“After the battle I forget the heat
The sixteen-day moon.
Contemplating the moon,
The enemy’s sacrifice.
Beneath the moon
Stretches a sea at whose bottom
Lie many ships.”
-Admiral Matome Ugaki, aboard battleship Yamoto
Of the ships that convoyed with Tryon on it’s way to the south Pacific, none has a story more poignant than that of the USS Monssen. As the old four-stacker destroyer Raleigh departed the convoy near Pago Pago, Monssen took her place as escort:
“The Captain reported that Jap subs were active south of us and from reports and rumors picked up the situation in the Solomons was grave. Not much information was given out to the watch officers, so we remained in the dark most of the time. The Raleigh kept one of her scouting planes in the air much of the time.
“On November 1st, passed almost due east of Pago Pago and early on the morning of the 2nd, before daylight, the Destroyer Monssen joined up as our escort, with the Raleigh taking her departure. The Monssen was one of the new class DDs, trim and sleek. She came along side to bring us guard mail and we got a good look at her.”(1)
New class indeed. Monssen was a Gleaves-class destroyer, laid down 12 July 1939, launched 16 May 1940, and commissioned 14 March 1941. The design of the Gleaves-class was so similar to the design of the Benson-class destroyers, which were being built concurrently, that they are often referred to collectively as the Benson/Gleaves-class. Even as Gleaves-class destroyers were still being built, the navy began production of the newer-design Fletcher-class, which were produced in large numbers and played a very important role in the Pacific war. But at the time that Tryon encountered Monssen east of Pago Pago, Monssen was the latest destroyer design in the south seas. (2)
USS Monssen passing guard mail to USS Enterprise, May, 1942. This view of Monssen is no doubt very similar to the one the Tryon crew got as Tryon and Monssen exchanged guard mail on November 1, 1942.
Even at that early point in the war Monssen’s record was noteworthy. After being built in Bremerton, WA, Monssen reported to the Atlantic Fleet on June 27, 1941, and was on “neutrality patrol” in the northwestern Atlantic for five months. She continued to patrol the Atlantic after December 7, 1941, on war duty in search of German U-boats. (3)
On February 9, 1942 Monssen entered Boston Navy Yard for overhaul in preparation for transfer to the Pacific. Sailors, being a superstitious lot, took note of the fact that her bow number was “436,” the sum of which is 13. The number thirteen was to take on a special significance to Monssen; on Friday morning, March 13 (i.e. Friday the Thirteeth), 1942, before daylight, she ran aground in thirteen feet of water in the Cape Cod channel near Bouy 13, which should have been lighted, but was burned out. Monssen returned to Boston Navy Yard for a new bow and a few extra weeks of leave for her crew in Boston. But the number thirteen will surface in the story of this great ship again before it is over. (4)
Monssen arrived in San Francisco on March 31 as part of Destroyer Division 22 (Desdiv 22) made up of destroyers Gwin, Meredith, Grayson and Monssen, and almost immediately joined aircraft carrier Hornet (CV-8) as part of Task Force 18 (alas, during the war, among warships only destroyers were considered expendable; of the four proud ships of Desdiv 22 only Grayson would survive the Guadalcanal campaign). Monssen and Desdiv 22 served as antisubmarine screen for Hornet as she steamed toward Japan carrying Lt. Col. James Doolittle, his raiders, and sixteen B-25B Mitchell medium bombers, which successfully bombed targets in Japan. En route they would meet up with USS Enterprise and became part of her storied Task Force 16. Once launched, and after dropping their bomb loads over Japan, the B-25s would be unable to return to Hornet due to low fuel; instead, most crews flew their aircraft across the East China Sea to China. While this raid did limited damage to Japan, it provided a great morale boost in the US, and placed concern in the minds of the Japanese military planners regarding protection of the home islands, and for the protection of the Emperor in particular. This led to the transfer of Japanese aircraft carriers from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific and set the stage for the Battle of Midway. (5)
Doolittle raider B-25s on the deck of Hornet. USS Gwin (DD-433), one of Monssen’s sister ships in Desdiv 22, trails a short distance astern to starboard. Cruiser USS Nashville is seen behind Gwin.
B-25 bomber awaits takeoff from the deck of Hornet in heavy seas.
B-25B bomber launches from the deck of Hornet, destination Japan.
Monssen returned to Hawaii with TF-16, which sortied on April 30 to aid Yorktown and Lexington in the Battle of Coral Sea. Arriving after the battle was over, the task force returned to Pearl Harbor on May 26. They Departed again two days later – this time headed for Midway. On June 4 the battle commenced, and when it was over the Japanese had lost four carriers and one cruiser, along with hundreds of aircraft. These losses were catastrophic to Japan, losses that they were never able to replace. The US had lost Yorktown, and destroyer Hammann.
After Midway the task force returned to Pearl Harbor and remained there for a month before Monssen sailed with TF-16 on July 15 for the south Pacific to support amphibious landings on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida Islands in the Solomon Islands. Japan had landed construction forces on Guadalcanal in May, 1942, and they had begun construction of a runway. The Allies viewed an air base on Guadalcanal as a threat to their lines of communication and supply to the south Pacific and Australia. Feeling a sense of urgency regarding the situation, and despite inadequate time for preparation, the amphibious assault on Guadalcanal was planned. On the morning of 7 August, operating as part of Fire Support Group “Mike” (FSG “Mike” was made up of anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan, destroyer Buchanan and Monssen) of Task Group 62.2, Monssen was the first ship to open fire—on a hill on Florida Island overlooking the landing beach—in preparation for the landing on Beach Blue, Tulagi, half an hour before the Second Marines went ashore. (6) This landing was part of the initiation of Operation Watchtower – the battle for Guadalcanal. The fighting for the island would go on until February 9, 1943, but the skies and sea around Guadalcanal would remain treacherous for much longer. With the Allied victory on Guadalcanal Japan suffered it’s first major defeat – and the island-hopping strategy that would lead to the shores of the island nation itself, and, ultimately, the defeat of Japan, had begun. But Monssen, firing the opening salvos in the invasion, would pay the ultimate price for her part in it.
