JUST RELEASED: “The Heroes of Guadalcanal” in Combat Ships, S4, E4 on the Smithsonian Channel (can be viewed with a 24-hour free pass).

My brother in Christ, now with the LORD, Jack Bennett’s role in that battle, was used as background and a brief quote as told to JDW in No Time to Waste, Chapter 4. I’m delighted to have played a small part in telling this amazing story of God’s grace to a wider audience.

“… the whole team thanks you for allowing use of Jack’s quotes in the episode – to hear of what it was like to be there in such a vivid way will make a big impact on how we can present the events.”–Woodcut Media
London, UK

Excerpt from No Time to Waste, beginning page 32:

On the afternoon of November 12, 1942, Lieutenant (j.g.) “Jack” Bennett, just twenty-one months out of Annapolis and a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack, stood amidst the awful din on the aft deck of the heavy cruiser, the USS San Francisco (CA-38) controlling the automatic (anti-aircraft) weapons fire—the same guns he commanded at Pearl Harbor. The heavy cruiser, at 186 yards long and 21 yards wide, the next biggest weapons platform after a battleship, was a plump broadside bulls-eye for twenty-one attacking Japanese torpedo bombers.

The San Francisco was the flagship—the commanding ship with Admiral Dan Callaghan aboard—of a small, weary task force now made up of five cruisers and eight destroyers. Like a dead duck falling into a blind filled with blazing guns, an enemy plane crashed into the San Francisco’s after superstructure thirty feet from Jack. Its wingtip flew through the air like a spinning razor blade, clipping his elbow and spinning him like a top. A major fire ensued with burned bodies and charred body parts scattered grotesquely around the gun platform. Twenty-one San Francisco crewmen died helping shoot down twenty Japanese planes.

The battered task force licked its wounds and wearily took its position to defend against the “Tokyo Express,” a Japanese fleet that nightly shelled the Marines on Guadalcanal. Later that night, with his bloodied but unbroken left arm in a sling, Jack reported for duty on the bridge as Officer of the Deck. He overheard the distraught ship’s new skipper, Captain Cassin Young, conferring with Admiral Callaghan about the pending night battle against an alarmingly larger Japanese force steaming their way. It included two battleships, the fearsome scourge of the seas, one cruiser, and twelve destroyers enroute to bombard Henderson Field. Radar was new and rudimentary in those days, and only the U.S. had it, but it was good enough to identify the two big battleships out there in the dark to the northwest before the smaller ships even popped over the horizon and onto their cathode ray screens.

“But that is suicide, Sir,” Caption Young said.

“We have no choice, Captain,” replied Admiral Callaghan.
The Admiral looked toward Jack as he entered the bridge, smiled in recognition and greeted him. Callaghan was a basketball fan and Jack had been the player/coach of a winning team under his command stationed in Pearl Harbor in the months before the Japanese attack.

As they talked Captain Young noted Jack’s elbow was bleeding through his sling and ordered him below, proclaiming him incapacitated for duty. After putting up all the resistance a junior officer dared, Jack obeyed to the letter—he went below but he did not stay below. If this was a suicidal charge, he was determined not to drown in his bunk. He made one lap around his tiny room and reported to the Gunnery Officer to request a new battle station, sticking his head just far enough through the door to talk while keeping his sling hidden from view. He was assigned automatic weapons control aft on the fantail.

Just after midnight the task force passed through Sealark Channel in column formation and ran head-on into a surprised Japanese battle group, also in column formation with a smaller protective column on each side of the battleship column. The San Francisco led the charge right up through middle of Japanese battle group. Out of the darkness the enemy’s searchlights blinked on, pointed right between Jack’s eyes—the one-second warning that his ship was in the crosshairs of two of the greatest concentrations of firepower afloat. It was a broadside free-for-all slugfest in utter chaos at pointblank range for twenty-eight brawling behemoths in a sea made too small by surrounding islands.

The San Francisco’s three triple-mounted eight-inch gun turrets, sometimes firing in nearly opposite directions simultaneously, and assorted smaller weaponry were a poor match for the eight fourteen-inch guns of the two Japanese battleships. The Marines ashore stopped fighting to watch and listen in awe as star shells bursting overhead momentarily illuminated the ships like midday followed by pitch-blackness. The blinding cycle continued while multiple fiery red arcs of tracers crisscrossed the night sky and the ship vibrated like a tuning fork from the thunderous blast of its own guns.

The impact of enemy projectiles nearby spewed lethal white-hot shards of jagged metal through the air like sparks from a spinning grindstone, enveloping Jack but leaving him miraculously unscathed. Gunners in the turrets bled through their ears from the frightful cacophony and concussion of incoming and outgoing, leaving no remembrance of sounds a half-century later…only an indelible silent 3-D horror movie. Jack directed his gun batteries while tending to dead and wounded all about him. He saw a sailor’s legs protruding from under a pile of smoldering scrap metal, but when he tugged on them he found no torso attached. He knelt to give a wounded sailor a shot of morphine and was knocked flat by the blast of the San Francisco’s eight inch guns depressed so low they would have decapitated him had he still been standing. As he lay there stunned he saw a half-cantaloupe two feet from his eyes. When his vision cleared he realized it was the top half of a human head.

