On 12 March 1942 a number of troopships with heavily armed escorts departed the Pacific side of the Panama Canal leaving USAT URUGUAY behind to load potable water. Hours later and short by seven-hundred tons, URUGUAY got underway in time to overtake the convoy and gain its protection before sundown. Within a week fate made a bad situation worse.
Due to corrosion the bottom of the feed and filter tank collapsed. Even though a canvas chute was rigged to direct the outpouring to an innerbottom tank, a considerable amount of boiler feedwater was lost. Furthermore, only Iron Mike, a huge steam reciprocating pump, could take a cold suction. URUGUAY barely made convoy speed.
If excitement was measurable mine would have been off the scale when I learned that URUGUAY was being diverted to the Society Islands for fresh water and repair. Because he sensed that I would appreciate the landfall more than anyone else, the Staff Chief Engineer sent me forward to repack the anchor-windlass throttle valve.
Thus, on an unforgettable day, I was on the bow when a pip on the horizon appeared and gradually grew into the verdant cliffs of Bora Bora. As the author James A. Michener later described it, Bora Bora, because of its setting inside a nearly perfect atoll, is the most beautiful island in the world.
URUGUAY slipped through a narrow channel cut through the corral reef and shared the lagoon with a number of naval vessels, including a squadron of 1920-vintage submarines and the 1923-vintage light-cruiser USS RICHMOND (CL 9). Bora Bora was then the U.S. Navy’s most westward afloat operating base.
No one on board was permitted to go ashore where the only sign of non-Polynesian civilization was a small white church that had a French flag flying from its steeple. Regardless, the people ashore were entertained by the Yanks.
The sanest entertainment occurred on the second afternoon when URUGUAY was taking on fresh water from the heavy-cruiser USS NEW ORLEANS (CA 32). An excellent Navy jazz band played for the almost five-thousand GIs and Army nurses who were then uncomfortably crowded in URUGUAY for twenty-five days and rationed only one canteen of potable water per person per day.
The funniest also occurred on that second afternoon while URUGUAY was simultaneously taking on fresh water from a barge. A young Army nurse from a porthole about twenty feet above the barge sweetly called to the single deckhand, “Can you fill my canteen?”
When he told her to throw it down he was bombarded with dozens of canteens that were tossed from other portholes.
The wackiest was due to the hasty conversion of the 350-passenger liner to a troopship without sufficient study of stability. While none of us understood the reason at that time, loaded URUGUAY had what naval architects call a negative initial righting arm. The ship was unstable between two degrees to port and to starboard. During the morning of the first day an outrigger carrying two paddlers and a young sarong-clad woman appeared. As they circled URUGUAY the cheering soldiers ran from side to side. With each dash the ship righted, paused when perfectly upright, and then plopped over two degrees to the other side.
The wildest entertainment occurred on the afternoon of the first day. Robert Keese, a junior engineer, and I asked for permission to go swimming. The testy Chief Mate, made testier because URUGUAY was never on an even keel, couldn’t reply with a simple yes or no. He growled conditions. “Keep the hell away from the accommodation ladder. Don’t jump over the side! You will have to climb down a cargo net. If you lower one of the damn things over the side, you will have to haul it up yourselves!”
That last condition was impossible; each net weighed at least a thousand pounds. Bob and I decided to push one over the side, swim, and worry about how to haul it up afterwards.
We were enjoying the water no more than two minutes when we were startled by the first kapoom. A GI who could no longer stand the miserable troop conditions had jumped from the forty-foot high main deck. Within another minute hundreds, including some Army nurses, were hitting the water. Frantic officers could not stop the lemming-like mass migration over the side.
Many of the swimmers left their life jackets behind. Incredibly there were cries, “I can’t swim!”
Some managed to get back to the ship’s side, but could not climb the net. Keese and I swam away from the thrashing horde and from where we were dog paddling we could see the angry Chief Mate calling away a lifeboat crew in order to round up swimmers. Another lifeboat, while remaining attached to its davits, was used as an elevator to haul up the weakest of the catch.
Bob and I climbed the net, slipped away through a bunch of soldiers, and spent the next seven weeks avoiding the Chief Mate until he signed off of URUGUAY in San Francisco.
I had with me a three-dollar Kodak Brownie camera and a single roll of eight-exposure black and white film. The above picture from the lagoon in Bora Bora was my first photo. The seven other exposures were made in Auckland, New Zealand; in Swansea, Wales; while at anchor off of Gourrock, Scotland; and of the old French fort in Mers el Kebir, Algeria. I doubt if any other single roll of eight-exposure film ever recorded as many scenes that far apart. Other photos included in this narrative were obtained by a shipmate.
“U.S. Army forces in Australia during the grim days when January (1942) became February without signs of a counterattack and when February turned into March with defeat and despair on every hand and every front.”
“‘The screaming newspaper posters: Singapore Menaced, Singapore Falling, Singapore Falls’ almost as swift as that the Japanese war machine was moving too fast.”
“The morale of the Australian people was at the lowest ebb in the hundred-year history of the nation. It boasted only limited sea power, and most of it was in the Mediterranean.”
“The pick of its fighting men, the crack Australian imperial forces, were deployed in Africa.”
“Darwin was attacked on February 19 by the enemy’s carrier and land-based warplanes.”
Excerpts from Chapter 2, The MacArthur Epic, From Bataan to Victory by Lee Van Atta, International News Service.
“Watching the collapse of the Australian British Dutch American Command…, President Roosevelt became gravely concerned with the defense of Australia. On 15 February he told Harry Hopkins that the United States should assume responsibility for reinforcing Australia and New Zealand. Apparently the President exerted considerable pressure on the War Department, for the very same day with unusual alacrity the Army planners completely reversed their previous policy toward Australia.
“Suddenly they ordered the 41st Division and attached troops, 27,000 men in all, to prepare for shipment to Australia.
“Previously the War Department had planned to send only two divisions in all of 1942 to the South Pacific. On 18 February Roosevelt told Prime Minister Churchill that America would send troops to Australia and New Zealand in an effort to persuade the two governments to retain their own troops in the Middle East.”
The First South Pacific Campaign: Pacific Fleet Strategy,
December 1941-June 1942, John B. Lundstrom,
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, USA, 1976.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo