Action at Cape Esperance
The Story of a Fleet that Fought as One Ship

NOTE from Sandy Eskew, Historian
I found this old "First of February, 1944" "Our Navy" magazine article a long time ago. I didn't post it then because the last page is missing. I decided to post what I did have and hope someone else may have a copy of this article and share the last page with us.

I'm also looking for a copy of "Mid-May 1955 Our Navy" magazine. There's an article in it titled "Stern Chase" by Paul Mande. Another article about the Battle of the Komandorski Islands". It is also incomplete. Can you help?


A black pall of gloom lay like a smoke screen across the prospect of victory in October of 1942. After nearly a year of war we were still fighting a better, back to the wall defensive battle. True, the marines had landed at Guadalcanal, but they were practically marooned there, and the slashing attack by the Jap fleet that had sunk the ASTORIA, QUINCY, VINCENNES and CANBERRA, had left us with a despair that no amount of careful propaganda could dispel.

The plight of the marines was growing more critical as with each dark night the Tokyo Express roared down the slot and landed deck loads of troops, provisions, guns, and tanks to bolster the Jap army on the Canal. We had no bases from which to operate a fleet in such substantial numbers that we could trap and break the forces the Japs could throw in from half a dozen directions.

But the Navy has an ancient slogan, hackneyed by overuse but still good. "Do the best you can with the tools you have."

And the tools with which the naval commands were to plug the gap were the destroyers and cruisers that could be spared from convoy duty and the defense of strategic points. They had to be used with the keenest appraisal of Jap strength, used far from the bases and the protection of shore based aircraft, and they had to be used with the knowledge that they might be trapped by superior forces in uncharted waters.

Such a task force took up station off Guadalcanal the night of October 11, 1942 -- a few cruisers, half a dozen destroyers.

In that force were two ships that were to be lifted from anonymity by the night's action and rushed into the headlines of every paper in the country; and later they were to become involved in a regrettable and wholly ridiculous controversy -- the squabble for a mythical, delusive credit-line. "The One Ship Fleet."

They were good ships. Both staunch ships, veterans of battle long before the task force turned east from the smudge that was Savo Island and brought its guns to bear on the enemy. That turned placed the two famous ships in the juxtaposition that was to cause the whole heated controversy -- it put the SALT LAKE CITY toward the rear of the cruiser column, and the BOISE just ahead of it.

The SALT LAKE CITY was one of the oldest of our heavy cruisers, the first of the so-called "Treaty Cruisers". Ordered in 1926, she was commissioned in 1929, actual displacement 9,100 tons. She had been an experimental type, and in the almost twenty years of her service she, and her sister ship PENSACOLA, had been the subject of no little criticism. It was claimed she was a wallowing ghost, un-seaworthy and poor platform for gunnery. She was flush decked and lacked freeboard.

But for the blast of critics, she had what it took when General Quarters sounded. With her ten 8-inch guns she was among the most powerfully armed cruisers in the world. These guns, 55 calibers in length, had a 45 degree elevation and hurled a 250 pound shell. They were grouped in 2 triple and 2 twin mounts. Armor was nothing much to boast of, a 3 inch belt along the waterline, with deck armor of only 2 inches protecting her vitals in the face of bombs. Turret armor was 1 1/2 inches. She carried four planes and two catapults, and was designed for a speed of 32.7 knots.

As she took her place in the battle line that night, she was perhaps, with one or two exceptions, the most battle-wise ship in the American Navy. She had been in on almost every major engagement since December 7, and her guns had struck the first blow of revenge after Pearl Harbor. Only the policy of withholding the names of ships from the news unless they had been sunk or damaged had kept the SALT LAKE CITY from the public eye.

Just ahead of the heavy cruiser was the BOISE, boasting a record, if not of actual achievement, at least on a par with the SALT LAKE CITY as far as dramatic was concerned. The BOISE had been just off Cebu when the Japs struck at Pearl Harbor, and in the succeeding months had been part of that tragic withdrawal from the Asiatics in the face of overwhelming Jap airpower.

The BOISE had joined the fleet after her commissioning in 1938. She was one of the nine large, powerfully armed, and stoutly protected light cruisers planned as a direct answer to the Jap MOGAMI class. She mounted fifteen 6-inch guns grouped in 5 well-armored turrets, with eight 5-inch and numerous smaller AA guns.

