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Twenty Thousand Miles to Home — The Miraculous Voyage of the USS Marblehead

“Marblehead’s journey from the Java Sea to New York took 89 days and covered more than 20,000 miles, much of it with inoperable steering, uncontrolled leaks, limited electrical power and almost no habitable berthing areas.”

By Walter Topp

THREE JAPANESE BOMBS actually saved one American warship from total destruction during the Second World War.

Nearly sunk by Japanese land-based bombers during the Battle of Makassar Strait on Feb. 4, 1942, the American light-cruiser USS Marblehead remained afloat only because of the determination and professionalism of her crew.

Though grievously damaged – a nine-foot hole in her hull, 34 compartments flooded, steering inoperable, electrical power reduced, speed nearly halved – over the next 89 days Marblehead would sail more than 20,000 miles to the U.S. east coast for repairs. Remarkably, the vessel was back in action before the end of the year.

Ironically, had the enemy bombs missed the Marblehead, she almost certainly would have shared the fate of the American cruiser USS Houstonthe Dutch cruisers De Ruyter and Java, the British cruiser HMS Exeterand the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth. All were sunk in the doomed Allied attempt to defend the the Dutch East Indies from Japanese invasion during the first three months of 1942.

But the Marblehead survived, and her crew of more than 450 men avoided death or years of brutal captivity as prisoners of war.

The Marblehead, an Omaha-class cruiser, was something of a relic by 1942. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The U.S. Asiatic Fleet

The USS Marblehead was an Omaha-class light cruiser, designed during the First World War and commissioned in 1923. Intended to serve as a long-range scout for the main force of battleships and heavy cruisers, Marblehead and her sisters were optimized for speed and endurance. They originally carried 12 six-inch guns, mounted in a pair of two-gun turrets and eight casement mounts – an arrangement more appropriate to the Spanish-American War than World War Two.

By the late 1930s, Omaha cruisers were thoroughly obsolete, though Marblehead herself could still approach her designed speed of 34 knots.

Marblehead had been assigned to the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in 1938, as China’s peasant armies struggled to stem the Japanese invasion of their country. For the next three years her officers and crew, along with the rest of the Asiatic Fleet, watched nervously as diplomatic relations between Washington and Tokyo deteriorated. All the while, the Imperial Japanese Navy strengthened its fleet with modern ships and aircraft, gained combat experience and perfected the world’s most potent aircraft carrier strike force.

Meanwhile, America’s Asiatic Fleet remained woefully weak, with just a pair of cruisers – Marblehead and Houston – 12 aging destroyers, 15 submarines and a motley collection of obsolete river craft, escort vessels, minesweepers, tenders and patrol planes.

But even with a war against Japan drawing ever-more certain, the U.S. Navy could not spare additional vessels to shore up its forces in the Far East. American war plans called for the Asiatic Fleet to fight a rear-guard delaying action, supporting U.S. ground forces in the Philippines as long as possible, after which it would retreat south to support the defence of Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. If those efforts failed, its ships would withdraw to Australia.

The U.S. Asiatic Fleet steams through the waters of the Far East in 1942. (Image source: WikiCommons)

War!

But when war came, the power and speed of the Japanese advance shocked the Allies. Eight U.S. battleships were sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and British naval power in Asia was broken with the loss of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales to Japanese air attacks on Dec. 8. U.S. airpower in the Philippines was virtually destroyed the same day, and the American naval base at Cavite in Manila Bay was wrecked by Japanese air attacks on Dec. 10. Before the war was even four days old, any hope for an effective naval defence of the Philippines as gone.

Within weeks, the U.S. Asiatic Fleet became part of a hastily organized American, British, Dutch and Australian joint naval force dubbed the ABDA Command. Unsurprisingly, the group’s aging ships and untrained crews would prove no match for the disciplined, superbly trained and well-equipped Japanese.

If ABDA had been established a year or two sooner, if its units had ever worked together and established communications and operational protocols, if the nations involved had agreed on a common strategy and if the various senior leaders had put aside personal animosities, perhaps it could have mounted a stouter defence.

As it was though, the brief, inglorious history of ABDA was a sad tale of neglect, hubris and hopeless courage in the face of overwhelming Japanese power, leaving the crews of individual ships – including Marblehead – to pay the price.

The end would come quickly for ABDA, but not without a fight.

On Jan. 24, 1942, four U.S. destroyers attacked a Japanese landing force at Balikpapan, sinking four transports and a patrol boat.

Marblehead had originally been assigned to participate in the attack, but engine problems forced her out of the line-up. She was replaced by USS Boise, a recent addition to the ABDA fleet.

But on the day before the attack, Boise struck an uncharted coral head in the Sapi Strait, damaging her hull and forcing her to withdraw to Ceylon for repairs. She, too, would survive the coming disaster. Marblehead was quickly assigned in her stead, but was not able to reach Balikpapan in time to join the attack.

