Saturday, November 17, 2012

Decisive Battles: Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal 1942

Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (Third Battle of the Solomon Sea (第三次ソロモン海戦) Dates: 14-15 NOV 1942
Forces Engaged: United States - Task Force 64, Pacific Fleet
USS Washington (flagship) - North Carolina class battleship - commissioned 1941 - main battery 3 triple turrets mounting 16"/45 cannons, 10x2 5"/38, 4x4 1.1", 18x1 .50-caliber MG

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 Preston - Mahan class destroyer - commissioned 1936 - main battery 5 5"/38 cannon, 4 1/1", 12x4 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

Capital ships:
HIJMS Kirishima (霧島) - Kongō-class battlecruiser - commissioned 1915 - main battery 4 double turrets mounting Vickers 14"/45 cannons, 16x6", 8x5"DP

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
Light Cruisers:
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

Destroyers:
(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 Teruzuki (照月) - Akizuki-class destroyer - commissioned 1942 - main battery 4 double turrets mounting 4"/65 cal DP cannon, 51 × 25 mm AA, 6x24" 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)
The Sources: The usual well-documented official records for both sides - with the caveat that many of the Japanese participants were killed before they had an opportunity to write down their accounts; the Great Pacific War was fairly hard on the Japanese Navy.

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.
The east and northeast held nothing but open sea and isolated islands, and were vulnerable to land-based aviation from the larger, Japanese-held islands in the south and west-central Pacific.
The southern Solomons were a potential threat and a possible opportunity. The threat had been growing steadily since early 1942. The IJN had landed at the island of Tulagi in May, and on nearby Guadalcanal in July. From the airbase they were constructing near Lunga Point on Guadalcanal (using over 2,000 Korean slave laborers) the Japanese air arm was in a position to hammer the commerce and troop movements between the U.S. and Australia.

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.
The Allies now wanted to remove this threat and use it as an opportunity to pry open the far southeastern tip of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. ADM Ernie King was the man who first proposed the notion; invade Guadalcanal, seize the airfield, begin clearing the south Solomons and neutralize Rabaul.

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.
Since his appointment as CINC of SWPAC GEN MacArthur had been campaigning ceaselessly to be appointed to the overall command of the war in the Pacific. His egotism and vanity may have played a part in the decisions but I believe that the Chiefs made the right decision; in a fight that covered so much water and so little land a sailor was the right man for the top job, and ADM Nimitz was the correct choice for the Commander-in-chief, Pacific (CINCPAC).

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 details of the entire Guadalcanal campaign are entirely too numerous and complex to be retold here. Suffice to say that even though the Japanese Navy came damn close - closest perhaps at the First Battle of Savo Island on 8-9 AUG. Had VADM Mikawa's tough heavy cruiser force slugged through the Allied warships that night they might have destroyed the invasion forces and set the campaign back months. They did not, defeating the American and Australian navies but turning back without destroying the transport ships and their cargoes.

The vicious fight for the Lunga Point airfield - now named Henderson Field - continued into the autumn.
The IJN was unable to dislodge the invaders, and proved increasingly incapable of supplying their ground troops on Guadalcanal. The Imperial Army, meanwhile, was reasserting the tactical crudity that I've mentioned before, throwing away the soldiers that took tremendous effort to transport to the island and then feed and arm in Napoleonic charges that were slaughtered in masses.
By November the IJA was desperate, and the IJN devised a plan that, it was hoped, would first put a slug of Japanese troops ashore - 7,000 and change - and also put the pesky American airfield out of business by pasting it with large caliber shells.

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.
Well, this didn't work out so well.

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.
The USN hadn't learned much from Savo Island. The US commanders hadn't yet realized that modern naval war was too complex to control from an open bridge without a Combat Information Center (CIC), and use and understanding of the good SG surface-search radar was poor.
The IJN were better trained at their night-fighting tactics which relied on the searchlight and visual gun direction.
The Japanese force had been scattered by darkness and a recent squall, and when the U.S. commander attempted to maneuver to attack, "...confused by the incomplete information he was receiving, plus the fact that the Japanese formation consisted of several scattered groups—he gave several confusing orders on ship movements, and overall, just delayed too long in acting at all." (Wiki, 2011).

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."
It was brutal.

