In the cold north Pacific morning, a small Navy task force steamed over a calm sea. Their course was north. They were 180 miles west of Attu and 100 miles south of the Komandorski Islands. It was late March, 1943. The breaking day was crystal clear.
The ships were at routine morning general quarters, not really expecting trouble, but ready. Their mission was to intercept any Japanese attempt to reinforce beleaguered positions on Attu and Kiska Islands
Nobody was alarmed then, when radar contact was made on five ships to the north. A supply convoy, no doubt. But taking no chances, the task force closed up. Oil kings sounded their fuel tanks; gunner's mates checked their ammunition, cooks made sandwiches and plenty of black coffee.
Rear Admiral Charles H. McMorris listened to the lookouts' first reports. It was indeed a supply convoy, escorted by destroyers and perhaps a light cruiser. But as the early light increased and the distance lessened, the situation changed dramatically for the worse. Two heavy cruisers stood up over the horizon, flanked by two light cruisers and a number of destroyers, all rushing in to turn the Americans away from their vulnerable supply ships.
The Admiral knew now that he was badly out-gunned. His flagship, light Cruiser Richmond, was 22 years old, mounting six-inch guns. Astern was Salt Lake City, eight-inch guns, a 13 year old. Because of unusual sheer, she was called "Swayback Maru" by her crew. Always a leader in peace-time activities, the old "Maru" was now a veteran of the Pacific fighting. But she'd been hurt in the battle of Cape Esperance, and now nearly half her crew were inexperienced boots. Screening these cruisers was DesRon 14, Coghlan, Dale, Monaghan & Bailey.
White-haired, ruddy-faced McMorris had a high reputation in the Navy, had been on Admiral Nimitz' CINCPAC staff, then in San Francisco's desperate night fights in the Slot. Now McMorris took an oblique course that might allow him to hit the Jap transports while keeping the cruisers at long range. All guns trained out, his ships bent on more knots. Outnumbered or not, he would fight.
Standing on Nachi's high pagoda-like bridge, the Japanese Admiral Hosogaya opened fire at a range of 20,000 yards. Nachi & Maya's long eight-inch guns swung up to the highest elevation and belched out their lethal shells. In a short time, huge white splashes erupted all over the Richmond. Angrily, Hosogaya ordered fire concentrated on the big cruiser. Richmond could not yet hurt him
The Admiral was elated by his superiority over this rash American force. His two heavies were newer and faster than Salt Lake City, he had light cruisers Tama & Abukuma, destroyers, Wakaba, Hatsushimo, Ikazuchi & Inazuma, fast new ships that outclassed our destroyers. In Abukuma was Rear Admiral Mori, flag leader of the destroyers.
Hosogaya knew his superiors now regretted their Aleutian venture. Their crushing defeats at Midway & Coral Sea., the Marine landings on Guadalcanal, had made Kiska and Attu useless drains on their resources. But they must hold on to save face, to give them the prestige of occupying American soil. The Admiral thought happily of the sensation this victory would make in Tokyo.
Captain Rodgers of the Salt Lake City saw the splashes strike around Richmond and ordered return fire. His gunnery officer opened with deliberate salvoes, and the third and fourth connected on Nachi, starting some fires. But the Japs had closed range and cut the Americans off from the transports. Admiral McMorris had to keep them at long range or certainly be wiped out, so he increased speed, and make a turn to port. This put the enemy astern, on his port quarter.
Nachi & Maya had been shooting steadily at the zigzagging Americans but now a power failure halted Nachi's gunfire. While damage control put out the fires from Salt Lake's hits, Admiral Hosogaya ordered torpedoes launched. Eight deadly fish sped toward the Americans but the distance was too great and all missed.
Then Nachi began to receive a shellacking. Two Salt Lake shells hit, one knocking out part of the ship's communications, the other wiping out a torpedo compartment. Then another shell exploded on Nachi's bridge killing several men. Admiral Hosogaya was not hurt, but he suddenly grew respectful of "Swayback Maru's" dead-eye aim. It took some time to restore order and regain control of the con-less Nachi.
During Nachi's confusion, Maya had forged ahead. Now she and the ""Maru" slugged at each other and Maya launched a useless spread of torpedoes. But in a moment she hit Salt Lake's seaplane catapult, destroying it, starting a fire and killing two men. A short time later she hit Salt Lake again, but took a hit herself. Maya began smoking and slowed down.
All this time, the light cruiser and destroyers had fired only occasionally. Richmond was leading her column mainly out of range. So were our destroyers. But when Maya pulled up and exchanged hits with Salt Lake, either Dale or Monaghan peppered Maya with five-inch shells, knocking out No. 1 turret and killing sailors.
Both Maya and Nachi ceased firing now, needing a respite for temporary repairs and reorganization. Light cruiser Tama had swung out was now coming up on the American's quarter. She was in a good position to spot for gunfire or to launch torpedoes and Admiral McMorris did not like this. He ordered Salt Lake City to give her some attention. Old "Maru" did so, causing Tama's skipper to lose all his banzai spirit. He turned away and dropped out of range.
