The Providence of God in a Furious Sea Battle

By JD Wetterling
It was there the Lord God Almighty opened Brother Jack’s heart and he joined the family of God.

PCANews - November 12, 2002, is the 60th anniversary of what Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King called “…the most furious sea battle fought in history,”—the night action off the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal in World War II. The Medal of Honor was presented to four men (two posthumously) and the Navy Cross was presented to twenty-nine others (twenty-one posthumously)—an extraordinary number of our nation’s highest honors for a single battle. In the providence of God it was a turning point in a global conflagration that saved our land of the free, and it also, in his miraculous ways, was instrumental in saving the soul of a hero I am honored to call a friend, long after the battle ended.

John E. “Jack” Bennett, (Capt. US Navy, retired) Navy Cross holder from that battle, is among the last men standing, both now and then. His story should be told every Veterans Day as long as free men have breath.

On the afternoon of November 12, 1942, Lieutenant (j.g.) Bennett, just twenty-one months out of Annapolis and a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack, stood amidst the awful din on the aft deck of the SAN FRANCISCO controlling the automatic weapons fire. His heavy cruiser, at 186 yards long and 21 yards wide, was a plump broadside bulls-eye for twenty-one attacking Japanese torpedo bombers. Like a dead duck falling into a blind filled with eight blazing 20 mm guns, an enemy plane crashed into the after superstructure thirty feet from Jack. Its wingtip flew through the air like a spinning razor blade, clipping Jack’s elbow as he ducked and spinning him like a top. Twenty-one crewmen died and twenty Japanese planes were shot down.

The small task force of five cruisers and eight destroyers licked its wounds and took positions to defend the desperate Marines at battered Henderson Field on the eastern end of Guadalcanal. Later that night, with his bloodied but unbroken left arm in a sling, Jack reported for duty on the bridge as Officer of the Deck. He overheard the distraught ship’s captain conferring with Admiral Dan Callaghan, task force commander, about the pending night battle against an alarmingly larger Japanese force steaming their way that included two battleships, the fearsome scourge of the seas.

“But that is suicide, Sir.”

“We have no choice, Captain.”

Then the Captain noted Jack’s elbow was bleeding through his sling and ordered him below, proclaiming him incapacitated for duty. After putting up all the resistance a junior officer dared, Jack obeyed to the letter—he went below but he did not stay below. If this was a suicidal charge, he was determined not to drown in his bunk. He made one lap around his wardroom and reported to the Gunnery Officer to request a new battle station, sticking his head just far enough through the door to talk while keeping his sling hidden from view. He was assigned automatic weapons control aft on the fantail.

Just after midnight they ran head-on into a surprised but vastly superior Japanese force of two battleships, one cruiser, and twelve destroyers enroute to bombard Henderson Field. In column formation the SAN FRANCISCO charged right up the middle of the fleet between the two Japanese battleships. Out of the darkness the enemy’s searchlights blinked on, pointed right between Jack’s eyes—the one-second warning that his ship was in the crosshairs of two of the greatest concentrations of firepower afloat. It was a broadside free-for-all slugfest at pointblank range for twenty-eight brawling behemoths in a sea made too small by surrounding islands.

The SAN FRANCISCO’s three triple-mounted eight-inch gun turrets, firing in opposite directions simultaneously, and assorted smaller weaponry were a poor match for the eight fourteen-inch guns of the Japanese battleships on either side. Star shells bursting overhead momentarily illuminated the ship like midday followed by pitch-blackness. The blinding cycle continued while multiple fiery red arcs of tracers crisscrossed the night sky and the ship vibrated like a tuning fork from the thunderous blast of its own guns.

The impact of enemy projectiles nearby spewed lethal white-hot shards of jagged metal through the air like sparks from a spinning grindstone, enveloping Jack but leaving him miraculously unscathed. Gunners in the turrets bled through their ears from the frightful cacophony and concussion of incoming and outgoing, leaving no remembrance of sounds a half-century later…only a silent 3-D horror movie. The most powerful sensual recollection remains the indescribable pungent odor of burning human flesh. But above it all is the memory of an awareness, only recently comprehended by a born-again heart, of an inner peace at ground zero of hell on earth.

When the shooting stopped all of Jack’s guns were out of commission and the SAN FRANCISCO’s deck was a blazing junkyard with survivors frantically fighting fires. Eighty-six sailors perished on the deck alone, including a third of Jack’s gun crews.

Sensing the ship was sailing in lazy circles, he struggled to the bridge he had been ordered to leave a few hours earlier. It was destroyed and the admiral, captain and senior battle staff were dead. With Jack’s help Lieutenant Commander Bruce McCandless, also wounded, the lone survivor on the bridge, managed to achieve some semblance of control from the conning tower.

