Thus it was that on the morning of November 10th, when Task Force 64 heaved up anchors and stood out of Espiritu Santo harbor. Our mission was to provide surface coverage for a large group of transports and cargo ships going up to reinforce Guadalcanal. The combined force had the designation of Task Force 67.
The reinforcements were delivered on the following morning, November 11th. Unloading during the day was rapid and relatively uninterrupted by air alerts. In the afternoon the Portland flew her planes back to Espiritu Santo so as to have her decks clear for any eventuality; at dusk the transports and escorts retired to the South and the combatant ships, now redesignated as Task Group 67.4, took up our patrol in Indispensable Straits. At about midnight, we turned back into Iron Bottom Bay for an offensive sweep. We covered the area thoroughly with negative results—this was one night that the Japs did not choose to bombard. But for the surface forces, as usual, it was just another sleepless night in “Sleepless Hollow.”
The transports group and Rear Admiral Turner returned at dawn and the unloading operation was resumed.
The day was uneventful until around 1600, when the warning net frequency announced “Condition Red,” whereupon we immediately went to general quarters and stood by for an air attack. Dive-bombers, torpedo planes and fighters were reported on their way down from the northwest. It was an interesting report, too, because if it was correct, the target would be the ships instead of the airstrip as was customary. Our fighters climbed up to an altitude which would permit them to handle the divebombers; however, the divebombers did not materialize and they mixed it up with a medium-altitude flight of Zeros.
We did not have long to wait for our promised air action. Soon a long line of black specks came into view over the eastern end of Florida Island, flying very low. As they came in closer, they were identified as twin-engined medium bombers of a type called “Bettys”—for simplicity. A versatile plane, these were carrying torpedoes. The Sterett was on the exposed side of the formation where we could get an open shot at them. The whole formation held fire waiting for them to get within range. Then as if by signal, every 5-inch gun in the task group that would bear opened fire and a multitude of black bursts began to appear all around the attacking planes.
Once committed to their attack, the Japs neither hesitated nor wavered but came straight in, using no evasive maneuvers.
A straight run. The first planes came on in fairly close to the formation before we got our first kill. It was a direct hit on the fuselage, knocking off the entire tail aft of the big red ball of the Japanese insignia. The plane nosed over and crashed into the water, exploding and burning as it hit. Then planes started dropping everywhere, always with a gasoline explosion and a lingering column of smoke and flicker of flame on the water to mark where another Jap mot his end. Another direct hit from our 5-inch sent a second “Betty” crashing in. Two of the big flying boxcars (or so they appeared to us) passed close astern with our 20mm tracers hitting them squarely in the cockpit; both carried on for a few hundred yards then spun in. The raid was over in what seemed a matter of two or three minutes, leaving the wreckage of nine planes in the water; gasoline still burned on the water at various places, a wing here, there the huge wheels of landing gear wore stuck grotesquely out of the smooth surface of the bay. We passed close aboard a Jap pilot in the water, apparently in no mood to die for the Emperor, who was waving his arms wildly at us as we steamed past, trying to attract attention and be picked up. One of the destroyers astern of us was directed to act on these curt orders:
“Pick him if he wants to be picked up; if he resists, shoot him and to hell with him,” This had long been our policy. Frequently before, as our ships came alongside downed enemy aviators to rescue them, they would pull out a pistol and fire at us. That leaves no recourse but to fire back, a pleasant enough job for any machine gunner.
When the planes were first sighted, two friendly fighters, an Aircobra and a Wildcat, were on their tails making repeated passes on them. These fighters would not give up and followed the “Bettys” on in through our anti-aircraft fire. The Aircobra was unavoidably shot clown but the Marine pilot was picked up by one of our destroyers, uninjured. The Wildcat pulled out and escaped damage. It was piloted by Joe Foss, one of the war’s first aces. These planes had been up at 30,000 feet waiting for dive-bombers when they sighted the torpedo planes coming in. They dived down all the way and reached the bombers in time to make a kill or two before they reached the formation.
The only damage caused by this expensive, but futile, attack by the enemy came when one of the planes, already burning and doomed, crashed into the after superstructure of the San Francisco starting fires and killing some 35 men. The few torpedoes that the enemy managed to drop passed harmless through the formation. During this action I had a grandstand seat on the bridge and nothing to do but watch. The planes that we fired at we hit; that I know.
Of course there were several ships sometimes firing at the same plane and it is impossible to say just which shot got him. The fact remains that no one ship repulsed the attack but it was 100% repulsed.
Of the 23 Jap planes participating, only one is believed to have escaped—our fighters and ship’s gunfire accounted for the rest.
There was a natural elation throughout the ship over the outcome of the air action—everybody congratulated everybody else and all talking at once.
I went back to cheek over a few details on the torpedo battery with Chief Jackson and gabbed with him for a while. He talked to me about the possibility of rating Shrieves, Hawkins and Rhodes second class torpedomen on the first of the next month. I agreed that I thought they were ready for the rate. The discussion was ended with a remark that I hoped we would get a chance to get rid of our torpedoes into the side of a couple of Jap cruisers. He replied that of course he would like to destroy some enemy surface ships himself. “But,” he added, “There are two sides in a fight. I have seen kids die by the thousands in winning. I have seen the Marne red from the blood of floating bodies. It isn’t at all a nice thing to see, but if we do fire our fish and they don’t run hot and straight, I’ll go over the side after them!”
I thought that over as I walked back to my battle station on the bridge; it was almost dark and time to go to general quarters for the night. It wasn’t at all like Jackson to be morose. He had expressed the usual American desire to kill Japs, but at the same time, he seemed a little apprehensive, almost reluctant, as if in anticipation of damage and death. He knew war; it is not all give, but receive as well. I shrugged it off and went on up to the bridge, in too good a mood to be pensive. (continued)