By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
Recently, I had the honor to meet with national treasure Chief Johnny Jon Gordon (U.S. Navy retired) at the USS San Francisco (CA-38) Memorial in Lands End Park within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Calif. Johnny served aboard the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco during the entirety of the Pacific War, including surviving Pearl Harbor, the ferocious night battle off Guadalcanal, and kamikaze attacks off Okinawa. All told, USS San Francisco received 17 Battle Stars (third most of any ship in U.S. naval history) and a Presidential Unit Citation. At 94, Johnny remains extremely sharp, mobile, and energetic, and a font of information about his ship. His desire that the legacy of sacrifice and heroism of the San Francisco’s crew not be forgotten led him to found the USS San Francisco Memorial Foundation to create and preserve the memorial, and he still serves as Vice President.
The USS San Francisco Memorial itself is a simple but stunningly sobering testimonial to the extraordinary courage of those who sacrificed everything to persevere and emerge victorious against a tenacious foe in World War II. Consisting of the starboard and port wings of the ship’s navigation bridge, removed from the ship following the Battle of Guadalcanal, the port wing is shot full of holes from the numerous Japanese shells that hit the ship during the battle, killing virtually the entire senior leadership onboard. Despite near-mortal damage, the more junior members of the crew fought on, against great odds, accomplishing their mission and ultimately saving their ship.
On the night of Nov. 12-13,1942 in waters already known as “Ironbottom Sound” for the number of ships sunk in battle, the USS San Francisco served as the flagship for Rear Adm. Daniel Callaghan. Already seriously damaged by air attack earlier in the day, USS San Francisco led an ad hoc force of four other cruisers and eight destroyers facing off against two Japanese battleships, one light cruiser and a swarm of destroyers armed with the deadly Japanese “Long Lance” torpedoes, in a desperate attempt to keep the Japanese battleships from bombarding the U.S. Marines’ critical Henderson Airfield on Guadalcanal. The result was an incredibly vicious night close-quarters melee that Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison described as “like minnows in a bucket.” At one point the U.S. destroyer Laffey came within 20 feet of the Japanese battleship Hiei, raking the ship with machine gun fire, wounding the Japanese admiral and killing his chief of staff.
Callaghan’s force succeeded in accomplishing their objective at a staggeringly high cost. Over 1,400 U.S. Sailors were killed. The U.S. cruisers Atlanta and Juneau were sunk (Juneau took almost her entire crew, including the five Sullivan brothers, to the bottom with her when the crippled ship was hit by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine the next day, while Rear Adm. Norman Scott and many others perished on Atlanta, many the result of “friendly fire” in the chaotic battle, some inflicted by the San Francisco.) The destroyers Barton, Cushing, Laffey and Monssen were also lost with great loss of life. Most of the rest of the U.S. force was gravely damaged, including the San Francisco. Miraculously, the destroyer USS O’Bannon survived the horrific battle with no casualties, an enviable streak that continued for 16 more battles.
The Japanese also suffered great damage, losing two destroyers, while the battleship Hiei was so seriously damaged, her steering lost as a result of hits from the San Francisco, that she was sunk the next day by aircraft flying from the undamaged Henderson field. U.S. aircraft from Henderson also sank at least seven Japanese transports the next day that were carrying several thousand troops trying to reinforce Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, an action that was pivotal in enabling the Marines to retain control of Guadalcanal despite intense Japanese efforts to throw the Marines back in to the sea, and ultimately turning the tide of the hard-fought campaign in the Solomon Islands to Allied victory.
Aboard the USS San Francisco, 100 Sailors and seven Marines were killed, including Rear Adm. Callaghan, and the ship’s captain, Cassin Young. (Capt. Cassin Young had received a Medal of Honor for his actions at Pearl Harbor in command of the USS Vestal, moored alongside the USS Arizona when that battleship exploded, and the ship named in his honor is still on display at the Charlestown Navy Yard – Boston National Historical Park.) Well over an additional 100 were seriously wounded. For their gallantry in action in this battle, the crew of the USS San Francisco received 21 Silver Stars, 32 Navy Crosses (including Captain Cassin Young, one of 23 posthumously awarded) and four Medals of Honor (including Rear Admiral Callaghan and Boatswains Mate First Class Keppler, both posthumously) and the Presidential Unit Citation, a record of valor aboard a single ship in a single action unmatched in U.S. naval history. Rear Adm. Scott aboard Atlanta also received a posthumous Medal of Honor, and numerous other awards for valor went to crewmembers on other ships throughout the task force.
Today, the USS San Francisco Memorial sits atop a bluff overlooking the seaward approaches to the Golden Gate Bridge, under which the ship returned under her own power following the Battle of Guadalcanal. It continues to serve our nation today as a reminder that freedom is not free; it came at incredibly high cost to extraordinarily brave American Sailors, whose sacrifice should never be forgotten.