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.
Meanwhile Hiei and Kirishima raked the flagship, USS San Francisco. She suffered 45 hits from all calibers including several 14" shells. The Japanese battlecruisers had been loaded with the thin-walled bombardment shells at the time of opening fire; this may have been the only reason the cruiser remained afloat. 77 sailors were killed, including the task force commander, another 107 were injured.
The Japanese force had lost a destroyer and the battlecruiser Hiei was badly damaged. But the U.S. force was effectively destroyed; only the cruiser USS Helena and the destroyer USS Fletcher were still effective fighting ships.

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.
But for whatever the reason, Abe retreated to find disgrace and relief for cause. ADM Yamamoto, furious at the loss of the Hiei to air attacks on 13 NOV, demanded that the assault on Guadalcanal continue. The transports attempted to run the USN aerial blockade the following day; six of 11 were sunk.
VADM Kondō assembled his emergency bombardment force around the surviving battlecruiser and resolved to try the plan again on the night of 14 NOV. His force approached Guadalcanal from the north late in the evening of 14 NOV.
USN TF 64 had arrived off Guadalcanal earlier that day and had taken up patrol stations to intercept the bombardment force. Reconnaissance and radio intercepts had made for an unquiet evening;
"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.
At the same time the TBS radio announced that a PT picket boat reported observing three ships rounding the north end of the island and USS Washington's SG and FC radars identified other ships to the northwest at 18,000 yards, about 6 miles east of Savo. Another contact was made on the same bearing - 340° (true - that is, not magnetic north) at 19,600 yards.

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."
The Engagement: Here's what the U.S. Navy thought happened in the next three hours:

Time:
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.
He sent the "Sweeping Force" - Sendai and two of her destroyers down the east side of Savo Island, and the third destroyer from that group (Ayanami) swinging around the southwest side of Savo - presumably this was to flush out any U.S. ships.

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.
The four US DD's, meanwhile, engaged the Nagara group and the Ayanami and were almost immediately smashed; USS Walke and USS Preston were sunk, and a torpedo blew the forefoot off USS Benham. USS Gwin was disabled with engine room damage. VADM Lee ordered the two damaged destroyers to pull back at 23:48.

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.
This was in violation of Navy regs as well as common sense, since with the breaker locked the circuits continued to short in series and the big ship was nearly useless for the hours that followed. She continued on after her flagship, however, towards the western side of Savo.

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.
She lost 39 killed and 69 wounded and was forced to turn away from the fight. VADM Lee summed her battle up as "...one of our new battleships (rendered) deaf, dumb, blind, and impotent."

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.
But in a way she did serve a purpose; concentrating the Japanese fire and attention. Unmarked by any vessel in the IJN force USS Washington slid through the night, a great gray steel ghost. She had tracked a large radar target but held her fire, unsure of whether the object was friendly or enemy.

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.
Kirishima lit up like a balefire. Her rudder was jammed hard over to port, hundreds of her crew were dead, many more maimed or injured. Within minutes the elderly battlecruiser was transformed from a fighting ship into a wreck.
As the Kirishima staggered and began her slow death the remainder of Japanese task force - and the two big cruisers were still practically untouched - was desperately trying to seek out and destroy the USN task force.

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 Outcome: Tactical U.S. victory with strategic consequences

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.
Because the remaining four transports beached themselves the following day and were pasted by airstrikes and shelled by both field and naval artillery. Only a handful of the soldiers of 38th Division made it ashore alive with anything but the uniforms they stood up in.
The plan to reinforce and attack Henderson Field was a dead letter.

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.
And there was worse. The Solomons campaign made it clear that the IJN had lost the carrier air war. The Japanese carriers never managed to intervene effectively, while US naval airpower made the daylight hours death for Japanese ships and soldiers. The coming Pacific War, with its great expanses of water, was going to be a naval war, and the naval war was going to be an air war, and the Japanese had already lost that.
The Kito Budai, the IJN naval air arm, was never prepared for a long war. It couldn't replace the aircraft and carriers it lost, but the worst of all was that it had started the war with a relatively a small group of experienced pilots...and that group fought until they died.

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...
...as the Japanese became fewer and greener.

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 was that they denied the Japanese Navy that battle until the very end, when the Kito Budai had been destroyed, and all the battleships of the IJN could do was duplicate the death-ride of the Russian battle line of Tsushima into the merciless guns of the Surigao Strait, and the Age of Battleships would be over.

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.
Perhaps in the truest sense we shouldn't call this battle "decisive"; the entire Pacific War was pretty much decided within the first six months, when the United States refused to capitulate and Japan frittered away its strategic headstart.

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.
And so the forgotten wrecks slowly rust away in the dark waters of Ironbottom Sound.

10 comments:

mike said...

