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40 Minutes of Hell: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Part One

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the very early morning hours of November 13th 1942, one of the most intense short range battles in modern naval history was fought in the waters between Guadalcanal and Savo Island. Fourteen ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, including the battleships Hiei and Kirishima supported by the light cruiser Nagara and eleven destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Hiraoki Abe were sent on a mission to destroy the Marine air base, Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in order to ensure the safety of a convoy carrying the soldiers of the 38th division of the Imperial Japanese Army, whose mission was to land than recover the island for the Japanese.

Rear  Hiraoki  Abe  (above)  and  Daniel  Callaghan  (below)

The Americans, whose intelligence code-breakers had surmised Japanese intentions and in response Admiral Richmond Turner gathered a force of two heavy and five light cruisers, the USS San Francisco, USS Portland, USS Helena, USS Atlanta, and the USS Juneau and eight destroyers. He placed Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan in command, although Rear Admiral Norman Scott aboard Atlanta was slightly junior but more experienced in fighting the Japanese at Guadalcanal, having led a US task force to victory at the Battle of Cape Esperance just a month earlier.

                                            Rear Admiral Norman Scott

Adding to the US difficulties was that the force, hastily cobbled together had never operated before as a unit, and Callaghan choose San Francisco, which had previously commanded as his flagship, despite her lack of the latest surface search radar. Likewise, he placed the five ships with it at the rear of his formation, and did not issue a battle plan for his task force. In doing so he lost the element of surprise as Abe had no knowledge of a US task force off Guadalcanal.

               San Francisco returns to Pearl Harbor, December 1942 under Golden Gate Bridge

As night gathered on the 12th of November, Abe steamed southeast down the slot and south of Savo Island, in an unwieldy formation, and his battleships piled high with special fragmentation shells designed to maximize destruction of shore targets and airfields but which were of little use against surface ships. Callaghan steamed northeast through Ironbottom Sound to intercept in a column formation with four destroyers in the van, followed by his five cruisers, and then his other four destroyers. According to Naval historian Samuel Elliott Morrison, the formation was chosen because it had worked for Scott at Cape Esperance, but he failed to take advantage of his advantage in radar and left the cruiser Helena, and the four destroyers with the latest radar in the rear of his formation.

Battleship IJN Hiei (above) USS Helena (below)


At 0124 hours radarmen aboard Helena picked up the Japanese Force at 27,000 and 32,000 yards and notified Callaghan. Instead of moving into a position to take the Japanese by a surprise gunfire and torpedo attack Callaghan decided to go directly at the Japanese, sacrificing his advantage in surprise and radar in favor of a short range melee.

USS Laffey

Approaching each other at a combined forty knots the range closed rapidly until at 0141 the destroyer USS Cushing had to make a sharp turn to starboard to avoid a collision with the leading Japanese destroyers, the result was a near pile up for which which Callaghan demanded answers. The Captain of Atlanta explained his maneuvers by radioing Callaghan, “avoiding our destroyers.” 
Within seconds the battle began. The lead US destroyers, Cushing, Laffey, Sterrett, and O’Bannon along with Atlanta engaging the lead Japanese destroyers, Nagara and Hiei.

The result was chaos. Laffey engaged Hiei at a range of 20 feet, inflicting damage and killing key members of Abe’s staff and Hiei’s senior officers. Yet it was another four minutes before Callaghan gave the order to open fire. In the mean time Atlanta was illuminated by Japanese searchlights and opened a murderous fire on the Japanese destroyer Akatzuki. However, the Japanese destroyer’s sacrifice was not in vain as other Japanese ships blasted Atlanta with gunfire and torpedoes, and putting her out of action. Cushing and Laffey were mortally wounded during the initial minutes of the action and both forces continued to close one another, the battle developing into a series of individual fights with each ship searching for targets as well as being targeted by the enemy.
San Francisco was smashed by Japanese shells, including those from the battleships.

Illustration of the Battle by Life Magazine

The barrage killed Admiral Callaghan, his staff, as well as the Commanding Officer and Executive officer of the ship. But for the actions of her crew led by her Chief Engineer  LCDR Bruce McCandless, and Gunnery officer LCDR Wilborne the ship might have been lost. Instead she continued in action adding her 8” guns to the maelstrom. Portland delivered devastating fire from her 8” guns into several targets but was hit in the stern by a Japanese torpedo which limited her to steaming in circles, yet still engaging any target she could.
Helena, Juneau and the rear destroyers now entered the fray. Helena, a veteran of Cape Esperance used her superior radar and experience to help deliver San Francisco from other Japanese attacks from Japanese destroyers and Nagara. Juneau was hit by a Japanese torpedo which broke her keel and left her dead in the water. Destroyers Barton and Monssen were devastier by Japanese fire, Barton sinking seven minutes into her combat career. Monssen was mortally wounded.
                                               Damage to USS Portland

At 0200 Admiral Abe broke off the action. Individual fights still continued, Sterrett crippled the Japanese destroyer Yudachi which was finished off of Portland shortly after sunrise. Hiei was crippled and was further damaged by Marine aircraft from Henderson Field before her crew scuttled her, she was the first Japanese battleship to be sunk in combat during the war. Cushing, Monssen, and Atlanta each lost their fight to stay afloat and Portland, assisted by the tug USS Bobolink reached the safety of Tulagi the next day. After temporary repairs she sailed for Australia and then the United States for full repair and modernization.

