TIME: 0842 - 1212, March
26, (During the battle the Americans set their chronometers using
Pearl Harbor time which was plus three hours (and minus one day) from local
time. The Japanese set theirs, as always, by Tokyo time, which was
minus two hours from local. Thus, sunrise local time was approximately
0530 hours. American times are used in this account.
WEATHER: Clear, light breeze from SW, high overcast.
SEA STATE: Glassy
MISSION: Allies to intercept transports, Japanese to protect transports and destroy American Fleet.
Track Chart: Battle of Komandorski Islands
The Japanese invaded Kiska Island in the Aleutians chain in June, 1942 in a sideshow to the Midway campaign, Subsequently they took Attu Island 200 miles east, at the end of the chain. These actions opened a new theater of war in the Pacific; one where neither side cared nor indeed needed to fight. Politically, however, the United States could not ignore the occupation of North American territory. For their part, the Japanese considered evacuating the two islands during the winter of 1942-43, but reinforced them instead to guard against an American attempt to leapfrog over to the Kurile Islands, not as a prelude to an advance up the chain toward the Alaska mainland.
The process of keeping these isolated garrisons supplied was difficult and dangerous. On February 18, 1943 Indianapolis caught and sank Akagane Maru, an unescorted cargo ship bound for Attu. The Japanese determined their next reinforcements to the Aleutians would get through. For a convoy of only three vessels they assembled an escort consisting of practically the entire 5th Fleet, Northern Force: two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and five destroyers. Compared to the two heavy, two light cruisers and fourteen destroyers that escorted forty-one transports on the invasion of Java just slightly more than a year earlier, this was a lavish use of force. On March 23 the convoy and escort weighed anchor in Paramushiro to rendezvous with a slow transport and destroyer that had set out earlier.
The Americans received radio intelligence indicating the Japanese would be pushing more cargo ships through to Attu. They established a scouting line of one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser and four destroyers west of Attu. This force, commanded by Rear Admiral McMorris, spent nine days fruitlessly maintaining station in one of the roughest and stormiest seas on earth. At the point of turning for home, McMorris received intelligence that the convoy was finally on its way. An incomplete translation of the critical message, however, failed to advise him of the Japanese convoy’s heavy escort.
When dawn broke on the morning of March 26, the American task force was east of the International Date Line, (so it was actually March 27) 180 miles west of Attu and a hundred miles south of the Russian Komandorski Islands, sweeping north by east, strung out in a scouting line six miles long. Destroyer Coghlan led, McMorris’ flagship, the old light cruiser Richmond followed; then came destroyers Bailey, Dale, heavy cruiser Salt Lake City, recently repaired from damage inflicted at Cape Esperance and finally destroyer Monaghan. McMorris was expecting, in his own words, a “Roman Holiday.”
Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya, commander of the 5th Fleet sailed on heavy cruiser Nachi veteran victor of the Java Sea battles. Nachi had served as Hosogaya’s flagship, 5th Fleet, since April 1942. Maya, his other heavy ship was a more recent addition arriving at Paramushiro only on February 27, 1943. The Japanese fleet was sailing due north led by Nachi, Maya, light cruiser Tama, another 5th Fleet veteran, destroyers Wakaba, Hatsushimo, light cruiser Abukuma , destroyer Ikazuchi, fast transports Asaka Maru, and Sakito Maru and finally destroyer Inazuma. They were keeping a rendezvous with the slow transport Sanko Maru and Usugumo, her escorting destroyer, but heavy weather had delayed them. Hosogaya didn’t know this. When a lookout on Inazuma reported a mast astern off her port quarter, he assumed it would be the other element of his convoy. Once united, the entire force would make a run for Attu, and deliver much needed materials.
The sharp-eyed Japanese lookout
once again got the jump on American radar. It wasn’t until a half
hour later, at 0730, around an hour before dawn, when radar on McMorris’
flagship light cruiser Richmond and Coughlan independently
detected ships north of the American picket line. McMorris ordered
his dispersed fleet to concentrate on Richmond. At the same
time Japanese lookouts on Nachi were clarifying their earlier report
“with the help of cards on which sketches indicated the characteristics
of foreign vessels.” The two forces sailed on roughly parallel courses
with the Americans 20nm southeast of the Japanese. The day was dawning
with remarkable visibility under a light overcast, a glassy sea and gentle
breezes from the southwest. Air and water temperatures were just
at or above freezing. At 0830, apprized of his opposition,
Hosogaya began to deploy his ships. Abukuma with Wakaba,
Hatsushimo and Ikazuchi turned in column to starboard, followed
two minutes later by Nachi, Maya and Tama. The two
transports, accompanied by Inazuma, continued north, northwest as
Hosogoya led his fleet southeastward in two parallel columns to engage
the American fleet. At about this time Nachi launched an aircraft
to assist in spotting the fall of shot.
