First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
On Helena, Lieutenant William Jones watched Hiei batter San Francisco. Every time a shell hit San Francisco, Jones saw sparks from the stack shoot hundreds of feet in the air. Another shell slammed into San Francisco’s bridge, throwing men over the side. The next salvo was devastating. The first shell killed Captain Cassin Young; the second exploded on a girder, which fell on Callaghan, killing him and all but one member of his staff. Another shell killed the acting executive officer, Commander Jerome C. Hubbard, and the regular exec, Commander Mark Crouter, who had been wounded earlier that day in a Japanese air attack and had refused to leave the ship.
Command fell upon Lt. Cmdr. Bruce McCandless, who found the damaged flagship staggering south, battered by 45 hits, with most of her guns silent, 25 fires burning, and 500 tons of water aboard.
But he could not pull the ship out. Other ships did not know Callaghan and Scott had been killed. If San Francisco retired, so might the whole force, and that would mean total defeat. McCandless ordered his battered ship west, back into action. Then McCandless inspected the navigating bridge. Bodies lay strewn everywhere amid twisted metal. Water poured from punctured cooling systems, and the ship’s broken siren wailed.
Lieutenant Commander Herbert E. Schonland, the damage-control officer, who was senior to McCandless, now arrived on the bridge. He was fully occupied with saving the ship, so he left McCandless with the conn. McCandless continued to sail west, but eventually he brought the battered heavy cruiser out of the battle.
The ship’s crew battled her damage. Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Reinhardt Keppler helped save the ship from fire. Schonland, using flush valves, kept her afloat. Keppler, Schonland, McCandless and Callaghan were awarded the Medal of Honor. No other U.S. ship earned as many as four such medals in one engagement.
Behind San Francisco was Portland, in her first night battle. Her Captain DuBose, who had angrily queried Callaghan’s cease-fire order, had swung Portland north to chase a target when a torpedo hit her at 1:58 a.m. The hit sheared off the starboard screws and bent her shell plating so that Portland was locked into a starboard circle.
Just as Portland completed her first loop, Hiei turned up and the two ships traded salvos. Portland claimed hits. Hiei steamed past, and Portland found herself surrounded by American ships, without a target, circling helplessly.
Next came Helena, equipped with modern radar. She found the Japanese destroyer Akatsuki and shot out her searchlight. Akatsuki hit back, inflicting only minor damage, although one of its shells did cause a clock to stop on Helena at 1:48 a.m.
Helena’s gunnery officer saw a Japanese battleship steam by barely 300 yards off. He phoned the firing bridge, "There’s a Japanese battleship on our port quarter."
The firing bridge replied, "We know it," but before Helena could fire, the Japanese ship steamed off into the dark. Helena wound through a group of burning and exploding ships, looking for enemy vessels. She sustained only slight damage.
Juneau followed. She was hit early by a torpedo that struck her port side in the forward fireroom. The central fire control was knocked out. Unable to move, she fired a few rounds, some of them seemingly at Helena, then staggered out of battle.
Meanwhile, on Amatsukaze, Hara found several American ships to starboard. He closed to 3,000 meters, wondered why the enemy did not shoot back, and fired eight torpedoes. He then swung hard to port and watched as cruiser Yudachi charged the American ships.
The ships were the four tail destroyers of the American column, Aaron Ward, Barton, Monssen, and Fletcher. Aaron Ward tried to avoid the battered Sterett and found herself under Japanese searchlights. She collected nine direct hits, which shattered her director control, radar, and steering. Within 10 minutes she coasted to a halt. Behind Aaron Ward was Barton, which saw enemy searchlights pick out Aaron Ward and fired at the lights. After seven minutes of battle, Barton stopped to avoid a collision. As shestopped, she was hit by one of Amatsukaze’s torpedoes. Hara watched two pillars of fire rise over Barton. Hara’s crew gave their skipper a roaring ovation. Hara spun the helm and took off to find another target.
On Barton all was chaos, but only for a few seconds. Sixty percent of her crew died as she quickly sank; the torpedo had hit her main fireroom, and then another enemy torpedo had struck her forward engine room.
Behind Barton was Monssen, under Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. McCombs. After watching Barton sink, McCombs engaged two enemy destroyers in the dark. Then star shells burst overhead. McCombs wondered if they were from an American vessel. He figured they were, and lit his recognition lights. They attracted two enemy searchlights and a wall of gunfire–37 hits in all. "Abandon ship" was ordered at 2:20 a.m.
Last in line was Fletcher, a big, new destroyer, lead ship of her class, equipped with new SG radar. Her crew watched Barton "disappear in fragments" and Monssen sink. Fletcher zagged through the chaotic ocean, firing at a variety of ships, including Helena, and, incredibly, emerged unscathed.
The Japanese side was also confused. Nagara, with her distinctive three funnels, attracted a lot of American attention but took no major hits. Akatsuki, on the other hand, battered Atlanta but drew fire from at least five American ships and was sunk.
The luckless Yudachi committed the same error as Monssen, illuminating her recognition lights, which invited a flurry of American shells. Yudachi was left dead in the water at 2:26 a.m.
Hara had a rough night, too. After sinking Barton, he headed north, then saw a ship head directly toward him in the dark. It was closing quickly. Amatsukaze swung to starboard and barely avoided a collision. Hara could not recognize the intruder. He first thought it was a Japanese destroyer tender, wondered what it was doing in the midst of a battle, and then realized the intruder was an American cruiser.
Hara howled, "Open fire!" and launched his last four torpedoes at point-blank range, but he was too close. The torpedoes failed to arm, and all four fish bounced off the enemy hull.
The American ship was the damaged San Francisco, spewing flame and smoke, unable to fire back. Hara ordered his guns to maintain fire and finish her off. While Amatsukaze’s crew cheerfully banged away, the American cruiser Helena came charging up unnoticed.
Warrant Officer Shigeru Iwata shouted the alarm at the top of his lungs, and Hara stood frozen, watching Helena race in. Two American shells slammed into Amatsukaze, nearly throwing Hara off the bridge. He was deafened by the noise and staggered to his feet.
Hara then saw Iwata lying on the deck. A piece of shrapnel had killed him instantly. Hara was extremely upset. He had trained Iwata.
Hara’s ship was now looping to starboard, and he shouted orders to his helmsman. The hydraulics had failed. Amatsukaze was blazing, and the executive officer had been hurled from the ship.
Firefighters went into action, and engineers managed to reconnect the rudder. Hara got help from destroyers Asagumo, Murasame, and Samidare, which pounced on Helena, driving her off. Amatsukaze sustained 37 hits and lost 43 killed.
Hiei was in trouble, too. As the largest target, she took 85 hits. None could penetrate her main armor belt, but they battered her light armor and ordinary steel. All light flak guns were destroyed and her communications knocked out. San Francisco put an 8-inch shell through Hiei’s rudder, flooding the main steering compartment.
On Guadacanal, ground troops of both sides enjoyed grandstand seats. Marine Private Robert Leckie wrote: "The star shells rose, terrible and red. Giant tracers flashed across the night in orange arches … the sea seemed a sheet of polished obsidian on which the warships seemed to have been dropped and immobilized, centered amid concentric circles like shock waves that form around a stone dropped in mud."
It was an awesome display of shot and shell, terrifying to those involved in it, and no one seemed more terrified than Abe. Hiei was damaged, Abe’s chief of staff lay dead, and he himself was wounded. At 2 a.m., Abe canceled the bombardment mission and ordered his ships to withdraw. Abe’s bosses agreed with the man on the spot. At 2 a.m., Kirishima radioed Truk a report of a "severe mixed battle" in which both sides suffered damage. At 3:44, Yamamoto radioed back: the reinforcement of Guadalcanal and the bombardment were postponed.
As Hiei’s signalmen began flashing lights across the water to recall the scattered fleet, Captain Gilbert C. Hoover of Helena was trying to contact anyone senior by radio. He rapidly discovered that he was the ranking officer of a shattered task force. At 2:26 a.m., he barked orders over Talk Between Ships voice radio for the American ships to withdraw.
Now both sides battled for salvage and survival. At 3 a.m., Asagumo and Murasame found Yudachi lying motionless with fires raging forward. The ship was beyond saving, so the crew was removed. Yet Yudachi did not sink.
Hiei got some help, too. Five destroyers joined the battle cruiser. Crewmen put out fires, but Hiei’s rudder was jammed at full right. Flooding prevented repair crews from gaining access to damaged equipment. Her skipper, Captain Masao Nishida, puzzled over the situation. Some junior officers, full of Bushido spirit, urged him to beach Hiei, shell Henderson Field, then send the crew ashore to join in a ground assault. While heroic, this gesture was not Nishida’s idea of sound tactics. He was convinced his ship could be saved.
At dawn, a lot of crippled ships lay drifting about Ironbottom Sound, Hiei foremost among them. At 6:18, her lookouts saw a target more than 14 miles away. Hiei trained her 14-inchers and straddled Aaron Ward. American planes distracted Hiei while the tug Bobolink dragged Aaron Ward to Tulagi Harbor by 8:30.
Portland was still circling helplessly, but she picked out Yudachi 12,500 yards off. And Portland’s guns still worked. Her sixth salvo hit Yudachi’s after magazine, and she exploded and sank.
Bobolink came to help Portland, but DuBose sent her to aid Atlanta. Portland streamed her anchor, tried engine combinations, and finally drew power. Bobolink returned and shoved Portland at 2 knots to Tulagi. She arrived at 1:08 the next morning.
Atlanta lay drifting, burning and listing from 49 hits that had made her foremast topple over to port. Miraculously unhurt, Captain Jenkins organized bucket brigades to quell fires. Everyone lightened the ship by jettisoning torpedoes, ammunition, and excess gear.
But still, Atlanta was drifting toward a Japanese-held shore. Crewmen hurled out the starboard anchor to stop the drift. The hardworking Bobolink and other vessels came to help. By 2 a.m. the ship had been pulled away, and many oil-covered Americans had been hauled out of the water.
Atlanta was clearly doomed. Halsey gave Jenkins discretion to act, and at 8:15 p.m. demolition charges went off and Atlanta sank. Her crew joined 1,500 other shipwrecked Americans at Lunga Point.
Other American ships were steaming south, exhausted, the remains of Callaghan’s task force, Hoover in charge. The force suffered another tragedy on the way home. The cruiser Juneau was torpedoed and sank, going down with 683 sailors, including four of the five Sullivan brothers, from Waterloo, Iowa. Hoover, fearing further attacks on his depleted force, did not radio in a report of Juneau’s sinking, and neither did the circling B-17 overhead, which Hoover assumed would do so. For five days, the survivors endured dehydration, shark attacks, and exhaustion. The fifth Sullivan brother, Madison Sullivan, died. Some 683 Juneau sailors died — only five survivors were pulled out of the water.
They were additional casualties in a battle that cost 170 bluejackets from Atlanta, 165 from Barton, and 145 from Monssen; two American cruisers and four destroyers–a grand total of 1,439 American sailors lost, including two admirals.
Back at Ironbottom Sound, life was still hard for the Japanese, too. Hara’s Amatsukaze, riddled with hits, limped home. Hiei was fighting for her life and facing repeated air attacks.
American planes flew off Henderson Field at dawn on November 13 to attack the crippled battleship but had little success. Determined to sink Hiei, Halsey ordered his only carrier, the damaged Enterprise, to move in.
Enterprise really was not ready for this battle. She only had one operating elevator, which slowed flight operations, and many of her damaged bulkheads were not repaired. She had no watertight integrity in case of enemy attack.
No matter. At 8 a.m. on Friday the 13th, Enterprise was 280 miles south of Guadalcanal. Air Officer Commander John Crommelin sent in 15 Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo planes under Lieutenant Al "Scoofer" Coffin. They were to attack Hiei, then fly to Henderson Field.
Crommelin was worried. He had no idea if Henderson Field was American-held after the vicious battle, and his planes would not be able to abort back to Enterprise in case of trouble. His eyes were wet as he briefed his aviators.
Coffin’s Avengers swung in on Hiei at 11:20 a.m., right on time. The sky was full of black smoke, tracer fire, and buzzing planes. Hiei fired back with everything she had, even Type 3 14-inch shells, unused in the previous night’s surface battle. The Avenger pilots saw the big shells fountain in the sea in an even row several miles astern.
The Avengers flew at full throttle just over Hiei’s burned and scorched decks. Seconds later, three torpedoes hit, causing explosions. But Hiei remained afloat.
Coffin flew to Henderson Field and found a friendly reception from Marines and Seabees. While Coffin’s aviators dined on gummy Australian bully beef and Spam, other American squadrons hit Hiei, including some B-17 high-altitude bombers. These ran into Japanese fighters and shot down three, while pouring in three more bomb hits.
The damage was not great, but the constant attacks disrupted Capt. Nishida’s efforts to save his ship and prevented Hiei’s crew from placing collision mats over shell holes in the steering machinery compartments so they could be pumped out.
