September 27th, 1942...At Tongatabu, all hands on USS Washington turn out to provision ship from USS Talamanca, a former luxury liner and reefer ship of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. The battleship takes aboard flour sacks and cabbages, with a brief alarm flurry to put out a fire in a seaman's locker.
One of the most curious and heroic naval battles of World War II takes place in the South Atlantic ocean, at 24 44 South, 21 50 West, involving a disguised German merchant raider and American Liberty ship.
At 8:50 a.m., the German merchant raider Stier (which means "Bull") is hauling in men from outboard painting and scraping amid worsening weather when the lookout shouts, "Vessel in sight to starboard!"
A ship appears out of the squall line, clearly enemy. Stier opens up with 5.9-inch guns and scores a hit with the third salvo. The enemy hits back with 15 heavy shells. One sets the coal bunker on fire, others the officer's quarters, hospitals and bridge.
The enemy ship is SS Stephen Hopkins, under Capt. Paul Buck, heading in ballast from Cape Town to Dutch Guiana to load bauxite. Her men are expecting turkey with all the trimmings for lunch, according to the plan of the day. Many Sailors aboard pass up breakfast in anticipation of the lunch, but GMSN Paul B. Porter does not. He comes off 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. watch and goes to sleep, while Ordinary Seaman Rodger H. Piercy is busy with a dice game.
The first shell to hit Hopkins hurls Porter out of bed. He charges up to his gun position, a 50-caliber mount, and finds it won't function. He joins a 4-inch gun crew, whose men are dying from steel splinters. Ensign Kenneth Willett, the gun boss, is himself dying from shrapnel wounds.
Both ships take a beating. Stier's diesel generator takes a hit and erupts into flame, shorting out power and locking ammunition hoists in train. The main engine dies, leaving Stier a burning, drifting wreck. Stier is doomed. The captain, Lieutenant Horst Gerlach, assembles his men, they give a "Sieg Heil" for the Fuhrer, the fatherland, their ship, and Hopkins, which is also blazing merrily.
Stier's crew lowers the wounded into boats and a heavy- hearted and miserable Gerlach abandons ship at 11:40 a.m. At 11:57 the first scuttling charge goes off. As the raider sinks, German Sailors watch, and Gerlach has his men sing "Deutschland Uber Alles," to deal with shock.
The German survivors are taken aboard by a Nazi supply ship, Tannenfels, which heads for France.
19 Sailors escape the burning Hopkins, which starts sinking at the stern at 10 a.m. Led by the dice-playing Piercy and German-born August Reece, these survivors sail 1,800 miles to South America, surviving on perseverance, skill, pemmican, and malted milk tablets.
Willett receives a posthumous Navy Cross, and has the destroyer Willett named after him. Buck and Cadet Edwin O'Hara receive posthumous Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medals, and Chief Officer Richard Moczowski's name graces a later Liberty ship.
It is the only time during the war that a US ship fights a naval battle with a German ship. Both lose.
2nd New Zealand Division wraps up three days of realistic exercises with 9 British Armoured Brigade, preparing for the big offensive at Alamein.
At Stalingrad, the Germans capture Communist Party headquarters, and unfurl the Swastika from the building, impressing Josef Goebbels' cameramen, but drawing Soviet mortar fire.
Nearby, a Soviet girl nurse, Lyuba Nesterenko, trapped in a basement, looks after 28 seriously wounded men until she herself dies from a chest wound.
Hitler marks the 6th Army's latest triumph by flying from Vinnitsa to Berlin, to prepare his big speech announcing the capture of Stalingrad.
War continues all across the Russian Front, consuming supplies, real estate, and men. German shells and bombs rain on besieged Leningrad, where the citizens prepare for another harsh winter. Near Rzhev, the Soviets regain 25 villages in a minor drive.
