Starting Up the Solomons

Though we were at sea for Christmas, the whole Task force got back to Nouméa to see the old year out and the new year in. We were nested with two of the other destroyers of Task Force 64 and Captain R.G. Tobin, the “Silver Knight” of Bancroft Hall, and who had commanded the destroyers in the second battle of Savo Island, was our acting Squadron Commander. He held a meeting of all destroyer skippers as soon as the ships were anchored and Captain Sims returned, all pepped up by the good things that Commodore Tobin expected to do. He did, however, want the ships and their crews spruced up and mentioned, as an example of how bad things had gotten, that he had actually seen a young Lieutenant on one of the ships with a full beard!

The morning of the first day of Santa Cruz, I’d dropped my Rolls razor on the steel deck of my stateroom and General Quarters had sounded before I could find an alternative. The next several days and nights were so hectic that I didn’t get a chance to get properly cleaned up. When I finally looked into a mirror, I had a budding beard on its way. We weren’t going any place where my appearance made any difference, so I decided to let it grow. By the time we got to Nouméa, I had a luxurious full beard and moustache. I hated the moustache—it felt like I had soup on my upper lip—but once it stopped itching, the beard was O.K.

The Captain relayed the Commodore’s comment with a smile. Navy Regs didn’t allow beards—only “neatly trimmed” moustaches. We’d been at sea for a long time and many Navy Regs and customs had been dropped by the wayside. I felt mildly disturbed that our new Commodore, despite his splendid combat record, should waste his time on such trivia, but I certainly didn’t want to embarrass Captain Sims. I got up from the Wardroom table, went to my stateroom and shaved both Beard and moustache. My chin was unbelievably soft and white. I looked like a Circus clown—white chin and mouth, surrounded by the deep tan of months in the sun. But I was really glad to get rid of that moustache!

Nouméa offered a club for the Officers but very little for the enlisted men until a recreation beach was established on an attractive peninsula across the anchorage from the town. It had been opened just before Christmas, so we seized the opportunity to schedule a ship’s picnic. We actually scheduled two, so the men who were “On Duty” for the first would get a chance to go to the second. We were going to barbeque a side of beef, have plenty of hamburgers, hot dogs and potato salad, but most importantly we provided for plenty of beer! Swimming was great from a wide sandy beach and there were several volley ball nets.

The Captain went to the first one to get things started and it was really a great day of relaxation. As evening fell and the serious beer drinking commenced, we gathered around a big fire, reminisced and sang a few songs. The men particularly enjoyed the chance to talk to the Captain and other officers in the informality of a party. Luckily we’d borrowed an LVP from the tender to get the troops back to the ship, because it was quite drunk out that night. Three of us helped the Captain from the boat to his cabin, but he was happy and at peace with the world.

After a week of upkeep in Nouméa, we were back at sea with the battleships and started a much-needed training period. Both Surface and Air targets were available to sharpen our skills- tools must be used if they are going to be effective! We then joined Saratoga in Task Force 11 and patrolled north of the Solomons in what had previously been thought of as enemy waters.

President Roosevelt had promised turkey dinners for the troops in the front line for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we hadn’t seen any for many months. Not that we were suffering—we got plenty of “boneless beef” (select cuts already prepared for cooking and packed in convenient cartons), chicken and pork products—and we hadn’t really thought about the president’s flamboyant promise—until we went alongside the supply ship to replenish “on station” in late January—then we learned about turkey!

Henry Kahn, our Supply Officer had put in his normal requisition for so many cartons of beef, so many cartons of chicken, so many hams, so much bacon, etc. It all came back in turkeys! We didn’t receive any meat at all, but we took aboard tons of big-breasted roasters. We enjoyed the first meals of “Roast Tom Turkey” as the menu on the bulletin board announced, but “Turkey Croquettes” for breakfast never became popular. We had Turkey Cutlets, Fried Turkey, Boiled Turkey, Turkey Ragout and Turkey Soup! As if to add to the misery, Henry’s boys had forgotten to order salt, so we were soon scraping the sea salt crusting our spray-drenched stack to add a little flavor to the dry white meat. By the time we got back to Espiritu after almost a month of turkey, “Tom Turkey” had lost his charm!

