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“Bloody Savo” Is the U.S. Navy Ready for a Beat Down Today?

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                         USS Quincy under Attack off Savo Island 

[Note: Updated 15 August 2020 in regard to the erroneous account of Rear Admiral Samuel Elliot Morrison regarding Australian Scout Planes which was repeated in every American history of the battle until it was refuted by the U.S. Navy’s Historical Branch in 2014.] 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight I am going back to my World War II vault and reposting an older article about the Battle Of Savo Island off Guadalcanal. It was the most lopsided defeat in modern American Naval history. It happened a long time ago and in an age where the United States Navy has not lost a ship in combat, other to mines since August 6th 1945.

Since the latter part of the Cold War when the Soviets Red Navy under Admiral Sergey Gorshkov began to become true threat. In fact it became a threat to our plans to defend Western Europe through its submarine force, its growing surface force, and its integration with Soviet Naval Aviation Tu-16 Badger and Tu-22 Backfire bombers armed with conventional or nuclear air to ship cruise missiles, or Tu-16s equipped for EW, ASW, or Reconnaissance missions. One possible scenario was played out in Tom Clancy’s Cold War thriller, “Red Storm Rising.” In a successful attack by Badgers and Backfires the USS Nimitz was heavily damaged and knocked out of action by two missile hits, the French Carrier Foch was sunk by multiple hits, USS Saipan LHA-2 with over 2500 Marines and Sailors embarked was blown up and sank with only 200 survivors, in addition the USS Ticonderoga CG-47 heavily damaged and put out of action. The Soviets used deception and a saturation attack by anti-ship missiles that overwhelmed our defenses. I was an Army officer serving in Germany when the book was published and it was frightening, because even though the United States and our NATO allies prevailed, it was a great cost, and had it occurred my unit would have been likely chewed to pieces in the Battle for Germany. 

However, since the end of the Cold War we got lazy, with the fall of the Soviet Union we reduced the size of our fleet by massive numbers and then got involved in a series of small wars which wore out ships, and aircraft faster than programmed, and resulted in the early decommissioning of 30 ships, and reduction of 30,000 sailors to fund the war in Iraq. These wars caused additional funding shortages, which were made much worse by the Republican shutdown of Congress which resulted in great sequester of spending that impacted every government agency.

This included a military that was still at war and a massive backlog of maintenance, and replacement of ships. This was compounded by the costly Zumwalt Class “destroyers” which became so that only three of twelve were built, and now the Navy is trying to figure out a mission for them. Likewise, the Littoral Combat Ship or LCS program was promoted as an inexpensive heavily armed and versatile “street fighter.” Unfortunately it came in massively over budget, under armed, incapable of operating with or protecting Carrier Strike Groups, or Expeditionary Strike Groups, and plagued by numerous and often embarrassing maintenance failures. Like the Zumwalt’s the Navy is trying to figure out what to due with them. The USS Gerald Ford Class carriers, the designed replacements for the Nimitz Class are so expensive and plagued with ongoing issues of their new and innovative systems are so bad that the Navy is openly questioning if enough can be built to replace the Nimitz Class Ships. The Ford, though commissioned in 2018, has not deployed and probably will not deploy until 2022.

It seems that we forgotten to remember that should a war break out with a near-peer competitor, like the Chinese Communists or the Russians in waterers where they can gain local superiority, or even regional powers such as Iran which could use asymmetric means of large numbers of small missile equipped ships and attack boats, costal submarines, and land based anti-ship missiles in “swarm attacks” to overwhelm technologically superior American ships in confined waters. We have come close to losing major ships, the cruiser USS Princeton and Helicopter Carrier USS Tripoli, to very primitive moored mines during the First Gulf War, the USS Ruben James to a mine during the tanker wars, and the USS Stark which was hit by Iraqi Exocet anti-ship missiles in 1987. Likewise we have come close to losing the Guided Missile destroyers USS Cole (Terrorist attack), USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald (avoidable collisions with merchant ships), and finally, and perhaps the most disturbing, the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard last month that was so catastrophic that it is quite likely the ship will ever be repaired to her former mission requirements, and her replacement costs will be more than we can afford.

I won’t go into the destruction of the relationships that the Trump administration has caused with the nation’s whose navies we depend on to help us sustain overseas operations in Europe and the Pacific, nor the dearth of shipbuilding, repair, and dry-docking facilities in the United States needed to produce and repair warships in peace, and even more importantly in war. 

