"The great end of a war fleet is to control the seas."—Mahan
The Pacific phase of World War II was predominantly a naval war. In the air, on and under the sea, its engagements were many. Some of these were great battles, involving many ships and great numbers of combatants. Coral Sea, Midway, Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa—each of these was of great importance. Yet it is quite probable that historians of the future, observing the Pacific War with greater perspective and less bias than that of which we are capable, will consider none of these battles the decisive battle of the conflict. In fact, it is quite likely that history will record not one, but two engagements, as the decisive battle of the Pacific War. These two encounters, occurring some nineteen days apart, have been given the names: Battle of Santa Cruz and Battle of Guadalcanal.
It should surprise but a few that the decisive battle of the war should be, in reality, two engagements. These few forget that naval warfare has undergone a profound change in recent years. Naval power now consists of two elements, sea power and air power. Each travels in a different medium and at different speeds. It seems reasonable, then, to find the decision in regard to each element occurring at different times. One of the most popular pastimes of armchair strategists in prewar days was the imaginative construction of the form of the modern naval engagement. Most such creations consisted of two phases: the air-sea engagement between opposing carrier air groups and then the contact and engagement of the opposing battle lines. The second phase usually followed the first by one to three days in most analyses. In the full complexity of modern naval warfare, it is small wonder that the second phase followed the first by nineteen days in actuality.
In order properly to assess the decisiveness of Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal, one must survey them first in the panorama of the entire Pacific conflict. Pearl Harbor, the opening blow, caught the American nation by surprise. It stripped us at once of our strong right arm, sea power. There remained only the dancing, shadow-boxing left, air power, with which to defend ourselves. With this untried but highly effective weapon wre held the Japanese at arm’s length for nearly a year. We held Pearl Harbor and protected our lines of communication to Australia but we could not prevent the rapid investing of the rich Far East. By the middle of April, 1942, the Japanese had completed their occupation of the central and south Pacific islands west of Midway and had established bases in the New Guinea-Solomon Islands area, threatening Australia with invasion. The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 7-8, 1942) checked the Japanese advance to the southward. Only a month later, the Battle of Midway stopped the second enemy attempt to neutralize and capture our Hawaiian outposts. These victories were great military feats but, nevertheless, our forces were rather in the position of the outmatched tennis player, desperately returning his opponent’s well- placed shots while at the same time realizing that the next might very well be out of reach. During this period our offensive efforts were limited to a few isolated strikes against the enemy’s more exposed outposts.
There may have been some of this desperate, “what have we got to lose” attitude involved in the decision to take the initiative and invade the lower Solomon Islands in August of 1942. But, fundamentally, the strategy was well-founded. Simply checking the enemy as was done at Coral Sea and Midway would not alter the course of events. Warfare is a matter of momentum. It is necessary to destroy the enemy’s momentum, turn the tide of events, and gain for one’s self the overwhelming drive required to obtain the ultimate victory. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral King, evidently believed at this time that our forces were strong enough to wrest the initiative from the Japanese.
Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal clinched the American hold on the lower Solomon group. From that point on, ours was a steady and rapidly accelerating advance. One by one the chain of island strong-points threatening Australia were captured or neutralized. The enemy’s central outposts were hammered flat. In 1944 Saipan, Guam, and the Philippines were stormed and taken. The avalanche roared on with ever increasing tempo until the battered enemy capitulated in August of 1945. During this time of American advance and Japanese retreat, several heavy engagements were fought at sea. The Battle of the Eastern Philippines and the Battle for Leyte Gulf broke the back of Japanese naval power both on the sea and in the air. The actions off Okinawa were brilliant victories of naval power over the most fanatical of air attacks. But these victories were a result rather than a cause, a culmination of what had gone before. Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal lie at the turning point of the Pacific War. This was not a happenstance. There are vital reasons why the Japanese began to retreat after these battles rather than rebound as they did at Coral Sea and Midway. To find these reasons we must inspect the decisive actions in more detail.
The Battle of Santa Cruz
It was not until nearly two months after the initial landings on Tulagi and Guadalcanal that the Japanese realized that their forces on Guadalcanal would not be able to eject the American invaders without additional help. The Blue (American) landings had been successful, especially on Guadalcanal where Henderson Field fell quickly into our hands. Orange (Japanese) naval reaction was rapid, however, resulting in a crushing defeat of the Blue surface forces on the night of August 8-9, 1942. Four cruisers were lost in this action while damage to the Japanese was slight. The Japanese failed to follow up their advantage, being content with merely supplying and reinforcing their Guadalcanal garrison although controlling the waters around the embattled island completely. Any more ambitious plans they may have had were discouraged by considerable damage inflicted on a transport force some 250 miles north of Guadalcanal on August 24-25 (the Battle of the Eastern Solomons).
