Doctors Aweigh/Chapter 2
Blood on the Coral Sea
AT PEARL HARBOR there was no lack of medical supplies or even of beds for the injured. That is a story of preparedness.
But what happens in war at sea when the medical supplies run out, or simply aren't there? What can a doctor do for his patients without a hospital or even hammocks to put them in, when the ship is rapidly blowing up under his sick bay? How can he bind up wounds or prevent infection in men who are being swept down a mountainside in Java or New Guinea in a last-minute retreat to the sea away from the enemy whose helmets can be seen rising in a wave of gray steel over the rim of the hill? With the best intentions in the world, and with all the skill a good education in medicine and surgery can bestow, what can he do to preserve life and relieve suffering when he and several hundred injured are drifting on hastily contrived rafts or clinging to bamboos and bits of wreckage in a wide, pitiless, shark-infested sea?
In the very hour that the first wave of Jap bombers came winging over Diamond Head, in the harbor of San Francisco the liner President Polk was making ready to sail for the Orient. She carried the rich Christmas trade, Waikiki-bound, as well as a number of wealthy Americans escaping winter by a long Pacific cruise. Also aboard her, though not one of either of these groups, was an unassuming, middle-aged American doctor, Corydon M. Wassell, Lieutenant Commander, U.S.N.R., who hailed from Little Rock, Arkansas, by way of ten years' service as a medical missionary and later as a United States Navy doctor in China. The orders he carried were to report to Admiral Thomas Hart at Cavite, P.I.
The President Polk sailed shortly before noon. Before her bow had passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, her radioman was listening, wide-eyed, to the reports of the raid on Pearl Harbor. The President Polk turned back to her pier, disembarked all civilian passengers, and turned herself over to the Army. When she sailed again, ten days later, she was an armed transport, carrying forty-eight of the first P-40s shipped to the Far East. Aboard her was Dr. Wassell. His orders still were to report to Admiral Hart. Just where Admiral Hart would be when the President Polk got west of the international date line remained a mystery which it was up to the doctor to solve.
The President Polk sailed under sealed orders. Having a speed of over twenty knots, she had no escort. If she encountered any Jap cruisers or submarines, she would have to run away from them or take it.
Ultimately the President Polk arrived at Brisbane where she unloaded the P-40s and took on troops and supplies to be delivered at Surabaya, Java.
In those first weeks of 1942 a lot was happening in the Malay Peninsula and the Dutch East Indies, and happening fast. Since December 10, 1941, when Jap planes sank the H.M.S. Repulse and Prince of Wales off the east coast of Malaya, the United Nations had been putting up a losing defensive against the tide of Japanese aggression. Having won supremacy of the air over the Philippines, as they did within a few days after the first attack on Manila, the Japs had begun their relentless movement southward, from one island steppingstone to the next, on the march to Singapore. In just nine weeks they seized an economic empire.
In the uncertain fortnight or so before the enemy launched his raid on Pearl Harbor, a number of American ships — cruisers and destroyers — part of the Asiatic Fleet, had put into the oil ports of Borneo. Ostensibly, they were there to refuel. Actually, the refueling process was prolonged and exaggerated by innumerable well-contrived complications which allowed our ships to linger in friendly Dutch waters until our Navy could see which way the little yellow men were going to jump.
When the Japs began to move and it was all too evident that we would lose the Philippines, these cruisers and destroyers steamed north to meet and convoy nearly fifty non-combatant ships, flying the flags of the United Nations, from the danger area of the Philippines southward.
Thus when Admiral Hart had to withdraw from Cavite, he went to Surabaya. Java became American naval headquarters in the South Pacific. From Surabaya our ships put out in forays to try to arrest Japan's march to the south. At the time ours were the only heavy ships in those waters, all the British and Dutch naval vessels being engaged guarding convoys.
All this was going on when Dr. Wassell arrived in Surabaya. He got there on January 27, just three days after one of the first engagements in Macassar Strait and when the injured from that meeting with the enemy were beginning to arrive in Java. Admiral Hart immediately appointed Dr. Wassell to his staff. There was a vacancy, as the medical officer who had been serving under Admiral Hart at Cavite had gone into Manila to help with the wounded there, was taken prisoner by the Japanese, and, consequently, left behind.
Wassell found plenty to do. All sorts of medical supplies were being dumped, helter-skelter, on the docks at Surabaya. Every sort of vessel the United Nations could commandeer was being outfitted for use against the enemy. Men, planes, guns, ammunition, and tanks were arriving hourly, as the United Nations scrambled to put up a last line of defense of the Dutch East Indies and Australia.
It was a job of trying to organize some order and plan out of preposterous chaos.
Meanwhile, American ships and seamen were endeavoring to hold Macassar Strait against the invaders. At that Thermopylae of the sea the U.S.S. Houston was mortally wounded and lost. The U.S.S. Marblehead, with her steering gear shattered and great gaping holes in her sides, limped into Surabaya, carrying survivors from the Houston and her own injured.
There were excellent Dutch hospitals in Surabaya, with Dutch and Javanese doctors and nurses, where our wounded and sick could be cared for as competently and carefully as in the best of American medical centers.
To Dr. Wassell fell the job of assigning patients to these institutions — officers to Darmo Hospital, ratings to the C.B.Z. (Central Civilian Hospital). These hospital staffs assumed all care of our wounded, and the American doctor wisely did not interfere. But every day he visited each institution, making the rounds of the wards, talking with the men who were able to talk, and bringing them the small, homely comforts which under such circumstances assume a value and importance out of all proportion to their intrinsic worth. It is fantastic how much morale value is compressed in a single tube of familiar, American-made shaving cream, or a five-cent chocolate bar. To those mutilated, suffering, and nerve-shattered men, the doctor with his gifts of candy, ice cream, soap, and — final touch of thoughtfulness — long Chinese cigarette holders which would allow the comforts of a smoke to men whose burned arms and hands were swathed too heavily in bandages to let them hold a cigarette, must have seemed like a kindly American uncle.
"There weren't any naval orders to buy these things," the doctor recalls. "I didn't know but what I'd get court-martialed for spending 250 guilders (about $125) of the Navy's money on ice cream and smokes. But I figured it would be worth it. So far, the Navy Department hasn't called me on the carpet for it."
Another of the doctor's duties, together with those of the chaplain of the Houston, was to select a site for the burial of the American dead. They chose a corner of the cemetery in Jokyokarta, up in the hills on the island's south shore. Sixty-seven officers and men from American ships lie there under the crosses the chaplain and doctor had Javanese carpenters carve, with the names and ratings of each man. There were mourners at those burials, Dutch and Javanese men and women who heaped the fresh-made mounds with exotic tropical flowers, strange to American eyes, but no less meaningful than the lilacs and snowballs and poppies associated with American Decoration Day.
Once in the midst of that grim duty the doctor stopped to stare at one of those dead faces. A Chinese face, but he knew it well. Ten years before, when the doctor was serving aboard one of the American gunboats on the Yangtze, that "boy" had come to him and begged for employment as a mess boy. For ten years he had served the United States Navy and now had died in its service.
As February wore on and nothing seemed to halt the Japanese advance, it was a foregone conclusion that the enemy's pincers would reach out and close on Java next. In Surabaya and other towns fifth columnists were active spreading reports and reporting to Tokyo all that went on. Surabaya was atwitter with whispers. Moreover, what was whispered in its bars and streets between raids on Monday was broadcast over the Tokyo radio on Wednesday and Thursday. Dutch, British, and Americans looked grimly at each other as the words came over the loud-speaker.
Orders came to Dr. Wassell from Admiral Hart to evacuate the American wounded to a town up in the hills, less vulnerable than Surabaya. It was already crowded with refugees from all parts of the island. Medical supplies were scanty. Soon they had no more boric acid and no more cotton flannel. Dr. Wassell began to use a substitute remedy, such as he had often had to use as a medical missionary in China. Meanwhile, at Tjilatjap and other ports on the south shore preparations were going on for the retreat to Australia. All anyone could hope for, now, was that as the Japs came in the front door the Americans and British could skip out the back way, leaving as little war material behind them as possible.
