Composure Amid a Naval Disaster

By John J. Domagalski

Abrupt End to a Routine Patrol

The patrol this night would prove to be very different than the night before. Unknown to Walker, a group of Japanese ships was about to enter the area. In response to the surprise American invasion of Guadalcanal, a hastily assembled force of eight ships had left the Japanese base at Rabaul, almost 600 miles to the northwest. Under the direct command of Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, the five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and single destroyer intended to destroy American shipping in the Guadalcanal area in a bold night attack. Several sighting reports by Allied planes had failed to sound the alarm. The arrival of the small Japanese fleet would come as a surprise. The approaching enemy ships and Walker’s Patterson were on a collision course.

The routine Allied patrol continued into the early morning hours. Topside lookouts on board the Patterson intently scanned the horizon for any signs of activity, while crewmen belowdecks watched over the destroyer’s boilers and engines. Condition of readiness two was set for the main battery, resulting in half of the normal gun crew being awake and alert at the mounts.

At about 0146, the silence of the night was suddenly shattered when a lookout on board the Patterson sighted a ship dead ahead at an estimated distance of 5,000 yards. While the unidentified vessel appeared to be close to the western edge of Savo Island, she was actually near a large cloud bank that was hovering just off the land mass. The ship was the Japanese heavy cruiser Furutaka , which was positioned fifth in the column of approaching enemy ships.

Commander Walker’s reaction was instantaneous. Correctly assuming that the ship was not friendly, he immediately ordered his destroyer to general quarters and rang up full speed. The alarm sent men racing across the ship to their assigned battle stations. Walker then ordered that a warning message be sent out to notify all ships of the contact. Within a minute, a blinker message was quickly sent in the direction of the Canberra and Chicago . At almost the same time, a message was sent via TBS (talk between ships) radio: “Warning! Warning! Strange ships entering the harbor.”

The alerts, however, came too late or would go unheeded. Not all Allied ships were equipped with the short-range radio. Those that did receive the message were unable to take action before being engulfed in battle. Unknown to sailors on board the Patterson , the approaching Japanese had spotted the Allied ships almost ten minutes earlier. A frenetically paced sequence of events followed during which Commander Walker would be fighting for the very survival of his ship.

No sooner had the Patterson ’s warning messages been transmitted when Japanese cruiser float planes dropped a string of parachute flares. Slowly drifting down through the clouds, the flares brilliantly illuminated the night. Positioned behind the Allied ships, they perfectly silhouetted the Canberra and Chicago against the dark background. Japanese gunners almost immediately opened fire on the Australian cruiser. By the time the Canberra received the Patterson ’s blinker message, she was under heavy fire and sustaining serious damage.

A Confusing Night Fight

Determined to get his ship into the developing fight, Walker ordered the Patterson to turn to port in an effort to unmask her guns and torpedo batteries. It seemed to be a good setup for firing a spread of torpedoes at the Furutaka . As the destroyer steadied on a more westerly heading, Walker barked the order “fire torpedoes,” and the destroyer’s 5-inch guns shot off two four-gun starshell spreads. The captain soon learned, however, that the torpedoes never left the ship. “It was discovered that the order to ‘fire torpedoes’ had not been heard by the torpedo officer, apparently due to gunfire,” Walker recounted. The target was then seen to change course and move away to the north. The opportunity to score an early blow against the Japanese intruders was gone.

Just as the Furutaka passed to the north, spotters on board the Patterson identified two more Japanese ships. The vessels appeared to be a Mogami -type heavy cruiser and a Jintsu -class light cruiser. The lookouts actually had spotted the light cruisers Tenryu and Yubari , which were the last two ships in the Japanese column. Appreciating the urgency of the situation, Walker then personally sent another warning message over the TBS: “All ships. Three ships coming in Lengo Channel.”

At about the same time, a Japanese torpedo passed near the destroyer. “Assistant gunnery officer observed torpedo wake about fifty yards off the starboard quarter,” Walker reported of the moment. The torpedo came compliments of the Furutaka . The Japanese cruiser later reported, “Fired torpedoes at a large type destroyer proceeding on an opposite course and sank it with two hits.” Not even touched, the Patterson was still very much in the fight.

