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Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
Part One
David Lippman
May 2016

At dawn on Friday, Nov. 13, 1942, burning, wrecked ships littered the waters of Guadalcanal. At a cost of five ships and thousands of lives, the U.S. Navy had blunted Japan’s drive to break the Guadalcanal stalemate.

Despite the strategic defeat and loss of the battleship Hiei, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of Japan’s Combined Fleet, was determined to try again to break the deadlock on the jungle-covered island and win the Pacific war.

Three months of bitter air-ground-sea action in and around Guadalcanal had resulted in a stalemate. Both the Americans and the Japanese were short of ships. Their troops on Guadalcanal, the island prize of the campaign, were exhausted. Yamamoto was now taking the offensive, and his battleships and destroyers were a powerful force.

The first move had been made the night of Nov. 12. Two battleships, under Rear Adm. Hiroaki Abe, headed for Guadalcanal with orders and special ammunition to shell the American air base, Henderson Field, and destroy it. Instead they slammed into U.S. Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan’s mixed force of cruisers and destroyers.

The midnight collision saw destroyers and battleships trade salvos at point-blank range. After a wild two hours of gunfire and torpedo attacks, Callaghan was dead, and the timid and cautious Abe fled, even though he had crushed the American force.

Yamamoto acted swiftly, firing Abe and sending south a convoy of 8,000 Japanese troops under Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa. And the survivors of Abe’s group, headed by the battleship Kirishima, regrouped under Vice Adm. Nobutake Kondo, Abe’s replacement.


Kirishima during the late 1930s.

 

Kondo, however, was little better than Abe. He was described as an “English sort of officer,” very gentlemanly, and good with his staff, but better suited for training command than battle.

Nonetheless, Kondo was on hand and senior, so he took over, adding the two tough cruisers of his Cruiser Division Four, his flagship Atago and her sister Takao. One light cruiser, Nagara, and six destroyers would escort this group, called the Emergency Bombardment Force. The mission was simple: sweep Ironbottom Sound off Guadalcanal on the night of the 14th, shell the airfield, cover the convoy arrival, then high-tail it home before dawn of the 15th.

The Americans knew the enemy moves, thanks to their cryptographers. But Vice Adm. William F. Halsey, the aggressive commander of the Southwest Pacific Theater, had virtually no ships to hurl at Kondo. All his available cruisers and destroyers had been used up in the Friday 13th battle. The carrier Enterprise was still only partially repaired after being damaged at the Battle of Santa Cruz, but her 78 planes could screen Guadalcanal by day. The problem would be a night surface action.

All that was left for Halsey’s use were two fast, new, battleships, USS South Dakota and USS Washington. Naval War College doctrine forbade the use of battleships in a tightly confined space such as Ironbottom Sound, just north of Guadalcanal, but Halsey knew that wars were won at sea, not in a textbook. He ordered the dreadnoughts committed.

Commanding the two battlewagons was Rear Adm. Willis A. “Ching Chong” Lee, a chain-smoking, approachable, bespectacled gunnery expert who relieved tension on the bridge by reading lurid novels or swapping sailor stories with the enlisted men standing watch duty.

Lee was mostly business, though. With Washington Captain Glenn Davis and gunnery officer Lt. Cdr. Edwin Hooper, he sat up many nights discussing gunnery problems, taking a mathematical approach. Lee also used more practical tools. He tested every gunnery-book rule with exercises and ordered gunnery drills under odd conditions–turrets firing with relief crews, anything that might simulate the freakishness of battle.

Washington and South Dakota technically were outstanding ships: 35,000-ton displacements, able to race at 28 knots, armed with 16-inch guns. But South Dakota, despite her fiery Captain Thomas L. Gatch, had a reputation in the fleet as a jinx ship because of her habit of getting into collisions and suffering mechanical breakdowns at inopportune times. One breakdown had resulted in South Dakota’s nearly colliding with the carrier Enterprise. Even so, morale was high on South Dakota. Gatch trained his crews for battle, and ignored uniform regulations. However, South Dakota was operating with one turret out of action, damaged at the Santa Cruz battle.


Fixing the jinx: Repair ship Prometheus works on South Dakota and two destroyers, November 1942.

 

Washington, a tightly run ship, had fewer problems, a strong crew, and was equipped with the new SG radar. But Hooper, the gunnery officer, had noted when the radar was installed that the antenna had a blind arc of 80 degrees aft. He pointed this out to his shipboard seniors, but no changes were made.

