By Ernest Herr Sailor from USS O'Bannon
Steaming rather blissfully into this caldron at Guadalcanal, is the brand new destroyer USS O'Bannon fresh from the Iron Works of Bath, Maine. Although approximately 70 percent of the crew are raw recruits, myself included, training has been continuous and morale is high. On arriving, all eyes scour the shoreline for a view of the fierce battle we know is raging. Newspaper headlines back in the States had thoroughly prepared us to witness this horrible battle but the only thing we see is dense jungle with an occasional wisp of smoke rising through the trees. Luckily, we can't see the suffering by the troops on both sides.
The photo above was taken after the O'Bannon returned to the Pacific with battle damage repaired and with quite a reputation as evidenced by admiring spectators
On board, training procedures covering severe burns, severed limbs, concussions, poison gas attacks and other unhappy situations are received with little enthusiasm. Placing a gas mask among your personal possessions does nothing for your day. Surely, we are not going to be so unlucky as to need one of these things. Everyone knows you can get hurt out here and maybe even killed but these are things that happen to the other guy, not to you. Nevertheless, a smile or a laugh is becoming a rare item.
The old timers (those over thirty) bolster moral by describing what a great ship we are on. This destroyer is fast and hard to hit, it has lots of guns and torpedoes and submarines actually run from us. This is good to know, so maybe we have a good chance of staying on top of the waves. The ship is a beauty and everyone onboard seems proud of it. From the bridge, it looks great. From up here you have a sweeping view of the full length of the ship and can see just about anything that's happening on deck. It's really quite a nice view. Little wonder that the captain is always up here.
The next deck down is the radio bridge where we radiomen hang out when not on duty. The view is not nearly as good but still we are up and out of the deck traffic and if there is any breeze to be had, you get it here. There is a nice big hatch that goes directly into the main radio room so it's no effort to go in for a cup of coffee (always available) or to check the time (got to know when to go on watch).
The radio room is a busy place where Morse code messages are constantly coming in from Honolulu. If the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Area (Admiral Chester Nimitz) has orders for our ship, we're on duty twenty-four hours a day so we'll receive them. Well, of course nobody's perfect, we do miss a few. Static and an occasional dozing off by the radioman are the culprits. And do we get the radio traffic, it never stops.
Of course all messages are encoded so you can't read them but it's up to the radiomen decode the headings to see who they're addressed to. And if it happens to be to us, we pass it to the decoding officer who takes it from there. We also have an emergency radio room located near the stern of the ship which is activated any time the ship is set for battle. This is just in case the main radio room is ever blown up or knocked out of action. Hopefully, this will never happen, especially if I happen to be on watch there.
Admiral Nimitz at left
Sitting outside the radio shack in the shade from the bridge (directly above) and on the relatively cool deck (over 100 degrees), it is easy to reflect on our ship's relatively short career before our voyage to this battle area.
Commissioned in Boston on June 26th, 1942 we spend the next month and a half in training exercises and trial runs. Finally, ready for duty, we take on board the last of our provisions and personnel. Struggling up the gangway, a young ensign is piped aboard. He is loaded down with his personal luggage including golf clubs and tennis rackets. On this optimistic note, the ship slips away from the dock to start on its great adventure. By the middle of August any thoughts of rest and relaxation are forgotten as we search for subs around Haiti and Cuba.
In the early morning hours, just before dawn on the 15th of August, we encountered our first German subs. In the main radio room we were at General Quarters (rigged for battle) when we heard several loud thumps. It sounded as if the side of the ship was being hit by a gigantic hammer. At the first light of dawn we could see what had caused the noise. Five merchant ships had been torpedoed as they came out of the harbor at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Author and radioman at right. The picture was created (and quite artistically) by the son of a shipmate and sent to me as a gift. It shows the 17 Battle Stars that were awarded to all of us on the O'Bannon. The O'Bannon had more stars than any other destroyer and only one less that the carrier Enterprise. We felt ok about being second to that fabulous carrier. Other ribbons shown include the Presidential Unit Citation. If the gentleman who supplied the picture will forward his name to this location, I will place his father's picture here too. That's a promise. Well, on August 28th, the gentleman who supplied the above picture came through with his reply to this promise, so click here to see that picture.
On the calm surface, there was the debris from the wreckage of the ships such as mattresses, tables, chairs, books, papers, and just about anything else you could think of. And, there were bodies and parts of bodies. It extended as far as you could see. One of the destroyers of our group picked up several boatloads of survivors. It was scary and sobering. We searched the area for the sub or subs that had done this but came up empty handed. Even the youngest of we sailors began to get a different impression on what war was all about.
After this numbing experience, we, along with another destroyer, escort the battleship Massachusetts from Norfolk to Casco Bay, Maine. It was nice to be back in a cool climate again after our sojourn to Cuba, but this was to be the last experience with cool weather for a long time. From Maine, we went to Norfolk, Virginia where we stayed a few days and then departed September 4th, 1942 on a trip that lasted a month and a day and took us to Noumea, New Caldonia. It was a very long voyage.
We started our voyage by escorting a supply ship down the east coast accompanied by another destroyer. We sailed through the Panama Canal to the city of Balboa, still in the Canal Zone. We had the chance to see what was to us a new and exciting city (foreign, at least to us) and had the chance to enjoy what was to become a rare item, rest and relaxation. And we had a chance to see a few cock fights. Well, you don't see those in the States. And we had a chance to become a little more worldly. Figure that out for yourself.
From there, it was a fourteen day jaunt from the Canal to the Island of Bora Bora in the Society Islands. We had to cruise at 14 knots to enable our ship to cover such a vast distance. As we entered the harbor there, everyone became very quiet as if it was the only way you could take in the overwhelming beauty.
The water was crystal clear and, except for a deep channel which the ships used, was only a few feet deep. The bright sun reflected off the white sand on the bottom making an exceptionally beautiful scene. There were many small islands rising a few feet out of the water with no soil around and just a few palm trees in the center. Nothing but pure white sand without a speck of dirt. In the center of the main island, there was a mountain that rose almost vertically on one side for several thousand feet. Many of the old timers on board said this was the most beautiful spot in the world. No one was heard to disagreed.
