August 8-9 Battle of Savo Island: ATTACK ON OUR SOUTHERN GROUP
No more than half an hour elapsed from the time enemy ships appeared without warning around the southern corner of Savo Island till they ceased fire and passed back out to sea. In that short interval they crossed ahead of our southern cruiser group, putting the Canberra completely out of action within a minute or two and damaging the Chicago, then crossed astern of our northern group, battering our cruisers so badly that all three sank–the Vincennes and Quincy within an hour.
The action opened with two almost simultaneous events: contact by our southern cruiser force with the enemy surface force and the dropping of flares by aircraft over XRAY, the transport area off Guadalcanal. At about 0145 several bright flares were dropped from above the clouds over the north coast of Guadalcanal, just southeast of our transport group. They were in a straight line, evenly spaced about a mile apart, and provided a strong and continuous illumination which silhouetted our transports clearly for an enemy coming from the northwest. On the San Juan it was remarked that these flares were exceptionally large, blue-white and intensely brilliant. They burned without flickering and lighted up the entire area. After laying one series the plane returned and repeated the process. Probably the enemy intended to maintain a continuous illumination, for when the first flares were dropped the enemy surface force was just rounding Savo Island, still some 20 minutes away from the beach.
At this time the cruisers of our southern group were on course 310° T., about 4 miles south of Savo Island.8 This was near the northern end of their patrol and they were to reverse their course in a few minutes. The Canberra was leading, with the Chicago about 600 yards astern. The Patterson was about 45° on her port bow, distant 1,500-1,800 yards, while the Bagley was in the same relative position on the starboard bow.
The Australian cruiser was in the second degree of readiness, except that turrets B and Y9 were not manned, although their crews were sleeping near their quarters. One 4-inch gun on each side of the ship was manned. All guns were empty. The Chicago’s state of readiness is not reported.
At about 0143 the watch on the Patterson sighted a ship dead ahead. It was about 5,000 yards distant, on a southeasterly course and very close to Savo Island. The destroyer at once notified the Canberra and Chicago by blinker and broadcast by TBS to all ships:
“Warning, warning, strange ships entering harbor.”
At the same time she turned left to unmask her guns and torpedo batteries.
Within a minute and a half of sighting, the enemy changed course to the eastward, following the south shore of Savo Island closely. With the change of course 2 ships could be seen, one of which appeared to be a Mogami-type heavy cruiser, the second a Jintsu-type light cruiser. Some observers on the Patterson’s bridge reported seeing 3 cruisers and thought that the second in the column was of the Katori class. When their movement and the Patterson’s turn had brought the Japanese cruisers to relative bearing 70° and a distance of 2,000 yards Comdr. Frank R. Walker ordered “Fire torpedoes,” but at the same instant the destroyer’s guns opened fire, so that the order went unheard and no torpedoes left the tubes. Before this was realized, “something” was reported close on the port bow and the captain ran to the port wing of the bridge to investigate, but was not able to make out anything.
The Patterson’s opening salvos were two four-gun star shell spreads, after which No.3 gun continued star shell illumination until it was hit. These were used in preference to the searchlight in order to avoid the possible silhouetting of our own cruisers. Why the Patterson’s star shells did not enable our men to see the enemy more clearly than they did is puzzling. As the Patterson’s other guns opened with service projectiles, the gunnery officer saw the rear enemy cruiser fire a spread of eight torpedoes. Meanwhile both enemy ships had illuminated our destroyer with their searchlights and had opened heavy fire upon her. One shell hit the No.4 gun shelter and ignited ready service powder. The after part of the ship was for a moment enveloped in flames and No.3 and 4 guns were put out of action, the latter only temporarily. The ship zigzagged at high speed while a torpedo passed about 50 yards on her starboard quarter. She then steadied out on an easterly course, roughly parallel to that of the enemy. Her No.1 and 2 guns maintained a rapid and accurate fire, in which No.4 soon rejoined. The rear enemy cruiser was hit several times, its searchlight extinguished and a fire started amidships.
The Patterson did not cease fire till about 0200, when the Japanese cruisers turned north. Before she lost contact the enemy must have opened fire on our northern cruiser group. All told, the Patterson fired 20 rounds of illuminating and 50 rounds of service ammunition.
It was just before the enemy ships changed from a southeasterly to an easterly course, and therefore about a minute after the Patterson’s sighting them, that the Bagley saw unidentified vessels about 3,000 yards distant, slightly on her port bow.12 The ships appeared to be on a course of about 135°, moving at high speed, perhaps about 30 knots.
