Lincoln County, WWII connect sailors
Published 6:00 am Tuesday, December 5, 2000
In the late hot summer of 1932 two Brookhaven teenagers wereriding a freight train westward from Pensacola along theMississippi Gulf Coast.
Larry Williamson and John David Kees had just finished onemonth’s civilian military training corps (a Depression-era programfor young men) at Ft. Barranca, Fla., and had each been given 15dollars cash for expenses home. However, for teenagers in the depthof the Great Depression, that much cash had rarely been seenbefore, and they eagerly chose to save the money and ride thefreight trains home.
As they lazily lounged on the hard floor of a bumpy boxcar,gazing out the open doorway, they passed the impressive buildingsof the Gulf Coast Military Academy, then a prestigious privatemilitary grade and high school in Gulfport. John David said to hispal, “That’s where the rich boys go, so I guess we’ll never getthere.” Larry tacitly agreed as they spotted some of the smartlyuniformed students on the campus as the train moved out of sight ofthe school.
Some 60 years later these same boys, now retired naval officersin their mid-70s, were sitting on a bench at the Naval Home atGulfport where they resided. Larry remembered John David’s remarkof decades past and said, “Well, you were wrong after all. Here weare.” The Navy had acquired the old school property and hadconstructed an elegant 10-story facility for Naval retirees on theexact site of the old academy. John David knew exactly what he wastalking about. “Yeah” he said, “But it took awhile, didn’t it!”
A lot had happened in the interim. Since a young lad, Larry hadbeen
fascinated with aviation. He had spent as much time as he couldaround the old “Ulmer Field” in Brookhaven. It wasn’t much morethan a fairly level pasture alongside the railroad but did have atall flashing beacon and a hangar of sorts. Larry was enthralled bythe barnstorming pilots who occasionally came to thrill audienceswith acrobatics and to offer rides in the primitive biplanes of thetime for a modest fee.
Larry envisioned a more exciting and fulfilling career thanpumping gas at the Hog Chain Country Store. His father had boughtthree acres in the forks of the road in 1927 from J.M. Summers andhad established a little country store and made a deal with theTexas Company for selling their gas, for which he got $25 per monthand a small commission. After his father died in 1930, Larry andhis brothers helped his stepmother run the store, but Larry’s heartwas in the sky. After graduating from Brookhaven High School in1933 he knew he had to strike out on his own, particularly sincehis stepmother was going to remarry and there would not be enoughroom for him at home.
He was finally able to get in the U.S. Navy in 1935, went toNorfolk for boot camp and later got assigned to the aircraftcarrier Saratoga, commanded by Admiral Bull Halsey. Larry was inHog Chain heaven, well, almost, since he was not yet a flyer.
Admiral Halsey took a liking to the young Mississippian andassigned him to the bridge of the ship where he became the “voiceof Halsey,” that is, he had the job of announcing on the ship’sspeaker, “NOW HEAR THIS, ALL HANDS, etc.” — Halsey liked hisbaritone voice and the slow Mississippi drawl.
In 1937 Larry finally got his wish to go to flight training atPensacola, and after almost flunking out, gained his wings. He wenton to become a pilot of a big PBY, the flying boat of the Navy,used primarily for ocean reconnaissance and search and rescueoperations.
Meanwhile, Larry’s old football friend, John David, wasfinishing LSU, where he had made ends meet by playing in a danceband, which had gotten so successful that he had to take a big cutin income when he got a New Orleans bank job after graduation.
After fighting the battle of numbers in the bank for a few yearsJohn David also wanted a more glamorous career and enlisted in theNavy in 1940. After his training was complete he was thrilled toget a highly coveted assignment to Hawaii, at the big base at PearlHarbor.
On that famous day of infamy, Dec. 7, 1941, John David wasawakened in his quarters by unusual plane noises and what soundedlike bombs, machine guns and anti-aircraft fire.
Leaping from his bed, he hurriedly dressed and rushed toward hisplace of duty on the other side of the bay. Dashing through machinegun bullets and shell fragments he reached the bay and got on alaunch to cross to his place of duty.