In this connection there is a story which deserves to be told. Fully ten years before these events there appeared in Surabaya an unpretentious Japanese fisherman who unfurled his nets and sailed his boat about the harbor, peddling the fish he caught from a crude cart. Perhaps it should have occurred to the simple Dutch residents who bought his fish that there was a reason why they were cheaper than the catch offered by the Javanese fishermen. However, Dutch thrift nullified any suspicions. The Jap fisherman prospered. His prosperity took form in a peddler's cart with which he trundled Nipponese knickknacks about the streets and to the families at the naval station. Later, the peddler's cart was exchanged for an automobile, and the peddling trips were extended into the villages in the hills along the road across the island to Jokyokarta. Everybody knew him; and everybody liked him for his courtesy, kindness, and the bargains he offered. Everyone congratulated him when he announced his embarkation on a new business venture — a five-chair barbershop in Surabaya. He got the town's best patronage, and, no doubt, as he and his assistants lathered, clipped, and shaved, the best gossip and most recent and authentic news.
It was a distinct shock to Surabayans one day, in the summer of 1941, when they found the shop closed and shuttered and its proprietor missing. . . . "It only went to prove," so they said to one another, "that you never really understand a yellow man. There's never any telling what goes on behind their little slant eyes. . . ."
The same residents of Surabaya said the same — but silently and with venom — the next time they saw their erstwhile fisherman-peddler-barber. This was when he arrived in town in the uniform of a Japanese colonel, at the head of the army of occupation.
The retreat was on. Every afternoon about four the planes came across from Broome to the landing field at Jokyokarta. The pilots climbed out stiffly, to walk a few steps and drop wearily in the dust of the field. They slept where they fell. At dusk they woke, staggered over to the Grand Hotel, which was military headquarters, for a meal. During the long, five-course dinner of East Indian tradition, which even war did not disturb, they would fall asleep again, pillowing their young heads on the tablecloth. Between eleven and one that same night they would take off: running the steady ferry service, transporting unexpendable officers and men, precious papers, supplies, and gold to Australia. The next day they would be back again. Nobody got any days off.
The men who were moved by plane had to be supplied with rations for the trip and for the additional three days' trek from Broome to Alice Springs. The solution of this problem was added to Dr. Wassel's various and varied duties. Working with the purchasing department of Colonel Eubank's forces, which was made up of all Standard Oil and American Tobacco representatives in Java, he went everywhere in the island buying up every available tin of food on the storekeepers' shelves. Tins of herring, cheese, pickles, fruit, hors d'oeuvres, cans of American corn, peas, and tomatoes, Japanese and Norwegian sardines, olives — every sort of food that comes in a can. The tins were taken in army trucks to the landing field and dumped. Every man evacuated from Java was told to fill his pockets from the dump, with the warning that the food he could carry with him would be all the rations he could expect to get until he reached Alice Springs.
Then came orders from Admiral Hart: "Evacuate all wounded who can stand a hard trip." The doctor read the orders through a second time, and a third. What did the admiral mean by "a hard trip"? What kind of strain would be put on these men, some of whom were in a state bordering on shell shock in which they easily became hysterical? Could men in such plight stand the journey by plane, or crowded into a small ship, to Australia? Could they risk being torpedoed and flung into the sea? Between such hazards and the eventuality of falling captive to the Japs, which was the lesser evil? As the doctor went into the wards, every American face that looked up at him from the beds begged for a chance of escape.
The doctor sorted them. Most surgeons would have declared it nothing short of murder to put such sick men on the road. Dr. Wassell was counting on their will to get through to preserve them on that journey. But there were ten men, including Lieutenant Commander William Goggins, executive officer of the U.S.S. Marblehead, whose state was so serious that transporting them was not to be thought of. Those ten would have to be left behind.
The doctor got the others dressed and over to the embarkation depot.
"How about you?" he was asked.
"I'm staying. With the ten."
"But a medical officer is needed to look out for these men."
"They'll get along. They all have fresh dressings. And they can help each other."
