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August 23, 2021

WWII Coast Veteran Recalls a Torpedo Hitting the USS Cavalier

Manila Bay, 0130 hours, January 30, 1945: Explosion rocks a quiet night  aboard the USS Cavalier (APA-37) as a Japanese torpedo rips into the ship’s port side aft, flooding compartments, buckling the deck, killing the engine and steerage. Dead in the water. No power. No lights. Below decks, sailor Ernie Clayton couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. Fearing a second torpedo, men scrambled for the escape hatch. A shipmate found a ladder and the hatch wheel, turned and flung it open. That’s when Ernie saw “The Most Beautiful Sight in the World.”

Before Ernie Clayton died in 2013 at age 97, he shared “The Most Beautiful Sight in the World” with us at a VBC breakfast. Here is the story as Ernie’s daughter Jeanie recorded it:

Twenty days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor I joined the US Coast Guard at the age of 25. Assigned to the boat division on the USS Cavalier APA-37, an amphibious personnel attack ship, I served 2-1/2 years aboard the Cavalier in the Southwest Pacific. And that is where I saw the most beautiful sight in the world.

The Cavalier carried 600 men and the landing crafts to get them on to the beaches in the South Pacific. The Cavalier completed five successful invasions in dangerous waters on Saipan, Tinian, Leyte Gulf, Luzon and Subic Bay. The sleeping quarters were below deck and men slept four and five high on bunks.

Early in the morning of January 30, 1945 while off Manila Bay the ship was suddenly shaken by a violent underwater explosion, presumably a torpedo fired from the Japanese submarine RO-115. Hit port side aft, some of the compartments flooded, and decks buckled. Engines stopped and steerageway was lost. At 1:30 in the morning the ship was dead in the water, not moving. There was no power, no lights. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.

Most of the men, asleep down below, were thrown out of their bunks. There was mass confusion as sweaty sailors were dumped on to the deck, some cussing, others praying, stepping on one another. Someone yelled, “Find the hatch.” Fearing a second torpedo we wanted to find that hatch and get up on deck. A shipmate finally climbed up the ladder, grabbed the wheel to unlock the hatch, and pushed it open. Bright beams of moonlight flooded the dark interior of the ship.  A full moon lit up the sky. And that was the most beautiful sight in the world.

Although 50 men were injured, miraculously no one was killed. Flooding and damage were quickly controlled, but since her propeller was jammed, the Cavalier had to be towed to Pearl Harbor for repairs while the ship personnel were given survivors leave. The Cavalier received a report that the Japanese submarine that hit them had been sunk. Most submarines fire two torpedoes at a time. Fortunately this submarine had only one to fire. If another torpedo had been fired we might not have been so lucky.

The Cavalier was repaired and was out of dry dock in September 1945. We didn’t know it at the time, but the ship was scheduled to hit Japan in November of 1945. The atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945 ending the war and quite possibly saving my life.

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