The war is only 10 months old and two months after the defeat at the Battle of Savo Island.

The night action of 10-11 OCT, sometimes know as the Second Battle of Savo Island – but usually as The Battle of Cape Esperance, is an excellent example of the critical importance of training, flexibility, initiative, and aggression – combined with a measure of luck. Luck is always essential, as even the most simple plans become complicated once the battle begins.

First background.

DIVISION 6 of the Imperial Japanese Navy was pretty pleased with itself following its engagement with the Americans off Savo the night of August 8-9, and perhaps with reason. The Japanese felt that they had won a victory, greater than their usual “victories,” and although the loss of the KAKO outside the harbor of Kavieng following the battle had cut into their forces by a quarter, they felt themselves to be the backbone of Japan in the Solomons.

But the Americans still clung tenaciously to their ground in the Guadalcanal and Florida islands despite air raids and night bombardments from the “Tokyo Express. ” And although their position was precarious, it wasn’t enough so for the Jap.

If the Japanese headquarters on Rabaul was busy with plans for marshaling their strength for a knockdown battle for the Solomons, so were the Americans at Espiritu Santo. Something had to be done to stop the Japanese from reinforcing their troops, and from storming Marine positions from the sea, and obviously one way to do it was to reinforce our own land forces at Guadalcanal. For this, a large convoy with Army reinforcements for Guadalcanal was soon to depart from Noumea, in French New Caledonia, halfway between Fiji and Australia. By October 1 1 it would be about 250 miles west of Espiritu Santo, protected by two task forces: one built around the carrier HORNET, the other around the new battleship WASHINGTON.

In Espiritu was a newly organized task force. Its ships had engaged only in target practice together but they were good ships. It would do well, as protection for the left flank of the Army convoy approaching Guadalcanal, to station this task force off the southern shore of that island to intercept any enemy units moving in from the west.


Remember, this is still the “go to war with the Navy you have” part of the war, as the entire Solomon Islands Campaign was.

The post Midway march to Tokyo was on, but this was only the beginning of the beginning.Let’s look at the lineup.

USN:
TF 64

Rear-Admiral Norman C. Scott

IJN:
Bombardment Group

Rear-Admiral Goto

And so, off they went.

Departing New Caledonia on October 8, ships carrying the US 164th Infantry moved north towards Guadalcanal. To screen this convoy, Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley assigned Task Force 64 … to operate near the island. … Initially taking station off Rennell Island, Hall moved north on the 11th after receiving reports that Japanese ships had been sited in The Slot.

MicroWorks calls this “Stumbling into Victory.” That is one way to look at it.

Me? I call it a lesson on the need for trusting your Commanding Officers with short, direct orders. As an editorial note for brevity, there are two IJN groups NW of Guadalcanal, Goto’s Bombardment Group and RADM Jojima’s landing force with 4,500 troops.

As he moved north, Hall, aware that the Americans had faired badly in previous night battles with the Japanese, crafted a simple battle plan. Ordering his ships to form a column with destroyers at the head and rear, he instructed them to illuminate any targets with their searchlights so that the cruisers could fire accurately. Hall also informed his captains that they were open fire when the enemy was sited rather than waiting for orders.

Approaching Cape Hunter on the northwest corner of Guadalcanal, Hall, flying his flag from San Francisco, ordered his cruisers to launch their float planes at 10:00 PM. An hour later, San Francisco’s float plane sighted Jojima’s force off of Guadalcanal. Expecting more Japanese ships to be sighted, Hall maintained his course northeast, passing to the west of Savo Island. Reversing course at 11:30, some confusion led to the three lead destroyers (Farenholt, Duncan, and Laffey) being out of position. About this time, Goto’s ships began appearing on the American radars.

Initially believing these contacts to be the out of position destroyers, Hall took no action. As Farenholt and Laffey accelerated to reassume their proper positions, Duncan moved to attack the approaching Japanese ships.

But ahhhh, one man’s brevity code is another’s order.

A mere 5000 yards distant Goto’s ships were moving directly into the center of the American line, which Goto, deeply feeling that no American was present, considered to be Joshima’s reinforcement group. It was up to Helena to teach him otherwise. Captain Hoover was certain he had the enemy before him and queried Scott to open fire. Scott replied, “Roger”, which he intended as a confirmation of receipt, but if unqualified it meant open fire as well, and Hoover interpreted it as such. He switched on his searchlights, aiming them on Hatsuyuki, the left-wing destroyer, and opened fire with his fifteen 155mm guns at 2346.


That action caught Scott off-guard, but he did not prevent the rest of his line from opening fire on the enemy. Duncan, now only a few hundred yards from Kinugasa, joined in, but was quickly disabled.

Another account describes this classic thus;

At 11:45, Goto’s ships were visible to the American lookouts and Helena radioed asking permission to open fire using the general procedure request, “Interrogatory Roger” (meaning “are we clear to act”). Hall responded in the affirmative, and his surprise the entire American line opened fire. Aboard his flagship, Aoba, Goto was taken by complete surprise.

