EAST OF SAVO, TWENTY MILES ASTERN OF CAPTAIN BODE’S WESTWARD-charging warship, the nighttime cloud cover was cast into gray relief by intermittent lightning and the distant flashing of gunfire. On a calm sea, the cruisers Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria were tracing the northwesterly leg of a box-shaped patrol pattern five miles on a side. Their officers were alert to the light but unaware of its source. They did not know that a critical alarm had already been raised.
Captain William Greenman of the Astoria was steaming as closely as he thought prudent to the Quincy ahead, in order to get maximum protection from his threadbare anti-submarine screen. With only two destroyers, the Wilson and the Helm, leading them in the van, his greatest fear was submarine attack. On August 6, Nimitz had sent “ultra secret” warnings to all his Operation Watchtower commanders regarding the submarine threat. On the evening before the battle, Turner had instructed Crutchley to discontinue using his shipboard floatplanes to search the Slot for enemy ships. The undersea menace loomed largest.
Now came a radio warning delivered by a destroyer from the southern screening group, the Patterson, “WARNING—WARNING—STRANGE SHIPS.… ” What to make of this?
Transmitted at 1:47 a.m., the warning had been missed altogether by Captain Riefkohl in the Vincennes. The TBS frequency was clogged with commanders exchanging the administrivia of the midwatch. It had been burdened most of the night by the chatter of destroyer officers wondering how to approach the task of scuttling the transport George F. Elliott, hit in the afternoon air attack. Though the bridge watch on the Quincy received the warning and sounded general quarters, the reason for the alarm was not immediately conveyed to the ship’s gunnery-control stations.
In the Astoria, a petty officer named George L. Coleman, stationed in the plotting room beneath the bridge, trained his search radar to the west and reported a bogey approaching on the surface at twenty-nine miles. Though Savo Island’s mass blocked the radar’s field of vision within a twenty-five-degree arc off either shore, Coleman registered contacts and reported them to higher command. The fire-control radar was out of order at the time, but Coleman had faith in his longer-range search set. “The search radar was operating as well as it ever had,” Ensign R. G. Heneberger, the Astoria’s radar officer, would write. When the officer-of-the-deck refused to sound general quarters, Coleman pressed his case. “The more I insisted that the enemy was out there, the more I got excited,” Coleman wrote.
Still, the unfamiliar power of a new technology was seldom a match for a complacent human mind bent on ignoring it. “The OOD and the other officers tried to tell me that I had a double echo on my scope and that we had a destroyer in that area,” Coleman said. He made such a nuisance of himself after his relief by the midwatch that someone finally threatened to send him to the brig if he didn’t let the next watch settle in and do their jobs.
The first irrefutable sign that enemy ships were near came when searchlights fixed on Riefkohl’s slumbering formation and a heavy salvo raised the seas just short of the Vincennes. No one, not even the officer whose duty it was to expect the worst, Riefkohl, believed a Japanese fleet could reach them before morning.
Sweeping the horizon through his glass, the executive officer of the Vincennes spotted a glow of light and silhouettes on the water, about four miles on his port beam. The “great display of light” blooming in the haze was the product of the high halo of a star shell. The gunnery officer believed it was from the flash of American gunfire bombarding shore. The Astoria’s captain, Greenman, too, was fooled by the evidence before his eyes. When he was roused to a view of Bode’s southern group dying in the dark, he said, “I didn’t know they were shelling the beaches tonight,” and returned to his cabin. But even when the shock of heavy underwater explosions came, the throes of Bode’s squadron could too easily be dismissed by the most plausible explanation: the detonations of depth charges dropped by destroyers hunting submarines.
Captain Greenman was unaware of the discord in his pilothouse concerning purported radar contacts. Had he been awake, he might have heard through the open hatch the argument between one of the two quartermasters of the watch, Royal Radke, who heard a plane overhead and asked permission to pull the general alarm, and the officer-of-the-deck, a young lieutenant, who declared such an action the captain’s prerogative. Radke wasn’t standing on ceremony when a decision might determine life or death. Without further deliberation or entreaty, he pulled the red lever. Some would say that this act of insubordination ended up saving more than a few American lives.
Having dealt with Bode’s force in summary violent fashion, the four Japanese cruisers—the Chokai leading the Aoba, Kako, and Kinugasa—swept along to the northeast. The Kinugasa was still dealing fire at the ruined Canberra when the Chokai ahead fixed her searchlights on the Astoria, last in Captain Riefkohl’s column, and eighty-two hundred yards, or four and a half miles, to the northeast. The Aoba lit the Quincy, and the Kako took the Vincennes.
