By William F. Turner
Frank W. Kiel and Alice Ruth Kiel (collaborators)
It was a dark and stormy night in 1942 on an American troopship aground on the reef at Canton Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean early in World War II. The captain of the escorting destroyer had said, “Hug the shore. There may be Japanese submarines nearby.” The ship’s Master, Captain Aitken, at anchor off the lagoon entrance, noticed a change of wind that, with the tidal currents, forced his ship toward shore. Young soldier Bill Turner, standing on the bow of the ship, saw the waves breaking on the reef around the atoll, and realized the ship was going toward them. The ship beached at high tide on the reef; the receding tide made it worse. Could the ship be saved? What could be done with the 1250 troops that were to garrison the island?
Canton Island is an atoll in the South Pacific Ocean. It is now part of the Republic of Kiribati. It has a narrow rim of land surrounding a 9 x 4 mile lagoon. Coral heads block its four water entrances. (Figure 1) First surveyed in 1872, its name derived from the New Bedford whaler Canton, which ran aground on its reef in 1854. No development occurred until 1937 when eclipse observers recognized its potential as an aircraft-landing site.
Pan-American Airways first went across the Pacific to the Philippines in 1935. In 1938–1939, the company deepened the southwest corner of the Canton Island lagoon for use of its Clipper flying boats on the new five-day route to New Zealand. Flights continued until the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The War Department took over and expanded the facilities to provide a safer route to the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies for land-based fighters and bombers. Canton Island was an intermediate stop between Hawaii and the Fiji Islands. (Figure 2) To counter the anticipated Japanese advance across the Central Pacific, an Army task force arrived in February 1942. These were the troops on board when the President Taylor grounded.
The President Taylor’s Ocean Voyage
The Official Log shows the commencement of the voyage on January 31, 1942. The record has no unusual entries, just fire drills and boat drills, and inspections of crew and passenger quarters—signed by Captain Aitken and Chief Mate Herre.
Pvt. William F. Turner served in the U.S. Army 15 October 1941 to 15 October 1945. Born in Pennsylvania in 1915, he did quarry demolition work before entering the Army. After basic training at Fort Belvoir, he joined the 400th Engineer Composite Company and a troop train took the men to San Francisco.
Pvt. Turner: “When we got to San Francisco and Fort McDowell most of our time was spent getting different types of clothing, all winter wear, everything heavy, so anybody talking about it would most likely feel that when the troopship did take off we were going probably to Alaska. It was completely ridiculous, a lot of money spent on that type of clothing. I guess that was part of the program. Fool anybody that might be a traitor.
The troopship was waiting. While we were at McDowell we were getting all kinds of inoculations, as well as clothing. Nothing in the way of survival training. McDowell was a center to preclude anybody that was sick or at the start of some kind of disease. It was an area that was very important before we got on a troopship. Most of the people were in good health.”
The President Taylor, built in 1921, was in passenger service for the American President Lines prior to World War II. In December 1941, after conversion to troopship configuration, she sailed from San Francisco to Honolulu. The ship returned to San Francisco and on 31 January 1942 departed for Canton Island under Captain A. W. Aitken. Turner recalled the long trip across the Pacific Ocean when asked whether it was still a luxury ship at the time he was on it.
Pvt. Turner: “(Hearty laughter) No. It was very, very plain. We did have the advantage of grand pianos that were locked in position. We had a couple of very excellent piano players from Los Angeles. We had as much of a good time as would be possible. A lot of the experience on board ship was waiting in line to be fed. I always enjoyed the food. President Taylor had excellent kitchens. They didn’t convert that.
We knew after a day or two that we had to be going south by the stars and the sun and the moon. All of the ships of this cruise line were stripped of any sign of elegance. After leaving the famous docks, there were just a few memories: going under the Golden Gate bridge, the swells off the coastline, and the ongoing crap games. After crossing the International Date Line, there were two alerts. One was a reported Jap sub, taken out of service by our Navy escort. The second, we had to zigzag for almost seven hours due to Jap sight. At this point, we were alone and, having passed the equator, probably an easy sight.”
Captain Aitken: “At anchor off lagoon entrance to Canton Island . . . vessel experienced quick change of wind in sharp squall, which with tidal currents forced ship aground, starboard side to.”
Pvt. Turner: “The course of the ship was such that we never saw land. We only touched land when the President Taylor shifted right up onto an atoll and kept scratching its way into an area that they never were able to get out of. The bow of the ship kept goin’ and goin’ and goin’ right up onto an atoll and locked into position for the rest of its life.
