Invading the Solomons

Task Force 16 worked south, crossed the Equator and kept going. We passed Samoa and eventually found the Tonga Islands and anchored in the broad Roads in front of a flat, palm studded island with the improbable name of Tonga Tabu. Other groups joined us and soon there was an armada of Attack Transports, Cargo Ships and Oilers in addition to the warships of Task Force 16 and a Task Force built around Saratoga. Motorboats dashed from flagship to flagship and Captain Sims attended several conferences. We junior officers had little to do and, since Liberty ashore was allowed, we went ashore to explore a real “South Sea” island. Cameras weren’t permitted in the Fleet, so we had to rely on memory.

We wandered through the dusty roads of the little town behind the Fleet Landing and found only shuttered buildings. Continuing into the country, the unpaved road became a path and we entered an undisturbed tropical paradise. The natives were handsome Polynesians and, though they didn’t wear grass skirts, some did wear woven mats tied around their middle. We wandered through a palm grove and found several native huts, which fitted exactly into the romantic tales we had read in the travel books—palm-thatched roofs, walls of woven palm leaves, open spaces for windows and doors, etc. Inside there were few pieces of furniture on the neatly swept floors of packed earth and in the corners of the huts were piles of woven mats where the natives must have slept. Cooking was apparently done at open fires near the huts and there were a few chickens running about. The only sign of modern civilization was the presence of a small Singer sewing machine in one of the huts. The natives generally faded away into the groves as we approached, but those whom we encountered greeted us with friendly smiles.

As the, now massive, fleet sailed from Tonga Tabu, we learned we were to participate in amphibious landings at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. Our force was much different from the one which had sailed south with Admiral Halsey in the spring. Only Balch and Maury remained of the original ships of DesRon 6. The Carrier Forces were under VAdm. Fletcher and the Amphibious Forces were under a RAdm. R.K. Turner. Maury was assigned to the Air Support Force, Group 2, and was to spend the next month screening or plane guarding Enterprise. The combined forces moved slowly westward in the direction of New Caledonia, conforming to the limited speed of some of the amphibious force ships, then turned northwestward toward the Solomons. Maury was glued to Enterprise, riding 2,000 yards on her bow as anti-submarine screen as she zigzagged between flight operations, then wheeling to plane guard station 1,000 yards astern the flattop while planes were launched or recovered.

Soon tactical signals by Enterprise were dispensed with, since Maury and her companion destroyers could be relied upon to respond correctly to the needs of the carrier. When the red diamonds of the “Fox” flags were seen to flutter at the carrier’s yardarms, Maury took station astern. When the Fox flags came down, Maury moved up to the bow. It was great training in ship handling. We would solve for the required course and speed using a “Maneuvering Board,” then checked our progress by radar, stadimeter and bearing circle minute by minute as we moved along. We now had so many officers aboard that we had a JOOD in each watch to handle the Signal Book and Maneuvering Board. Captain Sims made the most of the opportunity and frequently called all off-duty officers to the Bridge for sessions of OOD training. He taught us his system of “Approximate Mathematics” based on “One degree equals one yard at 60 yards” and “15 knots is 500 yards per minute.” “Don’t Guess!” “Measure and calculate!” “Do it in your head!” He also made us plot every move on the Maneuvering Board to check our mental calculations. We were soon vying with each other to be the best at quick solutions.

On the 7th of August, Task Force 16 took station to the south of Guadalcanal to provide air support for the invasion. The Amphibious Force and a Surface Force of cruisers and destroyers rounded the west end of Guadalcanal. At first light, the Marines landed at both Guadalcanal and Tulagi. In our Task Force we were at GQ most of the day as the Air Group came and went, but little happened as we crisscrossed the glassy sea under hazy skies. A Jap air raid came in over the landing area during the afternoon, but nothing happened around the Enterprise Group. Fragmented reports indicated heavy fighting at Tulagi, but almost no resistance at Guadalcanal. The airfield, which was being constructed by the Japanese, was readily captured and was soon to be in operation as Henderson Field.

The second day was a repeat of the first, except that there were reports of sightings of Jap warships by Australian “Coast watchers” up the Island chain. Captain Sims’ old ship Mugford was hit by a bomb during the raid on the 7th. On the 8th, a Jap torpedo plane crashed into the transport George F. Elliot and did extensive damage. The destroyer Jarvis was hit by a torpedo in the same raid, but she didn’t sink. It seemed that once again, we were missing all the action.

