This was the US seizure of Guadalcanal island toward the south-eastern end of the Solomon islands group (7 August 1942/9 February 1943).
Part of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, Guadalcanal played a major role in the South Pacific campaign and is a large island, with a maximum length and width of 80 and 34 miles (129 and 55 km) respectively, and an area of 2,047 sq miles (5302 km²), toward the south-eastern end of the Solomon islands chain, some 1,300 miles (2090 km) to the north-east of Townsville in north-eastern Australia, 540 miles (870 km) to the north-west of Espíritu Santo island, and 300 miles (485 km) to the south-east of Rabaul on the island of New Britain. The southern half is mountainous, reaching heights of 7,661 and 7,580 ft (2335 and 2310 m) at the summits of Mt Popomanaseu and Mt Makarakomburu respectively. The south coast is precipitous, and edged by a reef, and therefore possessed only a very few good landing beaches. The interior is crossed by sharp ridge lines divided by fast streams. The climate is characterised by the south-west trade winds from April to October, with temperatures ranging between 70° and 90° F (21° and 32° C), while in the period from November to March the north-west monsoon brings torrential rain, temperatures greater than 90° F (32° C) and very high humidity.
The northern coastal plain accommodated most of the population, which was estimated at just 8,000 to 10,000 persons in 1941, and had some plantations. There was a two-lane earth road along the north coast in the vicinity of Lunga Point, with 3-ton timber bridges across the many rivers and streams which flow from the mountains to the coast. Facilities were otherwise virtually non-existent, and most of the population moved to the south coast after the Japanese occupation of Tulagi, a smaller island just to the north of Guadalcanal, on 3 May 1942.
The formal US codename for Guadalcanal was ‘Bevy’, but the island was more generally known as ‘Cactus’, which was properly the area to be seized on the first day of ‘Watchtower’ on Tulagi as well as Guadalcanal, and in February 1943 Guadalcanal was properly redesignated as ‘Mainyard’.
Though comparatively small in terms of the number of men involved, the Guadalcanal campaign was one of the most important of World War II in its strategic implications and effect on Allied (especially US) morale, and this undertaking by Allied warships and some 19,000 troops was the first offensive by US land forces in the Pacific war. Although the main landing was ‘Watchtower’ on Guadalcanal, the related ‘Ringbolt’ attacks were also made on Florida, Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo islands in the same ‘Cactus’ (i) area.
The location of the Solomon islands group, to the east of New Guinea and north-east of Australia, made it a key element in the Japanese plans both to create an outer defence perimeter and to sever the Allied maritime lines of communications linking the USA and Australia. Japan already held a major base beyond the north-western end of this long chain of islands, at Rabaul on New Britain in the Bismarck islands group, but the Solomon islands group constitute a north-west/south-east chain so long that aircraft from Rabaul could not patrol the whole group to its south-eastern tip, let alone into the Pacific beyond that. The Japanese navy therefore intended to turn the Solomon islands into a major strategic base, and in 1942 began to occupy islands all along the chain for the building of air bases capable of accommodating patrol bombers. Guadalcanal was to be the major base in the middle of the chain, just within ferry range of Rabaul.
After seizing Tulagi, an islet just off Florida island across Savo Sound (soon to become ‘Ironbottom Sound’) from Guadalcanal, in the course of activities peripheral to ‘Mo’ (ii), leading to the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese immediately began to construct a seaplane base in order that scouting flights could be made to points farther to the south-east along the Solomon islands group, but then discovered that there was terrain suitable for airfields near the north coast of Guadalcanal. Japanese engineers landed on 8 June and set to work constructing a wharf, and after spotting smoke on 20 June as the Japanese began burning grass off a cattle pasture near Lunga Point, Allied coast watchers speculated that the Japanese had begun the construction of an airfield. This was confirmed by a reconnaissance flight over the island on 5 July. On 6 July the Japanese engineers were joined by 2,571 men of the 11th Construction Unit and 13th Construction Unit delivered by a 12-ship convoy. When completed, the runway would be 3,778 ft (1150 m) long, sufficient for the operation of bombers which would threaten Allied bases in the New Hebrides islands group and also maritime communications between the USA and Australia.
The Allies were little prepared for offensive action in the middle of 1942 and were, moreover, not unduly disturbed about the Japanese establishment of a seaplane base on Tulagi. The Allies had just won their first strategic victory in the Pacific campaign with the defeat of ‘Mi’ (ii), in which Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet had been decisively crushed in the Battle of Midway.
As early as March 1942, and possibly at the instigation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Admiral Ernest J. King, the US chief of naval operations and commander-in-chief of the US Fleet, had suggested the possibility of a limited offensive through the New Hebrides, Solomon and Bismarck islands groups, starting from Efate in the New Hebrides islands group. The South Pacific Area had been established with the arrival of Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley in Nouméa on New Caledonia island during 17 May 1942: Ghormley had begun to collate the scant hydrographic information available about the Solomon islands group before departing Washington, DC. By 25 June King had recommended an early start to the offensive, using Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division as the main assault force. By 2 July the proposed Solomons islands offensive had been approved as part of ‘Cartwheel’, with the the seizure of Tulagi and Guadalcanal themselves in the ‘Ringbolt’ and ‘Watchtower’ operations, each slated to start on 1 August. Other parts of the original plan for the South Pacific Area offensive included the occupation of Ndeni, the main island of the Santa Cruz islands group to the south-east of the Solomon islands group, to allow the construction of a forward airfield, the delivery of major reinforcements to Espíritu Santo, and the occupation of Funafuti, a sizeable atoll in the Ellice islands group.
The discovery of the incomplete airfield on Guadalcanal led General Douglas MacArthur, commanding the South-West Pacific Area, and Ghormley to recommend that ‘Watchtower’ should be postponed until more forces were available for what was now seen as a more difficult task. However, King felt that the Japanese development of an airfield made the operation more urgent than ever, and on 10 July ordered that ‘Watchtower’ be undertaken at the earliest possible moment despite the risks. This was one of the most important decisions of the war, and was arguably King’s single greatest contribution to the ultimate Allied victory. The campaign which resulted from the decision was, at the strategic level, a meeting engagement in which each side felt it necessary to reinforce a minor skirmish, at a place and time neither had intended, until it grew into a major campaign.
Vandegrift had been informed that his 1st Marine Division would have at least six months to train in New Zealand, and believed that his formation was far from ready for commitment to combat. The division had been significantly reduced in terms of its regular units to provide cadres for new formations, and the replacements it had received were far from fully trained. In addition, the 7th Marines had been detached to garrison Samoa and, believing that this regiment would see combat before the rest of the division, Vandegrift had given the regiment many of his best officers, men and equipment. By the time Vandegrift received the orders for ‘Watchtower’ on 26 July, his men were already in barracks in New Zealand and the division’s equipment had been unloaded at Wellington. While most of the marines continued training on New Zealand, their equipment was reloaded on four transport ships of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet by detachments of 300 marines per transport ship, after the US Navy had come to the conclusion that it could not rely New Zealand port workers: the powerfully unionised dock workers refused to work in the rain, and appeals to their patriotism failed because security considerations made it impossible to explain to them that this was not just another training exercise. A second echelon was loaded at Wellington and ready to sail on 22 July, while a third group of six transport ships was escorted to the South Pacific from San Diego by a task force centred on the fleet carrier Wasp. By 16 July it was clear that the invasion would have to be postponed until 7 August.
Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, at the time the commander of the amphibious forces allocated to the South Pacific Area, later claimed that Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, the commander of the Pacific Fleet’s cruiser forces and tasked with leading ‘Watchtower’, was against making the attempt on Guadalcanal, but it seems likely that Nimitz would have replaced Fletcher had he been this pessimistic. Nimitz informed Fletcher that he was still to be governed, as in the Battle of Midway, by the principle of calculated risk, which meant that he was not to expose his carriers to undue risk unless there was an opportunity to inflict greater damage on the Japanese. Fletcher therefore believed that his task was to dash in toward Tulagi and Guadalcanal, land the marines, and withdrew speedily with his carriers still intact, leaving the marines to get the airfield operational and thus be in a position to provide their own air cover. While he desired to achieve surprise, he himself was even more concerned that he not be caught by surprise, as the Combined Fleet had been in the Battle of Midway.
A final conference between the commanders on the fleet carrier Saratoga on 27 July lasted nearly four hours, and the accounts of the conference differ. The only contemporary record is represented by the notes taken by Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, the South Pacific Area’s chief-of-staff, who represented Ghormley. According to Vandegrift’s later account, Fletcher was nervous and tired, lacked knowledge or interest in the operation, and thought it would fail, but this is contradicted by Callaghan’s notes, which show that Fletcher asked many searching questions about the plan. Turner claimed as early as 1945 that Fletcher spoke against the plan and accused Turner of planning it poorly. Captain Thomas Peyton, Turner’s chief-of-staff, described the conference as an extended argument in which the two admirals talked to each other in a manner he had never heard before. Kinkaid later claimed that the meeting was forthright rather than angry, and that Turner asked for many things, most of which he did not receive as they were not in the realm of the possible. Fletcher himself subsequently claimed that at no time was there any friction between himself and Turner, but rather a frank exchange of opinions.
The major point of argument was the length of time which the carriers should remain in the area. Turner and Vandegrift wished Fletcher to provide air cover for as long as possible, but Fletcher was concerned about the danger inherent in operating his carriers close to Guadalcanal for an extended period, and he also expressed some doubt that the logistical support was adequate. A summary of Turner’s plan of 5 July called for carrierborne air cover up to D+2, and Fletcher later recalled that he expected to remain off Guadalcanal for three days, or four if the landings were checked for any reason: if the landings had taken place as planned, three days would in fact have been sufficient. Turner intended to have the transports unloaded and out of the area by the end of D+1, with five cargo ships remaining an additional day. There was considerable misunderstanding whether Fletcher intended to remain for two days or three days, reflected by the contradiction between Callaghan’s notes stating there would be two days of coverage and a later message from Ghormley indicating that he understood Fletcher to have declared he would remain for three days.
The Japanese main base in the south-west Pacific was the complex based on Rabaul in New Britain and Kavieng on New Ireland as the bastion of the Japanese land, sea and air forces responsible for the creation and defence of the south-eastern segment of the Japanese outer defence perimeter in the South-West Pacific: these forces were eventually formalised as General Hitoshi Imamura’s 8th Area Army created on 9 November 1942, Lieutenant General Kumaichi Teramoto’s 4th Air Army created on 28 July 1943, and Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue’s 4th Fleet, South Seas Force, the last as successor to Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s 8th Fleet, South Seas Force.
MacArthur had proposed an immediate assault on this major base area, but Nimitz had suggested a more cautious approach along the coast of New Guinea and up the Solomon islands chain. It was Nimitz’s concept which had been accepted, and the final plan called for an advance on the base area in three distinct phases: the first was the capture of Tulagi, the second a simultaneous advance to the north-west along the New Guinea coast and up the Solomon islands chain, and the third a final assault on the base area. Of these tasks, the last two would be controlled by MacArthur, but the first was allocated to Ghormley’s South Pacific Area command, whose boundary was shifted 1° west so that Tulagi would fall into its area. ‘Watchtower’ was the operation designed to achieve the first task, and the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff issued the appropriate directive on 2 July for implementation on 1 August. Later in the same month, Guadalcanal was added to the list of objectives when it became known that the Japanese were building an airfield on this island, a fact which suggested that the Japanese were considering offensive actions rather than just reconnaissance operations in the area, in the form either of attacks on Allied convoys bringing men and matériel into the South Pacific and South-West Pacific Areas, or further expansion down the Solomon islands chain.
The nearest available forces were those of the US Marine Corps being built up on Espíritu Santo, an island some 550 miles (885 km) away to the south-east, for the eventual Allied counter-offensive toward New Britain and New Ireland. With the approval of King, the US Joint Chiefs-of-Staff decided to use Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division (reinforced to a strength of 19,000 men and using the 2nd Marines of Major General John Marston’s 2nd Marine Division instead of its own 7th Marines which, as noted above, had been detached for the defence of Samoa) for a counterstroke on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, garrisoned respectively by 1,500 and 2,200 men, most of them construction troops.
‘Watchtower’ was created in just one month on the basis of Turner’s Amphibious Force South Pacific, otherwise Task Force 62. This comprised Turner’s own Task Group 62.1 (19 troop and supply transports and four fast transports in six sections), the British Rear Admiral V. A. C. Crutchley’s TG62.2 (Australian heavy cruisers Australia and Canberra, Australian light cruiser Hobart, US heavy cruiser Chicago and US destroyers Selfridge, Patterson, Ralph Talbot, Mugford and Jarvis of Destroyer Squadron 4, and Blue, Helm, Henley and Bagley of Destroyer Division 7), two Fire Support Groups (Captain Frederick L. Riefkohl’s TG62.3 Fire Support Group L with the US heavy cruisers Astoria, Quincy and Vincennes, and US destroyers Dewey, Ellet, Hull and Wilson, and Rear Admiral Norman Scott’s TG62.4 Fire Support Group M with the US light anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan and US destroyers Buchanan and Monssen), and the Minesweeper Group (TG62.5 with the fast minesweepers Hopkins, Trever, Zane, Southard and Hovey).
The TG62.1 Convoy, carrying 959 officers and 18,148 other ranks of the 1st Marine Division, comprised Transport Group X-Ray (for Guadalcanal) with the 1st Marine Division less the 3/2nd Marines and 2/5th Marines, and Transport Group Yoke (for Tulagi) with 3,900 marines, under the command of Brigadier General William H. Rupertus, of the 1/2nd Marines, 2/5th Marines, 1st Marine Raider Battalion and 1st Marine Parachute Battalion.
Transport Group X-Ray had four elements in the form of Transport Division A with the 5th Marines less one battalion carried in the transports Fuller and American Legion and the cargo ship Bellatrix; Transport Division B with the headquarters of the 1st Marine Division and the 1st Marines carried in the transports McCawley, Barnett and George F. Elliot and the cargo ship Libra; Transport Division C with the Special Weapons Battalion, 5/11th Marine Artillery, parts of the 3rd Marine Defense Battalion and support elements carried in the transport Hunter Liggett and the cargo ships Alchiba, Fomalhaut and Betelgeuse; and Transport Division D with the 2nd Marines less one battalion carried in the transports Crescent City, President Hayes and President Adams and the cargo ship Alhena.
Transport Group Yoke had two elements in the form of Transport Division E with the 2/5th Marines, 2/2nd Marines, Battery E of the 11th Marines, elements of the 3rd Marine Defense Battalion, 1st Marine Parachute Battalion and elements of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion carried in the transports Neville, Zeilin, Heywood and President Jackson; and Transport Division 12 with the 1st Marine Raider Battalion less one company carried in the destroyers conversions Colhoun, Little, McKean and Gregory.
Cover for TF62 was provided by Rear Admiral Leigh H. Noyes’s Air Support Force, otherwise TF61.1 with Fletcher’s own Unit 1 (fleet carrier Saratoga carrying 34 Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighters, 37 Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers and 16 Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bombers, screened by Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright’s heavy cruisers Minneapolis and New Orleans, and destroyers Phelps, Farragut, Worden, MacDonough and Dale); Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s Unit 2 (fleet carrier Enterprise carrying 36 F4F-4, 36 SBD-3 and 15 TBF-1 warplanes, and battleship North Carolina, screened by Rear Admiral Mahlon S. Tisdale’s heavy cruiser Portland, light anti-aircraft cruiser Atlanta, and destroyers Balch, Maury, Gwin, Benham and Grayson); and Noyes’s own Unit 3 (TF18 with the fleet carrier Wasp carrying 29 F4F-4, 30 SBD-3 and 10 TBF-1 warplanes, screened by the heavy cruisers San Francisco and Salt Lake City, and destroyers Lang, Sterett, Aaron Ward, Stack, Laffey and Farenholt).
The supporting Tanker Force (Fueling Group) comprised the fleet oilers Platte, Cimarron, Kaskaskia, Sabine and Kanawha.
For preparatory air action and support, the shore-based aircraft of Rear Admiral John S. McCain’s TF63 (South Pacific Air Forces) were assembled together with about 20 Boeing B-17 heavy bombers of Lieutenant Colonel Richard N. Carmichael’s 19th Bombardment Group, altogether totalling 16 B-17, 16 F4F and six scouting aircraft, on the island of Efate; 22 Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina, nine B-17, 10 Martin B-26 Marauder, 38 Bell P-39 Airacobra, 16 F4F-3, six Lockheed A-28 Hudson, 17 SBD and three scouting aircraft on the island of New Caledonia; six PBY, three Short Singapore, 12 A-28, 12 F4F, 12 B-26, B-17 and nine Vickers Vincent aircraft on the Fiji islands group; 24 F4F and six scouting aircraft on the island of Tongatapu; and 17 SBD, 18 F4F and 10 scouting aircraft on the island of Samoa.
To cover the seaward approaches to the operational area, the submarines of Captain Ralph W. Christie’s TF42 (S-38, S-39, S-41, S-43, S-44 and S-46) were deployed from Brisbane to patrol locations off Kavieng and Rabaul on the islands of New Ireland and New Britain, and the submarines Drum and Greenling of the Pacific Fleet to a location off Truk atoll, the main Japanese base in the Caroline islands group.
Overall command of the operation was vested in Ghormley at Nouméa, and operational command in Fletcher.
The Allied forces gathered off the Fijian island of Koro and, and refuelled at a location to the south of the Fiji islands group on 1 August. The logistical aspects of the ‘Watchtower’ were already starting to fall apart: Ghormley had failed to dispatch Kaskaskia to Turner’s force, and Turner was therefore unable to refuel his destroyers. Two chartered tankers, E. J. Henry and Esso Little Rock, arrived late to rendezvous with Fletcher’s tankers. Fletcher refuelled from Cimarron in an area to the south of Efate on 3 August, but the oiler was carrying much less than a full load and Fletcher was unable to refuel his ships fully. Kinkaid estimated that his destroyers had fuel sufficient for three days at 15 kt and two days at 25 kt, which turned out to be a somewhat pessimistic estimate, but this was what he reported to Fletcher, and Fletcher therefore remained concerned about his fuel supply throughout the rest of the operation.
On 4 August the force passed to the north of New Caledonia island and came within the estimated range of Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, but in the event the landing force remained completely undetected until the morning of the assaults, in part as a result of the cover provided by a weather front. At one point a Japanese search aeroplane passed within 10 miles (16 km) of the force, but visibility was at the time less than 1 mile (1.6 km) because of the poor weather and the force was not detected. Fletcher took the calculated risk of flying no searches on 6 August, the day before the landings, in order to maintain the element of surprise. Fletcher had also opted not to start any bombardment by carrierborne warplanes until the day of the landings in order to give the Japanese as little time as possible to react.
By dawn on 7 August Fletcher had positioned his carriers in the Coral Sea to the south-west of Guadalcanal, where they could conduct flight operations into the south-east trade winds while staying within range of Guadalcanal. In tactical command, Noyes began to implement a complex scheme of flight operations which attempted simultaneously to provide fighter cover for both the carriers and the landings, to provide ground support for the Marines, and to be be ready to fall upon any Japanese carriers which might appear.
On 7 August the marines landed under cover of a powerful air and ship bombardment, the latter undertaken by the cruisers and destroyers of Crutchley’s Australian squadron. Tulagi and the neighbouring islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo were assaulted separately in ‘Ringbolt’ by a comparatively small force, while the main weight of the 1st Marine Division landed in ‘Watchtower’ on both sides of the Tenaru river estuary at Lunga Point on Guadalcanal, just to the west of the site selected by the Japanese for the airfield they had started to build: the US intelligence estimate greatly exaggerated the Japanese strength on Guadalcanal, believing that the Japanese had 5,275 men, including one reinforced regiment, rather than the 2,600 construction troops actually working on the airfield. For this reason Vandegrift had decided to make the US landing farther to the east than had originally been planned in the hope of outflanking the Japanese defenders. As a result, the ‘Watchtower’ landing met almost no opposition at all. However, insufficient thought had been given to the movement of supplies off the assault beach, and their accumulation in this potentially exposed position greatly delayed the unloading from the ships lying close offshore.
Tulagi was the Japanese headquarters for the area, and it took the marines three days of bitter fighting before they had secured this island and its two small neighbours.
The marines initially committed on Guadalcanal were the 3,298 men of Colonel LeRoy P. Hunt’s Combat Group A (1 and 3/5th Marines, 2/11th Marine Artillery and supporting elements) and the 4,531 men of Colonel Clifton B. Cates’s Combat Group B (1, 2 and 3/1st Marines, 3/11th Marine Artillery and supporting elements), with reinforcement available from the 3,537 men of Colonel Pedro A. de Valle’s Support Group (11th Marine Artillery and support elements). Starting at 09.10, the landing on Guadalcanal was unopposed, and came ashore at a point to the east of Lunga Point in the centre of the island’s northern coast. Beach Red was 1,600 yards wide (1465 m) and lay about 6,000 yards (5485 m) to the east of the Japanese airfield. The initial landing was undertaken by Combat Group A, with the 1 and 3/5th Marines landing on the western and eastern halves of the beach respectively. Combat Group B began to come ashore at 11.00 in a regimental column ordered as 2, 3 and 1/1st Marines, and the divisional headquarters followed at 14.00. The Japanese had fled west without resistance. Because of congestion on the beach and insufficient shore parties to unload, the beach was extended 2,000 yards (1830 m) to the west on 8 August.
Once they had landed and chased off the small force of Japanese combat and construction troops building the airfield on the eastern side of the Lunga river’s lower course to the sea, the marines initially established a defensive perimeter around the airfield, moving the supplies which had been landed into dumps dispersed inside this perimeter, and finishing the airfield. Rather than establish a continuous perimeter, the marines initially created scattered battalion defensive positions, with the 1st Marines realising that Mt Austen was too far distant to include in the perimeter which had originally been planned, and some 10,000 troops were now ashore. By this time the whole of the 2nd Marines had been committed to Tulagi, for the Guadalcanal operation had gone more smoothly as the island had been garrisoned by only 150 combat troops who, with the larger number of construction troops, had fled into the island’s interior and, more generally, to the west.
The airfield was captured on 8 August, against only light opposition largely by the few men of the 81st Guard Force, along with considerable supplies of rice and tinned food, a very significant seizure which increased the food available for 11,000 men to a 14-day supply at the rate of two meals per day. Completion of the airfield began at once using Japanese construction equipment abandoned as the Japanese decamped to the south. The airfield was named Henderson Field, after Major Lofton Henderson, a US Marine aviator lost in the Battle of Midway, and was destined to become the focal point of this decisive campaign of the Pacific War.
By 06.30 the Tulagi garrison had reported the US invasion by radio to Rabaul. Here Rear Admiral Sadayoshi Yamada, commander of the 25th Air Flotilla, was about to launch an attack against Milne Bay on the south-eastern tip of Papua with a force of Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ warplanes armed with bombs. Yamada now sent three of the bombers to search the area around Guadalcanal. Unknown to Yamada, a Japanese coast watcher had reported the US carriers but could not establish radio contact. At 09.30 Yamada launched an attack by 27 G4M bombers, still armed with bombs, escorted by 18 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen ‘Zero’ fighters. Yamada then launched a second wave of nine Aichi D3A ‘Val’ dive-bombers each carrying two 132-lb (60-kg) bombs. This was a desperate move: the dive-bombers lacked the range to make their attack and return, and were therefore ordered to ditch close to the Japanese-held Shortland islands group on their return flights. However, the arrival of these comparatively short-ranged warplanes in thew skies above Guadalcanal cause great consternation among the Americans, who assumed their presence indicated that a Japanese carrier was in the area.
The Americans had warning of the attack from Allied coast watchers, while the Japanese search aircraft just failed to sight Fletcher’s carriers. The G4M bombers therefore targeted the US transport shipping off Lunga Point. These were protected by 18 F4F carrierborne fighters, which intercepted the G4M bombers at 13.15, and a vicious air battle began. No fewer than nine of the F4F fighters were shot down, along with an SBD on a ground-attack mission, while the Japanese lost six G4M and two A6M warplanes. However, the Japanese scored no hits on Crutchley’s warship screen. The D3A dive-bombers arrived at 14.55 and scored one hit on the destroyer Mugford, which suffered only minimal damage, but lost five of their own number shot down. As noted above, the presence of dive-bombers at this remove from Rabaul, and then their retirement directly to the west rather than the north-west, served to persuade Kinkaid that there might be a Japanese carrier to the west, though an air search at revealed nothing.
On the morning of the following day, Yamada launched an attack by 26 G4M bombers armed with torpedoes rather than bombs, and escorted by 15 A6M fighters. Yamada also ordered a search of the area to the north-east and east of Tulagi by three bombers and two flying boats, but a flying boat again missed the US carriers by the narrowest of margins and the attack was therefore delivered against the US transport force. The bombers were sighted by coast watchers, but took a roundabout course to the north of Florida island and west to their targets, and as a result there was considerable confusion about their estimated time of arrival. As a result, they were already descending to make their torpedo runs as they were sighted. The attack was decimated, however, by the US anti-aircraft fire, 19 of the Japanese aircraft being shot down: one of these crashed onto the 8,378-ton transport George F. Elliot, which had to be abandoned after the resulting fire got out of control, but another managed to put a torpedo into the destroyer Jarvis, and a crashing bomber damaged the transport Burnett.
Prompted by the apparent vulnerability of his ships to the Japanese air attacks, and further concerned by the possibility of Japanese submarine attacks, during the evening of 8 August, and thus some 12 hours earlier than had been envisaged, Fletcher decided to pull back his carrier force and Turner’s amphibious ships, the latter still loaded with most of the marines’ heavier equipment as well as almost all of the marines’ divisional artillery in the form of 32 75-mm (2.95-in) ‘pack’ howitzers and 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers. Moreover, rations for only five days had been landed.
Turner criticised this decision as cowardly, though Fletcher’s decision to withdraw was approved by Ghormley and was also fully in accord with Nimitz’s instructions to be governed by the principle of calculated risk.
Unbiased analysis suggests that Fletcher’s decision, given the information available to the US commander at the time, was considerably more prudent than his critics were prepared to concede. Turner had informed Fletcher that the transports would be unloaded and away from Guadalcanal by the end of the second day, leaving five cargo ships to finish unloading. Communications between Fletcher and Turner were very bad, and as a result the only progress report that Fletcher received from Turner indicated that things were going smoothly, though in fact they were not, and unloading was in fact taking far longer than had been anticipated. Fletcher was also concerned about his fuel supply, based on Kinkaid’s erroneous estimates.
Perhaps the most crucial element of Fletcher’s decision was his fully correct expectation that the Japanese would react very strongly to the Guadalcanal landings. Fletcher had already lost one-fifth of his fighter strength, more than at either the Battle of the Coral Sea or the Battle of Midway, and at this stage there were no replacements closer than Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands group. Fletcher felt that it was essential to conserve his force for the carrier battle he was certain would shortly take place. He was under the impression that the marines had all been landed and most of the transport force was already clearing the area. There was no question of his loitering in the area for the entire length of time required to get Henderson Field in operation, and he had been told by Nimitz that the marines were prepared to dig in and absorb air attacks. Remaining an extra day with his precious carriers to protect five cargo ships as they unloaded supplies did not seem prudent when he had a carrier battle for which to prepare.
During this time the main strength of Mikawa’s 8th Fleet had departed Rabaul with the heavy cruisers Chokai (flagship), Aoba, Kinugasa, Furutaka and Kako of Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto’s Cruiser Division 6, the light cruisers Tenryu and Yubari of Rear Admiral Kuninori Marumo’s Cruiser Division 18, and Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka’s Destroyer Squadron 6, which also provided the destroyer Yunagi). The Japanese force was sighted and reported by the submarine S-38.
The 1st Marine Division had succeeded in its primary objectives in ‘Watchtower’, but was now left to face the Japanese counterstroke with no major external support, at least in the short term. Destroyers brought in additional supplies and men, and engineers hastily completed the airstrip so that the first fighters and attack aircraft of Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger’s 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, the so-called ‘Cactus Air Force’, could be flown into Guadalcanal on 20 August, just one day before the reinforced Japanese ground forces began to probe into the US perimeter around the beach-head.
Immediately after the US landing, the Japanese had launched ‘Ka’ (ii) as a rapid response in the form of reinforcements from Rabaul to destroy the US forces and take back the airstrip. Mikawa initially loaded 519 naval troops on two transports and sent them toward Guadalcanal on 7 August but then, learning that the number of US marines landed on Guadalcanal was greater than previously reported, recalled the transports. Mikawa was meanwhile hastily gathering a force of six more transport ships to deliver troops from Rabaul to reinforce the garrison of Guadalcanal and sent an urgent message to his scattered cruiser force to reassemble. The transport force was recalled, however, when its leading ship, the 5,628-ton Meiyo Maru, was torpedoed and sunk at 24.00 on 8 August by S-38. Even so, the reassembled cruiser force had steamed out of Rabaul at a time late on 7 August for Guadalcanal, where it would inflict on the US Navy the worst defeat in its history in the Battle of Savo Island, which was just the first of the many naval battles fought in parallel with the land operations.
Already available at Rabaul had been the heavy cruiser Chokai, light cruisers Tenryu and Yubari, and destroyer Yunagi, while the heavy cruisers Aoba, Furutaka, Kako and Kinugasa had steamed from Kavieng on New Ireland. These two elements met near Cape St George, the southernmost tip of New Ireland, during the evening of 7 August and shaped course to pass to the north of Buka island and then down the east coast of Bougainville island. Before the war the Japanese navy had trained extensively in night fighting tactics, a fact of which the Allies were unaware, and Mikawa hoped to engage the Allied naval force in a night battle off of Guadalcanal and Tulagi on the night of 8/9 August and gain the advantage by exploiting his nocturnal battle expertise while avoiding air attacks from Allied aircraft, which could not operate effectively at night.
Defending the US beach-head was a force of six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eight destroyers, but the Allies’ numerical superiority was more than offset by Japanese force’s superior night fighting tactics and training, and its possession of the 24-in (610-mm) Type 93 ‘Long Lance’ heavyweight anti-ship torpedo, which was faster and longer-ranged than its Allied counterparts, and carried a larger warhead. Furthermore, the Allied force was caught by surprise, was scattered, and was effectively out of command when the Japanese force arrived.
