The Battle of the Komandorski Islands
The Thousand-Mile War
WWII in Alaska & the Aleutians
by Brian Garfield

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Chapter 14 - page 200 - 208

Bundled in his thick blue bridge coat, Admiral "Soc" McMorris searched the wide ocean from the bridge of his flagship, the old (1918) light cruiser RICHMOND. It was 7:30 in the morning, March 26, 1943- an hour before sunrise. Strung out ahead and behind him in a six-mile column were his four destroyers and the newcomer, thirteen-year-old heavy cruiser SALT LAKE CITY, a 600-foot seagoing teakettle better known as "Old Swayback Maru." She had completed six months' repairs after the Battle of Cape Esperance and had just arrived to take the place of INDIANAPOLIS, which was en route back to Pearl Harbor.

McMorris had pressed far to the west in his attempt to cut Japan's Aleutian supply lines. This morning he was almost two hundred miles west of Attu, crossing an ocean deep about a hundred miles south of the Russian Komandorski Islands. The temperature stood at 34 degrees; the air was crystal clear-in the grey dawn lookouts could see jumping fish several miles away. In the flag cabin, the admiral studied reports from PBYs of a fleet of several ships that had kept appearing and disappearing somewhere to the west. It sounded like a supply convoy, a big one; McMorris was anxious to find it.

A fifty-three-year old Alabaman who had taught English and History at Annapolis, McMorris was best known for his ability to leaf through a thick sheaf of reports and memorize them all verbatim, while carrying on a conversation at the same time. He had ranked fifth in the USNA Class of 1912, where his purported Socratic wisdom had earned him the nickname, "Soc." Only once had he been know to blunder: On December 3, 1941, he had stated flatly that Pearl Harbor would never be attacked from the air.

In the South Pacific, with Halsey and his friend Admiral Thomas Cassin Kinkaid, he had already earned the Navy Cross, his country's second-highest military honor. Today he had no visions of glory; he anticipated only a routine interception of an enemy cargo convoy, perhaps a few destroyer-escorts to fend off before sinking the transports. Victory in the Aleutians, he was certain, would be won not by big decisive battles but by attrition-the steady erosion of the enemy's power and will.

It was routine in contested waters to call General Quarters each day at dawn. Right after breakfast McMorris' six old ships sounded GQ and went to battle stations. The Klaxons still echoed when a message was piped to the flag bridge from Radar Ploy: the flagship, and leading destroyer COGHLAN, were in radar contact with several unidentified ships about ten miles north.

McMorris made a code signal to Admiral Kinkaid at Headquarters: "Contact Group of Ships Easterly Course Lat 53-00 Long 168-40 x Concentrating to Attack.

He gathered his ships, strung out at one-mile intervals, into a close pack around RICHMOND, and made a stately fleet-turn toward the northeast to intercept the enemy. Galley cooks prepared sandwiches and readied coffee; sentries released prisoners from the brigs; lookouts searched the horizon with keen alertness.

Ten miles distant, a Japanese sailor in NACHI's crow's nest made out the approaching American vessels in the dawn. Admiral Hosogaya immediately ordered his three transports to fall behind while he maneuvered his nine fast warships between the cargo ships and the Americans.

McMorris' lookouts recognized one Japanese ship as a heavy cruiser-then two: two light cruisers as well, all of them moving fast toward RICHMOND's starboard bow, while the Japanese destroyers swung to bear down on the port bow.

The odds suddenly looked terrible. McMorris had two cruisers. Each of them was smaller, older, and several knots slower than the four Japanese leviathans bearing down on him. He was out-gunned, out-sped, and outnumbered by two-to-one.

He had obviously run into Japan's entire Northern fleet.

But if he refused to accept battle, the enemy convoy would reach the Aleutians, re-supply Attu and Kiska, and possibly lengthen the Campaign by months.

McMorris made up his mind in the half-dozen seconds after the enemy ships had been identified. he decided to make a fight of it. His main objective would be the Japanese transports; he would try to feint, draw the enemy cruisers away, and dash in behind them to sink the cargo ships. Then he would retire; he was not bloodthirsty enough to want a duel for its own sake.

He notified Kinkaid and requested air support from Adak and Amchitka; he signaled ball-red-02 Deceased Captain Bertram Rodgers, skipper of SALT LAKE CITY, that RICHMOND would follow the more powerful SALT LAKE CITY's movements.

