Staggered, Bloodied but Unbowed
After the morning’s attacks Enterprise had suffered significant damage, but still able to put up a fight defensively and conduct air ops. The number two elevator, aft most on the flightdeck, was temporarily stuck in the down position, leaving a large, square hole just forward of the arresting gear. Forward, just aft of the forward elevator, the forward hangar bay was a riot of flame, smoke and destroyed aircraft. Burning avgas was siphoning down into the forward elevator pit. Two decks below that was more smoke, fire, severed electrical cables, sprung hatches and a grotesquely sweet smelling mixture of oil, seawater and blood, camouflaging decks scattered with jagged metal and shattered bodies. Smoldering storerooms were separated from avgas and bomb bunkers by watertight bulkheads that had, thus far, remained intact.
” In every battle there is a moment when the combatants, and the world, seem to catch their breath. It is a fleeting moment, lost in the blink of an eye. But in that same blink, everything changes. Such moments are borne of desperation, of courage, of plain dumb luck. But they are pivotal – for what was before is forever changed afterwards. Until 1019 on the morning of 4/5 June 1942, things had gone badly for the US and its allies. With few exceptions, the Allies were fighting a losing battle in the Pacific. Indeed, as events unfolded that morning, it appeared as of the rout was on. The attacks by land-based air forces from Midway had utterly failed culminating in the loss of many aircraft. The strikes by the torpedo aircraft were decimated – an entire squadron of TBDs shot down with only a sole survivor to claim witness. An entire airgroup missed the Japanese carriers and the battle altogether and of the remaining forces, they were scattered and disorganized. The future was looking grim. At 1019, Hiryu’s senior lookout shouted he had spotted dive bombers attacking Kaga from overhead. Despite being thrown into a hard turn, Kaga was struck by a 500 lb bomb and then successive strikes utterly crushed her…
At 1024 Soryu was struck a mighty series of blows…
At 1026, LT Dick Best led a flight of two other SBDs away from Kaga in an attack on Akagi. Attacking in a “V” formation from a right-hand turn, history held its breath as the first bomb missed and the third narrowly missed the carrier. But the second bomb, a 1,000 pounder from LT Best’s aircraft bore through the aft edge of the elevator and exploded in the upper reaches of the Akagi’s hangar bay, in the midst of the refueled/rearming aircraft parked there. In the blink of an eye, fate turned and three carriers lay burning.
To be sure the battle was not over and a dreadful price remained to be extracted from the American carriers. Likewise, Kido Butai had not seen the last of the Americans either and would pay the final price later in that day.
Across a seaborne canvass that stretched over 176,000 sq nm, larger than the country of Sweden, the battle see-sawed back and forth. No other naval engagement has seen such breath-taking distances involved and few, short of a Trafalgar, have seen such a decisive turn of events. We honor today those who fought and gave their all in this signatory battle.”
Across the expanses of the Pacific that now marked the final resting spot of four of the Combined Fleet’s carriers and another of the dwindling American fleet; across those waters whose perceived placidity formed the basis of its, by now, ironically given name, men on both sides gathered to ponder, to plan, to act. On one side, it was a two pronged effort to hide the shame of the recent losses from the divine being occupying the throne while still trying to consolidate the spoils of what, six months previously, seemed to be an unstoppable force. In the east, in the capitol of a nation roughly a century and a half removed from the shackles of an empire, men, civilian and military paused in their brief celebration of the previous day’s events and turned over a question common in mind – ‘now what’? The unexpected opportunity presented at Midway opened new avenues and forced thought about where emphasis should lie in the war effort. Europe first? That’s where the President’s heart lay and Churchill and Stalin were in desperate straits against the Nazi foe despite recent setbacks… Put the Pacific on ice now that Japan’s eastward and southern thrusts have been blunted? Or take advantage of the change in strategic conditions? Was it time to press Nimitz’s central Pacific strategy? And what about MacArthur ? Couldn’t keep him quiet in Australia forever.
In June 1942, a Japanese seaplane base commander was surveying the areas in a chain of volcanic- and coral-reef islands that stretched across the north-eastern approaches to Australia – the Solomon Islands. While loitering about one, he noticed a wide, flat plain – perfect for constructing a long runway for land-based patrol bombers to extend their reach over land and sea. And so, acting on his initiative, construction began on this heretofore, little noticed, overgrown outcropping of rock, stuck like an appendix to this chain of islands.
This rock named Guadalcanal.
In doing so, he touched off a series of events, of battles great and small, nation against nation, man against the elements – even man against himself that no one in those far-distant capitols had reckoned for.
