Battle of the Komandorski Islands|
March 26th, 1943
"History of United States Naval Operations in World War II"
Vol. VII - Aleutians
by Samuel Eliot Morison
Off the Komandorski Islands between lats. 53 and 53-30 N. there took place on Mar. 26th, 1943, a naval battle that has no parallel in the Pacific War. A small task group under Rear Admiral Charles H. McMorris fought a retiring action against a Japanese force, under Admiral Hosogaya, of twice its size and fire power; the battle lasted without a break for three and a half hours of daylight; the contestants slugged it out with gunfire at ranges of eight to over twelve miles, without the intrusion of air power or submarines. It was a miniature fleet action of the sort that the Navy, after World War I, had expected to fight in "the next war," with one important difference, that neither side did the other any great hurt.
Admiral McMorris's task group had been cruising on a north - south line west of Attu for several days in order to intercept Japanese reinforcements. He flew his flag in 22 year old light cruiser Richmond, Captain Theodore M. Waldschmidt. Destroyer Squadron 14, Captain Ralph S. Riggs, comprising Bailey, Coghlan. Dale and Monaghan acted as screen. A recent and fortunate accession to the group was Salt Lake City, Captain Bertram J. Rodgers; "Swayback Maru," as the crew called this thirteen year old heavy cruiser because of her pronounced sheer. She had spent six months being repaired after the Battle of Cape Esperance, and with a new crew, almost half of them fresh from boot camp, had just relieved Indianapolis. On March 11, when assigned to the North Pacific Force, she had had but a week of intensive firing practice. Eleven days later she joined McMorris, who had commanded San Francisco in the Battle of Cape Esperance and knew what to expect of Salt Lake. Although she had never worked with these ships before, she was destined to become their sword, their shield and their buckler in time of trouble.
At 0730 March 26th, an hour before sunrise, this task group lay 180 miles due west of Attu and 100 miles south of the nearest Komandorski Island. The ships were strung out in scouting line six miles long, steering N by E. Destroyer Coghlan was in the van, flagship Richmond next, followed by Bailey flying Captain Riggs's pennant, then Dale. Salt Lake City steamed next to last in the column, Monaghan in the rear. They were making 15 knots and zigzagging. Temperature was just above freezing point. The arctic day was breaking, light SE airs barely ruffled the surface of a gently heaving sea and visibility was so good under a 2500 foot overcast that lookouts reported fish broaching many miles away. As one stood on the bridge or forecastle, there was nothing but the swish of a bow wave to break the sweet silence of the sea, so seldom experienced in high speed naval operations.
The crews had just finished breakfast and were going to dawn general quarters when the van destroyer and the flagship, almost at the same moment, made radar contact on five vessels between seven and one half and twelve miles due north. Admiral McMorris promptly ordered his ships to concentrate on Richmond. In the dim morning twilight lookouts aloft and radar men at their scopes below vied with each other to make out what manner of ships there were. They appeared to be transports or cargo carriers screened by destroyers and perhaps one light cruiser. As light increased with the coming day, more and more ships were sighted; but, as McMorris later confessed, he still anticipated a "Roman holiday." Gunners saw that ready boxes were filled and gave their pieces a final polish. Prisoners were released from the brig, mess men sliced bread for sandwiches, cooks put coffee on to boil, and all preparations were made for a morning's battle.
A few minutes after 0800 the prospect changed radically and most unpleasantly. First one heavy cruiser and then another was made out, rapidly approaching gunfire range on McMorris's starboard bow; the auxiliaries were now on his port bow. And soon a couple of light cruisers hove into sight.
McMorris had run into Admiral Hosogaya's entire fleet. He was running reinforcements into Attu under escort of every combatant ship at his disposal. Heavy cruiser Nachi led a column composed of heavy cruiser Maya, Light cruiser Tama, Destroyers Wakaba and Hatsushimo, light cruiser Abukuma, destroyers Ikazuchi, two fast and heavily armed 7000 ton converted merchant cruisers, Asaka Maru and Sakito Maru, which were doubling as transports; destroyer Inazuma in the rear. They were on a northerly course approaching a rendezvous with slow freighter Sanko Maru which had been sent ahead with one destroyer as escort.
