By Bob Sochor, Sr. USS JOHNSTON (DD 557)
Copyright © Bob Sochor, Sr. 1994 all rights reserved
“Come Hell, And High Water”, my recollection of October 25, 1944 began when I went on watch at zero hour (12:00 A.M.) playing poker. I was not feeling too good, having~ lost my last buck, when I went on duty with Joe Riseiner in the lower engine room. I was extremely tired, having not slept all night. I told Joe I was going to sleep until it was time to come on duty again “come hell, or high water.” Put how wrong I was. It seemed that no sooner had I hit the sack, when that terrible GQ alarm rang off, followed by an excited voice ordering: “Stand-by to repel Jap fleet dead astern”! No sooner had I gotten to my battle station on top side, when I discovered the Japs were already firing on us, as I could see the flash from their guns.
My battle station was on the 20 mm guns next to the after fire room on the starboard side. My Job was to elevate the gun. I was positioned there even though I was in “E” Division because the main steam valve was located behind the 20 mm gun alongside of the fire room. My Job was to close off the main steam valve which could be remotely turned off from topside in the event the after-engine room, or fire room, were ever hit. I never thought that would happen, but lt did.
After much firing, maneuvering, smoke-screening and firing our torpedoes, we finally took hits in our after fire room and engine room. I turned off the main steam valve from topside. Amazingly, just about all the men from the fire room were able to escape. A sailor from Spokane, Washington, by the name of Williams, was the gun loader with us on the 20 mm. He helped me pull them out of the hatch one-by-one as they came up the ladder from the hot, steaming fire room. There were about six or seven of them. We brought them into the officer’s wardroom where many other badly wounded men were being worked on by the Doctor and Pharmacist. Returning to our station, we were told to remove the ammunition from the 20 mm gun and secure it as it was now useless and to help wherever needed.
The ship was now running on the forward engine room and fire room at half speed. wearing an asbestos suit, I went down into the steaming hot after-engine room to see if anyone was alive. I found a body and tied a rope around him and then hauled him up while I pushed from underneath. After we got him up, they determined he was. dead. I went down once again, but found no sign of life. It was pitch dark and full of steam. The light from my battle lantern could hardly penetrate the thick smoke and steam. I returned topside and took off the asbestos suit. Staring down at the after fire room hatch, which was now closed, I was amazed to see the handle that “dogs down” the hatch begin spinning and the hatch open up. Trying to climb out was a fireman by the name of West. I ran over to help him up the rest of the way. He had been down in that hot fire room at least 15 or 20 minutes after the boilers were hit and exploded. He stood on deck, his clothes wet and steaming and he was shaking himself off as if to get the hot steaming clothes off his skin. We led him to the officer’s wardroom with the rest of the wounded and injured men. It was an awful sight to see. All those pathetic men sitting and lying on the crowded deck waiting to be treated by the Doctor and Pharmacists. They were doing everything possible, amidst all the confusion, to give comfort and aid to the men. I went back out on deck and the chief engineer told me and a fireman named Critz to go back down into the after fire room. He gave us a pail filled with lube oil and told us to oil the spring bearings and the screw shaft that ran from the forward engine room through the after fire room. The shaft bearing was squealing loudly. We had to climb down a straight ladder with an open bucket of oil and a battle lantern. lt was smoky and steamy and the deck plates were lifted in places. We had to put on regular gas masks to breath. I was very familiar with the fire room. I used to be in charge of the watch, when anchored, or in port, and only 3 or 4 men were needed to keep up steam. With little help from our battle lantern, we inched our way behind the blown boiler along the narrow catwalk, up and over piping, to the top of the shaft. We poured the oil all over the shaft bearing box, which stopped the squealing sound. All I could say is that Chief Engineer knew his job well. His pin-pointing that problem kept us going a little longer.
We returned topside and looked around. It was a mess. The bridge was badly damaged and the forward hold was on fire. I was then ordered to the fantail where they were controlling and steering the ship from the emergency steering room on the fantail. I was told to relieve someone who was cranking the rudder by hand. I took my turn for about 10 or 15 minutes until someone relieved me.
I went topside again where there was much activity. But before I could catch my breath, a group of us were ordered! to go forward to help fight a fire on the fo’c’s’le. As we moved forward on the port side near the cook’s galley there was a terrible, blinding, yellow flash. I was knocked unconscious, for how long I don’t know.