Let’s talk about VADM Goto for a second. In a battle that lasted only 30 minutes, the first few were an all-American show. Why? Well, confusion and an inability to realize that your plan was no longer going to happen and that all you were told was wrong.

Gotō’s force was taken almost completely by surprise. At 23:43 Aoba’s lookouts sighted Scott’s force, but Gotō assumed that they were Jojima’s ships. Two minutes later, Aoba’s lookouts identified the ships as American, but Gotō remained skeptical and directed his ships to flash identification signals. As Aoba’s crew executed Gotō’s order, the first American salvo smashed into Aoba’s superstructure. Aoba was quickly hit by up to 40 shells from Helena, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Farenholt, and Laffey. The shell hits heavily damaged Aoba’s communications systems and demolished two of her main gun turrets as well as her main gun director. Several large-caliber projectiles passed through Aoba’s flag bridge without exploding, but the force of their passage killed many men and mortally wounded Gotō.

CAPT Kijuma, VADM Goto’s Chief of Staff stated,

“At first we thought the fire was from our own supply ships. It was a surprise attack. All ships but the KINUGASA immediately reversed course to the right. Due to the shellfire and the congestion, the KINUGASA turned left. As a result of
this turn the KINUGASA only received minor damage from three hits. The AOBA was hit about forty times and was badly damaged. The FURUTAKA and FUBUKI were sunk. The FUBUKI sank before it completed the turn, although it only received four hits. Due to the smoke from the AOBA, the MURAKUMO was not hit. The KINUGASA did most of the fighting for our force.

“Soon after the action started Admiral Goto was mortally wounded. While he was dying, I told him that he could die with easy mind because we had sunk two of your heavy cruisers.

“Following this action we retired to the northwest. The MURAKUMO turned back and rescued about four hundred survivors. When your forces reappeared it departed the area trying to make you chase it within range of our aircraft.”

Chaos, on both sides.

Over the next few minutes, Aoba was hit more than 40 times by Helena, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Farenholt, and Laffey. Burning, with many of its guns out of action and Goto dead, Aoba turned to disengage. At 11:47, concerned that he was firing on his own ships, Hall ordered a ceasefire and asked his destroyers to confirm their positions. This done, the American ships resumed firing at 11:51 and pummeled the cruiser Furutaka. Burning from a hit to its torpedo tubes, Furutaka lost power after taking a torpedo from Buchanan. While the cruiser was burning, the Americans shifted their fire to the destroyer Fubuki sinking it.

Two minutes of firing – four minutes of “where and the h311 is everyone” and then firing again. That 4 minutes must have seemed like an hour.

As the battle raged, the cruiser Kinugasa and destoryer Hatsuyuki turned away and missed the brunt of the American attack. Pursuing the fleeing Japanese ships, Boise was nearly hit by torpedoes from Kinugasa at 12:06 AM. Turning on their search lights to illuminate the Japanese cruiser, Boise and Salt Lake City immediately took fire, with the former taking a hit to its magazine. At 12:20, with the Japanese retreating and his ships disorganized, Hall broke off the action.

Later that night, Furutaka sank as result of battle damage, and Duncan was lost to raging fires. Learning of the bombardment force’s crisis, Jojima detached four destroyers to its aid after disembarking his troops. The next day, two of these, Murakumo and Shirayuki, were sunk by aircraft from Henderson Field.

The end result of the battle was a complete smacking. Losses:

USN:

  • 1 destroyer sunk,
  • 1 cruiser,
  • 1 destroyer heavily damaged,
  • 163 killed

IJN:

  • 1 cruiser,
  • 3 destroyers sunk,
  • 1 cruiser heavily damaged,
  • 341–454 killed,
  • 111 captured

This was unquestionably a great tactical victory for the USN, but an operational failure as Jojima was still able to get his troops ashore. It also did not supply the right lessons to take forward as we continued not to appreciate the true night fighting capabilities of the IJN and the exceptional danger posed by the Long Lance torpedo.

This battle was the happy middle between two sobering hammers – The Battle of Savo Island for one, and two months later Tassafaronga. In the end, I think this best catches the results,

A junior officer on Helena later wrote, “Cape Esperance was a three-sided battle in which chance was the major winner.”

A great take-away would be this quote that could be heard after any sea battle for the last 2,500 years, I bet.

In the words of one petty officer who was overheard talking with another on the way back to Espiritu Santo, “I’ll never complain of another drill, and I’ll deck the man who does.”

BTW, that quote and a few others come from Battle Report: Pacific War: Middle Phase by CDR Walter Purdon, USN and CAPT Eric Karig, USN which you can get for free online here, or get the 1947 hardback riginal here.

Crossposted at CDRSalamander as part of the ongoing Fullbore Friday series.




Posted by CDRSalamander in Navy


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  • Chuck Hill

    One of the interesting things about this battle was how different the perception and reality were. Contemporary reports had this as a great American victory. They believed that eight Japanese ships had been sunk (apparently some more than once) and that Helena had virtually won the battle single handed.

