Of the recovered aviators, Brown and Sandburg were in good condition, but Nugent, who had been knocked out during the plane’s ditching, apparently sustained a broken back and needed immediate medical attention. We fortunately heard TG 58.2 on the TBS (talk between ships) radio. Its planes had been striking Roi-Namur in the Kwajalein Atoll group. We rendezvoused with them, transferred Nugent to the battleship South Dakota (BB-57), and resumed our trek to find and rejoin our own task group the following day.
Shortly after midnight on 30 January our radar operator reported a contact at 20,800 yards. Our combat information center (CIC) immediately started tracking it, but initially thought it might be a rain cloud, since several similar echoes had been tracked earlier that evening. But after several minutes with the contact remaining on a steady course and speed, CIC evaluated it as a legitimate target. About that time, a second blip appeared on the radar, slightly beyond the first.
The officer of the deck reported the possible enemy contact to our skipper, Commander Donald T. Eller (U.S. Naval Academy class of 1929), who was in his sea cabin abaft the bridge, and asked if he should go to flank speed and try to slip past them. “Slip past them, my foot,” came the captain’s reply. “I’ve been waiting for a chance like this for 20 years. I’ll be right out.” Within seconds he was on the bridge, sizing up the situation. Satisfied that we had a real target, he ordered, “Sound general quarters!”
“Clang, clang, clang, clang,” rang the general alarm over our loudspeaker system, followed by “General quarters, general quarters! All hands man your battle stations! All hands man your battle stations!” The time was 0042. The sea was moderate with winds from the northeast at 15 knots.
The alarm roused me and the rest of the sleeping crew. Quickly donning my clothes and inflatable life belt, I raced to my GQ station in the Mark 37 main battery director. Within minutes, all stations reported “manned and ready.” Our rescued pilot, Lieutenant Brown, had also been awakened. Since he had no GQ station, he went to the bridge and was an interested spectator to the ensuing action.
From left to right in the forward part of the director were Lieutenant Jim Jamison, our gunnery officer (Naval Academy class of 1941); Weston Kendall, our director pointer; and John Lynch, our director trainer. All three had optical telescopes mounted before them, while Kendall and Lynch also had radar scopes. My station as assistant gunnery officer was in the after part of the director, along with Robert Laub, our stereo rangefinder operator. Separating us from the trio up front was the huge cylindrical stereo rangefinder tube, which extended through each side of the director.
While Laub had outstanding stereo vision ability, on this black, moonless night he would be using the director’s radar for ranging on the invisible target. Additionally, Lynch would be using his radarscope to keep the director on target. The plotting room’s stable element eliminated the need for Kendall to use his radarscope to stay on target. He used it only on air targets.
All five of us in the director had been on board the Burns since her commissioning and already had done a lot of firing. We had great confidence in our gunnery system.
My job was that of searchlight control officer. Additionally, while the gunnery officer up front could apply range and deflection spots, I had a wall-mounted transmitter for applying a “rocking ladder” of range spots to blanket the target. When engaging surface targets, i.e ships, instead of firing every shot to hit, gunnery doctrine recommended salvo fire (all guns firing in unison) while applying a rocking range ladder of deliberate “overs” and “unders.” The purpose was to compensate for possible maneuvers of the target during our projectiles’ time of flight. It also compensated for possible errors in ranging, computer solutions, etc.
If every shot were fired “to hit” and any of these factors were in error, the target might never be hit. By applying a rocking ladder of range spots to every successive salvo of our 5-inch battery, and with salvos going into the air every four seconds, we would spread a veritable blanket of shells over a large area. Whoever hits first in battle has a big advantage, particularly if the hit is on the target’s gun director or bridge.
We initially thought that we might have picked up a Japanese submarine on the surface. However, the range of more than ten nautical miles would have been a remarkable distance to detect a low-profile sub. The target was very likely something bigger. As we closed the range, the radar blip separated into two blips. Might we have caught two subs on the surface or, more likely, two ships? Because TG 58.2 was in the general area, could these be some of them temporarily split off from the main body?