The way in which the Allies were taken by operational and tactical surprise reveals the poor command arrangements and lack of experience of the Allied forces in the South Pacific and South-West Pacific Areas. Mikawa’s force was sighted almost as soon as it left port, by S-38, which was unable to attain attack position but radioed a contact report. To reduce his ships’ vulnerability to daytime air attacks during their approach to Guadalcanal, Mikawa halted his force to the east of Kieta on Bougainville the morning of 8 August, spread his ships as widely as possible in an effort to mask the force’s overall composition should any part of it be discovered by Allied air reconnaissance, and launched four floatplanes from his cruisers to determine the location and strength of the Allied naval forces in the south-eastern part of the Solomon islands group. At 10.20 and 11.10 Mikawa’s force was discovered by Lockheed Hudson maritime reconnaissance aircraft the Royal Australian Air Force operating from Milne Bay in Papua. The first Hudson to sight the Japanese warships identified them as three cruisers, three destroyers and two seaplane tenders. The aeroplane’s crew tried to make a sighting report to the Allied radio station at Fall River in New Guinea but, receiving no acknowledgement, immediately abandoned the patrol and returned to Milne Bay at 12.42 to ensure that the report was distributed to the Allied forces as immediately as possible. The second Hudson completed its patrol after also failing to report its sighting by radio. Upon landing at Milne Bay at 15.00, the crew of this Hudson reported it had seen two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and one ship of unknown type. For unknown reasons, the reports from the two aircraft were not distributed to the Allied ships off Guadalcanal until 18.45 and 21.30 respectively on 8 August. Mikawa’s own floatplanes had meanwhile completed a thorough reconnaissance of the Allied forces off Tulagi.
Turner, the amphibious force commander, was expecting a Japanese reaction but possessed no intelligence about the form it might take. The Hudsons which had sighted Mikawa’s force were allocated to MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area headquarters, but Turner was under Ghormley’s South Pacific Area headquarters. Turner’s own Catalina patrol flying boats, operating from Ndeni island, were covering the sea lanes to and from Truk atoll, well to the north, and the B-17 bombers from Espíritu Santo assigned to cover ‘The Slot’ were operating at their extreme range and just missed sighting Mikawa’s force. As a result, Turner did not receive the crucial Hudson sighting report until 18.45 on 8 August, and then the Hudson’s misidentification of the composition of the Japanese force persuaded Turner that the Japanese force was planning to set up a seaplane base at Rekata Bay on the north coast of Santa Isabel Island in the Solomon islands group, and therefore instituted no special precautions against a night surface attack.
News of Mikawa’s force reached Fletcher at the same time that it reached Turner. Fletcher briefly considered launching an attack with the torpedo bombers of the VT-8 squadron, but was dissuaded from doing so by Saratoga’s captain, who pointed out the hazards of attempting a night attack with crews lacking the necessary training. Fletcher no more expected the Japanese to press on that did Turner, and he was confident in any case that the Allied cruisers could take care of themselves in any surface action. Later that evening, Fletcher asked Ghormley for authorisation to withdraw his carrier task force, which was short of fuel and had suffered from considerable attrition to its fighter squadrons.
In the meantime, Mikawa’s floatplanes had returned by 12.00 with the information that the Allied naval disposition consisted of two groups of ships, one off Guadalcanal and the other off Tulagi. Mikawa now reassembled his warship force and began its run toward Guadalcanal, entering ‘The Slot’ between the two lines of islands (Choiseul, Santa Isabel and Malaita to the north, and Vella Lavella, Kolombangara, New Georgia and Guadalcanal to the south and constituting the main length of the Solomon islands group) near Choiseul by 16.00 on 8 August. Mikawa’s run down ‘The Slot’ went unobserved by Allied forces.
Turner had requested McCain to have his aircraft fly more reconnaissance sorties over ‘The Slot’ during the afternoon of 8 August, but McCain neither ordered the missions nor informed Turner of the fact. Turner therefore continued to believe that ‘The Slot’ was under air surveillance throughout 8 August. To protect the transports unloading troops, equipment and supplies transports during the night of 8/9 August, Crutchley divided the Allied warships into three groups. The Southern Group (heavy cruisers Australia, Canberra and Chicago, and destroyers Patterson and Bagley) patrolled between Lunga Point and Savo island to block the entrance between Savo island and Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal. The all-US Northern Group (the heavy cruisers Astoria, Quincy and Vincennes, and destroyers Helm and Wilson) undertook a box patrol between the Tulagi anchorage and Savo island to defend the passage between Savo and Florida islands. Under the command of Scott, the Eastern Group (the Australian light cruiser Hobart, the US light anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan, and the US destroyers Monssen and Buchanan) guarded the eastern entrances to the sound between Florida and Guadalcanal islands, but received neither information or orders, and therefore did not become involved in the Battle of Savo Island.
Crutchley placed two US fleet destroyers equipped with SC surface-search radar to the west of Savo island to provide early warning of any approaching Japanese ships: Ralph Talbot and Blue patrolled the northern and southern passages respectively, with a gap of between 8 and 20 miles (13 and 32 km) between their unco-ordinated patrol patterns. At this time, the Allies were not fully aware of all of the limitations of their early-generation shipborne radars, such as the fact that their capability could be significantly degraded by nearby land masses to the extent that cruiser-size targets could seldom be detected at ranges beyond 10 miles (16 km). As it was, the two radar-equipped destroyers were at almost opposite ends of their patrol lines when the Japanese arrived, and the Japanese slipped neatly through the gap. The Japanese look-outs in fact spotted one of the destroyers, which failed to detect the Japanese on radar. Moreover, reports of strange aircraft overhead (in fact the Japanese cruisers’ scout floatplanes) were discounted as friendly aircraft.
Concerned with the threat to the transport vessels from Japanese submarines, Crutchley used his remaining seven destroyers as close protection around the two transport vessel anchorages in the bay to the east of Lunga Point on Guadalcanal and off Tulagi island just to the south of Florida island. The crews of the Allied ships were tired after two days of constant alert and action in support of the landings, so most of the Allied ships lowered their readiness condition during the night of 8/9 August, with half of their crews on duty and the other half resting.
During the evening of 8 August, Turner called a conference, to be held on board his command ship off Guadalcanal, with Crutchley and Vandegrift in order to discuss the withdrawal of Fletcher’s carrier task force and the schedule by which the transport vessels should be pulled out of the area. At 20.55 Crutchley left the Southern Group in Australia to attend the conference, leaving Captain Howard D. Bode, Chicago’s captain, in temporary command. Awakened in his cabin to receive the news, Bode decided not to move his ship to the head of the Southern Group, the customary place for the senior ship, and went back to sleep. At the conference Turner, Crutchley and Vandegrift discussed the Hudson sighting report of the ‘seaplane tender’ force and decided it would pose no threat during that night, since seaplane tenders were not ships which would normally seek a surface action. Vandegrift said that he needed to inspect the unloading situation at Tulagi before recommending a time for the transports’ withdrawal, and departed at 24.00 on his inspection. Crutchley decided not to return with Australia to the Southern Group, but instead stationed his ship just outside the Guadalcanal transport anchorage, without informing the captains of the other Allied warships of his intentions.
As Mikawa’s force approached from the north-west, the Japanese ships had launched three floatplanes to provide a final scouting report of the Allied ships and to provide illumination by dropping flares during the planned action. Although several of the Allied ships either heard or observed one or more of these floatplanes, beginning at 23.45, none of them interpreted the presence of unknown aircraft in the area as an immediate threat and thus did not report the sightings to Crutchley or Turner.
Mikawa’s force was steaming in a single column led by Chokai, followed by Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa, Furutaka, Tenryu, Yubari and Yunagi. At some time between 00.44 and 00.54 on 9 August, the look-outs in Mikawa’s ships spotted Blue about 5.5 miles (8.85 km) ahead of the Japanese column, and in order to avoid this destroyer Mikawa ordered a course change for his column to pass to the north of Savo island. He also ordered his ships to reduce speed to 22 kt to reduce the wakes that might otherwise have rendered his ships more visible. Four minutes later, Mikawa’s look-outs spotted either Ralph Talbot, about 10 miles (16 km) distant, or a small trading vessel.
The Japanese ships held their course while at the same time training more than 50 of their guns on Blue in anticipation of opening fire at the first indication that the approaching destroyer had sighted them. When she was less than 1 mile (1.6 km) away from Mikawa’s force, Blue suddenly reversed course, having reached the end of her patrol track, and steamed away, apparently oblivious of the long column of Japanese warships. Mikawa now ordered his ships to return to a course to the south of Savo island and to increase speed, first to 26 kt and then to 30 kt. At 01.25 Mikawa released his ships to operate independently, and at 01.31 ordered every ship to attack.
At about this time, and just to the south of Savo island, Yunagi left the Japanese column and reversed course, perhaps as a result of losing sight of the Japanese ships ahead of her or perhaps in response to orders to keep watch over the Japanese force’s rear. One minute later, Japanese look-outs sighted a warship to port. This was the destroyer Jarvis, departing the Guadalcanal area independently for Australia for repair after suffering heavy damage earlier in the day. Whether or not Jarvis sighted the Japanese ships is unknown, for her radio equipment had been destroyed. Furutaka launched torpedoes, but all of these missed. The Japanese ships passed as close as 1,100 yards (1000 m) to Jarvis, near enough for the officers on Tenryu’s bridge to look down onto the destroyer’s deck. If Jarvis was aware of the Japanese ships, she did not respond in any noticeable way.
Two minutes after sighting Jarvis, the Japanese look-outs sighted the Southern Group’s cruisers and destroyers about 12,500 yards (11430 m) distant, silhouetted by the glow from a burning Allied transport. Several minutes later, at about 01.38, the Japanese cruisers began launching torpedo salvoes at the ships of the Southern Group. At the same time, Chokai’s look-outs spotted the Northern Group’s vessels at a range of 18,000 yards (16460 m), and the ship turned to port to meet this new threat, the rest of the Japanese column following, while still preparing for a gunfire engagement with the Southern Group’s ships. Patterson was alert and ready, for her captain had taken seriously the earlier daytime sightings of Japanese warships and evening reports of unknown aircraft, and had his crew ready for action. At 01.43, therefore, Patterson spotted a ship, probably Kinugasa, 5,000 yards (4570 m) ahead, and immediately sent a warning by both radio and signal lamp. Patterson’s captain ordered an increase to full speed, star shells to be fired in the direction of the Japanese column, and torpedoes to be launched, but his order was not heard over the noise of the destroyer’s guns.
At about the same moment, Japanese floatplanes dropped parachute flares directly over Canberra and Chicago. The former was able to respond immediately, her captain ordering an increase in speed, a turn to starboard to keep the ship between the Japanese ships and the Allied transports anchored at Guadalcanal, and her guns to start firing at any targets which could be sighted. Less than one minute later, as Canberra’s 8-in (203-mm) guns began to bear on the Japanese ships, Chokai and Furutaka opened fire on the Australian heavy cruiser, scoring numerous hits within a few seconds. Aoba and Kako joined with more gunfire, and within the next three minutes Canberra was hit by as many as 24 8-in (203-mm) shells. Early hits killed her gunnery officer, mortally wounded her captain, and destroyed both her boiler rooms, this last depriving the entire ship of power before she could fire any of her guns or communicate a warning to other Allied ships. The cruiser came slowly to a halt, on fire, listing to starboard, and unable to fight her fires or pump flooded compartments for lack of power. Since all of the Japanese ships were on the ship’s port side, Canberra’s starboard-side damage was the result either of shells entering low on the port side and exiting below the waterline on the starboard side, or from one or two torpedo hits on the starboard side. If torpedoes did hit Canberra on the starboard side, then they may have come from a nearby Allied ship, and at this time the destroyer Bagley was the only ship on that side of the Australian heavy cruiser and had fired torpedoes moments earlier.
Chicago’s crew, observing the illumination of their ship by air-dropped flares and the sudden turn by Canberra ahead of them, came alert and woke Bode, who ordered his 5-in (127-mm) guns to fire star shells in the direction of the Japanese column. These shells did not function and, soon after this, Chicago’s look-outs sighted incoming torpedoes which the cruiser attempted to evade. But at 01.47 one of the torpedoes, probably from Kako, hit Chicago’s bow, sending through the ship a shock wave which damaged the main battery director. A second torpedo hit but failed to explode, and a shell hit her main mast. Chicago continued to steam to the west, leaving behind the transports it was her task to protect. The cruiser fired her secondary batteries at the trailing ships in the Japanese column, probably scoring on Tenryu a hit which caused modest damage. Bode did not try to assert control over any of the other Allied ships in the Southern Group, of which he was still technically in command. More significantly, Bode made no attempt to communicate a warning to any of the other Allied ships or personnel in the Guadalcanal area as his ship continued to head away from the battle area.
During this time, Patterson engaged in a gun duel with the Japanese column, the US destroyer receiving a shell hit aft, causing moderate damage, but continued to pursue and fire at the Japanese ships, and may have hit Kinugasa, causing moderate damage. Patterson then lost sight of the Japanese column as she headed to the north-east along the eastern shore of Savo island.
Bagley, whose crew sighted the Japanese shortly after Patterson and Canberra had done so, circled completely around to port before firing torpedoes in the general direction of the rapidly disappearing Japanese column, and one or two of her torpedoes may have hit Canberra. Bagley played no further part in the battle.
Yunagi exchanged fire with Jarvis before steaming to the west out of the battle area with the intention of rejoining the Japanese column to the north and west of Savo island.
At 01.44, as Mikawa’s ships headed toward the Northern Group, Tenryu and Yubari separated from the rest of the Japanese column and taking a more westerly course. Either as a result of a steering problem or to avoid the possibility of a collision with Canberra, Furutaka followed Yubari and Tenryu. Thus the Northern Group was about to be bracketed by fire from each side.
At the time that Mikawa’s ships began their engagement with the Southern Group, the captains of all three of the Northern Group’s cruisers were asleep with their ships at 10 kt. Mikawa now moved to attack the Northern Group which, as a result of sheer incompetence, had received no warning from the Southern Group. After illuminating the Northern Group’s ships with their searchlights, the Japanese opened fire. Astoria managed to fire about 12 salvoes, one of her shells hitting Chokai in the chart room and another a turret, before the US heavy cruiser was shattered by a hail of shells and sank. Quincy was brightly illuminated by Japanese searchlights and got off only two salvoes before shell hits set fire to her floatplane, shattered a turret, and detonated a 5-in (127-mm) gun magazine; then a torpedo hit flooded her machinery spaces, and the ship quickly sank. Vincennes managed to hit Kinugasa once but, yet again, Japanese shells set fire to her floatplanes and the ship became a target for gunfire and torpedoes. Vincennes was hit by at least three torpedoes and many shells before sinking.
Now the Japanese started to become confused and make mistakes. Mikawa had scored a tremendous tactical victory, but seems to have been put off balance by the hits scored on his flagship. His force was scattered, all his torpedoes were expended, and his flagship was now at the rear of the cruiser column. Thus the now-scattered Japanese ships were exiting the Sealark Sound, and Mikawa had to decide if he should turn back to attack the defenceless Allied transports. Given that Aoba had been damaged, that Chokai had received several hits from Quincy and Astoria, blowing off one of her turrets, destroying her chart room near which Mikawa was standing and killing 34 men, and that his formation was now disorganised, Mikawa decided on a return to Rabaul. Mikawa was probably also spurred in his decision by the fact that the break of day was approaching and, believing that the US carriers were still in the area, probably decided to test his luck no further. Mikawa may also have been concerned about the probability of Allied air attacks at dawn, which would have found his ships scattered in the vicinity of Guadalcanal if he had entered the Sealark Channel between Guadalcanal and Florida islands to attack the transports. It is also likely that Mikawa believed his force had achieved its mission, inasmuch as the destruction of their screen would force the Americans to evacuate their forces. Mikawa may have hoped that his rapid withdrawal following such a stinging blow would draw the US carriers after him into range of Japanese land-based aircraft.
As Mikawa withdrew, his force encountered Ralph Talbot as she turned to the west, and although the destroyer managed to get off four torpedoes, she was herself hit and forced to withdraw into a rain squall.
Canberra had been so badly damaged that her surviving crew was taken off before the wreck was sunk by the fire of other Allied ships: her captain and 83 other men had died in the attack. Kako was sunk by the US submarine S-44 near Rabaul on the next day with heavy loss of life.
The Battle of Savo island was one of the most complete and humiliating defeats which the US Navy has ever suffered and, as an immediate result, the Allied warships and transports were withdrawn to the New Hebrides island group. The Japanese had sunk four Allied cruisers and severely damaged a fifth cruiser and also a destroyer. More than 1,000 Allied seamen had been killed and more than 700 others wounded. The Japanese suffered only light damage, though the Americans drew slight consolation from the sinking of Kako while returning to Kavieng.
Although the Allied transports were left untouched, the loss of the cruiser cover forced Turner to pull out the transports (18 ships escorted by six destroyers) after they had unloaded only about half their stores, thereby significantly increasing the impact of the Japanese tactical victory by leaving the invasion force without much of the equipment and supplies it needed. Turner decided to continue unloading until 12.00 on 9 August, but the marines on Guadalcanal were then left with just four units of fire and a 37-day supply of food, and had therefore to live for a time off captured Japanese rice before they received their next supply of essential supplies, as well as ammunition and aviation fuel, on 18 September.
Turner successfully deflected blame for the humiliating defeat toward Fletcher, whom Turner condemned for withdrawing the carriers at a crucial moment. The weight of evidence, however, is that it would have made no difference if Fletcher had remained with his carriers. Fletcher did not actually begin his withdrawal until the early hours of 9 August. Mikawa’s force was still more than 150 miles (240 km) distant as the sun set on 8 August, which put Mikawa beyond dusk search range even if Fletcher had opted for such a search. Communications were still fragmentary and Fletcher did not learn of the Allied cruiser losses off Savo island until 06.45 on 9 August, at which point he would have had little chance of launching even a retaliatory strike against Mikawa’s retreating force. Fletcher’s withdrawal had prompted Turner to summon Crutchley to the midnight conference which left the cruiser screen leaderless, but it is unclear why it was necessary to for Crutchley to be called away from his command in this manner. However, Turner’s skill at offloading the blame, together with his courage in lingering for an additional 12 hours to unload a few more crucial supplies on 9 August and his excellent record later in the war, were sufficient to let him escape serious criticism. Turner was also lucky inasmuch as the 25th Air Flotilla at Rabaul was sent in search of Fletcher’s carriers on this day and left the transport ships alone.
From 15 August until several months later, all supplies for Guadalcanal arrived by small convoys of high-speed transports, mainly during daylight hours, while Allied land-based aircraft from the New Hebrides island group flew frequent covering missions. In manpower terms, the Battle of Savo Island had cost the Japanese 71 men (38 killed and 33 wounded), and the Allies 1,979 men (1,270 killed and 709 wounded). Despite the fact that Mikawa had not accomplished his primary goal, namely the destruction of the Allied transports, the tactical victory which the Japanese had gained in the Battle of Savo island gave them a temporary superiority at sea, and they could therefore start to strengthen their forces on Guadalcanal as they launched their attempts to expel the marines from their lodgement round Lunga Point. The Japanese never fully appreciated either the US strength on the island or the rate at which it was developed, however, and thus resorted to piecemeal reinforcement followed by disjointed rather than cohesive attacks. It must be admitted, though, that this was in part attributable to the way in which reinforcement units reached Rabaul from many parts of the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ at different times for delivery to Guadalcanal as and when an opportunity presented itself. As a result the Japanese were not able to build up their forces to the extent at which they possessed equality, let alone superiority, to the US forces.
The marines now established a perimeter around the airfield, for Vandegrift judged that his strength was inadequate for major offensive action until he had been reinforced, the airfield had been brought into service, and his lines of supply had been secured.
On 10 August, eager to get air support, Vandegrift had announced that the airstrip was ready to receive fighters, and that fuel and ammunition were available; there were as yet, however, no ground crews on the island. On 15 August a group of four destroyer transports made high-speed runs into Ironbottom Sound to bring in 120 sailors from CUB-1, a largely untrained naval engineer unit intended to build up the airfield, plus additional aircraft fuel and munitions for Henderson Field.
On 15 August, a marine sentry spotted a group of 20 local men with rifles, led by a single European, marching toward the perimeter in close order. The European was Martin Clemens, the chief coast watcher on Guadalcanal, who had decided that this showy approach was his best chance to avoid coming under fire in error. Clemens and Vandegrift quickly developed a rapport, and Clemens’s scouts later played a vital role in the battle for the island.
By this time the Japanese had switched responsibility for the conduct of the land campaign on Guadalcanal from the navy to the army, and more specifically to Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake’s 17th Army, which had been established on 2 May at Rabaul to undertake operations on New Guinea. The 17th Army was already heavily committed to the campaign on New Guinea and thus had only a few units available for despatch to Guadalcanal. Of these, Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi’s 35th Brigade was in the Palau islands group, the 4th Regiment in the Philippine islands group, and Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki’s 28th Regiment on passage to Japan from Guam in the Mariana islands group. These units were all now directed toward Guadalcanal but, being closest, Ichiki’s regiment was the first to arrive. Air reconnaissance of the marine positions on 12 August by one of the senior Japanese staff officers from Rabaul sighted few troops in the open and no large ships in the waters round Guadalcanal, and this persuaded the Japanese that the Americans had withdrawn the majority of their troops. Hyakutake ordered an advance unit of Ichiki’s regiment to be landed on Guadalcanal by fast warship and immediately take the offensive against the US position and reoccupy the airfield area at Lunga Point. The rest of Ichiki’s regiment would be delivered to Guadalcanal by slower transport at a later time. At the major Japanese naval base at Truk atoll, which was the staging point for delivery of his regiment, Ichiki was briefed that between 2,000 and 10,000 US troops were holding the Guadalcanal beach-head and that he should avoid frontal attacks.
Hyakutake now decided that there were only 2,000 US troops currently on Guadalcanal, and therefore that a Japanese force of 6,000 men would be sufficient to bring about their complete defeat. This drastic underestimation of the strength of the US force was an intelligence failure which persisted long into the campaign, and was initially derived from a cabled message from the Japanese military attaché in Moscow reporting that only a few thousand panic-stricken US troops were on the island and were attempting only a large raid. The large number of US transport ships involved was explained away as reflecting US softness and desire for shipboard ‘amenities’.
As noted above, Hyakutake was assigned the 4th Regiment, 28th Regiment and 35th Brigade. It would clearly take some time for these units to be shipped to Guadalcanal, however, and Hyakutake decided on the immediate commitment of the reinforced 28th Regiment, known as the ‘Ichiki’ Detachment after its commander.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, was more concerned about the Guadalcanal landings than the army, but also saw in the campaign the opportunity to avenge his defeat in the Battle of Midway. Yamamoto therefore relocated the headquarters of the Combined Fleet to Truk atoll 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 was reorganised on the basis of the surviving carriers of Nagumo’s 1st Air Fleet as well as potent surface units including the battleship Mutsu, and was divided into two divisions each comprising two fleet carriers and one light carrier. The navy also committed the 600 troops of the 5th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force to support the army troops.
Nimitz rejected the idea of redeploying his Pacific Fleet’s old battleships to the South Pacific Area on the grounds that there was inadequate logistical support for them, but did despatch the fleet carrier Hornet on 17 August to replace Wasp, which was ordered to leave part of its air group as replacements for the other carriers. Nimitz also made plans for the new battleships South Dakota and Washington to arrive in the South Pacific Area by the middle of September.
Ichiki’s 28th Regiment had reached Truk from Saipan by 15 August, but Kawaguchi did not arrive until 23 August. The Japanese were anxious to counterattack as rapidly as possible, before the Americans put Henderson Field into service, and on 15 August Mikawa ordered Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, the commander of Destroyer Squadron 2, to take six destroyers of Destroyer Division 4 and Destroyer Division 7 and land Ichiki and 917 of his men on Guadalcanal at once. Tanaka was to depart during the morning of the following day and arrive at Guadalcanal on the night of 18 August. The rest of Ichiki’s force, comprising 1,411 men and the regimental artillery, was to leave Truk atoll on the same day in two old army transport ships incapable of making more than 9 kt, and therefore would not arrive until 22 August. The ships were routed to the east to avoid Allied air reconnaissance aircraft operating from Milne Bay: the Japanese were as yet unaware of the fact that that the Allies had an operational airfield on Espíritu Santo and therefore believed that searches from the south-east originated from Efate.
As noted above, the operation to clear the US forces from the Solomon islands group was ‘Ka’ (ii), and this was to begin on 24 August. On that date, two battalions of Kawaguchi’s brigade were to depart Truk atoll for Tulagi; by 27 August Ichiki was to have recaptured Henderson Field, allowing A6M fighters to fly in; and on the following day Kawaguchi was to arrive to mop up Guadalcanal and retake Tulagi. Port Moresby was to be taken simultaneously in ‘Mo’ (ii).
The first Japanese reinforcements landed to the east of the marine perimeter on 17 August. These reinforcements were 113 men of the 5th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force delivered by the destroyer Oite, which dashed in and out without being spotted. On the same day, Kondo arrived at Truk, and Nagumo’s carrier force arrived about four days later, followed closely by Yamamoto himself in the super-battleship Yamato supported by an escort carrier and three destroyers. All of these Japanese moves were detected by Allied intelligence, but on 15 August the Japanese put into effect a major revision of their codes, and this greatly hindered the Allied codebreakers.
Ichiki and 917 of his regiment’s 2,300 men, designated as the 1st Element and carrying rations for seven days, were delivered to Taivu Point, about 22 miles (35 km) to the east of Lunga Point, by six destroyers at 01.00 on 19 August, and landed without being detected. Ichiki detached about 100 men as his rearguard and immediately advanced to the west with the rest of his men to make camp before dawn at a location about 9 miles (14 km) to the east of the Lunga perimeter.
During the morning which followed, three of the six destroyers involved in the troop delivery remained in the area to shell the US positions on Tulagi island. Fletcher was currently some 450 miles (725 km) to the south-east covering the escort carrier Long Island as she ferried the first aircraft to Henderson Field, but B-17 bombers attacked the Japanese destroyers and damaged Hagikaze.
On 18 August there took place the 1st Battle of the Matanikau River. Descending from the rugged country to the south, this river debouched into the sea in the area to the west of the marine perimeter. Vandegrift had intelligence that the remnants of the island’s original Japanese garrison had gathered there, and despatched three rifle companies of the 5th Marines to trap and destroy this Japanese force. The marines assembled along their start line on the evening of 18 August and Company B began advancing along the coastal trail at 14.00, encountering a number of Japanese snipers and look-outs, and also finding the bodies of several murdered natives, but Japanese attempts to infiltrate the marine positions during the night were unsuccessful. In the morning of the following day, a barrage at 08.50 took the Japanese by surprise, but even so the marines were met by heavy machine gun fire near the river. By 16.00 the marines had fought their way into the village of Matanikau, but the main body of the Japanese had escaped into the jungle and the marines were urgently recalled to the main perimeter because of the threat posed to the marines’ eastern flank by the ‘Ichiki’ Detachment.
The first significant land fighting took place in the Battle of the Ilu River on 19/21 August, when the recently arrived leading element of the ‘Ichiki’ Detachment attacked the marines across the sand bars of the Ilu river, about mid-way between the Tenaru and Ilu rivers after advancing from Taivu Point. This constituted the first of an eventual three Japanese offensives designed to defeat the marines on Guadalcanal, and was decisively defeated by the marines defending the Lunga perimeter shielding Henderson Field. The marines at Lunga Point were already receiving intelligence about the Japanese landing, and further details were forthcoming from patrols of Solomon islanders, including retired Sergeant Major Jacob C. Vouza of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Constabulary, under the direction of Clemens, the local district officer, an officer in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defence Force and a coast watcher. Together with other Allied intelligence, this suggested that Japanese troops were present in the area to the east of Lunga Point.
To investigate further, on 19 August a patrol of 60 marines and four Solomon islander scouts, under the command of Captain Charles H. Brush, moved out to the east from the Lunga perimeter. At the same time, Ichiki sent forward his own patrol of 38 men to scout the marine dispositions and establish a forward communications base. At about 12.00 on 19 August, at Koli Point, Brush’s patrol ambushed the Japanese patrol, killing all but five of its members, who escaped back to Taivu Point. The marines suffered three dead and three wounded. Papers discovered on the bodies of some of the dead Japanese officers revealed that they belonged to a somewhat larger unit and had good intelligence of the marine positions around Lunga Point. What the papers did not reveal, however, was the size of the larger Japanese force and whether or not this planned an attack in the near future.
Now anticipating an attack from the east, the marines prepared their defences on the Ilu river, nicknamed Alligator Creek by the marines and actually a tidal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar about 25 to 50 ft (7 to 15 m) wide and about 100 ft (30 m) long. Along the western side of Alligator Creek, Cates deployed his 1 and 2/1st Marines and, to improve the defence of the sand bar, 100 men of the 1st Special Weapons Battalion with two 37-mm anti-tank guns supplied with canister anti-personnel rounds. The 1st Marine Division’s artillery registered locations on the eastern side and sand bar areas of Alligator Creek, and forward artillery observers emplaced joined the marines’ forward positions. Most of the marines’ defensive preparations had been completed before the fall of night on 20 August.
After learning of his initial patrol’s fate, Ichiki quickly sent forward a company to bury the bodies and followed with the rest of his force, marching throughout the night of 19/20 August and halting at 04.30 on 20 August only a few miles from the marine positions on the eastern side of Lunga Point. A few minutes into 21 August, Ichiki’s main strength reached the eastern bank of Alligator Creek and was surprised to encounter marine positions considerably farther from Henderson Field than had been expected. Marine forward listening posts heard Japanese preparations before pulling back onto the creek’s western bank, and at 01.30 the Japanese opened fire with machine guns and mortars on the marines’ positions on the western bank of the creek, and a first wave of about 100 Japanese soldiers charged across the sandbar. The fire of the marines’ machine guns and the canister rounds of the 37-mm guns killed most of the Japanese as they crossed the sandbar, though a few did manage to reach the marine positions, engage in close combat with the defenders, and capture a few of the marine’s forward positions. Japanese machine gun and rifle fire from the eastern side of the creek also killed several of the marine machine gunners. A company of marines, held in reserve just behind the front line, now attacked and killed most, if not all, of the remaining Japanese who had breached the forward defences, thereby ending Ichiki’s first assault about one hour after it had begun.
At 02.30 a second wave of about 150 to 200 Japanese troops attacked across the sandbar, and was again almost completely destroyed. At least one of the surviving officers advised Ichiki to withdraw what was left of his forces, but Ichiki refused. As the Japanese regrouped east of the creek, their mortars bombarded the positions of the marines, who responded with a 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzer bombardment and mortar fire into the areas to the east of the creek.
At about 05.00 a third wave of Japanese troops attacked, this time attempting to flank the marine positions by wading through the ocean surf and attacking up the beach into the area of the creek’s western bank. Once again, the marines responded with heavy machine gun and artillery fire along the beach area, again causing heavy casualties and making the Japanese abandon their attack and withdraw to the creek’s eastern bank. For the next two hours the Americans and Japanese exchanged rifle, machine gun and artillery fire at close range across the sandbar and creek.
