Naval Battle of Guadalcanal

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The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was a multi-day naval battle between American and Japanese forces in World War II which took place in mid-November, 1942. It was the last major battle of the Guadalcanal campaign, and led to serious losses on both sides, but ended in an American victory.

Contents

Background

American forces had landed on Guadalcanal in August, and occupied a small sliver of land in the north of the island centered around Henderson Field, an airfield which served as a base for a small number of Army Air Corps and Marine Corps squadrons, and was instrumental in maintaining Allied air superiority. The Japanese had already made several attempts to recapture it and re-establish air and sea superiority, the most recent of which was the Battle of Santa Cruz. Although each attempt had been bitterly contested, none of the previous battles had resulted in a decisive victory for either side.

Japanese supply runs to Guadalcanal (the “Tokyo Express”) routinely took place at night, and since the middle of October, Japanese battleships had been used in nighttime bombardments of Henderson Field as well. With the Japanese aircraft carriers withdrawn after the Battle of Santa Cruz, these battleships were the most powerful Japanese naval units in the area.

First Naval Battle

On the night of November 12, an American force of five cruisers and eight destroyers under Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan found one of the Japanese bombardment groups south of Savo Island. This group included the battlecruisers Hiei and Kirishima, the light cruiser Nagara, and eleven destroyers. A firefight erupted at close range in the darkness, and the cruiser Atlanta and four American destroyers were sunk, and the cruisers Juneau, San Francisco, and Portland were heavily damaged.[1] Admiral Callaghan was among those killed when the San Francisco, his flagship, was hit. The Japanese lost two destroyers in the melee, and the Hiei had been severely battered from eighty-five hits by American shells.

The following day, the 13th, dive bombers and torpedo planes from Henderson Field repeatedly attacked the Hiei, causing more damage and forcing the crew to scuttle her. Meanwhile, a Japanese submarine found the Juneau and torpedoed her, causing her to sink with 790 of her crew, including the famous five Sullivan brothers.[2] Henderson Field also endured a raid from twin engined G4M “Betty” bombers whose targets were the transports bringing supplies for the Marines, but this was repelled with heavy losses to the Japanese and minimal damage to the ships.

In spite of the loss of the Hiei, Abe justifiably claimed a tactical victory over the Americans, but Admiral Yamamoto was furious that the ships had retreated without firing a single shell on Henderson Field. Abe was relieved of his command and replaced by Vice Admiral Kondo. That night, Japanese cruisers bombarded Henderson Field and destroyed several aircraft, but without the big guns of the Hiei, the bombardment was not severe.

Intermission

The next day, Henderson Field bombers were airborne again and, along with planes from the recently-returned USS Enterprise, attacked an eleven-ship Japanese supply convoy throughout the day, sinking seven of the transports. Another strike from the Enterprise also sank the Japanese cruiser Kinugasa.[3] In addition, the Japanese combat air patrol over the convoy lost several Zeroes to Navy and Marine fighters, although the famed Marine ace “Indian Joe” Bauer was lost in one of these engagements.[4]

Second Naval Battle

That evening (the 14th), another surface bombardment group, comprised of the battleship Kirishima, four cruisers, and nine destroyers, sailed towards Gaudalcanal. Its mission was twofold: to screen the remaining transports from attack, and to bombard Henderson Field again that night. Guarding the American positions was the American task force under Rear Admiral Lee. Lee commanded the battleships South Dakota and Washington and four destroyers. The two fleets met west of Savo Island just before midnight.[5]

The American destroyers went in first, launching their torpedoes. All four were hit by Japanese return fire, and two were sunk outright. However, they did effectively screen the battleships, which came up behind them. The ensuing gun duel between the Kirishima and the South Dakota went poorly for the American ship, which was battered with close to a hundred casualties, although her salvoes hit and damaged a cruiser.[6] Unnoticed by the Japanese, the Washington was able to get into position and open fire. She scored repeated hits on the Kirishima, which had to be abandoned and was later finished off by Japanese destroyers. The Imperial Navy also lost a destroyer that night, and one of the damaged American destroyers sank the next morning from the damage it had sustained.

Still facing the guns of two battleships with his one at the bottom of the sea, Kondo ordered his remaining ships to retreat. The remaining transports, now deprived of their protection, made a run for Guadalcanal and beached themselves. When the sun rose, the transports and many of the supplies they were carrying were attacked and destroyed by Marine SBD Dauntlesses. Of the ten thousand troops headed for Guadalcanal, only four thousand reached their destination.[7]

Aftermath

The US Navy had paid for their victory. Two light cruisers had been sunk, one going down with almost all hands, and seven destroyers were lost. The South Dakota, the cruisers Portland and San Francisco, and three destroyers were seriously damaged. The Japanese, however, had fared much worse, losing two battleships, a heavy cruiser, three destroyers, and eleven transports. The loss of the battleships seriously reduced the threat of Japanese bombardment, which at one point had almost led to the abandonment of Henderson Field, and the Japanese Navy could not hope to replace such large units for a long time, if ever. Although the Tokyo Express was able to deliver some supplies and reinforcements, it wasn’t nearly enough, and the planned Japanese offensive had to be abandoned.

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal proved to be the turning point of the campaign. With Henderson Field in operation and Allied sea power on the rise, the resupply effort of the Japanese became more and more difficult, while the American supply lines stabilized. Although they still controlled most of the island, the Japanese were increasingly on the defensive, until their position became unsustainable. By the end of the year, the decision was made to evacuate the island.

Admiral Dan Callaghan and Harold “Indian Joe” Bauer were both posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery.[8]

References

  1. A History of War at Sea, by Helmut Pemsel, Naval Institute Press, 1975
  2. hazegray.org
  3. Fork in the Road
  4. Semper Fi in the Sky: The Marine Air Battles of World War II, by Gerald Astor, Presidio Press, 2005
  5. Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy, by Craig L. Symonds, Naval Institute Press, 1995
  6. Fork in the Road
  7. Semper Fi in the Sky: The Marine Air Battles of World War II, by Gerald Astor, Presidio Press, 2005
  8. MedalofHonor.com

External Links

Further Reading

Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13-15, 1942, by Eric M. Hammel, Pacifica Military Press, 1988

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