February 12, 2009
En Route to the South Pacific
USS Rochambeau at Anchor
(US Navy photo from All Hands magazine, August 1947)
After leaving the Napa State Hospital, Imola, we corpsmen were bused to the US Navy Station, Mare Island , California, where we boarded the USS Rochambeau which was tied up at the seawall in Mare Island. The Rochambeau was a very dilapidated looking tub of a ship which had seen better days as a luxury cruise ship. Five thousand, eight hundred of us, Navy and Marines, boarded that ship at Mare Island in early 1943. About noon, she sailed down the San Francisco Bay, out the Golden Gate, and off across the Pacific.
I always lamented the fact that several times I have passed by the Hawaiian islands, but I have never been there. The Islands were visible on the horizon as we passed. They were visible as a black strip covered by a clump of clouds on the horizon. The war went on.
We progressed slowly. We passed across the equator and the international date line, at which time it suddenly became yesterday and we were suitably inducted in to the fraternity of Neptunus Rex.
As we neared the equator it became unbearably hot on board ship. The sun was blistering and with 5800 men competing for shade, there was rarely shade to be found on deck. The heat below deck was suffocating. There was very little potable water to drink and showers were limited to one salt water shower per day. After a few days of salt build up, most of us became raw every place skin rubbed skin. There were no laundry facilities so we tied lines to our jeans and shirts and towed them over the side. They came clean, but encrusted with salt.
The misery continued well between the Tropic of Cancer and into the Tropic of Capricorn. Despite this miserable heat and blazing sun, one of the passengers, a young officer, had rigged a punching bag on the boat deck adjoining officer's quarters on the boat deck, the equivalent of two stories above the milling enlisted crowd, which was limited to the main deck area. This officer punched that bag constantly, a maddening sound like a woodpecker pecking for worms. After while, in order to get to him legally, I went to the Marines who were organizing a boxing tournament and I challenged this officer to a fight in the tournament.
Shortly before the fight, this officer sent for me, bought me a beer, and told me all about his activities as captain of the boxing team at Yale University. In other words, he was giving me the world’s greatest brainwashing. He was trying to convince me that he was great and I was a loser. The “psych” job might have worked if it had not been for an old Chief Petty Officer who had heard about the coming fight. He took me aside and asked me if I had ever fought aboard ship. He then proceeded to explain how to do it. Basically it amounted to:
1—Always keep the sun at your back. Out in the tropics, the sun is blistering hot and fiery bright. Having the sun at your back means your opponent will always have the sun in his eyes.
2—The ship is always lurching and moving from front to back and from side to side. His advice was to always stay on the upper side. If you keep moving with the position of the ship, you are always on the upper side, and your opponent will have to reach upward to hit you and this gives you a tremendous advantage.
The day of the fight, 5,800 men exchanged bets, cheering for a winner. It was quite exciting. I did exactly as the old Chief had advised me. That Lieutenant didn’t have a ghost of a chance. I just hit him at will. The Marine Officer in charge grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks when the fight was ended, and I got an easy decision.
We approached many groups of small islands apparently deliberately as the Captain of the ship was trying to avoid submarines. By very slowly cruising through these shallow, coral infested waters, submarines could not follow and it would cut down on the chances of our being hit by a torpedo. We came so close to some small islands that natives paddled out to the ship and tried to climb aboard. It was so shallow in places the bottom was clearly visible, but astern the props were kicking up pure mud.
After thirty days we arrived in Espiritu Santos Bay in the New Hebrides islands, now known as Vanuatu. Our stay in the New Hebrides was only about ten days while Marines disembarked and there were other exchanges and landings of personnel. Several men were taken off the ship by hospital personnel from a hospital ship at anchor in the harbor. One of those men was my old friend from Napa, Ole Olson. I never saw him again and I have always wondered if he survived. Dengue was not long lasting like malaria, but it was much more severe at onset and many people died from it.
One of the most impressive incidents of the war occurred one morning. I awoke to the most loud and persistent droning which vibrated the ships and the waters. Going on deck I discovered the droning noise was caused by the entire Torpedo Boat fleet moving out of Espiritu Santos en route to new headquarters on Guadal Canal. The entire harbor was full of torpedo boats and they were strung out across the ocean all the way over the horizon. What an impressive sight! I had no idea we had that many torpedo boats in our fleet.
One morning, we heard a solitary plane coming out of the west. He was low and headed directly toward us. Of course, the Japanese Zeros were always a threat. General quarters was sounded and we all donned our helmets. The plane as it got closer was determined to be one of our own, he was dipping his wings from side to side as though in a salute and was directly over us and in an instant he hit the main mast of a tanker anchored next to us. The plane exploded and there was nothing found of most of the plane nor the pilot. Later it was determined that the young officer piloting that plane was the same young officer I had beaten up in the boxing match a short time earlier. It gives one pause. I have often thought of this. I nearly hated this man when we were aboard ship, now I was seriously deflated, maybe guilt ridden.
Soon after leaving the New Hebrides on a clear moonlit night with a sea as smooth as glass, our engines stopped. For three days and nights we sat marooned on this glassy sea, waiting for the periscope that would pop up out of the water, signaling a torpedo attack on us. Nothing happened to us, but we witnessed several air battles and one night an ammunition ship blew up and the air and sea were filled with fireworks. We didn't know it at the time, but we were sitting marooned in the middle of the Coral Sea Battle. We were way off our course, but the Captain had followed a zig zag course in order to avoid submarines which were reported to be plentiful in the area. The war went on.
