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Coxswain Bob Canavan's Deadly WWII Odyssey
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG - May 17, 2016

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On August 1942, during the initial stages of the World War II's Guadalcanal campaign, the waters of Iron Bottom Sound concealed numerous Japanese submarines. With few Allied forces patrol craft available to defend against this silent but deadly menace, the Coast Guard-manned landing crafts, known as Landing Craft Personnel (LCP), based at the Pacific Ocean Solomon Island of Guadalcanal, carried out nightly anti-submarine patrols.

A transport deploying a Landing Craft Personnel for the landings at Guadalcanal in 1942 during World War II. Notice the solid bow, tandem machine gun tubs and the stern where depth charges were mounted on the anti-submarine patrol boats. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)
A transport deploying a Landing Craft Personnel for the landings at Guadalcanal in 1942 during World War II. Notice the solid bow, tandem machine gun tubs and the stern where depth charges were mounted on the anti-submarine patrol boats. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Each LCP crew took responsibility for a different part of Iron Bottom Sound. The LCP, an early design of landing craft with a top speed of only eight knots, carried a crew of three and boasted a snub-nosed bow supporting side-by-side machine gun tubs. Each position held a .30 caliber air-cooled Lewis machine gun with circular pan-shaped magazines that attached to the top of the firing mechanism. The coxswain's helm and engine controls were located behind the tandem gun emplacements. The crews fitted their boats with depth charges set for 50 feet, a depth that could have sunk the enemy sub as well as the landing craft.

Coxswain Bob Canavan after recuperating from his nearly twenty hour swim across Iron Bottom Sound (Guadalcanal) covering over a dozen miles of ocean water to Tulagi Island in 1942. (U.S. Coast Guard photoOn Tuesday, August 18, 1942, coxswain Robert “Bob” Canavan volunteered to pilot one of the evening's anti-submarine patrol boats. Canavan's friends and fellow Coast Guardsmen, Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Stickney, Petty Officer 3rd Class John Alcorn and Petty Officer 2nd Class Charles Williams volunteered to join him. Along with two U.S. Marines, the crew embarked on a journey from which only one man would return. While the other LCPs deployed for their sectors of Iron Bottom Sound, Canavan steered his boat into the dark night to patrol near the small volcanic Savo Island.

Shortly before dawn the next day, Canavan sighted a warship steaming over the horizon from the west of Guadalcanal and assumed she was friendly. Instead, it was the large Imperial Japanese Navy 35-knot destroyer Hagikaze on a shore bombardment mission and headed in the LCP's direction. Realizing she was an enemy warship, Canavan pushed his throttle to the stops and steered a zigzag course for the Tulagi side of the sound.

With a top speed over four times that of the sluggish LCP, the Hagikaze rapidly overtook Canavan and machine gunners began raking his boat. The crew's hopes of escape faded fast; so clad with life preservers, they jumped overboard one at a time, while Canavan remained at the wheel. Kneeling at the helm, Canavan tried to escape, but enemy fire hit the boat's controls. With the situation hopeless, Canavan shoved the rudder hard right and, without donning a life preserver, plunged over the side. He later recounted how he cheated death the first of many times saying, “as I hit the water, a burst of gunfire hit the [floor]boards where I had been kneeling.”

Hagikaze closed on the empty circling LCP and shot out its motor. A small party boarded the boat and stripped out its machine guns and equipment before the destroyer sent it to the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound. Next, the Japanese warship retraced its course to deal with the crewmembers. Canavan had no life preserver and could do no better than play dead. To his astonishment, the ploy worked and the enemy left him alone. However, the Japanese located the five others, floating defenseless in the dark water and shot them. This was one of many wartime instances where Coast Guardsmen died alongside their Marine Corps brethren.

While the Hagikaze crew resumed their mission of shore bombardment, fate had dealt Canavan both the gift of life and a death sentence. As the day dawned, he found himself alone in shark-infested waters with no life preserver, wearing only shorts, and a dozen miles from the nearest island.