Something happened in the early hours of August 9th that shook the confidence of the whole U.S. Fleet. Though we learned the whole story only months later by putting together scraps of information from diverse sources, in essence, a Japanese column of seven cruisers and one destroyer steamed around Savo Island, shot up every ship in sight and steamed away with almost no losses! Our newest heavy cruisers Quincy, Astoria, and Vincennes had been left in flaming shambles! Two went down within minutes and the third joined them the next day. The Australian cruiser Canberra was so badly hit she had to be torpedoed in the morning. In addition, our heavy cruiser Chicago and the destroyer Patterson were heavily damaged. The only good thing was that the Japanese left in such a hurry. Had they stayed, they could have destroyed the rest of the Invasion Force piecemeal, because there was only a handful of destroyers and a couple of distant light cruisers left to defend the vulnerable transports and cargo ships.

Since before the war it had been the habit in the wardrooms of the Fleet to joke about the capability of the Japanese. Their victory at Pearl Harbor was the product of treachery—its military effectiveness and the skill with which it was executed were ignored. The loss of the British Repulse and Prince of Wales was due to British stupidity. The Japanese skill in overwhelming the Philippines was masked by exaggerated stories of American heroism and the exploits of a few Motor Torpedo Boats. Our one-sided recent victory at Midway was due to the superiority of U.S. Naval Aviation, with little notice taken of the loss of the whole of TORPEDO EIGHT, and no knowledge of the unprecedented success of the American “Code Breakers.” We had laughed at the strange shape of Japanese aircraft carriers, cruisers and battleships and equated odd appearance with incapacity. Now, it was apparent that the Japanese would attack in the face of daunting odds, maneuver skillfully, shoot with devastation, use torpedoes with chilling effect—and do this in the middle of the night!

The First Battle of Savo Island was a great victory for the Japanese and a frightful defeat for the U.S. Fleet. It was particularly a defeat for the American command. As the story began to unfold it became clear that our forces had not just been handled with little skill, they had not been handled at all! Contacts were missed, but contacts were also made and reported. Though reports over the TBS received a “Roger,” commanders later denied that the reports had been received. There was a breakdown between the “Communicators” and the “Commanders.” Commanders had done little to “Take Command.” No effective maneuvers were executed, no effective firing orders were given and the best cruisers of the Pacific Fleet went down like sitting ducks. After the battle, someone called Savo Sound “Ironbottom Bay.” The name stuck!

For the next two weeks, Task force 16 continued its role in support of the forces ashore on Guadalcanal, but soon Henderson Field was in operation and some aircraft were flying in and out of this tenuous base. A counter move against our invasion was to be expected and soon there was evidence of strong Japanese Forces in Rabaul and even more moving down from Truk. An attack was imminent!

On the 23rd of August, a Japanese force containing transports was sighted 300 miles north of Tulagi. A few hours later a Task Force containing three carriers, three battleships, numerous cruisers and plenty of destroyers was sighted to the east. Fortunately, our three Task Forces built around Enterprise, Saratoga and the newly arrived Wasp were to the East of the Solomon chain and in good position to intercept.

On the 24th of August, Task Force 16 was the northernmost of the three forces and in the vicinity of Stewart Island. At dawn, we launched a flight of SBDs to search the arc from north to west to pinpoint the Japanese Forces. The first search produced no contact, so a second search was launched. It made contact, as did long range search planes from Espiritu Santo. A full aircraft Attack Force was prepared and launched. As the Attack Force flew northwestward, it encountered a large group of Japanese planes coming towards us and a melee ensued. Of the ships surrounding the Big E, North Carolina, Portland and Atlanta were on the 1,500 yard circle with our seven DDs on the 3,000 yard circle. We all had plenty of warning and got to our GQ stations well before the battle worked our way. There had been some changes in the director crew: Chief Wilson and Moore had been transferred to “new construction,” Canaday was our GQ rangefinder operator, and Copeland and I handled the rangekeeper. Radar reports started when the enemy was still some 60 miles distant. Dogfights raged and we could hear the chatter between pilots over the Bridge circuits. Many enemy planes were reported shot down, but there were plenty of planes left when they streaked down out of the sun!

