By February 1 the ground forces on Guadalcanal had driven the enemy out of his former headquarters at Kokumba Village, ten miles west of Henderson Field, and across the Poha River, the last natural defense for several miles. The decision was made to land a force to the south of Cape Esperance and start a drive from both directions.
To Captain Briscoe’s destroyer squadron was given the task of safely escorting the LCTs and the small destroyer-transport around the cape to a landing near Nugu Point. We had gone out west the night before to sweep the area for hostile submarines or surface vessels, as the operation was scheduled to begin at 2 a.m. There was a delay, and it was after dawn before we picked up the small transport train and started past Savo.
It was a hot morning, with high, broken clouds, and we cursed the slowness of the LCTs as they waddled along deep in the water, their sunken decks chock-a-block with trucks and supplies and men. As we cleared the passage with the destroyers patrolling on either side of the line of LCTs, one of the LCT captains must have decided he knew more about the course than the leader, because he took off in a direction that eventually would have landed him on the Russell Islands. The squadron leader had to steam ahead and shoo him back.
The lateness of the start forfeited any element of surprise for the expedition, as we were clearly visible from the enemy-held beach of Guadalcanal. They were undoubtedly in touch by radio with their air bases on up the Solomons and the fleet units that had been reported maneuvering south of Truk.
“We’ll probably get the hell bombed out of us,” one of the telephone talkers said as we stood on the shaded wing of the bridge watching the slow progress of the train. There were several of our own planes around, however, and we thought we would have plenty of protection.
The first troops were just going ashore at 11:30, several hours behind schedule but apparently without opposition, when headquarters announced an air raid coming in.
“Oh, oh. What did I tell you,” the talker said as he dug out his tin hat from its storage place in the flag locker.
For some reason, the planes did not attempt to interfere with the landing operations but centered their attack on Henderson Field. From twenty miles away we could see the black anti-aircraft bursts against the white clouds over the island.
The first few LCTs and the destroyer-transport were in nuzzling the beach by then, and the Nicholas and the Radford turned back to sweep astern of the stragglers. Some three miles astern of us were the squadron leader and the .
We were steaming along on a northerly course when two miles ahead and about five thousand feet altitude a large two-motored bomber burst out of a cloud bank.
There was a moment’s hesitation, as one of the officers yelled he thought it was one of our own PBYs. Finally, the skipper identified it to his own satisfaction and ordered fire control to open up on him.
“Wham, wham,” “wham, wham,” the two forward guns began to bark.
Before the shells had reached the plane’s position, Lieutenant Johnny Everett, who originally had identified it as a PBY, again was shouting that it was one of our own planes at which the guns were shooting. The captain ordered fire control to check fire.
The Radford meanwhile also had opened fire and was pouring out her 5-inch projectiles at a fast rate.
We waited anxiously for the shellbursts. Directly ahead of the plane one blossomed, then a second. Both had exploded within what looked to be ten yards of the plane. If it was one of our own planes it was just too bad.
“My God, we’ve shot down one of our own planes,” Johnny moaned as the big airship, looming black against the white clouds, nosed over and plummeted straight for the water.
As it fell directly on our course, we got a good look and dissolved any doubts as to its identity. It was a Mitsubishi ’01. Just before it hit the water we saw a door open and someone plunge out, then a spurt of flame, but there was no explosion.
As the plane fell, other shellbursts from the Radford blossomed in the area where our own two had exploded, and over the short-wave radio circuit someone on the Radford yelled, “We got him. We got him.”
Immediately there was an indignant howl from our bridge, and Skipper Hill strode purposefully to the microphone.
“We got that plane,” he said “We were the first to open fire and we claim him as ours.”
“We opened first,” the Radford retorted.
“Knock off the chatter,” ordered the commodore.”
The Nicholas by that time was passing the spot where the plane had fallen. There was little wreckage. Only a gasoline tank, its aluminum bright and shining, a few scraps of wing and what looked like two or three bodies in life jackets.
We did not stop to investigate, as we knew there must be other enemy planes in the area. Sure enough, in a moment, another Mitsubishi ’01 popped out of a cloud. Again the Nicholas and the Radford both opened up Black bursts were all around the Japanese pilot, and he was smoking and wobbling as he ducked into another cloud, but still flying. It seemed doubtful, however, that he would ever get home.
A whole flock of Zero fighters also passed astern of the force soon after, but they were flying high and fast, made no passes at us, and no one opened on them.
As soon as the raid was over, we turned back to the scene of the crash of the first plane. As we had countermarched, the Radford was now ahead of us instead of trailing, and Captain Briscoe ordered her to investigate the wreckage.
We took the commodore’s command as tacit acceptance of the Radford’s claim that her guns had shot down the Japanese bomber. The whole Nicholas crew was in a fret. As a wholly unbiased observer, I offered to make an affidavit that the good St. Nicholas had first opened fire on the enemy and it was her guns that had shot him down.
