Maury (DD 401).
On the 20th of November Maury was officially detached from Task Force 16 and assigned to Task Force 67, a new surface striking force being assembled at Espiritu to take the place of the ill-fated Task Force 64, which had been decimated on the night of the 12th. The heavy cruisers Northampton, Pensacola, Minneapolis and New Orleans plus the equally large “light” cruiser Honolulu, with her five triple turrets of 6-inch/47s, formed the backbone of the force. Destroyers were assembled from wherever they could be found.
More about Maury during the
Dark Days of Guadalcanal . . .

By the end of the week, Jap forces were spotted leaving Rabaul and heading south. Task Force 67 was put on “Alert” to intercept. RAdm. C. H. Wright, who had taken command of the task force only the day before, called a conference of his commanders in his flagship Northampton to outline his tactical plans and to elicit comments and suggestions from his skippers. He was concerned about the tactics of the previous engagements and particularly about closing to “point-blank” range instead of capitalizing on our long range, radar assisted, gunnery. He was also very firm in his instructions on the use of the TBS. The Japs might not be able to hear it, but it was useless if it was clogged up with too many reports and questions.

At the time of the conference only the destroyers Fletcher, Perkins, Maury, and Drayton had been assigned to the Force, so Commander “Bill” Cole, skipper of Fletcher, was given command of the destroyers. Wright made it clear that he expected to release the destroyers to operate independently once the action had started.

Captain Sims returned from the conference very much encouraged. He called all officers to the wardroom to relay the information and instructions he’d received. He also expressed great confidence in Adm. Wright. With the losses destroyers had taken in the preceding night actions, we needed all the encouragement we could get. Late that evening the expected orders arrived and Task Force 67 slipped silently to sea in the black of the night. A Japanese force had been sighted coming down the Slot. We were heading north at 28 knots to intercept it.

At the end of a long day of preparation and last minute instructions we entered Lengo Channel on a course almost due West and skirted the north coast of Guadalcanal. Speed was reduced to time our arrival off Lunga Point at about 2230; the Japanese force was plotted to arrive about midnight. Lamson and Lardner, part of the escort of a group of transports being cleared to the east to avoid the battle, were ordered to join our force and caught up while we were in the channel. There was no time to give them any instructions, so they were just told to fall in astern the cruisers.

After clearing Lengo Channel, Adm. Wright turned the Column to the northwest to get sea room for the expected fight. He posted Cole with his four destroyers 5,000 yds. to the northwest of flagship Minneapolis as Destroyers Van, and when sufficiently clear of land, he turned all ships simultaneously to a westerly course to sweep Iron Bottom Sound in a quarter-echelon formation.

It was a lovely starlit night and we had been able to smell the jungle flowers as we passed close to the Guadalcanal shore. Only the hum of the Forced Draft Blowers and the gurgle of the wake broke the silence as all hands strained their eyes to extract the enemy from the blackness. We trained the Director back and forth hoping to pick up a pip on the FD radar. Gun Control was connected to the operators of the SC radar by phone and they kept asking us to check suspicious contacts with the Director optics—the SC was mainly an air-search radar, with a very broad main beam and strong “side lobes” which gave strong target indications even when the beam was well to the right or left of direction the antenna was pointing . With land in almost every direction, it was nearly impossible to distinguish a ship from the overlapping reflections from land. We hoped the ships equipped with SG radars, particularly our leader Fletcher, would keep us informed.

About 2300 Minneapolis reported a contact on bearing 284° T., 23,000 yds., near Cape Esperance. Adm. Wright ordered “TURN FOUR FIVE” to bring his Cruisers back into Column, then “FOUR FIVE CORPEN” to turn the column parallel the coast of Guadalcanal. This put Destroyers Van about 5,000 yds ahead and slightly to port of the cruiser column. Even at this distance we could still see the phosphorescent glow of the bow waves of the cruisers. Cole had informed his ships that he intended to fire torpedoes from about 7,000 yds. at the Intermediate torpedo speed setting of 36 knots. Wright’s Operation Plan allowed any ship to engage the enemy when the when the range reduced to 6,000 yds or less. Cruisers were not to open with guns until the Van Destroyers had fired their fish. Speed was held at a steady 20 knots to give time the develop target tracks.