Map showing Tulagi Island, Florida Island, Savo Island, and Guadalcanal Island; also, Nggella Channel, Sealark Channel, and Lego Channel, as well as Indispensable Strait.
Aerial map showing Beach Blue, Tulagi, marked. Marines landed on Beach Blue after Monssen shelling softened the enemy, August 7, 1942.
A day following the initial assault Monssen was assigned to screening forces guarding the eastern approaches to Sealark, Lengo and Nggela Channels. It was in this capacity that Monssen was present at, but not a participant in, the Battle of Savo Island. In this first major sea engagement supporting troops on Guadalcanal the US Navy suffered a humiliating defeat, losing three heavy cruisers and 1,077 men. Monssen, as part of the picket line guarding the eastern accesses to Sealark Sound, did not see action. (7)
Monssen remained in that area through the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (August 24- 25, 1942), preventing Japanese reinforcements from reaching Guadalcanal. She then took up duties patrolling the sea routes to Guadalcanal. On Augus 31, aircraft carrier Saratoga (CV-3) was hit by a torpedo, and Monssen was one of the ships designated to escort her to the Tonga Islands for repairs. (8)
Chester C. Thomason wrote an interesting account of the activities of Monssen during this pivotal period of August and September, 1942, part of which was drawn from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships:
“Destroyers have long been the most versatile ships of the U.S. Navy. Few have been called upon to perform such a variety of duties as did the Monssen during the week of September 23–30, 1942, the most crucial phase of the Guadalcanal campaign. Anti-submarine, anti-aircraft, shore bombardment, Marine combat post, rescue, hospital ship and tow ship; the Monssen performed them all.
“The Monssen left Espiritu Santo on September 23 as the sole escort for the 10,000-ton supply ship USS Alhena, which was bound for Guadalcanal beachhead with vital supplies. The Japanese still controlled the air by day and the sea by night. For weeks, the only supplies to reach the hard-pressed marines were those that could be flown in by air when Henderson Field was operational. It was the thinking of the south Pacific high command that this small convoy might succeed where a larger would surely attract Japanese resistance. The Monssen was a 1,630-ton destroyer of the Benson class commanded by Commander Roland N. Smoot (Annapolis 1923). She was already a veteran of the north Atlantic convoys, Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo raids, the battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway, the invasion of Guadalcanal and Tulagi and the carrier battles around Guadalcanal. Perhaps that was why she was selected for this hazardous mission.
USS Alhena prior to conversion to AK-26. Later in the war Alhena was converted to an attack transport, AKA-9.
“The Monssen and Alhena arrived off Lunga Point beachhead in the early morning of September 25. While Alhena anchored as close to the beach as possible, the Monssen set up an anti-submarine screen seaward. There were no dock facilities, so unloading went slowly, as supplies had to be unloaded by hand on the beach from small boats. Monssen’s patrol took her within 3,000 yards of the shore west of Lunga Point. The bridge watch spent hours scanning the jungle and the hills and studying the charts, trying to appraise the military situation ashore. At dusk, the Monssen escorted the Alhena eastward through Sealark Channel and out so sea, then turned around and arrived back of Lunga Point after daybreak.”
For the next several days Monssen continued this pattern of escort, screen and patrol. On September 26, “Monssen was ordered to cruise along the western shoreline and bombard any enemy targets observed. For several hours, Monssen took under fire small landing craft on the beach, native huts, and anything resembling enemy fuel or ammunition dumps.” (9)
“The two ships departed the area again at dusk, returning to the unloading beach at dawn on September 27 . . . The Alhena resumed unloading and the Monssen took up her patrol. When her patrol again took her close to the Matanikau River, it was obvious that fighting was in progress. Bodies of several marines were observed on the sand bar in the mouth of the river. Sounds of battle echoed through the coconut groves during the morning. About 11:00 a.m. the Monssen was ordered to close the beach and pick up passengers from a small craft. Aboard the Monssen came Lt. Col. “Chesty” Puller, his first lieutenant aide and two signalmen. Puller was then a battalion commander.”
Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller. “With his bulldog face, barrel chest, gruff voice and common touch, Puller became – and has remained – the epitome of the Marine combat officer. His record of five Navy Crosses for valor remain unmatched in the corps.” “Chesty” by Jon T. Hoffman.
Before his career was over Lewis Berwell “Chesty” Puller would hold the rank of Lieutenant (three star) General, and would become the most highly decorated combat Marine in the US Marine Corps. He is still considered the greatest Marine Corps hero among the many the Corps has produced. On this day, “. . . he went up to the bridge and informed Capt. Smoot that Marines were to be landed behind the Japanese lines in an effort to encircle them and force a crossing of the Matanikau River. Four boats carrying Marines (about 200) came out and followed the Monssen to Point Cruz, a projection of beach about a mile west of the Matanikau. The Monssen shelled the jungle behind the beach with 5-inch gunfire, and the Marines landed without opposition and disappeared into the jungle.”
Multiple air raids by Japanese planes interupted effort to establish contact with the landing force, and when contact was finally made, the Marines were in a tough spot. On a grassy hill and surrounded by Japanese, mortar-fire was seen to be falling among them. Using Monssen’s blinker light, Puller ordered the Marines to fight their way out for pickup on the beach. After Monssen laid down a barrage of shellfire from the beach to the base of the hill, the Marines made it to the beach and were rescued under heavy Japanese fire. The coxswain of the last boat to leave the beach, Douglas Munro, became the only Coastguardsman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, when he was killed while fighting off the Japanese with a machine gun until the last Marines could get aboard. In all, forty Marines died in the failed mission. (10)
Photo showing damage to USS Alhena after torpedo/explosion on November 13, 1942, as she and Monssen steamed toward Espiritu Santo. Many thanks to John Benson for providing use of this photo.
