A Pacific That Was Both Beautiful And Deadly

The South Pacific is a beautiful place, with lush islands, soft beaches and warm, clear water. Seventy years ago, the beaches were stained with blood; the warm water was the common grave of thousands of American and Japanese soldiers and sailors.

Gordon McDonald signed up for duty in the U.S. Navy when he was 16, enlisting with his mother’s permission.

For about four years, McDonald was an able-bodied seaman aboard the USNS Tallulah (AO-50), an oiler that supplied line ships in the Asiatic/Pacific Theater.

McDonald learned first-hand that war can be an exercise in contradictions: humor and horror, boredom and chaos, and ever-present fear.

“Most times it was pretty nice,” McDonald said. “There were a lot of islands, and we did a lot of swimming.”

“One time we pulled into an island to refuel because we were empty. The next morning, I think it was about 10 to 8, we were down to breakfast.”

“All of a sudden the alarm went off because we were being attacked. I was manning the twin-20-millimeter guns. There were two Japanese mini-subs in the harbor, and the ship next to us was already on fire.”

“We picked up survivors that jumped into the water. It took awhile, but we finally sank both subs, one right underneath us,” he said. “The next day, we picked up our oil and got out of there.”

“We went down to Alandia, one of the islands. During the night, the Japanese would come over and bomb someone. One of our ships got bombed, but it didn’t sink.”

“We went down the west coast of the Philippines, across the south and back up the east coast. Every once in a while, we could hear all this banging. When we went back (to the west coast), it was all blown up,” he said.

He said that another island where they landed had a large pile of captured Japanese rifles. “I got a nice one, it was a short sniper rifle. I turned it in when I got back to the ship, but later when I went back to get it, they said a lieutenant took it.”

During a port call in Qingdao, China, he said he went to a restaurant. “I had a big steak, it was one-and -a-half inches thick, home fries and a quart of beer. That steak was really good. A White Russian owned the place. He asked our names and where we came from. I said, Gordon McDonald from Warren, Pennsylvania.”

“He said, ‘I know Warren, it’s a famous place,’ and I said I’ve lived in Warren all my life; I didn’t know it was famous. He said that when he passed through Warren, he stopped in at the Texas Lunch, across the street from the newspaper.”

McDonald served as orderly to the ship’s captain, Commander Jesse B. Goode.

“When I was with the captain, I carried a loaded .38. The officers carried pistols, too, but they had to carry their bullets in another pouch.”

One day, I went with the captain down to the quarterdeck, and he went ashore without me. A lieutenant came down and said the New Guinea natives were coming to the ship to try to trade for some chambray shirts, and they had to leave. He took me with them, and when a native came up to us, the lieutenant said, ‘shoot him.’ So I shot him, in the leg, I think.”

“He said, ‘how did you do that so fast,’ so I told him the gun was loaded, and he had given the order. We had to take the native aboard to see the doctor,” McDonald said.

I bought a western revolver from a guy; it was beautiful. One day I was polishing it and the captain walked by. He said, ‘That is really nice, why don’t you wear it on duty?'”

“I said that it was not regulation, and he said, ‘As long as I say you can, you can.’ Another officer questioned me about wearing it, and I said because the captain said I could. The captain walked up and said, ‘That’s right’.”

“I think he liked me.”

“We always had another ship with us. It would stay ahead of us, but one day I was on the bow watch with a buddy, and he said, ‘What’s going on?’ The ship was turning back toward us. They put their prow (the bow) against ours, and I said, ‘What’s going on?’ They (sailors on the other ship) said, ‘Don’t you see that mine?’ Then they pushed us out of the way, and blew it up.”

He said they always had to be on the lookout for mines, and a cousin of his was on the bow watch on a ship in the Atlantic when it hit a mine.

“He spent three days floating around, and his leg was all banged up. He was in a hospital in Europe for quite a while, then in one in the U.S. for quite a while before they let him go home,” he explained.

“After the atomic bomb, the captain had to go into a meeting. Another fellow and I went walking around. We found a warehouse with miniature two-man Japanese subs. I climbed down into one, he climbed into another. It was like sitting on a bicycle seat,” he added.

The Tallulah participated in campaigns including the consolidation of the Solomon Islands in February, 1943; Gilbert Islands operations in November and December of 1943; Marshall Islands operation in January and February 1944; raids on Palau, Yap, Ulithi and Woleai islands during March and April 1944; the capture and occupation of Saipan, 11 June to 10 August, 1944; the Battle of the Philippine Sea on 19 and 20 June 1944; the capture and occupation of Guam from 12 July to 15 August, 1944; the capture and occupation of Iwo Jima, 15 February to 2 March, 1945; the assault and occupation of Okinawa Gunto, 10 March, 1945 and the Fifth and Third Fleets raids in support of the Okinawa operation from 16 March to 9 June, 1945.

Gordon McDonald still lives in Warren, Pennsylvania, a famous place to at least one Russian.

And Tullulah?

She earned seven Battle Stars during World War II and came to an ignoble end in 1986 when she was sold for $238,000 as scrap.