Beginning here (and here) next week, we will bring you the story of the Solomons campaign. A cast of writers have been assembled from a variety of communities – some well known from their own blog efforts, some new to the blog ‘verse but well experienced in the ‘real world,’ others you have only seen in the comments. All will bring their knowledge and perspective to elements of the Campaign in the tradition established by the Countdown to Midway series. In the process, while hoping to shed new light on a campaign that, with a few exceptions, has pretty much remained elusively darkened to most except for the dedicated naval and military historian, we also hope to highlight lessons for the current age – lessons form an operational, planning and leadership perspective.
Shifting from defense to offense. Joint and combined operations – and all the hard lessons learned. Finding out that training, tactics and procedures can trump an opponent’s better technology – and more hard lessons learned. Surviving on the razor’s edge and prevailing. Innovate, adapt – overcome. All of this and more are gathered together in the collection of battles and engagements called the Solomons Campaign – and coming this fall, we will give it the same treatment we did here with Midway. Plus some.
Watch these spaces for more details – and if you are interested in participating in this project, drop a note to: steeljawscribeATgmailDOTcom with your ideas and suggestions – full credit will be accorded.
OK — entering the homestretch of the Solomons Campaign. Before we get to the final sea battles of that campaign, we need to go back and capture the Battle of Santa Cruz for the pivotal impact it had on the campaign. Part I is presented here with II and III to follow in the coming week. – SJS
. . . And then there was one.
At 1025, Enterprise emerging from a rainsquall turned east to begin recovery of her search aircraft. Topside, flightdeck crews beheld a sight that made their hearts sink. There was Hornet, off to the southwest, dead in the water. Rising above her, like an accusing finger, was a huge column of of thick, black smoke, marking her position to the enemy. One needn’t be up in the flag plot or bridge to grasp the implications — with Wasp lost to Japanese torpedoes earlier in the month and Saratoga out of action with her own torpedo damage, there was just one carrier left in the southwest Pacific to hold the line.
And the Japanese knew it…
The situation at Guadalcanal had become unbearable for the Japanese and over the course of the late summer and early fall forces were gradually landed with a view to remove the Allied presence and reclaim the airfield. On 13 Oct, a Japanese force of two battleships, a light cruiser and eight destroyers began shelling Henderson field near midnight. The following night was a repeat. While there was little in the way of personnel casualties, most of the aircraft on the field were destroyed. As a result, a subsequent landing by Japanese land forces was only lightly opposed by a single SBD from Henderson and even though SBDs from nearby Espiritu Santo and supporting B-17’s sank three transports, the majority of Japanese forces were able to put ashore.
Over the next two weeks, the Japanese forces pressed their way across Guadalcanal towards the objective at Henderson. Bereft of most of their heavy gear, they could rely on artillery support from the ships of Yamamoto’s force which held local supremacy over the seas. In their minds, any other shortfalls would be more than made up by their own warrior spirit in the face of the American defenders whom they knew to be hanging by a slim lifeline of support.
Between the 23rd and 24th of October, Japanese land forces deployed around Henderson Field, looking for one final, overwhelming push to retake the field. At sea, Japanese naval forces were gathered, centered again around the carriers and in numbers not seen since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Just as the forces ashore would rid the island of the American invaders, Yamamoto’s naval forces would engage the numerically inferior American Navy and eliminate it as a threat
The time for confrontation was drawing nigh –
The next four posts will cover the invasion of Bougainville and are provided via guest author CINCLAX.– SJS
The Last Spoke in the Cartwheel
Before the Guadalcanal operation (Watchtower) even began in August 1942, it had been decided to neutralize the Japanese bastion of Rabaul by moving up the Solomons one step at a time until Rabaul could be pounded from the air on a daily basis. Operation Cartwheel—as it was to be called—had begun inauspiciously with strong Japanese responses by sea and air, and by the early fall of the year some people were even calling for a strategic retreat and the evacuation of Gen. Vandegrift’s First Marines. The Navy was having great trouble stopping IJN surface attacks on Henderson Field, and the “Tokyo Express” reinforcement runs from Rabaul could not be effectively stopped. Japanese night surface tactics and superior torpedoes were not yet understood by American commanders, and the soon-to-be-famous “Cactus Air Force” was often reduced to a handful of operational aircraft left to handle the daily Japanese air raids.
Rabaul continually haunted Allied leaders. No operation in the Solomons or New Guinea could be considered complete as long as Rabaul remained strong and served as a hub for aggressive Japanese troops to attempt the re-conquest of Guadalcanal or even eastern New Guinea.
Then the always aggressive VADM Halsey took over SOWESPAC and things slowly began to change for the better. By the summer of 1943 the Allies had moved into the Central Solomons, eventually capturing the Russell Islands, New Georgia, Rendova and finally Vella Lavella. Along with each conquest had come new air bases ever closer to Rabaul, relentlessly hacked out of the jungle by the seemingly tireless Seabees. Henderson Field had been some 560 miles from Rabaul; Munda (New Georgia) was some 200 miles closer, while Barakoma on Vella Lavella was only 320 miles from Rabaul. The ring was closing.
