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Charles Richardson « North Carolina's WWII ExperienceNorth Carolina's WWII Experience

Charles Richardson

Hometown: Winston-Salem, NC
Branch of Service: Navy, USS Buck 420
Location of Service: Europe

The following excerpt describes the sinking of the USS Buck, Destroyer 420 struck by a German torpedo off of Salerno:

Bong! Bong! Bong! “General Quarters – General Quarters- All Hands man your battle stations – All hands man your battle stations.”

I hurriedly put on my life jacket (the inflatable double ring type) and glanced at the clock in the galley and realized it was 23:50 or ten minutes before midnight. I came up the ladder (stairs) from the galley and met utter confusion, everyone running about the top deck in the darkness of the Mediterranean sky.

As I had been trained to do so many times in practice, I headed for the ammunition storage space three decks below the top deck. My job was to keep ammunition to one of the four five-inch guns on the USS Buck, a 1,700 ton destroyer of the Atlantic fleet.

Once in the position, the public address system came on and the Skipper (Captain) said “Men we contacted the enemy by sonar and we will make a depth charge run on same. All guns be prepared for surface battle in event the sub surfaces after run with depth charges. Good luck men and my God bless us. That is all.”

The adrenalin surges in your system and if it were not for the noise of the conveyor running to take the ammo to the number 3 guns, you could hear your heart beating loudly I am sure. There is no doubt you can actually feel it beating.

A prize fighter trains and longs to use his training in competition to see just how well he has trained and how good he is. The men of the USS Buck had trained, trained, and trained practicing for just this type of warfare and I dare say with all the excitement, the fight of actual combat etc, all the men were eager to see just how good we were.

As full speed was rung to the engine room you could feel the fast turning of the screws vibrating through the thin deck plate under your feet. This far down in the ship the shaft for the screws was just under the thing plate you are standing on thus making vibrations feel more severe than they actually were.

Just before maximum speed is reached by the “Mighty Buck” there is a deafening blast, the ship comes to an instant stop throwing men, and ammunition all over the deck and down three ladders in the bottom of the Buck.

There are several small blasts and the stern section lists forward as men are scrambling to their feet fighting to stay upright and all heading for the ladder that will take them to the second deck and then to the main deck on topside and to what all hoped would be safety. There is no light, only complete darkness for a couple seconds and then battery-powered lights on the stannous (posts) came on so the ladders could be seen. Everyone heads for the ladder and it is believed that everyone gets to the second deck in safety as the stern lurches more forward.

I reached for the wheel that will turn and allow me to open the hatch to topside. At first it didn’t turn. Maybe in the excitement I turned it the wrong way. I tried again and felt the wheel turn and a small crack come in the round hatch. As it cracked open I was met by sea water, as it swung open, it was the through the entire Mediterranean Sea poured down in my face. It was all I could do to hold onto the ladder, “Dear God, is this is?” As a prayer for help leaves my mind, I am aware of an extreme weight pulling on my leg and I hear screams of horror as men are washed down into the hull of the Buck from where they had just left being unable to hold onto the ladder.

Again a prayer for God’s help is sent through my thoughts, “Please God, please.” The weight grows heavier on my right leg and I am sure I can’t hold on much longer. With God’s help and all the strength I could muster I gave a tremendous kick and felt the weight leave my leg on down to my ankle and then completely leave me. No time to think of this now, but there would be time for thought. Oh yes, many hours for thoughts of this night.

I pulled myself to the main deck and what these eyes beheld was scary beyond your wildest imagination! Holding on the gun mount ladder that is used for entering # 3 gun mount, I looked forward to what had been my home for six months and there was the Mediterranean Sea, nothing else. The whole ship was gone with the exception of the fantail on which I was standing. Once 1,700 ton, now with gun mount ammunition and all, where I was standing only weighed three to five tons at the most.

A surge forward of the remains of the Buck brought me to my senses and I realized that this part was sinking. As far as I know, no one else came out of that hatch but me. This meant I had left six to ten of my buddies in that hull or fantail section that we were so eager to man to show the world how good we could fight.

Reaching to front of my life belt with my left hand and squeezing the belt, I felt a little more secure as air filled the two rubber and canvas tubes that surround the 30-ionch waist. All around me men were jumping into the oil-slick water. Along with them I pulled myself to the end of the tantail and jumped into the blue oil-slick Mediterranean knowing had I stayed where I was standing I would have been underwater now or drawn under by the suction created by the fantail as it filled with water.

I swam as hard as I could away from the ship and then turned on my back just in time to see the propellers turn skyward and the last of the “Mighty Buck” slide gracefully into her grave.

As soon as the constant suction subsided and I felt no more pulling by the water I had time for a little thought. I thought of the skipper’s last message on the public address system and as soon as I did, I recalled back remembering the Abandon Ship Training we had in Philadelphia. In the event there was not time for depth charges to be placed inactive, they would explode when the ship sank to 300 feet. There was a muffled, terrific boom and my head was first under the water and then on top as I was thrown about by the concussion and turbulence of the surrounding water.

The full impact hit me in my back and rectum seeming to split me in two. There was terrific pain that gradually subsided as the waters calmed and the deathly silence moved in over the stilled waters. Then I realized I was lower in the water than I had been. Feeling at my life belt, I realized that one section had busted and I would have to rely on just one section to hold me up.

