THE ATLANTA'S ORDEAL
by Eric Hammel
Copyright © 1988 by Eric Hammel
It is Friday the Thirteenth of November, 1942. Thirteen U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers are prowling the waters off Savo Island, adjacent to Guadalcanal, in the hope of forestalling a bombardment force of Imperial Navy warships, including two battleships. The USS Atlanta is the fifth ship in the American column, behind a vanguard of four destroyers and followed by several cruisers and several additional destroyers. The enemy is out there, somewhere.
At 0150, one sharp searchlight beam from destroyer Akatsuki penetrated the blackness toward the highest near silhouette in the American column. The light from off her port bow struck Atlanta on the port wing of her bridge, startling all who stood in its sharp luminescence. The source of the light was so close and the light itself was so intense that Lt Stew Moredock, RAdm Norman Scott’s operations officer, could just about feel the heat it was throwing off.
Instantaneously, Atlanta’s gunnery officer shifted his attention from a solid radar target crossing from port to starboard due north and 3,000 yards ahead and yelled, "Commence firing!" and "Counter-illuminate!"
As all four of her 36-inch searchlights snapped on, Atlanta became the first ship on either side to open fire. Immediately, her after group of four dual 5-inch mounts put out rounds straight up the cone of light, right at the searchlights themselves, right at Akatsuki. The target was only 1,600 yards to port, too close to miss. Indeed, in the light of Atlanta’s after port searchlight, which he was manning, EM3 Ray Leslie could clearly see Japanese sailors moving about on Akatsuki’s deck.
At the same time Atlanta’s after gun group opened on Akatsuki, her forward group of three dual 5-inch mounts was shifted to a destroyer—possibly Inazuma—which was about 300 yards behind Akatsuki. All the guns of both groups appeared to be dead on their targets. At least twenty rounds were observed impacting on all parts of the rear destroyer’s hull and upper works, and numerous hits were scored on Akatsuki. But not soon enough.
Especially concerned with his crew of engineers who were sealed below decks in the firerooms and engine rooms, Atlanta’s chief engineer, LCdr Arthur Loeser, had arranged for topside talkers to keep him abreast of what was going on outside while he relayed a running commentary via loudspeakers from his station in the forward engine room. Thus, the engineering staff throughout the cruiser was listening as Lieutenant Commander Loeser described the first seconds of the gunnery exchange—"We’re really putting rounds into them!"
Even as at least one of Atlanta’s two targets disappeared from view, the American light cruiser’s forward superstructure was raked by a dozen 5.5-inch rounds fired by light cruiser Nagara, which had by then turned back the way she had come and was at that moment swiftly steaming down the starboard side of and on the same general heading as the American column. Among other areas that were struck was Atlanta’s chart house and forward 5-inch gun director. But the worst blows—several of them—fell upon the bridge area and the men occupying it.
Lt Stew Moredock, who was observing the action from the port wing of the bridge, just ahead of the chart house, was struck in the right arm by a piece of shrapnel, but he felt no pain and did not yet know he had been wounded. However, as soon as Moredock tried to use the injured limb, he was gripped by intense pain. Instinctively, Lieutenant Moredock glanced back at RAdm Norman Scott, who was standing right outside the chart house. At that moment, the admiral was in the process of taking a step forward. Then he collapsed to the steel deck, dead as he was caving in. Three of Admiral Scott’s staffers died with him; only Stew Moredock survived. Only three of the thirteen enlisted sailors on the bridge survived along with Lieutenant Moredock and two or three other officers. One of the survivors was Capt Samuel Jenkins, who had made a fortuitous trip to the port wing of the bridge to find targets for his ship’s port torpedo mount. Though the captain had turned back to starboard by the time Nagara’s 5.5-inch shells struck the bridge, he was shielded from the effects of the blast and suffered no injuries.
At nearly the instant Atlanta’s bridge was devastated, the Japanese destroyers to port put at least eight rounds into that side of the ship, from up near Atlanta’s bows to just beneath Mount-2. One of these rounds detonated directly on the face of Mount-1, killing every member but one of the right-hand gun crew. Another round struck the mount’s upper handling room, killing and injuring everyone there and cutting the flow of ammunition to the viable left gun.
As soon as Mount-1’s right gun was disabled, GM3 Ed Huddleston, the left gun’s first shellman, took command from the wounded chief turret captain. Though Huddleston’s ears were still ringing from the effects of the direct hit on the mount, he called Lt Lloyd Mustin, the assistant gunnery officer, to request permission to secure. Mustin agreed, but cautioned Huddleston to be careful since the ship was still taking hits. As soon as Huddleston stepped through the hatch to the main deck, a Japanese shell ignited the ammunition and powder in Mount-2’s upper handling room. Though a cloud of shrapnel and debris erupted from the struck space, Huddleston was not touched, so he turned to help the next man out of his own mount. All the wounded from Mount-1 were laid out on the main deck beside the mount and given rudimentary first aid. Then, as Japanese shells continued to strike the ship, Huddleston was confronted by a panicked lieutenant who was yelling, "Abandon ship!" Huddleston was not so easily rattled, but other sailors who were immediately released several life rafts and followed them straight over the side.