The captain managed to give us a few hours ashore here to see a world we had never encountered before and would probably never encounter again. Our servicemen stationed here must have taught the Polynesian men how to play softball because they were busy playing with the enthusiasm usually reserved for a World Series game. Some older men were busy making little souvenir outrigger canoes (for sale, I guess, and wish I'd bought one). Wandering down to a small stream, I watched some women washing clothes the old fashioned way. I didn't see any soap, they just seemed to be soaking the clothes in the water awhile and then they slapped them against rocks to get them clean. I couldn't talk to them as they spoke no English.
Then I wandered into a clearing that had quite a few huts with grass roofs. These were very small. A little old lady sitting on her heels out in front of one handed me a coconut. I said thanks but I knew she didn't understand even that little bit of English, as she said nothing. But she did manage a nice smile even without teeth. I looked toward the entrance (no door) to inspect the place a bit and she made a gesture indicating ( I think ) take a look inside, if you like. I looked and saw the place was completely devoid of furniture of any kind and had only a sand floor. No stove, no bed, no bath, I guess you would have to call this "unfurnished." Where did she sleep? In the sand, I guess, and where were the other amenities? The ocean was just a stone throw away so I guess that was the bath. No trouble with soap scum here.
As my few hours of shore leave were up, I headed back toward the ship. I was enjoying the walk back traveling along a nice wide lane. It was rather quiet when I heard a rather melodious voice call out "Hello boy." Turning around and back a bit, I saw a grass shack with a nice shady porch on which a young lady sat as she munched on a large banana. I gave a weak wave and a faint hello and keep walking toward the ship. She could speak English quite well (at least two words, anyway). I guess she learned that from the sailors that manned the fuel depot or the pilots that flew the patrol planes.
She eventually meandered down from the porch and toward the road. All at once my memories of seeing the movie "Mutiny on the Bounty" came flooding back to me. For some reason I continued walking toward the ship without looking back. Somehow she didn't remind me of the girl next door so perhaps I hadn't been at sea long enough to develop the proper interest, whatever. Anyway, all of us lucky enough to make it to shore seemed to have enjoyed the hula girls, the grass skirts, the grass shacks and even enjoyed some of their delicious fresh pineapples. This was with somewhat dire results after such a long time on bland seaboard chow.
The young lady at left was from Bora Bora alright but was only on a post card - not on the front porch - sorry
Our exit from Bora Bora came after a sea going tug entered the harbor and questioned our being there. Seems we had missed the radio message that gave us our orders to depart. Embarrassing moments were experienced as a search was made to find who missed the message and why. It turned out to be one of the older experienced regular operators who fell from grace. While pouring himself a cup of coffee and copying code at the same time, he copied one letter incorrectly which in turn caused the message to decode incorrectly. Since the other destroyer accompanying us had shut down its radio watch (they were depending on us for their radio traffic), there was no second chance to receive it. We made a hasty exit from Bora Bora.
On to Noumea, New Caldonia, but after Bora Bora this place looked a bit drab. Later, we could reflect that at least no one shot at you there. Noumea is considered a combat area but is pretty much out of range for enemy aircraft but certainly not out of range of enemy submarines. When you exit here and head out, you had better be ready for combat.
Our first assignment at this location was to convoy a light aircraft carrier (the Copahee) to a position that would enable it to launch 20 planes to fly to Guadalcanal. This was mid-October. Our next trip was to provide safe escort into hostile waters for two of our submarines. This was to insure that friendly forces would not try to sink them. We took them to their assigned area where they submerged and were on there way.
These were nice assignments for us. We had the feeling we were fighting a war but somehow it seemed safe enough. Before long though, we were getting a bit bored. Where was the action? Our next assignment supplied the answer. We were heading to Guadalcanal with a convoy of supply ships. So, this is the place where heavy fighting is in progress but were in the heck is the place? No one had ever heard of the place nor had any idea where it was.
Well, it is just one island in a chain of islands known as the Solomon Islands which stretch some 675 miles from north to south and are located about 500 miles east of New Guinea and about 1000 miles northeast of Australia. There are other important islands in this chain where the Japanese have landed or plan to land. Starting in the south and heading north, these are the islands of Russell, New Georgia, Rendova, Kolombangara and Vella Lavella. These are strange sounding names for strange looking places and before long we are wishing we never heard of them.
Arriving at Guadalcanal finally, we are ready for action. Well, at least we think we are. As we glide into the steamy and often glassy waters of Sealark channel, we notice that ships are few and far between. While there may be few ships on the surface, we hear there are many out of view resting peacefully on the bottom. Will we soon be joining them? No one mentions it, as if talking about it could cause it to happen. Already this place is being called Iron Bottom Sound. It doesn't take long to realize that we are sailing here by the grace of our planes at Henderson Field and by our ability to make a hasty exit if need be. Our first few days here pass quite peacefully, however.
On one of our first nights in the channel, word comes to the bridge to investigate a small boat that is heading toward us from shore. It is quite dark in the channel but light enough to see that there are local aborigines in the boat. They approach our ship slowly as we watch them suspiciously. We see they are not armed so there's no need for alarm.
Finally, as they get to about fifty feet from us, they stand up in the boat and start singing: "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away." We all look at each other rather foolishly as the very black aborigines look up at us and smile. Then some marines who've been crouched down in the boat, stand up and start laughing. Everyone now breaks out laughing and for a few moments the war is forgotten. We wonder how long it took the Marines to teach the aborigines the English words to this 40's song but, as far as we are concerned, we think it was worth it.
From this, we found out how much the marines appreciate seeing out ship here at night. They know the Japanese won't be shelling them when we are here. Unfortunately, if any Japanese ships are reported headed our way, we will have to depart.
A few days later we move in to the shoreline to investigate something that is a "must see" item for ships cruising these waters. As we get close to shore, we see a large billboard with writing on it. When we get close enough, we are able to read "Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill more Japs! signed Halsey." Well, no one cheers. Sailors usually don't think of themselves as killers but rather as technicians just doing a job. Other than a few sailors firing our 20 and 40 millimeter guns, no one actually seems to be killing anyone. So the sign doesn't seem to go over too well, but no one feels up to criticizing the admiral either.
