As Salt Lake City slid into Dutch Harbor on March 17, 1943, her crew was struck by the contrast between the gray Aleutian landscape and the tropical greenery of Hawaii. The heavy cruiser had spent the last four months at Pearl Harbor, undergoing repairs from damage suffered during a battle with a Japanese force near Guadalcanal. This bleak Alaskan port was worlds away from Oahu. The air was bitter, and the water through which Salt Lake City cruised was so frigid that it would bring a quick death to any sailor unlucky enough to end up in it.
The night before the ship put to sea again, a lively poker game took place in the Dutch Harbor officers club. Lieutenant Commander Winsor Gale, who was serving on Salt Lake City, won a pot with aces and eights. As he raked in the chips, Gale jokingly remarked that he had won with the ‘dead man’s hand. No one laughed.
Gale’s ship, launched in 1929, carried 10 8-inch guns but was slower and less powerful than many younger cruisers in the Japanese navy. The additional weight of wartime equipment, guns, ammunition, stores and men caused the vessel to ride so low in the water that her waist was perpetually awash, earning the ship the nickname Swayback Maru. Salt Lake City was commanded by Captain Bertram Rodgers, a career naval officer who had taken command at Pearl Harbor two months earlier. Rodgers, a native of Pittsburgh, had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1916. He was an outgoing, straightforward and competent commander who had also served in submarines and airships.
Salt Lake City left Dutch Harbor as part of Task Group 16.6, under the command of Rear Adm. Charles Horatio McMorris, whose Socratic wisdom had earned him the nickname Soc at the Naval Academy. Before the war, McMorris had taught English and history at Annapolis, and he was considered one of the Navy’s leading staff officers. But Soc McMorris was also an excellent fighter. At Dutch Harbor he had assembled the task group, which included Salt Lake City, the light cruiser Richmond and four destroyers: Bailey, Coghlan, Dale and Monaghan. After McMorris hoisted his flag aboard Richmond as the task group commander, he sailed toward the North Pacific. His orders were to prevent the Japanese from resupplying Attu and Kiska, two Aleutian islands they had invaded in 1942 as part of the Midway campaign. McMorris also had orders to avoid engaging superior enemy forces.
On the morning of March 26, Task Group 16.6 was 180 miles west of Attu and steaming northward. At 7:30 a.m., an hour before sunrise, the small American squadron was about 100 miles south of the Komandorski Islands. McMorris had intelligence that the Japanese had sent a convoy of merchant ships escorted by destroyers to reinforce Attu or Kiska, which both lay southeast of the Komandorski Islands. The morning was cold and calm. An officer recalled: We all got in our warmest clothes and got ready. It was a’slick-as-glass’ day–just the calmest time I’ve ever seen in the Aleutian area. Not a cloud in the sky.
When the Americans sighted the first enemy ships, the Japanese convoy was headed northward to rendezvous with a slow freighter that had been sent ahead with a destroyer escort. As more Japanese merchant ships and destroyers came into view, excitement aboard the American ships began to build. The task force had found lightly defended transports headed for the Aleutians. Aboard Salt Lake City, Rodgers thought it would be an easy day’s pickings, and word spread through the cruiser that the fox was in the chicken coop.
By the time the U.S. task force concentrated into battle formation, however, the Japanese had spotted the Americans. Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya, the Japanese convoy commander, turned his warships to the southeast to engage. The two groups of warships were now headed directly for one another, and the distance between them was rapidly getting shorter.
In the growing light, the prospects of easy pickings among lightly escorted transports evaporated as the men in Richmond‘s foretop identified the approaching Japanese warships. We have in sight cover force, the crewmen reported to the bridge. Two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and six destroyers, hull down, distance 38,000 yards, bearing 40 degrees on the starboard bow at high speed.
The heavy cruisers of the Japanese force were Nachi and Maya, and the light cruisers were Tama and Abukuma. Task Group 16.6 had run into Hosogaya’s entire fleet. Not only did the Japanese force outnumber that of the Americans by more than 2-to-1, the Japanese cruisers were also heavier and faster than their American counterparts. Jesus Christ, there’s two battleships out there and they ain’t canoes, an excited gunnery officer on one of the American destroyers declared. He may have been guilty of overstatement, but he had the right idea.
