By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum
Don Cruse of El Paso joined the Navy in July 1938, at the age of 17, wanting to see more of the world than the vast landscape of Texas, eventually experiencing the Navy life in the crew of a destroyer, sleeping in a hammock, and using one bucket of water a day to wash both his working uniform and himself. He recalled being mesmerized at the time by the ornate tattoos that he saw on the more senior Sailors, especially those who had spent years in the Far East serving in the Asiatic Fleet. Yet, he never got a tattoo himself, probably one of the few Sailors in the history of the United States Navy to hold that distinction. Training as an Aerographer’s Mate, he shifted to flattops, serving first on the carrier Ranger and eventually reporting aboard USS Wasp (CV 7), where he remembered hearing the call over the loudspeaker that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
Wasp steamed in both the Atlantic and Pacific during the first months of World War II, arriving off Guadalcanal in August 1942, to support the landings of the 1st Marine Division. The carrier remained in the waters around the island over the course of the ensuing weeks.
On Sept. 15, 1942, Cruse was walking below decks when the first of a spread of torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine slammed into Wasp. Knocked off his feet, he looked around and noticed that he was in a bomb handling area of the ship. “Uh oh, this is a bad place to be,” he remembered saying to himself and he found the nearest ladder and scrambled up the rungs towards decks above. Making his way to the hangar deck, Cruse was blown off his feet when some incendiaries on SBD Dauntless dive bombers exploded. By that time, he saw that the entire forward section of the ship was aflame. Mindful of shipboard rules and regulations even amidst the chaos, he remembered thinking twice before climbing the officer’s ladder up through the island and then stepping out onto the flight deck, where he was struck by a blast of heat. He attempted to help move a wounded Sailor, however, when he reached out to grab a hold of him, he couldn’t. Only then did he realize that he was wounded himself, his hands and arms badly burned.
When the order came to abandon ship, he noticed crewmen going over the side using a variety of means, including sliding down fire hoses and popping a couple of parachutes and sliding down their shroud lines. A shipmate put Cruse into a life jacket and they made their way to the fantail, where they went into the water. When the destroyer Laffey appeared to rescue a group of Wasp Sailors, Cruse could not grasp the cargo net and climb aboard because of the burns. Knowing where the propeller guard, a series of poles jutting out from the side of the ship, was located, he wrapped his legs around it as the ship began to increase speed, and was yanked aboard. His days as a destroyer Sailor had paid off.
He spent the ensuing day lying on a mess table as the destroyer headed towards shore. After spending time in a hospital in Australia having his burns treated, Cruse made his way back to the United States, eventually seeing the welcome sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. “It was so beautiful,” he recalled sixty years later.
Don Cruse would return to sea in 1943 as a crewman aboard USS Liscome Bay (CVE 56), surviving his second ship sinking when she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on Nov. 24, 1943.