The Goat of Savo Island
It does not necessarily follow that because we took a beating somebody must be the goat . . . to me it is more of an object lesson in how not to fight, than it is a failure for which someone should hang.
- Capt. George L. Russell, flag secretary to Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King
In the early hours of 9 August 1942, seven Japanese cruisers and a destroyer slipped into the waters off Guadalcanal, surprised the Allied warships on guard, and sank four heavy cruisers and damaged another with only slight injury to themselves. The Battle of Savo Island would become the worst American naval defeat in a surface action, and the American way of war meant that someone had to take the blame.
Before the month was over, the Navy tabbed its former commander-in-chief, Admiral Arthur J. Hepburn, to head a board of inquiry. With so many of the principal players still serving in the South Pacific, interviews began in December 1942 in Corpus Christi, Texas, with a comprehensive, two-volume report issued in April 1943.
Poor performance abounded before and during the battle. John “Slew” McCain, in charge of land-based air forces in the Solomons, failed to follow up initial reports of approaching Japanese surface forces. Frank Jack Fletcher, commanding the three carriers covering the landings on Guadalcanal, failed to attack them. Richmond Kelly Turner, commanding the amphibious force, dispersed the guard force into three separate packets and called away its commander as night fell. Victor Crutchley, commanding the guard force, used his flagship, the heavy cruiser Australia, as his private yacht to attend Turner’s conference of senior officers – at a point as far from any approaching Japanese as the cruiser could possibly reach – and did not leave any instructions with his subordinates.
But blame for the Savo disaster would not fall on any man with stars on his shoulders.
Captain Howard Bode
Instead, the inquiry centered on two cruiser captains, Frederick Riefkold of Vincennes, and Howard Bode of Chicago. As the Savo report acknowledged, neither had any additional command staff for their sudden assignment, nor any instructions on how to carry out this sudden change in responsibility. Crutchley steamed away, leaving Riefkold with responsibility for the three heavy cruisers of the Northern Patrol Force and Bode for the two remaining heavy cruisers of the Southern Patrol Force.
No change of command was noted in the contemporaneous log of any ship in Crutchley’s force; Vice Admiral Crutchley (who was British, in command of an Australian squadron) signaled the handover by blinker, which conveniently left no record. Neither cruiser captain attempted to fight their squadron during the battle, instead concentrating on their own ship. Bode kept his ship astern of her squadron mate, the Australian Canberra, rather than take the lead position for the few hours until Australia returned. Canberra would take the wrath of Gunichi Mikawa’s Japanese cruisers, while Chicago suffered a torpedo hit to her bows. Bode at first ordered his ship to turn west, away from the fighting but the direction in which the thought the Japanese might be found, and later ordered her to move at best speed toward the sound of the guns. By all accounts, including his own, Bode did not perform well during Chicago’s brief involvement in the fighting. But that was not his real sin.
Howard Douglas Bode (pronounced “BOH-dee”) entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1907 with great prospects. His father, August, immigrated to the United States from Germany and worked in Philadelphia shipyards before putting himself through law school and becoming a judge. Howard, nicknamed “Ping” and “Count,” seems to have been popular with his classmates, but in 1909 he made newspapers nationwide for his involvement in a hazing incident. He was allowed to remain at the academy, but appears to have become much more withdrawn and serious.
By 1915, his career appeared to have revived. He’d sailed on the armored cruiser California as a young ensign, and on a port visit to Honolulu he met Helen Spalding, the beautiful daughter of a local banker. They would become engaged in 1914, and married in June 1915.
Soon afterwards, Howard received his own command, the new submarine K-7 (SS38). Four sister boats deployed from San Francisco to Hawaii on October 1915, but only one – Bode’s K-7 – managed the trip without assistance from the accompanying escorts (a collier, a Navy tug and the battleship Maryland). As the boat approached Pearl Harbor, the liner Matsonia came out to meet her, lowering a ladder so that Helen could grasp her husband’s hand. The sub entered Pearl Harbor with a new broom attached to her masthead.
Submarine K-7 arrives in Hawaii. Note the broom at the masthead.
Bode remained in submarines for the next few years, in Hawaii and the Philippines, before a tour with the Bureau of Ordnance. In 1932, thanks to his fluent German, be became U.S. naval attaché to Germany. Command of the gunboat Tulsa and destroyer tender Black Hawk followed. His next assignment brought him into the Office of Naval Intelligence. And there his troubles began.
Bode, given his language skills and experience, specialized in foreign navies. In the summer of 1941, he recommended forwarding reports of Japanese agents scouting berthing locations in Pearl Harbor to the Pacific Fleet commander, Husband Kimmel. That recommendation, like all product of naval intelligence, had to go through the Director of War Plans, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner. Turner vetoed the recommendation, Bode challenged him, and thereby gained an implacable enemy.
Nevertheless, in October 1941 Bode received a prized assignment, command of the battleship Oklahoma. He arrived at Pearl Harbor on 5 November, leaving Helen in San Francisco. When the Japanese attacked on 7 December, Bode was ashore and not present when Oklahoma was hit by up to eight torpedoes and lost along with a third of her crew. Bode could not make it to his ship, only to the neighboring battleship Maryland, where he helped rally his shaken crewmen to man Maryland’s anti-aircraft batteries.
