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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,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Sinking of the USS Juneau and the Loss of the Sullivan Brothers

USS_Juneau_(CL-52)_0405201

Seldom in military history are five brothers killed in action on the same ship or same unit in the same action on the same day. Many families have lost multiple children in military conflicts but they usually are spread out over time. In fact in all of my study I only know if one family that lost five sons in the same action on the same day. That family was the Sullivan family of Waterloo Iowa who lost their sons George, Francis “Frank”, Joseph, Madison “Matt” and Albert aboard the USS Juneau CLAA-52 when that ship was torpedoed and sunk on the morning of November 13th 1942 after being badly damaged at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

The fact that all were lost aboard Juneau was in large part because the brothers refused to serve unless they served together, The two oldest brothers George and Frank had served in the Navy before the war and both had been discharged in May of 1941. When war broke out the older brothers with their three younger siblings Joe, Matt and Al volunteered to serve in the Navy but only if they could serve together. Though the Navy had a policy of separating siblings it was not always followed and the five brothers enlisted to serve together and were assigned to the new Anti-Aircraft Light Cruiser USS Juneau. 

Juneau was an Atlanta Class Light Cruiser, actually designed as an anti-aircraft escort of the fast carrier task forces. Armed with 16 5” 38 caliber dual purpose guns and a large number of smaller anti-aircraft guns as well as 8 21” torpedo tubes as well as depth charge racks and projectors the class was an excellent escort ship, but woefully equipped to fight heavy fleet units in close surface actions.

Juneau and her sister Atlanta were part of Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan’s Task Force 67.4 when it encountered a Japanese bombardment force comprised of the battleships Hiei and Kirishima Light Cruiser Nagara and 14 destroyers. Callahan’s Task Group was composed of the heavy cruisers USS San Francisco and USS Portland the light cruiser USS Helena the two Atlanta Class ships and 8 destroyers. In a confused and merciless night action the Japanese lost Hiei and two destroyers while the US Navy lost Atlanta and four destroyers. All the surviving US ships except the destroyer USS Fletcher incurred moderate to heavy damage. Among the ships suffering heavy damage was Juneau which suffered a torpedo hit which crippled her. The following day while returning to base Juneau suffered a torpedo hit from the Japanese submarine. I-26 which struck her her in the same spot as the hit from the night engagement. The Juneau exploded and sank in 20 seconds taking with her 600 of her crew of 700 men. Among those killed in the explosion were Frank, Matt and Joe Sullivan.

About 100 men survived the explosion including Al and George Sullivan. Unfortunately because the senior surviving US commander believed there to be no survivors and that his remaining ships could also be sunk by submarines these men were left at the surviving ships steamed away. Reports of possible survivors from a B-17 Bomber crew went unheeded for several days and it was not until 8 days after Juneau was sunk that 10 survivors were rescued by a PBY Catalina flying boat. By then the two remaining brothers had perished.

Sullivanbrothers

It was not until January 12th 1943 that the Sullivan family was notified of the loss of all of their sons. The Fletcher Class destroyer The Sullivans DD-537 was named after the brothers, she is now a museum ship in Buffalo New York.

USS_The_Sullivans_(DD-537)_off_Ponape_1944

USS The Sullivans DD-537 (above) and DDG-68 (below)

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Her successor USS The Sullivans DDG-68 is a Arliegh Burke Class Aegis guided missile destroyer based out of Mayport Naval Station Florida. For many years they were the only ships named after more than one person in the US Navy, something that they now share with the USS Roosevelt DDG-80 named after President Franklin Roosevelt and Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr, a Medal of Honor winner on D-Day and son of President Theodore Roosevelt.

The loss of the five brothers prompted the War Department to end the assignment of siblings in the same unit and adopt the Sole Survivor Policy which became law in 1948.