“You know what I think,” said a young lookout, grinning down from the fire-control platform just above the bridge. “I think we ought to go anchor alongside the Radford tonight and go over and talk this over with them, say about three hundred of us.”
For two-and-a-half more hours, anger bubbled among the Nicholas’s crew. Then there came more important things to think about.
The first LCTs to land had completed their unloading at 1 p.m. and headed back for Tulagi. The Nicholas and the De Haven were assigned to escort them. The squadron leader and the Radford were to bring the others.
We headed north toward Cape Esperance and then turned east through the passage between the cape and Savo Island. The skies were beginning to clear, and there were only a few fleecy white clouds. There was much plane activity. Two Airacobras swept past on a reconnaissance of enemy held beaches. High over Henderson Field we could see four or five planes circling, apparently on routine high patrol.
The LCTs, rid of their load, were chugging along at a better pace than they had taken going out; but it still was slow, uninteresting work. The two destroyers were maneuvering on either side.
Shortly after 1430 (2:30 p.m.), headquarters again warned of an approaching air attack, but cancelled it five minutes later. The destroyers, which had rung for flank speed when the alarm was given, dropped to a slower pace.
At 1443 headquarters again came back on. His voice sounded more urgent this time as he announced that “the condition is red,” and Captain Hill ordered enough turns put on to take the Nicholas up to a faster speed. As all hands scanned the skies for the enemy planes, we noticed that the De Haven still was meandering at slow speed. Apparently Captain Tolman thought this too was a false alarm.
There was no sign of unusual activity over Henderson Field. We could see the planes still circling over it, some twenty thousand feet up. There was another large group of planes somewhat to the north of the island, headed our way, but they were too far away to be identified. The planes circling the field seemed to be paying them no attention, so we thought they must be friendly.
We were almost through the south passage, with Savo on the port quarter, when out of a small cloud just ahead of the force and at about six thousand feet altitude we saw a plane diving at the De Haven. Lieutenant Commander Lou Snider, spending his last day in fire control before turning over the job to Lieutenant Mitchell, ordered our guns to open fire.
The enemy plane must have been sighted at about the same time from the De Haven because we saw a bubble of white froth at her stern, as her propellers began to thrash a faster beat. Then her automatic weapons opened fire on the diving bomber.
Straight and true the enemy flier dove, at a steep angle, to within less than one thousand feet of the little can, then dropped his bomb and straightened out. There was a flash of an explosion between the De Haven’s stacks, followed by a billowing cloud of black-and-brown smoke.
Other enemy plans were diving and our guns were yammering.
Then there was a shout from one of the signalmen:
“Plane diving on us, starboard quarter.”
Out of the corner of my eye I was another explosion on the stern of the De Haven, and then my whole attention was centered on the plane at the on the plane diving at the Nicholas.
The Nicholas was turning flank speed, the wake boiling high above her fantail as she squatted like a running horse and tore along through the glassy water.
The enemy bomber came over the edge of the cloud and started down. His front view silhouette was as distinct as in a drawing. There was the round cowling of the motor, the two wings like pencil marks protruding on either side and, sticking out below, the two wheels with their wind pants.
“An Aichi,” I said to ensign LaSalle, who was standing beside me.
“Looks like it,” he agreed.
Captain Hill had swung the ship hard right when the first report of the bomber diving was received, and the destroyer was heeled far over as she made the turn. Every gun on the ship was firing, the red tracers of the 20-millimeters arching up to a converging cone at the nose of the enemy bomber. LaSalle grabbed up a Tommy gun from the bridge wing and started firing that.
The Japanese pilot was aiming straight for the bridge where we were standing. There was a flicker of fire from his wings as he came within range and opened up with his machine guns and then, out of the belly of his plane, from behind the wheels, we saw his bomb release and start to fall.
I had a feeling of detachment, which is not uncommon, others have told me, as I watched it come down. I was sure it was going to hit. I was standing near the pilot-house door under what protection the apron of the fire-control platform gave, and the flag box cut off my view aft so that I lost the bomb just before it hit. By that time, however, I saw it was going to miss, but by a very narrow margin.
The first bomber had not yet released his bomb when the report came that another was coming in on the port quarter. In not more than three or four minutes eight of them dove at our destroyer, which was twisting and turning at flank speed six thousand feet below them. Big John Stone, the lieutenant in charge of the 1.1 batter just aft of number two stack, said none of the eight bombs missed the ship by more than twenty or thirty feet.
“It was almost miraculous to see our stern swinging just far enough to get out of the way,” John said.
Suddenly the guns stopped yammering and the usual sounds of the ship, that had been obscured by the cacophony of war, were heard again, the blowers sucking the air to the boilers, voices on the bridge. Somewhere a many was crying like a heartbroken child.
