A big push by the Japs had been shaping up for several days, and promised to be an all-out effort. Our Intelligence had predicted that air attacks would be stepped up several days before the assault; this assumption had already been proven correct. This night was expected to see the first of a bitter siege of pre-landing Naval bombardments by the Japs.
Task Group 67.4, composed of the anti-aircraft cruisers Atlanta, and Juneau, the light cruiser Helena, the heavy cruisers San Francisco and Portland, and the destroyers Sterett, Laffey, Cushing, O’Bannon, Monssen, Barton, Fletcher and Aaron Ward went back to sea.
The night was deathly quiet except for the distant noise of sporadic gunfire on Guadalcanal; the sea was smooth, agitated only by a very slight breeze cool and moist from a light shower earlier in the evening; the night was dark with a low overcast, and the moon had set. This was the setting when we were suddenly brought to the alert by the warning of “Condition Red” over Guadalcanal. The time was 0028.
Occasionally we could see what appeared to be an aircraft flare in the direction of Guadalcanal; nothing more. We assumed that a night air attack was in progress, but we had gone through that so many times that it did not cause any excitement. The guns trained out, their crews on their feet and ready to fire on a second’s notice. The torpedo gang yawned, partly from the boredom of the possibility of having the guns shoot at planes again, and partly from two days without more than a catnap of sleep.
But at 0130 the entire picture was changed; our radio voice circuit from Admiral Callaghan’s flagship blared out with the report of surface ships in Iron Bottom Bay, range 14,500 yards. This was it! I had Herbie May relieve me of the Deck and I ran back to the Torp. Director. I ordered the torpedo tubes trained out and the primers for the impulse charges inserted. Within a minute the report came back from Jackson on the tubes, “Primers inserted, sir.”
Then we had nothing to do but wait. It is difficult to express the feeling in one’s mind and the terrific tension while waiting for a first, inevitable battle. Each man seems to be affected in much the same way: I found that my mind was unusually keen, racing; but I was disgusted to notice that my knees were shaking as I stood there in one place during that awful suspense. I was even more disgusted when I found out that concentrate as I would, I could not force my legs to keep still. Call it fear if you will, but I honestly do not think that it was. Bodily harm never crossed my mind. The tension of impending action and temporary inactivity was the most logical reason. Later, when things began to happen and there was not a second of free time, that phenomenon disappeared entirely.
And things soon began to happen—at breakneck speed.
“Bogies now at 8,000 yards.” The speaker boomed out.
“Another group of ships on the port bow; range 7,000 yards!”
That last report was startling. We were steaming in column, with the Sterett third from ahead, following the Cushing and Laffey. The cruisers and the other destroyers followed astern of us.
The first group of enemy ships had been reported on the starboard bow. The Task Force was headed directly between the two groups!
Then from the flagship, “There is a battleship in the group to port!” Our guns swung out and began tracking the left hand group.
It had all of the earmarks of a trap. The enemy had come down in force, battleships and God knows what all, and were deployed in two groups spread out in a column to the northwest of Lengo and Sealark Channels; disposed so that all guns would bear on us—and they had already, by accident, achieved the classical tactical advantage of “crossing our ‘T’.” But regardless of whether it was a trap or not, the Japanese force, however large, HAD TO BE ENGAGED AND BEATEN or Guadalcanal might be lost. Admiral Halsey had thrown all available ships into it against seemingly hopeless odds. We were all he had. Regardless of necessity, it must have been a terribly hard decision for him to make. Never before had a small cruiser task force fought a strong battleship and cruiser task force at short range!
“Ugh,” I said, as I looked out into the darkness through my binoculars. And in retrospect, I suppose that is as intelligent a remark as could be made under similar circumstances.
The range to the enemy was closing rapidly. Some last minute orders came from the Admiral:
“ODD NUMBERED SHIPS FIRE TO STARBOARD, EVEN NUMBER TO PORT!”
Our main battery director wheeled around to starboard and picked up a Jap cruiser, now dimly visible through binoculars at about 4,500 yards. I. ran over to the starboard side to train the torpedoes on them.
“GET THE BIG ONES FIRST. COMMENCE FIRING! COMMENCE FIRING! GIVE ’EM HELL, BOYS!”
