Crucible at Sea

By Richard B. Frank

A comparison of available troops and aircraft presents a more difficult problem since it involves more subjective judgments about what level of commitment to the South Pacific each side could pursue effectively. Events demonstrated, however, that the Japanese could attain at least a margin of numerical superiority in the air and the capability for parity or better ashore. In the face of these odds, without King's forceful advocacy, there would have been no Guadalcanal campaign. But it careened very close to disaster, a disaster that almost certainly would have prompted King's dismissal.

What saved the campaign and King's career were the actions of his key subordinates, and Japanese mistakes. First among his lieutenants was Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander-in-chief, Pacific Fleet. King forced him into the campaign, overruling Nimitz's initial instinct to pause after the 3-6 June Battle of Midway and gather strength. But once the struggle began, Nimitz quietly but resolutely took ever greater risks in stripping other areas, including Hawaii, of forces to bolster Guadalcanal operations. Moreover, he intervened crucially in October to replace the faltering South Pacific Area commander, Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley. Despite well-founded misgivings about Vice Admiral William F. Halsey Jr.'s suitability to higher-level command, Nimitz sent him south to take charge with the campaign in desperate crisis. 2

Halsey's fairly won reputation for aggressiveness immediately lifted morale. But he lurched beyond bold to rash in sending his two remaining fleet carriers to take on four Japanese counterparts at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October. The action proved a tactical reverse with the loss of the USS Hornet (CV-8) and lurched perilously close to a calamity when the Enterprise (CV-6) barely escaped a similar fate. Two Japanese carriers were damaged; none was sunk. But the Japanese carrier air groups sustained devastating losses. The 148 lost Imperial Japanese Navy air crewmen not only substantially exceeded deaths at Midway (110), but also included most of the leadership of dive and torpedo bomber units. (By contrast, the U.S. Navy sustained only 20 dead airmen and four prisoners of war.)

The action left the Japanese Navy in November with only the hybrid carrier Junyo and her modest air group to face the partially repaired Enterprise with a large air group. In the mid-November Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Halsey's coordination of the American effort was flawed, but not nearly so flawed as the Japanese direction. In the end, Halsey fought all out and committed everything he had. The Japanese temporized and lost. 3

Admiral Halsey earned and received vast public acclaim, but he and Nimitz were not the only key naval leaders. Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander Amphibious Force, South Pacific, loomed large in the eventual American victory. His indispensable contribution rested in his grasp of the essentials. From the withdrawal of U.S. carriers on 8 August to the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the campaign produced the singular spectacle of a mutual siege with sea control around Guadalcanal changing at sunrise and sunset.

The Americans, thanks to an ad hoc consortium of Marine, Navy, and Army Air Forces units dubbed the Cactus Air Force after the code name for the island, ruled the Guadalcanal skies by day. By night, when those U.S. planes were largely grounded, the Japanese "Tokyo Express" of sweeps by destroyers and occasionally cruisers dominated the adjacent body of water, known as Iron Bottom Sound for all the ships lost there. The efforts of each side to break this cycle produced an unmatched level of battle on land, sea, and in the air that provides the backbone for any account of the campaign.

The reputation of Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the original expeditionary force commander, took a beating after the war. But a new study by John B. Lundstrom demonstrates how sound Fletcher really was and how a great many charges against him were unfounded. Fletcher provides an enduring lesson on how a senior leader can adjust to vast technological change beyond his personal experience. It is easily overlooked today that the first year of the Pacific war coincided almost exactly with the first year of widespread fleet use of radar. Moreover, the capabilities of carrier air groups evolved rapidly with new generations of aircraft.

Fletcher, a nonaviator, recognized he needed advice from officers with practical experience and knowledge. What earned him many enemies, however, was that he correctly perceived that the officers best fitted to provide that advice were far junior to those normally consulted by an admiral at his level. Fletcher reached down to squadron and air group commanders, lieutenant commanders, and even lieutenants. The naval aviator captains and commanders he passed over for advice became bitter critics. 4

Different Approaches to Supply

Looking below the surface narrative of battles, however, rests another story. In the end, American triumph ashore arose from a primal factor: the U.S. Marines and Soldiers ate (though not well, it must be acknowledged); Emperor Hirohito's warriors far too often did not. These outcomes directly arose from choices by naval commanders. Admiral Turner proved tenacious and resourceful in providing a steady stream of resupply efforts. The absence of port facilities at Guadalcanal mandated the human handling of supplies. The extravagant demand this placed on manpower, in turn, meant that the Marines could only accommodate two or three supply ships at a time. Consequently, Turner found himself constantly shuffling his limited number of cruisers and destroyers into small escort formations to sustain the supply system. This arrangement destroyed the integrity of U.S. cruiser and destroyer divisions, with detrimental effect on their combat efficiency.

