Leonard Elam-469 Survivor

It was May 12, 1942 on my 17th birthday that I signed up to join the U.S Navy. I was sent to the Naval Training Station in San Diego for basic training, which lasted only eight weeks. Following boot camp, I was assigned to the torpedo school at the 32nd Street Naval Base for about 10 weeks.

After completing school, I was sent by train to the Charleston Navy Yard in Boston for assignment to the destroyer, DeHaven. From there, I went with a crew just adequate to board and sail the ship to Boston for the commissioning ceremony. It was the first time that I had been at sea and I was somewhat seasick by the time we reached Boston.

I was a Seaman 1C and assigned to the division responsible for the torpedoes and depth charges. This division was required to remove the torpedo and depth charge firing mechanisms and install the primers upon leaving port and then remove them each time we returned to port. This work was sometimes unpleasant as we encountered some cold and rough weather during our shake down cruise on the north East Coast.

It was great weather as we sailed south from Norfolk in November 1942 en route to the Panama Canal and the South Pacific. I had recovered from being seasick and relieved from having to remove and install the primers in the torpedoes and depth charges from every unit on board ship upon entering and leaving port.

I don't remember the date, but during our trip to the south Pacific, I was promoted to Torpedoman 3C. The 1st class Torpedoman and I were the only petty officers in the torpedo division. There were several Seamen that worked with us. I had the torpedo shack almost to myself as the 1st class Torpedoman spent most of his time with other petty officers of more nearly the same rate. We had our own coffeepot and some pure white torpedo alcohol available if we wanted something stronger than coffee.

After arrival in the South Pacific, we were assigned convoy duty between New Caledonia, Esperito Santo and Guadalcanal. During one of these trips, a submarine periscope was spotted off our starboard bow while I was standing watch on the bridge at the torpedo directors and depth charge controls. Orders were given to immediately drop a full depth charge pattern and I was really excited about doing the necessary functions to drop and fire the depth charges from the bridge controls. It was not determined whether we sunk the submarine, but I was glad to see the charges gone, as there were fewer rust spots, which had to be scraped and painted. It was one of my duties to keep the rust from the torpedo tubes and depth charges and the deck around them. We were with several other destroyers for several days during the last part of January 1943 which were shelling the beaches of Guadalcanal with the 5-inch guns. We would anchor in Tulagi harbor at night and spend several hours off loading 5-inch powder cases and loading ammunition to replace that which had been fired during the day.

My brother, George, was on the USS McKean, an APD, which entered Tulagi harbor while we were there and he was able to get the ship's whale boat to bring him to the DeHaven for a short visit. He was later transferred off the McKean and my other brother, Arthur, was aboard it when it was sunk on 11-17-43 at Empress Augusta Bay.

Japanese dive-bombers attacked us on 2-1-43. Just before the attack, I was scraping paint on the deck near the number 2 torpedo mount. Just after getting to my duty station at the torpedo director on the starboard side of the bridge, the first bomb struck and penetrated the deck near where I had been scraping paint. It exploded below deck and I'm sure that it must have killed most of the fire and engine room crews in that area.

The 1st class Torpedoman immediately ordered over the sound powered telephones that all depth charges be placed on "safe". As I was trained in this procedure, I asked for and received permission to go below and assist the men set the charges on "safe". After finding that the order had been carried out, I started to return to the bridge, but after climbing the first ladder to the second deck, the bomb that struck the bow exploded and I was blown down onto the main deck onto a pile of potatoes that had broken out of their wooden crates, where they had been stored on deck, by the force of the explosions. I was dazed and when I got to my feet, water was already on deck. It was obvious that the ship was sinking fast, so I stepped over the lifelines and into the ocean, which was covered with a thick layer of heavy black fuel oil. The oil seemed very hot and coated me from head to foot. I had not blown up my life belt which we wore rather than the life jacket. I found that I couldn't open the inflation valve with my hands coated with oil, so I put the valve into my mouth, clamped down with my teeth and twisted the hose and was then able to open the valve and inflate the belt.

I swam to a life raft that had been blown off the ship which was badly broken. There were some men on the raft that had been injured and others were clinging to the lines that were attached to the raft. One of the landing barges nearby soon picked us up and took us to the beach on Guadalcanal. I found that I had a small scalp wound and a gash on my inner right arm near the elbow.

