The Dark Days of Guadalcanal

Returning to Nouméa was like returning home. We were far from the Battle Zone and, once inside of Amadee, we could relax. The cumulative damage to Enterprise from Stewart Island and Santa Cruz was difficult to patch, but she and the frequently torpedoed Saratoga were the only Carriers we had left. While work was progressing in the repair of the Big E, Maury was detached from Task Force 16 to escort a supply Convoy to Espiritu. By the time we returned, Task Force 16 had gone to sea and left us. Enterprise had been the cutting edge of the Pacific Fleet for the past year and we in Maury felt a part of her. We were proud of our service in Task Force 16. We felt a great loss that the Big E steamed toward danger without us.

We cycled back and forth from Nouméa to Espiritu a couple of times, pinging incessantly and never getting anything in return. If our ASW efforts were boring, the news coming south from Guadalcanal was not! In the early days of November, both the U.S. and Japanese commands were intent on reinforcing their troops struggling for supremacy on Guadalcanal. Four packed Transports and three Attack Cargo ships under heavy escort were dispatched from Espiritu. Task Force 16, augmented by the new battleships Washington and South Dakota, was rushed to sea to protect the landing. As the Transports and their escorts arrived off Lunga Point and started to unload, they were attacked by a flight of about 25 Jap dive bombers. Destroyer Buchanan was badly damaged and the flagship, cruiser San Francisco, was hit. Large Japanese forces were detected approaching the area, so the amphibious ships were sailed clear to the east and a force of cruisers and destroyers were left to defend our Marines on Guadalcanal.

In the early hours of Friday the 13th of November, the American force of five assorted cruisers and eight destroyers, steaming in a long column, collided “head on” with an incoming Japanese force of two battleships screened by fourteen destroyers. The American force had radar and VHF voice radio. The Japanese had good eyes, heavier guns and devastating torpedoes. The ensuing battle was murderous!

Radar contact was provided by Helena’s SG Surface Search Radar at 27,000 yards, about the limit of ship-to-ship radar visibility. The force commander, RAdm. Dan Callaghan, changed the course of his column to head straight for the enemy, but gave no further instructions. The TBS quickly became saturated with a babble of ranges, bearings and amplifying data. The forces were closing rapidly. Cushing, leading the long American column, sighted two enemy destroyers 3,000 yards ahead and turned left to avoid a collision. Atlanta, fifth in column and just ahead of flagship San Francisco, swung left. Ships without an SG asked where the enemy was. Others asked permission to fire. Callahan ordered, “Stand by to open fire!” Five minutes ticked by with no further orders. A Japanese searchlight close aboard illuminated Atlanta and she opened fire with her multitude of 5-inch twins. Callahan finally ordered, “Odd ships fire to Starboard, even ships to Port.” The two formations had already merged and vicious fire broke out in all directions.

Atlanta was knocked out of action almost immediately and Adm. Norman Scott, second in command of the force, was killed. Cushing was quickly battered helpless by the Jap Battleship Hiei, but she got off a salvo of torpedoes at a range of 1,000 yards before she blew up and went down. Laffey also tangled with Hiei at close range and she got a couple of torpedoes off, but was she was hit by 14-inch salvoes, torpedoed, blew up and sank. Sterett, next in Column, was badly mauled but survived. O’Bannon engaged Hiei at point blank range without a scratch, and then sheared out of the melee. An unbelievable order “Cease firing own ships!” was received from Callaghan. Chaos reigned for a few moments, and then fire was resumed.

San Francisco had apparently been firing into Atlanta. The second Jap battleship, Kirishima, pounded San Francisco from starboard while Hiei scored a dozen times with 14-inch at short range from port. San Francisco was a shambles and Callahan killed! Portland, next in column, was damaged by shell fire and later hit by a torpedo, which knocked off a propeller. Helena fought through undamaged, but her 6-inch was no match for the battleships. Juneau was torpedoed amidships and put out of action. Destroyer Aaron Ward fought gallantly, blew up an enemy Destroyer, but finally was crippled by enemy shells and left dead in the water. Barton caught two enemy fish, broke in two and sank with few survivors. Monssen ploughed through the wreckage of Barton, engaged Hiei at 4,000 yards with guns and torpedoes, fired another salvo of fish at an enemy ship on her beam, made the mistake of flashing her recognition signals, was pinpointed by searchlights from two directions and blown to shambles by shells from both directions. Fletcher, at the tail end of the column and equipped with an excellent SG Radar, kicked up to 35 knots, cleared the melee to the north, and, when things were better sorted out, returned to the fray, nailing selected targets with 5-inch on the way, and launched all ten of her torpedoes at the largest radar contact. She then retired to the safety of Sealark Channel to the east to await daylight.