Japanese naval commanders by contrast displayed malign indifference to the suffering of their country's forces on Guadalcanal. To be sure, U.S. air units forced the Japanese into using swift destroyers as their primary supply platform because they could make high-speed runs that minimized their exposure to American planes in daylight. But almost immediately, it was evident that this means could not logistically sustain a large Japanese garrison. Even in the face of dire messages describing the desperate straits of soldiers on what the Japanese Army pointedly called "Starvation Island," Japanese naval commanders continued to shuttle down men, but failed to keep pace with adequate food supplies. 5

Keeping the Ships Sailing

The conventional discussion of opposing warships addresses such obvious features as armament, fire control, protection, and speed. These critical elements all can be seen in one fashion or another as affecting episodes at Guadalcanal. But a further technical factor cast a shadow over the campaign. The long years of preparations for a transpacific campaign instilled an understanding of the importance of fuel endurance. This was a function not only of fuel capacity and power-plant efficiency of individual ships, but also of replenishment. Beneath the conventional story of the campaign punctuated with a series of named sea fights rests a submerged history of logistical factors.

The U.S. Navy had moved to high-pressure boilers and double-reduction gearing for propulsion systems. This gave it superiority in fuel efficiency that materially modulated the strain on the service's logistical system. The construction of barely adequate numbers of fast fleet oilers with an ever-more refined ability at underway replenishment permitted the U.S. Navy to keep its ships available for commitment. During the opening two months of the campaign, the loss of a fleet oiler would have exerted an effect on the American position far more powerful than the loss of any combatant short of a fleet carrier.

The Imperial Japanese Navy, however, not only suffered from the higher demands of less-efficient power plants, it also had prepared far less comprehensively for sustaining their forces in the South Pacific. Hence, during the campaign, the Japanese suffered a significant diminishment of combat power when they found themselves compelled to use battleships as fuel farms rather than as combatants. 6

Radar's Mixed Record

If fuel provides the most important submerged factor in the naval campaign, the comparative achievements of Japanese visual sightings versus American radar represents the most startling obvious factor. Prewar exercises to test a doctrine of night torpedo attacks prompted the Japanese to develop very large and powerful binoculars and to place great emphasis on selecting men who excelled as lookouts. This combination of refined technology and human excellence provided their navy with a huge advantage.

For example, Japanese lookouts detected Rear Admiral Willis Lee's task force on 14 November about 50 minutes before U.S. radar issued the first hints of the presence of enemy vessels. Of the campaign's five major surface actions, the Japanese located their opponents first visually at the Battle of Savo Island and the second phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The Japanese won the first and lost the second of these. By contrast, American radar detected the enemy first at the Battle of Cape Esperance, the first phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, and the Battle of Tassafaronga. Despite this advantage, the U.S. Navy won only at Cape Esperance; it lost badly at Tassafaronga and sustained very severe losses in a tactical defeat at the opening phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. 7

Two lessons are to be learned from this record. The first is that technological superiority may not secure as large an advantage as it might at first appear. Radar was in its infancy. For practical Sailors, the demonstrated characteristics of the most common early-war search radar, SC, was that it was subject to breakdowns and phantom contacts. It also exhibited an alarming inability to detect targets within its nominal effective range. This latter failure was commonly traced to the masking effect of land that surrounded the battle arena. The fire-control radars proved valuable when they worked, but highly vulnerable to shock damage caused by firing the ship's gunnery armament.

Compounding these technical difficulties was the influence of faulty intelligence. Intelligence officers relayed their fears that the Japanese might have developed detectors that could pick up transmissions on the frequencies used by SC radars to Rear Admiral Norman Scott, commander of Task Force 64, before the Battle of Cape Esperance. Consequently, Scott issued an order banning the use of the radars. This order was ignored by Captain Ernest Small of the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City (CA-25). That ship's SC radar picked up the approaching Japanese task force, but Small doubted the authenticity of the radar finding and failed to pass it on to Scott. 8

The second great lesson about radar from the Guadalcanal campaign is that the new technology had to be integrated into the command and control system to provide full effect. The lack of appreciation for the brand-new radars, and particularly the superiority of the microwave SG radar over the metric wave SC, is a fault of the Navy as an institution, not the lack of intelligence of individual flag officers. Had Scott and Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan, the U.S. commander in the first phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, possessed adequate understanding of the importance of SG radar, they may well have discarded older principles about making the most powerful ship in the task force the flagship and instead adopted the new principle that the ship with the most advanced sensors was the proper choice for a flagship. Very fortunately, Admiral Lee was the one officer who grasped this and further understood the superiority of SG radar. The effectiveness of the radar suite in his flagship, the USS Washington (BB-56), and Lee's ability to extract the full measure of this advantage, afforded the margin of victory in the second phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, which proved to be the decisive action of the campaign.

