John Bishop
An American Base in the Aleutians

FLAGBAR 501x15

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

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 ball-red-02 Deceased 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.

A Grim Game of Tag

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.

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 Deceased, "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 ball-red-02 Deceased, 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 ball-red-02 Deceased, 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 ball-red-02 is the Veteran that raised the "flags")


She lay motionless on the almost glassy sea, 600 feet of her looming dark and massive against the bleak gray sky. She would fight of course, while a gun could be fired, when the Japs closed for the kill. But she was little more than a helpless hulk. There was not a man aboard who did not expect to die within the next few minutes.

On the bridge Captain Rodgers, still smiling, shook hands with Commander Bitler. All through the ship, officers quietly were inspecting the men under their command, seeing that they had their life belts, their knives, the proper amount of clothing to survive as long as possible in the water...if they should live to go over the side. There was one man who got himself ready very methodically for abandoning ship. He took off his jacket and his bulky, windproof overalls. He kicked out of his shoes. He checked his life belt and adjusted it to be ready for inflating as soon as he hit the water. But then, as he stood looking at the murderously cold seas, "To hell with!" he exploded. And he put on everything that he had taken off. He knew that he had to die, but he preferred a quick death with the ship to the long-drawn twenty minutes of dying which would be his in the grip of that icy cold water. There were many more like him.

When at about 1150, Admiral McMorris received the message that the heavy cruiser's engines were stopped, he took the only course which might save her. He ordered three destroyers to go in against the Jap force to launch a torpedo attack and press it home so long as they could manage to remain afloat. It was a tragic decision, forced upon him. At best, a torpedo attack would be little more than a bid for time a great sacrifice play by the destroyers to draw the gunfire of the Jap force away from the heavy upon themselves, and so to gain time enough for her men to clear her fuel lines of water and get her under way again.

In the road of wind on the bridge of the destroyer flagship where she steered her wild, smoke-laying snake dance astern of the stricken ship, Captain R. S. Riggs received the orders and acknowledged with the terse yet eloquent compliance of battle communications. He designated the fourth destroyer to stay behind to screen the heavy cruiser with smoke. Then he signaled, "the targets are the heavies" ordered his flagship into a hard, rail under turn back toward the enemy, and squared away with two other swings after him. At their magnificent full speed which saw the spray arching from their stems, they steamed off into the guns of the enemy, three little ships against enemy, 5,000 tons against 50,000.

On the big cruiser, the men who were preparing for death saw nothing of what went on beyond the smoke screen, but they could hear the deep, faraway thunder of Jap 8-inch salvos swelled by a flatter rumble as the destroyers came within range of the Jap light-cruiser batteries.

Time was swift with the certainly that these were their last moments in the living light and air of this earth. Time was interminable with the horror of imminent death. Off in the distance, the thunder of gunfire swelled again with a hard, irregular staccato as the three destroyers opened fire on the Jap heavies. On the clock, the minute hand crept forward. Far away beyond the smoke screen the sound of gunfire slackened to desultory bursts, thudded into silence. The destroyer's attack had run its course.

Later, when the heavy cruiser's men told of those next few minutes, their story lay less in their words than in their faces and their voices when the memory came back to them. Words were not to be enough. What happened, they said, they could not believe at first. Their minds were so profoundly fixed in the certainly of death that the truth was beyond believing.

Chronologically, this happened:

1158...The heavy cruiser stirred with a slow pulse of life. Her port engines were turning over, inching her ahead.

1159...A torrent of foam erased the lazy eddies under her fantail. She trembled with a mighty surge of horsepower to her propellers. Her decks leaped to a giant thunderclap as her after turrets resumed firing.

Men were looking at one another with unbelieving eyes. Men were laughing weakly. Men were going through all the complex and indescribable reaction of returning from thin edge of death back to life and hope again.