We have been lucky. We won’t be as lucky in a real live shootout today. Ships will be lost, damaged, and sailors will die. Compounding the problem for the United States is that years of focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, failed experiments with reducing crew size (smart-ship), reductions in numbers of ships and sailors to satisfy the budgets needs to the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, and the stress put on remaining ships and aircraft have worn us down. Readiness rates remain down, and we no longer have the shipbuilding and repair facilities to replace losses and repair damaged ships, especially in a war with China. There currently are no answers to this. 

That is why instead of commenting on today’s news I write about the worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy in the modern era, which I label from World War II to the present, and hope, maybe beyond hope that it will not happen again, but my guess is that those chances are 50/50, but that there is only a ten percent chance of that.

After Savo Island the U.S. Navy continued  to lose carriers, cruisers, and destroyers at an alarming rate, but the resources of the nation had been fully mobilized to replace the losses tenfold, and repair the damaged ships and return them to action. That could not happen today.

Sadly, I think that my introduction to this article may be longer than the article itself. But such are the dangers we face today. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

On August 8th 1942 the U.S. Task Force supporting the invasion of Guadalcanal was tired. The crews of the ships had been in continuous combat operations conducting naval gunfire support missions, fending off numerous Japanese air attacks and guarding against submarine attacks for two days. The force commanded by Admiral Richmond K. Turner was still unloading materials, equipment and supplies needed by the men of the 1st Marine Division who they had put ashore on the morning of the seventh.

On the afternoon of the eighth Turner was informed by Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher that he was pulling his carrier task force out of action. Fletcher alleged that he did not have enough fighter aircraft (79 remaining of an original 98) and as low on fuel. The carriers had only been in action 36 hours and Fletcher’s reasons for withdraw were flimsy. Fletcher pulled out and left Turner and his subordinate commanders the responsibility of remaining in the area without air support with the transports still unloaded, and full of badly needed supplies and equipment.

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                                          Admiral Gunichi Mikawa

As the American drama played out, the Japanese moved forces into position to strike the Americans. Admiral Gunichi Mikawa commander of the 8th Fleet and Outer South Seas Force based at Rabaul New Britain quickly assembled a force of 6 heavy cruisers, the 14,000 ton Atago Class Chokai, and the four smaller ships of the Kako Class, the Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa and Furutaka, the light cruisers Yubariand Tenryu and the destroyer Yunagi. Mikawa raised his flag aboard Chokai and the force sped down “the slot” which ran the length of the of the Solomon’s chain mid day on the seventh.

The Americans had warning of their coming. The first sighting was by B-17s before the Japanese forces had reached Rabaul. The second was the elderly U.S. Navy submarine S-38 at 2000 on the 7th when they were 550 miles away not far from Rabaul. This report was discounted because it would not be unusual to find a number of fleet units steaming near a major naval base and fleet headquarters. The last which should have alerted the allies was a sighting by a Royal Australian Air Force patrol aircraft on the morning of the 8th. The crew made numerous attempts to report this, but the common story, which first began with Samuel Elliott Morrison’s account of the battle in his 15 volume History of U.S. Navy Operations in World War Two falsely said that the Australian flight crew made no effort to report the information and flew back to their base, and had tea. American Naval historians writing about the battle have reported this as fact ever since, including me in previous iterations of this article, which I corrected in this article today (8/15/2020). The crew attempted to report it, and their report was even intercepted and reported by the Japanese. Not knowing if their report had been received they made an early return to base and made their report in person to the intelligence officer. This was first reported in 2013, and in 2014, the Chief of the U.S. Navy History Department collaborated the account sole survivor of that aircrew. Hopefully future historians of the battle will do the same. That being said no information was passed to Admiral Turner at Guadalcanal.

The fact is that the allied forces had warning and chose to minimize the threat. Their actions in the following hours displayed an extreme amount of complacency and and failures to take a more active role in preventing any possible Japanese. The American and Australian cruisers all had floatplanes which could have deployed despite a lack of experience in night operations, as the Japanese did so well.

