Voices from the Pacific War Voices from the Pacific War

Oral Histories

Bill Littlejohn: ABOARD THE USS ST. LOUIS, CL-49

Bill Littlejohn was born 1922 in Mitchell, Nebraska. He was the youngest of nine children, and worked in the grocery store of an older brother after graduation from high school until he entered the United States Navy in October 1940. From boot camp until the end of the war Mr. Littlejohn served aboard the cruiser, USS St. Louis, CL-49, attaining the rate of Chief Water Tender before war’s end. After his discharge from the Navy in 1946 he worked as a manager of different grocery stores in the Sacramento/Davis area of California until his retirement. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife.
The USS St. Louis, CL-49 was commissioned in 1939. On the morning of 7 December 1941 she was moored at a pier at Southeast Lock, Pearl Harbor. She was one of the few ships to exit Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack and was credited with the shooting down of three enemy aircraft. The St. Louis served throughout the rest of the war, getting torpedoed once and falling victim to two kamikazes in Leyte Gulf in November 1944. In the early 1950s she was transferred to the Brazilian Navy and served that country until 1976.

There were seven boys and two girls in my family. All of my brothers and sisters grew up on a farm in Nebraska except me; I was the youngest. A buddy I graduated from high school with, Ralph Murphy, went into the Navy, and when he came home on leave he talked six of us into enlisting, but I was the only one of the six to be accepted. The others couldn’t pass the physical.
I went to boot camp in San Diego, and was then sent aboard the USS St. Louis, CL-49, in December 1940. Everybody else from my company in boot camp went aboard battleships. I wanted to be an electrician, and I put in for it, but ended up down in one of the firerooms. I stayed in that same fireroom aboard the St. Louis for 5 ½ years.
The St. Louis had just come around from the East coast when I went aboard, and the captain when I went aboard was a Capt. Rood, but we had about five different captains during the 5 ½ years I was aboard. Right after I went aboard we were told we were going to Pearl Harbor. My question was, “Where is Pearl Harbor?” Before I went into the Navy I had never been more than 150 miles from home.
We were at Pearl Harbor for about a year before the war started. We arrived on Christmas Eve, 1940 and I was seasick all the way over, but I never got seasick again after that. Before the war Waikiki only had two hotels, The Royal Hawaiian and the Alamoana–the only two on the beach at that time. Honolulu was wide open spaces. All the homes had huge lawns. You go back today; its been ruined. You can’t even see the Royal Hawaiian.
There was a wealthy banker from my hometown by the name of Quimby. He used to take his family to Hawaii every year. My mother wrote him a letter to let him know I was at Pearl Harbor, and Mr. Quimby sent a letter to me on the ship, inviting me and a buddy to come to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. When we arrived at the hotel by taxi the bell boys came out, thinking we were wealthy tourists, but when they saw we were a couple of swabbies they turned around and left. They didn’t want anything to do with us. It wasn’t that sailors weren’t liked in Hawaii before the war; it was just that we didn’t have any money. I was only getting $21 a month. My mother got $11 and I got $10. My father had died and she was all by herself.
We had some good gunners on the St. Louis. We had five 6-inch mounts, and four 5-inch mounts–inclosed mounts. We were the first cruiser to be built with inclosed gun mounts, and we were the only ship in the Navy when the war broke out that had the “E” for efficiency on every turret and every mount on the ship.
The day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor I had been in Honolulu with my by buddy, Ralph Murphy, the guy who talked me into going into the Navy. He was on the USS San Francisco, a heavy cruiser, which was docked right next to the St. Louis. I came back to the ship that night, but Ralph stayed in town. I was going to go back ashore Sunday morning, and was standing on the quarter deck a little before 0800 when all of these planes came flying over. I thought, ‘What’s going on? The Army doesn’t hold maneuvers on Sunday.’ Then, one of the planes came down low and went right over us, heading for the battleships, and I was looking right at the pilot. General quarters was sounded, and at about the same time a bomb hit the dock where the San Francisco was tied up. I went to my general quarters station down in the fireroom and stayed there. I might also add that the automatic firing mechanisms for rapped fire for our anti-aircraft guns had been removed and taken ashore for overhaul, so our gunners had to fire their guns manually.
I never saw Ralph again until after the war was over. The St. Louis was at Pearl Harbor when it was announced over the ship’s speaker to prepare for the San Francisco to tie up along side of us. I went top side and leaned on the life line to see if Ralph might be aboard. He was the first person I saw. He was also leaning on the life line to see if I was still aboard the St. Louis. After the San Francisco tied up along side of us we met half way on the gang plank between the two ships and hugged.
Normally, it took three or four hours to get the boilers going and build up steam, but out of the four boilers on board we got up steam on two of them and were out of the harbor 67 minutes later. We started heading for the mouth of the harbor and the Nevada was ahead of us doing only about 5-knots, and we were coming up behind her doing better than 20-knots. The Nevada ran aground near the mouth of the harbor, and we ran on by her. In fact there was an anti-submarine cable running across the mouth of the harbor and we busted right on through it.
