The force returned to Pearl Harbor on May 26, stayed two days, and departed for Midway to repulse an expected assault on that advanced base. By June 2, TF 16 rendezvoused with TF 17 and was in position 350 miles northwest of Midway. The battle commenced as Japanese carrier planes flew against installations on the island. By the 7th, the American forces had won one of the decisive battles of history, sinking four carriers and one cruiser at the cost of the destroyer Hammann (DD 412) and carrier Yorktown and profoundly changing the course of the war. We were off the starboard bow of the Yorktown; running a screening pattern for both the Yorktown and the oiler (a fuel-carrying ship) Cimarron.
After Midway, the force remained at Pearl Harbor for a month before departing again for combat. Steaming via the Tonga Islands, they headed for the Japanese held Solomon’s. By August 7, they were 40 miles from their targets, Guadalcanal and Tulagi. On the morning of the 7th, the Monssen and the Buchanan (DD 484) were sent in first at daybreak to draw fire from the beach to find out what the Japs had for fire, which was nil, After that the troop ships moved in, the Monssen and the Buchanan stood off Gavutu and Tanambogo, circling those islands and providing fire support to the units of the 2nd marine regiment as the U.S. Navy struck with the first of its giant amphibious assaults. She was then assigned to screening forces guarding the eastern approaches to Sealark, Lengo and Nggela Channels. She remained in the immediate area through the battle of the eastern Solomons, which prevented Japanese reinforcements from reaching Guadalcanal. She then took up duties patrolling the sea routes to Guadalcanal. At the end of the month, Saratoga (CV 3) was damaged, and Monssen was one of the ships designated to escort her to the Tonga Islands.
Monssen returned to Guadalcanal to insure the integrity of the allied supply line and to block Japanese efforts at supply. Destroyers have long been the most versatile ships of the U.S. Navy. Few have been called upon to perform such a variety of duties as did the Monssen during the week of September 23–30, 1942, the most crucial phase of the Guadalcanal campaign. Anti-submarine, anti-aircraft, shore bombardment, Marine combat post, rescue, hospital ship and tow ship; the Monssen performed them all.
The Monssen left Espiritu Santo on September 23 as the sole escort for the 10,000-ton supply ship USS Alhena, which was bound for Guadalcanal beachhead with vital supplies. The Japanese still controlled the air by day and the sea by night. For weeks, the only supplies to reach the hard-pressed marines were those that could be flown in by air when Henderson Field was operational. It was the thinking of the south Pacific high command that this small convoy might succeed where a larger would surely attract Japanese resistance. The Monssen was a 1,630-ton destroyer of the Benson class commanded by Commander Roland N. Smoot (Annapolis 1923). She was already a veteran of the north Atlantic convoys, Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo raids, the battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway, the invasion of Guadalcanal and Tulagi and the carrier battles around Guadalcanal. Perhaps that was why she was selected for this hazardous mission.
The Monssen and Alhena arrived off Lunga Point beachhead in the early morning of September 25. While Alhena anchored as close to the beach as possible, the Monssen set up an anti-submarine screen seaward. There were no dock facilities, so unloading went slowly, as supplies had to be unloaded by hand on the beach from small boats. Monssen’s patrol took her within 3,000 yards of the shore west of Lunga Point. The bridge watch spent hours scanning the jungle and the hills and studying the charts, trying to appraise the military situation ashore. At dusk, the Monssen escorted the Alhena eastward through Salark Channel and out so sea, then turned around and arrived back of Lunga Point after daybreak.
On September 26, Monssen’s patrol took her close to the mouth of the Matanikau River, where rifle and machine gun fire was observed. The Matanikau River, about three miles west of Lunga Point, was then (and remained for some weeks) the western line of the Marine beachhead. Fighting was centered here as the Marines attempted to drive the Japanese westward and out of range of Henderson Field. The Marine command ashore decided to take advantage of having a modern destroyer in the area. Monssen was ordered to cruise along the western shoreline and bombard any enemy targets observed. For several hours, Monssen took under fire small landing craft on the beach, native huts, and anything resembling enemy fuel or ammunition dumps. Several explosions were observed and columns of smoke indicated that fires had been started.
