The story of the Fatal Voyage of Task Unit 32.4.4 began in June 1943
On 16 June 1943, a convoy of seven U.S. ships, designated Task Unit 32.4.4, was en route to Guadalcanal. Suddenly, at 1350 (1:30 p.m.), the convoy was attacked from the air by a Japanese strike force of 120 aircraft. For four hours, the sky was filled with dogfights and flak, and many enemy planes were shot down. It would be the largest air attack since Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Landing ship tank LST-340 was damaged by dive bombers and left beached and burning off Lunga Point. Cargo ship Celeno (AK-76) was damaged. (At Pearl Harbor, the Japanese air attack lasted one hour, 15 minutes.)
A week later, on 23 June 1943, the remaining four ships of T.U. 32.4.4 were transiting Torpedo Alley in the Southern Solomons. At 0450 (4:50 a.m.), Japanese submarine RO-103 aimed its torpedoes at the convoy and sunk cargo ships Aludra (AK-72) and Deimos (AK-78).
When the battles were over and the damage was assessed, one of the few surviving ships of the Task Unit was the Liberty ship SS Nathaniel Currier. Aboard was Seaman 2/c Bill McGee, a Gunner’s Mate, and on his first wartime voyage to the Pacific. Bill would be awarded the Bronze Star for his participation in the 16 June air attack.
A tradition begins
San Antonio, Texas, 19 September 1994 — Fifty-one years later, Bill was doing research for Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini, his WWII military memoir. He was hoping to find other survivors from Task Unit 32.4.4. In May, he placed ads in the American Legion and VFW magazines. Five months later, he received a phone call with an invitation to join a reunion of T.U. 32.4.4 survivors at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. Bill and I packed up the Chevy Blazer and headed out from California to Texas. (The historic Menger dated back to 1859. In 1898, Teddy Roosevelt organized the “Rough Riders” in the Menger bar.)
Bill hosted a roundtable brunch for three dozen survivors of the June 1943 enemy attacks. With his tape recorder running, he passed the microphone around and everyone shared their memories. The stories ranged from the serious and tragic to the humorous. There was lively discussion and lots of questions with sometimes everyone talking at once.
Two of Bill’s favorite storytellers were Bob Vorhies and Ray Weathers, both survivors from the sinking Deimos.
The three men agreed to call each other every June 16 or 23, and the phone calls became an annual tradition. The conversations were pretty much the same. They began with acknowledging how close the three of them had come to meeting their maker. They wondered why they were the lucky ones who survived. They’d tell a couple of off-color jokes. Then they’d sign off until the next year, Ray Weathers saying to Bill, “Give Mama my love.” I was “Mama”.
One tradition ends, another begins
Bob Vorhies passed away in 2000; Ray Weathers and Bill McGee in 2019. After 25 years, the men won’t be calling each other in June 2020. But Ray Weathers’ daughter, Stormi (no, not that Stormy) and I will begin a new tradition — we will call each other every June 16 or 23. I’m imagining our conversations will probably run like this: We’ll talk about missing her father – a good-lookin’ cowboy from Oklahoma – and my hubby, Bill – a good-lookin’ cowboy from Montana. We’ll tear up a little. We’ll get a laugh from sharing how these stubborn and strong men, who, when they could no longer drive, felt perfectly free telling us how to drive. Then we’ll sign off until the next year.
I love something Stormi said to me about her father and Bill: “I’m no stranger to smart, strong, opinionated and, sometimes, gruff-natured men. I know that women that are not their equal in every way – and smarter and stronger in some ways – don’t hang around them too long. Obviously, Sandra, you had the grit, determination and loyalty to have matched Bill on all levels. I’d say he was a lucky, lucky man to have you for a partner.”
I’d like to return the compliment. For many years, Stormi Weathers was her father’s caregiver, and I admired her devotion and generous gifts of time to take care of him. I know for a fact, Ray Weathers was pretty proud of his daughter – a woman of true grit, determination and loyalty.
Best from Casa McGee,
This post is dedicated to the memory of Ray Weathers, Bob Vorheis, Bill McGee, and the other brave servicemen of U.S. Task Unit 32.4.4. The full story of “The Fatal Voyage of Task Unit 32.4.4” is told in Chapters 7 and 8 of Bluejacket Odyssey, and includes excerpts from interviews with 66 survivors of the convoy.