We scanned the Director back and forth across the bearing reported by Minneapolios. Fletcher reported contact. We trained left to check that bearing. On the second swing Plamondon on the FD scope thought he saw something. He coached Serwitz to train to maximize the “echo” and started Tracking. Range 10,000 yds! Solution: Target Bearing 240, Range 9,200, Course 120, Speed 12! “Request permission to open fire.” “Permission Not Granted!”

We sped westward though the night closing the range. “FLARE BEARING THREE ZERO ZERO!” shouted a Lookout. “FLARE BEARING TWO SEVEN ZERO! STARSHELLS TO PORT!” shouted another. The sky on our port bow exploded with light. The falling flares blinded our night-adjusted eyes. The pale shimmer of light on the water showed nothing.

A small black shadow appeared on our bearing. “SMALL MERCHANTMAN”, shouted Canaday from the Rangefinder. “TARGET SIGHTED, REQUEST PERMISSION TO OPEN FIRE!” “GRANTED.” “COMMENCE FIRING!” Our first Salvo crashed out and there was a blinding flash from Plamondon’s radar console. “Christ! She’s shorted out!” Blue acrid smoke confirmed it.

Each five seconds another Salvo crashed out. I ordered a “Rocking Ladder” and continued to fire on the generated “Solution.” Canaday reported many splashes near the target, but couldn’t tell which were ours. In a moment the target faded into smoke or haze. Without radar contact and having lost visual contact, I ordered “CHECK FIRE!” The sky was alive with starshells and flares. The cruisers astern poured out their salvoes with huge flashes, which lighted the sea. We were blinded by our own illumination!

“TORPEDOES TO PORT!” shouted Sahlin from the Left side of the Director. I could feel the eyes of the Director crew turning to me— Sahlin and I were the only ones who could see the water alongside. I could see nothing. Sahlin was climbing out of the director. A new star shell burst and shimmered across the water. There were streaks on the water! But they were old wakes, the bubbles had already reached the surface. As we slashed through them I guessed what they were. “They’re outgoing fish from the ships ahead!” I stated with as much firmness as I could muster. “Resume your Search. Two Four Zero to Three Zero Zero Relative!” No Explosion! I’d guessed right!

The Director resumed its slow movement back and forth. Across the top of the director I could see Sahlin, still half out of his hatch. I ordered him to get back in the director, but he froze where he was.

A few shell splashes rose a thousand yards short. No worry there, the Japs didn’t have our range. We followed in the wake of the ships ahead as Fletcher turned right towards Savo and increased speed. Continuous arcs of tracers rose from the cruisers astern and plunged into the darkness where we had been firing. Fletcher had fired a salvo of fish and the other ships had gotten a couple of torpedoes off, but Captain Sims had held ours for a target we could see.

A volcano erupted astern! A column of fire rose vertically from the water a thousand feet into the sky. A moment later another column of fire rose beside it. Our cruisers were blowing up! We couldn’t make out any details, but something terrible was happening. Cole increased speed to 35 knots as we swung around Savo Island and its shadow masked the burning debris from the first two explosions, a renewed “bridge” of red tracers reached from behind the island toward Cape Esperance—Honolulu’s fifteen 6-inch guns, no doubt. At least she was still alive! Then the sky lighted up with the greatest explosion of all. It was behind Savo Island from us, but the sea all around was bathed in the glare. Something big had happened, but it was on the other side of Savo.

