The bloody slugging match for the island of Guadalcanal and the surrounding seas reached its peak fury seventy-three years ago this week. Between November 13th and 15th, 1942, a pair of violent clashes in the waters north and east of the island marked a watershed in the eleven-month long Pacific War. Those clashes would come to be known as the First and Second Naval Battles of Guadalcanal.
The stage was set for this far-flung, savage, running fight a week earlier, when US intelligence gleaned that the Japanese 17th Army was going to make one last, large attempt break the Marine perimeter to overrun Henderson Field. General Hyukatake, commanding 17th Army, had been arrogantly dismissive of the US Marines’ combat prowess, and entirely slipshod in his intelligence planning. The Japanese had tried three times to break the Marines’ lines, once in late-August (at the Ilu River), in mid-September (Edson’s Ridge), and again in late-October, which was the first serious thrust, directly at Lunga Point and the airfield. Each time, the Marines (and in October, joined by the Army’s 164th Infantry) held firm and slaughtered the Japanese in large numbers. Hyukatake had waited far too long. Had his efforts been strong during the almost two weeks in mid-August during which the Marines had neither Naval nor air protection, the predicament of the 1st Marine Division might have been extremely grim. Now, after grievous losses, Hyukatake was to be reinforced for one last major push.
In light of the latest intelligence, Admiral Richmond K. Turner had taken Task Force 67, loaded with troops and supplies, toward the island. The transports of TF 67 unloaded under intermittent air attack from Bougainville, but managed without serious losses. The Japanese had pushed a bombardment force of two battleships, a cruiser, and eleven destroyers into the waters north of Guadalcanal with the mission of destroying the airfield and preventing the Cactus Air Force from interdicting the eleven transports packed with Japanese soldiers, supplies, food, and ammunition. The US Navy had two task groups protecting the transports, under Admirals Daniel Callaghan and Norman Scott. Those forces combined, along with remaining escorts from Turner’s transport group, to form a powerful group of two heavy and three light cruisers, and eight destroyers (under Callaghan, aboard San Francisco).
The two forces sighted each other almost simultaneously, at approximately 0125 on 13 November. Admiral Callaghan, regrettably, had not employed any ship with the improved SG radar in his van, which meant that the Japanese, even in the poor visibility of the night, negated his technical advantage with their superior night combat skills. The confused melee began at extremely close ranges, and was filled with confusing orders, hesitation, and ferocity. The IJN battleship Hiei was badly mauled by dozens of 5-inch hits on her bridge and superstructure, pummeled by US destroyers that were so close that Hiei’s 14-inch guns could not depress to engage them. She suffered at least three 8-inch hits, likely from San Francisco, her steering gear was shot away, and she was a shambles topside. Hiei and sister Kirishima managed to exacted revenge on Atlanta and San Francisco, landing large caliber (14-inch) hits on both. The riddled Atlanta drifted across San Francisco’s line of fire, and was almost certainly struck by the latter’s main battery, adding to the carnage on board. When the action finished less than an hour later, four US destroyers had been sunk, Altanta was a wreck, Juneau and Portland had taken torpedoes, and San Francisco had been savaged, leaving her with only one 8-inch mount in action. Both American admirals, Norman Scott aboard Atlanta, and Daniel Callaghan on San Francisco, had been killed. Admiral Abe, the Japanese commander flying his flag on Hiei, had been wounded.
The Japanese attempted to take Hiei in tow, but US air attacks from Guadalcanal and Espiritu Santo further damaged the battleship, and she sank in the late evening of 13 November off Savo Island. Similarly, efforts throughout the day to save Atlanta were unsuccessful, and just after 2000 on 13 November, the cruiser was scuttled on the orders of her captain. Juneau, down fifteen feet by the bows and listing from her torpedo wounds, was proceeding to Espiritu Santo at 13 knots when she was struck by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-26. Her magazine exploded, breaking her in two. Witnesses say Juneau disappeared in twenty seconds. Fearing the submarine threat and believing very few could have survived the explosion, the senior surviving American Officer (Captain Hoover, aboard Helena) made the agonizing decision to leave the survivors for later rescue. About one hundred men had survived the sinking, but after eight days in the water, only ten were rescued. The rest perished from exhaustion, wounds, or sharks, including the five Sullivan brothers.
Aside from the eventual loss of Hiei, the Japanese lost two destroyers sunk, and four damaged. Japanese killed had numbered around 700, about half the total of Americans killed in the action. With little in front of him, Abe might have sailed in to bombard Henderson Field at his leisure, but instead he withdrew. With his withdrawal, Abe had turned a potentially serious tactical reverse into a strategic victory for the US Navy and Marine Corps. Yamamoto, who had planned the operation, was forced to postpone the landings. Furious, Yamamoto fired Abe, and ordered a new bombardment force under Vice Admiral Kondo to neutralize the airfield the next day, 14 November. So ended the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the first act of the tense drama, setting the stage for the second.