It was just shortly after suppertime, approximately 6:30, and at the time I was at the bow of the boat, and I could see that we were going to hit something. I tried to yell up but they didn’t pay any attention to me. Very shortly thereafter, this horrible screeching sound took place. And there it was, locked.”
Efforts to get the ship off the reef
Captain Aitken: “Engines were used to capacity in endeavor to work clear of beach. All void tanks were filled from sea, kedge anchors placed, certain cargo compartments flooded to prevent vessel from pounding and/or driving ashore until assistance arrived.”
Pvt. Turner: “It was maybe an hour after [the grounding] orders went out that all the troops on board ship were to go to the bow of the boat and run as fast as they could to the rear of the boat. I was assigned guard duty to preclude anybody from going down into the lower parts of the ship. This went on for four hours. They were marched back, almost in lock step, back to the bow of the boat, trying to shift the weight, trying to get it off. I knew we would never do it, because I had seen how far we went up.”
Captain Aitken: “Heavy weather was at once experienced, which continued over a period of ten days, forcing the vessel high on the beach.”
Pvt. Turner: “After three attempts [of soldiers running from stem to stern] the weather changed drastically—high winds with pouring rain close to a monsoon. Waves were induced to greater and greater heights—the picture of this horrible scene, further alarming. This force lifted the pianos out of their saddle straps and they would bang up against the walls during the period of turnover, and then they would shift back. Just about everything in the boat did the same thing. The ship slowly reacted to the high waves—there was absolutely no control. The huge President Taylor was in tilts, severe enough to capsize. Men still on the move to the point of exhaustion, soaking wet and mad—scared at the same time. The event subsided about 2:30 a.m. Rest order was a welcome relief. There was contact with the shore. There were a number of people involved and concerned, but the weather was so bad that nobody could do anything about it.”
Captain Aitken: “Subsequently [after ten days of bad weather], cargo was discharged.
Pvt. Turner: “Believe it or not, [the next morning] we had breakfast. My thoughts were what would we do next? How in the world would we get off the ship? It was a matter of several days we just existed—food not any concern due to the ship’s quartermaster’s ample supplies. The [civilian] engineers [already on the island] were able to construct a big barge and they already had a tugboat, not the type you see in New York City but sufficient to go through the opening, but it was extremely rough waters. Once the tugboat could pull the barge, they came out to the ship. Numbers were called out to the people that would get on this. There were never more than thirty people on the barge. Then that would be pulled through all this rough water and we’d land. They just repeated this operation time and time again until all 1250 troops were off. It took awhile. We had no losses at all.”
Conditions on the island were primitive and demanding. Stevedore work involved unloading supplies (typically 55-gallon gasoline drums) from freighters onto barges, and then onto the dock. Refueling of aircraft utilized hand-cranked pumps.
Captain Aitken: “Liquid weight removed, and every effort made to float vessel up to March 18, 1942, at which point the Navy salvage experts abandoned the effort.”
Pvt. Turner: “We had our field equipment with us. It was a long period of time before we had tents. (Figure 3) We eventually got the tents and had them all erected in Army-style. Within two and a half months everybody was pretty well organized because by that time they got the equipment off the ship. The transfer of all this was slow. They just took all that they could off the President Taylor, including metal beds with mattresses, full-length mirrors, and wicker chairs and sofas for the day room. They made the barges stronger and longer to get the Army trucks and ambulances off. Since the oil line in the ship broke, a lot of these were real greasy looking. I had to clean some of them.
We had equipment off the President Taylor that made ice cream. We would make ice cream. This was part of the deal with the Post Exchange. We had all these supplies—the freezers—from the President Taylor.
The officers benefited by all the copper tubing. They had fine whiskey made with tubing from the President Taylor. It was stripped over a period of time of everything that could be used. That was the advantage of being dropped off at that silly island, because there was nothing there.”
Master Herre: At 0523 on 24 March 1942, Captain A. W. Aitken shot himself twice in the head and was found bleeding in his bunk. Medical aid was summoned and all possible assistance given to the Captain. He was immediately transferred to the Army Hospital ashore. On 5 May 1942, Captain Aitken was transferred from shore hospital to the USS Argonne to be taken to Honolulu for further treatment.
Pvt. William F. Turner became the Post Exchange manager. Reassigned to Hawaii, he joined the 65th Combat Engineers Battalion, a component of the 25th Infantry Division that soon departed for Guadalcanal. He was in the Guadalcanal and New Georgia campaigns. He returned to Fort Belvoir in November 1943 for Officer Candidate School.
The President Taylor remained on the reef. Salvage operations failed, although the soldiers moved task force equipment on shore and purloined interior furnishings to garnish the new base. The ship was a total loss and became an enduring landmark. (Figure 4)