WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Charlie “Craig” Hanes was among the 1,429 people aboard the SS Cape San Juan, a U.S. troop transport ship, when it was struck by a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine on Nov. 11, 1943.
The attack happened in the Pacific Ocean, about 300 miles southeast of Fiji. Hanes was a 19-year-old private in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.
“At that age, I didn’t have sense enough to be scared,” he said. “It was hard for me to realize that we were in a war — until that torpedo hit.”
Hanes, 95, who lives near Mocksville, vividly remembers the captain giving the order to abandon ship.
“He said, ‘Men this isn’t a drill. It (the ship) was dead in the water.”
The torpedo caused explosions and a fire on the Cape San Juan, which was traveling from San Francisco to Townsville, Australia.
Hanes said his unit, the First Fighter Control Squadron, shipped out from San Francisco on Oct. 28, 1943. The Cape San Juan traveled alone on its destination to Townsville, Australia.
Hanes is a Davie County native and attended Davie County High School before being drafted in 1943 into the Army Air Corps as part of the U.S. 5th Air Force. He completed basic training in Atlantic City, N.J., and received additional training at March Field in Riverside, Calif.
At the scene of the torpedo attack, “there was diesel fuel everywhere,” Hanes said. “There were 10 to 15 feet ocean swells. The ocean was just rolling when we got off.”
Hanes managed get into an overloaded raft with 20 other survivors.Ten men in his unit died.
“There weren’t enough lifeboats to take care of the passengers,” Hanes said.
A plane from New Zealand circled over the survivors to prevent the Japanese submarine from surfacing and attacking them.
In total, 448 Americans survived the ordeal in the shark-infested ocean.
“The sharks got a lot people,” Hanes said. “I did not see it. It didn’t happen to the raft that we were on. Some sharks attacked other survivors on the rafts.”
According to news reports, the U.S. cargo ship, the Edwin T. Meredith, was among the American vessels to arrive on the scene to rescue the survivors.
A witness later told a United Press International reporter that, “Time after time I heard soldiers scream as the sharks swept them off rafts. Sometimes, the sharks attacked survivors who were being hauled to the Meredith with life ropes.”
Hanes said he remembers that a U.S. destroyer, a minesweeper and a submarine chaser also arrived on the scene. After spending more than 36 hours in the water aboard the raft, Hanes and the other survivors were picked up by the American minesweeper.
Hanes and other survivors were soaked in diesel fuel. They were treated in a hospital on Fiji for several weeks.
“We lost everything we had,” Hanes said. “All we had were the clothes on our back.”
His unit eventually went to Camp Ascot in Brisbane, Australia, then to New Guinea and the Philippines. His unit participated in the U.S. invasion of the Leyte Island in October 1944.
After his unit left Leyte island in December 1944, his ship was attacked by Japanese kamikaze planes in the Philippines.
The book, “Saga of the 1st Fighter Control Squadron” by Tom Gauthier, documents the war record of Hanes’ unit.
Hanes served in the U.S. Army Air Corps until the war ended in September 1945. He was discharged in Dec. 8, 1945, as a private first class. He was 21.
In civilian life, Hanes worked for 35 years at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem.