On the morning of February 19, 1942, the 1920's-vintage, 'four-stacker' US destroyer, USS Peary, was attacked and sunk by Japanese dive bombers while in Darwin harbour. Of her crew of 143 officers and men, 91 lost their lives.
Of the 52 survivors, a dozen were picked up by the small, examination vessel, HMAS Southern Cross, and one of them, Chief Machinist's Mate James E. Pike, later wrote a 'thank you' note on their behalf to the crew of Southern Cross. The note had been tucked away in the ship's log book, and there it remained forgotten and out of sight, until discovered in the Sydney branch of the National Archives in 1997.
We wish to congratulate the officers and men of your ship for their heroic effort in rescuing us and for the kindness and friendliness shown toward us.
James E. Pike, CMM USS Peary and eleven survivors.
Good luck to you all.'
Neil Wilson wrote an article in the Melbourne Herald-Sun commemorating the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin - and Peary's loss. Included was a copy of this note.
The survivor of the USS Peary, which went down with the loss of 91 crewmates, wants to say a final thank you to the partying Australian heroes who plucked him from Darwin Harbour.
And discover if that HMAS Southern Cross crew ever received a rough thank you note scrawled by another of the Peary's 41 rescued crew.
Mr Greer, one of only two Peary crewmen still living, was won over by the Australians' cheery bravado in holding a birthday party between the two Japanese bombing raids on Darwin.
"They weren't worried about the bombs. I liked those guys and I knew I'd like Australians," he said. So much so that he took an Aussie war bride home.
At a special reunion at Darwin's wharf last night, Mr Greer was planning to join history enthusiast John Bradford in tracking down the Southern Cross crew and solve the note mystery. It was written on butcher paper by James Pike, one of 12 Americans rescued by the Southern Cross.
He slid from the blazing destroyer as it sank stern first after being hit by five Japanese bombs. He recalls seeing his trapped crewmates still firing at Japanese planes as the ship went down. He was pulled aboard the Southern Cross an hour later.
"Then they said, 'don't worry, come on down below, we're having a birthday party'," said Mr Greer, 83.
"They had a cake down there for some guy named Bluey. They were singing happy birthday while he was blowing out all the candles."
Notwithstanding the Melbourne Herald-Sun running the story in 2002, privacy considerations by US naval authorities prevented release of any information, eg where had Pike enlisted in the USN, that would assist in the forwarding of a copy of his note to his next-of-kin. It was only through discussing the issue with US Naval War College (NWC) attendees at the 2007 the King-Hall Naval History Conference in Canberra, that progress began to be made. They suggested I contact the Reference Librarian at the NWC, Alice Juda. This I did and she had far better luck with the authorities. The details I required were finally released.
The man's full name was James Edwin Pike. He was born in Gadsden, Alabama in 1910 and had joined the USN from Guffey, a tiny hamlet not far from Colorado Springs. Following his service in USS Peary he saw service in the Atlantic theatre in the USS Alden, another similar-vintage, four-stack destroyer and one of four destroyers which had been able to make good their escape after the collapse of the Java Sea campaign. After 20 years service in the USN, he retired, living in San Leandro, California for 17 years, and moving to Anderson Springs, California, in 1972. He had died there, aged 78, in 1988.My NWC contact 'phoned the local Guffey historian, Charlotte Burngarner, who just happened to know a lady who had known 'Ed'- as he was popularly known - in her youth. Well, one thing led to another, and Charlotte was able to pass on the information that Pike had a sister who now lived in Arizona. Having spoken to his sister, I was put in touch with his widow and son who both live in California.
Thus 10 years after having made the initial 'find' in the Sydney archives, receipt of Pike's note by the three members of his family effectively 'closed the loop' on this wonderful story of US-Australian cooperation under the most perilous of circumstances.
Along the way there was an added bonus: a historical curio. Located quite close to Guffey is Pikes Peak, named after Lt Zebulon Pike who discovered the peak in 1806. The first man to climb the peak was Dr. Edwin James in 1820, and the story goes that Katherine Bates found the view from atop Pikes Peak so impressive that in 1893 she felt inspired to compose the lyrics to "America the Beautiful".
This page last updated February 2008.