Despite their heavy losses, the Japanese still held the creek’s eastern bank. At dawn on 21 August the marine commanders discussed how they should proceed, and opted for a counterattack. Lieutenant Colonel Lenard B. Cresswell’s 1/1st Marines crossed Alligator Creek well upstream from the battle area, enveloped Ichiki’s troops from the south and east, cutting off all opportunity for the Japanese to retreat, and started to squeeze the Japanese into a small area within a coconut grove on the creek’s eastern bank. Warplanes from Henderson Field strafed any Japanese attempting to escape along the beach and, later in the afternoon, five M3 light tanks attacked across the sandbar into the coconut grove, in the process sweeping the area with machine gun fire and canister rounds as well as rolling over the bodies of any Japanese incapable or unwilling to get out of the way. By 17.00 on 21 August all Japanese organised resistance had ended, and Ichiki was dead, either killed during the battle or as a result of ritual suicide. As curious marines began to walk through the battlefield, some injured Japanese troops shot at them, killing or wounding several marines. After this the marines shot or bayoneted all of the Japanese bodies that they encountered, although about 15 injured and unconscious Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner. Only about 30 Japanese escaped to rejoin the rearguard at Taivu Point.
The marines had lost 35 men killed and 75 wounded, while the Japanese had lost almost 1,000 men killed.
The battle was also of psychological significant to the Americans inasmuch as it revealed that their forces could confront and beat the Japanese in open battle, and to the Japanese inasmuch as it started to erode their belief in their own invincibility and superior spirit. By 25 August most of the Japanese survivors had reached Taivu Point and informed the 17th Army’s headquarters of the disaster. Refusing to believe in the implications of this news, though, the Japanese army proceeded with its plans to deliver additional troops to Guadalcanal for another attempt to recapture Henderson Field. As they sought to reinforce and resupply their ground forces, the US and Japanese navies fought several other battles, each side realising that victory on land was ultimately dependent on victory at sea.
On 20 August three American destroyer transports brought in 120 tons of rations, which were sufficient for only 3.5 days. Meanwhile the 1st Marine Engineer Battalion had completed the airstrip on Henderson Field. Though still primitive, it was ready to receive its first aircraft, which took the form of 19 F4F fighters and 12 SBD dive-bombers of Marine Air Group 23 flown in from Long Island covered, as noted above, by Fletcher’s carriers. Henderson Field was now in business.
On the same day a Japanese flying boat operating from the Shortland islands group sighted Long Island and Fletcher’s fleet carriers some 240 miles (385 km) to the south-east of Tulagi. Leading a reinforcement movement, Tanaka immediately complied with his orders to retire if US carriers were spotted. Yamamoto pondered the situation, and decided correctly that the Americans were merely ferrying aircraft to Guadalcanal 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.
With the focus of operations now switched back to the sea, the next naval battle associated with the intertwined ‘Watchtower’ and ‘Ka’ (ii) campaigns was the Battle of the Eastern Solomons fought on 23/25 August. As part of Tanaka’s Reinforcement Group, the Transport Unit convoy comprising the 9,310-ton Kinryu Maru carrying 500 men of the 5th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force and the patrol boats PB-1, PB-2, PB-34 and PB-35 carrying 700 men of the ‘Ichiki’ Detachment had departed the primary Japanese base of Truk atoll in the Caroline islands group on 16 August bound for Guadalcanal under the protection of Mikawa’s 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Reinforcement Force, whose two elements were Tanaka’s Convoy Escort Force (light cruiser Jintsu and destroyers Kagero, Mutsuki, Yayoi, Isokaze, Kawakaze, Sukukaze, Umikaze and Uzuki), and Mikawa’s own Close Cover Force (heavy cruisers Chokai, Aoba, Kinugasa and Furutaka). Tanaka planned to land the troops from his convoy on Guadalcanal on 24 August.
On 21 August, the rest and by far the heavier part of the of the ‘Ka’ (ii) naval force departed Truk atoll for the south-eastern part of the Solomon islands group. These ships were divided into Yamamoto’s customary array of separate groups: Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet contributed the Support Force, Main Body (super-battleship Yamato, escort carrier Taiyo, and destroyers Akebono, Ushio and Sazanami), Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body (fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku with a total of 53 A6M fighters, 41 D3A dive-bombers, 36 Nakajima B5N ‘Kate’ torpedo bombers and one Yokosuka D4Y-1 ‘Judy’ dive-bomber, and destroyers Kazagumo, Yugumo, Makigumo, Akigumo, Hatsukaze and Akizuki), and Rear Admiral Chuichi Hara’s 3rd Fleet, Detached Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body (light carrier Ryujo with 16 A6M fighters and 21 B5N torpedo bombers, heavy cruiser Tone, and destroyers Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze). Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Support Force contributed Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s Vanguard Force, Close Support (battleships Hiei and Kirishima, heavy cruisers Kumano, Suzuya and Chikuma of Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s Cruiser Division 7, light cruiser Nagara and destroyers Akizuki, Hatsukaze, Maikaze, Nowaki, Tanikaze and Yukikaze of Rear Admiral Susumu Kimura’s Destroyer Squadron 10), Kondo’s own Support Force, Main Body (heavy cruisers Atago, Maya and Takao of Cruiser Division 4, heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro of Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi’s Cruiser Division 5, and light cruiser Yura and destroyers Kuroshio, Oyashio, Minegumo, Hayashio, Natsugumo and Asagumo of Rear Admiral Tamotsu Takama’s Destroyer Squadron 4), and Rear Admiral Takaji Joshima’s Seaplane Force (seaplane carrier Chitose with 22 floatplanes, and destroyer Natsugumo).
Other Japanese naval elements were the Standby Force (fleet carrier Junyo with 16 A6M fighters and 31 B5N torpedo bombers) and the Fleet Train Support Force (battleship Mutsu and destroyers Harusame, Samidare and Murasame).
Finally, patrol support was provided by the submarines I-121, I-123 and Ro-34, and air support was provided by 101 land-based aircraft (51 A6M fighters, 41 G4M bombers, nine D3A dive-bombers and two Nakajima J1N ‘Irving’ heavy fighters) and 11 seaplanes (eight Kawanishi H6K ‘Mavis’ and three Kawanishi H8K ‘Emily’ flying boats) of the Japanese navy’s air arm at Rabaul and nearby islands under the command of Vice Admiral Nishizo Tsukahara.
Designed for the simultaneous delivery of land reinforcements from Rabaul to Guadalcanal and the luring out and destruction of the US carrier strength in the South Pacific Area, ‘Ka’ (ii) was known in its general features to the Americans by 22 August as a result of the efforts of their codebreakers who, more specifically, were able to reveal that the carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku had moved to Truk atoll and that a major battle was imminent. Fletcher therefore moved his carriers Saratoga, Enterprise and Wasp to the north in order to ambush the Japanese naval forces.
The ‘Ka’ (ii) plan dictated that as soon as the US carriers had been located, either by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft or by the revelation of their presence through attacks on one of the Japanese surface forces, Nagumo’s carriers would immediately launch aircraft to destroy them. With the US carriers destroyed or disabled, the Vanguard Force and Advanced Force would then close and destroy the rest of the Allied naval forces in a surface action, so opening the way for the Japanese naval forces to destroy Henderson Field and at the same time cover the landing of the Japanese army troops to retake Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
By 23 August the Japanese forces were on the move. At the break of day, Tanaka’s Reinforcement Group was 300 miles (485 km) to the north of Guadalcanal. Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body was another 200 miles (320 km) to the north of the Reinforcement Group and steaming to the south-east with his carriers just behind Abe’s Vanguard Force, Close Support. Nagumo planned to stay out of range of Allied reconnaissance aircraft operating from Efate (he did not know that PBY flying boats were operating from Ndeni) and take up position 250 miles (400 km) to the north-east of Henderson Field by dawn on 24 August. From here his carriers could seek out and destroy their US counterparts in the area to the south of San Cristobal island. Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Support Force was steaming well ahead of the main group and was responsible for protecting Nagumo’s eastern flank. If Tsukahara’s land-based aircraft failed to render Henderson Field inoperative, Nagumo planned to detach Hara’s 3rd Fleet, Detached Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body as a diversionary group to attack Henderson Field on 24 August and so clear the way for Tanaka’s convoy.
In response to the unanticipated Battle of the Ilu River fought on Guadalcanal between the marines and Japanese forces on 18/21 August, on the latter day Fletcher’s TF61 carrier task force was steaming back toward Guadalcanal from its position 400 miles (740 km) to the south. The carriers were to use their aircraft to provide support for the marines, protect Henderson Field, and destroy any Japanese naval forces, especially carriers, which arrived to support the Japanese troops in the land battle. TF61 included Fletcher’s own TF11 (fleet carrier Saratoga with 36 F4M fighters, 37 SBD dive-bombers and 15 TBF torpedo bombers, screened by Wright’s heavy cruisers Minneapolis and New Orleans, and destroyers Phelps, Farragut, Dale, Worden and MacDonough); Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s TF16 (fleet carrier Enterprise with 36 F4F fighters, 37 SBD dive-bombers and 15 TBF torpedo bombers, and battleship North Carolina, screened by Rear Admiral Mahlon S. Tisdale’s heavy cruiser Portland, light anti-aircraft cruiser Atlanta, and fleet destroyers Balch, Benham, Maury, Ellet, Grayson and Monssen); and Noyes’s TF18 (fleet carrier Wasp with 29 F4F fighters, 36 SBD dive-bombers and 15 TBF torpedo bombers, screened by Scott’s heavy cruisers San Francisco and Salt Lake City, light anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan, and fleet destroyers Farenholt, Aaron Ward, Buchanan, Lang, Stack, Sterett and Selfridge).
US land-based air power in the area comprised McCain’s TF63 on Guadalcanal with three squadrons (13 F4F fighters, five Bell P-400 fighters and 11 SBD dive-bombers) and the 11th Bombardment Group on Espíritu Santo with 25 B-17 bombers; and sea-based air power took the form of the 35 PBY flying boats of four squadrons based at Espíritu Santo.
Fletcher had meanwhile positioned his force to the east of Malaita island, which lies to the north-east of Tulagi island, almost exactly in Nagumo’s path, but an erroneous intelligence summary for 23 August indicated that the Japanese carriers still at Truk atoll, more than 1,000 miles (1610 km) away to the north-west in the Caroline islands group. Fletcher decided to take advantage of the supposed pause in the action to rotate his own carriers through the prearranged refuelling rendezvous to the south, and requested Ghormley to have oilers standing by. Fletcher had come to rely heavily on the codebreakers, but the Japanese had recently changed their operational code and much of this vital intelligence source had become unreadable, which was a fact that Fletcher may not have known at the time. Furthermore, Nagumo had accelerated his advance, cancelling a refuelling rendezvous and moving to the south earlier than had originally been planned.
The US and Japanese naval forces continued to head toward each other on 22 August. Although each side launched several aircraft on scouting sorties, neither located the other. As a result of the disappearance of at least one of their scouting aircraft (shot down by aircraft from Enterprise before it could send a radio report), the Japanese rightly suspected the presence of US carriers. The US force was not aware of the disposition and strength of approaching Japanese surface warship forces, however.
At 09.50 on 23 August, a PBY flying boat of the US Navy’s air arm, operating from Ndeni in the Santa Cruz islands group, sighted Tanaka’s convoy, and this was confirmed by a second sighting at 11.54. Fletcher changed course to close the range while despatching aircraft to scout for any accompanying carriers. Saratoga finally launched an attack force of 31 SBD dive-bombers and six TBF torpedo bombers at 14.40, while the marines at Henderson Field launched nine SBD, one TBF and 13 F4F warplanes at 16.15. However, the weather was unfavourable, and after the PBY’s departure Tanaka had reversed course. As a result, neither of the US attack groups found its target, and Saratoga’s aircraft were forced to land at Henderson Field at dusk. Fletcher had meanwhile received further faulty intelligence, which placed the Japanese carriers en route from Japan to Truk atoll, as well as confirmation from Ghormley that three oilers were on the way to the refuelling point, and by 18.23 on 23 August, with the Japanese carriers still undetected and no intelligence suggesting their presence, Fletcher detached Wasp and the rest of TF18 for the two-day passage to the south toward Efate island to refuel, with the result that this third US carrier did not return until the Battle of the Eastern Solomons was almost over. In fact, Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Detached Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body was just 300 miles (485 km) to the north-west, and Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Support Force was even closer.
The Japanese did not locate Fletcher’s forces on 23 August, and Yamamoto, learning that bad weather at Rabaul had prevented the planned air attack on Henderson Field, ordered Nagumo to detach the 3rd Fleet, Detached Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body in its capacity as a diversionary force to attack Henderson Field, and once had had learned from Tanaka of his loss of time as a result of his tactical turn to the north, delayed the troop landing to 25 August.
It was at 01.45 on 24 August that Nagumo sent the 3rd Fleet, Detached Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body ahead of the main Japanese force and at dawn launch attack aircraft against Henderson Field. Ryujo’s mission was to serve as a decoy to divert US attention so that the rest of the Japanese force could approach the US naval forces undetected, and to protect and cover Tanaka’s convoy. Most of Shokaku’s and Zuikaku’s aircraft were also readied to launch at short notice if the US carriers were located. Between 05.55 and 06.30, Saratoga and, more importantly, Enterprise launched their own scout aircraft to look for the Japanese naval forces, a task in which they were augmented by PBY aircraft from Ndeni, and it was one of the latter which, at 09.05, made the first sighting of Ryujo’s force. Another PBY sighted Tanaka’s force at 09.35. Another PBY reported at 10.30 that it was being attacked by A6M fighters, which suggested to Fletcher that there were other Japanese carriers in the area. By 11.00 the aircraft of Saratoga’s attack force of the previous day had landed back on their carrier. As the aircraft were landing, F4F fighters of the carrier’s combat air patrol destroyed an H8K flying boat some 20 miles (32 km) from the task force, beyond visual range, in the first interception achieved by Saratoga’s fighter director using radar. At 11.28 a second Catalina spotted Ryujo. Fletcher was reluctant to commit his aircraft to attacks, for he believed with some justification that the Japanese would not attempt so large an effort unless there were at least three carriers in support, and instead ordered Enterprise to launch a large scout force. By 12.29 Kinkaid had put 16 SBD and seven TBF aircraft into the air, and in reserve was Saratoga’s attack force of 12 F4M, 30 SBD and eight TBF aircraft as well as Enterprise’s reduced attack force of 20 F4F, 13 SBD and seven TBF aircraft.
Nagumo was disturbed that US flying boats had been encountered so far to the north, and ordered the implementation of a tactic developed after the Battle of Midway. Abe’s Vanguard Force, Close Support raced ahead in a scouting line intended to increase the width of the search, warn of US scouts, and finish any ships damaged by the air attack of Nagumo’s carriers. Nagumo also hoped that Abe’s force would absorb the efforts of at least part of the US air attacks sent in his direction. At 12.20 Hara launched an attack from Ryujo by six B5N and 15 A6M aircraft against Henderson Field in conjunction with a raid by 24 G4M bombers and 14 A6M escort fighters launched from Rabaul. Unknown to Ryujo’s aircraft, however, those from Rabaul had run into severe weather and turned back at 11.30. At 13.20, Ryujo’s aircraft were detected by Saratoga’s SG search radar, thereby further aiding the fixing of Ryujo’s location for the impending US attack. Ryujo’s aircraft arrived over Henderson Field at 14.23 and became involved in an air battle with the land-based fighters of the ‘Cactus Air Force’ as they tried to bomb Henderson Field. The engagement resulted in the loss of three B5N and three A6M machines, although the US forces claimed to have brought down 21 Japanese aircraft, as well as of three US fighters, and no damage was done to Henderson Field.
The 13.20 radar sighting of Ryujo’s aircraft making for Henderson Field was sufficient to persuade Fletcher to launch a wave of 30 SBD and eight TBF attack aircraft against Ryujo at 13.45. Some 15 minutes later, one of Fletcher’s scout aircraft regained contact with Ryujo, but misreported her position by more than 100 miles (160 km). Fletcher attempted, fortunately for the Americans without success, to redirect the attack to the new position. At about 14.50, two SBD aircraft spotted Shokaku, evaded the Japanese combat air patrol, and scored two near misses which caused minor damage on the Japanese carrier. The flight leader transmitted an accurate contact report, but the radio conditions were bad and the position was too garbled to be made out on board the US carriers. Another Japanese patrol aircraft had been shot down near the US task force, and Fletcher had to assume his location was now known to the Japanese. Fletcher could do little but put up a sizeable combat air patrol, clear the decks of his carriers of attack aircraft, and wait.
US aircraft made unsuccessful attacks on Ryujo and Tone, losing one TBF to Ryujo’s fighters.
At 14.25, a Japanese scout aeroplane sighted the US carriers and managed, before being shot down, to transmit a report, and Nagumo immediately ordered Shokaku and Zuikaku to launch their attack forces. The two carriers’ first wave of attack aircraft (27 D3A dive-bombers and 15 A6M fighters) had been launched by 14.50 and was on its way toward Enterprise and Saratoga.
About this same time, two US scout aircraft finally sighted the carriers of the 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body but, as a result of communication problems, these sighting reports did not reach Fletcher. The two US scout aircraft attacked Shokaku, causing only negligible damage, before leaving the area.
The Japanese fleet carriers launched a second wave of attack aircraft (27 D3A dive-bombers and nine A6M fighters) at 16.00, and this too headed to the south in the direction of the US carriers. Nagumo also readied a third wave of attack aircraft (36 B5N torpedo bombers and 12 A6M fighters) to be committed as soon as he had been informed that the US fighter defences had been significantly degraded. Abe’s Vanguard Force, Close Support also increased speed in anticipation of meeting the US ships in a surface action in the night.
At 15.50, Saratoga’s attack force arrived and began its attacks on Ryujo, hitting her with three to five bombs, and perhaps one torpedo, and killing 120 of her crew. Heavily damaged, Ryujo was abandoned by her crew at the fall of night and sank soon after this at about 20.00. The destroyers Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze rescued Ryujo’s survivors as well as the crews of the returning attack force, who ditched their aircraft near the destroyers. During this time, several of the USAAF’s B-17 bombers attacked the crippled Ryujo, but managed to inflict no additional damage. With the rescue operation complete, both Japanese destroyers and the heavy cruiser Tone rejoined the 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body.
At 16.02, while still waiting for a definitive report on the location of the Japanese fleet carriers, the US carriers detected the first wave of Japanese attack aircraft on their radars at a range of 88 miles (142 km). More F4F fighters were launched from the two US carriers, bringing the strength of the combat air patrol to 53 aircraft, which were vectored toward the Japanese aircraft. But overcast conditions, communication problems, limitations of the current radars’ aircraft identification capabilities (contact was lost soon after 16.02 and not regained until 16.19), primitive control procedures, and effective screening of the Japanese dive-bombers by their escorting A6M fighters combined to prevent all but a few of the US fighters from engaging the D3A dive-bombers before these began their attacks on the US carriers. The efforts of the US fighters were also diminished as several of them diverted to investigate sightings of what, it then transpired, were returning US scout aircraft which were then advised to stand off and await events. Just before the Japanese dive-bombers began their attacks, Enterprise and Saratoga cleared their decks for the impending action by launching the aircraft that they had been holding ready in case the Japanese fleet carriers were sighted, the aircraft being instructed to fly to the north and attack anything they could find, or else circle outside the battle zone until it was safe to return.
US radar contact with the Japanese attack force was confirmed visually at 16.25 and the fighter directors attempted to vector the US fighters onto the Japanese attackers. US radio discipline was very poor, however, and at 16.29 the Japanese attack force divided into several smaller groups, producing so confused a picture that the fighter directors lost control of the air battle.
Although several of the Japanese aircraft initially prepared to attack Saratoga, they were quickly shifted back to the closer Enterprise, which thus became the focus of almost the entire Japanese air attack. Several F4F fighters followed the 30 D3A dive-bombers into their attack dives, despite the intensity of the anti-aircraft fire climbing from Enterprise and her screening warships, in a desperate attempt to disrupt their attacks: in addition to several D3A aircraft, as many as four F4F fighters were therefore shot down by US anti-aircraft fire. The density of the anti-aircraft fire from the US ships combined with the ship’s evasive manoeuvring, and the bombs of the first nine D3A aircraft missed Enterprise. However, at 16.44 an armour-piercing bomb penetrated the flight deck near the after elevator and passed through three decks before detonating below the waterline, killing 35 men and wounding 70 more. The inrush of seawater caused Enterprise to develop a slight list. Just 30 seconds later, the next D3A planted its bomb only 15 ft (4.6 m) away from the impact point of the first bomb. The resulting detonation ignited a large secondary explosion in a 5-in (127-mm) gun’s ammunition, killing 35 members of the nearby gun crews and starting a large fire. About one minute later, at 16.46, a third bomb struck Enterprise on the flight deck forward of the location of the first two bombs. This bomb exploded on contact, blasting a 10-ft (3.1-m) hole in the deck, but caused no further damage.
Four D3A aircraft then broke off from the attack on Enterprise to attack the battleship North Carolina, but all their bombs missed.
The attack was over at 16.48 and the surviving Japanese aircraft reassembled in small groups and returned to their ships. Each side thought it had inflicted more damage on the other than was actually the case. Many factors contributed to these misconceptions, but the most important was probably the confused and complex nature of the engagement. The US Navy claimed to have shot down 70 Japanese aircraft, even though only 42 Japanese aircraft were actually involved and the real Japanese losses, from all causes, were 25 aircraft, with most of their crews lost. The Japanese believed that they had heavily damaged two, instead of just one, of the US carriers. The Americans lost six fighters in the engagement, with most of their pilots rescued.
At 16.55 the second wave of Nagumo’s attack aircraft had been sighted heading straight for the damaged and very vulnerable Enterprise, but the Japanese planes veered to the south and missed the task force, though they were visible on radar to the west for several minutes. The Japanese aircraft eventually ran short of fuel and were forced to return to their carriers without making an attack.
By 17.49, when her aircraft started to return from sinking Ryujo, Enterprise could make 24 kt and was able to begin recovering these aircraft from 18.05. Repair crews had plated over the holes in the flight deck, and the damage-control parties in other parts of the ship were rapidly bringing fires under control. The damage was more serious than it initially seemed, however, and at 18.21 local flooding shorted an electric steering motor and jammed the rudder at 20° to starboard: Enterprise could neither manoeuvre nor be taken in tow. However, by 18.59 the steering failure had been rectified and Enterprise was again able to manoeuvre.
The US carriers had cleared their flight decks of attack aircraft in anticipation of the Japanese attack, as noted above, and these aircraft had become separated in the confusion of the air battle. Most looked for targets of opportunity until their fuel ran low and were then forced to return to their carriers, but one group of SBD dive-bombers landed on Henderson Field. Five TBF torpedo bombers made an unsuccessful attack on Kondo’s force, while at 17.40 two SBD dive-bombers spotted the seaplane carrier Chitose and inflicted serious damaged on her.
As daylight faded into dusk, Fletcher received a message from Ghormley reminding him of intelligence warnings of Japanese night torpedo proficiency, and this was one of the reasons that Fletcher decided now to steam to the south and so avoid the possibility of a night engagement with the superior Japanese surface force and to join returning task force centred on Wasp.
Fletcher had indeed opted for a wise course of action, for Kondo was heading to the south at maximum speed to find the US warships. At 24.00, now running short of fuel, Kondo gave up and reversed course, joining the Japanese carriers in a position well to the north of the Solomon islands group, where they refuelled out of range of US attack aircraft.
On the following day, 25 August, each carrier force commander was reluctant to close with his opponent: the US as well as the Japanese ships were running short of fuel; Fletcher had lost only 17 aircraft, but Enterprise was damaged and capable of operating at nowhere near her full capability; Nagumo had suffered 25% losses to his air groups and was left with only 41 fighters and 59 attack aircraft; and Ryujo had been sunk and Shokaku had suffered slight damage.
On the basis of grossly exaggerated claims by his pilots, Yamamoto claimed a major victory, but did nothing to prod his subordinates to pursue the supposedly beaten enemy. Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki, the Combined Fleet’s chief-of-staff, rationalised that Ryujo had made a splendid decoy.
Believing that two US carriers had been put out of action with heavy damage and that Henderson Field had been rendered inoperable, Tanaka’s reinforcement convoy again headed toward Guadalcanal and, by 08.00 on 25 August, was within 150 miles (240 km) of its destination. However, ignored on 24 August during the carrier action, his force had been detected at 21.05 by a radar-equipped PBY, and at 08.05 on 25 August, eight SBD dive-bombers and 10 F4F fighters took off from Henderson Field and at 09.35 attacked the convoy, causing heavy damage to Jintsu, killing 24 members of her crew and knocking Tanaka unconscious. The troop transport Kinryu Maru was also hit and eventually sank. Just as the destroyer Mutsuki came alongside Kinryu Maru to rescue her crew and embarked troops, she was attacked by four B-17 bombers from Espíritu Santo, which landed five bombs on or around the destroyer, sinking her immediately; the same attack damaged Uzuki. Returning to consciousness, Tanaka ordered a retirement a retirement to the Shortland islands group. Noyes’s TF18 launched an attack from extreme range at 13.26, but Wasp’s aircraft did not manage to locate Tanaka’s ships.
In the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, each side had handled its forces only indifferently. Fletcher had been hampered by faulty intelligence and poor communications. Yamamoto had dispersed his forces and invited defeat in detail. The light carrier Ryujo had been sunk in exchange for major damage to Enterprise, and Nagumo suffered serious attrition to his air groups. Yamamoto overestimated the damage he had done to the Americans and withdrew prematurely, exposing Tanaka’s reinforcement convoy to air attack and forcing it to return to Rabaul.
The outcome was a marginal US tactical victory with strategic overtones in the prevention of Japanese reinforcements reaching Guadalcanal. Both the Japanese and the Americans now elected to withdraw their warships from the area, so ending the battle. The Japanese naval forces hovered near the north-western end of the Solomon islands chain, out of range of the US aircraft based at Henderson Field, before finally returning to Truk atoll on 5 September.
The US forces had lost only seven air crew in the battle, but the Japanese had lost about 100 veteran and therefore hard-to-replace air crew. The troops in Tanaka’s convoy were later loaded onto destroyers at the Shortland islands group and delivered to Guadalcanal from 29 August in a piecemeal fashion and without most of their heavy equipment.
On 27 August the carrier Saratoga was damaged by the submarine I-26 and put out of action for two months. As Enterprise was already being repaired after the battle a few days earlier, being ready for action once more on 15 October, Wasp was now left as the only operational US carrier in the Pacific.
By 23 August Kawaguchi’s 35th Brigade had arrived at Truk atoll to embark on the slow transports which would carry it to Guadalcanal. The damage inflicted on Tanaka’s convoy during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, however, had now caused the Japanese to reconsider their plan to deliver more troops direct to Guadalcanal by slow transport, so the ships carrying the 35th Brigade were directed to Rabaul for trans-shipment onto the destroyers which would carry them to Guadalcanal via the staging base in the Shortland islands group. The worst feature of this practice was that it was impossible to move the troops’ heavier equipment and supplies (heavy artillery, vehicles, and much of the required food and ammunition) together with the men. Moreover, it demanded the availability of large numbers of the destroyers the navy required for the protection of the merchant shipping which was required to transport raw materials to Japan and equipment from Japan in the face of an Allied submarine threat that was already starting to erode Japan’s merchant fleet. Another factor which weighed heavily on the minds of Japanese naval officers was that while their ships were comparatively safe against Allied warships and warplanes at night, any that were still within 200 miles (320 km) of Henderson Field at the break of day was increasingly vulnerable to air attack.
On the night of 27/28 August the Japanese switch of tactics in their efforts to reinforce their ground troops on Guadalcanal started with a destroyer run of fresh units at night on four of the ships of Tanaka’s Destroyer Squadron 2. The first of these undertakings was intercepted by 11 SBD dive-bombers operating from Henderson Field, and their attacks some 70 miles (130 km) to the north-west of Guadalcanal sank Asagiri, damaged Yugiri and Shirakumo, and compelled the survivors to turn back. Nagumo had transferred 30 A6M fighters from his carriers to the island of Buka, just to the north of Bougainville island, and with the aid of this air support the destroyer run on the night of 28/29 August landed 1,000 men and a quantity of artillery without loss. This set the pattern for much of the rest of the Solomon islands campaign: the Americans controlled the air by day, but at night control passed to the Japanese with their superior night-fighting tactics. So regular were the Japanese reinforcement runs that they became known to the Americans as the ‘Tokyo Express’.
On 1 September the US transport Betelgeuse delivered elements of the 6th Naval Construction Battalion totalling five officers and 387 men: this was the first deployment of ‘Seabees’ to a combat zone. The ‘Seabees’ arrived with two bulldozers and other construction equipment, and immediately set to work on the improvement of the facilities at Henderson Field. The ship also delivered six 5-in (127-mm) coast-defence guns, and also one SCR-270 early warning radar which was brought into service as quickly as possible.
Between 29 August and 4 September, Japanese light cruisers, destroyers and patrol boats managed to deliver almost 5,000 men (most of the 35th Brigade, much of the 4th Regiment and the rest of the 28th Regiment) to Taivu Point. Kawaguchi landed here on 31 August as the commander of all the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal. A barge convoy delivered another 1,000 men of the 35th Brigade, under the tactical command of Colonel Akinosuke Oka, to Kamimbo Bay.
On 7 September Kawaguchi issued his attack plan to destroy the marines holding Henderson Field. The plan ordained that the Japanese forces would by divided into three units that would approach the Lunga perimeter from inland, and end with a decisive night attack. Oka’s force would attack the perimeter from the west while the 'Kuma' Battalion (formerly Ichiki’s Second Echelon) would attack from the east, and the primary attack would be delivered by Kawaguchi’s Centre Body of 3,000 men in three battalions, from the jungle to the immediate south of the US perimeter. By this date most of Kawaguchi’s men had left Taivu for their approach marches to Lunga Point along the coast, about 250 Japanese troops being left behind to guard the brigade’s rear area and supply base at Taivu Point.
Meanwhile, Clemens’s Solomon islander scouts had reported the presence of large numbers of Japanese troops near the village of Tasimboko to the west of Taivu Point. Colonel Merritt A. Edson, commanding the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, now planned a raid on the Japanese troop concentration at Taivu Point, and on 8 September these 501 marine raiders, with 213 marine paratroopers in reserve, were landed near Taivu by boat and captured Tasimboko as the Japanese retreated into the jungle. Here the marines found Kawaguchi’s main supply depot, including large stockpiles of food, ammunition and medical supplies. The marines destroyed everything except some documents and equipment, which they took back with them to the Lunga perimeter. At the cost of just two dead and six wounded, the marines had disrupted the preparations for the Japanese attack on Henderson Field, in he process killing at least 27 Japanese and capturing documents of great intelligence value. However, the Japanese had their own intelligence that a US transport convoy had arrived in the Fiji islands group on 5 September, and Kawaguchi actually moved up the date of his attack to 12 September. Intelligence from the seized documents combined with the stockpiles they had destroyed to inform the marines that there were at least 3,000 Japanese troops on the island and that these were planning an offensive.
