I have just come off one of the greatest fighting ships in the United Sates Navy. Over the green baize table in the wardroom, a wardroom stripped of paint and furnishings that burn easily and interfere with efficient conduct of warfare. I have just talked to a grand collection of young seadogs who fight in the aggressive tradition of John Paul Jones...young Americans who have met the enemy and taken the enemy not once but repeatedly.
The ship is the U.S.S. SALT LAKE CITY, which already has tackled the enemy at Wake, Wotje, Marcus, Guadalcanal and Savo Island. With substantial evidence to back them, the boys of the S.L.C. say that they have fought more actions than any other ship in the present war, and that they have sunk more ships than any other surface vessel in the history of the United States Navy
Out here no one disputes the Salt Lake City's claim to be the original "one-ship fleet". If all her Nipponese victims were laid out end to end they would add up to a pretty tonnage. Consequently the Salt Lake City is probably No. 1 Public enemy to the Japanese and destined to be an object of special attention by them.
The record of the Salt Lake City is all the more remarkable in that she is the oldest heavy cruiser in our Navy. Ordered built in 1926 at Camden, and actually commissioned in 1929, she is one of our two earliest "treaty cruisers", a sister ship of the Pensacola, which was commissioned in 1930. The Pensacola, incidentally, has also seen some rugged duty in this war. Compared with some of our modern cruisers, the guns of the Salt Lake City might be rated antiquated, yet none have spoken more effectively when a made-in Japan target appeared. For instance, in the Second Battle of Savo Island, Oct. 11-12, 1942, the Salt Lake City, assisted by other ships, sank one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, one destroyer, one transport, one submarine tender and three other auxiliaries. Moreover, in that running battle, with our light cruiser Boise afire and being pounded by an enemy heavy cruiser, the Salt Lake City ran in between them to shield the Boise and quickly blasted the rival heavy cruiser out of the water.
To the fearless, unselfish maneuvering of the Salt Lake City, the Boise owes her life, and her men readily said so after the battle was over. However, as luck would have it, the Boise went into the Philadelphia Navy Yard for repairs and received national publicity, whereas the Salt Lake City remained (one word censored) in comparative obscurity until now, when Navy chiefs arranged to accord her the honors that are her due.
Our first successful surface action in the Solomons, the second battle of Savo Island, came as a timely antidote to the first engagement there, that of Aug. 8, in which we lost the American cruisers Quincy, Vincennes and Astoria and the Australian cruiser Canberra...the "four sitting ducks." The tragic loss of those four ships stunned and depressed the Americans and left the Japanese free to run in troops and supplies to Guadalcanal. This was a condition which had to be corrected.
Accordingly a task force was organized, with the Salt Lake City right in the middle of it. Commanding the gallant old cruiser was
Captain Ernest G. Small, of New Haven, Conn., who has received a Navy Cross for his heroism. Captain Small is a modest, soft-spoken, gray-haired veteran who acquired the nickname of "Shorty" in his Annapolis days. He is now one of the principal advisers of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of our Pacific Fleet.
The story of the tide-turning battle was revealed to me in the wardroom of the Salt Lake City by several of her younger officers:
Lieutenant Commander David D. Hawkins, the navigation officer, of Berkeley, CA.,
Commander Theodore H. Kobey, the engineering officer of Bisbee, Ariz.,
Lieutenant Commander James T. Brewer, the gunnery officer, of New York and Conway, N.H.,
Lieutenant George A. O'Connell, Jr., assistant gunnery officer of Norfork, VA.
Lieutenant Lyle B. Ramsey, fire control officer, of Abilene, Tex.
RAN IN BY NIGHT
"The Japs." I was told, "had been running their Guadalcanal Express every night until it got monotonous and we decided to stop them. The Express usually consisted of four cans (destroyers) loaded with hundreds of troops, and guarded by two cruisers, all coming from the direction of Bougainville. They took advantage of the cover of darkness to reinforce their besieged troops on Guadalcanal Island".