From the bridge we could see one man lying on the small platform just under the 1.1 battery. It really was only a piece of a man. One arm and half the trunk seemed to be gone. A gunner’s mate was standing by one of the 20-millimeters nearby looking in puzzlement at his right hand, from which blood was streaming to the deck. Two men were helping a third into the after dressing station, where young Dr. W.J. Doyle was taking care of the wounded. Several men were lying on the deck.
The ship was steaming steadily at high speed, apparently little damaged. The engine room had reported water coming in through a hole in the side, but they soon had it plugged. Steering control had been lost for a few seconds on the bridge, but it had been quickly restored. The shock of one of the near misses had broken a connection.
Before going aft to check on the dead and wounded, and the damage, I swept the immediate vicinity with my glasses to check on the De Haven and the LCTs. The little fellows were all right, circling near where a great cloud of black smoke rose up from the sea to a height of hundreds of feet. I could see no ship at the base of the smoke.
“Gone,” said Captain Hill, who saw me looking. “I saw a bomb hit her just forward of the bridge. It must have penetrated to the magazine, for there was a terrific explosion and she broke right in two. I doubt if anyone came off the bridge. The explosion just blew it to pieces.”
The attack obviously being over, Captain Hill had turned back to the smoke that was the De Haven’s funeral pyre. As it began to thin we saw the sea covered with debris, and a great circle of oil that glinted like a rainbow in the afternoon sunlight.
In evading the attack at high speed we had traveled several miles away from where the other destroyer had gone down, and the LCTs, their forward ramps in the water, already were nosing through the wreckage pulling oil-covered survivors aboard when the Nicholas arrived and put over her whaleboat.
In half an hour it was certain all the living had been found, and some of the dead, floating in their life jackets, so Captain Hill ordered the LCTs to come alongside and transfer the wounded to us.
There were surprisingly few. It was live or die on the De Haven that day. Many of the one hundred and ten survivors did not have a mark on them. Almost two hundred had died.
One of the most stoical of the survivors was Chief Machinist’s Mate R.C. Andrews. He was a big man in his late forties, with a thick black moustache. As he clambered aboard the Nicholas he used only one hand. The other was badly torn. One finger was hanging only by a piece of skin. He examined his injured hand critically—Doctor Doyle was caring for the worst cases first—then reached in his pocket for his knife.
“Here, son, cut this off,” he said to a young seaman standing by him.
“Aw, I can’t, Pop,” said the youngster. “Let it alone. Maybe the doc can save it.”
“Nope, she’s too far gone,” the Chief said; and as casually as if he were cutting off a chew of tobacco he severed the piece of skin and tossed the finger over the side.
One of our own men, Gunner’s Mate 3/cl. Lewis Samuels, was almost as casual about his shattered hand. He reported to Doctor Doyle, who cleaned and bandaged his hand, gave him a tetanus shot, and told him to lie down.
“I can’t, Doc, I got to get back to my gun,” Samuels answered.
“You sit down there; never mind your gun. You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
“I had to take care of another patient then,” Doctor Doyle said later. “The next time I looked around Samuels was gone.”
Samuels helped get the De Haven wounded aboard and was busy, with his one good hand, tidying up around his 20-millimeter mount when the doctor found him an hour later and ordered him into one of the Higgins boats that had come to take the wounded to the navy hospital.
Just as we were getting the last of the wounded aboard, the squadron leader and the Radford came boiling up. The squadron leader took aboard the uninjured survivors, and then the three destroyers headed for Lunga Point at high speed to put them ashore. A Japanese task force, first reported as consisting of two heavy cruisers, two lights, and sixteen destroyers had been sighted coming down “the slot.” There was no time to mourn the dead or comfort the living. The squadron and half a dozen PT boats were the only force available to stop them. We had to be about it.
“Are you all right?” the commodore asked Captain Hill.
“Two dead, one dying, sixteen injured, and one gun out,” was the answer. “Otherwise, O.K.”
“Disembark survivors and wounded men and join,” the commodore signaled.
As we hurriedly put the De Haven survivors into the Higgins boats and turned away to follow the squadron leader back out past Savo, the De Haven’s men gave a cheer for the Nicholas. Leading it was Samuels, his bandaged arm now in a sling.
“Keep her floating, you guys,” he yelled at his shipmates lining the rail.
We saw him waving with his good hand as long as we were in sight.
At dinner that night, a subdued meal in contrast to the usual uproar, we put all the stories together and decided that six planes had dived on the De Haven. Three of them hit her. Eight had dived on us. Although some observers reported seeing as high as seven enemy planes go into the water, it was finally decided that not more than four or five had been shot down. We thought the group probably was from a carrier. They had an escort of Zeros. Two-thirds of the De Haven’s crew had been lost, including Captain [Tolman], who a few days before, when I was preparing to shift from the O’Bannon, had asked me to come aboard his ship. Only three of her eighteen officers had survived.
