This was the Japanese counter-offensive in the Solomon islands group in response to the US invasion of Florida and Guadalcanal islands in the ‘Ringbolt’ and ‘Watchtower’ operations (16 August/31 December 1942).
The two US operations had been undertaken by Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift’s US 1st Marine Division on 7 August 1942 under the local command of Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher and overall command of Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley’s South Pacific Force of the Pacific Fleet, Fletcher having a task force centred on three fleet carriers with which to cover the assault.
The Japanese considered Guadalcanal to be essential to the security of their outer defence perimeter, for they planned to develop the island as a base from which the Allied lines of maritime communication across the Pacific (from the USA to New Zealand and Australia) could be interdicted, so preventing the build-up of forces for a riposte against the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’. In the circumstances, therefore, the Japanese planned and launched ‘Ka’ (ii) to drive the marines and their supporting naval forces from the south-eastern end of the Solomon islands group.
Strong Japanese air attacks started later on 7 August as a precursor to ‘Ka’ (ii), and Fletcher felt compelled on 8 August to take the tactical decision to pull his vulnerable carriers and transport vessels back to the islands of Espíritu Santo and New Caledonia, leaving 16,000 US Marines on Guadalcanal and 6,000 more on Tulagi, together with rations for 37 days and only limited artillery and small arms ammunition. A brief respite was then granted to the marines as the Japanese prepared ‘Ka’ (ii), and they put this time to good use completing the airfield which the Japanese had started as Henderson Field, a forward strip for fighters and light attack aircraft. Though no land reinforcements for the Japanese on Guadalcanal had arrived by this time, the marines still had to endure daily bomber and naval gunfire attacks.
By this time the Imperial Japanese army had taken over from the Imperial Japanese navy the responsibility for land operations on Guadalcanal. Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutake, commander of the 17th Army headquartered at Rabaul on New Britain island, believed that there were only 2,000 US troops on Guadalcanal, and that a force of 60,00 Japanese troops would be sufficient to defeat them. This was a radical underestimation of the real strength of the US forces, and resulted from an intelligence failure whose effects lasted well into the Guadalcanal campaign. The estimate’s origins were initially a cable from the Japanese military attaché in Moscow reporting that there were only a few thousand panic-stricken US troops were on the island, and that these were undertaking nothing more than a large-scale raid: the attaché’s source for this faulty information has never been identified. The Japanese also deceived themselves about the implications of the large number of US transport vessels by persuading themselves that these reflected not the presence of larger numbers of men but rather the softness of the US forces and their need for the amenities which could be provided only on board ships.
For the expulsion of the Americans from Guadalcanal, Hyakutake was assigned the 28th Regiment of the three-regiment 7th Brigade of Lieutenant General Koichi Koito’s 7th Division, reinforced with artillery and engineers and currently located on Saipan in the Mariana islands group, and Major General Kiyotaki Kawaguchi’s 6,000-man 35th Brigade (based on the 124th Regiment of Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi’s 18th Division) and currently located on Mindanao in the Philippine islands group. However, rather than take the time needed to gather the full force at his disposal from two different locations, Hyakutake immediately decided to commit the 2,328 men of the reinforced 28th Regiment, known as the ‘Ichiki’ Detachment after its commander, Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, was more concerned than his army counterparts about the implications of the US landing on Guadalcanal, and saw in an immediate counter-offensive not only the way to solve a local problem rapidly and efficiently, but also an opportunity to avenge his defeat in the Battle of Midway, which had ended his ‘Mi’ (ii) offensive against Midway island. Yamamoto therefore moved the headquarters of his Combined Fleet farther to the south to Truk atoll in the Caroline islands group, and committed Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo’s 2nd Fleet and Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet to the campaign to retake Guadalcanal. The 3rd Fleet had been created as a reorganisation of the aircraft carriers of Nagumo’s 1st Air Fleet which had survived the Battle of Midway and were now bolstered by powerful surface units including the battleship Mutsu, and comprised two divisions each with two fleet carriers and one light carrier. The navy also committed the 600 men of the 5th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force in support of the army troops.
Meanwhile Nimitz had rejected the concept of redeploying the Pacific Fleet’s older battleships to the South Pacific Area, where they would be operationally hampered by lack of adequate logistical support, but on 17 August did despatch the fleet carrier Hornet to replace the slightly smaller fleet carrier Wasp, which was instructed to leave part of her air group as a source of replacements for the other carriers. Nimitz also made plans for the newer battleships South Dakota and Washington to reach the South Pacific Area by the middle of September.
The ‘Ichiki’ Detachment had arrived on Truk by 15 August, but the 35th Brigade would not reach the island until 23 August. The Japanese were anxious to start their counter-offensive as soon as possible, before the US forces had the opportunity to get Henderson Field into anything like service, and on 15 August Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, commander of the 8th Fleet headquartered at Rabaul on New Britain island, ordered Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, commander of the 2nd Destroyer Squadron, to use six ships of his Destroyer Division 4 and Destroyer Division 7 to land Ichiki and the initial 917 of his men on Guadalcanal. Tanaka was ordered to depart on this mission during the morning of the following day and reach Guadalcanal on the night of 17/18 August. The other 1,411 men of the ‘Ichiki’ Detachment and the detachment’s artillery were to depart Truk on the same day, but only in two elderly army transport vessels which could manage no more than 9 kt and could therefore not arrive until 22 August. These ships were routed well to the east to avoid discovery Allied air reconnaissance aircraft operating from the Milne Bay area at the extreme eastern end of the island of New Guinea, but the Japanese were as yet unaware of the fact that the Allies had an operational airfield on Espíritu Santo in the New Hebrides islands group and believed that current air searches from the south-east originated at Efate, also in the New Hebrides islands group.
The operation to expel the US forces from the south-eastern end of the Solomon islands group received the designation ‘Ka’ (ii), and was scheduled to begin on 24 August. On that date, two battalions of the 35th Brigade were to depart Truk for Tulagi; by 27 August the ‘Ichiki’ Detachment was to have retaken Henderson Field, making it possible for Mitsubishi A6M Reisen ‘Zero’ fighters to be flown into it for the provision of local air superiority; and on 28 August the 35th Brigade was to arrive and start the process of clearing Guadalcanal and retaking Tulagi. Port Moresby was also to be taken over this same period in ‘Mo’ (ii).
It was on 17 August that the first Japanese reinforcements reached Guadalcanal, and these landed to the east of the US Marines’ perimeter round Lunga Point. These initial arrivals were 113 men of the 5th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force and about 100 men of the 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force, who were delivered by the destroyer Oite, which made high-speed dashes to and from Guadalcanal without being spotted. On the same day, the ships of Kondo’s 2nd Fleet arrived at Truk atoll, and those of Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet arrived about four days later, followed closely by Yamamoto himself with the super-battleship Yamato supported by an escort carrier and three destroyers. All these movements were detected by Allied intelligence, but the Japanese put into effect a major revision of their signalling codes on 15 August, and this greatly hindered the work of the Allied code breakers in the provision of timely and accurate information.
Ichiki and the first 917 of his men landed undetected at about 24.00 on 17/18 August at Taivu Point, about 25 miles (40 km) to the east of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal’s north coast and slightly to the east of the point at which the men of the special naval landing forces had been delivered. On the morning of the next day, three of the Japanese destroyers were still in the area and undertook a gunfire bombardment of Tulagi. At this time Fletcher’s forces were some 450 miles (725 km) to the south-east covering the movement of Long Island, an escort carrier being used to ferry the first US warplanes to Henderson Field, but the other Japanese destroyers, including Hagikaze, which had been damaged by Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, were driven off.
The same day also saw the 1st Battle of the Matanikau, a river debouching into the sea at a location to the west of the US Marines’ perimeter round Lunga Point. Vandegrift had received intelligence that the remnants of the original Japanese garrison of the island had gathered in that area, and despatched three companies of the 5th Marines to trap and destroy them. The marines assembled at their start line on the evening of 18 August and Company B began to advance along the coastal trail at 14.00. Some Japanese snipers and look-outs were encountered, as too were the bodies of several members of the local population who had been murdered, and Japanese attempts to infiltrate the marine positions during the night were unsuccessful. On the following morning, an artillery barrage at 08.50 took the Japanese by complete surprise, but the marines nonetheless encountered heavy machine gun fire near the river. Even so, by 16.00 the marines had fought their way into the village of Matanikau, but the main body of the Japanese had already escaped into the jungle and the marines were urgently recalled to the main perimeter because of the threat posed to the other flank of the marines’ perimeter by the ‘Ichiki’ Detachment.
Believing that the US forces round Lunga Point were both weak and low in morale, immediately after landing Ichiki had embarked on a difficult approach march toward Lunga Point and Henderson Field without waiting for the remainder of his unit to arrive. At this time there were, in fact, 17,000 US troops on the island, and these were well dug in and very far from demoralised. The Americans knew very rapidly of the Japanese landing and advance, for men of the local population under the leadership of the Australian coast watcher Major Martin Clemens were scouting the area to the east of the marine perimeter, and a marine patrol ambushed a careless Japanese patrol on 19 August. On the body one of the Japanese killed in this ambush were documents detailing the Japanese plan and also revealing that the Japanese had excellent maps pinpointing most of the marine positions around the airfield.
On 20 August three high-speed destroyer transports of the US Navy delivered 120 tons of rations, which were enough to feed the US garrison for only three or four days. Meanwhile the 1st Marine Engineer Battalion had completed the airstrip. Though still primitive, Henderson Field was now ready to receive its first aircraft, a group of 19 Grumman F4F fighters and 12 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers of Marine Air Group 23 flown off Long Island. Thus the marines on Guadalcanal now had at least a measure of local air cover and air support.
Ichiki launched his men in a series of determined assaults on the eastern side of the marine perimeter round the airfield during 20/21 August in what became misnamed as the Battle of the Tenaru River despite the fact that it was fought on the Ilu river mid-way between the Tenaru river and Henderson Field. The Japanese attack was repulsed by the marines’ rifle and machine gun fire, supplemented by canister rounds fired from a 37-mm anti-tank gun. Totally disordered, the Japanese survivors fell back into a coconut grove to the east of the river, where they were counterattacked by men of Vandegrift’s reserve regiment, supported by light tanks, and rolled up from the south. The ‘Ichiki’ Detachment was driven toward the sea and annihilated, and Ichiki’s fate has been variously reported either as being killed in action or committing suicide after he had burned his regimental flag. The marines suffered the loss of 35 men killed and 75 wounded, but themselves killed more than 900 Japanese.
On 20 August a Japanese flying boat operating from the Shortland islands group discovered Long Island and Fletcher’s fleet carriers some 240 miles (385 km) to the south-east of Tulagi, and Tanaka immediately carried out his orders to retire if US carriers were spotted. Considering the situation, Yamamoto rightly concluded that the Americans were involved merely in an aircraft ferry undertaking and had not spotted Tanaka’s convoy, and ordered Tanaka to postpone his landings by two days, to 24 August, by which time Yamamoto expected to have neutralised Henderson Field.
The Japanese reinforcement was Kawaguchi’s 35th Brigade, a comparatively powerful force which arrived from the Palau islands group between 27 August and 4 September, and on arrival absorbed the minuscule remnants of the ‘Ichiki’ Detachment.
The operation to land the first 1,500 men of the 35th Brigade had meanwhile resulted in the naval Battle of the Eastern Solomons between 23 and 25 August. This battle eventuated from the fact that the Japanese landing was covered by ships of Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet as two Japanese forces attempted to intercept and destroy the US carrier groups to the east of the Solomon islands group after they had been diverted by a special force. Kondo’s 2nd Fleet had as its primary strength Kondo’s own Support Force, Main Body with the heavy cruisers Atago, Takao, Maya, Myoko and Haguro, light cruiser Yura, destroyers Asagumo, Yamagumo, Kuroshio, Oyashio and Hayashio, and seaplane tender Chitose; Kondo also controlled the Standby Force with the light carrier Junyo, and the Support Force, Fleet Train with the battleship Mutsu and destroyers Natsugumo, Murasame, Harusame and Samidare.
Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body comprised the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, and destroyers Akigumo, Yugumo, Makigumo, Kazegumo, Shikinami and Uranami. This was supported by another element of the 2nd Fleet, namely Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s Vanguard Force, Close Support with the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, heavy cruisers Kumano, Suzuya and Chikuma, light cruiser Nagara, and destroyers Akizuki, Hatsukaze, Maikaze, Nowake, Tanikaze and Yukikaze.
The planned diversion was the responsibility of Rear Admiral Chuichi Hara’s 3rd Fleet, Detached Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body with the light carrier Ryujo, heavy cruiser Tone, and destroyers Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze. Finally, distant support was provided by Yamamoto’s Support Force, Main Body with the super-battleship Yamato, light carrier Taiyo and destroyers Akebono and Ushio.
Fletcher’s Task Force 61 was organised in a number of smaller task groups. Fletcher’s own TG61.1 (otherwise Task Force 11) had the fleet carrier Saratoga, the British Rear Admiral V. A. C. Crutchley’s heavy cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans and Australian Australia, Australian light cruiser Hobart, and destroyers Phelps, Farragut, Worden, MacDonough and Dale; Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s TG61.2 (otherwise Task Force 16) had the fleet carrier Enterprise, battleship North Carolina, Rear Admiral Mahlon S. Tisdale’s heavy cruiser Portland, light cruiser Atlanta, and destroyers Balch, Benham, Maury, Ellet, Grayson and Monssen; and Rear Admiral Leigh H. Noyes’s TG61.3 (otherwise Task Force 18) had the fleet carrier Wasp, Rear Admiral Norman Scott’s heavy cruisers San Francisco and Salt Lake City, light cruiser San Juan and destroyers Farenholt, Aaron Ward, Buchanan, Lang, Stack, Sterett and Selfridge.
Under cover of operations by the primary Japanese naval forces against the US carrier groups, Mikawa’s 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Reinforcement Force was to deliver and land the 1,500 troops from the patrol boats PB-1, PB-2, PB-4 and PB-35 and three transport vessels: Tanaka’s Convoy Escort Force, with the light cruiser Jintsu and destroyers Suzukaze, Umikaze and Uzuki was to escort the troop-carrying vessels and support the landing on Guadalcanal after the US positions on the island had been shelled during the night 23/24 August by the destroyers Kagero, Isokaze, Kawakaze, Mutsuki and Yayoi under cover of Mikawa’s own Close Cover Force comprising the heavy cruisers Chokai, Aoba, Kinugasa and Furutaka patrolling to the north-west.
Simultaneously, the submarines I-121, I-123 and Ro-34 patrolled in the seaward approaches to Guadalcanal, I-121 being damaged by carrierborne aircraft in the process. I-11, I-174 and I-175 of the 3rd Submarine Flotilla patrolled to the west of the Solomon islands group, and I-9, I-15, I-17, I-19, I-26 and I-31 of Rear Admiral Shigeaki Yamazaki’s 1st Submarine Flotilla patrolled to the east of Santa Cruz island.
On 23 August US air reconnaissance from the island of Ndeni in the Santa Cruz islands group located the Japanese landing force, and Saratoga launched an attack force which did not locate the Japanese vessels and then landed at Henderson Field. Shortage of fuel then compelled TG61.3 to pull back to the south for replenishment. During the night of 23/24 August the Japanese destroyer Kagero undertook a gunfire bombardment of Henderson Field but inflicted only minor damage. Saratoga’s aircraft returned to their carrier in the morning of 24 August.
On this day US air reconnaissance located the Japanese force centred on Ryujo, and Saratoga launched her attack force, which sent the Japanese light carrier to the bottom with bombs and torpedoes, and also damaged Tone. Meanwhile Japanese aerial reconnaissance had spotted the US carrier groups, and Shokaku and Zuikaku both launched their attack forces. The bombers secured three hits on Enterprise despite of strong US fighter cover over the carriers, which shot down many aircraft. Enterprise’s attack force had meanwhile failed to locate the Japanese, while Saratoga’s aircraft damaged the seaplane carrier Chitose.
During the night of 24/25 August the destroyers Isokaze, Kagero, Kawakaze, Mutsuki and Yayoi undertook a gunfire bombardment of Henderson Field and then joined Tanaka’s Convoy Escort Force. This was attacked during the morning of 25 August by US Marine Corps aircraft from Henderson Field, which sank the 9,310-ton transport vessel Kinryu Maru and damaged the light cruiser Jintsu. The destroyer Mutsuki became another Japanese casualty when she was sunk 45 miles (72.5 km) to the north of Santa Isabel island by a B-17 bomber of the USAAF: this was the first such success during the Solomon islands campaign. The Japanese now broke off the operation without seeking a decision.
Although it was a draw in tactical terms, the battle was a US success in operational terms. It had pitted a US strength of two fleet carriers, one battleship, four cruisers, 11 destroyers and 176 aircraft against a Japanese force of two fleet carriers, one light carrier, two battleships, 16 cruisers, 25 destroyers, one seaplane tender, four patrol boats, three transport vessels and up to 177 aircraft. The US force suffered severe damage to one fleet carrier, 29 aircraft destroyed and 90 men killed, while the Japanese force lost one light carrier, one destroyer and one transport vessel sunk, suffered severe damage to one light cruiser and one seaplane tender, and lost 75 aircraft and more than 290 men killed.
Of the Japanese submarines, I-17 was damaged on 27 August by one of Wasp’s aircraft. On 30 August I-19’s floatplane undertook a reconnaissance flight over Ndeni island, and in an attack of 31 August on TG61.1, I-26 torpedoed and damaged Saratoga, which was out of service for two months as repairs were effected. As Enterprise was already absent for repair of the damage she had suffered a few days earlier, Wasp was thus left as the only operational US carrier in the Pacific.
The 2nd Destroyer Flotilla continued to despatch supply transports to Guadalcanal, though now by night rather than by day in an effort to minimise the change of being spotted and attacked by US aircraft. On 26 August the destroyers Suzukaze, Umikaze and Isokaze set out with 390 men from the Shortland islands group but were recalled on 27 August so that the troops could be landed in concert with the vessels of Captain Arita’s 20th Destroyer Division, newly arrived from Borneo carrying more men of what was now generally called the ‘Kawaguchi’ Detachment. As a result of poor co-ordination, however, the 20th Destroyer Division was caught on its own to the north of Guadalcanal on 28 August and heavily attacked by US Marine Corps dive-bombers from Enterprise and also by 11 shore-based SBD dive-bombers. Asagiri was sunk, Shirakumo and Yugiri were severely damaged, and Amagiri was slightly damaged.
