USS South Dakota - South Dakota class battleship - commissioned 1942 - main battery 3 triple turrets mounting 16"/45 cannons, 8x2 5"/38, 3x4 1.1", 17x4 40mm, 72x1 20mm, 12x1 .50-caliber MG
USS Benham - Benham class destroyer - commissioned 1939 - main battery 4 5"/38 cannons, 8x4 21" torpedo tubes
USS Gwin - Greaves class destroyer - commissioned 1941 - main battery 4 5"/38 cannon, 5x4 21" torpedo tubes
USS Walke - Sims class destroyer - commissioned 1940 - main battery 4 5"/38 DP cannon, 8x4 21" torpedo tubes
As we'll see when we talk about the naval actions that immediately preceded this engagement, the composition of TF 64 on the night of 14-15 NOV was dictated by exigencies rather than design. The ships were detached from Task Force 16, the USS Enterprise's group, where the battleships had been part of the escort and the destroyers assigned to the carrier's antiaircraft/antisubmarine screen. Neither of the battleships had drilled together in main-gun or night actions, and neither had worked with this group of destroyers. This ad-hoc arrangement made matters more difficult for the USN in the November darkness off Savo Island.Two battleships, four destroyers under VADM Willis Augustus "Ching" Lee, Jr.
Empire of Japan - Emergency Bombardment Force, 2nd Fleet
HIJMS Atago (愛宕) - Takao-class heavy cruiser - commissioned 1932 - main battery 5 double turrets mounting 8"/50 "Third Year Type" (3 Nendo Shikiin) cannons, 4x4.7" DP, 2x40mm AA, 8x24 in (Long Lance)torpedo tubes (4x2)
HIJMS Takao (高雄) - Takao-class heavy cruiser - commissioner 1930 - main battery 5 double turrets mounting 8"/50 3 Nendo Shikiin cannons, 8x4.7" DP, 8x24" torpedo tubes
HIJMS Nagara (長良) - Nagara-class light cruiser - commissioned 1922 - main battery seven 5.5"/50 cannon in single turrets,
HIJMS Sendai (川内) - Sendai-class light cruiser - commissioned 1924 - main battery seven 5.5"/50 in single turrets, 44 x 25mm AA, 6 x 13mm AA 8 x 24" torpedo tubes
(Note - there seems to be some confusion regarding exactly how many destroyers accompanied the Emergency Bombardment Force on the night of 14-15 NOV. As with the USN, the disruption and losses of the previous two days had produced something of an ad-hoc organization. Several sources state that 9 IJN destroyers took part, others claim eight, while the invaluable Combined Fleet website uses both figures.
What do we know, then?
Well, we know for a fact that HIJMS Ayanami was present because she is recorded as lost in the action. Her wreck has been located not far from Savo Island.
The "Sweeping Force" is known to have consisted of the CL Sendai and three destroyers of Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 19: Ayanami, Shikinami and Uranami. But the other ship from this unit - HIJMS Isonami - is known to have been elsewhere in November 1942, so the figure of 1 CL, 3 DDs for the Sweeping Force sounds correct.
The "Screening Force" is supposed to have been led by the CL Nagara and included six destroyers. This cruiser is a bit of a mystery; at Midway in June she is shown as the flagship for Destroyer Squadron 10, but of the ships listed for that squadron none are mentioned as having been present off Guadalcanal in November.
As for the six DD's, several are mentioned by name in various accounts of the action, including Samidare (DesDiv 2), Shirayuki (DesDiv 11), Hatsuyuki (DesDiv 11), Inazuma (DesDiv 6), Asagumo (DesDiv 9), and Teruzuki (DesDiv 61). The Japanese destroyer website "Long Lancers" also mentions HIJMS Oyashio (親潮, DesDiv 15) as having attacked USS Washington with torpedoes on 14-15 NOV, but also says that she was involved as an escort for the Japanese transports during the earlier action; I am frankly unsure of her whereabouts on the night of the action.)
