At dusk on the day we arrived, September 14th, the Sterett saw her first action against the Japanese. Plying in low over Guadalcanal came several dive bombers, Zeros and Zero float planes. The fighters, in addition to protecting the dive bombers were carry ing out strafing missions. Ray Calhoun up in the 5-inch gun director got a Zero floatplane in his sights, range 8,000 yards, and opened fire. Just after we opened fire we saw our first enemy plane crash. High in the air and on our port bow a red spark developed, and turned into a long trail of red flame and the Jap spiraled down into the water. It was a beautiful sight. Soon after that, our target imitated his unfortunate comrade and added his wreckage to the Savo Sound, This plane was quite low and did not leave such a lingering and spectacular trail in the sky, but since it was the Sterett’s target, it was even more beautiful than the first. The Sterett had drawn her first blood! The next day we painted our first Jap flag on the bridge.
The night after the attack, we anchored in Tulagi Harbor. The “Tokyo Express” had by this time become a very real thing. Usually composed of one or two cruisers and about four destroyers, this force would enter Savo Sound sometime during the night, make a sweep around for our light forces, then bombard Henderson Field and leave at a speed that would get them away from our planes by daylight. The Japs had good aerial reconnaissance and would not strike when some of our heavy surface units were in the area. A few days before this instance, the old 4-stack destroyers Gregory and Little had gone out to oppose thorn and were sunk in a matter of minutes. However, on our first night in Tulagi, the Tokyo Express failed to show up. On the next day, the cargo ships finished unloading and we retired down the “Slot” and on back to Espiritu Santo.
When we returned to Santo we received a shock that struck us deep. During our brief absence from Task Force 18, the Wasp had been struck by four torpedoes from a Japanese submarine, had burned furiously for a few hours and was sunk in her patrol area to south of the Solomon Islands. We were sick. It seemed ironical that she should have been lost so soon after we left her—and lost to a Japanese submarine at that.
A few days after the Ioss of the Wasp, Vice-Admiral Halsey relieved Vice-Admiral Ghormley as ComSoPac. Our first notice of this change of command came in a curt message addressed to all ships in the South Pacific Area: “STRIKE. REPEAT STRIKE X HALSEY SENDS!” “Bull” Halsey had taken command and all of the South Pacific knew it. The Japs were in for a good kick in the teeth from the new ComSoPac!
Messages from the Commanding General of the First Marines (General Vandergrift) were received daily reporting operations, but mainly reporting the status of his troops and equipment. It was a little pathetic to read those messages day after day pleading for more planes, more gasoline, and more troops. He would report the results of the previous night’s bombardment by the cruisers and destroyers of the Tokyo Express listing the number of serviceable planes on Guadalcanal; sometimes it would be pitifully few—18 or 20. Some of the planes were old P-40s and P-39s, which were of small value. A flight of a dozen or so planes would arrive and some would be promptly destroyed by bombardment. Gasoline was critical at times, especially in the middle of October and was being flown up by DC-3 transport planes. Some old four-pipe destroyers wore used to carry gasoline. The rate of attrition was high among the few Marine aviators who were carrying the burden in spite of the fact that they were exacting five or six Jap planes for each of our losses and 50% of our pilots were being saved to fight again. General Vandergrift begged for “one more division in order that offensive action may be initiated.” He stated that excellent though his First Marine Division was, the troops were constantly fatigued by strenuous operations, during the day and bombardment by night. The last remark made us grit our teeth because the Navy was not yet in position to stop the Tokyo Express.
We had by this time lost the Hornet and we had exactly two operative carriers in the Pacific Fleet. The cruisers and destroyers that were carrying the weight of the war in the South Pacific were pitifully few also. The Enterprise and the Saratoga were all that remained of our carrier force; it was hard to keep even one of them on the line at a time. While the Enterprise was being repaired from bomb hits, the Saratoga was operating; by the time the Enterprise was back in operation the “Sara” had caught a torpedo and had to go back to be patched up. Then the same sequence repeated itself. The Sara got the nickname of the “Reluctant Dragon” because her damage was always from torpedoes while the Enterprise always got hers from mixing it up with the enemy air forces and carriers.
During all of this time, the Sterett was getting not a moment’s rest; it had come to be a very personal war for us; it seemed that we wore practically carrying the load ourselves and we were glad of the opportunity. But all were not Americans in the South Pacific during those dark days, unfortunately. We got down to Nouméa about two weeks after the crew of a merchant ship refused to carry some vitally needed supplies to Guadalcanal unless they were given a $1,000 bonus for the job. The ship was unloaded into a Navy cargo ship requiring an unnecessary delay of 4 or 5 days. Our Navy sailors were more than happy to take this load up there, knowing how much it was needed—and at $50 a month, too. Money had no meaning in the South Pacific except to our “dollar patriots” in the Merchant Marine. This story was repeatedly denied by the National Maritime Union, but the facts are there for all ages to look upon with disapproval.
