One of the most unusual conflicts of World War II, the Battle of Komandorski Islands took place in the Aleutian chain. A string of small land masses approximately 1,000 miles long, the Aleutian Islands resemble a line of stepping stones stretching between North America and Asia.
Under the direction of Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese established bases throughout the Aleutian Islands and at Midway Island, in an effort draw out the US Pacific Fleet. A goodly part of the American concern with these bases was the possibility of a mainland attack along the West Coast by the Japanese. Thankfully, through the determined efforts of US Navy Commander Joseph Rochefort, naval intelligence broke the Japanese communication code. Admiral Nimitz was now able to marshal the Pacific Fleet in a much more effective manner. Making the best use of the fleet was crucial, due to how badly the Japanese had crippled the US Navy during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Though cracking the code offered the Americans a glimpse into the enemy’s play book and helped to even the odds somewhat; there still remained the fact the Pacific Fleet had to outmaneuver, as well as outgun the Japanese if they were to achieve victory. One of the ways they did this was by achieving victory in the Battle of Midway; a plan of Yamamoto’s which Commander Rochefort discovered when he cracked the code.
The loss at Midway made the Aleutian Island bases even more valuable for the Japanese. It also positioned the islands front-and-center in the minds of those directing the Pacific Fleet. The Japanese sought to prevent the Americans from using the islands as a staging area from which to attack Japan’s mainland; while the commanders of the Pacific Fleet considered it a matter of national pride to boot the Japanese off American territory; in addition to the strategic location the islands provided.
During March of 1943, the Americans were in high gear as they conjured up plans to retake the islands of Attu and Kisku; now in Japanese hands since 1942. Opportunity soon came knocking; however, it brought with it a sizeable price tag.
On March 17, 1943, the USS Salt Lake City arrived in Dutch Harbor. The gray Aleutian landscape which greeted her crew was quite a contrast from the lush tropical greenery they had enjoyed in Hawaii four months earlier. The air here was bitter and the waters through which SLC sailed to arrive at this port were so frigid, any sailor unlucky enough to find himself in them would quickly freeze to death.
Among Salt Lake City’s armament were 10 8-inch guns; all of which were slower and less powerful than those of the younger ships which composed the Japanese navy. Originally launched in 1929, SLC with her wartime equipment and crew now went by the nickname “Swayback maura”, due to the fact her waist was perpetually awash. Her skipper was Captain Bertram Rodgers, a career naval officer who had taken command two months earlier at Pearl Harbor.
Rear Admiral Charles McMorris, commander of Task Group 16.6, was made aware of the fact a Japanese supply convoy was on its way to the Aleutians. In an effort to thwart the mission’s success, he sent out a fleet of six ships – the heavy cruiser, Salt Lake City; a light cruiser, Richmond, which served as the admiral’s flagship; and four destroyers, the Bailey, Dale, Monaghan and Coghlan. Like pieces on a chess board, Admiral McMorris’s opponent, Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya, came calling with his own flotilla; composed of two light cruisers, two heavy cruisers and four destroyers.
These two forces met on March 26, 1943; a day which dawned cold and calm with a cloudless sky. The Japanese convoy was intercepted by the American picket line; approximately 100 miles south of the Komandorski Islands and 180 miles west of Kiska, just west of the International Date Line. Due to the remote location, no air or submarine support was involved on either side. This would be one of few engagements between the two forces which would be fought exclusively with surface ships. It was also one of the final gunnery duels to take place between fleets in the annals of naval history.
Admiral Hosogaya spotted the Americans as the US task force moved into battle formation. Turning his warships southeast, he prepared to engage the enemy. The two flotillas now began traveling directly towards each other, narrowing the distance between them at a rapid pace.
As the Japanese drew closer, the easy pickings the Americans had envisioned quickly evaporated from their thoughts; due to the fact these were not the transports they originally anticipated. Instead, Hosogaya was sending reinforcements into Attu under escort of every combatant ship at his disposal.
Admiral McMorris now faced a major dilemma as Hosogaya’s fleet of heavily armed warships began to bear down at high speed; outnumbering the Americans by 2-to-1. Add to that the fact the Japanese ships were faster and heavier than their American counterparts and McMorris had a major challenge on his hands.
