The multiphase Naval Battle of Guadalcanal consisted of a series of air and sea engagements related to the Japanese effort to reinforce their land forces on Guadalcanal in order to seize or destroy Henderson Field. In early November 1942, the Japanese under Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku organized another convoy, embarking 7,000 troops and their equipment. In conjunction with their troop landings, Japanese naval forces were to bombard Henderson Field in order to destroy U.S. aircraft that posed a threat to the Japanese ship movements.
The opening gambit on 12 November saw Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner’s TF 67 attacked by Japanese land-based aircraft from Rabaul, New Britain, while unloading troops at Guadalcanal. The heavy cruiser San Francisco (CA-38) was damaged when hit by a crashing bomber while the destroyer Buchanan (DD-484) was hit by friendly fire. The battle continued the next day as Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan’s TG 67.4, comprising two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers, encountered Imperial Japanese Navy Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s bombardment force that included two battleships, steaming to strike Henderson Field. What ensued was a savage, gun- and torpedo-night action at close-quarters. Abe's force inflicted heavy damage on TG 67.4 and rear admirals Callaghan and Scott were killed on board their respective flagships, San Francisco and the light cruiser Atlanta (CL-51). Both Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan and Rear Admiral Norman Scott were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor..
The battered San Francisco’s Lt. Cmdr. Herbert E. Schonland and Lt. Cmdr. Bruce McCandless proved instrumental in saving their ship while Boatswain's Mate First Class Reinhardt J. Keppler performed a succession of heroic acts in fighting fires and removing the wounded. The three men, Keppler posthumously, were also awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions.
After nearly 40 minutes of brutal combat, the two sides broke contact and ceased fire as the respective commanders, Rear Admiral Abe and Capt. Gilbert Hoover, the senior surviving U.S. officer, ordered their forces to disengage. Unaware of the fact that only one light cruiser, Helena (CL-50), and one destroyer, Fletcher (DD-445), were still capable of effective resistance, Abe retired northward. U.S. forces paid a heavy price for what most historians agree was a U.S. strategic victory, suffering, either in the battle or subsequent to it, the loss of two light cruisers and 4 destroyers, as well as damage of varying levels to one heavy cruiser, two light cruisers, and two destroyers. The Japanese too emerged from the slugfest having suffered notable losses with mortal damage to a battleship along with the loss of two destroyers, with an additional five damaged. Whatever the tally of losses, Abe’s inability to bombard Henderson Field and his decision to retreat ensured that the airstrip remained operational. This enabled the U.S. to launch a recovery aircraft to engage those Japanese air assets based at Rabaul. Perhaps more importantly, it also meant that the Japanese had lost an opportunity to ensure local dominance with the elimination of the only significant U.S. naval forces in the area.
The second surface action of this battle fought during the night of 14−15 November 1942, was the decisive concluding act of the multi-day battle. Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr.’s improvised Task Force 64 comprising the battleships Washington (BB-56) and South Dakota (BB-57) and four destroyers, patrolled around Savo Island in search of the Japanese. Lee, the task force commander, was charged with risking the last significant U.S. surface units in the theater against some of the best ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Even more incredibly, he would be forced to offer night battle in the restricted waters of what came to be called “Ironbottom” Sound. Further complicating the situation was the fact that TF 64 was a newly-comprised scratch unit, some of whose constituents lacked fire-control radar. Despite these seeming handicaps, Lee improvised a battle plan and signaled it to his captains while underway.
Lee modified his tactical employment. His previous Navy assignments made him uniquely qualified to do so. As a former gunnery officer, he understood how to best bring his ordnance to bear on a target. More importantly, as the director of fleet training just before the war, he was responsible for many of the improvements in ship’s equipment which ensured that he, as Morison noted, “knew more about radar than the radar operators.” As such, Lee placed his four destroyers in the van to flush out the Japanese. He also placed the only radar-equipped destroyer last in line and assigned her to firing illumination rounds. Despite the aforementioned handicaps, there was one considerable factor clearly in Lee’s favor, his flagship Washington was the world’s finest, most powerful commissioned warship, and her fellow battleship South Dakota, even with two damaged guns in Turret No. 2, was nearly so.
Japanese Admiral Nobutake Kondō split his force into several groups. Using their radar to locate the enemy, the two U.S. battleships opened fire on the northern group at 23:17. Lee ordered a cease fire about five minutes later, after the targets disappeared from his ship's radar. Shortly thereafter, the destroyers began engaging the Japanese destroyers. Within 10 minutes, two U.S. destroyers were sunk and the two others were severely damaged, prompting Lee to order them to retire. In absorbing the initial impact of contact with the enemy at great cost, the U.S. destroyers had completed their mission screening the battleships.
Washington passed the U.S. destroyers and engaged the Japanese destroyer Ayanami with her 5-inch guns, setting the latter afire. South Dakota followed closely behind, but then suffered a series of electrical failures that made her radar, radios, and most of her gun batteries inoperable. When Washington changed to pass the damaged U.S. destroyers, South Dakota tried to follow but was forced to turn so as to be silhouetted by the burning ships and became an easy target for the Japanese. Meanwhile Kondō received a report of the U.S. destroyers’ destruction and believing the U.S. forces defeated, ordered his bombardment force towards Guadalcanal. This force and the two U.S. battleships were now heading toward each other.
