Montpelier II (CL-57)
The capital of Vermont.
(CL‑57: displacement 10,000; length 608'4"; beam 66'; draft 20'; speed 33 k.; complement 992; armament 12 6-inch, 12 5-inch, 16 40-millimeter, 19 20-millimeter, class Cleveland)
The second Montpelier (CL‑57) was laid down on 2 December 1940 at Camden, N.Y., by the New York Shipbuilding Corp.; launched on 12 February 1942; sponsored by Mrs. Lesley Sayer Corry, wife of William F. Corry, Mayor of Montpelier, Vt.; and commissioned at the Philadelphia [Pa.] Navy Yard on 9 September 1942, Capt. Leighton Wood in command.
Moored with her sisters Cleveland (CL-55) and Columbia (CL-56) in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Montpelier awaited final installation of her 6-inch, 5-inch, and 20-millimeter Oerlikon batteries at the time of her commissioning. When completed, she reported for duty by dispatch to Adm. Royal E. Ingersoll, Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet (CinCLant) on 25 October 1942. Due to wartime urgency, Ingersoll assigned Rear Adm. Lyal A. Davidson, Commander, Cruiser Division (CruDiv) 8, to oversee training for Montpelier’s officers and mostly draftee crew in Chesapeake Bay instead of a traditional shakedown cruise. On 28 October, she proceeded to the Naval Operating Base, Norfolk, Va., escorted by destroyer Davison (DD-618).
While leaving a demagnetizing station on the morning of 31 October 1942 at five knots in heavy fog, Montpelier’s lookouts spotted a ship crossing 50 yards dead ahead at 0830. Although she cut her engines, the cruiser struck the port side of the auxiliary schooner Steadfast (H-127), six feet aft of her stem. Neither ship suffered casualties, but Steadfast reported that she was sinking. The tug Massasoit (YT-131) quickly took Steadfast under tow in attempt to beach her, but soon abandoned the effort. Montpelier reported Steadfast sunk at 0854, off the Newport News ferry slip.
Per Rear Adm. Davidson’s instructions, Montpelier carried out intensive training in gunnery, engineering, damage control, ship control, aircraft operations, communications, and calibration and alignment of equipment through 20 November 1942. After the ship had run full power trials (29-30 November), Davidson and four officers from light cruiser Savannah (CL-42) inspected her and pronounced her ready for action. Montpelier moored once more in the Philadelphia Navy Yard from 1–12 December to take on board ammunition and supplies, strip all flammable materials, and complete last minute alterations.
She arrived in Norfolk on 15 December 1942, where she prepared to join the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Underway at 0800, 17 December amid cold weather and stormy seas that drove many of her seasick new bluejackets topside, Montpelier joined a task force bound for the Pacific Theatre. As the weather warmed, she transited the Panama Canal on 24 December. While steaming west, the ship’s compliment continuously drilled and trained, completely removed any remaining combustible paint, and held the first of eight wartime Neptune ceremonies marking the crossing of the equator.
On New Year’s Day, 1943, Montpelier suffered her first fatality. After launching from the starboard catapult, a Curtiss SO3C Seamew scout observation seaplane (BuNo 4834) piloted by Ens. William T. Thompson, stalled and crashed 150 yards on the port beam. The two depth charges the plane carried detonated on impact, killing Thompson and wounding ARM2c Carrol W. Radish, his passenger. A crash boat recovered Radish, and Thompson’s remains while an escorting destroyer sank the wrecked aircraft with gunfire. All hands attended Thompson’s funeral and burial at sea on the fantail the next day.
Montpelier stood in and docked in Dumbéa Bay, Nouméa, New Caledonia Island, during the afternoon watch on 18 January 1943. As her crew experienced their first contacts with native Pacific islanders and the warm tropical climate, the ship welcomed Capt. Aaron S. “Tip” Merrill on board on 23 January. Merrill chose Montpelier as the flagship of his new command, CruDiv 12. Adm. William F. Halsey, Jr., commanding U.S. South Pacific Force, had selected Merrill to help revitalize a Navy cruiser force roughly handled by the Imperial Japanese Navy in night surface battles around Guadalcanal Island, Solomon Islands. The U.S., and its Australian and New Zealand allies, and Japan had waged a long, costly sea, land, and air campaign for control of the island since marines had landed there in August 1942. Merrill and Montpelier reported for duty to Rear Adm. Robert C. Giffen, commanding Task Force (TF) 18 upon arriving in Havannah Harbor, Efate Island, New Hebrides [Republic of Vanuatu] on 25 January. There they joined the rest of CruDiv 12, Cleveland and Columbia (Denver (CL-58) was en route from the U.S.), forming Task Unit (TU) 18.1.2 under Merrill’s command.
At the end of December 1942, the Japanese high command conceded defeat on Guadalcanal and Adm. Yamamoto Isoruku, commanding the Combined Fleet, prepared to evacuate the remaining troops there secretly in late January 1943. Halsey interpreted Japanese actions as an attempt to reinforce the island and marshalled his command to block it. He assigned Giffen’s force to cover a transport convoy bound for Guadalcanal. Montpelier stood out of Havannah Harbor with TF 18 on 27 January. Giffen planned an aggressive sweep through the lower Solomons, known as “the Slot,” hoping to encounter Japanese “Tokyo Express” warships reinforcing and resupplying their Guadalcanal forces. In addition to Montpelier and CruDiv 12, Giffen led heavy cruisers Wichita (CA-45), Chicago (CA-29), and Louisville (CA-28), auxiliary carriers Suwanee (ACV-27) and Chenango (ACV-28), and eight destroyers.
A Japanese scout plane located TF 18 on 29 January 1943. Two air groups specially trained in night torpedo tactics stationed at the main Japanese naval and air base in Rabaul, New Britain Island, New Guinea [Papua New Guinea], took off in the afternoon to stalk and then attack the Americans at dusk. Unaware that the Japanese had detected his force, Giffen detached the carriers in the afternoon in order to maintain a scheduled rendezvous with a destroyer squadron. They provided combat air patrol (CAP) coverage until the waning daylight forced the aviators to return shortly before sunset. Columbia and other ships reported unidentified planes loitering westward outside gun range. As the sun went down at 1849, the bogies circled to the south of the formation and then eastward into the encroaching twilight. Montpelier’s SC radar operator picked up the planes at a range of five miles at 1915 and her gun directors began tracking them.
Fifteen Japanese Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 1 (Betty) land attack planes of 705 Kōkūtai attacked at 1919. TF 18 zigzagged to the northwest at 24 knots on smooth seas, 50 miles north of Rennell Island, with mostly overcast skies and a cloud ceiling of 2,000 feet. On Montpelier, Merrill heard the starboard side of the formation open fire as the first wave of attackers flew among them low and fast. They strafed the American ships to goad them into revealing themselves through tracer fire. One of these rounds killed S2c Roy Melton as he ran toward a main deck hatch on his way to his battle station below. Montpelier’s 5-inch guns began firing at 1925 but their flashes blinded the anti-aircraft machine gunners who quickly joined in. Her batteries trained on what spotters misidentified as a single-engine torpedo bomber, approaching 2,000 yards out on her starboard bow. It dropped a torpedo 25 yards out and veered away, barely missing the ship’s conning tower. As the projectile passed by just under her forefoot, Montpelier crossed over its wake. Although firing continued at aircraft swarming about, Giffen ordered his ships to stop zigzagging at 1930 and to resume their previous course and speed.
At about 1940, sixteen Mitsubishi G3M3 Type 96 (Nell) land attack planes of 701 Kōkūtai commenced another run from the east. Columbia, Chicago, and Louisville splashed two attackers, but illumination from the flares and burning aircraft allowed another Nell to put a Type 91 aerial torpedo into Chicago’s starboard side. A second hit a few minutes later left her dead in the water. Giffen ordered a destroyer to stand by the damaged cruiser as the rest of the formation pressed on. At 1948, Montpelier fired on a plane approaching on the starboard quarter perpendicular to her course. Observers stated that it dropped a bomb that detonated in the ship’s wake, and then hit the water 3,000 yards on the port quarter but did not catch fire (701 Kōkūtai had two planes downed in the attack). Giffen ordered several sharp turns at 2001 and slowed the task force to 15 knots, which shook off the remaining attackers. At 2029, he instructed Louisville to take Chicago under tow and for Merrill to lead his cruisers and two destroyers to patrol the western flank of the now stationary formation.
CAP supplied by Chenango, Suwanee, and aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV-6) arrived on station at daylight the next morning. The tug Navajo (AT-64) took over drawing Chicago slowly toward Espíritu Santo Island, New Hebrides [Republic of Vanuatu], with TF 18 escorting. With Japanese snoopers shadowing the formation and reports of submarines and planes inbound, Halsey instructed Giffen to leave behind a screen for Chicago and Navajo and take the rest of his cruisers back to Efate. Detaching six destroyers, the rest of TF 18 steamed for home at 1500. Two hours later Montpelier intercepted a radio dispatch stating enemy torpedo planes had sunk Chicago and damaged a destroyer. “The conduct of officers and men who came under [my] observation…was most praiseworthy,” Merrill wrote later of his greenhorn command, adding that he “was highly pleased with the manner in which individual ships under his command were handled throughout a long, hard night.”
As TF 18 returned to Efate to rearm and refuel on 31 January 1943, Halsey anticipated a major battle in the offing. Montpelier mourned the loss of S2c Melton on the morning of 1 February and then stood out with the task force during the first dog watch for several days of exercises and drills at sea. Giffen’s command joined Vice Adm. Herbert F. Leary’s TF 69 on 4 February, comprising battleships New Mexico (BB-40), Mississippi (BB-41), Colorado (BB-45), Maryland (BB-46), Sangamon, Suwanee, Chenango, and escorting destroyers, on 4 February to patrol jointly near the Santa Cruz Islands, Solomon Islands. The Tokyo Express recovered the last troops from Guadalcanal on 7 February and U.S. forces declared the island secured two days later. Leary ordered TF 69 back to base on 10 February while Giffen’s command refueled at sea and continued to patrol and exercise. Montpelier suffered another fatal accident on 11 February when S2c Fred D. Beamon died from electrocution and was buried at sea that evening.
TF 18 shaped course back for Efate on 13 February 1943. While the rest of the task force continued into port the next morning, Merrill kept CruDiv 12 at sea for a day of gunnery calibration. Per Giffen’s orders, the crews of Montpelier and her sisters donned their dress whites before the ships stood in to Havannah Harbor during the afternoon watch, catching the attention of battle-hardened bluejackets of the combat-scarred warships at anchor. The spit-and-polish appearance of the brand new cruisers—along with the presence of the movie star (and USNR officer) Robert Montgomery on board Columbia—earned them a nickname: “the Hollywood squadron.” Better news greeted them on arrival: Merrill received promotion to rear admiral and broke his flag at Montpelier’s main.
Halsey assigned Merrill to lead TF 68, comprising CruDiv 12 (rounded out by the recently arrived Denver) and four destroyers, and the mission of covering Operation Cleanslate, amphibious landings on the Russell Islands, Solomon Islands, 30 miles northwest of Guadalcanal. Montpelier stood out of Havannah Harbor with TF 68 on 19 February 1943 en route to Port Purvis, Tulagi Island, Florida Islands [Nggela Islands], Solomons. Merrill drilled his ships rigorously to master the demands of night combat, radar tracking and gunnery, maneuver and battle drills, and anti-aircraft protection. As TF 68 steamed watchfully near Guadalcanal, the unopposed Cleanslate invasion on 21 February drew no Japanese response. Halsey redirected Merrill’s force into the Coral Sea, where it conducted submarine hunter-killer operations (22–26 February) then rejoined Giffen’s TF 18 for joint patrols (26 February–3 March) before putting into Espíritu Santo for fuel, supplies, and ammunition during the morning watch on 4 March.
