We honor our fathers for their presence in our lives. For those who are veterans, we should also remember their service.
LT JOHN MCELROY, USN
Prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, John McElroy had never considered the military as a career. Impacted, however, like so many others by that horrific event, he enlisted the following day and chose the Navy for the devastation and losses suffered. Subsequently called to active duty, he was ordered to Northwestern University and the Navy’s exceptional Midshipmen’s School. There college graduates were trained as naval officers and known as “90-day wonders.”
Excerpts of Lt. John McElroy’s WWII notes:
Training involved a one-month period of education. There was a thorough indoctrination course on apprentice seamanship and instruction in all sorts of nautical abilities, knot tying, survival skills, and such. This was followed by instruction in ordnance, gunnery, navigation, engineering and PT (Patrol Torpedo).
Upon completion of Midshipmen’s School, I was asked by Commander Bulkeley if I might consider volunteering for Motor Torpedo Boat duty. In deliberation, I felt drawn to the adrenaline and independence of torpedo boat service and the close engagement with Japanese forces. It was also nearly the only way I would ever skipper my own boat and the very thought of it intrigued me. Upon receiving notice for selection of duty with the “Mosquito Fleet,” I considered it an honor to serve.
An intensive three-weeks torpedo course was provided prior to reporting for two-months of torpedo boat training at Melville, Rhode Island. When I first strolled down the hill toward Narragansett Bay and saw those deadly looking boats in the lagoon, I wondered what loomed ahead.
We were trained on an Elco 80-foot PT boat. She was quite a speed craft with three large 12-cylinder Packard gasoline engines, a total of 4500 horsepower, and capable of 41 knots. Each PT boat had four 21-inch torpedo tubes, and several .50 caliber machine guns. I could only imagine the kind of retribution we could unleash.
When we started out, I didn’t know an auxiliary generator from a heat exchanger, a lazarette from a flux gate, or a vee drive from a butterfly muffler. I did learn quickly at the hands of those salty boat captains who never missed a chance to tell us how rugged life was “out in the area.” We practiced torpedo runs, learned aircraft and ship recognition, and the mechanics of field stripping a .50 caliber machine gun, although most of us never became totally proficient at blinker.
We made regular torpedo runs on the Vineyard Haven light ship, patrolled outside the anti-submarine nets, ran missions to Block Island, and practiced boat handling at a dilapidated dock in the Fall River.
Upon completion of Motor Torpedo Boat training, I reported to the Brooklyn Naval Yard at Bayonne, New Jersey. Assigned to a crew, I was appointed skipper of PT-161. Following training together, our boat was commissioned into service. Promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade, I was assigned to Squadron Ron 9 under Lieutenant Commander Robert B. Kelly in November of 1942.
It was indeed a time of great tension and uncertainty, but also of great patriotism. Our squadron left the states with eight of our boats cradled on the deck of a tanker and my boat looked awkward in its position above the water. Our destination was Panama and it was January, 1943.
Once through the Panama Canal, our boats were unloaded in the Gulf of Panama and we gave them a thorough shakedown at Taboga Island, the Island of Flowers. Our training at Taboga lasted about 30 days.
I named our boat “Jahnz Canoe.” When you really put the throttle to her, the boat would lift up out of the water and shoot a high rooster tail wake behind us. Cruising in this patrol boat was an exciting rush. We practiced making torpedo runs on moving targets, assimilating everything but the actual live fire of our torpedoes.
Our boats were subsequently reloaded onto the deck of another tanker and we headed for the South Pacific. It was a long and monotonous cruise southwestward toward the war. Our destination was New Caledonia in the Coral Sea.
Upon arrival at Noumea, New Caledonia, our Ron 9 Squadron took part in boat exercises along with the battleships Washington, Indiana, and North Carolina. These took place in a storm with mountainous seas which beat us and our boats terribly. Several had extensive damage and one crewman suffered a broken leg. Our PT-161 survived but it required patching 10 cracked frames and 32 planks on the bottom of our boat.
Memories I shall remember most about this place are the isolated leper colony, the barrage balloons, and the storm that nearly sunk my boat. It was indeed a rude welcome to the South Pacific.
Following repairs, we sailed under our own power North by Northwest nearly 550 nautical miles to Tulagi in the Solomon Islands.
Squadron Ron 9 Officers
Charles Silver PT-153 (left) with Joseph D. McLaughlin of PT-154 (right), who was the first casualty of Ron 9. He was killed in action on November 14, 1943.
Once in the Solomons, we were now in the middle of the shooting war. At issue were the airstrips on all the various islands and who controlled them. Our mission would be threefold: prevent the Japanese Navy and Tokyo Express from resupplying island strongholds in the area, prevent the escape of Japanese forces and their concentrated movement between the islands, and help move Marine-strike forces behind enemy lines.
