Vice Admiral Route’s letter to me set the stage for this talk by stating that this year, SNA “will highlight the magnificent achievements at the Battle of Guadalcanal, including the often unheralded efforts of so many Sailors, both officer and enlisted, who faced difficult missions but triumphed with honor and bravery.” He suggests that I “share my experiences as a member of the officer community during my time aboard the USS Sterett (DD407).”
I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to the heroic actions contributed by the officer community, and I begin that task by acknowledging the most important actions contributed by such giant characters as Admiral Halsey, then the Commander, South Pacific Force, or General Vandegrift, the Commander, 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal. When the risks were at their highest and the odds seemingly insurmountable, they made the courageous command decisions, without which the battle could not have been won.
Turning next to Admirals Callaghan, and Scott (both of whom had been killed in the first few minutes of the action), no higher tribute could be paid them than these words, excerpted from General Vandegrift’s message to Task Force 67 following the action; “To Scott, and Callaghan and their men, who . . . with magnificent courage, made success possible by driving back the first hostile attack, goes our greatest homage. In deepest admiration, the men of Cactus lift their battered helmets in proud salute.”
To begin with, it is essential to understand the tremendous advantage the Japanese Navy had in the South Pacific area when it came to numbers and types of combatant ships. They had five carriers, five battleships, 14 cruisers and 44 destroyers. We had two carriers, two battleships, nine cruisers and 24 destroyers. To further complicate the picture, our two carriers and two battleships were operating for the most part in an area about 400 or 500 miles further north of Guadalcanal, and were probably two days away from where we were likely to become engaged. It was this discrepancy in numbers that dictated the defensive attitude of Vice Admiral Ghormley who, for the first two or three months of the Guadalcanal campaign, abstained from opposing the almost nightly visitation to the island by what we called the “Tokyo Express,” a bombarding force, which usually consisted of two battleships, a couple of cruisers and about a dozen destroyers, to steam in under cover of darkness, bombard our airfield and Marine gun emplacements, and provide cover for troop reinforcements which followed close behind in destroyer transports.
However, in mid October of ’42, Admiral Ghormley was relieved by Vice Admiral William Halsey, whose whole nature and attitude were the direct opposite of his predecessor. Halsey espoused the philosophy of taking the offensive, and he made that clear from the first day of his arrival, when he sent a message to the South Pacific Force, stating “Strike, Halsey.” On 26 October, he visited Vandegrift on the island and gave his assurances that, from now on, the nightly attacks by the “Tokyo Express” would be opposed.
The proof of his pledge came in mid November. On the 12th of that month, the Sterett was screening the transports which were engaged in offloading supplies, ammunition and aviation gas along the north shore of Guadalcanal. In mid morning, we received reports from coast watchers further up the Solomons chain that they had sighted a 25-plane torpedo attack on the way to Guadalcanal. On receipt of that news, Vice Admiral Turner, the OTC, ordered the transports to get underway and take a northerly course, away from the island, while the destroyers were deployed in a circular screen to provide anti-aircraft protection. The Sterett was on the starboard flank of the formation and shortly after noon, the attacking “Bettys” were sighted coming in from the starboard beam; and within seconds, we were firing at them as they flew directly over the Sterett. We splashed four and all of them were downed. No ships were hit by torpedoes, but one plane crashed into the after gun director on the San Francisco, killing 30 of her crew.
In the meantime, further coast watcher sightings reported the approach of the “Tokyo Express.” On receipt of that news, Admiral Turner directed that we escort the transports to the east of Guadalcanal and turn them loose, so that they could head south to get out of the battle area. After release of the transports, the remaining combatant ships, consisting of eight destroyers and five cruisers, were formed in a long column. Four destroyers led the formation, followed by the five cruisers, and the other four destroyers brought up the rear. The order of ships, from van to rear, was: Cushing, Laffey, Sterett, O’Bannon, Atlanta, San Francisco, Helena, Portland, Juneau, Aaron Ward, Barton, Monssen and Fletcher. They comprised Task Group 67.4, and Rear Admiral Dan Callaghan was designated as the Task Group Commander. Admiral Callaghan had just arrived from his duty in Washington, where he had been President Roosevelt’s Naval Aide. Since he had been the CO of the cruiser San Francisco in his previous sea duty, he chose her as his flagship. Rear Admiral Norman Scott, who had had several previous night actions and had demonstrated outstanding leadership on those occasions, was embarked in the anti-aircraft cruiser Atlanta, but unfortunately had no command responsibility, and was simply a passenger aboard the Atlanta although of course he was also a standby task group commander in the event that Admiral Callaghan became a casualty.