With the withdrawal of the last Jap forces in early February, Guadalcanal had been declared “Secure,” but “Secure” didn’t mean “Safe,” particularly at sea. Though no longer a menace on Guadalcanal, the Japanese were establishing strong points further up the Solomons chain. In particular, they were building an airfield at Munda Point on New Georgia Island and an operating base at nearby Vila Plantation. On the night of the 4th of January, Halsey sent a cruiser/destroyer force into Kula Gulf, between New Georgia and Kolombangara Islands, to bombard the new installation. As the allied ships retired early next morning, they were intercepted by Japanese dive bombers and HMAS Achilles was hit.

There were several other night bombardments of Japanese installations, many by the newly formed Destroyer Striking Force, composed of 2,100-tonners and operating out of Purvis Bay at Tulagi. The Japs countered with frequent bombing attacks by Vals and low level torpedo attacks by twin-engined “Bettys.” On the 29th of January, a well-coordinated attack by Bettys hit a force of cruisers and destroyers near Rennell Island, south of Guadalcanal and torpedoed the heavy cruiser Chicago. She didn’t sink immediately and a rescue tug was sent from Espiritu to tow her to safety, but the Bettys returned next morning and put her under with four more torpedoes and severely damaged the 2,100-tonner La Vallette. A couple of days later a group of Vals sank one of the Striking Force ships, De Haven, and damaged the commodore’s flagship Nicholas off Cape Esperance. The Jap fliers were pressing in their attacks with much greater skill than before and the demonstrating the phenomenal range of their Bettys, operating well to the south and east of Guadalcanal.

We’d hardly re-provisioned, when we were detached from Task Force 11 and assigned to a new task group to take the Army’s 37th Division to Guadalcanal. Maury was among the six destroyers assigned to protect the convoy of four Attack Transports and one Oiler. ComSoPac knew the convoy would be a likely target and specifically warned the convoy commander to be ready for a torpedo plane attack.

Before sailing from Espiritu, Maury received a supply of two hundred 5-inch/38 projectiles fitted with the newly-developed “VT” influence fuze. A Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University came with them to explain their use and observe their performance. Instead of being set to explode at a pre-set time after firing—a calculation which required impossibly accurate measurement of range—the new fuzes would trigger the explosive at the instant the projectile came abreast the target. As explained by our Hopkins PhD, who had been christened “Pistol Pete” by the wardroom from his first hour aboard, the new fuzes would eliminate the biggest source of inaccuracy and increase our “Kill Probability” per shot enormously. He predicted, without hesitation, that the new fuzes would completely re-define naval warfare.

On the afternoon of the 17th of February, while we were still 100 miles south of San Cristobal, the southernmost of the Solomons, we were detected and tracked by Japanese search planes. We could see them on the Air Search radar and caught a glimpse of them once or twice between clouds, but there were no friendly fighters around to attack them. The Task Group commander shifted to a circular AA formation and warned us to expect an attack.

Not long after dark, as we entered Indispensable Straits, a green flare was sighted floating on the water several miles ahead. Shortly after, a series of while flares were dropped all around us. We could detect several air targets at ranges from 15 to 40 miles, but none of them came within gun range. After about an hour of flares and feints, a large group of air targets was detected to the southwest. A bit later, the “bogies” spread out and started to close. Formation Speed was increased to 16 knots, the maximum for the transports, and the group commander started maneuvered the force with a series of “Emergency Turn” signals over the TBS.

As the range closes, we trained the director to the bearing of the closest attacker, got good “pips” on the FD radar scopes and started tracking. Our target was coming straight in at about 150 knots. The convoy commander had signaled “Guns Free,” so, at 8,000 yards, I ordered “Commence Firing.” All four 5-inch mounts blasted out in unison and, immediately, blinding explosions appeared just a few hundred yards from the gun muzzles. The Radar continued to function and stayed “Locked On,” so we continued to fire as the range closed. At a thousand yards the 20mms opened up. Their tracers led to a black shadow roaring directly towards us- a twin-engined Betty with her bomb bay doors open! She was heading directly for me personally! Some 500 yards out her torpedo dropped and sliced into the water. If that torpedo hit, I was going to be blown vertically out of the director—the hatch coaming would rip my arms off. I braced my arms against the inside of the opening so I would be blown clear. The plane itself skimmed over the forecastle lower than the level of my eye. I looked down into the cockpit and saw the two pilots in the green glare of their instruments. The big plane was burning and it smeared into the water a few hundred yards to starboard in a tremendous sheet of spray. Nothing more happened, so the torpedo must have passed under us. It had been dropped too close to arm and come up to running depth!

