The Guadalcanal Campaign
David Llewellyn James
War in the Pacific - Midway and the First Allied Offensive
The Battle of Midway in June 1942 dramatically changed the strategic situation in the Pacific. Until Midway the Japanese forces, with a marked superiority in naval air power, were continuously on the strategic offensive. The United States Navy was restricted to occasional hit-and-run raids, until - a month before Midway - US carriers succeeded (at the Battle of the Coral Sea) in frustrating the Japanese attempt to take Port Moresby in New Guinea.
Then, with the destruction of four Japanese carriers and their air groups at Midway, the Pacific War entered a period of balance. For the time being neither side had sufficient strength in aircraft carriers to advance into an enemy-held area and maintain air superiority with shipborne aircraft while land operations progressed. The Japanese were never again to have such strength after Midway, and the US did not attain sufficient strength until the arrival in late 1943 of the new carriers of the Essex and Independence classes (and their new fighter, the F6F Hellcat). Thus for well over a year advances in the Pacific could be achieved only with the support of land-based aircraft - which had to give the necessary cover to any ship movements or ground operations undertaken in forward areas. This greatly limited the possibilities for an Allied offensive. No major advance in the Central Pacific was practicable until greater seaborne airpower was available. In the South-Western Pacific - in New Guinea - however, where Allied forces were under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, there were the airfields necessary to cover an offensive.
This meant that the US Central Pacific Forces under Admiral Nimitz were faced with the prospect of having no task other than that of holding the ring while Macarthur's forces advanced. The only area in which they could push forward was in the Solomon Islands, on the border of MacArthur's domain. The US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, was determined that Central Pacific forces should go onto the offensive as soon as possible. From a very early stage of the Pacific War - even before the Coral Sea and Midway battles - King had been hoping that by the end of 1942 it would be possible to begin an advance up the line of the Solomons from Tulagi, and threaten the strategic base of Rabaul. In April, with an eye on this future offensive, King set up the South Pacific Area under Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley. However, in May, during the failed Port Moresby operation, the Japanese captured Tulagi with ease, since it had not yet been garrisoned by the Allies.
Tulagi, a tiny island towards the southern end of the Solomons (i.e. the opposite end of the Solomons from Rabaul), had a valuable harbour which could be used by the Allies as a base for an advance on Rabaul - or by the Japanese for their intended thrust towards New Caledonia and New Zealand.
A peculiarity of the strategic situation in this theatre was that there was at this time no operational air base within 350 miles of Tulagi. The Japanese as yet had no airfield south of Rabaul, and the Allies had none nearer than Espiritu Santo some 500 miles away from Tulagi. Thus there was a strategic vacuum which, even in the absence of more powerful carrier forces, might be exploited by either side.
There was no ground on Tulagi or adjacent Florida Island level enough for an airfield, but on the then obscure island of Guadalcanal a few miles to the southwest was a plain suitable for the development of an air base. In June 1942 the Japanese began building an airstrip on this plain.
The Initial Landings
It is a common misconception that the discovery of the embryo airfield on Guadalcanal was the event which led to the Allied landings in the southern Solomons. In fact the decision to occupy Tulagi had already been taken when the Japanese airstrip was discovered, and ironically the discovery of its presence nearly led to the offensive's being either abandoned or at least postponed. However, King insisted that the operation was all the more necessary - he argued that without it the new airfield would become a threat to Espiritu Santo, and that it was now a matter of forestalling an enemy offensive as much as of securing a base for an Allied move on Rabaul. Again ironically, while the Japanese were indeed hoping eventually to advance further into the South Pacific, their initial purpose in building the airstrip was to cover the flank of their thrust towards Port Moresby in New Guinea.
Once the decision was made to take Tulagi the necessary forces were assembled in great haste, partly out of American anxiety to seize the islands before the enemy reinforced their garrisons or otherwise strengthened their position.
On 7 August an amphibious force - commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner - landed elements of the US First Marine Division on Guadalcanal and Tulagi. The assault on the latter island met courageous opposition from a small Japanese garrison, but - with the assistance of gunfire from US ships offshore - this was quickly overwhelmed. On Guadalcanal there was only token ground opposition, before the Japanese construction workers and the small force of combat troops with them retreated into the jungle. These landings - the first amphibious operation undertaken by the United States since the Spanish-American War in 1898 - were therefore a complete success, essentially because absolute strategic and tactical surprise had been achieved.
