Subject: An Aviator’s Recollections

Published: April 1997

By: J. Gordon Osborn

(Note: this account was originally sent as an email to Drake M. Davis for his website on the USS Savannah. Drake, son of crewman B. Lyle Davis, sent the email to “Now Hear This” for inclusion in the newsletter.)


. . . During the invasion of North Africa we had five aviators on board.  For some unknown reason the CO of the ship, Captain Fiske, didn’t want to let the Senior Aviator, Lt. C Anderson fly.  That meant the other four of us did it all.  I logged 57 hours during the one week we were off the coast of Morocco, three of those days flying three hops.  We were four tired souls at the end.  Flying eight hours a day in those noise, under powered, vibrating aircraft was murderous, for both the pilots and radiomen.


The army appreciated what we did and one battalion commander sent a message recommending we aviators be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.  The Navy awarded us Presidential Commendation with “V”.


I wish I could tell you how many rounds the ship fired from their 15 six inch guns but there were a lot.  We pilots number one mission, during the first part of the invasion, was to spot the ship’s gunfire and secondly to do antisubmarine patrols around the invasion force.  Other than the length of the flights we had it relatively easy.  What AA fire there was mostly small arms stuff and there were no enemy aircraft in the area.


Savannah departed North African waters on 15 November and arrived Norfolk on the 27th.  On the 11th of December the ship left for the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, NY arriving there on the 14th.  The aviation unit transferred to NAS Floyd Bennet.


On Christmas Day, 1943 the aviation unit rejoined the ship and set sail for the South Atlantic to conduct a naval blockade.  We spent New Year’s Eve in Trinidad.  We spent the first week of January tied up in Recife, Brazil.  An admiral shifted his flag to Savannah for the remainder of its stay in the South.  On 12 January we started our blockade practically on the equator half way between Africa and South America.  It was all pretty boring and hot, very hot.  There was no air conditioning on ship’s in those days.  Many of the crew slept topside on the steel deck.


For the aviators the days were broken up by flights, each aviator flying every other day.  For the rest of the ship’s company it must have been pure boredom.  We had two planes in the air during all daylight hours searching for blockade runners.  When I was on a staff later in the war in the Pacific I knew that we were breaking the Japanese codes.  Later I learned we were doing the same for the German navy and that our searches weren’t haphazard but guided to where a blockade runner most likely was.


The ship, with two destroyer escorts, spent one month at sea, returned to Recife for a week or so, then back to sea for another month.  This was done until about the middle of March 1943.  We did find one blockade runner carrying crude rubber from the East Indies to Germany.  One of the planes found the ship.  Our orders were to use our guns if necessary to keep the crew of the runner aboard so they wouldn’t sink it.  The plane that found the ship guns were jammed and the crew of the runner took to their life boats.  I was in the air at the time and raced to the area but by the time I got there the runner’s crew had completely abandoned ship.


One of the destroyers reached the scene and put a boarding party aboard the runner.  Sadly a bomb the Germans had set wen off while the boarding party was aboard.  I can’t remember the number of destroyer sailors that were killed, probably around 5-10.  Savannah then picked up the Germans in their lifeboats and took them to Recife.


About this time the ship had orders to go to Rio de Janeiro for Mardi Gras.  We were ready for that.  But a few days before sailing to Rio our orders were changed to go to New York for some overhaul.  I think this is probably the only time that Navy people were disappointed at going home.  Even I was to a certain degree, but going home meant I would be there when our first child was born.


After most of the month of April 1943 in New York the ship left for Norfolk.  It operated in Chesapeake Bay in a sort of shake down.  Around the middle of May the ship left for the Mediterranean.  First stop was the naval base west Oran, Mers-El-Keber.  The ship arrived there in early June and operated in and out for short periods of training.  Late in the month the ship moved to Algiers, Algeria.  It was here that King George inspected Savannah.  I was acting V division officer and had an opportunity to speak for quite awhile with the king.  He was very much interested in our aircraft.


Also of note during the period the ship was tied up in Algiers was an attack in daylight by German aircraft.  Savannah wasn’t hit but two Liberty ships were hit and burned filling the harbor with dense smoke.  Neither sank but they were out of action for a long time.


On July 6, 1943 Savannah, with others set out for the invasion of Sicily.  Halfway between Bizerte and Algiers someone decided that the planes were not needed and should be sent off.  I led the flight of the four planes from SAVANNAH to a French seaplane facility taken over by the US Navy in Carthage, Tunisia.  Our maps were not the greatest but the Mediterranean is small so that we just flew to the coast and followed that to Bizerte and down to Carthage about 6 miles from Tunis.