The Japanese attack was to be a major effort against the southern perimeter of Henderson Field, where Kawaguchi correctly judged the US defences to be weakest. The brunt of the attack therefore fell on the marine raiders and marine paratroopers who, after the Tasimboko raid, had been moved inland to recuperate in what Vandegrift anticipated would be a quiet sector: indeed, Vandegrift moved his own headquarters to the area at about the same time. Together with Colonel Gerald C. Thomas, Vandegrift’s operations officer, however, Edson had come to the conclusion that the Japanese attack would be made in this area at a narrow grass-covered coral ridge, about 1,000 yards (915 m) long, parallel with the Lunga river and just to the south of Henderson Field. This Lunga Ridge was the obvious approach to the airfield from the east, commanded the surrounding area, and was currently without major defences. On 11 September the 840 men of Edson’s battalion were accordingly deployed onto and around the ridge, and immediately began to dig improved defensive positions.
During the night of 12 September, the 1/35th Brigade attacked the marine raider positions between the Lunga river and ridge, forcing one marine company to fall back to the ridge before the Japanese halted their attack for the night. On the following night Kawaguchi pitted 3,000 men of his brigade, as well as a mixed force of light artillery, against the marine raiders in an attack which started just after the fall of night with 1/35th Brigade assaulting Edson’s right flank just to the west of the ridge. The attack broke through the marine raiders’ defences, but was then checked by marine units holding the northern part of the ridge. Two companies of the 2/35th Brigade assaulted up the southern edge of the ridge and pushed the marine raiders back to Hill 123 on the central part of the ridge. Throughout the night, the marines at this position, supported by artillery, defeated wave after wave of frontal Japanese attacks, which were hampered by a lack of reserves and poor co-ordination after their approach march through thick jungle, but even so some Japanese units managed to infiltrate past the ridge to the edge of Henderson Field, where they too were repulsed. Attacks by the 'Kuma' Battalion and Oka’s unit at other locations on the Lunga perimeter were also defeated, completing the US victory in what became known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge (otherwise the Battle of Edson’s Ridge). The Japanese attacks on the flanks, in particular, were an unnecessary diversion of effort, and the Japanese troops involved showed a somewhat unusual lack of night combat discipline. The marine casualties in the Battle of Bloody Ridge were 104 killed and 278 wounded, while Japanese casualties were far greater: when Kawaguchi regrouped at Kokumbona, he found that almost half his original force of 3,450 men had been lost.
On 14 September, Kawaguchi led the survivors of his shattered brigade on a five-day march to the west into the valley of the Matanikau river to link with Oka’s unit. On the following day Hyakutake learned of Kawaguchi’s defeat and forwarded the news to Tokyo. Here an emergency session of the Imperial General Headquarters decided that the fight for Guadalcanal might develop into the decisive battle of the war inasmuch as its results were already exercising a strategic influence on Japanese operations in other areas of the Pacific. Closer to the fighting, Hyakutake came to the conclusion that he could commit sufficient troops and matériel to secure success on Guadalcanal only by halting the major offensive currently taking place on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea as the Japanese tried to reach and take Port Moresby. With approval from Tokyo, Hyakutake therefore ordered his forces on New Guinea, who were within 30 miles (48 km) of Port Moresby, to withdraw until the battle for Guadalcanal had been won. Only thus could Hyakutake have the resources to reinforce the elements of his 17th Army on Guadalcanal and so open the way for another offensive to take Henderson Field.
On 14 September, Wasp was attacked by the submarine I-19 as she escorted a major convoy to Guadalcanal. Three torpedoes hit the carrier, the detonation of their warheads destroying water mains and starting fires. The aviation fuel pumping system was in use at the time and fed the fires, which raged out of control and forced the crew to abandon ship. Wasp was then sent to the bottom by torpedoes from the destroyer Lansdowne, her loss leaving the recently repaired Hornet as the only operational US carrier in the theatre. The battleship North Carolina was also damaged and the destroyer O’Brien was sunk. However, the transports continued toward Guadalcanal, and on 18 September the 4,157 men of the 3rd Provisional Marine Brigade (7th Marines, one battalion of the 11th Marines, and a number of support units) landed on Guadalcanal, thereby raising the US strength to 23,000 men. The transports also delivered 137 vehicles, 4,323 barrels of fuel, food, tents, engineering equipment, and ammunition, including 10,000 rounds of 37-mm canister projectiles and 10,000 hand grenades. Vandegrift also had the 3/2nd Marines ferried from Tulagi. The Japanese had also landed reinforcements, however, in the form of 1,100 men of the 4th Regiment, from seven destroyers which arrived off Guadalcanal during the night of 15/16 September.
As the Japanese reorganised themselves in the area to the west of the Matanikau river and awaited reinforcement, the US forces made efforts to strengthen their Lunga lodgement. Marine regiments started to rotate through Guadalcanal in September, with four or five regiments on the island at any one time. These two changes in his strength allowed Vandegrift, from 19 September, to create an unbroken defence line round the entire Lunga perimeter. Vandegrift also used the opportunity to make a number of changes in the senior leadership of his combat units, transferring off the island several officers who had not met his performance standards and replacing them with junior officers who had proved themselves. One such change involved Edson, who became commander of the 5th Marines. It is worth noting that other unit changes included the arrival on 2 November of the 8th Marines of the 2nd Marine Division, also from Samoa where the regiment had served with the 2nd Marine Brigade. The 1st Marine Parachute Battalion and 1st Marine Raider Battalion left on 18 September and 16 October respectively, and the 5th Marines and 1/11th Marine Artillery of the 1st Marine Division left for Australia on 9 December, followed by the 1st Marines on 22 December, and by most of the 1st Marine Division’s support units and the 7th Marines on 5 January 1943. The 2nd Marine Division’s 6th Marines arrived from New Zealand with the division’s advance headquarters on 4 January.
Over this period in September there was an interval in the air war above Guadalcanal. Adverse weather meant that the Japanese could fly no bomber missions between 14 and 27 September, and in this lull each side strengthened its air capability. The Japanese delivered 85 fighters and bombers to their air units at Rabaul, and the USA delivered 23 fighter and attack aircraft to Henderson Field. Thus on 20 September the Japanese had a total of 117 aircraft at Rabaul, and the Allies 71 aircraft at Henderson Field. The air war resumed on 27 September with a Japanese bombing raid which was tackled by naval and marine fighters from Henderson Field.
Meanwhile the Japanese army had started to prepare for its next offensive against the US lodgement in the area round Henderson Field. As a first and immediate stage in the decision of the Imperial General Headquarters to boost the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, Colonel Nomasu Nakagumo’s 3/4th Regiment of Maruyama’s 2nd Division (under the immediate command of Major General Yumio Nasu, commander of three-regiment 2nd Infantry Group within the 2nd Division and also of the ‘Aoba’ Detachment) had been landed at Kamimbo Bay on the western end of Guadalcanal on 11 September, too late to participate in Kawaguchi’s attack, but by now had joined Oka’s forces near the Matanikau river. Further ‘Tokyo Express’ missions on 14, 20, 21 and 24 September delivered food, ammunition and 280 men of the 1/4th Regiment to Kamimbo Bay. From 13 September, moreover, the Japanese transported the main strengths of the 2nd Division and Lieutenant General Tadayoshi Sano’s 38th Division from the Netherlands East Indies to Rabaul, and planned to ship 17,500 men of these two divisions to Guadalcanal between 9 and 15 October for the next offensive against the Lunga perimeter, which was scheduled for 20 October.
Vandegrift and his staff knew that the survivors of the ‘Kawaguchi’ Detachment had moved into the area to the west of the Matanikau river and also that there were many groups of Japanese stragglers scattered throughout the area between the Lunga perimeter and the Matanikau river. Vandegrift therefore decided to undertake several small-unit operations around the Matanikau river valley with the object of mopping up the scattered groups to the east of the Matanikau river and keeping the main Japanese troop concentration so off-balance that it would not be able to consolidate its positions close to the marines’ lodgement. The first of these operations, between 23 and 27 September, was undertaken by elements of three marine battalions (1/7th Marines supported by the 1st Marine Raider Battalion and 2/5th Marines). The US intelligence was faulty, however, and instead of the 400 Japanese thought to be in the area, the marines encountered 1,900 men of the 124th Regiment. The US undertaking was also affected by poor maps and a confused command structure, and as a result a rapidly improvised attack against the Japanese entrenched along the Matanikau river on 27 September nearly ended in disaster. A landing by three companies of the 1/7th Marines behind the Japanese left flank, near Point Cruz to the west of the Matanikau river’s mouth, left the marines trapped on a ridge near the coast, and the other two marine battalions were unable to break through across the Matanikau river to relieve the trapped battalion. Air observers sighted an improvised ‘HELP!’ message laid out on the ridge, and gunfire support from offshore destroyers (primarily Monssen) blasted a route for the trapped marines to pull back to the coast for evacuation by landing craft manned by men of the US Coast Guard. This 2nd Battle of the Matanikau River was a real tactical defeat for the marines, who lost 91 men killed and 100 wounded at a cost to the Japanese of perhaps only 30 men killed.
A second operation took place between 6 and 9 October with the object of denying the Japanese the use of artillery positions within range of Henderson Field. A force of the 7th Marines, larger than that of the first operation, crossed the Matanikau river, attacked newly landed elements of the 2nd Division and inflicted heavy losses on the 4th Regiment, forced the Japanese to retreat from their positions to the east of the Matanikau river, and thereby slowed the preparations for the major offensive being planned by the Japanese. Because of intelligence suggesting that the Japanese were about to commit another effort against the main position surrounding Henderson Field, however, the marines were then pulled back.
Between 9 and 11 October, the 1/2nd Marines raided two small Japanese outposts at Gurabusu and Koilotumaria near Aola Bay, some 30 miles (48 km) to the east of the Lunga perimeter, killing 35 Japanese in exchange for 20 US dead (17 marines and three US Navy personnel).
In their new offensive, the Japanese still intended to destroy all the US troops not only on Guadalcanal, but also on Tulagi and, if they had established themselves there, Rennell and San Cristóbal islands to the south and south-east respectively. A major strengthening of the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal was an essential first step, and it was also at this stage that local command was transferred from Kawaguchi to Nasu and then swiftly to Hyakutake. The Japanese navy co-operated by bringing in the new troops, by damaging Henderson Field and destroying as many of its aircraft as possible with nightly warship bombardments and air raids, and by seeking to prevent the flow of US reinforcements. With the US air threat eliminated, Yamamoto believed, his Combined Fleet would be free to ‘apprehend and annihilate’ the US Navy’s forces in the area of the Solomon islands chain. In reality, the decisive factor was Henderson Field: as long as this was functional and remained in US hands, all Japanese forces within a 250-mile (400-km) radius were vulnerable to daylight air attack, which made a sustained naval bombardment of Guadalcanal impossible.
The Americans could readily estimate the Japanese intentions as their fresh troops reached the island, the intensity of the nocturnal naval bombardments was increased, and as the introduction of new Japanese air units added a further dimension to the air campaign. Fresh US ground forces clearly had to be introduced to offset the Japanese reinforcements, and early in October the US Joint Chiefs-of-Staff decided to commit Major General Alexander McC. Patch’s Americal Division from New Caledonia to replace the exhausted 1st Marine Division, but for lack of adequate transport the regiments of this division had to be transported individually, starting with the 2,800 men of Colonel Bryant E. Moore’s 164th Infantry, who reached Guadalcanal on 13 October and were followed on 12 November by the men of the 182nd Infantry. The Americans knew that the Japanese would seek to prevent the arrival of the convoy carrying the 164th Infantry, and a powerful support force was created in four groups. Distant cover was based on the carrier Hornet steaming some 180 miles (290 km) to the south-west of Guadalcanal. The battleship Washington was 50 miles (80 km) to the east of Malaita. Scott’s TF64 (heavy cruisers San Francisco and Salt Lake City, light cruisers Boise and Helena, and destroyers Farenholt, Buchanan, Laffey, Duncan and McCalla) was positioned off Rennell island, providing close support for the fourth group. Under Turner’s command for the delivery of the 164th Infantry and essential supplies, this last comprised two transports and eight destroyers adapted as fast transports.
The US reinforcement operation was conceptually similar to that of the ‘Tokyo Express’ inasmuch as it was based on a night dash to Guadalcanal, a swift disembarkation at midnight, and then a high-speed withdrawal before daybreak and a renewed threat from the air. The transports sortied from Nouméa on 9 October, and during the very same day the Japanese light cruiser Tatsuta and nine destroyers started to deliver Hyakutake and fresh troops, as noted above. In one week the Japanese effort delivered to Guadalcanal some 22,200 men with adequate arms and supplies. In all, 11 destroyers were used in the reinforcement, and the start of the major Japanese offensive to drive the Americans from Guadalcanal was scheduled for 14 October. The ‘Cactus Air Force’ committed everything it could against the Japanese convoy: on 10 October, for instance, the Japanese vessels grouping for a return to the Shortland islands group were subjected to bomb and torpedo attacks by 42 US warplanes. The Japanese suffered no major reverses during this episode, which nonetheless strengthened Mikawa’s resolve to neutralise if not destroy Henderson Field.
On the following day, therefore, Mikawa despatched a task force under Goto to undertake a gunfire bombardment of the airfield and provide cover for that night’s Japanese reinforcement convoy. The task force was the 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Bombardment Force comprising the heavy cruisers Aoba, Kinugasa and Furutaka, and destroyers Hatsuyuki and Fubuki. These ships would also cover a large convoy carrying a portion of Sano’s 38th Division (728 men, two field guns, four howitzers, four tractors, one anti-aircraft gun, supplies of several types, and six landing craft) in the vessels of Joshima’s 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Reinforcement Group (seaplane carriers Chitose and Nisshin, and destroyers Akizuki, Asagumo, Natsugumo, Yamagumo, Murakumo and Shirayuki).
Scott had been readying his TF64 for night operations and now felt that his command was ready for such an encounter. He planned to head to the north at around 12.00 and be off Savo island by 24.00 in the right position to intercept any Japanese force. On 9 and 10 August, he had moved to the north but then turned back when air reconnaissance showed there were no Japanese forces heading to the south-east down ‘The Slot’.
Mikawa had been attempting to land reinforcements every night, but on 8 October an attack by aircraft from Henderson Field had prevented any forays until the following night, when a group of five destroyers led by a light cruiser had succeeded in landing Hyakutake and some troops at Tassafaronga. Mikawa requested that the 11th Air Fleet neutralise Henderson Field, and on 11 October the airfield was attacked by a force of 35 bombers and 30 fighters. The raid inflicted only limited material damage, but the air battle prevented marine aircraft from undertaking any reconnaissance up ‘The Slot’. However, coast watchers had reported a convoy assembling in the Shortland islands group, and patrols by B-17 bombers of the 11th Bombardment Group detected a mixed force of cruisers and destroyers heading at speed down ‘The Slot’. By 16.00, therefore Scott was racing north to effect the planned interception.
The Japanese were unaware of Scott’s TF64 and the US reinforcements which were being convoyed to the same basic area, but long-range reconnaissance had given Scott accurate information about the position and likely schedule of the two Japanese forces. As many of the previous ‘Tokyo Express’ deliveries had been undertaken successfully and largely uneventfully, the Japanese had allowed themselves to relax, and Mikawa had assigned Goto to lead the 8th Fleet, Outer South Sea Force, Bombardment Force, while the 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Reinforcement Group was led by Joshima. Scott was fully alert and expecting an action, and he had prepared a battle plan for full dissemination to his captains. The tactical advantage therefore lay with Scott, and the overall situation was in many respects the reverse of that in the Battle of Savo Island.
Scott set his trap carefully, and at 22.28 TF64 was 14 miles (23 km) to the north-north-east of Cape Esperance, on the north-western tip of Guadalcanal, heading for Savo island. At about 21.30, Scott had attempted to launch four Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes to locate and, at the apposite moment, illuminate the approaching Japanese ships, but Helena did not receive the order and jettisoned her floatplane as a fire hazard. Then the signal flares in Salt Lake City’s floatplane accidentally caught fire and the burning aeroplane was also jettisoned. Finally, one of the two floatplanes which did actually become airborne suffered engine problems and had been forced to alight by 23.30.
At 22.35 Scott formed TF64 into a single column, with the destroyers Farenholt, Duncan and Laffey in the van, cruisers San Francisco, Boise, Salt Lake City and Helena in the centre, and destroyers Buchanan and McCalla at the rear. Goto’s heavy cruisers Kinugasa, Furutaka and Aoba were also in line-ahead formation, with the destroyers Hatsuyuki and Fubuki abeam Kinugasa in the van, to port and starboard respectively, and the Japanese ships were steering to the south-south-east. TF64’s ships had both old and new types of radar, but the nearby presence of large land masses degraded the capabilities and reliability of both. Goto relied on look-outs who, as ever, were very good at their task, and one of these reported flickering lights ahead of the ships: these were in all probability Salt Lake City’s burning floatplane, but the look-outs’ sighting reports were discounted, and the Japanese crews were not even at general quarters as they approached the area of the imminent battle. Goto thought the lights might be a signal from the 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Reinforcement Group, and attempted to reply by signal lamp.
But Goto was not expecting opposition and disregarded all indications of the US presence right up to the start of the battle. At 22.50 a Kingfisher spotted three ships of the 8th Fleet, Outer South Sea Force, Reinforcement Group some 6 miles (10 km) from Savo island, but Scott thought that the ships might be friendly and continued to patrol near Savo Island. At 23.08 Helena’s SG search reported a contact at a bearing of 315° and range of 27,700 yards (25145 m). Even so, Helena did not report the radar sighting’s bearing and range until 23.23, some 15 minutes later, and San Francisco, Scott’s flagship, was equipped only with older and less capable SC search radar, which Scott had ordered to be turned off as he knew that the Japanese could detect its transmissions. As a result, Scott had already ordered a reversal of course to bring his line across the likely Japanese path when contact was finally reported to him.
The ambush was very nearly spoiled. The reversal of course had left Scott’s destroyers scattered, and when Helena opened fire on her captain’s own initiative and in accord with Scott’s own battle plan, Scott ordered a ceasefire, fearing that his cruisers were firing on their own destroyers: this was a real fear, and Farenholt may in fact have taken hits from US shells.
The communications team of Salt Lake City failed to decipher poorly worded messages it received between 23.42 and 23.52, and which detailed the course and range of Goto’s force. Scott knew that there were Japanese ships in the offing, but they could have been anywhere in a large arc from his flagship. Moreover, because TF64 had just executed a tricky reverse column movement at 23.32, the US destroyers were scattered. At 23.46 TF64’s ships were steaming to the north-east in line ahead in the disposition detailed above. Duncan was about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north-east of the bulk of TF64, within 500 yards (460 m) of the heavy cruiser Kinugasa. Her captain knew, on the basis of data from his own ship’s fire-control radar, the exact position of Goto’s force and, on the baseless assumption that the other US ships also knew and would follow his lead, began a destroyer charge at 30 kt without any other ship in support. As the guns opened fire, Duncan fired several 5-in (127-mm) salvoes into Furutaka and then tackled the destroyer Hatsuyuki. But within minutes Duncan herself had been hit in her engine room, and after numerous other hits was out of the battle, eventually sinking in the course of the following day.
Scott’s order to cease fire arrived at this time, but many of his ships’ captains were reluctant to comply as they had clear opponents in their sights.
Finally, Helena informed Scott that Japanese ships had been detected by radar at a range of 5,000 yards (4570 m), and at 23.46 Helena’s captain ordered his ship’s searchlights to be switched on and the crews of his ship’s 6- and 5-in (152- and 127-mm) guns to open fire on Goto’s unsuspecting ships.
At the moment at which Helena opened fire, TF64 was actually ‘crossing the T’ of the Japanese ships, which had altered neither disposition nor course. Aoba’s bridge was hit in the first minutes of the battle and Goto was mortally wounded. Just after seeing the US warships ‘crossing his T’, Goto had attempted to escape from a decidedly difficult tactical position by reversing his column in a 180° turn to starboard, but this left the basic situation unaltered and at the same time made it impossible for his ships to use their forward guns. It was too late for Furutaka: by the time she had completed her turn, the ship had been hit by several salvoes, including some from Duncan. Heavily on fire but still firing, the cruiser struggled off to the north-west. Aoba was hit many times but continued to return fire as long as her guns were operable. Kinugasa and Hatsuyuki had reversed course with a turn to port after misreading the signal, and thus escaped serious damage and were able to continue firing their after turrets. For a few minutes Fubuki, which had executed the turn as ordered, was unobserved. When spotted, she was illuminated by searchlights and most of the TF64’s ships opened fire, and the destroyer quickly sank at 23.53.
Shortly after 24.00 Scott managed to gather all his ships but Duncan and Farenholt into a single column and started to chase the retiring Japanese vessels. Kinugasa was still fully operational and, probably aided for a few minutes by Aoba, Furutaka and Hatsuyuki, returned fire. At 24.00 she had engaged Salt Lake City at a range of 8,000 yards (7315 m), her shells falling just astern the US ship. A Japanese torpedo attack narrowly missed the light cruiser Boise, which was rejoining the column, but then at 00.12 Boise was hit by a salvo which penetrated her hull in four places. Kinugasa also fired at Boise over a period of four minutes. Finally Salt Lake City left the US line and placed herself between Boise and her attackers. The fighting continued until 00.16, and Salt Lake City was hit twice. Boise was also further damaged when an 8-in (203-mm) shell pierced her no. 1 turret and a 6-in (152-mm) shell penetrated her forward powder magazine below the waterline, causing a tremendous explosion which killed all the men in her forward turrets, powder handling rooms, and magazines. Furutaka also suffered severely before the order to abandon ship was given at 02.20, and the Japanese heavy cruiser sank at 02.48. Although the destroyers Murakumo and Shirayuki rescued 400 of Furutaka’s crew of about 600 men, some of these were later killed when Murakumo was severely damaged in an air attack as she was returning to the Shortland islands group, and was later scuttled after suffering additional damage in an air attack. Aoba took some 40 8- and 6-in (203- and 152-mm) shell hits, but nonetheless managed to make her escape at 30 kt. Kinugasa suffered damage only to a pair of her motor boats, but was back in action by 14 October, when she bombarded Tulagi island. Hatsuyuki also received minor damage to her hull from two hits.
On the US side, the light cruiser Boise had been severely damaged, the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City moderately damaged, the destroyer Duncan sunk, and the destroyer Farenholt moderately damaged by Japanese and ‘friendly’ fire.
Scott broke off the chase at 02.00. Meanwhile at Tassafaronga Point, to the west of the Matanikau river’s mouth, the 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Reinforcement Group had disembarked its troops and cargo without interference, but during its return to Shortland islands group during the morning of 12 October it was attacked by 70 US warplanes, Natsugumo being sunk.
The Battle of Cape Esperance was one of very few night actions in which the Japanese navy was not clearly superior. While the outcome of the battle was a clear US victory in terms of the numbers of Japanese ships sunk or damaged, confused communications, information dissemination failures, and the use of a single-column formation prevented TF64 from inflicting an altogether greater defeat on the Japanese navy. Moreover, the Japanese reinforcement convoy achieved its task and returned largely unscathed, although this boost to their strength was offset by the arrival of the 164th Infantry on 13 October.
Even so, the Battle of Cape Esperance was a clear US tactical victory and the first Allied naval surface victory over the Japanese.
However, their success in the Battle of Cape Esperance led the Americans to learn the wrong lessons. Their line-ahead tactic had worked moderately well at Cape Esperance, but the later Battle of Tassafaronga and Battle of Kolombangara showed that at night line-ahead gunfire tactics, in which the gun flashes lit up ships and revealed their positions, invited mass torpedo attack as a telling response. There were still reverses to come, most notably at Santa Cruz and Tassafaronga, but in general the US Navy now gained the upper hand.
Following the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, after which the severely damaged carrier Enterprise had returned to Pearl Harbor for repairs, there remained three US carrier task forces in the South Pacific area. These were based on Wasp, Saratoga and Hornet with their supporting surface warships of battleships, cruisers and destroyers. These task forces were stationed primarily between the Solomon and New Hebrides island groups largely to protect the maritime line of communication to the major Allied bases in New Caledonia and Espíritu Santo islands, support the Allied ground forces at Guadalcanal and Tulagi against any Japanese counter-offensive, cover the movement of supply ships to Guadalcanal, and last, but not least, engage and destroy any Japanese warships, but especially aircraft carriers, which came within range. In reflection of the large numbers of Japanese submarines operating in the region, the Americans knew as ‘Torpedo Junction’ the area of ocean in which their carrier task forces were operating.
As noted above, while supporting a major reinforcement and resupply convoy to Guadalcanal, and almost engaging the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, which pulled back just before the two adversaries came into range of each other’s aircraft, Wasp was struck on 14 September by three torpedoes from I-19. Without power as a result of damage from the torpedo explosions, Wasp’s damage-control teams were unable to contain the major fires with erupted, and the ship had to be abandoned and scuttled. As also noted above, on 31 August Saratoga was torpedoed by I-26 and needed three months to repair. Although the US Navy now had only Hornet fit for carrier operations in the South Pacific Area, the Allies still maintained air superiority over the south-eastern end of the Solomon islands group by virtue of their aircraft land-based at Henderson Field. However, in the absence of aircraft able to operate effectively at night, the Allies had no means to prevent the Japanese from operating their ships around Guadalcanal almost at will. This was largely responsible for a temporary stalemate in the ‘Watchtower’ campaign, with the Allies delivering supplies and reinforcements to Guadalcanal during the day, and the Japanese delivering supplies and reinforcements during the night by means of the ‘Tokyo Express’. Even so, neither side was able to deliver enough troops to secure a decisive advantage on Guadalcanal.
By the middle of October, the USA and Japan had approximately the same number of troops on the island: in the period between 12 and 20 October, the Americans had 23,000 men to the Japanese total of 22,000 men. On 13 and 14 October Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s 2nd Fleet, Close Support Force of Kondo’s 2nd Fleet (battleships Haruna and Kongo, and destroyers Harusame, Kagero, Murasame, Samidare, Oyashio and Yudachi) successfully bombarded Henderson Field for 80 minutes, destroying most of the US aircraft and inflicting severe damage on the field’s facilities, in what became known as ‘The Night’ to the US forces. Four PT-boats attempted to intervene, but were easily brushed aside. Although the airfield was still marginally operational, it was to be several weeks before the damage had been comprehensively repaired and the destroyed aircraft had been replaced.
‘The Night’ marked the lowest ebb of the Allied campaign. On 18 October Maruyama’s 2nd Division was making its final preparations for another major effort against Henderson Field. The Japanese used the disruption of US air cover to bring in supplies and reinforcements for their next attack. However, the Americans managed to get the airfield operating and some warplanes into the air on the next day, and these attacked and destroyed three beached Japanese transports. Three other transports were driven off by the threat of air attack before they could unload all their supplies.
Fuel became a critical item at Henderson Field, and as a result Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft were used to fly fuel from Espíritu Santo, and the submarine Amberjack was specially equipped to carry 9,000 US gal (34070 litres) of aviation fuel and 10 tons of bombs. This was merely a trickle of what was needed, however, and most of the needed fuel had to be delivered in whatever auxiliaries were available, often at great cost.
At this time, the US sought to break the stalemate in the battle for Guadalcanal in two ways. Firstly, the repairs to Enterprise were accelerated so that the carrier could return to the South Pacific as soon as possible: on 10 October Enterprise received her new air group, six days later departed Pearl Harbor, and on 23 October arrived back in the South Pacific for a rendezvous with Hornet and the rest of the Allies’ South Pacific naval forces on the following day, some 315 miles (505 km) to the north-east of Espíritu Santo. Despite its tactical success in the Battle of Cape Esperance, the US Navy was concerned that the naval initiative was slipping from it and thus secondly, on 18 October, Nimitz replaced Ghormley, whom he now believed to be too short-sighted and pessimistic to provide effective leadership of the ‘Watchtower’ campaign, with the more aggressive Vice Admiral (from 26 November Admiral) William F. Halsey as commander of the South Pacific Area. Halsey embarked immediately on a programme to restore morale throughout the theatre.
The scene was now set for the third Japanese offensive to drive the US forces from Guadalcanal, in what is generally known as the Battle of Henderson Field. Because they had lost their positions on the eastern side of the Matanikau river, the Japanese decided that an attack along the coast would be both difficult and costly so, after receiving reports from his staff officers about the nature of the US defences around Lunga Point, Hyakutake decided that the planned offensive’s main effort would be made from the south. This effort was to be made by 7,000 men of the nine battalions of two regiments of the 2nd Division and one regiment of the 38th Division. Each battalion was to reach its jumping-off point by means of a jungle march and then, on 22 October, assault the US positions from the south near the eastern bank of the Lunga river. The Japanese force was divided into Nasu’s Left-Wing Unit (29th Regiment of the 2nd Division), Kawaguchi’s Right-Wing Unit (230th Regiment of the 38th Division), and Maruyama’s Divisional Reserve (16th Regiment of the 2nd Division). To divert the attention of the US forces, the 17th Army’s heavy artillery, 12 light tanks and five battalions (about 2,900 men) under Major General Tadashi Sumiyoshi, the commander of the 17th Army’s heavy artillery, were to attack the US defences from the west along the coastal corridor.
The concept of the Japanese plan was decisively flawed, however, by the fact that while the Japanese estimated that there were 10,000 US troops on the island, the reality was about 23,000 men. At this time, the Lunga perimeter was defended by the 13 battalions of four regiments: the 164th Infantry held the easternmost sector; extending from the 164th Infantry’s positions to the south and west across Edson’s Ridge to the Lunga river were the 7th Marines; the sector to the west of the Lunga river as far as the coast was held by the 1st and 5th Marines; and the mouth of the Matanikau river was held, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William J. McKelvy, by the 3/1st Marines and the 3/7th Marines. McKelvy’s two battalions were separated from the Lunga perimeter by a gap, and this was covered by patrols.
On 12 October a Japanese engineer unit began work on the so-called ‘Maruyama Road’, in reality a trail, from the Matanikau river in the direction of the Lunga perimeter’s southern edge. The trail extended through about 15 miles (24 km) of Guadalcanal’s most difficult terrain, which included numerous rivers and streams, ravines which were both deep and muddy, steep ridges and dense jungle.
