About 40 hours after the first Marines splashed ashore on Guadalcanal, a Japanese cruiser force inflicted a crushing defeat on the U.S. Navy. A staff officer on board the Japanese force’s flagship recalls the Battle of Savo Island.
“The calm of the . . . dawn was shattered with the arrival of an urgent dispatch,” recalled then-Commander Toshikazu Ohmae of the reaction at Japanese Eighth Fleet headquarters on 7 August 1942 to news from the southern Solomon Islands. Japanese forces there were under attack, and an enemy carrier force had been sighted. The message had arrived less than 15 minutes after U.S. warships and carrier planes began attacking targets on Guadalcanal, where the Japanese were constructing an airfield. Later that morning, U.S. Marines landed on the large island, where they seized the unfinished airstrip, and on the much smaller islands of Tulagi, Tanambogo, and Gavuto. Attention at the Japanese base at Rabaul, New Britain, had been focused on an offensive to capture Port Moresby, Australia, but reaction to the new threat was swift. The 25th Air Flotilla dispatched 27 G4M1 attack bombers, escorted by 17 A6M2 Model 21 Zero fighters, to strike ships and transports off Guadalcanal and Tulagi. By noon, Eighth Fleet Commander-in-Chief Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa (left); Ohmae, his chief of staff for the upcoming operation; and other fleet staff members had formulated a plan for a night surface attack led by the heavy cruiser Chokai (top) against the enemy vessels. The Japanese warships set out that afternoon.
The result was the Battle of Savo Island, which is generally acknowledged as the U.S. Navy’s worst defeat. Ohmae’s recollections of the fight appeared in his article “The Battle of Savo Island” in the December 1957 issue of Naval History’s sister publication, Proceedings. What follows is an abbreviated version of that article. Note that Ohmae uses Tokyo time in his piece, which was standard practice for Japanese forces during the war. U.S. time was two hours later.
Admiral Mikawa and his staff boarded the Chokai with all possible speed, and the flagship sortied from the harbor at 1430, accompanied by the light cruisers Tenryu and Yubari and the destroyer Yunagi. It was a fine clear day, the sea like a mirror. Our confidence of success in the coming night battle was manifest in the cheerful atmosphere on the bridge. Three hours out of Rabaul we rendezvoused with Cruiser Division 6—the heavy cruisers Aoba, Furutaka, Kako, and Kinugasa—and thus it was that our seven cruisers and one destroyer were assembled for the first time. We continued southward, confident and, considering the circumstances, secure.
At 0400 the next morning, five seaplanes were catapulted from our cruisers to reconnoiter Guadalcanal and the surrounding waters. The Aoba’s plane reported at 1000 that an enemy battleship, 4 cruisers, and 7 destroyers had been sighted north of Guadalcanal at 0725, and 15 transports at 0738. The same plane also reported the sighting of 2 enemy heavy cruisers, 12 destroyers, and 3 transports near Tulagi.
It was concluded that most of the enemy’s invasion strength was still in the Guadalcanal area, and that although no carriers had been reported, they too must still be in the area, but probably to the south or southeast. We judged that if the enemy carriers were not within 100 miles of Guadalcanal, there would be little to fear from a carrier-based attack unless it came this morning, or unless we approached too close to the island before sunset.
With the information at hand, a signal was sent out to the effect that our force would proceed southward for a night assault against the enemy at about 2230.
While pursuing a southeasterly course some 30 miles northeast of Kieta, we observed an enemy Hudson bomber shadowing us at 0825. We made 90-degree turns to port to throw him off and headed back to the northwest. When the Hudson withdrew to the north, we reversed course at once and, at 0845, recovered the seaplanes. While they were being brought on board, we were spotted by another Hudson, flying quite low. Salvoes from our 8-inch guns sent this observer on its way, and we resumed course for Bougainville Strait.
These contacts naturally caused us to assume that our intentions had been perceived by the enemy, and that more search planes would appear, increasing the imminent possibility of air attack. An early approach to Guadalcanal became increasingly disadvantageous. The decision was made, accordingly, to decrease our speed of advance and delay our assault until 2330.
