Art Mercer – Doolittle Raid, Guadalcanal, Salerno, Marianas Turkey Shoot

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Art Mercer, United States Navy, Chief Gunners Mate
Interview by Heather Steele, January 9, 2011

Profile by Jeff Ballard

Arthur Mercer was born in Frazer, Kentucky February 3, 1921. Art had greater expectations for his life than rural Kentucky promised, “I just did not like farm life.” “I was tired of using a mule’s rear end for a compass.” So, he traveled to Louisville and enlisted in the United States Navy in November 1939.

Mercer attended boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois completing his basic training in March 1940. The Navy assigned Art to the USS Salt Lake City (CA-25) a heavy cruiser and part of the Hawaii Detachment of the US Pacific Fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor. Rated a gunner’s mate, Mercer’s battle station was in the No.2 8-inch/55 caliber gun turret just forward of the cruiser’s bridge.

Salt Lake City was at sea, escorting the carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) when “We got the word on December the 7th that Pearl Harbor was under attack.” [We] came in early in the morning [December 8, 1942], stayed there all day and all night, loaded ammunition, and supplies … we was back out at sea the next morning.” That must have been a terrible sight? “It was, yeah, I still remember it very vividly. “[A] lot of ships on fire, and the Oklahoma was capsized. I’m familiar with some people that spent forty-two hours in an upturned battleship.”

A personal friend of Art’s had the misfortune of being aboard the battleship USS Arizona (BB-39), but survived after he was blown overboard during the Japanese attack. Picked up by the USS Nevada (BB-36), he did not get very far because her captain beached the damaged battleship lest it sink in deep water. He was then transferred to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) which sank from beneath him at the Battle of Coral Sea. Transferred to the USS Yorktown (CV-5), he found himself aboard another sinking ship when the carrier sank at the Battle of Midway. Finally, the Navy gave him shore duty and “he did 30 years and never spent a day aboard another ship because the Navy said they couldn’t stand the attrition rate.”

Mercer’s first war-time cruise (January to March 1942) was to Australia which had been at war since 1939. Under constant threat of Japanese invasion, the Australians were grateful to see their first American warship after many years. The local ladies welcomed the young American sailors as the nation’s young men were away fighting with the British 8th Army in North Africa.

There were parades, free drinks and invitations to dinner in private homes. A photographer selected him and three of his shipmates to have their pictures taken at the zoo in Brisbane with koalas. The newspaper publicity led to the invitation to join an Australian family, also named Mercer, at their home for dinner.

In April, the Salt Lake City was part of Task Force 16 that launched the daring Doolittle Raid. We asked Art what he thought was the proudest accomplishment of his life, to which he replied, “I believe [it was] being part of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. Cause the people, in the United States, back here…their morale was boosted up considerably. So was ours, on the ship. I think that was my highlight.”

That summer, the Salt Lake City sailed to Wellington, New Zealand, where it joined the task force that delivered the First Marine Division to Guadalcanal, the battle which began the long road to Tokyo and victory in the Pacific.
Luckily for Art, the Salt Lake City was elsewhere when the Navy suffered its greatest defeat in history at the Battle of Savo Island (August 8-9). Mercer was present, however, when the Navy exacted a measure of revenge at the Battle of Cape Esperance (October 11-12). Salt Lake City and eight other ships, closed to within 1,000 yards of the Japanese fleet, at night, and took them by surprise. Art remembers that the concussion of the 8-inch guns was so strong that he had to wrap his pant legs with string, lest the force rip the bottoms of his pants. “If you knew you were going into battle, you had to remove all the light bulbs,” otherwise the concussion would blow them out. The Salt Lake City lost only seven men while sinking one Japanese light and one heavy cruiser.

In November 1942, Art traveled to Miami, Florida where he received “two or three weeks of training for depth charges,” and then assigned to oversee the construction of his next ship the USS SC-1043. This 110-foot long wooden submarine chaser, with a crew of only three officers and twenty-four enlisted men, could not have been more different from his last ship. “We crossed the Atlantic on its power in March 1943.”

