IF COMMAND IS A LONELY MOUNTAIN, THERE WERE FEW PEAKS MORE desolate than Howard D. Bode, the captain of the Chicago. Largely, it seemed, he liked it that way. It was common practice for a skipper to take all his meals alone in his cabin. This suited the ship’s officers, because Bode’s manner was insulting and intimidating when he was not entirely aloof. He visited the wardroom only for meetings, and his presence always chilled the company.
Bode could wield the chilling power by proxy. “His officers were scared to death of him,” said his Marine orderly, Raymond Zarker. “The minute I would walk in there they would freeze, like a bunch of frightened rabbits.” According to an officer who knew him on another ship, “he was short and stocky and to a young ensign the most staggering thing about him was that he let his hair grow long enough so that it hung down over the collar of his service dress whites. He used to stick one of his hands in his blouse in front and he postured a little like Napoleon postured and looked a little like I thought Napoleon was supposed to look.”
On the Chicago, officers who stood by their captain on watch and tried to be helpful did so at their peril. To give advice to a tyrant was to suggest his fallibility and offer oneself as a scapegoat should things go wrong. There were a few senior officers whom Bode outwardly respected, but he treated most of them in line with his whispered nicknames, “Captain Bligh” and “King Bode.” Of the Pacific Fleet’s eleven heavy cruisers, the Chicago ranked lowest for engineering performance, a fact that may have arisen in part from the unwillingness of his engineers to fudge fuel records—a technique sometimes used to mask actual consumption but which might well have invited a stickler’s wrath. He was bound for flag rank, had shaped his career toward that goal ever since he had survived some unpleasantness as a senior midshipman at the Naval Academy: a disciplinary proceeding for hazing, all of it duly reported on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. It was mortifying, but it didn’t hold him back. He was a star, bound to command task groups and wear gold stars.
The scuttlebutt on the Chicago had it that Bode was from money. The son of a Cincinnati judge, he had married into the Dupont family and thus would have known the glamour of overseas capitals even had his prewar service as a naval attaché not taken him around the world. In that capacity, and later as a section chief in the Office of Naval Intelligence, he had become an expert in foreign intelligence. When Bode urged the disclosure to Pearl Harbor’s commander of certain evidence that the berthing locations of vessels within the base were under scrutiny by Japanese agents, he reportedly clashed with Admiral Turner—a gambit for only the stoutest of heart. Turner, it was said, shut him down. His next assignment was to command the battleship Oklahoma. On December 7, it was only through chance that he was ashore when Mitsubishi crosshairs found his ship. The Oklahoma was heavily hit and capsized, killing almost half of her 864-man peacetime complement. Bode’s absence spared his life. He and ten other men from the battleship transferred to the Chicago.
On the night of August 8, when Admiral Crutchley took the Australia out of the southwestern screening force to confer with Turner, he signaled the Chicago by light, “TAKE CHARGE OF PATROL. I AM CLOSING CTF 62 AND MAY OR MAY NOT REJOIN YOU LATER.” With mere hours between the end of the conference and the rise of dawn, when the Australia and the other cruisers were supposed to go south to protect the transports, Crutchley saw no point in returning to his nighttime patrol station. And so Bode was alone again, in temporary command of a two-cruiser squadron guarding one of two routes into Savo Sound. The elevation to commodore-for-a-night was, he no doubt thought, a foretaste of duty to come.
Bode had reckoned with the possibility of a ship-to-ship fight against the Japanese on the night of August 8. According to a sighting report from an Australian plane out of Milne Bay, New Guinea, the Japanese fleet was on the move. Recorded at ten twenty-five that morning but delivered near dusk, the report read: “AIRCRAFT REPORTS 3 CRUISERS 3 DESTROYERS 2 SEAPLANE TENDERS OR GUNBOATS 0549 S 15607 E COURSE 120 TRUE SPEED 15 KNOTS.”
It was a curious report, vague as to ship type. When the Chicago’s navigator plotted the coordinates of the enemy naval squadron, Bode’s executive officer, Commander Cecil Adell, determined that it was too far away to reach the Chicago’s patrol area before midmorning on the following day.
So it will be a quiet evening after all, Bode thought.
Because the narrow waters between Guadalcanal and Savo Island were poorly charted, Bode had elected not to take the lead as befitted his command. Bringing his six-hundred-foot-long heavy cruiser to the head of the truncated column would have required him to conduct a minuet of giants in perilously confined waters after dark.
