First Actions

The weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor were weeks of frantic reinforcing and rebuilding. After a week of patrolling in the rough seas north of the islands, Task Force 8 returned to Pearl to replenish. As we stood up the channel, we were struck by the changes that had already been wrought. Hickham Field was operational again, they were busy working on Nevada and had much of the wreckage removed, Shaw and her floating drydock were on an even keel again, the bow of sunken Oklahoma was barely above the water, Arizona was no longer burning, planes were coming and going from Ford Island, but most of all, there was a steady, orderly movement of boats, men and material around the harbor.

As before, we went alongside at the Submarine Base to pick up stores, fuel and mail. We were soon nested at our buoys in East Loch. Men with dependents ashore were permitted a short visit home, but the ship was at Condition III all the time. The big addition was a “draft” of about 50 men, fresh from the States, who had volunteered for the Navy as soon as they heard of the Jap Attack. They arrived in their civilian clothes, with not a day at Boot Camp, but ready to do their part. We split them up to the various departments in accordance with their civilian backgrounds and “turned to” to make them part of the crew.

One of the first Japanese objectives after the attack on Pearl was Wake Island. By the time we got to sea after our first visit to Pearl, the assault on Wake was in full swing. Though our Marines fought valiantly, they were no match for the attacking forces and no help was sent from Pearl. Task Force 8 was stationed in the vicinity of Midway to protect that island, but Wake fell on the 23rd of December with no help from us. We did have two Christmases at sea as we patrolled back and forth across the International Date Line.

DesRon 6’s first casualties of the War came exactly two weeks after the attack on Pearl. Frequently, as the anti-submarine screen would reorient to accommodate a formation course change, destroyers would plunge at high speed into big winter seas and spray would shroud the ship completely, even to the top of her mast. Occasionally we’d see another destroyer rise out of the water, break free of the wave and to show her keel back as far as the bridge. It had consequently become the custom in our squadron to keep 5-inch mount one trained around to the after “stops” to avoid wetting the interior of the mount with salt water leaking around the gun “bloomers” and sight ports. On a calmer day, as we were standing off Midway, Craven had her forward mount so trained as she swung in to take plane guard station astern as Enterprise turned into light wind at 30 knots to commence Flight Ops. She dug her bow into a vicious combination of a long ground swell and the carrier’s wake and took solid “Green Water” across her forecastle. The surge of heavy water hit the after corner of mount one and collapsed the light structure of the gun shield. Three members of the gun crew inside were crushed to death!

During our patrolling north of the islands and near Midway, we had a good chance to integrate the newcomers into the ship’s organization and routines. Many had a terrible time with seasickness - it was often rough and we didn’t slow down for fear of Jap submarines. Most men adjusted to the continuous motion as the ship rolled, twisted and lunged through the water, soon finding their “Sea Legs.” One miserable volunteer never did overcome his “mal de mer” and had to be transferred to other duty after two months of constant nausea.

We got back to Pearl for a couple of days over New Years Day and again about a week later. A few of us got ashore to look after personal business. I found that the 1932 Ford Coupe, which I had bought from my brother Bill for $200, was still in the Officer’s Club Parking Lot near the Fleet Landing. It had escaped all damage despite being right under the flight path of the torpedo planes that got the Battleships. I drove into Honolulu to look around and found little had changed, except that Prohibition had been imposed! There certainly wasn’t any sign of damage once one got away from the Navy Yard and Hickham Field area. There were a lot more planes at Hickham. I particularly noticed the Martin B-26s, with their cigar shaped bodies, fat engines and short wings. They looked exceptionally lethal.

When we returned to sea, Task Force 8 headed south instead of north! We seemed to be going somewhere, but no one on board knew where. In a few days, we crossed the Equator and kept on working south. Enterprise kept a Combat Air Patrol in the air from before dawn until after sunset. The Scout Bombers flew at least two Searches a day, but it was mostly quiet cruising over deep blue tropical seas. We took station north of Samoa and cruised back and forth along the Equator. After our first war cruise, the Watch List had been re-organized—I was now standing OOD watches instead of Director Watches.

