The sinking of the USS LITTLE took place 5 September 1942.
RELEASE No. 1:
Navy Department release 6 Feb 1943:
COAST GUARDSMAN REACHES GUADALCANAL AFTER 23-HOUR SWIM
The story of a 23-hour swim in shark-infested waters off Guadalcanal following the sinking of his ship, the USS LITTLE, was told by Chief Boatswain's Mate Vernon A. Suydam, U. S. Coast Guard, of Sayville, Long Island, upon taking up his new station at Toms River, New Jersey.
Suydam, who spent several weeks recuperating from his ordeal in base hospitals in the Pacific, was one of 12 Coast Guardsmen assigned to the LITTLE, and was handling small boats during landing operations off Guadalcanal immediately preceding the attack in which his vessel was sunk.
"I was at my gun post when two Jap cruisers and three destroyers came upon us," said Suydam. "The LITTLE and the GREGORY were on patrol around Guadalcanal that night. The Japs let loose with all they had. They blasted out our stern gear and bridge, and knocked out our controls. When the abandon ship order was given, the LITTLE was zigzagging all over the place at full speed ahead."
Suydam, wearing his life jacket, leaped off the bow, wrenching his back as he hit the water.
"There were seven of us grouped together in the water when one of the Jap cruisers came by," he continued. "It picked us up with its searchlight and peppered us with machine guns. Four of the men were killed and one was wounded. A Navy lieutenant and I were the only ones unharmed.
"I took one of the wounded men, also a Navy lieutenant, in tow, picking out the right direction to swim by the position of the great dipper. It was the darkest night I've ever seen."
Suydam then told how he swam for six hours with the officer in tow before discovering that he had died.
"It was dawn by this time," Suydam continued. "I could see land ahead, but it was still a good distance off. Twice during the day American planes flew over, but missed seeing me. I fired a pistol I had taken with me, but they couldn't hear it, and I threw it away -- it was too heavy."
All that day and well into the next night, Suydam managed to keep afloat. Finally, 23 hours after leaping from his ship, he staggered ashore, his body a mass of blisters from third-degree sunburn. Crawling up on the beach, he slept till dawn.
"I was awakened," he said, "by the sun, and figured my location to be the northwest tip of Guadalcanal. I started to walk east along the beach, but the coral was too rough on my bare feet and I made my way through the jungle. It was about 20 miles to the American lines, but I made it by dusk. Although I
was in enemy territory during most of my walk, I didn't see a single Jap."
After a day and a half in the Marine hospital on Guadalcanal, Suydam was transferred to a hospital on another island, where he stayed a month before being transferred to the United States.
Suydam's father is a Chief Boatswain in the Coast Guard, and he has a brother who is a Lieutenant Commander in the same service.
(Photographs of Suydam available in Pictorial Section, Office of Public
RELEASE No. 2
U.S. COAST GUARD
PUBLIC RELATIONS OFFICE
1300 CUSTOMS HOUSE
RELEASE:::::19 April P.M.'s (1942 Ed.)
While their flaming, crewless ship raced madly over the horizon, a Jap cruiser methodically machine gunned surviving American Navy and Coast Guard seaman as they struggled in the water off Tulagi last September, Chief Bosun's Mate VERNON A. SUYDAM, Coast Guard Invader, recently returned from the South Pacific, revealed today.
Chief Suydam, who "captained" invasion barges which landed Marine Raiders in the Solomons, was in charge of an ammunition party aboard the Marine Transport Destroyer "LITTLE" the early morning of Sept. 5, when the "LITTLE" and it's companion ship the U.S.S. GREGORY were attacked by the Jap task force which had been shelling Henderson Field in near by Guadalcanal.
"We'd been on anti-submarine patrol off Tulagi with the "GREGORY" when the Japs attacked" said Suydam. "We never had a chance, but we fought to the last. Our four guns were no match for the Jap cruisers".
"The Nips were so confident that they practically came alongside and poured broadside after broadside into us. The first salvo set our stern afire and we had some casualties. Our guns answered, and while I'm sure we registered a few hits there was no way of telling what the damage was."
"The next salvo caught the bridge and seconds later our engine room was hit. The order came to abandon ship, since she was now blazing from stem to stern. It was impossible to lower any boats, so we just dove overside, every man for himself."
"The poor old LITTLE presented a nightmarish picture. She was shooting flames like a comet and though everybody had left her was still underway and making top speed. Apparently her throttle had jammed when the engine-room was hit.
"She'd head one way and then come about and head off in another direction. She was like some tortured animal trying to end it's misery. At one point she passed within two-hundred yards of me. It was then that her forward magazine let go. The whole bow seemed to disappear. The force of the explosion hit us in the water like a kick in the stomach. When we last saw her she was a ball of fire on the horizon.
"One Jap cruiser apparently wasn't satisfied with just sinking our ship, it came back for us, probing the night with it's searchlights. When it found a group of our shipmates we could hear it's machine guns rattle. There were a few muffled screams, then silence.
"It was soon to be our turn. The searchlights picked up the group I was in. There were seven of us, including two naval officers, a lieutenant and an ensign. When the light hit us I FEIGNED DEATH, LYING STILL in the glare and trailing my arms in the water. The trick worked and the gunner traversed his gun on the others. There was the sound similar to that of "frying fat" as the bullets slashed the water around [sic.] us. There were some gasps and four men in my group disappeared. The lieutenant and the ensign and I were the only ones not hit."