After we had released the transports and they were on their way to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, our column reversed course and headed west, along the northern coast of the island of Guadalcanal. Now we were actively engaged in searching for the enemy force that we knew was on the way, with the expectation of conducting one more of their successful bombardments of Henderson Field. Aboard the Sterett, we had gone to general quarters at evening twilight, (a lesson we had learned during many months of North Atlantic duty, where the U-boats had established the habit of attacking during either morning or evening twilight, when visibility conditions favored the U-boats). As we skirted along the shore of Guadalcanal we could easily see the tracers flying back and forth. The Marines were engaged in a furious fire fight. Up in the Sterett’s 5-inch gun director, we talked about what we could see and voiced our admiration for those “Gyrenes.” They didn’t have enough food, they were short of ammo, (although we had delivered some that very day), and they were being attacked by high level bombers almost daily and by battleship gunfire almost every night. We were in close contact with many of them when we delivered supplies (for we would invite them aboard for a hot meal and toilet articles from our tiny ship’s store). So we had seen first hand how they looked and had listened to their stories of combat with a tough and determined enemy. It was obvious that they were having a tough time of it. Yet not one of them ever complained about it or expressed any doubts that they were going to be victorious. By comparison, aboard the Sterett, we were well off. We had clean clothes, could take a shower every day, our bunks were clean and comfortable, we had three hot meals a day, and we were not being shot at almost without letup. We all decided that we were very lucky to be in the United States Navy.
As we proceeded westward, we could smell the wild honeysuckle which adorned the shoreline, and at the same time we were conscious of the constant noise of gunfire. It was an eerie combination. Sometime shortly after midnight, we passed Henderson Field and Lunga Roads, and there the column turned about forty degrees to the right, and headed generally in the direction of Savo Island. It was a dark night, with occasional rain squalls, and I wondered if we were going to be detached to make a torpedo attack. I knew, as we all did, that the Tokyo Express usually included two battleships, and in my mind, I had already concluded that the choice of eight destroyers in our “pickup team” was probably deliberate, because our torpedo armament was the only weapon in Task Group 67.4 that stood a chance against the enemy’s 14-inch guns. However, there was no hint of what tactics we would employ and we barreled on at 21 knots; and I spent the next few minutes scanning the dark horizon, looking for the approaching enemy force.
At about 0120 in the morning of Friday the 13th of November, the Helena, which was equipped with surface search (SG) radar, reported a contact at 27,000 yards. On the Sterett, we did not have the SG radar (nor did the San Francisco, the OTC’s flagship), but with the advantage of the Helena’s reports, we were able to acquire a large target on our fire control radar at a range of somewhere over 20,000 yards, and soon had a solution. We were ready to open fire. With both forces proceeding at 20 or 21 knots the range was closing rapidly. In a matter of a few minutes we were within 4,000 yards of our radar target, and I could now see it quite clearly. It was a Kongo-class battleship, and its towering superstructure reminded me of the Empire State Building, and to the gun captains, waiting breathlessly for some news as to what we could see, I told them that I was looking right into the superstructure of a battleship, and it looked like the Empire State Building. I don’t suppose that was a very comforting thought, but events were now moving so fast that they didn’t have long to worry about it. I was keenly aware that those turret guns that were pointed in our direction were 14-inch, but for the moment, we seemed to be so close to it that he couldn’t depress those huge cannons low enough to hit our little destroyer.
At this point, we had not received any word as to our plan of attack, and the lead battleship (for we could now see that there were two of them) turned on his biggest searchlight, and swept its beam down our column, starting with the Cushing, and then turning it to the Laffey, then the Sterett, then the O’Bannon, then the Atlanta, and finally the San Francisco, where it rested just long enough to allow the Helena, with beautifully accurate gunfire, to put it out of action.
