Despite the American victory at Midway, the Japanese still had superior carrier and naval forces. Without the four fleet carriers lost at Midway, the Japanese were no longer overwhelming superior, but it still possessed the more powerful naval force. The Japanese did not at first appreciate the importance of the American action on Guadalcanal. What the American and Australian Navy primarily faced in the narrow waters of the Slot were the Japanese destroyers and cruisers. Only gradually were more powerful fleet elements drawn into the fight. Once Admiral Yamamoto comprehended the importance of the struggle and committed the Imperial Fleet in force. While the Japanese possessed the most powerful naval force, to the equation has to be added Henderson Field which proved to be essentially an unsinkable carrier. While the Marines fought it out on Guadalcanal, the still outclassed U.S. Navy fought a series of desperate battles to keep the supply lines open to the hard-pressed Marines. No matter how hard the Marines fought, they would be lost unless the Navy kept the supplies open. Unlike the subsequent naval battles in the Pacific, this was not the Big Blue Fleet with Essex-Class carriers, advanced aircraft and a host of new ships. This was largely the Navy which had survived Pearl Harbor. Naval forces commanded by Bull Halsey fought it out with superior Japanese forces. They suffered substantial losses, but so did the Japanese. These were the most desperate battles of the Pacific War. And the Navy managed to keep the supply lines open to the Marines. Finally the Japanese decided they could not continue to suffer the level of losses they experienced. The Americans could not only replace their losses, but expand the fleet. The Japanese could not even replace their losses. As a result the Imperial Fleet not only withdrew from the South Pacific, but began to withdraw from the Central Pacific, believing that a well entrenched garrison could hold off amphibious assaults. The Imperial Navy meanwhile regrouped in Singapore and the Home Islands and began preparing for a final decisive fleet action.
The Marines reached Guadalcanal undetected by the Japanese. The Japanese thinking that there was no danger of offensive American operations had not rushed completion of the air strip. Guadalcanal at the time was a virtually unknown island in the Solomons. The Marines did not know what to expect. The Marines landed (August 7). Thankfully, the Japanese did not believe the American forces were yet capable of an offensive action and the landings wee unexposed. The 11,000 Marines found Guadalcanal and nearby Tulagi nearly undefended. There were as a result no Japanese combat units on the island. The Marines had thought there was a large Japanese force on the island. The Marines landed on Guadalcanal unopposed. Conscript Korean workers fled into the jungle. The mayhem at Wellington, however, impaired what the Marines were able to load and what they were able to unload on the beaches before Japanese naval and air forces began to target the Marine bridgehead. The Marines also landed and took Tulagi, a small island off Guadalcanal. Here they were opposed by a small force of Japanese marines. The Marines quickly seized the unfinished Japanese airfield (August 8). Possession of the field would prove decisive, but that was far from clear over the next 4 months. The Marines rushed the air strip to completion with captured Japanese equipment. They named it Henderson Field after Maj. Lofton Henderson, a pilot killed at Midway. The American invasion surprised the Japanese. But air attacks from Rabaul drove off the supply ships leaving the Marines without much of their supplies and equipment.
