The Ship - All Hands - Decorations - Remembrance
Captain Bernard W. Peterson USMCR (Ret) joined the Navy in February 1941, at age 17. After attending Aviation Machinist Mate School in San Diego, he joined Torpedo Squadron Three. After deployments with Saratoga CV-3 and Yorktown CV-5, VT-3 joined Enterprise in July 1942, supporting the American landings on Guadalcanal, 7-8 August 1942. On 24 August 1942, Enterprise and Saratoga exchanged blows with a powerful Japanese carrier force, and Enterprise sustained severe damage from three bomb hits received during an intense dive-bombing attack. As he explains, then-AMM 2/c Peterson put his gunnery skills to good use during the battle.
For all the combat the Big E had engaged in since the war began eight months previously, she had not been seriously damaged until this day at 1714, when suddenly a Val's 1,000 pounder penetrated 42 feet inside her, entering the forward starboard corner of the aft elevator, bulging the steel flight deck two feet and leaving a 24-foot crater in it. Below decks were 35 dead sailors, made up of repair party, elevator pump room people and ammo handlers. Cables shorted, and fire and smoke spread everywhere. Within 30 seconds a second bomb struck within 15 feet of the first. This one, an instantaneous fused bomb, did far more damage in the flight deck area, killing 39 men near the starboard quarter, where most of our guns were destroyed along with their crews. Two of this number were their officers, Lt(jg) Bill Williamson, and Ens. J. H. Eversole who had just reported three days previously, coming over by high line. They were scorched black statues of sailors - sitting, standing and still passing the ammunition. Since I had known about a dozen of the gun crew, I was crushed with grief and felt like weeping and throwing up all at the same time.
With this and other gun gallery casualties, about 25 percent of our AA was out of commission. As I looked around at the carnage on the flight deck and examined the two foot bulge near the elevator, I almost tripped over a sailor pulling himself over to the edge, where he went over the side. His right leg was torn off and lying about 20 feet away.
Meanwhile, the near misses were lifting the Big E and throwing it around like a toy boat in a bathtub. The Captain's frantic maneuvering at 27 knots caused the giant aircraft carrier to vibrate beyond belief. Our eyeballs and insides actually shook in resonance with the vibration. The sights, sounds, smells and noise were unimaginable. Still making 27 knots, weaving, twisting and turning violently, while the men fought fires with some ruptured fire hoses, the third bomb hit us in the number two elevator's starboard after corner. Fortunately, a low-yield 500-pound dud, it did little more than leave a ten-foot hole in the flight deck and knock number two elevator out of action.
It was difficult to differentiate a bomb hit from a salvo from our own five-inch guns. There was no mistaking a bomb hit, though, because of the concussion, blast, yellow flash and acrid odor, hearing the ripping effect, and suddenly seeing daylight where there had been flight deck moments before.
... Chief Joe Mortz hollered at me and some others to get away from the open, exposed center section of the hangar deck - if we took a bomb through the flight and hangar decks, there was a good chance that the hangar deck would buckle. I can't for the life of me figure out how Joe had that foresight, but seconds later a bomb did come down through both decks, just missing us by about 20 feet, and exploding several decks below ours. The explosion humped the entire aft portion of the hangar deck. Some men were blown clear up to the overhead and killed. About a half dozen of us whom Joe had forced over against the bulkhead and hangar deck's edge were blown up in the air too, but with less force, and we came down on top of some of the other bodies, which cushioned our fall. We suffered from some flash burns and shrapnel wounds but still ran on up to the flight deck where we could watch the Japanese Val dive bombers coming straight down at us in an unbroken chain.
Over the preceding weeks I had become friendly with a 20mm gun crew, located on the starboard side of the island on the flight deck level. There were very few places where aircraft mechanics could stow their tool boxes safely out of the way of the aircraft flight operations. The 20mm gun station provided me with that safe storage area. The gun crew went along with it, although it somewhat crowded them. The five-member team knew I also qualified as an aircrewman on the TBF's .50 caliber turret and tail stinger .30 caliber. During their practice firing at target sleeves pulled by an aircraft or at large weather balloons released for their shooting practice, I had stood close by, watching their every move. So during the Vals' dive-bombing attack on the Enterprise, I was a natural as a replacement for a sailor gunner who had gotten wounded in the eye. Our planes were airborne, off to attack the Japanese surface forces, and I had no other real general quarters duties.
A Jap Val with its bomb still aboard was struck by a 20mm round. The bomb aboard the diving plane exploded just above Sky Lookout Forward and slivers of the bomb and parts of the vaporized Val rained down on the tiny exposed lookouts and on some of the 20mm gunners close by.
The gun crew saw me running up to place myself close to the island. Someone yelled, "Hey, Pete, come here, we need you! Jim's been hit!" Seconds later I was helped into the shoulder harness that made me one with that big, hot, smoking gun.
The thought entered my mind momentarily, "My God, this thing is four times bigger than the .50 caliber machine gun in the TBF." The ring sight was a natural, and the Vals streaming down were all zero deflection shots with no lead required. The easiest shot in the book. I pulled the trigger and the slower-than-normal (compared to the .50 caliber) rate of fire surprised me for a second, but soon I was on a Val and could see my tracers going straight into his engine cowling, and pieces tearing off just before he flamed and crashed only a couple of hundred yards off our starboard. Meanwhile, we were constantly being raked by near misses, causing giant geysers of water.
Changing the ammo cans allowed a cooling off period for the gun barrels but cost us precious seconds, missing those Vals. They were crashing and splashing all over the place, and finally I got another Val that was seen to crash. No doubt other gun crews were on this same target, but the gun gallery on the starboard quarter was out of action, all 39 dead, so our gun was the most active one nearest to them. There were loading and cooling-off delays by the other gun crews, whereas, for a few seconds duration, my tracers were the only ones seen to be making contact with the fanatical enemy.
The bombs could be seen falling just as clearly as could be. I was sure each one had my serial number etched in bold letters right on its ugly nose, but as they came closer and closer, the ones wide of their mark become more apparent and I could relax. I couldn't have been shooting for more than a couple of minutes before it was all over.
Excerpt reprinted with kind permission of Bernard Peterson. CAPT Peterson's book, "Briny To The Blue", can be ordered from the author.