Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"He was grinning as he went down."

gunner's mate, 1st class

My Father was a Gunner's Mate, First Class in the Navy during WWII. He served on a tanker, the U.S.S. Tappahannock, an AO-43 Class oiler, commissioned June 22, 1942, just in time for my Dad to serve on her.

He had lots of stories to tell about different ports of call made during his time on the Tappahannock, but he never talked a lot, in my hearing anyway, about any danger during his service. It goes without saying I suppose that an oiler would often be in danger during war, servicing battleships and destroyers. But it was only very recently that I heard my father's account, as told to my sister Barbara, about the day in April 1943 that the Tappahannock was in a battle for its life.

According to my father on April 6 the Tappahannock was in Guadalcanal, transferring fuel to other ships, as well as aviation gas to shore tanks. It was with aviation gas that they were most fully loaded, carrying over 300,000 gallons. That evening Japanese aircraft started a nuisance raid that dropped a few bombs off the Tappahannock's stern, but didn't do any damage. Can you imagine if a bomb had hit while the oiler was carrying all that aviation gas?

The next day the tanker was still in the area, transferring gas. As a side note here, I have to tell something funny. When the Tappahannock would come up beside a ship to transfer fuel, it was one of my Father's jobs to send a mooring line over to the other ship. He would attach a brass rod to a thin line, and the line was attached to a big mooring rope -- they used brass because brass wouldn't cause a spark when it hit the deck -- and then he would pack the brass rod, attached to the line, into the barrel of his .410, securing the rod into the shell. He would then aim at the other ship and shoot. The rod, propelled by the .410 shot, then pulled the thin line, which pulled the mooring rope over to the other ship. I always thought that was such an amazing way to get it over there, and knowing my Dad, I know he enjoyed doing it. My sister, Barbara, still has that .410, and it is the gun I first learned to shoot with when I was a child.

U.S.S. Tappahannock

Now, back to my story. The next day there was an air raid alert, and the Tappahannock got orders to get underway, along with two destroyers. I was able to find the names of the destroyers online; they were the Woodworth and the Farenholt. The alert had given the word that a Japanese air raid was expected a bit after noon, but around 3 p.m. a "Condition Red" warning sounded from Guadalcanal. Unknown to the American vessels when they left port they were heading right into the path of the Japanese force.

Dad said that they could see some planes off in the distance that looked like they were engaged in a dog fight, and then all of a sudden the planes got into formation and the American sailors realized they were "Vals", carrier-based dive bombers.

And the Tappahannock was the main target of their attack.

Japanese D3A2 Val

The first bomber did some damage and the Tappahannock lost way a bit. The gunners on deck took down that bomber and eventually they saw him hit the water. The destroyers were doing their share with their own guns. A second attacker came in from Starboard and though it didn't do much damage, the gunners weren't able to bring him down. Also, about this time three 20-millimeter guns on the Tappahannock jammed.

The engineers were able to get the Tappahannock underway again, and a third dive bomber came in astern. Its bomb missed the oiler, however, and hit the water clear of the ship, "drenching," Dad said, "all the gunners." A fourth Val came in, and this is the one that Daddy got to see up close. He said it flew right into the fire of his gun, as if it had meant to do so. It was hit several times but it stayed in the air. Dad's 20-millimeter hit it, and as it went down, Dad said it dropped so closely to the ship that he could see the pilot's face. He was grinning widely as he went down. The fifth bomber came in, dropped closer to the ship than any of the others had managed, and then flew off. For a while they thought this one had done some severe damage, but after a check it was discovered that the Tappahannock was okay.

And that was the end of the attack. It only lasted a few minutes. The Tappahannock was given credit for taking down two Vals, but some people (Daddy included) say that they actually shot down a third one, but the credit for that one was given to one of the destroyers. I think that this was the only oiler that had ever officially shot down Japanese planes. The two destroyers weren't harmed, but behind the little convoy of three two other battleships had been struck and sunk.

I thank my sister for getting this info from Dad when she had the chance and documenting it.

A WWII Serviceman said about the Tappahannock's fight on that day,
"Pretty good performance for a big slow moving "Non Combatant" Oiler I think. The Tappahannock was in a fight for her life. It took expert marks-manship to shoot down those planes and expert seamanship to manuever such a large slow moving ship to evade all of those bombs coming in from all different angles. They did an OUTSTANDING job! I'm sure those Japanese pilots thought the Tappy would be easy prey. She is big and slow and lightly armed compared to a destroyer or a cruiser. At the time of the attack the Tappy was carrying 300,000 gallons of avaition gasoline,so if just one of those bombs had hit her it would have been certain disaster." -- Paul Kuzman

I have some other stories of Dad's, amusing ones, that I look forward to sharing, but this was the one that I felt was appropriate for today.



Donna said...

Appropriate indeed.

nancy said...

Thank you for sharing your story. Very interesting.Glad your sister got the information for you. Have a good week.Nancy

nancy said...

Thank you for sharing your story. Very interesting.Glad your sister got the information for you. Have a good week.Nancy

A Middle Aged Mom said...

Great entry!

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Riveting entry, thank you for sharing.

Beth said...

That's so great, Lori. And I don't think I realized that Eler Beth is named after your Mom!