New Orleans Class Cruisers at Guadalcanal 1942

The Astoria recovers one of her scout planes in the Pacific. In order to do this the cruiser would turn in an arc around the plane to create a flatter surface on the water in the ship’s lee.

Minneapolis shown in November 1942 after taking two torpedo hits from Japanese destroyers. One hit took off the bow as far back as Turret 1 and the second flooded Number 2 fire room. Despite pre-war doubts about their ability to withstand damage, US Navy Treaty cruisers often displayed an ability to take heavy damage, as shown here.

The New Orleans a month after Tassafaronga. The curvature of the face of Number 2 turret is clearly visible after the Japanese kindly removed 180ft of the bow to allow a closer inspection.

At the time of Pearl Harbor the Quincy and Tuscaloosa were in the Atlantic, the Vincennes and Astoria were at sea escorting carrier groups who were delivering planes to Wake Island, the Minneapolis was 20 miles south of Pearl conducting training exercises, and the San Francisco and New Orleans were in Pearl Harbor itself when the attack came. The New Orleans was lightly damaged by a fragmentation bomb, which wounded a score of sailors, but none were killed. Such was the confusion and inexperience of American pilots that the Minneapolis was incorrectly identified as a Japanese aircraft carrier. The Minneapolis compounded the problem by miscoding a message to Pearl Harbor, sending the message `Two carriers in sight’ instead of `No carriers in sight’. Fortunately, the US aircraft sent after these two carriers recognised the Minneapolis and halted their attack.

With the US Navy battlefleet effectively eliminated, the heavy cruiser acquired the new role of big-gun substitute alongside the traditional missions of escorting carrier groups and scouting. As the newest and best of their type the New Orleans class were to become heavily engaged. The Vincennes escorted the Hornet and Enterprise on their daring raid on Tokyo, and the New Orleans and Minneapolis escorted the Lexington and Yorktown for their strike on Rabaul. The Minneapolis, Astoria and New Orleans were all present at the Battle of the Coral Sea, screening the aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown, a role that they would assume more and more as the war progressed. When the Lexington was hit, the commander of the US task force, Rear Admiral Fletcher, transferred his command to the Astoria and continued the battle from her. The Lexington was sunk and the Yorktown was damaged but the Japanese invasion force bound for Port Moresby was turned back.

After Coral Sea the Astoria, Minneapolis and New Orleans hastened back to Pearl Harbor with the damaged Yorktown. At Pearl they were joined by the Vincennes, freshly back from the raid on Tokyo with the carriers Hornet and Enterprise. The damaged Yorktown was repaired in four days flat and set out with her two sister carriers to confront the might of the Japanese navy. These four cruisers, along with four others, formed the screen for Task Forces 16 and 17.

The Battle of Midway was a carrier battle where opposing surface forces never sighted each other. The three US carriers surprised the Japanese and sank all four of their fleet carriers at the cost of the Yorktown. Without carrier cover the rest of the Japanese fleet had to turn back from its objective, Midway Island. The cruisers performed valuable duties such as AA support, rescuing downed airmen and lending assistance to the damaged Yorktown. Again Admiral Fletcher had to transfer his flag to the Astoria when the Yorktown was hit.

This battle was the turning point in the war in the Pacific. The US Navy now went on the offensive, with the New Orleans class cruisers spearheading the surface forces.

GUADALCANAL 1942

Battle of Savo Island, 8/9 August.

Six of the seven members of this class were assembled in the South Pacific for the operation to capture Guadalcanal. Only the Tuscaloosa – still in the Atlantic – was missing. This is where the class was blooded and acquired its reputation: by the end of this campaign all six were either sunk or out of action. This was a high casualty rate but these ships were essential to the success of what became a crucial campaign.

This force of cruisers was split amongst those accompanying the invasion force (the Astoria, Quincy and Vincennes) and those escorting the carriers in support (San Francisco, Minneapolis and New Orleans). On 26 July 1942 groups of transports, escorts, and carrier task forces from Pearl Harbor, San Diego, Tonga, Samoa, and New Caledonia rendezvoused off the Fiji Islands. This was the largest concentration of US naval power since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and six of the seven New Orleans class cruisers were present at this occasion.

