By Philip R. Devlin.
Chief Carpenter’s Mate of the USS New Orleans Posthumously
Awarded the Navy Cross in the World War II Battle of Tassafaronga
Guadalcanal is one of many islands in the South Pacific that constitute a chain of islands known collectively as the Solomon Islands. It was deemed of great military and strategic importance to gain control of the Solomons in order to keep open a supply line to Australia. Therefore, on August 7, 1942, American Marine and naval forces began an invasion of Guadalcanal that would last about six months.
Tassafaronga Point is on the north shore of Guadalcanal and is the location of a major naval battle that took place there in Ironbottom Sound on the evening of November 30, 1942. Chief Carpenter’s Mate Erwin Parmelee, 42, of Haddam participated in that battle. Parmelee was aboard a heavy cruiser named the USS New Orleans that day. The New Orleans was shadowing another heavy cruiser that night called the USS Minneapolis. When the Minneapolis was disabled by a Japanese torpedo fired from a destroyer, the New Orleans pulled out to pass the disabled ship and was itself struck by a second torpedo intended for the Minneapolis. The results were devastating, as a 150 foot section of the bow of the New Orleans exploded upon impact and then detonated ammunition and gasoline stored in the bow, killing 183 sailors. Amazingly, the New Orleans did not sink. The crew utilized coconut tree trunks lashed to the remnants of the bow to keep it afloat. Eventually, the New Orleans limped its way to Sydney, Australia, was fitted with a stub bow there, and then made its way back to Puget Sound in Washington for a complete re-fitting, sailing backwards all the way!
Chief Carpenter’s Mate Erwin Clark Parmelee had been in the Navy since 1920. Parmelee survived the initial attack on his ship and then helped sustain its ability to float. While tending to the repairs of his ship, Erwin Parmelee lost his life. His courage and resourcefulness in saving the ship resulted in his being awarded the Navy Cross, at the time an award second only in distinction to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Here is the citation for Parmelee’s heroism:
AWARDED FOR ACTIONS DURING World War II
Division: U.S.S. New Orleans (CA-32)
GENERAL ORDERS: Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin No. 314 (May 1943)
The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Chief Carpenter’s Mate Erwin Clark Parmelee, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty while serving on board the Heavy Cruiser U.S.S. NEW ORLEANS (CA-32), in action after the torpedoing of his ship in enemy-controlled waters during the Battle of Tassafaronga on the night of 30 November 1942. The success of Chief Carpenter’s Mate Parmelee’s efforts to perfect the damage control organization of his ship was illustrated when his ship remained afloat and accomplished the feat of reaching port after extensive damage had been wrought by an explosion caused by a torpedo hit which detonated the forward magazines and gasoline tank. The conduct of Chief Carpenter’s Mate Parmelee throughout this action reflects great credit upon himself, and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Erwin Parmelee’s body was never found. He was officially listed as “Missing.” Having actually gone “Missing” on November 30th, he was not officially declared dead by the military until December 1, 1943, 1 year and 1 day after he went missing, as was the Navy’s custom. His name appears on the “Tablets of the Missing” at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Phillippines. Erwin Parmelee was also awarded the Purple Heart posthumously, undoubtedly sent to his wife, Mabel, who was living in Long Beach, California at the time. The couple had no children. He was son of George Wilson Parmelee and Delphine Clark Parmelee of Haddam.
Launched in 1933, the New Orleans earned 17 battle stars during World War II in the Pacific, one of only 4 American battleships to be so highly decorated during the war. Notably, the New Orleans was at Pearl Harbor in dry dock getting repairs on December 7, 1941, and was strafed and bombed during the infamous Japanese sneak attack. Chief Mate Parmelee was onboard and personally witnessed the devastation of the American fleet at Pearl. He was also onboard several months later when the New Orleans was used as screening cover for the carrier USS Enterprise during the Battle of Midway—the turning point of the war for the United States.
Finally, most Americans who know something about the Battle of Guadalcanal probably know of the extraordinary heroism of Marine Sgt. John Basilone of New Jersey in defending Henderson Field from an overwhelming Japanese force—action for which Basilone earned the Congressional Medal of Honor– or they know about the tragic deaths of the Sullivan brothers. The five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, all died when their light cruiser, the USS Juneau, was torpedoed right near Tassafaronga on November 14, 1942. Similarly, though far less publicized, three brothers from Birmingham, Alabama—all shipmates of Erwin Parmelee—died together on the USS New Orleans just over two weeks later. Jack Ellis Rogers, Jr. and his brothers Charles and Edward Rogers are buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Their youngest brother Emmett enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 hoping to avenge his brothers’ deaths, and eventually served aboard the repaired New Orleans from November 1944 through the end of the war.
Photo of Erwin C. Parmelee courtesy of his nephew, Higganum resident John Parmelee
All other photos are U.S. military public domain photos.