By D. Kevin Elliott
My dad was descending a ladder on the starboard stern of USS Wasp (CV 7) when he was rocked by the concussion from three torpedoes hitting the aircraft carrier in rapid succession. Just 35 minutes later the captain ordered abandon ship and my dad slid down a fire hose into the warm water of the Coral Sea.
Arles Edward “Bud” Elliott, was a 21-year-old Aviation Ordnanceman on that September day in 1942. Eight months earlier he had a job driving a horse-drawn milk cart in Louisville, Kentucky, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Like a lot of men, the next day he went downtown and joined the Navy. After boot camp at Great Lakes he got on a train to Norfolk, Virginia, where he made a life-long friend in Buzz Fulton. The train stopped pier side and the two walked up the brow onto USS Wasp. Dad and Buzz along with other Sailors were sleeping right on the flight deck when dad overheard an officer tell a Chief he needed volunteers for a squadron and to muster in the morning with their sea bags on the elevator. Dad went up to the Chief and asked him what a squadron was. The Chief said one word, “airplanes.” Dad and Buzz carried their sea bags to the elevator right then and were first in line the next morning. Assigned to VF-71 at Naval Operating Base Norfolk, they soon found themselves back on Wasp with the squadron sailing to the Mediterranean to deliver 47 British Spitfires to Malta. The Spitfires were quickly destroyed by German air raids so Wasp sailed back with a second delivery prompting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to utter the famous line, “Who said a Wasp couldn’t sting twice?”
On Sept. 15, Wasp was escorting transports carrying Marines to Guadalcanal when the Japanese submarine I-19 fired an array of six torpedoes. One missed, one hit USS North Carolina (BB 55), one hit USS O’Brien (DD 415) and three slammed into Wasp. It has been deemed among the most destructive torpedo salvoes of the war. O’Brien later sank en route for repairs and North Carolina spent a month in dry dock at Pearl Harbor. Dad said there was no panic after Capt. Sherman gave the order to abandon ship. Men entered the water in an orderly manner and swam away. He told me he wasn’t scared at first. It wasn’t too long before a ship sailed by and men tried to grab him. Then for some reason the ship had to take off suddenly and they dropped him back into the ocean. He thought he was done for. Other ships were hunting for the sub and dropping depth charges. He said the underwater concussions were painful. Ships sailed by with men lining the decks shooting into the water. He figured they were shooting at sharks. Lifejackets back then were not the fancy floatation devices we have today and his was starting to get water logged. He was scared. After six long hours he was finally picked up by USS Lansdowne (DD 486). That evening Lansdowne was ordered to scuttle the still floating Wasp. It took three torpedoes and she went down by the bow at 2100.
Back stateside Dad took his 30-day leave and went home to Peoria, Illinois. He said except for boys and elderly men he was the only young man in town. All the other men his age were off at war. He couldn’t tell anyone his ship had sunk because it was still a secret but the news broke one day in the newspaper and he said he was instantly a hero. He never paid for another meal or another drink the rest of his leave. He then volunteered to go back to the South Pacific where he served at Guadalcanal, Munda and Bougainville for a year. He later served two years in Trinidad and nine years in Quonset Point, R.I., in VP-7, VP-8 and FASRON-101. His last two years of service were as a Navy recruiter in Champaign, Illinois, where he met my mother. Mom was a waitress at a Walgreens lunch counter when he walked in. Mom said he looked sharp in his khakis and flirted with her. I guess she did not respond, so he left her only a penny tip. She grabbed it, ran outside and threw it at him. That was the start of a 45-year marriage. He retired as a Chief Petty Officer in 1961. Years later dad was driving down the road and a car passed him with a USS Lansdowne sticker in the back window. Dad pulled up beside him and yelled, “You picked me up!” The driver knew immediately what dad was saying and they pulled over on the shoulder and talked for an hour.
In 2002, I hooked him up with a tour of USS Wasp (LHD 1) in Norfolk, Virginia. I have a picture of him on the bridge. He’s gazing out into the distance. I’ve always wondered if he was gazing into the past.
In January 2019, Wasp was found 14,255 ft. below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near the Solomon Islands by R/V Petrel, a research vessel owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Petrel’s mission is to explore historically significant wrecks at great depths and has found, among others, USS Indianapolis (CA 35), USS Lexington (CV 2), and USS Hornet (CV 8).
I wish dad were alive to see the discovery. I wonder what he would say. In August 2011, my dad, 90-years-old, in pain and failing health, having outlived my mom by four years, his friend Buzz long gone, finally passed away. Mom and dad are buried in the national cemetery at Bushnell, Florida. Thank you for your service, dad. I miss you.
Kevin Elliott retired from the U.S. Navy Reserve on Jan. 1, 2018 as a Mass Communication Specialist Master Chief. Along with his wife Dianne and a cat they now live full-time in an RV exploring the United States.