Halsey then gave Merrill a dangerous and ambitious new task: to lead his force into Japanese-controlled waters to stage a night bombardment of airfields on Kolombangara Island and New Georgia Island, Solomon Islands. After a brief morning conference on 4 March between South Pacific Force staff and TF 68’s commanders and key officers, Montpelier and consorts returned to sea at 1300—less Colombia, in Nouméa replacing an engine turbine. Under a dawn-to-dusk CAP on 5 March, TF 68 steamed at 26 knots to reach the Russells by sunset. While all of the cruisers’ seaplanes were sent back to Tulagi, spotters from VCS (Cruiser Scouting Squadron) 12 rode in four Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina “Black Cat” flying boats that took station over TF 68 at midnight to observe and spot for the bombardment. At 2000, Capt. Robert P. Briscoe’s Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 5—Fletcher (DD-445), O’Bannon (DD-450), Radford (DD-446), and Nicholas (DD-449)—left the formation to attack Munda airfield on New Georgia. Montpelier and the rest of TF 68 hugged the northern coast of New Georgia under weather that broke cool, clear, and cloudless, contrary to forecasts. At 2230, TF 68 intercepted a warning message from Guadalcanal that two Japanese light cruisers or destroyers had been spotted by air leaving the Shortland Islands, Solomon Islands, headed south at high speed. The Black Cat carrying Montpelier’s spotter, Lt. Ned. L. Broyles, made the original contact report while on its way to Kolombangara. Merrill had no way to know if his mission had been compromised, but he alerted his force to prepare for a possible ambush.
Slowing to 20 knots, Montpelier led Cleveland and Denver in column south into Kula Gulf between New Georgia and Kolombangara at 0013 on 6 March 1943. Under the leadership of Cdr. Harold F. Pullen, screening destroyers Waller (DD-466) and Cony (DD-508) preceded the cruisers, with Conway (DD-507) off the port quarter to guard against possible attacks by light vessels. The task force navigated via SG surface search radar due to the “exceptionally black” moonless darkness. At 0057, Montpelier’s radar plot reported contact with an island 9,000 yards short of where it been expected. A minute later the “island” resolved into a surface contact, which then divided into two unidentified “pips” moving in column toward TF 68 on an opposite course. These were the Japanese destroyers Murasame and Minegumo, returning to base after resupplying the Kolombangara garrison. Merrill alerted his warships to stand by to fire and Montpelier’s main battery calculated a gunnery solution for Murasame, the original, sharper radar image. When the range shrank to 10,000 yards at 0103, Merrill gave the word and his flagship’s forward 6-inch guns erupted. At the same moment, Waller aimed five torpedoes at the targets and Cleveland and Denver soon joined in. All of the cruisers targeted Murasame, which Montpelier hit with her sixth salvo, and she quickly caught fire. Taken by complete surprise, neither Japanese ship managed an effective response. Murasame slowed, then exploded, possibly due to a torpedo from Waller, throwing flames hundreds of feet into the air, and sank. By 0108, the cruisers had shifted their attention to Minegumo, which soon burned brightly, too. TF 68 ceased firing at 0114. Minegumo continued for a short distance before foundering at 0135.
Merrill kept his task force on its pre-planned course and as it rounded the southern end of the gulf, Montpelier and Denver fired 5-inch star shells over the entrance to Blackett Strait to make sure no more enemy ships lurked in the dark. Coming to a heading of 000, TF 68 commenced its bombardment of the Vila-Stanmore airfield on Kolombangara at 0125. Montpelier targeted gun emplacements, barracks and tents, and a radio station. After two ranging rounds, her 6-inch main batteries cycled into continuous fire mode, with each gun firing every nine seconds, and her secondary battery opened fire as well. By the time she ceased at 0133, Montpelier had expended 558 armor piercing and 536 high-explosive 6-inch shells, and 431 5-inch common projectiles in just 19 minutes of action that night. TF 68 retired at high speed as shore batteries fired flares astern. The appearance of a line of float lights raised alarm over a possible night torpedo attack, but the formation shaped course back to base without incident. Following their successful attack on Munda, Briscoe’s destroyers rejoined the task force just before reaching Port Purvis during the morning watch on 6 March. Merrill’s ships put back to sea at noon that day and after refueling from a tanker, they returned to Efate on 9 March.
Montpelier’s actions during the action of 5-6 March 1943 satisfied Capt. Wood, who reported, “All men and officers acted in a manner deserving of the highest praise.” Merrill concurred, “[T]he officers and men [of TF 68] are deserving of the highest praise for the calm efficiency they displayed during the many nerve[-]racking trials which developed throughout the long, dark night.” The performance of CruDiv 12’s radars particularly pleased Merrill. In his action report, he deemed the first combat use of the new Mk. 8 (FH) phased array fire direction radar and its innovative B-Scope visual presenter by Montpelier and Denver “more than satisfactory.” He also urged adding a second SG set to each of his cruisers. Capt. Wood later received the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service at the Battle of Rennell Island and for the Battle of Blackett Strait. Cdr. Paul B. Koonce, executive officer, and Cdr. John M. Taylor, gunnery officer, were each awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity during the events of 5–6 March.
With the Japanese defeat on Guadalcanal, General Douglas MacArthur, commanding the Southwest Pacific Area, assumed strategic command in the South Pacific. His plan to seize the Bismarck Archipelago, Operation Cartwheel, called for his forces to conquer mainland New Guinea, while Halsey’s, now designated the Third Fleet, continued advancing up the Solomons chain, aiming to meet at Rabaul. After capturing the Russells, the Third Fleet paused offensive operations through late June 1943. Montpelier and CruDiv 12 performed routine drills and upkeep at anchor, punctuated by routine patrols and exercises at sea. In March, they held high speed maneuvering and anti-aircraft tracking exercises for a day with 60 planes practicing attack runs out of Espíritu Santo. They briefly screened aircraft carriers Enterprise in April and Saratoga (CV-3) in May. At the end of May, Montpelier spent six days alongside the repair ship Medusa (AR-1) in Havannah Harbor for construction of a Combat Information Center (CIC) on the flag plot platform underneath her pilothouse. Mandated by the Pacific Fleet in November 1942, the CIC integrated radar, navigational, and gunnery information into a common visual operating picture, a major combat advantage for U.S. naval commanders.
Montpelier experienced tragedy once more when Capt. Wood, who had been well-liked by the crew, died from natural causes on 9 June 1943 while in a base hospital on Efate. Four men from each division were permitted to attend his funeral ashore on 11 June. Montpelier half-masted her colors and commissioning pennant for the sad occasion. Capt. Robert G. Tobin reported aboard for duty as the new commanding officer on 15 June.
During the last week of June 1943, Adm. Halsey directed Merrill and CruDiv 12 to execute a diversionary bombardment of Japanese installations on the Shortland Islands, Solomons, in support of Operation Toenails, the invasion of New Georgia Island, Solomon Islands. Halsey flew to Efate on 22 June at Merrill’s invitation to brief the task force and spent the night on board Montpelier before departing the next day. Designated Task Group (TG) 36.2, CruDiv 12 and four destroyers stood out from Havannah Harbor on the morning of 27 June bound for Tulagi. Another destroyer and three light minelayers assigned to TG 36.2 to sow a minefield in the Shortlands proceeded separately. En route through the Coral Sea the next day, the task group assisted Sangamon and her escort in protecting a transport convoy from a reported incoming air attack that did not materialize. Merrill’s force arrived in Port Purvis at 0945 on 29 June and then departed again at 1330 after topping off the destroyer screen’s fuel tanks from the cruisers.
Unlike the March raid, Montpelier and TG 36.2 steamed up the Slot at 26 knots without air cover, expecting discovery by the enemy. Sighting reports led Merrill to anticipate encountering Japanese cruisers and destroyers near the Shortlands. The destroyer-minelayer group joined the formation at 1500. At 1745, two destroyers departed to bombard Kolombangara in hope of deceiving the Japanese about the task group’s real objective. Their mission successful, they reunited with Merrill’s main body just after midnight on 30 June 1943. The mine group then proceeded on its mission at 0040. As TG 36.2 approached the target area, it crossed a cold front and heavy rain began falling, drastically reducing visibility and cloaking it from view. Montpelier guided CruDiv 12 onto the firing course and commenced the bombardment at 0154. Over the next 12 minutes, she hurled 796 6-inch and 499 5-inch shells at a seaplane supply dump, heavy anti-aircraft guns, and a radar station on Poporang Island. With the weather preventing the Black Cats from reaching the area, Merrill’s ships navigated and targeted exclusively via radar. Montpelier’s new CIC functioned excellently. As the firing ceased, TG 36.2 increased speed to 30 knots to give the impression that it would retired down the Slot, before cutting south into the Coral Sea. After rendezvousing with the minelayers, it shaped course back to Tulagi to recover the scouting squadron. After making another hazardous mission seem routine, Tobin commended his ship’s performance, “All men and officers acquitted themselves in a manner deserving of highest praise.”
TG 36.2 refueled at sea near San Cristobal Island (Makira Island), Solomon Islands, on 1 July 1943. At 1540, Merrill detached Denver, Cleveland and two destroyers to rendezvous with battleship North Carolina (BB-55) and screen in the Coral Sea for a potential bombardment mission in support of Toenails. The rest of the task group proceeded to Espíritu Santo for rearming and replenishment, arriving during the forenoon watch on 2 July. Montpelier and consorts stood out on 3 July to join the North Carolina task force. En route on 5 July, Adm. Halsey instead ordered Merrill to patrol near Rendova Island, Solomon Islands, to intercept an anticipated run by the Tokyo Express to reinforce New Georgia. TG 36.2’s detachment rejoined and North Carolina proceeded on another mission. When Merrill reported that his task group would be unable to reach station at the designated time, Halsey redirected him to Tulagi and sent a cruiser-destroyer force led by Rear Adm. Walden “Pug” Ainsworth instead. Ainsworth’s TG 36.1 engaged Japanese destroyers in the Battle of Kula Gulf on the night of 5–6 July, sinking one and damaging three more, while losing light cruiser Helena (CL-50) to Type 93 Long Lance torpedoes. Merrill’s task group refueled in Port Purvis on the afternoon of 6 July before sortieing at 1730 to cover two destroyers searching for Helena survivors in Kula Gulf that night. They found no Japanese, but the destroyers recovered 81 sailors. TG 36.2 returned to Tulagi to refuel and then patrolled Kula Gulf again on the night of 7–8 July. This time Merrill’s force fired on a snooper dropping colored flares and a screening destroyer attacked a suspected surfaced submarine, but encountered no enemy surface ships.
Montpelier and TG 36.2 stood in and anchored in Tulagi at 0930 on 8 July 1943. The next day, Merrill conferred with Rear Adm. Richmond K. Turner, commanding the Third Fleet’s amphibious forces, to prepare a night bombardment of Japanese ground forces defending Munda on New Georgia. Turner delayed the mission a day, so Halsey sent TG 36.2 back for an uneventful patrol into Kula Gulf the night of 10–11 July. Returning to Port Purvis at 0930 on 11 July, Merrill’s ships departed again at 1430. At the Army’s request, they delivered the bombardment from Blanche Channel, southeast of Munda Point. To protect against air, surface, and underwater attack in confined waters, Halsey beefed up CruDiv 12’s screen to 12 destroyers, five of which formed an inner anti-submarine ring around the cruisers as they steamed into position 9,800 yards offshore at 0255 on 12 July. Two minutes later, Montpelier initiated 40 minutes of shelling with two main battery ranging salvos. Her secondary battery opened fire a minute later and the other cruisers joined in at five minute intervals. Under moonless, partially overcast skies with good visibility, spotters relayed visual corrections from two PBY Black Cats orbiting above and the CIC updated gunners with radar and navigational plots. Observers counted between 15 and 20 fires started by the bombardment and Merrill thought it to have been “extremely effective.” Japanese snoopers arrived on scene and began dropping flares. As destroyers began firing on the aircraft, Montpelier ended her bombardment at 0327, having expended 864 6-inch rounds and 1,049 5-inch shells. Shortly thereafter, the task group retired, gradually increasing speed to 27 knots. Shaping course south of the Russells, Montpelier and CruDiv 12 recovered their scouting squadron sheltering at Tulagi during the forenoon watch and proceeded on to Espíritu Santo to rearm.
