I wrote this article a couple of years ago about my Uncle Charlie. On Memorial Day, I reflect upon the sacrifice he made. Charlie wasn’t even out of his teen years when he was killed. I am proud of Charlie and what he did for his country, but I can’t help feel sad for all that never was. I wish I had known you, Uncle Charlie!
I did quite a bit of research for this story. I hope I have done right by all those who lost their lives along with my Uncle and those few who survived that dreadful day…
This photograph of Charles Lassalle (right) with a friend was taken just before he shipped off.
The escort carrier, Liscome Bay, arrived at Pearl Harbor in October of 1943. It would take part in the invasion of the Gilbert Islands and the liberation of two other islands: Tarawa and Makin. On board were 914 men. One of them was a 19 year old from Oakland, California. He was my Uncle, Charles Lassalle.
The invasion of the Gilbert Islands began on November 20th. It took seven days of air raids to capture the islands. During the invasion, the Liscome Bay was sent on to aid the capture of Tarawa and Makin Islands. This was one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theatre as 991 men died on the beaches of Tarawa.
The Liscome Bay was one of five escort carriers used for air support at Tarawa. 3 Battleships, 21 Destroyers, and other vessels were also on hand. They were all under the command of Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill. Hill ordered three of the escort carriers, including the Liscome Bay, to Butaritari Island. There they were placed under the command of Rear Admiral Robert M. Griffin.
Unbeknownst to them all, another vessel was sitting off the shores of Butaritari. It was a Japanese submarine commandeered by Lt. Commander, Sunao Tabata.
November 24th started out a calm day. There was barely a breeze and the waters were still. At 4:30 am, the flight crews began their daily prepartions. 5 minutes later, a slight disturbance–a light– was seen on the water’s surface. Griffin ordered the destroyer, The Hull, to investigate.
The absence of the Hull lead to the demise of the Liscome Bay. The Japanese commander saw his chance as the shifting defenses of the American ships were in disarray. Before they could reposition, someone yelled “Christ, here comes a torpedo!” It was too late. At 5:13 am, the Liscome Bay was hit.
The torpedo tore threw the ship into it’s bomb stowage area and exploded. Oranges flames shot into the air. Then the bombs on board exploded. Debris showered the neighboring ships. Flames engulfed the Liscome Bay and 23 minutes later, it began to sink.
Those who were not killed in the explosion found themselves in another horror. The water gushed with burning oil. They also had to avoid being sucked down along with the sinking ship. Some clung to whatever debris floated by, then swam as far away from the ship as they could. Crew members of surrounding ships risks their lives diving into the water to pull out survivors.
On that ill fated day, rescuers pulled 55 officers and 217 enlisted men to safety. Fireman Second Class, Charles Lassalle, was not one of them. This photograph depicts the somber event of the burial at sea on the Leonard Wood.
The family found out soon after that Charles was missing. Newspaper headlines blared the sinking of the Liscome Bay. Jean and Anna had lost their oldest son.
His body was never recovered. Charles was presumed dead on November 24, 1943. You can find his name among the many listed on the USS Arizona Memorial in Honolulu, HI.
Wikipedia has a photograph of the Liscome Bay and more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Liscome_Bay_%28CVE-56%29
HistoryNet has a detailed history of the Liscome Bay: http://www.historynet.com/uss-liscome-bay-hit-by-a-torpedo-near-makin-atoll-during-world-war-ii.htm
The Navy website has a clipping from a newspaper article showing some of the survivors when they returned home. It is hard to believe anyone survived. http://www.navsource.org/archives/03/0305603.jpg
Dorie Miller, an African American sailor and US Navy hero, was on the Liscome Bay as well as my uncle Charlie. His story is told on the African American Registry website, “Dorie Miller: A Naval Hero.” He was first listed as missing, but was presumed dead on 25 November 1944.
Details of that day have also been documented in the book,”Twenty Three Minutes to Eternity: The Final Voyage of the Escort Carrier the U.S.S. Liscome Bay.” Written by James Noles, it covers the tragic events of that day.
A side note to this tale. My dad told me that about 6 months after they got news of Charlie’s passing, they received a letter from the military. They had Charlie’s remains and wanted to know if the family would accept them for burial. My grandparents weren’t sure what to do. So, they consulted my dad. At 16, he was now the oldest son.
After pondering the implications, my dad told them to refuse. He had read the accounts of the sinking. Charlie was in the boiler room which took a direct hit. My dad believed that any remains they received wouldn’t be his brother’s. He didn’t want to bury someone else’s loved one. That moment in time stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website, yourislandroutes.com