Savo Nights

After the night strike at Kolombangara, DesRon Umpty-Ump again took up its vigil at Tulagi.

Another destroyer had joined up, and Captain Briscoe shifted his flag to her. The O’Bannon had to go back for an engine overhaul, and again I packed my bag, closed my typewriter and moved back to the Nicholas. I was just in time to tell Commander Bill Brown, the Nicholas’s skipper, goodbye. He was going to Rear Admiral Tip Merrill’s staff as operations officer. Lieutenant Commander Andy Hill, the former executive officer, who had spent a year at the University of Missouri, my own alma mater, before going to the Academy, took her over.

We spent the day in the harbor “on the hook,” but shoved off soon after sunset for a night patrol west of Savo looking for two Japanese submarines that had been sighted in that area during the day. We didn’t find them. At dawn, we returned to Tulagi and spent another day sizzling at anchor. With the inflammable linoleum removed from all decks, the inside of the destroyers fairly crawled with the heat. Every patch of shade was thick with sprawling sailors, who found even a steel deck topside preferable to a bunk in the steaming quarters below. Up there at least you could breathe.

Shortly after noon we received a warning “to all ships” that a Japanese raid was coming in.

“The condition is red, the condition is red,” the loud speaker on the bridge bawled.

General quarters was sounded, and we made preparations for getting under way. You never know, when a strike is coming, whether it will be high-flying horizontal bombers, dive bombers or torpedo planes. At anchor is no place for a ship to be, in any case.

There was the usual cloud of dust over Henderson Field, twenty miles across the sound. We could see the fighters climbing to intercept the Japanese attackers. As they gained the higher altitudes, they left behind them long vapor trails, like skywriting. It must have been an unusual atmospheric condition that day, as ordinarily this does not occur in the tropics, although it is a common phenomenon in cooler latitudes.

As we stood out of the harbor, we saw the Japanese attack coming in, over Savo Island, high-flying Japanese bombers in the irregular V or V’s they always use. Then the Grumman Wildcats and the P-38s hit them. At first, it was difficult to distinguish our fighters. The first evidence that they were attacking was a flaming Japanese plane falling. Then the whole Japanese formation disintegrated, like a flock of ducks scattering before the plummeting charge of a hawk. Down below them we saw our fighters pulling out of their dives and climbing back to renew the attack.

The Japanese bombers’ escort of Zero fighters must have been caught napping, because we saw at least a dozen of our fighters dive through the bomber formation, spraying death on the vulnerable Mitsubishis, before the Zeros dropped down to do battle.

Now the vapor trails began to take crazy patterns, whorls and crisscrossing streamers that hid from view the hurtling little fighters that were making them. To the west of Savo we could see several columns of smoke rising from the sea where burning Japanese bombers had crashed. The Japanese formation, now broken into many small groups of two or three planes each, was streaking westward as the Zeros and Wildcats and Lightnings battled behind and above them. Apparently not a single enemy bomber had won through to the airfield, the target toward which they were heading.

It was not long until our own fighters began returning. As they headed down to reload and rearm, a new patrol took over. One group of Lightnings, their bluish-white bellies flashing silver against the sun, swept over our line of destroyers, and following them came the little stub-winged Grummans. Soon headquarters came back on the air to announce: “The condition is green, the condition is green.” That meant the Japanese were gone.

The night passed without alarm, so we remained at anchor in Tulagi. It was almost impossible to sleep below decks, however, and everyone who could find a place had taken his mattress topside and stretched out there under the stars. Strange as it may seem, you get accustomed to even a bed of rivet heads, which poke through the thin mattress malignantly. The darkness, stirred occasionally by a sea breeze, was refreshing after the steamy heat of the buttoned-up spaces below.

