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  • James Houser

November 12, 1942 - The Naval Battles of Guadalcanal

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

November 12, 1942. Nobody is quite sure how Guadalcanal ended up as the most valuable piece of real estate in the Pacific, but here we are. American and Japanese forces have been locked in battle on the island for months, and their navies have fought so many battles that the waters around Guadalcanal are called Ironbottom Sound. On this night, the decisive sea encounter is about to take place: the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Put on your life vests.

Soooo back on August 21 I talked about the initial landing on Guadalcanal and some of the early battles. I explained why this tiny speck of nearly uninhabited jungle in the middle of the South Pacific became the epicenter of six months of campaigning, with both the United States and the Japanese Empire throwing everything they had to secure this green chunk of land thousands of miles from their border. I promise it does make sense, but we’ve only got so much room here. I assume Facebook has a word limit, and I’ll probably reach it eventually, so why don’t I just link that post and if you have no clue what I’m talking about, take a gander? (POST LINK)

I just want to reiterate: the “Battle” of Guadalcanal is in fact almost a dozen battles. First, there were multiple land battles on the island itself. The 1st Marine Division of General Alexander Vandegrift landed on Guadalcanal in August 1942, and the next six months revolved around the Japanese trying to force the Marines (and later Army reinforcements) off Guadalcanal and the Americans clinging on for dear life.

Second, it was the U.S. Navy’s job to keep the lifeline to Guadalcanal open, since only the lightning deliveries of food, ammunition and supplies kept the Marines on Guadalcanal alive. The Japanese were just as determined to send their own troops to the island and cut the American lifeline. Somehow, all the fortunes of World War II in the Pacific had been staked on this one island, and the result was the most intense and concentrated series of naval battles in the 20th Century. No less than eight major naval engagements were fought for the fate of Guadalcanal. The frequency and determination of the war at sea in late 1942 is only matched three times in human history: the waters around Sicily in the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (264-241 BC), the Korean coast during the Japanese invasion of 1592-1598, and the English Channel during the Anglo-Dutch Wars from 1652 to 1674. Add to this Guadalcanal in late 1942, and your tetralogy is complete. (Sound like podcast ideas to me.)

Anyway, the Battle of Guadalcanal was by my accounting the turning point of World War II. Midway is up there, but it was at Guadalcanal that two things happened. Number One: it was the first major American offensive against the defense perimeter the Japanese had set up after Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese were unable to stop them. From this point on, the Americans were on the advance, and the Japanese would never again launch a successful attack. Number Two: the war of attrition against the Japanese Navy, a war they could never win, truly began here at Ironbottom Sound. Though the Japanese won the first round of naval battles around Guadalcanal, the U.S. Navy came back roaring to win the final engagements, confirming Admiral Yamamoto’s terrible prophecy of the sleeping giant. If Midway had confirmed that Japan could not win, Guadalcanal confirmed that they were going to lose.

But that was in the future. Right now, the 1st Marine Division was isolated on this uncharted Pacific island, and they had reason to be concerned. Without a Navy ship in sight, they were already being attacked by Japanese forces that only promised to increase. As the Marines battled the atrocious jungle conditions on Guadalcanal – wildlife, bugs, dysentery, monsoons – they also battled the increasing number of Japanese troops being shuttled in from the enemy base at Rabaul, 500 miles away. Even though they repulsed the first major attack at the Battle of the Tenaru on August 21, it was clear they could not hold out on their own forever. The Navy had to come take the pressure off.

After a few weeks, the Marines had Henderson Field finished on the north side of the island, and American aircraft carriers began to dart in and deliver planes to the new airbase. By August 20, a squadron of F4F Wildcats and SBD Dauntless dive-bombers would be operating from Henderson Field. They would become known as the “Cactus Air Force,” the thin air umbrella against the constant Japanese air attacks from Rabaul by day. By night, the Japanese Navy would steam past Guadalcanal and plaster Henderson Field with heavy ordnance. Day AND night, the Marines occupied their foxholes deep in the jungle, watching for the enemy. It was like a siege, really, and the Navy had to do SOMETHING to help out the beleaguered Marines.

In late August, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto organized a large task force to shuttle troops to Guadalcanal, destroy any American ships in the area, and then wipe the Marines off of Henderson Field. The U.S. Navy sent another task force of its own to block this attempt. On August 24, the two navies engaged in their first carrier battle since Midway back in June; three Japanese carriers and two American carriers flung planes at each other from hundreds of miles away in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. While the Americans sunk one carrier, the USS Enterprise was heavily damaged, but as this fight was taking place the Cactus Air Force had managed to slip in and hit the troop convoy. When it was forced to divert course from the Marines’ air attacks, the Americans could notch an overall victory.

