U.S. Marines had landed on the island of Guadalcanal in August 1942, and they and the Japanese had engaged in several bitter contests over it. By the end of the year, however, the Japanese admiralty realized that it would be impossible to hold onto the island, and made plans to evacuate their remaining troops. In preparation for the mission, Japanese activity at and around their bases increased markedly.
The Americans concluded from the increased activity that the Japanese were planning a new offensive, and begin a build-up of their own. A task force, including two escort carriers, three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers, commanded by Rear Admiral Robert Giffen, was headed north to a rendezvous off Guadalcanal, then a planned sweep of the waters around the Solomon Islands. Unbeknownst to Giffen, his ships were being tracked by Japanese submarines, which relayed their position to Japanese headquarters at Rabaul, and on January 29, two groups of torpedo-carrying, twin-engine “Betty” bombers (31 planes in total) were launched. The first group found the American ships and attacked in the late afternoon. This attack resulted in near-misses and shaken nerves, but no ships were hit, and at least one Betty was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. The second group arrived an hour later, using parachute flares to illuminate the area. Two more bombers were downed, including that of the group commander, but they scored two solid hits on the heavy cruiser Chicago (sole surviving cruiser from the Battle of Savo Island at the beginning of the Guadalcanal campaign), causing serious damage. She could no longer move under her own power, and her sister ship USS Louisville took her under tow in the darkness.
The tugboat Navaho was sent to take over towing duties, which it did the following morning, and started towing the Chicago south toward Espiritu Santo, where repairs could be made. Six destroyers remained as escort, and a protective combat air patrol from the USS Enterprise was kept over the ships. Japanese scout planes kept tabs on the Chicago, however, and a force of twelve Betties arrived on the afternoon of January 30. Most of them were shot down by the fighters and anti-aircraft fire, but the Japanese put four more torpedoes into the Chicago, and one into the destroyer La Vallette. The captain of the Chicago realized that she couldn’t be saved and ordered his crew to abandon ship. 62 officers and men went down with her, but the rest of her complement was rescued. 20 men had been killed aboard the La Vallette, but she was able to make Espirito Santo for repairs.
The Japanese claimed to have sunk a battleship and three cruisers, but the real results were bad enough for the Americans, with one heavy cruiser lost and one destroyer damaged. Total Japanese losses were twelve Betties. More importantly, with so many ships occupied with the battle and the others expecting an attack, not a retreat, the Americans were unable to interfere with the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal, which was completed by February 7. The island would be the target of further Japanese attacks (see James Swett), but the Guadalcanal campaign had ended.
The battle was portrayed in an episode of the History Channel series, Battle 360.