The torpedomen bent over their charges inspecting each detail while the gunners in the five turrets nervously fingered and caressed their firing keys. Poley stood by next to Captain Armstrong, intently watching him for the signal to fire. Carrigan, the Chief Quartermaster ran his hands over the brass wheel in nervous anticipation of any order to change course. The entire crew was on their toes, eyes staring into the darkness for the first sign of gun flashes in the distance.
The throttle men stood before the great brass wheels ready to turn them left when the Captain ordered speed increased. The long propeller shafts rotating in their bearings, wipers checking lubrication, spun the screws driving the Spence through the smooth dark ocean. A new moon barely gave any light, just enough to add the barest shimmer to the oily surface of the Solomon Sea. Poley repeated the skippers order to make turns for 28 knots and the wheels turned, the shafts spun faster and the ship plowed ahead.
The Spence and the Little Beavers had patrolled the Slot for months shooting up shore installation, sinking supply and troop barges, protecting herself from marauding Japanese aircraft but this night promised to be something quite different. Coastwatchers had reported a major Japanese naval force heading down towards the Allied Landings at Cape Torokina in Empress Augusta Bay. A scout plane also alerted the allied command to the presence of an enemy force steaming southeast.
Standing southeast in the darkness, Admiral Santaro Omari, flying his command flag in the heavy cruiser IJN Myoko. Although he commanded two fewer ships than Merrill their firepower was far, far greater. Based on the latest reports, Omari expected that the American light cruiser force had retired and that all he had waiting for him off Cape Torokina were some puny attack transports, a few cargo ships and a small destroyer screen. He imagined he could blast them to oblivion with his much heavier armament and then bombard the defenseless Marines who were barely hanging onto the beachhead. Squeezed between Japanese land forces and the large Japanese ships they would be quickly annihilated.
As the forces closed each other Arleigh Burke was very concerned with the crews of his ships. They had been steaming, fighting and fueling at General Quarters for over 48 hours. The tension aboard was well-nigh intolerable.
Not knowing when action might commence the ships were in their highest state of readiness. The boilers were completely compartmentalized, pipes and passages blocked, all connecting doors closed and dogged tight; living space blowers were off and the maximum degree of water-tight integrity was in force. For men ready to drop with massive fatigue, GQ was pure murder. It seemed almost impossible to get from one part of the ship to another, following the circuitouis routes from one section to another simply took more effort than a man had to give. In the boiler rooms, water tenders sat on the gratings watching the water in the tubular glass gauges in front of them, eyes red-rimmed, gulping salt tablets as if they could somehow help with the overwhelming fatigued and the debilitating heat and humidity below decks. As the RPM’s climbed, so did the heat, 130 degrees and above, half-naked firemen tried to focus on the valves and gauges before them, sweat pouring into their eyes, even their hands wet from the constant wiping of their brows. The Chiefs and officers , hollow-eyed and silent themselves, constantly patrolled their stations, so tired that speaking reduced energy and they had none to spare. On deck, the men were silent, sitting in the gun tubs or at the torpedo mounts licking their cracked lips, eyes darting over the sea seeing only the occasional shimmer of heat lightning, wide-eyed and staring in the brief flash of light. In the galley, Pharmacist mates and storekeepers set up the tables for casualties, laying out instruments, bandages and spreading salt on the deck so not to lose footing in spilled blood. Locked in the 5″/38 turrets, gun crews could only sit quietly and try and supress their imaginations as they waited. These men were not frightened in the sense that an amateur might be, they had all seen action before and had some idea of what lay ahead. But they were terribly tense, the kind of tense where every muscle in the body hurts from the accumulated stress, terribly keyed up, and terribly tired. They longed for the first gun to fire. They longed for the adrenaline rush which would, at least for the moments of wild activity, block out the bone tiredness they felt.
Radars searching, the columns scanned ahead for any sign of the Japanese fleet. Burke gave the order to slow his ships in order to reduce their wakes in case Japanese search planes were overhead. Long white arrows pointing the Americans out was to be avoided if possible. Quartermasters on the bridges reached out to the Engine Telegraphs and pulled the handles through indicating half-speed. The engineers ordered the shafts slowed to make just 23 knots.
Arleigh Burke had no need to ask permission from Admiral Merrill to turn toward the Japanese, doctrine had long been worked out between them and the first order was to go towards the enemy. As Admiral Horatio Nelson said at the captains meeting before the battle of Trafalger in 1805, “No Captain can do very wrong if he puts his ship alongside the enemy.” He wanted his commanders to be free to make decisions without interference, counting on their training and courage above all. Admiral Merrill felt the same.