After making ports-of-call in North Africa, SC-1043 joined Operation Avalanche, the invasion of the Italian mainland at Salerno in September 1943. “We had plenty of action,” recalls Mercer, but he never saw a German U-Boat the entire time he was in the Mediterranean. The barrels of the ship’s 40mm, 20mm and 50-caliber anti-aircraft guns blazed white hot, however. In one fourteen day period, SC-1043 survived twenty-nine separate raids by the Luftwaffe.

At Salerno, the soldiers and sailors of Mercer’s task force witnessed the dawn of a new era in modern warfare. Between September 11 and 13, German high-altitude bombers dropped at least three Fritz-X radio-controlled bombs over the Allied fleet. His Majesty’s Transport Rohna was sunk by this new Nazi weapon. Two days later, the light-cruiser USS Savannah (CL-42) was heavily damaged by another glide-bomb. A near miss lightly damaged Savannah’s sister, the USS Philadelphia (CL-41).

On duty in the Mediterranean until December, Art returned to the States on a Liberty Ship, landing in Baltimore on Christmas Eve 1943. He remembered clearly that dinner consisted of “Vienna sausages as the main entrée, and … pumpkin pie.” After a short leave where he “went back to visit the folks at home on the old farm,” Art attended Electrical-Hydraulic School in Washington D.C. Once trained on the most modern 6-inch gun technology he was transferred to the light cruiser USS Pasadena (CL-65). The brand-new Pasadena (Commissioned June 8, 1944) had twelve sophisticated 6-inch/55-caliber Mark 16 in four-triple turrets.

Sent to the Pacific via the Panama Canal, the Pasadena fought “a lot of smaller actions with the big [carrier task] forces like Task Force 58 and 38.” Mercer took part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (19-20 June 1944), better known as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’ where the American’s completely decimated Japan’s remaining air force. “That’s where supposedly the Japanese lost about 350 planes in one day. The number may not be exact, but it was a huge number,” Art remembers.

Christmas 1944 found the Pasadena rolling in the monstrous Typhoon Cobra off Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. Also known as Halsey’s Typhoon, “we lost three destroyers; the Hull, the Spence, and the Monaghan, with the loss of about seven or eight hundred officers and men.” Retreating below decks, Art and his friends had to hold on to their [playing] cards when the shipped rolled to 40-degrees lest they lose them. When asked if he was ever scared during his time in the Navy, Art answered, “Well, at our age you don’t get scared. That’s the thing. Nothing could happen to you, Man, I’m eight-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide, or whatever. But it was a very exciting time.”

After the war ended, Art transferred to the heavy-cruiser USS Oregon City (CA-122), where he stayed for three years. Next, the Navy assigned him to the Naval Training Station in San Diego where he was an instructor from 1948 and 1949.

“I got back to sea duty again, on the USS Henrico (APA-45).” Mercer’s ship was on its way to Pt. Barrow, Alaska when he learned the Korean War had begun (June 25, 1950). Henrico then “loaded parts of the First Marine Division and took them to Pusan, South Korea. They repelled the North Koreans. Pushed ’em back.” In September of the same year, United Nations forces landed at Inchon. It was “a very successful invasion because nobody thought it could happen” referring to the twenty-seven-foot tidal sway, “the second highest, in the world.”

After Korea, Mercer did another tour at the Naval Training Center, San Diego, as Commander of Companies No. 172 and No. 326 in 1953 and 1954. Art finished his Navy career with two sea tours, the first aboard the USS Bayfield (APA-33), and the last aboard the Fire Support Ship-1, USS Carronade.

Art married Elise Mae (“Betty”) Dobbs of Somerset, Kentucky, on August 20, 1945. They had two children, a son, and a daughter before Art retired from the Navy on December 3, 1959. They remained in San Diego, and he worked for the City twenty-five years. Until his death on August 21, 2016, Art lived in a suburb of San Diego. He will be missed by his son, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, whom he enjoyed babysitting. He said in 2012, “I’m probably the oldest babysitter in Santee, California … I look forward to it. Lot of free popcorn.”

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