Episodes & Studies Volume 2
THE CRUISERS were badly bunched at the turn, and almost as soon as the Leander had straightened up to follow the St. Louis on the new course, she was shaken severely by the violent explosion of a torpedo which hit her on the port side amidships. The engines were at once ordered to be stopped and the Leander was quickly left behind by the Honolulu and St. Louis, who resumed firing and continued the action to the north-westward. The destroyers on the starboard quarter of the cruisers had ‘manoeuvred violently’ to avoid other enemy torpedoes as they crossed the American line.
At the time the Task Group was about to make its 180 degree turn, the patrolling Catalina reported that four enemy destroyers had also made a radical alteration of course to port and were retiring to the northward. The commander of the leading American destroyers was ordered to pursue them. As a matter of fact, the latter had been scattered during the turning manoeuvre and, page 23 ‘acting more or less independently, they were unable to concentrate and co-ordinate their movements because of the darkness and the confused picture on the radar screen’. The Japanese account of the action says that their destroyers ‘withdrew for a while’ to the north-westward and, after reloading their torpedo-tubes, they ‘reversed course and proceeded to the scene of the action’.
The Honolulu and St. Louis had ceased firing about ten minutes after the Leander was hit and stood away to the northward. At 1.55 a.m. the Honolulu made radar contact with a group of ships sharp on the port bow at a distance of about ten miles. They were the Japanese destroyers returning to attack, but in the American flagship there was grave uncertainty whether they were ‘four of the enemy's vessels retiring or our own van destroyers in pursuit of the enemy after finishing off the cripples’. The position was confused further by a breakdown of the forward TBS radio in the Honolulu. The after radar plot reported that the ships were Japanese, but ‘in such a way that the various stations which received the report did not realise that Radar Aft was positive of their identity …. It was now apparent that whatever the mysterious ships were, they were closing rapidly toward our line.’
At 2.5 a.m. the Honolulu fired star shells and a minute later gave the order to commence firing. But before either cruiser could open fire, the tracks of torpedoes were seen approaching. Three torpedoes passed close ahead of the Honolulu. One passed under her stem and two cleared her stern by barely 100 yards. The St. Louis was hit on the port bow and forced to slow to eight knots. page 24 About two minutes later, the Honolulu, which had made a sharp alteration of course, was struck by a torpedo on the starboard bow. The destroyer Gwin was also torpedoed and set on fire. Her rudder was jammed by the explosion and the Honolulu barely escaped a collision by making a drastic turn to starboard. Then the Honolulu was hit on the stern by yet another torpedo which, luckily, failed to explode. This successful attack was made by the Japanese destroyers Yukikaze, Hamakaze, Kiyonami, and Yugure, who discharged twenty-six torpedoes. They then withdrew to the north-westward and, ‘not being able to locate the Jintsu, returned to base at the Shortland Islands’.
The Honolulu and St. Louis made a quick survey of their damage and reported that they could steam at 15 knots. The scattered destroyers were assembled to screen the cruisers. While preparations were being made to take the disabled Gwin in tow, the destroyer Buchanan collided with the Woodworth, damaging one of the latter's propellers and flooding three compartments aft. The Buchanan was severely shaken by the explosion of one of several depth-charges which were knocked overboard from the Woodworth.
Between four and five hours later, enemy aircraft made three attempts to attack the returning Task Group but were driven off by the ships’ gunfire and fighters from the Russell Islands. At nine o'clock the Gwin began to settle and it was apparent that she could not be saved. Ten officers and forty-four ratings, who were all that survived of her ship's company, were taken off and she was sunk by torpedoes. She had lost sixty-seven officers and men in the action. The damaged cruisers and their screening destroyers arrived at Tulagi during the afternoon.
The torpedo that struck the Leander blew a huge, jagged hole in her port side amidships and exploded into No. 1 boiler-room, which was badly wrecked by the blast. All those on duty there were killed. The hole was about twenty feet in depth from the lower deck level and thirty feet in length, with distortion of armour and shell plating and frames extending more than fifty feet fore and aft. There were bad cracks in the ship's side and in the lower deck, which was lifted between three and four feet over the main damage area. The explosion threw up a great column of water, most of which fell on the after part of the ship and swept several men overboard. Blast from the explosion vented up a boiler-room fan casing and blew seven members of a 4-inch gun's crew over the side. Unfortunately, the Leander, which was steaming at high speed when hit, had travelled a considerable distance before it was known that the men had gone. The port quadruple torpedo-tube mounting, situated about fifty feet abaft the seat of the explosion, was lifted bodily aft for several feet, leaving the torpedoes lolling over the ship's side.