Tuesday, October 25, 2011

USS Barton (DD-599)

Figure 1: USS Barton (DD-599) in Boston Harbor, Boston, Massachusetts, 29 May 1942, the day she was commissioned. Official US Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Barton (DD-599) in Boston Harbor, Boston, Massachusetts, on the day she was commissioned, 29 May 1942. Official US Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Barton (DD-599), date and place unknown. US Navy Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after John Kennedy Barton (1853-1921), a former Chief of the US Navy’s Bureau of Steam Engineering, USS Barton was a 1,620-ton Benson class destroyer that was built by the Bethlehem Steel Company at Quincy, Massachusetts, and was commissioned on 29 May 1942. The ship was approximately 348 feet long and 36 feet wide, had a top speed of 37 knots, and had a crew of 208 officers and men. Barton was armed with four 5-inch guns, four 40-mm guns, seven 20-mm guns, 10 21-inch torpedo tubes, and depth charges.

Following a brief shakedown cruise off the coast of Maine, Barton began escorting various ships off the New England coastline starting in July 1942. She was ordered to the Pacific on 23 August and, after transiting the Panama Canal at the end of August, Barton joined Task Group (TG) 2.12 at the Tonga Islands, arriving at Tongatabu on 12 September. Shortly after that, Barton sailed to Noumea, New Caledonia.

At this time, the battle for Guadalcanal was being fought in earnest. On 2 October 1942, Barton joined Task Force 17 which was leaving Noumea and headed for the Shortland Islands, where Japanese forces were rumored to be gathering for an attack on Guadalcanal. Task Force 17 was built around the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8), along with two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and four other destroyers. By 5 October, Hornet’s planes reached the Shortland Islands and, although plagued by bad weather, damaged two Japanese destroyers and sank one transport. But the bulk of the Japanese fleet was not there.

By now, the Japanese were desperate to destroy the one major airstrip held by the Americans on Guadalcanal, called Henderson Field. Whoever controlled the airstrip controlled the skies and the shipping around Guadalcanal, which made the airfield such an important target. The Japanese began daily air raids against the airfield and mounted nightly bombardments by surface warships as well. The Japanese then sent a major task force to engage the American Navy off Guadalcanal and the two forces met on 26 October 1942 in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Barton was still escorting Hornet, which was also joined by the carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6). During the massive battle that followed, Barton provided anti-aircraft cover for Hornet but the carrier was hit repeatedly by Japanese aircraft and began to sink. Barton rescued 250 of Hornet’s crew before the carrier went down. Although the battle was basically a draw (with two Japanese carriers severely damaged for the loss of Hornet), this was only the beginning of Japan’s naval assault on Guadalcanal.

After making a daring rescue of 17 American crewmen and passengers that were on board a C-47 aircraft that crashed on a reef near Guadalcanal, Barton returned to Noumea and was assigned to Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner’s Task Force 67. The task force rendezvoused with Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan’s Task Force 67.4 just east of Guadalcanal (near San Cristobal Island) on the morning of 11 November 1942. The two admirals received intelligence reports that a major Japanese naval task force was headed for Guadalcanal. At the same time, a large number of American troop and cargo ships were going to be unloading their badly needed cargo onto the beaches of Guadalcanal. The American warships had to protect the cargo ships from the oncoming Japanese task force.

By 0718 on the morning of 12 November 1942, the cruiser USS Helena (CL-50) and the destroyer Shaw (DD-373) joined Barton in firing on Japanese batteries on land that were firing on the American transports. The counter-battery fire coming from the American warships was extremely accurate and silenced the Japanese guns. This allowed the American transports to continue unloading their troops and cargo without interruption. During the daylight hours, Japanese aircraft tried to attack the cargo ships, but accurate anti-aircraft fire destroyed many enemy warplanes without the loss of any cargo ships.

Then came nighttime. Knowing that the Japanese were approaching, Rear Admiral Turner moved the transports away from the beach and ordered Rear Admiral Callaghan to meet the oncoming Japanese warships. Rear Admiral Turner concluded that this was the only way to stop the Japanese. Even if Callaghan’s force was annihilated, the attack would prevent the Japanese from bombarding Henderson Field and it would inflict so much damage on the enemy that it would allow Turner to continue unloading his merchant ships onto Guadalcanal.

At 1815 on the evening of 12 November, Rear Admiral Turner’s troop transports and cargo ships steamed eastward, away from Guadalcanal. At the same time, Rear Admiral Callaghan’s task force headed north to intercept the Japanese. The ships were deployed in a single column, with four destroyers leading five cruisers followed by another four destroyers, with Barton being among those last four ships. At 0124 on the morning of 13 November 1942, American radar on board the lead ships located the enemy. It was a Japanese task force under the command of Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe and it consisted of two battleships, one light cruiser, and 14 destroyers.

When the two columns of warships finally slammed into each other, a melee ensued. Some of the ships were only 1,000 yards from each other when the firing began. As the battle continued, the ships from both sides got mixed up, making shooting even more difficult. Barton opened fire with her forward 5-inch guns as soon as she saw the enemy searchlights illuminating the American ships ahead of her. Barton’s forward guns were aimed to port and fired roughly 60 rounds, while her two aft guns fired about 10 rounds each. Barton then altered course to port, moving closer to the enemy column of warships, and launched five torpedoes at the Japanese. Barton’s guns fired for about seven more minutes before the ship had to stop to avoid colliding with the ship in front of it, possibly the destroyer USS Aaron Ward (DD-433). But in stopping, Barton became a perfect target for the Japanese destroyers. After a few seconds, the Japanese destroyer Amatsukaze, which was only 3,000 yards away, fired a torpedo that hit the forward part of Barton. A few seconds later, a second torpedo hit Barton in her forward engine room. There were two tremendous explosions from these torpedo hits that literally broke the ship in half. USS Fletcher (DD-445) which was bringing up the rear of the American column, saw Barton explode at 0156. Lookouts on board Fletcher later stated that Barton “simply disappeared in fragments.”

Ironically, the flames from what was left of Barton and her burning fuel oil illuminated the area, enabling Fletcher’s lookouts to see the wake of a torpedo that was headed straight for her. Fletcher altered course to avoid the torpedo, but in doing so the destroyer moved straight through a group of Barton’s survivors that were struggling in the water. Only 42 of Barton’s crew were later rescued by the cruiser USS Portland (CA-33), as well as by some landing craft from Guadalcanal.

Among the dead was the ship’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Douglas H. Fox. As a tribute to this fine officer, a destroyer, USS Douglas H. Fox (DD-772), was named after him. But the enormous sacrifice made by the US Navy that night in terms of men and warships was not in vain. The Japanese task force not only suffered huge losses, but it was prevented from bombarding and destroying Henderson Field. It was a major victory against terrible odds and it enabled the Marines to hold onto Guadalcanal.

As for Barton, she earned four battle stars for the roughly six months she was in service. In 1992, an expedition that was examining the wrecks off Guadalcanal located part of Barton. She lies in more than 2,000 feet of water southeast of Savo Island. All that was found was the first 100 feet or so of her bow, resting on its port side with both forward five-inch guns still facing port. The ship’s stern section should be nearby, but was never found.