Chapter Seven

Steaming down towards the southwest, caracoling around the transports and carriers the Spence crossed the line for the first time. In the time honored tradition of seamen everywhere, King Neptune Rex ruler of the Raging Main swung himself over the side bringing with him his Royal Court to initiate all the “Pollywogs” aboard into the mystery’s of the Noble Order of the “Shellback.” All of the crew and officers who had never crossed the Equator needed to be introduced to the mysteries of the deep. Arm in arm with His Grace strode Amphitrite, Goddess Queen of the Sea and the Royal Baby wearing his diaper. Stalking the deck, Davy Jones, the mythological evil spirit of the ocean deep was accompanied by the Chief Bear, the Doctor, the Royal Jesters and the Devils.

Neptune seats himself on his throne, Amphitrite seated at his side. Rex bangs his trident on the deck and the Royal Clerk calls for the lowly, slimy pollywogs to be brought before the court to be judged. Their crime? Taking liberties with the piscatorial subjects of His Majesty Neptunus Rex.

The Royal Policeman drags each miscreant before the King of the Bounding Main where he is forced to kneel while his Noble self confers with Judge Davy Jones. Sentence is then pronounced by the Royal Clerk and the victim is dragged away to his appointment with the Royal Barber. Thus begins the initiation rite.

The Dunk Tank, US Naval Archives Photo

Once the Barber has clipped the hair of the Pollywog into a fantastic parody of barbertude, the Chief Bear and his Bearlings begin to administer much further punishment for daring to invade the Royal Realm. Dunking in a mixture of galley slops, grease and garbage then running the Royal Gauntlet, kissing the greased belly of the Royal Baby and drinking of his milk, a concoction best left only to the imagination and any other diabolical punishment the Shellbacks can dream up. No one on the crew is exempt, not even the captain and the officers. When the mayhem is complete, the Royal Court disappears into the sea from which it came and the newly initiated shellbacks spend the next few days trying to clean the slop and grease from their bodies and then patiently and hopefully waiting for their hair to grow back. Proof of this wondrous ordeal given to each newly minted shellback in the form of an official document signed by the senior officer aboard attesting to each sailors entry into the Noble Order of Shellbacks.

Kissing the Baby 1943 Photographer unknown

The earliest verified line crossing ceremony occurred in 1529 in a French vessel named the Parmentier on a voyage to Sumatra. But the ceremony is undoubtedly a far older tradition where seasoned mariners would call upon landlubbers to prove their worth at sea and to show that they can put up with boisterous shipboard humor. It is also possible that the ceremonies hark back to ancient practices where a sacrifice was made to a deity.

The first recorded ceremonies in the 1500s were religious. The rite aboard the Parmentier consisted of reciting prayers, eating a raw fish, and dropping silver coins into the ocean. By the end of the century, the ceremony had evolved into the familiar tradition of today which included a visit by Father Neptune who demands a punishment from the pollywogs for invading his realm..

No one is really sure when or how the Line Crossing Ceremony, “Order of Neptune” came about but the ritual dates back at least 400 years in Western seafaring and was practiced by the Norsemen, Phoenicians, Chinese and Polynesians in some form or other. 

The Equator itself s an imaginary line that runs from east to west on Earth’s surface and is exactly halfway between the north and south poles (the northernmost and southernmost points on the Earth). It is about 40,075 km (24,901 mi) long, of which 78.8 % lies across water. This geographic, or terrestrial, Equator divides the Earth into the Northern and Southern hemispheres and forms the imaginary reference line on the Earth’s surface from which latitude is reckoned; in other words, it is the line with 0° latitude. Along the Equator are the imaginary perpendicular lines that run from pole to pole and represent Longitude. Latitudinal and Longitudinal lines form a grid on the earths surface used to determine where, at any given time, a ship is.