Warren Armstrong, standing on the control officer’s platform with his head out of his hatch, tried to coach the Mk-33 around to the diving planes. Jaworski and Serwitz would slew the director frantically by eye with their handwheels until, with Canaday’s advice, they thought they were “on target,” then would drop down to try to catch the plunging planes in their optics. It was an impossible task! At the rangekeeper, Copeland and I watched Warren’s feet and lower torso expectantly as he squirmed about, hoping he’d get the director “locked on” to something so we could shoot. The attack was coming in from high over our section of the screen. The enemy planes were passing over our heads as they bore in on Enterprise. We’d whirl the director to try to get our sights on a Jap, but it takes a big arc of train to make even a small change near the zenith. They’d be over the top and out the other side before we could settle on them. Jaworski on the Pointer’s scope reported “On Target” a couple of times, but he couldn’t follow the fast motion as the attackers dove in. We never got a shot off!

Enterprise at 30 knots was using Full Rudder in frantic “Emergency Turns” to dodge the bombs and she heeled far over with her guns blazing. The sky was filling with black puffs of 5-inch and being laced with streams of tracers from the 20s and 40s. The ships across the formation had a steady firing arc and spouted masses of orange flame as their guns roared out in Continuous Fire. North Carolina, with ten 5-inch/38 twins, twenty 40mm quads and innumerable 20mms, was an unbelievable sight.

But the Jap planes continued their dives, seemingly immune to the holocaust surrounding them. Some released bombs and scooted for the horizon, but several continued straight into the water, bombs and all. Three bombs hit the Big E! One just clipped a corner and knocked out two of her 5-inch mounts, but one crippled her main Elevator, and one dug deep and knocked out her Steering Gear. Smoke and flames rose from the Flight Deck, and she careened around in a tight turn.

The whole attack was over in three minutes! About 80 planes had left the Jap carriers, but half of these were taken out in the melee when the two air groups collided. About 30 bombers actually dove on Enterprise and only a few of these escaped to return home.

The damage control crews got the fires out and her rudder under control in a few minutes, but it would be a long time before her Flight Deck could be used for landings. Luckily, Saratoga was not far away, so our returning “chickens” had somewhere to roost. Task Force 16 started working south towards safer waters, but the Japanese seemed to have had enough for the day.

As dark descended, Maury was sent to Saratoga, which had now closed our group, to pick up some needed repair material and some of the aviators who had landed aboard. We learned from our temporary passengers that the Sara Air Group had sunk a small carrier and severely damaged a seaplane tender. Also, the aircraft from Guadalcanal had taken care of a transport and a destroyer. The attack group from the Big E that got mixed up with the incoming Japs never found their targets!

We transferred our passengers to Enterprise in the dark and the Task Force headed south for safer waters. The Japanese, having lost any element of surprise and a large portion of their aircraft, also turned and headed for home. The “Battle of Stewart Island” was pretty much of a draw as a fleet action, but it saved our tenuous hold on Guadalcanal at a critical time.

On the way south, we were re-fueling from a tanker between Espiritu and Éfaté when shouts of “hey Rusty!” came from a figure hurrying along her centerline catwalk of the tanker toward the bridge. It was my brother-in-law Pug!

We got on the bridge-to-bridge phones and he told me he was being sent back to the states after being shot down over Guadalcanal on the first day of the invasion. He’d been leading a four plane Combat Air Patrol of FIGHTING FIVE F4F Wildcats, flying from Saratoga, when the first big Jap air raid came in. He’d led his planes in to attack a flight of about 30 twin-engine “Bettys,” but about 20 Jap Zeroes dove out of the sun and cut off his last three planes. He continued in and raked the bomber formation in two passed before the Zeroes could get at him, but he got two Bettys for sure. As the first Japs roared in, he chopped his throttle and popped his flaps to cause the Zero to overshoot, but when he pitched up to get him, he found his guns were out of ammunition! He cranked his seat down to get behind his armor and dove for the western tip of Guadalcanal. The Zeroes followed and after numerous passes by the Zeroes, he could see that his plane was being shot up badly. His tail was full of holes and he had lost pieces of his wings. His engine was failing and, despite his leakproof tanks, gasoline and oil were sloshing about in the cockpit. With no ammo to fight with and a failing airplane, he was reduced to huddling down in his seat as the bullets rattled against his armor.

At about 1,000 ft. above the jungle, his plane exploded in flames, but he dove out of the burning wreck before he was engulfed. As soon as he cleared the tail, he pulled his ripcord and his chute billowed just before he hit the treetops. He was on the ground in a grassy clearing before he knew it. He got clear of his chute and raced into the nearby jungle to avoid strafing. The Japs departed and he paused to take stock.