Mikawa’s gunners were turning their batteries on the American column when the lieutenant in the Astoria’s main battery director, Carl Sander, found himself studying a strange cruiser through his spotting glasses. Recognizing foreign architecture, he shouted into the phones, “Action port! Load.” As Sander coached the boxy bulk of his gun director onto the target, his gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Truesdell, in Sky Control high in the foremast, saw searchlights probing out of the darkness to port. He shouted, “Fire every damn thing you got!”
Awakened, Greenman reached the bridge shortly after Astoria had let loose her first salvo. “Who sounded the general alarm?” he demanded to know. “Who gave the order to commence firing?” Greenman thought the worst—not an enemy attack, but a blunder of fratricide. When the second salvo blew, the captain feared his gunners were firing into friendly ships. The quartermaster, Radke, was still catching hell from the skipper when a report came that the five-inch-gun deck was on fire. Only when an experienced voice such as Truesdell’s had confirmed that the ships illuminating them were hostile did Greenman let his gunners do their work. From that moment on, the Astoria roared.
Feeling the lurching of the ship and watching yellow light flash through the slats of the porthole to his sleeping compartment, Joe Custer knew suddenly that he would not escape the battle unhurt. “It was there, as vivid and clear as though someone had told me,” he wrote. For a moment he was frantic to know where the injury would strike him, but then he understood there was little use fretting over what he couldn’t control. “I was suddenly cool and calm: What is to be, is to be.”
Running to the weather deck, a radio department officer, Lieutenant Jack Gibson, was “surprised to see that we were fixed by a searchlight like a bug on a pin.” Like her two consorts, the Vincennes and the Quincy, the Astoria seemed to come to fighting life when her guns opened up. But enemy gunners were several turns ahead of the Americans in the cycle of loading, fire, and correction of aim. Two hundred yards ahead of the Astoria and five hundred yards to port, a tight group of splashes rose, short. The next group fell a hundred yards closer ahead, five hundred short. The Astoria responded, and then a third salvo fell, directly abeam to port but still five hundred yards short. Tracking targets that were running on a course opposite her own, the Astoria’s director-controlled turrets swiveled aft until they hit the stops that kept them from blasting her own superstructure. The fourth salvo from the Japanese reached out three hundred yards closer aboard. Finally, after the fifth enemy salvo, Admiral Turner’s old ship took one square amidships, in the aircraft hangar.
Order of Battle—Battle of Savo Island
Task group 62.6
Rear Adm Victor A. C.
Ralph Talbot (DD)
Southern Cruiser Group
HMAS Australia (CA)
HMAS Canberra (CA)
Northern Cruiser Group
Vice Adm Gunichi Mikawa
(Photo Credit: 7.1)
There was a sublime absurdity to the process by which a U.S. warship roused itself to action. When the general quarters or battle stations alarm rang, men assigned to a particular station on routine watch were replaced by men assigned to that same station to do battle. The replacement of watch personnel by general quarters personnel was wholesale, including key people such as the supervisor of the watch, the officer-of-the-deck, the junior officer-of-the-deck, the helmsman, and all the talkers assigned to the phones on the bridge. Every one of these people changed stations when the general alarm sounded. Though a well-drilled crew could complete the scramble within short minutes, the procedure ensured that officers and crew spent precious, perhaps decisive minutes scrambling, not fighting. It was like a game of musical chairs, begun precisely in that critical moment when seconds weighed most heavily and the marginal cost of a lapse was highest.
A gunner’s mate standing watch in the forward antiaircraft director, known as Sky Forward, had a difficult course to run after the alarm sounded. He had to scramble down a warren of ladders and passageways to the armory, retrieve the key to the five-inch magazine, run to the magazine, unlock it for the handling crew, then run back up to the flight deck and stand by to launch aircraft from the catapult. All of this had to be done in three minutes—“a stupid set up,” an Astoria sailor would say. “By the time I started my descent, the ship had been hit by several salvos and was on fire below.”