The Spence had a principal navigator as did all ships in the Navy. Lieutenant Commander Frank Van Dyke Andrews was the Exec on the Spence. His primary job as the third in command was to Navigate the ship which may sound relatively easy but of course a ship is barely a fly spec on the surface of the sea. There are no landmarks by which to determine direction, no trees, hills or buildings. Lcdr Andrew’s province was the bridge and most especially the chart house. The pilot house  and the chart house are the haunt of the quartermaster for routine upkeep. The chart house is exactly what it sounds like, a small room built into the rear of the pilot house/bridge where navigational instruments, logbooks and charts are kept. The Chief Quartermaster is the navigators assistant. In addition to his duties supervising his department he sees to it that the chronometers are wound each morning and this momentous bit of news transmitted to the Officer of the Deck, OOD, so that at exact noon he may inform the captain. “Twelve hundred hours, sir; Chronometers wound” in the exact way it has been done since the time of Paul Jones, Edward Preble and Horatio Nelson. He looks after the navigator’s personal instrument, watching that newly minted Ensigns never commit the grievous naval offense that causes the navigator to jump in the air and shout, “Who the hell has been using my sextant!” Making sure the ratings never use the Exec’s dividers to stir their coffee.

The chronometer might seem like something that doesn’t require this kind of care but without knowing the exact time it would be impossible to find exactly where you are on the sea. 

Before the first successful sea-going clock, the navigator could only estimate where he was by using a system of Ded (Deduced) Reckoning. Using an hourglass which was turned: yes, every hour, an educated calculation of one’s position on the basis of compass readings, speed, and the distance run from a known point, with allowances for drift from wind, currents, etc. could be made. Chinese mariners from the Song Dynasty began using them in the eleventh century though they had been invented nearly a thousand years earlier, again by the Chinese. This is exactly how Vasco de Gama, Amerigo Vespucci and Cristofor Colon found their way. Colon did not guess, as every sailor knows, he had a map and he simply sailed west on a line of Latitude until he ran into something. His Ded Reckoning was wrong but that was the Greek mathematicians Ptolemys fault, for he miscalculated the circumference of the earth. 

Ded Reckoning was an imperfect system and the sea is littered with ships which made assumptions based on flawed information. On the evening of September 8, 1923, seven US Navy destroyers, while traveling at 20 knots, ran aground at Honda Point, a few miles from the northern side of the Santa Barbara Channel off Point Arguello, California. An educated guess on position was risky in the days before radio, radar and todays satellite positioning systems.

It is fairly accurate in calculating Longitude to simply use a sextant to measure the Suns angle above the horizon but Longitude was impossible until the advent of an accurate timepiece. By WWII advancements in technology made chronometers extremely accurate, though by that time radio signals broadcast from England were in standard use for setting sea going clocks. Unless atmospheric conditions made this impossible then the chronometer served its purpose.

On the Spence, Chief Quartermaster Carrigan, Mr Andrews and the other, more junior officers would have practiced with their sextants day and night. Using the Sun, Moon, the visible planets, the North Star (Polaris) and many of the lesser known stars as reference for finding precisely where they were. Spherical Calculus was a requirement at the US Naval Academy. All souls depended on the skills of the navigators in knowing where they were.

Polaris fixed position, Night Sky. Northern Hemisphere.

When they crossed the Equator at 0.0 degrees the north star had dipped below the visible horizon and they had their first sight of the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross was the principle navigational star cluster south of the equator. It presented a problem for navigators because it oscillated around the heavens unlike Polaris which remains fixed. If you go outside, find Polaris which is just off the tip of the dipper and you will see it never moves. The stars in the heavens rotate around it like a wheel. 

When a seaman learns navigation he is introduced to the wondrous heavens by which mankind has found his way around all the worlds oceans for millennia. Just the names of stars hint at their discoverers and down through the centuries each of the 57 listed stars used for navigation has a story. Consider Deneb, in Chinese folklore, Deneb was associated with the myth of the weaver girl and the cowherd – represented by stars Vega and Altair – they were two separate lovers who could only reunite once a year. Deneb represented a bridge over the Milky Way that allowed the lovers to meet. One of the older names of Deneb is “Arided”. It is also a word derived from Arabic and it translates to “the follower.” The brightest star in the night sky is Betelgeuse, also called Alpha Orionis, it’s in the constellation Orion, marking the eastern shoulder of the hunter. Its name is derived from the Arabic word bat al-jawzāʾ, which means “the giant’s shoulder.” In fact many of the primary stars were named by Arab astronomer mathematicians. During the eight centuries in which Arab scholars led the world in mathematics, astronomy, literature and medicine the heavens were actively studied and mapped. The Astrolabe, the precursor to the Sextant was primarily developed in the medieval Islamic world. Every voyage of discovery up until the middle of the eighteenth century used the Astrolabe until the Sextant came into common use. 

