The Final Run of the Tokyo Express

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Homer Hirt

Homer Hirt

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The Final Run of the Tokyo Express

The Battle of Cape St. George proved the United States Navy’s strength on the vast Pacific Ocean, but it was a long time coming. 7 December, 1941 truly is a date that remains with our country as one of infamy, but it also signified the beginning of a long climb back for our Pacific fleet.  Before Pearl Harbor the Navy depended on giant battleships, and afterwards on aircraft carriers.  But the battle off Cape St. George on 25 November 1943, less than two years after this transition, was fought entirely by surface ships and it, as much as any larger engagement, was a significant turning point.

Japan had sent ships and troops out to island after island: invading, conquering natives and defeating the British, the French, the Dutch.  The tentacles of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy reached almost to Australia before America’s military was able to react, with battles at Guadalcanal, in the Solomons, on Bouganville, on little spits of land like Tarawa.  The Japanese kept their remaining forces supplied by a string of warships known as the Tokyo Express.  Light ships, fast and well-armed, they brought in troops and supplies, and turned back to their homeland to prepare for another voyage.

But down near Buka in the Solomons the Japanese destroyers met the Little Beaver Squadron in a well-balanced surface action, with near-perfect destroyer weather, and they lost. Destroyer Squadron 23 was known as “The Little Beavers” when their charismatic leader, Captain Arleigh Burke, had his ships paint onto their stacks an image of a little Indian, a comic book character known as “Little Beaver”.  At sea he was naked, as the ships entered port the men would add a breech cloth.

Burke had come out of Colorado, a farm boy looking for an education, and he got one at the U. S. Naval Academy.  He graduated and went to battleships, but soon found his first love on the sleek greyhounds of the fleet:  the destroyers.  He commanded the USS MUGFORD and soon he had his captaincy and his own squadron, composed mostly of the newest and best destroyers:  the FLETCHER class.

And it was the Little Beaver Squadron, with ships, armed for surface fighting as well as for air protection and antisubmarine action, that finally stopped the Tokyo Express runs, in the waters off Cape St. George in the Solomon island chain.

The two forces were well balanced.  The Japanese commander was Captain Katsumori Yamashiro.  He had the destroyers AMAGIRI, YUGIRI, and UZUKI, all modern ships, as well as several other destroyers, well-armed and battle worthy.

Burke commanded the CHARLES AUSBURNE, the CLAXTON, and the DYSON, fleshed out by the SPENCE and the CONVERSE, all FLETCHERs constructed in 1942. Both Japanese and American ships were armed well with similar weapons, including torpedoes. The Japanese had a big edge with their “Long Lance” torpedoes, dependable and effective.

The weather conditions were, “Weather/visibility/sea state:  Night, dark, no moon, low clouds, occasional rain.  Sea smooth, wind force two from the East South East.  Visibility 3,000 yards without binoculars.” It was truly “destroyer weather for an almost perfect destroyer action”.

The Tokyo Express offloaded soldiers and supplies, and took aboard and took aboard pilots who no longer had airplanes in the area, and were re-assigned to Japan. Setting their course northward, they ventured into the strait between Buka and New Ireland.

The American forces rushed northward also, in order to be in position to intercept.  Once again, American intelligence played a big part in the operation, just as it had at Midway. They ended up in a direct line between Buka and Rabaul, and they were ready. It was a perfect night for a force relying on electronics, not visual, contacts. The Japanese screening destroyers began their run, leading the way up the strait toward their homeland.  The transports, all fast destroyers in their own right, followed. 

Within a short time, the American destroyers closed the range to the point where they could open fire, with each ship’s forward guns, zigzagging to bring their rear batteries to bear in turn.  The Japanese returned fire and managed some near misses, drenching one ship with near misses. The American position was dangerous.  The enemy only had to make a ninety degree turn to cap Burke’s destroyers, but the FLETCHERS, in turn, fired their torpedoes, fifteen each, and immediately sunk one enemy and damaged another.  The YUGIRI was also sunk in later action.  Soon the American destroyers damaged others and the final tally was three enemy destroyers with no losses or hits on Burke’s Little Beaver Squadron.

There was criticism after the battle by officers who thought that the fight could have been better, but only results count, and this action was an outstanding American victory.

Tarawa - The little pacific island that ran red with blood

The wide Pacific Ocean is dotted with islands, big ones like Guadalcanal, small ones like Johnston and Wake.  As World War II moved on past the tragedy at Pearl Harbor into full-fledged war for possession of these bits of land that had been stepping stones for Japan’s territorial expansion.  Now in 1943, they became stepping stones for the United States Fleet under Chester Nimitz, and the United States Army under Douglas McArthur to go northward to the homeland of the Rising Sun

Approximately 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii lies the atoll of Tarawa, a scattered group of islets that take on the appearance of a hook when viewed from the air. It was the entre’ for U. S. forces moving toward the central Pacific and the Philippines, the place to which General Douglas McArthur said that he would, one day, return.