As we came around the north side of the island and headed back to join the fray, Cole divided us into two sections, and turned south towards Guadalcanal. We were in the traditional Search and Attack formation; Fletcher and Perkins to the East, Maury and Drayton 3,000 yds. to the West. We probed southward at a cautious 15 knots searching for the enemy and trying to get our bearings. There were several fires on the water in the direction of Cape Esperance, but we couldn’t identify any of them. We were still north of the battle area when, suddenly over the TBS came orders: “DESTROYERS VAN JOIN HONOLULU.” So at least we still had one cruiser, but where? Cole reversed our sweep to take us north of Savo, but finding no cruiser there, he took us back towards the battle area to make sure there were no Jap ships left there. We still had about 10,000 yds to go to reach the original position of the Jap Force when Adm. Tisdale in Honolulu, who had taken over from Adm. Wright, ordered “SMALL BOYS STAND BY DAMAGED BIG BOYS.” Maury and Perkins were ordered to stand by New Orleans, “TEN MILES EAST OF SAVO.” It was a strange order, considering our formation, and from an unseen commander.

Cole ordered a 90 degree “Search Turn” to the Left, which put his section to the south, Maury’s to the north. The four ships swept east at 35 knots towards several burning ships, unable to tell friend from foe. As we approached the closest, we prepared a full torpedo salvo. The contact might be enemy.

At about 5,000 yds. we sighted the ship its self, but could not make her out. The half to the right seemed like a cruiser, but the half to the left looked more like a merchantman. The Captain ordered the signalmen to challenge the stranger. The “correct” reply would be the display of “Fighting Lights”, Green-White-Green, from the permanent lights installed on the mast or from flares shot from hand-held Very pistols. Burns with a Blinker Gun flashed the challenge—nothing for over a minute. Then a hesitant series of White-Green-White Very stars. Hardly had they fallen to the water when streams of White and Green Stars rose from various parts of the ship as crewmen tried correct the first reply. Captain Sims ordered “Hold Fire.” Though erroneous, the reply was probably the work of desperate hands fumbling in the dark.

We continued to close with all weapons at the ready until we could finally identify the ship with certainty. It was New Orleans—her bow blown off back to Turret two! She said she was in no immediate danger of sinking, and could still make headway, so Cole ordered us on to the next burning ship.

We dashed on through the dark, two sections abeam, still separated by 3,000 yds. There was no way to know what was out there in the black. Our SC was land-locked and our FD out of action. We strained our eyes to pierce the gloom. We could see red flames, masked by heavy smoke. Occasionally they would flare up orange and yellow. With guns and torpedoes ready, we flashed the challenge. The smoldering ship replied correctly and we soon identified her as Pensacola, my dad’s old ship. We slowed and came close alongside. She was down by the stern and listing to port, her deck almost awash amidships. Intermittently flames still licked up her mainmast, but the men on deck were getting the fire under control. She was a wreck topsides and the sea stank of oil, but she was still making a few knots headway.

Cole told Maury and Perkins to take care of Pensacola while Fletcher and Drayton sped on in search of Honolulu. They spotted her in a few minutes and joined her to sweep back toward the battle area. They’d hardly gotten started when they came upon the wrecked and burning Northampton. The destroyers were told off to stand by the sinking ship while Honolulu dashed off at top speed to sweep west between Cape Esperance and Savo alone. Both ships soon had their hands full rescuing survivors. Northampton had been hit mortally by two torpedoes and couldn’t be saved. She was abandoned and sank in a short time. In the following hours Fletcher and Drayton rescued over 700 men from the water. Less than 60 were lost, and those mostly in the initial explosions!

Captain Sims ordered Perkins alongside Pensacola to assist in fighting the fires while Maury circled in the dark to guard against enemy ships or subs. With Perkins alongside nursing, Pensacola crawled slowly into Tulagi harbor under her own power. It took a couple of agonizing hours, but she entered the harbor safely.

As soon as Pensacola was safe, Maury turned back to help New Orleans. The night was still black, but we found New Orleans only a few miles out. Having gotten things more under control, she was pushing her truncated bow steadily towards Tulagi at about 5 knots. We circled as she crept along, pinging steadily for submarines and keeping alert for any lingering Japs. As the dawn broke on the 1st of December, 1942, we reached the dubious safety of Tulagi harbor. The sun brought light and an increase in confidence. Now we could see the enemy if he returned.

