- Historic Sites
Ordeal At Vella Lavella
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Kelly Turner took few chances. As the Dent and Waters steamed toward Vella Lavella on the afternoon of July 15, they were escorted by four destroyers under Captain Thomas J. Ryan. Out of sight but very much in the picture were four more destroyers under Captain Francis X. Mclnerney. They would hover in The Slot during the pickup, ready to intercept any Japanese ships coming down from the Shortlands. Mclnerney was in overall charge of the operation.
Midnight, and Ryan’s six ships, coming up from the south, entered Vella Gulf. The moon was full, and it was hard to believe they had not been sighted. At 1:12 a white flare went up from Vella off to port, and the crews braced for an attack. Nothing happened. Five minutes later, a red parachute flare shot up from Kolombangara on the starboard side. Again the men steeled themselves; again nothing happened.
At 1:30 they were off Paraso Bay. Now the destroyer Taylor turned inshore, and using both lead lines and sophisticated depth-finding equipment, guided the Dent and Waters into the bay toward the mouth of-the Paraso River. The other three destroyers formed the inner screen, patrolling the bay’s entrance. Ten miles out, Captain McInerney’s four destroyers took their station as the outer screen. A Japanese patrol plane spotted them and dropped a few bombs that fell harmlessly into the water. Otherwise no interference. Their luck was holding.
On the bridge of the Dent Commander John D. Sweeney peered into the darkness, trying to follow the movements of the Taylor just ahead. He was commodore of the two APD’s and gloried in the code name PLUTO. The Taylor , with deeper draft, finally reached a point where she couldn’t go any farther. She backed away, signaling over the radio, “PLUTO, you’re on your own. Good luck.”
The Dent and Waters crept on a few yards, now so close to land that the shadows of the trees hid the shoreline. Suddenly a signalman called, “Captain, there’s a light.” Sweeney rushed to the wing of the bridge, looked down, and saw a canoe coming out of the dark. A voice in the canoe called, “I am the gunner of the Helena !”
When he called the words out, Bill Dupay still wasn’t sure whether these darkened ships creeping into the bay were American or Japanese; he simply decided to take a chance. It worked out, and a minute later the canoe was alongside the Dent . He and Josselyn clambered aboard.
The Dent and Waters now hove to and lowered their Higgins boats. Each ship contributed three, and with Josselyn acting as pilot, the little armada chugged through the reefs to the river mouth, where Bausewine’s party was waiting.
In a remarkably short time the boats were all back, and Henry Josselyn now went to the bridge of the Dent . Sweeney needed no introduction: he had landed Josselyn a year earlier at Tulagi as a guide with the Marines. To his surprise, the commander now learned that these were less than half the men to be evacuated. No one had briefed him about the second group at Lambu Lambu. He didn’t know the coast, and in a few hours it would be daylight.
Don’t worry, said Josselyn, he’d guide the ships there. Sweeney advised the screen, and the rescue fleet got under way. Toward 4 A.M. the Dent poked into Lambu Lambu Cove, and the bridge quickly spotted a light off the starboard bow flashing the Helena ’s number 50 . The Dent flashed a long red light back and cut her engines.
Warren Boles never did see the answering red flash. He only knew that these ships were coming from the “wrong” direction. Nobody had told him that the rescue fleet was going to Paraso first, and he was expecting ships from the southeast, up from Tulagi. He flashed his signal anyhow, but when he failed to catch the answer, he really began to worry. He wondered whether to turn tail and run for shore, but finally decided the die was cast—rescue was now or never—so he kept flashing his light.
Pretty soon he heard the sound of small-craft engines, then in the darkness a British voice sang out, “Hello there.” It was Henry Josselyn in the first of the Dent ’s Higgins boats. Skippered by Ensign Rollo H. Nuckles, the boat drew alongside the canoe, and Boles climbed aboard. It wasn’t easy: the ten-day ordeal had taken its toll. He had a gimpy leg, and a gash on his left arm was so badly infected that the arm hung useless by his side.
With Boles acting as pilot, the landing craft continued on, traveling in a column of six. Somehow he found the mouth of the river, and then began the difficult business of navigating the various bends and turns. The live “channel markers” were still in place, but it was debatable whether they were more a help than a hazard.