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The Battle of Cape Esperance: October 11-12 1942

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 sunk in the area around Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Savo Island led to the area being nicknamed “Iron Bottom Sound.”

The battles around Guadalcanal occurred in a time of technical transition as radar became better at detecting ships and fire direction systems advanced. By October 1942 the U.S. Marines battling on Guadalcanal were fighting an enemy growing in numbers and 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, operations involving the reinforcement and resupply of Japanese Forces on the island as well as offensive operations to aid the land forces by attempting to make the U.S. airstrip, Henderson Field inoperable.

Henderson Field

The first of their major operations was in early August when a Japanese cruiser destroyer force ravaged the U.S. cruiser forces off Savo Island 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 ships of the invasion force before many could finish unloading the equipment and supplies that were critical to the operation.

The Tokyo Express Route along the Slot

Japanese resupply and reinforcement operations 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 and sent 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. moves coincided with a Japanese reinforcement effort which was covered by a 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 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 cruisers detected the Japanese at 2300 hours and 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 broke his formation and put the van destroyers out of position in the poor visibility of the moonless night 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 asking permission to fire. The message was received by Scott who did not grant permission but acknowledged receipt of the message. Mistaking this as permission Helena, followed by the other cruisers opened a devastating fire on the Japanese force. Goto’s lookouts had sight the Americans at 2343 but assumed that they were friendly. The result was heavy damage to the Japanese flagship Aoba and left Goto mortally wounded.

IJN Heavy Cruiser Furutaka

Scott. taken by surprise ordered ceasefire at 2347 thinking that he was shooting at his own destroyers, but resumed fire at 2351. At 2349 Furutaka was heavily damaged by American fire and at 2358 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

The American cruisers turned on their searchlights which provided the last Japanese cruiser, Kinugasa the opportunity to hit them hard. Kinugasa heavily damaged Boise forcing her out of the battle. As Boise sheared away from the action Kinugasa and Salt Lake City exchanged fire hitting each other before the Japanese cruiser broke off the action.

The commander of the Japanese reinforcement group, his mission completed dispatched 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 and scuttled.

On the 13th the American reinforcements arrived, as did Japanese reinforcements that night. On the night the 13th Japanese battleships Kongo and Haruna almost destroyed Henderson Field. However the resilient Marines kept the airfield operational and 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.

Task Force 64 lost one destroyer sunk and two cruisers damaged while the Japanese lost one cruiser and three destroyers sunk and two cruisers damaged, with Aoba taking severe damage from nearly 40 6” and 8” shells that knocked her out of the war for four months. The battle had lasted less than 50 minutes from the time Helena picked up the Japanese force on her radar.

The battle was a tactical victory for the U.S. Navy but the lessons of the battle about the power of Japanese torpedoes and effectiveness in night combat were not learned causing other U.S. task forces to have to learn the hard way in subsequent engagements. Rear Admiral Scott would not long survive his victory being killed in action aboard the USS Atlanta during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal just a month later.


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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

Bloody Savo: Disaster at Guadalcanal

USS Quincy under attack off Savo Island

On August 8th 1942 the U.S. Task Force supporting the invasion of Guadalcanal was tired. The crews of the ships had been in continuous combat operations conducting naval gunfire support missions, fending off numerous Japanese air attacks and guarding against submarine attacks for two days.  The force commanded by Admiral Richmond K. Turner was still unloading materials, equipment and supplies needed by the men of the 1st Marine Division who they had put ashore on the morning of the seventh.

On the afternoon of the eighth Turner was informed by Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher that he was pulling his carrier task force out of action. Fletcher alleged that he did not have enough fighter aircraft (79 remaining of an original 98) and as low on fuel.  The carriers had only been in action 36 hours and Fletcher’s reasons for withdraw were flimsy.  Fletcher pulled out and left Turner and his subordinate commanders the responsibility of remaining in the area without air support with the transports still full of badly needed supplies and equipment.