|Table 3.1 - Forces Engaged - Battle of Komandorski Islands|
|Salt Lake City
By 0840 the Americans were in battle formation: a single column still heading north led by Bailey followed by Coghlan, then Richmond, Salt Lake City, Dale and finally, Monaghan when Maya and then Nachi opened fire at a range of 20,000 yards. Maya obtained a straddle on Richmond with her second salvo, but then both cruisers switched fire to Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City began shooting back two minutes later. The Americans believed they scored a quick hit on Nachi with Salt Lake City’s third and fourth salvos, but they were apparently observing blast damage on Maya. Her action report stated that her opening salvos set her No. 1 floatplane ablaze. Damage control dumped the plane overboard and quickly controlled the fire. At 0844, as the range continued to rapidly close, Nachi launched eight torpedoes. Apparently these came close to doing serious harm: lookouts aboard Richmond saw a torpedo pass under her bow while one broke surface near Bailey’s starboard quarter. At the time these reports were discounted because the Americans still had no appreciation of the Japanese Long Lance torpedoes’ range.
At 0845 McMorris finally changed course as the range was closing rapidly, turning to port, and increasing speed to 28 knots. As the Americans settled on a southwesterly course, Salt Lake City continued firing with her rear turrets and drew first blood hitting Nachi at 0850 with her sixteenth salvo from approximately 16,000 yards. One 8” shell struck the aft section of the compass bridge, killing eleven and wounding twenty-one and damaging the gunnery control electrical circuit. The second shell damaged one of the mainmast’s struts. Two minutes later a third 8” shell struck Nachi’s aft aircraft deck, killing two and wounding five in the torpedo room below. Damage control attempted to shift the affected generator to a boiler with low steam pressure. This error resulted in a complete failure in all power to Nachi’s main battery turrets, freezing her guns at full elevation and leaving them unable to train. She was effectively out of the battle for a half-hour while power was restored.
As Nachi struggled to correct her damage, Hosogaya turned his cruisers southwest to pursue the Americans. The light cruisers and destroyers had already peeled off to the southwest several minutes before. Strategically he was now between McMorris and his base, chasing the Americans from their aft port quarter while his light forces, positioned to protect the convoy, followed from the starboard quarter. Tactically, Hosogaya possessed the weather gage, but a stern chase is a long chase. His cruisers had to turn to fire their full broadsides (only four of their ten 8” guns could bear forward) and these maneuvers negated any advantage he might have gained with his superior speed.
As the Japanese settled on their new course, the range opened slightly. The Maya rightly concentrated her fire on Salt Lake City. Her aim was good, but Captain Rogers commanding the American heavy cruiser successfully chased salvos until 0910 when Maya finally landed an 8” shell on Salt Lake City’s starboard spotter plane on the midships catapult. The only two deaths the Americans were to suffer during the battle resulted, but damage control quickly extinguished the fire and dumped the plane over the side.
Another hit, once again from Maya followed at 0920. This struck Salt Lake City’s quarterdeck, but did little to immediately affect her fighting value. At this point the Americans gradually started bending their course west, then west by northwest. The Japanese suspended fire for nine minutes from 0921 to 0930 when Nachi re-opened fire. They were now sailing almost due west. By 0945 Tama had encroached to within 18,000 yards of Salt Lake City’s starboard quarter. Rogers sheered his ship out of line and with a few salvos forced the light cruiser to make a 360° turn. During this portion of the battle Abukuma with the three destroyers continued to follow off the American’s starboard quarter, out of range, but gradually closing.
Salt Lake City first experienced a serious problem at 0952 when the repeated concussions of her own salvos, as well as numerous near misses, threw her steering gear out of control. This problem was corrected, but only temporarily. By 0953 Abukuma had approached sufficiently close to merit attention from Richmond. The Japanese light cruiser exhibited a certain timidity, opening range when she came under fire by turning more to the north; perhaps her orders made protection of the convoy her primary responsibility.
At 1002 Salt Lake City’s steering gear failed again, this time permanently, restricting her course changes to only 10 degrees and thus limiting her ability to chase salvos. This handicap quickly told: at 1010 Salt Lake City was hit again from a range of nearly 22,000 yards; the shell, fortunately a dud, passed through her main deck and out her hull below the waterline, causing flooding in an engine room. At 1018, with Salt Lake City taking on water and having trouble steering, McMorris ordered his destroyers to make smoke to hide her from the pursuing Japanese. Conditions were perfect for this tactic and the white chemical and black funnel smoke hung thick in the still air behind the Americans.
At 1028 Salt Lake City changed course to 240?. Richmond followed about 3,000 yards astern while the destroyers remained on her engaged side, continuing to pour smoke from their funnels and generators. As the American column made its way west northwest at 30 knots, the Japanese cruisers followed. Up to this point, Hosogaya had fought an intelligent battle, exploiting McMorris’ initial aggressive movements to position his ships in the superior position. His long-range gunnery had damaged the principal American ship. With the advantages of speed, material and position, it was time to close range and force the issue. Instead the Japanese cruisers continued to zigzag, Hosogaya electing to fire full broadsides rather than close range. For three quarters of an hour the Japanese failed to score any hits as the smoke served to protect Salt Lake City, despite the presence of Nachi’s spotter plane. At 1100 McMorris turned his column due south. The Japanese cruisers were slow to respond to this course change and continued west for nearly a half-hour. Hosogaya was permitting McMorris to slip out of his trap. At 1103 Abukuma hit Salt Lake City, her fourth and final hit. This caused flooding in her after gyro and engine rooms. She took on a 5° list, but continued at full speed.