The Japanese Army initially did not fully understand the size of the American offensive on Guadalcanal. The Imperial Army was at the time focused on New Guinea and assumed that the action was one of the small force raids the Americans had been conducting in the Pacific, not a sustained invasion by a full division. Even so, they responded immediately with air strikes. And the Imperial Navy dispatched two surface task forces. A Japanese cruiser force moved down the Slot and ob;iterated destroyed the Allied naval force covering the landings in a savage night action--the battle of Salvo Island. The carrier forces had got the measure of the Japanese in the Coral Sea and at Midway and had even launched Doolittle bombers at the Home Island. The Salvo Island disaster showed that the black-shoe fleet still had a steep learning curve. [Hornfischer] The U.S. Navy remaining carrier force had been assigned to cover the landings. but withdrew. A strong cruiser force (USS Vincennes, USS Chicago, HMAS Canberra, USS Astoria, and USS Quincey) guarded the Slot. The Japanese sent a force of seven cruisers and one destroyer under the command of Admiral Mikawa from their base at Rabal. The task force cleared the New Georgia Sounded and headed for "The Slot". The route traveled was the slot-like channel formed by the parallel configuration of the different Solomon Islands. The Japanese were highly skilled in night fighting and the Allies still had only limited radar and were not utilizing what they had to best affect. The Japanese encountered the Allied cruiser force covering the landings (August 9). Eight Japanese ships managed to sink three U.S. heavy cruisers, an Australian cruiser, and one U.S. destroyer. This all occurred in one disastrous hour. It was one of the wore defeat imposed on the Allies in ship-to-ship engagements and perhaps the most grievous defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy in its history. This was no surprise air attack as at Pear Harbor, but a naval action at sea. In addition, another U.S. cruiser and two destroyers were damaged (August 8-9). A total of 1,077 sailors were killed and 709 wounded. What remained of the Allied naval force limped out to sea leaving the Marines exposed. Even so, Admiral Mikawa did not press on to Guadalcanal. Given the ferocity of the Japanese Army, Admiral Tamika's decision is difficult to understand. It reminds one of Admiral Kurita at Leyte. At these two critical points powerful Japanese squadrons turned away at a critical moment. Admiral Mikawa withdrew back up the Slot. They were apparently concerned about an American carrier strike when dawn broke. This would be one of several instances in the Solomon Campaign when the Japanese would not press on an attack which given their warrior tradition is not clearly understood. The Allied landing force was forced to withdraw without unloading all of the Marines' supplies. This left the Japanese with air and naval superiority over the Marines that had landed. This seriously impaired the Navy's ability to supply the Marines on Guadalcanal. It turned the Battle of Guadalcanal into a struggle of who could supply their men on the Island. And here the key proved to be Henderson Field.
The Battle of Salvo Island shocked the U.S. Navy. Even at this stage of the War, many in the Navy did not understand how good the Japanese were or the quality of their training and equipment. The devastating Japanese victory forced the Americans to reassess their assumptions. Pearl Harbor could be dismissed as a sneak attack, but not Salvo Island.
"The Slot" is a navigable channel formed by the parallel configuration of the Solomons Archipelago into two parallel rows of islands. The Japanese from Rabaul regularly came down the Slot daily to bomb and shell the Marines. Their main target was the airstrip which the Marines rushed into operation. They also launched fighter and bomber attacks on the Marines, concentrating on Henderson Field. The marines became accustomed to nightly raids by Washing Machine Charlie. The Japanese also sent transports down the Slot to reinforce and supply their men on Guadalcanal. Mastering the Slot was the key to victory on Guadalcanal. And for several months there was a standoff. Marine aviators from Henderson Field could control the Slot during the day. Japan's more powerful naval force, skilled in night fighting, dominated the Slot during the night. This meant that the Marines could interdict, but not stop Japanese efforts to land troops on the island. It also meant that the Japanese had a limited ability to reinforce the island and even more importantly to adequately supply the troops landed. In particular it was virtually impossible to land heavy weapons like artillery. The resulting naval battles were an attempt by the Japanese to use their naval superiority to reverse the stand off on the island. The weaker American naval force did what it could to protect the Marines.
Despite the American victory at Midway, the Japanese still had superior carrier and naval forces. Without the four fleet carriers lost at Midway, the Japanese was no longer overwhelming superior, but it still possessed the more powerful naval force. The Japanese did not at first appreciate the importance of the American action on Guadalcanal. What the American and Australian Navy primarily faced in the narrow waters of the Slot were the Japanese destroyers and cruisers. Only gradually were more powerful fleet elements drawn into the fight. Once Admiral Yamamoto comprehended the importance of the struggle and committed the Imperial Fleet in force. While the Japanese possessed the most powerful naval force, to the equation has to be added Henderson Field which proved to be essentially an unsinkable carrier.
The Japanese had superior naval forces in the South Pacific, especially after the Battle of Salvo Island. The one area in which they were relatively evenly matches, thanks to Midway, was in naval aviation. The Navy deployed Enterprise, Wasp, and Saratoga to support the Marines on Guadalcanal.
The Imperial Navy assembled a massive task force including the heavy carriers Suikaku and Soikaku, and the light carrier Ryugo. The two heavy carriers were after Midway all that was left of powerful six heavy carriers and their magnificently trained flight crews with which the Japanese had launched the War. The Japanese task force was ordered to deliver reinforcements and supplies to retake Guadalcanal.
The Americans after extended patrols and no sign of the Japanese had released Wasp for needed refueling. The U.S. And Japanese carriers fought the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (August 24). The battle began when PBY patrol craft spotted Ryugo and an escort cruiser, but not the heavy carriers 100 miles to the north. (9:45 AM). It was just what the Japanese had hoped. In carrier battles, the side to strike first had a chance to win the battle. An American strike on Ryugo, a carrier of lesser importance, would expose the American carriers to attack. Enterprise struck at Ryugo (12:39 pm). the attack force left it a flaming hulk. The ship and 70 planes including many air crews were lost. About 100 miles behind, Soikaku and Zuikaku launched a strike on the American carriers. For some reason the American radar did not pick up the incoming strike. American radar had a range of about 75-85 miles, but still not fully reliable. The attacking force found Enterprise which not identify them until the Japanese were nearly over them. Fleet air cover downed 29 Japanese raiders and anti-aircraft fire from Enterprise, the USS North Carolina, and other escorts downed another 15 Japanese planes. Battleships like North Carolina. had been seen as the backbone of the fleet. Now they were floating gun platforms used primarily to protect carriers. The first squadron of Val dive bombers reached Enterprise and scored at hit near the fantail (4:44 pm). Val pilot Kiyoto Furuta scored the hit and woulkd score a second hit during the battle of Santa Cruz. A second squadron scored another hit near the first. These hits put Enterprise's steering out of action and the carrier began to list. A third and final hit penetrated the deck forward of the No. 2 elevator. The Japanese at the start of the War had better prepared carrier crews, better pilots, and more effective aircraft. The one area the Americans has a distinct advantage was damage control crews. These crews braving raging fires managed to save Enterprise just as they saved Yorktown in the Coral Sea. Japanese carriers hit like Enterprise did not survive. A second Japanese strike late in the afternoon failed to find the American carriers, in part because Enterprise's steering had been put out of action and thus its course had changed. Enterprise
limped off the Noumea and then to Pearl for repairs. There were 77 dead sailors. The Japanese suffered heavier losses including many air crews. While the Japanese may have prevailed because of the damage to Enterprise, again they did not press on the attack. The American action not only turned them back, but inflicted substantial losses on the air compliment. The discouraged the Japanese from fully committing their naval forces for the effort to retake Guadalcanal. This was a terrible mistake because it was the last campaign in which the Imperial Navy would operate with superior forces. The strategic balance would be fundamentally altered when new ships began reaching the Pacific fleet in large numbers during 1943.
Henderson Field thus played a major role in protecting the Marines from Japanese air strikes and naval bombardment. The Navy was generally reluctant to deploy its few remaining carriers. Within days of seizing Guadalcanal, the Marines even after losing their construction equipment, completed the air field. The Cactus Air Force was soon in operation. (Cactus was the American code designation for Guadalcanal.) American fighters fought off Japanese planes. This was a major achievement because the Zero was a much more effective fighter than the Navy Wildcat or even more the Army P-40. Effective air combat tactics and the fact that Zeros flying from Rabaul could only spend a few minutes over Guadalcanal made it impossible for the Japanese to achieve air superiority. This made it impossible for the Japanese Navy to direct intense naval bombardment. It also shaped the nature of the Solomons naval battles. Henderson Field gave the Americans command of the air and sea areas of the southern Solomons during the day. At night the Japanese with their night capability controlled the sea. American bombers launched strikes on Japanese bases in the northern Solomons.
The issue of Guadalcanal after the Marine beat back Japanese land attacks would be settled by a series of the most intense naval actions of the Pacific War. There were larger battles, but not in which the competing naval forces were so evenly balanced. Many American officers looked derisively on the Japanese before Pearl Harbor. This changed with the Japanese successes in the early months of the War. Some authors have described a wave of defeatism. Even the victory at Midway (June 1942) did not totally change this at it had been an aerial battle. The Pacific Fleet's surface fleet had not yet come to grips with the Imperial Navy. This occurred in the Solomons and they faced a greatly superior Japanese force. [Generous] Nimitz transferred overall command to Admiral Bull Halsey who pledged the Navy would intensify support. This was a dangerous commitment at a time when the Japanese still had superior carrier and naval forces. Six terrible naval battles occurred in and around Guadalcanal and the Solomons as the Japanese attempted to retake the island. The Japanese launched a major force to destroy American naval forces supporting the Marines.
The Imperial Japanese Navy had a very substantial submarine service. It was, however, poorly used and played only a minor role in the War. One campaign where it did play an important role was the South Pacific. The Japanese deployed submarines in the waters around Guadalcanal between the Solomons and New Hebrides (modern Vanuatu). American sailors began calling the area south and east of Guadalcanal Torpedo Alley. It was hear that the Pacific fleet deployed its carriers and a substantial part of its surface assets to keep the supply lines open to the Marines on Guadalcanal and to engage Japanese naval strikes at the Island. The American carrier groups were also responsible for protecting the Allied bases at New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo. The Japanese for the most part until the Battle of Santa Cruz did not challenge the American carriers in force. It is not entirely clear why. It is clear that Yamamoto at first did not understand the importance of Guadalcanal or the size of the American commitment. In addition, the American carrier strength (Enterprise, Hornet, Saratoga, and Wasp meant that after Midway they would have to be more careful. he balance slowly began to shift against the Americans. Enterprise was severely damaged in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (August 25) and had to withdrew to Pearl for extensive repairs. The submarine I-26 torpedoed Saratoga (August 31) which also had to be withdrawn. Wasp while supporting a convoy to Guadalcanal almost engaged Shōkaku and Zuikaku. The I-19 spited and torpedoed Wasp (September 14). The damage control teams with the power knocked off were unable to control the fires. She had to be abandoned and scuttled. This meant that only one American carrier group was left in the South Pacific.
The Cactus Air Force at Henderson Field made it impossible for the Japanese to reinforce and supply their Guadalcanal garrison during the Day. As a result, they resorted to night time operations down the Slot. The Marines on Guadalcanal began calling these runs "The Cactus Express". Ordinary cargo vessels were too slow to accomplish this at night. The Japanese began loading personnel and/or supplies onto fast warships, such as destroyers or other warships. The speed of these ships allowed the ships to travel down the Slot, deliver the men and supplies, and safely return all at night when the Cactus Air Force could not intercept them. The Japanese also sent ships down the Slot to shell the Marines defending Henderson Field. The Press on Guadalcanal coined the term "Tokyo Express" in part to preserve signals security. The Japanese called the night-time resupply missions "Rat Transportation." The disadvantage for the Japanese was that the ships involved while fast were not very effective transport vessels. The Allies were, however, left with the daunting task of stopping the Tokyo Express with naval forces. The problem was that the Japanese were well drilled in night combat and had an effective torpedo which the Allies lacked. The result was a serious of some of the most intense naval battles of World War II and fought at a time when the Japanese still had an edge in naval forces and air forces.
Rear Admiral Norman Scott was assigned the task of screening Iron Bottom Sound from Japanese bombardment forces sailing down the Slot from Rabaul. He would deliver the U.S. Navy first surface victory of the War. Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto commanded a task force with just this assignment. He had the more powerful squadron, cruisers with 8" guns. The two forces clashed during the night (October 11-2, 1942). By this time of the campaign with Henderson Field well-established, the Imperial Navy only came at night. Thus Admiral Scott could estimate when they would appear.
Scott realized based on previous engagements around Guadalcanal that the Japanese with their Long Lance torpedoes would probably prevail in a cruiser to cruiser night action. Scott decided to deploy his force in a line-ahead formation. The destroyers were deployed to screen the cruisers and to illuminate any Japanese targets sited. He would then engage the Japanese with gunfire from his cruisers. Scott's task force included two light cruisers, Boise and Helena. Both had fifteen 6" guns. Scott used the heavy cruiser San Francisco. Scott held a major advantage over the Japanese--radar. Scott and his staff had not been trained and had little experience.with radar. Scott's flagship did not have the most up to date radar equipment. The radar operator on Helena was the first to detect the Japanese at 2325. The Japanese at the time had no idea about the presence of the Americans. Scott was, however, unsure. His radar did not yet show any contacts. In particular he was concerned that the Boise may be picking up the American destroyer screen. Scott ordered a 180° change of course to closed with the targets ad cross their T. Two of the destroyers were unable to maintain position. The Japanese were surprised when the Americans opened fire. The Japanese commanders realized their T had been crossed and began maneuvering individually. Shells crashed into the Aoba, Admiral Goto flagship. Goto was mortally wounded. The captain of Furutaka moved to protect the Aoba. In doing so he was hammered by gun fire that had ravaged the Aoba. The destroyer Fubuki was also virtually demolished. The destroyer Duncan, one of the destroyers left out of position by Scott's maneuvers, found itself between the two main bodies. It attacked the Japanese cruisers with torpedoes. but was heavily hit by both Japanese and American gunfire and sank after the battle. The Japanese hit Boise's forward battery, but she survived. .
