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Stories of the worst friendly-fire incident involving PT boats
August 23, 2009
By Paul Fattig
His large hands, which once gripped wrenches to dismantle and repair engines on patrol torpedo boats during World War II, are losing their battle to arthritis.
But Navy veteran Ollie J. Talley, 88, of Talent, can still maneuver his stiff and swollen fingers enough to gently open the envelope containing an invitation to attend a memorial Sept. 14 in Arlington National Cemetery at the nation’s Capitol.
Friendly-fire survivor hailed from OklahomaTwo accounts of the incident
Two powerful accounts of the friendly fire incident involving the three PT boats are now in print and online.
“Enemy in the Mirror,” a 136-page, self-published book by Jo Frkovich, daughter-in-law of Navy corpsman John Frkovich, who was aboard PT 346, was published earlier this year. Her story can be read online at www.mailtribune.com/enemyinthemirror.
“Tragedy at Sea,” by Dan Williams, the youngest son of Lt. Robert Williams, who commanded PT 347, is available at www.danwilliamsgraphics.com.
“I got this invite to attend the memorial for my skipper,” he says as he displays the letter. “Our skipper, he was just like a brother to me. He was a prince of a guy.”
The memorial at Arlington will honor Lt. James R. Burk, one of 14 American PT boat crewmen killed by friendly fire on April 29, 1944, in the South Pacific.
Talley is the last surviving member of PT 346, one of three PT boats sunk by a squadron of Marine Corps fighters and bomber planes that mistook the U.S. Navy boats for Japanese gunboats.
When the smoke cleared late that day, of the 50 aboard the boats, 14 were dead and 17 wounded, including Talley.
Two Marine pilots also died, the result of defensive gunfire from the PT boat crews.
Burk was fatally wounded while holding up an 8-foot American flag in an attempt to save his crew by alerting the pilots that they were attacking an American vessel. As he lay dying on the deck, his last order was for Navy corpsman John Frkovich to take his life jacket. The medic reluctantly pulled on the Mae West and lived to help save other wounded sailors that day.
“I’d like to go to the ceremony for the skipper but I can’t,” Talley says. “My hands don’t open and close like they should anymore. And I can’t stand up without hanging onto something. I’ve lost my equilibrium. I don’t know why.”
“It might be because you are 88 years old,” offers Dottie, his wife of nearly 65 years, causing them both to chuckle.
The invitation coming in the autumn of their lives has brought back memories of a time when they were young lovers caught up in a world at war. Like countless other young couples of that era, they would know firsthand separation and sadness.
The crew of PT 346, which Burk had dubbed the “Betty Bee” in honor of his wife, suffered the most with nine killed and nine wounded. Only two sailors on board were physically uninjured in what the U.S. Department of Defense lists as the worst friendly-fire incident involving PT boats.
Talley has a box of paperwork containing Uncle Sam’s investigation of the incident. The reports conclude the catastrophe was caused by pilot error due to miscommunications and misidentification in the turmoil of war.
The old sailor reared in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma puts it another way.
“The Marines sank my boat — that’s what happened,” he says. “But I don’t hold any grudges against nobody. We was all on the same side.”
Talley joined the Navy in 1942 and later was sent to the New York Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn, where PT 346 was being completed. Like others of its line, the craft was 80 feet long and powered by three V-12 Packard gasoline engines. It held 3,000 gallons of high octane aviation fuel, which the three engines could gobble at the rate of 300 gallons an hour when the craft hit speeds that could exceed 40 knots. Its firepower included torpedoes and twin .50-caliber machine guns.
The crew broke in the boat as it traveled down the Eastern seaboard, heading to the Panama Canal. En route, they stopped at New Orleans, where they adopted a feral Irish terrier they named Chopper.
“That was a real buddy of ours, that dog was,” Talley says. "Any stranger tried to stick a foot on that PT boat, he wouldn’t have it.
“When we went through the canal, the natives there came around with a pig and wanted to trade,” he adds. “They wanted to eat that dog. We didn’t trade.”
By summer 1943, his boat, which had been carried piggyback by a Dutch freighter across the vast Pacific Ocean, began patrolling among the array of islands dotting the South Pacific.
“We was just like family,” he says. “You get to living with these guys on an 80-foot boat and you get to know each one real well.”
April 29, 1944
The harrowing incident began when PT 347 became stuck on a reef off Japanese-held Rabaul during a nighttime patrol. PT 350 soon arrived to try to pull the boat off the reef.
