Battle of Sitka Pip

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USS Santa Fe (CL 60) in the WWII Battle of Sitka Pip
By: Tracey C. Johnson,
Lcdr., USN, Retired
September, 2007
Having completed an Atlantic tour on the recommissioned four-piper WW1 destroyer Barney DD149 and freshly graduating from the Electrical Interior Communications School in D.C., I was lucky enough to be ordered  as an EM1 to the Pre-com Detail of the light cruiser USS Santa Fe in  the late spring of 1942; lucky because, after  experiencing the never-ending patrols on the Barney encountering only uncertain reports of German subs and a futile search for the German Graf Spee, I welcomed the opportunity to get into the "real war" in the Pacific. It was only later that I learned that our mere presence in the Atlantic served to blunt the German sub offensive about which Hitler's high command so openly touted.  

And was I ever lucky? I was and am proud and honored to have been a part of that valiant crew on the ship that gained fame as the Lucky Lady about whose contributions to our WWII victories in the Pacific has been  duly recorded. She and our country had the good fortune of her being launched brand spanking new at the onset of that conflict and rushing fearlessly all bright eyed and bushy tailed into the fray unencumbered by the frailties of so many of her aging sisters, rarely pausing for a breathing spell during her journey of more than two hundred thousand miles in unrelenting pursuit of the enemy.  Navy records well document her successes. But on that journey there were other exploits we crew members witnessed and experienced that are little known and unrecorded. This is to report on just one of such events; it occurred during the Aleutians Campaign and told from my personal perspective as a crew member, as memory serves, some 60 odd years later. We called it "The Battle of Sitka Pip" which transpired during the assault on the island of Kiska.

Once aboard Santa Fe, I had a stint of varied duties in E-division, finally as supporting the electrical/IC needs of the gunners with a Combat Information Center (CIC) battle station. Through commissioning, shakedown, and leaving the Atlantic for our Pacific destiny, my clearest recollection is of the upbeat and inspirational chats that our Captain Russell S. Berkey had with the crew, my first lesson in the importance of good communications as a touchstone for leadership.

The first leg of the Lucky Lady's travels in the Pacific was a stop in Pearl Harbor where we saw the devastation left by that day of infamy. At the time, our Marines were in hard fought battles with the Japanese in the jungles of the Solomons and threatened with isolation by Japanese Naval forces; the scuttlebutt had it that we would be headed there. But Alaska and even the U.S. mainland were also considered to be possibly menaced by the Japanese occupation of the Aleutian chain and we were ordered north to support a plan to dislodge them. We later came to also learn that the Task Groups we joined there were carefully noted by the Japanese Imperial Navy headquarters which made them hold some of their Navy forces in reserve to counterbalance the threat we posed and thus relieved some of the pressure being felt by our men in the South Pacific at the time.

Arriving there from the balmy clime and clear skies of Hawaii, the first and lasting impression of that area was one of pea soup fog and unrelenting chill.  

Among my memorable first events after our arrival there was the time we anchored off Attu for provisioning. All Divisions were submitting requisitions and I entered one for a carboy of sulphuric acid used for all the ship's lead acid batteries under my care. As it happened, I had somehow learned that one of my three brothers who had volunteered for service after Pearl Harbor, Taft T. Johnson was a CWO with the Seabees stationed in Attu where they were constructing an air strip on the tundra there. Discussing this with the Supply types, I was welcomed to accompany them ashore to handle the sulfuric acid deal, to their relief, given the hazardous nature of that lethal chemical, while at the same time possibly locating and visiting with my brother. I missed him by an hour, he having departed for the air strip site some distance out. But I appreciated the opportunity to observe first hand the operations of that "Can Do" organization up close and appreciate and admire the severe conditions under which they performed so legendarily.

