The wreck of the USS John Penn

by Ewan Stevenson

The tepid sea was welcome as we descended down the mooring line. We scanned our depth gauges carefully. Ten metres, 15, 20, then suddenly near 26 metres, the huge intact wreck materialised out of the gloom. The ship lay on her side, as if she had gently turned over to die. In a puff of silt my fins touched down on the port side at 38 metres. The sea floor was a further 20 metres down. A small black-tip reef shark swam off into the distant murk. Immense schools of great trevally, rainbow runner, big eye jacks and a plethora of other species appeared. They swirled around, turning my environment into a revolving solid wall of fish. Two large Spanish mackerel passed at speed, studying me briefly with their giant eyes. Combined with the biological spectacle, I was overwhelmed by the historical significance of the wreck beneath my feet. More than half a century ago, the USS John Penn was sunk at anchor in a daring night attack off Guadalcanal.

On the evening of Friday, August 13, 1943, an American convoy was busy unloading war supplies off Guadalcanal. A dozen big transports, cargo ships and oilers were anchored in line for some 26km. The attack transport USS John Penn (APA-23) was amongst them. As an APA (US Navy abbreviation for an attack transport) she was well armed, with one five-inch gun, four three-inch guns and eight 20mm Oerlikon cannons. She was 145 metres long and displaced 9360 tons. Anchored off the American complex at Lunga Point, she was ablaze with lights as a working party of 20 Marines unloaded cargo. Five destroyers, three patrol vessels and a RNZN corvette patrolled outside the row of transports to ward off any lurking Japanese submarines. Hundreds of fighter aircraft, including night fighters, were based at the nearby airfields and a continuous shore-based radar watch was maintained.

At the Japanese end of the Solomon archipelago, the engine roar of seven Nakajima B5N2 Navy Type 97 attack bombers reverberated through the night air as they waited on the dusty, jungle-fringed airfield at Buin on Southern Bougainville. Allied intelligence knew these planes as ‘Kates.’ Used in the Pearl Harbour attack, the Kate was the mainstay of Japanese aerial carrier torpedo capability, but could also carry flares and bombs. The seven Kates from the Ryuho Naval Flying Corps were divided into two groups. Two, loaded with two 60kg bombs and flares each, were designated as a ‘feint’ group. The remaining planes comprised the ‘attack’ group and each carried a deadly torpedo that weighed nearly a ton. At 1845 hours, the two ‘feint’ planes took off. 15 minutes later, Lieutenant Hirao Kuwata pushed the throttle forward on his B5N2 and led off the five-plane attack group. They turned east and then southeast, settling to an economic cruising speed. They had a long over-water flight of some 750km just to get to the target area.

At about 2015 hours, the Marines working on the John Penn watched the last net full of 155mm artillery propellant being hoisted over the side. It was a calm, pleasant tropical evening, with bright moonlight, some low cloud and a gentle breeze from the southeast. As usual, numerous Allied planes could be heard and seen, taking off and landing at nearby airfields or streaking across the night sky. Five minutes later, as the Marines were gathering for the ride back to their quarters, the terrific noise of the ship’s siren screeched suddenly through the ship: ‘Condition Red!’ The code translated as ‘Air attack imminent.’

The Marines had nowhere to go, but the John Penn’s crew, trained for such occasions, rushed to battle stations, pulling on their anti-flash gear if they were gun crews or collecting binoculars if they were lookouts. The engineers dashed through the narrow corridors and slid down ladders toward the engine room. Others raced to ‘Repair Stations.’ In a very short time, the ship was ready for battle. Her exterior lights were doused and the anchor chain partially hoved in to facilitate a fast getaway.

A few minutes after Condition Red was sounded, anti-aircraft gunfire sprang up over Cape Esperance. At 2100 hours, a high-flying plane dropped bombs on the beach and in the sea off Lunga Point. Two parachute flares were also released, and drifted slowly earthward. Fiery tracers from gunfire reached out to the culprit plane, but it quickly went into a power dive and escaped over the sea. 20 minutes later another bright double flare was released by a high-flying aircraft, this time in the vicinity of Fighter II airfield near Kukum, on the west side of Lunga Point. What did they mean? During the preceding months the John Penn crew had experienced a number of Condition Reds, but invariably the Japanese bombed the airfields and left the ships alone. On this night, it looked like much the same again. Their nervous eyes watched the mysterious flares and the lights from their own aircraft streaking across the sky. Then, a couple of minutes after the second flare, one of the destroyers patrolling a mile or two northwest of the ship suddenly erupted in gunfire to the north at a low angle.

Hundreds of tracers from the destroyer’s automatic weapons streaked out in a solid cone of light that split the night sky like horizontal fireworks. The gunfire traversed rapidly towards the Penn. A destroyer tried to radio a frantic warning, but it was only partially received and it was too late anyway. In seconds, the enemy planes had passed through the destroyer screen and were homing in on the anchored transports. The gun crews of the John Penn had been waiting tensely for an hour since the first alarm, and now they released all their pent-up stress by pressing triggers and letting loose a devastating fusillade of gunfire.

In a remarkable display of coordination, or by incredible coincidence, three Japanese planes converged almost simultaneously on the John Penn. The effect was to divide the defensive gunfire from the target ship. The first plane approached directly abeam the starboard side. The damage control officer aboard the ship was First Lieutenant Alex Koppler. His report later recalled, ‘I was standing on the starboard side of the upper deck about midships … I then sighted a single low-flying plane with running lights coming straight for us. The plane was no more than 50 feet above the water. This was also the height of my eye. The plane was coming in from the direction of Tulagi. The USS Fuller and USS John Penn commenced firing almost together and the sky was full of tracers. The attacking plane was also firing tracers of a pink and white type. The plane was approaching at tremendous speed. At this point I dashed for cover.’

