Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Battle of Cape Esperance

Early in World War II, Japanese forces were superior to the Americans in almost every way. In the air, the Japanese Zero fighters were faster and more maneuverable than the US Wildcats and P-40's which protected Guadalcanal, so that the US planes had to be continually replaced. The American pilots also had to be replaced on an average of every thirty days. The jungle took its toll in dysentery and malaria, as did the stress of constant bombardment, and a shortage of fuel and ammunition. On the sea, the Japanese torpedoes were more accurate, and all their ships carried them, whereas the US torpedoes exploded only about half the time and only destroyers carried them. Also the Japanese navy excelled in night fighting, having worked out signals for communication between ships, and pyrotechnics to light up enemy targets.

The island of Guadalcanal lay in the middle of Japan’s defensive perimeter, and it straddled the supply route for the Allied forces, so both sides considered it essential to their strategic plan. Since the US marines had taken over the base and air strip there, the Japanese put all their resources into taking it back. It was up to the US navy to make sure they didn’t succeed.

In September of 1942 Everett’s ship, the USS San Francisco, was part of Task Force 18, assigned to protect a supply convoy headed for Guadalcanal. The convoy was discovered and attacked by Japanese submarines on September 8, and while they managed to deliver supplies and reinforcements to Guadalcanal, they lost the Destroyer O'Brien, the Battleship North Carolina, and the aircraft carrier Wasp. 

Everett witnessed the sinking of the three ships and the rescue of the survivors. Out of a crew of 2247 men on the Wasp, 173 were killed and 400 injured. He said the sinking of the Wasp was the most horrific explosion he ever witnessed, and that was saying something. After the battle, the US was now left with only one aircraft carrier in the Pacific, the Hornet, while the Japanese now had six. The Japanese were also building up their forces on Guadalcanal almost unmolested, in night runs the marines nicknamed the “Tokyo Express.”

By October, General Vandergrift, commander of the American troops on Guadalcanal, informed his superiors that he would not be able to hold the island much longer. The US Navy hadn’t been able to stop the Tokyo Express, and it had lost 8 cruisers and 3 destroyers in the attempt. So far the US naval command hadn't been willing to commit more troops to Guadalcanal, reserving them for the capture of the island of Ndeni, where they intended to build an air base for planes on their way to Guadalcanal. 

Finally, on October 8, Admiral Ghormley, Pacific fleet commander, responded to Vandergrift by sending a convoy carrying the 164th Infantry Regiment. The covering force consisted of the aircraft carrier Hornet, the battleship Washington, and the newly formed Task Force 64, made up of 4 cruisers and five destroyers, under the command of Admiral Norman Scott, aboard the USS San Francisco, Everett’s ship.

Scott’s ambition had long been to disrupt the previously invincible Tokyo Express. He had studied Japanese night tactics, and had worked out a plan of his own for night battles, utilizing the torpedoes of his destroyers and the fire power of his cruisers to the best advantage, and giving the ship captains under him the authority to fire on their own initiative. He had also given his ships nighttime firing practice. On the night of October 11, as he was preparing for the arrival of the convoy carrying the 164th Regiment, he got a chance to test his plans.

At 1600 hours (4:00 PM) an enemy convoy was sighted northwest of Guadalcanal heading down the “Slot,” the channel through the Solomon Islands used by the Japanese navy to supply their troops. Admiral Scott rushed to head them off. He arranged his ships across the channel with the cruisers in the middle and destroyers at both ends. His plan was for the destroyers to fire their torpedoes at the large ships, and also to illumine any ships in range of the cruisers’ big guns. It was a beautiful plan, but what followed was a comedy of errors.

The Battle of Cape Esperance, Oct. 11, 1942

At 2330 hours, thirty minutes before midnight, Admiral Scott received a report that three enemy ships had been sighted coming from the northeast. His original plan had been to turn north following the coastline of Savo Island heading toward the Japanese convoy reported earlier, but instead he now ordered his column to turn back to the Southwest, so as to interpose his task force between the two Japanese groups. This is where the confusion began. As the lead ship in the column, the Destroyer Fahrenheit, began its turn, the crew of the San Francisco, Scott’s own ship, began to turn too instead of remaining in formation, and the rest of the column followed them, leaving the three destroyers behind.

