A special "thanks" goes out to Brooksie Conery, daughter of Ralph Paul Breaux. Brooksie donated her time to re-type the "San Francisco Story" which was written by Rear Admiral Bruce McCandless. The original copy was not legible enough to put on the web site. Now we proudly present:
"The San Francisco"
By Rear Admiral BRUCE McCANDLESS, U.S.N. (Ret.)
The Guadalcanal campaign has passed into history as one of the most fiercely fought and desperately contested in the military annals of the United States and Japan. Normally of negligible importance, the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomans suddenly attained great strategic value early in World War II; for its possession both navies committed many ships, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of men. The campaign opened with the landing of elements of the U.S. Marine Corps on August 7, 1942, and closed with the evacuation of the last surviving Japanese troops six months later.
Several times our enemy came perilously close to regaining control of the island. His greatest threat, his maximum effort, culminated in the three day, multi-phase naval battle of Guadalcanal, November 12-15, 1942. During it the San Francisco, heavy cruiser flagship of Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, took part in an amphibious operation, the defeat of an air raid, and was crashed by torpedo-bomber. In one night she came under the concentrated fire of two battleships, a light cruiser, and a destroyer. Hit 45 times and heavily damaged, she nevertheless survived; one of the opposing battleships was badly hurt, unable to withdraw, and was sank by aircraft. The San Francisco narrowly missed being torpedoed and was showered by pieces of the ship that was hit instead. And one of her planes assisted in the gutting of four Japanese transports that had reached Guadalcanal.
The San Francisco was a fine ship for a cruiser, built under the limitations of the Washington and London Naval Treaties. Constructed at the Mare Island Navy Yard, completed in 1934, she had a standard displacement of 9,950 tons, mounted nine 8-inch 55-caliber guns in three turrets and eight 5-inch, 25-caliber antiaircraft guns. By the time of the Guadalcanal campaign her armament had been increased by four 1.1-inch quadruple barreled mounts and twelve 20-mm heavy machine guns.
She was moderately well-armored with decks totaling 3-1/2 inches, a main belt 5 inches thick over magazines and engineering spaces, 5-inch barbettes and turrets, and an 8-inch conning tower. While this armor afforded reasonable protection against guns of other cruisers and smaller vessels, armor-piercing projectiles from battleship guns should penetrate in with ease. According to Naval War College, her “life,” expressed in terms of 14-inch hits was between four and five penetrative hits or twice as many non-penetrative ones.
The missions her designers had in mind were typical cruiser ones: scouting, screening, raiding, protection of our own commerce and destruction of an enemy’s and engaging other light forces. To carry these out she had a large cruising radius, a maximum speed of 32-1/4 knots, and carried four small seaplanes.
The San Francisco was not only a happy ship, but a fairly lucky one as well. Undergoing overhaul in the Pearl Harbor Naval Yard when the Japanese struck, she came through the debacle with only a broken searchlight and a few minor wounds to her personnel. Flagship of the task group at the Battle of Cape Esperance the following October, she was in the thick of it and emerged without a scratch. Such phenomenal luck could not last forever; it ran out rather suddenly on November 12, 1942, but even then she was in many respects very fortunate.
In November, 1942 the San Francisco was manned by 76 officers and 967 enlisted men, including the two officers and 42 men of her Marine detachment. Admiral Callaghan and his staff of six officers (which included two communication watch officers) brought over on board count up to 1,050 persons.
Being in the flagship of a task group, our navigator Commander Rae E. Arison acquired additional duties as staff operations officer and pilot for a whole formation of ships. There were no small jobs in the waters of the Solomans and precluded his filling the customary role of the navigator when we were at battle stations (which seemed to be most of the time)—that of officer-of-the-deck. My offer to assume this last duty met with the approval of everyone concerned, especially as the added communication personnel of the staff made my job as ship’s communication offer a bit superfluous.
Relationships between “ship” and “staff” were most cordial. The four lieutenant commanders of the staff—Louis M. LeHardy, Emmett O’Beirne, Damion M. Cummings, and Jack W. Wintle—had many personal friends aboard. Wintle, the flag lieutenant, was a Naval Academy classmate of mine. And Admiral Callaghan had captained the San Francisco for about a year. He had left us as a four-striper in May and came back with two stars on October 30 to make his former command his flagship. He and his staff were welcomed aboard with great enthusiasm.
Another important personnel change took place: we lost Captain Charles H. “Sue” McMorris, under whom we had fought at Cape Esperance, destined for a rear admiralcy and a flag command in the Aleutians. His relief was Captain Cassin Young, who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism at Pearl Harbor. Our new captain arrived by plane from Noumea late on the 8th and relieved on the 9th of November.
At dawn on the 10th we sortied from Espiritu Santo—our advanced naval base in the New Hebrides—with several other ships of Rear Admiral Callaghan’s Task Group 67.4 (the Support Group) to rendezvous with other units of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner’s Task Force 67, bound for Guadalcanal and one of the strangest campaigns of the war.
The prize was Guadalcanal, the key its airfield—Henderson Field. We held one part of the island, the Japanese another. By day, under cover of our air power—principally, Marine-manned fighters and bombers—we shelled enemy positions; by night it’s an odd reversal of roles; the Japanese shelled our troops, under General Vandergrift, bombarded the airfield, and threw ashore men and supplies—but with only partial success in handling artillery. This strange joint tenancy was something both sides were anxious to end as quickly as possible.
The Japanese marshaled air, sea, and land forces for an all-out assault. Air raids were stepped-up; a naval force of two battleships (loaded with special ammunition) a light cruiser, and fourteen destroyers would pulverize Henderson Field, its planes, supplies and facilities; then with American air power out of the way, a crack infantry division and the urgently-needed artillery would be landed to augment the troops already ashore. The results would be another Bataan, another death march, the disastrous end of the first American offensive in the Pacific, and the removal of this barrier to Japan’s southward expansion.
The Air Attack
Estimating Japanese capabilities and intentions with uncanny accuracy, Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, Commander Task Force 67, was hurriedly unloading troops and supplies (which we had escorted) on November 12; the work was well along when an Australian coast watcher radioed that an air strike was passing by Bougainville heading our way from Raboul, main Japanese base in the area. Admiral Turner stopped unloading operations, sent all ships to battle stations, got the force underway, and prepared to meet this threat.
He formed a circular antiaircraft defense disposition with the four transports and two cargo ships in two parallel columns at the center. Outside on them on a circle were the five cruisers, the San Francisco ahead of the transport group on the axis, the others on each bow and quarter of the transports. Screening destroyers and two high speed minesweepers filled the gaps. Course and axis 340° and speed 14 knots were ordered.
We did not wait long—about 2:10 p.m. the attack materialized. An estimated six type Zero fighters and 25 bombers striking at the airfield were engaged by Marine fighters overhead, and an aerial battle took place, from which fighters, bombers and parachuting aviators fell about our ships. We were unable either to watch or take part in that fight; however, the main blow, consisting of 21 twin-engine torpedo planes attacked our formation. Hurdling the southeastern end of Florida Island, they came at us from the northeast fanning out into line like a old-time cavalry deployment. Making 170 knots and barely skimming the calm waters of the sound, they began their aerial bonzai charge.
While waiting for the planes to get within range of our anti-aircraft guns, the San Francisco fired her 8-inch turrets at them, deliberately shooting short, the ricocheting shells throwing up large geysers of water along their paths; the Portland did likewise. The attempt to crash a few that way was unsuccessful, but the enemy pilots evidently didn’t like the water carnival; they twisted and turned, but they still came at us.
The planes then split into two groups, one to keep on and attack from the northeast, the other to swing wide and approach from the southeast. To the difficulties inherent in conducting a coordinated attack, Admiral Turner added another: a maneuvering target, adroitly handled. Before the southern group was in position to start its run in, he presented an irresistibly attractive target to the northern group, inducing it to launch its torpedoes ahead of schedule while letting most of our AA batteries bear on it. As soon as the northern group was irretrievably committed, he executed ships left 90°, paralleling the torpedoes it dropped.
The San Francisco and Portland ceased firing their turrets after only a few salvos; the interference with their AA batteries, particularly in tracking, was unacceptable. We were rewarded by seeing our opening 5-inch bursts bring down a plane. Firing became general, with the northern group the primary target, and every ship blazed away at the low-flying torpedo planes—some of which were below bridge level. And the Helena fired her forward turrets at the remnants of this group as they crossed ahead.
The southern group was attacked by fighters, released from the battle overhead, during its approach. It met with heavy fire and another stern target, but the F4F-4 fighters that darted through our A.A. fire heedless of danger deserve most of the credit for defeating this attack. Of the 21 planes in both groups, twenty were destroyed—nine by A.A. fire of the ships, eleven by fighters.
Not a ship was hit by torpedo, although some sustained damage from “friendly” A.A. fire, and four of our fighters were lost. Of the torpedoes that were dropped, one tumbled end-over-end, another made a circular run, and only a few ran “hot, straight, and normal.” One of these few crossed ahead of us, but we paid the keenest attention to a torpedo that came up from astern and passed up our starboard side, close aboard. We didn’t dare maneuver until it passed clear—well clear.
The San Francisco was not to come through this unscathed, however. One plane, its torpedo dropped, and set afire by the McCauley, crashed into our after superstructure from about 150° relative and caromed over the port side into the water. It wiped out the crews of three 20-mm. machine guns who stood to their places firing to the last in the most heroic manner. The fiery impact of this twin-engine plane—one of the few instances of a multi-engine plane crashing into a ship—also wrecked the after main battery director, its FC radar, and the after fire control stations. It also started a bad gasoline-fed fire that burned out the secondary conning station—Battle II.
In all, the crash would cost the lives of one officer and 23 enlisted men, chiefly from burns. For the immediate future the San Francisco would be deprived of the services of 45 highly trained officers and men and valuable equipment when they would be most urgently needed. In particular, the loss of the after main battery director and “Spot II” would be keenly felt; their help might have averted or at least minimized a tragedy.
The brief but intense action over, the transport group returned to its anchorage and resumed unloading while the combatant ships stood guard. We transferred 28 burn cases to the President Jackson and should have sent over as 29th—our executive officer, Commander Mark H. Crouter—but he talked himself out of it, arguing that even though he was incapable of duty he could be of great help to his successor by staying. He was allowed to remain aboard but this devotion to duty was to cost his life: that night a shell burst in his cabin, mortally wounding him as he lay bandaged in his bunk.
The Night Battle
About 6:30 p.m. the ships again formed for movement, the transports and cargo ships to return to Espiritu Santo under light escort, five cruisers and eight destroyers under Admiral Callaghan to stay behind, cover the retirement of the transport group, and strike any Japanese forces nearing Guadalcanal.
At this time a reconstituted Task Group 67.4 formed Battle Disposition #1 consisting of three units in column as follows: Van Unit—destroyers Cushing (Comdr. Thomas M. Stokes, ComDesDiv 10, Unit Comdr.), Laffey, Sterett and O’Bannon; Base Unit—antiaircraft light cruiser Atlanta (flagship of Rear Admiral Normal Scott, second in command of group), heavy cruisers San Francisco (flagship of Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, Group and Unit Comdr.) and Portland, light cruiser Helena,, and antiaircraft light cruiser Juneau; Rear Unit—destroyers Aaron Ward (Capt. Robert G. Tobin, ComDesRom 12, Unit Comdr.), Barton, Monssen and Fletcher. This columnar arrangement was partly occasioned by a contemplated two or three passages through channels between Guadalcanal and Florida Islands during the night. So disposed, we headed eastward through Sealark Channel while the transports and their escorts left via Lengo Channel, both groups passing through into Indispensible Strait.
At 7:30 p.m. Task Group 67.4 went to battle stations, confident of seeing more action before the night was through. Our planes, useless in a night battle and a great fire hazard, had been based ashore at nearby Tulagi; last-minute preparations were made, and an air of anticipation pervaded the ship. During the afternoon Admiral Callaghan received several dispatches reporting Japanese naval units so positioned that they could reach Guadalcanal during the night. These came from aircraft and were:
(a) Two battleships or heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and six destroyers sighted at 1035 bearing 008°, distant 335 miles from Guadalcanal, course 180°, speed 23 knots.