About the first of October, however, the Japanese began a systematic attempt to build up their defending force on Guadalcanal. Fast supply echelons, soon named the “Tokyo Express,” made nightly runs down to Guadalcanal from the Buin-Faisi area in the upper Solomons. One of these excursions was caught off Cape Esperance on the night of October 11-12 by a cruiser force under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott and was nearly annihilated. Even such a catastrophe failed to deter the Japanese, and the reinforcements continued. It has been estimated that during this period they were able to increase their strength on Guadalcanal by 7,000 to 10,000 men.
These developments convinced Vice Admiral (now Admiral) Halsey and his staff that a major attempt to regain the lower Solomons was imminent. We were ill- prepared to meet this threat. The attrition of the past few months had whittled the size of Blue naval forces to a dangerous low. Only one battleship, Washington, was operating in the South Pacific. Her sister ship, North Carolina, had been torpedoed by a submarine and forced to retire for repairs. Carrier forces were sadly depleted. Submarine operations had cost us the Wasp and had damaged the Saratoga. The Enterprise had been damaged in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (August 24, 1942) and had retired to Pearl Harbor for repairs. This left but one carrier task group, formed around the Hornet, with which to carry on the air- sea war.
One battleship and one aircraft carrier with accompanying cruisers and destroyers were hardly enough to meet the considerable naval power the Japanese were assembling in the area. In view of this, several steps were taken to correct the deficiencies. Submarine operations above Guadalcanal and around Rabaul were intensified to hamper enemy movements. Air forces on Guadalcanal were reinforced and a squadron of PT boats moved into Tulagi. But surface forces were urgently needed, so the Enterprise at Pearl Harbor was repaired at top speed. On October 16 she left Hawaii in company with the South Dakota, a new battleship which had just arrived in the Pacific. Accompanied by several destroyers, the two vessels sailed for the South Pacific under forced draft.
The first act of the main Japanese attempt to regain Guadalcanal began on the night of October 23-24 with a land offensive calculated to recapture Henderson Field. Later information was to prove that Orange naval operations were closely geared to the progress of the fighting on Guadalcanal. The Japanese plans evidently called for the capture of Henderson Field before the arrival of the naval and transport forces. The heroic defense thrown up by the Guadalcanal Marines forced repeated delays in the timetable and the Japanese were incapable of altering their plans.
On October 24, the Enterprise and South Dakota joined the Hornet disposition. With their arrival the Blue forces were split into three task units. Two of these were built around the two aircraft carriers. The Hornet group included two heavy cruisers, two light anti-aircraft cruisers, and six destroyers. The South Dakota remained with the Enterprise. In addition, the Enterprise group contained a heavy cruiser, an anti-aircraft cruiser, and eight destroyers. The third task group was formed around the Washington, which was detailed to run to the southwest of Guadalcanal and then northward on the outside of Cape Esperance and Savo Island for the purpose of intercepting a possible Japanese thrust down the Slot. This possibility was not considered probable since it was almost certain that the enemy carrier striking force would come down through the open sea to the northeast of Guadalcanal where detection would be more difficult.
During the early morning hours of October 25, the Hornet and Enterprise task groups moved northwest through the waters east of the Santa Cruz Islands. The morning search produced negative results. It was nearly noon before a contact report was made. A shore- based patrol plane reported an enemy task group consisting of two battleships, four cruisers, and several destroyers. About an hour later another patrol plane reported a second Orange task group built around two aircraft carriers. They were apparently to the north of the battleships and were pursuing a collision course with the Hornet- Enterprise groups. About 300 miles separated the opposing forces. Because the reports were conflicting and meager, air strikes were withheld for some time. It was mid-afternoon before the take-off signal was given. The attack groups were hardly on their way when additional and disappointing news arrived. The enemy task groups, evidently again delayed by the magnificent stand of the Marines on Guadalcanal, had reversed their course and were retiring to the northward. It was impossible to inform the striking groups of this development without breaking radio silence. Consequently, the planes found no targets in their path. In their eagerness to meet the enemy some of the pilots searched beyond their appointed radius and as a result several crash-landed upon their return due to lack of gas and darkness. Thus, the strength of the Blue air groups on the morrow was reduced somewhat.
During the night of the 25th, the Blue task groups maneuvered so as to be in a position to engage the enemy if he should cease his retirement and by dawn of the 26th were approximately 150 miles to the west of the position of the previous day. On this same night, the battle-weary Marines on Guadalcanal began to weaken and the Japanese were able to achieve a breakthrough along Lunga Ridge. Encouraged by this success, the Orange naval forces commenced a new approach to add their weight to the oft-deferred annihilation of the American forces in the lower Solomons. In the action which followed, only the enemy striking force was involved. The actual invasion armada with its covering force hovered to the northwest and later retired to the north when it became apparent that the Japanese plans had again gone awry.
