|Victor "Whitey" Kelmelis - USS Atlanta Story
I consider myself lucky to be a survivor of the battle of Guadalcanal.
There was so much death everywhere you looked. Men were fighting incredibly hard just to stay alive. I was one of those men lucky enough to make it back. This is for all the men who didn't. I was 21 when I enlisted in 1941 and ended up boarding the Atlanta in New York City. We were a crew of over 600 men. Who knew that over 150 of them would not come back. I was very proud to be part of the war effort and to be in the Navy. We were the ships first crew with not only a brand new ship, but also a new class of ships .Our ship was fast and armored with 5-inch guns. We could protect a carrier like no other ship before. The Atlanta was commissioned December 24, 1941 , a day before Christmas. This was only three weeks after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. We were not really involved in the war in the Pacific yet
I was a gunner's mate in turret three. I helped load the projectile or get the projectiles up from the ammo room below. We did shakedown cruises and we would go out and shoot for hours getting ready for battle. By the time we were called on, the crew of the Atlanta was ready to assume its duty. Our orders had come and we were heading out to join the war.
We sailed through the Panama Canal and got to Pearl Harbor April 23,5 months after the Japanese had bombed it. The sight of all the wreckage and our ships destroyed made me feel angry and sad at the same time. It was terrible really terrible. We wanted to get the Japs really bad. If the Japanese wanted to get our attention they sure did after bombing us like they did.
On May 10 we were assigned escort duty for the ammunition ship Rainier and the oiler Kaskaskia out of Hawaii ,heading to Noumea, New Caledonia.
After the supply ships were safely escorted, we joined Vice Admiral William F. Halsey's Task force 16, formed around the Carriers Enterprise and Hornet and went back to Hawaii. You never knew how big or how bad a battle will get before it starts. Once it starts all hell breaks loose. You just make sure you do your job right and everybody works hard together. You won't find any better teamwork than guys working together to defeat the enemy by all means possible. There were about 10 guys in my turret, and you didn't have much room. Once in a while, a charge would malfunction, and we would have to throw it out of the turret before it blew up inside. Luckily that problem didn't happen very often.We were then assigned escort duty for the Carrier Enterprise and the Hornet during the battle of Midway.This was June 4, 1942, 3 days after my 22 birthday. The Enterprise sent out a great amount of planes that helped destoy Japanese Carriers. It was a great naval victory for us, even though we had to take some loses.Most of the fighting was over in Task Force 17 ,which was around the Yorktown so we really didn't see that much action. We returned to Hawaii June 13 and were kept on 24 -hour then 48-hour alert for the next 5 weeks, while our ship was readied for its next orders. Our ship had its bottom scraped and general maintenance done. We were brought up to top fighting form. When we were ready to sail we went out and did lots of practice on bombardment and shooting at moving targets. It got hot and it was loud, we shot a lot of shells.
Next we were assigned back to Task Force 16 as we sailed to Tongatabu ,at Nutualofa Tonga. Here we refueled and than joined up with the Enterprise. This time she was launching planes in Task Force 61, in support of the landing of the Marines on Guadalcanal. This was August 8, and the first offensive move against the Japanese for America. We stayed in that area protecting her. We were fortunate to miss the battle of Savo Island the next day. That Japanese night time attack on our ships was terrible. They caught us off guard and we took a terrible loss of men and ships. The Japs were real tricky at night. We didn't get that figured out for awhile.
The next battle for the Atlanta was during the day and it started August 24.This was the battle of the Eastern Solomons. The Japanese were determined to take back these islands and where sending their combined fleet, called the Tokyo Express, south to protect a large troop convoy to retake the islands. We were screening the Enterprise, and she was sending out planes to try and locate the Japanese fleet. For the next eleven minutes we came under attack from 18 Japanese type 99 carrier bombers. It was our first real test; we both increased our speed up to 27 knots and went turn for turn right next to each other. The bombs fell all around us as we swerved to avoid them. Meanwhile we were laying down a barrage over our carrier with all our guns keeping the Enterprise protected. This consisted of 5-inch, 1.1 inch and 20- millimeter batteries. There is so much power when the ship is at full speed. We knew our ship, and Capt. Jenkins was a very good commander. We thought of ourselves as a very good crew. The Enterprise still took some shrapnel damage and one hit, but that was only slight damage compared to what it could have been. On August 31 we had to help out our carrier the Saratoga when it took a torpedo hit. We kept her screened in submarine infested water while they hitched a towline to her. We were always on the lookout for submarines.