Moreover, Halsey’s campaigns had also worn down Japanese air and naval forces to the extent that they no longer had the upper hand in the Slot. Their surface warships had been sorely depleted, and many of their veteran IJN pilots had been lost in combat and operational accidents. The Cactus Air Force on Henderson Field had now grown into AirSols, one of the best small air forces in the world and a true “joint” command of Navy, Marine, USAAF and New Zealand planes operating out of multiple strips all over the Central Solomons. Masters of improvisation and scrounging since the dark days of Operation Watchtower, AirSols would take the unsuccessful P-39 and P-40 fighters (rejected for European service) and make them effective low-level fighter bombers. When they needed floatplanes, they snatched them off of damaged cruisers heading home for repair. Similarly, the vulnerable Lockheed Ventura patrol bomber was turned into a night fighter. Meanwhile new arrivals like the P-38, the F4U Corsair and F6F Hellcat would rule the higher altitudes against the Zero. Now AirSols “Black Cat” PBYs patrolled the nights over water and their “Dumbos” rescued hundreds of downed flyers who lived to fly and fight again.
Meanwhile Gen. Mac Arthur’s forces in New Guinea had slogged their way from Port Moresby to Buna and beyond, establishing a large air base at Dobodura (near Buna). There, Gen. George Kenny’s Fifth Air Force had established itself as the terror of the Bismarck Sea. On the last day of February 1943, Gen. Imamura (8th Area Army CO in Rabaul), sent out some 6900 troops to reinforce his garrison at Lae; eight destroyers and eight transports carried the load. Kenny attacked the convoy with 335 aircraft, and in two days the Japanese lost all eight transports, four destroyers and about 3500 soldiers. With the disaster of the Bismarck Sea battle, Imamura and his Rabaul Navy cohort Adm. Kusaka (11th Air Fleet) would dare no further reinforcement attempts in New Guinea.
So Bougainville would be the next—and virtually last—target of the Allied Solomons campaign. In the summer of 1943, Halsey’s staff in Noumea joined with VADM Aubrey Fitch from the New Hebrides, LTG Alexander Vandegrift, and RADM Theodore “Ping” Wilkinson at Camp Crocodile on Guadalcanal to complete their planning. If Bougainville was to be the logical target, the question remained as to where? It was estimated there were about 40,000 Japanese Army troops, plus 20,000 Navy personnel on Bougainville and its adjacent islands. Most of these were in the south: Kahili, Buin, and the Shortlands; there were also 6000 in the north on or around the Buka Passage. All these locations featured airfields which the Japanese could be expected to defend tooth and nail—as they had at Munda.
What the Allies needed was a relatively lightly defended location where they could build their own airstrips, and one far enough away from existing Japanese strongholds so that speedy overland reinforcement would be difficult if not impossible. After deliberating, they decided on Empress Augusta Bay, in the middle of Bougainville’s west coast and equidistant (about 50 miles) from Japanese strongholds. About 16 miles wide from Cape Torokina to Mutupina Point in the south, the Bay was not a well-protected anchorage from westerly storms, but it would have to do.
In many respects, Bougainville would be a repeat of Guadalcanal: establish a perimeter against initially weak resistance, construct several airstrips and defend them against counter-attacks, then go about the business of continuing to reduce the stronghold of Rabaul—only 220 miles distant. Unlike New Georgia or Vella Lavella, there would be no need to occupy the entire island.
The next offering comes via CINCLAX – and is a truly detailed review of the ground action in New Georgia as we begin to move – slowly, hesitantly and with great inefficiency (at first) from the precarious foothold established at Guadalcanal. The Japanese will come to learn, as did the Germans on the other side of the world, that once the Americans establish a beachhead, there was no going back – they would relentlessly press their advantage.
And so – the New Georgia Campaign…
The Right Place to Go but the Wrong Way to Get There
In 1950 Samuel Eliot Morison concluded his final evaluation of the New Georgia Campaign:
The strategy and tactics of the New Georgia campaign were among the least successful of any Allied campaign in the Pacific.
As most of the American planners and commanders were still alive at this time, perhaps Morison was being intentionally soft on them, as his writing excoriates the planners at several other points.
Before 1942 hardly anybody had ever heard of New Georgia, and after 1943 few people would ever hear of it again. Nothing important had ever happened there before, and nothing important afterwards. But for an intense five-month period from June through November 1943, the New Georgia Group of islands would see fierce fighting on land, sea and in the air—and some of the worst American strategic and tactical planning of the war.