We made most of our combat patrols at night. That’s when the Japanese Navy ran their Tokyo Express down the slot south through the Solomons. Many a brave ship of our Navy had met its fate here in these waters of Iron Bottom Sound, named for dozens of ships and planes sunk during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942-43.
Occasionally we witnessed distant flashes on the horizon followed seconds later by a muffled boom which signaled the probable death of a ship and its men.
Our accommodations at Tulagi could best be described as native casual where mosquitoes and rats were a constant nuisance. Our tents, huts, native lean-tos, and Atibrine tablets struggled against the thick jungle, heavy rainfall, high temperatures, swamps, excessive mud, and malaria. We knew we were fortunate, however, compared to the Marines and coast watchers in these jungles.
The average age of my crew was well below the standard for the squadron but, in my estimation, was the best of them all and soon gained a reputation as an outstanding crew. Mainly because of the fine crew I had, I was made a section leader, which meant we were in the lead of three to six PT boats on every combat patrol.
PT-161 was always second in Commander Kelly’s squadron, for he knew he could depend on us to maneuver with him at close range under any conditions and into any fight. Attacking Japanese destroyers and innumerable enemy barges. I was proud of the way my crew laid down heavy and accurate fire, changed out gun barrels, and repaired disabled guns while under attack themselves.
Our Ron 9 squadron prowled mostly in the middle and northern Solomon Islands and as we fought our way through, we had to bum, borrow and steal nearly everything we needed, as we could carry few supplies on board. We were always up front and had inadequate supply lines. Scroungers were especially prized as crewman, for we were constantly replacing parts and guns with whatever was available at the time, either by salvage or by pirating. We acquired a 20-mm gun and mounted it to our stern and also added a smoke generator to our transom. Our PT-161 now bristled with guns.
Our Commander Kelly demanded perfection in combat readiness for all boats, regardless how hard the duty or how short the supplies. As our bases were bombed on a regular basis by the Japanese, we spent a fair amount of time together in fox holes while on land. New crewman came and went as men were lost to injury, transfer, discharge and malaria.
We set up our new forward PT boat base just outside Rendova Harbor on a small island called Lumbaria. They named our new base “Todd City” after Ensign Leon Todd, who had been killed in action on 2 July.
On 3 July we were on the move further north. There was going to be an invasion of the island of Rendova and our job was to protect the flank of our destroyers and our invasion force. We made the move during the night and entered the harbor at dawn.
On the following night, we received a coded message that American supply ships would arrive before dawn. I had just come topside after deciphering the message when we saw naval gunfire near Banyette Point. Moments later there were shells splashing in the water nearby. It was a Japanese task force that had sailed down from Rabaul to shell our shore landing and now were shooting at us.
Commander Kelly was on Buddy Liebenow’s 157 boat. We were the second, followed by Lowry in the 162. Kelly led us straight for the enemy. We went to full speed and tore out across Blanche Channel after them. With the wind and the sea spray in my face and with enemy shells splashing around us, the thought suddenly occurred to me that this was the moment that we had been preparing for all these months.
We were speeding along across the dark water, illuminated only by two-way gunfire into what looked like the sure jaws of death, but I figured we were up to it. At least I hoped so, as there was no turning aside now.
Apparently there is not much that is quite as unnerving to a Japanese Commander as the sight of three half-crazy American torpedo boats charging straight for you…and that was how we celebrated the 4th of July, 1943.
It was August 1, 1943 that we of the 161 were given a rare night off. Several sections of our PTs, fifteen boats in all, headed out to the northwest to patrol the Ferguson passage on the southwest side of Kolombangara, a tall volcanic island that was surrounded by nearby islands of New Georgia, Wanna Wanna, and Gizo. For someone that has not been there on a moonless night, it is hard to imagine how dark it can be in the surrounding waters.
It was not until the next morning at the officers meeting that I learned that several of our boats had engaged Japanese destroyers that were coming up out of Kula Gulf through Blackett Strait. It had been the darkest of nights and the action was confusing and scattered.
Due to the inky blackness of the night, the Japanese destroyers were virtually on top of the PTs when they were first spotted, leaving little time to take action. Several boats had made torpedo runs but the results were inconclusive. One of our boats had been lost. It was struck by an enemy destroyer at high speed and cut in half.
There was an explosion and a tremendous fireball flaming high into the air. Our boats that witnessed it from various distances were pretty sure that nobody could have possibly survived that inferno. There were about 1800 gallons of 100 octane gasoline in that boat. No wreckage or survivors could be detected by the other boats.
