Vice Admiral Lloyd Mustin was born to a Navy career, being the son of pioneering naval aviator Captain Henry Mustin. Lloyd Mustin was serving as assistant gunnery officer on board the cruiser USS Atlanta (CL-51) during World War II, got ashore after her sinking in November 1942, and subsequently served for three months as part of a naval unit with the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal. In this excerpt from his U.S. Naval Institute oral history, he describes the first major naval engagement of the Guadalcanal Campaign—the 8–9 August 1942 Battle of Savo Island (see “Leading the Charge at Savo Island,” p. 22)—and remarks how fortunate it was that the Japanese didn’t grasp the extent of their success. Otherwise, “it would have been shooting fish in a rain barrel.”
The Army Air Corps was flying long-range over-water searches out of Lae, I believe, in New Guinea over all of the areas to the north to try to keep themselves informed on Japanese movements. Those Amy Air Corps searches, which were being performed by B-17s, reached as far as Rabaul and gave us periodic reconnaissance information on the shipping in Rabaul among other things and also on the very active reaction by Zero fighters to air penetrations of the Rabaul area.
If my memory is right, the [Guadalcanal] landings occurred on the 7th of August. The amphibious force remained in there about three days. The carriers [with the Atlanta in company] remained off the southern part of the island providing air support through that interval. We learned in the Atlanta of a reconnaissance report from a B-17 that a Japanese force of destroyers and cruisers was at sea headed southeast from Rabaul. In my recollection we knew this simply by having intercepted this radio report with our own radio. We knew in the Atlanta that a force of cruisers and destroyers was headed for the amphibious area. Therefore, I undertook to make all preparations, 99 percent of which were psychological, for night surface action, assuming that we would be told to intercept this force. Not so. At the end of the day’s operations the carriers far to the southeast, as a result of the requirement to run into the wind, simply continued onward to the southeast, keeping with them all of their cruiser and destroyer escorts.
Of course, it was that night that that force entered Iron Bottom Sound from the west, came in from west of Guadalcanal, south of Savo Island, and attacked our ships. The Japanese then escaped without, in my recollection, having received a scratch but having sunk the U.S. heavy cruisers USS Quincy [CA-39], Vincennes [CA-44], and Astoria [CA-34], and the Australian cruiser HMAS Canberra, and having put a torpedo into the bow of the USS Chicago [CA-29], from which she survived. It was a brilliant accomplishment by the Japanese against enormously overwhelming odds.
It’s just a mercy, of course, that they didn’t realize the full extent of the catastrophic defeat that they had imposed on our forces, because if they had they could have remained in there for some hours destroying the transports at their leisure. It would have been shooting fish in a rain barrel. At that point in time, when those transports had gone into Guadalcanal, they had gone in around the western end because the eastern passages, Sealark Channel, and so on, were reputedly so treacherous navigationally that our intention was not even to defend them. “Let the Japanese have free run of them if they wish, and let them wreck their ships on the shoals.” In effect, Kelly Turner’s op orders said that in so many words, which is interesting in the light of the fact of the many times thereafter that I ran that channel at night with no lights, darken ship, with a couple of transports being escorted by the Atlanta and a few destroyers perhaps.
But, in any case, at the time of this night surface action by the Japanese our transports didn’t even know that there was an escape to the east. They were caught in a cul-de-sac by a fast, capable, hard-hitting force of Japanese cruisers and destroyers. It would have been wolves in a sheepfold. They just didn’t know what a stunning success they had in fact achieved.