Japanese attack survivors meet saviors 49 years later

October 28, 1991|By Greg Tasker

Like other survivors of the USS Meredith, sunk by the Japanese near Guadalcanal during World War II, Walter A. Roley never saw the faces of his saviors.

The 31-year-old sailor caught only a glimpse of a plane circling above the rafts he and 96 other men clung to for three days in chilly, shark-infested waters.

Forty-nine years later, Mr. Roley, now 80, walked up to the men who saved his life -- Allan Rothenberg and C. G. Lawler -- at the Holiday Inn in downtown Baltimore and hugged them.

"It's a wonderful feeling to finally meet the men who saved your life," said Mr. Roley, a tugboat crewman who spent only eight minutes aboard the Meredith before it was bombed.

"They literally gave us our lives," added Lamont Norwood, 75. "These guys are more than just friends who loaned us a baseball glove. The final curtain was going down on us."

Mr. Roley and Mr. Norwood, who had been taken off a tugboat towing a gasoline barge ahead of the attack, were among about two dozen Meredith survivors attending a weekend reunion of the crew of the USS Grayson -- the ship that rescued the men after the aerial sighting.

"It was a chance for us to show our appreciation," said Robert Robinson, 76, of Marysville, Wash., a Meredith survivor whose book, "Shipmates Forever," chronicles the sunken destroyer's history.

Mr. Robinson and other crew members learned the names of the fliers after one of them responded to a newspaper story about the Meredith four years ago. A series of letter exchanges led to the emotional meeting in Baltimore.

"It makes you cry, man," said Mr. Rothenberg, 73, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va. "Wives come up to you and say, 'If it wasn't for you, my husband wouldn't be here with me or I wouldn't be married to this man. It's a very, very emotional thing."

"It does something to you," said Mr. Lawler, 71, of Milton, Fla. "Half a century after seeing them in the water, you come back and shake their hands. It does something to you."

What Mr. Lawler and Mr. Rothenberg, who were scouting for Japanese ships, first spotted that day was a large oil spill. A closer look revealed oil-covered faces of men.

"Most of them were burned from the sun," Mr. Rothenberg said.

"We spotted one man swimming off by himself," Mr. Lawler added. "He had no life jacket. We dropped one of the last life jackets we had to him. By fate, it landed just close enough for him to reach it. I don't believe many of them even had any clothes on."

The ordeal began Oct. 15, 1942. The Meredith, escorting a tugboat with a barge of aviation gasoline, was bombed in an attack by 38 Japanese airplanes, 75 miles short of the ships' destination at Guadalcanal. Commissioned just a year earlier, the Meredith sank in 45 minutes.

For more than 70 hours, the 97 survivors endured thirst and hunger and warded off sharks in the Pacific. The healthy took turns afloat and swimming alongside a makeshift ship of six rafts. Only the most seriously injured were allowed to remain on the rafts.

The survivors -- not even one-third of the 329 men on the Meredith when the Japanese planes struck -- were adrift in a slick of oil spilled from the abandoned barge and the sunken destroyer. Supplies were covered with oil and "were so heavy and bulky, they could not be grasped firmly" and were lost to the sea, Mr. Robinson recounted in his book.

What little supplies the men had -- rations of water and a Spam-like substance -- were found on the rafts.

Saturday night at the Holiday Inn, Mr. Robinson told of three days of courage and heroism.

Some men gave up their rations for others more in need.

"You'd hear something like, 'No, let Joe have it,' " Mr. Robinson said.

Sharks continually circled the rafts. On two occasions, sharks jumped aboard. One sailor died two hours after sustaining a shark bite in the buttocks. The next shark that jumped aboard was picked up by a group of about eight men and tossed back into the sea, Mr. Robinson said.

"I knew what was going on around me," said Ken Forbes, 67, of Plymouth, N.H., another survivor at the reunion. "There was so much oil I couldn't see out of my eyes. But I could hear men screaming from the shark attacks."

But the oil proved to be a godsend. It coated bodies, blocking out the sun's rays and covering wounds, and leaving the men less susceptible to sharks.

"It got to the point where we really couldn't see," Mr. Robinson said.

The men prayed. Some recited simple prayers learned from childhood.

"It was nothing elaborate," Mr. Robinson said. "Some just said stuff like 'Now, I lay me down to sleep' or the 23rd Psalm. Each man saw his own method to salvation."

There was no hope of rescue.

"As far as we knew, no message ever left the ship," Mr. Robinson said.

Later, Mr. Robinson said, he learned the U.S. Pacific Fleet, following searches after the attack, concluded the Meredith had sunk. After the survivors reached port at Espiritu Santo Island, they dispersed -- not to meet again until a 1989 reunion in Boston.

Like the crew of the Grayson, the survivors of the Meredith have now begun meeting every two years -- and for many the reunions have proven therapeutic.

"My husband didn't talk about the [ordeal] much before the reunions started," Doris Robinson said. "They have a bond. They spent the most horrible days of their lives together. They helped one another during that time."

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