A second attack against Japanese transport shipping planned for Jan. 31 was cancelled when a U.S. scout plane discovered that the enemy force at Balikpapan had been reinforced by additional cruisers and destroyers. So, the Allies assembled a larger force of four cruisers – including Marblehead – and seven destroyers and headed for Makassar Strait.

They never got there.

Japanese bombers, like these Mitsubishi G4M “Bettys,” attacked an Allied fleet in the Makassar Strait. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Makassar Strait

Japanese aircraft spotted the Allied ships near Cape Maduro in the Java Sea and at 9:50 a.m. on Feb. 4 1942, 36 bombers attacked the ABDA task force. No allied vessels were sunk, but the USS Houston suffered a hit that killed 48 sailors and disabled her aft eight-inch gun turret. Marblehead was nearly destroyed.

For more than 30 minutes, Marblehead dodged Japanese bombs, twisting and turning at full speed, and throwing up as much anti-aircraft fire as her gunners could manage. But at 10:26 a.m., eight single-engine Japanese bombers passed directly overhead, dropping a pattern of bombs that straddled the ship. One struck Marblehead’s stern, another struck amidships and a third exploded close aboard forward.

Large fires erupted and the ship quickly listed eight degrees to starboard. Unseen from the bridge, the blast from a near miss off the port bow had ruptured the cruiser’s hull and tons of seawater were rushing into the ship.

Damage below deck was heavy. The bombs had destroyed the wardroom (which was being used as an emergency medical station) and the sick bay itself. The emergency steering room had also sustained damage, which left the ship’s rudders jammed in the hard-left position. With her engines racing, Marblehead could only circle to port as gunners peered skyward on the lookout for more attacks. The main deck was ripped open at the stern; power, water and communications lines were cut; most berthing areas were smashed; and the aft turret was inoperable.

Damage control parties scrambled to extinguish fires, shore up damaged compartments and take stock of the ship. Twelve crewmen were dead and more than 70 were wounded, some mortally.

By noon – less than two hours after the bomb strikes – the fires were out and the rudder had been nearly centred at nine degrees left, although it was still immobile.

But the engines were working and if she could hold together and stay afloat Marblehead might still make better than 20 knots. She could be steered on a general course by adjusting the speed of the engines, although she was continually swinging 40 to 50 degrees off course. Twenty-six compartments were flooded completely and eight others were partially flooded. Although the list had been corrected, Marblehead was down by the head by ten feet and still flooding. She was, in fact, sinking. Already the bow was barely above the sea.

With no reserve buoyancy, all that was keeping Marblehead afloat were the overworked and creaking pumps, helped along by the desperate bailing of the crew. Any further battle damage would almost certainly sink the ship and she was unlikely to survive even moderately heavy seas.

Then there were the wounded. Many needed medical care that the facilities aboard the damaged ship were no longer able to provide. The nearest port with a hospital and rudimentary repair facilities was Tjilitjap, more than 400 miles away. Getting there would require taking the un-steerable and sinking ship through the narrow Lombok Strait, with its rushing four-knot current and uncharted shoals. Marblehead would be escorted by two destroyers, but she would remain within range of Japanese bombers the entire way and would be crossing waters that were likely hiding enemy submarines.

Marblehead‘s crew tend to their damaged ship. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Heading for Safety

Marblehead’s first moments in the strait were hardly promising. As soon as she entered the rushing current, she was pushed 50 degrees off course. Rather than try to recover, Marblehead’s commanding officer, Captain Arthur Robinson, let the ship complete a full circle before trying again. She made it into the strait on the second try, and somehow stayed off the rocks, even as rain squalls reduced visibility to zero.

Marblehead cleared the strait just after midnight and headed west for Tjilatjap. During the long night, the crew struggled to keep their ravaged ship afloat. They gained a slight edge after manhandling a 3.5-ton pump from the engine room to the main deck where it could match the water rushing in through the breached hull.

That afternoon, another flight of Japanese bombers sighted Marblehead and her escorts. But the enemy planes focused their attacks on the destroyer USS Paul Jones, possibly mistaking her for the cruiser, and no planes made runs at Marblehead. Undamaged and fully maneuverable, Paul Jones escaped unscathed. Finally, at dawn on Feb. 6, nearly two days after the battle, Marblehead reached Tjilatjap.

Emergency Repairs

But Marblehead’s troubles were far from over. Although there was a Dutch hospital on the island that could care for the most seriously wounded, and a cemetery for the dead, the only drydock in the small port was a floating dock that was too short to accommodate the 550-foot-long cruiser. Unless they could get the ship’s damaged bow out of the water, repair teams would have no hope of patching the hole in her bottom. They had to try.

Shore workers flooded the dock, sinking it below the keel of Marblehead. It took three tries, but they eventually hauled the cruiser’s bow across the threshold, secured the ship as best they could and pumped out the dock’s tanks, raising the structure and lifting the forward half of Marblehead out of the water. The cruiser slanted alarmingly, but its stern remained afloat.