In the next two days the landing forces and the combat air patrol provided by three US carriers out to sea repelled heavy attacks by the Japanese aircraft flying from Rabaul. Heavy losses were inflicted on the Japanese aircraft, and only one transport was hit. The allied situation was now, however, to suddenly deteriorate.
The First Naval Actions - Savo Island and the Eastern Solomons
At 1807 on 8 August Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, in command of the carrier task force covering the landings, signalled Turner "Fighter plane strength reduced from 99 to 78. In view of the large number of enemy bombers and torpedo-planes in this area, I recommend immediate withdrawal of my carriers." He then - without waiting for a reply from Turner - set a course for the south-east and began his retirement. This left the transports in a very exposed position, and was to threaten the entire operation.
Meanwhile Admiral Mikawa - the Japanese Eighth Fleet commander at Rabaul - had assembled all his available surface forces as soon as he heard of the Allied landings, and then steamed southwards to attack the shipping off Guadalcanal, his force advancing down the channel between the Eastern and Western Solomons - this channel was soon to become notorious as "the Slot." Although Mikawa's ships were sighted by Allied aircraft, and Turner should therefore have received ample warning of the Japanese approach, a series of communications failures meant that no such warning was received.
Shortly after midnight 8/9 August Mikawa's ships, a curiously unbalanced force - 7 cruisers and a destroyer - attacked the Allied ships protecting the transports. This time it was the Japanese who achieved complete surprise, with devastating effect. They quickly destroyed four Allied heavy cruisers - the Australian Canberra and the US Quincy, Vincennes and Astoria - and seriously damaged a fifth - the USS Chicago.
The Japanese admiral now missed an extraordinary opportunity, for instead of advancing to destroy the transports and their surviving escorts he decided to withdraw, fearing that if his ships stayed much longer in the area they would be on the receiving end of air attacks from the American carriers next morning. Ironically, Fletcher's premature retirement meant that there was no such risk. But Mikawa's fear of aerial retaliation saved the amphibious shipping and therefore, in all probability, saved the campaign.
The losses of 9 August - four heavy cruisers and a transport - were to be the first of many in the stretch of water bounded by Guadalcanal, Savo Island and Tulagi - which was soon to become known as "Ironbottom Sound."
On the morning of 9 August, Turner - who in this campaign was to emerge as one of the toughest and most resolute commanders in modern naval history - decided to stay at the beachhead and continue unloading the transports. This gave the 11,000 Marines ashore enough supplies for a short period, but their situation was still very insecure. After the transports sailed away they had no immediate hope of reinforcement - whereas the Japanese would for a while be able to run in troops and supplies virtually unopposed.
But the Japanese failed to take advantage of this situation - Mikawa at Rabaul had responded with admirable celerity to the initial landings, but the higher command were slow in appreciating the need to drive the Marines off Guadalcanal before they were reinforced, and while the naval balance around the island was unfavourable to the Allies.
It was not until 19 August that the Japanese made a major effort to strengthen their land forces on Guadalcanal. On that day four transports with a close escort of one cruiser and four destroyers sailed from Rabaul, with 1,500 troops aboard. This convoy was to be covered by Admiral Kondo with a powerful force of three carriers, two battleships, five cruisers and seventeen destroyers.
American signals intelligence gave forewarning of this movement and task forces centred around the carriers Enterprise, Saratoga and Wasp were sent to frustrate the Japanese operation. Admiral Fletcher was once again in command.
Kondo detached the light carrier Ryujo with a light escort as bait to attract American air strikes. This was a standard Japanese ploy - the use of decoy and diversionary forces was a major part of the Japanese Navy's tactical doctrine.
When the first contact was made on August 24 the Wasp task group had been detached southwards to refuel, and only the Enterprise and Saratoga groups were available to participate in the action. The battle at first developed in conformity with the Japanese plan - the Ryujo force was sighted and duly received the initial strikes from the US carriers. This should have enabled the big Japanese carriers - Zuikaku and Shokaku (veterans of Pearl Harbor and Coral Sea) - to hit the American task force while its own aircraft were tied up in the attack on the diversionary force. But by the time Kondo's air strike arrived the bigger Japanese carriers had been sighted, and Enterprise and Saratoga had a large number of their fighters airborne to deal with the Japanese attack. These inflicted heavy losses on the attackers, but Enterprise was hit three times by the dive-bombers, although the damage was not disastrous.
This was the first occasion on which the Enterprise received battle damage - however, it was by no means to be the last.
On the night of 24 August Fletcher retired, not wishing to risk further damage to his carriers. Meanwhile Kondo also withdrew, and action was therefore not renewed. The Japanese reinforcement convoy proceeded towards Guadalcanal, but after attack by aircraft from Henderson Field, and suffering some damage, also retired. The Battle of the Eastern Solomons - the third naval battle in history in which the opposing ships never came within sight of each other - was over.
However, when the Japanese transports withdrew their troops were transferred to destroyers, which succeeded in landing them on Guadalcanal during the night of 25/26 August.
The Strange Balance
After the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, a unique, bizarre strategic balance prevailed around Guadalcanal and Tulagi. At Savo the Japanese had demonstrated their superiority in night surface battle, and the US fleet was not prepared to challenge the Japanese fleet during the hours of darkness, but the threat from Henderson Field's aircraft meant that Japanese ships would almost always retire before dawn. During the night the enemy could run in supplies and reinforcements to their forces ashore, and bombard US positions - including the airfield. By contrast during the hours of daylight the Americans could bring up their own reinforcements and supplies, and could themselves shell enemy positions with impunity.
This strange balance meant that the campaign for possession of the island was to last far longer than either side had ever anticipated. It would be dominated by Japanese attempts to capture or else to neutralize Henderson Field, and by US action to defeat such attempts. Japanese aircraft flying down from Rabaul would - almost daily - attack the airfield, but would suffer heavy losses, and would never succeed in putting the field out of commission. Bombardment by cruisers and destroyers would cause damage and impair Henderson's operations but would never succeed in putting the airfield out of action - only bombardment by Japanese battleships was ever to achieve this.
Attacks by Japanese Submarines / Loss of USS Wasp
The strategic situation now required that heavy US forces be stationed near Guadalcanal for long periods, primarily so that they could intervene to frustrate Japanese reinforcement efforts. The area of water in which these forces maintained their patrols was soon to become known as "Torpedo Junction."
On the last day of August Saratoga, patrolling some 260 miles south of Guadalcanal, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Her aircraft were flown off to Henderson Field, but the big carrier was forced to return to Pearl Harbor for repairs.
Fifteen days later the carrier Wasp was hit by three torpedoes from another submarine, and the battleship North Carolina and a destroyer were hit and damaged. Uncontrollable fires broke out aboard the Wasp and she soon had to be abandoned and sunk.
These attacks meant that there was only one carrier - Hornet - and one modern battleship - Washington - available for action in the South Pacific. The Japanese were therefore presented with a great opportunity to force the Americans off Guadalcanal, but failed to take advantage of it.
The Battle of Cape Esperance, 11-12 October 1942
The campaign swung backwards and forwards through the remainder of September and into October, with very bitter and bloody ground fighting.
The American command now resolved to disrupt the frequent reinforcement runs to Guadalcanal by Japanese warships - the "Tokyo Express." A cruiser/destroyer task force was formed for this purpose, under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott.
On the night of 11-12 October 1942, off Cape Esperance on northern Guadalcanal, this task force intercepted a Japanese squadron of three heavy cruisers and two destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Goto. The Japanese were completely surprised, having become accustomed to sailing in these waters completely unopposed. Their guns were trained fore-and-aft, and Scott's force succeeded (largely by sheer luck) in "crossing the T" - a classic manoeuvre which enabled them to concentrate all their fire on each enemy ship in turn, while the fire of the Japanese ships was masked by the ships ahead of them in column.
Nonetheless there was considerable confusion on the American side, and serious mistakes were made. These enabled the Japanese to reply with some effect - the destroyer Duncan was sunk and the cruiser Boise was heavily damaged. However, the Japanese lost one heavy cruiser and two destroyers and Admiral Goto was killed. Cape Esperance, as the battle became known, was therefore a clear - if indecisive - victory for the US Navy, its first in a major surface battle since the Nineteenth Century.
