Sea History 026 - Winter 1982-1983

Page 8


''Because I Want To'' A Questioning Look at the Difficulties of Writing History While Helping to Make It by Arleigh Burke Admiral, USN (ret.)

He is not Irish (his Swedish fore bears were named Bjorkegren) and his nickname "31 Knot" Burke originally denoted not speed but slowness-he was driving hi~ Fletcher class destroyers at 31 rather than the expected 34 knots on one occasion because one of the ships had a fouled hailer. But speed, precision, and utterly meticulous preparation are hallmarks of the Burke style-with an overriding dedication to individual initiative. Perhaps his major contribution to destroyer doctrine in World War II was his initiation of the "unrolling'' attack: "When contact with an enemy force is made, destroyers in the van should initiate a coordinated torpedo attack WITHOUT ORDERS. " This doctrine, he noted, "requires more than is usually meant by confidence. IT REQUIRES FAITH." Burke's second great contribution of course was to set the kind of example that justifies such faith. He went on from his beloved Fletchers to become Chief of Staff of the Fast Carrier Force that won the naval war in the Pacific, and after the War served an unprecedented three terms in the Navy's top job, as Chief of Naval Operations 1955-61. The Navy is like a small town, everyone gets a nickname and a saying attached to them. The saying attached to Admiral Burke is: "He taught the Navy to think. "-ED. The story started shortly after I reported aboard the Oagship of Destroyer Division Forty-three, the USS Waller in the early months of 1943 in those beautiful, hot, Solomon Islands. The captain of that new magnifi cent destroyer was an old friend , Lieutenant Commander L.H. "Jack" Frost. The Battle of Kula Gulf in early 1943 was the first one that either of us had been in . During the battle Waller was the leading ship in the column of destroyers and cruisers. Kula Gulf is not so very big that we did not have to maneuver quite a bit. Waller opened the battle by firing a spread of torpedoes. One enemy destroyer was beached on

Kolobangara Island after she was hit either by torpedoes or the cruiser gunfire. Sometime during the battle Waller opened up with her guns too. One enemy destroyer escaped. Immediately after the battle Jack Frost and I each made a list of what happened and the sequence and time that each event occurred. Neither one of us had a complete list of events and very few of those had a time recorded . That was bad enough but we di sagreed in the order of events. Did the cruisers open fire before we made our big turn toward the enemy? We did not have enough data to determine whether the torpedoes or the cruiser gun fire hit first. Each of us had recorded an event or so that the other one had not remembered. Our estimates of time elapsed were different from each other and we both thought we were firing much longer than could have been possible. Battle reports are important and they should be accurate . We knew that and the quarrel we had in trying to determine what actually had happened was serious. We got a little bit additiona l help from the quartermaster's log, the communications records, the engine room logs and other similar data but we were all new to battle and those records were very sketchy and unreliable. The adrenaline had Oowed copiously in our first battle and not a one of us had taken reliable notes. We had not trained ourselves to take notes and we had not attached enough importance to keeping an accurate record. lfwe had lost the fight, of course, the records would have been of absolutely no importance for they would have gone down with the ship. But it was not our aim to lose battles and so after I had gotten over my indignation at Jack for not remembering events the same way I had, I assigned my yeoman the duty of writing down every thing that happened with the time it happened. We practiced at all of our drills. He was to make an entry every 30 seconds just to make sure nothing was overlooked. After a few days of drill we

The hustle and urgency ofthe night allack is caught by the late Anton 0110 Fischer, in a painting that hangs today over Admiral Burke's mantel, as Arleigh and his boys of the " Little Beaver" Squadron ride their destroyers into action.