Operation Battle of Tassarafonga

The 'Battle of Tassafaronga', which is sometimes known as the '4th Battle of Savo Island'; or, to the Japanese, as the 'Battle of Lunga Point', was a naval battle fought between Japanese and US forces, in the course of the 'Watchtower' campaign for Guadalcanal, in 'Ironbottom Sound' near the Tassafaronga area on Guadalcanal (30 November 1942).

In the battle, a US force of five heavy cruisers and four destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright intercepted a force of eight Japanese destroyers attempting to deliver food to the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal island. The US destroyers waited four minutes after gaining radar contact for permission to launch torpedoes and missed the optimal firing position: thus all the torpedoes missed and the destroyers retired. The US cruisers opened fire and sank one destroyer, but their muzzle flashes exposed the US cruisers' positions. Under the command of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, the Japanese destroyers quickly launched Type 93 'Long Lance' heavyweight torpedoes, sinking one US cruiser and heavily damaging three others. The rest of Tanaka’s force escaped undamaged but failed to complete the intended supply mission.

On 7 August 1942, Allied forces had launched the 'Watchtower' campaign with landings on Guadalcanal, Tulagi and the Florida islands in the Solomon islands group. The landings were meant to deny the Japanese possession of Guadalcanal on which to construct bases from which they threaten the maritime supply routes between the USA and Australia, and to secure the islands as starting points for a campaign with the eventual goal of neutralising the major Japanese bases at Rabaul on New Britain island and Kavieng on New Ireland island, while also supporting the Allied land campaign on New Guinea.

Totalling between 2,000 and 3,000 me, the Japanese on the islands were taken by complete surprise, and by the fall of night on 8 August, the 11,000 Allied troops, under the command of Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, had secured Tulagi and nearby small islands in 'Ringbolt' as well as the Japanese airfield under construction at Lunga Point on Guadalcanal. The airfield became Henderson Field, and the Allied aircraft operating from it were the 'Cactus Air Force' after the Allied geographical codename for Guadalcanal. To protect the airfield, the US Marines established a perimeter defence around Lunga Point, and reinforcements over the next two months increased the number of US troops round Lunga Point to more than 20,000 men.

In response to the Allied landings on, the Imperial General Headquarters assigned the Imperial Japanese army’s 17th Army, a corps-sized command based at Rabaul and under the command of Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake, the task of retaking the island. The first of the 17th Army's units started to arrive on Guadalcanal on 19 August.

As a result of the threat posed by the aircraft of the Cactus Air Force, the Japanese were rarely able to use large but slow transport ships or barges to deliver troops and supplies to the island. Instead, they used warships based at Rabaul and the Shortland islands group, between New Britain and Bougainville islands, to carry their forces, equipment and supplies to Guadalcanal. The Japanese warships, mainly light cruisers and destroyers of the 8th Fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, were usually able to make the round trip down 'The Slot' to Guadalcanal and back in a single night, thereby minimising their exposure to Cactus Air Force attack. Delivering the troops in this manner, however, prevented most of the soldiers' heavy equipment and supplies, such as heavy artillery, vehicles and much of their food, ammunition and medical supplies, from being carried to Guadalcanal with them. These high-speed warship runs to Guadalcanal occurred throughout the campaign and were later called the 'Tokyo Express' by the Allies and 'Rat Transportation' by the Japanese.

The Japanese attempted several times between August and November 1942 to recapture Henderson Field and drive Allied forces from Guadalcanal, b ut failed on each occasion. The last Japanese attempt to deliver significant additional forces to the island failed during the naval 'Battle of Guadalcanal' on 12/15 November 1942.

On 26 November, Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura took command of the new 8th Area Army at Rabaul. The new command encompassed both Hyakutake’s 17th Army in the Solomon islands group and the 18th Army in New Guinea. One of Imamura’s first priorities was the continuation of the attempts to retake Henderson Field and Guadalcanal. However, the Allied attempt to take Buna in New Guinea changed Imamura’s priorities as the latter was now considered a more severe threat to Rabaul, and Imamura postponed further major reinforcement efforts to Guadalcanal to concentrate on the situation in New Guinea.

As a result of a combination of the threat of the Cactus Air Force, US Navy PT-boats stationed at Tulagi, and a cycle of bright moonlight, the Japanese had switched to using submarines to deliver provisions to their forces on Guadalcanal. Beginning on 16 November and continuing for the next three weeks, 16 submarines made nocturnal deliveries of food to the island, with one submarine making the trip each night. Each submarine could deliver 20 to 30 tons, about one day’s supply of food, for the 17th Army, but the difficult task of transporting the supplies by hand through the jungle to front-line units limited their value in sustaining the Japanese troops on Guadalcanal. At the same time, the Japanese tried to establish a chain of three bases in the central part of the Solomon islands group to allow small boats to use them as staging sites for making supply deliveries to Guadalcanal, but Allied air attacks on the bases were so damaging that the Japanese were forced the abandonment this plan.

On 26 November, the 17th Army notified the 8th Area Army that it faced a critical food crisis. Some front-line units had not been resupplied for six days and even the rear-area troops were on one-third rations. The situation forced the Japanese to return to using destroyers to deliver the necessary supplies.

The 8th Fleet devised a plan to help reduce the exposure of destroyers delivering supplies to Guadalcanal. Large oil and/or petrol drums were cleaned and filled with medical supplies and food, with enough air space to provide buoyancy, and strung together with rope. When the destroyers arrived off Guadalcanal they were to make a sharp turn, the drums would be cut loose, and a swimmer or boat from the shore could pick up the buoyed end of the rope and return it to the beach, where the supplies could be hauled ashore.

The 8th Fleet's Guadalcanal Reinforcement Unit, based in the Shortland islands group under the command of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, was tasked with making the first of five scheduled runs using the drum method on the night of 30 November. Tanaka’s unit was based on the eight ships of Destroyer Squadron 2, with six destroyers assigned to carry between 200 and 240 supply drums each to Tassafaronga at Guadalcanal. Tanaka’s flagship Naganami, along with Takanami, acted as the Escort Force. The six drum-carrying destroyers were Kuroshio, Oyashio, Kagero, Suzukaze, Kawakaze and Makinami as the Transport Force, of which four destroyers constituted Transport Force 1 and the other two Transport Force 2. To save weight, the drum-carrying destroyers left their reloads of Type 93 'Long Lance' torpedoes in the Shortland islands group, leaving each ship with one torpedo for eight of the eight tubes.

After the naval 'Battle of Guadalcanal', Vice Admiral (from 18 November Admiral) William F. Halsey, commander of Allied forces in the South Pacific Area, had reorganised the US naval forces under his command, including, on 24 November, the formation of Task Force 67 at Espiritu Santo island: TF67 comprised the heavy cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola and Northampton, the light cruiser Honolulu, and the destroyers Fletcher, Drayton, Maury and Perkins. Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright replaced Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid as commander of TF67 on 28 November.

On assuming command, Wright briefed his ship commanders on his plan for engaging the Japanese in what he expected to be night battles around Guadalcanal. The plan, which he had drafted with Kinkaid, stated that radar-equipped destroyers were to scout ahead of the cruisers and deliver a surprise torpedo attack on sighting Japanese warships, then vacate the area to give the cruisers clear fields of fire. The cruisers were then to engage the Japanese ships with gunfire at a range of between 10,000 and 12,000 yards (9156 and 10975 m). The cruisers' floatplanes were to scout and drop flares during the battle.

On 29 November, Allied intelligence intercepted and decoded a Japanese message transmitted to the 17th Army and alerting it to Tanaka’s supply run. Informed of the message, Halsey ordered Wright to take TF67 to intercept Tanaka off Guadalcanal. With Wright flying his flag on Minneapolis, TF67 departed Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides islands group at 27 kt just before 00.00 on 29 November for the 580-mile (935-km) run to Guadalcanal. As TF67 was making its passage, the destroyers Lamson and Lardner, returning from a convoy escort assignment to Guadalcanal, were ordered to join TF67. Lacking the time to brief the two destroyers' commanding officers of his battle plan, Wright assigned them a position behind the cruisers. At 17.00 on 30 November, Wright’s cruisers launched one floatplane each for Tulagi to drop flares during the expected battle that night, and at 20.00, Wright sent his crews to battle stations.

Tanaka’s force departed the Shortland islands group just after 00.00 on 30 November for the run to Guadalcanal. Tanaka attempted to evade Allied air reconnaissance by first heading to the north-east through Bougainville Strait before turning to the south-east and then to the south to pass through Indispensable Strait. Paul Mason, an Australian coastwatcher in the southern part of Bougainville, reported by radio the departure of Tanaka’s ships from the Shortland islands group, and this message was passed to Wright. At the same time, a Japanese search aeroplane spotted an Allied convoy near Guadalcanal and communicated the sighting to Tanaka, who told his destroyer commanders to expect action that night and that 'In such an event, utmost efforts will be made to destroy the enemy without regard for the unloading of supplies.'

At 21.40, Tanaka’s ships sighted Savo island from Indispensable Strait. The Japanese ships were in line ahead formation, with a gap of 655 yards (600 m) between each ship, in the order Takanami, Oyashio, Kuroshio, Kagero, Makinami, Naganami, Kawakaze and Suzukaze. At this same time, TF67 entered Lengo Channel en route to 'Ironbottom Sound'. Wright’s ships were in column in the order Fletcher, Perkins, Maury, Drayton, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola, Honolulu, Northampton, Lamson and Lardner. The four van destroyers led the cruisers by 4,000 yards (3660 m) and the cruisers steamed 1,000 yards (916 m) apart.

At 22.40, Tanaka’s ships passed to the south of Savo island about 3 miles (4.8 km) off Guadalcanal, and slowed to 12 kt as they approached the unloading area. Takanami took station about 1,750 yards (1600 m) to seaward in order to screen the column. At the same time, TF67 exited Lengo Channel into the sound and headed at 20 kt toward Savo island. Wright’s van destroyers moved to a position slightly inshore of the cruisers. The night sky was currently moonless and the visibility was between 3.500 and 12.300 yards (3200 and 10270 m). Because of extreme calmness of the sea, which created a suction effect on their pontoons, Wright’s cruiser floatplanes were delayed in lifting off from Tulagi harbour, and would not be a factor in the battle.

At 23.06, Wright’s force began to detect Tanaka’s ships on radar near Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal at a range of about 23,000 yards (21030 m). Wright’s destroyers rejoined the column as it continued to head toward Savo island. At the same time, Tanaka’s ships, which were not equipped with radar, split into two groups and prepared to cast their drums overboard. Naganami, Kawakaze and Suzukaze headed for their drop point near Doma Reef, while Makinami, Kagero, Oyashio and Kuroshio headed for nearby Tassafaronga. At 23.12, Takanami's crew gained a visual sightin of TF67’s column, and this was quickly confirmed by look-outs on Tanaka’s other ships. At 23.16, Tanaka ordered unloading preparations halted and 'All ships attack'.

At 23.14, radar operators on Fletcher established firm contact with Takanami and the leading group of four drum-carrying destroyers. At 23.15, with the range 7,000 yards (6400 m), Commander William M. Cole, commander of Wright’s destroyer group and captain of Fletcher, radioed Wright for permission to fire torpedoes. Wright waited two minutes and then responded 'Range on bogies [Tanaka’s ships on radar] excessive at present'. Cole responded that the range was fine. Another two minutes passed before Wright responded with permission to fire. In the meantime, the US destroyers' targets escaped from an optimum firing set-up ahead to a marginal position passing abeam, giving the US torpedoes a long overtaking run near the limit of their range. At 23.20, Fletcher, Perkins and Drayton fired a total of 20 Mk 15 torpedoes toward Tanaka’s ships. Lacking SG radar and thus having no contacts, Maury did not fire.

At the same time, Wright ordered his force to open fire. At 23.21, Minneapolis complied with her first salvo, quickly followed by the other US cruisers. Cole’s four destroyers fired star shells to illuminate the target area as previously directed, then increased speed to clear the area for the cruisers to operate.

Because of her closer proximity to Wright’s column, Takanami was the target of most of the initial US gunfire. Takanami returned fire and launched her full load of eight torpedoes, but was quickly hit by US gunfire and, within four minutes, was set on fire and incapacitated. As Takanami was destroyed, the rest of Tanaka’s ships, almost unnoticed by the US ships, were increasing speed, manoeuvring and preparing to respond to the US attack. All of the US torpedoes missed.

Tanaka’s flagship, Naganami, reversed course to starboard, opened fire and began laying a smoke screen. The next two ships astern, Kawakaze and Suzukaze, reversed course to port. At 23.23, Suzukaze fired eight torpedoes in the direction of the gun flashes of Wright’s cruisers, followed by Naganami and Kawakaze, which fired their full loads of eight torpedoes at 23.32 and 23.33 respectively.