(b) Five destroyers, sighted at 1045, bearing 347° distant 195 miles from Guadalcanal, course 090° , speed 15 knots.
(c) Two enemy aircraft carriers and two destroyers, sighted at 1430 bearing 264° distant 265 miles from Guadalcanal, course 135°, no speed given.
Reports (a) and (b) were remarkably accurate; (c) was erroneous and served only to confuse. With all these enemy ships sighted and reported, we could not help wondering if others had escaped detection. But one thing seemed certain: the enemy’s big push was on.
The battleships or heavy cruisers ambiguity in dispatch (a) made no difference in whether Admiral Callaghan would engage; with the transports safely on their way, his mission became offensive. The question of which they might be was discussed. Whichever they were, success appeared most likely from fighting at close ranges and firing first from a favorable position. Admiral Callaghan was under no illusions; the night would be a busy one.
On the other hand, the Japanese admiral commanding the approaching forces was badly deceived. He undoubtedly had excellent reports regarding the composition and movements of our forces but was misled when his observers on Guadalcanal reported only the eastward movement of all American ships about sunset but not the later return of the five cruisers and eight destroyers of Task Group 67.4. The Japanese admiral assumed that Savo Sound would be free of hostile warships—except perhaps a few PT boats; he was to get a rude shock when an American group of thirteen ships passed through his force about 2 a.m. just as he was starting his bombardment run on Henderson Field. In fairness to this foeman of bygone years, it was “a night to remember” for many others too.
About 10 p.m. we left the transport group, confident it was safely on its way, and headed back into Savo Sound via Lengo Channel. The night was dark and moonless, with low-hanging clouds, and lightening flashed in the mountains of Guadalcanal and Florida. A light breeze from the southeast brought the fragrance of tropical flowers across the calm waters. In the Japanese sector two white lights were shining near the shore line, navigational aids for company.
Shortly after passing Lunga Point (in the American sector), at 1:24 a.m. on November 13th, first the Helena, then other ships having the new SG surface-search radar, made contact with the Japanese force en route to work over Henderson Field. The Helena reported three groups totaling about sixteen ships (there were actually fourteen), bearing about northwest, distance from thirteen to sixteen miles. Their course was southeasterly, their speed over twenty knots. This and subsequent information was sent via TBS voice radio to Admiral Callaghan in the San Francisco, which was not equipped with SG radar.
Additional reports followed; the staff tried to reproduce on a chart what officers in SG-equipped ships could see on their radar scopes, but had to convert into terms of bearing and distance for transmission to the flagship. And the Admiral had to use this same TBS circuit, over which information was coming in, to give orders to his group.
At the time of Helena’s radar contact our group was in column, making fifteen knots, on the westerly course of 280°, Admiral Callaghan increased speed to eighteen knots and changed course to north--000°--by two successive column movements. Apparently he intended to throw our formation directly across the path of the enemy force, with our cruisers crossing the enemy “T” and our destroyers positioned so they could attack with torpedoes from both bows. “DIVISION COMMANDERS TAKE CHARGE AND ATTACK!” to the two destroyer unit commanders followed, at an appropriate interval, by “COMMENCE FIRING!” to the cruisers should have sufficed to derail this Tokyo Express—especially if the two large ships proved to be heavy cruisers.
Unaware of our difficulties or even our presence, the Japanese force of Vice Admiral Hiroaki, IJN, entered Savo Sound from the northwest in three groups, after first detaching three destroyers to act as pickets and guard his flank between Guadalcanal and the Russell Islands. The center group consisted of the battleships Hiei (flag) and Kirishima in column (almost 1,640 yards apart) with the light cruiser Nagara and six destroyers disposed about them in a horseshoe-shaped screen. Three destroyers, operating to the westward of this group, joined its screen about the time of contact. A group of two destroyers that had been to the southward of the center group now took position to its eastward—as a precautionary anti-motor-torpedo-boat screen.
Admiral Abe was pushing along at a fast pace, trying to make up for precious time lost when his force encountered heavy rainsqualls earlier in the night. The range closed rapidly. The time was 1:40 a.m., the San Francisco was swinging to the new course 000° at the knuckle, when the leading ships of both forces sighted each other.
The Japanese arrived at the intersection of paths first. The Cushing, our leading destroyer, had to swing hard left to avoid colliding with the leading pair of Japanese destroyers. Their startled captains quickly broadcast warning of our presence. The other ships of our van unit had to maneuver radically to avoid each other and the enemy. Torpedoes were launched and gunfire exchanged in a destroyer dog-fight. So began, at 1:43 a.m. what Admiral Earnest J. King, CNO and CominCh, officially pronounced “one of the most furious sea battles ever fought” and the San Francisco’s crew more picturesquely but with equal validity called “The Fourth of July in Hell!”
The Atlanta, next ahead of us, from slightly on our starboard bow, made a sharp turn to port to avoid the destroyer melee. I called down the voice tube to the flag bridge, “The Atlanta’s turning left! Shall I follow her?”
Back came the reply, “No! Hold your course!” Then, a few seconds later, came “Follow the Atlanta!” First I had to swing the San Francisco slightly right to clear her, then one full left rudder; this resulted in our paralleling the Atlanta on a northwesterly course, with her slightly on our port bow. As we started to swing in astern of her, enemy searchlights came on, one illuminating her from port.
The Atlanta then swung back across our bow from left to right, firing rapidly to port as she went. Her first few salvos contained starshell which effectively lighted up the sector between north and northwest, disclosing what proved to be the screen of the center group. The Atlanta had bounced off the Japanese main body! I followed her as far right as course north, then steadied up pursuant to orders, “Hold course 000!”
