At 0150 hours, on Friday, Nov. 13, 1942, the command “commence firing” went out to a 13-ship, single-file column – at 500-yard intervals – U.S. Naval task force. The task force was to then engage in battle with a 12-ship Japanese Naval task force.
This engagement would take place just off the northern coast of the island of Guadalcanal, between Lunga Point, Cape Esperance and Savo Island. This battle would become to be known as the “Battle of Friday the 13th” and “The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.”
As the task force entered the battle zone, the ninth ship in the American column was the U.S.S. Juneau. The 12th ship was the U.S.S. Monssen. Remember this: Ruddy – Juneau, Bienko – Monssen.
At the end of this battle, some nine hours later, two Clark residents would give the supreme sacrifice for their country.
Benjamin Bienko and John L. Ruddy, would die in combat on the same day, at the same battle more than 68 years ago; two of the “fallen heroes” that would, by the end of World War II in 1945, total 12 Clark residents who would not return home.
Of the 12 war deaths none would be more heroic or stranger than the deaths of Bienko and Ruddy, two sailors from a small semi-farming, bucolic community that they left to go to a war thousands of miles away.
Benjamin Bienko was born on Nov. 9, 1919, in West Virginia. He was the youngest of four children including sisters, Juanita and Jennie and brother Joseph. The family moved around a lot during the children’s formative years. They eventually came to Clark in 1937, living at 14 Lincoln Blvd. The house is still there today.
After attending local schools and with the outbreak of war in 1941, Ben entered the U.S. Navy – off to war, never to return. Juanita describes Ben as “a dear.”
“We all had a lot of love for him,” she said. While he was overseas he would send lockets home to the nieces, she added. Ben’s favorite song was “Maria Elena,” by the Dorsey Brothers, she said.
John L. Ruddy was born in 1924 in Spring Lake. His father and mother were natives of Rahway. John graduated from St. Mary’s grammar school in Rahway, where he played baseball and also displayed considerable prowess as a swimmer. As did all Clark students at the time, he entered Jonathan Dayton Regional High School in Springfield in September 1938. On Jan 8, 1942, John left school and enlisted in the U.S. Navy following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor – off to war, never to return.
Let us take a look at those two ships – the Juneau and the Monssen. The Juneau, CL-52, was launched Oct. 25, 1941, and was a light anti-aircraft cruiser of the Atlanta class. It displaced 6,000 tons and had a potential crew of 810. The Monssen, DD-436, was launched May 16, 1940, and was a destroyer of the Benson class. It displaced 1,630 tons and had a potential crew of 250.
Now back to that fateful day of Nov. 13, 1942. Both of the ships were part of Task Force 67, commanded by Rear Adm. Richard K. Turner, Naval Academy Class of 1908. The purpose of the column of surface ships in that area was to protect troop supply ships that were reinforcing the fighting Marines in Guadalcanal.
In the summer of 1942, allied reconnaissance reported that the Japanese were starting to work on an airfield – the future Henderson Field – near Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. The building of the airfield was the reason for the First Marine Division’s invasion On Aug. 7, 1942. These landings were the first U.S. military amphibious operations since 1898.
As the Cushing, the lead ship at the head of the column, engaged the Japanese, the crews of the Juneau and Monssen were at their stations. The Monssen’s turn came at 0157 hours as it fired five torpedoes at the Japanese battleship Hi Ei,with two of them hitting the mark. At 0200 hours two Japanese torpedoes missed the Monssen, but struck the Barton, ship number 11 in the column. Immediately after Barton got hit, the Monssen fired its remaining five torpedoes. After the five “fish” left, the Monssen’s five-inch guns opened fire for the first time.
Being that he was on duty in one of the 5-inch gun mounts, it can be safe to say that at this time of the battle, Seaman First Class Bienko was quite busy. At 0215 hours the Monssen took the first hit of her life as Mount-1 was struck through the front shield. The entire gun crew was instantly killed. If Bienko was in this mount he would have been among them.
Also at 0215, hours the Juneau was struck by torpedoes on the port side. They entered the forward fire room, and 17 sailors were killed. Additionally, the Juneau’s keel was broken. It is unknown at this time if Ruddy was stationed in the forward fire room of the Juneau.
