The 36th Division Archive
CBM John F. Duffy
Chief Boatswain's Mate, #1 Turret Turner
USS Louisville CA-28
Born the second oldest of five siblings, John Francis Duffy grew up amongst the suburban bustle of 1930s Palisades Park, New Jersey. The son of Irish and Russian immigrants, Duffy grew up in a fairly troubled household despite the bonding which he intensely enjoyed amongst his siblings. His father served in the U.S. Navy during the first world war and came home to take up the trade of his family over in Ireland, bricklaying. The job itself was pretty grueling as he worked alongside other Irishmen to complete the many overwhelming building projects undertaken by the city at that time. He was a hearty man with his work-buddies, often going out for drinks and buying everybody rounds despite his inability to afford it. When he came home, however, his heavy drinking addiction turned into a sullen lump of pain which John and his family suffered for many years. Whether it was the intense emotional neglect shown to John and his siblings or the verbal abuse faced by his mother, family life was far from perfect, and more than once did John have to stand between his mother and the gun his father was pointing at her. The oldest son, John was expected and utilized for any task his father did not want to do, meaning he missed out on the fun parts of being a kid and spent much of his time holding the flashlight as his dad tinkered with cars in the brutal New Jersey winter or repairing a fence line as his father silently smoked and watched onward. In any case, John makes it clear that life was rough in those early years and it was only the love of his mother and compassion of his siblings which got him through.
One day near the completion of high school, John’s father raised a hammer as if to hit him out of some petty anger. Rather than run as he usually did, John stood there and stared into his father’s eyes until he backed down and turned away. his mother pulled him aside and asked him what he truly wanted to do with his life. John, long-suffering under the watch of his father, really had no idea except that he wanted to be away. It was then that his mother suggested he possibly join the U.S. Navy. While John had never considered leaving home he was not opposed to the notion and thus quit school to enlist soon after his 18th birthday. On December 12th, 1940, he took the oath down at the local courthouse and soon made his way with the other enlistees to the Naval training station at Newport.
As part of Company 90, the experience of John and his 71 fellow classmates was fairly typical. Led by career Navy CPOs, their six weeks went by fast and John was able to make many friends amongst his peers. Unlike the wartime Navy, most of the men would end up staying together and in February of 1940 were assigned to the Northampton-class heavy cruiser, USS LOUISVILLE CA-28. The LOUISVILLE had been around for several years by the time John came aboard, being commissioned in 1931 as a naval modernization project. Despite weighing 10,000 tons, over 600’ long, and sporting four primary 8” guns, the LOUISVILLE was only manned by a crew of about 400 and spent most of her early days up and down the eastern coast Americas, making port in Norfolk, Guantanamo Bay, the Panama Canal, and many other smaller ports. Before long, the ship reached California, stopping briefly in San Diego before she made her way to her new home at Pearl Harbor.
For around 7-8 months the crew of the LOUISVILLE spent their days drilling, equipping, and preparing the ship for any potential future action. It was around this time that the many 30mm and 40mm AA guns were installed across the ship and the crew slowly grew larger and larger. John’s jobs varied greatly during this period, from mess cook to Helmsman to deck watchman, and learned a lot about the ins and outs of ship life. In November the ship set sail to check on several bases in the South Pacific around Manila, Tarakan, and Borneo. While pulling out of Borneo to head back to Pearl, however, the terrible news reached the vessel. At one point, they even heard radio chatter from panicked Navy personnel that the LOUISVILLE itself had been sunk, which must have surely been a surprise to John and his pals onboard! Going into radio silence and painting the top deck entirely with blue paint, the ship slowly made its way back home, finally pulling into the devastation on December 16th, 1941. The entire crew stood silent on the deck staring at the dozens of sinking, burning, and tilted vessels scattering the harbor. Not long after they loaded hundreds of survivors from the attack, including Al Brick, the famous cameraman who caught the attack on film, and took them back to San Francisco.
Replenished with men and refitted with supplies, the eager men onboard the LOUISVILLE found themselves finally on their way to war. Joining Task Force 17, they helped protect several troopships returning from Samoa before finally getting a crack at the Japanese during the first assault on the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. Around this time the Louisville swelled to hold over 1,400 sailors so that all guns could be manned at all hours of the day. It was at this time that John received a new battle position as primary “trainer” for the #1 8” turret, meaning he was in charge of rotating the gun right and left during battle. When “on target,” both the trainer and the turner have separate triggers which must be pulled simultaneously to fire the gun. For their critical role, trainers were given an extra $6 per month, and John enjoyed this job for the next four years of service until he left the ship in April of 1945.