It was the PT-109 that had been lost. We all felt bad, being friends with many of the crew but life went on at our base, Todd City. It was not our first loss of this war and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Five days later, I along with several others observed two natives in an outrigger canoe approach our base on Rendova. They came ashore and presented a green coconut shell, which they claimed to be from Kennedy. We were astounded, as none of us had any reason to believe that he or any other of the 109 crew were still alive.
Their names were Biuku and Eroni. We questioned them extensively to determine if this was an actual message from Kennedy. I looked at the coconut husk. On it was scribbled with a knife, “Native knows pos’it… He can pilot… 11 alive… Need small boat… Kennedy.”
We were not completely sure the two natives and the coconut shell were not part of a Japanese trap but within hours a rescue mission was organized and Buddy Liebenow of PT-157 would go in for the actual pickup. He had been there on the night of the incident and was familiar with the proximity.
As was normal, the run was made at night with departure and speed timed to arrive on the scene during the blackest hours. Running at patrol speed to keep the wake down, the two natives, Biuku and Eroni, stood beside Buddy and helped him locate the rendezvous point. There were so many little islets out here that it would have been near impossible to find them at night on their own.
An Australian coast watcher named Evans helped set up this whole rendezvous. Kennedy was to be met at a predetermined spot where he would await with natives in a canoe. Four signal shots were fired by the 157 and Jack returned signal fire. Buddy moved his boat in slowly and picked him up and Jack helped pilot them toward a very small islet near Cross Island on the West side of Ferguson Passage.
The 157 boat eased in toward the shoreline of Olasana Island. At first there was no sign of the 109 crew and, after a short wait, Kennedy started yelling for them. Slowly they emerged one by one from the trees and the pickup proceeded forward. Nothing had happened, as initially considered, but all were relieved to finally swing the boat around and head for home.
It was 0530 when the boats made it back to Rendova Island. It was a joyous occasion with much handshaking, back slapping, and kidding going on. There had been a little medicinal juice passed around the 157 boat on the way back and some of the 109 survivors were “extra happy” to be back at Todd City, along with several of the natives who were joyously singing “Jesus Loves Me”… It was indeed a good night and dawn for all of us.
Our war continued on as we slowly progressed to the north. We spent a short time stationed at the island of Vella LaVella at a place called Lambu Lambu Cove. The base was just a few native grass huts and some tents back in the trees. There was an abandoned Japanese barge on the beach. A small dock was used to tie up to for refueling and all the other boats were tied around the cove to trees that grew out over the water. We were told there were still Japanese on the island and to not wander too far off the base.
Other places where we saw action were Lever Harbor, Cape Torokina and Green Island. Gradually we pushed the Japanese back closer to their huge stronghold at Rabaul, their largest base in the South Pacific.
There were many nights we returned to base repeatedly for ammunition in strikes against Japanese destroyers and enemy barges. One night returning to Kula Gulf on New Georgia, we discovered all our ready ammunition had been exhausted. Forced to gather old ammo exposed to the elements, we suffered misfires and hung fires the rest of the night.
I will always remember my crew’s bravery that evening. In a fight for our lives with eight enemy barges, only one of our main guns remained operational. Wylan never wavered and remained on the bow firing his .50 Cal. like a madman, while our other guns were silent.
I ran to check on the other guns and caught Joe Tiberti pulling a smoking 20-mm shell out of his gun and throwing it over the side with his bare hands. Van der Heiden was ramming the 20’s out of our stern mounted gun with all the force he could muster. There were buckets of water everywhere with hot 20-mm barrels in them. The last barrel was still in place and Van was banging away on a cleaning rod trying to clear the barrel, not knowing what second might be his last as he was hammering on a high explosive round.
I ran back to check on Chase’s twin 50’s and found him working intently on a lap full of parts from both guns and whatever spare parts he could find. There were tracers flying everywhere and a few uncomfortably close to my head but Chase never noticed, except for the light they provided for him to work. I mentally crossed those guns off as Wylan’s 50 was the only gun firing except for the rifles and a Tommy gun from the remainder of the crew.
On my next run, however, those guns were all spitting fire like a vengeance. Oh, what a wonderful sound! That was the coolest exhibition of nerve that I have ever seen. I never dreamed they would have them functioning in the middle of a pitch dark firefight. I was certainly one proud skipper. It was a very satisfying feeling to witness the early dawn’s light filter over a sea as smooth as glass with a broom tied to our mast as we cruised slowly back toward our base.
About this time, I began to experience some episodes of chills, fever, and sweats. Our medical officer treated me for malaria and I was able to rebound after several days. The mosquitoes here are very thick. You can sleep under a net but there is only so much you can do.
At this point in the war, our PTs had become personnel barge fighters. The idea was to keep the Japanese from moving men from island to island so they couldn’t concentrate their forces or escape. We also helped move Marine strike forces behind enemy lines.