One of the few memorable events of the long boring days was the sighting of a Whale Shark. The ship was sliding through the clear waters with hardly a breath of air to disturb the surface when the Lookouts reported a large fin ahead. We passed within 20 ft. of the huge fish as he lay basking in the sun with his fin protruding above the surface, so we could estimate his size accurately by comparing him to known objects on deck. The shark was nearly 40 ft. long and fully 5 ft. wide at the middle! It didn’t seem to be concerned as the ship passed by at 15 knots.

Our Latitude and Longitude told us we were protecting Samoa and we could decipher enough traffic on the Fox Skeds to let us know there were other U.S. Forces in the area. During the midwatch on 22 January, as we were changing the Formation Course during a blinding tropical downpour, Gridley and Fanning collided. All ships were steaming “Darkened Ship” and someone made a mistake. The damage was sufficient to send both ships back to Pearl for repairs. Without firing our first shots “in anger,” DesRon 6 was cut down to seven ships.

Finally, an Enterprise SBD flew low over the forecastle and dropped an Operation Order for our first combat. In combination with Task Force 17, built around Yorktown, newly returned to the Pacific, Admiral Halsey, now a Vice Admiral, was going to lead us on a Strike against the Japanese in the Marshall and the Gilbert Islands. Chester with her 8-inch guns, Balch and Maury were to bombard the Japanese advanced seaplane base at Taroa Island in the Maloelap Atoll of the Marshall Islands. RAdm. Spruance, with Northampton, Salt Lake City and Dunlap, was to bombard the island of Wotje in the central Marshalls—thought to be the toughest target—and Enterprise, with the remainder of the destroyers, was to conduct air attacks on Kwajalein. Task Force 17, under RAdm. Fletcher was to raid the Gilbert Islands.

None of us had ever seen a combat Operation Order before and it was quite an education. It was a mimeographed document, classified SECRET, about an inch thick, which explained the objectives, organization and schedule of the operation. It had several “Annexes” which outlined precise details of the planned firing and bombing schedules, communication circuits and codes, and actions to be taken in case of damaged ships and aircraft. A most interesting part was the Intelligence Annex, which contained a map showing the layout of Taroa. Included were some photographs taken by a Submarine in early January. Maloelap Atoll was being prepared as a seaplane base, but it was estimated to have no airfield or other defenses of any consequence. There had been a couple of converted merchantmen in the lagoon when the last reconnaissance had been made.

As we headed northwest towards our assigned objective, the ship was alive with preparations for battle. Flash-proof clothing and Gas Masks were issued. Emergency Battle Dressing stations were set up by the Chief Pharmacist Mate, both forward in the wardroom and aft in the crew’s washroom. The cooks were busy preparing “battle rations”and every man was checking the equipment at his battle station. On the evening before our attack, I found myself on the 02 level just forward of the Charthouse wondering how I’d perform “Under fire.” I wasn’t so much worried about getting hurt or killed as whether I’d keep calm and do my job properly when the shells started coming in. It was pretty lonesome there in the vast starlit night and I felt insecurity gnawing at the pit of my stomach. I’d certainly been trained for the coming events—I’d now find if the training had been effective.

The Task Force split up into its various attack elements on the evening of the 31st of January. Balch and Maury took screening stations on Chester’s bows as we glided north through the black night. I rolled out at 0445 reveille, had a quick shower and shave as advised by the Doctor, donned my musty brown “Flash-proof” coveralls, strapped on my Colt 45, as required of all officers, and climbed the ladders to the Director Platform above the Bridge. General Quarters sounded at 0530 as we approached Maloelap Atoll, but it was still dark and we could see nothing. Chester reversed Course into the wind and catapulted two of her SOCs to take station above the target and “Spot” for the bombardment. We could see blue flame from the engine exhaust and wondered if the Japs could see it too. The single-float SOC bi-planes struggled up to altitude and moved toward the island. They couldn’t make a hundred knots in a dive, so they’d be easy pickings for any gunner ashore. Chester then headed for the Initial Point of our Bombardment Plan and we fell in astern.

As the first light came to the eastern horizon, we could make out a strip of low-lying land to the west. The morning air was cool and I felt a chill as the clock ticked toward Zero Hour.

