Just how far down the Japs got in their island hopping campaign toward the biggest island of them all, Australia, and just how far down in naval strength we sank before the tide turned, can now be reviewed.
Now that the Navy takes over increasingly in the world war—-as the Axis sun sets in Europe and the Allied sun rises in the Pacific on the greatest fighting fleet the world has ever imagined—-we can afford to look back with amazement on the bankruptcy of our forces following Pearl Harbor.
Strategically it is conceded that the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 4-9, 1942, turned the tide of warfare in the southern Pacific, resulting in the first advantage to our arms, but tactically the Japs were to go even farther and, if successful, might have nullified the slight advantage we gained in the Coral Sea.
I speak of a Japanese attack on Sydney Harbor that, had it been successful, would have set us back so much farther than we were, that our progress in the Pacific would certainly have been retarded, and Australia itself might have been lost, at least temporarily, to the Allied cause.
Let us first estimate the situation. Prime Minister Curtin wasn’t kidding when he pleaded with Washington and London early in 1942 for support sufficient to forestall invasion of Australia. Java, Sumatra, and New Guinea were being and were in fact occupied close to the north. All supply lines to the south were not only being menaced but actually interfered with by Japanese submarines and other naval forces. Our last hold off the Australian continent was Port Moresby. Darwin, on the north central coast of Australia, was actually bombed and could have been taken. The bulk of the Australian trained regulars were abroad in Africa fighting Rommel, as Curtain pointed out.
At that time our losses at Pearl Harbor had not been revealed but the Japs knew that they had completely disrupted our Pacific fleet. The time was ripe for them if they could, to wipe out the rest of it, cut off our supply lines to Australia and master the situation. They were on their way to that end through the Coral Sea. That they were turned back was due to the challenge of maturing naval air power and to that invincible Anglo-American quality no foreign people has ever been able to understand or evaluate—the spirit of indomitability regardless of odds. The engagement in the Coral Sea was all fought “upstairs,” an action that would have thrilled the prophet General Billy Mitchell. We had there practically all we had left—our plane carriers, with limited supporting ships of the line. The Jap forces were similarly composed. It was for the one to destroy the fleet of the other— yet actually no crews on either side other than those airborne ever saw the others as to surface ships.
I know for I was there, in the van destroyer of our formation, and my ship, the Perkins, was one of the minor objectives of the enemy. Their torpedo planes, twelve in number, came head on at us, raked our decks with machine-gun fire and dropped torpedoes. We were simultaneously straddled by bombs from a co-ordinated high level bomber attack. Our decks were littered with their fragments, though we accounted for at least seven of the torpedo planes with our own anti-aircraft and 5-inch fire.
The enemy’s plane losses in the Coral Sea were greater than ours and their surface ship casualties were such that they retired never to return so far in force again, but, though they guessed, they didn’t then know what they had done to us. Of our principal carriers, the Yorktown, was put out of action for some time, the Lexington was lost. In large fighting ships we were reduced to a scant half dozen. Of these, two escaped the further persistence and ingenuity of the Japs only by a mere whisker.
In the backwash of the Coral Sea action, the significance of which we were still unable to appreciate, the Perkins was set to convoying off the Australian coast. The torpedoing of one Greek ship in our charge proved that the end was not yet in that area, and also foreshadowed the real turning point of naval warfare in the Pacific, which I was about to witness and which nearly cost us two of our handful of cruisers.
In the peace of a clear and crisp fall Sunday there was nothing about the Harbor at Sydney, Australia, to suggest that we were even at war, except perhaps that as evening came on the lights did not come up. The presence of an Australian cruiser and an American cruiser and destroyer would not have been unusual in such an international port in pre-war days. Spick and span, they offered no evidence that they had just been overhauled in this harbor after grueling action which, in the case of the American vessels, had included participation in the decisive action of the Coral Sea, nor that they were, in fact, the remnants of a once proud fleet, and that upon such remnants hung the balance of power in the Pacific.
Within the next few months, all three of these now more than ever important vessels were indeed to be destroyed, but only after further valiant service. Certainly on this serene evening of May 31, 1942, there appeared no reason to suspect that within hours a crafty enemy would again violate the Sabbath with another attempt at a minor Pearl Harbor. Besides, up to now, Japanese action had not penetrated this far south. This was to prove indeed the peak of the war in the Pacific.
All apparently was well secured. Sydney Harbor was landlocked and protected across its mouth by a submarine net and detection devices. It had an effective harbor patrol fleet, as later developments will testify and, above all, it was really around and “down under,” about three-quarters of the way southward on the eastern coast of Australia, a matter of some 800 miles from the northern tip facing the Jap forces on New Guinea. It seemed a fair haven. True, an unidentified plane had been reported flying over the day before, but 800 miles would not be too much of a flight from the nearest enemy base and, reporting systems being subject to error, it might have been one of ours.