So - my best guess as to the Japanese destroyers present at the action off Guadalcanal are -
HIJMS Shikinami (敷波) - Fubuki-class destroyer - commissioned 1924 - main battery 3 double turrets mounting 5.5"/50 cannon, 22xType 96 AA, 9x24" torpedo tubes
HIJMS Uranami (浦波) - Fubuki-class destroyer - commissioned 1929 - main battery 3 double turrets mounting 5.5"/50 cannon, 22xType 96 AA, 9x24" torpedo tubes
HIJMS Ayanami (綾波) - Fubuki-class destroyer - commissioned 1930 - main battery 3 double turrets mounting 5.5"/50 cannon, 22xType 96 AA, 9x24" torpedo tubes
HIJMS Asagumo (朝雲) - Asashio-class destroyer - commissioned 1938 - main battery 3 double turrets mounting 5.5"/50 Type 3 DP cannon, 28 × Type 96 AA, 8x24" torpedo tubes
HIJMS Samidare (五月雨) - Shiratsuyu-class destroyer - commissioned 1937 - main battery 2 double turrets, one single turret mounting 5.5"/50 Type 3 DP cannon, 2x13 mm AA, 8x24" torpedo tubes
HIJMS Shirayuki (白雪) - Fubuki-class destroyer - commissioned 1928 - main battery 3 double turrets mounting 5.5"/50 Type 3 DP cannon, 4x25 mm AA, 8x24" torpedo tubes
HIJMS Inazuma (電) - Fubuki-class destroyer - commissioned 1932 - main battery 3 double turrets mounting 5.5"/50 cannon, 22xType 96 AA, 9x24" torpedo tubes
HIJMS Hatsuyuki (初雪) - Fubuki-class destroyer - commissioned 1929 - main battery 3 double turrets mounting 5.5"/50 cannon, 22xType 96 AA, 9x24" torpedo tubes
One battlecruiser, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, probably nine destroyers under VADM Nobutake Kondō, commander, 2nd Fleet (近藤 信竹)
One recent popular account that appears to be very useful is the 2011 work Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer.
Well-reviewed, and on my reserve list at Multnomah County library. The more recent work appears to provide better details on the 14-15 NOV action than the earlier, 1988 publication Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13-15, 1942 by Eric Hammel.
The Hammel book appears to be well-regarded, but concentrates on the earlier night action of 13-14 NOV as well as the carrier aviation contributions of 14 NOV. A good work, but not as definitive on the subject of the engagement we're looking at.
On the web, perhaps the best place to start is here; pretty much simply the unredacted USN Office of Naval Intelligence combat narrative account of the action. The page recounting the events of 14-15 NOV is here.
The Wiki entry is a portion of the larger Wiki discussion of all the naval and naval air actions of 12-15 NOV.
As mentioned, the Combined Fleet webpage provides a great deal of useful and somewhat difficult-to-find information on the Nihon Kaigun. Another useful source is the Pacific War Online Encyclopedia.
The Campaign: The naval actions off Guadalcanal, in the bodies of water then-called by the foofy names of "Sealark Channel" and "Indispensible Strait" that would become forever known as Ironbottom Sound, were all part of Operation WATCHTOWER, the U.S. campaign to secure a foothold on the southern Solomon Islands.
Recall that from December 1941 to July 1942 the Japanese Navy had, as ADM Yamamoto predicted, "run wild" across the Pacific. But ruinous losses of carrier decks and, worse, naval aviators, at the battles of Coral Sea, Midway and later in that summer Eastern Solomons meant that the Japanese naval aviation force that had been the pillar of the IJN's strategy was badly attrited. With increasing confidence in their control of the sky and, from there, the daylight sea, the Allies felt ready to begin pushing the Japanese eastern defense perimeter back.
These new outposts would also form an outer perimeter around the large IJN fleet anchorage at Rabaul to the northwest as well as make up a potential launching site for the attacks of "Operation FS" on Fiji, New Caledonia and Samoa.
GEN George Marshall was agin it - as the Allies had agreed earlier the European Theater (ETO) had priority of effort. Marshall didn't intend for a single damn Army division to go to the Pacific if he could help it. King told Marshall to shove his doughboys - the USN and USMC would do just fine by themselves.
Eventually King's plan won the approval of the Joint Chiefs, however, and got the green light to become a major operation in a strategic directive from the Chiefs that outlined the objective for the 42-43 period; for the Southwest Pacific (SWPAC) theater forces under MacArthur to go on the offensive in New Guinea, for the new South Pacific (SOPAC) theater to capture the Admiralty Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago, including Rabaul, and that the eventual goal was the retaking the Philippines.