A course revision set the Little Beavers on a collision course with the Japanese, the fleets closing at nearly 50 knots (58 mph), the Japanese Admiral still entirely unaware of the American ships headed his way.
During the 15 minutes it would take Desron-23 to reach the point where they could launch torpedos, Commander Armstrong on the Spence gave his orders and the formation he led moved into battle formation. Heinie Armstrong realized that “This was it.” Was it possible that this was a moment of panic? Captain Armstrong was at times rather stern and perhaps an overly strict disciplinarian but he was not the panicking kind. He might have searched his heart for a moment, was there any untoward concern in facing his task? He had studied war intensively for decades and had much experience behind him, but Heinie Armstrong had never fought a naval battle at night. It was the truth that command responsibilities should be uppermost in his mind and he reminded himself that he had over three hundred mother’s sons on his beautiful little ship. What was he going to do about it? He turned to his phone talker Poley Pohlemus and said “All hands prepare for action, torpedo’s set for launch, Safeties off, good luck men, may God be with us.
Standing in battle the USS Spence was a well trained, sound ship. She would have need to be to face the harrowing punishment just ahead of her. As in all wars, plans go right out the window when the firing starts.
In a quirk of the sea, the speeding ship, slicing like a knife through the darkling sea made no sound. Sailors could feel a slight vibration but heard no sound. They waited. The ships stood on.
At 02:35 Admiral Merrill ordered an 180 degree turn and all the ships in the Spence’s column swung to starboard, the ships leaning hard to port causing the crew to grab onto anything they could to stay upright. The second destroyer, Thatcher, turned directly in the wake of the Spence as did the Converse, but the Foote didn’t wait but turned immediately and separated herself from the column. She would soon live up to her nickname, “Foote– the-unfortunate .”
The leading column of destroyers led by the Charles Ausburne reached her firing point at 0245 and fire the first salvo of torpedo in the direction of the Japanese. Each succeeding ship in her column, Dyson, Stanley and Claxton, “Click-with-Claxton,” did the same. Captain Burke spoke over TBS, “My guppies are swimming.” At the same time, Admiral Omari, whose ship was equipped with an early type of unreliable radar which only worked intermittently, was suddenly able, through a break in the haze to see the columns of American destroyers. Omari instantly knew what was happening, the main armament of destroyers was the torpedo and they had to be in the water headed for him. Three and a half minutes after the launch, Omari ordered his columns to turn about, reverse direction to avoid the fish he knew were headed his way. Being Dutch, Arleigh Burke was not to be the recipient of the “luck of the Irish.” All the torpedoes would miss.
Like all great military plans, it immediately dissolved into chaos the moment the first shot was fired. The American fleet quickly began to suffer from a major shortcoming in communications. The “Talk Between Ships” had a problem. The speakers called “Squawk Boxes” were mounted throughout the ship with each department able to speak, sometimes all at the same time. Furthermore, every ship in the squadron was connected through TBS. The minute the action commenced, everyone began speaking at once and the ability to understand orders went by the wayside. Captain Armstrong and Commodore Austin were just getting snippets amongst the crowd of voices and static. Austin’s division had already lost the Foote which was frantically trying to catch up and orders from Burke and Merrill were either missed or garbled. He did the only thing possible, the thing which he had been trained to do, he engaged the Japanese. He ordered Captain Armstrong to change course west and engage. Captain Armstrong ordered Carrigan to put the wheel over and Poley to order the gun captains to standby. Carrigan swung the Spence around, the other two destroyers, Thatcher and Converse following right in her wake. As the 5″/38 turret swung out to face the Japanese the gunners in the port side 40mm gun tubs ducked below the splinter shields knowing what they were about to receive. Concussion and blast from the big guns could blow the clothes off a man, burn the exposed part of his skin and deafen and cause his nose and ears to bleed. Those cannons did not make a bang bang sound, they roared like thunder from lightning striking right on top of the ship. They sucked the wind from your lungs and when they started firing it would be a shell every 4 1/2 seconds for as long as the action lasted. Five turrets could blanket an enemy ship with 100 plus shells a minute and unlike the japanese who still depended on visual sighting the American ships fired using radar range finding. In the Combat Information Center, CIC, an analog computer calculated all the parameters needed to get on target. Radar sighted the target and the computer calculated range, distance, the speed of the opposing ships and the coriolis* effect in order to put the shells on target.
