Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series that tells the story of a Waxahachie hero, John McElroy. The story is told largely in part to letters, military records, notes and pictures found in a trunk kept in storage by McElroy's children. Part one ran in last Sunday's Daily Light.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
We had a Commander who demanded perfection in combat readiness of all boats no matter how hard the duty had been or how short the supplies, but he fought like a tiger for his men against others. It seemed to me that as far as the Navy brass was concerned, we in the plywood Navy were expendable.
Our bases were bombed on a regular basis by the Japanese. When on land we spent a fair amount of time together in foxholes. All the boat crews and skippers were close and we had fun at each other’s expense. Once during an air raid, one of the guys picked up a rock and hit another fellow on top of the helmet, which sent him diving face down into the sand thinking it was shrapnel. We all had a good laugh, right in the middle of a bombing raid.
After one extended period when we had no fresh meat or vegetables, the cooks started serving us fresh meat; however, we complained that they were ruining it with that dark brown gravy which gave it a peculiar taste. It was only after a couple of horse heads floated by our boat one night that we realized why our “beef” tasted so strange. Maybe I should have listened closer to our Commander back in Illinois about the monkey meat.
There was an endless game of hearts, trading of cigars, and even some torpedo juice. A new crewman came and went as others were lost to injury, transfer, discharge, and malaria. I got a new crewman named Wylan, and I wondered if he was even old enough to be here. He had only been aboard a couple of hours when five enemy dive bombers attacked. Wylan didn’t even have a gun assignment yet, so when the first bomb hit the water, he hit the water too.
On 3 July we were on the move further north. There was going to be an invasion of the island of Rendova, and our job was to protect the flank of our destroyers and our invasion force. We made the move during the night and entered the harbor at dawn.
On the following night, we received a coded message that American supply ships would arrive before dawn. I had just come topside after deciphering the message when we saw naval gunfire near Banyette Point. Moments later shells were splashing in the water nearby. It was a Japanese task force that had sailed down from Rabaul to shell our shore landing, but now they were shooting at us.
Commander Kelly was on Buddy Liebenow’s 157 boat. We were the second boat, followed by Lowry in the 162. Kelly led us straight for the enemy. We went to full speed and tore out across Blanche Channel after them. With the wind and the sea spray in my face and with enemy shells splashing around us, the thought suddenly occurred to me that this was the moment that we had been preparing for all these months.
We were speeding along across the dark water, illuminated only by two-way gunfire into what looked like the sure jaws of death, but I figured we were up to it. At least I hoped so because there was no turning aside now.
Apparently, there is not much that is quite as unnerving to a Jap Commander as the sight of three half-crazy American torpedo boats charging straight for you… This is how we celebrated the 4th of July 1943.
We set up our new forward PT boat base just outside of Rendova Harbor on a small island called Lumbaria. They named our new base “Todd City” after Ensign Leon Todd, who had been killed in action on 2 July.
We in Ron 9 had been promised a trip to New Zealand for some R&R. Fifteen minutes before we were to leave the word came down that one of our cruisers, the USS Helena, had been sunk in the Kula Gulf and our R&R was now canceled… A great blow to everyone’s morale.
It was August 1, 1943, that we of the 161 boat were given a rare night off. Several sections of our PT’s, fifteen boats in all, headed out to the northwest to patrol the Ferguson passage on the southwest side of Kolombangara, a tall volcanic island that was surrounded by nearby islands of New Georgia, Wanna Wanna, and Gizo. For someone that has not been there on a moonless night, it is hard to imagine how dark it can be in the surrounding waters.
It was not until the next morning at the officers meeting that I learned that several of our boats had engaged Japanese destroyers that were coming up out of Kula Gulf through Blackett Strait. It had been the darkest of nights and the action was confusing and scattered.
Due to the inky blackness of the night, the Jap destroyers were virtually on top of the PT’s when they were first spotted, leaving little time to take action. Several boats had made torpedo runs, but the results were inconclusive. One of our boats had been lost. It was struck by an enemy destroyer at high speed and cut in half.
There was an explosion and a tremendous fireball sent flaming high into the air. Our boats that witnessed it from various distances were pretty sure that nobody could have possibly survived that inferno. There were about 1800 gallons of 100 octane gasoline in that boat. No wreckage or survivors could be detected by the other boats.
It was the PT-109 that had been lost. We all felt bad about it, being friends with many of the crew. But life went on at our base, Todd City. It was not our first loss of this war and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Still, it’s too bad, because I liked their skipper. His name was Jack.
Five days later, I along with several others observed two natives in an outrigger canoe approach our base on Rendova. They came ashore and presented a green coconut shell, which they claimed to be from Kennedy. We were astounded, as none of us had any reason to believe that he or any other of the 109 crew was still alive.
Their names were Biuku and Eroni. We questioned them extensively to determine if this was an actual message from Kennedy. I looked at the coconut husk. On it was scribbled with a knife, “Native knows pos’it… He can pilot… 11 alive… Need small boat… Kennedy.”
Within hours a rescue mission was organized, and our boat was being fueled, extra ammo was loaded on board. Buddy Liebenow of the 157 boat would go in for the actual pickup. We on the 161 and 171 boat went along to cover Buddy. He had been there on the night of the incident, so he was familiar with the proximity.
We were not entirely sure that the two natives and the coconut shell were not part of a Japanese trap. It was decided that we would maintain a distance between boats so that we had two angles of fire against any possible ambush.
As was standard, we made the run at night, timing our departure and speed to arrive on the scene during the blackest time of the night. We ran at patrol speed to keep our wake down. The two natives, Biuku and Eroni, stood beside Buddy and helped him locate the rendezvous point. There were so many little islets out here that it would have been near impossible to find them at night on our own.
An Australian coastwatcher named Evans helped set up this whole deal. We were to meet Kennedy at a predetermined spot. He would be with some natives in a canoe. Four signal shots were fired by the 157, and Jack returned signal fire. Buddy moved his boat in slowly and picked him up, and Jack helped pilot us toward a very small islet near Cross Island on the West side of Ferguson Passage.
We stood off and kept a keen eye out for any surprise attack by the Japs while the 157 boat eased in toward the shoreline of Olasana Island. At first, there was no sign of the 109 crew, and after a short wait, Kennedy started yelling for them. Slowly they emerged one by one from the trees, and the pickup went forward. Nothing happened, but we were glad to finally swing the boat around and head for home.
It was 0530 when we made it back to Rendova Island. It was a joyous occasion, there was much handshaking, backslapping and kidding going on. There had been a little medicinal juice passed around the 157 boat on the way back, and some of the 109 survivors were “extra happy” to be back at Todd City, along with several of the natives who were joyously singing “Jesus Loves Me”… It was indeed a good night and dawn, for all of us.