- 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.
Jack Chew, in charge of the Combat Information Center, checked the bridge for instructions. Captain Charles P. Cecil’s orders were no surprise—abandon ship. The word spread, and men poured onto the slanting decks. Chew and Lieutenant Commander Warren Boles, the Helena ’s gunnery officer, struggled to get the life rafts off the forecastle into the water. Farther aft, Major Bernard T. Kelly, commanding the ship’s Marine detachment, checked the main deck forward to make sure no one was left behind, then climbed down a cargo net into the sea. Near the stern, Ensign George Bausewine, a young assistant damage control officer, carefully removed his shoes and slipped into the water.
Swimming clear, they all turned for a last look at the Helena . The bow and stern rose high in the air to form a V. Then with a rumble she slid straight down, disappearing at about 2:30 A.M. Watching her go, Major Kelly felt as if his home had burned to the ground.
For the next hour hundreds of men milled around in the water, hoping that some ship might pick them up. The lucky ones found rafts; the rest gathered in clusters where they might be more easily seen. Chew and Boles collected a group of about seventy-five around a Jacob’s ladder that came floating by.
Sometime before dawn they heard ships approaching, and soon Major Kelly made out the number 449 on the bow of a destroyer. That meant the Nicholas , one of Ainsworth’s force. The Admiral had detached her with the destroyer Radford to look for survivors, once he realized the Helena was missing. The rest of the task force was now high-tailing it back to Tulagi, convinced they had wiped out most of the Japanese fleet. Actually, they had sunk only one destroyer, with another driven on a reef through bad navigation.
The Nicholas and the Radford lowered nets and boats and began taking survivors aboard. For many, like Ensign Bausewine, rescue seemed only seconds off. He was floating on his back right next to one of the destroyers, awaiting his turn to climb aboard. Then, without warning, she suddenly got under way at high speed and began firing her guns. Another Japanese destroyer had been sighted coming out of Kula Gulf. The fight was on again.
Dawn was now breaking, and with Japanese planes controlling these skies, there was no chance for the destroyers to come back again. Amazingly, in the short time they had been at the scene, they had managed to pick up 745 survivors; their boats—left behind as they steamed off—took another hundred to a safe spot on the New Georgia coast.
The rest of the Helena survivors, including Jack Chew’s group, remained treading water in The Slot. With daylight they found a curious rallying point. The Helena ’s bow, severed from the ship by the first torpedo, was still afloat. Standing vertically about twenty feet out of the water, it soon became a popular refuge. Chew and many of the others paddled over, feeling it should be the first thing spotted by any friendly planes that came looking for them. And so it proved. About 10 A.M. a 6-24 appeared, circled, and dropped three rubber rafts. One failed to open, but Chew’s group managed to inflate the other two. Unfortunately each could hold only four men. Chew put in his most seriously injured, and the group continued waiting.
Soon more planes arrived—but this time they were Zeros. Watching them approach, Major Kelly recalled the recent Bismarck Sea affair, when Allied aircraft strafed the Japanese life rafts after sinking their transports. This was no gentleman’s war, and he steeled himself for the worst.
But the Zeros didn’t shoot. The nearest pilot simply pulled back his canopy and looked at them closely. Circling, the planes made a second run, and again held their fire. As they circled for a third run, they got off a few short bursts, and Kelly felt sure that this would be it: As they roared by, practically touching the water, the lead pilot grinned, waved, waggled his wings … and then they were gone. The relieved but puzzled survivors figured they were so coated with fuel oil that the flyers couldn’t tell whether they were American or Japanese.
But it was a close call. It drove home to Chew that these were indeed enemy waters, and the bow was far more likely to attract Japanese than American planes. He decided his group, now down to about fifty, should clear out as soon as possible. Kolombangara lay only eight or nine miles to the south. If they used the rafts to get there, maybe they could then work their way to the U.S. lines on New Georgia.
They shoved off around 11 A.M. , with the two rafts tied loosely together and the men divided evenly between them. The injured continued to ride as passengers, while two or three hands straddled the rims and paddled; everyone else remained in the water, clinging to the sides, kicking and pushing the craft along.
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.
Looking down the beach, he could see others coming ashore. Then one man was washed up almost at his feet. He was wearing a red money belt, and it reminded Grunstad of his own money, a roll of two-dollar bills fastened to his dog tags. He loosened the roll and began drying the bills. The other man began doing the same—only his bills were all twenties.
