Guest blogger Chuck Hill checks in with the first of two parts of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (12-13 November). We are less than a month out from the attack at Pearl Harbor and Allied forces are on the move – in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But so too are the Italian, German and Japanese forces and while the trend may be more in the defensive direction, the Allies’ footholds are precariously narrow. In the Atlantic the U-boat campaign is sending tonnage to the bottom in numbers unimaginable in pre-war planning. The skies over Europe are still held by the Luftwaffe – a least during the day as the RAF was finding out in trying to carry out “Bomber” Harris’ strategic bombing campaign. Soon the losses were too great, forcing the RAF to a night campaign and forfeiture of any semblance of “precision” bombing. Progress is being made in Africa – but it isn’t Europe, and Russian and English demands for a second front in Europe are unceasing. Meanwhile, in the Pacific – US Marines are occupying a scrap of land on a rugged island in the Solomons… – SJS
November 1942 was a busy month.
ANTI-SUBMARINE WARFARE: U-boat campaign sinks 119 ships totaling 729,100 tons, against the loss of 13 German and 4 Italian submarines. Total Allied losses to all causes are 807,700 tons, of which 131,000 are sunk in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, where German and Italian Submarines are also active. 4 Nov. The first meeting of the Anti-U-boat Warfare Committee takes place in London, including service chiefs, government ministers, and several scientists in the field of radar and operations research. Churchill chairs the meeting himself.
INDIAN OCEAN: 11 Nov., Indian minesweeper Bengal (1-3” gun) and the Dutch merchantile tanker Ondina (1-4”) are attacked by Japanese armed merchant cruisers Hokoku Maru and Aikoku Maru (both armed with 6-6”). Hokoku Maru was sunk and Aikoku Maru was driven off.
NEW GUINEA: November 2, Kokoda airstrip is recaptured by the Australian 25th brigade. 11-13 Nov., The Japanese are driven back to their beachheads at Gona and Buna.
ATOMIC RESEARCH: Work begins on the first atomic pile at the University of Chicago under direction of Enrico Fermi.
EASTERN FRONT: At the beginning of the month, Axis forces are advancing, but on November 19 the Soviets launch their winter offensive which will result in the German defeat at Stalingrad.
GUADALCANAL: The Tokyo Express has been very active. On 12 Nov, for the first time, Japanese troops on the island outnumber Americans. Both sides will rush to build up their forces for the expected showdown.
The Battle of Guadalcanal, 12-15 November
In November the Japanese would, again, attempt a major reinforcement of their forces on Guadalcanal. They hoped to land the 38th Division, with the bulk of the division embarked on eleven high speed merchant transports.
Between November 2 and 10, the Japanese had used 65 destroyer and 2 cruiser sorties to bring in about 8,000 men, but to clear the way for the transports, Henderson Field would have to be neutralized.
Yamamoto intended to repeat the success of the October 14 bombardment, when battleships Kongo and Haruna fired 918 rounds from their 14 inchers into Henderson Field, effectively emasculating it by the destruction of more than half of its aircraft and reduction of gasoline supplies to a single sortie for the remaining aircraft. That bombardment was followed up the next two nights by heavy cruisers that added an additional 752 of 8” on the night of 14/15 October and 912 more the following night.
But there had been a change of leadership on the American side. Shortly after the bombardment Halsey had replace Ghormley, and he was not about ready to let it happen again.
Still the odds of American success were long when available forces are compared:
|Aircraft Carriers||1(light)*||1 (damaged)|
Total (standard displacement)
|324,966 tons||203,305 tons|
*(Morison contends the Japanese had Junyo and Hiyo, but Dull specifically confirms that the Hiyo was not available)
Additionally Japanese operations were to be supported by 14 submarines, one of which, I-172 had been sunk on 10 November. Allied forces included 24 submarines, but these were handicapped by poor torpedoes.
Numbers of aircraft was close, but Henderson Field’s position on Guadalcanal gave the allies a huge advantage, as long as they could keep it operational.
The Night Melee of 12/13 Nov 13, BLOODY THIRTEENTH
Fictionalized in the Movie “In Harm’s Way,” staring John Wayne, the night battle that took place in the early morning hours of 13 November, 1942 has been described as a knife fight in a phone booth. Ranges were incredibly short, looking more 19th century than 20th.
