COLUMBUS DAY 1942 @ GUADALCANAL
BY HAILE H JAEKEL
At 2200 on Oct. 11 1942 W. J.Tate Jr. and Claude Morgan were catapulted from the USS Salt Lake City about nine miles off West Cape, Guadalcanal. It was a dark night and extra flares had been loaded in the rear cockpit lengthwise instead of athartship. The acceleration experienced when the aircraft was catapulted caused the flares to slide aft out of their storage, setting the tail of the plane on fire.
The plane never got above 200 feet and within seconds the fire was spreading through out the entire aircraft. Morgan had to immediately crawl out of the rear seat onto the wing and Tate couldn't see the water, horizon or even the instrument panel. He gunned the engine two or three times trying to blow the fire out and eased down toward the water, like trying to land in a cross wind. The airplane hit the water right wing down and didn't bounce, throwing Morgan clear. He received a bad cut over one eye and a wrenched shoulder.
The plane was still on fire and Tate was out on the wing before his head began to clear. He did not remember unbuckling his safety belt or climbing out of the cockpit. He suddenly became afraid that the gas tanks might explode, so he swam over to join Morgan and together they swam about 200 feet clear of the aircraft and tried to signal the ship with a pencil light but didn't have any luck.
The fire burned for about seven more minutes before the plane turned over and put the fire out. They swam back to the plane and Morgan held onto the tail trying to relax the pain in his wrenched shoulder. Tate extracted the life raft, taking about 10 or more dives down to the compartment where it was stowed. The life raft survived the fire and inflated properly, which was a good thing as Tate had torn up his life jacket so badly extracting the raft, he had to throw it away. He also got gasoline, which was floating on the surface of the water, in his eyes and swallowed some which immediately made him sick.
They climbed into the raft and started paddling away from the plane toward the west end of Guadalcanal, as enemy troops were all along the shore and it would be impossible to land and walk to Lunga. About 2330 they witnessed the battle of Cape Esperance. It appeared to them as though three groups of ships, with our ships in the middle and shooting in both directions.
It got very cold that night, even though they were fully clothed, except Tate had discarded his helmet and gloves which later proved to be a mistake.
At daylight they were about five miles off West Cape. For provisions they had five bottles of Horlick's malted milk tablets and two gallons of water. Morgan had bought the canteen at a hardware store and Tate the malted milk tablets in Honolulu with their own money. This was all they would eat, except for floating coconuts they managed to fish out of the water, the next three days.
The first day they continued paddling, keeping about six miles off shore hoping to be spotted by some of our planes looking for survivors, but no such luck even though six planes flew directly four hundred feet overhead on a strafing run toward Japanese targets. To the north a destroyer and some planes could be seen picking up survivors from the Destroyer USS Duncan, which was our only ship sunk or lost in the battle of Cape Esperance.
Life in the raft was always wet as waves would slop in and they could never get completely dry. It was cold at night and hot during the day. Tate had to remove his underwear, tare it up and cover his head, face and hands to protect them from the sun and help warm them at night. His hands and face were tender from the gasoline burns received while diving to get the raft out of the airplane. He now wished he hadn't discarded his helmet and gloves. Morgan's wrenched shoulder and cut above his eye seemed to get better with time.
The second day they found a dugout canoe with a hole in it and patched it up then tear paddling it towing the raft. It went faster but was so delicately balanced and difficult they went back to the raft. By afternoon they managed to get around the west tip of the island and a fresh wind came up which eased the burden of paddling but blew them within a half mile of the shore. A Japanese sniper opened up on them and they promptly went overboard. He fired about 10 rounds but the closest landed about six feet away. The swimming cooled them off and they felt much better. As they paddled away they noticed a number of power boats and barges badly damaged on the beach.
That evening another rubber boat could be seen coming from Savo Island; and it started chasing them, it was some Japs bringing back fruit and vegetables so they easily out distanced them. Tate and Morgan had only a sheaf knife and five pen knives, they wouldn't have been much of a match for anyone with a gun. The Japs didn't fire at them but one from Visale, on Guadalcanal, tried his luck but didn't come very close.
Early on the third night ships started firing at Lunga and received answering fire from shore. Later three Destroyers passed just east of Savo Island and a few minutes later a Japanese destroyer came around the west side headed straight toward the two men in the raft. They held their breath and just before it got to them the destroyer veered off but still passed so close, Morgan and Tate could hear them talking. It was doing ten or twelve knots and came close enough to nearly swamp their raft even though it was a calm sea that night.
Shortly after a large campfire and light appeared on the beach, obviously to give navigational aid to the Japanese, as ships started bombarding Lunga beach. They received return fire then swung toward Tulagi and fired briefly and retired to the north. They were accompanied by a Japanese battleship and as soon as they retired the large campfire and light on the beach went out.
On the last day both men felt quite sick from the sun but kept paddling toward Lunga; their progress became difficult as a southwest wind necessitated that one bail out water as the other paddled. All day the two men in the raft watched our planes bomb Japanese positions but finally turned toward shore, and right in the nick of time! A Higgins boat spotted them and picked them up.
For the two men in the raft the Battle of Cape Esperance lasted sixty seven hours and covered fifty miles.