In November of 1942, a U.S. cruiser, USS SAN FRANSISCO, led a convoy of American transports to Guadalcanal. Lieutenant Commander Herbert E. Schonland was aboard as the Assistant Damage Control Officer.
On November 12th, undetected by radar, a squadron of 25 Japanese bombers suddenly attacked the ship. One badly damaged bomber crashed into SAN FRANSISCO, killing 30 men and seriously injuring the Executive Officer, Commander Mark Crouter. Commander Joseph Hubbard became the new Executive Officer making Schonland the new Damage Control Officer. Alerted to an approaching Japanese task force, SAN FRANSISCO left Guadalcanal that afternoon and through the night awaited the impending battle.
Captain Cassin Young, the Commanding Officer, stood on the bridge with the navigator, Commander Arison. Hubbard was just aft of the bridge and Schonland was three decks below in Damage Control Central, all awaiting the inevitable first hit. At 1:30 AM on the 13th, the radar detected 14 Japanese ships in three columns with a giant Kongo class battleship in the van. Their objective was to clear a path for a big convoy of troop transports that were 12 hours behind. The American cruisers were clearly outgunned.
Admiral Daniel Callaghan, directing the operation from his flagship, SAN FRANSISCO, ordered his warships to run the gauntlet between the Japanese columns. Leading the charge, SAN FRANSISCO almost immediately felt two hits.
Fires raged below and holes ripped through the hull, causing water to pour into the boiler and engine rooms. Schonland quickly and methodically countered each outbreak. On the bridge, the battle raged, killing Admiral Callaghan, Captain Young and Commander Hubbard. Commander Arison was severely wounded. With all officers dead or wounded, Schonland was the senior officer.
Inter-ship communications were destroyed, so Lieutenant Commander Bruce McCandless, who survived the explosion, informed the other vessels of the officers' death through blinker lamps. Although damaged, SAN FRANSISCO had endured and had crippled the opposing battleship. Callaghan died in the effort, but his strategy worked, as the Japanese fired at each other in confusion.
When Schonland learned he was the senior officer aboard, he decided that his skills were more urgently needed in controlling the damage. He ordered McCandless to carry on.
Since explosions had knocked out bridge control, Schonland took over steering and engine control below decks. He maintained control between the speakers leading from Damage Control Central to the bridge, using shifts of messengers.
Fires continued to break out and holes were plugged with anything available to stop the flooding. Swiftly and precisely Schonland dispatched men to quell each problem. Remaining calm and confident throughout the chaos, he continually reassured, "We'll come through it."
A shell exploded in a flooding compartment, killing 20 men and destroyed the automatic valve control panel. As water flowed in, with the valves opened, Schonland organized a team to manually close them, struggling and finally succeeding in the darkness under five feet of water.
When word came from the bridge that the battle was over, the main activity was helping the wounded and repairing the damage. Schonland spent two more hours below decks supervising repairs. At about 4:00 AM he went to the bridge and assumed active command.
SAN FRANSISCO was never forced to slow down in battle, nor was her fighting effectiveness impaired. Schonland carried out his cardinal duty: to keep the ship in fighting condition.
Dawn of Friday the 13th found four crippled ships, having been separated from the rest of their squadron, limping along in formation. USS HELENA led followed by USS SAN FRANSISCO, USS JUNEAU and USS BUCHANAN. When a lookout spotted four torpedoes heading toward SAN FRANSISCO, Schonland deftly maneuvered her out of the torpedoes' path. Unable to warn JUNEAU, the new target, they helplessly watched her explode, taking with her the five famous Sullivan brothers.
Twelve hours after the pivotal night battle of Guadalcanal, Japanese transports arrived on schedule. U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal easily destroyed all the transports.
The havoc wrought by the Japanese was considerable. Although her deck was splintered and twisted and her superstructure full of holes, the SAN FRANSISCO heroically survived. She disabled the giant Kongo battleship HIEI, sank one destroyer and damaged two cruisers. The U.S. Navy had successfully delayed the landing of Japanese reinforcements on Guadalcanal, which ultimately turned the tide of battle on the island in favor of the U.S. forces.
On December 28,1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented the Medal of Honor to Commander Herbert E. Schonland. He later retired as a Rear Admiral. Schonland Hall at the Surface Warfare Officers School in Newport, Rhode Island, is named in his honor.
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