While we may be getting a bit bored on board ship, on shore, boredom is not a problem. The Marines know from the Japanese reinforcements arriving that a massive attack is coming and begin to wonder why the delay. But the Japanese High Command knows that for such an attack to be successful the sea lanes must be cleared and Henderson Field put out of commission. This is to be accomplished by a large scale air and sea operation. On land, the Japanese soldiers are ready. The patience of the marines will be tested no longer.
November 12th, Our innocence is about to be brought to an abrupt end. Today we are doing what we had been doing since we had arrived in the area. We are, as usual, convoying troop transports and supply ships. But this day we are relieved of this relatively safe duty and are assigned to a fighting force of cruisers and destroyers known as task force 67.
This abrupt change of duty has occurred because alert Australian coast watchers on islands to the north have spotted a large force of Japanese warships on their way down from their base at Rabaul. Since the troops on shore need every bit of naval protection available, we are pressed into fighting status. Excitement runs high as we join this task force and cruise along the shoreline as part of a real fighting group.
Within hours, the coast watchers report that a large group of Japanese planes also are heading our way. Sixteen bombers and twenty zero escorts are spotted. The transports and supply ships quickly depart the area while our gunners get prepared and all ships go to general quarters. Some of the crew are anxious for action. Others think maybe we're not quite ready. But, ready or not, the Japanese are coming and reports soon indicate they are well on their way.
At 2:10 in the afternoon, planes of the Empire of Japan swoop in to attack. Admiral Turner, in charge of our force, sees the escort planes are not yet in position to protect the torpedo bombers so he maneuvers our ships to present a tempting broadside target to the commander of the torpedo group. The Japanese commander takes the bait and brings his torpedo planes in without the escort planes. Our 5-inch guns open up in continuous fire and are joined by our 40 and 20 millimeter gun crews. Inside the radio shack, the equipment is being severely shaken and dust flies. Faces look bewildered and everyone is pretty much unnerved but all faithfully remain at their stations. Where is there to run anyway?
Admiral Turner does some brilliant maneuvering with the task force. This, along with some good shooting by the gun crews and some skillful flying by the boys of Henderson Field, leaves our task force undamaged by the attack except for the cruiser San Francisco. It is hit by a plane that crashes into the stern and this costs the San Francisco the lives of twenty-four of her crew.
Fate is also cruel to the Japanese as twelve of the sixteen attacking bombers are blown to pieces and the remaining four fly off badly damaged. Many fine young Japanese flyers have just died for their country in a matter of minutes. They get little sympathy from us for we know if they had their way, we would be part of the fleet of ships (USS Quincy below) already resting on the bottom. Their covering fighter force fares somewhat better and ten of the twenty head back toward Rabaul.
As this air battle ends and we make a sweep around the channel, we come upon a downed Japanese plane sitting on the water with its pilot climbing out of the cockpit waving his arms and finally standing on the wing. One of our 20-millimeter gunners opens up on him and the pilot immediately drops into the water. This takes the onlookers like myself a little by surprise as we feel the pilot may have wanted to surrender and was no threat anyway. The word is passed that the gunner's brother was killed at Pearl Harbor and our collective consciences are somewhat relieved.
Our crew is elated at this first time in action and all that can be seen, at least for the moment, are smiling faces. This action bolsters the self confidence of everyone. The air attack lasts only twenty minutes and as quickly as the Japanese planes clear the area, our troop and cargo ships return to their unloading operations. These ships must depart before they finish unloading however as there are reports from the Australian coast watchers that a Japanese naval task force will soon be arriving. The supply ships and transports, under the command of Admiral Turner, vacate the area and head south out of the danger zone.
Our ship, as part of Task Force 67 under the command of Admiral Callaghan on the San Francisco, remains at Guadalcanal and will make a stand against the large force of approaching Japanese ships. The newly appointed Admiral Halsey, now based at New Caldonia, promises the Navy will protect our troops on shore with every ship available. Fortunately perhaps, for our temporary piece of mind, our captain does not inform us of the dimensions of the upcoming battle.
While we know Japanese ships are approaching , we are hopeful that they would not want to tangle with such a formidable force as ours. So at least for awhile, we don't stand around biting our nails. Instead, we relax after a trying day and savor our victory. How many of the crew are aware of the approaching cataclysm I can't say, but those of us in the radio gang are blissfully ignorant of the magnitude of the oncoming slaughter, at least for awhile anyway.
At the evening meal, we ponder on what may be in store for us in the next few hours, maybe nothing, we hope. Of course in a few hours it will be Friday the 13th and our force consists of 13 ships. This is bad news for the superstitious. More bad news, even for those who are not superstitious, our 13 ships include 2 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers and 7 destroyers which are no match for the Japanese force which is reported as two battleships, one cruiser and 14 destroyers. A comparison of fire power shows an even greater discrepancy between the two forces.
The two Japanese battleships can throw a broadside of shells of 11,900 pounds for each ship. The two American heavy cruisers can throw a broadside of shells of 2,340 pounds for each ship. Furthermore, our 8 inch shells can not pierce the main armor protection along the hulls of the battleships. In a comparison of torpedoes, our destroyers and light cruisers carry a total of 80, while the Japanese have a total of 190. And the Japanese Long Lance torpedoes work, our U.S. Mark XV 's usually do not. (7) Fortunately, we enlisted crew members are not informed of what lies ahead.
November 13th, Around midnight, two opposing naval forces are converging toward the Guadalcanal Channel. In addition to the warships, the Japanese are bringing eleven transports and eighty-three landing craft carrying 7000 troops and twenty days of supplies for thirty-thousand men. The transports are being convoyed by an additional twelve destroyers. We (our officers) are aware of the approaching Japanese and know that the warships plan to shell the Marines into oblivion. So certain are they in the success of their mission that they have planes ready to occupy Henderson Field as their troops retake the airfield. This is, if all goes as planned.
As luck would have it though, a heavy thunder storm hits the area just at the time the Japanese force is moving into shelling position. This will make shelling difficult if not impossible. Knowing that these storms often dissipate rather quickly, the Japanese admiral turns his force about and slowly steams away from the area to bide his time. If the storm continues, he will head for home. If the storm clears, it's back to Guadalcanal.