In March of 1942, following successful operations with TF 17, John and the crew were paired up with Task Force 11 alongside the USS LEXINGTON where they attacked Japanese-held Salamua, Lae, New Guinea, and Rabaul. For each of these assaults, John manned his position at turret #1 and was directly responsible for sending thousands of pounds of ordnance into the Japanese positions. After, the ship went back to San Francisco where it was outfitted with even more AA guns and the crew enjoyed their first 20-day leave. John took advantage of the time off to travel back home, seeing his family for the first time in almost two years. It was actually on this trip that he and his cousin went to see Frank Sinatra who was performing at the Waldorf Astoria. After dinner, they waited three hours and grew tired waiting for the concert as John had to leave the next day. Walking out frustrated, they actually bumped into Sinatra walking inside, said hello, and headed back home.
The LOUISVILLE stayed stateside for several more months after John returned aboard, mostly improving systems onboard and prepping for any possible action. The action came soon enough, and in June they joined the rushing Navy fleet to stop the Japanese invasion of Alaska. Heavy clothing was issued to each man as the ship pulled out of the yard and for several days no one knew the destination until the wire came in that Japanese troops had officially landed on Attu and Kiska islands. On August 7th, the LOUISVILLE officially reached the islands and bombarded the Japanese troops on Kiska. The next few weeks saw the ship based out of Kodiak running convoy protection duty against Japanese encroachment in the north. While the men enjoyed regular liberty visits to the city, the lousy weather kept spirits a bit down and the men were very happy to leave after four months of back and forth duty in the frozen north.
By the beginning of 1943, the ship was once again performing operations in the South Pacific as a replacement for her sister ship, the USS Northampton, which was lost at the Battle of Tassafaronga. Here the LOUISVILLE got its taste of real Naval combat, being attacked by Japanese bombers and torpedo planes around Guadalcanal and the New Hebrides. One dark evening off the coast of Rennell Island, the LOUISVILLE sat alongside the USS CHICAGO steaming along through the night. Despite no radar warnings and reports of no surface activity, the CHICAGO’s guns began to ring out. John was manning his spot at the turret when out of the black came a Japanese torpedo bomber roaring overhead. A few moments after he turned his head to witness a huge explosion erupt from the USS Chicago and then a large thud as a dud torpedo slammed into the side of the LOUISVILLE. The men could do nothing but sit and watch as the CHICAGO burned. Eventually receiving orders to take her undertow, the crew made their way towards the tug USS NAVAJO which transferred survivors from the CHICAGO onboard and took the damaged ship in tow. Now relieved of the vessel, the LOUISVILLE made its way to New Zealand but got the call several hours later that the CHICAGO had been sunk after a second attack by Japanese dive bombers.
The LOUISVILLE underwent repairs for a few weeks while in New Zealand. While the ship was busy at the dock in Wellington, many of the sailors were permitted to go on extended liberty and enjoy the country. John and several of his buddies managed to hop a ride in the back of a truck and made their way into the mainland before stopping in the small town of Palmerston North. Spending the days as a guest of a local couple, John enjoyed the taste of some real food, mainly “stayke-n-aygs,” and explored the area. The men had a grand time and the New Zealanders loved seeing these US Navy boys so far from home. Eventually, they had to ship out and returned to Pearl in April of 1943. The stay at Pearl was short, as the Japanese once again made a run at the Aleutians and the LOUISVILLE was once again sent into the briny cold. John missed most of the action (which wasn't much), however, as he came down with Scarlet Fever on the way there and spent several weeks in a hospital in Kodiak. Once he came back onboard he was present for the intriguing battle of the Pips and several weeks of rough convoy duty before returning to San Francisco for overhauls which granted him a 24 day leave back home.
In January of 1944, the LOUISVILLE was ready to leave Mare Island and report back to the South Pacific. It was at this time that Captain Sam Hurt relieved Captain Worhterspoon and the ship now became the flagship of Admiral J. B. Oldendorf. Oldendorf was a well-seasoned soldier and took over command of the Navy’s amphibious bombardments for operations in the Pacific Theater and would now use the “Lady Lou” as his command center. This tour would mark a new era in the war for the LOUISVILLE, beginning with the great offensive on the Marshall Islands. From Wotje to Roi and Namur to Kwajalein, the LOUISVILLE’s guns roared across the Marshall’s with devastating results. At Eniwetok, the ship took the lead position, and John, stationed at his spot in turret #1, was one of the very first Americans to fire on the island. In March the ship joined Task Force 58 for the assaults on the Palau Islands and oversaw fire support in April for Hollandia, New Guinea, Truk, and Sawatan islands. May was a bit of a slow period, however, it was around this time that John was invited to join the boxing team aboard ship. It was an opportunity he was happy to take advantage of, though mostly for the extra rations of meat rather than a love of the sport.
