Recorded: 22 March 1945
Narrative by: Captain John L. Pratt, USN
Sinking of the USS BISMARCK SEA off Iwo Jima.
This is March the 22nd, 1945, in the Arlington Annex, Navy Department,
Room 3031-A. This morning Captain John L. Pratt of the USS BISMARCK SEA is with
us, who will tell us of his operations in the Pacific. The next voice that you
will hear will be that of Captain Pratt.
The BISMARK SEA on the 21st of February, 1945, was operating as a part
of Support Group Two and Three (Combined) under Task Group 52.2 which was
commanded by Rear Admiral C.T. Durgin. The OTC at the time of this incident
was Rear Admiral G. R. Henderson. The area was approximately 20 miles to the
eastward of Iwo Jima. We were engaged in the support of the landings on
Iwo Jima at the time.
The ships in the formation were six CVEs, the MAKIN ISLAND, the LUNGA POINT,
the BISMARCK SEA, SAGIMAW BAY, ANZIO and the screen. The formation was a circular
one. Five of the CVEs were on a circle 2500 yards from the center and one ship was
in the center. The BISMARCK SEA was on the east side of the circle. The courses
was approximately northeast, the wind approximately 22 knots, the sunset had been
at 1825 and the incident which I am going to describe occurred about 1845 and the
visability was about half light. It was overcast and by the time the ship was
abandoned it was quite dark.
To go back to the engagement, the group was preparing to take aircraft at
the time because the SARATOGA had been hit and her planes were in the air looking
for a place to go. We were preparing to take them and were into the wind making
only eight knots because the wind was blowing 22 knots, thereby creating a wind of
30 knots over the deck.
To go back a little bit, at 1715 we had gone to general quarters because
of bogies in the area and at about this time the SARATOGA was first engaged. Two
raids I believe were made on her. The BISMARK SEA planes had just been recovered
when all ships were ordered to scramble eight fighters because of the attacks on
the SARATOGA. This was done at 1730. The sections were vectored out to the
northeast and southeast to bogies which proved friendly.
At 1815 we landed all of our planes, that is the entire formation landed
their planes. We took three additional TBSes, one from the WAKE ISLAND, one from the
NATOMA BAY for the purpose of tranferring passengers, and one from the SARATOGA which
had no place to land. I mention this because these three additional planes required
more room than we had on deck after landing our own planes and we had to put three
planes below which had not been degassed and these three planes figured in the damage
which occurred later.
During this period, a raid of six to eight planes appeared on out starboard
hand, distant about 50 miles. The raid split and disappeared from the screen. Shortly
thereafter several bogies reappeared bearing about 20 degrees true, 25 miles, closed
rapidly and then faded. At 10 miles they were picked up for an instant by radar and
soon thereafter, about 1845 were visually observed to be headed toward our sector
of the formation.
As I said before, sunset had occurred at 1825 and only half light remained.
Approximately three planes were seen headed toward the LUNGA POINT which was on our
port bow, somewhat more toward the port beam. Our battery two took one of these planes
and splashed it.
A few seconds thereafter a plane was observed very low on the water just
outside of one of the screening destroyers on our starboard hand, the destroyer being
between the plane and ourselves. The destroyer, which was a part of the screen and
other vessels of the screen, did not open fire on this plane because the word had been
passed that there were friendly planes, namely the SARATOGA planes in the area and
due to the half light they could not be clearly distinguished from enemy planes.
This plane which was coming in low continued toward the destroyer, which was
approximately a thousand yards on our beam and just as he got there, that is just as
he got to the destroyer, he dodged around her stern and came directrly for us. Some of
our guns couldn't fire because they would have been firing directly at the destroyer.
Others had just enough room to open up and begin hitting the plane, but they did not
have sufficient time to shoot as the distance covered by him from the time he left the
destroyer until he got to us was a matter of three or four seconds.