We were advancing down Bougainville Strait at 1145 and sighted friendly planes returning toward Rabaul by twos and threes. The lack of formation indicated that they had encountered heavy fighting. We cleared the strait shortly after noon and increased speed to 24 knots. The sea was dead calm, and visibility was, if anything, too good.
At 1430 our battle plan was signaled to each of the other ships: “We will penetrate south of Savo Island and torpedo the enemy main force at Guadalcanal. Thence we will move toward the forward area at Tulagi and strike with torpedoes and gunfire, after which we will withdraw to the north of Savo Island.” While drafting this order, I had the firm conviction that we would be successful.
We began intercepting a great deal of enemy radio traffic. We heard, loud and clear, much talk of flight-deck conditions as planes approached their landing pattern, such as “Green base” and “Red base.” Happily, we could be fairly sure of no air attack from the enemy on the 8th, but it was made clear to our entire force that we could expect an all-out attack from their carriers on the following day. The very existence of the enemy flattops in the area was a major concern to Admiral Mikawa, and this dominated our later tactical concepts.
At 1630 every ship was ordered to jettison all deckside flammables in preparation for battle. Ten minutes later the sun dissolved into the western horizon, and a message I had drafted for Admiral Mikawa was signaled to each ship in his name: “In the finest tradition of the Imperial Navy we shall engage the enemy in night battle. Every man is expected to do his best.”
After 1600 there was no further radio indication of enemy carrier activity. With the end of daylight and still no carrier-based air attacks, the chances of success for our ships looked much brighter, and spirits brightened in the flagship. The morale of the whole fleet climbed when we heard results of the morning attack by our planes. They, according to their reports, had hit two heavy and two light cruisers and one transport and had left them in flames.
Just before dark, our ships had assumed night battle formation, following the flagship in a single column with 1,200-meter intervals between ships. At 2110 the cruiser planes were again catapulted for tactical reconnaissance and to light the target area. The pilots had no experience in night catapulting, so this was a risky business, but the risk had to be taken. A water takeoff would have necessitated our dispersing the formation and then reforming, making for a delay that the schedule would not allow. The planes were catapulted successfully.
We encountered sporadic squalls at 2130, but these did not interfere with our advance. Long white streamers were hoisted to fly from the signal yards of each ship for identification purposes, and at 2142 speed was upped to 26 knots.
The catapulted seaplanes reported that three enemy cruisers were patrolling the eastern entrance of the sound, south of Savo Island. All hands were ordered to battle stations at 2200, and the formation turned up 28 knots. All was ready for combat. Narrow though the seas were in the battle area, we intended to adhere to the original battle plan: pass counterclockwise on the Guadalcanal side to the south of Savo Island, and then turn toward Tulagi.
At 2240, the unmistakable form of Savo Island appeared 20 degrees on the port bow, and the tension of approaching action was set three minutes later when a lookout shouted, “Ship approaching, 30 degrees starboard!” On the flagship bridge all breathing seemed to stop while we awaited identification of this sighting.
It was a destroyer, at 10,000 meters, about to cross our bows from right to left. An order was radioed: “Stand by for action!”
Should we attack this target? We might be steaming into an ambush. Admiral Mikawa ordered: “Left rudder. Slow to 22 knots.” He had reasoned clearly that this was not the moment to alert the enemy to our presence, and at high speed our large ships kicked up a wake that would have been difficult to conceal. Breathing became more normal again as we watched the enemy destroyer’s movements. From her deliberate, unconcerned progress it was plain that she was unaware of us—or of being watched—and of the fact that every gun in our force was trained directly on her. Seconds strained by while we waited for the inevitable moment when she must sight us—and then the enemy destroyer reversed course! With no change in speed she made a starboard turn and proceeded in the direction from which she had come, totally unaware of our approach.
In almost the same instant, and before we could fully appreciate our good fortune, another lookout reported, “Ship sighted, 20 degrees port.” A second destroyer! But she was showing her stern, steaming away from us. Admiral Mikawa’s reaction was almost automatic: “Right rudder. Steer course 150 degrees.”
