National Geographic : 1947 Jul
Adventures with the Survey Navy BY IRVING JOHNSON THIS is the story of the "Survey Navy." It is told belatedly, for little could be said during the war. Now, though peace has come, few citizens have any realiza tion of the important part that survey crews played in winning the war in the Pacific. "Survey Navy" was the nickname affec tionately bestowed upon the survey ships of the Navy's Hydrographic Office by the men who served them. Not much fighting was expected of these lightly armed vessels. Their job was to chart a route to Tokyo through a constellation of question-mark islands and past vicious reefs lurking in ambush for ships. Survey Navy, often working ahead of the fighting fleets, had to blaze a trail beset by the deadliest hazards of man and Nature (map, page 135). War in the remotest recesses of the Pacific compelled the Navy to rely in many instances on navigational charts a century old. These bore the vaguest directions, such as: "This island reported to lie 11 miles ENE of posi tion shown," or "Many uncharted reefs exist; proceed with native pilot and good light." As one consequence of the lack of charts, the U. S. S. South Dakota, one of the few American battleships in the South Seas during the desperate summer of 1942, ripped her bottom on an unreported coral head. Old Chart Costs Japan a Battle Japan's costliest example demonstrated the folly of attempting an invasion without accu rate charts. On a gloomy night off New Guinea in August, 1942, the enemy fleet groped into Milne Bay with the aid of the best available chart-one printed by the British nearly a hundred years ago. Twelve miles up the bay the Japanese landed, expecting to surprise the Australian airfield and its defenders. Too late the Nips found themselves mired in a swamp three miles from their goal. Many were slaughtered by the Aussies; others were thrown back into the sea. This disaster, the direct result of a faulty chart, broke the back of the enemy's drive on Australia. My work as a civilian steered me into the Hydrographic Office's surveys. As owner and skipper of the Yankee, a schooner carrying 6,000 square feet of sail, I had explored scores of little-known Pacific islands.* Long before the war, prowls around the coral atolls con vinced me that charts were grossly inadequate. War caught me in Hawaii, advising the Navy on locations for new South Sea bases. In Pearl Harbor stood the U. S. S. Sumner, the Navy's special survey ship, then a veteran of 26 years' service. Originally the U. S. S. Bushnell, a submarine tender, she had been converted into a survey ship in 1938 (page 132). Sumner got off to a fighting start December 7, 1941, when one of her three-inch guns exploded the first Japanese torpedoplane in mid-air. Destiny brought us together. Of all the Navy assignments available, none could have suited me better than duty as navigator aboard the Sumner, with rank of Lieutenant Commander. I was eager to make charts. What I never counted on was the adventure attending a pencil-and-paper job. We Take Over a Coral Solitude In 1942 the Sumner was detailed to load Marines and take over the Wallis Islands (Iles Wallis), a French-owned group between Samoa and Fiji. I was assigned to the party because, I believe, I was the only Navy man who had been to Wallis before the war. I remembered from my Yankee days that Uvea, the main island of the Wallis group, was surrounded by a coral reef whose dan gerous lagoon channel already had claimed several ships. For safety's sake, we entered the channel on a slack tide, which lasted barely 15 minutes. As pilot, I took station in the crow's-nest. There I looked deep into the clear water, just as I did from the Yankee's square-sail yard a few years earlier. We were nervous lest an enemy shell end our survey before it began. Quietly we sneaked into the lagoon and anchored, hoping we hadn't been detected. Then we headed for shore in motor whaleboats and survey boats. In this stage of the war, none of us dreamed of the ingenious assault landing craft still to come.t My job was to lead the small boats across the reef-choked lagoon, plant buoys to show others the way, and locate a landing place. For a quarter-hour our open whaleboat made a perfect target, but not a shot rang out. The jungle remained silent but ominous. Where were the Japanese, I wondered. Beating the Marines ashore for once, I ran * See "Westward Bound in the Yankee," by Irving Johnson, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1942. t See "Landing Craft for Invasion," by Melville Bell Grosvenor, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1944.