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VAN STOCKUM: BUTCH PARKER PART 1: Tough times after Pearl Harbor

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Edward ‘Butch’ Parker was in the middle of some of the most important naval battles that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the first of a 2-part series, he was a hero who made an immediate impact on the World War II.

By Ron Van Stockum

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor more than 70 years ago, on, Dec. 7, 1941, I was stationed aboard the USSWasp, an aircraft carrier, anchored in Grassy Bay, Bermuda. Having just returned from one of our so-called “neutrality” patrols, we found our attention, which had been focused on the Battle of the Atlantic, suddenly shifted to the Pacific.

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Looking back, it is easy to concentrate on the catastrophic events at Pearl Harbor and not fully recall the dire circumstances of the time. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese seemed invincible.

Three days later, on Dec. 10, the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse were sunk by land-based bombers and torpedo bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy, north of Singapore, off the east coast of Malaya. This loss of two capital ships was a strategic setback for the British, who had most of their navy in the Atlantic.

Repulse was an old World War I battle cruiser carrying six 15-inch guns; Prince of Wales was a huge, modern battleship, commissioned early in 1941, carrying 10 14-inch guns. The dismay of the British Admiralty can only be imagined.

Before the end of December 1941, the Japanese had conquered Wake Island, Guam, Burma. British Borneo, Hong Kong and had invaded the Philippines. We had always denigrated the Japanese as little men, wearing glasses, who couldn't shoot straight. We had greatly underestimated them and were surprised by their courage, technical capabilities and tactical abilities.

During my 30-year career (1937–1967) as a commissioned officer in the regular U. S Marine Corps, I served at sea for a longer period than any of my contemporaries. I was a “sea-going Marine,” a “Soldier of the Sea.” As a result, I had an excellent opportunity to observe the Navy firsthand, in peace and in war.

I have written extensively about the operations of aircraft carriers in the Atlantic in the early days of World War II and later in the Pacific. It seems appropriate now, to write about the early surface actions of our outnumbered Navy in the Pacific, engaged in desperate battles against a superior Japanese Navy that was on the ascendancy.

 

The Pacific in early 1942

It was my pleasure to have known well one of the great heroes of the Navy, Edward Nelson “Butch” Parker, a veteran of these early battles.

In the dark days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Cmdr. Butch Parker was in command of USS Parrott, an old 4-stack destroyer of the type that Roosevelt had lent to the British in 1940 in exchange for use of British bases in the Atlantic. These thin-skinned destroyers were affectionately called “tin cans” by their crews.

When the Philippines fell to the Japanese, the Asiatic Fleet, including Parrott, moved south and operated from a base at Surabaya, Java with British and Dutch allies.

After dark, on Jan. 23, 1942, Parrottwith three other old destroyers entered Balikpapan Bay, where, lying at anchor, were 16 Japanese transports and three 750-ton torpedo boats, guarded by a Japanese Destroyer Squadron. They fired several patterns of torpedoes and had the satisfaction of seeing four enemy transports and one torpedo boat sink as the Japanese destroyers searched aimlessly in the strait for non-existent submarines.

For his heroic actions and leadership in this action, Cmdr. Parker was awarded his first Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest award, equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross of the Army.

On Feb. 19-20, just past midnight, Parker, now in command of Destroyer Division 59, made contact with Japanese cruisers and destroyers off the Island of Bali, Netherlands East Indies. The destroyers under his command were illuminated by the enemy and subject to heavy gunfire. He managed to score two gun hits and at least two torpedo hits on the enemy before withdrawing his division from a situation of grave peril without serious damage to his command. For this action he received a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Navy Cross.

 (A NOTE ON “ILLUMINATION.” When I served aboard the battleship Tennessee (BB-43) during 1938-39, we conducted night battle practices, using star shells or huge searchlights to illuminate the target. Star shells, fired from our guns, would be timed to burst in the sky behind distant targets, in order to bring their silhouettes into view. For short ranges, the searchlights would be used, as they obviously were in this case.)

Just a week later, during the battle of the Java Sea, on Feb. 27, 1942, now-Capt. Parker fought his ships boldly, going in unsupported anddelivering a successful torpedo attack against two hostile heavy cruisers and seven light cruisers. This forced the Japanese to break off the attack, enabling the Allied Ships to regain their battle formation. For this action he was awarded the Silver Star.

Other key post-Pearl Harbor battles:

  • Battle of Midway: Between June 4 and 5, 1942, only six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy decisively defeated an attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy against Midway Atoll, inflicting irreparable damage on the Japanese fleet. Distinguished Military historian John Keegan called it "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare." It was a turning point in the War in the Pacific because it blunted the Japanese offensive, which until that time had dominated the Pacific.
  • Guadalcanal: It was now possible to risk an amphibious invasion of Guadalcanal by the 1st Marine Division. The Marines landed on Aug. 7, 1942 and met with initial success, establishing an expeditionary landing strip to accommodate Marine aircraft. It was the first major offensive by Allied forces against Japan. Although the Japanese Navy had incurred grievous wounds at Midway, it was still a vicious tiger with a lot of fight left. Sensing the threat that this action represented, the Japanese were quick to land additional forces and to send in surface ships. In anticipation of this Japanese reaction, the American ships were removed from the immediate vicinity of Guadalcanal, to the consternation of the Marines who were left on shore without naval support. They were subject to shelling from enemy ships, which rendered the maintenance of Henderson Field, the nearly completed airstrip impossible.
  • Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (Nov. 13, 1942): Butch Parker was again to be in harm’s way as commanding officer of a modern destroyer, the USS Cushing during an engagement near Savo Island, off Guadalcanal, on the night of Nov. 12-13. I have consulted James D. Hornfischer’s definitive study, Neptune’s Inferno: The U. S. Navy at Guadalcanal. The Japanese Emperor, discouraged by the failures of his forces to recapture Guadalcanal, expressed his wish to accomplish this mission swiftly. Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe was dispatched with two battleships, one light cruiser and 11 destroyers to bombard and destroy its airfield so that the Japanese troops could land unopposed by American aircraft.
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Parker’s Cushing in the lead

About an hour and a half after midnight, as Abe and his force approached the airfield on Guadalcanal, he was met by U. S. naval forces commanded by Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan. These consisted of two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, two anti-aircraft cruisers and eight destroyers, with Parker’s Cushing in the lead.

In Neptune’s Inferno, Hornfischer explains Callaghan’s choice of Parker to lead the attack.

“Lieutenant Commander Edward N. ‘Butch’ Parker was a veteran of the Asiatic campaign of early 1942, where he had fought in several battles in the Java Sea as a destroyer division commander. This made him one of the only destroyer officers in the Navy with experience in the type of close-range night battle that Callaghan sought. It didn’t seem to bother Callaghan that the Cushing’s fire-control radar hadn’t worked reliably since installation. The cost of that handicap was well compensated for by having an old salt like Butch Parker at the head of his line.”

 

Next: Barroom brawl with the lights out