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H-Gram 013: Night of the Long Lances 

7 December 2017 

Contents 

1. Guadalcanal: Forgotten Valor—USS Alchiba (AK-23)

2. Guadalcanal: The Battle of Tassafaronga—Night of the Long Lances

3. Operation Torch: The Naval Battle of Casablanca, 8 November 1942

4. Operation Torch: The Battles of Safi Harbor, Wadi  Sebou, and Oran Harbor, 8–10 November 1942

5. World War I: Loss of USS Jacob Jones (Destroyer No. 61), 6 December 1917

6. World War I: U.S. Navy's Battleship Division Nine in European Waters, 7 December 1917

I have been writing these H-grams for a year now and generally tracking with the 100th anniversary of World War I, the 75th anniversary of World War II, and the 50th anniversary of Vietnam.  "Back Issues" can be found on Naval History and Heritage Command website  (so, if you want to catch up on Pearl Harbor for the 76th anniversary, H-Gram 001 covers that).  I send these out with the approval of the CNO in partial fulfillment of the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority line of effort "Learn at higher velocity" sub-task to know our history and not re-learn the lessons of the past (at least the hard way.) You are welcome and encouraged to disseminate these further as desired, and to add your own observations. 

75th Anniversary of World War II

1. Guadalcanal: Forgotten Valor—USS Alchiba (AK-23)

If ever there was a ship that lived up to Captain James Lawrence's dying words, "Don't give up the ship," it was the unlikely cargo vessel USS Alchiba (AK-23). Alchiba, under the command of Commander James S. Freeman, USN, arrived off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, for yet another resupply run, to off-load a critical cargo of gasoline, bombs, and other ammunition destined for the U.S. Marines on the island, where fierce fighting was still raging. On the morning of 28 November 1942, the Japanese midget submarine Ha-10, launched from submarine I-16, penetrated through a screen of five destroyers and hit Alchiba with a torpedo in a forward (number 2) hold. Ha-10 did not survive the U.S. counterattack, but the damage to Alchiba was severe. With the forward hold area burning out of control and his ship sinking with a 17 degree list, Freeman rang up flank speed to get Alchiba into shallow water off Lunga Point, where he ran her aground. Despite the potential for imminent catastrophe and exploding machine-gun ammunition, the crew of Alchiba, led by the executive officer, Commander Howard H. Shaw, USN, fought the fire forward while other members of the crew commenced off-loading all the supplies and ammunition they could from aft. They fought the fire for over five days, and got almost every salvageable bit of cargo on to Guadalcanal, and then set about salvaging the ship.

Astonishingly, throughout this ordeal only four of Alchiba’s crew were wounded and none killed.  However, on 7 December, the midget submarine Ha-38, launched from I-24, fired two torpedoes at Alchiba. One passed right under her stern without exploding, but the second hit in her engineering spaces, killing three and wounding six men. Ha-38 was never seen again. The damage this time was also severe, and the Navy Department announced to the press that Alchiba had been lost. This came as a surprise to her crew, who were still aboard and fighting to save their ship—which they did after many more days. Alchiba ultimately survived, was redesignated as an attack cargo ship (AKA-6), and served throughout the Pacific for the rest of the war (although she was prone to engineering casualties). Like the Sailors on USS Canopus (AS-9) and other valiant auxiliaries of the doomed Asiatic Fleet (see H-Gram 003), the crew of Alchiba proved that American Sailors would exhibit the greatest of bravery, regardless of whether they were on the newest warship or an "expendable" cargo ship. For the crew’s valor, Commander Freeman (a future rear admiral) was awarded the Navy Cross, Commander Shaw was awarded a Silver Star, and the Alchiba became the only cargo ship to be awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.

2. Guadalcanal: Battle of Tassafaronga—Night of the Long Lances

On the night of 30 November/1 December 1942, a U.S. force of five cruisers and six destroyers (Task Force 67) under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright, ambushed a Japanese "Tokyo Express" run consisting of eight destroyers (six of which were encumbered by hundreds of supply barrels) under the command of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka. Although the U.S. was armed with intelligence that the Japanese were coming, made excellent use of the new SG radar technology aboard U.S. flagships that detected the Japanese first (at 23,000 yards),  had carefully absorbed and incorporated numerous lessons from the previous night battles in Iron Bottom Sound, possessed overwhelming advantage in firepower, and opened fire first, the result was still one of the worst debacles in the history of the United States Navy.