The Bagley, like the Patterson, swung hard left in order to fire torpedoes. In less than a minute the enemy was abeam, about 2,000 yards distant, but before the primers could be inserted in the starboard torpedo battery, the Bagley had turned past safe firing bearing. She therefore continued her turn to the left to bring the port tubes to bear. This required 2 or 3 minutes more, and by this time the range had increased to 3,000-4,000 yards. The enemy formation was becoming very indistinct when four torpedoes were fired. Neither the commanding officer, Lt. Comdr. George A. Sinclair, nor the officer of the deck observed any hit, but the junior officer of the deck saw an explosion in the enemy area about 2 minutes after the firing, and the sound operator, who had followed the torpedoes with the sound gear, reported two intense explosions at the same time. After firing her torpedoes the Bagley continued her circle, went westward, and scanned the passage between Savo and Guadalcanal without sighting anything.
It was evidently very soon after the Bagley sighted the enemy that the port lookout on the Canberra reported a ship dead ahead, but neither the officer of the watch nor the yeoman of the watch could see it.13 At the same time there was an explosion at some distance on the starboard bow. It does not seem likely that this could have been caused by the Bagley’s torpedoes, for they were fired at least 3 minutes after sighting the enemy and would have required 2 minutes more to reach their target. About this time the Astoria also heard a heavy, distant, underwater explosion.
Capt. F. E. Getting, R. A. N., and the navigating officer of the Canberra were called promptly, but before they could take any action two torpedoes were seen passing down either side of the Canberra on opposite course. Presumably these were the same which passed near the Chicago a moment later. The general alarm was sounded and the Evershed was trained on two ships less than a mile distant on the port bow. These appeared to be destroyers or light cruisers. According to the reports of the other ships in the formation, the Canberra was at this time swinging hard right to unmask her guns. Before they could be brought to bear, she was hit by at least 24 five-inch shells, and one or two torpedoes struck her on the starboard side between the boiler rooms. The four-inch gun deck was hit particularly badly. All the guns were put out of action and most of the crews killed. One hit on the barbette jammed turret A in train and another shell exploded between the guns of turret X. The plane and catapult were struck and burst into flames. A serious fire was started by hits in the torpedo spaces, and other fires broke out at various points. As a result of the torpedo explosion, light failed all over the ship. The engine rooms filled with smoke and had to be abandoned.
The Canberra may have been able to fire a few shots in return, for the Bagley reported that as the cruiser turned right she opened fire with her main battery, and that it was the second or third enemy salvo which landed. The Chicago too reported that the Canberra (then on her starboard bow) opened fire. According to the Canberra’s own report, the port 4-inch guns may have fired one or two salvos before being put out of action, and one gun of turret X may have fired one salvo. Possibly two of the port torpedoes were fired.
Within a minute or two the ship stopped and lay helpless. She was listing about 10° to starboard and was lighted by several intense fires. Upon receipt of word that the captain was down, the executive officer, Comdr. J. A. Walsh, R. A. N., took command.
Apparently the Chicago did not sight the Japanese ships until the Canberra swung to starboard, but 3 minutes earlier she had seen two orange colored flashes near the surface of the water close to Savo Island. Capt. Bode was apparently on deck, as the Chicago’s report does not mention his being called. The flashes were followed very shortly by the appearance of the first flare over the transport area, and the Canberra was seen to turn about 2 minutes later. As she turned, two dark objects could be seen between the Canberra and Patterson and another to the right of the Canberra. It seems probable that it was this last which fired the torpedoes into the cruiser’s starboard side. It will be remembered that 2 or 3 minutes before this, the Patterson had seen “something” on her port bow as she turned left and that not long afterward a torpedo passed on her starboard quarter.
Whatever the objects were, the Chicago’s 5-inch director was trained on the one to the right, beyond the Canberra. She was preparing to fire a star-shell spread when the starboard bridge lookout reported a torpedo wake to starboard and she started to turn with right full rudder. The ship had turned only a little to starboard when the main battery control officer sighted two torpedo wakes bearing 345° R., crossing from port to starboard. Since the first torpedo to starboard had not been seen on the bridge and that to port had been, the ship was given left full rudder. It was intended to steady out when the ship’s course paralleled the wakes, but at that point something that was thought to be a destroyer in a position to fire torpedoes was seen farther to port, and the order was given to swing farther to the left.
