ENGAGEMENT OFF BALIKPAPAN14
Raid of United States Destroyers in Makassar Strait
Both arms of the Japanese pincer were closing a little tighter. In the west the British were beginning to talk of their army's retreating all the way to Singapore. In the east the Japanese completed their occupation of Tarakan, while the ships which had landed their force at Menado were reported gathering at Kema. This latter activity seemed to point to a movement to Kendari (southeast Celebes) and Ambon in the near future. Thus by the middle of January it was evident that the Japanese were preparing for another move down either Makassar Strait or Molucca Strait or both.
Our submarines were stationed accordingly. Two Dutch submarines were ordered to patrol the western side of Makassar Strait between I° and 2° south (i.e., off Balikpapan) and Admiral Hart directed that three American submarines be placed in the strait also.
Meanwhile Admiral Hart planned to attack the enemy force gathering at Kema. It was to be a night torpedo attack by destroyers supported by the Marblehead. Three submarines were stationed to cover the return of our ships. The attack was to take place on the night of the 17th and was to be in conjunction with an attack by Army planes operating from Kendari. Our ships had already made the greater part of the difficult run toward Kema when Pike and Permit, which had been sent in for reconnaissance, reported that no enemy forces of importance were present, and the attack was cancelled. A few days later (on the 21st) Seawolf saw a convoy assembling off Kema but could not attack. Not long afterwards this force came down and took Kendari.
It was next planned to make an attack in Makassar Strait, already patrolled by our submarines. One of these, the S-36, went aground on January 19th at Taka Bakang. It proved impossible to get her off and she had to be abandoned. On the 20th there was a Dutch army report of a large convoy heading southward toward the important oil port of
Balikpapan. That night Porpoise and Pickerel were stationed in Makassar Strait between North Watcher and Mangkalihat, with Sturgeon to back them up, while Spearfish, Saury, and S-40 were placed off Balikpapan.
On January 22d Porpoise and Pickerel reported the enemy force moving. Sturgeon to the south had just uncoded the message when she made sound contact with a multiple screw ship which she thought was either a cruiser or a carrier. She sent two torpedoes into this vessel, but had no opportunity to observe results. This event she celebrated by the triumphant message, "Sturgeon no longer virgin." Her maidenhood was well lost. There had been considerable air activity in the area on the previous day and there was none the following day, so that our surface vessels were able to make their attack and withdrawal without sighting an enemy plane. This unusual circumstance indicates that the Sturgeon probably damaged or sank a carrier. Apart from this, our submarines had no success in breaking up the enemy expedition.
It was planned to make a surface attack on this enemy force similar to that planned in the abortive attempt on Kema. Houston was on important convoy duty and was not available, so that it was planned to conduct our raid with four destroyers, the Ford, Pope, Parrott, and Paul Jones, supported by the Boise and Marblehead. This force was commanded by Admiral Glassford, with Comdr. Paul H. Talbot in command of the destroyers.
The destroyers fueled from the Marblehead in Koepang Bay, Timor, and started north. On the way through Sape Strait (between Soembawa and Komodo Islands) the Boise struck an uncharted pinnacle rock.
A long gash was torn in her bottom near the keel, so that she had to return at slow speed to port on the south coast of Java. There it was found that she would have to go to India for repairs and so she did not participate further in the campaign. Admiral Glassford transferred his flag to the Marblehead, but difficulty with a turbine reduced her speed to 15 knots. Therefore the destroyers were ordered on ahead to make the attack, while the cruiser trailed along to provide air reconnaissance and to cover their withdrawal.
Patrol Wing TEN had maintained contact with the enemy force and reported 9 transports, 4 cruisers and 14 destroyers moving toward Balikpapan in small groups. The PBY's conducted this reconnaissance without meeting any air opposition, due probably to Sturgeon's success a day
or two earlier. On the afternoon of the 23d Dutch bombers attacked the convoy and claimed hits on 2 cruisers, 4 transports, and a destroyer.
Our four destroyers were just south of the Postillon Islands, about midway between Soembawa and southwest Celebes, when on the morning of the 23d they received orders from CINCAF to move northward for the attack. They proceeded at 22 to 25 knots in order to arrive off Hoek Mandar by nightfall. There were heavy north swells running in the lower part of Makassar Strait and our destroyers took on several, which broke bridge windows and buckled spray shields.