He had a big hole in his right foot, so he stuffed his sock into it and laced his shoe tight. Rips in his legs and left arm could be bandaged with strips of his parachute, so soon he was no longer losing blood. Realizing he was in Jap territory, he decided to try to reach the north coast and work his way to where the Marines had landed. He spotted some Jap lookouts but avoided them and after several painful hours made his was along a dry streambed to the coast. There he washed his wounds and tried to signal passing American planes, but with no luck. As night fell, he found a hiding place on the beach and huddled there throughout a cold, windy night.

Next morning, after waiting for about three hours on an exposed point in hopes a rescue plane would see him, he decided to try to make his way to the American lines along the beach. He met three young natives carrying bush knives along the way, but they passed with friendly gestures, so he continued. Later, having really cleaned his wounds in a beautiful freshwater stream and explored some abandoned native villages, he was just about to settle down to his first meal of coconut when he was approached by two older native men who spoke Pidgin English. They were Catholics like Pug, and they soon took him to their village, feeding him and tending to his wounds. After a couple of days in the village, Pug persuaded them to take him east by canoe and after skirting the Jap held coast for about 20 miles, they delivered him to the Marines near Lunga Point. He was soon in the hands of the Medics at Henderson Field, just in time to be in the middle of the first big Japanese counter-attack! The rest of his story was interrupted by the business of fuelling, but he’d thoughtfully sent us five gallons of ice cream to celebrate our reunion.

A few days later we were following the “heavies” of Task Force 16 past Amadee Light to enter the 20-mile channel leading to the fleet anchorage at Nouméa. Amadee was the only un-mined opening in the continuous barrier reef that lies off the southwest shore of the long island of New Caledonia. It was a narrow opening with waves breaking on jagged coral on both sides—a treacherous place, even in peacetime.

We were assigned one of the inner anchorages close to the small colonial town at the head of a cove behind some islands. Nouméa appeared to be a typical, dust-colored, tropical seaport of low buildings lining a few palm-shaded streets. The steep hills that rose just behind the town were covered with lush green and slashed by bare cliffs of red clay. A range of jungle-covered mountains rose in the background.

After a busy day arranging for stores and few urgent repairs, we went ashore to explore the town. New Caledonia was a French colony and there were signs of the Gallic association in more than the wording of the signs in the few stores. Shuttered against the heat, one couldn’t see much of the inside of the buildings along the half dozen streets that crisscrossed to town. No Frenchmen could be seen on the streets and the few natives spotted were very black skinned Melanesians with mops of black, kinky hair. A few had dyed their hair a pinkish orange in spots—these, we were told, were bachelors.

Not far from the Fleet Landing, where trucks and bulldozers expanding the base stirred up clouds of brown dust around the clock, was the Circe de Seville, the French Officer’s Club. It had been taken over by the allies to become “The Circle of Seville,” the SOPAC Fleet Officer’s Club. Originally an attractive two-story masonry building with an arched colonnade and walled garden, it had been converted to an emergency “Watering Place” for a thirsty fleet. Officers shouting orders pressed four deep against the bar in a small room opening onto the garden. The selection was simple- Australian whisky and water in topless beer cans or beer in its original can. There was no choice of brand, but there was ice for the whisky and the beer was cold. The garden had been packed hard long ago by innumerable feet and hundreds of officers congregated there each day to get away from their ships and to swap stories. The bar opened at 1700 with the start of Liberty and closed at 2100 with the expiration of Shore Leave. It was long enough!

Repairing Enterprise was going to require a couple of weeks, so all ships of the Task Force were given “Limited” availability at the Fleet Repair Ship and Destroyer Tender anchored in the roads. As if by magic, mail arrived and all hands could revel in news from home. Since as much mail as possible was transported by air, magazines were left behind, but Time magazine had met the challenge by producing an Airmail Edition on light paper with no advertisements. It was a jewel, devoured by everyone who could get his hands on a copy.

We had hardly started our upkeep period when news arrived that Saratoga had caught another “fish” from a Jap submarine and was being sent to the rear for repairs. Hornet had recently arrived, but that good news was wiped out by the shock of the torpedoing and loss of Wasp! She was apparently patrolling in the same waters where Sara had been hit, but she caught fire and sank in a few hours. The Japanese submarine force had finally come alive! Repair crews worked round the clock to get Enterprise back to sea and the set records doing it. TF 16 was back on the line by early October.

