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Naval Battles in the Solomon Islands over August/November 1942 turn the tide of the Pacific War

The First Battle of Guadalcanal the 13th. of November, 1942

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Wreckage of a US scout/bomber still burning after a Japanese air attack on Henderson Field
Wreckage of a US scout/bomber still burning after a Japanese air attack on Henderson Field
Events Leading up to the Night Battle of Guadalcanal.

Two large transports, President Adams and President Jackson, loaded with Army and Marine units left Noumea on the 8th. of November with Turner’s McCawley, the heavy cruiser Portland, the light cruiser Juneau, and 4 destroyers, bound for the  Canal to prop up the local garrison.

Rear Admiral Callaghan with 2 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser and 6 destroyers were north of Espiritu Santo, plus Rear Admiral Norman Scott with a light cruiser, 4 destroyers, and 3 cargo ships crammed with aviation supplies and personnel. They arrived at Lunga Point on the 11th. their gaining the shore somewhat expedited by a dive bombing attack by aircraft from the carrier Hijo, somewhere west of Guadalcanal.

Turner’s contingent arrived the next day on the 12th. of November, and unloading had to be suspended for a time as an air attack took place. During this attack, the US destroyer Buchanan received a lit of upper deck damage from friendly AAfire, and then San Francisco had an enemy plane crash on board, wounding 50 men including the executive officer, Commander Mark Crouter.

The wounded were moved to the transport President Jackson, but the executive officer remained with his ship, keen to stay on duty, but he should have gone, as his wounds soon took his life.

Enterprise with 2 battleships, 2 cruisers and 8 destroyers were well clear of the area.

The USN had some 24 submarines in the general area of the Solomons to provide indirect support.

The Japanese over the period of the 2nd. to the 10th. of November were very busy, they ran into Western Guadalcanal some 65 destroyer and 2 cruiser loads of reinforcement troops.

It all appeared to be building towrads another clash between opposing naval and land forces, As US forces tried to stay put and hang on to the most important real estate in the South Pacific, whilst the Japanese coveted it, and seemed prepared to wrest it from them, almost at any cost.

Reports coming in indicated that heavy Japanese naval units were moving towrads the Canal, 2 battleships or heavy cruisers, 1 cruiser and 6 destroyers to the north about 335 miles away, 5 more destroyers 200 miles to the north north west, and still more, 2 carriers with 2 destroyers, 265 miles to the west.

No sign of troop transports, seeming too indicate that the surface forces were going after the US transports, or else aimed to bombard Henderson Field, or even both of these options.

To Turner, the odds did not look good, the enemy, 2 battleships, 2 to 4 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers and 12 destroyers, Rear Admiral Callaghan, 2 heavy, 2 light cruisers and 8 destoyers. Kinkaid and his group too far way to back up Callaghan.

Iron Bottom Sound with Savo in the middle distance
Iron Bottom Sound with Savo in the middle distance
About sunset on the 12th. of November, Turner in McCawley lead the 4 transports and 2 cargo vessels from Scott's earlier group out of Iron Bottom Sound bound for Espiritu Santo.

The damaged Buchanan, and destroyers Shaw and McCalla providing the escort, the latter 2 destroyers chosen as they were low on fuel. 2 minesweepers, Southard and Hovey completed this motley group, and they all made it back to Espiritu Santo by the 15th. of November.

Rear Admiral Callaghan was joined by his junior, Rear Admiral Scott in Atlanta and her 2 destroyers.

Now Callaghan formed all his ships up into a long snakelike column, with the van made up of the destroyers Cushing, Laffey, Sterett, and O'Bannon, in the centre of the line came the cruisers, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland, Helena and Juneau, bring up th the rear were the destroyers Aaron Ward, Barton, Monsoon and Fletcher.

It was a long in line column, similar to the way Scott had fought his ships at Cape Esperance, but once more, the best equipped radar ships were not in leading positions, Atlanta with a less efficient surface radar set than San Francisco led her, the other flaw in this line ahead formation, was the placing of the rear destroyers, they could not join their sister ships in the van if a torpedo attack was ordered.

By 2200 ( 10PM ) Turner with his flock of non combatant ships was safely on their way, and Callaghan passed through Lengo Channel into Iron Bottom Sound.

The stars were visible, and as so often prevailed in the Solomons at night, lightning flashed, showing up the low lying clouds, the moon had set.

Japanese forces.
They were heading southward, planning to pass into Iron Bottom Sound south of Savo, and then run an easterly course along the shores of Guadalcanal, with Vice Admiral Abe's 2 battleships, Hiei, and Kireshima, the light cruiser Nagara, plus 14 destroyers, their objective to plaster Henderson Field, and obliterate it with high explosive shells.

The choice of high explosive shells indicated that Abe did not expect to face a US surface force where semi armour pierceing shells would be required, perhaps he reasoned that as in the past, the US naval forces would have retired at night, leaving the scene to the IJN.

About midnight 12/13th. of November, Abe's raiders were north west of Savo and ran into a severe rain squall, the Admiral reversed course, not wishing to be restricted by lowered visibility off Guadalcanal.

He then received a favourable weather report from Japanese sources on the ground at Guadalcanal, and he again altered course for Lunga Point, now  running 40 minutes behind his planned bombardment run.

Night Action. First Battle of Guadalcanal. Friday the 13th. of November, 1942.

At 0124, ( 1.24 AM ) Helena reported separate radar contacts, one at 27,000 yards, the second at 32,000 yards, they spelled trouble, a leading screening force some 5,000 yards ahead of the main group of ships. The two contacts bore 312 and 310 degrees.