At 8:15 a.m., Abe transferred his flag to the destroyer Yukikaze and ordered Hiei towed to the Shortlands. By now Abe was exhausted and devastated. At 10:20 a.m., he ordered Nishida to beach his ship on Guadalcanal. Nishida pleaded with Abe to rescind the order. Abe did. But at 12:35, Abe again ordered Hiei’s crew removed. Once again, Nishida got the order canceled.
At 1:30 p.m., Coffin’s planes took off again to hit Hiei. Once again they torpedoed her, dropping their fish half a mile from the wounded battleship. Three torpedoes hit, but only one exploded. Coffin’s planes returned to Guadalcanal safely.
Coffin’s afternoon attacks were the last straw for Abe. He again ordered Hiei abandoned. Nishida pleaded his case, but Abe was adamant. When an erroneous report came to Nishida of engine damage on Hiei, Nishida gave up. Hiei’s Kingston valves were opened, and the crew assembled forward. After three banzais, the ensign was lowered and everybody scrambled down floater nets over the side onto waiting destroyers. Nishida made sure the emperor’s portrait was saved.
By 6 p.m., Hiei’s crew – minus 300 dead – was off the battleship. At 6:38, Yamamoto signaled Abe not to scuttle Hiei. Yamamoto figured the ship could divert American attention long enough for the convoy of troops to arrive after all.
It was too late. Hiei was listing 15 degrees to starboard and sinking slowly by the stern. The Japanese ships dipped flags and retired. Hiei sank sometime during the night, the first battleship Japan lost in the war.
Abe returned home having lost two destroyers, a battleship, and 552 sailors, claiming victory. Certainly he had scored an impressive tactical triumph, sinking two American cruisers and four destroyers, but Yamamoto was furious.
Hara wrote later, "Strategically the enemy had won because the Abe force failed to deliver a single incendiary shell to Guadalcanal airfields." Abe and Nishida faced a secret court of inquiry. They offered no defense for their actions or their mistakes. Both were forcibly retired, allowed their pensions but barred from public office.
Second-guessers were at work on both sides. Callaghan and his sailors had shown ample determination and valor, but closer review revealed that Callaghan’s moves were highly questionable. Admittedly, Callaghan’s team was an ad hoc force, but he made no real battle plan. He did not communicate with his subordinates and wasted one, Scott. Orders like "Give them hell" made good copy, but were not sound tactics. Callaghan did not use radar well, relied on one radio channel, which broke down, and wasted time.
Abe’s mistakes were just as great. Not expecting a surface battle, he loaded the wrong ammunition. He squandered time in the engagement, too, deploying his ships poorly. Worst of all, he had lost his nerve and fled at the moment the American defenses failed, thus snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
None of this affected Hara, who was still struggling to bring home his crippled Amatsukaze on the morning of the 13th. By 3 a.m., Hara had his wounded ship doing 20 knots, but Amatsukaze was skidding around like a wounded man. Ten sailors handled the rudder. Hara personally took the conn. He had to shout into the voice tube to be heard, and sweat poured down his face.
At dawn, three American planes swooped in on Hara’s ship. Amatsukaze fired back with her only working gun. The Americans dropped their bombs early and flew off. A few minutes later, a ship steamed up. Hara, afraid it was American, realized the only thing he could do was ram it. But the intruder turned out to be the Japanese destroyer Yukikaze.
Yukikaze was en route to help Hiei and asked Hara if Amatsukaze needed assistance. Hara said no and headed north, plodding at 20 knots and zigzagging. Hara fretted about American submarines and airpower, but none appeared.
At 3 p.m., Amatsukaze crossed paths with a naval squadron under Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita, which was heading south. Kurita’s sailors manned the rails to cheer Amatsukaze. Hara did not take the cheers. He felt responsible for Amatsukaze’s 43 dead.
It was time to do something about that. The bodies were wrapped in canvas and dropped into the sea amid snappy salutes, mournful bugle calls, and Buddhist ritual.
Last came Warrant Officer Iwata’s body. Suddenly Hara left the bridge — the first time since sailing on the 9th — and placed his uniform jacket around Iwata’s body. "Rest in peace," Hara said to his friend and protégé.
As Iwata’s body was committed to the ocean, the sun set, flaring red on the horizon. Amatsukaze headed north. Hara, exhausted, stumbled into his bunk. The battered destroyer and its crew were out of the game.
But the game was not over. The Americans had blunted Japan’s drive on Guadalcanal, not turned the tide. That night, the Japanese would try again.
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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.