Viewed from the San Francisco, the enemy appeared to be crossing ahead. Leaving the conning to me, Captain Young got on with the fighting of the ship, designating as our targets the pair of Japanese destroyers that now bore on our starboard bow. Our gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander William W. Wilbourne, picked out the leading Japanese destroyer and commenced firing with our 8-inch battery, the starboard 5-inch providing star shell illumination. We fired seven salvos at this ship, setting her afire, whereupon ships astern of us also took it under fire.
Captain Young directed Wilbourne to leave this target to our helpers and shift to the destroyer that had been following it. At this moment the two enemy ships reversed course and fell back on their center group, a minor matter that was to contribute to a great tragedy. In the urgency of battle, darkness and confused intermingling friend and foe, the San Francisco accidently fired into the Atlanta. After disappearing from sight to starboard, the Atlanta was torpedoed and hit many times by Japanese shells, losing speed in the process. Probably she drifted into our line of fire—an almost perfectly flat trajectory at that range—or she could have been mistaken for the second Japanese destroyer. We learned later that several salvos of 8-inch projectiles struck her, most passing through her light superstructure, fairly high, without detonating. Perhaps something like that was inevitable in the wild, free-swinging brawl that resulted when the two formations merged.
A huge flare-up beyond her that sent flames a thousand feet into the air revealed the Atlanta’s perilous position. It brought orders of “Cease Firing!” from both Captain Young and Admiral Callaghan. In the stress of the moment this order, intended for the flagship only, went out to all ships over the TBS; it was given scant obedience, however.
This pillar of fire had other effects: many persons, myself included, regarded the Atlanta and Admiral Scott lost, and the glare disclosed more ships, new enemies. Captains looked over the field, selected the most attractive targets, and fell to work on them. In these few seconds we sighted Japanese battleships close aboard, and they sighted us. Admiral Callaghan gave what was to be a famous as well as his last order, “WE WANT THE BIG ONES! THE BIG ONES FIRST!”
“Big ones” they were! The new arrivals were the Hiei and Kirishima, of 29,300 tons and powerfully armed. Each mounted eight 14-inch gun in twin turrets, fourteen 6-inch in the secondary battery and eight 5-inch antiaircraft guns. They were well armored, although a few additional inches had been sacrificed to give them a few knots more speed than contemporary battleships.
We spotted one crossing ahead of us and started swinging left to unmask our after turret. As our 8-inch turrets trained around to take this enemy—the Hiei—under fire, her 14-inch turrets rumbled around and pointed at us, as did half her secondary battery of 6-inch guns. The duel about to begin in which flagship fought flagship was like something out of the past. Neither was the exclusive property of the other, although the San Francisco vs. Hiei encounter formed the central part. The two flagships passed each other on opposite courses, with a minimum range of about 2,500 yards between them, each circling to its left. The action was brief but violent.
The San Francisco fired first, using 2,200 yards as the initial range; the salvo was short but netted a hit. The Hiei was both late starting and slow in rate of fire. Incredibly, her first two salvos missed. Two four-gun salvos hit the water short of us, bursting on impact and projecting vivid greenish pyrotechnics—incendiaries, we would learn. Wilbourne made the most of this luck and went to rapid fire. Had anyone timed our loading crews that night, he doubtless would have seen some new records set. Because our targets were designed to be loaded at 5° elevation and this short range required only 1” and a few minutes, their gun pointers had to depress, not elevate, to get matched and “on target.”
Our frequent gun flashes attracted the attention of other enemy ships. Light cruiser Nagara, ahead of the Hiei and about 3,000 yards distant on our starboard quarter, fired into us, hitting with her second salvo of 5.5-inch shells. An unidentified ship, probably the Kirishima, opened on us, cresting a murderous cross-fire. And the Hiei’s third salvo, four 14-inch projectiles each weighing about 1,400 lbs., crashed into us abreast the bridges with devastating effect.
One burst in the chart house, destroying its contents, and putting our navigator, Commander Arison, out of action. Standing near the curtained doorway to the pilot house, he was blown through it and against the port bridge wing. Another blast hurled him over it, depositing him on a 5-inch mount two deck levels below. The gun was hotly engaged and its crew unceremoniously threw him off, hurling ejected hot shell cases after him. Hits from port laid low everyone on that side of the bridge. One from starboard, apparently from the Hiei, mortally wounded Captain Young, leaving him unconscious. One from port stunned me momentarily, leaving me with my ears ringing and a minor fragment wound. And a deck below, one from the Hiei struck down Admiral Callaghan and the four lieutenant commanders of his staff. This hit probably came from the Hiei’s secondary battery, which had opened a withering fire.
In this lethal storm only two of us were left standing: the steersman, Quartermaster 3/c Harry S. Higdon, who was absolutely untouched, and me, next to him, with a life jacked (worn during G.Q.) full of splinters. Then Higdon called out, “I have lost steering control!” and spun the useless wheel. We had also lost engine control. At the moment the San Francisco was making eighteen knots and swinging left with standard rudder. Seven ships—Portland, Helena, Juneau, and the four rear destroyers—supposedly were following us in a circular death ride.
Unknown to me, the Portland, next astern, had been torpedoed and circled to starboard with her rudder jammed and two propellers sheared off; the Helena had swung out of formation to avoid the Atlanta as she drifted through our column, and the Juneau had been torpedoed. In the rear destroyer unit, the Aaron Ward was hard hit, the Barton had been twice torpedoed and gone down like a rock, taking 90% of her company with her, and the Monssen was sinking. Only the Fletcher, last in column, was undamaged. Of the van destroyers, the Cushing and Laffey were sinking, the Sterett and O’Bannon damaged but still very much in the battle. That these disasters could occur within such short distances of the flagship and not be observed from her bridge seems incomprehensible; that this was the case testified to the intensity of the fire-storm about the flagship herself.
Commander Joseph C. Hubbard had succeeded Crouter as executive officer and was stationed in Battle II, which had been partially restored and re-staffed since the plane crash and fire gutted it. Seeing the explosion on the bridges and getting no answer when his telephone talkers called, he ordered central station to shift steering and engine control to Battle II. Hardly had this been accomplished when a shell plunged through the roof of Battle II, lying waste this place for the second time in twelve hours, killing Hubbard and the men around him.
