Diamond Anniversary – The First Battle of Savo Island (Part 5 – End of the Canberra and Astoria) 1

Part 5


When the enemy left the Canberra she was lying helpless and afire approximately 5 miles southeast of Savo Island. Capt. Getting was fatally wounded, and the executive officer, Comdr. J. A. Walsh, R. A. N., took command. He at once initiated measures to save the ship. Gasoline tanks were jettisoned and torpedoes fired. Bucket brigades were formed and enough progress was made in fighting the fire to permit some ammunition to be reached and dumped overboard. All magazines had been flooded. All rafts and cutters were lowered, and as many wounded as possible were placed in the cutters.

About 0300 the Patterson, which had been directed by the Chicago to stand by the Canberra, approached and was asked to come along the windward side amidships to supply hose for fighting the fire. As the Patterson drew up, however, the remaining ready service ammunition on the Canberra began to explode and the cruiser signaled, “You had better wait.” It was not until an hour later that the destroyer could finally secure along her port side to pass over four hoses and a pump. By this time the fires had gained considerable headway, and the ship was listing about 17° to starboard. Heavy rain squalls with thunder and lightning passed over from time to time. They made the sea choppy, but not enough water fell to aid appreciably in controlling the fires.

The Patterson about 0500 received Admiral Crutchley’s message stating that it was urgent that the Task Force leave the area by 0630, and that if the Canberra could not be put in condition to depart by that time, she should be abandoned and destroyed. When this order was communicated to Comdr. Walsh he “realized that the situation was hopeless” and decided to abandon ship. Some of the wounded had already been transferred to the destroyer, but abandonment of the ship was delayed because none of the Canberra’s crew would leave until all wounded had been removed.

This process was presently interrupted by a radar contact made by the Patterson about 8,000 yards on the port quarter. The contact slowly approached to 3,000 yards. The Patterson challenged three times without receiving any reply. Then she ordered all lights out on the Canberra and hastily got underway, cutting or parting all lines.

The Patterson then illuminated the strange ship, and was at once fired upon. The Patterson fired three salvos in reply before it was realized that the ship resembled the Chicago, and an emergency identification signal was fired. Thereupon both ships ceased fire. Fortunately no damage resulted from this exchange.

When this incident occurred, the Chicago was en route from the XRAY area to investigate gunfire seen in the direction of Savo. At 0525 a vessel which she had been tracking by radar illuminated her. Although orders had been given not to fire, two guns of the starboard 5-inch battery at once fired on the searchlight. The officer in charge of the starboard battery immediately ordered cease fire, but when the destroyer returned the fire, the starboard 5-inch and 1.1-inch control officers ordered fire. The captain then ordered cease fire. The destroyer made what the Chicago considered the wrong identification signal, but both ships ceased fire.

Meanwhile on board the Canberra preparations continued for removing the rest of the wounded and abandoning ship. Dawn was breaking when about 0550 a cruiser and a destroyer were seen on the port beam, and soon afterward the Chicago, the Patterson and the Blue could be identified. The two destroyers completed taking off personnel. The Patterson had on board 400 survivors and the Blue about 250, who were subsequently transferred to the transports at XRAY. When the Canberra was abandoned she was listing about 20° and was burning furiously amidships.

This task was scarcely completed when (0640) the Selfridge arrived in the vicinity of the Canberra. She was returning from the destroyer rendezvous with the Mugford when at 0540 she received orders that all ships were to retire at 0630. The Mugford on the way toward the transport area stopped to pick up survivors from the cruisers, chiefly from the Vincennes, while the Selfridge received orders to stand by the Canberra. On the way she again passed the Astoria, still burning. The sun was just rising when she approached the Australian cruiser, the last of the personnel of which were being removed by the Patterson. The Selfridge was then ordered to sink the Canberra. She fired at her 263 rounds of 5-inch shells and 4 torpedoes. Only one of the torpedoes exploded under the cruiser. One passed the Canberra and exploded in the wake of the Ellet, which was coming up at full speed. While the Selfridge was firing these shells into the Canberra, the Ellet, which had spent the last few hours picking up survivors of the Quincy, came up about 0730. The Ellet from a distance observed the Selfridge firing on the burning cruiser. Being unable to contact the Selfridge by TBS, the Ellet concluded that she was engaged with a disabled Japanese cruiser. She therefore closed at full speed, setting course to cross the bow of the cruiser. At 5,000 yards she fired her first salvo, which was on for several hits. She then ceased fire on information from CornDesRon FOUR that the cruiser was the Canberra. The Selfridge’s large expenditure of ammunition having failed to send the Canberra down, the Ellet was a little later ordered to complete the job. Choosing a favorable angle she fired a torpedo into the cruiser, which turned over to starboard and sank by the bow at 0800.