On September 28 Monssen and Alhena returned to Lunga Point for the fourth and final day of unloading, and this day was uneventful. After unloading was completed, the two ships departed for safer waters and the friendly port of Espiritu Santo. About midnight, fifty miles off the eastern tip of Guadalcanal. “. . . A heavy explosion occurred in the after storage hold of the Alhena. Her propellers were wrecked, and her after hull was open to the sea. It was first thought that she had been torpedoed by a Jap submarine. Later it was learned that an internal explosion had occurred from gasoline fumes in empty drums stored in her hold. The Monssen began circling the crippled ship, expecting a submarine attack momentarily.” (11) Wounded aboard Alhena were transferred to Monssen, and at daylight on the following day the extent of the damage became known. “She was down at the stern about 10 degrees, engines obviously beyond repair at sea. Sharks could be seen swimming in and out of a gaping 30-foot hole in her hull.” A tow line was rigged to Alhena from the Monssen, initially using a ten-inch manila line, and on the second day, a 1 1/2” steel cable. After two days’ tow, fleet tug USS Navajo appeared on the horizon, escorted by the Monssen’s sister ship USS Meredith (DD-434) and a PT boat. The Monssen happily turned over the tow to the Navajo and joined the screen where she belonged. The group arrived safely at Espiritu Santo on October 7. (12)
I’ve been unable to determine the actions of Monssen from that date until she assumed escort duty on November 1, 1942, but its possible to piece together Monssen’s likely movements based on known actions of the ships sailing with her into Espiritu Santo on that first Monday in October, 1942. Meredith steamed from port on October 12 escorting a convoy of ships pulling barges loaded with aviation fuel and bombs bound for Guadalcanal. On the 15th she was caught by a wave of 38 Japanese aircraft that sank her in fifteen minutes, with heavy loss of life. Ironically, tragically, the crew of the fleet tug Vireo had been taken aboard Meredith for safety – most were lost. Vireo remained untouched. Later Vireo would be towed back to Espiritu Santo and, with a new crew, resume towing barges carrying aviation fuel and bombs to Guadalcanal. (13) From these events it appears that Meredith’s association with Monssen and Alhena ended when she left Espiritu Santo on October 12.
Navajo remained with Alhena at Espiritu Santo while temporary repairs were being completed and Alhena was again made seaworthy. On October 16, Navajo once more took Alhena in tow and headed for New Caledonia. They reached Noumea on the 20th, and the repair work continued on Alhena until November 8 when she got underway under her own power for Australia for further repairs. Reports indicate that Navajo arrived in Sydney in late November, 1942, and remained there till December. While I have no proof of this at this point, I suspect that Navajo accompanied Alhena from Noumea to Sydney.
Based on this information it seems likely that Monssen remained with Alhena at Espiritu Santo until October 16, then escorted Navajo and Alhena to New Caledonia. Once arriving there on October 20, Monssen sailed east to rendezvous with Tryon and her convoy on November 1, escorting them back to Noumea, arriving on November 7. While these movements are conjectural at this point, based on dates and ship associations it would seem a plausible explanation of Monssen’s unaccounted-for days between the explosion aboard Alhena in the early morning hours of October 1 when Monssen was her escort, and where Monssen’s story again picks up with her escorting Tryon’s convoy to Noumea on November 1, 1942. Perhaps one day I will order the Ships Log for those dates from the National Archives and determine what Monssen was up to during that period of time once and for all.
Monssen spent the relatively tranquil days of November 1 to November 7 escorting Tryon and her convoy. The little convoy steamed into Great Roads harbor at Noumea on November 7, happy to have at last reached their south Pacific destination. Noumea, code name “White Poppy,” would be the home port for Tryon for the next three years. The following day, November 8, Monssen departed Nouméa as part of Task Group 67. TG 67 was made up of four transports, McCawley, President Jackson, President Adams, and Crescent City (TG 67.1), and their cover, initially Portland, Juneau, O’bannon, Barton and Monssen (part of TG 67.4). Shaw left Noumea on the November 9 and joined the group on the eleventh. (14) Another group of vessels identified as Task Group 62.4, San Francisco, Helena, Pensacola, Laffey, Buchanan, Gwin, Sterett, Preston, and Cushing, along with the cargo vessels Betelgeuse, Libra and Zeilin, departed Espiritu Santo on November tenth (under command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott), and rendezvoused with the Transport Group near the eastern end of San Christobal Island on the morning of the eleventh. Task Group 67.4 was under the command of Rear Admiral D.J. Callaghan, aboard USS San Francisco. Overall command of Task Group 67 was by Rear Admiral R.K. Turner on McCawley. The transports carried troops to replace and reinforce the beleaguered men on Guadalcanal. (15)
Rear Admiral Norman Scott. Though on the night of Nov 12-13, 1942 Scott was the only commander that had won a night engagement with the Japanese – at the Battle of Cape Esperance – Callaghan, with regard to rank, was a few days his senior. Although he had no battle experience Callaghan was placed in overall command. Scott’s flagship, the light cruiser Atlanta, was hit by a shell from the USS San Francisco, Callaghan’s flagship, and Scott and nearly all of the officers on the bridge of Atlanta were killed. Scott was buried at sea; he received the Medal of Honor “For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty.” Two naval vessels have been named in his honor.
