North Dakota and South Dakota both attained their admittance to the Union on 2 November 1889. South Dakota yielded the state’s place to North Dakota because of its position in alphabetical order, with South Dakota entering the Union as the 40th state.
The second South Dakota (BB-57) was laid down on 5 July 1939, by the New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, N.J.; launched on 7 June 1941; sponsored by Vera C. Bushfield, wife of Governor Harlan J. Bushfield of South Dakota; and commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Pa., on 20 March 1942, Capt. Thomas L. Gatch in command.
The design of South Dakotaincluded the provision for her service as a division flagship. The Commandant, Fourth Naval District and Navy Yard, Philadelphia, placed the ship in commission, commencing at 1800 on 20 March 1942. The Washington High School band from Sioux Falls, S.D., played Anchors Aweigh and the Star Spangled Banner as the ship slid into the Delaware River. Tugs towed South Dakota across the river for the battleship’s fitting out at the Navy Yard.
The Aviation Unit, South Dakota, stood up at Floyd Bennett Field, N.Y., on 2 May 1942. The unit’s initial compliment consisted of six pilots, 27 enlisted men, and three planes. When the battleship subsequently stood out to sea, the unit primarily spotted for the main battery, but during the period prior to the ship’s participation in surface battles, these planes flew long-range patrols, search missions, and antisubmarine patrols, providing valuable training for the aircrew. The gradual expansion of planes operating from aircraft carriers shifted the burden of the long-range patrols to the carriers as the war continued.
South Dakotacompleted her initial fitting out at Philadelphia on 14 May 1942. The ship then made what her War Diary called a “river run” down the lower Delaware River for machinery tests on 15 and 16 May, returning to the Navy Yard for additional fitting out through 3 June. South Dakota shifted her colors and proceeded down the Delaware River at 0625 on 4 June, anchoring in the lower river at 1538. At 0600 the following day, the battleship then set sail for her shakedown.
The ship put to sea during a period of devastating losses for the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic. German submarines U-66, U-123, and U-125 commenced Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat)—an attack against Allied shipping off the East Coast of North America and in the West Indies, on 13 January 1942. Enemy U-boats sank a staggering total of 609 ships of 3.1 million tons, one fourth of the Allied merchant ships lost to submarine attacks in the Battle of the Atlantic, through 31 August.
The reasons for these casualties include: the delay of the introduction of a network of interlocking coastal and trans-Atlantic convoys; the lack of planes and escorts following the transfer of 50 destroyers and ten Lake class cutters to the British and Canadians; insufficient training and expertise in antisubmarine warfare; resistance to the deployment of planes from hunter-killer operations to convoys; the diversion of reinforcements to the Pacific; opposition by the Army for doctrinal and political reasons to naval control of aircraft that operated from ashore; and Allied ULTRA signals intelligence failure to decipher the German Triton (Shark) Enigma naval key in February 1942, which obscured the extent of the enemy offensive. United States naval planes shepherded convoys, however, detected U-boats, and searched for survivors of attacks. The Allies extended a coastal convoy system across American and Caribbean waters and convoyed about 157,000 U.S. troops to the British Isles.
The Allies instituted additional measures to combat the Axis menace. Commander in Chief U.S. Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King ordered Adm. Royal E. Ingersoll, Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet, to introduce some of these plans on 20 March 1942. Adm. King’s orders included the deployment of a heavy striking force to Argentia, Newfoundland, to counter a possible sortie into the North Atlantic by German battleship Tirpitz. Allied planners feared the impact of such a raid, in the event that the Germans coordinated the operations of Tirpitz with their U-boats at a time of such disruption and losses. The orders initially stipulated the dispatch of battleship North Carolina (BB-55), aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4), two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and “four or five” destroyers. These ships were to sail on 23 April and operate for an indefinite period.
In the interim, Task Force (TF) 39, Rear Adm. John W. Wilcox, Jr., commanding, comprising battleship Washington (BB-56), aircraft carrier Wasp (CV-7), heavy cruisers Tuscaloosa (CA-37) and Wichita (CA-45), and eight destroyers, sailed from Portland, Maine, to reinforce the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, on 26 March 1942. Wilcox broke his flag in Washington. The following day Wilcox fell overboard during heavy seas, and the command of the force devolved upon Rear Adm. Robert C. Giffen. TF 39 took part in the bitterly contested Arctic convoys to aid the Soviets. These deployments required a substantial U.S. commitment to contain the outnumbered German High Seas Fleet, but facilitated the British reinforcement of their forces during the Arctic convoys and in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. South Dakota subsequently relieved North Carolina, and Wasp relieved Ranger.
South Dakota set sail for her shakedown escorted by the destroyers of Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 7, consisting of Charles F. Hughes (DD-428), Hilary P. Jones (DD-427), Madison (DD-425), and Plunkett (DD-431) on 5 June 1942.Thirty-three Midshipmen from the Naval Academy embarked for the cruise. South Dakotamade machinery tests at various speeds and at full power, and carried out structure test firing of her 5-inch and 1.1-inch guns. The ship accomplished structure test firing of her 16-inch guns the following day, at 2039 anchoring off Old Plantation Flats in Chesapeake Bay.
The ship worked up in Chesapeake Bay through 17 July, firing various gun practices, rigging paravanes, deperming, degaussing, training aviators and catapult crews, and lining up the battery. South Dakota anchored off Annapolis, Md., the mouth of the Potomac River, Hampton Roads, Va., and in the vicinity of Wolf Trap in Chesapeake Bay. Secretary of the Navy William F. (Frank) Knox visited the ship and addressed the crew while South Dakota lay off Annapolis on 23 June.
BB-57-1: An overhead view of
(BB-57) as the battleship steams in the Atlantic during her shakedown, July 1942. Note the number of light antiaircraft guns in this picture compared with those subsequently mounted on board.
The battleship sailed from Hampton Roads on 18 July 1942. Destroyers Eberle (DD-430), Ericsson (DD-440), Nicholson (DD-442), and Roe (DD-418) rendezvoused with South Dakota, and then escorted the ship through her additional shakedown. South Dakotasailed outward bound on a base course of 087° when the seas began to build on 19 July. The ship carried out high speed runs and tactical exercises, but the destroyers backed down to cope with the mounting swells. The battleship commenced zig-zagging and collided with a large whale—breed unidentified. South Dakotaslowed and the stricken mammal disappeared beneath the waves. Critics noted the entry of the ships company into the “whale-bangers club.”
South Dakotasighted Washington and her screen at a distance of 15 miles, at 0615 on 20 July. Nicholson detached from the formation at 0530 on 21 July, to undertake engineering repairs at Boston, Mass. The battleship moored to a buoy at Casco Bay, Maine, at 1500 on 21 July, stood out the following day to practice firing her main batteries, and returned to anchor in Casco Bay on 22 and 23 July. The ship then set out for Philadelphia on 24 July, anchoring in Lower Delaware Bay at 1732 on 25 July. The ship released her escorts, and they sailed to Philadelphia. South Dakota completed her shakedown when she returned to the Navy Yard at 1311 on 26 July.
While the ship prepared for battle, the Japanese advanced into the South Pacific. The Allies sustained heavy losses but achieved a strategic victory by halting a Japanese push southward during the Battle of the Coral Sea from 4 to 8 May 1942. The Japanese also invaded the Solomons, gradually extending their control across the islands against negligible Allied resistance. Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Australians had established a series of small radio stations through the Bismarcks and Solomons. In lieu of available Allied forces to oppose the enemy’s advance, these ‘coastwatchers’ gave accurate and timely data concerning Japanese aerial and ship movements, and eventually rescued at least 120 Allied airmen downed in the islands. The information provided by these men, from Allied ULTRA signals intelligence that deciphered some of the Japanese communiqués, and from Allied reconnaissance planes, revealed the construction of an airfield on Guadalcanal. Upon the completion of the airstrip, enemy planes flying from the field would imperil Allied convoys crossing the South Pacific to Australian and New Zealand waters.
Allied planners envisioned ousting the Japanese in order to facilitate the liberation of the Solomons, Bismarcks, and New Guinea, and launched Operation Watchtower—the seizure of Japanese-held Guadalcanal, Florida, Gavutu, Tanambogo, and Tulagi in the southern Solomons. The haste of the planning during this first U.S. land offensive of WWII, and the limited supplies available, led men involved to nickname the landings as ‘Operation Shoestring.’ The 1st Marine Division gained surprise and landed on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942. The following day, they captured the unfinished Japanese airstrip, redesignating it Henderson Field in honor of Maj. Lofton R. Henderson, USMC, who had been shot down while leading Marine Scout Bombing Squadron (VMSB) 241 on an unsuccessful attack on Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryū at the Battle of Midway on 4 June. The marines also wrestled control of the neighboring islands from the Japanese.
A Japanese force, Vice Adm. Mikawa Gunichi commanding, then slipped undetected to the west of Savo Island in the Solomons and inflicted a singularly devastating defeat upon the Allies during the Battle of Savo Island on 9 August 1942. Mikawa sank heavy cruisers Astoria (CA-34), Quincy (CA-39), Vincennes (CA-44), and Australian Canberra (I-53), and damaged heavy cruiser Chicago (CA-29) and destroyers Patterson (DD-392) and Ralph Talbot (DD-390). The Allies lightly damaged four Japanese ships. Enemy gunfire set some of the Curtiss SOC Seagulls embarked on board the U.S. cruisers alight, and the ensuing conflagrations spread flaming gasoline that further illuminated the ships for the Japanese spotters.
Despite the overwhelming victory, Mikawa sought to escape aerial retaliation by clearing the area by sunrise, and consequently failed to attack the nearby transports. The defeat prompted the withdrawal of the U.S. aircraft carriers, as well as the transports before they had unloaded all their cargoes. The limited amount of supplies unloaded, in combination with the materials the marines seized from the Japanese, enabled the leathernecks to maintain their tenuous hold on Guadalcanal. The marines defeated a counterattack by a Japanese detachment, Col. Ichiki Kiyono commanding, from 18 to 21 August 1942. The Japanese then launched Operation Ka (the first syllable of Guadalcanal in Japanese)—a combined sea and land thrust to retake Guadalcanal.
The losses suffered in the Battle of Savo Island convinced U.S. planners to request reinforcements. Aircraft carrier Hornet (CV-8) sailed from Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii (T.H.), for the South Pacific on 17 August 1942. Auxiliary aircraft carrier Long Island (ACV-1) launched the first marine planes to arrive at Henderson Field on 20 August—19 Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats of Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 223 and 12 Douglas SBD-1 Dauntlesses of VMSB-232. A Japanese flying boat from the Shortlands sighted Long Island, but the ship retired beyond the range of enemy land-based aircraft. Bell P-400 Airacobras of the USAAF 67th Fighter Squadron joined the marines on 22 August, followed two days later by SBD-3s of Bombing Squadron (VB) 6 and Scouting Squadron (VS) 5 from aircraft carrier Enterprise(CV-6). Marine planes flew a total of 2,117 sorties against Japanese planes during the campaign, losing 118 aircraft in battle and 30 operationally, and claiming the destruction of 427 enemy aircraft. The USMC aircraft also carried the major air support burden.
Adm. King further directed Ingersoll to withdrawal a number of vessels, including Tuscaloosa and Wichita, along with destroyers Emmons (DD-457) and Rodman (DD-456), from their operations with the British Home Fleet. These ships eventually returned to the U.S. preparatory to steaming to the South Pacific, but the changing fortunes of the war precluded their immediate deployment to the Pacific, and they supported Operation Torch—the Allied invasion of North Africa. King ordered additional reinforcements to the South Pacific from the Atlantic Fleet, including South Dakota and Washington, light cruiser Juneau (CL-52), and destroyers Barton (DD-599), Duncan (DD-485), Lansdowne (DD-486), Lardner (DD-487), McCalla (DD-488), and Meade (DD-602).
Fifty-four-year-old Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee, Jr., hoisted his flag in South Dakota as Commander Battleship Division (BatDiv) 6 on 14 August 1942. Lee embraced the tactical advantages of radar and directed the training of the crew accordingly. The battleship then stood down the river and fueled. Destroyers Livermore (DD-429), Kearney (DD-432), and Rowan (DD-405) of DesDiv-21 escorted South Dakota when she sailed for the Pacific at 0738 on 15 August. South Dakota suffered a main engine casualty resulting from improperly fitted carbon packing on the turbines and from leaking condensers while sailing in Chesapeake Bay. She anchored in the Lower Delaware River at 1338. The ship fueled the destroyers, and made her engineering repairs under the supervision of men of the Bureau of Ships and from the nearby navy yard.
South Dakota, Livermore, Kearney, and Rowan resumed their voyage at 0500 on 16 August 1942. The flagship directed a standard speed of 22 ½ knots during the journey. The four ships cleared the Mona Passage between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico at 0100 on 19 August. The force sighted a convoy steaming on an easterly course, and reached Colón at the Panama Canal on 20 August, South Dakota mooring to Pier 6 Cristóbal at 1651. The following morning, Lee released the destroyers and they sailed to rendezvous with a convoy. South Dakotabegan her passage of the Panama Canal at 0600, and at 1840 departed from Balboa into the Pacific. Lansdowne, Lardner, and Meade of DesDiv-24 joined the battleship, and the four vessels steamed at a speed of 19 knots for the Allied-held Tonga Islands. South Dakotacrossed the equator at 0740 on 25 August, and the next day fueled some of the destroyers.
South Dakota embarked a mix of up to three Vought OS2U-3 and Naval Aircraft Factory OS2N-1 Kingfishers of Observation Squadron (VO) 6. An OS2U-3 (BuNo 5757), manned by pilot Lt. Lemuel D. Cooke and Chief Aviation Radioman Elbert L. Blevins of VO-6, flew a scouting mission from South Dakota on 26 August 1942. The wind blew directly on the port beam of the ship at 12 knots, and six foot swells rolled across a moderate sea. The weather provided excellent visibility. Cooke made a normal landing in the Kingfisher in the lee of the battleship, taxied across the stern and approached for the ‘sled,’ slightly overriding and easing slightly outboard. The pilot slowed the Kingfisher, but the plane began to weathercock, resulting from the strength of the wind and taxing speed of the plane. The starboard wing float passed over the breast line from the sled to the ship, became hooked over the heel of the float, and sheared some of the wing float struts. The plane began to turn over and Blevins gamely clambered onto the port wing to counterbalance. The Kingfisher rolled over within a minute, the accident occurring so quickly that line handlers experienced difficulty in slacking off or shopping the breast line. The ship rescued both crewmen and a destroyer sank the plane with gunfire.