When Halsey and his staff learned that a bombardment force was coming down the slot to hit Henderson field, they had to put together a force with what they had in the immediate area. Two groups of transports had arrived on the 11th and 12th. Using most of the units from their escort groups, a force of five cruisers (2 CA, 1 CL, 2 CLAA) and eight destroyers, totaling 58,748 tons, was hastily assembled.
The two escort group commanders were academy classmates, Rear Admirals Norman Scott (in USS Atlanta) and Daniel J. Callaghan (in USS San Francisco). Callaghan was senior, so became task force group commander (CTG67.4) despite Scott’s previous success at Cape Esperance. Scott went along for the ride.
Coming down the slot was Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe, with two Battleships (Kiei and Kirishima) a light cruiser serving as destroyer leader and 14 destroyers totaling 96,393 tons.
Both sides had good intelligence about the others forces available, location, and direction of movement, so there should have been no surprises, but of course there were. For the Japanese, the big surprise was that, unlike most of their previous experience, the Americans would not vacate Iron Bottom sound at night, they would stand and fight.
Perhaps due to the limited time, Callaghan issued no battle plan, provided the ships’ COs no intelligence about what they were facing, and did not discuss how the battle was to be fought.
The choice of formation and the positioning of ships within it have been criticized. Callaghan chose a linear formation with four destroyers in the van and four following the line of five cruisers. A similar formation had seemed to work at Cape Esperance and it would tend to minimize confusion in the dark. But Callaghan’s column was at least 7400 yards long. The formation chosen tied the destroyers to the cruisers and virtually eliminated the possibility of a torpedo attack before the guns opened fire.
The new SG radar with its plan position indicator (PPI) that could show a clear picture of the relative position of all the ships and their position relative to the land, greatly improved situational awareness for those who had access to it, but they were still rare. Neither of the flagships had it, and the ships equipped with it were not placed forward in the formation where they would have the clearest picture: O’Bannon was forth in line, Helena eighth, and Fletcher last in the conga line.
Callaghan’s attempts to get a clear tactical picture from his seeing-eye dogs, O’Bannon and Helena crowded the TBS (Talk Between Ships), the single voice radio circuit. Frequently it was unclear if bearings passed on TBS were true or relative.
In the middle of the battle as USS San Francisco was aiming at a Japanese ship beyond USS Atlanta, but hitting her because she in the line of fire and the ranges were short, Callaghan ordered a cease fire that momentarily confused the US task force. Fortunately the order was widely ignored.
The Japanese were using flashless powder, the Americans had none.
The Japanese also had problems. Abe’s formation was not as he intended. Apparently designed to counter the threat of torpedo boats, the two battleships in column were protected by a horse shoe shaped formation with his light cruiser, Nagara, in the lead and three destroyers on either side. There were also to have been advanced elements, three destroyers ahead to his left, and two ahead to his right. Three more destroyers were left behind to guard his rear. But in transit Abe had encountered a prolonged thunderstorm and had reversed course. When the weather cleared he had reversed course again. As a result, the destroyers on his left wing were out of position, behind the rest of the formation on his left side. As the battle developed, the two destroyers on the right wing were cutting across the main body’s line of advance.
1:24 The Americans detect the Japanese at 27,000 to the outer screen (two DDs) and 32,000 yards to the main body.
1:41 The leading US destroyer, Cushing, spotted the forward most Japanese destroyer, Yudachi, crossing left to right at 3,000 yards. To avoid a collision and unmask his torpedo battery Cushing made an abrupt left turn. All those behind followed in her wake, turning the column directly toward the Japanese main body. Permission to open fire was withheld.
1:42 Yudachi in turn, detected Callaghan’s force and instantly alerted the Japanese task group, but the Japanese also held their fire. Abe had not expected to encounter surface ships so his battleships had been prepared to fire only anti-personnel high explosive shells for the bombardment of Henderson field. For eight minutes these shells are struck below and armor piercing shells brought up, as the forces closed at over 40 knots (4,000 yards every three minutes).
1:50 Atlanta was bathed in the light of Japanese search lights and opened fire on a Destroyer at just 1600 yards. Battleship Hiei opened fire on Atlanta at only 4500 yards, less than one eighth of its maximum range.