At about the same time they received the order to turn, three of the cruisers saw a blip on their radar to the northwest, but they didn’t report it, assuming that was the reason for Scott’s decision to turn. After about fifteen minutes, the entire column of US ships had reversed their direction, and the three destroyers in the lead had managed to sail between the cruisers and the enemy ships.

By this time all the ships were picking up the Japanese convoy on their radar, and Admiral Scott, now aware of the confusion about his turn orders, was afraid that the radar blips were coming from his own ships. With no orders, the ship captains began to take the initiative. Captain Taylor of the Destroyer Duncan accelerated his ship directly toward the enemy column. The Destroyer Fahrenheit, followed by the Laffley, chose to complete the turn, positioning themselves for a torpedo attack. The crew of the Cruiser, Helena, who had now been aware of the approaching enemy column for fifteen minutes, were now able to see the Japanese ships with their naked eyes. One of the radar operators quipped, “what are we going to do, board them?” A moment later, the Helena opened fire, shortly followed by a barrage of fire from the other American ships.

The Japanese column was caught completely off guard. In the clear night air they had seen the American ships in the distance, but the Japanese commander, Admiral Goto, believed them to be his own transport ships. As he flashed a recognition signal, his ship was hit by the first American salvo, killing him and disabling his ship’s communications. 

The Battle of Cape Esperance continued for about 35 minutes, and the confusion continued. Shortly after firing commenced, Admiral Scott, worried that he might be firing on his own ships, ordered a cease fire, and radioed Captain Robert Tobin, commander of the destoyers at the head of the column:

“How are you?” he asked, to which Tobin replied that he was fine.

“Are we shooting at you?” Scott asked.

“I don’t know who you are shooting at,” Tobin answered.

Not reassured, Scott ordered Tobin’s ships to flash their fighting lights. Having identified the US destoyers, the battle resumed. The Japanese got the worst of it. Four Japanese ships were sunk, and 565 of their sailors were killed. On the American side, one ship was sunk and 3 damaged, two by “friendly” fire, and 163 men were killed. It was a landmark battle for the US Navy, their first victory in a night battle, and while many mistakes were made, Admiral Scott’s tactics were copied afterward by other naval commanders.  The practical results of the battle were that the 164th Infantry Regiment was successfully landed on Guadalcanal, and the Japanese supply convoy was turned back.

For any WWII buffs out there, most of the information for this post came from Guadalcanal, by Richard B. Frank. It’s an excellent book, very readable but  detailed. Other sources I used were Freedom from Fear, by David M Kennedy, good for painting the overall picture of the times, the Great Depression and WWII; Eagle Against the Sun, by Ronald H. Spector, a good summary of the military history of the Pacific Theater, and Wikipedia’s article on the USS San Francisco, CA 38.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Field Mice in Wichita

First, I have a public service announcement. The management, Google, has informed me that in order to continue to find my blog you'll have to create a Google account. I hope that doesn't cause a problem for anyone. Most people use Google anyway. It's more user friendly, and it's easier to find stuff, at least I think so. 

Back to my subject for the day. Although I 've been trying to stick to the story of my uncles during WWII, something in Boyd's last letter reminded me of a story my parents told me about their first house in Wichita. My mother Wenonah wasn't happy with the apartment where they moved first, to say the least. As I mentioned in my post of October 23, 2015, her landlady burned her trash right next to the clothesline where Wenonah hung my diapers, so as soon as they were able - my parents rented a house.

The house was located on the edge of town, and there were a lot of mice living a field nearby, so my parents' problems changed from inconsiderate neighbors to little mice running around the house. My dad got busy setting traps, poison, and plugging all the openings he could find in the floor. That's when he learned that steel wool was better for this than wooden patches or putty, because the mice couldn't chew through it. He must have written to Boyd about his mouse problem for him to joke about scaring them away with a picture from the war. 