While the ship sailed en route to the South Pacific, a combination of Allied coastwatchers, ULTRA signals intelligence decryptions, and reconnaissance planes discovered the movements of some of the Japanese vessels. Vice Adm. Robert L. Ghormley, Commander South Pacific Area and South Pacific Force, directed Vice Adm. Frank J. Fletcher, Commander TF 61, to ensure the continuance of the Allied supply lines of communication into the Solomons. Fletcher’s force included Task Group (TG) 61.1, Rear Adm. Leigh Noyes commanding, built around aircraft carriers Enterprise, Saratoga (CV-3), and Wasp. TF 63, Rear Adm. John S. McCain commanding, provided USN, USMC, and USAAF planes flying from New Caledonia and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). Japanese fleet submarine I-26 torpedoed Saratoga 260 miles southeast of Guadalcanal on 31 August 1942. The damage forced the carrier to retire for repairs, and South Dakota reached the war zone at a desperate time for the Allies.
South Dakota fueled Juneau and some destroyers on 31 August 1942. The ship crossed the International Date Line on 2 September, and anchored at berth No. 23 Nukualofa, Tongatabu, Tonga Islands, at 1100 on 4 September. Following her arrival, the battleship fueled from tanker W.S. Rheems.
South Dakotapulled away from her berth to depart the anchorage at 1300 on 6 September, but at 1420 she struck an uncharted coral pinnacle in Lahai Passage, causing extensive underwater hull damage. Crewmen later dubbed the protrusion, “South Dakota Rock.” The first divers of a team of six men from repair ship Vestal (AR-4) entered the water to inspect the battleship’s damaged seems shortly after 1600 on 6 September 1942. The men continued their dives in the murky darkness after dusk, and by 0200 the following morning, discovered that the grounding impacted a section running along 150 feet of the bottom of South Dakota. Vestal temporarily patched the damage. At times, the battleship also fueled some of the cruisers and destroyers present at Tonga.
The temporary repairs enabled South Dakotato sail for Pearl Harbor Navy Yard at 0700 on 12 September. The battleship sailed as part of TF 11, Vice Adm. Frank J. Fletcher commanding, also consisting of Saratoga—retiring to complete her repairs—heavy cruiser New Orleans (CA-32), and destroyers Cummings (DD-365), Dewey (DD-349), Phelps (DD-360), Wilson (DD-408), and Wordan (DD-352). Later that day, a destroyer detected an apparent sound contact and dropped depth charges, but failed to identify a Japanese submarine. South Dakota moored to Pier 12 Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, at 1328 on 22 September. At 1411 the following day, the ship entered Dry Dock No. 1.
In addition to patching the ship’s hull, the workers at the yard removed two quadruple 1.1-inch antiaircraft mounts, and installed four quad 40 millimeter antiaircraft guns in their place, as well as adding 22 single 20 millimeter guns to different positions. The ship’s Kingfishers received the installation of Identification Friend or Foe. The work concluded on 28 September, and the following day the ship loaded ammunition. Enterprise received 12 additional 20 millimeter guns, as well as four quadruple 40 millimeter mounts in place of her four 1.1-inch batteries.
Japanese fleet submarine I-19 attacked TF 18 south of San Cristobal Island while the ships covered a reinforcement convoy from Espíritu Santo, New Hebrides, bound for Guadalcanal on 15 September 1942. Two of the torpedoes struck Wasp in her starboard side near aviation gasoline tanks and magazines, and her Commanding Officer, Capt. Forrest P. Sherman, ordered the ship abandoned. Lansdowne scuttled Wasp. Sherman survived to become the 12th Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Battleship North Carolina and destroyer O’Brien (DD-415) also received damage, but the battleship subsequently completed repairs at Pearl Harbor. These losses weakened the Allies and added urgency to South Dakota’s return to the battle line. Planes from Hornet meanwhile attacked Japanese staging areas at Buin-Tonolei and Faisi on Bougainville, Solomons, to disrupt their reinforcements from reaching Guadalcanal on 5 October. O’Brien sank while en route to the U.S. for repairs northwest of Tutuila, Samoa, on 19 October.
The Japanese Imperial General Headquarters issued orders to expand the campaign to “annihilate” the marines on Guadalcanal and the neighboring islands. Their previous attempts to infiltrate limited numbers of troops—undertaken piecemeal partially because of their overextended operational commitments and partially to avoid Allied aerial assaults—had failed to dislodge the marines. The Japanese therefore decided to make a major effort, anticipating that their capture of Henderson Field would enable their land-based aircraft (which otherwise flew at extreme range from airfields near Rabaul, New Britain) to fly close ranged and repeated sorties in support of their ships. Their fleet in turn was to crush the Allied naval forces in the Solomons. The Japanese attempts to land these reinforcements triggered a series of American naval ripostes.
Japanese transports proceeded between the Solomon Islands to disembark soldiers of the 2d Division to reinforce the Japanese troops on Guadalcanal on 11 October 1942. A surface force under Rear Adm. Goto Aritomo was to cover their movement by shelling Henderson Field. During the ensuing Battle of Cape Esperance, Rear Adm. Norman Scott maneuvered TG 64.2 into a blocking position against Goto during a night clash. The Japanese landed their reinforcements, but the following morning planes struck the retiring enemy ships.
Douglas SBD-3 Dauntlesses of VS-3 flying from Guadalcanal then attacked the six ships of a Japanese convoy escorted by eight destroyers steaming toward Guadalcanal between Santa Isabel and Florida Islands but failed to inflict damage on 14 October 1942. Overnight, Mikawa led a Japanese force that bombarded Henderson Field to cover the movement of six destroyers and 11 transports to Tassafaronga. Battleships Haruna and Kongō devastated the airfield with thin-skinned antipersonnel high explosive shells. The attacking ships retired, but Japanese planes bombed the airstrip after sunrise. United States Navy, USMC, and USAAF planes from Henderson Field retaliated by attacking the Japanese ships off Tassafaronga. Japanese ships and planes repeatedly bombarded Henderson Field during the subsequent weeks.
The plight of the marines on Guadalcanal led U.S. leaders to a series of crucial decisions. Vice Adm. William F. Halsey, Jr., relieved Ghormley as Commander South Pacific Area and South Pacific Force, on board flagship Argonne (AG-31) at Nouméa, New Caledonia, on 18 October 1942. The dispatch of further reinforcements to the area ultimately included battleship Indiana (BB-58) from the Atlantic Fleet, and the Army’s 25th Infantry Division from the Hawaiian Islands.
Many of the Allied leaders feared that these reinforcements would fail to keep pace with attrition. Maj. Gen. Roy S. Geiger, USMC, Commanding General of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), sent a message from Guadalcanal to Halsey and Vice Adm. Aubrey W. Fitch, Commander Air Force, South Pacific, on 20 October 1942. Geiger noted ominously that, “Past experience required 50% replacement SBDs and F4Fs every 10 days. Should Jap pressure continue, CACTUS [Allied aircraft operating from Guadalcanal—the original code name for Guadalcanal-Tulagi] will require 18 F4Fs and 18 SBDs with 100% reserve flight crews every 10 days.” During the subsequent months, transport and aircraft ferry Kitty Hawk (APV-1), and auxiliary aircraft carriers Altamaha (ACV-18) and Nassau (ACV-16) delivered more planes to Henderson Field, assisting the Allies in their efforts to maintain their delicately balanced air strength on Guadalcanal.
South Dakota floated from Dry Dock No. 1 at Pearl Harbor on 9 October 1942, mooring starboard side to Berth 12 Repair Basin. Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet, and an entourage of staff officers inspected the battleship, commencing at 1850 that evening.
South Dakota’s skipper, Capt. Gatch reported the battleship ready for sea on 12 October 1942. The ship stood down the channel that morning at 0900, and began machine gun and 5-inch antiaircraft gunnery practice against drones, returning to moor port side to Ten Ten Dock on 14 October. TF 16, Rear Adm. Thomas C. Kinkaid commanding, sortied from Pearl Harbor at 0800 on 16 October. Kinkaid was to rendezvous with TF 17, Rear Adm. George D. Murray commanding, northeast of the New Hebrides. Murray broke his flag in Hornet. South Dakota steamed with Enterprise and destroyers Conyngham (DD-371), Cushing (DD-376), Lamson (DD-367), Mahan (DD-364), Maury (DD-401), Porter (DD-356), Preston (DD-379), Shaw (DD-373), and Smith (DD-378). They initially sailed in cruising disposition No. 1.
Gatch repeatedly called his crew to battle stations for gunnery practice during the voyage. The men’s gun handling improved accordingly, and some of them referred to the skipper as “Gunpowder Gatch.” South Dakotacrossed the equator on 19 October. The exigencies of the situation delayed the traditional celebration of ‘crossing the line.’ Lamson and Mahan detached to “shoot up the Japanese picket boat line” west of the Gilbert Islands on 19 October. South Dakota refueled Conyngham, Lamson, Mahan, Preston, and Smith. Enterprise refueled Cushing, Maury, and Porter.
The crew of South Dakota manned their battle stations continuously in order to determine the most expeditious method of feeding them during combat, from 0600 to 1300 on 20 October 1942. South Dakota crossed the International Date Line and simultaneously celebrated her crossing of the equator on 21 October. Lamson and Mahan sank Japanese gunboat Hakkaisan Maru southwest of Tamana on 22 October. South Dakota rendezvoused with oiler Sabine (AO-25) and destroyer Stack (DD-406) and refueled from Sabine on 23 October. Lamson and Mahan rejoined the task force from their raid to the westward of the Gilberts, and Kinkaid also rendezvoused with heavy cruiser Portland (CA-33) and light cruiser San Diego(CL-53). At 1850 on this busy day, destroyer Morris (DD-417) of TF 17 came alongside the battleship and received 1,000 rounds of 5-inch replacement ammunition.
The Japanese correctly predicted that the U.S. task forces would strike from the eastward, but their soldiers fell behind schedule when they struggled through the dense, malarial jungles of Guadalcanal. The failure of these troops to attack the marines as planned compelled the Japanese ships to delay their thrust, in order to synchronize their movements with the battle ashore. Japanese Adm. Yamamoto Isoroku, Commander in Chief Combined Fleet, broke his flag in battleship Yamato at Truk Lagoon in the Carolines in command of the operation. Yamamoto dispatched his heavier ships to spearhead the lunge toward Guadalcanal, while deploying his carriers to follow the battleships and their screens.
Vice Adm. Kondō Nobutake led the Second Fleet, Advance Force, consisting of heavy cruisers Atago, Maya, Myōkō, and Takao, light cruiser Isuzu, and destroyers Kawakaze, Makinami, Naganami, Suzukaze, Takanami, and Umikaze. Vice Adm. Kurita Takeo commanded the Second Fleet, Close Support Force, comprising battleships Haruna and Kongō, and destroyers Harusame, Kagero, Murasame, Oyashio, Samidare, and Yudachi.
Rear Adm. Abe Hiroaki led the Second Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body, consisting of battleships Hiei and Kirishima, heavy cruisers Chikuma, Suzuya, and Tone, light cruiser Nagara, and destroyers Akigumo, Isokaze, Kazagumo, Makigumo, Tanikaze, Teruzuki, Urakaze, and Yūgumo—some of these destroyers were to detach to carry out their bombardment. The principal Japanese striking power arguably comprised the Main Body of the Third Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Vice Adm. Nagumo Chūichi commanding, consisting of aircraft carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku, light aircraft carrier Zuihō, heavy cruiser Kumano, and destroyers Amatsukaze, Arashi, Hatsuzuke, Maikaze, Terusuki, Tokitsukaze, Yamakaze, and Yukikaze. The Japanese initially earmarked light aircraft carrier Hiyō for the operation but she developed condenser trouble, and accompanied by two destroyers came about for Truk on 22 October 1942.
Rear Adm. Kakuta Kakuji led the Second Fleet, Air Group Force, containing light aircraft carrier Junyō, destroyers Hayashio and Kuroshio, and 12 fleet submarines divided into two groups—Force A: I-4, I-5, I-7, I-8, I-22, and I-176; and Force B: I-9, I-15, I-21, I-24, I-174, and I-175. Mikawa directed the Eighth Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Guadalcanal Attack Force, comprising: an Assault Force with destroyers Akatsuki, Ikazuchi, and Shiratsuya; and a Bombardment Force of light cruiser Yura and destroyers Akizuki, Harusame, Murasame, Samidare, and Yudachi. Mikawa broke his flag in heavy cruiser Chōkai at the Shortland Islands. In addition, destroyer Nowaki escorted tankers Kokuyo Maru, Kyokuto Maru, Toei Maru, and Toho Maru of the Fleet Train.
Halsey resolutely directed Kinkaid to “sweep around north of Santa Cruz” in search of the Japanese, and then sail to the southwest toward San Cristobal Island in the Solomons, to block any Japanese ships approaching Guadalcanal. Kinkaid was also to operate with Rear Adm. Lee, who broke his flag in Washington in command of TF 64—comprising heavy cruisers Chester (CA-27) and San Francisco (CA-38), light cruisers Atlanta (CL-51) and Helena (CL-50), and destroyers Aaron Ward (DD-483), Benham (DD-397), Fletcher (DD-445), Lansdowne, Lardner, and McCalla.
Japanese fleet submarine I-176 torpedoed Chester southeast of San Cristobal on 20 October 1942. The torpedo struck on the starboard side amidships, near the No. 1 engine room, killing 11 men and wounding another 12. The ship arrived at Espíritu Santo on her own power for emergency repairs on 23 October. Six days later, she departed for Sydney, Australia, for further repairs, afterward proceeding to Norfolk, Va., for extensive shipyard work. The attack removed her from action until the following year. In addition to the temporary loss of the cruiser, Lee incurred a delay when he retired to Espíritu Santo to refuel his ships, but stood out of the harbor on 23 October.
TF 16 rendezvoused with TF 17 about 250 miles northeast of Espíritu Santo, at 1245 on 24 October 1942. Kinkaid became the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC) of the combined groups, designated TF 61. He retained the two carrier task forces as intrinsic strike groups within his command, ordering Murray to steam Hornet and her consorts an average of five to ten miles to the southeast of Enterprise. The two carriers alternated their daily launches of planes for aerial searches and patrols.