The Quincy opened the Guadalcanal campaign with salvos from her nine 8in guns, bombarding Japanese positions on Guadalcanal and provided anti- aircraft cover for the transports when they were attacked by Japanese torpedo bombers on 7 and 8 August. The presence of torpedo bombers prompted Admiral Fletcher, who was in charge of the carrier force, to withdraw prematurely, so the invasion force was left without air cover.

To protect the transport from a night surface attack Admiral Victor Crutchley, in charge of the transport screen, separated his available cruisers into three forces. The two weakest cruisers were to guard the eastern entrance of Sealark channel – the least likely direction of attack. The six available heavy cruisers were stationed in two groups at the western entrance of the Sealark channel. The heavy units of the northern force were made up solely of New Orleans class cruisers – Quincy, Astoria and Vincennes.

An attack was not expected – even though a Japanese force was spotted heading in the direction of Guadalcanal earlier that day. The ships of all three forces were patrolling as though it was a routine peacetime exercise. The flagship, HMAS Australia, had even detached herself to take the force commander, Victor Crutchley, to a conference onboard one of the transports. The forces were not on full combat alert; unfortunately the Japanese were. The Japanese force, consisting of five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and one destroyer, slipped past the advanced scouting patrol of two destroyers and hit the southern force hard, and within ten minutes it was destroyed as an effective fighting force. Only one ship – the destroyer Patterson – had even radioed an alarm. The ships of the northern force, ten miles away, observed the action to the south and were wondering what to make of the Patterson’s message `warning warning strange ships entering the harbour’.

Gunichi Mikawa, the Japanese Admiral, was informed that there were ships to the north and he turned north – away from the transports – to confront this new menace. During this turn northward his force had split into two columns and it was between these two columns that the Quincy, Astoria and Vincennes were caught. Even though the Patterson’s warning and the battle to the south was observed by the bridge personnel on all three cruisers, they were not ready for the onslaught. Captain Greenman of the Astoria was not even on the bridge and Captain Moore of the Quincy was also just arriving. Unprepared, their armament not fully manned and ready, caught in glare of searchlights, the three cruisers were sitting ducks for the Japanese force.

Within half an hour three New Orleans class cruisers were fatally damaged by a Japanese force of a similar size – not a good performance for ships that were supposed to incorporate the highest standard of protection and fighting qualities. However, the result was not so much an indication of poor design as it was of battle unreadiness, disorganised damage control, and poor practice – especially in having fully-fuelled floatplanes on the catapults during battle. The highly flammable aviation fuel not only caused massive damage when ignited but it also illuminated each ship as a target. When the lessons of this battle were learned, the remaining members of this class were to able to absorb far greater damage and yet remain afloat.

Survivors of the Quincy, Astoria and Vincennes could take some small consolation from the fact that by turning to confront the northern force Mikawa was deflected from his primary objective – the transports sitting off Lunga Point. The loss of the transport fleet would have meant the end of the Guadalcanal invasion and the probable stranding of the 1st Marine Division. So in this sad way these cruisers ultimately contributed to the success of the Guadalcanal campaign.

There were now only three New Orleans class cruisers in the South Pacific, and within two weeks they were in combat providing screening and anti- aircraft support for the carriers Wasp and Saratoga. A week later the Wasp was sunk by a submarine and its screen, including the San Francisco, was dispersed amongst various other task forces. So it was on 13 October that San Francisco became the flagship of Task Force 64, a surface action group assembled to block a reinforcement group screened by three Japanese heavy cruisers heading for Guadalcanal.

After the firing resumed and the American line became disordered, it turned into a confused action. Admiral Scott was aware that he was hitting his own ships as well as the enemy’s and ordered a withdrawal. Still, the American force got the better of the engagement by sinking the cruiser Furutaka, destroyer Fubuki and severely damaging the Japanese flagship Aoba for the loss of the Duncan and damage to the Boise. The flagship San Francisco distinguished herself in the first of two battles that were to earn her the Presidential Unit Citation.

The Battle of Guadalcanal, 13 November.

This battle was the turning point of the Guadalcanal campaign. For four months the United States and her allies had contested the island with the Japanese. Even though there was almost daily land combat and four major naval battles had been fought, neither side had gained the advantage. By early November both sides were gearing up for one last major push. The US sent two convoys of seven transports from Noumea escorted by five cruisers and eleven destroyers. The San Francisco was flagship of the escorting forces carrying the flag of Rear Admiral Callaghan. The Japanese prepared a convoy of eleven transports in Bougainville, which was to be preceded by a bombardment force of two fast battleships, a cruiser and eleven destroyers to knock out the US airfield on Guadalcanal – Henderson Field – so that the Japanese transports could approach unmolested by air attacks.