The doctor went slowly back through the February rain to his quarters at the Grand Hotel. Now there was nothing to do but wait — wait for the Japs to come up the road from Surabaya and take the hill town as they had taken the port.
Much of his time he spent at the hospital with the ten Americans whose eyes questioned him mutely each time he appeared: "Have they come yet?"
"See if you can't dig up some way of getting us out of this," Bill Goggins pleaded, and cursed the bandages on his burned arms and hands which made him helpless.
"The way I figured it," Dr. Wassell explained, "was if I could find a way of getting those ten men out of Java while the getting was good — a way they could stand in the state they were in — there wasn't any reason on earth why I shouldn't."
So he went poking about in the confusion and debris of the landing field on which the advance waves of Jap bombers were dropping high explosives every day and which the Dutch were impatient to blow up to keep the Japs from eventually landing on it. In a partly demolished shed he found a dozen expensive and powerful motion-picture cameras, and stopped long enough to smash them. Then, somewhere under the rubbish, he discovered a brand-new and uninjured four-engined plane. Here was the way out. He had only to find a pilot and get his wounded aboard. He started on a run for headquarters in the Grand Hotel.
Crash! Flames and smoke behind him, close enough to singe his coattails. The shed that housed the plane was a blazing ruin.
He couldn't face Goggins and the others right away after that. Instead, he joined the last stragglers in the Grand Hotel. That was how he happened to be on hand when a British colonel came in with the word he was trying to get a motor caravan of anti-aircraft batteries over the pass to Tjilatjap. The doctor marched up to him.
"Can you take me and ten American wounded?" he demanded.
The colonel said he could. "If you get them here inside of twenty minutes. We can't wait. The Japs are on our tails now."
"They'll be here," Wassell promised, and sprinted for the hospital.
He told it to members of the Medical Corps in Washington months later as follows:
"A Dutch rating at the hospital helped me put fresh dressings on the burn cases. All we had to use was sulphur ointment, and not enough of that. We did the best we could to make the men fit for evacuation. The rating stole mattresses and we carried them on them to the caravan. That Dutch hospital corpsman was a hero. I slipped a 25-guilder note into his hand and kissed him on both cheeks. And, gentlemen, I'm not ashamed of it. We made places in the caravan for our wounded so they could travel with as little pain as possible. Just the same it was going to be a hard trip for some of them. The worst was their nerves. The injuries they had sustained, plus the anxiety and the knowledge the Japs were nearly on us, had produced cases of severe war neurosis. Big, strapping fellows, and yet ready to cry if you spoke sharp to them. Like babies, they were. You had to treat them like that. Think for them. Tell them just what to do. Then to do it.
"From somewhere somebody found a brand-new Ford — all gassed and oiled, ready to go. It had been delivered for our Army and never used. I appropriated it. The three worst cases — a man with a compound fracture of the leg, one with a shattered elbow in a splint, and a seaman who had shrapnel in the bladder — I put in the back seat. Bill Goggins got in beside me. I swung the Ford into line to follow the last car of the caravan. We started.
"Most of it was driving in the dark with dimmed lights. We dared not attract Jap planes. The road was terrible, rutted and blown into shell holes in places. The red taillight of the car ahead bobbed and swung like a drunken man's lantern. Anyway, that road over the mountains down to Tjilatjap is like a roller coaster. It got on Bill Goggins' nerves. He said he could stand the Japs' fire better than he could stand my driving. He kept begging me to let him take the wheel. But he wasn't fit to hold it. Besides, I was doing all right. It was his nerves.
"After a few hours' going, the boy with the shattered elbow pleaded to be let out. The jolting he was getting, and being crowded so in the back seat, put him in agony. A British Tommy, riding a motorcycle, offered to take him in his sidecar, which they figured would be less painful. But in the dark, the Tommy crashed and had to wait for morning to make repairs and come after the rest of the caravan. Our boy elected to stay with him. We never saw either of them again. I guess the Japs caught them.
"Finally, after driving all night and part of the next day, the caravan got to Tjilatjap. . . ."