At 7 a.m., two high-flying Marine Corps Corsair fighter planes attacked, mistaking the PT boats for Japanese gunboats. The PT 350 crew fired back, believing they were being attacked by enemy aircraft. One Corsair was shot down, killing the pilot.
Talley’s PT 346 powered in to help.
“When we arrived (about 12:30 p.m.) we saw 350 and they was all shot up,” Talley says, noting that PT 347 remained on the reef. “You could see the (Japanese soldiers) on the beach from there. We were ordered to blow up 347 if we couldn’t free the boat.”
PT 346 backed up to the stranded craft so the crew could tie a heavy rope around it.
About 2 p.m., the men spotted a squadron of planes on the horizon.
“We recognized them,” Talley says of the arrival of 22 Marine Corps fighters and bombers. “We knew they were Corsairs, Hellcats and Dauntlesses. We thought it was our air cover. So we went back to trying to get the boat off the reef.”
After all, the PT 346 crew had contacted its headquarters about the earlier attack, asking for aerial protection from the Southwest Pacific Command headed by Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The problem, Talley explains, is that the squadron was from the adjacent South Pacific Command, whose top military boss was Adm. Chester Nimitz. The general and admiral had no use for each other, resulting in limited communication between the two commands.
“Today, we have Republicans and Democrats against each other,” Talley says. “Back then, we had that in MacArthur and Nimitz. They had a problem with each other.”
The pilots, looking for Japanese gunboats, believed they had found their prey. The squadron included four Corsair fighters, six Avenger dive-bombers, four Hellcat fighters and eight Dauntless dive-bombers.
“The first bomb went right under my engine room and blew my engines and batteries all out of whack,” Talley recalls. “When I climbed up out of there, I saw the skipper had been mowed down.”
The boat, made of plywood and mahogany, was sinking when the last bomber came around, he says. Their radio was knocked out.
“We had no guns left,” he says. “I’m still on the boat, trying to get this cork life raft off when he comes in. He dropped his flaps and put a 1,000-pound bomb right in the middle of our boat. When it blew, it knocked me right out of my shoes.”
Nightmare in the water
Chopper, who had been wounded in the face by shrapnel, came swimming up to Talley, who shared his life preserver with him. But their nightmare was just beginning.
“That’s when the planes started strafing us,” Talley says. "It seems like every plane that came was lining up with me. I’m sure the other guys must have had the same feeling.
“I’d see the smoke go out of the guns up there, then the bullets would start hitting the water ahead of me,” he says.
Each time, Talley would dive under water to the point where the .50-caliber bullets’ velocity would be spent. One bullet hit his pants, but didn’t puncture the cloth. Miraculously, Chopper was not hit by a bullet.
The ordeal went on for at least an hour and a half, possibly two hours, he says. The bodies of eight members of PT 346, including an Army officer who came along as an observer, sank below the waves as Talley fought to survive.
“Up until then, I was never afraid of being shot — I was always afraid of sharks,” Talley says. “But I never thought of sharks during that time I was in the water.”
Baptism by bullets
Talley says he was not a religious man before that day, but he became converted during the baptism of bullets.
"I remember I said, ‘Lord, if it would only rain they wouldn’t be able to see us,’ " he says. “Well, it rained and they went away. I wasn’t a believer until that day.”
At 5:30 p.m., a Navy seaplane looking for a second Hellcat pilot who was shot down came flying in low and discovered the victims of the friendly fire.
Talley was among the crew members initially picked up late that day and taken to a hospital on Green Island. Although he had a shrapnel wound behind his left ear and his left leg had been blown forward at the knee during the explosion, causing his knee to swell up like a water balloon, he refused aid, insisting the doctors help those in worse shape.
Other survivors were not rescued until after 10 p.m., when two PT boats arrived.
‘I don’t hold any grudges’
After Talley recovered, he took a leave to his parents’ home in California with Chopper. His crewmates had decided he should adopt the dog.
“I hate to tell you what happened to him, after him being a survivor of what happened to us,” Talley says. “About a month after I left him, he was chasing a rabbit in a grape vineyard and some kid shot him with a .22 (caliber) rifle. My dad rushed him to the veterinarian but he passed away.”
Talley was discharged Sept. 6, 1945, as a motor machinist mate first class.
Looking back on the most horrific day of his life, Talley says he has no animosity toward the Marine pilots. He recalls being visited in the hospital by the pilot who had dropped the 1,000-pound bomb on PT 346.
"He said, ‘If you ever need anything a’tall, here’s my name and my folks’ address in Kansas,’ " Talley says. "I had that about a week and I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ I tore it up.
“We was all out there for the same purpose,” Talley says. “It was a mistake. I don’t hold any grudges.”