At that point, from Admiral Callaghan came the order, “Even numbered ships fire to port, odd numbered ships fire to starboard. Commence firing!” We were third in column, so we were an odd numbered ship. That meant that we had to abandon the solution for hitting that battleship, which turned out to be the Hiei, the Japanese Admiral’s flagship. (The other battleship was the Kirishima, and he had decided that he wasn’t going to get into the game. He never engaged us, and he withdrew.) We abandoned our solution on the Hiei, slewed the director to the right, and looked for a new target on the starboard side. Now Jack Shelton, the world’s best rangefinder operator, immediately acquired a new target with his fire-control radar, and we fired a four-gun salvo, loaded with star shells (which we had loaded with the intention of illuminating the target, but which we now fired to hit) and they struck the target (the cruiser Nagara) in the vicinity of his forward gun mounts. It appeared to me that the star shells disintegrated on contact, and the pyrotechnics with which they were packed burned for several minutes, during which we hit him with another five or six salvos (a total of about two dozen 5-inch shells).
Now the O’Bannon, came into our line of fire, and we had to check fire. By now the tactical situation had taken on the look of a barroom brawl, with the lights turned out and everyone swinging wildly at whatever target appeared. Both the Cushing and Laffey had been fatally hit and were burning fiercely. We had to maneuver to avoid collision with them. Now the Sterett was the lead ship of the formation, if indeed it could any longer be called a formation.
Right from the start of the action, it had been apparent that several enemy ships were shooting at our gun director, and since I had my head out above the hatch, I was very aware that we were receiving a lot of attention. I never saw such a concentration of tracers, and they all seemed to be heading right at our little house. I felt that if I reached out my hand I would quickly lose it, and at that point I decided that I would just ignore that concentration of incoming rounds.
At about that point, there was a blinding flash and a shower of shrapnel fragments rained down on us in the director. Fortunately, I was wearing a talker’s helmet which, you probably are aware, was padded with about four inches of Styrofoam. I could hear and feel them impact on the helmet, but I did not know that they were also hitting my kapok life jacket. It had a wide collar, probably five or six inches wide, and the next morning I realized how lucky I had been. I dug out more than twenty slugs about the size of a .22 caliber bullet. Any one of them could have been very troubling. I was certain that some of the director crew had been hit, and I asked them to report if they’d been wounded and how seriously. Three of them answered in the affirmative, but all claimed that their wounds were not serious. Actually, Byers (BM 2/c), the Director Trainer, seated right next to me on my left side, was hit in the neck, and I was most concerned about him, although when I reached my hand around behind his neck and felt no arterial bleeding, I felt that his wound was not too serious. The other two were Ensign “JD” Jeffrey, Assistant Gunnery Officer, who was adjacent to me on the right side, at a level about two feet lower than I. He was hit in the back, but was bleeding profusely enough to cause it to “squish” in his shoes, a fact that he announced with surprise, rather than with alarm or complaint. As it turned out, the Rangefinder Operator, Firecontrolman First Class Jack Shelton, was the most seriously injured of the three. He also had been hit in the back and had to be transferred to the Base Hospital when we reached Espiritu Santo two days later. I asked if any of the three needed immediate medical attention, and excused them to leave their General Quarters Station and go below to the Battle Dressing Station, which was in the wardroom. All refused the offer.
Just moments later, the battleship Hiei came into view, crossing from left to right ahead of us. Now she was less than three thousand yards away, and we opened fire at once with our 5-inch battery. All of those shots were directed at her bridge, and I could plainly see them exploding as they impacted. Again she was not able to take us under fire with her main battery, because we were too close. Her secondary battery of 5-inch, however, continued to spray a stream of tracers close to the gun director. Meanwhile, I could see several enemy sailors, with their clothing afire, dive overboard. I also noted two large underwater explosions in the vicinity of their engine spaces.
