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.
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.
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.
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.