Tin Can Sailor: Life Aboard the USS Sterett, 1939-1945
by C. Raymond Calhoun
Naval Institute Press, 1993, 198 pages
The destroyer USS Sterett (DD-407) had a distinguished WWII record
with the highlight being her performance during the Third Battle of Savo Island
on the night of November 12-13, 1942. Sterett earned the Presidential
Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism during this battle in which she engaged
a Japanese battleship and light cruiser and sank a Japanese destroyer, which
blew up immediately when Sterett's guns found their target. On April 9, 1945,
Sterett came under attack by four kamikaze aircraft. The destroyer's guns
downed the first three planes, but the last kamikaze struck Sterett just above
the waterline and put the ship out of battle for the rest of the war. Tin Can
Sailor provides exciting firsthand accounts of key events from Sterett's
commissioning in August 1939 to her decommissioning in November 1945.
C. Raymond Calhoun served as an officer aboard the destroyer Sterett
from 1939 until April 1943, when he had to be hospitalized in the States in
order to recuperate from a gunshot wound received during battle from a Japanese
plane's machine gun bullet that had severed his radial nerve and paralyzed his
right hand. He served as gunnery officer during the Third Battle of Savo Island
and was promoted to Sterett's executive officer in February 1943. During
his hospitalization, he wrote about his experiences aboard Sterett, which
formed the foundation for this book published several decades later. He
effectively supplements the destroyer's story with anecdotes and personal
accounts from more than 50 former crewmen that he collected starting with
Sterett's biannual reunion in 1987. Calhoun previously published in 1981
another book on naval history entitled Typhoon: The Other Enemy about the
typhoon that hit the US Third Fleet in December 1944. Calhoun at that time
commanded the destroyer USS Moale (DD-693), which barely survived the
typhoon that sank three other destroyers.
The book's tone and style change abruptly after Calhoun departs Sterett,
since he relies on long quoted personal accounts from other crewmen rather than using his
experiences as a base for the narrative. For example, Commander J.D. Jeffrey
provides a seven-page account of Sterett's second nighttime surface
battle in the Battle of Vella Gulf during the night of August 6-7, 1943.
Sterett and five other US destroyers sank three Japanese destroyers
during the battle without getting hit at all. This complete success contrasted
sharply to Sterett's first nighttime surface battle at the Third Battle of Savo
Island with 32 killed and 13 critically wounded. The destroyer was hit by
11 enemy shells (including three 14-inch projectiles) but managed to leave the
battle area under her own power. Repairs in the States did not get completed
until three months later in February 1943.
Sterett's history gets covered chronologically in the book's 11
chapters, with the long chapter on the Third Battle of Savo Island being the
highlight as Calhoun provides an eyewitness account of what happened from his
position as gunnery officer. The kamikaze attack that put the destroyer out
of the war gets covered in about three pages, mainly consisting of quoted
material from Gordon Williams, commander of Sterett at the time, with the
Chief Engineer also providing his account of the attack while in the forward
engine room. The Epilogue gives Calhoun's personal story of what happened to him
after he left Sterett for the hospital until the end of WWII. An appendix
gives the names of over 800 men who served aboard the ship and includes their
service dates and ranks.
In Japan's first mass kamikaze attack during the Battle of Okinawa on April
6, 1945, a kamikaze aircraft almost hit Sterett, but the destroyer's gunners shot
it down. It crashed into the sea about 30 yards off the starboard beam. Sterett also assisted that day in downing five other Japanese aircraft. She was
ordered the next day to Radar Picket Station No. 1 directly north of Okinawa,
where the destroyers Bush (DD-529) and Colhoun (DD-801) had been
sunk during attacks by multiple kamikaze planes. On April 9, five planes
identified as Vals (Type 99 Dive Bombers) headed for Sterett, but one changed
direction toward two smaller LCS landing craft at the same picket station.
Sterett's 5-inch guns downed two Vals quite some distance away. The
remaining two planes continued their approach with machine guns blazing. The
destroyer's gunners sawed off the wing of one attacker, which hit the water
about 50 yards off the starboard beam. Commander Gordon Williams writes, "One
wheel of the plane ricocheted and wedged under the starboard anchor chain." The
last Val hit Sterett just above the waterline on the starboard side and
opened up a ten-foot hole. The crash caused moderate damage requiring repairs in
the States, but there were only minor injuries to the crew. The destroyer made
it under her own power to Kerama Retto, where a photo taken there shows the
extent of the ship's damage caused by the kamikaze attack (see photo at bottom of
this web page).
Calhoun's well-justified pride in Sterett's accomplishments, battle
performance, and crewmen is reflected throughout the pages of Tin Can Sailor.
This well-researched book successfully integrates Calhoun's personal experiences
and former crewmen's accounts to tell the story of this "gallant fighting ship"
described in glowing language in the Presidential Unit Citation below.
Sterett, somewhere in western Pacific,
makes approach to fuel from unidentified carrier
PRESIDENTIAL UNIT CITATION
THE SECRETARY OF THE NAVY
The President of the United States takes pleasure in
PRESIDENTIAL UNIT CITATION
UNITED STATES SHIP STERETT
for service as set forth in the following
"For extraordinary heroism in action against an enemy Japanese Task Force
during the Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of November 12-13, 1942.
Fighting boldly and with determination against units of the powerful enemy
Fleet intent on bombarding our airfield at Guadalcanal, the U.S.S. STERETT
successfully engaged three Japanese vessels at close range during the
thirty-four minutes of furious action. Scoring numerous hits on an enemy
light cruiser, she then closed range to 3000 yards and fired a full salvo of
torpedoes to cause two large explosions and assist in sinking a battleship.
When an enemy destroyer was sighted at 1000 yards from her starboard bow,
she immediately took it under fire and, with two torpedoes and two five-inch
salvos, exploded and sank the vessel before it could open fire. With her
after section severely damaged and burning and with both after guns disabled
as the remaining enemy ships concentrated their gunfire on her, she fought
desperately to control the damage and succeeded in retiring from the battle
area under her own power. A gallant fighting ship, superbly handled by her
officers and men, the STERETT rendered invaluable service in defeating a
major enemy attack at this crucial point in the Solomon Islands Campaign."
For the President,
JAMES FORRESTAL (signed)
Secretary of the Navy
Hole in Sterett's starboard side caused
by crash of kamikaze aircraft on April 9, 1945
(photographed at Kerama Retto on April 11, 1945)