A Kamikaze, bombs falling all around, and seven battle stars.
... Melrosian Bob Ross talks about surviving in the South Pacific ...
...with the editors.
Editors' note: It was just before Christmas and six of us, all SilverStringers, were sitting around my living room in Melrose having coffee and sandwiches. The occasion was an interview of three in our group who had served in the armed forces during World War II: Jim Driscoll, a sailor in the European Theater; Russ Priestley, an army test pilot, and Bob Ross, who served as a radioman aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.
All together, these three vets spent six years within shooting distance of the enemy, yet none of them pulled a trigger in the duration. Bombs and shells landed nearby regularly, and in one case, a kamikaze plane barely missed the bridge, brushing the bow of Ross's destroyer with its lethal load.
Ironically, a fourth veteran of this action, whose story appears in this special section, is the sister of Driscoll. We urge readers to see the story on Kay Driscoll Bistany, a shock-team nurse who was right behind the lines all through Italy and France. Kay has an outstanding story.
And while each of those three had previously supplied stories for publication in the current series on World War II, the editors thought they could bring out more of what it was like during those war years in a direct interview.
Present are Driscoll, Priestley and Ross, and editors Kay McCarte, Virginia Hanley and Don Norris. This is the second of four parts, concentrating on the story of Bob Ross, radioman aboard the destroyer USS Hudson, in the South Pacific. The conversation was tape recorded and edited for continuity:
The interview with Bob ....
DN: Bob, you had a ship blown out from under you --
DN: Tell us about it. What happened? Where were you?
BOB: We were in North Africa near Fedala, Morocco. We had just unloaded troops and we were sitting in the harbor just looking around watching. It was in the late afternoon just before dark, when all of a sudden two ships up from us exploded and, naturally, everybody rushed to see what happened. Before we could get topside the next ship, which had just unloaded, exploded. And that ship took its second torpedo. The first ship -- that ship took its first torpedo, the second ship took its second torpedo. When the second torpedo hit the second ship the first torpedo hit us and then the second one hit. We jumped over the side and you swum around a while, I don't know how long. Boats came out and picked us up and took us to the beach.
DN: Did you lose any guys?
BOB: Not very many -- loss of life -- there was some loss, but I don't know the details.
JIM: What kind of ship?
BOB: This was a troop transport. The PA52 -- the Edward P. Rutledge -- Yes, sir, if you want stories about the Rutledge - I was in Brooklyn, New York, when I was assigned to it and we had been on a train and the crew came together in New York and we went to Tampa, Florida, to take this ship up and when we got there we had to live in barracks because they were filling the hold with tombstones, because with what they planned to put on it -- it would have been top heavy, so they were filling up the hold with tombstones and we acquired the name of "Tombstone Eddie". After they got it loaded, the troops came aboard and we got underway, went up the coast and joined a convoy and headed for North Africa.
DN: When did you join the Navy?
BOB: 1941 - August 27, 1941.
DN: Why the Navy?
BOB: I was disgusted with school. My Daddy had been in the Navy, and, before the war actually hit us, we had recruiters talking to us and I got involved and I started going down while I was still in school, and finally I decided I wanted to go in the Navy. So I tried to join up and they wouldn't let me. The quotas had already been met for that period and you couldn't go in, so every week or so I would go up and shoot the breeze with the recruiters, and school let out and I went to Atlanta and visited with my family and I came back to Albany (Georgia) and I went to the recruiter and he said, "We might have some openings coming up pretty soon and I'll call you." The first part of August I got called, took all the tests and everything and they sent me to Macon, Ga. and I took my physical and I was underweight and the doctor told me to go out and eat bananas,
DN: I got that, too.
BOB: And I went out and ate bananas till I was sick of bananas. I went back and got weighed and I weighed 117 pounds and that got me into the Navy.
DN: Your father and your brother were in the Navy?.
DN: And did you meet them in the South Pacific?
BOB: I never did physically come in contact with my Daddy. He was always just ahead of me -- when we were at Guadalcanal he was at Tulagi and vice versa, or he would be coming in and I'd be going out or vice versa. We went to New Caledonia and he was coming out as we were going in, so I never did make contact with my father. Now, my brother, we had liberty together frequently. He was on the USS Cleveland -- which is a CL 55.
