- Historic Sites
Ordeal At Vella Lavella
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Asking for the senior officer present, Josselyn took Bausewine aside and explained how urgent it was to move inland at once. The coast was alive with Japanese patrols and barge traffic. The men were still weak from their three days on the raft, but there was no time for rest. They hobbled inland, camping later in the day, deep in the jungle, where giant trees hid them even from snooping planes.
Twelve miles down the coast a native named Mickey organized the rescue of the other group of survivors at Lambu Lambu Cove. When Ensign Don Bechtel came ashore on the evening of the eighth, one native undressed him, another fed him, a third led him to a clearing where he could rest. More survivors were collected; then, with Mickey leading, the group started inland. Those who couldn’t walk, like Commander Chew, were carried on litters of poles and copra bags.
Mickey led them first through a jungle swamp, where the men sank up to their knees; then along a hard, rocky trail that climbed into the hills. Finally, after two and a half miles, they came to a clearing with a wooden shanty. To Jack Chew it looked like a typical summer vacation shack on the Chesapeake Bay. It was the house of a Chinese trader named Sam Chung, who was using the building as a hideout in the hills for himself and his family. Sam tactfully moved out, and the place became an impromptu camp for the Helena survivors brought up by Mickey. When Chew arrived, Machinist’s Mate, First Class, Lloyd George Miller and several others were already there.
Inside, Chew found a few pieces of crude furniture, a shotgun with one shell, a pair of white shorts, and a pair of sneakers. With his own dungarees split and chafing his skin, he tried on the shorts. Miraculously, they fit. Then he tried on the sneakers. Even more miraculously, they fit too.
During the evening more survivors turned up, and then the Reverend Silvester arrived, looking anything but clerical in a short-sleeved shirt and old khaki shorts. A native walked beside him with the walkie-talkie. Searching out Chew, the senior officer, Silvester explained he had “access to a radio” and would have the American headquarters notified.
Next day, the ninth, a few more survivors trickled in. Last to arrive was Warren Boles, who had spent the night on the deserted beach where he landed. Looking around in the morning, he encountered a giant native (“he looked about ten feet tall”) armed with a huge machete. Boles had only a six-inch knife, so he did the diplomatic thing. He threw his own knife to the ground and gestured friendship. The native understood no English, but he knew exactly what to do. He led Boles to Sam Chung’s house, and with his arrival the group reached a grand total of 104 men.
This was no longer a small band of castaways; this was a whole village—a village deep in enemy territory. To survive, Commander Chew realized they must have rules, assignments, lines of authority, and all the trappings of an organized community. As senior officer, Chew automatically became the “mayor,” and it’s hard to imagine a better one. A thoroughly professional career officer, he nevertheless had an informal touch that came in handy in these strange surroundings. In the Annapolis world of “black shoe” and “brown shoe” officers, he belonged not only figuratively but literally among the latter, more relaxed group. On the Helena his lucky brown shoes had been a trademark.
His “chief of police” was, of course, Major Kelly. He would be in charge of defense, sanitation, and the maintenance of law and order. As a force, Kelly had five of his own Marines plus a number of petty officers and natives.
Weapons were a more difficult problem. At the start the survivors had only a .38 revolver and a .45 automatic. Then Chew discovered the shotgun in Sam Chung’s house, and Josselyn sent over seven very assorted rifles, including a Japanese model with exactly three bullets. Two men were assigned to each weapon—if one was hit, the other was to save the gun. The force inevitably became known as “Kelly’s Irregulars.”
With the Irregulars in the field, Kelly turned his attention to sanitation. Knowing that digging a latrine is not a sailor’s idea of fun, he set an example by helping dig it himself. This was no easy task, for their only implement was a steel helmet, unaccountably worn by the ship’s barber during the entire three days he was in the water.
They also needed better sleeping quarters. So far, the men were packed in Sam’s shack and a curious outbuilding that rather resembled a hen house. The Reverend Silvester said he thought he could remedy this problem, and a team of his mission boys appeared the first morning. Cutting poles and vines from the jungle, they quickly lashed together a framework, then covered the sides with palm leaves, and thatched a roof with grass. By the evening of the tenth they had finished a shed some forty or fifty feet long. To dedicate it, the Reverend Silvester held a service, with survivors and natives joining together in “Onward Christian Soldiers.”