During combat, situations often arise that cause junior officers to step up to the plate, testing their mettle.
Eugene A. Barham’s critical moment came during the Guadalcanal campaign. “Slim” Barham had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1935 and had become engineer officer of the destroyer Laffey at her commissioning on 31 March 1942. The Laffey spent the next 228 days in the Pacific, escorting aircraft carriers and trying to stop the “Tokyo Express” from delivering reinforcements down “the Slot” to Guadalcanal.
On Friday 13 November 1942, the Laffey and seven other American destroyers and five cruisers fought eleven Japanese destroyers, one cruiser, and two battleships in a naval melee that one U.S. skipper likened to “a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out.” The Laffey nearly got sliced in two by the Japanese battleship Hiei when she crossed the Hiei’s “T,” her stern clearing the battleship’s bow by less than 20 feet. As the Laffey moved off she poured fire from every available gun into the Hiei’s tall, pagoda-like superstructure, which seemed to collapse like a house of cards. A few minutes later, shells from three Japanese destroyers and the battleship Kirishima ripped into the Laffey while a torpedo blew off her stern. In an instant the once taut ship became a blazing, sinking wreck.
Barham was below at his post in the engineering spaces when the torpedo struck. All the lights went out and the temperature suddenly shot up as steam poured in. Barham ordered the spaces evacuated. All the men got out. Barham grabbed a flashlight and tried to return below to inspect the damage, but the engineering spaces were so hot that water pouring in began jumping up and down and boiling as soon as it hit the steel floor plates.
Barham returned topside and made a quick survey. The ship was strewn with dead and injured Sailors, some with their legs severed. One young Sailor, still conscious, lay on the deck, his broken legs pinned under twisted steel. Fires raged in the space below, heating the deck plates and scorching his flesh. Two torpedomen worked frantically to free him before he was cooked, blown away by incoming shells, or drowned by rising water.
Barham went to the bridge. He told the skipper that they had to abandon ship. The captain argued, but then gave Barham permission to get the men organized. The executive officer, who should have been performing this duty, had frozen. The men got the boats and rafts in the water, climbed on board when their turn came, and shoved off. Barham led the “swimming party” of twenty-five men, for whom there was no room on the boats and rafts. The swimming party jumped into the oil-covered water and swam for their lives. They got only about fifty to one hundred feet away when the destroyer exploded. With debris falling around him, Barham dove down under the water. When he could hold his breath no longer, he returned to the surface and watched the Laffey’s bow rear up and plunge beneath the surface.
Barham turned to look for the others in swimming party, but didn’t see anyone. He remained still and listened. Soon, he heard the chugging of a small motor. He pulled his flashlight from his pocket and flashed it in the direction of the sound. A boat appeared and the sailors on board fished him out of the water. As ranking officer, Barham took charge of the boat. He picked up several swimmers, put five life rafts under tow, and began pulling them toward Guadalcanal.
As the raft chain drew near the island, Higgins boats full of U.S. Marines picked up the Sailors and took them ashore. Most of the wounded survived. For his conduct that night Barham received the Bronze Star and command of his own destroyer. In 1958 he retired from the Navy at the rank of rear admiral.
Despite fires raging and enemy fire pouring on the Laffey, Barham managed to assess the situation, quickly determine what needed to be done, and take the steps necessary to save his men. Somehow he remained unafraid and stayed focused on the job throughout the ordeal. It was an innate courage, the kind that can’t be taught, that enabled him to keep his cool under the most intense stress imaginable and to put saving lives above taking a chance at glory.
Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, himself a World War II destroyerman, once said that an officer has only seconds to make decisions in combat. “If he waits too long,” Burke declared, “he’s useless, which is worse than being dead.” Eugene A. Barham had mustered his courage in the nick of time.