Archive for the 'Solomons Campaign' Tag

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

USS_Hornet_at_Santa_Cruz

. . . 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…

Prologue

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 –

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The next four posts will cover the invasion of Bougainville and are provided via guest author CINCLAX.- SJS

The Last Spoke in the Cartwheel

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Strategic Progress

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.

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the battle
Can you lose but win?

Of course you can. The key is to understand that the Tactical, Operational, and Strategic are linked – but they are not perfectly linked.

Let’s look at the Tactical.

In the battle, a US warship force of five cruisers and four destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright attempted to surprise and destroy a Japanese warship force of eight destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka. Tanaka’s warships were attempting to deliver food supplies to Japanese forces on Guadalcanal.

Using radar, the US warships opened fire and sank one of the Japanese destroyers. Tanaka and the rest of his ships, however, reacted quickly and launched numerous torpedoes at the US warships. The Japanese torpedoes hit and sank one US cruiser and heavily damaged three others, enabling the rest of Tanaka’s force to escape without significant additional damage but also without completing the mission of delivering the food supplies.

All you need to know about Operational and Strategic is right there, but let’s stick with the Tactical for a bit.

Do Commanders feel today that they are too limited in their ability to exercise their best judgement in combat? Well, consider it a Navy tradition.

At 23:14, operators on Fletcher established firm radar contact with Takanami and the lead group of four drum-carrying destroyers. At 23:15, with the range 7,000 yards (6,400 m), Commander William M. Cole, commander of Wright’s destroyer group and captain of Fletcher, radioed Wright for permission to fire torpedoes. Wright waited two minutes and then responded with, “Range on bogies [Tanaka's ships on radar] excessive at present.” Cole responded that the range was fine. Another two minutes passed before Wright responded with permission to fire. In the meantime, the US destroyer’s targets escaped from an optimum firing setup ahead to a marginal position passing abeam, giving the American torpedoes a long overtaking run near the limit of their range. At 23:20, Fletcher, Perkins, and Drayton fired a total of 20 Mark 15 torpedoes towards Tanaka’s ships. Maury, lacking SG radar and thus having no contacts, withheld fire.

Amazing even in hindsight. Recall – the action from initial radar contact by FLETCHER at 2306 Tanaka’s withdraw at 23:44 was only 38 minutes …. roughly 13% of the battle was spent waiting to be micromanaged. Recall that the Japanese did not have radar.

There is a point here that one should keep in mind. As opposed to the leisurely combat the USN has engaged in since WWII – mostly keeping station, supporting TACAIR operations or leisurely TLAM missions – this was as it is – quick, deadly, and devastating combat. Luck, speed, training, and finally your weapons determines success.

Knowing your enemy, and acknowledging that you may not fully know him, is also critical.

The results of the battle led to further discussion in the US Pacific Fleet about changes in tactical doctrine and the need for technical improvements, such as flashless gunpowder and improved torpedoes. The Americans were still unaware of the range and power of Japanese torpedoes and the effectiveness of Japanese night battle tactics. In fact, Wright claimed that his ships must have been fired on by submarines since the observed position of Tanaka’s ships “make it improbable that torpedoes with speed-distance characteristics similar to our own” could have caused such damage. The Americans would not recognize the true capabilities of their Pacific adversary’s torpedoes and night tactics until well into 1943.

Now, the god of Operational and Strategic: Logistics.

Due to a combination of the threat from CAF aircraft, US Navy PT boats stationed at Tulagi, and a cycle of bright moonlight, the Japanese had switched to using submarines to deliver provisions to their forces on Guadalcanal. Beginning on November 16, 1942, and continuing for the next three weeks, 16 submarines made nocturnal deliveries of foodstuffs to the island, with one submarine making the trip each night. Each submarine could deliver 20 to 30 tons of supplies, about one day’s worth of food, for the 17th Army, but the difficult task of transporting the supplies by hand through the jungle to the frontline units limited their value to sustain the Japanese troops on Guadalcanal. At the same time, the Japanese tried to establish a chain of three bases in the central Solomons to allow small boats to use them as staging sites for making supply deliveries to Guadalcanal, but damaging Allied airstrikes on the bases forced the abandonment of this plan.

