San Francisco has its paradoxes, especially when it comes to war and peace. Yes, we are the home of the Summer of Love; yes, legendary poet and pacifist Lawrence Ferlinghetti still has his City Lights bookstore here; yes, the libertarian website Antiwar.com got its start here; and yet, the city loves the US Navy. Fleet Week brings us out to the shore in the tens of thousands; when the Naval Academy football team played the University of New Mexico in a bowl game at the Giants ballpark, they enjoyed a huge advantage in supporters; and before Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned pacifist (he visited Nagasaki six weeks after the “Fat Man” bombing), he served on sub chasers and the troop ship Selinur during World War II.
For Memorial Day, I visited the monument at Land’s End devoted to the memory of the ship and crew of the USS San Francisco (CA-38), a New Orleans-class heavy cruiser and one of the most heavily decorated ships in American history. The sign on the lower of the above picture (Nikon D40, Landscape Setting, edited to black and white in FX Photo Studio Pro) contains a number of errors. First, the caption at the bottom reads “Twenty-Four Minutes of Thunderous Hell of Iron Bottom Bay.” It’s actually Iron Bottom or Ironbottom Sound, not Bay, and second, no one knows if it was 20, 24, 30 or 40 minutes of hell (more on this later). Finally, the plaque commemorates “The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.” Originally called The First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, historians have since combined the First and Second Naval Battles of Guadalcanal into one. I still feel this was a mistake; for one thing, none of the American warships that fought in The Second fought in The First.
The memorial consists of the bridge wings of the San Francisco that repair crews at Mare Island Naval Shipyard removed after The First Naval Battle. As you can see, there was no point in leaving them on board.
The rest of the ship did not fare much better during The First Naval Battle, one of these events during the history of warfare that makes you ask, “Why the @#$% bleep do we go to war at all?!!” About the only positive result for the San Francisco was that it did not join dozens of other ships on both sides that ended up at the bottom of Iron Bottom.
Long history short, The First began at around 1:40 a.m. on 13 November 1942, when 13 American vessels with inadequate radar headed by two heavy cruisers and 14 Imperial Japanese Navy vessels with inadequate radar headed by two battleships blundered into each other in bad weather and almost total darkness and started firing at anything and everything, friend or foe. For the next 20-40 minutes, no one really knows everything that happened, although the phrase “hell on earth” pops up often. To this day, hundreds of survivors on both sides cannot recall what they themselves did during The First, still suffering from either permanent amnesia or a fugue state.
In general, we know that the two forces fought in blackness at collision distances so close the Japanese battleships Hiei and Kirishima couldn’t train their biggest guns on some of their targets. We know that San Francisco absorbed tremendous punishment, but aside from the battleships, we can’t be entirely sure from whom. Wikipedia will only confuse you: the entries on the heavy cruiser, each IJN battleship and the battle itself all contradict each other on the details of The First. We also know that San Francisco delivered tremendous punishment. The Hiei and Kirishima were World War I vintage battleships and as such were also two of the most lightly armored capital ships in World War II; San Francisco damaged them as badly as they damaged her. Unfortunately, we also know that San Francisco also killed dozens of sailors onboard the USS Atlanta; “friendly fire” is one of the most bizarre oxymorons in the English language I’ve ever heard.
Long history short, the IJN wrecked or sank 11 of the 13 American ships in 20, 24, 30 or 40 minutes, and then disengaged and retreated. It’s not completely clear why, since the heavy cruisers San Francisco and Portland were helpless, but the Japanese commander had been wounded and many of his staff killed, and San Francisco had actually defeated the flagship Hiei in the battle (crippled, the IJN battleship could not defend herself versus daylight air attacks hours later). San Francisco had somehow survived a heavy cruiser versus two battleship (plus other vessels) mismatch, even with greater than 25 per cent of its officers and men killed or wounded, including Reinhardt John Keppler…
…whose memory was honored in 2000.
San Francisco finished the war with 17 Battle Stars and a Presidential Unit Citation; only the USS Enterprise received more decorations. The US Navy finally struck and scrapped her in 1959. Only the two bridge wings remain today, plus the ship’s bell, which resides at the Marine’s Memorial Club.
Both of my parents’ families have a long tradition of military service. One paternal uncle served with the 2nd Marine Division from Saipan through Okinawa; a maternal great-uncle somehow survived Guadalcanal as a Marine in a different unit. Dad served nine years postwar. Myself? No. No, no, no. And as I watched various species of birds flying over the memorial to perhaps the only cruiser in history to fight two battleships simultaneously and not lose, it occurred to me that no one in either family has ever asked me why.
Vonn Scott Bair