Battleship Clash at Iron Bottom Sound! Part I

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USS South Dakota (BB-57)

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Fast battleship Kirishima as she appeared in WW2: a reconstructed Kongo class WW1 era battlecruiser, she was sunk at the second Battle of Guadalcanal in September 1942 by USS Washington – but not before she had badly damaged USS South Dakota.

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Faithfully motoring in circles as it cast its ten-centimeter microwaves, the Washington’s SG radar spied the enemy ships to the north of northwest, as they left the cover of Savo Island making twenty-one knots. The radars watched the enemy vessels for several minutes at a range of eighteen thousand yards, sharing their data on human wavelengths via the PPI scope, and to the mechanical fire-control computer that delivered calculus to the gun turrets, before losing track of the contacts because of interference from land.

The radars were sketching a picture, definite in range and bearing if indistinct in composition, of two groups of enemy ships north of Savo Island. Admiral Lee and Captain Davis had designed the Washington’s fire-control procedures around the fact that this type of data was essential to everything. They made sure that their radar plot officer did not operate the traditional way, communicating through a sailor who served as his “talker.” Instead, he was wired up with his own headset to speak directly to the gunnery officer, the main battery plotting room officer, and the trainers in each of the gun director stations, all at the same time. In this way, he could describe the appearance of the scope and designate targets directly to all stations with a need to know, with less confusion.

With a Philip Morris hanging from his lips, Willis Lee said to Davis, “Well, stand by, Glenn, here they come.” In every compartment of the Washington, an electronic bell gave two short rings, signaling a warning that a salvo was imminent. Hydraulic hoists trundled twenty-seven-hundred-pound projectiles up from the magazines to the turrets. The powder cars whisked up silk cylindrical bags filled with explosive propellant. The projectiles were eased mechanically onto the heavy bronze breech-loading trays and the powder bags laid in behind them, as many as eight per load depending on the range to the target. After the breech had been rammed and locked, the gun captain hit the ready light indicating the gun was ready to fire.

Admiral Kondo had arrayed his force in three groups. Consisting of the Kirishima and the cruisers Atago and Takao, his Bombardment Unit was his centerpiece. Ahead of those large ships went his Screening Unit, the light cruiser Nagara leading six destroyers, commanded by Rear Admiral Susumu Kimura. Off to the east steamed a separate Sweeping Unit made up of the light cruiser Sendai and three destroyers under Rear Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto. It was this latter group that Lee’s radars detected first as the Washington and South Dakota plunged along on their westerly heading, tracing a course south of Savo Island. On the radar scope, the Washington’s radar plot officer watched the light echoes separate from the mass of Savo Island, “then separate into ‘drops’ similar to the effect of planes taking off from a carrier.”

The Washington’s turrets trained to starboard and fixed on Hashimoto’s group as it approached on the east side of Savo Island, sliding aft relative to the battleships as they moved west. At 11:13 p.m., when Main Battery Control reported to Lee that the narrow-casting fire-control radars had found targets and were yielding ranges, Lee hailed Gatch over the TBS and gave the South Dakota permission to open fire. It was not until the enemy vessels were spotted visually, at 18,500 yards, that the Washington, followed closely by the South Dakota, let loose. For the second time in three nights, Savo Sound erupted in thunder and light.

Ensign Robert B. Reed of the Preston watched the mighty flagship astern. As the corona of the Washington’s first broadside faded, he could follow the nine red tracers as they flew away, “grouped together for all the world like a flight of airplanes,” he said. Reed watched the salvo disappear up into the low-hanging clouds, then reemerge ten miles downrange. When the fire-control radar received echoes that showed the first salvo had landed “over,” beyond its target, the plotting officer checked his headphone chinstrap—the concussion of the big guns sent more than a few headsets clattering to the deck—then instructed the gunnery officer, Commander H. T. Walsh, to “spot down,” lowering the elevation of the gun. The second salvo, fired forty-five seconds later, registered a “straddle.” The officers watching the radars knew their fire was on target when they saw the radar image of the target flicker at the moment of impact.

After the two battleships commenced fire, radio snoopers in the South Dakota heard a cacophony of Japanese voices, “excited and very numerous.” They counted at least thirteen stations on this frequency at one time. Though the South Dakota’s main battery was hamstrung, with just four guns working in her two forward triple turrets, she continued her cannonade until her forward turrets, swinging aft to remain on target, bumped up against the stops that kept her from firing into her own superstructure. The after turret, with no such restraints, kept firing, however, and as it trained straight aft the wash of fire from her barrels set fire to her two floatplanes, fantail-mounted on catapults. The small bonfires raged briefly before the next salvo blew them right off the ship.