In the harbor a small Dutch coastal vessel was making ready to put out. At best, she could carry one hundred and fifty. Nearly eight hundred persons were aboard her. Every ship that could put to sea had gone; many to destruction. Of the five which sailed the day before, three were sunk by the Japs while still in sight of land.
Dr. Wassell, followed by men carrying his nine patients on their mattresses, marched down the gangplank and demanded passage. The captain just threw up his hands. "My God, man! If you can find an inch anywhere!"
The doctor found it. The wounded were laid on deck and he did what he could without drugs or fresh dressings to make them comfortable. At night the ship sailed under a tropical moon, which lighted up the sea like polished glass and made the little five-and-a-half-knot ship an easy mark. But the night passed without incident. In the dawn, as they were nosing westward toward the Indian Ocean, suddenly a flight of twenty-seven enemy planes were sighted. The planes were searching the sea for American ships. They deemed the little vessel worth a bomb or two and a spray of machine-gun bullets across her deck before they flew on in quest of bigger prey.
Severely crippled, and with dead and wounded aboard, the ship limped into the nearest port to bind up her wounds. There the captain put it up to his passengers. He intended to make the run to Australia, though he figured there was only one chance in a thousand of getting there. Those who wanted to make the run with him could have free passage, provided they were willing to work. About 80 per cent of those aboard decided against it. The dangers of shipwreck outweighed capture by the Japs.
"It wasn't anything I felt I had a right to decide for my nine Americans," said Dr. Wassell. "I went down to where they were and put it up to them. Did they want to take the chance at sea, knowing its practically certain dangers, and in the condition they were in, or stay behind? To a man they voted for sticking with the ship."
The ship set out for Perth. Only then was it found that the captain had no chart to sail by. The only map of the Indian Ocean aboard was in a Rand-McNally pocket atlas belonging to a newspaper correspondent. A large piece of paper was produced, and a pencil and ruler. The paper was spread out on the deck and ruled off in squares. Commander Goggins and two Dutch officers proceeded to lay out a course. It was decided to sail N. by N.W. for two days, hoping in this way to evade the Jap submarines which had already take toll of the U.S.S. Langley off the coast.
The ruse worked. So did Goggins' chart. In the two anxiety-filled weeks it took the little ship to cross the Indian Ocean, bets were made as to when, if ever, they would make Perth. Bill Goggins laid his money on 4:30 p.m. on March 15. The ship nosed up against the pier at exactly four twenty-five on that day. It was nice navigation, worthy of the U.S.S. Marblehead's exec.
At that time the defenders of Bataan were making their last desperate stand. Submarines were running from Australian ports, carrying food, drugs, and what supplies could be assembled, for the men on Bataan and Corregidor. At the storehouse in Freemantle Dr. Wassell and two chief pharmacists set up a base of medical supplies. They scoured Australia for every vitamin pill and preparation, every grain of morphine and quinine that could be bought or commandeered. These they had ready for the submarines when they started north on their relief errands.
Meanwhile, in an Australian hospital between Perth and Freemantle, the nine Americans who had come out of Java made their recovery. Not one man had become infected during that long and dangerous trip. In the fifteen days they were aboard ship, the doctor had been unable to change their dressings. "Two or three times a day I'd go over them, smelling them. I figured as long as they smelled all right, I'd leave them alone. If they got to smelling bad, all I had to use was a small quantity of sulphur and the ship's supply of butter. I'd have to fall back on the kind of medicine our pioneer ancestors used — like I saw used in Arkansas when I was a boy growing up there."
(Growing up in the same town and the same church as a boy named Douglas MacArthur.)
Not a man of them is the worse for that journey today.
Dr. Wassell was awarded the Navy Cross with the citation:
For especially meritorious conduct, devotion to duty, and utter disregard of personal safety while in imminent contact with enemy forces and under attack from enemy aircraft in caring for and evacuating the wounded of the United States Navy under his charge in Java, Netherlands East Indies, about March 1, 1942.
The battleships are the glamour girls of the Fleet. After them come the svelte, smart cruisers; then the vixen destroyers and the bulldogging submarines. These get the front page when the stories are told. Less publicized, but no less important in the long, arduous job of making naval war, are the supply ships; especially the fleet tankers which keep these other ships supplied at sea for long periods.
