Commodore Burke

On the 23rd of July, a new commodore, Cdr. Arleigh A. Burke, arrived in Conway and relieved Capt. Ryan as commander of our Striking Group. Burke had been skipper of Mugford before the war and Captain Sims had been his exec. Sims had told many a story about Burke’s drive to improve the performance of Mugford and her crew. He was always aboard by 0700, never left the ship until late and required every officer to be on board while he was aboard. That was rather extreme in peacetime and he was not popular with his more fun-loving officers. They privately named him “Old Pear Shape,” because of his tendency to put on weight in the rump.

On the other hand, this wasn’t peacetime and Burke was an expert in Ordnance. We needed some expertise in the use of weapons and particularly some new thinking. The skipper predicted he would make a great battle commander. Events gave us little time to wonder.

Shortly after noon, we sortied for a re-supply trip to Enogai. Conway, Maury, Taylor, Ellet and Gridley were to escort the APDs Kilty, Crosby, Talbot and Dent, and we went over to Lunga Point on Guadalcanal to pick up the troops. Japanese resistance at Munda had stiffened and interception of our supply run was expected. The cruiser division was added to the operation and Maury and Gridley were detached to screen the Montpelier group. We spent the night patrolling with the cruisers to the north of Kula Gulf, but though some anti-air activity was seen deep in the Gulf near Enogai, we saw no action and were back in Purvis by noon on the 24th.

The afternoon was spent fuelling and taking on extra ammunition while the captain attended a conference with the new commodore. We were to conduct a bombardment of Munda early the next morning, in coordination with a huge bombing attack and an assault by our troops ashore. The “Bombardment Plan” was to be developed by the commodore. We were to learn quickly that an operation under the command of Arleigh Burke was an exercise in precision. Our times to “Commence Fire” and “Cease Fire” were specified down the half-minute!

At 1900, we got underway and headed for Blanche channel. Burke had divided his Force into three “Firing Sections,” with orders to pass through designated navigational positions and commence the “Fire Schedule” at precise times. Maury and Gridley made up the First Section, followed by Conway and Wilson in the Second, with Taylor, Patterson and Ellet bringing up the rear. We arrived in Blanche Channel about midnight, combed its waters carefully for any Japs and formed our Column-by-Sections at the entrance to Rendova Straits at 0530, as outlined in the Operation Order.

It was daylight by the time we approached our firing point, but a slight haze over the water prevented checking our position, except by radar. We planned to use “Indirect Fire,” with the guns under control of the rangekeeper to keep them “On Target” as we steamed though the straits. We would move our fall-of-shot about the assigned bombardment area by “steering” the predicted point of impact by changing “Target Course” and “Target Speed” settings on the rangekeeper. A Spotting plane had been assigned to correct our initial salvoes, and he was on station with good radio communication.

We passed through our Initial Point exactly on time and Commenced Firing in accordance with the plan. Our planned speed was 10 knots, but a shore battery, which we never did see, started lobbing shells at us. The incoming shells made only small splashes, indicating a modest caliber, but they came near once or twice, so the Captain increased speed and began to Zigzag as we fired.

After completing our assigned firing schedule, we increased speed and continued out the west end of the channel. Each successive ship delivered its fire as scheduled and, as we looked back, we could see the target area blossoming with dust clouds and smoke.

As our last ship completed her rounds, a large formation of B-24s, flying at only a few thousand feet, covered the area with a blizzard of bombs. As the clouds of bombs dove into the jungle, it literally erupted with dust, smoke, flames and debris. It seemed clear to us that nothing could survive such a pounding!

When the B-24s cleared, SBDs and TBFs took over, driving their bombs into any remaining targets in the devastated area. When we left the smoking jungle behind and headed for home, we were convinced that the whole area had been cleared of Japs. When we got back to Purvis after fuelling in Tulagi Harbor, we heard that the Japs had come out of their bunkers and pillboxes as soon as the bombing stopped. They were holding up our assault troops just like before!

We loaded ammunition to replace that expended on Munda, and more importantly, we received eight more 800 lb Torpedo Warheads to give us a full complement of 16 of these improved units. They contained almost twice as much explosive as our previous warheads, so if we hit an enemy ship we now had a real punch!

Surprisingly, the commanders had nothing more for us to do and we got to stay in port for a few days. We managed to get nearly everyone ashore for a day’s recreation at the camp of the Marine AA Battalion whose guns ringed Purvis Bay. By unbelievable coincidence, the Battalion was commanded by Maj. Herbert Young, a classmate of mine at Mathew Whaley High School in Williamsburg! When he found I was aboard, he opened the larder of his well-stocked Marine Camp and welcomed us to all of the camp’s considerable facilities. Nothing was too good for the men from Maury. Maj. Young had the reefer boxes and Captain Sims had thoughtfully filled our Peak Tank with cases of beer for just such an emergency. We could send the crew ashore for recreation in the jungle with cold beer!

