Othe 13 U.S. Navy ships that were in action off Guadalcanal during the night of 12-13 November 1942, six were able to steam away under their own power. By dawn, these survivors had been gathered together by Captain Gilbert C. Hoover, commanding officer of the USS Helena (CL-50), in the southeast end of Indispensable Strait. Since both Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan and Rear Admiral Norman Scott had been killed in the night's battle. Captain Hoover took command of the force
As the senior survivor. Captain Hoover wrote his preliminary action report to Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Commander South Pacific. Concerned that radio emissions might disclose the location of the ships, he sent the report over to the USS O'Bannon (DD-450) and ordered her north of San Cristobal Island to transmit it by radio. Captain Hoover then turned the five ships south of San Cristobal and, in a loose formation, headed for Espiritu Santo.
The Helena was the guide with the USS San Francisco (CA-38) about 500 yards astern of her. The USS Sterett (DD-407) and the USS Fletcher (DD-445) were in normal antisubmarine station — roughly 1,000 yards on the port and starboard bows, respectively, of the Helena. The USS Juneau (CL-52) was not in column with the other two cruisers; she was between 700 and 800 yards on the starboard quarter of the San Francisco, which put her almost a mile directly astern of the Fletcher.
Of the three cruisers, the Helena was in the best shape, having only minor damage. The San Francisco was a shambles, having taken a pounding from point-blank enemy fire — including 14-inch shells from Japanese battleships. The Juneau looked almost as bad; she also was severely damaged above the waterline, and because she had taken a torpedo hit, was riding low in the water, with only a couple of feet of freeboard at her stern.
The Sterett had received several major-caliber hits; her rudder had been out and she had been steering with her engines. Her sonar was out of commission, and, because of fires aft the night before, she had jettisoned all her depth charges. As part of an ASW screen that morning, the Sterett could only bluff. The Fletcher alone was undamaged.
There had been some movement of boats among the three cruisers that morning, as well as the usual intermittent informal chatter by semaphore between the signal bridges. I suppose this is how we learned that the O'Bannon had been sent off by herself to transmit Captain Hoover's action report.
This informal signalmen's chatter also led us to believe that the Helena had sent some welders over to the Juneau to help with her damage control.
On board the Fletcher, the captain — Commander Bill Cole — and I — the executive officer — were collecting our wits in the chart house. I had made my round of the ship, assembling rough notes on who had seen what in order to help draft the ship's action report. The one thing that we needed at that moment was a good belt. So we broke all the rules and had the doctor bring us up a gill (four ounces) of his medicinal whiskey. I had just divided the liquor into two paper cups when there came the most tremendous explosion I could have ever imagined.
We dashed out of the chart house and looked aft to see an enormous mushroom of smoke rising where the Juneau had been. The sky above the smoke was filled with debris, and one complete twin 5-inch gun mount was headed right toward us. One of the two of us — I do not recall who did what—ran to the microphone and passed the word for all hands topside to take cover, while the other pushed the engine telegraph to "emergency flank speed ahead." Bill and I looked at each other and, almost in the same breath, both said, "My God, the welders must have touched off a magazine."
Commander Cole then ordered "right full rudder" to turn the ship outboard to head back to where the Juneau had been and look for survivors — although we agreed at the time that no human could have survived that appalling explosion. (The twin 5-inch mount landed directly in our wake, not 100 yards astern.) The Fletcher had turned almost 180° when, by voice radio, we received orders from the Helena to return to our screening station. We continued the turn and resumed screening.
Captain Hoover must have known we would be upset by the orders to resume screening, because he soon sent us a visual signal saying that a torpedo passing from port to starboard between the Helena and the San Francisco had hit the Juneau, and he had received reports that three more Japanese submarines lurked along our route. Mollified by this information, Bill and I went back into the chart house.
Not long after the explosion of the Juneau, an Army Air Forces bomber came into view. By flashing light, the Helena reported the sinking of the Juneau, including the position, and requested that the message be passed on to Commander South Pacific. Our signalmen were able to read portions of this message as the plane circled, and they reported seeing the bomber signal "Roger," indicating that the message was received. We later learned the message never reached Admiral Halsey.
When my captain and I again went back into the chart house, we found that some alert quartermaster or signalman had seen his chance. The whiskey was gone. We did not bother to replace it.
In the many years since that day, I have thought about Captain Hoover's decision many times. The only point on which I think his actions may be questioned is his reliance on the bomber to get the message through about the loss of the Juneau. He must have believed — as we all did — that because our own system of radio-direction finding (RDF) was effective, the Japanese had a good RDF system, too. Why else send the O'Bannon off north of San Cristobal for no reason other than to transmit his action report to Admiral Halsey?
Consider the situation facing Captain Hoover. Of the ships that were left, two—the San Francisco and the Sterett — were crippled. The Helena was the only combat-ready cruiser in that part of the South Pacific. To protect these ships against three submarines ahead of him—the threat from which had been confirmed and emphasized by the spectacular destruction of the Juneau — he had one destroyer, the Fletcher.
If the Fletcher had gone to look for survivors, it would have been at least two hours — and probably more — before she could have made a good search, caught up with the ships, and resumed her screening position.
Balance all that against the normal instinct to look for survivors.
What would you have done?
I think Captain Hoover made the most difficult — and the most courageous —combat decision I have ever known. And he did it with no delay. He surely knew he would be vulnerable to later criticism, or he would not have had the courtesy to explain to us the facts. He was relieved of command shortly afterward. While I think he knew it might cost him his career. Captain Hoover chose — however much a cliché — the good of the service. And I think, on that tragic morning, he made the right decision.