In the US Navy, as in many other services, it was strictly forbidden to keep a diary. All around the world there were people defying that order. Some of them were to form the basis for fascinating memoirs later. It took great ability to write contemporaneously about the daily incident of life and produce something highly readable at first draft. It was rare for an ordinary seaman to achieve this.
James J. Fahey was serving on the USS Montpelier, one of the busiest ships in the Pacific War, ending the war with 13 battle stars. He kept his diary throughout, written on loose sheets of paper kept in a tin. It was never intended for publication – but won wide acclaim when ‘discovered’ and then published in 1963. He brought a fresh view to incidents that would otherwise be recorded as fairly routine:
Saturday, May 20, 1944:
Arose at 4:30 A.M. We left Munda at 5:50 A.M. We will travel to Bougainville for more gunnery exercises against pillboxes. On the way to our destination, Captain Hoffman spoke to the crew, saying that our targets will be live. There are still japs on the end of the island that we will be shooting at. Shore batteries are reported there by a destroyer that was passing when the guns opened up on it.
The Captain believed that the japs there were being supplied by enemy submarines. This will be only classiﬁed as a practice run but return ﬁre by the Japs is anticipated. We got quite a kick out of the Captain’s phraseology. Having six inch shells being ﬁred at us by the enemy, and they rate it practice. Planes will spot for us, informing us of our accuracy. We will have four destroyers and the cruisers Cleveland and Birmingham with us.
Arriving at 10 A.M., we commenced ﬁring at 10:35 A.M. The Jap shore batteries on the beach returned the ﬁre quickly after. Their guns were stationed on top of a hill. Their guns that were ﬁring at us were the big 8 inch variety. Our largest caliber was the 6 inch. Our run on Bougainville was commencing as our starboard guns opened ﬁre.
On returningthe port guns were brought into action. The ﬁrst ship to be ﬁred at by the enemy shore batteries, was the cruiser Cleveland. I was at my battle station on the 40 mm. machine gun mount and the Admiral and Captain were just above me on the bridge. As I looked to the rear, I saw big geysers of water, rising all around the cruiser Cleveland. It was a miracle that it was not hit.
At ﬁrst we took it as a joke, but then got very serious because we knew that our turn would come to be ﬁred on by the big Jap guns. Cruisers make a very big target in the daytime, they are over six hundred feet long. While we were on our way in to hit the japs; they opened up on us.
They must have had us in their sights, because their big 8 inch shells began to explode all around us and ﬂy through the mast, they could not have come any closer without hitting us. In the meantime our guns were blazing away but the Japs were in a very dfficult spot for us to hit, behind a hill.
We could not get any closer to the Japs, because it would be suicide. We could see the big ﬂashes from their guns as they kept up a steady ﬁre with their 8 inch guns against our six inch guns. The jap shells sent big sprays of water up into the air just in front of my mount and one of the 20 mm. gun mounts up forward on the bow was knocked out by shrap nel, as it sprayed the ship with big chunks of red hot steel.
Some of the wounded were carried to the crew’s lounge, it is a battle dressing station. One Marine named Darling had a big piece of shrapnel go through his helmet and out the other side. When they picked up his helmet part of his scalp was still in it. One fel- low almost went insane with the pain, and he was going to jump over the side.
Blood and hair was splattered over the deck. Some had to have transfusions. One of the fellows will not be able to have the shrapnel removed until his wound is healed, then he will be operated on. They have to wait until the artery is healed. Another fellow’s leg was a mess. Another received a notice today, saying that he would be transferred to the States, and he also got hit.
It was a lucky break that one of the fellows had his life jacket on, because it was full of shrapnel. If our ship was going a little faster the Admiral and Captain would have got it and we are very close to them. You hold your breath when you see the Jap guns fire at you and then wait to see if they hit you.
They could not come any closer without hitting us. It does not feel very good to see 8 inch shells falling all around you and you have no place to hide. One of the fellows dove for the deck when he heard the shells close by explode and an officer dove on top of him, we got a kick out of it. A piece of shrapnel about six by six almost hit Gallagher, and he had to pick it up with his hat because it was so hot.
When shrapnel hits thick steel it bounces around. The anchor chain which is about as thick as a football was almost cut in half. Someone said the Cleveland also got hit. If the Japs ever hit us with direct hits, they would have done an awful lot of damage and you do not know what it might have led to, it could have sunk us.
The japs didn’t interfere with our “practice,” because we stayed here for two hours ﬁring at them. The Japs did not stop us from carrying out our plans. The Japs’ ﬁring was terriffic and they are supposed to be starving. I would hate to run into them on full stomachs.
The Japs also had anti-aircraft guns on the shore and they opened up on our planes when they were spotting for us. It was like a hornets’ nest over there. I don’t blame our troops on shore for leaving them alone where they can do no harm to anyone.
Our ship knocked out the Jap radio tower and some anti-aircraft guns, we also helped knock out some of the big shore batteries. The cruiser Cleveland ﬁred over a thousand rounds of six inch shells not to mention what the rest of us ﬁred. The Japs must have thought they were at a shooting gallery ﬁring these big 8 inch guns at us and shell and shrapnel falling all around us. Those Japs have plenty of guts, they are not afraid of anything.
This was a good old fashion slugfest, with no quarter given by either side. No one was brokenhearted when we ﬁnally left, and they call this practice.