As gun number three continued to fire illumination shells, the remaining mounts opened fire on the new targets with ready-service ammunition. The Japanese ships were thought to be about 2,000 yards off the destroyer’s starboard bow. The Patterson ’s deck log noted, “This ship was the first ship to fire at the enemy.”

The Japanese light cruisers suddenly snapped on searchlights, bathing the Patterson in beams of light. Using these as an aiming guide, the Tenryu and Yubari opened fire. Walker zigzagged his destroyer at high speed as the running gunfight continued.

But while the Patterson was maneuvering, a shell slammed into the crew shelter of the number four 5-inch gun mount in the after part of the ship. The hit quickly ignited a few rounds of ready-service powder in the upper handling room under gun four. Before long the destroyer’s entire stern section was in flames.

Destroyermen’s Sacrifice and Heroism

When the night battle started, the Patterson ’s executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Albert F. White, was not on duty, but he jumped into action at the sound of the general-quarters alarm. After briefly reporting to the bridge, White headed aft to his battle station. “On my way to secondary conn the ship was hit in number four handling room,” he later reported. “I proceeded to the scene and found a raging fire burning.” By the time White arrived, members of the repair party were already there. Under the direction of Lieutenant (junior grade) Donald Quigley, streams of water were dousing the flames. Quigley suffered second-degree burns while fighting the fire in the handling room. Other members of the repair party threw flaming debris overboard. “The fire was extinguished in remarkably short time,” White noted.

The shell hit and resulting fire took a heavy toll on the Patterson ’s crew. Shipfitter Third Class Zigmund Sieruta, a member of the number three gun crew, was killed almost immediately. Seaman First Class J. B. Guess and Charles Stephenson, the latter a shellman on the number three gun, were gravely wounded. Both later died of their injuries.

Seven other men were reported missing. Among those presumed dead was Torpedoman’s Mate Third Class Edwin Starrett. He was near the depth-charge racks at the fantail and may have died in the initial explosion or been thrown overboard. Two of the missing sailors were part of the number four gun crew. Seaman First Class Keith Silva, a hot shellman, was last seen at the portside door to the upper handling room. Seaman First Class Carl Kopischka was a fuse-setter positioned on the main deck near his battle station. The four other missing sailors were stationed at the scene of the explosion in the handling room.

There was no shortage in acts of heroism in the time immediately following the explosion. After the blast in the handling room had set a sailor’s clothes on fire, a fuse-setter on gun number four, Storekeeper Third Class Edward Terrill, ripped off the burning man’s clothes and prevented him from jumping overboard. Terrill suffered first- and second-degree burns on his left hand as a result of the actions.

A crewman on a 20-mm gun mount, Seaman Second Class Donald Millikin, was wounded by shrapnel from the explosion. “Although painfully injured, Millikin did not let on that he had been hit and continued to man his station,” White reported. It was only after another sailor bumped into Millikin, causing him to slump over, that the injury was discovered. “He deserves high praise for his devotion to duty and for the fortitude he displayed,” White added.

The explosion and fire caused extensive damage in the area surrounding the number three upper handling room, twisting and bulging decks and bulkheads, which were riddled with holes of various sizes. Both of the after 5-inch gun mounts were damaged. The number three gun was no longer operational, as various indicators were smashed and electrical power cables cut. The number four mount sustained less damage and was still workable.

Abrupt End and Then Aftermath

With the fire squelched and the wounded being attended, it was time for the Patterson to rejoin the fight. Chief Gunner’s Mate R. V. Olson, who had played a key role in helping put out the handling-room fire, promptly organized a new gun crew for the number four mount to replace the casualty-riddled original crew.