This is the story of the U.S.S. Pecos, one of the fleet tankers which operated in the southern Pacific in the days when the Japanese were sweeping south.
The Pecos was in and out of Surabaya after the battle of Macassar Strait. As it became all too clear that Java was the next item on the Japs' list, the race began to salvage all valuable war materials and get them away to the fighting ships and to Australia before the Japs moved in. In Tjilatjap, the Pecos stayed on as she had the last source of fuel in that area. Rather than dump it in the storage tanks on the beach, and run the chance of the Japs getting it, she stayed until she had refueled all of the ships in that area. When she left Tjilatjap, she had only about 4,000 barrels of fuel left, and the original mission was to try to get some more. (Where, is still a military secret.) It was during this stay in Tjilatjap that the Pecos' medical officer, Lieutenant Joseph L. Yon (MC), U.S.N., became acquainted with Dr. Wassell. They worked together on the injured men from the Marblehead and the Houston, who had been brought to Tjilatjap.
As the Pecos reached the mouth of the river going out of Tjilatjap, she received word that the U.S.S. Langley had been bombed not far off the South Java coast. Two American destroyers had picked up the four hundred and fifty survivors. The Pecos was given orders to proceed to the lee of Christmas Island, which lies about two hundred and fifty miles south of Java in the Indian Ocean, whither the two destroyers preceded her, and to take on the Langley's survivors.
As Dr. Yon told the story: "We came to the harbor on the south side of Christmas Island in the morning about half-past eight. There was a rapid tide. We could see the two destroyers lying offshore. The Dutch pilot came out and was just coming up the ladder when the sky lookout shouted: 'Enemy planes.' Looking up, we saw that there were three planes in the flight. They circled in preparation for a run on the Pecos and the two destroyers. As soon as the air-raid alarm sounded, we got under way again and started to zigzag at top speed. As luck had it, a rain squall came up just at that time. Those things happen fast in the rainy season in the tropics. The cloud was low over the harbor, and our skipper kept the Pecos under it, out of sight of the enemy. We weaved about over the harbor like the craziest jitterbug. The planes couldn't find us. We could hear bombs exploding near by and hoped that they had not hit one of the destroyers. We learned later that the two destroyers had taken advantage of the low clouds and sneaked out to sea. The squall lasted about an hour. When it was over and the sun began to steam on the tin roofs of the little town, we could see the warehouses and shipping along the water front blazing where the bombs were dropped meant for us. The planes were gone, but we figured they'd be coming back soon. It seemed likely they came from a carrier not far off.
"Our skipper put out to sea, and soon we fell in with the destroyers, which were waiting for us outside the harbor. We headed almost due south all the rest of the day and that night until four o'clock the next morning. Then we hove to, and the destroyers came alongside one at a time to transfer the survivors of the Langley to the Pecos. There were heavy swells; and in those waters you do not use much light at night if you expect to stay afloat for long. The boatswain got one of the motor launches away and made trip after trip to the destroyers, which were lying as close alongside as was safe, bringing back a load of survivors each time. Have you ever seen a small boat bump against a large ship in heavy weather? Then you know the job the boatswain had holding the motor launch steady in the dark while lines were secured to Stokes stretchers and the wounded hauled aboard.
"Prior to the boat's return from the first trip, cargo nets had been secured to the side of the ship, and men stood by with hand lines with loops in the end of them to help the men up the side of the Pecos. All of the survivors from the two destroyers had been transferred by 6:30 a.m., and the Pecos then got under way again. With all of this, there was not one word of discontent. The ship's cooks on the Pecos had prepared 'mud' for all hands, and within a few minutes the men were settled about the ship drinking the coffee and swapping stories.
"Our job then was to head for the coast of Australia and land the Langley's men. Many of them were injured. Practically all were suffering from shock, exposure, and exhaustion, from being bombed and in the water before the destroyers picked them up. Many had no clothes except those that the crews of the destroyers had contributed. . . ."