 

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USS Astoria on August 8th off Guadalcanal and USS Chicago (below)

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Turner deployed his support ships to cover the three entrances into what soon would be known as Iron Bottom Sound. He placed the Anti Aircraft Cruiser USS San Juan and Australian Light Cruiser HMAS Hobart to the east with two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott. To protect the south west entrance into the sound south of Savo Island Turner placed the Heavy Cruisers USS Chicago, HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral R.A.C. Crutchley RN who in theory commanded the screening force. To the north of Savo he deployed the Heavy Cruisers USS Vincennes, USS Astoria and USS Quincy and two destroyers under the tactical direction of Captain Frederick Riefkohl aboard Vincennes. To the west of Savo he placed two destroyers to act as picket ships. Unfortunately these ships radar sets were insufficient and would fail to pick up the approaching enemy.

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                                                   Allied Dispositions

During the early evening Turner recalled Crutchley to his flagship for consultations of what to do regarding Fletcher’s retreat. Crutchley came over in his flagship the Australia denuding the southern force of its commander as well as one of its three heavy cruisers. He left the commanding officer of Chicago Captain Howard D. Bode in tactical command but Bode did not have his ship take the lead position in the patrol assuming Crutchley would return bymidnight.

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USS Vincennes (above) and USS Quincy (below)

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HMAS Canberra Sydney Harbour

                                                    HMAS Canberra 

Mikawa launched float planes to scout the locations of the American ships and to provide illumination once the battle began. Some of these aircraft were spotted but no alert measures were taken as many assumed the Japanese to be friendly aircraft. Many commanding officers were asleep or resting away from the bridge of their ships, lookouts were tired and not expecting the Japanese and Condition Two was set in order to provide some of the tired crews a chance to rest.

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Light Cruiser Yubari illuminating American cruisers at Savo Island

Admiral Mikawa now new the Allied disposition and ordered his ships to battle stations at 0045. At 004 he sighted and passed astern of USS Blue the southern picket which also failed to detect the Japanese force. Mikawa assumed that the destroyer might have reported his presence, briefly turned north but turned back to his original course when a lookout allegedly spotted a destroyer to his northeast. He gave the order to attack at 0132 and promptly spotted the American destroyer USS Jarvis which had been heavily damaged and without radio communications was making her way toAustralia for repair and passed her after some ships fired torpedoes and raced toward the southern force at 26 knots. With the southern force just a few miles away Mikawa ordered his ships to commence firing at 0136 and at 0138 torpedoes had been launched.

Mikawa’s lookouts spotted the northern group at 0144 and changed course. The maneuver was badly executed and left the Japanese in two columns as they swiftly closed on the Americans. Mikawa’s flagship Chokai launched torpedoes at 0148 and Astoria the cruiser closest to the Japanese set general quarters at 0145 and at 0150 the Japanese illuminated her with searchlights and opened fire. Astoria under the direction of her gunnery officer returned fire at 0152 ½ just before her Captain came to the bridge unaware of the situation. He ordered a cease fire until he could ascertain who he was firing at assuming the Japanese to be friendly ships. He delayed 2 minutes and ordered fires commenced at 0154 but the delay was fatal. Astoria had opened fire on the Chokai which then had time to get the range on the American cruiser and hit her with an 8” salvo which caused fires which provided the other Japanese ships an aiming point.

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Japanese artist depiction of attack on US Navy Cruisers at Savo Island

Astoria was left burning and heavily damaged barely maintaining headway but attempted to fight on scoring a hit on Chokai’s forward turret even as the Japanese opened up on the next cruiser in line the USS Quincy. Quincy caught between the two Japanese columns. Aoba illuminated her with her searchlight and Japanese forces opened fire. The gunnery officer order Quincy to return fire getting two salvos off before her skipper Captain Samuel Moore came to the bridge, briefly ordered a cease fire assuming that he was firing on Americans and turned on his running lights. Quincy was ripped by salvo after salvo which killed Captain Moore and nearly everyone in the pilothouse just as a torpedo ripped into her engineering spaces turning them into a sealed death trap forcing the engineer to shut down the engines. Burning like a Roman candle Quincy was doomed she was ordered abandoned and capsized and sank at 0235. However Quincy did not die in vain, at 0205 two of her 8” shells hit Chokai causing enough damage the Admiral’s chart room that Mikawa would order a withdraw at 0220 which spared the now defenseless American transports.

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Vincennes, the lead ship and flagship was next in the line of death. Captain Reifkohl order General Quarters sounded not long after the Japanese illuminated the southern group. At 0150 Vincennes was lit up by the searchlights of three Japanese ships which opened fire on her. Vincennes returned fire at 0153 hitting Kinugasa before she was hit starting fires on her scout planes mounted on their catapults. The Japanese mauled Vincennes, three possibly four torpedoes ripped into her as shells put ever gun out of action. At 0215 she was left burning and sinking by the Japanese who soon withdrew from the action. Ordered abandoned she sank at 0250.

