First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
War-worn and weary, Commander Tameichi Hara stumbled off the bow of his destroyer Amatsukaze. The Japanese destroyer skipper had just fought the hard Battle of Santa Cruz. He desperately needed some rest. Instead, he would face his greatest ordeal yet.
By October 1942, Japan and the United States had worn each other down in the South Pacific. United States Marines held Guadalcanal’s vital Henderson Field but were ringed in by Japanese soldiers. Both armies were devastated by malaria and supply shortages.
At sea, the picture was equally grim. Japan had just lost 74 planes at Santa Cruz, but the United States had lost the aircraft carrier Hornet, and her sole remaining flattop, Enterprise, was badly damaged. American planes ruled "The Slot" and Ironbottom Sound off Guadalcanal by day, but Japanese ships dominated them by night. Both sides were stalemated, gasping for breath.
But in his spartan sea cabin aboard the super-battleship Musashi at Guam, Japan’s Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, spewed out a stream of orders intended to enable the fleet to regain the initiative, with typical daring.
Since Yamamoto had only one available carrier, Junyo, he turned to his crack battle cruiser force. The plan was simple enough: A convoy of troops, backed up by his battleships Hiei and Kirishima, would steam down The Slot to Guadalcanal. The troops would land and reinforce the army there, while the warships would shell Henderson Field, smashing the air base and its planes.
Kirishima and Hiei were fine ships. Built in 1912 and 1914, respectively, they displaced 37,000 tons and were among Japan’s oldest yet fastest battlewagons, able to race along at 30 knots. When Emperor Hirohito went to sea to review the fleet or to travel to the Empire’s distant holdings, he always rode aboard Hiei.
Key to Yamamoto’s plan were special 14-inch shells loaded in the magazines of Hiei and Kirishima —Type 3 shells, originally designed for anti-aircraft work. Each shell’s casing had a bursting charge that would scatter 470 individual incendiary sub-munitions across an area. These could shatter the parked planes on Henderson Field, but there was a price to pay for the battlewagons packing such ordinance: Type 3 shells were useless against steel warships. If the dreadnoughts ran into American surface ships, they would be fighting at a severe disadvantage. However, one heavy cruiser and 10 destroyers, including Hara’s Amatsukaze, would take part, serving as escorts.
Soon after Musashi’s mimeograph machines cranked out the orders, Rear Adm. Hiroaki Abe hoisted his flag aboard Hiei. Abe, a veteran destroyer skipper, had escorted Japan’s elite carriers from Hawaii to the Indian Ocean. But he had a reputation for timidity. And his hard-working crews were exhausted from months of combat steaming in the tropics. Still, the Japanese had key advantages – well-trained crews, coordinated tactics, and the Type 94 Long Lance torpedo, which outranged American fish. And unlike the American torpedoes, Japanese missiles exploded when they hit their targets.
Hara was aware of all these factors as he returned to his 2,490-ton destroyer. Amatsukaze left Truk on November 9, 1942, and met up with Abe’s force near the Shortland Islands on the 12th. The force headed south in tight formation.
Meanwhile, the Americans were not idle. Japan had changed its naval codes, but U.S. code-breakers quickly went to work. Yamamoto had cut his orders on November 8. On the 9th, those orders, decrypted and translated, were on Vice Adm. William F. Halsey’s desk in Noumea, in Free French New Caledonia. America’s aggressive commander of the South Pacific Theater moved with his usual speed. Figuring that the best defense was a good offense, Halsey countered Yamamoto’s reinforcements with troops of his own, the 182nd Infantry Regiment, and a strong naval escort. Then he handed the ball over to Rear Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner, the equally aggressive deputy in direct command at Guadalcanal.
Early on the morning of November 12, the Americans won the race to reinforce Guadalcanal when eight U.S. transports steamed into Ironbottom Sound. The Japanese hit back at once. The aircraft of their land-based 11th Air Fleet flew down The Slot and into a wild battle. The sky was filled with color–yellow flame, black smoke, and white spray, as Japanese planes pressed home their attacks. In eight minutes of action, the Japanese lost 11 bombers and one fighter. The Americans lost three fighters, took a hit on the destroyer Buchanan and another hit on the heavy cruiser San Francisco – resulting in 5 dead and 7 wounded on Buchanan and 24 dead and 45 wounded on San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Abe’s ships plowed south at 25 knots. Thick clouds gathered rapidly and unleashed a tremendous downpour. The fleet slowed to 18 knots, a high speed for such rain. Japanese crews found it exhausting. Hara thought it the worst rainstorm he had seen in his long career.
At 10 p.m. on the 12th, the Japanese closed in on Guadalcanal. On Hiei, Abe pored over charts. He needed to pop out of the rain to bombard Guadalcanal, so he ordered a simultaneous 180-degree turn by five destroyers. Two destroyers did not get the word. The order was repeated. The ships made the turn, and the Japanese formation broke up. The van arc of five destroyers was now divided into a section of two and another of three, a poor grouping.
