Its dark, pitch dark, I can just barely see my own hand yet alone the shoreline. Dark is good I think, It conceals my fear but more importantly our ship the USS Atlanta. I have good reason to be nervous, we are not alone in the waters of Guadalcanal, out there in the dark, a Japanese fleet is moving in. I light a cigarette with my trembling hands, it is strictly forbidden but heck, it might be my last one and I do my best to cover the fire. I can’t help pondering over the insanity of it all, the war, the endless loss of lives and the dangers of smoking a cigarette.
Bright light! I’m blinded, I can’t see! I almost fall down as USS Atlanta’s powerful engines suddenly and violently roars up to full a head. We are spotted by the enemy! Thundering, flashes of light and the distinct smell of cordite are instantaneously followed by the indescribable sound of shell impacts, shredded metal and human screams of pain and despair. Hell is upon us and not all of us will survive the night!
In April 1940 the warship USS Atlanta was laid down in New York, 2 years later she would be 130m underwater off the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
This new style of light cruisers design was around a light displacement, high-speed vessel capable of performing as a flotilla leader and had the capability to provide Anti-Aircraft (AA) protection to US Naval Task Forces during World War II. As part of her construction her armourment offered her the heaviest Anti-Aircraft broadside of any warship of World War II with the capability of firing over 10,000Kgs of highly accurate ordnance per minute. Her 16 x 5” guns and 12 x 1.1” AA guns proved to be very effective in this role and while she was not designed to "slug it out" with heaver ship’s she was also well suited to close surface action in bad weather (poor visibility) and to night actions, where their fast firing 5" guns and eight 21" torpedo’s could be used to advantage.
In total 8 of the Atlanta class cruisers were built, 6 of which were decommissioned after the war and the remaining 2, USS Atlanta (CL51) and USS Juneau (CL52) were lost in battle. They rest alongside 200 other ships in the waters around the island of Guadalcanal, nicknamed ‘Iron Bottom Sound’.
During her service Atlanta played a pivotal role in the Pacific War. She escorted the famous aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet during the Battle of Midway and sailed with their Task Force (TF16) back and forth between Pearl Harbor and Midway before moving onto the Solomon Islands. In August 1942 she fought during the initial invasion on the island of Guadalcanal to capture the airstrip, Henderson Field. The Allies were successful and captured Henderson Field from the Japanese and over the following 6 months both sides fought hard over this seemingly pointless airstrip.
The Sinking of USS Atlanta
On the night of November 12, 1942 a Japanese flotilla comprising two battleships, one cruiser and six destroyers, were detected steaming toward Guadalcanal to shell Henderson Field. As the range closed, the Japanese destroyer Akatsuki illuminated Atlanta and fired torpedoes. Atlanta shifted her battery to fire at the enemy destroyer, opening fire at a range of about 1,600 yards. Two other Japanese destroyers crossed her line and Atlanta engaged both with her forward 5-inch mounts, while her after mounts continued to blast away at the illuminated Akatsuki.
At least one of Akatsuki's torpedoes ploughed into Atlanta's forward engine room from the port side. She lost all but auxiliary diesel power, suffered the interruption of her gunfire, and had to shift steering control to the steering engine room aft. As if in retribution, Atlanta shot out Akatsuki's searchlight, and the enemy ship; battered by San Francisco's gunfire as well, sank with all hands.
Tragedy though, struck shortly thereafter. Soon after her duel with Akatsuki ended; Atlanta reeled under the impact of a flurry of what was estimated as 19 8-inch hits when San Francisco, "in the urgency of battle, darkness, and confused intermingling of friend or foe" fired into her. Though almost all of the shells passed through the thin skin of Atlanta without detonating and scattered green dye throughout to mark their passage, fragments from their impact killed many men. Atlanta prepared to return fire on her new assailant, but San Francisco's own gun flashes disclosed a distinctly "non-Japanese hull profile" that resulted in a suspension of those efforts. After the 8-inch fire ceased, Atlanta's Capt. Jenkins took stock of the situation, and, miraculously having suffered only a minor (but painful) wound in his foot in the carnage forward, made his way aft to assess the damage. Badly battered, largely powerless, down by the head and listing slightly to port, his ship had been badly hurt, and a third of his crew was dead or missing. As the battle continued in its waning stages, the light cruiser's men set to work clearing debris, jettisoning topside weight to correct the list, reducing the volume of sea water in the ship, and attending to the many wounded.