This plane struck the ship abeam of the after elevator and entered the ship
between the water line and the flight deck. When it entered the side it knocked four
of our torpedoes from the starboard rack where they were stowed ans scattered them
about the hanger deck. The elevator cables were parted and the elevator fell to the
bottom of its well. The after fire main was damaged and no water was available at the
scene of the fire. The water curtains were immediately turned on, but due to the
damage to the fire main, which I have mentioned, the water curtain in the vicinity of
the after elevator had no supply and did not function.
This started a considerable fire and the regular party on the hanger deck and
all hands who were available came aft to fight the fire. The glow undoubtedly showed
clearly through the open elevator well and attracted a second enemy plane which came in
virtically from directly overhead and struck the flight deck just forward of the elevator
well. This killed or mortally injured all of the fire fighting party and wiped out the
repair three party whose station was directly below the area of the fire.
The explosion caused by this second plane also buckled the bulkheads in the gallery
spaces over the hanger deck and collapsed or disrupted some of the decks in the 20 and
40 mm. clipping rooms and a large quantity of 20 and 40 mm. ammunition, which was stored
there, fell into the fire.
This area was very congested with airplanes and there were three or four planes
at the spot which had not been degassed due to the fact that they had been brought below to
make room on the flight deck above. These planes were also directly in the fire and a
holocaust resulted. the situation was, as I have mentioned, also very complicated because
of the fact that 20 and 40 mm. ammunition was shooting all around the hanger deck and
personnel who started to enter the hanger immediately ducked back because of the large
amount of ammunition which was flying around.
The Executive Officer went down into the are and when he saw the conditions he
returned immediately to the bridge and reported to me that he thought we had better leave
the ship. I had already formed that opinion due to the reports from Damage Control and
at seven o'clock or 1900, passed the word for all hands to go to their abandon ship
stations because I expected the torpedoes, which were directly in an intense fire and could
not be reached, I expected to them to explode at any time.
The crew went to their abandon ship stations in a very orderly manner and an item
of interest in this connection is the fact that all of the engineers got out of their spaces
which were directly below the area which was on fire.
The life rafts were released and the Gunnery Officer, with great foresight, passed
the word over the bull horn to get the rubber life rafts out of the planes which were parked
forward on the hanger deck. These rafts were of great assistance to many people. The crew
had been required to wear their life belts at all time while in the war zone and every man
had one on--at leastwe received no reports of anyone being without a lifebelt.
As soon as a number of them had reached the forward end of the flight deck the word
was passed over the bull horn and all phone circuits to abandon ship.
The men in the IC room did a very commendable job by sticking to their stations
until they were certain that every phone, every sound power telephone on the ship had
acknowledged the word to abandon ship.
The Sick Bay personnel did a remarkable job in getting their people out of Sick Bay.
All bed patients were gotten off the ship and the percentage of bed patients who are now
survivors is higher than any other organization on the ship.
The water conditions were difficult to say the least. The wind had been blowing
at 22 knots all day and the water was rough. For purposes of swimming it should be termed
very rough. It was also colder than that to which the men had been accustomed. the
temperature was about 69 degrees, this corresponds to the temperature of the water in which
you swim off the Atlantic beaches. I believe it's slightly colder than that, so you can
imagine what they were up against when they were in the water for a considerable period
because the average swimmer likes to swim in the ocean at that temperature for only about
All personnel apparently had gotten into the water by about 1905 and with the
Navigator and the Executive Officer, I left the bridge and went down to a small platform
on the starboard side.
A very nice thing that happened at this point. I discovered that my automatic
feature of the life belt wasn't working just before I went over the side and the Assistant
Navigator, who was their, unbuckled his life belt and said, "Here Capatain, take mine."
His name was Lieutenant Blaks.
After the men were in the water, a number of them had difficulty because of the
high waves. I have interviewed many of the personnel since and those that had no
difficulty were those that had had some experience in the surf. A considerable number
To go back a little bit, I believe about 125 were killed in the explosions that
occurred aboard ship before we left.