Hara wondered why Abe did not form a battle line. Then, just after 11 p.m., Hara’s lookout shouted, "Small island, 60 degrees to port, high mountains dead ahead." Hara peered out from his bridge. The rain had just cleared. Ahead lay the mountains of Guadalcanal, barely visible against a dark background of clouds. Hara, shaking with excitement, sounded general quarters.
The Americans had had a busy day, too. Turner, drawing ships from his own convoy escorts, organized a scratch team of five cruisers and eight destroyers to face the Japanese. Turner next had to choose between Rear Adms. Norman Scott and Daniel J. Callaghan, the two senior officers present, to lead Task Force 67.4, the new force. Scott had commanded an American task force at the Battle of Cape Esperance and had won that battle. Callaghan had spent the campaign pushing paper at Noumea. But Callaghan was senior in rank to Scott by 15 days, so Turner gave command to Callaghan, with Scott serving as a supernumerary.
Around 10 p.m. on the 12th, Callaghan’s force moved northwest in single column, the destroyers Cushing, Laffey, Sterett and O’Bannon leading. Next came the light cruiser Atlanta with Admiral Scott aboard, then Callaghan’s flagship, San Francisco. The cruisers Portland, Helena, and Juneau followed.
Behind Juneau sailed four more destroyers, the brand-new Fletcher bringing up the rear. Callaghan’s formation was poor. His ships with the newest and best radar systems were in the formation’s center or rear.
Callaghan, an austere and deeply religious officer, apparently planned to cross the Japanese "T." Or he may have planned to have his rear and van destroyers make flank attacks. Whatever his plan was, he did not tell his subordinates.
Meanwhile, the Japanese formation was a mess. The destroyers Yudachi and Harusame led the way. Behind them were the cruiser Nagara and the battleships. To starboard were the destroyers Inazuma, Akatsuki and Ikazuchi. To port sailed Yukikaze, Amatsukaze and Teruzuki. Behind the force, maneuvering to port, were three more destroyers, Asagumo, Murasame and Samidare.
The clock turned over at midnight, and on ships all over Ironbottom Sound watch officers wrote in the new date on their deck logs: Friday, November 13.
A few minutes after 1 a.m., Abe, hearing no contact reports from his scattered ships, ordered his battleships to prepare to shell Henderson Field. Gunners, already at action stations, pulled levers, and Type 3 shells came rumbling and squealing up ammunition hoists into the breeches of the 14-inch guns.
At that moment, the Americans were closing in on a nearly reciprocal course at 20 knots. At 1:24 a.m., Helena’s new SG radar picked up the enemy from 13.5 miles (27,100 yards) away, heading right for them. Helena was not the lead ship, Cushing was, and her less efficient SC radar had not picked up Abe’s ships.
Callaghan turned his ships due north. His radar picture was not clear. He called Helena on voice radio to find out what was going on, but the frequency was jammed by ill-disciplined chatter from other ships.
At 1:42, Cushing saw Yudachi and Harusame to port, just 2,000 yards off, and events spun out of control. Cushing swung to port, and Commander Thomas M. Stokes, commanding the destroyer group that Cushing headed, asked Callaghan, "Shall I let them have a couple of fish?" Callaghan was indecisive. He ordered Stokes to stand by to open fire, then to head north. The three destroyers behind Cushing veered left, and so did Atlanta. Callaghan asked Atlanta, "What are you doing?"
"Avoiding our own destroyers," answered Atlanta’s Captain Samuel P. Jenkins. Then Cushing turned north again and picked out Nagara. Now the Americans were about to pass around and between two Japanese battleships.
The Japanese were having their own difficulties. Hiei and Kirishima were ready to open fire on Guadalcanal when Yudachi signaled Abe: "Enemy sighted."
Abe roared, "What is the range and bearing? Where is Yudachi?"
The admiral’s own lookout answered, reporting that he saw four black objects ahead to starboard and 9,000 meters away.
Yudachi was in trouble, too. Her captain, Kiyoshi Kikkawa, later admitted he was being overcautious after a fiasco in an earlier battle. This night, Abe’s moves left Yudachi out of position and lost. Kikkawa blundered into the American column, unready to fire, not knowing where the Americans or the other Japanese ships were. Kikkawa conned his ship back and forth, trying to find the other Japanese ships and the enemy, then headed into battle.
On Hiei, a shaken Abe, his voice faltering, ordered his men to switch from Type 3 shells to armor-piercing ordnance. The gunners tore the Type 3 shells out of the breeches and hurled them out onto the decks while crews in the magazines scrambled to load armor-piercing shot in the ammunition lifts. Hiei’s signal officers screamed hysterical orders over the radio to the Japanese ships, ignoring security measures.