Early on 13 July 1943, Merrill received orders from Halsey to turn his task group around and conduct a patrol off Rendova Island that evening. During the Battle of Kolombangara on the night of 12–13 July, Japanese destroyers had torpedoed and damaged three of Ainsworth’s light cruisers. Responsibility for fighting the Tokyo Express at night in the Solomons now belonged to CruDiv 12 and Third Fleet’s destroyer and motor torpedo boat (PT) squadrons. Finding no enemy forces on the night of 13–14 July, TG 36.2 returned to Port Purvis the next morning. Per Halsey’s instructions, Merrill began operating his cruisers in pairs depending on the mission and situation. He sent Denver, Cleveland and two destroyers to Efate on 15 July for replenishment. Rain thwarted a Japanese air attack on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 16 July that Merrill suspected had targeted his remaining cruisers. Montpelier and Columbia departed for Espíritu Santo on 18 July were they rendezvoused with Cleveland and Denver the next day. On the night of 19–20 July, Navy and Army aircraft located and attacked a Tokyo Express run down the Slot comprising three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers, believed to have been seeking to ambush Merrill’s force. Montpelier and consorts put to sea on 20 July bound for Tulagi when Halsey diverted them into the Coral Sea. Per instructions, Merrill directed Montpelier, Cleveland, and three destroyers on to Tulagi on 22 July and sent the rest of CruDiv 12 back to Espíritu Santo. This abbreviated TG 36.2 covered a transport convoy landing supplies and evacuating wounded men in Kula Gulf overnight on 23–24 July and escorted it back to Tulagi. After refueling, TG 36.2 steamed out during the first dog watch on 24 July to patrol and drill east of San Cristobal. Relieved on station by Denver and Columbia on 29 July, TG 36.2 conducted a combined exercise before Montpelier and Cleveland shaped course for Espíritu Santo. All of CruDiv 12 reunited there on 31 July.
Renamed TF 39, Montpelier and her sisters spent August and most of September 1943 drilling at anchor at their new home base in Espíritu Santo or exercising at sea. With Australian heavy cruiser Australia (D.84) temporarily attached, they practiced fleet tactics in the Coral Sea on 3–4 August with the Saratoga (CV-3) task group under Rear Adm. Frederick C. Sherman, and Rear Adm. Harry W. Hill’s battleships Maryland, Colorado, North Carolina, and Massachusetts (BB-59). TF 39 participated in a second round of fleet exercises with the same commands from 30 August to 4 September. Per Halsey’s orders, Merrill took Montpelier, Cleveland, and three destroyers to Purvis Bay on 8 August. After standing out to patrol Indispensable Strait the next day, Halsey recalled the cruisers but sent the destroyers on their own to investigate reported Japanese barge activity off Santa Isabel Island, Solomon Islands. After the destroyers found nothing, Halsey sent Merrill’s detachment back to Espíritu Santo on 10 August. Montpelier suffered another fatal accident on 11 August, when a 6-inch gun director crushed BM1c Edward C. Price during a surprise live firing drill.
With Columbia in Sydney, Australia, for rest and relaxation and Cleveland on availability for boiler repairs, Montpelier and Denver answered Halsey’s call on 20 September 1943 to interdict the Tokyo Express evacuating troops from Kolombangara. An attempt to stage a converging “mousetrap” ambush off Vella Lavella Island, Solomon Islands with destroyers led by Cmdr. Arleigh A. Burke on the night of 21–22 September came up empty. Halsey sent TF 39 back to New Georgia on the evening of 22 September, but after making no enemy contact, diverted it into the Coral Sea. Merrill’s force attempted another mousetrap near Vella Lavella on 23–24 September, again encountering no Japanese ships, but this time attracting attention from snoopers. TF 39 patrolled Vella Lavella yet again on 24–25 September and both cruisers fired on a snooper that had commenced an attack run. Having summoned Columbia and Cleveland from Espíritu Santo, Halsey planned another mousetrap for the night of 25–26 September, sending them and four destroyers (TG 39.2) directly up the Slot to meet Montpelier, Denver, and four destroyers (TG 39.1) sweeping up from south and west of Vella Lavella. This time, the Japanese set an ambush of their own. Steaming back the Slot to Tulagi after another uneventful patrol, snoopers began trailing TG 39.2, 20 miles astern of TG 39.1, relaying its location to waiting submarines. TG 39.2 increased speed and dodged several torpedoes, while Cleveland fired on a suspected surfaced sub. All of Merrill’s ships reached port safely during the forenoon watch on 26 September. Halsey sent Montpelier and TG 39.1 on to Espíritu Santo that afternoon while ordering TG 39.2 back up the Slot to Vella Lavella, before reconsidering the risk and recalling it a few hours later.
Montpelier and TG 39.1 returned to Tulagi on 1 October and patrolled Kula Gulf that night, where snoopers illuminated them with flares. TG 39.2 departed for Espíritu Santo on 2 October 1943, followed by TG 39.1 two days later. Cleveland left for Sydney on 4 October and the three remaining cruisers screened by four destroyers took part in fleet tactical exercises with Rear Adm. Willis Lee’s fast battleship task force and Rear Adm. Sherman’s Saratoga group in the Coral Sea from 7–10 October. After transferring command of TF 39 to Capt. Frank Beatty of Columbia, Merrill and Montpelier stood out of Espíritu Santo on 15 October for their turn to visit Australia. After stopping briefly in Nouméa to embark members of the British mission there, Montpelier and destroyer Farenholt (DD-491) arrived in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo Bay on 19 October. Due to pending operations, Montpelier spent only five days in Sydney, unlike the 10 days enjoyed by her sisters, and her crew received liberty by sections, so that each bluejacket only had three days ashore. On the day after arrival, the shore patrol found CY (AA) Francis J. Harrel, assigned to temporary duty in Montpelier, dead, cause unknown. She and Farenholt began their return voyage on 25 October and arrived in Tulagi on 29 October following a brief stop at Nouméa.
Montpelier reunited with the rest of CruDiv 12 to prepare a multi-part role in Operation Cherryblossom, the invasion of Bougainville Island, New Guinea [Papua New Guinea], the last Japanese bastion protecting Rabaul. CruDiv 12 stood out during the mid watch on 31 October 1943, screened by now-Capt. Burke’s DesRon 23 “Little Beavers.” This comprised Burke’s own Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 45 (Charles Ausburne (DD-570), Dyson (DD-572), Claxton (DD-571), Stanly (DD-478)) and DesDiv 46 (Spence (DD-512), Foote (DD-511), Thatcher (DD-514), and Converse (DD-509)), led by Cmdr. Bernard L. Austin. Merrill’s task force steamed northwest up the Slot during the day, cut west into the Solomon Sea south of New Georgia, and then into the night toward the northern tip of Bougainville, where it would bombard the island’s last remaining functional airfield at Buka. Certain that the Japanese had detected their approach, Merrill warned his ships to be alert for traps as they closed on the objective. Montpelier’s main battery commenced the bombardment at 0021 on 1 November, targeting Bonis airfield, its revetments, and ammunition and supply dumps adjacent to the runway and on the south side of Buka Passage, while her secondary battery fired on bivouac areas. Altogether, she expended 721 6-inch and 589 5-inch high explosive rounds before ceasing fire at 0035. TF 39’s barrage started multiple fires, including one still visible two hours later from 60 miles away. When U.S. carrier-based aircraft arrived over Buka at daylight, they reported the “field inoperative from shelling.” As TF 39 pummeled its targets, lookouts reported enemy small craft approaching at high speed from inshore and snoopers began dropping flares. Ships at the rear of the task force column fired on the attackers with their 40mm guns and all ships took evasive action after Cleveland reported a probable torpedo launch. Enemy shore batteries attempted to strike back, but only managed a near miss on Montpelier that drenched men on deck and sent a fragment into the bridge, destroying Merrill’s favorite typewriter. As TF 39 put on speed and shaped course to the south, a picketing destroyer sank a PT boat with a gunfire, while other seemingly threatening pips observed on radar were reckoned to be clashing high-speed wakes from the vessels leading the formation.
Merrill’s force pressed on at 30 knots in order to carry out its second mission of the morning, bombarding the Shortland Islands, 192 miles to the south, off the other end of Bougainville. Montpelier’s crew cleared the decks of empty casings, repaired blast damage, brought up ammunition, and readied the batteries. The formation settled on to the firing course at 0615. Enemy shore guns, many sited in well-protected positions on reverse slopes, fired on the van destroyers at 0619 from 13,000 yards, indicating the defenders had expected TF 39. Merrill ordered Burke’s destroyers to silence the enemy guns and instructed his cruiser captains to return fire at their discretion. Under clear skies, Cleveland opened the first daylight bombardment of a Japanese position during the war at 0623, followed a minute later by Montpelier’s secondary batteries aiming at the shore guns, and then the rest of the cruisers at intervals. Montpelier’s 6-inch batteries commenced firing at 0631 on a seaplane repair base, supply dumps, and bivouac areas on Poporang Island. Her gun blasts knocked her SG radars off line but technicians quickly restored them. At 0633, a ragged Japanese 6-inch salvo straddled the warship. One shell passed between her stacks, impacting 50 yards beyond, while another landed in her wake 50 yards astern. A third fell just short on the port beam. Montpelier’s secondary battery ceased fire at 0639 after 336 rounds. Her main battery shifted fire to supply and bivouac areas and an airstrip on Ballale Island, 22,000 yards away at 0650, before ceasing at 0658 after 207 rounds.
Mission complete, TF 39 slowed to 20 knots and retired toward a patrol area near Vella Lavella at 0657. Having travelled 766 miles non-stop at high speed, several destroyers needed to refuel. Merrill detached Burke and DesDiv 45 at 0750 to rendezvous with oil barges in Hathorn Bay in the Kula Gulf, 108 miles away, with orders to rejoin the task force to escort the first wave of transports back from the landing area in Bougainville’s Empress Augusta Bay later that day. At 0950, Rear Adm. Theodore S. Wilkinson, commanding the landing forces, requested that Merrill intercept a Japanese flotilla comprised of four cruisers and six destroyers spotted near Rabaul. Commanded by Vice Adm. Ōmori Sentarō, this force had attempted to catch TF 39 steaming up the Slot the night before. Having missed his quarry, Ōmori returned to Rabaul where U.S. reconnaissance planes found his group that morning.
Per Halsey’s instructions, Merrill notified Wilkinson that TF 39 would take position west of the beachhead by 1415. As Montpelier and consorts watched U.S. aircraft defeat a Japanese air attack over Empress Augusta Bay in the early afternoon, aerial reconnaissance confirmed that Ōmori’s force had turned south. At 1630, Burke radioed that his destroyers had completed refueling and were on their way back at 32 knots. Using the tracking reports, Merrill and the CruDiv 12 staff calculated an interception course to enable TF 39 to close with the approaching Japanese at the lowest possible speed to avoid detection. Having reviewed recent U.S. combat experience with his captains, Merrill intended to fight the forthcoming battle differently. He planned a night engagement initiated with independent destroyer torpedo attacks followed by cruiser gunfire from the edge of enemy effective torpedo range. With CruDiv 12 Third Fleet’s principal surface fighting force and the proven lethality of the Japanese Long Lances, Merrill determined the mission required barring the enemy from the landing forces rather than seeking a risky battle of annihilation through close combat.
Montpelier led Cleveland, Columbia, and Denver in line of battle on a smooth sea with a light breeze from the south-southwest, detached clouds with ten percent cover and periodic rain squalls, and visibility of six miles. An early moonset left the skies very dark. Burke and DesDiv 45 reunited with the task force at 2315 and worked their way into the van, while Austin’s DesDiv 46 closed the column astern. Merrill ordered his ships to General Quarters at 0100, 2 November 1943. A recon report at 0124 placed the Japanese 83 miles away, steaming southeast at 25 knots. Maintaining course 345°, Merrill increased speed to 28 knots and predicted contact at 0230. A destroyer minelayer task group retiring on an opposite course warned TF 39 of a Japanese snooper following them.
At 0227, Montpelier’s SG radar picked up the first of Ōmori’s ships off the port bow at range 22 miles. The pips gradually resolved into three groups steaming abreast to the southeast. Light cruiser Sendai led destroyers Shigure, Samidare, and Shiratsuyu to the north; heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro formed the center; light cruiser Agano and destroyers Naganami, Hatsuzake, and Wakatsuki comprised the west wing. On contact, Merrill steered his formation due north. Shortly after DesDiv 45 detected the enemy, he released Burke to attack the northern group. At 0238, he directed Austin to countermarch DesDiv 46 to lead the cruisers south. A minute later, he ordered CruDiv 12 to execute simultaneous 180° turns that reversed the order of the column, with Montpelier closing the formation. As more enemy ships emerged on radar, Merrill sent Austin’s destroyers to attack the southern groups at 0245. At 0247, Burke reported that DesDiv 45’s “guppies are swimming”—torpedoes away. While waiting for them to hit, Montpelier’s CIC reported that the northern group had turned to starboard to evade DesDiv 45’s attack. A snooper—perhaps the one identified earlier—had dropped a flare that revealed the Americans to a lookout on Shigure. The Japanese aimed over 20 Long Lance torpedoes at CruDiv 12 as they turned. With surprise lost, Merrill ordered his cruisers to commence firing at 0250 and turn abreast to the south-southwest to unmask their guns. Montpelier’s main batteries targeted Sendai, 19,000 yards away, as did the other cruisers. As a blizzard of 6-inch shells engulfed Sendai, the Samidare and Shiratsuyu collided and then promptly retired from the battle. Shigure continued toward the southwest. The fire from Merrill’s cruisers slackened as Sendai receded out of range, burning fiercely with her rudder jammed. Montpelier’s gunners claimed hits from three salvos before she too checked fire at 0258.