About the same time that the Americans made their first radar contact, the navigation officer of Asaka Maru sighted the masts of a ship against the southern horizon thirteen and one half miles distant. Presently more masts appeared. Hosogaya then ordered his force to turn southeastward and engage, while the two Marus continued on their course out of the way. The turn had already begun when the Americans identified them.
They outnumbered the American forces more than two to one. Maya was longer, heavier and three years newer than Salt Lake City; both she and Nachi were rated at 35 1/2 knots' speed as against Salt Lake's 32 1/2. And at 0810 Salt Lake was still more than three miles behind Richmond, endeavoring to catch up. Should McMorris accept battle against these odds? And if he did, how would he fight? Or if retired, in what direction? He decided on the bold course of trying to catch and sink the transports while his own force was under long range gunfire, and then to retire at high speed. It was rather a thin hope that Admiral Hosogaya would let him close the transports near enough to damage them; but the Japanese might make a mistake, and even if they did not, the United States bomber patrol flying from Amchitka and Adak, who were promptly notified, might catch the transports.
These were some of the thoughts that passed through the Admiral's mind, and some of the elements in his decision; but the main factor was probably that McMorris wanted a fight badly, and knew that his men felt the same way. Not for naught did his parents Horatio! And wisely, as Nelson would have done, he informed Captain Rodgers of Salt lake City that flagship Richmond would conform to the movements of the more powerful heavy cruiser.
No Spotting planes were launched by the Americans, as McMorris decided to conserve the flagship's against possible greater need at a later hour and Salt Lake's one available plane had been degassed. Nachi launched a spotting plane, possibly two; but owing to poor communications and brisk anti-aircraft fire from the American ships it did the Japanese little good.
At 0840, before the American ships had had time to close into battle order, the enemy opened fire on Richmond at 20,000 yards, made a close straddle on the second salvo, and then shifted to Salt Lake City. Throughout the action "Swayback Maru" received most of the enemy's attention; he would not waste ammunition on ships whose main batteries could not reach him at extreme ranges. Salt Lake City commenced return fire with her forward turrets at 0842 and at a range of over 20,000 yards made hits on Nachi with her third and fourth salvos, starting a fire that looked serious but was quickly brought under control.
Nevertheless, Hosogaya by changing course and closing range had frustrated the American attempt to get at the transports. McMorris regretfully decided to turn away and forget the auxiliaries for the time being; his chance might come later. So at 0845 he ordered 25 knots' speed and a 40 degree turn to port in order to confuse enemy gunfire. Within three minutes the Japanese had so closed the range that he had to bend on 3 more knots and continue turning until he was retiring in a southwesterly direction with the enemy in hot pursuit on his port quarter.
Nachi now ceased firing because her engineers' carelessness had caused a failure of electric power when the guns were at maximum elevation, but Maya was firing steadily with her main battery. A salvo of eight torpedoes, launched by Nachi at 0846, failed to score because of the extreme range. Four minutes later she received two 8 inch shell hits. One severed communications on the main mast and the other exploded on the starboard side of the bridge, killing several men and wounding a score. Two minutes later a third shell exploded in her torpedo tube compartment, creating more casualties. Near misses drenched the bridge; Salt Lake was doing some fancy shooting at a range of almost nine miles.
Flagship Richmond, seldom firing at this range, led her by 2000 to 3000 yards. Both ships zigzagged, but Salt Lake was making the most abrupt zigs and zags Captain Rodgers "chased the salvos."