    There was a misperception that fast firing 6″ guns had smothered the enemy ships, quickly sinking them one after another. Actually what was happening was that the fire control radar was not being used properly. Guns were spotted onto previous splashes, the range gates were pulled off the target, and when firing stopped the target was gone, so assumed sunk.

    Bad lessons learned. Light cruisers were thought ideal for night fighting. Column formation seemed to work so destroyers remained tied to the cruisers. Helena (hero of the contemporary reporting) had picked up the enemy force on her SG radar at 2308 but had not reported it until 2323. Use of radar would not get any better in the next engagement.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Note the location. Littoral. Note the protection and offensive power of the vessels involved. Compare speed of an LCS with speed of ammunition. What does this suggest to you?

    Fewer sailors die on an LCS while sinking, because the crew is much smaller, even though most of them die?

    What is the fire support and escort value of an LCS compared to the smallest of the ships involved?

  • Byron

    LCS doesn’t have torpedo’s…or much of anything else of value…

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Compare speed of an LCS with speed of ammunition. What does this suggest to you?”

    Grampa, you said a mouthful. In the island-choked confined waters of the littoral, where detection can be an iffy thing even with modern radars, etc., a vessel without survivability and offensive punch greater than its foes (especially if it is outnumbered) is DOOMED.

    As far as speed being “life” on a 3,000-ton warship, it is interesting to note that the Benson-Gleaves class of DDs, as well as the Japanese FUBUKI and follow-on units, had speeds approaching 40 knots. And a lot of them litter Ironbottom Sound.

  • Chuck Hill

    For those unfamiliar with the ships involved. The three Japanese heavy cruisers involved were their oldest and smallest heavies, but they had been successively rebuilt and were substantially over their original design displacement. They mounted only 6 8″ each in three twin turrets. San Francisco was a classic US Heavy with 9 8″, Salt Lake City was one of our oldest, mounted 10 8″ and was very lightly armored. Boise and Helena, nominally light cruisers, were larger than Salt Lake City or any of the Japanese cruisers and mounted 15 6″ guns in five triple mounts.

  • Byron

    URR/Grampa: both of you hit the nail on the head. Ever since I first saw the specs on LCS and the manning, I knew this Little Crappy Ship was a train wreck looking for a place to happen.

    STOP LCS!
    SLEP THE FIGS!
    BUILD A NEW FFG!

  • Andy (JADAA)

    @Byron: [snark mode ON] But don’t you realize that with our perfectly integrated ISR and flawless intell we will simply “modularize” the LCS prior to departure with the appropriate systems to meet the perfectly anticipated threat? [snark mode OFF]

    I confess that I keep going back to the basic naval architecture of the Fletcher and Gearing classes. Apply the technological lessons learned since their designs, drop in the Holy Gas Turbine (all genuflect) start crunching some numbers. But since L-M and N-G didn’t think of it and sell it to their patron Congress-critters, it ain’t ever going to happen.

    VR,
    Andy

  • Byron

    You hit the nail on the head, Andy. That’s the crux of the problem, that unholy relationship between contractor and Congress. Add in a Navy desperate to get ship numbers up, and commands for admirals and captains, and you end up with LCS and LPD-17 built by shipyards hacks.

  • JD

    Is 50+ knot speed even desirable in confined waters? It seems to me that would hinder maneuverability, not enhance it, and would be a good way to hit a mine, too. Admiral Scott used maneuvering to win at Cape Esperance, but he didn’t use speed. He simply had his ships in the right place at the right time (barely), crossed the T, and hit the snot out of the Japanese column because he had the element of surprise. And of course, as has already been mentioned, superior *firepower* is what made that victory possible. Firepower and Boise’s survivability, that is. Could an LCS take that kind of beating and stay afloat? More relevant to littoral warfare, could an LCS take the kind of beating Colorado took from *shore batteries* off Tinian and stay afloat?

  • Guillermo Hope

    Solomon Islands

  • Bob Castioni

    Who is “Hall” who is constantly referred to in this article? Norman Scott commanded the U.S.N. task force!

  • Debbie DiFulvio

    Looking for vets or family of vets who have pics or stories to share from crew who were at Battle of Corregidor on or about Feb 16 1945; specifically LCT 729 Flotilla 22 Group 64, temp assigned to Group 66 and sent to Corregidor. on Feb 16, 1945 Benjamin H Middleton was killed after landing LCT729, wounded and died a few days later was Mr Kennedy. Carlton Rutledge took command.
    Looking to publish “WWII Letters Home” from Ben Middleton, along with poems and stories he wrote, as well as letters his brother Ralph K Middleton wrote while at Battle of the Bulge. Pics of 729 and or stories to share would be most welcome! you may email me at [email protected] thank you all and thank you all for your service! debbie

  • Vicki Lundeen

    My father Wellington(Shorty)Kleist served in the Pacific during WWII. Now deceased and my son is interested in his grandfathers Navy service. Any information greatly appreciated.

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