In November 1942, then Seaman Chester T. “Chet” Williams was on one of six PT Boats (103-108) from Squadron 5 sent from Taboga Island near Panama City to the Galapagos Islands, 800 miles away.
In November 1942, then Seaman Chester T. “Chet” Williams was on one of six PT Boats (103-108) from Squadron 5 sent from Taboga Island near Panama City to the Galapagos Islands, 800 miles away. Ostensibly on a training run, the boats, refueled by the seaplane tender Pocomoke, sailed rough seas causing sleepless nights for Williams and the rest of the patrol.
Now 91, Williams, a lifelong Rye resident, shared his memories of those days.
The Galapagos at that time were mostly deserted. The Army had a base on Battra Island, where there was also a PT base with a small floating dock, surrounded by curious seals, moored off the island.
It was decided to put a landing party on the narrowest part of Isabela Island during one of the patrols, have them march across a ten-mile strip, and meet the boats on the other side of the island later in the afternoon. Nine volunteers came from different boats, and with cheese, bread, and canned tomatoes for lunch they set off after breakfast. The group also had a few canteens of water and everyone carried side arms; some had rifles, just in case there was a hidden Japanese encampment. It was important to not let the Japanese create a base from where they could attack the Panama Canal.
As soon as they left the beach, they realized it was going to be harder than expected. Heavy brush tore at their clothing and sent up hordes of biting insects; then the party became separated. Six men, including one “Long John,” went off one way, while Lt. Cookman, Torpedoman Minkler, and Seaman Williams went the other way. The groups lost contact with each other.
Williams and his group made slow progress, after a mile of underbrush, a huge dried up volcanic riverbed, over half a mile wide, loomed. Over ten feet high with jagged volcanic rock, these flows presented a treacherous obstacle. After scrambling over these rock piles, the group had to push through more thorns, stickers, and heavy brush until another pile would block their way. Thinking that the other side of the island would be just over the next rise, they consumed lunch by noon. But, on they struggled with no end in sight and the water was gone by early afternoon.
With darkness approaching they settled in for the night. According to Williams, since the beginning of time, the mosquitoes never had such a meal. Sleep was impossible; at sunup, the three set off again, their shoes torn to shreds by the volcanic rock. Shortly after noon, Cookman and Williams needed a rest. Minkler kept going and was soon out of sight.
With no water, worthless shoes, parched, hungry, exhausted, the two knew they were in trouble. Holding each other up, they struggled over the top of one more lava bed. Before them lay the brilliant blue Pacific! They nearly crawled into the healing water, but there was no sign of Minkler, the other patrol, or, more importantly, the boats.
What they didn’t know was that the boats had rounded the island and left after dark. They came back the next day, but departed when no survivors turned up. Supposedly, a plane swept the island, but nobody on patrol heard it.
Williams and Cookman regained some strength, and, seeing a fire about a quarter mile up the beach, cautiously approached it. They were overjoyed to see the rest of the landing party. Then, stumbling out of the darkness, came Minkler who had wandered into a swamp and eaten a mouse with gusto for enough strength to make the beach.
Soon, came the symphonic sound of muffled PT engines. All hands were taken on board their respective boats and after plenty of fruit juice and a day without duties, they steadily revived.
They had not found any Japanese on Isabela Island, but the experience would not be forgotten, even with the Soloman Islands campaign facing the squadron. It was possible that the landing party might never have overcome those last obstacles and that their bones would have been left for some future tourists to decipher.