A name retained.
(Motor vessel: tonnage 340; length 138 feet (overall); beam 26 feet 1 inch; draft 9 feet 4 inches (mean); speed 11.5 knots (light); complement 29; armament: two .50-caliber machine guns)
Upon the return of the amphibious forces to Noumea, New Caledonia, after retiring from Guadalcanal in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Savo Island of 8-9 August 1942, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, Commander Amphibious Force, South Pacific Force, ordered an immediate investigation into the local availability of small cargo ships to carry food to the marines in the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area. “Enemy bombing attacks and enemy surface and submarine activities” there, he later explained, “appeared to require the use of a considerable number of ships less valuable than combat-loaded AK’s [cargo ships].”
Through the Port Director at Noumea, Turner learned of the availability of the motor vessel Lakatoi, completed in 1938 at Hong Kong, British Crown Colony, by the Taikoo Dockyard and Engineering Company of Hong Kong, Ltd., for Burns, Philip and Company, Ltd., of Sydney, Australia. The U.S. Army had acquired Lakatoi to transport army supplies to New Caledonia and a representative of Turner’s staff took the opportunity to inspect the ship and found her “though small…apparently suitable for the desired purpose.” Conferring by dispatch with U.S. Army authorities, Commander, South Pacific Force (Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley) requested the loan of Lakatoi “for an indefinite period.”
The Navy took possession of Lakatoi on 15 August 1942, fumigated her, painted her mottled green, and placed her in commission, Lieutenant Commander James I. McPherson, USNR, in command. Formerly the navigator of the transport George F. Elliott (AP-13) that had been scuttled off Guadalcanal after being torpedoed on 8 August, McPherson personally selected Lakatoi’s crew from among George F. Elliott’s survivors.
After loading 150 tons of “B” rations (predominantly flour, sugar, and canned goods) from the transport American Legion (AP-35) and cargo ship Bellatrix (AK-20), and topping off with .30- and .50-caliber and 20-millimeter ammunition, Lakatoi moored alongside Turner’s flagship, the transport McCawley (AP-10). The admiral and members of his staff then personally inspected the ship and directed the removal of certain topside weight in hopes of improving her stability; McCawley’s ship’s force made repairs to Lakatoi’s superstructure, and provided the ship with two rubber life rafts.
Designated as Task Unit 62.1.9, Lakatoi, cargo chocked off so it would not shift in a heavy sea, cleared Noumea as scheduled during the forenoon watch on 19 August 1942. The next day, Commander Amphibious Force, South Pacific Force, sent a dispatch directing her to proceed to Fila Harbor, Efate, “to receive certain material” from the transport William Ward Burrows (AP-5), and to arrive there during the forenoon of the following day (21 August).
Lakatoi began encountering worsening weather, however, at the end of the mid watch on 21 August that continued throughout the forenoon. At noon, she changed course in a very rough sea, with a heavy south-southeasterly swell running; a half hour later, the seas carried away the port lifeboat. At 1305, a heavy crash heralded disaster and Lakatoi immediately listed 40º to port and commenced swinging to the left. Lieutenant Commander McPherson ordered the rudder put hard right and called for “all hands on deck.” In extremis, Lakatoi continued her left-ward swing, broached, and listed still further, waves breaking over the foundering vessel. Stopping the engines, McPherson ordered “all hands abandon ship!” Inside of two minutes, Lakatoi rolled over and sank at 18º55' south, 167º 40' east.
The starboard lifeboat, cut loose as the ship had begun to founder, floated free when the list had reached 120º, and all 29 souls reached safety in the 20-foot boat and the two rubber rafts (McPherson placing Machinist Edward Murdock in charge of the latter) that had been providentially taken on board at Noumea. Lakatoi’s men, who had now survived the loss of two ships inside of less than a fortnight, began to subsist on hard tack, chocolate, thirst tablets, canned tomatoes, canned peaches, and potable water.
Sadly, Radioman 3d Class Hugh A. Middaugh, USNR, died of exhaustion and exposure during the forenoon watch on 31 August and was buried at sea soon thereafter. Two hours after McPherson and his shipmates had committed Middaugh’s body to the deep, however, they sighted land dead ahead, an event that “greatly cheered” all hands in the wake of Middaugh’s death.
They crossed a coral reef at Plateau d’Amos, New Caledonia, an hour before the end of the first watch on 1 September 1942, and ultimately landed at Passe d’Amos, about five miles east of Pam Head, on the northeastern coast of New Caledonia, at 1030 on 2 September, down to their last two cans of peaches in syrup. Noting the rafts to be “chafed and cut” by that point, McPherson later expressed doubt that “they would’ve lasted another day,” observing that the lifeboat was, at that juncture, also “leaking very badly…”
McPherson instructed groups of two “who were still able to walk a little” to try and find coconuts or water and then set out himself with a bucket and a hatchet in company with Signalman 3d Class Frederick L. Neal. As the only two men who had retained footwear, McPherson and Neal ventured some distance in order to find sustenance. A half-hour later, Neal, although sick and suffering from exposure like the rest of his shipmates, went on alone, the officer deeming himself “more of a hindrance than a help.” Another 30 minutes passed before Chief Boatswain’s Mate Frederick J. Casey and Gunner’s Mate 2d Class Emil S. Brinsko happened along; McPherson gave Casey his boots and instructed the two men to follow Neal. Coxswain Augie P. Koepke, meanwhile, a former Florida resident, located coconuts; by 1230, he was providing their milk to the men in small doses.
Eventually, Neal and Casey returned with a Frenchman, Monsieur DuBois, who brought a bucket of water with him and provided Brinsko with a pair of old shoes. McPherson arranged with DuBois for the latter’s son to take Neal by pony to the reef patrol station 30 miles up the coast. As events developed, army troops met the little party ten miles away. With the Army’s 2d Field Hospital alerted, help soon arrived by 1700. Army authorities at Kumac provided “excellent treatment and care” to Lakatoi’s crew, who, as their condition permitted, were transferred first to the U.S. Army Hospital at Noumea and then to the Naval Dispensary there.
With the exception of Mess Attendant 1st Class Herbert J. Provost, who specifically asked not to be returned to the United States at that time and was retained for duty in Noumea, and Machinist’s Mate 2d Class John W. Connolly, who had been injured during the abandonment, retained for medical treatment on board hospital ship Solace (AH-5), all of Lakatoi’s survivors were sent back to the United States, three on board motorship Brastagi, and the remaining 23, including Lieutenant Commander McPherson, on board transport Wharton (AP-7).
McPherson, Murdock, Casey, Koepke, Brinsko and Neal earned Navy and Marine Corps Medals for their courage during the 12-day ordeal that followed the loss of Lakatoi. McPherson went on to earn the Legion of Merit for his meritorious and outstanding service in command of the attack transport Sarasota (APA-204) (16 August 1944-17 November 1945); Coxswain (later Boatswain’s Mate 2d Class) Koepke received a letter of commendation that recognized his heroic attempt to save the life of a shipmate during the foundering of the submarine rescue vessel Macaw (ASR-11) off Midway on 13 February 1944.
Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., who had relieved Ghormley as Commander, South Pacific Force, lauded Lakatoi’s officers and men on 23 October 1942 as having “displayed fortitude and heroism in keeping with the best traditions of the service.”
03 September 2004