US Battleship Destroys 32 Jap Planes in Fight

Washington (AP) --An American battleship bristling with anti-aircraft guns destroyed an entire flight of 20 enemy dive bombers in an October sea-air battle in the South Pacific, the Navy reported Sunday. The battleship destroyed a total of 32 Japanese planes before the enemy finally ceased trying to sink it.

The ship took only one bomb hit, on a turret, and damage was so quickly repaired that it was able to go into the battle of Guadalcanal Nov. 14.

The whole thrilling story of this unidentified vessel's part in South Pacific fighting during October and November was told in the first detailed account of how an American battle wagon had acquitted itself under enemy air and surface attack.

The ship was commanded by Capt. Thomas Leigh Gatch, Annapolis, Md. In the battle of Santa Cruz Island Oct. 26 it was part of an aircraft carrier task force which was attacked by the planes of a Japanese force of three carriers moving southward from north of the Solomon Islands. The battleship was assigned to escort one of our carriers.  The enemy planes apparently had this carrier as their main objective, but upon spotting the battleship, they veered to attack. The first assault was by an enemy dive bomber and Capt. Gatch reported tersely "All were shot down."

There were two more assaults by torpedo planes and dive bombers. With the help of fighter planes from the American force, the battleship, scoring destruction of 12 more enemy aircraft with its own guns was so fully protected that it suffered only the turret hit. A fragment of the bomb struck Capt. Gatch in the neck, severing an artery, and the explosion threw him against the ships conning tower, knocking him unconscious and tearing shoulder muscles. He recovered quickly and less than three weeks later again took his battleship to sea...and into the second phase of the battle of Guadalcanal which in mid-November broke the Japanese drive to retake the island. (the first phase was that in which an American cruiser force, including the Boise and San Francisco distinguished  themselves early Nov. 18)

Gatch reported that the American battleship force moved into the strait between Guadalcanal and nearby Savo Island, expecting a trap - "we wanted to get 'caught.' They had set this trap for foxes and we didn't think it would hold bears."

The battleships were cruising leisurely when they spotted enemy war vessels several miles off -- a large cruiser and two smaller cruisers in column. The battleships opened with 16-inch guns and almost immediately flames from the large enemy cruiser illuminated the entire seascape. All three cruisers were sunk before they could get within range of our ships. "They never knew what sank them," Capt. Gatch reported. At this point the Japanese sprang their trap. The American force picked up an enemy destroyer or light cruiser dead astern and the battleship fired three salvos from its after-turret. The Jap vessel burst into flame, threw its bow high into the air, and sank stern first. The American battleship force then went into the narrow, dangerous channels west of Savo and struck out in column with Gatch's ship last.

As they neared Savo's southern end Japanese cruisers turned four searchlights on our column as it and other cruisers and a Japanese battleship opened fire.

"Within a second after the searchlights were on us," Gatch said, "our secondary batteries opened up and their searchlights went out, Then, 30 seconds later, our main batteries fired. We were fighting the cruiser. One of our own battleships ahead of us was pouring shells into the Jap battleship, but now and again the big enemy ship would turn one our way, until the US battleship ahead silenced it.

Gatch's ship received a hit on the conning tower. A fire started there and was quickly extinguished. The US battleships and their destroyers had sunk on Jap battleship or heavy cruiser, three cruisers and one destroyer, and had damaged another battleship, a cruiser and a destroyer.
In the earlier Santa Cruz battle the enemy lost more than 100 aircraft, according to Navy reports previously released, and probably lost 50 more. American planes from the carrier task force including Gatch's ship damaged two Japanese aircraft carriers, a battleship and five cruisers. US surface ship losses in this battle were an unidentified aircraft carrier and the destroyer Porter. The carrier, severely damaged in battle went down several hours later.