We passed between the two enemy destroyers, unseen, and they soon disappeared in the darkness. It was a narrow escape, but our emphasis on night battle practice and night lookout training had paid off. This advantage was later to be increased by the local situation in which the enemy’s backdrop was brightened by flames of burning ships, reflected from clouds, while we moved out of utter darkness.
But at the present moment the disadvantage to the enemy of lights and shadows gave rise to the further concern that once we had passed the line of the patrolling destroyers, the advantage of the lighting would be reversed against us. That this did not work against us in the next half-hour must be attributed to plain good luck and the fact that the enemy was exhausted after many hours of alert during their landing operations. We were fortunate, too, that apparently there had been no report of our approach by enemy search planes.
It was time now for positive action, and, remembering the search-plane information that three enemy cruisers were patrolling south of Savo Island, we rushed in. The attack order was given at 2330. Battle was only moments away. Speed of advance was pushed to 30 knots. The destroyer Yunagi, the rear of our formation, was ordered back to attack the enemy destroyers we had just bypassed. This move was more because of the Yunagi’s inferior speed, which might have caused her to straggle from our attack formation, and also in the hope of securing our withdrawal route from disturbance by either of the two enemy destroyers patrolling north of Savo Island.
I stood beside Admiral Mikawa. Before me was a chart on which were plotted the locations of enemy ships. We peered into the darkness. The voice of a lookout shattered the tense silence: “Cruiser, 7 degrees port!”
The shape that appeared in that direction seemed small; it could be only a destroyer. It was still a long way off.
“Three cruisers, 9 degrees starboard, moving to the right!”
And then a parachute flare from one of our planes brought reality to the scene. There they were, three cruisers! Range, 8,000 meters. The Chokai’s skipper, Captain Mikio Hayakawa, was ready. His powerful voice boomed throughout the bridge, “Torpedoes fire to starboard—Fire!” It was 2337.
Almost immediately the deadly weapons were heard smacking the water one by one. While we waited for them to hit, the radio announced that our following cruisers had opened fire with guns and torpedoes.
Then it happened. There was a sudden explosion that had to be a torpedo. It had struck an enemy cruiser on our starboard beam. Our course was now northeasterly. The Chokai launched a second set of torpedoes, and, following the first great explosion, there seemed to be a chain reaction. Within ten minutes after the first torpedo explosion, there were explosions everywhere. Every torpedo and every round of gunfire seemed to be hitting a mark. Enemy ships seemed to be sinking on every hand!
We sighted another group of enemy ships 30 degrees to port. The Chokai searchlights illuminated these targets, and fire was opened on an enemy cruiser at 2353. The searchlights were used for the double purpose of spotting targets and also informing our own ships of the flagship’s location. They were effective in both roles, fairly screaming to her colleagues, “Here is Chokai! Fire on that target! . . . Now that target! . . . This is Chokai! Hit that target!”
The initial firing range of 7,000 meters closed with amazing swiftness. Every other salvo caused another enemy ship to break into flames.
For incredible minutes the turrets of enemy ships remained in their trained-in, secured positions, and we stood amazed, yet thankful. Strings of machine-gun tracers wafted back and forth between the enemy and ourselves, but such minor counterefforts merely made a colorful spectacle and gave us no concern. Second by second, however, the range decreased, and now we could actually distinguish the shapes of individuals running along the decks of enemy ships.
From a group of three enemy ships the center one bore out and down on us as if intending to ram. Though her entire hull from midships aft was enveloped in flames, her forward guns were firing with great spirit. She was a brave ship, manned by brave men. But this ship immediately took a heavy list as our full firepower came to bear and struck her. It appears, from postwar accounts, that this was the U.S. heavy cruiser Quincy [CA-39], and she certainly made an impression on the men of our force. At short range she fired an 8-inch shell that hit and exploded in the operations room of the Chokai, just abaft the bridge, and knocked out our No. 1 turret. We were all shocked and disconcerted momentarily, but returned at once to the heat of battle as the Chokai continued firing and directing fire at the many targets.
