Ships in Great Distress


James Kenneth Chastain

A number of Chastains have been involved in ships that were under great distress -- especially during wartime. From the Civil War and World War II, read their stories here. The photo at right is James Kenneth Chastain.

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World War II, Naval Destroyer USS Corry Sunk on D-Day - James Kenneth Chastain
World War II, Mine Layer General Richard Arnold Sunk - Captain William H. Chasteen
World War II, USS Johnston Sunk - Bobby Chastain
Civil War, Steamship General Lyon Burned - Chester B. Shasteen

World War II, Naval Destroyer USS Corry Sunk on D-Day-James Kenneth Chastain

My father is James Kenneth Chastain, born September 1, 1925 in Niles IL. He passed away at the age of 44 (I was 10), so I have fond memories and lots of discoveries. He enlisted in the Navy on September 3, 1942. After Basic Training he was assigned to the USS Corry DD-463, a Naval Destroyer. The USS Corry led the D-Day attack and was the first ship sunk on June 6, 1944 at Utah Beach, Normandy. All the ships were under attack and the Corry was hit and going down. As I understand it from a few articles I have read, the men waited the in water for 12 hours before another ship could pull them out. Needless to say the other ships were simply too busy to stop at that point. A good link to see this ship and the story is, and if you hit the link above, then go to Shipmates and then to C's, you will see my Dad and his military records.

When I was ten, a few weeks before my father died of a heart attack, he sat me down and showed me his service medals. He told me story about the ship that sank. He said the ship was bombed, and as he was running up to get off the ship, with water coming in, he heard a man yelling for help. He told me that he went into an electrical room and pulled some equipment off a man and then helped that man off the ship with him. At the time, of course, being ten years old, that story did not mean too much. However, as an adult, and after looking thru my Dad's records, and then reading about the Corry, I put two and two together and now I understand what a powerful story that was. Contributed by Ramona (Chastain) Jarvis.

USS Corry

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World War II, Mine Layer General Richard Arnold Sunk-Captain William H. Chasteen

During World War II, army ships mined key American harbors including Portsmouth, New Hampshire as part of an elaborate coastal defense network. The mines were set off, not by contact with an enemy ship, but by wired systems detonated by observers in the watchtowers. Small mine-planters, some pre-dating WW I, were used to lay the cables and junction boxes that would set off the mines. None of the mines were ever deployed.

On January 7, 1942, shortly after noon, the L-88 which was coming up the coast radioed that it had engine trouble and needed assistance. Its position was given as about 14 miles southeast of White Island off Cape Ann, Gloucester. Army officials immediately sent out the 98-foot General Arnold under command of Captain William H. Chasteen to assist it and the navy tug Yaquima was ordered out as well. Just outside Portsmouth harbor the ships began to buck heavy seas and take on water which immediately iced up. So serious was the icing that the Yaquima was ordered back, but the Arnold continued on, and the mine-planter Absolom Baird, a 140-foot mine planter, was ordered out. Meanwhile an army plane was sent in to search for the L-88. Toward dark, it located the ship and dropped a flare directly astern of it.

Using this for a bearing the Arnold reached the L-88 where lines were put aboard, and about 8:30 pm the two ships started toward Portsmouth side by side. Little progress could be made because of the heavy seas, but the Baird hastened to the scene, which it reached a few hours later and took both ships in tow.

At 1:45 a.m. the Arnold suddenly plunged to the bottom; apparently it split at the seams. The Arnold foundered so suddenly that an army spokesman said it seemed almost as though "the bottom dropped out." Only quick action of the crew of the L-88 saved that ship from being dragged to the bottom by the Arnold. The Quartermaster's civilian crew risked their lives on icy wind and wave swept decks to cut the lines. Master Chasteen high on the bridge of the Arnold jumped clear just as the ship went under. Additional quick action by the skipper of the L-88 who kept his little ship dangerously close to the suction of the foundering Arnold, enabled his crew to rescue Chasteen. Witnesses reported that the captain had bravely called to rescuers, "Never mind me. Save the others!" as he floundered in the icy waters, but none could be found. The Arnold sank about 20 miles Southeast of the Isles of Shoals on in 20-foot waves. Ten crewmen died.

The General Arnold was built in 1909, and was perhaps named for a Civil War Union brigadier general (1828-1882).

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World War II, USS Johnston Sunk-Bobby Chastain

On October 25, 1944 off the Philippine Island of Samar, a massive contingent of the mightiest ships in the Japanese fleet appeared. They threatened General Douglas MacArthur's vulnerable invasion force, and all that stood in their way was a small group of thirteen small American ships called Taffy 3, including the destroyer USS Johnston named for Civil War naval officer, Lt. John Vincent Johnston. Taffy 3 comprised six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four tiny destroyer escorts.