As often happens with naval forces maneuvering during the hours of darkness, his lead group of destroyers make a wrong turn and go steaming off to the east. This type of blunder seems to happen often in both navies as maneuvering in pitch darkness is not an easy task. As a result of this mistake, the admiral has just lost his advance warning group as they steam off in the wrong direction. Now the admiral's observers on Guadalcanal report that the weather is taking a turn for the better prompting the admiral to put his ships back on course for the island. Since his advance destroyers are now out of position, he will receive no early report on what lies ahead.
The two opposing naval forces are now on a collision course with a combined closing speed of about 40 knots. Shells are in the barrels of the guns on both sides with fourteen inch bombardment shells for the Japanese and eight inch armor piercing shells for the Americans. Who will be the first to fire?
Although radar is providing the American force with the information necessary to direct the guns, firing is withheld while the American admiral determines a course of action. The American admiral, Admiral Callaghan is new to this command and has little knowledge of the recently developed and very secret radar. Actually radar is so secret that very few people other than radar operators know much about it. The ability of radar to disclose the location of the enemy forces even in total darkness could give us a big edge over the Japanese.
Unfortunately for us, the Japanese second line of destroyers now sight our ships and report their positions to the Japanese admiral. The admiral is astonished to find he is on a collision course with the Americans now only a few miles away. The Japanese light up the scene with and their destroyers fire the first salvoes. This action jars Admiral Callaghan into finally giving the order to fire. For six precious minutes Admiral Callaghan has the Japanese ship positions plotted but does not give the order to fire. The American admiral, through inadvertence or mismanagement had brought on a close-range melee the likes of which had never happened before nor would thereafter in this war. (8)
It is 1:48 in the morning. Aboard the Japanese battleship the Hiei , Japanese Admiral Abe is confused and must decide whether to switch from bombardment type shells to armor piercing shells. His decision does not take long and in less than a minute's time the 14-inch bombardment type shells are flying toward us. It is still 1:48 a.m. Aboard the O'Bannon, we are closing with the battleship Hiei and are presently on a collision course with it. Before us are three other smaller destroyers also charging the battleship at flank speed. For us on the O'Bannon, the battle is really starting.
The first ship in line, the destroyer Cushing manages to fire six torpedoes at Hiei before being smashed to pieces and abandoned. The second destroyer, the Laffey manages to spray the Hiei with 5-inch shells killing Captain Suzuki, Admiral Abe's chief-of-staff and wounding Admiral Abe as well. The Laffey comes within fifteen feet of being rammed by the Hiei before the erupting into a huge orange fireball which kills many of the crew including the captain of the Laffey. The third destroyer in line and the ship directly ahead of us is the Sterett which manages to fire 13 salvoes at a cruiser along with sending four torpedoes on their way. The Sterett directs additional 5-inch fire at other ships before being forced out of action after receiving a total of eleven direct hits which include three 14-inch shells.
We are now leading the column, and have had to maneuver violently to avoid hitting the lead destroyers and have missed a collision with the Sterett by a scant 30 feet. The battleship Hiei is now 1,800 yards ahead with the battleship Kirishima about a thousand yards behind her. We are firing into the Hiei's superstructure and fire two torpedoes in her direction. Both torpedoes, in keeping with the record of the Mark XV's, are duds. The Hiei, with her superstructure afire, takes aim at the O'Bannon and fires a broadside of 14 inch shells. All shells go overhead like a passing freight train in the night. The time is 1:56 a.m. The battle has been on for 8 minutes. There are five burning and exploding vessels nearby (USS Monssen at right). Admiral Abe has not been able to hit the O'Bannon because of its close proximity and fast maneuvering, therefore he orders the Hiei to find other targets.
At 2:01 a.m., we maneuver to avoid hitting the sinking bow of the destroyer Barton. The Barton was originally well behind us but had managed to pass us as we maneuvered to avoid hitting ships ahead of us. Our crew throw life jackets to its sailors in the water who obviously were not expecting to be there since they have no life jackets. Unavoidably our ship plows though survivors as they thrash about trying to swim out of the way.
At 2:03 a.m., the remains of the Barton explode killing many more of the Barton crew and causing our ship to rise about a foot in the water. This disrupts communications in our main radio and knocks out our ship's power. Lucky for us, the engine room is able to restore power quickly but our top speed has been reduced to only twenty-eight knots.
Our crew is not able to observe the ships behind us as well as those in front but we are getting their damage reports via radio contact from Honolulu. At my battle station in main radio, I am copying these Morse Code messages and calling them out as they come in. These messages are quickly relayed to the captain. Ordinarily these messages would be encoded but because of time limitations they are being sent in plain language. These messages report the extreme damage to the cruisers in our force.
The USS Atlanta (below) reports she is hit as 8-inch shells smash through its superstructure setting her afire the length of the ship killing Admiral Scott and all but one of his staff officers. Admiral Scott was the hero of two previous naval battles. The San Francisco reports she is hit by a salvo of 14-inch shells and secondary shells from the Hiei. These shells kill Admiral Callaghan and most of the ship's officers on the bridge leaving a 31-year old lieutenant-commander in command of the ship. The cruiser Portland reports she is torpedoed and hit as a salvo of 14-inch shells slam into her. The cruiser Juneau reports she is struck by a torpedo and is exiting the area. The cruiser Helena reports only minor damage so far and is pouring a continuous stream of shells into the Japanese ships.
The time is 2:04 a.m. The rear unit of destroyers are the last to get into the fray but the destroyer Aaron Ward is dishing out fire to the Hiei and a light cruiser but receives nine hits in return. All power is lost aboard and the ship drifts to a halt. Directly behind the Aaron Ward is the destroyer Monssen which is hit and is now a flaming wreck. It is abandoned at 2:20. The destroyer Fletcher, the last in line, is firing and is still undamaged.
On the Japanese side, the battleship Hiei (below) is aflame with 85 hits, none of which are able to penetrate her heavy armor but one 8-inch shell is jamming her rudder leaving her unable to steer. Many Japanese ships can be seen on fire and apparently sinking. The battleship Kirishima is hit and is heading out of battle. On shore, marines, sailors and soldiers gather to watch the dazzling display of sight and sound.