And returning to the ship in the motor launch over choppy seas with a carboy of sulfuric acid between my knees, I soon learned first hand what "hazardous duty" must be all about.  As the launch  pitched and rolled when we came alongside, we found the ship also under  heavy rolls and rigged with a Jacob's ladder for us to bring our supplies aboard. Looking at the carboy of sulfuric acid between my legs and then at the Jacob's ladder, I knew that getting  me and the acid up that narrow ladder had to be a chancy. Nevertheless, I somehow found a heaving line in the launch and proceeded to devise a binding around the carboy to which I fashioned a noose to go around my neck, leaving my hands and arms free to grasp the Jacob's ladder to ascend. Believe me when I say, it is a looong, looong way from a pitching motor launch to the deck of a rolling cruiser when you are climbing a Jacob's ladder with a carboy of sulfuric acid hanging around your neck in front of you and clanging against the hull with every ship roll and you are wondering if the next clang will break the carboy to smithereens and about the survival chances from a sulfuric acid bath. But I made it, never to doubt again that the good Lord protects fools - and I forget who else.

Then began our days and nights of off-island patrols commencing April 1943 , with bombardments and blockades to prevent the escape the Japanese from occupied positions on Attu and Kiska - always and always under execrable weather conditions with rarely a sight of the sun, a fact that gave our young Navigator officer fits due to lack of sextant fixes - and an occasion of amusement for the crew. One day the sun suddenly broke through and he was summoned up to the bridge to which he frantically rushed, stumbling several times on a ladder enroute and reaching the bridge just as the sun disappeared  - to his utter frustration. We got a chuckle out of that.

Incidentally, the weather also played a role in the career of a Naval officer well known to the Santa Fe, the one and only Captain Leslie Gehres, skipper of the Franklin destined for the famous rendezvous with the Santa Fe in the Philippines. At the time, then Commander Gehres lead the PBY's in heroic missions throughout the Aleutians campaign, earning him commendations leading to promotion to Captain. (A PBY is a flying boat.  PB stands for Patrol Bomber, with Y being Consolidated Aircraft’s manufacturer identification.) His leadership, later much disputed in some quarters, during the recovery of the Franklin from battle damage in the Philippines, assisted in no small measure by the Santa Fe, contributed to his promotion to Rear Admiral.  Small world. Upon his retirement to San Diego, he became prominent in political circles there and an associate of Mister San Diego, C. Arnholdt Smith, he of the Westgate empire. Smith named him president of Westgate Marine Terminals with worldwide operations of tuna clippers and reefer ships. Upon my Navy retirement as an EDO, Gehres hired me as Assistant Chief Engineer where I worked until returning once again to the Navy as civil service supporting PacFlt ships. Leslie Gehres was Leslie Gheres, a complex character - and one of a kind.

Santa Fe is listed in Navy records as a key participant in the softening up process for the planned Army assault on the Japanese occupied Kiska starting in July 1943. Unknown to the us at the time, on 8 June 1943 Japanese Rear Admiral Akiyama issued orders for the abandonment of Kiska, while the actual date of the execution of that order is uncertain as we shall see. Meanwhile, from 24 May to 15 August, a task group of cruisers and destroyers was on station north and south of Kiska, of which Santa Fe was a frequent player with the Group Commander aboard.

On 6 July 1943, Santa Fe was part of Task Group George under Rear Admiral Robert C. Griffen accompanied by the cruisers Wichita, Louisville, and San Francisco and destroyers in the bombardment of Kiska. Santa Fe, with her superior volume of fire, was assigned to lead the cruiser column, smothering the target of 6-inch coast defense guns on Little Kiska during the first few minutes without return fire. In CIC we heard that there was sporadic antiaircraft fire directed against spotting planes. The group launched 100 tons of ammo in the 22 minute bombardment before the fog closed in prohibiting air spot.

Another and larger bombardment occurred on 22 July with Task Force George joined by Task Force Gilbert consisting of the BB's Mississippi and New Mexico, cruiser Portland and destroyers under rare exceptionally clear weather conditions and expending about 212 tons of ammo. One Japanese battery is believed to have directed return fire.  Much uncertainty plagued the Aleutians operations, including frequent reports of submarines caused by whales and dolphins.

Uncertainty reached it's peak during the last week of July leading up to the Battle of Sitka Pip. On 23 July a Catalina on patrol made contact with seven vessels about 200 miles southwest of Attu. This was first assumed to be our Task Force George but it was not.  Then on July 26 began the fiasco, the genuine snafu, that we called The Battle of Sitka Pip. Actually, it was neither a fiasco nor snafu from the perspective of the time. After all, the spotting planes, the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers were equipped with July 1943 vintage radars. Both Task Groups were operating in company in the darkness on July 26 when they made contact with the supposedly seven vessels 90 miles southwest of Kiska. I vividly recall the scene in our CIC on that night when orders were given to all ships with radar contact to open fire.  Reports immediately began coming in from several ships of salvos launched and speculations as to hits.