Back at Stalingrad, the Russians attack at 6 a.m. and are stopped cold at 8 a.m. by Stuka attacks. The Germans launch their own attack on the Mamayev Kurgan hill and Red October factory housing estate. (Tom Clancy fans should note that this is the factory whose name is borne by his submarine in the 1984 novel "Hunt For Red October.") 24th Panzer, 100th Infantry, and 389th Infantry Divisions attack. The 100th is fresh and the 389th recently brought up to strength with replacements.
The Luftwaffe plasters the 62nd Army's bridgehead with bombs and the Soviet 95th Division's strongpoints on Mamayev Kurgan are almost obliterated by high explosive. The Germans hit an oil reservoir next to oil tanks and the city is covered all day with a pall of black choking smoke that is seen for miles.
By mid-day radio and telephone links break down, and Chuikov has no idea what's going on, which is dangerous for an army commander. He and his staff officers head out to find out what's going on, as the battle rages. The Germans breach the minefields and penetrate the Barricades factory housing estate. They also drive the Soviets off Mamayev Kurgan, nearly destroying the 95th Division. "One more battle like that," Chuikov says, "And we'll be in the Volga."
At dusk, Chuikov gets a call from Nikita Khrushchev (of all people) who is political officer for Yeremenko. Khrushchev asks Chuikov, "What help do you need?"
"I'm not complaining about the air force, which is putting up a heroic fight, but the enemy has mastery of the air. The Luftwaffe is his trump card in attack. Therefore I ask for more help in this field -- air cover for only a few hours a day."
Khrushchev promises help.
That night Chuikov sends his officers and zampoliti (political officers) to exhort the 62nd Army to their highest pitch of resolve. Two regiments of infantry are ferried across to hold the Red October housing estate. Soviet guns shell Mamayev Kurgan to prevent the Germans from digging in.
Chuikov writes a note to his troops on tactics, "Get close to the enemy's positions: move on all fours, making use of craters and ruins; dig your trenches by night, camouflage them by day; make your build-up for the attack stealthily, without any noise; carry your tommy-gun on your shoulder; take 10 to 12 grenades. Timing and surprise will then be on your side...
"Two of you get into the house together -- you, and a grenade; both be lightly dressed -- you without a knapsack and the grenade bare; go in grenade first, you after; go through the whole house, again always with a grenade first and you fire....
"There is one strict rule now -- give yourself elbow room! At every step danger lurks. No matter - a grenade in every corner of the room, then forward! A burst from your tommy-gun around what's left; a bit further -- a grenade, then on again! Another room -- a grenade! A turning -- another grenade! Rake it with your tommy-gun! And get a move on!"
At Guadalcanal, Marine Raiders move out to cross the Matanikau River. As they approach one-log bridge, they come under Japanese mortar fire. Maj. Kenneth D. Bailey leads the Marines and is killed by enemy machine guns. The Marines try to outflank the Japanese, but are also pinned down. On the coast, Japanese troops of 124th Infantry Regiment prevent 2nd/5th Marines from crossing the Matanikau.
With everybody pinned down, the Japanese 11th Air Fleet shows up with 18 Bettys and 38 Zeros. Coastwatchers pick them off, and 35 Wildcats (17 Marine, 18 Navy) intercept. The Japanese lose one Zero and three Bettys, 11 damaged. No F4Fs are shot down. The bombers swoop in on Henderson Field at 1:12 p.m. and destroy one SBD and two TBFs on the ground, damage four other SBDs, and blast the division's communications center, snarling radio messages to and from the Matanikau battle.
With confusion reigning, Vandegrift assumes his attack is crossing the Matanikau and is succeeding. 1st/7th Marines is ordered to send three companies by boat to a point west of Point Cruz to attack the Japanese from the rear.
Companies A,B, and D land near Point Cruz and move in 500 yards and run into Col. Oka's 2nd/124th, who bombard the Americans with mortars, pinning the Marines down. Lacking a radio, the Marines use t-shirts to spell out "HELP" on the ground, which is seen by an SBD liaison plane.