Lieutenant Mitchell resolved the question of the man I had heard crying. It was Hector Constantino, Chief Radio Electrician.
Hector was a chunky little man who still spoke with an accent. He had come to the United States from Greece just before the last world war. Two days after he arrived he was robbed of his savings by two fellow countrymen. Hector enlisted in the army. After serving through the war he left the service for a few months, but then enlisted in the navy. He had been in the navy since that time. He was one of the most deeply patriotic men I ever knew. To him the United States meant everything he cherished.
“It’s no pose with Hector,” Mitch explained. “He cries whenever he hears of one of our ships being lost. He did that the other night when the message came through about the Chicago. He just happens to be built that way.”
It was an emotionally and physically exhausted crew that took the Nicholas out west of Savo that night. Few of them had had any sleep for forty-eight hours, since we had been out on patrol all the previous night. They had seen their shipmates killed and wounded and a sister ship destroyed in exactly six minutes. The deck was still slippery with blood in places. There had been no time to clean up. Now they were going out to intercept the Tokyo Express. Three ships against twenty. All other American ships in the area—freighters, tenders, corvettes, and the escorts—had been ordered to leave.
Months later, in my notebook, I found this: “The might Davids go out to tackle Goliath. What a story if it comes off.”
The sun set early behind a bank of clouds, and the dark came down. Heat lightning was playing along the horizon. Far to the left, as we cleared Savo, were visible the hilltops of the Russell Islands. Thirty miles to the northwest loomed the bulk of Santa Isabel. Between the two lay “the slot,” empty, quiet, ominous. Back up its 250-mile length, somewhere on the way down, was the enemy force.
Captain Briscoe, the commodore, led us out the north passage and then southwest toward the Russells. We were in column, the squadron leader, in advance, then the Nicholas, and behind us the Radford.
If there were 8-inch-gun and 6-inch-gun cruisers in the enemy force, as was the first report, the only chance for the three outgunned, outnumbered American cans was to surprise the enemy and be within torpedo-launching range, inside ten thousand yards, before we were discovered. It would be suicide to go in against the fire of the heavy guns.
Before leaving the vicinity of Tulagi, Captain Briscoe and the PT squadron commander had agreed on search areas. The destroyers were to cover the approach from the south, and the PTs the approach from the north. Search planes were up “the slot” to watch for the Japanese.
As the early hours passed with no further report from the enemy, it appeared possible they had turned back. They were almost past Savo at midnight before we saw them. At almost the same time the PT boats, sweeping the north channel, ran smack into them.
“My God, it’s the whole Japanese navy,” we heard one of the young PT skippers exclaim.
The Japanese ships opened fire as the PTs attacked, sinking two of them and so damaging a third that it had to be beached. But not before they scored a hit on one destroyer, which caught fire and burned for some time before it sank. Dive bombers from Guadalcanal also joined in the fight, and the clouds above Savo were lighted for half and hour with the flash of guns and bombs and the flares dropped by the planes.
When Captain Briscoe made contact with the enemy force, now identified as twenty destroyers, he turned the squadron north and headed for the Japanese ships. They were about twenty thousand yards away at this time.
Planes had been around all the evening, but none had attacked, and we did not know whether they were enemy or friendly. As the squadron turned toward the Japanese ships, however, the planes turned toward the three destroyers and started dropping flares to mark our course. The commodore turned away.
When the commodore saw them coming out he again attempted to close, but again the enemy planes probably warned their ships of our approach, and again we turned away.
Circling, we followed them up “the slot” for several miles, but we never got close enough for a torpedo attack. Planes from Guadalcanal were still harassing them as they retired. At daylight, other planes took up the chase. The found sixteen destroyers, and scored a hit on one and a near hit on another.
At the time it was thought the enemy force was bringing reinforcements in to the dwindling Japanese garrison on Guadalcanal. Instead they were evacuating the officers. The men were left to die.
As we steamed past Savo the next morning en route to Tulagi we saw many abandoned Japanese small boats in the water and debris from damaged or sunken Japanese ships.
That afternoon the commodore, whose original squadron of five destroyers had now dwindled to three, and one of those damaged, recommended that the squadron be withdrawn. The commodore’s logical evaluation of the situation was that his ships were too valuable to use on suicide missions and the force wasn’t big enough to really slug it out with anything the Japanese would send down. Admiral Halsey must have agreed with him, for orders came to the Nicholas to return for repairs and for the others to join up with a force of cruisers maneuvering south of the Solomons. Late that afternoon we said goodbye to Tulagi with no regrets. (continued)