YP-346 was 120 feet long, a goodly size for a tuna clipper in 1942. But compared to the smallest warship, Tregaskis said, it was “a tiny thing, with only limited supplies of stores.”
What Theodore did next astonished him. The captain gave the Marines all the grub onboard, and all the cigarettes, a rare commodity in those parts. Tregaskis developed an instant admiration for the “pink-cheeked, hearty Portuguese” man, “who told me proudly about his two li’l kids back home and the exploits of his ship.”
Theodore also impressed Tregaskis with his seamanship. The next morning, three destroyers and three YP boats headed southeast into tall, cusping whitecaps. Theodore bowed through the chop as if YP-346 were an ocean liner after all.
They could tell their target from afar. A low fog shrouded the beach — smoke from allied artillery. Sudden orange explosions belched inside now-black, now-gray clouds. Tregaskis watched “red pencil lines of shells arching through the sky.” They seemed to fall so slowly: “Distance, of course, caused the apparent slowness.”
Around noon, the task force unloaded the Marines several miles from Tasimboko. The raiders returned around sunset. They “are not the same joking men who had come aboard earlier that morning,” Battaglia wrote. They “sat around cleaning their weapons, as if they just [came] home from work. You don’t feel like you should question these men.”
But he did. “What was it like?” he asked a Marine. “His short answer was, ‘My buddy got hit, looked at me with a surprised look and said, “Burbank, they got me,”’ and fell dead. In four hours these were different men…. Twelve hours later I became one of these men.”
After discharging the Marines at a staging area near Red Beach, YP-346 received orders to return to Tulagi with a warning: A Japanese cruiser and two destroyers had been spotted. “This was our first race against enemy ships in the channel,” said Battaglia, and the “the first race we lost.”
The convoy left Guadalcanal after sundown. As they churned toward Tulagi, a tropical downpour slowed the YPs so much that the destroyers pulled far ahead and were soon out of sight. YP-346 was last in a line of three unprotected tuna clippers. Around midnight, they entered the well-defended Tulagi Harbor. The Challenger (YP-239), 300 yards in front of them, reached port safely. In another ten minutes, YP-346 would be home-free.
Then the sky flashed bright: flares and star shells popped instant illumination. A Japanese cruiser, HIJMS Sendai, followed by three destroyers, spot-lit YP-346 and began firing salvos of five-inch shells through the pouring rain.
Battaglia: “Maybe ten or 15 minutes, we had been inside the bay — no way they could have gotten us unless they had come inside the bay.”
The Sendai was too close. It couldn’t lower its large batteries enough to shoot them. So it fired anti-aircraft guns. The relentless ack-ack, said Theodore, belched “hell in all directions.”
A salvo from a destroyer rocked the magazine in the stern, where ammunition was stacked in the bait box. A mortal shiver rolled through the hull. The deck caught fire. “I think every time they shot us, they hit us,” said Theodore. Seconds later, the top of the pilothouse blew skyward.
Theodore was on the bridge. Something hit him in the back “like a ton of bricks. It knocked me flat on the deck. There was blood all over me.”
In shock, he watched the wheel shatter and his helmsman, Roy C. Parnell, fall back, dumbfounded by a bloody stump where his left arm had been.
“Abandon ship!” Theodore shouted, barely able to breathe.
Battaglia was in the engine room. A shell punched holes in the ammonia pipes, which spit out lethal gas. “It eats up all of the oxygen. It burns your eyes. You can’t see.” Had he remained below, “it would have killed me.”
As the crew dove overboard in life jackets, Theodore shouted, “Beach the ship!”
“What are you going to do?” Theodore recalled. “You have a little ship there, you can’t defend yourself. The first thing I thought of, [get] the ship away from the line of fire. I think it saved a lot of the guys.”
Ernie Lopez, boatswain’s mate first class, grabbed the wheel’s two remaining spokes. They “cut his hands to ribbons,” Theodore recalled, but Lopez shoved the throttle to full power and swung the ship toward shore.
“We lost one guy there,” said Theodore. “My electrician [Lehman], hit with a piece of shrapnel, I guess.” Theodore heard later that the man had been blown overboard and was bleeding when he hit the water. “The blood, there were a lot of sharks there…the next day we found his life jacket but never found him…so the sharks got him.”
PFC John J. Murphy, Jr., remained onboard. He went down to the engine-room-turned-powder-keg. The hissing gas now roared. When he realized the damage was permanent, Murphy climbed back up on deck.
Something spun him to the ground: shrapnel. “Although wounded,” his citation for the Navy Cross reads, Murphy “gallantly disregarded his own condition to help evacuate other injured shipmates to a dressing station ashore, following the beaching of the vessel. His conspicuous courage in a situation of grave peril was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
In pouring rain, Marines in small boats rescued survivors unable to wade ashore. They carried Gonzales to a small cave-turned-hospital. “There were some Marines that were hurt, but they figured I was hurt more…so they put them out in the rain and put me in there.”
The next night, unable to walk because the shrapnel had paralyzed him temporarily, Theodore watched along with Battaglia as a Japanese cruiser sailed into the bay.
“The guy comes along the beach,” Battaglia recalled, “and sees the Prospect, but doesn’t know it’s the ship he shot at the night before, and then he really gave it to that ship — blew it out of the water.”
The next day Theodore sailed to Pearl Harbor on a hospital craft. When a doctor “fluoroscoped” Theodore, he saw a jagged, inch-long spot close to the spine. The piece of steel was so embedded, a surgeon had to cut out Theodore’s right lung. “I’ve been living with one lung since 1942,” he told an interviewer in 1993.
Floating Target, part 1