A moment later, crew members sighted a second plane screaming in obliquely off the bow. When just 150-200 yards away, the plane released a torpedo. The impact occurred on the starboard side, at Number Five hold near the stern. A dull, sickening explosion rumbled through the ship, then a crash and another shattering explosion rocked the ship. The crash came from the incoming plane. It had been caught by fire from the stern guns, and crashed into the aft section of the ship. The second explosion, which blew the aft gun platforms toward the stern, is believed to have been the aft magazine. The explosions were blinding – the entire vessel, surrounding ships and nearby clouds were lit up like day. The damage was tremendous. A huge hole in the side of the ship flooded the engine room and three aft holds. A third of the ship was full of water. The explosions also snapped bunches of electrical cables. The ship’s electrical power failed, and with it all communications and lights. Steam lines were torn loose, and brickwork in the boiler furnaces collapsed. The loss of both electrical power and steam pressure meant there was no way to save the ship. A pool of flaming oil spread around the stern as oil spilled from ruptured bunkers.

The John Penn lurched slightly to starboard and settled fast by the stern. Less than ten minutes after the hit, the damage control party reported just two feet of freeboard aft. Orders were passed by word of mouth, ‘Away all life rafts.’ Three minutes later, the freeboard had diminished to just two inches and the anchor chain was strained to the limit as the bow rose out of the water. At 2140, as the ship continued to sink stern-first into the calm dark sea, Captain Need finally ordered, ‘All hands abandon ship.’ Ten minutes later, the bow of the USS John Penn slipped beneath the Solomon Sea.

In total, 98 men from the John Penn were listed as killed or missing in action. Many of the survivors were severely injured. Even for the physically unscathed, there was emotional turmoil as they reflected on their dead shipmates and friends. The Japanese flight crews claimed five transports sunk in the attack, but in fact only the John Penn was sunk. Five Kates out of seven returned to the Buin Airbase, just past midnight; mysteriously, the Japanese records admit the loss of one plane but neglect to mention the fate of the other.

The popularisation of scuba gear and a boom in scrap metal prices in the late 1960s encouraged salvage operators to move into the wreck-rich Solomon waters. In 1972, Australian salvor Wally Gibbons and Chief Fisheries Officer Dick Janes found the wreck of the USS John Penn. The salvage divers discovered the ship was completely broken in two just aft of the engine room. Much to the salvor’s glee, they found the ship’s spare propeller; Wally Gibbons, Mike Laurent and Gary Dalton recovered it. The single-cast solid bronze prop weighed 16.25 tons and was 18.25 feet wide! The missing stern section was later found by Gary Dalton some 400 metres west of the main wreck, and the main propeller was recovered.

The following year, experienced salvage diver Brian Bailey worked on the Penn. In late 1993, he recalled an incident during his work: ‘The main engine condenser was 8’9” in diameter, about 12 to 14 feet long. The steel casing was blown off the condenser to get at the monometal pipes inside. An attempt was then made to blast off the end plate, but it did not completely free itself. 20 or 30 pipes still fastened it to the main body. I was working on hookah with a scuba tank for backup at a depth of 160 feet and began to cut the remaining pipes with a hacksaw. I was working between the buckled explosive-cut pipes and the end plate when I suddenly noticed the end plate falling in on me! I tried to get out, but the hookah hose was caught in the pipes and the reg wrenched out of my mouth. I immediately switched to my reg, but the end plate clanged down on my safety tank. In fact, if it wasn’t for the scuba tank I would have been crushed! I managed to free myself from the tank and then untangle the hookah hose. I then switched back to the hookah whilst I freed the safety tank.’

Since that salvage work in 1972-1973, only recreational divers have visited the wreck. In 1994, I dived the John Penn a number of times with Brian. No one has dived the wreck more than Brian, and I felt privileged to have his company. Despite the salvage work, the wreck of the John Penn is very intact. The 20mm cannons point askew from atop the complete bridge. Scattered loaded magazines for the Oerilikons can be found lodged against deckhouse walls. Live ammunition spills from the lockers near the three-inch guns on the bow. The ship’s radios can be seen along with chairs, tables and abandoned helmets lying in the sediment of the radio room. It is a desperate scene, and it is easy to imagine the radiomen dropping their helmets as they fled from the room that evening so long ago. Crockery and cutlery litter the Officer’s Mess, along with an immense coffee urn. Near the end of one dive, I found an intact porthole on the upturned hull of the ship. Marine detritus had collected in the indentation and I fanned it away with my hands. I was startled when the glass appeared clear. I peered through into the darkened interior and then shuddered away … for a silly instant I expected to see the face of a John Penn sailor to appear.

The John Penn is one of the premier wreck dives of the Solomons. The combination of history and marine life makes it astounding. If you get a chance, don’t miss a dive on the John Penn. Dive trips to the wreck from Honiara cost about $80 with Tropical Sun Tours. I intend to return to complete an archaeological survey and rediscover the substantial stern wreckage (including the five-inch gun), which has not been dived since 1972.

Thanks to Brian Bailey, and Ian Gardiner of Morgan Equipment in Honiara, for their generous assistance. If readers would like more information, contact me at email


scroll to top