Before this firing mission was completed, the air raid warning was given, and the Monssen hurried back to Lunga Point to escort the Alhena away from the beach. Alhena had scarcely pulled up anchor when a V formation of high-flying medium “Betty” bombers was seen approaching from the north. The enemy planes gave no attention to the Monssen and Alhena but circled over the airfield. Monssen’s 5-inch AA battery took the planes under fire. Then several F4F Marine fighter planes attacked the rear of the enemy formation. We watched one “helluva dog fight” After several passes, the last enemy bomber on the wing was seen to begin burning and it started a vertical plunge toward the sea. When about half way to the water, the plane exploded. One entire wing section missed the Monssen by about 100 feet as the debris splashed in the ocean. The planes dropped their bombs, causing heavy damage, explosions and fires on Henderson Field. Several more enemy planes were seen to fall before they passed out of sight. The Monssen’s gunnery officer claimed two enemy planes shot down, but this was not confirmed. The two ships departed the area again at dusk, returning to the unloading beach at dawn on September 27 (my birthday). The Alhena resumed unloading and the Monssen took up her patrol. When her patrol again took her close to the Matanikau River, it was obvious that fighting was in progress. Bodies of several marines were observed on the sand bar in the mouth of the river. Sounds of battle echoed through the coconut groves during the morning. About 11:00 a.m. the Monssen was ordered to close the beach and pick up passengers from a small craft.
Aboard the Monssen came Lt. Col. “Chesty” Puller, his first lieutenant aide and two signalmen. Puller was then a battalion commander. He went up to the bridge and informed Capt. Smoot that Marines were to be landed behind the Japanese lines in an effort to encircle them and force a crossing of the Matanikau River. Four boats carrying Marines (about 200) came out and followed the Monssen to Point Cruz, a projection of beach about a mile west of the Matanikau. The Monssen shelled the jungle behind the beach with 5-inch gunfire, and the Marines landed without opposition and disappeared into the jungle.
Before Puller could establish contact with the Marines ashore, the air raid alarm was again sounded. The Monssen broke away and hurried back to escort Alhena away from the shore. This time adequate warning had been received, and every available Marine fighter was in the air, ready at altitude. A ferocious aerial combat followed, most of it at altitudes above naked eye vision. Atmospheric conditions that afternoon were most conducive to visual contrails. As the battle raged, the sky was soon crisscrossed with dozens of white streaks, which seemed to persist for many minutes from high altitude to sea level. Perhaps a dozen planes-friend and foe-were seen to plunge into the sea. The Monssen did not attempt to fire, as individual dogfights were too confusing. Not a Japanese bomb fell on Guadalcanal that day. It was later learned that 23 of 25 attacking planes were shot down with the loss of only two of our fighters.
The air battles had taken two precious hours, and Col. Puller was impatient to return to the land operation. When the all clear was sounded, Monssen rushed back to Point Cruz, where Puller’s attempts to establish contact with the landing force failed. Soon, however, the Marines were spotted on an open grassy hillside about half a mile inland. They were surrounded by Japanese, and mortar rounds could be seen exploding among them. A second force of Marines, which had attempted to close off the enemy troops from behind, had failed to reach their position of support. There was nothing to do except to attempt to evacuate the trapped Marines.
The Monssen’s motor whaleboat was launched, and preparations were being made for a group of armed sailors from our ship and the marine signalmen to close the beach and try to establish radio or visual contact. Fortunately, before this could be attempted, contact was established by Morse code flashed by sunlight reflected from a mirror.
Puller sent the force ashore a message using the Monssen’s blinker light, directing them to fight their way out to the beach and be picked up. The landing craft were recalled. When Puller figured the Marines may have reached the jungle, Monssen laid down a barrage of 5-inch shellfire from the beach to the base of the hill, in order to open a corridor through which the Marines could fight their way out.
The landing boats went in. As the first Marines appeared on the beach, heavy enemy rifle and machine gun fire commenced from both sides. After a few minutes, the landing boats retreated back alongside the Monssen. When Puller saw that the boats were mostly empty, he was furious, and he screamed at the boat coxswains to go back in and not leave the beach until all of the Marines alive had been picked up. Four Marines had managed to scramble into one of the boats earlier. They were lying down exhausted in the bottom of the boat. When they realized that the boat was being sent back into the beach, they scrambled up and jumped for the Monssen. Three managed to grab the lifelines and were pulled aboard. The fourth Marine missed, and he disappeared beneath the water under the weight of his equipment. Two of the Monssen’s sailors quickly stripped off their clothes and dived into the ocean in an attempt to locate him, but they failed, and he was not seen again.