At Tassafaronga, for the loss of one destroyer, the Japanese sank the heavy cruiser USS Northampton (CA-26) and grievously damaged the heavy cruisers Minneapolis (CA-36), New Orleans (CA-32), and Pensacola (CA-24). The three cruisers were saved only by extraordinarily heroic and determined damage-control actions by their crews and by the fact that six of the Japanese destroyers did not have their torpedo reloads aboard, preventing them from picking off the U.S. cripples. All three damaged cruisers would be out of action for over a year. U.S. casualties included 395 Sailors killed and 153 wounded. The short version of the battle is that the U.S. ships, with their radar superiority, concentrated their fire on the closest Japanese destroyer and blew her to smithereens. Meanwhile, the other Japanese destroyers, hidden by the flames of the sacrificial Takanami, withheld their fire and launched a swarm of torpedoes at the U.S. cruiser line, lit up by their own gunfire flashes like "mechanical ducks in a shooting gallery" as historian Samuel Eliot Morison described it. The result was arguably the most successful surface torpedo attack in history.

Extensive recriminations occurred following this battle, but also significant learning. Rear Admiral Wright's career as a combat commander was over within days. Wright has been extensively criticized for squandering an opportunity to fire torpedoes first due to five minutes of indecision. The criticisms are probably valid, but had the destroyers launched torpedoes when the commanding officer of USS Fletcher (DD-445), Commander William M. Cole, requested, the result probably would have been yet another example of the notorious unreliability of U.S. Navy torpedoes, the defects of which had still not been corrected or in some cases even recognized yet. (Wright would go on to preside over another controversy, the court-martial of 50 African-American stevedores who refused to go back to work until safety measures had been improved following the disastrous Port Chicago, California, ammunition explosion on 17 July 1944, which killed 302 mostly African-American stevedores.)

Cole, who had brought his ship ("Lucky 13") unscathed through two of the most horrific battles of the war (and rescued 646 Sailors of Northampton) would be heavily criticized for his actions by Vice Admiral William Halsey (Wright would get a Navy Cross for the debacle, but Cole would not), which Halsey later admitted was unfair. Nevertheless, Cole went on to command DESDIV 44 in DESRON 22, and his experience translated into future victories. The other DESDIV in DESRON 22 was DESDIV 43, commanded by Arleigh Burke, and it was Cole's experience at Tassafaronga that led to Burke's standing orders to his own ships that "destroyers are to attack the enemy on first contact without awaiting orders from task force commander," which were instrumental in Burke's success in the battles of Empress Augusta Bay and Cape St. George. Cole also influenced Commander Frederick Moosbrugger's tactics at the Battle of Vella Gulf, in which Moosbrugger withheld gunfire until his own torpedoes were observed hitting home, surprising the Japanese. Also using lessons learned in the Battle of Tassafaronga, Rear Admiral Mahlon Tisdale (commander of a group of two cruisers) and the executive officer of Fletcher, Commander Joseph Wylie, would go on to play very prominent roles in the development of the combat information center (CIC) and U.S. Navy command-and-control doctrine that would guide U.S. Navy operations for decades (more on that in the next H-gram).

Nevertheless, the one lesson that U.S. Navy leaders stubbornly refused to learn was that the Japanese Type 93 Oxygen Torpedo ("Long Lance") was significantly superior, despite the pre-war intelligence (which had been ignored), and despite the late Rear Admiral Norman Scott's report following the Battle of Cape Esperance. In his post-battle report for Tassafaronga, Rear Admiral Wright correctly noted that "it was improbable that [Japanese] torpedoes with speed-distance characteristics such as our own" could have inflicted damage such as was observed. Rather than concluding that the Japanese had superior torpedoes, Wright concluded that the U.S. losses were due to lucky shots from Japanese submarines (none were present.) More U.S. ships would fall to the Long Lance in battles in the Central Solomon Islands in 1943 and 1944 as a result of this U.S. failure to understand the enemy. For more on the Battle of Tassafaronga, please see attachment H-013-1.