Though as far as losses went, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons was a draw, it had a major impact on the campaign. The damaged USS Enterprise sent all its carrier planes to join the Cactus Air Force as it limped off to spend months in the repair yard; this last-minute move ended up giving the air squadrons on Guadalcanal a major boost of veteran pilots. The newfound American air superiority made Japanese supply runs impossible by daylight.

From late August 1942 until February 1943, Japanese men, supplies and equipment would have to be ferried to Guadalcanal by night, when American airplanes couldn’t stop them. Admiral Raizo Tanaka’s Japanese warships – usually fast destroyers or cruisers rather than lumbering transport vessels – would make a mad dash from Rabaul down the 500-mile stretch to Guadalcanal. They had to thread their way down the middle of the Solomon Islands chain through the passage that Americans called “The Slot.” Under cover of darkness, Tanaka’s ships would drop off men and material before blitzing back out of American air range. The Marines came to call this nightly chain of ships the “Tokyo Express.” While it became the new Japanese lifeline on Guadalcanal, Tanaka’s Tokyo Express had severe limitations; since the ships were warships, not transports or ferries, their cargo capacity was extremely limited. They could not carry large amounts of supplies or any heavy artillery or tanks.

This was the pattern for the next several months of war around Guadalcanal. By night, the Japanese Navy ruled the waves: the “Tokyo Express” would fly down to drop off troops, lob a few shells at Henderson Field, then flee back northwest to get out of the Cactus Air Force’s 200-mile radius before dawn. By day, Japanese aircraft might attack Henderson Field, or the newly arrived Imperial troops might launch their own attack on the Marines’ perimeter. Major battles included the famous struggle at Bloody Ridge in September and the desperate fights around the Matanikau River in October as the rising numbers of Japanese troops put heavy pressure on Vandegrift’s isolated leathernecks.

These battles are each an epic in their own right, and I regret having to leave them out this year. I also regret the necessity of leaving out Colonel Evan Carlson’s month-long Marine Raider patrol behind enemy lines, a modern-day trek to rival the Anabasis of Xenophon’s Greeks escaping the Persian Empire. There was just so much to Guadalcanal that I can’t do it justice in one or even two posts. Let’s sum it up: some epic human events were going down on the ground, and it would be worth it to look them up.

But our focus today is the naval struggle, and the fight was only heating up. With Vandegrift and the Marine Division facing growing Japanese pressure, it became imperative for the Americans, too, to slip more troops onto Guadalcanal. See a pattern here? The more troops both sides staked on this shitty little island, the more both sides had to lose. Guadalcanal became important not just because of its strategic location, but because it was the poker table both sides had agreed to play on, and they kept throwing in chips. No one could walk away now. The months from August to February would be a great struggle by both navies to push and support as many troops as possible to Guadalcanal – and this was what brought them into so many battles so often. This mutual American and Japanese investment turned the Pacific around this previously unknown, insignificant island into Ironbottom Sound.

On September 18, a few days after the Marines had stood off a massive Japanese attack at Bloody Ridge, the Navy managed to get a convoy to Guadalcanal containing more Marine units and a basketful of supplies. Unfortunately, the Japanese submarines lurking off the coast hit the American convoy and sank the carrier USS Wasp. This left only one American carrier – the USS Hornet – in the entire Pacific, since the USS Enterprise was damaged and USS Saratoga had been hit by a submarine earlier that month. Out of four American carriers in August 1942, then, one was sunk and two were under repair. Even after Midway, the Japanese still had more carriers patrolling the Pacific than the United States; this goes to show that even that epic battle did not COMPLETELY turn the tide in the Pacific.

But when the Americans wanted to run another troop convoy to Guadalcanal, they made a smart move: they laid a trap. The Army’s 164th Infantry Regiment set sail on October 8 to head for the island. The Navy anticipated a Japanese effort to try and ambush this convoy with a surface force, so they sent Rear Admiral Norman Scott with four cruisers and five destroyers to lie in wait and intercept any Japanese attack group. They struck gold on October 11, 1942, when Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto’s Japanese squadron sailed under cover of darkness to drop off troops at Guadalcanal and ambush the American convoy.

Scott detected Goto’s force on radar, and laid in wait just off the northern shore of Guadalcanal. In the darkness of the warm South Pacific, the night suddenly illuminated with flashes of shell and fire as Scott’s squadron ambushed the Japanese in the Battle of Cape Esperance. Scott’s little force achieved a significant victory: they sank two Japanese ships, killed Goto himself, and forced the others to retreat. Delayed by the battle and the troop dropoff, the Japanese ships were hit again by the Cactus Air Force the next morning when they failed to escape the air radius in time. The Battle of Cape Esperance was a major morale boost for the U.S. Navy, since it was the first time they had beaten the Japanese at night, and night was when the Japanese were at their best.