The Americans and Japanese launched planes throughout 25 October 1942, discovering their opponent’s ships, but losing some aircraft from accidents and fuel exhaustion. Meanwhile, USN and USMC F4F-4 Wildcats tangled with Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0 carrier fighters (kanjō sentōki or kansens—Zeros) flying from Rabaul in duels over Guadalcanal. Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats and USAAF Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses spotted Japanese vessels, at one point bombing but missing Kirishima. South Dakota sounded battle stations in anticipation of a night surface engagement at 2000 on 25 October. The Japanese continued to maneuver overnight, and the battleship’s crew stood down.
Lee meanwhile sailed from Espíritu Santo, intending to make a loop around the Russell Islands to the northwest, and then intercept enemy attempts to reinforce their troops on Guadalcanal. A Japanese plane sighted Lee’s ships 30 miles east of Rennell Island at 1415 on 25 October 1942. The spotter erroneously reported the discovery of two battleships, four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and a dozen destroyers. The Japanese ships returned to southerly courses, and overnight the opposing forces continued their movements toward their confrontation.
Aircraft No. 51-P-8, a PBY-5 Catalina flown by Lt. j.g. George S. Clute of Patrol Squadron (VP) 11, reported sighting Japanese ships about 300 miles northwest of TF 61, at one minute past midnight on 26 October 1942. Enterprise received his message, but the range of the Japanese vessels did not permit the Americans to launch a nighttime aerial attack with a reasonable chance of success. Clute attacked the enemy, dropping a torpedo that narrowly missed destroyer Isokaze. Because of the difficulty of identifying the ships in the darkness, the Catalina mistakenly reported attacking a heavy cruiser.
South Dakota’s Chaplain, Capt. James V. Claypool, Chaplain Corps, USNR, recalled the weather as “hazy, misty, and dirty grey” on the morning of 26 October 1942. A moderate swell from the wind’s direction stirred an otherwise slight sea. As the sun rose, the two U.S. task forces steamed to the north of the Santa Cruz Islands. Kinkaid broke his flag in Enterprise, which steamed at the center of a circle rimmed by South Dakota, Portland, light cruiser San Juan (CL-54), and destroyers Conyngham, Cushing, Mahan, Maury, Porter, Preston, Shaw, and Smith. South Dakotasteered a base course of 270°, speed 23 knots, at 0633.
TF 17 sailed ten miles to the southwest of TF 16. Hornet also sailed at the middle of her screen, consisting of heavy cruisers Northampton (CA-26) and Pensacola(CA-24), light cruisers Juneau and San Diego, and destroyers Anderson (DD-411), Barton, Hughes (DD-410), Morris, Mustin (DD-413), and Russell (DD-414). The American practice of operating their limited number of aircraft carriers separately, with the intention of ensuring that the enemy only attacked a single carrier at a time, proved erroneous, because it weakened the numbers and firepower of the fighters of the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and of the antiaircraft guns provided by the additional escorts. The lessons learned during these earlier battles of WWII led to the revision of this doctrine, and as more carriers entered service, they sailed in combined task forces.
An SBD-3, manned by pilot Lt. Comdr. James R. Lee, the Commanding Officer of VS-10, and his tail gunner, Lt. j.g. William E. Johnson, sighted Nagumo’s carriers at 0645 on 26 October 1942, triggering the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Lt. Comdr. Lee initially reported a single carrier, but circled and located the second and third carriers, radioing their estimated position. Japanese A6M2 Type 0 carrier fighters of the CAP attacked and damaged the Dauntless, but the plane escaped. The enemy carriers appeared to be sailing by northwesterly courses and opening the range. TF 61 consequently steamed northwest to close the range and enable Enterprise and Hornet to launch strikes, turning to 330° at 27 knots at 0708.
Barely three minutes later, Northampton hoisted a flag warning of a suspicious radar contact bearing 200°, range 28 miles. The Japanese snooper rounded the Americans and closed to 20 miles, in the interim alerting Nagumo of the detection of the U.S. carriers. Despite orders to maintain radio silence, South Dakota carelessly spoke on Talk Between Ships (TBS), reporting intercepted Japanese radio transmissions at 0833. Time elapsed while the carriers prepared to launch their planes, but South Dakota’s message influenced Kinkaid to direct a signal by blinkered light to the task force concerning the enemy’s likely discovery of the American ships at 0911.
During these hectic morning hours on 26 October 1942, the U.S. and Japanese carriers sent strikes against their opponents. Hornet launched SBD-3 Dauntlesses of VB-8 and VS-8 that damaged Shōkaku and destroyer Terutsuki, and Grumman TBF-1 Avengers of Torpedo Squadron (VT) 6 that damaged heavy cruiser Chikuma. In addition, two Dauntlesses, manned by Lt. Stockton B. Strong and Aviation Radioman 1st Class Clarence H. Garlow and Ensign Charles B. Irvine and Aviation Radioman 3d Class Elgie P. Williams, respectively, of VS-10 from Enterprise, surprised Zuihō and dropped a 500-pound bomb into her flight deck aft. The explosion started a small fire, destroyed three Zeros parked astern, and wrecked her arresting wire. The ship’s injuries temporarily prevented her from recovering aircraft.
Shōkaku, Zuikaku, and Zuihō meanwhile sent an initial raid of 64 planes against the Americans—21 kansens, 21 Aichi D3A1 Type 99 carrier bombers (kanjō bakugekiki or kanbakus—dive-bombers), and 22 Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 carrier attack planes (kanjō kōgekiki or kankōs—torpedo bombers). Enterprise and Hornet experienced problems in detecting and tracking the approaching Japanese planes, and Comdr. John H. Griffin, the Enterprise Fighter Direction Officer, initially deployed the F4F-4 Wildcats of the CAP to fly at an altitude of 10,000 feet.
Griffin made his decision to enable the fighters to conserve their fuel and oxygen, anticipating that the carriers’ radar would provide him ample time to direct them to intercept attackers. The delays in reporting the Japanese aerial assaults rendered the otherwise tactically sound decision a mistake. A total of 37 Wildcats eventually met the Japanese attackers during the first hours of the battle, but for the most part engaged them too close to the cordon of antiaircraft fire. Many of the Japanese planes consequently penetrated the CAP and screens.
“We are attacking” Kinkaid signaled at 0835 on 26 October 1942. South Dakotasounded General Quarters. Five minutes later, the radar team on board Northampton detected ‘bogeys’—enemy planes—approaching TF 17, bearing 295°, range 70 miles. The flight leader of the Shōkaku Carrier Attack Squadron consisted of a kankō manned by pilot Lt. Comdr. Murata Shigeharu and his radioman, Petty Officer 1st Class Mizuki Tokunobu. Mizuki had flown with Comdr. Fuchida Mistsuo and dispatched the message Tora Tora Tora (Tiger, Tiger, Tiger—the achievement of surprise) during the attack on Oahu on 7 December 1941. The Japanese closed the range and spotted Hornet and her consorts, and Murata directed Mizuki to send the signal To-to-to (All forces attack) at 0958. In barely ten minutes, aircraft from Shōkaku, Zuikaku, and Junyō left Hornet ablaze from two Type 91 air-launched torpedoes, three bombs, and two crashing kanbakus. South Dakota recorded that Hornet and her group disappeared from sight, “except for column of smoke.” Hornet’s crewmen controlled the flames, and Northampton took the battered carrier in tow. Rear Adm. Murray transferred his flag to Pensacola at noon.
Vice Adm. Nagumo and Rear Adm. Kakuta concluded from intercepted radio transmissions, and from the large number of U.S. planes that attacked their ships, that a second American carrier operated nearby. Nagumo and Kakuta (separately) directed the flight leaders of their second wave to search accordingly. A kankō contact plane, flown by Lt. j.g. Sakumuki Tsugimi, radioed Zuikaku of the sighting of a carrier, light cruiser, and six destroyers on 26 October 1942. Northampton’s radar reported the attackers at 315°, range 76 miles, at 0930. At 0938, TF 16 formed cruising disposition 1-V to repel air attack. Seven minutes later, the SC-1 radar plot on board South Dakota recorded multiple Japanese planes inbound, bearing 290°, range 55 miles.
Kinkaid had turned Enterprisetoward the protection of rain squalls at about 0900, and the ship temporarily escaped the fate of Hornet. Enterprise then emerged from the rain and began to recover her planes, as well as those that she could bring on board from Hornet. The ship incurred delays from her overcrowded flight and hangar decks, contributing to the desperation of aircrew as they watched their fuel gauges steadily drop. Griffin dispatched Wildcats as CAP, but a series of conflicting orders disrupted the fighter’s efforts to intercept the Japanese planes, and they fought disjointedly and at disadvantageous altitudes.
The ships of TF 16 kept station on Enterprise, which continued to sail at the center of the formation. Portland steamed 2,500 yards off the port bow of Enterprise, while San Juan sailed 2,500 yards off the carrier’s starboard bow. South Dakota followed astern, and the seven destroyers proceeded in a protective circle around the vital carrier. The ships steered south by southwesterly courses.
During the aerial fighting that morning, Japanese A6M2 Type 0 carrier fighters pounced upon the planes of a U.S. strike force from Air Group 10. One of the Zeros, flown by Petty Officer 3d Class Takagi Shizuta, attacked the starboard quarter of a formation of TBF-1 Avengers of VT-10, but the Americans splashed Takagi. An Avenger, designated T-11 (BuNo 06042) and manned by pilot Lt. j.g. Richard K. Batten, Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2d Class Rexford B. Holmgrin, and a third crewman of VT-10, received credit for the victory. T-11 sustained damage in the battle and came about for Enterprise.
Avenger T-11 joined with another crippled Avenger and a damaged F4F-4 Wildcat. Enterprise waived off T-11 while she cleared her flight deck, and Batten and his crew proved unable to extinguish their cabin fire and ditched off the port quarter of the carrier, 1,500 yards ahead of Porter, at 1001 on 26 October 1942. Their Mk XIII aerial torpedo hung, and the impact apparently tore the torpedo from the bomber and it sliced into Porter, detonating amidships between her No. 1 and 2 firerooms at 1004. The destroyer’s sailors deemed her beyond salvage and Shaw rescued the survivors, scuttling Porter by gunfire at 1337. Kinkaid re-ordered his formation to fill the gap left by Shaw, coming right five degrees to 235°, and shifting Conyngham from the vanguard of the formation to take station off the starboard quarter of Enterprise.
“Return to base,” Griffin radioed the Wildcats just before the enemy struck, following with: “Look for bogeys northeast. They are astern of the BB [South Dakota],” at 1014 on 26 October 1942. The arrival of the Japanese aircraft threatened Enterprise while planes, fuel, and ammunition packed her flight and hangar decks. Capt. Osborne B. Hardison, the ship’s Commanding Officer, heeled Enterpriseover to avoid the attacks, but 19 D3A1 Type 99 carrier bombers from Shōkaku, led by Group Leader Lt. Comdr. Seki Mamoru, and escorted by five Zeros, took advantage of cloud cover and attacked the Americans. “REAPERS [a CAP call sign] look for planes in dives,” Griffin warned the Wildcats. None of the Wildcats returned from their CAP stations in time to intercept the initial Japanese dives.
The ships opened fire one minute later. “As each plane came down, a veritable cone of tracer shells enveloped it,” Lt. Comdr. Elias B. Mott, II, an antiaircraft director within Enterprise’s sky control, recalled. “You could see it being hit and bounced by exploding shells.” Many of the enemy planes flew across the starboard quarter of the formation against Enterprise, their course taking them past South Dakota, and the battleship unleashed a scathing fire against them. Because of the inadequate CAP, some of the Zeros dropped in altitude and valiantly flew the length of South Dakota close aboard and just above the water, to draw the battleship’s fire from the bombers.
A number of South Dakota’s Filipino and African American mess attendants served as antiaircraft gunners. Twenty-seven-year-old Cook 2d Class Walter Davis, Jr., of Birmingham, Ala., an African American mess attendant from the wardroom, manned a 20 millimeter gun during the action. “A lot of us were frightened…” Davis afterward explained, “...but we didn’t have time to think of anything but getting them before they got us.” During one of the Japanese attacks, an enemy plane strafed South Dakota, hitting Davis with three bullets. Davis suffered abdominal wounds and two broken ribs, but the adrenalin generated by his fear prevented him from realizing the extent of his injuries, and he continued to stand by his gun.
Blue 18, one of the returning Wildcats, designated F-27 and flown by Ensign George L. Wrenn of VF-72, noted that a “ring of fire” blazed from the battleship. South Dakota’s 5-inch guns filled the sky with deadly flak bursts, and some of the American planes rose to escape the ensuing devastation. Reaper 8C, a Wildcat designated F-5 and flown by Ensign Donald Gordon of VF-10, climbed from the landing circle to a height of 10,000 feet. Gordon pursued but missed a pair of enemy bombers, and then fired at a third plane until he expended his ammunition. The kanbaku exploded; a likely victim of a combination of Gordon’s attack and antiaircraft fire.
A case of mistaken identity occurred when an Avenger, designated T-7 and manned by Lt. Marvin D. Norton, Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3d Class Robert W. Gruebel, and a third crewman of VT-10, returned from the strike against the Japanese ships damaged and attempted to land on board Enterprise. Norton lowered his hook but kept his wheels up, the sign of a deferred landing, but antiaircraft fire from the ships rose ominously toward the Avenger. The plane’s rapidly diminishing fuel compelled Norton to ditch in the sea at 1020. Lookouts on board South Dakota, Conyngham, and Smith mistook the torpedo bomber for a surfacing enemy submarine, and all three ships fired on the plane. The Avenger crewmen narrowly escaped death, and Preston pulled them from the water. The Americans claimed the destruction of ten bombers—three from Wildcats and seven from the gunfire from the ships.
Despite the intense antiaircraft fire, the Japanese planes struck Enterprise twice. The first bomb struck the flight deck at Frame 4, port side, passed down and out through the ship’s side, and detonated in the air off the port bow. This hit produced heavy fragment damage and started two small fires. The second bomb struck at Frame 44-1/2 on the port side of the flight deck and broke up below, partly detonating on the hangar deck and partly on the third deck in the forward repair party station. This second hit caused blast damage in the berthing compartments on the second and third decks, and two small fires. More significantly, this bomb also disabled the pump and motor for No. 1 elevator. During the battle, a near miss exploded eight feet below the waterline, 10 feet from the starboard side at Frame 129-1/2, deflecting the shell plating below the armor, flooding three fuel tanks, and causing shock damage to No. 2 H.P. turbine casing. The Japanese killed 44 men and wounded 75 on board Enterprise.