On the night of the 11th of October another bloody night surface action took place off Savo Island. Light cruiser Boise became a naval legend by turning on her searchlight and being nearly shot out of the water in reply. Destroyer Duncan turned the wrong way, got caught between the lines and went down from shells from both sides. Salt Lake City was damaged and Farenholt almost sunk. But our forces gave as well as they got for a change: two enemy destroyers were sunk and one enemy cruiser sunk and one damaged.

It was apparent that the Japanese were going to continue their effort to throw us out of the Solomons and this appearance was given reality by a devastating bombardment of Henderson field by two Jap battleships on the night of the 13th followed by Jap cruisers the following night. On the 15th, a Jap reinforcement of several thousand troops was successfully landed to the west of our Marines on Guadalcanal. Gas supplies were running low for our forces ashore so an emergency convoy was sent towing barges with gasoline and bombs. It was spotted by Jap search planes and the larger ships were ordered to return to Espiritu, but the destroyer Meredith and the tug Vireo tried to get their barges through. They were caught by a full attack wave from a Jap carrier and Meredith was obliterated.

While at Nouméa, Admiral Halsey was promoted and assigned as Commander South Pacific and RAdm. Kinkaid took over as Commander Task Force 16. Fred Hilles and Al Gebelin were also detached, so Warren Armstrong became Executive Officer, I became Gunnery Officer, and Jim Winn became Chief Engineer. Since Midway we had also added two more Reserve Ensigns Brian Medler and Charlie (“Blinky”) Sather, and a feisty Supply Officer, Ensign Henry Kahn, to our wardroom.

One of my first acts as Gunnery Officer was to put Charlie Leveritt in charge of all 20mms with his Battle Station on the Director Platform, but not in the Director. With his feet on the ship instead of in a rotating Director, he’d be in better position to assign targets to the various machineguns. Our six 20s were certainly our best weapons against maneuvering aircraft and should be handled separately from the 5-inch battery.

With the addition of the FD Console and its operator, the right side of the director had become pretty crowded, so I decided to let Copeland handle the Rangekeeper by himself. About this time a new Ensign from the Academy Class of ’43, Jim Sahlin, appeared, so I put him on the Left side of the Director to learn the ropes and handle Illumination at night.

On the morning of the 24th of October, the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal started a major effort to capture Henderson Field. The battle was desperate, but our Marines hung on. Radio Intelligence indicated that strong Japanese naval forces were approaching the Solomons. Task Force 61, consisting of Task Force 16 with the Big-E and Task Force 17 built around Hornet, was stationed to the northeast of the Solomons, near the Santa Cruz Islands, in a position to intercept a thrust from Truk. The ships of Task Force 16, except for Enterprise, Portland and Maury, had all changed. South Dakota had replaced North Carolina and DesRon 5 had replaced DesRon 6. Another force, built around damaged Saratoga, was coming up from Nouméa.

On the afternoon of the 25th, first contact was made with the approaching enemy by long range search planes from Espiritu. Both Enterprise and Hornet flew off large flights of SBDs and TBDs to find the enemy. Amplifying messages reported carriers as well as battleships and cruisers. Some contacts were made and bomb hits scored as our eager fliers stretched their gas to the limit, hoping to find a “flattop” before turning back.

Maury was Plane Guard astern Enterprise as usual. We listened for scraps of news from the distant battle and “sweated out” the return of our Air Group. The clock ticked past the maximum duration of the aircraft. The sun sank below the horizon. Twilight fell. Finally, airplanes appeared singly or in small groups and struggled to get aboard. Only one plane could land at a time and it was agony to watch each returning plane circle endlessly with dwindling fuel, awaiting its turn. Some didn’t make it and had to “ditch” when their engines failed. In Maury, we picked up the crews of two TBFs that dropped into the water after they were already in the “groove,” about to land aboard. At dinner in the wardroom we got a first-hand report of the air operations from the two pilots.

Dawn broke on the 26th to a perfect tropical day. The sky was dotted with small fleecy clouds and the sea was a clear, deep blue. Our carriers flew off a combat search to the northwest and a maximum effort was made from Espiritu. With the approaching Japanese Force definitely identified, we were on maximum alert with four boilers on the line. At 0840 contact with an enemy carrier force was made on bearing 330° T, distance 277 miles. Both carriers turned into the wind and launched their attack groups plus an augmented Combat Air Patrol. At 0930 our Task Force was ordered into AA Battle Formation One Victor and we headed for the enemy. A few minutes later we went to GQ and Formation Speed was increased to 27 knots. By this time there were heavy patches of clouds and an occasional rain shower.