McCandless then left Jack in charge and went to search for whoever had succeeded to command. Staring intently into the blackness of the night, Jack put the SAN FRANCISCO into formation behind the relatively unscathed cruiser HELENA as they felt their way out Sealark Channel close to the shore of Guadalcanal. The cloying aroma of its bountiful gardenias proclaimed the benediction of their deliverance.

Dawn found ten ships at the bottom of the sound, one cruiser and four destroyers from each side, and 1800 American sailors, including two Admirals, were dead. A Japanese battleship lay dead in the water (to be sunk a few hours later by Navy aircraft), the other was damaged and the rest of the force withdrew. The enemy attack had been repulsed, but at a catastrophic cost.

Two providential circumstances explained the SAN FRANCISCO’s survival. She had taken forty-five major caliber hits, including twelve fourteen-inch shells, and innumerable smaller hits, but they were all high explosive incendiary projectiles, not armor piercing, because the enemy force was prepared to bombard Henderson Field. And she was still afloat because she had sailed so close to the enemy battleships they could not depress their big guns low enough to put holes in her hull at the waterline.

As the decimated task force limped for safe haven the next day, solemnly burying its dead at sea as it went, an enemy submarine launched a spread of three torpedoes their way. Once again Jack witnessed the incredible hand of providence. The heart-stopping telltale wake of one of them headed toward the SAN FRANCISCO. The torpedo, running erratically, popped to the surface just off their port bow, dove again under their keel, surfaced again on the starboard beam, then continued on to hit the light cruiser, JUNEAU, amidships, right in the ammunition storage area. In an explosion more violent than any Jack had witnessed at Pearl Harbor, he watched one of its intact twin five-inch gun turrets, with the crew still in it, ride the top of a massive mushrooming fireball. Scrap metal rained on the SAN FRANCISCO and the gun turret fell like a falling leaf, splashing into an empty sea where only moments before 6,000 tons of armored might had floated.

Today the shell-holed bridge of the SAN FRANCISCO stands at Land’s End in San Francisco, a monument to American heroes.

Jack Bennett and his friends epitomize what his Sacramento boss in another era, Ronald Reagan, called “the formidable will and moral courage of free men that is America’s exclusive weapon.” God willing, the heroism of Jack and the giants of his era will echo for eons, inspiring American patriots in the difficult days ahead and to the end of time.


Shortly after Guadalcanal Jack volunteered for submarine duty, where he spent the rest of WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War with many other harrowing experiences. There followed an equally illustrious career in the undersea industry and government in Ronald Reagan's Administration. “As luck would have it” (not!) our paths crossed six years ago when he called me in Florida from his home in California in response to a Memorial Day op-ed column of mine that appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Today we are best of friends and communicate many times a week by e-mail, swapping stories of WW II sea and undersea battles for Vietnam air combat and commiserating on the perilous state of the world. He’s visited my home once and I have visited his home in Solana Beach, CA three times.

Five years ago, while watching an interview of a former Vietnam POW on a televised talk show, he was moved by the words of retired Brigadier General Robinson “Robbie” Risner, one of the most famous fighter pilots of that era. B/Gen. Risner had spent seven horrible years in the Hanoi Hilton, and in a powerful testimony, attributed his survival to his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It prompted a load of questions in Jack’s mind, and over the next several months a barrage of tough queries flew east and my anguished-over answers flew west via the Internet. (One huge advantage of the Internet as a witnessing tool is it allows you to get the words just right before you communicate.) A mini-library, beginning with the Bible and my admonition to begin reading with the book of John, was also shipped to southern California, one book at a time until he begged for mercy. In appreciation he sent me some Bible software that has become my favorite.

In the midst of our e-mail Q & A, at a WW II submariners’ reunion in a Las Vegas hotel, Jack and an old Christian shipmate wrestled with ultimate questions long after the party was over in the empty banquet hall. It was there the Lord God Almighty opened Brother Jack’s heart and he joined the family of God. It was the answer to many prayers, including those of a young mother and family friend who had prayed for years that “God would send a Christian warrior who was on his wavelength into Jack's life.”

No longer does he call himself lucky, but blessed. No longer is he puzzled by that strange inner peace at Guadalcanal so long ago, or in several other ferocious undersea battles that to my ears were just as scary. He enjoys the latter days of a long distinguished life with that same inner peace. The questions still come periodically as the Holy Spirit works in Jack, but any doubt has been replaced with a desire to learn more about our providential God.

What a great joy it is to be used by God in the salvation of a dear friend, but greater still is the joy in heaven when another sinner is saved by God’s amazing grace (Luke 15:7). In his providence he so ordered the lives of a handful of his own that a fearless American patriot might be born again in the autumn of his years. To him be all the glory.

This Veteran’s Day you may, if you feel so inclined, express your appreciation to Jack Bennett, humble hero, one of the last remaining from his age, and welcome him to the family of God.
JD Wetterling lives and writes at Ridge Haven, the PCA Conference Center and Retreat in North Carolina.