The big ships started moving as early as November 11. Halsey cut orders for Washington and South Dakota to sail that day, escorting Enterprise to Guadalcanal. At 8:30 a.m., Washington’s bullhorn summoned the special sea and anchor details to their stations, and just as the accommodation ladder was secured, a harbor craft sped up and deposited on Washington’s deck a panting Lt. j.g. Bartlett H. Stoodley, freshly assigned to the battlewagon. The executive officer, Commander Arthur Ayrault, wasted no time with formalities. Stoodley was immediately given a damage control party to command.

That night, all hell broke loose in Ironbottom Sound. Next morning, Halsey realized he was down to his last trump card, the two battleships, steaming 300 miles south of Guadalcanal to escort Enterprise. At noon, Halsey told Lee that he was to head a new unit, Task Force 64, and warned him to be ready for a flank-speed run to Guadalcanal. At 7:15 p.m., Enterprise blinkered Washington the message: “To Commander TF 64: Proceed north with both battleships and your four destroyers at best speed.”

Assigned to escort the two dreadnoughts were four tin cans (destroyers): Walke, Benham, Preston, and Gwin. None had ever operated together before. They were chosen because they had the most fuel remaining in their bunkers. All were of different classes and different divisions. Commander Thomas Fraser, Walke’s skipper, now headed a provisional destroyer squadron.

Command difficulties would hamper the big ships, too. Even though South Dakota and Washington were administratively Battleship Division 6, they had never before operated together, either. But there was no time to think about those issues just then. Everyone aboard Washington was excited. Officers and crew knew they would finally see some surface action.

Washington revved up to 26 knots, while navigator Lt. Cdr. Ed Schanze set a base course of 0 degrees true, straight north. On the bridge, Lee did some sums, then radioed bad news to Halsey: his ships could not be in position until 8 a.m. on the 14th.

After dinner, Washington’s officers remained in the wardroom and Lee and Davis briefed their men on the upcoming battle. Lee covered everything–gunnery, damage control, navigation, even feeding the crew while the ship was at general quarters. Davis fretted over navigating in Ironbottom Sound’s close quarters, but navigator Schanze was calm.


Battleship Washington prepares to leave New York City, August 1942.

 

Two hundred miles to the north, the Japanese were swinging into action. Admiral Gunichi Mikawa split off two cruisers, Suzuya and Maya, from his convoy escort as scheduled. At 12:10 a.m., those two ships swept in on Guadalcanal. At 1:30 a.m., their 8-inch guns ripped open the night. Half an hour and 989 shells later, they ceased firing. The two cruisers had wrecked three planes, but had not been able to destroy Henderson Field.

At dawn the Americans retaliated. As Enterprise sailed through squalls, low clouds, and rain, 10 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers splashed across the rain-slick flight deck and into the sky. At 9:15 a.m., Lt. j.g. Robert D. Gibson reported contact with enemy ships–two battleships and two cruisers. Gibson had actually found Mikawa’s cruisers and destroyers.

He shadowed them for an hour, then swooped in at 9:30 on the heavy cruiser Kinugasa, dropping 500-pound bombs at 1,000 feet. The bombs hit the front of Kinugasa’s bridge, killing the ship’s captain and the executive officer and blowing holes in the ship’s plating. The veteran cruiser quickly acquired a 10-degree port list.

Soon after, Ensigns R.A. Hoogerwerf and P.M. Halloran arrived in their dive-bombers and pounced on Maya. Halloran clipped Maya’s mainmast and crashed into her port side, igniting 4.7-inch shells. Thirty-seven Japanese died, but Maya was back in business soon after the attack.

Gibson’s report brought in 17 more Dauntlesses and their bombs at 10:45. Cruiser Chokai’s boiler room was flooded, the light cruiser Isuzu lost her steering, and near-misses knocked out Kinugasa’s engines and rudder, opening more compartments to the sea. Kinugasa capsized at 11:22, taking 511 of her crew with her to the bottom.

Meanwhile, Rear Adm. Raizo Tanaka’s 23-ship convoy headed south. Early on the 14th, they were attacked by planes from Enterprise. No hits.

Around noon, Navy Lieutenant Al ‘Scoofer’ Coffin led a strike force of Enterprise torpedo bombers and Marine dive-bombers from Guadalcanal against Tanaka’s ships. Two transports were sunk and a third was sent home badly damaged.

