The plunge overboard drove me into dark, warm waters. I fought to hold on to my senses. If I passed out, I would just keep sinking. I was 18, and I had shrapnel in both legs and my skull. I struggled to the surface and saw my destroyer, the USS Duncan, burning and adrift, struck 56 times by Japanese shells during the Battle of Cape Esperance near Guadalcanal. It was Oct. 12, 1942. I saw a wooden spar and grabbed it. To my surprise, a Japanese sailor was hanging on to the other end. I reached for my knife as we eyed each other. We remained frozen with indecision for a long moment. I eased off my end of the spar. He eased off his end. We swam away as fast as we could in opposite directions. Both of us had had all of the fight we wanted.
As luck would have it, I splashed into someone else floating face up. It was [my shipmate] Stanley Dubiel, raving, out of his mind with pain. His legs were badly burned; I had thrown him overboard before I jumped into the ocean. Looking back over my shoulder as I swam, I saw the Duncan chasing me. The ship was like a giant flamethrower. Still steaming wildly in a tight circle, blazing like a Viking's funeral pyre, she bore straight down on me, growing larger as she approached, spewing fire and smoke from every opening. The ship rushed by so near I thought I could reach out and grab her. I held on to Dubiel and his life jacket with a drowning man's grip as the wake caught us and drove us tumbling underwater. When we surfaced, after what seemed like hours, the world had grown quiet and warm and peaceful. I thought I must have died. Then I spotted the Duncan, flaming away across the sea in the distance. I must have passed out for a minute.
We had gone into the drink about midnight. Now it was daylight. I had been swimming for hours, towing Dubiel. "Keep going" played itself over and over in my brain. Somehow I became aware that Dubiel and I were no longer alone. I saw fins cutting the surface like blades of knives. The sharks closed in. One of the fish, larger and bolder than the others, darted in for a bite. My foot was bleeding. The shark's fin disappeared beneath the surface. I spun in the water, my eyes searching frantically. I screamed, Dubiel screamed. His body exploded out of the water. He twisted violently, then he was gone, wrenched from my grip. I swam like a madman. I figured by all rights I should have been dead. I heard Dubiel's screams for years afterward.