Shortly after the American course change the Japanese launched a torpedo attack with Maya firing four at 1105 followed by eight from Nachi at 1107 and four more from Abukuma at 1115. These sixteen torpedoes probably passed behind the Americans. The cruisers continued to swap ineffective salvos. Then, at 1125 Salt Lake City’s after fireroom went out of commission reducing her speed to 20 knots. McMorris initially ordered his destroyers to conduct a torpedo attack and they dropped back to get into position, but he canceled his order at 1138 as Salt Lake City was able to work her speed back up. Hosogaya was only able to close range about 3,000 yards during this time as he maneuvered to avoid the torpedo attack that never came.
At 1148 Nachi was hit again by a 5” shell on the starboard front side of #1 turret. This blocked her turret and killed one and wounded another crew. At 1149 the Japanese destroyers tried to enter the action when Wakaba fired five torpedoes at the American destroyers followed by six from Hatsushimo at 1154. As this attack was being conducted, the battle reached its moment of crises. At 1150, engineers counterflooding to correct Salt Lake City’s list, accidentally let water into the fuel oil and extinguished her burners. By 1154 she was dead in the water. The Japanese heavy cruisers were 19,000 yards north northwest, firing steadily and closing while the light cruisers were a little further to the northeast. Although Salt Lake City was partially obscured by smoke, there appeared to be little hope of saving her. McMorris immediately ordered his destroyers to form up for a torpedo attack. At 1159 Bailey, Coghlan and Monaghan reversed course to close the cruisers 17,000 yards to their northwest while Dale remained to refresh the smoke screen. Richmond closed Salt Lake City to evacuate her crew if need be. Rogers, however, was not ready to give up his ship. Frantic damage control efforts got her burners lit and by 1200 she was underway again making 8 knots.
As the American destroyers charged northwest Coghlan fired her 5” guns at Maya while the other two targeted Nachi. Hosogaya shifted fire to this threat and Bailey was quick to suffer. At 1200 an 8” shell struck her galley door on the starboard side, killing five. In the next two minutes she was hit again in her forward fireroom and her forward engineroom loosing boilers 1 and 2. Scrapnel from near misses wounded four on Coghlan and knocked both radars out of commission. Nachi suffered her fifth hit during this run in on a signal platform to starboard. Bailey launched five torpedoes at 1203 from 10,000 yards and turned away. The punishing fire prevented the other two destroyers from closing any further and they turned away as well, their torpedoes still in their tubes. Salt Lake City reopened fire just before Bailey’s fish hit the water. McMorris turned his cruisers east. Hosogaya made a turn to the west at 1203. The Japanese ceased fire at 1204 and the Americans at 1212. Both forces were now heading in opposite directions toward their respective bases.
Hosogaya’s turnabout seemed a miracle to the Americans. Apparently there were several factors behind his decision. His destroyers were low on fuel and his cruisers low on ammunition. He was not aware of the gravity of Salt Lake City’s problems. He was also concerned about air attacks. When Salt Lake City reopened fire, she was using HE ammunition, having expended all her AP. Apparently the white splashes from these shells were interpreted as explosions from aerial bombs dropped from above the overcast. Hosogaya’s decision to turn away was reportably not popular with his men. “They silently cursed the caution of their chief which depreived them of a victory already won.”
This battle was fought at long ranges, under perfect conditions, without intervention by aircraft (other than the one spotter) submarines shore batteries or mines. In this regard, Komandorski was unique, at least in the Pacific Theater. The expenditure of ammunition for all the American ships engaged was heavy. Salt Lake City fired 806 8” shells, 85% of her stock, and 95 5”. Richmond contributed 271 6” and 14 3” while Bailey, Coghlan, Dale and Monaghan fired 481, 750, 728 and 235 rounds of 5” respectively. On the Japanese side the totals for the heavy cruisers were impressive: Nachi and Maya fired 707 and 904 8” rounds respectively (up to 70% of their total) and 276 and 9 5”. The light forces fired considerably less: Tama 136 5.5” and Abukuma just 95 5.5”. Of the destroyers only Wakaba and Hatsushimo got into the action. Wakaba fired a few rounds of 5” and Hatsushimo only 5. The Americans launched 5 torpedoes, all from Bailey, while the Japanese launched 43, Nachi 16, Maya 8, Abukuma 4, Tama 4, Wakaba 6 and Hatsushimo 5. No torpedoes scored, but interestingly, the two American attacks, one aborted and one only partially carried out, had decisive results. The first prevented Hosogaya from closing range just before Salt Lake City lost power and the second encouraged him to break off his attack just when it was in his power to win the battle.
On the Japanese side Nachi received moderate damage which required repair in Japan from 3 April to 11 May while Tama was very lightly damaged, taking two 5” hits on her catapult that wounded one. Maya lost her float plane to blast damage. Salt Lake City was heavily damaged, Bailey suffered moderate damage and Coghlan splinter damage.