Between 16 and 18 October the 2nd Division began its approach along the ‘Maruyama Road’. Nasu’s unit was in the lead, with Kawaguchi’s and Maruyama’s units following in that order. In addition to his rifle and pack, each man carried one artillery shell. At a time early in the morning of 20 October, Maruyama reached the Lunga river and, in the belief that his units were about 4 miles (6.5 km) to the south of the airfield, ordered his Left-Wing Unit and Right-Wing Unit to advance to the north abreast of each other and parallel with the Lunga river toward the US defences. The time of the Japanese assault was set for 18.00 on 22 October. Maruyama was wrong, however, for the Japanese were in fact 8 miles (12.75 km) to the south of the airfield. By the evening of 21 October it had become evident that none of the Japanese units would in position to attack on the next day, so Maruyama 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 extended along the ‘Maruyama Road’, but Maruyama nonetheless ordered that the attack should begin at the specified time. As Maruyama’s troops closed on the southern edge of the US perimeter, Sumiyoshi prepared his assault from the west, and on 18 October began to bombard Henderson Field with 15 150-mm (5.91-in) howitzers. What was left of the 4th Regiment, under the command of Colonel Nomasu Nakaguma, began to gather openly near Point Cruz on the coast just to the west of the Matanikau river’s mouth. On the next day Oka took the 1,200 men of his 124th Regiment inland across the Matanikau river and started to advance on the eastern bank toward the high ground lying to the east of the river. On 23 October Maruyama’s units continued to push their laborious way through the jungle to reach the US perimeter. Without instruction, Kawaguchi started to move his Right-Wing Unit to the east in the belief that they would find weaker US defences, but was then ordered to adhere to the original plan. Kawaguchi refused and was replaced by Colonel Toshinari Shoji, commander of the 230th Regiment. Discovering that his Left-Wing Unit and Right-Wing Unit had still not reached their start lines, Hyakutake postponed the attack to 19.00 on 24 October.
Throughout this period the US forces did not detect the approach of Maruyama’s forces. On 23 October, Kusaka’s 11th Air Fleet despatched 16 bombers and 28 fighters to attack Henderson Field, and the Japanese raid was met by 24 F4F and four Bell P-39 Airacobra fighters of the ‘Cactus Air Force’, resulting in a large dogfight out of which several Japanese aircraft crashed; the Americans lost only one F4F.
Though he was told of the delay of the offensive’s start to 24 October, Sumiyoshi was not able to contact Nakaguma and pass on this information, and as a result, at dusk on 23 October, two battalions of the 4th Regiment and the nine tanks of the 1st Independent Tank Company started to attack the marines at the mouth of the Matanikau river. The tanks attacked in pairs across the sandbar at the river’s mouth under cover of an artillery barrage, but 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, dropped more than 6,000 rounds into the area between Point Cruz and the Matanikau river, inflicting heavy losses on Nakaguma’s infantry battalions as they tried to approach the marines’ positions. Nakaguma’s attacks had ended by 01.15 on 24 October after inflicting only light casualties on the marines and gaining no ground.
On 24 October, partly in response to Nakaguma’s attacks, Lieutenant Colonel Herman H. Hanneken’s 2/7th Marines were moved to the Matanikau river sector. After Oka’s force had been spotted during its approach to the Matanikau river position from the south, the 2/7th Marines took up positions on a southward-facing ridge which constituted a continuous extension of the inland flank of the horseshoe-shaped Matanikau river defences. There was still as gap between the 2/7th Marines’ left flank and the main perimeter.
With the redeployment of the 2/7th Marines, the 700 men of Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. Puller’s 1/7th Marines faced the task of holding the 2,500-yard (2285-m) line on the southern face of the Lunga perimeter to the east of the Lunga river. Late on 24 October marine patrols discovered the approach of Maruyama’s forces, but it was too late in the day for any rearrangement of the marines’ deployment. At 14.00 on 24 October the Left-Wing Unit and Right-Wing Unit started to deploy for their attacks. Maruyama’s troops had very little artillery or mortar support for their forthcoming assault, having abandoned most of their artillery along the ‘Maruyama Road’. Between 16.00 and 21.00 there was heavy rain, and this both delayed the Japanese approach and caused major disorder in the Japanese units, which were already exhausted from their long jungle movement. The Right-Wing Unit now unwittingly turned parallel to the marine lines, and only one battalion made contact with the defences. The 1/230th Regiment hit the 1/7th Marines’ position at about 22.00 and was driven back. For unknown reasons, Maruyama’s staff then reported to Hyakutake that the Right-Wing Unit had overrun Henderson Field.
At about the same time, the Left-Wing Unit’s battalions finally began to reach the US defences. At 00.30 on 25 October, Captain Jiro Katsumata’s 11th Company of the 3/29th Regiment attacked Company A of the 1/7th Marines. Katsumata’s attack was slowed by the heavy barbed wire entanglement in front of the marines’ line and was then hit heavily by US machine gun, mortar and artillery fire. By 01.00 most of the 11th Company’s men had been killed. Farther to the west, the same battalion’s 9th Company charged straight into the weapons of the 1/7th Marines’ Company C at 01.15, and within five minutes had lost almost every one of its men to a marine machine gun section led by Sergeant John Basilone. Within 10 minutes of this, heavy fire from the marines’ divisional artillery was falling into the Left-Wing Unit’s troop assembly and approach route, inflicting further losses on the Japanese. Appreciating that a major Japanese attack was hitting his unit, Puller requested reinforcement, and from 03.45 Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hall’s 3/164th Infantry was being fed from reserve into Puller’s line, a reinforcement completed by the break of day and in conditions of torrential rain.
Just before the break of day, Colonel Masajiro Furimiya, commanding the 29th Regiment, with his headquarters staff and two companies of the 3/29th Regiment penetrated the marines’ artillery barrage and reached Puller’s lines about 03.30. Most of Furimiya’s men were killed during the assault, but about 100 broke through the defences and punched a salient 150 yards (135 m) wide and 100 yards (90 m) deep in the centre of the 1/7th Marines’ line. After dawn the 2/29th Regiment joined the assault but was driven back. At 07.30, Nasu decided to withdraw what was left of the Left-Wing Unit to prepare for another night attack.
During 25 October, the 1/7th Marines destroyed the Japanese salient in their lines and hunted down small groups of Japanese infiltrators, killing 104 Japanese soldiers. Maruyama had lost more than 300 of his men in this first attack on the Lunga perimeter, which is often known as the Battle of Coffin Corner.
To support the army’s third offensive in Guadalcanal, the Japanese navy had ordered Mikawa’s 8th Fleet to have task units ready to move toward Guadalcanal and, following receipt of Hyakutake’s wholly erroneous message of 05.00 reporting success on 24 October, ordered these to sortie into the waters of the Solomon islands group: the Japanese had brought their carrier forces forward specifically to fly aircraft into Henderson once it had been taken by the ground forces, and though these latter failed to take Henderson, the Japanese carriers nonetheless moved forward to clear the area of the Solomon islands group of US naval forces.
During the Japanese third offensive, between 20 and 25 October, each side suffered losses while trying to deliver supplies or in operations in the waters around the island of Guadalcanal. The US lost the destroyer Meredith and a fleet tug, while the seaplane tender McFarland was damaged and had to be towed into Tulagi. On 20 October the heavy cruiser Chester was torpedoed and severely damaged by the submarine I-76.
During the land battle, the ‘Tokyo Express’ had continued its nocturnal runs. The Japanese army had promised to capture Henderson Field by 25 October and, in order to sink US shipping at Tulagi and also to aid the land offensive, the Japanese navy made a daylight raid with a 1st Attack Unit (destroyers Akatsuki, Ikazuchi and Shiratsuyu), to which Shikinami was attached as the escort for a convoy. To trap the US defenders between the land forces on one side and a naval bombardment on the other, a 2nd Attack Unit (light cruiser Yura and destroyers Akizuki, Murasame, Harusame and Yudachi) was despatched into ‘The Slot’. The 1st Attack Unit entered Tulagi harbour just after 10.00, undertook a indecisive fire fight with two US minesweepers, sank a fleet tug and a patrol vessel, and then proceeded to a position off Lunga Point and started to fire on the US land positions. But the Japanese ships were outgunned by the US coastal batteries: Akatsuki and Ikazuchi were hit, and the three Japanese destroyers had to retire behind a smoke screen. The 2nd Attack Unit failed to reach its intended destination as, in the Indispensable Strait, the ships came under attack by six B-17 bombers, and Yura and Akizuki were hit. The destroyers Harusame and Yudachi sent Yura to the bottom at 18.20, after her crew had been transferred to Murasame, and the surviving elements of the 2nd Attack Unit then pulled back to the north. It seems clear that Mikawa had run the risk of a daylight approach for the two attack units as he had been informed by the Japanese army that it would have taken Henderson Field by the break of day on 25 October. Thus the 1st Attack Unit was to have bombarded any pockets of US resistance after clearing the area of US ships, and did not expect to be tackled by coastal batteries, and the 2nd Attack Unit was to have aided the army forces with gunfire support and also to have landed reinforcements.
After the Japanese army’s failure to retake Henderson Field and complete the destruction of the US forces on Guadalcanal, Yamamoto could no longer defer his instructions from the Imperial General Headquarters, and therefore sent the Combined Fleet to the south once more, with the task of destroying the US naval forces supporting Guadalcanal, and this led to the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Despite the several reverses which his concept had by now suffered, Yamamoto still had faith in a complex operation involving the division of his strength for separate approaches by the various components of the operation. The fleet carrier Hiyo had suffered an accidental but damaging fire on 22 October and returned to Truk for repairs, and thus was not available, so Yamamoto disposed Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body (fleet carriers Shokaku with 18 A6M fighters, D3A dive-bombers and 23 B5N torpedo bombers, Zuikaku with 27 A6M fighters, 27 D3A dive-bombers and 18 B5N torpedo bombers, light carrier Zuiho with 18 A6M fighters and six B5N torpedo bombers, heavy cruiser Kumano and destroyers Amatsukaze, Hatsukaze, Tokitsukaze, Yukikaze, Arashi, Maikaze, Teruzuki and Yamakaze) to the rear of the heavier forces in the hope that US carrierborne aircraft would concentrate their efforts on the heavier ships rather than the more vulnerable aircraft carriers.
As usual, Yamamoto remained at Truk atoll with the super-battleship Yamato, and tactical command was exercised by Kondo, who led the Guadalcanal Supporting Forces. This was divided into Kondo’s own Advance Force with the heavy cruisers Atago and Takao of Cruiser Division 4, heavy cruisers Myoko and Maya of Rear Admiral Sentaro Omori’s Cruiser Division 5, light cruiser Isuzu and destroyers Naganami, Makinami, Takanami, Umikaze, Kawakaze and Suzukaze of Tanaka’s Screening Force; fleet carrier Junyo with 24 A6M fighters, 21 D3A dive-bombers and 10 B5N torpedo bombers, and destroyers Kuroshio and Hayashio of Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta’s 2nd Fleet, Air Group Force; battleships Kongo and Haruna, and destroyers Oyashio, Kagero, Murasame, Samidare, Yudachi and Harusame of Kurita’s Support Force; and battleships Hiei and Kirishima of Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body together with the heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma of Hara’s Cruiser Division 8, and heavy cruiser Suzuya of Nishimura’s Cruiser Division 7 escorted by the destroyers Kazagumo, Makigumo, Yugumo, Akigumo, Tanikaze, Urakaze and Isokaze of Kimura’s Screening Group.
Logistic support was provided by the oilers Kokuyo Maru, Toho Maru, Toei Maru and Kyokuto Maru, escorted by the destroyer Nowaki. Other elements of the Japanese strength were approximately 220 warplanes of Kusaka’s Land-Based Air Force at Rabaul with the 25th Air Flotilla and 26th Air Flotilla comprising 67 A6M fighters, 26 D3A dive-bombers and 64 G4M medium bombers; and Vice Admiral Teruhisa Komatsu’s Advanced Expeditionary Force with the light cruiser Katori and the submarines I-4, I-5, I-7, I-8, I-22 and I-76 of Force ‘A’, and I-9, I-15, I-21, I-24, I-174 and I-175 of Force ‘B’.
The US plan remained essentially unchanged, with two task forces under the overall command of Halsey in Nouméa. Kinkaid’s TF16 comprised the fleet carrier Enterprise with 34 F4F fighters, 36 SBD dive-bombers and 12 TBF torpedo bombers, battleship South Dakota, heavy cruiser Portland, light anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan, and destroyers Porter, Mahan, Cushing, Conyngham, Preston, Smith, Maury and Shaw; and Rear Admiral George D. Murray’s TF17 comprised the fleet carrier Hornet with 36 F4F fighters, 36 SBD dive-bombers and 15 TBF torpedo bombers, heavy cruisers Northampton and Pensacola, light anti-aircraft cruisers San Diego and Juneau, and destroyers Anderson, Barton, Hughes, Morris, Russell and Mustin.
Serving as a battle line, Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee’s TF64 comprised the battleship Washington, heavy cruiser San Francisco, light anti-aircraft cruisers Helena and Atlanta, and destroyers Aaron Ward, Benham, Fletcher, Lansdowne, Lardner and McCalla.
Vice Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch’s TF63 provided land- and shore-based air power: at Henderson Field were 26 F4F-4, six P-400 and six P-39 fighters as well as 20 SBD dive-bombers and two TBF torpedo bombers; at Espíritu Santo were 24 F4F-4 fighters and 39 B-17 bombers, 12 Hudson aircraft of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, 32 PBY flying boats and five Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes based on the seaplane carrier Curtiss and small seaplane tender Mackinac; and on New Caledonia were 46 P-39 and 15 Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters, 16 B-26 medium bombers, and 13 Hudson aircraft of the RNZAF.
The Combined Fleet departed to the south on 23 October with Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body some 60 miles (100 km) to the south of Nagumo’s carrier force on a course to pass to the east of Malaita island. Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Advance Force protected Nagumo’s carrier force to the west, and Kakuta’s 2nd Fleet, Air Group Force was still farther to the west with 12 submarines. The last component of the Japanese force was the fleet train.
The first contact between the two sides occurred on 23 October when a PBY flying boat spotted one of the Japanese carriers, but a planned torpedo attack by PBY flying boats that night failed to find the Japanese. Contact was lost again on the following day. Advised by codebreakers about the nature and timing of the planned Japanese naval offensive, the US warships commanded by Kinkaid, as the senior admiral afloat, were sweeping round to the north of the Santa Cruz islands group on 25 October as they searched for the Japanese force. The US warships were deployed as two carrier groups separated from each other by about 12 miles (19 km), and the Japanese were some 350 miles (565 km) to the north-west of the Americans when, at 11.03, two PBY flying boats from the Santa Cruz islands located Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body just beyond practical carrierborne aircraft attack range. The weather was poor, however, and the flying boats could not maintain contact. Hoping to close the range to be able to execute an attack that day, Kinkaid steamed toward the Japanese carriers at top speed and, at 14.25, launched a force of 23 aircraft. The Japanese knew that they had been spotted by US aircraft, however, and not knowing the location of the US carriers, turned to the north to stay out of range of the US carrierborne aircraft. The US attack force therefore returned to their carriers without finding any targets.
At 02.50 on 26 October, the Japanese reversed course once again, and the two fleets closed until they were only 230 miles (370 km) apart by 05.00. At this time, both sides launched search aircraft and prepared their remaining aircraft to attack as soon as the other side’s ships had been located. Although a radar-fitted PBY had in fact located the Japanese carriers at 03.10, the report did not reach Kinkaid until 05.12, shortly after he had ordered the launch of eight pairs of SBD aircraft on a scouting mission. Therefore, believing that the Japanese ships had probably changed position during the last two hours, he decided not to launch his attack force until he had received more current information on the Japanese ships’ location. At 06.45, one of US scout aircraft sighted the carriers of the 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body less than 200 miles (320 km) to the north-west. At 06.58, a Japanese B5N scout aeroplane reported the location of Hornet’s task force.
Each side now raced to beat the other to the punch in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. The Japanese were first to launch their attack force of 64 aircraft, comprising 21 D3A dive-bombers, 20 B5N torpedo bombers, 21 A6M fighters and two more B5N machines to serve as command and control aircraft as the Japanese attack force winged its way toward Hornet by 07.40. The Japanese then immediately began to prepare a second attack by 44 other aircraft.
At this same time, two SBD dive-bombers, responding to the earlier sighting of the Japanese carriers, arrived and stooped down onto Zuiho. With the Japanese combat air patrol busy chasing other US scout aircraft away, the two dive-bombers were able to approach and drop both of their bombs on Zuiho, causing heavy damage and denying use of the carrier’s flight deck to returning aircraft as fires started to rage. The dive-bombers escaped, claiming to have shot down two A6M fighters on their way out. Zuiho had already launched her own attack aircraft, however.
Meanwhile, Kondo ordered Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body to race ahead in an effort 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 in the attacks on the US ships. At 08.10 Shokaku launched a second wave of attack aircraft, this package comprising 19 D3A and eight A6M aircraft, and at 08.40 Zuikaku launched 16 B5N aircraft. By 09.10 the Japanese therefore had 110 aircraft on their way to attack the US carriers.
The US attacks were slow to leave their carriers and were not well co-ordinated. A first wave of 21 attack aircraft and eight escorting fighters was launched at 07.30, a second wave of 11 attack aircraft and eight fighters was launched some 30 minutes later, and a third wave of 18 attack aircraft and seven fighters began climbing into the air at 08.15. The US attack aircraft were running about 20 minutes behind the Japanese. Believing that a speedy attack was more important than a massed attack, the US aircraft proceeded in small groups toward the Japanese ships instead of forming into one large attack 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 aircraft from Enterprise, had taken off by 08.10. A third group, comprising nine SBD, eight TBF and seven F4F aircraft from Hornet, was on its way by 08.20.
At 08.30, the opposing attack aircraft formations began passing within sight of each other on their opposite courses. Nine A6M fighters from Zuiho broke off from their formation and attacked Enterprise’s group of aircraft. In the resulting engagement, four A6M, three F4F and two TBF aircraft were shot down, and another two TBF machines were damaged and had therefore to return to Enterprise.
At 08.50, the leading US attack formation from Hornet spotted four ships of Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body. Pressing on, the US warplanes sighted the Japanese carriers and prepared to attack. Three of Zuiho’s A6M fighters attacked the formation’s F4F fighters, drawing them away from the bombers they were assigned to protect. Thus, the dive-bombers in the first group began their attacks without fighter cover, and were ‘bounced’ by 20 A6M fighters of the Japanese carrier’s combat air patrol, losing four of their number. The remaining 11 SBD aircraft began their attack dives on Shokaku at 09.27, hitting her with three to six bombs, ruining her flight deck, and causing serious damage to the ship’s interior. The final SBD of the 11 lost track of Shokaku and instead dropped its bomb near the destroyer Teruzuki, causing minor damage.
The six TBF machines in the first attack force, having become separated from their strike group, missed the Japanese carriers and eventually turned back toward Hornet. On the way back, they attacked the heavy cruiser Tone, missing with all of their torpedoes. The TBF machines of the second attack formation from Enterprise were also unable to locate the Japanese carriers, and instead attacked the heavy cruiser Suzuya of Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body, but again caused no damage.
At about the same time, the third US attack formation, from Hornet, found the 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body and attacked the heavy cruiser Chikuma, hitting her with two 1,000-lb (454-kg) bombs and causing severe damage. Enterprise’s three SBD machines then arrived and also attacked Chikuma, causing more bomb damage with one hit and two near-misses. Finally, the eight TBF machines from the third attack group arrived and attacked the smoking Chikuma, scoring one more hit. Escorted by two destroyers, the cruiser withdrew from the battle and headed toward Truk atoll for repair.
The US carrier forces received word from their outbound attack aircraft at 08.30 that Japanese attack aircraft were headed their way. Kinkaid had 37 F4F fighters over his ships as the combat air patrol, but Enterprise’s fighter directors were inexperienced as Halsey had taken the veteran fighter director with him to Nouméa when he was elevated to command of the South Pacific Area.
At 08.52 the Japanese attack force commander sighted Hornet’s task force (Enterprise’s task force was hidden by a rain squall) and deployed his aircraft for attack. At 08.57, the US carriers detected the approaching Japanese aircraft on radar at a range of about 40 miles (65 km), and began to vector the 37 fighters of their combat air patrol to engage the incoming Japanese aircraft. However, communication problems, mistakes by the US 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. Although the US combat air patrol was able to shoot down several D3A dive-bombers, most of the Japanese aircraft began their attacks relatively unmolested by US fighters.
At 09.09, the anti-aircraft guns of Hornet and her escorting warships opened fire as the 20 untouched B5N and remaining 16 D3A warplanes began their attacks on the carrier. At 09.12, a D3A placed its 551-lb (250-kg) semi-armour-piercing bomb right in the middle of Hornet’s flight deck, to port of the island, and this weapon penetrated three decks before exploding, killing 60 men. Moments later, a 535-lb (243-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 near the spot at which the first bomb had impacted, also penetrating three decks before exploding, causing severe damage but no direct loss of life. At 09.14, a diving D3A was hit and damaged by anti-aircraft fire directly over Hornet, and its pilot then deliberately crashed his aeroplane into Hornet’s stack, spreading burning aviation fuel over the signal deck.
At the same time that the D3A dive-bombers were attacking, the B5N torpedo bombers were also pressing home their onslaught against Hornet from two different directions. In spite of suffering heavy losses from anti-aircraft fire, the B5N aircraft planted two torpedoes into Hornet between 09.13 and 09.17, knocking out the carrier’s engines. As Hornet slowed to a halt, a damaged D3A approached and deliberately crashed into the carrier’s side, starting a fire near the ship’s main aviation fuel tanks. At 09.20, the surviving Japanese aircraft departed, leaving Hornet dead in the water and burning.
Some 38 Japanese and six US aircraft had been lost in this first attack on Hornet. With the assistance of fire hoses from three escorting destroyers, Hornet had brought her fires under control by 10.00. The wounded were evacuated from the carrier and the cruiser Northampton attempted to take Hornet in tow. However, the effort to rig the tow took some time and more waves of Japanese attack aircraft were inbound.
Starting at 09.30, Enterprise landed many of the damaged and fuel-depleted fighters of the combat air patrol and returning scout aircraft from both carriers. However, with her flight deck full, and the second inbound wave of Japanese aircraft, which were first spotted on radar at 09.30, imminent, Enterprise brought landing operations to a temporary end at 10.00. Fuel-starved aircraft then began ditching 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 A6M fighters from Zuiho, crashed into the water near the destroyer Porter. As the destroyer rescued the aeroplane’s crew, the TBF’s torpedo began running in a wild circle, struck Porter and exploded, causing heavy damage and killing 15 crewmen: it was at one time believed that the destroyer had been torpedoed by the submarine I-21. After the task force commander ordered the destroyer scuttled, the crew was rescued by the destroyer Shaw, which then sank Porter with gunfire.
As the first wave of Japanese aircraft began returning to their carriers from their attack on Hornet, one of them spotted Enterprise’s task force and reported the carrier’s position. So the aircraft of the second Japanese attack wave, believing that Hornet was sinking, switched to the Enterprise’s task force, beginning at 10.08. The dive-bombers arrived ahead of the torpedo bombers and attacked without waiting for the latter. Although the incoming Japanese force had been detected by radar some 55 miles (88.5 km) from their target, the F4F fighters failed to intercept effectively, shooting down only two of the 19 D3A aircraft, and the defence was therefore largely reliant on the ships’ anti-aircraft guns: South Dakota shot down at least 27 aircraft during this phase of the battle. Plummeting through the intense anti-aircraft fire of Enterprise and her escorting warships, the D3A warplanes landed two 551-lb (250-kg) bombs on the carrier and only just missed with a third. The carrier suffered substantial damage, including the forward elevator jammed in the raised position. Twelve of the 19 Japanese aircraft were lost in this attack.
Some 21 minutes later, Zuikaku’s 16 B5N aircraft arrived and divided to attack Enterprise. One group was tackled by two F4F fighters of the combat air patrol, which shot down three of them and damaged a fourth. On fire, the fourth damaged B5N purposely crashed into the destroyer Smith, setting the ship on fire and killing 57 of her crew. The destroyer steered into the spraying wake of the battleship South Dakota, which helped to extinguish the fires, and then resumed her station, firing her remaining anti-aircraft guns at the B5N warplanes which were still attacking. The remaining aircraft attacked Enterprise, battleship South Dakota and cruiser Portland, but all of the torpedoes missed or failed.
The engagement was over by 10.53, and 10 of the 16 attacking aircraft had been shot down. After suppressing most of the onboard fires, at 11.15 Enterprise reopened her flight deck to begin the recovery of aircraft returning from the morning’s US attacks on the Japanese forces. Only a few aircraft had landed, however, before the next wave of Japanese attack aircraft arrived and began their attacks on Enterprise, forcing a suspension of landing operations.
Between 09.05 and 09.14, Junyo had reached a point within 325 miles (525 km) of the US carriers and launched 17 D3A and 12 A6M warplanes. As the 3rd Fleet, Detached Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body and 2nd Fleet, Advance Force manoeuvred to rendezvous, Junyo prepared follow-on attacks. At 11.21, Junyo’s D3A dive-bombers arrived and started their attacks on Enterprise’s task force. The D3A machines scored one near miss on the US carrier, causing more damage, and one hit each on South Dakota and San Juan, causing moderate damage to each ship. Eleven of the 17 D3A warplanes were destroyed in this attack.
At 11.35 Kinkaid decided to withdraw Enterprise and her screening ships from the battle, his decision being based on the fact that Hornet was out of action and Enterprise had received heavy damage, and his own correct belief that the Japanese had one or two undamaged carriers in the area. He directed Hornet’s task force to follow as soon as it could. Between 11.39 and 13.22, Enterprise recovered 57 aircraft as she headed away from the battle. The US aircraft which were still in the air ditched in the ocean and their air crews were rescued by escorting warships.
Between 11.40 and 14.00, Zuikaku and Junyo recovered the few aircraft which returned from the morning attacks on Hornet and Enterprise, and prepared follow-on strikes. At 13.00, the warships of Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Advance Force and Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body together headed directly toward the last reported position of the US carrier task forces and increased speed to try intercept them for a gunfire battle. Zuiho and Shokaku, with Nagumo still on board, retreated from the battle area, leaving Kakuta in control of the forces based on Zuikaku and Junyo.
At 13.06, Junyo launched her second attack of seven B5N and eight A6M warplanes, and Zuikaku launched her third attack of seven B5N, two D3A and five A6M machines. At 15.35, Junyo launched the last Japanese attack force of the day, this consisting of four B5N and six A6M warplanes.
After several technical problems, Northampton finally began the slow process of towing Hornet out of the battle area at 14.45. Also, Hornet’s crew was on the verge of restoring partial power to the ship. At 15.20, however, Junyo’s second attack arrived and struck the almost stationary carrier. At 15.23, one torpedo impacted Hornet, destroying the repairs to the power system and causing heavy flooding, which led to a 14° list. With no power to pump out the water, Hornet was given up and the crew was ordered to abandon ship. The third attack from Zuikaku struck Hornet during this time, hitting the sinking ship with one more bomb. All of Hornet’s surviving crew had left the carrier by 16.27. The last Japanese attack of the day dropped one more bomb on the sinking hulk at 17.20. The destroyers Mustin and Anderson were ordered to sink Hornet with gunfire and torpedoes while the other US warships retired toward the south-east to get out of range of the oncoming warships of the Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Advance Force and Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body. Eight torpedoes scored just three hits, and Hornet still refused to sink. Anderson then closed the range to score six hits with eight torpedoes, yet Hornet still remained afloat. Then the two destroyers pumped some 430 shells into the hulk without effect, other than to set the carrier ablaze from bow to stern. With Japanese destroyers only 20 minutes away, the two US destroyers abandoned Hornet’s burning hulk at 20.40. The rest of the Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Advance Force and Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body reached Hornet’s location by 22.20 and decided that the carrier was too damaged to be worth any attempt to capture. Thus the Japanese finished the job of sinking her with torpedoes by 01.35 on 27 October.
By the break of day on 27 October Kinkaid’s ships were retiring toward Nouméa, while Lee’s surface group, which had not yet engaged, was attacked by a submarine which only narrowly missed the battleship Washington. As a result of this incident, Halsey decided that he would no longer operate capital ships without major air and surface escort for long durations at sea where they were torpedo bait, and Lee was also ordered to withdraw.
Several night attacks by radar-equipped PBY flying boats on Junyo and Teruzuki, knowledge of the head-start the US warships had in their retreat from the area, and a critical fuel situation apparently caused the Japanese to call off any idea of further pursuit of the US warships. After refuelling near the northern end of the Solomon islands group, the Japanese ships returned to their main base at Truk atoll on 30 October.
During the US retreat from the battle area toward Espíritu Santo and New Caledonia, South Dakota collided with the destroyer Mahan, heavily damaging the smaller ship. The loss of Hornet was a severe blow for the Allied forces in the South Pacific, leaving them with only one operational, but nonetheless damaged, carrier in the entire Pacific theatre. Enterprise received temporary repairs at New Caledonia, however, and although still somewhat damaged returned to the Solomons islands group just 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 maritime engagement in the ‘Watchtower’ campaign.
Although a tactical victory for the Japanese in terms of ships sunk and damaged, the Battle of the Santa Cruz islands came at a high cost for the Japanese naval forces. Both damaged carriers were forced to return to Japan for extensive repairs and refitting. After repair, Zuiho returned to Truk atoll late in January 1943. Shokaku was under repair until March 1943, and did not return to full service until July 1943, when she joined Zuikaku at Truk atoll. The most significant losses for the Japanese navy, however, were those represented by experienced air crew. The US forces lost 24 air crew in the battle, but the Japanese lost 148, including two dive-bomber group leaders, three torpedo squadron leaders, and 18 other section or flight leaders. The Japanese lost so many air crew that the undamaged Zuikaku and Hiyo had also to return to Japan for lack of trained men to serve in their air groups. Shortly after the battle Nagumo was reassigned to shore duty in Japan.
With its carrier air crew ranks decimated, and with no quick way to replace them, Japan had finally lost its strategic opportunity to defeat Allied naval forces in a single, decisive battle before the industrial might of the USA placed that goal out of reach. Although they returned to Truk atoll by the summer of 1943, the Japanese carriers played no further offensive role in the decisive Solomon islands campaign.
Even as these naval undertakings were getting under way, throughout 25 October the US land forces on Guadalcanal were redeploying their men and improving their defences against the attack they believed would inevitably resume in the night to come. In the west, the 2/7th Marines and the 5th Marines closed the gap between them; in the south, the 1/7th Marines and the 3/164th Infantry reorganised their tangled deployment and repositioned themselves as separate battalions with the 1/7th Marines fortifying the western 1,400 yards (1280 m) of the sector and the 3/164th Infantry taking the eastern 1,100 yards (1005 m) of the sector. The 3/2nd Marines, as the divisional reserve, were located immediately behind the positions of the 3/164th Infantry and 1/7th Marines.
