Reprinted from the Alumni Bulletin of Albany Medical College
December 1943
Thomas S. Walsh, Jr., Lt. M.C., U.S.N.R. (AMC ’37)

Two weeks after reporting far active duty I got my orders to a new destroyer. For one who has never been to sea it is hard to imagine just what a destroyer is like. The term “Tin Can” describes them very aptly; that is what they are. The sides are made of such thin steel that they cannot even touch the dock they are alongside of or a hole will be punched clear through. One cannot bounce the ship off the dock the way the paddle-wheel steamers on the Hudson do. There are four principal parts to one of these ships: the engines, boilers, magazines, and guns. In the small spaces where these parts do not approximate too closely, there are the living quarters and messing compartments. The ships are designed for speed and everything else is sacrificed to obtain it, especially comfort. They are designed like a thin sliver of wood and consequently toss and pitch about in all but the mildest sea. For days it is not uncommon for the ship to roll forty degrees. The decks become awash each time the ship tosses over. To eat (when one feels like it under those conditions) really becomes an art. Poles are rigged up in the wardroom about the table. They are just wide enough for a chair to be placed between them and have loops so that the chairs can be lashed to the pole to prevent one from sliding around the deck. Somehow one gets into his chair, wraps his left arm around the pole, grasping the dish with the left hand, then as the ship tosses about, balances the dish with each roll of the ship at the same time trying to eat with the right. Sleeping presents the same difficulties. One gets into his bunk, then puts in a guard rail several inches in height, getting his back braced alongside the outer bulkhead, and doubling up so that his feet are against the rail. As the ship moves about he is firmly wedged in this position and can rest quite comfortably.

While these are some of the more disagreeable sides, there are a lot of advantages. There is always hot water for shaving, and everyone gets a hot shower practically every day. Frozen meat is the principal item of food, and there is plenty of butter and whole eggs. Fresh fruit presents a problem, as there is not sufficient room to store it, and consequently it is available only in port, where there is a store or refrigeration ship.

We put to sea on our “shakedown” cruise. This is quite interesting for it is to test the equipment and train the crew. The engines are operated under varying conditions. The guns are tested and practice firing runs made with the doctor in the gun house acting as an observer. Torpedo firings are also included. For one new to the Navy it is quite enlightening, for one learns the functions and operations of the different parts of the ship. Our cruise lasted six weeks, with a short overhaul in the yard to correct obvious errors. The crew got their last leave at this time in the yard, which was also my last time home (June, 1942), and then the ship was ready for combat.

We went down the Atlantic coast and into the Caribbean while the hunting was quite good, and finished off some Nazi submarines. The heat was pretty bad, so everyone was pleased when we left there after six weeks.

We hit the South Pacific the first week in September. Our first stop was at Tongatabu, the capital of the Tongan or Friendly Islands. There were many white wooden clapboard buildings arranged around the village square with its soldiers’ monument, the government buildings on one side, the queen’s palace on the other, so one thought immediately of a New England village. The natives were all redskinned Polynesians. The men were, on the average, about six feet tall and weighed about two hundred pounds, every one a handsome physical specimen. The ship left there in a few days and joined one of the two task forces in the South Pacific guarding the supply routes to Guadalcanal.

One afternoon I was aroused out of my sleep with the ringing of the general alarm and the cry “General quarters, all hands to general quarters, explosion on the carrier.” And sure enough, there was the “Wasp,” which we were alongside of, blazing from several torpedo hits. One of the “fish” I later learned passed obliquely beneath the entire length of our ship. It became evident that the fire could not be controlled, and pretty soon the crew started to abandon ship. Our whaleboats picked up the survivors out of the water and brought them on board. In two hours over 450 were picked up, about 60 of them later requiring hospitalization. The cases were principally hums and were treated with tannic acid, as that was all I had available at the time.

The cases would he brought into the wardroom and just laid on the deck. It was quite difficult, for they were covered with fuel oil, which had to be cleaned off before anything could he done. There were two pharmacist mates in the ship’s crew and about six from among the survivors. Everyone went to work. I was kept busy just moving around seeing the cases as they came in and instructing the corpsmen what to do. When a patient appeared to have a eschar (from the tannic acid and silver nitrate) he was moved out of the mass of humanity lying on the deck and placed in one of the officer’s rooms, and when these were completely filled others were taken amidships to part of the crew’s quarters. The more serious cases were kept in the wardroom. Morphine was given in half-grain doses as needed, without any time limit, as long as the patient appeared to need it. Two patients died out of the entire group, each one having over fifty per cent of the body surface burned. The remainder were put ashore within twenty-four hours, and when seen two weeks later all were alive and doing well. As the cases were treated, blankets were gradually broken out as there was no time for such a procedure at first. Later minor cases were tended to. That night when I wanted to turn in there was no bare place on the deck, every part of the ship was covered with someone. Finally I remembered the coding room, which was locked, but as I had the key in my pocket, I slept in there.