Men at sea in the tropics in wartime suffer much more from the heat than those ashore. The ship must be closed up tight at sundown. With no time for a cooling-off period, the heat that has collected during the day from the sun beating on the thin steel decks and side plates is closeted with the crew and makes of the below-deck sleeping places a Turkish bath. The breeze from the electric fans serves only to stir up the steaming air, and brings little relief. Men lose as much as four or five pounds just sleeping under such conditions, and rise from their sodden bunks to greet the blood-red such of a new, hot day almost as tired as when they turned in the night before. Always it was a relief to spend a night cruising away from the land. There at least you were stirring up a breeze of your own, even if none was blowing, and every mile between the ship and the shore seemed to bring a decrease in temperature.

The daylight hours of January 26 also passed quietly. The crew saw a movie during the afternoon, the men sitting in the steaming mess room in their skivvies (navy slang for underwear) or in dungaree trousers.

At dinner that night the skipper suggested to Lieutenant Commander Lou Snider, the Exec, that perhaps we could have a movie shown in the wardroom. This was accomplished by setting up the projector in the narrow passageway just aft of the wardroom and projecting it through a port, or doorway, against a sheet hung on the forward bulkhead. Because the crew’s messroom was so small, the chief petty officers generally skipped that one and came up to the wardroom, which was on the main deck, just under the bridge, for their recreation.

There was some discussion at dinner as to what one of the five movies we had aboard should be shown. It was finally settled that we should see “Thunder Afloat” with Wallace Beery and Chester Morris in the leading parts. It was an old film, as most of them were that found their way to the combat zones. The good ones apparently were being held back in rear areas, where morale was more of a problem than it was in the front lines, afloat and ashore. “Thunder Afloat” was a portrayal of antisubmarine patrols off the East Coast in the first war. We were going sailing on our day off.

The picture was just approaching an exciting part, with Beery barging off in his Eagle boat, the 1918 version of the PCs, in search of a German submarine when the “beep, beep” of the general quarters alarm rang through the wardroom. Japanese night raiders had been detected coming in to attack. In nothing flat the wardroom was deserted.

By the time we reached the bridge the anchor was already being heaved in and, with the rest of the squadron, we soon were on our way out. It was to be one of our most rugged nights.

“Damn them, why couldn’t they stay home at least one night?” Lieutenant (j.g.) Johnny Everett, the torpedo officer, muttered as he checked his men to be sure everyone was at his post.

The moon was not yet up as we cleared the two small islands at the mouth of the harbor and turned toward Savo. There was only a light, broken overcast, however, and the stars, once the eyes became accustomed to the darkness, gave a surprising amount of light.

Lying closest to the open sea, the Nicholas was the first of the squadron outside, and we made a big circle as the three others cleared the harbor and fell into formation. We were steaming in column, following the leader.

“This may be quite a night,” the skipper said, as we stood in the darkened wheelhouse, where the only illumination was a dim light in the binnacle stand, and peered out of the forward ports at the foaming wake of the destroyer ahead of us.

The sea was glassy calm. Off to our left, as we approached Savo, was the black, ominous bulk of Guadalcanal. It lay like an island of the dead, not a light showing either around Henderson Field or farther west where the Japanese still had a tenuous beachhold. The enemy bombers had not yet arrived.

As we cleared Savo on a course toward Santa Isabela several planes were seen bearing toward us, and almost immediately the leading destroyer opened up on them. It was followed by the De Haven, which was next in column, and soon we were all blazing away, the red-hot tracers from the 5-inch guns and automatic weapons arching out across the star-studded sky in a beautiful if terrible pattern, reminiscent of some of the fireworks displays at the New York World’s Fair.

One of the Japanese planes was hit and fell blazing toward the sea. Whether the accuracy of our fire was the reason, or the enemy pilots had been given other fish to fry, the formation turned away from us and continued toward Tulagi and Henderson Field. Darkness and silence again fell over the line of destroyers, broken only by the muffled roar of the big blowers forcing air down to the pounding engines.

Captain Briscoe now headed south for the Russell Islands group, which the Japanese were then using as a staging base for reinforcing Guadalcanal. They would put men and supplies ashore there one night and then, the next, run them across the twenty-two-mile-wide strait to Guadalcanal in landing barges.