Enterprise attempted to recover her planes, but the damage to the elevator prevented her from accommodating all of the aircraft aloft. Some of the planes ditched, and 13 Dauntlesses flew to Espíritu Santo. The crew of the carrier battled the damage with heroic determination. Naval investigators of the damage noted that flooding of watertight compartments occurred through piping and ventilation ducts, and that firefighting water flowed into some of the magazines. They also observed that the ship’s “excellent damage control organization” prevented the spread of fires. The lessons learned following the damage sustained by Enterprise during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on 24 August 1942, had led to extensive training. Capt. Hardison instituted a policy of keeping only one week’s supply of inflammable materials above the waterline. The crew’s efforts to strip the ship of inflammable material had thus proceeded at an “accelerated pace.” Men had removed much of the paint and linoleum, put overstuffed furniture and transoms ashore, and reduced office files and publications to a minimum.
Japanese Lt. Imajuku Shigeichirōa led a strike group of 17 B5N2 Type 97 carrier attack planes of the Zuikaku Carrier Attack Squadron, escorted by four kansens from that carrier. One of the bombers operated as a contact plane without a torpedo, but the other 16 planes carried Type 91 air-launched torpedoes. Imajuku spotted Hornet burning in the distance along with some of her destroyers at 1035 on 26 October 1942. Two minutes later, he sighted the wakes of additional ships through a momentary gap in rain clouds. The Japanese planes reported their discovery of TF 16, the U.S. ships steaming on a base course of 235°. South Dakota’s radar observed the Japanese planes bearing 325°, 55 miles, at 1045. Griffin directed the Wildcats of the CAP into the path of the attackers.
One of the Wildcats of Reaper 8, designated F-33 and flown by Ensign Gordon F. Barnes of VF-10, suddenly ditched in the water off the starboard quarter of South Dakota. Barnes escaped from his sinking F4F-4 and floated in his life vest. Lt. Comdr. Gelzer L. Sims, the Commanding Officer of Maury, ordered his destroyer to leave the formation and make for the pilot.
Imajuku divided his 16 torpedo bombers evenly into two groups of eight planes each when they reached a range of about 25 miles from the ships and made an ‘anvil’ attack—the two groups approached Enterprise by the bow from 290° and 000°, to ensure that at least one torpedo struck despite the ship’s maneuvering. Imajuku led the eight bombers of the 1st Chūtai (an air group division of six to nine aircraft) below a dark storm cloud. In an attempt to bypass the Wildcats, the eight kankōs then dropped in altitude, skimming just above the waves as they raced toward the starboard side of Enterprise from west to southwest at 1112 on 26 October 1942. The planes of the 2d Chūtai passed through the cloud and attacked the port side of the carrier from aft. The opposing fighters engaged in sharply turning dogfights. Some of the Wildcats of the CAP also chased the attackers into the exploding antiaircraft rounds to protect the ships.
Imajuku led five of the enemy bombers that swept past Maury off her port bow. The ship’s skipper, Lt. Comdr. Sims, reluctantly abandoned the rescue of Barnes and brought the destroyer about to return to formation. Maury’s 20 millimeter guns raked Imajuku as he flew past, shooting off the port wing, and the plane smashed into the water. Maury, one of the Enterprise’s port 5-inch gun turrets, and Ensign Wrenn all claimed the kill. The fighting prevented Maury from returning to search for Barnes, and Sims afterward recommended to CinCPac the preparation of a life raft on board all ships to toss to men in the water. The chain of command concurred.
South Dakota reported that some of the enemy planes “after dropping their torpedoes sought cover by flying between ships of the formation.” Three bombers of the 42d Shōtai (an air group section of three planes), led by Lt. j.g. Itō Tetsu, attacked the starboard side of Enterprise. Capt. Hardison and Navigator Comdr. Richard W. Ruble turned the ship right full rudder, combing the wakes of the three torpedoes to starboard. The planes flew along the port side of the carrier and through the gunfire erupting from South Dakota.
A crashing carrier attack plane damaged Smith on her No. 1 gun mount and forecastle, spreading flaming debris and fuel across the deck forward at 1147. The destroyer lost 28 men killed and 23 wounded, but her damage control party contained the blaze.
The two planes of the 43d Shōtai, piloted by Special Duty Ensign Suzuki Nakakura and Petty Officer 1st Class Yukawa Nagao, failed to maneuver into attack runs against Enterprise. They turned left and attacked the starboard side of South Dakotaat 1148. Yukawa dropped his torpedo against the battleship and banked toward the northwest, mistakenly believing that he hit the ship. South Dakota’s guns apparently missed Yukawa’s kankō. The ship’s gunfire struck Suzuki’s bomber, but in spite of the flames, he pressed his attack, dropping his torpedo at the stern. The projectile soared over the main deck from starboard to port, splashing into the water 20 yards from the ship. Suzuki plummeted into the sea 200 yards beyond South Dakota.
BB-57-2: A Japanese Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 carrier attack plane hurtles past South Dakota (BB-57) during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942. The plane-probably one of Imajuku-s kankos-has apparently just dropped its torpedo and flies through the hail of fire erupting from the battleship.
The intense antiaircraft fire contributed to disrupting the assault, and Enterprise avoided an estimated nine torpedoes by making desperate turns. South Dakota ceased fire at 1152, recording that her radar observed “several enemy planes…retire in scattered directions.” The defenders claimed the destruction of a further eight of the attackers.
Junyō launched 29 planes in three waves, and 17 of her Aichi D3A1 Type 99 carrier bombers struck just after noon on 26 October 1942. South Dakota’s radar plot reported these bombers approaching from 285°, 45 miles, at 1201. Nine minutes later, six unidentified planes stood in on the port bow of the battleship. The ship fired at the aircraft but discovered Dauntlesses encountering IFF problems. The friendly planes immediately banked away and escaped unscathed.
South Dakota’s radar plot reported ominously “standby for another attack” at 1215. The enemy planes used the low clouds to appear from an altitude of 1,000 feet at 1219. South Dakota overestimated the strike force as 24 planes and commenced firing. Eight of the kanbakus dove toward Enterprise, one of which dropped a bomb that glanced off her bow. The other nine planes attacked the ships of the screen from an arc of 90° on the battleship’s port bow. Antiaircraft fire burst from South Dakota and from San Juan as their 5-inch and 20 millimeter and 40 millimeter guns reaped a deadly toll of the steeply diving Japanese planes.
The ship’s Commanding Officer, Capt. James E. Maher—who received the Navy Cross for heroically leading the ship through the battle—put the rudder hard over to starboard. The ceiling rose to 1,000 to 1,500 feet, but low clouds obscured the area over San Juan. Maher noted the effect of the weather on the antiaircraft performance of the cruiser:
“…the A.A. [antiaircraft] batteries were quite ineffective, since with a fuse setting of 12.2 seconds the shells were bursting about 3,000 feet overhead, many of them above the clouds. The enemy planes dove thru the clouds, picked up their targets…and dropped their bombs in a matter of only a few seconds.”
The Japanese planes dropped five bombs on San Juan. Four of the weapons splashed close aboard the ship in near misses. The fifth bomb tore through the stern of the cruiser, passing through the Chief Petty Officer’s showers and the engineer’s storeroom, before exploding underwater. The detonation damaged the rudder and flooded the two compartments. At least ten men suffered wounds ranging from concussions, lacerations, bruises, and broken teeth and bones. The light cruiser turned out of control in clock-wise circles at 30 knots, sounding four blasts on her whistle and hoisting the breakdown signal flag, before the crew regained aft steering control by 1241. San Juan later retired with the task force under her own power and steerage, and accomplished repairs at Nouméa.
Kanbakus emerged from a rain cloud off the port bow of South Dakota and dropped four bombs. A 500-pound bomb exploded on top of Turret I, the battleship’s forward triple 16-inch mount. “I was out on the catwalk in front of the bridge,” Gatch reported, “where I had no business to be.” The Captain’s self-deprecating report disguised his intention to spot the Japanese planes in order to maneuver the ship to avoid their attacks—from within the bridge he could not view the attackers directly overhead. A bomb fragment wounded Gatch in the neck, cutting a gash in his jugular vein, and the force of the blast hurled him against the conning tower, knocking him unconscious and tearing muscles of his left shoulder. Two quartermasters staunched the flow of blood, and then a doctor arrived and tended the skipper. Sailors carried Gatch below to sick bay, where the surgeon ministered to the captain. Comdr. Archibald E. Uehlinger, the Executive Officer, assumed command. The turret’s gunners afterward called their station “the bomb shelter.”
Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Herbert P. Chatelain served as the gun captain of the No. 1 40 millimeter mount. He cleared stoppages on the newly installed guns, and when the power failed in the midst of the attack, re-established direct control. The gun captain administered first aid to a wounded gunner, and encouraged and assisted the ammunition supply crews when they slowed from their fatigue. A bomb fragment wounded him at 1230, and he died at 1520. Chatelain received the Silver Star posthumously.
Toward the end of the attack, another sailor turned to Mess Attendant Davis and informed him of his wounds. “Until my buddy saw the blood and told me about it,” Davis recalled, “I didn’t even know that I was hit. Then I grew weak and he helped me to the emergency dressing station.” Gatch met Davis following the battle, noting that the Japanese plane “riddled him [Davis] through and through…But they couldn’t kill him.” Davis was transferred to a hospital ship, and eventually recovered at Navy Hospital, Philadelphia. South Dakota ceased firing at 1230. The radar plot reported an additional strike force of enemy planes approaching from 40 miles at 1455, but the alarm turned out to be false. The ship sounded all clear at 1530, and eight minutes later set Material Condition Yoke and condition three watch.
Japanese planes struck Hornet again before dusk on 26 October 1942, scoring crippling hits on the carrier. At one point in the battle, Hughes attempted to fight the fires on board Hornet and take off her survivors, but collided with the carrier. American antiaircraft fire had already damaged Hughes. Murray withdrew the surviving ships of TF 17 to the southeastward. Destroyers Anderson and Mustin attempted but failed to scuttle Hornet, and Murray eventually ordered them to come about and rendezvous with the task force. Japanese planes searched for the destroyers, dropping flares and float lights, and enemy destroyers pursued them, but Anderson and Mustin regained the task force. The following day, Japanese destroyers Akigumo and Makigumo sank the carrier. The damage to Enterprise was not as extensive as the damage inflicted on Hornet, but Kinkaid concluded “without hesitation” to prudently withdraw to ensure the survival of Enterprise—the only operational U.S. fleet carrier remaining in the South Pacific.
When the opponents broke off the action on the evening of 26 October 1942, the Japanese had scored a tactical victory, but the failure of their simultaneous land offensive on Guadalcanal denied them the ability to exploit the triumph. The Japanese carriers survived, but the enemy lost 99 of the 203 planes involved—27 fighters, 41 bombers, 30 attack planes, and one reconnaissance machine—with 68 pilots and 77 observers reported missing. Twenty-three of these men were highly-trained commanders and section leaders. The Japanese replaced these casualties and lost planes with newly trained aircrew and constructed planes over time, but their loss of veterans hampered their effectiveness. They never again entered a major battle with large numbers of seasoned aircrew, and in this way, the battle marked the swan song of Japanese carrier aviation. The dwindling number of Japanese carrier planes and aircrew in the campaign of attrition could not eliminate Henderson Field. In addition, their fuel shortages grew increasingly chronic, eventually compelling the Combined Fleet to retire on Truk. The U.S. lost 80 of the 175 planes involved—33 fighters, 28 dive bombers, and 19 torpedo bombers. The combination of problems besetting the Japanese left the Americans in control of the skies above the sea lanes to Guadalcanal.
South Dakota initially claimed to shoot down an astonishing total of 32 enemy planes on 26 October 1942. The crew then reappraised their ship’s role and lowered the figure to 26 enemy aircraft splashed. The Japanese actually lost exactly half that number from the antiaircraft fire of the ships of TF 16, losing a total of 29 planes in the vicinity of the task force—10 kanbakus and three kankōs from gunfire, and nine kanbakus and seven kankōs by U.S. aircraft. They lost a further 25 planes in the vicinity of TF 17—four kanbakus and eight kankōs from flak, and three Zeros, seven kanbakus and three kankōs in aerial combat. The American antiaircraft fire devastated the Japanese planes, disrupted their bombing accuracy, and stunned many of their aircrew, including veterans toughened by their experiences in the previous battles. A Japanese staff officer on board Junyō later recalled his shock upon recovering their strike:
“Shortly afterward the Junyō’s planes began to return…The planes lurched and staggered onto the deck, every single fighter and bomber bullet-holed. Some planes were literally flying sieves. As the pilots climbed wearily from their cramped cockpits they told of unbelievable opposition, of skies choked with antiaircraft shell bursts and tracers.”
The Japanese kanbakus dove from angles varying between 40° and 60°, releasing their bombs from altitudes of 500 to 1,000 feet. The kankōs dropped their torpedoes from ranges averaging 1,000 yards, and from altitudes of 200 feet or less. South Dakotareported that the paint schemes of the kanbakus consisted of “a dark blue gray similar to our surface 5N, Navy blue paint.” The kankōs appeared to wear “a dark mottled brown and gray color,” but added that the enemy planes “appeared nearly black as seen against the clouds.”
South Dakota and San Juan provided antiaircraft fire that contributed to the survival of Enterprise, which escaped the fate of Hornet—the fourth U.S. fleet carrier lost during 1942. “The harassing effect on the Japanese pilots,” Enterprise reported, “of the extremely heavy and accurate fire of the combined task force and the maneuvers of the ship in combing the wakes of the torpedoes launched were the prime factors in nullifying the attack.” South Dakota recorded that several guns often fired on each attacking plane, and “the great majority promptly burst into flames and crashed, many of them close aboard.” The low lying clouds greatly impeded the ability of the 5-inch guns to track the attackers because of the short ranges at which the planes first appeared, and caused similar problems with the 40 millimeter guns “to a lesser degree.” The battleship’s 20 millimeter guns fired an average of 15 magazines per gun.
South Dakota’s SC-1 radar proved “effective” in discovering the approaching enemy planes, but the clouds rendered visual detection almost impossible. South Dakota further reported carrying an insufficient number of binoculars, recommending the allowance of a set of 7 x 50 binoculars for every officer and group control petty officer—a total of 50 binoculars for the ship. Crewmen required additional plane identification training, the ship noting that despite the inevitable errors that occurred during battle, “all hands be able to recognize our own planes.”