However, Nagumo had transferred 30 ‘Zero’ fighters from his carriers to the airfield on Buka island, to the north of Bougainville island, and the run on the night of 28 August succeeded in landing 1,000 men and artillery without loss. This set the pattern for much of the rest of the campaign in the Solomon islands group: the US forces had superiority by day, but at night control passed to the Japanese with their better practised night fighting tactics. So regular were the Japanese reinforcement runs that they became known to the Americans as the ‘Tokyo Express’. By 9 September Hyakutake himself had landed with much of Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama’s 2nd Division.
Having returned on 28 August, Umikaze, Kawakaze, Suzukaze and Isokaze now departed once again, followed by Fubuki, Hatsuyuki and Murakumo, and landed their troops near Cape Taivu during the night of 28/29 August. In this same period Japanese aircraft sank Colhoun from a small US supply force comprising one transport and the troop-carrying destroyer conversions Little and Colhoun. During the night of 29/30 August Yudachi, PB-1 and PB-34 landed more troops, and during the following night 1,000 men of the ‘Kawaguchi’ Detachment came ashore from the destroyers Kagero, Fubuki, Hatsuyuki, Murakumo, Umikaze, Kawakaze, Suzukaze and Amagiri.
In trying to attack a US reinforcement convoy, the Japanese submarine I-123 was sunk on 29 August by the US minesweeping destroyer Gamble.
On 1 September the US transport ship Betelgeuse delivered 392 men of the 6th Naval Construction Battalion in what was the first deployment of ‘Seabee’ construction troops to a combat zone. Betelgeuse also delivered six 5-in (127-mm) coast defence guns and early warning radar equipment, and the Seabees brought brought with them two bulldozers and other construction equipment, allowing them to set promptly to work improving the facilities at Henderson Field.
Back on land, Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson’s 1st Marine Raider Battalion, with marines of the 1st Parachute Battalion attached, attacked the Japanese positions at Cape Taivu on 8 September, with 501 raiders delivering the initial assault and 312 paratroops providing the reserve. The raid temporarily drove the Japanese rear echelon out of its base at Tasimboko and, before pulling out, the raiders destroyed much of the Japanese artillery and supplies. It was one of the most successful raids of the war: for the loss of just two men killed and six wounded, the marines had disrupted the Japanese preparations for their next major assault on Henderson Field, killing at least 27 Japanese and capturing documents of great intelligence value. However, the Japanese had their own intelligence that a transport convoy with reinforcements and supplies had arrived in the Fiji islands group on 5 September, and Kawaguchi moved up the date of his attack to 12 September.
On this date the ‘Kawaguchi’ Detachment launched another series of attacks against Henderson Field. The first of these was directed against the southern perimeter, where Kawaguchi rightly estimated that the US defence was weakest. The main weight of the attack fell on the marine raiders and paratroops, who, after their Tasimboko raid, had been moved inland to recuperate in what Vandegrift anticipated would be a quiet sector: in fact Vandegrift moved his own headquarters to the area at about the same time. Edson, the raider commander, had anticipated the Japanese attack, however, and had instructed his men to dig in on what soon became known as Bloody Ridge. In attacks on two consecutive nights, the Americans were pushed back to within 1,000 yards (915 m) of the airstrip in the so-called Battle of Edson’s Ridge, but on each night managed, but barely managed, to break the attack. The Japanese attacked without reserves, and their attacks suffered from a lack of co-ordination as a result of the difficulties of movement and communication in the jungle. The Japanese also attacked on each flank, but these proved to have been an unnecessary diversion of Japanese strength and the troops involved showed an unusual lack of night combat discipline. The marine artillery was repositioned after the first night attack, and gave crucial support during the stronger Japanese attack on the second night. The marines’ casualties were 104 men killed and 278 wounded, while those of the Japanese were very considerably greater: regrouping at Kokumbona after the battle, Kawaguchi found that almost half his original force of 3,450 men had been lost. The Japanese left 1,200 casualties behind them as the ‘Kawaguchi’ Detachment effectively disintegrated.
On 14 September the fleet carrier Wasp was attacked by the submarine I-19 while escorting a major reinforcement and resupply convoy to Guadalcanal. The carrier was struck by three torpedoes, whose detonations destroyed water mains and started fires. The aviation fuel pumping system was in use at the time, and fuel spilling from fractured lines fed the fires, which raged out of control and forced the crew to abandon ship. Wasp was then sunk by torpedoes from the destroyer Lansdowne. The loss of Wasp left Enterprise, newly arrived after repair, as the only US carrier active in the theatre.
The battleship North Carolina was also damaged and the destroyer O’Brien sunk. However, the transports continued, and on 18 September 4,157 men of the reinforced 7th Marines were landed on Guadalcanal, a success which raised the US strength to 23,000 men. The transports also delivered 137 vehicles, 4,323 barrels of fuel, food, engineering equipment and ammunition, the last including 10,000 rounds of 37-mm canister and 10,000 hand grenades. Vandegrift also had the 3/2nd Marines redeployed from Tulagi to Guadalcanal.
The Japanese had also landed reinforcements, however, in the form of 1,100 men of the 4th Regiment delivered on the night of 15/16 September by seven destroyers.
Meanwhile, the Americans were tightening their daylight control of the air over Guadalcanal: on 27/28 August the US aircraft shot down 32 raiding Japanese aircraft without loss. The Japanese responded with fighter sweeps, using a few bombers as bait, and these briefly evened the score.
On 23 September the 1/7th Marines, supported by the 1st Marine Raider Battalion and the 2/5th Marines, launched a strong reconnaissance in force toward Matanikau and points still farther to the west. The US intelligence was in error, however, and instead of the 400 Japanese believed to be in this area, the marines ran into 1,900 men of 124th Regiment. The US undertaking was further beset by poor maps and a confused command structure. A rapidly improvised attack against the entrenched Japanese on the Matanikau river on 27 September nearly ended in disaster. A landing by elements of the 1/7th Marines behind the Japanese line left the marines trapped on a ridge near the coast, and the other marine battalions were unable to cross the Matanikau river and relieve the trapped battalion. Air observation spotted an improvised message laid out on the ridge, and gunfire support from destroyers blasted a route for the trapped marines to pull back to the coast for evacuation. This 2nd Battle of the Matanikau was a defeat for the marines, who lost 91 men killed and 100 wounded at a cost to the Japanese of perhaps 30 men killed.
On 7 October the 7th Marines delivered a third attack toward the Matanikau river area in an effort to deny the Japanese the use of artillery positions within range of Henderson Field. The marines made some progress, but because of intelligence indicating another Japanese effort against the main position round Henderson Field, the marines were ordered to pull back.
‘Ka’ (ii) was now in full swing as Hyakutake’s 17th Army responded to orders to hold Guadalcanal and oust the Americans from their lodgement round Henderson Field, using the cruisers and destroyers of Tanaka’s Destroyer Escort Force to land some 25,000 troops at Tassafaronga Point during the hours of darkness between 10 and 14 October. Soon the headquarters of the 17th Army, together with Maruyama’s 2nd Division (4th Regiment, 16th Regiment and 29th Regiment) reinforced by part of the 230th Regiment detached from Lieutenant General Tadayoshi Sano’s 38th Division, had been established on Guadalcanal to supervise 'Ka' (ii).
This was the primary Japanese strength now available for the prosecution of ‘Ka’ (ii) against the 1st Marine Division, reinforced to a strength of 23,000, as noted above, by the arrival of the 7th Marines and also the US Army’s 164th Infantry.
The major Japanese reinforcement effort also set the scene for the Battle of Cape Esperance, also known as the 2nd Battle of Savo Island and, to the Japanese, as the Sea Battle of Savo Island, on 11/12 October 1942 as the second of four major surface engagements during the Guadalcanal campaign. The battle was fought at the entrance to the strait between Savo island and Guadalcanal, Cape Esperance being the most northern point on Guadalcanal.
The Japanese had scheduled their next major attempt to recapture Henderson Field for 20 October, and in preparation for this had redeployed, as noted above, most of the 2nd Division and much of Sano’s 38th Division, totalling 17,500 men, from the Netherlands East Indies to Rabaul on New Britain island in preparation for their onward movement to Guadalcanal. Also noted above, between 14 September and 9 October, a number of ‘Tokyo Express’ runs had delivered men of the 2nd Division and Hyakutake to Guadalcanal. In addition to cruisers and destroyers, some of these runs included the seaplane tender Nisshin, which delivered heavy equipment including vehicles and heavy artillery, which other warships could not carry. The Japanese navy promised to support the Japanese army’s planned offensive by delivering the necessary troops, equipment and supplies to the island, increasing its air attacks on Henderson Field, and sending warships to undertake gunfire bombardments of the airfield.
It was on the night of 11 October that Mikawa despatched the major supply and reinforcement convoy to Guadalcanal. Under the command of Rear Admiral Takaji Joshima (otherwise Takatsugu Jojima), commander of the 11th Seaplane Tender Division, this convoy comprised the seaplane tenders Chitose and Nisshin with normal provision for a total of 49 seaplanes between them, and destroyers Akizuki, Asagumo, Murakumo, Natsugumo, Shirayuki and Yamagumo. The convoy was carrying 728 men of the 2nd Division as well as four medium howitzers, two field guns, one anti-aircraft gun, and a substantial assortment of ammunition and other equipment from the Japanese naval bases in the Shortland islands group and at Buin on the south-eastern end of Bougainville island. At the same time, but in a separate operation, the heavy cruisers Aoba, Furutaka and Kinugasa, and destroyers Fubuki and Hatsuyuki, under the command of Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto, were to undertake a gunfire bombardment of Henderson Field with special high explosive shells to destroy aircraft and the airfield’s facilities.
On 9 October the US reinforcement convoy, under the command of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, commander of the amphibious forces in the South Pacific Area, departed Nouméa on New Caledonia island for Guadalcanal. Comprising the transports McCawley and Zeilin, and destroyer transports carrying the 164th Infantry, the convoy was escorted by destroyers. Cover for the undertaking was provided by Rear Admiral George D. Murray’s TF17 with the fleet carrier Hornet, heavy cruisers Northampton and Pensacola, light cruisers San Diego and Juneau, and destroyers Anderson, Barton, Hughes, Morris, Russell and Mustin. Some 210 miles (340 km) to the south of Guadalcanal, Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee’s force comprising the battleship Washington, two cruisers and five destroyers was just less than 60 miles (100 km) to the east of Malaita, and Scott’s TF64, comprising the heavy cruisers Salt Lake City and San Francisco, light cruisers Boise and Helena, and destroyers Buchanan, Duncan, Farenholt, Laffey and McCalla, was cruising near Rennell island to intercept any Japanese ships advancing from the north-west.
Shortly before 24.00 on the night of 11/12 October, therefore, TF64 was ideally located to intercept Goto’s force as it approached Savo island. Taking the Japanese by surprise in the Battle of Cape Esperance, in overall terms Scott’s ships sank one of the Japanese cruisers and one of their destroyers, heavily damaged another cruiser, mortally wounded Goto, and forced the rest of Goto’s ships to abandon their bombardment mission and retreat. During the exchange of gunfire, one of Scott’s destroyers was sunk and one cruiser and another destroyer were heavily damaged. In the meantime, the Japanese supply convoy had successfully completed unloading at Guadalcanal and begun its return journey without being discovered by Scott’s force. Later on the morning of 12 October, four Japanese destroyers from the supply convoy turned back to assist Goto’s retreating ships. Air attacks by US aircraft from Henderson Field sank two of these destroyers later that day.
As with the preceding naval engagements around Guadalcanal, the strategic outcome was inconsequential because neither the Japanese nor US navies secured operational control of the waters around Guadalcanal as a result of this action. However, the Battle of Cape Esperance provided a significant morale boost to the US Navy after the disaster of the Battle of Savo Island, and also represented the US Navy’s first major attempt to wrest nocturnal operational control of waters around Guadalcanal from the Japanese.
However, as no US warships had yet attempted to interdict any ‘Tokyo Express’ nocturnal missions to Guadalcanal, the Japanese were not expecting any opposition from US surface forces on this night.
It was at 08.00 on 11 October that Joshima’s reinforcement group departed the anchorage in the Shortland islands group to make the 250-mile (400-km) run down ‘The Slot’ (New Georgia Sound between the northern and southern chains of islands to the south-east of Bougainville) to Guadalcanal. Eight hours later, at 14.00, Goto’s force also departed the Shortland islands group.
To protect the reinforcement group’s approach to Guadalcanal from US air attack, Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka’s 11th Air Fleet, based at Rabaul on New Britain, Kavieng on New Ireland and Buin on Bougainville, planned two air attacks on Henderson Field for execution on 11 October. A fighter sweep of 17 ‘Zero’ fighters flew over Henderson Field just after 12.00 but failed to engage any US aircraft, and 45 minutes later a second wave, this time of 45 Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ medium bombers and 30 ‘Zero’ fighters, arrived over Henderson Field. In the air battle which followed, one Japanese bomber and two US fighters were shot down. Although the Japanese attacks inflicted no major damage, the disruption caused by their attack did prevent US attack aircraft from finding and attacking the reinforcement group. As this latter passed along ‘The Slot’, relays of 11th Air Fleet ‘Zero’ fighters from Buin provided escort. The importance of this convoy for the Japanese plans is indicated by the fact that the pilots of the last flight of the day were ordered to remain on station over the convoy until the fall of night, and then to ditch their aircraft and await recovery by the reinforcement group’s destroyers: all six ‘Zero’ fighters ditched, but only one pilot was recovered.
At 14.45 US reconnaissance aircraft sighted Joshima’s convoy 210 miles (340 km) from Guadalcanal between Kolombangara and Choiseul islands in ‘The Slot’, and reported the Japanese force as two cruisers and six destroyers. Goto’s force, which was following basically the same course to the rear of Joshima’s convoy, was not sighted. In response to the sighting, at 16.07 Scott turned the ships of TF64 toward Guadalcanal for an interception.
Scott’s plan for the imminent battle was simple. The US ships were to steam in column with destroyers to the front and rear of the cruisers, searching across a 300° arc with their advanced SG surface search radar in an effort to gain a position offering the tactical advantage over the oncoming Japanese force. The destroyers were then to illuminate any targets with their searchlights and launch torpedo salvoes while the cruisers were to open fire at any available targets without awaiting further orders. The cruisers’ floatplanes, launched in advance, were to find and illuminate the Japanese warships with flares. Although the light cruisers Helena and Boise carried the new SG search radar, which was a major improvement over the preceding SD equipment, Scott opted to use the less well equipped heavy cruiser San Francisco as his flagship.
It was at 22.00, as TF64 approached Cape Hunter at the north-western end of Guadalcanal, that three of Scott’s cruisers launched their floatplanes: one of these crashed on take-off, but the other two patrolled over Savo island, Guadalcanal and ‘Ironbottom Sound’ (the area to the west of the Ngello, Sealark and Lengo Channels) between Guadalcanal and Tulagi. As the floatplanes were launched, Joshima’s force was just passing around the north-western shoulder of Guadalcanal, and neither force sighted the other. At 22.20, Joshima signalled Goto by radio to inform him that there were no US ships were in the vicinity. Although Joshima’s force later heard the US floatplanes overhead while unloading along the north shore of Guadalcanal, this fact was not reported to Goto.
Just after passing Cape Esperance, at 22.33 Scott’s ships assumed their planned battle formation as a column with Farenholt, Duncan and Laffey in the lead, San Francisco, Boise, Salt Lake City and Helena in the centre, and Buchanan and McCalla at the rear. The distance between each ship was in the order of 500 to 700 yards (460 to 640 m). Visibility was poor because the moon had already set, leaving neither ambient light nor any visible sea horizon.
Goto’s force passed through several rain squalls as the ships approached Guadalcanal at 30 kt. Goto’s flagship Aoba led the column of Japanese cruisers, followed by Furutaka and Kinugasa. Fubuki was to starboard of Aoba and Hatsuyuki to port. At 23.30, as they emerged from the last squall, Goto’s ships were spotted on radar by Helena and Salt Lake City. Lacking radar, the Japanese remained unaware of TF64’s ships.
At 23.00, a floatplane launched by San Francisco spotted Joshima’s force off Guadalcanal and reported the fact to Scott. Believing that more Japanese ships were probably still approaching, Scott maintained his course toward the western side of Savo island. At 23.33, Scott ordered a turn toward the south-west onto a heading of 230°. All but Scott’s own flagship, San Francisco, understood the order as a column movement: as the three destroyers in the lead executed the column movement, San Francisco turned simultaneously. Immediately behind, Boise followed San Francisco, thereby throwing the three van destroyers out of formation.
At 23.32, Helena’s radar showed the Japanese warships to be about 27,700 yards (25330 m) distant, and at 23.35 the radars of Boise and Duncan also detected the Japanese ships. Between 23.42 and 23.44, Helena and Boise reported their contacts to Scott, who mistakenly believed that the two cruisers were actually tracking the three US destroyers which had been thrown out of position during the column turn. Scott radioed Farenholt to ask if the destroyer was attempting to resume its station at the front of the column. Farenholt replied in the affirmative and added that she was coming up San Francisco’s starboard side, further confirming Scott’s belief that the radar contacts were in fact those of his own van destroyers.
At 23.45, Farenholt and Laffey were still unaware of the approaching Japanese warships and increased speed to resume their stations at the front of the US column. The captain of Duncan, however, believing that Farenholt and Laffey were starting an attack on the Japanese warships, increased speed to launch a solitary torpedo attack on Goto’s force without telling Scott what he was doing. San Francisco’s radar registered the Japanese ships, but Scott was not informed of the sighting. By 23:45, the Japanese ships were only 5,000 yards (4570 m) distant from TF64 and visible to Helena’s and Salt Lake City ’s look-outs. At this time the US formation was ideally situated to ‘cross the T’ of the Japanese formation, giving Scott’s ships a significant tactical advantage. At 23.46, still assuming that Scott was aware of the rapidly approaching Japanese warships, Helena radioed for permission to open fire, using the general procedure request ‘Interrogatory Roger’ (meaning in essence ‘Are we clear to act?’). Scott answered with ‘Roger’, meaning only that the message had been received, and not that he was confirming the request to act. Upon receipt of Scott’s ‘Roger’, however, Helena’s captain thought that he now had the permission for which he had asked and gave the order to open fire. Helena was quickly followed by Boise, Salt Lake City and, to Scott’s further surprise, San Francisco.
The Japanese force was taken almost completely by surprise. At 23.43, Aoba’s look-outs sighted Scott’s force, but on being informed of the fact Goto assumed that these were Joshima’s ships. Two minutes later, Aoba’s look-outs identified the ships as American, but Goto was still not convinced and directed his ships to flash identification signals. As Aoba’s crew complied, the first US salvo smashed into the ship’s superstructure. Aoba was quickly hit by as many as 40 8-, 6- and 5-in (203-, 152- and 127-mm) shells from Helena, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Farenholt and Laffey, whose fire severely damaged the Japanese heavy cruiser’s communications systems and demolished two of her main gun turrets as well as her main gun director. Several large-calibre projectiles passed through Aoba’s flag bridge without exploding, but the force of their passage killed many men and mortally wounded Goto.
Still unsure at whom his ships were firing, and afraid that they might be firing on his own destroyers, at 23.47 Scott ordered his ships to cease fire, but not every ship complied. Scott ordered Farenholt to flash her recognition signals, and upon observing that Farenholt was close to his formation, ordered the resumption of fire resumed at 23.51.
Still taking damaging hits, Aoba turned to starboard to head away from TF64, and began laying smoke, which persuaded most of the Scott’s ships that she was sinking. Scott’s ships thus shifted their fire to Furutaka, which was following Aoba. At 23.49, Furutaka was hit in the area of her two quadruple torpedo tube mountings, triggering a large fire that attracted even more fire from the US ships. At 23.58, a torpedo from Buchanan hit Furutaka in her forward engine room, causing severe damage. During this time, San Francisco and Boise sighted Fubuki only about 1,400 yards (1280 m) distant and raked her with fire, joined soon by most of the rest of Scott’s ships. Heavily damaged, Fubuki began to sink. Kinugasa and Hatsuyuki turned to port instead of to starboard and escaped the immediate attention of the US ships.
During the exchange of gunfire, Farenholt received several damaging hits from both the Japanese and US ships, killing several men. She escaped from the crossfire by crossing ahead of San Francisco and passing to the disengaged side of Scott’s column. Still engaged in her solitary torpedo attack on the Japanese formation, Duncan was also hit by gunfire from both sides, set on fire, and looped away in her own effort to escape the crossfire.
As the Japanese tried to escape, Scott’s ships tightened their formation and turned in pursuit of the retreating Japanese warships. At 00.06, two torpedoes from Kinugasa barely missed Boise. Boise and Salt Lake City turned on their searchlights to help target the Japanese ships, but this also gave Kinugasa’s gunners clear targets. At 00.10, two shells from Kinugasa exploded in Boise’s main ammunition magazine between the two foremost turrets. The resulting explosion killed almost 100 men and threatened to blow the ship apart. Seawater rushed in through rents opened in the hull by the explosion, but this also helped to douse the fire before it could explode the ship’s powder magazines. Boise immediately veered out of the column and retreated from the action. Kinugasa and Salt Lake City exchanged fire, each hitting the other several times, causing minor damage to Kinugasa and damaging one of Salt Lake City’s boilers, reducing her speed.
At 00.16, Scott ordered his ships to turn to a heading of 330° in an attempt to pursue the fleeing Japanese ships. The US ships soon lost sight of the Japanese ships, however, and all firing had ended by 00.20. The US formation was beginning to scatter, so Scott ordered a turn to 205° to disengage.
During the Battle of Cape Esperance, Joshima’s reinforcement group completed unloading at Guadalcanal and began its return journey unseen by Scott’s warships, using a route that passed to the south of the Russell islands group and New Georgia. Despite the extensive damage she had sustained, Aoba was able to join Kinugasa in retiring to the north through ‘The Slot’. Furutaka’s damage caused her to lose power at about 00.50, and the cruiser sank at 02.28, 22 miles (35 km) to the north-west of Savo island. Hatsuyuki recovered Furutaka’s survivors and then joined the retreat to the north-west.
Boise’s crew had extinguished their ship’s fires by 02.40, and at 03.05 the cruiser rejoined Scott’s formation. Still on fire, Duncan was abandoned by her crew at 02.00. Unaware of Duncan ’s fate, Scott detached McCalla to search for her and retired with the rest of his ships toward Nouméa on the island of New Caledonia, arriving during the afternoon of 13 October. McCalla located the burning and abandoned Duncan at about 03.00, and several members of McCalla’s crew made an attempt to keep her from sinking. By 12.00, however, they had to abandon the effort as Duncan’s interior bulkheads collapsed, causing the ship to sink 6 miles (9.7 km) to the north of Savo island. US servicemen in boats from Guadalcanal as well as McCalla recovered Duncan ’s scattered survivors from the sea around Savo island. In total, 195 of Duncan’s men survived, and 48 died. As they rescued Duncan’s crew, the Americans came across more than 100 of Fubuki’s survivors in the same general area. The Japanese initially refused all rescue attempts but a day later allowed themselves to be picked up and taken prisoner.
Learning of the bombardment force’s crisis, Joshima detached the destroyers Shirayuki and Murakumo to assist Furutaka or her survivors, and Asagumo and Natsugumo to rendezvous with Kinugasa, which had paused in her retreat to cover the withdrawal of Joshima’s ships.
At 07.00, five shore-based SBD dive-bombers attacked Kinugasa but managed to inflict no damage. At 08.20, another 11 SBD aircraft found and attacked Shirayuki and Murakumo. Although they scored no direct hits, a near miss caused Murakumo to begin leaking oil, marking a trail for other Guadalcanal-based aircraft to follow. A short time later, seven more SBD dive-bombers and six Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, accompanied by 14 Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters, found the two Japanese destroyers some 170 miles (275 km) from Guadalcanal. In the ensuing attack, Murakumo was hit by a torpedo in her engineering spaces, leaving her without power. In the meantime, Aoba and Hatsuyuki reached the safety of the Japanese base in the Shortland islands group, off the south-eastern tip of Bougainville island, at 10.00.
Rushing to assist Murakumo, Asagumo and Natsugumo were attacked at 15.45 by another group of 11 Guadalcanal-based SBD and TBF warplanes escorted by 12 fighters. One of the SBD dive-bombers placed its bomb almost directly amidships on Natsugumo while two more near misses contributed to her severe damage. After Asagumo had taken off her survivors, Natsugumo sank at 16.27. Guadalcanal’s aircraft also scored several more hits on the stationary Murakumo, setting her on fire. After her crew had abandoned ship, Shirayuki sent her to the bottom with a torpedo, picked up her survivors, and joined the rest of the Japanese warships for the remainder of their return trip to the Shortland islands group.
The Battle of Cape Esperance had pitted a US force of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and five destroyers against a Japanese force of three heavy cruisers and two destroyers, while the reinforcement convoy of two seaplane tenders and six destroyers was not directly involved. The US losses were one destroyer sunk, one light cruiser damaged and one destroyer damaged, as well as 163 men killed, while those of the Japanese were one heavy cruiser sunk, three destroyers sunk, one cruiser damaged, between 341 and 454 men killed, and 111 men rescued and taken prisoner.
Captain Kikunori Kijima, Goto’s chief-of-staff and commander of the bombardment force during the return trip to the Shortland islands group after Goto’s death, claimed that his force had sunk two US cruisers and one destroyer. Furutaka’s captain survived the sinking of his ship and laid the blame for her loss on poor aerial reconnaissance and poor leadership by the staff of the 8th Fleet. Although Goto’s bombardment mission failed, Joshima’s reinforcement convoy was successful in delivering the crucial men and equipment to Guadalcanal. Aoba had to steam to Kure in Japan for repairs, which were completed on 15 February 1943.
On the other side of the coin, Scott claimed that his TF64 had sunk three Japanese cruisers and four destroyers. Damaged severely enough to require a trip to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for repairs, Boise returned to service only on 20 March 1943.
Although a US tactical victory, the Battle of Cape Esperance had little immediate or strategic effect on the situation on Guadalcanal. Just two days later, on the night of 13/14 October, the Japanese battleships Kongo and Haruna undertook a gunfire bombardment which almost destroyed Henderson Field. One day after that, a large Japanese convoy delivered 4,500 troops and equipment to the island. These troops and equipment helped complete Japanese preparations for the large land offensive, scheduled to begin on 23 October.
However, the convoy carrying US Army troops, which reached Guadalcanal on 13 October as planned, was a decisive moment in the climactic land battle for Henderson Field which was fought between 23 and 26 October.
Conversely, the victory in the Battle of Cape Esperance helped prevent an accurate US assessment of Japanese skills and tactics in naval night fighting. The US Navy remained unaware of the range and power of Japanese torpedoes, the excellence of Japanese night optics, and the skilled fighting ability of most Japanese destroyer and cruiser commanders. Incorrectly applying the perceived lessons learned from this battle, US commanders in future naval night battles in the Solomon islands group attempted consistently to prove that US naval gunfire was more effective than Japanese torpedo attacks. This belief was severely tested just two months later during the Battle of Tassafaronga.
During this period Maruyama’s 2nd Division was completing its preparations for another major effort against Henderson Field but, like the previous efforts, this too was poorly co-ordinated. The Battle of Henderson Field, known to the Japanese as the Battle of Lunga Point, lasted from 23 to 26 October and was the third major land offensive undertaken during the Guadalcanal campaign. In this three-day period US Marine Corps and US Army forces, under the overall command of Vandegrift, repulsed an attack by Hyakutake’s 17th Army as they defended and held the perimeter based on Lunga Point and including Henderson Field. During this final major effort of the ‘Ka’ (ii) land campaign, the Japanese made several assaults at various points round the Lunga perimeter, all of which were repulsed with heavy Japanese losses. At the same time, aircraft operating from Henderson Field successfully defended US positions on Guadalcanal from attacks by Japanese naval air and sea forces.
As the Japanese regrouped after their second offensive, which had ended in their defeat in the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, the US forces had made a major effort to improve and strengthen their Lunga perimeter, and in this they had been aided by the arrival, on 18 September, of the convoy delivering the 4,157 men of the 7th Marines, which had previously been an element of the 3rd Provisional Marine Brigade and as such were fresh from garrison duty in Samoa. The reinforcement made it possible, from 19 September, for Vandegrift to establish a continuous perimeter round the Lunga lodgement. Vandegrift and his staff were fully aware that that remnants of the ‘Kawaguchi’ Detachment had retreated into the area lying to the west of the Matanikau river after the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, and that several groups of Japanese stragglers were scattered throughout the area between the Lunga perimeter and the Matanikau river. Vandegrift therefore decided that his forces would undertake a series of small-unit operations around the Matanikau river valley to keep the Japanese off balance and also to make it more difficult for them to coalesce into a single force of significant military value.
The first marine operation against Japanese forces to the west of the Matanikau river, between 23 and 27 September by elements of three marine battalions, was repulsed by Kawaguchi’s troops under the local command of Colonel Akinosuke Oka. In the second action, between 6 and 9 October, a larger marine force crossed the Matanikau river, attacked the newly landed Japanese forces of Maruyama’s 2nd Division, whose infantry group was commanded by Major General Yumio Nasu, and inflicted significant losses on the 4th Regiment. This second action forced the Japanese to retreat from their positions to the east of the Matanikau river.
Lieutenant General Millard F. Harmon, commander of the US Army Forces in the South Pacific Area, had meanwhile convinced Ghormley that the marine forces on Guadalcanal should immediately be reinforced if Guadalcanal was to be held against the next expected Japanese offensive. Thus, on 8 October, the 2,837 men of the 164th Infantry of Major General Alexander McC. Patch’s Americal Division embarked at New Caledonia for the passage to Guadalcanal, where they were scheduled to arrive on 13 October.
Mikawa’s ships continued their nocturnal programme to deliver men and matériel to Guadalcanal. As indicated above, between 1 and 17 October a number of ferry operations delivered to the island 15,000 more troops, comprising the rest of the 2nd Division and one regiment of Sano’s 38th Division, as well as artillery, tanks, ammunition and provisions. One of these operations, on 9 October, also delivered Hyakutake to take personal command of the forces in the planned offensive. Mikawa also sent heavy cruisers on several occasions to bombard Henderson Field and, on the night of 11 October, it was the interception of one of these bombardment missions which had led to the Battle of Cape Esperance.
In order to help protect the movement of an important supply convoy, comprising six slower cargo vessels and 11 destroyers of Rear Admiral Tamotsu Takama’s 4th Destroyer Flotilla to land 4,500 men at Tassafaronga, Yamamoto on 13 October despatched a naval force from Truk atoll under the command of Kurita to undertake a gunfire bombardment of Henderson Field. Kurita’s force, comprising the battleships Kongo and Haruna escorted by the light cruiser Isuzu (Tanaka’s flagship) and destroyers Takanami, Makinami, Naganami, Hayashio, Oyashio, Kuroshio and Kagero, approached Guadalcanal without being detected and opened fire on Henderson Field at 01.33 on 14 October and in the following 83 minutes lobbed 973 14-in (356-mm) shells into the Lunga perimeter, most of them falling in and around the area of the airfield. The bombardment included 300 special high explosive shells, and inflicted heavy damage on the airfield’s two runways, burned almost all of the available aviation fuel, destroyed 48 of the Cactus Air Force’s 90 aircraft and damaged all but one of the others, and killed 41 men including six aircrew. The attempt by PT-46, PT-48, PT-60 and PT-38 to sortie from Tulagi and attack Kurita’s force was frustrated by the patrolling Naganami.
Ground personnel were able to restore one of the runways to operational condition within a few hours, however, and over the next few weeks the Cactus Air Force gradually recovered as more aircraft, fuel, equipment, spares and personnel reached Guadalcanal.
The 2nd Fleet and 3rd Fleet reached the area of Ndeni, the largest of the Santa Cruz islands group to the south-east of Guadalcanal, on 14 October, the day on which Japanese air reconnaissance reported the presence of US convoys to the south of Guadalcanal and US air reconnaissance sighted Japanese naval forces to the north-east of the Solomon islands group. During the night of 14/15 October Mikawa’s force again shelled Henderson Field, this time with 752 8-in (203-mm) rounds from the heavy cruisers Chokai and Kinugasa, but only to much less devastating effect. It was during this bombardment that Takama took the opportunity to land the 4,500 men of the 2nd Division and 38th Division at Tassafaronga. During the morning of 15 October the 7,623-tonAzumasan Maru, 8,666-ton Kyushu Maru and 7,189-ton Sasako Maru of the transport group had to be run around after US air attacks and were lost; the destroyer Samidare was slightly damaged.
In order to deliver fuel to Guadalcanal for the aircraft at Henderson Field, the US transports Alchiba, Bellatrix and Jamestown, together with the tug Vireo, each set out with a lighter in tow, escorted by the destroyers Meredith and Nicholas, but were recalled when it was reported that there were Japanese warships to the north-east. Only Meredith and Vireo continued, and both fell victim to aircraft from the carrier Zuikaku on 15 October: the destroyer was sunk and the tug damaged.
During the night of 15/16 October Rear Admiral Sentaro Omori, commander of the 5th Cruiser Division, made a sortie toward Guadalcanal with the heavy cruisers Maya and Myoko, and Tanaka also sortied with the light cruiser Isuzu and destroyers Takanami, Makinami, Naganami, Hayashio, Oyashio, Kuroshio and Kagero. The heavy cruisers bombarded Henderson Field with nearly 1,500 8-in (203-mm) rounds.
On 16 October Murray’s TF17, centred on the carrier Hornet attacked Japanese troop concentrations on Guadalcanal, but the US seaplane tender McFarland was damaged by Japanese carrierborne aircraft off Lunga Point.
While the ships of the 2nd Fleet and 3rd Fleet replenished from the Japanese tanker force to the north of the equator on 17/18 October, the ships of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla and 4th Destroyer Flotilla continued their nocturnal supply missions to Guadalcanal. In the process, the light cruiser Yura was slightly damaged on 18 October by a torpedo from the US submarine Grampus, and on the following day a Japanese destroyer suffered damage in an air attack.
On 20 October the Japanese submarine I-176 torpedoed the heavy cruiser Chester of Lee’s TF64 as she operated to the south of Rennell island. In the course US supply operations to Guadalcanal, the destroyers Aaron Ward and Lardner shelled Japanese concentrations on 21 October. On 23 October I-7 again shelled Espíritu Santo.
Observing the steady flow of Japanese troops and supplies to Guadalcanal, the US forces could believe only that a Japanese ground offensive was imminent, but were uncertain when and where this would be made.
Because of their loss of positions on the eastern side of the Matanikau river, the Japanese decided that an attack on the US defences along the coast was impractical and so, after observation of the defences around Lunga Point by his staff officers, Hyakutake decided that the main thrust of his planned attack of 22 October would be delivered from a point to the south of Henderson Field. The 2nd Division and one regiment of the 38th Division, totalling some 7,000 men in three regiments each of three battalions, were ordered to move through the jungle and attack the US defences from the south near the eastern bank of the Lunga river. The Japanese force was divided into three elements: the Left-Wing Unit under Nasu comprised the 29th Regiment of the 2nd Division, the Right-Wing Unit under Kawaguchi comprised the 230th Regiment of the 38th Division, and the 2nd Division reserve led by Maruyama comprised the 16th Regiment. To distract the US forces from the planned attack in the south, Hyakutake’s heavy artillery and five battalions of infantry (about 2,900 men) under Major General Tadashi Sumiyoshi were to attack the US defences from the west along the coastal corridor. The Japanese estimated that there were 10,000 US troops on the island, when in fact there were about 23,000 men.
At this time, the US defence of the Lunga perimeter was in the hands of four regiments comprising 13 infantry battalions: the 164th Infantry held the eastern sector; extending from the 164th Infantry to the south and west across Edson’s Ridge to the Lunga river was the 7th Marines; covering the sector to the west of the Lunga river to the coast were the 1st and 5th Marines; and defending the mouth of the Matanikau river at the north-western end of the perimeter were the 3/1st Marines and 3/7th Marines under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William J. McKelvy. McKelvy’s two battalions were separated from the Lunga perimeter by a gap covered by patrols.
