Battleship Clash at Iron Bottom Sound! Part II

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The battleship Washington (BB-56) leading South Dakota (BB-57) while firing at Kirishima on the night of 14-15 November 1942.

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The Japanese battleship Kirishima takes hit after hit from Washington (BB-56) as the battle reaches its climax.

For his part, Kondo was eager to send his two smaller groups to tangle with the Americans, but he was cautious and hesitant with his more powerful Bombardment Unit. He received a report from Commander Eiji Sakuma, captain of the Ayanami, taking credit for the grievous damage inflicted on the American destroyer van. The elation on the Atago’s bridge was squelched when word arrived from Admiral Hashimoto in the Sendai that the Ayanami had been terribly hit herself. Adrift northwest of Savo Island, she would finally sink when spreading fires detonated her torpedo battery, breaking her in two.

As his widely roaming forces circled and sparred with Lee, Kondo seemed torn between two objectives. Keenly aware that his mission was to suppress the airfield so as to give Tanaka’s transports, steaming well to his north, a chance to land without further interference from the Cactus Air Force, Kondo kept the Kirishima and his two heavy cruisers interposed between Lee and the transports. Even as lookouts in the Atago and Takao insisted they had seen an American battleship among their opponents, Kondo discounted the possibility. He let his light forces carry the fight while awaiting his opportunity to throw the Kirishima at Henderson Field.

Having learned from his destroyers that the fight was going well against the U.S. “cruisers,” Kondo ordered Hashimoto to assist the damaged Ayanami. As Hashimoto turned north to comply, he encountered Admiral Kimura’s destroyers, compelling them into a full circular turn to avoid a collision. Kondo’s unwieldy task force organization thus turned and bit him. As the Bombardment Force—the Kirishima and the two cruisers—finally turned south to close on Henderson Field, both Kimura and Hashimoto found themselves out of the fight.

Kondo had barely settled into his new heading when his lookouts spotted the South Dakota and identified her as a cruiser. At the same time, the Nagara reported seeing two enemy battleships near Cape Esperance. The Atago’s lookouts corrected their error in short order, announcing the presence of battleships. But it was only after his flagship’s searchlights swept over the compact and powerful form of the forty-two-thousand-ton South Dakota that Kondo himself finally grasped the nature of his opponent. All at once both the admiral and his flagship’s commanding officer, Captain Matsuji Ijuin, began shouting orders to engage.

Fixed by searchlights, the U.S. battlewagon drew the immediate violent attention of every major ship in Kondo’s force. The Japanese flagship Atago and her sister ship, the Takao, struck the South Dakota especially hard, repeated scoring with eight-inch fire from five thousand yards. From the Atago, the Nagara, and four destroyers, thirty-four Long Lances splashed into the sea. The Kirishima fired on Gatch’s ship with her fourteen-inch battery from eleven thousand yards, scoring with a hit at the base of her great after turret. The blast turned the surrounding deck planks into a storm of chips, incinerated the canvas gun bloomers, and cast fragments up and down the deck. A loader on the left gun inside the turret heard officers on the phones, wondering about the extent of the damage and whether the gun would still fire with an Olympian dent in her barbette. “Our turret commander was certainly a cool-headed duck,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Never mind how bad we’re hit. I don’t give a damn if the guns blow up. I’m going to fire.’ ” There came a double buzz followed by a long buzz, indicating the turret was about to discharge. The expectant seconds passed, but the great guns remained silent. With the main battery out, paralyzed by the electrical failure, Gatch was able to respond only with his secondary battery. The battleship’s five-inch guns jackhammered fiercely in local control, but were hardly a deterrent to heavy cruisers and a battleship.

Topside, the South Dakota was taking the same kind of punishment that had turned the San Francisco’s decks into a killing field two nights before. The wash of shrapnel made a sizzling sound as it sliced into cables, gun shields, and steel decking. Well protected though the engineering compartments were deep within the vital “armored box,” no battleship’s topsides stations were proof against such firepower. More often than not, the armor-piercing rounds fired by Kondo’s ships penetrated and passed through the superstructure plating without exploding. Still, the fires raged so fiercely that some enemy observers became convinced she was a goner. The barrage of hits to the South Dakota’s superstructure shattered steam pipes going to the ship’s whistle, and gusts of steam scalded many sailors in those exposed spaces. In Battle Two, the executive officer, Commander A. E. Uehlinger, refused to abandon station after it was engulfed in steam. In the end, the battleship’s high foremast superstructure was poor shelter. It was a death trap.

