Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
Dave's tale of battle resumes. ...
At 7:20, Lee ordered Task Force 64 to head northeast, to run past the western end of Guadalcanal. Up in Washington’s foretop Lt. Cdr. Harry Seely, main battery spotting officer, peered through massive lenses into the gathering dusk. At 7:45, lookouts saw gunfire flashes to port. Seely looked on and saw Tanaka’s transports and escorts in the distance, fighting off the last air attacks of the day.
Lee steamed northeast, passed Savo Island on the starboard side and turned east. From there on, Halsey’s orders stopped and Lee’s initiative took over. The night was beautiful, moonlit, warm, and the sea was dead calm. Lieutenant Stoodley said the ship seemed to “slide through the sea as though in heavy oil.”
As Lee’s ships sped through the night, his radio operators heard American radio traffic. PT-boats were reporting Lee’s moves in plain English, blaring, “There go two big ones, but I don’t know who they are.” The PT-boats swung in to attack Lee’s ships.
Lee personally got on the TBS voice radio and called Guadalcanal, asking that the PT-boats be ordered to pull out. Guadalcanal, however, didn’t believe Lee was who he claimed to be.
Lee bellowed his Annapolis nickname: “This is Ching Chong China Lee! Chinese, catchee? Refer your boss about Ching Lee. Call off your boys!” Lee’s temper did the job. Guadalcanal answered, “Identity established. We are not after you.”
At the precise moment that Lee turned east, Kondo’s ships swept in behind Task Force 64 and split into three units. Kimura swung off in his flagship Nagara, while Hashimoto in Sendai did the same. Just as the convoy split, lookouts on the destroyer Shikinami spotted enemy ships bearing 200 degrees, just west of south. Uranami lookouts had them in sight, too, and identified them as “new-type cruisers.” The Japanese Navy was not familiar with the pyramid masts and high speeds of America’s third-generation battleships. They expected American dreadnoughts to resemble the second-generation vessels they had sunk at Pearl Harbor: slow-moving ships with cage or tripod masts.
Even so, Hashimoto took his ships clockwise around Savo, with one destroyer, Ayanami, heading counterclockwise to sweep for enemy vessels.
At 10:31, Atago, Kondo’s flagship, picked up the enemy. By 11 p.m., Kondo had a flurry of reports. At 11:07, Sendai flashed that the Americans were heading due west, south of Savo.
Kondo, sure that the enemy comprised four destroyers and two cruisers, and therefore inferior to him in armament, torpedoes, and weight of shell, ordered his light forces to attack first so that his battleship could shell Guadalcanal. Kondo was afraid that Kirishima would, as Hiei had, fall victim to enemy light forces. More important, his battleship was still loaded with Type 3 14-inch anti-aircraft shells from the previous battle, excellent for shelling airfields, but useless for punching holes in armored warships. Kondo swung his ships around in a countermarch just north of Savo, back to the west.
So three Japanese daggers moved south. Kimura’s group, headed by Nagara, to the west of Savo, Ayanami on her own west of Savo, and Hashimoto’s group, headed by Sendai, east of Savo. They knew the Americans were there. They did not know the Americans had battleships, let alone modern battleships.
The battleship crews were not napping. Washington gun boss Walsh sat ready in the upper conning tower and ordered his gunners to load their 16-inch weapons. The book said it could be done in 30 seconds. Washington’s gun crews did it in 14.
At 11 p.m., Washington’s radar located a target bearing 340 true, broad on the starboard bow, 18,000 yards away. Lieutenant Hank Seely, in his spotting tower, eyed Sendai with his main director. On Washington’s bridge, Ching Lee took a long drag on a Philip Morris and said to Davis, “Well, stand by, Glenn, here they come!”
At 11:17 Washington’s bridge ordered, “Open fire when ready.” The ship’s electric bells rang twice, and blinding tongues of flame shot out of the main guns. Seconds later, the secondary 5-inchers opened up on the destroyer Shikinami.
Next, South Dakota fired on the same target. Her radiomen heard Japanese voices chattering from 13 stations. South Dakota’s action report claimed that Shikinami sank instantly. That was not the case, however. Hashimoto’s ships were unhurt. Sendai was straddled, so Hashimoto made smoke and wheeled north, regrouping for a more favorable moment to attack.
“It looks like he’s turned around and beat it,” Davis said to Lee on Washington’s bridge as they watched Hashimoto withdraw. Then Lee’s destroyers raced in to attack.
Seely watched the tin cans clash. It looked to him like the entire east coast of Savo erupted with white blobs of light. Actually, the Japanese destroyers Ayanami and Uranami were firing, and behind them were a cruiser and five destroyers, headed straight for Lee’s four greyhounds.
The American destroyers lacked SG radar, night training, and cohesion. Walke located Ayanami; Benham followed, while Preston spotted Nagara. Soon all four ships were firing at the light cruiser.
Kimura’s 5.5-inch guns, armed with flashless powder, hit back. He also fired torpedoes, but the range was too close. All missed.