With things getting worse, Lt. Col. Chesty Puller, 7th Marines' CO, heads straight for Point Cruz in the destroyer Monssen and some Coast Guard-manned boats to find out what's going on. He comes under heavy fire and sends in boats to the beach to evacuate his men. The Marines withdraw to the beach under heavy fire and board their boats.
The Marine withdrawal is shielded by Coast Guard Petty Officer Douglas A. Munro, who uses his landing craft and .50 caliber machine gun to protect the rest of the fleet. The Marines get away. Munro is killed.
He receives a posthumous Medal of Honor, the only member of the United States Coast Guard to receive this decoration in World War II.
American casualties: 60 killed, 100 wounded. Japanese casualties are unrecorded but substantially less. The operation has been a failure. Japanese morale is improved, and American deficiencies -- failure to undertake accurate reconnaissance first, poor coordination, poor intelligence, no radio communications -- all are the subject of reform.
Vandegrift reports: "The great lesson is to be found embodied in the passage in the Field Service Regulations which warns against 'drifting aimlessly into action; for in last analysis it is to be observed that this battle was unpremeditated and was fought without definite purpose other than the natural one of closing with the enemy at once and upon every occasion."
September 28th, 1942...Having taken on food, USS Washington takes on fuel, for four straight watches.
In Istanbul, a young Jew, Chaim Barlas, overhears two Germans in a restaurant say that Hitler had "lost the war."
Four PT boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Division One sail into Adak to attack Japanese ships in the fog and torpedo them. It turns out to be yet another dumb idea.
The only heat in the PT boats comes from their two-burner gasoline cookstoves. The Aleutian sea hammers the 77-foot long boats so much they can't get anywhere near enemy shipping. Within three months all four have to go back to the states for overhauls that amount to being rebuilt from keel up.
Next up are five ancient S-boat submarines that brave ferocious storms and incredibly cold weather to put Mark X torpedoes (these, equipped with simple contact exploders, actually work, as opposed to the useless and newer Mark XIV) into Japanese freighters.
27 Betty bombers roar south to attack Guadalcanal, escorted by 42 Zeros. 34 F4Fs intercept, claiming 23 Bettys and one Zero for no losses. The actual figure is five Bettys, two crashing enroute home, and no Zeros. The Japanese claim eight kills and five probables. They actually haven't splashed a single plane.
But Japanese officers study the tote boards and see they have lost 24 percent of the bombers that have reached Guadalcanal. American tactics and pilots are improving. The age of easy kills over inferior pilots and fighters is over. The Japanese decide to limit strikes to night raids and feints until their airstrip on Buin, closer to Guadalcanal, is open. Construction of that airstrip has been delayed by rain, soggy ground, and Japan's lack of technology.
At Rabaul, Lt. Col. Masanobu Tsuji, who wrote the plan that conquered Malaya, checks out the situation. The Army wants to ship the entire 2nd Division to Guadalcanal en masse. The Navy says they can't do that. Tsuji angrily suggests that the Army will sail down to Guadalcanal anyway, without escort.
Tsuji flies off to Truk to plead his case to Yamamoto.
At Stalingrad, the Luftwaffe attacks at dawn, dropping everything possible. Luftwaffe supply officers are running out of bombs (they can thank the German war economy which is producing Steinway pianos for that), so ground crew load their Junkers 88 bomb bays with pieces of metal, plows, tractor wheels, and empty cans, to use as shrapnel.
The Luftwaffe hammers everything in sight and knocks out five of six cargo ferries. Flames from burning oil tanks spread to the Military Council's dugout, and Chuikov's personal cook, Glinka, is injured in his shell hole that he uses as a kitchen.
Despite the hammering, Chuikov has hope. The German attacks are less coordinated and slower. Maj. Gen. Khryukin's air force goes into action and Lagg-3 and Yak-1 fighter pilots find out what their British cousins already know, Ju 87 Stukas are pretty easy targets. Reinforcements in the form of machine-gun battalions are on the way, too.
