Punctuating her brief stay in Hawaiian waters with an antiaircraft practice off Oahu on 3 May 1942, Atlanta, in company with destroyer McCall (DD-400), sailed on 10 May as escort for the ammunition ship Rainier (AE-5) and the oiler Kaskaskia (AO-27), bound for Noumea, New Caledonia. On 16 May, having seen the auxiliaries to their destination, she joined Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr.'s Task Force (TF) 16, formed around the carriers Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8), as it steamed back to Pearl Harbor, having been summoned back to Hawaiian waters in response to an imminent Japanese thrust in the direction of Midway atoll. TF 16 reached Pearl on 26 May.
Atlanta sailed with TF 16 on the morning of 28 May 1942. Over the days that followed, she screened the carriers as they operated northwest of Midway in anticipation of the enemy's arrival. At the report of Japanese ships to the southwest, on the morning of 4 June, Atlanta cleared for action as she screened Hornet. Squadrons from the three American carriers sought out the Japanese, and during that day, planes from carriers Yorktown (CV-5) and Enterprise inflicted mortal damage on four irreplaceable enemy flattops. Japanese planes, however, twice hit TF 17, formed around Yorktown and operating independently from TF 16, and it took the brunt of the enemy attacks. Over the days that followed the Battle of Midway, Atlanta remained in the screen of TF 16 until 11 June, when the task force received orders to return to Pearl Harbor.
Reaching Pearl on 13 June 1942, Atlanta, outside of a brief period of antiaircraft practice on 21, 25 and 26 June, remained in port, taking on stores and provisions and standing on 24-hour and then 48-hour alert into July 1942. Drydocked on 1 and 2 July so that her bottom could be scraped, cleaned and painted, the light cruiser completed her availability on the 6th, and then resumed a busy schedule of gunnery practice with drone targets, high-speed sleds, and in shore bombardment in the Hawaiian operating area.
On 15 July 1942, Atlanta, again in TF 16, sailed for Tongatabu. Anchoring at Nukualofa, Tonga, on 24 July, where she fueled destroyer Maury (DD-401) and then took on fuel from the tanker Mobilube, the light cruiser pushed on later the same day and overtook TF 16. On 29 July, as all preparations proceeded apace for the invasion of Guadalcanal, in the British Solomon Islands, Atlanta was assigned to TF 61.
Screening the carriers as they launched air strikes to support the initial landings on Guadalcanal on 7 and 8 August 1942, Atlanta remained in the vicinity of that isle until the withdrawal of the carrier task forces on the 9th. For the next several days, she remained at sea, replenishing when necessary while the task force operated near the Solomons.
As the Americans consolidated their gains on Guadalcanal, the Japanese' critical need for reinforcements prompted Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku to send the Combined Fleet south to cover a large troop convoy. American reconnaissance planes spotted the Japanese forces on the morning of 23 August. With the enemy convoy reported to the northwest, Enterprise and carrier Saratoga (CV-3) launched search and attack planes, but the aircraft failed to make contact because of deteriorating weather and the fact that the Japanese, knowing that they had been spotted, reversed course.
Throughout the day on 24 August 1942, Atlanta received enemy contact reports and screened Enterprise as she launched a strike group to seek out the Japanese carriers. The sighting of an enemy "snooper" at 1328 sent Atlanta's sailors to general quarters, where they remained for the next five and half hours. At 1530, the cruiser worked up to 20 knots as TF 16 stood roughly north-northwestward "to close [the] reported enemy carrier group." At 1637, with unidentified planes approaching, Atlanta went to 25 knots. Enterprise then launched a strike group shortly thereafter, completing the evolution at 1706.
In the meantime, the incoming enemy strikebomber and fighter aircraft from Shokaku and Zuikaku prompted the task force to increase speed to 27 knots; shortly after Enterprise completed launching her own planes, the Japanese raidestimated by Capt. Jenkins to consist of at least 18 Aichi D3A1 Type 99 carrier bombers (Vals)came in from the north northwest at 1710. Over the next 11 minutes, Atlanta's 5-inch, 1.1-inch and 20-millimeter batteries contributed to the barrage over Enterprise, as the light cruiser conformed to the carrier's every move as she maneuvered violently to avoid the dive bombers. Despite the heavy antiaircraft fire, though, Enterprise took one hit and suffered some fragment damage from an estimated five near misses. Capt. Jenkins later reported that his ship may have shot down five of the attackers.