We then went to Tongatabu and got our ship ready again. Then back out to sea to escort a couple of transports to Dumbea Bay, Noumea. After that we got assigned to Task Force 64 and went back to protecting the carriers who were launching planes in support of our troops on Guadalcanal. On October 26 we participated in the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. We lost a number of ships going against a powerful and larger Japanese fleet then what we had. Because of our position in the Task Force we were spared direct combat. On the morning of October 28 we brought on board Admiral Scott and became the flagship. Two days later, we went to bombard an area called Point Cruz . I was in the turret that day loading the projectiles. We were so close you could see the Japs trying to get away from our shells in their jeeps. We must have shot 5000 rounds at them.
Our task force returned to Espiritu arriving on October 31. We were designated to screen two cargo ships, the Libra and the Betelgeuse and a troop transport the Zeilin. By November 11 the ships were escorted to Lunga Point to off load there supplies or men. That day we knew enemy planes were coming, so we took the supply ships out in a formation to protect them.
It was at 0920 when we came under attack, and we shot down a number of carrier bombers that came out of the clouds over Henderson field. One hour later more planes came back and once again we led the task force to help protect our supply ships. So far the supply ships had only suffered minor damage. The next day it got worse. The Japanese wanted to do everything with in their power to remove us from the Islands. Our commanders new how important it was that we didn't give up. At about 1310, November 12 we received a warning that 25 enemy planes were headed towards us, and expected to arrive in 50 minutes or so. We led the way in a formation while we sent up a barrage of cover with our destroyers. At times the planes were just above the water line coming in real low. We threw everything at them we could, all our guns blazing; it was quite a roar. The Atlanta was one hell of a cruiser, and we were using her for everything she could give. Things happened very quickly, but then it was over. We escorted the supply ships back to unload. There was certainly a lot of action going on. After only a few hours had passed that Thursday afternoon, we learned we had to set out to sea again that evening. We now had to escort the supply ships out to sea because a Japanese surface force that included two Battleships , one Cruiser, and six Destroyers had been detected. The full force of what was called the Tokyo Express. As a sailor they don't tell you very much about what's going on. We weren't really told what might be coming up. We had done a lot of shooting that day, and there was no rest for us. I had been in the turret all day handling the powder charges. They weighed about 50 lb. each. That evening they sent me down to the ammo room to send up the projectiles to the turret.
These islands and Henderson field were real important to the Japanese, and real important to the United States war effort. We escorted the transports away from Guadalcanal and took them to the backside of another island where they were safe. We turned around just before midnight and headed back to defend our Marines and the airfield. We had to; the Marines were sitting ducks without our help. Our cruisers and destroyers were going up against a large enemy battle group, which included battleships. These islands could not be lost and we were the only ships that could prevent that from happening. It was the early morning of Friday, November 13. The task force shifted quickly as our ship swayed, we were in Ironbottom Sound and we knew the Japanese were close, very close. The ocean can be a very dark place at night. All of a sudden out of the blackness of the Pacific, bright searchlights illuminated us. Being inside I really didn't know what was happening out there, all I knew was that violent explosions started to happen everywhere. We quickly returned fire and targeted the search light locations. All of a sudden our whole ship shook and seemed to jump out of the water. We were really knocked off our feet. We had just taken a torpedo hit or possibly even two hits. It knocked out everything but emergency power. We couldn't really fight back; our big guns went silent. By this time the battle was everywhere, and all ships were firing at each other. Our ship was on fire, we were ablaze in the black night, it seemed that everybody was firing at us.
I was sending up charges to the turret when all of a sudden it blew up above me. Fire started coming down from above, so another guy and I take off to get out of there. We were down a few decks inside the ship going between compartments trying to work our way back up to topside. You could feel the shells hitting us all over. Sometimes shells went right through the ship without exploding. You just heard the sound of them going by you; it was a very fast sound, it sounded like whoosh, real loud. I bet those were from our ship the San Francisco right next to us. I wonder if they ever apologized for shooting us.