After a relatively uneventful journey from Noumea (16), Monssen and Task Group 67 arrived off Lunga Point at 0531 on November 12. The transports in TG 67 started unloading immediately. They were soon joined by transports from TG 62.4, which had arrived and begun unloading the day before – they had spent the night in safer waters east of Sealark Sound. Around 2:15 in the afternoon the ships were attacked by a flight of twenty-one to twenty-five Japanese “Betty” bombers and eight to twelve Zero fighters. They were met by fighter aircraft from the Cactus Air Force on Guadalcanal as well as heavy anti-aircraft fire from ships in the task force. By the time the Japanese planes headed north for their home bases, only a single Betty and a few of the Zeros were left. Damage to the Americans was relatively light – a number of sailors were killed during the action, and a damaged torpedo bomber crashed into San Francisco’s after control, spraying burning aircraft fuel onto the deck. Fifteen men were killed outright (another seven died later of their wounds), 29 were wounded, and one missing. Control aft was demolished, the after anti-aircraft director and radar were put out of commission, and three 20 mm mounts were destroyed. (17) During the attack Monssen lost her fire control radar: an oil-filled transformer in the radar burnt out and then ruptured. Loss of fire control radar would diminish her combat effectiveness during the battle to come that night. Without it she would rely on radio communication with other ships and visual fire control to do battle. (18)
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. One of the most colorful and beloved commanders in the Pacific theater, Halsey was placed in command of the South Pacific Fleet when his predecessor, Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley was judged to be too tentative. Crews in the Pacific knew change had arrived when Halsey gave his now famous command, “ATTACK-REPEAT-ATTACK” prior to the Battle of Santa Cruz. An artists rendering of this photo was used in a war-time recruiting poster.
By nightfall all troops and ninety percent of supplies had been unloaded from the transports, and, knowing from spotter reports that Japanese warships were headed down “the Slot” (an American nickname for New Georgia Sound, running through the middle of the Solomon Islands) for Guadalcanal, Admiral Turner felt it best to retire with the transports and cargo ships, taking three destroyers – the damaged Buchanan and two others low on fuel – as escort for his group (they arrived safely at Espiritu Santo on November 15) and leaving the remaining warships under the command of Admiral Callaghan to take on the coming “Tokyo Express.” (19) The battle that occurred on the night of November 12-13, 1942 would be known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, and though both sides would suffer heavy losses, it was a strategic victory for the U.S. The failure to deliver to Guadalcanal most of the troops and supplies in the convoy prevented the Japanese from launching another offensive to retake Henderson Field. Additionally, Japanese ships were unable to wreak havoc by shelling Henderson Field, which was so critical for air protection to American Marines on Guadalcanal. Thereafter, the Imperial Navy was only able to deliver subsistence supplies and a few replacement troops to Japanese Army forces on Guadalcanal.
Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan. Though lacking battle experience Callaghan was placed in command during first night of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. His failure to provide a battle plan to the ships under his command has been called into question by some. During the battle San Francisco engaged the Japanese battleship Hiei. At point blank range the 14” shells of Hiei devastated the San Francisco’s bridge, instantly killing Callaghan and his staff. As with Scott, Callaghan would be buried at sea; would receive a posthumous Medal of Honor; and would have two naval vessels named in his honor.
In this epic naval battle, in the impenetrable darkness of mid-night, warships of the United States and the Imperial Navy of Japan became intermingled; knowing friend from foe was nearly impossible. Because of the confined boundaries of Sealark Sound there was little room for maneuvering, making this action as near as ships would come to hand-to-hand combat. Naval guns, intended for firing at targets over distances measured in thousands of yards and tens of thousands of yards were being aimed point blank, nearly parallel to the water, at ships only hundreds of yards away. When the shooting stopped, and the horrific sounds of battle were silent, the hulks of once proud ships of both navies burned upon the waters off Guadalcanal. Monssen was among them.
From the time of her commissioning the skipper of Monssen had been Commander Roland N. Smoot; but he was hospitalized in Noumea due to illness before Task Group 67 sailed. His replacement was en route to take over command of Monssen, but he was killed when the plane he was traveling on crashed. Monssen’s executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Charles E. McCombs, was moved the position of acting captain. He was the youngest of the destroyer captains, and, the events of the night unfolded, he had to be wondering what elements of fate had put him in the impossible position he found himself in.
Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 12-15 November 1942. USS President Jackson (AP-37) maneuvering under Japanese air attack off Guadalcanal, 12 November 1942. In the center background is smoke from an enemy plane that had just crashed into the after superstructure of USS San Francisco (CA-38), which is steaming away in the right center. Photographed from USS President Adams (AP-38). Note the anti-aircraft shell bursts. (12-15 November 1942)
Smoke rises from two Japanese planes shot down during the air raid on transports being unloaded at Guadalcanal on the afternoon of November 12, 1942. Photographed from USS President Adams (AP-38); ship at right is USS Betelgeuse (AK-28).
After Admiral Turner departed for Espiritu Santo with the transports, the cargomen and their cover, Admiral Callaghan ordered the remaining warships into battle formation – a single column of thirteen ships – with four destroyers in the van, five cruisers in the center, and four more destroyers in the rear. Monssen was second to last in the column. Contact was first made with the Japanese force by radar on Helena at 0124; at 0130 Callaghan ordered the column to turn starboard toward the oncoming enemy, but still did not give the order to fire. at 0142 the American column was spotted by the lead destroyers of the Japanese group, and at this point any element of surprise for the Americans was lost. Finally, at 0148, the order was given to fire. (20) The stillness of the night was shattered by noise and light of the roaring gunfire. In her place near the end of the column Monssen was late to the action. By 0215 Monssen was in the midst of the battle, firing torpedoes and five inch shells at passing targets. Suddenly a star shell illuminated Monssen, and Lt. Cmdr. McCombs, thinking that the shell had been fired by a friendly ship, flashed his fighting lights for identification. Flipping on those lights was the end for Monssen; Japanese searchlights, like sabers through the darkness, were immediately turned on her, and shells came raining down. She was hit by at least 37 shells, at least three of battleship caliber, and by 0240 was Monssen reduced to a burning hulk. Captain McCombs ordered abandon ship. (21)
USS Monssen, shortly after commissioning and prior to her move to the Atlantic. Note crew members gathered on the fantail, similar to what crew members did as the ship burned in the fateful early morning hours of November 13, 1942.