"Private Robert Leckie describes the night scene: The star shells rise, terrible and red. Giant tracers flash across the night in orange arches..... the sea seems a sheet of polished obsidian on which the warships seem to have been dropped and are immobilized, centered amid concentric circles like shock waves that form around a stone dropped in mud." (9)
Information pouring into main radio is beyond our comprehension, those of us reading it are just numbed by it. Luckily for me, I am too busy copying the code to worry about it. This is just as well as the course we have been on has placed our ship among the Japanese ships and it is suspected that the destroyer Fletcher is mistakenly firing at us. Fortunately, she has missed, so far.
At 2:26 a.m., the battle is over with all ships exiting or trying to exit the battle area as quickly as possible. Both sides seem to have had enough. The battle lasts 38 minutes and losses on the American side are severe. (Depiction of battle by Life magazine is shown above) Of the two American admirals in the battle, both have been killed by naval gunfire. Five brothers of the Sullivan family perish on the cruiser Juneau. Of the 13 American ships entering the battle, only one, the destroyer Fletcher, can report no damage. Our ship sustains moderate damage but from friendly fire. One 8-inch shell fragment with the San Francisco's identifying die coloring landed between the legs of a torpedoman as he sat at his battle station on top of a torpedo launching tube. The fragment lodged itself in the torpedo tube without harming anyone.
This shell probably bounced off of the Cruiser Atlanta which is directly in line between the San Francisco and the O'Bannon. Friendly fire from the San Francisco also hit the Portland. Unfortunately, friendly shells are just as nasty as unfriendly shells. In the battle, our side has just lost two cruisers and three destroyers. Their final resting place is on the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound.
The number of American dead from the conflict is 1,439 including the five Sullivan brothers and two admirals. The number of swimming survivors collected by boat is about 1,400 seamen from our task force. (10) The five Sullivan brothers are killed as the Juneau steams away from the battle and is hit by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine.
Losses on the Japanese side are one battleship and two destroyers with two destroyers seriously damaged. Personnel loses are estimated to be at about 1000 dead or missing. Without the additional pounding by our airmen the following morning, the Japanese battleship would have survived.
November 14th, finds the Japanese in control of the waters around Guadalcanal after dark with a task force of three cruisers and three destroyers conducting a 31-minute bombardment of Henderson Field. This bombardment misses Henderson Field entirely and does only moderate damage. At dawn, the aroused aviators from Henderson and from the carrier Enterprise retaliate to make mincemeat of the troop ship convoy heading for Guadalcanal.
They manage to sink a cruiser and damage two others and sink seven of the eleven transports that are carrying the Japanese troops for reinforcement of their Guadalcanal garrison. Of the close to 5000 troops that end up in the water, all but 450 were rescued by their escorting ships. Oddly, this day the Japanese Navy provides little air cover for the convoy, making the job much easier for the American pilots.
November 15th, a second naval engagement occurs between the two antagonists, again in the early morning hours. For the Japanese, the object is the same as on the 13th: shell the airfield to destroy American planes then land the remaining troops that were not landed on the 13th and that survived the air attacks of the preceding day. For the Americans, the object is just as simple: keep the Japanese from shelling the airfield and landing their troops.
To clear the way for the troop transport convoy, Yamamoto sends the battleship Kirishima along with two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and nine destroyers with Admiral Kondo replacing Admiral Abe who apparently didn't do too well two days earlier. The Americans, holding the short end of the stick, are only able to come up with the battleships South Dakota and Washington along with four destroyers for escort.
The Japanese observation planes mistakenly have reported that four destroyers and two cruisers are heading North toward Guadalcanal. This gives the Japanese Admiral Kondo a false sense of security. But reports to the American Admiral Lee, indicate there may be as many as three battleships along with four cruisers and nine destroyers heading South toward Guadalcanal. So Lee undoubtedly will be a bit cautious.
This battle promises to be an unusual since the Japanese will have fourteen ships against the American's six. However, the two American battleships are new and are equipped with the latest radar and carry 16 inch guns. Each American battleship can put out a broadside of 24,300 pounds while the Kirishima could boast only a 11,920 pound broadside.
The American's 16 inch shells can easily penetrate the Kirishima's armor even below the water line and the American battleships are practically immune to anything but torpedoes and even then it would probably take at least two or more to cause a serious problem for them. The four American destroyers however are not the latest and only one has radar. They had been assigned to this quickly made up task force because they had the most fuel on board. None of the ships on the American side have ever sailed together prior to this assignment.
As in the battle two nights before, both sides are quickly closing toward Guadalcanal. The Japanese Admiral Kondo will not attempt any landings or even commence the shelling until the oncoming Americans ships are disposed of. Thinking that the enemy is composed of just two cruisers and four destroyers, Kondo sends a screening force out to flush out the enemy. And flush they did as Washington discharged its first salvo by its main battery followed about a minute later by the South Dakota doing the same. The range is about nine miles and unfortunately for the Americans, especially the destroyers which are about two miles ahead, both salvos miss.
The American destroyers commence firing at this time as the Japanese destroyer Ayanami charges into the American destroyer column. Excellent flashless powder makes the Japanese destroyer hard to spot since only one of our destroyers has radar. The American destroyers are quickly illuminated by their own firing since they lack flashless powder.
The four American destroyers are quickly smashed by gunfire from the charging destroyer and from fire from a Japanese cruiser behind the destroyer. Turned into "a mass of blazing red-hot wreckage" the destroyer Preston rolls over on her starboard side and hangs with her bow in the air for ten minutes before plunging forever to the bottom. The captain of the ship and almost half of the crew perish.
The destroyer Walke is next to go with the bow snapped off, power and communications gone and the main deck awash with several inches of oil with flames scampering along what's left of the deck. The crew is able to get four rafts off, but as the ship sinks, the depth charges explode and kill over eighty of the crew including the captain.