DN: What's that?
BOB: That's a cruiser -- a light cruiser. And we escorted the fighting group, as a screen, which he was a part of.
DN: And you were on a destroyer?
DN: And what was your ship?
BOB: USS Hudson DD475. I've got the history that the Navy gave us.
DN: Did you stay with the Hudson most of your time?
BOB: I stayed with the Hudson until the war ended and then I came back to the States and then my next interesting assignment was the Kwajalein Atoll for the A-bomb test. It is just a little island -- you could walk the whole length of island in a day. That was interesting.
DN: But that was after the war.
BOB: Oh, yes, yes.
DN: What did your destroyer do when you were in the war? - What did the Hudson do mainly - convoy ships?
BOB: Well, we were at Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Rabaul, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Part of Task Force 38 during the big fight off of Guam. We were part of the Third, Fifth and Seventh fleet, depending where we were operating. Iwo Jima, Okinawa --
DN: And what were you basically doing, looking for submarines?
BOB: We was always looking for submarines -- we were escorting the carriers, or shore bombardment, or running night patrols looking for Japanese infiltration of ships coming down from the slot, depending on where you were at the time.
DN: Shooting down airplanes?
BOB: Oh, yes. We shot about 33 - I got a picture of the ship with the cab. I think we got 33 planes that were shot down, couple of submarines...
RUSS PRIESTLEY: How many were ours? (laughter).
BOB: There could have been a lot of them, but when you were under attack, our planes were trying to get them, too, and you were shooting -- but most of these were coming at you and you were pretty well sure that if he was coming in to get you. The big Task Force 38 Battle - that's where the Navy destroyed the Japanese.
DN: The Battle of Midway?
BOB: No, no. I don't know where it was - my memory is not really that good, but I was there.
VIRGINIA: What destroyer was shot out from under you?
BOB: Not the destroyer, but the Hudson took a suicide plane. In North Africa, that was a transport, The USS Edward Rutledge.
JIM DRISCOLL: ...which was before you went to the Pacific?
BOB: Yeah. They picked us up and took us into Casablanca and we all boarded another Navy transport, came back to the States. Everybody got 30 days leave, got a new seabag, and were reassigned. That's when I was reassigned to the Hudson. I came to Boston. She had just recently been commissioned and I was part of the original crew.
DN: So what did you do? Sail down through the Panama Canal?
BOB: Well, first you go to Norfolk and after you get everything fitted, you go to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for what they called shake-down cruises. That's where you learn how to -- they have an island that you shoot your guns at --
BOB: But that's just part of the training. Then we went through the Panama Canal and -
DN: Do you have, roughly, a date?
BOB: No, I'm going to write the Navy for that. I'm interested in that now, but I never even thought about it, all this time.
JIM: Of course not. I know just what you're saying.
BOB: That happened in the past and all this stuff that I haven't seen in 40 years.
DN: So, you took the Hudson through the Panama Canal out to the South Pacific.
BOB: ...and joined the forces and we just moved as the fleet moved as part of Task Force 38 and within the Third Fleet and then we went into the Seventh Fleet. We were in on the invasion of Guam.
DN: Were you shelling the beach?
BOB: Oh, yes.
DN: For the Marines, or was it the Army?
BOB: For the U.S. Government - they said 'Go in there with fire support' -- I don't know who was over there giving the orders. Bull Halsey was the boss at that time, I think. We had several different commanders. And we were at Guam and Tinian, which is an island next to Guam, where the B29s took off to bomb Japan later during the war. And from there we to Eniwetak and did a bombardment.
DN: The Japs were on Eniwetok?
BOB: Oh, yes. They were everywhere. If there was a piece of land, the Japanese had it. I didn't see any Japanese -- I'm sitting in a ship that's maybe a mile or two off the beach. The only time I got there was when the Marines had taken over, or the Army, or whoever -- I don't know who did it. But after it was over and it was secured then we would have beer parties.
DN: On shore?
BOB: On the beach or on the island where we might be. We'd get together and that's where my brother and I would meet. We would meet over there and drink beer and get drunk and tell stories about what we did and what he did, and that's what made me hesitate in doing this because I was there. I escorted him and his stories were not my stories. He told it one way, the same identical action, and I told it another way, so your mind is either dis-conflicted, or you don't see it right, or I don't know what.