And since there are always two enemies in a war; the one that's trying to kill you and the one that's trying to steal your funding, the other important decision contained in the CJCS directive concerned the overall conduct of the Pacific War.
The Allies - well, the 1st Marine Division, anyway - went ashore on the small Florida and the much larger Guadalcanal islands on 7 AUG 1942. The Japanese forces were either slaughtered - on Florida - or disappeared from the airfield on Guadalcanal and the U.S. troops dug in and got to work building runways.
The Japanese spent the next three months hammering away at the U.S. forces.
The vicious fight for the Lunga Point airfield - now named Henderson Field - continued into the autumn.
With that in mind, the IJN organized a convoy of eleven AP (large troop transports) to ferry units of the IJA 38th Infantry Division from Rabaul to Guadalcanal at the end of the second week of November. At the same time, a task force organized around two old Kongō class battlecruisers - equipped with special high-fragmentation (thin-walled casing) shells - was supposed to bombard Henderson Field on the night of 12–13 NOV. This would take out the American aircraft and allow the lumbering transports to debark their loads the following day or two.
Mind you, it was ugly. The Japanese bombardment force (composed of the battlecruisers Hiei and Kirishima, CL Nagara and 11 DDs - Samidare, Murasame, Asagumo, Teruzuki, Amatsukaze, Yukikaze, Ikazuchi, Inazuma, Akatsuki, Harusame, and Yudachi) met the USN force screening the island (the CA's USS San Francisco and Portland, CLs Helena, Juneau, and Atlanta, and eight DD's: USS Cushing, Laffey, Sterett, O'Bannon, Aaron Ward, Barton, Monssen, and Fletcher) in a short-range, disastrously confused midnight melee.
SG surface-search radar was poor.
The U.S. and Japanese warships intermingled at close range - as short as 2,000 to 3,000 yards - and one officer on the USS Monssen described it as "a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out."
USS Laffey literally sailed so close to Hiei that her crew could have thrown a rock onto the battlecruiser's deck - the range between the two ships was probably less than 20 feet; so close that Hiei couldn't depress her main or secondary batteries enough to fire on the U.S. destroyer, which hammered the big ship's upper works with 5" fire.
But after nealy an hour of this savage fighting, at 0230 the Japanese commander, VADM Abe, ordered his force to disengage and turn away to the northwest.
He never explained why. Perhaps the bloody mess that Laffey had made of his bridge - Abe himself was injured and many of his staff, including his flag captain, were killed - had shaken him up.
Perhaps he was stunned at finding American warships in the Sound at night and was worried that there might be more out there in the dark.
Perhaps he was afraid that his bombardment mission might now miscarry - a lot of the bombardment projos had been fired up, and his task force was scattered all to hell - and leave his force vulnerable to air attack in the following day.
"At 2130 Japanese voice transmissions were picked up on the radio."the combat narrative reports,
"Soon afterward the Force commenced a change of course in succession from the van to 090°. Savo was now 11 miles to the south. The sky was partly covered with cirro-cumulus clouds, mostly at about 10,000 feet, with the overcast gradually increasing. The temperature was 83°. The sea was calm, with a 7-knot breeze blowing from 170°. A quarter moon was shining, and prominent landmarks were visible as far as 25 miles. As the northernmost point of Savo was passed, a sharp lookout was kept for the hidden cruiser and destroyer. At 2245 the enemy voice transmissions, now heard from three stations, became very excited. Shortly thereafter, the Task Force changed course to 150° to pass between Savo and Florida Islands, and speed was reduced to 17 knots. A glow was sighted near the beach on Savo which momentarily was thought to come from the lurking cruiser and destroyer, but it was finally identified as moonlight on a white rock."By 2300 TF 64 was about 13 miles southeast of Savo Island.
About the same time lookouts aboard USS South Dakota reported visual contact with three ships moving across the task force course to the northwest, also about 18,000 yards away - probably the same as Washington's radar contacts. They described the leading ship as "...very large--either a battleship or a heavy cruiser".
The combat narrative sums up what must have been a moment of nearly unendurable tension; "As radar contacts by our battleships multiplied, Admiral Lee ordered course changed to 300° true and informed the South Dakota that she might open fire when ready."
0001--------Washington makes radar contact with enemy east of Savo.
0016--------Washington opens fire, South Dakota soon thereafter.
0019--------Washington's target apparently sinks.