Surprise was lethal to a ship that operated under such a system. When ladders between decks were blown away, crews had no way to reach their stations. Lieutenant Jack Gibson, the radio officer, was witness to this absurd and tragic chaos. He was climbing from his watch station on the weather deck all the way up to the main battery director while the first blows landed. “The Astoria was shuddering from heavy hits and the repercussion of her own gunfire,” he wrote. “The air was filled with shrapnel that was clanging against the bulkheads, and the well deck, as I passed over it, was strewn with bodies of fallen men. I crouched down to the level of the metal railing, then clambered up to the hangar deck. Up there I was struck by the full glare of the Jap searchlights—and between that and the whizzings and ringings of metal all around me, I suddenly felt as if the fury of the whole war had been turned on me.”
Gibson bucked up his courage and continued to climb. “One more crossing, another ladder, and I was at my station and out of the light. A burst of shells followed me through the door. They pierced the hangar deck and set the launches on fire. Then the planes began to burn. Their gas tanks caught fire and spread the flames.” Another shell hit the base of the starboard aircraft catapult, plowed across the well deck, and exploded in or under the galley, setting afire the starboard side of the well deck and igniting the plane on the starboard catapult.
A hard lesson came now: The Achilles’ heel of a cruiser in battle was the highly flammable realm of her shipboard aviation division. In modern navies, cruisers carried catapult-launched floatplanes for reconnaissance and gunfire spotting. The traditionalists bemoaned the oil stains the aircraft left on their ships’ polished teak. Untended planes could do far worse under fire. They made their hosts into tinderboxes. Hangars were rich with flammables: spare wings, drums of lubricating oil, gasoline, and ordnance. The simple act of launching the aircraft unmanned into the sea, and jettisoning their combustibles as the Japanese had already done, would have paid a great dividend. Pacific Fleet headquarters had considered the risks and left the decision to discard the planes to the personal discretion of commanders.
The hangars were fuses to countless other flammables: paint, paper, furniture, and exposed crates of ready-service ammunition in nearby gun mounts. Steel and wire and cork and glass—all of it burned readily. The heat of the fires was sometimes intense enough to ignite paint on bulkheads two compartments away. The burning paint ferried flames through the compartments. Vital sprinkler systems were distributed by long runs of piping, exposed and vulnerable to shellfire, shock, and shrapnel. Fire mains, centrally fed and routed, could fail shipwide with a single hit in the wrong place.
High-velocity fragments ignited the crates of powder and ordnance stacked on the gun deck. Five-inch shells were set off like rockets or sat there and burned, igniting other charges or causing the projectiles themselves to explode.
Custer was watching one of the boxes burn as a sailor played a stream from a fire hose over it. “In a few minutes the stream grew feeble, stopped altogether; the power was off. The sailor moved away with the hose, and I edged forward for a better view of the flaming gun deck below.… There was a tremendous white flash—a huge sheet of flame—then crimson spurts flaring in all directions. I heard the whir-whir of shrapnel on all sides … and suddenly I felt a hot, piercing stab of pain in my left eye … shooting stars sprayed in violent streaks.” Feeling for his wound and smearing red streaks across his cheek, he thought, I’ll never see Hawaii again. Squinting through the blood, he groped toward a cluster of sailors sheltered under an overhang in the superstructure. Custer’s thinking ran to distraction—So this is how it feels to die, he thought—even as he rebuked himself for his dramatics.
Robert E. Riddell, a gunner’s mate, was awakened by flares as he slept near his station, a 1.1-inch quad mount forward on the port side. He told his trainer, F. C. Loomer, to train on a searchlight to port. Coaching onto his target, Riddell pulled the firing lever and rattled away for a while. The light went out, another appeared, and he had no sooner nudged Loomer’s shoulder to change targets when time stopped and the world went black. When Riddell came to he found that his legs wouldn’t take his weight, and that whatever had taken out his legs out had drilled Loomer straight through the torso.
As the Astoria shuddered, the Vincennes took several devastating shell hits from the Kako. These first hits were critical, striking the bridge on the port side, killing the communications officer and two men in the pilothouse. Hits came by the dozen now, the price of being enveloped after Mikawa’s single column of ships separated into two parallel columns during the rush of battle maneuvers. The Americans were caught in the crossfire by gunners who could see their every burning move. Somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred medium-caliber shells found Riefkohl’s ship.