Workers were finally able to patch the nine-foot hole the near-miss had opened in the ship’s hull. But with the massive main engines located aft, it was too risky even for Marblehead’s dauntless engineers to try to raise the stern, so repairs to the steering gear would have to wait.

The rudder was still inoperable and not all the leaks could be fixed, but Marblehead’s crew could continue to steer by engines and the ship’s pumps might conceivably keep the vessel afloat during the long voyage to the nearest Allied shipyard. Most guns were operable, a temporary patch had been placed over the damaged deck at the stern, additional life rafts were installed, tons of debris was removed from the ship’s interior and a device was constructed that would measure the flexing of the damaged hull to give the crew some warning if the ship were about to break apart. It was time to go.

The Long Journey Home

On Feb. 13, 1942, after six days in Tjilatjap under constant threat of Japanese air attack, Marblehead got underway for Ceylon, nearly 4,000 miles distant. More than 30 badly wounded sailors were left behind to recover at the Dutch hospital; 14 dead crewmen were laid to rest at Tjilatjap’s European Cemetery.

The cruiser had not yet travelled a full mile into her voyage when disaster nearly struck.

Unable to steer a straight course, Marblehead was being towed through the minefield protecting Tjilatjap when the towline parted. The damaged cruiser was suddenly adrift in the narrow channel surrounded by mines. As the tug backed toward the cruiser to remake the tow, she struck Marblehead’s stem hard, bending the cruiser’s bow and opening a new hole near the waterline in the only forward compartment that was still watertight. Miraculously, the Dutch pilot was able to steer Marblehead out of the minefield using the engines.

One more leak wasn’t going to make much difference, so the barely seaworthy and only marginally steerable Marblehead continued on for Ceylon, escorted by the submarine tender USS Otus. The supply ship provided little protection; her task was to pick up any survivors in the entirely likely event that Marblehead foundered in transit.

Throughout the voyage, Marblehead’s crew continued to make repairs. Electricians restored power to more of the ship, while engineers restored fresh water to much of the vessel. They even constructed a make-shift ice machine. The repairs helped, but the ship still needed extensive repairs and dry-docking.

Upon arriving at Ceylon on Feb. 21, Marblehead’s crew was dismayed to learn – though they could hardly have been surprised – that the dockyard was booked for the next month and major repairs would have to wait.

With few options, they continued to work on the ship themselves, and by March 2, they managed to repair the steering motors by using parts salvaged from other equipment that had been damaged in the battle. The rudder wouldn’t have full range of motion and it would have to be operated from the steering engine room rather than the bridge, but it was vastly better than maneuvering by engines alone.

Within an hour of a successful test of the makeshift steering gear, Marblehead was underway. On March 15, the ship reached South Africa, where it refuelled before entering the Royal Navy dockyard at Simonstown on March 24.

On April 15, the freshly patched, fully steerable, and agreeably habitable Marblehead left Simonstown for the final leg of her voyage home. She rounded the Cape of Good Hope, steamed on to Recife, Brazil and finally, on May 4, 1942, reached the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York Harbor, where permanent repairs and modernizing updates were completed.

On Oct. 14, 1942 Marblehead rejoined the U.S. fleet. She served until the end of the war, outlasting virtually the entire Imperial Japanese Navy.

USS Marblehead in New York Harbor. (Image source: WikiCommons)

‘Overshadowed’

Marblehead’s journey from the Java Sea to New York took 89 days and covered more than 20,000 miles, much of it with inoperable steering, uncontrolled leaks, limited electrical power, and almost no habitable berthing areas. Her arrival at New York was heralded by the Navy and the press.

But acclaim for the remarkable dedication and resourcefulness of Marblehead’s crew was overshadowed by the grim news from the Pacific. While the cruiser was limping halfway around the world, Singapore, Java and Bataan had fallen to the Japanese.

Then on May 6, two days after Marblehead reached New York, Corregidor surrendered. More than 100,000 American, Filipino, British, Indian, Dutch and Australian troops were thrown into barbaric captivity. Before the end of the war, tens of thousands of them had died from malnutrition, disease, overwork or had been executed.

The ABDA Afloat command was deactivated in early March, having lost five cruisers, 12 destroyers, and more than 4,500 men, including more than 1,800 Americans. USS Houston was gone – sunk with HMAS Perth at Sunda Strait on March 1, 1942 – and the remnants of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet fled to Australia. Dutch naval power in the Pacific was broken beyond repair and the Royal Navy retreated to the Indian Ocean. British warships wouldn’t return to the Pacific until 1944.

The crew of Marblehead and the other ships of the ABDA naval component fought on long after it was obvious that their force was too weak to stop the Japanese advance. Written off by their own nations, they demonstrated extraordinary courage and an unimaginable devotion to duty that continues to resonate today.

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