At 0216 hours the Monssen was struck by Japanese five-inch rounds in the engine room. These hits rendered her powerless. A short time later, at 0217 hours, Mount-2 was consumed with spreading flames and ceased firing. If Bienko wasn’t in Mount-1 he had to have been in Mount-2, as evidenced by a Dec. 1, 1943, letter from the Monssen’s commander to Bienko’s sister, which will be discussed later. Therefore, it can be safe to say that from this point forward Seaman First Class Benjamin Bienko was no longer with us.
For approximately the next 30 minutes, the Monssen continued to be struck and burn. Finally at 0245 hours, Lt. Cmdr. Charles McCombs ordered the crew to “abandon ship.”
As the survivors of the Monssen made their way in the Pacific water, the Juneau had to retire from the battle at 0500 hours. At 0800 hours the Juneau paused to transfer its corpsmen to the heavy cruiser San Francisco, so as to help in treating the wounded of that ship.
The end of the Juneau would come at 1100 hours as the Japanese submarine I-26 fired six torpedoes that struck and entered one of Juneau’s ammunition magazines. An instant later another crippling explosion occurred. When the smoke cleared there was nothing to be seen of the Juneau.
As 100 out of an original crew of 650 were adrift in the water, Capt. Gilbert C. Hoover ordered all ships to continue on. They were ordered not to stop and search for Juneau’s survivors. Hoover would later be relieved of command by Adm. William “Bull” Halsey for these actions.
If Seaman Second Class Ruddy did not die during Juneau’s explosion, he surely died in the water, as 90 of the 100 sailors died in the water during the next several days. In fact, overall just 15 of Juneau’s 650-plus officers and sailors eventually survived. This figure included the transferred corpsmen to the San Francisco. Among the valiant dead of Juneau were the five Sullivan brothers. Four of them went down with the ship and the oldest brother died while adrift.
As for the final losses on the Monssen, they were above 50 percent. About 126 died out of a crew of 226, including Benjamin Bienko.
Keep remembering this: Ruddy – Juneau, Bienko – Monssen.
Since Bienko was reported “missing in action” as of Nov. 13, 1942, his family was obviously apprehensive and concerned as he remained in that status. His sister, Mrs. Kosik, wrote a letter to the Bureau of Naval Personnel and requested further information concerning the welfare of her brother. Her letter was acknowledged on Feb. 8, 1943, by Rear Adm. Randall Jacobs.
In that letter the admiral stated that Seaman Bienko may be carried in a status of “missing” for one year. At the expiration of the year further consideration would be given to that status. And finally in Dec. 1943, Mrs. Kosik received a hand-written letter from the Monssen’s last commander, McCombs, Naval Academy Class of 1930. In the letter he emotionally talks about “Ben” and the fact that he was on one of the forward five-inch guns.
The last paragraph of the letter ends by saying in part: “The Monssen was fighting a ship. She went in fighting and went down fighting. Since it had to be so, I’m very proud that she still has such a fine crew on board to look after her into eternity.” The last sentence says: “Keep punching, we’ve got to get this thing – the war – finished and go home again and all be happy again.”
Thoughtful and compassionate words indeed. A commander still caring for the welfare of his men and extolling it to the sister of one of his sailors.
You have to wonder if Bienko and Ruddy knew each other. Were they acquaintances before entering the Navy? Did they know that they were at the same battle, and in the same column of ships? Did Ruddy know that Bienko died at 0215 hours?
Bienko and Ruddy are commemorated individually by the name on the “tablets of the missing” at the Manila Cemetery, Republic of the Philippines. This cemetery is one of 14 U.S. military cemetery memorials on foreign soil. The American Battle Monuments Commission is responsible for operating these most beautiful and meticulously maintained shrines.
Additionally, John’s name is memorialized, along with his parents, in stone on the family plot at St. Mary’s Cemetery on Madison Hill Road in Clark. When you get a chance, go on over and give him a salute. And while you are there you can also visit two other Clark “fallen heroes” – Joseph Padusniak, World War II, and Robert Sevell, Vietnam.
Remember this: Ruddy – Juneau, Bienko – Monssen, two Clark residents who died on the same day, at the same battle, on Nov. 13, 1942, in defense of their country. Their sacrifice shall not be forgotten.