The chaplain, James Claypool, recalled hearing men praying. Some were so scared they couldn’t remember the words to the Lord’s Prayer. “At such times everything you do is a prayer,” a chief petty officer said. “Even your cuss words are prayers.”

The South Dakota was designed for a different kind of fight, conducted at distances to the horizon and beyond, where her huge guns could kill at standoff range. At close ranges, the variables were too many to manage and the risk was great. When an eight-inch shell exploded near an ammunition hoist, flashing through the opening and igniting some life jackets, a fire rose in a passageway adjacent to a handling room serving the five-inch battery. This small fire was a dangerous one. But it and the rest of the South Dakota’s below-decks fires were quickly extinguished, and a disastrous secondary explosion was forestalled. It was Gatch’s good fortune especially that none of the many torpedoes fired his way struck his ship, as her design was vulnerable below the waterline. Several Long Lances exploded prematurely on the way in. Topside, the flames danced.

Willis Lee in the Washington had been patiently tracking a large target on his starboard hand, but since he had lost track of the South Dakota, owing to his blind spot astern, he dared not turn loose his big guns on this bogey, the Kirishima, until her identity could be verified. When the Japanese opened their searchlight shutters on the South Dakota, however, he had his answer. Lee’s flagship enjoyed momentary concealment as she slid behind the burning Walke and Preston, which blinded Kondo to his presence. Here was an hour of truth, and the truth was this: Willis Lee was the contemporary master of radar fire control, and Washington’s SG system gave him a clear electronic view of the oceanic battlefield under almost any circumstances.

While sailors in open-air stations saw the horror of naval combat in the machine age with their own senses—steaming through the debris fields of the sunken destroyers, shouting out to sailors bobbing on rafts nursing ghastly wounds, smelling the sweet tang of burned flesh—inside, officers with access to a radar image watched an abstract painting of the battlescape unfurl in a remorseless electric light. It was a picture cleansed of horror and emotion. Lee knew how to operate by it. He trained one group of his starboard side five-inch dual mounts on the Atago, and his main battery and the other group of five-inch mounts on the larger blip on his scope, the Kirishima. The Washington’s unblinking electronic eyes nudged the main battery on target. From eighty-four hundred yards—“body punching range,” as a Washington lieutenant put it—the South Pacific’s battleship gunslinger emerged from the cover of his burning destroyers and turned loose with everything he had. Naval engineers who designed protective armor schemes for battleships calculated from the need to stop large-caliber direct gunfire from around twenty thousand yards. But at close ranges, stopping a sixteen-inch projectile was hopeless. One of the South Dakota’s turret officers, Paul Backus, exclaimed, “Throwing fourteen-inch and sixteen-inch shells at that kind of range—Jesus.” Willis Lee had won the draw on the Kirishima.

The last time Lee had held night spotting and gunnery practice was in January 1942. But since then, he had drilled his crews in target selection and fire-control procedures so thoroughly that it did not really matter whether it was night or day. An ensign named Patrick Vincent, stationed in the Washington’s armored conning tower, said, “I was amazed at how well Captain Davis and Admiral Lee could function on the bridge with all the noise and blasting pressure from the guns. The racket was unbelievable. Even in the conning tower, it was almost impossible to communicate. The pressure from the gunfire spurting through open ports was knocking men down.” It was nothing like what a battleship experienced on the receiving end of that fury.

It had been just six minutes since the Kirishima’s gunners had lost a solution on the South Dakota and checked their fire. Lookouts on the Atago, spotting the Washington, shouted, “There is another ship forward of the first, a big battleship!” Short seconds later the lookouts were crying, “Kirishima is totally obscured by shell splashes!” According to Lee, the Washington’s fire control and main battery “functioned as smoothly as though she were engaged in a well-rehearsed target practice.” The first salvo probably hit, and the second one certainly did.

