Tuesday, August 11, 2009

SAVO ISLAND

OLD NAVY, TRUE GRIT

Kevin Cullen has a column about a survivor of one of the three US Navy cruisers sunk in the stunning night-time naval defeat inflicted by the Imperial Japanese Navy off Guadalcanal on August 9, 1942. USS Quincy, USS Vincennes, and USS Astoria, all heavy cruisers, some less than 10 years old, were lost – along with a Royal Australian Navy cruiser, HMAS Canberra.

Ernie King, Chief of Naval Operations, considered it personally as the low point of the whole war. Only two months after the stupendous and decisive US naval victory at Midway – where four Japanese fleet carriers were sunk, all veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor – and yet his commanders could turn in the stunningly depressing performance at Savo Island.

And depressing it was.

The cruisers were assigned as a screening group to protect the landing fleet that was supporting the Marines it had landed on Guadalcanal. Word had come that a sizable Japanese naval force had been sighted earlier that day only 400 miles away, near Bougainville. Since they were only two hundred miles from the great Japanese naval base at Rabaul, and heading south, and since there wasn’t any larger activity of interest in the vicinity, their objective could be readily surmised. It was expected that picket destroyers further out from the cruisers would sound the alarm if any of those warships turned up in the vicinity of Guadalcanal.

The cruisers settled into a night formation, two groups of them each steaming in a box pattern five miles on a side. The Allied ships were at a Condition Two state of readiness, whereby two-thirds of the guns in each ship’s main battery were manned and all guns were loaded, but not primed.

Alas. Picket destroyer USS Blue failed to detect the Japanese arrival in the darkness, just after 0100 on Sunday, August 9. The Allied commander, Rear Admiral Crutchley of the Royal Australian Navy, had departed with his flagship, cruiser HMAS Australia, for a commanders’ meeting close inshore off Guadalcanal. Earlier, Japanese advance scout planes had also been unremarked as they determined the Allies vessels’ formations and positions.

Destroyer USS Patterson, close in to the cruisers, was the first to send an emergency alert, over the TBS (talk between ships) radio net: “Warning, warning! Strange ships entering harbor!” But a command vessel was transmitting change of course orders over the same net, and Patterson’s alert was not heard.

Almost immediately thereafter, Japanese float planes dropped flares to give their gunners a good look at their targets. Cruisers HMAS Canberra and USS Chicago were illuminated and within five minutes Canberra had taken 24 hits and was a blazing wreck. Chicago was hit by a torpedo and did not engage the Japanese as they went by at high speed, headed for the rest of the Allied ships. Her commanding officer, left in charge by RADM Crutchley, failed to warn his colleague aboard USS Vincennes, now in the path of the high-speed, booming Japanese attack.

Aboard USS Astoria, a lookout had heard the planes, notified the bridge, and been told to keep a sharp eye out. As the flares spread their deathly glow, the lieutenant in charge of her sky-watch rang the bridge and suggested respectfully the immediate need to sound General Quarters, bringing the ship’s crew to battle stations. The officer of the deck ordered the commanding officer (CO) to be alerted in his sea cabin, just aft of the bridge, and to stand by to sound GQ.

The gunnery officer on Astoria had seen the flares and seen Japanese heavy cruisers less than six thousand yards off, ordered all of his guns readied, and also rang the bridge and urgently suggested that GQ be sounded.

Before that good thought could be executed, the Japanese switched on their huge searchlights and started firing.

Astoria’s gunnery officer rang up the bridge, requested permission to begin firing and – receiving no immediate reply – gave the order to return fire himself.

The officer originally ordered to alert the CO had failed to do so, busy with radioing information about a standard course change.

The warship’s Quartermaster, a senior enlisted man, took it upon himself to pull the GQ alarm without orders.

That brought the CO on the double, but his first concern, seeing searchlights and flares, was worry that his guns were firing on friendly ships and he inquired sharply as to just who had given the order to sound GQ and start shooting? He ordered his guns to cease fire immediately. But straightaway a couple of well-placed Japanese salvos detonating close aboard convinced him that GQ and shooting were the thing to do at the time, and he both confirmed the GQ order and ordered resumption of fire.

But Astoria was soon hit and set afire amidships, and her course blocked the aim of her two forward batteries, so she could only bring her aft battery of big guns to bear, and that battery had just lost electrical power. And then her forward turret was hit and destroyed.