Callaghan ordered his 13 ship column to alter course 2 points to starboard to come to a course of 310 degrees. (  the 32 points of the compass divide into 360 degrees to allocate 11.25 degrees to each point. )

Helena reported the enemy at 0130 ( 1.30 AM ) at just over 7 miles, steaming on a course of 105 degrees, at 23 knots, the two forces were now rapidly closing each other at over 40 knots, any US suprise element by the early radar contact was being quickly whittled away.

The TBS ( talk between ships radio ) was cluttered with Admiral Callaghan wanting enemy range and bearings from Helena and O'Bannon, and directions to the fleet for course, speed, and gun control, all competing for a time slot over the same net.

The Japanese unemcumbered by radar being fitted in their ships, were totally unaware of the presence of US ships in the Sound.

Commander Stokes, as Des Div 10, in Cushing, sighted Japanese destroyers crossing ahead only 3,000 yards away, the alarm was sent down the line.

Cushing suddenly altered course to port at 0141 ( 1.41 AM ) to unmask her torpedo tubes, all the following ships tending to bunch up as they were forced to turn, the destroyers with a tighter turning circle than the cruisers were lucky not to be trampled underfoot by the larger cruisers.

Stokes had sighted the destroyers Yadachi and Harusame, all suprise now gone, before any torpedoes could be unleashed, both enemy destroyers had gone.

Once again, much confusion in the US ranks, were targets being reported as true bearings or as relative bearings? and the sudden turn to port causing chaos.

It was 0145 ( 1.45 AM ) before Callaghan ordered "Stand by to open fire."

The Japanese, as they did at Savo, used their superior night glasses, and picked up ships almost amongst their own fleet, Atlanta with her high superstructure very visible.

At 0150 ( 1.50 AM )  the Japanese snapped on searchlights from the cruiser Akatsuki that lit up the port wing of Atlanta’s bridge like a christmas tree, the range but 1,600 yards, Atlanta poured a deadly stream of 5 inch shells at the stark light, it was quickly extinguished.

Over the next 34 minutes, a vicious all in fight at very close range took place.

At one stage, San Francisco ordered cease fire to all the US ships, as Callaghan believed his own ship might be targeting Atlanta ( there are those today who believe Rear Admiral Scott died on his bridge, killed by fire from San Francisco )

I have just indicated that Norman Scott died on Atlanta’s bridge, whether from Japanese or American fire is still not decided, his ship was finally scuttled by her crew, 3 miles off Lunga Point, just after sunset on that Bloody 13th. of November.

The destroyer Barton, only commissioned on the 29th. of May, had a very short combat life, about 7 minutes, she collected a torpedo, broke in two, sinking instantly, taking nearly all her crew with her.

 US destroyers, Cushing and Monssen both burned furiously and sank.

The destroyer Laffey also went down and 130 of her crew died.

San Francisco battered by the Japanese units, had Rear Admiral Callaghan and her Captain, Cassin Young both killed on her bridge.

On the Japanese side, the destroyer Yudachi became another victim and sank.

By now the battleship Hiei, hit by more than 50 shells limped away from the battle scene, she was later found by attacking aircraft from Henderson Field, bombed and attacked by torpedo carrying planes, finally, her crew opened the sea cocks and then abandoned ship.

She was the first Japanese battleship sunk in WW2, Vice Admiral Mikawa furious with Rear Admiral Abe ( who himself was wounded in the melee ) promptly relieved him from his sea going command.

Both San Francisco and Portland had been battered but survived.

When Juneau, Helena, and San Francisco with the destroyers Fletcher, O’Bannon, and Sterett had retired around Savo, at dawn they were making a course south easterly down Independence Strait, at 18 knots, zigzagging they now set off for the New Hebrides. Fletcher and Sterett were leading the cruisers, 4,000 yards ahead. O’Bannon, her anti-submarine equipment damaged the previous night had been sent off ahead to report by radio to Admiral Halsey.

At 0950 ( 9.50 AM ) Sterett had made a sound contact, and sent depth charges away, but without any visible result.

An hour later, with Helena cruising 1,000 yards ahead of San Francisco, who had Juneau stationed 1,000 yards on her starboard beam, the force having been stalked by the Japanese submarine I-26, no doubt the target for Sterett’s earlier attack, now fired a spread of torpedoes.

Two of them flashed past San Francisco, her communications gear shot in last night’s battle, she could not raise any alarm.

One torpedo collected Juneau under her bridge on the port side, she literally blew apart, disappearing in 20 seconds, 700 crew perished, including the 5 Sullivan brothers. ( I cannot imagine why any Naval Department allocating sailors to various fleet units, would draft all 5 brothers to one cruiser, Juneau. )

No one stopped for any survivors, a B17 attracted by the explosion relayed a rescue request to Halsey’s headquarters, but this message was never received.

The final score card.

This slugfest caused the loss of 2 light cruisers, Atlanta and Juneau, plus 4 destroyers, Cushing, Laffey, Barton, and Monssen.

2 heavy cruisers, San Francisco and Portland and the light cruiser Helena were all damaged, and likewise the destroyers, Aaron Ward and Sterett.

The battleship Hiei sunk, with 2 destroyers Akatsuki, and Yudachi suffering the same fate.

3 further destroyers had battle damage, Ikazuchi, Murasame, and Amatsukaze.

Tactically a Japanese victory, but strategically Henderson Field remained intact,
Abe’s bombardment mission failed.

Admiral Nimitz summed it all up well:

"Had the powerful enemy fleet succeeeded in his mission of bombarding our airfield on Guadalcanal, the task of preventing a major enemy attack and landing of large-scale reinforcements would have been more difficult, if not imposssible."

But Yamamoto was not done yet, he quickly went about setting the ring up for Round Two.

See  The Solomons Campaign for charts.


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