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

Part 5

END OF THE CANBERRA

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.

END OF THE ASTORIA CA 34

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

The night before … USS Astoria at Midway 1

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Mister Mac

(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