The American destroyers did not waste ammunition in long range firing, and the enemy destroyers, which (with light cruiser Abukuma) were ordered to make a torpedo attack, played a cautious game. At about 0902 light cruiser Tama was observed to have peeled off from the main formation. She hung on McMorris's starboard quarter, apparently to stay between him and the auxiliaries, and then retired out of sight. Nachi and Maya with four destroyers now made a wide sweep southward in order to get between McMorris and his Aleutian bases. Maya after launching eight torpedoes which failed to score, at 0910 made her first hit, on Salt Lake's starboard plane amidships. Lieutenant Commander Winsor C. Gale and Fireman James F. David were killed; flames burst out but were soon brought under control and the plane was jettisoned. Ten minutes later Salt Lake and Nachi shot at each other at a range of about 24,500 yards. The Japanese cruiser slowed down and was seen to be smoking heavily; apparently the shell that stopped her was a destroyer's 5 inch which passed through a gun port of No. 1 turret, exploded inside and killed the entire gun crew; other 5 inch shells burst above the main deck and killed men topside.
All enemy ships now checked fire. McMorris, hoping that he had knocked out the smoking cruiser, and bent on getting a crack at the transports, made a wide right turn, bringing his column around to due north, between 0926 and 0953. At 0930, when Nachi's main battery resumed working, she, Maya and the four destroyers straightened out in pursuit, crossing the American wakes at 0952 about five miles to the rear. All this time both sides were slugging their best. Although Maya and Nachi were faster than Richmond and Salt Lake, they took it out in zigzagging; for a pursuing ship in a stern chase can come bows on only at the expense of masking her stern guns, and must reckon with running into torpedo water if she closes. Hosogaya's tactics were to concentrate on Salt Lake with a minimum of risk to his ships.
Captain Rodgers, observing that light cruiser Tama had worked up to about 18,000 yards on his starboard quarter, an excellent position to spot for Nachi and Maya, obtained permission from the Admiral to sheer out and take her under fire at 0945. Salt Lake fired 8 salvos at the light cruiser and forced her to make a 360 degree turn to evade. Richmond's officers on the bridge had time for a good laugh over a dispatch from Admiral Thomas Cassin Kinkaid at Adak, sent to McMorris half an hour earlier, "suggesting that a retiring action be considered." He added cheerfully that Army bombers would be due to arrive in about five hours' time.
Salt Lake's steering gear, which had given trouble before, came near letting her down badly at 1002, just as Maya and Nachi began to straddle her. The hydraulic unit on the steering engine was carried away by the shock of her own gunfire. This limited rudder changes to 10 degrees for the rest of the action; even that was possible only by use of a diesel boat engine that the ship's crew had rigged in preparation for just such an accident. Her movements became erratic but she kept up a high rate of fire from her after turrets. Maya and Nachi, both apparently in the best of health, closed range under 20,000 yards, steering so as to throw full salvos. The enemy cruiser which fired blue-dyed projectiles was particularly obnoxious; some 200 of her shells fell within from view of her consorts by the splashes; many times they thought she was lost, but she emerged intact from this shower of 8 inch armor piercing projectiles, except for one high trajectory hit at 1010 which penetrated her main deck and passed out through her hull below the waterline.
The last hope of working around the enemy's van toward his transports had now vanished; McMorris's one object was to save his ships. Captain Rodgers, now that Salt Lake was taking water and steering with difficulty, expected the enemy to close and requested a smoke screen, which the Admiral promptly ordered. Conditions were ideal for laying smoke; a retiring action on a windless day, with high humidity and the temperature just above freezing. Bailey, Coghlan and Salt Lake used both chemical and funnel smoke very effectively from 1018 until the end of the fight. At 1028 the Admiral changed course to 240 degrees in order to take advantage of this cover. The enemy fired whenever he caught sight of his quarry through holes in the smoke, or on information relayed by his light forces, which now and again closed range although promptly slapped down by Richmond and Riggs's destroyers whenever they did. Maya fired four torpedoes at so great a range that no American ship even sighted their wakes.
As eleven o'clock approached, McMorris was pushing westward at 30 knots in the direction of Kamchatka. Richmond was in the van with Salt Lake 32000 yards astern; and the four destroyers on Salt Lake's port beam and quarter were diligently making smoke. They had now arrived at a point about 550 miles from Adak but only 420 miles from the Japanese base at Paramushiro. The Army bombers were not due for another four hours; Mitsubishis from the Kuriles might well get there much earlier. The enemy was making about two knots' more speed than the Americans. "The chance of breaking away to the south with a view to later turning east seemed fair," observed Admiral McMorris. "Determined to act according," at 1100 he ordered a turn southward inside of the Japanese track, to course 210 degrees. Maya and Nachi, presumably baffled by the smoke screen, continued for several minutes westward before turning south, and when they did so the flagship fired eight torpedoes; the light cruisers cut the corner, taking the inside track, and at 1115 Abukuma fired four torpedoes. None of these caught up with the Americans.