South Dakota, almost blind and unable to fire her main and secondary armament effectively, was illuminated by Japanese searchlights, became the target of nearly every ship in the Japanese force, and sustained 26 hits, which completely knocked out her communications and remaining gunfire control operations, set portions of her upper decks on fire, and forced her to try to steer away from the engagement. She did so at 00:17, as the cumulative effect of the battering rendered her, as Lee recalled, “deaf, dumb, blind, and impotent."
Meanwhile, with the Japanese focused on South Dakota, Lee’s flag captain, Capt. Glenn B. Davis, used Washington’s radar to maneuver, undetected, to within 9,000 yards of the Japanese battleship Kirishima. At point blank range, Davis opened fire and quickly hit Kirishima with at least nine, and possibly as many as twenty, 16-inch shells−and at least seventeen 5-inch shells, disabling the latter’s main battery, causing major flooding, and setting her afire. At 00:25, Kondo ordered all of his ships to converge and destroy any remaining U.S. ships. The Japanese, lacking radar, were unable to locate Washington, who steered a northwesterly course to draw the Japanese away from Guadalcanal and the damaged South Dakota. While the Japanese finally sighted the North Carolina-class battleship, Davis’ skillful maneuvering saw her avoid both torpedo hits and running aground in the shallows. Kondō then ordered his remaining ships to break contact and retire from the area.
All told, during the course of the battle the U.S. lost two light cruisers, four destroyers, and 35 aircraft with three additional destroyers damaged. Meanwhile, the Japanese lost two battleships, one heavy cruiser, three destroyers, eleven transports, and 64 aircraft. More importantly, however, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was the last major attempt by the Japanese to seize control of the waters around Guadalcanal or to retake the island. In contrast, the U.S. Navy was able to resupply U.S. forces at will, including the delivery of two divisions by late December 1942. The inability to neutralize Henderson Field doomed the Japanese effort to combat the Allied conquest of Guadalcanal. Japanese resistance in the Guadalcanal campaign ended on 9 February 1943, with the evacuation of most of their surviving troops from the island. The Guadalcanal campaign proved the tipping point in the Pacific War as henceforth, the U.S. was on the offensive, while the Japanese were forced on the defensive all the way to the Home Islands. President Franklin Roosevelt, upon learning of the results of the battle, commented, “It would seem that the turning point in this war has at last been reached.”
—Christopher B. Havern Sr., Naval History and Heritage Command, October 2017
Naval Battle of Guadalcanal Bibliography
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Bell, Frederick J. Condition Red: Destroyer Action in the South Pacific. (1943).
Calhoun, C. Raymond. Tin Can Sailor: Life aboard the USS Sterett, 1939−1945.
Coggins, Jack. The Campaign for Guadalcanal; A Battle That Made History. (1972).
Crenshaw, Russell S., Jr. South Pacific Destroyer: The Battle for the Solomons from Savo Island to Vella Gulf. (1998).
Dull, Paul S. A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941−1945. (1978).
Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. (1990).
Grace, James W. The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Night Action, 13 November 1942. (1999).
Hammel, Eric M. Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13−15, 1942. (1988).
Hara Tameichi. Japanese Destroyer Captain: Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Midway− The Great Naval Battles as Seen Through Japanese Eyes. (1967).
Hone, Trent. “High Velocity Learning at Guadalcanal,” 2017 CNO Naval History Essay Contest.
Hornfischer, James D. Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal. (2011).
Lundstrom, John B. The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942. (2005)
McGee, William L. The Solomons Campaigns, 1942−1943: From Guadalcanal to Bougainville, Pacific War Turning Point (Amphibious Operations in the South Pacific in WWII) (2002).
Moore, Stephen L. The Battle for Hell's Island: How a Small Band of Carrier Dive-Bombers Helped Save Guadalcanal (2015).
Morison, Samuel E. The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942−February 1943: History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume 5 (History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II). (1949)
Newcomb, Richard F. The Battle of Savo Island: The Harrowing Account of the
Disastrous Night Battle Off Guadalcanal that Nearly Destroyed the Pacific Fleet in August 1942. (1963).
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O’Hara, Vincent P. The U.S. Navy against the Axis: Surface Combat, 1941−1945. (2013)
Poor, Henry V., Mustin, Henry A., Jameson, Colin G. The Battles of Cape Esperance, 11 October 1942 and Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942 (Combat Narratives). (1994)
Prados, John. Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and
the Japanese Navy in World War II. (1995)
Prados, John. Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun. (2012)
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Stille, Mark. Santa Cruz 1942: Carrier Duel in the South Pacific. (2012).
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Spector, Ronald. Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan. (1985).
Toll, Ian W. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942−1944. (2015)
Wheelan, Joseph. Midnight in the Pacific: Guadalcanal─The World War II Battle That Turned the Tide of War (2017).
Wukovits, John. Tin Can Titans. (2017).
Imperial Japanese Navy Page (Nihon Kaigun) [http://www.combinedfleet.com]
Naval History and Heritage Command
Photos of Naval Battle of Guadalcanal