Our bombardment Course was 10,000 yds. out and parallel to the three-mile long beach of Taroa. As we headed towards our bombardment track, we saw flashes of fire interspersed along the emerging tree line and some streams of tracers in the air. Our six assigned F4F Air Support Fighters must be doing their stuff.

Chester opened fire with deliberation at 20,000 yards and her 8-inch salvoes could be seen crunching into the palm trees. As we moved closer, she picked up the tempo of her fire. We planned to open up with our 5” when the range reached 12,000 yards. “Surface Action Port!” Our four five-inch Mounts pivoted and locked on the Director Bearing. Chief Wilson and I re-checked the Set-up. Bridge gave us a bearing on a building. I twisted the Target Bearing knob, and the Director eased to the Bearing. “Commence Firing!” The guns flashed bright orange in the half-light as our first Salvo crashed out. The sharp tang of Smokeless Powder filled the air as succeeding Salvoes roared out at five-second intervals.

Our first shots were landing, and flames were beginning to rise from our target. Moore, on the rangefinder, shouted, “Aircraft taking off from the right end of the Island!” I looked up at Warren Armstrong for confirmation. He was screwing his eyes into his binoculars, but Moore’s big Rangefinder gave a better view. “They’re Fighters, and they’re taking off like a Covey of Quail!” Moore continued. Armstrong spotted them, “Oh My God! There’s not supposed to be any Airfield there!” In a few minutes, a stream of bombers followed the Fighters. We were in for trouble!

A rain squall combined with the rising smoke and dust on the island. The guns of our three bombarding ships roared on. There was lots of smoke and fire on the island. A few rounds of counter fire from shore batteries were observed, but they were of modest caliber and all fell short. A couple planes arced down trailing smoke, but we weren’t sure which side they were on.

Wilson and I were cranking the handles of the Mk-10, carrying out our firing schedule and applying “Spots” called out by Moore. We had little time to watch what was going on. Armstrong, with his head out of the Control Officer’s hatch and, Copeland, on the Pointer’s telescope, added to Moore’s commentary. The fragments of information were sandwiched in between the crashes of our salvoes. With a hundred salvoes assigned, there were lots of tons to push through the guns. The gun crews reported the paint stripping off our sizzling barrels and being blown into the sights. In less than ten minutes, we had completed our assigned salvoes and “Checked Fire.” Chester’s turrets were still blasting away, so we stared into the gloom, searching for targets of opportunity. It was a bit lighter, but we really couldn’t make out anything ashore.

“Dive Bombers!” a Lookout shouted. Two Jap Fighters were screaming down. The Captain ordered “All Engines Ahead, Emergency!” “Left Full Rudder!” One of the aft .50 Calibers opened up and its tracers pointed out the target. “Air Action Starboard, Dive Attack!” Armstrong pointed to the diving planes and Copeland slewed Right. The ship shuddered into a hard left turn. I had to grab the safety bar on the rangekeeper to keep from falling out the open Director door. All four machineguns were rattling, but we couldn’t get the director scopes on target. I heard the roar of the Jap’s engine, then the whistle of his bomb. It hit with a “Crump” about 50 yards to Starboard, drenching the torpedo gang. We got off a couple of shots at the second plane and his bomb missed even farther.

As the attackers pulled out, we got a good look at them. Aichi 97 fighters; small, low wing monoplanes, with fixed landing gear, similar to U.S. Army P-36s. Big red “Meatballs” glared from their wingtips. They climbed out of range and circled to dive again. We got the Director on one of them. Armstrong ordered, “Dive Bomber Setup!” I locked out “Generated Sight Elevation and Deflection” and cranked in my Pre-computed lead angles for a bomber diving down our throats. I set the fuze time at 4 seconds, ready to shift to 2 seconds if the attack got through the first Barrage. The Jap started his dive and we opened fire. A couple of black bursts blossomed in front of him as he bore down. He pulled out of his dive and headed away. “Dive Bomber to Port!” His partner pressed in from the opposite side, but the Captain had on Full Rudder. We heeled into a hard turn to the Right as we tried to slew the Director to the new threat. The crew of mount four on the fantail had to leap to safety as the huge wake swept the deck. The attacking Jap let go both of his bombs and Geysers rose close aboard to Port. This time there was a sharp “Crack” and the center of the plume was black. It felt like the ship had been hit with a huge hammer, but the engines kept throbbing.