(Cross posted)

FDChief – Thanks for another great post. You bring it alive.

There has always been some confusion in my mind on the naming and number of naval battles in and around Guadalcanal. Naval Historian Samuel Eliot Morison calls out seven (or eight) separate naval battles in or near the waters around that island. In his volume V of the history of US Naval Operations in WW2 he says the struggle for Guadalcanal included:

1] Battle of Savo Island on 9 August 1942

2] Battle of the Eastern Solomons on 24 August, aka Battle of the Stewart Islands

3] Battle of Cape Esperance on 11-12 October, aka 2nd Battle of Savo Island where Rear Admiral Scott crossed the Japanese T and the Japanese TF Commander Admiral Goto was mortally wounded

4] Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26- 27 October, where A/C Carrier USS Hornet a veteran of the Doolittle Raid and Midway is sunk

5] Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 12-15 November which he subdivides into the night action of Friday the 13th (where both Admirals Scott and Callaghan are KIA) and the battle you describe that he calls the Joust of Giants

6] Battle of Tassafronga on 30 November

7] Battle of Rennell Island on 29-30 January 1943

These do not include all the other naval confrontations in the area such as the sinking of A/C Carrier USS Wasp by IJN submarine I-19; PT boat actions in the Slot; and ASW ops that accounted for sinking six Japanese subs. This campaign as a whole may not have been THE decisive battle of the Pacific war but both we and the Japanese considered it decisive. With a Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal it would have been damn near impossible to supply the Aussies and MacArthur’s campaign in New Guinea and the Philippines may have never taken place. After this 6-month long campaign the Japanese never again mounted an offensive operation.

FDChief said...

What I got from researching this one, mike, is that the night action of 12-13 November is also called the "Third Battle of Savo Island" and this one is often named the "Fourth Battle of Savo Island". The Japanese seem to combine the two; they consider there to be only three fleet actions (which the call "Battle(s) of the Solomon Sea"), 9 AUG being the first, Cape Esperance the second, and the 12-15 NOV the third.

And my sources included all the actions you list as part of the larger southern Solomons campaign, yeah.

The funny thing about the Pacific War is that you can list a half dozen "decisive" actions; the failure to complete the destruction at Pearl, Midway, the south Solomons campaign, the Kokoda Track/Buna-Gona campaign in New Guinea, the Battle of the Philippine Sea which finally killed off the Kito Budai for good...

But like I said in the post, Yamamoto was right to begin with. The economic and military disparity was so great that the Imperial Japan had six months of time to try and force a decision, after which - provided the U.S. refused to capitulate - their defeat was a matter of brutal, bloody time.

mike said...

BTW Chief, the Japanese Navy had been shelling Henderson Field off and on since August. My take on Abe and Kondo turning back without shelling Henderson in mid-November is that like you commented they wanted to refight Tsushima with a great victory at sea. So they wanted to leave the land war to the Army. Some American Navy officers felt the same way using shore bombardment as not worthy of their ships except as target practice.

I also meant to add regarding the land battle, the 164th Infantry was brought there on 13 October 42 as an emergency reinforcement to the 1st Marine Division. It was the first US Army unit in WW2 to fight offensive action. When they first arrived they, along with the Marines, spent the next four nights under heavy IJN Naval Gunfire barrage – 1000 14-inch the first two nights, 750 8-inch the third night and 1300 8-inch and 5-inch on the night of 16th. The daylight hours were no better as they endured Japanese air raids and 150-mm howitzer barrages.

From Jon T Hoffman's bio of Chesty Puller I note that two of their battalions fought beside Chesty Puller’s 1st Bn, 7th Marines at ‘coffin corner’ during the battle of Henderson Field of 19-26 October and destroyed the Sendai Division. They joined him again later at Koli Point. Quite an outfit, they were given the honorary and affectionate title of “the 164th Marines”. As a former North Dakota National Guard regiment their ranks were full of Norwegian farm boys, Sioux Indians, and Canuck Metis. They were led by Bryant E. Moore, a West Pointer from the great state of Maine, who would have made a hell of an Army Chief of Staff if he had not been killed in a helicopter crash eight and a half years later in Korea as CG of IX Corps.

FDChief said...

Hmmm...

Well, Abe maybe. He doesn't seem to have really been with the program.

But Kondo, though - he'd been given a pretty thorough spanking from Yamamoto about the importance of putting the Cactus Air Force out of action so that the transports could get landed the next day. He should have known the "commander's intent". There seems to be no real definitive answer for why he turned away; the three reasons I mentioned have all been attributed to him as partial explanations, but nobody really knows.