When I regained consciousness there were dead bodies all around me and I was covered with blood. I knew I had been hit on my back, buttocks and stomach. I looked about, but found no one alive around me. The ship was listing about 20 degrees port side. As I walked to the fantail I could see everyone who was able to abandon ship had done so. They were in rafts and nets and swimming approximately a quarter of a mile away. I went aft as Captain Evans went forward. With neither one saying a word to the other, we passed by staring blankly at one another.
When l got to the fantail I could not locate a life preserver and my back side now began hurting a great deal. With few options remaining, I realized there was precious little time left to abandon ship and get safely out of range of the suction of the sinking ship. Not sure whether to jump or dive, I did a half jump, half dive into the water. Not knowing how badly I was bleeding and being An excellent swimmer, I decided to swim as fast as I could to the nets and rafts while still able. It seemed as though I swam with little or no effort. Half way to the rafts I met up with a pharmacist whose name I believe was Ken Bowers. He was very young and religious and always carried a small bible. He had on a life jacket, so I hung on to him to rest for a few minutes. We were now about halfway between the sinking ship and the rafts and nets. He said he could not swim and he thought his life jacket would not hold the two of us. I told him I just wanted to rest a minute or so and then I will leave. We were about 1/8 of a mile from the sinking ship when I turned to him and said, “Take your last look at the Johnston,” as it disappeared into the sea.
I was about to swim to the main group when a large explosion shivered the water around us. I after learned it was one of our depth charges that exploded. It was a 500 lb. depth charge that had a bad detonator safety switch and could not be made safe that went off at a certain depth. It scared the hell out of us both. I swam to the main group of nets and rafts in what might have been world record time, for I was there in “no time flat” hanging on to the life nets.
I checked my wounds. I was no longer bleeding. Much of the blood that had covered me apparently had been from the men who were killed around me. Soon thereafter, the young pharmacist I hung onto moments previous had made his way to the nets where he and another Pharmacist named Schmuff were needed to help the many wounded men.
About 5 minutes later a Jap Seaplane made a pass over us and I thought we were going to be strafed. I remember thinking how lucky those guys were that were killed earlier because it was over for them but I still had it comings. I wondered why I didn’t die the first time I got hit. But, thank God, the plane just flew over us and left. As if that wasn’t enough, a Jap destroyer came toward us and slowly passed by. Some Japanese sailors were waving to us in the water. I wish to this day that they would have picked us up. Many of the men might still be alive today had they done so.
It was hard at that time to imagine a situation worse than ours, but the worst was yet to come. We thought we would be picked up soon since we had 50 many ships and planes in the vicinity but lt was not to be. I don’t know who “goofed” but we were not picked up soon afterwards. In fact, we were to spend the next 3 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean and lt was during this time that many of the badly wounded men subsequently died. Many who took morphine to ease their pain died or just fell asleep and drowned. I myself refused the morphine and I believe that is why I survived.
A very good shipmate of mine named Otto Hublsher was the finest machinist I ever knew. Otto could make parts in the machine shop that were otherwise unattainable. He was very skilled with his hands. Ironically, Otto, now next to me in the life nets, had one of his hands blown nearly completely off at the wrist and lt was hanging from his arm by skin and gristle and he had been holding it on with his good hand. He asked me to cut it off completely for him. I had a very dull pocket knife with which I had cut about two thirds of the way through. I had to call Schmuff, the Pharmacist. He finished the cut with a sharper knife and threw the hand into the water. Otto Hublsher died about 1/2 hour later. Numerous other casualties would follow. Many died of severe burns, lacerations and/or trauma.
That evening thirst began taking its toll. The next day and night it worsened. Someone had secured one small keg of water and tied it to the raft. It held about 1 gallon of water which was to be shared by some 150 men. We were each given enough to wet our mouths and that was all. On day two the sun was hot but despite the 82 degree water temperature, our own temperatures were falling resulting in hypothermia. We were now thirsty, hungry, and cold. During that second afternoon another good friend of mine, Chester Weeks, looked like he wasn’t going to make it. I was trying to encourage him to hold on but he kept passing out. I held him in my arms to keep his head out of the water but he died in my arms talking about his son whom he’d not yet seen who was born while Chester was out to sea.
