Following the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor for repairs, but the North Carolina, together with the carriers Saratoga, Wasp, and escorts remained in the waters south and east of Guadalcanal, covering the movements of cargo ships supplying the Marines ashore. American carrier strength was soon restored to three with the arrival of the Hornet. On August 31st, however, this was promptly reduced to two again when the Japanese torpedoed the Saratoga, and took her out of action for three months. This incident, together with increased sound contacts and periscope sightings, gave ample warning of more trouble ahead.
The trouble came in triple measure on the afternoon of September 15, 1942, a very black day in the history of the United States Navy. The WASP and HORNET were escorting six transports carrying the 7th Marine regiment to reinforce Guadalcanal. With the transports on a parallel course over the horizon to the south, the carriers were steaming in sight of each other through an area of open sea 250 miles southeast of "The Canal". Each carrier formed the nucleus of a tack force, and the two task forces were separated by a distance of 7 to 10 miles as measured between carriers. The North Carolina was with the HORNET task force, which was to the northeast of the WASP force. The sky was clear, a 20-knot trade-wind was blowing from the southeast, and the surface of the sea was covered with whitecaps-good hunting weather for submarines; dangerous for their prey.
On board the Showboat, the first warning something might be wrong came at 1445 (2:45 pm). The WASP had just completed a launch and recovery of aircraft, during which all ships of the task force had been on a temporary southeasterly course into the wind. With flight operations over, all ships commenced a right turn together to resume a base course of 280. At the start of this turn, the Officer of the Deck of the NORTH CAROLINA (watch officer controlling the ship from the bridge) noticed heavy smoke rising from the WASP. Peering at the carrier through his binoculars from a distance of approximately 12,000 yards (6 nautical miles), he could see several of the carrier's planes floating nose down past the WASPs stern. This, coupled with the absence of any radioed alarm or other emergency signal led to the false conclusion that an aircraft accident on the deck had started a fire. Such occurrences were not unusual during wartime flight operations.
Two or three minutes passed, and still there was no alarm or explanation. More and more smoke was now boiling upward from the carrier, which now appeared to be slowing. Violent explosions now began erupting from her flight and hanger decks, indicating that the fires had now reached armed aircraft. Yet, although a serious emergency obviously existed, it remained unknown to the ships of the HORNET force that the WASP had been struck by three very powerful torpedoes on her starboard side (her far side, as viewed from the HORNET force). Because of severe below-decks damage, and raging fires fed by ruptured gas lines, the ship was already doomed. All attention remained riveted on the stricken WASP, and the HORNET force continued it's right turn to a 280 base course.
Suddenly, the tense silence on the ships' bridges was broken by a burst of static from the tactical radio speakers, followed by an incomplete message "..... torpedo headed for formation, course zero eight zero!" This alarm, it was soon learned came from the destroyer LANSDOWNE, in the WASP's screen. Because of the LANSDOWNE's position, it could only mean that the torpedo was headed for the HORNET force. But voice radio was still unreliable in those days, and on some ships the message was not understood.
Then, at about the time the HORNET force reached their 280 base course, another radio warning, again incomplete was heard: ".. torpedo just passed astern of me, headed for you!" That was all. All eyes scanned the white-capped sea. Then, the HORNET, whose movements normally required all her escorts to follow, was seen turning sharply right.
"Right full rudder! Emergency flank speed!" ordered the skipper of the NORTH CAROLINA. To those on the bridge of the ponderous battleship, time seemed to stand still. The Showboat was just beginning to finally lean into her turn when the BOOM of an explosion was heard off the port quarter. There a great plume of white spray seemed to completely engulf the destroyer O'BRIEN, whose bow had just been shattered by a torpedo.
Then, at exactly 1452, while the NORTH CAROLINA was passing course 295, and beginning to pick up speed, a torpedo impacted into her port bow abreast of her forward turret. The explosion was felt the length of the ship, and tons of water cascaded down over the superstructure, washing one man to his death. The blast left a hole as big as a truck clear through the side protection below the armor belt, and nearly a thousand tons of water flooded into the ship.
Meanwhile, on signal from the task force commander on the HORNET, ships of the task force increased speed to 25 knots and executed two emergency turns to the right to clear the area. Through all of this, the NORTH CAROLINA maintained her station, taking all maneuvers in stride. Although the ship had initially taken on a 5.5 degree list, this was soon corrected with counter flooding.
Meanwhile, destroyers in the WASP's screen had been engaged in antisubmarine warfare (ASW) for sometime, attempting to locate and destroy the submarine. This effort proved fruitless.
The fate of the WASP, during the remainder of the day was to burn with fierce intensity, and continuous explosions rocking her from bow to stern. Despite heroic efforts to save her, at 1520 she was ordered abandoned. Her casualties were 193 killed and 367 wounded. That night the task force commander ordered her sunk to keep her from falling into enemy hands. At 2100 (9:00 pm) she was given the coupe de grace by torpedoes from the destroyer LANSDOWNE.
Japanese submarine I-15, which was lurking nearby, witnessed the 2100 sinking of the WASP, and reported this to enemy headquarters at Truk, in the Caroline Islands. Reporting separately, Japanese submarine I-19 claimed to have fired the torpedoes that struck the WASP.
What captures the attention of researchers is that although the skipper of the Japanese submarine I-19 claimed torpedoing the CARRIER WASP, there is NO record of ANY Japanese submarine commander ever CLAIMING to have fired torpedoes which hit the other two ships!
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