DN: How could he tell a different story?
BOB: I don't know. He was in there firing a gun. He was attacking. We escorted a cruiser force up to intercept and destroy their fleet. When I say escort, we were there in case a submarine comes up and we can detect it, and he's shooting at that cruiser, we get in the way to take that torpedo so that that cruiser won't get shot. We're dispensable, but, man, that cruiser can throw a shell twenty miles - we can only throw what - how far can a five-inch go, about ten miles, I don't know. So our job is protection. If an aircraft came in we hoped that we could get him first and that he would attack us and leave the others alone, the same way with the carriers, when we were with the carriers we were out there to intercept anything that might be heading for the carrier. A destroyer, destroyer escort, any of those small craft were dispensable. You don't even count. It's the big boys that count. They're the ones that are going to do the damage.
DN: You took a hit from a kamikaze?
BOB: Yes, this was up off Okinawa when the Japanese had all the suicide planes and during that period we were making runs up and down the coast -- at sunrise and sunset every day, they would send out planes and we could sit and watch them. We knew they weren't going to do anything because they were so high and they were heading to meet their particular assignment and at a certain time they would all come in and attack the ships that were there. And you'd see all of us running like crazy, making smoke and everything imaginable. Then we happened to miss one time and he hit us on the bow and we had one man killed and other than that we had no damage.
DN: No real damage?
BOB: No. Well, he missed us, you see, he hit the bow of the ship and did some damage but it didn't disable us.
VIRGINIA: How about your brother? What ship was he on?
BOB: My brother was on the USS Cleveland. That was a light cruiser.
VIRGINIA: And they were more valuable than you?
BOB: Oh, Lord, yes.
VIRGINIA: So he would see it from a different angle.
BOB: Yeah. Well, we were probably a couple of miles from where they were. The way it is, you got -- here's your battle group, and all the little tin cans were sitting out here like this, you know how that works, so we were to stop anything from getting hit.
DN: Did you ever get hit by artillery or bombs, or --?
BOB: No, we never took any shore bombardments
DN: And you didn't get hit by any dive bombers ..
BOB: They missed us but we didn't get hit. We only took the one suicide plane. We had bombs fall around us, but we never were hit. That's the advantage of being young, you don't know what fear is. You don't scare easy. My battle station at that time was in emergency radio, which is in the middle of the ship, next to the sick bay, which is the hospital on a destroyer.
You ain't supposed to do this. We were supposedly to stay at that station -- period. You never left it, but when we were under attack we would come out of the radio shack and open the hatch and stand out there watching.
VIRGINIA: You figured you weren't going to get any radio messages.
BOB: Well, I was only there in the event that we took a hit forward where the main radio shack was and they were completely put out of commission. Then my job was to take over and do the rest of it. Every ship has a bridge where they steer the ship from -- every ship also has something they call after-steering which is at the fantail at the very end of the ship and your propeller is here and your rudder and right there is a big old wheel that, if the ship gets disabled, they can take and turn that wheel to steer it a little, supposedly.
DN: So what did that have to do with you?
BOB: Well, I was just using that as with the radio, when one goes out the other is there to help you go a little bit. The only time I was ever frightened in my whole life was when we went to Rabaul. The old man got on the PA system and says that everyone should sit down and write their family - it just may be our last opportunity - we were fixing to head up with the cruisers to meet the Japanese fleet, so everyone sits down and writes a letter and gets it in the mail -- you couldn't say anything because it was censored anyway -- so they could get it mailed before we took off. We had mail pickup but when you were getting ready to get under way, in this situation, we might not have come back, and that is when I got scared. And I would sit back and remember all the good life. That's the only time -- when I got sunk, that was the biggest thrill to me is when you get to the beach, after they pick you up.
VIRGINIA: That's when you'd be sitting there going to confession in your mind.
BOB: Well, I was brought up in a church all of my life. And I went -- you more or less had to when I was in boot camp, but once I got out I didn't go to religious services and I never sat there and said 'God, don't do this and that,' except when we took off I sat on the fantail with lots of --- and said 'Please, God, don't let it happen, please, God.' That's the only time I invoked God. The rest of it -- and I still don't go. But I am as big a believer as anybody. I don't have to go to church.