The needless complexity of the operation was bewilderingly wasteful, and was often poorly led by Army officers at all levels who had little or no foreknowledge of the terrain and whose troops were woefully inexperienced and physically unprepared. These Americans also had the misfortune of facing one of the most wily and resolute Japanese generals of the Pacific War, Minorou Sasaki.
On its face, it was innocuous enough – simple administrative traffic providing notification of an inspection by a senior officer of some outposts:
ON APRIL 18 CINC COMBINED FLEET WILL VISIT RXZ,R–, AND RXP IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE FOLLOWING SCHEDULE:
1. DEPART RR AT 0600 IN A MEDIUM ATTACK PLANE ESCORTED BY 6 FIGHTERS. ARRIVE RXZ AT 0800. IMMEDIATELY DEPART FOR R- ON BOARD SUBCHASER (1ST BASE FORCE TO READY ONE BOAT), ARRIVING AT 0840. DEPART R- 0945 ABOARD SIAD SUBCHASER, ARRIVING RXZ AT 1030. (FOR TRANSPORTATION PURPOSES, HAVE READY AN ASSAULT BOAT AT R- AND A MOTOR LAUNCH AT RXZ.) 1100 DEPARTRXZ ON BOARD MEDIUM ATTACK PLANE, ARRIVING RXP AT 1110. LUNCH AT 1 BASE FORCE HEADQUARTERS (SENIOR STAFF OFFICER OF AIR FLOTILLA 26 TO BE PRESENT). 1400 DEPART RXP ABOARD MEDIUM ATTACK PLANE; ARRIVE RR AT 1540.
Further details on uniforms, places to be inspected and the like were provided. To the recipients in the war zone, it undoubtedly was met with mixtures of resignation and anticipation. Across the broad Pacific, however, it was met with a sharp intake of breath by CDR Ed Layton, CINCPAC’s chief intelligence officer. For some time now, since before Midway, the US Navy had been able to read Japanese message traffic with increasing veracity, translating gathered intelligence into degrees of operational success. The implications of this message, however were far reaching – for it literally delivered the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor into the hands of the Americans. How so? This was the itinerary of an upcoming inspection in the Solomon’s area by none other than the commander of the Combined Fleet himself.
The question, two actually, was whether to act upon it and if so, how to carry it out? Because, without question, this was the death warrant of Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto.
By Mark Tempest
1101. The motor torpedo boat is a relatively small craft with great speed and striking power essentially offensive in character. Weapons consist of torpedoes, machine guns and usually depth charges. Its main defensive power lies in its small size, speed, maneuverability, ability to lay smoke and cruise silently at slow speeds.
1102. The primary mission of motor torpedo boats is to attack enemy surface ships. Their high speed, and torpedo armaments make them most suitable for surprise attacks against enemy vessels on the surface, at night or during low visibility. –From Motor Torpedo Boats, Tactical Orders and Doctrine, July 1942
December 9, 1942: Off the coast of Guadalcanal the Japanese submarine I-3 slinks toward the shore, attempting to land supplies for the Japanese troops trying to wrest control of the island and its important air field from American Marines and soldiers. A couple of U.S. Navy torpedo boats are patrolling the littorals and are on watch for just such a resupply effort. They spot a Japanese cargo barge and then – the submarine itself. Speeding in on the attack, PT-59 fires two torpedoes, one of which hits the surfaced submarine and detonates, setting off secondary explosions and sinking this part of Japanese logistics effort.
Since the Allies went on the offensive in the Pacific by landing on Guadalcanal, on other nights, larger ships of the Allied fleet have slugged it out with the Japanese fleet that was trying to obliterate the fragile American toehold at Henderson Field. The battles take place at night because with Henderson and other fields, the Allies have daylight air supremacy. Daytime belongs to the Allies. At night, the Japanese rule the seas, being more practiced at night operations and having a vastly superior torpedo. For months sea battles are fought, cruiser and destroyers come to litter the bottom the waters off Savo Island – waters that come to be known as “Iron Bottom Sound” for the number of disemboweled ships resting on the sea floor.
Fighting through the Allied response, the Japanese land thousands of troops to push the Americans off Guadalcanal. Still, the Americans hold, enduring rigors of war possibly not seen since the American Civil War -disease, malnutrition, a fierce enemy and the “Tokyo Express” roaring down Bougainville Strait bringing supplies for troops and heavy guns to blast Henderson Airfield.
It’s all about the airfields, all about having fixed bases to fly aircraft to attack the next island, to oppose enemy airplanes, to cover the “hop” to the next island and another airfield.