Bode was not blamed for the loss of his ship, and after a brief assignment helping construct coastal defenses he received a new command in January 1942, the heavy cruiser Chicago. Bode faced immense dislike from his new crew, probably starting when he refused to accept falsified logs from the engine room – cruiser engineering departments were judged on fuel efficiency, and so they routinely fudged their records. The actual numbers caused Bode’s ship to come in dead last in fuel efficiency among the fleet’s eleven heavy cruisers.
On the night of 31 May, Chicago was anchored in Sydney Harbor when a Japanese midget submarine attacked. Bode was ashore at a party, and stormed back to his ship when she opened fire on what seemed to be phantom sightings. Bode accused the watch officers of drunkenness, but then the torpedoes came, missing Chicago and sinking a nearby ferry. The captain issued no apologies for his harsh words.
Behind his back, bridge officers called him “King Bode” (probably as play on his Academy nicknames) and “Captain Bligh.” He took his meals alone in his cabin, avoiding the wardroom except for meetings. He was harsh and blunt with his subordinates to the point of rudeness. When the Japanese attacked at Savo Island, he spent vital minutes in an argument over who should control the ship’s radar. “There was mass confusion on the bridge,” one officer related to the inquiry, “as nobody had any idea what was happening.” Chicago never fired her main battery (though she obtained a five-inch hit on the Japanese light cruiser Tenryu that killed 23 men) and never reported the encounter to Riefkohl or Crutchley.
Emergency repairs to Chicago’s damaged bow, 9 August 1942.
After the battle, Bode took his damaged ship to New Caledonia and Sydney for repairs, before she was ordered to San Francisco for more extensive work. She arrived in October 1942, and Bode was relieved in December, just before his appearance before the board of inquiry. He was re-assigned to command the Balboa Naval Station in the Panama Canal Zone, as deep a backwater as the U.S. Navy possessed. His demeanor there contrasted sharply with his reported behavior aboard Chicago: polite and unassuming. By this point, Bode knew his career to be over. He reported to Hepburn’s board on 2 April 1943 – one of the last witnesses to appear – for two days of harsh questioning.
The report, when issued later in April, did not refer to Bode by name – he’s only listed in the order of battle as Chicago’s commander. All other references are to Chicago’s commander, and they are damning. Riefkohl (who was senior to Bode) would never command at sea again, but retired after the war as a rear admiral. Only mild criticism is given to the admirals on the scene – McCain, Fletcher, Crutchley and Turner. Turner’s alcoholism received no criticism or even mention; his superiors took a “boys will be boys” attitude. Turner had what the Royal Navy called “interest.” Bode did not.
“In regard to Kelly Turner's drinking habits,” Pacific theater command Chester Nimitz wrote much later, “of which I heard much during the war, I always told the tale-bearer the same thing as Lincoln is supposed to have told someone regarding General Grant: ‘Please let me know what brand of whiskey Kelly’s drinking so I can feed it to some of my other admirals.’”
Raymond Spruance concurred: “There always was a period when he had more than his share of liquor, after each day's working hours. The man had tremendous resilience, and the next morning his mind would be as sharp as a steel trap, and he would put in another long productive working day. . . . I never saw him tight during working hours, except once on Guam after he had finished up at Okinawa. His breath would knock you down at 15 feet.”
There’s no evidence that Turner’s perpetual drunkenness affected his performance before the Battle of Savo Island, though he was the only commander present who did not submit an after-action report (other than William Graham of the destroyer Jarvis, who was killed in action). Turner would die in 1961 from a heart attack suffered while choking on a chicken bone; the Navy later named a cruiser in his honor.
Crutchley – apparently untouchable as he was not an American officer – retained his command for almost two more years. He had won a Victoria Cross in the First World War and commanded the battleship Warspite at the Battle of Narvik (and been relieved of that command and sent to command a naval barracks immediately afterwards). Crutchley supplied the ludicrous alibi that he assumed Bode and Riefkohl had received the same message from Turner as he had, and by Royal Navy practice that was enough to tell them that they were in charge. Crutchley would retire after the war as a full admiral and spend the next four decades collecting paintings on his manor in Dorset.
On his return to Panama, Bode wrote a series of three lengthy letters to Hepburn, further explaining his actions off Savo. In the last one, written on 18 April 1943, he wrote, “I have now carefully considered what my course of action should now be. I have decided that the only honorable course is to atone for my errors of judgment in the only way I can.
“I am writing a letter to be delivered to my wife, which I hope you will forward as soon as practical. Although she is a very courageous and competent person she should have knowledge of the why and wherefore, or a reason for this totally unexpected tragedy descending upon her. . . . I am sure that you will be able to understand the reaction caused by a sudden reversal of the path of life and hope and achievement I had been following.”
The next morning, he accepted his morning coffee and newspaper from his steward and returned to his room. Wearing a navy-blue bathrobe, he stepped into his bathroom, pressed his .38 caliber revolver to his temple and pulled the trigger.
His Navy personnel file concludes with the note, “Not a war casualty.”
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold. Leopold is hanging on.
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