Chuikov counterattacks Mamayev Kurgan, and fails to retake the summit. But it is untenable for the Germans, and the hill becomes a no-man's land.
"We have fought during 15 days for a single house," writes a German officer, "with mortars, grenades, machine guns, and bayonets. Already by the third day 54 German corpses are strewn in the cellars, on the landings, and the staircases. The front is a corridor between burnt-out rooms; it is the thin ceiling between two floors. Help comes from neighboring houses by fire escapes and chimneys. There is a ceaseless struggle from noon to night. From story to story, faces black with sweat, we bombard each other with grenades in the middle of explosions, clouds of dust and smoke, heaps of mortar, floods of blood, fragments of furniture and human beings. Ask any soldier what half an hour of hand-to-hand struggle means in such a fight. And imagine Stalingrad; 80 days and 80 nights of hand-to-hand struggles. The street is no longer measured by meters but by corpses...
"Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching, howling, bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones can not bear it for long; only men endure."
That evening Soviet reserves deploy behind 62nd Army; Moscow is hedging its bets on Chuikov's ability to hold. With most of the cargo ferries lost, movement of fresh men up and wounded back is difficult.
General Henry "Hap" Arnold, head of the Army Air Force arrives in Noumea as part of his fact-finding tour. At Noumea, he runs into Nimitz himself, who is also inspecting the situation.
Both are appalled by the waste of shipping and logistical mismanagement. B-17s are being deployed on reconnaissance missions, only on one occasion has even four B-17s released bombs simultaneously at a single target. And Ghormley, rather than getting out to his command, is working in a small, sweltering office aboard his flagship Argonne, suffering from an abscessed tooth. Neither Nimitz nor Arnold are happy.
September 29th, 1942...At 9 a.m., Washington finishes fuelling. The battleship spends the day repelling mock torpedo attacks by its Kingfisher seaplanes, training the AA crews.
The US government introduces "V-Mail" absentee ballots for members of the armed forces. New Yorkers can now vote to elect Tom Dewey, the "racket-busting DA," who looks like the bridegroom on a wedding cake, as their governor.
Hitler, running Germany from the Reichschancellery instead of his Vinnitsa field headquarters, warns his commanders of the dangers of an invasion from the West. He orders the Luftwaffe to build massive Flak Towers in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Linz, Nuremberg, and Hamburg.
The Flak Towers prove to be immense pyramids that withstand the heaviest bombs. The towers in Berlin and Hamburg survive the war, monuments to megalomania. The British destroy the ones in their sector with explosives, the French with a slow demolition.
The same day, in Prague, 25 Czechs receive the death penalty for supporting, sheltering, or refusing to denounce the murderers of Reinhard Heydrich, who has only been dead (along with his actual killers) since July.
Back at Stalingrad, the German 6th Army attacks again, sending 14th Panzer and 94th Infantry Divisions into gullies and the Red October factory cemetery. The Soviets pull back from the cemetery. Not a good place to dig a foxhole.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel goes to Rastenburg to brief the Fuhrer. The Desert Fox is exhausted from the continuing mess at El Alamein. Rommel is physically and mentally worn out, and his army is in little better shape. The big problem is the fact that the RAF dominates the skies and is savaging his road convoys. Supplies must move at night on the only surfaced road in North Africa, which is disintegrating. The Italians have promised 3,000 workmen to keep the Coast Road maintained, but none ever materialize. Neither do 7,000 tons of rails and ties.
The only help Rommel gets from Benito Mussolini is a speech that ends, "You have done the impossible before, Field Marshal. We are all sure you will do it again."
Today Rommel gets the red carpet at the Wolf's Lair, where all hands are optimistic. Hermann Goering tells Rommel that the Luftwaffe rules the Egyptian air.
Rommel doesn't bother to argue the point, but mentions the heavy American aid to the British 8th Army.
"Quite impossible!" Goering says. "Nothing but latrine rumors! All the Americans can make are razor blades and Frigidaires!"
