Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
Dave's tale of battle began in Part One and continued in Part Two ...
South Dakota now had a moment to breathe. Her executive officer, Commander A.E. Uehlinger, was surrounded by fires in Battle II, the alternate conning tower. For a time it seemed they were trapped, but determined shipmates doused the fires and closed open steam lines. With 39 dead and 59 wounded, Captain Gatch realized his ship was in no shape for battle. He withdrew at 1 a.m., “to the great relief of the Task Force commander,” wrote Lee.
Davis was less charitable in his report of the action: “Retired? Hell, (South Dakota) just left the action. We didn’t know anything about it, and we didn’t see or hear from her until morning.”
Meanwhile, Kondo pursued Washington. At 12:11 a.m., he spotted the American ship, and at 12:13 he fired eight torpedoes at 4,000 yards — all of which missed — and then swung 300 degrees to face Washington broadside. Lee was now fighting six ships single-handed. His only advantage was Washington herself–fast, powerful, undamaged, well-protected, and well-crewed. Lee swung on course 340 at 12:20 to continue the battle.
Shells were now flying at Washington. Lieutenant junior grade Bob Macklin watched "white-hot shells as they left the enemy turrets. They seemed to float slowly toward us, picking up speed as they came, becoming bright red as they drew closer. Remarkably, we didn’t quail at the prospect of being hit, but rather the shots were subjected to professional criticism.”
Seely watched “between the blinding flashes of our secondary guns, splashes close aboard, which from their size could only have been made by large-caliber projectiles. By their second salvo I could see it was the usual Jap pattern: over — short — on; I awaited the arrival of their third salvo with considerable interest.”
But Kondo was running out of power and time. He summoned Kimura and Hashimoto to attack, but Hashimoto was far astern of the westward-moving battle, and Kimura was racing to catch up. The only ships left were Tanaka’s destroyers, Oyashio and Kagero, sprinting down from the north. Kondo swung his own ships on Washington at 24 knots but saw the American coming back, right for him and Tanaka’s transports. Cautious and timid, worn down from the loss of his battleship, Kondo then pulled back to cover the transports and had his ships make smoke.
On Washington, Lee watched the gray smoke mass arise ahead. He figured nothing could be gained from attacking the transports now. In any case, he had delayed the Japanese so long that the transports would have to arrive by daylight, when American air power could savage them. He had one ship left. Best not to push his incredible luck any further. He ordered Washington to withdraw.
The battleship turned 180 degrees to starboard at 26 knots and steamed toward more Japanese destroyers — Kagero and Oyashio to starboard and Kimura’s ships to port. The Japanese had poor firing positions, but they launched torpedoes anyway. One exploded right after launch, sending up a 200-foot-high water mushroom just behind Washington.
To the north, Kondo decided enough was enough. He ordered a general disengagement to the north.
Kirishima, however, was still afloat. Like Hiei the previous day, her boilers and engines still worked, but seawater sloshed into her steering machinery compartments. The rudder was jammed at 10 degrees starboard.
The dreadnought’s skipper, Captain Sanji Iwabuchi, fought to save Kirishima, but the flooding defied control. Fire ripped through the magazines. Iwabuchi flooded them, but that only worsened things. Orders to evacuate the engine room came too late, and the firemen were stranded there. Nagara tried to tow the big ship home.
It was a familiar situation for the cruiser. The last time Nagara had been required to tow an ailing flagship had been at Midway, when she tried to drag the damaged carrier Akagi, which sank anyway. Now Kirishima shuffled behind Nagara, but the dreadnought kept listing to starboard. Iwabuchi summoned the crew to the bow for what was now becoming a familiar ritual in the Imperial Japanese Navy, lowering the flag, preparing to scuttle, and transferring the Emperor’s portrait, in this case to destroyer Asagumo. At 3:25 a.m., Kirishima sank several miles northwest of Savo Island, the second battleship Japan had lost in two days and the first enemy ship sunk by an American battleship since the Spanish-American War. Kirishima’s final explosions were watched with great interest by a horde of shipwrecked Preston and Walke sailors, still awaiting rescue, and wondering which side would do so.