On 12 October, a company of Japanese engineers began to break a trail (the ‘Maruyama Road’) from the Matanikau river toward the southern portion of the US perimeter. The trail penetrated some 15 miles (24 km) of the most difficult terrain on Guadalcanal, including numerous rivers and streams, deep mud-bottomed ravines, steep ridges and dense jungle. The 2nd Division began its advance along this track between 16 and 18 October, with Nasu’s unit in the lead and followed in order by Kawaguchi’s and Maruyama’s units. Each soldier had been ordered to carry one artillery shell as well as his pack and rifle.
Early on the morning of 20 October, Maruyama reached the Lunga river. Believing that his units were about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the south of Henderson Field, he ordered the Left-Wing Unit and Right-Wing Unit to advance abreast of each other parallel to the Lunga river to the north in the direction of the US perimeter, and set the time for the start of the attack for 18.00 on 22 October. Maruyama was wrong, however, and he and his troops were actually 8 miles (13 km) to the south of the airfield. By the evening of 21 October Maruyama knew that his units would not be in position to attack on the following day, postponed the attack to 23 October, and put his men on half rations to conserve their dwindling food supply. At the fall of night on 22 October, much of the 2nd Division was still strung out along the ‘Maruyama Road’, but Maruyama ruled out any further postponement of the attack.
During this time, Sumiyoshi prepared his command to attack the US perimeter from the west. On 18 October, he began shelling Henderson Field with his 15 5.9-in (150-mm) howitzers, and what remained of the 4th Regiment under the command of Colonel Nomasu Nakaguma began to gather openly near Cruz Point on the coast just to the west of the Matanikau river. On 19 October, Oka led the 1,200 men his 124th Regiment inland across the Matanikau river and began to move up the river’s eastern bank toward the higher ground lying to the east of the river.
On 23 October, Maruyama’s forces were still struggling through the jungle to reach the US perimeter in the south. On his own initiative, Kawaguchi started to move his Right-Wing Unit farther to the east in the belief that the US defences were weaker in that area. Through one of his staff officers, Maruyama ordered Kawaguchi to keep to the original attack plan and when the latter refused, he was relieved of command and replaced by Colonel Toshinari Shoji, commander of the 230th Regiment. During the evening of the same day Hyakutake learned that the Left-Wing Unit and Right-Wing Unit were still struggling to reach the US perimeter, and postponed the start of the offensive to 19.00 on 24 October.
At this time the US forces were still wholly unaware of the approach of Maruyama’s forces.
On the same day the 11th Air Fleet despatched 16 G4M ‘Betty’ medium bombers and 28 ‘Zero’ fighters to attack Henderson Field. In response, the Cactus Air Force launched 24 F4F Wildcat and four Bell P-400 Airacobra fighters, and there developed a substantial aerial battle. The US forces believed that the Japanese lost several aircraft in the day’s engagements, though the actual number remain unknown, and the Cactus Air Force lost one Wildcat to battle damage, though its pilot escaped without injury.
Hyakutake’s staff informed Sumiyoshi of the offensive’s one-day postponement, but could not establish contact with Nakaguma to inform him of the delay. At dusk on 23 October, therefore, two battalions of the 4th Regiment and the nine tanks of the 1st Independent Tank Company attacked the marine defences at the mouth of the Matanikau river. Pairs of tanks moved across the sandbar at the river’s mouth behind an artillery barrage, and the marines’ 37-mm anti-tank guns and artillery quickly destroyed all nine tanks. At the same time, four battalions of marine artillery, totalling 40 howitzers, fired more than 6,000 rounds into the area between Cruz Point and the Matanikau river, inflicting heavy casualties on Nakaguma’s infantry at it tried to approach the marine lines. Nakaguma’s attacks had ended by 01.15 on 24 October, inflicting only light casualties on the marines and gaining no ground, but incurring major Japanese losses.
Partly in response to Nakaguma’s attacks, on 24 October the 2/7th Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Herman H. Hanneken deployed to the Matanikau river. After Oka’s forces were seen as they approached the marine positions on the Matanikau river from the south, Hanneken’s battalion was deployed on a south-facing ridge which formed a continuous extension of the inland flank of the marines’ horseshoe-shaped Matanikau defences. However, there was still a gap between Hanneken’s eastern flank and the main perimeter.
With the redeployment of Hanneken’s battalion, the 700 men of Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. ‘Chesty’ Puller’s 1/7th Marines were left to hold the entire 2,500-yard (2285-m) line along the southern face of the Lunga river perimeter to the east of the river. Late on 24 October, marine patrols detected Maruyama’s approaching forces, but it was now too late in the day for the marines to undertake any redeployment.
At 14.00 on 24 October, Maruyama’s Left-Wing Unit and Right-Wing Unit began to deploy for their attacks. The soldiers had very little in the way of artillery or mortar support for their assault after abandoning most of their heavier weapons along the ‘Maruyama Road’. Between 16.00 and 21.00 there was heavy rain, which delayed the Japanese approach and caused great dislocation in the Japanese units, which were already exhausted from their long approach march through the jungle. Shoji’s Right-Wing Unit mistakenly turned onto an axis which paralleled rather than approached the marines' perimeter, and only one battalion made contact with the marines' defences. Shoji’s 1/230th Regiment came up against Puller’s line at about 22.00 and was repelled. For unknown reasons, Maruyama’s staff then reported to Hyakutake that the Right-Wing Unit had overrun Henderson Field, and at 00.50 on 25 October Hyakutake signalled Rabaul to the effect that a little before 23.00 the Right-Wing Unit had taken the airfield.
At about the same time, the battalions of Nasu’s Left-Wing Unit began finally to come into contact with the marines' defences. At 00.30 on 25 October, the 11th Company of the 3/29th Regiment, under the command of Captain Jiro Katsumata, located and attacked Company A of Puller’s battalion. The Japanese attack was slowed by heavy barbed wire emplaced in front of the marines’ line and then hit heavily by US machine gun, mortar and artillery fire. By 01.00 most of Katsumata’s company had been killed.
Farther to the west, the 9th Company of the 3/29th Regiment charged straight into Puller’s Company C at 01.15, and within five minutes, a marine machine gun section had killed almost every man of the company. By 01.25, heavy fire from the marine divisional artillery was falling into the Left-Wing Unit's troop assembly and approach routes, causing additional heavy losses.
Seeing that a major Japanese attack was under way, Puller requested reinforcement, and from 03.45 Lieutenant Colonel Robert K. Hall’s 3/164th Infantry was fed piecemeal from reserve into Puller’s line. Despite of the darkness and occasional bursts of torrential rain, the army troops had been placed into Puller’s defences before the break of day.
Just before dawn, Colonel Masajiro Furimiya, commander of the 29th Regiment, with two companies of the 3/29th Regiment and his headquarters staff, was able to penetrate the marine artillery fire to reach Puller’s lines at about 03.30. Most of Furimiya’s men were killed during their assault, but about 100 broke through the US line to create a salient, 150 yards (140 m) wide and 100 yards (90 m) deep, in the centre of Puller’s line. After the start of day, Furimiya’s 2/29th Regiment joined the assault on Puller’s position, but was driven back. At 07.30, Nasu decided to withdraw most of the remainder of his troops back into the jungle and prepare for another attack that night.
During 25 October, Puller’s men attacked and destroyed the salient in their line and hunted, located and destroyed the surviving small groups of Japanese infiltrators, killing 104 of them. More than 300 of Maruyama’s men had been killed in their first attacks on the Lunga perimeter. At 04.30, Hyakutake rescinded the message announcing the capture of the airfield, but at 07.00 additionally declared that the results of Maruyama’s attack were unknown.
The 8th Fleet had task units ready to support the army’s attacks on Guadalcanal, and these were committed to action after the receipt of Hyakutake’s 00.50 message declaring success. The light cruiser Sendai and three destroyers patrolled to the west of Guadalcanal in an effort to interdict any Allied ships attempting to reach the island. Under the command of Takama, the 4th Destroyer Flotilla operated in two parts as the 1st Assault Unit with the destroyers Akatsuki, Ikazuchi and Shiratsuyu, and the 2nd Assault Unit with the light cruiser Yura, destroyer leader Akizuki and destroyers Harusame, Yudachi, Murasame and Samidare. These approached Guadalcanal to attack any Allied ships off the island’s north or east coast and to provide gunfire support for Hyakutake’s forces.
The 1st Assault Unit arrived off Lunga Point at 10.14 and chased off Zane and Trevor, which were a pair of old destroyers which had been converted into high-speed minesweepers and were delivering aircraft fuel to Henderson Field. The Japanese destroyers then sighted and sank the fleet tug Seminole and patrol boat YP-284 before starting a gunfire bombardment of the US positions around Lunga Point. At 10.53, a piece of marine artillery hit and damaged the destroyer Akatsuki, and all three of the Japanese destroyers withdrew while under machine gun attack by four Wildcat fighters.
As it approached Guadalcanal though Indispensable Strait, the 2nd Assault Unit came under attack by five SBD Dauntless shore-based dive-bombers. After Yura had been heavily damaged, the ships of the 2nd Assault Unit reversed course and sought to retire. More air attacks on Yura throughout the day caused further damage, and the light cruiser was abandoned and scuttled at 21.00 on that night.
Meanwhile, 82 bombers and fighters of the 11th Air Fleet and the carriers Junyo and Hiyo attacked Henderson Field in six waves throughout the day and were engaged by the fighters of the Cactus Air Force and the anti-aircraft guns of the marines. By the end of the day, the Japanese had lost 11 fighter, two bomber and one reconnaissance aircraft along with most of their aircrews, while the Cactus Air Force lost only two fighters, both of whose pilots survived. The attacks had inflicted only slight damage to Henderson Field and the US defences.
Round the Lunga perimeter, throughout 25 October the US forces redeployed and improved their defences against the renewed Japanese attack which they were expecting that night. In the west, Hanneken’s battalion and the 5th Marines closed the gap between them. Along the perimeter’s southern arc, Puller’s and Hall’s men disengaged and were repositioned. Puller’s men fortified the western 1,400 yards (1280 m) of the sector and the men of the 164th Infantry took the eastern 1,100 yards (1005 m) of the sector. As the divisional reserve, the 3/2nd Marines was placed directly behind Hall’s and Puller’s positions.
Maruyama allocated his reserve, the 16th Regiment, to Nasu’s Left-Wing Unit and, from 20.00 to the early morning of 26 October, the 16th Regiment and what remained of Nasu’s other units made many but almost wholly unsuccessful frontal assaults on the parts of the perimeter held by Puller’s and Hall’s units. Marine and army rifle, machine gun, mortar, artillery and direct canister fire from 37-mm anti-tank guns shattered Nasu’s men. Colonel Toshiro Hiroyasu, commander of the 16th Regiment, and most of his staff as well as four Japanese battalion commanders were killed in the assaults. Nasu was hit by rifle fire and mortally wounded. A few small groups of Nasu’s men, including one led by Furimiya, did manage to penetrate the US defences, but were all hunted, located and killed over the next days. The elements of Shoji’s Right-Wing Unit did not participate in the attacks, choosing instead to remain in place to cover Nasu’s right flank against a possible US counterattack which did not occur.
At 03.00 on 26 October, Oka’s unit finally reached and attacked the marine defences to the east of the Matanikau river. The Japanese delivered their assault all along an east/west saddle ridge held by Hanneken’s battalion, but concentrated particularly on Hanneken’s Company F, which held the marine position on the extreme left flank. A Company F machine gun section killed many of the Japanese attackers, but Japanese fire eventually killed or injured almost all the marine machine gunners. At 05.00, Oka’s 3/4th Regiment succeeded in scaling the steep slope of the ridge and pushing the surviving men of Company F off of the crest.
Responding to the Japanese capture of part of the ridge line, Major Odell M. Conoley, who was Hanneken’s battalion executive officer, quickly gathered a counterattack unit of 17 men, including communications specialists, messmen, a cook, and a bandsman. This scratch force was joined by elements of Hanneken’s Company G, Company C, and a few unwounded survivors from Company F, and attacked the Japanese before they could consolidate their positions on top of the ridge. By 06.00, Conoley’s force had driven the Japanese off the ridge, effectively ending Oka’s attack. The marines later counted 98 Japanese dead on the ridge and 200 more in the ravine in front of it. Hanneken’s unit had lost 14 men killed and 32 wounded.
At 08.00 on 26 October, Hyakutake decided to make no more attacks and ordered his forces to retreat. Maruyama’s men recovered some of their wounded from positions near the US lines on the night of 26/27 October, and began to withdraw into the deep jungle even as the Americans recovered and buried or burned as quickly as possible the remains of 1,500 of Maruyama’s men left lying in front of Pullers’s and Hall’s lines.
The survivors of Maruyama’s left wing were ordered to retreat back to the area lying to the west of the Matanikau river while those of Shoji’s right wing were told to head for Koli Point to the east of the Lunga perimeter. The left wing’s men had run out of food several days earlier, and were starving as they began their retreat on 27 October. During this retreat, many of the Japanese wounded died of their injuries and were buried along the ‘Maruyama Road’.
The leading elements of the 2nd Division reached the area of the 17th Army’s headquarters at Kokumbona, to the west of the Matanikau river, on 4 November, and it was on the same day that Shoji’s unit reached Koli Point and made camp. Decimated by battle deaths, combat injuries, malnutrition and any of many tropical diseases, the 2nd Division was incapable of further offensive action and therefore fought only as a defensive formation for the rest of the campaign. Later in November, US forces drove Shoji’s men from Koli Point back to the Kokumbona area, a battalion-sized marine patrol attacking and harassing them almost the entire way. Only about 700 of Shoji’s original 3,000 men ultimately returned to Kokumbona.
Although the Japanese assault on the Lunga perimeter had been decisively defeated in the Battle of Henderson Field, the Japanese were not yet ready to end their attempts to drive the US forces off Guadalcanal, and the Japanese army and navy made immediate plans to move the rest of the 38th Division, along with Lieutenant General Hidemitsu Nakano’s 51st Division, to the island for another offensive against Henderson Field planned for November 1942.
The Battle of Henderson Field had thus exhausted the capability of the Japanese to launch and sustain an offensive, and it was now the turn of the Americans, even though they too were exhausted and therefore unable to deliver an immediate response to the Japanese failure. As a result, a lull ensued until December, though the Japanese were reinforced between 28 October and 8 November by the 38th Division’s 228th Regiment and on 2/3 November by part of the same division’s 230th Regiment delivered by the ‘Tokyo Express’.
The Japanese again planned to continue the navy’s gunfire bombardments of Henderson Field by battleships in order to allow a convoy of transport ships to deliver the rest of the 38th Division's men and heavy equipment. In contrast to what occurred on 14 October, however, this time the US Navy moved to intercept the battleship forces sent by Yamamoto from Truk atoll to shell the airfield, resulting in the naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 13/15 November, when the Allied naval and air forces turned back two Japanese attempts to bombard Henderson Field and almost completely destroyed the transport convoy carrying the remainder of the 38th Division. It was after this failure to deliver significant troop reinforcements to the island that the Japanese high command finally conceded the failure of the ‘Ka’ (ii) counter-offensive in the battle for Guadalcanal and decided to evacuate their surviving troops by the first week of February 1943.
During this period there took place the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, which was a Japanese tactical victory but left the US forces with a decided strategic advantage.
Fought between 25 and 27 October, the battle is sometimes known just as the Battle of Santa Cruz and, to the Japanese, as the Battle of the South Pacific. This was the the fourth carrier battle of the Pacific campaign, and also the fourth major naval engagement fought between the US Navy and the Imperial Japanese navy during Guadalcanal campaign. In a fashion similar to that of the earlier carrier battles (Coral Sea, Midway and the Eastern Solomons), the ships of the two sides were rarely in direct visual range of each other, and almost all of each side’s attacks were made by aircraft, in this instance land-based as well as carrierborne.
In an attempt to seize Henderson Field as the first step in driving the US forces from Guadalcanal and nearby islands, thereby ending the stalemate which had existed since September, the Japanese army had planned a major ground offensive on Guadalcanal for 20/25 October, and to support this offensive as well as gain the opportunity to force a major engagement with US naval forces, moved aircraft carriers and other large warships into a position near the south-eastern end of the Solomon islands group. From here the Japanese hoped to be able to engage any Allied (primarily US) naval force and inflict a decisive defeat on it as the Allies attempted to respond to the Japanese land offensive. The Allied naval forces also hoped to meet the Japanese naval forces with the same object of breaking the stalemate and inflicting a decisive defeat.
The Japanese ground offensive on Guadalcanal, known to the Americans as the Battle of Henderson Field, was already under way even as the US and Japanese ships and aircraft confronted each other on the morning of 26 October at a location just to the north of the small Santa Cruz islands group lying to the north of the New Hebrides islands group and to the east of the Solomon islands group. After an exchange of carrierborne air attacks, Allied surface ships were forced to retreat from the battle area with one carrier sunk and another heavily damaged. The participating Japanese carrier forces, however, also retired because of the major aircraft and aircrew losses they had suffered, as well as the significant damage two of their carriers had suffered: in fact the great cost of the battle for the Japanese prevented their carrier forces from further significant involvement in the Guadalcanal campaign.
After the Battle of Cape Esperance and the successful Japanese battleship bombardment of Henderson Field over two nights, which caused damaged so great that the airfield was only marginally operational for several weeks as the damage was repaired and new aircraft were delivered, the USA made two moves in an effort to break the stalemate in the Guadalcanal campaign: firstly, repairs to the carrier Enterprise were expedited so that she could return to the South Pacific Area as rapidly as possible (on 10 October the carrier received her new air group, on 16 October left Pearl Harbor, and on 23 October arrived back in the South Pacific to rendezvous with Hornet and the rest of the Allied South Pacific naval forces on 24 October some 315 miles (505 km) to the north-east of Espíritu Santo), and secondly, on 18 October Nimitz replaced Ghormley with Vice Admiral (from 26 November Admiral) William F. Halsey as commander in the South Pacific Area. Nimitz had by now come to the belief that Ghormley had become too pessimistic to lead the Allied forces effectively in the Guadalcanal campaign.
Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet was also seeking to draw Allied naval forces into what it hoped would be a decisive battle. The fleet carriers Hiyo and Junyo and the light carrier Zuiho reached the main Japanese naval base at Truk atoll from Japan early in October and here joined the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. With five carriers and numerous battleships, cruisers and destroyers, the Combined Fleet was confident that it could offset its defeat in the Battle of Midway. Apart from a couple of air raids on Henderson Field during October, the Japanese carriers and their supporting warships had remained out of the Guadalcanal campaign, cruising in the north-western area of the Solomon islands group as its awaited an opportunity to approach and engage the US carriers under optimal conditions. As the Japanese army planned its next major ground attack on the Allied forces on Guadalcanal, scheduled to start on 20 October, Yamamoto’s warships began to reposition themselves toward the southern end of the Solomon islands group in order to support the army offensive and to be ready to engage any Allied ships, especially carriers, which approached to support the Allied defence of Guadalcanal.
The Battle of Henderson Field, fought between 20 and 25 October, was a decisive Japanese defeat, but wrongly believing that the army had succeeded in capturing Henderson Field, a force of Japanese warships approached Guadalcanal on the morning of 25 October to provide further support for the army offensive. As noted above, aircraft from Henderson Field attacked the convoy throughout the day, sinking the light cruiser Yura and damaging the destroyer Akizuki.
Despite the failure of the ground offensive and the loss of Yura, the rest of the Combined Fleet continued to manoeuvre near the south-eastern end of the Solomon islands group on 25 October, and at this stage comprised four carriers, as Hiyo had suffered an accidental fire which had damaged her engine room on October 22 and had thus been compelled to return to Truk atoll, under escort of the destroyers Inazuma and Isonami, for repairs. The Japanese naval force was divided into three groups: under the command of Kondo, who was also in overall control of this latest Japanese effort, the 2nd Fleet, Advance Force comprised the battleships Haruna and Kongo, heavy cruisers Atago, Takao, Myoko and Maya, the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla (light cruiser Isuzu and destroyers Takanami, Makinami, Naganami, Umikaze, Kawakaze, Suzukaze, Oyashio and Kagero) and, farther to the west, Kakuta’s 2nd Fleet, Carrier Squadron (carrier Junyo and destroyers Hayashio and Kuroshio) as well as 12 submarines; to the south of the 2nd Fleet, Advance Force was Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body with the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, heavy cruisers Tone, Chikuma and Suzuya, and the 10th Destroyer Flotilla (light cruiser Nagara and destroyers Akigumo, Yugumo, Makigumo, Kazegumo, Tanikaze, Urakaze and Isokaze); and to the south-east of the 2nd Fleet, Advance Force was Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Striking Force, Mobile Force, Main Body with the carriers Shokaku, Zuikaku and Zuiho, heavy cruiser Kumano and destroyers Amatsukaze, Tokitsukaze, Hatsukaze, Yukikaze, Arashi, Maikaze, Hamakaze and Teruzuki. The fleet train comprised four oilers escorted by the destroyer Nowaki.
Between them, the four Japanese carriers had 87 fighters, 68 dive-bombers and 57 torpedo aircraft, and were to be supported by Kusaka’s 11th Air Fleet, based in the Solomon islands group and near Rabaul on the island of New Britain, with about 220 land-based aircraft at the beginning of the operation, but in the period from 16 to 25 October whittled down significantly by the new fighters flown into Henderson Field.
Also at sea after departing the Shortland islands group with the transport group was part of Mikuma’s 8th Fleet, Outer Souths Force, Guadalcanal Attack Force in two elements as Rear Admiral Tamotsu Takama’s Bombardment Force (4th Destroyer Flotilla with the light cruiser Yura, destroyer leader Akizuki and destroyers Harusame, Yudachi, Murasame and Samidare of the 2nd Destroyer Division), and the Assault Force comprising the destroyers Akatsuki, Ikazuchi and Shiratsuyu.
It was as this last steamed toward a planned first-light gunfire bombardment of Lunga Point that the Assault Force chanced on Trevor and Zane arriving from Tulagi: the two US ships escaped through the Sealark Channel after a short engagement, but the Japanese destroyers then sank the fleet tug Seminole and harbour craft YP-284 off Lunga Point. In the process, Akatsuki was hit by the guns of a battery of US coastal artillery. Shore-based SBD dive-bombers from Henderson Field also obtained hits on Yura, which was moving forward to make a contribution to the shore bombardment, and on Akatsuki. The former had to be abandoned in the afternoon after further attacks by B-17 bombers and SBD dive-bombers, and was sent to the bottom by Harusame and Yudachi.
On the US side, the task groups centred on the carriers Hornet and Enterprise, under the overall command of Kinkaid, swept around to the north of the Santa Cruz islands group on 25 October in search of the Japanese naval forces. Kinkaid’s TF16 had departed Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands group on 16 October with the carrier Enterprise, battleship South Dakota, heavy cruiser Portland (Tisdale’s flagship), light cruiser San Juan and Destroyer Squadron 5 comprising Porter, Mahan, Cushing, Preston, Smith, Maury and Conyngham. On 24 October, at a location some 315 miles (505 km) to the north-east of Espíritu Santo, TF16 joined Murray’s TF17 with the carrier Hornet, heavy cruisers Northampton (flagship of Rear Admiral Howard H. Good) and Pensacola, light cruisers San Diego and Juneau, and destroyers Morris, Anderson, Hughes, Mustin, Russell and Barton.
Between them, the two US carriers carried 136 aircraft in the form of 36 F4F fighters, 47 SBD dive-bombers and 26 TBF torpedo bombers.
On 21, 23 and 24 October Japanese shore-based reconnaissance aircraft made repeated sightings of Lee’s TF64, comprising the battleship Washington, heavy cruiser San Francisco (Scott’s flagship), light cruisers Atlanta and Helena, and destroyers Aaron Ward, Lansdowne, Lardner, McCalla, Benham and Fletcher, but did not find either of the two US carrier task forces.
After linking under Kinkaid’s overall command, the two carrier task forces moved off to meet the 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body, which had been reported on 23 October by a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat of Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch’s TF63, which controlled the US shore-based air units. On 25 October other Catalina flying boats reported, in addition to the 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body, the 3rd Fleet, Carrier Striking Force, Mobile Force, Main Body astern of it, and Fitch deployed B-17 bombers and Catalina flying boats temporarily equipped as torpedo bombers against these, and the aircraft secured near-misses on Kirishima, Zuikaku and Isokaze. Nevertheless, reconnaissance aircraft from Enterprise and the Japanese carriers all failed to find their targets. Aircraft from Junyo carried out a raid on the US positions near Lunga Point.
The US warships were deployed as two separate carrier groups separated from each other by about 12 miles (19 km). A Catalina based in the Santa Cruz islands group finally located and reported the carriers of the 3rd Fleet, Carrier Striking Force, Mobile Force, Main Body at 11.03. However, the Japanese carriers were about 410 miles (660 km) from the US force, and were therefore just beyond the range of current carrierborne aircraft. Hoping to close the range so that he could execute an attack later on the same day, Kinkaid steamed toward the Japanese carriers at top speed and, at 14.25, launched an attack force of 23 aircraft. Knowing that they had been spotted by US aircraft but not knowing where the US carriers were, the Japanese turned to the north to stay out of range of the US carriers’ aircraft. The US attack force therefore returned to the carriers without finding or attacking the Japanese warships.
At 02.50 on 26 October, the Japanese naval forces reversed direction and the two opposing groups of warships closed the distance between them until they were only 230 miles (370 km) distant from each other by 05.00. Each side launched search aircraft and prepared their remaining aircraft to attack as soon as the other side’s ships were located. Although a radar-equipped Catalina sighted the Japanese carriers at 03.10, the report did not reach Kinkaid until 05.12. Believing that the Japanese ships had probably changed position during the intervening two hours, Kinkaid therefore decided not to launch an attack force until he had received more current information on the location of the Japanese ships.
At 06.45, a US scout aeroplane sighted the carriers of Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Striking Force, Mobile Force, Main Body, and 13 minutes later a Japanese reconnaissance aeroplane reported the location of TF17 centred on Hornet. Each side now raced to make the first attack on the other. The Japanese were first to get their attack force into the air, this comprising 64 aircraft including 21 Aichi D3A ‘Val’ dive-bombers, 20 Nakajima B5N ‘Kate’ torpedo bombers, 21 ‘Zero’ fighters, and two B5N aircraft to serve as command and control aircraft. The Japanese attack force was on its way toward Hornet by 07.40, the time at which two SBD dive-bombers, flying in primarily the reconnaissance role in response to the earlier sighting of the Japanese carriers, arrived and dived on Zuiho. With the Japanese combat air patrol busy chasing other US scout aircraft away, the two dive-bombers hit Zuiho with both their 1,000-lb (454-kg) bombs, causing major damage and preventing the use of the carrier’s flight deck to land aircraft.
Kondo had meanwhile ordered Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body to make all possible speed in an attempt to intercept and engage the US warships. Kondo also brought his own 2nd Fleet, Advance Force forward at maximum speed so that Junyo’s aircraft could join the attacks on the US ships. At 08.10, Shokaku launched a second wave of attack aircraft (19 ‘Val’ dive-bombers and eight ‘Zero’ fighters), and Zuikaku launched 16 ‘Kate’ torpedo bombers at 08.40. Thus, by 09.10 the Japanese had 110 aircraft on their way to attack the US carriers.
The US attack aircraft on their reciprocal course toward the Japanese carriers were running about 20 minutes behind the Japanese attack aircraft. Believing that a speedy attack was more important than a massed attack, and because they lacked fuel to spend time assembling before the attack, the US aircraft proceeded toward the Japanese ships in separate small groups rather than forming into a single large force. The first group, comprising 15 SBD dive-bombers, six TBF torpedo bombers and eight F4F fighters from Hornet was on its way by about 08.00. A second group, comprising three SBD, seven TBF and eight F4F warplanes from Enterprise, had lifted off by 08.10. A third group, comprising nine SBD, eight TBF and seven F4F aircraft from Hornet, was also airborne by 08.20.
At 08.40, the opposing attack forces passed within sight of each other as they flew in opposite directions. Nine ‘Zero’ fighters from Zuiho surprised and attacked the group from Enterprise, falling on the still-climbing aircraft from out of the sun: four ‘Zero’ fighters, three Wildcat fighters and two TBF torpedo bombers were shot down, and another two TBF and one Wildcat machines were forced by heavy damage to return to Enterprise.
At 08.50, the leading US attack force from Hornet spotted four ships of Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body. Pressing on, the US aircraft then came upon the Japanese carriers and prepared to attack. Three ‘Zero’ fighters from Zuiho attacked the US force’s Wildcat fighters, drawing them away from the attack aircraft they were assigned to protect. As a result, the dive-bombers in the first force began their attack without fighter support. Some 20 ‘Zero’ fighters of the Japanese combat air patrol engaged the SBD force and shot down four of them. The remaining 11 SBD bombers began their dives on Shokaku at 09.27, hitting the carrier with between three and six bombs, wrecking her flight deck and causing serious damage inside the ship. The final SBD of the 11 lost track of Shokaku and instead dropped its bomb near the Japanese destroyer Teruzuki, causing minor damage.
The six TBF bombers in the first attack force, separated from the rest of their group, missed the Japanese carriers and eventually turned back toward Hornet. On the way back, they attacked the heavy cruiser Tone, missing with all their torpedoes.
The TBF bombers of the second US attack force from Enterprise were unable to locate the Japanese carriers and instead attacked the heavy cruiser Suzuya of the 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body, but inflicted no damage. At about the same time, the third US attack formation, from Hornet, found Abe’s ships and attacked the heavy cruiser Chikuma, hitting her with two 1,000-lb (454-kg) bombs and causing severe damage. Enterprise’s three SBD bombers then arrived and also attacked Chikuma, causing more damage with one hit and two near-misses. Finally, the eight TBF bombers of the third attack force arrived and attacked the smoking Chikuma, scoring one more hit. Escorted by two destroyers, Chikuma broke away from the battle and headed toward Truk atoll for repairs.
At 08.30 the US carrier task forces received word from their outbound aircraft that Japanese attack aircraft were headed their way, and at 08.52, the commander of the Japanese air attack force sighted TF17 centred on Hornet, TF16 centred on Enterprise being hidden by a rain squall, and deployed his aircraft. At 08.55, the US carriers spotted the approach of the Japanese aircraft on radar at a range of about 40 miles (5 km), and began to vector the 37 F4F fighters of their combat air patrol to intercept and engage the Japanese aircraft. Communication problems, mistakes by the fighter control directors, and primitive control procedures combined to prevent all but a few of the US fighters from engaging the Japanese aircraft before they began their attacks on Hornet, however. Although the US fighters were able to shoot down several dive-bombers, most of the Japanese aircraft began their attacks relatively undisturbed by the US fighters.
At 09.09, Hornet and her escorting warships opened fire with their anti-aircraft guns as the 20 untouched Japanese torpedo bombers and remaining 16 dive-bombers began their attacks on the carrier, and at 09.12, a dive-bomber placed its 551-lb (250-kg) bomb on Hornet’s flight deck beside the island: the bomb penetrated three decks before exploding, killing 60 men. Moments later, a 534-lb (242-kg) bomb struck the flight deck, detonating on impact and blasting an 11-ft (3.4-m) hole as well as killing 30 men. A minute or so later, a third bomb hit Hornet in about the same place as the first bomb, again penetrating three decks before exploding, causing severe damage but no direct loss of life. At 09.14 a dive-bomber was hit and damaged by Hornet’s anti-aircraft guns, caught fire and was deliberately crashed by its pilot into Hornet’s stack, killing seven men and spreading burning aviation fuel over the signal deck.
Even as the dive-bombers were attacking, the 20 torpedo bombers were also approaching Hornet from two different directions. Despite suffering heavy losses from anti-aircraft fire, the torpedo bombers planted two torpedoes into Hornet’s side between 09.13 and 09.17, knocking out her engines. As Hornet slowed to a halt, a damaged Japanese dive-bomber approached and crashed into the carrier’s side, starting a fire near the ship’s main aviation fuel storage. At 09.20, the surviving Japanese aircraft departed, leaving Hornet dead in the water and burning after an attack which had cost the Japanese 25 aircraft and the Americans six aircraft.
With the aid of the hoses of three escorting destroyers, Hornet’s fires had been brought under control by 10.00, and wounded men were being evacuated. The heavy cruiser Northampton made an attempt to take Hornet in tow, but the effort to rig the tow line took some time, and more attack waves of Japanese aircraft were already on their way.
Starting at 09.30, Enterprise landed many of the damaged attack aircraft and combat air patrol fighters, all short of fuel, as well as returning scout aircraft, from both carriers. With her flight deck crowded and the arrival of the second wave of Japanese aircraft imminent (the second package had been detected on radar at 09.30), Enterprise ceased landing operations at 10.00. As they began to run out of fuel, aircraft began to ditch in the sea as the carrier’s escorting destroyers rescued their crews. One of the ditching aircraft, a damaged TBF from Enterprise’s attack force which had been attacked earlier by Zuiho’s ‘Zero’ fighters, crashed into the water near the destroyer Porter. As the destroyer rescued the TBF’s crew, she was struck by a torpedo, perhaps from the ditched aeroplane, causing heavy damage and killing 15 crewmen. After the task force commander had ordered the scuttling of the destroyer, her crew was rescued by the destroyer Shaw, which then sank Porter with gunfire.
As the attack aircraft of the Japanese first wave started to return to their carriers after their attack on Hornet, one of them finally spotted Enterprise’s task force as it emerged from a rain squall and reported the carrier’s position. The second wave of Japanese attack aircraft, believing Hornet to be sinking, therefore attacked Enterprise’s task force from 10.08. Once more, the US combat air patrol found it difficult to intercept the Japanese aircraft before they attacked Enterprise, and thus shot down only two of the 19 dive-bombers as they began their dives on the carrier. Attacking through the intense anti-aircraft fire put up by Enterprise and her escorting warships, the bombers hit the carrier with two 551-lb (250-kg) bombs and near-missed with another. The bombs killed 44 men and wounded 75, and inflicted serious damage on the carrier, including the jamming of her forward elevator in the raised position. Some 12 of the 19 Japanese attack aircraft were lost in this attack.
About 20 minutes later, Zuikaku’s 16 torpedo bombers arrived and divided to attack Enterprise. One group came under attack from two F4F fighters of the combat air patrol, which shot down three of them and damaged a fourth. On fire, this fourth machine deliberately crashed into the destroyer Smith, setting the ship on fire and killing 57 of her crew. To make matters worse, the torpedo carried by this aeroplane had survived the initial impact but detonated shortly afterward, causing even more damage. The fires initially seemed out of control until Smith’s captain ordered the destroyer to be steered into the large spraying wake of the battleship South Dakota, which helped put out the fires. Smith then resumed her station, firing her remaining anti-aircraft guns at the still attacking torpedo bombers.
The remaining torpedo bombers targeted Enterprise, South Dakota and Portland, but all of their torpedoes missed or failed to detonate. The engagement was over at 10.53, by which time nine of the 16 torpedo aircraft had been lost. After suppressing most of the onboard fires, Enterprise was able to resume flight deck operations at 11.15 to begin landing aircraft on their return from the morning’s attacks on the Japanese ships. Only a few aircraft landed before the next wave of Japanese aircraft arrived and began their attacks on Enterprise, however, forcing the suspension of landing operations once again.
Between 09.05 and 09.14, Junyo had reached a position within 320 miles (515 km) of the US carriers and launched a force of 17 dive-bombers and 12 fighters. As the Japanese ships of the 3rd Fleet, Striking Force, Mobile Force, Main Body and 2nd Fleet, Advance Force manoeuvred into formation, Junyo readied aircraft for the next wave of attackers. At 11.21, Junyo’s aircraft arrived and dived on Enterprise’s task force, scoring one near-miss on Enterprise, which sustained further damage, and single hits on South Dakota and San Juan, causing moderate damage to each ship. Eleven of the 17 Japanese dive-bombers were destroyed in this attack.
At 11.35, Kinkaid decided to withdraw Enterprise and her escorting ships as Hornet was out of action and Enterprise was severely damaged, and in the correct assessment that the Japanese had one or two undamaged carriers in the area. Leaving Hornet, all Kinkaid could do was to direct the carrier and her task force to retreat as soon as they were able to do so. Between 11.39 and 13.22, Enterprise recovered 57 of the 73 airborne US aircraft as she headed away from the battle. The remaining US aircraft ditched in the sea, and their crews were recovered by the escorting warships.
