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Liveblogging World War II: March 26, 1943

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Samuel Eliot Morrison: Off the Komandorski Islands, March 26, 1943:

Admiral McMorris's task group had been cruising on a north - south line west of Attu for several days in order to intercept Japanese reinforcements…. A recent and fortunate accession to the group was Salt Lake City, Captain Bertram J. Rodgers; "Swayback Maru," as the crew called this thirteen year old heavy cruiser because of her pronounced sheer. She had spent six months being repaired after the Battle of Cape Esperance, and with a new crew, almost half of them fresh from boot camp, had just relieved Indianapolis. On March 11, when assigned to the North Pacific Force, she had had but a week of intensive firing practice. Eleven days later she joined McMorris, who had commanded San Francisco in the Battle of Cape Esperance and knew what to expect of Salt Lake….

At 0730 March 26th, an hour before sunrise, this task group lay 180 miles due west of Attu and 100 miles south of the nearest Komandorski Island. The ships were strung out in scouting line six miles long, steering N by E….

The crews had just finished breakfast and were going to dawn general quarters when the van destroyer and the flagship, almost at the same moment, made radar contact on five vessels between seven and one half and twelve miles due north. Admiral McMorris promptly ordered his ships to concentrate on Richmond…. As light increased with the coming day, more and more ships were sighted; but, as McMorris later confessed, he still anticipated a "Roman holiday."… A few minutes after 0800 the prospect changed radically and most unpleasantly. First one heavy cruiser and then another was made out, rapidly approaching gunfire ranged on McMorris's starboard bow….

McMorris had run into Admiral Hosogaya's entire fleet. He was running reinforcements into Attu under escort of every combatant ship at his disposal. Heavy cruiser Nachi led a column composed of heavy cruiser Maya, Light cruiser Tama, Destroyers Wakaba and Hatsushimo, light cruiser Abukuma, destroyers Ikazuchi, two fast and heavily armed 7000 ton converted merchant cruisers, Asaka Maru and Sakito Maru, which were doubling as transports; destroyer Inazuma in the rear. They were on a northerly course approaching a rendezvous with slow freighter Sanko Maru which had been sent ahead with one destroyer as escort…. Hosogaya then ordered his force to turn southeastward and engage, while the two Marus continued on their course out of the way. The turn had already begun when the Americans identified them.

They outnumbered the American forces more than two to one. Maya was longer, heavier and three years newer than Salt Lake City; both she and Nachi were rated at 35 1/2 knots' speed as against Salt Lake's 32 1/2. And at 0810 Salt Lake was still more than three miles behind Richmond, endeavoring to catch up. Should McMorris accept battle against these odds? And if he did, how would he fight? Or if retired, in what direction? He decided on the bold course of trying to catch and sink the transports while his own force was under long range gunfire, and then to retire at high speed. It was rather a thin hope that Admiral Hosogaya would let him close the transports near enough to damage them; but the Japanese might make a mistake, and even if they did not, the United States bomber patrol flying from Amchitka and Adak, who were promptly notified, might catch the transports.

These were some of the thoughts that passed through the Admiral's mind, and some of the elements in his decision; but the main factor was probably that McMorris wanted a fight badly, and knew that his men felt the same way…. At 0840, before the American ships had had time to close into battle order, the enemy opened fire on Richmond at 20,000 yards, made a close straddle on the second salvo, and then shifted to Salt Lake City. Throughout the action "Swayback Maru" received most of the enemy's attention; he would not waste ammunition on ships whose main batteries could not reach him at extreme ranges. Salt Lake City commenced return fire with her forward turrets at 0842 and at a range of over 20,000 yards made hits on Nachi with her third and fourth salvos, starting a fire that looked serious but was quickly brought under control.

Nevertheless, Hosogaya by changing course and closing range had frustrated the American attempt to get at the transports. McMorris regretfully decided to turn away and forget the auxiliaries…. So at 0845 he ordered 25 knots' speed and a 40 degree turn to port in order to confuse enemy gunfire. Within three minutes the Japanese had so closed the range that he had to bend on 3 more knots and continue turning until he was retiring in a southwesterly direction with the enemy in hot pursuit on his port quarter….

The American destroyers did not waste ammunition in long range firing, and the enemy destroyers, which (with light cruiser Abukuma) were ordered to make a torpedo attack, played a cautious game…. Nachi and Maya with four destroyers… made a wide sweep southward in order to get between McMorris and his Aleutian bases. Maya after launching eight torpedoes which failed to score, at 0910 made her first hit, on Salt Lake's starboard plane amidships. Lieutenant Commander Winsor C. Gale and Fireman James F. David were killed; flames burst out but were soon brought under control and the plane was jettisoned. Ten minutes later Salt Lake and Nachi shot at each other at a range of about 24,500 yards. The Japanese cruiser slowed down and was seen to be smoking heavily; apparently the shell that stopped her was a destroyer's 5 inch which passed through a gun port of No. 1 turret, exploded inside and killed the entire gun crew; other 5 inch shells burst above the main deck and killed men topside….

Salt Lake's steering gear, which had given trouble before, came near letting her down badly at 1002, just as Maya and Nachi began to straddle her. The hydraulic unit on the steering engine was carried away by the shock of her own gunfire. This limited rudder changes to 10 degrees for the rest of the action; even that was possible only by use of a diesel boat engine that the ship's crew had rigged in preparation for just such an accident. Her movements became erratic but she kept up a high rate of fire from her after turrets. Maya and Nachi, both apparently in the best of health, closed range under 20,000 yards, steering so as to throw full salvos. The enemy cruiser which fired blue-dyed projectiles was particularly obnoxious; some 200 of her shells fell within from view of her consorts by the splashes; many times they thought she was lost, but she emerged intact from this shower of 8 inch armor piercing projectiles, except for one high trajectory hit at 1010 which penetrated her main deck and passed out through her hull below the waterline.