Now Captain Coward (some name for that skipper!) had to turn hard right and go to flank speed (25 knots) to avoid colliding with our foe. We had opened out about a thousand yards ahead of the battleship when we saw a lone Fubuki-class destroyer on our starboard bow. She was only 1,100 yards away, and clearly visible. I noted the two twin 5-inch mounts on the stern, and realized that she hadn’t seen us. Her guns were all trained fore and aft, and in a matter of seconds we had opened fire. Our first four-gun salvo hit squarely in her bridge, where they exploded with lots of fireworks. Four seconds later we fired a second salvo, this time hitting her squarely in those two twin mounts on her stern. When they detonated, the entire after section of the ship exploded, with smoke and fire shooting up hundreds of feet in the air. We had apparently hit her after magazine, and as we watched, the whole after section of the ship glowed red from the heat. This was a spectacular sight, and it was devastating. I must admit that as gratified as I was over our accurate gunfire, I could not erase from my mind what it must be like over there in that inferno and I actually felt sorry for those poor sailors. They were our enemy, but they were human beings. It appeared to us that she was fatally wounded, and as we turned and passed close aboard, her main deck was awash.
Now, as we started to withdraw from the battle area, our thoughts and actions focused on our own situation. I had been aware from the time we engaged the cruiser that we had been hit in the vicinity of gun #3. I could see a huge fire blazing up just below our colors, illuminating the Stars and Stripes so brilliantly that there could have been no doubt as to whose side we were on. I heard confusing snatches of conversation over my sound powered telephone, but I could not raise any response from gun #3. Meanwhile, with no targets in sight, I had sent our wounded director crewmen down to the battle dressing station to get their wounds dressed. They returned in just a few minutes, with the comment that they couldn’t ask the doctor for his attention to look after their minor injuries, because he was overwhelmed with wounded. We (like all destroyers) had only one doctor. It happened that he was my roommate. Lieutenant (jg) Dr Harry Nyce, was a veteran surgeon from Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia. He was confronted with a total of 46 severely wounded sailors, of whom 28 died in the first few minutes. Four were lost overboard, and that left him with 18 critically wounded. All of them required major surgery. He had no trained anesthetist (Lt jg Tom McWhorter performed that duty), but there were three leg amputations and many chest and abdominal wounds, all of which were devastating. Every one of the 18 critically wounded survived, and Harry Nyce deserved at least a Silver Star Medal. (I do not know to this day whether he ever received it. I am sure that Captain Coward recommended such an award, but in the rush of being promoted to the rank of captain and relieved of his command, there were no recommended citations to accompany the recommendations and it is likely that unless there was a proposed citation, no award was made. It took more than just the skipper’s recommendation to approve the award of medals.)
We found ourselves pretty much alone, although we could see burning ships on every side. There was no way to tell who or what they were, and we had not seen any of our own task group for at least a half hour. Now the skipper took stock of his situation. We had taken a total of 11 shell hits, three 14-inch from the battleship, which had struck the upper handling room of gun #3, and another eight 5-inch, which had impacted on and around the torpedo tubes and directly into the #3 gun mount. While these hits had demolished the #3 gun mount, killed all of the gun crew, and severely damaged the torpedo tubes, we soon got the fires under control, and a quick inspection determined that we had no hits below the waterline.
Following a tour of the damage caused by enemy gunfire, the captain assessed our situation and decided that it was time for us to get the hell out of there and head for a friendly anchorage. This was no small task, for our radar had been disabled, the gyro compass was out of commission, the steering engine was damaged, and in general it was a navigator’s nightmare. However, Lieutenant Frank Gould, the exec and navigator, did a superb job, using the fathometer and matching water depths on the chart. Combined with sonar ranging on the island of Guadalcanal, he was able to recommend safe courses to the skipper and by the first streaks of daylight, we were relieved to receive a message from the skipper of the Helena, who was the senior surviving officer, instructing us to join him with the other remaining ships of Task Group 67.4 somewhere east of Guadalcanal. Until we received that message, we had concluded that we might be the only US ship to have survived the battle.