0024--------South Dakota sinks a cruiser
0022--------Walke opens fire.
0025--------Washington's secondary opens fire on "shore batteries" (DD's).
0025-35-----Several enemy DD's set on fire.
0032--------Preston sinks as a result of enemy cruiser fire. Gwin hit. Walke and Benham torpedoed.
0033--------South Dakota loses all power because of shorts in secondary director and locked circuit breaker.
0036--------Washington tracking new targets northwest of Savo.
0042--------South Dakota sinks Kuma cruiser astern and in so doing blows two of her own planes overboard.
0047--------South Dakota picks up these vessels, range 5,800.
0100--------Enemy illuminates and Washington opens fire on Kongo BB (Kirishima), range 8,400.
0102½-------Washington ceases fire on erroneous report that target has sunk. South Dakota under triple or quadruple concentration from enemy. Main battery sinks cruiser in conjunction with Washington 5-inch.
0104--------Washington resumes firing at BB and fatally damages it.
0107--------Flagship ceases fire. BB and two CA/CL silenced and turning away.
0110--------Damage causes South Dakota to decide on retirement.
0117--------Washington tracking new targets, probably DD's.
0133--------Washington retires to avoid torpedo trap.
0148-0219---Washington reports 17 torpedoes--4 or 5 close calls.
0155--------Fires on South Dakota are all out.
0250--------Task Force Commander in radar contact with Gwin and Benham.
Here's what we think really happened:
First, the IJN commander, Kondō had divided his task force.
Presumably unaware that the USN had anything heavier than a cruiser in the waters of Guadalcanal Kondō intended that the Sweeping and Screening forces - two light cruisers and nine destroyers - should engage and destroy the USN guardships before his bombardment group would close on the airfield.
Apparently the Japanese lookouts picked up Lee's task force somewhat earlier - about 2300 - but somehow managed to identify the battleships as cruisers..!
The U.S. contacts were the Sendai group; the Washington opened and ceased fire on them almost immediately (about 0016-0019 as noted on the timeline above), but the Sendai, Uranami, and Shikinami were unhit and circled away.
USS Washington then sailed through the destroyer engagement area, firing on and crippling HIJMS Ayanami with her secondary batteries as she did.
At this point a very odd incident occurred; USS South Dakota suddenly underwent a crippling series of electrical failures that put her radar, most of her communications equipment, fire direction and control gear out of action.
This is supposed to have occurred because during repairs (presumably for air attack damage to her stern that had been inflicted the previous day) one of her engineers - either the Chief of Engineering (an officer) or one of the engineering chiefs (an NCO) locked down a circuit breaker.
But at 2335 USS Washington bore off to port - left - to pass behind the burning destroyers. South Dakota waited too late and had to turn to starboard and pass in front of the fires.
Meanwhile, Kondō had heard from his light forces that the US forces had been destroyed, and turned southeastwards towards Lunga Point. His force and the two U.S. battleships were now on reciprocal bearings.
The USS South Dakota was in a hell of a fix.
She couldn't see or fire effectively, and, illuminated by searchlights and the fires of the damaged ships around her, she took a hall of a pasting.
For the price of a few 16" hits on Kirishima she took 25 8-inch hits and one 14-inch shell. Fortunately all the torpedoes fired at her missed.
Despite the incident reported in the timeline above, the USS South Dakota didn't sink a Kuma-class cruiser (which would have been difficult, anyway, since there were no Kuma-class vessels in the Sound that night...). She and her crew suffered, and died, and for very little damage to their enemies.
Finally she was within 9,000 yards, and Kirishima lit off her searchlights and fired on South Dakota. Washington's gunners immediately opened up and pasted the living shit out of the old battlecruiser; at least nine 16" shells and probably something like 40 6" projos impacted within minutes.
The USS Washington led a charmed life that night. Few IJN vessels managed to sight her; whose that did couldn't hit her. She never engaged the Takaos seriously. She combed the wakes of several torpedoes and avoided shoal water in the waning hours of the engagement though damn fine seamanship.
With the Kirishima crippled and a hidden USN battleship still lurking out somewhere in the darkness, VADM Kondō made an understandable but in operational terms a poor decision; he ordered his force to disengage and turn away to the north.
About the same time USS Washington turned away to the south to join the damaged USS South Dakota and the destroyers.
