HOSPITALISATION AND HOME
On October 31, I was transferred to the Navy hospital ship, the USS Solace. The Solace medical staff was screening the casualties coming from the Hornet and other ships anchored in Noumea Bay. The wounded and the burned were lying in gurneys on the main deck, waiting to be tagged for disposition. The seriously injured were going to be sent to hospitals in Australia and New Zealand. I was told that I was going home.
I was tagged with a red "A", meaning ambulatory. I was taken to a space with two beds. The Hornets Chief Machinist, Duffy, was lying on a layer of wax paper in one of the beds. He looked grotesque. His head and hands looked like black charred flesh. Duffy was swearing and carrying on about his predicament! My first thought was that I didn't want to share a room with this patient. I didn't know then he was a Hornet shipmate.
While being treated for the wound he received at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, Clayton Fisher was able to spend Christmas 1942 with his wife and family in Janesville, Wisconsin. He is shown here with his wife Anne, his mother, and his dog Peter. The photograph was taken by a local newspaper photographer for a story. Anne is showing the shrapnel holes in the right arm of Clay's flight suit.
Later that day the SS Lurline, a peacetime Matson luxury liner that was now a troop ship, was brought alongside the Solace. A gangway was rigged between the two ships, and the ambulatory patients started walking across to the Lurline. The patients, in white bathrobes, with black faces, and hands that looked like black claws, paraded across. The Navy treated all burn cases with tannic acid, and it had caked. Some of these men had been transferred to a British cruiser. The British treated burn cases with a black aniline dye. Their corpsmen walked around with flit guns loaded with the dye. They sprayed the black dye over the caked tannic acid. It made the flesh look like it was charred black. Actually in the 1st and 2nd degree burns, the "crust" would peel off. So most of the men were not as badly burned as they looked.
It was fun to tell my friends I spent eighteen days on the Lurline in the Honeymoon Suite. Well, there were six other officers sharing the suite, sleeping in three tier very narrow bunks. In the suite, we had a Hornet Assistant Medical Officer, Dr McAteer, (who had chest injuries from being blown against a bulkhead), the Hornets Chief Electrician, Duffy, who had been standing under a ships ventilator eating a candy bar when a bomb exploded. The bomb blast had sent a very hot wave of heat down through the opening of the ventilator and burned Duffys head and face. I dont remember the names of the rest of the officers, except LT(jg) George Formanek, a Hornet fighter pilot. Georges wife and mine shared a home with three other Hornet pilots wives in Coronado, California.
Duffy was a born storyteller. He told us he had been everywhere, seen everything, and done everything. A true sailor! These two Irishmen, Dr McAteer and Duffy, each had a wonderful sense of humor. Duffy embellished his sea stories with Dr McAteer egging him on. We were going to be en route for eighteen days to San Diego, and those two real characters helped ease the boredom.
The first day we entered the officers dining room, Duffys black head and hands got the attention of a pompous Army Lieutenant Colonel. He objected strenuously to Duffys appearance and asked the civilian waiter to have Duffy leave the dining room.
The blackened, caked tannic acid on Duffys head was starting to peel off. So we decided if we could get Duffy in a bathtub, soak his head and hands, we could get him presentable to eat in the dining room. The Lurline had rationed all fresh water and we were taking saltwater baths. We got permission from a ships officer to fill a bathtub with fresh water. We got Duffy into the tub and had a fun team effort to soak towels and gently rub Duffys head. When we had successfully removed the caked tannic acid, we all cracked up laughing. Little Duffy looked beautiful; like a very pink baby! That evening, we all proudly escorted our "pink baby" into the dining room, right past the pompous Lieutenant Colonels table. The Lurline still had civilian waiters serving the tables. Our waiter had found some of the "goodies" like thick soups and molded ice cream deserts left over from the peacetime cruises. He served us some of these "goodies", and the pompous officer demanded to be served some of the same. Our waiter politely told him only the wounded patients were to have the "goodies". He told the officer, "You're not wounded". Sweet revenge!
The ballroom on the Lurline was set up as a sickbay (clinic) to treat patients. While I was waiting to have my arm examined, I was watching a doctor removing burned skin from the back of the hand of a non flying officer from our squadron. LT Cathcart had been in our ready room when a Japanese dive-bomber squadron commander had dived his plane into the signal bridge and the bomb and engine came through the flight deck into our ready room. The bomb did not detonate, but Cathcart and LT(jg) Ivan Swope from VS-8 were burned from flaming gasoline. Cathcart was in a lot of pain while the doctor was trying to clean the burned area on the back of his hand and he fainted.
The doctor told me he needed to remove "proud flesh" that had formed over my arm wound or I would end up with an ugly scar. He applied silver nitrate on the "proud flesh" and wrapped a loose bandage around my arm. He told me it would be very painful for about an hour while the silver nitrate slowly burned the "proud flesh" off. That was a long hour! I started running from the ships stern to the bow and then back to the stern. I continued running until I was pooped! Finally, my arm cooled off.