Some Japanese shells did find their mark. Preston was heavily hit in the two firerooms, killing everyone there. The second stack toppled over into the searchlight platform, collapsing it onto the starboard torpedo tubes and igniting their contents. The area was soon a mass of blazing wreckage. The executive officer was killed, the forward guns jammed in train, and Preston began to settle into the sea.
Commander Max C. Stormes, Preston’s skipper, ordered abandon ship at 11:36. A minute later, the ship rolled over on her starboard side. Then she hung with her bow in the air for 10 minutes before sinking. Gone were 117 men (45 percent of the crew) and her captain.
On Washington, Seaman Naamen Berman, a peacetime boxer, standing next to Lee, was stunned at the speed with which Preston went down. Sailors on Gwin watched, too, but had little time to grieve, as their ship was hit at 11:32 in the aft engine room. Superheated steam drove out the crews. The concussion unlatched torpedo restraining links, and Gwin’s fish slid harmlessly into the sea. Another shell hit her stern, splitting open two depth charges.
Shells hit Walke as her skipper, Commander Thomas E. Fraser, was swinging to launch torpedoes. At 11:38 she was hit by a Long Lance that exploded her No. 2 magazine and blew off the ship’s bow. Power and communications failed, and the ship blazed fiercely. Fraser ordered abandon ship. Four rafts got away safely, but as Walke sank, her depth charges exploded, killing 80 — including Fraser.
Berman, aboard Washington, saw Walke get hit. “I didn’t realize what it was–just BOOM, goodbye,” he said later.
Another Long Lance blasted Benham’s bow, ripping off a piece of it. The ship looped to escape gunfire, then staggered back in to action at 10 knots.
All four of Lee’s destroyers were now out of the fight. He was down to his battleships. Lee swung in to attack, his ships racing by blazing hulks and shipwrecked crewmen floating in oily water.
Still, the destroyers’ sacrifice had value. Washington found Ayanami and shelled her. More important, Fraser’s tin cans took torpedoes Kimura had aimed at Lee’s battleships. “It was beyond admiration,” Lee wrote in his after-action report, “and it probably saved our bacon.”
Washington and South Dakota raced along at 26 knots. In the engine rooms, the temperature was 112 degrees. Washington Shipfitter John Brown, who would later become the guiding force of his ship’s reunion group, felt the concussions of Walke’s depth charges going off.
On South Dakota, crews were patching minor holes from 5-inch hits by Ayanami when the chief engineer tied down her circuit breakers at 11:33, violating safety procedures. The system instantly went into series, and the big ship lost electrical power. Radar, fire control, turret motors, ammunition hoists, radios — everything went out, with her guns locked in train. Captain Gatch wrote later: “The psychological effect on the officers and crew was most depressing. The absence of this gear gave all hands a feeling of being blindfolded.” It was worse than that. South Dakota was facing 14 ships scattered across a 12-mile box on a dark night, amid spurious reports of enemy batteries on Savo and motor torpedo boats.
Washington was now the only intact ship left in the force. In fact, at that moment Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet. She was the only barrier between Kondo’s ships and Guadalcanal. If the Japanese could push Washington aside, they could put Henderson Field out of commission, and Japan could retrieve the island from the Americans, dealing yet another terrible and morale-crushing defeat to Allied arms – perhaps enough to gain Japan a favorable peace in the Pacific. If this one ship did not stop 14 Japanese ships right then and there, America might lose the war.
On Washington’s bridge, Lieutenant Ray Hunter still had the conn. He had just heard that South Dakota had gone off the air and had seen Walke and Preston “blow sky high.” Dead ahead lay their burning wreckage, while hundreds of men were swimming in the water and Japanese ships were racing in.
Hunter had to do something. The course he took now could decide the war. “Come left,” he said, and Washington straightened out on a course parallel to the one on which she was steaming. Washington’s rudder change put the burning destroyers between her and the enemy, preventing her from being silhouetted by their fires.
The move made the Japanese momentarily check fire. Lacking radar, they could not spot Washington behind the blazing wreckage. Kondo had to figure out what to do.
Meanwhile, Washington raced through burning seas. Everyone could see dozens of men in the water clinging to floating wreckage. Flag Lieutenant Raymond Thompson said, “Seeing that burning, sinking ship as it passed so close aboard, and realizing that there was nothing I, or anyone, could do about it, was a devastating experience.”
Commander Ayrault, Washington’s executive officer, clambered down ladders, ran to Bart Stoodley’s damage-control post, and ordered Stoodley to cut loose life rafts. That saved a lot of lives. But the men in the water had some fight left in them. One was heard to scream, “Get after them, Washington!”
Everyone wondered why South Dakota–whose electrical problems had her virtually paralyzed–was plodding along silently behind. She did not follow Washington when the flagship turned left, but sailed in front of the flaming destroyers, presenting a perfect silhouette. The Japanese reacted quickly, illuminating South Dakota with searchlights. Nagara and four tin cans raced in for a torpedo attack. They fired at 4,000 yards, but miraculously none hit.
