S1c Henry Thomas Buchanan and the Loss of the USS PECOS
S1c Henry Thomas Buchanan and the Loss of the USS PECOS
His picture is on display in the cabinet that holds the images of those sons of old Erwin who gave their lives fighting for their country. The date on that of Henry Thomas Buchanan reads, “March 1, 1942,” which makes him the earliest known battle casualty from Erwin in World War II. It was not the kind of distinction to which he likely aspired, but Seaman First Class (S1c) Henry Thomas Buchanan is thought to have been the small North Carolina cotton mill town of Erwin’s first combat death of that war. Or, was he?
S1c Henry Thomas BuchananHenry was born on November 20, 1919 in the Upper Little River area of western Harnett County. He probably first saw the light of day on the farm of his parents John Henry and Alice Catherine Womack Buchanan who were listed as living near Broadway in Lee County on his World War I Draft Registration Card. Lacking a physical description of Henry Thomas Buchanan, we can surmise he may have resembled his father who was listed on his Draft Registration Card as being a tall man of medium build with brown eyes and red hair.
Sadly, little is known of Henry’s life before he entered the United States Navy. The 1930 United States Census of Harnett County, North Carolina listed him as a twenty-two-year-old farmer, married to his nineteen-year-old wife, Pearl Womack Buchanan. He does not appear in the 1940 census, due to his having already reported for naval service. Per his father John’s World War II draft registration card, his parents John and Alice were living at 405 West “E” Street Erwin by February 15, 1942, and possibly as early as 1939.
There are two significant problems with using federal census records for genealogical research. One, an official census is only compiled every ten years in the United States, so there is always a gap when trying to create a trail for a person’s whereabouts, unless they stayed put for several decades. And, secondly, they are only as accurate as the census taker made them, which unfortunately varied widely, even “wildly!” Census takers were not professional government employees tasked with gathering this important information. They were whoever was willing to volunteer for the job and could read and write, at least enough to record the data gathered.
With that said, and to be perfectly honest, it is unclear whether Henry Thomas Buchanan ever actually lived in Erwin, or simply listed that as his official home-of-record since it is where his parents were living at the time. Oddly enough, his wife Pearl was not listed with Henry’s parents on the 1940 census, nor anywhere else that could be found.
Whether it was the call of adventure, a desire to “see the world,” or simple economic necessity, Henry enlisted in Uncle Sam’s Navy in Raleigh on November 29, 1939. On that day Henry became “Apprentice Seaman (A. S.) Henry Thomas Buchanan, U. S. N., Service Number 2624546.” He apparently left soon thereafter for his initial military training, referred to in the Navy as “Boot Camp,” most likely at the large east coast training facility at Great Lakes, north of Chicago, Illinois. The training was normally about twelve weeks in duration at this time.
Per information contained in “U. S. Navy Muster Rolls, 1938 – 1949,” by February 27, 1940, A. S. Buchanan had transferred to the Receiving Station, San Diego, California. In a document titled “Report of Changes of Recruits Received in Drafts and Handled as Supernumeraries …” dated March 31, 1940, Henry is listed as one of many men awaiting assignment. The records for Buchanan’s initial post-Boot Camp duty assignment as somewhat confusing. He was slated to join “VF-6 for duty assignment by CABF-Combase for 232104 of Feb. 1940.” If my translation of World War II naval acronyms is correct, Buchanan was to be a member of a Navy fighter plane squadron numbered VF-6 aboard the aircraft carrier USS ENTERPRISE with duties to be assigned by the Commander, Aircraft Battle Force (CABF) by orders published at 9:04PM on February 23, 1940.
According to these orders Henry served aboard the USS ENTERPRISE as either an “unrated” sailor doing whatever unskilled duties were assigned, or perhaps as a “striker.” A “Striker” was a non-school trained sailor who was “striking” for a rating by learning on-the-job. Though no orders were found listing his actual date of departure from the ENTERPRISE, the maximum he could have served aboard her was about eight months, since reports show him joining the crew of the USS PECOS, a fleet oiler, on November 15, 1940.
USS PECOS (AO-6)
The PECOS was an old ship by the time of World War II, having been laid down for construction as a KANAWHA-class oiler in June 1921 at the Boston Navy Yard and launched on April 23, 1921. Following her completion and commissioning on August 25, 1920, the four hundred and seventy-six foot long PECOS boasting a crew of three hundred seventeen and mounting four five-inch guns and two three-inch guns began her two decades of pre-World War II service in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, thrusting the United States into World War II, the PECOS was serving in the Philippines supporting the ships of the Asiatic Fleet.
