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H-081-1: “Miscellaneous Action in the South Pacific,” 4–5 September 1942

Photo #: 80-G-374870 Guadalcanal-Tulagi Operation, 7-9 August 1942

Amphibious shipping and landing craft off the Guadalcanal invasion beaches on the first day of landings there, 7 August 1942. Photographed from on board one of the transports. Following the disasterous outcome of the Battle of Savo Island, the larger shipping was forced to withdraw on 9 August due to the threat of Japanese surface and air forces, making ongoing logistical support of the U.S. landing force precarious (80-G-374870).

H-Gram 081, Attachment 1

Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC

March 2024

As the supply situation on Guadalcanal became critical, the four fast transports of Transport Division 12 (TRANSDIV 12) arrived on 15 August 1942, under orders from Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley, the commander of the South Pacific Area, to make all efforts to keep the deployed Marines supplied. The fast transports (converted World War I destroyers) Colhoun (APD-2), Gregory (APD-3), Little (APD-4), and McKean (APD-5), under the command of Commander Hugh W. Hadley, USN (U.S. Naval Academy ’22), mostly delivered supplies and gear intended to make Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field operational. The Marines had the benefit of captured Japanese rations, so food was not a critical issue. (The four APDs returned on 20 August with rations for the Marines.)

Commander Hadley flew his pennant on Little, originally commissioned on 6 April 1918 as Wickes-class Destroyer No. 79 under the command of Commander Joseph K. “We are ready now” Taussig. The ship was named for George Little (1754–1809), who served with distinction in the Massachusetts Navy during the Revolutionary War and in the U.S. Navy during the Quasi-War with France. He was most notably, or controversially, known for capturing the French corvette Le Berçeau and seven other ships while in command of frigate USS Boston, two weeks after the Treaty of Mortefontaine ended the Quasi-War in September 1800.

With an over-abundance of destroyers at the end of World War I, Little was decommissioned on 5 July 1922 and placed in reserve. However, following the outbreak of war in Europe, Little was converted from a destroyer to a fast transport, its four 4-inch guns and 12 21-inch torpedo tubes being replaced with three 3-inch/50 caliber dual-purpose guns, its silhouette cut down, and being designated APD-4. It was recommissioned on 4 November 1940. Lieutenant Commander Gustove Brynolf “Gus” Lofberg (USNA ’27), became its second commanding officer after recommissioning, on 11 March 1942, his first command.

The USS Gregory (Destroyer No. 82) had a similar service life as Little: commissioned on 1 June 1918, decommissioned on 7 July 1922, converted to fast transport (APD-3), and recommissioned on 4 November 1940. It was named after Rear Admiral Francis Gregory (1780–1866) who had a colorful early career fighting pirates along the Louisiana coast and conducting maritime guerilla operations on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812. Eventually, he became a rear admiral during the Civil War as the superintendent of construction of naval vessels being built in private shipyards, including ironclads. Lieutenant Commander Harry Frederick Bauer (USNA ’27) became its second commanding officer after recommissioning, on 13 December 1941, also his first command.

Hugh W. “Rooster” Hadley graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1922. According to the Lucky Bag yearbook, his extracurricular activities were four years of choir and two years of “probation.” The jargon-laden entry suggests he narrowly avoided dismissal. Nevertheless, he was commissioned on time as an ensign, initially serving on the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). He would go into submarines, serving on USS S-47 (SS-158) and USS S-27 (SS-132), before assuming command of S-27 in 1932. In April 1936, he became executive officer of the destroyer USS Roper (DD-147) before assuming command of that ship in September 1937. His previous tour prior to assuming command of TRANSDIV 12 was as executive officer, Submarine Base, Coco Solo, Panama.

Japanese reinforcement efforts of Guadalcanal began on 16 August 1942, as Japanese destroyers began landing troops and supplies on Guadalcanal at night. This would set the pattern for the first months of the battle. Japanese destroyers, and their own versions of destroyer-transports, would arrive at night to offload troops and supplies, with the intent of being far enough back up the Solomon Island chain by daylight to avoid being attacked by U.S. carriers or Henderson Field–based aircraft.

During daylight hours, Japanese land-based bombers, escorted by Zero fighters, would fly from airfields in the northern Solomons to try to strike U.S. carriers, bomb the Marines on Guadalcanal, or sink any U.S. ships attempting to resupply the Marines ashore. By the end of August, the pattern was essentially that the Japanese owned the night at sea. Control of the sky during the day was hotly contested with heavy losses in aircraft on both sides, but any Japanese ships caught in daylight were vulnerable to U.S. attack.

