Donald J. Wachter
USS ASTORIA CA-34 1940-1942
Don Wachter as a Machinist's Mate in 1942.
-photo courtesy of Don Wachter Jr.
When Don Wachter reported aboard USS ASTORIA CA-34 in August 1940, he brought his two best friends with him. Wachter, Ed Morearty, and Bob Livesey all hailed from Omaha, Nebraska. They joined the U.S. Navy Reserves over the course of 1938-39, and all were brought to active duty following high school graduation.
The three young men "wanted to see the world," and the Navy accommodated them in assigning them to the same ship, USS ASTORIA. They came aboard ship in Pearl Harbor, having first sailed as passengers aboard USS UTAH AG-16 from San Diego. Wachter advanced quickly in the Engineering Department, going from a Fireman 2nd Class rate in 1940 to Machinist's Mate 2nd Class in 1942, three promotions in two years. His friends served in other divisions, Morearty as a baker and Livesey as a quartermaster.
Above: The Three Musketeers--Don Wachter with his two hometown buddies from Omaha, all assigned to USS ASTORIA.
Left to right are Wachter, Edward F. Morearty, and Robert H. Livesey.
Below: The three men pose for another photo with two unidentified shipmates.
-photos courtesy of Don Wachter Jr.
Wachter and his friends were at sea aboard ASTORIA when Oahu was attacked on 7 December 1941. USS UTAH, the ship that first brought them to Pearl Harbor, was one of the ships sunk in the attack. The men saw the devastation firsthand a few days later when their ship returned to her devastated home port.
The 'Three Musketeers' served aboard USS ASTORIA CA-34 throughout early 1942 as she performed convoy duty on the vital supply route between Hawaii and Australia. In May 1942, the ship participated in the Battle of the Coral Sea. An Omaha newspaper article later wrote of the three:
And when the smoke cleared away they found their way to each other over the battle-grimed decks of the cruiser, grinned weary smiles of congratulations when told their fleet had socked the enemy back on his heels in the first large-scale sea battle. They had pulled the weary men from the sinking carrier Lexington to safety.
In June 1942, USS ASTORIA played an active role in the Battle of Midway, providing anti-aircraft fire support for the aircraft carrier USS YORKTOWN, then standing beside her as she fought fires and began to sink. Of the action, the Omaha paper wrote:
The three lads came through unscathed--helped brine-soaked men from the sinking Yorktown over the side. Again they were all there when they gathered on the deck.
ASTORIA's third action was the invasion of Guadalcanal. When the night battle erupted off Savo Island on 9 August, MM2/c Wachter was "on duty in the log room when GQ sounded." He later recalled:
I was down in the engine room, and my two buddies Ed Morearty and Bob Livesey were in other parts of the ship. It was boiling hot and I could feel our ship taking the shells.
An artist's depiction of USS ASTORIA taking intense fire from Japanese ships.
-John Hamilton painting in the U.S. Navy Art Collection
After the battle the ship was dead in the water. The power was out. I centered the rudder manually with oil bypass. Ken Cruse was on battle phones and there were no communications or instructions to abandon ship.
Finally someone came down and told us to get out of there, that we were hit bad. The repair crew on deck above was wiped out or gone. They didn't notify us or open the hatches. We finally tried opening the hatch ourselves and smoke poured in from fires in the compartment above. We agreed to try to make it topside individually. Ladders were shot out and missing.
I finally got on the deck on the fantail... and I'll never forget what I saw--the wounded, our guns roaring, the forward part of the ship in flames. Shrapnel and shells were still flying around and I took shelter behind a gun shield until it stopped. We tried to put out the fires with buckets on ropes dropped over the side.
I started to look for Morearty and Livesey. I found Livesey, and we were ordered to go to work. We stacked bodies in the hangar to clear the decks for work. Four men to a blanket, one on each corner, carried the bodies.
The Omaha newspaper article continued:
All that night the two friends worked till they were near exhaustion--carrying water to fight the flames, moving the dead, putting the wounded over the side. And as Livesey and Wachter carried the wounded, they looked for Morearty, made side trips trying to find him, asked mates if they had seen him. They had not. Morearty had been killed in action.
After hours of work, the men paused for some quick nourishment--crackers and raisins scrounged from the chief petty officer quarters. As they ate, the ship succumbed to her wounds. Wachter recalled:
The ship started listing fast. When I sat down I saw the mast tipping rapidly to port. I stood up and my arms folded up on my chest from cramps caused by holding lines and blankets. I couldn't move them. A pharmacist's mate tried massaging my arms to loosen them up, but to no avail.
The ship was sinking rapidly and everyone started jumping off. The pharmacist's mate tied a piece of life jacket on me and shoved me over the side. I floated on my back and kicked my feet over to the destroyer that was standing off. As I got alongside they announced "Stand clear. We have a sub contact." I didn't think I would last until they got back, so I managed to hook my arm into the cargo net and said, "Go ahead. You're not leaving me here." They came down and hauled me aboard and put me in a bunk. They gave me a good shot of bourbon.
Wachter and Livesey were ferried back to the United States aboard transports along with other survivors of the ASTORIA. They were ordered not to divulge details of the ship's loss. Upon their return to Omaha on furlough in September, a newspaper article featured them and their fallen friend. Their ship was never named and her sinking only implied.
Photos that accompanied the 'Three Modern Musketeers' news article. The caption for the photo at left was "Bob Livesey and Don Wachter needed no newspaper to tell them about the third Musketeer."
-news clipping courtesy of Don Wachter Jr.
The article concluded:
Yesterday Livesey and Wachter, both 21, came home on furlough--two grim young men where there had been three carefree boys. As they strode up the street together you could almost close your eyes and see the other, the laughing young Irishman--the third of the 'Three Musketeers' of the Navy.
Wachter returned to sea duty in 1943. He was assigned to USS LEXINGTON CV-16, an aircraft carrier built to avenge the loss of the first 'Lady Lex.' Wachter served aboard LEXINGTON in the Fast Carrier Task Force for the remainder of the war. He saw combat through many major engagements--Kwajalein, the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, and raids on Tokyo.
When Don Wachter again returned to Omaha in the summer of 1945, the 24-year old was a veteran of 14 Pacific War battles. He was again featured in the local newspaper:
After nearly 300 thousand miles of ocean travel, Wachter says he would prefer to be a 'land-lubber' the rest of his life.
Wachter Jr., Don. Family photo and document collection.
Jones, Brent. Private photo collection.
Jones, Pat (ed.) The USS ASTORIA (CA-34) and the Men Who Sailed Her. USS ASTORIA Reunion Association. Privately printed, 1992.
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