The Japanese captains retired as best as possible back up the Slot. Scott broke off pursuit at 0245. The result was a flawed American victory. Given their radar and superior tactical position, they should have achieved a greater victory. But it was a victory, the first night time victory over the Japanese in the slot. The victory, however, had a serious longer term consequences. It was gained because the Japanese had been surprised an unable to organize a torpedo attack. As a result, American commanders did not reassess their linear gun-line tactics which did not take into account the effectiveness of the Long Lance torpedo.
Nimitz concluded that Vice Admiral Ghormley and his staff were infected with defeatism. He was appalled by the pessimistic reports he was receiving from Ghormley. Ghormley was a personal friend. He was a talented naval planner and diplomat. His combat performance proved lacking. He holed up in his headquarters in Nouméa, and never once visited the Marines on Guadalcanal or the forward naval staging areas. Nimitz gave Halsey orders to replace Gormely (October 18). It was one of his toughest assignments in the War. And he took the command just as the campaign reached a climax. Unlike what followed in the Pacific, America still did not have a commanding naval force. The Japanese naval forces were still stronger and better trained than the United States Pacific Fleet. And the Navy aircraft were still outclassed by the Japanese Zero, only partially dealt with by tactical adjustments. Nimitz did not like replacing Gormely. Not only had they been teammates on the Academy football team, but Halsey wanted a sea command. He met with General Vandergrift, the commander of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal (October 23). At the time, the Japanese were posed for their climatic thrust on Guadalcanal supported by a superior fleet elements. Halsey asked Vandergrift bluntly if he could hold Guadalcanal. Vandergrift replied tersely, "I can hold, but I've got to have more active support than I have been getting." Halsey told him, "You go on back there, Vandergrift. I promise you everything I've got." Halsey would prove to be true to his word.
Halsey and his staff determined that the Japanese were planning a major naval strike. A change in JN-25 had American cryptologists in the dark. But radio traffic analysis, meaning an analysis of the volume and direction of messages, and reconnaissance sightings suggested an eminent Japanese assault. Enterprise under repair at Pearl was hurried repaired for battle. She received the new Boffers 40mm anti-aircraft guns and new air groups (October 10). She was rushed south (October 16) and rendezvoused with Hornet, only 2 days before the battle (October 24). The two carriers became the core of Task Force 61. Halsey was correct, the Japanese were planning a major strike. They had at first underestimated the size of the American force on Guadalcanal and the strength of the naval commitment. Thus the forces they sent against the Marines on the island and the Allied naval forces protecting the Marines failed. The force assembled this time was no half measure. And this is indicated by the Japanese name for the battle--the Battle of the South Pacific. At Truk they reinforced Shōkaku and Zuikaku with two additional fleet carriers, Hiyō and Junyō (early October). The Japanese sent south the most powerful naval task forces the Imperial Navy assembled since Midway. The Japanese had generally held their carriers away from the Solomon naval battles hoping for a decisive strike against the Pacific fleet. This was to be their decisive stroke. An accident on Hiyō forced it to retire to Truk (October 22). Erroneous reports from Guadalcanal led the Japanese to think that the Army had taken Henderson Field. When a Japanese task force approached the island, Marine aviators at Henderson field sank or mauled the Japanese force (October 25).