On 30 August 1942, under a mostly cloudy sky, the fast transport Colhoun, commanded by Lieutenant Commander George B. Madden (USNA ’31), paid the price while covering offloading from the transport Kopara (AK-62/AG-50) with Little. While Marine fighters were on the ground were refueling following an earlier air attack, a flight of 18 Japanese twin-engine bombers arrived overhead. The bombers spotted Colhoun through a lucky break in the clouds and, from high above Colhoun’s four 20mm anti-aircraft guns’ range, unleashed an astonishingly accurate barrage of bombs. Although trying to get up to speed, Colhoun suffered two direct hits, and then a string of five near misses along the length of the hull, which caused major structural damage, before two more direct hits. Colhoun sank in under two minutes, losing more than 50 of its crew. This may have been the most accurate bombing of a ship by high-altitude horizontal bombing during the war. Lieutenant Commander Madden survived the attack, would command other destroyers, and retire as a rear admiral. He was awarded a Silver Star for his actions on this date, although the citation bears no resemblance to the actual events.

From 30 August to 5 September 1942, with TRANSDIV 12 embarked, Little and Gregory remained in the Guadalcanal area, transporting supplies from ships offloading in Tulagi Harbor across the sound to the beach at Guadalcanal. On 4 September, Little and Gregory embarked with the Marine 1st Raider Battalion from Tulagi, transported them to Savo Island in response to reports that the Japanese had landed on the island (the Japanese apparently had just left), and then disembarked the Raiders back on Guadalcanal, by which time night had fallen.

Due to overcast and low haze, it was a very dark night, and with no navigation aids to show the way through poorly charted waters to Tulagi, Hadley opted to spend the night off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. What Hadley did not know was that a Japanese “Tokyo Express” supply run had arrived off Guadalcanal that same night, consisting of the light cruiser Sendai and 11 destroyers. (At the time, the almost nightly Japanese supply and reinforcement runs were known to those on Guadalcanal as the “Cactus Express.” “Tokyo Express” was a later invention by the press.)

Six of the Japanese destroyers offloaded about 1,000 Japanese troops on Guadalcanal to the west of Little and Gregory, adding to the enemy’s build-up. Three Japanese destroyers, Yudachi, Hatsuyuki, and Murakumo, passed just north of Little and Gregory to the east. Neither the Americans nor the Japanese sighted each other on the dark night. At 0056 on 5 September, the three Japanese destroyers opened fire on Marine positions ashore on Guadalcanal. At first, Little and Gregory thought the fire was coming from a Japanese submarine (it was also routine on many nights for a Japanese submarine to surface and lob a few rounds at the Marines). Both ships went to general quarters and prepared to attack the “submarine.”

However, when radar on Little indicated four separate contacts (although there were only three), Hadley faced a difficult decision. He knew his elderly ships wouldn’t stand much chance against any Japanese destroyers. He could remain in place and hope the Japanese would not detect him when they returned westward to exit the area. He could also attempt to flee to the west and hope the Japanese would not detect and run him down—the term “fast transport” was relative to other transports, not destroyers. (Hadley didn’t know it, but this course to the west would have taken him toward an even larger Japanese force.) Or he could hope that with the Japanese focused on shelling the shore, he might have the advantage of surprise and could launch a desperation attack. He chose this third course of action.

As Little and Gregory turned to attack, a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina flying boat searching for the “submarine,” and not knowing the U.S. ships were in the area, dropped a string of flares directly ahead of them. Although their cover was blown and all hope of surprise was lost, the two hopelessly outgunned APDs charged at the startled Japanese destroyers. At 0100, the three Japanese destroyers, modern ships (of three different classes) with advanced fire control, exceptional night-fighting capability, and a total of 17 five-inch guns and 26 24-inch torpedo tubes, quickly shifted their fire from the beach to the onrushing U.S. ships.

The battle was short and ugly. Initial Japanese salvos still had antipersonnel rounds loaded, which caused no real structural damage, but decimated American gunners in the exposed topside gun mounts. However, soon the two APDs were riddled by shellfire, as the Japanese fired more than 500 rounds in a matter of 15 minutes. Hadley and Lofberg were both killed on the bridge of Little by the avalanche of shellfire, and the ship was helplessly ablaze by 0115. Little would go down by the stern at 0140.

Gregory was hit just as badly. With two boilers bursting and the deck engulfed in flames, Lieutenant Commander Bauer gave the order to abandon ship. Although severely wounded, Bauer made it into the water, but he directed Ensign Robert Adrian (USNA ’43, gradouated ’42) and another sailor who were assisting him to go to the aid of another wounded shipmate. Bauer was never seen again. The burning and derelict ship went down on an even keel about two hours later.