Practically unknown to the world at the time, the Spence’s navigators were passing into the realm of the greatest navigator’s who ever sailed the ocean sea. The Polynesian seafarers sailed entirely by the sun, moon and stars using no instruments. They used their hands to test water temperature and the surface and color of the sea to find their way across the vast reaches of the Pacific. They had no written language and passed the accumulated knowledge down from generation to generation. What they could do made a mockery of all the mechanical instruments, star tables and charts carried on the Spence. At the beginning of the war the navy had almost no existing charts of the islands they were to fight in. They actually used copies of National Geographic maps and charts dating from Captain Cook’s time. They had no depth soundings or ocean current direction flows. This made operating in these waters exceedingly dangerous.

The entire crew was working, practicing the skills they were going to need in combat. Seemingly endless drills were called. General Quarters, Anti-aircraft drills, submarine sightings, launching torpedos, damage control, training each crewmen in a number of jobs until he could do them in his sleep. Damage control parties crawled around below decks with blindfolds on until they knew every nook and cranny of the ship by feel. Phone talkers, the men who called out course changes, engine speeds, navigation directions and relayed messages all over the ship were tested again and again until the right men like Don Pohlemus were found who could stay calm and relay orders clearly under pressure. 5”/38 loaders and handlers practice endlessly until they could keep up the required 15 shot per minute. Some gun mounts could even achieve as much as 22 rounds per minute for short periods. Young men in the prime of their lives were trained to act seamlessly as a team.

The turrets on a Fletcher class destroyer used a team of 27 men working in harmony to fire every single shot. With four turrets, a full two thirds of the crew were employed in operating just this aspect of the ship. This explains the seemingly massive number crew member aboard. Ten men inside the turret itself and more than a dozen down in the handling rooms and the magazines which were located below the waterline. At speed, a fifty-five pound shell and its fifteen pound powder casing went from the magazine, up the hoist which carried it to the turret, into the gun and was fired every 2.7 seconds. Do this in an enclosed steel box with almost no elbow room, choked with acrid smoke, half blind, deafened and unable to see what is happening outside and do it all in 130 plus degree plus heat.  All the while knowing that a direct hit on your mount will slaughter every man in it. You must work fast. Outgunning the foe is how a fleet action is won. So they practice and practice, endlessly.

Up on the bridge Captain Armstrong was surrounded by the men who followed his orders and directed the ship in all its operations. The signalmen handling all forms of communications, quartermaster attending to steering, phone talkers who relay commands, messengers who deliver written notes but mostly keep the coffee pot going and fetch cups for the officers and senior Petty officers. They were surrounded by sonar and radar techs, the fire control team which pointed the guns and the lookouts which constantly scanned for real and perceived enemies.

Stories abound about firing antiaircraft guns at the planet Venus, dropping depth charges on Blackfish or firing the quad-forties at coconuts. Distant porpoises look like periscopes and in a hilarious story, the Port bridge lookout reported a Japanese bomber headed toward the ship, Captain Armstrong ordered his phone talker to ask the fantail lookout if he could see the plane, his answer was yessir, then a pause, “Sir, The plane, it’s flapping its wings.” Funny , but at the same time, not so.

On September 18th the Spence finally arrived at Havannah Harbor in the French New Hebrides. After a voyage lasting 24 days Spence was entering an active war zone. Six days later she escorted ships north to the Solomon Islands. On the second day Spence opened fire on two enemy planes near Guadalcanal. For the first time in the war she fired in anger.

Spence was under orders to to join a squadron of destroyers which have entered naval history as the most successful and decorated small combat units who ever operated in the Pacific. Commanded by Captain Arleigh Albert Burke, a sailor man who would rise to become the Chief of Naval Operations, the highest command in the Naval service. Burke, was born in Boulder, Colorado, on October 19, 1901. Due to the 1918 influenza outbreak, schools were closed in Boulder and he never graduated from high school. Burke would later win an alternate appointment to the United States Naval Academy given by his local congressman. He graduated from the academy in June 1923, and was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Navy.

