The Luckiest Ship Of Them All
November 13, 1942 and “Lucky 13”
by Douglas J. Huggard
(article dated 11 Oct 1955)
Writers of World War II have told many tales, some fiction and some fact, of the adventures and exploits of the U.S. Navy's ships and the men who manned them. But one of the strangest has yet to be related. It is the story of a destroyer that, in a period of less than one half an hour, became the only U.S. "tin can" to ever sink an enemy heavy cruiser unassisted, twice escaped certain destruction by some miracle of luck, and emerged from one of the most furious sea battles ever fought as the only U.S. ship to be undamaged.
The ship was the 2100-ton destroyer USS Fletcher (DD 445). She was the first built and was the namesake of a class of destroyers that was destined to play a major role in the ultimate defeat of Japan. The battle was the Third Battle of Savo Island, later dubbed the "Battle of Iron Bottom Bay" in testimony to the uncounted ships that carried their cargos of dead and dying into the fathomless depths, The place was the placid waters of Guadalcanal Bay, ringed by the Solomon Islands - the first stepping stone on the long road back to Tokyo. The time was slightly after midnight November 13, 1942.
A huge Japanese task force that included at least two battleships rounded rock-like Savo Island and steamed full speed into Guadalcanal Bay. Its objective? To smash into submission the U.S. Marines who were daily wresting Guadalcanal from Tojo's troops.
Only a handful of American ships lay between the enemy and their goal. "...the time had come for fine ships and brave men to be called upon to do their utmost," said the American task force commander. Thus it was that a thin gray line of 13 ships, none larger than a heavy cruiser, sped directly into the teeth of the enemy with the order to " get the big ones."
All the details of the next 24 minutes will never be known. It was impossible to make accurate identification of any ship seconds after American ships initiated the action by blasting a Japanese light cruiser from the water as she attempted searchlight illumination. But what I saw from my battle station as pointer on the main battery director convinced me that, not only was the Fletcher a "fighting fool", but she was also one of the luckiest ships to ever set sail.
Her first brush with death came as Japanese destroyers, slipping down the starboard side, loosed a deadly wave of torpedoes. Dead ahead of the Fletcher the 1650-ton destroyer Barton was hit amidships. She exploded in a ball of flame, settling beneath the water in seconds, leaving only a sputtering, flickering mass of debris to mark the grave of her crew. In the combined light of flashing guns and burning ships Fletcher lookouts spotted certain destruction churning the water. Five torpedoes streaked for our starboard side. There was no need to shout a warning - it was too late. In the vernacular of 1955, "we'd had it." Then - no explosion, no plunge into eternity - just the thin lines of bubbles. One forward, one aft, and three directly under the ship.
A perfect torpedo spread that had run inches too deep, just deep enough to clear the keel of the Fletcher. Was it the tensed hand of a frightened Japanese torpedoman who deflected a depth setting? Was it faulty mechanisms that forced the iron monsters deeper into the water? Or was it just the luck of the Fletcher? The situation 15 minutes later seems to bear out the latter assumption for only three U.S. ships, all destroyers, remained undamaged. The Fletcher was one of them in spite of close range duel with a Japanese light cruiser and a brief exchange with a battleship. Two American destroyers had been sunk and three damaged. Each of the cruisers had sustained hits.
The trio of unscarred "tin cans" pressed home the attack, scoring hits on cruisers and one of the battleships. In a lull, as the Fletcher shifted targets, the skipper called to the executive officer. "Bill, just where in the hell are we now?" The exec, from his position at the search radar, answered bluntly, "Right in the middle of the whole damn Jap fleet. Turn hard right or left and let's get out of here." The helmsman spun the wheel and the Fletcher, at flank speed, headed for the friendly darkness of the shoreline of Guadalcanal.
Behind us lay a graveyard of broken and burning ships - some slowly sinking, others exiting in a shower of tracer shells and pyrotechnics as fire reached their magazines.
