USS Alchiba (AK-23) & Guadalcanal

Alchiba (AK-23) afire off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. Her camouflage pattern is interesting in that it is a Measure 12 (modified) variation, with the colors (ocean gray and Navy blue) reversed, the darker color on top, thus defeating the whole purpose of the scheme! (USMC 66457)

USS Alchiba (AK-23) & Guadalcanal If ever there was a ship that lived up to Captain James Lawrence’s dying words, “Don’t give up the ship,” it was the unlikely cargo vessel USS Alchiba (AK-23). Alchiba, under the command of Commander James S. Freeman, USN, arrived off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, for yet another resupply run, to off-load a critical cargo of gasoline, bombs, and other ammunition destined for the U.S. Marines on the island, where fierce fighting was still raging.

On the morning of 28 November 1942, the Japanese midget submarine Ha-10, launched from submarine I-16, penetrated through a screen of five destroyers and hit Alchiba with a torpedo in a forward (number 2) hold. Ha-10 did not survive the U.S. counterattack, but the damage to Alchiba was severe.

With the forward hold area burning out of control and his ship sinking with a 17 degree list. Freeman rang up flank speed to get Alchiba into shallow water off Lunga Point, where he ran her aground.

Despite the potential for imminent catastrophe and exploding machine-gun ammunition, the crew of Alchiba, led by the executive officer, Commander Howard H. Shaw, USN, fought the fire forward while other members of the crew commenced off-loading all the supplies and ammunition they could from aft.

They fought the fire for over five days, and got almost every salvageable bit of cargo on to Guadalcanal, and then set about salvaging the ship.

Astonishingly, throughout this ordeal only four of Alchiba’s crew were wounded and none killed. 

However, on 7 December, the midget submarine Ha-38, launched from I-24, fired two torpedoes at Alchiba. One passed right under her stern without exploding, but the second hit in her engineering spaces, killing three and wounding six men. 

Ha-38 was never seen again.

HA. 19 grounded in the surf on Oahu after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 1941

The damage this time was also severe, and the Navy Department announced to the press that Alchiba had been lost. This came as a surprise to her crew, who were still aboard and fighting to save their ship—which they did after many more days. 

Alchiba ultimately survived, was redesignated as an attack cargo ship (AKA-6), and served throughout the Pacific for the rest of the war (although she was prone to engineering casualties).

USS Canopus off Shanghai, China, prior to World War II.

Like the Sailors on USS Canopus (AS-9) and other valiant auxiliaries of the doomed Asiatic Fleet, the crew of Alchiba proved that American Sailors would exhibit the greatest of bravery, regardless of whether they were on the newest warship or an “expendable” cargo ship.

For the crew’s valor, Commander Freeman (a future rear admiral) was awarded the Navy Cross, Commander Shaw was awarded a Silver Star, and the Alchiba became the only cargo ship to be awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

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USS Alchiba (AK-23) & Guadalcanal