Just after 1000 incoming “bogies” were reported at long range by Enterprise and fighters “Vectored” to intercept. “CONDITION RED. REPEL AIR ATTACK” blasted over the TBS. Our circular formation had Enterprise at the center, South Dakota, Portland and San Juan on the inner circle at 1,000 yards and eight destroyers on the outer ring at 2,000 yards. The radio circuits came alive with chatter from a growing air battle. From my new position in the control officer’s hatch, I could see all around and I scanned the edges of every cloud in the direction of the reported Bogies. Everyone was silent in anticipation of the attack. Every eye strained to be the first to spot an enemy.

A bit after 1000, an attack could be seen going in on Hornet about eight miles away to the west. The sky over her filled with the black puffs of AA and there were some arcs of smoke from falling planes. Then a towering column of black smoke leapt from Hornet herself. At the moment we were under low-lying clouds and the Japs apparently didn’t see us. As the air battle continued, Hornet reported over the TBS that she was damaged and her Flight Deck out of commission. All aircraft in the air would have to depend on the Enterprise Flight Deck whenever she could settle down to receive returning “chickens.” Damaged aircraft unable to stay aloft were directed to land in the water close to a friendly destroyer for rescue.

About 1100 Porter peeled off to pick up a fighter pilot who had been “winged” and had made a belly landing outside the screen. While she was dead in the water helping the aviator she was hit amidships by a submarine torpedo. Shaw was sent to assist, but had hardly arrived near Porter when “CONDITION RED” was set and she had to return to the formation. Only a few minutes into the engagement and two ships already hit! The TBS warned, “CONDITION VERY RED! ATTACK IMMINENT!”

The silence was deafening! A few fragments of chatter between F4F pilots in dog fights, but no usable ranges or bearings on the incoming attacks. Suddenly a stream of Aichi 99 “Val” dive bombers came screaming down at the Enterprise. I gave the command “ACTION PORT, COMMENCE FIRING” without waiting to select an individual target- I wanted to get our firepower up there, no time to wait for niceties. The 20s added to the roar. Some bombers were hit and burst into flame, some dove into the water, but three bombs found their target and the Big E’s flight deck was afire! We didn’t get a clean shot at an individual plane throughout the attack. We just put up a “Zone Barrage” with fuzes set at 6 seconds, which we soon shortened to 4 seconds and finally to 2. My helmet was blown off as the captain turned away from the attack—Mount 52 was blasting away against her port stops. It wasn’t clear that we had hit any of the attackers, but we put 140 rounds of 5-inch up there to discourage them.

But now we were down to Zero Flight Decks! Two full Carrier Groups in the air and no place to land! The OTC instructed all destroyers to prepare to rescue flight crews as their fuel ran out. Our continuing air capability depended on the Damage Control crews fighting the fires in the Big E!

As the attack on our group petered out, we could see on the horizon that the Hornet group was under attack again. Shaw was ordered to return to Porter, remove her crew and sink her. As she started off towards Porter an F4F landed in the water ahead of us inside the formation. The Captain backed to cut our speed as he maneuvered to rescue the pilot. The gun crew of Mount 51 and the handling room crew of Mount 52 were ordered to their forecastle rescue stations and to man the whaleboat. As we backed to a stop to pick up the pilot, a group of specks appeared from the distant clouds, spread out and descended until they were skimming the wavetops. I couldn’t make out whether they were friendly or Jap, but slewed the Director to start tracking one in the center of the group. Canaday shouted they looked like mid-wing aircraft—possibly TBFs.

“EMERGENCY ONE EIGHT TURN!” The Force reversed course and came roaring back towards us. The Captain had maneuvered the ship close to the man in the water and the forecastle crew was straining to get a line to him, but they just couldn’t reach and the multiple wakes caused the bow to pitch violently. The Captain realized he’d have to back clear and make another approach. The incoming planes turned slightly to fan out further and we could see the torpedoes slung beneath their bellies. Jap “Kate” torpedo planes! Over 200 men in the ship’s company vs. one poor pilot in the water! He kicked the engines Ahead Emergency Flank and headed for the attackers. As we built up speed we combed through the Formation as it thundered by on the opposite course.