Despite the uncertainty, Captain Eller prepared for surface action. Turning up 25 knots, he closed the targets, maneuvering to put us in the tactical naval position called “crossing, or capping, the T,” with the firing ship perpendicular to the track of targets that are steaming in line, one behind the other. On commencement of firing, the firing ship can bring her broadside to bear on the nearest target. That target can only return fire with her forward guns, and the other target ships cannot return fire without shooting through the friendly ship in front of them.
By 0050 the captain had ordered “Prepare for surface action,” the range stood at 9,000 yards, and we had slowed to 20 knots. Jim Jamison advised all gun stations that “We will load all 5-inch guns with AA [antiaircraft] common with fuzes set on safe for salvo fire with plot [the plotting room] doing the firing.” With fuzes set on safe, the projectiles would explode only on impact, eliminating air bursts.
I could visualize the activity in the 5-inch upper handling rooms as gun crews loaded projectiles into hydraulic hoists and removed brass powder cases from their metal containers, resulting in a slight odor of ether permeating the air. (One of my duties as assistant gunnery officer was to conduct frequent surprise inspections of the upper handling rooms, manned by our condition watch crews, to ensure that no one smoked in those areas. An explosion there would cause great damage to our ship.)
I asked Jim, “Do you want me to use the rocking ladder?” “Yes” was his reply. I was ready.
With the director’s lower access hatches open to the sonar room below us, which was just abaft the bridge, and with the door between sonar and the bridge open, we could easily hear the bridge radio communications. We heard Captain Eller get on the TBS radio, which was continuously manned by all U.S. and Allied ships, and call the unidentified targets: “Ship bearing shackle alfa zebra yoke unshackle, range shackle charlie bravo tango echo lima unshackle. This is Deputy [our classified voice call]. Identify yourself or we will open fire.” (The “shackle” figures were a code that changed periodically.)
We listened for a reply, but there was just silence. The moment of truth had arrived. What a grave decision for our skipper. Heaven forbid that we might be opening fire on some of our own or Allied ships. Then from the bridge came the order: “Load all 5-inch guns.”
Jim Jamison, in turn, ordered: “Load all 5-inch guns.”
The Burns then changed course 90 degrees to cross the T, thereby bringing all five of our 5-inch guns to bear. Shortly thereafter came the order from the bridge: “Commence firing!”
“Commence firing!” ordered Jamison.
Beep, beep went the warning signal from plot to all gun stations, followed immediately by a thunderous BOOM as the first five-gun salvo sped into the night air. Four seconds later, Beep, beep, BOOM went the second salvo, followed every four seconds by another salvo. All 5-inch guns performed perfectly.
With a time of flight of only about ten seconds, a sheet of flame rose in the distance almost immediately. We had scored a direct hit on the closest ship! (Postwar records showed it to be a medium-sized Japanese oil tanker of 6,000 to 8,000 tons). As the range decreased, our radar detected two additional targets, and we observed light machine-gun fire coming from the enemy ships. Four minutes later, we shifted our fire to the second target, which turned out to be a medium cargo ship of 4,000 to 6,000 tons. She quickly burst into flames.
The order then came from the bridge: “Prepare to illuminate with searchlights, and have the 40s and 20s ready to fire.”
I ordered the carbon arcs struck by our two searchlight operators, who were on the searchlight platform on the forward stack. Within seconds the lights were ready with their shutters closed. The searchlights were put into automatic and would point wherever the main battery director and 5-inch guns were aimed.
“Illuminate,” came the order from the bridge. I turned a switch and remotely opened both shutters. The huge 36-inch searchlights blazed brilliantly through the night air, further revealing our already-burning enemy. Now we could see that the two small radar blips we had previously detected were small escort vessels, probably subchasers.
We raced down through the convoy with all guns blazing: 5-inch, 40-mm, and 20-mm. Jim Jamison used the gun director’s slewing sight to train the 5-inch batteries onto each of the two escorts, and they quickly sank both ships. Meanwhile 40-mm and 20-mm gun crews on both sides of our ship were having a wild time, blazing away with their weapons as we tore through the convoy.
At about that time, TG 58.2, whose TBS radio could be heard intermittently, having spotted the raging flames and possibly hearing our gunfire, called over and asked if we needed help. “No thanks,” was Captain Eller’s reply. “This is our picnic.”
