By David A. Farrell, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
Henry Joseph Chaisson, Sr., was only 17 years old on April 7, 1943, and had been in the Navy for only six months. He stood on deck of the burning and smoking destroyer Aaron Ward, looking into the seas off Guadalcanal at half of a body of a friend he recognized, who had just been blown apart after bombs from Japanese airplanes devastated the ship’s engine room.
He recalled how happy he was on Sept. 11, 1942, when his parents — Harry Chaisson and Coloma Trosclair Chaisson — had given permission for him to join the Navy at only 17 years of age.
He had grown up on Montegut Street in downtown New Orleans, and was sworn in at the Custom House on Canal Street. Immediately, he was placed on board a train and in a day or two was in Great Lakes, Ill., near Chicago, for three weeks of boot camp. He didn’t know that in six months he would be in deadly combat on a ship, fighting for his life.
“Everything moved so fast,” he said.
He was a 100 percent New Orleans boy, having attended Holy Trinity school at St. Ferdinand and Royal. He was born in Houma, but his family moved to New Orleans when he was very young.
“I was caught up in all the enthusiasm for war at the time,” he recalls, reminiscing about his part in World War II at his home on Teddy Lane here. He was a part of what historians have called the “greatest generation,” but he admits that he was naive about the whole episode, and life, having no idea what war was all about.
“If only I had known then what I know now,” the 87-year-old Chaisson says.
“All I wanted to do was join the Navy and see the world,” he said. “There was little thought that I might be in danger of being killed, or I might actually see my buddies die.”
But that day on the deck of the burning Aaron Ward, he asked himself, under his breath so no one would hear, “What in the hell am I doing here in this place.”
He could not believe that in such a short time he went from ecstatic happiness to facing his own death, as the ship on which he had worked as a radioman began settling into the waters of what was then known as the Solomon Sea, gulping sea water through gaping holes ripped open by the Japanese bombs.
Chaisson worked on the bridge and soon it had to be abandoned as the ship began to burn, and there was a loss of power. He at first helped gather the wounded, and he and some others even tried to bail out some of the water that was pouring into the ship. But soon they found it was useless, and they knew the ship would sink.
“I knew I had to get off the ship, as everyone was doing, but I knew how dangerous it was in the water,” he said. Finally, he jumped.
Chaisson said the Aaron Ward got in trouble when it lagged behind to give cover to an LST and some other ships after it was known that a group of Japanese planes where headed toward the Aaron Ward. Although Chaisson did not know it, aboard the LST at the time, was a lieutenant, John F. Kennedy, who would one day be elected President.
The Aaron Ward had fought bravely, returning fire from its 20 mm, 40 mm guns and five-inch battery, but the bombs hit with deadly accuracy.
Chaisson and others who abandoned the ship were picked up by one of two salvage vessels that came to help the Aaron Ward. They hooked tow ropes to the ship and began to pull it toward Tinete Point where they hoped to beach it. Tinete Point was off Nggela Sule Island, also known as Florida Island, across the bay from Guadalcanal. But the ship began to roll, and the salvage vessels cut loose.
“It just eased over on its side and then went down stern first,” said Chaisson. Twenty-seven men died on the ship and 55 were wounded. The crew numbered about 220.
Chaisson said he could not believe that he was still alive. After the battle, he was told to sign a card that simply said, “I am alive.” It was mailed to his mother in New Orleans. When he later got home, she told him about it, and asked him, “Why, was you supposed to be dead? I didn’t even know you were dead.” He said he guessed the Navy did that in case some parent received a death notice through Western Union by mistake. “People at home really didn’t know what was going on in the Pacific at that time,” he said.
Chaisson went on to serve on the USS Nicholas, the Cooper, the Hyman and the John W. Weeks. He continued to see action in the Solomons, serving on ships that ran and fought in what was called The Slot, connected bays that ran through the center of the Solomon Island chain.
Eventually, all the Solomon Islands were cleared of Japanese and marked the first step on the march to the Philippines and Okinawa. Guadalcanal marked America’s first major offensive against the Japanese, and proved the Japanese Navy and land forces could be defeated by the Americans.
The island chain was targeted because Allied war planners feared a Japanese air base on Guadalcanal would destroy shipping lanes between the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. The Marines captured the air base, finished constructing it and named it Henderson Field after a fallen hero.
After Chaisson finished boot camp, he went to San Francisco by train, was attached to a former German oceanic liner that America had seized and turned into a troop ship. When he got to Pearl Harbor, he was, in December, 1942, assigned to the Aaron Ward as it lay in dry dock, getting repairs after suffering severe damage during engagements off Guadalcanal, supporting the Marines on shore.
“It was the first time I began to realize what war was all about when I saw the ship in dry dock. How could anyone have survived an attack that caused that much damage? I asked myself,” said Chaisson.
In 1946, Chaisson was discharged at New Orleans. He had been in the Navy three years, nine months and 28 days. He was only 20 years old.
“My body was only 20 years old, but I was much older and more mature inside after what I had seen and gone through,” he says. “It was like everything had changed inside me during the war.” He was a Seaman 2nd Class when discharged.
He married Olga Ayo in October, 1946, went to work for Maison Blanche, then worked for years as a milkman, and then he and his wife worked for the St. Bernard Parish school board, from which they retired.
In 2005, Katrina destroyed their home in Chalmette, and they relocated, buying a new home in Picayune. They have been married 67 years.
They had two sons and two daughters, and have eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
“I am fortunate. I lived and had a successful and happy life. Some of my close friends did not make it,” said Chaisson.
The remains of the Aaron Ward have been found by divers. It rests right-side-up in 250 feet of water about 600 yards off Tinete Point off the coast of Nggela Sule Island, or Florida Island, across Iron Bottom Bay from Guadalcanal.
There were so many Japanese and American ships sunk off the coast of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Sea that the waters between Guadalcanal, Savo Island and Florida Island became known as Iron Bottom Sound. Today it is one of the premiere scuba diving spots in the world, because there are so many ships on the bottom to explore.
War correspondent Richard Tregaskis in 1942 spent two months on Guadalcanal on the front-lines with Marines and wrote “Guadalcanal Diary,” a war classic that is still in print. It was the first glimpse Americans had of what the war was really like. It was later made into a movie. Even today, if you want to be a Marine officer, the book is required reading for officer candidates by the Marine Corps.