Over the next 18 years, Burke served aboard battleships and destroyers, and earned an MS degree in Engineering at the University of Michigan. When the war came, he found himself, to his great disappointment, in a shore billet at the Naval Gun Factory in Washington DC. After persistent finagling efforts on his part, in 1943 he received new orders to join the fighting in the South Pacific. Because the Bureau of Personnel Admiral had forbidden him to go, a friendly secretary slipped his orders in with other paperwork placed on the admirals desk. When she handed Burke his orders she suggested he immediately bolt from Washington and get out of town and to the west coast before the Admiral found out he had been hoodwinked. Burke took her advice but not before stopping at a local florist and sending her a bouquet of roses.

Ensign Arleigh Albert Burke 1923 US Navy photo

At the time of his arrival, destroyers were being used as convoy escorts and being carefully husbanded by the Admirals commanding the southwest Pacific theater. Burke had other ideas. As the new commander of Destroyer Squadron 23, or DESRON 23 in the language of the navy. He meant to free himself and his squadron from what he considered hum drum back and forth convoy duty where only the occasional Japanese snooper plane was seen. Burke commanded eight Fletcher Class destroyers, His flagship was the Charles Ausburne, DD-570, the Dyson, DD-572, Claxton DD-571, Spence DD-512, Converse DD-509, Aulick DD-569, Thatcher DD-514 and the Foote DD-511. The squadron was further divided in two equal divisions numbered 45 and 46. Spence was in division 46.

When Captain Henry Armstrong had his ship underway and heading up the Slot toward operations the entire crew was on alert, sometimes for days. When leaving its anchorage and heading to sea, Condition Zebra would be set. This was the highest level of security and alert other than General Quarters. At General Quarters all watertight doors belowdecks and topside were secured. Through the hull fittings were locked down and open hatches were secured. All guns were manned, torpedo tubes readied and each crewman on board reported to his duty station. Normally on what are known as Port and Starboard watches, four hours on, four hours off with a full workday in between, a sailor could be on continuous duty for days and when steaming often was. Even very young men can grow so exhausted, they forget to eat and learn to sleep standing up. The Captain has a makeshift cot on the bridge. The Exec and First officer have temporary rack in the chart house. Gunners slept in their gun tubs, Snipes crawled out of the engine rooms and slept in the passageways, too tired to make it to their racks. Officers thinking could and did become fuzzy with fatigue. A diet of the occasional sandwich, coffee and cigarettes barely nourishes the body. Even smoking was difficult, a match or the glow from a cigarette can be seen for miles at sea on a very dark night. On top of all this, the Japanese, contrary to home front propaganda were not the nearsighted monkeys, technically deficient and sub-human as portrayed in the American press.  Far from it, they had been at war in Manchuria, China since 1928 and had a great deal of experience at their craft. The Imperial Japanese Navy may have been the best in the world at the beginning of the war. They possessed the finest torpedo of the war, the Long Lance, their ships were equal to or better than the US Navy’s and their tactics, particularly at night were vastly superior. In the beginning, good old American pluck was given short thrift by the Japanese and a series of tactical disasters by American commanders decimated the Southwestern Pacific fleet. They had routed the Navies of the Dutch, the English, Australia and New Zealand and the United States in every surface action they had fought.

Though the Spence and the ships of Desron-23 weren’t all in the southwest Pacific theater at that time, they knew about the first great ship to ship battle in the Solomons.

The first Battle of the Solomon Sea, Savo Island, known colloquially among Allied Guadalcanal veterans as The “Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks,” was between the Japanese and allied naval forces. It took place on the night of August 8–9, 1942, and was the first major naval engagement of the Guadalcanal Campaign. It was the first of several naval battles in the straits later named Ironbottom Sound, near the island of Guadalcanal. Over fifty Allied and Japanese ships lay on the bottom there.

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in response to Allied amphibious landings on Guadalcanal, and Tulagi in the eastern Solomon Islands, mobilized a task force of seven cruisers and one destroyer under the command of Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa. The task forces sailed from Japanese bases in New Britian and New Ireland down New Georgia Sound (also known as “the Slot”), with the intention of interrupting the Allied landings by attacking the supporting amphibious fleet and its screening force.