Rommel chats with Hitler, who listens to the Desert Fox's complaints. Hitler promises to send Siebel ferries (which are proving resilient against air and torpedo attacks) to Egypt, a "heavy-mortar brigade, 500 barrels, as well as 40 of the newest Tiger tanks, to be followed by several assault gun units!"
It's a busy day in Auschwitz, too, as 4,000 Jews from Slovakia, France, Holland, and Belgium are gassed, among them Rene Blum, sister of the former French Prime Minister.
Political chaos in New Zealand as the National Party withdraws from the coalition War Cabinet following the government's overruling of sentences imposed by the courts on striking Waikato coal miners.
Tsuji finds Yamamoto in his flag cabin on the battleship Yamato (which is spending the war as world's largest floating hotel). The colonel dramatizes the sacrifices made by the Army in "Starvation Island."
"Our supply has been cut off for more than a month. Officers and men have to dig grass roots, scrape moss and pick buds from the trees and drink sea water to survive." He begs for more ships to bring troops and supplies to Guadalcanal.
Yamamoto is moved, tears streaking down his face. "Very well. I, Yamamoto, will be personally responsible. If necessary, if we have to bring Yamato alongside the island, I promise to escort the transports the way the Army wants."
Nishino returns to Rabaul to find plenty of supplies, regular hours, coffee breaks, and officers' clubs. The adjutant, Lt. Col. Fukunaga, asks Nishino, "How's the island?"
Nishino looks at the fat Fukunaga and says, "Our friends on Guadalcanal are now surviving on fighting spirit alone. But it won't last much longer. Let me beg you, sir, to supply them with as much food as possible --"
"Are you criticizing the army?"
"This is not criticism."
Nishino, feeling exhausted, leans on the adjutant's desk to steady himself.
"This is the tropics. Why are you so pale?
"I've been in the jungle. There's no sunlight there."
Fukunaga accuses Nishino of lacking guts. Nishino goes to leave, and Fukunaga yells, "Eat tomatoes, that'll do you good. Just remember, we'll never let you return to Japan. It would be like sending a spy back home."
September 30th, 1942...Two Washington Sailors land in sickbay for multiple bruises after being thrown from a pair of galloping horses along a surfaced road.
Since Der Fuhrer is back in Berlin, he has time for civilian chores, including a mass meeting with the German Winterhilfe (Winter Aid) program. He tells these folks: "I said that if Jewry started this war in order to overcome the Aryan people, then it would not be the Aryans but the Jews who would be exterminated. The Jews laughed at my prophesies. I doubt if they are laughing now." No record on how the speech went over.
After the speech, Hitler re-issues Field Marshal Manstein's Order of the Day of Nov. 20, 1941, reminding all German troops that they are "not merely a fighter according to the rules of the act of war, but also the bearer of a ruthless ideology." The German soldier must therefore understand "the necessity for a severe but just revenge on sub-human Jewry." Just in case anybody had missed his earlier message.
Fighting and disease rages on in New Guinea. 16th Australian Brigade marches to the front. "Along the route," the brigade's diary notes, "were skeletons picked clean by ants and other insects, and in the dark recesses of the forest came to our nostrils the stench of the dead, hastily buried, or perhaps not buried at all."
The new broom at El Alamein is 13th Corps commander Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks, who launches an offensive to capture an area of ground near Deir el Munassib for extra artillery deployment during the coming battle. The brand-new 131 Brigade of 44 Division is assigned the task, and attacks, backed by heavy artillery and 4 Armoured Brigade.
131's two battalions (the Queen's Regiment) run smack into the Axis first team, the German Ramcke Parachute Brigade and the Italian Folgore (Lightning) Parachute Division, who fight hard. 131 loses 300 officers and men before nightfall, mostly due to inexperience and misunderstanding (as well as Axis gunfire). Late in the day, Horrocks calls off the battle.
