Battle of Cape Esperance, 12 October 1942
It was a dark night, with long swells running. The U.S.S. Boise, knifing along at 25 knots, was part of a cruiser column, screened by destroyers, sent to head off a Jap landing force in the Solomons. Suddenly there were enemy ships to starboard. Over the Boise's telephone jut-jawed Captain Edward J. ("Mike") Moron spoke to the spotter in No. 1 position: "How many ships have you spotted?"
"I have five in sight, sir."
"Pick out the biggest one and fire."
As the battered Boise came home for repairs last week, the U.S. people could add Mike Moran's seven words to the small and oft-repeated catalogue of their heroes' laconic battle phrases. They were better words, perhaps, than John Paul Jones's "I have not yet begun to fight," better, certainly, than Commodore George Dewey's pale and measured, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley." They mirrored the tempo of 1942's savage fighting; they caught the spirit of a confident U.S.: the bigger they are the harder they fall.
One-Ship Fleet. The Boise was a tired ship as she nosed up the Delaware River to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Patchwork covered a gaping hole in her hull, her tall mast was scorched by flame, great blisters of paint bulged from her stanchions. Hundreds of shell fragments had scarred and pocketed her. But she moved proud and unfaltering through the early-morning haze. In the Solomons that terrible night in October, she had slugged it out with six Jap warships, had taken everything they threw at her, had lost 107 of her men and all of her beauty—but every one of the Jap ships is now at the bottom of the sea.
No human hero of World War II ever received a more rousing welcome. River boats tooted their greetings, sailors swarmed over the decks of adjoining ships to wave and yell at her, thousands of workmen set up a cheer. A bosun piped lean Admiral Ernest J. King, COMINCH, aboard; he grimly surveyed the damage, examined the six Japanese flags painted beneath her bridge. Said he: "Well done." Said grinning Captain Mike Moran: "She's a grand ship."
Twenty-seven Minutes of Hell. Mike Moran had always gone on the theory that a light cruiser like the Boise, when caught in heavy action, was expendable. Try to stay afloat for 15 minutes and do all the damage you can. The Navy's communiqué told how the Boise had done its damage:
"The Boise made out six enemy ships [the first spotter had missed one]. . . . Captain Moran laid his main batteries on the leading heavy ship . . . then he gave the order to fire. In a matter of seconds the first target was lit up. ... The Boise's guns hit her again & again for four minutes and she sank, going down by the bow with her screws still turning.
"In the meantime splashes from the Boise's lighter guns were observed on either side of a smaller ship. Shortly this ship could no longer be seen, although the shell splashes were still visible. . . . One minute later the Boise had her main batteries trained on another destroyer. This ship exploded and disappeared after one minute of the Boise's murderous fire.
"Sixty seconds later the shifty Boise was concentrating everything her guns would throw on a fourth target. . . . This contact lasted four minutes and the Boise took a hit from an eight inch shell and several hits from five inch shells. The captain's cabin was demolished. A direct hit put one of her five-inch guns out of action. But in short order the enemy, which had been burning very brightly, exploded violently several times and was not seen again. . . . For two minutes the Boise had no target. Then fires were observed burning on an enemy destroyer. For two minutes Captain Moran's guns hit her and she disappeared." Finally a Jap destroyer opened up with deadly fire, but the Boise disposed of her with the help of other U.S. ships.
In 27 minutes of the deadliest close-range fighting, the Boise had fired more than 1,000 rounds of five-and six-inch shells. Her sister ships had given her up for lost, but two hours later—her exploded magazine flooded, her bulkhead shored up, her shell holes stuffed with bedding—she ghosted into her regular station in column. "She was down by the head, but on an even keel."
The U.S. people had a new hero—made of steel—and an immortal phrase.