It was early fall of ’43 that our own forces and Tokyo Rose started reporting I had been killed in action. I had to write a letter to my folks to let them know that, regardless of reports to the contrary, I was safe and well and still had my boat. My officer friends, however, started talking about me in the past tense.
Again we moved further north to yet another new base, this time at Stirling in the Treasury Islands. Here we also tied up our boats to huge trees that overhung the water. The water was clear and you could see the coral twenty feet deep.
Life went on as usual on the island during the day with powdered eggs, bugs, air raids, and poker. I was told confidentially that orders had arrived for me to return to the states. A day or two later, Commander Kelly called me in. I thought it was to give me the good news but instead confronted me with, “McElroy, how would you like to volunteer for a dangerous mission – a PT boat strike on Rabaul Harbor?”
As we prepared for the raid, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of dread. It was going to be a twelve PT boat attack, so we were headed for the lion’s den with 48 torpedoes and roughly 150 men. It was a long passage north through hazardous waters up to New Britain Island, then skirting east around and up to the Duke of York Islands and in to the Bismark Sea. We were most assuredly in forbidden waters now.
Around the peninsula and past Sulphur Point and there it was, the biggest Japanese naval base in the South Pacific. In we went, twelve boats at combat speed, loaded and locked. This idea might just be crazy enough to work.
We passed a Japanese destroyer 75 yards abeam. Van der Heiden and Frost were in a very heated argument as to the number of stacks and guns on it. Their argument was very soon settled when they opened up on us with everything they had.
I will never forget the sight of all those Japanese sailors running all over the deck. We could hear their voices and, with a sailing rock, I could have hit one of them. However, we were too close for their big guns to target us. The lookout in their crow’s nest was now firing down on us and I figure he was the one that put the holes in our deck.
My crew put up a fight that I shall never forget. On the way back I overheard someone say, “Are those your knees knocking or mine?” We didn’t bring much ammo home but we did make it. With help, we made it.
Upon our return, Commander Kelly gave me the news that I already knew, my orders to the states for leave. I was steadily losing weight and my strength. The malarial symptoms came back and the docs stepped up my treatment
He also informed me that I had been recommended for a medal. There was a little ceremony under the coconut trees and I was awarded the Silver Star with an ocean breeze cooling the sweat on my face. The citation came from Admiral Bull Halsey. I was pleased with the honor but upset at the same time. They should have cited my outstanding crew.
I went to my men and thanked each one of them and shook their hands. It was very hard for me to leave them, tougher than I ever imagined. We made a great team and, if it were in my power, every one of them would have been decorated.
I was detached from PT service on January 11, 1944 and it was a long and strangely quiet voyage home with lots of time topside for reflection. The doctors told me my war was now over. There is a feeling of regret about this… but I never lost any of my men and for that I am grateful. It sure will be good to see home and family. I hope they recognize me.
Sailing underneath the Golden Gate was very nearly an emotional experience. My first steps back on the dry ground of America sure felt wonderful. I had not realized how great it would feel to be back in the states. The medical officers here treated me for a few more weeks and then I was reassigned to set up a Navy duty station here in San Francisco.
A few months later Eve and I were married in my parent’s home in Texas. It was April 18, 1944, and we began our delayed life together.
John McElroy was appointed to the rank of Lieutenant on April 2, 1944.
I was reassigned as Seamanship Instructor at the US Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School, Notre Dame, where I served for the remainder of the war.
We operated training craft out on Lake Michigan. Once dispatched to Jacksonville, Florida with several recruits, we took delivery of a 104-foot rescue boat. I sailed it down around the Florida Keys, west across the Gulf of Mexico, and all the way up the Mississippi and Chicago Rivers without the aid of a pilot. I enjoyed it immensely, as no one shot at us along the entire trip. It was my last fling as a Navy boat skipper.
All three of my brothers enlisted for the war. Tom served as an Ensign on a tanker in the South Pacific. Pat, just 17, served as a control tower and radar operator in the Army Air Corps. Bodie, who suffered from a leg injury from a horse accident in his youth, was rejected by every branch he approached. Turned down fifteen times, he never gave up and finally begged his way into the Navy to serve proudly in the Pacific as a chief mechanic.
Following the war, I was released to inactive duty. When the Korean War broke out, I was recalled and served in the Office of Naval Officer Procurement in San Francisco and subsequently in Albuquerque. Later transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I served as the Assistant Naval Port Control Officer.
With the war over in Korea, I chose to leave active duty in May of 1955 and returned to Texas, settling back in San Antonio. Following more than 20 years of active and reserve duty, I subsequently retired from the Navy as a Captain. I will surely miss it but it was time to move on.
John McElroy passed away on February 10, 2001 and was buried with full military honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.