The “Guadalcanal Shuttle” was in full operation. Every trip to the Solomons brought about a quick turn-around for us, and we were back again; escorting cargo ships one time and assault transports with reinforcements the next. During our time of working under ComSoPac, the Sterett escorted every group of reinforcements the Marines received. It seemed that after every successful trip to Guadalcanal, Tokyo Radio would blare out a friendly, patronizing broadcast to our Marines saying: “Marines on Guadalcanal, you are doomed if you insist on waging this losing fight in the Solomons. You are now cut off from all supplies and reinforcements by the big guns of the Imperial Japanese Navy. You will get no more food and you will starve. Lay down your arms; think of your loved ones back home!” It was always good for a laugh to listen to Radio Tokyo; they understood our fighting men less than we understood theirs. “Tokyo Rose” ran the most popular radio show in the Pacific at that time. She would open by saying in her cheery voice, “Hello, you Honorable boneheads in the Solomons. This is your favorite enemy, Ann.” Then she would play some good old American records intended to make us homesick and quit. It was a good morale builder.
In our numerous trips “up the Slot,” we found the Japanese tactics to be following a set, unalterable pattern. Air attacks on Henderson Field were regularly at 1145 and 1500 by high altitude bombers, then at dusk by dive-bombers and Zeros. The high altitude bombers were beautiful planes, trim and silvery as they came in from the northwest in perfect formation, dropped their bombs and veered south over Guadalcanal, then back toward Buka and Rabaul from whence they came.
We would shoot at them but they were too high and wide for accurate anti-aircraft. The Japs never learned. Every time they pulled a high-level raid—always on schedule—they would come in at 25,000 foot. The Marines would be waiting for them with their F4F “Wildcats” at 30,000 feet, dive down on them through their fighter cover, if there, and send a large percentage of them to join their ancestors, Japanese losses were high but they kept coming.
We had our set routine also, dictated by necessity. On our runs to Guadalcanal our task groups would be timed to enter Lengo Channel at about 0500 and arrive off Lunga Point at daylight. We were always at general quarters during these approaches, and most of the time in the area, incidentally. It was rather pleas ant up on the bridge when steaming through Lengo Channel though. The channel is about 3,000 yards from the beach, the morning air before dawn was cool and refreshing and carried a heavy fragrance from the wild honeysuckle and vegetation on the beach. Once at the anchorage the transports and cargo ships would make greatest haste in unloading while we patrolled and searched for the Jap submarine that was3 usually in the area. The ships got under way during air attacks, with the attendant loss of time; then back to the anchorage to unload until the next raid. At dusk, the ships retired out Lengo Channel and on to the south of San Cristobal Island to return at dawn. As soon as we left, the Tokyo Express moved in. Often they were so close on our heels that we could see their gun flashes as they bombarded the Marines and the airfield. It was a strange setup. The Japs had control at night and we had it in the daytime. It was a bitter pill to run out and submit to letting the Japs bombard with impunity. Our PT boats were on the job in the absence of any other of our surface forces and they would damage a Jap destroyer every once; in a while—even sank a couple of them.
The Guadalcanal-Tulagi area had acquired several unofficial names by this time: “Sleepless Hollow,” “Torpedo Junction” and “Iron Bottom Bay” being the favorites. The latter is now the official name for the former Savo Sound and it appears on all charts as such. “Iron Bottom Bay” has a meaning behind it to all who fought there.
The Japanese controlled the jungles just a few hundred yards to westward from our beach at Lunga Point; they had several land ing boats pulled up on the beach there—all very cozy. A piece of Jap artillery, “Pistol Pete,” opened up on the airfield at dusk every night. We could see his flashes and a couple of times we gave him a bad time with counter-battery fire from the Sterett’s 5-inch guns. We steamed back and forth in the semi-darkness dodging other ships bent on the same purpose and blinded every few seconds by the red glare of our main battery as they gave their rude kicks in the general direction of the Emperor’s posterior. Periodically a star shell would light up the beach and then drop slowly into the jungles giving a silhouette of palm trees in the descent. It presented an eerie picture. After the star had struck the ground, a flicker could be seen for a few seconds as the flame died. Sometimes a small fire would start, giving our guns a point of aim; then more of our red tracers describing their arcs in the darkness, the arcs terminating in an explosion as the projectiles struck.