The Japanese eight-inch projectiles were set to explode after traveling an average of sixty feet following penetration. Grievous as those internal wounds were, torpedoes were far worse. Hitting below the waterline, they turned the pressure of the heavy sea itself into a lethal weapon. The quick use of torpedoes was a signature Japanese tactic. IJN torpedo officers were taught to hold their fire until everything, slow fish and fast shells, could hit all at once. According to Raizo Tanaka, a rear admiral who pioneered the proactive use of destroyers in night combat, “An ideal torpedoman is full of aggressive spirit and has a strong sense of responsibility and pride in his work.” IJN destroyer commanders were skilled shiphandlers all—“the Navy’s crack night combat force” and “brilliant torpedo experts.” According to Tanaka, “From top to bottom the training and discipline of the crews was flawless. Operational orders could be conveyed by the simplest of signals, and they were never misunderstood.”
Several torpedoes hit the Vincennes from the port side. The blasts, amplified by the weight of the water, struck at the vital innards of a ship. When inrushing water killed the electrical system feeding the Vincennes’s main battery and silenced her circuits of internal communication, Captain Riefkohl was unable to talk to his engine room, to the officers in Central Station, or the gunnery team in Main Battery Control. He could not signal his following ships. In the course of the short twenty-minute contest, the flagship would manage just two nine-gun salvos, both to port, and two six-gun salvos to starboard. Her battle was quickly and mercifully over. The gunfire of Mikawa’s turret captains was aimed with uncanny accuracy. Six of the nine eight-inch turrets on the three U.S. cruisers were disabled by direct hits. Though Riefkohl must have known that his enemies lurked on all bearings, in the disbelieving first minutes he never quite shook the belief that he was under attack by friendly ships. He blinkered entreaties to them, and hoisted colors, bright in the glare of hostile searchlights, meaning to suggest that this was all a mistake. It all was a mistake, but not the kind the commodore imagined.
From the perspective of Toshikazu Ohmae, Mikawa’s chief of staff in the Chokai, the Americans were like targets in a gallery. “There were explosions everywhere. Every torpedo and every round of gunfire seemed to be hitting a mark. Enemy ships seemed to be sinking on every hand!” About eight minutes after landing their first hits on the Vincennes, the Kako and Kinugasa shifted to the Astoria, last in the staggering American line. The Furutaka and Yubari picked up the Vincennes by the light of her fires and the Furutaka’s searchlight.
Riefkohl’s destroyers, the Wilson and Helm, could do little to save her. When the Wilson, riding on the starboard bow of the Vincennes, turned left to close with the enemy, she found the U.S. cruisers blocking her approach. Tactical prudence kept her from firing torpedoes in the proximity of friendly ships, and their flames blinded her to any targets. With the nearby mass of Savo Island lying in the line of sight behind Mikawa’s ships, the Wilson’s radar could not register accurately. She fired her four five-inch guns in a rocking ladder, back and forth over the range that was shown by her stereoscopic rangefinder: about twelve thousand yards. Most of the rounds the Wilson fired—more than two hundred of them—were antiaircraft rounds with fuzes set on safe. Time rushed by to the point of vertigo, and even the Wilson’s clocks surrendered to the chaos. “Times in the above narrative are approximate,” the captain wrote after the action, “for the hands on the bridge clock fell off on our first salvo and it was not realized that the quartermaster was not making exact time records of the occurrences until some time later.” The Helm, steaming on the port bow of the Vincennes, fired just four rounds at the Japanese for want of visible targets.
Several fires were already burning on the Quincy, courtesy of the Aoba’s third salvo. The ship’s after turret took a hit in the faceplate, dislodging a large piece of armor and jamming the turret in train. An aircraft on the port catapult ignited. Her two forward turrets got off three salvos each before turret two was hit and burned out, killing everyone inside. Some of the fires on the ship were the product of incendiary shells that exploded without penetrating and cast flammable pellets all over.
On the Astoria, Keithel P. Anthony, a water tender, was racing through the machine shop, aiming to reach the ladder that descended to the number three fire room, when a powerful kinetic force seized the whole bulkhead in front of him and swung it into his path. He was standing there perplexed, his way blocked, when a lieutenant named Thompson found him and said, “There are men in the forward mess hall who need help. Will you go with me?” Anthony assented and, strapping a gas mask over the top of his head, was preparing to venture forward when another explosion bedazzled him. “The lights went out and there were millions of sparks everywhere—like electrocution. I was knocked out and don’t know how long I laid there on the deck. When I came to, there wasn’t a soul moving in the compartment.”