Major Kelly stuck to his raft all the way in. Finally ashore, he had his party hide it under some trees. They were just in time. Minutes later a flight of Japanese dive bombers roared by, only four hundred feet overhead. Kelly next sent a man along the beach in each direction to scout out the situation. The man who went southward returned in a few minutes with a 25-pound can of coffee—at last they were beginning to get some breaks. The other man returned with a Helena sailor and a dignified, middle-aged native who introduced himself as Aaron, “a good Christian and a good Methodist.” He quickly produced some coconuts, then disappeared to get help.
It was a quiet day at Toupalando, the little village high in the interior of Vella Lavella where the Coastwatcher Henry Josselyn had recently moved his camp. Josselyn had now been on the island more than eight months, reporting Japanese ship and plane movements, rescuing downed airmen, keeping an eye on Iringila, the main Japanese strong point in the area.
So far he had easily dodged the enemy patrols, but they were increasing in number, and when one party landed only three hundred yards from his supply depot at KiIa KiIa, he had shifted his radio deeper into the interior. This eased the pressure a little, and today he had gone off on some errand, leaving his assistant, Sublieutenant Robert Firth, in charge of the station. A former accountant and ship’s purser, Firth was a small, cheerful Australian who quickly adapted himself to coastwatching life.
At the moment, it was not an especially taxing assignment—just a lazy, tropical afternoon. From time to time Firth raised his binoculars and checked the Japanese post at Iringila, but nothing unusual was going on. Suddenly the torpor was broken by a native scout hurrying up the path to the camp. Rushing up to Firth, he breathlessly reported “plenty Americans” coming ashore along the east coast. To prove it, he produced a set of U.S. Navy dog tags.
Bobby Firth needed better proof than that. Like most Allied fighting men, he attributed almost limitless guile to the Japanese. He feared this might be just one more of their tricks: a clever charade staged to make the Coast watchers reveal themselves. He quickly radioed KEN, the base station on Guadalcanal, supplied the name and serial number on the tags, and asked them to check it out.
In an hour KEN was back. The dog tags belonged to a machinist’s mate, third class, assigned to the Helena , sunk in Kula Gulf on the sixth. Now convinced, Firth sent for Josselyn, who agreed that it looked like “something big.” As yet there was no hint as to how many Helena survivors were involved, but they seemed to be concentrating in two main groups along the coast—one in the Paraso Bay area, the other twelve miles east near Lambu Lambu village. The Japanese had outposts near both places, and fast work was needed to clear the castaways from the beaches before enemy patrols began picking them up.
A runner dashed off to alert Bamboo, the native chief in the area where the survivors were landing. He was to send out canoes to pick up any men still in the water, plant a string of sentries to watch for Japanese patrols, and stand by to help with food and housing.
Another messenger hurried to the Reverend A.W.E. Silvester, the coastwatching missionary, who was currently at Maravari on the southeast coast. He would take charge of the eastern group of survivors landing near Lambu Lambu. Josselyn himself would take on the western group, at Paraso Bay and Java. Firth would stay at Toupalando—and later at a camp still deeper in the interior—handling the teleradio traffic with KEN. They would all keep in touch through two walkie-talkies and a somewhat larger set used by Josselyn; and to help Firth out they had the fortuitous services of a “guest”—Lieutenant Eli Ciunguin, a P-ßS pilot awaiting evacuation.
Everything set, Josselyn headed for the village of Java, where the first survivors had been sighted. Time was so important that he traveled all night to get there.
Ensign Bausewinc’s group—rescued from their doughnut raft by native canoes—spent the night in leaf huts on the beach near Java. Supper was a hodgepodge of papaya, coconuts, taro, and fish stew. Normally indigestible to Americans, perhaps, but after three days of nothing to eat, nobody complained. It was food.
Shortly after dawn the next morning, July 9, they were awakened by their hosts. Using a mixture of pidgin English and sign language, the natives explained that everyone must leave the beach area. Then, as the group sleepily formed up in the early daylight, out of the jungle appeared a slim white man, hair almost down to his shoulders. It was Henry Josselyn.
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.”
Food posed another problem. The natives were short on supplies themselves, and the addition of scores of Helena survivors proved a serious drain. Once again the Reverend Silvester came to the rescue. He organized native foraging parties that systematically combed the area. Soon the camp was getting a steady flow of potatoes, tapioca, yams, pau pau, taro root, and bananas. When ripe, the fruit was given to the injured. Everything else was dumped into a huge copper pot, also provided by Silvester’s natives. It reminded Jack Chew, a little uncomfortably, of the pots he had seen in cartoons of cannibals cooking missionaries.
