alfred – october 25, 1944 samar, philippines by jmforceton

16 May

It was 4:00 am, a hot humid night off the north coast of Samar, and eighteen-year-old radioman Alfred Jameson was in the tobacco smoke fog of the radio shack on the destroyer escort, Samuel B. Bradley.  Ship’s Captain Jack Cooper, and a dozen others who would normally be asleep, were packed in, listening to fragments of voice transmissions on the TBS, talk between ships, radio. Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet, about a hundred miles away, was destroying the Japanese navy’s Southern Force in the Surigao Strait, south of Samar, and they were all feeling confident; the war would have to end soon. Proudly they listened to the amazing, smooth, steady, precise patter of the battle.

At 6:30 am Alfred was just falling asleep when the first shell sent spray high in the air, three hundred yards behind the Bradley. Radio transmissions from Avenger torpedo-bombers were now confirming a large naval armada had just come through the San Bernardino Strait north of Samar, undetected to that point. Alfred’s small, slow, Task Unit of the Seventh Fleet, three destroyers, four destroyer escorts, six escort carriers, was under surprise attack by the vastly superior Japanese Central Force, and Halsey was nowhere to be found. Alfred thought to himself, today will be my last day.

Captain Cooper had just announced to the two hundred twenty men on board, “A large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.”

An hour later, Alfred and the Bradley, carrying a rack of three torpedoes, were flying at thirty knots behind the larger destroyer, Percy Harrison, on a desperation, suicidal, torpedo run to delay four Japanese heavy cruisers closing in on the group’s defenseless, fleeing, American escort carriers. In the radio shack he could hear the chatter from the Wildcat fighter planes and Avenger bombers harassing the Japanese ships, as the Imperial battleships were lobbing three thousand pound, eighteen-inch shells from ten miles away, nearly point blank range for them. One rocketing overhead sounded like a boxcar ripping through the air. If one hits, I will die instantly; there would be no next breath.

Alfred froze for an instant, remembering lines of a favorite poem that he knew everything about, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, another battle that took place on October 25, ninety years ago in 1854;

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns’ he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

There was an explosion, and it was like an earthquake rocked the ship. He looked forward from the radio shack; the direct hit had vaporized the forward five-inch gun turret, it simply disappeared, and the nine men inside were gone. He couldn’t hear anything.

He saw a Japanese Zero fly into the carrier, Fanshaw Bay, up ahead. The plane hadn’t been hit? Why did the pilot do that? Another shell created a geyser just off the starboard bow, twenty yards away, too close.

They had just been hit for the third time, only one of the six thousand horsepower Westinghouse turbine engines was running, and the radio had been knocked out. There were bodies in the passageway and on deck, as Alfred, checking shipmates for pulse, made his way to the stern. The Bradley and two other destroyer escorts were now making smoke in a failing attempt to hide the fleeing carriers.

10:00 am: The Bradley was dead; the order to abandon ship had been given. Guys were going over the side into the blood and oil-covered water. Alfred hesitated, took a look at the shrapnel wound in his left leg, put the other leg over the rail, then jumped. A few minutes later, the stern of their destroyer escort sank, and the bow pointed to the sky, and backed into the sea.

Twenty minutes later, a Japanese cruiser steamed by a hundred yards away. There were sailors with rifles at the rails, but they did not shoot. He had been ready to dive deep if they had fired. From nowhere the thought entered his head, if I hadn’t joined the Navy I might have started freshman year at college, and be in class on a Wednesday, maybe English Lit.

A short while later, he jumped off the raft to swim to Brian. Alfred was six foot two and broad shouldered, and Brian was struggling to make it to the raft. The wound to his head was horrific, but he was alive, and Brian was one of his shipmates he knew the best. All Alfred could think of was Brian’s picture of his beautiful blond wife and baby daughter standing in front of their ’32 Ford pickup truck on Brian’s parent’s farm in Iowa. He managed to get him back to the raft, and they pulled him in. Alfred stayed in the water.

That night he was getting tired, and tried to pull himself onto the raft. A gunner’s mate he didn’t know punched him in the face; it was about survival. The raft was already overcrowded and in danger of swamping. He understood, as he slipped back into the salt sea.

It was late afternoon, and he was dozing; It’s Julia, back in June, waving as I board the Bradley in Charleston Navy Yard in Boston. She is so small in the distance in her royal blue dress with the white wide brimmed hat. The three hundred foot Bradley is so small lying next to the huge six hundred foot British heavy cruiser. We’ll have a wedding if I make it back.

They waited all day to be found, but all they could see were aircraft in the distance, as it got dark. Two men died that afternoon and were allowed to sink, hopefully not attracting sharks.

In his dreams that night, He is in his father’s corner office at the newspaper; his father’s pipe is belching a smoke cloud to the high ceiling. They are talking about after the war, and his joining the paper or going on to college. He is telling his stern father about Julia.

Alfred had been in the ocean, hanging on to the side of the raft, for twenty hours. It was 6:00 am, and he could see the first color in the east as the quiet ocean rocked him. Two more men, who had been floating near Alfred, disappeared that night.

Alfred thought for a second about Amelia Earhart, and the character, Mary Mayville, he had created as a kid. He had crashed her plane not far from here, but had not allowed her to die, as Amelia had seven years ago. Did Amelia end up in the ocean alone, or did the crash kill her suddenly? Someone in the water, three or four hundred yards away, screamed, “SHARKS.”

They were making love, consumed with each other. Then it was 3:00 am, and they were sneaking out of his dormitory at Milton Academy. Something bumped his leg; He awoke instantly. Terror, he screamed; his heart was pounding. Nothing happened. He was gently rocking in the wet darkness. He switched hands on the raft and was asleep.

He was thinking of Julia the first time he saw her at the social on the Milton campus. They talked, they danced, her perfume, her smile, her hand held on after the dance. He touched her a hundred times that night, and this.

He woke up later and noticed Hector, who had been beside him, was gone. Someone said he had swum away from the raft in the middle of the night, thinking he could get home in a short while. He was gone.

He was twelve or thirteen and playing football this afternoon. Mom made him breakfast. Two eggs over easy, toast with butter, grilled ham, hash brown potatoes, and a big cold glass of orange juice. Now the second morning, he opened his eyes. When the waves lifted him he could see a rain squall line in the distance muting the sunrise light and fell asleep.

Two hours later at 9:02 am, the crew of the one hundred seventy five foot patrol craft, PC-635, found them. Captain Cooper correctly answered, “St. Louis Cardinals,” to the question, “Who won the last world series?” after which young Alfred yelled, “NOW GET US OUT OF THE WATER YOU SON OF A BITCH.”

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3 Responses to “alfred – october 25, 1944 samar, philippines by jmforceton”

  1. juleshg May 18, 2010 at 2:17 am #

    I love what you are doing with these characters. I really got a much better sense of Alfred with this.

    Alfred in the water looking back at his short life combined with his hopes for the future — a future that he may never see — were really interesting. I thought this piece came together so well for you

    • jmforceton May 19, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

      Thanks, just read a book on this particular day in WWII recently, and everything seemed to fit.

  2. ingridfnl May 19, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

    This has a great sense of urgency.

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