When the enemy ceased fire at 0215, the Astoria had lost power and steering control. The captain abandoned the now useless bridge and took a station on the communication deck forward of turret II. About 400 men, 70 of whom were wounded, were assembled on the forecastle deck. The ship had a 3ƒ list to port, but the first lieutenant, Lt. Comdr. Topper, after an investigation reported that the ship was tight forward of the engineering spaces and that there were no serious fires below the second deck. The fires amidships prevented access aft, and conditions there were unknown, but the ship appeared to be on fire all the way from the navigation bridge aft.

There was, however, a group of about 150 men, headed by the executive officer, Comdr. Frank E. Shoup, Jr., on the fantail of the vessel, similarly unaware that there were any other survivors on the ship. Comdr. Shoup and others had abandoned Battle II about the time of the near-collision with the Quincy. Because all regular access was cut off, they came down by means of a rope, after lowering the wounded. All mainmast stations were abandoned about the same time. As it was feared that the enemy was closing in to finish off the ship, turret III was kept manned, although it had no power, and the 1.1-inch guns were kept manned until the ship was abandoned. The 8-inch magazine remained cool and so was not flooded until sometime later when smoke began to enter it. The blowing up of the Quincy astern, however, caused considerable apprehension about a magazine explosion.

Life rafts were lowered over the side and secured, and the wounded were put on them with enough able-bodied men to care for them. Those who were too badly injured to be moved were lashed to buoyant mattresses.

Meanwhile an effort to salvage the ship was underway. The engineer officer, Lt. Comdr. John D. Hayes, had appeared on deck, almost overcome by smoke, but soon recovered and assisted in directing this work. He thought that the engine rooms were intact and most of the firerooms. Upon reception of this encouraging report, bucket brigades were formed and were soon making sufficient headway to be able to penetrate a little into the hangar. The work was greatly assisted by rain, which began about 0330.

Meanwhile the captain had organized a similar effort forward and made some progress in driving the fire aft along the starboard side. During this work it was discovered that No.1 fireroom was completely in flames, and the fire in this area appeared so extensive that the captain ordered the flooding of the magazines. The 8-inch rooms were flooded, but it seemed doubtful that the flooding of the 5-inch magazines was successful. A particularly intense and persistent fire in the wardroom area defied all attempts to subdue it, and ultimately balked the effort to save the ship. A gasoline-powered handy billy had been rigged up, but the small stream of water it could pump into this fire had very little effect. The sound of this pump about 0400 was the first indication to those on the fantail that there was other life on the ship. In spite of these efforts, the fire continued to spread until it reached the ammunition in the hoists, causing frequent explosions.

The Bagley was finally attracted by blinker and was asked to come alongside and place her starboard bow against that of the Astoria. The wounded were transferred, followed by the able bodied. While the Bagley was pulling away a flashing light could be seen on the stern of the Astoria, welcome evidence that there were men alive in that part of the ship.

Since there seemed to be no dangerous fire aft on the Astoria, the Bagley signaled to those on the stern that they had been seen and then turned to the more urgent task of rescuing survivors from the Vincennes on rafts or in the water and those who had been forced by fire to jump overboard from the Astoria. At daylight the Bagley put her bow alongside the Astoria’s stern and took off the men.

Inasmuch as a survey of the situation indicated that the cruiser might yet be saved, a salvage crew of about 325, headed by the captain and all able bodied officers, was put back aboard. The list had not increased, and the engineer officer reported that he thought he could get up steam if he could get power. The fires seemed to have moderated and the prospects seemed good.

Bucket brigades were again formed, and the engineer officer and his men went to work. About 0700 the minesweeper Hopkins came up and attempted to take the Astoria in tow. The first line parted, but a cable from the Astoria held and the Hopkins was making progress, in spite of the cruiser’s tendency to swing sideways, when the minesweeper was called away.

A report to the Task Force Commander that there was a possibility of salvaging the Astoria if power and water were made available brought up the Wilson about 0900. She began to pump water into the fire forward, but an hour later she too was called away. Word was sent that the Buchanan was coming to help fight the fire and the Alchiba to take the ship in tow. Before they arrived, the fire gained new headway and the list increased to 10ƒ. There were frequent explosions, and after a particularly heavy one at 1100, yellow gas could be seen coming to the surface abreast the forward magazine. When the list increased to 15ƒ the holes in the port side began to take water. Attempts had been made to plug them, but these were ineffective. When the Buchanan came up at 1130 it was already evident that the ship would not remain afloat much longer. By 1200 the main deck was awash to port, and the order was given to abandon ship. The crew left with the two life rafts and with powder cans which had been lashed together.

By the time the executive officer and captain left, the list was close to 45° and water on the main deck had reached the barbette of turret III. Soon afterward “the Astoria turned over on her port beam and then rolled slowly and settled slightly by the stern. The bottom at the bow raised a few feet above the water as she disappeared below the surface at 1215.”

Before the Buchanan had finished picking up the survivors from the water, she made a submarine contact and left to track it, but returned later and, with the Alchiba, picked up the entire salvage crew.

End of Part 5

Diamond Anniversary – The First Battle of Savo Island (Part 2 Attack on The Southern Group ) 1

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