Ordeal At Vella Lavella


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.

At last the boats reached the rickety dock where Chew’s group was waiting. The pier could handle only one boat at a time; so they took turns going in. As each was loaded, Jack Chew stood at the edge of the water, counting the men scrambling aboard. Nearly every one paused to shake hands with some native, and many of the men handed out all the cash they had. Far more useful on Vella Lavella was the sheath knife that Chesleigh Grunstad gave a native he had grown to know and like.

Through it all the men kept as quiet as possible. They were always half-convinced that the Japanese lay just out of sight, waiting to pounce. A Chinese baby started to cry, and to Ted Blahnik, “it was the loudest noise I ever heard.”

Soon the crowd on the dock thinned down to a few dozen, and Major Kelly began to pull in his Irregulars. As they prepared to board the last boat, one by one they handed their assorted rifles and pistols to the native scouts. Kelly watched the transfer of the last weapon; then he, too, stepped aboard.