Ashore, roused from sleep by the heavy hammering of main batteries in the sound, Bill McKinney was among a team of Atlanta electricians stationed on a searchlight installation that stood watch over Guadalcanal’s northern coast. Defended by a detachment of marines, the facility consisted of a tower of sixty-inch searchlights with a diesel generator and a remote-control director station. It was inoperable because its power cable had been slashed by overzealous foxhole diggers. Now, awakened, they were seized by the sight of battle. There was no telling who was friend or foe. It was like watching a baseball game without lineup cards, with everyone in the same colorless uniform. Ships revealed themselves suddenly with long gouts of flame and the bright parabolas of tracer rounds lazing through the night. The luminous red globes that seemed to float across the water knew no nationality. A few of them seemed to hover and disappear into the silhouette of a large ship, which stopped firing.

The Kirishima took a frightful battering from the Washington. The first hit destroyed the forward radio room located at the base of the foremast pagoda, below the main deck. Shells smashed into the barbettes of her two forward fourteen-inch turrets, starting fires that threatened the magazines. The battleship’s assistant gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Horishi Tokuno, ordered a forward powder magazine flooded to prevent fires. The rush of water caused the ship to list slightly to starboard. Another projectile hit the steering machinery room, flooding it and leaving the rudder jammed to starboard. After this, only the ship’s inboard shafts were working, making it impossible to steer by reversing the outboard shafts. When hydraulic pressure failed in the after part of the ship, her two after main gun turrets were left inoperable.

Heat and smoke from topside fires, sucked into the ship by ventilation turbines, forced the evacuation of the engine rooms. A pair of thirty-foot holes yawning in her deck amidships were the scars of this massive assault. On the Kirishima’s bridge, Lieutenant (j.g.) Michio Kobayashi noticed the ship slowing and turning in a circle.

The Kirishima’s main battery managed to roar several times in return. The commanding officer, Captain Sanji Iwabuchi, thought his first salvo scored two hits, one of them blowing off the bridge of his target. “At least ten hits were made upon them, but the enemy could not be finished off,” he said. It was the familiar optimism of a warrior lost in a battle larger than he can comprehend. The fourteen-inch armor-piercing rounds passed like giant subway cars over the Washington’s rigging. “They must have been mighty close,” a Washington sailor said, “but an inch is as good as a mile.” Ed Hooper’s remorseless radars would have allowed no escape, even if the enemy ship retained the ability to maneuver. As the radar automatically lay the big rifles, the Washington’s gun trains kept rolling and the night rained murderously with heavy metal. The U.S. flagship’s rapid-firing secondary battery popped five-inch rounds into the Kirishima’s pagoda foremast, stacks, and superstructure, causing untold loss of personnel.

When the officer in Main Battery Control ordered the guns to cease fire, based on an erroneous report that his target had sunk, Captain Iwabuchi tried futilely to conn the Kirishima away from the Washington, but “we couldn’t make way at all,” he said. “In the meantime, the engine rooms became intolerable because of the increased heat, and most of the engineers were killed though they had been ordered to evacuate. Only the central engine could make the slowest speed. Fires brought under control gained strength again, so that the fore and aft magazines became endangered. Orders to flood them were then issued.”

Ninety seconds later, Captain Davis ordered his main battery, “If you can see anything to shoot at, go ahead,” and the great guns opened up again on the Kirishima, whose gunners were able to respond with only her after turret. “More hits obtained,” the action reported declared.

More than two hundred sailors lay dead in the Kirishima, victims of a stem-to-stern pummeling by at least twenty sixteen-inch shells from the Washington. Lieutenant Kobayashi believed the ship took half a dozen torpedoes as well, but these were most likely underwater hits. Many of the great twenty-seven-hundred-pound American projectiles struck short but plowed under the sea on flat trajectories to strike below the waterline. Admiral Lee, seeing their splashes, most likely counted these as misses. But they did, by far, the greatest damage to the Kirishima, all along her length. These underwater hits were Willis Lee’s answer to the Long Lance torpedo.

After midnight, Kondo ordered his battered Bombardment Unit onto a westerly course. Only the Atago, lightly damaged, and the Takao, unhit, could comply. The Washington’s radars tracked the Japanese ships as they withdrew—a light cruiser was fixed for the forward turrets, and a destroyer for the after turret. But Lee, unsure of the South Dakota’s location, would not allow the main battery to fire.

Captain Gatch was fortunate to escape with a seaworthy battleship. The South Dakota had taken twenty-six hits, including eighteen by eight-inch projectiles and one by a fourteen-incher. The damage wrought to the upper works was serious. With all of the ship’s lights out, working parties operated by feel as they searched for the dead in the darkened foremast tower. They would not soon forget the things they found.