The Chicago’s crew was on the brink of exhaustion after several days at battle stations. As soon as one attack ended, a warning of the next one usually followed. There would be a warning this night as well, or a hint of a warning, but it would be cried only faintly, and no one would seem to hear it, or fathom it, until it was too late.
ADMIRAL MIKAWA WAS AWARE he had been spotted. One of his lookouts saw the plane that had betrayed him. Its appearance in the cloud gaps overhead persuaded him to reverse course in order to deceive the pilot that he was en route to Rabaul or Truk. But there was no need to fool an aviator who was already fooled.
The pilot of the plane, a New Zealander named William Stutt, reported to his base at Milne Bay that the ships scribing white lines in the waters of New Georgia Sound might include two seaplane tenders, or gunboats. These references to disparate ship types bewildered those receiving the report. Gunboats were not a recognized class of modern warship, though the term might suggest a small combatant such as a PT boat. Seaplane tenders were rarely mistaken for surface combatants of any kind. The ambiguity served to mask the actual lethal nature of Mikawa’s striking force. Knowing nothing of Operation Watchtower in any event, Stutt was not predisposed to alarm. His report languished for hours at his base, and then for hours more at Brisbane, and finally reached Turner and Crutchley between 6 and 7 p.m. With its reference to seaplane tenders, it failed to arouse the suspicions it ought to have. Turner surmised that the enemy’s mission was to establish a seaplane base near Rekata Bay, off the northern tip of Santa Isabel Island.
Continuing to vary his course to mask his purpose, Mikawa ordered his cruisers to launch search planes to survey the waters ahead. Within a few hours their reports would come back. Off Guadalcanal: fifteen transports, a battleship, four cruisers, seven destroyers, and an “auxiliary carrier”; off Tulagi: two heavy cruisers, twelve destroyers, and three transports. At a quarter to five, Mikawa signaled the battle plan to each of the ships: “WE WILL PENETRATE SOUTH OF SAVO ISLAND AND TORPEDO THE ENEMY MAIN FORCE OFF GUADALCANAL. THEN WE WILL MOVE TOWARD THE FORWARD AREA AT TULAGI AND STRIKE WITH TORPEDOES AND GUNFIRE, AFTER WHICH WE WILL WITHDRAW TO THE NORTH OF SAVO ISLAND.”
Mikawa knew nothing of Fletcher’s plan to withdraw. His only sure evidence of the threat posed by U.S. carriers was the chatter of American pilots that his radiomen were intercepting. To avoid that threat, he would have to strike under cover of darkness. He calculated that as long as the fight began before 1:30 a.m., his force, on withdrawal, would be outside the range of U.S. carrier planes come daylight.
On came Mikawa’s column at twenty-four knots, the flagship Chokai in the lead, followed at thirteen-hundred-yard intervals by the heavy cruisers Kako, Kinugasa, Aoba, Furutaka, then the smaller Tenryu, Yubari, and Yunagi. Preparing his lunge into the American anchorage, Mikawa ordered his commanders to jettison all flammables. From the signal yards of each ship rose long white battle streamers that whipped the air. Back at Truk, Admiral Ugaki spent the day relishing the thought of what was coming: “The Eighth Fleet is going to surprise the enemy in Guadalcanal tonight. Come on boys! Do your stuff!”
THE HMAS CANBERRA led the Chicago in column with the destroyers Bagley and Patterson along a northwest-to-southeast patrol line, reversing course by a column turn every forty-five minutes. To give the weary crews some relief, the ships were in what was known as Condition Two, a state of partial battle readiness that kept one of the cruisers’ two forward turrets fully manned, and the after turret half manned. Bode was reassured to know that both Crutchley and Turner had received the same contact report he had. In Turner’s judgment, the reference to seaplane tenders suggested the ships were bound for a quiet anchorage north of Guadalcanal where the Japanese had a seaplane base. As for the threat of enemy surface ships, Turner was unconcerned. He had told Crutchley that he was comfortable with the disposition of the cruisers to protect the anchorage. “I was satisfied with arrangements, and hoped that the enemy would attack,” Turner later wrote. “I believed they would get a warm reception.” While Turner was with Crutchley and Vandegrift, a Japanese aircraft—a floatplane from one of Mikawa’s cruisers—revealed itself to spotters on the Ralph Talbot, running low, flying east over Savo Island. The destroyer announced, “WARNING—WARNING—PLANE OVER SAVO ISLAND HEADED EAST.” The message was repeated on several radio frequencies. It shouldn’t have been news. Word had arrived hours before from the San Juan, leading three destroyers on patrol off Tulagi, that an unidentified plane had been sighted over Savo Island. The picket destroyer Blue saw it, too. That ship’s gunnery officer asked his captain for permission to open fire, but since the plane was displaying running lights, it was deemed a friendly. The Blue’s skipper feared that if he reported the plane by radio, he would only risk the Japanese detecting his ship’s location by radio direction finder. Fear of using sensors and communications was widespread in the screening force. When Captain Bode retired to his cabin behind the pilothouse for a nap, confident no attack could come that night, he ordered his radar officer to turn off the Chicago’s search radar for fear that Japanese ships might detect and trace the beams.