After delays for picking up wounded men and delivering them tomedical help, John David arrived at his post to find it in flamesand shambles.
A week later when the smoke was beginning to abate, he waswaiting in line at the post office to mail letters home when hethought he saw something familiar in the back of the head in frontof him. Peering closer he saw it was his old hobo classmate, HogChain Larry. They had a great reunion, recalling old times over afew adult beverages, but had to part again as duty called them toseparate ways.
Larry was sent with his PBY to a base in the New Hebrides andwas very active in his PBY as early Pacific naval battles began andthe crucial struggle over the island of Guadalcanal ensued. Hepatrolled the South Pacific area reporting on Japanese vessels.
At this time one of a new class of cruisers was active in thearea. It was the Juneau, with its complement of 700 men. The newcruiser was lightly armored, designed for speed and mobility andintended for anti-aircraft support for aircraft carriers.
Among the Juneau’s crew were the five “fighting Sullivanbrothers,” who became probably the most famous family group ofWorld War II, particularly after a movie was made to commemoratethem.
The ship had been engaged in the Battle of Santa Cruz inmid-October and had been badly damaged and was limping along inconvoy with several other naval vessels, trying to get back to portfor repairs.
Friday, November 13, 1942, was not a lucky day for the ship.Japanese warships had come upon them in the dark and suddenlyturned intense searchlights on the Juneau and the other U.S. ships.An all-night gun battle followed. The Juneau was so close to theJap ships they could see the faces of the enemy sailors near thesearchlights running about. Shortly a shell hit amidships of theJuneau and then a torpedo from a submarine hit the rear portioncontaining the ship’s magazine. The explosion of the torpedo wasfollowed immediately by the detonation of the explosives in theship’s magazine. The central portion of the ship was disintegrated– the bow and stern sections were completely separated and sankwithin 20 seconds.
Of the 700 human beings on the Juneau, about 150 who were ondeck were able to survive the immediate disaster, thrown into thesea, which was covered with six inches of oil. One of theSullivans, George, had survived relatively unhurt, and was seenswimming from raft to raft desperately wiping oil from sailors’faces futilely trying to find any of his brothers.
The other ships in the convoy fled the scene and did not returnto search for survivors because of the danger of the enemy subs anda belief that because of the horrible explosion they witnessed,there were not likely to be any survivors.
However, the survivors in three rafts were spotted by a B-17pilot shortly after the Juneau’s sinking but was under orders notto break radio silence and waited until his return to base toreport it. The Navy, its hands full with continuing engagementswith the Japanese, failed to initiate any serious rescue effortuntil Admiral Halsey learned of the existence of the survivorsthree days later. In fact, due to snafus in communication Halseyhad not even been informed of Juneau’s sinking, and when told therewas no concerted rescue effort in progress he blew his stack.
Immediately, the destroyer, USS Meade, was sent to search thearea, but found nothing and returned to base. reporting nosighting.
Finally on the 18th, a PBY was sent to search the area and theUSS Ballard was also dispatched to the area. The PBY found them andwas ordered to circle, keeping them in sight until the Ballard gotthere to pick them up. However, darkness came and there was no signof the Ballard and the PBY had to return to base.
The survivors were desperately in need of help. There was nowater or food, several wounded. Only 12 remained alive. Three ofthe strongest had left the others, paddling for a distantisland.
At daybreak Lt. Williamson was sent in his PBY to search. Aftervainly searching all morning and into the afternoon he reluctantlystarted to return base. Then — there they were! Three rafts withmen aboard — he couldn’t ascertain how many live ones there were– but some were fit enough to stand and feebly wave to theplane.
He was ordered to stay and keep the rafts in sight and guide theBallard, which was headed for the site.
Circling above the rafts for about an hour Williamson assessedthe situation: limited remaining daylight; fuel getting low; roughsea and wind; the near-death condition of the surviving sailors inthe rafts and the strong possibility that if he stayed until afterdark the rescue ship probably would not find them in time.
