ROY A. NEWTON
Captain | United States Navy
After the moon set behind an overcast sky, frequent rain squalls stippled the calm sea in the midnight darkness on August 7, 1943 while the U.S.S. Stack cruised off the coast of Gizo Island searching for enemy barges delivering supplies. For the first time during the Pacific war, American destroyers were operating independently of the main cruiser force in an effort to engage four Japanese destroyers on a mission to reinforce their own troops on Kolombangara. The American destroyers Dunlap, Craven, Maury, (Division Able One) Lang, Sterett and Stack (Division Able Two) comprising Task Group 31.2 slinked toward Vella Gulf without detection to lay in wait for the Japanese forces they knew were coming.
After searching the coasts of Gizo and Kolombangara, the Stack’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander Roy Newton, felt it was fortunate they had not had to engage any targets as the gunfire may have given away their position. He had been commanding the Stack since February after serving as executive officer on the Ralph Talbot. He had been with the Talbot at Midway when the ship ferried much needed aviation fuel to the base and then during the Guadalcanal and Tulagi campaign where he was commended for his service on the ship when she engaged a Japanese cruiser that silenced her with five debilitating hits, putting her out of action and back to the West Coast for repairs. A graduate of the Naval Academy class of 1930, Roy looked a bit older than his thirty-six years at times when sleep pulled under his eyes. His graduating class jested that he had gone to the Academy from Texas just to ‘see if the water was salty,’ and from the day of his acceptance focused exclusively on his studies, often completing work with just enough time to achieve a bit more.
Just before midnight, radar showed the enemy ships incoming and the three destroyers of Division Able One released twenty-four torpedoes and cut to the right to avoid retaliation. The Chief Torpedoman’s Mate of the Dunlap reported their shots to run hot, straight and true, leaving Division Able Two open to fire at will once hits were observed. A moment later, the enemy destroyers erupted first with four explosions and then several more that rocked them so much Commander Newton felt the battle was already won. Of the four enemy ships, one became engulfed in a plume of red flames and black smoke, indicating that her oil tanks had been struck, and a fire ripped over the surface of the ocean.
Roy felt the Stack was in good position to fire again on the destroyer that was blazing and he ordered his starboard torpedo battery to fire. Though the raging flames obscured the results, he believed they scored at least one hit on the vessel. The Japanese were decimated by the attack and delivered little against the American attack amidst their damage and confusion. Within ten minutes, one of the ships succumbed to damage and sank; a second slipped away fifteen minutes later at exactly midnight; the third was absent from radar and only the fourth vessel remained, still an inferno and remaining afloat even after a terrific explosion that rose six or seven hundred feet into the air.
The Stack was assigned to mop up the area with Division Able Two and were prepared to fire on the burning ship once more when the phantom third vessel moved in front of the blaze, silhouetted against the fires behind her. Immediately the three American destroyers fired torpedoes; an early salvo form the Sterett struck the ship’s magazine and the violent blow blew the ship open, pulling the stern under water within seconds. Only the fourth destroyer remained burning, but was quickly extinguished by another round of torpedoes from the Task Force and finally succumbed twenty-seven minutes after midnight.
For the next hour and a half, oil and debris continued to burn on the surface filling the air with the scent of burning oil, diesel and wood. The waters were filled with Japanese clinging to anything that would float and their bodies tumbled in the wake of the Stack as she steamed through looking for prisoners to capture. They could be heard yelling in unison something that sounded like “Kow-we, kow-we” and it was an eerie cry carried over the burning sea, broken only by the occasional cry of pain or terror. Despite the number of survivors in the water, it was impossible to pull any aboard due to the Stack’s speed and men evading capture and they escaped toward the dark islands surrounding the gulf.
Commander Naval Forces, Far East was headquartered in Tokyo since its establishment in 1947 and administered all Naval forces consisting of on light cruiser and four destroyers assigned to Japan and the surrounding islands conquered during World War II. At the outbreak of the Korean War the amount of Naval forces grew exponentially from the feeble force to over four hundred ships from multiple nations. As a captain and sporting a Navy Cross from Vella Gulf, Roy was serving as Operations Officers and directly faced the problems of this huge expansion during the first year of the war in 1950. Operations during the period were among the most infamous of the Korean campaign and included shore bombardment, mine sweeping, blockades, aerial warfare and amphibious operations.
Grueling work consumed twelve hours or more per day and Roy resorted to moving his cot into his office, sleeping in spurts when it was possible. The landing of troops from Pusan to Pohang-Dong, invasion of Inchon, evacuation and siege of Wonsan, and continual patrols and bombardments along the Korean coasts covered his desk and stuffed files with an innumerable number of documents and his phone constantly rang. Meetings of the great minds and commanders under MacArthur filled his time otherwise, sometimes to great results and other times to debate theories which they had no means of achieving on the Korean front. By the time Captain Newton’s time to rotate home came in June, he had completed his duties with zeal and professionalism worthy of recognition and decoration.
After a two-year break from the combat theater, he returned to command the U.S.S. Piedmont in August 1953 and sailed for Korean waters from April to October 1954 marking the first year since the armistice. In addition to her sister Naval ships, the Piedmont provided tender services to ships of Canada, Colombia, New Zealand, South Korea and Thailand. The Minister of National Defense for South Korea, Won Yil Sohn, decorated Roy with the Ulchi Order of Military Merit for his service in the defense and development of Korea in the post war period. Despite the truce in effect, the seas were still laden with mines and enemy air and submarine attacks were suspected and anticipated. The Koreans were most appreciative of Roy’s devotion to the Republic of Korea Navy in which he took time to cultivate and train the crews in many subjects they had not had much exposure to. He took great pleasure in sharing his knowledge and was satisfied to be away from the desk for a time and back at home on the bridge.
"USS Ralph Talbot DD-390: Summary of War Record." LT(jg) J. F. Ellis Jr. USNR. 1945.
"Action Report for Night of 6-7 August 1943." R. A. Newton. 14 Aug 1943.
United States. Department of the Navy. "Combat Narratives - Solomon Is Campaign: XI Kolombangara & Vella Lavella, 8/6/43 - 10/7/43"
“Chapter 3: War Begins - History of US Naval Operations: Korea.” Naval History and Heritage Command, 28 May 2015, 15:10:12 EDT, www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/h/history-us-naval-operations-korea/chapter3-war-begins.html.