One of Nagara’s 5.5-inch rounds killed a pair of stewards who were passing one another as each ran to the opposite side of the ship from his battle station in each of the midships 20mm ammunition clipping rooms. Neither of those places was damaged and no one inside them was injured.
A 5-inch round fired from port struck the mast, toppling it and spreading shrapnel into the adjacent after stack and across the after searchlight platform. Another Japanese round penetrated the unoccupied flag cabin, and two more 5-inch rounds struck the after superstructure; one of them went all the way through Mount-4, the port waist mount, and then bored all the way through the ship. In fact, this armor-piercing round did not detonate until it had penetrated Mount-5, the starboard waist mount. All but one member of the gun crew was killed; the survivor was blown into the water after being forcibly ejected from the mount when its roof was blown open. Finally, three lighter rounds, probably 3-inch antiaircraft rounds fired from starboard by Nagara, impacted on Mount-6.
The Mount-5 handling-room crew evacuated the compartment in good order after the mount directly overhead was hit. However, as soon as the ammunition handlers were outside on the unengaged starboard deck, someone mentioned that at least several live 5-inch rounds were rolling around in the handling room. S2 Don McKay volunteered to go back in to retrieve them. The room was filled with stagnant smoke, so someone tied a rope around McKay’s waist and promised to reel him in if he ran into trouble. With that, McKay held his breath and groped his way into the darkened compartment. He found several shells on the deck, picked them up, and passed them outside one at a time. Then he took a breather. As McKay was completing his second trip into the smoke-filled compartment, an officer appeared and asked what was going on. He put a stop to McKay’s trips when he learned that McKay did not have a gasmask, much less a more sophisticated device known as an RBA (Rescue Breathing Apparatus). The officer felt the compartment was probably filled with poisonous gas in addition to the stagnant smoke. A runner was sent to find someone with an RBA.
The vanguard Japanese destroyer captains, drilled to perfection in their navy’s highly aggressive torpedo tactics, exploited their initial immediate advantage and supplemented the gunfire with several salvos of their deadly 24-inch Long Lance torpedoes.
Crewmen in blind engineering spaces throughout the ship heard LCdr Arthur Loeser’s mike open once again. Loeser said, "Ah . . ." and the entire world fell in. Loeser’s voice was stilled in mid sentence—and forever.
The first Japanese torpedo to find any target struck Atlanta on the port side, nearly amidships and exactly in the center of her forward engine room. In addition to killing virtually everyone on the forward engine room, the detonation blasted a hole in the overhead and killed nearly everyone manning a damage-control station in the crew’s mess. The shock of the massive detonation lifted the light cruiser right out of the water.
Beside the after stack, manning the after port 36-inch searchlight, EM3 Ray Leslie felt the dreadful lurching pendulum movement of the ship at the moment of detonation. That high up, the diminishing swings were magnified and Leslie was certain he would be catapulted from his perch. As he and the other searchlight operators scrambled to find secure handholds, the vast, solid shower of water thrown up by the blast fell on top of them, instantly filling the searchlight platform to the tops of the railings. Somewhere along the line, Leslie and another searchlight operator acquired shrapnel wounds.
When she landed, Atlanta came down with a jolt that sent shudders and shivers up the spines of every member of her crew who was still vertical. BM1 Leighton Spadone, whose 1.1-inch mount was on the starboard side of the ship and well aft of the blast, was severely jostled as the entire ship flexed and strained as steel decks and bulkheads resonated the force of the detonation in all directions from the point of impact. Spadone and many others throughout the stricken cruiser distinctly heard and felt another massive explosion, right on the heels of the first. Many thought this was caused by a second torpedo, but it was almost certainly a sympathetic detonation in the engineering spaces.
EM3 Bill McKinney and S2 Dan Curtin, who were manning a damage-control substation in a large crew’s quarters on the fourth deck, two compartments forward of the forward fireroom, were knocked off their feet by the force of the blast. Immediately, the two jumped up and examined the area, but they could find no damage. A quick check also revealed that the battle phones and ship’s service phones were dead, and their only light was provided by a battery-powered battle lantern. McKinney was aware that Atlanta’s guns were no longer firing and that the ship was slowing down. He could clearly hear rending and tearing noises from above, as if the ammunition hoists running through the compartment to Mount-3 were buckling off their tracks.
