• U.S.

BATTLE OF THE PACIFIC: The Sinking of the Wasp

5 minute read
TIME

In the wardroom of a nearby ship a group of officers, off duty, was watching the Dead End Kids in Tough As They Come. It was 2:51 p.m. when that most urgent of bugle calls, General Quarters, shrilled out on the speaker system. As the officers scurried up to their battle stations, one of them heard a ship’s doctor say: “The Wasp got three fish in her.”

From the deck they could see the elegant carrier Wasp, 14,700 tons of striking power, at the root of a great tree of smoke. She sat there, awkward in profile, still a dowager among ships, but dedicated now to fire, not to aviation.

The whole task force worked to screen the Wasp from further attacks. Cruisers and destroyers zigzagged like nervous terriers. When a junior officer grew excited trying to get in touch with the Wasp, his captain snapped: “Don’t hurry them. Let them be calm.” One of the ships in the screen kept flashing the submarine alarm by semaphore, as if the whole fleet did not know by the grim torpedo-wakes cutting in all directions what was happening.

Conversation with Fire. At 3:09 there was a mighty explosion; a whole piece of heaven seemed to catch fire. The torpedoes had hit near the Wasp’s gasoline system, which was particularly vulnerable because the carrier’s planes were then being refueled. Gasoline fires spread to the magazines; bombs and gasoline caused the explosion.

A yeoman of the new flagship—now that the Wasp was doomed—scrawled nervous notes in the Quartermaster’s Log. At 3:14 he wrote: “Wasp abandoning ship; various ships picking up men.” Destroyers had crept near, risking fire from burning gasoline on the water. They saved 90% of the Wasp’s crew.

Some of the Wasp’s planes were up on patrol, and their pilots, coming in, saw their floating landing field being consumed. One of them flew over the flagship at 3:36 and dropped this message: Wasp burning fiercely forward of island. 10° list to starboard (guess). 100 men or more aft on ft. deck. Destroyer close aboard. Eight Wasp planes due land 16:20. Wasp dead in water or just barely backing down. Ammunition on deck exploding.

On the flagship they could see explosions on the Wasp’s deck. A few minutes later came heavier explosions on the after part of the hangar deck as fire reached the planes parked there. They looked like red fists striking out over the water.

A wiry little officer said grimly: “Some one’s going to get relieved over this.” A flyer, an old hand with greying hair and a cynical look, said: “Well, that’s three I’ve seen go—the Lex, the Yorktown and now this baby.” A thin-faced chief petty officer said: “I’m thinking of those boys on Guadal.” The ship’s executive officer said merely: “We’ll just have to develop better methods of detection.”

Conversation with Murphy. It was 8 o’clock when the destroyers put torpedoes into the Wasp to put her out of her misery. The flagship took aboard some of the Wasp’s surviving pilots. Later, in the bedroom of one of the ship’s officers, one of the older pilots stood in front of a grey locker and talked with an absolutely blank expression. He addressed one of his fellow pilots. “Well, Murphy,” he said, “it’s a little hard for us to realize yet. All those fellows over there. … I came in from my search and didn’t see the task force, so I thought the whole force must have made an emergency run for it silently. I was about to think about going to some island when I saw the smoke. I went over and saw she was our ship.

“It made me feel sick—not for myself: it was easy: I knew I had gas enough to get to an island, or that I could land by one of the cruisers. It was what was happening to our force. I thought there had been an enemy air attack. That’s what it looked like. The flight deck was burning from amidships, toward each end, in two lines just like two little forest fires. The whole island structure was white, as if the skin had been burned away from the flesh. I thought I saw a crowd of men standing on the after part of the flight deck, but they may have been wounded left there, or dead men. Murphy, I guess we have a lot to be thankful for. It’s a little hard to realize just yet. . . .”

On the flagship next morning they read in the ship’s news digest that a certain Admiral in Washington had told newspapers: “The U.S. now has the balance of military and naval striking power in the Pacific.”

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