Admiral Gunichi Mikawa

As the American drama played out, the Japanese moved forces into position to strike the Americans.  Admiral Gunichi Mikawa commander of the 8th Fleet and Outer South Seas Force based at Rabaul New Britain quickly assembled a force of 6 heavy cruisers, the 14,000 ton Atago Class Chokai, and the four smaller ships of the Kako Class, the Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa and Furutaka, the light cruisers Yubari and Tenryu and the destroyer Yunagi.   Mikawa raised his flag aboard Chokai and the force sped down “the slot” which ran the length of the of the Solomon’s chain mid day on the seventh.

The Americans had warning of their coming. The first sighting was by B-17s before the Japanese forces had reached Rabaul.  The second was the elderly U.S. Navy submarine S-38 at 2000 on the 7th when they were 550 miles away not far from Rabaul.  This report was discounted because it would not be unusual to find a number of fleet units steaming near a major naval base and fleet headquarters.  The last which should have alerted the allies was a sighting by a Royal Australian Air Force patrol aircraft on the morning of the 8th.  However the pilot did not report the sighting until he returned from his mission returned to his base and had his tea.  The eight hour delay in reporting the information as well as errors in it which reported 2 submarine tenders as part of the force lulled the Allied forces into believing that the Japanese were setting up a seaplane base and posed no threat to the invasion forces. It was a fatal error of reporting and judgment by the pilot.

USS Astoria on August 8th off Guadalcanal 

In the absence of good information Turner deployed his support ships to cover the three entrances into what soon would be known as Iron Bottom Sound.  He placed the Anti Aircraft Cruiser USS San Juan and Australian Light Cruiser HMAS Hobart to the east with two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott. To protect the south west entrance into the sound south of Savo Island Turner placed the Heavy Cruisers USS Chicago, HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral R.A.C. Crutchley RN who in theory commanded the screening force.  To the north of Savo he deployed the Heavy Cruisers USS Vincennes, USS Astoria and USS Quincy and two destroyers under the tactical direction of Captain Frederick Riefkohl aboard Vincennes. To the west of Savo he placed two destroyers to act as picket ships.  Unfortunately these ships radar sets were insufficient and would fail to pick up the approaching enemy.

Allied Dispositions 

During the early evening Turner recalled Crutchley to his flagship for consultations of what to do regarding Fletcher’s retreat.  Crutchley came over in his flagship the Australia denuding the southern force of its commander as well as one of its three heavy cruisers.  He left the commanding officer of Chicago Captain Howard D. Bode in tactical command but Bode did not have his ship take the lead position in the patrol assuming Crutchley would return bymidnight.

Mikawa launched float planes to scout the locations of the American ships and to provide illumination once the battle began.  Some of these aircraft were spotted but no alert measures were taken as many assumed the Japanese to be friendly aircraft.  Many commanding officers were asleep or resting away from the bridge of their ships, lookouts were tired and not expecting the Japanese and Condition Two was set in order to provide some of the tired crews a chance to rest.

Light Cruiser Yubari illuminating American cruisers at Savo Island 

Admiral Mikawa now new the Allied disposition and ordered his ships to battle stations at 0045.  At 004 he sighted and passed astern of USS Blue the southern picket which also failed to detect the Japanese force.  Mikawa assumed that the destroyer might have reported his presence, briefly turned north but turned back to his original course when a lookout allegedly spotted a destroyer to his northeast.  He gave the order to attack at 0132 and promptly spotted the American destroyer USS Jarvis which had been heavily damaged and without radio communications was making her way toAustralia for repair and passed her after some ships fired torpedoes and raced toward the southern force at 26 knots.  With the southern force just a few miles away Mikawa ordered his ships to commence firing at 0136 and at 0138 torpedoes had been launched.

Mikawa’s flagship heavy Cruiser Chokai

Even now the southern force was unaware of Mikawa until at 0143 the destroyer USS Patterson on the far side of the action saw Mikawa’s ships bearing down a mere 5000 yards from the force. Her commander radioed “STRANGE SHIPS ENTERING HARBOR” but the alert came too late.  As Patterson signaled her warning Japanese float planes dropped their illumination flares silhouetting the Chicago and Canberra as the Japanese cruisers opened fire at ranges from 4500 to 9000 yards.  At 0143 Canberra was struck by to torpedoes and 24 shells, mostly 8” from the cruisers. Her Captain was killed and she was mortally wounded.  The Japanese brushed off the attempts of Patterson and the other southern force destroyer the USS Bagley to intervene bypassing them quickly and shifting their fire to Chicago. Chicago was stuck by a torpedo at 0147 and a single hit from a cruiser which caused little damage. Chicago briefly engaged the Yunagi at 0151 which had been sent back to cover the Japanese as they moved north.  With his ship crippled Captain Bode failed to warn the northern force of the Japanese attack.