Another Betty approached from the port bow. We “locked on” by radar and got a good solution. As we opened fire, she dropped her fish and tried to climb out, but was caught in the combined fire of our 5-inch and 20s. The converging streams of 20mm tracers were punctuated by flashes of 5-inch bursts as the Betty became a ball of fire, lighting up the whole area.

There had been many flaming crashes around the formation, but no ships were hit. Captain Sims figured that we had been attacked by about fifteen Bettys and that, in addition to the two that we’d knocked down, at least another half dozen planes were destroyed. The attack lasted only a few minutes, but we were tracked and harassed by search planes most of the night. Finally a friendly “Black Cat” PBY from Cactus appeared overhead and escorted us until dawn.

After we secured from General Quarters, once again we discovered that one of our 5-inch guns had enlarged—the bore of Mount 53 was about 6 inches instead of 5-inch in diameter at the muzzle. Many of the VT fuzes, which were molded in a transparent green plastic, had broken off when rotated out of the fuzesetters by the loaders. When this had been noticed, the particular round had been discarded, but maybe the men had missed some. We surmised that one of the VT fuzes had cracked in loading, broken off during ramming, jammed the projectile upon firing, and the gun had expanded to relieve the pressure.

Our report to Pistol Pete on his revolutionary VT fuse was that we believed it helped shoot down one Betty for sure, but there was plenty of evidence that it was too fragile and no doubt that a large number had gone off prematurely. We now had a “blown up” gun for our trouble and we were heading into “Indian Country” with only three 5-inch guns.

We got the transports to Guadalcanal and the Army troops ashore with no more attacks. CONDITION RED was broadcast as we escorted the convoy eastward after unloading, but none of the attackers reached our group.

Instead of returning to Espiritu with the transports, Maury was soon sent back to join a destroyer group being assembled to invade the Russell Islands, the next island group up the Slot from Guadalcanal. These islands were an “unknown” for the American command. In the past there had been reports of a substantial number of Japanese and an airfield had been started, but no activity had been observed recently. ComSoPac decided to land elements of the 37th in the Russells to secure the group before making more daring moves up the Solomons chain.

Since LSTs had not yet arrived in the forward areas and even LCTs were scarce, it was decided to make the invasion with destroyers, towing landing craft astern. On the 20th Maury anchored off Lunga Point, loaded over 300 troops and prepared to tow four landing craft—two LCMs and two LCVPs. At sunset we joined five other destroyers similarly loaded and, a bit later, five converted “four-piper” minelayers completed our force.

The troops aboard Maury were a mixed bag of service, staff, and support personnel, but they all had one thing in common, they were very nervous about the coming landing. Shortly after they had disembarked from the transports following our night torpedo plane attack, a tropical downpour drenched them while they were trying to get settled in an un-cleared part of the jungle. When the rain stopped, “Washing machine Charlie” and a couple of his friends kept them diving for cover all night with an occasional bomb. With such and introduction to Guadalcanal, they were now being shipped further into Jap territory!

Nineteen of our passenger officers were chaplains! Late in the evening, after devouring much of our fruit in the wardroom, they sent a delegation to the captain requesting permission to hold a prayer service on the forecastle. The skipper had no objection, so word was passed that all hands who wished to participate in a prayer service should report to the forecastle at 2300. The response was very impressive. All of the embarked troops and many of our sailors gravitated to the forecastle until there was hardly room to stand. With all this weight forward, the bow went down and the stern came up until both towlines were chafing against the deck edge. About midnight the inevitable happened. First one and then the other towline parted! We spent the next two hours recovering the heavy wire towlines and getting the landing craft under control.

