By Harold D Mendelson, 1118 Seminole Drive, Tallahassee FL 32301
After a 14-day voyage from San Francisco, the 10,500 ton troop ship SS President Taylor carrying 1,124 officers and men under the command of Col Herbert D Gibson arrived at Canton Island on Friday 13 February 1942 and dropped anchor just offshore.
Canton is a coral atoll 200 miles South of the equator and 1,900 miles Southwest of Hawaii. It is the rim of an extinct volcanic crater and has the appearance of a hollow pork chop (see sketch attached). A thin rim of land about 30 miles in circumference encircles the lagoon. The island's highest point is only about 20 feet above sea level, and the strip of land creating the island varies in width from only 100 to 700 yards. Our antiaircraft artillery battery (37mm cannons and 50-cal machine guns) and a few other troops debarked the Taylor the next day as an advance party and went ashore on a small boat piloted by Jo-Jo, a bearded native. We proceeded through a shallow channel that separates the north side of the island from the South side and landed at the PanAm dock. We immediately marched down the sand road a short distance, set up positions and occupied the island.
The next evening before the approximately remaining 1,000 men and equipment could be unloaded, a typhoon struck blowing the Taylor hard aground on a reef near the entrance to the lagoon. Concerned that the personnel still aboard the Taylor might have to abandon the ship, we were ordered to wade out waist high into the stormy Pacific Ocean to assist any personnel who might try to struggle ashore. We were recalled after it was determined that the personnel could safely remained on the ship.
I spent the most miserable night of my life trying to get some rest on the sharp coral rocks near the shoreline. Later, we were allowed into the PanAm "hotel", a small concrete block building where PanAm passengers would spend the night on their flight to Australia. The concrete floor of the hotel was at least a smooth surface, but we were cold and shivering from the strong wind and our wet clothes. Finally we got a little sleep by pulling the sandy floor matting over us for shelter.
Remarkably, our Task Force had arrived at Canton less than 10 weeks after the perfidious Jap sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Our mission, of course, was to protect from the enemy this strategic refueling point for planes island hopping from the US to Australia. We did not know whether we would arrive before the Japanese to seize and fortify Canton Island. Our troops had traveled 4,468 miles from San Francisco, whereas the Japanese had forces in the Marshall and the Gilbert Islands less than half that distance to Canton. Had they arrived first, the Japanese could have simply landed without any opposition whatsoever, and would have severely impaired the United States' ability to reach Australia by air.
With the optimism of youth and belief in our personal immortality, no one expressed concern that the Japs might attack. With only about 1,000 combat troops, we would have been spread very thin trying to repel a landing on 30 miles of coastline. Later I read radio communications stating that we were only expected to stop small raiding parties. There is no doubt but that a determined invasion force would have wiped us out with our lack of adequate fortifications, air support and heavy artillery. But contrary to some reports sent Headquarters to Hawaii, I felt that morale was quite high. We were motivated by our outrage at the Pearl Harbor attack, and were determined to do whatever was asked of us.
Initially conditions on the Island were primitive and demanding. During my 10 months on the Island my weight dropped from 202 to about 155 pounds -- undoubtedly from the intense heat and physical exertion of being stevedores to unload incoming supplies from freighters offshore onto barges and then onto the dock, and manhandling 55 gallon gasoline drums and then refueling PBY and PBM flying boats with hand-cranked pumps.
We sent work parties to the grounded Taylor to salvage everything useful, and enjoyed sleeping on metal bunks with mattresses instead of canvas cots. We did not enjoy the numerous bold rats and ever-present hermit crabs. One night I found woke to find a rat perched on my chest gnawing on my fatigues to get to a candy bar I had foolishly left in the pocket. Later when a cousin sent me a .22 cal Colt Woodsman Target automatic pistol, I declared war on the rats. I would put out bait on the floor of my tent, when I heard them scurrying around I would flash a light on them and shoot them.
Being completely isolated, for many months until a mimeographed "newspaper" was published and a few of us secured short-wave radios, the enlisted man were totally ignorant of the progress of the war. I remember being on guard duty at the PanAm dock several months after our arrival, and Major General C L Tinker who arrived for an inspection tour strolled by and started chatting with me. He told me that a big naval battle was going on near Midway and that the entire course of the war could depend on its outcome. I was greatly impressed that a general would talk with a private.