There is nothing remotely approaching luxury aboard a fleet tanker, and not too much room anywhere. In the cramped sick bay, Dr. Yon set to work to sort the injured men and to assign his five hospital corpsmen to the job of helping him treat those requiring immediate attention. Treating men who are seriously injured in a large, well-equipped hospital ashore, where it is possible to give them the absolute rest they require, is one thing. Treating them in a small and crowded sick bay aboard ship, and while that ship is running at full speed in a danger zone, knowing that the enemy may renew their attack again at any moment, and that the patients may have to be put over the side on rafts or merely in life jackets, is another story.
All of these problems, and others as urgent, were present in the sick bay of the Pecos. With luck, and no Japs to interfere, the Pecos might expect to make a west Australian port in a week. There the injured could be moved to a hospital. Meanwhile, there was the need to treat burns, overcome shock, attend to those urgently in need of surgery, set fractures, and prevent the other injuries from growing worse.
It lacked a few minutes of noon when the ship's siren warned all below decks that the enemy had returned. Less than a minute later the first bomb hit the ship. It tore a hole amidships, where a fire started. The tanker's anti-aircraft guns barked and yapped viciously. At the same time, she began to curvet and prance like a frightened horse, as the skipper endeavored to keep her from being an easy target.
There were nine attacking planes — undoubtedly from the same carrier that had sighted the American ships at Christmas Island the day before. Now they had come back with a fresh load of death. According to ritual, they separated into threes, and then peeled off one at a time from this formation. Meanwhile, high overhead, and well out of reach of anti-aircraft fire, a scout plane hung against the blue, cloudless sky, keeping watch. "Photo Joe," the men nicknamed him.
There was a horrible, mathematical accuracy about the method of attack. Down came the planes, launching their missiles, only to rise and come back again to let go the rest of the load. When all nine had discharged their explosives, they took wing back to the carrier to reload, leaving the scout plane on watch.
"Like a damned buzzard," was the way Yon put it.
They made three runs, with about an hour between the second and third. First and last, they hit the tanker five times, with six near-misses that sent up columns of water twenty feet higher than the deck, and dropped back on it with the crash of thunder and a thump like a knockout blow. One of the hits tore away the fore- mast and radio antenna. Others inflicted mortal wounds forward. The Pecos began to settle at the bow. Men in that part of the ship who had been injured could not get back to the main dressing station. The pharmacist's mate who had the forward dressing station had to carry on alone.
Several fires broke out, but the men put them out before they got beyond control. Smoke and fumes spread through the ship. Up on deck, the crippled batteries kept up a valiant fire at the planes.
The sick bay was crowded. Sailors struggled down the ladder, carrying burned and bleeding comrades. There seemed no end to the havoc.
The ship was listing badly. The deck of the sick bay slanted like a toboggan slide. One of the hits had jolted the operating table loose and sent it crashing into the bulkhead. The deck was covered with scattered surgical instruments. Each time a bomb hit the ship, or water broke over her, the vibration threatened to smash everything in the sick bay. Tile from the operating room began to chip and fly about.
The doctor and the chief pharmacist's mate who was assisting him lifted the patient onto the deck and knelt beside him. The chief held him steady while the doctor worked. Yon worked with one ear cocked for the bark of the Pecos' guns. He told me:
"When I heard the machine guns and the anti-aircraft guns begin to rattle, I knew that we had about thirty seconds before we either had another hit or a near-miss. We would give them about ten seconds and then drop alongside the patient, the chief on one side and I on the other, and wait for the ship to jump. From where we were in the sick bay, it was hard to tell whether it was a hit or a near-miss. A near-miss is one which is close enough to the ship to damage her when it explodes. About the only way we could tell was that on a direct hit it seemed that there was more metal flying and the ship seemed to jump a little more sharply. As soon as the ship ceased shuddering, we got onto our knees and began to work on the injured until the next bomb was due. Often this was less than a minute."
After four hours of this, the orders came: "Abandon ship!" From the sick bay, the injured men were carried up the slanting deck to the starboard side of the ship. Life jackets were put on them. Sailors jerked the kapok-filled mattresses from the officers' berths, and the most severely injured men were lashed to these and lowered over the side. A well man went with every injured one, to look out for him.