As Cleveland, Columbia, and Denver shifted their guns to the Japanese heavy cruisers, Merrill ordered another simultaneous turn due north at 0302 to clear DesDiv 46, which had cut between the cruisers and the enemy on its way to attack. Restored to column lead, Montpelier resumed shelling Sendai. At 0305, lookouts spotted a vessel close aboard and the flagship veered to port to avoid a collision. Capt. Tobin immediately warned the rest of CruDiv 12. This turned out to be Foote, hit in the stern by a Japanese torpedo fired approximately 15 minutes earlier from over 12 miles away. With 6-inch shells raining down, Myoko rammed Hatsuzake, which limped away to the northwest, heavily damaged. Montpelier ceased firing on Sendai and Merrill ordered another simultaneous turn south at 0312 to close with the remaining enemy ships, which again put Denver in front.
Ōmori’s cruisers finally sighted CruDiv 12 at 0313. They illuminated Merrill’s battle line with starshells and launched yet more torpedoes. Japanese gunfire, which had been short and off target, now began straddling the leading ships in the column with frequency. Merrill ordered counter-illumination of the Japanese line and his captains maneuvered individually to spoil the Japanese aim. With the two forces converging and the range down to 13,000 yards, Merrill ordered his ships to make smoke and then turn simultaneously to the north-northeast at 0326. To their “everlasting credit,” Merrill wrote later, Montpelier and CruDiv 12 executed these intricate maneuvers by radio command alone amid the roar of gunfire and in darkness. At this point flooding forward forced Denver out of the line, due to three hits by 8-inch dud rounds over the previous five minutes. Merrill’s actions confused Ōmori, who mistook shell splashes for torpedo hits and the disappearance of the U.S. cruisers into their smokescreen as evidence they had sunk. Haguro and Myoko ceased firing and turned west at 0329, followed by Agano and her screen at 0334 after they delivered a Parthian salvo of Long Lances. Ōmori ordered a general retirement at 0337, convinced he had successfully engaged seven U.S. heavy cruisers and a dozen destroyers.
Each of Merrill’s cruisers gradually stopped firing as the range increased, although Montpelier opened up on a new contact, possibly the Hatsukaze, at 0339. Merrill steered CruDiv 12 to the northwest and then back south, stopped making smoke, and slowed the formation to 25 knots to allow Denver to catch back up. Montpelier checked fire at 0349 and Merrill directed the column west to look for crippled Japanese vessels, a task complicated by the inability to distinguish Burke’s pursuing Little Beavers from the enemy on radar. At 0458, Montpelier fired a salvo at a target it had unsuccessfully attempted to identify for over three-quarters of an hour. The shots missed, luckily, as Spence quickly identified herself as Montpelier’s quarry. These were the last of 1,489 6-inch armor-piercing projectiles she fired during the battle, an average of 125 salvos per gun. Merrill recalled DesRon 23’s destroyers at 0457 and then turned back east. The flagship prepared to fire on another suspicious radar pip before confirming it to be Converse. DesDiv 45 and Spence finished off Hatsukaze with gunfire at 0539 and Sendai sank soon after.
As dawn broke, aircraft began to appear on radar and a low-flying plane caused Merrill to order evasive action at 0559 and request air cover. TF 39 converged near Foote, which was taken under tow by Claxton at 0700 and escorted by Charles F. Ausburne and Thatcher. The formation steered for Empress Augusta Bay. At 0743, Montpelier’s SC-2 radar operator reported a large incoming bogey contact, estimated at 50–100 enemy aircraft, 59 miles out from the general direction of Rabaul. Capt. Tobin ordered the ship back to General Quarters. Now about 10 miles south of Foote and her escorts, Merrill formed CruDiv 12 and the remaining four destroyers into a circular anti-aircraft disposition and increased speed to 25 knots to close with friendly CAP vectored in by the fighter director in Empress Augusta Bay. A strike comprised of 18 Aichi D3A Type 99 (Val) carrier bombers and 80 Mitsubishi A6M Zero-Sen Type 0 (Zeke) carrier fighters from the Zuikaku, Shōkaku, and Zuiho air groups temporarily based in Rabaul, passed over Foote at 0800 as U.S. fighters took station nearby. At 0805, TF 39’s 5-inch batteries opened up “like overgrown machine guns” according to Merrill, soon followed by the 40-millimeter and 20-millimeter batteries. The raging sheets of anti-aircraft fire created “organized ‘hell’ in which it was impossible to speak, hear or even think,” the admiral wrote later. He sent TF 39 corkscrewing through a series of 360-degree turns to spoil the aim of the Japanese pilots. Montpelier’s gunners claimed five certain and two probable kills, including one by her 6-inch battery and another by a 5-inch Mk. 32 proximity fuse shell. The only hits the enemy scored were a pair of bombs that both struck Montpelier’s starboard aircraft catapult, causing minor damage to the ship but fragments wounded five sailors crewing a nearby 20-millimeter gun. Strafing attacks wounded three more bluejackets and one suffered a fractured skull. Overall, TF 39 claimed 10 certain and seven probable kills. The Japanese broke off at 0812 and reformed into two or three groups 15 miles westward with CAP aircraft in pursuit, which splashed eight more attackers.
Low on ammunition, DesDiv 46 in urgently need of refueling, and crews having gone over 48 hours without sleep, Merrill wanted to return to Tulagi, but Halsey ordered TF 39 back to Empress Augusta Bay to cover the transports one more day. Bad weather diminished the Japanese air threat, allowing Merrill to switch off with light cruiser Nashville (CL-43) and destroyer Pringle (DD-477) at 1930 that evening. TF 39 pulled into Tulagi during the first dog watch on 3 November 1943. After refueling and rearming, the tired but jubilant officers and men finally got sleep after nearly four days of continuous action. Halsey and members of his staff arrived the next morning to confer with and congratulate Merrill on board Montpelier. Foote received cheers from the task force when it arrived during the afternoon watch, towed by the tug Sioux (AT-75).
In the taciturn Navy way, Capt. Tobin commended the performance of his officers and crew over those remarkable days: “The conduct of all officers and men on this vessel, during this action, was in accord with the highest traditions of the naval service. Every officer and man carried out his assigned task efficiently and effectively.” For his actions, in lieu of a third Navy Cross, Tobin received a second Gold Star for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service.
Leaving Denver at Tulagi to conduct repairs, Merrill took Montpelier, Columbia, Cleveland, Nashville, and four of Burke’s Little Beavers to sea at 1800 on 4 November 1943 to rendezvous with another echelon of transports bound for Bougainville. Merrill sent Cleveland, Nashville, and three destroyers to refuel in Hathorn Bay on the night of 6–7 November. Early on 7 November, he recalled his detachment and steamed with the rest to intercept a reported Japanese force of two light cruisers and five destroyers north of Bougainville. Unable to locate the enemy, TF 39 reassembled northwest of Treasury Island during the forenoon watch. Relieved by Rear Adm. Laurence T. DuBose’s CruDiv 13 that evening, Merrill’s ships returned to Tulagi early the next morning.
TF 39 sortied once again at 2200 on 9 November 1943, with Montpelier, Columbia, Denver (battle-worthy once more), and five destroyers from DesRon 23; Cleveland remained behind to rest her crew. The task force covered another transport echelon, which arrived without incident on the morning of 11 November. Snoopers harassed the task force through the night. Spence shot one down but Merrill noted that his force’s night antiaircraft gunnery against slow-flying enemy float planes had “been disappointing,” even when directed by radar. TF 39 loitered off the Treasury Islands during the day, but closed again to escort transports departing Empress Augusta Bay that evening. After snoopers detected Merrill’s ships at 1850, they assumed an anti-aircraft formation with the cruisers in a triangle in the center and the destroyers close in to concentrate fire. Several groups of Bettys formed up to attack and Claxton warned Montpelier of an incoming torpedo at 1954, which executed an emergency 90° turn. Lookouts watched the projectile pass down the starboard side on a parallel course. With all ships shooting at low-flying planes and Capt. Tobin preparing to fire Montpelier’s main battery, TF 39 dodged into a squall at 2140 that shielded it from further attacks. Individual bogies turned up on radar but the rest of the night was relatively quiet. Merrill’s gunners claimed three enemy aircraft splashed.
On the afternoon of 12 November 1943, TF 39 left the outbound transports to link up with another inbound convoy. Snoopers arrived at dusk. Japanese float planes and Bettys buzzed the formation throughout the night, closing then diving and angling away upon spotting an anti-aircraft muzzle flash. Columbia directed the first successful night fighter intercept of the operation, which splashed a Betty at 0355. At 0446, Denver spotted two groups of five Bettys flying at wave top height, making them difficult to spot either by radar or visually before reaching torpedo range. TF 39 began maneuvering to throw them off. At 0454, a destroyer spotted a torpedo passing by. Merrill increased speed to 25 knots and executed an emergency 90-degree turn as the ships opened fire. Columbia radioed at 0457 that Denver appeared to be stationary and out of formation. A minute later, a destroyer reported a torpedo headed for Montpelier, which took emergency evasive action and the projectile passed by on the starboard beam. Denver radioed at 0500 that a torpedo hit in the after engine room had left her with no steering control. Merrill detailed two destroyers to stand by her while the task force circled nearby. Denver claimed two attackers shot down out of a total of six by TF 39 that night. Fighter cover appeared at dawn and Sioux arrived at 0825 to tow Denver to safety. The rest of TF 39 remained on station to pick up a retiring convoy at 1730, while a heavy rain front built up between Rabaul and the northern Solomons, sparing them from another night of air attacks. TF 39 covered the convoy as far as Rendova before accelerating to reach Tulagi before dark on 14 November. Denver and Sioux arrived the next morning. Burke’s Little Beavers and Rear Adm. Ainsworth’s CruDiv 9 relieved TF 39 from convoy escort responsibilities on 16 November.
The arrival of Ainsworth’s and Dubose’s cruisers allowed Halsey to grant Montpelier and CruDiv 12 time to rest and conduct maintenance in Port Purvis through the end of November 1943. Even as they remained on alert due to intelligence that a large Japanese cruiser force was expected to arrive in Rabaul, Halsey approved unrestricted availability up to three days for half of TF 39 on 16 November. Denver departed for Espíritu Santo under tow on 21 November and then back to the U.S. for repairs.
On 2 December 1943, Capt. Harry D. “The Horse” Hoffman relieved Capt. Tobin as Montpelier’s commanding officer. TF 39 (CruDiv 12 and five of Burke’s Little Beavers) stood out from Tulagi at 0600 on 7 December, under Halsey’s orders to intercept a suspected Tokyo Express run of cruisers or destroyers from Rabaul to Buka. They patrolled 40 miles off Buka during the mid watch on 8 December but encountered no enemy. Halsey directed CruDiv 12 and one destroyer to return to Tulagi while detaching the remaining Little Beavers to escort another transport convoy.
On 10 December 1943, Montpelier commenced 24 hours availability for repairs on a leaking turbine. The next day, all hands gathered on the fantail following Captain’s Inspection. On Adm. Halsey’s behalf, Vice Adm. Aubrey Fitch, Commander, Aircraft, South Pacific Force, presented the Legion of Merit and Navy Cross to Rear Adm. Merrill for his leadership at Blackett Strait and Empress Augusta Bay. One Montpelier crewmember described it as “the biggest ceremony Purvis Bay ever staged and no doubt the last.”