When morning came, it was clear Atlanta was not worth saving, so she was scuttled near Lunga Point. The smoking wreck of Barton blew up and sank about noon. As the cripples retired eastward with only Helena, Fletcher, and O’Bannon undamaged, a Japanese submarine torpedo hit Juneau and blew the already damaged ship to pieces. She disappeared in an instant and there were almost no survivors!

On the Japanese side, Hiei was crippled from damage during the night action, but she floated to receive a pounding from Marine Aircraft from Henderson Field all day. She was finally scuttled by her crew in the evening.

Though the stateside press made much of the saga of San Francisco and the heroism of LCdr. Bruce McCandless, who brought her through the battle though seriously wounded himself, this third major surface battle in Iron Bottom Sound was as bad a fiasco as its predecessors. There was no apparent tactical concept, no significant maneuvering, communications bedlam reigned at critical times, and tactical command of the force as a whole simply disappeared once the firing commenced! Cruisers of several types were lumped together with destroyers and bound together in an unwieldy column. Adm. Callaghan must have been afraid to lose control of his ships if he attempted to maneuver in the dark! The 8-inch guns of our heavy cruisers, effective out to 20,000 yards and equipped with radars to fight at night, were carried silent to point blank range. Destroyers were not released for torpedo attacks and fired their fish sporadically as targets appeared. In this “Third Battle of Savo Island,” as it was soon known in the forward area, a rigid American column was rammed into the midst of a relatively blind enemy. Firing wasn’t permitted until it was too late for skill and superior equipment to make any difference!

By dark on the fateful 13th of November, Savo Sound was clear of ships, many of them on the bottom. The Japanese didn’t let up and a fresh column of cruisers showed up in the night and treated the Marines to tons of 8-inch. Task Force 16 had arrived south of the Solomons and Enterprise planes caught the bombardment force as it retired up the Slot, sinking one cruiser and damaging three more plus a destroyer. Even more important for the Marines ashore, a reinforcing group of eleven transports, guarded by an equal number of destroyers, was caught coming down the Slot. Seven transports were sunk and the remaining four damaged as the Japs turned back to Rabaul.

As the reports of the success of the Enterprise and Marine aircraft from Henderson were coming in, a new threat was detected approaching from the north. Battleship Kirishima with a dozen supporting cruisers and destroyers was heading down towards Savo, so Adm. Halsey ordered ComTaskForce 16 to send his two battleships and some supporting destroyers to fend off the attack.

By 2200 on the 14th, Washington and South Dakota, led by Walke, Benham, Preston and Gwin, had made a sweep to the west and were entering the Sound passing north of Savo Island. RAdm. Willis A. Lee, renowned as a gunnery expert, commanded the force. He kept his “Fast Battleships” in a loose echelon and stationed his four destroyers as a detached unit ahead. When he reached the middle of the Sound and found no opposition, he turned his force due West to head for the passage south of Savo. In a few minutes, Washington’s radar picked up a contact coming down to the east of Savo and the big battleship opened fire at long range. The targeted ships turned northward and fled.