The Mid-October Crisis
The Battle of Cape Esperance did nothing, however, to discourage the Japanese effort to evict the Marines from Guadalcanal, and the ground fighting was to reach its climax between October 14th. and October 26th. On 14 October two Japanese fast battleships subjected Henderson Field to a terrific bombardment which put the air base out of action temporarily. Meanwhile strong reinforcements were landed on the island, by large transports as well as by the swifter warships. Despite these reinforcements and repeated and ferocious enemy attacks the Marines managed to keep control of the airfield.
Change of Command
At this time Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii decided to remove Ghormley as South Pacific commander. Nimitz and members of his staff had conducted a tour of inspection and been alarmed by the marked atmosphere of strain and demoralisation at South Pacific headquarters in Noumea. The man selected was Vice Admiral W.F. Halsey, who had already won fame and public adulation as task force commander in the celebrated Doolittle Raid and small but well-publicised carrier raids on Wake Island and the Marshalls in early 1942.
On 18 October Halsey took command at Noumea. Nimitz explained his decision with the comment that "the situation required a more aggressive commander." Halsey already had a reputation - whether deserved or not - for extreme pugnacity, based largely on his many bellicose utterances.
Some, including Halsey (who was an old friend of the man he was replacing), felt that a great injustice was being done to Ghormley, a very gifted and conscientious officer who had been presented with an almost impossible task. Nonetheless the change of command undoubtedly helped to raise morale in the South Pacific and throughout the Pacific Fleet, as well as in the United States. Moreover, Halsey's temperament and manner proved to be perfectly suited to the strategic situation in a way which confirmed Admiral Nimitz' judgment.
The Battle of Santa Cruz, 26 October 1942
The Enterprise had now returned to the South Pacific with her battle-damage repaired. Halsey therefore had two carriers available for action, but Admiral Yamamoto was able to deploy far more powerful forces against him, having a total of five carriers, five battleships, fourteen cruisers and no fewer than forty-four destroyers operating in these waters.
The Japanese Commander-in-Chief had stationed his fleet near Guadalcanal awaiting the seizure of Henderson Field by the Japanese Army. But, as related above, the ground offensive had failed, and on 26 October the Japanese force, containing four carriers, was brought to action near the Santa Cruz islands by the American carriers, now commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kincaid.
Each side's search aircraft located the opposing carriers at about 06.30. The Japanese light carrier Zuiho was immediately bombed and put out of action by the SBD Dauntlesses which located her. When the main carrier battle was joined the Japanese carrier Shokaku was so badly damaged that she was to be out of action for nine months. But the Japanese strike on the US carriers overwhelmed their fighter defences and both Hornet and Enterprise were hit. The latter was able to bring her damage under control, but Hornet received further hits and had to be abandoned. With the surviving American forces having been obliged to withdraw from the battle area and the stricken carrier was eventually given the coup de grace by Japanese destroyers.(Yamamoto had hoped to take Hornet in tow as a prize, but this proved impossible).
The loss of Hornet was a serious blow to the Allies, leaving the damaged Enterprise the only carrier in the South Pacific. However, the Japanese had suffered much heavier losses in aircraft and aircrew - some one hundred of their planes had been destroyed - and they were not again to mount a major carrier operation until the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. In strategic terms the Battle of Santa Cruz would prove to have been a victory for the United States, although this was not clear at the time.
The Battle of Guadalcanal, 12-15 November 1942 / The Night Action of 13 November
Despite the failure of the October assaults the Japanese remained determined to take Henderson Field. Their plan for mid-November depended on putting the airfield out of action by battleship bombardment, while running in huge troop reinforcements by daylight in heavily-escorted transports. In preparation for this cruisers and destroyers brought in soldiers and supplies in almost nightly "Tokyo Express" runs during early November.
On 11-12 November - in the face of heavy Japanese air attacks - seven US transports unloaded reinforcements and provisions under cover of a cruiser/destroyer task force commanded by Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan. Meanwhile a task force built around carrier Enterprise and the new fast battleships Washington and South Dakota, and commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, was moving up from the south - but was still too distant immediately to intervene.
