The Battle of the Komandorski 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 shell at her foe. Surely it is part of the miracle when three little destroyer David's...with torpedoes in their slings, go forth to meet a Jap Goliath, ten times their strength and power, slug it out with him and return alive
A Grim Game of Tag
Yet it all happened, and now it's significance is known. After we captured Attu in May (1942), took Kiska bloodlessly in August (1942), and our balance sheet of the Aleutian campaign was totaled up, the truth was plain to see: Blockade, as much as bombing, bombardment and amphibious attack- perhaps even more - contributed to our success in expelling
Hideki Tojo's military squatters from the islands. Blockade isolated the Jap-held Aleutians from all reinforcements and supplies except the thin trickle which got in by submarines or in lone transports under cover of the demoniac Aleutians weather. And the blockade was clamped on irremovably in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands.
From the moment of sighting the enemy on that March (1943) morning, the Americans fought at a bitter disadvantage. The American task group was steaming through the dusk before dawn - four destroyers, a light cruiser and a heavy cruiser in a scouting line - a long column which stretched miles across the sea somewhere northwest of Jap-held Attu and south of Russia's Komandorski Islands, the nearest land. Their mission in these waters was to intercept and turn back or destroy any Jap Convoys. The flag of Rear Adm. Charles H. McMorris flew on the light cruiser, second in the line: one of the rakish four-stacker cruisers, she was of the Omaha Class. Captain Ralph S. Riggs commanded the destroyer division.
Fifth in the line, more powerful and massive than the others with her 8-inch guns, steamed the heavy cruiser, Capt. Bertram J. Rodgers
commanding. Her crew stood at their battle stations. Her lookouts, along with every lookout of the American force, were peering with frozen concentration through their binoculars across a calm gray sea to a horizon clear as glass under a solid overcast. Out there to the north, vertical needle lines showed above the horizon's knife edge, the masts of Jap ships.
That first sighting was made on two large Jap Transports with destroyer escorts who immediately reversed course to run to the north. But as the American ships turned northwestward to cut off the Jap line of retreat, a second sighting was made on more masts to the east of the first group, plain pole masts like any merchantman's. But these enemy ships gave no sign of turning away in flight. They held on along a course opposite to, and paralleling, the American course, ten miles or more to the eastward. A few moments of waiting revealed the reason for their rashness. Below these pole masts, those merchantman's masts, the fighting tops of warships began to appear. Swiftly, they came over the horizon. Two heavy cruisers in the van, then two light cruisers, then six destroyers .
0837...The first exchange of the battle was brief and sharp. The Japs were closing the range rapidly, and as the flagship, now heading the American column, swung left into her westward turn to begin the retirement, the Jap heavies opened fire on her from a distance of twelve miles. Four times at least, without registering a hit, the shells splashes straddled her or leaped close - short, vicious spurts made by armor-piercing shells with delay-action fuses. As the Jap heavies closed within range of her own 6-inch batteries, she returned the fire with salvo after salvo. Then se checked fire as her turn put the Japs beyond range of her guns and the Japs were training their turrets around. They had recognized their Target NO. 1, the lone American heavy. The first Jap salvo, fired hastily, fell short.
0842...The American heavy cruiser's decks leaped with the enormous concussion of her reply. Sixteen times in the course of her turn away from the Japs, she fired full salvos. Her fourth salvo scored a hit on the lading heavy, the Jap flagship and touched off an explosion of some kind. At the base of the Jap's bridge, a light flared, as no shell burst would flare, to envelop the whole tall bridge and fire control superstructure in a sheet of flame. The sixteenth salvo hit again. From the vicinity of the Jap's forward stack, smoke billowed suddenly, we think, black sluggish smoke of an oil fire.
0848...Following the wake of the flagship, our heavy cruiser swung around to a heading a little southwest and steadied on the course while the four destroyers maneuvered to their stations in line astern on the left flank of the two cruisers. From the American ship, men looked astern to assess the damage done to the Jap flagship but there were good damage-control parties aboard the Jap. The black pillar of smoke thinned and disappeared, and he came on without losing a knot of his speed or missing a beat of the slow regular rhythm of his salvos.
The two Jap heavies lay over the American heavy's quarter now, so that her forward turrets, blocked off by her bridge superstructure, could not bear. Only five guns of the after turrets stood against the twenty of the Japs.
FORTUNE OF WAR
The Jap ships showed in dark silhouette against the gray horizon, cardboard cutouts from which clusters of orange flame bloomed and vanished deliberately at thirty-second intervals. The range held fairly constantly at about ten miles. The Japs shot skillfully. Time after time, the splashes of a salvo seemed to walk up from astern and on past only a few yards away from the foam which roared sibilantly along the hard-driven sides.
