RETURN TO WAKE
By Jake Jaekel
The Navy had demonstrated its ability to strike back but with most of the battleships out of action following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it fell to the cruisers to hold the battle line across the broad reaches of the pacific until reinforcements arrived.
Ten US Navy cruisers were lost during World War II, all in the Pacific Theater. Nine were lost during the first 17 months and the Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine one month before the end of the war. All of the US Navy cruisers in the Pacific during the early days of World War 11 bore the scars of battle by early 1943.
Two news reporters, Robert Casey, Chicago Daily News and Foster Haley, New York Times, came aboard the Salt Lake City just before the ship left Pearl Harbor February 14, 1942 with Task Force Eight and the fleet tanker USS Sabine.
The next several days we cruised toward the northwest, practiced firing the eight-inch guns and towed a target for the carrier Enterprise dive-bombers to practice strafing and bombing. One of the planes towed a target sleeve for the anti aircraft gunners to practice their marksmanship, the target sleeve was again shot down demonstrating their high degree of accuracy.
The evening of the fourth day one of the torpedo planes did not return from patrol duty on schedule. It was late in the day and we couldn’t break radio silence, as it would give our position away if the enemy were listening. Darkness fell and Admiral Halsey ordered all ships to man their battle stations and turn on their lights for a short while hoping the lost plane would see them and return to the Enterprise. The plane did not return and all hands remained at their battle stations for one hour after the lights were turned off. The next day another plane searching the area that the lost plane had patrolled found them. A destroyer was sent out, picked up the happy three-man crew and returned them to the Enterprise.
The next morning we commenced maneuvering to go alongside the fleet tanker USS Sabine and refuel before attacking Wake Island. One of the ship’s Bakers, came topside from below the Well Deck and turned to go aft toward the galley, just as one of the deck crewman fired a line throwing gun to send a line over to the Sabine. He was struck near the nose on the left side of his face by the steel rod and line fired from that gun. The line following the steel rod passed through and came out the back of his head cauterizing the blood vessels so he didn’t suffer from a loss of too much blood. He was taken to the sick bay for medical examination and treatment. He lived to be an old man.
Admiral Halsey issued his orders for the attack on Wake and confirmed our desire to mess up the enemy’s facilities that they had been working feverishly to put back in operation after its capture. The cruisers Northampton and Salt Lake City, and two destroyer’s Balch and Maury were given the task to be in position before dawn and commence firing when the Enterprises bombers dropped their first bombs.
That night port and starboard watch was set (12 hours on and 12 off) and as usual general quarters (battle stations) for all hands one hour before daylight until one hour after.
That night and the next day the task force headed for the target in earnest. Torpedo defense was called once in the morning and the Enterprise reported they had an enemy plane on their radar inbound but it evidently turned away without detecting the task force and the Enterprise didn’t launch any fighter aircraft. Late in the afternoon the four ships assigned to bombard Wake broke off and began cruising at high speed to bombard Wake Island at dawn.
The next morning, February 24th, 1942, reveille was called at 0315 and we were treated to steak and eggs, the high energy before battle breakfast. Admiral Spruance commanded the four-ship bombardment force from the heavy cruiser USS Northampton. The rest of the task force remained with the carrier that was more than 100 miles north of Wake Island.
The Salt Lake City, Northampton, Maury and Balch arrived at their proper position west of Wake on schedule hoping to surprise the Japanese forces. We launched two aircraft for observation and gunnery. It had become apparent by the heavy Japanese radio traffic for the past two hours they were aware of our presence. Three enemy aircraft approached and dropped bombs scoring near misses but no damage to our ships. Our gunners soon repelled the enemy planes, one was hit and crashed into the water
The heavy rains delayed the arrival of our planes and we didn’t begin the bombardment until around 0730. We fought off several more enemy planes and shot down one heavy bomber. The island was fortified with six-inch guns and the Northampton took a hit that wrecked her radar. Our shells started numerous fires including a large gasoline storage area. Even our observation planes delivered 100 pound bombs on a group of buildings on the northwest side of the island. Our dive-bombers swarmed in and scored many hits on buildings, gun emplacements and aircraft shelters around the airfield. We also laid several salvos of eight-inch armor piercing shells down the runway making big deep potholes to render it out of commission for a few days. The destroyer Maury ran down and sank a Japanese patrol boat and the destroyer Balch also sank one of similar size. The Maury went in to save some of the survivors but was attacked by a Japanese sea- plane dropping bombs straddling the ship and had to abort the rescue.
The four bombardment ships maneuvered into formation and withdrew followed by a four engine enemy bomber staying out of range of our anti-aircraft guns. The fighter planes all returned to the carrier and none were available to get rid of the annoyance. It followed us all-day and about 1700 turned toward us, indicating it was finally going to make a bombing run. While our attention was on it, waiting for it to get in range of our anti-aircraft guns, we were attacked by two land-based twin engine bombers roaring out of the clouds from the opposite side of the ship. They were quickly greeted with a hail of anti-aircraft fire from our ships. The four-engine bomber turned away without making a bomb run as we maneuvered sharply to avoid the bombs that fell very close to the fantail. The twin engine bombers went back into the clouds, one was trailing smoke from it’s starboard engine. Everyone suddenly became aware of how much shrapnel had been hitting the ship. Some shrapnel hit our gun shield and a lot landed all around us on the deck. It was a miracle that nobody was seriously injured.
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