As the range closed to 4,000 meters we saw that three enemy cruisers had been set afire by our guns. Enemy return fire had increased greatly in amount and accuracy, but we were still without serious damage. Then, almost abruptly, the volume of enemy gunfire tapered off, and it flashed in my mind that we had won the night.
There was an enemy cruiser burning brightly far astern of us as we ceased fire. I entered the Chokai’s operations room and found it peppered with holes from shell fragments. Had the 8-inch hit been five meters forward, it would have killed Admiral Mikawa and his entire staff.
We were still absorbed with details of the hard fight just finished and had lost all track of time. I was amazed to discover that it was just shortly after midnight, and that we were headed in a northerly direction. If we continued northward, we ran the risk of going ashore on Florida Island, so a gradual change in course was made to the left. I asked the lookout if there was any sign of pursuing ships. There was not.
While checking our position at the navigation chart desk, I heard someone say, “Gunfire, ahead to port!” I immediately went forward and stood beside Admiral Mikawa on the bridge.
The Furutaka, Tenryu, and Yubari had taken a sharper turn to the left than the flagship and the others when the first torpedoes had been fired and had been pursuing a northward course, parallel to our own. We concluded that these three ships had cleared north of Savo Island and had again turned to the left where they found additional targets, and that it was their gunfire we now observed. We warned them by signal light of our presence while the gunfire continued.
Meanwhile, Admiral Mikawa and his staff had been making a rapid study of the situation to determine our next move. It was concluded that the force should withdraw immediately. This decision was reached on the basis of the following considerations:
1. The force was at 0030 divided into three groups, each acting individually, with the flagship in the rear. For them all to assemble and reform in the darkness it would be necessary to slow down considerably. From their position to the northwest of Savo Island it would take 30 minutes to slow down and assemble, a half-hour more to regain formation, another half-hour to regain battle speed, and then another hour to reach the vicinity of the enemy anchorage. The two and a half hours required would thus place our reentry into the battle area at 0300, just one hour before sunrise.
2. Based on radio intelligence of the previous evening, we knew that there were enemy carriers about 100 miles southeast of Guadalcanal. As a result of our night action these would be moving toward the island by this time, and to remain in the area by sunrise would mean that we would meet the fate our carriers had suffered at Midway.
3. By withdrawing immediately we would probably still be pursued and attacked by the closing enemy carrier force, but by leaving at once we could get farther to the north before they struck. The enemy carriers might thus be lured within reach of our land-based air forces at Rabaul.
In making this decision we were influenced by the belief that a great victory had been achieved in the night action. We were also influenced by thought of our army’s conviction that there would be no difficulty driving the enemy forces out of Guadalcanal.
Admiral Mikawa received the opinion of his staff and, at 0023, gave the order, “All forces withdraw.”
The withdrawal of the Eighth Fleet without having destroyed the enemy transports has, since that time, come in for bitter criticism, especially after it was disclosed that the enemy carrier force was not within range to attack and, most especially, after our army was unable to dislodge the enemy from Guadalcanal. It is easy to say, now, that the enemy transports should have been attacked at all cost. The validity of this assumption, however, is premised on the fact that the survival of those transports accounted entirely for our army’s subsequent failure to expel the enemy from its foothold in the Solomons.
The reasons for our early retirement were based in part on the Japanese Navy’s “decisive battle” doctrine that destruction of the enemy fleet brings an automatic constriction of his command of the sea. The concept of air power (both sea-based and land-based), which invalidates this doctrine, was not fully appreciated by us at this time, nor were we fully convinced of it until the summer of 1944, and then it was too late.
Captain Ohmae graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1922 and during World War II served on the staffs of the Eighth Fleet, Southwest Area Fleet, and Mobile Fleet. Beginning in January 1945 he served as Operational Section chief, Naval General Staff. After the war he was involved in historical research of the conflict and was senior special consultant, Military History Section.