At 0249 the order came by TBS, “Commence firing” and all hell broke loose. All four cruisers, led by the Montpelier and the three remaining destroyers, Foote still trying to catch up, opened on the Japanese ships of the northern column. A holocaust of 5 and 6-inch shells walked right across the surface of the Solomon Sea and to the light cruiser Sendai leading the column. Sendai was on the receiving end of a hurricane of high explosives and at 0252 a direct hit on her after magazine tore out her guts leaving her dead in the water on fire and sinking. Her gunners didn’t hesitate though and kept up a vicious rerun fire targeting the gun flashes of the American ships. Steaming in column right behind the Sendai, the Japanese DD’s were thrown into a melee of high explosive, the ocean surface torn to pieces by exploding ordinance. Scattering, trying to avoid running down the Sendai, the Samidare and Shiratsuyu collided at maximum speed and reeled out of the fight to the northwest.
Admiral Omari in the center column turned his ship, Myoko followed by the heavy cruiser Haguro toward the American ships and opened up with his 6 and 8-inch batteries. They were right on target but their shells were falling a mile to a mile and three quarters short of the Spence and her column. He had the searchlight turned on and they swept toward the US ships until they were able to illuminate them and the shooting rapidly improved. Not for long though. The big lumbering heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro sliced across the third Japanese column led by the Agano and the Myoko promptly hit the destroyer Hatsukaze forward and sliced her bow section off leaving part of it stuck in the bow of the larger ship. The Hatsukaze staggered out of the battle and slowly retreated out of the area. Three Japanese ships were out of action without a single American hit.
Burke found himself out of the action because of garbled TBS talk when he spotted the two damaged destroyers, Samidare and Shiratsuyu limping away at about fifteen miles distance. He turned his column and went tearing after them at 38 knots.
With Burke speeding away, the scene of the battle suddenly transformed into dazzling and diabolical beauty. Admiral Omari gave orders for his five inch batteries to fire illumination shells. Almost instantly the impenetrable darkness which cloaked the American ships was ripped away by the superior pyrotechnics of the Japanese. Floating lazily overhead on their parachutes each star shell, brilliant and unwinking produced a million candlepower of light. The silhouettes of the US ships, even the threadlike stays, aerials and spars were etched in black by the brilliant light above and behind them. Don Pohlemus turned to look at the Japanese ships, suddenly turned pale white by the light. Every man above decks on the Spence instantly felt naked and exposed.
Suddenly the battle, at first only illuminated by gun flashes became the world of the devil himself, a garden full of multicolored fountains and fantastic blossoms of fire had sprung to life at the touch of a wand. Impossibly tall geysers of water flashing red, green and yellow sprung from the waters surface as Japanese shells splashed short or over, painting the ocean with their brilliantly colored spotting dyes. From the Americans, brilliant golden tracers arched out towards the Japanese ships. Long fiery red tongues belched from the turrets and over it all a cacophany of almost unbearable sound. The Japanese big shells came in sounding like freight trains on a downgrade, cracking sonic booms as they flew over the ship; the tearing, ripping sound of high explosives passing overhead as the sailors in the gun tubs who weren’t able to fire back yet were rocked by concussions, some curled on the decks weeping and vomiting with fear, their shipmates looking away to spare them the shame. They were just as afraid.
There was little form to the battle now. The Spence was making turns for 35 knots, the Thatcher and Converse following, all loading and firing at maximum speed, the loaders and gunners in their turrets gasping for breath in the superheated air, choking on cordite fumes and running oceans of sweat, working at the very limit of human endurance. As Omori’s 8-inch shells crept closer, landing in tighter and tighter patterns indicating they were finding the range, Admiral Merrill ordered all ships to make both chemical and funnel smoke to try and obscure the cruisers and destroyers.
Poley stood on the bridge wing with Captain Armstrong, fascinated by the wild panorama going on around him. He heard Commodore Austin say to the captain, “Heinie, those japan boys can shoot all right. They’ve just been un-lucky so far but if they hit us with one of those 8-inch shells they can tear us up pretty bad.” The Spence, foaming through the sea continued to dance with the Devil.