The entire action lasted only 34 minutes. When we ceased fire at 0141, the tanker and cargo ship were burning madly from stem to stern, and the two escort vessels had sunk. We could have sent the two large ships to the bottom with torpedoes or more 5-inch gunfire but decided that the flaming wrecks would eventually sink by themselves. During the action, the Burns expended 494 rounds of 5-inch, 400 rounds of 40-mm, and 900 rounds of 20-mm ammunition. All guns performed perfectly, without any mishaps.
As we pulled away to rejoin our task group, I saw a solitary figure clinging to a rope, dangling from the bow of the burning tanker. With flames above and a sea of flaming oil below, his fate was sealed. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor fellow, who may have momentarily been the only survivor of our attack.
We found and rejoined our task group the following morning with a broom tied proudly to our masthead indicating that we had made a “clean sweep” of the enemy. When we went alongside the battleship Iowa (BB-61) to fuel that day, our ship was given a rousing ovation by her crew.
On returning to the Bunker Hill , Lieutenant Brown must have painted a glowing picture of all the action he had witnessed while on board the Burns. An Associated Press correspondent embarked in the carrier quickly picked up on the story, and soon the announcement of our action was simultaneously released in Washington and by Admiral Chester Nimitz in Pearl Harbor. The story made many newspapers in the United States, and one of the articles dubbed us the “Battlin’ Burns ,” a nickname that stuck for the rest of the war.
Mark 37 Direction and Fire Control
By Norman Friedman
All U.S. destroyers built immediately before and during World War II—as well as American carriers, battleships, cruisers, and even some major auxiliaries—featured the Mark 37 gun fire-control system. It included a director on a pedestal atop the bridge in destroyers, a belowdecks computer, and a stable element, which sensed the ship’s roll, pitch, and yaw.
In a Mark 37, the role of the director was to lock onto and track a target so that the belowdecks computer could reach a fire-control solution. For example, the solution would show how far the guns should lead a moving target. The stable element enabled the system to cancel out apparent target motion due to the ship’s own motion. That was very important, and the U.S. Navy led the world in the relevant gyro technology. Without it, those in a director could sense ship motion by keeping telescopes on the horizon—but not on a dark night.
The director was conceived as a master gun sight that aimed the ship’s guns at a target. It had a pointer (who followed the target in elevation) and a trainer (direction). The director officer designated the target, and the pointer and trainer followed his direction. The large stereo rangefinder near the rear of the turret-like director determined the range. By 1944 Mark 37s had big Mark 4 radars atop them, often with a supplementary Mark 22 “orange peel,” to find the range and even to track the target automatically.
Those operating the radar and the rangefinder inside the director could send their data down to the belowdecks computer by turning dials, automatically repeated by the computer’s dials. As in gyros, these electric follow-ups (synchros) were an important U.S. Navy advantage and due to the sophistication of the U.S. electronics industry (General Electric was mainly responsible for synchros). The same technology made it easy for the belowdecks computer to train and elevate the guns without requiring those at the guns to manually match dials showing where the guns should point.
The entire system was conceived primarily for antiaircraft fire, because by the late 1930s the U.S. Navy considered Japanese aircraft a particular threat as the fleet executed its war plan, steaming west across the Pacific. Airplanes were a far more complicated fire-control problem than surface ships because their positions had to be predicted in three dimensions. There was little hope of making a direct hit. Instead, the Mark 37 system set the fuze of a 5-inch shell to a calculated range in hopes that it would burst within a lethal radius of the air target. That worked, but not well enough, which was why by 1944 the U.S. Navy also used proximity fuzes that set themselves off when they sensed an airplane within range (they were about three times as effective as the time fuzes).
Of course, the belowdecks computer was also capable of handling a surface target. In that case it created an analog of the relative motions of destroyer and target, on the basis of which expected target position and bearing could be read off and used to aim the ship’s guns (as in the Burns ’ night action). The operators pointed and moved the director, feeding target position into the computer. Once the computer had a fire-control solution, it took control and trained the director so that it pointed at the computer’s evolving estimate of target bearing. That enabled the director trainer to check the computer solution of target position, since he could see whether it was pointing in the expected direction. Once the solution matched reality, the gunnery officer in the director could open fire.