Fire and Death at the Komandorskis
March 26th, 1943 - March 26th, 2003
60th Anniversary of a Deadly Sea Battle
by Frank Johnson

Sea Classic Magazine, March 2003 Volume 36 Number 3
Pages 20 through 27 & 58-59

Sea Classic Magazine Contributed by USS BAILEY Veteran, Stan Hogshead

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It is too bad, in a way, that the Japanese and the Americans could not have come to some sort of silent agreement about the inadvisability of doing battle in the Aleutians Islands. In the opinion of just about everyone except the natives, the area was generally unfit for human habitation. The natives knew no better.

The islands themselves were barren and windswept, the land consisting, for the most part, of frozen tundra, soggy marshland and solid rock. But the worst enemy for any force operating in the Aleutians was the incredibly foul weather.

The term "williwaw" was a less than ominous name given to the frequent 100-knot wind storms that arose---kicking up 75 foot seas. The dead calm of nigh could suddenly bring a black sleet storm or a blinding blizzard. And then there was the fog. Fog so thick that one could literally not see his hand in front of his face. The fog worked in concert with jagged reefs and huge submerged rocks lying off the generally uncharted islands. Such a combination would bring death to American and Japanese vessels alike.

Had only each side known of the other's real intention regarding the Aleutians, the fog-shrouded islands might never have been a battlefield.

Long before most Americans had ever heard of Pearl Harbor, General Billy Mitchell was quoted as saying that if Japan ever seized Alaska, she could take New York. As preposterous as that idea now seems, it was just such a fear that inspired American commanders to establish an Army base, airfield and anchorage at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, about one-third of the way down the Aleutian chain.

The original Japanese naval thrust at the Aleutians in early June 1942 was intended primarily as a diversion that would cause the Americans to split their naval forces, leaving the gigantic Japanese task force steaming for Midway, an odds on favorite to obliterate the American surface forces in their area. Luckily, the American carrier group did not take the bait---largely because of outstanding intelligence work. The ensuing battle at Midway turned out to be a crushing defeat for the Japanese and serious consideration was given to aborting the Aleutian thrust as a result.

The Japanese plan was to set up Midway and Adak as links in a chain forming an outer perimeter defense line. From these bases, long-range aircraft could patrol the northern transpacific approaches to Japan itself. The Japanese garrisons in the Aleutians would neutralize Dutch Harbor and would provide an outpost against what the Japanese perhaps feared most in this area, the possibility that the Americans could mount a major thrust at the homeland using the Aleutians as a giant roadway. The likelihood of the Americans using the island chain for just such a purpose now seems rather far fetched. It would have been a logistical nightmare and very risky if for no other reason than the continual foul and dangerous weather. But at the time, it was a possibility that the Japanese did not want to overlook.

The Japanese established their bases on Attu and Kiska in June and were immediately subjected to air raids by Army bombers from Dutch Harbor, strikes on their shipping in the area from a half dozen US submarines and surface bombardment lead by the five US cruisers assigned to this chilly theater.

It was the original Japanese intention to eventually occupy a third island farther east in the Aleutian chain---Adak, Kuluk Bay offered anchorage for a fleet and there was an area nearby suitable for an airfield. But the Americans beat the Japanese to the punch with landings on the island in August. The next American move, however, caught the Japanese by surprise. They had inspected the island of Amchitka, the next in line west from their base at Kiska, and decided it was worth occupation. Low and unprotected against the fierce winds, the island's soggy tundra and marshland would not, the Japanese felt, accommodate a base. On the other hand, the Americans took all of the disadvantages under consideration, tossed them in the round file and occupied the island in January 1943. The fact that they now had a base within rock-throwing distance of the Japanese invaders was all that mattered. Yankee know-how would overcome the engineering and logistics problems. By the end of the month, 4000 Americans were on the island, defenses were installed and, most importantly, an airfield was operational. The US forces were now in a position to starve the enemy on Attu and Kiska through the imposition of a blockade.

Within three months the Japanese begin to feel the pinch of the American operation. The Japanese commander of the Fifth Fleet, V/Adm. Moshiro Hosogaya determined in March that the time for a major operation had come. Hosogaya was well informed as to the disposition of the enemy surface force he would oppress. His plan was to escort a convoy of Marus to the islands with a surface fleet big enough to hopefully engage and destroy the American ships that he felt sure would attack.