The destroyer Gwin (right)and Benham are smashed but manage to head for home along with the Benham all traveling at ten knots. It is soon obvious that the Benham is not going to make it so, in a tricky operation, the Gwin manages to rescue the Benham crew. The deficiencies of the Mark XV torpedo are again demonstrated when the Gwin tries to sink the Benham. The first torpedo fired explodes prematurely, the second misses passing ahead of the bow, the third runs erratically, and the fourth passes astern. Finally, the Gwin hits one of Benham's magazines with a 5-inch shell which does the job.
With the American destroyer's departure, the odds for the American side just got worse with fourteen Japanese ships now opposing two American ships but the Washington finally springs to life with a salvo that turns the destroyer Ayanami into a flaming wreck and leaves her dead in the water. The cruiser that was shelling the American destroyers was unscathed however. The score is now Americans two, Japanese thirteen.
The battleship South Dakota is still untouched by enemy fire but this is about to change. After firing only one salvo earlier that completely misses her target, an error is made in the operation in the engine room that leaves the ship without electrical power. Deaf, dumb and blind, the South Dakota is now out of the fight. The Americans have one ship left -- the Washington. The score is now Americans one, Japanese thirteen.
After six minutes though, the South Dakota manages to get her power back on and quickly gets off another salvo that sets her three search planes on fire on the quarterdeck. Luckily, her next salvo blows the planes over the side putting out all fires. Now, the ship's power is lost again. After five minutes, power is again restored and the South Dakota finds she has been steaming into Kondo's bombardment force less than three miles away. At this distance, Kondo's lookouts shout, "American battleship ahead" and Admiral Kondo finally realizes what he is up against. Aboard his flagship the cruiser Atago, he calls for the searchlights and they quickly fix their beams onto the South Dakota.
Gunners from all five ships of the bombardment group send salvo after salvo including 14 inch shells along with scores of long lance torpedoes swimming toward the South Dakota. Luck is with the ship as several torpedoes explode prematurely and the rest miss but 27 shells hit including a 14 inch shell find their mark. If the South Dakota is lackluster at dishing it out, the it certainly shines in its ability to take it. None of the shells threaten the ships survival but the gunfire damage knocks out radios, all but one radar, demolishes radar plot and gun directors. The ship is now permanently "deaf, dumb, blind and impotent." There is nothing wrong with its engines however and its high speed capability enable it to exit the scene and outrun the destroyers trying to close in on it.
With Admiral Kondo's bombardment group being so preoccupied disposing of the South Dakota, they completely overlook the Washington. The searchlights they use to light up the South Dakato display their positions to the Washington. With perfect visual sightings and with good radar readings, the Washington finally decides to come out of retirement. The main battery of all nine barrels as well as a pair of five inch shells lash out at the Kirishima.
The Japanese battleship is "buried in water columns" and sustains crushing blows from nine 16 inch shells and forty or more five inch shells. These hits disable the two main battery turrets, ignite internal fires, drill holes below the waterline, and jam the rudder. Incoming water causes extreme listing causing the ship to circle while belching out dense clouds of smoke. Sea water sloshes in her steering machinery compartment and the rudder is jammed 10 degrees to starboard.
As flooding defies control and the fires refuse to be contained, intense blazes creep toward the magazines forcing the Captain to order that they be flooded. When counter flooding fails to check the list to starboard, the captain orders the ship abandoned and at 0325 the Kirishima rolls over and sinks. The score is now Japanese twelve, Americans one. Still not a level playing field, though.
With this, the American Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee decides it is time to make a hasty exit since it will be too late for the Japanese to shell the airfield and the late hour will force them to make a hasty exit to be out of the area before the American planes take to the air. This will save Henderson Field for at least another night. Fortunately, the Washington is able to outrun the Japanese destroyers that are hell bent on getting a few torpedoes into her (although a few do come close) and the battle is over.
Since the Japanese do not accomplish their objective of landing troops, and since the loss of the battleship Kirishima outweighs our losses and damages, the Americans can claim a victory. Credit for the victory goes to Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee and the battleship Washington which dishes out most of the damage that sinks the Japanese battleship. The loss of personnel is close however as 242 American sailors and 249 Japanese sailors die.
After three tragic nights, in some of the most fierce naval battles of all time, this battle is finally over. Who won ? Looking at the performance of both navies, it seems clear that the Japanese dominated the naval scene with superior performance by all units. Their ship commanders showed the many years of preparation had paid off and their performance was professional. The American force was newly formed and had never trained as a unit and it showed. Many of our ship commanders did a commendable job while others gave less than a professional performance but all performed with utmost courage.
The Japanese Long Lance torpedoes worked amazing well and gave the Japanese side a definite edge. But, since the Japanese failed in their objective to land troops and retake the airfield this can definitely be counted as an American victory. That, after the battle on the 13th, the Japanese Admiral Abe left the battle area with one of his battleships practically undamaged along with other ships in good fighting condition, showed the Japanese Navy was capable of making some serious blunders. The airfield could have been shelled to keep the American airmen from hammering the Japanese transports the following day. Abe was relieved of his command upon his return.
The fact that Admiral Halsey could have had his two battleships at Guadalcanal two days earlier than he did presents the puzzle as to what might the results have been if the battle had not been so one sided against the Americans. Instead of two battles in mid November, there would have been only one and the Americans would have had the preponderance of power.
Our Mark XV torpedoes were a tragic example of a failure by our military that defies the imagination and leaves one to wonder if the Mark XVs were ever adequately tested. Was the Navy aware that during this period of time nine out of ten of American torpedoes failed? Of all the torpedoes fired at the Hiei on the night of the 13th, Admiral Abe reported that none were effective. On the 15, it was the same situation. The number of young men who had to give their lives to launch these defective torpedoes should leave Americans with a heavy heart. These young men went into battle with confidence in their leaders and their equipment and it cost them their lives.
For those of us who were enlisted personnel on the O'Bannon, we exited the battle carrying the idea with us that we had put three of our torpedoes into the Hiei and were largely responsible for that ship's demise. It took some fifty years for me to learn otherwise. For many others, it is likely that they never found out the truth. Maybe that was for the best, who can say. In the battles that followed, we enlisted sailors would never again be quite so trusting of our officers. But we would be more confident of our own abilities.