Atlanta emerged from her baptism in fire unscathed and confident; as her executive officer, Comdr. Campbell D. Emery, wrote after the battle: "Although the Atlanta had been through the Midway campaign . . . this was the first opportunity the crew has had to actively join the enemy in battle. All hands welcomed the occasion with enthusiasm . . . ." Capt. Jenkins concluded: "The ship functioned as designed in all respects and can be considered an efficient unit . . . ."
Reporting to TF 11 for duty the following day, Atlanta operated with that force, redesignated TF 61 on 30 August 1942, over the next few days. When the Japanese submarine I-26 torpedoed Saratoga on 31 August, the light cruiser screened the stricken flagship as heavy cruiser Minneapolis (CA-36) rigged a towline and began taking her out of danger. The force ultimately put into Tongatabu on 6 September, where Atlanta provisioned ship, fueled from heavy cruiser New Orleans (CA-32), and enjoyed a period of upkeep.
Underway on 13 September 1942, the light cruiser assumed duty as escort for the Noumea-bound ammunition ship Lassen (AE-3) and the aircraft transport Hammondsport (APV-2) on the 15th. After seeing her charges safely to their destination at Dumbea Bay, Noumea, on the 19th, Atlanta fueled, took on stores and ammunition, and sailed on the 21st as part of Task Group (TG) 66.4. Becoming part of TF 17 on 23 September, the light cruiser was detached the following day to proceed in company with Washington (BB-56) and the destroyers Walke (DD-416) and Benham (DD-397) to Tongatabu, which she reached on the 26th.
Underway with those same ships on 7 October 1942, Atlanta briefly escorted Guadalcanal-bound transports between 11 and 14 October before putting into Espiritu Santo for fuel on the afternoon of the 15th. Assigned then to Rear Admiral Willis A. ("Ching") Lee's TF 64, the ship sailed after dark that same day to resume operations covering the ongoing efforts to secure Guadalcanal. Returning briefly to Espiritu Santo for fuel, stores and provisions, she stood out from Segond Channel on the afternoon of 23 October.
Two days later [25 October 1942], with a Japanese Army offensive having failed to eject the Americans from Guadalcanal, Admiral Yamamoto sent the Combined Fleet south in an attempt to annihilate the American naval forces doggedly supporting the marines. Atlanta operated in TF 64, along with battleship Washington (BB-56), heavy cruiser San Francisco (CA-38), light cruiser Helena (CL-50), and two destroyers, as the opposing forces engaged in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October 1942. That day, Atlanta patrolled astern of the fueling group supporting the two American carrier task forces, formed around Enterprise and Hornet. On the 27th, when the Japanese submarine I-15 attacked TF 64, her torpedo missed Washington, exploding some 400 yards beyond her quarrythe force maneuvered at high speed to clear the area.
On the morning of 28 October 1942, Rear Admiral Norman Scott transferred his flag from San Francisco to Atlanta, and the latter became the flagship of the newly designated TG 64.2. After fueling from Washington, Atlanta, screened by four destroyers, headed northwest by north to shell Japanese positions on Guadalcanal. Reaching the waters off Lunga Point on the morning of the 30th, Atlanta embarked marine liaison officers at 0550, and then steamed west; commencing her bombardment of Point Cruz at 0629 while the destroyers formed a column astern. Provoking no return fire, TG 64.2 accomplished its mission and returned to Lunga Point, where Atlanta disembarked the liaison officers. She then proceeded, in company with her screen, to Espiritu Santo, where she arrived on the afternoon of 31 October.
Subsequently, Atlanta served as Rear Admiral Scott's flagship as the light cruiser, accompanied by four destroyers, escorted the transport Zeilin (AP-9) and cargo ships Libra (AK-53) and Betelgeuse (AK-28) to Guadalcanal. The cruiser and her consorts continued to screen those ships, designated TG 62.4, as they lay off Lunga Point unloading supplies and disembarking troops.