The other ships had continued ahead without us. When we finally arrived at Wernham Cove, the point for disembarking our troops, it was well after dawn. Warren Armstrong went to the Quarterdeck to get the soldiers into the boats and on their way to the beach. The Colonel in command of our troops, who had been closeted with his staff in the Captain’s Cabin since he arrived aboard, jumped into the first LCVP with his officers and headed for shore. The rest of the soldiers just stood around as though they were not involved. Warren called for all troops in the “First wave” to get into the remaining boats. No one moved. He asked several individuals which wave they were in—he got various evasive answers, but it was clear that none would admit to being in the “First” wave. All Army Line Officers seemed to have gone ashore with the Colonel. The nineteen Chaplains were of no use.

Warren un-holstered his .45 automatic and in a firm voice ordered, “You men, from here to the ladder, into the boat!” Seeing the glint in his eye, they obeyed, so the second LCVP was loaded. He cut out a larger group for the first LCM and they embarked with a few growls but no real resistance. He pushed another group into the last LCM and shoved it off for the beach. The landing craft disappeared around the island and we waited.

The boats didn’t return!

There was no sound of firing or conflict, yet we had to lie immobile in the narrow waters between the islands, exposed to air attack, waiting to complete our unloading. It was not just the Maury’s four boats—the other ships were waiting too! Finally, the TF Commander sent an officer in to the beach in a whaleboat to see what the trouble was. He found that the green troops of the 37th had rushed ashore, dug their foxholes and jumped in. They wouldn’t come back to unload the boats! By the time this was straightened out and all of our troops were ashore, it was almost sunset! We were lucky there were no Japanese on the island.

Just before the Russells operation, Armstrong received orders to take command of Stringham, one of the converted Four-piper minelayers. Captain Sims announced that I would take over as Executive Officer and, to prepare for my new assignment, I was to act as ship’s Navigator from then on. As we approached the Russells in the early light of the 21st, I struggled correlate the islands appearing from the black with my DR Position based on firm “fixes” a few hours earlier. It appeared that the whole group was some 5 miles to the east of the position shown on our British Admiralty Chart. There was also little relationship between the arrangement of islands shown on the chart and the real islands we were looking at. Feeling I was failing in my first test as Navigator, I told the Captain of my dilemma and asked for help.

Captain Sims checked the chart against the islands and agreed with my conclusion. The Admiralty chart was nearly a century old, but it was all any of the ships had to work with. He consequently decided take the ship in by “Seaman’s eye” and Fathometer. I was to take a blank chart, lay out a Dead Reckoning track as we went through the islands, plot from our DR positions the “Tangents” on all islands as frequently we could take the bearings. The result wouldn’t help us on the way in, but on the way out and thereafter we’d have the rough outline of the islands we needed to pass. This system got us safely in and out for the next two weeks, while four of the other ships “touched reefs,” during the operation. I soon had navigators from all the other ships coming over to copy my “chart.”

A few days later, Stringham arrived in Tulagi and Warren Armstrong was gone. I was now really the Executive Officer and Navigator of Maury. I actually felt real sympathy for Gelzer Sims. A mature and highly experienced naval officer, 39 years old, having as his first officer and “Right Hand” a youngster not yet 23! I didn’t feel I lacked the competence or judgment to handle the job, but even the “confidence of youth” didn’t blind me to his probable feelings.

We never established radio communications with the troops ashore in the Russells during the first days of the operation. When we returned to Guadalcanal to pick up the next load, we found that no one on Guadalcanal had had contact with them either. It was several days before effective radio communications was achieved and that was possible only by exchanging actual radio sets between the services. Inter-service cooperation was in its infancy!

After all the troops were ashore in the Russells and no Japanese had been found, Maury returned to Espiritu for a much-needed “Tender Availability” alongside Dixie Our two weeks alongside Dixie were a welcome change and it was a special treat to be able to have movies topsides. Every evening we’d rig the movie screen on the forecastle, where the cooling breeze was slightly better, and show one of the films being circulated among the ships. Almost all hands attended the movies and the privileges of rank were never more evident. The officers sat closest to the screen in armchairs brought to the forecastle by the Mess Attendants. The Chiefs were behind the officers and brought their armless chairs from the CPO Mess. Petty Officers who worked in offices brought their office chairs; those who worked in shops brought their private, hand made stools. The ordinary Seamen and Firemen sat on the bare deck where they could find space. The movie didn’t start until the Captain arrived and then all hands were required to come to Attention until the “Old Man” was seated. The Captain was late returning from the Officer’s Club two nights in a row and held up the movie each time for almost an hour. The third time this occurred, as soon as he sat down, all the enlisted men got up and silently left the forecastle. He was never late again!