Before the helmsman could comply, the talker in main battery control forward saw the wake of a torpedo headed for the port bow on bearing 345° R., and at almost the same moment it struck the bow well forward. “The forward part of the ship to amidships was deluged with a column of water which was well above the level of the foretop.” The bow below the water line was largely blown off, but this did not seriously alter the trim of the ship or impair operation at the moment. The Chicago’s track chart shows that she was on course 283° T. when she was hit. Since the torpedo was seen approaching on 345° R., it must have come from 268° T.; i. e., it came not from the direction of the enemy cruiser line, but from the west. Perhaps it was fired by the destroyer, or whatever it was, seen to port shortly before the Chicago was hit.
At the same time that the Chicago was torpedoed, flashes of gunfire were observed close aboard, bearing 320° R. Since the Patterson had opened fire by this time and must have been somewhere on the Chicago’s port bow, she may have been responsible for the flashes seen.
It appears that the Chicago had not yet sized up the situation. Her port battery fired two four-gun salvos of star shells toward the flashes bearing 320° R., while the starboard battery fired the same number at 45° R., set for 5,000 yards, to illuminate what appeared to be a cruiser beyond the Canberra. This cruiser was firing on the Australian ship, which lay about 1,200 yards distant, bearing 45° R. from the Chicago. To the left of the Canberra, 2,500 to 4,000 yards distant, were two destroyers which were thought to be enemy. Probably they formed the guard astern of the enemy cruisers. Not one of the 16 star shells fired by the Chicago at this critical moment functioned, so that positive identification could not be made.
At this time a shell hit the starboard leg of the Chicago’s foremast, detonated over the forward funnel, and showered shrapnel over the ship. Shortly afterwards a ship ahead, which was thought to be the Patterson, illuminated with her searchlight two ships which appeared to be destroyers on the port bow. The Chicago’s port battery opened up on the left hand destroyer with a range of 7,200 yards. The target was hit twice, apparently not by our cruiser but by the destroyer thought to be the Patterson. A minute later the latter ship turned off her searchlight and crossed the line of fire of the Chicago’s port battery on a course opposite to that of the Chicago.
There is some possibility that the Chicago’s identification of these ships was mistaken. In the Patterson’s report it is specifically stated that she did not use her searchlight for fear of silhouetting our cruisers, but used star shells instead.
Meanwhile the poor visibility had prevented the main battery director from picking up the cruiser on the starboard bow, and the starboard 5-inch battery had expended all ready service star shells without the main battery’s being able to get a “set up” on the target. This was due largely to the fact that out of a total of 44 star shells fired by the Chicago during the action, only 6 functioned.
At about this time the port 5-inch battery also lost its target, the destroyer 7,200 yards on the port bow, but just before firing ceased the burst of a hit was seen. In an effort to relocate this target, the shutters on No.2 and 4 searchlights were opened as the ship was swinging to port, but they swept only empty sea. In the meantime the gun engagement to starboard (probably involving the main enemy cruiser force) had moved on to the northward. Director II was on a ship bearing 120° R., but soon reported it as a friendly destroyer, while another ship bearing 270° was also identified as friendly. Probably the former was the Patterson and the latter the Bagley.
In fact the enemy had completely left our southern group and was now engaging the Vincennes group. With no target in sight there was time to take stock of the situation aboard the Chicago. Damage control reported some forward compartments flooded, but shoring of bulkheads was already underway and it was thought the ship could do 25 knots. A message was decoded ordering withdrawal toward Lengo Channel, and the Chicago slowed down to 12 knots. Five or six minutes later, before she had turned back, a gun action was seen to the westward of Savo Island. The Chicago moved toward it at full speed, and a few minutes later fired a star shell spread bearing 100° R. set for 11,000 yards. The ships were out of range, however, and the Chicago ceased fire. A fire was visible in the distance but it was not certain whether it was on one of the ships or on the far side of Savo Island. A range of 18,000 yards was obtained on it, but the firing had ceased, no ships were visible, and the Chicago again slowed to 12 knots.
It is impossible to say what this engagement seen from the Chicago was. The time was about 0205, whereas the only known engagement beyond Savo was that of the Ralph Talbot about 0220.
Of the ships in our southern group, the Canberra had been put out of action before she could fire more than a few rounds. The Chicago had gone off to the west while the enemy passed to the eastward, and had been able to take no effective action. The Bagley, after firing her torpedoes, had started on a futile search of the channel to the west. Only the Patterson had correctly estimated the situation and had followed the main enemy force to the east.
The entire engagement with our southern group seems to have lasted no more than 10 minutes. Since the enemy cruisers passed to the eastward, they must have opened fire on our northern force immediately after breaking off action with the southern.
End of Part 2
Part 3: The Northern Group