On one of our first nights in the channel, word comes to the bridge to investigate a small boat that is heading toward us from shore. It is quite dark in the channel but light enough to see that there are local aborigines in the boat. They approach our ship slowly as we watch them suspiciously. We see they are not armed so there’s no need for alarm. Finally, as they get to about fifty feet from us, they stand up in the boat and start singing: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.” We all look at each other rather foolishly as the very black aborigines look up at us and smile. Then some Marines who’ve been crouched down in the boat, stand up and start laughing. Everyone now breaks out laughing and for a few moments the war is forgotten. We wonder how long it took the Marines to teach the aborigines the English words to this ’40s song but, as far as we are concerned, we think it was worth it.
From this, we found out how much the Marines appreciate seeing out ship here at night. They know the Japanese won’t be shelling them when we are here. Unfortunately, if any Japanese ships are reported headed our way, we will have to depart.
A few days later we move in to the shoreline to investigate something that is a “must see” item for ships cruising these waters. As we get close to shore, we see a large billboard with writing on it. When we get close enough, we are able to read “Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill more Japs! signed Halsey.” Well, no one cheers. Sailors usually don’t think of themselves as killers but rather as technicians just doing a job. Other than a few sailors firing our 20 and 40 millimeter guns, no one actually seems to be killing anyone. So the sign doesn’t seem to go over too well, but no one feels up to criticizing the admiral either.
While we may be getting a bit bored on board ship, on shore, boredom is not a problem. The Marines know from the Japanese reinforcements arriving that a massive attack is coming and begin to wonder why the delay. But the Japanese High Command knows that for such an attack to be successful the sea lanes must be cleared and Henderson Field put out of commission. This is to be accomplished by a large-scale air and sea operation. On land, the Japanese soldiers are ready. The patience of the Marines will be tested no longer.
November 12th — Our innocence is about to be brought to an abrupt end. Today we are doing what we had been doing since we had arrived in the area. We are, as usual, convoying troop transports and supply ships. But this day we are relieved of this relatively safe duty and are assigned to a fighting force of cruisers and destroyers known as task force 67.
This abrupt change of duty has occurred because alert Australian coastwatchers on islands to the north have spotted a large force of Japanese warships on their way down from their base at Rabaul. Since the troops on shore need every bit of naval protection available, we are pressed into fighting status. Excitement runs high as we join this task force and cruise along the shoreline as part of a real fighting group.
Within hours, the coast watchers report that a large group of Japanese planes also are heading our way. Sixteen bombers and twenty zero escorts are spotted. The transports and supply ships quickly depart the area while our gunners get prepared and all ships go to general quarters. Some of the crew are anxious for action. Others think maybe we’re not quite ready. But, ready or not, the Japanese are coming and reports soon indicate they are well on their way.
At 2:10 in the afternoon, planes of the Empire of Japan swoop in to attack. Admiral Turner, in charge of our force, sees the escort planes are not yet in position to protect the torpedo bombers so he maneuvers our ships to present a tempting broadside target to the commander of the torpedo group. The Japanese commander takes the bait and brings his torpedo planes in without the escort planes. Our 5-inch guns open up in continuous fire and are joined by our 40 and 20 millimeter gun crews. Inside the radio shack, the equipment is being severely shaken and dust flies. Faces look bewildered and everyone is pretty much unnerved but all faithfully remain at their stations. Where is there to run anyway?
Admiral Turner does some brilliant maneuvering with the task force. This, along with some good shooting by the gun crews and some skillful flying by the boys of Henderson Field, leaves our task force undamaged by the attack except for the cruiser San Francisco. It is hit by a plane that crashes into the stern and this costs the San Francisco the lives of twenty-four of her crew.
Fate is also cruel to the Japanese as twelve of the sixteen attacking bombers are blown to pieces and the remaining four fly off badly damaged. Many fine young Japanese flyers have just died for their country in a matter of minutes. They get little sympathy from us for we know if they had their way, we would be part of the fleet of ships already resting on the bottom. Their covering fighter force fares somewhat better and ten of the twenty head back toward Rabaul.
As this air battle ends and we make a sweep around the channel, we come upon a downed Japanese plane sitting on the water with its pilot climbing out of the cockpit waving his arms and finally standing on the wing. One of our 20-millimeter gunners opens up on him and the pilot immediately drops into the water. This takes the onlookers like myself a little by surprise as we feel the pilot may have wanted to surrender and was no threat anyway. The word is passed that the gunner’s brother was killed at Pearl Harbor and our collective consciences are somewhat relieved.
Our crew is elated at this first time in action and all that can be seen, at least for the moment, are smiling faces. This action bolsters the self confidence of everyone. The air attack lasts only twenty minutes and as quickly as the Japanese planes clear the area, our troop and cargo ships return to their unloading operations. These ships must depart before they finish unloading however as there are reports from the Australian coastwatchers that a Japanese naval task force will soon be arriving. The supply ships and transports, under the command of Admiral Turner, vacate the area and head south out of the danger zone.
Our ship, as part of Task Force 67 under the command of Admiral Callaghan on the San Francisco, remains at Guadalcanal and will make a stand against the large force of approaching Japanese ships. The newly appointed Admiral Halsey, now based at New Caledonia, promises the Navy will protect our troops on shore with every ship available. Fortunately perhaps, for our temporary piece of mind, our captain does not inform us of the dimensions of the upcoming battle.
While we know Japanese ships are approaching, we are hopeful that they would not want to tangle with such a formidable force as ours. So at least for a while, we don’t stand around biting our nails. Instead, we relax after a trying day and savor our victory. How many of the crew are aware of the approaching cataclysm I can’t say, but those of us in the radio gang are blissfully ignorant of the magnitude of the oncoming slaughter, at least for awhile anyway.
At the evening meal, we ponder on what may be in store for us in the next few hours, maybe nothing, we hope. Of course in a few hours it will be Friday the 13th and our force consists of 13 ships. This is bad news for the superstitious. More bad news, even for those who are not superstitious, our 13 ships include 2 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers and 7 destroyers which are no match for the Japanese force which is reported as two battleships, one cruiser and 14 destroyers. A comparison of firepower shows an even greater discrepancy between the two forces.
The two Japanese battleships can throw a broadside of shells of 11,900 pounds for each ship. The two American heavy cruisers can throw a broadside of shells of 2,340 pounds for each ship. Furthermore, our 8-inch shells cannot pierce the main armor protection along the hulls of the battleships. In a comparison of torpedoes, our destroyers and light cruisers carry a total of 80, while the Japanese have a total of 190. And the Japanese Long Lance torpedoes work, our US Mark XVs usually do not.