Four or five times a day, Sherrod saw Kiefer, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and formerly the executive officer on the USS Yorktown, get on the bullhorn and plead with his flight-deck crew to hurry up or “that admiral over there will give me hell.” When the Ticonderoga, an Essex-class carrier, passed through the Panama Canal in September 1943, the captain, a veteran of the Coral Sea and Midway battles, saw to it that nearly all of his 3,000-member crew—chiefly young men from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and South Boston—received shore liberty at either the canal’s entrance or exit. “Some had to be carried aboard,” said Sherrod, “but every man made it back to the ship.”
For his part, the captain, who wore a helmet with “Dixie” boldly stenciled on it, had two main distractions—a $200 guitar on which he played (badly, Sherrod reported) such songs as “Ida” and “Nobody’s Sweetheart Now,” and cribbage, which he played with great intensity against Commander Herbert S. Fulmer Jr., the ship’s gunnery officer. “I have such a good time on this ship I ought not to take money for running it,” Kiefer told Sherrod.
Although while Sherrod was aboard the Ticonderoga foul weather plagued its operations, carrier planes from the ship, part of Task Force 38 under the overall command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, destroyed about 450 Japanese planes stationed at airfields on Luzon in the Philippines and on the island of Formosa. Sherrod was still on the carrier when it retired from the fighting with other ships of the task force to refuel. “There had been reports of an approaching typhoon; however, most of the Fleet’s aerologists had charted it considerably farther east,” Sherrod said. “Then the storm began to veer erratically toward the task force. We could see that we were in for a typhoon of savage ferocity.”
Larger ships such as the Tinconderoga survived the storm with limited damage. Sherrod said the carrier suffered only smashed catwalks off the flight deck that were easily repaired. “The smaller ships,” he said, “bore the brunt of the savage counterclockwise storm.” Three destroyers—the USS Spence, Hull, and Monaghan—capsized and sank. Out of crews totaling 800 men, only eighty-four survived. “Most of the survivors hung grimly onto their life rafts . . . watching their comrades washed off and under, powerless to do anything about it,” said Sherrod. “Some survivors spent as much as 52 hours in the water with nothing more than kapok jackets and life rings to keep them afloat.”
The storm’s survivors had horrific tales to share with Sherrod about their ordeal. Those men wracked with thirst and who had unwisely ingested sea water would “foam at the mouth, a kind of cream-colored foam, and their tongues would curl, and swell up in their mouths and their lips turn inside out,” said Seaman Doil Carpenter from the Monaghan. Three men from the Spence, who were in the water for fifty-two hours before being rescued, were among a group of five who found themselves drifting separately and decided to tie themselves together around a life ring.
David Moore, an African American steward first class who had been in the navy for nine years, told the correspondent that the men tried “very hard not to drink any salt water,” but one of the eventual survivors had quite a bit and started hallucinating. “He talked about seeing a Japanese girl bringing him some water,” Moore said. “When I told him not to get discouraged, that people could go seven days without food or water, he said if he had a chocolate éclair and a glass of milk he could go longer than that.”
Hallucinations were common among those drifting in the sea after the typhoon, said Sherrod. One man dreamed that he had been rescued by a Russian submarine and remembered thinking to himself that he could understand what people around him were saying, and “that’s funny because I can’t speak Russian.” A lieutenant junior grade from the Hull, even after his rescue, said Sherrod, kept asking if he was on a Japanese or American ship. “He would be told but would ask again,” he noted. Lieutenant Edwin B. Brooks Jr., the Hull’s assistant communications officer, told the correspondent that he remembered believing he had been taken prisoner by Japanese general Masaharu Homma. “Is there a General Homma?” Brooks asked Sherrod. He said there was; Brooks responded, “I swear I don’t think I ever heard of him.”
The most remarkable account of survival involved a nineteen-year-old sailor from the Hull, Nicholas Nagurney. Suffering from delusions, he had swum away from his life raft and tried to see just how deep the ocean might be (five miles down where he was, noted Sherrod). While Nagurney was away from the raft, a shark bit the sailor on the right forearm, tearing off a piece of flesh four-inches square, but less than a half-inch deep. “I don’t remember feeling it when he bit me, but I remember he was about eight feet long!” said Nagurney, who made it safely back to his raft. One of the other men on the raft, which was equipped with a medical kit, bandaged the injured sailor’s arm.
Unfortunately for Nagurney, there were more injuries to come. An officer on the raft had become delirious with thirst and had taken a mouthful of seawater. “The alert Nagurney pounced on him, rammed his finger down the officer’s throat to make him vomit,” said Sherrod. The officer bit his would-be savior’s finger. “I guess I’m the only guy that’s ever been bit by a shark and an officer the same day,” Nagurney said.
When he had arrived in the Pacific in early December 1944, Sherrod said the navy talked about the kamikazes, who they called “green hornets,” to the exclusion of almost everything else. Scuttlebutt among the sailors had it that the suicide pilots were supposed to be clad in white robes, yellow and green tights, or black hoods, and some were allegedly manacled to their cockpits. “Nothing could have been more awesome than to see a human being diving himself and his machine into the enemy; nobody except the Japanese could have combined such medieval religious fervor with a machine as modern as the airplane,” Sherrod said. The kamikazes’ potential as a “force to destroy the Navy caused great concern,” he added.
Sherrod said that when he had visited Nimitz at Pearl Harbor before returning to the Pacific war, the admiral told him that the navy did not want “the Japanese to know how effective their suicide planes have been.” By the middle of December, kamikazes had been responsible for sinking fourteen ships and damaging another fifty, including five large carriers. A wild-eyed navy lieutenant, speaking to Sherrod about the new Japanese threat, asked the correspondent: “Are we going to have to kill them all?”
