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“One Learns more from Adversity than from Success” The Battle of Cape Esperance 11-12 October 1942

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Naval battles between U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy surface forces around Guadalcanal in 1942 were almost always brief and bloody. The number of ships from both sides sunk in the waters around Guadalcanal, and the islands near it: Tulagi and Savo Island, led to the area being nicknamed “Iron Bottom Sound.” Over fifty ships and craft would be interred in the waters around Guadalcanal by the end of the campaign. These numbers included 2 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 22 destroyers.

The battles around Guadalcanal occurred in a time of technical transition for the United States Navy as its radar became better at detecting ships and fire direction systems advanced in their accuracy and targeting ability. While almost all U.S. warships had radar primarily the SC search radar and FC Fire Control radar, not many U.S. Navy warships had the advanced SG surface search radar. But it was not just a matter of technology, it was a matter of training and experience. Their opponents, the Imperial Japanese Navy had very few ships equipped with radar, but their training for surface actions, especially night fighting where their superior optics, gunnery skills, and torpedoes proved deadly during the first year of the war before U.S. Navy crews mastered their technology edge.

By October 1942 the U.S. Marines battling on Guadalcanal were fighting an enemy growing in numbers on the ground even as they felt the effects of the the predatory Japanese surface raiders that routinely bombarded their positions and endangered U.S. resupply efforts.

USS Helena

Since the Marine, Navy and Army Air Force Squadrons based on Guadalcanal maintained air superiority in the nearby waters during the day the Japanese were limited to night surface operations against the island. These operations involving the reinforcement and resupply of Japanese Forces on the island as well as offensive naval gunfire operations to aid the land forces in which Japanese warships attempted to destroy or degrade Henderson Field.

Henderson Field

The first major operations mounted by the Japanese was in early August when a Japanese cruiser destroyer force ravaged the U.S. cruiser forces off Savo Island. The Japanese inflicted the worst defeat of an American naval squadron, sinking 3 American and one Australian Heavy cruiser while damaging another. The battle was a disaster for the U.S. forces and led to the early withdraw of transport and supply ships of the invasion force before many could finish unloading the equipment and supplies that were critical to the operation. In that operation radar played no role for U.S. forces, and sets were either turned off or not relied upon by commanders. Admiral Richmond Turner noted:

“The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise”

Despite this admission it would take several more engagements in the waters around Guadalcanal before the U.S. Navy fully appreciated the superiority of Japanese optics, training in night fighting, and their deadly 24″ “Long Lance” torpedoes. It would not be until 1943 that the U.S. Navy began to exploit its advantage in radar and use it to their advantage in night surface actions.

The Tokyo Express Route along the Slot

Japanese resupply and reinforcement operations to Guadalcanal were so frequent that the Japanese forces were nicknamed the Tokyo Express by the Americans. Knowing that the Marines who had been in bitter combat with the Japanese needed reinforcements the U.S. sent a convoy to land the 164th Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division on October 13th.  To protect the convoy the U.S. Navy dispatched a surface task force, TF-64 composed of the Cruisers USS San Francisco, USS Boise, USS Salt Lake City and USS Helena and 5 destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott to protect it from any Japanese surface threats.

IJN Heavy Cruiser Aoba after the battle

The U.S. move to reinforce Guadalcanal coincided with a Japanese effort to reinforce their forced on the island. They Imperial Navy sent a covering force of three heavy cruisers, the Aoba, Furutuka and Kinugasa and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Arimoto Goto. The Japanese cruisers were to bombard Henderson Field as the Japanese were not expecting any American surface forces to oppose their effort.

Rear Admiral Arimoto Goto

The Japanese were detected by aerial reconnaissance on the afternoon of the 10th when they were still about 200 miles from Guadalcanal. Scott, whose forces lacked experience in night surface combat made a simple plan to “cross the T” of the enemy force in a single line formation with three destroyers in the van, the cruisers in the center and two destroyers in the rear.

Rear Admiral Norman Scott

U.S. floatplanes from the American cruisers detected the Japanese at 2300 hours. At 2322 the radar of the USS Helena picked up the Japanese force at a range of about 27,000 yards. However misunderstandings of Scott’s orders by his flagship broke his formation and put the van destroyers out of position in the poor visibility of the moonless night. The confusion caused Scott to believe that the radar contacts were his own destroyers.

The Japanese still did not realize that an American force was near them and continued on. At 2345 the ships were only about 5,000 yards apart when Helena radioed Scott asking permission to fire. The message was received by Scott who acknowledged his receipt of the message did not grant permission open fire. However, his response of “roger” was mistaken as permission to open fire by Helena. The American cruiser opened fire on the Japanese aided by her SG and FC radars. She was followed by the other cruisers which opened a devastating fire on the Japanese force.

The Japanese task force was completely surprised, they had not expected to encounter American surface ships and failed to be on alert. Goto’s lookouts had sight the Americans at 2343 but assumed that they were friendly Japanese ships. The result was that the Americans inflicted heavy damage to the Japanese flagship, the heavy cruiser Aoba and left Goto mortally wounded.

IJN Heavy Cruiser Furutaka

Scott was taken by surprise by the action of his cruisers and ordered ceasefire at 2347 thinking that he was shooting at his own destroyers. Four minutes later he ordered his ships to resume fire at 2351. At 2349 the heavy cruiser Furutaka was heavily damaged by American fire and at 2358 she was was hit by a torpedo fired by the destroyer Buchanan. The Japanese destroyer Fubuki was mortally wounded about the same time and began to sink. The U.S. destroyers Duncan and Farenholt were both damaged in the crossfire with Duncan so badly damaged that she would be abandoned and sunk.

USS Duncan

Instead of continuing to rely on radar the American cruisers turned on their searchlights which provided the last Japanese cruiser, Kinugasa the opportunity to hit them hard. Kinugasa’s gunners heavily damaged Boise and but for a certain amount of luck would have sunk the American ship. One shell hit the number one turret setting fires in it, while another hit below the waterline and detonated in the forward 6″ magazine threatening to blow the ship to pieces but the onrushing water from the hit doused the flames and saved the ship. Despite that Boise was out of action with over 100 casualties, all of the forward magazine and handling crews were all killed.

As Boise sheared away from the action, Kinugasa and Salt Lake City exchanged fire, each hitting each other before the Japanese cruiser broke off the action.

The commander of the Japanese reinforcement group, his mission completed dispatched his destroyers to assist Goto’s force at it withdrew and rescue survivors. However these ships were caught by U.S. aircraft from Henderson Field as the light of the dawn lit the sky. The destroyers Murakumo and Natsugumo were heavily damaged, abandoned, and scuttled by the Japanese.

On the 13th the American reinforcement convoy arrived, as did Japanese reinforcements later that night. On the night the 13th, the Japanese battleships Kongo and Haruna  conducted an attack which most destroyed Henderson Field. However, the resilient Marines kept the airfield operational as the Marines of the 1st Marine Division and the nearly arrived soldiers of the 164th Regiment held off a major Japanese assault from 23-26 October, known as the Battle of Henderson Field or Bloody Ridge.

Scott’s Task Force 64 lost one destroyer sunk and two cruisers damaged while the Japanese lost one cruiser and three destroyers sunk, with two cruisers damaged in the action.

The Japanese flagship Aoba was severely damaged by nearly 40 6” and 8” shells fired by the American cruisers. Her bridge was shattered and her number three turret destroyed. The damage knocked her out of the war for four months and the number three turret would not be replaced. On the American side the heavily damaged Boise was sent to the East Coast for repairs while Salt Lake City was repaired at Pearl Harbor. The battle had lasted less than 50 minutes from the time Helena picked up the Japanese force on her radar.

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USS Salt Lake City

The battle was a tactical victory for the U.S. Navy. However, the Navy did not learn  but the lessons of the battle about the power of Japanese torpedoes and effectiveness in night combat. While he Scott maintained a cool head and reacted to the situation with great courage he assumed that his deployment of his ships in a line formation coupled with superior American gunnery had won the battle. However, his ignorance on the proper use of the various types of radar used by the U.S. Navy meant that he and other American commanders would continue to misuse it and rely on searchlights and recognition lights during night surface actions. Likewise, he made the false assumption that Japanese torpedoes were no longer a threat.