CruDiv 12 stood out of Tulagi at 1830 on 22 December 1943 for a repeat bombardment of Japanese installations at Buka, hoping to lure them into responding to a feigned amphibious landing. Four of Burke’s Desron 23 Little Beavers assumed screening responsibilities en route on 23 December. Cloudy weather with light squalls cleared to scattered clouds with unlimited visibility as night fell. Hoping to catch the enemy’s attention, TF 39 encountered no ships or planes on approach, though a radar beam was detected from the direction of Buka. At 0040 on Christmas Eve, Montpelier’s main battery began shelling Bonis airfield and dispersal and personnel areas, supply dumps, and fuel and ammunition storage around the airfield and southern shore of Buka Passage. Her secondary batter targeted anti-aircraft guns, personnel and supply areas, fuel storage, and barge and seaplane anchorages. Montpelier’s Black Cat spotter was out of position so targeting was done via offset from a navigational radar fix. Her six-inch guns fired a salvo every 10 seconds (1,010 shells expended) and five-inch guns every six seconds (1,071 shells expended). They saturated the target area and started two or three low intensity fires. Enemy shore batteries flashed but no shells fell near the column. Contrary to the mission’s intent, Merrill’s force had achieved complete surprise. Montpelier’s guns ceased at 0055 and TF 39 retired at 0100 at 26 knots. Four high-speed minesweepers took over as CruDiv 12’s screen at 0800 as Halsey sent the Little Beavers north to intercept a possible Rabaul-Buka Tokyo Express run. CruDiv 12 and the minesweepers returned to Purvis Bay at Tulagi during the forenoon watch on Christmas Day. Hoffman reported later “all officers and men conducted themselves in accordance with the best traditions of the naval service.”
TF 39 ushered in the New Year with upkeep, recreation, and training in Espíritu Santo (4–27 January 1944), which included underwater overhaul for Montpelier in the advanced base sectional dock ABSD-1 (15–19 January). Inspection revealed paint in poor condition, minor cracks and leaks in her rudder, and very small nicks in her propeller blades. Montpelier’s crew formed work parties that toiled round the clock scraping paint and barnacles from her hull, followed by application of a layer of hot tar and three coats of new paint. Merrill held a series of daily underway exercises to shake the rust off his crews. On 27 January, TF 39 stood out to return to Purvis Bay and conducted night battle exercises en route with Rear Adm. Ainsworth’s TF 38. Capt. Hoffman reported that Montpelier’s ship’s company morale was good, though it suffered somewhat from the lack of active combat operations. The ship maintained “a high state of material readiness and a constant sense of ‘being prepared for any kind of operations at a drop of the hat.’”
By February 1944, the Third Fleet stood ready to complete Operation Cartwheel, which now aimed to isolate, rather than capture, Rabaul. TF 39 departed from Tulagi during the first dog watch on 13 February to provide distant coverage for Operation Squarepeg, the invasion of Green [Nissan] Island, New Guinea [Papua New Guinea] by U.S. and New Zealand forces. To mislead the Japanese about its presence, Merrill’s force operated under strict radio and radar emissions discipline to arrive on station undetected. Montpelier and her consorts patrolled off the coast during the nights and retired seaward during the day. The mission proved uneventful as TF 39 encountered no enemy aircraft or ships. Halsey directed CruDiv 12 back to Purvis Bay on 17 February while sending Burke and his Little Beavers on an anti-shipping sweep around Kavieng.
Following another period at anchor (19 February–4 March 1944), Montpelier and TF 39 put to sea on 5 March for an anti-shipping sweep between Kavieng, Rabaul, and Truk. Merrill exercised and drilled his ships while again operating under radio and radar discipline. CruDiv 12’s scout planes searched for enemy shipping but found no targets. TF 39 returned empty handed to Tulagi on 11 March. After rehearsing shore bombardment off Guadalcanal on 15 March, Merrill’s force got underway from Port Purvis two days later to provide close in cover and fire support for landings on Emirau Island, St. Mathias Islands, New Guinea [Papua New Guinea] on 20 March. In the final operation to isolate Rabaul, U.S. Marines arrived ashore unopposed. Halsey released Merrill’s force to hunt shipping in the Truk-Rabaul-Kavieng area. Finding nothing, TF 39 set course for Tulagi on 22 March.
As TF 39 approached its destination on 23 March 1944, Capt. Burke and DesRon 23 split into two divisions and conducted simultaneous loops on either side of the column of cruisers to pay tribute to Rear Adm. Merrill, who had received orders to return to the U.S. The Little Beavers then departed to join the Fifth Fleet. Montpelier’s officers and crews gathered on the fantail to say goodbye to “Tip” Merrill on 26 March 1944, who was relieved by Rear Adm. Robert W. Hayler.
Columbia departed for overhaul at Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, Calif., on 4 April, reducing CruDiv 12 to Montpelier and Cleveland. The next day, the two cruisers and five screening destroyers sailed for Sydney for repairs and recreation (9–17 April). When liberty ended at 0900 on 17 April, Montpelier’s war diarist declared: “Sydney has treated us well and the week has improved morale 100 per cent. May we return again!” Hayler’s division returned to Purvis Bay on 17 April, where it remained at anchor, expect for underway drills (26 April) and exercises at sea (1–3 May).
On 6 May 1944, CruDiv 12 shifted base to Hathorn Sound, New Georgia and reported to Vice Adm. Raymond A. Spruance for duty with Fifth Fleet and to prepare for Operation Forager, the invasion of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, in the Mariana Islands [Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands]. For the rest of the month, Hayler’s ships, in consort with Birmingham (CL-62), engaged in intensive bombardment exercises at various locations in the Solomon Islands. On 20 May, Montpelier unexpectedly encountered an old adversary: the Japanese garrison on Shortland Island, bypassed months earlier. Under overcast skies and on smooth seas, Montpelier, Birmingham, and Cleveland commenced a firing exercise at 1035, planning to approach no closer than 16,200 yards from shore to avoid expected counterbattery fire. On the first pass, salvos from what turned out to be four 155-millimeter (6.1-inch) guns in a reverse slope shore battery returned the cruisers’ fire, one of which splashed just ahead of Cleveland as she steamed astern of Birmingham. As the formation reversed course for a second pass, another salvo straddled Montpelier at 1120. Hayler opened the range and increased speed, but enemy shells continued to splash around her five or six more times over the next four minutes. One struck the anchor chain on the forecastle, which wounded five marines and a sailor, but inflicted only minor structural damage. Hayler ordered his ships to remain beyond 20,000 yards, which limited them to using their 6-inch batteries. Enemy fire landed around the cruisers a couple more times but grew sporadic and began falling short. With the exercise successfully completed at 1230, the formation steamed back into the Slot, bound for Port Purvis to transfer Montpelier’s wounded to a base hospital.
On 4 June 1944, CruDiv 12 proceeded to Kwajalein Atoll [Republic of the Marshall Islands] to join TF 52 Northern Attack Group, led by Vice Adm. Turner, the overall commander of Forager’s amphibious forces. Turner assigned Hayler to lead TU 52.17.5 Fire Support Unit Five, comprising Montpelier, Cleveland, and three destroyers, part of Rear Adm. Jessie B. Oldendorf’s TG 52.17 Fire Support Group 1. Like many on the ships transferred from the Solomons, Montpelier’s crew battled an outbreak of dysentery on the voyage. The marine detachment slept on cots on deck after the ship’s doctors converted their compartment into an auxiliary sick bay. With typical gallows humor, her bluejackets referred to themselves as “Bull Halsey’s Diarrhea Fleet.” Cooler, drier air helped nurse them back to health. TF 52 departed Kwajalein on 10 June, bound for Saipan Island in the Marianas.
Upon arrival on 14 June 1944, D-1, TU 52.17.5 split up and Montpelier identified and bombarded enemy gun emplacements and counterbattery targets of opportunity on Saipan’s southeastern shores. Strict Japanese fire discipline and camouflage left the impression the defenders had abandoned the island. “No sign of life or activity was observed from the ship or plane…” Montpelier fired through the day, stopping only to periodically recover and service her floatplanes. At 1755, an enemy battery on Nafutan Point finally lost patience and opened up on Montpelier from a range of about 4,500 yards, scoring three near misses. The cruiser’s main and secondary batteries immediately returned fire as she made smoke, increased to flank speed, and turned away before reversing to come out of the smoke and unmask her full broadside. Enemy fire ceased at 1802, as did Montpelier at 1804. She fired harassment barrages and star shells until relieved by Cleveland at 0200 on 15 June. Amphibious landings commenced later in the morning and Montpelier resumed bombardment during the day and harassing fire at night. The next morning she made contact with a shore fire control party and began servicing calls for fire from marines ashore. Hayler commended the “smooth performance” of his cruisers, crediting it to the “intense training program during an adequate preparatory period.”
Montpelier’s mission changed abruptly on 17 June 1944. Warned by submarines that units of the Japanese First Mobile Fleet, commanded by Vice Adm. Ozawa Jisaburō, were moving east from the Philippines, Spruance concentrated his fast battleships in anticipation of a night surface engagement. In their place, Turner detached CruDiv 12 to Vice Adm. Marc A. Mitscher’s TF 58 Fast Carrier Task Force to screen TG 58.3 Carrier Task Group Three, commanded by Rear Adm. John W. Reeves, comprised of carriers Enterprise, Lexington (CV-16) [with Mitscher embarked], small carriers San Jacinto (CVL-30) and Princeton (CVL-23), heavy cruiser Indianapolis (CA-35) [with Spruance embarked], light cruiser Reno (CL-96), and 13 destroyers. After stalking enemy artillery on Saipan through the early morning, Montpelier replenished ammunition at dawn and stood out westward at 1116. Cleveland and Birmingham joined her en route and the three cruisers took station in the carrier formation at 1815. TG 58.3 sailed west from the Marianas into the Philippine Sea conducting air searches throughout the daylight hours on 18 June, but after failing to locate any Japanese forces, it retired eastward after dark.
As TF 58’s carriers turned east into the wind to launch aircraft on the morning of 19 June 1944, the weather broke fair and clear, with few clouds and unlimited ceiling and visibility. Search radar picked up several large groups of unidentified contacts approaching from the west at 1000. This raid, one of four launched by the First Mobile Fleet that day, consisted of 109 Yokosuka D4Y Suisei (Judy) carrier dive-bombers, Nakajima B6N Tenzan (Jill) carrier torpedo-bombers, and Zeke fighters sent from the carriers Taihō, Shōkaku, and Zuikaku. TG 58.3 launched all carrier planes on deck and went to General Quarters at 1038. Fighter directors vectored the task group’s CAP onto the oncoming enemy planes, virtually annihilating them. (Reeves’ fighters claimed 95 of over 350 Japanese planes shot down that day, known thereafter as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”) Only four attackers made it through and all attacked on CruDiv 12’s side of the formation. Montpelier’s gunners spotted a Judy at about 1159 approaching at high speed on the starboard quarter at an altitude of about 1,000 feet. Several 20-millimeter and 40-millimeter gun mounts engaged from a range of 1,800 yards. After 25 seconds, the enemy plane crashed in flames on the starboard bow and sank quickly, leaving only a green dye slick and a small debris field as Montpelier sped by. Cleveland and Princeton each splashed a Jill on their own and combined to bring down a third. None of the attackers scored a hit.
At 1455, Rear Adm. Reeves ordered Montpelier to recover a Douglas SBD Dauntless pilot and radioman in a raft off Guam. Two SOC-1’s piloted by Lt. (j.g.) William H. Edmiston (BuNo 9870) and Lt. (j.g.) Orris C. Boettcher (BuNo 9864) were launched soon after. Boettcher spotted the downed aircrew in a raft at 1528 and both SOCs landed to recover them. At 1553, Boettcher radioed Montpelier that his plane could not take off due to overload and that Edmiston’s aircraft had suffered an engine failure, so they would attempt to taxi back instead. En route, a Japanese Zeke strafed them, missing barely. The SOC pilots called for their fighter escorts, which shot down the Zeke as it began a second pass. Destroyers Anthony (DD-515) and Braine (DD-630)—sent by Reeves—rescued all the aviators at 1910 and sank the SOCs with gunfire. Braine returned Boettcher and Edmiston to Montpelier on 23 June.
