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Eyewitness to a Sinking

March 13, 2019 | By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum
Citizen Sailor
Like many who manned the Navy's ships and flew its aircraft during World War II, William C. Chambliss was a member of the Naval Reserve, a citizen-sailor called to active service. He entered naval service during the year of the stock market crash, receiving his wings as Naval Aviator Number 4528 in April 1930, and flying scouting planes from the light cruiser Marblehead (CL 12). Returning to civilian life, he became a newspaperman, serving as a reporter and editor, and also worked in the publicity department of motion picture studio 20th Century-Fox.

In November 1940, Chambliss was called to active duty, joining the staff of Vice Adm. William F. Halsey, Jr., and eventually reporting on board USS Wasp (CV 7) in time for the carrier's first combat operations in the Pacific supporting the invasion of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. A lieutenant commander on the staff of Rear Adm. Leigh Noyes, who flew his flag from the carrier as Commander, Task Force 18, Chambliss was on the bridge when torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-19 slammed into the aircraft carrier while she provided air cover for a convoy carrying reinforcements for the embattled Marines on Guadalcanal.

September 15 - Wasp Goes Down 
"My first knowledge of something amiss came when I realized that the chart board and I were some feet above the deck. When I came down on the deck again, amid the scattered mess of charts, navigational instruments, and the interphone talker, I was thrown to my knees by a second and third violent shock as the last two of the three torpedoes hit us. Smoke poured into flag plot." Taking in the scene of destruction around him, Chambliss noted the aircraft spotted on the flight deck lying on the bottoms of their fuselages, their landing gear collapsed. "I have dropped airplanes in from fair heights at time without ever having damaged without ever having damaged the gear. I know that what hit us must have packed a terrific wallop." Lt. Cmdr. Chambliss went over the starboard side via a rope, noting the time 1542 on his watch.

Not a regular swimmer he jokingly referred to his exercise consisting of bending his right elbow with a scotch and soda in his hand he was surprised to find himself some 300 yards clear of the burning carrier after taking off swimming once he hit the water. On board the ships and in the water, Chambliss found himself surprised by the lack of calmness and lack of excitement displayed by members of the crew, from the sailor on the bridge who despite the explosions all around jokingly lamented about the loss of the fresh eggs that the carrier had recently taken aboard. In the water, with the burning carrier nearby and oil floating on the surface, another young sailor swam to Chambliss to tell him his oak leaf collar device on his uniform was about to fall off.

At 6:15 p.m., a whaleboat pulled Chambliss from the water and took him to the destroyer USS Lansdowne (DD 486). From her deck he later watched as she fired torpedoes into Wasp in an effort to sink her after all survivors had been rescued.

"The carrier by this time was completely enveloped in flames, presenting a weirdly fascinating picture. Against the night, tropical sky, she looked like some ship of neon fantasy. Slowly she slid toward her grave. At the end there was a brief puddle of brightness where the last of her oil burned. Then darkness enveloped the tragic scene."

After surviving the sinking of Wasp, Chambliss' service took him to many theaters of war. He achieved additional wartime acclaim as a writer, publishing Boomerang, the fictional story of the capture of a Japanese destroyer by a Navy crew, and writing an article for U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings titled "Recipe for Survival," that covered how to prepare for and survive abandoning ship. After the war he served as the Navy's Deputy Chief of Information, eventually retiring with the rank of rear admiral. He died in 1975.