The Japanese preparations included the commitment of Colonel Toshiro Hiroyasu’s 16th Regiment, Maruyama’s reserve, to the Left-Wing Unit. Starting at about 20.00 on 25 October and continuing into the early morning of 26 October, the 16th Regiment and what remained of the Left-Wing Unit’s other elements made several but wholly unsuccessful frontal assaults on 3/164th Infantry and 1/7th Marines. The rifle, machine gun, mortar, artillery and direct 37-mm canister fire of the marines and infantrymen ripped the Left-Wing Unit’s men to pieces, and Hiroyasu, most of his staff and four battalion commanders were killed in the assaults, while Nasu was hit by rifle fire and mortally wounded. A few small groups of the Left-Wing Unit did manage to penetrate the US line, but all of these were hunted down and killed over the next few days.
The Right-Wing Unit was not involved in the attacks, remaining in place to cover Nasu’s right flank against any attack in that area by US forces. At 03.00 on 26 October Oka’s force at last reached and attacked the marines’ defences near the Matanikau river. Oka’s troops assaulted along an east/west ridge held by the 2/7th Marines but concentrated particularly on its Company F, which defended the extreme left of the marine positions on the ridge. A Company F group of 34 men with four machine guns, commanded by Sergeant Mitchell Paige, 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 at last managed to climb the ridge’s steep slope of the ridge and drive the surviving men of Company F off the crest. Responding to the Japanese capture of part of the ridge, Major Odell M. Conoley, the 2/7th Marines’ executive officer, created a counterattack unit of 17 men including communications specialists, messmen, a cook and a bandsman. This extemporised unit was supplemented by elements of the 2/7th Marines’ 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 little unit had pushed the Japanese back off of the ridge, effectively ending Oka’s attack.
The 2/7th Marines counted 98 Japanese dead on the ridge and 200 more in the ravine in front of it, and itself lost 14 men killed and 32 wounded. By the end of the following night the 29th Regiment had lost 553 men killed or missing and 479 wounded from its total of 2,554 men. The 16th Regiment’s losses were not tallied, but the regiment’s burial parties handled 975 Japanese bodies. US estimates for Japanese casualties on the ridge were 2,200.
At 08.00 on 26 October Hyakutake called off any further attacks and ordered a retreat, and during the night of 26/27 October the Japanese managed to recover some of their wounded from places near the US lines and started to fall back into the surrounding jungle. The US forces recovered and buried or burned as quickly as possible the remains of 1,500 of Maruyama’s men left lying in front of the positions of Puller’s and Hall’s battalions.
The survivors of the Left-Wing Unit were ordered to retreat into the area to the west of the Matanikau river while those of the Right-Wing Unit were instructed to make for Koli Point, to the east of the Lunga perimeter. The men of the Left-Wing Unit had run out of food several days before they began to fall back on 27 October. During the retreat, many wounded Japanese died of their injuries and were buried along the ‘Maruyama Road’. The 2nd Division’s leading units reached the 17th Army’s headquarters area at Kokumbona, in the area to the west of the Matanikau river, on 4 November, and on the same day Shoji’s unit reached Koli Point and made camp. Crippled by combat deaths, combat injuries, malnutrition and tropical disease, the 2nd Division was incapable of further offensive action and therefore fought only defensively for the rest of the campaign.
Later in November, the 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 reached Kokumbona. The Japanese ground offensive had been decisively defeated in the intense Battle for Henderson Field, which ended this third Japanese attempt to retake Henderson Field, and on the following day the Japanese decided that further reinforcement was required in the form of the 38th Division, which was instructed to move from the Netherlands East Indies to the Shortland island groups as its first step to Guadalcanal, where another attempt to oust the US forces was to be made some time in November. Further Japanese landings by the 38th Division took place to the west on 7 November. However, by 11 November the Japanese forces to the east of the Henderson Field perimeter had been dispersed, and from this time onward the initiative in the land war remained with the Allies.
In the period between 28 October and 8 November, the 8th Fleet continued its programme to deliver supplies for Guadalcanal, at first with Hashimoto’s Destroyer Squadron 3 (light cruiser Sendai and destroyers Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Uranami, Shikinami and Ayanami) and Takama’s Destroyer Squadron 4 (destroyers Murasame, Yudachi, Harusame, Samidare, Asagumo, Yugure, Shiratsuyu and Shigure) and then, from 5 November, Tanaka’s Destroyer Squadron 2 (light cruiser Isuzu and destroyers Hayashio, Oyashio, Kagero, Umikaze, Kawakaze, Suzukaze, Naganami, Makinami and Takanami). Together with the light cruiser Tenryu and destroyers Arashio, Asashio, Michishio, Amagiri and Mochizuki under the direct control of the 8th Fleet, these ships completed two cruiser and 65 destroyer missions, and these suffered large numbers of attacks by US aircraft and PT-boats based at Tulagi.
On 30 October, with their most recent victory in the land campaign, the US forces finally felt strong enough to expand their operations outside the perimeter defending the Henderson Field lodgement. The Americans also continued their supply and reinforcement effort during this time. Scott’s TG62.4 (cruiser Atlanta and destroyers Aaron Ward, Benham, Fletcher and Lardner) escorted the transports Alchiba and Fuller making the passage to Guadalcanal with two batteries of 155-mm (6.1-in) artillery. This completely outranged the Japanese artillery which had continued to lay harassing fire of Henderson Field, and on 30/31 October provided gunfire support for the 1st Marine Division’s attack across the Matanikau river to the west of the US beach-head.
This attack had been planned by Vandegrift to exploit the victory of his forces in the Battle for Henderson Field, and had as its objectives the expulsion of the Japanese from all areas within artillery range of Henderson Field, and the severing of the line of retreat for the surviving elements of Maruyama’s force to Kokumbona. Vandegrift committed the three battalions of Edson’s 5th Marines together with Colonel William J. Whaling’s reinforced 3/7th Marines (the so-called ‘Whaling’ Group); two battalions of the 2nd Marines constituted the reserve. The offensive was supported by the artillery of the 11th Marines and 164th Infantry, the ‘Cactus Air Force’ (commanded from 7 November by Brigadier General Louis E. Woods) and gunfire from US warships. Edson was the operation’s tactical commander.
The defence of the Matanikau area was the responsibility of the 4th Regiment and 124th Regiment. Nakaguma’s 4th Regiment defended the Matanikau from the coast to a point about 1,000 yards (915 m) inland, and Oka’s 124th Regiment extended the line farther inland along the river. Both regiments, which on paper comprised six battalions, were severely understrength as a result of combat losses, disease and malnutrition.
Between 01.00 and 06.00 on 1 November, marine engineers built three footbridges across the Matanikau river. At 06.30 nine marine and army batteries (about 36 guns) and the warships San Francisco, Helena and Sterett opened fire on the Japanese positions along the west bank of the Matanikau river, and US warplanes (including 19 B-17 bombers) attacked the same area. At the same time, the 1/5th Marines crossed the Matanikau river at its mouth while the 2/5th Marines and the ‘Whaling’ Group crossed the river farther upstream. Facing the marines was Major Masao Tamura’s 2/4th Regiment. The 2/5th Marines and the ‘Whaling’ Group encountered almost no resistance, and by a time early in the afternoon had reached and occupied a number of ridges to the south of Point Cruz on the coast. Near Point Cruz, however, the 7th Company of the 2/4th Regiment put up a strong defence against the US advance. In several hours of fighting, Company C of the 1/5th Marines took heavy losses and was driven back toward the Matanikau river. Aided by another company of the 1/5th Marines and later by two companies of the 3/5th Marines, the Americans managed to halt their retreat.
At the end of the day, Edson, Colonel Gerald C. Thomas and Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining (the latter two from Vandegrift’s staff) reassessed the marines’ situation and decided to attempt the encirclement of the Japanese defenders round Point Cruz. They ordered the 1 and 3/5th Marines to exert pressure on the Japanese along the coast during the following day while the 2/5th Marines wheeled to the north in order to envelop the Japanese in the area to the west and south of Point Cruz.
The 2/4th Regiment had sustained heavy losses in the day’s fighting, its 7th Company and 5th Company being left with only 10 and 15 uninjured soldiers respectively. Feeling that the US forces were on the verge of breaking through the defences, the headquarters of the 17th Army sent forward all the units it could find to strengthen the 4th Regiment. These reinforcements included the 2nd Anti-Tank Gun Battalion (12 guns) and the 39th Field Road Construction Unit, which occupied prepared fighting emplacements to the south and west of Point Cruz.
On the morning of 2 November, with the ‘Whaling’ Group covering their flank, the 2/5th Marines moved north and reached the coast to the west of Point Cruz, completing the encirclement of the Japanese defenders. The Japanese defences were centred in a draw between a coastal trail and the beach just to the west of Point Cruz, and included coral, earth and log bunkers as well as caves and foxholes. The US artillery shelled these positions throughout 2 November. Later in the day, Company I of the 2/5th Marines made a frontal assault against the northern portion of the Japanese defences, overrunning and killing the Japanese defenders with the aid of naval gunfire from the destroyers Conyngham and Shaw, which fired 803 5-in (127-mm) rounds into the Japanese positions. At the same time, two battalions of the 2nd Marines were now committed to the offensive, and advanced past the Point Cruz area. At 06.30 on 3 November some of the Japanese tried to break out of the pocket but were beaten back by the marines and the, between 08.00 and 12.00 five companies of the 2 and 3/5th Marines completed the destruction of the Japanese pocket with small arms, mortars, demolition charges, and both direct and indirect artillery fire.
At the same time, the 2nd Marines and the ‘Whaling’ Group pushed steadily along the coast, reaching a point 3,500 yards (3200 m) to the west of Point Cruz by the fall of night. The only Japanese troops left in the area to oppose the marine advance were the 500 survivors of the 4th Regiment bolstered by a few emaciated survivors of units involved in the earlier Tenaru and Edson’s Ridge battles as well as a few malnourished naval troops from the original Guadalcanal garrison.
The Japanese feared that they would be unable to prevent the Americans from taking Kokumbona, whose loss would cut the 2nd Division’s line of retreat and seriously threaten the rear-area support and headquarters units of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal. Yet the Japanese were now offered a reprieve, albeit a temporary reprieve. Early on 3 November marine units near Koli Point, to the east of the Lunga perimeter, entered combat against 300 fresh Japanese troops of the 230th Regiment, which was one of the 38th Division’s three regiments, just landed by a force comprising one cruiser, three destroyers and one transport, to reinforce the survivors of the Right-Wing Unit as they fell back to Koli Point after the Battle for Henderson Field.
Combined with the knowledge that a large body of Japanese troops was in the process of relocating to Koli Point after the Japanese defeat in the Battle for Henderson Field, this was sufficient to persuade the Americans that the Japanese were preparing a major westward assault on the Lunga perimeter from the area of Koli Point. The marine leadership on Guadalcanal met on the morning of 4 November. Twining, who was Vandegrift’s assistant operations officer, recommended that the Matanikau river offensive be pressed forward, but Edson, Thomas and Vandegrift believed that the offensive should be terminated so that forces could be relocated to the east in order to counter the Koli Point threat. The 5th Marines and the ‘Whaling’ Group were therefore summoned back to Lunga Point, leaving the 1 and 2/2nd Marines and the 1/164th Infantry to take up holding positions some 2,000 yards (1830 m) to the west of Point Cruz. With their line of retreat therefore still open, the survivors of the 2nd Division began to reach Kokumbona on the same day. It was at about this time that Nakaguma was killed by an artillery shell.
Vandegrift now despatched Hanneken’s 2/7th Marines to deal with the Japanese before they advanced from Koli Point. Soon after landing, however, the Japanese met the 2/7th Marines and drove the battalion back toward the Lunga perimeter. Vandegrift then ordered Puller’s 1/7th Marines and two battalions of the 164th Infantry to join the 2/7th Marines and defeat the Japanese at Koli Point. Just as the US troops began to move, Shoji and the survivors of his Right-Wing Unit began to reach Koli Point, and from 8 November the US troops tied to encircle the Right-Wing Unit at Gavaga Creek near Koli Point. Meanwhile, Hyakutake ordered Shoji to abandon Koli and join the Japanese forces at Kokumbona in the Matanikau river area via a gap along a swampy creek in the southern side of the US lines. Between 9 and 11 November Shoji and between 2,000 and 3,000 of his men escaped into the jungle to the south. On 12 November the Americans overran and killed all the Japanese soldiers left in the pocket. The Americans counted the bodies of 450 to 475 Japanese dead, and seized most of Shoji’s heavy weapons and provisions, and themselves lost 40 men killed and 120 wounded.
On 4 November, meanwhile, two companies of Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson’s 2nd Marine Raider Battalion landed by boat at Aola Bay, some 40 miles (65 km) to the east of Lunga Point. Carlson’s raiders, along with men of the 147th Infantry, were to provide security for 500 ‘Seabees’ tasked with the construction of an airfield at that location. The airfield construction effort was abandoned at the end of November, however, after it had been established that the terrain was wholly unsuitable. On 5 November Vandegrift ordered Carlson’s raiders to march overland from Aola and attack any of Shoji’s units which managed to escape from the Koli Point pocket. With the rest of the companies from his battalion, which arrived a few days later, Carlson and his troops set off on a 29-day patrol from Aola to the Lunga perimeter. During the patrol, the raiders fought several battles with Shoji’s retreating forces, killing almost 500 of them, while themselves suffering 16 killed.
In addition to the losses sustained from attacks by Carlson’s raiders, disease and a lack of food felled many more of Shoji’s men. By the time Shoji’s force reached the Lunga river in mid-November, about half of its way to the Matanikau river, it had only 1,300 men, and this figure had fallen to between 700 and 800 men by the time Shoji’s force reached the 17th Army’s positions to the west of the Matanikau river. Most of these men were then used to reinforce the units defending the Mt Austen and the area of the upper Matanikau river area.
Once the Koli Point pocket had been destroyed, the US forces renewed their western offensive toward Kokumbona on 10 November , deploying three battalions commanded by a marine officer, Colonel John M. Arthur. The 228th Regiment, another of the 38th Division’s constituent regiments, had meanwhile been delivered to the area to the west of the US lodgement by ‘Tokyo Express’ destroyers over several nights from 5 November, and these fresh troops effectively resisted the US attack. After his forces had made several small advances, at 14.45 on 11 November Vandegrift ordered an end to the undertaking and instructed the three battalions to fall back to the eastern bank of the Matanikau river. Vandegrift had come to this decision after receiving intelligence from coast watchers, aerial reconnaissance, and radio intercepts that a major Japanese reinforcement effort was imminent. Indeed, the Japanese were in the process of attempting to deliver the 38th Division’s other 10,000 men to Guadalcanal for yet another attempt to retake Henderson Field: between 2 and 10 November the Japanese completed 65 destroyer runs to deliver more troops. On 7 November Tanaka’s 2nd Destroyer Flotilla (Oyashio, Kagero, Umikaze, Kawakaze, Suzukaze, Naganami, Makinami and Takanami), supplemented by Yugumo, Makigumo and Kazegumo of Rear Admiral Susumu Kimura’s Destroyer Squadron 10, had departed the Shortland islands group with an advance party of 1,300 men of the 38th Division, but during their passage the ships were attacked by dive-bombers from Henderson Field, which damaged Naganami and Takanami. Even so, the ships landed all their troops during the night of 7/8 November. On the next night the destroyers Asashio, Arashio, Michishio, Amagiri and Mochizuki arrived with reinforcements and supplies, but three PT-boats from Tulagi attacked them and secured one torpedo hit on Mochizuki.
This led directly to the naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the decisive maritime moment of the whole Guadalcanal campaign, in which the Japanese reinforcement effort was turned back. While events in the land campaign had been unfolding, Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan’s TG67.4 had arrived off Lunga Point on 4 November with the 8th Marines of the 2nd Marine Division. On 4 November a second US group, consisting of the transports Neville, Heywood and Fomalhaut and the high-speed destroyer transports McKean and Manley landed 1,700 men of the 147th Infantry and a marine raider battalion near Aola Bay on the east coast of Guadalcanal, and as noted above some 500 ‘Seabee’ naval construction troops were also disembarked to construct another airfield, but this latter was soon found to be impossible because of terrain difficulties.
Thus the Japanese too were concerned to impede the flow of US reinforcements and supplies, and committed their Submarine Group ‘A’ (I-16, I-20 and I-24) to the task of finding and sinking the US transports. The midget submarine Ha-11 was launched from I-20 and torpedoed the 2,227-ton transport Majaba on 7 November, managed to evade pursuit by the destroyers Lansdowne and Lardner, but was then scuttled.
The naval Battle of Guadalcanal took place on 12/15 November as the decisive battle in the long series of naval engagements which characterised the ‘Watchtower’ campaign. The battle consisted of a sequence of combined air/sea engagements spread over four days, most of them in the vicinity of Guadalcanal. All of the engagements were related directly to a single effort by the Japanese to effect the major reinforcement of their land forces on Guadalcanal, and thus considered to be parts of the same battle. In two extremely destructive night surface warship engagements, both adversaries lost numerous ships and, over a period of several days US day air attacks sank or damaged a number of Japanese warships and transport ships. The sum of these engagements was that the USA successfully repelled Japan’s last major attempt to dislodge the Allied forces from their positions on Guadalcanal and nearby Tulagi despite the fact that the constant threat posed by Japanese aircraft and warships around the Solomon islands group meant that the Allied forces were frequently unable to resupply their forces on Guadalcanal.
The battle resulted from the fact that on the period from 8 to 15 November the Japanese and US forces attempted to force a decision in the campaign for Guadalcanal. On 8 November Turner’s TG67.1 departed Nouméa with the transports McCawley, President Jackson, President Adams and Crescent City of TG67.1 (Transport Group) carrying the 6,000 men of the reinforced 182nd Infantry less one battalion, one marine replacement battalion, and naval local-defence force personnel. The transports were escorted and supported by the heavy cruisers Pensacola and Portland and the destroyers Barton, Monssen and O’Bannon from TG67.4. Then on 9 November Espíritu Santo witnessed the departure of Scott’s TG62.4 with the light anti-aircraft cruiser Atlanta and the destroyers Aaron Ward, Fletcher, Lardner and McCalla as escort for the transports Zeilin, Libra and Betelgeuse of TG62.4 carrying the 1st Marine Aviation Engineer Battalion, marine replacements, ground personnel of Marine Aircraft Group 1 and supplies. Callaghan’s TG67.4 also put to sea from Espíritu Santo as a covering force with the heavy cruiser San Francisco, light cruiser Helena, light anti-aircraft cruiser Juneau and destroyers Cushing, Laffey, Sterett, Buchanan, Shaw, Gwin and Preston. TG67.4 joined TG67.1 on 11 November.
During the night of 11/12 November Kinkaid’s TF16 also put to sea from Nouméa with a covering group comprising the carrier Enterprise with 36 F4F fighters, 31 SBD dive-bombers and 10 TBF torpedo bombers, escorted by Rear Admiral Howard H. Good’s Screening Group with the heavy cruiser Northampton, light anti-aircraft cruiser San Diego, and destroyers Clark, Anderson, Hughes, Morris, Austin and Russell, together with Lee’s TF64 comprising the battleships South Dakota and Washington and the destroyers Benham and Walke.
At much the same time the destroyers Makinami, Suzukaze, Yugumo, Makigumo and Kazegumo delivered another 600 ground troops and Sano, commander of the 38th Division, to Guadalcanal during the night of 10/11 November despite the attempts of US aircraft and PT-boats to prevent their arrival. To protect the operation, the Japanese grouped the boats of the Patrol Group’s Submarine Group ‘D’ (I-122, I-172, I-175 and Ro-34) of Komatsu’s Advance Expeditionary Force in the approaches to Guadalcanal’s north coast: I-172 was sunk on 29 October by a PBY flying boat of the US Navy’s VP-11 squadron to the west of San Cristóbal island, and on 10 November the high-speed minesweeper Southard sank I-15. On the following day I-7, I-9, I-21 and I-31 of the Scouting Unit launched their reconnaissance floatplanes to reconnoitre Vanikoro on Santa Cruz island, Espíritu Santo, Nouméa and Suva in the Fiji islands group. I-21 also torpedoed the 7,176-ton transport Edgar Allen Poe in the area to the south-east of Nouméa: the New Zealand minesweeper Matai and corvette Kiwi managed to tow the damaged vessel to Nouméa, but here she was declared a constructive total loss.
At this time there were 24 US submarines on patrol round the Solomon islands group.
Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Advance Force of Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet sortied from Truk atoll on 9 November for a joint operation with Mikawa’s 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force operating from Rabaul and the Shortland islands group. Yamamoto also provided Abe’s 3rd Fleet, Advance Force, Raiding Group (otherwise the 3rd Fleet, Bombardment Force, Volunteer Attack Group) as a support force including the battleships Hiei (flag) and Kirishima of Battleship Squadron 11 equipped with special fragmentation shells for the long-range bombardment which was intended to destroy the facilities and aircraft stationed on Henderson Field. The battleships were screened by Kimura’s Destroyer Squadron 10 (light cruiser Nagara and destroyers Yukikaze and Amatsukaze of Destroyer Division 16, Akatsuki, Ikazuchi and Inazuma of Destroyer Division 6, and Teruzuki) as well as Takama’s Destroyer Squadron 4 with Asagumo, Murasame, Samidare, Yudachi and Harusame of Destroyer Division 2 as the Sweeping Unit, and Shigure, Shiratsuyu and Yugure of Destroyer Division 27 as the Patrol Unit.
It was the Japanese plan that during the night of 12/13 November Abe’s 3rd Fleet, Advance Force, Raiding Group would undertake a gunfire bombardment of Henderson Field, and that during the following night of 13/14 November the gunfire bombardment would be repeated by Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Bombardment Unit comprising the heavy cruisers Maya and Suzuya screened by the light cruiser Tenryu and destroyers Kazegumo, Makigumo and Yugumo of Destroyer Division 10, and Michishio. Mikawa was to cover this operation with the 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Support Force, Main Body comprising the heavy cruisers Chokai and Kinugasa screened by the light cruiser Isuzu and destroyers Arashio and Asashio of Destroyer Division 8. At the same time Tanaka’s Destroyer Squadron 2 (Hayashio, Kagero and Oyashio of Destroyer Division 5, Kawakaze, Suzukaze and Umikaze of Destroyer Division 24, Makinami, Naganami and Takanami of Destroyer Division 31, and Amagiri and Mochizuki) were to be the Destroyer Escort Force for the 11 large transport vessels of the Transport Unit (9,696-ton Arizona Maru, 6,641-ton Kumagawa Maru, 7,180-ton Sado Maru, 7,142-ton Nagara Maru, 7,189-ton Nako Maru, 6,477-ton Canberra Maru, 5,425-ton Brisbane Maru, 7,000-ton Kinugawa Maru, 6,872-ton Hirokawa Maru, 6,998-ton Yamaura Maru and 6,435-ton Yamatsuki Maru) carrying the main strength of the 38th Division and its heavy equipment to landing locations in the vicinity of Cape Esperance and Kokumbona.
To provide distant support for this typically Japanese naval complex of undertakings, there were Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Attack Force, Main Body (later 2nd Fleet, Support Force, Main Body), comprising the battleships Kongo and Haruna of Kurita’s Battleship Squadron 3, heavy cruisers Atago (flag) and Takao supported by Hashimoto’s Screening Group (light cruiser Sendai and destroyer Ayanami), Kurita’s 2nd Fleet, Air Striking Force (carriers Junyo and Hiyo of Kakuta’s Carrier Squadron 2 with 42 A6M fighters, 35 D3A dive-bombers and 18 B5N torpedo bombers between them), heavy cruiser Tone, and Hashimoto’s Destroyer Squadron 3 with the light cruiser Sendai and destroyers Hatsuyuki and Shirayuki of Destroyer Division 11, and Uranami, Shikinami and Ayanami of Destroyer Division 19. These occupied a covering position to the north-east of the Solomon islands group.
There were also sizeable land- and shore-bases air forces in the area. On the Allied side, Fitch’s TF63 had, on Henderson Field, 28 F4F, 18 P-38, one P-400 and one P-39 fighters, 37 SBD dive-bombers and nine TBF torpedo bombers, and on Espíritu Santo eight F4F fighters, 13 F4F reconnaissance fighters, 16 TBF torpedo bombers, 37 B-17 heavy bombers, five B-26 medium bombers, two Consolidated PB2Y Coronado flying boats, five Hudson patrol aircraft of the RNZAF and 25 PBY flying boats. On the Japanese side, Kusaka’s Land-Based Air Force (11th Air Fleet) had at Rabaul the 25th Air Flotilla and 26th Air Flotilla with about 215 aircraft between them.
The Japanese transports assembled near the Shortland islands group and proceeded south-eastward down ‘The Slot’ toward Guadalcanal on 12 November with the aim of having the warships arrive early in the morning of 13 November with the slower transport ships travelling some distance behind them. The destroyers Shigure, Shiratsuyu and Yugure would provide a rear guard in the Russell islands group during Abe’s foray into ‘Ironbottom Sound’ between Guadalcanal and Florida islands.
On 11 November Scott’s TG62.4 (one light anti-aircraft cruiser and four destroyers) arrived off Lunga with three attack cargo ships. The Japanese conducted several air attacks on these attack cargo ships on 11/12 November, using aircraft based at Rabaul and also at Buin on Bougainville island to the north-west along the Solomon islands chain. Most of the attack cargo ships were unloaded without serious damage, however, and 12 of the Japanese aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the US ships or by fighters from Henderson Field. In an attack by 12 of Hiyo’s aircraft, the attack cargo ship Zeilin was damaged, however, and detached under escort of the destroyer Lardner. Bombers of the 11th Air Fleet from Rabaul also attacked Henderson Field. During the morning of 12 November Turner’s four transport ships of TG67.1 and Callaghan’s covering force (three heavy cruisers, two light anti-aircraft cruisers and seven destroyers of TG67.3) arrived off Guadalcanal under cover of Lee’s TG64 (two battleships and four destroyers). The transports began to unload their men and equipment, and at this time the heavy cruiser Portland was detached to TF16 and the destroyers Gwin and Preston to TF64. During an air attack by bombers from Rabaul, the destroyer Buchanan was damaged by her own anti-aircraft fire and the heavy cruiser San Francisco by a crashing Japanese aircraft.
When air reconnaissance reported the approach of substantial Japanese naval forces, Turner abandoned the landing of men and equipment, and then pulled back the four transports and the three attack cargo ships under escort of the destroyers Buchanan, McCalla and Shaw, and the minesweepers Hovey and Southard.
The landing of the Japanese ground reinforcements and their weapons and supplies from the 11 transports, which had departed the Shortland islands group on 12 November with Destroyer Squadron 2, was at this time postponed for 24 hours to give Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Attack Force, Main Body, which was the second bombardment group, an opportunity to shell Henderson Field again during the night 14/15 November and to provide cover for the landing. This group comprised the battleships Kirishima and Hiei, heavy cruisers Atago and Takao, light cruisers Nagara and Sendai, and destroyers Uranami, Shikinami, Ayanami, Teruzuki, Inazuma, Asagumo, Oyashio, Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Samidare and Kagero.
Thus was set the scene for the 1st Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, which took place on 13 November. Turner had accurate intelligence about Abe’s force, but Kinkaid’s force was too far away to help. Turner felt he had no choice but to defend the waters around Guadalcanal with Callaghan’s force of five cruisers and eight destroyers. The US ships were badly outgunned, but had the advantage of radar. US reconnaissance aircraft spotted the approach of the Japanese ships, and with the seven transports now out of the way, Turner could detach all his usable combat ships to protect the troops ashore from the expected Japanese attack and/or reinforcement effort. Callaghan had a few days’ seniority over the more experienced Scott, and was therefore placed in tactical command. Callaghan prepared his TF67 to meet the Japanese that night in the sound, his force comprising the heavy cruisers San Francisco (flag) and Portland, light cruiser Helena, light anti-aircraft cruisers 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, along with a complex formation plus some confusing orders from Abe, served to split the formation into several groups. The US force steamed in a single column around ‘Ironbottom Sound’, with the destroyers at the head and rear of the column and the cruisers in the centre, as in the Battle of Cape Esperance. Moreover, while five of the US ships had the new and more effective SG radar, Callaghan’s deployment put none of these vessels in the forward part of the column, nor did Callaghan choose one of these vessels as his flagship.
Kinkaid sent many of the attack aircraft from the carrier Enterprise to operate from Henderson Field, while the carriers Junyo and Hiyo were held well back and contributed little to the air defence of the Japanese surface forces in the Solomon islands group.
Abe had intelligence that there was a force of US cruisers and destroyers in the waters off Guadalcanal, but appears to have assumed that these would depart after dark, as had been the pattern for some time. His ships’s guns were loaded with high-capacity shore bombardment shells rather than the armour-piercing shells appropriate for a naval engagement. Abe reversed course on encountering bad weather, and by the time he resumed his advance he had lost 40 minutes and his destroyer screen was out of position.
At about 01.25 on 13 November, in almost complete pitch darkness as a result of the bad weather and dark moon, the Japanese ships entered the sound between Savo and Guadalcanal islands, and prepared to bombard Henderson Field. Several of the US ships detected the Japanese ships on radar, beginning with Helena at about 01.24, but had trouble communicating the information to Callaghan because of problems with their ships’ radio equipment and lack of discipline with their communications procedures. Several minutes later, both forces sighted each other about the same time, but Abe and Callaghan hesitated ordering their ships into action. Abe seems to have been surprised by the proximity of the US ships and could not decide if he should momentarily withdraw to give his ships time to change from bombardment to anti-ship ammunition, or to continue onward. He decided to continue.
Callaghan apparently intended to attempt to ‘cross the T’ of the Japanese advance, as Scott had done in the Battle of Cape Esperance, but was confused by the incomplete information he was receiving, and the fact that the Japanese formation consisted of several scattered groups. As a consequence Callaghan gave several confusing orders on ship movements. The US formation began to fall apart, apparently further delaying Callaghan’s order to open fire as he first tried to establish the positions of his ships. Meanwhile, both forces continued to head directly at each other. At 01.48 Akatsuki and Hiei turned on large searchlights and illuminated Atlanta at the point-blank range of only 3,000 yards (2740 m), and several of the ships on each side immediately opened fire. Realising that his force was almost surrounded by Japanese ships, Callaghan ordered that odd-numbered ships should fire to starboard and even-numbered ships to port. Most of the remaining US ships then opened fire, although several had quickly to shift target in order to comply with Callaghan’s order.
