As the decimated US Navy force limped away from Ironbottom Sound after dawn on 13 November 1942, the prospects for protecting the Marines on Guadalcanal and preventing the counter-landing of powerful Japanese reinforcements seemed distinctly unpromising. Four US destroyers, Laffey, Barton, Cushing, and Monssen, had been sunk, Barton with heavy loss of life. Light cruisers Atlanta and Juneau were badly damaged, both in danger of sinking, heavy cruiser San Francisco was a shambles. As was previously noted, the fight to save Atlanta was lost, and Juneau would fall victim to a Japanese submarine.
But the Americans did hit back. During the daylight hours of 13 November, aircraft from Henderson Field, Espiritu Santo, and Enterprise finished off the crippled battleship Hiei, and sank the smoking hulks of destroyers Akitsuki and Yudachi.
On 13 November, Yamamoto ordered Admiral Kondo to reconstitute a bombardment force, marrying 8th Cruiser Squadron under Admiral Mikawa with the remaining ships from Abe’s force, including battleship Kirishima. 8th Cruiser Squadron consisted of four powerful heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and four destroyers. The force slipped into the waters off Henderson Field unchallenged in the waning hours of 13 November and commenced a bombardment of the airfield. The intent was to neutralize the airfield in order that the eleven transports, carrying supplies for Hyukatake’s starving ground forces and reinforcements from the 38th Division, could be unloaded. The results of the bombardment were ineffectual. The Japanese fired approximately 1,000 rounds in little more than half an hour, and damaged some aircraft, but the airfield and most of its planes remained fully operational.
Not long after dawn, the Cactus Air Force, as well as aircraft from Enterprise and Espiritu Santo, pounced on the Japanese ships. They fell first upon the bombardment fleet, inflicting heavy damage to cruisers Chokai, Isuzu, Maya, and Kinugasa, the latter eventually sinking.
Next were Tanaka’s transports. A series of attacks, including high-level B-17 sorties, sank seven of the eleven transports. While most of the Japanese troops were saved, all the weapons and equipment, food, fuel, and ammunition were lost. Instead of welcome reinforcements, those survivors became liabilities to an already badly broken supply system.
Earlier in the day on 13 November, Vice Admiral Willis A. “Ching” Lee, with new radar-equipped fast battleships Washington and South Dakota and four destroyers, was ordered east to defend Guadalcanal. Named Task Force 64, Lee’s cobbled-together force entered Ironbottom Sound north and west of Cape Esperance, and picked up the Japanese ships on radar just before 2300 on 14 November. Shortly after, the Japanese force under Kondo spotted the Americans. However, Kondo believed he was facing cruisers rather than battleships, and he believed they would not be a match for Kirishima or his remaining heavy cruisers.
Kondo split his force, around either side of Savo Island. Lee briefly engaged Sendai and several Japanese destroyers with radar-guided fire. The Japanese cruiser bid a hasty withdrawal. The cruiser Nagara and four destroyers actually sighted Lee’s force before they were reacquired by American radar. Nagara and her accompanying destroyers, plus Ayanami, engaged the four American destroyers with guns and torpedoes. Much like the results of the previous evening, the US destroyers lost heavily. In a very short time, Benham, Preston, and Walke were mortally wounded, Gwin heavily damaged.
It was at this juncture that Kondo’s mistaken identity of the two US fast battleships spelled doom. Washington and South Dakota steamed on, closing with Kirishima, two heavy cruisers, and two destroyers. South Dakota, closest to the Japanese force, suffered a massive power failure which blinded her radars and knocked out her gun mounts. She was set upon by the Japanese destroyers and cruisers as she passed, impotent, within 5,000 yards of the enemy. As she had turned to avoid the burning American destroyers, she had been silhouetted against the flames, and became a target for every Japanese gun. The battleship was hit repeatedly topside, damaging her gunfire control systems, knocking out communications, and causing almost 100 casualties.
However, unseen and unmolested by Japanese fire, Washington loomed in the darkness. Her secondary (5-inch/38) batteries pounded the destroyer Ayanami to a burning wreck within a few minutes. She had refrained from firing her main battery at her radar contact, because she had been unable to communicate with South Dakota to confirm her location. When South Dakota was engaged by Japanese guns, Washington had no doubt of her target. What followed was the first encounter between battleships in the Pacific War. It was a one-sided affair. At a range of just 8,900 yards, Washington commenced a radar-targeted engagement of Kirishima with her 16-inch main battery. In just over six minutes, Washington fired 75 16-inch projectiles, striking Kirishima between ten and twenty times, and plastering her with 5-inch fire. Kirishima was finished. Her topside was a wreck of twisted metal, her steering destroyed, and she had been holed below the waterline. Kirishima capsized and sank in the early hours of 15 November. Ayanami was abandoned and scuttled.
The surviving Japanese transports reached Tassafaronga, but as soon as daylight broke, the four ships were taken under fire by aircraft from Henderson Field, the 5-inch guns of the 3rd Marine Defense Battalion, and an Army Coastal Artillery battery (155mm Long Toms). As with their sunken sisters, most of the Japanese soldiers managed to get ashore, but almost all of the supplies, food, ammunition, and equipment were lost.
The naval actions in the skies and waters of Guadalcanal between 12 and 15 November 1942 were costly to both sides. The action was fierce, confused, and deadly. Losses of men and ships were nearly even. However, these battles were the turning point in the Solomons. Control of the waters around the island of Guadalcanal passed permanently to the United States Navy. There would be more bloody fights in those waters, and even stunning setbacks (Tassafaronga), but US naval and air power in the Solomons would continue to grow, while that of Japan would continue to wane. The Japanese would continue to attempt supply of its garrison ashore, to diminishing effects, but would never again send reinforcements down “the Slot” to wrest the island from the Marines. The First and Second Naval Battles for Guadalcanal represent the last running of the Tokyo Express.