Avoiding Death’s Door: The Battle of Komandorski
“This day the hand of Divine Providence lay over the ship. Never before in her colorful history has death been so close for so long a time. The entire crew offered its thanks to Almighty God for His mercy and protection.”
“Suggest for your consideration retiring action,” stated the message from Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in the Aleutian Islands, adding that U.S. Army Air Force bombers would reach the scene of battle in about five hours. The message provoked laughter on the bridge of the light cruiser USS Richmond (CL-9), flagship of Rear Admiral Charles H. “Soc” (short for “Socrates”, his USNA nickname) McMorris, CTF 16.6, which isn’t the response one might normally expect from men facing annihilation, but was not atypical of American Sailors in extremis. For over an hour and a half, TF16.6, centered on the heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City (CA-25), had been engaged in a desperate long-range daylight gunnery duel with a Japanese force in the middle of nowhere at the edge of the Bering Sea, 500 miles from the U.S. base at Adak and 400 miles from the nearest Japanese base at Paramushiro in the Kuril Islands.
Outgunned and outnumbered two-to-one by a faster Japanese force that was blocking the way toward Adak, and clueless to how overmatched in torpedoes they were, the U.S. force was in serious trouble. With a water temperature of 28 degrees (F) and air temperature of 30 degrees, both sides clearly knew that any ship that went down would almost certainly leave no survivors.
In another two hours of running battle, Salt Lake City would be dead in the water, hit five times by shells from the heavy cruisers Nachi (victor of the Battle of the Java Sea and partially responsible for sinking three Allied cruisers) and Maya, with her engine room crews chest deep in freezing water and fuel oil trying to stem the flooding. With Salt Lake City crippled, there would be little hope for the elderly Richmond and four U.S. destroyers. What would come to be known as the Battle of the Komandorski Islands was shaping up to be yet another debacle.
The battle had started off well at first light on 26 March 1943, when the U.S. force sighted two large Japanese armed transports that intelligence reports said would be trying to resupply the Japanese garrisons occupying the U.S. islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians. With the exception of a destroyer, Japanese escorts were initially unseen. Rear Admiral McMorris was expecting that the small convoy would be escorted, but his force had been sized to be equal to that of the Japanese Fifth Fleet (Northern Force) based in the Kurils, so at worst he expected an even fight. What intelligence had missed, however, was the arrival in the Kurils of a second Japanese heavy cruiser, the Maya, recently repaired after a crippled U.S. Navy aircraft had crashed into her in the Solomon Islands during the battles for Guadalcanal. (Salt Lake City herself had only recently completed repairs from damage incurred during the Battle of Cape Esperance, off Guadalcanal in October 1942.) Instead of a few escorts, Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya had brought the entire Fifth Fleet: two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and six destroyers.
Nachi opened fire first at 21,000 yards at Salt Lake City and, in an impressive feat of gunnery, missed just short on the first salvo, and carried away an antenna on the cruiser with a second salvo that just missed. U.S. officers marveled at the tight dispersion of the Japanese salvos. Then, Nachi suffered an engineering casualty that caused an electrical problem, temporarily jamming her entire main battery at maximum elevation and likely sparing Salt Lake City from a devastating series of hits. Salt Lake City responded with equally impressive gunnery, hitting Nachi with a shell on each of the third and fourth salvos. The first hit by a shell from Salt Lake City impacted a few feet aft of Nachi’s bridge, killing several signalmen, but miraculously (for the Japanese) sparing Vice Admiral Hosogaya and his staff in the spray of shrapnel that ripped through the bridge.
Nevertheless, the near-death experience appears to have affected Hosogaya’s nerve.
From then on, Nachi and Maya used their speed advantage to keep their distance, maneuvering to bring the most guns to bear rather than rapidly closing the distance to Salt Lake City so that the Japanese cruisers’ heavier armor would be an advantage. (All three heavy cruisers had the same main armament, ten 8-inch guns, but Salt Lake City had been built to comply with the Washington Naval Treaty and had sacrificed armor to meet the 10,000-ton displacement restriction, and her class was derisively known in the U.S. Navy as “tinclads.”)
During the engagement, the Japanese fired 42 Type 93 oxygen (“Long Lance”) torpedoes at the U.S. ships with no hits, although two or three passed directly under Richmond (one right under the bridge.) U.S. officers refused to believe their own lookouts, still failing to comprehend that the Japanese had torpedoes that could go over twice as far as their own. However, the “schools of fish” cited in U.S. after-action reports correspond to Japanese torpedo launches recorded in Japanese documents. During the rest of the battle, Salt Lake City fired hundreds of rounds, mostly from her two aft turrets. Sailors humped almost 200 8-inch rounds (256 pounds each) from the forward magazines through the ship to the aft turrets to keep Salt Lake City in the fight. The cruiser’s fire resulted in numerous near misses and only two more hits, one in Nachi’s empty torpedo bank, saving Nachi from the major secondary explosions that doomed Mikuma at Midway. Over 200 Japanese shells impacted within 50 yards of Salt Lake City before the enemy started scoring hits through gaps in what was generally a very effective U.S. smoke screen.
As Salt Lake City hoisted the “my speed zero” signal, and a Japanese shell shot away the “zero” flag, the cruiser’s executive officer, Commander Worthington Bitler, shook Captain Bertram Rogers’ hand and calmly said, “Looks like this is it.” The same feeling was noted across the entire task force. Rogers had to make a wrenching command decision. With no speed and no electrical power, he could fight the ship to the last in manual mode as the proverbial sitting duck, or he could order abandon ship and hope that at least some of his crew could make it through the freezing water to the destroyer USS Dale (DD-353) standing by, and hope the faster Japanese destroyers would not run down Dale once Salt Lake City could no longer keep them at bay.
Rogers, in his first combat action, had displayed an utterly cool and calm demeanor throughout the battle (as had Bitler and every other senior officer in the battle), which served to inspire his crew. Rogers ordered “abandon ship,” then instantly belayed the order before it could be transmitted, and decided Salt Lake City would go down with her guns firing. He also radioed Rear Admiral McMorris on Richmond and requested that the destroyers conduct a torpedo attack on the Japanese.
Records are not clear as to whether Roger’s request or the request of Captain Ralph S. Riggs, the DESRON 14 commander embarked on USS Bailey (DD-492), to conduct a torpedo attack with three of his destroyers reached McMorris first. What is clear is that Riggs anticipated the order; as soon as he saw Salt Lake City go dead in the water, he issued all necessary preparatory orders to the destroyers. McMorris then had a wrenching command decision. If the destroyers tried to flee there was at least some chance they could get away, but a daylight torpedo attack against a superior and completely alerted enemy force was considered suicidal, particularly since Japanese 8-inch, 5.5-inch, and 5-inch guns outranged U.S. torpedoes. With only slight hesitation, McMorris ordered “execute.” With equal calmness, Riggs ordered Bailey’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander John Atkeson, to commence the attack, with USS Coghlan (DD-606) and USS Monaghan (DD-354) in trail.
As Bailey burst from the smoke screen at flank speed heading directly for the Japanese cruisers, smoke from her stacks and chemical smoke generators on her stern provided some degree of protection to Coghlan and Monaghan. But nothing could conceal Bailey. Every Japanese skipper, fire-control director, and gunner knew exactly what Bailey was doing, and every gun in range concentrated their fire on the destroyer. Hundreds of shells narrowly missed, and the deluge of explosions was described as “like Niagara Falls.” There was reportedly not a dry eye on the bridges of Richmond and Salt Lake City, moved by the magnificent display of courage and the near certitude of what would happen to the 750 men aboard the three destroyers. Yet, as Bailey steamed through the maelstrom, the Japanese kept shooting behind the duck. Japanese witnesses reported incredulity that the “outstandingly valiant U.S. destroyer” emerged time and again from the deluge of water from what they thought were sure hits. As the range closed to 10,000 yards, Bailey’s 5-inch guns found their mark, hitting Nachi several times; one hit may have knocked out Nachi’s forward turret. However, Japanese fire also finally found its mark, and a hit on Bailey decimated her forward damage-control party, killing four and wounding seven, one mortally. Riggs was concerned that his amazing luck would not last, so he ordered torpedoes launched at maximum effective range and Bailey launched all five (one of which probably would have hit the light cruiser Abukuma had it not prematurely detonated).