Juneau was a good ship with a fine crew but unsuited for the type of battle that out of military necessity she was thrown into. Heavily damaged she had the unfortunate luck to be part of a battered task force which had no ships capable of anti-submarine protection because of damage incurred the previous night. Her sinking at the hands of the I-26 and the subsequent loss of her survivors through was a tragedy of the highest order.

Tonight I remember Juneau her gallant crew and the Sullivan brothers.

May they all rest in peace.

Padre Steve+

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The Treaty Cruisers: A Warship Review

Note: Since childhood I have loved naval history and the study of various types of warship design throughout history. My favorite period is really from the Spanish-American War through the mid 1970’s.  I find the leaps in Naval design and architecture, weapons and fire control systems and the diversity of the types of ships built absolutely fascinating.  Not only initial designs but the various modifications and modernizations of various ships or classes of ships went through during their service careers. The cruisers of the inter-war period were some of the most ascetically pleasing warships to ever grace the high seas. They were well proportioned, and graceful while still looking every part the warship.  This is something that many ships in our modern era lack, despite the fact that their armament despite limited gun power is formidable. With VLS launchers and Harpoon Missile tubes they pack a punch, but unlike the old cruisers, their offensive teeth are hidden. I had the privilege of serving aboard the USS HUE CITY CG-66 which is about the same size and displacement of the Chester Class

I think I actually began reading Naval history back in 2nd or 3rd grade, and it was not uncommon for me to spend hours at the public library going through reference stacks to read old issues of “Jane’s Fighting Ships” and the main collection to check out every book on Naval Warfare and warships that I could find. One of the most interesting types of ship to me was the Heavy Cruisers built under the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty. The treaty had several major provisions but today I only deal with the restrictions on Heavy Cruisers, the response of treaty nations to the limitations and the combat summary of each class.  This is all pretty much out of the deep recesses of my sometimes dark mind and tonight I didn’t have to crack a book to write this.  It’s thanks to having one of those phonographic memories that just keeps going around and around. This is another one of the things that I am passionate about.  Anchor’s Away! Peace, Steve+

atago

IJN Atago

The Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922 set a number of limits on warship construction and fleet composition.  One of the ship types limited by the treaties was cruisers, notably heavy cruisers.  These ships, descended from the Armored Cruisers developed by the navies of the great powers prior to the First World War were considered a major part of each of the navies of the signatory nations.  The armored cruisers had 8-10 inch guns and a relatively substantial armored belt.  The type was not particularly successful as with few exceptions they were used in fleet actions where they were under-gunned and under-armored.  They were most successfully used in overseas service against raiders or commerce.  The most famous of the type were the German Scharnhorst and Gneisenau of the German Far East Squadron.  Smaller and faster than a battleship, the type had developed by the 1920s into a ship that could be used for fleet screening and scouting as well as showing the flag in foreign waters where many were found.  The Washington treaty did not limit numbers of these ships as it did Battleships and Aircraft Carriers, but it did place maximums on the gun size and displacement of individual ships.   A heavy cruiser could be armed with 8 inch guns and were limited to 10,000 tons displacement.  Of course this led to compromises in the designs of the ships which frequently gave up protection for speed.

uss pensacolaUSS Pensacola

The Americans were the leaders in the development of the treaty cruisers.  The Japanese only built one class of cruiser, the Kako class which complied with the terms of the treaty.  They mounted 6- 8” guns and displaced about 8,600 tons.  They were fast but because of their light displacement were top-heavy.  Subsequent classes, the Nachi and Atago classes violated the tonnage limits by as much as 4,000 tons while the Japanese reported them as 10,000 tons. They were armed with 10-8”guns in five turrets, had good protection and also mounted 12 24” “Long Lance” torpedo tubes.  Two subsequent cruisers of the Kumano and Tone classes were built in the 1930s. The Kumano class of about 13,000 tons were initially classed as “light cruisers” mounting 15- 6” guns prior to being re-armed with 10-8” guns.  The Tone’s mounted 8- 8”guns in 4 turrets all mounted forward leaving the entire aft section for use as a seaplane launching area; the Tone class carried 8 float planes for fleet scouting.

