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The Battle of Savo Island and Threats to the U.S. Navy Today

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                         USS Quincy under Attack off Savo Island 

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, we forget 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). 

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. 

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. 

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 Yubari and 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. However the pilot did not report the sighting until he returned from his mission returned to his base and had his tea. The eight hour delay in reporting the information as well as errors in it which reported 2 submarine tenders as part of the force lulled the Allied forces into believing that the Japanese were setting up a seaplane base and posed no threat to the invasion forces. It was a fatal error of reporting and judgment by the pilot.

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

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In the absence of good information 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.

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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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“It’s the People Stupid” The Need for Professional Mariners 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m holding off finishing the last part of my series Statues with Limitations until tomorrow. Of the past day I have been consumed with the collision of the USS John S. McCain with a tanker near Singapore that quite likely has claimed the lives of ten U.S. Navy sailors. It was the second fatal collision in less than three weeks involving some of the most technologically advanced warships in the world with merchant ships. The other was that of the USS Fitzgerald which was at fault in a collision with a container ship near Tokyo bay. 

Today I have been in contact with our regional casualty assistance coordinator and chaplains who are already or might be called to go to the home of a sailor’s next of kin to inform them that their sailor is dead. If you have never had to make such a notification you are lucky. They are not easy and they never get easier. Between the military and my time as hospital emergency and trauma department chaplain I have been involved in far too many of them, I lost count around the 350 point, I’ve probably been involved in close to 500 such notifications of all types. 

Frankly there are no words that can adequately convey how hard that news is on the loved ones of those who died, especially when their deaths were most likely preventable. Last week I read the preliminary report on what happened aboard Fitzgerald. It was damning and showed some systemic cultural issues that need to be fixed. I am sure that the Navy will fully investigate the incident involving McCain too, and the report will likely be just as damning. It is bad enough that the Commander of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, to which Fitzgerald, McCain, and the cruiser Antietam which had a grounding incident near Yokosuka Japan, and the cruiser Lake Champlain which collided with a Korean fishing boat, was relieved of his command just before his scheduled retirement.

But the problem is bigger than simply relieving and replacing officers proved to be at fault in these incidents, the Navy is very good at that. The problem is that about 15 years ago the Navy shut down its Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport, Rhode Island as a cost cutting measure. Instead of going to a school after being commissioned from the Naval Academy, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, to learn the basics of navigation, seamanship, damage control, engineering, and combats systems operations, these tasks were pushed onto the commanding officers of the ships the new officers were assigned. That began in 2002 and I remember discussing the detrimental effect this would have with fellow officers about the USS Hue City. Some 15 years later these are the officers who are becoming the commanding officers and executive officers of our ships. Most of them don’t spend enough time at sea to be truly professional mariners, and many of them spend years between sea assignments. As such they really don’t know their ships that well, the don’t know the sea that well, and as a result they have become addicted to technology at the expense of doing the basics like looking out the window and taking action to avoid collision. It comes down to in the words of my former Commanding Officer, Captain Rick Hoffman said about these incidents: 

“I am feeling a sense of increasing outrage. The more I write and get replies from so many great shipmates and long time friends, the more I feel a sense of urgency to see if we can’t take these tragedies to force a larger conversation about our SWO culture…or rather the demise of the culture. Help build a path forward that restores the professionalism and focus necessary to have a strong Surface Navy. Perhaps our ships are complex enough to look at the Royal Navy model. Professionals on the bridge, professionals manning the Combat Systems, professionals manning the engineering plant. Not this mongrel program that trains everyone up to the minimum level of competence just long enough to survive your tour and go ashore. Ten years later you go back to sea…in command. I guess I am just feeling frustrated.”

It is not a matter of technology being the answer, we have amazing technology, but as one former officer wrote “Technical solutions don’t solve cultural issues. We need to refocus on our capabilities as mariners.” Captain Hoffman noted: 

“I am pondering the value of sparking a larger discussion about our systemic challenges with basic maritime skills. We are ship drivers, we have technical skills but we are not mariners as a community. We don’t cherish the necessary focus on knowing and feeling the ship, the sea and the larger maritime environment. Just look out the window!!!! The CNO just called for industry to provide more solutions. THAT IS INSANE. It is the people, stupid. We have enough tools, we have forgotten how to use them. Eyeballs and brains. Engage the eyeballs and brains.”

The fact is that for more than a decade the men and women that officer our ships have been pulled many different directions, by various factors, many of our own doing. Quite a few were pulled off of ships at critical points in their career to serve in the sands of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan. Our Navy has stopped doing the basics of being professional mariners first so that they can get their ships safely from place to black and be ready to sail into harm’s way at a moment’s notice. 


As Captain Hoffman and so many other men who have commanded ships whose comments I have been reading have noted, the issue is cultural and it is a need to return to the basics. 

Until we do that we are going to keep getting sailors killed, and causing great damage to ships that cost billions of dollars in avoidable incidents. 

As for me, I hope that I don’t have to make another death notification, especially for a death that needn’t happen. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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