By this time the Japanese bombers were over Tulagi and Henderson Field to the east, and the searchlight beams were probing for them in the sky. We saw one caught full in the concentrated glare of several lights, the ack-ack bursting all around him. He was diving and twisting to escape. Finally they lost him. We were too far away to hear the sound of the antiaircraft or the bursting of the bombs the Japanese were dropping; but soon there was a dull red glow from the direction of Tulagi that waxed and waned for half an hour.

We learned later that the bombers that approached Tulagi flew over once without dropping a bomb. As they returned for another run, one of the 20-millimeter batteries, that had no chance of reaching the bombers at the height they were flying, opened up. It was followed by other AA defenses. Their target ringed for them by the flash of our guns, the Japanese, this time, laid their eggs. One hit a fuel-and-ammunition supply dump. That was the blaze we saw. Several ships in the harbor, including an old engineless fuel barge, were straddled and got some bomb fragments aboard but were not damaged.

The Japanese had sent down a strong air force and some of our own planes, the big amphibious Catalinas, or PBYs, that made almost nightly nuisance bombing raids against Munda and Vila airfields, on New Georgia and Kolombangara Islands, respectively, were also in the air. It was difficult to tell friend from foe.

Finally Captain Briscoe did something about it.

“Any Black Cats” (as the night-raiding Catalinas were called), he said over the warning net, “do you know where we are?”

“Yes, generally,” came the answer.

“Then get the hell away from here,” he bellowed.

Before we were sure, though, that all friendly planes had left the vicinity two of the Japanese pilots, guided by our foaming white wakes, made a run on us and dropped at the Nicholas. We were the last ship in the column.

They came in so suddenly, plummeting down from a high altitude, that our guns did not open fire until they had made their drops and were on their way.

We never saw either one from the wing of the bridge, but we heard clearly the roar of their motors and then the sound of the bombs bursting. Two fell some fifty yards astern, and two were so close ahead that the spray from the small geysers of water they threw in the air fell on the forecastle. There was no damage, though, to the ship or injury to the men.

We had been caught off guard because of the presence of our planes. But we were not going to let it happen again.

“Fire on any plane that comes within range,” Captain Hill grimly ordered Fire Control.

By midnight we were down off the Russells, sweeping between Lamon Rock and Cape Esperance.

Japanese planes remained in the area most of the rest of the night, and twice more we opened fire on them, bagging at least one more enemy scout, which fell into the water and exploded less than a mile from the formation. No more bombs were dropped at us, however, and as the sun came up over Cape Esperance, heralding the beginning of another blistering day, we headed back past Savo for Tulagi.

There was little rest for the weary crews. We refueled and remained at anchor through the hot morning, but soon after lunch orders were received to make an antisubmarine sweep to the north. One of our planes had sighted and attacked an enemy submarine that morning, and when there was one there generally were others that escaped detection. We finally caught up with one of them that night.

After the afternoon sweep the squadron patrolled along, just taking it easy. There was an early sunset behind a bank of black clouds in the west as we headed up “the slot.” A striking force of our dive bombers and torpedo planes, which had attacked a Japanese convoy off Kolombangara, sinking one destroyer and damaging one cargo vessel and a tanker, came out of the sun, racing the storm clouds back to base, and swept low over out formation.

The squalls started coming an hour after the tropic night had dropped down, cooling the ships but reducing visibility; and we took up a patrol between Cape Esperance and the Russell Islands. The enemy barges always picked a black night to make their runs to and from Guadalcanal, and it was our hope to intercept and sink some of them if they tried it.

It was just before midnight, as we were cruising along, that men on the Nicholas and the Radford sighted what they thought was either a large barge or a submarine running on the surface. The Radford must have sighted it first, because just as our junior officer of the deck was reporting it to the commodore, the other destroyer put on speed, crossed our bow, and attacked.