Commander Walker had continued to swing the Patterson around until she steadied on an easterly heading. The three operational guns resumed firing as soon as the mounts were able to bear off the port side. “Guns one, two and four maintaining rapid and accurate fire,” Walker later wrote. Aiding the cause was one of the Patterson ’s starshells, which had illuminated the light cruiser Yubari . “Several hits obtained on the rear cruiser, extinguishing searchlight and causing fire amidships,” Walker continued. His claim was supported by an observer on board the nearby Chicago . The heavy cruiser had taken a torpedo in the bow, and her guns were unable to find the Japanese ships. The Yubari also reported receiving “some scratches” at about this time.

The shooting ended about 0150 as the Tenryu and Yubari turned north. The gun battle had been brief but vicious. The Patterson had expended 70 rounds of 5-inch ammunition, including 20 illumination shells. Walker initially kept his destroyer on an easterly heading in an attempt to follow the Japanese. However, it soon became clear that he would be unable to close on the enemy.

The battle was over for the Patterson . In its aftermath the destroyer patrolled with the damaged Chicago and came to the aid of the stricken Canberra . The Australian cruiser, which had been smothered by Japanese shells in the opening minutes of the fight, was now a burning derelict. She would not last much longer. Just before 0700, the destroyer took aboard almost 400 Australian survivors and proceeded to the transport area off Guadalcanal. In addition to taking care of the Australians, it was time for the Patterson ’s crew to take care of its own. A solemn ceremony took place on board the destroyer at 1130. Following Navy tradition, Zigmund Sieruta, J. B. Guess, and Charles Stephenson were buried at sea.

The Battle of Savo Island was a costly American naval defeat. In its first large-scale night encounter with the Japanese, the U.S. Navy had been mauled. Although the Guadalcanal operation survived, four Allied heavy cruisers had been lost. Several other ships, including the Patterson, sustained varying degrees of damage. The Japanese ships escaped with only minor damage.

History has treated the Patterson kindly for her role in the naval debacle. Samuel Eliot Morison noted that the destroyer was “the only American ship that was properly awake.” One cannot help but ponder the possibilities of what might otherwise have happened. What if the Patterson’s torpedoes had been unleashed when ordered and scored a hit against the Furutaka , or Walker’s desperate warnings been properly acted upon? Would it have changed the course of the battle?

Well deserved credit goes to Commander Walker and his men. “He is to be commended for the excellent judgment he displayed in all situations arising throughout the night and for his fine seamanship,” Albert White later wrote of his captain. The executive officer did not neglect the rest of the crew. “Throughout the action the members of the crew of this vessel displayed the utmost courage, performed their duties efficiently and in every way upheld the finest traditions of the navy.” Lieutenant Commander White is also worthy of commendation and should not be forgotten for his quick actions while his ship was engaged in a gunfight in the dark waters off Guadalcanal.



Sources:

Richard W. Bates and Walter D. Innis, The Battle of Savo Island August 9, 1942: Strategical and Technical Analysis (Newport RI: U.S. Naval War College, 1950).

CA Furutaka Action Record, Records of Japanese Navy & Related Documents, Translations, 1941–1946, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.

Norman Friedman, U.S. Naval Weapons: Every Gun, Missile, Mine and Torpedo Used by the U.S. Navy from 1883 to the Present Day (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982).

Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II , vol. 5: The Struggle for Guadalcanal (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951).

USS Chicago Action Report, 13 August 1942, “Report of Action against Enemy Forces August 9, 1942, Guadalcanal-Tulagi Area,” National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).

USS Patterson Action Report, 10 August 1942, “Action with Enemy Planes (Japanese) Guadalcanal Tulagi Area, 7-8 August 1942,” NARA.

USS Patterson Action Report, 13 August 1942, “Engagement with the Enemy (Japanese) Surface Ships Night 8-9 August in Savo-Guadalcanal-Tulagi Island Group Solomon Islands,” NARA.

USS Patterson , Deck Log, 9 August 1942, NARA.

USS Quincy Action Report, 16 August 1942, “Report of the Engagement the Morning of August 9, 1942 off Guadalcanal Island in which the U.S.S. Quincy participated,” NARA.

USS Ralph Talbot Action Report, 11 August 1942, “Preliminary Report of Action on 8-9 August, 1942,” enclosure A, NARA.

 

 
 

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