This is the full text of a two-part series by Lester Sanger and his service in World War II. See the conclusion of the story next Saturday.
In July 1941 I was ordered to active duty with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, assigned to air base construction as Chief of Utilities Construction at Tyndall Field near Panama City, Fla. Several months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, I was assigned (May 1, 1942) to troop duty with the 77th Infantry Division, 302nd Combat Engineer Battalion, at Fort Jackson, S.C. From initial duty as a platoon commander, I was assigned as Commanding Officer of Company “C” and in October 1942 promoted to rank of Captain. The physical training and mental disciplining while with the 302nd Combat Engineers was the most intense of my entire career. Having experienced the hard work as a boy on the farm, the rough and tumble life as a hobo, and the two years of college wrestling, I considered myself prepared for any hardship that may come my way. After the 25 mile forced marches as a Company Commander during maneuvers in Louisiana and Texas, it was my considered opinion that this was the ultimate test of both physical and mental endurance. For this reason I cherish above all others the training with Combat Engineers.
In March 1943 I was assigned to Engineer Aviation Battalion duty at March field near Riverside, Calif. On October 11, I bade a sad farewell to my wife and two small daughters (age 4 and 1) and headed for San Francisco port of embarkation
At sea aboard the
S.S. Cape San Juan
On October 27, 1943, I shipped out of San Francisco for overseas duty as Executive Officer of the 855th Engineer Aviation Battalion, aboard the S.S. Cape San Juan, a 13,000-ton combination troop and cargo ship; there was a total of approximately 1,500 troops and auxiliary personnel aboard. Our destination was Milne Bay on the southeaster tip of New Guinea; we never arrived.
We sailed westward under the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. By the time we reached open sea and as the sun nestled below the horizon, the western sky was a beautiful crimson red – the Golden Gate Bridge and the hills of San Francisco faded into the expanding gloom of the eastern sky.
The day before we departed Frisco the headlines the San Francisco Examiner trumpeted: JAPS SUBS ROAM THE PACIFIC IN PACKS. When we reached the open sea, we discovered we were without Navy escort and without the company of any other ship. Except for the graceful flight of a few seagulls we were alone on the wide Pacific. After the third or fourth day even the seagulls had turned back and now we saw only water from horizon to horizon and the blue sky. Day after day the monotony of water gave the impression that the Earth was all water. It would be three weeks, 6,000 nautical miles and disaster at sea before we would see landfall.
On November 6th we cross the equator and peacefully sailed south and westward through the shark-infested waters of the South Pacific toward our destination. On the evening of November 10th the sea was calm and we observed many flying fish. There were the usual chores to perform aboard a troop ship and at dusk the Chaplain conducted appropriate prayer services for troops gathered on the open deck, asking God to take us safely across the wide sea to our destination; there was also much individual praying. As the evening nautical twilight slowly faded we buttoned up the ship for another quiet night at sea
Major Shinn, the Battalion Commander, and I were bunked in No. 4 cabin port side close to the center of the ship and opposite the officers’ gallery.
By now we had been at sea for two weeks and with few exceptions it was a routine made monotonous by military regulations and the circumstances of our trip. Little did we realize that this would be our last routing and monotonous retirement.
The Cape San Juan is
torpedoed and sunk
At 0530 on November 11th as we were sailing west by southwest on a straight course approximately 300 miles north of the Fiji islands a violent explosion seemed to lift the ship out of the water. It also lifted us out of our bunks, and we could hear all the pots and pans and other kitchen utensils in the galley crashing to the floor. Shinn and I exclaimed in unison: This is it! Let’s get the hell out of here! We slipped on our trousers and shoes, grabbed our shirts and staggered through the dark passage ways to the open deck aft of the cabin structure. The ship was still in motion on an erratic course. The sun had not yet peeked above the inflamed eastern horizon; it soon did. The ship’s skipper, Master W.M. Strong, had issued the order to “Take Abandon Ship stations.”
The gun crews, already at their gun stations, soon were targeting their fire at a point approximately 300 yards to the starboard and aft, their tracer rounds ricocheting off the water surface; they had spotted the sub’s periscope.
We were under attack by a Japanese submarine and were struck by a torpedo on the starboard side abreast of the No. 2 hatch. The torpedo apparently hit low as the explosion blew fuel oil all through No. 2 hatch, demolishing and flood the lower No. 2 troop deck. The hatches of the lower and upper decks were blown up and collapsed, falling down on the troops in the decks below. A distress message was sent immediately and was reportedly received.
The ship took a 20 degree starboard list and was obviously mortally damaged. The skipper, knowing that she could not survive another torpedo, gave the order to abandon ship, and ordered all secret codes and confidential matter dumped over-board. There were a great number of casualties and some dead take from hatch No. 2.
The ship was dead in the water when the abandon ship took place. At 0630 when all lifeboats, floats and rafts were away, there were some 150 to 200 personnel still aboard including gun crews, casualties, some officers (including “yours truly”), troops and the dead. Sharks were observed circling the ship and this was adequate inducement not to abandon ship with only Mae West life jackets for floatation.
At 0740 an Australian Air Force Hudson bomber arrived, circled and then departed. At 0810 there was another heavy thud against the ship’s port side.
The submarine evidently circled the ship and fired another torpedo, apparently and fortunately a dud. At 0930 the Australian bomber returned and signaled that a rescue ship was on its way.
