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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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The Past Isn’t Quaint: A Pause to Reflect


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I mentioned that I will be continuing my article on the Confederate Statue Controversy when I posted my last two articles. I will be doing that but the date has been pushed back as I have paused to read and reflect a bit more before I publish them here. I have my drafts of what look like another two articles in that series, but I want to do a bit more reading, and reflection before I go final with them. The same goes for my article on General Robert E. Lee. That being said it is interesting to have three drafts in different stages of readiness but not being ready to go with any of them just yet mainly because I want to do my best to cover the subjects as truthfully as possible. 

This is the problem of history. It requires critical thinking and also an argument that is accountable to evidence, as Jill Lapore noted: 

“History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence. In the writing of history, a story without an argument fades into antiquarianism; an argument without a story risks pedantry. Writing history requires empathy, inquiry, and debate. It requires forswearing condescension, cant, and nostalgia. The past isn’t quaint. Much of it, in fact, is bleak.”

The fact is that many of the subjects that I write about are rather bleak, and often exist in places where to be fair one has to be empathetic, inquire, and even seek debate with people who disagree. I believe that what I write must be relatable today, even if it occurred hundreds of years ago. 

Later today I will be watching the solar eclipse and polishing up an article for tomorrow, probably one dealing with the Confederate Statue Controversy. That being said I have much on my mind; friends who have contacted me for guidance or encouragement, the illness of one of the people who work for me, and concern about the sailors injured and missing following the collision of the USS John S. McCain with a civilian tanker near Singapore. If you haven’t served at sea you might not understand that last concern. 

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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North Korea Tensions: One Misstep could mean War what the US can deploy to the Theater

The USS George Washington

The tensions on the Korean Peninsula following the North Korean sinking of the South Korean Corvette Cheonan on March 26th and the North’s continued bellicose actions are now the highest in years.  Since the United States and South Korea announced naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan the North has gone on a propaganda offensive condemn the exercises as a threat to peace and “nothing but outright provocations aimed to stifle the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea] by force of arms.” North Korean spokesman Ri Tong Il claimed that the exercise “is a grave threat to the Korean peninsula and also to the region of Asia as a whole,” and “another example of a hostile policy” toward North Korea.

One of a number of Naval Clashes between South and North Korean Navy vessels

The North Koreans announced also that “The army and people of the DPRK will start a retaliatory sacred war of their own style based on nuclear deterrent any time necessary in order to counter the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet forces deliberately pushing the situation to the brink of a war,” and while threats of war are common from the DPRK the situation is now so tense that any miscue from either side could spark a war.

The US State Department dismissed the North Korean threats spokesman P J Crowley stated “North Korea has a habit of trying to deflect, you know, responsibility onto others.”  He noted that some U.S. officials were concerned that North Korea might use the heightened tensions and exercises to make further provocations against the South and US Forces.  Some speculate that such measures might include missile tests or nuclear tests or other military measures.  In response to questions that North Korea might take aggressive steps Crowley noted:  “Are they capable of these kinds of steps? Tragically, the answer is yes….And the very kind of actions that we’ve announced in recent days, including military exercises that will be conducted in the near future, are expressly to demonstrate that we will be prepared to act in response to future North Korea provocations. We hope it won’t come to that.”

South Korean Navy LHD Dokdo

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked at a conference regarding the South China Sea in Vietnam that “an isolated and belligerent North Korea has embarked on a campaign of provocative, dangerous behavior…”

The US Forces Korea Commander General Walter Sharp stated:  “These defensive, combined training exercises are designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop, and that the ROK and U.S. are committed to enhancing our combined defensive capabilities.”