Speed had protected the three destroyers at first. They raced on through white thickets of 9-inch shell splashes until they came within range of the Jap light cruisers and the sea close around them was torn by the storm of shells into a wild white riot of leaping spray. Still they held on until their own guns opened an earsplitting barrage on the leading heavy, while the range closed to 9,000 yards, point-plant range for cruiser guns.

Then two 8-inch shells of a salvo struck the leader. They killed five of her men and robbed of all but fifteen knots of her speed. While she was slowing she launched her torpedoes; a last despairing gesture of defiance, it was, for at 9,000 yards she had little hope of scoring a hit. With a metallic shock and a fierce hiss of air into the torpedo tubes, the beautiful steel shapes made their racing drives into the swells, plunged, rose, steadied and headed away, leaving ruler-straight lines of bubbles behind them. The Leader held sluggishly on, awaiting her end, while the rain of steel lashed the surface of the sea around her into white shreds. In the minds of her men now lay the numbing certainly of death.

Six miles astern, there, our heavy cruiser had begun to inch ahead and our light cruiser circled near her, waiting for the Japs to close, men heard the thunder of the destroyer attack falter and stop. To them, the silence meant that the three destroyers had finished their journey to oblivion, but...as the big cruiser drove on and up toward her full speed...that their objective had been brilliantly gained.

But then an incident took place whose impact left men standing frozen, as men stand in the presence of the supernatural.

1200...The dead spoke, and with words proclaiming a miracle. A message flashed from Captain Riggs: "The enemy is retiring to the westward. Shall I follow them?" Off there beyond the smoke screen, the two Jap heavies had turned frantically to present the narrow targets of their sterns to the torpedoes, and two light cruisers and the six destroyers had followed. Before three American destroyers, one of them crippled, and before torpedoes launched four and a half sea miles away the ten Jap ships were fleeing in ignominious confusion. And they held on in the headlong flight. They had had their belly full of fighting.

1202...The American heavy blasted out a final gust of flame and smoke and titanic sound. The Battle of the Komandorski Islands was over.

Admiral Charles H. McMorris and his task group had discharged their mission; they had turned back a Jap attempt in strength to supply and reinforce Attu and Kiska. They had won. And yet it was a strange, illogical victory; a victory won by three and a half hours of bitter defensive retirement before nearly two-to-one odds; a victory won in the moment of despair and when six ships and many hundreds of men reeled helplessly on the crumbling verge of defeat and death.

DD 492 Bailey  DD 606 Coghlan  DD 353 Dale  DD 354 Monaghan

Later, the heavy cruiser's men were almost casual in their mention of victory, of the significance of the battle in the Aleutian campaign, or of the fact that theirs had been the longest continuous gunnery duel in the whole history of the modern Navy. Their enthusiasm were for the destroyers. They spoke with profound gratitude of Captain Riggs and his men. "They are the lads that deserve all the credit," they said. "Perhaps we did slap the Jap Flagship around a bit. The destroyers reported that he was smoking badly, and that all but one of his five turrets were trained all haywire, and out of action. But it was the destroyers who turned the trick. They saved our lives. We'll never forget it".

Nor would they ever forget, they said, the sight of those three little ships returning over the calm gray sea from their journey to oblivion. That was like seeing ghosts at first.

A reverent amazement still moved in their voices when they told about their part in the battle, about the long hours when Jap salvo after Jap salvo plunged close aboard, yet scored only four hits and killed two men. "It wasn't that their gunnery was bad," they explained repeatedly. "The Japs' shooting was really beautiful." There were times toward the end with the two heavies dead astern, when a few foot of deflection one way or the other would have planted a whole salvo along our center line fore and aft, and we would have opened up like a split melon. But they just didn't get the hits that their shooting deserved. The way Captain Rodgers handled the ship had a lot to do with it, of course, but there was more to it than that."

In the wardroom one evening, when several officers smoked and drank coffee and talked, still searching many months later for words to describe the ever-mounting tension of those long hours of battle, one man found the right words.

"It was like flipping a coin" he said. "Over and over again for three hours and a quarter, double or quits. And every single time it came up heads."


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