These were practically the last orders ever given by “Uncle Dan” Callaghan. Our 5-inch battery began firing in precise salvo at the cruiser. While trying to get the torpedo director on the target, I followed our first salvo of red tracers out to the target; my first reaction was that “We are knocking the hell out of him!” Our shells were hitting squarely at 3,500 to 4,000 yard range.
At this time, a Jap searchlight went on and the Atlanta, close astern, was being hit heavily in the after superstructure. The searchlight was promptly shot out by one of our cruisers, but the Atlanta was in serious trouble.
I was trying every conceivable way to get the torpedo director on the target. I could see it plainly through ray glasses but Solloway could hot pick it up through the director optics. I pointed it out to him; then took a true bearing on it—he trained the director to that bearing but still could not pick it up. I did not want to fire the precious “fish” just on a bearing; I wanted him to see the target. I jumped up and took over the director optics myself. I couldn’t see any more than Solloway could—and we both had excellent eyesight.
In the meantime our main battery was whaling away at the cruiser without mercy. At this time, the O’Bannon came charging up our starboard side, threatening to get between us and our target, so we checked fire and started looking for other game. We had damaged the cruiser with 13 salvos and a large, red, V-shaped nick could be plainly seen on the forecastle where our shells hit. A large explosion was seen on this ship shortly after we ceased fire, and it is presumed to have received serious damage while under fire from one of our other ships.
Lt. Comdr. Gould, our Executive Officer, came leaping through the pilot house and yelled at me, “BATTLESHIP CLOSE ABOARD ON THE PORT SIDE, DEAD IN THE WATER!” That was enough for me. I gave up working on the cruiser and flew over to the port side, Solloway and Jensen at my heels. Quickly I set up my solution: Target angle 075; speed 6 knots. I couldn’t believe that a battleship could be dead in the water this early in action, even though the cruisers had been mauling him severely and had kindled a large fire aft. This provided Solloway with an excellent point of aim and he trained on it. A couple of more adjustments and I was ready. The range was just 2,000 or 2,500 yards. He looked as big as the Empire State Building with the pagodas of his superstructure rising, skyward. If the speed was correct, I couldn’t miss.
“PERMISSION TO LET THESE FISH GO,” I yelled to the Captain.
“YES. FIRE WHEN READY!” came the answer, “COMMENCE FIRING! COMMENCE FIRING!”
Then at regular Intervals came the muffled explosion and the hollow ring of the tubes as the fish leaped out of the tubes; and splashed into the water, on their destructive, one-way trip toward the enemy ship. When I saw them leave “hot and straight,” said to myself with a smile, “Well, old Jack won’t have to go over after them tonight!”
The 5-inch guns had opened fire and were beating a tattoo on the superstructure of the battleship. I could see the tracers leave, follow them all the way to the target and see them explode with a big red flash, carrying with it plainly visible chunks of the enemy bridge.
Sweating out the time it takes for a torpedo to travel 2,000 yards, we were rewarded, after the proper interval, with two huge explosions at the target’s waterline. They caused a big spray of water to leap high in the air, the spray a glowing rod—just like the lighted fountain in an amusement park. We had gotten a maximum number of hits in our first attempt; considering the spread we used by doctrine, two hits out of four was worth a 4.0.
Calhoun, through his high-powered director optics, saw some of the Japs over on the battleship jumping over the side—as if abandoning ship. It must have been pretty hot over there!
It was at about this time that we received our first hits from the enemy. Two shells hit our mast, bursting and scattering fragments all over the bridge and director platform. The shrouds were severed, voice radio, radar and identification lights knocked out but no casualties except superficial scratches. The range-finder operator in the director stopped a large piece of shrapnel with his steel helmet, but was uninjured. So far so good.
Starshells burst all around us, giving us an extremely uncomfortable feeling as they threw out their brilliant light in a tortuously slow descent; the shadow of their parachutes formed eerie patterns on the clouds as the stars swung around in the slight breeze.
The action had deteriorated into a general melee; all ships—friendly and enemy—were mixed up at close range. An old time barroom brawl of the first order, with ear-splitting bedlam on all sides. A searchlight went on from a Jap ship on the port side, illuminating an old Jap three-stack cruiser slightly on our port bow. It was steaming at right angles to us and going from starboard to port. I have never been quite so furious as I was when I saw that ship for an instant and realized that I had no torpedoes that would bear on him. The Captain asked me if I could give him one, but I had to tell him that I could not unless we changed course about 100°. By this time the cruiser had disappeared, I was standing on the forward part of the wing of the bridge with Captain Coward when a Jap searchlight came on illuminating a beautiful Jap destroyer crossing our bow from port to starboard, range 800 yards! 800 yards is so close at sea that you can hit the target with a spud.