As the Japs closed relentlessly on Manila, the BOISE rendezvoused with the other ships of the Asiatic Fleet, the HOUSTON, the MARBLEHEAD, those brave little four-stack tin cans, the PILLSBURY, the FORD, the POPE, the BULMER, the PAUL JONES, to escort what auxiliaries had escaped the Japs. The warships brought the TRINITY, PECOS, LANGLEY, and several troop and cargo ships down to the Netherlands East Indies. And here they joined forces with the rag-tag remnants of the British and Dutch Fleets for a last ditch stand.

But the BOISE was slated for bad luck. As the Allied fleet steamed out to give battle to the Japs, the BOISE struck a coral head that reared itself in a channel marked on the chart as being 26 fathoms deep. A one hundred foot section of her bottom was ripped loose, and her keel was broken in two or three places. She could no longer maintain speed to keep her position in column, and she was ordered back to Tjilatjap for repairs. The dock in the East Indies station could not take her and she was ordered on to Colombo and then clear to Bombay.

For over four weeks she lay in drydock while her own ship repair crew enacted one of the unnoticed epics of this war. That repair crew, regular Navy men, trained in Navy welding schools, voluntarily restricted themselves to the ship until the work was completed. Inside and out they welded the broken seams, working without respite. Finally they announced, "She'll do for the trip across the ocean and until we can get her into our own yards."

That was a masterpiece of understatement. Back in the States she was again docked, and when the yard workmen inspected the seams, they came up from the drydock and said, "You can flood it. It's as good a job as we could do." No finer tribute was ever paid to a navy crew.

The BOISE was soon back in action. But, like the SALT LAKE CITY, public acclaim was to be evoked, not by her months of courageous duty, but by twenty-eight minutes of roaring glory off Cape Esperance.

It was a thick, hot, clammy night. A heavy overcast shrouded the stars above the glassy sea. For hours the crews had been at general headquarters, and it began to look as though the express had been derailed, that there would be no action this night. The task force made its turn to the east, and the shoulder of Cape Esperance, so close that the jungle smell was plain to the men straining their nerves on the darkened ships, faded astern. A few thousand yards northwest of Savo the word came from the destroyers screening far ahead.

"Enemy sighted. Three cruisers, three destroyers. Range, 23,000 years." Just darkened blurs that moved across the opaque sea.

The US forces were led that night by Admiral Norman Scott, whose tragic death on the ATLANTA a month later was to be a great blow to the Navy. Tonight, however, Admiral Scott achieved what every Naval commander dreams of -- what Jellicoe had twice achieved at Jutland without the will to press to his advantage. But Admiral Scott did not lack the will. He held his ships on course and waited for the Japs to close the range. He had the Nipponese in chancery --- he had crossed the "T".

The fire control officers charted the ranges almost gleefully. "Range ten-oh-double-oh! Range seven-six-double-on. Range three-six-double-on!"

Too late, the Japs realized their peril and turned in confusion, attempting to bring their line parallel.

The time had come. Searchlights stabbed across the water and pinned the Japs against the sea. The time was 2347.

"Commence firing."

"Whoom! Whoo-o-omp!"

The fire-breathing guns of the American ships crashed into action. The SALT LAKE CITY picked for her first target, at a range of 5000 yards, a light cruiser. Ten 8-inch guns were trained on her, and the big shells spewed out like Roman candles and smashed around the Jap. It caught fire from end to end, and the SALT LAKE CITY checked its fire to look for other targets.

Up ahead, the Boise had trained on a big Jap heavy cruiser, and for four minutes she blasted away with everything she had. In the confusion of roaring guns, of bright stabbing light, of explosions, with every man sweating in the concentration of his individual labors, there was no way of accurately assigning the credit for the hits being scored on the enemy.

In those first vivid minutes of action several of the American ships were undoubtedly firing at the same vessels, but since little has been reported from other ships than the SALT LAKE CITY and the BOISE, the true story of that tremendous hour must wait for the war's end to be told.

The SALT LAKE CITY switched from her first target when it was well ablaze and turned her guns on a heavy cruiser, probably the one already smashed into impotency by the accurate fire of the BOISE. This Jap cruiser, under the simultaneous pounding of the SALT LAKE CITY and the BOISE and perhaps other vessels, went under at 2352, her stern lifting out of the water as she plunged, propellers still churning. She had identified herself by her own fires as a cruiser of the NATI class.

That's where the article ended. Hope someone reading this can help.


Return to Battle of Cape Esperance Index

Other website stories about the Battle of Cape Esperance
Battle of Cape Esperance #1
Battle of Cape Esperance #2
Battle of Cape Esperance #3
Battle of Cape Esperance #4



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