The campaign ground on, with both sides continuing to run troops to Guadalcanal. Already three major naval battles had taken place near the island, even as the Japanese struggled to put enough troops on the ground to overwhelm the Marines. With 20,000 troops on Guadalcanal, General Harukichi Hyakutake of the 17th Army was prepared to launch a major offensive that threatened to overwhelm the Marines, who had now been on Guadalcanal for two months with no rest or relief. As his assault began brewing, Admiral Yamamoto once again dispatched a major fleet to try and assist the attack. Once again, the U.S. Navy came out to meet this strike. Once again, the fate of Guadalcanal would be decided on land, by sea and in the air.

As Hyakutake’s attacks were beaten back by Marines and Army troops, including Lieutenant Colonel Chesty Puller’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, the two navies squared off in the great Pacific. The new American admiral in the South Pacific was William F. “Bull” Halsey, famously aggressive and flamboyant. Halsey sent his ships out with fighting words and curses, and the result was the October 26 Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. This clash turned out to be a near disaster for the Americans. Just as in the Coral Sea in May, Midway in June, or the Eastern Solomons in August, Santa Cruz ended up being a carrier battle, but this time events went against the United States. The carrier USS Hornet – a Midway veteran – was sunk, and the USS Enterprise badly damaged AGAIN. (In World War II, the Enterprise gets nearly destroyed almost as much as it does in Star Trek.)

Though the Japanese suffered carrier damages themselves, they had apparently crippled the U.S. Navy around Guadalcanal. At this point, in late October 1942, the United States had literally NO aircraft carriers in the Pacific. None. It was a more critical moment than right after Pearl Harbor, even more critical than Midway: the United States Pacific Fleet was at its lowest, weakest point of the war, just at the moment that the Battle for Guadalcanal was reaching its apex.

But the Japanese had suffered too. Though they had managed to sink or badly damage all the American carriers in the Pacific, they had suffered losses themselves, especially from critical carrier pilots and air crews. The losses at Midway had been irreplaceable, and the continuing losses around Guadalcanal were bleeding them dry. They were winning fights, sure, but the Americans had more ships and pilots coming, and the Japanese just didn’t. Since the Cactus Air Force controlled the skies immediately around Guadalcanal, they were usually able to rescue downed American pilots, while the Japanese fliers were captured or left to die. The battles around Guadalcanal were less important for who “won” or “lost”, but their cumulative effect on the Japanese Navy over time. It couldn’t afford to WIN, much less lose its battles. And it was about to lose big time.

In early November 1942, the Japanese organized their last major effort to secure a win on Guadalcanal. The attacks on Henderson Field had failed, and in the first days of November the Marines had done the unthinkable: they had gone over to the attack, seizing major Japanese defensive positions on the Matanikau River. The impending naval battle happened the same way all these battles had: one side organized a shipment of troops to be rushed to Guadalcanal, while the other side rushed a fleet to stop them. This time, though, it was the Japanese trying to run 7,000 soldiers and their equipment down “The Slot” in one big push.

The Japanese plan was simple. On November 12, 1942, Hiroaki Abe’s battle force set out for Guadalcanal with 12 transport ships in tow and Tanaka’s destroyer squadron as an escort. Abe had two of Japan’s heavy battleships, the Hiei and the Kirishima, along with a horde of lighter ships. The battleships were mostly loaded with high-explosive shells, intended for the destruction of Henderson Field and the Cactus Air Force; the hope was that this neutralization of American air power would allow the Japanese transports to unload unmolested throughout daytime, giving the Japanese the numerical and firepower advantage for the first time on the island. Opposing the Japanese was only a scratch cruiser force led by Admiral Daniel Callaghan. Callaghan’s second-in-command was Norman Scott, the officer who had won the night battle of Cape Esperance.

In near complete darkness due to the poor weather and concealment of the moon, the Japanese Navy arrived off the coast of Guadalcanal in the early morning hours of November 13. The American ships had detected the Japanese approach on radar, but the big battleships had come from an unexpected direction and thanks to poor communication and the impenetrable darkness Callaghan was unable to find the Japanese ships. Once again, Japanese night-fighting abilities and training prevailed, and they held a decided advantage over the American squadron.