Anyway, the story that impressed me most about Don's battle with the mice was how he killed them by hand. He said that the mice had free reign over the house at night and they were still busy when he got up for work in the morning, so while it was still dark outside, he would sneak into the kitchen and turn on the light. This would catch a mouse of two in the middle of the floor. The mice would try and run, but they couldn't get any traction on the linoleum floor, so Don was able to reach down and swat them up against the wall, killing them instantly.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Everett Rejoins the Action

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Everett and the other survivors from the battleship Oklahoma were given their choice of ships for their next assignment. Everett chose the USS San Francisco, a heavy cruiser which had been at Pearl Harbor for repairs at the time of the Japanese attack but had not been hit. He avoided being assigned to one of the battleships, targets of the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. What he couldn’t know was that the USS San Francisco would be chosen as the admiral’s flagship, and would be involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

The repairs on the USS San Francisco were cut short, and by mid-December she was heading back out into the Pacific with Everett aboard. For the first few months of 1942 the San Francisco operated out of Pearl Harbor. She was first sent to defend American troops on Wake Island, but was ordered to withdraw when news of Wake’s fall reached fleet command. Next, the San Francisco supported reinforcements to Samoa, one of the next targets of Japanese expansion, and she shelled Japanese installations in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. From there the San Francisco joined a task force heading for Rabaul, in New Guinae, the center of Japanese operations for the South Pacific, but they were attacked by Japanese bombers and turned back.

By the time the USS San Francisco returned to Pearl Harbor in March of 1942, the ship had not received any fresh supplies of food for almost three months. Everett told Don and Wenonah that with no fresh fruit or vegetables, his hair started falling out, and his fingernails started peeling off.

After being resupplied at Pearl Harbor, the USS San Francisco was sent back to the states for three weeks, and then she joined a convoy carrying a large force of American troops, along with food and munitions, to New Zealand.

About that time, Everett decided to get married, to a girl he had met in San Francisco. They had opened up a joint bank account and he had started sending her money.  Boyd, who was still in artillery training stateside, wrote to Don, worried that their little brother might actually go through with the marriage:

Dear Don and Jimmy, thanks for the letter. It was good to hear that Jimmy is getting along so well. You both must be getting used to the inconvenience of having a baby by now (actually I wouldn't be born for another 2 months). You may not think I am an expert on the subject but every time I look at those pictures of my two it makes me feel old and expert.
Everett’s letter about getting married sounds like a joke at first but he must be serious since he wrote us both the same thing. I am going to write him and tell him that I’d like to see him before he definitely makes up his mind. If he is really in love with this gal O.K, I wouldn’t meddle or interfere, but after all, so far she has been just one of many & he probably hasn’t even seen her for 6 months.
He should at wait until he has some time off to think it over. He couldn’t live with her now even if they were married, & if he doesn’t come through this war, all the marriage would mean is a pension for her as his wife when actually they never had a chance to live together.
By the way don’t worry about writing capt. On my letters. The rule here is that promotions come only after a full year of active duty. Even though I have a lot of seniority, I still won’t be promoted for some time.
This is a swell camp, and I hope I will get to stay a while. Eleanor is coming out as soon as we know & it should be settled any day.
Hope you don’t have to get in this. Stay right with your job and your family if you possibly can, and don’t volunteer.
If you have any trouble with those Kansas field mice you can put this picture where they’ll see it.
It was taken at Moro Bay near here where Jap Subs have sunk several oil tankers. Good luck to you kids. Sincerely, Boyd

In June, the Japanese landed troops on the island of Guadalcanal, just east of Australia, the main supply base for Allied forces. The US command immediately made plans to retake the island, and two months later, US marines landed on the beach and took the almost completed airstrip, which they named Henderson Field, after a pilot killed in the battle of Midway.

The marine landing was covered by several cruisers and by air support from three aircraft carriers, commanded by Admiral Frank Fletcher. When the Japanese navy attacked the transport ships unloading supplies for the marines, admiral Fletcher, fearing that he would lose his carriers, withdrew, leaving the cruisers and transports unprotected. What followed was the Battle of Savo Island, the worst defeat in US naval history, with almost 2000 US casualties.  

After the Battle of Savo Island, Everett’s ship, the USS San Francisco, headed for Guadalcanal.