Early on the morning of October 26 news came that the Marines had held. Almost simultaneously came contact reports from patrol planes. It appeared that the enemy task force consisted of three groups a considerable distance apart. The three task groups were moving south in approximate line abreast. The nearest (most easterly) group, evidently the one reported first the previous day, contained two Kongo class battleships, a cruiser, and about seven destroyers. The center group contained two carriers (probably the Shokaku and Zuikaku) and several cruisers and destroyers. This group was later joined by a third carrier (probably the light carrier Zuiho). The most westerly group was built around two battleships but also contained an aircraft carrier (tentatively identified as the Hayataka, a converted merchant hull).
By eight o’clock in the morning, the enemy task groups, apparently having contacted their forces on Guadalcanal, countermarched and began to withdraw to the northward. The Blue forces had by this time, however, reached an attack position to the eastward and three attack waves were flown off, one from the Enterprise and two from the Hornet. The remaining Enterprise planes flew combat patrol over the two carriers, which were operating just over the surface horizon from each other.
The Enterprise attack group was surprised by a strong squadron of Zeros and lost some planes but managed to get through to the near battleship force. Several bomb hits were reported on one of the capital ships. One Hornet attack group found the central force without incident and reported at least four 1000-pound bomb hits on one of the carriers. In addition, torpedo planes of this group claimed three torpedo hits on an accompanying heavy cruiser. The second Hornet group scored bomb hits on two heavy cruisers and a destroyer leader.
Coincident with these attacks, Blue task groups underwent a series of determined carrier aircraft attacks. In common with numerous other air-sea engagements, the opposing aircraft had passed each other en route to the target. The Hornet bore the brunt of the Japanese air strikes, which lasted throughout the day. A bomb hit and a suicide plane crash into the island structure caused a serious gasoline fire. Shortly after, she suffered two torpedo hits which disrupted her power. These were followed by another suicide plane crash and three more bomb hits. The Hornet was left dead in the water with many fires and a considerable list. Despite this, the fires were extinguished, wounded were evacuated, and the Hornet was taken in tow by the Northamptom.
Just over the horizon to the southward, the Enterprise was also being heavily attacked. A dive-bombing assault by 24 planes resulted in three bomb hits despite heavy enemy losses. Two attacks by torpedo planes and one additional dive-bombing attack failed to damage the “Big E” further, although the South Dakota received a bomb hit on Turret II and some damage was sustained by the anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan and the destroyer Smith.
The defense which greeted the Japanese planes was formidable both in the air and from the ships. Authorities have estimated that about 170 to 180 Japanese planes took part in the strikes against the Hornet-Enterprise task force. Thus, nearly the full complement of the four enemy carriers was involved. Blue anti-aircraft fire was accurate and intense. Of 27 dive bombers attacking the Hornet during one attack, 20 were shot out of the sky. A total of 23 Japanese planes were shot down over the Hornet and 33 were splashed over the Enterprise. The new battleship South Dakota was a tower of strength in this respect, throwing up a tremendous sheet of “flak.” Returning Yank pilots were cautioned about passing over this ship as “she was knocking down everything within range.” Altogether, 56 enemy planes were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. The combat air patrol splashed about the same number. Thus, approximately 110 of the 180 attacking planes were downed in the vicinity of the target. When operational losses and out-of-gas water landings upon return to the home carriers are added in, it becomes obvious that the Orange carrier-based air strength in the Solomons area was for all practical purposes annihilated.
The final enemy air strike, late on the afternoon of the 26th, succeeded in scoring additional torpedo hits and bomb hits on the sorely beset Hornet. The carrier was abandoned. In the meantime, the eastern and the central enemy task groups, which had been damaged by Blue air strikes, retired to the northward at best speed. The westernmost group, consisting of fast battleships and cruisers, swung to the eastward behind the retiring carrier forces and began to close the Hornet’s position. When it became obvious that it would be impossible to nurse the stricken carrier back to a safe haven, the Blue forces retired upon Espiritu Santo, leaving two destroyers to dispatch the Hornet. The destroyers fired torpedoes into the battered hull and started numerous fires topside with shellfire. They were completing their task when the presence of the approaching Orange battleship task group was discovered. The two ships retired to the southward at high speed. They were pursued for some distance by light forces of the enemy task group but no contact was made. And thus ended the Battle of Santa Cruz.
In terms of surface vessels, American losses exceeded those of the Japanese. The Hornet and the destroyer Porter were lost and three other vessels were damaged. No Japanese sinkings were claimed, although the survival of the torpedoed cruiser was doubtful. Serious damage was done to a carrier and lesser damage done to a battleship and five lighter vessels. But the real body blow was dealt the Orange carrier aircraft. Four air groups were cut to pieces. Replacement aircraft in that part of the Pacific were difficult to obtain and a carrier without aircraft is like a battleship with its turrets removed— only more vulnerable.