Salt Lake received her fourth and last hit 1103, as a result of which the after gyro room and engine room flooded, the latter to a depth of four feet. Valiant work was done by damage control men caulking leaks in the outer skin with their own shirts while standing chest deep in oil sludge and icy water. The flooding was serious enough to give her a five degree list to port, yet she never ceased firing , and was still able to keep up full speed. But when the after fireroom went out of commission at 1125, as a result of damage to the after oil manifold, speed fell to 20 knots. McMorris ordered a torpedo attack by three destroyers, then canceled the order at 1138 because Salt Lake's speed had picked up as the fuel oil system was un-split and suction was taken on the forward fuel line. The enemy managed to close only about 3000 during this slowdown, as he did a "ship right" to avoid the torpedo attack that he expected from the destroyers' movements, but which never was launched.
At 1150, Salt Lake's situation became very unhappy. Arctic sea water in the fuel oil snuffed out all the burners, steam pressure dropped, power was lost, main engines stopped and she drifted to a halt. At 1155, the signal "Speed Zero" was hoisted, and also sent out over voice radio after an 8 inch projectile passed through the "zero" flag. The ship was then 105 miles south of the Komandorski Islands and 190 miles west of Attu. Few impartial observers would have bet five dollars on her chance of survival. Maya and Nachi were at 19,000 yards' range on her port quarter, firing steadily and closing rapidly. The light cruisers were at about the same range on her starboard quarter. Japanese destroyers would soon be at effective torpedo range; Hatsushimo in fact sent a spread of six torpedoes her way at 1154, but they failed to score. "Swayback Maru" was still firing with her after turrets, but her ammunition was 85 per cent expended, and as a "sitting duck" she had little chance against two healthy hunters of her own class.
Yet within five minutes the picture completely changed.
There were several reasons for this decision by the Japanese commander. His fuel supply was low and he wished to be certain of enough to get home. His ammunition was "below the minimum prescribed by doctrine." He was disgusted with the performance of his destroyers. Nobody told him that Salt Lake lay dead in the water because the only Japanese who could see her through the smoke was the pilot of Nachi's spotter plane, who either could not get through to the Admiral with this vital piece of news, or did not try. Hosogaya figured that American bomber plane support, already overdue, might arrive at any moment. Indeed, he thought it was already there. Salt Lake, which had been firing blue dyed armor-piercing shells, ran out of them at this point, and the white plumes raised by near misses of her un-dyed HC shells looked to Captain Rodgers like splashes from aerial bombs dropped from above the overcast. Obviously the Japanese thought so too, as they were observed to be firing their anti-aircraft guns at high elevation. Finally (in the words of a participant), "Our flagship, the Nachi, was hit by effective shots from an outstandingly valiant United States destroyer, which appeared on the scene toward the end of the engagement."
Bailey, the "outstandingly valiant destroyer," with Coghlan and the Monaghan, tried her best to overtake Nachi and Maya. The Japanese returned the destroyers' gunfire briskly, apparently smothering them with splashes; it seemed impossible that they could survive, but still they bore in. Lieutenant Commander Atkeson, Bailey's skipper, chased the salvos expertly. Presently and 8 inch shell exploded at the galley door on Bailey's starboard side. Captain Riggs decided to launch torpedoes immediately at a range of some 10,000 years, rather than risk destruction of the ship before he could get them away. At 1203, just as her five torpedoes hit the water, Bailey received a second hit which cut all electric power; she turned away and her sister destroyers followed, without launching. Captain Riggs wished to send them back in, but McMorris knowing how difficult it is to score with torpedoes in a stern chase, ordered them to retire with him.