The ship had about 2-1/2 knots headway on which was fortunate because it assisted
the personnel in getting clear. Even so, just as we left a tremendous explosion occurred
which was undoubtedly one or more of the torpedoes. This explosion blew the aft part of
the flight deck off and blew the sides off the ship aft of a point about half way down the
flight deck. I was just leaving when this explosion occurred and the ship rocked
tremendiously and the noise was deafening. This explosion undoubtedly did some damage
below because the ship began to list immediately and listed slowly for about twenty or
thirty minutes and then rolled over completely. She sank about 2100, very slowly and
without much commotion.
As soon as the men were in the water the vessels of the screen closed in and
commenced recovering personnel. I was picked up in about 45 minutes and reported
to Admiral Durgin over the TBS, after which he told me to take charge of the recovery
and designate which ships I would like to have. After conference with the Commanding
Officer of the EDMONDS, the DE on which I was then embarked, we selected three DEs and
one destroyer and they reported for duty. They were already engaged in the operation of
picking up personnel.
A lighted buoy was put over to mark the spot in order that the vessels could
have a reference point for their search. The recovery vessels put out boats and used
their searchlights. Recovery was difficult due to the rough sea and the darkness.
During the first part of it the sea was lighted up by the fire and an important incident,
which I haven't mentioned, was the fact that the Jap planes began to strefe the
personnel in the water. We don't know exactly how many were hit, but we do know that
one raft containing most of the Quartermasters was hit and they were not seen afterward.
Also, Lieutenant Morrison, who was the Officer of the Deck at the time, received a
superficial wound in his scalp from a bullet while he was in the water.
The ships did a remakable job in spite of these conditions in recovering the
personnel. Unfortunately it took several hours to do this because of the light
conditions and other conditions already mentioned. I believe that by a little after
midnight all of the people who were alive had been picked up and at this point I would
like to read a memorandum which I have written to the Casualty Section, covering this, to
make it a matter of record.
"As mentioned before, a lighted buoy was put over to mark the spot and to
provide a point of origin for the search which continued throughout the night and until
ten o'clock the following morning, at which time other vessels were dispatched to the
scene by the the Task Force Commander, Admiral Turner and naval aircraft took up the
search which was continued throughout the next day until dark.
"No living personnel were sighted after 0030, the night of the sinking, 22
February. The search was carefully conducted and the Commanding Officer is of the
opinion that all living survivors had been recovered by that time. There were no
Japanese vessels known to be in that area and no vessels other than those who were in
direct contact with the search are known to have picked up any survivors. The Task Force
Commander, at the request of the Commanding Officer of the BISMARCK SEA, sent a dispatch
to all ships present on 23 February directing them to notify the BISMARK SEA Commanding
Officer if they had any surviving personnel on board. No replies or reports were received
as a result of this dispatch.
"In view of the condition of the sea, the careful search which was made and the
fact that there were no other Islands except Iwo Jima in the near vincinity, the Commanding
Officer is of the opinion that all those reported missing at the time have lost their lives
and he feels that in view of this it is advisable to so inform the next of kin.
"Regarding the Island of Iwo Jima, the incident occurred approximately 25 miles
east of the island. Had any survivors reached that point they would have been taken
prisoners by the Japanese who controlled the major part of the island at that time, or
they would have been picked up by the Marines on the other beaches. In either case, their
presence would have become known by this time."
There are some incidents which I haven't mentioned which may be of interest in a
narrative of this sort and the uses to which it may be put. There were many acts of
heroism. The whole thing was a trajic incident, but the American spirit in many cases
came to fore and even when things are as serious as they were at this time the buoyant
spirit of an American will come to the fore and be a saving feature which will bolster
up the spirits of others who are at the time in difficult circumstances. This happened
I'd like to talk a little more about the men in the water. As described, they
were on rafts and all of them had life belts, but the tremendous seas drowned a large
number. Some of them alongside the ship were also injured by parts of the ship falling
off near the stern. The Disbursing Officer was injured in this way, the gun sponsons on
the flight deck after the third explosion just fell off into the sea and a number of
personnel were struck by these parts.