As the ships from each side intermingled, they engaged each other in an utterly confused and chaotic close-range mêlée. At least six of the US ships (Laffey, O’Bannon, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland and Helena) fired on Akatsuki, which had drawn attention to herself with her searchlight. The Japanese destroyer blew up and sank within a few minutes, but not before hitting Atlanta with shells and a torpedo. Only eight of the Japanese crew of 197 survived the sinking and were later recovered by US forces.
Perhaps as a result of being the lead cruiser in the US formation, Atlanta was the target of several Japanese ships, probably including Nagara, Inazuma and Ikazuchi, in addition to Akatsuki. The gunfire inflicted heavy damage on Atlanta, and the detonation of a torpedo cut all her engineering power. Atlanta now drifted into the line of fire of San Francisco, which accidentally fired on her, causing even greater damage and killing Scott and many members of the bridge crew. Without power or able to fire her guns, Atlanta 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. She too was hit heavily and stopped dead in the water. With her nine lit searchlights, great size and a course taking her directly through the US formation, Hiei now became the focus of the fire from many of the US ships. Laffey passed so close to the Japanese battleship that the two ships only just avoided a collision. Hiei was unable to depress her main or secondary batteries sufficiently to hit Laffey, which was able to rake Hiei’s superstructure with 5-in (127-mm) and machine gun fire, causing heavy damage to the 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 likewise fired several close-range salvoes into Hiei’s superstructure, and perhaps one or two torpedoes into her hull, causing the battleship further damage, before both of these destroyers escaped into the darkness. Unable to fire her main or secondary batteries at the three destroyers causing her so much trouble, Hiei instead concentrated on San Francisco, which was passing just 2,500 yards (2285 m) away. Along with Kirishima, Inazuma and Ikazuchi, Hiei made repeated hits on San Francisco, disabling her steering control and killing Callaghan, Captain Cassin Young and most of the bridge staff. The first few salvoes from Hiei and Kirishima consisted of the special fragmentation bombardment shells, which limited the damage inflicted on the interior of San Francisco, and may have saved her from being sunk outright. Not expecting a ship-to-ship confrontation, it took the crews of the two Japanese battleships several minutes to switch to armour-piercing ammunition. Nevertheless San Francisco, now almost helpless to defend herself, managed to steam momentarily clear of the mêlée. However, she managed to land at least one shell in Hiei’s steering gear room during the exchange, flooding it with water, shorting her power steering generators, and severely inhibiting the battleship’s ability to manoeuvre. Helena followed San Francisco in an effort to shield her from further harm.
Two of the US destroyers now met a sudden demise. Yukikaze and either Nagara or Teruzuki chanced upon the drifting Cushing and pounded her mercilessly with gunfire, knocking out all of her systems. Unable to fight back, Cushing’s crew abandoned the ship, the hulk sinking several hours later. Having escaped from her engagement with Hiei, Laffey suddenly encountered Asagumo, Murasame, Samidare and, perhaps, Teruzuki. The Japanese destroyers raked Laffey with gunfire and then hit her with a torpedo whose detonation broke the US destroyer’s 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 forcing her to steer in a circle. After completing her first loop, she was able to fire four salvoes at Hiei, but otherwise took little further part in the battle.
Yudachi and Amatsukaze now independently charged the rear five ships of the US formation. Two torpedoes from Amatsukaze hit Barton, immediately sinking her with heavy loss of life. Yudachi planted a torpedo in Juneau, stopping the light cruiser dead in the water, breaking her keel, and knocking out most of her systems. Juneau then turned to the east and crept slowly out of the battle area. Monssen avoided the wreck of Barton and steamed on in search of targets. She was suddenly engaged by Asagumo, Murasame and Samidare, which had just finished Laffey and now smothered Monssen with gunfire, damaging her severely and forcing the crew to abandon their ship. The hulk sank some time later.
Amatsukaze now approached San Francisco with the intention of finishing her. While concentrating on San Francisco, however, Amatsukaze failed to notice the approach of Helena, which fired several close-range full salvoes at Amatsukaze and knocked her out of the action. Though heavily damaged, Amatsukaze was able to escape under cover of smoke and the distraction of Helena as a result of an attack by Asagumo, Murasame and Samidare. Aaron Ward and Sterett, independently searching for targets, each sighted Yudachi, which appeared to be unaware of the approach of the two US destroyers. Both of the US ships hit Yudachi simultaneously with gunfire and torpedoes, blasting her out of the water and forcing her crew to abandon ship. The Japanese destroyer did not immediately sink, however. Continuing on her way, Sterett was suddenly ambushed by Teruzuki, heavily damaged and forced to withdraw eastward from the battle area. Aaron Ward found herself in a one-to-one duel with the altogether more potent Kirishima, and inevitably suffered heavy damage. She also tried to retire from the battle area to the east, but soon stopped dead in the water as a result of the damage to her engines.
After nearly 40 minutes of brutal, close-quarter fighting, the two sides broke contact and ceased fire at 02.26 after Abe and Captain Gilbert Hoover, Helena’s captain and the senior surviving US officer, ordered their forces to disengage. Abe appeared to have a decisive victory in his grasp. He had the battleship Kirishima, light cruiser Nagara, and destroyers Asagumo, Teruzuki, Yukikaze and Harusame with only light damage and therefore capable of continuing to fight, although Inazuma, Ikazuchi, Murasame and Samidare had been damaged to the extent that their fighting ability was impaired. Hoover had only the light cruiser Helena and destroyer Fletcher still capable of effective resistance.
The way therefore appeared clear for Abe to bombard Henderson Field and, perhaps, to finish off the US naval forces in the area, clearing the way for the troops and supplies to be landed safely on Guadalcanal. However, at this crucial juncture, Abe chose to abandon the mission and depart the area. Several reasons have been suggested for why he arrived at this decision. From the beginning of the war, Japanese commanders had been constantly and strongly reminded of the crucial need to conserve fuel and ammunition, and also not to risk their ships unnecessarily. Thus the damage to his flagship, Hiei, and his other ships may have combined with his expenditures of fuel and ammunition during the battle to cause Abe strong concerns. His own injuries and the deaths of some of his staff from battle action may also have affected his thinking, and it is possible that as a result of communication problems with the damaged Hiei he was unsure as to how many of his or the US ships were still capable of combat. Furthermore, 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 the remnants of the US warship force.
Whatever the reason, Abe now ordered a disengagement and general retreat of his warships, although Yukikaze and Teruzuki were instructed to remain and assist Hiei. Samidare recovered survivors from Yudachi at 03.00 before joining the other Japanese ships in the retirement to the north.
At 03.00 on 13 November, Yamamoto postponed the planned landings of the transport vessels, which thereupon returned to the Shortland islands group to await further orders. Dawn revealed three crippled Japanese ships (Hiei, Yudachi and Amatsukaze) and three crippled US ships (Portland, Atlanta and Aaron Ward) off Savo island. Amatsukaze was attacked by dive-bombers but managed to escape to Truk atoll and eventually returned to action several months later. The abandoned Yudachi was sunk by Portland, whose guns were still operable despite the other damage the cruiser had suffered. The tug Bobolink moved around ‘Ironbottom Sound’ throughout 13 November, assisting the crippled 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 and SBD bombers from the carrier Enterprise, and B-17 bombers of the USAAF’s 11th Heavy Bombardment Group from Espíritu Santo. Abe and his staff transferred to Yukikaze at 08.15. After sustaining more damage from the air attacks, including four torpedo hits, Hiei sank in a position to the north-west of Savo island, perhaps after being scuttled by her remaining crew, late in the evening of 13 November. Portland, San Francisco, Aaron Ward, Sterett and O’Bannon were eventually able to reach rear-area bases for repair. Atlanta sank near Guadalcanal at 20.00 on 13 November. Departing the Solomon islands area with San Francisco, Helena, Sterett and O’Bannon later that day, Juneau was torpedoed and sunk by the submarine I-26. More than 100 survivors of a crew of 650 were left to fend on their own in the open ocean for eight days before rescue aircraft belatedly arrived. While awaiting rescue, all but 10 of Juneau’s survivors died from their injuries, the elements and shark attacks.
As a result of the confused nature of the battle, the US Navy believed that it had sunk as many as seven Japanese ships. This, as well as the Japanese withdrawal, caused the USA to believe at the time that it had won a significant victory. It was only after the war that the US Navy learned that it had suffered what most see as a crushing tactical defeat. Nevertheless, most analysts agree that Abe’s decision to withdraw had turned his tactical victory into a strategic defeat. Henderson Field remained operational with attack aircraft ready to deter the slow Japanese transports from approaching Guadalcanal with their cargoes of men, equipment and supplies. Moreover, the Japanese had lost an opportunity to eliminate the US naval forces in the area, a result from which would have taken even the comparatively resource-rich US some time to recover. Yamamoto relieved Abe of command and later ordered his retirement.
Including the sinking of Juneau, the US losses in the battle included 1,439 men killed, while those of the Japanese were between 550 to 800 men killed.
After receiving more reconnaissance reports, Halsey detached Lee’s force to Guadalcanal in the afternoon of 13 November with the battleships South Dakota and Washington and the destroyers Walke, Benham, Preston and Gwin. Kinkaid was instructed to remain to the south of Guadalcanal with the carrier Enterprise and her supporting ships. Kinkaid too had received intelligence during the day indicating that another Japanese bombardment group was closing on Guadalcanal, but the need to steam into the wind during flight operations meant that the Enterprise group was too far away for Lee’s supporting battleships to reach the area in time to effect an interception, and Mikawa’s force was therefore able to drop hundreds of 8-in (203-mm) shells onto Henderson Field before withdrawing.
Although their effort to reinforce their ground forces on Guadalcanal had thus been delayed, the Japanese had not abandoned the attempt to complete the original mission, albeit a day later than originally planned and, during the afternoon of 13 November, the 11 transport ships resumed their journey toward Guadalcanal. A Japanese force of cruisers and destroyers, originally assigned to cover the unloading of the transports on the evening of 13 November, was now assigned the mission which Abe’s force had failed to carry out, namely the bombardment of Henderson Field. The warship force, commanded by Mikawa, comprised two subdivisions of the 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, namely Nishimura’s 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Support Force, Bombardment Group and 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Support Force, Main Group. The former comprised the heavy cruisers Maya and Suzuya, light cruiser Tenryu and destroyers Kazagumo, Michishio, Makigumo, Yugumo, Mochizuki and Amagiri, and the latter the heavy cruisers Chokai and Kinugasa, light cruiser Isuzu and destroyers Arashio and Asashio.
With the battered US naval forces absent, the 8th Fleet, Outer South Seas Force, Support Force, Bombardment Group was able to slip into the Guadalcanal area uncontested. Maya and Suzuya undertook a gunfire bombardment of Henderson Field while the rest of Mikawa’s force cruised around Savo island guarding against any possibility of US surface attack. The 35-minute bombardment caused some damage to various aircraft and facilities at the airfield, but did not put Henderson Field out of operation. The cruiser force ended the bombardment at about 02.30 on 14 November and headed toward Rabaul via the Shortland islands group. At the break of day, warplanes from Henderson Field, Espíritu Santo and Enterprise, the last stationed some 230 miles (370 km) to the south of Guadalcanal, began their attacks, first on Mikawa’s force heading away from Guadalcanal, and then on the transport force heading toward the island. The attacks on Mikawa’s force sank the heavy cruiser Kinugasa, with the loss of 511 of her crew, and damaged Maya, compelling her return to Japan for repair. Repeated air attacks on the transport force sank six of the transports and forced one more to turn back with heavy damage. Survivors from the transports were rescued by the convoy’s escorting destroyers, but some 450 army troops lost their lives. The other four transports and undamaged destroyers continued toward Guadalcanal after the fall of night of 14 November, but waited to the west of Guadalcanal for the end of the 2nd Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, and only then pressed on.
Meanwhile Enterprise, with just 18 fighters left in her air group, made use of the cover provided by a weather front to evade a Japanese air attack and shaped course for Nouméa.
To cover the unloading of the transports at Guadalcanal, the Japanese made another attempt to neutralise Henderson Field, sending a warship force under Kondo to bombard Guadalcanal on the night of 14/15 November. This force, divided into two formations, comprised Kondo’s own Advanced Force, Main Body (battleship Kirishima, heavy cruisers Atago and Takao, light cruiser Nagara and destroyers Teruzuki, Inazuma, Asagumo, Oyashio, Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Samidare and Kagero) and Hashimoto’s Advance Force, Main Body, Screening Force (light cruiser Sendai and destroyers Uranami, Shikinami and Ayanami).
The Japanese ships approached Guadalcanal at about 24.00 in conditions of moderately good visibility. With only a few ships available to him, Halsey detached Lee’s TG64 as TF64 (two modern battleships ands four destroyers) defend Guadalcanal. TF64 was a scratch force: the battleships had operated together for only a few days, and the destroyers were from four different divisions, having been selected simply for the fact that they had the most fuel. The US force arrived in ‘Ironbottom Sound’ early in the evening of 14 November and began patrolling around Savo island in a single column with the four destroyers in the lead, followed by Washington and with South Dakota bringing up the rear. At 22.55, the battleships’ radars began to detect the ships of the Japanese force near Savo island at a range of some 19,750 yards (18060 m) at the start of the 2nd Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Kondo had divided his force into several groups: of these, one comprising Sendai and the destroyers Shikinami and Uranami swept along the eastern side of Savo island, and the destroyer Ayanami swept counter-clockwise around the south-western side of Savo island to check for the presence of Allied ships.
The Japanese ships spotted Lee’s force at about 23.00, though Kondo thought that the battleships were cruisers. Kondo ordered Sendai’s group, supplemented by Nagara and four destroyers, to tackle and destroy the US force before he brought the bombardment force (Kirishima and the heavy cruisers) into ‘Ironbottom Sound’. The US ships detected Sendai’s group on radar, but not the other groups of Japanese ships. Using radar fire-direction, the two US battleships started to engage Sendai’s group at 23.17. Lee ordered a ceasefire about five minutes later after the radar returns to the north disappeared from his ships’ radar screens. Sendai, Uranami and Shikinami were undamaged, however, and circled out of the danger area. Meanwhile the four destroyers leading the US formation began engaging both Ayanami and Nagara’s group of ships at 23.22. Nagara and her destroyers replied with accurate gunfire and salvoes of torpedoes: Walke and Preston were both hit and sank within 10 minutes with heavy loss of life. Benham had part of her bow blown off by a torpedo and had to pull back, sinking on the following day, and Gwin was hit in her engine room and put out of the fight. Though at great cost, the US destroyers had fulfilled their task of screening the battleships by absorbing the initial impact of contact with the Japanese.
Lee ordered the retirement of Benham and Gwin at 23.48. Washington passed through the area still occupied by the damaged and sinking US destroyers and engaged Ayanami with her secondary battery, setting the Japanese destroyer on fire. Following close behind, South Dakota suddenly suffered a series of electrical failures, making her radar and most of her gun batteries inoperable. However, she continued to follow Washington toward the western side of Savo island. Receiving reports from Ayanami and others of his ships of the destruction of the US destroyers, Kondo now headed his bombardment force toward Guadalcanal, believing that the US force had been defeated. His force and the two US battleships were now heading toward each other. Almost blind and unable to fire her main and secondary armaments in any meaningful manner, South Dakota was targeted by gunfire and torpedoes by most of the ships of the Japanese force, including Kirishima, beginning at about 24.00. Although able to score a few hits on Kirishima, South Dakota took between 36 and 42 large- and medium-calibre hits on her superstructure, and these completely knocked out her communications and remaining fire-control capability, 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. The Japanese ships continued to concentrate their fire on South Dakota, none of them apparently seeing Washington as she approached to within 9,000 yards (8230 m). From this close range, Washington suddenly hit Kirishima with at least nine 16-in (406-mm) shells, causing heavy damage and setting the Japanese battleship on fire. At least one shell struck Kirishima below the waterline, causing a rudder to jam and so compel the ship to circle uncontrollably to port. At 00.25 Kondo ordered all of his functional ships to converge and try to 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 toward the Russell islands group in order to draw the Japanese force away from Guadalcanal and the damaged South Dakota. The Japanese ships finally sighted Washington and launched several torpedo attacks, but the US battleship was manoeuvred cleverly and none of the torpedoes struck her. Lastly, believing the way was clear for the transport convoy to proceed to Guadalcanal, Kondo ordered his ships to break contact and retreat from the area about 01.04, which the Japanese ships had done by 01.30.
Both Kirishima and Ayanami were scuttled and sank by 03.25. Uranami rescued survivors from Ayanami, and Asagumo, Teruzuki and Samidare rescued the remaining crew from Kirishima. Some 242 US and 249 Japanese sailors had died in the engagement, which was one of only two battleship-against-battleship surface battles in the entire Pacific campaign.
The four Japanese transport vessels had beached themselves at Tassafaronga Point on Guadalcanal by 04.00 on 15 November. Here they came under attack, beginning at 05.55, by warplanes from Henderson Field and elsewhere, and by the field artillery fof the US ground forces on Guadalcanal. Later the US destroyer Meade approached and opened fire on the beached transports and surrounding area. These attacks set the transports on fire and destroyed any equipment on them which the Japanese had not yet managed to unload. Only 2,000 to 3,000 of the troops originally embarked actually made it to Guadalcanal, thus reducing the 38th Division to the strength of a single regiment, and most of the ammunition and food supplies were lost: only 260 cases of ammunition and 1,500 bags of rice were landed. These troops and their meagre supplies were not enough to have a significant effect on the Japanese attempt to retake Guadalcanal.
By contrast, Turner had managed to land almost all of the US men and supplies ashore on 11/12 November. Already very short of supplies, the Japanese ground forces on Guadalcanal were now starving to death and would continue to do so.
Yamamoto’s reaction to Kondo’s failure was milder than his earlier reaction to Abe’s withdrawal, perhaps as a result of Japanese navy culture and politics: as second-on-command of the Combined Fleet, Kondo was a member of the senior staff and the battleship ‘clique’, while Abe was a career destroyer specialist. Kondo was neither reprimanded nor reassigned, but Abe was relieved of his command and forced to resign in March 1943.
The 2nd Naval Battle of Guadalcanal represented he last major attempt by the Japanese to seize control of the seas around Guadalcanal, and in the aftermath the Japanese command came to doubt the ability of its forces to retake the island. The Japanese therefore refocused their attention on New Georgia, to the north-west of Guadalcanal, as the base from which they could check the US advance in the Solomon islands group. The battleship and cruiser bombardments of Guadalcanal were thus ended, but the ‘Tokyo Express’ continued its frequent nocturnal supply and evacuation runs to and from Guadalcanal. From this time onward, Japanese air and naval operations around Guadalcanal were wholly defensive, either to provide subsistence supplies to their forces on Guadalcanal or, from January 1943, to evacuate and redeploy the surviving forces. In contrast, the US Navy was thereafter able to resupply the US forces at Guadalcanal at will, including the delivery of two fresh divisions by a time late in December 1942.
After the naval Battles of Guadalcanal, the US ground forces again crossed the Matanikau river and advanced to the west once more from 18 November, but were now able to make only slow progress in the face of determined resistance. The US offensive was halted on 23 November on a line just to the west of Cruz Point, and here the Americans and Japanese would remain facing each other for the following six weeks, until the final stages of the campaign as the US forces embarked on their last push to drive Japanese forces from the island. However, their inability to neutralise Henderson Field doomed to failure the Japanese effort to reverse the Allied conquest of Guadalcanal.
By a time late in November 1942, the Japanese army’s units on Guadalcanal were in dire straits, with almost nothing in the way of ammunition and vital supplies, and many of the men starving. The Americans had firm control of the waters around the island during the day, and, following the naval Battles of Guadalcanal the Japanese navy no longer controlled the approaches at night. The Japanese therefore resorted to increasingly desperate measures in their efforts to deliver at least a minimum quantity of supplies: their latest method was to send in destroyers loaded with barrels of supplies, which were dropped overboard as the ships passed at high speed in the hopes that some could be pulled ashore by the land forces.
The US strength in the South Pacific was now growing on an almost daily basis. Saratoga had been repaired and became the core of a new task force, while Enterprise continued to operate despite her damaged forward elevator, which had been jammed since the bomb damage she had taken in the Battle of Santa Cruz. Three modern battleships and two older battleships were now in the theatre, and two escort carriers were undertaking regular runs to ferry aircraft to the rear bases at New Caledonia and Espíritu Santo.
By 24 November Allied intelligence had become aware that the Japanese were once again massing transport ships in the upper and central parts of the Solomon islands group, and by 27 November Kinkaid had therefore prepared a plan to intercept any further Japanese landing operations with a force of cruisers and destroyers. On 28 November Kinkaid was ordered to pass command to Wright, the commander of Cruiser Division 11, to become commander of the North Pacific Area with responsibility for operations in the area of the Aleutian islands group. Although Wright retained Kinkaid’s battle plan, he was offered little opportunity to become acquainted with his ships’ captains, and the ships of his force had never exercised together.
The battle plan was theoretically sound. Wright’s force was to operate as two cruiser forces and one destroyer force, each with at least one ship carrying the most recent SG surface-search radar. Communication protocols were tightened. The cruisers’ scout floatplanes were to be launched before the battle began in order to eliminate the fire hazard their aviation fuel represented, and to drop illuminating flares over the Japanese ships, which would thus be rendered better targets for the US ships’ guns. The destroyers were to deliver a surprise torpedo attack and then pull back, while the cruisers were to maintain a distance of at least 12,000 yards (10975 m) from the Japanese to reduce their susceptibility to Japanese torpedo attack. The cruisers were not open fire until the destroyers’ torpedoes had reached their targets, and searchlights were not to be used. In overall terms, these night-fighting tactics were essentially similar to those which would prove effective in later battles.
On 29 November Wright met his ships’ captains to review the plan, and this was the only opportunity the admiral had to meet his captains before the battle, for a report which arrived in the evening of the same day indicated that a Japanese force of destroyers and transport vessels was approaching Guadalcanal. Halsey’s orders to effect an interception were delayed for several hours and Wright’s force did not arrive off Guadalcanal until 22.25 on 30 November. As his TF67 steamed into the area, Wright ordered two destroyers from a departing convoy to join his force, and the somewhat bewildered destroyer commanders, who did not know the operational plan and had nothing better than SC radar, then joined the rear of the column.
Commanding the Japanese operation, Tanaka knew that his ships had been sighted by a search aeroplane, but for some reason the aeroplane’s report did not reach the US forces on Guadalcanal, so no air attacks were launched from Henderson Field during the day.
The Battle of Tassafaronga was the final stage of the naval fighting off Guadalcanal in November 1942, and was different from the preceding two elements of the naval Battles of Guadalcanal. The battle pitted TF67, divided into Wright’s own TG67.2 (heavy cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola and Northampton and light cruiser Honolulu, the last flying Tisdale’s flag) and TG67.4 (destroyers Fletcher, Drayton, Maury, Perkins, Lamson and Lardner) against eight destroyers of Tanaka’s Destroyer Escort Force based on Destroyer Squadron 2, divided into the Destroyer Patrol Unit or Strike Force (Naganami and Takanami), the 1st Transport Unit (Makinami, Kuroshio, Oyashio and Kagero) and the 2nd Transport Unit (Kawakaze and Sukukaze).
The resulting Battle of Tassafaronga was fought on 30 November, and was the last in a series of naval engagements during the ‘Watchtower’ campaign. The battle occurred in the channel between Guadalcanal and Savo islands, and was named after Tassafaronga Point on Guadalcanal, a landing point for Japanese supplies on Guadalcanal and the destination of the eight vessels of Tanaka’s destroyers. Initially comprising four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers, TF67 had steamed to the north from Espíritu Santo to interdict the ‘Tokyo Express’ run, and was joined by the destroyers Lamson and Lardner, which were returning from an escort assignment to Guadalcanal: lacking the time to brief their commanding officers, Wright assigned them a position behind his cruisers.
On the night of 30 November Minneapolis made radar contact with the Japanese ships at 23.06. By 23.16 Fletcher had Japanese ships 7,000 yards (6400 m) distant and requested permission to launch torpedoes. According to the plan, the destroyers should have manoeuvred independently at this point to make their surprise attack, but Wright now hesitated until 23.20, when the Japanese had already moved aft of the destroyers. As a result, the launch geometry for any torpedo attack had become very difficult, and only three destroyers launched torpedoes. Moreover, none of the 20 torpedoes which were launched scored a hit.
There followed another departure from the pre-established battle plan. The cruisers should have held fire until the destroyers’ torpedoes had reached their targets, but instead Wright ordered the cruisers to open fire almost as soon as he was informed that torpedoes were being launched. Even so, the Japanese might have been slaughtered but for the US ships’ poor gunnery.
The Japanese reacted to the sight of torpedo wakes and gun flashes without a second thought, employing the battle plan drilled into them by years of intensive nocturnal combat training: this was to fire all torpedoes at the opponents’ gun flashes, reverse course and refrain from firing back unless absolutely necessary and thereby deny the opponents any visual aiming point. Takanami turned to starboard immediately after launching her torpedoes, but was the Japanese ship closest to the US warships, which at this stage of the Pacific campaign tended to concentrate their fire on the nearest radar target. Takanami returned fire, getting off 70 shells before being wrecked and left sinking.
Many of the other Japanese destroyers could not launch their torpedoes until they had dumped their deck-carried supply barrels, yet despite this limitation the Japanese launched more than 20 torpedoes before turning and falling back at high speed. Meanwhile, the US destroyers were moving off at high speed in accordance with plan. The two cruiser groups, however, steamed right into the path of the Japanese torpedoes. Minneapolis was hit by two 610-mm (24-in) ‘Long Lance’ torpedoes whose detonations ripped open her hull and flooded the bow compartments and a fire room. With some 60 ft (18.3 m) of her bow nearly blown off and a 4° list, Minneapolis later managed to reach Tulagi for temporary repairs, but was out of the war for 10 months. New Orleans was hit in the forward magazines and lost her entire forward part, including a turret. She too eventually managed to reach Tulagi, where she was faced with coconut logs to protect her bulkheads well enough to reach Sydney and receive a jury bow before departing for Bremerton on the north-west coast of the USA, where a new bow had already been completed and was ready for installation by the time she arrived: the heavy cruiser returned to duty during the autumn of the following year. Pensacola took a hit which quickly flooded an engine room, ignited an intense fuel oil fire, and generally made a mess of the ship. She also managed to reach Tulagi, but it took 12 hours to extinguish her fires, and she did rejoin the fleet until October 1943. Northampton was hit by two torpedoes, whose detonations opened an engine room and started intense fires. Neither the fires nor progressive flooding could be brought under control, and Northampton was abandoned at 01.15 and sank at 03.04.
Tanaka meanwhile regathered his ships and made another run to the east, dumping his remaining supply barrels, firing additional torpedoes without effect, and attempting to rescue survivors from Takanami before departing the area.
Honolulu and the US destroyers were unscathed but came briefly under ‘friendly’ fire from the nervous cripples. Tisdale, on Honolulu, then charged off after the Japanese, directed by the cruiser floatplanes, which had been seriously delayed taking to the air by the fact that there was absolutely no wind to aid their take-off, and now illuminated a derelict transport on the beach by mistake. The Japanese had got away, and Tisdale patrolled the area, picking up survivors, until dawn.
The US Navy later concluded that Kinkaid’s battle plan was sound, though in light of later experience it became clear that the destroyers were still not operating with an adequate degree of tactical independence. The blame for the defeat fell on Wright and the destroyer commander, of whom Halsey was especially critical. Nimitz concluded that much more training was required. Spruance believe that, since Wright was brand new to the command and was relying on another officer’s plan, his acceptance of responsibility was an indication of great integrity.
It is sometimes said that more is to be learned from defeat than from victory. The Battle of Tassafaronga dispelled the last of the false lessons drawn from the perhaps-fortuitous US victory in the Battle of Cape Esperance, and in future actions the Americans would use increasingly effective night tactics emphasising independent destroyer action and the use of radar to keep the Japanese beyond effective torpedo range of the cruisers.
The Japanese now lacked the capability to exploit their naval victory into an advantage for their land forces on Guadalcanal, so while the Battle of Tassafaronga was a tactical victory for the Japanese, it had little operational or strategic significance.
Within the context of the land fighting, throughout November the US forces continued their offensive in an attempt to push the perimeter out beyond artillery range of the airfield. The Matanikau river area was finally cleared after strong Japanese resistance had finally been overcome. By the start of December, the Japanese had delivered almost 30,000 army troops to Guadalcanal since the beginning of the campaign, but by this time only about 20,000 of that number were still alive, and of those a mere 12,000 or so remained more or less fit for combat duty. By 7 December Hyakutake’s ground forces were losing about 50 men every day as a result of disease, malnutrition, and ground or air attacks.
Between 3 and 11 December the ships of Tanaka’s Destroyer Squadron 2 made three more attempts to deliver supplies from the Shortland islands group to the 17th Army on Guadalcanal. On 3/4 December the destroyers Oyashio, Kuroshio, Kagero, Kawakaze, Suzukaze, Nowaki and Arashi, covered by Naganami, Makinami and Yugure, transported 1,500 drums of supplies to Cape Esperance, where they were thrown into the sea, but only 310 of these were recovered by the troops. During the night of 7/8 December another attempt to jettison provisions was made under the control of Captain Sano with Oyashio, Kuroshio, Kagero, Kawakaze, Suzukaze, Nowaki and Ariake, together with the same covering force, but Nowaki was bombed and put out of action as the Japanese ships headed to the south-east, and the operation then had to be abandoned in the face of torpedo attacks by eight PT-boats. Another attempt was made on 11/12 December under Tanaka’s command with the destroyers Terutsuki, Oyashio, Kuroshio, Kagero, Tanikaze, Urakaze, Kawakaze, Suzukaze, Yugure, Ariake and Arashi, which dropped 1,200 drums. Terutsuki was attacked by two PT-boats off Guadalcanal and succumbed to a torpedo hit, and the US lost one of the boats, PT-40.
On 12 December the Japanese navy proposed that the effort to retake Guadalcanal be abandoned, and on the same day a group of senior Japanese army officers admitted that the task of retaking the island was now impossible.
During December, on whose first day the Americans had 40,000 men on the island against a Japanese strength of about 25,000, the 1st Marine Division, now totally exhausted, was withdrawn for recuperation. During the next month Major General Alexander McC. Patch’s army-led XIV Corps (Major General John B. Marston’s 2nd Marine Division [actually commanded by Brigadier General Alphonse DeCarre to avoid the problem that Marston was senior to Patch], Major General J. Lawton Collins’s 25th Division, and Brigadier General Edmund B. Sebree’s Americal Division) assumed control of operations on Guadalcanal. The Americal Division’s 164th Infantry, 182nd Infantry and 132nd Infantry had been delivered to Guadalcanal on 13 October, 12 November and 8 December respectively. In addition, the US Army’s independent 147th Infantry and the 2nd Marine Division’s 8th Marines arrived on 4 November. As well as infantry and marines, the reinforcements included additional artillery, construction, aviation, naval and support units. It was on 9 December that Patch, commander of the Americal Division, succeeded Vandegrift as commander of forces on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, command of his division passing to Sebree. On the same day, the 5th Marines left the island, and the rest of the 1st Marine Division had followed by the end of the month.
