Saturday, February 27, 2016

Between Battles

Seaman First Class Everett Gunning 

My dad wrote to Everett every week, and Everett wrote back almost as often, although his letters were censored and didn't include any information about the fighting.

Here’s one written just before the Battle of Cape Esperance:

Dear Don,
You and Mother are the only ones I have heard from for a long time. You and Mother tell me all the news. There is so little I can write in answer. I guess only my real friends answer. My girl in San Francisco, California is the only one I miss hearing from. A friend of mine, who has seen Jean since I left says she still loves me, but I may need Jimmy’s mother to get me an Indian girl. They are my weakness anyway.
I made Seaman 1st Class finally. That is the best news I have had for some time. I am studying for something else now.
Your Bud, Everett.

Everett was obviously homesick but he was also caught up in the excitement of his adventures. The Enid Daily Eagle, Everett’s hometown paper, reported:

Gunning wrote that he certainly would like to spend the holidays at home with his parents at Enid. Pearl Harbor precluded that. Then he wrote again that he regretted the fact that he had missed spending the last two Christmas seasons with his folks “but will see you next Christmas if I have to whip the Japs first…. If I could get home for a visit then I would be ready to go to Tokyo.”

While Everett was dodging bullets on the high seas, Boyd was still training in jungle warfare in Hawaii. He wrote to my parents about the beautiful orchids there:

10/25/42: Dear Don,
Your letter came per today and it is good to know that your family is all well and that you are still turning them out (He means the B17 bombers). Give Jimmy and Robin my best regards, and tell Jim that I would like to pin some of these natural plentiful orchids on her with my compliments. They had the annual orchid show in Honolulu this week but I didn’t get a chance to go. I would like to see you all - and especially that Robin. If you are taking any snap shots send me one occasionally. I may get a chance to show them to Everett. I worried about him for a while but know he is okay now, and expect to see him one of these days. Write him that I would like to hear from him. Work hard, you are in the best spot in the world and I’m counting on you. If you go to Norman spend some time with El and the boys. They are lonesome at times and would be glad to have you. I’m fine and don’t expect to spend all my life or even the best part of it here.
Sincerely Boyd

Ironically, Boyd’s comment about being relieved that Everett was okay was written just two weeks after the Battle of Cape Esperance and a little over two weeks before the Battle of Guadalcanal, when Everett narrowly escaped being killed.

Shortly after the Battle of Cape Esperance, Everett had another close call. As the San Francisco was cruising back to port, one of her sailors spotted a torpedo heading straight for the ship. Word of the sighting was quickly passed up to the bridge where the pilot turned the ship away in time to avoid being hit, but one of the other cruisers, the Chester, was not so lucky. She was struck and badly damaged.

Everett told another story about being attacked by Japanese bombers. I’m not sure when it was. He said they were escorting a convoy at the time, so it could have been during the battle when the carrier Wasp was sunk, or following the Battle of Cape Esperance. The episode was reported in a newspaper article written while Everett was home on leave in December of 1942:

While in the Solomons, the San Francisco was in a battle, along with some other American vessels which had convoyed a group of transports with supplies for the men there, with 17 huge Jap bombers, carrying torpedoes. The San Francisco did something which no other ship has ever done - shoot down a bomber with their big guns. (Everett said) “When the shell hit that bomber it blew into bits. That scared the Japs so bad they dropped their eggs harmlessly and ran.”

The Battle of Cape Esperance had been an empty victory. As Admiral Scott retreated with most of his task force to the American base at Noumea, the destroyer McCalla stayed behind to rescue the survivors. Many of the men from the sunken destroyer Duncan drowned or were eaten by sharks during the night. As for the Japanese survivors, many drowned because they refused to grasp the ropes thrown to them by American sailors, a grisly scene for the sailors who witnessed it.

Shortly after the battle, the Tokyo Express resumed, bringing more supplies and men down the “slot” to reinforce the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal. By late October the Japanese were ready, and three units marched through the jungle and surrounded the US marines defending Henderson Field. On October 23 and again on the 24th, wave after wave of Japanese soldiers ran across the Matanikau river to the north and across what came to be known as “bloody ridge” to the south screaming “banzai” and “death to Americans.” The American troops were terrified but ready. 3500 Japanese troops were killed in the desperate attempt to overrun the American base, compared to American losses of 200.

Meanwhile a Japanese carrier group waited near the Santa Cruz Islands east of Guadalcanal ready to land planes on Henderson Field after their infantry had overrun the marines. They were unable to take Henderson Field, but they did find and attack two US carriers, the Hornet and the Enterprise, sinking the Hornet and two US destroyers while suffering only minor damage to their own ships.

By this time the struggle for Guadalcanal had become famous. Several reporters had landed with the troops, and their hair raising reports of the marines' brave defense of the little airstrip there catapulted the struggle into a national issue. President Roosevelt himself told the admirals of CINCPAC to make sure the troops on Guadalcanal got everything they needed. Admiral Halsey, who had taken over command of the South Pacific theater from the indecisive Admiral Ghormley, told the marine General Vandergrift, “I’ll promise you everything I’ve got.” 

Meanwhile, Everett’s ship, the USS San Francisco, was taking on supplies at Noumea, New Caledonia, getting ready to return to action.