In return, we invited the Marine officers aboard for dinner in a civilized ship. As they came aboard, we’d show them to the hot showers, send their clothes to our little laundry and lend them clean clothes for their stay aboard. Refreshed and unaccustomedly clean, they could enjoy a good dinner, served by Mess Attendants, with sparkling silver, china and glasses, on white table linen. On departure, they’d shift into their own clothes, nicely laundered and pressed, and return to the jungle refreshed. The same was done for many of the officers we met at the growing base on Tulagi Island.

One evening we had an unusual mix of officers from several organizations for dinner. Over coffee, the conversation led to a discussion of who had the best life in the forward area. We destroyer officers offered our sympathy to those less fortunate, who were living in the jungle.

An aviator from Henderson Field immediately contradicted, saying that he had the best deal by far! He’d seen the ships “Blowing up like firecrackers” all over the gulf and he wouldn’t leave port in one. When things got tough ashore, he could hop into his airplane and fly away into the clean sky, where he was master of his own fate.

Herb Young chortled at this foolishness, “Yeah, you can fly up and as quickly get shot down! Even when you’re on the ground you are the main target around here and catch all the bombs!”

“Except for those reserved for your AA guns, Herb.” responded a Marine Infantry officer from the foxholes in Guadalcanal. “We may be wet and muddy, but we aren’t the target for either the bombs or the big guns!”

Each officer sincerely preferred his branch of the service and his lot in the war!

On the 29th of July, at the end of a conference with his captains on operations and tactics, Commodore Burke announce that since his present Flagship Conway had been ordered to re-join her Squadron, he was shifting his “Broad Command” pennant to the ship of his old Executive Officer. Maury was to be the Flagship of the Destroyer Striking Force!

Captain Sims returned to the ship in great consternation. He remembered all the “amusing” stories he had told about “Old Pear shape” and he cringed at the thought of them being re-told. He called all officers to the Wardroom, emphasized his sincere admiration for the abilities of his old skipper, and instructed us to forget any “Sea Stories” he had related to amuse us.

But the skipper’s “tales out-of-school” were not all. We had no place to put him. The Commodore’s Cabin was now the Junior Officer Bunkroom where six of our now twenty-two officers resided! In addition to the Commodore, we were to receive the Striking Force’s Fighter Director Unit, ARGUS ELEVEN, with its four officers. We had to work out an accommodation plan in zero time, because the Commodore intended to come aboard that afternoon.

The captain should not be moved out of his comfortable cabin for anyone! He needed any rest and relaxation he could get. I therefore suggested to the captain that I move out of my stateroom, which was next to his cabin, and that he and the Commodore share his bath. I could move back into the Gunnery Officer’s stateroom, which I had left only a few months ago. It didn’t take too much persuasion for him to see my point. I emptied my desk and locker was out within an hour.

At 1620, loudspeakers announced the approach of “ComDesDiv 44.” I hurried to the Quarterdeck to greet the new Commodore. The Conway whaleboat grated alongside our steel side ladder and up climbed a handsome blond officer with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. The famous “Sun Downer”, Commander Arleigh Burke, dressed in khakis with no tie, reached down to haul up a single canvas duffle bag which the boat crew was pushing up to him. He greeted Captain Sims with affection and had a warm handshake for me. The captain told him of the arrangements we’d made, but he declined the offer of my stateroom, saying that he intended to sleep on the wing of the bridge in the sleeping bag he had brought along. I could imagine the complications for the Bridge personnel with a Commodore sleeping in the corner, so I insisted he take my stateroom, stating truthfully that I’d already moved out. Finally, with an understanding smile, he accepted the proposed arrangement, and went forward with his duffle over his shoulder.

Within twenty-four hours, Commodore Burke had every officer and man in the crew believing he was God. He had brought no personal staff with him, so he suggested I act as his Operations Officer. He was favorably impressed with our improvised CIC and planned to spend most of his time there at night. In addition to having a TBS outlet at his fingertips, he could see both the SG radar PPI and the Navigational plot at the same time. He chatted with the Signalmen to make sure they knew his habits. He conferred with the torpedomen and the gunners mates to emphasize their importance. He even became acquainted with the watertenders in the firerooms and the Cooks and Bakers in the galley.

Commodore Burke was working on a basic Destroyer Battle Doctrine covering the tactics to be used in night battles. He was just as aware as we were of the misuse of Destroyers in the previous battles. He had worked out a system of dividing the force into two groups which would approach together, but then separate and operate independently once the engagement started. The idea was to hit the enemy from two different directions at the same time, thus catching him in a crossfire. This could be done safely in the turmoil of battle only if each group knew what the other was going to do. Such mutual understanding could be assured only by establishing an agreed “Doctrine” of maneuver beforehand. To assure this, his proposed doctrine specified that when first contact was made, the group closest to the enemy would become the “Torpedo Group” and be released to attack. The other group would simultaneously, cut across the bow of the approaching enemy, thus crossing his “T.” The Gun Group would be ready to blast the enemy with guns from an unexpected direction the moment the torpedoes hit, but no gun was to be fired until the torpedoes had had a chance to do their work.