The Foote rolled into a 25 degree turn to Port, making 374 turns on her polished propeller shafts passing through 34 knots straining to catch up with her division lived up to her nickname, “Foote-The-Unfortunate.” A Long Lance torpedo fired by one of Omori’s destroyer hit her at the turn of the bilge near the after 5″ gun. I a slit second, less time than it takes to think she was a wreck. Her radar mast whipped for and aft with a crack. A column of water shot more than the height of a seven story building, pausing at the top for a heartbeat and then in almost slow motion cascading down on the remains of her afterdeck sweeping men and blasted fragments of the ship away. A seaman stationed the after 20mm gun mount was blown high into the air. With an awful, seemingly slow motion deliberation his body cartwheels forward over the after gun mounts, hitting the rear stack and crashing down on the torpedo tubes a bloody unrecognizable pulp. The after three compartments of Foote completely disappeared, her starboard screw and her rudder blown away in an instant. The after crews quarters, the steering room and the after ships store room were obliterated. In the after 5-inch ammunition handling rooms, shells and powder bags leaped from their storage racks in a shower of steel and coarse granular explosive. Of the two men in the space, only one escaped. The other crushed under the weight of the ammunition. Her main deck aft was buckled upward and the side of the ship bulged out as much as twenty feet. The ship was lifted upward and then crashed down with the remains of the stern underwater and began to list to Port. Her engines were stopped cold, she had no rudder and all communications and radar were lost. Three enlisted men were dead on board; one officer and fifteen enlisted men had either been blown overside and lost to the sea or so fragmented that none of their remains were ever found. Two more officers and fifteen enlisted men were severely wounded.
The wounded were taken to the galley and Lieutenant Moffitt, the ships doctor went to work. The Foote was in imminent danger of sinking. The stern was underwater and the bow was nearly out of it. All the depth charges on the Starboard side had gone overboard and as damage control teams raced aft to try and save their ship they began going off deep under the ship. Any survivors in the water were certainly killed by the blasts pressure waves. Nearly every sailor on the ship was rushed aft to shift weight forward, pump out fuel tanks and rig pumps in the flooded compartments. Captain Ramsay, with his ship horribly stricken and lying helpless in the midst of a raging battle, ordered that his torpedos not be jettisoned as “We may get a shot at them yet.”
At this point, Admiral Merrill ordered Spence and her two remaining ships to launch a torpedo strike against the IJN heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro. Both ships had turned toward the American cruisers, were coming at high speed and firing fast. Spence ordered a turn to bring the torpedo mounts to bear on the Japanese ships, “Stand by to execute, turn nine!” At that moment the TBS again failed and the Thatcher following heard only “Turn nine!” Chief Quartermaster Ralph Lampman put the wheel over and Thatcher made her turn. In less than 60 seconds she was slicing along a course that would take her into the side of the Spence, right between her stacks. Thatcher and Spence were saved by Admiral Omori’s illumination rounds. Both skippers saw each other at the same time and threw their wheels over to try and dodge a collision, Thatcher backed her engines full to try and slow down, the ships coming around on roughly opposite parallel courses, bow to bow at a combined speed of nearly seventy miles and hour. As the bows sped toward each other the Spence veered just enough so the compressibility of the water between the ships cushioned the blow. Sparks flew wildly in the night and the two ships made a “Chinese Landing,” bow to bow and raked each other from stem to stern as they plunged past making enough fireworks to qualify as the fourth of July. Poley, Bean and the others stared at the Thatcher as she careened down the side just twenty feet away screeching and grinding like a thousand squealing pigs.
Thatcher received severe damage to its framing and had her Starboard propeller shaft was knocked out of line causing severe vibration but she was able to keep steaming. Spence had her Port motor whaleboat crushed and her Starboard shaft bearing fell out. She suffered only superficial topside damage and sailed on.
Austin managed to collect his division and radar gave him the location of the crippled Sendai with two of the other Japanese destroyers who were standing by to help, the Samidare and Shiratsuyu, and he rang up flank speed and went after them with Spence, Thatcher and Converse. He didn’t get far. Spence was hit by two very close near misses and took solid hit from heavy cruiser Myoko in her Starboard side at the crews mess hall, the bakers living quarters and the Starboard outboard fuel tank below. St. Christopher was doing double duty that night because the heavy 8-inch shell was a dud and did not explode. Damage control parties raced to the seven foot long gash, two feet below the water line and quickly stuffed bags of beans from the storekeepers lockers and mattresses backed up with wooden braces and brought the flooding under control. Unfortunately seawater was able to contaminate the fuel tanks and the ship nearly lost suction and wobbled out of line, almost dead in the water, the Thatcher and Converse racing past in pursuit of the Japanese. The Spence was now down by the stern with her decks awash. This threatened the handling room storage for the 5-inch gun above. Two sailors timed the roll of the ship, opened a hatch and dropped into the magazine below and with only a battle lantern for light, frantically shoveled ammunition up the hoists, working at a breakneck pace to keep the guns going. Both were awarded the Silver Star and according to Captain Armstrong, “symbolized the spirit of the Spence’s crew.”