Between 11.40 and 14.00, the two undamaged Japanese carriers, Zuikaku and Junyo, recovered the few aircraft which had survived the morning attacks on the two US carriers, and prepared a fresh attack. It was at this stage that the devastating losses sustained during these attacks came to be seen as tactically crippling.
At 13.00 the warships of Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Advance Force and Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body headed directly toward the last reported position of the US carrier task forces and increased speed to try to intercept them with their guns. The damaged Zuiho and Shokaku, with Nagumo still on board, retreated from the battle area, leaving Kakuta to supervise Zuikaku’s and Junyo’s aircraft forces. At 13.06 Junyo launched her second attack force of seven torpedo bombers and eight fighters, and Zuikaku launched her third attack force of seven torpedo bombers, two dive-bombers and five fighters. At 15.35, Junyo launched the last Japanese attack force of the day, this comprising four bombers and six fighters.
After overcoming several technical problems, the cruiser Northampton was finally able to start towing Hornet slowly out of the battle area at 14.45, but at a speed of only 5 kt. Hornet’s crew had almost restored partial power but then, at 15.20, the aircraft of Junyo’s second attack force arrived, and the seven torpedo bombers attacked the almost stationary carrier. Although six of the torpedo bombers missed, at 15.23 one torpedo struck Hornet amidships with a fatal blow. The detonation of the torpedo destroyed the repairs to the power system and caused heavy flooding as well as a 14° list. With no power to pump out the water, Hornet was given up for lost, and the crew abandoned ship. The third attack force from Zuikaku attacked Hornet during this time, hitting the sinking ship with one more bomb. All of Hornet ’s crew was off the vessel by 16.27, and the last Japanese attack of the day achieved one more bomb hit on the sinking carrier at 17.20.
After being informed that Japanese forces were approaching and that further towing efforts were unfeasible, Halsey ordered Hornet to be sunk. While the other US warships retired to the south-east to get out of range of Kondo’s and Abe’s oncoming warships, the destroyers Mustin and Anderson attempted to send Hornet to the bottom with several 21-in (533-mm) torpedoes and more than 400 5-in (127-mm) shells, but the ship refused to succumb. With the advancing Japanese naval forces only 20 minutes distant, the two US destroyers abandoned the carrier’s burning hulk at 20.40. By 22.20, the rest of Kondo’s and Abe’s warships had reached Hornet’s location. Upon finding that the burning carrier was that which had launched ‘Conceal’ (otherwise the Doolittle raid) of April 1942, the Japanese briefly considered taking Hornet as a trophy, but ultimately decided that she was too damaged to make the effort worthwhile: the destroyers Makigumo and Akigumo then fired four 24-in (610-mm) torpedoes, and at 01.35 on 27 October Hornet finally sank.
Several night attacks by radar-equipped Catalina flying boats on Junyo and Teruzuki, knowledge of the lead the US warships had in their retreat from the area, and a critical fuel situation now persuaded Kondo against any further pursuit of the US warships. After refuelling near the northern end of the Solomon islands group, the ships returned to their main base at Truk atoll on 30 October. During the US retirement toward Espíritu Santo and New Caledonia, South Dakota collided with the destroyer Mahan while manoeuvring to avoid a Japanese submarine attack, and the destroyer was severely damaged.
The Japanese announced a major victory by claiming to have sunk three US carriers, one battleship, one cruiser, one destroyer and one ‘unidentified large warship’, and to have shot down 79 US carrierborne aircraft, a total boosted by the many more claimed to have been destroyed on the carriers which had been sunk. In fact, the Americans had lost only the carrier Hornet and the destroyer Porter. Enterprise had been severely damaged, as had the battleship South Dakota, light cruiser San Juan and destroyers Smith and Mahan. Of the 175 US aircraft at the start of the battle, 81 (33 fighters, 28 dive-bombers and 20 torpedo bombers) had been lost to all causes, and 266 Americans had been killed.
On the Japanese side, the carriers Shokaku and Zuiho and the heavy cruiser Chikuma had been badly damaged, 99 of 203 Japanese carrierborne aircraft involved in the battle had been lost, and between 400 and 500 men had been killed.
Hornet’s loss was a major blow for the Allied forces in the South Pacific Area, for it left Enterprise as their single operational, but damaged, carrier in the entire Pacific theatre. The damaged carrier received temporary repairs at New Caledonia and, although still somewhat damaged, returned to the southern part of the Solomon islands group only two weeks later to support Allied forces during the naval Battle of Guadalcanal, playing an important role in what turned out to be the decisive naval engagement in the whole of the Guadalcanal campaign.
Although a tactical victory for the Japanese in terms of ships sunk, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands came at a high cost for Japan. Both damaged carriers were forced to return to Japan for extensive repairs and refitting: Zuiho returned to Truk atoll only at a time late in January 1943, while Shokaku was under repair until March 1943 and did not return to the front until July 1943, when she was reunited with Zuikaku at Truk atoll. The most significant losses for the Japanese navy, however, were irreplaceable aircrews. While the USA lost 81 aircraft along with 26 pilots and aircrew members, the Japanese lost 99 aircraft and 148 pilots and aircrew members, the latter including two dive-bomber group leaders, three torpedo squadron leaders, and 18 other section or flight leaders. In percentage terms, 49% of the Japanese torpedo bomber aircrews were killed, along with 39% of the dive-bomber crews and 20% of the fighter pilots. The Japanese thus lost more aircrew in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands than they had lost in each of the three previous carrier battles (90 in the Battle of the Coral Sea, 110 in the Battle of Midway and 61 in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons). Thus, by the end of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, at least 409 of the 765 elite Japanese carrier aviators who had participated in the ‘Ai’ attack on Pearl Harbor were dead.
Having lost so many of its veteran carrier aircrew, and with no way to replace them quickly as a result of an institutionalised small-scale training capacity for its naval aircrew and an absence of trained reserves, the undamaged Zuikaku and Hiyo were also forced to return to Japan for lack of trained aircrew. Although the Japanese carriers had returned to Truk atoll by the summer of 1943, they played no further offensive role in the Solomon islands campaign.
It is also worth noting that the submarines of the Japanese ‘A’ Group (six boats) and ‘B’ Group had been been deployed in support of these operations, and I-21 attacked Hornet's task force during the carrier air battle and torpedoed the destroyer Porter, which was so badly damaged that she had to be sunk by the destroyer Shaw. On 27 October I-15 just missed Lee’s flagship, the battleship Washington. I-15 was lost on 2 November to the north of San Cristobal island after a depth-charge attack by the destroyer McCalla, and on 10 November I-172 was sunk by the fast minesweeper Southard.
Between 13 and 15 November the Japanese tried to land the remaining elements of the 38th Division (229th Regiment, rest of the 230th Regiment and 38th Mountain Artillery Regiment) in a convoy from the Shortland islands group. After sightings by reconnaissance aircraft from Enterprise, attack aircraft from the carrier and from Henderson Field, together with B-17 bombers from Espíritu Santo, attacked the Japanese landing force’s convoy in several waves as it headed to the south-east through ‘The Slot’. In the first attack, two transport vessels (6,477-ton Canberra Maru and 7,142-ton Nagara Mara) were sunk, while the 7,180-ton Sado Maru was damaged and detached with the destroyers Amagiri and Mochizuki. Fighters from the carriers Hiyo and Junyo were committed, and while able to shoot down some of the attacking aircraft they could not prevent the attacks. In the second attack the 5,425-ton Brisbane Maru, in the third the 9,696-ton Arizona Maru and 7,504-ton Shinanogawa Maru, and in the last the 7,189-ton Nako Maru were sunk. The destroyers Kawakaze, Makinami, Naganami and Suzukaze were able to rescue some 5,000 men, but 400 were lost with the ships. Even so, Tanaka continued to press ahead with the four remaining transports, the 6,937-ton Kinugawa Maru, 6,465-ton Yamatsuki Maru, 6,872-ton Hirokawa Maru and 6,998-ton Yamaura Maru, which were to be run aground during the night of 14/15 November on the north-western corner of Guadalcanal. This, together with the landing of the rescued survivors from the destroyers, succeeded. The beached transports were destroyed by air attacks on 15 November. However, the 38th Division lost as many as 6,000 of the 7,000 men which the convoy was carrying.
The naval Battle of Guadalcanal, sometimes known as the the 3rd and 4th Battles of Savo Island or, to the Japanese, the 3rd Battle of the Solomon Sea, took place between 12 and 15 November 1942, and was the decisive engagement in a series of battles between Allied and Japanese forces during the Guadalcanal campaign. The battle comprised a number of combined air and sea engagements over a four-day period, most of them near Guadalcanal and all related to a Japanese effort to reinforce their land forces on the island for ‘Ka’ (ii). Early in November, the Japanese organised a convoy to deliver 7,000 troops and their equipment to Guadalcanal to attempt once again to retake Henderson Field. Several Japanese warship forces were assigned to bombard Henderson Field with the goal of destroying Allied aircraft which otherwise posed a threat to the convoy. Learning of the Japanese reinforcement effort, US forces launched aircraft and warship attacks to defend Henderson Field and prevent the Japanese ground troops from reaching Guadalcanal. In the resulting battle, both sides lost numerous warships in two extremely destructive surface engagements at night. Nevertheless, the Americans succeeded in turning back attempts by the Japanese to bombard Henderson Field with battleships. Allied aircraft also sank most of the Japanese troop transports and prevented the majority of the Japanese troops and equipment from reaching Guadalcanal. The battle therefore stymied Japan’s last major attempt to dislodge Allied forces from Guadalcanal and nearby Tulagi, resulting in a strategic victory for the USA and deciding the ultimate outcome of the Guadalcanal campaign.
As noted above, during the Battle of Henderson Field Yamamoto’s forces had defeated US naval forces in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, driving them away from the area. The Japanese carrier force, however, had also been compelled to retreat because of their own carrier, aircraft and aircrew losses. Yamamoto’s warships then returned to their main base at Truk atoll and Rabaul while three carriers returned to Japan for repairs and refitting.
Following its defeat in the Battle of Henderson Field, the Japanese army planned another offensive for November 1942, but needed major reinforcement before the operation could be launched. The army requested naval assistance in the delivery of the required reinforcements and to support its renewed offensive. To support the reinforcement effort, Yamamoto provided large transport ships to carry 7,000 men of the 38th Division, together with their ammunition, heavy equipment and food from Rabaul to Guadalcanal. He also despatched a warship support force, including two battleships, from Truk on 9 November. The battleships were Hiei and Kirishima, whose 14-in (356-mm) main guns were provided with special fragmentation shells for the bombardment of Henderson Field on the night of 12/13 November as the destruction of the airfield and the warplanes based on its would facilitate movement of the heavily laden and transports in reaching Guadalcanal and unloading safely on the following day. The warship force was commanded from Hiei by Abe, recently promoted to vice admiral.
Early in November 1942, Allied intelligence learned that the Japanese were preparing another attempt to retake Henderson Field, and the USA therefore despatched TF67, a major reinforcement and resupply convoy, divided into two groups and commanded by Turner, to Guadalcanal on 11 November. The supply ships were protected by two task groups, commanded by Rear Admirals Daniel J. Callaghan and Scott, and warplanes from Henderson Field. The transport ships were attacked several times on 11 and 12 November near Guadalcanal by Japanese aircraft based at Buin at the southern end of Bougainville island, but most were unloaded without serious damage. Twelve Japanese aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the US ships or by fighters from Henderson Field.
Abe’s warship force assembled some 80 miles (130 km) to the north of Indispensable Strait between Santa Isabel and San Cristóbal islands in the Solomon islands group, and then proceeded toward Guadalcanal on 12 November with the warships planning to arrive in the early morning of 13 November. The convoy of slower transport ships and 12 escorting destroyers, under the Tanaka’s command, began its run down ‘The Slot’ from the Shortland islands group to arrive off Guadalcanal during the night of 13 November. In addition to the battleships Hiei (Abe’s flagship) and Kirishima, the 3rd Fleet, Advance Force, Raiding (Bombardment Force, Volunteer Attack Force) included the light cruiser Nagara and destroyers Samidare, Murasame, Asagumo, Teruzuki, Amatsukaze, Yukikaze, Ikazuchi, Inazuma, Akatsuki, Harusame and Yudachi. Another three destroyers, Shigure, Shiratsuyu and Yugure, were to provide a rearguard capability in the area of the Russell islands group during Abe’s foray into the waters of the Savo Sound around and near Savo island off the north coast of Guadalcanal, an area which would soon be nicknamed ‘Ironbottom Sound’ as a result of this succession of battles and skirmishes.
US reconnaissance aircraft spotted the approach of the Japanese ships and passed a warning to the Allied command. Turner therefore detached all usable combat ships to protect the troops ashore from the expected Japanese naval attack and troop landing, and ordered the supply ships at Guadalcanal to depart by the early evening of 12 November. Callaghan was very slightly senior to Scott, who was more experienced and tactically more astute, and was thus in overall command. Callaghan prepared to meet the Japanese that night in the sound with a force comprising the heavy cruisers San Francisco (Callaghan’s flagship) and Portland, light cruisers Helena, Juneau and Atlanta, and destroyers Cushing, Laffey, Sterett, O’Bannon, Aaron Ward, Barton, Monssen and Fletcher.
During its approach to Guadalcanal, the Japanese force passed through a large and intense rain squall which, together with a complex formation and some confusing orders from Abe, split the formation into several groups. The US force steamed in a single column in Ironbottom Sound, with destroyers in the lead and at the rear of the column, and the cruisers in the centre. Five of the ships had the new SG surface search radar, but Callaghan’s deployment put none of these in the forward part of the column. Moreover, Callaghan did not choose any of these as his flagship, and he issued no battle plan to his subordinate captains.
At about 01.25 on 13 November, in almost total blackness as a result of the adverse weather and dark moon, the Japanese ships entered the sound between Savo island and Guadalcanal, and prepared to bombard Henderson Field with their special shells. The ships arrived from an unexpected direction, arriving not down ‘The Slot’ in the manner of previous missions of this type, but from the western side of Savo island entering its sound from the north-west rather than the north. Unlike the US naval forces, the Japanese navy had considered and practised night fighting extensively, and had also undertaken frequent night gunnery live fire drills and exercises: this experience would be telling in not only the encounter which was now imminent, but several other surface fleet actions off Guadalcanal in the months to come.
Several of the US ships detected the Japanese ships on radar from about 01.24, but experienced difficulty in communicating the information to Callaghan because of inexperience resulting from the US force’s scratch nature, problems with the radio equipment, and a lack of discipline in communications procedures. A message was sent and received but it did not reach the Callaghan in time for him to process and use it given his ignorance of radar and any appreciation of its accuracy (especially the reliability of its range and bearing data) along with the lack of practice co-ordinating radar information with visual data. Callaghan wasted further time in a vain attempt to reconcile the ranges and bearing information reported by radar with his visual information, most especially as the radar operators were reporting vessels which were out of sight, and Callaghan was trying to co-ordinate the battle from the bridge rather than a command centre.
Several minutes later, each force sighted the other almost simultaneously, but both Abe and Callaghan hesitated before ordering their ships into action. Apparently Abe was surprised by the proximity of the US ships and, with his main guns preparing to fire shore bombardment rather than armour-piercing anti-ship projectiles, could not decide whether he should make a short retirement to give the battleships the time they needed to change from bombardment to anti-ship ammunition, or continue onward. He then decided on the latter. Callaghan apparently intended to have his ships attempt to ‘cross the T’ of the Japanese force, as Scott had done in the Battle of Cape Esperance, but confused by the incomplete information he was receiving and the fact that the Japanese formation consisted of a number of scattered groups, Callaghan gave several confusing orders on ship movements and wasted time before acting at all.
In these circumstance, it was inevitable that the US formation should start to fall apart, apparently further delaying Callaghan’s order to begin firing as he first tried to ascertain his ships’ locations and bring them into alignment. Meanwhile, each side’s formations began to mix with each other as the individual ship commanders on both sides anxiously awaited permission to open fire.
At 01.48, Akatsuki and Hiei turned on their large searchlights and illuminated Atlanta at a distance of only 3,000 yards (2740 m), which was pointblank range for large-calibre naval guns. Several of the ships on each side spontaneously opened fire. Realising that his force was almost surrounded by Japanese ships, Callaghan issued the order ‘Odd ships fire to starboard, even ships fire to port’. However, no pre-battle planning had assigned any such identity numbers, and the US formation was already disordered. Most of the US ships which had not already done so then opened fire, although several had to quickly change their targets in order to comply with Callaghan’s order As the warships of the two sides intermingled, they fired on each other in an utterly confused and chaotic mêlée at the close ranges at which the superior Japanese optics and well practised Japanese drill at optical night aiming proved the decisive factor.
Laffey, O’Bannon, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland, Helena and perhaps other US ships fired at Akatsuki, which had drawn attention to herself with her illuminated searchlight. Akatsuki was hit repeatedly, blew up and sank within a few minutes.
Perhaps because she was the leading cruiser of the US formation, Atlanta attracted the gunfire and torpedo salvoes of several Japanese ships, probably including Nagara, Inazuma and Ikazuchi, in addition to Akatsuki. The gunfire inflicted heavy damage on the US cruiser, and the detonation of a 24-in (610-mm) torpedo cut all of her engineering power. Atlanta drifted into the line of fire of San Francisco, which accidentally fired on her, caused still greater damage and killed Scott and much of the bridge crew. Without power and unable to fire her guns, Atlanta then drifted out of control and out of the battle as the Japanese ships passed her. Cushing, the leading US destroyer, was also caught in a crossfire between several Japanese destroyers and perhaps Nagara. Hit heavily, she too stopped dead in the water.
With nine lit searchlights, great size and course taking her directly through the US formation, Hiei became the focus of the fire of many of the US ships. Laffey passed so close to the Japanese battleship that the ships missed a collision by a mere 20 ft (6.1 m) or so. At so short a range, Hiei was unable to depress her main or secondary batteries sufficiently to hit Laffey, which was herself able to rake Hiei’s superstructure with 5-in (127-mm) and machine gun fire, causing heavy damage to the Japanese ship’s superstructure and bridge, wounding Abe and killing his chief-of-staff. Abe was thereafter limited in his ability to direct his ships for the rest of the battle. Sterett and O’Bannon also fired several salvoes into Hiei’s superstructure from close range, and perhaps one or two torpedoes into her hull, causing more damage, before both destroyers escaped into the darkness.