hms exeterHMS Exeter

The British treaty cruisers abided by the limits included the York and Exeter, of the same displacement and armament as the Kako class except they were slower, a common feature of British ships which were generally slower than their American and Japanese counterparts.  The later County class ships were armed with 8- 8” guns and were distinctive looking having three funnels. The County class included such famous ships as the Norfolk, Suffolk and Dorsetshire which played critical roles in the chase and sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck. Australia had two Counties, the Australia and Canberra which did most of their service in the Pacific. The Counties were armed with 8- 8” guns and were distinctive with their three funnels.  They were slower than their Japanese or American counterparts.

uss houstonUSS Houston with President Roosevelt Aboard

The first American treaty cruisers the Pensacola and Salt Lake City of about 9,500 tons with an unusual arrangement of 10- 8” guns mounted in 4 turrets.  However it was the Chester class which was the quintessential U.S. Treaty Cruiser design.  These ships, and the later Astoria class, also displaced 9,500-10,000 tons and mounted 9- 8” guns in three turrets.  A further “treaty” cruiser was Wichita, converted from a St. Louis class light cruiser. All were fast but were lacking in armored protection and none mounted the torpedoes found in Japanese or British ships.  Some of the more notable ships in the U.S. treaty classes included the Houston which served as the Flagship of the Asiatic Fleet which was sunk at the Battle of the Java Sea. The Augusta which took Franklin D Roosevelt to Argentia for the signing of the Atlantic Charter in 1941; The San Francisco which helped stop the Japanese fleet in a point blank encounter in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and Indianapolis which with just weeks left in the war having completed the secret mission to deliver the Atomic bomb was sunk by a Japanese submarine.

PrinzEugen-2Prinz Eugen

The Germans did not build true “heavy cruisers” until the late 1930’s and their ships, the Hipper, Blucher and Prinz Eugen mounted 8- 8” guns and displaced about 19,000 tons.  The German “Pocket Battleships” Deutschland, Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer, mounted 6-11” guns on a hull of about 11,000 tons (officially 10,000) in compliance with the Treaty of Versailles restrictions on German battleships.  They were designed to outgun and be more heavily armored than the heavy cruisers and be faster than battleships, much more in the Armored Cruiser tradition.  During the war the German Navy reclassified them as Heavy Cruisers. None of these ships were built under the treaty limits for cruisers.

hms suffolkHMS Suffolk

These ships saw distinguished service throughout the war.  The British ships remained their only heavy cruiser design throughout the war. The ships took part in the sinking of the Graf Spee and Bismarck. They also suffered heavily; York was sunk at Crete and Exeter in the Java Sea. Cumberland and Dorsetshire were sunk by Admiral Nagumo’s carriers which had attacked Pearl Harbor, in the Indian Ocean. Canberra was sunk at the Battle of Savo Island off Guadalcanal.  Some of the British Ships remained in service until the 1950s and all eventually we paid off and sent to the breakers.