The engagement was effectively over by 0230.
The Impact: By all rights, as a stand-alone the engagement fought on the night of 14-15 NOV 1942 should have been at best a draw, as worst a minor defeat for the USN. For the cost of an old battlecruiser and a destroyer the IJN had sunk three DDs and crippled a fourth and badly hammered a sparkling new battleship.
But the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal didn't stand alone. It was the end of a horrendous week for the IJN in which she lost a total of two battlecruisers, one heavy cruiser, three destroyers and eleven APs along with damn near 5,000 troops and all of their artillery, armor, and heavy equipment.
In fact, the events of 14-15 NOV mark the end of the Japanese struggle to retake the island and the entire south Solomons. That night had been the last throw of the dice.
The IJN had taken on the USN in what was supposed to have been its single strongest arena - night main gun action - and had been beaten to a draw. Although her sailors hadn't been beaten, her admirals had, and the courage and skills of her fighting ships would prove insufficient of defeating the equally skilled, equally courageous...and better supplied, better led, better backed USN, USMC, and US Army.
The experience was never passed on, and as the war entered its third year the U.S. pilots - trained and led by veterans pulled off the Fleet to the training centers like Pensacola, where my father the Master Chief ended his war in 1945, learning to fly - were becoming more numerous and skilled...
Read the war story of the IJN ships that survived the battle that night and you read a sorry tale of a trickle of sinkings from bombs and aerial torpedoes and mines, of ships sunk mostly by submarines and aircraft instead of other surface ships.
The IJN had gone to war planning for a climactic surface battle where they would destroy the enemies of the Emperor with their great guns, as they had at Tsushima forty years before.
The genius of the USN at Guadalcanal was not in being overwhelmingly good though it was good - but being overwhelmingly there.
The Japanese Navy could win battles - and they did, littering Ironbottom Sound with sunken ships and dead sailors - but not the war.
The U.S. ships would always be there, always be waiting, and that would be enough. The factories behind them would continue to turn out more ships, more aircraft, produce more petroleum, train and arm more soldiers.
And, just as at Guadalcanal, the Japanese would have to try and fight through those ships, and aircraft, and submarines, and soldiers while all the while growing weaker as deaths and destruction tore down the fragile machinery of Imperial strength.
To me the big "story" of Second Guadalcanal is that the Japanese Navy essentially fought the U.S. Navy to a tactical draw on the water but in his mind the Japanese commander believed himself to be beaten.
We'd seen this before - Nagumo turning away from Pearl Harbor without striking the tank farm and refueling docks - and we'd see it again, with Kurita turning back after the battle off Samar with the Philippine invasion transports at his mercy.
When we think of the Japanese leadership in World War 2 we tend to think of 戦勝病 senshoubyou, "victory disease", the irrational conviction that mere Japaneseness was enough to ensure success. And yet there seems to have been something, some vital drive missing, some fatal fear deeply engrained, in the IJN commanders, that made them doubt themselves even in victory.
The Emergency Bombardment Force lost an old battlecruiser but crippled a new battleship and while the USS Washington was out there in the night, a dangerous steel beast that would be difficult to subdue, the two Takao-class cruisers were brutes; big, fast, heavily armed and tough. Their two quadruple-mount torpedo tubes could have launched a devastating salvo of sixteen of the deadly "Long Lance" fish that had already proved so effective.
It is not impossible to imagine the Takaos hunting and torpedoing the Washington and then racing southeast to pound Henderson Field. It would have been difficult and dangerous, but a hardcore fighting sailor with a relentless drive to accomplish his mission might have risked it, and done it.
But just as Abe had been mentally whipped two nights earlier, Kondō was beaten even though his sailors were not.
And that made all the difference. The IJN commanders didn't or couldn't find a way to fight through to their objective. For all their tactical problems and shortcomings the USN commanders - from the individual ship captains to the task force and fleet commanders - found ways to adapt and overcome.
The USN found ways to work around their weaknesses, or fix them. The IJN found ways to frustrate, confuse, and even delude themselves about their weaknesses, and before they could fix them - or often even recognize them - the USN had found them out and hammered them.
Japan's weaknesses and the strengths of the United States meant that so long as the Axis powers failed to work in concert, and the U.S. and its allies did, the end - however long and bloody and ugly the journey might be - was fated nearly from the morning of December 7th.