The destroyer group, now 5,000 yards to the west, detected Jap targets coming around Savo and opened fire at 15,000 yards. The fire was quickly returned by two destroyers, just to the right of Savo, and another group of five ships, almost in line with Savo. A fierce gun battle ensued as the forces closed. In a few minutes, Preston was hit heavily, burst into flames and became an illuminated target. The Jap Cruiser Nagara closed and made short work of her. Her engines were shot out and she sank rapidly. Walke also received heavy shell hits and, as she tried to get her torpedoes off, was hit by a Jap torpedo and broke in two. Benham had her bow blown off by a torpedo and limped away towards Cape Esperance. Gwin provided star shells for the battleships and fired at every target she could reach, but she caught a shell-hit in the engine room and was soon fighting to keep afloat. Her torpedo mounts were jammed, so she couldn’t get any fish in the water. When the battle passed her by, she maneuvered to help Benham to safety. The Japs had taken plenty of hits and one of their destroyers had sunk.

As the destroyer battle developed ahead, Washington and South Dakota charged into the fray at full speed. Equipped with the best radars in the world for both finding the enemy and shooting at him, the fire from the battleships was devastating. The Nagara force turned and fled. With Walke and Preston burning brightly and dead-in-the-water, Washington changed course to the left to avoid them, but South Dakota chose to pass to the right, thus silhouetting herself against the flames for the Japanese. Almost simultaneously, an internal short circuit caused her to lose vital electric power, so she plunged head blindly for over five minutes without operable radar or fire control. The Japanese Main Body then appeared to the left of Savo Island and turned to head up the Slot, so for a few minutes, the main opposing forces were on parallel courses. With South Dakota Clearly outlined against the flames, the Japanese poured their full fire-power into her, achieving over 40 major caliber hits and causing extensive damage to her superstructure, though luckily the several dozen torpedoes they fired did not hit. After receiving a crippling hit on her after turret, which prevented its further use, the big ship, though still firing at the enemy, changed course to the southeast and retired.

Washington, apparently undetected by the Japs as they concentrated on her mate, took her time in engaging the main Jap force, which contained Kirishima and two heavy cruisers. At the beginning of the gun duel South Dakota had moved up on Washington’s starboard quarter to maintain a clear field of fire and was in the “blind spot” of flagship’s SG radar. Only when the Japs concentrated their searchlights and fire on South Dakota was Washington sure that the big target she was tracking by radar was enemy. Washington then opened fire with her 16-inch main battery at 8,400 yards and after 75 rounds had Kirishima circling out of control and in sinking condition, while at the same time engaging the cruisers with her 5-inch.

Lee then turned his flagship north and continued the engagement for a few minutes until the Japanese turned away and retired. With one operational ship remaining and the enemy retiring, Adm. Lee disengaged and cleared to the south.

Kirishima was scuttled near Savo Island to prevent her being captured, but Benham started to break up next afternoon and had to be sunk by Gwin. The Japs had lost their second battleship and a destroyer, but we had paid with three DDs sunk plus a battleship and a destroyer damaged. From a tactical viewpoint, Adm. Lee had handled his ships much better than any of his predecessors, but we still had a lot to learn.

The complete story of these battles was not known until after the war. The first news came from news releases, which were heavily censored and incomplete. By the time we reached Espiritu with our second Convoy, the harbor was full of scraps of information and plenty of rumors. The Officer’s Club at “Button” had been opened, in a palm decorated Quonset hut on a jungle-covered hill above the curved, narrow harbor. As the refreshments were consumed, there was plenty of discussion and conjecture. No one wanted to criticize men who had given their lives, particularly when we knew we didn’t have the whole picture, but the performance of our commanders was not impressive.

If the full story of the battles was not known, it was clear that both destroyers and cruisers were taking a beating. In the last two night battles more than half of our destroyers had been sunk. Even in the battleship action, where the destroyers had been posted well ahead of the heavies and released to maneuver, they had been less effective than we expected they would be.

Fletcher, O’Bannon and their sister “2,100 tonners” were the first real reinforcements for the dwindling Destroyer Force of the South Pacific. They mounted five centerline 5-inch/38s as compared to Maury’s four, but they carried only ten torpedoes instead of sixteen. They were also slower and heavier than the “Gold Platers.” Their principal advantage was that they had SG Radars with the Plan Position Indicator, or “PPI,” which “painted” a map of the surrounding area. They could see in the dark! This was certainly one reason why they performed so well in the Third Battle of Savo.