On November 26, the 17th Army notified Imamura that it faced a critical food crisis. Some front-line units had not been resupplied for six days and even the rear-area troops were on one-third rations. The situation forced the Japanese to return to using destroyers to deliver the necessary supplies.

And that is where we get the success of the battle. If all you do is count ships sunk and damages, then sure The Battle of Tassafaronga was a loss for the USA. Cole and Wright sure saw it that way – as do many. But was it really?

What were the Japanese trying to do? What was their Operational Center of Gravity (CoG)?

Of course, it was keeping their land forces supplied ashore. By preventing their resupply, you attack and weaken the Japanese Operational CoG …. therefore, at the Operational (and arguably Strategic as well) you actually won.

Not too different from the American experience with Tet. The USA and South Vietnamese forces destroyed the Viet Cong during Tet – effectively removing them from being a threat to the existence of the South Vietnam government. That wasn’t the point …. as that wasn’t the war’s Strategic CoG from the Communist point of view.

Thanks to a superior INFO OPS and PSYOPS campaign by the North Vietnamese along with their allies – and useful assistance by the likes of Walter Cronkite – Tet was an exceptional victory by the Communists as it significantly undermined the Strategic CoG of the Americans; the support of the American people.

There are two examples of why one should be very careful when declaring a victory or defeat. Perspective and a clear understanding of the larger issue is key.

New Orleans
Finally, here is a nice lesson on how Senior Leadership should not act … and how it should. CYA, wagon circling, and blaming subordinates for your own failure is nothing new.

In spite of his defeat in the battle, Wright was awarded the Navy Cross, one of the highest American military decorations for bravery, for his actions during the engagement. … Halsey, in his comments on Wright’s report, placed much of the blame for the defeat on Cole, saying that the destroyer squadron commander fired his torpedoes from too great a distance to be effective and should have “helped” the cruisers instead of circling around Savo Island.

I think history has done some justice to Cole – and it sure doesn’t put a great deal of glory on Wright.

In contrast, look at what Tanaka said. This is a good way to end the post – Leadership 101.

After the war, Tanaka said of his victory at Tassafaronga, “I have heard that US naval experts praised my command in that action. I am not deserving of such honors. It was the superb proficiency and devotion of the men who served me that produced the tactical victory for us.”

That and some great Japanese engineering in the Long Lance.



Guest writer Chuck Hill joins us this week with Part II of his detailed write-up on the surface action off Guadalcanal in November 1942. Lots of lessons to be applied to today (see the roll-up at the end). BTW – whilst composing this submission he became a grandfather, so we lift a major league ‘mazal tov‘ his way…

PDF Action report of the Battleship Night Action between the U.S. and Japanese forces off Savo Island on November 14-15, 1942. The following text by Pieter Bakels is a summation of the battle.

PDF Action report of the Battleship Night Action between the U.S. and Japanese forces off Savo Island on November 14-15, 1942.

The Japanese had been relatively successful in increasing the number of men on Guadalcanal using warships as transports, but these men needed supplies and heavy equipment if they were to push the Americans off the island, and for that they needed to use larger, slower transports which would bring down even more men as well. Before these relatively vulnerable ships could venture near Guadalcanal the Japanese needed to cripple Allied air power out of Henderson Field.

An effort to do that had been stopped at great cost by Admiral Callaghan and his force of cruisers and destroyers in the predawn hours of November 13.

The eleven transports had already been en route when Admiral Tanaka, charged with escorting the transports, learned that Admiral Abe had been unable to bombard Henderson field. He and his eleven destroyers had wisely turned the transports north and returned them safely to base.

Unfortunately for the crews of the transports, that was not to be the end of their adventure. No sooner had the transports under Tanaka’s protection reached the safety of his base in Shortlands, than they were turned around to try again.

After Admiral Abe having failed, Admiral Kondo sent down a force of six cruisers and six destroyers under Vice Admiral Mikawa (who had been in charge at the Battle of Savo) and Rear Admiral Nishmura to try to knock out Henderson Field. While a heavy and two light cruisers along with 6 destroyers watched their back, three heavy cruisers fired 1,370 eight inch shells at Henderson field. But 277 lbs. eight inch shells

SBD Dauntless over Henderson Field

SBD Dauntless over Henderson Field

could not do what 1378 lbs 14 inchers had done in October. One dive-bomber and 17 fighters were destroyed and an additional 32 fighters damaged, but Henderson Field was still operational. Planes from Enterprise and Espiritu Santo, frequently fueling and rearming at Henderson Field would join those already based there in what would be one of the busiest days in the short but eventful history of the Marine Air Base.