The Battle of Guadalcanal
The three weeks following the Battle of Santa Cruz were hectic ones. The American forces in the South Pacific were racing against time in an attempt to bolster the defenses of Guadalcanal. It was realized that the Japanese would continue their efforts to retake the strategic island group as soon as they could reorganize their forces. Our troops on Guadalcanal were reinforced on November 6, but further supplies and reinforcements were vitally needed. Intelligence reports informed Admiral Halsey that the Japanese were concentrating in the Buin-Faisi anchorage at the southeastern end of Bougainville Island. This was apparently their staging area for the second all- out attempt to retake the lower Solomons. The first attempt had come by way of the open sea to the northeast of the islands. This was the logical route for a striking force based upon air power since the possibility of detection was greatly lessened.
The route from Buin-Faisi (some 280 miles), however, promised the greatest success to a surface force. The islands between Guadalcanal and Bougainville formed a natural sound. This sound, originally called New Georgia Sound, was renamed “The Slot” soon after American forces invaded the island group. The Slot runs in a southeasterly direction, being bound on the northeast by Choiseul and Santa Isabel islands while Vella Lavella, Kolombangara, New At the bottom of the Slot lies Guadalcanal, which, with Florida Island, forms an inverted V. Tiny Savo Island lies squarely in the open V, forming two entrances by which those who traverse the Slot may enter Iron Bottom Sound, as the triangular expanse of water between Guadalcanal and Florida is called. It is aptly named, for more naval tonnage lies on its bottom now than was sunk in the Battle of Jutland.
The islands which line the Slot have many coves and harbors which afford ideal cover for surface vessels. Troops can be transported down the chain in short stages via landing craft if necessary. Reports of the Orange concentrations at the head of the Slot indicated that the further reinforcement of our forces would have to be pushed with all possible speed in order to land the much- needed supplies before the Japanese armada arrived. Accordingly, a supply group under Rear Admiral R. K. Turner was readied and departed from our bases to the south on November 8 and 9. These supply vessels were covered by a cruiser force under the command of Rear Admiral D. J. Callaghan and Rear Admiral Norman Scott. The carrier Enterprise was temporarily patched up, and together with the Washington and South Dakota formed a striking force which was to provide air support from a point some 200 miles south of Guadalcanal.
The supply vessels were hardly on their way when it became apparent that a vast Japanese amphibious movement was also getting under way. The American operations were only a day or two in advance of the enemy’s as the two forces converged on Guadalcanal.
The first supply echelon arrived off Guadalcanal early on the morning of November 11. The cargo vessels, three in number, immediately began unloading off Lunga Point. Japanese reaction was almost immediate. Two morning air attacks resulted in damage to the transport Zeilin and some damage to shore installations. Unloading was continued during the afternoon and at nightfall the supply ships and their escorting cruisers retired into Indispensable Strait for the night. A search of Iron Bottom Sound by the cruiser force during the night revealed nothing.
On the morning of the 12th the second group of supply vessels arrived and began unloading at the Guadalcanal beach. The enemy again countered with a torpedo plane attack. This attack was repulsed with heavy losses which were due to good shooting by the ships and by the combat air patrol from Henderson Field. No damage was suffered by the supply vessels but a flaming torpedo plane deliberately crashed the cruiser San Francisco, damaging the after fire control tower.
Contact reports of strong enemy movements were received from scouting planes all day. The strongest group was located about noon some 300 miles north of Guadalcanal. It had evidently sortied from the naval base at Truk and consisted of two or more battleships, with accompanying cruisers and destroyers. It was in a position to arrive in Iron Bottom Sound at midnight. Reports also came through of a troop transport force escorted by cruisers which in the late afternoon was high up the Slot off New Georgia Island. It would be another day, at least, before this slow moving convoy would near Guadalcanal.
In view of the strength of the approaching Orange battleship force, it was decided to send the supply ships back to Espiritu Santo even though several of the cargo ships were not fully unloaded. The escorting vessels were detached and formed into a striking force under Rear Admiral Callaghan. It was intended that this cruiser-destroyer force fight a delaying action until the carrier- battleship task force under Rear Admiral Kinkaid could intercept the advancing Japanese landing forces. The Enterprise task force at this time was some 600 miles due south of Guadalcanal—a full day’s sail away.
After ushering the retiring cargo ships into Indispensable Strait, Admiral Callaghan’s force re-entered Iron Bottom Sound at approximately midnight via Lengo Channel. The ships were in column as they cruised westward along the north shore of Guadalcanal. Four destroyers, the Cushing, Laffey, Sterett, and O’Bannon, were in the van. There followed five cruisers: Atlanta (Rear Admiral Scott), San Francisco (Rear Admiral Callaghan), Portland, Helena, and Juneau, in that order. Another four destroyers, Aaron Ward, Barton, Monssen, and Fletcher brought up the rear. Near Lunga Point several groups of enemy vessels were picked up by radar inside Iron Bottom Sound to the northwest.
