Air Attack

June 16th — we arrive at Guadalcanal and the supply ships head toward shore to start unloading. But in main radio, we are aghast as we receive the report from the coastwatchers that sixty bombers and sixty fighters are heading towards Guadalcanal. Our usually calm captain, upon hearing this, jumps up spilling his coffee. Down in main radio, we are flabbergasted at the odds, there are just too many planes for too few ships. In the harbor, there are two Liberty ships, a small oil tanker, a barge carrying aviation gas and ammunition (being pulled by the tanker), a PT boat, an old 4-stacker (a World War One ship), a few small craft, a new destroyer (the Taylor) and ourselves. Again we ask ourselves, why would the Japanese risk this much air power for so few ships. From the bridge, ninety fighter planes are counted taking off from Henderson Field. In the radio shack, you can feel the relief as most of us are happy to know that we even have that many planes at Henderson Field.

In the harbor, all ships are now maneuvering violently to present the most difficult kind of target for the now overdue planes. In an instant, planes arrive coming down almost vertically from 15,000 feet. One minute, no planes, the next minute, they are everywhere. The first thing hit, naturally, is the oil tanker, next the bombers dive at the destroyer Taylor which someone describes as zigzagging like a frightened chicken, but the bombs miss and three of the attacking planes are blown into splintered wreckage. Two planes bore in on the O’Bannon, also maneuvering like a frighten chicken, and both planes are shot down. Are our gun crews good or what?

Along side of our ship, one dive bomber closes in on a PT boat. It looks like no contest as the PT boat has only one 20mm gun firing away at the plane. But, in a instant the plane is in the water, shot down by the PT boat. With a lull in the action, I hurry across to see what is happening on the other side of the ship.

There a bomber levels off and is flying between our ship and the old 4-stacker. The 4-stacker is firing away with its 20mm guns. The plane is in a location with no target in sight but I see the plane jettison its bomb into the water anyway as it starts its climb. I notice though, that the gunners on our sister ship continue firing. In an instant, I can see that the tracers coming just as if the gunners were aiming at me. Another frightened chicken takes off running away from the direction of fire. The shells hit our number two gun about thirty feet from where I had been a moment ago. The 5-inch gun jerks violently and oil flies everywhere. Inside the gun mount, the gun crew is showered with oil but no one is injured. Again it’s the friendly shells that get you.

From my new vantage point behind the main radio shack, I watch as another Japanese plane flies on a ninety degree course to our ship and is apparently little noticed. The few shells sent his way miss completely. My eyes are fastened on the big “red meatball” (the rising sun emblem) on the side of the plane. The pilot zooms low over our ship and casually looks down at us. He appears little concerned and seems to be just checking us out. Apparently in no particular hurry, he flies off unharmed and into the horizon.

And just as quickly, everything is quiet again, the attack is over. Those that have been doing the counting say ninety-seven planes have been shot down this day for an all time record here. The planes of Henderson Field have had a field day and sustain only moderate losses. The captain reports some damage on the bridge, though. In the excitement, he has managed to smash his coffee cup. Amazingly, damage to other ships is also minimal with only the small tanker and a landing craft are left burning. This day was the high water mark of Japanese air power at Guadalcanal. Never again do the Japanese attack in such numbers.