November 16th, the Japanese return to the use of subs to supply their troops on the island with moderate success for the remainder of the month. Attempts to use small craft that could hide during the day and then proceed at night fail due to the ever-present U.S. aircraft. The amount of food reaching the Japanese troops is insufficient to prevent the process of slow starvation.
November 17th, the O'Bannon is placed into a floating dry dock to repair the battle damage of the 13th. This keeps us from returning to Pearl Harbor, much to the chagrin of the crew. The ship is out of action until November 28th.
November 26th, the Japanese 17th Army's stocks of meat and vegetables are nearly exhausted, and rice and barley will be entirely consumed this day . (11)
November 27th, the number of US air units grow from eighty-five to 188 aircraft with replacement of exhausted squadrons and with the addition of new and improved aircraft. On this day our air force achieves air supremacy over Guadalcanal and the surrounding islands of the Solomon Island chain. It would have been comforting if we sailors had been informed of this.
November 30th, Japanese Admiral Tanaka heads a group of eight destroyers and five transports with troops and supplies for Guadalcanal. To intercept these ships, American Rear Admiral Wright attacks with four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and six destroyers. Admiral Wright has just been appointed to take over this operation as the task force commander and replaces Admiral Kinkaid. (Admiral Kinkaid is given a new assignment by Admiral King, the supreme commander of the U.S. Navy).
This night battle, known as the Battle of Tassafaronga, turns into a disaster for us as the Japanese force is able to sink one of our cruisers and put three other cruisers out of service for a nearly a year. Of the thirteen heavy cruisers we have committed to the Guadalcanal area, all have been either sunk or badly damaged. This battle provides additional evidence to the fact that there appears no end to the supply of inept U.S. commanders that the American high command is able to field. This night the Japanese lose one destroyer but no supplies are landed. The Japanese Army is rapidly starving to death. Large food and ammunition supplies must arrive soon or the Japanese face disaster.
December 3rd, ten Japanese destroyers with provisions are heading for Guadalcanal. These ships have air cover but run into stiff opposition from American aircraft. The destroyers manage to drop off 1,500 oil type drums filled with supplies. These drums are designed to float and carry provisions to shore. The American planes send all but 310 drums to the bottom. This action costs the U.S. two planes and the Japanese five. The Japanese have been on one third rations since mid November and many are unable to walk, many can walk only with the aid of a stick. Starvation has set in and the few relatively healthy soldiers must do the scouting, patrolling and fighting. Malaria and dengue fever is killing more troops than combat operations. (12)
December 7th, twelve Japanese destroyers move down the slot with supplies. Our planes hit the force before dark and damage one destroyer which must be towed from the area by another destroyer. The remaining destroyers press on but are met by American PT boats. These boats, (Patrol Torpedo), which include PT 109, with future president John F. Kennedy (shown at left and at right in second picture) in command are able to turn back the Japanese without allowing them to land their supplies. "This action represents probably the greatest success of the PT boats during the war as the young upstart PT sailors achieve the considerable feat of rebuffing the redoubtable Reinforcement Unit without loss, whereas only a week earlier eleven major warships had suffered severely and accomplished no more." (13)
December 8th, the Japanese Imperial Navy announces at a conference with the officers of the combined fleet that unacceptable destroyer losses force the end of the destroyer transportation runs.
December 9th, without fanfare, the command of the American forces on Guadalcanal shifts from General Vandegrift and the U.S. Marines to Major General Patch of the U.S. Army. Lean, dirty and malaria ridden and with a third unfit for further combat, the Marines proudly march out after almost six months of combat. Many were too weak to climb aboard the transports and had to be pulled aboard by willing hands.
December 18th, diaries of Japanese officers state that "the troops are at the very bottom of the human condition. The entire army is composed of pale wisps of men, with ulcerous skin draped with filthy, sopping clothes. Vast numbers are wracked with fevers, for which there is no medicine. Army headquarters reports they are eating tree shoots, coconuts, and grass growing in the rivers." (14) The Japanese Army has been reduced from approximately 30,000 troops in November to 20,000 troops in December.
December 18th, the U.S. Army starts advancing to drive the Japanese from their the high ground overlooking Henderson Field. This strong point is known as Gifu and is the location with the strongest and best troops of the Japanese. These troops fight without any indication of retreat or surrender. Our advance is slow. "After twenty-two days the American Army's 132d Infantry Regiment has such losses from killed, wounded, missing and ineffective from disease that it is incapable of further offensive action." (15)
December 19th, the Japanese complete an airstrip on the island of Munda 170 miles from Guadalcanal in hopes of giving them an airfield close to Henderson Field. It is built under a canopy of palm trees that are woven together with steel cables to leave the tops in place while the trunks are carried away. This hides the field from view while the work is in progress. The tree tops are removed as the field is finished.
December 23rd, thirty-three zeros are dispatched to this field. American planes attack as quickly as the zeros make it to the field. In the first two days two zeros are shot down and eleven are damaged on the ground. Incessant attacks by our force whittle down the number of zeros at the field. If the Japanese can establish and hold this airfield so close to Henderson Field, our whole operation will be in jeopardy.
December 26th, The Japanese Imperial General Headquarters makes the decision to withdraw from Guadalcanal.
December 27th, Air loses at the airfield at Munda are too severe to be maintained. The Munda planes are brought back to Rabaul and the airfield at Munda is abandoned.
December 31st, the Emperor approves the withdrawal of Japanese forces from Guadalcanal.
January 1st, 1943. The Japanese are being decimated and Lieutenant Ko'o notes in his diary that everywhere he gazed corpses lay, the freshly dead rotting side by side with already skeletal remains. "On New Year's Day the last food was distributed in the Gifu, two crackers and one piece of candy per man." (16)
January 3rd, Imperial General Headquarters formally advises Yamamoto to prepare to withdraw units from Guadalcanal.
January 4th, The O'Bannon with a group of three cruisers and another destroyer move out of Guadalcanal and up the Solomon chain of islands to shell the newly completed airfield that the Japanese built at Munda. Our group dispenses over 4,000 shells destroying ten buildings. The airfield had been deactivated a week earlier.