The Japanese fleet was in open formation. Subsequent events proved that contact with Blue forces in Iron Bottom Sound was unexpected. It is probable that the Japanese had accurate knowledge of the presence and strength of Callaghan’s little squadron and had presumed that the outnumbered Americans would not chance an engagement. Consequently, the Japanese muzzles were loaded with bombardment ammunition for use on Henderson Field. This ammunition contained large bursting charges but was too light to penetrate the cruisers’ armor. This fact had great influence on the engagement. The Orange forces approached Lunga Point and Henderson Field in three columns. The center group was the largest and contained a battleship, afterward identified as the Hiyei, a Kongo class battleship. The left and right groups contained four or five ships each, with two cruisers in each group. A fourth group, also containing a battleship, was far to the north, en route to bombard Tulagi. The presence of this force did not make itself known to the Blue force during the engagement.
The Blue column turned north and then northwest to close the Orange formation. The opposing formations approached each other rapidly. It was a dark night with no moon and contact was by radar. The first visual contact was made by the leading destroyer which sighted four ships crossing ahead. Permission to attack with torpedoes was requested and granted. The leading destroyers turned left to unmask the torpedo battery. At this point the targets were identified as destroyers on a retiring course. Evidently the presence of the Blue vessels was at this time discovered by the light wing groups of the Orange force. These wing groups promptly countermarched.
Not being in an advantageous position for torpedo attack, the van destroyers swung back on the base course and in doing so caused some confusion at the head of the column. The Atlanta was forced to swing left to avoid one of the destroyers. The column was ordered on to a northerly course to cross the T on the center group which was still advancing. The Atlanta and San Francisco, however, were unable to do so and pursued a westerly course between the left and center groups. The remainder of the Blue force crossed the T.
By this time the rapidly approaching forces were at point-blank range. The action began when Japanese light units on the flanks illuminated the Blue forces. Both sides opened fire. The American gunnery, aided by radar ranges, was more telling. A light cruiser- in the right flank group blew up, shortly after being taken under fire by the San Francisco. In the left flank group two cruisers were soon on fire. One of these cruisers was seen to sink in a very few minutes under the punishing cannonade. A destroyer in the left group blew up shortly after and two others were seen to burst into flame. The left group was thus practically eliminated early in the engagement.
In the meantime, the Atlanta, which had just previously sunk an Orange destroyer, was torpedoed. With rudder jammed, she circled to the south. She was then taken under fire by a heavy cruiser with devastating results. Her batteries were silenced, all power was lost and many fires were started. Admiral Scott was among those killed. The Atlanta, helpless, began to drift toward the Japanese-occupied section of Guadalcanal.
In the Blue group moving northward, the Portland was torpedoed in the stern after wrecking a Japanese destroyer. Unable to steer, the Portland began to turn in tight circles. The Juneau was torpedoed and forced to retire to the eastward. The van destroyers, under heavy fire, closed the battleship in the center group. The Laffey took Hiyei under rapid fire and in return was knocked out with shellfire and torpedoed. The Cushing and O’Bannon pushed in close and scored torpedo hits on the enemy capital ship. The Cushing was put out of action with gunfire but the O’Bannon retired with minor damage. The Barton was also torpedoed and blew up immediately.
The San Francisco, still running to the west, engaged the Hiyei which she found on her starboard bow. A bitter gunnery duel followed which tore up the battleship’s upper works and resulted in extensive damage to the San Francisco. At the conclusion of this gunfight, the badly battered Blue cruiser was left moving slowly to the southwest with the majority of her deck officers, including Rear Admiral Callaghan, as casualties.
The lighter vessels of the center force were badly mauled and under the pressure from the San Francisco and the Blue vessels which were crossing the T, the Hiyei turned north and then to the west on a retiring course. During this interval she was subjected to heavy fire from the encircling Portland and the undamaged destroyers. The Helena concentrated her fire on a cruiser of the center force and Aaron Ward, Monssen, and Fletcher scored torpedo hits on cruisers and destroyers. In addition, the Monssen delivered a torpedo attack on the retiring enemy capital ship, scoring several hits before she was damaged so severely that she was abandoned. The Sterett, too, suffered damage from gunfire and was forced to retire.
By now, the firing had become exceedingly sporadic, with scattered Japanese forces firing at one another. Contact between opposing forces ceased and the furious action was over. The Helena assembled the active remnants of the Blue force and retired into Indispensable Strait. With her were the badly battered San Francisco and Fletcher. In the Strait, they found Juneau, Sterett, and O’Bannon. The six crippled ships retired at best speed toward Espiritu Santo.
When dawn broke over Iron Bottom Sound, it found eight vessels still on the scene of the night engagement. In the center of the sound, the Portland turned endlessly. The Atlanta was lying dead in the water close to the Japanese-held beach but her fires had been extinguished. The Cushing and Monssen were on fire while Aaron Ward lay dead in the water. An enemy destroyer lay to the south of Savo Island, making slow progress toward the shelter the island offered. Still turning in circles, the Portland took this vessel under fire and sank it with several well-placed salvos. To the north of Savo lay Hiyei, with a cruiser standing by. Shortly after the Portland sank the enemy destroyer, the Hiyei began to fire slowly on the Aaron Ward.