RICHMOND was already swinging into a westward turn, as if she intended to retire. She had only started at 8:38 a.m. when the Japanese cruisers opened fire on her.

The range was twelve miles. The second enemy salvo straddled RICHMOND, close enough to splash her decks. Then the Japanese shifted their fire toward SALT LAKE CITY--Admiral Hosogaya had decided not to waste ammunition on the smaller ships whose guns could not reach him at long range.

At 8:42, Old Swayback's forward turrets opened fire. The Battle of the Komandorskis was on.

Friday morning, March 26, 1943: 8:45 a.m. SALT LAKE CITY's eight- and five-inch batteries thundered full salvos; the concussion made her decks jump. More than twenty thousand yards away, Admiral Hosogaya's flagship NACHI stood in faint silhouette against a grey horizon, her guns erupting in hard orange lances of flame.

Old Swayback's fourth salvo whistled across the sky, deadly accurate-flames mushroomed at the base of NACHI's bridge and enveloped her superstructure. Japanese crews swarmed in from fore and aft, hosed the fire and brought it under quick control; but during the interval a faulty generator failed. The break, which would go un-repaired for almost a half hour, turned off forward electric power and put the flagship's main battery out of action. It forced NACHI to zigzag so that she could bring other batteries into play-a maneuver that slowed her forward speed, made her movements clumsy, and canceled the five-knot advantage she had held over SALT LAKE CITY. But in the meantime Hosogaya had changed course and swung into closer range.

Hosogaya's sharp move cut McMorris off from the Japanese transports. Like a chess player, McMorris responded with a new maneuver-a 40 degree turn to port, to confuse the enemy's gunners. At 25 knots, RICHMOND and Old Swayback heeled precariously in response to maximum rudder. The four Japanese cruisers were still closing, their speed in excess of 30 knots; Old Swayback went to emergency flank speed and kept turning away to the southwest with NACHI now on her port quarter, still closing the distance. The range was less than nine miles.

Hosogaya launched eight torpedoes from NACHI; Captain Rodgers wheeled Old Swayback through a quick series of shuddering turns and evaded all eight fish. Hosogaya's salvos crashed close enough to drench Old Swayback's open bridge; Rodgers, soaked to the skin, made fast guesses where the enemy would throw his next salvo, and threw Old Swayback into still more turns. As a rule he headed toward the point where the last salvo had hit, assuming the Japanese spotters would correct their aim each time.

In that manner, Rodgers chased salvos with skill and aplomb; several times he grinned at his bridge officers and shouted, "Fooled 'em again!" With uncanny timing, Old Swayback pitched and careened through the slalom course of enemy big-inch explosions. Gunnery Officer Commander James T. Brewer ball-red-02 Deceased dashed back and forth, trailing a tangle of inter-phone wires, blurting corrections and fire orders to his batteries. Gunners rammed loading trays home, shoved heavy shells into the breeches, dumped powder bags inside, shouldered the breech blocks shut and ducked, holding their ears. Firing buzzers clacked; the guns roared and skidded back in thunderous recoil.

Sixteenth salvo: with superb marksmanship at eight and one half miles, Old Swayback made three solid hits on NACHI. The eight-inchers exploded against NACHI's mainmast, torpedo tubes, and bridge. The last shell mangled bridge plattings and killed three officers within a few yards of Admiral Hosogaya, but he escaped unhurt. Thick black oil smoke enveloped the forward stack; and at the main battery, where electric power had only just been restored, explosions wrecked the wires that connected flag gunnery control with the main battery. One again NACHI's forward turret was stilled. The big cruiser had to continue zigzagging to keep her secondary batteries in the fight; once again she lost her speed advantage. It was another quarter of an hour before the crew rigged a new circuit and Hosogaya was able to salvo his main battery.

McMorris managed to stretch the range to 24,500 yards; then a Japanese shell exploded starboard amidship on SALT LAKE CITY, the first hit. It was 9:10 a.m. Two men were killed, but the damage was not severe. Astern, NACHI had slowed down, smoking heavily. It began to look as if McMorris might make his end run after all: he still wanted to get around the enemy warships and attack the transports.

NACHI had two catapult seaplanes. One had taken off quickly and buzzed over SALT LAKE CITY to spot for the Japanese guns. McMorris' flak guns drove it into the clouds. NACHI's second launch plane was still on the starboard catapult when one of NACHI's own salvos destroyed it; Hosogaya jettisoned the plane.