The US reinforcements arrived first, defended by the cruisers against air attacks from Japanese bases in Rabaul 600 miles to the north. The San Francisco was hit in her after control station, severely wounding her executive officer, Commander Crouter. Despite his injuries he elected to stay with his ship for the ensuing night battle. Bad choice.

The US had to protect Henderson Field at all costs, so the cruiser force escorting the reinforcement convoys were ordered to stop the more powerful Japanese bombardment force from carrying out its mission, whatever the consequences. Admiral Callaghan led his cruiser force out of Ironbottom Sound with the now empty transports creating the impression of leaving the sound vacant for the Japanese to bombard Henderson Field without opposition. Then, under the cover of darkness, Callaghan detached eight destroyers and his five cruisers – Atlanta, his flagship San Francisco, Portland, Helena and Juneau – and headed back into Ironbottom Sound to confront the oncoming Japanese bombardment force.

The Japanese force suspected nothing – they thought that they would have an uncontested run at the airfield. Callaghan was new to his job – this was his first combat assignment as an admiral in charge – and his Flag Captain, Cassin Young, had just joined the San Francisco five days before. Callaghan had formulated no battle plan nor did he communicate with any of his captains what his intentions were. He just formed a cumbersome line ahead formation of four van destroyers, five cruisers (in the order given above), and four destroyers bringing up the rear, and sailed into Ironbottom Sound. Soon there were reports of contact with the enemy: first by radar, then visual contact. The Japanese had also sighted the US ships but were not sure of their nationality. Callaghan’s task force was not allowed to open fire – they had sailed into the centre of the Japanese formation at very close range. Finally the battleship Hiei turned her searchlights on the unmistakeable profile of the cruiser Atlanta and all hell broke loose.

Belatedly Callaghan radioed the order to his force: `Odd ships commence fire to starboard even ships fire to port’. This was confusing, as his ships were not sure whether they were even or odd and often they were tracking targets on the wrong side. The engagement quickly degenerated into a melee with ships firing away at anything and at very close range. The San Francisco took the battleship Hiei under fire and then switched to the Atlanta. As soon as Callaghan realised what was happening he ordered `cease firing own ships’. This was most likely meant only for the San Francisco but the message went out over radio to the whole task force, creating more confusion. Fortunately, the Japanese were as confused as the Americans as the battle deteriorated even further.

Shortly afterward the bridge of the San Francisco was hit by a 14in shell that killed Admiral Callaghan and all but one of his staff, and mortally wounded Captain Young. Any hope of bringing order to the US task force ended with that and the ships all fought individual battles with each other and the Japanese. The battle degenerated into total chaos; it was, as one historian put it, `like minnows swimming in a bucket – Japanese ships intermingling with US ships’.

The San Francisco’s top command was wiped out: the admiral, captain, exec, first lieutenant and navigation officer were all dead or mortally wounded. The San Francisco was engaging two Japanese battleships at close range. There were over 45 shell hits and 25 fires were raging over the ship. Command devolved to two lieutenant-commanders, Bruce McCandless, the signals officer, and Herbert Schonland, acting first lieutenant. McCandless conned the ship while Schonland in overall command attended to damage control. These two junior officers fought the ship through the Japanese task force whilst putting out fires and leading the other surviving US ships out of danger. For this they were each awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

With the San Francisco retiring and the Hiei immobilised by numerous hits, the battle wound down, leaving six US ships heading back to Noumea, two cripples unable to move out of Ironbottom Sound and five others sinking or sunk by the Japanese. The badly damaged and immobile Hiei was sunk later that day, joining two Japanese destroyers that had been sunk the night before.

Despite all that went wrong, the US forces prevailed that night. They stopped the bombardment force and inflicted as much or more damage on a superior force than they suffered from the Japanese. Quite possibly it was the confusion; US sailors proved better able to cope with the chaotic situation that ensued when the two forces became hopelessly entangled.

The Battle of Tassafaronga, 30 November/1 December.

The last major surface battle in Guadalcanal waters involved the two remaining New Orleans cruisers in the Pacific. They were lucky to survive.