As 1130 the rescue ship, the S.S. Edwin T Meredith, a Liberty freighter deck-loaded with construction equipment and setting low in the water, arrived and after transferring the causalities and survivors still on the Cape San Juan, proceeded to rescue men from rafts and lifeboats. I recall quite vividly the ride in the Meredith’s lifeboat from the sinking Cape San Juan to Meredith, my scramble up the cargo net hung over the side of the ship and being plopped onto the main deck Larry Waterman, our Battalion Adjutant. The Meredith rescued some 400 men including survivors from the Cape San Juan and others from the water; five of these died on board the Meredith and were buried at sea. Due to darkness and possible enemy action, the Meredith at 1850 hours had to leave the scene of the disaster including some 800 men in lifeboats and rafts and many hanging to their sides. One of my most agonizing memories of the incident was men in the water calling for help as the Meredith with safety valves blocked pulled away at maximum speed.
Under very difficult and tense circumstances the Meredith sailed southwest toward the new Hebrides Islands, taking a straight course under darkness and zig zagging during daylight. The first night on the Meredith I snuggled up against its stack to keep warm. With safety valves throttled and moving at maximum speed, I could feel the whole ship throb and quiver as she struggled mightily to put distance between here and the disaster area. For the next five days we maintained 24 hour watch from the crow’s nest, knowing with painfully certainty that if the sub caught us we had little or no chance of survival; Liberty ships were uniquely disqualified for defense against enemy submarines.
Late in the afternoon of November 15th a United States Destroyer from Suva rendez-voused with us and escorted us to New Caledonia. When the destroyer hove into view out of the fog bank that day, the feeling of joy and salvation was beyond description. For the first time in five days we had a gut feeling the odds had now tipped in our favor. We could see the guns on her deck, the depth charges perched for delivery, and we could observe her speed. The Meredith now sailed at a straight course struggling at top speed while the destroyer zig-zagged a wide course ahead of us, running interference at what appeared to be for it a leisurely pace.
We pulled into the harbor at Numea, New Caledonia late in the afternoon of November 16th. A small rag tag band on the dock was playing some familiar tune as we struggled down the gang plank and planted our feet solidly on terra firma for the first time since we departed San Francisco a wet 6,000 miles away.
After two weeks licking our wounds, tucked away in an isolated and muddy compound in the mountains of New Caledonia, we were shipped to Brisbane, Australia. We spent two months reorganizing and re-equipping our Battalion. On January 22, 1944, we boarded the China Navigation Company’s Anhui, operated by British officers and a Chinese crew. We joined a convoy of 14 ships and headed north along the Australian coast inside the Great Barrier Reef; the Anhui under command of Captain Cook was the convoy flag ship. Somewhere north of Townsville we left the shelter of the Great Barrier Reef, sailed through the Coral Sea around the tip of New Guinea and on up to the Finschaffen on the northeast coast, arriving there on February 4th.
As our convoy moved into Finsch harbor everything seemed serene and peaceful. It was a nice sunny day and troops were being fed on the main deck. Suddenly, a lone Japanese bomber, which had somehow sneaked over a range of mountains began dropping bombs on our convoy. All ships in the harbor and in our convoy unleashed their antiaircraft fire. This apparently threw the Jap’s aim off target as there were no direct bomb strikes; one dropped close enough to the ship behind us to spray it with shrapnel. The troops on deck dropped their mess kits and disappeared below deck in less time that it takes to tell it; likewise with the officers. It was a great display of fireworks, but frankly it scares the hell out of you.
We were bombed again after we went ashore that night and were bombed every night for the next two weeks. There were no serious casualties but they destroyed an oil storage depot and tore holes in the air strip. These air raids were more in the nature of harassment raids, keeping us awake at nights – for some darn reason I had trouble going back to sleep after those pesky air raids; I also toughened the soles of my feet after two weeks of running barefoot over a coral path every night to our dug-out.
Several months after arrival at Finschaffen I was promoted to Major and assigned as Chief of Utilities in the Base Engineer’s Office. During my 15 month tour at Finschaffen many interesting events occurred. The base a Finschaffen was primarily a large supply depot and staging area for troops; the base was approximately two miles wide and 45 miles long, boxed in between the sea and a precipitous mountain range.
To Manila in the Philippine Islands
In April I received orders transferring me from Finschaffen to Manila in the Philippines, as assistant to the Chief Water Supply Consultant for the Pacific Theater of Operations. The chief was Col. Jack J. Hinman a former college professor of mine; he had requested my transfer. Thus on May 11th I boarded the Matson Lines luxury line S.S. Lurline, at that time painted a war-time grey, and shipped out of Finschaffen; arrived in Manila on May 17th.
The return home
By June 1945, after almost two years overseas, I was eligible for return to continental United States for 30 days of rest and recuperation. I departed Manila on June 29th aboard the S.S. Sea Corporal and after another 25 days and 8,000 miles on the Pacific, arrived at the Sand Pedro Naval Base in southern California on July 24th. From here by train to Iowa City on July 29th. Here I joined my wife and two little daughters and proceeded to renew old acquaintances. While home on leave, the A-bombs were dropped on Japan; shortly thereafter peace was negotiated. I was ordered back to Santa Anna Air Base and mustered out of active military service – after four and a half long and arduous years of service in World War II.