Hosogaya sent one of his light cruisers out, to cut across the arc of McMorris' westerly turn, get within 18,000 yards of the Americans, and spot for the heavy cruisers while she harassed Old Swayback with extreme-range shellfire. At the same time McMorris' destroyers circled toward the enemy to get their five-inch guns in range. Now one of COGHLAN's shells burst above NACHI's deck. The explosion killed all the men in the trouble-plagued Number One turret.

So far, NACHI had taken the brunt of the battle's punishment. McMorris had been running in luck; now it changed, when the shock of Old Swayback's gunfire damaged her own hydraulic steering system. It meant the rudder had to be worked by hand. Rudder angles were limited to ten-degree changes. Old Swayback was in trouble, but Captain Rodgers kept chasing salvos, he turns less precise than before.

By now more than two hundred Japanese shells had exploded within fifty yards of Old Swayback. Several times McMorris, on RICHMOND's bridge, had seen Old Swayback disappear under mountains of water and thought she had blown up; but each time SALT LAKE CITY came battling through the cataracts.

The duel had raged more than an hour. During the interval, both opposing admirals had requested air support; each expected planes to show up at any time. But at 9:50 Hosogaya received a wireless from Japan, telling him there were no planes available. And at Adak, the Eleventh Air Force's bombers had been loaded for an attack against Kiska; they had to be unloaded and re-armed with torpedoes and AP bombs-and Adak's bomb dumps were dispersed all over the island. As a result, at ten o'clock the bomber strike was not nearly ready for take off. The few airborne PBYs, armed only with antisubmarine depth charges, were too slow to reach the battle in time. And so, through no intent of its participants, the Battle of the Komandorski shaped up as the last slug-out gunnery duel ever to take place between opposing surface fleets without the use of combat airplanes.

At 10:10, an hour and a half after the battle had started, a high-trajectory Japanese shell plunged through SALT LAKE CITY's main deck and smashed straight down through the hull below the waterline. The ragged huge hole half-flooded an engine room.

McMorris' luck had changed. Old Swayback was already steering badly; now she slowed, taking water. Captain Rodgers asked for a smoke screen to conceal him-he could no longer chase salvos. In instant response, McMorris ordered his destroyers to lay smoke, and turned the fleet with the wind to stay inside the thick cover. On Old Swayback's fantail, sailors manned the smoke-tank valves and the old cruiser vomited a slow-rolling pall. While engineers worked with frantic haste to patch the below-decks hole, the ship lost headway and the enemy closed in hot pursuit, blazing away with full salvos every time an American ship appeared in a hole in the smoke.

Retiring with the east wind, McMorris was getting into even more dangerous water. By 10:45 he was more than five hundred miles from the US Base at Adak-but only four hundred miles from Paramushiro, the Japanese Gibraltar in the Kuriles. Japanese bombers might appear momentarily; the American planes, he knew, still had not taken off from Adak.

And Hosogaya was closing the gap by a steady two and one half knots. Another hour-assuming Old Swayback could maintain speed---and McMorris would be in point-blank range of the enemy's big guns.

The Japanese had McMorris on the run; there was no pretending otherwise. Their machinery had him outclassed in every respect; his biggest ship was half-crippled. And now the Japanese had him in a wide pincer, between Hosogaya's fleet and the Kurile air bases. If McMorris kept retreating with the east wind, Hosogaya would soon pin him against a Japanese shore.

McMorris ordered a wide turn to the south. The smoke screen fooled the enemy until a gust dispelled it momentarily; Hosogaya made an immediate sharp turn to port to cut across the arc of McMorris' circle. The Japanese gained distance quickly, shooting all the time.

At 11:03 Old Swayback took a second brutal hit, below the waterline. Exploding aft, it flooded her after gyro room, burst oil tanks, bulged and twisted steel bulkheads, and poured a flood of water and fuel oil into the portside compartments. Icy water rose fast in the bilge's; cold congealed the floating oil into heavy clinging sheets of tar. SALT LAKE CITY lost headway and stumbled blindly through the smoke screen. men below decks stood up to their chests in freezing water and tar, braced against the fantastic shapes of steam lines and weird-shadowed machinery, and caulked leaks with their own shirts.

Pumps, working at maximum capacity, were not enough to keep Old Swayback from tipping over, taking a five-degree list. Her engineers fought to stem the flooding; their efforts accidentally dumped salt water into a fuel line.