"Apparently satisfied that they had mopped up all the "LITTLE'S survivors the cruiser left. After that I never once doubted that I would be saved. Maybe it was because I was in my own element now--the water.
"I had learned quite a bit about fighting the sea in my six years as a Coast Guard surfman. The one important thing I had learned was to respect the "sea."
" I took bearings from the stars and figured that I was approximately half way between Guadalcanal and Tulagi. The lieutenant decided to strike out for the Guadalcanal shore. He was without a life-jacket but he had been a former swimming instructor and felt that he could make it." "The idea was that once he reached shore he would have a rescue party come out and get us. He was never heard from again."
"After the lieutenant splashed off, I noticed that the ensign seemed to have difficulty in swimming. I asked him if he had been hit. He just shook his head."
"Finally when he began to lag far behind me I swam back and took him in tow. He had plenty of "guts" that fellow did. While I swam with him he paddled with his hands and feet and never once did I hear him complain. After some hours he stopped paddling. I thought that he was merely tired so I kept on towing him along."
"While the sky was turning gray with the first streak of dawn I asked him if he felt any better. There was no answer. I touched his face. Despite the warmth of the tropical water it already had the chill-feel of death."
"I didn't want to abandon his body after swimming with it for several long hours but I decided that if I wanted to save myself I would have to, so with a little shove to his sagging shoulders I bid farewell to one of the bravest officers I have ever known."
"I was stripped to my undershirt, but I still had my service automatic strapped to my side. When the sun got a little higher two of our planes roared overhead. On a gamble, I pulled out the automatic and fired twice. Despite the soaking the gun fired o.k. but the planes never spotted me.
"In the distance I could see the headlands of Guadalcanal. From the position of the sun and from the certain landmarks I knew that the shore that lay ahead of me was Jap held. I figured I would rather be a Jap prisoner than be "shark-bait", and struck out for the beach. And incidentally, although there was plenty of sharks, along with "man-eaters" in this area I never saw one in all the time I spent in the water."
"After the incident with the planes I decided to get rid of the automatic. It was beginning to weigh me down. I had plenty of time to think while I was in the water, but the only thing I can recall now was the determination to get to the beach."
"The hours passed painfully slow. The sun burned into my skull like someone pounding a "white-hot" spike into my head. Then the wind whipped the sea into a nasty chop that constantly boiled over the top of my life-jacket into my throat and eyes, choking and blinding me and making swimming a never-ending misery."
"Late in the afternoon I reached a point only about a mile off Guadalcanal. Then I fainted. When I came to, I found the wind and currents had carried me some eight miles or so down the coast and some distance out. Once again I started swimming. I knew it was now or never."
"With a burst of energy that I must have gotten from the feeling of sheer desperation I finally reached the beach. I staggered up to a point beyond the high water mark and flopped. I either fainted again or just fell asleep from exhaustion. Twenty-three hours had passed since I had jumped from the "LITTLE'S" burning decks.
"When I awoke my body was one flaming ache from head to feet. The sun had burned me raw and big blisters were beginning to form. Half out of my mind from pain I staggered down to the beach. Another dawn was beginning to break. With an effort I again took bearings. My original calculations had been correct. I was in the northwest corner of Guadalcanal, a section then held by the Japs.
"I was so sick that even the sight of a Jap would have been some relief. Everywhere I looked, however, was desolation. Stumbling as the hot sand and flinty coral hit into my sunburned feet I staggered along the beach. Once the sun moved overhead walking along the beach became unbearable, so I headed for the jungle. The thickly matted jungle growth shut out the sun completely and by contrast the green undergrowth felt almost cool to my bare feet. Walking was still very difficult and I fell often, but I had become oblivious to any new pain that I didn't mind the bruises."
"I lost track of time again, but I noticed that the sun was slipping over my shoulder and slowly disappearing behind me. Even so I decided not to risk the beach."
"How long I stumbled on I Don't know, but I THOUGHT I HAD REACHED HEAVEN WHEN I HEARD AN AMERICAN VOICE SING OUT-"HALT!" I ALMOST CRIED WHEN I SAW A MARINE STEP OUT AND COVER ME WITH HIS TOMMY GUN.
"The Marines wasted no time on formalities. One minute I was staring into the "business end" of a sub-machine gun and the next thing I knew I was lying beneath the cool sheets of a field-hospital cot, while preparations were being made to fly me out to a big base hospital in one of the American occupied island of the Solomons."
* * * * * * * * *
Joining the Coast Guard is a Suydam family tradition. Chief Suydam's father is a Chief Warrant officer with a service record of 35 years, and he has a brother, who is a Coast Guard pilot with the rank of Lieutenant Commander attached to a New York air base.
Chief Suydam, now fully recovered from his experiences of last September, has been assigned temporarily to this district.
Release No. 2 was copied from the original
Feb. 21, 1989
Ed. Notes: "boatswain" or "bosun" is defined as follows: "On a war vessel, a warrant officer in charge of the rigging, anchors, cables, cordage, etc."