena . But at sundown they were still a long way from Vella Lavella, and it was clear they would be spending another night in the water. Their hearts again sank.
It was as bad as they feared. Kelly’s raft lost ten during the night—mostly men who quietly slipped off while the rest were blindly kicking away. By now the men were so exhausted, hallucinations were common. George Bausewine, dozing on the edge of one of the Helena ’s doughnut rafts, awoke going under the water to get to a bunk he felt sure was there. A groggy, waterlogged Ensign David Chennault kept asking Bausewine for a cigarette.
At daylight on the eighth, discipline collapsed completely on Chew’s raft. The men wouldn’t rotate any longer. Those resting simply refused to get back in the water, and Chew was too weak to make them do it. Seeing he had lost control, he decided to swim for it. Vella Lavella looked pretty close now; once ashore, maybe he could get some native help.
Warren Boles and two other men joined him, and around 7 A.M. the four pushed off. Two hours … three hours … six hours passed. Clearly Vella Lavella was much farther off than it looked. Exhausted, they drifted apart and lost sight of each other. By mid-afternoon Chew was only half-awake. Sometimes he found himself swimming in the wrong direction; other times he went deep under water for no logical reason. He kept thinking he was going to meet a man who would take him to a cocktail party at “the Residency”—whatever that was.
Boles, the best swimmer, seemed more aware of things. Spotting a stretch of beach he liked, he methodically made for it. Stumbling ashore, he found a coconut in the sand, cracked it open for a drink. Then he crawled under a bush a few yards inland and went to sleep.
By 4 P.M. Chew was just about all-in, when he sighted two natives paddling a canoe toward him. They eased alongside and asked, “You American?” “You betcha!” he replied, and they rolled him into the canoe. One of the natives looked so venerable, Chew thought of him as Moses. Reaching shore, they explained they would hide him, and asked if he could walk. Certainly, Chew replied, and collapsed in his tracks.
For ten miles along the beach a remarkable scene began to unfold. Native canoes darted out, plucking men from the water. At other points, rafts and individual swimmers rolled in with the surf. Here and there dazed men wandered about, trying to get their bearings. Coxswain Chesleigh Grunstad felt overwhelmingly content. He had no idea where he was, but even if he had been told the truth—that Vella Lavella was a Japanese-held island sixty miles from the nearest American outpost—at this moment he wouldn’t have cared. He was on dry land at last.