The U.S. Navy is fighting on a shoe string, paying the price for not being prepared for war. The Japanese fleet has proved superior at night fighting and has better torpedoes. Running out of big ships in late 1942, the U.S. Navy tries an experiment – it brings into battle a small group of wooden- hulled, high speed torpedo boats. These Torpedo Patrol Boats (PT) boats offer a high level of firepower for their weight. They also have serious disadvantages. Unlike larger ships, the PT boats cannot operate for weeks at sea – they need support bases and shore based shops for engine maintenance and hull repair. As Captain Robert J. Bulkley, Jr. set out in At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy wrote:
“They were not designed to patrol hundreds of miles to sea, but to deliver sudden punches close to shore and relatively near their bases.”
The experiment went forward.
Four PT boats were shipped and towed near the Solomons. They then headed for the island of Tulagi (taken from the Japanese at the same time as Guadalcanal) where they will be based arriving October 12, 1942. Another four boats arrive on October 25.
There are now eight American PT boats in the Solomons. None of them and not many of their crews has ever been in combat. For the next four months they all will see plenty of it.
A Very Little History
It was the Russians who first used “torpedo launches” when fighting the Ottoman Empire in 1877 in waters near the coast – the littorals. They used fast boats firing self-propelled torpedoes to sink a ship. Soon small, fast, cheap torpedo boats became all the naval rage – especially for “lesser” powers who sought to counteract massive battleships without having to cash in the royal jewels to pay for them.
The idea was simple: Release a swarm of torpedo boats which in turn release a swarm of torpedoes and you might just sink that cruiser or battleship – with minimal risk of losing your entire fleet. High speed and maneuverability would protect the torpedo boats from the big slow battleships and cruisers of the day.
Not that these new weapons weren’t met by counter-weapons. You may recall that the modern “destroyer” began life as the “torpedo boat destroyer,” designed to protect major ships from gnat sized boats with a big bite.
The U.S. Navy toyed with torpedo boats during World War I, but, safely protected by vast oceans, let the torpedo boat concept lie fallow until shortly before World War II. After an exceptionally short period of testing, boats were ordered. The first modern American PT boats were built by Elco, Higgins and Huckins.
The Elco boats were 77 feet long, powered by three V-12 Packard aircraft engines. In theory these boats could hit 50 knots and yet had a draft of only 5 feet, making them ideal for inshore operations. They carried up to four torpedoes and an assortment of automatic weapons.
It was the torpedoes and the speed that mattered most. The torpedoes could, if working properly, sink or severely damage large ships. The speed could allow the boats to escape harm by racing in for attack and back out.
Speed had a disadvantage. The boats did have a rather large wake. As the book Motor Torpedo Boats, Tactical Orders and Doctrine notes:
1202. The wakes of motor torpedo boats at high speeds are visible considerable distances, both from the air and surface. The wake of center engine is less visible than that of wing engines. These factors should always be considered when planning operations unless satisfactory wake camouflaging apparatus is installed.
In the Solomons
1204. Employed in tactical units of relatively large numerical strength, the motor torpedo boat squadron becomes a powerful offensive weapon.
Remember the concept of PT boats – swarm attacks at high speed:
These early PT boats have no radar. They must see their target before they can engage it. And they must hope that they see their target before their target sees them.
Moonless nights or nights in which visibility is hampered by rain, like those favored by the “Tokyo Express” are tough on PT boat crews. To try to get ahead of the Japanese, the PT boats post pickets on either side of Savo Island, hoping that a boat will spot the Express as it rumbles by and that a radio signal will tell the other boats which direction to head.
The boat crews know when to go out because coast watchers on islands up the Solomon chain report in. “Ten destroyers inbound” “Two cruisers and 4 destroyers coming through Bougainville Straits.”
The coast watchers are far enough away that the Japanese run by them in daylight. Daylight also means that Allied aircraft can go ship hunting – and the follow up to coast watcher reporting is often attacks by B-17s, B-24s and dozens of fighters. The Japanese pay a price in their efforts to reinforce and resupply Guadalcanal.
At the end of that chain of forces attacking the Japanese navy in October 1942 are eight PT boats. The boats are skippered and operated by young men. Men who understand that speed means life. Night after night they go out, ragged, sick. Boats are cobbled together to keep them running. The main fleet has taken a pounding – Iron Bottom Bay speaks of it. Now, often the night belongs to the gnats.Rarely are all eight ready. They go out in pairs. They lurk in the shadows waiting.
The PT skippers dodge shell fire, coral reefs and work their way into firing positions. Throttles on full, the boats begin their runs – closing to inside 500 yards, torpedoes unleashed. Explosions, but -too often it seems – there is something wrong with the American torpedoes. What appear to the boat crews as certain hits turn out to be premature explosions . . . but the crews fight on. Night after night.
Every now and then, a definite success, as with the submarine I-3 or, a couple of days later the destroyer Terutsuki hit by a PT torpedo and sunk. Terutsuki was part of a twenty destroyer force. At least part of that group sprang a trap on the PT boats. December 11 marked another PT boat sunk by enemy action.