TF 58 finally located the First Mobile Fleet’s aircraft carriers on the afternoon of 20 June 1944 and Mitscher ordered a late day air strike that required his pilots to make risky night landings upon returning. U.S. submarines had sunk carriers Taihō and Shōkaku the day before; Mitscher’s aviators sent Hiyō to the bottom and damaged carriers Zuikaku, Junyō, and Chiyoda, and battleship Haruna. They also left the First Mobile Fleet with just 35 operational aircraft. TF 58’s strike planes began to arrive back at 2000. Mitscher ordered Montpelier and all his capital ships to turn on lights and fire star shells to guide in the planes. TF 58 pursued the retreating Japanese through 21 June but could not close enough for more attacks. Spruance continued the chase with the fast battleships and one carrier task group while the rest of TF 58 turned east during the first watch that night to rendezvous with tankers, bringing the Battle of the Philippine Sea to a close. Rear Adm. Hayler reported, “The performance of Montpelier, Cleveland, and Birmingham throughout their seven day association with Task Force Fifty-Eight, was excellent.”
Hayler’s cruisers returned to Saipan on 25 June 1944 where they resumed harassment fire and on-call gunfire support duties until the marines secured the island on 9 July. Montpelier temporarily borrowed one of Cleveland’s SOCs for spotting until she received two replacements on 17 July. The cruisers also began a nightly ritual of retiring to sea with Oldendorf’s TG 52.17 to cover the landing area and reduce the number of targets in the anchorage for Japanese planes and submarines before returning in the morning. Turner periodically called on Montpelier to supply preparatory bombardment on nearby Tinian Island in late June and early July.
At anchor during a temporary lull on 7 July 1944, Montpelier endured another fatal accident. While serving in a working party transferring stores from the hanger deck, S2c Paul E. Marker died due to exposure to “foul air of a void compartment which had been pressed into service as a storeroom.” The incident resulted in Capt. Hoffman convening a board of investigation to determine the causes. Marker was buried at sea during the second dog watch on 8 July. With the crew in attendance, a marine bugler played taps and the detachment provided a 21-gun salute.
Turner temporarily detailed CruDiv 12 (plus Birmingham) to TF 53 Southern Attack Force (Rear Adm. Richard L. Conolly) on 20 July 1944 to augment bombardment support for the invasion of Guam. As the landings commenced the next morning, Montpelier fired upon pre-set targets. Her secondary battery engaged a group of Japanese soldiers on shore, which were the only enemy forces she spotted on Guam, before steaming back to Saipan with Cleveland that night. Turner then assigned Hayler and Montpelier to provide fire support for landings on Tinian with New Orleans (CA-32) and four destroyers. The force took position in Saipan Channel and began delivering preparatory fire at 0500 on 23 July. At 1600, Montpelier suffered several near misses by 16-inch shells fired by Colorado from the opposite side of the island, which apparently ricocheted off the intended target. The detonations unsettled the deck crew, which could not see the incoming rounds but definitely heard them, before Capt. Hoffman swiftly maneuvered his ship out of the way. Montpelier provided on-call fire support through the day on 24 July and then resumed rotating fire support missions with Cleveland until released from Operation Forager on 31 July. Of CruDiv 12’s performance, Rear Adm. Hayler would write, “Throughout the entire assault upon the Marianas Islands the ships of this unit performed all assignments in a sterling manner. Morale was high at all times and material functioned excellently.”
On 2 August 1944, Montpelier and Denver, which had been detached from duty with TF 58, departed Saipan for Eniwetok Atoll. There, Hayler transferred his flag and division staff to Denver on 6 August and three days later Montpelier set course for Pearl Harbor with three destroyer escorts, ultimately bound for the U.S. and a long-rumored six-week availability for overhaul. Her crew washed clothes, bought new shoes, hats, and extra uniforms, and did some sun tanning in anticipation of stateside leave. Montpelier docked in Pearl Harbor on 15 August, where Capt. Hoffman granted limited liberty. She stood out the next day carrying 116 wounded veterans of the recent island battles for transfer to the U.S. Sailing alone for the first time since commissioning, Montpelier passed under the Golden Gate Bridge and moored at San Francisco on 22 August. Later in the day, she proceeded to the Mare Island Navy Yard. Half of the ship’s company received 21 days leave and two days travel time followed by the rest on 10 September. A fire in the after main battery director tube on 17 September added an additional week to the overhaul. Montpelier entered dry dock from 20–28 September and completed her overhaul on 17 October.
Underway at 0830, 18 October for degaussing, she conducted full-power trials near the Farallones Islands on 20 October and test fired all guns the next day. She then moored at Mare Island Navy Yard for post-trial repairs (22-24 October).
With a 20% turnover in the ship’s company after overhaul, Capt. Hoffman began the task of restoring Montpelier’s combat proficiency with gunnery exercises with Astoria (CL-90) and Baltimore (CA-68) on 25 October 1944 before setting course with them for Pearl Harbor. After arriving on 31 October, she received availability (1–6 November) to repair damage to her after SG radar caused by stack heat. On 10 November, Montpelier stood out in concert with New Mexico and five destroyers en route to the U.S. forward base in Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands [Federated State of Micronesia]. After refueling, and disembarking 30 officer passengers at Ulithi, Montpelier continued on to Leyte, Philippine Islands with New York on 23 November to join the Seventh Fleet (Vice Adm. Thomas C. Kinkaid) supporting General MacArthur’s invasion of the Philippine Islands.
On the next day, Montpelier reunited with Denver and Columbia as part of TU 77.2 (Rear Adm. Theodore D. Ruddock, Jr.), patrolling Surigao Strait and the southern approaches into Leyte Gulf. In addition to Rear Adm. Hayler’s CruDiv 12, TU 77.2 comprised Maryland, New Mexico, West Virginia (BB-48), Colorado, Minneapolis (CA-36), St. Louis (CL-49), and 16 destroyers. This force experienced constant “Flash Red” warnings of incoming enemy aircraft. During the invasion of Leyte (Operation King II) the month before, the Japanese had initiated aerial suicide attacks by Special Attack Units comprised of Kamikaze [“Divine Wind”] pilots, which inflicted great destruction on the U.S. Fleet. Montpelier would soon experience combat more desperate and vicious then her last battle experience the previous June.
TG 77.2 formed around the station tanker Caribou (IX-114) on the morning of 27 November 1944, with the heavier ships circling clockwise and the destroyers cycling around them in the opposite direction and commenced fueling. Under overcast skies with low cloud cover and frequent rain squalls that grounded the CAP, the group received a “Flash Red” warning at 1047 and went to General Quarters. The warships increased speed to 15 knots and the destroyers took position between the heavier units. A Yokosuka D4Y1 Type 2 (Judy) carrier bomber suddenly dove through the cloud cover at 1128 to drop a bomb that fell between Denver and St. Louis before shedding its tail under heavy fire and crashing near the middle of the formation. Either by luck or design, a group of 25–30 Japanese planes had approached undetected from the south by exploiting gaps in the task group’s air search radar coverage. Dividing into groups of four, the aircraft staged what Montpelier’s war diary described as “sudden and terrifying attacks” out of the concealing clouds.
Capt. Hoffman rang up 25 knots to enable evasive maneuvering while “fishtailing” his 10,000 ton light cruiser with back and forth full rudder turns to keep station with destroyer Mustin (DD-413) and battleship Colorado ahead. At 1145, lookouts spotted the first of four Mitsubishi A6M Type 0 (Zeke) carrier fighters or Nakajima Ki-43 Type 1 (Oscar) fighters to plunge in rapid succession on Montpelier’s port side at 250–300 knots. The ship’s 5-inch, 40-millimeter, and 20-millimeter gun batteries commenced firing at a range of 3,500 yards. Due to the short range, the 5-inch Mk. 40 VT proximity fuse shells failed to arm so it fell to the 40-millimeter gunners to deliver the killing shots. The first attacker passed over low and crashed on the starboard bow. A second plane descended too quickly for the 5-inch directors to track but 40-millimeter fire caused it to burst into flames and it splashed well short of the ship. A pair of planes then dove simultaneously. Unable to train on a target, the 5-inch directors set the batteries to area fire while the 40- and 20-millimeter guns threw up clouds of shells. The third plane lost a wing (to a 5-inch shell according to observers) and it too crashed short. Weaving its way in, the last attacker passed over the fantail and hit the water on the starboard quarter, detonating a bomb it had been carrying. Casing fragments, plane parts, and human remains hurled back into the ship seriously wounded two crewmembers and lightly injured nine others. The impact damaged over a dozen projectiles inside a 5-inch mount ammunition handling room, prompting a scramble to dump them overboard quickly. During the three minutes the attack lasted, Montpelier pumped out 1,005 20-millimeter rounds, 1,105 40-millimeter, and 306 anti-aircraft and 166 VT 5-inch. Of that day, Hoffman later wrote, “The Commanding Officer is proud of the performance turned in by all hands.”
On 29 November 1944, TG 77.2 again came under kamikaze attack. With Rear Adm. Hayler acting as temporary officer in tactical command, radar detected a small group of enemy planes closing with the task group during the first dog watch under overcast skies and low clouds. Montpelier observed anti-aircraft fire from the opposite side of formation at 1631 as an aircraft dove on Portland (CA-33) but splashed harmlessly ahead of the ship. Radar spotted a second bogey at 1808. Montpelier could hear other ships firing but not see it. When the plane burst out of a rain cloud at the center of the formation, Montpelier’s 5-inch and 40-millimeter batteries joined in. Maneuvering acrobatically, the plane climbed steeply into the clouds before diving back down into Maryland between her forward main battery turrets, killing several of her crew and causing a brief fire.
Rear Adm. Ralph S. Riggs reported aboard Denver to relieve Hayler as CruDiv 12 commander on 1 December 1944. The next day, Kinkaid directed TG 77.2 to Kossol Roads in the Palau Islands, Caroline Islands, for maintenance, upkeep, and limited crew recreation. On 10 December, Montpelier and CruDiv 12 stood out in consort with TG 77.12 (Rear Adm. Ruddock; West Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, Minneapolis, escort carriers Natoma Bay (CVE-62), Kadashan Bay (CVE-76), Marcus Island (CVE-77), Savo Island (CVE-78), Ommaney Bay (CVE-79), Manila Bay (CVE-61), and 15 destroyers) to provide heavy cover and air support for Operation Love III, the invasion of Mindoro Island, Philippine Islands. TG 77.12 followed the main attack group and close covering force south through Surigao Strait and west into the Mindoro Sea, before steaming north into the Sulu Sea on 13 December. The task group’s carriers provided air cover for the naval forces at dawn, which came under stiff kamikaze attack. Japanese aircraft found TG 77.12 in early evening, scoring a hit on a destroyer. Clear weather helped the identification and tracking of bogies the next day, most of which the CAP intercepted. Attackers visited TG 77.12 twice in the afternoon, but Montpelier fired only on a suspected Kawasaki Ki-48 Type 99 light bomber (Lily) at 1737. The landings commenced on Mindoro on 15 December to minimal opposition, but air attacks on the naval forces were heavy. Abetted by overcast skies, a handful of aircraft managed to evade the CAP to attack TG 77.12 during the morning. Montpelier fired on an incoming Jill at 0810 that Ralph Talbot (DD-390) splashed. Her gunners claimed partial credit for bringing down a Zeke and a Judy soon after. The task group began to retire with the empty transports before reversing course at 2000 to cover slow-moving supply convoys bound for Mindoro and to be ready to intercept a possible enemy naval attack. After refueling the destroyers from the battleships and cruisers, TG 77.12 resumed retirement in the afternoon of 16 December. While Hoffman criticized his anti-aircraft crews for poor aircraft recognition and range finding, he praised their marksmanship. Overall, Riggs found that the “Personnel of Cruiser Division 12 performed their duties in a satisfactory manner.”
TG 77.12 returned to Kossol Roads on 19 December 1944 and CruDiv 12 proceeded on to Manus Island, Admiralty Islands [Papua New Guinea] the next day for provisioning and recuperation. Montpelier held a lively Neptune ceremony en route on 22 December, initiating polliwogs crossing the equator for the first time into the ranks of veteran shellbacks. Anchoring in Manus on 23 December, her crew replenished and rearmed the ship while enjoying limited recreation ashore, received mail and packages, attended church services on Christmas Eve, and ate a turkey dinner with trimmings on Christmas Day. On 27 December, tragedy struck once more when SF3c Henry C. Mostiller drowned while swimming, swept away by a deadly undertow.
