We had been cruising off Salerno for days, back and forth, firing our guns in support of the ground troops. Remember that scene from the movie ‘Big Red One’ when Lee Marvin and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill) are hiding in the cave, and as the German tanks pass by all hell breaks loose? Well, in that movie, Lee Marvin says, Guess where that artillery came from?? The NAVY!! The USS Savannah 5 miles offshore!!” I’ve watched that movie a hundred times just to hear my ship’s name.
I have a few stories I tell about my time on the Savannah. The first one is about Seaman 1st Class Thomason. He was in our 40mm gun crew. One day, while we were cruising back and forth providing fire support, one of our aircraft (SOC) came back from artillery spotting. They got the plane back up on the catapult and locked down. Now, usually, the Ordinance officer was the first man on the plane, to make sure the guns were cleared and the safeties on, etc. Then the plane captain would go up and prep the aircraft for the next mission. Well, this time, the plane captain went up first, and pulled the prop down to check it for damage. The SOC has a .30cal. machine gun that fires through the prop arc, and when the plane captain pulled the prop through, the interrupter gear fired a single .30 cal round., which happened to be in line with our gun tub. Thomason was sitting playing solitaire by himself when the round went off. It hit him in the side of the head, blew his brains all over the place… it was stupid, never should have happened.
On September 11, 1943, we were cruising off shore preparing for a fire support mission when German bombers appeared overhead. They were at very high altitude, so we didn’t bother firing the smaller AA at them. In the past, we’d watch them drop their bombs, and once they were falling, the captain would change course or increase speed, and they’d miss. We also had friendly fighters in the area so we figured that we were ok. So we’re all at our guns stations, sitting around. We had one kid in the gun crew, his name was Douglas Centers, got real nervous when the bombs starting falling and the bigger AA guns starting going off. He lied about his age when joined up, and convinced his mother to sign the papers and he joined up at 16. Once the Navy found out, he had already turned 17 so they allowed him to stay in. Centers kept telling the Chief he was sick, he needed to go below, and we kept telling him, ’Just relax, you’ll be fine’. He persisted and the Chief finally got tired of his whining, so he went to the gun Captain, who gave him permission to go below to the forward sick bay. He left. About 5 minutes later, the bomb hit, and everyone in the forward sick bay, including Centers, was killed. If he’d only listened to us, he’d have survived.
We had another guy on board, Emmanuel Blankenship, who was aboard the USS Pennsylvania during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was one of the ‘old salts’ at 21 because he’d been in the Navy since before the war. He was killed when the bomb hit.
The bomb impact was initially a huge crash, followed seconds later by a massive explosion that lifted the ship right out of the water, and knocked everyone to the deck. The bomb passed through the turret top, killed everyone inside, and exploded at the keel, blowing the bottom of the ship out and causing a huge geyser of water and debris to come out the port side a little forward of the bridge. It covered us with water, and almost immediately smoke started pouring from the hole in the turret. We all figured the magazine would explode at any second, but it didn’t. When the bomb exploded it blew out the keel directly under the magazine, and the water flooded the magazine before it had a chance to go off.
The explosion blew open both the #2 and #1 magazines forward, and killed most everyone in the bow forward of the #3 turret. There were a few exceptions, and there were some guys that were trapped in compartments that we couldn’t get to because they were surrounded by water on 3 or 4 sides. Once the #3 magazine exploded, the blast continued to travel towards the bow. Almost everyone forward of the boiler room that were below deck were killed. There were 4 sailors trapped in the Auxiliary Radio Room, 2 men that got out of the #2 turret, and 5 or or 6 guys that escaped the #1 turret. One of the men who got out of the #2 turret held the hatch open for his brother. They argued about who should go first and the one holding the hatch was killed. The men in the magazines were killed by blast and concussion. Most of those killed in the turrets died from lethal gas caused by the exploding powder.
Since I was one of the small guys, I was lowered into the hole on top of turret 3 to inspect the damage and look for survivors. Once we got the turret opened up, of course, no one was left, only some pieces and charred remains. I was part of the crew that went below, again, because I was little and could squeeze into places most couldn’t.
The ship had a 30 foot hole in the side of her hull, and we didn’t know what kind of damage the keel had received until after we’d put in to drydock at Malta. We found out that most of the keel in the bow was gone, and we had a 25 foot split in the side of the hull.
Our captain, Capt. Cary, was one hell of a guy. He had gotten the Medal of Honor in 1914 or 1915 (couldn’t remember) aboard the USS San Diego. There was a boiler explosion, and he went in and dragged guys out.
He refused to abandon the ship, partially because he knew there were still men trapped below decks. After we got back to the States, most of us were transferred to new ships since Savannah had to be rebuilt. A few of us got word that Capt. Cary was in the Navy hospital in Newport Rhode Island, which is where we were heading to meet our new ship, the Vicksburg.
Capt. Cary had seen a lot of combat, and he blamed himself for what happened to Savannah. Apparently, he went into the hospital for combat fatigue, because he got off the ship at Algiers and was sent stateside while we repaired the ship to her back across the Atlantic. He was in for quite awhile, because we were hit in September, and I didn’t get to Vickburg until January of ’44.
Now in those days, ordinary sailors didn’t go around paying officers visits, but we loved this guy, he was a sailor’s sailor. The Pharmacist’s Mate at the desk refused to let us see the Captain, so one of the guys I was with started raising a ruckus. Eventually, we convinced a Lieutenant to order the Pharmacist’s Mate to phone up to the room and ask if he’d see us. When the Captain asked who wanted to see him, we said, ‘His boys from the Savannah’ and ordered us up to see him. When we got to his room, he was sitting up in bed, and greeted us all individually. We thanked him for everything and told him we’d serve under his command any day, and he thanked each of us individually, even asking our first names. He said he was proud of us, and how we fought to save his ship. He was really emotional when we told him that he was the best skipper we'd ever had. In fact, he had tears in his eyes. It was really an emotional scene.