By 0445 Astoria’s CO decided that the ship – fires raging, fire mains ruptured, and ammunition threatening to explode – had to be abandoned. Destroyer USS Bagley bravely pulled herself right up alongside the big cruiser’s bow, and wooden planks were laid across to expedite evacuation of the wounded and the dying.

Meanwhile, Astoria’s Executive Officer (XO) and about 150 crewmen had gathered on her stern. Unable to see beyond the roaring flames amidships, and with all communications wrecked, they assumed that the entire ship forward was ablaze, which was not actually the case.

Seeing Bagley apparently pulling away from the bow, the XO signaled her, put off the wounded, and then decided that he and his remaining lads would start a bucket brigade and go after the fire. A light rain began falling and that helped. By dawn he and the Chief Engineer decided that Astoria could not only be saved but might soon depart the area under her own power. Just after dawn, sturdy Bagley brought the CO back aboard.

He huddled with the XO and the Chief Engineer, and they put together a plan to save the ship. About 325 men, not half her crew left unhurt and alive, readily came back aboard to save their ship. Engineering hands went directly below to get the engine-room and one of the engines working. The rest formed fire-fighting parties, except for a detail assigned to collect the dead.

But by 1100, the Japanese long gone and Vincennes, Quincy and Canberra already sunk, the fires proved too much and ominous explosions began to rock her near her ammunition spaces. She began to list, heeling over quickly. As she heeled over, and water began pouring into shell-holes that previously had been above the surface of the waves, her sailors robustly tried to stuff the holes with mattresses and pillows – the sea pouring in on them and flames behind them.

At noon she was abandoned again, with a list of 30 degrees. She went under only 15 minutes later, at 1215. But her plucky crewmen managed to get off.

What’s my point?

Yes, the overall command element had failed rather spectacularly.

But the crews were magnificent. Frakking magnificent. And upon them be much peace.

John Paul Jones once said “Without a Respectable Navy, Alas America!”. But we are now in the grip of a Politically Correct elite – in both the civilian and uniformed command – that has for decades imagined that “industrial age virtues” are “quaint” and “macho”; that US Naval vessels will never again face World War Two-type challenges or – as if ships are only threatened by hostile action – any serious emergencies out on the deep; and that the first concerns of officers and crew should be comfort, career, and Correctness.

Pain, horror, and death – its threat to you and its presence all around you – are considered (if they are considered at all) to be equally “quaint”, and surely so improbable as to be almost mythical.

Consequently, the type of grit that enables crewmen (crewpersons?) to dismiss all personal emotions and focus on the job at hand, to each do the work of two or three men, to manhandle heavy equipment (and perhaps the wounded bodies or corpses of crewmates) up ladders – all under pressure of fire, explosion, poisonous fumes and the ever-present feral growl of the sea … that type of grit is ‘unnecessary’. And few who posses it may last more than one or two tours before getting the message that their type of sailor or officer is no longer required.

Lah dee dah.

A warship is no Ivy League campus that happens to be floating around on top of the ocean. A warship is no traveling ‘career’, no ‘office’ free from the consequences that beset and bethump life in this Vale of Tears.

If anything, a warship is the focus of a much more intensified danger than that facing land-bound civilians. Even on a fine afternoon in peacetime you are standing on a floating mass of steel (notoriously non-buoyant) crammed with fuel, ammunition, all sorts of machinery, all sorts of electronics made up of stuff that can go toxic if it catches fire, maybe some planes that are equally capable of doing baaad things, and surrounded by an ocean that could swallow a 90,000-ton aircraft carrier without a hiccup. And will, if given half a chance.

Considering what those ‘quaint’, ‘industrial age’ sailors accomplished 70 or so years ago – and surely as recently as 1967 when the Israelis attacked the USS Liberty, and later in 1967 when USS Oriskany was set afire by one of her own aircraft’s missiles and 1975 when USS Belknap was decapitated by USS Kennedy and 1987 when USS Stark was hit and 2000 when USS Cole was hit – it should become clear that the true grit displayed by the incredibly named ‘old Navy’ (so designated by the elites who ‘get it’ and want a kindler, gentler, gurrrl-friendly fleet) is still a vital job requirement for anyone who goes down to the sea and into harm’s way.

We may be more open to that truth now that the whole country is facing challenges not unlike a ship in extremis: familiar structures and supports suddenly gone, a lethal atmosphere now clouding vision and breath, and the ever-growling presence of failure, ill health, and death lurking but a short distance away.

We’re all at sea now.

Let Us brace Ourselves to it.

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