Having lost track of the Washington, Gatch decided that his night was over. His battered ship, alone, was unable to carry the fight any longer. He elected to retire. This decision came as a relief to Willis Lee, who had pursuit on his mind and didn’t need a wounded compatriot to worry about. The last report from Cactus Control at 7 p.m. put five Japanese transports dead in the water about fifteen miles north of the Russell Islands, and four more limping northwest with a small combat escort.

His big rifles not yet cool, Lee steered a course to intercept them the next day. The Washington had come through virtually unscratched by enemy fire. A five-inch hole in her giant “bedspring” air-search radar transmitter was her only wound. She took a much worse thrashing from the blast of her own guns: bulkheads caved in, compartments violently tossed, and a floatplane left in ruins, suitable only for parts. Her only human casualties were a punctured eardrum and an abrasion to the back of a hand. She was the most powerful ship in these waters, but any ship alone is a vulnerable one.

Shadowed by several of Kondo’s destroyers, Glenn Davis rang the Washington’s engine room to make emergency power, and his raging boilers piped enough steam to whistle up the four shafts to nearly twenty-seven knots. At that speed, the 44,500-ton battleship, accelerating through a turn, cleaved wakes from her bow and stern that, in collision, generated wave peaks high enough to register on radar and spook her plotting officers that enemy ships were close in pursuit. When the Washington’s radar registered real phantoms—small blips, presumably destroyers, on the starboard bow—and when a smoke screen was sighted ahead, Captain Davis turned sharply right to avoid contact with a torpedo-wielding enemy; he continued turning until the flagship was headed south, on course to retire. As he did so, large explosions raised great columns of water in her wake. He had turned away just in time.

The battered Kirishima would not be saved. The light cruiser Nagara was nearby and Captain Iwabuchi requested a tow, but it was refused. The captain sent a radio message to Admiral Yamamoto, requesting that he order Nagara to tow the ship, but there was no time for intervention from Truk. The big vessel’s list was just too severe. “An attempt to prevent the flooding of the steering gear room also failing, the ship became hopeless,” Iwabuchi said. The ship alternated listing to left and to right, as the free-surface effect of floodwaters pulled her from side to side. Finally the ship listed to starboard so badly as to make it impossible to stand on the bridge. Iwabuchi ordered Lieutenant Kobayashi to use a flashlight to signal the destroyers Asagumo and Teruzuki to come alongside, one to starboard, the other to port, to remove survivors. Officers in the wrecked and burning ship performed the earnest rituals of defeat—lowering the ensign to shouted banzais, transferring the emperor’s portrait to the Asagumo. As eleven hundred souls were taken off the colossal wreck, the list was so severe that Iwabuchi had no choice but to scuttle her. His engineers opened the Kingston valves, attached to the bottom of her fuel tanks to enable cleaning, and the sea flooded in.

Lieutenant Kobayashi had scarcely hopped over to the Asagumo when the Kirishima rolled hard and unexpectedly to port. The Asagumo freed her lines and pulled safely away. The captain of the Teruzuki had to order an emergency back full to avoid being capped by the turtling battleship’s superstructure. With about three hundred men still on board, the Kirishima joined the boneyard in Ironbottom Sound shortly after 3 a.m. on November 15, about eleven miles west of Savo Island. “My men fought well and displayed the noble spirit of servicemen,” Iwabuchi said. “My only regret is that we could not sink the enemy in exchange for our ship.” Before the two fleets parted ways and returned home, the Atago tried one final time to grapple with the American battlewagons. Captain Ijuin’s ship launched a dozen torpedoes in three salvos, but these, fired at a poor angle astern their retiring target, never had a chance. The cruiser opened fire with her eight-inch main battery on the Washington from fifteen thousand yards, but this was a halfhearted final gesture from a force that had spent its fighting energies. Ijuin ordered a smoke screen and turned away to the north. The Washington’s fire-control specialists tracked the Atago and observed the flashes of her gunfire, but Admiral Lee and Captain Davis had had enough for one night, too. They set course south and departed the battle area.

