01 November 2020

The Battle of Tassafaronga.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY. November/December 1942. The Northampton sinks in the The Battle of Tassafaronga.

Our turn came. On the night of 29 November I was down in the mess hall, they were showing a movie, and during the showing, the PA system came on and word was passed to light off all boilers, man the special sea details, make all preparations to get underway, set condition two, secure all non-essential gear. Word was then passed to muster the anchor detail, and up anchor. We were heading out of the harbor within 30 minutes of that first announcement. It was a moonless night, and how we got through the harbor entrance and out to open sea I will never know. The following morning, word was passed that a Japanese fleet was headed to Guadalcanal to reinforce the garrison there, and we would intercept this fleet at 2300 hours and destroy them. We were the heavy Cruisers, Northampton, Pensacola, Minneapolis, and the Light Cruiser Honolulu. We had an escort of six destroyers, and word was passed that we were to be joined by a flotilla of four destroyers, making us a force of 14 ships.

The day was stormy, overcast with rain squalls. We steamed toward the slot. We were given our running light code, red over green over white. These were lights on the mast which were used in night battle to identify friendly ships so that we wouldn't fire upon our own, and the light combinations changed daily. At 1600 hours we launched our four Scout aircraft and they were to fly to Tulagi, and would take off from there at 2300 hours and over fly the battle area and drop parachute flares to illuminate the enemy fleet. At 2000 hours we set condition one, and set all water tight integrity. We were ready for whatever might come. I stood there that night on the loading platform of my gun, and wondered if I would see another sunrise.

We sailed up the slot and into Sealark Channel, heading towards Savo Island, and at 2240 hours the lead elements of our force made contact with the enemy and opened fire. Within minutes our main battery of nine eight inch guns had joined the action. The night sky was ablaze with the flame of muzzle blast and the sight of tracer ammunition streaking through the air. The word came down from SkyForward (our gun control range finder) to commence firing, and I was petrified. It was as if I was mesmerised, and I heard Sergeant Stolier, our gun captain say “commence firing” and I started loading projectiles into the tray of my gun. I could hear the hiss of compressed air as the rammer, rammed them into the breach, and felt the shutter at the platform as the round left the gun. “Rapid continuous fire,” and I found myself loading as fast as the gun could fire. All this time I was an avid spectator to the greatest display of fireworks I had ever seen. And then, the sky lit up as though it were day. Our Scout planes had finally arrived and were dropping parachute flares, the only problem was, they were Illuminating our forces rather than the enemy. I glanced over the splinter shield and saw, not a hundred yards off our port side, a Japanese Destroyer. I could see their Sailors readying the torpedo tubes and saw them launch a spread of three torpedoes at us. I watched the wakes as they approached, and felt the ship lean as the captain put us into a hard right turn in an attempt to elude disaster. The maneuver almost succeeded, but as I stood and watched, fascinated, yet scared shitless, I followed the wake of the torpedo and knew there was to be no escape.

The torpedo hit about 70 feet aft of where I stood, and I watched the ball of fire rise, and heard someone say let's get out of here. I was off the platform, and without thinking of the consequences, I had leaped over the life line which separated the flight deck from the well deck some 30 ft below. In our preparations for battle we had strung cargo nets from the catapults to the aviation crane, to contain expended shell casings, and lucky for me, I landed in this net about halfway down to the well deck. I scrambled out of the net and dropped down, and ran for the bow of the ship. My actions consumed no more than 30 or 40 seconds. The fire ball came down on the flight deck where we had been just seconds before. The Northampton was listing in the water at least 25 degrees and as the torpedo had hit in the engine room, port side, it had knocked out all power generated by that area. We were left with the starboard engine functional. The damage control parties went into action and fire lines were rigged, and pumping began, but it seemed the more water hosed onto the fire, the better it burned. The sea water intakes on the starboard side were now up at the water line due to the list of the ship. And they were pumping a mixture of seawater, crude oil and diesel fuel from the ruptured tanks onto the fire. The damage-control efforts continued, and even after the Ships First Lieutenant had said it was of no avail, Our Marine Commander, Captain John McLaughlon, formed a team to give it yet another try. Try we did, and finally after an hour or more, the word was passed to abandon ship. By this time the list to port was so critical, that it was almost possible to walk down the side of the ship to the water. Life rafts were lowered, and the wounded were given preference, and as for me, I had on a kapok life preserver, and along with a gunner's mate whose name I can no longer recall we clawed our way down the side and into the water. The word had been passed to keep the newly risen moon over our left shoulder, and swim for Guadalcanal, or for a friendly ship. It was well past midnight. The first day of December 1942.

As we swam, we could hear other voices, and when another starshell exploded we could see bodies either swimming or floating, and all the time we kept the burning Northampton behind us. After what I think was about 3 hours in the water we sighted a ship lying to without identifying lights and in the eerie light cast by the explosions on the Northampton, and the occasional flare or starshell, we could see her number as 445. She carried five turret mounted guns, and had a strange-looking radar array. Neither of us could identify her as one of ours, and for a while tried to swim away from her, but then another explosion lit the sky and we could faintly see the stars and stripes waving from her main mast, and we put all the effort we could muster into reaching her side. Somehow we got there and managed to climb up the cargo net rigged over her side, and were welcomed aboard the USS Fletcher. She was one of the new 2100 ton flush deck destroyers that had joined us in the night.

I stood at the rail of the Fletcher, and watched by the light of the just breaking dawn, as our once proud ship gave a final shutter, her bow rose straight up into the air and she slid beneath the sea. Gone forever into over 200 fathoms of water. Along with her went all my possessions, my pictures, and the mementos of my first year and a half as a Marine. I removed my kapok life jacket and threw it into the sea and as if in a final salute to my Nora Maru, it sank.

The Northampton had participated in six major Naval engagements, she had been in the thick of the fray. She had to me, become a subject of pride, and a loving if not always comfortable home. She was gone, and with her went 87 crew members. The Fletcher got underway and we sailed to Espiritu Santo, where we were moved aboard the light Cruiser Honolulu. There we were issued a new khaki uniform, shoes, and a couple of changes of skivvies, and then ferried over to the USS Barnett for transport back to the United States. We arrived at San Diego on 28th December 1942.

The army, they finally came to Tulagi

We watch them unload their craft

Their arm chairs, and tables Their kennels and cradles

We watched, and we laughed, and we laughed.

Photo shows the U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS New Orleans (CA-32) seen after the Battle of Tassafaronga near Tulagi on 1 December 1942. The PT boat in the foreground is carrying survivors from the USS Northampton (CA-26).