The very next day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the USS PECOS departed Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines southwest of Manila for the island of Borneo arriving on December 14th to have her huge fuel tanks re-filled with oil and gasoline. Traveling to Celebes, Netherlands East Indies, PECOS refueled American warships serving in the area trying to slow the rapid advance of the Japanese fleet. On December 22, 1941 PECOS departed for Darwin, Australia. On January 23, 1942, the day after Henry was promoted to Seaman First Class (S1c), PECOS left Darwin and headed for Soerabaja Harbor in Java where she refueled Allied warships of ABDACOM (American, British, Dutch, and Australian Command) took on board the crew of the scuttled destroyer USS STEWART. The USS STEWART had been severely damaged a few days earlier by Japanese attacks, was abandoned in the dry dock at Surabaya, Java where it had been placed in hopes of being repaired. Realizing she was damaged beyond repair her crew had been forced to scuttle the ship to prevent its falling into Japanese hands. Ironically, after a year under water, the ship was raised by the Japanese, repaired, and re-christened the “Patrol Boat No. 102.” The ship was recaptured at the end of the war and later used for target practice. She was ultimately sunk off the coast of San Francisco in 1946.
After completing this important mission to ABDACOM, PECOS departed on February 3, 1942 after a Japanese air raid made the port untenable. The port of Tjilatjap became PECOS’s base of operations until her fuel tanks were empty. The only ocean port of any significance on the southeast coast of Java southeast of Indonesia, Tjilatjap was a small anchorage with a dangerously narrow passage. Escorted by the destroyer USS PILLSBURY, the PECOS set sail for Ceylon on February 27, 1942 to replenish her fuel supply so she could provide desperately needed fuel for the handful of severely outnumbered Allied ships bravely battling the seemingly unstoppable Japanese.
While the PECOS was warily making its way toward Ceylon on the 27th, the USS LANGLEY, America’s first ever aircraft carrier, now converted for service as a seaplane tender, was experiencing her worst nightmare. LANGLEY was severely damaged when jumped by nine twin-engine Japanese “Betty” bombers in an attack that killed sixty of her crew and forced the survivors to abandon ship. Fortunately, two escort vessels, the destroyers USS EDSELL and WHIPPLE were in the vicinity to recover Langley’s survivors. The two old destroyers were able to pick up three hundred and eight men, mostly sailors, but including forty-five United States Army Air Corps pilots and ground crew personnel. The Air Corps personnel and forty soon-to-be obsolete P-40 “Warhawk” fighter aircraft boxed in crates on the LANGLEY’s slowly tilting deck were being ferried to the 49th Pursuit Group at Tjilatjap, Java. At 1358 hours on February 27th, the WHIPPLE was ordered to finish off the Langley’s derelict hull to prevent her falling into Japanese hands. The LANGLEY was a tough old bird. WHIPPLE fired nine four-inch main gun rounds and two torpedoes into the hulk, and still the LANGLEY did not immediately sink!
The PECOS received a radio message at 1300 hours on the 27th informing them of the LANGLEY’s predicament some thirty miles to her south. In response to orders PECOS rendezvoused with WHIPPLE and EDSELL at 1600 hours to the lee of Christmas Island to receive on board the survivors picked up by the two destroyers. On the morning of the 28th WHIPPLE and EDSELL began transferring the men they had rescued to PECOS. In the very early hours of March 1, 1942, far out at sea, in heavy weather, and despite being interrupted by a Japanese aerial attack on Christmas Island, the ships completed the transfer of four hundred and fifty-three men by 0800 hours. Both destroyers departed shortly thereafter with WHIPPLE detached to escort a merchant ship carrying a shipment of aircraft desperately needed in the attempt to keep Japanese ships and aircraft at bay. Doubtless relieved to be safely aboard the PECOS, the survivors who had so recently cheated death once already were far from being out of the woods.
Now proceeding on an alternate course for Australia, the PECOS was loaded to the gills with men from three different ships. In addition to her own crew members, she had on board crew members from the LANGLEY and those of the recently scuttled USS STEWART. About noon on the 1st, the USS WHIPPLE began receiving frantic radio calls for help from the PECOS. PECOS had been discovered by Japanese aircraft from the Japanese aircraft carrier SORYU whose planes had helped with the devastation of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese aircraft carried out four separate squadron-sized attacks on the PECOS between 1200 hours and 1450 hours inflicting very heavy damage. By 1548 hours, one hour after the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Elmer Paul Abernathy, had ordered “abandon ship,” the PECOS was going down.