On January 12, 1945, pilots from the Essex and other carriers conducted the first carrier-based naval air strike against French Indochina, hitting Japanese airfields, shipping, and shore installations from Camranh Bay to Saigon Harbor. The day before the mission, Admiral Halsey sent a message to his ships: “We may have a golden opportunity tomorrow to completely annihilate an important enemy force. You all know that is what I expect of you. Give them hell. God bless you all. Halsey.”
Sherrod wrote his wife, Betty, that once the task force made it to Asia, he “could not resist an opportunity to see what it looked like—I had never seen Asia.” He went on to attempt to allay any fears she might have regarding his safety, noting he had “picked a nice safe flight—almost as safe as flying from LaGuardia Field [in New York] to Washington [D.C.]—and there was very little antiaircraft fire. All the Jap planes had been knocked out in the morning, so there was almost no opposition. However, I do not expect to go on any more bombing raids. I’ll stay on the deck—or the ground—from now on.”
The correspondent had a “grandstand seat” for the action, as the weather, which had been “mostly miserable” for the past three weeks, had improved just in time for the day’s mission. “I could see the bombers and strafing planes as they made their runs and watch the ships and oil storage tanks as they caught fire,” he wrote his wife. “Saigon looked like an interesting place . . . I would like to go back and see what it looks like from the ground. If I revisit all the places I have seen under wartime conditions we’ll have quite a bit of traveling to do after the war.”
While Sherrod peered through his aircraft’s window trying to catch a glimpse of Saigon, he felt the plane tilt sharply as Trexler started to dive toward his target—cargo ships in the harbor. Dropping his bombs was not enough for the pilot, however, as Sherrod noted his aircraft also strafed the target area, a task usually left to the fighters. “I asked Trexler later what tempted him into this strafing mission and he grinned: ‘There was a little cutter trying his damndest to make it under that bridge and I wanted to nail him before he got there. I burned him all right,’” Sherrod reported.
Task Force 38, however, did not escape Asia unharmed. On January 21, as the warships sailed out of the South China Sea southeast of Formosa, Japanese kamikaze pilots struck. On the Essex Sherrod had just sat down to eat “noon chow” when he heard the ship’s five-inch guns firing and the bell clanging signaling general quarters. When he made it topside, the correspondent could see smoke billowing 300 feet into the air. “Seven [enemy] planes had sneaked through. Six were shot down but the seventh crashed through the Ti’s flight deck. She was badly hit,” said Sherrod.
As the fires were about to be put under control by damage-control teams, a second kamikaze hit the Ticonderoga, with the Japanese pilot pulling up at the last moment to hit the ship’s bridge. “She is still shooting, but she is going to sink sure as hell,” an officer on the Essex standing beside him said to Sherrod.
Two actions probably helped save the carrier, said Sherrod. A sailor in hangar-deck control who had been knocked down by the blasts managed to crawl through the ship’s twisted steel and turned on its sprinkler system, and Captain Kiefer, although seriously wounded, ordered the ship’s ballast shifted to make a ten-degree list to port so the flaming gasoline ran off its hangar deck into the sea. Then Kiefer changed course so that the wind blew the flames away from the Ticonderoga.
The carrier lost 143 men killed or missing and 202 wounded—the worst kamikaze casualties up to that time in the Pacific War. “Most of the victims were men I had come to know and like during the month I had spent on the Ti,” Sherrod said. Kiefer, his right arm mangled and his body punctured by sixty-five small-bomb-fragment wounds, had lain on a mattress on the bridge for eleven hours fighting to save his ship and crew. “A severed artery in his neck was held together for a while by a seaman to whom Kiefer said: ‘I’m sorry I had to bust you.’ Dixie had reduced him to seaman from petty officer a few days before,” said Sherrod.
Before being carried off the Ticonderoga to the hospital ship USS Bountiful, Kiefer, noted the correspondent, called for a bullhorn and spoke to his surviving crew, who cheered him after he announced: “I’m proud of you men of the Ticonderoga, you lived up to my fondest expectations.”
Sherrod’s harrowing experience on the Ticonderoga and Essex remained out of the gaze of the public eye for some time, as the navy had imposed a ban on any mention of the kamikazes for six months. “In our news stories we simply had to ignore one of the most lurid stories of the war, or of any war,” said Sherrod.
On April 13, 1945, Nimitz finally removed the restriction, but news of the kamikaze’s existence and ability to damage the American fleet had little news value at the time, as the admiral issued his statement a half hour after reporters learned that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died—news that dominated the headlines.
Sherrod’s article on the Ticonderoga’s struggle and the bravery of its captain and crew did not make it into Time until July 23, 1945. Transmitting his dispatches from the carriers had not been easy for Sherrod, and he complained to his wife that there “were not enough range of subjects,” especially given the restrictions about the kamikazes and Nimitz’s reluctance to allow correspondents to focus stories on individual captains.
“When I am on land I can always go somewhere else until I find copy, but on a ship it is very easy to write out the subjects and the spot news, then to sit around for days or weeks with little to justify my being sent out here,” Sherrod wrote. “I have now been on 24 ships since the war began. I do not believe I have got as many stories out of the 24—I mean good, solid stories—as I got out of the one battle of Saipan.”
Having earned a reputation for “finding and spotting the news,” Sherrod resolved to keep his good name intact and avoid becoming a “communiqué commando” who wrote about war far away from the frontlines. “Whoever wrote that nothing is certain in war knew what he was talking about,” he said.