The Sullivan Brothers
As Captain Hoover, the senior surviving officer of the US task force took his surviving, and still navigable ships out of harm’s way. It was a harrowing task. Only Helena of his cruisers was fully operational, and  of his three destroyers, only Sterrett and Fletcher had operational sonar, but they were not enough to protect the crippled cruisers. At 1101 a torpedo hit Juneau, blasting her to pieces and leaving about one hundred survivors to fend for themselves as Hoover sought to avoid further attacks. For ten days the surviors suffered until an Army Air Force B-17 spotted them. By then only ten sailors remained alive from the crew of the Juneau, over seven hundred others, including the five Sullivan Brothers either went down with the ship or died awaiting rescue.

USS San Francisco Memorial, the outer wall is from the bridge of the ship still pierced by Japanese shell fire

Of the Commanders, Admiral Abe was forced into retirement at the age of 53, Admirals Callaghan and Scott died in the battle, and Captain Hoover was tried, but not convicted at Court Martial for the loss of Juneau and her crew.
But, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was not yet over…

To be continued,


Padre Steve+

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The Last Full Measure: 1LT Alonzo Cushing awarded Medal of Honor


Cushing at the Angle: Dale Gallon

“No. I stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.” First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing

I have a framed print of the picture above by artist Dale Gallon, of Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing in my office. 151 years ago First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, United States Army was a 22 year old combat veteran.  Just a few hours after he emplaced his battery, Battery A, 4th US Artillery behind a stone wall at the center of Cemetery Ridge on the night of July 2nd 1863, the name of this obscure Lieutenant would be etched in the history of his country.

Cushing was part of a family of young men from Wisconsin who stood tall and served during the Civil War. His brothers William Cushing, was a Navy Lieutenant, who launched a daring raid to sink a powerful Confederate ironclad, the CSS Albemarle on October 27th 1864 and Howard Cushing who volunteered and was commissioned after Alonzo’s death becoming a distinguished soldier and Indian fighter after the war. Howard was so effective at fighting the Apache that the legendary Apache Chief, Cochise, put a bounty on his head, and Howard was killed in action fighting them in 1871. William died after the war having been promoted to the rank of commander. Several ships were named after him; the USS Cushing Torpedo Boat 1 (TB1) USS Cushing DD 55, USS Cushing DD 376 which sacrificed herself fighting at point blank range against the Japanese Battleship Hiei at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, USS Cushing DD 797 a Fletcher Class Destroyer, and USS Cushing DD 985 a Spruance Class destroyer.


Alonzo Cushing graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1861 and without ceremony reported for duty as an artillery officer in the Army of the Potomac. At Gettysburg the young Cushing commanded Battery A, 4th United States Field Artillery, which though part of the Artillery Reserve was attached to the Union II Corps and deployed in the center of the Union line at a place now known as “the Angle.” During the Confederate artillery barrage Cushing was twice wounded, in the groin and shoulder. Cushing, seeing the mass of Confederate infantry advancing on his position refused to go to the rear and told one of his sergeants who attempted to have him leave the field and seek treatment for his wounds “No. I stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.” 

Since I lead a staff ride to Gettysburg about once a quarter, and because the site of Cushing sacrifice is at one of the most important stops of the staff ride, I have come to know and appreciate Alonzo Cushing, as well as his famous Navy brother William, and nearly forgotten elder brother Howard, the Indian fighter.

Today, November 6th 2014, 151 years after Cushing’s death fighting off the remnants of Major General George Pickett’s division, Cushing was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The citation reads:

First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing distinguished himself by acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an artillery commander in Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 3rd, 1863 during the American Civil War.  

That morning, Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee began cannonading First Lieutenant Cushing’s position on Cemetery Ridge.  Using field glasses, First Lieutenant Cushing directed fire for his own artillery battery.  He refused to leave the battlefield after being struck in the shoulder by a shell fragment.  As he continued to direct fire, he was struck again — this time suffering grievous damage to his abdomen.