During the afternoon Comdr. Talbot issued his orders for the action: "Primary weapon torpedoes. Primary objective transports. Cruisers as necessary to accomplish mission. Endeavor launch torpedoes at close range before being discovered . . . Set torpedoes each tube for normal spread. Be prepared to fire single shots if size of target warrants. Will try to avoid action en route . . . Use own discretion in attacking independently when targets located. When torps are fired close with all guns. Use initiative and determination."
Course was set directly for Mandar Bay in order to deceive the enemy reconnaissance planes which were expected, but the only patrol plane sighted proved to be one of our own. An hour after sunset our little force changed course to the northwest and, passing Cape Mandar abeam to starboard, struck out across Makassar Strait toward Borneo. Speed was increased to 27 knots, just about the maximum that their old engines could maintain. There was concern on board Pope whether she could hold that speed, but she did.
A little after 2200 Java time, as our ships were approaching the Little Paternoster group, what appeared to be a searchlight beam was seen on the horizon ahead and course was changed to avoid a possible enemy contact. A little later, course was set directly for Balikpapan with the expectation of arriving about 0300.
Track of United States Destroyers off Balikpapan
At 2357 as our ships approached Balikpapan a light was seen far ahead. At first it appeared to be a searchlight but a little later was seen to be a fire, now flaring up, now subsiding. It was evidently in the water some distance from shore, but sometime afterward a second fire was seen at Balikpapan itself. Apparently the Dutch bombers had done a good afternoon's work. Perhaps because of the fires a light haze hung over the water and visibility, which had been good, decreased. The seas had moderated considerably during the run up the strait.
Course was set to make certain of arriving at Balikpapan north of the pilot ship and well clear of the mine field. Our ships were now drawing close. The first contact with the enemy came at 0245 when a column of several enemy destroyers appeared ahead, crossing our course from starboard to port. They challenged by blue blinker tube, but our ships only turned a little to starboard to avoid closer contact. The lookout on the Ford thought he saw the Japanese destroyers turn and follow to investigate.
As our ships thus sailed through the enemy's patrol they were in column, moving at high speed. The John D. Ford, with Comdr. Talbot aboard, was in the lead, followed by Pope, Parrott, and Paul Jones, in that order. They were in constant communication by voice radio, with transmitters set up on the bridge of each destroyer, except for the Paul Jones, on which the transmitter failed.
It is difficult to form an entirely accurate picture of the events of the following hour, during which our little column steamed back and forth among the enemy vessels, firing first their torpedoes and then their guns at dim outlines of ships, spreading havoc and confusion among the Japanese. Two or three minutes after passing the enemy's destroyer screen several ships were sighted on the port bow, dimly silhouetted against the glow from the fire at Balikpapan. Someone on the Ford counted nine ships 5,000-6,000 yards distant. It seems likely that this was one of the larger groups scattered along the shore and it was probably in this group that we sank several when our destroyers turned back south.
A minute or two after sighting these vessels, the Ford, still leading the column northward, met an enemy destroyer on opposite course which passed close to starboard. The Ford fired a torpedo, but it missed astern. Pope could not bring her tubes to bear in time, and Parrott, warned by voice radio to "get him," fired five torpedoes (fired by percussion at the tubes; it was intended to fire only three) as the ship passed 500 to 1,000 yards to starboard. But the trainers had not been able to swing the tubes rapidly enough and all five passed astern of the target. This broadside left Parrott with only one torpedo in her starboard battery. The Paul Jones bringing up the rear fired one torpedo, but it too apparently missed.
At 0300 Parrott sighted a group of three ships 4,000 to 6,000 yards to port and fired three torpedoes at the largest. This time her aim was good, for a few minutes later there was a tremendous explosion in the midst of the group and flames shot up 500 feet into the air.
Meanwhile Comdr. Talbot in Ford decided that our ships had pretty well run through the enemy and started a turn to the right to run back through. Ford had already swung around to a course of 090° when she heard the explosion of Parrott's hit, off her starboard beam as she was then heading.
At 0307, now heading back southward for another run through the enemy, Ford sighted a large ship to starboard and fired three torpedoes, apparently without success. At about the same time, or perhaps a little before, Pope coming along behind Ford fired a torpedo at an enemy destroyer (possibly the same ship) which she passed abeam to starboard, but it missed.
As our column steamed back south Pope saw several heavy ships about 4,000 yards to starboard blinking lights, seemingly as a result of the explosion caused by Parrott's hit a few minutes before. (This group may have been the one first sighted, outlined by the light on shore.) Pope fired her five remaining starboard torpedoes at the group and in about 4 minutes was rewarded by two large explosions in the area of the target. Meanwhile, very shortly after Pope fired her five torpedoes, Parrott behind her fired her one remaining starboard torpedo at a destroyer 2,000-3,000 yards to starboard-possibly one of the group at which Pope had fired. Two minutes later there was a great explosion on the destroyer, a column of flame leapt toward the sky and when it died down there was only wreckage where the destroyer had been. At about the same time Paul Jones, coming up behind, had fired a torpedo at a ship on her starboard bow. There were two quick explosions on the ship which broke up and sank immediately. As the Parrott at the same moment claimed a hit (by voice radio) it seems likely that she and the Paul Jones fired at the same target. It is impossible to say whether this too was the same explosion that Pope observed or whether each destroyer scored a hit.
Perhaps it was a minute later that Pope (at 0309 according to her log) fired a torpedo at a destroyer to port, but could see no explosion. In another minute Parrott reported that she had hit the destroyer Pope had fired at, and the explosion was seen. It is not clear whether this destroyer was the same as that described in the preceding paragraph, or whether it was a separate success. The times were about the same, but the first was to starboard while this was said to be to port.
At 0312 Pope reported a submarine to starboard sending recognition signals, and a moment later Parrott sighted what seemed to be a submarine on the surface.
From this point on there is a greater discrepancy in the times noted in the logs of our destroyers and it is even more difficult to know what happened. The column next swung westward. (Ford puts it at 0320, but the others put it somewhat earlier.) Soon after turning, Ford fired a torpedo to port. Pope not long after turning also fired her remaining torpedoes at a destroyer which passed on her port beam (possibly the same ship at which Ford had fired). Parrott, coming along behind Pope, heard Pope report that she had fired torpedoes at the enemy destroyer and that it had fired some at her. Parrott then fired her three remaining port torpedoes at the destroyer, believing that Pope had missed. There was an explosion near the stern of the destroyer and a high column of smoke rose (Pope reported two explosions). It is not clear whether Pope or Parrott deserves credit for this hit. At the same moment both ships saw torpedo wakes and both felt jars as if they had been hit by torpedoes which did not explode. Possibly they had struck logs or floating wreckage.
While this was taking place Paul Jones in the rear of our column at 0322 observed a transport on her port beam on a course to cross astern of her. Paul Jones fired one torpedo, and, as the transport turned sharply to the left (perhaps to avoid it), followed with a second which caught her on the starboard bow. "This ship was later observed sinking with stern high out of the water."
By this time Pope and Parrott had exhausted their torpedoes and were directed to use gunfire if further targets appeared. This began what might be called the second phase of the action. Having run through the enemy group, our ships made a loop to the left and turned north through it again. Back on a northerly course Pope at 0325 opened fire with her guns on two destroyers, then a transport, then another destroyer. As she passed at high speed her gunners could not remain long on any one target, and the flash of the guns blinded the lookouts, but she thought she got three hits on a cargo vessel and probable hits on the destroyers. Five minutes later Parrott fired starshells to illuminate a ship (believed to be a destroyer) 2,500 yards to port. Seven rounds of 4-inch shells were fired
at the enemy ship before it was lost from sight. Possibly there was one hit. At the same time Paul Jones fired a torpedo at a ship challenging on her port beam and believed she scored a hit.
