This crucial day dawns hot and humid and with the sun only half way out of the water, its rays will have sweat running down your face, off your chin and into your coffee cup if you happen to be holding one and happen to be unfortunate enough to be standing here. Why hot coffee when it is already well into the 90's and everyone is dripping with sweat? Well, the US Navy doesn't serve iced tea and anyway coffee is needed to wake up after a night in the infamous “Sleepless Lagoon” as this place is affectionately known. Or, maybe not so affectionately known.
Anyone that has spent the night here is familiar with “Washing Machine Charlie,” the Japanese scout plane with a noisy engine. “Charlie” also known as “Louie the Louse” circles around most of the night just above the ships in the harbor. Since “Charlie” flies directly overhead, ships can’t fire at him without the risk of their own shells coming down on a friendly ship or even on their own deck. Being sunk by your own shells may get you into the record books but, this is not the preferred way to get there.
And some nights “Charlie” doesn't even bother to drop a bomb so all the worrying is for nothing. But you always fear this could be the night that he brought along the bomb with your name on it. Charlie has been known to drop flares occasionally to add to the eeriness of the place and occasionally he has meandered far enough from his spot directly overhead for some one to take a radar controlled shot at him. But apparently the Japanese have plenty of Charlies ready to go as there he is again the next night.
But this morning, on the De Haven, things are going as well as can be expected. Since arriving here early in December of 1942 the crew has adjusted to the daily routine. The incessant patrolling along the shore while guarding troop and supply ships soon becomes extremely boring. Night time is a little more exciting since there is always the possibility of a run by the famous “Tokyo Express.” And, of course at night, there is always “Washing Machine Charlie.” With the Japanese Long Lance torpedoes thinning the ranks of ships of American ships at this location, at least the troops ashore appreciate the ship's presence here.
The De Haven had a chance to show what it could do on the night of January 23rd, 1943. That night, with a task force of cruisers and destroyers, she steamed up the “slot” into Kula Gulf to bombard the shores of Kolombangara Island where a heavy concentration of Japanese troops had landed. Japanese search planes had located the US force even before the bombardment had started and eleven search planes and thirty bombers were quickly dispatched to follow this American force and to make sure it did not return home unscathed. But with luck and the arrival of a plentiful supply of rain squalls, the De Haven and the other ships made it back to base successfully.
According to Japanese reports, the bombardment had been very effective as the base sustained great materiel damage which caused delay in the construction of the airport. The De Haven had successfully weathered its first naval action and had come out with flying colors. With this action under their belt, the crew of the De Haven are no longer the new kids on the block and the duty today should be a piece of cake even after a sleepless night. Today's duty is to cover a landing operation.
Early in the day a “Condition Red” (enemy aircraft approaching) was radioed out as a flight of twin engine bombers hit Henderson Field. The destroyers and other smaller ships in the harbor opened fire and two planes were believed to have been hit as they flew off to the northwest. This was more or less a routine air attack and would not interfere with today's landing operation.
The US Army's 132d Infantry has assembled a contingent of troops including Battery F, of the 10th Marines (to handle the 75mm howitzers). The purpose of this landing is to cut off the retreat of Japanese troops as they continue to fall back to more secure positions. All US troops are loaded aboard six Landing Craft Transports (LCTs) and the destroyer transport Stringham. Destroyers known as the “Cactus Striking Force” will escort this expedition. However, there will be one less ship in the force today as the destroyer O'Bannon sails out to join Task Force 67. This leaves one less ship to cover the troop landings and one less target for any attacking planes who might oppose the landing. However, this troop deployment is more or less of a routine measure and is not likely cause any repercussions among the Japanese forces. Or so it was thought.
After one company is successfully put ashore, information is received that indicates the remaining troops would be more useful if deployed a mile and a half further north along the shoreline. The destroyers Radford and Fletcher separate to cover this split in the landing operations as the destroyers Nicholas and De Haven remain behind. After seeing that troops at this location have successfully landed, the Nicholas and De Haven are ordered to escort three empty, but still very slow moving, Landing Craft Transports (LCTs) back to their base. The destroyers continue to circle the landing craft while maintaining a speed of about fifteen knots.
At this time the De Haven had all four boilers in service but at about noon a request is made to secure two boilers for maintenance. The Captain of the ship, Commander Charles E. Tolman, grants this request. This leaves the De Haven with a top speed of about twenty knots. This could be disastrous if another “Condition Red” develops. But, in defense of the De Haven's Captain, the likelihood of another air attack later in the day is not that great. Most days proceed without a Japanese air raid and the chance for two raids in one day would seem unlikely.
However, there is something happening today that Captain Tolman knows nothing about. It is a top secret operation that US Intelligence has not even an inkling of. It has been set into operation by Emperor Hirohito himself. It all began when the Emperor had been informed of how his heroic troops on Guadalcanal have been rolling back America's first military offensive. So impressed was the Emperor by the heroism, sacrifice and suffering of his troops that he prepared to honor them with a special award. “. . . Guadalcanal had gradually acquired an enormous prestige value and had become the foundation of Japanese strategy, to which many, particularly in the Imperial Army, now clung with the extravagant zeal of the newly converted.” The award to be issued at the capture of Guadalcanal was a treasured “Imperial Rescript.”
However, in the later weeks of December, it was becoming apparent that Guadalcanal was draining the nation's resources at such a precarious rate that other military operations would have to be seriously curtailed. This called for a reexamination of the entire Japanese war effort.
The reverses suffered by the Japanese Army at Guadalcanal were also causing a serious differences between the Japanese Army and Navy. High Japanese Army officials have been critical of their Navy for not providing adequate food and ammunition for the troops and place much of the blame for the Army's present situation on the Navy. Further, there are Army Officers making charges that the Navy will not risk its precious ships and planes and the Japanese troops will be left to die in the jungles. Sensitive to this stinging criticism, the Japanese Navy is ready to take whatever steps are necessary to save the Army at Guadalcanal.
After it became apparent that the Guadalcanal victory was not to be, a dramatic change in the thinking in the Operational Staffs of the Army and Navy Sections at Imperial Headquarters occurred. "Hat in hand" Army and Naval Staff Officers explained to the Emperor the torturous suffering of his troops and the necessity of moving back from Guadalcanal. So moved by their presentation, the Emperor decided to award the great honor to his long suffering troops anyway. To honor troops from a campaign that ended in defeat was a major change in Japanese thinking. And this presented the High Command with a serious problem. The troops to be honored must first be successfully evacuated from the island.
To do this, a top secret plan designated by the letters "KE" would be put in place on February First. This plan would commit whatever forces that were necessary to rescue the Emperor's troops. Japanese records placed the number of troops of the 17th Army at 30,000 troops (a somewhat high estimate as it turned out). All troops were to be rescued by February the 8th.
But Operation “KE” should not have presented a problem to today's landing if it had not been for a strange twist of fate. Not trusting the Navy, the Imperial Army placed a high flying reconnaissance pilot above the island. As he watched the four destroyers of the "Cactus Strike Force" from his high perch, he mistook them for cruisers (Naval Observers often made this same mistake in the case with Fletcher type destroyers). This many cruisers at Guadalcanal would have signaled that something major was in the offing. This was taken as a threat to tonight's operation when the first scheduled run of the "KE" express to rescue the Japanese troops on Guadalcanal was to be made. This triggered a major strike of some 53 aircraft (thirteen dive bombers and forty fighters) and they soon were in the air and heading south from a base in the northern Solomons.
Radio Guadalcanal issued a "Condition Red" (air raid attack) as the destroyers De Haven and Nicholas shepherded three returning LCTs 2 miles southeast of Savo. “Through a grievous error, the fighter director vectored all scrambled Wildcats to protect Radford and Fletcher about a mile and a half further north of the other two destroyers.” This leaves the De Haven and Nicholas with no air cover.
At 2:45 in the afternoon, word is received by the commanding officer of the De Haven that enemy planes have been sighted approaching Guadalcanal. The Captain sends the ship to General Quarters immediately. Two more boilers are lighted off but are not cut in. Speed is increased to twenty knots, however. Two minutes later a flight of unidentified planes is sighted astern flying at medium speed at about 5000 feet. The main battery and machine guns are brought to bear on the planes and about a minute later the planes are identified as enemy dive bombers. The fire control party reports it is ready to open fire and requests permission to do so. The bridge talker acknowledges the request but permission to open fire is not yet given.
With the ship’s top speed only twenty knots with two of its boilers shut down, the ship is in imminent danger. The ship's captain contacts Henderson Field by radio and requests immediate air cover. However, there is no time to spare as six planes are already diving on the De Haven. With the captain preoccupied with radio communication, his valuable attention is diverted from the attackers. Why the communication officer did not handle this assignment is not known.
The Nicholas too goes to General Quarters at the receipt of the aircraft warning and increases speed to twenty-five knots. From the bridge, six dive bombers are seen to peel off and are diving on the De Haven. Warning of the attacking bombers is flashed to the De Haven by radio at this time but no acknowledgment is received.
Eight other planes are seen continuing on to get the sun behind them and to take advantage of a low flying cloud as they continued to close in on the Nicholas. At 2:54 in the afternoon, the Nicholas fires its main battery. One minute later the first bomber starts his dive on the Nicholas and the machine gun battery opens fire. At the same time, the order “Full right rudder” is given to the helmsman and speed is increased to 32 knots. At 2:57 a near hit causes the loss of steering control by the bridge and causes the rudder to return amidships. Control is immediately shifted to the steering motor room and full right rudder is again ordered.
In all, eight planes attack the Nicholas with each dropping one bomb. None strike the ship directly and all bombs hit the water at distances ranging from 20 to 200 feet. There is no serious damage to the ship but two men are killed and six men are seriously wounded with several others receiving minor flesh wounds. The planes retire quickly to the northwest.
Back on the De Haven, shortly before the planes commenced their dive, Ensign Bernard Frese heard General Quarters being sounded just as he finished taking a shower. He threw on a pair of pants and sandals and ran to the main plotting room where the main battery is already on automatic tracking and is ready to fire on command. The Gunnery Officer in the director calls the Bridge to get permission to open fire but the talker reports that the Captain is busy trying to get air support from Henderson Field. Ensign Frese understands the predicament and takes it upon himself to give the gun crews the order to fire. They refuse to open fire as their order to fire must come from the Gunnery Officer, himself. The Gunnery Officer, however, is waiting for the Captain to finish his request for air cover. Time has just run out.
NOTE: Long after this story was written, one of the crewmembers who survived (Albert L. Breining) adds this personal recollection: “Many wonder why the guns of the De Haven were late to respond to the attack. I know why the guns did not begin firing until the last minute. The Jap planes that got over us came from the direction of Henderson Field. The skipper was concerned that the planes might be ours so he asked me to ask the lookouts to report as soon as they could identify them as enemy. Nothing! Once more the question and once more nothing. Then the captain exclaimed, ‘Damn, tell them to hurry up!’ After I relayed his message, soon came the reply, ‘They're Japs, we can see the meatballs!’”
On the bridge, Lieutenant John J. Rowan (Communications Officer) stands with the Captain as the planes begin their bombing run. The Captain finishes his radio contact and orders full speed (20 knots) and left full rudder. Lieutenant Rowan immediately runs into the Pilot House to make sure that the Helmsman understands the order and then takes a quick look out the port door of the Pilot House to check that the ship is not in danger of running into Savo Island. The Lieutenant then returns to the Captain on the starboard side just in time to see the first bomb land amidships effectively breaking the ship's back. A second later the second bomb lands near the forward stack, knocking the stack over and lifting the 5" Gun Director off its foundation.
The Lieutenant then luckily (with a bomb almost directly overhead and seconds away from landing) runs from the bridge back into the Pilot House to check on the Helmsman forgetting momentarily that the ship has already lost steering control. At this moment a third bomb lands on the number two five inch gun mount and causes its magazine and probably the magazine of the number one five inch gun to explode. This explosion has a violent effect on the Bridge and Pilot House as their location is only about 12 feet from the Number 2 Mount and its magazine. The deck seemingly convulses and moves underneath Lieutenant Rowan about one or two feet towards the stern of the ship causing the him to collapse on the deck. Sitting in an upright position, stunned, he notices that his lower right leg is dislocated at the knee and the leg is sitting in his lap. His first thought is that, even if he survives, he will lose the lower part of his leg. Already in shock, he feels no pain but is well aware the ship is sinking as the ship is listing heavily to starboard.
Back in the Plotting Room, Ensign Frese also experiences a powerful jolt and an explosion as the first bomb hits amidships in the engineering spaces. Electrical power is lost immediately and the main battery is now unable to fire. The guns are switched to manual control and gun crews struggle to load them by hand. In a matter of seconds another bomb lands off the port side as a near miss and a third bomb hits forward. At this time a repair party enters the Plotting room to assess damage and to help if needed. There are now seventeen people in the Plotting Room. Ensign Frese yells encouragement as everyone struggles to get the guns firing.
Suddenly a brilliant white light appears coming from a point forward and slightly above the Plotting Room. There is no sound. As the light appears Ensign Frese feels sick all over. The room turns a fiery red and everything starts to move. The fire controlman on Ensign Frese’s right passes him in mid air. The computer (a large mechanical device for generating bearing and elevation) turns over on the Chief Fire Controlman on the left. Ensign Frese is blown into the fire-control switchboard and his legs somehow end up under the over turned computer. Everything is now pitch black with an acrid smell. All that can be heard is the tinkling of glass. Ensign Frese’s forehead is impaled on pronged switches and he must push against the switchboard to get his head free only to find his legs are pinned under the computer and oil is rising fast. In desperation, he unbuckles his pants, unzips the zipper and is able to pull himself free leaving his pants stuck under the computer.
The De Haven is now sinking rapidly and oil rises quickly up to the level of Ensign Frese's neck. Trying to keep above the oil, the Ensign grabs a pipe to pull himself up only to find it is red hot and almost impossible to let go of. A voice cries out in the darkness, "She's going down fast!" Ensign Frese finds himself now out of the Plotting Room and in water up to his waist with the water rising rapidly and with the ship around him a shambles of twisted metal.
Forced to swim at this time he travels a short distance and then hears someone cry out, “These she goes” and as he turns over to swim on his back, he looks up to see the ship's propellers directly over his head and the ship ready to plunge to the bottom. Needless to say, the Ensign takes to his backstroke with enthusiasm and manages to get out of the way of the stern as it sinks.
Lieutenant Rowan is also having his problems as the air is now filled with dark, acrid smoke and vision is obscured. The blast loosens and tears numerous items from the bulkheads and overhead, and these things are falling to the deck. Crawling on the starboard side and over the four foot bulwark (made easier by the starboard list of the ship), the Lieutenant has the presence of mind to protect his injured leg by falling into the water head first, about a ten foot drop. The Lieutenant does not see the Captain or any other person in the area apparently all having been blown overboard by the blast.
From the stern of the ship, Ensign Williams reports "As soon as the smoke blew away, it is apparent that the ship is settling by the bow with a slight list to port. I can see the superstructure is mangled and there are very few people on deck. A group of people are waiting for the word to abandon ship, they don't know if the ship is sinking or not but they are staying calmly by their stations waiting for the word to be given. I take the liberty on the fantail to pass the word to abandon ship to that group of men in the absence of higher authority."
Upon surfacing after his plunge, Lieutenant Rowan is happy to find that he is able to inflate his life belt and can slowly paddle away from the ship using his hands. He is fearful of being sucked under the water with the ship as it goes down. This makes the second time that the Lieutenant has had the opportunity to swim in the warm waters of Sealark Channel courtesy of the Japanese. Six months earlier he was aboard the USS Vincennes when it was sunk. What he sees of the De Haven is a massive wreckage apparently in three parts with the amidships section already under water and the after section and the bridge section no longer joined. The bridge section quickly sinks and the stern section next. His estimate of the time from the first bomb hit until the ship completely disappeared—about four minutes.
There are no massive explosions of depth charges as someone has set them on safety saving the lives of many in the water. Often in these waters, your life depends on someone doing their job faithfully. Within a half hour, a whaleboat from the sister ship Nicholas, picks Lieutenant Rowan from the water. Picking him up by the shoulders he experiences excruciating pain from his right leg that was dangling at the knee but he is soon on a stretcher and safely on the deck of the Nicholas.
Ensign Frese, somewhat distant in the water from Lieutenant Rowan, reports several underwater explosions but, he too reports no churning of the water that a depth charge would make. “The oil on the water must have be six inches thick, and there is lots of debris floating around, but nothing big enough to support my weight. There I am all by myself, naked, with no life jacket. At this point my heart is beating like a trip hammer, so fast it is impossible to count the beats. Hearing others yelling, I force a look around and see the LCT picking up survivors at a considerable distance away, too far for me to swim. A yell for help brings someone over to me. He has a life jacket and holds me up until the sailors on the LCT pull us out of the water. They stand me up and I collapse on the spot. A young sailor survivor holds my head in his arm comforting me, for which I will be eternally grateful. Though feeling no pain up to that point, Ensign Williams gives me a shot of morphine.
“Transferred in a stretcher to the main deck of the USS Nicholas (DD 449), the ship’s doctor examines me, looking at my eyes and listening to my heart. Then he covers me up with a blanket. Someone sitting on the deck asks the doc about me and the doc says I am dead. Mustering some strength I push down the blanket from my head. The sailor sitting near me utters some colorful metaphors and yells for the doctor to come back. Apologizing for his error, the doctor dresses my wounds as best he can and orders me transferred to the beach at Guadalcanal in the first boat going ashore.”
Ashore at Guadalcanal, the extent of the loss is finally realized. The Captain and all of those on the bridge including the Executive Officer, John D. Huntley, are lost with the exception of Lt. Rowan. The Lieutenant had luckily gone inside the Pilot House to check on the Helmsman. Both survived there. Of the 14 officers on board only one officer, Ensign Clem C. Williams, remained unwounded. His station was on the fantail of the ship, the farthest point from the where the bombs struck.
In the Plotting Room, of the 17 personnel there at the time of the bomb hit, only Ensign Frese survives and he is severely injured.
The other surviving officer, Ensign Archie R. Fields (the Machine Gun Control Officer) saw all three bombs hit on the starboard side and he, along with the talker, (on the sound-powered phones) had a chance to duck inside into the lookout station. “The main battery was tracking the ‘Vals’, and we were waiting for permission to commence firing, but the order never came. A 20-mm gun on the starboard side was the first to open up. I followed his tracers and saw a Val in a 45-degree dive—a glistening gray-green color, like a pretty toy. When the bomb cut away my first feeling was, ‘Unfair—why are they using such big ones?!’ It was plainly coming dead on. I shoved my talker into the lookout station and went in behind him. There was a big thump and a big blast. When I stepped out and looked down at the post side, I saw a 15-ft. hole at the water line.” After watching two more bombs hit, Ensign Fields (with only a foot wound) and his talker were able to step into the water and just start swimming their way to survival.
The Nicholas’s observers report that the De Haven’s main batteries were not seen to open fire until just before the second bomb hit. Machine gun fire was observed just as the first bomb hit and just before the second bomb found its mark. No evasive action was seen being taken. Of the six attacking planes, all are believed to have dropped their bombs with three bombs hitting in quick succession and with a fourth bomb a damaging near miss.
Of the 299 enlisted men aboard, 157 were listed as missing, 35 as wounded and 107 were unhurt. Survival was dependent on location. There were only four survivors forward of the #1 stack. Underneath the #1 stack where the galley was located and where a bomb hit, the men there were not hurt indicating that bomb was a dud. Of the 14 officers aboard, 10 were listed as missing, 3 as wounded and 1 as unhurt.
There was a happy ending for Lieutenant Rowan as he met his bride-to-be at the Naval Hospital while recuperating from his leg injury. His leg injury healed sufficiently for him to resume his naval career after 10 months and retired many years later with the rank of a Captain. His marriage that took place while he was recovering from his wounds also survived as he celebrated his 52nd wedding anniversary in 1995.
As unlikely as it might seem, Ensign Frese recovered completely and was assigned to a second destroyer, the USS Chauncey in late May of 1943. He stayed with the Navy for 30 years and retired as Captain in 1972.
Lieutenant Fields recovered quickly from his wounds and also remained in the Navy and retired years later as a Commander.
In the material that was used to construct this account of the De Haven, there was no mention as to any blame attributable to Captain Tolman for the loss of his ship. Certainly, the shutting down of one engine room contributed to the desperate situation that the ship found itself, but there was no indication as to why the engine room was shut down. Since the Captain had given his permission to shut down an engine room, the responsibility rested on his shoulders. The commissioning of a new destroyer named in his honor in August of 1944 would indicate that he had survived the review of his actions with honor.
A report prepared after the Battle of Savo Island where the American Navy took its most serious defeat of the war might apply here also. In the review of the Hepburn report of the battle, Captain G. L. Russell wrote to Admiral Ernest J. King: “It does not necessarily follow that because we took a beating somebody must be the goat.” With this sentiment, the Admiral agreed—in this case.
Official Navy photographs taken shortly after the disaster show survivors aboard the two LST vessels that rescued most of the men. Noticeable by their absence were dungaree shirts and life-jackets. Of all the crewmen shown, few had wore shirts and no one was seen wearing a life jacket and yet Japanese planes had just departed minutes earlier. Japanese submarines were also present as evidenced by the destroyers circling the LCTs.
This would seem to indicate that the officers and crew were inexperienced in the hazards of combat which is what might be expected with only one naval engagement under their belt and the short time they had been in the area. Experienced crew members would have all been wearing life jackets and long sleeve dungaree shirts buttoned at the wrist. And, of course, firing should have commenced even before the enemy planes were close enough to be hit. But the most important ingredient in all combat situations seems to be luck and this was something that was in short supply on the last day of the De Haven.
In the book by Robert D. Ballard, The Lost Ships of Guadalcanal, pictures show the De Haven some fifty years later sitting about three miles from where it was reported sunk with the barrels of #3, #4 and #5 guns still pointing skyward as if still waiting for orders to fire. Clearly seen is the ship's propellers that almost crushed Ensign Frese. And the ship is still in the very good company of fifty other ships of the American, British, Australian and Japanese navies at “Iron Bottom Bay—or Sound,” the final resting place of so many fellow sailors.