The Spence finally got her engines going and ran on after the other two destroyers. Coming in the opposite direction, Burkes division spotted a target only 7000 yards away. Burke went on TBS to query, “What ship is that?” When there was no reply from the other captains in his division as to the target he said, “OK, let him have it” and the Little Beavers opened up with a storm of high explosive steel.
In less than 60 seconds a dozen or more 5-inch shells ripped the sea close aboard the Spence. Action on her bridge was instant, Captain Armstrong grabbed the TBS transmitter from Poley and yelled, “Who the hell is that?” He turned-on his battle lights and rang up full speed on the engine telegraph. “Lets get the hell outta here,” He said. To Burke, he said, “We’ve just had some close ones, hope its not you.”
“Are you hit?” from Burke
“Negative, but we can hear them and they’re not all here yet.”
“Sorry” in what has become classic Navy deadpan humor, “but you’ll have to excuse the next four salvos, they’re already on their way.”
Turning to to Captain Reynolds of the Ausburne, he said, “At least we know where Spence is now.
Burke then raced northwest following a rain cloud which showed on his radar until they figured it out and retraced their course towards Spence who was now involved in a furious gun duel with the damaged Hatsukaze.
Hatsukaze had wandered slowly around in circles, her bow sliced off still trying to escape until she encountered Spence. They were now involved in a blazing gun duel at close range with the Spence nearly out of ammunition and fuel. Burkes column steamed up and opened fire on her and in just a few minutes, her bridge demolished, Captain dead and a smoking ruin she rolled over and sank.
The battle was effectively over. With the Japanese slinking off to the northwest, the Americans needed to be concerned with the coming dawn, the severely damaged Foote and little ships literally shaken apart by the constant hammering of the fighting. They turned for home.
On the Spence the crew was almost incapable of further movement. Poley and all the other sailors literally asleep on their feet. Exhausted men lay on the deck oblivious to the world. Gunners who had been in their turrets for four straight hours crawled out of the hatches puking and shaking with fatigue, temporarily deaf. Engineroom crews fell to the steaming hot decks, glassy eyed and just able to function enough to keep Spence moving.
In the late afternoon of November 3rd they limped into Purvis Bay, the Foote in tow. They had been constantly under way for 65 endless hours. They had just fought one of the longest battles in the history of the South Pacific war. They had sunk two enemy ships and severely damaged several others at the cost of nearly a thousand Japanese lives. Officers and men alike were anaesthetized by overwhelming fatigue. They hauled themselves about the decks and up and down ladders, their brains seeming to come from mush. Yet many of them couldn’t sleep; not yet. Fueling and supply started as soon they tied up to the Markab. Repair parties went to work. Ammunition reloading began from the ammo barges and there were harbor watches to stand both above and below. In the Navy way, Poley, Bean, Paul and Lt. Krauchunas began accounting for every item used, broken or destroyed. A routine day no matter how tired.
December of 1944 found the Spence operating with Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 58 off the Philippine Islands. Spence was one of the many destroyers acting as plane guards for air operations in Leyte Gulf during the invasion of the Islands. She was in an entirely different war now, no more the rag tag ship to ship surface actions of the Southwest Pacific but part of the Naval Juggernaut rolling across the Western Central Pacific. Numbers of ships had vastly increased. The Navy operated 377 Destroyers now whose primary role was to support carrier operations for the 28 fleet carriers and 71 escort carriers. A far cry from the end of battle of Midway in 1942 when there were only two fleet carriers afloat.
To Be Continued November 13th
*When talking about ballistics, the Coriolis Effect refers to the deflection on the trajectory of the bullet generated by the spinning motion of the Earth. Its effect is negligible at medium distances, but becomes important around 1000yds, a little more than a half mile and beyond, especially because it can add to other minimal errors and miss the target.