The largest of the islets there is Betio, and it is not very large. It is less than three miles in length and about a half mile wide, but it held on its coral surface an airstrip and within its rocks underneath that surface were gun emplacements and bunkers connected by tunnels and in them and on the surface of the islet were 4,700 Japanese soldiers ready and able to defend the tiny scrap of land from anything that could be thrown at them.

The landings began early on 20 November, and immediately, because of the low tide, the landing craft, boats designed and built (many of them) by Higgins in New Orleans had to drop their ramps and send the Marines, heavy laden with packs and guns and ammunition, in through deep water, into the very jaws of Hell, the fire of enemy soldiers on the shore.

Those Marines who made it in the first day were pinned down all night by the sea on one side and the enemy soldiers in their dugouts on the other. The next morning more troops, supported by tanks and artillery, made the same perilous journey in, dodging the broken boats and the sharp coral.  

The Battle of Tarawa, there on that slip of land labelled “Betio” on the charts of the Navy, lasted two more days, and the cost was high.  The Marines suffered nearly 3,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing). 

The Japanese, ready to die to keep the Americans out of their homeland, suffered even worse losses. Of the 4,700 defenders of the small islet, only seventeen survived.  After Tarawa, there was no doubt of the fierceness of the battles that would come on the way to the Japanese home islands.

In the days of World War II it was not unusual for war correspondents to attach themselves to combat units.  Ernie Pyle followed his dogface soldiers through Europe and into the Pacific, finally being killed on Ie Shima.  Bill Mauldin drew cartoons of Willie and Joe as they waded through the muck and mire of Normandy.  

On Tarawa, the correspondent was Robert Sherwood, who had covered the Army campaign in the Aleutians and the Navy’s raid on Wake Island.  Sherwood, however, was not prepared for the blood that he saw on Betio. He went in on an amphibious boat, an amtrack, with a detachment of Marines.  They made it almost to the shore.  Here is how he tells it:

“No sooner had we hit the water than the Jap machine guns opened up on us.  There must have been five or six of these machine guns concentrating their fire on us, I was scared, as I had never been scared before.  After we waded through several centuries and some two hundred yards of shallowing water and deepening machinegun fire.  I knew that we could not do any worse.”

And so after three days ended the bloody Battle of Tarawa, a step toward Tokyo and the eventual end of the battles of the Pacific.

The United States Marines call it “The Canal”

If someone decided to re-write the Marine Corps Hymn today, it would probably read like this:  

“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of “The Canal”.

“The Canal” is what Marines, since those early days of World War II, call Guadalcanal.  It refers to a bloody, costly battle fought over a fair-sized tropical island in the South Pacific, an island big enough to have an airfield, called Henderson Field, mountains, and swamps, and beaches bordered by almost impenetrable jungle. 

The Imperial Japanese Army possessed Guadalcanal, lock, stock, and barrel.  It was in a strategic location, sitting squarely across the ocean path to Australia, in a position to block supply ships that carried the life blood of the Allies to that island continent.

Right after Pearl Harbor, efforts were made by Allied naval forces to work together.  American, British, Dutch, and Australian ships, under the command of Dutch Admiral Karel Von Doorman, set forth to meet the vastly superior Japanese fleet.  The ABDA forces, as it was known, had little in common with each other.  Doorman signaled, “Follow Me,” and they followed, cruisers and destroyers were destroyed and went to the bottom in a place called Ironbottom Bay.

The U. S. Navy became stronger, and moved into the waters of the Solomon Islands.  Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher brought his cruisers and his destroyers in close to the islands of Florida, Tulagi, and Guadalcanal.  Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner commanded the amphibious forces, as he would throughout the other invasions in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, and the Marines were landed.  

But they were landed armed with the old Springfield bolt-action rifles, and with ten days of ammunition.  Air attacks sent Fletcher’s ships and Turner’s cargo carriers out of the area, and the Marines fought with what they had.

The Marines conquered the Lunga Point airfield, renaming it Henderson Field.  They fought through the swamps and the fetid waters of the Tenaru River and other sluggish streams that harbored reptiles, poisonous snakes, and mosquitoes that put them out of action with malaria and other tropical diseases. But they fought on against an enemy that was long acknowledged to be the best jungle fighters, until the Marines arrived.

Admiral Nimitz was speaking of the troops on “The Canal” when he said, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.  Once, for a couple of days, three Marines manning machine guns held off three thousand Japanese soldiers that charged, time after time, their positions, positions that were crucial to the defense of American troops. One of these was Gunnery Sergeant “Manilla John” Basilone.  He got the nickname for his boxing exploits while in the U. S. Army and stationed in the Philippines. The gunners fought, running low on ammunition, and Basilone ran back and forth, bringing ammo belts draped over his shoulders.  When they were relieved Gunny Basilone had earned the Medal of Honor and a place in the pantheon of heroes of his country.

