Here's What You Need to Know: Perhaps the most complete defeat of a force in combat during the proud history of the U.S. Navy, the USS Astoria was nevertheless a gallant ship whose crew labored long to save her.
Admiral Ernest King could not believe what he was reading. The graying 63-year-old chief of U.S. naval operations had been awoken from his sleep. An overdue message from the Guadalcanal battle zone had finally arrived at his headquarters during the early morning hours of August 12, 1942. It was three days after the sinking of the USS Astoria.
In showing King the memo, Captain George Russell simply said, “It isn’t good.” A naval battle had taken place off Savo Island near Guadalcanal. The American warships guarding the approaches to the landing zone on the island’s beaches had been surprised at night by a Japanese naval force. Four Allied heavy cruisers had been sunk. The nearby troop transports, still unloading precious supplies, were not harmed. However, they were being pulled back due to the imminent threat of additional attacks.
King would later consider the Savo Island battle the low point of the war. He said, “That, as far as I am concerned, was the blackest day of the war. The whole future then became unpredictable.” The last of the four cruisers to go down was the USS Astoria (CA-34).
The History of the USS Astoria
Launched at the Puget Sound Navy Yard on December 16, 1933, the Astoria was the second ship of the New Orleans class of heavy cruisers. Among the last group of cruisers designed to be within the guidelines of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, the New Orleans class emphasized protection. Although slightly smaller than previous classes of “treaty cruisers,” the New Orleans ships featured thicker belts of side armor, increased protection around the magazine areas, and stronger deck armor. The Astoria as built had a main battery of nine 8-inch guns mounted in three turrets. Secondary armament consisted of eight 5-inch single-mount guns placed roughly amidships, four to a side, and eight machine guns. Wartime brought the addition of an assortment of antiaircraft guns mounted at various points around the ship.
The Astoria was no stranger to action prior to her participation in the Guadalcanal operation. She began the war cruising with the carrier Lexington on a mission to deliver planes to Midway Island. The task force was located about 420 miles southeast of Midway when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Subsequent months saw the Astoria involved primarily in carrier escort duties. She participated in the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway. During the latter battle, she briefly served as the flagship for Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher after the carrier Yorktown was abandoned. By late summer the Astoria was under the command of Captain William Garrett Greenman. The 53-year-old Greenman had taken over as the commanding officer of the cruiser on June 14, 1942.
Early August meant an exhausting stretch of long and difficult days for the crewmen aboard the Astoria. Since departing Koro Island in the Fijis on July 31, the crew had been in an almost constant state of readiness. The United States Navy was now on the offensive in the eight- month-old war with Japan, and the Astoria was in the thick of it. Since the landing of the Marines near Lunga Point on Guadalcanal and the smaller nearby island of Tulagi on the morning of August 7, the Astoria had helped fight off two Japanese air attacks and stood guard duty covering the approaches to the landing zone. More of the same routine was expected in the days to come.
Upon the initial approach to Guadalcanal, the Astoria had operated with her sister ships Vincennes and Quincy as part of a fire support group designated Task Group 62.3. When the fire support role ended, the cruisers became part of a larger screening group. Under the command of British Rear Admiral V.A. Crutchley aboard the cruiser Australia, the operations of the screening group centered on protecting the transport ships. Positioned off the landing zone, these were the ships that carried the Marines, equipment, and supplies that made up the invasion force. Their survival was vital to the success of the Guadalcanal operation.
During daylight hours the cruisers took up antiaircraft positions in close proximity to the transports. In the evening, the screening group guarded the sea approaches to the landing zone against the possibility of an attack by Japanese surface forces. To cover all possible points of entry to the area, Crutchley divided his screening force cruisers into three main groups; each was originally designated a name based on the lead cruiser of the formation.
Patrolling south and east of Savo Island, the Australia group comprised the heavy cruisers Australia, Canberra, and Chicago. The Australia group later became known as the south group of cruisers. The Vincennes group, later known as the north group, contained the Astoria and Quincy in addition to the name ship. Under the command of Captain Fredrick L. Riefkohl of the Vincennes, this group covered the east to west distance between Savo Island and Florida Island. Covering the eastern approaches to the landing zone were the light cruisers San Juan and Hobart. The latter area was deemed by Allied commanders as the least likely avenue for a Japanese surface attack. Each cruiser group was screened by two destroyers with additional radar-equipped picket destroyers stationed beyond the approaches.
The Night Watch
The night of August 8 began much like the previous night. At twilight the Astoria moved out of her daytime antiaircraft position and into her preassigned evening patrol area as part of the north group of cruisers. She took up position as the last ship in the column of cruisers about 600 yards directly behind the Quincy. The destroyer Helm was positioned 1,500 yards off the port bow of the lead cruiser, Vincennes. The destroyer Wilson occupied a similar position off the lead cruiser’s starboard bow.
The group patrolled the perimeter of a box that was roughly five miles per side. Turning 90 degrees in column to the right every 30 minutes, the group cruised at a speed of 10 knots, making the appropriate adjustments in time and speed to execute the corner turns as scheduled. Just before midnight rain squalls over Savo Island began to slowly move to the southeast, ultimately ending up between the north and south groups of patrolling cruisers.
The Astoria stood at condition of readiness two. Under this arrangement, normally used when the possibility of a surprise attack existed, the crew stood alternate watches of four hours’ duration. Two guns in each of the cruiser’s three 8-inch main turrets were manned. All nine guns were loaded with shells but were not primed. Lookouts scanned the horizon for enemy submarines, which were reported to be operating in the area. Captain Greenman was aware that a group of Japanese surface ships had been sighted earlier in the day some 400 miles away in the vicinity of Bougainville Island. Surely the picket destroyers or the south group of cruisers would sound an early alarm if and when the enemy surface ships arrived in the area.
The stroke of midnight ushered in the start of a new day—Sunday, August 9, 1942. The 12 to 4 am mid-watch had just begun aboard the Astoria. Men coming on watch settled into their positions across the cruiser. Weary sailors coming off watch set out for a brief four hours of rest before rotating back on duty.
Among those coming off watch was Seaman 2nd Class Norman Miller. He went below for a quick shower. Unable to sleep in his bunk, he decided to go topside. This was not unusual given the hot conditions that existed below deck. He ended up lying down on some life jackets near the 20mm guns that were located just above turret number three.
Lieutenant Commander J.R. Topper had begun his watch on the bridge as the supervisory officer of the deck just prior to midnight. A few minutes later Lieutenant (j.g.) N.A. Burkey, Jr., assumed his watch as officer of the deck. Among other sailors taking up their watch positions on the bridge were Quartermaster 2nd Class Royal Radke and Seaman 2nd Class Don Yeamans. Aboard the Astoria since June 1941, Yeamans was part of the quartermaster crew. Radke would serve as the lead quartermaster for the watch. Captain Greenman retired, fully dressed, to his emergency cabin located immediately adjacent to the pilot house.
Above the bridge, Seaman 1st Class Lynn Hager arrived for his watch at sky control. He put on his headset and tuned into the JV communications circuit. His first order of business was to test communications to the bridge. Everything appeared to be working properly. From the bridge came the following request: “Keep a sharp lookout on our own formation and all around.” He then moved over to his lookout station on the starboard side next to the 1.1-inch gun director, adjusted his binoculars, and began to search the horizon.