The unloaded transports were withdrawn to the south on the evening of 12 November, but the Japanese bombardment group of two battleships and a strong escort was detected approaching from the north, and Callaghan now returned to Ironbottom Sound with five cruisers and eight destroyers in order to defend Henderson Field from the enemy heavy ships. This situation was to bring about a night surface action which has been described as the fiercest sea battle since the Anglo-Dutch wars of the Seventeenth Century.
For, just after midnight 12-13 November, Callaghan's force and the Japanese squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe, collided almost head-on, the leading ships of the American column actually passing through the Japanese formation between the two enemy battleships.
The Japanese force was taken by surprise, but there was immense confusion on the American side and the action quickly developed into a melee - to such an extent that it has been impossible for historians to chart the course of all the ships involved, or to give a precise account of events. Much of the firing was at literally point-blank range and great damage was done in a very short time. The heavy cruiser San Fransisco - the US flagship - was heavily hit almost at once, her bridge wrecked, and Admiral Callaghan and the cruiser's Captain, Cassin Young, were both killed. Nonetheless, despite her extensive damage, San Fransisco survived.
The light cruiser Atlanta, flagship of Rear Admiral Scott, the victor of Cape Esperance and Callaghan's second-in-command, was also hit very heavily at the beginning of the action, by a torpedo as well as by shellfire. Admiral Scott too was killed. Unlike San Fransisco, Atlanta did not survive.
The heavy cruiser Portland was torpedoed aft and left unable to manoeuvre, and four of the eight American destroyers received damage which led to their loss. Despite all this Callaghan's force inflicted serious damage on the Japanese formation, the most important blows being delivered by the eight-inch guns of San Fransisco and Portland to the battleship Hiei, the battleship's armour proving insufficient to withstand the cruisers' shells at such close ranges. Ironically the extremely close range of the encounter helped to save San Fransisco - for the Japanese battleships were unable to depress their guns sufficiently to inflict hits below her waterline.
Although the battle was in fact going well for the Japanese, especially so since their other battleship Kirishima was still fully operational, this situation was far from clear to Admiral Abe, and he took the decision to withdraw, even though not one shell had been fired at Henderson Field.
He was afterwards removed from command for this failure, and retired from the Imperial Navy.
The Battle of Guadalcanal, 12-15 November 1942 / Events from dawn 13 November to dusk 14 November
When dawn broke there were eight crippled ships still in Ironbottom Sound, including the Japanese Hiei and USS Portland. The latter opened fire on and sank the destroyer Yudachi (ironically credited with launching the torpedo which earlier had crippled Portland), and was then pulled clear of danger. The Hiei was attacked repeatedly - with bombs and torpedoes - by US aircraft, some from Enterprise, which was making her best speed northward to intervene in the battle, some from Henderson Field.
To the south of Guadalcanal the withdrawing ships of the American task force were attacked by a Japanese submarine. The light cruiser Juneau was torpedoed, blew up, and sank with heavy loss of life. This brought total US ship losses in the action to two cruisers and four destroyers. But this was offset by the Japanese loss of a fast battleship, and the action was in strategic terms a crucial victory for the United States, since the US force had frustrated the Japanese attempt to bombard Henderson Field.
Because of Abe's failure to put the US airfield out of action the Japanese transport force then proceeding down the Slot had to hold back awaiting another attempt to bombard Henderson. This was to take place the following night and be carried out by two heavy cruisers commanded by Rear Admiral Nishimura, covered by another cruiser group commanded by Admiral Mikawa, victor of the Battle of Savo Island.
Kinkaid's task force was still moving northwards at best speed. Halsey and his staff had hoped to detach its Heavy Gunfire Unit - Washington and South Dakota - commanded by Rear Admiral W. A. Lee - to defeat any Japanese attempt to bombard Henderson on the night of 13/14 November.
But they miscalculated the speed of advance of Kinkaid's force, as they failed to allow for Enterprise's having to repeatedly turn southwards - into the wind - in order to carry out flight operations. Consequently the battleships were not detached until too late, and it soon became clear that they would not be able to reach Guadalcanal in time.