With his guns all wiped out Jack organized a crew of volunteers to fight a raging fire in the ship’s hanger. They drug a fire hose from outside gun turret # 3, that was still firing at the enemy, into the inferno where 400-pound depth charge bombs were in imminent danger of cooking off. Of all the indelible visual scenes vividly recalled by Jack, the most powerful sensual recollection that remained with him for life was the indescribably pungent odor of burning human flesh. But above it all was an awareness of an inner peace at ground zero of hell in a sea too small. It haunted him for 55 years thereafter.

When the shooting stopped all of Jack’s guns were out of commission and the San Francisco’s deck was a blazing junkyard with survivors frantically fighting fires. Eighty-six sailors perished on the deck alone, including a third of Jack’s gun crews.

With no more star shells bursting or searchlights sweeping the area, everything beyond the San Francisco’s gunwales was inky blackness. Without a visual reference Jack sensed the ship was sailing in lazy circles. He struggled to the bridge he had been ordered to leave a few hours earlier. Enroute he stumbled over a sailor tending to a man propped against the bulkhead breathing his last—Captain Cassin Young. The bridge was destroyed and the admiral and senior battle staff were dead. With Jack’s help Lieutenant Commander Bruce McCandless, also wounded, the lone survivor on the bridge, managed to jury rig a control system from the conning tower. A single sound powered telephone line connected them with the quartermaster at the wheel in the number four steering station, below the flooded marine compartment, the other three having been wiped out. With no compasses working Jack repeatedly shouted steering directions—“10 degrees right rudder…5 degrees left rudder,” to a quartermaster fighting to stay conscious at the wheel in the smoke-filled steering station.

With all radios out of commission a Morse code message was flashed to the cruiser Helena with a 5-cell flashlight, informing her to assume command of the decimated task force. McCandless then left Jack in charge and went to search for whoever had succeeded to command. He never returned the rest of the night.

Jack put the San Francisco into formation behind the relatively unscathed Helena. It was difficult keeping track of the Helena on a dark night through the small observation slits in the conning tower, so he stood just outside and called his orders back to Rogers, the phone man, who remained inside, who then repeated them to a groggy Quartermaster Higdon below at the wheel.

While he was squinting at the vague black shape ahead and adjusting course as necessary, Jack’s roommate, Dick Marquardt, shouted down from his superior vantage point in his battle station in Sky Forward, “You’re about to run aground on Malaita.” The Helena shape had merged with that island and when she changed course to the right, upon entering Indispensable Strait, the island masked it and Jack was unable to detect it, still “following” the island.

He instantly ordered full right rudder, the San Francisco swung to the right and disaster was averted. The cloying aroma of Guadalcanal’s bountiful gardenias proclaimed the benediction of their deliverance.
Dawn found ten ships at the bottom of the sound, one cruiser and four destroyers from each side, and 1800 American sailors, including two Admirals, were dead. A Japanese battleship lay dead in the water (to be sunk a few hours later by Navy aircraft), the other was damaged and the rest of the force withdrew. The enemy attack had been repulsed, but at a catastrophic cost.

Two providential circumstances explained the San Francisco’s survival. She had taken forty-five major caliber hits, including twelve fourteen-inch shells, and innumerable smaller hits, but they were all high explosive incendiary projectiles, not armor piercing, because the enemy force was prepared to bombard the Marines at Henderson Field. And she was still afloat, though barely recognizable, because she had sailed so close to the enemy battleships they could not depress their big guns low enough to put holes in her hull at the waterline. In fact some Japanese shells hit other Japanese ships on the opposite side of the American column.

Three battle-damaged cruisers and three destroyers, all that was left of the task force, limped for safe haven in the bosom of Espiritu Santo Island—Spanish for “Holy Spirit,” about 80 nautical miles east. A flat sea sparkled in the morning sun, seabirds swooped and dove as a thousand years before and prayers were offered as the bodies of brave men solemnly slid down a chute into a watery grave.

Jack was still in the conning tower as the San Francisco sailed in a defensive zigzag pattern against enemy subs when once again he witnessed the incredible hand of providence. An enemy submarine launched a spread of three torpedoes their way. Unlike the American torpedoes the Japanese torpedoes were normally extremely reliable. The heart-stopping telltale bubbly wake of one of them headed toward the San Francisco, but it was running erratically. It broached—popped to the surface—just off the San Francisco’s port bow, dove again under her keel, surfaced again on the starboard beam, then continued on to hit the light cruiser, Juneau, amidships, right in the ammunition storage area. In an explosion more violent than any Jack had witnessed at Pearl Harbor, he watched one of its intact twin five-inch gun turrets, with the crew still in it, ride the top of a massive mushrooming fireball. Scrap metal rained on the San Francisco, breaking both legs of a sailor on deck who had survived the night battle. The Juneau gun turret fell like a falling leaf, splashing into a debris-littered sea where only moments before 6,000 tons of armored might had floated.

A few weeks later the Medal of Honor was presented to four men (two posthumously) and the Navy Cross was presented to twenty-nine others (twenty-one posthumously), including Jack—an extraordinary number of our nation’s two highest honors for heroism in a single battle. In the providence of God it was a turning point in a global conflagration that saved our land of the free, and it also, in His amazing ways, was instrumental in saving the soul of a hero I am honored to call a friend, long after the battle ended.

Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King called the night sea battle at Guadalcanal “…the most furious sea battle fought in history.” Jack and his fellow sailors epitomize what his Sacramento boss in another era, Ronald Reagan, called “the formidable will and moral courage of free men that is America’s exclusive weapon.” His story should be told as long as free men have breath.


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