On the second night things got a little crazy. Some of us began seeing things that weren’t there. We hallucinated visions such as boats coming to rescue us; and natives in canoes laden with fruits, vegetables, water, and pretty girls. It wasn’t easy staying awake after a hard day of kicking and splashing water to chase away the sharks around us. Thus, there were times when I would just drift off to sleep.
I had acquired a life preserver the day previous from one who had died. At one point, I awoke to find I had drifted away from the floating net. I found myself alone in the middle of the ocean. With the night black as pitch, I couldn’t see stars or hear anything but small choppy waves. I remember wondering if sharks could see at night.
After what seemed like an eternity, dawn came and it started to rain. I was able to catch a little water in my mouth. However, each time I was about to swallow what little rain I could catch in my mouth a wave would splash up and I would drink both rain and sea water. As it got a little brighter that morning, I could see men and hear voices. In the distance were several men clinging to a 10 foot 4 X 4. I called out and swam out to them. Somehow I felt a little better hanging on to something and being with other people, so I clung to the end of the 4 X 4. One of the men, I can’t remember his name but he was the smallest man on the ship - lost his grip and began drifting away. Being on the end, I had to go fetch him back. This happened three times. Becoming increasingly weak myself, I told him that if he let go one more time I wasn’t going to help him. When he let go the fourth time I told someone else to go get him but no one was able. So, the Bosun’ named Hollenbaugh said to get him once more and tied him with his belt to the 4 X 4, which I did. It worked. Even though unconscious, he stayed safely tied to the 4 X 4.
At about noon (1200) of the third day we could see the shore line I was sure we could make it. While making headway toward shore we saw a LCI Patrol Boat coming toward us. They threw us a small rubber life raft. While everyone else swam to the ship and was rescued, I was still trying to get the little guy untied and into the life raft. The two of us were in the raft now and the LCI circled around to pick us up. To my surprise trying to swim toward us in the raft was this guy I recognized by the name of Carlson. Approximately 50 feet from the raft, he let go of his life jacket and attempted to swim the rest of the way to the raft. Suddenly he started to go under the water. I looked up at the LCI moving toward us and the crew watching from topside. I was expecting one of them to jump in and help but no one did. I remember thinking to myself he is so close to being rescued, I couldn’t let him drown. I dove off the raft, swam to him and grabbed him I hollered to him, “Don’t fight me, relax!” I pulled him to the raft and safely inside. The ship pulled along side of us, sent down a metal stretcher and hoisted the three of us aboard one by one. I couldn’t understand why not one of the LCI crew would jump in to help. I later learned lt was because sharks had been circling all around us.
After setting us safely aboard the LCI, the crew took us down below. I don’t even remember whether or not we were offered food and water. I was too exhausted to eat or drink. I simply took off my wet clothes and climbed into one of the bunks. I was about to fall asleep when their GQ alarm sounded, “Stand-by to repel Jap air attack.” That is the last thing I remember because I fell fast asleep and I wasn’t about to move “come hell, or high water.”
Well, that about sums it up. In the days following we were put aboard the destroyer Hazelwood; transferred to a hospital ship in Leyte Harbor; then went to New Guinea on an LST. From there we boarded the SS Lurline bound for Australia, where T.N. Taylor, Williams and I had quite an adventure. But that’s another story.
Upon my return to the States, I got married and spent six months at Portsmouth Naval Hospital. Awarded a purple heart and a Presidential Unit Citation. I was honorably discharged from the United States Navy on July 14, 1945. I returned to my home in Cleveland, Ohio, where I worked as a pipe-fitter and refrigeration/air-conditioning mechanic for the Ramsey Bennett Co. for over 43 years. I’m now retired.
My wife, Dorothy (Lawrence) and I celebrated our 46th Wedding Anniversary on December 28, 1990. We have six children, all of whom are grown and married. We have 13 grandchildren and joyfully await the arrival of our first great-grandchild on or about September 28, 1991. At the time of this writing, the good Lord has blessed us all with health, happiness and albeit humble prosperity.
Life is truly a mystery. What seemed forty-seven years ago to be a fate worse than death was in retrospect a fate very much worth living. Survival was indeed mine that fateful day and when my time inevitably comes to pass it will be with a reassurance not only that I survived but that I will be survived.
Bob Sochor, Sr.
April 14, 1991
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