When Anthony saw Lieutenant Thompson again, he was dead, “blown clear through a wire mesh and his body wrapped around the main steam stack.” His left arm and leg useless, bleeding and in severe pain, Anthony entered the machine shop and found bodies two-men deep. He wondered how he had survived, and soon found that it was only because he had somehow managed to snap the chinstrap of his gas mask that he would live with the curse of being a sole survivor. Poisonous gases killed everyone else. Anthony pulled himself through an escape hatch to the main deck by the starboard side galley. “I sat there and listened to hits coming in left and right overhead. Everything was burning.”
Lieutenant Jack Gibson described “a roar like an express train in a tunnel” as a Japanese shell hit the main battery director’s control station. “It came right through it, clipping off the steel stem of the sight-setter’s stool and dropping him swearing to the deck. In the half-dark I could see him clawing at the rear of his pants to find out if he was all there.” A voice with a Tennessee twang drawled, “That’ll teach you not to be settin’ when yo’ betters are left standin’ up.”
“We didn’t have long to laugh,” Gibson wrote. “Our director was so jammed we couldn’t move it.”
Bathed in the glare of the enemy’s carbon arcs, Joe Custer was lazily aware of men huddled around him. From them came “an overtone of muffled sounds, like mumbled prayers,” he wrote. “There was a crash of an exploding shell right around my ears, and the sudden rat-tat-tat of unseen fragments ricocheting all about me, like steel popcorn sprayed up against the inside walls of a cage. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them whistling by and spattering off the overhead.”
He remembered his premonition that he would be wounded, but realized then, too, that he would not die. The chief radioman guided him past a large gash in the deck and seated him behind turret two, which provided a loom of shelter even as it shattered his world now and then with blasts from its three muzzles. Then the chief led him down a boom to the main deck, but then turret two raged again, producing “a crushing explosion” right above him. The deck heaved as Custer shuffled down the boom, using his hearing to gauge his progress. “Look out for my leg,” a sailor nearby said. Custer forced his good eye open and saw through his own blood a chubby sailor in dungarees, his right leg hanging by a shred below the knee. As the sailor sat down on the forecastle, soaked in gore, Custer wondered how the end would feel. If I have to go, he thought, let it be quickly.
Lieutenant Gibson, stationed in the main battery director, could scarcely stand from the slippery blood on the metal deck. “In flashes of light I could see some of my men, dead with their earphones still on. They had stepped to the door to see what was happening and had taken shrapnel through the chest. The smoke and heat were unbearable in our iron box, but we still tried to get our guns into play. First-class fire controlman Wade Johns reported huskily, ‘I can see ’em, sir!’ It was more than I could do. My gun pointer and gun trainer were at their places straining to get their cross wires lined up, and my sight-setter sat on his metal stool. I noticed wounded men on the floor trying to drag themselves up to their posts.”
The sixth salvo hit Astoria’s turret one, forward-most on the forecastle. It absorbed three projectiles, including two to the barbette below the gun house, and one straight through the eight-inch-thick Class B armor on the faceplate, killing almost everybody inside. The hits came fast and furious for the next few minutes, slowly disabling the ship’s fire-control apparatus. When turret two jammed in train, Captain Greenman found he could only direct his guns by turning the ship’s rudder. As he ordered the helm around to enable the jammed battery to match bearings with the director, the Astoria’s twelfth and final salvo was fired, rather futilely, by local control.
The Astoria’s engineers struggled to coax full battle speed out of the besieged ship. The chief water tender, Milton Kimbro Smith, had just lit off the two standby boilers in the number three fire room. He was still looking to bring them online when an explosion rocked the compartment. Shrapnel rained down through the gauges of a control panel. Smoke washed over him, funneled down through the ventilation blowers.
At the main generator board in the forward engine room, chief electrician’s mate Gilbert G. Dietz heard scuttlebutt that the topside decks were awash with flames. The compartment directly above him was trembling from repeated impacts. The blowers were fighting a losing battle to bring breathable air below. Sparks showered around him, and circuit breakers jumped out. The engineering spaces, fully dependent on forced ventilation, were choked from above. The Astoria had reached fifteen knots when her power plant began to fail.
Men without masks gasped and fell to the deck grating, struggling. Smith cut the supply of fuel oil to the burners and sounded the emergency alarm. Crew in the number two fire room succumbed to waves of smoke. Shrapnel rained in a hail down the blower trunk. The heat forced the crew in the after engine room to abandon station. When a shell penetrated a kerosene tank en route to exploding in the after mess hall, the combustible liquid leaked all over the well deck. It caught fire and flowed through a hole in the main deck, spreading below. A fire room, an engine room, two more fire rooms, and another engine room—they died in that order. Soon the Astoria was coasting to a tortured stop.
