Jan 5

The First Surface Action

Tuesday, January 5, 2016 12:01 AM


Action Report

U.S. victories were few and far between during the early months of the Pacific war, especially for the hard-pressed and understrength U.S. Asiatic Fleet, which along with other Allied forces was attempting to stem Japan’s conquest of the Dutch East Indies. Nevertheless, four Asiatic Fleet Clemson-class destroyers share the honor of winning the first surface action of the Pacific contest, a tactical victory that was of little strategic importance. In the early hours of 24 January 1942, the flush-deck four-pipers attacked a dozen Japanese transports assembled off Balikpapan, Borneo, prior to the invasion of the oil center, sinking four of the vessels as well as a patrol craft.

What follows is the Balikpapan action report of Lieutenant Commander Jacob E. Cooper, CO of the John D. Ford (DD-228), which can be found in Record Group 38 at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland.

In accordance with instructions the USS JOHN D FORD, POPE (DD-225), PARROTT (DD-218), and PAUL JONES (DD-230), in column, and in order named, proceeded northward from Postillon Islands, via the eastern side of Makassar Strait, to Cape Mandar, arriving at that point at 2000. At this point final instructions were received to make a night attack on Japanese vessels that were headed for Balik Papen. With Cape Mandar abeam to starboard, speed was changed to 26 knots on course 330° true to head for Balik Papen Lightship. At 2039 speed was changed to 27 knots, which speed was maintained throughout except for momentary reductions for maneuvering during the engagement.

Upon approaching Balik Papen at 2357 the loom of a light was sighted, bearing north, which appeared to be a large searchlight sweeping the horizon. At 0140 on January 24 it was observed to be a flame from which much smoke was rising with irregular flare-up as from exploding ammunition or a tanker on fire. The position of this flame plotted in the approximate vicinity of an afternoon report of the position of the Japanese ships at the time they were bombed by the Dutch Air Force.

At 0212, January 24, a search light was sighted to the left of Balik Papen, and at 0222 the glow of another light or fire was sighted to the right of the above place, and in the approximate location of the expected landing attempt by the Japanese. At 0222 course was changed to 322° true to head for the fire to the right of Balik Papen, on orders from the Division Commander. At 0245 the first enemy ship was sighted as he was challenging us by blinker light. We changed course to 320° true to head for him. The entire division of destroyers, with the FORD leading, stood in at 27 knots on course 320° true to penetrate any screen and to sight other ships. After initially sighting the enemy at 0245 contact was continually maintained until 0405 at which time the FORD began retiring at maximum speed of 400 rpm (9 turns less than 32 knots with a clean bottom).



At about 0331 the POPE opened fire with 4” illuminating projectiles, and at about 0346 the FORD commenced firing 4” common projectiles without illumination at close range on a merchantman. At 0347 a minor caliber shell struck the port side of the torpedo workshop about two feet above the deck and exploded wounding four men and doing considerable damage of a minor nature. A fragment pierced the auxiliary radio gasoline tank, setting this gasoline free and starting a fire on the deck in that vicinity. Fragments punctured two drums of consol in the racks and consol was freed on deck but was not observed to burn. A drum with 20 gallons of gasoline, a drum with 2 gallons of kerosene, and 2 drums of consol were dumped over the side. The fire was brought under control in about 1½ minutes. The ship firing this shot was under fire from the FORD and hits obtained on her by the FORD apparently silenced her battery.

The last torpedo was fired a 0346 and a definite hit was obtained on a merchantman at close range. It was observed to list quickly to an angle of 45° and it is presumed that she eventually settled and sank. All torpedoes were observed to run hot, straight, and normal. Torpedo control was by director straight fire with 4° spread on wing torpedoes, and, except for one spread of 3, torpedoes were fired singly or in pairs. Misses were believed to be due to errors in target speed estimates, the combination of high own ship’s speed and short ranges and possible shallow water as the action took place in from four to twenty-four fathoms.

Gun fire was by director on the first two targets which were medium sized merchantmen, and by local control on the third target, also a merchantman very close aboard. No illumination was used as ranges were short and visibility good. Twenty-five rounds of 4” common ammunition were expended. Nine hits were observed in the first target opening up a large hole in her quarter as if all shots hit in the same vicinity. When last observed it was settling rapidly by the stern and had at least a ten degree list to port. On the second target three hits were obtained at a range of about one thousand yards. Four were obtained on the third target by local control at a range of about two hundred yards. All hits were observed to explode inside the ships bulging the side and deck plating outward and upward. All tracers were observed to function properly. All gun actions took place at high own ship’s speed, and all targets were apparently anchored or slow moving and consequently time for a greater number of salvos on each was limited.

Lieutenant Commander Jacob Cooper, CO of the JOHN D. FORD (above) would receive the Navy Cross for his actions during the Battle of Balikpapan. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Lieutenant Commander Jacob Cooper, CO of the John D. Ford (above) received the Navy Cross for his actions during the Battle of Balikpapan. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

At about 0400, with all our torpedoes expended, and our presence definitely ascertained by the Japanese, the necessity for clearing the area before dawn became apparent. The FORD began retiring to the southward independently, having lost contact with the POPE, PARROTT, and PAUL JONES previously when a turn was made to avoid getting too close to the minefields, The retirement course was 190° true, and the speed 28 knots. A searchlight to the westward of Balik Papen was still visible at 0500. Sunrise was calculated to be at 0551. However, the eastern sky looked uncomfortably bright as early as 0430. At 0518 the POPE, PARROTT, and PAUL JONES were sighted bearing to the southeastward distant about 6.5 miles.

In Samuel Eliot Morison’s estimation, “The Battle off Balikpapan, neglected in the press of events, should always be remembered as our first surface action in the Pacific War; indeed, the first undertaken by the United States Navy since 1898. It was a tactical victory without a doubt; but from the broad strategic viewpoint the Japanese claim that it failed to halt their advance by so much as a day was correct.” *


*Samuel Eliot Morison, The Rising Sun in the Pacific: 1931–1942, vol. 3, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1954), 291.

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