On 30 December 1944, Montpelier and Denver set out during the morning watch for San Pedro Bay in Leyte Gulf to join TG 77.3 Close Covering Group (Rear Adm. Russell S. Berkey) in preparation for the forthcoming Mike I landings in Lingayen Gulf on northern Luzon Island, Philippine Islands. (Columbia steamed with another task group to provide landing fire support.) TG 77.3, comprising CruDiv12, light cruisers Phoenix (CL-46), Boise (CL-47)—with General MacArthur and his staff embarked—and eight destroyers departed San Pedro Bay on 4 January 1945, steaming in proximity with the amphibious assault group. As the formation transited from the Mindanao Sea into the Sulu Sea on 5 January, a Japanese midget submarine managed to fire two torpedoes at Boise, which evaded them, before the destroyer Taylor rammed and sank it. On 7 January, the invasion fleet pushed into the South China Sea, the deepest U.S. incursion yet into Japanese-controlled territory. At 0645, a two-engine bomber, believed to be a Yokosuka P1Y1 Ginga (Frances), approached the task group undetected and dropped a bomb 800 yards on Montpelier’s starboard bow before escaping. She did engage a Mitsubishi Ki-21 Type 97 (Sally) heavy bomber as it flew through TG 77.3 at 0840 that the CAP eventually splashed. Snoopers shadowed the force as it made its way north along the west coast of Luzon early on 8 January. Montpelier helped down a Frances or Kawasaki Ki-45 Type 2 (Nick) two-seat fighter attempting to crash Denver at 0803.
As Boise and the amphibious group continued into Lingayen Gulf, TG 77.3 rendezvoused on the evening of 8 January 1945 with Marcus Island, Kadashan Bay and their destroyer screen patrolling off the west coast of Luzon to provide air cover for convoys transiting the area. On 10 January, Petrof Bay (CVE-80) and Saginaw Bay (CVE-82) joined the group while Kadashan Bay left. Montpelier engaged a Val at 1837 that attempted to bomb Saginaw Bay but missed. Around 1930, a stray 40-millimeter dud from a nearby destroyer struck Montpelier in the galley, which fortunately caused negligible damage and no injuries. Thereafter Japanese air activity diminished significantly, with few bogies spotted. Boise rejoined the task group on 14 January, having debarked MacArthur with the landing forces ashore. On 17 January, TG 77.3 and the escort carriers set course for an operating area off Mindoro to facilitate refueling and cover the southern approaches. After a false start on a report of an approaching small Japanese task force, Montpelier and Denver proceeded to Mangarin Bay, Mindoro on 20 January to rearm and refuel, but rejoined the patrol later on the same day. Denver and two destroyers were detached on 28 January to support a landing operation on Luzon.
On 31 January 1945, TG 77.3 reformed and, joined by Denver, put into Mangarin Bay on 1 February to replenish stores. There Montpelier and Denver reunited with Cleveland, returned from stateside overhaul, while Columbia made its way back to the U.S. to repair damage inflicted by multiple kamikaze strikes. While Montpelier’s crew enjoyed limited recreation ashore, work parties stocked canned and dry goods. Fresh provisions were scarce. The ship’s cooks bartered with natives for livestock to provide fresh meat and sailors traded for fruit and vegetables.
Montpelier and CruDiv 12 steamed for Subic Bay on the west coast of Luzon on 8 February 1945 to prepare to support minesweeping operations in nearby Manila Bay and provide fire support for forthcoming landings on the southern Bataan peninsula and the fortified island of Corregidor. Rear Adm. Berkey’s TG 77.3 stood out at 0651 on 13 February and arrived in Manila Bay at 0910. Rear Adm. Riggs’ CruDiv 12 comprised TU 77.3.2 Fire Support Unit B, which split up to service targets in the southern area. Montpelier conducted a pre-planned bombardment during the afternoon watch and retired with TG 77.3 to Subic Bay for the night. The next day, she shelled Carabao Island to suppress enemy guns firing on U.S. minesweepers and bombarded gun emplacements on Corregidor. She helped cover rescue operations for two destroyers damaged by mines before returning to Subic Bay after dark. The landings began on 15 February and Montpelier provided suppressive fire for amphibious transports in Mariveles Bay in the morning before commencing a scheduled bombardment. TG 77.3 retired to sea overnight and returned to Manila Bay at dawn the next day. Montpelier stood by to provide on-call fire support for paratroopers and landing ships assaulting Corregidor. Her 40-millimeter batteries engaged reported enemy mortars in early afternoon. TU 77.3.2 returned to Subic Bay during the first dog watch to refuel and rearm.
While at anchor for upkeep, logistics, and crew recreation, Montpelier incurred another accidental death. On 20 February 1945, a Japanese booby-trap killed S2c Robert M. Salyer and injured two other crewmembers while exploring ashore during authorized liberty. Rear Adm. Riggs convened a board of inquiry that ruled Salyer’s death to be in the line of duty and not the result of misconduct.
Montpelier and CruDiv 12 departed for Mangarin Bay on 24 February 1945 to provide fire support for Operation Victor III, the invasion and occupation of Palawan Island, Philippine Islands. Designated TG 74.2 under Riggs’ command, CruDiv 12 and four destroyers arrived off Puerto Princessa, Palawan Island, on the morning of 28 February and split up to operate independently to provide gunfire support for landings. Montpelier stopped engines 5,000 yards offshore at 0702 and commenced firing at pre-planned targets at 0714. The landings started at 0845 to no opposition. Montpelier ceased firing at 0855 but stood by for on-call fire requests until released from duty at 1800 and retired with TG 74.2 to Subic Bay.
On 3 March 1945, following inspection by Capt. Hoffman, all hands assembled aft to bid goodbye as Capt. William A. Gorry relieved him as Montpelier’s commanding officer. TG 74.2 shifted back to Mangarin Bay on 9–10 March to support ongoing operations on Mindanao, but Kincaid redirected it to Lingayen Gulf instead on 11 March to join in the forthcoming Operation Victor I landings on Panay Island, Philippine Islands. TG 74.2 arrived in Mangarin Bay on 15 March, where it was determined that only Cleveland would participate in Victor I. Montpelier and Denver stood by in case they were needed before proceeding to Subic Bay on 21 March.
During an extended period of upkeep and recreation, the opportunity afforded for the ship’s companies of TG 74.2 to tour Manila. Montpelier steamed into the entrance to Manila Bay, waters littered and strewn with wrecked Japanese ships sunk by allied aircraft, early on 2 April 1945. Devastated during its liberation two months earlier, Manila presented “a scene of desolation.” Two-thirds of the officers and crew toured the city that day and the rest on 3 April before Montpelier returned to Subic Bay.
Montpelier resumed duty as the CruDiv 12 flagship on 6 April 1945, as Rear Adm. Riggs and his staff transferred to her from Denver. Based on an intelligence report of a Japanese heavy cruiser and destroyer steaming south from Formosa Island [Republic of Taiwan], TG 74.2 sortied with the rest of Rear Adm. Berkey’s TF 74 at 0300 on 8 April to intercept. When no enemy contacts or follow on reports turned up, the task force turned back to Subic Bay at 0910.
Montpelier and TG 74.2 stood out en route to Mangarin Bay on 10 April 1945 to rendezvous with the attack group assembling to carry out Operation Victor V, landings in the Malabang-Cotabato area of Mindanao. Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, Commanding General, Eighth Army, and staff, boarded Montpelier on 13 April for the initial phase of the assault. TG 74.2 departed for Mindanao on 14 April, assigned to provide cover and fire support. En route, Montpelier held a Sunday morning memorial service on the forecastle for the recently deceased President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the attack force approached Polloc Harbor outside Parang Town, Mindanao early on 17 April, Montpelier and destroyers Cony and Conway escorted five minesweepers charged with clearing a path for the landings. At 0630, Montpelier began a 90-minute pre-planned bombardment. The first assault wave arrived at 0900 to no opposition. TG 74.2 lingered on station several more days to provide additional fire support while retiring to sea at night, but enemy activity was negligible. Gen. Eichelberger debarked on 19 April and Rear Adm. Riggs detached Cleveland from TG 74.2 to return to Subic Bay. After covering an inbound convoy, Montpelier and Denver departed for Subic Bay as well on 23 April.
Except for periodic exercises at sea, Montpelier and CruDiv 12 spent the next several weeks at anchor, drilling, carrying out maintenance and upkeep, or allowing the officers and crew recreation ashore. TG 74.2 travelled once again to Manila on 17–21 May 1945, this time to allow the officers and crew three days of liberty in the slowly reviving city. Rear Adm. Riggs and his staff, assisted by officers and crew from Cleveland, conducted Montpelier’s annual inspection on 26 May.
At 0830 on 7 June 1945, Montpelier and TG 74.2 [CruDiv 12 (less Columbia) and six destroyers] got underway to provide distant cover for Operation Oboe VI, landings by Australian forces in Brunei Bay, British North Borneo [East Malaysia, Malaysia], scheduled for 10 June. The task group arrived in its patrol area, 78 miles west of Brunei Bay, on the morning of 9 June. Early the next day, the task group tracked a Frances or Mitsubishi Ki-46 Type 100 twin-engine reconnaissance plane (Dinah) as it passed directly over the formation at 16,000 feet, headed to the southwest. The failure of his ships to engage the plane disturbed Rear Adm. Riggs, who complained of “a false sense of security” when a bogey could not be positively identified as an enemy aircraft. Released from covering responsibilities on 11 June, Riggs detached Cleveland for gunfire support and special duty, while the rest of TG 74.2 proceeded to Tawi Tawi Island, Philippine Islands for fuel and logistics.
Montpelier, Denver, and four destroyers stood out on 13 June 1945 to coordinate pre-assault gunfire support, minesweeping, underwater demolition team (UDT) activities, and air bombardment for Operation Oboe II, the invasion and occupation of Balikpapan, Dutch Borneo [Kalimantan, Indonesia] by allied forces. Montpelier took on board Army Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force liaison officers and TG 74.2 rendezvoused with the minesweeping group on 14 June before steaming into the Macassar Strait—the first Navy surface units to do so since the dark days of early 1942. Arriving off Balikpapan the next day, Montpelier and Denver began independent bombardment operations during daylight while retiring as a task group to sea at night. Serving as fighter director, Montpelier vectored the CAP to engage seven enemy aircraft attacking the minesweepers on the evening of 17 June. The Japanese dropped metallic strips known as “window” in an attempt to hamper radar tracking, but scored no hits.
The shallow waters in the bay prevented TG 74.2 from closing the range to shore below 14,000 yards. This hampered counterbattery fire against Japanese guns methodically targeting the slow moving minesweepers clearing the approaches. Three were sunk and five damaged during the operation. Montpelier suppressed Japanese batteries firing on a minesweeper disabled by a mine on 18 June and took aboard four wounded officers and her surviving crew. Another damaged minesweeper transferred four killed and six wounded to the cruiser the next day. Montpelier held burial services for the fallen on the morning of 22 June and transferred the wounded to a tanker for evacuation to a base hospital. Columbia, repaired and overhauled, rejoined CruDiv 12 on 23 June 1945 and resumed her place on the firing line.
Montpelier and TG 74.2 began providing covering fire on 25 June 1945 in support of UDTs clearing beach obstacles. The task group claimed one definite and two possible kills against seven Bettys that staged an unsuccessful torpedo attack that evening. Montpelier’s Curtiss SOC-3 Seagull (BuNo 1129), piloted by Ens. H. F. Moore and passenger ARM3c Edward C. Bond, helped rescue survivors from an Army Air Force North American B-25 Mitchell that ditched near the beach at 1250 on 29 June, after being caught in the blast from bombs dropped by a preceding formation of Consolidated B-24 Liberators. SSgt. Robert L. Webb and Sgt. Daniel D. Runjamin from 38th Bomber Group, 823rd Bomber Squadron, survived the crash. Moore and Bond landed and rescued one survivor, but their plane’s engine failed to restart. Landing craft, vehicle, personnel (LCVP) 4, a Higgins boat from high-speed transport Cofer (APD 62), recovered the other survivor and towed the SOC-3 back to Montpelier. Both survivors were transferred to the cruiser for return to their base on Palawan Island, Philippine Islands.