Another Japanese victim was dying nearby, the destroyer Ayanami. Forty of the destroyer’s crew had been killed, and most of Ayanami’s remaining crew boarded Uranami, but 30 of them, including Ayanami’s captain, took a boat to Guadalcanal. Ayanami sank sometime after 2 a.m. after two explosions.
Another destroyer was ailing, too – the American Benham, which was staggering home. Benham’s hull was badly fractured. Her crew lightened the ship forward and tried to repair the damage. At 3 a.m., her skipper, Lt. Cdr. John B. Taylor, evacuated the ship’s forward half to reduce strain on the keel. Taylor radioed his situation to Lee.
Lee ordered Benham and her escort, Gwin, to Espirito Santo, but gave Taylor permission to act as to abandoning Benham. All morning Taylor nursed his ship toward home, but by mid-afternoon, it was too much. Gwin evacuated Benham and tried to sink her – an attempt that only served to demonstrate the weakness of the American Mark XV torpedo. One exploded prematurely, the second missed ahead, the third ran erratically. Gwin shelled Benham until a 5-inch round hit Benham’s magazines at 7:35 p.m. and sank her.
Washington was heading home, too. At 4 a.m., a weary Ray Hunter was relieved of his duty after 24 hours straight as officer of the deck. But the ship was still at general quarters, so he stayed on the bridge. At 6:49 a.m., when the ship secured from general quarters, Hunter staggered down to his bunk.
Crewmen came out on weather decks for air and smokes to find expended 5-inch shell casings lying all over the decks. Hal Berc rubbed his eyes in the morning sunlight, caught the sight of dawn rays glancing off Old Glory, fluttering from the mainmast, and felt proud. The only hit the ship had taken was a 5-inch shell-hole in the air search radar.
At 9:51, Lee’s lookouts spotted South Dakota coming up, leaking oil and signaling: “We are not effective.” She took station ahead of Washington, and her leaking oil entered Washington’s evaporators, polluting Washington’s water lines for months. That evening, three destroyers arrived to shepherd the big ships home.
The battle was still not over. Kondo ordered Tanaka to get his transports to their anchorage and beach them. Tanaka complied, but Mikawa objected, saying beaching would only make landing troops more difficult. During the pre-dawn hours of November 15, discussions between the admirals filled Japanese naval airwaves. In the end, Yamamoto himself endorsed the beaching plan. At 4 a.m., four transports ran aground on Guadalcanal. At 4:30 a.m., Tanaka took his destroyers home. Most were still jammed with soldiers from the earlier battles, who would never reach Guadalcanal.
The maneuvers were watched by shipwrecked Walke and Preston sailors, still awaiting rescue. At 5:55 a.m., they watched as seven Marine dive-bombers attacked the beached transports. Ten minutes later, planes from Enterprise came in, blasting transports and unloaded gear.
Finally the U.S. destroyer Meade turned up and raked the freighters for 42 minutes, starting fires on all four. After that, Meade pulled 266 Walke and Preston survivors out of the drink. All were relieved to be saved by fellow Americans, and not the Japanese.
Meade missed two survivors from Walke, Seaman Dale E. Land and Machinist’s Mate Harold Taylor. After two days and nights in the water they reached Guadalcanal, but behind Japanese lines. They trekked eastward, stealing food from Japanese bivouacs. After finding a Japanese rifle and ammunition bandolier, they took up a sideline of sniping, killing a number of Japanese. Taylor lost his life in the struggle to survive, but Land, who staggered to within shouting distance of U.S. lines and was picked up, delirious, with a temperature of 106, did recover from his ordeal.
Radio commentators on both sides were delirious, too, as they claimed victory. Japan’s claims were immense: eight cruisers, five destroyers, and two battleships damaged. This alleged triumph cost Japan one battleship, one cruiser and three destroyers, with damage to seven transports.
Japan’s Domei News Agency crowed: “The American naval debacle in the Solomon area signified land hostilities on Guadalcanal have passed the decisive stage, having sent to the sea bottom 10,000 officers and men, more than half its battleships, almost all aircraft carriers, more than half its cruisers. The United States can no longer hope to carry out a large-scale counteroffensive against Japan.” This report was posted on Washington bulletin boards and resulted in laughter.