One night in February U. S. troops massed for a great drive, a drive that was intended to push the enemy into the ocean, but daylight revealed that the Japanese had been quietly evacuated, and the island of Guadalcanal, “The Canal”, was in Allied hands.

And what of Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, the hero of “The Canal,” the man who performed superhuman feats, who led his men to victory?

On a small spit of an island, with a volcano named Suribachi towering over it, John Basilone landed with his Marines, and, under withering gunfire from Japanese soldiers entrenched in the rocks, Manilla John lost his life, his red blood spilled on the black sands of Iwo Jima. He received the Navy Cross for valor.

USS Tabberer (DE 418) - The Captain Disobeys Orders!

“Any commander who fails to exceed his authority does not do right by his subordinates.”  Admiral Arleigh Burke

Destroyers have been around for over a hundred years.  Originally called “torpedo boat destroyers”, they have improved in size and in efficiency.  In the Great War (now called World War l), the first ships sent to England were destroyers. “Four-pipers” they were called because they had four smokestacks.  World War II began in 1939 and the United States soon had transferred some of the old four-pipers to England and had recommissioned some for the U. S. fleet.  

When the Atlantic War began in earnest, convoys were escorted across the vast wastes of the Atlantic by destroyers.  Soon, though, it was decided that there could be a better and cheaper ship, so designers came up with the destroyer escorts.

A destroyer escort (DE) could be built in two months. They were smaller than destroyers.  Their top speed was usually listed as twenty-six knots (nautical miles per hour), which was fast enough to tend the flocks of slow merchantmen that typically proceeded at less than half that speed.  Welded together, they were intended to last five years.

The DE could turn tighter than the longer destroyer, and could stay “on top” of attacking U boats. Torpedoes were mounted alongside on the main decks and depth charges in racks where they could roll off the stern in pairs into the waters.  K guns were added, and so were hedgehogs.  Hedgehogs were mounted on boards and were fired to right and left, and only exploded when they hit, as opposed to depth-actuated depth charges.

Destroyer escorts also served in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, protecting convoys and running plane guard with their larger cousins.  With the deck guns, ranging up to five inch thirty eight caliber, they were also effective in shore bombardment and surface action. Destroyer escorts served as guards, watching as flight operations sent planes into the air or retrieved them on their returns from battles like Midway.

Always there was the weather: strong winds and high waves that developed because of the reaches of the ocean.  The cyclonic storms brought stronger versions of the Atlantic Ocean’s hurricanes.  One of these will forever be known as “Halsey’s Typhoon”, because Admiral Bill Halsey misjudged the direction, disregarded information from weather forecasters and consequently lost several small ships under his command. Refueling had to be postponed, and many destroyers and destroyer escorts were damaged or sunk because of this.

The USS Tabberer (DE 418) was one of the ones damaged.  The “Tabby”, as it was known throughout the Pacific Fleet, was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage, a Georgian who held a Reserve commission.  Plage had volunteered to go on active duty, with his initial assignments involving placing new construction in readiness for the active fleet.  

Finally, he had the opportunity for his first command:  the USS Tabberer, DE 419.  When he raised his flag, he had only about twenty men and officers under him that had ever had sea duty.  Almost all were reservists from all parts of the country, all trades and professions. But they did have a mascot:  a little terrier whom they named “Tabby”.  Tabby was a favorite, and had the run of the ship.  

The Tabberer was assigned to Admiral Halsey’s fleet. It performed the humdrum tasks expected of it until that day in December 1944, when Typhoon Cobra hit.  Small ships were awaiting refueling underway.  Some made it, some didn’t.  

Three destroyers went down in the same area where Taberer was:  USS Spence, USS Hull, USS Monaghan. Tabberer was badly damaged from the main deck up, but she stayed afloat, even after surviving a seventy-degree roll.  However, all communications antennas were lost, so there was no contact with other ships or with Halsey’s fleet.

When the storm abated somewhat, a lookout on the Tabberer spotted a light in the ocean and sounded “man overboard”. The first pickup was difficult, with Captain Plage almost losing his ship several times, but the crew pulled the survivor of the HULL aboard.  Soon other lights were spotted, and soon other survivors from the other two lost ships were aboard.  

Then Captain Plage, with radio working again, received orders to proceed to Ulithi Atoll. Reluctantly he set course, but then his men spotted more lights, more rafts, and they stopped to take on board more swimmers, for a total of fifty-five rescued. 

Plage had disobeyed orders from Admiral Halsey, but he said, “To hang with that, we are going to stay here,” and they remained in the waters until other ships arrived, and fifty-five men owed their lives to him and the brave crew of the “Tabby”.

Remember the first part of this story?  Recall Admiral Arleigh Burke’s admonition: “Any commander who fails to exceed his authority does not do right by his subordinates”?  

Fifty-five men, rescued in the midst of Halsey’s Typhoon, were ever grateful for a captain who exceeded his authority.

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