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H-Gram 010: Guadalcanal—Operation on a Shoestring 

29 September 2017 


Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942-43
Marines build front-line defenses around Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, August–September 1942 (80-G-27194).

Contents 

1. Forgotten Valor: The Sacrifice of TRANSDIV 12

2. Battle of the Eastern Solomons

3. “Torpedo Junction”

4. Enlisted Hero: Samuel B. Roberts

5. Attacks on the United States Mainland

6. 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War  

World War II at 75 

1. Forgotten Valor: The Sacrifice of TRANSDIV 12

On 15 August 1942, five days after the U.S. Navy "abandoned" the U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal, four Navy fast transports (APDs) of Transport Division (TRANSDIV) 12 arrived off Lunga Point and unloaded ammunition, aviation gasoline, aviation-maintenance gear, and about a hundred Marines and Navy personnel who would establish an airfield operations capability at what would become Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. Making multiple supply runs to Guadalcanal over the next days, the lightly armed converted obsolescent World War I–vintage destroyers relied on speed for survival.  None of them would survive the war. Three of them wouldn't survive the next three weeks. USS Colhoun (APD-2) was bombed and sunk by 18 Japanese bombers while unloading off Guadalcanal on 30 August, with the loss of 51 of her crew.

USS Gregory (APD-3) and USS Little (APD-4) went down in a valiant but hopeless night fight against three Japanese destroyers just off Guadalcanal on 4–5 September. Under the overall command of Commander Hugh W. Hadley, embarked on Little, as the two APDs turned to attack the Japanese destroyers that had just commenced shelling the Marines ashore, their slim chance of achieving surprise was accidently betrayed by flares dropped from a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina, which mistook the APDs for a Japanese submarine. The startled Japanese, who had failed to previously detect the APDs, shifted their fire from the Marines ashore. Five hundred Japanese shells later, the two APDs were on the bottom of Ironbottom Sound with almost 90 crewmen, including Hadley and the skippers of Gregory and Little. Their sacrifice preventing further shelling of the Marines that night.

Left out of most histories of the battle of Guadalcanal, this action ("Miscellaneous Action in the South Pacific") cost a similar number of Navy lives as Marines lost in the far more famous Battle of Bloody Ridge (approximately 90–100 killed in action) on Guadalcanal on 12–14 September.  Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, commander of U.S. naval forces off Guadalcanal, wrote, "The officers and men serving in these ships have shown great courage and have performed outstanding service. They entered this dangerous area time after time, well knowing their ships stood little or no chance if they should be opposed by any surface or air force the enemy would send into those waters." Yet, to support the Marines, they did.  Commander Hadley, Lieutenant Commander Harry F. Bauer (CO Gregory) and Lieutenant Commander Gus B. Lofberg (CO Little) were each awarded a posthumous Silver Star. For more on Navy efforts to supply the Marines on Guadalcanal, please see attachment H-010-1: "Operation Shoestring."

2. Battle of the Eastern Solomons

The third carrier battle of World War II, which took place in open waters northeast of the Solomon Islands on 24 August, was a victory for the U.S. Navy by a very narrow margin. As at the Battle of Midway, the Japanese had overall numerical superiority, but in terms of the decisive weapon of the battle, dive bombers, the U.S. had superiority of 68 to 54. And, as at the Battle of Midway, but for some lucky breaks, the Japanese could have turned the battle into a disaster for the U.S. However, the Japanese also caught a huge break when just before the battle, the U.S. commander, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, detached the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) and her escorts to refuel, causing them (and 60 carrier aircraft) to miss the battle entirely. Unlike at the Battle of Midway, for a variety of reasons, U.S. naval intelligence was unable to provide as precise an advance notice of the timing of Japanese intentions, or the locations of the Japanese carriers, which contributed to Fletcher's decision to release the Wasp at a critical point (although intelligence was clearly reported that the biggest Japanese operation since Midway was imminent.)  As a result, two U.S. carriers, the flagship USS Saratoga (CV-3) and USS Enterprise (CV-6) , with 154 carrier aircraft, faced off against two Japanese fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku (veterans of Pearl Harbor and Coral Sea, but which missed Midway) and the light carrier Ryujo, with about 180 (171 operational) carrier aircraft, all under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who was still in command of the Japanese carrier force despite the debacle at the Battle of Midway.

Both sides attempted to incorporate lessons learned from the Battle of Midway, the key one being to strike first. Both sides had concluded that any strike now was better than a perfectly coordinated strike later. On the U.S. side, this manifested itself in multiple instances of two-aircraft formations on scouting missions immediately boldly attacking entire Japanese task groups as soon as they sighted the Japanese. On the Japanese side, having seen the slaughter of American torpedo bombers at Midway, the Japanese concluded that their own torpedo bombers were just as vulnerable, and held them back with the intent that dive bombers would work over American carriers first, resulting in the Japanese torpedo bombers never getting into the action, which no doubt saved U.S. carriers.

When the incredibly chaotic Battle of the Eastern Solomons was over (poor U.S. radio circuit discipline resulted in numerous missed contact reports and intercepts), the Japanese light carrier Ryujo had been sunk, with the loss of all but one of her 35 aircraft. A single torpedo from the reconstituted Torpedo Squadron Eight (which had lost 15 of 15 TBD Devastators and 5 of 6 TBF Avengers at Midway) dealt the mortal blow to the Ryujo. Unlike at Coral Sea, the Japanese fleet carrier Shokaku (now Nagumo's flagship) suffered only minor damage (Shokaku was equipped with Japan's first carrier search radar, which was surprisingly effective). The Japanese also lost the destroyer Mutsuki, the troop transport Kinryu Maru, and significant damage to the light cruiser Jintsu and seaplane tender Chitose. Most importantly, the Japanese lost 75 aircraft (64 carrier aircraft) and, unlike Midway, most of their crews were not recovered. Including aircrew, about 300 Japanese died.

On the American side, the carrier USS Enterprise was damaged by three bomb hits, with heavy casualties (75 killed,) but was able to proceed under her own power (once steering was restored) to Pearl Harbor for repairs. The U.S. lost 25 aircraft (23 carrier aircraft plus one PBY Catalina and one B-17 bomber that crash-landed). Most of the carrier aircraft aircrew were recovered, several after many weeks of odyssey on remote islands (9 carrier aircrew men were lost) and total U.S. deaths reached 90.

The result of the battle was that the big Japanese push to reinforce Guadalcanal fizzled, and the large Japanese force withdrew after yet another failed attempt to draw U.S. Navy forces into a night surface battle. The victory was temporary, however, as the Japanese found other means (the "Tokyo Express") to get significantly more troops onto Guadalcanal. The rapidly increasing numbers of 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns on U.S. ships had significant effect; although the new gun lacked the range to knock down Japanese dive bombers and torpedo bombers before weapons' release, they were very effective in ensuring many of those attacking aircraft would never be able to make another attack. (For additional detail on the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, please see attachment H-010-2.)

3. “Torpedo Junction”

On 15 September 1942, the Japanese submarine I-19, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Takaichi Kinashi, fired arguably the most effective spread of torpedoes in history. With six torpedoes, I-19 hit the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) with at least two, possibly three torpedoes, which ultimately sank her with a loss of 173 of her crew, one newspaper correspondent, and 45 aircraft. One torpedo passed under the destroyer USS Lansdowne (DD-486) before travelling several miles with two other torpedoes into the screen of the USS Hornet (CV-8). One torpedo passed under the destroyer USS Mustin (DD-413) before blowing a 32-by-1-foot hole in the new fast battleship USS North Carolina (BB-55). Although still able to make 25 knots, her forward magazines were flooded as a precaution, and the North Carolina was put out of action for two months for repairs. The destroyer USS O'Brien (DD-415) evaded one torpedo astern, but was hit in the bow by another. After temporary repairs, her crew sailed the O'Brien 2,800 miles before she broke apart and sank on 19 October near Samoa while en route Pearl Harbor for additional repair. The two carriers were providing cover for transports carrying the 7th Marine Regiment en route to reinforce the Marines on Guadalcanal when attacked by I-19.

The loss of Wasp left the U.S. with two fleet carriers (Hornet, which had just missed being torpedoed on 6 September, and USS Enterprise [CV-6], damaged at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons) against Japan's two remaining fleet carriers (Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea and Eastern Solomons veterans Shokaku and Zuikaku), and several medium and light carriers. The other U.S. fleet carrier, USS Saratoga (CV-3) had been torpedoed by I-26 on 31 August southeast of Guadalcanal. Although Saratoga's casualties were minimal (12 wounded, including Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who suffered a laceration on the forehead), the carrier was put out of action for several months at a critical point in the Pacific War. Both I-26 and I-19 successfully evaded depth-charge counter-attacks, and I-26 would later sink the anti-aircraft cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52), on 13 November, with the loss of almost her entire crew (687 of 697 were lost) including all five Sullivan brothers. Although Admiral Fletcher's decision to move his carriers away from the immediate vicinity of Guadalcanal on 9 August after the landings on 7 August was heavily criticized at the time and by historians since, his concern that keeping the carriers in the same area for too long made them vulnerable to air or submarine attack actually proved well-founded. (For more on "Torpedo Junction" please see attachment H-010-3.)

4. Enlisted Hero: Samuel B. Roberts

As the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) was on fire and in critical danger of sinking after hitting an Iranian mine in the Arabian Gulf on 14 April 1988, members of her crew were seen to place their hand on a bronze plaque listing the names of the Sailors who served on the first Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) as if to draw inspiration from those who had sacrificed their lives when DE-413 went down on 25 October 1944 off Samar, Philippines, in an action Navy historian Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison described as the most gallant and gutsy in U.S. Navy history. Following the lead of Commander Ernest Evans on the USS Johnston (DD-557), who conducted a solo torpedo attack against a Japanese force of four battleships, eight cruisers and numerous destroyers, the Samuel B. Roberts’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland, attacking under orders from the Task Group Commander, informed his crew, "We are going into battle against overwhelming odds, from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can." After a valiant fight, including dueling a Japanese battleship, the lightly armed (two  5-inch guns) DE-413 went down under a storm of Japanese fire. In his after-action report, Copeland noted the valor of his crew and stated there was "no higher honor" than to command such men, which became the motto of FFG-58. The heroic fight by the Johnston, Samuel B. Roberts, and the other escorts and aircraft of "Taffy 3" caused the greatly superior Japanese force to turn away, preventing a catastrophe had the Japanese force gotten through to the supply ships and troop transports supporting General MacArthur's landing on Leyte. The crew of FFG-58 saved their ship from damage that subsequent modeling indicated should have sunk her.

FFG-58 was the third to bear the name Samuel B. Roberts. The second to bear the name, a Gearing-class destroyer (DD-823), served with distinction during the Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam. All of them lived up to the legacy of Samuel B. Roberts, a Navy coxswain, who sacrificed his life by drawing fire with his landing craft while extracting Marines from a failed amphibious insertion behind Japanese lines on Guadalcanal on 27 September 1942. For his heroism, Samuel B. Roberts was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross. When informed that the Navy wanted to name a ship after Roberts, his mother, who had served in World War I as a Yeoman (F,) sometimes called "Yeomanettes," agreed on condition that her younger son, Jack Roberts, be allowed to serve on the ship named for his brother. Jack Roberts survived the sinking at Samar, was present at the commissioning of FFG-58, and his name is on the bronze plaque with the rest of his shipmates, now preserved in the collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command. (Please see attachment H-010-4 for additional detail on Samuel B. Roberts, and H-010-5 for a photo of FFG-58's plaque commemorating DE-413's valor and sacrifice.)

5. Attacks on the United States Mainland

On 9 September 1942, a Japanese E14Y1 "Glen" floatplane piloted by Petty Officer Nobuo Fujita launched from the submarine I-25 off the coast of Oregon and dropped two incendiary bombs in the forest near Brookings with the intent to start a major forest fire. This was the only bombing by a foreign nation of the U.S. mainland. The bombs failed to have the desired effect on this or a second attempt by Fujita on 29 September, and no further submarine-launched air attacks were conducted for the remainder of the war. Japanese B-1 type submarines carried one two-seat "Glen" that could be disassembled and stowed in a hangar forward of the conning tower. Just after the float plane had been recovered, disassembled and stowed on the first mission, the I-25 was bombed by a U.S. Army Air Force Hudson bomber with minor damage. (For additional reading on other attacks on the U.S. mainland by Japanese submarines and German saboteurs, please see attachment H-010-6.)

6. 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War

I can't compete (at least cinematically) with the Ken Burns' Vietnam series now on PBS, but I thought these two vignettes written by retired U.S. Navy captain James Bloom (who writes an independent "Today in Naval History" blog, an activity I highly encourage!) are great examples of heroism demonstrated by U.S. Navy personnel in the Vietnam War:

  • Lieutenant William C. Fitzgerald, USN (namesake of the USS Fitzgerald  [DDG-62], recently involved in a fatal collision at sea) was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross for calling in an artillery strike on his own position in order to enable his men to escape an intense Viet Cong assault on 7 August 1967.
  • Lieutenant Vincent R. Capodanno, CHC, USNR, was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for sacrificing his life to protect U.S. Marines during a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) assault on 3 September 1967.

(For Captain Bloom's passages on Fitzgerald and Capodanno, please see attachment H-010-7.)

Major sources for this H-gram include:  Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle by Richard B. Frank; History of United States Naval Operations in World War II Vol. V, The Struggle for Guadalcanal by Samuel Eliot Morison; Neptune's Inferno by James D. Hornfischer; The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942–1944 by Ian Toll; A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight by Robert J. Mrazek; Combined Fleet Decoded by John Prados; and No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf by Bradley Peniston.

Published: Tue May 07 10:54:15 EDT 2019