During the night, the Enterprise task force had run northward at top speed and by morning it was within air range of Guadalcanal. The shelling of the Aaron Ward by Hiyei was interrupted by the arrival of a flight of torpedo planes from the Enterprise. The enemy cruiser retired precipitately to the northward. The planes pressed home an attack on the Hiyei and scored three torpedo hits. Continuous air attacks from Henderson Field were made against the battered capital ship throughout the day. Fires raged aboard the vessel which showed a surprising resistance to the remorseless attack. She sank sometime after nightfall on the 13th.
During the daylight hours on November 13, the Portland and Aaron Ward were towed to Tulagi on Florida Island. The plight of the Atlanta proved hopeless despite energetic efforts to save her and she was finally scuttled. Just before noon the Blue force retiring on Espiritu Santo was attacked by a submarine south of San Cristobal Island. The already damaged Juneau was struck by a torpedo and blew up. Thus, the inferior Blue forces lost two anti-aircraft cruisers (Atlanta, Juneau) and four destroyers (Barton, Cushing, Laffey, and Monssen) while the Orange forces lost one battleship, two cruisers, and four destroyers according to present information. Rear Admiral Callaghan’s desperate stand had resulted in a brilliant victory although neither he nor Rear Admiral Scott survived.
The failure of the Japanese bombardment group to reach Henderson Field and destroy its facilities did not deter the advance of the major Japanese forces. The presence of several enemy forces in the Slot was reported. One of these was the large transport convoy which by the morning of November 14 had progressed well down the north coast of New Georgia Island. A fast cruiser- destroyer squadron was also in the lower reaches of the Slot and during the early morning hours of November 14 this force entered Iron Bottom Sound and bombarded Henderson Field. Some planes were destroyed but the field was not damaged seriously, the attack being broken off when Tulagi-based PT boats attacked the Orange bombardment force.
Upon daylight of the 14th, the retiring Japanese cruiser force was attacked by planes from Henderson Field and from the Enterprise. Bomb hits were scored on several cruisers. The approaching invasion convoy was subjected to several heavy air attacks by the Enterprise. Six cargo vessels were reported destroyed and six more were left burning. None of the enemy transports escaped damage.
About noon of the 14th, the Washington and South Dakota, with four destroyers, were detached from the Enterprise task force and ordered to search the Savo Island area after nightfall for an enemy bombardment force which had been reported and also for any remnants of the transport group which might have survived the day’s air attacks. The battleship task group approached from the south, running well out to the west of Cape Esperance, the northwest tip of Guadalcanal, in order to prevent being spotted by enemy coast watchers. The task group was in column with the four destroyers Walke, Benham, Preston, and Gwin) in the van. After searching to the northwest of Savo Island, the Blue force turned to the east and ran down through the entrance to Iron Bottom Sound between Savo and Florida Islands. At about midnight, having approached the coast of Guadalcanal near Lunga Point, the task group turned west and searched west along the coast of Guadalcanal toward Savo Island.
Soon afterward, contact was made with enemy ships to the northwest in waters through which the Blue force had steamed on its eastward leg. The enemy was headed west inside Savo Island. There appeared to be six or seven ships, including several cruisers. The Washington selected the leading ship as its target, while the South Dakota took the third in line. The two heavy ships opened fire in full radar control and took the Orange column completely by surprise. Both targets disappeared after several accurate salvos of 16-inch projectiles were dropped upon them. Two of the smaller vessels detached themselves from the enemy column and retired rapidly to the north of Savo where, as later events proved, they notified a second Japanese task group of the presence of the battleships. Fire was shifted to the next largest targets after the first two were sunk. The Orange column was now completely disorganized, with several ships burning along the east shore of Savo Island.
While this action was in progress the van destroyers contacted eight to ten targets moving east around the south shore of Savo. These vessels proved to be destroyers detached from the main Japanese body which at the time was hidden to the northwest of Savo. The Blue destroyers pressed their attack against these vessels. The secondary batteries of the battleships also took these targets under fire. By moving to the attack, the Blue destroyers took the brunt of the torpedo attack meant for the heavy ships. The Preston was sunk by gunfire, the Benharn was torpedoed, and the Walke was both torpedoed and heavily damaged by gunfire. The Gwin suffered considerable gunfire damage and was forced to retire. The Orange destroyer attack, however, was repulsed with heavy losses.