Mikawa’s lookouts spotted the northern group at 0144 and changed course. The maneuver was badly executed and left the Japanese in two columns as they swiftly closed on the Americans.  Mikawa’s flagship Chokai launched torpedoes at 0148 and Astoria the cruiser closest to the Japanese set general quarters at 0145 and at 0150 the Japanese illuminated her with searchlights and opened fire. Astoria under the direction of her gunnery officer returned fire at 0152 ½ just before her Captain came to the bridge unaware of the situation. He ordered a cease fire until he could ascertain who he was firing at assuming the Japanese to be friendly ships.  He delayed 2 minutes and ordered fires commenced at 0154 but the delay was fatal. Astoria had opened fire on the Chokai which then had time to get the range on the American cruiser and hit her with an 8” salvo which caused fires which provided the other Japanese ships an aiming point.

Japanese artist depiction of attack on US Navy Cruisers at Savo Island

Astoria was left burning and heavily damaged barely maintaining headway but attempted to fight on scoring a hit on Chokai’s forward turret even as the Japanese opened up on the next cruiser in line the USS Quincy.  Quincy caught between the two Japanese columns.  Aoba illuminated her with her searchlight and Japanese forces opened fire. The gunnery officer order Quincy to return fire getting two salvos off before her skipper Captain Samuel Moore came to the bridge, briefly ordered a cease fire assuming that he was firing on Americans and turned on his running lights.  Quincy was ripped by salvo after salvo which killed Captain Moore and nearly everyone in the pilothouse just as a torpedo ripped into her engineering spaces turning them into a sealed death trap forcing the engineer to shut down the engines.  Burning like a Roman candle Quincy was doomed she was ordered abandoned and capsized and sank at 0235. However Quincy did not die in vain, at 0205 two of her 8” shells hit Chokai causing enough damage the Admiral’s chart room that Mikawa would order a withdraw at 0220 which spared the now defenseless American transports.

Vincennes the lead ship and flagship was next in the line of death.  Captain Reifkohl order General Quarters sounded not long after the Japanese illuminated the southern group.  At 0150 Vincennes was lit up by the searchlights of three Japanese ships which opened fire on her. Vincennes returned fire at 0153 hitting Kinugasa before she was hit starting fires on her scout planes mounted on their catapults. The Japanese mauled Vincennes, three possibly four torpedoes ripped into her as shells put ever gun out of action. At 0215 she was left burning and sinking by the Japanese who soon withdrew from the action.  Ordered abandoned she sank at 0250.

Canberra being evacuated by the Patterson and Blue

Canberra struggled against the odds but was abandoned and was sent to the bottom by an American torpedo at 0800.  Astoria also struggled for life but the damage was too great and she was abandoned sinking at 1215.  Mikawa withdrew up the sound but on his return the Heavy Cruiser Kako 70 miles from home was sunk by torpedoes from the American submarine S-44 sinking in 5 minutes.

The Americans and Australians lost 4 Heavy Cruisers sunk and one heavily damaged as well as two destroyers damaged.  Killed on the various ships Quincy-389, Vincennes-342, Astoria235, Canberra-85, Ralph Talbot-14, Patterson-10, and Chicago-2.

It was an unmitigated disaster, an allied force destroyed in less than 30 minutes time.  Boards of inquiry were held and Captain Bode hearing that he shouldered much blame killed himself in 1943.

It was a rude awakening to a Navy which had believed that technical advances would give it victory and which was not yet in the words of Admiral King “sufficiently battle minded.”  It was the first of many equally bloody battles in the waters aroundGuadalcanal.


Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, world war two in the pacific