Meanwhile, the four destroyers heading the Japanese column maintained their heading down the coast of Guadalcanal, allowing Wright’s cruisers to pass on the opposite course. Once clear of Takanami at 23.28, Kuroshio and Oyashio fired four and eight torpedoes respectively in the direction of Wright’s column and then reversed course and increased speed. Wright’s cruisers maintained the same course and speed as the total of 44 Japanese torpedoes sped in their direction.

At 23.27, as she fired her ninth salvo and Wright prepared to order a course change for his column, Minneapolis was struck on her forward half by two torpedoes from Suzukaze or Takanami. The warhead of one torpedo detonated the aviation fuel storage tanks forward of turret no. one and the other knocked out three of the ship’s four firerooms. The bow forward of turret no. 1one folded down at a 70 angle and the ship lost power and steering control. Some 37 men were killed.

Less than one minute later, a torpedo struck New Orleans abreast turret no. one and exploded the ship’s forward ammunition magazines and aviation fuel storage. The blast severed the ship’s entire bow forward of turret no. two. The bow twisted to port, damaging the ship’s hull as it was wrenched free by the ship’s inertia, and sank immediately off the aft port quarter. Everyone in turrets nos one and two died. New Orleans was forced into a reverse course to starboard and lost steering and communications. A total of 183 men were killed.

Pensacola was following next astern in the cruiser column. Observing Minneapolis and New Orleans taking hits and slowing, Pensacola steered to pass them on the port side and then, once past, returned to the same base course. At 23.39, Pensacola took a torpedo abreast the main mast. The detonation spread flaming oil throughout the interior and across the ship’s main deck, killing 125 of the crew. The hit ripped away the port outer driveshaft and the ship took a 13 list and lost power, communications and steering.

Astern of Pensacola, Honolulu's captain chose to pass Minneapolis and New Orleans on the starboard side. At the same time, he ordered an increase to 30 kt, manoeuvred radically and successfully transited the battle area without taking any damage while maintaining the fire of his ship’s main battery at the rapidly disappearing Japanese destroyers.

The last cruiser in the US column was Northampton, which followed Honolulu to pass the damaged cruisers to starboard. Unlike Honolulu, Northampton did not increase speed or attempt any radical manoeuvres. At 23.48, after returning to the base course, Northampton was hit by two of Kawakaze's torpedoes. One hit 10 ft (3 m) below the waterline abreast the after engine room, and four seconds later, the second hit 40 ft (12 m) farther aft. The after engine room flooded, three of four shafts ceased turning, and the ship listed 10 to port and caught fire. Some 50 men were killed.

The last ships in Wright’s column, Lamson and Lardner, failed to locate any targets and exited the battle area to the east after being mistakenly fired on by machine guns from New Orleans. Cole’s four destroyers circled completely around Savo island at maximum speed and re-entered the battle area, but the engagement had already ended.

Meanwhile, at 23.44 Tanaka ordered his ships to break contact and retire from the battle area. As they steamed up Guadalcanal’s coast, Kuroshio and Kagero fired eight more torpedoes toward the US ships, but all of these missed. When Takanami failed to respond to radio calls, Tanaka directed Oyashio and Kuroshio to go to her assistance. The two destroyers located the burning ship at 01.00 on 1 December but abandoned rescue efforts after detecting the presence of US warships in the area. Oyashio and Kuroshio quickly departed 'Ironbottom Sound' to rejoin the rest of Tanaka’s ships for the return journey to the Shortland islands group, which they reached 10 hours later. Takanami was the only Japanese warship hit by US gunfire and seriously damaged during the battle.

The surviving men of Takanami's crew abandoned ship at 01.30, but a large explosion killed many more of them in the water, including the Destroyer Division 31's commander, Captain Toshio Shimizu, and the ship’s captain, Commander Masami Ogura. Of her crew of 244, 48 survived to reach shore on Guadalcanal and 19 of them were recovered and taken prisoner by the US forces.

Northampton's crew was unable to contain the ship’s fires and list, and began to abandon ship at 01.30. The ship sank at 03.04 about 5 miles (8 km) from Doma Cove on Guadalcanal. Fletcher and Drayton rescued the ship’s 773 survivors.

Minneapolis, New Orleans and Pensacola were able to steam the 22 miles (35 km) to Tulagi by the morning of 1 December, where they were berthed for emergency repairs. The fires on Pensacola burned for 12 hours before being extinguished. Pensacola departed Tulagi for rear-area ports and further repair on 6 December. After the construction and fitting of of temporary bows made from coconut logs, Minneapolis and New Orleans departed Tulagi for Espiritu Santo island or Sydney on Australia’s eastern coast on 12 December. All three cruisers required lengthy and extensive repairs: New Orleans returned to action in August, Minneapolis in September and Pensacola in October 1943.

