Mention of the war in the Pacific is apt to conjure images of carrier aircraft flashing across sunlit skies or destroyers charging into nocturnal brawls. Surface forces fighting an old-fashioned gun battle in broad daylight rarely enter the picture. Yet just such a battle did occur---for the first and last time in 114 months of war---in the Aleutian theater in March of 1943.
War first came to the Aleutians in June 1942 when, in a ill-advised adjunct to the Midway operation, Japanese carriers raided the U.S. base at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, and landing forces seized the undefended islands of Attu and Kiska. Although often frustrated by the impenetrable fogs endemic to the region. U. S. forces had been harassing the invaders ever since. Lank-based Army aircraft and Navy PBYs bombed both islands and seconded the efforts of Navy surface ships and submarines to interdict the enemy's sea borne communications. By the end of the year, four Japanese supply ships, three destroyers, two sub chasers, and a submarine had been sunk at the cost of two U.S. vessels, the submarine GRUNION SS-216 and destroyer-minesweeper WASMUTH DMS-15. During the same period, planning was initiated for the recapture of Kiska.
A new command team arrived in the Aleutians in January 1943. Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid took over as Commander, North Pacific Force, and Rear Admiral Charles H. "Soc" McMorris ---"Soc", short for Socrates, had been bestowed by Naval Academy classmates impressed by his brains---as boss of the cruiser-destroyer force under Kinkaid. Later that month, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that available resources precluded an assault on Kiska, but in March they approved Kinkaid's suggestion instead to attack Attu, the less heavily garrisoned of the two islands. The invasion was scheduled for May.
Meanwhile, in mid-February, McMorris led a sweep west of Attu, shelling the island and sinking the freighter AKAGANE MARU on the high seas. Upon learning of the US intrusion into these waters, Kinkaid's opposite number, Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya--double-hatted as Commander, Northern Area Force, and Commander, Fifth Fleet, suspended surface transport to both islands. A plea from the garrison of Attu caused him to relent, and early in March an escorted convoy sailing from the Japanese base at Paramushiro in the Kuriles completed a round trip voyage without incident.
By late March, Soc McMorris was back off Attu. US signals intelligence having reported that the Japanese were preparing to stage another convoy. His command, designated Task Group 16.6, consisted of the heavy cruiser SALT LAKE CITY CA25,---the Swayback Maru---which had just arrived in the Aleutians; the light cruiser flagship RICHMOND CL9; and the destroyers BAILEY DD492, COGHLAN DD606, DALE DD353 and MONAGHAN DD354. Their vigilance paid off at 0730 on 26 March, when radar detected an approaching enemy convoy originally estimated to consist of one or two transports, no more than two destroyers, and a light cruiser at a position 180 miles west of the island. Visual contact soon followed. McMorris happily concluded that he had "a Roman holiday" in prospect. At 0824, however, the RICHMOND's radar picked up four additional ships, and a few minutes later US lookouts were shocked to see the fighting tops of two Japanese heavy cruisers appear over the horizon. A Roman holiday remained in prospect, but the casting of the Christians and the lions had been reversed.
The report that the Japanese were running another convoy to Attu had been correct; regrettably, it did not note that Hosogaya, a cautious admiral, had chosen to escort the convoy's three transports with every surface combatant at his disposal. Sailing under his personal command, they consisted of the heavy cruisers NACHI (flag) and MAYA, light cruisers ABUKUMA and TAMA, and five destroyers (one of which, directed to stand by the transports, took no part in the ensuing action). Not only did the Japanese enjoy a two-to-one superiority in big ships, their two heavy cruisers also mounted 20 8-inch guns to the SALT LAKE CITY's 10 and were capable of 34 knots to her 32.