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         HMAS Canberra being evacuated by the Patterson and Blue

Canberra struggled against the odds but was abandoned and was sent to the bottom by an American torpedo at 0800. Astoria also struggled for life but the damage was too great and she was abandoned sinking at 1215. Mikawa withdrew up the sound but on his return the Heavy Cruiser Kako 70 miles from home was sunk by torpedoes from the American submarine S-44 sinking in 5 minutes.

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The Americans and Australians lost 4 Heavy Cruisers sunk and one heavily damaged. Two destroyers were also damaged. Casualties were heavy; Quincy lost 389 men killed, Vincennes, 342, Astoria, 235, Canberra, 85, Ralph Talbot, 14, Patterson, 10, and Chicago, 2.

It was an unmitigated disaster, an allied force destroyed in less than 30 minutes time. Boards of inquiry were held and Captain Bode hearing that he shouldered much blame killed himself in 1943.

Admiral Turner gave an honest assessment of the defeat:

“The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise”

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     Wrecks of the USS Quincy, Astoria, Vincennes, and HMAS Canberra

It was a rude awakening to a Navy which had believed that technical advances would give it victory and which  in the words of Admiral Ernest King  was not yet “sufficiently battle minded.” It was the first of many equally bloody battles in the waters around Guadalcanal which in the coming campaign became known as Ironbottom Sound. 

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The Forgotten Cold Warriors

CheckpointCheckpoint Charlie in the Berlin Crisis

Note: As a follow up to this Article I posted “20 Years: The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the End of the Cold War” to this site.  The link to that article is here:

https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/20-years-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall-and-the-end-of-the-cold-war/

From the Berlin Blockade and until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 American, British, NATO and Asian Allies waged a Cold War against their Soviet and Warsaw Pact Countries, North Korea and at times China and Vietnam.  The war was a world war, fought by the major powers, their alliances and proxies throughout the world.  It was a world of gray areas where soldiers, sailors, airmen as well as Special Forces and intelligence agencies from both sides attempted to gain dominance over the world through political, military, economic, diplomatic and intelligence means and through use of surrogates.  Sometimes the war turned hot as in Korea, Vietnam and for the Soviet Union Afghanistan.

The conflict found its way to almost every corner of the earth and the world lived on edge wondering if the superpowers and their allies would end up in a hot war.  US and NATO Navies played a cat and mouse game with the Red Navy both under the sea and upon the waters.  Sometimes this war turned deadly as US and Red Navy Submarines disappeared and were never heard from again amid circumstances like those of the USS Scorpion that are still debated.  On the high seas US and NATO ships shadowed each other and occasionally played a game of chicken where ships collided attempting to gain advantage as they undertook surveillance missions or shadowed task forces.  Spy ships from both sides plied the seas collecting any type of information on their opponent’s operations.  In the air spy aircraft maintained a ready vigil with US SR-71s and U-2s flying missions over the Soviet Union.  Soviet Bear and Backfire Bombers probed the airspace of the United States and Canada and NATO forces at sea who responded by sending up interceptors.   In the closed confines of the Mediterranean the Navies sparred while a in the Middle East and North Africa both sides sought dominance through treaties with the surrounding nations who moved from Western to Soviet and Soviet to Western orbit as they deemed fit. Ideology and behavior of these client regimes was less important than having them in your camp, creating a surreal world of moral ambiguity in the shadow realm of alliances.

In divided Germany NATO and Warsaw Pact Forces faced off in a tense standoff along the inter-German Border and where millions of troops planned and trained for a hot war on the Fulda Gap and Northern German Plain which would include the use of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical weapons.  West Berlin was an island surrounded by the Olive uniformed Red Army and Field Gray of the German Democratic Republic.  A similar watch was maintained on the Korean DMZ.  In Africa, Asia, South and Central America, the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East forces of the major powers worked with allies and surrogates to gain advantage.   The Soviets blockaded West Berlin while in response to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba the US imposed a naval blockade.  The CIA sponsored a failed attempt by Cuban expatriates to land at the Bay of Pigs.  The Soviets toppled governments and put down revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia while maintaining a system of Gulags at home.  Even international sporting events became occasions where each side used propaganda to show itself off to the world as the ideal society.  All of this occurring while the world lived under the constant threat of intentional or unintentional nuclear war.   In  missile silos and aboard Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines and manned bombers men stood by to push buttons and turn keys that could have ended the world as we know it.