Montpelier and CruDiv 12—joined by Cleveland, which had arrived the evening before bearing Gen. MacArthur and his staff—split up to bombarded pre-set targets for the Fox Day landings on 1 July 1945. They remained on station to service calls for fire after the first wave of Australian Army troops arrived at the beaches at 0855. Cleveland departed again during the afternoon watch to return MacArthur to the Philippines. At 1614, Montpelier observed four crewmembers parachute from a damaged B-24 into the water 9,000 yards on the starboard quarter. Ens. Moore and his passenger Ens. Guiseppe I. Mastrangelo, flying an SOC-2 (BuNo 0397) standing by for air/sea rescue, retrieved one and boats nearby retrieved the others. All of the recovered aircrew were transferred to landing craft. After receiving a report that a submarine had spotted four unidentified ships in the Macassar Strait possibly on course for Balikpapan, TG 74.2 sortied to intercept at 0432 on 2 July. Rear Adm. Riggs ordered his ships to return at 0839 after learning that contact had been lost with the target. Released from support duties at midday, he instructed his task group to shape course back to Leyte, where they dropped anchor in San Pedro Bay on 5 July. Montpelier expended 6,592 rounds of 5-inch and 6-inch ammunition over its sixteen days of fire support for Oboe II.
Montpelier stood out during the morning watch on 13 July 1945 in company with TF 95, commanded by Rear Adm. Francis S. Low. This force included all four ships of CruDiv 12, Low’s CruDiv 16—the new large cruisers Alaska (CB-1) and Guam (CB-2)—and nine screening destroyers. Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, had ordered TF 95 to conduct an anti-shipping sweep in the East China Sea. Low put his command through a series of drills and tactical problems to develop unit familiarity while en route. After refueling in Buckner Bay, Okinawa Island, Ryūkyū Islands [Nansei Islands], on 16 July, a typhoon moving northward from the South China Sea forced TF 95 to retire southeast to sea for three days. Resuming a westerly course under excellent weather, Montpelier and her consorts entered the East China Sea on 21 July. Montpelier detected a bogey incoming at 2145. While Guam, Alaska, and Denver engaged it, the target had approached on the opposite side of formation, obscuring Montpelier’s firing bearings. The bogey dropped window, opened the range and circled the formation outside gun range until gradually disappearing off radar. With the enemy aware of its presence, TF 95 arrived off the China coast near Fuzhou on 22 July and turned to the northeast to make a high-speed run up the coast at 0542. Marine Vought F4U Corsair fighters provided coverage from 0740 until dusk. The only shipping TF 95 encountered were Chinese fishing junks, however. At 1415, Low ordered his formation to turn to the southeast to retire to Buckner Bay, where it anchored during the afternoon watch on 24 July.
Redesignated TG 95.2 Light Striking Force, a component of Vice Adm. Oldendorf’s TF 95 Western Force, Montpelier and consorts sortied from Buckner Bay on 26 July 1945 for a coastal nighttime patrol off the southeastern approaches to the Yangtze River. Covered by two Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer patrol bombers, Low’s cruisers formed column at 1830 on 27 July with destroyers screening ahead and closing the formation astern. Steaming at 25 knots on light seas and swells, with bright moonlight overhead, a destroyer fired upon a junk and then rescued ten survivors, one of whom died the next day. The only enemy force seen was a snooper. Fighters replaced the bombers overhead at dawn on 28 July and TG 95.2 shaped course back to Buckner Bay during afternoon watch.
Montpelier once again set out in company with TG 95.2 to hunt enemy shipping off the mouth of the Yangtze River on 1 August 1945. The arrival of another typhoon forced the task group to divert south for a day. Low released Montpelier and CruDiv 12 with screening destroyers at 2300 on 3 August, to sweep independently inshore. The only contact encountered turned out to be a two-masted fishing junk. The destroyers made another empty-handed run during the night of 4–5 August. Cleveland vectored the CAP to two snoopers on the afternoon of 5 August, which splashed one Frances while the other escaped at high speed. The circling fighters shot down another Frances a couple hours later. Low sent the destroyers on another inshore night sweep on 5-6 August. TG 95.2 shaped course back for Buckner Bay during the afternoon watch on 6 August and anchored the next day.
Fragmentary news that an atomic bomb had been dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima reached Montpelier by the evening of 6 August 1945. On 10 August, an Armed Forces Radio report on Japan’s willingness to accept a surrender ultimatum provoked a brief celebratory display of rocket and tracer fire, flashing searchlights, and blaring foghorns in Buckner Bay. A reminder that the conflict had not yet ended came on 12 August, when a Japanese plane infiltrated the anchorage that night with its running lights on and torpedoed the battleship Pennsylvania (BB-38), moored next to Montpelier. Vice Adm. Oldendorf ordered TF 95 to retire to sea at night thereafter, even after the Japanese government agreed to the terms of surrender on 15 August. Despite orders to cease offensive operations, Oldendorf told his captains “Pending further official instructions this task force will remain ready for war in all respects.” The nightly sorties ended two days later, however, and the task force’s officers and men were granted limited recreation ashore. Rear Adm. Low and CruDiv 16 departed for duty with the Seventh Fleet and Rear Adm. Morton L. Deyo assumed command of the task group on 27 August, now comprising Rear Adm. Riggs’ CruDiv 12 and CruDiv 13 (Santa Fe (CL-60), Birmingham (CL-62), Mobile (CL-63), and Biloxi (CL-80)). Montpelier continued individual and group exercises at sea through the end of the month. The Japanese formally surrendered on 2 September. Capt. Gorry suspended Montpelier’s gunnery watches while in port the next day and censorship of personal mail and communications stopped on 4 September.
On 5 September 1945, Montpelier joined TU 56.5.2 Wakayama Evacuation Unit (escort carrier Lunga Point (CVE-94); hospital ships Sanctuary (AH-17) and Consolation (AH-15); dock landing ship Cabildo (LSD-16); Coast Guard cutter Taney (CGC-37); seaplane tender Floyds Bay (AVP-40); high-speed transports Hopping (APD-51), Cofer (APD-62), and Tatum (APD-81); and three destroyer escorts) under Rear Adm. Riggs, charged with liberating an estimated 10,000 allied civilian and military people held in Japanese internment and prisoner of war (POW) camps in western Honshu and Shikoku, Japan. The task unit stood out of Buckner Bay on 9 September, rendezvoused with a minesweeper unit, and carefully made its way through the Inland Sea to Wakanora Wan, Honshu Island, Japan, anchoring on 11 September. Riggs coordinated with representatives from the Army and the local government to evacuate what turned out to be only 2,568 surviving POWs and internees. Cmdr. William F. Holcomb, Montpelier’s medical officer, served as officer in charge of the evacuation. The first trains bearing evacuees arrived on 14 September, processing started the next day, and the last one boarded at 1600 on 16 September. Each evacuee received a shower and decontamination, a medical examination, fresh clothing and meals. Army Recovery Teams interviewed them, helped them send cables home, and War Crimes Commission representatives took affidavits. Montpelier’s officers and crew aided with registration, provided transportation, beach control, communications, security patrols, and construction of evacuation facilities. The ship also supplied clothing, small stores, and hot food.
Montpelier weathered a typhoon at anchor in Wakanora Wan’s outer harbor on 17–18 September 1945, which beached several smaller ships and killed two officers and four enlisted men. CruDiv 12 (less Columbia, detached to Fifth Fleet) reassembled to cover the uneventful Army occupation of Wakayama on 25 September. After riding out another typhoon on 2–3 October, Montpelier stood out on 4 October as part of TU 51.3.3 Kure Covering Unit (comprising Biloxi, Santee, Suwanee, six destroyers and four destroyer-escorts), under Rear Adm. Riggs, en route to Hiro Wan, Japan. With the cruisers streaming paravanes and a destroyer minesweeper leading the van, TU 51.3.3 steamed through the Inland Sea to Iya Nada Channel on 5 October. After taking on two Japanese naval officers acting as pilots, the task unit anchored in Aki Nada, Kure, Japan the next day. Transports arrived on 7 October to disembark Army occupation forces and TU 51.3.3 was released from covering duties the day after.
Montpelier remained in the area for the next several weeks. On 13 October, a quarter of the ship’s company toured the ruins of Hiroshima, seeing first-hand the effects of the atomic bombing. Vice Adm. Oldendorf tasked Rear Adm. Riggs with overseeing inspection and survey of all Japanese merchant and naval shipping in the Kure-Hiroshima area. Montpelier contributed Capt. Gorry and ten officers to a team from the task unit for the effort. They surveyed and inspected 654 vessels between 15–17 October, including many surviving capital warships and numerous smaller craft. Montpelier provided air-sea rescue support while at anchor for Army occupation landings at Matsuyama on 22 October. On 8 November, the Commander Fifth Fleet ordered Montpelier detached for duty with the Atlantic Fleet as soon as relief arrived. Passengers began reporting aboard for transportation to the U.S.
On 15 November 1945, Montpelier weighed anchor bearing an additional 26 officers and 419 enlisted men. She stopped over in Pearl Harbor on 24 November to allow Rear Adm. Riggs to fly ahead to the U.S. for temporary duty in Washington, D.C. The cruiser departed the next day en route to the U.S. east coast via San Diego and the Panama Canal. She arrived at the New York Naval Shipyard, Brooklyn, on 18 December and began releasing officers and crew for separation and transfer, while also taking on new crewmembers.
On 1 January 1946, Adm. Jonas H. Ingram, CinCLant, redesignated CruDiv 12 as CruDiv 14 and assigned it to the newly-formed Fourth (Reserve) Fleet (Rear Adm. Thomas R. Cooley). Adm. Nimitz, now Chief of Naval Operations, assigned Montpelier and CruDiv 14 to a training cruise in April for recent graduates of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps and V-12 Naval College Training Program, with Rear Adm. Riggs acting as officer in charge. Ingersoll directed reductions of officers and enlisted personnel for the Fourth Fleet’s staff and ships, but authorized CruDiv 14 the men necessary for the training cruise while keeping the engineering ratings to the absolute minimum.
Drydocked at New York Naval Shipyard (18–25 January 1946) for overhaul, Montpelier stood out upon completion of that work and steamed to Naval Ammunition Depot, Earle, N.J. to take on ammunition on 13 February. She returned to New York on 15 February for degaussing, before mooring in Naval Berthing Facility, Tompkinsville, N.Y. the next day. From 4–8 March, Montpelier conducted a training cruise down the east coast to Cape Henry, Va., before returning to Tompkinsville.
On 27 March 1946, she stood out and proceeded to Newport, Rhode Island, where she joined the rest of CruDiv 14 on 28 March. 1,800 newly commissioned ensigns reported on board Rear Adm. Riggs’ ships the next day—483 were assigned to Montpelier—for four months of duty under instruction. She sailed to the Bermuda Islands and New London, Connecticut (15–23 April), took part in exercises with CruDiv 14, and then returned to Newport. On 30 May, she departed for New York, where Rear Adm. Riggs was relieved by Rear Adm. Edmund W. Burroughs (one of Cleveland’s former commanding officers) for the remainder of the cruise. Montpelier proceeded in company with Columbia, Denver, and Cleveland to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and Quebec, Canada, from 12–24 June. On 29 June, she docked in Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to disembark the student officers and her remaining officers and crew began to transfer or separate. On 1 July, she reported to Commander Sixteenth Fleet to begin preservation work prior to commissioning. Lt. Cmdr. Donald C. Deane relieved Capt. Gorry as commanding officer on 14 September.
Due to proposed budget cuts, the Navy had designated CruDiv 14 for disposal in spring 1946. Despite their relative newness, Montpelier and her sisters demonstrated the limitations inherent in their pre-war design. Extensive modifications adding electronic equipment and anti-aircraft weaponry topside left them overweight, slow, and unstable. Montpelier was placed out of commission in reserve with the Atlantic Reserve Fleet on 24 January 1947. Stricken from the Naval Register on 1 March 1959, the Navy authorized Montpelier for disposal by scrapping on 4 December and sold her to Bethlehem Steel Co. on 22 January 1960.
On 12 December 1946, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal awarded Montpelier and CruDiv 12 the Navy Unit Commendation for outstanding heroism in action in the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay on the night of 1–2 November 1943 and for repelling the hostile air attack on the morning of 2 November. The honor served as a fitting tribute to “an aggressive daring group, coordinating as one powerful weapon of destruction.” Montpelier received 13 battle stars for her World War II service and the Navy Occupation Service Medal for post-conflict activities in Japanese waters.
|Commanding Officers||Date Assumed Command|
|Capt. Leighton Wood||9 September 1942|
|Capt. Robert G. Tobin||15 June 1943|
|Capt. Harry D. Hoffman||2 December 1943|
|Capt. William H. Gorry||3 March 1945|
|Lt. Cmdr. Donald C. Deane||14 September 1946|
Shawn Robert Woodford
25 March 2020