The preferred weapon of the U.S. Navy was gunfire, which American officers presumed would outrange torpedoes. The Imperial Japanese Navy was no slouch when it came to gunfire but prided itself on its torpedoes, as well it should as it boasted the famous 24-inch, oxygen-propelled "Long Lance" Type 93. Packing twice the explosive power as their American counterparts, these deadly devices had vastly superior speed and range abilities—and were wakeless to boot. The U.S. Navy could rightly claim to possess technological superiority over its adversaries (as well as its key ally the Royal Navy) almost across the board, but this pride blinded the service to the possibility that in a few areas it lagged. It took fully a year of combat with the Japanese Navy in the Solomons before the U.S. Navy reconciled itself to the fact that its adversary had better torpedoes in their surface vessels.

Tactical Advantages and Disadvantages

Both the Japanese and the U.S. navies developed doctrine around the concept of a decisive battle, like Jutland in World War I, to determine the winner of a Pacific war. Finding itself in a position of numerical inferiority as a result of naval treaties, the Japanese Navy planned to preface the decisive battle with an attrition phase. After submarines and land-based aircraft exacted a toll, shortly before the day of the decisive battle, Japanese destroyer flotillas, supported by cruisers and the fast battleships of the Kongo class, would launch massive night torpedo attacks on the U.S. battle fleet. In fleet exercises, the Japanese worked out tactics for their destroyers and cruisers that emphasized their independent operation by divisions, rather than trying to maintain a miniature version of a battle line. This combination of doctrine and tactics left the Japanese extremely well prepared for the sort of night gunfire and torpedo surface actions that marked the struggle in the Solomons.

The U.S. Navy anticipated the general thrust of Japanese doctrine and likely tactics, but the service never devoted as much attention and comprehensive effort to night fighting. As Thomas C. Hone and Trent Hone point out in their recent book Battleline, the U.S. Navy envisioned cruisers supporting destroyers in attacking the Japanese battle fleet or defending the American battle fleet, but never worked out a practical set of doctrine and tactics.

It was commonplace to condemn American tactical arrangements in the series of night surface actions in the Solomons in 1942-43 for their rigid adherence to an inflexible column formation of cruisers and destroyers. The fault, however, stemmed not from deficient tactical arrangements chosen by individual American commanders, but rested in the absence of a viable set of tactics and training developed in peacetime that would have permitted the open, independent maneuvering employed by the Japanese. Ironically, the last annual report of the commander-in-chief, Pacific Fleet, before the attack on Pearl Harbor, observed that fleet tactical boards were currently studying "with a view to establishing doctrine and standard procedures" for "coordinated cruiser-destroyer action in night search and attack." Thus, it appears that the deficiency had been identified, but the attempt at corrective action that might have spared the Navy enormous grief in the Solomons came too late. 9

Further exacerbating the problem were the effects of Fleet expansion and the commitment to a "short-of-war" policy in the Atlantic. Legislation passed in 1940 that promised a huge expansion of the Fleet by the end of 1943 began producing new construction in earnest in 1942. Finding crews for the new construction diluted the experience level of the Navy as a whole over the short run. (For example, 83 percent of the Imperial Japanese Navy destroyers participating in actions around Guadalcanal had trained prewar versus only 60 percent of their U.S. counterparts.)

Moreover, during 1941 and into 1942, the Pacific Fleet was stripped of almost half its strength for the Atlantic. These units patrolled a neutrality zone stretching halfway across the ocean to the United Kingdom. Atlantic patrolling demanded an operational tempo that cut into training opportunities, particularly those involving gunnery and night-battle practice. At Guadalcanal, the Japanese found themselves executing doctrine and tactics they had long practiced with experienced crews. The Americans found themselves groping to develop doctrine and tactics with crews that were not on average as experienced as their adversaries.