Matthew J. Bouterse, the Astoria’s junior chaplain, described a din of “steel piercing steel in a shower of fire and lightning bolts and the groans of a great ship in her death throes.… The steel bulkheads were alive with that lightning as they bled streaks of fire.” Smoke was everywhere, and it overcame him. “I became aware I couldn’t hold my breath any longer,” Bouterse recalled.
By 2:08 a.m. Greenman’s ship was down to seven knots. He could see the Vincennes in the lead, brightly ablaze amidships, just as bad off as his ship was. On the port bow, swinging right, appeared the Quincy. A wholesale mass of fire, Captain Samuel N. Moore’s ship was still firing intermittently. Greenman could see that as the Astoria drew ahead of the Quincy, he was at risk not only of moving into her line of fire, but of a collision, too. He ordered a hard right turn to let the Quincy draw ahead. With the turn, the Japanese ships the Astoria was firing on passed astern. Tracking them, Commander Truesdell in the forward main battery director found he couldn’t see past the large fire amidships. He ordered control passed to director two aft, but they were blind as well.
Just as the Astoria passed the Quincy to starboard, a salvo struck the Astoria on the starboard side of the bridge superstructure, hitting the pelorus. Quartermaster Donald Yeamans was thrown ten feet and hit the deck with his right eardrum blown out. The blast felled the entire bridge watch to their knees, killing the navigator and several others. The ship careened for a time, guideless. Then the boatswain’s mate, dizzied, regained the helm, turning left on orders from Greenman, trying to find the Quincy and re-form the column. When the boatswain told his captain he was feeling weak and could not hold on, Greenman ordered steering control shifted to Central Station and tried to conn by telephone. He wanted to order a southerly zigzag course toward the transport anchorage, but Yeamans, his talker, found that the phone line was dead.
The officer in command of Central Station, far belowdecks, Lieutenant Commander James Topper, felt a heavy vibration and a sickening rattle of metal. Blind to it all, connected by wires and tubes and voice lines, he tried to direct the fight to save stations he could not see. As thermostats in the fire alarm systems went out and alarm bells began ringing, electricians moved about, shifting circuits to determine which were working and which were gone. Topper heard a series of grim announcements. The boat deck: an inferno. Wounded men on the bridge. Turret one: hit heavily with few if any survivors. Three more explosions and Radio One was out. Another shattering hit and the number one fire room was gone. An engine room was full of smoke. The after control station commanded by the ship’s executive officer, Battle Two, was threatened by fires.
Topper ordered a crew from the forward repair party to go topside and join the fight to save the ship. Then a shell came rattling down the armored escape trunk that reached from the foremast to the hull bottom. It exploded atop Central Station’s armored hatch. The watertight seal, flash-fired, flinched. A metal seam opened up, admitting a gust of toxic smoke. Pieces of sparking metal, burning rubber, and debris rained down from above. All hands put handkerchiefs to their faces and stuffed rags into ducts, to little avail. When their request to abandon station was denied, all hands put on gas masks. The chief electrician, Halligan, grabbed a fire extinguisher and played it upon the debris. Then another projectile penetrated the ship’s port side and exploded against the barbette to turret two, giving them other things to worry about. As the Astoria slid to a stop, her bow reaching for the new course, a searchlight appeared on the port beam. Lieutenant Commander Davidson climbed up to trainer’s window of turret two and coached the damaged triple mount onto the tormenting light.
As far as Greenman knew, it was the last turret he had. The large fires amidships kept him from being able to see whether the after main turret was still firing. But Greenman could follow his shells as they flew, and could see them hit. One of the Astoria’s salvos missed its target, the Kinugasa, and struck another cruiser, the Chokai, on her forward turret. The momentary suppression of the Japanese flagship’s fire did the Astoria little good. When Greenman asked what speed the ship could make, the answer from what was left of his engineering division was, “None.” She was dead in the water.
At about two fifteen, the avalanche of shellfire engulfing the Astoria relented. The flashes receded and the roar of shelling died. Splashes became intermittent. Then the gunfire ceased. Further shooting at the Astoria would have been gratuitous on the part of the Japanese. Fires were eating her, within and above. Her engineers advised Greenman that the choked and burning engineering spaces should be abandoned. On board the two other American cruisers, similar discussions were taking place.