At 11:36, a three-minute eternity, South Dakota restored partial power and opened fire on Nagara. The first salvo set three planes on the Japanese cruiser’s quarterdeck on fire. The next salvo’s concussion snuffed out the blaze and sent the planes into the sea.
Washington opened up on the enemy searchlights. But there were dozens of blips on the radar screen, most of them Savo Island, making tracking difficult.
At 11:42, South Dakota — still having problems — fired a salvo from her No. 3 turret that set fire to one of her Kingfisher seaplanes. Once again the battleship was illuminated. Damage control crews, including a 12-year-old sailor named Calvin Graham — he had falsified his age to join the Navy — quelled the blaze.
Meanwhile, Kondo’s battleship and two cruisers were still marking time north of Savo. Kondo, fearing a repetition of the Friday the 13th chaos, held his big ships back. His convoy was coming behind them. All Japan needed to win the war was one good shove.
Lee, meanwhile, made his moves. He put Washington on course 282 at 11:35, and then detached the battered Gwin and Benham to retire; the wounded destroyers were a hindrance.
Now Kondo moved. Takao sighted Washington, and Atago’s lookout said the enemy vessel “looked like a battleship.” Kondo disagreed, but now he figured it was time to shell the airfield. At 11:54 he set course 130, straight for Guadalcanal and Washington.
Washington’s SG radar had picked up Kondo’s force and was tracking it as it came in. South Dakota was not doing so well. Her radar had gone out again. When it came back on, it picked up Kondo forward of her starboard beam just three miles away. Kondo saw South Dakota, too, at 11:58, but even now he still did not believe it was a battleship.
At 11:40, Washington located Kondo’s two lead destroyers, two cruisers and Kirishima. The firing solution was sent to the guns, but just as the firing circuits were to be closed, Walsh yelled, “Check fire!”
Walsh was afraid radar had picked out South Dakota instead of Kirishima. The problem was the location of the SG radar. The 80-degree blind arc left a gap precisely where South Dakota was. Washington’s gunners had to wait.
Down in the engine room, Johnny Brown broke out a jug that normally stored anti-corrosive gas compounds. Tonight it held illegal raisin jack. Everyone had a swig.
Lee’s ships were now 11 miles west of Savo. Kondo launched torpedoes at South Dakota, but none hit. At precisely midnight, the beginning of November 15, Atago’s main searchlight picked out South Dakota. Kondo and his staff trained binoculars and studied the battleship’s distinctive pyramid foremast.
Kondo finally believed he was facing America’s newest battleships. All Japanese ships aimed at South Dakota, and soon a variety of shells of many calibers were flying at her. So were a large number of torpedoes, but once again the Americans were lucky and the torpedoes all missed. South Dakota’s Type B armor plate defeated a 14-inch shell, but 26 hits landed on her superstructure. Many rounds failed to explode. Other incoming shells were Type 3 ammunition, which could not penetrate South Dakota’s armor. But damage was done, nonetheless. The shells cut up South Dakota’s radar and communications cables, shattering radar plot and disabling gun directors. Four of six fire-control radars were destroyed.
More shells hit South Dakota. A 14-incher hit outboard of the No. 3 turret’s roller, jamming her in train and ripping open a fuel line. South Dakota was in little danger of sinking, but she was virtually useless. Worse, her captain had lost touch with Washington. Lee wrote later that the effect of the shelling was to “render one of our new battleships deaf, dumb, blind and impotent.”
Washington and her crew watched all this as the quarter moon vanished, leaving behind darkness. Washington was still tracking the questionable target. It could not be South Dakota, could it? Then the target lit her searchlights, illuminating South Dakota and revealing herself as Kirishima. The Japanese ship was 8,400 yards away on the starboard beam. “Body-punching range,” Seely called it.
In seconds, Washington’s main battery plot had a solution from the SG radar, which was functioning perfectly. At precisely midnight, Washington fired a nine-gun salvo that straddled Kirishima. A minute later Washington’s third salvo landed fair and square amidships, causing massive explosions.
Kirishima and Washington exchanged fire. Hooper fed the fire-control data into his range finders, and shells were hurled at the Japanese dreadnought. “Fire control and battery functioned as smoothly as though she were engaged in a well-rehearsed target practice,” Lee wrote later.
Kirishima was covered with shells. Seely watched as three of the four main 14-inch turrets were knocked out and a “dull red glow amidships began to brighten considerably.” At 12:07 a.m., Washington fired the last of 75 16-inch rounds. The shells disabled two of Kirishima’s main turrets, started fires, jammed the rudder, and drilled waterline holes. Kirishima started flooding and began circling to port, coughing out gusts of smoke.
Lee was still worried about the location of South Dakota. That unhappy ship was still in Washington’s blind arc. Lee planned to head north and attack the transports.
The destruction of Kirishima caught Kondo by surprise. He had been convinced that South Dakota was being sunk and was alone. Shelling Henderson Field was now impossible. Atago and Takao were damaged. Kondo ordered three destroyers to remove Kirishima’s crew. The rest of Kondo’s ships raced off to pursue Washington.
Follow the battle in Part 3!
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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.