The point is not that the PT boats did or didn’t take out battleships or cruisers. They were not operated as attack squadrons with the ability to swarm a target from several directions. They operated in pairs, maintaining as stealthy posture as possible until they could attack. They were not guided or directed by radar during this time – finding the enemy was based on “feel” and luck. What cannot be doubted is the bravery of the crews and that they applied every ounce of skill they had to try to stop the enemy.
This tiny force saved lives among the Marines and soldiers on Guadalcanal as they unhesitatingly threw themselves against bigger ships with bigger guns.
In time, the combination of air superiority and improved Allied naval tactics caused the Japanese to alter their plans of resupply. At first they attempted to float supplies ashore in drums pulled by barges. The PT boats helped break up that effort. When the Japanese began just tossing drums full of supplies into the waters near Guadalcanal in hopes that they might drift ashore, the PT boats cruised the inshore areas, blasting all the drums they came across.
As the American war effort picked up, things got better for the PT boats:
About the first of December the PT’s received welcome assistance from half a dozen SOC’s–Navy scout observation planes. The SOC’s had been carried aboard cruisers damaged in the many actions around Guadalcanal, and were left behind with orders to work with the PT’s when their cruisers left the area for repairs. Every night the PT’s expected action; one or two SOC’s flew up the Slot to spot enemy ships and report their position. It was a hazardous assignment for the SOC’s, because the Japanese ships usually made their runs under cover of bad weather, and several were lost.
Further assistance was received about the first of January, with the arrival of a squadron of PBY’s, Navy patrol bombers known as “Catalinas” or “Black Cats.” The PBY’s not only reported positions but heckled enemy ships by dropping flares and bombs, sometimes forcing the ships to reveal their positions by drawing fire from them. Once, toward the end of January, when a group of PT’s was waiting near Savo to engage an approaching force of 12 enemy destroyers, the Black Cats bombed the destroyers so effectively that they turned and fled before they had come within 30 miles of Guadalcanal. (Bulkley, p 93)
Finally, surprisingly quickly, the Japanese withdrew their forces from Guadalcanal. The Americans and their allies had won a major offensive. But the battle of the Solomons continued as the Japanese built new air bases on other islands. And the PT boats went after them there, too.
In the summer of 1943, the PT boats were back in the interdiction business – attempting to stop the flow of men and supplies by Japanese barges to the new airfields. As the war moved up the Solomons, the PT boats moved too. PT boats moved to two bases near Rendova and with their new primary mission:
The situation had changed since the first days at Tulagi. Now we had the preponderance of sea power. Our cruisers and destroyers shelled enemy positions on New Georgia and Kolombangara at will, and in the Battle of Kula Gulf on July 5/6, the Battle of Kolombangara on 12/13 July, and the Battle of Vella Gulf, on August 6, in which they sank a total of three destroyers and a light cruiser, convinced the enemy that he would have to place his main reliance on coastal barges rather than the Tokyo Express to transport troops and supplies to his bases on New Georgia, Kolombangara, Arundel, Gizo, and the small neighboring islands. The barges were relatively expendable, and could operate close to shore in waters inaccessible to ships of deeper draft. Vulnerable to aircraft attack by day, they usually passed the daylight hours nestling against the shore, well camouflaged by freshly cut leaves and palm fronds, and made their runs at night, preferably in the dark of the moon. Barges became the Japanese lifeline. For the rest of the Solomons campaign, barge hunting was to be the principal mission of the PT’s. (Bulkley,p116)
Barge hunting became the principal occupation of the PT’s, both at Rendova and at Lever Harbor. From their first contact on July 21 until the end of August, the Rendova boats encountered 56 barges and 5 small auxiliary ships. They claimed 8 barges and 1 auxiliary sunk, 3 barges and 1 auxiliary probably sunk, and 6 barges and 1 auxiliary damaged. The Lever Harbor boats, which had their first barge action on August 3, engaged 43 or 44 barges from then until the end of the month, of which 2 were sunk, 1 was forced to be beached, and 8 to 16 were hit with possible damage.(Bulkley, p.127)
It was from a Rendova base that the future president, John Kennedy, started his ill-fated first combat experience with PT-109.
Don’t discount barges in terms of fighting capability. Too shallow in draft to be attacked with torpedoes, each barge required a PT boat to close to the range of its guns and that also put the PT boats in the range of guns on the barges. Some the barges were armored and posed quite a challenge to the PT “barge busters.”