The next month began full-scale operations in the Marianas and once again the LOUISVILLE took charge leading the bombardment groups at Saipan and Tinian. John describes how they were “always first” to arrive on the scene, usually several days before the first troopships ever arrived. Oldendorf spent the time calculating the best possible bombardments. At Saipan, he even had the LOUISVILLE break a record for most time on the firing line—11 days straight, day and night, with only a break to replenish ammo. The bombardment was not always random, however, as John recalls adjusting to specific coordinates called in by the ground troops desiring support. At one point the ship drifted too close to the shore, and Japanese shells began to fly back right at them, especially terrifying John who was on the top deck trying to raise the anchor when the shooting began.
As the months progressed the campaigns continued and the men of the LOUISVILLE spent their days bombarding all numbers of tiny islands around the Pacific. The operation at Peleliu was particularly effective according to John and played a major role in supporting the Marine forces ashore. At this point, it had been about 9 months since their last liberty, and lots of the men were getting antsy. John recalls a particular group of Alabama sailors beginning to make moonshine in the forward hold out of malt and potatoes, however, the drinks didn’t hold up so well and two men ended up passing out in a small emergency ladder shoot meaning John had to come help before the CPO found them out.
The long-awaited invasion of the Philippines began in October of 1944, and on the 17th, the LOUISVILLE once again led the way. Every man on board was constantly busy, and according to John, became so busy that even the boxing tournaments were canceled until further notice! It was a constant state of emergency and the call to battle stations came randomly and often. No one could rest. Their first stop was around Leyte, where Admirals Halsey and Oldendorf sought to make a final stand against the large remnant of the Japanese fleet. It was at Surigao Strait that this great battle would occur. Oldendorf was put in charge of the operation and as such the LOUISVILLE played a critical role. Sending PT boats out early in the evening to draw in the Japanese fleet to the narrow strait, before long night had fallen and the Japanese forces slowly chugged right into the US trap. Forming an ‘L’ shape at the end of the strait, the LOUISVILLE sat alongside US cruisers, destroyers, battleships, and many more all waiting for the first sight of Japanese forces. When the first was spotted, the massive battery opened fire and before long the water had turned into a gravy and of burning hulks, oily masses, and surviving sailors scattered amidst the floating wreckage. Supposedly, the LOUISVILLE fired more rounds than all the battleships present put together, and in the aftermath was responsible for gathering several floating Japanese prisoners, including a high-ranking officer who was thoroughly interrogated. Needless to say, John was incredibly exhausted from the fighting and I’m sure grew mighty tired of that chair in the first turret. The battle of Surigao Strait was the last of its kind, meaning no other naval engagements since have included the face-to-face action of battleships on battleships.
The celebration of the major victory at Surigao did not last long as the American forces pressed onward. November saw John and the LOUISVILLE participate in several strikes against Manila and the surrounding areas. One day, while sitting in the trainer booth of the turret when an enemy aircraft was sighted very high up and under fire by all the ships of the fleet. There was so much flak that the plane quickly went out of sight. John put a finger to his mouth, signaling quiet, as he slowly opened the door and made his way outside to see what was going on. He was only three steps out of the door when he suddenly froze in his tracks. A loud whistling sound was screeching right from above and as he looked up he caught the last second before the plane once so high above came diving down, just missing the bridge, and slamming into the water beside them. The concussion knocked John back into the side of the turret and water doused his entire back. Sliding his knees to get under the corner of the turret, a few seconds went by before a turretmate cried “Duffy’s gone!” “No, I’m not,” he shouted in response, and he scampered in shaking like a leaf thinking his back was wet with blood. John sat on the floor and counted his fingers as he begged his mate to check how much blood was on his back. He did not appreciate the response which was a big hearty laugh and reassurance that he was only simply doused in water. This was his first encounter with the infamous Kamikaze pilots, but little did he know that the worst was yet to come.