The pot was kept boiling by two experienced cooks—Seaman First Class J.L. Johnson and Marine Bert Adam, a massive bartender from Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Twice a day they ladled out a watery stew, laced with a few chunks of Spam scavenged from the beach. The men never ceased to marvel at the results. Sometimes it was rich purple, next time pink, then almost white, and again almost black. There were no complaints, although Coxswain Ted Blahnik later confessed that he tried to dodge the fish eyes.
On medicine, too, the Reverend Silvester proved invaluable. Pharmacist’s Mate Red Layton did a superb job with the injured, now bedded down in Sam’s shack, but his task was made easier by the sulfa drugs and painkillers that came from the mission stores.
Every evening Silvester dropped by to chat with Jack Chew—not just about the problems of the day, but about life in general. Gradually a close bond developed between them. Bern Kelly and the others felt it too, and they all agreed that this devoted man who did so much for them deserved far more than to be a mere “Reverend.” He should at least be a bishop, and so they made him one, unofficially. From this time on, they always called him “Bish.”
By July 12 life in “Mayor” Chew’s community almost bordered on the routine. In the morning the men got up with the sun—about six o’clock. Washing up without soap was somewhat futile, but they learned that a lime peel was excellent for cleaning teeth.
Breakfast (stew, of course) came around ten, when Chief Cook Johnson would ceremoniously announce, “Chow is ready.” Finishing, the men washed the coconut shells that served as plates, and then took two laps around the camp for exercise. Next came cleanup. Nearly everyone had some specific assignment; the most sought-after duty was the canteen detail because it meant an opportunity to bathe in the crystal-clear stream at the bottom of the hill.
Lunch (more stew) came at two o’clock, and that was the last meal of the day. The rest of the afternoon most of the men relaxed, gradually regaining their strength, until evening prayers around five thirty. Not quite knowing how this mixed and involuntary congregation would react, Chew passed the word that no matter how they felt, he expected the men to show proper respect during the Reverend Silvester’s service.
He need not have worried. Perilous hardship had brought most of the men closer to God than they had ever been before. Survivors and natives joined together in singing the hymns, especially “Rock of Ages.” The natives sang in their language, the Helena ’s, crew in theirs, but the effect was strangely unifying. The common melody seemed to mean a common bond that many of the men found enormously reassuring. It was not unusual to see them in tears as the service ended.
And so the days passed, one pretty much like another—except for the big feast. This took place after a party of natives butchered one of the stray cattle that roamed the island. Lugging the beef back to the camp, the natives were held up by Japanese patrols, and by the time they reached Sam’s place, the meat was ripe indeed. Chew consulted Chief Cook Johnson; they reluctantly agreed that it was hopelessly spoiled, and they had it buried. But this was more than Machinist’s Mate, Second Class, R. G. Atkinson could stand. He was the oldest member of the Helena ’s, crew, and among other things in life, had been in the Klondike gold rush. He told Chew that in the Yukon no one would throw away beef like that. He knew how to salvage it and would like to try his skill.
The meat was hastily disinterred, and Atkinson went to work. No one ever knew what he really did. Obtaining an iron pot from the natives, he boiled it for three days, occasionally tossing in bits of fruit and herbs he found growing in the jungle. Finally he announced that his treat was ready, and to the astonishment of the other 103 men, it turned out to be delicious.
Despite Atkinson’s genius—and the continuing efforts of the more orthodox cooks—food was always short, and always on everyone’s mind. The men no longer talked about the girls in Sydney—it was the steaks back home. So it was not too surprising when Major Kelly stormed up to Chew one day, reporting that someone had stolen one of the few cans of Spam salvaged from the rafts. “IfI find out who it is, will you sentence him to death?”
Chew said he thought this was a little drastic. The thief was probably some poor devil, so hungry he really didn’t know what he was doing. Kelly was adamant, and the “Mayor” was caught between approving what he felt was a Draconian measure, or undermining his “Chief of Police.” To his enormous relief, the culprit was never caught.
A graver crisis arose the day a four-man Japanese patrol came too close to the camp. The native scouts intercepted, and in the skirmish that followed, three of the enemy were killed. The fourth was taken alive, posing a serious dilemma. With his men hiding out deep in Japanese territory, and the enemy now on their heels, Chew felt it was too dangerous to have a prisoner on their hands, yet they certainly couldn’t turn him loose. In the end he reluctantly ordered the Japanese executed—technically, perhaps, against the rules of the Geneva Convention, but surely that body never contemplated a situation like this. Nevertheless it was a hard decision, and it comforted Chew to know that the Reverend Silvester understood and agreed.