Monssen didn’t sink right away. As the light of dawn spread across “Ironbottom Sound,” the colorful name sailors gave to Sealark Sound because so many ships of both navies littered the sea floor there, the extent of the carnage that took place in the darkness of night became all too evident. The calm waters were littered with debris, with bodies – some living, but most not – and, everywhere, fuel oil. Everything was covered in the thick, black, barely refined oil that was used by ships of that day for firing their massive boilers. In the midst of the flotsam, the Monssen still burned. As morning came, three sailors from Monssen, having already spent hours in the water, decided that they’d rather risk their lives aboard the foundering ship than clinging to a powder cannister amongst circling sharks. They re-boarded Monssen, and, once aboard, decided to search for wounded left behind in the chaos of the previous night. In the time that they remained on Monssen they found eight sailors still alive. Eventually they were able to flag down a passing boat, and soon rescuers and wounded were on Guadalcanal. Some time after noon, Monssen disappeared beneath the glassy surface of the sound. Monssen had a total of 286 officers and crew; 145 were killed, 37 were wounded. Only 64 escaped unscathed.
Again, the number thirteen enters the lore of Monssen. One of thirteen ships to join the battle, her death-knell tolled on Friday, the Thirteenth of November, 1942.
This, the first stage of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (a second night of action took place on November 13-14), was costly for the U. S. Navy. Six ships were lost – two light cruisers, Atlanta and Juneau; and four destroyers – Cushing, Laffey, Barton and Monssen. Even more tragic, 1,439 American seamen died. Counted among the dead were both admirals involve in the action, Rear Admiral Daniel P. Callaghan and Rear Admiral Norman Scott. Based on evidence collected from Scott’s flagship, Atlanta, it is thought that Scott and the other officers on the bridge of Atlanta were killed by shells fired from San Francisco in the confusion of night action. Reconstruction of the battle suggests that Atlanta may have inadvertently drifted into San Francisco’s path of fire, with guns aimed nearly parallel to the water, and Atlanta’s presence there was noticed only after the fatal shots were fired. (22)
The five Sullivan brothers: (r to l) Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George – all lost when the USS Juneau sank on Novmber 13, 1942.
Also among those that died as a result of the battle were the five Fighting Sullivan Brothers, who served together aboard the Juneau. Damaged during the night battle, Juneau was retiring with the other ships of the task group toward Noumea, New Caledonia, when a Japanese torpedo hit the ship. The torpedo struck near the powder magazine, causing such an explosion that the Juneau simply disappeared. The other ships of the convoy, crews dumbstruck, felt that no one could survive such a horrific blast; with enemy subs in the area, the commander of the convoy, Captain Gilbert Hoover, ordered the other ships to proceed without searching for survivors – though he did signal location coordinates to a passing B-17, in hopes that an organized search could be mounted. As it turned out, there were survivors – over a hundred. Most were injured; left to the elements and the `sharks, only ten survived the eight days at sea before being rescued. Those rescued reported that the oldest of the Sullivan brothers, George, had survived the explosion. He lasted for four or five days, but succumbed to the elements, sharks, and possible injuries before he could be rescued. (23) In all, of the Juneau’s crew of 698 officers and enlisted men, 684 were killed or lost in action. Though Hoover’s decision was supported by other officers in the limping convoy, when Admiral Bill Halsey, Commander, South Pacific Fleet (COMSOPAC), found out, he was furious – even more so when he learned there had been many survivors. Though the action was discouraged by Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific fleet, Halsey called for the removal of Hoover from sea command; he was beached. Later Halsey would regret his decision, saying he had made it in haste, without full consideration of the situation. He would eventually apologize to Hoover, and, according to Halsey, they remained close friends. (24)
Captain Gilbert Hoover. Realizing he was the senior officer after the battle, and the deaths of Admirals Daniel Gallaghan and Norman Scott, Hoover took command of the retiring ships. Though the recipient of three Navy Crosses due to conspicuous bravery in battle, he caught the ire of Admiral Halsey when he failed to search for survivors after the sinking of the Juneau, relieving him of sea command. This snafu did not prevent career advancement, however – Hoover retired as a rear admiral in 1947.
Though in the early going of the fight for Guadalcanal many Marines felt that they’d been left high and dry by the Navy, in the end the Navy’s sacrifice would be recognized by them. While perhaps not suffering the prolonged degradations that Marines on land did, for every man that died in the fighting on Guadalcanal, three would die at sea. General Vandergrift, who had been commander of the ground action from the initial landing, represented the Marines under his command when he expressed his appreciation for the naval forces, including Monssen, that took part in the great sea battle of November 12-13:
“WE BELIEVE THE ENEMY HAS SUFFERED A CRUSHING DEFEAT. WE THANK LEE* FOR HIS STURDY EFFORT LAST NIGHT. WE THANK KINCAID [SIC]** FOR HIS INTERVENTION YESTERDAY. OUR OWN AIRCRAFT HAVE BEEN GRAND IN ITS RELENTLESS POUNDING OF THE FOE. THOSE EFFORTS WE APPRECIATE BUT OUR GREATEST HOMAGE GOES TO SCOTT, CALLAGHAN AND THEIR MEN WHO WITH MAGNIFICENT COURAGE AGAINST SEEMINGLY HOPELESS ODDS DROVE BACK THE FIRST HOSTILE STROKE AND MADE SUCCESS POSSIBLE. TO THEM THE MEN OF CACTUS LIFT THEIR BATTERED HELMETS IN DEEPEST ADMIRATION.”