Amatsukaze was calm, however. Hara told his men: "No sweat, boys. We are well prepared to engage when the distance is down to 3,000 meters."
Crucial minutes passed as the two forces raced toward each other at a combined 40 knots, neither group alert, neither ready to fire. Callaghan realized he was surrounded by Japanese ships and signaled, "Odd ships fire to starboard, even ships fire to port." This incredible order took no account of his ships’ varied armament. Light cruisers armed with 6-inch guns were ordered to swap broadsides with Abe’s battleships, armed with 14-inch guns.
On Hiei, an exasperated Abe did not know where his ships were. He turned on his searchlight and pinned Atlanta 5,000 meters ahead.
Atlanta opened fire on the enemy searchlights, firing at barely 1,600 yards. She fired on three enemy destroyers, scoring hits on Akatsuki. The damaged Japanese ship hit back with a slew of torpedoes that blasted Atlanta’s thin armor and exploded in the forward engine room. Shells from Akatsuki started fires on Atlanta’s upperworks.
With her engine room flooded, the burning Atlanta drifted away from the action, taking on water. The battle now became what American naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison called "a barroom brawl after the lights went out."
The point of the American column was the destroyer Cushing, and she was headed for Hiei, which was 1,000 yards to port. Cushing swung to starboard, spewing six torpedoes at the battleship. All missed. Cushing then opened up with 5-inchers and machine guns. The torrent of tracers and shells cascaded all over Amatsukaze. Hara was transfixed by the fireworks display, but his ship was untouched.
Meanwhile, Hiei fired a 14-inch salvo, and Cushing was blasted by 10 major hits. The destroyer lay hopelessly crippled under enemy machine-gun fire that cut down sailors at their posts. Helpless, the ship was abandoned.
Behind Cushing came Laffey, which sprinted by the two Japanese battleships, spraying Hiei with more shells and machine-gun fire. One bullet cut down Captain Masakane Suzuki, Abe’s chief of staff; another wounded Abe. But Laffey’s torpedoes failed to arm, and bounced off Hiei. Laffey ran into three Japanese destroyers. One, Teruzuki, slammed a torpedo into Laffey, and the American ship’s stern blew off. Kirishima put a 14-inch shell into Laffey’s boiler room, and her skipper, Lt. Cmdr. William E. Hank, ordered the crew to abandon ship. As the U.S. bluejackets jumped into the water, Laffey exploded, killing many on the ship and in the water, including Hank.
The next American ship was Sterett, and she tangled with Nagara. The Japanese blasted Sterett’s helm control. O’Bannon, right behind, pulled even with Sterett, fouling her gunsights. The Japanese then shot out Sterett’s radar and radio antennas.
A Japanese destroyer appeared 1,000 yards off Sterett’s starboard bow. Sterett launched a torpedo. The enemy ship sank instantly. The target was probably the destroyer Akatsuki. With her torpedoes gone, half her main guns knocked out, a fire aft, and one-fifth of her crew casualties, Sterett staggered east and south, out of action.
O’Bannon was next, and she could not score a hit. Behind her was San Francisco, busy firing 8-inch shells at Yudachi. San Francisco’s skipper, Captain Cassin Young, a Pearl Harbor hero, ordered his ship to switch targets to another destroyer. The main battery director did not see the disabled Atlanta drift into San Francisco’s line of fire, and seconds later shells from San Francisco smashed through Atlanta’s superstructure, killing Admiral Scott on the cruiser’s flag bridge. Left standing was a stunned young Lieutenant Stewart Moredock.
On San Francisco’s bridge, Callaghan watched the chaos and ordered his ship to check fire. Incredibly, the message was sent out on the general circuit, "Cease fire own ships."
The U.S. forces were incredulous. Portland’s captain, Laurance T. DuBose, signaled back, "What is the dope, did you want to cease fire?" Callaghan broadcasted, "Give her hell," and "We want the big ones! Get the big ones first!" Good lines for a war movie, but vague orders.
Meanwhile, the Japanese were regrouping, too. Amatsukaze broke out of the confusion and tried to find a target. Hara saw some American ships, which then disappeared into the Guadalcanal coastline. Hara looked at Hiei. The big ship’s mast was burning.
Hiei was battling with San Francisco. Hiei’s initial salvos were Type 3 shells, which exploded instantly when they hit the cruiser’s thin hull. The anti-personnel shells wrecked gear on the upper decks and killed anyone in the open but did little other damage.
But soon Hiei’s gunners loaded armor-piercing shot. Hiei’s third salvo blasted San Francisco’s bridge. The cruiser’s navigator, Commander Rae E. Arison, was hurled over a bulwark and down two decks, where he landed on a 5-inch gun. The crew of the gun, mistakenly thinking Arison was dead, in turn tossed him unceremoniously onto the deck, flinging ejected hot shell cases after him.
Read the thrilling conclusion 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.