Thus the Japanese heavy cruisers were able to carry out their bombardment of the airfield that night, unopposed by any US forces other than two motor torpedo boats. However, the two heavy cruisers were unable to inflict the damage which the airfield would have suffered from the Japanese battleships on the previous night, and Henderson Field was still operational the next morning. As a result, after daybreak Mikawa's withdrawing squadron came under attack by aircraft flying from Guadalcanal, and the heavy cruiser Kinugasa was sunk. Then the Japanese transports, which were now advancing down the Slot on the assumption that the night's bombardment had at least impaired American flight operations, came under heavy attack.
More and more missions were flown against the transports throughout the day, by Marine SBD Dauntlesses, by more SBDs, and Avengers, from carrier Enterprise, which were staged through Henderson Field, and by B-17 Flying Fortresses flying up from Espiritu Santo.
The result was a massacre - seven of the eleven transports were sunk - but the commander of the transport group and of its escort, Rear Admiral Tanaka, was an exceptionally determined officer soon to be given the compliment by his US enemies of the nickname "Tanaka the Tenacious." He ordered that as many troops as possible should be transferred from the sinking transports to his escorting destroyers, and resolved to land them on Guadalcanal during the night of 14/15 November from the destroyers, regardless of any US opposition. The four surviving transports were also to attempt to reach the contested island.
The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 12-15 November 1942
Battleship Night Action of 14-15 November 1942
A final attempt to put Henderson Field out of commission was now to be made, this time by a force built around the battleship Kirishima (which had already participated in the ferocious night action of 13 November against Callaghan's force) and two heavy cruisers, screened by two light cruisers and nine destroyers, commanded by Rear Admiral Kondo.
However, Lee's Heavy Gunfire Unit was now in a position to meet this threat. At around 22.00 on 14 November Lee in Washington led battleship South Dakota and four destroyers into Ironbottom Sound. Eventually the US battleships picked up light cruiser Sendai on their radar and opened fire with their 16-inch main batteries. The Japanese cruiser retired under cover of smoke and escaped out of radar range.
The American destroyers then made contact with other Japanese ships - light cruiser Nagara and several destroyers - but were heavily mauled. Two of the US destroyers were torpedoed and the other two hit by gunfire. Three of the four were eventually to sink.
South Dakota then ran into further difficulties - her circuit-breakers tripped and there was a consequent loss of electrical power throughout the ship. This had a very demoralising effect on her crew, and although her power was restored after three minutes her radar picture was left incomplete.
Shortly afterwards Lee ordered his destroyers to retire. Light cruiser Nagara and several destroyers launched more than thirty torpedoes aimed at South Dakota - all missed. But the unfortunate battleship had unwittingly moved towards Kondo's heavy ships and now came under heavy gun and torpedo fire. Again the torpedoes missed, but South Dakota was starkly illuminated by searchlights and battered by Kirishima and two heavy cruisers at the close range of 5,000 yards. Within a few minutes she took numerous hits topside and - with her upperworks ablaze - was soon forced to retire.
Meanwhile, however, Lee's Washington was to intervene decisively. While the Japanese force concentrated on the hapless South Dakota the flagship remained unobserved. Kirishima was taken by surprise when Washington opened fire on her, and within seven minutes the Japanese battleship had received 9 hits from her 16-inch shells. Lee then took Washington northwards, which obliged the Japanese bombardment group (minus the crippled Kirishima) to also move northwards - away from Guadalcanal - in order to protect the approaching Japanese transports.
Thus ended the long series of attempts to neutralize Henderson Field.
During the remainder of the night and early the following morning the four Japanese transports which had survived the air attacks of 14 November beached themselves on the northern shores of Guadalcanal. All four were destroyed by US aircraft and destroyer attack, with terrible casualties among the troops they were carrying.
Thus, in this great battle - given the official name "The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal" - Japan had lost two battleships, eleven transports, and many thousands of soldiers. This was to prove the decisive battle of the campaign, and, in the opinion of Samuel Eliot Morison - the US Navy's official historian - the most decisive battle of the Pacific War after Midway and the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
The Battle of Tassafaronga, 30 November 1942
After the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal the Japanese command lost confidence in their ability to retake the island and began to think in terms of developing New Georgia, to the north of Guadalcanal, as a bastion to thwart the American advance in the Solomons. There were to be no more bombardments of Guadalcanal by the Tokyo Express - but Tanaka's redoubtable Second Destroyer Squadron was still required to make frequent supply runs to the island. One of these supply runs was to lead to the last major naval battle of the campaign.