Shortly afterwards Ford passed the smoking hulk of a merchant ship standing on end with lifeboats nearby. As our column swung by this wreck Ford slowed and stopped, believing she was approaching the edge of the mine field. Pope behind her swerved sharply to avoid ramming her, and Parrott coming up at full speed, put her rudder hard right to avoid colliding with the hulk. As she turned she saw gun flashes ahead. Ford and Pope were in a melee with enemy destroyers. Our column split and our ships lost contact with each other. Pope, Parrott, and Paul Jones all made turns to the right and began to withdraw to the south. Ford continued to run up to the northwest close to the shore.
Shortly after losing the rest of the column Ford sighted a destroyer 2,500 yards to port. Seeing this destroyer fire torpedoes, she backed her port engine full to avoid them. Then resuming her course she fired a torpedo at a large merchantman to port and followed with gunfire. The blast of the resulting explosion could be felt on board the Ford, and the merchantman was seen to list about 45° to port. At about the same time (0347) Ford herself was hit by a shell, our only casualty of the entire action. It did only slight damage, however. It was of small caliber (about 3-inch) and hit the port side of the after deck house, where the torpedo workshop was located. The small fire which it started was quickly controlled.
Changing course to the right for a moment, Ford passed under the bow of a merchant ship, then swinging left she passed close by another which seemed to be on fire. She opened fire on this with her main battery and obtained several hits, and in addition strafed it with her machine guns as she passed. She then completed her turn to the left, steadied out on a course of 120° and began her retirement.
As our ships withdrew Pope opened fire at about 0350 on a destroyer. Parrott, seeing shells falling around her, told her that she was probably firing on her sister ship, and action ceased before any damage had been done. Aside from this the withdrawal was uneventful. Parrott and Pope joined around 0350, and Paul Jones came up about 0400. Ford found the others about daybreak.
At 0700, being well clear of the enemy area, speed was reduced to 23 knots in order to insure that fuel would last to make port. Shortly
afterwards our destroyers sighted a plane from the Marblehead which signaled that the cruiser was 50 miles to the south. Some time later the Marblehead was sighted. The destroyers formed a screen around her and the little force moved southward.
Our destroyers had performed the almost incredible feat of steaming back and forth through a considerably superior enemy force for over an hour. Surprise had, of course, been the major element in our success. Our plan of using torpedoes first probably prevented the Japanese from realizing what had happened for at least half an hour. Evidently they at first thought that they had got into a mine field or that a submarine was among them. It was a particularly fortunate circumstance that a column of their own destroyers was under way on patrol at the time. That may explain why our own destroyers excited no more suspicion than they did at first or why the Japanese hesitated to fire on them. The Japanese fear of firing on their own vessels was evident, while due to our column formation we were under no such restraint until near the end of the action when our ships became separated.
It seems fairly certain that we sank at least 5 or 6 ships. Two of these, because of the nature of the explosion and of their burning, were thought to have been fuel ships. One was a destroyer, which was completely demolished, and at least 2 merchantmen were sunk. It is entirely possible that there were other hits unrecorded due to the poor visibility, and there seems no doubt that several ships were further damaged by gunfire. The commander of a Dutch submarine, which was present through the action and next morning, reported that our forces had destroyed 13 enemy ships, but there is some doubt as to the accuracy of his count.
Our men were disappointed in the results of their torpedo fire. The suddenness with which targets presented themselves, the high speed of our ships, the close ranges and shallow water probably explain the small percentage of hits. It is comforting that the Japs did worse, for they undoubtedly fired several torpedoes at our ships.
The whole action took place within an area of only 4 or 5 miles radius, with its center about 4 or 5 miles northeast of Balikpapan lightship.
Our own submarines and two Dutch which were in the vicinity had been warned to keep clear of our surface attack. One Dutch submarine was, however, actually on the spot and left only when, as the commanding officer put it, "I saw that my friends were doing very well." The following morning this submarine torpedoed a Japanese cruiser from such close
range that the explosion damaged the submarine. It had to lie on the bottom till dark, when it proceeded on the surface to its base.
On the forenoon of January 25th United States Army bombers raided the enemy ships left at Balikpapan and sank two transports anchored there. Twelve Japanese pursuit planes (the first seen since the action) attempted to intercept our planes. Five of the Japanese aircraft were shot down.
14 Also called the Makassar Strait action.