When fire was commenced, at least the leading US destroyer, as much as 2300 yards ahead of Atlanta, if the formation had been maintained, must have been inside the Japanese’s inner screen, piercing it between the leading light cruiser in the center and the first destroyer on the Japanese right flank,
The opportunity to make a torpedo attack before opening fire with guns in lost. (US torpedoes are not working anyway, but they don’t know that at the time.)
MYSTERIES AND SPECULATION
Samuel Elliot Morrison remarked that Callaghan had made a mistake in not crossing the enemy’s “T.” In my opinion, crossing the “T” might only have made the American ships better targets for Japanese torpedoes, but why did Callaghan wait so long to open fire?
As Admiral Callaghan closed the enemy, he called out over voice radio, “We want the big ones!” Callaghan did not distribute a plan of attack, and apparently did not discuss how he planned to conduct the battle, so we cannot know what he was thinking, but I will propose what his actions suggest.
The “big ones” were Hiei and Kirishima. Sister ships Kongo and Haruna were escorting the Junyo in support of this operation. These four ships were built as battlecruisers to a British design. The first of class, Kongo, had in fact been built in Britain by the Vickers Barrow yard before WWI. The rest were built in Japan. Their design was a modification of the British Lion Class that included Princess Royal and Queen Mary that were sunk at Jutland. Their design preceded the Tiger, Renown, Repulse and the Hood.
Callaghan would have known the history of these ships, and would have known that their side armor was considerably lighter than that of most battleships. In fact the side armor was only 8 inches (Breyer). What he probably would not have known, was that two reconstructions had added 4,230 tons of armor and doubled their horsepower, increasing their speed to 30 knots (Chesneau). Even so, most of the additional armor had gone to horizontal protection so this change would have only reaffirmed a conviction that he could not fight these ships at long range. Get close enough and not only would his torpedoes be more accurate, the 8” guns of his heavy cruisers could penetrate their side armor.
In simple terms, the greater the range of the engagement, the more advantage the battleships enjoyed. The closer the engagement, the better chance he would have to actually hurt the battleships. In fact, it was later learned that it was an 8” shell that disabled Hiei’s Steering gear and led to her destruction. (Crenshaw, p23)
Why did Abe wait so long to open fire? And why was he so determined to use armor piercing (AP) ammunition when high explosive (HE) round would have still been highly effective against cruisers and destroyers? Why did he choose to retire almost as soon as the shooting started? Perhaps in the near total darkness of that moonless night with an American force, seen end on, advancing boldly toward him, Abe may have wondered if he was facing modern battleships. Could he have known that the North Carolina had left the Theater two months earlier after being torpedoed at extreme range. If he had received reports Washington and South Dakota well to the south, could he believe them? Reports were frequently inaccurate. Did he fear the shame of possibly loosing ships that were the personal property of the Emperor? Did the fact that the Americans were not using flashless powder add to the impression that he was facing a superior foe?
For whatever reason, Abe soon had enough and ordered his ships to retire. Morison remarked that while Kirishima turned promptly, Hiei was slow to do so. It appears that Hiei actually passed through Callaghan’s disintegrating column astern of Laffey, the second ship in the US line, then looped back around to pass South of Savo. During the course of the battle, the San Francisco, and perhaps others, passed between the two Japanese battleships.
The result of the battle might have been much more satisfactory if our torpedoes had worked properly. Barton fired five without a hit. Cushing fired six at Hiei at 1000 yards, observed three bull’s eyes but no effect on the ship, apparently they had prematurely exploded. Laffey fired two at Hiei at point blank range and watched them bounce off her blisters. Sterett fired four at only 2,000 yards and thought she had gotten two hits, but Hiei seemed to be undamaged. O’Bannon fired two hot, straight, and true, no explosion. Monssen got off five at 4,000 yards, again no explosions. Fletcher made a deliberate attack with 10 fish at 7,000 yards using her SG radar and while there was a red glow, it did not appear she got any hits either. (Crenshaw, p231) At least 34 torpedoes fired from close range with no hits. This compares with at least six hits by Japanese torpedoes.
As soon as Tanaka learned that Abe had withdrawn without bombarding Henderson Field, he turned the transports around and headed back to Shortlands.
Damage was extensive on both sides.
Destroyer Akatsuki, caught in a cross fire between San Francisco and a Destroyer sank suddenly taking nearly all its crew.