Chester had released all ships to maneuver independently, and we were twisting and turning at high speed. We kept struggling to get the director on the Japs as the ship heeled and spun. Even when we could get the crosshairs on one of them for a moment, it was impossible to get a “Solution” as they jinked about the sky. The Jap Fighters were operating in pairs. As soon as we opened fire on one, the other would dive in to bomb. Our .50 Calibers sent up steady streams of fire, but we got off only a few 5-inch. Attacks were pressed in on us about a half dozen times, but none of the later bombs were as close as the first ones. As soon as we got a couple of bursts near the attackers, they lost their enthusiasm.

Chester and Balch were under the same kind of attack. There was plenty of firepower going up and a good number of bombs coming down, but neither side was inflicting much damage, that was until a particularly determined Jap, having missed Chester with his first bomb, climbed right back up to a few thousand feet and dove down for another try. Through the Director door, which we’d kept open because of the oppressive heat in our flash-proof coveralls, I could see the bomb! It crashed into the ccruiser’s well deck between her two catapults and set fire to one of her SOC floatplanes. There was a flash and a cloud of debris, as huge flames leapt upward and the big ship heeled into her evasive turn. I lost sight of her as we slewed to the next attacker, believing she’d been grievously damaged. A few minutes later, I got another glimpse- she was charging along with only a wisp of smoke where there had been sheets of flame.

After about a half an hour of attacking, the Jap Fighters disappeared. Balch and Maury resumed position on Chester’s bows and we zigzagged Eastward at 25 knots. It was a clear tropical morning with a gentle breeze ruffling the surface of the long swells. We were beginning to believe we could make our “Getaway” with no trouble when a formation of eight twin-engine bombers, not seen since they took off, started a run on our formation. It was a perfect “Baker” run of horizontal bombers, the easiest target of all! Moore called out the Target Angle and measured the Range. Chief Wilson, using “Rate Control” to compare “Generated” values with the measured values, soon had a “Solution”: Course 125, Speed 110 knots, altitude 7,700 ft, range 12,500 and closing. We opened fire at 10,000 yards in Continuous Fire, each crew loading and firing as fast as it could. At the end of the 30 Second Time of Flight, we listened for Moore’s Spots. “No Bursts,” “No Bursts,” he shouted in desperation. We continued for nearly 100 rounds. We were shooting Service Ammunition with the new Mechanical Time Fuse and it was supposed to be a great improvement over our target ammunition of peacetime. But there were few black bursts at the target! Easy target, steady “Solution,” a Gunnery Practice set-up, but no results! Something was seriously wrong!

Moore shouted, “They’re falling like snow!” “What’s falling?” “Bombs, and we didn’t get any bursts!” I looked out the door at Chester as she disappeared in a rain of bombs. White geysers rose higher than her lofty masts and completely surrounded her. “There goes Chester!” A chill ran though our bodies. But as the plumes of foam subsided, here came the gallant cruiser, slicing through the water as before, untouched by the blanket of explosives. Luckily the Japanese weren’t any better than we were!

As we raced eastward away from Maloelap, every eye was scanning the western sky for any sign of another attack. We felt lucky the falling bombs had missed, and we didn’t want to try our luck again. Captain Snare was the most attentive Lookout and seemed almost happy to be in our precarious position on the edge of danger. He was smiling and cracking jokes as though we were returning from a picnic. He was clearly a better skipper in battle than in peacetime, showing a fine example for the rest of us who were trying to adjust our emotions after our first brush with a real enemy.

As we cranked the miles behind us and felt we were in safer waters, we began to relax a bit. We’d gotten our assigned rounds off at the island without a hitch and we hadn’t been hit by either the shore fire or the aircraft. Even the near misses which had shaken the ship so violently had done no damage. The men began to smile and show a new sense of confidence. They’d met the enemy and acquitted themselves with honor. Maury was a “Fighting Ship”!