After this the ship joined various task groups. One night early in October we started in to intercept some Jap ships sighted heading for Guadalcanal. On board we always wore our lifebelts, which one had to inflate oneself, but this night we all broke out with the big kapok jackets, for they were heavy enough to stop a small shell fragment and would keep one afloat if he were blown overboard and knocked unconscious. Everyone had a big sheath knife in order to cut free the life rafts if necessary. And we all carried fifteen feet of line and a pistol. The former was to tie ourselves to a raft or any floating object, if we were in the water. The pistol was for self-defense in case we landed in enemy-occupied territory.

Well, we steamed along behind one of the new battleships. It was a beautiful moonlight night and numerous phosphorescent particles gleamed in the water. Once a lookout yelled “torpedo”; we all ran to that side, but found only a large fifteen-foot shark playfully pacing the boat. The planes, however, reached the enemy first, hitting the two larger ones, and the Japs turned around. So nothing further happened. The ship continued as before, doing numerous jobs, and later in the month, for diversion, went and covered the landings at Funafuti in the Ellice Islands.

Early in November we were loaded with sixty tons of trench mortar ammunition. As there was no hold or available space to put it in, it was placed on deck lashed to the railing, in the mess hall under the tables, in the passageways of the living spaces, and in any apparent space. The ship was top heavy, and in our journey to Guadalcanal hit some rough weather. She rolled, as usual, to forty degrees, but this time instead of snapping right back she would stay at that angle. Everyone on board thought she was going to roll right over, but she didn’t. Our destination was reached, and while unloading the cargo a midget submarine broke the surface and torpedoed a ship behind us loaded with thousand pound bombs (fortunately the cargo did not explode), and then fired at us, missing, but the torpedo ran up on the beach. The captain slipped the anchor and chain and had the ship under way in about three minutes. It was pretty fast thinking on his part and it saved the ship. He was decorated for doing it. The crew (when the sub was sighted) ran and manned the battle stations before the general alarm could be sounded, closing all of the water-tight doors and all of the valves. It demonstrated the excellent training the crew had and also the morale and fighting spirit of the men themselves. The mission was accomplished and then we left to refuel. On account of our fuel situation we were unable to join the other ships in the fighting in the middle of November. We came right back escorting a convoy into the So!omons and hunting subs nightly between Savo and Esperance, just missing an attack by our own torpedo boats.

There were numerous other jobs, convoying, escorting damaged ships, and many other things. In February we were back again for over five weeks, covering the landings in the Russell Islands.

Next we were on our way to the Aleutians. Some of the landings on Attu were covered. Also we were lucky enough to he included in a task force that went in and shelled Kiska. The orders were that the shore batteries had a range of 12,000 yards, but the destroyers would fire at 6,000. So, in ahead of the line of cruisers went the small ships. It was quite a spectacular sight—there would be a belch of flame obscuring the entire ship from our view, then the smoke appeared. Later, the vessels would appear to be sailing ahead of the smoke screen. On our own vessel you would he momentarily blinded by a burst of flame fifteen feet long as the forward guns let go. There would be a terrific blast of air against one’s face at the same time. The deck seemed to drop about two inches and then suddenly stop. There was a shower of cork particles and gradually the ship went into a roll to the opposite side. The clinking of the empty shell cases could be heard on the deck. The ship would lazily swing back to an upright position as another salvo let go. Most of the cruising was done in fog, so thick you could slice it. The weather was not too had, for we were there in the summer season. The ship was detached after two months of duty, returning to the South Pacific.

The tropics were not too bad. On board ship there were no tropical diseases. At anchor the distance was too great for the mosquitoes to fly, and then all water used was distilled, so no cases of dysentery occurred. Ashore it was quite different. At one place, where they had a native hospital with a French doctor; the conditions were appalling, by American standards. In that area the natives were dying of tuberculosis and none were to he seen past the age of forty. The only surgery was the incision of abscesses, and the excision of “tropical ulcers.” Three nursing nuns tended to all of the patients. The buildings consisted of twenty-foot square buildings, divided in the middle with one side for the natives, the other for the Tonkinese indentured laborers. There were only wooden couches, with no mattresses nor sheets. Our military authorities used natives at first; but then decided not to on account of their being a potential reservoir of malaria.

We returned to the Solomons. The night before I left the ship we were up hunting Jap barges and destroyers off Vella Lavella, Kolombangara, and New Georgia. It then took me a full month of traveling finally to reach home. On the return trip we came on an army transport on which we lived on canned food for the entire trip. Fresh water was limited, and only salt water showers were available. After seventeen and a half months of sea duty, the States looked pretty good.

Source: Shipmate publication “A Short History of the Lucky ‘L’, USS Lansdowne, DD 486, 1942–45.” Used by permission, USS Lansdowne, DD 486 Association.