"The most impressive thing about the whole business," Yon recalled, "was the men's willingness to help each other. There never was any thought of each man for himself. And you never had to tell a man to do something for one of the injured. Every member of the crew seemed to feel a personal responsibility for the others, and for the fellows from the Langley, who were getting their second shipwreck inside of two days."
One disadvantage of steel ships is that they offer so little floatable wreckage. The men tore down the doors, broke out all the wooden panels, and flung them over the side. Dr. Yon's eyes fell on the chart box in the captain's cabin. It was fully six feet long and two feet square. He wrenched it off the wall, and by the time it floated to the ship's bow, there were six men clinging to it.
Before sailing from Tjilatjap, the skipper had taken aboard a lot of lengths of bamboo, big ones, cut in ten-foot lengths. These were laid on the boat davits. As the Pecos sank, the water washed the bamboos overboard, which provided further valuable wreckage for the men to cling to. One bamboo would support at least four men.
"The trouble with a life jacket," said Yon, "is that after it gets wet, it gets heavy, and as you hang in it, it chafes you under the arms. It helps a lot to have something to rest your elbows on. Those lengths of bamboo were just the thing."
It was five minutes to four that afternoon when the Pecos went down. The Jap planes had decided their job was done, and had gone. Photo Joe hung around for a short time, to make sure the ship had sunk, and then took off after them.
The sea was very wide and empty. The afternoon sun blazed down upon it. Nobody liked to remember that there are sharks in the Indian Ocean. The men did their best to keep together in groups. There was only a forlorn hope that one of the destroyers might come back that way and sight them. If the destroyers did not come . . .
The doctor had emptied the scuttle butt in the captain's cabin into some available containers, and gave these to the men, to take over the side with them to give to their injured companions.
The afternoon wore away. Soon, and quickly, the dark would cover the sea. Night in the tropics can be piercingly cold.
The dusk was already settling, though the west was aflame, when someone spotted a dark blur on the horizon — a ship, but whether our own or one of the enemy's, there was no way of knowing. "By that time we didn't much care," Yon confessed.
A flare was let off. There was an agonizing moment of waiting to see if it was seen and answered. Then a speck of light shone against the dark of the ship. She came on toward them.
It was one of the American destroyers which had given them the Langley survivors that morning. The destroyer came up as close to the men in the water as she could. Rope cargo nets were lowered over her side for men to cling to and pull themselves up out of the water.
"It wasn't until I got hold of the net that I knew how tired I was," said Yon. "I just couldn't pull myself up the side of the destroyer. I just hung onto the net. There were a lot of men in the same state. They had to throw ropes over to us and we caught hold, and the destroyer's crew pulled us up and over until we dropped on the deck.
"Most of us had nothing on but our life jackets and shorts. There weren't ten pairs of pants in the lot. Men had kicked them off to make swimming easier. The crew of the destroyer looked at us sadly. Here they'd fitted out the survivors of the Langley two days ago, and now here were a lot of those, plus what were left of the crew of the Pecos, landed naked on their hands again. But they dug deep into their lockers and found garments of some description for all of us.
"When I got aboard the destroyer, there being no medical officer aboard [now there is a medical officer aboard every destroyer], the chief pharmacist's mate had all his medical gear laid out in the officers' wardroom; and on the wardroom table we went to work. It was about one o'clock the next morning when all of the injured were taken care of and placed in the bunks, readily given up by members of the destroyer's crew.
"The destroyer had been making top speed away from the area in which the Pecos had gone down, and those who have been at sea can visualize how one of these small, slim ships, doing better than thirty knots in heavy swells, will roll and pitch. But as I made my last round to see that all the injured were asleep, not a man murmured. A destroyer with three hundred and fifty passengers aboard in heavy weather is not the most comfortable ship in the Navy, but as I curled up alongside the other sailors on the deck, around one of the warm stacks, it was the closest to heaven I had ever been.
"And that was how we ultimately came to Perth. . . ."
Hero tales? Not a bit of it. Glimpses of the day's work. The kind of thing that may happen to any Navy doctor during a naval battle. The kind of thing that is happening.