Since all three vessels were to leave the next day to rejoin the small but effective Australian Squadron, I went ashore from my command, the destroyer Perkins, to pay my parting respects.
At 2230 as I was taking my leave to return aboard I observed and heard gunfire in the harbor which could only have come from the cruiser Chicago. My immediate reaction was that only a submarine or other torpedo craft must have entered the harbor, and I hurried for my boat waiting at a near-by dock. Strangely, no one whom I passed ashore seemed unduly alarmed nor concerned by the gunfire. I confess, however, to some trepidation as my small boat passed the Australian cruiser Canberra since, without lights and low in the water, we could easily have been mistaken in the circumstances for a hostile craft. Fortunately, we were able to signal identity and made the Perkins without mishap, where I learned that the captain of the Chicago, also en route to his ship, had left orders for me to get under way and patrol the harbor.
While circling the harbor the thought constantly came to mind that despite all the evidence to the contrary it was rather fantastic to have an enemy craft in such a closed harbor. Pearl Harbor removed, however, any doubt as to this possibility. The confines of a closed harbor are not very satisfactory for maneuvering a destroyer. As the smaller patrol boats were also moving about on the same mission and nothing had been detected, we were ordered to return to our buoy and await further instructions. Less than a half hour later the officer-of-the-deck yelled “Torpedo!” Just as I leaned over the bridge, I saw its wake pass our bow.
The Chicago and the Perkins were moored 500 yards apart, about 500 yards offshore, on a line from the harbor mouth a couple of miles away. We were pointed in the same direction, lying in relation to each other so that our starboard bow was about opposite the Chicago’s beam.
The torpedo had passed just aft of the Chicago’s stern before cutting directly across our bow. It proceeded toward a ferry which was moored to the Naval Base at Garden Island and on which a Dutch submarine crew was living. It was deep in the water, passing under the ferry’s keel. As it hit the shore, it exploded, blowing up the ferry. About twenty lives were lost. Another torpedo passed by the bow of the Chicago and went on to strand on the beach without exploding.
I ordered our two whaleboats, containing three men each, to the scene of the ferry catastrophe to do what they could. All night long they worked assisting in removing the dead and wounded from the ferry. Since the Chicago and Perkins were obviously bottled and sitting ducks for the enemy, to whom we could not afford to lose this precious part of our fleet, the Commanding Officer of the Chicago ordered us out of harbor. With the Perkins running interference, we made the break and got away to the safety of the high seas. The following day we returned to pick up our whaleboats and men—their job well done.
The Canberra, anchored a considerable distance away around the bend of the harbor from where we had moored, elected to remain. I heard later that a torpedo just missed her also. Presumably, she was also a torpedo target which had been most fortunate.
When the situation in the harbor was finally mopped up, the course of the action was believed to have been as follows:
Apparently details of the harbor defenses and the route through them had been gathered by the Japanese from some merchant vessel not too zealous in the Allied cause. With such information, a fleet of five big Japanese submarines worked into position for the attack. On one of these was mounted a plane in a demountable watertight housing. It was this plane which obviously had scouted the harbor the day before, spotting our cruisers. On the deck of each of the other four submarines was bolted a three- man midget submarine which could be floated merely by unbolting and having the mother ship submerge below it. It was these four midgets that worked their way into Sydney Harbor. One of them ran afoul of the anti-submarine net and in that dilemma literally committed hara-kiri. In another, the torpedo jammed in its own nose tube and exploded, destroying the vessel. It was the conning tower of a third that was sighted and fired upon by the Chicago, first attracting our attention, and the gun crew was confident that it had made a hit. The fourth was accounted for by the harbor patrol vessels.
The details as outlined were indicated by charts which had been retrieved with the details of the attack sketched in and examination of their structural damage by the harbor and naval authorities which dragged up the hulks of these vessels. There were no prisoners but several had taken their own lives. There was apparently no plan of escape. This was suicide and planned as such.
The Jap attack was well conceived, well planned, and very nearly well executed. Only misfortune prevented its success.
A little over a year later, the British in their successful attempt to put the great German battleship Tirpitz out of commission after threading their way through 50 miles of mined and netted Norwegian fiords were to give the world a lesson in the proper use of midget submarines. But at Sydney Harbor, the failure of vaunted Jap ingenuity spared the very cornerstones of our new and mighty fleet, of which the whole Tap Navy now stands in awe.