* Admiral Willis Lee, who, in the second phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 14-15, led the battleships Washington and South Dakota to a decisive victory.
** Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, in command of Carrier Task Force 61
The brave acts of the three Monssen sailors, who saved the lives of eight of their wounded shipmates, deserves greater attention, for their story, and that of one of the men they saved, brings this tale of tragedy and triumph full circle, I believe, back to the Tryon. Here’s how.
The three sailors were Bosun’s Mate Second Class Clyde Storey, Gunner’s Mate Second Class Leo Spurgeon and Fireman First Class Joe Hughes. Some of the last men off the Monssen, they spent the night hanging onto an empty powder can (According to Hughes they spent the night smoking a stash of cigarettes Spurgeon had thoughtfully stored in the empty powder canister. Storey adamantly denies this, pointing out that a powder can would be a strange place to put matches). At sunrise two PT boats raced by them, but try as they might they were unable to catch the attention of their crews. Shortly after that sharks began to circle them. The sharks left, but the first words out of everyone’s mouth amounted to a unanimous vote to swim back to the burning, drifting ship; each preferred blowing up to being eaten up. They swam furiously toward the Monssen, a quarter-mile away. (25)
As they neared Monssen they heard the screams of Monssen’s mess attendant, uninjured but begging for help. After coaxing him to the fantail and calming him down, they began to search for others that might still be alive. Those that they could help were administered morphine and were carried to the fantail on matresses taken from bunks. Near a life raft they found what appeared to be a pile of corpses, at least until one of the bodies moved. They removed the bodies until they found the one still breathing. The man’s head and face wounds were so bad they couldn’t recognize him. But his dog tag revealed him to be their buddy, Seaman First Class Bert Doughty. When they spoke to him, Doughty briefly opened his eyes, but whether he knew who they were, they couldn’t tell. (26)
After gathering the wounded, Storey, Spurgeon and Hughes began seeking a way off the Monssen. They used a white mattress cover to flag down one of several small seaplanes flying around the area, and informed the pilot that they were in immediate need of a boat to transport wounded off of Monssen. The pilot waved to signal his understanding, then flew off toward Guadalcanal. As they waited, they toyed with the idea of salvaging the ship’s safe, which they thought might hold a half-million dollars in back pay intended for the ship’s crew; but no one wanted to leave the open deck of the ship at that point. (27)
At last, a small landing boat appeared off Monssen’s beam. Storey, Spurgeon and Hughes waved their arms and yelled to attract attention, but the coxswain did his best to ignore them. Finally, the coxswain admitted that he was afraid the destroyer would roll over on his landing craft if he came too close. There was ample cause for concern. Monssen was burning and listing far to port. If the landing craft came alongside, it would have to do so to port because the starboard side was too high out of the water. If the ship capsized with the landing craft alongside, the landing craft would probably be captured by some topside equipment. The men aboard Monssen sympathized with the coxswain’s feelings, but they had strong views of their own. BM2 Storey yanked out the .45-caliber pistol he had salvaged from the body of a dead officer and calmly aimed it at the coxswain. “You s-o-b,” he yelled. “You get that g** d***ed boat over here right now or I’ll kill you.” Storey denies that he threatened anyone. In any event, the boat immediately closed on the destroyer. The men aboard Monssen, eleven in all, were quickly helped aboard the landing boat, which pulled away with alacrity and headed for Kukum. About thirty minutes later, Monssen blew up and sank. (28)
In recognition of their heroism in saving the lives of shipmates that most certainly would have been lost when Monssen sank, her acting commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Charles E. McCombs, gave special commendation to the trio in the Action Report for the night battle of November 13:
17. After daylight MONSSEN though burning from forward
bulkhead of CPO Quarters to Torpedo Workshop was still afloat. At
this time Storey, C.C., BM2c, Spurgeon, L.F., GM2c and Hughes J.G.
F1c, returned to the ship and found eight more men alive. These
they put on their raft. Five of these eight lived after reaching
shore. The presence of the mind of these men, the utter disregard
for own safety in the possibility of rescuing additional shipmates
is most commendable. The actions of Storey, C.C., BM2c are reported to
have been calm, determined and in many cases far beyond the call of
duty but in accordance with the highest traditions of the Naval service. (29)
The Navy would further recognize their efforts by awarding Clyde Storey the Silver Star; Leo Spurgeon received the Bronze Star and Joe Hughes a promotion in rate. (30)
With regard to Bert Doughty, he, like so many young men of the day, responded to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor by enlisting in the Navy. He signed up at the San Francisco recruiting station on February 24, 1942, and headed to San Diego for Basic training, leaving his wife, Leona, and young daughter to await his return. On April 8 Doughty boarded USS Henderson, headed for Hawaii and ship assignment. After arriving at Pearl Harbor on April 16, Doughty shipped out again on the destroyer tender Dixie. He reported for duty on USS Monssen on April 27, with the rating of Apprentice Seaman. For a young man that had been a civilian just two months before, Doughty was rapidly thrown into the fray; he had barely joined the crew of Monssen when she headed out for Coral Sea, and shortly after, for Midway.
Doughty soon sought to improve his rating, advancing from Apprentice Seaman to Seaman Second Class on June 24, and to Seaman First Class on October 1. (32) At general quarters S1c Doughty was a port-side 20 mm gunner, and as the battle was joined in the early morning hours of November 13 he manned his station, undoubtedly eager to put hot lead on the cold steel of enemy ships. His chance would come soon enough. By 0215 the Monssen was in the thick of the battle; star shells soon illuminated her, silhouetting the ship against the blackness of night. Immediately she was hit by a barrage of shells, thirty seven in all. By 0240 Monssen had ceased to maintain the ability to fight – all torpedoes had been fired, all 5″ guns and directors were out of commission, and all 20 mm guns had been knocked out. (33) Doughty was fortunate to have escaped from his station with his life – at least one of the 20 mm guns had been hit directly by shell-fire, killing its crew instantly.