On the open bridge, Captain Rodgers watched the fall of a Jap salvo close aboard and spoke to the officer of the deck, Lieutenant (jg) R. B. Hale
, "Fifteen degrees right rudder, Mr. Hale." The helmsman moved the wheel, and the ship, traveling at full speed, heeled hard to port, laboring under the pull of centrifugal forces, then righted herself slowly as she straightened out of the turn. Another Jap salvo fell. Captain Rodgers judged angle and distance, and said, "Ten degrees left rudder, Mr. Hale." He was calling on all his seamanship and knowledge of gunnery to outguess the Jap gunners. He watched the salvos, estimated how the Jap spotters would correct the errors, and conned his ship with a sure timing and skill which nullified every Jap correction. Commander Worthington S. Bitler
, the executive office, described it:
"The skipper zigzagged the ship.........We talked normally in between times.
....The skipper would ask, "well, Worthy, which way shall we turn next? I'd answer, "your guesses have been perfect so far, Captain. Guess again." He'd swing right or left, and the spot we would have been in had we gone the other way would be plowed up with ten or fifteen eight inch shells. The skipper would then look at me with a grin on his face a yard wide and say, just like a schoolboy that's got away with something in school, "Fooled them again, Worthy," He did too. It was uncanny."
0856...One of the Jap light cruisers was seen to launch a plane. All but invisible against the gray overcast, it began to work up to a good spotting position on the American Ship's beam.
0910...Our heavy suffered her first hit. She leaped and shuddered and seemed almost to stand still in the water, paralyzed by her pain. But then, she was racing smoothly on again. A Jap shell, falling steeply, had glanced off her hull hear the water line and exploded within a few feet of her bottom. It had bruised her and shaken her cruelly, without breaking her steel skin.
0913...Sky Control reported the Jap spotting plane within range abeam, and Commander James T. Brewer
the gunnery officer, prowling restlessly around the bridge with a long tangle of phone wires trailing behind him, ordered the 5-inch batteries to open fire. Less than a minute of ack-ack discouraged the pilot. He pulled up to safety and uselessness, in the clouds.
0920...The Jap flagship took another certain hit. Smoke rose above his after superstructure, and this time it persisted, drifting away astern without any sign that the Jap damage control parties were able to smother the fire.
0931...The spotting plane reappeared on the starboard beam. The antiaircraft batteries of our light cruiser joined with the heavies to fill the air around the plane with a maelstrom of shell bursts and drove it away, floundering , to the northward with smoke streaming from its fuselage. The next day a Navy PBY sighted the wreck of a plane still afloat bottom up in the sea not many miles from the battleground.
0942...The leading Jap heavy, still smoking, lost speed and dropped astern to bring under control the fire which burned somewhere near his stern. His guns were silenced, and Admiral McMorris took advantage of the easing of the pressure on our heavy cruiser by a move to bring his flagship into the fight once again. He led his force in a swift circle to the northward against the two Jap light cruisers, which, until now had been steaming along nearly abeam of the American Heavy to the north, safely out of reach of her guns. The range to the leading light cruiser closed with a rush, and within a few minutes of making the turn, the heavy, with her forward turrets, and the flagship, with her full main battery, were firing salvos which painted the fleeting white stripes of shell splashes along the leading Jap's gray hull. He returned the fire, but sheered away in haste to open the range.
0955...The damaged Jap heavy, no longer smoking, cut across the arc of the American's turn to the north and re-entered the fight, but he found himself opposed by ten guns instead of five, for now his position relative to the big American ship enabled her forward guns to bear. The battle track led to the northwest now. Minute after minute the guns of the American heavy thundered their salvos, and minute after minute the plunge of Jap shells all but grazed her as Captain Rodgers conned her along her elusive zigzag. Ahead, the flagship carried on her own duel with the leading Jap light cruiser, a duel for which the Jap seemed to have little stomach, since again and again he sheered nervously out of range after the exchange of a few quick salvos.
To a turret officer watching from his little steel booth, his men might have seemed to be going through a jerky mechanical dance times by the rhythm of outlandish instruments. Backs heaved with the clack and hiss of breechblocks opening, bowed with the roar of compressed air rushing into the gun barrels, straightened with up-flung arms to the shout, "Bores clear". At the hoot of a whistle, men lifted and lunged, and the loading trays crashed in the open breaches; arms like pistons threw Remer levers, jerked them back with the heavy thud of the shell driven home in the rifling. Shoulders swung to the pianissimo slither of powder bags shoved after the shells, and backs bowed and heaved again with the hissing, clashing impact of breechblocks swung closed and locked. Men stepped backward to the whirl of gears as the big silver breeches sand into their pits to elevate the muzzles.
All men froze at the sound of the firing buzzer warning with dot-dit-dash. And then the deep concussion, the rearward leap and return of the guns, jarred them to a slavish repetition of their strange dance figure. They know nothing of what went on outside their turrets, nothing of the calm sea and the bleak gray sky and the faraway silhouettes which flashed the orange flames. All they knew was the insatiable hunger of those silver breeches for powder and more powder, shells and more shells.
