Balikpapan anchorage, Borneo: On January 23, 1942 Allied aerial reconnaissance spotted a convoy of fifteen transports carrying the 56th Infantry regiment and 2nd Kure Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) bound for Balikpapan, an important oil field in southeastern Dutch Borneo. Admiral Hart, commander of the Asian Fleet and ABDAFLOAT ordered USN light cruisers Boise and Marblehead and six destroyers stationed at Kupang, Timor to intercept this convoy. En route Boise struck an uncharted pinnacle in Sapeh Strait tearing a hole in her bottom. She was forced to turn back to Java, keeping Barker as her escort. Then, Marblehead burned out a turbine reducing her speed to 15 knots; she received Bulmer as her escort. These misfortunes reduced the attack force to Destroyer Division 59, John D. Ford, Pope, Parrot and Paul Jones. Marblehead and Bulmer followed the division north so the cruiser's six inch guns could provide a rendezvous point for the destroyers to fall back to after their attack.
After losing half his ships and almost all his firepower, it would have been understandable if Admiral Glassford, the American commander, had aborted his apparently jinxed mission. Instead, he pressed his luck and, against the odds, his elderly destroyers managed to elude the powerful Japanese escort of a light cruiser and ten modern destroyers and surprise the transports anchored at Balikpapan. This escort, 4th Destroyer Flotilla led by light cruiser Naka, dashed off just as the Americans arrived, apparently in response to an attack by Dutch submarine K-XVII that damaged Tsuruga Maru. From Ford it seemed that: "a whole division of Jap destroyers burst out of the gloom and oil smoke on our port bow and steamed rapidly across in front of us and off into the darkness to starboard. . . I don't know why they didn't see us." Japanese lookouts usually did excellent work; they probably mistook DesDiv 59 for a friendly force.
The Japanese force, meanwhile, had been suffering steady attrition. On the evening of the 23rd nine Dutch B-10 bombers out of Samarinda damaged one and sank another transport off Balikpapan. The convoy arrived at 2045 hours on the 23rd and anchored off shore in two rows; eight ships near the shore and five more further off. At 0045 on the 24 the Dutch submarine K-XVIII torpedoed another transport. She made a second attack shortly before the Americans arrived and was damaged by subchaser No. 12.
The American destroyers sighted the Japanese at 0245 about 9,000 yards distant. The transports were anchored in two lines, the furthest five miles off shore and silhouetted periodically against the lurid fires of burning oil storage tanks. Three patrol boats, converted World War I destroyers, four minesweepers and four subchasers provided close protection to the convoy.
Between 0246 and 0255, the Americans made a high speed run toward the outer line of transports. Ford led followed by Pope, Parrott and Jones. They fired ten torpedoes in four salvos. Parrott opened with three, to port and then, two minutes later, with five more at what she thought was a destroyer or cruiser 1,000 yards to starboard, i.e. to sea, that was in fact W15, one of the 700 ton mine sweepers. Next, Ford fired one at an anchored transport to port and astern. Finally, Paul Jones let go with one more to starboard, W15 again. All missed (or failed to explode). The six torpedoes launched at W15, a small target stern on and withdrawing, were difficult shots in any case.
By 0300 the American column had run north, past the outer line of transports. Talbot ordered a turn to starboard to lead his ships south for another pass. Parrott, the third ship in line and the most ready to use her ordnance, sighted a target to port just before commencing her turn and let loose three more torpedoes. At 0302 she was rewarded with at least one hit on the Sumanoura Maru of 3,519 tons displacement.
This blow announced to the Japanese that they were under attack, but did not disclose the agent of the attack. At 0302 the Americans were north of the Japanese and embroiled in the midst of the smoke stream from the oil tanks. Dutch submarines and planes had been harrying the Japanese force with some success. Nishimura mistook this event for another submarine attack and at led his ships once again from the anchorage out to sea.
As the powerful Japanese escort chased phantoms, the four American destroyers headed south parallel to the outer line of transports. At 0306 Pope fired five torpedoes at a silhouetted target to starboard followed by Parrott at 0308 and Paul Jones at 0310. These salvos resulted in one hit on the Tatsukami Maru, an ammunition ship of 7,064 tons displacement, which, not surprisingly given her cargo, blew up and sank. At 0314 Ford made a hard swing to starboard to penetrate the southern end of the Japanese line. Her three consorts followed. At 0319 Pope and Parrott heading west fired two and three torpedoes respectively at a target less than 2,000 yards to port. Three hits were scored on PC-37. The patrol boat sank and although she was later raised from the shallow water, her damage was so great she never returned to service.
At 0322 Ford and Paul Jones each let go one torpedo at a merchant ship about 1,000 yards to port. This vessel was underway and managed to evade both shots; however, Ford let the column around her, first south and then back east and Paul Jones scored with one more torpedo fired at 0325. This sank Kuretake Maru 5,175 tons.
Continuing her swing around the stricken Kuretake Maru, Ford led the column back north. By this time, Pope, Parrott and Paul Jones were all out of torpedoes. According to the battle plan, these ships opened fire with their 4" guns. Then, at 0335 Ford turned northwest through the first line of transports. The others, having conformed with their flag's movements for almost an hour, failed to keep up with her this time. First Parrott and Paul Jones peeled off, circling back south and out of the action, followed shortly after by Pope. Ford continued through the inner line of transports, firing her guns and her remaining stock of torpedoes. At 0332 she scored gunfire hits on Asahi Maru and caused some damage. Another transport was also damaged by Ford's gunfire during this portion of the battle. At 0335 her last two torpedoes found and sank Tsuruga Maru, 6,988 tons which had been torpedoed by the Dutch submarine K-XVIII about four hours earlier. At 0347 one of the transports gained a small measure of revenge when she hit Ford on her aft deckhouse wounding four men. This was the only damage inflicted on the Americans. Ford had to circle back to the southeast to avoid running aground and by 0400 she was steaming south.
The battle was over. Naka, Minegumo and Natsugumo from the escort finally realizing the true nature of the attack, collected themselves and chased the Americans, but without success. By 0642 the four destroyers reunited south of Balikpapan and at 0800 they rejoined Marblehead and Bulmer. While clearly winning a tactical victory, Morison and others have criticized the Americans for failing to better exploit the perfect set-up fortune presented them: of 48 torpedoes fired at close range against clearly visible, stationary targets, "sitting ducks," only six struck home. Lack of experience, a hasty approach and/or defective torpedoes are given as the primary factors behind the American failure to achieve greater results. These factors doubtless all told, nonetheless, a year and a half would pass, filled with bitter and hard fought battles, most of them defeats, before American torpedoes fired from a surface warship would again damage Japanese ships. The Americans sank a quarter of the Japanese force with torpedoes that truly were defective, with vastly superior enemy forces nearby, and escaped effectively unharmed.
While this victory did not delay for one day the invasion of Borneo, the Battle of Balikpapan was a remarkable effort, especially compared with subsequent Allied attempts in this campaign to stop the Japanese. The battle was the first surface engagement fought by the USN since the Spanish American War, forty-four years before and it was the first victory achieved solely by warships against the Japanese. The Japanese light cruiser and her destroyers permitted this victory by sailing away from the loaded convoy they were supposed to be protecting. In their defense, they had good reason to fear submarines and no reason to think any ABDA surface forces were in a position to intervene. Even discounting the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, the Japanese firepower matched the Americans in this battle at 14x4.7" guns against 16x4". The transports were armed with additional weapons, one of which damaged Ford. However, none of the Japanese ships engaged carried torpedoes.