At two thirty, with his port side opened up to the sea, Riefkohl passed the order to abandon ship. Shortly before 3 a.m., the Vincennes turned turtle. The captain was nearly felled by the mast of his capsizing ship smacking the water. In an unceremonial plunge, the Vincennes went down by the head.
For the Quincy, like the Astoria, a sudden violent crash of enemy steel into the hangar deck had been the inciting catastrophe. She carried five airplanes aboard: one SOC Seagull mounted on each catapult, another floatplane secured on the well deck, and two more parked in the hangar. All of them should have been somewhere else, if not airborne on patrol then at the bottom of Savo Sound, flung away as a safeguard against fire. It was unfortunate that the rolling steel curtain that enclosed the Quincy’s aircraft hangar had been removed the previous day, damaged by the shocks of her shore bombardment. The price of this accident was paid as soon as the Aoba’s first shells hit: a contagious wash of fire over the well deck, and four of the five Seagulls brightly aflame. They could not be jettisoned while burning. By the time the fire hoses were rigged, there was no pressure left on the line.
The fires, unchecked, were a gift to the Japanese. Their spotters and fire controlmen could switch off their searchlights, hide in the dark, and train on the illumination offered by the Quincy herself, as they did with the other U.S. cruisers as well. The flame and the smoke flowing over the amidships gun deck blinded the surviving gunners in turn. In the struggle to continue, they could not see their targets, and it was impossible for most of them to know that their foundering ship had taken a decapitating blow.
When the hit came to the Quincy’s bridge—probably from the Aoba—most of the men on watch were killed at their stations. The Quincy’s exec, Lieutenant Commander John D. Andrew, moved forward as soon as the fires aft allowed. He wanted to find his captain. He needed new orders to help direct the ship’s gunnery and helm. He was stunned by what he discovered. “I found it in a shambles of dead bodies with only three or four people still standing. In the pilothouse itself, the only person standing was the signalman at the wheel, who was vainly endeavoring to check the ship’s swing to starboard and to bring her to port. On questioning him I found out that the Captain, who was at that time lying near the wheel, had instructed him to beach the ship and he was trying to head the ship for Savo Island distant some four miles on the port quarter.”
Andrew tried to get a fix on the island as the helmsman sought to avoid a collision astern. “At this instant,” Andrew wrote, “the Captain straightened up and fell back, apparently dead, without having uttered any sound other than a moan.” Shortly before he fell, Captain Moore had ordered control of the ship transferred to Battle Two, the battle station of his executive officer, high in the tripod mainmast aft. When Andrew heard that Battle Two had been hit and destroyed, he knew it was time to abandon ship.
All life in two of the cruiser’s fire rooms had been extinguished by a single torpedo. By two twenty, the fireboxes in a third fire room were swamped. One of Quincy’s engine rooms never got the abandon-ship order. The final act of the chief engineer was to order a sailor forward to inform Captain Moore that the power plant was nearly inoperable. By then, the captain was already dead, and minutes after the messenger left, two torpedoes from the Tenryu struck the compartment, leaving that sailor as its sole survivor. As the Quincy’s port rail touched the sea, the five-inch-gun deck was engulfed. floodwater partly quenched the fires that blazed belowdecks. But the mercy of this happenstance was useless. At about 2:35 a.m., the Quincy rolled on her port beam ends and sank by the bow.
BEREFT OF THE COMPANY of her sisters, the Astoria faced a terrible struggle after the Japanese melted into the night and the encounter off Savo Island was left to reverberate in the memories of a thousand lives lost. Like the Vincennes and Quincy, she had been gutted before her officers knew what was happening. Though some foresighted aviation machinists had drained the gas lines of her Seagulls the night before, there was no shortage of things to explode. When the valve heads on some gas cylinders stored in the aircraft hangar became superheated, they blew spectacularly, and “gas jetted high in the air, igniting as it went up ‘like Roman candles,’ ” one sailor recalled. As an Astoria marine recalled, “Our ship was blazing like a straw stack on a summer night.”