Our search radar first reported that we had company on our port quarter. "Could be one of ours heading for the rendezvous point," commented the gunnery officer as the director swung around to match up on the bearing. Far below in the plotting room firecontrolmen worked feverishly, spinning knobs and turning cranks, as they set up a preliminary problem on the Mark I computer.
In a matter of seconds this electro-mechanical "brain" would assemble all the known and estimated mathematical quantities and grind out a solution which, feeding electrically to the guns, would automatically position them on the target. In the director the radar- range operator sang out, "range - one three oh double oh." The greenish pip in my radar scope was steady and clear now indicating we were on target. Over the sound powered phones came the word from the plotting room, "We've got a fine solution. Shift to automatic." I disengaged the heavy bronze handle in front of the pointer's hand- wheels and shoved it to the right until it clicked into the automatic position. The target pip jumped and then steadied down as the computer took control of the director and five inch mounts.
Just as the Fletcher was ready to fire a stabbing white light illuminated the area. A star shell had burst overhead bathing the Fletcher and her target in an eerie, pure white light. A quick look through the pointer's eight-power telescope confirmed our fears - it was a Jap ship. Her raked stacks and pagoda-type superstructure were undeniably that of a Japanese heavy. To me she looked bigger than anything I had ever seen. She was the "great granddaddy of them all."
It seemed an eternity as the flare drifted down, pushing the night aside as it spotlighted the struggle for survival below. The gunnery officer voiced the question we all had. "Why in the hell doesn't she shoot. She's got to see us." Turrets were trained in our direction, black, menacing shadows that could blast us from the water in one salvo. Not a single gun spoke. Truly the Fletcher was a lucky ship.
The Captain took action. "Open the smokescreen generators," he ordered. As the heavy, grayish-black cloud billowed aft, settling into a comforting wall between the Fletcher and her target, the torpedo officer checked the condition of the battery. Both torpedo mounts were right on bearing with the solution from the main battery plotting room, safety lanyards had been pulled, and torpedoes were ready to go.
The Fletcher lay over in the water as the skipper ordered, "hard right rudder." Beautifully she turned to reverse her course. Range closed rapidly as the hunted and the hunter approached each other on almost collision courses, separated only by the smoke-screen.
From the darkened recess of the wing of the bridge the torpedo officer asked firmly, "How many shall we fire in the first salvo Captain?" A smile must have crossed the fatigue-etched face of the skipper as he answered, "Better get rid of them all this time son. We're not coming back for a second helping."
Ten glistening torpedoes - each bearing almost a half ton of high explosive in its warhead - slithered into the water, gyroscopes righted them and they began their deadly run. Sonar men tracked them as they threaded their carefully plotted courses. Elsewhere aboard the Fletcher men paused and counted slowly - measuring the distance traveled - waiting for the muffled explosions that would mark the end of one of the major units of the Japanese fleet and terminate the Battle of Savo Island just 24 minutes after it had begun.
Reversing course, the Fletcher headed for the pre-determined rendezvous point. She was the only American, and possibly the only ship engaged, that escaped unscathed from that nightmarish hell that stands yet as one of the most destructive sea battles ever fought.
On her port beam lay the broken Japanese cruiser, keel up, slowly descending into Iron Bottom Bay. How easily the position of the two ships could have been reversed.
They say figures don't lie. If that's true then here is proof that the Fletcher was one of the luckiest ships to enter the South Pacific. The Battle of Savo Island was fought on Friday the 13th of November, 1942. There were 13 American ships engaged and the Fletcher was the last or 13th ship in the American battle line. Bow numerals of the Fletcher were 445 which totals 13. The American task force number was 67 which again totals 13. The Fletcher was named after Rear Admiral Frank FRIDAY Fletcher and, just to prove a point, the Fletcher went through the rest of war and ultimately earned 13 battle stars.
I know, that I for one, will look back this coming November 13, the 13th anniversary of that night and thank my lucky stars that I was a member of the crew of the lucky Fletcher.
Article copyright © 2004 by Doug Huggard