We were launched at dusk and it turned dark about the time we got to the coast.  We flew over Lake Bizerte which was filled with ships about to deploy for the invasion.  No one shot at us but suddenly I realized we were flying through the cables extending downward from the barrage balloons in the area.  There was nothing we could do except pray and fly on.  None of us hit a cable.  The night landing at the French base was not pleasant.  They had hardly any lights to outline the landing area.  Again we lucked out with all making it down safely.


We spent the night at the seaplane base.  The next morning we got a message to region the ship.  Somebody couldn’t make up his mind!  We flew out and met the ship several miles off of Tunisia.


The invasion fleet proceeded to Sicily.  Savannah was assigned the area around Gela.  The night of the 9th was a sad one.  The US Army Air Force miss routed their fleet of planes carrying parachute troops directly over the invasion fleet.  I can’t remember how many were shot down by friendly fire.  I do remember standing on the deck of Savannah and recognizing the planes as C-47’s and passing the word to the gunnery officer.  Other ships within minutes also stopped firing but the damage was done.


The next morning was the invasion.  Our senior aviator and another plane took the first flight to spot the ship’s gunfire.  They had been in the air for only an hour or so when they were attacked by German 109’s.  the senior aviator was killed in flight and his radioman crash landed the plane saving his own life.  The other plane was also shot down with no injuries.


I was called to the bridge and told of what happened and then ordered into the air with another plane.  We were about 5 miles inland and had spotted enemy tanks but before we could call for ship’s fire we were also attacked by 109’s.  5 of them did a good job of messing up my plane.  Both my canapé and the radioman/rear gunner’s canapé were demolished.  My instrument panel was ripped up and to top it off the plane was afire.  Both the radioman and I had minor shrapnel wounds on our heads.


I got the plane out over water and put it down amongst the invasion boats filled with troops heading for shore.  The 109’s strafed us as we were swimming to the boats.  That really teed off the troops.  We took the ride in to the shores of Sicily, let off the troops, and rode the boat back to the home ship of the boats.  Later in the day we were returned to Savannah.


The ship was now without planes but continued shore bombardment using shore fire control parties to spot the gun fire.


Another of the cruisers was heading back to the states after the invasion and about that time we received their aircraft.  On the 19th I was back in the air looking for targets of opportunity near Sciacca, Sicily.  The ship did a bit of shore bombardment but most of the targets were out of the range of its guns.  A week later we were back in Algiers.


The pilots and flight crewman received Distinguished Flying Crosses for our exploits over Sicily.


The ship stayed in Algiers until late July and was on station again on the north coast of Sicily by the 1st of August.  A personal remembrance was my going ashore one evening to meet with the Army commanders to see what support and where the ship could give.  The Army headquarters was in a confiscated beautiful villa downtown Palermo.


On the 1 to 5 August, Savannah supported General Patton on his drive up the north coast to Sicily in his endeavor to beat General Montgomery to Messina.  The AA fire against our planes was a lot heavier that we had previously encountered.  No one was hit.  The ship’s fire did a great deal to help Patton on his drive.


Each evening we would return to Palermo and anchor.  This was the period that the harbor was bombed several early mornings.  The worse was on my birthday August 4, 1943 when I thought for sure we were goners.  The Captain of the ship had the choice of slipping the anchor, meaning let it and the chain go to the bottom, or haul it up.  He chose to haul it up and it seemed to take forever.  We were never close to being hit, but no one wasn’t sure we were goners.


We had one other evening of excitement.  There were reports that the Italian Navy was going to make a break out of whatever port they were in in Northern Italy and engage us and the US Army.  We got under way and headed north to intercept them.  It turned out the Italian ships were headed for a safe haven and had no intention of doing battle.


The ship headed back to Algiers and stayed there through the month of August.  Again someone got the idea that the planes weren’t needed, so the planes were flown to Tunisia and the crew of the V division took a train.  I had flown, but heard the train ride was an adventure.


And again someone changed their minds.  We received a message to rejoin.  The planes flew to Bizerte and the crews went by Army trucks.  We loaded aboard at Bizerte on the 7th of September.


The invasion of the beaches south of Salerno started the morning  of the 8th.  I flew one flight of reconnaissance and spotting of ship’s gunfire.  I was lucky to spot close to thirty tanks in a wooded area just to the north of the landing troops.  My radioman took pictures of them and I still have those pictures stored in the attic with other memorabilia.  Savannah was not close to those tanks so we spotted gunfire from one of the other support ships.  I can’t remember which ship, could have been Boise, but whoever it was did a great job of cutting down on the number of tanks that Mr. Hitler owned.


I won’t go into details of the ship being hit other to give a first hand account of my memory of it..  I wasn’t flying but was up on the flag bridge just below the ship’s bridge and pilot house.  I remember someone pointing out the approach of German planes and watching the bomb that hit us come down.  I was about 20 feet from where the bomb hit the number 3 turret.  Those of us on the staff bridge were knocked down by the concussion but no one was injured.


I made my way back to the fantail to be with the V division in case of abandoning ship.  If we had to I wanted to get the planes off and at least save them.  I passed several friends of mine that had been in one of the forward turrets that had been dragged out.  It was a heart breaking sight.


I have to differ with you on the events later in the day.  The ship was down by the bow but holding steady.  I don’t think the admiralty sent any message to Savannah to abandon ship.  Mostly because they weren’t in our chain of command and no US captain is going to take orders from another country’s officers to abandon his ship.


The recommendation to abandon ship came from Commodore Sullivan USN, the salvage officer for the fleet.  He was later well written up for his great job of clearing both the Salerno and Naples harbors.  The Commodore recommended sinking SAVANNAH but Captain Cary said, “No way.”  Those aren’t his exact words but I was standing close enough to hear him say he wasn’t going to abandon the ship.


Prior to getting underway that evening it was discovered that crewmen were trapped in a compartment directly below the Executive Officer’s stateroom.  The men trapped had tied a piece of thread onto a piece of paper that went up to the stateroom.  Communications were established with them by this means.


Early the next morning Captain Cary asked me to fly the ship’s docking plans to Malta to expedite the docking of the ship to get those men out.  After being catapulted I made a pass by of the ship and got some good pictures of Savannah which showed dramatically how far the ship was down by the bow.


I arrived in Malta and found the harbor of Valetta.  There were no communications between me and anyone on the ground but they were kind enough not to shoot.  I made two passes over the harbor to get some of the small boats out of the way to give me room to land.  I then landed and taxied over to two US destroyers tied up to one of the docks.  We secured the plane and by the time I got out of the plane the head of Malta docks was on the destroyer waiting for me.  Savannah had sent messages ahead letting them know of my arrival.


Unfortunately my flight wasn’t all that successful.  The dock was set up to receive Savannah but the ship was too far down by the bow to get over the sill of the dock.  The only way this could be overcome was to get some of the weight off of the front of the ship.  Anchors, chains, and anything else of weight were moved off or aft.


Meanwhile the problem of the men below was not solved.  They were rescued by the ship intentionally shifting ballast to put a list to port getting most of the water off the space where the men were trapped.  A coffer dam was constructed and the men removed.


I couldn’t see much to be gained by having the V division and planes on board and convinced Captain Cary and the Gunnery Officer, Lieutenant Commander Scott, my immediate boss, to let us move back to Tunisia.  They were glad to get rid of us.


I went down to the US shipping master in the harbor of Valetta and talked him into making a LCT available to take the crew, their gear, tools, and spare parts to Bizerte.  The planes were off loaded and we flew to Carthage.


The day after we left the ship was finally able to move into drydock.  I had a guilty feeling about leaving, although there wasn’t much I could do in Malta.  The ship reeked of oil and there was still a lot of bidies to be removed from below.


Your article and the article from “Surface Warfare” tell in far better detail and more accurately than I could of the extent of the damage and the repairs.


Of a personal note and not really Savannah history, I can tell you what we aviators and crew did in Tunisia.  Our quarters there were good and the food good.  Entertainment wasn’t all that great.  There was a nice beach at the nearest town of LaGoulette.  The town also had bars and other types of night life.  The big drawback was the lack of transportation.


Going to Tunis was difficult because of the distance.  I did have this good fortune to meet a US Army nurse stationed at a General Hospital in Tunis.  I even took her for a ride in one of our planes.  It was from her and one of her friends that I learned about General Patton’s slapping incident.  This was months before it hit the press.  The nurses were very upset with Patton.


One of our aviators and the only other one still living, Donald Patterson, found an abandoned German plane, a ME-108.  He and some of our mechanics made the plane again flyable.  All of the aviators had a chance to fly it out of the US Army Air Corps field El Auina, once the city of Tunis’s airport.


Pat wanted to take the ship home so on my last trip to the ship in Malta I got permission for it to be loaded aboard when the ship picked us up.  The pick up was near the 14th of December off Bizerte.  Next stop Bermuda.  Our trip across the Atlantic was mostly a bore but we hit one pretty good storm and we all had a concern about the bow breaking off.  The repairs done in Malta but note, Captain Cary had been detached from the ship in Malta and the Executive Officer, Commander Phillip Lohman became CO.


A short stay in Bermuda and then to Philladelphia to arrive the 23rd of December 1943. . .


J Gordon Osborn