At 0905 on 11 November 1942, the task group received a report that nine carrier bombers and 12 fighters were approaching from the northwest and would reach their vicinity at about 0930. At about 0920, Atlanta led the three auxiliaries to the north, in column, with the destroyers deployed in a circle around them. Fifteen minutes later, nine Vals from the carrier Hiyo emerged from the clouds over Henderson Field; the American ships opened fire soon thereafter, putting up a barrage that downed several planes. Fortunately, none of the primary targets of the attack, Zeilin, Libra and Betelgeuse, suffered more than minor damage from several near misses, though Zeilin sustained some flooding. The three auxiliaries returned to the waters off Lunga Point as soon as the attack ended and resumed working cargo and disembarking troops.
A little over an hour later, at 1050, Atlanta received word of another incoming Japanese air raid. Fifteen minutes later, she led the three auxiliaries north with the destroyers in a circle around the disposition. The "bogeys"27 Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 1 land attack planes (Betty) from Rabaul, closed, sighted bearing west by north, approaching from over Cape Esperance in a very loose "V" formation. Although the destroyers opened fire, the planes proved to be out of range and the ships checked fire. The land attack planes, for their part, ignored the ships and continued on to bomb Henderson Field. Upon the disappearance of the enemy bombers, TG 62.4 resumed unloading off Lunga Point.
The next day [12 November 1942], Atlanta was still off Lunga Point, screening the unloading, as part of TF 67 under Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan in San Francisco. At about 1310, Atlanta received a warning that 25 enemy planes were headed for Guadalcanal, slated to arrive within 50 minutes. The light cruiser went to general quarters at 1318 and received the signal "prepare to repel air attack . . . ."
Within six minutes, Atlanta and the other combatants of the support group formed a screen around the transport group (TG 67.1), and the two groups steamed north together at 15 knots. At about 1410, the Americans sighted the incoming raid, consisting of what appeared to be 25 twin-engined bombers (Bettys) from the 705th, 703rd, and 707th Kokutais [air groups] which broke up into two groups after clearing Florida Island, came in at altitudes that ranged from 25 to 50 feet. Sistership Juneau (CL-52) opened fire at 1412. Atlanta did so a minute later, training her guns at planes headed for the gap in the screen between San Francisco and the destroyer Buchanan (DD-484). Atlanta claimed two Bettys just after they dropped their torpedoes, at about 1415, only three minutes before the attack ended. Once the last Japanese plane had been splashed, the work of unloading the transports and cargo ships resumed. One Betty, however, crippled by antiaircraft fire, had crashed into the after superstructure of San Francisco, inflicting the only damage on the force.
The abrupt end of the air attack gave the Americans only a brief respite, however, for trouble approached from yet another quarter. A Japanese Bombardment Force (Rear Admiral Abe Hiroaki) comprising battleships Hiei and Kirishima, light cruiser Nagara and six destroyers, was detected steaming south toward Guadalcanal to shell Henderson Field. Rear Admiral Callaghan's support group was to "cover [the retiring transports and cargo vessels] against enemy attack." Accordingly, TG 67.4 departed Lunga Point at about 1800 and steamed eastward through Sealark Channel, covering the withdrawal of TG 67.1. An hour before the start of the mid watch, Callaghan's ships reversed course and stood to the westward.
Helena's radar picked up the first contact on the Japanese ships at a range of 26,000 yards. As the range closed, Atlanta's surface search radar, followed by her gunnery radars, detected the enemy ships.
Admiral Callaghan's order for a course change to the left caused problems immediately, necessitating Atlanta's turn to port to avoid a collision with one of the four destroyers in the van the latter having apparently executed a "ships left" rather than a "column left" movement. As Atlanta began moving to resume her station ahead of San Francisco, the Japanese destroyer Akatsuki illuminated the light cruiser and fired torpedoes. Atlanta shifted her battery to fire at the enemy destroyer, opening fire at a range of about 1,600 yards.
