Whenever I see one of our regular and most extroverted World War II veterans, Rev. Bob Armstrong, he unfailingly mentions a sign he saw on Tulagi in the Soloman Islands in 1943. “KILL OR BE KILLED,” the sign declared in the name of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. When I ask Bob what that means to him, he simply responds, “That’s what war is.”
When Bob didn’t show up for our end-of-year breakfast on December 15, Dan and I knew something was wrong. A phone call to his daughter got us to the bottom of it. He hadn’t been feeling well and wisely checked himself into an emergency room. He was immediately admitted and had successful open heart surgery the morning of our breakfast. He’s been recovering in a couple rehab facilities ever since.
I called Bob this morning, and we had a long talk. I told him how much we missed him at our breakfast, especially since the 144 people present were treated to a video of Bob belting out a song he wrote at age 17, just after he graduated from Navy boot camp on December 12, 1941. Our videographer captured the singing Reverend on our bus trip to the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, on October 15–his 85th birthday. In the video, Bob ambles down the narrow corridor of President Kennedy’s Air Force One in the Presidential Hangar and warbles a plaintive, “I’m faaar from hooo-oome, and skiiies are graa-ay . . ” His youthful doggerel, redeemed a bit by an affecting melody, captures his loneliness and pride in serving his country at the very beginning of a very big war.
Two years later, his enthusiasm for the war had diminished. A Machinist’s Mate, Second Class on the destroyer USS Nicholas, Bob spent several months criss-crossing the notorious “Ironbottom Sound” between Tulagi and Guadalcanal. A simple map of ship wrecks explains both the sound’s nickname and Bob’s fully-dawned awareness of what war meant.
Bob saw the USS DeHaven go down on February 1, 1943 as his own ship was fighting off eight Japanese diver bombers. The record hails the Nicholas‘s miraculous escape from this fight with only damaged steering and two crewmen killed. But Bob knew well one of the crewman, a man named Fox. He actually saw him breathe his last as doctors worked on him on a wardroom table. Fox had been one of five men who were punished a year earlier for failing to board the Nicholas as it pulled out of New London, Connecticut. Bob was also one of those five. (He was uncharacteristically taciturn explaining this episode. It seems to have involved a girl. Bob met up with the Nicholas in Fall River, Massachusetts, and was put on three days bread and water for his late reporting.)
On May 13, 1943, Bob was making coffee in the engine room with water drawn off the engine’s boilers. A huge explosion erupted overhead. It was the ship’ #3 gun, which had jammed and burst. For some reason, this event triggered a creeping feeling in Bob that he had to get off that ship.
This feeling grew urgent during the predawn hours of July 6 when the Nicholas‘s Task Group encountered ten Japanese destroyers in the Kula Gulf. The cruiser USS Helena had expended its flashless powder and illuminated itself with every shot, making it an easy target for the Japanese. When the Helena flipped over, hundreds of men crawled like ants over its exposed hull. The Nicholas, unable to identify the ship in the darkness and mistaking it for the enemy, fired on the Helena and killed many of its crew before finally sending out rescue parties. “That’s friendly fire,” Bob explained to me solemnly.
Ten days after the Battle of Kula Bay, the Nicholas returned to Tulagi, and Bob saw the sign:
Admiral Halsey says: KILL OR BE KILLED.
That’s when a crew member came to Bob and said, “We’ve got to get out of the dungaree Navy.” Bob had no idea what that meant, but he liked the sound of it. Bob’s buddy explained that the Navy had just started something called the V-12 College Training Program where eligible seamen who passed a qualifying exam and were recommended by their commanders could go to college full-time and train for the officers corps. In high school, Bob had taken and passed the exam for the Naval Academy. He was an excellent student and ideal candidate for the program. “This is my way out!” Bob thought.
But the commander of the Nicholas had deliberately suppressed any news about the program. he didn’t want any of his crew leaving the ship. Bob submitted his application anyhow and heard nothing back. He asked a yeoman who worked in the ship’s executive office about it. The yeoman reported back to Bob. “He told me that he found my application stuck to the bottom of the executive officer’s in-basket!” Bob explained to me with a laugh.
Attempting to report his grievance to the outside world, Bob wrote his widowed mother back home in Indiana. The captain’s men censored outgoing letters, so he had to use code. Quoting snippets from song lyrics about “Poor Solomon Levi” and suggesting that she write “G.W.G.,” Bob explained that he was near the Solomon Islands, was desperate to get out of the “dungaree Navy,” and that she should contact their Congressman, George W. Gillie, who lived on a neighboring farm, about getting Bob into the V-12 program.
The sharp-witted mother Mother Armstrong got right on it, and within a couple months, Bob received a letter from the Bureau of Navy Personnel explaining that there was no reason why Robert Armstrong should not be eligible for the V-12 College Training Program.
The Machinist’s Mate Second Class took the letter directly to the ship’s executive officer, a man named J.P. Coleman. Coleman read it over and nodded. He agreed that Bob should go into the program. “I’d like to keep the letter for my files,” Coleman told Bob. Bob cannily demurred. “Sir, I’d prefer to keep that letter,” he said.
Bob left the Nicholas in January 1944 and worked hard in the V-12 program in Washington, DC, to make sure he never got assigned to combat duty again. “I wanted to live!” he offers by way of explanation.
About that sign on Tulagi: I’ve never seen another reference to it. Perhaps Bob is one of the few to remember it. Or perhaps the sign was elsewhere, on the ship, not the island. Or perhaps our sweet-natured, big-hearted, loving Reverend can’t bring himself to remember this ugly sign that did indeed appear on Tulagi below the name of Bull Halsey: