The Battle of Rennell Island
Lt.(jg) (later Capt.) Chuck Witten, USN (Ret.) was La Vallette’s radar officer, navigator and
“C” division officer in 1943, with a battle station in secondary gun control.
The following excerpt from his unpublished biography
Sailor, Scholar, and Traveler: The Life of Charles H. Witten As He Remembers It is presented with his kind permission.
Rennell Island approaches
From Nouméa, we went up to Éfaté Harbor in the New Hebrides and joined a gathering force of destroyers, cruisers, and jeep carriers. We were quite short of real carriers at this period in the war. What we called jeep carriers were fast tankers which had been converted to carriers by adding a flight deck and associated equipment over the normal deck. Our first night there we were awakened by a call to general quarters. It was an air raid warning and all the ships in the harbor went to GQ, but no enemy planes showed up.

Soon we left heading for the Solomons. We were on our way to our first action. As there were no real carriers left in the Pacific, we were heading up the west side of the Solomons as a unit of Task Force 18, which consisted of jeep carriers, cruisers, and destroyers. On January 29, 1943, the admiral in command of the force—who was not an aviator—sent the carriers back some place as the evening approached to keep them out of reach of Jap land-based air, while the rest of us continued on. Night flying off carriers, especially the small ones, such as we had with us, was a still-to-be-developed art.

We were lounging around the wardroom in our battle clothes waiting for evening GQ to go as it did every evening from just before sunset until complete dark set in. Then it came over the speakers—“This is no drill—General Quarters—General Quarters—all hands man your battle stations—no shit.” The wardroom cleared in record time. My station was secondary gun control which was directly above the bridge and from which I controlled the 1.1" and 20 mm gun batteries. The Japanese bombers came in from the west out of the sun. As I remember it, my SC air search radar picked them up at 35,000 yards. The five-inchers opened up on fire control radar guidance when they were within range.

The planes ignored us and went for the big boys. The Chicago took several torpedoes. My hardest job was trying to control my 20 mms which kept firing at imaginary targets even after complete darkness set in. Our guns did get three Japanese bombers.

The cruiser Louisville took the Chicago in tow, and we started a retreat towards Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides where the US Navy had an advanced base. The next day, an oceangoing tug, USS Navajo, came out from someplace and took Chicago in tow. We had very slim air cover that day and they were off someplace when at about 1600 the Japanese came at us again with more torpedo bombers. The six destroyers of the screen were cruising in a broad circle around Chicago, and we just happened to be on the side from which the bombers came in. They came at us directly out of the sun. They were going for the crippled Chicago. We were a couple of thousand yards abaft her beam, and some of them had to pass over us to get to their primary target. Although we had opened fire at maximum range, it didn’t stop them. One of the attacking “Bettys” dropped a fish at us and then continued straight over us, as it was hit and going down into the sea. The plane passed so close over our stack, almost hitting it, that I could actually see the pilot’s face. Then “bang” we were hit.

He had done his dirty work before he went down. I guess I was knocked to the deck, and this is probably where I suffered the broken neck which showed up years after I retired. Anyhow, there is a fraction of time that I can’t account for. I must have been knocked out. I couldn’t establish contact with all of my guns, but the planes were gone. My talker said to me— “Mr. Witten, if I ever complain about having to have drills again you can kick my ass from the bow to the fantail.” I looked over at the Chicago, and it had turned over. The red lead painted underside was showing and then she went down.

A count of the Japanese losses showed that they had lost ten planes, of which I think we got six. But, they had accomplished what they has started out to do and sunk the Chicago. We had a little headway and put boats in the water helping to rescue the survivors. Soon we had lost all steam and were dead in the water. Thus ended what became known as the Battle of Rennell Island.

The tug which had been towing the Chicago came over and after a struggle got us under tow. We will be eternally thankful that the seas would be calm as glass as we made our way back to Espiritu Santo. We had a little fresh water in our tanks and that was saved for drinking and cooking. We didn’t wash. Since we had no running salt water, our head was the fantail, and we hooked our arms over the wires between the stanchions and took care of our needs. Life was rugged but we were alive.

I learned later of the heroism of one of our sailors, Maynard Tollberg, BT2. He came up out of the fireroom, his skin charred and dropping off in chunks, to close a main deck valve as he was supposed to if we were hit. He was posthumously awarded a Navy Cross. The Chief Engineer, LT Eli Roth, USNA ’39, was killed as were about 22 men. Ensign Bob Huston, the Assistant Engineeer and Damage Control Officer was awarded a Silver Star. Our Captain really didn’t believe in medals and awards for just doing your job, but I was successful in getting promotions for battle heroism for many of the men in my gun crews. The Chief Engineer’s wife had given birth to a son just after we left for the Pacific. Eli never saw the son. When we got back to the States, Captain Henderson asked me to visit Eli’s widow, who lived in New York, when I went home on leave. This I did, and it was not an easy task.

After what seemed like forever we arrived at Espiritu Santo. The largest ship there was the destroyer tender USS Dixie which would provide for many of our needs in the days to come. As we were slowly towed through the nets and into the harbor we saw that the other ships there, including some of the destroyers of DESRON 21, were manning their rails and cheering us as we inched along.

La Vallette was really lucky, as the ARD 5, a floating drydock which could handle us, had just arrived a few days before. Our tug assisted by some yard craft maneuvered us into the drydock, and the pumps were started to empty the drydock and get us high and dry.

The next morning, I was sent to the Dixie to get something, I think it was copies of important radio messages that we missed when we had no radios. My boat arrived alongside at the accomodation ladder just as 8 bells sounded. What bad timing. The band played three national anthems starting with The Star Spangled Banner, followed by God Save The King, and the Marseillaise. The U.S. was a guest in a port in a British-French Condominium. The 26 ft. motor whaleboat bounced up and down alongside the landing; and there I was standing at attention and saluting colors for the entire time.

When the ship was high and dry in the drydock, we got a first good look at the damage. It was bad. The hole was centered on the bulkhead between the forward fire and engine rooms and it stretched from above the waterline on port side all the way to a crack in the keel. How did the ship ever survive? We had been lucky to get back to port. The first job to be undertaken after the water had been pumped out was the removal of the dead. Volunteers from other ships had the really dirty job of trying to put bodies together from parts, identify the dead, and put them in body bags for burial. After several days in tropic waters the bodies were quite bloated and discolored and the stench was really bad.

Almost all of the officers and enlisted men marched over to the burial grounds leaving a small security detail aboard the ship. A bulldozer had dug a trench in the red earth and our shipmates were buried in a common grave. A chaplain from the Dixie conducted the services. I don’t remember if there was a slightly different service for our one Jewish officer, Eli Roth. A bugler sounded taps while we stood at attention.

After the mess had been cleaned up, the hard job of putting the ship back together enough to survive a trip across the Pacific trip began. It was hard work. We lived aboard while all this was going on, and it was hot and uncomfortable. We were all taking pills of a synthetic, which replaced unavailable quinine to ward off malaria, which was common in these parts, and soon all of us were yellow skinned from the medicine.