Dusk was approaching as the boats closed the beach. Red tracer bullets could be seen splashing around the rescue boats. The Monssen was forced to break away at this point and escort the Alhena in her night retirement. Puller and the other Marines were dropped off in a waiting boat at Lunga Point.
The day’s action resulted in the loss of some 40 Marines, some of whom were wounded and had to be left behind. The coxswain of the last boat to leave the beach, Douglas Nonro, became the only Coastguardsman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, when he was killed while fighting off the Japanese with a machine gun until the last Marines could get aboard.
The Monssen and the Alhena returned to Lunga Point for the fourth day on the morning of the 28th. All was quiet this day, as there was a lull in the fighting ashore and no air raid. The Alhena completed unloading about 3:00 p.m., and the two ships departed for Espiritu Santo. About an hour later, an air raid alert was heard on the radio. A squadron of enemy dive bombers appeared off Lunga Point, but the Monssen and the Alhena ran into a friendly rain squall down the channel at this time and escaped detection.
This would be the end of the episode except about midnight, when the two ships were about 50 miles off the eastern tip of Guadalcanal, a heavy explosion occurred in the after storage hold of the Alhena. Her propellers were wrecked, and her after hull was open to the sea. It was first thought that she had been torpedoed by a Jap submarine. Later it was learned that an internal explosion had occurred from gasoline fumes in empty drums stored in her hold. The Monssen began circling the crippled ship, expecting a submarine attack momentarily. After an hour, when no attack came, the captain of the Alhena asked the Monssen to remove her wounded in the event the Alhena might sink or be torpedoed. The Monssen’s motor launch was lowered and made three trips to the Alhena, bringing about 75 wounded men aboard. About half were Marines who had been put aboard the Alhena at Guadalcanal for evacuation. It was ironic that many of these Marines had been wounded in the battle in which the Monssen had assisted the day before. These included Capt. Tom Cross, who had directed the evacuation from the beach before being wounded. So the Monssen sailors had a rare opportunity to hear first-hand about the events ashore during a battle in which their ship participated.
The Alhena’s doctor was also transferred to help the Monssen’s doctor attend to the wounded, who were made as comfortable as possible on the main deck. All hands breathed a bit easier when the night passed with no further incident. But the Monssen was far from being out of the woods.
At daylight the Monssen stood in for a close look at the damage to the Alhena. She was down at the stern about 10 degrees, engines obviously beyond repair at sea. Sharks could be seen swimming in and out of a gaping 30-foot hole in her hull. The captain of the Alhena instructed the Monssen to take her in tow. Captain Smoot suggested that it looked like certain suicide if the Monssen tied were to a ship five times her size, with no escort for protection. Japanese submarines and planes had been very active in this area. The order stood, however, and after a two-hour all hands struggle, a 10-inch manila line from the Alhena was hauled aboard and secured, and the Monssen began a very gradual acceleration. When a speed of 3½ knots was reached, it was decided that this was as much strain as the manila towline could stand. All off-duty hands became volunteer lookouts, and many of the Monssen’s crewmen kept their fingers crossed all day. There was more than one bet out on the odds of the Monssen still being afloat at nightfall. Chief boatswain’s mate Mike Sellers stood by all day with an ax ready to part the tow line at first sight of an enemy plane or torpedo. Many breathed a bit easier when two fighter planes from Henderson Field appeared in the afternoon and flew an anti-submarine patrol until fuel ran low. All hands joined the wounded in sleeping above decks that night. No one wanted to be trapped below decks if a Japanese torpedo slammed into the Monssen in the night.
The next morning the manila towline was replaced by a 1½-inch steel cable which the Alhena had discovered aboard. This was accomplished after another two-hour all hand tug of war. Towing speed was then increased to about 6 knots. Nervous smiles could now be seen on the faces of some crew members, with the knowledge that about 200 miles of distance had now been put between them and the most dangerous waters. Smiles turned in downright relief late that afternoon when over the horizon appeared fleet tug USS Navajo, escorted by the Monssen’s sister ship USS Meredith (DD 434) and a PT boat. The Monssen happily turned over the tow to the Navajo and joined the screen where she belonged. Two days later the group arrived back at Espiritu Santo without further incident. (The Meredith was sunk with heavy personnel losses about two weeks later in the same waters while escorting a towed gasoline barge attempting to reach Guadalcanal.) (continued)