This battle came about when the Japanese were desperately trying to supply their starving troops by sneaking in small, fast destroyer task forces at night. These destroyers were laden with supplies and replacement troops, which impaired their fighting ability, but they were able to slip in under cover of darkness, deposit their cargo and get out before daylight brought on air attacks.

On 30 November the US forces tried to surprise and intercept one of these Japanese task forces. Under Rear Admiral Carlton Wright a powerful force of five cruisers – the New Orleans, Minneapolis, Pensacola, Northampton and light cruiser Honolulu – accompanied by six destroyers was sent to stop a Japanese force of eight destroyers, six of them laden with troops and supplies. To ensure that the floatplanes on the US cruisers were not a liability they were sent to Tulagi before the battle and the gasoline lines drained so as to not be a fire risk. A battle plan was drawn up – the destroyers were to attack first with torpedoes and then the cruisers would open fire on the ships that survived.

The powerful cruiser task force crept into Ironbottom Sound and detected the oncoming Japanese ships on their radar. The lead destroyers requested permission to fire torpedoes; belatedly the answer came back – affirmative. Unfortunately, the targets had passed and the torpedoes had to chase the Japanese destroyers at a poor target angle. Then the five cruisers opened up, but they all went for the lead Japanese destroyer, the Takanami. They scored hit after hit and disabled the Takanami within minutes after opening fire. The Japanese were completely surprised but they reacted resolutely and skilfully. This was a result of excellent night training and the leadership of Rear Admiral Tanaka, one of the best combat admirals of the war. Without firing a shot (which would have revealed their location) the remaining destroyers put over twenty torpedoes in the water, turned close to shore to decrease visibility, and got away as fast as they could, heaving provisions overboard for the soldiers ashore to retrieve as best they could.

Within five minutes the torpedoes struck. First was the Minneapolis, hit by two torpedoes in the bow and losing the entire bow section forward of Number 1 turret. The New Orleans, behind the Minneapolis, swerved to avoid the damaged Minneapolis and was hit in the forward magazine – its whole bow was also blown off, right up to Number 2 turret. So sudden was this that an observer on the stern of the New Orleans saw the bow floating past with its turret pointing to the sky and reported that the ship had just passed the sinking Minneapolis. The Pensacola was next: a torpedo smacked into her aft engine room and set off a fire that shot as high as the mainmast. Last was the Northampton, hit by two torpedoes and sunk as a result. The Japanese destroyers had defeated a much more powerful force for the loss of only one destroyer. Post-battle analyses confirmed the following reasons for the loss:

– the rate of 8in gunfire was too slow to hit fast moving targets at night,

– night training is all-important,

– and the efficacy of the Japanese torpedo tactics was at last recognised.

There were now three very badly damaged New Orleans class cruisers in South Pacific waters. They all made their way painfully back to Pearl Harbor and thence to the West Coast shipyards for repair and rebuilding. The Minneapolis and New Orleans had lost their bows and had to have temporary ones built out of coconut logs at Tulagi just to get them to Noumea.

REPAIRS AND REFITS

Within four months of the start of the Guadalcanal campaign all six cruisers of this class in the Pacific were either sunk or out of action. The Japanese cruiser force was similarly decimated, with the entire Kako class out of action and half the Mogami class also sunk or out of action. There was a hiatus on both sides as they repaired their damaged ships. The three surviving New Orleans cruisers active in the Pacific, New Orleans, San Francisco and Minneapolis, were extensively modified during their long stay in drydock. Antiaircraft defence was now a priority as their new role was seen as support for the fast fleet carriers. The bridges were rebuilt to a narrower profile to eliminate topweight and give the AA guns a wider firing arc. New radar and electronics were also installed.

Not only were damaged ships repaired during the relatively quiet year of 1943 but the Pacific Fleet commissioned 5 new fleet carriers, 5 light carriers, 14 new cruisers and 73 new destroyers. The Japanese could not keep up: they were only able to commission 3 light cruisers and 10 destroyers in the same period.

In October 1943 the `Big Blue Fleet’ (Task Force 58) debouched from Pearl Harbor as part of `Operation Galvanic’, the reconquest of the Gilbert Islands. This comprised 6 fleet carriers, 5 light carriers, 6 new fast battleships, 8 cruisers and 44 destroyers. The Pacific War was transformed and the desperate battles of the Solomons were a thing of the past.

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