Lee had good reason to be satisfied with his night’s work. Beyond the hammer blows he had landed on the Kirishima—the only battleship that would be sunk by another, one on one, during the entire Pacific campaign1—he knew that the Japanese troop transports, wherever they were, were too far away to reach Guadalcanal before sunrise, when Henderson Field’s pilots, spared a thrashing from the sea, would be ready with a savage greeting. Lee directed the Gwin and the limping Benham to head for Espiritu Santo, but the Benham would not make it. Her fractured hull put her at risk of floundering and losing her entire crew. The Gwin scuttled her that night.

Finally locating the South Dakota, which greeted them with the signal, “I AM NOT EFFECTIVE,” Lee and Davis formed up with Gatch. Following behind, the Washington plowed seas tainted with the South Dakota’s bunker oil all the way back to Nouméa. Shorn of the company of destroyers, the victorious American battlewagons, one riddled like a can on a stump, with thirty-nine fatalities, the other completely unscathed, rode beam-to-beam toward the comfort of their tropical home.

Later the South Dakota’s captain would marvel at the fact that the battleships hadn’t been hit by torpedoes. Gatch credited the destroyers for this. He thought they had “indirectly deceived” the Japanese; judging by the swarms of torpedoes Kondo’s escorts had fired at his van, Davis thought Kondo had mistaken the U.S. destroyers for more lucrative targets. “This probably saved the battleships being hit by torpedoes,” he observed. When Lee asked Gatch afterward whether he felt the use of his destroyers had been proper in light of their near total loss, Gatch told him, “As things turned out, I thought it was.” This was cold testimony to the expendability of the destroyer force, which lost more than two hundred men on the night of November 14–15. Lee appreciated their sacrifice. “In breaking up the enemy destroyer attack, our destroyers certainly relieved the battleships of a serious hazard and probably saved their bacon,” he wrote.

At Nouméa, the crews of the two battleships were far less generous with each other. Until the South Dakota departed for a stateside overhaul, they had more than a week to fight out the question of her combat performance in the bars and lockups. “War was declared between the two ships. It was that simple,” a Washington sailor said. Furious, Lee finally called a truce, issuing a special Order of the Day that stated, “One war at a time is enough!” and arranging for the two battleships to stagger their liberties ashore.

Halsey’s decision to throw his two battleships into the breach was vindicated by victory. It was the sort of risk that Nimitz had implicitly counseled against, and that Fletcher had forsworn with his carriers. “Our battleships,” Lee wrote, “are neither designed nor armed for close range night actions with enemy light forces. A few minutes intense fire, at short range, from secondary battery guns can, and did, render one of our new battleships deaf, dumb, blind and impotent through destruction of radar, radio and fire control circuits.” Halsey would say of his decision to send in Lee’s battleships: “How are all the experts going to comment now? The use we made of them defied all conventions, narrow waters, submarine menace, and destroyers at night. Despite that, the books, and the learned and ponderous words of the highbrows, it worked.” Naval tacticians would find it tempting to undervalue what Lee accomplished that night, saying the Washington did what any modern battleship should do to a smaller specimen of the previous generation. But his victory was anything but an anticlimax foretold in a war lab—especially to the men who were there. Had Lee not confronted Kondo, the airfield would have been a feast for the IJN that night and perhaps into the next morning. If Henderson Field had been neutralized, the Enterprise would have been the only source of U.S. airpower left in the combat area, and a feeble one at that: When the carrier retired south, she had only eighteen Wildcat fighters on board. Her entire complement of Avengers and Dauntlesses had gone to operate with the Cactus Air Force at Henderson Field.

With the battle of giants over, Rear Admiral Tanaka turned the broad prows of his four navigable transports southward. (Several of their damaged cohorts would lie dead in the water near the Russell Islands, soon to fall victim to pilots from Guadalcanal.) Yamamoto himself endorsed Tanaka’s plan to run the ships aground. It was around 4 a.m. when they beached themselves near Tassafaronga. Though they brought one last load into “Starvation Island,” they took themselves out of the war. These ships would be easy targets for attacks from air, land, and sea. Set upon by the forces of nature in the ensuing decades, the wreckage of the transports would stand as symbols of Japan’s futile determination to hold the southern Solomons. From a force of more than twelve thousand soldiers that Tanaka had originally embarked at Rabaul, only about two thousand straggled ashore, along with 260 cases of ammunition and fifteen hundred bags of rice. Every one of more than fifty-five hundred men Turner had transported to the island that week arrived safely. The numbers would spell victory.

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