The Japanese had learned few tricks along the way – that distinctive wake of the PT boats brought nightly attacks by Japanese planes homing in on the wakes. Further,
Japanese countermeasures against PT’s included the mounting of heavier guns–up to 40mm.–on their barges, and installation of shore batteries along the barge routes. Lieutenant Commander Kelly reported late in August, “Heavily armored large barges with 40mm. and machine-guns escort the medium barges which carry only machine-guns and/or 20 mm. In order to sink a barge, the range must be closed well within 100 yards and more than 1,000 rounds of .50 caliber and 500 rounds of 20mm. are required . . . This requires laying to at point blank range of shore batteries and barges for approximately 10 minutes which is tantamount to sacrificing the PT boat.” (Bulkley, p.130)
The U.S. Navy invited Army soldiers to go to sea to fight barges, as set out by Richard H. Wagner, in Barge-Busting With The PT Boats, describing the exploits of his father, George Wagner:
It is not clear who came up with the idea but after fighting in the jungles and swamps of New Georgia … Soldiers were ordered to rendezvous with some PT boats along the coast and to bring their automatic weapons.
The mission was to assist the Navy in fighting the barges that were shuttling troops between New Georgia and the Japanese stronghold on the neighboring island of Kolombangara.
The primary barge used by the Japanese in the Solomons was the Type A Daihatsu. This metal-hulled craft was nearly 50 feet long and weighed about eight tons. It was capable of carrying up to 120 men or 15 tons of cargo. It was no greyhound as it could only do about one knot. However, they traveled by night and hid along the jungle shore during the daytime, making it difficult for them to be spotted by airplanes.
The coxswain and the engine room were armor-protected. In addition, each Daihatsu came equipped with two machine guns. This armament was frequently supplemented in the field by 40mm guns as well as by the firepower of the troops that the barge was carrying. Thus, the barges were formidable opponents for the wooden PT boats…
Some of the PT boats had radar but they also relied upon lookouts for the difficult task of spotting the barges against the dark shorelines. Black Cat night aircraft would also occasionally guide the boats to their targets.
The soldiers took up positions on the PT boats as they proceeded along the coast in the darkness. George set up the BAR on the bow of the boat.
Bullets from the PT boats’ machine guns and lighter caliber weapons could not penetrate the armored sides of the Daihatsus. However, their continuous fire kept the heads of the Japanese gunners and troops down. This enabled the PT boats to maneuver behind the barges where they were more vulnerable.
When a barge was discovered, the night would erupt in a blaze of tracer fire. The Soldiers and the PT boat’s guns firing and the fire returning from the barge. The opponents were at point blank range, separated by some 20 yards – – the Japanese relying on the barge’s protective armor while the PT boat maneuvered for advantage in the shallow water. In a few moments of intense fire it was all over with the barge disabled or sinking.
The war continued to move north toward Japan, with the PT boats also continuing to harass enemy logistics flow, quite successfully, it seems. Captured Japanese reports refer to the challenges presented to barge operations by the PT boats.
Eventually, the war moved out of the Solomons and so did the fighting PT boats.
In retrospect, the PT boats suffered early from a lack of numbers, lack of radar and faulty torpedoes. Whether they could have sunk more ships will never be known. What is known is that their crews were brave men who undertook a challenging task and did it as well as their equipment allowed them to. Whatever failures one can find in the PT operations in the Solomons, it was never because of the crews.
Breuer, William, Devil Boats: The PT War Against Japan, Presidio Press, Novato 1995
Bulkley, Robert J, At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy, Naval History Division, Washington: 1962 (available online here)
Morison, Samuel E., The Two Ocean War, Little Brown, Boston 1963
Potter, E.B.(editor), Sea Power, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 1981
Wagner, Richard H. Barge-Busting With The PT Boats (Originally published by the Navy League of the United States, New York Council in The Log, Fall 2007) (Available on line here)
UPDATE: See also PT Boats, Inc..
HNSA “Know your PT Boat”.
CINCLAX checks in with a strategic summary of where the players stand at this point in the Solomons Campaign. As we will see here and in detail later ths week with the Battles of Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal I & II, this is still a very close run deal with either the Japanese or Allied forces in a position to come out on top. How close is it? See below… – SJS
In his State of the Union message in January 1943, FDR would note:
“The Axis powers knew that they must win the war in 1942–or eventually lose everything. I do not need to tell you that our enemies did not win the war in 1942.”
He was correct. All IJN commanders, especially Yamamoto, knew that Japan’s only chance in the Pacific War against the United States was to win a “decisive battle” and hopefully bring the United States to a negotiated peace. Assuming this strategy would have succeeded, which is, of course, a huge assumption in view of American bitterness over Pearl Harbor, it meant Japan had to win it early-on before the vastly greater American war production capacity could be brought to bear, presumably by mid/late-1943. Japan had simply not prepared for a protracted naval war.
Inescapably this meant the IJN had to take chances, just as they had with the Pearl Harbor attack in the first place. Would they?