After the bombardment Mikawa’s six cruisers and six destroyers, turned to the task of providing support for Tanaka’s convoy. They were attacked by air the following morning. Heavy Cruiser Kinugasa was sunk by dive bombers from the Enterprise, and three cruisers and a destroyer damaged. This was enough to make Mikawa abandon the transports and head for safety.

Transport Asumasan Maru on fire.

Transport Asumasan Maru on fire.

The planes then turned their attention to the transports. At the cost of only five aircraft, one heavy cruiser and seven transports were sunk, in addition to several other ships damaged. Tanaka and his destroyers did manage to save most of the men from the transports, but their supplies and heavy equipment were lost.

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This week marks the first of our Guest Bloggers for the Solomons Campaign blog project. The author is no stranger to this or several other milblogs – he is AT1(AW) Charles H. Berlemann, Jr. Hailing from the VAQ community, Charles is a student of naval history, particularly, naval aviation history and we have kept a long correspondence with him. When the Solomons Project came along he was one of the very first volunteers, offering to provide a snapshot of period of contrasts. The US had won an astounding victory at Midway, but even as the survivors of that epic battle returned to Pearl Harbor they were met with the lingering stench of bunker oil and dredged bottom mud. The ruins of the Arizona, Oklahoma and others of the once proud battle line stood as mute witness to the attack six months previous. And the question on everyone’s mind…now what?
Presented for your edification, AT1(AW) Berlemann’s post – “Status of the United States Fleet and Plans After Midway” — SJS

Nimitz

If you were to step into the Wayback Machine with Mr. Peabody and Sherman, traveling back to Pearl Harbor on the morning of the 7th of June 1942, to talk to Admiral Nimitz he may have covered several issues including the current status of the fleet, current ops going on in the theater, and current discussions about what to do next. The final issue would be how to seize the initiative causing the Japanese to react to us instead of the Allies reacting to the Japanese.
The current status of the Pacific Fleet is looking pretty grim. This morning [7th of June 1942] the radio reports of the torpedoing and loss of the Yorktown would arrive.w2_cv3_saratoga_sbd_f4f_tbd_c1941 That only leaves three Allied carriers in the Pacific: USS Enterprise, CV-6; USS Hornet, CV-8; and USS Saratoga, CV-3. The Saratoga is just leaving Mare Island Naval Yard recovering from the torpedo damage she took in late May while in transit from Pearl to the West Coast. In reality the Allies only have two functional carriers deployed any place close to the Japanese fleet. However, even these two ships are nowhere near fighting trim because the air groups have been decimated by the Midway operation. Between the two ships Air Forces Pacific could build one air group, however it would be undersized on both fighters and scout bombers. Hope is on the horizon though, because Nimitz has just received the word from the CNO, Adm. King, that the USS WASP, CV-7 has just been released from Atlantic Duty with a slew of newly built ships coming to the aid of the Pacific Fleet. These ships include the USS North Carolina, BB- 55; USS Quincy, CA-39; USS San Juan, CL-54 and a slew of destroyers (all ships unfit for duty in the North Atlantic). This task force recently sortied out of Chesapeake Harbor on the 6th of June and by the morning of the 7th is sailing through the Windward Passage on route to the Panama Canal. The Saratoga is loaded to the gills with new aircraft to replace the ones lost with the Hornet and Enterprise air groups. Also there are new TBF torpedo bombers arriving to replace the TBD’s. Planes that survived and were in those two air groups are supposed to be beached at NAS Ford Island.
(continued below the fold…) Read the rest of this entry »



Looking for anyone who was part of VMF-215 from 1943-45, aviator, ground-pounder or those who may have flown with VMF-215 in combined/associated operations during that period. Bryan Bender, a reporter with the Boston Globe, is looking for any of the above to flesh out a story he is working on stemming from earlier work on a returned MIA from that period and which was featured in a Flightdeck Friday at the mothership. Feel free to go VFR direct — his contact info as follows:

email: [email protected]

Thanks All!
- SJS



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