The United States reported sinking one battleship, five cruisers and five destroyers in exchange for two light cruisers and six destroyers. After the battle, when Lee and Gatch discussed the after-action report, Gatch asked Lee to confirm some outrageous battle claims by South Dakota. Lee was astounded at the request and refused.
But South Dakota received most of the credit for the outcome of the battle. The ship went to New York for repairs, and Gatch described his ship’s role to The Saturday Evening Post, which published the story of “Battleship X” — a code name given because the Navy did not want South Dakota’s name in print. A book about the incident followed, entertaining stateside readers and infuriating Washington sailors.
While all the claims made at the time were highly inflated, 242 Americans and 249 Japanese did perish in the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The United States lost three replaceable destroyers, while Japan lost an irreplaceable battleship and a destroyer.
Also lost was Kondo’s career. He claimed two battleships sunk, but not everyone swallowed Kondo’s gun-decked report. Yamamoto and his staff looked at the mounting toll of ships and men and recommended the unthinkable to the Emperor — withdrawal from Guadalcanal. Kondo was fired.
The Japanese post-mortem also outlined other problems during the battle. One was all the torpedo misses, which were the result of poor firing angles. The failure to sink South Dakota was caused by Kondo’s ships being armed with contact-fused Type 3 shells instead of armor-piercing shot. Then, too, Kondo had divided his forces (a mistake since the time of Xerxes) and refused to believe his own lookouts when they identified the American battleships. A more aggressive Japanese leader might have won that night.
There was second-guessing on the American side, too. After the battle opened, Lee’s planning and execution kept Task Force 64 together. The battle never disintegrated into a brawl like the one the previous night.
The American weaknesses were many, however: the heterogeneous nature of the destroyer force; poor American torpedoes; appalling work on South Dakota that made America’s latest battleship a menace only to herself; and the gap in Washington’s radar coverage. Lee wrote: “We realized then that it should not be forgotten now, that our superiority was due almost entirely to our possession of radar. Certainly we have no edge on the Japs in experience, skill, training or performance of personnel.”
He did not list some other things that went right, like his own effective handling of the crisis and appreciation of radar, and Washington’s superb crew.
Still, Washington and South Dakota sailors fought pitched battles in bars over credit for the night’s honors. Actually, the question of who deserved the credit was immaterial. There were plenty of heroes.
One thing was clear after the battle. The Japanese had sent a convoy loaded with an entire infantry division of 12,000 men and equipment to Guadalcanal, enough to turn the tide of battle. Only 2,000 soldiers, 260 cases of ammunition and 1,500 bags of rice (a four-day supply) got ashore, after much punishment. The Americans shattered the convoy, sank two battleships, and put ashore 5,500 of their own men and tons of supplies. The Americans had gained the edge on Guadalcanal, would clear the island, start climbing up the Solomons ladder, and win the war.
Heavy thoughts of this nature did not strike Washington’s crew on November 16, as exhausted Sailors in dungarees gulped their first fresh air in 20 hours, dragged on Camels, or swallowed coffee. Captain Davis declared: “holiday routine” that day — no drills, and when work was done, the crew trooped down to enjoy ice cream sodas and watch Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan in Santa Fe Trail.
At noon on November 17, general quarters sounded for entering Noumea and Washington moored at 2:20 p.m. in nine fathoms of water at the end of 360 feet of anchor chain, shifting colors from foremast to stern as she did so. The officer of the deck laconically noted in his log that the tanker E.J. Henry came alongside at 5:59 p.m. to provide fuel.
A few hundred miles away, a Japanese staff officer was also penning a report, an appreciation of the Pacific war situation just before the two battles of Guadalcanal, which read, “It must be said that the success or failure in recapturing Guadalcanal Island, and the vital naval battle related to it, is the fork in the road which leads to victory for them or us.”
The fork in the road had been reached. After Washington headed south from Ironbottom Sound on the morning of November 14, it was clear which way the war would go.
Don’t wait to put South Pacific on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it!
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.