Still refusing to abandon his command, he boldly stood tall in the face of Major General George E. Pickett’s charge and continued to direct devastating fire into oncoming forces.  As the Confederate forces closed in, First Lieutenant Cushing was struck in the mouth by an enemy bullet and fell dead beside his gun.

His gallant stand and fearless leadership inflicted severe casualties upon Confederate forces and opened wide gaps in their lines, directly impacting the Union force’s ability to repel Pickett’s charge.  First Lieutenant Cushing’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his own life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac, and the United States Army.


President Obama remarked honored Cushing today and reminded all of us about what such dedication, courage, commitment and sacrifice mean. No matter what one’s political point of view, his comments are sincere and poignant :

“Yet this medal is about more than one soldier or one family.  It reflects our obligations as a country to the men and women in our armed services — obligations that continue long after they return home, after they’ve removed their uniforms, and even — perhaps especially — after they’ve laid down their lives.  And so this medal is a reminder that no matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do the right thing. 

Alonzo, or “Lon,” Cushing was raised by his widowed mother in Fredonia, NY with his siblings, including three brothers who also fought for the Union.  As the congressman who recommended Lon to West Point wrote, “His mother is poor, but highly committed and her son will do honor to the position.”  After graduating from West Point, Lon was assigned to Battery A, 4th United States Artillery.  From Bull Run to Antietam, from Chancellorsville to Fredericksburg, Lon fought bravely and developed a reputation for his cool, his competence, and his courage under fire.

But it was at Gettysburg, what one newspaper later called “emphatically a soldiers’ battle,” where Lon would be immortalized.  It was July 3rd, 1863, the final day of a grueling three-day fight.  Lon commanded his battery along the wall on Cemetery Ridge, fending off punishing fire from General Lee’s Confederate troops in advance of what we now know as Pickett’s Charge.  In the chaos and smoke, Lon and his men could barely see ahead of them.  One colonel later described the “terrible grandeur of that rain of missiles and that chaos of strange and terror-spreading sounds.”

Lon was hit and badly wounded.  His first sergeant — a soldier by the name of Frederick Fuger — urged him to go to the rear.  But Lon refused and said he’d “fight it out, or die in the attempt.”  Bleeding and weak, he moved his remaining guns closer to the front.  Over 10,000 Confederate infantrymen advanced, elbow to elbow, in rows over a mile wide.  Peering through field glasses, Lon ordered his men to continue firing at the advancing columns.  He used his own thumb to stop his gun’s vent, burning his fingers to the bone.  When he was hit the final time, as a poet later wrote, “His gun spoke out for him once more before he fell to the ground.”  And Alonzo Cushing was just 22 years old.

In a letter to Lon’s sister, Fuger wrote that the bravery of their men that day “was entirely due to your brother’s training and example set on numerous battlefields.”  Etched on Lon’s tombstone at West Point is the simple epitaph, “Faithful unto death.” 

Today there are many young men and women who serve this country in the spirit of Alonzo Cushing and his brothers in very uniformed branch of the Armed services. As we approach Veterans’s Day it is right that wee do not forget them. In the ceremony where Alonzo Cushing was presented his nation’s highest award for heroism, may none of us forget that freedom is not free, and that the ideology, motivation and spirit of the leaders of the Confederacy who Cushing gave his life to defeat are still working to destroy what Abraham Lincoln called The New Birth of Freedom and which President Obama so correctly noted:

And here today, we know that Lon and the others who fell that day could not — we know — we know what they could not — that Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War.  It’s also proof, if any was needed, that it was thousands of unknown young soldiers, committing unsung acts of heroism, who saved our union, and freed a people, and reaffirmed our nation as “one Nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”  I’m mindful that I might not be standing here today, as President, had it not been for the ultimate sacrifices of those courageous Americans.

Today we honor just one of those men, Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, who, as Lincoln said, gave their “last full measure of devotion.”  His story is part of our larger American story — one that continues today.  The spirit, the courage, the determination that he demonstrated lives on in our brave men and women in uniform who this very day are serving and making sure that they are defending the freedoms that Alonzo helped to preserve.  And it’s incumbent on all of us as Americans to uphold the values that they fight for, and to continue to honor their service long after they leave the battlefield — for decades, even centuries to come.

Last weekend, I met another Medal of Honor Winner, Colonel Walter Marm, US Army Retired, who at while serving as a 1st Lieutenant and company commander at the Battle of the Ia Drang valley in November 1965, won the Medal of Honor, in a battle now immortalized in the movie We Were Soldiers.

As you go to bed tonight and who do whatever you do this Veterans’ Day, do not forget the sacrifices of those who through their sacrifice and service continue to bring about the new birth of freedom that Abraham Lincoln referred in the Gettysburg Address. 


Padre Steve+

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