My thoughts now were to get with some of the other survivors as we would have a better chance to survive together rather than alone. Just as I was getting ready to speak, I heard a faint “Hey there” on my starboard side. I swam toward the sound and we joined hands. Looking into each other’s face we could not tell whether we were white or black. This didn’t make any difference; it was another living body to talk to and respond to questions. As we began to talk we heard another person way off asking for help and we swam toward the sound. From the sound of his voice, we could tell this man was in pain. Soon we were at his side and he was black from oil with a deep laceration on left side of the head and bleeding badly.

The only thing we had that even resembled a bandage was our oil-soaked tee shirts, which were used to apply pressure to this man’s head. He asked us not to take hold of his left arm, as it was badly hurt.

As time went on, we became accustomed ot the surrounding darkness and were able to see images that looked like other people or debris from the Buck. Just as we were about to make contact with another buddy, we saw what appeared to be the fantail of the Buck coming back up out of the water. Then, to our surprise, the outlines of the submarine appeared and headed away from us. We could make out small objects on the main deck and we assumed this was men going to their battle stations as it surfaced. Then, other than a small groan from our wounded buddy, there was complete silence as the submarine’s props churned the water. It made a couple of turns, once heading for us. But before reaching us, turned again, to our delight. The main deck cleared and it submerged. They had been checking on their kill and any survivors. They did not use lights for being just fifteen miles from Salerno, Italy, that would have brought several destroyers to the vicinity.

At long last, we could again start gathering together other survivors. Not expecting the sub back, we could call out to others more loudly. As the night wore on, we gathered ten men and a cargo net found drifting. Each man gathered around it, sitting on a cork and putting one under each arm.

All the while the wounded man we will call “Jack” was getting weaker and weaker from loss of blood. We unfastened his life jacket in front and ran it through a loop in the cargo net, thus making him fast so we did not have to hold onto him.

Now time to think and plenty of it, as we waited until morning with hope of rescue that we had no assurance would ever come. Would we all eventually be dead men bobbing up and down in a life jacket, as the sea swells rose and fell almost in a deadly rhythm?

I remembered that before a man dies, his whole life passes in review, good and bad alike and the silence was almost unbearable. My thoughts went to a little town, far, far, away with a total population of maybe 75 people. Here everyone knew everyone and very little was ever said or done without all knowing about it – my hometown, Capeville, on the beautiful Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Quickly, my mind returned to the cold water. After being in an hour or two, the body is chilled through and through. Breaking the silence every now and then was the chatter of teeth in our unique circle. Prayers were offered to our Maker pleading for strength and fortitude to withstand the cold air and water. Sitting on the cargo-net-corks, the upper half of our body was exposed. I found that dismounting my cork float and the corks under my arms, still holding securely to the netting so as not to drift away, remembering one section of my life ring was missing, I then sank into the sea up to my shoulders. The water was much warmer than the air above it. Shortly we were all under waster up to our shoulders trying to get warm.

“How deep is the water we are in now?” asked one of our group. One answered, “It has to be over 300 feet. The depth charge was set for 300 feet and it went off.” Another said, “That could have been one of the high pressure boilers that exploded.” After a lengthy discussion we surmised that it most definitely was a depth charge and that we were in at least 300 feet of water.

It had been some time since we heard a sound from Jack. The man next ot him asked me to feel his pulse. His right hand was handed to me and I was unable to get a pulse beat. I passed him on to the next man and so on around the circle. Nine men checked for a pulse and looked into Jack’s staring eyes. It was unanimously agreed that he was dead.

Our highest ranking officer was a Chief Boatswain Mate so he was to be in charge of this fine gathering of lost and bewildered men. Under his supervision, a vote was taken regarding letting him go now, or wait until morning to be sure he was dead. The latter won over. Our primary reason for setting Jack loose was the constant fear of shark attacks. He had been bleeding since we were first sunk. Then the water was cold and there had been several large explosions that killed fish and sharks. Now, with passing of time fish were returning to the area.

His life belt was given to another survivor who had none and Jack disappeared beneath the water. Sad, cold and with our own prayers, thoughts, doubts, miserable in the water without hope of early rescue, with tears we let go of one of our own. Thank God for the darkness. We did not see each other’s tears, but heards snubs and clearing of the throat.

With the coming of morning, we felt sure that there would be ships looking for us, as our destroyers were scheduled to refuel at 10am. After hours of dangling in the waters there was not much conversation among this oil-covered , greasy faced crew.

What a joy to see the sunrise and know we would at least be a little warmer. The morning passed without incident, but about noon we saw two small dots on the horizon, and as they drew nearer we could see there were two destroyers. Our hope and jublilant hearts were soon to be deflated as they turned and went the opposite direction, never close enough to see us.

That afternoon we were very thirsty, hungry and downcast. The sun shining on our oil-soaked skin was really burning. We would remove our life belt and submerge to keep cool. As several planes flew over, we waved, hollered, but were not cited.

Darkness arrived too soon as we prepared for another cold night. Yet, as I recall the trials we endured, I do not remember any of the eight men getting real despondent. That was another of God’s many blessings to us.

After midnight and about half asleep, I heard something in the distance that sounded like diesel engines and a wake from a ship. Soon we all heard this, but did not know if it was a friendly ship or German. We decided it did not matter. Anything was better than dangling in this ocean another night , or even another hour.

We all began to shout as the ship headed straight for us. We heard the screws on the ship go into reverse as it makes everything vibrate on the ship. This was a time of thanking God even before we got out of the water. A very small flashlight beam struck us in the face and a voice sounded, “I say there old chap, kinda wet down there, no?”

I knew Jesus was Jewish, but right then he was English and that flashlight was the light of heaven. We were picked up by H.M.S. Landing Ship LCT. They transported us to the island of Sicily.