On the way out a Japanese midget submarine outside the harbor fired two torpedoes at us, but they hit a coral reef and exploded before they got to us. The midget submarine was sunk shortly after that and we spent the next three days cruising around the islands before coming back into Pearl. Pearl Harbor was a sickening mess! We pulled into an area called Aiea where we used to go ashore to play baseball and other sports. When we go there this time the area was piled high with coffins for the dead.
When we pulled back into Pearl Harbor the St. Louis picked up over 400 men from the other ships that had been sunk or damaged. Our normal complement was around 900 men. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, we carried more than 1,300 men on the St. Louis throughout the rest of the war. Before Pearl Harbor all we had for anti-aircraft defense were the 5-inch mounts and maybe a couple of .50 caliber machine guns. After Pearl Harbor we got 20-mm guns, then 40-mm guns.
For about the next six months we went back and forth between Hawaii and the West coast, taking civilians back to the mainland and bring out military personnel. We also convoyed some Matson Line cruise ships that were taking civilians back and bring out troops.
After that, our main job was the bombardment of islands before the Marines landed. We fought all over the Pacific, from Alaska almost to Australia. In Alaska the weather was really bad. We got into one storm that was so bad that we had to secure the ship–that is secure all the water-tight doors, and everybody on the ship was given a life jacket, even those of us in the firerooms; it was that bad. Water came over the main deck and down the number-two stack and put the fire out in one of the boilers. I mean it was rough, and they secured all watches top side.
When the storm was over and we got into Kodiak, the guys who went ashore on liberty got so drunk they couldn’t make it back aboard under their own power. We had to take the cranes used to lift the float planes aboard to bring the men coming back from liberty aboard. They were loaded into cargo nets, and the cranes hoisted them aboard like that.
In the Solomon Islands we operated out of Tulagi, on Florida Island. We could see Guadalcanal from there. We were involved mostly in shore bombardment. The USS Helena, CL -50 was our sister ship, and she was sunk at the Battle of Kula Gulf in July 1943. A week later both the Honolulu and the St. Louis had their bows blown off–both at the same time.  When you are down in the fireroom its scary. You hear the word “torpedo,” down below decks and its like being in a submarine.
On Valentine’s Day, 1944, my mother’s birthday, we were near the Green Islands.  We were attacked by Japanese planes and the one bomb that hit the St. Louis hit right where my bunk was. It was a 500 pound bomb, and I had left my compartment about ten minutes before that to relieve the fireroom watch. The men coming off watch went up to the compartment and were all killed; they didn’t know what hit them. They were all close friends; we were like family.
Being down in the fireroom there is a lot you don’t see, but when we were in Leyte Gulf in November 1944 I remember when we got hit by two kamikazes. We had float planes on the St. Louis and one of the kamikazes hit the hangar deck. The hangar had a big door that slid back and forth on it that must have weighed a ton, and when the plane’s bomb exploded it lifted that door up and turned it sideways so that it stuck out over the side of the ship. We had to go all the way back to Mare Island to have it taken care of.
We found the body of the kamikaze pilot and the men wanted to through it overboard, but the captain said, “No! He will be given a burial at sea just like one of our own.” And, that’s what we did; we gave him a normal burial at sea, just like he was one of our sailors. I don’t remember the captain’s name.
While we were in Leyte Gulf we were attacked thirty-three times by Japanese planes in thirteen days. When we went to general quarters we didn’t go for just a half-hour or so, we were down there for hours at a time. In the firerooms its always hot, but during general quarters all the ventilation is shut off and the hatches are closed, and when you are standing there in front of those boilers, watching those gauges it gets awfully hot.
When I first went aboard ship my boss in the fire room was a little short Bostonian by the name of Galligan, and my best buddy on the St. Louis was Cecil Pepper. Cecil was a big old hillbilly from Tennessee and was 6' 5" tall. He worked in the fireroom with me, and we ran around together. Any way, this Galligan took a liking to me a Pepper and said, “As long as I’m on this ship you guys will never get off.” Well, Pepper and me put in for everything there was, even submarines. We wanted to get off that ship and see something else. We put in for everything but aircraft carriers. We didn’t want anything to do with them because we felt that was the first thing an enemy would go after. We were still aboard in 1946 and put the St. Louis out of commission. By then Galligan was a Chief Warrant Officer, and Pepper and me were Chiefs, and we were the last three out of the boiler division to walk off the ship. As far as I’m concerned, Chief Warrant Officers and Chief Petty Officers are the most respected and recognized people in the Navy, and if I hadn’t gotten married I would have stayed in. I really liked the navy.