Battle of Guadalcanal: Confusion, fury, death A survivor recalls bloody Pacific fight 50 years ago today

November 13, 1992|By McClatchy News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Shortly after midnight 50 years ago today in the waters off Guadalcanal, what one historian called "one of the bloodiest and most savage sea battles of World War II" raged.

Variously known as the Battle of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Friday the 13th, the clash lasted less than 40 minutes.

But it claimed the lives of nearly 1,500 men and sank nine warships -- six American and three Japanese.

Although the Japanese sunk more ships, the battle is considered an American victory, because the engagement ended Japanese efforts to bombard Henderson Field and reinforce troops on Guadalcanal, turning the tide in a bloody battle for a key Southwest Pacific island.

The action was so frenzied that "we didn't know what was going on or what had happened," said Joseph M. Currey, 69, of Sacramento. Mr. Currey is a survivor of the battle.

A Navy seaman serving in a gun turret aboard the cruiser USS San Francisco, Mr. Currey remembers it as "a knock-down, drag-out battle with the Japanese ships so close that spotlights were turned on, and we had to [lower], instead of elevate, our guns before we fired."

One historian wrote, "The action was so swift and confused that it will never be known for sure just exactly what happened, or who fired on whom, friend or enemy."

In another account of the battle, Adm. Chester Nimitz and E.B. Potter of the Naval Academy described the battle as a "melee which for confusion and fury is scarcely paralleled in naval

history.

"All formations broke, and the engagement became a series of individual ship duels, with each side at one time or another firing at its own vessels."

When it ended, a Japanese battleship and two destroyers had been sunk, and a convoy of transport ships had been turned back. The United States lost two light cruisers and four destroyers. In addition, two other U.S. destroyers and two heavy cruisers, including the USS San Francisco, sustained heavy damage, putting them out of action for months.

One admiral aboard the USS San Francisco died in the battle, as did more than 75 other officers and crewmen. As a result of their valor during the fighting, four men on the ship -- two of them posthumously -- earned the nation's highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honor.

Mr. Currey, a retired carpenter and merchant seaman, remembers that he and his friends aboard the ship "were kind of scared" that night. "I couldn't sit still," he said. "We'd been at general quarters all day, and we knew they [the Japanese] were out there."

Enemy gunfire disabled his turret, Mr. Currey said, forcing him and several shipmates outside.

"We were told to man the 5-inch battery outside the turret . . . [but] everybody had been killed there. It was a mess. Bodies all over the place. I tried not to look at them. Most of the shooting was over, and it was black as hell.

"We could see some ships burning. We were all real nervous."

L His ship, hit 15 times by heavy-caliber rounds, nearly sunk.

Asked if he and his shipmates talked about how it was Friday the 13th -- an unlucky day -- Mr. Currey said, "We didn't even know what day it was. It was pretty unlucky no matter which day it was, the way I figure it."

After Guadalcanal, and through one bloody Pacific battle after another in 1944 and 1945, Mr. Currey said he never felt completely safe aboard the warship.

"I was scared all the time we were at sea, really scared," he said. "My bunk was below the waterline, but after Guadalcanal I never slept below the waterline again -- even when we were in San Francisco Bay."

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