This caused other U.S. task forces to have to learn the hard way in the subsequent engagements of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Tassafaronga. Rear Admiral Scott would not long survive his victory. He was killed in action aboard the USS Atlanta during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal just a month later. The great American naval historian of the Second World War, Samuel Elliott Morrison wrote:

“So, because we won the Battle of Cape Esperance, serious tactical defects were carried over into subsequent engagements with unfortunate results. One learns more from adversity than from success.” 

While the battle helped inspire American confidence, it was not a strategic victory. Japanese forces nearly destroyed Henderson Field on the night of the 13th, and the the most decisive battles were yet to come.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Workhorses: The Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers

The Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers were the most modern cruisers in the US inventory when war broke out in on December 7th 1941.  The ships were built under the provisions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.  Displacing 9700 tons to remain within treaty limitations they mounted a powerful armament of fifteen 6” guns mounted in 5 turrets, three forward and two aft.  Their design, especially their armament was designed in response to the large Mogami Class light cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Navy which initially mounted the same main battery before being converted to Heavy Cruisers.  The layout of the main battery in both classes of cruisers was identical.

Pre-war shot of Honolulu, typical of Brooklyn Class

Authorized in by Congress in 1933 the ships were designed with a large transom which housed the aircraft hangar with twin catapults and crane. This was a departure from previous US cruisers which housed the aircraft and their volatile fuels midships which would prove a liability in combat against the Japanese in the Solomons campaign.  The new hangar design was carried forth on all new cruisers and battleships built by the US subsequent to the Brooklyn Class.

There were 9 ships in the class, one of which the Wichita was completed as a Heavy Cruiser mounting nine 8” guns in triple turrets and is considered a separate one ship class.  In addition to their main battery they mounted eight 5” 25 caliber dual purpose guns and a light AA battery which was continuously increased throughout the war. Their steam turbines produced 100,000 shaft horsepower to give the ships an official speed of 32.5 knots which was exceeded by some of the ships.

The ships Brooklyn CL-40, Philadelphia CL-41, Savannah CL-42, Nashville CL-43, Phoenix CL-46, Boise CL-47, Honolulu CL-48, St. Louis CL-49 and Helena CL-50 were involved in some of the most intense combat of the war serving in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.  Of the ships one, the Helena was lost in surface combat and several others taking severe damage without sinking.  Half of the surviving ships of the class would serve in foreign navies for many years following the war a testament to their toughness and utility.

The lead ship of the class the Brooklyn served exclusively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean where she engaged Vichy warships during the invasion of North Africa and took part in the landings at Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France where she provided naval gunfire support to troops ashore. Following the war she was decommissioned in January 1947 and transferred to the Chilean Navy in 1951 under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. She was renamed O’Higgins and served until decommissioned in January 1992 and sold for scrap. She sank while being towed to India for scrapping in November 1992.

Philadelphia had a similar career to Brooklyn. Launched in 1936 and commissioned in 1937 she too served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean supporting the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France.  She was decommissioned in February 1947 and transferred to Brazil in 1951. Renamed Barroso she served until 1973 and sold for scrap.

Late war view of St Louis

Savannah was launched in May 1937 and commissioned in March 1938 and like Brooklyn and Philadelphia served exclusively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean supporting amphibious landings, searching for German commerce raiders and blockade runners and supporting various escort missions. At Salerno she was struck and severely damaged by a German FX-1400 radio guided bomb which struck her number 3 gun turret penetrating to the lower handling room where it exploded tearing a large hole in the ship’s bottom and opening a seam in the ship’s side.  Her crew performed heroically to control the damage and get the ship to Malta but she lost 197 sailors in the attack. Following temporary repairs she returned to the United States for repairs and modernization which were complete in September 1944. She served in a number of capacities in the Atlantic and was decommissioned in February 1947, stricken from the Navy List in March 1959 and sold for scrapping in January 1966.