Unable to fire her main or secondary batteries at the three destroyers which were causing her so much trouble, Hiei concentrated her fire on San Francisco, which was passing only 2,500 yards (2285 m) away. Hiei, Kirishima, Inazuma and Ikazuchi each made repeated hits on San Francisco, disabling her steering control and killing Callaghan, Captain Cassin Young and most of the cruiser’s bridge crew. The first few salvoes from Hiei and Kirishima were of the special fragmentation bombardment shells, which reduced damage to the interior of San Francisco and may have saved her from being sunk outright. As they had not been expecting an engagement with ships, the crew of the two Japanese battleships had to switch to armour-piercing ammunition, a process which took several minutes. Almost helpless to defend herself, San Francisco nonetheless managed to steam clear of the deluge of Japanese fire, and indeed managed to land at least one shell in Hiei’s steering gear compartment during the exchange, flooding it with water, shorting the power steering generators, and severely curtailing the ability of the Japanese battleship to manoeuvre. Helena followed San Francisco in an effort to protect her from further damage.
Two of the US destroyers met sudden ends. Either Nagara or the destroyers Teruzuki and Yukikaze chanced upon the drifting Cushing and pummelled her mercilessly with gunfire, knocking out all of her systems. Unable to fight back, Cushing’s crew abandoned ship and the destroyer sank several hours later. Having escaped from her engagement with Hiei, Laffey now encountered Asagumo, Murasame, Samidare and perhaps Teruzuki, which pounded the US destroyer with gunfire and then hit her with a torpedo which broke back. A few minutes later fires reached her ammunition magazines and Laffey blew up and sank.
After helping to sink Akatsuki, Portland was hit by a torpedo from Inazuma or Ikazuchi, sustaining heavy damage to her stern and leaving her to steer only in a circle. After completing her first loop, she was able to fire four salvoes at Hiei but was otherwise unable to take any further part in the battle.
Yudachi and Amatsukaze independently charged the five rearmost ships of the US formation. Two torpedoes from Amatsukaze hit Barton, which immediately sank with heavy loss of life. Amatsukaze then turned back to the north and later hit Juneau with a torpedo while the cruiser was exchanging fire with Yudachi, stopping the US ship dead in the water, breaking her keel and knocking out most of her systems. Juneau then turned to the east and steamed slowly out of the battle area.
Monssen avoided the wreck of Barton and steamed onward looking for targets. She was noticed by Asagumo, Murasame and Samidare, which had just finished blasting Laffey. The Japanese destroyers devastated Monssen, and forced the crew to abandon the ship, which later sank.
Amatsukaze closed on San Francisco with the intention of finishing her, but with their attention focussed on the heavy cruiser, the Japanese crew failed to note the approach of Helena, which fired several full salvoes at the Japanese destroyer at close range and knocked her out of the action. The heavily damaged Amatsukaze escaped under cover of a smoke screen while Helena was distracted by an attack delivered by Asagumo, Murasame and Samidare after their destruction of Monssen.
Aaron Ward and Sterett, searching independently for targets, each sighted Yudachi, which seemed to be unaware of the approach of the two US destroyers. Both US ships hit Yudachi simultaneously with gunfire and torpedoes, heavily damaging the destroyer and forcing her crew to abandon ship. The ship did not sink immediately, however. Continuing on her way, Sterett was suddenly taken under fire by Teruzuki, sustained heavy damage, and was forced to withdraw eastward out of the battle area. Aaron Ward then found herself in a one-against-one duel with the altogether superior Kirishima, and the destroyer inevitably lost this duel with heavy damage. She too attempted to retire eastward from the battle area, but soon stopped dead in the water because her engines were damaged.
After almost 40 minutes of savage close-quarters fighting, the two sides broke contact and ceased fire at 02.26 after Abe and Captain Gilbert Hoover, captain of Helena and the senior surviving officer, ordered their respective forces to disengage. Abe had the battleship Kirishima, light cruiser Nagara and destroyers Asagumo, Teruzuki, Yukikaze and Harusame with only light damage, and the destroyers Inazuma, Ikazuchi, Murasame and Samidare with just moderate damage. The US had only the light cruiser Helena and destroyer Fletcher still capable of effective resistance. Though it might not have been evident to Abe, the way was clear for the Japanese to bombard Henderson Field and finish off the US naval forces in the area, clearing the way for the troops and supplies to be landed safely on Guadalcanal.
Abe instead opted to abandon the mission and depart the area. Several reasons are conjectured as to why he made this decision: much of the special bombardment ammunition had been expended in the battle; in the event that the bombardment failed to destroy the airfield, then the Japanese ships would have been would be vulnerable to air attack at dawn; his own injuries and the deaths of some of his staff may have affected his judgement; he was possibly uncertain about how many of his own or the US ships were still capable of combat, because of communication problems with the damaged Hiei; and his own ships were scattered and it would have taken some time to reassemble them for a co-ordinated resumption of the mission to attack Henderson Field and destroy the remnants of the US naval force. For whatever reason, Abe called for a disengagement and general retreat of his warships, though Yukikaze and Teruzuki were left to aid Hiei. Samidare rescued Yudachi’s survivors at 03.00 before joining the other Japanese ships as they withdrew to the north.
At 03.00 on 13 November, Yamamoto postponed the planned landings of the transports, which thereupon returned to the Shortland islands group pending further developments. The break of day revealed three crippled Japanese ships, in the form of Hiei, Yudachi and Amatsukaze, and three crippled US ships in the form of Portland, Atlanta and Aaron Ward, in the waters off Savo island. Amatsukaze was attacked by US dive-bombers but escaped additional damage as she headed to Truk atoll, and eventually returned to action several months later. Yudachi’s abandoned hulk was sunk by Portland, whose guns still worked despite the other damage to the ship. The tug Bobolink moved round Ironbottom Sound throughout the daylight hours of 13 November, assisting the damaged US ships, and rescuing US survivors from the water.
Hiei was attacked repeatedly by TBF torpedo bombers of the US Marine Corps from Henderson Field, TBF torpedo bombers and SBD dive-bombers from Enterprise, which had departed Nouméa on 11 November, and USAAF B-17 heavy bombers of Colonel LaVerne G. Saunders’s 11th Bombardment Group from Espíritu Santo, and Abe and his staff transferred to Yukikaze at 08.15. Kirishima was ordered to take Hiei in tow, escorted by Nagara and her destroyers, but the attempt was cancelled because of the threat of submarine attack and Hiei’s increasing unseaworthiness. After suffering more damage in air attacks, Hiei finally sank to the north-west of Savo island, perhaps scuttled by her remaining crew, late in the evening of 13 November.
Portland, San Francisco, Aaron Ward and Sterett eventually reached rear-area ports for repairs, but Atlanta sank near Guadalcanal at 20.00 on 13 November. Departing the Solomon islands group with San Francisco, Helena, Sterett and O’Bannon later in the same day, Juneau was located, torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese submarine I-26. The cruiser’s 100 or more survivors, out of a total complement of 697, were left to fend for themselves for eight days before rescue aircraft belatedly arrived, and in this time all but 10 of the survivors died from their injuries, the elements or shark attacks.
Because of the confused nature of the battle, the US forces believed that they had sunk as many as seven Japanese ships. Combined with the Japanese retreat, this led the US forces to believe that they had won a significant victory, and it was only after the war’s end that the USA learned that the forces had in fact suffered what most see as a crushing tactical defeat. However, most analysts agree that Abe’s decision to retreat turned this tactical US defeat into a operational US victory inasmuch as Henderson Field remained serviceable with attack aircraft ready to deter the slow Japanese transport vessels from approaching Guadalcanal to deliver their reinforcements, equipment and supplies. Moreover, the Japanese had lost an opportunity to eliminate the US naval forces in the area, a result which which would have seriously delayed subsequent US operations. Yamamoto relieved Abe of command and later forced his retirement. However, it appears that Yamamoto may have been more angry over the loss of the battleship Hiei than of the abandonment of the supply mission and failure to completely destroy the US force, and shortly before 12.00 on 13 November Yamamoto ordered Kondo, commanding the 2nd Fleet at Truk atoll, to form a new bombardment unit around Kirishima and attack Henderson Field on the night of 14/15 November.
Although the reinforcement effort to Guadalcanal was delayed, the Japanese did not abandon their efforts to complete the original mission, albeit a day later than originally planned, and it was during the afternoon of 13 November that Tanaka’s warships (destroyers Hayashio, Oyashio, Kagero, Mochizuki, Amagiri, Umikaze, Kawakaze, Hayanami, Suzukaze, Takanami and Makinami) and the 11 transport vessels resumed their journey toward Guadalcanal.
A force of cruisers and destroyers of the 8th Fleet from Rabaul, and originally intended to cover the unloading of the transports on the evening of 13 November, was tasked to complete what Abe’s force had failed to implement, namely the bombardment of Henderson Field. Commanded by Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura under Mikawa’s overall control, this 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Bombardment Force comprised the heavy cruisers Maya and Suzuya, light cruiser Tenryu and destroyers Kazagumo, Michishio, Makigumo, Yugumo, Mochizuki and Amagiri, while the 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Support Force, Main Body comprised the heavy cruisers Chokai and Kinugasa, light cruiser Isuzu and destroyers Arashio and Asashio.
After abandoning her attempt to rescue Hiei on the morning of 13 November, Kirishima had steamed to the north between Santa Isabel and Malaita islands with her accompanying warships to rendezvous with Kondo’s 2nd Fleet heading to the south from Truk atoll to form the new bombardment unit.
The 8th Fleet’s cruiser force was able to slip into the Guadalcanal area without interception as the battered US naval force had withdrawn. Suzuya and Maya bombarded Henderson Field while the rest of Mikawa’s force cruised around Savo island to prevent any US surface attack, which did not occur. The 35-minute bombardment caused some damage to aircraft and some of the airfield’s facilities, but did not render the airfield unserviceable. The cruiser force ended the bombardment around 02.30 on 14 November and immediately headed back toward Rabaul on a course to the south of the New Georgia islands group.
At day dawned on 14 November, aircraft from Guadalcanal, Espíritu Santo and Enterprise, the last some 230 miles (370 km) to the south of Guadalcanal, began their attacks, first on Mikawa’s force as this headed away from Guadalcanal, and then on the transport force heading toward Guadalcanal. The attacks on Mikawa’s force sank Kinugasa, killing 511 of her crew, and damaged Maya, forcing her to proceed to Japan for repairs. The number of air attacks on the transport force overwhelmed the escorting Japanese fighter escort, sank six of the transports, and forced one more to turn back with heavy damage, though this too later sank. Survivors from the transport vessels were rescued by the convoy’s escorting destroyers and returned to the Shortland islands group, but its is believed that some 450 soldiers had been killed or drowned. The remaining four transports and four destroyers continued toward Guadalcanal after the fall of night on 14 November, but stopped to the west of Guadalcanal to await the finish of the next warship surface action before continuing.
Kondo’s extemporised Attack Force, Main Body and Rear Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto’s Sweeping Force made rendezvous at Ontong Java on the evening of 13 November, then reversed course and refuelled out of range of Henderson Field’s attack aircraft on the morning of 14 November. The US submarine Trout stalked but was unable to make an attack on Kirishima during the refuelling process. The bombardment force then continued to the south and came under air attack late in the afternoon of 14 November, a time during which the Japanese ships were intercepted by the submarine Flying Fish, which launched five torpedoes but scored no hits, then reported its contact by radio.
Approaching Guadalcanal via Indispensable Strait at about 24.00 on 14/15 November, and a quarter moon provided moderate visibility of about 4.25 miles (2.65 km), Kondo’s force comprised the battleship Kirishima, heavy cruisers Atago (Kondo’s flagship) and Takao, light cruisers Nagara and Sendai, and destroyers Teruzuki, Inazuma, Asagumo, Oyashio, Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Samidare, Kagero, Uranami, Shikinami and Ayanami. Along with Kirishima and Nagara, some of the destroyers were survivors of the first night engagement two days earlier.
With only a few undamaged ships available to him, Halsey detached the new battleships Washington and South Dakota from Enterprise’s support group, together with the destroyers Walke, Benham, Gwin and Preston, as TF64 under Lee’s command to defend Guadalcanal and Henderson Field. Like that of the Japanese, this was an extemporised force inasmuch as the battleships had operated together for only a few days, and their four escorts were from four different destroyer divisions, selected for the fact that, of the available destroyers, they had the most fuel. The US force arrived in Ironbottom Sound in the evening of 14 November and began patrolling around Savo island in column formation with the four destroyers in the lead, followed by Washington and with South Dakota bringing up the rear. At 22.55 on 14 November, radar on South Dakota and Washington made their first detections of Kondo’s ships near Savo island at a distance of about 20,000 yards (18290 m).
Kondo had divided his force into several groups. One of these, the Sweeping Force commanded by Hashimoto and comprising Sendai and the destroyers Shikinami and Uranami, swept along the eastern side of Savo island as the same unit’s destroyer Ayanami swept anti-clockwise round the south-western side of the same island to check for the presence of Allied ships. The Japanese ships spotted Lee’s force at about 23.00, though Kondo misidentified the battleships as cruisers. Kondo ordered the Sweeping Force, as well as the light cruiser Nagara and four destroyers of the Attack Force, Main Body, to engage and destroy the US force before he brought the bombardment force of Kirishima, Atago and Takeo into Ironbottom Sound. The US ships detected the Sweeping Force’s ships on radar but did not spot the Attack Force, Main Body’s ships. Using radar targeting, the two US battleships opened fire on the Sweeping Force at 23.17. Lee ordered a ceasefire about five minutes later after the northern group disappeared from the US ships’ radar. Sendai, Uranami and Shikinami were undamaged, however, and circled out of the danger area.
Meanwhile, the four destroyers at the head of the US formation began to fire at Ayanami and Nagara’s group of ships at 23.22. Nagara and her destroyers responded with accurate gunfire and torpedo salvoes, and the destroyers Walke and Preston were each hit and sunk within 10 minutes with heavy loss of life. The destroyer Benham had part of her bow blown off by a torpedo, had to pull back and sank on the following day, and the destroyer Gwin was hit in her engine room and put out of the fight. However, the US destroyers had completed their mission as screens for the battleships, absorbing the initial impact of contact with the Japanese, although at great cost. At 23.48 Lee ordered Benham and Gwin to retire.
Washington passed through the area still occupied by the damaged and sinking US destroyers and fired on Ayanami with the guns of her secondary battery, setting her on fire. Following close behind, South Dakota suddenly suffered a series of electrical failures, which left the battleship’s radar, radios and most of her gun batteries inoperable. However, she continued to follow Washington toward the western side of Savo island until 23.35, when Washington changed course to port in order to pass to the south behind the burning destroyers. South Dakota tried to follow but had to turn to starboard in order to avoid Benham, with the result that the ship was silhouetted by the fires of the burning destroyers, and also left her a closer and easier target for the Japanese.
Receiving reports of the destruction of the US destroyers from Ayanami and other ships, Kondo ordered his Attack Force, Main Body to head toward Guadalcanal in the erroneous belief that the US warship force had been defeated. His force and the two US battleships were now heading toward each other.
Almost blind and unable to effectively fire her main and secondary armaments, South Dakota was illuminated by searchlights and targeted by gunfire and torpedoes by most of the ships of the Japanese force, including Kirishima, from about 24.00. Although able to score a few hits on Kirishima, South Dakota received one large- and 25 medium-calibre hits, some of which did not detonate, and these completely knocked out her communications and remaining gunfire control operations, set portions of her upper decks on fire, and forced her to try to steer away from the engagement. All of the Japanese torpedoes missed. South Dakota’s casualties were 39 men killed and 59 wounded, and the battleship turned away from the engagement at 00.17 without informing Lee, though the retirement was observed by Kondo’s lookouts.
The Japanese ships continued to concentrate their fire on South Dakota, and none of them detected Washington approaching to within 9,000 yards (8230 m). Washington had been tracking a large target (in fact Kirishima) for some time but did not open fire as there was a chance it could be South Dakota. Washington had not been able to track South Dakota’s movements because she was in a blind spot in Washington’s radar coverage, and Lee could not raise her on the radio to confirm her position. When the Japanese illuminated and fired on South Dakota, all possibility of a ‘friendly fire’ incident was removed and from close range Washington opened fire and quickly hit Kirishima with at least nine 16-in (406-mm) main-battery shells and almost 40 5-in (127-mm) secondary-battery shells, causing heavy damage and setting the Japanese battleship on fire. Kirishima was also hit below the waterline and suffered a jammed rudder, causing her to circle uncontrollably to port.
At 00.25, Kondo ordered all his ships which could do so to converge and destroy any remaining US ships. However, the Japanese ships still did not know where Washington was, and the other surviving US ships had already departed the battle area. Washington steered to the north-west in the direction of the Russell islands group in order to draw the Japanese force away from Guadalcanal and the presumably damaged South Dakota. The Japanese warships finally sighted Washington and launched several torpedo attacks, but the skilled seamanship of her captain allowed the US battleship to avoided all of these and also to avoid running aground in shallow waters.
At length, believing that the way was clear for the transport convoy to proceed to Guadalcanal, but apparently disregarding the threat of air attack in the morning, Kondo ordered his remaining ships to break contact and retire from the area about 01.04, an order with which most of the Japanese warships had complied by 01.30.
Kirishima and Ayanami were each scuttled and had sunk by 03.25 on 15 November. Uranami rescued survivors from Ayanami, and the destroyers Asagumo, Teruzuki and Samidare rescued the remaining crew from Kirishima. Some 242 US and 249 Japanese men had died in what was the first of only two battleship-versus-battleship engagements in the entire Pacific campaign of World War II, the other being at the Surigao Strait during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The four Japanese transports beached themselves at Tassafaronga on Guadalcanal by 04.00 on 15 November, and Tanaka and the escort destroyers immediately reversed course to head at maximum speed back up ‘The Slot’ toward safer waters. From 05.55 the transport vessels were attacked by US aircraft from Henderson Field and elsewhere, and the field artillery of the US ground forces on Guadalcanal. The destroyer Meade later approached and fired on the beached transports and the land immediately inland of them, setting the transport vessels on fire and destroying any of the embarked equipment which the Japanese had not already managed to unload. Only some 2,000 to 3,000 of the troops originally embarked actually made it to Guadalcanal, and most of their ammunition and food supplies were lost.