As an enlisted man during my stay on Canton, I had little contact with the Task Force Headquarters officers, but I do remember that Col Gibson had a reputation for being a stern disciplinarian. The following incident, which I witnessed, also bears out the probability that he was under intense pressure. At first we did not have radar. So we used a metal tower next to the PanAm "hotel" for a lookout to watch for incoming planes. When sighted, a hand operated siren was cranked to sound the alert. I served several tours of duty as a lookout, and it was most difficult to distinguish between a gooney bird and a plane. One day the lookout sighted a plane and started cranking the siren. Col Gibson who was at the base of the tower ordered the lookout not to sound the alarm. Not knowing what to do, the poor lookout tried to explain that he was under orders to sound the alarm whenever he sighted a plane. At that, Col Gibson brandished his .45 cal automatic pistol and shouted to the lookout that he would shoot him down from the tower if he used the siren.
Another situation of possible interest was the fact that there was friction between Col Gibson and his Executive Officer, Lt Col William A Sexton, and Col Gibson finally preferred courts martial charges against Lt Col Sexton. As a typist, I was assigned temporarily as a clerk to Lt Col Sexton who impressed me as a mild mannered engineer. I don't remember the exact substances of the charges, but I do remember my platoon Lt Rousseux asking me to furnish him with a copy of Lt Col Sexton's defense papers. This was the only request (or order) I ever refused in my 4 1/2 year military career. Lt Col Sexton was sent back to Hawaii in May 1942. I never determined the outcome of the matter. Despite these problems, the Canton Defense Command was commended for accomplishing "a tremendous amount of work under great difficulties" and that Col Gibson was a "superior commander".
While we never had any actual combat on Canton Island, we did have occasional alerts due to snooping subs and planes. In addition to casualties to pilots while flying, our outfit suffered one death due to an accident. Corporal Crowe was our battery mechanic and was working with a lieutenant on a jammed 50 cal machine gun. When he said "O.K., Lieutenant", the officer released the operating bolt and the gun discharged a single round that took Cpl Crowe's head off.
Later in my tour of duty, I was transferred to Task Force Headquarters on the northside as a clerk-typist and was promoted to Sergeant. Since I had applied for Officer Candidate School and wanted to make sure I could be found when my application was approved, I volunteered for a second tour and remained on the island until my OCS orders came through in December 1942. By that time, significant improvements had been made to Canton and living conditions were greatly improved. Father Moffet arrived and set up a small chapel Mr Gates the Red Cross representative was on the island, we had outdoor movies, medical and dental facilities, PX , two landing strips, and a channel had finally been dredged into the opening between the north and South side.
I left Canton in December aboard the "Haleakala", a small ship that had been used between the various Hawaiian Islands. At the time, I was aware of but didn't really worry about the fact that our small unescorted ship would be duck soup for a Jap sub who would have sunk us with gun fire rather than to waste a torpedo on such an insignificant target.
After two weeks in Oahu, I returned to the States, married my childhood sweetheart, received a commission as a 2nd Lt in the Coast Artillery, and then served a second tour of duty in the New Guinea Campaign, participated in the Admiralty Islands invasion as heavy artillery support for the 1st Calvary Division, and finally returned home after the end of the war. But that's another story.
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"Yes, I was one of ten engineers on the ship. At the time I was a junior engineer. We left SanFran on about !-27-42 and sailed to Canton Island. Cargo was unloaded offshore on barges as the channel inside was too shallow. A destroyer patrolled the waters around us and indicated they picked up a signal of a submarine. We were order in closer to the beach for better protection. A heavy swell was causing us to rise and fall over ten feet, and we evidentially were lowered on a hidden coral peak, which pierced our double bottoms. As a result we were stuck on top of a reef which was inside our oil tanks. As this happened at high tide, the condition became worse at low tide. That night a storm only caused more damage to our bottom and the engine room filled with water. All possible means were taken to free the ship to no avail. The second night the Captain attempted suicide, but failed. He was returned to the states as a permanent cripple. The crew, except for the engineers, were returned to the states. The engineers camped on the beach for a couple of weeks awaiting tugs from Honolulu. The tugs were unsuccessful in freeing the ship. So we were taken to Honolulu to await a ship home. I don't remember any buildings on the island although there must have been some. We camped on the beach near the ship and I remember the beach was covered with beautiful shiny seashells. A couple of years ago I picked up a picture of the ship on the beach on the internet. There was no date, and she looked in good shape, but was very close to shore. I will be happy to answer any specific questions you might have."