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H-011-1: Guadalcanal: Victory at Cape Esperance (Sort of)—11/12 October 1942 

H-Gram 011, Attachment 1
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
October 2017 

Although Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was rightly known for his even-tempered, gentlemanly leadership style, it is less well remembered that he had nerves of steel and ice water in his veins when the situation required, and he was single-minded in his drive to engage with and defeat the enemy. Not long after the debacle at the Battle of Savo Island, as U.S. Navy forces were licking their wounds and had essentially ceded the night waters around Guadalcanal to the Japanese, Nimitz issued the following directive on 19 August 1942:

 “Suitable targets present themselves only rarely to our guns, bombs and torpedoes. On those rare occasions our tactics must be such that our objective will be gunned, bombed or torpedoed to destruction. Surely we will have losses—but we will also destroy ships and be that much nearer to the successful conclusion of the war. We cannot expect to inflict heavy losses on the enemy without ourselves accepting the risk of punishment. To win this war we must come to grips with the enemy. Courage, determination and action, will see us through.”

Since Sailors on ships don’t get to decide when to fight, Nimitz’s message was clearly directed at the Commander of U.S. Forces in the South Pacific Area, Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley; the commander of the U.S. carrier task force (CTF-61), Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher; and the commander of the U.S. amphibious force (CTF-62), Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, none of whom appeared to “get” Nimitz’s intent. Although Turner sent multiple risky supply runs into Guadalcanal, Fletcher spent most of his time out of range of Japanese land-based aviation (and too far to provide regular close support to Guadalcanal), while steaming around in submarine-infested waters. To be fair to both commanders, a severe shortage of fuel oil adversely affected their operations, but after the Battle of Savo Island (and a couple of subsequent smaller night battles that went badly for the U.S. forces) Ghormley considered it too dangerous to risk U.S. surface ships in night action around Guadalcanal to interdict the frequent runs by the Japanese “Tokyo Express” bringing reinforcements and supplies by destroyer to the Japanese army forces on Guadalcanal that were attempting to dislodge the U.S. Marines. Although the Japanese army repeatedly underestimated the force levels required to eject the Marines, nevertheless the increasing numbers and supplies made it increasingly more difficult for the Marines to hold the island in the face of repeated Japanese attacks.

After what both Nimitz and CNO King viewed as a lackluster performance at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, and after he was slightly wounded when his flagship USS Saratoga (CV-3) was torpedoed and put out of action on 31 August, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was promoted to Vice Admiral and then sent back to the States, where he never held combat command again. His successor as commander of the carrier task force, Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, didn’t last much longer, being relieved after USS Wasp (CV-7) was torpedoed and sunk on 15 September. Ghormley’s days were numbered, too. After a major command conference held on Ghormley’s flagship, USS Argonne (AG-31) at Noumea, French New Caledonia, on 28 September 1942, Nimitz’s concern increased that Ghormley (a close friend) lacked the fortitude and aggressiveness needed for the job, as well as the physical stamina. Nimitz then flew to Guadalcanal (where Ghormley had not yet been) to see for himself the conditions on the ground. Nimitz clearly recognized the extreme challenges in getting sufficient supplies to the island, but also identified a long list of things that could be done—and that weren’t being done—to improve the situation, which Nimitz then handed to Ghormley on his way back to Hawaii. In response to pressure from Nimitz, Ghormley issued an order on 5 October to Rear Admiral Norman Scott to take a task group of cruisers and destroyers into the approaches to Guadalcanal and interdict the next “Tokyo Express” run.

Fortuitously, Rear Admiral Scott, an aggressive commander in the mold Nimitz was looking for, had spent the previous several weeks in intensive night training, trying to make up for two previous decades in which the U.S. Navy mostly avoided such evolutions. In fact, U.S. doctrine specifically called for cruisers to avoid night fighting, and destroyers were to engage only when necessary (and withhold using their torpedoes for “high-value” units). Scott’s efforts would get their test on the night of 11/12 October 1942.

The Japanese had quickly realized that any supply ships, even fast destroyer-transports, were at serious risk if they were caught during daylight by U.S. Marine and Navy aircraft flying from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. After a couple of night attacks by U.S. aircraft, the Japanese also determined that running the missions when the moon was full was a bad idea (reaching this conclusion at the same time that Brigadier General Roy Geiger, USMC, commander of U.S. aircraft on Guadalcanal, banned further nighttime attacks as too dangerous due to several operational losses). As a result, “Tokyo Express” runs were timed to go about every three days during the dark phase of the moon.

The Japanese planned for a major coordinated army and navy offensive to retake Guadalcanal timed for mid-October. To do so, the Japanese needed to get more reinforcements and at least some heavy artillery onto the island, and to suppress air operations from Henderson Field. So, the Japanese operation on 11/12 October was much more than the typical five- to six-destroyer “Tokyo Express” run. The Japanese sent two task groups: a reinforcement group and a bombardment group. For reasons that made sense only to the Japanese, the reinforcement group went first and the bombardment followed several hours later. The reinforcement group, consisting of the seaplane tenders Nisshin and Chitose (serving as transports, with cranes to get heavy artillery off) and six destroyers carrying hundreds of troops, was sighted by U.S. scout aircraft, although the seaplane tenders were misidentified as cruisers (so Rear Admiral Scott knew he was facing more than a normal “Tokyo Express”). Their speed was miscalculated so that they arrived off Guadalcanal faster than Scott expected, and before Scott arrived to interdict. So important did the Japanese consider this group that the last six Zeros providing air cover were ordered to stay on station until after nightfall and ditch when they ran out of gas; five of the pilots perished.

The Japanese bombardment group, under the command of Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto and consisting of three heavy cruisers (flagship Aoba, Furutaka, and Kinugasa, all among the victors at the Battle of Savo Island,) and two destroyers remained undetected by U.S. scout aircraft as they passed through a gauntlet of rain showers. When the reinforcement group arrived off Guadalcanal, they reported that there were no American ships present, which reinforced Goto’s false sense of security.

In the meantime, Rear Admiral Scott’s cruiser-destroyer force transited up the west coast of Guadalcanal, where it was sighted by the surprised Japanese submarine I-26, which submerged rapidly before issuing a contact report; when it resurfaced to do so it was too late. Scott’s force consisted of nine ships in single line-ahead formation, with destroyers USS Farenholt (DD-491), USS Duncan (DD-485), and USS Laffey (DD-459) in the lead, followed by four cruisers: the flagship heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA-38), light cruiser USS Boise (CL-47) , heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City (CA-25), and light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50). Two destroyers, USS Buchanan (DD-484) and USS McCalla (DD-488), followed behind the cruisers.

Boise and Helena were each equipped with the newer SG radar (centimetric wave), which was much more accurate and less prone to false alarms than the older SC radars (metric-wave) on San Francisco and Salt Lake City (although the “older” SC radars were only a year old.) Scott had also been mistakenly informed that the Japanese had receivers that could detect the SC radar (they didn’t), which would give the Japanese the edge on warning. As a result, Scott ordered the SC radars turned off so as not to give away his presence, an order that Salt Lake City either didn’t get or ignored. Regardless, Scott did not have a radar picture onboard San Francisco until after the battle started. Scott had also previously ordered all four cruisers to offload all but one each of their catapult-launched scout float planes to avoid what happened at Savo Island, where burning float planes essentially divided the ships in two and served as beacons for additional Japanese fire. Scott ordered the remaining float planes to launch after dark to search for the Japanese. The plane from Salt Lake City caught fire and crashed immediately after launch, but fortunately the Japanese reinforcement group was already around the corner on the north side of Guadalcanal and did not see the flames—nor did the approaching bombardment group, which was in a rain squall. Helena didn’t get the word to launch, and jettisoned her plane over the side. Boise’s plane developed engine trouble and set down north of Guadalcanal, where it observed the rest of the battle from the water. At 2250, San Francisco’s plane sighted the reinforcement group north of Guadalcanal and her report caused confusion because the Japanese were not expected to be there yet. The reinforcement group failed to report the presence of a scout plane to Rear Admiral Goto.

As Scott transited northward just west of the strait between Guadalcanal and Savo Island, the Japanese reinforcement group was already past him unseen to the east, while the Japanese bombardment group was approaching from the west—the direction from which Scott was expecting a Japanese force of some kind to come. The Japanese cruisers were in a line-ahead formation with Aoba in the lead, followed by Furutaka and Kinugasa, while the two destroyers screened slightly ahead on each flank. Right before Scott gave the order for his formation to conduct a column turn and reverse course to stay within the strait—and unbeknownst to him—radar on Helena and then Boise began detecting the Japanese ships approaching from the northwest. As related in the introduction, Scott’s order immediately went wrong. Instead of following the lead destroyers into the column turn, flagship San Francisco immediately turned to port. Captain Edward J. “Mike” Moran on Boise, following behind San Francisco, had to make a quick decision: Either do what the admiral ordered and follow the destroyers into the column turn, or do what the flagship was doing and stay behind San Francisco into her turn. He chose the latter, as did the rest of the ships in the formation. Captain Robert Tobin, the destroyer squadron leader on Farenholt, then had to guess what he was supposed to do, so he led the three destroyers in a port turn to reverse course coming up alongside the U.S. cruisers, between them and the approaching Japanese, although Duncan spun out alone into the darkness.

San Francisco’s mistake actually resulted in Scott being in position to cross Goto’s “T.” Had the U.S. ships correctly executed the column turn, which would have taken longer, the two forces would have approached each other on a perpendicular collision course, and Goto might even have crossed Scott’s “T.” Scott delayed opening fire while he tried to determine exactly where his lead destroyers were. The picture was further clouded as U.S. ships reported relative and true bearings of Japanese ships interchangeably. Goto remained convinced that the ships his lookouts were reporting ahead (initially at 11,000 yards) had to be the Japanese reinforcement group since American ships had not operated in force off Guadalcanal at night since their thrashing at Savo Island two months earlier. Goto was still not convinced even after his lookouts at 7,000 yards reported that the ships were the enemy, and he ordered his flagship Aoba to flash her recognition lights and signal her identity via flashing light. (For whatever reason, the U.S. ships did not seem to have seen this, apparently while staring at their radar scopes.)

As the two forces closed to within 4,500 yards, Captain Gilbert C. Hoover on Helena, convinced that the ships he was seeing to west were Japanese and not U.S. destroyers, requested permission to open fire. Hoover misinterpreted Scott’s acknowledgment of the transmission as permission, and opened fire at 2345. Other U.S. ships followed suit. Scott then spent the next several minutes trying, unsuccessfully, to order a cease-fire. Farenholt, caught in the line of fire, received some damage from rounds impacting her masts and one in her hull that were intended for the Japanese cruisers beyond, while Laffey went to an emergency backing bell to get out of the line of fire.

Although Goto had ordered his ships to go to general quarters as a precaution, he was still caught by surprise and unprepared. His guns were still trained fore and aft, still loaded with antipersonnel bombardment rounds, when his flagship was savaged by repeated hits from the Americans. Furutaka turned to parallel in the same direction as the American course, valiantly interposing herself between the Americans and the Japanese flagship, and paid the price. Aoba would ultimately survive (with over 40 hits and 79 dead), but Furutaka would not. The Japanese destroyer on the starboard side of the Japanese formation, Fubuki, took a severe pounding and would sink too (Fubuki had been instrumental in sinking the heavy cruiser USS Houston  (CA-30)—during the Battle of Sunda Strait on 1 March 1942). In a rare event by that time of the war, 111 of Fubuki’s crew would be rescued by the Americans the next day and become prisoners of war.

As Aoba limped away under cover of a smoke screen, and Furutaka was smothered in U.S. shellfire (hit over 90 times, with 258 dead), the third cruiser in the Japanese line, Kinugasa, opted to turn parallel, but in the opposite direction as the American line, quickly taking her out of the close-range fight. Kinugasa then proceeded to give a demonstration of accurate Japanese nighttime shooting, and fired several torpedoes at Helena and Boise, which both ships successfully maneuvered to avoid. Kinugasa received only a few hits, much less than she inflicted. Kinugasa repeatedly straddled Boise forward, stressing her hull. Then, she hit and jammed Boise’s number 1 turret and ignited a fire; as the crew of burning turret 1 attempted to abandon it, they were cut down by another hit. Another shell hit Boise below the waterline. This was a special Type 91 shell, which was specifically designed to do exactly what it did: hit short and hole the target below the waterline. In a freak combination, the hits were both devastating and saved the ship. The first hits resulted in a flash fire that incinerated the entire crews of turrets 1 and 2—over a hundred men—and threatened a magazine explosion. Only the discipline and training of Boise’s crew in how they handled powder prevented an instant explosion. Captain Moran ordered the forward magazines flooded, but the men who would carry out that order were dead. However, the hole and cracks below the waterline flooded the magazine before it could detonate. Nevertheless, the fire was so great that observers on other ships assumed Boise was lost. Like Furutaka, Salt Lake City placed herself between the burning Boise and the Japanese, and took a couple hits from Kinugasa as a result.

As the battle was starting, the destroyer Duncan (second in line) had become separated from the other two leading destroyers, at which point she sighted Japanese ships, probably Kinugasa and a destroyer. Alone and lacking any orders, the skipper of Duncan, Lieutenant Commander Edmund B. Taylor, decided to conduct a solo torpedo attack. Just as Duncan was in position to launch her torpedoes, she took a devastating series of hits from both Japanese and American shells, which knocked out the gun director among other things, and one of her torpedoes actually launched into her own forward stack. With the flames forward out of control, the only means of escape from the advancing flames for the bridge crew was to jump directly into the water from the bridge. Meanwhile, the crew aft of the blaze continued to try to fight the fire, and fight the ship at the same time, guns still blazing. Eventually, however, the flames forced all the survivors into the water. The next day, the destroyer USS McCalla found the burned-out hull of Duncan still afloat, without her crew, and sent a boat with a damage-control party aboard to try to save the ship; they were driven off when it became apparent that the forward magazine was in danger of exploding. One hundred and ninety-five of Duncan’s valiant crew were ultimately rescued, but 48 were lost. Lieutenant Commander Taylor would be awarded a Navy Cross. (Taylor’s son, Captain Edmund R. Taylor Jr., would be killed in the same helicopter crash that took the life of Rear Admiral Rembrandt Robinson in the Gulf of Tonkin in May 1972.)

 As the remains of Goto’s force withdrew to the northwest, Scott initially turned to follow, but believing that they had sunk more Japanese ships than were actually involved and concerned over the fate of Boise and Duncan, he opted to withdraw to the south. (Japanese sinking claims were just as inflated.) The Japanese force received orders to turn around and attack, which they were in no condition to do, and after a brief period of advance to save face, Kinugasa turned about to retreat. The Japanese did send two destroyers to search for survivors of Furutaka, which were caught and bombed by U.S. aircraft at dawn, and one (Murakumo) was immobilized. Two more Japanese destroyers came to the rescue, and they were also bombed, sinking Natsugumo before Murakumo finally sank, too, bringing total Japanese losses in the battle to one heavy cruiser, three destroyers, and 565 men, for the loss of one U.S. destroyer and 163 American dead. The loss of a heavy cruiser in a night surface action was a profound shock to the Japanese, who had come to believe themselves to be nearly invincible at night. It was also a huge morale boost to the U.S. Navy, who had finally proved that the Japanese were not invincible at night.

Nevertheless, the Americans took away some bad lessons. Most importantly, because of the surprise, the Japanese were not able to mount an effective torpedo attack, so the U.S. remained oblivious to the real power and range of the Japanese Long Lance torpedo—and a line of nine American ships all in a column would have made a great target (especially with Boise’s and Helena’s near-continuous gunfire flashes acting as beacons) had the Japanese not been thrown into total chaos in the opening moments of the battle. The U.S. would use that formation again and suffer for it several times. (To be fair, though, Japanese Rear Admiral Mikawa had used a single column formation to great effect at Savo Island, because it was the most simple to control, and even he lost control of it.) Scott’s choice of San Francisco as flagship (the “traditional” choice since she was the largest ship in the force), which did not have the most modern radar, would also be repeated in future battles. Nevertheless, numerous practical lessons were learned about communications, gunnery, and ship-handling necessary to fight at night. Despite the chaotic aspects of the battle, Scott was the first U.S. commander who could claim to have engaged a major Japanese surface force in battle (night or day) and won.

Meanwhile, however, the Japanese reinforcement group successfully completed its mission unmolested, putting ashore hundreds of Japanese troops, and four 15-cm (approximately 6-inch) artillery pieces, which were the first that could reach the western end of Henderson Field from Japanese lines. They opened fire the next night, presaging a far more devastating bombardment to follow.

Published: Tue Feb 27 14:58:01 EST 2018