Then-Capt. Arleigh Burke led Destroyer Squadron 23's five destroyers into battle with five Japanese destroyers on Nov. 25, 1943, in what would become known as the Battle of Cape St. George off what's now Papua New Guinea. Burke took no losses and sank three Japanese ships. Here, Burke, lower left, reads on board his flagship, the destroyer Charles Ausburne. (Navy)
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In early December, the crew of the cruiser Cape St. George will be visited by members of the Board of Inspection and Survey, who’ll put the ship through a weeklong event designed to catch every deficiency, note every problem area and test the work of every sailor.
As usual, crew members have been putting in extended hours in advance of INSURV, the ship’s first since 2008 and the first for many of its sailors. But on Monday, Cape St. George will break away from the checklists briefly to honor the 70th anniversary of the World War II battle for which it’s named — and for its sailors to get some perspective on why they’re checking and rechecking their readiness.
The keynote speaker for Monday’s ceremony, retired Capt. Charlie Nelson, 93, who served aboard the destroyer Claxton during the Nov. 25, 1943, battle, will be happy to give that perspective to them.
“They’re going to get their butts worked off” at INSURV, said Nelson, no stranger to inspections during a 30-plus-year career in the Navy that ended in 1974.
Nelson served as a damage control officer aboard Claxton during the war. His ship and the other four U.S. destroyers in Destroyer Squadron 23 that were involved in the Battle of Cape St. George were unscathed, sinking three Japanese destroyers and damaging a fourth in a battle that built the legend of then-Capt. Arleigh Burke and was described by one Naval War College analysis as “an almost perfect action.”
But Claxton wasn’t always so lucky — twice, Nelson said, the ship had its stern blown off, including once by a Japanese suicide plane. Nelson clearly remembers returning to Vallejo, Calif., after one incident expecting an extended repair (and liberty) period, only to find about 60 feet of destroyer stern waiting on the dock. The ensuing rapid fix was, in Nelson’s words, “the most disgusting display of engineering I’ve ever seen.”
The big picture
The guest list for the Nov. 25 event aboard the San Diego-based ship also included men who’ve commanded the storied “Little Beavers” of DESRON 23 and a handful of Navy dignitaries, but the message is meant to sound throughout the ranks, according to the cruiser’s commanding officer.
“This is a chance for [the crew] to hear from ... somebody who is a living piece of history,” Capt. Mike Doran told Navy Times. “I wanted to extend the immediate pride they had in their ship to the legacy of the name.”
While the INSURV prep has made planning the event challenging, Doran said it also may help his sailors take the message to heart.
“At one level, it re-emphasizes why we do the things we do,” he said. “Here is somebody that has lived through battles at sea and has used damage control techniques in real-world situations. This is why we do the drills. This is why we train so hard and train to win.”
The crew is ready to be put through its paces, Doran said.
They better be, Nelson said.
“If that crew does underperform, they’re going to fail, and they should fail,” said the former damage control officer who, in keeping with the safety-first message, became a successful insurance salesman after leaving service.
Nelson spoke at the Cape St. George-sponsored event marking the battle’s 60th anniversary, when the ship was based in Norfolk, Va. He lives in Durham, N.C., and hopes to reconnect with some West Coast friends during the trip.
As for INSURV, he remembers serving aboard the destroyer Basilone during its inspection, which came after it had been outfitted with some of the fleet’s latest technology, including early computers with tubes that blew out every time a weapon was fired, among other nightmares.
“The people doing the inspection didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.