At this stage all Blue destroyers had been put out of action, but because they had drawn the enemy attack toward themselves, the Washington and South Dakota were as yet undamaged. For a short interval, the two vessels found no targets as they passed to the west out through the strait between Guadalcanal and Savo Island. As they cleared Savo, a second task group was picked up. This group contained a battleship and several cruisers and was standing to the westward on a parallel course. Again operating in radar control, the Washington took the enemy heavy ship under fire. Many hits were obtained. Due to a temporary failure of her radar, the South Dakota inadvertently closed to within searchlight range of the enemy force. She was promptly illuminated and fired upon. In the exchange, the South Dakota sank one of the illuminating vessels but was herself considerably damaged in her upper works. She retired out of searchlight range.
The enemy battleship, identified later as the Kirishima, a sister of Hiyei, soon was aflame from the effects of the Washington’s pounding and swung away out of control. She sank several hours later. The two American battleships wreaked considerable havoc among the remaining vessels of the Japanese column before the latter withdrew in disorder to the northward.
Contact having disappeared, the damaged South Dakota and the untouched Washington retired to the south. They soon fell in with the crippled Gwin. As the Blue force moved southward, they picked up several indistinct contacts in the neighborhood of the Russell Islands. These contacts were evidently the remnants of the transport force, as four damaged Japanese cargo vessels beached themselves on Guadalcanal during the early morning of November 15. They were bombed by Henderson Field planes soon after dawn and finished off by the destroyer Meade which “exercised complete control in the area.”1 With this action the Battle of Guadalcanal ended.
The Battle of Guadalcanal marked the last Japanese attempt to regain the lower Solomons. For the next few months they confined their activities to occasional “Tokyo Express” supply expeditions and soon they withdrew altogether. The Japanese withdrawal from the lower Solomons was overshadowed, however, by a fact of even greater importance. The Japanese appeared to have abandoned the offensive and to have assumed the defensive.
The change was marked. In the phase before Guadalcanal, the enemy had appeared eager to risk his heavy “nonexpendable” units of naval power, his aircraft carriers and battleships, in every major engagement. This was true at Coral Sea, Midway, and in all the battles for control of the lower Solomons. After the Battle of Guadalcanal, however, Japanese heavy units disappeared from the seas. A close study of communiques reveals that from November 15,1942, until June 18, 1944, not a single Japanese capital ship was engaged by our forces. During this time United States forces extended their control to the upper Solomons, New Guinea, and the Admiralty Islands; invaded the Gilbert and Marshall Islands; isolated and by-passed the naval base at Truk; and invaded Saipan. It was not until our movement into the Philippine Islands threatened the collapse of the entire Japanese Empire structure that Orange heavy units were forced out of hiding.
Why did the Japanese withdraw their fleet and where was it hiding during the ensuing year and a half? The answer to these questions does not lie in World War II alone.
The first World War saw the inception of a new form of warfare which featured the newly developed airplane. The potentialities of this invention were early recognized. As a consequence, the proper development and the proper use of air power became the prime concern of all leading military establishments. Certain nations (principally Italy, Germany, and Japan) saw in the new weapon an opportunity to contest the position of the sea power nations. The fundamental principle of their military ideology, that air power had rendered sea power obsolete, was given wide publicity throughout the world.
Japan, in particular, subscribed to this theory. Her willingness to fight the United States, a potentially stronger military power, was founded on it and her strategy had this extremist theory at its core. Japan planned to eliminate or neutralize American sea power by her sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. She then intended to use the time during which we were rebuilding our fleet to occupy the western Pacific island groups from the Aleutians to Australia. These islands were to be converted to “unsinkable aircraft carriers,” a multitude of island air bases. Japan believed that by this means her air power could keep our sea power at bay indefinitely, forcing the United States to accept eventually the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.”
The composition of the Japanese fleet prior to Pearl Harbor reflected the attitude of the Japanese strategists. The total strength of the Japanese fleet was considerably inferior to that of the United States. Japan could boast but ten battleships as compared with sixteen in the United States Navy. Her cruiser strength nearly equaled ours but she was sadly lacking in destroyer strength. In two significant categories, however, Japan held a numerical superiority; i.e., in aircraft carriers and seaplane carriers.
The subtle malinfluence of Japan’s extreme air power views upon her surface fleet was fully revealed as the war progressed. It developed that in furthering the expansion of her air power, Japan had neglected the technological advancement of her surface forces. This was a natural result of the influence of the air power ideology fostered by the Japanese strategists. They taught that sea power was obsolete, that it was defenseless against strong air attack, and, more especially, that land-based air power was superior to fleet-based naval power. To develop a strong anti-aircraft defense for surface vessels was against this declared policy. It countered the axioms upon which the Japanese dream of empire was predicated. As a consequence, Japanese development of automatic weapons, fire control equipment, radar, and an integrated fighter defense lagged far behind. In turn, the tactical employment of her surface fleet, especially that of the capital ships, was extremely limited.