In response to the shelling, the Japanese increase their morning aerial reconnaissance and manage to find our force heading south. Four dive bombers with the protection of fourteen zeros strike at our cruisers as they slow to recover their search aircraft. Two of the bombers strike at the cruiser Honolulu with near misses and the two other bombers strike at the New Zealand cruiser Achilles with one near miss and one hit with a 550-pound bomb which knocks out its number three turret. The angered captain of the Achilles signals "our fighting efficiency is only slightly reduced and our fighting temper is greatly increased." The engagement ends on this high note.
A short time later word is passed that one of the bombers of the two that were shot down has crashed and its crew is in the water ahead of us. Not being on watch at the time and the ship not being at General Quarters (battle condition), I am able to watch the unfolding drama as we close in on the downed flyers.
By the time I manage to get on deck though, we are along side the Japanese fliers. The fliers show no indication of wanting to be rescued and swim away from the ship. Lines that are being thrown to them are tossed back. Not wanting to appear inhospitable, a whaleboat is lowered and no less than the executive officer enters the boat to try to bring the Japanese fliers aboard. He is similarly rejected and finally resorts to force by trying to grab one of the men in the water and to pull him into the boat. The flyer's final rejection comes in the form of a pistol that he pulls from inside his flight jacket. He quickly points it at the head of our Exec and pulls the trigger. His gun clicks but fails to fire (probably from being in the water). This action provokes a crewmember (who supposedly is providing security for the Exec) to spring into action. A burst of fire from his machine gun blows the pilots head off. Not wanting to witness this, I quickly turn my head as I'm sure did many others.
The second flyer, wounded and in poor condition, offers no resistance and is pulled aboard where the medical officer cuts open his flying suit to examine his wounds. These are so serious that it is obvious to all that he has not long to live. His chin is gone and his stomach area is a mess. Still, he does not seem to be in pain (in shock, I guess) and he is looking around as if interested in his new surroundings. He gestures for water and a pharmacist mate quickly brings him a glass. Most of the water runs out the opening where his chin used to be but his thirst seems to be quenched anyway. By now he has quite an audience as this is the first time the crew has a chance to examine the enemy up close without the fear of being killed in the process.
Everyone is quiet and seems to respect him as a dying enemy whose life is slowly ebbing away in the service of his country. No tears are shed here but no hostility is in evidence either. He looks around into the faces that are peering at him and into mine for several seconds. He then looks up at the American flag that is flying about twenty feet over his head and stares at it for several moments. The surrounding crew members follow his gaze and look up also. What he can be thinking we can only guess. Our flag is sun-bleached and faded much as our whole crew is, I guess, but it undoubtedly conveys a message: We may be tattered and threadbare but we are still flying. The pharmacist mate takes the flyer into the pharmacy station putting an end to the drama. The flyer dies an hour later and is respectfully buried at sea.
On the bridge, our Captain removes the bullet from the flyer's pistol and finds it has a deep dent in it made by the firing pin of the gun. This is how close our Executive Officer came to death. Can we expect this kind of luck to last forever? Well, it does last a little longer anyway, for when we return to port, we learn our Executive Officer has been promoted and is the new Captain of the O'Bannon and our present Captain is being transferred to a new position.
January 5th, General Patch directs Army troops and remaining marines to clear Guadalcanal of all Japanese troops.
January 9th, the Japanese complete plans for withdrawal from Guadalcanal that entails the use of destroyers as transports during the hours of darkness. The target date for complete withdrawal is February 10th. Plans include and elaborate program of feints designed to keep the Americans guessing and make it appear that a reinforcement effort is in progress.
January 15th, orders from Imperial General Headquarters for the evacuation of Guadalcanal reach the Japanese 17th army commander. General Hyakutake resists the orders (on the grounds that retreat would betray those who already had given their lives) and prefers to sacrifice the 17th Army as a last service to the nation. Since the orders have been ordained by the Emperor himself, the general will comply.
January 23rd, by sunset the Americans take the last Japanese stronghold known as the Gifu. Other Japanese detachments are being annihilated from regimental size down to a handful of individuals. Few Japanese are surrendering, they calmly accept imminent death. The remaining troops place their last chance at survival on evacuation runs by destroyers.
January 30th, (February 1st in the States) at sea, patrolling American naval forces threaten the Japanese destroyers engaged in the evacuation and are hit by Japanese planes that sink the cruiser Chicago, the destroyer DeHaven, three PT boats and damage one destroyer. The Japanese loose one destroyer with damage to three others. Air loses cost the Japanese fifty-six planes with the Americans losing fifty-three. This engagement is between opposing aircraft and ships with no naval action between ships. The battle is to be known as the Battle of Rennell island.
February 1st, twenty Japanese destroyers begin the first evacuation of Japanese troops. This takes place at night as "thousands of men toiling laboriously up muddied trails livened the night as they move toward the embarkation point." (17) PT boats on the scene create some havoc for the soldiers but Japanese destroyers drive them off. One Japanese destroyer explodes and is lost due to the PT boats or possibly from hitting a mine, but the soldiers are evacuated successfully in this first run of the evacuation express.
February 4th, twenty Japanese destroyers again head down from Rabaul to Guadalcanal to evacuate troops but planes from Henderson Field catch the destroyers before dark sinking one while damaging a second one. This second evacuation run picks up additional troops and returns them to Rabaul without further incident.
February 7th, eighteen destroyers make a final run to evacuate the remaining troops and again U.S. planes hit and damage one destroyer but the remaining destroyers are able to reach Guadalcanal under cover of darkness and commence boarding the last Japanese troops from the island. Small boats nudge up to the gray destroyer hulls in single file as their occupants climb to deliverance. To honor the Japanese Navy's pledge to the Army that no troops will be deserted on the island, sailors row boats in along shore and call out again and again to make sure that no one is left on the beach.
At three minutes into February 8th, the evacuation is complete and the destroyers leave the islands. Over ten thousand Japanese troops have been rescued from a horrible death. Many of the troops will not be fit for further service and the others will take many months to return to health. "The flag of the Rising Sun flutters no more at Guadalcanal." (18)
February 9th, General Patch of the U.S. Army announces that the Japanese have been driven from Guadalcanal. The battle for Guadalcanal is now officially over.
Chapter Three - After the taking of Guadalcanal