When McMorris taught English and history at the Naval Academy, he was known for his ability to rapidly sift through and digest thick reports while carrying on a conversation at the same time. Aboard Richmond he quickly considered his options. If he turned and ran, the stronger and faster Japanese might pick off his ships one by one. If he closed and slugged it out, his task group would soon be at the bottom of the Pacific. If he stayed and fought at long range, maybe he could get to the Japanese transports and then retire at high speed. The admiral decided to try the third option.
McMorris soon had his six ships in line of battle. The destroyers Bailey and Coghlan led the cruisers Richmond and Salt Lake City, while destroyers Dale and Monaghan brought up the rear. With the morning sun just over the horizon, the first Japanese guns boomed across the serene sea at the Americans some 20,000 yards distant. The first shells fell well short of Richmond, but the Japanese gunners soon found the range and within a few minutes had Richmond bracketed. The projectiles landed so close that some aboard Richmond thought their ship had been hit. It seemed as if the skilled enemy gunners would begin to score hits within minutes.
Then a mistake aboard Nachi kept her gunners from getting off a killing blow. After Nachi had fired her opening salvos, a crew member inadvertently switched the generator that supplied electrical power to the big guns to the wrong boiler. The turrets lost power. The Japanese engineers corrected the problem within a minute, but in the meantime Nachi had lost a golden opportunity.
On Richmond, McMorris increased speed to 25 knots. The American ships were now compacted into a tight fighting formation, with the two fleets barreling toward each other. At 8:42, a salvo from Salt Lake City‘s 8-inch guns boomed out over the North Pacific.
Impressed with the opening Japanese salvos, McMorris wanted to avoid a slugging match. He ordered a turn to port, away from the approaching Japanese ships. Perhaps he could still slip past the enemy heavy cruisers and attack the transports. Then a shell from Salt Lake City struck Nachi on a corner of the bridge. It started a fire, but Admiral Hosogaya and his staff escaped injury. Other shells hit the mainmast and the torpedo tube compartment. Flames and smoke momentarily billowed from the Japanese flagship, and an officer on the bridge of Salt Lake City turned to Rodgers and exclaimed: Captain, we’ve got him! Let’s barrel in and finish him off.
As the Japanese cruisers turned to the southwest, their gunners shifted their fire to Salt Lake City, splashing shells around the American heavy cruiser from a distance of about nine miles. McMorris ordered speed increased to 30 knots. At 9 a.m., the action had been on for about half an hour when the Americans spotted Japanese torpedoes heading directly for Richmond. Much to the relief of those who saw them, the torpedoes passed harmlessly under the American light cruiser.
By then nearly all the Japanese gunners were concentrating their fire on Salt Lake City. One salvo passed so close to the bridge that a sailor flinched. Captain Rodgers grinned. Don’t worry, you won’t hear the one that gets you, he said.
As Nachi and Maya pursued the Americans, the Japanese cruisers began to zigzag to get all of their guns to bear on Salt Lake City. Although this tactic allowed the Japanese to fire full salvos, it negated their speed advantage, and the battle continued to be fought at long range. As the Japanese gunners began once again to find the range, shells fell around the American heavy cruiser. The Americans had to admire the enemy gunners’ tight salvos. One man aboard Salt Lake City claimed, You could have held a barrel hoop out there and they would have all gone through the same hoop.
After a salvo drenched the heavy cruiser with a near miss, Rodgers would shift course, and the next burst of enemy shells would explode in the spot where the ship would have been had she stayed on course. After one near miss, Rodgers turned to Commander Worthington S. Bitler, the hard-nosed executive officer of Salt Lake City. Well, Worthy, he asked, which way do I go this time?
Your guesses have been perfect so far, captain, Bitler replied. Guess again.