Six months into the war, Yamamoto’s first decisive battle attempt failed completely at Midway, largely because he underestimated his opponent and needlessly divided his forces with an almost impossibly complex plan. As a result, some nine battleships, one fleet carrier, three light carriers, nine heavy cruisers and 30 destroyers actually put to sea but took no part in the main Midway action. Here was a force capable of pulverizing Midway all on its own, leaving Kido Butai to deal directly with TF-16 and TF-17 without worrying about having to bomb the atoll.
Now, several months later in the Solomons, Yamamoto would get his second-and perhaps final-opportunity for that decisive battle. If the Japanese could hand the U.S. Navy a crushing defeat and force the American troops to surrender or withdraw from Guadalcanal, they would stand their best chance of achieving that negotiated peace. So far the IJN had not sought that battle. They had committed their surface forces piecemeal at a critical time when the Americans were relatively weak and the “Cactus” air force still small.
Still, by mid-October 1942, most of the signs were still favorable for a potential Japanese victory:
- American senior naval leadership to-date was irresolute, notably Ghormley and Fletcher.
- The American Joint Chiefs had already diverted large amounts of Army and Navy assets to the upcoming Torch landings in North Africa. The British continually pressured their ally for increased operations in the Mediterranean Theatre and would continue to do so throughout 1943.
- The IJN had proved its superior skills and weaponry in surface night actions.
- The Cactus Air Force was largely unable to stop the “Tokyo Express” fast re-supply and troop transport convoys. The new TBFs with their old MK-13 torpedoes hardly ever made hits, the SBDs had great difficulty scoring on anything but slow transports, and the B-17s were useful only for reconnaissance. Thus Japanese surface warships underway were largely immune from American attack planes. (Note: We’ll be seeing more about this in the near future – SJS)
- American submarines-and torpedoes-had been singularly ineffective, and to-date there had been no disruption of the delivery of oil and raw materials from the Southern Resources Area. In contrast, Japanese I-Boats had been doing solid work against American warships.
- The opening of the new airbase at Buin (Bougainville) cut the flight time to Henderson Field almost in half (compared to Rabaul) and allowed the Japanese to come closer to maintaining air superiority over Guadalcanal because they could now employ their shorter range Zeros (model 21s).
- The floatplane base at Rekata Bay (on Santa Isabel and only 130 miles from Henderson Field) continued to provide a modicum of air reconnaissance in the waters around Guadalcanal.
- The IJN had substantial heavy surface units at anchor in the Home Islands and Truk, including superbattleship Yamato. If ever they were going to play a truly key role and not simply collect barnacles, this was their time to get into the fight.
- After the Battle of Santa Cruz (October 26-27), for nearly a month the Americans would have no operable carriers in the Pacific.
But time was limited, and Yamamoto’s window of opportunity was closing fast. The handwriting was on the wall for all Japanese to see.
- On Guadalcanal, the 17th Army was in dire straits. While the fast destroyer transports of the Tokyo Express were having some success in landing new troops, they could not carry much in the way of heavy equipment, ammunition, food or medicine. Within a month, over 100 soldiers a day would be dying of starvation and/or disease, and combat effectiveness would be down to 20-30%.
- The costly failure of Gen. Hyakutake’s October offensive had exhausted the army to the point where it could no longer strongly defend the west bank of the Matanikau River. Soon, land-based shelling of Henderson Field would no longer be possible because the Japanese guns would be out of range.
- Since Midway, the carrier air groups and the IJN air fleets were already under strength and steadily running out of their most experienced air crews due to combat and operational losses. The replacement pipeline wasn’t doing the job; people were available, but the training hours weren’t.
- In New Guinea, the Japanese attack down the Kokoda Trail had been stopped by the Australians, and Port Moresby remained in Allied hands as an important air base from where constant attacks could be launched eastward against Rabaul as well as northward towards the Bismarck Sea.
- New American warships (or repaired vessels, notably carriers) and additional transports could be expected in-theatre within 4-8 weeks.
- New model American fighter aircraft could be expected to replace the tired and outclassed F4Fs-and in greater numbers. Soon an air raid on Henderson Field would be an impossibly costly venture.
So what did Yamamoto eventually do? We’ll see in the coming week’s posts…
(Crossposted at steeljawscribe.com)
The war is only 10 months old and two months after the defeat at the Battle of Savo Island.
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.
Rear-Admiral Norman C. Scott
- USS SAN FRANCISCO (CA-38)
- USS BOISE (CL-47)
- USS SALT LAKE CITY (CA-25 )
- USS HELENA (CL-50)
- USS FARENHOLT (DD-491)
- USS DUNCAN (DD-485)
- USS LAFFEY (DD-459)
- USS BUCHANAN (DD-484)
- USS MCCALLA (DD-488)
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:
- 1 destroyer sunk,
- 1 cruiser,
- 1 destroyer heavily damaged,
- 163 killed
- 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.
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.