Tuesday, Apr 22, 2014
Local News

Memories of war -- the losses and triumphs


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SEBRING -On Sept. 14, 1942, standing on the fantail of the USS Juneau, US Navy Chief Maurice "Marty" Beckner and his shipmate, Albert Leo Sullivan, had a clear view as two torpedoes ripped through the starboard flank of the USS Hawk, a light fleet aircraft carrier.

At 96, Beckner still has vivid memories of the numerous battles he survived during his three decades in service to his country.

"It is like a picture right in front of me. I can close my eyes and see it. I was as close as from here to Thunderbird," said Beckner, pointing toward the road near his Sebring home. "It took three fish (torpedoes) to sink it, but they didn't lose many people that day. We picked up survivors."

Now, 71 years later, Beckner wants to honor the men he served with on the ill-fated USS Juneau, including the famed five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa.

"I knew them well," he reminisced of the inseparable siblings who were all lost when the ship was sunk at the Battle of Guadalcanal on Nov. 13, 1942. The events that led to their tragic deaths were made into a movie, "The Sullivans," in 1944 and became a rallying point for the war effort.

The Juneau was part of a small task force of warships in the South Pacific, defending an area that was "part of the Solomon Island Group."

"I helped outfit the ship before it sailed, loaded it up, shook it down and was there when it was commissioned as the USS Juneau," said Beckner. When the 500 foot long Atlanta-class light cruiser sailed for the first time from Brooklyn, he was aboard.

It was only by a twist of fate he wasn't on the Juneau when it sailed Nov. 8, 1942 out of New Caledonia, just five days before the ship and all but 10 of its crew were lost at sea.

"I stepped on someone's toes," said Beckner of an officer he had angered by calling him a dummy after he walked through some fresh paint.

That remark got Beckner a demotion and such a quick transfer to the USS Oregon that some of his clothes and belongings were still on the Juneau when it went down.

"It probably saved my life," he said solemnly.

The Juneau was escorting transports carrying the 7th Marine Regiment as reinforcements for troops that had landed on Guadalcanal on Aug. 8, 1942. The Marines were in an ongoing struggle to secure the strategic island and Henderson Field, the airstrip there.

On Nov. 13, during a battle where the task force was greatly outnumbered, the Juneau was struck port side and was listing.

Later in the day, a Japanese sub fired a torpedo that impacted near the original portside damage, causing an explosion that split the ship in half. It sank within seconds.

A letter to Beckner from his friend, Wyatt Butterfield, one of the survivors, described the day.

He wrote: "Remember Hight, Anderson, Price and Mike Trail? Well none of them got out of the turret. All were killed instantly. Straub died the third day on the raft and gosh but I bawled like a baby."

Butterfield also told him two of the Sullivan had made it to the rafts, but they swam back in search of their brothers.

"There were almost 200 in the water, and the flotilla went by and left them there," said Beckner of the eight days survivors waited to be rescued. "(Butterfield) told me sharks were eating people. You'd hear them scream, and they would disappear."

"Captain (Gilbert) Hoover was concerned about the safety of the other ships. It was his orders to leave the men, not to stop and pick them up," said Beckner bitterly. He added that Hoover, in charge of the squadron, received a reprimand from Admiral William Halsey and was demoted.

A Baltimore native who played the drums in his high school band, Beckner said he never conceived of what military service would hold for him when he was beating a drum to help his fellow recruits march during boot camp.

"I've seen a lot, done a lot, been through a lot," Beckner acknowledged as he showed the scars of a shrapnel wound on his left arm and a bullet wound on his leg.

A glass case hanging on the wall of his mobile home is filled with service medals for tours of duty in China, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign, European-African Middle Eastern Campaign, Korea, Philippines, and with the American Defense Fleet and United Nations Service.

"People don't realize what war is," said Beckner, who recalled sleeping in his clothes to be ready for the call to action and starting every morning at battle stations until the all clear was sounded. "Unless they've been there, in battle, it is impossible to relay to someone."

Beckner's blue eyes stared downward at the weathered pages of a small, brown journal, his eye-witness account of WWII naval battles between the Allied Forces and the Japanese.

An October 1942 entry documented one of the major conflicts of the Pacific Campaign, the battle of Santa Cruz Islands, when the Imperial Fleet launched a major offensive against Guadalcanal.

"That was when a small task force went out and met head on a Japanese battle fleet," said Beckner.

On the morning of Oct. 26, 1942, from his position at the bow turret 38 caliber guns, he watched as the Yorktown class USS Hornet (CV8) was hit and sunk by dive bombers and Japanese torpedo planes, 27 enemy aircraft in all.

"I don't know how the planes got through the radar," said Beckner. "My gun fired over 60 rounds. I lost my earplugs, the cotton in my ears, and my head buzzed for three days. Fourteen guns were being shot at once. There were so many shells being shot, the ship looked like it was on fire."

Since retiring from the military, Beckner worked for the Department of Highway Safety as a motor vehicle inspector for Palm Beach County. He umpired softball games for the Palm Beach Department of Recreation, and collected over 75 Marilyn Monroe signature plates.

"I'm doing alright," Beckner acknowledged with a shrug. But as for the things he's seen in war, he said, "I'll never get that out of my mind."

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