In the archives of...
Life, Ralph Morse
Photograph, by Ralph Morse © 1943 Time Inc., is courtesy The LIFE Gallery of Photography
Off Guadalcanal in 1942, at one o’clock in the morning, I am on the cruiser Vincennes, and they sound general quarters. I roll out of bed and throw on my clothes, run out and get up on deck because we’re being pounded.
You’re so busy first taking pictures—I mean this is at night. It’s jet black, but we’re throwing flares up, and boats are blowing up. It was like a movie set. People are taking over other people’s jobs and running like mad, and suddenly you find that you’re not working. You’re helping people. In between trying to take a picture. Pieces of the boat kept getting blown away, and you don’t get scratched, but the people you’re with are no longer there. We started to list over, the deck was so slippery with blood that it was like an ice skating rink. The captain gave orders to get the wounded into the water. Well, at that point you’re not taking pictures. You’re throwing wounded. You’re all covered with blood. Guys are screaming, “Get me offa here! Get me offa here!” And you just do it. But it ends, and the battle got over, the light went down.
A Navy boat is a pretty horrible thing because it’s all steel. When you try to walk, it’s as hot as hell from the explosions. It’s not like the Army, where you get hurt or you walk away. Where you going to go on this piece of steel? After they hit us enough times, they sent torpedoes into us. We had 2,200 guys on board, and maybe a thousand got hurt. Orders came to abandon ship. All you do is just jump. I went over the side with one of the ship’s photographers, and we were short one life preserver. We had five people and four life preservers. So we kept passing one around. You could float on your back for a while, and then, as we float around, we met more and more groups. We used to play bridge, and two of my bridge partners floated by, so we spent the rest of the night floating by people asking if they played bridge—to keep from worrying about sharks. We were very lucky that night because there was all that blood in the water, but with all the depth charge being thrown, I guess every shark in his right mind had got out of there. We were picked up around six hours later by destroyers.
I got to Guadalcanal in time to spend Christmas. We were on a patrol with the Army, and the brush was so thick that unless I kept my eye on the heel of the guy ahead of me, the jungle would close in around me, and I didn’t know where I was. That’s pretty scary, when it’s that thick.
We came to a little clearing. Here was this Jap tank, with this skull on it. I didn’t touch it, because it stunk so. It might have been put there by a patrol before, or it might have been the Japs, to scare the Americans when they got there. I don’t know. But here was this Jap skull on a tank, and it was just a great picture. It’s one of the atrocity pictures of the war, and it’s used all the time. It’s a great picture to show people who want to go to war what war is like.
(Interviewed on September 30, 1994. Excerpted from: John Loengard, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, Boston, A Bullfinch Press Book, 1998)