Rodgers swung the ship to the side, and another near miss exploded in the cold water. The captain said gleefully, Fooled ’em again, Worthy!
The Japanese gunners finally scored a hit at 9:10, when a shell from Maya hit Salt Lake City‘s starboard spotting-plane catapult. The shell exploded and sent a shower of deadly metal flying through the cruiser’s waist. Commander Gale, who had held the dead man’s hand at Dutch Harbor, was hit with several fragments and killed instantly.
At 9:45 Rodgers turned the cruiser to starboard so that the forward guns could bear on the Japanese ships, and he fired a full salvo at Tama, which had begun to edge closer. Like a child who just touched a hot stove, the Japanese ship turned away and completed a full circle before resuming the chase.
By 10 a.m. the American task group had been under attack for more than an hour, and the constant firing and the near misses had begun to disrupt some of the machinery aboard Salt Lake City. The ship developed steering problems and began veering to starboard. The erratic change in direction convinced the Japanese that the cruiser was in trouble, and they began to press the attack. By then McMorris wanted to break off the engagement, and at 10:10 the situation worsened when a Japanese shell penetrated Salt Lake City‘s main deck, passed through the chain locker and exited the starboard side below the waterline. The shell failed to detonate, but the underwater hole caused Salt Lake City to settle a bit in the bow, though she maintained speed. McMorris ordered Bailey and Coghlan to take up positions near the ship’s stern. The destroyers started laying a smoke screen, and within a few minutes, a thick cloud of smoke hid Salt Lake City from the Japanese spotters.
The Japanese gunners waited for a brief glimpse of Salt Lake City amid the smoke and loosed a salvo as soon as they got one. The shells landed so close to the American ship that some officers mistakenly believed the Japanese must have been equipped with radar. Dale and Monaghan also began laying down smoke, but the Japanese gunners continued to direct salvos at the American cruiser.
At 11:03 an 8-inch shell hit Salt Lake City below the waterline on the port side and passed through one fuel tank before exploding in another. When the ship was hit, it shook from stem to stern and felt like it was literally picked out of the water, a crew member recalled. Damage control parties worked to plug the hole in the ship’s side, but a large amount of water had already flooded into the bow. By the time the cold water reached the engine room, Salt Lake City had listed slightly to port and begun to slow. Despite the numbing cold and gobs of oil that clogged the pumps in the engine room, the crew worked to stabilize the damaged ship.
Topside, the gunners continued to fire whenever a hole in the smoke screen gave them a clear view of the enemy, but with ammunition running low for the aft guns, the crews had to fire one gun at a time instead of in salvo. The armor-piercing ammunition was almost gone, and Salt Lake City began to fire high-capacity shells, which, like the armor-piercing ammo, did not have shell dye (the Japanese used shell dye to identify their fall of shot and adjust their fire). When the high-capacity shells exploded on the water, they looked like bombs dropped from airplanes. Just after the first of those shells exploded near them, Maya and Nachi began to spray the sky with anti-aircraft fire, convinced that they were under aerial attack.
While the Japanese fired at nonexistent aircraft, the crew of Salt Lake City struggled to get ammunition to the aft batteries. The forward magazines still had plenty of shells, but the forward guns could not bear on the Japanese ships. Two-man crews therefore began setting the 256-pound shells on hand dollies and wheeling them aft, a job made even more difficult by the ship’s list and the jostling as the captain made sudden course changes to avoid enemy shells.
The Japanese heavy cruisers continued to close on the American ships, and as the range shortened, their chances of scoring a killing hit increased. Flight was Salt Lake City‘s only hope–and then all hope suddenly seemed to vanish with the turn of a valve. The cruiser’s crew had been reducing the ship’s list by flooding empty fuel tanks when someone turned the wrong valve and poured seawater from one of the flooded tanks into the ship’s boilers, snuffing out the fires. Salt Lake City lost power and drifted to a stop. Rodgers used the last few minutes of drift to turn the vessel so that all of the cruiser’s guns could bear on the approaching Japanese. The situation was desperate. On the bridge, Bitler turned to the captain, quietly shook his hand and said, Well, I guess this is it.