On the beach, we were given rags to remove the oil, new clothes and shoes and some salt water soap and permitted to take a cold water bath. After doing my best to remove the oil, my new clothes were soon soaked with the oil from places that I could not see while taking the shower. We were on the island for a few days and while there, Washing Machine Charlie would disturb our sleep by flying high and slowly dropping bombs from time to time while we stayed in the trenches dug for air raid shelters. One afternoon, the survivors were told to report to the armory and draw rifles and ammunition as a large Japanese landing force was expected to land on the beaches that night. I had never fired a rifle larger than a 22 caliber, so I was unsure of just what use I would make of the heavy 30 caliber that we were issued. Well, thank the Lord, the Japanese never landed as expected.

I was soon flown to the Naval Hospital on Espiritu Santo where I was treated for my wounds. I was asked a few days later if I was ready to return to duty along with other survivors that were being sent to New Zealand for leave and reassignment. I had been having trouble with my left ankle, which had been swollen for some time, and I asked the doctor to take care of that problem before I was returned to duty. As a result, I was separated from the other survivors and I never saw or heard from any of them again.

I was sent aboard the destroyer tender in the harbor at Esperitu Santo for reassignment. While on board, I saw the USS Aaron Ward enter the harbor. As my brother, Carl was on that ship, I caught a ride to visit him. When I got aboard the Aaron Ward, I saw my brother busy cleaning paintwork and I slipped up behind him and gave him a jab in the ribs as I knew that he was ticklish. He whirled around ready to punch me until he recognized who had given him the jab in the ribs. He was surprised, to say the least, as he didn't know where I was at that time. He was on board that ship when it was sunk a month or so later at Guadalcanal. He was quite badly injured and was discharged shortly after recovering from his wounds.

I finally returned to the States and was given 30 days leave. Then I was assigned to board the USS Satterlee (DD 626) at Bremerton, Washington. Before the ship was commissioned, my father was killed in an auto accident near Mojave, California. I was given 30 days leave to do what I could to assist my stepmother and three younger brothers and one sister. While on leave, the Satterlee was commissioned and sailed for the Panama Canal and duty on the East Coast. Upon returning to Bremerton, I was sent by train with four other sailors to New York City to join the Satterlee. When we arrived there, the ship was in Portland Maine. We then went there and finally boarded the ship, but the captain refused to accept us, as the ship had no room aboard for us. We were returned to the receiving station at Portland for assignment.

While at the receiving station, I was selected to speak at a War Bond Rally at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, as I was a survivor of the DeHaven that had been built there. I was told to write my own speech and be prepared to speak to the shipyard workers about my experience on board the DeHaven. I had never made a speech before and had completed only the 7th grade in school so I was really intimidated and suffered considerable stage fright while speaking over a loud speaker to a very large crowd of people. Anyway, it worked out ok as I received a great amount of applause after completing my speech.

Later, I was assigned to the USS Wickes (DD 578) and served on board until I stayed over leave for a few hours and missed ship on 11-1-43. After spending six weeks in the brig in Boston, I was kept on restriction without leave until assigned overseas to the Submarine Repair Base, in Brisbane, Australia. I worked and lived at the Torpedo Repair Shop in Brisbane, which was located several miles from the repair base. I stayed there until the entire operation was moved to Subic Bay, Philippines after that area had been secured from the Japanese. I finished my Navy tour of duty finally on 5-l5-46 at Camp Shoemaker near San Francisco. I was awarded the Purple Heart, the Asiatic Pacific Metal with one star, and the American Area of Operations, Victory and Philippines Liberation metals.

Later, I joined the Naval Reserve and was called back to duty on 9-21-50 and served on the USS Pine Island, AV-12 until 12-18-51. I completed the requirements for high school at Central High School in Oklahoma City by participating in the Veteran's Accelerated Courses during 1947 and went to the University of Oklahoma for a short time thereafter.

On 1-10-49, I entered the U.S. Border Patrol school in El Paso, Texas and served with the Immigration and Naturalization Service until 1979 when I retired at San Francisco, California where I had last worked as the Assistant District Director for Examinations (GS-14).

Since my retirement, I have lived in Lakeside, California and enjoyed my retirement while hunting and fishing in Baja California, Mexico and the San Diego area ocean and lake waters.

Editors note: Leonard passed away in 2004

 

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