Old Swayback's batteries never stopped firing, but her speed went down to 20 knots--and then, at 11:5-, salt water in the main fuel line flowed into her burners and extinguished them. Steam pressure dropped; the big engines slowed to a halt. SALT LAKE CITY drifted a few more yards; and then Captain Rodgers signaled the flagship:

My Speed Zero

She was dead in the water. the Japanese fleet was now at 19,000 yards and closing rapidly. Old Swayback's after batteries kept shooting, but she was down to the last 15 percent of her ammunition.

McMorris edged RICHMOND in close, ready to take off Old Swayback's crew. Both ships were still concealed from the enemy by smoke, but it might be only a matter of seconds.

McMorris asked Rodgers if he wanted to abandon ship. Rodgers refused. There was still a chance to get steam up; he needed time. He asked McMorris to order a diversionary torpedo attack.

McMorris obliged. he detached one destroyer, to make tight circles around the stricken cruiser and lay as much smoke as possible. Then he sent a terse message to Admiral Kinkaid:


It was a suicide attack, to hold the enemy at bay, to buy time: the tin cans against an enemy task force; 5000 tons against 50,000. Captain R. S. Riggs, commanding Destroyer Squadron Fourteen, wheeled his three destroyers out of the smoke screen. The fast little ships heeled over in a rushing turn, took formation together and made emergency flank speed.

Riggs signaled TARGETS ARE THE HEAVIES. He had a long ways to go, to reach torpedo range--and every foot of the way he was under the enemy's big guns. A single direct hit from an eight-incher could blow and entire destroyer out of the water.

The three high, narrow destroyers roared boldly into the blaze of gunfire. Ten thousand yards out, destroyer BAILEY took a hit on her starboard side. It cut off her electric power. BAILEY launched a spread of five torpedoes, lost headway and began to turn aside, smothered by the splashes of enemy near-misses.

At 12:03 the two remaining destroyers, MONAGHAN & COGHLAN, were within 9000 yards of NACHI---and then the enemy heeled into an abrupt westward turn.

Unaccountably, the enemy was breaking off the action!

Captain Riggs stared at them in astonishment before he reduced speed and flashed a signal to McMorris:


Why did the Japanese break off the battle?

Admiral Hosogaya did not know SLAT LAKE CITY had stopped. She was invisible behind smoke. Hosogaya's radio men had monitored American broadcasts that seemed to indicate a bomber strike was on the way from Adak, and then an odd coincidence had convinced Hosogaya that he was actually under air attack: at 12:00, SALT LAKE CITY ran out of armor-piercing shells and started shooting high explosives, whose white phosphor splashes looked exactly like bombs being dropped through the overcast. Hosogaya's anti-aircraft batteries started shooting into the clouds.

Besides, the fleet's fuel had been reduced drastically by the hours of high-speed maneuvering, and ammunition was low as well (though not nearly as low as the Americans'--a fact Hosogaya didn't posses). And so, believing he was under air attack and had pushed his luck far enough, Hosogaya left the field of battle.

"The Japanese could have sunk SALT LAKE CITY with a baseball," Admiral Kinkaid recalls. "She was dead in the water." But McMorris' luck had returned. Hosogaya fled, chased by salvos from all the American ships, including the final shells from Old Swayback's magazines. Captain Riggs turned his destroyers back, profoundly relieved. At 12:12 the enemy had steamed out of range; McMorris ordered the guns to cease fire.

The Battle of the Komandorskis had lasted three and one half hours; it had been the longest continuous gunnery duel in modern navy history.

SALT LAKE CITY's fast working crew got steam up in her boilers and had her under way at more than 25 knots before the Japanese disappeared over the horizon. McMorris set course for Dutch Harbor, gathering damage and casualty reports. Only seven men had been killed. There were seven hospital cases and thirteen minor injuries.

Admiral Kinkaid signaled:


Hosogaya's casualties were also low: fourteen killed, twenty-seven injured. No ships on either side had been sunk or permanently damaged; but the Battle of the Komandorskis had been without historical parallel--and it had been decisive. After Hosogaya turned back, no further Japanese convoys would reach the Aleutians. Admiral Kindaid's ridiculous little blockade had achieved complete success: Soc McMorris' victory at the Komandorskis ended Japanese naval supremacy in the North Pacific, and brought the end of the Aleutian Campaign in sight.

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Battle of the Komandorski Island Index

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