Daylight revealed the presence nearby of three burning American destroyers, the disabled USS Portland, and the crippled Japanese destroyer. USS Bobolink (AT-131) arrived on the scene at and took Atlanta under tow and headed toward Lunga Point. Capt. Jenkins conferred with his remaining officers. As Jenkins, who was later awarded a Navy Cross for his heroism during the battle, later wrote, "It was by now apparent that efforts to save the ship were useless, and that the water was gaining steadily." Authorized by Commander, South Pacific Forces, to act upon his own discretion regarding the destruction of the ship, Capt. Jenkins ordered that Atlanta be abandoned and sunk with a demolition charge. Ultimately, at 2015 on 13 November 1942, Atlanta sank three miles west of Lunga Point in 130m. Her name was struck from the Navy list on 13 January 1943. Atlanta (CL-51) was awarded five battle stars for her World War II service and the Presidential Unit Citation for her "heroic example of invincible fighting spirit" in the battle off Guadalcanal on 13 November 1942.
Diving the USS Atlanta
Descending onto Atlanta for the first time is an unforgettable moment. After years of planning and many challenges along the way the time had finally arrived. Conditions on the surface were not ideal yet once in the water Richard Lundgren and I focused on what lay on the ocean floor, 130m below us. Anticipation was high. During the lead up to the project we had many reports on the condition of the wreck, none of which were positive. At 80m I was very excited to see the giant hull of this once majestic capital war ship appear out of the aqua blue void. All concerns and worries were immediately dismissed. She was incredible!
Our objective on this first dive was to secure a line from the surface to the wreck so we would have a permanent reference for the duration of the project. After we completed our job we excitedly pulled the triggers on our underwater scooters and raced across the hull to get an overview of the wreck. What a thrill and an unforgettable experience to be finally living this long awaited dream. We only managed to cover the aft of the ship identifying the aft 5” guns and circling her massive propeller’s before making our way back to our ascent line for our 4 hours of decompression.
The overall objective of the project was to capture footage of Atlanta with the goal of producing a documentary highlighting the important role this ship played in the WWII Battle of Guadalcanal. This collaborative effort between exploration divers from Global Underwater Explorers and topside production team from Overseas Media LLC set aside 10 days on the tropical island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to achieve this goal.
The underwater production team consisting of divers from USA, Netherlands, Russia, Sweden and Australia set about the challenging task of capturing this wreck on camera. Although Atlanta had received a lot of damage on that fateful night she was in surprisingly good condition and we managed to complete the job of filming her. Each dive revealed additional points of interest, artefacts and mysteries to be solved. So much was to be discovered on Atlanta and over the 6 days of exploration diving she did not reveal all her secrets as if you beckon us back for more!
The topside film and production team from Overseas Media LLC made it possible to bring this project to life. It is extremely challenging for a topside production team to work along side exploration divers trying to focus and concentrate on dives to such extreme depths. However both teams were aware of the challenges faced on either side and the result was an outstanding success.
This project would not have been possible without the help from some very dear friends. A very special thank you to Elena Konstantinou and Jarrod Jablonski for you trust and belief in this crazy idea. Thank you to the dive team Richard Lundgren, Casey McKinlay, JP Bresser and Kirill Egorov, without your expertise the high quality underwater footage would not have been possible. Thank you to the production team from Overseas Media LLC for all your hard work, guidance and patience.
Written by Liam Allen
Pictures and film Oversean media LLC