Tuesday, January 23, 2007

America's First Victory in the Pacific

Midway is sometimes referred to as the first American victory over the Japanese Navy. The Battle of Midway was the first complete defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy but not the first victory in the war.

That honor goes to Destroyer Squadron 29, Asiatic Fleet operating as part of ABDA Afloat defending the Dutch East Indies in January 1942. The Japanese were on a roll in January as they secured more and more of modern day Indonesia in their war for oil and minerals. Now the warlords of Japan set their sights upon the oil rich Balikpapan Bay on the Makassar Strait. Admiral Hart had few ships to oppose the invasion flotilla of the light cruiser Naka, eight destroyers, ten auxillary vessels, and ten transports. In fact all Admiral Hart had was DesRon 59, the light cruisers Boise and Marblehead were both lamed and out of the fight. So it fell to four elderly WWI era destroyers of DesDiv 29 to break into Balikpapan Bay and attack a far superior Japanese force to prevent the invasion from being successful.

And attack they did. About 0246 on the morning of 24 January, 1942 the destroyers Pope, Ford, Parrot, and Paul Jones slipped into Balikpapan Bay intending to fire all their torpedoes at enemy transports. Amazingly, after one brief challenge by an IJN destroyer, the four ships were in the bay. And what a sight they saw. The Dutch had detonated or destroyed all the facilities on shore so the enemy ships were backlit by a fiery glow providing perfect targets for the American warriors.

First Parrot fired torpedoes at a target only 1000 yard away but missed. Next target of Parrot's torpedoes did not escape as they blasted into Tatsukami Maru, so did Paul Jones' torpedoes strike this ship. Now the confusion became total among the Japanese as they steamed out of the bay and away from the actual attackers. There is some specualtion that the Japanese admiral Nishimura thought the torpedoes were the work of submarines. What is known, the move left the Americans free to attack the transports. And attack they did. In the dark with fires on shore and smoke laying over the water, all four American ships kept attacking the Japanese transports while avoiding colliding with each other; none of these destroyers had radar just binoculars and human eyes. Next victim of the American hit-parade was PC-37, blasted apart by a five torpedo salvo. Then it was the Kuretake Maru to be blasted. At 0347, Ford took the only damage any of the ships suffered when a shell from a transport struck the torpedo workshop injuring four sailors. By 0350 all four American destroyers were out of Balikpapan Bay and steaming home at 32 knots. America's first victory against the much vaunted Japanese juggernaut was under their belt.

Did this victory stop the invasion? No, the Japanese were able to take Balikpapan and its valuable oil. But for once they were stung by the Americans they held in contempt. The price of their hubris were the ships Kuretake Maru, Tsuruga Maru, Tatsukami Maru, Somanoura Maru, and PC-37. Tsuruga Maru fell victim to the Dutch submarine K-18, which is probably where the thought of submarines entered Nishimura's mind.

Of the ships of DesDiv 29 that fought in this battle; Pope was sunk in action against the Japanese on 28 February, 1942. John D. Ford survived the war and was sold for scrap in 1947. Paul Jones survived the war only to be scrapped in 1947. Parrot suffered a collision in 1944 and was stricken in July 1944, she was scrapped in 1947. The Dutch submarine K-XVIII was scuttled at Surabaya on 2 March 1942 to prevent her capture.


Anonymous said...

Really glad to see this post. Veterans from this and other actions of the Asiatic Fleet were at their Reunion in Asheville NC in Spring 06. Video and more about them is at www.chinagunboat.blogspot.com . Keep up the good work!

Anna said...

You are very welcome and thanks for the links. It is an under-reported time in World War II.

Anonymous said...

Do you have any more details on this battle? I live near Balikpapan and have dived on some wrecks but we don't know which is which.