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MY BRUSH WITH HISTORY

How Heroes Talk

February 2024
1min read

Even admirals can swear like old salts.

Belleau Wood (CVL-24) Burning aft after she was hit by a Kamikaze, while operating off the Philippines on 30 October 1944.
The light carrier Belleau Wood burned after being hit by a Kamikaze while operating off the Philippines on  October 30, 1944. Naval History and Heritage Command.

In late October 1944 I was a newly minted engineering officer aboard the USS Belleau Wood, a light, fast carrier cruising ninety miles off Leyte Gulf in the Philippines with the 3d Fleet, under the command of Adm. William F. Halsey. The Japanese fleet had just been beaten badly in a series of battles in the gulf.

On October 30 we’d been launching routine air patrols over the task group when our radar picked up two Japanese planes approaching. One of them hurtled down on the flight deck of the USS Franklin, the large carrier just astern of us, setting it afire. The other headed for us and, although hit by our gunners, crashed into us abaft the after elevator in what was one of the first Kamikaze attacks of the Pacific war. Exploding gasoline, fire, and ordnance left ninety-two men dead or missing, and left the carrier badly damaged, with a twelve-foot hole down through three decks of compartments. After a mass burial at sea, the Belleau Wood and the Franklin headed for Ulithi Lagoon for preliminary cleanup work.

A day or so later I heard the bosun’s whistle over the intercom piping someone aboard. When the whistle count got higher than I’d ever heard, I ran up on deck, and sure enough there he was, a fierce-looking little man with shaggy eyebrows, the legendary Bull Halsey with his full entourage, arguing with our Captain Perry. The captain wanted to be sent back to San Francisco for repairs and shore leave. The admiral wanted the repairs to be made at Pearl Harbor and the carrier sent back into action as soon as possible.

An amazed twenty-year-old ensign listened to a conversation that went like this:

CAPTAIN PERRY : “Bill, I want this f—— ship sent back to the States.”

ADMIRAL HALSEY : “You’re full of s—, Perry. There’s nothing here we can’t fix up at Pearl.”

CAPTAIN PERRY : “My men need leave. I want this f—ship sent back!”

ADMIRAL HALSEY : “All right! All right! Take the f— ship back!”

I remember thinking, “Is this how heroes talk? Did Captain Lawrence say, ‘Don’t give up the f— ship?’”

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