The next Japanese thrust was no four-man affair. Twenty well-armed troops landed from a barge in Lambu Lambu Cove and started up the trail toward Sam’s house. Warned by their native scouts, the Irregulars deployed to meet the threat, while the rest of Chew’s group prepared to move deeper into the interior.
Major Kelly hoped to ambush the Japanese as they climbed single file up the trail. He selected a spot that gave him both good observation and cover for his own men. The Irregulars moved into position with their grab bag of weapons and waited. Soon they heard the Japanese coming, hobnailed boots clanging against the rocks, their voices casual and quite audible in the distance. Kelly wondered how they got their reputation as stealthy jungle fighters.
Still, they were plenty dangerous, and the outnumbered, outgunned Irregulars steeled themselves for a last-ditch fight. Then, just as the head of the enemy column came into view, several blue Corsair fighters streaked by overhead and began firing at the Japanese barge on the coast. Black smoke boiled up, and the patrol, voices babbling in excitement, hurried back to the beach.
Kelly never knew what triggered the attack—probably the fighters just happened by and saw the barge—but he did know that Corsairs were generally land-based. This must mean that the U.S. now had a field within fighter range of Vella Lavella.
Twelve miles up the coast at Paraso Bay—but in touch by radio—Henry Josselyn wasn’t thinking about these small triumphs; he was thinking about all the other Japanese on Vella Lavella. Some three to four hundred enemy troops were now on the island, and the number was growing. There were new outposts at Kundurumbangara Point and Baka Baka, both near Chew’s camp, and another at Marisi, about three miles west of Ensign Bausewine’s group at Paraso.
There was no time to lose, if the men were to be saved. COMSOPAC (as Admiral William Halsey’s headquarters was called) said they could provide a couple of destroyer-transports, so the problem boiled down to the mechanics of evacuation. A total of 165 Helena survivors were involved— 104 with Chew, 50 with Bausewine, and another 11 a few miles to the northwest with Chief Warrant Officer William Dupay. Even after adding Dupay’s men to Bausewine’s group, it was impossible to concentrate everybody in one place, so Josselyn planned two separate evacuations. He was already at Paraso Bay with Bausewine; so he would send this group off first. Then he would go down to Lambu Lambu and do the same for Chew’s group.
July 12, and Bausewine’s party received a surprise addition—a captured Zero pilot, brought in by native scouts. Here, too, arose the agonizing question of what to do with the prisoner. The general consensus was to kill him, but as Bausewine later recalled, “Nobody would go through with it; so he lived.” Happily, he seemed cowed and thoroughly docile, but to be on the safe side his hands were bound and he was kept blindfolded whenever the group moved. A final and far more welcome newcomer was Lieutenant Ciunguin, the downed P-38 pilot who had been helping Firth with the radio traffic.
By nightfall on the twelfth all were assembled on the beach, waiting for the pickup at 2 A.M. , but the Japanese Navy didn’t cooperate. The Tokyo Express came barreling down The Slot that night with twelve hundred more reinforcements for Kolombangara. Admiral Ainsworth rushed to intercept them, and the rescue operation was postponed, first to the thirteenth, then to the fourteenth. But now it fell too close to the fifteenth, when Josselyn had planned to send Chew’s group off. In the end he proposed to do the whole job on the night of the fifteenth: the ships would first pick up Bausewine’s party at Paraso Bay, then steam down the coast and get Chew’s group at Lambu Lambu.
COMSOPAC approved, and two tense days of waiting followed. Josselyn knew the Japanese were getting close to Chew, and his own group seemed to be living on borrowed time. He moved the camp every night. He shifted the teleradio after every message. He grew nervous, irritable, smoked incessantly. Bausewine’s men gladly smoked his butts, for they had the jitters too. Some jungle bird had a call just like the Helena general quarters alarm, and the men jumped every time it sounded off.
On the evening of the fifteenth, the party once again went to the beach. Most of them still had on the shreds of oil-soaked dungarees they had been wearing when they landed, but Bill Dupay was resplendent in the Japanese pilot’s uniform. The pilot, blindfolded and hands still tied behind his back, was guided along in his drawers—the fortunes of war.
Twelve miles down the coast, Jack Chew’s group was on the move too. With the strongest serving as stretcher-bearers for the sick and wounded, they left the camp at 3 P.M. —a time nicely calculated to get them to Lambu Lambu Cove just before dark. They were in no shape to travel at night, and the coastal plain was too exposed to wait there in broad daylight. Now added to the party were sixteen of the local Chinese—mostly Sam Chung and his relatives.