The Exercise “Invincible Spirit” will include the USS George Washington carrier battle group including the Guided Missile Destroyers USS McCampbell, USS John S. McCain and USS Lassen, as well as South Korean Navy assets including the largest ship in the South Korean Navy the Landing Ship Dokdo. A total of 20 ships 200 aircraft and 8,000 sailors will take part in the exercise which according to the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo “will consist of an electronic warfare simulation with members of the US Cyber Command, an aerial refueling and bombing exercise by the Air Force, command control training by the Marines, and a navy anti-submarine exercise.”  It is also likely that the converted former Trident Missile submarines USS Ohio, USS Michigan and possibly the USS Florida are in the area each armed with up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles.  The 4th of these submarines USS Georgia is also deployed and its whereabouts are not known. It is the first time that all 4 subs have been deployed at the same time.   The US Air Force has deployed the F-22 Raptor for the first time to Korea and elements of the 7th Air Force will take part in the exercise.  Invincible Spirit is the first in a series of scheduled summer exercises between the US and South Korea. Admiral Robert F Willard commander of the 7th Fleet said that at the end of the exercise, there will be a counter special-forces exercise. He added “These occur with some frequency in both the East and West Seas, conducted by the [South Korea] and U.S. Navy.” North Korea has a large special-forces establishment and capability.

North Korean YJ-62 Anti-Ship Missile on mobile launcher

The US Navy has additional assets that could be deployed in the event of a major crisis on the peninsula as the USS Ronald Reagan is involved with the RIMPAC 2010 exercises in the Pacific and the carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln are underway off the west coast involved in exercises or deployment work ups.  At this time 123 (43%) of the navy’s 289 ships are deployed and a total of 184 (64%) are underway away from their homeport. Of the submarine force 23 (43%) are deployed and 30 (55%) are underway.  This is a sizable amount of the fleet and represents a significant surge potential should a conflict break out.  In the midst of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan many forget that a significant amount of our national military power can be deployed quickly from the sea to danger spots like Korea where their assets based on history can have a decisive affect.

The USS Ohio and her sisters USS Michigan and USS Florida could play a deterrent role

Ground forces are more spares, the major component of land based forces are those of South Korea, the US now has just a Brigade Combat Team stationed in South Korea although other assets not engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom could be deployed from the 25th Division in Hawaii and Alaska and the 2nd Division based at Ft Lewis Washington.  As of now 1 brigade the 4th BCT of 25th Infantry Division is deployed to Afghanistan as well as the 5th BCT of 2nd Division which also has its 4th BCT deployed to Iraq. The 2nd BCT of 25th Division is schedule for deployment and may already be deployed this summer. The 3rd BCT of the 25th Division is now in a post-deployment cycle after having just returned from Iraq. The deployment of uncommitted assets would take time and the only immediate reinforcements could be a limited number of Marine units from the 3rd Marine Division and III MEF in Okinawa and Kaneohe Bay Hawaii that are not currently engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom.

The North Korean threat of a “retaliatory sacred war” may be the usual propaganda hyperbole used by the North or it may be their “line in the sand.”  It also could be more bellicose than usual because of internal tensions in the North regarding potential successors to the ailing Kim Jong Il. US and South Korea operational planning has contingencies should there be unrest in the North following Kim’s death but a conflict brought on by one of the rival factions the North could plunge Northeast Asia into a regional war. We don’t know what it is but the week ahead could become rather sporty.   China has warned that the exercise could make matters worse on the peninsula and the US apparently in response to China will keep the George Washington in the Sea of Japan.  There are also good tactical measures for doing so to protect the carrier by keeping it out of constricted waters in the vicinity of a good number of North Korean assets should fighting actually break out and the fact that the USS John S. McCain already is equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System.

The Japanese Naval Self Defense Force (Navy) is sending 4 observers to the exercise a tacit measure of support for them and the Japanese have several ships fitted for the Aegis Ballistic Defense System.

With all of this said we now have to wait and see what happens. Will the North do something to instigate a conflict or will it back down?  We don’t know as it is a very unpredictable country with a penchant for raising the ante in the high stakes world of geopolitical dominance in Northeast Asia. The Obama administration seems to be walking a narrow line between war and appeasement, not that we would consider what we do appeasement but what the North would certainly take it to be. The stakes are high and only God knows what will happen in the next several days. An actual conflict could kill hundreds of thousands or even millions of people; especially should the North successfully deploy and use a nuclear weapon. Thousands of American lives are at stake should a conflict break out and besides our Soldiers, Sailors Marines and Airmen standing in harm’s way many of them are non-military citizens that live and work in South Korea and Japan.

That is all for now, pray for peas.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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