The last hope of working around the enemy's van toward his transports had now vanished; McMorris's one object was to save his ships. Captain Rodgers, now that Salt Lake was taking water and steering with difficulty, expected the enemy to close and requested a smoke screen, which the Admiral promptly ordered…. The enemy fired whenever he caught sight of his quarry through holes in the smoke, or on information relayed by his light forces, which now and again closed range although promptly slapped down by Richmond and Riggs's destroyers whenever they did. Maya fired four torpedoes at so great a range that no American ship even sighted their wakes….

The enemy was making about two knots' more speed than the Americans. "The chance of breaking away to the south with a view to later turning east seemed fair," observed Admiral McMorris. "Determined to act according," at 1100 he ordered a turn southward inside of the Japanese track, to course 210 degrees…. Salt Lake received her fourth and last hit 1103, as a result of which the after gyro room and engine room flooded, the latter to a depth of four feet…. The flooding was serious enough to give her a five degree list to port…. At 1150…. Arctic sea water in the fuel oil snuffed out all the burners, steam pressure dropped, power was lost, main engines stopped and she drifted to a halt. At 1155, the signal "Speed Zero" was hoisted, and also sent out over voice radio after an 8 inch projectile passed through the "zero" flag. The ship was then 105 miles south of the Komandorski Islands and 190 miles west of Attu. Few impartial observers would have bet five dollars on her chance of survival….

Yet within five minutes the picture completely changed.

At 1154, when his ship went dead in the water, Captain Rodgers asked the Admiral to order a torpedo attack and McMorris promptly complied. He also closed the stricken cruiser in Richmond with the object of taking off her crew, and Captain Riggs sent Dale on the same rescue mission. Salt Lake still lay behind the destroyers' smoke screen, her plight concealed from the enemy, when at a minute or two before noon Bailey, Coghlan and Monaghan reversed course to deliver a torpedo attack on Maya and Nachi, distant 17,000 yards. It was a "magnificent and inspiring spectacle." The destroyers had some distance to go under fire before releasing torpedoes, but before they had been gone five minutes there occurred what seemed almost a miracle; the enemy column turned from a southerly to a westerly course. Could Hosogaya be breaking off the action? That is exactly what he was doing.

There were several reasons for this decision by the Japanese commander. His fuel supply was low and he wished to be certain of enough to get home. His ammunition was "below the minimum prescribed by doctrine." He was disgusted with the performance of his destroyers. Nobody told him that Salt Lake lay dead in the water because the only Japanese who could see her through the smoke was the pilot of Nachi's spotter plane, who either could not get through to the Admiral with this vital piece of news, or did not try. Hosogaya figured that American bomber plane support, already overdue, might arrive at any moment. Indeed, he thought it was already there. Salt Lake, which had been firing blue dyed armor-piercing shells, ran out of them at this point, and the white plumes raised by near misses of her un-dyed HC shells looked to Captain Rodgers like splashes from aerial bombs dropped from above the overcast. Obviously the Japanese thought so too, as they were observed to be firing their anti-aircraft guns at high elevation. Finally (in the words of a participant), "Our flagship, the Nachi, was hit by effective shots from an outstandingly valiant United States destroyer, which appeared on the scene toward the end of the engagement."

Bailey, the "outstandingly valiant destroyer," with Coghlan and the Monaghan, tried her best to overtake Nachi and Maya…. Captain Riggs decided to launch torpedoes immediately at a range of some 10,000 years, rather than risk destruction of the ship before he could get them away. At 1203, just as her five torpedoes hit the water, Bailey received a second hit which cut all electric power; she turned away and her sister destroyers followed, without launching….

Salt Lake City remained dead in the water only four minutes. In complete darkness and during the heat of battle, damage control purged the salted fuel lines, cut in other oil tanks and re-lighted fires in the forward fireroom. At 1158 the forward engines began to show life. When eight bells struck, she was making 15 knots, which gradually built up to 23 as power was restored to the after engines. Captain Rodgers resumed gunfire with his after turrets at 1202, but the enemy was now opening range so rapidly that he ceased firing at 1204; Richmond and some of the destroyers continued until 1212, when the action broke off.

By 1215 the Japanese ships were hull down. Salt Lake, with five feet of water in the after engine room bilge's, was capable of making 30 knots and fighting until her ammunition was exhausted…. as it almost was. Admiral McMorris gave his group the course for Dutch Harbor.

Thus Salt Lake was extricated from her predicament, and with her sister ships lived to fight another day. They had conducted a brilliant retiring action against heavy odds, and were able to get home under their own power. Their casualties were incredibly low; 7 killed (2 Salt Lake, 5 in Bailey); 7 hospital cases and 13 minor injuries. All sailors topside were soaked through their winter "zoot suits" by the shell splashes, and thoroughly chilled, for the water temperature was 28 degrees and that of the air 30. All hands in Salt Lake were served a shot of "medicinal alcohol" and worked cheerfully at damage control for hours before securing; but there was none of that for the destroyer sailors. Bailey's men, with a demolished galley, had cold comfort from a diet of ham, crackers and apple juice until they reached port. She and Salt Lake went on to Mare Island for repairs; and when Bailey was dry docked a good third of her underwater plates were found to be wrinkled and dented from near misses….

[T]he two Japanese transports and the freighter returned to Paramushiro without touching Attu; their mission was thwarted. So, by any standards, Admiral McMorris had won…