Hosogaya's fleet sailed in mid-March and was on its approach to the Aleutian bases by the 25th. Three transports were in the convoy which was escorted by the heavy cruisers NACHI and MAYO, light cruisers TAMA and ABUHUMA and destroyers INAZUMA, IKAZUEHI, USUGUMO, WAKABA and HATSUSHIMO.

Heavy seas and bad weather had delayed one of the transports and the destroyer USUGUMO from a rendezvous with the main body on the 25th, but calm seas and a crisp morning greeted the force on the 26th and the admiral anxiously awaited the expected word that the two ships were in sight. The admiral's fleet was now at a point about midway between Attu on the eastern end of the Aleutians and Bering Island to the northeast, an island in the group known as the Komandorskis. He was just outside the 600 mile patrol range of the PBYs flying from Amchitka and ready to make his run into the Japanese bases.

On the bridge of the flagship NACHI lookouts peered through binoculars into the early morning grayness. The sun had not yet broken the horizon but the morning was extremely clear and visibility great. Suddenly a lookout gave the word. "Ship to starboard!" Captain Miura swung his glasses to the appropriate bearing and although he could make out only a mast on the horizon, though he recognized it as that of the destroyer USUGUMO. He ordered that the admiral be notified immediately. Captain Miura was wrong.

Miura, in NACHI who was leading the single file column of ten Japanese warships, called for a column turn to starboard through about 160 degree, a maneuver roughly equivalent to a "U" turn to the right. His intent was to intercept the two stragglers. What he intercepted was six American warships.

By the time the Japanese column had completed its turn, five ships were visible. In the lead for the Americans was the USS COGHLAN, a Benson-class split-decker. This was the ship Miura had mistaken for the Japanese destroyer.

The American group consisted of the heavy cruiser SALT LAKE CITY, mounting ten 8-in guns, the light cruiser RICHMOND with ten 6-in guns, and destroyers BAILEY, DALE, COGHLAN and MONAGHAN, all splitdeck-types constructed in the 1930s and early 1940s. In command of the American task group was R/Adm. Charles "Sock" McMorris flying his flag from the 20-year old light cruiser RICHMOND. McMorris had been cruising the area west of Attu back and forth on a north-south line, for several days, hoping to intercept an attempted Japanese relief column that he felt must come. His ships were all heading for another sweep north on the morning of the 26th when COGHLAN in the lead made a radar contact at about 0730. BAILEY'S executive officer described the initial reaction.

"At 0730 on the morning of 26 March, BAILEY had just sounded drill General Quarters for the morning alert when COGHLAN on the extreme north end of the scouting line, reported at least two ships on her radar screen within an approximate range of about seven miles. Rear Admiral McMorris immediately ordered all ships to concentrate on his flagship and to form for battle at 25 knots. This was the call to battle which the crew of BAILEY had not experienced before---anxious faces scanned a horizon that was unusually clear. As the formation steamed on a northerly course to cut off the enemy, which was believed to be a supply convoy headed for Attu, the Jap ships appeared one by one in the distance until it was evident that the American forces were heavily outnumbered."

With the initial contact, McMorris had hoped for what he termed a "Roman Holiday." As the situation clarified and it became obvious that the American force was heavily outgunned---by a ratio of two-to-one --- McMorris naturally had a change of heart. But he still determined not to let a rare opportunity to engage an elusive enemy slip through his grasp. If anything was to be gained at all, he would have to fight cleverly--- and very carefully --- in order to keep the day from being a disaster.

On the Japanese flagship NACHI, Adm. Hosogaya quickly realized that this was what he had been hoping for. Even though his force had been initially fooled, he was not out of position al all. In fact, he was between the Americans and their path of retreat to their home base. He had, however, hoped to accomplish his primary mission first---that of delivering the supply ship and protecting their unloading---before he went out in search of the enemy. But with the enemy in sight Hosogaya sent the three loaded supply ships scurrying off to the northwest, guessing correctly that they would be the Americans' number one target.

Indeed, McMorris adjusted the course of his column which was not beginning to tighten up from their original six-mile separation, to give chase to the fleeing Marus. This put the opposing battle columns on roughly parallel courses heading in opposite directions---for a short period of time. Range was approximately 20,000 yards --- a little over eleven miles.