After gathering with other survivors on the fantail, Doughty was cutting away a balsa raft when there was a terrific explosion, and the lights went out. A hit on the adjacent after depth-charge projector spread shrapnel through the midst of the group around him. Doughty was not only knocked out but also suffered sixteen shrapnel wounds in the jaw and nose, and sustained a ruptured ear drum and fractured skull. Many of the sailors around him were killed, and nearly all the rest were wounded. So it was, in this condition and in this location, that Storey, Spurgeon and Hughes recovered Doughty from among the dead. (34)
As his rescuers lifted Doughty from the bodies and pulled him to safety, the lights slowly went on in his head, and he looked into the eyes of another sailor. The other man was speaking, but Doughty could not hear the words. After a moment or two, the darkness once again enfolded him. Doughty had no recollection of his rescue; he woke up in a hospital plane on the way to the American base on Efate. Totally disoriented, the first words he remembers saying were, “Where’s my ship?”(35)
Though his wounds were extremely serious, Bert Doughty would survive them. After being air lifted to Efate, he was sent to Auckland, New Zealand for medical treatment and convalescence. Due to the “fog” of war and poor communication capabilities at that time, Bert’s young wife, Leona, was informed that he was missing in action; one can only imagine the joy and relief she must have felt when she received a phone call from Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland on New Year’s Day, 1943, saying Bert was there. (36)
After spending eleven months in Oak Knoll, Doughty was discharged and returned to civilian life. He never fully recovered from his wounds, suffering from their effects for the remainder of his life. Burt’s story would be recorded in several books; in addition, Burt was featured in the National Geographic video special “Lost Ships of Guadalcanal.” This program detailed the 1992 research expedition to “Ironbottom Sound” by Dr. Robert Ballard. The expedition was partially sponsored by the Navy, in honor of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the struggle over Guadalcanal. Ballard succeeded in locating Monssen, as well as numerous other warships – silent, ghosts from another time, lying on the sea floor just as the had settled on that terrible night in November, still paying homage to the brave dead that served upon them. Monssen, it was reported, sat on the ocean floor much as she had on the surface, with her five inch guns still aimed to starboard, at targets that disappeared into the night over seventy years ago. (37)
The reason the why waters north of Guadalcanal, east of Savo Island, and southwest of Florida Island became known as “Ironbottom Sound.”
“Ironbottom Sound” looking southwest towards Savo Island (center) and Cape Esperance (left) on Guadalcanal. A U.S. destroyer is sillouhetted against Savo Island. Photo taken from USS San Juan on August 7, 1942. Official U.S. Navy photo #80-G-13539, now in the National Archives.
Mac Perry wrote the following about about Tryon’s first assignment:
At 0530 on the 15th [Novermber, 1942], departed without escort. There was none available and this would be routine procedure for months to come . . . Arrived at Vila, Efate in the New Hebrides Islands just at 1300 of the 16th. It was a bright day and the water outside the harbor was calm as we maneuvered through the mine fields. Steamed into the harbor through the submarine nets and found an attractive anchorage, deep but small, with two islets inside it. On one the Union Jack of the British Residency was hanging limp in the morning calm. The town, what there was of it, was built around the harbor. A hospital on the green hill running down to water dominated the view. The corrugated iron roofs of the business houses gleamed in the hot sun . . .
The cargo was quickly transferred to these ships [destroyers that were already waiting in the harbor] while the medical department made necessary arrangements to take aboard our first patients.
Soon they were coming out to the ship and after being checked aboard were sent down to the various wards. The stretcher patients were suffering from all type wounds and burns. These first patients presented a scene that none of us would ever forget.
Two hundred and sixty-eight patients were taken aboard, over one hundred being stretcher patients. The stretcher patients were brought out to the ship in a 40-foot motor whale boat, six at a time.
One of the first patients brought aboard was a kid from the Destroyer Monssen, our escort into Noumea. His ship had been blown out of the water in the great sea battle of Nov. 12-13-14 and he was one of the few survivors. Nearly all our patients had been wounded at Guadalcanal or in the sea-battle. There were burns, concussions, chest, abdominal, leg, arm and back wounds. Many of these had been flown into Efate that morning. (38)
As I read the passage above, and those telling Bert Doughty’s story in other sources, I wondered – could Bert have been the “kid from the destroyer Monssen,” whose ship was blown out from under him? The parallels between Bert’s story and that of the patients described by Perry are certainly striking. Based on that thought I began searching for proof that Bert was among the wounded taken aboard Tryon on her first evacuation voyage. So far, I’ve have been unsuccessful in finding it. I’ve been in contact with Bert’s daughter, Patti, and although we’ve developed a warm friendship and she has provided me with some very interesting information about Bert, as yet we’ve been unable to prove he sailed aboard Tryon.
Patti sent me an article from the Fresno Bee dated December 20,1993, about “holiday homecomings” that related Bert’s story. Bert was interviewed for the article. According to the story, “Doughty was airlifted to a naval hospital in the South Pacific [at Vila, Efate], then was taken to New Zealand by ship and then flown to Oakland.” This sounds remarkably similar to the account given in “The South Pacific Express” regarding some of the wounded that were brought aboard tryon on November 16, 1942. The article also relates Bert’s feelings about sharks: “‘People talk about how they hate sharks,’ said Doughty. ‘I love sharks. They saved my life.'” (39)
I’ve also contacted the National Archives, which holds older naval records. I was told that all passenger records for the war period had been ordered destroyed in the 1950s, and none still exist. A thorough search was done, but no record of Bert Doughty’s transport to Auckland could be found.