New Orleans had no bow, thus no anchors! The captains conferred and Maury was ordered alongside. We then dropped our hook to anchor both ships. An hour later a damaged Minneapolis, escorted by Lamson and Lardner, entered Tulagi. A gasp of disbelief rose from all hands as they saw her condition. She too was missing her bow, but at least she had not lost her turret. None of the three damaged cruisers was fit for sea and they’d be “sitting ducks” in Tulagi if the Japs attacked.

Minneapolis had lost 60 ft of her bow to one torpedo and taken a second in her #2 Fireroom, but she still had both engine rooms and plenty of steam. With a bit of reinforcing to hold her together forward, she could ready for sea shortly.

Pensacola’s Torpedo had entered the ship just below the waterline and the explosion had vented upwards more than down. It blew a huge hole in the Main Deck just aft of #2 stack and wrecked the topsides, but her hull was essentially intact. Her #2 engine room was flooded, but as soon as the hole in her side was patched, that could be pumped out. Her Starboard engines were OK, so she could be ready for sea soon.

New Orleans was more difficult. Her forward magazines had exploded when her torpedo hit, shearing off everything forward of the barbette of Turret II. It would take a good deal of internal bracing to prepare the remaining structure to withstand the forces of the sea.

Northampton had taken two torpedoes amidships, exploded and burned. It was her demise that illuminated the heavens as we passed behind Savo.

There was a lot of repair work to be done and little except the ship’s own crews to get it done. It was decided to move New Orleans into McFarland Channel, an inlet which meandered northwest behind Tulagi Island to the into the jungle of Florida Island. There she could be moored and camouflaged alongside Jamestown, the PT Boat Tender, which was already secured to the bank there.

With Maury alongside as a tugboat, New Orleans started around the north side of Tulagi Island to reach McFarland Channel. She soon came to a stop. Neither Full Ahead nor Full Astern with her engines would move her. The water was deep enough for her normal draft, but she was “hung up” on something. Our best guess was that wreckage hanging down from her blasted bow had caught on the bottom and was holding her. The captain of New Orleans ordered Full Speed on the engines of both ships, first ahead, then astern. She began to budge and twist. Power on the two ships was then opposed to twist her further. Finally, she came free with a surge and was once again quite manageable. Whatever had stopped her had now broken off.

We had no more trouble with the move and were soon a mile up McFarland Channel, moored outboard of Jamestown. Maury was kept alongside New Orleans to supply steam and electricity, and, after a few hours of hard work and ingenuity, camouflage nets had been rigged from the steep jungle across all three ships. Aboard Maury, we weren’t too sure this was a good idea. The nets prevented us from using our guns and they might not fool the enemy.

Shortly after we were settled in this new arrangement, “Pierre” Charbonnet, an Academy classmate, jumped aboard from New Orleans to announce that the whole class had been promoted to full Lieutenant! This was about the last thing I cared about at that moment. Among other things, our classmate “Ed” Johnson was among the men lost in the wreckage of turret 1! But it was good to see Pierre and to know he was all right.

Next morning at Dawn GQ, we scanned for Japs in the jungle as well as in the sky. Serwitz stopped training and exclaimed, “Wow! Look at that Babe!” All hands clamored for a look, so I trained my binoculars on the object of their attention. On the muddy beach at the edge of the Mangrove swamp stood a black woman clad only in a brief skirt made of short pieces of reed. Though she had identifiable breasts, she was essentially cylindrical in shape, had a mop of fuzzy black hair, and wore some kind of stick through her nose as an ornament. After Copeland took his look, he growled, “Better start sending some of these guys home!”