At 0123, the Japanese destroyers steamed between the two burning and sinking ships, right through survivors, still pouring fire into the ships and men in the water. By this time, all of Gregory’s and most of Little’s crew were in the water—those that were still alive. Out of the nearly eight officers and 98 enlisted men aboard both Gregory and Little, almost 90 sailors from the two transports were lost that night or subsequently died from their wounds. (The figure of 22 killed on Little and 11 on Gregory in Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner’s original report, subsequently reflected in Navy historian Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison’s account, was incorrect. Even Richard Franks’ excellent book on Guadalcanal gets the casualties correct in the appendix of overall losses, but incorrect in the account of the battle itself. Most other works don’t even mention it.)

Photo #: NH 97784 USS Little (APD-4)

USS Little (APD-4) in its configuration as a fast transport tied up to a mooring bouy, circa early 1942. Note the ship's camouflage (NH 97784). 

Photo #: NH 97782 USS Gregory (APD-3)

Fast transport USS Gregory (APD-3) photographed in port, circa early 1942 (NH 97782). 

As the Japanese ships continued shooting at survivors, Gregory’s steward’s mate Charles Jackson French began gathering up the wounded survivors and pushing them onto a raft. These included Ensign Adrian, who had injured his legs and had shrapnel in his eyes. In Adrian’s account, everyone in the raft was wounded. Adrian noted that the raft was drifting toward the Japanese-held shoreline on Guadalcanal. French volunteered to go in the water and tow the raft. As French started to tie a rope around his waist, Adrian tried to talk him out of it. French replied that he feared the Japanese more than the sharks (which were plentiful in the area) and said, “Just tell me if I’m going the right way.” French was only 5’8” and 195 pounds, but was a strong swimmer. In Adrian’s account, French towed the raft for about eight hours, before they were sighted by aircraft and rescued by Marines in a Navy landing craft.

After the rescue, authorities tried to remove French from the other survivors and send him to a segregated rest area. To their credit, the surviving crew of Gregory refused to allow French to be separated in such a manner.

After Ensign Adrian’s account went “viral” on national radio, French briefly attained national hero status, with newspapers for African American audiences extolling his valor and advocating for an award. The Pittsburgh Courier noted, “There is not much opportunity for heroism in a ship’s galley or an officer’s wardroom. But all the men on a ship are in DANGER in time of battle, no matter where they are serving or what their skin pigment may be.” French subsequently served on the destroyer USS Endicott (DD-495) in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and then on USS Frankford (DD-497) under fire during the landings at Omaha Beach, Normandy, and then Southern France.

Although recommended for a Navy Cross, French was awarded a personal Letter of Commendation from Admiral William F. Halsey, then commander of U.S. forces in the South Pacific Area. The citation reads:

For meritorious conduct in action while serving on board of a destroyer transport which was badly damaged during the engagement with Japanese forces in the British Solomon Islands on September 5, 1942. After the engagement, a group of 15 men was adrift on a raft, which was being deliberately shelled by Japanese naval forces. French tied a line to himself and swam for more than two hours without rest, thus attempting to tow the raft. His conduct was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.

Why Halsey’s letter says “two hours” instead of “eight hours,” is a mystery. The level of the award is somewhat less of a mystery. Admiral Halsey would probably be miffed to learn that French “only” received a letter of commendation from a four-star admiral. The Bronze Star was only created in August of 1942, and U.S. Navy personnel were first awarded the Silver Star in World War II that same month. In short, there wasn’t really anything between a letter of commendation and the Navy Cross at the time of the event, although by the time Admiral Halsey issued the letter in 1943, the Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Navy and Marine Corps Medal were options. Although the posthumous award of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal in 2022 (for valor in action not involving direct combat with the enemy) was arguably a step in the right direction, why that award was chosen is a mystery (to me) given that Halsey’s letter and accounts of the battle stated that the Japanese were shooting at survivors in the water when French commenced his actions (which sounds a lot like direct combat to me).

The “5030” notice (after the U.S. Navy ship-naming regulation) produced by NHHC to describe the rationale for naming DDG-142 after French provided this description:

Honors Steward’s Mate First Class Charles Jackson French (1919–1956), an African American whose bravery and endurance saved fifteen of his shipmates. Raised in Nebraska, French enlisted in the United States Navy as a Mess Attendant in 1937. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he re-enlisted and served aboard GREGORY (APD-3). On the night of 5 September 1942, GREGORY was struck by Japanese naval forces off Savo Island and her crew was ordered to abandon ship. As the ship went down, French gathered fifteen crewmen from the sea and pulled them onto a raft, just as the Japanese ships turned their guns from the crippled vessels to the Sailors floating in the water. Tying a rope around his waist, French swam through shark-infested waters for several hours until, around sunrise, when they were spotted by U.S. aircraft and rescued. This earned French the moniker “the human tugboat.” In honor of his heroic actions, French received a letter of commendation from Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr. in 1943. He was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal in 2022.