Aboard Santa Fe intent focus centered on our radar guys, some frantically urging target identification with eager trigger fingers. Speculation abounded.  

"Are those guys firing at splashes?"  

"New Mexico is letting go with 14-inchers - making hellava splash."

"Nah, there's something out there!"

Captain Berkey was cool as a cucumber, ordering that we hold fire until we had a sure fire target or targets. But so many ships were firing that the temptation mounted as time went on and the stress in CIC was intense. Gunners grumbled.  Target ranges came in from 12,000 to 20,000 yards.  Starshells were used but no targets were seen.  

"Weather?"  The Battle of Sitka Pip came and went and Santa Fe never fired a shot. But anxiety, and General Quarters, prevailed throughout most of the night which was not alleviated with the light of dawn when it was learned that an "investigation" by parties unknown would be conducted. Ultimately, Captain Berkey was fully vindicated for his calm demeanor under fire by "keeping his head while all about you others are losing theirs" and accepting the sound judgment of his radar gang that "there's nothing out there but high seas."  But the echo of the gunner's bitter frustrations still ring in my ears of what I heard on the sound powered telephone in CIC the night of the Battle of Sitka Pip.

What we soon heard was not the results of an "investigation"  but  "suggestions" by a group of radar experts that the contacts some ships saw - or thought they saw - might have been caused by what they called "triple-trip echoes (or radar pips) from an island about 110 miles away". When we first heard it, the island named was Sitka and some wag aboard came up with the something to the effect that "Well, that was some battle we were in the other night, the Battle of Sita Pip."  The experts had actually named Amchitka as the island echoed. They also made  the hypothesis in the case of the New Mexico that target course and speed could have been developed by the use of ranges of 23,000 yards instead of 223,000 (the distance to Amchitka) which finally gave target course approximately parallel to the American force and speed slightly less.

But what a night! And what a battle! If you have any doubts, look at the official Navy record stating "The heavy ships of Task Group Gilbert alone punished the phantoms with 518 14-inch shells, 485 8-inch, 25 5-inch 38 caliber, and 76 5-inch 25 caliber."  We also heard that the New Mexico was soon detached to the Bremerton Navy Yard to rebore her 14-inch guns, a casualty of the Battle of Sitka Pip.

As a footnote, at 0640 on July 29 a Catalina made radar contact with 7 ships about 200 miles northwest of Attu. Because of, you guessed it, the fog, the vessels could never be identified. Perhaps they were engaged in the evacuation of Kiska.  We can guess that now, but on 2 August Task Group Baker with cruisers Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, Richmond, Detroit, and Raleigh with destroyers and Task Group King of the BB's Idaho and Tennessee poured a total of 185 tons ashore on Kiska in an all day bombardment. This was followed by a 85 ton ammo predawn bombardment by Task Force Baker on 12 August. Finally, two more days of aerial attacks dropped 87 tons of bombs, preceding the Kiska landing of our Army troops on 15 August 1943.

We in CIC followed the landing intently minute by minute. Santa Fe was offshore to lend gunfire support as needed. Concern began to diminish incrementally as our troops continued to advance from the landing with no signs of the enemy. We had a Time magazine reporter aboard throughout the campaign whose name escapes me who said that he thought that our ship's newspaper was a classic in summing up our assault on Kiska.; he was going to send it on to Time but we never learned if it was published. We had heard in CIC that the only things found on Kiska by the Army was a stray dog and later a charcoal-fired hotplate set out in an open space with an empty can on top. Our newspaper carried a cartoon of a dog holding a cup of coffee and sitting on it's haunches in front of a steaming hotplate.

 Thus ended the Aleutians campaign of the Santa Fe - and her role in the famous Battle of Sitka Pip.


Note: The above account makes liberal use of and quotes gleaned from Navy records contained in " USN Combat Narrative: The Aleutians Campaign."


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