|Rounding the Cape On December 8th, 1941, we were approaching the roaring forties off of Cape Town, South Africa. It's real rough. I think it took us a day and a half to get through. It was so rough in fact, that one of our cruisers lost its spotting plane off the catapult. The safe in the Paymaster's office got loose and it was a huge thing. It was banging back and forth. A couple of fellas got hurt trying to tie that down. We did make it into Cape Town with all the ships in tact. This was a new experience. We were at war. At that point our war ships left. All decisions had been made long before December. All our surface vessels left us and we came under British command. We were there re-supplying, getting fuel-oil, water and supplies like fresh vegetables and whatever. I'd say we were there about seven or eight days. Troops had to get off and get some exercise and stretch their legs. I had duty at city hall as a Navy first-aid man. I got to meet the founder of South Africa, Johan Smuts. He was a bearded, distinguished gentleman. I think he led the fight for independence. It was a new experience to work in city hall and have Mr. Smuts walking by every once in a while. He'd say hello and all the police officers saluted, the heels clicked as it was a very military police department. We were losing about a man a night while in Cape Town. The fell as were told where to go and not to go, but they would go into areas where they were not supposed to be and their throats would be cut or whatever. This was just neglect on their part by going into areas they shouldn't have been in. Eventually we got all the troops back on board and instead of going to North Africa where we were supposed to have taken these troops, it was designated that we should reinforce Singapore or at least make that attempt.
We had the Ajax, the Achilles, and the Dorchester with us and they were our escort up through the lndian Ocean. This was a very long trip. We finally made it to the Sunda straits between Java and Sumatra and this is where we had to rig paravanes to sweep mines because of the fairly narrow passage the Japanese had mined the strait. This was a new experience because we'd never rigged paravanes. They were like 20 foot birds with wings. They were heavy and went down in the water with big wire cables. They would then cut the mine cables. We had men on board with rifles that would explode the mines. We made it between Java and Sumatra and into the South China and then to what we call the Banka straits. That was where we experienced our first contact with the Japanese planes and we were bombed. They would stay above the 16,000 foot level because our anti-aircraft fire wouldn't reach above that. They bombed at 16,000 feet but no one was hit. They came close but no one was hit. It was an odd experience. Someone was trying to kill me and I didn't know who it was. But I got over that mental anguish very soon!
One of the hardest things in the Navy is standing four hours on and four hours off. When the war started, we started doing this. You still had to do your work duties. You talk about being fatigued and worn down to frazzle. You get that 12-4 watch. Then you have precautionary general quarters. Then you're up till daylight. Then you do your work and still have to stand watches. Physically it's almost unbearable. We had a Coast Guard Officer who caught a member of a gun crew sleeping while we were on the way to Singapore. He turned him in and he was broken down in rate. The crew just kind of chuckled because this Coast Guard ensign, whose dad was an Admiral, also slept. It wasn't more than just about a day or two and they found him asleep on his watch. They just went and got the officer of the deck and took him over there and reported the officer for sleeping. This was quite embarrassing.
The next morning we made it into Singapore which was a beautiful area. There we many very small, green, nice islands. We made it into Keppel Bay harbor and we could see a lot of destruction where we tied up at the docks. We got under an aerial bombardment and then that ceased. We got in later in the afternoon and that night we experienced many bombardments and the troops were still on board ship. My duty was up by the forward gun crew but there was not a thing we could do. We didn't have any anti-aircraft weaponry to speak of other than machine guns and a surface gun which was valueless for aircraft. We received a very heavy dock side bombardment that night and all through the area. I came back down when it was over with and someone said, "What's wrong with your arm?" I looked over there and by god, I was bleedin'like a stuck pig. I said nothing hurts, and they looked up there and it was a splinter. It must have been a splinter from anti-aircraft fire or something and we just pulled it right out and put a compress on it. I'd had my tetanus booster and that was the extent of it. I thought nothing more of it.
The next morning, January 30, 1942, the British troops started leaving the ship and we started unloading the holds and it was just about noon when 54 Japanese planes came in and they were what we call stick bombing. The lead plane would drop the bombs and the others would all drop at the same time so they would cover a massive area. It would really be concentrated in one particular area, and it was really the dock area they were after. Paul Cronce was on topside with a close friend from Grand Rapids, and his name was Paul Cronce. Paul Cronce and I became friends as he was from Grand Rapids. My childhood sweetheart, Barbara Fowler, was also from Grand Rapids. I thought maybe Paul might have gone to school with her or known her. She lived at 1428 Street SE in Grand Rapids. Any time I'd find someone's name on the service or health record from Grand Rapids I'd talk to them. He didn't live too far from her but he didn't know her. But at least we could talk and we had something in common. Maybe he would know someone. Paul Cronce was with me up on top side at the forward gun position when the planes came and the bombs started breaking. We ran down below. I went flat on my belly in the sick bay and evidently he stayed upright. It was one of the most fortunate things I ever did because anyone that was standing was killed. The bomb exploded in the hold and our sick bay was built around the hold. All the bulkheads peeled out and fortunately the explosive force blew the bulkhead over the top of me and I was underneath it and knocked unconscious. The next thing I knew, I came to back in the after-dressing station. Dr. Gillian was there and I couldn't hear very well. I was pretty well banged up, but didn't lose any limbs, wasn't hemorrhaging or bleeding anywhere, but I was shook up and hurt. I was scared too, that's for sure. I tried to help him and at that time we hadn't learned to disperse medical equipment and supply .. All this after-dressing station had was bulk gauze, tongue depressors, applicator sticks and plaster of Paris. There was nothing there like sterile bandages or anything else. It was just chaotic and poor planning on our part. We learned from then on to disperse medical sterile supplies. The unfortunate thing was that one of the patients that was brought in was horribly burned with third degree burns. His skin was hanging from everywhere on him and he was screaming so loud. He was in such agony and pain, and that was Paul Cronce. The Doctor had me give morphine to him and then he would give morphine to him. Then he would indicate to me to give more morphine and we were alternating. It was quarter grain morphine syrettes, the little disposable syrettes with a needle on them. I didn't realize what we were doing other than trying to get him to stop screaming. I don't know how many syrettes we'd given him, but he finally quieted down and he passed away. I think it was the doctor's way to say we don't know who euthanized him. This is what we had to do, there was no hope for the man, no hope whatsoever. He had 100% third degree burns over the entire body. I went flat and he stayed standing. It was a scary situation. I was told later by official reports that there was a burial at sea for him and other dead. I don't remember a burial at sea and I should have known if anything like that had happened. I would have known, but there again I didn't sleep for maybe three nights and I wasn't in the best of shape. I should have known about a burial at sea. This was the official report.
There are so many things I don't remember though. I heard later that people were buried at sea and I don't remember burials at sea. I do know that the troops were unloaded. The doctor told me to just lie down and take it easy. This is the unfortunate thing about being a medic. They just have you lie down and monitor you and never admit you to the sick bay. I know I didn't sleep for three days. Everything was bewildering. I mean, someone's trying to kill you. It's a new experience. There is so much I don't remember. I seemed to have lost three days that I cannot account for.