The Japanese ships were involved in almost every major action of the Pacific war.  Fast, heavily armed and manned by well trained crews they dominated almost every surface action of the early war in the Pacific.  The were key at the Battle of Java Sea and Savo Island where they annihilated Allied or American cruiser and destroyer squadrons. In action so often they were destroyed leaving only two marginally operational at the end of the war. Three of the four Kako class were lost in the Solomon’s.  They were all involved at Savo Island, and the last survivor, Aoba was lost at in harbor to U.S. air strikes at Yokosuka at the close of the war.  The Nachi class saw considerable service and were the workhorses of the Japanese cruiser force. They were the principle executioners of the ABDA fleet in the Java Sea battles and continued their service until late 1944 and the end of the war. Nachi and Ashigara were sunk in the aftermath of Leyte Gulf while Haguro fought the last surface action of a major Japanese combatant in a surface action of the war against a British force in 1945 and was sunk. and Myoko survived the war in a damaged condition being surrendered in Singapore.  The Chokai class also served throughout the war and three of the four were lost at Leyte Gulf. The Atago and Maya were lost to the U.S. Submarines Darter and Dace, Chokai in the action at Samar to combined U.S. destroyer and air attacks from TAFFY-3. Takao survived the war in a damaged condition having been torpedoed at Leyte Gulf but making port.  Of the later cruisers Mikuma was sunk at Midway and Mogami survived almost unimaginable damage in that battle.  Mogami was sunk by the resurrected Pearl Harbor Battleships at the Battle of Surigo Strait while Kumano and Suzaya were lost off Samar.  Chikuma and Tone also served in many battles, it was Tone’s float plane which was delayed in launching and discovered the U.S. carriers at Midway too late. Chikuma too was lost at Samar; Tone was sunk at anchor at Yokosuka in 1945.  Leyte Gulf in a sense could be described as the “Death Ride” of the Japanese Cruiser force.

The U.S. cruisers fought valiantly in nearly every engagement of the Pacific war and a few in the Atlantic.  Houston was immortalized by her actions with ABDA in the Java Sea against hopeless odds.  Astoria, Vincennes and Quincy were sunk in the Savo Island debacle.  Northampton and Chicago lost also in later actions in the Solomon’s.  San Francisco and Portland fought toe to toe with the Japanese Battleships Hiei and Kirishima in the epic Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, inflicting so much damage on Hiei that she was later sunk by American Aircraft the following day.  Indianapolis met an unlikely fate at the close of the war being sunk by a Japanese submarine after returning from a secret mission delivering the Atomic bomb.  A series of unfortunate events led to her loss not being noted with the result that most of the survivors of the sinking being lost to the elements and shark attacks while waiting days for rescue.   Others survived horrific damage from “Long Lance” torpedoes and Kamikaze attacks.  Following the war the Pensacola’s were expended as targets and the remaining ships placed in “mothballs” until the late 1950s when all were scrapped.  Some artifacts of San Francisco including her mast are at “Land’s End” park in that city.

uss san franciscoUSS San Fransisco Returning After the  Naval Battle of Guadalcanal

Of all the navies involved only the United States Navy and German Kriegsmarine built or attempted to build new classes of heavy cruisers during the war.  The US Navy brought out the Baltimore Class which was highly successful and built upon lessons learned from the Treaty Cruisers and the follow on Oregon City class which incorporated design improvements based on experience with the Baltimore Class.  Some of these ships would be converted into the first US Guided Missile Cruisers. The later Des Moines Class the largest class of all gun cruisers ever built with fully automated 8″ gun systems.  Of these ships only Salem survives in Quincy MA as a museum ship, sadly the Des Moines which had been slated to become a Museum ship in Milwaukee was scrapped in 2007 .

No treaty cruiser survives today.  Their service, heroic, unceasing and tireless service is remembered only by their surviving crews and a few naval historians and buffs.  The epic damage control actions of the San Francisco are still taught at the Naval Surface Warfare School.  They have passed into history, of those sunk some have been rediscovered, the Ballard expedition discovered and photographed the wrecks of Astoria and Quincy and their Australian consort Canberra in the waters of “Iron Bottom Sound” off Guadalcanal.  The German “Prinz Eugen” though not a treaty cruiser survived the war and was expended as a target in the Atomic bomb tests.  Her wreck lies capsized and submerged at Bikini Atoll.  An attempt to salvage her by a German group was abandoned and one of her screws was brought back and placed on display near Kiel, Germany.

Though all had design drawbacks due to the treaties, the American and British ships performed magnificently and without their service, especially in the early days of the war history today might be different.  Here’s to gallant ships and steadfast crews. May they never be forgotten.

Peace,

Steve+

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