Repairs completed, Nachi and Maya built up speed again and began a determined effort to knock out Salt Lake City. And now "Maru" began having trouble. For two hours, she'd been taking all the enemy fire. Her steering gear had always been troublesome, now it conked out under the concussions of her own gunfire and the enemy's near misses.
Luckily, her engineers had mounted a diesel standby engine, which allowed her a 10-degree rudder movement to port or starboard. Nachi and Maya were giving her a hard time. Their tight salvoes fell all about her, the splashes sometimes hiding her entirely. American sailors watched with deep anxiety, but each time the big cruiser would plunge out of the white spume, still shooting valiantly at her foes. Finally an eight-inch shell drilled down through her decks, opening a hole below the waterline. She began taking in water.
McMorris' force was in a dangerous position now, becoming more so with each turn of their screws. The Japs were pushing them westward. Already they were closer to the Jap air base at Paramushiro than to their home base. An air attack might come in any moment. The Admiral took thought, and then ordered a smoke screen. Promptly, billows of smoke rolled out of the ships' stacks and chemical generators, dense black smoke from the generators. Luckily the day was windless, the rolling smoke hugged the ocean closely.
The Japanese cruisers now could shoot only by brief glimpses through the smoke. Admiral Hosogaya feared to close in, for then the enemy destroyers could ambush him with an effective torpedo attack. So he continued cautiously on, keeping to the north of the Americans' smoke trail.
The American force decided the time was ripe for a break to the south. The column turned, still making smoke diligently. It was several moments before the Japs caught on and McMorris' force opened distance. Then the Japanese cut through the smoke screen, Nachi & Abukuma again launching a futile spread of torpedoes.
With the situation looking brighter, an eight-inch shell crunched into Salt Lake bringing dire emergencies. The aft engine-room began flooding and damage to an oil manifold caused the aft fire room to lose oil suction. While damage controlmen and engineers worked furiously, Salt Lake City slowed down. Admiral McMorris ordered a torpedo attack. As the destroyers turned toward the enemy, the fire-room regained suction, speed picked up again and McMorris canceled the attack. Hosogaya, observing the destroyers turn, had taken evasive action against the expected torpedoes and closed to 8,000 yards. So again the enemy lost ground.
Then it seemed to the Americans that the end had surely come. Salt Lake's engineers had tried to keep her on an even keel by shifting salt water ballast. An engineer opened the wrong valve. Sea water poured into the main fuel line, all boilers went dead, and power was lost. "Swayback Maru" lay helpless in the water with the Japs again closing in, shooting furiously. Spunky Captain Rodgers thought it a fine time for that torpedo attack, and Admiral McMorris concurred. He sent the destroyers off, and then took Richmond in to remove Salt Lake's crew. Destroyer Dale moved in to help too.
Captain Ralph S. Riggs' three destroyers rushed out at the enemy still making smoke. Having a long distance to cover before launching, they fired their best as they cut through the long gray swells. Five-inch shells, especially from Bailey, smashed into Machi, further damaging her.
The Japanese replied heartily, their shells ricocheting all about the little ships. Then Riggs rubbed his eyes in disbelief. The Japs were turning away to the west. Were they actually withdrawing from the fight? Still the Commodore kept going, striving to get his torpedoes away.
Finally an eight-inch shell destroyed Bailey's galley and he decided to launch before being sunk. Bailey got five torpedoes in the water, and then another hit smashed her electric generator. Bailey turned away, Monaghan and Coghlan followed without launching. When Commodore Riggs discovered this, he ordered them to complete their attack, but Admiral McMorris delayed this order. The Japs were going home and under the circumstances, he was glad to see them go.
Salt Lake City did not remain helpless for long. Down in compartments lit only by dim emergency lights, the engineers drained contaminated fuel lines, cut in standby tanks and extinguished fires in the forward fire room. In only four minutes, "Maru's" screws began churning; soon she was making 15 knots. Then her speed picked up rapidly. Just so the Japs knew she could still fight, Captain Rodgers had a few more salvoes tossed at them, but they kept going. The battle of the Komandorski's was over.
Admiral McMorris, with a big assist from Lady Luck, had won the fight. He inflicted greater damage to a superior enemy than he received, prevented reinforcements from landing on Attu and Kiska and brought all his ships home under their own power. For three and a half houses, "Swayback Maru" had taken the full weight of Hosogaya's attack. She was star and savior of the task force.
Casualties were unbelievably low. Seven men dead, seven wounded a dozen more with minor injuries. Captain Rodgers cheered his fighting sailors with a dose of "medicinal alcohol." But the destroyers had no such comfort. Bailey, with her smashed-up galley, had only cold sandwiches and fruit juice until pulling into Kodiak Bay.
That strenuous day was summed up by a Junior OOD on Salt Lake City.
He wrote, "This day we all lay in the hands of Divine Providence. Never in our lives had death hovered so near, for so long. Every man on Salt Lake City gives thanks to Almighty God for His mercy and protection."