763px-USS_Yorktown_collisionSoviet Krivak Class Frigate Intentionally Colliding with USS Yorktown CG-48 in the Black Sea 1988

Casualties were taken, even in places where the war was not “hot.”  Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Intelligence Service personnel undertook missions that are still classified the details of which they cannot reveal to this day.  Some suffer from PTSD from their involvement in and guilt over missions that they cannot reveal.  Men from both sides know that the weapons systems that they were involved with killed men on the other side in operations that will never be known.  American Veterans of the Cold War have been ignored by the country.  Russian Veterans have been forgotten as the Soviet Union crashed down on itself.  Countries spanning the globe bear the scars of the “hot” Cold War waged on their soil.  The results of the Cold War are still with us.  The West celbrated the collapse of the Soviet Empire but failed to make the new Russia a full member of the new world causing resentment which still boils today influencing Russian policy toward the West.

I met a man recently in hospital who was one of these veterans.  Tormented by the demons of operations he cannot reveal he suffers from physical and emotional wounds.  He is not alone.  There are many like him.  I do not suffer from my Cold War Service.  I served as a platoon leader, company executive officer and company commander in Germany in the mid-1980s.  If a war had broken out along the Fulda Gap my Chrysler Corporation bailout Dodge M-886 Ambulances with no communications systems adorned with bright red “mobile registration points’ were to be involved with reconstituting units which were expected to take 90% casualties.  We trained for chemical and biological warfare.  The maps used in my NBC defense officer course showed the housing area in which I lived.  We lived in a world of alerts where within two hours we had to be ready to head to war.  A world where Soviet spies operated and recruited Americans and where the German Red Brigade Terrorists bombed housing areas, clubs and even the Main Frankfurt PX, where we were on our way to when Judy felt sick and we had to return home.  Occasionally American Servicemen were murdered by Soviet Agents or Red Brigade Terrorists.  This was life for those stationed in Germany as well as South Korea.

I have been in East Berlin and was surprised as hell to see the Berlin Wall come down.  I have been to the Korean DMZ and the Northeast Gate of Guantanamo Bay Cuba.  I call it the “Commie trifecta.”  Without the Berlin Wall there are only two places where the US faces a Communist state directly.   Yet my time in a “hot” war has been in Iraq, I remember the days of the Cold War from childhood through my early Army career.

Cold War Veterans are the last forgotten Veterans group in the United States or even Russia.  Their sacrifices are not recognized.  The US belatedly issued a Cold war Service certificate for its veterans, but vets have to deal with a system that makes it difficult to even obtain a piece of paper that says “thank you” which gives them no other benefit.  The certificate is available to any person who worked for the Federal Government, including temporary holiday employees of the US Postal Service and does not mention military service. A Cold Service Medal was constantly fought by DOD during the last administration as too costly to support at this time.  The Cold War Service Medal last appeared in the FY 2008 DOD spending bills but was cut.   With the present demands on the military in the current wars and the fact that the cost of any award would come out of DOD’s budget it is unrealistic to expect this any time soon as it would cut into the funds needed to fight this war. At the same time these Veterans have no memorial and no status.  While their war was not “hot” it was world wide, lasted 40 years with many casualties.  Yes I agree it was not a hot war and that many who served in it were not in combat.  At the same time the Cold War veterans helped give the world a chance at a new beginning in 1991, unfortunately that has been squandered by governments around the world including the US government, but that is not the fault of those who stood the watch.  Someday they should be recognized.

Berlin WallMe on the East German Side of the Berlin Wall, November 1986

I have my medals from Iraq, the War on Terror and Korean Defense service.  I do believe that those men who stood the watch and many times paid with their lives or health should be recognized.  Other countries have done so.  I wonder why a few dollars per medal cannot be spent on men and women who served on the front line of freedom for 40 years. At the same time I understand that the costs of any such Medal would be born by DOD which is strapped to fight the ongoing wars.  I don’t think it realistic to have the money spent now, but maybe when the dust finally clears and these conflicts subside someone will take the time to remember these men and women.

The gentleman I saw recently never got a thank-you, never got a parade, and never was able to talk about the things that haunted him.  I wonder just how many more are waiting for the chance to come in from the cold.  If you know one of them, thank them for thier service and if they are one of those suffering from their service take care of them.

Peace, Steve+

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