The Epic Battle of the Edsall vs. IJN's "First Air Fleet"
On March 1, 1942 the USS Edsall
had initially left the USS Pecos
to head for Tjilatjap, Java to deliver the 32 US Army Air Corps pilots to their remaining planes. However, an hour after leaving Pecos
ABDACOM sent a message that the Japanese had landed on Java and all ships were to escape to Australia. Dutifully, and I'm sure with some relief for the airmen, Captain Nix headed to Australia.
Then at noon the Edsall
picked up a distress call from the Pecos
. She turned around and went back towards Christmas Island. However, unlike USS Whipple
, she couldn't run as fast, the depth charge damage still limited her top speed to 26 knots. Little did her captain know that the lack of repairs had certainly doomed the ship.
Back on February 25, 1942, First Air Fleet (Kido Butai
) commander Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo was given the mission to enter the Indian Ocean and “to cut off any escape of the Allied Forces.”
The First Air Fleet was split with half of his carriers detached supporting the invasion of the Dutch East Indies from the north along with the fast Battleship Division 3/1, the Kongo
, and some cruisers and destroyers. Personally Nagumo led the rest south consisting of the aircraft carriers Sōryū
escorted by the fast battleships of Battleship Division 3/2, the Hiei
, plus Cruiser Division 8 consisting of Tone
, Destroyer Squadron 1 and six fleet oilers. The sea is full of merchant shipping fleeing the Dutch East Indies and Philippines for the presumed safety of Darwin, Australia not knowing the First Air Fleet has already rendered the port inoperable. The Japanese aircrews are having a field day.Hiei and Kirishima are Kongo class battleships, Tier V in World of Warships
On March 1, 1942 the First Air Fleet reconnaissance planes from CruDiv 8 have so far found the USS Pecos
and the fleet is going to attack it by carrier planes. Then at 1130 hours another float plaine spots the Dutch merchantman Modjokerto
, aided by the destroyers Kasumi
, goes after Modjokerto
sinks the merchantman by gunfire and then rescues survivors from the sea.
At noon the first wave from Sōryū
reaches the Pecos
. Both carriers are committed to sinking this fat prize when at 1550 hours one of the A6M2 Type 0 Model 11 "Zeke" fighters flying Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the fleet spots what he identifies as a "Marblehead
class" light cruiser trailing the fleet 30 km away. It is the Edsall
, the pilot counted four funnels on the old Clemson
class destroyer and thought it was a four stack Omaha
class light cruiser.Tone and Chikuma are Tone class premium cruisers, Tier VII in World of Warships
At 1552 hours Vice Admiral Nagumo learns of the sighting and orders Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa's BatDiv 3/2 aided by CruDiv 8 to sink it. Admiral Mikawa must've thought it was a fox hunt as he ordered the Kongo
class battleships Hiei
, his flagship into the lead and Kirishima
trailing into the chase while sending Tone
to "hound' the prey from the starboard and port respectively.
At 1602 hours, barely twelve minutes from being sighted by the "Zero," the Tone
first spots the Edsall
and visa versa. One minute later Chikuma
opens fire at extreme range, 21 km, with all the guns she can bring to bear but all of the 8" (203 mm) shells do nothing but kill fish. Captain Nix pours on the oil and lights off a smoke screen. The Edsall
disappears from view but the Japanese ships have the speed to run the damaged destroyer down. It will only be a matter of time before they get her. Nix knows this but he plans on making them work hard for the kill.
At 1616 hours Hiei
spots the Edsall
and opens fire at a range of 27.9 km. Captain Nix sees the flash of the battlewagon's guns and immediately turns his ship. As the enemy fleet fires he changes directions, slows and speeds up again, and turns circles around their splashes. To aid in spotting the shifty destroyer Admiral Mikawa orders all spotting planes launched at 1619 hours. Then at 1620 hours he orders, "All ships charge!" At 1639 Mikawa orders all ships to flank speed. But even with the aid of the planes the battleships and cruisers can't hit their crafty foe.
For the next hour and a half Nix nimbly evades every salvo the Japanese can throw at him. He uses smoke and rain squalls to slip briefly out of view giving his crews a respite from the fire. At 1756 hours Nix gamely makes a run at the Chikuma
firing torpedoes but they miss. Bravely Nix even orders the Edsall
to close on his foes and opens fire with his 4" (102mm) guns but the shells simply fall short. Meanwhile the Japanese are firing with everything they've got.
At 1800 hours Chikuma
has to quit firing due to a rain squall. It is around that time that reports start to come in from the main gun magazines that the cruiser is almost out of 8" ammunition. CruDiv 8 has fired 844 main gun shells and 62 secondary gun shells at Edsall
for a total of 1 non-crippling hit by Tone
and that only finally comes at 1835 hours.
The situation aboard the flagship is not much better. Out of 210 14" rounds and 70 6" rounds fired by Hiei
, only one 14" round hit at 1824 hours and it didn't seem to faze the destroyer. It likely over-penetrated causing minimal damage. Kirishima
's gun reports were no better, in fact out of 87 14" and 62 6" the battleship had not made one single hit on their small foe. Edsall
had dodged 1335 rounds of heavy caliber fire with only two hits. Admiral Mikawa admitted defeat, if they continued the fleet would be out of ammunition before they would sink the destroyer. The fox was winning.
Admiral Nagumo was furious when the request came for carrier aircraft to sink the Edsall
. His aircrews and service personnel were tired from the repeated attacks against the Pecos
which also had proven hard to sink despite having almost no effective AA guns. Against the backdrop of the setting sun he ordered two waves of air strikes against the Edsall
. And he wasn't going to let the little gnat get away with dodging these bombs. Nagumo ordered the largest ship-killers he had in his arsenal to be loaded on the planes, 1,100 lb. (500 kg.) along with 550 lb. (250 kg.) HE bombs.
From 1827 hours to 1850 hours the planes attack the destroyer as Nix tries to evade. But near misses can be as bad as hits, especially with the big bombs. Eight of them either hit the ship or close enough to damage it. The pilots radio back success as a fire rages amidship and the destroyer looks to be out of control. In fact the engine room is flooding from her opened seams. In a final gesture of defiance Captain Nix turns the ship straight at his foes, offering the smallest target to them and looking that if he could he would resume his attacks on them. Then he begins evacuating the ship.The death of the USS Edsall captured on movie stock but blown up and used for Japanese propaganda. Even then they couldn't get it right. They misidentified the ship as the HMS Pope, confusing the USS Pope with British ships that were attacked on the same day as the Edsall was sunk.Chikuma
wastes no time and closes on the dead ship to finish her with 5" secondary guns, likely the only ones with enough ammunition to spare. Aboard the Tone
a crewman has gotten a movie camera out and records 90 seconds of Edsall
's final moments including when the Chikuma
must've hit her magazine as she leaps from the sea with the explosion. At 1900 hours the Edsall
rolls over and "shows her red bottom" as one officer aboard the Tone
notes. The gallant ship and her able captain, Lt. J.J. Nix, are gone for good. The US Navy never hears of the story of Edsall
's loss and merely chalks her disappearance as a loss of war, her crew "missing in action - presumed dead." There are no headlines, no honors or medals awarded. The Japanese quietly among themselves term the encounter a "fiasco."