On the 20th of November, Maury was officially detached from Task Force 16 and assigned to Task Force 67, a new surface striking force being assembled at Espiritu to take the place of the ill-fated Task Force 64, which had been decimated on the night of the 12th. The heavy cruisers Northampton, Pensacola, Minneapolis and New Orleans plus the equally large “light” cruiser Honolulu, with her five triple turrets of 6-inch/47s, formed the backbone of the force. Destroyers were assembled from wherever they could be found.

By the end of the week, Jap forces were spotted leaving Rabaul and heading south. Task Force 67 was put on “Alert” to intercept. RAdm. C. H. Wright, who had taken command of the task force only the day before, called a conference of his commanders in his flagship Northampton to outline his tactical plans and to elicit comments and suggestions from his skippers. He was concerned about the tactics of the previous engagements and particularly about closing to “point blank” range instead of capitalizing on our long range, radar assisted, gunnery. He was also very firm in his instructions on the use of the TBS. The Japs might not be able to hear it, but it was useless if it was clogged up with too many reports and questions.

At the time of the conference only the destroyers Fletcher, Perkins, Maury and Drayton had been assigned to the Force, so Commander “Bill” Cole, skipper of Fletcher, was given command of the destroyers. Wright made it clear that he expected to release the destroyers to operate independently once the action had started.

Captain Sims returned from the conference very much encouraged. He called all officers to the wardroom to relay the information and instructions he’d received. He also expressed great confidence in Adm. Wright. With the losses destroyers had taken in the preceding night actions, we needed all the encouragement we could get. Late that evening the expected orders arrived and Task Force 67 slipped silently to sea in the black of the night. A Japanese force had been sighted coming down the Slot. We were heading north at 28 knots to intercept it.

At the end of a long day of preparation and last minute instructions, we entered Lengo Channel on a course almost due west and skirted the north coast of Guadalcanal. Speed was reduced to time our arrival off Lunga Point at about 2230; the Japanese force was plotted to arrive about midnight. Lamson and Lardner, part of the escort of a group of transports being cleared to the east to avoid the battle, were ordered to join our force and caught up while we were in the channel. There was no time to give them any instructions, so they were just told to fall in astern the cruisers.

After clearing Lengo Channel, Adm. Wright turned the column to the northwest to get sea room for the expected fight. He posted Cole with his four Destroyers 5,000 yards to the northwest of flagship Minneapolis as Destroyers Van, and when sufficiently clear of land, he turned all ships simultaneously to a westerly course to sweep Iron Bottom Sound in a quarter-echelon formation.

It was a lovely star-lit night and we had been able to smell the jungle flowers as we passed close to the Guadalcanal shore. Only the hum of the Forced Draft Blowers and the gurgle of the wake broke the silence as all hands strained their eyes to extract the enemy from the blackness. We trained the Director back and forth hoping to pick up a pip on the FD radar. Gun Control was connected to the operators of the SC radar by phone and they kept asking us to check suspicious contacts with the Director optics—the SC was mainly an air-search radar, with a very broad main beam and strong “side lobes,” which gave strong target indications even when the beam was well to the right or left of direction the antenna was pointing . With land in almost every direction, it was nearly impossible to distinguish a ship from the overlapping reflections from land. We hoped the ships equipped with SG radars, particularly our leader Fletcher, would keep us informed.

About 2300 Minneapolis reported a contact on bearing 284° T, 23,000 yards, near Cape Esperance. Adm. Wright ordered “TURN FOUR FIVE” to bring his cruisers back into column, then “FOUR FIVE CORPEN” to turn the column parallels the coast of Guadalcanal. This put Destroyers Van about 5,000 yards ahead and slightly to port of the cruiser column. Even at this distance, we could still see the phosphorescent glow of the bow waves of the cruisers. Cole had informed his ships that he intended to fire torpedoes from about 7,000 yards at the Intermediate torpedo speed setting of 36 knots. Wright’s Operation Plan allowed any ship to engage the enemy when the when the range reduced to 6,000 yards or less. Cruisers were not to open with guns until the Van Destroyers had fired their fish. Speed was held at a steady 20 knots to give time the develop target tracks.