Weighing all the factors Williamson called to ask permission toland and try to pick up the survivors. After some delay, he wastold to “use your own discretion.” His discretion was to do all hecould within reason, even though at great risk, to try to save thedesperate sailors. Williamson had never landed in open ocean before– always on calm bay waters. The sea was a little angry, a 14 knotwind and swells of from five to six feet. “Hang on, we’re goingin,” he announced over the intercom. The men’s confidence in Larryoverrode their fear and they nervously joked while some crossedthemselves as they headed in.
Williamson eased down on the throttle for a full stall landing.The plane dropped sharply and made a hard landing, “cracking abunch of rivets” as he later described it.
Maneuvering to get to the closest raft was difficult. As theplane taxied toward the raft, the survivors were paddling furiouslyto come to the plane’s forward “blister” and it became apparentthat they were about to come into the propeller of the port engine.Three times Larry had to back off to avoid a disaster. The planewas bouncing up and down with the swells and the prop was hittingthe water on the down movements. Finally one of the crew climbedout on the wing and got a line to the raft and pulled them besidethe plane’s float and was able to get all five of the men into theplane.
By that time it was almost dark. In all the maneuvering to getthe first group boarded they had gotten disoriented and the otherrafts were nowhere to be seen. Time and fuel were at a criticallevel, so Williamson opted to take off with what he had and to comeback the next morning if the USS Ballard did not find therafts.
Taking off was not a simple matter in view of the waves, butusing full power, the plane, which was light due to the low fueland having no bombs or depth charges aboard, was able to getairborne. As he reached about 100 feet elevation he spotted anotherraft with one man aboard. He signaled encouragement to him but hadto go on. The five weak survivors were delivered to medicalpersonnel as soon as the plane got to the base.
Before he started to return in the early morning he learned thatthe other survivors had been picked up by the USS Ballard.
In all, 10 men were rescued: five by Williamson; two by the USSBallard and three had made it to an island safely.
The Navy was not proud of its role in the aftermath of theJuneau’s sinking, and the only recognition given to any survivorsor their rescuers was the Legion of Merit awarded to the threesurvivors who made it to the island on their own strength.
In 1987 the Alaska Legislature passed a resolution which statedin part as follows: “On the seventh day, a PBY patrol plane pilotedby Lieutenant Williamson spotted some of the survivors. Seas wererough and in landing his plane to rescue the few USS JUNEAUsurvivors, Lieutenant Williamson put himself, his crew and thesafety of his plane on the line. Because of his heroic effort thismarked the end of suffering and anguish for those in the water. Hisrescue saved one-half of the USS JUNEAU survivors. Out of 700 menonly 10 survived the USS JUNEAU tragedy.”
JOHN DAVID’S CAREER
After Pearl Harbor John David, who also was a naval aviator,completed two years of Pacific duty and then was reassigned toBrazil to fly anti-submarine patrol in the Atlantic and theCaribbean. He later served throughout the Korean conflict on theaircraft career Princeton.
After retiring in 1962, he was able to pursue his passion forthe theater in New York City, and studied acting and directing atColumbia University, earning a master’s degree in that field.
His professional acting career took him to many theaters acrossthe country as well as before the brightest lights of the New Yorkstage.
In his last performance in the “Big Apple” he played the role of”Doc” in Tennessee Williams’ “Small Craft Warning.” Mr. Williamswas in attendance at the performances and especially liked the”Doc” character he had created and would frequently add or changehis lines, sometimes only minutes before the curtain. He waspersuaded to try his hand at acting and began to alternate nightlywith John David in the role, coached and directed by Kees. Thegreat playwright, though nervous, immensely enjoyed the experience,but avowed it was not only his first role in a play, but also hislast.
In 1991 John David took up residence in the plush Naval home inGulfport. He pulled as many strings as he could to help get his oldbuddy Williamson to join him there, at the spot they had chuggedpast on the freight train 60 years before. However, Williamsonstayed there only a few years and then gave in to the pleas of hisdaughter and moved to Texas where he resided with her family. Henow lives in Sacramento, Calif.