Salt Lake City remained dead in the water only four minutes. In complete darkness and during the heat of battle, damage control purged the salted fuel lines, cut in other oil tanks and re-lighted fires in the forward fireroom. At 1158 the forward engines began to show life. When eight bells struck, she was making 15 knots, which gradually built up to 23 as power was restored to the after engines. Captain Rodgers resumed gunfire with his after turrets at 1202, but the enemy was now opening range so rapidly that he ceased firing at 1204; Richmond and some of the destroyers continued until 1212, when the action broke off.
By 1215 the Japanese ships were hull down. Salt Lake, with five feet of water in the after engine room bilge's, was capable of making 30 knots and fighting until her ammunition was exhausted .... as it almost was. Admiral McMorris gave his group the course for Dutch Harbor.
Thus Salt Lake was extricated from her predicament, and with her sister ships lived to fight another day. They had conducted a brilliant retiring action against heavy odds, and were able to get home under their own power. Their casualties were incredibly low; 7 killed (2 Salt Lake, 5 in Bailey); 7 hospital cases and 13 minor injuries. All sailors topside were soaked through their winter "zoot suits" by the shell splashes, and thoroughly chilled, for the water temperature was 28 degrees and that of the air 30. All hands in Salt Lake were served a shot of "medicinal alcohol" and worked cheerfully at damage control for hours before securing; but there was none of that for the destroyer sailors. Bailey's men, with a demolished galley, had cold comfort from a diet of ham, crackers and apple juice until they reached port. She and Salt Lake went on to Mare Island for repairs; and when Bailey was dry docked a good third of her underwater plates were found to be wrinkled and dented from near misses.
Air participation in this action was limited to one or two float planes from Nachi. Why no Japanese bombers came out from Paramushiro has never been explained, but there were plenty of "alibis" for the American air forces. Two PBYs on routine patrol were ordered by Admiral Kinkaid at 0844 to make and keep contact with Asaka Maru and Sakito Maru, but did not find these ships until 1410; they carried no bombs and their contact reports were poor and belated. A minor strike of B-25s from Amchitka, the new emergency airstrip 450 miles from the scene of action, was delayed owing to the necessity of installing auxiliary gas tanks. Three B-25s and eight P-38s took off at 1330 and received a report from Admiral McMorris telling where to find the two Marus, but turned back for lack of fuel; a second strike also failed. The Adak based bombers, 150 miles farther eastward, were even more tardy. McMorris's first contact report found them armed with general purpose bombs, readied for a strike on Kiska. An attack on ships required the substitution of armor - piercing bombs. These had to be gathered from various storage places where they were frozen in and the auxiliary tanks had to be installed in the B-25s. Four hours were spent in making the change, and then a snowstorm socked Adak in for two hours. The bombers finally took off in time to view McMorris's force on its homeward passage, when they had insufficient fuel to pursue the enemy. But the two Japanese transports and the freighter returned to Paramushiro without touching Attu; their mission was thwarted. So, by any standards, Admiral McMorris had won.
Radio Tokyo claimed the usual annihilation victory, and took great umbrage at the American radio release claiming that the Japanese had fled, but Admiral Hosogaya's conduct was not pleasing to his superior officers. They saw no reason why he should not have disposed of Salt Lake City. They relieved him within a month and sent him into the reserve. Flagship Nachi retired to Sasebo for repairs.
Although retiring actions never seem as glorious as advancing ones, the odds against which McMorris fought, his bold handling of the task force and the magnificent manner in which all ships responded to his leadership, should make Komandorski a proud name in American naval history. That moment in the gray sub-arctic noon just as the enemy turned away, when Salt Lake City lay dead on a glass sea but still firing, with Richmond firing as she closed, and three destroyers going in for a torpedo attack, deserves to be depicted by a great marine painter.
As one bluejacket remarked, "The way Captain Rodgers handled the ship had a good deal to do with it, but there was more to it than that. "Lieutenant Commander David D. Hawkins of Salt Lake thus concluded her log for 26 March: "This day the hand of Divine Providence lay over the ship. Never before in her colorful history has death been so close for so long a time. The entire crew offered its thanks to Almighty God for His mercy and protection."
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