The officers had their Club and soon the Chiefs had a Club, but there was no Club at “Button” for the lower ranks. As soon as possible a Fleet Recreation Center was established for them on the island encircled by Segond Channel, the anchorage at Espiritu. There was a swimming beach, barbeque pits and baseball diamonds, but for most of the men the big attraction was beer. Each man was given chits for two beers when he left the ship and there was a thriving commerce in chits bought from those who didn’t drink by those who dreamed of beer. The chits sold for high prices, but there were men who managed to get much too much beer in the hot sun.

One of our best men, a torpedoman 3/c, distinguished himself by ramming a baseball bat into the mechanism of the compressor of “Reefer Box” containing the beer. This enraged his shipmates because it spelled the end of cold beer. When brought to “Captain’s Mast,” he couldn’t explain his action. We all knew it was a rebellion at being treated like a child, but two beers were better than no beer! The Captain gave him two weeks “Restriction to the Ship,” knowing that we were going nowhere.

After our overhaul, we spent a few days on Offshore Patrol guarding against submarines attempting to get at the juicy targets in Segond Channel. The northeast and southwest entrances were solidly mined, but there was a Secret passage through the mine fields at the southeast entrance. We would cruise slowly in an arc covering the two eastern entrances, picking up the defending mines on our Sound Gear at the end of each swing. In the black, tropical night, the echoes from the mines were our best points for navigation.

On the 28th of March, the monotony of our patrol was ended when the big Hunter Liggett sortied from Espiritu and we were ordered to escort her to Latoka Anchorage on the north side of the main Fiji Island of Viti Levu where she was to pick up some Army troops for Guadalcanal. We’d have two days of Liberty and Shore Leave! A “Play Wave” at last!

The small village of Latoka was about a mile inland from the single pier at the Anchorage and little could be seen through the surrounding sugar cane and palm trees. Hunter Liggett anchored not far from the pier and we went alongside the tanker John Penn, already at anchor, to fuel. It was a hot hazy morning as the crew prepared their “Liberty” whites for their first foray ashore to a civilized town in ten months. The skipper decided that half the crew would be allowed ashore each day. I suggested that he go ashore first because I had some paperwork to do. Hunter Liggett lent us an LCVP for the Liberty Party and by 1300 half the crew was ashore and I settled down to a quiet afternoon.

I was not an hour into my papers, mostly routine personnel reports, when Chief Gunners Mate Hackwith, who had been specially selected to head the Shore Patrol, burst breathlessly into my stateroom with, “My God, Mr. Crenshaw, they’re dropping like flies!” His clean white uniform, with coat, tie and peaked cap, was damp with sweat and his tan leggings and dusty shoes showed he’d been in grass. “That smokestack at the head of the pier is a Rum Factory and they’re selling “rot gut” rum for fifty cents a bottle!” He removed his cap and mopped his brow. “They start off for the town and they never make it! They’re in the ditches, in the fields, everywhere!” “They” meant our Liberty Party!

I stripped the ship of officers and petty officers to augment the Patrol and went ashore with them to get things organized. When we arrived at the pier, a dozen white clad forms stretched out on the dock and the shore patrolmen were looking for more space. On the Chief’s advice, we’d brought stretchers, which were immediately put to use. Then we organized a search line, a hundred yards to each side of the road, and started sweeping towards Latoaka. As the Chief said, we found them everywhere!

On board, we organized as well. When the LCVP arrived with a load, each body would be lashed into a metal “Stokes” stretcher, hoisted aboard by the boat davit, checked by the ship’s doctor, carried below and secured in his bunk with his bunk straps. By sunset we had recovered all but a dozen of the Liberty Party and those on board were quietly sleeping it off in their bunks. No one was seriously damaged!