Patch’s instructions were to ensure the destruction of all the Japanese forces remaining on Guadalcanal, and Patch told his superior, Major General Millard F. Harmon, commanding all US Army forces in the South Pacific area, that he needed more troops to accomplish his mission. In response, Harmon ordered the 25th Division, which was in the process of relocating from Hawaii to the South Pacific area, to be shipped directly to Guadalcanal. The 25th Division’s units reached Guadalcanal in stages during the last two weeks of December and the first week of January 1943. In addition, the rest of the 2nd Marine Division’s units, including the 6th Marines, were ordered to Guadalcanal over the same period. By 7 January 1943 the US forces on Guadalcanal totalled slightly more than 50,000 men.
On 12 December a small group of Japanese soldiers of the 38th Field Engineer Regiment managed to infiltrate through the US lines from the south, destroy one fighter aeroplane and a single fuel truck on Henderson Field, and then make its escape. Two days later, a patrol of the 132nd Infantry fought a small action with a group of Japanese troops on the eastern slopes of Mt Austen on the northern side of the Lunga river. On 15 December another Japanese night infiltration saw five Japanese soldiers slip past US sentry positions to attack Henderson Field with explosives: bypassing rows of sleeping airmen, a large fuel dump, a large bomb dump and many parked aircraft, the raiders tied their explosives to the propeller of a P-39 fighter and destroyed only that one aeroplane.
This was typical of the night infiltration tactics which the Japanese used throughout the Guadalcanal campaign, but Patch believed that these and similar events revealed an unacceptably high level of risk to Henderson Field by Japanese troops operating from the area on and round Mt Austen. On 16 December, therefore, in preparation for the US general offensive which was being planned for the destruction of all the Japanese forces remaining on Guadalcanal, Patch decided that Mt Austen and its environs must be secured, and accordingly ordered the Americal Division’s 132nd Infantry to take this objective. Colonel Leroy E. Nelson ordered his 3/132nd Infantry to lead the assault on the first of several hills, followed by the 1/132nd Infantry and supported by the 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers of the 246th Field Artillery Battalion and the 75-mm (2.95-in) ‘pack’ howitzers of the 2/10th Marines. The exposed hills making up the Mt Austen complex were numbered by the Americans on an arbitrary basis rather than in any reflection of their heights, and on 17 December Lieutenant Colonel William C. Wright’s 3/132nd Infantry advanced to the south of Hill 35 and began to climb toward Mt Austen’s summit near Hills 20 and 21. In order to achieve the timetable set by Sebree, the battalion had been compelled to leave behind many of its support weapons, such as heavy mortars and machine guns, and to take only limited quantities of ammunition and supplies, all of which had to be carried by hand along paths hacked through the thick jungle vegetation. At 09.30 on 18 December, as they detected the US approach, the Japanese defenders pinned-down the Americans with machine gun and rifle fire. Exhausted and dehydrated by their trek through the thick jungle, Wright’s men could not quickly deploy out of column formation, and made no headway against the defences.
On the following morning, following an artillery barrage and air attack by aircraft of the ‘Cactus Air Force’ (commanded from 26 December by Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy), Wright went forward with several artillery observers to investigate the terrain in front of his forces, but at 09.30 was killed by Japanese machine gun fire. Major Louis Franco, the battalion’s second in command, could not get forward and take command until late in the day, preventing the battalion from continuing the attack. At the same time, Japanese infantrymen infiltrated the US positions and effectively harassed the command posts of both the 1 and 3/132nd Infantry as well as the column of heavily laden US supply and engineer parties on the jungle trail linking the battalions with the Lunga perimeter. Both US battalions dug in for the night while artillery bombarded the Japanese positions.
Between 20 and 23 December the Japanese apparently withdrew from the area, for US patrols encountered no opposition in the area of Hills 20 and 21 and the area farther to the south. Nelson ordered the two battalions to move to the west toward Hill 31 and then attack to the south toward Hill 27, but on 24 December the 3/132nd Infantry was against checked, this time on the slopes of Hill 31, by intense machine gun fire from well-concealed positions. Facing the Americans was the most strongly fortified Japanese position on Guadalcanal, nicknamed the Gifu (after Gifu Prefecture in Japan) by the Japanese. The Gifu position sat between the summits of Mt Austen and Hills 27 and 31, and consisted of a 1,500-yard (1370-m) line of between 45 and 50 interconnected and excellently camouflaged pillboxes dug into the ground and forming a horseshoe shape with the open end to the west. Only about 3 ft (0.9 m) of each pillbox extended above ground level, and the walls and roofs, built of logs and packed earth, were up to 2 ft (0.6 m) thick. Each pillbox contained one or two machine gun teams and several infantrymen. Some of the pillboxes were sited beneath huge jungle trees. Each of these pillbox emplacements was sited to provide mutual support to the others. Numerous foxholes and trenches provided additional support and cover for more infantrymen and machine gunners. Behind the pillboxes, the Japanese had sited 81-mm (3.2-in) and long-range 90-mm (3.54-in) mortars. The Gifu position was commanded by Major Takeyoshi Inagaki with some 800 men of the 2/228th Regiment and 2/124th Regiment.
Between 25 and 29 December, the Japanese prevented the Americans from making any headway in their attempt to overrun the Gifu position. While the 3/132nd Infantry, with artillery support, conducted frontal attacks against the position to pin the defenders, the 1/132nd Infantry attempted to flank the Gifu to the east. However, as the Japanese defences were fully integrated, the flanking attempt was unsuccessful. By 29 December the US casualties had reached 53 killed, 129 wounded, and 131 sick. Assisting the US infantrymen in this action were Fijian commandos led by officers and non-commissioned officers from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and on 2 January Nelson added Lieutenant Colonel George F. Ferry’s 2/132nd Infantry to the assault force with instructions to move round the Gifu position toward Hill 27. The battalion reached the lower slopes of the hill by 16.00 without meeting serious resistance. On the same day Nelson, exhausted and probably also ill, was succeeded in regimental command by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. George. On the following day elements of the 2/132nd Infantry occupied the top of Hill 27, surprised and killed the crew of a 75-mm (2.95-in) gun, and with the aid of heavy artillery fire, drove back six Japanese counterattacks. By this time, the soldiers on Hill 27 were running extremely short of ammunition and grenades, and had exhausted their medical supplies. The 2/132nd Infantry sought to improve its positions, but this was a task rendered very difficult by the hard coral that the Americans quickly discovered under the hill’s grass-covered earth. This made it all but impossible to dig foxholes. The remainder of the 2/132nd Infantry, carrying ammunition, food, and medical supplies, now reached Hill 27 and joined the battle, soon gaining the upper hand over the attacking Japanese.
At the same time, under George’s command, the 1 and 3/132nd Infantry attacked and managed to break into the Gifu position, then closed the gaps between their units and thus consolidated their position. The Japanese losses were very heavy, especially in the final suicide charge on Hill 27, and it was noted that the Japanese dead were emaciated, for no supplies had been delivered during the battle and the Japanese had eaten their last food on 1 January. In this 1st Battle of Mt Austen, the 132nd Infantry had lost 115 men killed and 272 wounded. The relatively high number of combat deaths resulted, at least in part, from wounds which had swiftly become infected in the tropical conditions, and the impossibility of moving out the wounded during the early stages of the operation. Even after the arrival of the 2/132nd Infantry, wounded men continued to die, unable to withstand the portage down the arduous and slippery improvised jungle trails on a litter carried by two men. These losses combined with tropical diseases, heat and combat exhaustion to make the 1 and 3/132nd Infantry temporarily incapable of further offensive action. On 4 January therefore, these two battalions were instructed to dig in and hold positions surrounding the Gifu position on the north, east and south. The 2/132nd Infantry suffered the loss of only 27 men killed, and was immediately assigned to further offensive combat operations. The Japanese losses are not known, but were estimated by one officer of the 2/132nd Infantry on 9 January at 500 killed and wounded, most of the latter later dying as a result of the combination of their wounds, illness and starvation.
On 1/2 January a Japanese supply mission to Guadalcanal involved 10 destroyers. The ships were attacked unsuccessfully by B-17 bombers of the USAAF, but US Navy SBD dive-bombers damaged Suzukaze. An attack by PT-boats from Tulagi failed. The destroyers released supply drums into the sea, but as usual few of these were recovered by the men on Guadalcanal. Even though their plans and preparations for the ‘Ke’ (i) evacuation from Guadalcanal were being developed from 4 January, the Japanese still attempted to deliver supplies to the men of the 17th Army on the island. Available for these supply runs and the evacuation being readied for the first week in February were Rear Admiral Tomiji Koyanagi’s Destroyer Squadron 2 (light cruiser Isuzu and destroyers Kuroshio, Oyashio, Kagero, Shiranui, Umikaze, Kawakaze, Suzukaze, Naganami and Makinami) and Tanaka’s Destroyer Squadron 4 (light cruiser Agano and destroyers Arashi, Hagikaze, Nowaki, Maikaze, Akigumo, Yugumo, Makigumo, Kazegumo, Hatsukaze, Yukikaze, Amatsukaze, Tokitsukaze, Urakaze, Isokaze, Tanikaze, Hamakaze and Akizuki). These light warships continued the ‘Tokyo Express’ nocturnal runs from Rabaul via the Shortland islands group to Cape Esperance, and were supported by aircraft based at Munda and Vila on New Georgia.
On 4/5 January Rear Admiral Walden L. Ainsworth’s TF67 (light cruisers Nashville, St Louis and Helena, and destroyers Fletcher and O’Bannon) undertook a gunfire bombardment of Munda, an important Japanese base and staging point on New Georgia, while Tisdale’s force (heavy cruiser Louisville, light cruisers Honolulu, Columbia and New Zealand Achilles which suffered bomb damage, and destroyers Drayton, Lamson and Nicholas) constituted a covering force to the south-west of the Solomon islands group.
On 6 January B-17 and Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of Lieutenant General George C. Kenney’s US 5th AAF bombed Rabaul, sinking one transport, and damaging the destroyer Tanikaze and one other ship.
On 10/11 January eight Japanese destroyers made a ‘Tokyo Express’ run to Guadalcanal, and were spotted and reported by Allied reconnaissance assets. Accordingly, 10 PT-boats were deployed in several groups from Tulagi. Six of these boats fired 21 torpedoes, slightly damaging Hatsukaze with one hit but losing PT-43 and PT-112 to Japanese fire.
On 14/15 January nine destroyers made a similar effort, but were attacked by US Marine Corps SBD dive-bombers from Henderson Field, which slightly damaged Arashi, Urakaze, Tanikaze and Hamakaze, which were nonetheless are able to continue their operation. Some 13 PT-boats were deployed from Tulagi to intercept, and seven of the boats launched 17 torpedoes, none of which found any target.
On 19 January Captain Robert P. Briscoe’s so-called ‘Cactus Striking Force’ (destroyers Nicholas, O’Bannon, Radford and De Haven of TG76.5) was transferred to Tulagi, and sortied from here on several occasions to make gunfire bombardments of the Japanese positions on Guadalcanal.
On 2 January, with the arrival of the 25th Division and the rest of the 2nd Marine Division, the US formations on Guadalcanal and Tulagi became the XIV Corps, as noted above, under the command of Patch who, on 5 January, issued his plan for the operation to clear Guadalcanal of Japanese forces. The 2nd Marine Division was to push to the west from the Matanikau river along the coast, the 25th Division was to finish clearing Mt Austen and secure the hills and ridges around the inland forks of the Matanikau river, and the Americal Division and 147th Regiment were to hold the Lunga perimeter.
The deep ravines of the Matanikau river’s upper forks constituted a natural divide in the 25th Division’s operational area, separating it into three parts each dominated by a single terrain feature: to the east of the Matanikau river was Mt Austen; in the angle between the river’s south-eastern and south-western forks Hill 44 and Hill 43 created the feature that the US soldiers called the Sea Horse because of its shape when viewed from above; and between the Matanikau river’s south-western and north-western forks was a much larger hill mass known to the Americans as the Galloping Horse. Collins assigned the 35th Infantry to the task of clearing the Gifu position, securing the rest of Mt Austen and capturing the Sea Horse, and the 27th Infantry to seizing the Galloping Horse from the north. The two regiments were then join on Hill 53 (the ‘head’ of the Galloping Horse) and complete the clearance of the nearby hills and ridges. The 161st Infantry was held in reserve. Ammunition and supplies were to be transported along rough jeep trails as far forward as possible, and then carried the rest of the way by native Solomon islanders.
Knowing of the arrival of US reinforcements, the Japanese were expecting the offensive. Hyakutake ordered the units on the hill tops around the Matanikau river and in the Gifu position to hold their prepared defences. Hyakutake hoped that as the US infantrymen surrounded and infiltrated the Japanese defensive pockets, the Japanese would gain the upper hand in close combat, especially as the nature of this fighting would deny the Americans the opportunity to exploit their superior firepower in artillery and close air support. At night, the Japanese planned to infiltrate the US rear areas and interdict their supply lines to prevent the US assault forces from receiving sufficient ammunition and provisions to continue their attacks. The Japanese thus hoped to delay the Americans long enough for more reinforcements to arrive.
Viewed from overhead with north upwards, the Galloping Horse appeared upside down, with Hills 54 and 55 forming the horse’s rear legs and Hill 57 forming the front legs. From east to west Hills 50, 51, and 52 formed the horse’s body with the 900-ft (275-m) Hill 53 at the head.
Colonel William A. McCulloch, commander of the 27th Infantry, ordered his 1/27th Infantry to attack Hill 57 and his 3/27th Infantry to assault Hills 51 and 52 from Hill 54, which was already in US hands. Defending the Galloping Horse and the nearby fork of the Matanikau river were 600 men of the 3/228th Regiment under Major Haruka Nishiyama.
The US undertaking began at 05.50 on 10 January with a bombardment by six battalions of artillery and attacks by 24 aircraft on suspected Japanese positions in the valley between Hill 57 and the jumping-off point for the 1/27th Infantry. Advancing from 07.30, the battalion reached the top of Hill 57 by 11.40 in the face of only light resistance. From Hill 54, the 3/27th Infantry attacked along an exposed route dominated by the high ground of Hills 52 and 53. The battalion started its attack at 06.35 and occupied Hill 51 without meeting resistance. Continuing its advance, the battalion was then checked by heavy machine gun fire 200 yards (180 m) short of Hill 52’s summit. After an artillery bombardment and an attack by six aircraft, the 3/27th Infantry resumed its advance and had taken the summit by 16.25, destroying six machine gun positions and killing about 30 Japanese.
At 09.00 on 11 January, the 3/27th Infantry launched its attack on Hill 53, but was soon halted by machine gun and mortar fire. The Americans, who had not received enough water, began to suffer an increasing number of heat casualties: in one platoon, for example, only 10 men were still conscious by the afternoon.
On the following day the 2/27th Infantry took over the assault on Hill 53, but was stopped short of Hill 53’s summit. During the night, Japanese infiltrators cut the telephone line between the 2/27th Infantry and regimental headquarters, affecting unit communications. On 13 January the Americans renewed the attack but were again halted by heavy machine gun and mortar fire. A knoll on the southern edge of the ridge (the ‘horse’s neck’) leading to Hill 53 was the pivot of the Japanese defences. The knoll accommodated several machine gun and mortar positions which had effectively held off the US attacks across the ridge. Captain Charles W. Davis, the 2/27th Infantry’s executive officer, now volunteered to lead four other men against the knoll. Davis and his party crawled to within 10 yards (9 m) of the Japanese position. The Japanese defenders threw two grenades which did not explode, and Davis and his men threw eight grenades at the Japanese, destroying several of their positions. Davis then stood up, and while firing his rifle and then his pistol with one hand, waved his men forward with the other as he advanced further onto the knoll. Davis and his men then killed or chased away the rest of the Japanese on the knoll. Silhouetted against the sky during the action, Davis was visible to the Americans all up and down the ridge. Inspired by his actions, and refreshed by a sudden thunderstorm, the US troops stormed forward and had taken Hill 53 by 12.00. The Americans counted the bodies of 170 Japanese soldiers on and around the Galloping Horse, and had themselves lost fewer than 100 dead.
Between 15 and 22 January the 161st Infantry hunted down the remainder of Nishiyama’s battalion in the nearby gorge of the Matanikau river’s south-western fork. Some 400 Japanese were killed defending the Galloping Horse and surrounding area, while 200 (including Nishiyama) escaped on 19 January.
During the final week of 1942, Colonel Robert B. McClure’s 35th Infantry was tasked with the capture of the Sea Horse and the completion of the reduction of the Gifu position on Mt Austen. For this operation Lieutenant Colonel Roy F. Goggin’s 3/182nd Infantry and the Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop of the 25th Division were attached to the 35th Infantry. McClure ordered the 2/35th Infantry and the Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop to relieve the 132nd Infantry at the Gifu position, with orders to exert pressure on that strongpoint and maintain contact with the 3/182nd Infantry on the right. Lieutenant Colonel William J. Mullen’s 3/35th Infantry was to advance to the south-west from Hill 27 (to the south of the Gifu position) and then swing to the north in order to seize Hills 43 and 44. Lieutenant Colonel James B. Leer’s 1/35th Infantry was initially to remain in reserve, following about a half day’s march behind the 3/35th Infantry. The 3/182nd Infantry was to protect the 25th Division’s artillery positions on the open ground to the north of Mt Austen and to the east of the Matanikau river by advancing to the south from Hill 65 to block the river gorge and the ravine between Hills 31 and 42 against Japanese infiltration. Maintaining contact with the 27th Infantry and 35th Infantry, the 3/182nd Infantry was to attack Sea Horse Ridge in concert with the other two regiments, and by 30 December was in action against the Japanese forces holding the crest of Sea Horse Ridge. McClure next assigned his 2/35th Infantry to the assault on the Gifu position and sent the 1 and 3/35th Infantry on a long movement through the jungle to attack the Sea Horse Ridge from the south.
Defending the Sea Horse Ridge and nearby valleys were the 1/124th Regiment and 3/124th Regiment, with Oka’s command post located nearby. The Sea Horse Ridge position comprised Hill 43 in the south and Hill 44 adjoining it to the north.
After making a 7,000-yard (6400-m) circuitous movement through the jungle around Mt Austen, at 06.35 on 10 January the 3/35th Infantry launched its attack on Hill 43. As the Americans closed on Hill 43 from the south, Japanese soldiers near Oka’s command post spotted the US troops as they crossed a stream and immediately attacked, threatening the flank of the US column. Two US soldiers managed to repel the Japanese attack with a machine gun but were killed in the process. Making progress against light resistance, the 3/35th Infantry dug in for the night about 700 yards (640 m) short of the top of Hill 43. On the following day the 1/35th Infantry was added to the attack and with artillery support the two battalions drove through several Japanese machine gun positions and had taken Hill 43 by a time early in the afternoon. Continuing on towards Hill 44 against light opposition, the Americans captured the rest of the Sea Horse Ridge by the fall of night, cutting off the Japanese forces in the Gifu position. The native Solomon islanders who had been man-packing supplies to the two battalions during the attack were having difficulty delivering sufficient food and ammunition over the long trail between the Sea Horse Ridge and the Lunga perimeter, so B-17 bombers were now used to air drop supplies.
On 12 January the 35th Infantry’s two battalions continued their attack to the west in the direction of the Galloping Horse, but were stopped by a Japanese strongpoint on a narrow ridge about 600 yards (550 m) to the west of their start line. After trying to outflank the position for two days, the Americans were able to smash the strongpoint with mortar and artillery fire, and advanced to a ridge overlooking the south-western fork of the Matanikau river by 15.00 on 15 January. On this day Japanese survivors from the Sea Horse battle, including Oka, most of the 124th Regiment’s headquarters staff and the 1/124th Regiment, were able to slip past the US forces and head to the west. The Americans counted 558 Japanese dead around the Sea Horse, mostly of them of the 3/124th Regiment, and captured 17 men.
On 9 January Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Peters’s 2/35th Infantry had replaced the 132nd Infantry’s three battalions and prepared to assault the Gifu positions. For four days the battalion despatched patrols to feel out the Japanese positions, and at the same time the Japanese sought to wear down the Americans with night infiltration attacks. By 13 January the 2/35th Infantry had lost 57 men killed or wounded, and by the following day the combination of battle casualties and disease (especially malaria) had reduced the battalion to 75% of its nominal strength. To aid the battalion, the personnel of the 35th Infantry’s anti-tank gun company were deployed as infantry. With the fall of the Sea Horse position to the Americans, the defenders of the Gifu position were now isolated from the rest of the 17th Army. In the last message over his field telephone before the line was cut, Inagaki refused an order from Oka to abandon his position and attempt to infiltrate back to friendly lines, instead vowing that his command would fight to the last, apparently refusing the order as it would have meant abandoning the sick and injured.
A US attack on the Gifu position by the whole 2/35th Infantry on 15 January was repulsed, and on the following day McClure replaced Peters with Major Stanley R. Larsen, who decided on a complete encirclement of the Gifu position before attempting to effect its reduction with a massive artillery bombardment on 17 January. In the meantime, the Americans used a loudspeaker to broadcast a surrender appeal, but only five Japanese soldiers responded. One of these revealed that his company had gathered to discuss the appeal, but decided not to surrender because they were too weak to carry their injured comrades with them to the US lines.
At 14.30 on 17 January, 12 155-mm (6.1-in) and 37 105-mm (4.13-in) pieces of artillery started to fire on the Gifu position. During the following 90 minutes, the US artillery lobbed 1,700 shells into an area about 1,000 yards (910 m) square. Because of the late hour, the Americans were not able to follow the barrage with an immediate attack, but instead had to wait until the next day, which provided the Japanese with time to recover. On 18 January, the Americans attacked into the weaker western side of the Gifu position, making some headway and destroying several Japanese pillboxes over the next two days until heavy rain stopped the attack on January 20. The 2nd Battle of Mt Austen resumed on 22 January as the Americans were able to move a light tank up their supply trail to Mt Austen. A tank proved to be the decisive factor in the battle. At 10.20, protected by some 16 to 18 infantrymen, the tank blasted three Japanese pillboxes and penetrated into the Gifu position. Next the tank completely traversed the Gifu position and destroyed five more pillboxes, so opening a 200-yard (185-m) gap in the Japanese line. The American infantry surged through the gap and took positions in the middle of the Gifu position.
At about 02.30 on 23 January, realising that the battle was lost, Inagaki led his staff and most of the remaining survivors of his command, totalling some 100 men, in a final charge against the Americans, and Inagaki and his men were killed almost to the last man. At sunrise on January 23, the Americans secured the rest of the Gifu position. The 2/35th Infantry had lost 64 men killed in the assaults on the Gifu position between 9 and 23 January, bringing the total number of US dead on Mt Austen to 175. The Americans counted the bodies of 431 Japanese in the remains of the Gifu position’s defences, and 87 elsewhere around Mt Austen. Total Japanese losses in the Sea Horse and both Mt Austen battles were probably between 1,100 and 1,500 men.
As the army’s offensive was taking place in the hills around the upper reaches of the Matanikau river, De Carre’s 2nd Marine Division was attacking to the west along the north coast of Guadalcanal. Facing the marines in the hills and ravines to the south of Cruz Point were the remnants of Maruyama’s 2nd Division and Major Kikuo Hayakawa’s 1/228th Regiment of the 38th Division. On 13 January the 2nd Marines and 8th Marines began their offensive with the 8th Marines attacking along the coast and the 2nd Marines advancing farther inland. The Japanese managed to hold in some places but were driven back in others in heavy fighting which took place at several locations in the hills and ravines near the coast. On 14 January the 2nd Marines were relieved by the 6th Marines, and on the following day the marines resumed their offensive. The Japanese checked the 8th Marines’ advance along the coast, but inland the 6th Marines were able to push forward about 1,500 yards (1370 m) and threaten the right flank of the Japanese in front of the 8th Marines. At 17.00, therefore, Maruyama ordered his troops to fall back to a pre-established line some 1,300 yards (1190 m) farther to the west. Early on 16 January, as Maruyama’s men tried to comply with this order, the 6th Marines turned north and drove to the coast, trapping most of Maruyama’s 4th Regiment and 16th Regiment between themselves and the 8th Marines. By 14.00 on 17 January the marines had destroyed the Japanese forces trapped in the pocket, killing 643 and capturing two.
Two days earlier, an army officer had arrived from Rabaul to tell Hyakutake of the Imperial General Headquarters’ decision to withdraw all surviving Japanese forces from Guadalcanal. Accepting the fact only with considerable reluctance, the staff of the 17th Army communicated the initial details of this ‘Ke’ (i) to their forces on 18 January. The plan directed the 38th Division to disengage and withdraw towards Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal’s western tip from 20 January. The 38th Division’s retirement would be covered by the 2nd Division and other units, which would then follow the 38th Division to the west.
As they became aware of the changes in the Japanese operations, the US forces believed that they had seen the early signs of another Japanese reinforcement effort. Patch therefore instructed his forces to launch another offensive against the Japanese forces west of the Matanikau. On 21 January the 27th Infantry and 161st Infantry therefore pushed to the west from the area of the Galloping Horse. Unaware that the 38th Division was withdrawing in preparation for an evacuation, the Americans were somewhat surprised when they encountered only light resistance. Advancing more quickly through the inland hills and ridges than the Japanese had anticipated, by 22 January the Americans were in position to capture the coastal village of Kokumbona, headquarters of the 17th Army, and cut off the remainder of the 2nd Division. Reacting with great speed, however, the Japanese evacuated Kokumbona and ordered the 2nd Division to pull back immediately to the west. The marines took Kokumbona on 23 January, and though some Japanese units were trapped between the US forces and destroyed, most of the 2nd Division’s survivors escaped.
During the night 23/24 January Ainsworth’s TF67 again undertook a gunfire bombardment of the staging base at Vila on Kolombangara island with the cruisers Nashville and Helena and the destroyers of the ‘Cactus Striking Force’, and this undertaking was covered by Tisdale with the cruisers Honolulu and St Louis, and the destroyers Drayton, Lamson and Hughes, as well as 59 aircraft from the carrier Saratoga of Rear Admiral DeWitt C. Ramsey’s TF11. While attempting a supply operation, the submarine I-1 was sunk off Cape Esperance on 29 January by the New Zealand corvettes Kiwi and Moa, which also recovered important documents and cipher materials.
On 30/31 January and 4/5 February four and five troop and supply transports respectively delivered marine reinforcements to Guadalcanal. Meanwhile the Japanese rearguard, much assisted by the difficulty of the terrain, was effectively delaying the US advance to the west from Kokumbona. Still believing that a Japanese reinforcement effort was imminent, Patch kept most of his forces back to guard Henderson Field, sending only one regiment at time to continue the advance. On 1 February the reinforced 2/132nd Infantry was landed at Verahue to the south-west of Cape Esperance by the fast troop transport Stringham and several tank landing craft, and then drove round the coast in an effort to trap the Japanese between itself and the marine advance along the coast road. On 29/30 January Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen’s TF8 (cruisers Wichita, Chicago, Louisville, Montpelier, Cleveland and Columbia, and destroyers La Vallette, Waller, Conway, Frazier, Chevalier, Edwards, Meade and Taylor, as well as the escort carriers Chenango and Suwanee some way farther off) approached from the south to cover the operation and to make a sortie into the central part of the Solomon islands group. During the evening of 29 January TF8 was attacked near Rennell island by naval torpedo bombers of the 701st Kokutai and 705th Kokutai, which severely damaged Chicago and hit Wichita and Louisville with torpedoes which failed to detonate. In a second attack by the 751st Kokutai on 30 January, Chicago was sunk and La Vallette was torpedoed. Sherman’s and Ramsey’s carrier task forces, centred on Enterprise and Saratoga respectively, were situated farther to the south, and like Lee’s battleship force (North Carolina, Indiana and Washington) were not able to intervene.
Meanwhile the three lifts of ‘Ke’ (i) were removing the last elements of the 17th Army on 1, 4 and 7 February, and it was only on 9 February, when their clockwise and anti-clockwise advances met at Tenaro, that the Americans discovered that the Japanese had departed and were thus able to declare Guadalcanal secure after more than six months of combat.
The lack of supply on both sides meant that combat had been especially intense and characterised by extreme desperation. Disease had also played a significant role in the ground campaign, as both the Japanese and US forces were weakened by malaria in the insect-infested jungles. Both sides had experienced great difficulty in maintaining the flow of supplies to the island, the Japanese more so than the Americans, to the extent that Guadalcanal became known to them as ‘Starvation island’.
In the fighting on and over Guadalcanal, the US forces had suffered the loss of 1,769 men killed and about another 4,500 wounded out of a maximum strength, on 12 November, of 30,000, while the Japanese losses had been about 8,500 men killed in action and 9,000 died of disease (mostly malaria) and malnutrition out of a maximum strength, on 12 November, of 29,000 men. The losses at sea had been 4,911 men for the Americans and about 3,500 for the Japanese. Including operational losses, the Americans lost 615 aircraft, while the Japanese lost 683. About 420 American aircrew were killed, while the Japanese lost two to four times this figure, mostly because their losses included a large number of aircraft with multiple aircrew.
The Battle of Guadalcanal was a Japanese defeat of strategic proportions, and arguably the turning point of the Pacific War.
After its victory at the Battle of Midway, the USA was able to establish naval parity in the Pacific theatre, but this alone did not change the direction of the war. Thus it was only after the Allied victories in Guadalcanal and New Guinea that the Japanese offensive thrust was ended and the strategic initiative passed ineluctably to the Allies. The Guadalcanal campaign ended all Japanese expansion attempts and placed the Allies in a position of clear supremacy. Thus it is clear that that this Allied victory was the first step in a long string of successes that eventually led to the surrender of Japan and the occupation of the Japanese home islands.
The ‘Europe first’ policy of the USA had initially allowed only for defensive actions against Japanese expansion, in order to focus resources on defeating Germany. However, Admiral Ernest J. King’s argument for the Guadalcanal invasion, as well as its successful implementation, convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt that operations in the Pacific theatre could also be pursued offensively, and by the end of 1942 it had become clear that Japan had lost the Guadalcanal campaign, a serious blow to Japan’s strategic plans for the defence of their empire.
Perhaps as important as the military victory for the Allies was the psychological victory. The Allies had had inflicted a decisive defeat on Japan’s best land, air and naval forces. After Guadalcanal, Allied personnel regarded the Japanese military with much less fear and awe than previously. In addition, the Allies viewed the eventual outcome of the Pacific war with greatly increased optimism.