1010...Our heavy took her second hit. With the clang of an enormous metal punching machine, the Jap shell punctured her hull above the water line.
1018...After the American heavy had been cruelly shaken by a series of very close near-misses, the decision was made to shield her behind a smoke screen. On her fantail, man worked at the valves of the smoke banks until the chemical smoke was rolling away astern in a sluggish, snow-whit cloud. At the same time Capt. Ralph Riggs' destroyer flagship led the destroyers in a dash to begin a wild snake dance back and forth across the heavy's stern. Smoke boiled like black oil from their stacks to diffuse and hang in billowing clouds streaked by the white of the chemical smoke, and presently the big ship was hidden to her foremast hid from the enemy.
In their fighting tops, Americans and Japs kept an unrelenting watch on the smoke screen, and whenever the fire-control crews sighted the enemy over a depression in the screen or through a gap, the guns blasted a salvo. The battle went on at a slower, irregular tempo. The strain had been intensified, sharpened by those minutes of waiting for the next crash of a salvo.
1058...The Americans looked off to the Japs heavies with a shadow lifted from their minds. Admiral McMorris had led the way through a series of radical course changes aimed at baiting the Gaps into damaging countermoves and he had succeeded.
For two hours and sixteen minutes the big American ship had fought off two Jap heavies and had dealt out in the fighting far more punishment than she had received. She had steamed among hundreds of falling Jap shells, yet had suffered only two hits. A great and incredible good fortune had guarded her all the way. But fortune now abandoned her.
1059...A shell struck and exploded above decks.
1103... A shell struck below the water line.
The first killed two men and wounded several more. The second pierced oil tanks, bulged and wrenched an engine-room bulkhead, and loosed a flood of water and fuel oil into several compartments adjoining the engine room.
Down among the white serpents' nets of steam lines, the fantastic shadows and shapes of machinery, in the dimly lit engine-room bilge's a struggle began which was no less grim than the gunnery battle above. 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 a splashing cascade. It gathered and rose in the bilge's, water, whose temperature was the deadly thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit of the Bering Sea in winter; oil, which coagulated in the cold to form heavy shreds and sheets of tarry stuff which clung like black glue. Inch by inch it rose, if it should rise too far the engines would have to be stopped.
Pumps labored to suck sway the flood, and damage-control parties attacked the leaking bulkhead. The men stood thigh deep in the freezing water while they pounded caulking into the leaks. Any leaks of caulking-rags, wiping waste, their shirts, their jackets- anything which could be wadded into the spurting crevices and pounded tight. Still, the level inched higher, to their waist, to their chests, to their shoulders.
They almost 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 as inexorably as it had risen, until it was little more than knee deep. They had son, but ill fortune was to strike again.
1140...Word came to the bridge that in the magazines and shell docks which fed the after guns, little powder and not many shells remained. A few salvos more and the guns would be silenced. Those guns had to be fed; they alone were able now to fight off the Jap heavies dead astern. And there was only one way to feed them. The forward shell decks were opened. Men muscled the heavy shells out to the wind-swept main deck, cradled them in wheeled dollies; trundled them aft. The forward magazines, with all their intricate safeguards against fire and explosion, were thrown open. From the Powder-handling rooms deep down in the ship, men started chains of powder bags passing from man to man up to the deck below the main decks, and on from man to man along passages, past galleys, through messing compartments and berthing compartments, past work shops, machine shops and offices, on to the powder circles beneath the after turrets, and up to the powder ready boxes.
It was a powder train needing only a spark to blow the ship and her men into nothingness. But, the shells flowed steadily, the powder bags slithered to the leading trays. The ship fought on. Then misfortune struck, its third, its finishing blow. Its weapon was the water still lying in the engine-room bilge's. Through the punctured fuel tanks, the water was creeping secretly into the complex system of pipes and valves, many of them racked by the shell burst, which controlled the distribution of oil from the dozens of tanks to the burners under the boilers. Above decks, the terrible warning signal was a burst of white smoke from the two stacks...white smoke which was more steam than smoke. Down in the shimmering heat and the tornado road under road under the boilers burners were snuffing out one by one, two by two, extinguished by that treacherous seepage of water. The white smoke continued to pour from the stacks. And then, the sick moment came when the vibration of the engines, the pulses of the four propellers, died. Their absence was the sudden terrible silence when a dying man stops breathing.
Her momentum carried her on, but she was lifeless.
1150...Speed thirteen knots. No foam raced along her sides. Under her fantail, the sea swirled and eddied lazily
1153...Speed eight knots. A Jap salvo landed so close aboard that she seemed to lift in the water with the force of the blow.
1154...Her momentum was running out. She barely had steerage way. Another very near miss shook her brutally and she staggered.
1155...She lay dead in the water. Captain Rodgers ordered the flag signal hoisted. (Vito J. Monteleone
is the Veteran that raised the "flags")