Rommel and Hitler go to Berlin where Der Fuhrer hands the Desert Fox his field marshal's baton. It's the only time Rommel ever handles the jewel-encrusted badge of rank. Rommel, facing newsreel cameras, looks healthy.
Later that evening, Rommel is guest of honor at a rally in the Berlin Sportspalast, where Hitler makes a speech praising the Desert Fox.
The 39th Guards Infantry Division crosses the Volga early in the morning, at half strength, and digs in between the Silicate Factory and Zuyvskaya Street.
Nimitz flies from Noumea to Guadalcanal in a B-17. The plane gets lost, and Cdr. Ralph Ofstie, one of Nimitz's staff officers, manages to locate the island with a National Geographic map. The airfield is a quagmire in the rain, and Nimitz gets a good look at Vandegrift's perimeter and hospital.
Vandegrift briefs the admiral, who is sympathetic but noncommittal. Nimitz mentions that after the war, Navy Regulations must be rewritten. Does Vandegrift have any changes to recommend?
Yes, Vandegrift does. "Leave out all reference that he who runs his ship aground will face a fate worse than death. Out here too many commanders have been far too leery about risking their ships."
The same day, US codebreakers learn that the Japanese have changed their entire communications system, stripping Allied radio intelligence officers of many useful tools. Americans cannot recover call signs and track enemy units.
Tsuji gets a promise from Yamamoto on paper: the Combined Fleet will escort the 2nd Division to Guadalcanal and battleships will shell Henderson Field. Yamamoto believes he can force the "Decisive Battle" that is the core of Japanese planning through this operation.
Tsuji returns to Rabaul to work up the plan. The 17th Army doesn't want to attack. Hyakutake's chief of staff, Gen. Akisaburo Futami, sick with malaria, calls Guadalcanal a "lost cause." Tsuji uses political connections to have Futami fired. He also summons Kawaguchi from Guadalcanal, and the field commander, in a filthy uniform, gives his report. Kawaguchi is sent back to the island to lead a unit in the coming attack.
British code-crackers, using the first computers, have broken 50 German Enigma keys. The Germans don't believe Enigma can possibly be broken. Today cryptographers break "Osprey," the code used by the Todt Organization, Germany's engineering forces.
That day, Churchill personally passes on to Stalin the information, from Enigma messages, that the Germans plan to establish a naval flotilla on the Caspian Sea, at Makhach Kala. An admiral has already been appointed to the job, and submarines, torpedo craft, and minesweepers are to be transported to the Caspian from the Black Sea, via rail. "No doubt," Churchill comments, "You are already prepared for this kind of attack."
The first British liaison mission arrives in Greece.
The World Series commences in St. Louis, with the New York Yankees (defending world champs) taking on the Cardinals. Yankee ace Red Ruffing (14-7, 3.21) hooks up with Mort Cooper (22-7, 1.78). The Yankees get an early 7-0 lead, and Ruffing no-hits the Cards for seven-and-two-thirds innings. But the Cards rise in the ninth to score four runs, chasing Ruffing. Spud Chandler gets the final out to save the 7-4 win. Ruffing becomes the first pitcher in major league history to win seven World Series games.
The Yankees owe their season success (103-51) to manager Marse Joe McCarthy, MVP Joe Gordon's .322, 18 HR, 103 RBI) numbers, as well as Charlie "King Kong" Keller's .292, 26 HRs, 108 RBIs, and Joe DiMaggio (.305, 21 HRs, 114 RBIs). Pitcher Ernie Bonham posts a 21-5, 2.27 record.
The Cardinals, however, have had an awesome year under Manager Billy Southworth (106-48). Mort Cooper is joined in the rotation by rookie Johnny Beazley (21-6, 2.13). Harry "The Hat" Walker hits .314 as a part-timer, Enos Slaughter bangs out a .318, 13 HR, 98 RBI clip, and Stan Musial, in his first full season, bats .315, 10 HRs, 72 RBIs. Despite their record, the Cards have a fierce race, downing Leo Durocher's Brooklyn Dodgers (104-50) by two games.