The light cruiser Sendai and the destroyers Shikinami and Uranami were the objects of this large-caliber fury. Though Hashimoto’s small squadron was engulfed in that maelstrom, not one of his ships was actually hit. The Sweeping Unit commander, the first naval officer to take fire from sixteen-inch guns, ordered his captains to lay a smoke screen—of little benefit against a radar-guided foe—and reverse course to seek other opportunities to “sweep.” Surrounded by towering splashes, the captains of the Japanese ships, making smoke, beat a high-speed retreat.

The Washington’s secondary battery cracked ferociously away as well, with the two forward five-inch mounts shooting at the main battery’s targets, and the next two mounts aft firing on a cruiser that appeared to be illuminating the South Dakota. The after dual five-inch mount lofted star shells. The intense flash of the five-inch fusillades blinded his main battery director operators and turret captains as they looked out through their night scopes. But fighting by eyesight was the old way of war. Now the human senses were an auxiliary system. “Radar has forced the Captain or OTC to base a greater part of his actions in a night engagement on what he is told rather than what he can see,” Lee would write. Coolly deciding which directors would control which turrets, and switching them as the geometry of the engagement shifted, Willis Lee became the first naval commander to manage a gunfight mostly by radar remote control.

Using the picture his radar provided him, Lee could see his four destroyers ahead and monitor the shifting geometry of the landmasses around him. He had a fine view of the naval landscape. What he did not have, owing to an oversight in ship design, was an electronic picture of the situation to his rear. With his radar transmitters bolted to the front side of the tower foremast, he could register no returns through a sixty-degree arc astern. The South Dakota was in that blind spot. Without visual contact with the other battleship, he was susceptible to the same uncertainty that clouded the view of Scott and Callaghan in the previous surface engagements in Savo Sound. Lee could no longer be completely sure that large targets on his radar were hostile.

Lee’s battleships were the first ships that night to make their powerful presence felt, but in short order the destroyers in his van were grappling with the enemy—and suffering the consequences of the collision. At about 11:30 p.m., the lead vessel, the Walke, located a target on her starboard beam at fifteen thousand yards. It was a lone enemy ship, the destroyer Ayanami, which had strayed from Hashimoto’s formation and was winding a course west of Savo Island, alone. As the ship closed on their starboard hand, the Walke opened fire with her five-inch guns. Five minutes later, lookouts in Commander Max Stormes’s Preston, third in line, spotted the Nagara ahead, leading four destroyers of the Screening Unit, and opened fire on her at seventy-five hundred yards. The Walke and the Benham, Preston, and Gwin turned their fire on these ships ahead.

The Walke’s captain, Thomas E. Fraser, had a hard time seeing his target, the Ayanami, given how closely the enemy destroyer was hugging Savo’s shore. His radar could see the target only when it was far enough from land to return a separate echo. The Ayanami’s captain had no plans to allow that to happen. From the cover of the dark shoreline, around eleven thirty, he fired torpedoes at the American van and reversed course away from the action. The torpedoes were on their way. Enemy gunfire was faster in arriving.

By the light of a setting quarter moon flirting with low clouds, the Preston opened fire on another ship, the light cruiser Nagara, in the loom of Savo Island. Steaming at twenty-three knots, Stormes’s ship found a hitting range at nine thousand yards when she was struck hard by a pair of 5.5-inch shells that plunged into her machinery spaces from the starboard side, killing everyone in her two fire rooms. The blast propelled a filthy cloud of firebrick and debris out of the stacks that settled all across the amidships area. Shattered torpedo warheads leaked TNT that quickly caught fire. The ship’s after stack fell across a searchlight installation, knocking it over onto the starboard torpedo tube. A heavier hit followed as a strange ship—which the Preston’s officers would speculate was a Japanese heavy cruiser—approached from the port side of the American column and fired on the destroyer. One large shell entered the engine room, exploding against the electrical generators. Another hit near the number three gun, and a third was a direct hit on the number four. The blast was so great that it jammed guns one and two all the way forward. Aft of the stacks, the Preston’s decks were a blazing ruin. Captain Stormes was forced to give the order to abandon ship almost immediately.

However, to the executive officer of the South Dakota, Commander A. E. Uehlinger, and another officer, Henry Stewart, it was clear that the Preston was a victim of friendly fire. “I saw the Washington open fire to her starboard,” Stewart said. “To us it looked as if the Washington’s fire had caused the accident.” The action reports would lend credence to the idea that even Willis Lee was susceptible to making deadly mistakes in the heat of battle.