Then the standby steersman alone in the conning tower (directly under the pilot house) Quartermaster 3/c Floyd A. Rogers, shouted up the voice tube that he now had steering and engine control; central had shifted them to the only topside control station remaining. Higdon and I, apparently the sole survivors of the navigation bridge level, made a quick shift to conn. Sizing up the situation through a slit in conn, I gave Rogers a course that should take us between Savo Island—the loom of which I could make out—and Guadalcanal into open water and straighten out our battle line. (I did not know that it had ceased to exist). Leaving Higdon at the forward slit and Rogers steering, I went back up to the navigation bridge to have another look for Captain Young and get him into conn where he could exercise command of his ship if he were still alive.
Against a midnight-blue backdrop brilliant star shell flares drifted down to go out in the sea. Red, white, and blue tracers interlaced. Searchlights stabbed the darkness; the Hiei put a cluster of three on us, only to have them shot out by a hail of automatic weapons fire from half a dozen ships. Guns flashed yellow flame. Shell hits kicked up hot red sparks, often a flash; misses threw up splashes.
Aboard the Hiei, a shower of luminous snowflakes rose above her masthead and fell like a waterfall. And to this spectrum soon would be added the red tongue of fire.
The navigation bridge was a weird place indeed in the intermittent light of gunfire. It had been hit several times more during my brief absence. Bodies, helmeted and life-jacketed, limbs and gear littered the deck. The siren was moaning and water was raining down through holes in the deck above from the ruptured water-cooling system of the forward 1.1-inch “quads.” I could not identify Captain Young in my hasty search of the navigation bridge, but left convinced that neither he nor anyone else up there would take further part in this action.
During my quest, a Japanese destroyer crossed ahead and sped down our port side on a reverse course, distant only a few hundred yards, firing into us with 5-inch and lighter weapons. Her first shots hit the forward part of the bridge just as I arrived on its after end, but she conveniently shifted to our port 5-inch battery, which had taken her under fire. In this mutual mayhem one of our open mounts was hit directly, the others were swept by a storm of fragments. But one gun, firing in local control under Chief Boatswain’s Mate John McCullough, with the last round it got off, caused a large explosion on the destroyer’s stern that looked like depth charges going up. I witnessed this from a most unusual position—through a shell hole in the port bridge screen while pulling myself out of a hole into which I had stepped.
Returning to the flag bridge, looking for the Admiral to ask what orders he had for his flagship, I found the bodies of the Admiral and Lieutenant Commanders LeHardy, O’Beirne, Cummings, and Wintle on the starboard side outside the door to flag plot. A shell striking the under side of the navigation bridge from slightly aloft the beam had burst directly over them. It killed four of them outright, but O’Beirne miraculously survived the blast.
With this discovery I returned to conn, resolved to (a) keep conning and hope that whatever I did would prove to be correct, (b) notify the senior officer of the Task Group of the death of Admiral Callaghan—which presented problems for which I had no immediate solution, and (c) notify the senior surviving officer of the ship that command had devolved on him. With the captain, regular and acting executive officers, and navigator dead, disabled, or missing, this was Lieutenant Commander Herbert E. Schonland in central station. This information I got to him via Rogers and the battle telephone.
My report put Schonland on the horns of a dilemma. Should he come up, supersede me and take charge of his ship in the customary manner? Or should he let me continue while he personally exercised the function of damage control officer, fought fire and flood, and directed rescue parties? He had succeeded Commander Hubbard in that capacity just a few hours before but was thoroughly familiar with the ship and the job. With twenty-some fires burning throughout the ship, lighting systems out, ventilation failing, and tons of water pouring in through holes near the water line, he chose the latter course—undoubtedly saving the ship—and sent back word for me to continue conning as best I could.
Early in the battle Admiral Abe ordered his ships to break off the action and withdraw from the sound. He had some excellent reasons for so doing: the presence of U.S. destroyers inside his own screen; the ineffectiveness against cruisers of the bombardment ammunition with which his battleships were loaded, the impracticability of conducting his scheduled bombardment; and the knowledge that any ship not well clear of the area by daylight would be attacked savagely by American aircraft. The Hiei and San Francisco now were on diverging courses in the northwest quadrant, only intermittently visible, but still firing at each other.
By this time the San Francisco was fighting by departments, each headed by a lieutenant commander. Schonland, in command, would keep us afloat and right side up; Rodney B. Lair would run the engineering plant, which was virtually intact; Wilbourne and Cone, controlling our main and antiaircraft batteries, respectively, would engage any enemy ships they could identify; I would essay the role of navigator; and Dr. Edward S. Lowe would tend the wounded. We had good interior communications (despite a shortage of talkers) over the sound-powered battle telephones, but because of indoctrination and training, little coordination between departments was necessary: officers and enlisted men assumed leadership, saw things that needed to be done and got about doing them without waiting to be told. This is not the best way to run a ship, but it is surprising how far the momentum of a well-trained outfit will carry it when its leaders are cut down.
A large shell, probably a 14-inch from the Hiei, struck and burst against the top of conn about two feet over my head. The concussion knocked me out; but binoculars undoubtedly saved my eyes from the blast that came in through the slit. The explosion tore up the deck of the pilot house and the steering wheel pedestal. This hit, from above the starboard bow, was one of the last we received.
On getting up from the deck a few seconds later, I was greeted with the familiar words, “We have lost steering and engine control!” We in conn thought the shell hit had caused this, but that proved to be mere coincidence—central had chosen that instant to pull all electrical circuits to conn because of having to fire in their vicinity. Our gyro repeater went out also, leaving us without a compass. But we still had communication with central over the slender cord of the battle telephone, and over it I gave my orders to wheel and engines. Later, ship control would be returned to conn, but for a few hours it would be from central. When the heat and lack of ventilation made that place untenable for more than a few minutes at a time, my quartermasters, Higden and Rogers, alternated relieving the steerman in central.