Destroyer Yudachi, the first ship to make contact had reversed course, had a near collision with Aaron Ward, passed through the American line and torpedoed the Portland, but then her luck ran out. Hit and heavily damaged, she went dead in the water. Her crew was removed. The wreck was sunk by Portland the following morning.
Kirishima took only a single 8 inch shell hit and would be back to fight again in less than 48 hours. Three Japanese destroyers were also damaged, two severely.
When the sun came up, Hiei was West of Savo Island, badly damaged, hit more than 30 times, and unable to steer. In a more benign environment, she might have been saved. She even fired a few rounds at Portland before the bombers arrived with the daylight, but she was only a few minutes from Henderson field. She was attacked repeated. Ultimately her crew accepted the inevitable. She was abandoned and sank the evening of the 13th.
In some ways it looked like the Americans got the worst of it. Barton sank in 10 seconds after being hit by two torpedoes.
Cushing, hit an estimated 17 times, survived the night. Abandoned and on fire, she blew up and sank the following afternoon.
Laffey, torpedoed astern and having taken shells in the bridge structure, mount 52, and amidships, was abandoned and sank after a large explosion at the stern.
Monssen, hit 37 times, caught fire and blew up the following afternoon.
Atlanta, hit by at least one torpedo and 49 shells, with damage to seven of her eight 5” mounts, survived the night, staying afloat long enough for her survivors to be taken off, but she could not be saved.
Juneau, torpedoed during the night battle, sank in approximately 60 seconds after being hit by a second torpedo from submarine I-26 while transiting away from the scene.
Portland, having taken a torpedo and two projectiles, could only steam in circles and was almost untowable.
San Francisco took 45 hits in addition to the torpedo bomber that had crashed into her before the battle had even begun.
Helena was hit 5 times, Aaron Ward (DD483) 9 times, O’Bannon (DD450) once, and Sterett 11 times. Only Fletcher came away untouched.
Personnel losses were much heavier for the Americans, primarily because of the loss of all but 10 men from the crew of the Juneau, but the ultimate material losses favored the Americans who could more easily absorb the losses which would be more than made up by new construction. Counting both Hiei finished off by aircraft and Juneau finished off by submarine; the Japanese lost a Battleship and two destroyers totaling 36,015 tons; the US lost two cruisers and four destroyers totaling 20,441 tons.
Yamamato was not pleased with Abe’s performance. He was given a lateral transfer ashore and retired a few months later, still a relatively young man. (Don’t confuse him with other Adm. Abes that may show up later. There were at least four in the Japanese Navy during WWII.)
When Admiral Halsey was promoted to four stars on November 26, 1942, he sent his three stars to the widows of Admirals Scott and Callaghan, recognizing that his success was founded on their sacrifice.
Both Scott and Callaghan received the Metal of Honor. Of the 57 Metals of Honor awarded to Navy personnel in WWII, five were awarded for this battle. In addition to the two admirals, the award was also given to three members of the San Francisco’s crew. They were:
- LCdr Herbert Emery Schonland who was acting first lieutenant and a DC officer and the senior surviving officer on the San Francisco, for leading the damage control efforts that save the ship.
- BM1 Reinhardt J. Keppler (namesake for DD 765), posthumously, for actions leading a damage control party that put out a fire in the San Francisco’s hanger, and for his actions the previous day when a torpedo bomber had crashed on board.
- LCdr Bruce McCandless (1911-1968) (Namesake with his father, FF-1084), father of astronaut Bruce McCandless II and son of Commodore Byron McCandless (1881-1967), who was the only surviving officer on the bridge. He took San Francisco’s conn as she led the remaining ships of the column against the Japanese.
- San Francisco’s captain, Capt. Cassin Young (namesake DD-793, now a museum ship in Boston, moored near Constitution) who was also killed on the bridge, had already been awarded the medal for his actions on Dec. 7, 1941, as CO of the Vestal (AR-4) which had been birthed forward of the Arizona.
After so much sacrifice on both sides, the Marines and sailors might have reasonably expected a respite, but it was not to be. For the next two nights as well, the sounds of heavy guns would echo across Iron Bottom Sound.
Cross-posted at http://steeljawscribe.com
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Crenshaw, Russell Sydnor, Jr., South Pacific Destroyer, Naval Institute Press, 1998
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Lacroix, Eric and Linton, Wells II, Japanese Cruisers of the Pacific War, Naval Institute Press, 1997
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