WWII (1943-46)

“Torpedoes In The Water” — Rescue Off Rabaul, Part II

Memory from: Robert H. Garwood, Aviation Machinist Mate 2nd class

Setting the Scene

In an earlier story from Bill Cox, one of the KIDD's torpedomen's mates during World War II, he tells of how Captain Roby evaded a torpedo attack by Japanese aircraft while rescuing downed pilots from the water during the Bougainville landings of November 11, 1943. This next story comes from Robert H. Garwood , Aviation Machinist Mate 2nd class, off of the aircraft carrier USS ESSEX (CV-9) who was a turret gunner on a Grumman TBF Avenger (a torpedo bomber). Here, he relates his experiences during this same incident as one of the men in the water waiting to be rescued.

The Recollection

USS ESSEX (CV-9) November 11, 1943 I was a crew member on the torpedo bomber (TBF) aboard the USS ESSEX in the morning (about 8:00 a.m.) assigned and briefed to the second wave and we were to torpedo any fighting ship in Rabaul Harbor. Meanwhile, I was strafing the decks of the various ships we passed over. That was a successful run and we returned to the ESSEX about noon. As the crew was waiting for the next briefing, General Quarters sounded (about 1300) and we had to scramble aircraft. Our TBF was armed with a torpedo for a return hop to Rabaul to ‘get’ any ships that were left. The crew consisted of the pilot, Lieutenant J. G. Denby-Wilkes, Radioman 3rd class Roy D. (Don) Bright, and Aviation Machinist Mate 2nd class Robert H. Garwood as turret gunner. By the time we took off, we were under attack by Japanese fighters (Zeros). An altitude of 100 feet was not reached when the engine quit. I thought we were hit. The plane hit the water. I pulled the escape hatch lever and got out. I tried to get the life raft out and noticed no one else was out of the plane and it was sinking. I swam around to the tunnel door, pulled it off, and grabbed Don who was floating around inside and pulled him out. By that time, the plane sunk. I did not see the pilot get out but after a while, I saw him quite a distance from us. My Mae-West [life jacket] was torn on both sides and did not inflate.

Don’s Mae-West was torn on one side. The USS ESSEX passed us. Don said he couldn’t make it. He was hurt, but I didn’t know where. He may have hit the radio gear but I don’t know. I told him to hang on ’cause someone would come after us. About then, I took my boots off so I could tread water better. I had hold of Don by the Mae-West so we would not get separated. USS KIDD (DD-661) November 11, 1943 I was watching as a couple of Japanese planes were shot down and hit the water. All of a sudden, I saw the USS KIDD come up on us from behind. (This was about 15-20 minutes after I got out of my plane.) The pilot was closer to the ship than Don and I were. The pilot was able to climb aboard up the landing net. I tried to swim us both over but the ship’s momentum was taking it past me and I couldn’t make the net. Someone on the fantail threw me a line. I tied it around both of us and they started hauling us toward the ship when the ship was forced to leave because of attacking planes, which drug us under the water. I was able to get my sheath knife and cut the line while under water and when we surfaced, I noticed Don’s head was back and his mouth was full of green dye water and obviously dead.

Just after this, I saw a torpedo wake go under us, apparently for the USS KIDD. This did miss the KIDD. The KIDD left. At this point, I watched more of the air battle off in the distance. Meanwhile, still holding onto Don. The USS KIDD returned to pick us up. When they came by this time, I got a hand on the landing net and the KIDD was firing at incoming planes. The KIDD got underway once again. I had to let go and then I saw someone in the water by me with no life jacket on. I did not see him jump off the ship. (I later learned that this was Ernest Lang.) He took his pants off and tied the legs off to catch air to make a floatation device but that did not work. He dropped the pants at that point. I told him he was crazy for jumping off the ship as they would not be back, but he was absolutely sure that the skipper would be back for us. The ship was out of sight now. It seemed like forever but the USS KIDD did return for us. (Meanwhile, we both had hold of Don.) I came up the landing net first and was given a hand. I was pretty well exhausted by that time. I think someone went down the landing net beside me as I was coming up and I figure they gave them a hand coming up. I never did see them bring Don up. I was taken into the Captain’s cabin.

They took all my clothes and the doctor checked me over. I was given some medication to rest in the Captain’s bunk. After resting, I was given clothes from the survivor’s locker which consisted of a pair of size 44 dungarees (I was a 29 waist), a length of ½ inch line to hold him up, a skivvy shirt, and a pair of wooden shower clogs. I never saw my own flight suit, etc., again. Somehow, an ordnance man got my .38 [sidearm pistol] and cleaned it. I never saw the .38 after that. Denby-Wilkes suggested I should give the .38 to the Captain. I told Denby-Wilkes to do this, knowing he would take care of it. Later on, I was told that Don Bright was buried at sea while I was asleep. After my initial rest, I went on deck and pased by the galley and the cook asked me if I wanted a sandwich. Since I had not had lunch between hops, I was appreciative. It was the biggest sandwich I ever saw. The cook was kneading bread dough in the sink at the time I passed the galley. During the rough weater, the wooden clogs were a real challenge. I slid more than I walked and I busted many a shin on the ladders. I was assigned the green leather couch in the Wardroom for my sleeping quarters. I did need to vacate these quarters early each day as the Wardroom was small and held only a few people at a time. I was invited to eat in the Chief’s Mess and the Crew’s Mess. Everyone was most helpful at all times. I do not know just how long I was on the KIDD before I was transferred back to the ESSEX on a breach’s buoy. I was dunked (perhaps on purpose?) in my brand new size 44 dungarees and ½ inch line belt.

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