Fires, USS San Francisco
Paint Locker Officers’ Galley
Sail Locker Captain’s Office
A-26-L Drill Gun Platform
Captain’s Cabin Battle II
A-109-L Auxiliary Signal Station
Wardroom C.P.O. Quarters (1.1* Clipping Room, Port)
Chart House Navigator’s Office
Signal Bridge Athletic Gear Locker
Half Deck under Signal Laundry
Several small topside fires, not listed above, were extinguished by throwing overboard the burning material.
At the time of that action, the ship’s paint removal program was about 60% completed. Except for a small amount of paint in the paint locker that became ignited by a shell hit, no particular difficulty was caused by paint fires. Fire mains fortunately remained intact and the engineering plant was virtually undamaged (except for blowers). The hangar had been well cleared of planes, dope, and other inflammables. Personnel had been intensely drilled in firefighting. The U.S. Navy had come a long way since that tragic August night when three of the San Francisco’s sister ships were lost.
Flooding, USS San Francisco
No hits were received below the waterline and only three as low as the second deck, two of these being on the armor belt. Several compartments were flooded, however, by a fragment that shorted a magazine flooding switchboard and caused the 5-inch powder magazines and handling room for Turrett II to flood. Due to confusion at the time and loss of communication, flooding of these magazines was not stopped until they were completely flooded in the overhead.
Some water flooded through ventilation ducts up to the second deck between frames 28 and 48-1/2 (about 82 feet in length) where water was 3 feet deep. Five-inch magazine A-417-M was inadvertently flooded to a depth of about 3 feet, but flooding was stopped in time to allow its use.
Some further flooding was caused on the second and third decks by water shipped through shell holes, this flooding ranged from 3 feet to 10 inches in depth.
Turret II was put out of action because of the flooding described above and the rendering inoperative of its electrical circuits. After the action Turret 1 would lose the use of its electrical circuits due to water seepage.
Small amounts of fuel oil from ruptured wing tanks and loss of lighting added to the difficulties of damage control.
The Japanese were having their troubles, too. One destroyer was sinking and another had to be abandoned (to be sunk by the Portland after daylight). The Hiei had swung out of view in the direction of Savo Island. According to a Japanese account she had been hit 85 times in this passage passage-at-arms. Some of these were by 8-inch semi-armor piercing 260 lb. projectiles from the San Francisco and Portland that penetrated her side armor, jamming her rudder, damaging her engineering plant, and deranging fire-control equipment. Others were of lesser caliber from the other cruisers and destroyers that played havoc with her upper works. Unfortunately, she seemed to have suffered no underwater damage.
Then came a brief lull in the firing as the two forces disentangled. To the northward we could see searchlights and gun flashes, probably Japanese. As we trained our guns in that direction one 5-inch fired prematurely. This drew fire from an unknown ship, but fortunately all her shots fell short. Wilbourne and I agreed we ought to shoot back and this was done. Then another unidentified ship engaged the first, which shifted to the second. Since we had no idea of the identity of either, we checked fire. The unknown two exchanged a few more salvos, with no visible result, then ceased. Quiet again reigned.
Next, I made out the dark shape of a large ship directly ahead of us between Guadalcanal and Savo Island, distant about 2,560 yards. This was the second battleship, the Kirishima. She laid several main battery salvos down our starboard side, close aboard, but did not hit us; however, about this time turret #2 was put out of action from another unusual cause. A shell fragment had pierced the control panel for flooding magazines, causing a short circuit. The panel functioned as designed—completely flooding the lower handling room of this turret and several magazines. Once more I swung left to let turret #3 bear, and to avoid piling headlong into another battleship. Our return fire apparently was without effect—she was grazed by one 8-inch shell. But to my astonishment—and I confess, relief—the Kirishima was not headed toward us but away at high speed; her salvos were parting shots “over the taff-rail.”
The San Francisco now was heading toward Guadalcanal on a southerly course. We slowed to ten knots to reduce the flooding through water line holes and let repair parties plug them with rolled-up mattresses. Also, making my debut as navigator, without chart, compass, radar, fathometer, or any of the other tools of the trade, I didn’t want things to happen too rapidly. The ship was behaving very peculiarly with about 500 tons of water sloshing back and forth, much of it “fire surface” on the 2nd deck, reducing our stability. Because of this odd behavior and reports of damage, some of which were exaggerated, I thought it would be a mighty good idea to be in the American, not the Japanese, sector in case it became necessary to beach the ship. So I swung eastward along the coast of Guadalcanal, gauging my distance to the dark island by eye, sheering off when it looked too close, heading in when I lost it.
About this time, unknown to us, we were being looked over by the O’Bannon, whose Action Report contains these items: “At about 0213 a smoking vessel was sighted on the port bow. This vessel could not be identified. Torpedo battery was ordered to stand by for action. This vessel apparently was drawing away to northeast. Although this vessel could not be identified, torpedo fire was withheld. (From subsequent tracking by radar this smoking vessel was later identified as San Francisco with Helena close by.)” And her executive officer, Lieutenant Commander D. J. MacDonald, wrote “. . . Two black objects were observed on the port bow at approximately 3,500 yards, from one great clouds of black smoke were pouring. These black objects later turned out to be the Helena and the San Francisco.”
Men in critical condition were lying about the decks. The lull was an excellent time for rescue parties to get around the ship unhampered by gun blasts, and this became the primary work of the moment. But I never shall forget the nameless soul who kept phoning me requesting permission to turn on the cargo handling lights to facilitate search. He may have been stupid, but he wasn’t stupid enough to tell me who or where he was.
We also set about restoring order from chaos. The San Francisco had received 45 shell hits, twelve of them by major caliber projectiles, plus numerous machine gun and fragment hits. Parts of the ship were a shambles; in unarmored and exposed places, on the bridges, at open gun mounts, the toll was high. Japanese shells penetrated our half-inch plating, detonated, and hurled incendiaries and fragments in all directions. But in every instance where a shell struck armor, the projectile broke up, denting the armor slightly and smoking up the paintwork. This is not surprising for the shells of small caliber, or even the 6-inch, but it is most unusual in the case of the 14-inch.