The Captain, whose night vision was not as acute as mine, asked, “Is that one of ours?”
“NO SIR,” I answered, “IT’S A JAP. SEE THOSE WAVY STACKS ON HER?”
But before I could get that speech out of my mouth, I was half way back to the starboard torpedo director. A quick solution and then:
“COMMENCE FIRING! COMMENCE FIRING!
That order was getting to be commonplace on this hectic night. I did not trouble to ask the Captain’s permission to fire, because I already knew what he wanted and there was not a second to lose. So far the Jap still had his guns trained in—he hadn’t seen us. OK.
Again the hum of torpedoes leaving the tubes as Jensen turned the firing switches and in a methodical manner called out over the phones, “Fire ONE . . . Fire TWO.”
In the pause between the first and second torpedo, I saw our 5-inch tracers go out with a flash and a roar. By this time the Jap had swung around and was on a course almost parallel to our own. The salvo struck violently on his bridge, ripping it open from the pilot house to the waterline; the hole caused by our shells glowed red with internal fires, and the destroyer took a decided list to port. Cal had the range and the Jap was a dead duck. No use wasting any more fish on him. “CEASE FIRING!” I screamed at Jensen; and the third torpedo was not fired.
In contrast to the general bedlam of guns going off, a couple of seconds after our first 5-inch salvo hit there was a second of complete silence. Then a voice gleefully pealed out from somewhere up toward the director, with a volume that could be heard all over the ship:
“OH, YOU POOR SON OF A BITCH!”
That was the situation in a nutshell, and it could not have been more eloquently expressed!
Calhoun hit him with one more salvo. Then the torpedoes struck and literally lifted the unfortunate destroyer out of the water. The 5-inch guns ceased firing and we watched the Jap burn from stem to stern for a few minutes and then plunge to the bottom. When the first torpedo hit, that tin can would not have brought two bits from a pre-war scrap iron dealer. He buckled upward from amidships apparently with his whole bottom knocked out, and before ho settled from the first, the second fish hit. Fuel oil and everything burnable was apparently scattered all over him, and what was, a minute ago, a nice, efficient Fubuki-class destroyer, was now a pile of burning junk. It was perhaps the most terrifying and savage, but at the same time the happiest, scene that I have ever witnessed.
Our attack had been simultaneous to the second between the guns and torpedoes. The torpedoes were launched first and I ceased firing when I saw the 5-inch hit. Cal had only fired two quick salvos when he saw the torpedoes hit; then he ceased fir ing. It was all over in but an instant; two torpedoes and two 5-inch salvoes—that was all. The thing that made me shudder later was the thought: “what if he had seen jus first?” Without doubt, if the Japs were on the ball, they could have made just as short work out of the Sterett . . . and provided, of course, that they had seen us first!
As we passed the Japanese destroyer abeam to starboard, his range could not have been more than 600 yards. We got a good look at a positive kill . . . and without an iota of sympathy.
But our close proximity to the burning ship was not altogether to our advantage. The pyre lit up the entire scene of action for a couple of miles around. Ships, friendly and enemy, were all around us. Astern I saw the San Francisco; other forms wore sot off in silhouette by the red glare. The Sterett seemed in the center of the universe at that minute—standing out like a sore thumb—and a perfect target for any enemy ship.
While on the after part of the bridge looking at the burning destroyer and the San Francisco, we received our first solid hit. A heavy caliber salvo hit our #3 gun and below it in the ammunition handling room. As it struck, a ball of fire some 30 feet in diameter billowed from the top of the gun mount; then receded to a steady blaze punctuated by smaller explosions. On the first burst, I heard terrifying screams from the gun crew and saw two men, clothing ablaze, tumble backwards out of the gun mount to the deck below.
We could see other groups of tracers coming at us; even though the tracer is in the base of the projectile, the red glow from them looked as bright as sun to us as they arced over in a flat, short-range trajectory. Most of them passed over as we were bracing ourselves for them—but some more struck us with violence.