Hosogaya reacted quickly. He was not about to let the Americans get anywhere near the transports. He ordered a change of course to starboard and headed for a direct interception of the American warships.

On board the flagship RICHMOND journalist John Bishop recalled the first few moments of the action:

0837: The first exchange was brief and sharp. The Japs were closing the range rapidly, and as the flagship, now heading the American column, swung left into her westward to begin the retirement, the Jap heavies opened fire on her from a distance of twelve miles. Four times at least, without registering a hit, the shell splashes straddled her or leaped close---short, vicious spurts made by Armour-piercing shells with delayed-action fuses. As the heavies closed within range of her own 6-in batteries, she returned fire with salvo after salvo. Then she checked fire as her turn put the Japs beyond range of her guns. And the Japs were training their turrets around. They had recognized their Target No. 1, the lone American heavy SALT LAKE CITY. The first Jap salvo, fired hastily, fell short.

0842: The American heavy cruiser's decks leaped with the enormous concussion of her reply. Sixteen times in the course of her turn away from the Japs she fired full salvos. Her fourth salvo scored a hit on the leading heavy, the Jap flagship, and touched off an explosion of some kind.. At the base of the Jap's bridge a light flared, as no shell burst would flare, to envelope the whole tall bridge and fire control superstructure in a sheet of flame. The 16th salvo hit again. From the vicinity of the Jap's forward stack, smoke billowed suddenly, the thick, black, sluggish smoke of an oil fire.

0848: Following in the wake of the flagship, our heavy cruiser swung around to a heading a little south of west, and steadied on a new course while the four destroyers maneuvered to their stations in line astern on the left flank of the two cruisers.

The last maneuver, a turn to port from the original northerly heading to one "a little south of west" was in fact McMorris's answer to Hosogaya's charge---turn and retreat. Had McMorris answered the challenge to a point-blank range toe-to-toe shootout, his force would have been destroyed. There were to many Japanese guns for that. But he felt if he could keep his distance---so that there was more skill involved in the gunnery--his sailors would have a chance to give as good as they got. And for the first ten minutes of the battle, that is exactly what they did. Although the gunners on the old "Swayback Maru," as the SALT LAKE was affectionately known to her crew, were not seasoned veterans, she along with her escorting destroyers, managed to "land shells aboard like rain" according to Commander Miura.

As the American column retired from the pursuing Japanese, all forward batteries were blocked, SALT LAKE being able to point but five of her 8-in guns in the direction of the slim silhouettes to the rear.

The Japanese gunners aboard four cruisers were concentrating everything they had on the SALT LAKE and in answer, the American heavy was doing some eloquent sidestepping. On the open bridge, the SALT LAKE'S Captain Rodgers was calmly calling on every bit of seamanship and experience he had to outguess the Japanese gunners. Commander Worthington S. Bitler, SALT LAKE'S Executive Officer, described the action:

"The skipper zigzagged the ship.... We talked normally in between times. The skipper would ask, "Well, Worthy, which way shall we turn next? I'd answer, "Your guesses have been perfect so for captain. Guess again. He'd order the ship swung right or left, and the spot we could have been in had we gone the other way would be plowed up with ten or fifteen 8-in shells. The skipper would then look at me with a grin on his face a yard wide and say, just like a schoolboy that's got away with something in school, "Fooled them again, Worthy." And he did too. It was uncanny."

But the odds were to heavy against SALT LAKE to let her escape for long. Twelve minutes and over 400 enemy shells after the turn to the west, SALT LAKE took her first hit. Piercing her hull below the water line, an 8-inch shell crashed through an alley housing a propeller shaft and exploded in a fuel oil tank. She shuddered violently---almost seemed to die for a moment---and then was instantly racing through the water again, seemingly unhurt. As if in rage, SALT LAKE bellowed smoke and flame from her guns once again scoring on the Japanese flagship NACHI.

Admiral McMorris aboard RICHMOND was now doing some fast thinking on his feet. Through all of the radical zigzagging and shell chasing, he ordered his column to once again bear to the north, in so doing, the Japanese cut across the Americans' wake in an attempt to pull up on the starboard left hand side of the US column and continue the slugfest. McMorris then initiated a gradual change of direction back to the west and was beginning to see an avenue of escape thanks to a tactical blunder on the part of the Japanese. With the Japanese ships now in a column to his north, McMorris could now break to the south and hope to out run the enemy back towards his base.