As two other Japanese destroyers crossed her line of fire, Atlanta engaged both with her forward 5-inch mounts, while her after mounts continued to blast away at the illuminating ship. An additional, unidentified, assailant also opened up on the light cruiser from the northeast. At about that time, at least one of Akatsuki's torpedoes punched into Atlanta's forward engine room from the port side. She lost all but auxiliary diesel power, suffered the interruption of her gunfire, and had to shift steering control to the steering engine room aft. As if in retribution, Atlanta shot out Akatsuki's searchlight, and the enemy ship, battered by San Francisco's gunfire as well, sank with heavy loss of life, among them Captain Yamada Yusuke, the embarked division commander, and Commander Takasuka Osamu, Akatsuki's commanding officer. American ships later rescued the 18 survivors.
Tragedy, though, struck shortly thereafter. Soon after her duel with Akatsuki ended, Atlanta reeled under the impact of a flurry of what was later estimated as 19 8-inch hits when San Francisco, "in the urgency of battle, darkness, and confused intermingling of friend or foe," fired into her. Though almost all of those shells passed through the thin skin of the ship without detonating and scattered green dye throughout to mark their passage, fragments from their impact killed many menincluding Rear Admiral Scott and members of his staff. Atlanta prepared to return fire on her new assailant, but San Francisco's own gun flashes disclosed a distinctly "non-Japanese hull profile" that resulted in a suspension of those efforts.
After the 8-inch fire ceased, Capt. Jenkins took stock of the situation, and, miraculously having suffered only a minor (but painful) wound in his foot in the carnage forward, made his way aft to Battle II. Badly battered, largely powerless, down by the bow and listing slightly to port, his ship had been badly hurt, a third of his sailors dead or missing. As the battle continued in its waning stages, the light cruiser's men set to work clearing debris, jettisoning topside weight to correct the list, reducing the volume of sea water in the ship, and succoring the many wounded.
Daylight revealed the presence nearby of three burning American destroyers, the disabled heavy cruiser Portland (CA-33), and the battered and abandoned (destroyer Samidare having taken off the survivors) Japanese destroyer Yudachi, whose hulk Portland summarily dispatched with three salvoes. Atlanta, drifting toward the enemy-held shore east of Cape Esperance, dropped her starboard anchor; her captain sent a message to Portland explaining the light cruiser's predicament. In the meantime, boats from Guadalcanal came out and evacuated the more seriously wounded. By midmorning, all of those had been taken off.
Fleet tug (former minesweeper) Bobolink (AT-131) arrived on the scene at 0930 on 13 November 1942 and took Atlanta under towan operation made more difficult by the fact that the cruiser was dragging her anchorand headed toward Lunga Point. During the voyage, a Betty neared the disposition, and one of the two surviving 5-inch mounts, the one powered by a diesel generator, fired and drove it off; the other mount, on manual control, could not be trained around in time.
Atlanta reached Kukum about 1400, midway through the afternoon watch, at which point Capt. Jenkins conferred with his remaining officers. As Jenkins, who later received a Navy Cross for his heroism during the battle, would write, "It was by now apparent that efforts to save the ship were useless, and that the water was gaining steadily." Even had sufficient salvage facilities been available, he allowed, the severe damage the ship had suffered in battle would have rendered it doubtful whether or not she could have been saved. Authorized by Commander, South Pacific Forces, to act at his own discretion regarding her destruction, Capt. Jenkins ordered that Atlanta be abandoned and sunk with a demolition charge.
Accordingly, all remaining men except the captain and the demolition party boarded Higgins boats sent out from Guadalcanal for the purpose. After the charge had been set and exploded, the last men left the battered ship. Ultimately, at 2015 on 13 November 1942, Atlanta sank three miles west of Lunga Point in 30 fathoms. Her name was stricken from the Navy list on 13 January 1943.
Atlanta (CL-51) was awarded five battle stars for her World War II service and a Presidential Unit Citation for her "heroic example of invincible fighting spirit" in the battle off Guadalcanal on 13 November 1942.
Robert J. Cressman
14 February 2017