We scanned the Director back and forth across the bearing reported by Minneapolis. Fletcher reported contact. We trained left to check that bearing. On the second swing, Plamondon on the FD scope thought he saw something. He coached Serwitz to train to maximize the “echo” and started Tracking. Range 10,000 yards! Solution: Target Bearing 240, Range 9,200, Course 120, Speed 12! “Request permission to open fire.” “Permission Not Granted!”

We sped westward though the night closing the range. “FLARE BEARING THREE ZERO ZERO!” shouted a Lookout. “FLARE BEARING TWO SEVEN ZERO! STARSHELLS TO PORT!” shouted another. The sky on our port bow exploded with light. The falling flares blinded our night-adjusted eyes. The pale shimmer of light on the water showed nothing.

A small black shadow appeared on our bearing. “SMALL MERCHANTMAN,” shouted Canaday from the rangefinder. “TARGET SIGHTED, REQUEST PERMISSION TO OPEN FIRE!” “GRANTED.” “COMMENCE FIRING!” Our first Salvo crashed out and there was a blinding flash from Plamondon’s radar console. “Christ! She’s shorted out!” Blue acrid smoke confirmed it.

Each five seconds another Salvo crashed out. I ordered a “Rocking Ladder” and continued to fire on the generated “Solution.” Canaday reported many splashes near the target, but couldn’t tell which were ours. In a moment, the target faded into smoke or haze. Without radar contact and having lost visual contact, I ordered “CHECK FIRE!” The sky was alive with starshells and flares. The cruisers astern poured out their salvoes with huge flashes, which lighted the sea. We were blinded by our own illumination!

“TORPEDOES TO PORT!” shouted Sahlin from the Left side of the Director. I could feel the eyes of the Director crew turning to me- Sahlin and I were the only ones who could see the water alongside. I could see nothing. Sahlin was climbing out of the director. A new star shell burst and shimmered across the water. There were streaks on the water! But they were old wakes—the bubbles had already reached the surface. As we slashed through them, I guessed what they were. “They’re outgoing fish from the ships ahead!” I stated with as much firmness as I could muster. “Resume your Search. Two Four Zero to Three Zero Zero Relative!” No Explosion! I’d guessed right!

The Director resumed its slow movement back and forth. Across the top of the director, I could see Sahlin, still half out of his hatch. I ordered him to get back in the director, but he froze where he was.

A few shell splashes rose a thousand yards short. No worry there—the Japs didn’t have our range. We followed in the wake of the ships ahead as Fletcher turned right towards Savo and increased speed. Continuous arcs of tracers rose from the cruisers astern and plunged into the darkness where we had been firing. Fletcher had fired a salvo of fish and the other ships had gotten a couple of torpedoes off, but Captain Sims had held ours for a target we could see.

A volcano erupted astern! A column of fire rose vertically from the water a thousand feet into the sky. A moment later another column of fire rose beside it. Our cruisers were blowing up! We couldn’t make out any details, but something terrible was happening. Cole increased speed to 35 knots as we swung around Savo Island and its shadow masked the burning debris from the first two explosions, a renewed “bridge” of red tracers reached from behind the island toward Cape Esperance—Honolulu’s fifteen 6-inch guns, no doubt. At least she was still alive! Then the sky lighted up with the greatest explosion of all. It was behind Savo Island from us, but the sea all around was bathed in the glare. Something big had happened, but it was on the other side of Savo.

As we came around the north side of the island and headed back to join the fray, Cole divided us into two sections, and turned south towards Guadalcanal. We were in the traditional Search and Attack formation; Fletcher and Perkins to the east, Maury and Drayton 3,000 yards to the West. We probed southward at a cautious 15 knots searching for the enemy and trying to get our bearings. There were several fires on the water in the direction of Cape Esperance, but we couldn’t identify any of them. We were still north of the battle area when, suddenly over the TBS came orders: “DESTROYERS VAN JOIN HONOULU.” So at least we still had one cruiser, but where? Cole reversed our sweep to take us north of Savo, but finding no cruiser there, he took us back towards the battle area to make sure there were no Jap ships left there. We still had about 10,000 yards to go to reach the original position of the Jap Force when RAdm. Tisdale in Honolulu, who had taken over from Adm. Wright, ordered “SMALL BOYS STAND BY DAMAGED BIG BOYS.” Maury and Perkins were ordered to stand by New Orleans, “TEN MILES EAST OF SAVO.” It was a strange order, considering our formation, and from an unseen commander.

