"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