The only thing I could think of was “GET THAT DAMN FIRE OUT.” The blaze from the after part of the ship provided a perfect point of aim for the enemy.
Fortunately, our engine room had not been hit and we could still make speed. The Captain was ringing up the engine room telegraph for “ahead full” and then after a few minutes he would ring up “stop.” This was a smart bit of seamanship on his part, as the rapid change of speed confused the enemy fire control solution and some of the projectiles splashed harmlessly both ahead and astern of us, but the range was correct. Some straddled but did not hit.
The Japanese must have checked us off as destroyed because after a while they stopped shooting at us.
In what seemed to be an eternity, but was actually a matter of minutes, our fires were under control and we were once again invisible to the enemy. That was the most beautiful darkness I have ever seen—when I could no longer see a bright red flame in the after part of the ship. The Sterett steamed off into the night and pulled the blackness in behind her. We were safe—temporarily, at least.
To go back a few minutes. During the time that we were getting hit the worst, communications were Iost between the bridge and the torpedo tubes. Try as he would, Jena en could get no reply. Learning this, I told the Captain that I was going to go down to the tubes and see what conditions were and if we could fire the two remaining torpedoes. He gave his consent.
When I got down to the tubes—on the main deck amidships—the first thing I noticed was complete lack of activity. There was a pungent stench about the area; my feet slipped on the deck and I almost lost my footing. As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I could make out two or three bodies on the deck—prone and silent. Then I realized that the entire deck was slippery with human blood and pieces of human flesh.
But no time for that now. The tubes were not manned. I got up on the starboard tube, the one with the two remaining torpedoes, and trained it out. It trained out a few degrees then grated to a stop; it was damaged and useless. Then I returned to the bridge and reported to the Captain that the remaining torpedoes could not be fired. In addition to this, both of the after guns were disabled—leaving only the two forward guns as our total offensive armament and protection.
I heard the Captain say, “We will fight her until we sink!” This Captain of ours was a fighter, and no mistake about it, as long as we could contribute any appreciable amount of firepower to the melee, in which every gun counted, we would fight. Actually it amounted to just that: the odds were so heavy against us that one torpedo or one gun was of unprecedented importance. Destroyers had to fight as hard as cruisers and cruisers had to fight with the ferocity of battleships. Through the engagement, we could see that the other ships were doing their part, in super human effort. The 15 big guns of the Helena were shooting like machine guns; here and there other unidentified ships were blazing away like mad. Early in the engagement, we saw the Cushing get it before she had much of a chance. She was leading the column, was hit heavily, and pulled out of column clear of the ships coming up astern. Illuminated far an instant, I saw her low in the water with a pall of black smoke belching out of her entire amidships section. The Atlanta I have already mentioned.
The Sterett had done more than can possibly be expected from, a destroyer. We had broken all precedent by engaging a battle ship and a cruiser with gunfire at very short range; confronted, for a change, with something our own size, we had sunk a destroyer with the greatest of ease, but in the course of our battle, we were seriously damaged ourselves.
Soon after the Captain received my report that our offensive power was reduced to only two guns, he realized that his little ship had shot her load and that the only reasonable thing to do was retire and save our ship, now practically defenseless. The Japs had broken off the engagement anyway and the last action of the battle was our sinking the destroyer and our own subsequent damage. The ship swung around to course due south and we began groping for Lengo Channel.
A summary of the Sterett’s battle was this:
0148 — Commence firing. (13 salvoes at cruiser. Cruiser damaged.)
0151 — Received two hits on mast. (Estimated 5-inch.)
0205 — Engaged battleship Hiei. (Two torpedo hits; 8 salvoes of 5-inch. Battleship heavily damaged.) Received one or two 4-inch or 5-inch hits aft. Small damage.
0220 — Sank Fubuki-class destroyer. (2 torpedoes; 2 salvoes of 5-inch.)
0227 — Received numerous hits aft and amidships. (Three 14-inch; several 5-inch.)
0235 (about) — Commence retirement.
We had received a total of 11 hits and had survived; something of a record for a destroyer. Luck was with us in many ways; three of the hits had come from a turret of a battleship, but it is authoritatively believed that the Japs, in their excitement, were firing the bombardment ammunition they had planned to use against our positions on the beach—before we broke up their plans. Hence, we received less damage than would have been expected from service ammunition. The remainder of the damage was from 5-inch hits. (continued)