RUSS: Except in emergencies.
DN: But you stayed in for 30 years, retired a Chief?
BOB: For 30 years. Good life. It's a wonderful life. After I left the Hudson I came back to the States and I went to Kwajalein for the A-bomb test and from there I got stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and was sent to Paducah, Kentucky in charge of a reserve activity, and I spent three years there, and from there I went to Iceland, spent two years in Iceland and then I came back to the States and went on another ship, I don't remember the name, and after two years on that one I went to England and spent three years in England and I'm getting close to retirement, I came back and was stationed at Newport on the staff -- Acey-Deucy Squadron, they called it, I spent two years there, but the only reason I got out of the Navy was that we were fixing to take off for South America and I didn't want to spend six months in South America on a ship. I put in my papers and the old man signed my papers and they sent me to Boston -- Fargo Building -- and that's where I stayed until I retired -- July 2, 1971.
DN: So you didn't do any more fighting in Korea or Viet Nam.
BOB: No, no, World War II was the only action. I saw nothing after that. I didn't even get near it.
DN: Did your ship get any commendations?
BOB: Oh, yeah, we got all kinds of them -- got seven battle stars, we assisted with an aircraft carrier that had been bombed - that's in the history I gave you,
DN: What story?
BOB: The story of the Hudson. -- the USS Sagamone,I think, I've forgotten her numbers, but I've got a picture that a kid that was on the ship that worked with me hand drew with those different colored crayons - we drew alongside and the ship was burning and they were pushing the aircraft off their ship on to us and then we were trying to get them off of us -- interesting.
DN: What were they doing that for? What's that military operation?
BOB: Well, we were alongside the aircraft carrier trying to help -- we had fire hoses going on the bottom of the carrier, but the men that were on the flight deck, which was like being on the second floor, they got airplanes burning, so they're pushing the airplanes off as fast as they can,
DN: On your ship?
BOB: Yeah, but they didn't know we were there, they figured the damn thing was going to go so they wanted to get rid of them. We had a couple fall on the fantail and we got rid of them and there was no damage. That wasn't frightening. You're prepared for things like that. You're trained. You go to GQ -- you do what you have to do.
JIM: Your telling stories that I never experienced - let's put it that way.
BOB: You didn't?
JIM: No, it was a whole different ball game.
BOB: See, that's the reason I hesitate to put this stuff in. Every ship you're on is different. If you're on a carrier, you live an entirely different life than what I did. If you're on a cruiser, you have a different life, or a wagon, a destroyer is a unique operation. You're close -- you know a lot of people, you're not first name -- you're last name, but you get to know everyone. You're in General Quarters and everybody is interdependent. If you're on a carrier or a wagon or a cruiser, some people don't even get to see half of the crew. They live entirely separate lives. This is different.
DN: Would you feel safer on a destroyer than on a --
BOB: There's no way, it's so different, that's the only thing I knew. I don't remember much about the Rutledge, I tried to think about it - how we went over -- I know we were in a monstrous convoy heading over and a lot of ships got sunk and we made it and we got sunk and we came back and I don't remember details. I guess you're not supposed to remember things like that -- well, I don't remember it anyway. I know I came back to the States and I had 30 days leave and can't say -- when you come home after being gone and you're a young sailor you're looking for one thing. Boy, there was more of it available than you could shake a stick at.
DN: You guys were heroes.
BOB: Well, the Atlanta Journal Constitution - I got a picture on the front page with me when I came back after the ship got sunk. I wasn't a hero, but it made me feel good.
VIRGINIA: Frances has a lot of the local papers - the Free Press - with pictures of the boys coming back and going and everything.
BOB: Well, the Atlanta Journal is a - that's like the Boston Globe, a big paper and I was dumbfounded to be on the front page of the Atlanta Journal. I cut this thing out, too.
KAY McCARTE: I think we need that in your story.
BOB: I don't even know where the picture is, somewhere in all the -- I'm still searching - I got an old foot locker in the cellar full of stuff.
January 26, 1999