The men in the water naturally drew together to form as large groups as
possible and this assisted the recovery vessels. Many of the men, when they saw others
in difficulty, would swim away from the rafts and help them or help them to get to a raft.
Even so, unfamiliarity with the conditions, cold water, the darkness, and the rough seas
combined to create panic in some and those who became panicky in almost every case drowned.
The crews of the recovery vessels were heroic. I was on the EDMONDS and witnessed
many men jump from the ship into the water to assist people who didn't have strength
enough to hold onto the lines alongside the ship or the cargo nets which were put over the
side to form ladders on which they could climb from the water to the deck.
There is one case on the ship which I think is of interest. We had a lookout
named Montoys, a Mexican boy who was one of our best lookouts. He was up on the
searchlight platform at the time we abandoned the ship and this platform is about 80
feet above the water. He heard the word abandon ship and adoubtedly when he looked down
he didn't care for the idea of climbing all the way down the deck, a large part of which
was ablaze at the time. So, Montoys climed to the rail of the searchlight platform,
poised himself and did a beautiful swan dive into the night and into the sea which was 80
feet below. His dive was outlined in the glare of the fire and people who saw it said it
was a beautiful exhibition of diving and courage.
I have already mentioned the incident of the Assistant Navigator, Lieutenant Blake,
offering his life belt to the Commanding Officer. It wasn't necessary to accept this
wonderful gesture because those life belts can be blown up by mouth and after I got into
the water I swam over to a carpenter's mate who was nearby and told him that my life belt
wasn't inflated and would he mind blowing it up for me while I swam around, which he did.
And then the two of us formed sort of a team and visited various men who apparently were
in trouble and we found that we could help them considerably by encouraging them and
calming them down. This was done in several cases. One man we got and towed him over to
a life raft and the people on the raft took care of him after he got there.
We ran into another chap who was having great difficulty and the two of us just
swam near him and talked to him and encouraged him until he had completely recovered
himself and when he saw the destroyer come near, he struck out and swam to that destroyer
without any difficulty and, as a matter of fact, he offered to tow me over.
When he offered to tow me over he started swimming and in doing so kicked me in
the side. This didn't hurt at all but he looked back and said, "Oh, I beg your pardon,"
and then he recognized me and he said, "Oh my God, it's the Captain."
I'd like to talk a little bit about onr Navigator who was a very fine individual
as you will see from this little incident. When we went down to abandon ship the third
explosion remided us that we had better get over the side quickly; all the men had
already gone. I told the Navigator to go down the line which was there for the purpose
and the Navigator said, "Oh, no, after you, Sir." And I said, "No, you'd better get down
there now, Gus." And he came back and said, "Oh, I'd much prefer that you go first."
Well, it was necessary for me to remind him that I was supposed to be the last one off the
ship and that we should get going quickly, and we shouldn't stand on ceremony, whereby,
under orders, the Navigator went down the line first.
When he got in the water he was buffed about quite a bit and when he arrived
alongside the destroyer, he was suffering from fatigue. He was not a strong man
physically but he had indomitable courage. He missed the cargo net alongside and as he
went by he called to a man on the deck and said, "You up there, throw me a line because
I'm very weak." The man on deck said, "All right, we'll get a line to you." The
Navigator said, "Well, please get me a line right away because I'm sure I'm drowning."
He was. He was recovered as you'll later see. Well, then the next thing the boy on the
deck said, "Oh, no, you won't drown," and the Navigator said, "Oh, yes, I will. You must
throw me a line immediately! Drop that line to me!" So the boy on deck threw the line
down and the Navigator grasped it but he didn't have strength to pull himself up so the
boy on deck jumped into the water and secured the line around him. Then other men
assisted in pulling them both up to the deck.
