There will be no sleep tonight for the main space sailors on board USS Astoria CA-34.
The eight boilers would be cleared and on line before the expected engagement the next day (June 4th) and the steam turbines driving her four shafts would be preheated and running at daybreak. Even with the forced draft blowers operating, the night time temperatures in the South Pacific would never dip low enough to make the men really comfortable.
The “Nasty Asty": as her crew called her had already seen more action in a six month period than anyone thought they ever would. She had been at sea making emergency deliveries with her assigned flat top Lexington on December 7th and was spared the massive destruction in the narrow confines of Pearl Harbor. Her very existence suddenly took on an entirely new urgency as the US found itself with little surface force left to oppose the still mostly intact Japanese juggernaut.
The cruisers were called “Treaty Cruisers”
They were artificially weakened by an insane attempt to stem the growth of naval forces in the post world war years. The cruisers were limited to an eight inch gun capacity and could only weigh in at ten thousand tons. The United States lived up to her commitment while others found ways to bypass the treaty. By the time the Arizona and her sisters were settling in the mud of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had long since abandoned any measure of compliance and on this night in June a ship called Yamato and all of her screening escorts were racing towards the small outpost of Midway.
Astoria had already been tested in battle. Less than a month before this day, she had sailed into the Coral Sea and participated in the first major action of the war. As she sailed in support of the Lexington, she received her baptism under fire from the air attacks on the Task Force. Astoria did not get many breaks at all leading up to the Midway operation. Her speed and her crew were key elements in plugging a gaping hole left by the surprise attack.
On this night, six months of hard steaming must have made the night hard work for all of the crew. A cruisers hull cuts through the sea in a way that is different from most other ships. Because of her design required to meet the treaty, she was sometimes unstable and could react to swells in a way that would challenge other ship drivers. But the Nasty Asty had a good reputation and would keep her bow turned towards the fight.
At the Battle of the Coral Sea, she also saw first hand the destruction the Japs could pay out.
She screened both the Lexington and the Yorktown against the many waves of enemy planes that came in to try and destroy the one great weapon left in the Pacific that slowed their march to destiny: The Carriers.
The Lexington had taken too many fatal hits that day and the engineering space fires that spelled her doom were completely out of control by 1630. Astoria could only stand by and take on survivors as did the other screening ships. The realization that we had lost one of our only remaining air craft carriers must have been disheartening. The average sailor would not have known that this action stopped the Japanese forward progress for the first time and prevented the invasion of several critical locations.
As sunrise was approaching, fresh coffee was brewing in the mess decks. Men coming off the early morning watch would not get much sleep this day. Battle Stations and General Quarters would be set in motion and sleep would have to wait until another time. The crew of the Astoria had seen this before. She had wreaked havoc on the Japanese islands and shipping for six months and she was battle tested and proven.
There is nothing in the world like the feel of a ship’s deck under your feet.
Whether you are slicing through powerful swells or just traveling along at a high rate of speed, you and the ship become like one creature. You feel her moves and learn to anticipate her “jumps”. In the engine rooms, you listen for the song of the steam and feel the throbbing rhythm of the giant turbines. Every change of bell brings you back to a full alert position. Every turn of the ship makes you wonder if the attack has begun or is about to. No one gets time to think about anything but fighting their ship.
The crew may not have known how desperate the days activity was to the potential out come of the war. They may not have been told that in a bold move, Nimitz had committed the remaining aircraft carriers and surface ships to the defense of a tiny island knowing that failure could be fatal to the country. The Japanese still had a large force of carriers backed up by fast and powerful battleships. If this gamble failed, the Japanese would have a base within striking distance of Pearl and eventually the west coast. It was a game changer.
What those sailors did know was that they had to give it their all. Protect the carriers at all costs and be prepared to face the powerful ships of line if they failed (assuming they themselves survived.)
There will be many stories told in the days to come about the seventieth anniversary of one of the most important battles of the generation. This vastly outnumbered group of American sailors, soldiers and Marines would do the impossible this day. But it was not just the pilots, as brave as they were.
The heroes of that day must include the average sailor who willingly climbs into a gun turret with armor that is too light. It is the mess cook who carries armloads of ammunition to to his station across an open deck with strafing planes all around. It is the machinist mate and boiler man who lock themselves in the engine rooms and fire rooms knowing that the best way to survive is to keep power to the mains and power to the gunners far above.
Astoria served many roles on June 4th and 5th. Her men were heroes and made sure that the US Navy was able to fight again another day. Many of her men would not survive the war. Most never received anything more than a campaign medal. But in my mind, their bravery and sacrifice in the face of a numerically superior force are in keeping with the highest traditions of the US Navy and the country she served.
God Bless them all
(There will be a postscript to this story in the coming months. USS Astoria was a fighting man’s ship and would have more stories to tell … http://www.ussastoria.org/Home.php