Cole ordered a 90-degree “Search Turn” to the Left, which put his section to the south, Maury’s to the north. The four ships swept east at 35 knots towards several burning ships, unable to tell friend from foe. As we approached the closest, we prepared a full torpedo salvo. The contact might be enemy.

At about 5,000 yards, we sighted the ship its self, but could not make her out. The half to the right seemed like a cruiser, but the half to the left looked more like a merchantman. The Captain ordered the signalmen to challenge the stranger. The “correct” reply would be the display of “Fighting Lights,” Green-White-Green, from the permanent lights installed on the mast or from flares shot from hand-held Very pistols. Burns with a Blinker Gun flashed the challenge—nothing for over a minute. Then a hesitant series of White-Green-White Very stars. Hardly had they fallen to the water when streams of White and Green Stars rose from various parts of the ship as crewmen tried correct the first reply. Captain Sims ordered “Hold Fire.” Though erroneous, the reply was probably the work of desperate hands fumbling in the dark.

We continued to close with all weapons at the ready until we could finally identify the ship with certainty. It was New Orleans—her bow blown off back to Turret two! She said she was in no immediate danger of sinking, and could still make headway, so Cole ordered us on to the next burning ship.

We dashed on through the dark, two sections abeam, still separated by 3,000 yards. There was no way to know what was out there in the black. Our SC was land-locked and our FD out of action. We strained our eyes to pierce the gloom. We could see red flames, masked by heavy smoke. Occasionally they would flare up orange and yellow. With guns and torpedoes ready, we flashed the challenge. The smoldering ship replied correctly and we soon identified her as Pensacola, my dad’s old ship. We slowed and came close alongside. She was down by the stern and listing to port, her deck almost awash amidships. Intermittently flames still licked up her mainmast, but the men on deck were getting the fire under control. She was a wreck topsides and the sea stank of oil, but she was still making a few knots headway.

Cole told Maury and Perkins to take care of Pensacola while Fletcher and Drayton sped on in search of Honolulu. They spotted her in a few minutes and joined her to sweep back toward the battle area. They’d hardly gotten started when they came upon the wrecked and burning Northampton. The destroyers were told off to stand by the sinking ship while Honolulu dashed off at top speed to sweep west between Cape Esperance and Savo alone. Both ships soon had their hands full rescuing survivors. Northampton had been hit mortally by two torpedoes and couldn’t be saved. She was abandoned and sank in a short time. In the following hours, Fletcher and Drayton rescued over 700 men from the water. Less than 60 were lost, and those mostly in the initial explosions!

Captain Sims ordered Perkins alongside Pensacola to assist in fighting the fires while Maury circled in the dark to guard against enemy ships or subs. With Perkins alongside nursing, Pensacola crawled slowly into Tulagi Harbor under her own power. It took a couple of agonizing hours, but she entered the harbor safely.

As soon as Pensacola was safe, Maury turned back to help New Orleans. The night was still black, but we found New Orleans only a few miles out. Having gotten things more under control, she was pushing her truncated bow steadily towards Tulagi at about 5 knots. We circled as she crept along, pinging steadily for submarines and keeping alert for any lingering Japs. As the dawn broke on the 1st of December 1942, we reached the dubious safety of Tulagi harbor. The sun brought light and an increase in confidence. Now we could see the enemy if he returned.

New Orleans had no bow, thus no anchors! The captains conferred and Maury was ordered alongside. We then dropped our hook to anchor both ships. An hour later a damaged Minneapolis, escorted by Lamson and Lardner, entered Tulagi. A gasp of disbelief rose from all hands as they saw her condition. She too was missing her bow, but at least she had not lost her turret. None of the three damaged cruisers was fit for sea and they’d be “sitting ducks” in Tulagi if the Japs attacked.