Note, contrary to many published accounts, French was not a petty officer first class. At the time, a steward’s mate first class was equivalent to a seaman first class (today’s E-3 seaman), except that African Americans ranked below all white sailors due to the racist regulations in effect. At the time of the action, French was a mess attendant second class (seaman second class then/E-2 seaman apprentice now). The Messman Branch was renamed Steward Branch in 1943, and mess attendants were renamed steward’s mates, so instead of French being promoted to mess attendant first class he was promoted to steward’s mate first class. The next promotion would have been to either cook third class or steward third class with ultimate promotion to chief cook or chief steward. Note however, that chief cooks of chief stewards, who were Black, ranked below petty officer third class, who were white. African Americans in the Steward Branch were not afforded petty officer status until 1950.

French was mustered out of the U.S. Navy on 9 March 1945 as a steward’s mate first class. He died on 11 November 1956 at the age of 37 due to alcoholism most likely induced by post-traumatic stress disorder.

For their heroism against overwhelming odds, Hadley, Lofberg and Bauer were awarded posthumous Silver Stars. The Sumner-class destroyers, USS Hugh W. Hadley (DD-774), USS Lofberg (DD-759), and the Robert H. Smith–class destroyer minelayer, USS Harry F. Bauer (DD-738/DM-26) were named in honor of the heroes of this “miscellaneous battle.”

Commander Hugh Hadley was one of 27 members of the USNA Class of ’22 to die during World War II. His posthumous Silver Star citation reads:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Silver Star (posthumously) to Commander Hugh William Hadley, United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as Commander of Transport Division TWELVE during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands for the period 7 August to 5 September 1942. Under frequent air, surface and submarine attack by a desperate and persistent foe, Commander Hadley, although handicapped by limitation of firepower and reduction of armament, successfully disembarked troops during initial landing operations and thereafter fed vital reinforcements and supplies to the Tulagi and Guadalcanal garrisons. During the tense period prior to the development of our own local air facilities, he and his command were continually subjected to vigorous Japanese bombardment while operating in logistic support of our established positions. Subsequently conducting night patrols and furnishing anti-submarine screen for cargo vessels, Commander Hadley, by his superb seamanship and heroic devotion to duty, contributed materially to the success of our strategic operations in the island area. He gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country.

The Fate of the Ships Named After the Heroes of TRANSDIV 12

USS Colhoun (DD-801): The Fletcher-class destroyer was commissioned on 8 July 1944, shot down multiple kamikazes, but was hit by several off Okinawa on 6 April 1945. After a valiant attempt to save the ship, it was hit yet again by another kamikaze that broke its back. The destroyer sank with the loss of 35 men killed and 25 wounded.

USS Gregory (DD-802): A Fletcher-class destroyer commissioned on 29 July 1944 and under the command of Commander Bruce McCandless (Medal of Honor, USS San Francisco [CA-38], Guadalcanal, 13 November 1942), it was damaged by kamikazes off Okinawa on 8 April 1945. It was in repair when the war ended. Decommissioned on 15 January 1947. Recommissioned on 27 April 1951. Decommissioned 1 February 1964. Used as a target in 1971. Earned two Battle Stars for World War II service and four Battle Stars for Korean War service.

USS Little (DD-803): Commissioned on 19 August 1944, the Fletcher-class destroyer was hit by four kamikazes in four minutes off Okinawa on 4 May 1945, which caused a large explosion that broke the keel, sinking her in 12 minutes with 31 dead and 79 wounded.

USS Harry F. Bauer (DD-738/DM-26): The Robert H. Smith–class destroyer (DD-738) was converted to destroyer-minelayer (DM-26), and was commissioned 22 September 1944. It shot down 13 Japanese aircraft during the course of the Okinawa campaign and was hit by a torpedo that didn’t explode. On 6 June 1945, it suffered what was thought to be a near miss by a kamikaze. However, 17 days later a live 550-pound bomb was found in a fuel tank “three threads from detonating.” Awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, the destroyer was decommissioned 12 March 1956 and stricken and scrapped in 1971.

USS Lofberg (DD-759): Commissioned on 26 April 1945, too late to take part in World War II, the Allen M. Sumner–class destroyer earned seven Battle Stars for Korean War service and escorted carriers in Gulf of Tonkin during Vietnam War. It was decommissioned on 15 January 1971 and sold to Taiwan for spare parts in 1974.

USS Hugh W. Hadley (DD-774): The Allen M. Sumner–class destroyer was commissioned on 25 November 1944 and damaged beyond repair on 11 May 1945. The destroyer was decommissioned on 5 December 1945 and scrapped in 1947 (see H-081-2).

USS Charles J. French (DDG-142): Arleigh Burke–class guided missile destroyer authorized for construction.

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Published: Wed Mar 06 15:39:19 EST 2024