We had an exciting event one morning. About 3:00 a.m. we were all broken out (awakened) and mustered in the hold of the ship where marines outfitted us with combat gear, side arms, flack jackets—the works. Of course, we all thought a landing in enemy territory was imminent. Several days later, we arrived in Noumea , New Caledonia, well behind any combat area. In fact, it was the Admiral Halsey's headquarters of the war in the South Pacific.
I made landing at the Receiving Station, New Caledonia, where there were reported to be plus or minus 300,000 service men waiting further transfer. This was a city of tents and confusion. After about three days, I was transferred to Navy Mobile Hospital #7. It was similar to a MASH outfit, except it was Navy and it hadn't been built yet. First we erected an officers quarters. Then we erected a surgery and tent wards to house the sick and injured.
After some time I was transferred to Mob #5, where I was assigned to ward duty. The patients were mostly marines who were being returned from fighting in the out lying islands. Duty at Mob 5 was not unlike ward duty at a stateside hospital. It was boring. The most exciting thing that happened to me there was that a nurse who, being a commissioned officer, was rationed a quart of whiskey every week. We enlisted personnel were not allowed to have liquor. She gave me her bottle every week. I thought she was a very generous lady until one day she cornered me in the linen closet. After that, I refused to take any more of her whiskey.
After a lot of this boring duty, we had a distinguished visitor to the hospital, a Colonel Carlson of the notorious Carlson's Raiders. Two of my buddies and I talked to him and since corpsmen were supplied to the Marines, we asked him if we could join up with him. He was only too glad to oblige, gave us some slips of paper to sign and congratulated us, "You are now Marines".
Shortly after the incident with Colonel Carlson, the ward medical officer (the doctor) took me aside, took my temperature, and immediately assigned me to a bed on the ward as a patient. Diagnosis: fever, cause undetermined. I underwent intensive testing for the next month, but no cause was ever determined. Just a few days after I was interred as a patient, word came back that my two buddies had both been shot and killed while making an island landing. Since no diagnosis was ever made other than “fever, cause undetermined,” it was necessary for the staff to send me back to the States for further testing.
(to be continued)
Editor's Note -- The public domain, "Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships," says this of the Rochambeau:
"(AP - 63: displacement 14,242; length 470’10”; beam 63’11”; draft 26’; speed 15 knots; complement 381; troop 303; armament 1 5”, 4 3”, 8 1.1”, 8 20mm.; class Rochambeau)
"Rochambeau (AP-63) was built as Marechal Joffre in 1933 by the Societe Provençals [sic; Provençale] de Constructions Navales, La Ciotat, France for the Societe des Services Contractuels des Messageries Maritimes. Manned by the Free French after the fall of France in 1940, Marechal Joffre was in the Philippines when the United States entered World War II. After the receipt of the news from Pearl Harbor, merchant vessels in the area were requested to depart for U.S. ports. Marechal Joffre sailed on the 18th for Balikpapan, whence she proceeded to Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. She arrived at San Francisco with a cargo of wool and zircon sand on 19 April 1942. The following day, she was taken over by the U.S. Maritime Commission and transferred to the Navy. Commissioned 27 April 1942, Lt. Thomas G. Warfield in command, she was renamed Rochambeau and designated AP-63 on the 29th.
"Rochambeau, converted for use as a casualty evauaction [sic; evacuation] ship, departed Oakland, Calif., on 20 October for her first operation, under the U.S. flag. With replacements and reinforcements for the Guadalcanal campaign embarked on her westward passage, she made Noumea; disembarked her passengers; replaced them with casualties from hospitals there, at Suva, and at Bora Bora; and returned to San Francisco on 3 December. At the end of December, she sailed west again. Extending her range to New Zealand and Australia on that voyage, she limited her next run, 9 to 27 April, to New Caledonia and the New Hebrides. On that trip she carried Lt. (jg.) John F. Kennedy to Espiritu Santo where he was transferred to LST-449 and taken to the Solomons.
"During May, Rochambeau remained in waters off California, then, on 5 June, resumed her passenger/casualty runs to the south and southwest Pacific. Continuing those runs well into 1944, she added ports in New Guinea to her stops in September 1943 and the central Solomons in the spring of 1944. On her last run, 16 November 1944-17 January 1945, she brought back casualties from hospitals on Eniwetok, Guam, and Kwajalein.
"On 9 February, Rochambeau headed for New York. Arriving on the 25th, she was decommissioned and transferred to the Maritime Commission's War Shipping Administration (WSA) on 17 March. Her name was struck from the Navy list at the end of the month. Then returned to French custody, she resumed the name Marechal Joffre and, operating for WSA, was used to transport American troops from Europe to the United States."
According to an entry on Wikipedia.org, the Rochambeau served as a "troopship for the French Army till October 1951 and, after refurbishing, as [a] liner on the Indian Ocean and Far East line; then as [a] troopship once again between France and North Africa. [The Rochambeau was s]old for demolition in 1960."
His name was William Lawhon.