To determine that his doctrine would be clearly understood, he tried it out on randomly selected officers and men to hear what they thought it said. He got a lot of useful suggestions, especially from the quartermasters and radiomen.

On the evening of the 31st, we sortied on our first operation flying Burke’s pennant at the masthead. It was a simple operation with Maury, Gridley, Craven and Dunlap escorting Kilty, Talbot, Waters, McKean, Stringham and Ward on a supply run to Oniavisi. It was a new experience for Maury to take her place at the head of the column as “Guide” for the formation. We had hardly started across Savo Sound to meet the APDs at Koli Point before the Commodore had us practicing the maneuvers and signals of his Destroyer Doctrine. The run to Oniavisi was uneventful except for a few long-range bogies in the middle of the night, but nothing came close to us. The APDs didn’t complete unloading until dawn, so we made our return in daylight.

We got back to Purvis at 1500, but we had hardly “topped off” when the Commodore abruptly ordered all ships to get underway for a sweep up the Slot. He had visited Admiral Wilkinson’s Headquarters at Koli Point while loading troops the day before, and the Admiral had told him that he planned to send the Destroyer Group up the Slot to meet the “Tokyo Express” as soon as any movement was detected. Throughout our run to Oniavisi there were plenty of signs in the radio traffic that it would be coming down on the night of the 1st. Though no dispatch had been received, time was running short for the force to be in proper position to intercept, so, instead of awaiting orders, Burke had decided to act. He ordered his force to sea and headed up the Slot, with ships already divided into two divisions; Maury, Gridley, Craven making up the first; Stack, Sterett, Wilson, the second. The divisions were deployed in “Quarter Echelon” with guides 5,000 yards apart. The Commodore ordered our top “two-boiler” speed of 27 knots—he wanted to be at the entrance to Kula Gulf at midnight.

After an early supper, I was standing on the wing of the Bridge with the captain, watching a beautiful tropical sunset. As we came abreast the Russells, Harry Hughson, out of breath and flushed, arrived on the Bridge and beckoned me to the flag bags at the aft end of the signal bridge to show me something. It was the dispatch for which the Commodore had been waiting—full of details on the enemy force and containing orders for Burke to proceed. I took it with a smile and started towards the Commodore, but Harry grabbed my arm and pointed to the bottom of the Dispatch Form. TOR (Time of Receipt)—1147 Local! That message had been on board since before noon!

What had happened? Harry explained that Ensign “Blinkey” Sather had been given the coded message just as he was going down to lunch. Even though he had the de-coding duty, he continued to the Wardroom thinking to de-code the message after his meal. He had put the message in his pocket and forgotten about it. Harry had discovered the lapse in cross-checking the incoming message Log against messages de-coded.

Harry was too embarrassed to face the captain, so I took it to Captain Sims. Sims turned apoplectic when he realized the horrible mistake his ship had made. He couldn’t face the Commodore. He told me to show it to Burke and simply tell him what happened without naming names.

Burke was on the opposite wing of the Bridge smoking his after dinner pipe. I handed the message to him, which he read intently; then noticing the TOR, he asked what had happened. After hearing my explanation, he looked into the distance for a long moment and then said quietly, “Even the best crews make mistakes.” That was all we ever heard of the matter, but the Captain summarily transferred Sather ashore to Tulagi the next day with a Fitness Report rating him as “Unfit for Duty as an Officer.”

We arrived off the mouth of Kula Gulf about 2200, slowed to 20 knots and patrolled the area for the next four hours. There were bogies on the radar screen almost constantly. Frequently they dropped a few flares, but we managed to dodge into the numerous rain squalls enough of the time to keep them from pressing an attack. The Commodore divided his time between CIC and the Captain’s Emergency Cabin where the ARGUS ELEVEN Fighter Directors had been set up. No enemy ships materialized, however, so we headed for Purvis at 0300 and got alongside the Tanker a little after 1000. The Commodore wanted to confer with the Admiral, so we were off for Koli Point as soon as we refueled. By 1700, we were back in Purvis for the night.

On the 3rd of August, Arleigh Burke received orders detaching him immediately to take command of Destroyer Squadron 23. With a quick, but warm goodbye, he boarded a Motor Torpedo Boat to Koli Point and a flight to Nouméa. It was with genuine regret that we saw him go. He was just what the Destroyer Striking Force needed.

Commander Frederick Moosbrugger, ComDesDiv 12, was to be our new commodore. Moosbrugger had been skipper of McCall before the war and was well known in our old squadron as a nice, quiet gentleman. He was certainly experienced and qualified, but we didn’t expect him to be an Arleigh Burke.

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