I shifted the Director to the closest plane. “Locked on,” shouted Canaday on the rangefinder—the FD radar was out of commission. “Solution” from Copeland on the rangekeeper. “Commence Firing, Continuous Fire.” Nothing happened! The crews of Mounts 51 and 52 were not yet back to their stations and Mounts 53 and 54 couldn’t bear. The forward 20s came alive with a steady “rat-tat-tat.” A stream of 20s sawed the wing off the incoming torpedo plane a short 500 yards off our port bow. It smeared into the water with a huge wall of spray. I slewed the director to the next group of torpedo planes about 5,000 yards out. Serwitz picked the closest of the group and Canaday locked on. This time, Mounts 51 and 52 were ready and roared out in unison, blinding me with smoke and debris. As they picked up the firing tempo another torpedo plane skimmed by just to starboard—I thought he was going to hit the yardarm. I ducked into my hatch to avoid any stray bullets, so I don’t know what happened to him. Canaday, intent on his target, shouted, “splash one Jap!” Jaworski confirmed a direct hit with the incoming plane breaking up. We shifted to the next plane and continued to fire.

The last Kate of the first group skimmed by our Port side, slightly higher than the Director. I could clearly see the Pilot a few hundred feet away. His Rear Gunner was pointing his machinegun at us but did not seem to be firing. The Jap released his torpedo and it splashed into the water by our stern. An instant later the plane itself crashed in a big sheet of flame as our after 20s cut it to pieces.

The attack had come in right over us and we were swept by “friendly” fire. Most missed, but a 20mm hit the side of the torpedo shack amidships. The Torpedo Mount Captain was changing his helmet. A fragment sliced the back of his head. A superficial scratch—enough for a Purple Heart, but no trip home. Three other men on the midship 20s also were nicked by shrapnel, but Doc Abts patched them up and they were back on station in a few minutes. On the Bridge a “spent” 20mm bounced around and came to rest on the mahogany rail of the Bridge screen just in front of the Captain. He moved quickly away from the smoking menace, but it didn’t go off. There’d been a “bang” in front of me as the enemy passed. When things calmed down, I discovered a 6-inch dent in my hatch cover about 2 ft. in front of my nose—couldn’t tell if it was “friendly” or enemy!

As we wheeled about to rejoin the formation a wounded torpedo plane dove into the forecastle of Smith with a huge flash of flame and smoke. In a moment the roaring inferno engulfed the entire ship and she was leaving a heavy black smoke-screen astern. The Force was maneuvering violently at high speed to avoid the last of the torpedoes. Smith sought out the South Dakota and quenched her fire by driving through the battlewagon’s mountainous wake.  

Except for Smith, none of the ships of TF-16 had been hit by the torpedo attack. Maury and Shaw were once again sent off to help Porter, still dead in the water, but now on the horizon. She had lost both firerooms and could not possibly make port on her own, so the TF Commander ordered her sunk. Shaw took off her survivors while Maury screened against the return of the Submarine. Shaw then lined up to sink her with a torpedo from 1000 yards on her beam. The first fish ran “hot, straight and normal,” but passed under Porter’s keel with no damage. A second shot did the same. Shaw then opened up with her guns and Porter, already deep in the water, went down slowly. She had hardly gone under when the Tactical circuits blared, “CONDITION RED, LARGE GROUP OF BOGIES BEARING 315, 30, CLOSING.” Maury and Shaw dashed back to take their places in the screen.

This time the attack came in from low clouds on the opposite side of the formation. We had to hold fire to make sure we wouldn’t hit any of our own ships, but we got a few shots in on enemy planes trying to get away after attacking. One dive bomber passed a short distance ahead and tried to climb out over the screen. Our forward 20s joined in with streams of tracers from other ships and the plane rolled over and crashed into the water. A moment later the after 20s got a good shot at a bomber climbing out after attacking South Dakota and at about 1500 yards cut his tail off.

As this third attack cleared, we could see the Hornet group on the horizon and things seemed to be better. Hornet had a heavy list, but her fires were out and other ships were around her. We didn’t have time to worry about Hornet because our returning “Chickens” had no place to land! The Damage Control crews on Enterprise were working feverishly to get the Flight Deck cleared of debris and patched, but with a heavy list Hornet’s Flight Deck was out of the question. Two Air Groups in the air and only one damaged Flight Deck to handle them!

We had launched all available aircraft for our Strike against the enemy before the Japs hit us and we had launched all of our remaining Fighters as the attack developed. How many planes would actually return was not known, but we knew we had a problem.