After he got aboard it took about 15 or 20 minutes for him to become a little bit
rested and during this period he was given some stimulants to warm him up and to increase
his circulation and to make him feel better in general. After this the Commanding Officer
had occasion to send for him and in the meantime the Navigator had borrowed a knitted
seaman's cap, which he wore, and he was very thinly clad, I think he only had underwear on
at this time, he had shed most of his clothes in the water and a few minutes after I sent
the message down that I'd like to see him on the bridge, he appeared there and this is
what the Captain saw: As he came up the ladder I saw furst the his knitted cap and then
his face rather drawn, with these large eyes staring at me, with these large eyes staring
at me, around his shoulders he clutched a white blanket holding it very tight around his
throat and as I looked at him I saw that the one or two drinks that they had given him
had made him thoroughly intoxicated. And he came up close to me and looked me right in
the eye and with this, with a comical, serious expression he said, "Captain, did you
send for me?"
Another incident which I think is interesting is that of a Chinese radioman named
Lee. He was about 25 or 26 years old, a naturalized American he was born in San Francisco,
and he was one of our best radiomen. He found himself in the water and he couldn't swim,
and in his case one side of his life belt did not inflate and as he told me it let him
down in the water right up to his eyes. He said, "I realized that things weren't going
so well and I remembered a picture I'd seen in a magazine of a man using his trousers for
a life belt or for flotation, so I took off my trowsers, tied the lower ends of them with
knots, put them back over my head and swung them threw the air, filled them with air and
used that to hold myself up until I got near somebody who helped me get to a raft."
Another incident is that of the Chaplain, Chaplain Shannon, one of the finest men
it has ever been my experince to know. The Chaplain was undoubtedly injured in someway
and the man on the life rafts saw this and they put him up on the life raft. He was
having difficulty in staying on the raft but many times during the time they were in the
water when the men became a little panicky, one or two of them, he would rise up and calm
them by talking to them even though he was seriously injured in some way. The extent or
nature of his injuries have not become known, because after the trip from the ship to
the DE, he died just as he stepped on board the ship and undoubtedly he was dying at the
time, but he roused himself sufficiently to encourage the men whenever they needed it
during this time. Chaplain Shannon was one of the outstanding men in the Chaplain Corps.
As a result of the loss of the Chaplain there was no one to read a burial service
and the following morning, while we were still in the area, I read the Naval Burial Service
for the benefit of those who had lost their lives.
After we were recovered by the destroyers and had searched the area the following
morning the ships having survivors on board proceeded into Iwo Jima where there were
transports lying off the beach and we were transferred to these transports where we
remained for the next three days until some of them were ready to depart.
During this time the men in the crew of the transports did everything in their
power to make the survivors comfortable just as the people on the recovery ships had done
and all hands became somewhat rested and had a grand stand seat for a considerable
portion of the Iwo Jima Battle. As a matter of fact I was on the bridge and saw the
raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi. When this occurred the word was passed on all
the ships by loud speaker sytems that the Stars and Stripes were now flying over
"Hot Rocks," which was the code name for Mount Suribachi. When that word was passed
everybody looked up there and sure enough there was the flag and a tremendous cheer
was heard across the water which was carried from ship to ship.
In closing this interview I would like to say a word about the operations of the
ship in the campaigns at Loyte, Luzon and Iwo Jima. Our pilots were engaged in support
of the landings at Luzon and Iwo Jima also. Their job was to protect our troops and to
take out enemy gun emplacements and any other interference which the Japs were creating
on the ground. During the Luzon and the Iwo Jima operations we had approximately
41 pilots on board. It would take too long to sum up all they did, but this can be
generalized when I say that out of the 41, 39 of those lads earned Distingished Flying
Crosses during this period.
Thank you very much, Captain Pratt.
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