The 'Battle of Tassafaronga' was one of the worst defeats suffered by the US Navy in World War II, third only to the Japanese 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor and the 'Battle of Savo Island'. Mitigating to some degree the destruction of his task force, Wright, in his after-action report, claimed that his force sank four Japanese destroyers and damaged two others. Halsey, in his comments on Wright’s report, placed much of the blame for the defeat on Cole, saying that the destroyer squadron commander fired his torpedoes from too great a distance to be effective and should have 'helped' the cruisers instead of circling around Savo island. Tanaka claimed to have sunk a battleship and two cruisers in the battle and, after the war, said of his victory 'I have heard that US naval experts praised my command in that action. I am not deserving of such honours. It was the superb proficiency and devotion of the men who served me that produced the tactical victory for us.' As for the US Navy, Tanaka said 'The enemy had discovered our plans and movements, had put planes in the air beforehand for purposes of illumination, had got into formation for an artillery engagement, and cleverly gained the advantage of prior neutralization fire. But his fire was inaccurate, shells improperly set for deflection were especially numerous, and it is conjectured that either his marksmanship is not remarkable or else the illumination from his star shells was not sufficiently effective.'

Cole’s experience at Tassafaronga led to Captain Arleigh Burke’s standing orders to his own ships that 'destroyers are to attack the enemy on first contact without awaiting orders from task force commander', and this instruction was instrumental in his success in the 'Battle of Empress Augusta Bay' and the 'Battle of Cape St. George'. Cole also influenced Commander Frederick Moosbrugger’s tactics in the 'Battle of the Vella Gulf', in which Moosbrugger withheld gunfire until his own torpedoes were observed hitting Japanese ships, surprising the Japanese.

The results of the 'Battle of Tassafaronga' led to further discussion in the Pacific Fleet about changes in tactical doctrine and the need for technical improvements, the latter including the need for flashless powder. It was not until eight months later that the naval high command recognised that there were serious problems with the functioning of the US Navy’s torpedoes. The Americans were still unaware of the range and power of Japanese torpedoes and the effectiveness of Japanese night battle tactics. In fact, Wright claimed that his ships must have been engaged by submarines since the observed position of Tanaka’s ships 'make it improbable that torpedoes with speed-distance characteristics similar to our own' could have caused such damage'. It was not until a time well into 1943 that the USA recognise the true capabilities of their Pacific adversary’s torpedoes and night tactics.

In spite of its defeat in the battle, the US Navy had actually prevented Tanaka from landing the desperately needed food supplies on Guadalcanal, albeit at high cost. A second Japanese supply delivery attempt by 10 destroyers under Tanaka’s command on 13 December successfully dumped 1,500 drums of provisions off Tassafaronga, but strafing by US aircraft sank all but 310 of them on the following day before they could be pulled ashore. On 7 December, a third attempt by 12 destroyers was turned back by PT-boats off Cape Esperance, and during the following night, two PT-boats torpedoed and sank the Japanese submarine I-3 as it attempted to deliver supplies to Guadalcanal. Based on its difficulties in trying to deliver food to the island, the Imperial Japanese navy informed Imamura on 8 December that it intended to stop all destroyer delivery runs to Guadalcanal immediately. After Imamura protested, the navy agreed to one more run. This last attempt by destroyers in 1942 was led by Tanaka on the night of 11 December and comprised 11 destroyers. Five PT-boats met Tanaka off Guadalcanal and torpedoed his flagship Teruzuki, severely damaging the destroyer and injuring Tanaka. After Tanaka had transferred to Naganami, Teruzuki was scuttled. Only 220 of the 1,200 drums released that night were recovered by Japanese army personnel. Tanaka was subsequently relieved of command and transferred to Japan on 29 December.

On 12 December, the Imperial Japanese navy proposed that Guadalcanal be abandoned. Despite opposition from Japanese army leaders, who still hoped that Guadalcanal could eventually be retaken, on 31 December the Imperial General Headquarters, with approval from Emperor Hirohito, agreed to the evacuation of all Japanese forces from the island and the establishment of a new line of defence for the Solomon islands group farther to the north-west on New Georgia island. The Japanese evacuated their remaining forces from Guadalcanal over three nights between 2 and 7 February 1943, conceding the hard-fought campaign to the Allies.