The United States, on the other hand, followed a more conservative path, seeking to combine and correlate the two forces, air power and sea power. American naval designers, especially, never doubted that they could find an answer to the threat of air attack. Coincident with the development of a strong naval air arm went the development of a strong sea force to back it up. Long before Pearl Harbor, United States naval vessels were being made available at navy yards and naval dry docks, where newer and more efficient automatic weapons, fire control systems, and electronic devices were installed. On the drafting boards of the Bureau of Ships, the idea of an “ultimate battery” capital ship began to take shape. This vessel was to be a self-sufficient ship, as nearly as that dream could be realized by utilizing the latest advances of naval engineering. It was a potent war machine which could defend itself against all comers, in the air, on and under the sea.
The first of the ultimate battery ships was being completed when war struck at Pearl Harbor. The North Carolina and Washington reached the Pacific in the summer of 1942 and the South Dakota joined them in time for the Battle of Santa Cruz. It was here that the Japanese house of cards began to tumble. The Nipponese learned to their surprise that modern fire power, teamed with modern combat air patrols, was more than a match for their numerically superior air power. In other words, naval power, a well-mated team of air and sea power, was decisively superior to extreme unbalance in either direction.
The Japanese recognized this fact by abruptly assuming the defensive after Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal, but it was reiterated again and again as the war progressed. In the period between Guadalcanal and the Japanese collapse, the true strength of naval power, as typified, for instance, by the fast carrier task force of the Third Fleet, became apparent. This strength lay in its mobility. Time and again this fast striking force was able to approach some enemy stronghold, deal a terrific punch, and then disappear into the trackless Pacific. Japan’s “unsinable aircraft carriers,” however, were fixed and charted. They could not reach beyond their individual sectors of the Pacific and, more important, they could not avoid the blows of the far-ranging American fleet. It was true that an air strike could do nothing to an air base that bulldozers could not repair in short order. The American pilots therefore concentrated on destroying the highly vulnerable enemy aircraft. These tactics were highly successful and left the enemy with many usable air strips and few usable aircraft.
Having failed to obtain their objective at Santa Cruz by the use of air power, the Japanese were forced to rely on their only remaining weapon, sea power. In the Battle of Guadalcanal, the technical superiority typified by the Washington and South Dakota was again victorious. The well-balanced employment of carrier air strikes and surface fire power proved as decisive against sea power at Guadalcanal as it had against air power at Santa Cruz. Under the circumstances, the lesson was clear. The Japanese realized that they were in a first-rate sea war and that they were fighting that war with third-rate equipment and third-rate ideas. That was the decision of Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal.
Enough information has emerged since the end of hostilities to indicate that the Japanese knew why and when they were defeated. Admiral Yonai, Navy Minister, admitted following the surrender, “Japan was strikingly inferior in the technical equipment of its forces.” Rear Admiral Kanagawa, commanding officer at Rabaul, stated in an interview that he believed that Guadalcanal was the turning point of the Pacific War. As a layman, a Domei newspaper man, captured on Saipan, voiced the same opinion. Japan’s third-rate navy never had a chance. Once its screen of air power was torn away, its pitiful nature was exposed to view. It was swept from the seas.
After the lessons of Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal, the Japanese did the logical thing. They withdrew their outclassed warships and went on the defensive. Their fleet went into hiding. Where? American naval men knew the answer. It lay in the navy yards and naval dry docks of the Empire, where workmen hurriedly installed more and newer automatic weapons, better fire-control systems and electronics devices. It was a vain attempt. The technological advancement of the Japanese surface fleet had been neglected too long. Japanese industry could not supply the know-how and Japanese scientists could not bridge the gap of years of disinterest in the problems of adequate air defense. What the United States Navy had developed through years of research and training could not be emulated in a matter of months, although considerable progress was made. Airmen returning from strikes during the Battle for Leyte Gulf remarked upon the improvement of Japanese anti-aircraft defenses. But the American combination of fighters and ships’ guns was immeasurably superior. It was so superior that a fleet “came to stay” off Okinawa despite the most fanatical air assaults ever seen.
Thus, the ultimate destruction of the Imperial Japanese Fleet was foreshadowed at Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal. These twin engagements were the handwriting on the wall. When the victorious American fleet steamed into Tokyo Bay, it was met by a single Japanese destroyer—the only operable unit of the once mighty Nipponese fleet. It is well to remember, in this respect, that Japan surrendered before her home islands were invaded. Her conquests on the Asiatic mainland were still extensive and her huge, well- trained land forces there were largely intact. Her industries, despite heavy bombings, were still operable. Her naval power, however, had been destroyed. As a result of her loss of control of the sea, Japan was cut off from the sources of her most vital war materials. Her remaining air power did not have the fuel to launch itself on its desperate Kamikaze missions. Without gasoline, rubber, aluminum, and other equally important materials, Japan’s war effort ground to a stop. Yes, truly, the Pacific phase of World War II was a naval war.
1. Report on the Progress of the War by Admiral E.J. King.