The Allied screen consisted of eight cruisers and fifteen destroyers under Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley, but only five cruisers and seven destroyers were involved in the battle. In a night action, Mikawa completely surprised and routed the Allied force, battering the Australian Light Cruiser Canberra, Hit 24 times in less than five minutes, the Canberra was quickly turned into a blazing inferno. The Chicago, hit by a torpedo in the bow, failed to make contact with the Japanese cruisers as they sped past. Captain Howard Bode of the Chicago, left in charge of the south force by Crutchley, failed to send out a warning to Captain Riefkohl aboard the Vincennes in the northern group.

USS Chicago CL-29 after Savo Island 1942

The Astoria commander made it to the bridge and immediately ordered his ship into battle foreshadowing aggressive tactics the Navy would show in later battles. After hammering out a few salvos’, the Captain ordered a cease fire, worried that his men were in an accidental fight with friendly forces. The Astoria ceased firing for vital minutes. It didn’t resume firing until 1:54 am, 14 minutes after the fight began. It cost him his ship. The Japanese heavy cruiser Chokai kept sending rounds at the Astoria until the fifth salvo hit home, piercing the Astoria’s superstructure, midships, and then the bridge itself. The Astoria would hit the Chokai once before it was too damaged to keep fighting. Torn to pieces the “Nasty Asty” survived until mid-morning the next day before rolling over and sinking. She left 219 mean missing or dead.

Meanwhile, the heavy cruiser USS Quincy was also under fire and would get the worst of it. Its commander also worried that it was suffering friendly fire, and the commander ordered his guns silent, and the ship lit up to identify itself. Japanese shells tore through an aircraft hanger and set a plane on fire. It was too hot for the crew to push overboard, and Japanese ships leaped on the chance to fire on a lit up target. Shells landed just short of the Quincy, then just long, and then began raining down on it. Japanese torpedoes set off the forward magazine. The ship’s captain, Capt. Samuel Moore, ordered the surviving gunners to “Give ’em Hell,” just moments before the bridge was hit by an exploding shell. As he lay dying, his body torn to pieces by steel shrapnel, Moore ordered the ship beached, but another officer realized it was already lost and ordered it abandoned. As the Quincy, Vincennes, and Astoria began sinking, the Japanese fleet called off the attack, beginning its withdrawal at 2:15. It had suffered no serious damage, could see that at least three U.S. ships were sinking and had rendered the Australian ship Canberra dead in the water and the Chicago severely damaged.The  battle last just 35 minutes. It cost the Allies 1007 men dead or missing at the cost of one light cruiser and 3 heavy cruisers sunk, two destroyers damaged and the USS Chicago damaged and out of the war for six months.The Japanese fleet suffered only light damage in return. The battle has often been cited as the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy. Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of the carrier force said, “The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise”. The saga of the Chicago continued. In 1943 when a Naval inquiry board finding was leaked which would have censured  its former captain for not warning the other ships during the early part of the action. He shot himself to death for the shame of it. The US fleet suffered from poor co-ordination, lack of preparation, and was thoroughly humiliated.The battles off Guadalcanal in the 1942 were a very steep learning curve for commanders in the US Navy. The primary weapon of IJN destroyers and cruisers wasn’t their guns, it was the years of practice in fleet maneuvers, night fighting and fire control.

HMAS Canberra on fire and sinking. Photographer unknown

The Canberra had turned her turrets to try and keep her on an even keel as she was flooding. Her damage control teams worked feverishly to save the ship but were rapidly losing ground. She could not make steam and therefore was dead in the water and could not be left afloat so she was scuttled as a hazard to navigation.

Admiral Turner ordered that badly damaged and burning Canberra  to be abandoned and sunk. Once all survivors had been evacuated, USS Selfridge, DD-357 fired 263 5-inch shells and four torpedoes into Canberra  in an attempt to sink her. She wouldn’t go down. Finally a torpedo fired by the destroyer USS Ellet DD-398 administered the final blow. This was the last act in the first battle of Savo Island.

Chapter Eight, Friday October 23rd

By the time Burke assumed command of Desron-23 on the 23rd of November 1943. A little more than year had passed since the first battle of Savo Island and the attitude of the Navy had changed considerably. As in every war recorded in history, the weeding out of commanders who were less than completely aggressive had begun.


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