U. S. Battleship Downs 32 Jap Planes
Capt. Thomas Leigh Gatch
Skipper of battlewagon that blasted Japs
Washington DC, Jan 3, 1941
The Navy disclosed tonight how an American battleship in the Solomon's beat off the heaviest air assault ever made on a dreadnaught, downed 32 out of 84 Japanese planes and was damaged so slightly that it subsequently sand four enemy warships -- 
three cruisers and a destroyer. The action occurred prior to and during the three day naval battle of Nov. 13-15 in the vicinity of Savo Island when U.S. forces sand 28 Jap ships.
Guarding Carriers. The air assault came in three stages. In the first the anti-aircraft fire of the dreadnaught brought down every one of 20 dive bombers. Twelve more enemy planes were destroyed in the two succeeding attacks in which respectively 40 and 24 Jap planes were employed. The unidentified battleship, commanded by Capt. Thomas L. Gatch, was escorting one of a group of aircraft carriers as they moved out to meet three enemy carriers the Navy said. Twenty Jap planes, spotting the war ship dove in confidently. But, Gatch reported, the dreadnaught unleashed a terrific barrage from automatic anti-aircraft guns and a secondary battery of larger guns. Fighters from the carrier also sprang into action.
Afraid of ramming. "The first attack lasted 11:12 to 11:20 on Oct. 26," he said.
"There were 20 enemy dive bombers. All were shot down."
The battleship was "cutting circles and figure-eights and other maneuvers without names," he added, as it sought to avoid enemy bombs. "I was more afraid of ramming the carrier we were protecting than the attacking planes," he said. Half an hour later, 40 enemy torpedo planes and dive bombers returned to the attack, approaching at the rate of about one every minute or minute and a half. All but one torpedo plane either fell or turned, Gatch said.
Bomber gets through "It (the torpedo plane) came at the stern of the ship." He continued. "It appeared that millions of tracer shells went right past that plane without hitting it, but some did strike it and at the right time. They struck just before the pilot released his torpedo. The plane jarred out of its line of flight and the torpedo was released well up in the air. It seemed that the torpedo would drop on the ship, but passed over the fantail and fell in the sea . . . the planes wings were shot off. It struck the water and sank."  Twenty-four Jap torpedo planes and dive bombers roared in an hour later. This time the dive bomber got through, damaging a turret and injuring Gatch. But the attack passed without further hits.
Japs in the Dark. "The battleships 16-inch guns swung to drop their monstrous projectiles at the range." Gatch said. "they were on the beam; flames from the big leading cruiser illuminated the others. All three cruisers were sunk before their own guns were within range of the battleship." 
"In a desperate effort to see the thing that was hitting them, the Japanese fired a salvo of star shells which fell thousands of yards short. They never knew just what sank them." Later the battleship caught eight sight of an enemy destroyer or light cruiser and sank it with a three salvos from a single turret, Gatch said.
Then a Jap battleship flanked by more cruisers and destroyers tangled with Gatch's ship and another U. S. battleship. The latter silenced the enemy battleship while Gatch's vessel poured shells into the cruisers. A cruisers shells started a fire on Gatch's ship, but it was quickly extinguished as the Japs withdrew. 

The U.S.S.South Dakota, which downed 23 Jap planes and sank three enemy cruisers, is shown as it was launched in Philadelphia, June, 1941.

So. Dakota Revealed As Gatch's Hero Ship
Washington, D.C. Oct 2

This famous "battleship" which shot down 32 planes in one engagement and then sank three Japanese cruisers, was identified today by the Navy as the U.S.S. South Dakota.

Under command of Capt. Thomas L. Gatch - now Rear Admiral Gatch, Judge Advocate General of the Navy - the South Dakota made her big score the night of Nov 14 off the point of Savo Island in the Solomon's. She was prowling in search of enemy shipping when the three cruisers came into sight. The first salvo from the South Dakota set ablaze one of the cruisers. Before the other enemy warships could get within range, the South Dakota had sunk them all. Earlier she had slugged her way through a heavy air attack, shooting down 32 planes.

First of New Class

The Navy said the battleship's identity had been kept secret for nearly a year because she was the first ship of a new class bearing new armament and with greatly increased fire power. To have identified her as the South Dakota, the Navy said, would have given the enemy valuable information on the new class.

The South Dakota sister ships in the hard slugging class are U.S.S.Indiana and the U. S. S. Alabama. Gatch told of the aerial assault and the subsequent surface battle in a formal report in which he declared "I was more afraid of ramming the carrier we were protecting than attacking planes."

Telling of one of the aerial attacks, he said only a single torpedo plane of a group of about 40 Jap bombers did not fall or, turn back from the South Dakota's fire.

"It came at the stern of the ship." He reported. "It appeared that millions of tracer shells went right past that plane without hitting it, but some did strike it and at the right time. They struck just before the pilot released his torpedo." The torpedo missed and the plane struck the water and sank. Earlier 20 enemy dive bombers had been shot down in the first of three attacks on the battleship."

Wounded by Lone Hit. The third attack brought 24 dive bombers and torpedo planes. One bomb landed on top of a turret. "That was the only hit we took and it was the one that got me." said Gatch. A fragment of bomb struck him in the neck.

Describing the surface engagement, Gatch said the Japs thought they had set a trap for American war vessels between the islands of Guadalcanal and Savo. "We wanted to get caught." Gatch added. "They weren't expecting us; they set this trap for foxes and it wouldn't hold bears."

"They never knew what sank them."