Suffering another direct hit (which failed to detonate—Bailey crewmen rolled the unexploded 8-inch shell over the side) and several damaging near-misses that perforated the forward fire room and forward engine room with shrapnel, Bailey began to lose speed. As Coghlan drew alongside the battered Bailey to assume the lead, it became increasingly clear that not only had the Japanese turned away from the torpedo attack, but they were leaving the scene of battle. With a decisive victory within his grasp, Hosogaya had decided to call it a day.
After the war, records would show that Hosogaya actually made the decision to disengage just before the charge of the three “Irish” destroyers, but that does not detract in the least from their valor—and the Americans certainly did not know that at the time. His decision appeared to be based on the fact that he was running low on fuel and ammunition, frustration that none of his torpedoes had hit anything, poor reporting from his one scout aircraft that failed to report Salt Lake City’s grave situation due to the effective U.S. smoke screen and anti-aircraft fire, and mostly his (unfounded) fear of imminent air attack. Factors that fed his uneasiness were the length of the engagement (four hours,) Salt Lake City’s switch to general-purpose ammunition when she’d exhausted armor-piercing rounds, (the general-purpose ammunition produced a very different shell burst and actually appeared to provoke a heavy volley of Japanese anti-aircraft fire into the overcast at non-existent planes, as the Japanese thought they were being bombed) and spoofing by Salt Lake City radiomen on the air control frequency intercepted by Japanese radio intelligence. Regardless, Hosogaya’s lack of characteristic Japanese aggressiveness would cost him his job and he was involuntarily retired.
On the American side, Salt Lake City’s engineers displayed incredible ingenuity and perseverance in working through the damage and flooding to get her boilers re-lit; she was actually only without engine power for a few minutes. The cruiser only suffered two killed, including the first lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander Windsor Gale, while Bailey suffered five killed. Japanese casualties are unknown, but believed to be about 27 killed, all on Nachi. No ships were lost on either side. Riggs, Atkeson, and Rogers were each awarded a Navy Cross for their actions (and all eventually retired as flag officers). The three other destroyer skippers were each awarded a Silver Star, as was the executive officer of Salt Lake City (and all four retired as flag officers.) McMorris was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his actions, as well as some criticism for not launching his scout plane (which was destroyed on Salt Lake City’s catapult by Japanese fire) which would have prevented him being surprised by the size of the Japanese force. Nevertheless, McMorris went on to be Admiral Nimitz’s chief of staff for the duration of the war. In addition, the Japanese transports (three total in two groups) also turned away, so TF16.6 accomplished its mission.
The log entry on Salt Lake City probably sums it up: “This day the hand of Divine Providence lay over the ship. Never before in her colorful history has death been so close for so long a time. The entire crew offered its thanks to Almighty God for His mercy and protection.” They also offered their profuse thanks (and all the ice cream they could eat) to the crew of Bailey and the “Irish” destroyers of DESRON 14.
As an epilogue, none of the Japanese ships that fought in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands survived the war. All of the U.S. ships survived with the exception of Monaghan. The destroyer that sank a Japanese midget submarine inside Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and earned 12 battle stars would succumb to Typhoon Cobra off the Philippines on 18 December 1944, with the loss of all but six of her crew. Salt Lake City was used as a target for two atomic bomb tests, and survived, before being sunk as a target by a torpedo from the submarine USS Blenny (SS-324) in 1948.
(Sources for this note include volume VII of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II: Aleutians, Gilberts and Marshalls; and John A. Lorelli’s The Battle of the Komandorski Islands, March 1943, published by Naval Institute Press in 1984. Lorelli’s book is a real gem. His description of the resourcefulness of the Salt Lake City’s “black gang” and damage-control parties in saving their ship is inspiring. His depictions of the leadership characteristics of participants in the battle and how they reacted under fire is also very interesting. Almost to a man they seemed to be Nimitz clones: cool, calm, utterly professional, no flamers or braggarts, and absolutely no panic.)
Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox
Avoiding Death’s Door: The Battle of Komandorski