Yamamoto’s reaction to Kondo’s failure to neutralise Henderson Field and ensure the safe landing of troops and supplies was milder than his earlier reaction to Abe’s withdrawal, perhaps because of Imperial Japanese navy culture and politics: also second-in-command of the Combined Fleet, Kondo was a member of the upper staff and battleship faction, while Abe was a career destroyer specialist. Kondo was neither reprimanded nor reassigned, but instead left in command of one of the large ship fleets based at Truk atoll.
The failure to deliver to Guadalcanal most of the convoy’s troops and supplies prevented the Japanese army from launching another offensive to retake Henderson Field. Thereafter, the Japanese navy was able only to deliver subsistence supplies and a few replacement troops to the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal. Because of the continuing threat from Allied aircraft based at Henderson Field, plus nearby US aircraft carriers, the Japanese had to continue to rely on ‘Tokyo Express’ warship deliveries to their forces on Guadalcanal. However, these supplies and replacements were not enough to sustain the Japanese troops on the island who, by 7 December, were losing about 50 men per day to malnutrition, disease and Allied ground and air attacks. On 12 December, the Japanese navy proposed that Guadalcanal be abandoned. Despite initial opposition from the Japanese army leadership, which still hoped that their forces could eventually retake Guadalcanal, the General Headquarters, with the approval of Emperor Hirohito, agreed on 31 December that all Japanese forces should be evacuated from the island and a new defence line for the Solomon islands group be established on New Georgia. This effectively brought ‘Ka’ (ii) to an end.
The naval Battle of Guadalcanal was thus the last major Japanese navy attempt to seize control of the seas around Guadalcanal and thus facilitate the Japanese army’s recapture of the island. Conversely, the US Navy was thereafter able to resupply the US land forces at Guadalcanal at will, including the delivery of two fresh divisions by a time late December 1942. Their inability to neutralise Henderson Field doomed the Japanese effort to reverse the US conquest of Guadalcanal.
The Battle of Guadalcanal was not the end of naval combat off Guadalcanal, however, for there was still one more major clash to come in the Battle of Tassafaronga, which was known to the Japanese as the Battle of Lunga Point, fought as a nocturnal action on 30 November. In this battle, a US force of five cruisers and four destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright attempted to surprise and destroy a Japanese warship force of eight destroyers, under the command of Tanaka, as it attempted to deliver food and other supplies to Japanese land forces on Guadalcanal.
In summary, the US warships made effective use of their advantage in radar to gain surprise, opened fire and sank one of the Japanese destroyers. Tanaka and the rest of his ships, however, reacted quickly and launched numerous torpedoes at the US warships. The Japanese torpedoes hit and sank one US cruiser and heavily damaged three others, enabling the rest of Tanaka’s force to escape without significant additional damage but also without completing the intended supply delivery mission. Although a severe tactical defeat for the US, the battle had little strategic impact as the Japanese were unable to take advantage of the victory to further resupply or otherwise assist in their ultimately unsuccessful efforts to recapture Guadalcanal.
On 26 November, Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura took command of the 8th Area Army, established only 10 days earlier with its headquarters at Rabaul. The new command encompassed both Hyakutake’s 17th Army in the Solomon islands group and Lieutenant General Hatazo Adachi’s 18th Army in New Guinea. One of Imamura’s first priorities was the continuation of the Japanese attempts to retake Henderson Field and Guadalcanal. The Allied ‘Lilliput’ offensive at Buna in New Guinea, however, changed Imamura’s priorities: as the Allied attempt to take Buna was considered a more severe threat to Rabaul, Imamura postponed further major reinforcement efforts to Guadalcanal to concentrate on the situation in New Guinea.
As a result of the combination of the threat from the aircraft of the Cactus Air Force from Henderson Field, PT-boats of the US Navy from Tulagi, and a period of bright moonlight, the Japanese had switched temporarily to the use of submarines to deliver provisions to their forces on Guadalcanal. For three weeks from 16 November, 16 submarines were employed to make nocturnal deliveries of foodstuffs to the island, with one submarine making the trip each night. Each submarine could deliver 20 to 30 tons of food, which was about the 17th Army’s daily requirement, but the subsequent difficulty of transporting the landed supplies by hand through the jungle to front-line units limited their value in the sustenance of the Japanese troops. 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 and barges to stage through them while making supply deliveries to Guadalcanal, but damaging Allied air attacks on the bases forced the Japanese to abandon this plan.
On 26 November, the 17th Army informed the 8th Area Army that it was faced by a critical crisis in food availability: some front-line units had not been resupplied for six days and even the rear-area troops were on one-third rations. This situation compelled the Japanese to return to the use of destroyers for the delivery of greater quantities of supplies.
The 8th Fleet’s staff devised a plan to help reduce the exposure of destroyers delivering supplies to Guadalcanal. Large oil or fuel drums were cleaned and filled with medical supplies and food, with enough volume left for the air which would provide buoyancy, and strung together with rope. The scheme demanded that on arrival off Guadalcanal, the destroyers would make a sharp turn, the drums would be cut loose, and a swimmer or boat from shore would pick up the buoyed end of a rope and return it to the beach, to which soldiers could then haul the supply-filled drum as the destroyer departed at high speed.
The 8th Fleet’s Guadalcanal Reinforcement Unit, based in the Shortland islands group under Tanaka’s command, was entrusted by Mikawa with making the first of five scheduled runs using the drum method on the night of 30 November. Tanaka’s unit was centred on the eight ships of the 2nd Destroyer Squadron, with six destroyers assigned to carry from 200 to 240 drums of supplies each to Tassafaronga on Guadalcanal. The other two destroyers were Naganami, which was Tanaka’s flagship, and Takanami, and these acted as escorts. The six drum-carrying destroyers were Kuroshio, Oyashio, Kagero, Suzukaze, Kawakaze and Makinami which, to save topweight, offloaded their 24-in (610-mm) torpedo reloads at the base in Shortland islands group, leaving each ship with eight torpedoes, one for each tube.
After the naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Halsey had reorganised the US naval forces under his command: this reorganisation included, on 24 November, the formation of a new TF67 at Espíritu Santo with the heavy cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola and Northampton, light cruiser Honolulu and destroyers Fletcher, Drayton, Maury and Perkins. Wright replaced Kinkaid as commander of TF67 on 28 November.
On assuming command, Wright briefed his ship commanders on his plan for engaging the Japanese in future night battles around Guadalcanal. The plan, most of which he had inherited from Kinkaid, stated that radar-equipped destroyers were to scout in front of the cruisers and deliver a surprise torpedo attack immediately after sighting Japanese warships, then depart the area to give the cruisers clear fields of fire. The cruisers were then to engage with gunfire a ranges between 10,000 and 12,000 yards (9145 and 10975 m), their floatplanes scouting and dropping flares during the battle.
On 29 November, Allied intelligence intercepted and decoded a Japanese message transmitted to the 17th Army warning it to be on the alert for Tanaka’s first supply run. Informed of the message, Halsey ordered Wright to take TF67 to intercept Tanaka off Guadalcanal. With Wright flying his flag in Minneapolis, TF67 departed Espíritu Santo at 27 kt just before 24.00 on 29/30 November for the 580-mile (935-km) run to Guadalcanal. En route, the destroyers Lamson and Lardner, returning from a convoy escort assignment to Guadalcanal, were ordered to join TF67. Lacking the time to brief the commanding officers of the newly joined destroyers, Wright assigned them a position behind the cruisers. At 17.00 on November 30, the US cruisers each launched one floatplane toward Tulagi to drop flares during the battle which was expected on this night, and at 20.00 Wright sent his crews to battle stations.
Tanaka’s force departed the Shortland islands group just after 24.00 on 29/30 November. Tanaka attempted to evade Allied aerial reconnaissance by heading first to the north-east through the Bougainville Strait before turning to the south-east and then the south to pass through the Indispensable Strait. Paul Mason, an Australian coast watcher in the southern part of Bougainville, reported the departure of Tanaka’s ships, and the information was passed to Wright. At the same time, a Japanese search aeroplane spotted an Allied convoy near Guadalcanal and informed Tanaka, who told his destroyer commanders to expect action that night and that in the event of such an eventuality they were to concentrate their efforts on the destruction of the US ships without regard for the unloading of supplies.
At 21.40 on 30 November, lookouts on Tanaka’s ships sighted Savo island from the Indispensable Strait. At this time the Japanese ships were in column, at intervals of 655 yards (600 m), in the order Takanami, Oyashio, Kuroshio, Kagero, Makinami, Naganami, Kawakaze and Suzukaze.
At this same time, TF67 entered the Lengo Channel en route to Ironbottom Sound. Wright’s ships were also 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 were 1,000 yards (915 m) apart.
At 22.40, Tanaka’s ships passed to the south of Savo island about 3.25 miles (5 km) offshore from Guadalcanal and slowed to 12 kt as they neared the unloading area. Takanami took station about 1.25 miles (2 km) to seaward to screen the column. At the same time, TF67 exited the Lengo Channel into Ironbottom Sound and headed at 20 kt toward Savo island. The US van destroyers moved to a position slightly inshore of the cruisers. The night sky was moonless and the visibility was between 2 and 7 miles (3.2 and 11.25 km). Because of the sea’s extreme calmness, which inhibited waterborne operations, the US cruiser floatplanes were delayed in lifting off from Tulagi harbour, and were therefore destined to play no part of the imminent Battle of Tassafaronga.
At 23.06, the radar of TF67’s ships began to detect Tanaka’s ships near Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal at a range of some 23,000 yards (21030 m). Wright’s destroyers rejoined the column as it continued toward Savo island. At much the same time Tanaka’s ships, which were not equipped with radar, divided into two groups and their deck crews prepared to push the drum payloads overboard. Naganami, Kawakaze and Suzukaze headed for their dropping point near Doma Reef, while Makinami, Kagero, Oyashio and Kuroshio headed for nearby Tassafaronga. At 23.12, Takanami's look-outs sighted the US column, and this was quickly confirmed by the look-outs on Tanaka’s other ships. At 23.16 Tanaka ordered the halting of all unloading preparations and ordered his ships to 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, asked Wright for permission to fire torpedoes. Wright waited two minutes and then responded that the Japanese ships were at too great a range, to which Cole replied that the range was fine. Another two minutes passed before Wright responded with permission to fire. In this time, however, the Japanese destroyers had escaped from an optimum US 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 torpedoes toward Tanaka’s ships, while Maury, which lacked SG radar and thus had no contacts at which to aim, did not fire.
At the same time, Wright ordered his force to open fire and at 23.21 Minneapolis complied with her first salvo, quickly followed by those of the other US cruisers. Cole’s four destroyers fired star shell to illuminate the targets as previously directed, then increased speed to clear the area for the cruisers to operate.
Because she was closer to Wright’s column than the other Japanese ships, Takanami was the target of most of the initial US fire. Takanami returned fire and launched all eight of her torpedoes, but was quickly hit by US fire and, within four minutes, was on fire and incapacitated. As Takanami was destroyed, the rest of Tanaka’s ships, almost unnoticed by the Americans, were increasing speed, manoeuvring, and preparing to respond. All 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 launched eight torpedoes in the direction of the gun flashes of Wright’s cruisers, followed by Naganami and Kawakaze, which also fired their full loads of eight torpedoes at 23.32 and 23.33 respectively.
Meanwhile, the four Japanese van destroyers maintained their heading along the coast of Guadalcanal, allowing Wright’s cruisers to pass on the reciprocal course. Once clear of Takanami at 23.28, Kuroshio and Oyashio launched 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 44 Japanese torpedoes headed in their direction.
At 23.27, as she fired her ninth salvo and Wright prepared to order a course change for his column, two torpedoes, from either Suzukaze or Takanami, hit Minneapolis’s forward half. One warhead exploded the aviation fuel storage tanks ahead of the forward turret, and the other knocked out three of the ship’s four fire rooms. The bow ahead of the forward turret folded down at a 70° angle, and the ship lost power and steering control, as well as 37 men killed.
Less than one minute later a torpedo hit New Orleans abreast of her forward turret and exploded the ship’s forward ammunition magazines and aviation fuel storage tanks. The blast severed the ship’s entire bow between the two forward turrets. 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. All in the forward two turrets were killed. New Orleans was forced into a reverse course to starboard and lost steering and communications, as well as 183 men killed.
Next astern of New Orleans in the cruiser column was Pensacola. Seeing 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 was hit by a torpedo abreast the main mast. The explosion spread flaming oil throughout the interior and across the main deck of the ship, killing 125 of the ship’s crew. The hit ripped away the port outer driveshaft, the ship took a 13° list, and lost all power, communications and steering.
Astern of Pensacola, the captain of Honolulu chose to pass Minneapolis and New Orleans on the starboard side, ordered an increase to 30 kt, manoeuvred strongly and successfully transited the battle area without taking any damage while maintaining the fire of her main guns at the Japanese destroyers, which were disappearing rapidly.
The last cruiser in the US column was Northampton, which followed Honolulu to pass the damaged cruisers ahead to starboard. Unlike his counterpart in Honolulu, however, the captain of Northampton ordered neither any increase in speed nor any radical manoeuvring. At 23.48, after returning to her base course, Northampton was struck by two of Kawakaze’s torpedoes. One impacted 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 was flooded, three of the four shafts ceased turning, and the ship listed 10° to port and caught fire; 50 men were killed.
The last ships in Wright’s column were Lamson and Lardner, which failed to locate any targets and exited the battle area to the east after being mistakenly being taken under machine gun fire from New Orleans. Cole’s four destroyers circled completely around Savo island at maximum speed and returned to the scene of battle, but the engagement had already ended.
Meanwhile, at 23.44 Tanaka had ordered his ships to break contact and retire from the battle area. As they proceeded up Guadalcanal’s coast, Kuroshio and Kagero launched 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 her assistance. The two destroyers located the burning ship at 01.00 on 1 December but abandoned rescue efforts after detecting US warships in the area. Oyashio and Kuroshio rapidly exited 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 to have been hit by US gunfire and seriously damaged during the battle, and her surviving crew abandoned ship at 01.30, though a large explosion killed many more of them in the water, including the destroyer division commander and the ship’s captain. Of the destroyer’s crew of 244, 48 men survived to reach shore on Guadalcanal, and 19 of them were rescued and taken prisoner by the Americans.
Northampton’s crew was unable to to bring its ship’s fires under control, and as the list increased the order to abandon ship was given at 01.30. Northampton sank at 03.04 about 4 miles (6.4 km) from Doma Cove on Guadalcanal, and Fletcher and Drayton rescued the ship’s 773 survivors.
During the morning of 1 December, Minneapolis, New Orleans and Pensacola were able to cover the 19 miles (30.5 km) to Tulagi, where they were berthed for emergency repairs. The fires on Pensacola burned for 12 hours before being extinguished, and on 6 December the ship departed Tulagi for rear-area ports and further repair. After the construction and fitment of temporary bows from coconut logs, Minneapolis and New Orleans departed Tulagi for Espíritu Santo or Sydney, Australia on 12 December. All three cruisers required lengthy and extensive repairs, and returned to service only in the second half of 1943, New Orleans in August, Minneapolis in September and Pensacola in October.
The Battle of Tassafaronga was one of the worst defeats suffered by the US Navy in World War II, third only to the ‘Ai’ attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Savo Island. Together with the losses suffered during the Battle of Savo Island, Battle of Cape Esperance and Battle of Guadalcanal, the losses in the Battle of Tassafaronga left the US Navy, at least for a time, with only four combat-capable heavy cruisers and nine light cruisers in the whole of the Pacific Ocean. Wright claimed in his after-action report that TF67 had sunk four destroyers and damaged two others, and on the other side of the coin Tanaka claimed to have sunk one battleship and two cruisers.
Assessment of the battle’s results led to further discussion in the Pacific Fleet about the urgent need for changes in tactical doctrine and the need for technical improvements such as flashless powder. However, it was not until eight months later that the naval high command recognised very belatedly that there were serious problems with the functioning of US torpedoes. Moreover, the Americans were still unaware of the range and power of Japanese torpedoes and the efficiency of Japanese night battle tactics. In fact, Wright claimed that his ships must have been fired on 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, though Tanaka stated that his torpedoes were fired at a range as short as 3 miles (4.8 km). The Americans did not, in fact, come to realise the true capabilities of the Japanese torpedoes and night tactics until well into 1943.
Despite their defeat, the Americans had nonetheless prevented Tanaka from landing the food supplies which were needed so desperately by the troops on Guadalcanal, albeit at high cost. A second Japanese supply delivery attempt by 10 destroyers, again led by Tanaka, on 3 December successfully dropped 1,500 drums of provisions off Tassafaronga, but strafing attacks by US aircraft sank all but 310 of them on the next 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. The the following night, two PT-boats torpedoed and sank the Japanese submarine I-3 as it attempted to deliver supplies to Guadalcanal. As a result of the difficulties it was facing in attempts to deliver food to the island, the Japanese navy informed Imamura on 8 December that it intended to cease all destroyer transport runs to Guadalcanal with immediate effect. After Imamura protested, the navy agreed to one more run to the island.
This last attempt to deliver food by destroyers in 1942 was again led by Tanaka with 11 destroyers, and took place on the night of December 11/12. Five PT-boats met Tanaka’s force off Guadalcanal, and PT-37 and PT-40 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 troops on shore. Tanaka was subsequently relieved of command and transferred to Japan on 12 December.
It was on this same day that the Japanese navy proposed that Guadalcanal should 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 the approval of Emperor Hirohito, agreed to the ‘Ke’ evacuation of all Japanese forces from the island and the establishment of a new line of defence for the Solomon islands group on New Georgia, so effectively ending ‘Ka’ (ii).
On 9 December Major General Alexander McC. Patch’s Americal Division relieved the totally exhausted 1st Marine Division. Further US expansion into the XIV Corps (formed on 2 January 1943 under Patch) was made possible by the arrival on 17 December of Major General J. Lawton Collins’s 25th Division and Brigadier General Alphonse de Carre’s 2nd Marine Division. By January the XIV Corps could deploy some 50,000 well trained and well equipped men, while the 17th Army had only 25,000 exhausted men who could not be supplied even by the ‘Tokyo Express’. The Japanese therefore proceeded to the evacuation of their surviving forces, and by 9 February the last 11,000 men of the 17th Army, harried all the way to Cape Esperance by the XIV Corps, had been evacuated in ‘Ke’ (i).