As we steamed toward his position, which he had signaled to us, we were soon able to see the composition of the remaining force. There were only three destroyers, plus the San Francisco, Helena and Juneau. Cushing, Laffey, Barton, Monssen and Atlanta had all been lost. The Portland and Aaron Ward had both been so badly damaged that they had to be towed to the island of Tulagi, where they could be repaired enough to enable them to proceed under their own power to a shipyard, either in Pearl Harbor or the continental United States.
The Sterett took screening station on the port bow of the formation. I had relieved Tom McWhorter as the Officer of the Deck at 0345, so I was on the bridge when we joined up with the small group of what remained of Task Group 67.4. As we steamed past the port side of the cruiser San Francisco, now only about two hundred yards on our starboard beam, I surveyed her port side with my 7x50 binoculars. I counted 26 shell holes in her hull on that side. I have no idea how many there were on her starboard side. We soon learned that she had some 250 severely wounded men aboard. We were just beginning to comprehend the cost of stopping the “Tokyo Express.” Formation speed was 21 knots, and at about 1100, we were called to General Quarters because a single unidentified aircraft had been sighted. In just a few minutes it was determined that the plane was a B-17.
We secured from General Quarters, but I remained out on top of the gun director, where I could observe the cruisers, which were in column, with the Helena leading, followed by the San Francisco and then the Juneau. I was most interested in examining the Juneau with my binoculars, for I knew that she had been torpedoed during the night action, and I was puzzled as to how she could be maintaining a speed of 21 knots, with no visible signs of damage. I admired the way she looked, like an overgrown destroyer, with a bone in her teeth. A beautiful sight. I had just been watching one of her signalmen sending a semaphore message, and as I lowered my binoculars, the Juneau simply blew up! Disintegrated would be a better word. There was a loud boom, and then a huge cloud of smoke and flame, which shot skyward to at least a thousand feet. I watched whole 5-inch guns fly through the air, and other large debris, and people, for the force of the explosion could be felt aboard the Sterett. I watched to see what was left, but as the smoke gradually lifted from the surface of the sea, there was absolutely nothing left. I searched with my binoculars, and could see nothing. Not a head, not a life raft, or life ring, or anything. It was my impression that there were no survivors.
The Fletcher, on the starboard bow of the formation, turned back to perform rescue services, but the Helena’s skipper directed him to return to station, because the enemy sub which had fired that torpedo was still there and any ship attempting rescue would be an easy target for another fish. We continued on our way, unaware that we were leaving about a hundred men in the water. By the time they were rescued a week later, the number had dwindled to a pitiful ten. It was without doubt the most shocking sight of the entire war for me.
The remainder of the 13th of November, 1942 was almost too grim to talk about. In addition to the loss of the Juneau, which cast a gloom over us that lasted for days, it was filled with visiting the wounded, identifying the dead, helping with the preparation for burial at sea, cleaning up the mess of body parts and bits of human flesh which adorned bulkheads and doors, and finally the burial at sea ceremony itself, which was sad and deeply emotional, but conducted with great reverence and the highest respect, so that it was also inspirational in a way that nothing else could have been. All of us felt that we had lost treasured shipmates, and there is simply no remedy for that tragedy.
Lieutenant Hugh Sanders, our chief engineer, was deserving of the highest praise, for the way the engineers answered all bells, and despite being trapped below decks, unable to see what was happening, and knowing that we had sustained damage from shell hits, they remained calm and performed their duties as the proud professionals that they were. Lt (jg) Tom McWhorter, the Torpedo Officer, fired six “fish,” four at the battleship and two at the destroyer. All of them ran hot and true and scored bull’s-eyes on their targets, but because the torpedoes themselves were defective, none of them exploded. After the fighting had subsided, he went to the aid of Dr Nyce, and despite having had no training for such a task, took on the job of administering the anesthesia to each surgical patient.
Finally, since I was a small cog in the application of our gunfire, I will limit my comments on that aspect of our battle performance, by allowing that I think we upheld the honor of the Sterett’s reputation. I am convinced that the officers of the USS Sterett, by their actions, demonstrated the level of performance of duty that was evident among the entire officer community of the surface ships involved in the Guadalcanal Campaign, and on that note, I rest my case.
Thank you and God Bless America.