USS SLC Cruise Book
Pages 14-20



   "The Battle of the Komandorskie Islands, little heard of at the time beyond the Aleutians, was one of the strangest sea engagements ever fought. Afterward, Americans who were engaged in it came to look upon it as a miracle at sea. For surely, it is a miracle when a great fighting ship walks wounded on the water, halts in her tracks to die, then comes alive to lob victorious shells at her foe."---From "My Speed Zero" by John Bishop in the Saturday Evening Post, February 5, 1944.

   The Japs were sitting on Kiska and Attu, in the land ladder stretching from Asia to North America. They boasted that soon their troops would be fighting on the soil of the American continent itself. The threat had to be eliminated.

   Fresh from four and a half months at Pearl Harbor, where damage suffered in the battle of Cape Esperance was repaired, the Salt Lake City was in a task group cruising west of Attu and south of the bleak Komandorskies. The group's task was to prevent supplies and reinforcements from reaching the Jap garrisons until the United States was ready to take back the islands from their conquerors.

   The Salt Lake City had received numerous personnel replacements at Pearl. Half her crew was at sea for the first time, and that half included seventy per cent of her fire control gang.

   It was March 26, 1943. The Aleutian fog was absent. Visibility was good. The sea was calm.

   At 0730, one hour before sunrise, the radar of the destroyer Coghlan, leader in a scouting line spread over 30 miles of ocean, picked up several surface vessels. From their speed and actions, they were taken to be Jap merchantmen. The American force gathered together for the kill.

   As it concentrated, more and more enemy ships were made out. This, it appeared, was to be a mass slaughter, a "Roman holiday" of the highest order.

   But the Japs behaved strangely. Instead of fleeing, some of them closed in on the American Force.

   At 0825, with bettering visibility, fighting tops of Japanese war vessels rose above the horizon and the horrid truth was disclosed. There were two Japanese merchantmen, but they had retired. The closing vessels were two Jap heavy cruisers, two Jap light cruisers and six Jap destroyers, a task group twice as powerful as the Americans' own!

   The initial rush of the Americans---the Salt Lake City, the light Cruiser Richmond, and the destroyers Bailey, Coghlan, Dale and Monaghan--- had placed the Japs between them and their base. At 0840, the Japs opened fire on the Richmond and obtained a straddle on the second salvo. But they switched almost immediately to the Salt Lake City as she came steaming up from her original station twenty-four miles away to join the affray.

   The exchange of shots set the pattern for the entire battle, the heavies thundering away at each other, two against one; the lights engaging in minor, sporadic duels of their own or edging in for a nervous shot at the big fellows. The American destroyers engaged intermittently but spectacularly. The Jap destroyers, possibly because there were carrying troops or supplies, were pretty well content to stay out.

   The Salt Lake City opened fire at 0842 and on her fourth salvo obtained first blood, at least two eight inch hits on the leading Jap heavy. Fire broke out near her bridge, but was quickly brought under control. A few minutes later, straddles caused smoke to issue near her forward stack. At 0907, Salt Lake City shells struck amidships, and a cloud of black smoke arose.

   Three minutes later, the Swayback sustained her first hit, an eight inch shell that struck below the waterline on the port side at frame 102. Oil tanks and bulkheads were ruptured. Shaft alleys three and four started flooding. Oil from punctured fuel tanks sprayed into the after engine room. A near miss at 0921 aggravated the damage. Snipes thrust wads of clothing into the breaks. The battle went on.

   At 0931, the Salt Lake City, the Bailey and the Coghlan shot down a brash Jap observation plane which had ventured too near. At 0941, the Japs checked fire, out of range. Their wounded heavy was dropping back, still smoking. The Americans changed course to get a Jap light which had strayed off station. She was hurt by near misses. But the Jap heavy had repaired her damage, band both the big enemy ships came charging in. At 1000, they were straddling the Salt Lake City with their shells.

   At 1002, the Salt Lake City's own gun blasts carried away her rudder stops. Steering control was lost until it was shifted to steering aft. Even then, the rudder was limited to ten degrees each way for fear of jamming. Another hit was suffered, a Jap shell hit at frame seven, which went completely through the ship without exploding. The Salt Lake City, the Bailey and the Coghlan made smoke to hide the stricken heavy. There ensued a grim game of hide and seek, the Jap heavies firing whenever they could see through the smoke shroud, a Jap light edging around it for a clear view. The Salt Lake City was on a new course, where only her after battery could bear against the enemy, five eight inch guns to their twenty. But the radical maneuvering of the battle had accomplished one result. The Japs no longer were between the Americans and their base. The way to escape was open.