The fighter direction on board Enterprise erred in dispatching Wildcats to lower altitudes than required for their interceptions, and in directing the fighters by the use of relative bearings, on 26 October 1942. The carrier’s After Action Report noted that such messages proved “meaningless to pilots in the air.” Enterprise and South Dakota had practiced repelling Japanese air attacks while en route from the Hawaiian Islands to the South Pacific, with dive bombers and torpedo bombers flying from Enterprise representing attacking enemy planes. The ships carried out these drills realistically, and the squadrons attacked unannounced from different directions and altitudes. The system broke down in the Battles of the Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz Islands, however, when the Americans contended with multiple Japanese strike groups attacking from varying altitudes and courses, complicated by large numbers of Wildcats flying CAP. The Navy subsequently utilized these observations, in combination with those from other ships, in the development of the Combat Information Center (CIC) concept.
Enterprisereported favorably upon the performance of her 20 millimeter guns, noting that in spite of their short range, these guns proved “extremely effective” and accounted for most of the Japanese planes splashed by the carrier. While the 20 millimeter guns did not always shoot down the enemy carrier bombers before they completed their dives, the weapons sufficed to “keep them high and reap fearful toll on those that press home their attacks.” The ship further noted the “gratifying” operation of the 40 millimeter guns, and opined that they offered the likely preferred alternative to dive bombing attacks. The newly-introduced guns experienced several faults, including empty rounds jamming the chutes, excessively sensitive local control, unsatisfactory firing mechanisms, and high splinter shields.
The aircraft carrier further reported concerns with her heavier guns. The ship incurred complete power failures on Groups I and II 5-inch mounts, and a partial power failure on Group III. More tellingly, Enterprise noted the inability of her fire control radar to “pick up any target.” The ship had suffered repeated problems with the system, summarizing that at “no time since its installation has it been useful.” Neither 5-inch director detected Japanese planes, though the rangefinder in sky forward attained some success.
The Japanese suffered damage to one more ship during their retirement. A PBY-5 on a reconnaissance mission, piloted by Lt. Melvin K. Atwell of VP-91, attacked what the Catalina identified as a Japanese Aoba class heavy cruiser on the night of 27 October 1942. The ship—Japanese destroyer Teruzuki—sailed at high speed on an easterly course in the vicinity of the Solomons. Despite the vessel’s antiaircraft fire, the Catalina dropped four 500-pound bombs on the ship, at least two of which exploded aft of the forward smokestack. The concussion of these exploding bombs damaged the Catalina, which barely pulled out of its dive. At least two more explosions occurred on board the ship. Teruzuki nonetheless survived until motor torpedo boats PT-37 and PT-40 sank the destroyer off Cape Esperance, while she sailed as part of an attempt to supply Japanese troops on Guadalcanal, on 12 December 1942. Atwell later received the Navy Cross.
When Gatch wrote his After Action Report, he noted the lack of experience of the ships company, but proudly complimented their conduct: “As long as we raise such men we are safe.” South Dakota lost Chatelain, together with six men seriously wounded, 22 moderately wounded, and 20–30 slightly wounded, on 26 October 1942. The ship later transferred the seriously wounded men to hospital ship Solace (AH-5). Most of the slightly wounded men incurred wounds from fragments, but received first aid and returned to duty. About 400 members of the ship’s company held a funeral service for Chatelain that night. The blacked-out ship stopped engines and rolled in the heavy swells, while the attendees consigned Chatelain to the sea. At one point following the battle, a sailor from Michigan told Chaplain Claypool: “Padre, I prayed hours in a second.”
Capt. Gatch received the Navy Cross for commanding South Dakota while “the Task Force was being subjected to intensely heavy and sustained enemy aerial attack…” boldly closing “…the ENTERPRISE to furnish determined and effective defense of the carrier. In this position, he fought the SOUTH DAKOTA valiantly until an enemy bomb wounded him so seriously he was forced to turn over his command...” The skipper was also awarded the Purple Heart. In spite of his valor, Gatch proved an unruly patient, denouncing the medical officers because they forbade the impatient Commanding Officer from returning to the bridge until he healed to their satisfaction. The chaplain defended the medical team, persuading Gatch to desist from his harangue. The skipper’s left arm hung injured through the winter and he lost sleep because of the pain, but he steadfastly commanded the ship during the subsequent 2d Battle of Guadalcanal.
Vice Adm. Aubrey W. Fitch, Superintendent of the Naval Academy, dedicated a painting of the ship during the battle by Comdr. Dwight C. Shepler, USNR, a Navy combat artist who took part in the action on board San Juan, in the rotunda of Bancroft Hall at the academy on 7 December 1946. The distinguished visitors present included other men who fought in the battle: Gatch; Commodore Maher; who had commanded San Juan; Comdr. William Ingram, the cruiser’s antiaircraft gunnery officer during the battle; Lt. Comdr. Victor Delano, who had served as the cruiser’s Officer of the Deck; Capt. Thomas M. Stokes, who commanded Cushing; Capt. Wallis F. Pettersen, who skippered Mustin; and Lt. Comdr. George T. McDaniel, the Engineer on board Smith.
The damage to these ships produced far reaching strategic and operational consequences for the Allies. Halsey requested British assistance, including reinforcement by one or more of their carriers. The British undertook a number of operations during this period, however, including the dispatch of strong naval forces as part of Operation Torch. The British consequently did not assign a carrier until December 1942.
British Prime Minister Winston L.S. Churchill wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt concerning the strategic situation on 2 December 1942. The Prime Minister elaborated upon the strain that the deployment of Allied carriers during multiple operations in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, and Indian Ocean imposed, and thus offered to send British aircraft carriers Illustrious (87) and Victorious (38) to reinforce the Pacific Fleet—contingent upon the U.S. agreement to dispatch Ranger to operate with the British Home Fleet. Adm. King opposed the temporary detachment of Ranger because of her operational commitments, and the British only deployed Victorious.
Victorious reached Pearl Harbor on 4 March 1943. The ship embarked Martlet IVs (F4F-4Bs) of 882, 896, and 898 Squadrons, and Tarpon Is (TBF-1 Avengers) of 832 Squadron. Victorious sailed for Nouméa on 8 May, and into the summer operated with TG 36.3, including Saratoga, in the Solomons. Some of the Tarpon Is embarked briefly on board Saratoga,in a rare instance during WWII of British planes operating from a U.S. carrier.
Following the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, Japanese planes searched unsuccessfully for TFs 16 and 17, which withdrew separately to a position 185 miles southeast of Espíritu Santo. The Japanese ships retired to the northeastward of Guadalcanal. TF 17 rendezvoused with TF 16 at 0900 on 28 October 1942. Kinkaid refueled his destroyers during the morning. Destroyer Shaw came alongside South Dakotaat 1635, and began transferring some 300 officers and men from Porter, as well as several aviators rescued during the battle, by breeches buoy. Men of South Dakota’s crew generously provided clothing, blankets, food, mattresses, and cigarettes to the exhausted survivors. The combined force changed course to 200°, 21 knots, at 1905.
South Dakota held memorial services for the officers and men lost in Porter on the following day. The men from Porter’s company stood in their borrowed clothes in a horseshoe on the fantail, some of them wiping tears with the sleeves of their dungarees. During the midwatch on 30 October 1942, Conygham encountered a possible submarine contact. South Dakotaand Mahan began their emergency turns to confirm to Enterprise’s evasive movements, but both ships mistakenly turned toward each other and collided at 0414. The destroyer slammed into the battleship’s starboard quarter, leaving an anchor in her wardroom. The collision turned Mahan’sbow to port, crumpling the stem to frame 14. A fire broke out in the destroyer’s forward hold, but the crew brought the blaze under control. Both ships continued to Nouméa under their own steam, the battleship mooring inside the net at 1415 that day.
Repair ship Vestal (AR-4) lay alongside South Dakota on 1 November. Repair parties listed South Dakotaover to patch her gash. They also removed the anchor from the wardroom and repaired the compartment, mended fragment holes and marks on the hull and superstructure, and restored sprung hatches and ruptured fire mains. The battleship transferred Porter’s survivors ashore. South Dakota’s medical team removed Capt. Gatch from the sick list at 0900 on 5 November, evaluating the skipper as recovered sufficiently from his wounds to assume command, in spite of his ongoing pain. Vestal completed her repairs to South Dakotaand detached from the battleship on 6 November. Gatch fueled the ship, reporting her “In all respects ready for sea.”
Following their repulse during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, the Japanese gathered additional reinforcements for another attempt to overrun the marines on Guadalcanal. The opponent’s planes, ships, and submarines lunged repeatedly toward each other, initiating a series of minor battles and raids across the southern Solomons. These actions harried but did not halt the trickle of Japanese reinforcements from arriving on Guadalcanal, but the enemy required larger forces to attain victory. The Japanese intended to immobilize Henderson Field by aerial and naval bombardment, and to sail in a troop convoy, if necessary, running their transports aground overnight to facilitate unloading their troops and cargo before sunrise brought an onslaught of Allied planes. Eleven Japanese transports thus embarked at least 4,600 men, along with weapons and supplies, drawn primarily from the 229th and 230th Infantry Regiments of the 38th Infantry Division.
The Allies reinforced Guadalcanal to counter these Japanese movements. Further troops and equipment arrived from Efaté, New Hebrides, on 6 November 1942. Reinforcements comprising nearly 6,000 men and supplies awaited their dispatch to the embattled marines on Guadalcanal. Rear Adm. Richmond K. Turner broke his flag in transport McCawley (AP-10) in command of a force also consisting of Portland, Juneau, destroyers Barton, Monssen (DD-436), O’Bannon (DD-450), and Shaw, and transports Crescent City (AP-40), President Adams (AP-38), and President Jackson (AP-37). The four transports embarked: 372 sailors en route to augment the Naval Local Defense Force on the island; Battery ‘L’, 11th Marines (155 millimeter howitzers); and 1,300 additional men of the 4th Marine Replacement Battalion; together with soldiers of the Army’s Americal Division: 182d Reinforced Infantry Regiment (-3d Battalion); 245th Field Artillery Battalion; 101st Medical Regiment; Company ‘A,’ 57th Engineer Combat Battalion; a company of the 101st Quartermaster Regiment; and the 676th Ordnance Company.
Rear Adm. Scott broke his flag in Atlanta in command of TG 62.4, consisting of the light cruiser, destroyers Aaron Ward, Fletcher, Lardner, and McCalla, transport Zeilin (AP-9), and attack cargo ships Betelgeuse (AK-28) and Libra (AK-53). The three transports embarked: the 1st Marine Aviation Engineer Battalion; marine replacements; maintainers of the 1st MAW; and aviation engineering and operating material, ammunition, and food. The convoy sailed from Espíritu Santo on 9 November 1942, and arrived off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, on 11 November. Despite intensive Japanese aerial attacks, Zeilin, Betelgeuse, and Libra eventually unloaded their passengers and cargoes.
Some of the F4F-4 Wildcats of VMF-112 arrived on Guadalcanal on 2 November 1942; six TBF-1 Avengers of VMSB-131 and ten SBD-3 Dauntlesses of VMSB-142 flew to Henderson Field on 12 November; six F4F-4s of VMF-122 on 13 November; Vought OS2U-3 and Naval Aircraft Factory OS2N-1 Kingfishers of VS-4 on 23 November; and Lockheed Hudsons of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s No. 3 Squadron on 27 November. Further planes supported these operations from Espíritu Santo. Auxiliary aircraft carrier Nassau (ACV-16) delivered six F4F-4s, 20 SBD-3s, and 12 TBF-1s of Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 8 to Espíritu Santo, beginning at 1700 on 11 November. On that date, liberty ship Jane Addams unloaded an additional five TBF-1 Avengers.
Seven PBY 5s and 5As of VPs 23, 71, and 91, six USAAF Flying Fortresses, and four New Zealand Hudsons flying from Espíritu Santo, and three Catalinas operating from Peon Bay at Vanikoro, Santa Cruz Islands, searched to the north and west for the elusive Japanese ships, commencing at first light on 10 November 1942. These planes flew patrols in an arc extending to 800 miles. Additional New Zealand Hudsons flying from the Fiji Islands ranged 280 miles northeast at dawn and 400 miles at dusk. A Catalina spotted an enemy flying boat—tentatively identified as a Kawanishi H6K4 Type 97 or a H8K2 Type 2—at 1255 on 10 November. The Catalina and the Kawanishi both disengaged and escaped, but the Catalina sent a sighting report. Marine planes flying from Henderson Field spotted Japanese destroyers at varying ranges to the northwest of Guadalcanal, on 10 and 11 November. On 12 November, small seaplane tender Mackinac (AVP-13) arrived at Peon Bay to support aerial patrols.
These movements led to the Battle of Guadalcanal—arguably divided into the 1st and 2d Battles of Guadalcanal. The two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers of TG 67.4, Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan commanding, repulsed the Japanese from an intended bombardment of Henderson Field during the 1st Battle of Guadalcanal, overnight on 12 and 13 November 1942. Rear Admirals Callaghan and Scott died, both men subsequently receiving the Medal of Honor (posthumously). The enemy sank Atlanta, destroyers Barton, Cushing, Laffey (DD-459), and Monssen, and damaged heavy cruisers Portland (CA-33) and San Francisco, Helena and Juneau, and Aaron Ward. Friendly fire damaged O'Bannon. The Japanese lost destroyers Akatsuki and Yudachi, while Hiei, Amatsukaze, Ikazuchi, and Murasame sustained damage.
Japanese submarine I-26 torpedoed and sank Juneau as the light cruiser retired toward Espíritu Santo on the morning of 13 November. At least one of the ship’s magazines exploded and she sank with a heavy loss of life, including five brothers of the Sullivan family (all USNR) of Waterloo, Iowa: Gunner’s Mate 2d Class George T.; Coxswain Francis H.; Seaman 2d Class Joseph E.; Seaman 2d Class Madison A.; and Seaman 2d Class Albert L.
The repairs to Enterprise and South Dakota delayed them from participating in the 1st Battle of Guadalcanal. Vestal assisted Enterprise with the aircraft carrier’s repairs at Nouméa—scheduled for completion on 21 November 1942. Halsey ordered Enterpriseto assume a 24-hour notice to sail on 9 November. The following day at 0902, he directed TF 16 to assume readiness to sail within one hour, effective at 2200. South Dakota, Washington, Enterprise, Northampton, and destroyers Anderson, Clarke (DD-361), Dale (DD-353), Hughes, Morris, Mustin, Preston, Russell, and Walke sortied from Nouméa for Guadalcanal at noon on 11 November. Rear Adm. Lee broke his flag in Washington in command of BatDiv-6.