The answer lies in the type of 14-inch projectile used. We recovered the rear half of one two decks below where it had bounced off #2 barbette, resting on the workbench in the armory. Another, split longitudinally, was found elsewhere. And seemingly everywhere we found short lengths (about three inches) of what looked like gas pipe about an inch in diameter. A few contained unburned incendiary, a mixture of powdered aluminum and magnesium, with fuses at both ends. To accommodate enough of these incendiary-shrapnel elements in the cavity of a 14-inch projectile its bursting charge had to be reduced to where its explosive effect was somewhere between that of a 6-inch and an 8-inch shell. Its fuse was evidently quite sensitive. Whatever the merits of this special ammunition when used against parked aircraft, gasoline and bomb storages, buildings, and personnel, it was unsuitable for use against ships—and doubtless was not intended to be so used. While this stuff was responsible for many of our casualties and much of our damage, it was the reason we did not suffer even more severely: had the Japanese battleships used armor-piercing projectiles instead, our light armor would have served merely to effect good detonation as they passed through.
The Japanese forces retired to the northward beyond Savo Island where the Hiei became unmanageable. An attempt by the Kirishima to take her in tow and get her out of the area came to naught; some of her personnel were taken off by destroyers, and she was left to fend for herself against the American air attacks that would be forthcoming. If we accept the Japanese declaration that the Hiei suffered no underwater damage during the night battle her condition must be attributed primarily to the 8-inch projectiles of the San Francisco and Portland. It was phenomenal luck that our cruisers were opposed by battleships of the one class where side armor (six to eight inches, with three inch ends), they had a chance of piercing (assuming normal impact), at the close ranges necessary for that—short ranges which they could not hope to attain in a conventional action—and fired the battleships using unsuitable ammunition.
In the San Francisco rescue and treatment of our wounded, fire-fighting and unwatering flooded spaces continued to occupy our chief attention. When Lieutenant Commander Schonland got things below well enough in hand to come up to the flag bridge, he almost stepped into a tumultuous and lethal welcome. About 2:40 a.m. a dark shape pulled up on our starboard hand, overtaking us, distant about 2,000 yards. Through my binoculars I could make out a cruiser with two stacks and five turrets—trained on us. Our Helena or an enemy? My doubts were removed; she flashed the letters of our challenge.
I recognized her as the Helena, Captain Gilbert C. Hoover. But the carefully memorized reply had been driven from my mind by the events of the last hour, and when I looked around for the challenges and replies that had been written in chalk on the bulkhead of the flag plot enclosure, I found only holes and burned paintwork. In seconds, unless the correct reply were given, fifteen 6-inch and four 5-inch would fire into us.
Rather than waste precious seconds in looking for the reply on the other side and perhaps finding it obliterated there too, or in running up to the deck above and turning on the three vertical colored fighting lights, which might not work, I decided to send a message that would leave no doubt as to our identity. A lone signalman stood ready with a blinker gun. I told him to send: “C50 V C38 BT ADMIRAL CALLAGHAN AND CAPTAIN YOUNG KILLED SHIP BADLY DAMAGED TAKE CHARGE.” It sufficed; hands that gripped firing keys relaxed. The part about Captain Young being killed was a bit premature, but I believed it, his name helped identify us and it removed him from consideration for command of the group.
Captain Hoover had seen the plight of the Atlanta and Portland; now he knew the situation in the San Francisco. He took command of the ships remaining, radioed a rendezvous, and ordered all ships to meet him there. The Helena was the rendezvous so far as I was concerned; swinging in astern of her, I hung on, occasionally calling her by blinker gun and steering for the answering flash of light. Lieutenant Commander Lair, now executive officer—the third of the battle—turned his engineering plant over to Lieutenant Commander Jay V. Chase and came up to conn. We were still without chart, radar, or compass, and all orders had to be telephoned to central, but we made it through Sealark Channel between 3 and 4 a.m. On the way we were joined by the Juneau and three destroyers in varying degrees of disrepair. Reassembling in the darkness was not without its bad moments, but when daylight came three cruisers and as many destroyers were together in Indispensable Strait under Captain Hoover.
We were also able to submit a more accurate report on our condition, semaphoring the Helena:
ADMIRAL AND ALL OF STAFF EXCEPT ONE KILLED CAPTAIN SERIOUSLY WOUNDED HUNDREDS OF CASUALTIES CAN USE TWO TURRETS SIX FIVE INCH AND MAKE TWENTY EIGHT KNOTS STEERING FROM CONN URGENTLY NEED ALL MEDICAL ASSISTANCE YOU CAN SPARE.
Medical help would be sent shortly. We managed to scrape together a bridge watch, and about 7:30 Lieutenant (j.g.) John E. Bennett, well bandaged and one arm in a sling, relieved me as O.O.D.
In the night action the San Francisco suffered 83 killed—of whom fourteen were officers—and 106 seriously wounded, plus many more whose injuries were treated without recourse to sick bay. While our casualties were not high, percentagewise, their concentration in key areas posed problems out of all proportion to the total number made ineffective. And—a lot of boys became men in a mighty big hurry.
The End of the “Juneau”
Back on watch again, I was to witness a disaster that profoundly affected all who saw it—the destruction of the antiaircraft light cruiser Juneau. Our group was headed southeastward, bound for Espiritu Santo, with the Helena, San Francisco, and Juneau supposedly in column screened by the Fletcher and Sterett (badly damaged) while the O’Bannon went ahead. The Juneau had taken one torpedo and several shell hits; she was down by the bow ten or twelve feet, had a slight list, one of her two propeller shafts was inoperable, her steering gear was being operated through a jury rig, and she simply tagged along as best she could—wandering badly. The speed of the group was regulated to let her keep up but we zigzagged to reduce the danger from submarines the Japanese had stationed along the route we were taking.
A few minutes after 11 a.m. in lat. 10° 32’ S., long. 161°02’ E., the submarine I-26 fired a spread of torpedoes at the San Francisco from close on her port hand. They missed, passing just ahead of us. (Some accounts state that one passed under us but I cannot confirm this). We on the bridge first saw them on our starboard bow with one making a surface run and lagging behind another that was running normally. They were heading straight for the Juneau about 1,500 yards on our starboard hand. We had no means of warning her in time, nor is it likely she could have heeded a warning.
