Now and then


Cow-calf commentary:

KIMBALL, Neb. – A couple of weeks ago an aunt and uncle visited. They are retired and were spending several weeks roaming the country in their pickup and Airstream RV. They had made a big loop through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska, and were on their way back home to eastern Oregon.

Aunt and Uncle and parked their rig at Point of Rocks RV Park, just east of Potter on Highway 30. For those old enough to remember the distant past, the RV park used to be called Buffalo Bend and featured a motel and restaurant said to provide the only really fine dining between Cheyenne and North Platte. It’s a lovely place, nestled into the Lodgepole Creek bottom and hard by a picturesque siltstone ridge which the creek, Highway 30 and the Union Pacific railroad tracks bend around to accommodate.

Mom and I visited their “home on the road” on one of the last warm evenings of the summer. We had a delightful meal of hamburgers, potato salad and baked beans and sat and visited for several hours.

During the conversation Aunt asked me a number of questions regarding my service in the navy and wondered how she could find more information about her father’s naval service during World War Two. She mentioned that she had a transcript of her dad’s war journal which he’d penned during his time as a Gunner’s Mate in USS Minneapolis (CA-36).

Until this conversation I’d had no idea that my aunt’s father had been a sailor and served in the war. I’d met the fellow once, at Aunt and Uncle’s wedding way back in 1977, but the topic of World War Two certainly never came up. I don’t really remember anything about the man, though I’ve got quite a few snapshots of the wedding party safely digitized. Those images stir a few hazy memories, particularly of my aunt’s little sisters, who were quite fetching in their wedding-party frocks. But I was a teenaged lad in those days, with teenaged thoughts and dreams, and so little of substance about the wedding remains in my memory banks.

The journal that Bill Kruger wrote is sparse. Having served at sea I can read between the lines of his short entries and have a good idea of what he experienced. An underway sailor’s day is filled with work and routine. It was so in the days of sail and will likely be so when sailors sail the seas of space in some distant, future navy.

But then there’s combat, and that’s a different kettle of fish entirely. It’s anything but routine.

Bill Kruger was a Gunner’s Mate 2/C in 1942. He’d joined the navy before the war, in the late 1930’s. In USS Minneapolis he was a member of the ship’s Third Division and served as a Gun Captain in Number One Turret, the forward 8-inch mount of the cruiser.

USS Minneapolis was a Heavy Cruiser. The term heavy referred to her main armament, which consisted of nine eight-inch/55 caliber guns in three turrets, two forward and one aft. Light cruisers carried six-inch main guns, but were otherwise quite similar to their heavy sisters.

Minneapolis was ordered in 1929 and was a so-called treaty cruiser of the New Orleans class. Treaty cruisers were limited in size by the 1925 Washington Naval Treaty, an attempt to control the post-World War One naval arms race. She was 588 feet long and about 62 feet wide and had a draft of up to 23.5 feet with a displacement of around 10,000 tons. In addition to her main armament of eight-inch guns, she had a secondary armament of eight five-inch guns and an ever-changing assortment of 20 and 40 millimeter and .50 caliber antiaircraft guns. Her armor ranged from 1.5 to 5 inches. She could make about 37 knots, driven by four shafts drawing 107,000 horsepower from eight boilers. Her crew consisted of just over 100 officers and about 820 enlisted sailors.

Pre-World War II, U.S. Navy doctrine relied heavily on cruisers to accomplish multiple tasks. They were used as escorts for the main battle fleet and for aircraft carriers, as scouts, as commerce destroyers, as gunfire support ships for Navy and Marine Corps amphibious operations, as fast couriers, and even at times as VIP transportation for American officials including the President.

The attack on Pearl Harbor changed much of that doctrine. With most US battleships sunk or out of action, cruisers were forced into the “heavy” role of the battlewagons, in addition to everything else, particularly escort duties for the now-precious aircraft carriers, as well as scouting and raiding.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Minneapolis was at sea near Hawaii conducting gunnery practice. She was not attacked; later in the day she began scouting for elements of the Japanese fleet. She spent a lot of time at sea over the next few months. In early May she screened the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) during the Battle of Coral Sea (45 years later I served on a carrier named for that battle, the USS Coral Sea). During the battle on May 8 Lexington was lost and Minneapolis took on board more than 800 survivors.