I’ll continue to search. I may never know for sure whether Bert was among the 268 patients under the tender care of the Tryon medical staff sailing south from Efate that evening in late November, 1942, but I like to think he was, and that it was Tryon’s way of saying thanks to Monssen – the brave ship whose crew never backed down from a fight – for the safe-keeping she provided Tryon and the rest of her little convoy through the sub-infested waters of the south Pacific on it’s way to Noumea.
If you or your family member served aboard Tryon, or if for another reason you’re interested in Tryon, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment so that we can communicate further.
If you have a comment, correction, annecdote or story related to this or any other post, please be sure to leave a comment. I enjoy nothing more than hearing from others that share an interest in this most pivital time in world history.
And thanks for taking time to check out my blog. I sincerely appreciate it.
Putting a face on the loss of life in the Battle of Guadalcanal – after appearing in the documentary “Lost Ships of Guadalcanal,” Bert Doughty received numerous letters from family members of those that had served with hime on Monssen. One of them was from the step-brother of Henry Merrit, who included this article telling of Henry’s death aboard the Monssen.
The telegraph received by Leona Doughty telling her that Bert was “missing following action.” Printed in the Fresno Bee December 20, 1993.
Report of Changes, USS Henderson, 8 Apr. 1942. Doughty boards the transport Henderson for travel to the south Pacific.
Report of Changes, USS Monssen, 30 Apr. 1942. This report shows Doughty’s arrival for duty aboard Monssen from Dixie.
(1) The South Pacific Express, pg. 10.
(2) Destroyer History Foundation, “USS Monssen (DD-436)” http://destroyerhistory.org/benson-gleavesclass/desdiv22/index.asp?r=430&pid=435
(3) Wikipedia, “USS Monssen (DD-436),” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Monssen_(DD-436)
(4) Destroyer History Foundation, “USS Monssen (DD-436),” http://destroyerhistory.org/benson-gleavesclass/ussmonssen/
(5) Wikipedia, “Doolittle Raid,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doolittle_Raid
(6) Zimmerman, John L. The Guadalcanal Campaign. [Washington]: Historical Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1949. Print. Page 26.
(7) Morison, Samuel Eliot. Struggle for Guadalcanal. Boston, MA: Little, 1949. Print. Page 29.
(8) Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, “Monssen,” http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/m13/monssen-i.htm
(9) Destroyer History Foundation, “USS Monssen DD-436,” http://destroyerhistory.org/benson-gleavesclass/index.asp?r=43604&pid=43608
(13) Wikipedia, “USS Vireo (AM-52),” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Vireo_(AM-52)
(14) “Report of Operations of Task Force SIXTYSEVEN and Task Group 62.4 – Reinforcement of GUADALCANAL November 8-15, 1942, and Summary of Third Battle of SAVO.”
(16) Hammel, Eric M. Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea : The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13-15, 1942. New York: Crown, 1988. Print. Page 66.
(17) Wikipedia, “USS San Francisco (CA-38),” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_San_Francisco_(CA-38)
(18) Zimmerman, John L. The Guadalcanal Campaign. [Washington]: Historical Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1949. Print. Page 67.
(19) Hammel, Eric M. Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea : The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13-15, 1942. New York: Crown, 1988. Print. Page 92.
(20) Grace, James W. The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Night Action, 13 November 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 1999. Print. Pp. 50-58.
(21) “USS MONSSEN, Report of battle of November 13, 1942 Report of loss in cruiser night action Phase of battle of Guadalcanal.(C.O. Charles E. McCombs)”
(21) Wikipedia, “Naval Battle of Guadalcanal,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_Battle_of_Guadalcanal
(22) “The San Francisco” By Rear Admiral BRUCE McCANDLESS, U.S.N. (Ret.) http://www.usssanfrancisco.org/The%20San%20Francisco%20Story.htm
(23) Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal. New York: Bantam, 2011. Print. Pp. 370-71.
(24) Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal. New York: Bantam, 2011. Print. Pp. 380-81.
(25) Hammel, Eric M. Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea : The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13-15, 1942. New York: Crown, 1988. Print. Pp. 285-86.
(26) Ballard, Robert D., and Rick Archbold. The Lost Ships of Guadalcanal. New York: Warner, 1993. Print. Pp. 143-44.
(27) Hammel, Eric M. Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea : The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13-15, 1942. New York: Crown, 1988. Print. Page 286.
(28) Ibid. Page 286.
(29) “Report of Changes – U.S.S. Monssen DD-436 30 June 1942″; “Report of Changes – U.S.S. Monssen DD-436 13 October 1942″
(30) Destroyer History Foundation, “USS Monssen (DD-436),” http://destroyerhistory.org/benson-gleavesclass/index.asp?r=43604&pid=43611
(31) “Report of Changes – U.S.S. Monssen DD-436 30 June 1942″
(32) “Report of Changes – U.S.S. Monssen DD-436 13 October 1942″
(33) “USS MONSSEN, Report of battle of November 13, 1942 Report of loss in cruiser night action Phase of battle of Guadalcanal.(C.O. Charles E. McCombs)”
(34) Hammel, Eric M. Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea : The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13-15, 1942. New York: Crown, 1988. Print. Page 223 .
(35) Ballard, Robert D., and Rick Archbold. The Lost Ships of Guadalcanal. New York: Warner, 1993. Print. Page 144.
(36) Personal correspondence with family member of Bert Doughty; Fresno, CA Bee, 12/20/1993, “Holiday Homecomings.”
(37) Ballard, Robert D., and Rick Archbold. The Lost Ships of Guadalcanal. New York: Warner, 1993. Print.
(38) The South Pacific Express, pp. 13,14.
(39) Fresno, CA Bee, 12/20/1993, “Holiday Homecomings.”