As the Preston coasted to a stop, the Walke was hit, too. Captain Fraser was working to set up a torpedo solution at a large target to starboard when the enemy fish arrived. One struck the Walke forward of the bridge, lifting the forward half of the ship “bodily out of the water,” the action report read. As the destroyer crashed back into the sea without a bow forward of the bridge superstructure, one of the ship’s magazines detonated and its explosion ruptured forward fuel oil tanks and tore holes in the superstructure decks. A few seconds later, several medium-caliber warheads slammed into the ship, blowing away a swath of her forecastle and forward superstructure decking. Across the main deck surged a flood of fuel oil several inches deep. Flames roared through the forward compartments. Very quickly it became clear that the Walke was going down by the bow. When machine-gun ammunition started popping and the forward bulkhead of the fire room finally buckled, Fraser decided to abandon ship. The severed bow floated on as the stern sank. Minutes later the survivors in the water were rocked by an undersea blast as the ship’s depth charges exploded, to grievous effect in their company. The dead included Captain Fraser. The Walke’s dead would number eighty-two men, including six of her officers.

The Benham, behind the Walke, briefly took the lead before a shell plunged into her fire room. Then a torpedo struck, a Type 90 fish probably fired by the Ayanami. It carried away about fifty feet of the Benham’s bow below the main deck. The blast produced no fatalities but sent a tall column of hot seawater soaring toward the stars. When it came back down, it washed heavily over the length of the ship, causing injuries topside and carrying a man overboard. Then another shower fell on the Benham: oil and debris from the explosion on board the Preston ahead. The Benham continued along at ten knots. The Gwin, riding in the van’s rear, popped star shells, illuminating the coast of Savo, where flashes of gunfire were visible. Her torpedo crew had a solution on a cruiser but a short circuit caused a torpedo to fire prematurely, well out of range. Then the Gwin, too, started absorbing shells, taking a hit in the engine room. A failure in her safety circuits caused three torpedoes to release from their tubes and slide harmlessly overboard. The Gwin came right to avoid the dying Preston and continued on her westerly course.

The Benham’s captain, Lieutenant Commander John B. Taylor, saw the trouble ahead and decided to steer clear of the damaged ships and the churn of enemy gunfire. Turning hard right, he made a half circle and steadied up, heading east until the Washington passed on an opposite course. Circling back around, Taylor, seeing the burning Walke and Preston, planned to stop and recover survivors. When the two cripples came under fire again, he elected, however, to withdraw.

It was around this time, at about 11:33 p.m., that the South Dakota suffered an appalling systems failure. Her after turret had just lashed out at a target off the starboard bow when Captain Gatch’s ship was seized as if by an aneurysm, a short circuit in her main switchboard. As the breakers tripped out in the switchboards that served her secondary battery, only to find that they had been tied down by the chief engineer, the overload surged to other switches, creating a collapsing house of cards within the ship’s power grid. In an instant the great battleship went dark. Gone were her gyros and all her fire-control equipment. As the battleship’s main battery fell silent, there was nothing Gatch could do to his enemy but curse.

When the Washington turned left and passed the burning destroyers on their disengaged side, hidden from the enemy by their fires, she entered waters dense with flotsam and survivors. Making twenty-six knots through the debris field of the stricken Walke and Preston, the battleship’s sailors threw life rafts overboard. From the ranks of bobbing heads they heard cries of encouragement: “Get after’em, Washington!”

Captain Gatch in the South Dakota tried to follow the Washington as she passed on the disengaged hand of the destroyers, but when a wreck of a destroyer loomed, threatening collision, he was forced to turn the other way, conning sharply right, passing between the Walke and Preston and the enemy. The maneuver placed his blinded warship in an unfortunate tactical position, silhouetted by the burning wrecks and plainly visible to an enemy hungry for targets. Three minutes after her switchboard failure, power returned to the ship. The outage was long enough to disorient one of the two most powerful ships in Savo Sound that night. And the confusion that reigned led to a tactical error in shiphandling that would draw concentrated enemy attention in the coming minutes.

The heavy toll inflicted on the four leading ships of the American column was the pattern set by previous engagements. Destroyers, always expendable, had sacrificed themselves in faithful adherence to duty. Seeing the plight of his leading foursome, Willis Lee excused his van from battle, ordering the Benham and the Gwin to retire. The Washington and South Dakota would carry this fight alone.

In the Washington, the detonation of the Walke’s depth charges could be felt like a speed bump under tread. The battleship, whose five-inch guns helped batter the Ayanami to a powerless, burning hulk, had to cease firing her secondary battery now for fear of hitting friendly destroyers.

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