To be fair, Abe’s force was confused too, and the two fleets almost collided with each other in the darkness before the big battleships turned on their floodlights, detecting and blinding the American seamen. The sea off Guadalcanal boomed with big guns for the fifth time in three months, descending into a chaotic and short-ranged melee. The Japanese night training and superior seamanship proved decisive. One officer described it as “a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out.” The cruiser USS San Francisco was plastered with shells from point-blank range by the battleship Hiei, killing Admiral Callaghan. The USS Atlanta, too, was hit by torpedoes and fire from several Japanese cruisers all at once and Admiral Scott fell dead also. Marine writer Robert Leckie described the battle as he watched it from shore: “Giant tracers flashed across the night in orange arches. ... the sea seemed a sheet of polished obsidian on which the warships seemed to have been dropped and were immobilized, centered amid concentric circles like shock waves that form around a stone dropped in mud.”

Abe broke contact after an hour of this terrible melee. Had he known it, he had blown the American force to pieces; almost all the American ships were sunk or heavily damaged, and both American admirals had been killed. Abe had a clear chance to descend on and destroy Henderson Field; instead, floundering in the darkness and aware that daylight was approaching, he chickened out and fled. He would return and try again in a day. This lack of nerve probably saved Henderson Field, and it cost Abe dearly; on his way back, the Cactus Air Force found his retreating ships in the early dawn and sank the battleship Hiei.

Neither the American nor the Japanese commanders were happy with the outcome of this battle. Without the Cactus Air Force eliminated, Admiral Yamamoto was forced to delay the troop convoy that was supposed to finally overwhelm the Marines on Guadalcanal. He sacked Abe and sent Admiral Nobutake Kondo with a new force, spearheaded by the battleship Kirishima and including four cruisers and nine destroyers, to head down to Guadalcanal and finish Abe’s mission.

At the same time, Admiral Halsey – who was running very low on ships – sent the two brand-new battleships USS Washington and USS South Dakota, under Admiral Willis A. Lee, to the Guadalcanal area to fend off this second attack. This was the Americans’ last gasp. After the destruction of Callaghan’s cruisers and the loss of almost all their carriers, the two battleships and their tiny escort of four destroyers were the thin line between victory and defeat at Guadalcanal. Their untried crews would have to triumph in a night battle over the most battle-hardened, well-trained, disciplined ships in the world.

Just before midnight between November 14 and 15, 1942, the two forces made contact. What followed was the decisive naval battle for Guadalcanal, once again fought in the darkness north of the island as the Marines watched from the shore, knowing their future was being decided in those booms and flashes over Ironbottom Sound. How many more ships would be added to Davy Jones’ Locker today?

Kondo’s superior force collided with the Americans in the inky blackness, and initially he seemed to be successful. Two of the four American destroyers were hit and sunk by accurate gunfire and torpedoes within the first half hour of the battle, and the other two were so badly damaged that Admiral Lee ordered them out of the fight. It was the two American battleships, USS Washington and USS South Dakota, against fourteen Japanese vessels. Further trouble came when South Dakota passed too close to the burning American destroyers, fully illuminating her silhouette to the Japanese attackers. Kondo’s squadron eagerly poured fire into the poor battleship, which suffered worse when an electrical failure blew out her radar, radios, and most of her gun batteries. Though the USS South Dakota managed to dodge the torpedoes, she had basically become a big target for Kondo’s entire squadron.

That left the USS Washington, and just like its original namesake, it was up to the challenge. Washington and South Dakota were brand-spanking-new, and they had a new feature that no other ship in the Pacific had: their fire control systems were linked to their radar sets. What this meant was that the enormous guns of the Washington, independent of any thermal viewer or the naked eye, could align onto a radar target, track it, and let loose a barrage. Even though the Japanese had trained for years for night fighting at sea, it would be American engineers and scientists who invented a way around it. Brains overcame brawn in the early hours of November 15, 1942.

The Washington approached the Japanese fleet, which was concentrating its fire on South Dakota and failed to notice the other American battleship. Only when they were at point-blank range did the Japanese notice the USS Washington, and by then it was too late. Washington’s radar-guided batteries laid 20 shells into the battleship Kirishima, blasting her to pieces and disabling most of the gun turrets. The Japanese fleet scattered in confusion, looking for its targets, but the South Dakota had escaped and Washington led them on a wild goose chase to the northwest. By the morning of November 15, the two battleships stood triumphant. They had driven off and distracted the Japanese fleet, and the Cactus Air Force once again stood off the Japanese reinforcement convoy. By the skin of their teeth and the skill of American inventors, the Navy had prevailed.

It was not even the last naval battle for Guadalcanal – but it was the most important. The last major Japanese chance to take back the island had failed, and from now on they would fight a losing battle against growing tides of American soldiers and Marines. By February 1943, Guadalcanal would be in American hands – the first “hop” of the island-hopping campaign that would take the Stars and Stripes across the Pacific. This was where the tide began to turn, the true turning point – not Midway, but Guadalcanal, and one battleship with the guts of a fighting admiral and the technology of an inventive nation.

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