"Everything including a Baseball Bat"
Bill Green
Surface Warfare, June 1979
Report on the Battle of the Komandorski Islands
Source: SLC Memorabilia Collection

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Fog occasionally becomes so dense that sailors standing on the bridge cannot see the bow of their ship. Winds sometimes gust at over 100 knots. Waves tower more than 70 feet from trough to crest. Sleet and spray freeze above decks, coating ships with tons of ice. Raw wind and bone-chilling cold physically punish crew members topside. These weather conditions plague surface warfare men who sail in the high latitudes of the Atlantic and Pacific and their adjoining seas.

Understandably, sailors would rather spend their winters in the fair weather of Guantanamo Bay or Hawaii and their summers at Seattle or Newport.

Unfortunately, wars have not always been waged in the more comfortable climates and those who are fair-weather sailors will be poorly prepared to master the cold, unforgiving environment in which the enemy gives battle.

When the Japanese Army and Navy sailed into the high north latitudes and seized the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska in June 1942, it marked the first time since the War of 1812 that foreign troops had occupied US territory. They posed the threat of attacks against the mainland of the United States and a possible invasion across the island chain. At the same time, enemy submarines were prowling off the coast of Kodiak.

US Armed forces countered with ASW patrols, bombardment and blockade of Attu and Kiska, occupation of Adak and Amchitka, and confrontations on the high seas.

Often the weather was as threatening as the enemy. Blinding blizzards and the crashing weight of stormy seas assaulted ships of both nations. Any operation was hazardous.

Early one wintry morning in January 1943, USS WORDEN (DD352) went aground in Amchitka Bay after landing an Army detachment on the island. In calmer waters, the destroyer could have been saved but winds rose and the surf soon drove it against the rocks. Waves slammed WORDEN again and again, pounding it on the rocks and flooding its hatches, soon forcing all hands to abandon ship. Several of the crew drowned and others were injured. It was only a few minutes past noon when WORDEN's hull broke apart and in less than a week the weather and the freezing sea had devoured the wreckage.

Two months later the Japanese were victims of the weather as they were sending a convoy of combat cargo and troops to their garrison on Attu. They planned to have escorts meet the transports just outside the US blockade and then make a run for Attu.

First, heavy seas delayed one of the transports and an escort, postponing the rendezvous. Then the seas subsided and the sky became unseasonably clear, which enabled a US surface task group to sight the waiting convoy. They discovered two Japanese transports escorted by two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and four destroyers. Opposing them were an American heavy cruiser, a light cruiser and four destroyers.

Nachi (CA)
Maya (CA)
Tama (CL)
Wakaba (DD)
Hatsushimo (DD)
Ikazuchi (DD)
Inazuma (DD)
Asaka Maru
Sakito Maru
USS Salt Lake City (CA25)
USS Richmond (CL9)
USS Bailey (DD492)
USS Coghlan (DD606)
USS Dale (DD353)
USS Monaghan (DD354)

Although outgunned two to one by the Japanese cruisers, the Americans pursued the convoy and the Japanese opened fire at a range of about 10 miles. Thus began the four hour long Battle of the Komandorski Islands, named for the nearby Russian islands located west of the Aleutians.

Without air support or submarines, the opponents fought a running battle with guns and surface launched torpedoes. After opening fire with eight-inch guns, NACHI and MAYA launched torpedoes which ran wide. RICHMOND was straddled by either-inch shells but remained unscathed. Then the Japanese heavy cruisers turned their guns on SALT LAKE CITY.

The American cruiser responded with eight-inch salvos that hit NACHI's superstructure, penetrating the after end of the bridge. Then the American ships turned away with the enemy cruisers in hot pursuit, pressing their firepower advantage. Zigzagging to bring after turrets to bear, the Japanese could not overtake the Americans who dodged enemy shells by steering toward the water splashes of the previous rounds just as the Japanese gunners corrected their aim.

Most of the fire was directed at SALT LAKE CITY and the cruiser took a series of hits which carried away the rudder stops, flooded forward compartments, and temporarily disabled the ship when seawater entered fuel feed lines and extinguished the boiler burners.

SALT LAKE CITY, BAILEY and COGHLAN had laid a thick smoke screen, changed course behind it, and opened the range. When the cruiser went dead in the water, DALE circled it laying smoke and keeping it hidden from the enemy.

To divert the Japanese and allow SALT LAKE CITY time to fire boilers, BAILEY, COGHLAN and MONAGHAN were ordered to delay the enemy cruisers. Three destroyers against four cruisers amounted to awesome, almost suicidal odds yet BAILEY steamed boldly into the enemy eight-inch guns. With five-inch guns blazing, the destroyer closed to 9500 yards despite taking three direct hits by eight-inch shells and launched five torpedoes. At the same time COGHLAN was firing on MAYA and MONAGHAN was shelling NACHI.

The heavily hit BAILEY and the two other US destroyers turned back after delivering their barrage and, surprisingly, the Japanese commander had already broken off action - unable to see the crippled SALT LAKE CITY, two of his cruisers severely damaged, low on fuel and ammunition, and fearful that American bombers might arrive to enter the battle. Meanwhile, SALT LAKE CITY had purged fuel lines, lit off the boilers, built up steam and was preparing to fight again.

Although the Japanese transports remained intact, the convoy had been confronted by a determined though smaller US surface action group and was forced to withdraw. Thus, the supplies and troop reinforcements intended for Attu never arrived. The blockade continued and in May 1943 a US assault force of three battleships, six cruisers, 19 destroyers, five transports and an escort aircraft carrier brought 11,000 troops of Army 7th Infantry Division to Attu.

When the troops began landing on May 11, the Japanese fought with concealed artillery from mountain passes while their positions were shelled by the ships off shore. By the end of the month, the Japanese had exhausted their shells and most of their bullets. Then they launched a 1000 man charge, with knives and bayonets, fighting fanatically. About half of them survived only long enough to commit suicide with hand grenades rather than be captured. The Americans took 28 prisoners and counted their own losses: 600 killed, 1200 wounded and 1500 disabled due to shoes, clothing and training that were inadequate in the Aleutian climate.

Kiska became the target for US assault on August 15, 1943. The Japanese positions were bombed by Army Air Corps planes and shelled by Navy battleships, cruisers and destroyers. A landing force of 29,000 US Army and 5300 Canadian troops supported by nearly 100 men of war stood off shore. At dawn LST's, LCI's and LCT's headed for the beach.

They met no resistance. Later it was learned that some three weeks previously Japanese cruisers and destroyers had slipped in under heavy fog and evacuated the entire garrison.

In the northern Atlantic during WWII, US navy ships often escorted convoys to Europe through frigid weather, snow, fog and raging storms. Several years after the war, DDR's and DER's --- radar picket ships --- patrolled the same north latitudes in the same kind of weather. Recent NATO exercises in the northern Atlantic area included triple- threat (AAW, ASW, ASUW) convoy escort scenarios and amphibious assault exercises against shorelines.

These and similar experiences demonstrate that specialized knowledge, training, procedures and equipment are needed to operate successfully in the severe winters of the high latitudes, north and south.

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