   The respite was short-lived. At 1059 a Jap eight inch shell hit the Salt Lake City's starboard catapult. Four minutes later another hit the weakened spot near frame 102. Jets of water spurted into the ship. The anti-aircraft switchboard was abandoned. The switchboard room, the after five inch handling room, the after five inch ammunition room and shaft alleys three and four were flooded. Water poured into the after engine room.

   The writer of the Saturday Evening Post article described the scene:

   "From the scores of leaks where pipes and steam lines passed through the wrenched bulkhead, the mixture of water and fuel oil from the flooded compartments gushed in. It gathered and rose, water whose temperature was the deadly thirty-two degrees of the Bering Sea in winter; oil which coagulated to hang like black glue."

   "Pumps labored to suck away the flood. Damage control parties attacked the leaking bulkhead. The men stood thigh deep in the freezing water while they pounded calking into the leaks. Any kind of calking, rags, wiping waste, their shirts, their jackets. Still, the level inched higher, to their waists, to their chests, to their shoulders."

    "Almost, they lost their battle. There came a moment at 1125 when the engines in that one engine room had to be stopped. But it was only for a moment. The flood began to recede at last. The men stood exhausted and oil streaked while the level dropped, until it was little more than knee deep. They had won".

   The firing of the Salt Lake City had never paused. Shortly after 1140, word went to the bridge that the after turrets were almost out of armor piercing ammunition. Regardless of danger, the forward magazines were opened. Men trundled shells on dollies across the open decks.

"MY SPEED ZERO" and Battle of the Komandorski Island Index

   Below decks, a human chain passed powder bags from hand to hand. For a few minutes, turret three had to fire high capacity ammunition. The difference in the shell splashes befuddled the Japs, who thought they were being bombed and they fired round after round of anti-aircraft ammunition into the harmless overcast.

   Then apparent disaster again. Sea water had seeped through shell-ruptured bulkheads into the after fuel tanks, contaminating the oil. A hiss of white steam came from the Salt Lake City. At 1147 her engines stopped.

   Captain Bertram J. Rodgers, U.S.N. ball-red-02 Deceased, whose expert conning had saved the cruiser time and again, turned her broadside to the enemy, so all her guns could bear in her final moments. Then he ran up the signal of tragedy, "My Speed Zero".

   The smoke veil had hidden from the enemy the desperateness of the Salt Lake City's plight. Destroyers were ordered to make a torpedo run to gain a few moments for the big ship. Three raced forward, an attack of Davids against Goliath. Their men expected to die.

   At first, their high speed saved them. They closed until their five inch guns could range and their fifty-five pound shells thrummed against Japanese hulls. Then, as it had to eventually, the picture changed. The Japs made eight inch hits on the Bailey and she began to go through a Gehenna of her own, comparable to that on the Salt Lake City. In the expectation that she would be blown out of the water in another minute, the skipper of the Bailey ordered her torpedoes fired. From a distance of 9,500 yards, their bubbling wakes streaked toward the Jap heavies.

   Aboard the Salt Lake City, hard pressed men had managed meanwhile to shift the fuel supply and new uncontaminated oil was fed into the cruiser's power plant. Her engines took on life and she edged forward again, while her sailors laughed weakly and slapped each other's backs in the welter of emotions of men back from the thin edge of death. At 1200 the cruiser was making 15 knots.

   Then miracle plied on miracle. One of the Bailey's torpedoes, fired in desperation, is believed to have found its mark. The others threw the Japs into a consternation apparently out of all proportion to the cause. They circled wildly, then headed west. They were retiring. They had abandoned plans to re-enforce Attu. They had given up the fight, licked by an enemy half their size, whose principal ship was lying helpless.

   Their damage must have been extreme. Both heavies and one light had suffered hits, and the men from the Bailey, who got close enough to see, said that on one enemy heavy cruiser, only one of five turrets was in operation.

   It had taken three hours and forty-two minutes, the longest sea engagement in the entire history of the modern Navy. The Salt Lake City counted her losses, two men killed and thirteen wounded. Then proudly, with an eight degree list to port, the result of battle damage, the cruiser steamed back toward an American base.

Battle of the Komandorski Island Index


After the Battle of the Komandorski Islands

1. ball-red-02 Deceased Bertram J. Rodgers, Captain   2. Unknown Officer
3. ball-red-02 Deceased Worthington "Worthy" S. Bitler, Commander   4. ball-red-02 Deceased David D. Hawkins, Lt. Comdr, Navigator

Battle of the Komandorski Island Index   Misc. Picture Index


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