The depth of our problem soon began to unfold as returning fighters could not wait for the Flight Deck repairs and were instructed to land in the water near a destroyer. It was a heartbreaking sight to watch a beautiful Grumman Wildcat fighter skim close by the wing of the bridge, make a perfect “three point landing” on the glassy water ahead and skid to a stop in a bath of spray. Invariably, the pilot would climb out of the cockpit onto the wing, take his shoes off, placing them carefully side-by-side, and then dive into the water to swim to the ship as we shouted in vain for him to keep his shoes on because he’d need them. We added three more pilots and four crewmen to our aviation visitors to bring the total for the two days to 23.

Finally, at 1515, a full four hours since she had been hit, the Enterprise Flight Deck was back in commission. She launched the remaining Fighters she still had aboard as CAP and recovered the aircraft still aloft. An hour later, the normal tempo of air operations was resumed, launching and recovering CAP every two hours.

Prior to the battle, we had assigned our rescued aviators to Damage Control Parties about the ship. Captain Sims was a great believer in the comforting qualities of brandy so had appointed several of the senior pilots as “brandy officers.” Doc Abts had issued each a few small flasks of Medicinal Brandy to administer in case any of our men were wounded. After the battle we found that most of our intrepid aviators had consumed the Brandy themselves as the battle heated up. One in particular, Lt. Al Coffin, C.O. of TORPEDO SQUADRON TEN, said the torpedo plane attack was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to him. He said that the Japs had executed a perfect attack and he could not bring himself to believe that all of the attackers could be destroyed by AA fire without making a single hit.

When the captain called me to the bridge for a quick “after action” conference, he expressed great satisfaction with the performance of the gun batteries. He had been very caustic with Armstrong after the battle of Stewart Island because he had failed to get any shots off. Our total for the day of over 300 rounds of 5-inch and 2,400 rounds of 20mm, so he was very satisfied. He was also sure we had destroyed two Jap torpedo planes and two dive bombers by ourselves and assisted in the destruction of at least one more of each.

As soon as possible TF 16 began working southeast to get Enterprise out of harm’s way. Saratoga was somewhere to the south and could provide more air cover. Hornet was still afloat and they were trying to take her in tow. Suddenly, about 1600, another full Jap attack of torpedo planes and dive bombers hit the Hornet group. Hornet caught a torpedo amidships and a heavy bomb topsides. She quickly took on a greater list and it appeared she was about to roll over. The decision was taken to abandon ship and destroy her.

By 1730, all survivors had been taken off the carrier and Mustin was ordered to sink her. Mustin fired a total of 8 torpedoes at short range into her side, but only three exploded and these failed to do mortal damage. Anderson was then ordered to complete the work and fired another 8 torpedoes into the wounded carrier and, though six were believed to have hit, Hornet remained afloat. The two ships then poured more than 400 rounds of 5-inch into her side with little noticeable effect and were ordered to re-join TF 17 as it was disappearing over the southern horizon. (After the war it was learned that the Japanese actually boarded Hornet during the following night hoping to be able to salvage her, but, deciding against it, they dispatched her with four torpedoes.)

As TF 16 steamed to the southeast, away from the battle area, planes in the air reported Maury was leaving an oil slick. Jim Winn soon found it came from the neat hole in our Starboard side just below the waterline. It was probably from a Portland 40mm, striking while we were heeled way over during the torpedo plane attack. We pulled out of formation and Captain Sims ordered “Full Right Rudder” to turn the ship in a tight circle. This caused the ship to heel to Port and raise the hole above the water. Our most athletic shipfitter was then lowered over the side and hammered a wooden plug into the hole.

We had obviously lost a lot of planes, even though there were still enough left to fill the Enterprise Flight Deck. The Big E was still operating, but she would certainly need some time for repairs before she was fully effective. Porter was gone, Smith had received major damage, and San Juan had taken a bomb hit. South Dakota had taken a bomb hit on the top of Turret 2, which didn’t even dent the turret, but wiped out the crew of the adjacent 40mm quad. When we fueled from her two days after the battle, the only apparent damage to the turret was scorched paint. The loss of Hornet was terribly serious—we now had only the frequently-damaged Saratoga and now a damaged Enterprise.

On the Jap side of the scoreboard, the results were not clear. We had reports of severe damage to a couple of carriers, a cruiser, and some destroyers, but nothing definitely sunk. None of the fliers we had aboard had actually made contact, so they could add little to what we had picked up over the Air Control circuits and the message traffic. The important result was in what didn’t happen. The major Jap forces did not continue south to Guadalcanal, but returned to Truk to lick their wounds.

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