Halsey ordered Kinkaid to organize a battleship striking force, and to proceed to support the ships damaged in the previous night’s battle and intercept the anticipated Japanese bombardment force off Lunga Point. Halsey instructed the force to pass to the westward of New Caledonia and make for a position at 14° S, 161°30'E, 250 miles south of Guadalcanal, by 2100 on 12 November 1942. Pensacola, Benham, and Gwin joined TF 16 early in the forenoon watch on 12 November.
“Aircraft operations and submarine alerts,” is how the War Diary for South Dakota succinctly summarized 13 November 1942. Kinkaid dispatched aerial attacks against the retiring Japanese ships. The TBF-1 Avengers of VT-8, flying from Enterprise, and of VMSB-131, along with SBD-3 Dauntlesses of VMSB-142—the latter two squadrons operating from Henderson Field—sank Hiei, the battleship leaving a two-mile oil slick when she disappeared beneath the waves. Allied planes also damaged destroyers Michisio and Yukikaze. Lee detached with TG 16.3, consisting of South Dakota, Washington, Benham, Gwin, Preston, and Walke, at 1912. The task group initially steered a base course of 000°, speed 24 knots, and South Dakota sailed 3,000 yards on the starboard beam of Washington. The ships periodically zigzagged. Enterprise and the remaining ships of TF 16 came about to a southerly course.
Yamamoto directed a substantial portion of the Japanese fleet against the Allies in the Solomons. Kondō led the Attack Force, Main Body, consisting initially of Hiei and Kirishima, Atago and Takao, Nagara, and destroyers Asagumo, Hatsuyuki, Inazuma, Kagero, Oyashio,Samidare, Shirayuki,and Teruzuki.
Rear Adm. Hashimoto Shintaro commanded the Sweeping Force, comprising light cruiser Sendai and destroyers Ayanami, Shikinami, and Uranami. Rear Adm. Tanaka Raizo led the Destroyer Escort Force, numbering at times destroyers Amagiri, Haganami, Hayashio, Kagero, Kawakaze, Makinami, Mochizuki, Oyashio, Suzukaze, and Umikaze. The Mobile Force, Advance Force, included Junyō. The Support Force, Main Body, comprised Haruna and Kongō, Tone, and destroyers Hatsuyuki and Shirayuki. The Japanese repeated their tactics of using their destroyers for multiple roles ranging from engaging the Allied ships, to escorting their invasion troops, and to shore bombardment.
Following the loss of Hiei, Kondō restructured these groups, forming an Emergency Bombardment Force consisting principally of the remaining ships of the Attack Force, Main Body. Kondō plotted a southerly course from a position near Ontong Java past the eastern end of Santa Isabel toward Savo. His ships passed a patrol line consisting of fleet submarines Flying Fish (SS-229), Grampus (SS-207), and Trout (SS-202). At 0708 on 13 November 1942, Trout, which sailed at periscope depth in the midst of her sixth war patrol 80 miles north of Indispensable Strait—between Santa Isabel and Malaita Islands—sighted a Japanese destroyer. The boat’s skipper, Comdr. Lawson P. Ramage, could not maneuver the submarine into a satisfactory firing position against the enemy ship, which passed rapidly at an estimated speed of 25 knots.
Ramage then spotted what he identified as a Kongō class battleship, bearing 145° (True) at a range of 12,000 yards, steaming course 340°, at 0739. Trout reversed course and approached to within 6,000 yards of Kirishima, but the battleship turned to 045° at 0810. Ramage also sighted six Japanese torpedo or dive bombers and four fighters, flying toward the battleship—likely for navigational or communication purposes. The submarine proved unable to close and temporarily lost contact with the battleship during the morning watch, but sighted Kirishima when she emerged from a rain squall, bearing 000° at a range of 10,000 yards, at 1504.
The battleship zigged once, but Trout fired five torpedoes with a depth setting of 25 feet at a range of 1,800 yards at the battleship, 105° port track, 12° spread, at 1518 on 13 November 1942. All the torpedoes missed Kirishima and Kondō’s flagship, heavy cruiser Atago. One of the escorting destroyers suddenly appeared astern of Kirishima and depth-charged Trout, which submerged to a depth of 200 feet. Trout then surfaced and radioed a sighting report in the clear at 1724, inadvertently alerting Kondō of his discovery. Ramage’s many decorations include the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross—for his command of Trout during war patrols from 27 August 1942 to 25 February 1943—Silver Star, and Bronze Star. A plane spotted Kondō’s column 150 miles north of Guadalcanal at 1600.
While the fighting raged across the waters off Guadalcanal, Japanese heavy cruisers Maya and Suzuya fired nearly 1,000 8-inch shells at Henderson Field, on 14 November 1942. Despite the ferocious bombardment they failed to knock-out the airfield, prompting the postponement until overnight of the landings by the Japanese troops embarked on board the 11 transports.
Allied aircraft attacked some of the Japanese ships involved in the fighting of the preceding days, and SBD-3s of VMSB-132 flying from Henderson Field sank enemy heavy cruiser Kinugasa. Allied planes damaged Japanese heavy cruisers Chōkai and Maya, light cruisers Isuzu and Tenryu, and destroyer Ayanami. Meanwhile, planes savaged Tanaka’s transports. Dauntlesses of VS-10 and VMSB-130, SBD-3s of VMSB-141, and Avengers of VT-10 operating from Henderson Field sank transports/cargo ships Arizona Maru and Canberra Maru, and merchant transport/cargo ships Brisbane Maru, Kumagawa Maru, Nagara Maru, Nako Maru, and Shinano Maru, damaging cargo ship Sado Maru. The escorting destroyers rescued an estimated 1,500 of the embarked soldiers and returned them to the Shortlands. The remaining four troopships, Hirokawa Maru, Kinugasa Maru, Yamazuki Maru, and Yamura Maru, continued toward Guadalcanal.
TG 16.3 was redesignated TF 64 on 14 November 1942. The distance prevented Lee from reaching the area of the action that night, but Halsey directed him to proceed northwest to attack the Japanese convoy en route to Guadalcanal, at 0518 on 14 November. The orders stressed that TG 16.3 was to operate 100 miles from the Solomons but at 1542, Halsey ordered Lee to retire in time to be in position southeast of Savo Island by midnight that night, unless he was “profitably engaged.” Lee closed the area and arrived at a point 50 miles south-by-west of Guadalcanal during the forenoon watch. The intelligence and reconnaissance reports received throughout the day indicated the likelihood of a further enemy attempt to bombard Henderson Field overnight, and Lee unsuccessfully maneuvered his ships to avoid detection in the vicinity of that area. Japanese reconnaissance planes spotted the ships, incorrectly reporting the discovery of a battleship, cruiser, and four destroyers.
Lee then shaped course to the northward, rounding the western end of Guadalcanal and passing between Russell Island and Savo in the early evening. The ships steered 020°, speed 23 knots, zigzagging as required. Savo lay 18 miles on the starboard beam of the column. The glow of the burning Japanese merchant ships lit the horizon toward the west, and a first quarter moon assured surface visibility up to 12 miles. A calm sea a two to seven knot breeze blowing from 170° provided good weather, but cirro-cumulus clouds partly covered the sky at an altitude of 10,000 feet, and the overcast gradually increased. Maneuvering South Dakota into the confined waters filled with treacherous reefs and shoals challenged the navigation team. “All we can do is trust in God and our surveys,” Gatch commented, “and the surveys are not much good.”
The 14th of November 1942 fell on a Sunday, and Chaplain Claypool later recalled that the battle marked the only Sunday in the 20 months that he served on board the battleship in which he did not conduct divine worship services. Crewmen rotated through dinner but sealed South Dakota, shutting off the ventilation and non-firemain water systems. Several times before the ship encountered the Japanese that night, officers temporary opened the ventilation systems to clear foul air. Sailors manned their battle stations wearing helmets, kept their gas masks nearby, and buttoned up their collars, rolled down their sleeves, and tucked their trousers into their socks as protection against flash burns. Most of the officers carried syrettes of morphine to administer to wounded men. Gatch briefly addressed his crew over the ship’s loudspeaker system, closing with the question, “Are you ready?” A chorus of agreement from hundreds of men echoed through the ship.
Lee did not discover the Japanese and ordered his ships to cease zigzagging, at 2110 on 14 November 1942. Ten minutes later, a U.S. plane reported spotting an enemy cruiser and destroyer hiding in a cove on Savo. The admiral ordered the ships to slow to 20 knots and form a single column. Walke led the line, followed at 300 yard intervals by Benham, Preston, and Gwin, while Washington and South Dakotasteamed nearly two miles aft, the battleships keeping station 1,700 yards apart. All of the ships manned General Quarters, and many of their crewmen stood to their battle stations for up to 29 exhausting hours through the conclusion of the battle.
Kondō also received intelligence and reconnaissance reports throughout the day that indicated the likelihood of encountering the American ships. While he approached the area of Guadalcanal, he dispatched Sendai, Ayanami, Shikinami, and Uranami of the Sweeping Force to operate as a distant screen. These ships prowled ten miles northeast of Savo, steering southerly courses, when Sendai spotted TF 64 five miles off her port bow. Hashimoto sent Ayanami and Uranami to slip around the western side of Savo, while alerting Kondō of the discovery of the U.S. column. Kondō ordered Nagara and four destroyers to reinforce them by steaming southward, a course intended to take them to the west of Savo. He continued with the main force on a southeasterly heading for several minutes, before turning to the south.
South Dakota intercepted Japanese voice transmissions, commencing at 2130 on 14 November 1942. Shortly afterward, the ships changed course in succession from the van to 090°. The enemy’s voice transmissions grew excited and expanded until the Americans intercepted three originating stations at 2245. The U.S. ships came right to 150° to pass between Savo and Florida Islands, slowing to 17 knots.
American motor torpedo boats patrolled the area to provide early warning of enemy attacks, but unintentionally added to the confusion of the night. “There go two big ones, but I don’t know whose they are,” one of three PT boats radioed at one point. Lee alerted Guadalcanal to the potential of a friendly fire incident: “…friendly PT boats are believed to be after us.” The men ashore failed to identify the transmission and suspected a Japanese ploy, so the admiral further explained his predicament over the radio in the clear. Lee had acquired the nickname of ‘Ching’ while at the Naval Academy, and he directed Lt. Comdr. Richard D. Zern to inform CACTUS—specifically Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandergrift, USMC, Commanding Officer, 1st Marine Division, and a friend familiar with the nickname—to inform them of the arrival of “Ching Lee.” The improvisation defused the error. The ships reached a position just north of Lunga Point, and Lee altered the column’s course to 270°, speed 17 knots.
By midnight on 14 November 1942, TF 64 sailed 13.5 miles southeast of the southern most point of Savo. A PT boat suddenly alerted Lee to the passage of three unknown ships as they “rounded north of Savo heading west.” These three Japanese destroyers sighted the approaching U.S. ships, and retired to warn Kondō and rejoin their formation. Just one minute past midnight, the FG and SC radar plots on board Washington detected Sendai and Shikinami, bearing 340°, range 18,000 yards, about six miles east of Savo. The enemy ships sailed in almost the same waters as the U.S. vessels had just traversed during their run to the southeastward. The battleship’s main battery director tracked the Japanese for two minutes, but then lost the two enemy ships within the radar clutter from the nearby islands. The radar received echoes from that area, and from Santa Isabel, 50 miles distant. Washington then detected another (unidentified) ship, bearing 340°, 19,600 yards.
Watchstanders on the bridge of South Dakotaabruptly sighted what appeared to be three ships dimly illuminated by the setting moon, at arange of 18,100 yards, a few tense moments later. The lookouts tentatively identified the contacts as a battleship or heavy cruiser and two light cruisers, bearing 330°, and steering a southwesterly course. Gwin sailed 5,000 yards ahead of Washington and observed two ships visually; bearing 355°, range about 14,000 yards. The increasing number of contacts persuaded Lee to order the column to come right to 300°, speed 23 knots, granting South Dakota permission to open fire when ready.
Washingtonopened fire on Sendai, the lead ship, using radar ranges and optical train, at a radar range of 18,000 yards at 0017 on 15 November 1942. Within the first three minutes, Washingtonsent 42 rounds of 16-inch armor-piercing shells hurtling toward the Japanese ships. The battleship’s opening salvo straddled the enemy, and the second and third salvoes appeared to score hits—but seemingly missed. As the second salvo crashed toward the Japanese, the flagship’s 5-inch guns commenced firing at what the gunners misidentified as three enemy destroyers, but the flashes from the secondary guns briefly blinded the main battery spotters.
One minute after Washington opened fire, South Dakota’smain 16-inch battery opened fire. “Our ship gave a convulsive, sidewise whip, as all three turrets let go at once,” Gatch recalled. South Dakota used radar control to fire on Shikinami, the ship nearest to her and vessel close astern to Sendai, at a range of 15,700 yards. Sendai and Shikinami sailed not far from the ships targeted by Washington’s secondary batteries, and apparently overlapped in deflection the more distant ships astern of Kirishima. Washington and South Dakota both reported hitting their targets, but Sendai made smoke and the cruiser and Shikinami came about, unscathed.
The fighting continued and Washington and South Dakotas’ second or third 16-inch salvos against Ayanami and Uranami seemingly hit the mark and started fires on the Japanese ships—confusion during the battle caused conflicting reports. South Dakota continued firing, spotting up 100 and right 02 to strike the ship following the leader. Her first salvoes at these settings smashed into the enemy. Washington and South Dakotapulverized Ayanami, setting her ablaze. The destroyer drifted aimlessly until the Japanese scuttled the stricken ship to the southeast of Savo at 0300. Uranami took off most of the survivors and came about to the north. Ayanami’s captain and 30 men abandoned ship as she slid under and reached the Japanese-occupied portion of the shore in a boat.
South Dakota intercepted additional Japanese voice transmissions, the speakers growing increasingly excited. The battleship’s crewmen overheard as many as 13 different speakers at one point, emphasizing the necessity to assign a Japanese interpreter onto staffs whenever possible. Several of these voice transmissions ceased abruptly when their ships erupted in flames.
Shells unexpectedly emerged from the apparent direction of Savo Island, splashing past Washington at 0024. Group No. 3 of the secondary battery hammered about six of these “shore batteries” in turn until each fell silent. As the 5-inch guns fired in rapid succession, the battleship’s crewmen realized that the shore emplacements actually consisted of an ostensible six to ten of the enemy ships rimming the south side of Savo. The flashes of the 5-inch guns again blinded the main battery directors, and a delay ensued while they sought a point of aim. The main director No. 1 then detected a target, bearing 356° at 0029.
Washington obtained optical ranges on a burning ship, seemingly beached, at a range of 10,200 yards. The battleship checked fire with her 16-inch guns, because of the likely withdrawal of the Japanese ships. She ceased fire with her 5-inch guns at 0034. The ship’s 5-inch mount No. 3 had fired wild as a result of the training motor kicking out, generating fears of friendly fire incidents. Washington increased speed to 26 knots, and changed course to 282°, placing one of the burning destroyers between the flagship and the enemy. The ship’s SG radar revealed an estimated four enemy ships, bearing 330°, when they passed the cover of Savo a minute later. The radar plot later described the appearance of the hitherto obscured ships as that of “part of the island being pulled out and then separated into ‘drops’ similar to the effect of planes taking off from a carrier.”
Nagara and four destroyers closed the U.S. destroyers on 15 November 1942. Walke sent repeated 5-inch rounds into what the destroyer identified as Nagara. The ship checked her fire, but renewed salvoes against an enemy destroyer at a range of 7,500 yards to starboard, and then at gun flashes sighted off her port side. Walke fired a total of eight salvoes. The Japanese returned fire and straddled Walke, and then a Type 93 torpedo, known by the Americans as a ‘Long Lance,’ ripped apart the starboard hull of the destroyer almost directly below Mount 52, blowing off her bow. The forward 20 millimeter magazine exploded, spreading flames.
Shells struck home with deadly precision into Walke, impacting in the vicinity of Mount 53, on the after deckhouse, the radio room, foremast, and below the gig davits. The ship’s Commanding Officer, Comdr. Thomas E. Fraser, ordered her abandoned. The destroyer sank quickly by the bow at 0042, and the survivors only succeeded in casting two undamaged life rafts into the water. Crewmen set the depth charges to ‘safe,’ but some of them exploded as the ship slid under, adding to the carnage. Sailors on board Washington tossed life rafts overboard from her starboard side to the men in the water as the battleship raced past. Survivors placed their heavily-wounded shipmates onto life rafts. Japanese searchlights twice illuminated men in the water, but in both instances, the enemy ships switched off their searchlights and disappeared into the night. Fraser and 81 men died.
Benham reported difficulty in identifying the Japanese ships in the darkness, but finally noted two of the enemy vessels, which briefly maneuvered in eerie silence. Benham also determined that her range to the enemy precluded the likelihood of successfully firing torpedoes. A torpedo then struck Benham on the starboard side, near frame No. 6. The ship rose forward, heeled about 5° to port, then rolled to starboard nearly 30°, settling by the head and righting herself slowly. The explosion threw up a great volume of water that rose 20 feet higher than the director, and came down with considerable force. An explosion from Preston showered debris onto Benham. The ship’s Commanding Officer, Lt. Comdr. John B. Taylor, ordered the destroyer to come about to seaward.
Preston prepared to launch her torpedoes when a 5.5-inch salvo from Nagara sliced through Preston, toppling her smokestack and knocking both firerooms out of action. The enemy concentrated fire on the burning destroyer, and rounds rained down upon Preston from both her port and starboard sides. The fires spread uncontrollably and the order to abandon ship was passed at 0022. Preston floated for another ten minutes, with the ship’s bow in the air, before sinking, taking 116 of her men with her. Destroyer Meade subsequently rescued survivors from Prestonand Walke.
Gwin targeted one of the Japanese cruisers with her torpedoes, but a short circuit caused one of the torpedoes to fire prematurely, and the enemy operated beyond range for a high-speed setting. The destroyer fired two star-shell spreads to illuminate the battling ships, and then shot two salvoes of antiaircraft common. Gwin sailed beyond range for these as well, and checked her fire. The ship endured a number of hits from enemy shells, and men spotted a torpedo cross the stern of the destroyer, missing by barely 30 yards. Gwin retired and later rendezvoused with Benham, both ships making for Espíritu Santo. The damage to Benham proved beyond the efforts of the crew to save her. Gwin took off the survivors and then scuttled Benham with torpedoes and gunfire in Savo Sound, after dusk on 15 November 1942.
A short lull followed, after which South Dakota’s radar plot showed what appeared to be four enemy ships, just clear of the left tangent of Savo, approaching from the starboard bow at a range of 5,800 yards. South Dakota sent five 16-inch salvoes at the vicinity of the two lead ships in the Japanese formation, but with unobserved results in the chaos of the battle. The ship thus checked her fire at 0033 on 15 November 1942. South Dakota almost immediately began to suffer a series of electrical failures initiated by the shock of firing. A short circuit on the feeder cable to No. 4 secondary director caused the initial failure. The system locked in the AQB circuit breaker, so the overload resulting from the short was transmitted to the main circuit supplying half the power to the after part of the ship. The breaker on this line tripped, and that part of the ship progressively lost power, including Turret No. III, her aft triple 16-inch mount.
Sailors frantically isolated the affected circuits, switching to an alternate power supply. The original circuit breaker remained locked in, and the power in the aft portion of the battleship consequently failed again. Gyros and electric fire-control installations failed, and the men in all of the aft turrets reported losing power during these tense moments. The main battery shifted to auxiliary but did not fire. Crewmen restored power within three minutes, with the exception of 5-inch mounts Nos 6 and 8. The gunners manning those mounts temporarily repaired their systems, regaining power later. Isolated electrical failures continued to occur during this phase of the action. Turrets I and II retained their power.
South Dakotastarted to come left to clear some of the stricken U.S. destroyers, but then swung to starboard and steadied on course 300° at 0036. The battleship passed survivors from the destroyers in the water, and during a brief lull in the firing, some of her crewmen heard the cries of the men in the sea. South Dakotacontinued to engage the enemy, changing her course to 290° and then 285° at 0038, speed 26 knots. The battleship’s 16-inch and 5-inch guns renewed firing, her crewmen counting the enemy’s gun flashes and overestimating that they faced up to eight Japanese ships, sailing close to Savo at an initial range of 14,100 yards. Turrets I and II fired at these ships.
The battleship then lost her SC radar, from 0041 to 0046. The breakdown of the radar complicated the ship’s station keeping. South Dakota’s plotters wrestled with locating the ship amidst the islands and rapidly maneuvering vessels of the opponents, and failed to detect the four ships that Washington discovered when they emerged from the cover of Savo. Gatch later reported the “psychological effect” of the loss of the radar as “depressing” on his crew. “The absence of this gear gave all hands a feeling of being blind-folded.”
During the erratic maneuvering, South Dakota’s Turret III fired over the battleship’s stern at an enemy vessel believed to be a Kuma class light cruiser at a range of 15,500 yards. The confusion contributed to the identification difficulties, because the ship engaged either a destroyer or Nagara—which displayed a silhouette similar to Kuma class ships. The blasts from these three 16-inch guns set fire to one of the ship’s own Kingfishers of VO-6. Ensign Theodore F. Marx, Preston’s Torpedo Officer, saw what he recalled as a “blinding flash” when the plane caught fire, and surmised that an explosion cost the battleship her stern. The next salvo blew two of the three Kingfishers over the side but extinguished most of the fires, at 0042 on 15 November 1942. The ship’s Aviation Unit later good naturedly presented the gunners with two miniature flags in commemoration of the incident. The main battery ceased firing following the fourth salvo, when the gunners incorrectly reported that the enemy ship broke in two and disappeared from the radar screen.
South Dakotasheered to the right to avoid the wreckage of Walke three minutes later. Her course took her to the starboard quarter of Washington, but the flagship experienced difficulty in maintaining a steady contact on South Dakota, because the latter ship sailed repeatedly in the 60 blind arc astern caused by the foremast structure. Nagara launched eight torpedoes at South Dakota, all of which missed. Gun flashes had temporarily blinded most of the men within South Dakota’s conning tower, and they experienced difficulties seeing the guide. The power failure occurred at a critical point in the battle, preventing South Dakota from contacting unknown ships to verify their identities. In addition, the OTC ordered the destroyers to retire at 0046, and the battleships fought without their escorts.
The restoration of power on board South Dakota enabled her SG radar to detect four ships, bearing 070°, range 5,800 yards, at 0047 on 15 November 1942. During the preceding minutes, the battleship had unwittingly approached within the 7,000 yard range prescribed by Lee, to avoid enemy searchlight illumination and to capitalize on the advantage afforded by fire-control radar. Washington and South Dakotareached a position 11 miles west of Savo, with South Dakota on the flagship’s starboard quarter. The Japanese reversed course and made for the channel between Savo and Cape Esperance at an estimated speed of 26 knots at 0055. Three minutes later, the setting moon reduced visibility to prominent landmarks at a range of no more than five miles.
One of the Japanese destroyers accompanying Nagara turned her searchlights on South Dakota, slightly forward of the beam at 0048. The enemy shot four lights in pairs on South Dakota, two over two. Washingtonclosed to within 8,400 yards and opened fire with her 16-inch guns on the leading, and largest, Japanese ship, Kirishima, at 0100. Washington’s 5-inch mount Nos 1 and 3 added their fire against Kirishima, while mount Nos 5 and 7 blasted the illuminating ship, and mount No. 9 illuminated for the ship’s main battery.
About 30 seconds after the Japanese turned their searchlights on, the enemy and South Dakota opened fire almost simultaneously. South Dakota’s shells ripped into the illuminating Japanese ship, the combined fire from the two battleships extinguishing her lights. The third and fourth vessels in the enemy’s formation switched on their searchlights, but salvoes from Washington and South Dakotain turn darkened their lights. South Dakotafired two or three 16-inch salvoes (uncertain in the confusion) at the second ship, which ostensibly sustained fearsome damage. South Dakota shifted fire and added her broadside to that of Washington.
The Japanese concentrated their fire against South Dakota, the first hits apparently striking within the 1.1-inch clipping room B-0502-M, at 0049. Shells of various calibers slammed into the ship in rapid succession, wreaking havoc to the foremast structure. The Japanese fire knocked-out radar, directors, fire-control instruments, and the TBS. A 14-inch shell hit near the gas seal, hindering the training of Turret III. A 6-inch shell demolished radar plot. A second round immediately followed, striking in almost the same spot. Additional hits ruptured fuel oil compartments. Men of the ship’s company later estimated that as many as 28 fires broke out on board.
Five Japanese shells struck the area around Battle II, causing fires and killing or wounding most of the men manning their stations therein. Comdr. Uehlinger “steadfastly remained at his post, and continued to fight despite the danger of scalding from ruptured steam lines or burning in the fires which had cut off all chance of escape. His skillful seamanship throughout and his loyal devotion to duty under extremely adverse conditions contributed immeasurably to his men and inspired them in keeping the battle station efficiently manned…” Uehlinger afterward received the Silver Star.
Several enemy rounds slammed into sky forward, killing all the officers and wounding the enlisted sailors. Yeoman 1st Class Hodge O. Patrick, Jr., manned his battle station as a talker in the compartment. A blast inflicted a ghastly wound in Patrick’s leg and knocked him to the deck. Patrick applied a tourniquet to his wound and clambered to his feet. As the senior survivor he assumed command, informing Gatch by telephone of the situation, attempting to extinguish the flames, and administering first aid to the wounded until relieved several hours later. Patrick subsequently received the Silver Star.
South Dakota’s crew included 12-year-old Calvin L. Graham of Canton, Texas. Graham enlisted under false pretenses, claiming his birth in Vanover, Texas, in 1925, whereas, he was actually born in Canton in 1930. Graham grew up as the youngest of six children of a farm family in Crockett, Texas, dropped out of school, and enlisted in the Naval Reserve on 16 April 1942. When Graham left home to enlist, he lied to his mother about his intention to visit some of their relatives. The young man stood only 5'2" and weighed 125-pounds, but he wore one of his older brother’s clothes and spoke in a deep voice to deceive the recruiters. The exigencies of the time, with repeated Axis victories threatening the Allies, probably influenced the recruiters to accept men whom they would otherwise have rejected during peacetime. Graham served as part of a gun crew on board the battleship, and fragments from the Japanese shellfire struck the young sailor in his jaw and mouth, wounding him severely. Despite his pain, Graham valiantly continued to man his gun, and helped pull over crewmen to safety. He afterward received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
The enemy shells slammed into South Dakota until 0105 on 15 November 1942. South Dakota increased speed to 27 knots, but slipped some water during her high-speed turns. The ship sustained hits by a total of at least 26 projectiles. The Japanese claimed to score the single 14-inch and five 6-inch hits from Kirishima, along with at least 17 8-inch and one 5-inch strike from Atago and Takao. Minor flooding resulted from the one hit below the waterline and two hits close to the waterline. The wardroom served as a dressing station for the less seriously wounded men. Water from the hoses of the repair parties rushed into the wardroom, and in a short time covered the ankles of the sailors tending the casualties therein. Men of the decontamination party formed a ‘bucket brigade’ to clear the water. Chaplain Claypool moved among the casualties, ministering to the men, but the Chaplain’s exposure to the carnage compelled him to change his uniform three times. The battleship developed a list of about 3/4°, which sailors corrected by shifting fuel oil.
In spite of these numerous shell impacts, South Dakotareceived only superficial damage. The Japanese shot high with many overs, and most of the enemy rounds fragmented during impact, rather than from detonation. The ship’s armor withstood the 14-inch hit, and a number of the 8-inch and 6-inch shells entered the ship without exploding. One 8-inch projectile ripped through five structural bulkheads and careened into the shield of 5-inch mount No. 2, knocking off the rear door without detonating. Gatch afterward reported that the armor encasing fire control and the conning tower, despite criticism from opponents of the design, who agitated for the removal of the steel because of top hamper, saved the sailors manning those stations from being “destroyed.” The battleship never lost steering or engine control, and the Japanese fire did not measurably impair the ship’s strength, buoyancy, or stability. Men temporarily plugged breaches in the plating above the waterline with mattresses, pillows, and clothing, and drove wooden plugs into smaller holes.
The most serious damage occurred to the electrical wiring circuits. The enemy fire severed many of her interior communication and fire control circuits, particularly in the superstructure, which suffered the most extensive damage. The devastation rendered inoperative all of the radio transmitting antennae and all of her radar, which the exception of one on Main Battery Director II. Short circuits from this damage caused an overload on the I.C. switchboard, resulting in the loss of power on fire control and communication circuits throughout the ship for approximately three minutes.
South Dakota proved unable to communicate with the flagship because of the damage to the radio equipment. Repair parties courageously fought and controlled the fires. The battleship lost contact on her targets and ceased firing at 0108. The ship could still fire her man battery, but was incapable of properly directing the guns. Captain Gatch considered the damage to South Dakota to such a degree that she became a liability to the force, and he came about to the southward. The skipper experienced a fleeting moment of serenity when he discovered South Dakota’s mascot, a Boston terrier named Rascal, safely asleep amidst the wreckage of the emergency bridge aft of the bridge.
The heavy salvoes from the U.S. battleships crippled Kirishima, knocking out two of her 14-inch turrets, flooding the steering room, holing the ship below her waterline, and setting Kirishima ablaze, fore and aft. The flames threatened to touch off the magazines, compelling sailors to flood those compartments. The devastation on board the battleship eventually made her engine room inoperable. Washington fired 75 of her 16-inch and 107 of the 5-inch rounds at the Japanese battleship. She also used 62 star-shells. An estimated nine of the 16-inch and 40 of the 5-inch projectiles slammed into Kirishima. The OTC ordered “cease firing” because of an erroneous report claiming the defeat of all the Japanese ships at 0102. Washington observed that Kirishima continued firing with three of her four twin 14-inch turrets, and Washington resumed firing within two minutes.
Atago and Takao each fired eight Type 93 torpedoes at Washington, but the torpedoes missed the battleship. Lookouts on board Washington reported probable light streaks from stars as additional “torpedo wakes,” and messages incorrectly indicated the possibility of attacks by enemy torpedo boats. The U.S. ships pounded Atago, Takao, and Nagara, damaging the three cruisers. All three ships later returned to Japan for repairs, the work on the light cruiser removing her from the war for nearly two months.
Lee ordered Washington to reverse course to 180° to avoid a possible torpedo trap, and to slow to 20 knots, at 0133. The admiral correctly surmised that the battle sufficiently delayed the Japanese transports to prevent them from reaching the beaches and unloading before daylight. During the retirement, he held the battleship’s course well to the west of the probable tracks of the damaged U.S. ships, to avoid leading the enemy destroyers. Further flashes erupted to the northward for sometime following Lee’s departure. The flagship failed to hail South Dakota via TBS.
Kondō cancelled the bombardment and ordered his ships to come about to the northeast, abandoning stricken Kirishima and making smoke. Tanaka detached Kagero and Oyashio to attack any ships they encountered near Tassafaronga, and they unsuccessfully fired torpedoes at Washington at 0139 on 15 November 1942. The Japanese opened the sea cocks of Kirishima and scuttled her seven miles northwest of Savo at 0423. Kirishima took more than 300 of her crew to the bottom, but Asagumo, Teruzuki, and Samidare rescued 1,125 survivors before their departure from the area. Kondō erroneously claimed to sink at least one—and possibly two—battleships, two cruisers, and two destroyers.
South Dakota extinguished her fires by 0155, and a few minutes later regained communications with Washington. Lee directed Gatch to retire at his best possible speed. Gatch acknowledged the order and then maintained radio silence. The flagship detected a large radar contact, 16,000 yards off the starboard quarter at 0220. Washington’s main battery ceased tracking the Japanese destroyers and shifted toward the new target, which the flagship then identified as South Dakota. Washingtonsecured from General Quarters at 0649, and sighted South Dakota at a prearranged rendezvous at 0951—set for 1000. Enemy fire had shot away the flag lines, but South Dakota defiantly flew the Stars and Stripes from the signal bridge.
South Dakota blinkered her status to the flagship: “We are not effective. Turret III out. Fire control badly damaged. Only one radar operative. Fuel tank holed.” South Dakota lost 40 men killed and 180 wounded. Watchstanders passed the word through the ship’s loudspeakers for all available “corpsmen” to ascend to the tower foremast to assist the wounded. Reaching some of the casualties proved difficult because Japanese shells had started fires, shot away some of the ladders, and blasted steel bulkheads into twisted metal. Pharmacist’s Mate 2d Class Raymond Kanoff reported that scalding steam from the ruptured line to the ship’s whistle and siren produced fearsome burns to men in the vicinity. Kanoff and other sailors placed seriously wounded men into canvas bags stiffened with wooden battens, and lowered them by lines to the main deck for care.
Chaplain Claypool, Dr. Walter W. Crowe, the ship’s senior Dental Officer, and Ensign Warren D. Calhoun accomplished the grisly task of identifying the dead. Only ten of the bodies still had their identification tags, but the Chaplain’s team pinpointed the identity of the fallen by using their names sewn into uniforms as laundry marks, and personal effects ranging from papers, books, and letters. The team sealed these effects into envelopes, and together with property from the men’s lockers, sent the items to their families.
Heavy rain pounded the ship’s company as they began to bury the dead during the afternoon watch. Two Sailmakers sewed the bodies into canvas, weighing each one with a 5-inch shell. Thirty-seven-year-old Lt. Comdr. John E. Burke, the sky control officer, had played chess with Gatch. The two developed a friendship, but an enemy round killed Burke and 33-year-old Lt. Comdr. Milton F. Pavlic, the machine-gun officer. Sailors buried both men together in a single piece of canvas. Gatch refused to play chess while on board in memory of Burke. The ship identified 39 of the men who died as USN or USNR, together with one Marine, Cpl. George J. Zupko, USMC. The detail continued working into the evening, breaking only for a brief meal. The burial teams struggled to keep their footing on the rain-slicked deck, and consigned the final seven men to the deep in the morning. In spite of cleaning with formaldehyde, many spaces reeked of death for weeks. The ship subsequently received the Navy Unit Commendation for the battle.
South Dakota trailed oil while she steamed in company with Washington through the remainder of 15 November 1942. The two ships spotted eight unidentified planes at 1105 and five more aircraft 15 minutes later. The sightings confirmed Halsey’s and Lee’s fears of possible Japanese air strikes against the retiring battleships, and Halsey requested air cover from the 1st MAW. Two flights of four Lockheed P-38F Lightnings of the USAAF’s 339th Fighter Squadron, Maj. Dale D. Brannon, USAAF, commanding, flew 110 miles from Henderson Field to the southeast in search of oil slicks. The Lightnings located what they reported as a destroyer trailing oil. The planes continued for an additional 40 miles but encountered foul weather and returned. South Dakota and Washingtonrendezvoused with Dale, Lardner, and Stack at 2330, and proceeded to Nouméa, arriving on 17 November.
“…You have written your names deeply in golden letters on the pages of history and have won the undying gratitude of your countrymen,” Halsey signaled South Dakota on 17 November.
“My pride in you is beyond comparison. No honor for you could be too great.
South Dakotaheld a memorial service for her dead, commencing at 1000 on 18 November 1942. An estimated 1,500 men of the ship’s company gathered in their USN white and USMC dress uniforms to pay tribute to their fallen shipmates. The ship’s choir sang Nearer, My God to Thee, Comdr. Uehlinger read the roll of the dead, two buglers played taps, and 12 marines fired a farewell volley. The ship transferred 18 seriously wounded and five lightly wounded men to Mobile Hospital No. 5 the following day. Four seriously wounded and 25 lightly wounded men remained on board on the sick list.
Following the 2d Battle of Guadalcanal, Japanese transports/cargo ships Hirokawa Maru, Kinugasa Maru, Yamazuki Maru, and Yamura Maru beached off northern Guadalcanal, disembarking the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 surviving troops, during the mid and morning watches. The ships also unloaded a paltry 260 rounds of ammunition for their mountain howitzers, and 1,500 bags of rice—only a four day supply of food. Dauntlesses from VS-10 and VMSB-132 and Avengers of VT-10, together with USMC and USA coastal guns and Meade, finished-off all four ships by that afternoon.
“The long range at which we opened fire,” Rear Adm. Lee afterward summarized the 2d Battle of Guadalcanal on 14 and 15 November 1942, “and the accuracy of our initial salvoes, fired without artificial illumination, must have been a distinct and unpleasant surprise. On the other hand the celerity with which the enemy fell away from our attack was a distinct surprise to us.” The admiral further noted the necessity for the SG radar, to enable the task force to approach the enemy undetected, adding that it “permitted us to navigate with some confidence at high speed in restricted and unfamiliar waters, when visual ranges and optical bearings were unobtainable.” Lee received the Navy Cross for “…[when he] interposed his force between the Japanese and their objective…[contributing] to the frustration of a formidable Japanese offensive…”
Gatch afterward received a Gold Star in lieu of the second Navy Cross for his “extraordinary heroism” commanding South Dakota during the battle: “Although partially disabled and suffering acute pain as result of previous wound, Captain Gatch, with bold determination and courageous zeal, gallantly fought his ship through a concentrated bombardment of hostile fire. His calm coolness in the face of great danger and inspiring leadership contributed to the high combat efficiency which enabled the SOUTH DAKOTA to sink at least one Japanese cruiser and to assist in the destruction and damage of other enemy vessels.”
Gatch subsequently evaluated the success of splash identification via South Dakota’s fire control radar, which the ship used throughout the battle: “…on the opening salvo the radar operator identified three targets, three splashes, and the splashes made by Washington.” Gun flashes, especially from the 5-inch batteries, repeatedly blinded men on board both battleships. In some instances, these flashes provided almost continuous illumination of the firing vessel, with disastrous results on board South Dakota. The Japanese gun flashes appeared comparatively small and dim, leading a number of evaluators to surmise the enemy’s use of flash retardant or hider.
Nimitz reported on the battle to King on 18 March 1943: “As in previous engagements, our torpedo performance was below the acceptable minimum of effectiveness. Reduced torpedo efficiency can usually be charged to both defective material and to inadequately trained personnel.” Nimitz used the scuttling of Benham to illustrate the lamentable record to date—Gwin initially fired four torpedoes; but one exploded prematurely; one missed due to an erratic run; and two straight shots missed because of control errors.
The 2d Battle of Guadalcanal on 14 and 15 November 1942 exposed the Navy’s lack of effective training in night combat—nighttime battle practice proved inadequate in realistically preparing sailors and marines for the rigors of the fighting. The battle also marked the baptism of fire for South Dakota and Washington. TF 64 operated as a rapidly assembled group, with little time to develop unit cohesion or doctrine—no two ships of BatDiv-6 had operated together prior to 11 November. This occurred because the Fleet’s doctrine instructed task force commanders to develop their own plans. TF 64 broke formation during the erratic nighttime maneuvering, and the ships fought for the most part individually.
The command teams failed to adequately collect and analyze the tactical information provided by radar, in large measure because of the Navy’s lack of an effective methodology. Prior to the 1st Battle of Guadalcanal, Comdr. William R. Cole, the Commanding Officer of Fletcher, directed Lt. Comdr. Joseph C. Wylie, Jr., his Executive Officer, to man a battle station at the edge of the radar room. Wylie filtered the data that Cole received, and the simplistic arrangement transformed the destroyer’s performance by freeing the skipper to concentrate on the fighting. The lessons that the Navy learned from these battles on board ships such as South Dakota and Fletcher further contributed to the development of the CIC system.
The U.S. suffered the greater loss of warships during this series of engagements, but the Japanese withdrew, and the battle marked their final attempt to dispatch large naval forces into the waters around Guadalcanal. Army Air Forces B-17 Flying Fortresses sank Japanese supply ship No. 3 Unkai Maru and damaged transport Azuma Maru in the area of Rabaul.
(BB-57) and two destroyers lie alongside repair ship
(AR-3) at Nouméa, New Caledonia, November 1942. The inboard destroyer with the crumpled bow appears to be
(DD-364), following her collision with the battleship on 30 October. The other destroyer may be
Repair ship Prometheus (AR-3) repaired some of the damage inflicted on South Dakota while the battleship remained at Nouméa. Halsey visited South Dakota on 20 November 1942. Four days later, the ship received a pair of Kingfishers to replace two of the planes lost during the battle. South Dakota cast off her mooring lines from Prometheus at 0750 on 25 November. The battleship cleared the harbor by 1000 and rendezvoused with her escorting destroyers, Aylwin (DD-355) and Dale, the three ships forming TG 66.2. South Dakotaanchored in berth No. 23 at Nukualofa, at 1345 on 27 November. The ship then refueled from tanker W.C. Yeager.
W.C. Yeager cleared South Dakota the following day. Indiana, light cruiser Columbia(CL-56), and destroyers De Haven (DD-469) and Saufley (DD-465) entered the harbor and anchored during the afternoon watch. South Dakota, Aylwin, and Dale resumed their voyage at 0800 on 29 November 1942. Aylwin and Dale detached at 0400 the following day, and the battleship continued without escorts, though her planes flew search patrols. Gatch held a special commendatory mast for various officers and men in recognition of their valor during the 2d Battle of Guadalcanal on 4 December. The ship crossed the equator northbound at 97°18'00"W, at 1417 on 8 December. During the afternoon watch two days later, the battleship rendezvoused with destroyers McDougal (DD-358) and Warrington (DD-383), which escorted her to Balboa, Panama Canal Zone.
South Dakotapassed through the Panama Canal, mooring port side to the south side of Pier 6, Cristóbal, at 2104 on 11 December 1942. The skipper granted shore leave and liberty, and the ship received additional passengers en route to the U.S. South Dakotarefueled overnight, and at 1050 the following day set out for New York. Destroyers Barry (DD-248) and Tattnall (DD-125) escorted the battleship. Heavy seas battered the ships while they steamed a northeasterly course during the forenoon watch on 14 December. Barry and Tattnall could not continue and fell out of formation. South Dakota rendezvoused with destroyers Emmons (DD-457) and Rodman (DD-456), which took up their screening stations at 1315. The three ships then slowed from 20 to 17 knots because of the heavy weather. South Dakota arrived at the Navy Yard, New York, for an overhaul and the completion of repairs on 18 December 1942.
Gatch proved a popular Commanding Officer with his crew. He was a natural leader. A devout Christian, Gatch often read the lessons during divine services, and recommended to his men to make their peace with God prior to going into action. Gatch studied the American Civil War, concluding that a number of the ships he investigated that emphasized ‘spit and polish’ performed poorly in battle, whereas a number of other ships that paid greater attention to realistic training achieved enviable combat records. The skipper thus directed his crew to focus upon the skills they required for battle, such as gunnery practice and damage control. The consequent (apparent) neglect of polishing brass and lack of cleanliness of certain areas on board
often offended newly-reported officers unfamiliar with Gatch’s demeanor, but the ship attained a high degree of efficiency under his command.
Mark L. Evans
Jan 10, 1013