In view of these circumstances, it may be concluded not that the U.S. Navy's Guadalcanal record was poor, but that given the enormous handicaps it operated under, it did remarkably well.

1. Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal (New York: Random House, 1990), Appendix 3. This tally of 4,911 includes 49 Marines and 92 members of Allied navies. If the Marine and Allied navy numbers are dropped and the 130 Navy aviators included, the total is 4,900. One authority sets Navy fatalities at Okinawa at 4,911. Roy E. Appleman, James M. Burns, Russell A Gugeler, and John Stevens, Untied States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific: Okinawa: The Last Battle (Washington, DC: Historical Division, Department of the Army, 1948), p. 473. An official Navy publication gives Navy losses at Okinawa as 4,022, but also includes a category of "bombardment of Kyushu Island and Japan" with another 970 fatalities. Presumably, the second category includes some losses incurred supporting the Okinawa operation. The History of the Medical Department of the United States Navy in World War II, The Statistics of Disease and Injury. NAVmed P-1318, Vol. 3, United States Navy, Government Printing Office, 1950 [hereafter The Statistics of Disease and Injury] p. 173.

2. Frank, Guadalcanal, pp. 333-4, 599, 605.

3. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shatttered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005), p. 476; Frank Guadalcanal, pp. 399-403, 489-93.

4. John B. Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral (Annapoli, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), pp. 54, 68, 79, 180, 249-51, 363-64.

5. Frank, Guadalcanal, pp. 60, 135-8, 252-5, 408, 500, 518-9, 526-7.

6. Norman Friedman, U.S. Destroyers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982 ), pp. 88, 95, 97, 113; Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, pp. 25-6, 134-5, 340-2, 346-9, 376-81, 386; Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 370.

7. Frank, Guadalcanal, pp. 103-4, 298-300, 438, 473-4, 507.

8. Commander Task Group 64.2, Serial 0014, October 22, 1942; Salt Lake City (CA-25), Serial 0140, 19 October 1942.

9. Thomas C. Hone and Trent Hone, Battleline: The United States Navy 1919-1939 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006) pp. 87-89; Annual Report of the Commander in Chief United States Pacific Fleet for the Period 1 July 1940 to 30 June 1941, CINCPAC File No. A9/FF12/(05), Serial 01275 A.

First Shots of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal

By Vice Admiral Lloyd M. Mustin, U.S. Navy (Retired)

At 0141 on 13 November 1942, Lieutenant Commander Lloyd Mustin, assistant gunnery officer in the USS Atlanta (CL-51), was standing at the foot of the cruiser's after gunfire director peering through a pair of binoculars. The Atlanta, which featured eight 5-inch gun mounts, was fifth in a line of 13 U.S. destroyers and cruisers approaching a strong force of Japanese warships off Guadalcanal. Admiral Mustin's recollections of the subsequent first phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal are adapted from his U.S. Naval Institute oral history.

There in the starlight, I saw the target that I believe the after director had been following. Here came into view the very familiar silhouette of the Japanese light cruiser, fairly old design, very low hull, three or four stacks. There was one such light cruiser in that force, the Nagara. There were a couple of destroyers ahead of her. When the Nagara came into my view, our computer solution on her had a 6,000-yard range. Six thousand yards is nearly point blank for modern gunnery. But it was at about this time that having sighted the Japs, our own destroyers in the van began having to take evasive action to avoid actual collision.

I saw the port side of one of our destroyers that supposedly had been in column ahead of us. Obviously she had turned hard to port. We had a collision situation facing us unmistakably to the eye. The Atlanta put her rudder hard over.

Well, it seems to me that the Atlanta had barely gotten swung around when we were illuminated brilliantly by a searchlight from somewhere abaft our port beam as we swung around to our left. I ordered "action port." Here we were, gun batteries trained out by now on the starboard bow on this Japanese light cruiser. Suddenly we slew around to roughly on the port beam with the searchlight source as our target.

While it was swinging, I gave the plotting room an estimated range, 2,000 yards. As soon as the directors said "On target," I ordered "Commence firing," and we did. I remember quite vividly that although this ship had illuminated us, no shots had been fired by us or by anybody else visible or audible to me or anybody else until the Atlanta commenced firing at that searchlight.

We got out from the after group something like 10 or 12 rounds per gun at that target. We fired out there on my estimated range, and I saw the shells hit the water, some of them at least, short of the searchlight, because I could see them rise in the searchlight beam. Of course, the spotter in the director had control of the fire from there on. He moved them up, and I am sure they began hitting.