Canavan's chances of survival appeared bleak, so he first considered drowning himself. Instead, he decided to attempt a crossing of Iron Bottom Sound. With a newfound will, Canavan set out toward the American-occupied Tulagi island, conserving his energy by using the sidestroke and backstroke. According to Canavan, “I did more praying in those hours I spent in the water than I had done in the twenty previous years of my life.” After swimming throughout the day and late into the evening, Canavan reached the shores of nearby Florida Island. He had covered over a dozen miles of ocean water in nearly twenty hours.

Late in the night, Canavan emerged from the water slashing the soles of his feet on coral under the surfline. Despite his lacerations, he collapsed on the beach and fell into a deep sleep. He remained in that state for so long that the local natives covered him with protective palm fronds. Famished, Canavan tried to eat a coconut for nourishment, but he failed to stomach the milk and coconut meat. During the day, he hiked along Florida Island's shoreline through deserted native villages toward Tulagi. After sleeping another night on Florida Island, he located the closest point of land on Florida Island to American-occupied Tulagi.

Dehydrated and exhausted, and with only 400 yards of water between him and a Marine outpost on Tulagi, Canavan tried to swim the final leg of his odyssey. On his first attempt, he was thwarted by strong currents between the islands. He made it across on his second try, but to his surprise, the Marines believed he was an enemy intruder and were prepared to shoot first ask questions later. The unit's commanding officer decided to take a chance and ordered his men to hold their fire, sparing Canavan's life yet again.

Canavan finally crawled out of the water and the Marines carried him to their encampment. Next, they sent him to the base hospital to recover his strength. After he recuperated, the U.S. Navy reassigned him to a new unit. Fiercely loyal to his commander and crew, Canavan disobeyed orders and stowed away on a patrol bomber amphibious aircraft headed back to Guadalcanal. After disembarking at Henderson Field in Guadalcanal, Canavan returned to his unit and reported for duty. Not happy with Canavan disobeying orders, his Coast Guard commander admonished him, but allowed Canavan to remain with his unit on Guadalcanal.

Coxswain Bob Canavan after recuperating from his nearly twenty hour swim across Iron Bottom Sound (Guadalcanal) covering over a dozen miles of ocean water to Tulagi Island in 1942. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
Coxswain Bob Canavan after recuperating from his nearly twenty hour swim across Iron Bottom Sound (Guadalcanal) covering over a dozen miles of ocean water to Tulagi Island in 1942. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

As for the Hagikaze, the same day that Canavan lost his boat and shipmates, the predator became the prey. Wednesday afternoon, a U.S. Army Air Corps “Flying Fortress” zoomed across Iron Bottom Sound and caught the Japanese destroyer carrying out their shore bombardment mission off the shores of Tulagi. The B-17 bomber dropped its payload and scored a hit on the warship's gun turret–nearly sinking the Hagikaze. The hit killed 33 and wounded 13 of its crewmembers and caused a mushroom cloud visible across Iron Bottom Sound. Later, the severely damaged destroyer underwent emergency repairs and fought another year until the Battle of Vella Gulf, when U.S. destroyers sank it with nearly all of the crew.

Back at Guadalcanal, Thursday, August 20th, proved a momentous day for the Americans defending their small strip of the island against experienced Japanese troops. Nearly two weeks after the landings on Guadalcanal, Henderson Airfield finally opened for business when 19 Wildcat fighters and 12 Dauntless dive-bombers arrived to begin air operations against enemy land and sea forces.

Coast Guard personnel serving at Guadalcanal received dozens of medals for heroism and devotion to duty, making the battle for Guadalcanal one of the most honored Coast Guard combat operations in service history. In February 1943, U.S. Army Gen. Alexander Patch declared Guadalcanal secured of all Japanese military forces. After that, the Allies remained on the offensive for the rest of the Pacific War and the Japanese fought a lengthy retreat back to their home islands.

During Guadalcanal, Coast Guardsmen like Canavan and his shipmate, Medal of Honor recipient Signalman 1st class Douglas Munro, lived up to the service's core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty. Canavan was a member of the long blue line and later returned to his hometown of Chicago after surviving one of the most physically demanding struggles in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.

By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2016

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