Minneapolis had lost 60 ft of her bow to one torpedo and taken a second in her No. 2 fireroom, but she still had both engine rooms and plenty of steam. With a bit of reinforcing to hold her together forward, she could ready for sea shortly.

Pensacola’s Torpedo had entered the ship just below the waterline and the explosion had vented upwards more than down. It blew a huge hole in the main deck just aft of the No. 2 stack and wrecked the topsides, but her hull was essentially intact. Her No. 2 engine room was flooded, but as soon as the hole in her side was patched, that could be pumped out. Her starboard engines were OK, so she could be ready for sea soon.

New Orleans was more difficult. Her forward magazines had exploded when her torpedo hit, shearing off everything forward of the barbette of Turret II. It would take a good deal of internal bracing to prepare the remaining structure to withstand the forces of the sea.

Northampton had taken two torpedoes amidships, exploded and burned. It was her demise that illuminated the heavens as we passed behind Savo.

There was a lot of repair work to be done and little except the ship’s own crews to get it done. It was decided to move New Orleans into McFarland Channel, an inlet that meandered northwest behind Tulagi Island into the jungle of Florida Island. There she could be moored and camouflaged alongside Jamestown, the PT-boat tender, which was already secured to the bank there.

With Maury alongside as a tugboat, New Orleans started around the north side of Tulagi Island to reach McFarland channel. She soon came to a stop. Neither Full Ahead nor Full Astern with her engines would move her. The water was deep enough for her normal draft, but she was “hung up” on something. Our best guess was that wreckage hanging down from her blasted bow had caught on the bottom and was holding her. The Captain of New Orleans ordered Full Speed on the engines of both ships, first ahead, then astern. She began to budge and twist. Power on the two ships was then opposed to twist her further. Finally, she came free with a surge and was once again quite manageable. Whatever had stopped her had now broken off.

We had no more trouble with the move and were soon a mile up McFarland channel, moored outboard of Jamestown. Maury was kept alongside New Orleans to supply steam and electricity, and, after a few hours of hard work and ingenuity, camouflage nets had been rigged from the steep jungle across all three ships. Aboard Maury, we weren’t too sure this was a good idea. The nets prevented us from using our guns and they might not fool the enemy.

Shortly after we were settled in this new arrangement, “Pierre” Charbonnet, an Academy classmate, jumped aboard from New Orleans to announce that the whole class had been promoted to full Lieutenant! This was about the last thing I cared about at that moment. Among other things, our classmate “Ed” Johnson was among the men lost in the wreckage of Turret 1! But it was good to see Pierre and to know he was all right.

Next morning at Dawn GQ, we scanned for Japs in the jungle as well as in the sky. Serwitz stopped training and exclaimed, “Wow! Look at that Babe!” All hands clamored for a look, so I trained my binoculars on the object of their attention. On the muddy beach at the edge of the Mangrove swamp stood a black woman clad only in a brief skirt made of short pieces of reed. Though she had identifiable breasts, she was essentially cylindrical in shape, had a mop of fuzzy black hair and wore some kind of stick through her nose as an ornament. After Copeland took his look, he growled, “Better start sending some of these guys home!”

Life under the camouflage net was informative in other ways. We got to meet the crews of the PT Boats and look over their craft. A PT seemed the perfect weapon for the night battles of Savo Sound, yet they’d done almost nothing. Relatively small ships with a low profile, they were hard to detect and carried a lethal payload of torpedoes. They could drift quietly off the coast until the transports or bombarding ships arrived, launch torpedoes and slip away. If they were detected, their great speed and maneuverability would make them almost impossible to hit. Yet, despite multiple opportunities, they had shot few torpedoes and those with little effect. Though the crews spoke of “suicide” missions, they had actually suffered almost no damage. The officers were mostly “ninety day wonders” from good colleges, but they seemed to lack confidence in themselves and their weapons.

After a few days, New Orleans got her broken steam lines and cables sufficiently repaired to supply her own power, so Maury shifted to an anchorage in Tulagi Harbor to add to the AA batteries ashore. Fletcher, Drayton, and Perkins, carrying survivors and wounded, had gone south with Honolulu. Lamson and Lardner returned to their transport group and headed south. We were left alone, the only fully operable U.S. combatant ship in the Guadalcanal area!