The position of the forces was such that one or two of their destroyers were to the south of Atlanta as we turned left in this emergency maneuver. One or both of them got off their torpedoes. These were those magnificent torpedoes of the Japs with the 24-inch diameter and 1,200-pound warhead. One of them hit the Atlanta in pretty close to the bulkhead between the forward fireroom and the forward engine room. Actually, another one hit us and did not go off. It penetrated the ship's side and stuck there.

Anyway, one torpedo hit Atlanta and blew. It was a shattering blow. A monstrous column of water and oil rose on our port side and cascaded down all over the ship, drenching all of the topside. People were thrown to their knees, including me, by the shock of the explosion. The after fireroom crew releasing steam just made further voice talk impossible. The smoke from our stacks and the spray and so on, interfered tremendously with visibility. But in the meantime we were getting shot at as well, and we were getting hit.

Somehow or other, later as we lay there dead in the water in a westerly heading, the San Francisco (CA-38) opened fire on us from fairly close aboard, just slightly abaft our port beam at a range that I would estimate to be not much more than 2,000 yards.

Well, Captain Samuel Jenkins commented later that he and Rear Admiral Norman Scott had been standing outside the Atlanta's pilothouse on the starboard bridge wing looking to the north, which was where the battle seemed to have gone, when there was some alarm on the port side. Captain Jenkins went around the catwalk to the port side to see what was going on. When he came back, there was no starboard bridge wing. This San Francisco salvo going through there had just removed it. Admiral Scott died in the Atlanta in that battle, and I have a feeling that it was that salvo that did it. A couple of his staff officers were standing with him, and they simply vanished. There was no burial at sea. There was nothing to bury. They were just gone.

Flying in the Cactus Air Force

By Brigadier General Robert E. Galer, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

The commander of Marine Fighter Squadron 224, Major Robert Galer, arrived at Henderson Field in August 1942. Flying an F4F Wildcat fighter, he went on to shoot down at least 13 Japanese planes during the Guadalcanal campaign and to earn the Medal of Honor. The following recollections are adapted from an interview Dr. Fred Allison of the Marine Corps History Division conducted with him in 1999.

We organized the Cactus Air Force—any airplane that could fly. In fact the Navy helped more than they're given credit for. A carrier would get hit, and their pilots would all come in and join the Cactus Air Force until the next reassignment, and they made a real contribution. The Coast Watchers (natives and sometimes Australians who lived in the bush throughout the Solomon Island chain) also made a real contribution. They would warn you of Japanese raids coming down and also get you back when shot down.

Some days we couldn't get airborne because of Japanese fire. When we did get airborne we would strafe and bomb. You would get over the ridge and hit anything you saw. Anybody that hollered for help, and we thought we could help, we would do it.

An Army Air Forces squadron flying P-39 fighters couldn't go to altitude, so they did practically all the close support. The Marine SBD squadrons were bombing all the time. Not a real lot of close support because they were too busy bombing Japanese ships. The Japs were trying to reinforce all the time.

About three different times Tokyo Rose claimed the Japanese had taken the airfield. They had superior numbers of airplanes and personnel. But we had no choice; we were going to win. We had to do it. My squadron, we lay out on the runway one night with .45s in our hands in case the Japs got through. They had a couple of artillery pieces that could hit the field anytime, and they did so every night. Somebody said they fired 785 shells from battleships into the perimeter. I was taxiing one night that we had been bombed and shelled. It had rained like hell, and I taxied right back the same way I had taxied earlier but hit a bomb hole full of water. It didn't help the airplane.

Sometimes there would be 18 or 20 enemy bombers and 20 fighters coming, and we would try to find them. We would mix with them over Henderson Field. In one battle three of us made dead stick landings onto Henderson Field. We had armor protection, protected fuel tanks. Our planes were heavier and weren't as maneuverable as theirs, but we could get away from them. Being able to take the punishment was very important.

We fundamentally used wingman tactics. Your wingman would help protect your fanny. We also tried to maintain close section integrity. Two months after the campaign started the Japanese were getting new pilots, and basically they weren't trained as well as the original pilots. You could really tell the difference.

I was shot down three times, I think all by air-to-air action. Hell, our antiaircraft was shooting at us some of the time. They were shooting at the bombers, and I could have been hit by fire aimed at them.

My leadership philosophy was wherever I sent the guys, I was going to go. I took the lead, flew every day, and had lots of targets.


See the full Naval Institute guide to The Pacific.



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