Next, I found myself and my buddy in a compartment with some other guys. People were yelling which way to go, as there were two directions you could go from the compartment, foreword or back aft. One guy said that we should all head back toward the stern, to try to get topside. I told them that they were heading toward the ammo room; we should head for the bow. They went their way and I never saw those guys again.
This guy and I started to work our way up through decks and finally got topside by going through another turret. We had no power to use our guns; we had no way to defend ourselves. What it looked like on top deck was nothing anyone could prepare you for. Some guys were running around crazy, some guys wanted to jump off and abandon ship. I saw Admiral Scott and many more officers all dead. You had to step over mangled pieces of bodies everywhere. Meanwhile ships were shooting all around us. Our ship was on fire and severely listing on its side. I never thought I would see the morning that night. My buddy and I headed to the very front of the ship. We laid down and started to pray. I told the Lord I would be a good boy if he would let me live.
As the hours passed, we realized we had to try and do something. We started to organize and formed a bucket brigade trying to put out the fires. As morning broke, we started to think we had a chance of surviving this battle. Our hopes of living were about to be taken away. Off in the distance we could see a Japanese destroyer bearing down on us, coming in to finish us off. Our bridge was all blown to hell and still on fire. We had no power, we were a sitting duck. The Portland was going around in circles on the other side of our ship from the Jap destroyer. She had become disabled in the fight last night and couldn't steer straight. We signaled the Portland our predicament. The gunners from the Portland sent three salvoes over our ship and blew the Jap destroyer out of the water. We could have never gotten through without the Portland helping us.
As morning broke we could now see the real damage that had been done. The Marines came out to help us get off the ship. I had a chance to go back down to my locker, and I went down part way, but the water was too high and rushing all-around me, so I turned back. Said goodbye to what I started with and moved on. They towed the Atlanta out to deeper waters and sunk her. Gone was the Atlanta a proud warrior that led the battle of Guadalcanal.
We were dropped off on the beach and told to get ready for the Japanese, as they were coming back to attack the island .We went up from the shore and tried to make a hole in the sand to lay in. The marines were really dug in; we just had a shallow hole. The marines told me what it looked like from the shore watching the battle. One shoots one way then another shoots back; it was quite a show. They also told me how they liked the new look of our cruiser when they first saw it.
That night the Japs came back and started to shell us. They were shooting for Henderson Field as all the shells were going over our heads. The shelling went on for a long time. If they had lowered their guns a half a notch they would have taken us all out. Hearing shells going over your head is a scary thing . Once again one hell of a night. If you thought things couldn't get much worse, just wait. We now learned that the Japanese task force had three or four troop transports enroute to the island to re-take it from the U.S. Marines and us marooned sailors. There were five thousand troops coming to kill us. We could not defend ourselves against such an overwhelming force.
What happened next saved our lives again. Finally reinforcements had arrived. Our previous battles had bought enough time for our carrier to arrive. Our carrier's planes and planes from Henderson Field went and sank all the troop transports, and the Japs had to retreat. It was a hard fought victory at last.
The next day we went to help unload the supply ships. During the days that followed Japs would bomb us in the jungle. They would drop these bombs that would explode above the ground, and shrapnel would go everywhere and cut you to ribbons. We called these bombs Daisy Cutters. The planes came over me one day, and I dropped to the ground hugging a great big tree. I was really getting good at asking God to let me keep on living. The bombs exploded away from me . I was on many islands after Guadalcanal and finally ended up on a carrier called the Nassau. Other battle areas I was part of include New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Guam, and the Aleutian Islands. .
I would like to thank my granddaughter for finding the Atlanta web site and my son for helping to get my story told. Any of you sailors out there remember me? You used to call me Whitey for my silver blond hair. Any other guys from Turret three make it? Do you guys remember our dog Lucky? How he used to come in the chow line or do tricks for us up in the bow.
How about when the ball of fire that came out of the ocean one night? I think it was called St. Elmo's. Send an Email to my Son and I will get the message. Long life to everyone and God bless.