One or more torpedoes struck her. The Juneau didn’t sink—she blew up with all the fury of an erupting volcano. There was a terrific thunderclap and a plume of white water that was blotted out by a huge brown hemisphere a thousand yards across, from within which came the sounds of more explosions. Lieutenant (j.g.) Bennett saw a whole 5-inch 38 cal. twin mount rise above this ugly thunderhead, hang there an instant as though supported by some invisible hand, then drop back out of sight. When the dark cloud lifted from the water a minute or so later, we could see nothing of this fine 6,000-ton cruiser or the 700 men she carried. Those who witnessed it called this terrible end of a gallant ship the most awesome spectacle of the battle.
Schonland, Lair, Wilbourne and were standing in a group on the starboard side of the flag bridge near conn and saw it. Someone shouted “Scatter!” and we did—just in time to avoid a large piece of plateing about the size of a door from the Juneau. It smashed in the side of the bridge only a few feet from where we had been standing. Other but smaller pieces came aboard, too. Farther aft, an enlisted man had both legs broken by one. This disaster—unexpected and cataclysmic—affected us all, but none could have been as deeply moved as Dr. Roger W. O’Neill and three pharmacist’s made of the Juneau who had transferred to the San Francisco by boat three hours earlier to help tend our wounded—unless it was Lieutenant (j.g.) James E. Smith, who had chased the Juneau all the way from the east coast trying to carry out his orders to report to her.
The rest of the trip was without misadventure. We continued to tend the wounded, minister to the dying, and bury the dead. We performed the melancholy task of committing the bodies of our dead to the deep and their souls to Almighty God. Admiral Callaghan, Captain Young, and the officers and men who perished with them on Black Friday the Thirteenth were buried off San Cristobel Island of the Solomans.
The afternoon of the 14th we arrived off Espiritu Santo. A badly battered Commander Arison, lying on a cot in an improvised sick bay, drew from memory a sketch of the minefields protecting the harbor—fields that already had sunk the ex-liner President Coolidge with the field artillery intended for our troops on Guadalcanal. The sketch proved unnecessary as we followed the Helena in, but was reassuring to have. The Helena coached us into our assigned berth by TBS (which we had repaired) and once more the San Francisco swung around an anchor in the palm-studded New Hebrides.
There we got some welcome rest, a concert by the Helena’s band, emergency repairs, odds and ends of equipment, and most important, a new commanding officer—Captain Albert Finley France, Jr. He was a most fortunate choice and needed every bit of the vast amount of patience and understanding he possessed.
From Espiritu Santo we went to Noumea, headquarters of ComSoPac. There we were visited by Admiral Halsey—soon to receive his fourth star—and the ship was thoroughly gone over by his staff material experts. They concluded that nothing short of a full-fledged navy yard could repair the damage we had sustained, especially the extensive damage to wiring, cables, and electrical equipment. What better place than the yard that had built her—Mare Island? After some voyage repairs we were on the way.
The price our side paid on the 13th was a high one in men killed and wounded, ships sank and damaged. Part of it was the loss of four destroyers and the two antiaircraft light cruisers. Against this the Japanese lost two destroyers and the Hiei, damaged and made unmanageable by gunfire, bombed and torpedoed by aircraft from the field she intended to shell, and scuttled by her own crew—Japan’s first battleship loss of the war.
Statistics aside, our side gained precious time and was enabled to bring up other and more powerful forces while the well laid plans of the enemy were thrown out of gear. Henderson Field was not shelled that night, and it weathered a much smaller bombardment the following one. Next, the Enterprise air group caught the advancing transports, their escort, and a support group wreaking havoc among them. Then there was another naval battle the night of the 14th-15th in which the Kirishima went down under the hammering of the Washington’s 16-inch guns—Japan’s second battleship loss of the war.
The Final Act
Before Dawn on November 15th rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, IJN, gave a command of last resort. From the bridge of an escorting destroyer he ordered his four remaining transports and cargo ships to run hard and fast aground on the Japanese-held part of Guadalcanal—that way at least part of the infantry division and some of the urgently-needed supplies would get ashore.
This astonishing action soon brought down on the four beached vessels artillery shells and bombs from Henderson Field’s hard working aviators. It also attracted the destroyer Meade—the only operable combatant ship of either side in the area.
The Meade’s gunners fired 600 rounds of 5-inch ammunition into the grounded vessels, fired until the point on the guns smoldered and blistered, and magazine crews dropped from exhaustion. Flying low over the targets, spotting the Meade’s fire and reporting on the damage inflicted, was a small seaplane from the San Francisco. This plane, shore-based at Tulagi and piloted by Lieutenant John A. Thomas, our senior aviator, rendered valuable service in this final act, winning the praise of the Meade’s commanding officer.
It was entirely fitting that the San Francisco, whose 8-inch salvos at the low-flying torpedo planes on the afternoon of the 12th opened the naval battle of Guadalcanal, should be represented at its conclusion. But even this was to end tragically; after completing its spotting mission and while searching for survivors of the night battle, the plane suddenly plunged into the sound. The Meade hurried to the spot but found only a wing-tip float.
When the grim returns were in, our South Pacific Force had lost two antiaircraft light cruisers and seven destroyers; the Japanese had lost two battleships, one heavy cruiser, three destroyers, two transports or cargo ships—and Guadalcanal--with its vistas of expansion. The high tide of Japanese conquest in the South Pacific came in this fierce three-day battle—from then on it ebbed.
On Land’s End, overlooking the Pacific just south of the Golden Gate, stands a memorial distinctively naval—the navigation bridge of the San Francisco. Erected by citizens of the city whose name she bore, its shell holes still visible, this monument honors the memory of Admiral Callaghan and the 106 officers and men of the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps who gave their lives with him in his flagship. Oriented to the great circle course for Guadalcanal, it is an inspiring reminder of the valiant campaign for that island—fought in the air, on land, and by sea—and of one wild night when the fate of Guadalcanal was weighed in the balance.
copyright © 2007-2013 USS San Francisco Memorial Foundation