Attachment H-013-2 is a U.S. Navy photo taken after the Battle of Tassafaronga off Guadalcanal shows a U.S. PT boat bringing survivors of the heavy cruiser USS Northampton (CA-26) into Tulagi harbor. In the background is the heavy cruiser New Orleans (CA-32) with her bow blown off, including her number 1 main battery turret. New Orleans survived despite losing almost a quarter of her length.

Operation Torch: The Naval Battle of Casablanca, 8–10 November 1942

As the French naval forces in Casablanca, Morocco sortied to oppose the U.S. landings on the morning of 8 November 1942, the U.S. flagship USS Augusta (CA-31), opened fire. The shock wave from a main battery salvo blew out the bottom of a boat in a davit that had been loaded with the gear of Major General George S. Patton, sending it into the ocean below. Patton's experience was hardly unique. By the end of the day, almost half of 347 landing craft participating in the landings near Casablanca had been wrecked, mostly due to operational causes rather than French action. The landings had been opposed as an unnecessary diversion by both CNO Admiral Ernest J. King and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army General George C. Marshall, and Torch demonstrated that the Allies still had a lot to learn about conducting large-scale amphibious operations. From the days of the Athenian invasion of Syracuse, the Mongols' attempt to invade Japan, the Spanish Armada, and Gallipoli, these had a long and distinguished history of not ending well.

Because France has been such a great ally of the United States, the Naval Battle of Casablanca, the largest surface action in the Atlantic since the Napoleonic Wars, is rarely mentioned in polite company.  But I'm a historian, so, so much for that. The conventional narrative is that the French put up a token resistance, with minimal casualties, to the U.S. and British invasion of French North Africa (the French protectorate/colonies of Morocco and Algeria) in November 1942 before quickly switching to the Allied side. The reality is that the French, and in particular the French navy, fought —and fought hard—and paid a high price for their loyalty to the Vichy French government, then in power in the part of southern France not occupied by Nazi Germany.

It is now regarded as traitorous and collaborationist, but under the terms of the surrender agreement with the Germans, the French government with its capital in Vichy was seen by most of the surviving French armed forces as the legitimate government of France (and was at first recognized as such by the United States for that matter, and former CNO Admiral William Leahy was for a time the U.S. Ambassador to Vichy France). The terms of the surrender also demanded that Vichy France remain "neutral" for the duration of the war. Originally, the French navy was required to keep its ships immobile and unarmed. However, the British Royal Navy preemptively attacked French naval units in port at Mers el-Khebir, Algeria, in July 1940, killing almost 1,300 French sailors, to keep French warships from falling into German hands. In response, the Germans changed the agreement, allowing the French to keep their ships in readiness and armed to fight, with the stipulation that they were to aggressively defend Vichy France's "neutrality" against the Allies by armed force if necessary. Feeling they had been knifed in the back by their own ally (the British), the French navy complied, and the result was its resistance to the U.S. landings in Morocco and the Allied landings in Algeria. In fact, by numerous accounts, the great majority of French sailors who sortied on 8 November from Casablanca had no idea who they were actually going out to fight—British, Germans, or Americans. They received orders to fight, and that's exactly what they did.

On 8 November, the French naval forces in Casablanca, commanded by Vice Admiral Felix Michelier, consisted of the non-operational new battleship Jean Bart (although her forward main battery turret, quad 15-inch guns, worked fine), one light cruiser, two large destroyers (flotilla leaders), seven destroyers, eight sloops/corvettes, 11 minesweepers, and 11 submarines. By the time the battle was over, the Jean Bart was sunk at the pier, the light cruiser was grounded and burned out, the two destroyer leaders were grounded, four destroyers were sunk, seven submarines were sunk, numerous freighters and liners were sunk in Casablanca harbor, and almost all other French ships damaged. The French ships fought valiantly against great odds, and none of them surrendered, gave up, or shirked their duty until they were finally ordered to surrender after several days by Michelie—and only after he got orders from higher up in the Vichy government. None of them ever hauled down a French flag. Over 460 French sailors were killed and at least 200 wounded.