With approximately seven hundred men in the water, the last three Japanese VAL dive bombers amused themselves by machine gunning the helpless men struggling to survive. PECOS Executive Officer (second in command) Lieutenant Commander Lawrence J. McPeake was seen manning a machine gun in a vain effort to defend the unprotected men floating in the water as the Japanese planes had their sport. Afterwards, some sailors claimed McPeake made it off the ship, while others said he was last seen firing away with his machine gun at the menacing Japanese planes. Consensus of opinion is that he did attempt to swim away from the sinking ship with another officer, but his body was never found. Regardless of his actual fate, Lieutenant Commander McPeake was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valor.
Arriving on the scene in the darkness at 1930 hours, some four hours after the last air attack, WHIPPLE began rescuing the distressed sailors. At one point she had to break contact to search for a Japanese submarine lurking in the area, forcing her to drop depth charges despite the fact that American sailors were in the water in the vicinity. Returning to her rescue duties, WHIPPLE was able to pick up a total of only two hundred and thirty-two men before having to depart the area due to the threat of renewed air attacks and possible attack by one of the two Japanese submarines reported close by. As disconcerting as this was to the crew of the WHIPPLE and those already rescued, nearly five hundred sailors of the United States Navy had to be left to their fate. There is no sadder prospect for a sailor than being forced to leave brother sailors in the water to die, but sometimes such are the painful exigencies of war.
Also lost on March 1, 1942 was the destroyer USS EDSELL who had so recently aided in the rescue of other sailors. She was sunk by a combined Japanese air and surface attack south southeast of Christmas Island, not more than twenty-five or thirty miles from where the PECOS was being attacked. The ship sank so rapidly that only five or six men survived. All were picked up by the Japanese and placed in one of their notorious prisoner of war camps where they died. In 1952, their beheaded skeletal remains were discovered in Indonesia along with those of a great many other captured Allied personnel.
The First and Second Battles of the Java Sea, fought two days apart, and subsequent combat actions in their immediate aftermath, were an unmitigated disaster for the Allied naval forces in the area. With the loss of at least two Dutch light cruisers, one Australian cruiser, one Dutch destroyer, two British destroyers, the American ships USS HOUSTON, USS LANGLEY, USS STEWART, USS EDSELL, and USS PECOS sunk, and the loss of over 2,300 sailors dead or missing between February 27 and March 2, 1942, the ABDA ceased to exist as an effective fighting force.
Java soon fell to the Japanese as did other places in the area shortly thereafter. Japanese ambitions of making their Japanese-dominated “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” a reality received a considerable boost thanks to their victories.
The PECOS went down on March 1, 1942, two hundred and fifty miles south-southeast of Christmas Island south of Djakarta, Indonesia in the Indian Ocean with a loss of life estimated at five hundred crew members, survivors rescued from other recently sunk or scuttled vessels, and evacuees from Java. Retroactively, she was awarded the following awards, citations, and medals: Combat Action Ribbon, China Service Medal (Extended), American Defense Service Medal with bronze star in lieu of Fleet Clasp, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and one Battle Star.
Whether Henry Buchanan died during one of the four aerial attacks, was unable to escape and went down with the sinking ship, died in the water due to exposure or exhaustion, or lost his life to the callousness of the Japanese VAL dive bomber crews will probably never be known. What is known is that Seaman First Class Buchanan was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. In the United States Naval Casualty List issued in 1946, Henry’s next of kin was listed as Mrs. Pearl Buchanan “Massengill” of 800 South 3rd Street Smithfield, North Carolina. If his widow had remarried and moved to Smithfield, one wonders why she was listed as his next of kin when both of his parents were still alive and well? Another mystery surrounding Henry Thomas Buchanan that may never be solved.
In the grand scheme of things, compared to the other losses and momentous events that were to take place across the vast Pacific Ocean over the next three and one half years, the loss of the USS PECOS hardly seems worthy of mention. After all, she was an old, worn-out oiler, not even a “combat” ship. But her loss was deeply significant to John and Alice Buchanan, and hopefully for a while at least, to Pearl, the widow of S1c Henry Thomas Buchanan. And, of course, it was significant to the parents, wives, children, brothers, nieces, nephews, and friends of the estimated five hundred who did not survive her sinking. And, it may have been significant to the people of little town of Erwin, a where nearly everyone knew nearly everyone else and tended to share each other’s joys and sorrows. Unfortunately, those who could have answered this question and perhaps resolved some of the other mysteries of Henry Thomas Buchanan’s story are now gone.
May God rest the souls of those lost with the PECOS, and as naval tradition holds, may they find “fair seas and following winds.”
LTC Sion H. Harrington III
United States Army (Retired)