Despite these daunting odds, McMorris initially held a north-northeasterly course toward the enemy, hoping that he could work his way around the warships to reach the transports. The Japanese cruisers commenced fire at 0840, their US counterparts at 0842. Three minutes later the latter drew first blood when two shells, almost certainly from the SALT LAKE CITY, slammed into the NACHI, temporarily disrupting her main battery fire control. Simultaneously, McMorris decided that the time had come to give way and ordered a 40-degree turn to port. The result was a running gun battle to the west. Happily, for the Americans, the Japanese cruisers nullified their speed advantage by steering a zigzag course that allowed them to fire full broadsides but prevented them from closing. This tactic notwithstanding, as of 1000 they had yet to score anything more than a near miss.
Until then, McMorris had nurtured the ambition of getting the Japanese transports under his guns by somehow sidestepping their escorts. Within moments, however, the SALT LAKE CITY, fighting a rear-guard action at the end of the US line, experienced hydraulic problems that led her captain to limit her rudder angles to no more that 10 degree. The restrictions this imposed on her maneuverability convinced McMorris that his only option was to disengage. For another hour, during which the SALT LAKE CITY took the first two hits sustained by a US vessel, he continued to run to the west. Finally, at 1103 he made his move, swinging sharply away to the south. The Japanese stayed on his tail.
At 1150 a maladroit member of the SALT LAKE CITY's engineering department brought the battle to a climax by feeding sea-water into her boilers, instantly extinguishing all eight. Puffs of white smoke poured out her stacks as the cruiser coasted slowly to a stop. She used her momentum to turn broadside to the enemy, so that all her big guns could bear. The SALT LAKE CITY intended to go down fighting.
Fortunately, that did not prove necessary. Although for some minutes the RICHMOND continued steaming south, provoking a strong and relatively unmixed reaction in the Swayback Maru, McMorris quickly approved her skipper's request to send the destroyers into the attack. While the DALE stood by the cruiser, making smoke, her three-squadron mates charged toward the Japanese formation. The volume of fire that greeted them made it seem that the little ships would quickly be blown out of the water, but miraculously, only the BAILEY was hit, and not to badly. Then, still more miraculously, the enemy cruisers were seen turning away to the southwest. It was natural for US observers to attribute the Japanese withdrawal to the destroyers' gallant attack, but in fact, Hosogaya gave the order to retire just before it began. At the outset of the action he had calculated that he had three to four hours before enemy bombers from Adak and Amchitka could arrive. His time was up. (Ironically, the first planes did not appear until after 1600.) The SALT LAKE CITY, which managed to restore propulsion at 1158, fired the action's final shots at 1208.
The US Task group had good reason to be pleased with the outcome. Simply to have survived the morning was no mean feat, but it also had frustrated the enemy re-supply operation, for Hosogaya's transports headed for home along with their escorts. Casualties were low on both sides---27 men killed and wounded in the US ships and approximately 42 in the Japanese. Still full of fight, McMorris advised Kinkaid that he proposed to detach the SALT LAKE CITY and the BAILEY while he continued to patrol off Attu with his undamaged vessels. However, Kinkaid decided that Soc had pressed his luck far enough and ordered the entire force to retire.
The Battle of the Komandorskis was the last naval action in the Aleutian theater. Admiral Hosogaya retired from the Imperial Navy in July. A month earlier Soc McMorris had become chief of staff at CinCPac headquarters, where he served for the remainder of the war. In May, 11,000 US troops landed on Attu, where its 2,630 wretched by resolute defenders fought almost literally to the last man in a struggle that previewed the savage inland battles soon to begin in the Central Pacific. By then the Joint Chiefs had given the go-ahead for the re-conquest of Kiska, and in August 29,000 US and 5,300 Canadian soldiers shared one of the great anticlimaxes in military history when they stormed ashore to discover that the Japanese had evacuated the island two weeks earlier. Thereafter the war in the far north subsided into an exchange of air raids between the Japanese in the Kuriles and Americans in the Aleutians, with an occasional shore bombardment thrown in. Except for the forces engaged, it had never been more than a sideshow; but the clash off the Komandorskis made it a memorable one.
For further reading:
John A. Lorelli...The Battle of the Komandorski Islands, March 1943 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press 1984)
Samuel Eliot Morison. History of the United States Naval Operations in WWII. Volume VII: Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls. June 1942-April 1944 (Boston: Little Brown. 1951)
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