USS BISMARCK SEA (CV-95)

Captain John L. Pratt, USN DCA - America First
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DECLASSIFIED

Recorded: 22 March 1945

Narrative by:   Captain John L. Pratt, USN
                     Sinking of the USS BISMARCK SEA off Iwo Jima.

 

Captain Wright:

          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.

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 50 minutes.

          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 had drowned.

          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 repeatedly.

          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.

Captain Wright:

          Thank you very much, Captain Pratt.

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