Rodgers asked for a cup of coffee and remarked, If I’m going into the cold water, I want something warm in me.
Some remember Rodgers giving the order to abandon ship and immediately countermanding it. Instead, he made preparations for a last-ditch fight. The crew used old-fashioned muscle power to turn the turrets toward the approaching Japanese and waited for the enemy ships to emerge from the smoke screen.
McMorris, aboard Richmond, was also determined to make the Japanese pay dearly for Salt Lake City. He had Richmond move closer to the stricken cruiser, intending to take off her crew. Dale continued to maintain the protective smoke screen, but McMorris ordered the other three destroyers to make a torpedo attack on the Japanese ships. They would have to steam some distance to get close enough, all the time within range of the Japanese heavy guns–and well aware that a single 8-inch shell could break a destroyer’s back. It was a forlorn hope, but the suicide run might gain enough time for Salt Lake City‘s crew to restart the ship’s engines.
Bailey led Coghlan and Monaghan away from the smoke that protected Salt Lake City and steered directly for the approaching Japanese cruisers. With every Japanese gun trained on them, the three puny destroyers held course unflinchingly. The shell splash and explosions looked like Niagara Falls about 10 to 15 feet off the fantail, one man aboard a destroyer recalled.
As the Japanese gunners adjusted their ranges, the American destroyers managed to keep just ahead of them. The men on Salt Lake City watched in awe and admiration. Worthy Bitler, a Civil War buff, commented, Pickett’s Charge had nothing on them. The Japanese officers, too, admired the gallant action. One Japanese officer noted, I do not know how a ship could live through the concentration of fire that was brought to bear on the leading destroyer.
The leader was Bailey, and as the destroyers approached torpedo range, a shell struck her on the starboard side. It killed four men outright, mortally wounded one and seriously injured a half-dozen others. The captain ordered the torpedoes launched from 10,000 yards. As the torpedoes knifed through the water, the Japanese ships began changing course to deny the other destroyers clear shots, even as they continued firing at the Americans. One shell hit Bailey and skidded to a stop on deck without exploding. The crew simply rolled the dud over the side.
Bailey‘s torpedoes all missed their targets, and the destroyers pulled out of their attack. Yet the Japanese ships continued to change course, and much to the Americans’ astonishment, the enemy soon disappeared over the horizon. The Japanese were retreating!
Aboard the Japanese ships, Admiral Hosogaya had decided to break off the action. His fuel was low and ammunition was said to be below the minimum prescribed by doctrine. Furthermore, the one Japanese scout plane in the air was for some reason unable to communicate Salt Lake City‘s desperate situation. Hosogaya was also convinced that American bombers would arrive on the scene at any minute–fears reinforced by the shells from Salt Lake City that the Japanese had mistaken for bombs. Actually, McMorris had received a message from headquarters that American bombers would not arrive for at least two more hours. In fact, the Battle of the Komandorski Islands was the last action during the Pacific War to take place between large surface ships without the participation of aircraft or submarines, since Nachi‘s spotting plane had been no help.
Behind the smoke screen, the crew of Salt Lake City had managed to purge the fuel lines just after the destroyers had begun their run. Once the three small vessels that had scared off the Japanese cruisers returned, McMorris led his battered task group back to port. The Japanese would not try to reinforce Attu and Kiska by surface convoy again.
The casualties on both sides were light after nearly four hours of battle. The crew of Salt Lake City had looked death in the face and survived. One American officer credited their success to luck, saying: It was like flipping a coin over and over again for three hours and a quarter, double or quits. And every single time it came up heads. Ensign F.R. Lloyd summed up the battle in Salt Lake City‘s log: This day the hand of Divine Providence lay over the ship. Never before in her colorful history has death been so close for so long a time. The entire crew offered its thanks to Almighty God for his mercy and protection.
Perhaps the best comment about the Battle of the Komandorski Islands was that made by Bertram Rodgers: Fooled them again, Worthy!
This article was written by Michael Morgan and originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!