June 16 is Father’s Day, but for Bill McGee and other survivors of Task Unit 32.4.4, the date is remembered for another reason…
March 27, 1943. Having been indoctrinated at U.S. Navy Boot Camp and Gunnery School, I sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge aboard the Liberty ship SS Nathaniel Currier… bound for the South Pacific on a logistical supply run in preparation for the invasion of the Central Solomons.
On June 9, in Noumea, New Caledonia, outside the range of Japanese land-based aircraft, the Currier joined six other ships – three Liberties (U.S. Navy AKs) and three escort vessels – and together they formed U.S. Navy Task Unit 32.4.4. Destination: Guadalcanal.
One week later, on June 16, 1943, at 1350 hours, the Currier received a Condition “Very” Red signal with orders to get underway immediately. Within minutes, the Task Unit was under attack by a formation of Japanese dive bombers from the Northern Solomons.
(Photo: Gunner Duane Curtis, SS Nathaniel Currier, downed the first enemy plane during the June 16, 1943 air attack. Photo courtesy Duane Curtis.)
Seven days later, on June 23, 1943, in the darkness of 0450 hours, the Task Unit was transiting “Torpedo Alley” in the Southern Solomons when the convoy was torpedoed by a Japanese sub.
Enlisted men weren’t always privy to the details of what was going on at the time. So it wasn’t until the 1990s, when I was reading Action Reports at the National Archives for my first World War II military history, Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942–1946, that I learned the outcomes of the June 16 and June 23 attacks off of Guadalcanal.
The June 16 air attack was the second largest enemy air attack since Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. The June 16 enemy strike force consisted of 120 planes and the vicious air attack lasted four hours. When the attack was over, the USS Celeno (AK-76), one of the four Liberties in the Task Unit, had been bombed, beached and was burning. (Note: At Pearl Harbor, the Japanese strike force consisted of 353 aircraft and the attack lasted one hour and 15 minutes.)
On June 23, two of the three remaining Liberties, USS Deimos (AK-78) and USS Aludra (AK-72) were torpedoed and sunk.
Two weeks earlier there were four Liberties in Task Unit 32.4.4; now three were gone. The lone survivor was the SS Nathaniel Currier, the cargo ship I was on. My first battle of the war and I was one of the lucky ones. I was awarded a bronze star for my participation as a Gunner in the June 16, 1943 air attack.
Fast forward to 1994. During my research for Bluejacket Odyssey, I ran ads in American Legion and VFW magazines seeking Task Unit 32.4.4 survivors. I struck “research gold” when I was contacted by the leader of a group consisting of about three dozen survivors and invited to their annual reunion at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio. I conducted interviews at the reunion and by telephone afterwards. Every year since that reunion, two of the survivors, Bob Vorhies and Ray Weathers (survivors of the June 23 sinking of the USS Deimos), and I call each other on June 16 or 23. Bob passed away in 2000, but Ray and I carry on the tradition. Guess we’ll never forget those June 1943 attacks and how close we came to meeting our maker.
“The Fatal Voyage of Task Unit 32.4.4” is recounted in William L. McGee’s Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942–1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini (BMC Publications, 2000). The text includes interviews with survivors of Task Unit 32.4.4. A limited supply of signed copies available from the publisher.