By Curt Yeomans
Clifford B. Dunaway's interest in joining the Navy began when he was a child and his mother dressed him in a sailor's outfit for Sunday school in Dallas. It grew when he was a teenager in Rockmart, because he admired the sailor's uniform of a neighbor.
He eventually made it into the seagoing military branch after two attempts to join, but he brought with him several preconceived notions of what it would be like to be a sailor.
"I thought you sailed around the world, and had a girl in every port," said Dunaway, 88, now a resident of Morrow. "After I got into the Navy, I found out it wasn't that much fun. Oh, there was fun to be had, but there was also business that had to be done."
Dunaway is a survivor of the U.S.S. Atlanta, which was sunk during the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal on Nov. 13, 1942. This year marks the 66th anniversary of the sinking of the ship. Approximately one-third of the ship's 750 sailors and officers were either killed or wounded in the ship's last stand, according to Dunaway.
Getting in not easy
Dunaway had some trouble getting into the Navy, when he first tried to join the military branch. He tried to enlist not too long after his 18th birthday, but was rejected for being too small. He tried to join the coast guard, but was met with the same decision. As a result, he went to work for a construction company, which had been hired to pour foundations for buildings being constructed at Fort Gillem in Forest Park.
However, one day in 1941, Dunaway picked up a copy of the Atlanta Journal, and saw an advertisement featuring a cruiser on the front page of the newspaper. The ship in question was the Atlanta. The ad announced that Georgia men could enlist in the Navy to specifically serve on that ship.
That was Dunaway's chance. He left work that day and went to the local naval recruiting office. By the time he arrived home that night, he was a member of the Atlanta's crew. Dunaway was sent to Norfolk, Va., for basic training, while the Atlanta continued to be prepared for her commissioning ceremony. "About a week or so before I finished basic training, Pearl Harbor [Hawaii] was bombed," he said.
After completing his training, Dunaway was sent to Brooklyn, N.Y., for the Atlanta's commissioning ceremony. He quickly took a position as a gun striker in the ship's rear gun turret. The ship had eight turrets, each carrying five-inch guns. "I didn't know what a gun striker was, but I knew what a gun was and that was good enough for me," Dunaway said.
Choking back tears, as recalled the ship, Dunaway said, "You could go out on liberty in Brooklyn, and when you came back at night, and you saw that ship docked there -- It was a beautiful ship... Sailors from other ships would just stop and admire her."
On Christmas Eve 1941, Dunaway was standing on the Atlanta's deck with all of the other sailors on the ship. Everyone was wearing their peacoats to keep warm. As he looked down the line of seamen, he could see several naval officers and "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell, the ship's sponsor, on the deck.
The U.S.S. Atlanta was being commissioned.
Heading to Guadalcanal
After completing trial runs in waters off the coast of Maine, the Atlanta made its way for the Panama Canal. It had to deal with a few German U-boats along the way, and one of its rotors suffered some minor damage from a depth charge, But, it reached the Panama Canal and received the necessary repairs before heading on to Pearl Harbor.
Shortly thereafter, it was assigned to screen, or protect, the aircraft carriers U.S.S. Enterprise and U.S.S. Hornet. In August 1942, the Atlanta was sent to participate in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
"Guadalcanal was as important to the [Japanese], as it was to us -- But, I suppose it was a little more important to us," said Dunaway. "If the [Japanese] had gotten control of Guadalcanal, they could have cut off supply lines to Australia and New Zealand."
The fighting at Guadalcanal lasted for months. At one point in August, Dunaway remembers a Japanese torpedo hitting the U.S.S. Saratoga and exploding. As he read a history of the Atlanta, he scoffed at some of the details he found. "They say there was only one torpedo, but it was really a screen of fish -- fish is what we called torpedoes," said Dunaway.
"I remember seeing one of those fish porpoising just under the surface of the water, and heading straight at us!" Dunaway added. "Fortunately for us, its motor ran out before it got to the ship, so the fish just stopped and sank."
Atlanta's final battle
On Nov. 11, 1942, the Atlanta helped repel a Japanese air attack, and Capt. Samuel P. Jenkins recorded the ship taking out five bombers, according to Dunaway. However, the Atlanta's days were coming to an end. A day later, a fleet of 34 Japanese ships were moving toward Guadalcanal to help attack the island's U.S.-controlled Henderson Airfield.
Under the cover of darkness, the Atlanta led the line of ships to confront the Japanese fleet. "We had been trying to catch them for quite a while, but we hadn't been able to get them," Dunaway said. "Then we intercepted them.... We had requested a spread of torpedoes. If you shoot 15 torpedoes, and one of them hits a ship, you've accomplished something. We never got permission to do a spread of torpedoes, though."
However, the Atlanta was about to find itself on the defensive. A Japanese ship turned a watch light on the ship, and Dunaway said it "lit us up like a Christmas tree." The gun commander told the men to get ready to fire. Dunaway choked up again as he recalled Catholic men praying and performing the sign of the cross, while he tried to steady himself at his gun.
Then came the order to fire, and Dunaway suddenly became calm again. "We just opened fire because they were looking down the gun barrel at us," he said. "That's when, as the saying goes, all hell broke loose. It was like a barroom brawl."
Dunaway said three torpedoes hit the Atlanta, two of which hit the ship's midsection, causing a massive explosion which led to a power failure on the ship. A call to abandon ship was given and Dunaway helped get life rafts into the water.
The Atlanta, now no longer illuminated by any light, began to drift out of the attack column -- and into the sights of the U.S.S. San Francisco's eight inch guns. During the confusion of the battle, the San Francisco fired 19 shells into the Atlanta, several of which hit the ship's bridge. Dunaway briefly took refuge behind his gun turret, but then went back to help with the life rafts.
He and another sailor paddled a life raft carrying two wounded sailors. One of them had a forehead that was split open, his abdomen was ripped open and he used his hands to hold his internal organs inside his body, "but he lived!" Dunaway said.
The sailors paddled the raft away from the ship as quickly as possible to avoid any suction that would accompany a sinking vessel. At the same time, they had to avoid another threat -- Japanese sailors in the water. "I was scared because I didn't have a knife or anything to defend us, and there were [Japanese sailors] in the water," he said.
The last day
On the morning of Nov. 13, they saw the Atlanta was still afloat, so they reboarded the vessel. Dunaway walked midway up the ship to the gun turret on the starboard side, and found its crew, except for one man, dead inside. He also saw a decapitated corpse hanging over the side of the ship, and other dead men lying on the deck.
Marines came along in Higgins Boats to evacuate the wounded. Meanwhile, the ship continually took on water, and a Japanese fleet was moving in for another night-time strike. Detonation charges were set off and the ship sank with its dead still on board. The ship and its crew received a Presidential Citation for its service.
Afterward, Dunaway served on motor torpedo (PT) boats in the South Pacific and the English Channel. He left the Navy in 1945, and went to work for Delta Air Lines two year later, in the air freight department. He retired from Delta in 1985. The memories of the Atlanta's final days remain with him, though.
"Things like that, you don't ever forget," Dunaway said. "Seeing guys who, a few hours earlier, you had been joking with, and eating with, and now they're dead ..."