All afternoon the Americans pounded the convoy with Marine dive-bombers, Enterprise planes, and B-17 Flying Fortresses. The Flying Fortresses shoved aside intercepting Japanese Zero fighters, whose guns were too light to penetrate the American planes’ tough hides. Those contingents started a fire that sank the transport Brisbane Maru.

At 3:30, came dive-bombers from Enterprise — a tough, well-trained group under Lt. Cdr. Jimmy Flatley. They crippled two freighters, which had to be abandoned, then headed for Guadalcanal. Enterprise herself turned southward to avoid Japanese retaliation. She had more than done her job.


Transport Kinugawa Maru, beached on Guadalcanal after attack by American planes, 15 November 1942.

 

That afternoon aircraft from Enterprise and Marine planes, both based on Henderson Field, hit the convoy, sinking Nako Maru. Zeroes shot down three dive-bombers during the attack, and Ensign Jefferson Carroum spent 73 hours swimming in the sea before being picked up. Some 13 Zeroes were felled.

All day long the battle raged, creating fantastic scenes — skies full of flak bursts, destroyers spewing smoke screens to cover freighters, transports exploding from bomb hits. By dusk, most of Tanaka’s freighters were burning or had been sunk, and his destroyers were stuffed with refugee troops. Six Japanese transports had been sunk or abandoned, and only nine of 23 transports were still in convoy. Japanese losses had amounted to 450 men.

Tanaka blandly noted that “prospects looked poor for the operation,” but he plodded on toward Guadalcanal. His destroyers were so cluttered with troops that he could not fight a battle. His only chance of landing the remainder of the convoy depended on Kondo’s ability to clear Ironbottom Sound.

Kondo was steaming south to meet the light cruiser Sendai. Kondo would directly lead a bombardment unit with Atago, Takao and Kirishima, his heaviest ships. A screening unit of the light cruiser Nagara and six destroyers under Rear Adm. Satsuma Kimura would protect the big ships. A sweeping unit of Sendai and three destroyers would comb the Savo Island waters north of Guadalcanal for enemy ships. Kondo’s plan was simple–blast through Guadalcanal and pummel the airfield. As soon as Ironbottom Sound was secure, Tanaka would land his transports. Meanwhile, Japanese reconnaissance planes were busy. They picked up Lee’s task force steaming toward Guadalcanal, but mistakenly identified the battleships as cruisers.

Lee’s sailors were having a busy day. Washington went to general quarters at 5:40 a.m., and her guns were ready in six minutes. Lieutenant Ray Hunter was officer of the deck, but he was to turn that duty over to navigator Schanze. At the last minute Davis intervened. He wanted the more-experienced Hunter to stay on the bridge, and Schanze to man the navigating table.

The task force stayed at general quarters all day, closing in on Guadalcanal. Radioman Chet Cox listened in on the continuing air-sea battle. Lee decided to wait, patiently staying 100 miles south of Guadalcanal. He noted his ships had only operated together for 34 hours of a high-speed run. Accordingly, he deployed a six-ship column, in this order: Walke, Benham, Preston, Gwin, Washington and South Dakota, with the battlewagons 5,000 yards behind the tin cans.

Both sides were bringing their favored weapons into this battle. The American edge came from their new battleships, equipped with the latest SG radar, 16-inch guns, thick armor, Talk Between Ships radio, and an admiral who understood the use of radar and big guns.

The biggest guns the Japanese had were 14-inchers on Kirishima, a battleship that, while fast (28 knots), was also old (built in 1914). But Kondo was attacking by night with well-trained crews, lookouts whose eyesight outranged American radar, and 90 Long Lance torpedoes, the finest in the world.

At dusk Lee ordered his ships to approach Guadalcanal. Washington’s Capt. Davis told his crew: “We are going into an action area. We have no great certainty what forces we will encounter. We might be ambushed. A disaster of some sort may come upon us. But whatever it is we are going into, I hope to bring all of you back alive. Good luck to all of us.”

The words settled down on Washington’s 1,500-man crew. In the secondary battery fire control, Ensign Hal Berc later said: “We had gone through a million drills, but who knew what a naval action was really about? When the captain finished his speech, there was a general sense of exhilaration. No one despaired.”

Follow the action in Part 2!

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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. This article originally appeared in World War II magazine. He currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J.