In his journal Bill Kruger wrote: “At sea. This is one day I shall never forget. The Lexington’s and Yorktown’s bombers attacked the Japs. Sank 1 carrier and left another burning. At 11:15 Jap planes attacked us. They sure were after the carriers. We had two torpedoes go under us and one near bomb miss. Our A.A. [anti-aircraft] battery shot down four Jap planes. The Yorktown is leaking oil bad from near bomb misses, but she seems to be O.K. otherwise. The Lexington was hit with four one-thousand pound bombs and five torpedoes. She kept making 23 knots for six hours. Then the fire got out of hand, and the crew had to abandon her. It sure made a lump come in my throat. We picked up about eight hundred men off her. The other ships are loaded down too. Guess there weren’t very many lost. After we pulled away, one of our destroyers sank her with four torpedoes. The Lex was a great ship to the very last. Boy it sure is crowded on here. That’s all.”

A month later, tje Minneapolis participated in the Battle of Midway. She was likely screening aircraft carriers Enterprise (CV-6) or Hornet (CV-8). There were no entries regarding this pivotal battle in Bill Kruger’s journal, though he did record that the ship went north to Alaska in the days following the end of the battle.

On Aug. 7, 1942, US forces invaded Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. This was the first step in driving the Japanese out of their conquered territories. We know how it ended today, but 75 years ago we had no idea how horrific the campaigns to defeat Japan would be. In some ways the Solomon campaign has become a footnote to the history of the war in the Pacific. In late summer and autumn 1942 the brutal reality of war hammered the sailors of three nations, and the idyllic waters of the southwest Pacific became the graveyard of ships, men, and pre-war naval doctrine.

Between Aug. 8 and Nov. 30, six major engagements were fought between Japanese and Allied naval forces. In that short 110 day period losses were astonishingly heavy on both sides.

In those six battles, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) lost two battleships, two heavy and one light cruiser, seven destroyers, 11 transports, and a light carrier, and suffered severe damage to a fleet carrier, light carrier, heavy cruiser and destroyer. They lost 238 aircraft. As for naval personnel, the IJN lost more than 3,517 killed.

Allied naval forces, consisting of US and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships and crews, were savaged. They lost six heavy cruisers (one of them RAN), a pair of light cruisers, nine destroyers, and a fleet carrier. They took damage to five heavy cruisers, four destroyers, and two fleet carriers. They lost 238 aircraft. Personnel losses included 3,753 US and Australian sailors killed.

Bill Kruger reported the initial landings at Guadalcanal and Tulagi, and the night Battle of Savo Island this way:

Aug. 7

We attacked Tulagi this morning. Wasp (CV-7) fighters shot down 9 zero and 1 float type fighters and 4 patrol bombers. Sank one transport. Guadalcanal and Tulagi have both been occupied by our marines and everything is under control.

Aug. 8

One of our destroyers reported hit by bomb at Tulagi during Jap raid, air defense sounded at 12:05. Our fighters shot down ten or twelve Jap bombers. 13:25 Secured from air defense.

Aug. 9

We were at air defense stations most all day. The Japs are sending bombers from Rabaul. Many have been shot down. U.S.S. Quincy (CA-39) reported sunk last night by torpedoes. Also heard the Chicago was hit. Hope Frank Renner is O.K.

Aug. 12

Nothing new today. We heard that only 152 officers and men saved from the Quincy.

