The Official Home of 'Nasty Asty'  
James G. Brandt
USS ASTORIA CA-34 SOC Aviator 1940-1942

In a photograph that ran on the front page of the June 10th, 1942 edition of the St. Paul Dispatch, LT(j.g.) James Brandt poses with his mother, discussing his travels aboard USS ASTORIA.
-photo courtesy of son Charles Brandt

James G. Brandt served as an SOC floatplane pilot aboard USS ASTORIA CA-34 from 1940 until May 1942, when he was transferred stateside to NAS Banana River in Florida. Although he missed ASTORIA's involvement in Midway and the Guadalcanal invasion, Brandt was aboard ship for her participation in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Additionally, he and his fellow "Slingshot Pilots" were involved in a remarkable incident in March 1942:

The banner headline of the St. Paul Dispatch. When they lost contact with the ship, Brandt and the other ASTORIA aviators were marooned on a small island in the South Pacific.
-document courtesy of Charles Brandt

From the June 10th 1942 edition of the St. Paul Dispatch:

By Alton D. Smalley

A 27-year-old St. Paul Navy flier who fought in the battle of the Coral Sea is home on leave after being marooned sixteen days on a Southwest Pacific island inhabited by a tribe of semi-civilized former cannibals.

The flier is Lt. James G. Brandt, son of Mr. and Mrs. George Brandt… Pilot of an observation-scout plane on a warship (name and type of the ship cannot be disclosed), Lt. Brandt and the other airmen lost the ship while on a scouting flight [13 March 1942].

There were four observation-scout planes on the trip, each manned by a pilot and a gunner-radioman… Unable to find the ship, the fliers were running out of gas. Although they might lose their lives, they did not radio the ship for directions because such action might divulge to the enemy the whereabouts of the craft. Neither could the warship radio to the lost air fighters.

Equipped with maps, the Navy men knew they were within about 150 miles of islands. They set down their pontoon planes for the night on a rough sea. They spent what Brandt describes as a “miserable” night, the sturdy planes bouncing around in heavy seas…

As seas crashed against the planes, Lt. Brandt thought about his friend and ship roommate, Lt. Bill McGowan of Alexandria, VA., who had never returned to the ship from a scouting flight several days before [10 March 1942. Brandt's ASTORIA aviation unit was searching for any sign of McGowan].

The next morning the planes made a miraculous takeoff safely from the rough seas and headed toward the island.

“We flew along the shore for a time waiting to see if anyone would take a pot shot at us,” Lt. Brandt relates. “No one did, so we landed, pulled the planes up on the shore and covered them with palm leaves..."

While exploring the island, the airmen came across a group of native islanders who "looked ugly and dangerous. They wore only loin clothes, had mops of bushy hair, rings through their noses and ears and were armed with mean-looking knives." However, some of the men spoke Pidgin English. The locals proved friendly as they shared common purpose against the Japanese.

Brandt and the ASTORIA airmen spent sixteen days on what proved to be Rossel, the easternmost island in modern Papua New Guinea. Brandt was quoted saying "we had plenty to eat, but the native diet did not seem to be enough and we always were hungry... each of us lost fifteen pounds." He also clarified the dietary practices of the locals, stating that they "had ceased cannibalistic practices in about 1900, after the arrival of missionaries--so they said, anyway."

Rossel Island is the eastern-most island of Papua New Guinea in the Louisiade Archipelago.
-manipulated from Google Earth imagery

From the June 10th 1942 edition of the St. Paul Dispatch:

Then came the most heartwarming experience of Lt. Brandt's life. He found his roommate, Lt. McGowan, living on the other side of the island. Although there were scores of islands in the vicinity, fate had decreed the two men should have come to the same land. Lt. McGowan reached there when he also had lost his ship [flying from ASTORIA three days before Brandt.]

Finally, Australian planes flew over the island, saw the fliers and sent gasoline and repair crews for the planes... The ten men finally reached safety by plane and rejoined their ship, to a rip-roaring welcome by the ship's men who had given them up for lost.

Lt. Brandt is not permitted to divulge information on the Battle of the Coral Sea. [He] will report soon for active service.

A more in-depth account of this adventure can be found in the book Queen of the Flat-Tops by Stanley Johnston in a chapter titled "Castaways among Cannibals." Because the book was published during wartime, ASTORIA is not mentioned by name, but Brandt, McGowan and their fellow aviators are.

When Brandt departed USS ASTORIA  in May 1942, he left his camera behind in his locker. He was unable to retrieve it before the ship was lost off Savo Island, and both camera and film now reside in the depths of Iron Bottom Sound.

James Brandt remained close to the ASTORIA men he sailed with. Although not present at Savo Island, he felt the loss of both ship and shipmates quite personally.  Brandt attended the ship's reunions until his passing in 1993, and was commemorated in the final shipmates' newsletter and reunion in 1996.

Brandt, Charles. Private document collection.

Return to Ship's Crew


Website Builder