Armstrong sent me down to the guns to check their condition and to give the gun crews a pat on the back. The men were grimy with sweat and firing debris. The decks were cluttered with empty brass shell cases and littered with crumbs of cork, blackened by firing. The shock of the salvoes had dislodged every grain of dirt accumulated since the ship had been built and the wind from our high speed spread it everywhere. The gun barrels were mostly the orange of the Red Lead primer—the heat of firing had blistered the paint and the shock of firing had stripped it off.

The Gunners mates were cleaning and checking the guns now that they’d cooled down. The Bore Gauge just rattled in the muzzle of mount four! The barrel was enlarged. It measured a quarter-inch over size! Further inspection showed that the spiral grooves of the rifling contained a lot of copper from the Rotating Bands near the Breech, but nothing where the barrel had expanded. Maybe a projectile had exploded while still in the bore!

The men on the guns were eager to tell of their experiences during the battle. As the ship writhed to dodge the bombs and the mounts slewed to find the targets, they had to fight being thrown off the mounts and the men on deck had to grab whatever they could. At mount four, an open mount on the fantail without a gun shield, the deck was wet from spray throughout the air attacks and frequently swept by wake waves during the high-speed turns. The men on deck passing ammunition from the scuttles to the mounts across the slippery deck had to hang on to either the deckhouse or the mount and dash between when they could. I also learned one reason for so few bursts during the attack of the horizontal Bombers. The ammunition passers, mostly the new volunteers from the states, were trying so hard to keep the gun firing at its maximum rate that some of them started “saving time” by handing the projectiles directly to the shellman instead of tilting them into the fuzesetters. They had maintained a great rate of fire, but the fuzes weren’t set!

We returned to Pearl on the 5th of February and were surprised and pleased to be “cheered” by each ship as we passed. Our raid was our fleet’s first counter-stroke to the Japanese attack and everyone’s spirit was lifted by the action. As soon as we arrived, a crew from the Navy Yard came aboard to replace the barrel on mount four –they gave us one from Cassin which had been burned in the drydock—she wouldn’t be needing it. It was also satisfying that the overall results of the raid on the Marshalls were much greater than we could see from our decks. Maloelap had turned out to be the toughest target by far, but had been given the full treatment from two flights of Enterprise Bombers after we left. The Carriers lost a total of 13 planes during the operation and the only ship casualties were 8 men killed and 11 wounded when Chester was hit.

Less than a month later, on the 24th of February, re-designated as Task Force 16, we found ourselves repeating our raid, this time on Wake Island. We left Chester behind for repairs and Ralph Talbot and Blue joined to fill out our Squadron. Balch and Maury were assigned to join the two heavy Cruisers Northampton and Salt Lake City in carrying out a gun bombardment while Enterprise, surrounded by the remaining ships 100 miles to the north, sent in her Air Group to carry out bombing and strafing attacks. This time they assured us that they had good reconnaissance and there would be absolutely no Japanese land-based aircraft to contend with! The targets for our bombardment were also very well identified—after all, it had been our island just two months before!

With Maury leading the four ships of the bombardment force, we approached from the north and turned east to our firing Course. We were just pitching into the first Trade Wind seas when the shout of “Dive Bomber!” rang out and Warren ordered, “Air Action Starboard!” The engines revved up and we shuddered into a turn to Port. As she gained momentum, she dug her bow into a wave and the spray came over the director. The attacker was a Zero Float Plane with a single pontoon—much faster and more deadly than our SOCs. The machineguns rattled and we got a couple of shots off. He let his bomb go while still pretty high and pulled out. The bomb missed close aboard to starboard, but there wasn’t much of a shock. He’d hardly cleared when he was followed by another whose bomb came even closer. Captain Snare kept on Full Rudder, Right or Left, to keep the ship in a turn during the bombing runs and though we were attacked repeatedly, none of the bombs touched us. After about ten minutes of attacks by the Float Zeroes, during which as lead ship we received most of the attention, friendly fighters from Enterprise showed up and the floatplanes disappeared.