Kelly’s Irregulars screened the movement, taking position between the line of march and the nearest Japanese outpost. Behind them the evacuees plodded along, reaching the coast at dusk, just as planned. The spot selected for the rendezvous was not on the open sea, but at a former trading post dock a mile or so up the Lambu Lambu River. This was a broad estuary with several tricky turns, and Chew assigned Warren Boles, the old Marblehead sailor, to go out in a native canoe and pilot the rescuers in.
It was a far cry from cruising the New England coast. The canoe was paddled by a single native who couldn’t speak English and didn’t understand any instructions. There was a moon, but the shadows of the jungle hid the shoreline. The only channel markers were natives positioned in the water by “Bish” Silvester to mark each bend in the river. Boles longed for the days of neatly numbered “red nuns” as he tried to meet the challenge of picking out a black man in a black river on a black night.
Now they were off the mouth of the river, bobbing in the waters of The Slot. Here they waited and waited for some sign of the rescue ships. Once they heard the whine of destroyer blowers and vessels going by at high speed, then came a few flares and explosions. Japanese ships were apparently on the prowl, sniffing trouble. Then it was dark again, and the wait continued.
On shore Major Kelly also felt the strain of the long wait. Finally he slipped away from his defense line and consulted with Chew. If the ships didn’t come soon, it would be dawn, and they couldn’t risk staying here during the day. They began discussing the possibility of returning to camp.
Twelve miles up the coast at Paraso Bay, Bausewine’s group was to have a long night, too. The rescue was set for 2 A.M. on the sixteenth, and at midnight Josselyn pushed off in a large canoe to guide in the rescuers. With him went three natives and Bill Dupay, to help make contact. For the next two hours they bobbed up and down in the empty night a mile or so offshore. Then, toward 2 A.M. , they spotted the shadowy forms of several blacked-out ships approaching through the dark. There was no clue whether they were friend or foe, but Josselyn hopefully flashed a series of R ’s—the recognition signal.
On shore George Bausewine and the others restlessly waited as the hours ticked by. He hoped for the best, but he had always been fatalistic about the group’s chances. That Rear Admiral Kelly Turner, commander of the area’s amphibious forces, would send three thousand men in ten destroyers to rescue them was a thought that had never occurred to him.
From the start Kelly Turner was determined to rescue the Helena survivors on Vella Lavella. It was more than a matter of saving 165 good men; it was important to the whole Navy’s morale. As he explained, “It means a lot to know that if the worst happens and you get blown off your ship and washed ashore somewhere, the Navy isn’t going to forget you.”
But how to do the job? PBY’s, submarines, PT-boats—all the usual ways were out. They just couldn’t hold enough men. Ships were clearly the answer, and the destroyer-transports Dent and Waters seemed the best bet. Painted a mottled jungle green, these APD’s (as they were called) had the right size and speed, with crews specially trained in amphibious operations—and looking at it one way, this was just an amphibious operation in reverse.
Protecting the two APD’s was the problem. They were lightly armed, and this would be the Navy’s deepest penetration yet into enemy-controlled waters. The Japanese not only held Vella Lavella, but had airstrips on Bougainville and on Ballale Island, plus their anchorage in the Shortland Islands only sixty miles away.
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.
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.
As senior officer, Chew was the last to go. He conveyed his thanks to Josselyn, whom he had just met, and turned to Silvester. It was hard to find the right words, and maybe a small gesture conveyed his gratitude better than anything he could say. Jack Chew, that most superstitious of old sailors, handed Bish his most prized talisman of all, his lucky silver dollar.
The Higgins boats got under way; Silvester and Josselyn gave a final wave and faded into the bush.
On the Dent and Waters the rescued men swarmed below to rediscover a host of basic pleasures—good chow, cigarettes, hot water, soap, clean underwear. In the wardroom of the Waters Jack Chew downed five bowls of pea soup, then enjoyed the luxury of a real shower. He was too excited to sleep; so he wandered into the wardroom again and talked the rest of the night away.
Daylight, July 16, and American fighters from New Georgia appeared overhead. The rescue fleet pounded on toward Tulagi, out of harm’s way at last. On the bridge of the Dent Commander Sweeney wondered what sort of men did the things Henry Josselyn did. Their parting gave him little clue. Sweeney had offered to take Josselyn to Tulagi, but he said no, there was still work to be done. Then Sweeney offered him some cases of canned food, but Josselyn again said no: the natives might leave the empty cans around, giving away his position.
“Can’t we do anything for you?” Sweeney asked.
“Yes,” said Josselyn, “I could use a couple of pairs of black socks, some Worcestershire sauce, and a few bars of candy.”
COPYRIGHT © 1977 BY WALTER LORD