At this point in the LOUISVILLE’s service, the crew was all pretty well-seasoned and promotions were handed out to replace the higher-ranking men who had transferred to fill out newer ships. John was promoted to Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class and was put in charge of the 60 men composing the 1st Division. Not only did his pay improve, but his bedding as well, receiving a private bunk inside the gear locker which shared a wall with the admiral’s quarters. In December the Admiral was replaced by Admiral Ted E. Chandler as commander of Cruiser Division 4, yet within a month Chandler would be dead and the ship’s captain badly burned.
On January 5th, 1945 the LOUISVILLE was en route to Lingayen Gulf on Luzon. The task force was fairly large and every gun was manned. John was standing right above his turret watching the first ships to fire when he heard the cry of “here they come!” from a man above him. Looking where he was pointing, John’s eyes fixed on three Japanese planes flying low on the waterline about a quarter-mile ahead. Two planes veered off for other ships but one headed straight for the Lady Lou. As the bow guns opened fire John rushed down the stairs, flew down a ladder, and dove into the Boatswain’s Mate station. Two seconds later the Kamikaze crashed right into Turret 2, about forty feet from where he had been standing. The ship shuddered from the impact and Captain Hicks ended up badly burned. One man was dead and 52 others were wounded. While they had come under fire before, this was the first real hit on the ship and it was a blessing that turret two had not been manned at the time, however, it was now thoroughly out of action. Pieces of the Japanese pilot were collected, photographed, then thrown overboard.
The next day, January 6th, the LOUISVILLE was leading the way into the Lingayen where they expected to be attacked once more. Still out of range for the 8” guns, John and his crew were sent to the rear turret door and down to the shell deck for safekeeping. Safety was short-lived and not long after the AA guns rang out, another tremendous shake rocked the boat. This time, John would not sit idly by. As soon as the hit occurred he shouted out to 60 1st division sailors “We’re hit, let's go men!” John was the first man out the door, followed swiftly by Lt. Commander Foster and Lt. Hastin, the division officers. The starboard side was a raging inferno from the forecastle deck down and a badly charred, naked body was lying about ten feet from the turret with the top of his head missing. It was the kamikaze pilot and he had made a direct hit on the communications deck. As men poured out of the turret from behind John they stood in shock. Explosions continued blasting from the ammo lockers and fire was upon the comms deck as well where screaming sailors begged for help. John jumped into action, assigning men to the many fires across the deck. Although much of the structure was destroyed, John ordered several men to scale the bulkhead and aid the badly burned victims standing at the edge of the railing like zombies. All of these orders were given only a few seconds apart and by then all the men of the division were running to act. The only thing interfering with the work was the burned remains of the Japanese pilot. Calling over to another sailor to grab the legs, John put his hands under the corpse’s arms and lifted. When he did this the head rolled back and a large dripping goop of brain and flesh fell out in one piece at his feet. John motioned to the sailor and they quickly threw the body over the side before John stooped down, picked up the mass of brain matter, and chucked it over the side. To the men who had not been assigned a task, he shouted to grab some mops. This entire time as John oversaw the rescue and repair operations in the wake of the disastrous Kamikaze attack, the division officers stood and watched, eventually putting John in for the Navy Individual Commendation which he would be awarded for his outstanding leadership in action.
The damage from the second attack was severe, 32 men had been killed including Admiral Chandler and another 150 lay heavily wounded, among them Captain Hicks. The ship quickly made its way to the rear, then Pearl, and finally San Francisco where all survivors aboard were allowed to transfer for permanent shore duty. While John did not request this, instead just took a 24 day leave, and returned to find himself promoted to Chief Boatswain’s Mate. Sadly, most of the crew he had known and loved had left the vessel and he decided that his time on the now “Lucky Lou” was finished. He officially left the ship on April 26th, 1945, and transferred to command of Navy tugboat USS ORONO YTB-190. Onboard he served with several other seasoned veterans who had been given the chance to return home for easy duty. The job was pretty simple, sailing up and down the west coast performing maintenance duties.
After the war John was well-slated for discharge and received his in 1946, returning home to marry his long-time sweetheart and settling down in his hometown of Palisades Park. His love for the sea did not disappear, however, and he spent the next several decades commanding civilian tugboats, ferries, and sightseeing ships up and down the New York waters. He also picked up a hobby of tinkering with and repairing old player pianos, a fascination which turned into a legitimate business where the name Duffy became nationally renowned for his skilled work on the machines, producing several albums of player music and featuring in many major music magazines. His final job was that of a docking pilot, guiding over 2,300 ships into the New York harbor before retiring to a loving wife and many grandkids.