The Cruisers opened fire at 18,000 yards and we joined in when the range had closed to 14,000. The Jap shore batteries were firing at us steadily and our job was to silence them. The Captain took the ship in to close the range and, though we silenced the first battery we engaged, shells started landing close to us from other batteries. We engaged these guns and started a brisk fire in a building behind them, though the guns continued to fire at us. About this time bombers from the Big “E” started pounding the island and the two cruisers were firing steadily, so we got less attention than before. As the smoke and dust clouds rose from the island, it was hard to identify any specific result from our firing. We did, however, manage to set fire to some fuel tanks, which sent us a great column of smoke.

In his zeal to get at the enemy, the Captain had taken us in to about 8,000 yards from the enemy guns while the other ships were out at about 14,000. He increased speed and kept zigzagging to throw off the shore fire, but lots of shells landed close to us and we were straddled twice. About this time, we dug our bow into a particularly steep wave and mount one reported it was “Out of Action” with a major casualty! Scaldoni, the Mount Captain, reported his gun had “swelled up like a pregnant snake” and the barrel might jam into the slide if we fired it! No one was hurt, but we couldn’t use the gun anymore. In the director, we thought the bore might have been full of water when they fired it. To add to our problems, mount four reported they had lost power and had been unable to switch to Emergency power.

Having completed their assigned attacks and strafed the beaches thoroughly, the Enterprise planes disappeared and the Jap Floatplanes returned. They made several passed at us, being well separated from the other ships, and one bomb hit so close that it threw shrapnel onto the forecastle. ComDesRon SIX came up on the radio requesting Maury to report her casualties and asked for a repeat when Captain Snare reported, “No casualties. We are ready to go back in!”

We rejoined the other ships and, about 0900, with smoke and fires rising all along Wake Island and its companion Peale Island, our Task Unit Commander set course to the Northeast and we started our retirement at 25 knots. About this time, a big Jap Kawanisi four-engined flying boat was sighted on an approach course, but as we got set to take it under fire, it was cut down by a flight of fighters from the Big E. Its gas tanks exploded in a ball of fire and it fell in a flaming arc to leave a funeral pyre on the surface of the sea.

Not long afterwards, a Jap patrol vessel, a converted fisherman of perhaps 150 tons, was sighted and Maury was sent out to sink her. We tried to open fire at 2,500 yards, but mount two had rammer trouble, mounts one and four were out of commission, so we only had mount three in action. We hit her on the first shot and Armstrong “Checked Fire” expecting her to sink. Though her crew could be seen abandoning ship in a small boat over her taffrail, she kept going. Another hit didn’t seem to faze her, and the Captain was taking the ship in too close to use the Director. The firing got erratic as we shifted to Local Control to avoid the parallax problem, and many shots skimmed over the top or were triggered by waves before they reached her. It took 55 rounds with ten observed hits to put her under, and her engines were still driving her forward as she sank by the stern. Just as she went under, a bomb hit about 50 yards to port—no one had seen the plane. With caustic remarks to “Control” about its performance against the Patrol boat and for completely missing the bomb attack, the Captain increased speed and headed back to join the other ships.

A bit later Balch sighted and sank a small Japanese Patrol vessel and captured four prisoners, some of the first taken during the war.

We were trailed by a Jap flying boat all afternoon and about 1815, two Bettys swooped in and dropped bombs at the cruisers. They were undetected until overhead and no effective AA fire was put up. On the other hand, the Jap bombs missed the cruisers by at least 1,000 yards!

Next day when we rejoined the Carrier and Tanker Groups, we learned that our raid on Wake was considered quite successful and that reconnaissance showed a lot of damage to the installations on the island.

The Task Force then started working to the west through stormy weather with plenty of fog. Six days after our raid on Wake the Big E and the cruisers headed west at high speed for a raid on Marcus Island and the rest of us headed east for the day. Leaving McCall to take care of our precious oiler Sabine, DesRon 6 turned southwest next day to rejoin the returning big ships. The raid on Marcus had been successfully carried out in cold stormy weather and our losses were minimal. As we gradually re-assembled all the parts of our Task Force and headed back to Pearl, we felt we had begun to strike some blows against the Japs, but nothing to compensate for severe losses being incurred in the Far East.

Copyright © 2003 Capt. Russell S. Crenshaw, Jr., USN (Ret.)