The U.S. Navy force supporting the U.S. Army landings in Morocco consisted of over a hundred ships, commanded by Rear Admiral Kent Hewitt, embarked in Augusta , and included the aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4), the new fast battleship Massachusetts (BB-59), the old battleships New York (BB-34) and Texas (BB-35), four new converted escort carriers (CVE), and numerous cruisers and destroyers. The force was divided to support three separate landings: the main landing just north of Casablanca, another farther north at Port Lyautey, and one to the south of Casablanca at Safi. The Texas covered the northern landing and the New York covered the southern, and Ranger’s aircraft engaged wherever needed.

The main landing at Casablanca was covered by the Massachusetts, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and 14 destroyers.  Massachusetts engaged in a gunnery duel with the immobile Jean Bart and won, knocking out her forward turret. The French managed to repaired, but concealed the repairs until Jean Bart opened up again a couple days later, at which point she was bombed and sunk at the pier by aircraft from Ranger. The formidable French shore battery at El Hank repeatedly straddled U.S. warships, with several hits. French submarines nearly hit several U.S. ships with torpedoes. In the end, Massachusetts, Augusta, a light cruiser, and two destroyers were lightly damaged, although four transports were sunk by German U-boats that arrived in the area on 10 November, accounting for most of the 174 U.S. service members killed at sea (one of the German subs was sunk, too). For more on the Operation Torch landings and the Naval Battle of Casablanca, please see attachment H-013-3.

4. Forgotten Valor: The Battles of Safi Harbor, Wadi  Sebou, and Oran Harbor, 8–10 November 1942

Three U.S. World War I–vintage destroyers were awarded Presidential Unit Citations for successful operations of extreme audacity during Operation Torch. The USS Bernadou (DD-153) and USS Cole (DD-155) steamed right into the Vichy French port of Safi, Morocco, during the pre-dawn hours of 8 November, silenced French artillery fire, and disembarked  U.S. Army raiders, who captured the critical port facilities intact, enabling U.S. tanks to get ashore.  On 10 November, the USS Dallas (DD-199) steamed ten miles up a narrow, shallow, winding river in broad daylight under heavy French fire, disembarking Army raiders to capture an airfield at Port Lyautey, Morocco. However, during predawn hours of 8 November, two British ships (flying American flags and carrying U.S. Army raiders and a U.S. Navy anti-sabotage detachment) forced their way into the Vichy French port of Oran, Algeria, where they were cut to ribbons and sunk by intense resistance from French navy ships in port, with over 307 killed (189 U.S. Army, 113 British and 3 U.S. Navy Sailors, and 2 U.S. Marines), over 250 wounded, and all survivors captured. For more on these actions please see attachment H-013-4.

100th Anniversary of World War I

5. World War I: Loss of USS Jacob Jones (Destroyer No. 61), 6 December 1917

On 6 December 1917, the USS Jacob Jones (Destroyer No. 61) was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-53, becoming the first U.S. destroyer ever lost as the result of enemy action. U-53 was the same boat (with the same skipper, Hans Rose) that made a surprise port call in Newport, Rhode Island, in October 1916 (see H-Gram 008, H-008-1).

6. World War I: U.S. Navy's Battleship Division Nine in European Waters, 7 December 1917

Also on 6 December, a French merchant ship carrying ammunition collided with another ship in Halifax harbor, resulting in a massive explosion that leveled much of the city and killed 2,000 people. U.S. Navy ships responded and provided relief.  And, on 7 December, the first four U.S. battleships to deploy to the European theater reached the British Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow. For more, please see attachment H-013-5.

Attachment H-013-6 shows the first U.S. battleships in the European theater in World War I arriving at the British base at Scapa Flow on 7 December 1917.

 

(Sources for this H-gram include, Guadalcanal by Richard Frank;  Neptune's Inferno by James Hornfischer,  The Conquering Tide by Ian Toll;  Information at Sea by Captain Timothy Wolters, USNR;  Combined Fleet Decoded by John Prados;  Operations in North African Waters and The Struggle for Guadalcanal,  volumes II and V of the History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II by Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison;  United States Navy and World War I: 1914–1922 Chronology by Dr. Frank A. Blazich, Jr.)

 

Published: Wed Jan 17 09:08:37 EST 2018