But before any such move could be made, SALT LAKE was hit again. After being hit by SALT LAKE, the flagship NACHI had dropped out of the column, reduced speed and attempted to bring fires under control. This accomplished, she came charging back hitting the SALT LAKE with a shell that pierced the main dock and flooded several compartments but luckily failed to explode. However, the heavy cruiser was beginning to experience steering difficulties. Screening destroyers COGHLAN and BAILEY moved into screen the SALT LAKE and to begin laying chemical and funnel smoke. And at a range of about 15,000 years, the scrappy DD's began to lay a continual sheet of 5-in gunfire on the light cruiser TAMA. They fired relatively unmolested as the Japanese were still intent on reducing SALT LAKE to scrap and had eyes for little else until that task was complete. The DDs also put up a hail of fire to chase away a lone Japanese spotter plane in the air and the Americans had radar---but in a gun duel in broad daylight, at a range of ten miles or less, the advantage of either of these instruments was small.

As the American column steamed west at best speed, the SALT LAKE lost her steering gear thanks to the concussion of her own guns and the continued radical course changes. She went to emergency steering but was limited to 10" rudder resulting in slow turns and an easier target for enemy gunners.

It was time for McMorris to make a move. He ordered his column to turn south away from the enemy. As the American ships moved through the turn, the Japanese cruisers and destroyers launched a fusillade of their deadly torpedoes. At the extreme range, however, none hit---lucky for the Americans for at this point, had a ship become disabled, as torpedoes are so particularly able to do, it would have meant certain doom.

Just as the American column was completing its turn, SALT LAKE was hit again, this time seriously. Flooding in the after engine compartment shut those engines down and in the midst of her run for freedom, the big cruiser began to slow. Damage crews worked furiously to pump the water from the bowels of the ship. The Japanese had followed the American turn to the south and were now coming up fast astern. They were really pouring it into SALT LAKE. As the American heavy cruiser literally disappeared in geysers from near misses, McMorris aboard RICHMOND ordered three of the screening destroyers, BAILEY, COGHLAN and MONAGHAN to turn on the enemy with a torpedo attack in order to take some of the heat off SALT LAKE. The skipper of DALE, the lone DD staying with SALT LAKE noted:

"Salvos landed short and kept walking up. They came up to 50 yards short and then the Jap CA's shifted fire to the other attacking DDs.

Just as the three destroyers were coming up to speed in their dash for the enemy, McMorris canceled their orders. The flooding on SALT LAKE had been checked and she was beginning to pick up speed again.

As the American column resumed its southerly dash, the Japanese trailing behind, began to move further east. No doubt they hoped to be ready to cut the Americans off as the US ships made their final 90 degree turn to the east to head for home.

The two main rear turrets had been firing continuously in this stern chase and were now running low on powder and shells. Captain Rodgers realized that those guns had to continue firing at all costs. Without the punch of those 8-in guns, the Japanese could move in for the kill. The forward shell decks were thrown open and the heavy shells trundled aft on dollies by scampering sailors who might any moment be cut down by a shell burst. Within the bowels of the cruiser, a human chain was set up from one end of the ship to the other, passing the volatile powder bags forward to aft. One spark, one hit in the right place and the ship would be vaporized. The SALT LAKE fought on.

At 1154 fate dealt SALT LAKE what all knew was the fatal blow. The big cruiser's engines suddenly came to a complete halt. Saltwater seeping into fuel lines as a result of an earlier hit had put the fires out. It looked like the end.'

As SALT LAKE coasted to a stop, word was flashed to McMorris. The Admiral made his decision. Unlike the frequent Japanese practice of leaving the straggler behind for the wolves, McMorris was going to save the SALT LAKE or die trying. Once again word went out to the destroyers. There were the last desperate hope. They would charge the enemy and perhaps in their sacrifice, something could be gained.

Aboard the wildly zigzagging destroyers, futilely laying smoke to protect the now lifeless cruiser. Commodore Riggs passed the word to the other skippers. While DALE stayed behind to screen the cruiser, Riggs simply ordered: "Get the big boys!"

BAILEY, COGHLAN and MONAGHAN heeled over in hard turns and pointed themselves at certain death. As the wind whistled over superstructures, not a man aboard expected anything less than the worst.