Rains were moving over the cloistered waters around Savo. Lightning flickered sporadically. It was 1:42 a.m. when the Chicago’s lookouts reported orange flashes of light against Savo’s shadow. To Bode and the men of the bridge watch, they looked like fires on the beach. A minute later, the plane that was lazing in circles overhead began dropping flares. Five blinding orbs burst well astern, near the transport anchorage off Tulagi.
From the destroyer Patterson ahead came a blinker signal, “WARNING—WARNING—STRANGE SHIPS ENTERING HARBOR.” Out in the storm-lit sound, the forms of unidentified ships were dimly visible, approaching nearly head-on. The Patterson’s battery barked, lofting star shells, aiming to backlight the bogeys. The Chicago followed suit, but her phosphorous candles failed to light. Critical minutes passed in the dark. The Bagley swung left, drew on the enemy, and fired four torpedoes from her starboard battery. Seeing targets against the glow of his star shells, Commander Frank R. Walker ordered the Patterson’s helm left and shouted an order to launch torpedoes, but the crashes of her gun battery swallowed it. Then Bode heard a report of torpedoes in the water, inbound on several bearings.
Ahead, the Canberra was seen turning sharply to starboard when a cry came of a torpedo wake headed for the port bow. Bode ordered his rudder hard to port as the Chicago’s engineers, deep in the ship, labored to answer the bell to make full speed. Noticing a quick, bright exchange of gunfire to the west, Bode steered the Chicago on what he thought was “a good course for engaging both turrets and broadside.” As his ship came to twenty-five knots, Bode was still seeking his enemy when, without fanfare or forewarning, the Canberra was savaged by a concentrated barrage. More than thirty Japanese shells struck the Australian heavy cruiser, killing her commander, Captain Frank E. Getting, and other senior officers. Almost at once both of her boiler rooms were destroyed, and with them died all power and light throughout ship. She was a floating nest of flame.
In this fleeting moment of contact, the Chicago never did fire her main battery. A shell struck the leg of her mainmast, killing two sailors, including the chief boatswain’s mate, and wounding thirteen, including the exec, Commander Adell, who was hit in the throat. A torpedo fired by the Kako struck the ship from starboard, clipping off part of the bow and vibrating the rest of the ship hard enough to disjoin the main battery director. Gunners on her five-inch secondary battery managed to train on and hit an enemy ship, the Tenryu, killing twenty-three men. But the darkness hid the larger targets. Of the forty-four star shells the Chicago lofted, all but six failed to light. As Bode struggled to decide what to do next, he neglected to report the encounter either to his absent superior, Crutchley, or to his colleague who would be up next in the shooting gallery, Captain Riefkohl in the Vincennes, flagship of the northern cruiser group.
As the Japanese column steamed by, rounding Savo Island in a counterclockwise course and approaching Riefkohl’s squadron, Bode continued west toward what he thought would be the arena of the principal fight. Afterward, the track charts of the battle would show with cruel clarity that this is not at all what Bode was accomplishing. The record would even suggest, to the uncharitable eyes of inquiring superiors, that the star skipper of the cruiser Chicago was in the grip of an emotion quite distinct from courage.
On a night when the American fleet would need all the best virtues of its commanders, officers, and men to join together, Bode had committed the first in a swift accumulation of errors. Admiral Mikawa had won the draw and, continuing to the east, found Frederick Riefkohl’s cruisers, majestic on patrol but no more alert than the wayward watchdogs of the southwestern force had been despite the spectacular catastrophe of the preceding four hundred seconds.