The Battle of the Eastern Solomons took place on Aug. 24-25. U.S. forces sank four IJN ships, including a light carrier and light cruiser. U.S.S. Enterprise (CV-6) was heavily damaged and the U.S. lost 20 aircraft, with 90 men killed. The Minneapolis was not damaged in the fight. Bill Kruger recorded his experiences:

Aug. 24

Today was the day we have been waiting for. At 1:20 I saw our fighters shoot down a 4 motored Jap flying boat. At about 2 o’clock we had torpedo defense. Our fighters shot down two more flying boats out of a flight of 12. They turned and ran. We launched three attack groups, two from the “Saratoga” and one from the “Enterprise.” The “Enterprise’s” planes went into Tulagi after the attack so we haven’t heard the results. The “Saratoga’s” planes hit two Jap carriers, left one stopped and burning. Also hit two Jap cruisers and one battleship. At 4:50 we had torpedo defense and were attacked by 80 Jap planes. The only ship hit was the “Enterprise.” She has the fire out and the flight deck repaired. She has several of her after compartments flooded. But from the looks of things she is O.K. We have not received any word on how many Jap planes were shot down. But the people in ship forward said they were falling so fast, they couldn’t count them.

Aug. 25

Received word that the fighter group on Tulagi intercepted a Jap force headed out to attack us. The results were five Jap twin motored bombers shot down and eleven zero fighters. Our losses were three fighter planes.

Received word that our force at Tulagi found a Jap convoy 90 miles north of Tulagi, bombed them, and left a heavy cruiser and a large transport burning.

We headed south all last night and today. We met our tankers about 2 o’clock. We should be through fueling by midnight. Then we will head north again.

In September, October, and most of November, Bill Kruger’s journal is filled with much routine and a few bits of action. Then came the night of November 29-30 and the Battle of Tassafaronga.

Nov. 29

Got underway at midnight. We are making 27 knots headed for Guadalcanal. The force is made up of three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, four destroyers, and ourselves.

Nov. 30

At 11:28 P.M. we attacked a Jap force of destroyers, cruisers, and transports. This ship sank two destroyers, one cruiser, and one large transport. As I was loading the tenth salvo in my gun, I felt a terrific impact. I could not tell where we were hit, but I know it was bad. When we were hit it blanked me out for a few seconds. After my head cleared I finished my load, we fired that one (it sank a destroyer), and loaded again. As we finished the eleventh load we lost all power and shifted to hand. I received word to take as many men as I needed and rig for auxiliary power. As I went out of the turret, I could see ships burning all around us. There was still much firing going on, and many shells going over us. We were dead in the water. The ship was down at the bow, and listed to port. When I reached the shell deck I saw a very large cruiser blow up amidships about six thousand yards off our port beam. It had to be a Jap, because I never saw one like it before. It lit us up like day and I expected all hell to break loose. But no one fired on us. About this time one of the men from the turret came out and told me they had power again. I went back in, and we trained around looking for a target. But we did not fire again. We were ordered out of the turret and to stand by the life rafts. After all hands were out of the turret I went down through to see if all hands got out. When I reached the shell deck I met Smith J.W. and he was going down for the same reason. We went together but found that everyone was clear. We went out and helped put life rafts in the water. At about four in the morning it looked as if we could save the ship. And I was ordered to man my 20mm gun on top of the turret, as we expected an air attack. As daylight came P.T. boats and two tugs came out to help us. A tug took us in tow, and we headed for “Tulagi” harbor. We reached there about nine in the morning. We were hit with five torpedoes, two which blew 88 feet of our bow off. And three in number two fireroom. They also flooded number one and three firerooms. We had thirty-seven dead, and many injured. By the grace of God I am well.

That was the last entry in Bill Kruger’s war journal. If you think about it, you might understand why. Bill survived the war, of course, married, had kids, had a career, and lived a long, full life of more than 80 years. He passed away in 2004.

In an interesting coincidence, a sailor from Kimball served with Bill Kruger in USS Minneapolis. Charles M. Lanning was a Chief Boilermaker. He also joined the navy before the war and may have been a year or two older. Charles Lanning did not survive the war. He was killed that November night at Tassafaronga. As a boilermaker, his battle station would have been in one of the engineering firerooms, and it’s quite likely he was killed when the Japanese torpedoes struck amidships after the bow was blown off.

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