On 24 November Kinkaid arrrived at Espiritu Santo to take command of Task Force 67, a recently formed cruiser/destroyer force. He received an order from Halsey to be ready to counter any attempted reinforcement by the Japanese. By 27 November he had drawn up an operational plan for this purpose, but the next day he was recalled by Nimitz for duty elsewhere (he was soon to took command of the North Pacific Force) and was replaced by Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright.
Wright adopted Kinkaid's plan, holding a conference with his staff and his ships' captains on 29 November.
On the same evening he received a dispatch from Halsey ordering Task Force 67 to intercept a Japanese force of eight destroyers and six transports expected off Guadalcanal on the night of 30/31 November.
Thus Wright was presented with a combat mission on his second day of command.
Task Force 67, consisting of heavy cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola and Northampton, light cruiser Honolulu, and 6 destroyers, steamed north from Espiritu Santo at 28 knots, arriving in Ironbottom Sound at about 22.30 on 30 November. At 23.06 Wright's flagship - the Minneapolis - made the first radar contact with Tanaka's ships. The Japanese were again taken by surprise, but once again a US force would fail to exploit this advantage.
Just after 11pm three US destroyers launched twenty torpedoes while Tanaka was still unaware of their presence, and immediately afterwards the American cruisers opened fire. The Japanese destroyer Takanami was hit early, and the US force witnessed fires and explosions aboard her. But all the American torpedoes missed, and the Japanese squadron quickly replied with twenty of their own.
At 23.27 the American flagship was hit by two 24-inch torpedoes. New Orleans, next astern in the US line, was hit by a torpedo which severed her bow. Pensacola, next again in line, was also hit. Honolulu, fourth in line of the cruisers, was unscathed, but Northampton, immediately astern of her, received the worst damage - two hits which would later cause her to sink. However, the three other heavy cruisers were saved, and managed to reach Tulagi harbour, where emergency repairs were carried out - but all of them were to be out of the war for more than nine months.
As Morison writes "It is a painful truth that the Battle of Tassafaronga was a sharp defeat inflicted on an alert and superior cruiser force by a partially surprised and inferior destroyer force."
Wright accepted full responsibility for the torpedo damage to his ships, which, as Admiral Spruance was to remark "denoted a high military character," given that he was a newcomer with little choice of route and dependent on another officer's operational plan.
This extraordinary battle underlined the American inferiority in night tactics and in training for night action, and the deadliness of the Japanese "Long Lance" torpedo. The defeat led to much discussion in the Pacific Fleet about changes in tactical doctrine, and new methods were to be put into effect during 1943 - in battles further north in the Solomon islands. Eventually the US Pacific Fleet would establish superiority over the Japanese in night surface action as well as in most other forms of naval warfare. This was to be conclusively demonstrated in Surigao Strait on the night of October 24/25 1944 - during the Battle for Leyte Gulf - in the last great night surface action in history.
The Campaign Ends / Rennell Island / Japanese Evacuation of Guadalcanal
The Japanese Navy's high command had been in favour of abandoning the island since the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, but it was not until the end of 1942 that Premier Tojo and the Army high command would accept that the island could not be retaken. On 4 January 1943 the order came from Tokyo that Guadalcanal was to be evacuated within a month.
On 29-30 January in the Battle of Rennell Island Japanese long-range aircraft using a new night attack technique were thrown against a US cruiser task force. The heavy cruiser Chicago was torpedoed, taken under tow, but torpedoed again, and eventually lost.
The evacuation was already in progress, and in three nights ending on the night of 7-8 February 1943 Japanese destroyers took off the remnants of the garrison - 11,706 men in all. Ironically the success of this evacuation was a testament to Japanese audacity and skill.
It was not until 9 February 1943 that the Americans knew for certain that the Japanese had gone. General Patch, commanding US ground forces on the island, then signalled to Admiral Halsey -
"Complete defeat of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal effected 16.25 today . . 'Tokyo Express' no longer has terminus on Guadalcanal."
The Main Sources for this text were :
Samuel Eliot Morison "History of United States Naval Operations in World War Two"
Volume V "Guadalcanal" (Little, Brown & Co, Boston 1969)
Captain S.W. Roskill RN "The War at Sea" Vol. II (HMSO, London 1956)