Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I FINALLY got it!!! (or "New additon to the library.")

Fight It Out, by Captain Oliver L. Gordon, RN.

This book has been out of print since the 1960's. It is now impossible to find.

Which I find rather sad. The book was written by the captain of the British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter during the Java Sea Campaign in World War II. The Exeter's role in the campaign was both heroic and tragic, a victim of rotten luck inasmuch as during her two engagements against Nihon Kaigun surface forces (in the Battle of the Java Sea and her subsequent escape attempt with the destroyers HMS Encounter and USS Pope) she was hit by exactly one shell each time -- but each managed to disable her engines. The second time, since she was under the guns of four Japanese cruisers (Myoko, Ashigara, Nachi and Haguro) and a brace of destroyers, proved fatal, as she could not longer avoid subsequent shells or, more importantly, incoming torpedoes.

British cruiser HMS Exeter sinking in the Java Sea March 1, 1942, after being chased down by the Japanese cruisers Myoko and Ashigara.
This rather small action in the Java Sea on March 1, 1942 is interesting because of the mysteries it spawned. The fate of the three Allied ships involved -- Exeter, Encounter and Pope -- was unknown to British and US authorities for sometime, as no one had escaped to tell the tale. Later in the war, however, this photo emerged:

The photo was published in Japanese propaganda material and identified as "the British destroyer HMS Pope." Obviously, there was no HMS Pope; apparently because of the picture and the description, it was determined that this was the USS Pope being blasted to bits in the Java Sea.

However, a film of the incident was captured later, purportedly from the cruiser Ashigara, that showed the entire incident in question. First, it turns out that the photo in question was doctored by the Japanese to show additional shell splashes. Second, it's a crop of a much larger photo that shows the destroyer being blasted in the distance. The film is from a ship that was closer to the destroyer than any that had approached the Pope.

So, if it was not the USS Pope, what was this ship? The USS Edsall.

The Edsall was returning to Tjilatjap, Java after picking up survivors from the tragic sinking of the USS Langley when she disappeared and was never heard from again. It was later determined that on March 1, 1942, she had stumbled across Kido Butai, the Japanese Carrier Striking Force that had attacked Pearl Harbor. Six aircraft carriers (though some records indicate one was under repair), two battleships (Hiei and Kirishima), two heavy cruiser-seaplane carrier-type things (Tone and Chikuma) and one light cruiser (Abukuma) leading a flotilla of destroyers. There was no chance for the Edsall to run away; with the air power of the carriers, there as no place to hide. The Japanese apparently jammed her radio transmissions as well, so her calls for help were silenced. Her skipper, Lt. Joshua Nix first took evasivea ction, but then, in the best tradition of the US Navy (and one that would be repeated throughout the war, most famously off the Komandorskis and off Samar), he turned the Edsall in to attack. It was hopeless -- it was only a question of how long it would take Kido Butai to sink the poor Edsall -- but the nobility of the gesture should not be forgotten. Amazingly, it took quite a while. The the gunnery of the Japanese battleships and cruisers was embarrassingly bad; the Japanese would call it a "fiasco." A sign of things to come. But it was still enough to sink the Edsall. Apparently, only eight of her crew survived, all of whom perished in Japanese POW camps.

For a long time since, the film has been associated with the Edsall, but the picture has continued to be associated with the Pope.  It would take Donald M. Kehn, Jr.'s 2009 book, A Blue Sea of Blood: Deciphering the Mysterious Fate of the USS Edsall, to finally get it right, show the picture came from the film, and identify the picture as the Edsall. A Blue Sea of Blood is a good read, though I do wish Kehn had discussed why the picture was identifed with the Pope in the first place.

As for the Pope, while the relatively famous picture shown above is not her there is indeed a photographic record of her sinking:

Destroyer USS Pope sinking in the Java Sea March 1, 1942, on the other side of Java from the sinking USS Edsall. Taken from a Japanese float plane. The photo was publiched in the magazine Maru Specia #95.
This little-known photo, to the best of my knowledge, has appeared in only one place, the Japanese-language World War II magazine Maru Special, Issue #95. I just got a copy of the magazine. It has some great pictures in it, but since it's all in Japanese I obviously don't understand any of it. Australian diver Kevin Denlay, who has done a lot of his own research into the Java Sea campaign, identified a copy of it on his World Naval Ships forum.

Given the similar circumstances of the Pope's sinking to that of the Edsall, along with the obvious visual similarities and the fact that both took place on the same day relatively close to each other, it seems easy to understand how the two incidents could be confused.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Mr. Cox,

    To answer (rather briefly) one of your questions: the photo of EDSALL being sunk which was misidentified as "HMS POPE" later in Japanese propaganda publications was probably misinformation by the enemy during wartime, in view of 1) similarities in the sinkings, and 2) the fact that 151 men survived POPE's demise to be picked up by IJN destroyers, while ALL from EDSALL perished...including the small number of survivors rescued by the cruiser CHIKUMA who were later beheaded in Kendari, Celebes. A warcrime, in fact.

    The actual ID of EDSALL came in 1952 during research for the "Victory at Sea" TV project, but came with a price: the confusion with itself a long & complicated story. Quite fascinating, but best left to another time, and a different book.