On the bridge of the SALT LAKE, Captain Rodgers, still smiling, shook hands with Cdr. Bitler. Throughout the ship, the men here too prepared to die. They donned life jackets and survival gear, but all knew it would do little good. A man could last no more than 20 minutes in these chilly waters. Some threw their gear to the floor in disgust and went about doing what they could to help save the ship. If she should die, then they would go down with her---a quick end.

When the Japanese gunners realized what was happening, they began to shift fire to the three attacking destroyers. Soon the three tin cans were so straddled by shell splashes as to be no longer visible. Weaving about, the DDs rushed through the torrent of explosives. On the bridge of the flagship NACHI, personnel stared out in disbelief. As Cdr. Miurn later said, "I do not know how a ship could live through the concentration of fire that was brought to bear on the leading destroyer."

As the DDs closed the distance, they opened up with their forward 5-in guns. NACHI was riddled from one end to the other by gunfire. But the leading destroyer, BAILEY, with Commodore Riggs aboard, paid the price. In rapid succession she was struck by four 8-in shells, puncturing her hull and wreaking havoc in her innards. For a few minutes she was completely stopped, but then began to pick up speed again and as she limped forward in anticipation of a final deafening salvo, she launched her torpedoes at NACHI

Incredibly, MONAGHAN and COGHLAN, branching off to attack the other Japanese cruisers, slipped through the barrage virtually untouched. With a bead on the heavy cruiser MAYA, DD COGHLAN dodged shells that missed by not feet, but inches. But neither of these valiant ships would have the chance to press home their attack. It is difficult to assess what goes on in a man's mind under such conditions, but aboard flagship NACHI, Adm. Hosogaya was forced to turn his ship to dodge torpedoes. And he turn away.

Many considerations must have gone through the admiral's mind. There were torpedoes heading for his ship. And suddenly shell splashes were beginning to straddle his vessel---not from the destroyers but rather from a ship that had come back from the dead. Working feverishly, the engineers aboard SALT LAKE had cleaned the fuel lines, relit the boilers and the old girl was beginning to make headway. Further, Hosogaya's sailors had been firing madly away with their antiaircraft guns at phantom US planes. The admiral felt he was within range of American land-based bombers. His cruisers had expended so much ammunition during the furious three-hour engagement that they were now running seriously low. And to top it all off, his destroyer screen was running low on fuel.

With certain victory in his grasp, the factors working against him were more than the conservative admiral could face up to. In utter disbelief, the men aboard the American destroyers watched the Japanese force as it appeared to turn away and retire.

Aboard the SALT LAKE nothing was known of the fate of the destroyers. Six miles away behind smoke, the American heavy was now slowly beginning to move south. But surely the Japanese would quickly be upon the three remaining American ships. The staccato of the destroyer guns had stopped and it could only mean one thing. The three little ships had valiantly given their lives.

At noon the dead spoke. And men aboard the cruiser bridges stood in awed silence. Came the message from Commodore Riggs. "The enemy are retiring to the westward. Shall I follow then?" Two minutes later, SALT LAKE fired a final explosion of billowing smoke, flame and incredible, concurring sound and the Battle of the Komandorski Islands was history.

McMorris had won the strategic victory. Although the Japanese had brought him to the brink of disaster, he had slapped them around a bit as well. But what is more important is that the Japanese had been frustrated in both their missions. The transports had been turned away---fully loaded----and Hosogaya had failed in his bid to destroy the American warships in the area.

The men aboard the six American warships had just fought the single longest continuing gunnery duel in the entire history of the modern Navy. It was to be the only conventional daylight gun duel in which air or submarine attack was not a factor---at least not a real factor.

But to the men of the cruiser SALT LAKE CITY, the real heroes in this battle were the crews of the three destroyers. As one officer eloquently put it, "I'll never forget the sight of those three little ships returning over the calm gray sea from their journey to oblivion. That was like seeing ghosts. They saved our lives. We'll never forget it."

Another officer expressed his feeling about the battle in these words.

"It wasn't that their gunnery was bad, the Japs' shooting was really beautiful. There were times toward the end, with the two heavies dead astern, when a few feet of deflection one way or the other would have planted a whole salvo along our centerline for and aft and split us like a melon. They just didn't get the hits their shooting deserved. The way Captain Rodgers handled the ship had a lot to do with it, of course, but there was more to it than that.

"It was like flipping a coin over and over again for three hours, doubles or quits. And every single time it came up heads."

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