As the hot day wore to a close, men began to come topsides for the evening air. Conversations between the crews of the two very different ships gradually led to taunts and insults. John Penn was an ex-merchant tanker which plied the supply lines to the combat area, and our Maury heroes were full of themselves and a bit of left-over rum. The shouting match threatened to get out of hand, so our Watch Officer came to me for help. We ordered our men to keep clear of the engaged side and the Penn OOD did the same. Things seemed to calm down.

About an hour after dark, I was called to the Quarterdeck again for a real problem. When they could no longer be seen in the failing light, men on both ships drifted topside to heap scorn on the other ship. When a voice from the “Jungle Deck” of pipes and valves below Penn’s catwalk made some hideous remark about our ship, a still tipsy 17-year-old climbed aboard the tanker to find his tormentor. A shadow emerged from the Jungle and dropped him with a wrench. A shipmate went to assist him and he too fell from a blow from the shadows. Our Petty-Officer-of-the-Watch, a scrappy little gunners mate, jumped aboard Penn to save his shipmates, saw the wrench in time and dodged. He caught his assailant with an uppercut that decked him, but his fancy jeweled ring had caught the Penn bully in the corner of his mouth and ripped his cheek open to his ear! Several other Maury men jumped aboard Penn and brought their injured shipmate home.

The fray brought threats of retaliation from both sides and the Penn OOD was among the most vociferous. Doc Abts, the only doctor in either ship, took care of the injured men and did a wonderful job stitching up the long rip in the bully’s cheek. We posted armed officers along Maury’s rail to prevent any recurrence. After twenty minutes, all was quiet.

About 2300 the Captain of John Penn returned, heard the story from his Duty Officer, and sent an order for the Captain of Maury to “Report aboard immediately.” With Captain Sims ashore, I went aboard Penn to reply. The Captain of John Penn was a “four striper,” far outranking the captain of a destroyer, and he was also full of rum. He started shouting as I entered his cabin, called our Maury crew “murderers,” and vowed a General Court Martial for Captain Sims. When I could finally get a word in, I replied that his man was doing well under Doc Abts care and that I would relay his comments to Captain Sims.

When Captain Sims returned about midnight, I brought him up to date on the eventful day, the excitement of the evening, and the command for his attendance from the Captain of the Penn. He too was full of rum, but much wiser. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “You replied to his order. If he wants anything else, he can go through channels!”

When we sailed, we were soon joined by transports George Clymer and Fuller, escorted by Balch, Flusser and the new 2,100-tonner Chevalier. We headed north through Indispensable Straits where we had been attacked before, but this time nothing happened.

At Koli Point the Transports anchored and began unloading. Soon a steady stream of landing craft was cycling back and forth between the ships and the beach a mile away. Planes were coming and going from Henderson Field all day. It was a much different place than a few months before. For the night, however, to avoid the threat of another “Savo,” the big ships got underway and we escorted them through Lengo Channel to spend the night in the safer waters of Indispensable Straits.

As we headed eastward on the third day after all unloading had been completed, the peace of the operation was broken. Many unidentified aircraft were reported approaching from the west and a stream of F4Fs took to the air from Henderson. “MANY BOGIES, CONDITION RED!” soon came over the TBS, so our four destroyers formed a protective screen to the west as our four fat friends scurried for safety. It was an unusually heavy attack by about 75 dive bombers and an equal number of covering fighters, but under skillful control of the Fighter Directors ashore, our fighters started shooting them down well to the west of Savo.

We could see the air battle as it worked closer. The circuits were alive with chatter between pilots and numerous smoke trails arced down to the surface. By the time they got to Ironbottom Bay, there were only a handful of attackers left. Most headed for Tulagi and found the destroyer Aaron Ward, shepherding a couple of tugs and an LST. She fought back but was hit and badly damaged.

After hitting Aaron Ward, the last of the Japs came toward us. Our fighters were working them over steadily, but we got in a few long-range 5-inch shots at planes they’d missed. We didn’t hit any, but our firing seemed to discourage them. They scooted for the horizon with friendly fighters in hot pursuit. We continued eastward to safety.

As we sped along, we realized that it was becoming a very different world. Now our friendly fighters on Guadalcanal were strong enough to protect our ships at sea! The “dark days” of Guadalcanal were definitely a part of the past. We were beginning to push the Japanese back!

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