The Lurline reached San Diego on November 18th. Our first sight of land was when we steamed by San Clemente Island. What a thrilling sight! We entered the harbor and the Lurline was docked at the downtown Navy Pier.
I disembarked from the Lurline carrying all my possessions in a brown paper sack. They consisted of a pair of boxer shorts made in Kobe Japan and given to me by a Lurline ships officer, toilet articles, my flight suit, helmet, goggles, "Mae West", my .45-caliber gun, and a Naval Institute Magazine. I was traveling light! I still have that flight suit and the "Mae West". Both have shrapnel holes in them.
A group of us were transported in a station wagon to the Balboa Naval Hospital.
Marge Davis, wife of LT Ray Davis of VS-8, was living in Coronado, which is just across San Diego Bay, and she had called my wife, Anne, and told her that I was aboard the Lurline, which had just arrived in San Diego. Anne had received a "starred" Western Union telegram on November 14th informing her that I had been wounded in action.
Anne repeatedly called the hospital most of the day and was informed that my name was not on the inpatient records. Finally, around 4.00pm, they told her I was logged in as a patient. I was in a room with Ivan Swope from VS-8 and we had just decided to walk down town and see what the city lights looked like. We did not have uniforms. I had on blue dungarees and a khaki shirt. Neither of us had any money.
As Ivan and I walked out of our room, I noticed a Navy corpsman coming down the corridor escorting a young lady. I heard him say "Fisher", and I finally recognized Anne. What a surprise! I thought she was back in Iowa with her mother. I dont remember very much about the next few minutes. Too much emotion!
I didnt check out of the hospital. My wife and I just walked out of the hospital and drove to Coronado. We arrived at the Colonial Apartments where my wife shared an apartment with the Betty Tappan, wife of LT(jg) Ben Tappan of VS-8.
Most of the Hornet VB/VS-8 pilots, who included Ben Tappan, would arrive at San Francisco about a week later on a transport. After Ben Tappan arrived in Coronado, the parties started. Our landlord, Mr Cohen, lived in an apartment below our unit. When we made too much noise, Mr Cohen would bang on the ceiling with a broom handle to quiet things down.
When I arrived at the Balboa Naval Hospital, I did not have an identification card. The hospital administration personnel told me it would take a couple of days to have me processed for a new I.D. card because the I.D. cards were only
issued at the Navy Federal Building in downtown San Diego. If I wanted to speed up the process, I could go down to the Federal Building myself to get an I.D. card. When I tried to enter the building, I was accosted by a civilian uniformed security guard who wanted to see my I.D. After some explaining and arguing, he finally agreed to accompany me to the office where I could get an I.D. card. I met with an old ex-retired disgruntled Navy commander who couldnt seem to understand why I was so negligent to lose my I.D. card. I told him I was a Hornet survivor, aviator, and the only I.D. we wore while flying was our dog tags. My wallet and I.D. card were left in the squadron ready room. He opened up the collar of his shirt and showed me his I.D. card attached to a plastic cord that was around his neck.
I told him it was a great innovation for people commanding SD -4s (steel desk 4 drawers) but was impractical for combat ships. I told him some of the Hornet casualties who were exposed to the heat from bomb blasts had finger rings and small metal chains imbedded in their burned flesh. I said if I were to be sent back on a combat ship, I would refuse to wear any metal jewelry or plastic objects on my body.
When you lose all your uniforms and underclothing, you dont at first realize how many items you lost until you make an inventory. For a Naval aviation officer, we had four basic uniforms, blue, white, khaki, and aviation green. Now add all the accessories, ties, shirts, belts, gloves, shoes, stockings and caps with different colored cap covers. Next add blue and tan raincoats, rank Insignia, and aviator's gold wings. The government would reimburse us for our uniforms, but not personal items like watches.
At 1942 money values, I estimated the cost to replace my uniforms and underclothing would cost at a bare minimum about seven hundred dollars.
The survivor claims were administered at the Federal Building. Another ex-retired commander initially interviewed me. One of his first statements was about Yorktown survivor claims he had processed. He told me he wasnt going to let the Hornet survivors screw the government like the Yorktown survivors had tried to do on their claims. I couldnt believe what I was hearing. I wanted to tell him what an ass I thought he was, but he was going to process my claim and I decided I had better keep my cool.
I submitted a claim for about seven hundred dollars and the claim was reduced to four hundred and forty dollars. My uniforms finally cost me over a thousand dollars.
I was able to spend Christmas with Anne at my home in Janesville, Wisconsin. I never dreamed I would be fortunate enough to spend Christmas of 1942 with my family. Most of my high school and college friends had volunteered, had been, or were being drafted into the military and were not spending that Christmas at home!
In January 1943, I was discharged from the hospital and received orders to the Operational Flight Training Command located at NAS (Naval Air Station) Jacksonville, Florida.