Many of those working in the forward engine room were killed or wounded in the torpedo blast, which knocked out all the cruiser’s power except an emergency diesel generator. The Navy’s first antiaircraft cruiser had been rendered powerless and set adrift within minutes of opening fire.
In the immediate wake of the torpedo hit, the survivors among her engine-room and fire-room watches had to fend for themselves. The inhabitants of the after fire room were immediately beset by an enormous in-rush of water through the breached double forward bulkhead. Fortunately, all hands managed to scramble up ladders leading to escape trunks overhead. Those who went up the port ladder made it to safety without much of a struggle, but three who opted for the starboard ladder were unknowingly beset by rigidly enforced rules pertaining to the watertight integrity of the ship.
MM1 Ross Hilton, the machine-shop supervisor, and another machinist’s mate were only just recovering from the effects of the blast directly beneath their station when they saw that someone below was undogging the clips securing the heavy counterweighted starboard escape hatch in the midships passageway. However, as soon as Hilton began releasing the clips from his side of the hatch, an overexcited lieutenant appeared and bellowed, "Dog that hatch back down, Hilton!"
"But, Sir," Hilton protested, "there’s someone alive down there."
"I don’t give a damn! Dog it down!"
"Sir, they’re trying to get out. They’re alive!"
The officer reached for his .45-caliber pistol, fixed a murderous stare at Hilton, and piped in his by-then shrill voice, "Dog it down or I’ll blow your brains out!"
Hilton was thinking about what to do or say next when a sailor arrived behind the officer and told him of an urgent matter requiring his presence elsewhere. As soon as the officer was distracted and gone, Hilton and his companion bent over to undog the hatch. By then, the man beneath the hatch had virtually completed the job, so Hilton and his companion jerked the hatch open. Immediately, a fuel-covered machinist’s mate and two fuel-covered firemen cannonballed onto the deck. Behind them, the water had risen to within two feet of the overhead; the three would have drowned in a matter of moments. Hilton and his companion immediately resealed the hatch while the rescued machinist’s mate explained that everyone else from the after fire room had escaped up the port ladder.
After helping to clear volatile ammunition from the Mount-5 handling room, S2 Don McKay tagged along with an officer and several other sailors who were on their way forward to look for topside damage caused from the torpedo detonation. As the small group passed an escape hatch leading up from the damaged engineering spaces, the officer ordered McKay to redog several clips that someone had left open. McKay said that he thought someone might be trying to get out, but the officer remained firm; he had direct orders from his superiors to batten down all hatches. As they spoke, a thin gout of water burbled up from the edge of the hatchway. The officer left McKay and several others to redog that hatch and check others in the vicinity. He said he would be back for them. By then, the forward engine room and after fireroom were both flooded to the overheads, and all the men remaining in former were dead.
S2 Dave Driscoll, the Mount-8 shell-hoist loader, worked himself to a smooth, continuous flow while the action was hot, but a distinct shudder Driscoll felt early in the action was followed by an order to cease firing. Mindful for the first time of the intense physical ordeal of continuously throwing heavy 5-inch shells onto the moving hoist, Driscoll and the other shellmen reacted to the cease-fire order by dropping to the deck or reeling back against the support of the bulkheads of the gray steel compartment in which they had been sealed. After a minute or two, the babble of many confused voices making its way down the hoist from the gun chamber overhead was suddenly overwhelmed by an unwelcome command: "Abandon ship!" S2 Driscoll reacted by repeating the order down the powder hoist to the men who had been sealed into the Mount-8 magazine. Then, as others climbed up to Mount-8, Driscoll undogged the handling-room hatch to gain access to an adjacent berthing compartment. There being no one in the berthing compartment, Driscoll next defied rigid regulations and undogged the hatch leading to the magazine. He was immediately confronted by sailors from the lower handling room crew, all of whom displayed expressions of pure animal fear mixed with pure human relief. S2 Dave Driscoll fell in with the thundering herd and began climbing the nearest ladder of the main deck.
Despite all the obvious hits and the jolt he had received from the torpedo blast, BM1 Leighton Spadone, the starboard midships 1.1-inch gun captain, was not overly concerned until he realized that his ship was no longer firing her guns. As Spadone’s confidence reached its low ebb, he found himself muttering, "Please, God, stop them from firing, stop them from firing, stop them from firing. . . ." However, his prayers were answered by hits that seemed to be coming in from somewhere aft of the ship.
Atlanta had been in the last stages of speeding up and completing a right turn to regain her position in the column when she was struck by the torpedo. She was pointed south and sliding powerlessly to the end of that maneuver when San Francisco’s main battery fired a full nine-gun salvo at what must have been the battleship Hiei. Atlanta’s unchecked forward momentum carried her directly into San Francisco’s line of fire.