The submarine, for that’s what it was, apparently saw or heard us at about the same time, as it attempted to dive without attacking. The Radford was over him before he had reached a safe depth, and dropped two depth charges, or “ash cans” as the sailors call them. The rest of the squadron then turned for a run over the target, but no one else got a contact and the Radford, which had made her run at high speed and had used up several hundred yards of seaway turning for a new attack, also lost the sub. In the faint light we could see a large oil slick bubbling up, and it appeared certain the enemy craft had been hurt.

The rest of the night passed without further alarms, but with continuing squalls that apparently grounded both our planes and the enemy pilots.

Ominous reports meanwhile had been coming in from our search planes of the presence of large enemy naval forces, including battleships and carriers, between Truk and the Solomons. Other groups of destroyers and cruisers were seen in the Shortland Islands area, off Bougainville, and enemy air activity was increasing.

Our oil tanks being full, we didn’t go back to Tulagi that day, but stayed west of Savo. Other and strong United States task forces were speeding up from the south, hoping for a decisive naval engagement if the Japanese should keep on coming, but Squadron Umpty-Ump was the only United States naval group actually around Guadalcanal. If a battle were to be joined, apparently we would be the ones who would start it.

The enemy position on Guadalcanal at this time was desperate. We had complete control of the air over the area they still held along Tassafaronga Beach, west of Kokumbona Village, and they were strafed by day and bombed by day and night. Our forces, now greatly superior in numbers as well as in firepower, and also in physical condition, were pressing on each day behind heavy artillery barrages.

The presence of enemy ships it was thought indicated a Japanese decision to rush in more troops and hold the remaining beachhead. As it was proved later, it was a desperate and costly effort to remove as many of the survivors as possible, especially the higher officers.

Anyway, there our squadron was, out west of Savo, holding on to its collective hat in anticipation of a knock-down, drag-out fight with enemy ships and planes.

Many planes were sighted early in the evening, but they left us alone as we swept back and forth between the Russells and Cape Esperance. There were some of our own planes up, as well as the enemy’s, and late in the evening one of the Black Cats reported what he thought was a Japanese submarine, some fifteen miles west of our position at that time. We swung over that way and cruised through the area twice without contact.

Meantime, the report had come in that a force of our cruisers and destroyers had been attacked by Japanese torpedo bombers soon after dark near Rennell Island, some seventy miles to the south of Guadalcanal, and that the heavy cruiser Chicago had been hit. The planes we had sighted earlier in the evening apparently were the ones that had made the attack.

Shortly after midnight the moon came up, burnishing our wakes with silver and making a long track from the ship to the horizon. The sea’s face was like a millpond on which the flying fish, disturbed by our passing, left long wakes as they skimmed the surface, beating the phosphorescent water to a froth with their tail fins.

At daybreak the squadron slid past Savo to take up an antisubmarine patrol in the passages on either side of the island. A large convoy of our ships bringing fresh troops and supplies had come in during the early morning and was now lying off Koli Point and Lunga Point, discharging. Our task was to see that no submarine got in on them from the west.

There was an air alarm at 3:30 p.m., but the Japanese raiders were turned back before they got even as far as Savo. We saw our fighters going to intercept. Again they were leaving long vapor trails as they passed over Savo.

As we learned later, the intended attack on the island was apparently only a feint to distract attention while Japanese torpedo bombers made a daylight strike at our cruiser-destroyer task force that had been hit the night before. Coming in this time in broad daylight, thirteen torpedo bombers attacked the crippled Chicago, which was under tow. Although twelve of the thirteen attackers were shot down, they all apparently got within launching range first, as six torpedoes hit the cruiser. The Chicago, with eight torpedoes in her guts, turned over and sank. The destroyer La Vallette was hit but made port safely.

The Chicago was the seventh and last cruiser we were to lose in the Guadalcanal campaign, now drawing rapidly to a successful conclusion.