Events moved in rapid succession in the month of October. The Guadalcanal campaign was already two months old; the Japs were gradually getting their forces together for a supreme effort to recover the important island and we were reinforcing our troops in an equally determined manner. To be beaten in our first offensive would have been unthinkable.
In the meantime, news in other parts of the world had our interest, however, secondary. The Battle of Stalingrad had been grinding along for much the same length of time that had our own. Naturally, it was heartening to know Hitler had been stopped. The national policy was by this time apparent that we were to defeat Germany first, giving the Pacific secondary consideration; it was the primary duty of the Navy and Marine Corps, almost unassisted, to make what progress we could with what little we had. I stress the word “little” because in those days to see a Task Force of as many as four cruisers and a squadron of destroyers, or an air strike going out with as many as 15 B-17s was an event worthy of special comment and significance. To occasionally see a single battleship in Segond Channel at Espiritu Santo would always give us the feeling of great power; the feeling that with the South Dakota and a few destroyers we could like the whole Jap Navy. Practical thinking was disillusioning.
And so the campaign went on in to October. The first operation that I recall for that month was another task force and another group of reinforcements for the Marines on Guadalcanal. The Japs had been active in their sneaking way and the night before we arrived had landed several hundred troops at Koli Point to the eastward of our positions, in an obvious attempt to attack our forces from both sides, outflank and surround them. This situation called for some very special treatment, and the Task Force Commander called upon the San Francisco, Helena and Sterett to do the job. We were provided with a spotting plane by the San Francisco, formed in column astern of the cruisers and got on with the assignment.
In a bombardment of terrain such as these islands afforded, unless the beach line Itself is bombarded, it is impossible to see just where your salvos land and what they hit; the only thing to be seen from the ship is the black smoke from the burst and the rising dust. The air spot served as our “eyes” and gave us a running account of what we were doing in a commentary something like this:
“Up 50; right 02.”
“Right on that time. No change!”
“Nice work . . . now shift over to that village.” It is full of Japs!”
“NO CHANGE, NO CHANGE—POUR ’EM IN THERE!”
And the above was what we heard that day. Calhoun was beaming when he came down from the director. The Japs had been caught in a very unfavorable position; they had just landed a few hours before, had not had time either to dig in properly or to move on inland, as was their intention. Moreover, there is nothing quite so demoralizing than to be on the receiving end of a naval bombardment. Reports coming from General Vandergrift about two weeks later, after the Marines had pushed on over and taken Koli Point, stated that 250 to 300 dead Japs wore found on Koli—presumably the combined effect of our bombardment and action by the ground troops. It is a pleasant feeling to know that your ship has killed a few Japanese.
On the night of 11–12 October, Rear Admiral Scott and his newly formed Task Force 64 steamed out to meet the Tokyo Express. Though not in it ourselves, it was a vitally interesting operation. Messages flow thick and fast from Admiral Halsey to CTF 64 giving him the latest reports on a group of Japanese that were on their way down the Slot with the Intent of giving the Marines a bad night. Australian “coastwatchers” stationed in the Jap-held northern end of the Solomon chain had a smooth working communication system and, combined with our patrol planes, provided the tip-off on practically every movement of the Japanese, both on the sea and in the air.
The two forces were evenly matched—each with 4–5 cruisers and a group of destroyers; our group was headed by the Helena, San Francisco, Boise, and Salt Lake City.
Complete surprise was effected in this first large scale night action since the First Battle of Savo—but this time it was a complete reversal of the situation in that battle. The Japs were the ones that were taking it on the chin. When the first Jap heavy cruiser was located, a bridge of red tracers poured in to the Jap task force from every ship in TF 64. Destroyer torpedoes polished off the burning cruisers. When the shooting had stopped, four Jap cruisers were on the bottom along with a few destroyers. The cost of us was the loss of the destroyer Duncan, and the damaging of the Boise and Salt Lake City. Iron Bottom Bay had received some more Jap ships to lay alongside our cruisers lost on the First Savo. It was gratifying to realize that we had won a resounding victory and had at last struck back at the Tokyo Express. The Japs had seen nothing yet.
Things took a turn for the worst later in October. The Japs came down in force and despite the fact that we sank some of their transports (four of them) off Guadalcanal, they still succeeded in putting ashore an estimated 10,000 troops. This was the blackest period in the whole campaign and although we had the utmost confidence in our ability to hold the island, there was the possibility that we might not.
More bombardments by the Japs on our positions around Henderson Field; more pleading messages from General Vandergrift. The few serviceable planes remaining had no gasoline, so gasoline was flown up in DC-3s . . . just a large enough trickle to keep our fighters in the air with none to spare. (continued)