Every one of the flagship’s nine 8-inch rounds—and every one from the next full salvo—struck Atlanta from a relative angle of 240 degrees, aft of the port beam, at a range estimated to be about 3,600 yards. Captain Jenkins, who had not yet had an opportunity to assess the damage or extent of casualties on his shattered bridge, was game to take the assailing vessel under fire with the remaining 5-inch mounts that could be brought to bear, but he recognized the familiarly American outline of the flagship in the flare of her own main battery and so belayed the order as soon as he uttered it. It is doubtful in any case that the order could have been relayed to the guns because all power and communications throughout the stricken vessel were out.
Mount-3 received two direct 8-inch hits, as did Mount-6 and Mount-5. The rest of the 8-inch hits were scattered in two large groupings throughout the forward and after superstructures. By no means fatal to the stricken ship, the incoming friendly rounds nevertheless cut down many Atlanta crewmen.
One of the stewards assigned to the crew running the ammunition hoist to the two midships 1.1-inch mounts was in mortal fear of being hit on the head and killed. When F1 Chuck Dodd, who was in charge of the crew, had enough of standing around with nothing to do in the vulnerable little compartment, he gave the order to head to the starboard side of the ship. One of San Francisco’s 8-inch rounds detonated nearby as Dodd opened the hatch. Its blast jarred the steel ladder running through the compartment from the bulkhead. The heavy ladder fell on the fearful steward, crushing his helmet and his skull.
RM3 Ray Duke, a member of a repair party stationed topside in a passageway just forward of the radio transmission room, was in the act of cutting loose a fire extinguisher from an outside bulkhead when he was struck by shrapnel in the right knee. The force of the impact, which shattered the knee, threw Duke and the heavy TBS transceiver he was backpacking head-first down an eleven-foot ladder. Duke landed on his head and shoulders, but was saved by his steel helmet, which took most of the impact when he landed. The nearby 1.1-inch ammunition handling room was on fire, and the area was filled with smoke. Slightly dazed and in need of fresh air, RM3 Duke staggered into the open on the unengaged starboard side and breathed deeply to regain his composure. His ordeal had only just begun.
His lungs filled with fresh air, Duke hobbled into the burning and smoking 1.1-inch handling room to see if he could help there. He immediately found a friend who was laying in the middle of the ruin with his right leg shot off at the knee. Duke offered to fetch the other man some morphine and staggered down to the next deck to find a boatswain’s mate he knew was authorized to carry the narcotic. However, as soon as Duke asked for morphine, the boatswain’s mate jabbed him with a full syrette and made him lay down on the deck. Duke tried to protest, but he was groggy from shock and smoke inhalation and never quite got the words out. No sooner was Duke on the deck than the adjacent pay office took a direct hit. The beam from the large flashlight he still carried revealed a hole in the bulkhead about half the size of a basketball. Shrapnel from the blast went right between Duke’s legs, ripping off a large chunk of flesh from his left thigh right above the knee and severing the femoral artery. Blood was pulsing from the wound in spurts that appeared as thick as his wrist. Another piece of shrapnel slid between Duke and the steel deck and sliced open the back of his right thigh from knee to buttocks. At the same time, shrapnel punctured the 1.1-inch coolant tank right overhead and Duke was bathed in very hot salt water. As soon as Duke recovered his senses, he and a sailor right beside him helped one another up a nearby ladder and crawled out onto the port quarterdeck. At that point, Duke stood up and walked all of ten feet before his damaged right knee gave way. He fell heavily to the deck and lay there until someone came by and administered a second shot of morphine. Soon after that, a supply officer held Duke’s head in his lap while a corpsman laved the wounds, applied bandages, and administered yet another dose of morphine. With that, RM3 Ray Duke lost track of his surroundings.
The electrician’s mates manning the after searchlights were in danger of being roasted alive by fires reaching nearly as high as the platform on which they were trapped. Not only was there no evident way off the platform, dense smoke and shooting flames from shrapnel holes in the after stack, to which the searchlight platform was affixed, totally obscured the vista and blocked all possible escape routes. Indeed, there was so much acrid smoke billowing up around the after searchlights that the operators were not certain if they would die from roasting or smoke inhalation.
Suddenly, when their plight seemed hopeless, the searchlight operators were graced by a sudden rise in their fortunes, a wind change that both blew the smoke away and revealed the silent passage of Hiei only 100 yards from the ship. Though the searchlight operators were certain they were dead meat as they stared up at the battleship’s searchlights, which were 20 feet over their heads, Hiei went on her way without firing at burning Atlanta. Meantime, the wind held the smoke and diverted the flames away from the searchlight platform, so all hands scrambled down to the relative safety of the main deck, where they went to work fighting fires.
Atlanta’s emergency diesel generator got the lights back on at 0156. By then, thankfully, Atlanta was out of the line of fire, and the fury of the widening battle had passed her by.