The IJN and IJA didn't play well together, sure. But I think the pattern we're seeing; Nagumo, Abe, Kondo, Kurita...all those guys seemed to have some central inner dread about risking their ships regardless of the importance of the objective. There seems to have been something - either a distrust of the overall strategic plan, or just a plain fear of losing their ships - that prevented them from taking that final step, to risk all and win the game.

Halsey would have laughed.

seydlitz89 said...

Nice post. Very interesting insight into the mentality of the Japanese naval commanders . . .

mike said...

(cross posted)

Chief -

Perhaps you are right regarding Kondo. I am rereading an excerpt of Lawrence Cortesi’s ”Bloody Friday”. In addition to American accounts he uses many Japanese sources including Yamamoto’s Chief of Staff Captain Ohmae, destroyer squadron commander Captain Tara, and ‘Tokyo Express” TF commander Admiral Tanaka (Americans called him Tanaka the Tenacious). Their story was that Kondo was the tenacious one when it came to shelling Henderson Field. Then why did he leave? The timeline is fuzzy but one suggestion was that lifesaving efforts of the crews of the Kirishima and Ayanami were not complete until an hour or so from dawn giving Kondo only a short time to get his ships out of range of American air that ruled the skies in daylight.

What surprised me was Cortesi’s comparison of rescue efforts. Halsey had reprimanded Captain Hoover and relieved him of command for abandoning the survivors of the Juneau sinking on the 13th. He also criticized the Port HQ at Tulagi for delaying rescue efforts. ”The efforts of rescue teams was shocking,” Halsey said later. ”They allowed dozens of sailors to perish in a mere twenty mile width of Sealark Channel where we controlled the coastline on both sides. Rescue boats should have gone after survivors the moment they got word of ship abandon ments.” Meanwhile the Japanese rescued most of their sailors (and soldiers) that went overboard.

PS – let us know how that Hornfischer book is that you mentioned. I have read his other book ”Ship of Ghosts” on the USS Houston and it was well written and well documented.

FDChief said...

"...lifesaving efforts of the crews of the Kirishima and Ayanami were not complete until an hour or so from dawn giving Kondo only a short time to get his ships out of range of American air that ruled the skies in daylight."

Don't get me wrong; Kondo had some good reasons for grabbing a hat.

But what strikes me is that here over at the Pub we're talking about "what's wrong with American generals" and speculating about how something in the way we select and train people for flag rank in the U.S. Army seems to produce guys who are fundamentally deficient in some critical ways...

And there seems to have been something like that involved in the selection and training of IJN flag officers. For every Tanaka and Yamamoto you got two Abes, Nagumos, Kuritas, or in this case Kondo. Something there seems to have produced an officer who could get just short of making the hard decision to risk everything and win big...but would shy away there.

Compare that with the actions of Cliff Sprague off Samar, or Spruance pursuing after Midway, or Halsey lunging after the carriers at Leyte (yeah, he effed up, but because of aggression rather than caution...)

So I can't put my finger on it, but the IJN senior officer corps seems to have been infected with a sort of reverse-victory disease that caused them to hesitate at that last step...and here, as at Pearl, as at Midway, and Samar, it would cost them.

Barry said...

FDChief, what I find interesting is that another word for their attitude is cowardice. They were big sh*t-talkers and peasant-slaughterers when the going was easy, but when faced with opposition that could match them, they backed down. Until, of course, they were desperate, which gives courage to many.

mike said...

Barry - I for one cannot agree with the cowardice call.

FDChief said...

Barry - sorry so late getting back to you, but...

I have to agree with mike in a sense; the IJN's senior officers were not physical cowards. In fact, the Naval General Staff had to issue an order forbidding ship captains and admirals from tying themselves to their ships to ensure they died if the vessels sank - the need for experienced captains outweighed what both the individuals and the organization saw as the "natural" desire of a defeated sailor to die with his ship.

But in a sense there WAS what I see as an element of cowardice involved, and that was in their unwillingness to tell the truth to their superiors about what they saw; the immense technical and logistic - and eventually tactical and organizational - strength of the USN and, by inference, the U.S. that would go on to devastate the Imperial forces and the helpless civilians in their own nation.

It was this sort of cowardice - the lack of the moral courage to stand up and tell their political superiors that the war was lost, and that every day they delayed unconditional surrender they were murdering thousands for nothing - that distinguishes people like Bobby Lee and the German and Japanese commanders. And, sadly, our own military "leaders" in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.