Life under the camouflage net was informative in other ways. We got to meet the crews of the PT Boats and look over their craft. A PT seemed the perfect weapon for the night battles of Savo Sound, yet they’d done almost nothing. Relatively small ships with a low profile, they were hard to detect and carried a lethal payload of torpedoes. They could drift quietly off the coast until the transports or bombarding ships arrived, launch torpedoes and slip away. If they were detected, their great speed and maneuverability would make them almost impossible to hit. Yet, despite multiple opportunities, they had shot few torpedoes and those with little effect. Though the crews spoke of “suicide” missions, they had actually suffered almost no damage. The officers were mostly “ninety day wonders” from good colleges, but they seemed to lack confidence in themselves and their weapons.

After a few days New Orleans got her broken steam lines and cables sufficiently repaired to supply her own power, so Maury shifted to an anchorage in Tulagi Harbor to add to the AA batteries ashore. Fletcher, Drayton, and Perkins, carrying survivors and wounded, had gone south with Honolulu. Lamson and Lardner returned to their transport group and headed south. We were left alone, the only fully operable U.S. combatant ship in the Guadalcanal area!

On the 6th, Lamson and Lardner returned to Tulagi. Pensacola, now patched and pumped out, got underway and the three of us escorted her south to “Button”. As soon as we delivered her, we turned around with another convoy to “Cactus,” but this time there was no interference. Meanwhile, Minneapolis and New Orleans had been escorted to the relative safety of Espiritu.

Things weren’t exactly quiet while we hid at Tulagi. “Washing machine Charlie” flew over almost every night and we expected an attack momentarily. On the 3rd of December, a group of ten Jap destroyers was sighted heading down the Slot. Marine bombers from Henderson were sent to get them, but were blocked by Jap fighters. One Jap destroyer was damaged, but the supplies to Guadalcanal got through. A repeat performance on the 7th, with help after dark by PT Boats damaged two more Japs, but they still got through. The next night the PTs were waiting and four of them engaged in a hot battle using both torpedoes and machineguns and drove the supply Destroyers back up the Slot. In the early hours of the 12th, the “Tokyo Express” tried again and was met by three PTs at Cape Esperance. This time the PTs got a torpedo hit on Teruzuki, the first of the class of Japanese “Super Destroyers”. She blew up and sank a few hours later. I’d obviously misjudged the caliber of the PT crews.

On the 18th we were transferred to a re-formed Task Force 64, now built around two of the new battleships. We spent the Christmas holidays patrolling south of Guadalcanal but, though there were a couple of further skirmishes involving the PT Boats, there was no action for our task force.

In the aftermath of our big night action, now dubbed “The Battle of Tassafaronga” for the adjacent village on Guadalcanal, it had become clear that we had engaged a force of eight Japanese destroyers. After the loss of most of their combat transports to the Enterprise planes on the 14th of November, the Japanese, led by the outstanding destroyerman, RAdm. Raizo Tanaka, were trying to keep up the supply by using destroyers at night, soon known as the “Tokyo Express”. We had intercepted them before they could land their troops and supplies, but their deadly salvoes of torpedoes made the trip worthwhile. Against our loss of one heavy cruiser and severe damage to three more, the Japanese had lost only one destroyer. Most of the U.S. fire was concentrated on the closest ship, Takanami, which was duly pulverized, but the rest fired their fish and fled. Our old fashioned ability to see and fight at night had been destroyed by our own Star shells—fired indiscriminately and too short; bursting between the opposing forces, they had blinded everyone.

Our commanders seemed to remember little about torpedoes and their use. Range-to-target isn’t necessary for an accurate torpedo shot. If a torpedo is fired correctly for the target’s course and speed, it will hit if can reach the target. After the war we found the Japanese “Long Lance” torpedo had a range of 22,000 yds. at a speed of 50 knots, compared to our 4,800 yds. at our maximum of 45 knots! Our cruisers should have changed course radically to “Reverse the Field” early in the action on the assumption that the enemy had already fired his torpedoes. A torpedo with a Lead Angle to the Left can’t hit a target moving to the Right! They should have repeated the maneuver periodically as they pounded the enemy with their guns at long range, beyond the reach of a destroyer’s guns. If anything is to be sent in to close the enemy, let it be a destroyer, moving at top speed and maneuvering radically.