It was hoped that Mariveles Bay, being close to the guns of Corregidor, would be immune to air attacks, although some misgivings were felt on score, we found a bombed and burning merchant ship in the harbor, and learned that this was the result of a light hearted Japanese Christmas Eve celebration. However, with high hopes, we moored the ship to the shoreline in a protective cove, and again spread our camouflage nets overhead. This time, the object was to make the ship look like part of the jungle foliage ashore, and we succeeded very well by using mottled green paint, with plenty of tree branches tied to the masts and upper works. Unfortunately, a rock quarry nearby had made a white gash which it was impossible to match. We could only hope that the Jap scouting planes would not happen to snap any candid camera shots from that particular direction.
Disillusionment of both these hopes was not slow in coming. On December 29th our daily visitors, evidently deciding that Manila had been adequately taken care of, turned their attention toward us. Squadron after endless squadron showed their contempt for the guns of Corregidor by blasting that island from end to end, and the last group of the day, as if by an aftert-hought, wheeled in from that fatally exposed direction and blanketed the Canopus with a perfectly placed patter of bombs. Tied up as she was, and unable to dodge, it seemed a miracle that only one of the closely bunched rain of missiles actually struck the ship, but that one bomb nearly ended our career then and there. It was an armor-piercing type which went through all the ship's decks, and exploded on top of the propeller shaft under the magazines, blowing them open, and starting fires which threatened to explode the ammunition.
Disaster and danger are the great touchstones which bring out the true quality in men, and those sailors never faltered. Hardly had the rain of rocks thrown from craters in the nearby hillside subsided when fire fighting crews had jumped to their work. The Executive officer, Lt. Comdr. "Hap" Goodall, organized one party on deck, which attacked the blaze from above. They found smoke pouring from ammunition shuttles leading to the magazines below, and directed their hose streams down the hatches, unmindful of ominous detonations below which told them magazines might blow them up at any moment. Gunner's mate Budzaj even climbed down a smoke-filled ammunition trunk with a hose in an effort to get at the bottom of the blaze. When the fire pumps failed for a few minutes, bucket brigades carried on the battle.
In the meantime, below decks, Lt. Cmdr. "Al" Hede had organized another fire party which tackled the problem by carrying their hoses through choking smoke in the compartments near the magazines, pulling wounded and dying men away from the blasted areas where they had fallen. Most of the oxygen type breathing apparatus had been cut off by the explosion, but Shipfitter Cambron donned the one remaining outfit, and carried the hose right down to the magazines, backed by his shipmates working in relays, each of which stayed as long as men could stand the fumes.
Our fighting Chaplain McManus led a rescue group into the engine room, where fragments and escaping steam had caused the most casualties, administering the last rites to dying men and helping to evacuate the injured to makeshift dressing stations.
The officers in charge of the engine room, Machinist Hutchinson and Electrician Hall, had both been badly wounded by the first blast, but the Chief Machinist Mate left in charge shut off the steam at the boilers until severed steam pipes could be isolated, thus saving more of his men from being scalded to death. He then helped the wounded to safety, and was later found wandering around dazed, having no recollection of what happened after the blast!
Four hours the devoted crew fought before all fires were finally out. When the magazines were examined, several crushed and exploded powder charges were found, mute evidence showing how close to complete destruction the ship and all on board had been. Nothing less than a miracle could have prevented a general magazine explosion at the time the bomb set off those powder charges, but miracles do happen. The engine of destruction had carried it's own antidote, and it's fragments which severed pipes near the magazines had released floods of steam and water at the danger point, automatically keeping fire away from the rest of the powder. Our numbers just weren't quite up that day.
In months to follow, our crew never could quite believe, until the battered hull finally slipped into its last rest beneath the waves, that somehow the old girl would not manage to pull through, as she had that day, and take them all out to rejoin the Fleet. That same night, up went the "Business as Usual" sign, and repair men went to work binding up the old lady's wounds, at the same time others were busy servicing submarines.
- - -Chapter IV - ->