Prior to World War II, McMorris had been an instructor at the US Naval Academy where he taught history and English. He also had a reputation for being able to rapidly sift through a pile of thick reports and digest their contents while carrying on a conversation. This skill quickly came into play aboard the Richmond.
As McMorris considered his options, he realized if he were to turn and run, the Japanese fleet would be able to pick off his ships one-by-one due to their speed and strength. On the other hand, if he chose the close-in-and-attack route, it would likely reposition his entire task group at the bottom of the Pacific.
His third option was to fight from long range in an effort to take out the Japanese transports, then quickly high tail it out of there at a rapid rate of speed. With the ships in position – destroyers Coghlan and Bailey in the lead, followed by cruisers Richmond and Salt Lake City and destroyers Monaghan and Dale bringing up the rear – Admiral McMorris prepared to face the enemy.
The American ships approximately 20,000 yards away when the Japanese opened fire. Though falling well short of the Richmond, the first shells helped the Japanese gunners reset their range; resulting in the next projectiles landing close enough to the ship that her crew thought they had been hit.
Hindsight would cause many to now say the hand of Divine Providence arrived to aid the Americans. Before the gunners aboard the Japanese flagship Nachi could fire off the killer blow and sink the Richmond, a crew member inadvertently switched the generator supplying the electrical power for the ship’s big guns to the wrong boiler. This resulted in the turrets losing power. Though the problem was corrected within a minute, that brief lapse of power destroyed a golden opportunity for the Japanese.
Increasing speed to 25 knots, McMorris’s fleet was in tightly compacted fighting formation and soon Salt Lake City’s salvo boomed out across the North Pacific. Having no desire for a slugging match with the Japanese, McMorris now turned to port in an effort to avoid the approaching ships, while remaining hopeful in his efforts to attack the transports.
Salt Lake City soon “drew blood” from the Nachi when one of SLC’s shells hit the bridge. A fire started in this location as other shells hit Nachi’s torpedo tube compartment and the mainmast. Though victorious in this particular effort, SLC would soon sustain numerous near-fatal injuries of her own. As Japanese torpedoes were fired at and missed the Richmond, a heavy load of tight salvos were fired at Salt Lake City from a distance of nine miles.
A shell launched from the Maya later caught the spotting-plane catapult on Salt Lake City’s starboard side which resulted in a flooded engine room and caused SLC to begin losing way. When the shell exploded, it sent a shower of deadly metal throughout SLC’s waist. Among those killed due to the blast was Lt. Commander Winsor Gale. In an eerie course of events; prior to leaving Dutch Harbor, Commander Gale participated in a lively poker game and won the pot with aces and eights. While raking in his chips, Gale had referred to his cards as the “dead man’s hand”.
Salt Lake City’s situation soon worsened when another Japanese shell managed to penetrate the main deck, passing through the chain locker and exiting the starboard side below the waterline. Though the shell failed to detonate, the underwater hole caused SLC to settle a bit in the bow; however, she managed to maintain speed. The ship would have likely been sunk, were it not for the smokescreen quickly created by the American destroyers, temporarily protecting SLC from the Japanese spotters. When they finally did get a brief glimpse of SLC, the Japanese let fly with another barrage, resulting in the shells landing so close, some of the American officers began to believe the Japanese ship was equipped with radar.
Salt Lake City remained dead in the water only four minutes. Working in complete darkness and during the heat of battle, the salted fuel lines were purged by damage control who also re-lit fires in the forward fireroom as the forward engines began to show life. When eight bells struck, SLC was making 15 knots, reaching 23 as power was restored to the after engines. After the battle smoke finally cleared, the crew of Salt Lake City had literally looked death in the face and lived to tell about it.
In the end, the Japanese cruisers had heavily outgunned the Americans. Without realizing the true level of victory he had actually achieved, Admiral Hosogaya was fearful of an attack by American submarines or aircraft. He was also running low on fuel and ammunition. Thus, he chose to withdraw rather than exploit the advantage he actually had. Following the battle, Hosogaya was accordingly retired from active service due to his under-aggressive feat.
The withdrawal amounted to a strategic defeat, due to the fact it forced the Japanese to change the manner in which they transported supplies to their bases. Submarines were now used to accomplish the task. By doing so, this hampered efforts to pursue the naval resources of the Allies in the Pacific due to decreasing the number of Japanese submarines available for patrol.
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“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.”
Lieutenant Commander David D. Hawkins