The Battle of Makassar Strait – February 4, 1942
Eighteen year-old Richard Carpenter ran away from home after being expelled from high school, his second offense. He joined the U. S. Navy in February 1939 with no idea that war would soon break out. His three-year enlistment stretched to six years and eight months.
After basic training, Richard’s first assignment put him on the USS Marblehead, a light cruiser headed for the South Pacific. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, war on Japan was declared and the South Pacific became a watery hornet’s nest. On the morning of February 4, 1942, the Marblehead and several other U. S. Navy vessels were viciously attacked by 36 Japanese bombers in the Makassar Strait area of the Java Sea, off the Dutch East Indies. The Marblehead suffered two direct hits that penetrated the deck and killed fifteen crew members. The ship lost its maneuverability and could only propel itself in a circle due to a damaged rudder.
Richard was on that deck when the bombs hit. One of them landed just a few feet away from him. It sent shrapnel up and over him, killing sailors around him. Richard was not hurt physically, but seeing his buddies suffer and die caused a ‘survivor’s guilt’ pain that lasted through the remainder of his 85 years.
The damaged Marblehead had no radio transmission ability after the attack. This led to reports that it had been sunk. For months, Richard’s family thought he was dead. With the broken rudder, the ship took four months to limp from the Java Sea, around Cape Horn and up the South America coast to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to be repaired. As the ship entered the harbor and seemingly refused to answer radio transmissions to identify itself, the Navy Yard officials called an alert and ordered that guns be trained on it. They assumed it was an enemy imposter approaching because everyone ‘knew’ the Marblehead had been sunk four months ago. The ship used Morse Code to spell out M-A-R-B-L-E-H-E-A-D. Finally, Naval authorities could see the name of the ship through binoculars and the alert ended in a joyous welcome! New York City threw a two-week party for the ravaged sailors, once dead but now alive. Richard’s family members were shocked and overjoyed to learn that their boy was alive! I’m also very happy he survived. He’s my wonderful father!
Raquel Lindaas, Accredited Genealogist®, Heritage Consulting