January 30 passed quietly for the squadron. There were no contact reports, or air alarms, so remained at anchor in Tulagi harbor overnight. Because of the heat it wasn’t much of a rest cure for the crew. Too, they had a lot of ship’s work to catch up with. The many days and nights of cruising around Savo had given little time for paint chipping or repair work.

Shortly after midnight the watch had a radio side seat at the ramming and disabling of a Japanese submarine by one of the four New Zealand corvettes that had been operating with us out of Tulagi on antisubmarine patrol. When an enemy task force was around, the New Zealanders had to play doggo in some harbor behind shore-defense batteries, having no armament with which to tangle with enemy surface vessels, nor enough anti-aircraft to combat a plane attack. Fortunately for them there were generally more worthwhile targets around for the Japanese planes, and they went through many raids unscathed. Against submarines, however, at least those the Japanese were using in the Solomons, they were more than a match, having more deck armament than the subs and the same listening devices and depth charges as the bigger American destroyers.

The Kiwi was cruising along off Cape Esperance that night when her lookout sighted a Japanese submarine on the surface. Opening first with her deck guns, to which the Japanese replied with automatic weapons, the Kiwi then rammed the enemy undersea boat at full speed, slid off, wheeled and rammed him again.

The Kiwi had one dead man and several injured aboard. She had rammed the submarine so vigorously she had put a permanent wave in her own bow. She was still seaworthy, though, and ready and willing to accept congratulations. It had been a long, nerveracking patrol out of Tulagi for the little corvettes, and this was their first chance to crow. No one begrudged them it. There was no question about that victory.

The night of January 31 was unlike the day. It was “Condition Red” at 9 p.m., so away the squadron went, chasing the flying fish past Savo.

It was black as the inside of a curly-haired man’s hat, as Kim Hubbard once phrased it, and we saw and did nothing except cruise back and forth between Cape Esperance and the Russell Islands all night long.

At dawn, however, a plane spotted what it thought was some undamaged enemy landing barges just west of Cape Esperance, and the squadron leader and the De Haven went in to work over them. The Nicholas and the Radford were left outside to bird-dog for submarines while the other two destroyers were raking the beach. They were firing fuse-set shells so they would burst just above the water and thus get a larger destructive spread with each shell.

“Keep our fire right on the beach,” the commodore warned over the TBS, the radio voice circuit. We have some patrols back there in the hills somewhere, and we don’t want to mess them up.”

After the squadron leader and the De Haven had worked over the barges to the commodore’s satisfaction, the squadron headed back in for Tulagi. As we paralleled the beach we could see our artillery firing at the Japanese positions just west of the Poha River. One of our planes circled the area to spot for the guns. He occasionally dropped a smoke bomb to mark some Japanese position. Then the artillery would go to work on that area.

We could gauge the progress of our troops ashore each day by the position of the artillery fire. In a week they had moved some two miles up the beach and now were at Kokumbona Village, one-time headquarters of the Japanese on the island. Our crews were aching for a chance to go in and help out with some more shore bombardments, but our services apparently weren’t needed.

At 4 p.m. we saw an air strike of fourteen dive bombers and eight torpedo planes, with an escort of Lightnings up above them, shoving off northeast. They were back shortly after sunset to report they had found a destroyer and a corvette escorting a large cargo vessel through Vella Gulf, apparently headed for Vila or Munda, and had attacked them and left them all badly damaged and dead in the water.

The squadron anchored in Tulagi harbor for a conference among the captains and the commodore on the next day’s operations. General Patch was sending a landing expedition around Cape Esperance to set up a “second front” and put a pincers on the Japanese. The squadron was given the job of sweeping the south passage past Savo during the night to be sure there were no enemy surface or undersea craft nosing about and then was to escort the landing craft to the beaches and cover their landing with shellfire, if there should be opposition.

We were underway at sunset for what proved to be the most exciting and tragic thirty-six hours of our duty. We didn’t know it then, but before another sunset we were to lose the De Haven and two-thirds of her crew, and the Nicholas was to barely escape a like fate. (continued)