On the 6th, Lamson and Lardner returned to Tulagi. Pensacola, now patched and pumped out, got underway and the three of us escorted her south to “Button.” As soon as we delivered her, we turned around with another convoy to “Cactus,” but this time there was no interference. Meanwhile, Minneapolis and New Orleans had been escorted to the relative safety of Espiritu.

Things weren’t exactly quiet while we hid at Tulagi. “Washing Machine Charlie” flew over almost every night and we expected an attack momentarily. On the 3rd of December, a group of ten Jap destroyers was sighted heading down the Slot. Marine bombers from Henderson were sent to get them, but were blocked by Jap fighters. One Jap destroyer was damaged, but the supplies to Guadalcanal got through. A repeat performance on the 7th, with help after dark by PT Boats damaged two more Japs, but they still got through. The next night the PTs were waiting and four of them engaged in a hot battle using both torpedoes and machineguns and drove the supply Destroyers back up the Slot. In the early hours of the 12th, the “Tokyo Express” tried again and was met by three PTs at Cape Esperance. This time the PTs got a torpedo hit on Teruzuki, the first of the class of Japanese “Super Destroyers.” She blew up and sank a few hours later. I’d obviously misjudged the caliber of the PT crews.

On the 18th, we were transferred to a re-formed Task Force 64, now built around two of the new battleships. We spent the Christmas holidays patrolling south of Guadalcanal but, though there were a couple of further skirmishes involving the PT Boats, there was no action for our task force.

In the aftermath of our big night action, now dubbed “The Battle of Tassafaronga” for the adjacent village on Guadalcanal, it had become clear that we had engaged a force of eight Japanese destroyers. After the loss of most of their combat transports to the Enterprise planes on the 14th of November, the Japanese, led by the outstanding destroyerman, RAdm. Raizo Tanaka, were trying to keep up the supply by using destroyers at night, soon known as the “Tokyo Express.” We had intercepted them before they could land their troops and supplies, but their deadly salvoes of torpedoes made the trip worthwhile. Against our loss of one heavy cruiser and severe damage to three more, the Japanese had lost only one destroyer. Most of the U.S. fire was concentrated on the closest ship, Takanami, which was duly pulverized, but the rest fired their fish and fled. Our old fashioned ability to see and fight at night had been destroyed by our own Star shells—fired indiscriminately and too short; bursting between the opposing forces, they had blinded everyone.

Our commanders seemed to remember little about torpedoes and their use. Range-to-target isn’t necessary for an accurate torpedo shot. If a torpedo is fired correctly for the target’s course and speed, it will hit if can reach the target. After the war, we found the Japanese “Long Lance” torpedo had a range of 22,000 yards at a speed of 50 knots, compared to our 4,800 yards at our maximum of 45 knots! Our cruisers should have changed course radically to “Reverse the Field” early in the action on the assumption that the enemy had already fired his torpedoes. A torpedo with a Lead Angle to the Left can’t hit a target moving to the Right! They should have repeated the maneuver periodically as they pounded the enemy with their guns at long range, beyond the reach of a destroyer’s guns. If anything is to be sent in to close the enemy, let it be a destroyer, moving at top speed and maneuvering radically.

The losses on both sides had been heavy in the campaign for Guadalcanal. Our carriers in the combat area were reduced to a couple of wounded veterans in bad need of repairs. Our Pacific Fleet cruisers had been decimated and reinforcements had to be called in from the Atlantic. The six squadrons of our pre-war Pacific destroyer flotillas had been reduced to half their original numbers and were only lately being augmented from “New Construction.” The Japanese had suffered equally, but had no overwhelming replacement program to bring them back to health.

By Christmas 1942, the Japanese still ashore on Guadalcanal were battered and starving. The Japanese high command faced reality at the end of the year and started evacuating the survivors of their heroic forces. On the night of the 7th of February, two years after my graduation from the Naval Academy, a force of 18 Japanese destroyers came down the Slot and evacuated the last of the Japanese troops from Guadalcanal.

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