The Japanese fleet consisted of eleven destroyers, two light cruisers, six heavy cruisers, and three huge battleships plus the Yamato, which was the largest warship in the world-its weight matched that of the entire Taffy 3 group. Twenty-three Japanese ships in all, and most of them significantly more powerful than any of the American ships. When the Japanese appeared suddenly and attacked Taffy 3, the ships of Taffy 3 retreated until they could form up and fight, but the captain of the USS Johnston, without orders, and in an action of likely sacrifice, turned to attack the Japanese fleet alone in order to slow them down if possible and give the Taffy 3 group more time. She carried ten torpedoes, five five-inch guns that fired 54-pound shells, and some depth charges. The guns were state of the art. Aiming was controlled by new technology that was controlled by the gunnery director and his two assistants. The actual crews at each gun had little to do but load the shells unless the technology went down.

On the other hand, the approaching battleships carried fourteen-inch shells of 1400 pounds. And the Japanese battleships had a much longer range and were considerably faster than the Taffy 3 ships. The heavy cruisers were just as dangerous and even faster. On its twenty-minute approach, the Johnston was barraged with enemy shells, any one of which could have sunk the Johnston, but amazingly none resulted in a hit. One reason was that when a shell hit the water and gave rise to dyed plumes, the Japanese adjusted their aim while the Johnston moved to where the missed shells had just landed. The Japanese never caught on.

With a much smaller range, the Johnston gunners had nothing to do until they came much closer to the Japanese ships, and it was unlikely they would get close enough before being hit. Even if they did, the guns would have little effect against the big ships. The Johnston's only real chance of real damage to the Japanese was to get even closer in order to release the torpedoes. Once within range, the guns made about forty hits on the lead vessel-a cruiser. The Johnston's aim was much better than that of the Japanese.

Bobby Chastain was part of the Gun 54 gun crew, but he had nothing to do unless the automatic system failed. So not needing to aim his gun, he closed his gunsight to shut out the disturbing view of the large Japanese ships. Soon the Johnston was in torpedo range and loosed its ten torpedoes. She immediately turned around and rushed as quickly as possible back toward the Taffy 3 group. The cruiser was hit and sufficiently damaged that it had to drop out of formation. However, during the Johnston's retreat, it was hit by several rounds and heavily damaged.

The gunnery director polled his gunners to see who was still operational. Four responded affirmatively, but Bobby Chastain's crew did not, however soon he was told that Gun 54 was still there, but had lost communication. With the loss of power, Bobby Chastain had to aim his gun manually to fire at the approaching ships. On the way back to Taffy 3, the Johnston encountered three American ships heading for the Japanese force. The captain decided that even though his torpedoes were spent, he would join the ships and help them with gunfire support, so the Johnston turned around and headed back toward the Japanese. During the ensuing engagement, the Johnston took additional hits, but continued to fire at the enemy. At 9:40, the Johnston took on an avalanche of shells, and the captain ordered an abandon ship. The Johnston had survived two and a half hours in the battle. The Johnston sank about 10:10. It was the last of four American ships to go down during the fight.

Many of the crew had been killed, but Bobby Chastain was among the more than a hundred men able to dive into the water. He remarked later how helpless he felt as he watched the Johnston slide into the ocean. Shortly, a Japanese ship approached the survivors. They expected the worst, but the ship passed them by. Bobby Chastain was less than fifty yards from the ship and could see the Japanese sailors lined up along the side of the ship watching the survivors. One of the sailors threw a can of tomatoes at them.

The survivors in the ocean hoped for quick rescue, but in fact they were in the water for three days and two nights, and they lost additional men to sharks and madness from the sun and salt water. From the four groups of survivors, about 116 men were lost at sea. Altogether the Taffy 3 group lost about 850 men. The Johnston lost 184 out of 329. However, the Japanese fleet suffered greater losses and retreated.

USS Johnston/USS Hoel Survivors Association Website
This story is told in the book, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Soldiers, by James D. Hornfischer, Bantam Books, 2004.

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Civil War, Steamship General Lyon Burned-Chester B. Shasteen

On March 31, 1865 twelve officers and 193 enlisted men of the Union Fifty-sixth Illinois Regiment were on the steamer General Lyon when it encountered a storm, caught fire off Cape Hatteras, and exploded. About five hundred persons were killed in the flames or in the sea. Twenty-eight persons were saved, but only five were enlisted men of this Regiment. Among those who died was private Chester B. Shasteen. See historical document.

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