"So this Sunday night, Oct. 11, we set out to derail the Express. We steered northwest to meet them, passing between Guadalcanal and Russell Islands. It was a dark nigh and overcast, with no moon and pitch black, except there was heat lightning in the western skies which illuminated our ships at intervals for the benefit of any Japanese shore watches".
"All of us were itching to smack the Japs. The way we figured it, what had we got our ships for except to stop those people?"
"We searched for the Guadalcanal Express in several places and failed to find it. We were disappointed. We thought we had muffed the ball. We kept on toward Savo Island. Savo is a little round volcanic peak, looks like an anthill at night. We steered dead ahead for Savo and seemed like we might run into it, but at close range we discovered the enemy and changed course to close on him."
"With the luck that rewards the aggressor, we had walked into something more important than the Guadalcanal Express. Coming right down the slot toward Guadalcanal were heavy cruisers, light cruisers and assorted auxiliaries. We had stumbled into two forces that were about to join up (one line censored)."
OUT TO SHELL MARINES
"The enemy had four heavy cruisers, two lights and six accompanying destroyers and at least one transport. Apparently they were out to bombard our marines on Guadalcanal and to land in force. Japanese battleships were also playing around in the vicinity; we didn't see them, but we picked up one of the aviators who ran out of gas. Our victory set the Japs back a month in their designs on Guadalcanal."
It was thirteen minutes before midnight when the Salt Lake City and the other American cruisers opened fire (three words censored) the leading destroyer of the Japanese forces. The Salt Lake City was firing at such close range it had to depress some of its guns and its hot shells whistled through the masts of an American destroyer caught in between. Men on the deck houses of the destroyer later said they were ducking their heads with each salvo from the Salt Lake City
"The best gunners in the world" is what the other officers of the Salt Lake City say about the ship's gunners..."Uncle Jim" Brewer, "Georgie-Porgie" O'Connell and "Ace" Ramsey. They had been training their gun crews together for two years and on this night they were as cool and efficient as through at a practice session. The material they worked with was good too...as they say, "we have the best eight-inch armor-piercing shell in the business."
The first victim was an enemy light cruiser, illuminated by star shells. The ten guns of the Salt Lake City (five guns forward and five aft) barked simultaneously at the enemy, and ten big fingers of fire and metal jabbed the enemy in vital spots. At night one can watch a shell travel the whole distance. the cease firing order came immediately, as the enemy ship was ablaze and there was no sense in wasting ammunition on her.
SECOND CRUISER BLASTED
The second target for the Salt Lake City was a heavy cruiser. "We sat there waiting for her to come up. Nobody was excited. It was like waiting for a cockroach to come across the table; we knew we could step on her any time we wanted to." The Salt Lake City "stepped" with two salvos, twenty shots, putting the enemy out of action, blowing up the enemy's whole midsection, and touching off a ghastly yellow-red flame.
The third victim was an auxiliary, doing fifteen knots. the Salt Lake City and her companions pounced on the auxiliary, and she went down by the bow, stern up and propellers turning
The fourth target was a destroyer, one of three that had launched a torpedo attack on the Americas. The Salt Lake City gave her one salvo. when the splash and smoke had subsided nothing was to be seen of the destroyer."
At 12:05, running out of fresh targets, the Salt Lake City turned again on its first target, the wounded light cruiser, and handed her eight salvos. Large flares and explosions were noted.
By 12:11 part of the American task force had vanished in pursuit of the enemy, while the Boise, directly ahead of the Salt Lake City, was afire and falling out to avoid torpedoes.
"A heavy cruiser of the enemy was pouring incessant, accurate fire on the Boise, " I was told. "We could hear the smacks and see the sparks."
"There was only one thing for us to do, and we did it without hesitation. As the Boise fell away we took her place and closed in, placing ourselves between the Boise and the enemy. The Boise was on fire and silhouetted us, making a perfect set-up for the enemy's fire control. We walked into three straddles that hurt us and slowed us, but not enough to help the Jap."
"We engaged this heavy cruiser at 5,000 yards. At our first salvo the enemy fell silent, fired no more. Like two immense hands, our ten fingers of fire had gone out and grabbed the enemy by the throat. Then we gave him for more salvos and he sank."