In the northern cruiser force on its night of doom, a hundred small dramas played out. As the Astoria’s executive officer, Frank Shoup, ordered Battle Two abandoned, he saw that the fire on the boat deck had spread to the legs of the mainmast and was greedily climbing, devouring its smooth gray veneer. Battle Two was the last refuge now of several dozen trapped sailors. On all sides, the ladders down to the main deck were blocked by the rising flames. “All communications were shot away,” Jack Gibson wrote. “Our eyes were burning with smoke, and we were choking in the fumes of flaming diesel oil.”
Leaving the director and going out to the machine-gun platform, Gibson found seven dead men “all heaped together behind the torn splinter shield in a jumble of arms, legs and broken bodies.” They included Ensign McLaughlin, the machine-gun control officer, killed with his crew before they ever got off a shot. Puzzlement, anger, and frustration, not fear, were the predominant emotions of the moment. Gibson saw a fire controlman named Dean pull a large hunk of steel out of his thigh and throw it disgustedly to the deck.
Gibson recalled, “We salvaged the first aid kit from the control room and gave the wounded shots of morphine. Then I called down to the fantail for a fire hose.” With help from sailors who had climbed onto the roof of turret three, a hose was attached to a light line and tossed up to the platform. It didn’t carry much water. It sputtered and went dead.
“Without a word,” Gibson wrote, “Seaman Barker went down the hot ladder to the flaming launches and hacked off a heavy coil of rope. Machine-gun ammunition exploded around him, but he got back up with only minor burns.” The improvised zip line had been singed badly enough to call its utility into question. Unsure of its strength, they puzzled how best to test it and finally settled on a coldly pragmatic method underwritten by a difficult moral calculus: They decided to try it on the worst of the wounded. An unconscious sailor was attached to the line and sent on his way, sliding down toward the roof of turret three. “He could not have been more than ten feet down,” Wade Johns recalled, “when the line went slack in our hands and we heard the crunching sound of his body after he fell that last forty feet.
“We checked every foot of the remaining line. We knotted it around the burned segments, checked again, and then began the successful lowering of the wounded, one by one.”
The Astoria was divided in two by a valley of fire amidships. About 150 men were trapped on the fantail. They could get no word of their shipmates in the forward stations. With the fires amidships walling them off, they doubted there could be any survivors. “We sat there while the fire roared amidships and our ammunition was blowing up,” Gibson wrote. “We were sure all hands forward were dead, while they never dreamed that anyone could have survived the fire aft.” Wounded men were being saved in unlikely ways, in some cases delivered topside through large gashes opened up by the impact of enemy shells.
The Astoria’s bridge had an enormous section shot away, and her scorched hangar area was blackened. Her most threatening wounds were eight large shell holes located just above the torpedo belt on her starboard side. She was holed but seaworthy, and though many of her rivets were weepy, the larger penetrations were well plugged from within. As long as the port list could be controlled, the volume of water shipping in would not be fatal.
Chaplain Bouterse, seated on the fantail, was dangling his legs over the side and resting them on the welded letters spelling the name of his ship. There came a drizzle of rain and he welcomed its coolness. The water below his feet was obsidian and foreboding, lit only by the flicker of flames and the little splashes of light that came whenever debris, cast by explosions into the sea, disturbed the plankton and stirred them to a momentary green glow. Here and there fuzzy iridescent streaks were swirled up by the baleful wakes of shark fins.
Contemplating a world without a USS Astoria, Bouterse found he could not take his eyes from a ghastly sight. “One of our crew had been killed at his battle station at After Control, the tall superstructure just abaft the hangar, which contained some of our fire control equipment. His body had caught on the rail and was hanging there. The fire from below was coming closer and closer to him as I watched transfixed.
“I know I wasn’t the only one of that group of dazed survivors who noticed our shipmate’s body slowly shrinking as the flames consumed it. The thought never crossed my mind that I should try to climb up and pull that body down, and no one else moved either … a funeral pyre seemed symbolically appropriate in the last moments of our ship’s existence, and, for all we knew, ours. One must only watch in dignified silence and say farewell.”
One sailor who was sent below to find some life jackets returned with a box of cigars. Bouterse knew the kid. He had been trying to teach him to read and write. As he offered smokes to men clustered around turret three, the kid swelled a little, as if he knew he had won a small battle. He shouted to the chaplain, “Hey, man, I just made chief the hard way!” The sight of this sailor, cocky despite the circumstances, struck Bouterse in the heart. “I was back in a more familiar world where sailors could do crazy things like that, throwing the butchery of battle right back into the face of the enemy.… The bitter laughter tasted good.”