Nashville was launched in October 1937 and commissioned in June 1938 initially serving in the Atlantic until her transfer to the Pacific Fleet in February 1942.  While in the Atlantic she took part in the Neutrality Patrols and following the commencement of hostilities continued convoy escort duties.  Her first mission in the Pacific was to escort the Carrier Hornet CV-8 on her mission to launch Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s Army Air Force B-25s on the Tokyo raid.  Nashville sank a scout vessel which had discovered the task force.  On return from the mission she was assigned to the defense of the Aleutians until November 1942.  She then was transferred to the South Pacific where she participated in raids and bombardments of Japanese shore installations until while shelling Vila Airfield on Kolombangara on the night of 12 May 1943, she had an explosion of powder charges in one of her forward turrets, killing 18 and injuring 17.  The damage required her to be sent to Bremerton for repair and modernization and she would return to duty in August to join carrier task forces in raids in the Central Pacific before again moving to the South Pacific where she participated in the New Guinea campaign and as well as other missions until May of 1944.  She took part in the invasion of Leyte and the Battle of Leyte Gulf guarding beachheads and transports and fending off Kamikazes while providing naval gunfire support to troops ashore. While conducting similar operations off Negros Island she was struck by a Kamikaze with two bombs aboard. Nashville was struck on one of her port 5” mounts the bombs exploding above her deck. The blazing aviation fuel and explosions killed 139 crew members and wounded 190.  Following repairs at Bremerton she went back to the Southwest Pacific lending her battery to landings at Brunei Bay, Borneo, and protecting carriers in the Makassar Straits.  She was decommissioned in June of 1946 and sold to Chile in January 1951 where she was renamed Captain Prat where she served until she was decommissioned in May 1982 and sold for scrap in April 1983.

Phoenix was launched in March of 1938 and commissioned in October of the same year. She became part of the growing Pacific Fleet and was the first modern light cruiser assigned in the Pacific. She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and would serve throughout the war in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific and was engaged in heavy operations around New Guinea and other islands in the area frequently involved in shore bombardment, amphibious assaults and raids and having to engage attacking Japanese aircraft.  In September 1944 she was assigned to the covering force of old battleships assigned to 7th Fleet for the invasion of the Philippines.  As part of this force under Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf she took part in the destruction of the Japanese Southern Force at the Battle of Surigo Strait where her gunners aided in the sinking of the Japanese battleship Fuso. Phoenix continued operations with 7th Fleet in the Southwest Pacific supporting shore operations and fighting off swarms of Kamikazes without damage to herself. Following the war she was decommissioned in July 1946 and transferred to the Argentinean Navy in April 1951 where she was renamed 17 de Octubre and later General Belgrano. She received a number of modifications while in Argentine service including ASW helicopters and the Sea Cat Air Defense missile system.  Still in active service at the time of the Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 she was sent to sea with two destroyers.  She was discovered by the British attack submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sunk on May 3rd 1982 with the loss of 323 men, ending a 44 year career of service to the United States and Argentinean Navies.

Boise was launched in December 1936 and commissioned in August 1938. Following her shakedown cruise she was assigned to the Pacific Fleet. On December 7th 1941 she was in the Philippines after having completed a convoy escort mission.  She was sent south to join the rest of the Asiatic Squadron and our Australian, British and Dutch Allies to for the ABDA (American, British, Dutch, and Australia) task force opposing the southern advance of the Japanese aimed at Java and the Dutch East Indies.  She struck an uncharted shoal on January 29th while conducting operations in the Sape Strait forcing her to return to the United States for repairs. This probably prevented Boise from sharing the fate of most of the rest of the squadron including the HMS Exeter, USS Houston, HMAS Perth and Dutch light cruisers DeRuyter and Java, most of which were sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in February. After repairs she returned to the South Pacific where she took part in a number of actions including the Battle of Cape Esperance where she helped sink the Japanese Heavy Cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubiki. She was damaged in this action and returned to Philadelphia for repairs.  Following her repairs she was dispatched to support the landings on Sicily before returning to the Pacific where she served from January 1944 to June of 1945 conducting almost non-stop operations around New Guinea, Borneo and the Philippines. She returned to San Pedro for overhaul and was there when the war ended. She decommissioned in July 1946 and sold to Argentina in January 1951 and commissioned as Nuevo de Julio in 1952.  She served until 1978 when she was decommissioned and was sold for scrap in August 1981.

Honolulu had one of the most active careers while engaged in operations against Japanese Naval units with far less time devoted to gunfire support missions.  She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and following that took part in convoy escort missions until she went north to screen Alaska from Japanese attack in May 1942 a task that she engaged in until November.  She then reported to the South Pacific and was part of operations against the Japanese Fleet in the Solomons. She took part in the Battle of Tassafaronga, the Battle of Kula Gulf where she helped sink a destroyer and the Battle of Kolombangara where she was instrumental in sinking the Sendai class light cruiser Jintsu and a destroyer. She then supported amphibious operations in the Central Pacific including Saipan and Guam and the Leyte Gulf landings in the Philippines.  While operating off Manus Island she was stuck by an aerial torpedo receiving heavy damage which required her withdraw to the United States for major repairs which were still being completed when the war ended. She decommissioned in February 1947, stricken from the Naval Register in November 1959 and sold for scrap.

St. Louis was launched in April 1938 and commissioned in May 1939. After time conducting neutrality patrols at the onset of the war in the Atlantic she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet in November 1940. She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and was one of the few major fleet units to get underway and out to sea during the attack.  She supported carrier operations and convoy escort missions until she was sent north to that Aleutians where she operated until October when she returned to the States for a brief overhaul before being assigned to operations in the Solomons. Operating on a nearly nonstop basis against the Tokyo Express she took part in the Battle of Kula Gulf and the Battle of Kolombangara where she received partial credit for the sinking of the Japanese light cruiser Jinstu. During the battle she was torpedoed in the bow and after temporary repairs returned to the Mare Island. Following repairs St. Louis returned to the Solomons in November 1943. She was struck by a bomb which killed 20 crew members on January 14th requiring her to return to Purvis Bay for repairs. The repairs complete she returned to the Solomons until June when she took part in the invasion of the Marshalls at Guam and Saipan. She damaged her number three propeller and had to return to the States for repair following the Guam bombardment.  Upon her return she served at Leyte Gulf until she was hit by two Kamikazes in a short span receiving heavy damage and resulted in the loss of 15 sailors killed, 1 missing and 43 wounded.  She again sailed for repairs and returned to action against the Japanese home islands and Okinawa. Following this she supported operations against Japanese installations on the Asian mainland.  Following the war she took part in the Yangtze River patrol force and then returned to the United States in January 1946.  She was decommissioned in June 1946 and transferred to Brazil in January 1951 being commissioned as Tamandare. She was decommissioned in June 1976 and sold for scrapping in 1980. While being towed to Taiwan for scrapping she sank on August 24th 1980.

Helena firing at Kula Gulf just before being torpedoed and sunk

The Final ship in the class, Helena was launched in August 1939 and commissioned in the following month.  She was at Pearl Harbor and mooed at the 1010 Dock where she was hit by a torpedo and damaged. After repairs she reported to the South Pacific and the Guadalcanal campaign.  She escorted carriers. Helena had the most modern surface search radars and at Battle of Cape Esperance in Iron Bottom Sound, Helena had sunk cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubiki.  She then took part in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in which a weaker American force turned back a Japanese force with heavy losses on both sides including the Japanese Battleship Hiei and the American cruisers Atlanta, Juneau and 4 destroyers. Helena continued operations in the Solomons and at the Battle of Kula Gulf was sank by Japanese torpedoes fired by destroyers on July 5th 1943.  168 of her sailors were lost in the action. Helena was the first US Navy ship to be awarded the Naval Unit Commendation.

The General Belgrano ex-USS Phoenix sinking after being torpedoed by HMS Conqueror at the Battle of Falkland Islands

The class found its niche in the war primarily in shore bombardment and Naval Gunfire Support as well as in the sharp surface actions in the South Pacific. Only one, Helena was lost.  Six were transferred to South American Navies making and served for many years in those navies. None survive today but the ships were instrumental in the success of many operations.

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