The main Japanese force proceeded south, intent on destroying the American carriers thy believed to be in the area. A major problem for the Japanese was they were never sure about just what carriers the Americans had and where they were located. They reported the sinking of the main carriers several times. Thus when they kept popping up in subsequent battles, they were unsure about what they had sunk. The Japanese force included included four carriers, three first-line fleet carriers (Shōkaku and Zuikaku and the small carriers (Junyō). It was commanded by Admiral Nobutake Kondo. Admiral Nagumo commanded the main body carrier force. The American force was commanded by Admiral Thomas Kinkaid with what remained of the American carriers in the Pacific (Enterprise and Hornet--Task Force 61). The Battle of Santa Cruz occurred when the Japanese and American carrier groups found each other. Halsey ordered Adm. Thomas Kinkaid to attack, hoping that they might achieve another Midway. He cabled Kinkaid, "ATTACK REPEAT ATTACK". Kinkaid launched a small attack, but it failed to find the Japanese. The two naval forces searched for each other and finally found each other's carriers late in the afternoon. Both fleets launched major strikes. The Japanese managed to gt their strike off first. At this stage of the War, it was still the better trained and disciplined Japanese carrier groups that had the edge on the Americans. American carrier operations were still not as disciplined and were operating with inferior air craft types. This would, however, prove to be the last important successful Japanese carrier strike of the Pacific War. The Battle of Santa Cruz occurred when the Japanese found Hornet. In force, but confused fighting, the Japanese badly damaged Hornet (October 26) which was left dead in the water. The Japanese also badly damaged Enterprise, but as it had been obscured for a time by a rain squall was not put out of action. Kinkaid left with the possibility of leaving the Pacific fleet without any operational carriers, withdrew Enterprise. American damage control equipment and crews were superior to the Japanese crews and managed to get Hornet back to life. It was, however, ravaged by another Japanese air strike and had to be scuttled. The American strikes were not as coordinated as the Japanese, but American pilots did succeed in badly damaging two of the Japanese carriers (Zuihō and Shōkaku). The Japanese after finally sinking Hornet which had been reduced to a hulk, decided not to pursue the Enterprise battle group. Santa Cruz was a victory for the Japanese, but yet again they did not press their victory. This is difficult to understand given the Japanese ferocity in hopeless causes later in the War. The Japanese turned back rather than launching a major attack on the Marines at Guadalcanal. At the time Halsey was without carriers to oppose them. The damage to he two carriers and the terrible loss of air crews probably explain the Kondo's decision to retire back to Truk. Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner who had predicted Pearl Harbor played a key role in keeping the marines supplied. [Spector] Not only did the Marines prevail on the Island, but the Allies successfully wore down the Imperial Navy. American shipyards were turning out ships at a phenomenal rate while the Japanese fleet was being steadily depleted. What could not be replaced were the superbly trained Japanese air crews. The Americans despite the furious fighting and hits on the carriers lost only 26 aviators while the Japanese lost 148 aviators. [Lundstrom, pp. 454-56.] This in addition to Midway and the other Solomon battles would mean that the Japanese after 1943 would fight the War not only with increasingly obsolete air craft types, but with poorly trained air crews. If the Japanese were to win the War it had to be in 1942, yet they were unable to turn their still substantial naval advantage and even battle victories into victory in the campaign. In retrospect, Santa Cruise wold prove to be the last major Japanese naval victory of the Pacific War. Halsey after the Battle concluded Kinkaid hesitated. Kinkaid blamed poor communication. The break led to great animosity between the two that would resurface at Leyte Gulf. [Thomas, p. 70.] Halsey removed Kinkaid from carrier duty.
The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal while not the last major engagement around Guadalcanal, proved to be the climatic action of the campaign. It decided the fate of the Marines on the island. After Santa Cruz, the American prospects were not good. Despite their heroic resistance, unless the Navy prevailed in this action, the Japanese would have retaken the island and the Navy did not have lot left after Santa Cruz. Most importantly, Hornet was lost and Enterprise seemingly out of action. Halsey after visiting the Marines on Guadalcanal returned to his headquarters on Noumea. There his staff informed him that the Japanese were preparing another major naval action. The cryptologists were still out if JN-25, but other evidence suggested by the intelligence group that the Japanese were planning a major action. They assumed that American carriers were now out of the equation, thus they committed a powerful force under Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo to a final action that would retake Guadalcanal. Battleships would shell the Marine perimeter and tear up Henderson Field. And without the American carriers and with Henderson Field disabled, the Japanese battleships would have pounded the Marines unmercifully. One reasons that the Marines were able to hold out was they had artillery and the Japanese who had trouble landing supplies were only lightly armed. The Japanese naval task force would have reversed this equation. And the other part of the Japanese operation was to land a large infantry force on the island. Without the American carriers and with Henderson Field out of action, the troop carriers could finally sail unmolested down the Slot and not only land reinforcements, but badly needed supplies. The Marines were barely holding as it was. If these landings succeeded, there is little doubt that the Marines would have been overwhelmed. Halsey did not have the details of the Japanese plan, but his intelligence group convinced him it was something big. As a result he pulled together what he had. The Enterprise was being patched together at the limited facilities at New Caledonia was ordered to sail.
It was at the time the only operational American carrier in the Pacific, but only barely operational. The Japanese at Santa Cruz has disabled the forward elevator. This meant that it could not rapidly recover and rearm its squadrons. Had the Japanese initiated a carrier action, Enterprise would have been lost. Halsey's most powerful fleet elements were two fast battleships (South Dakota and Washington). South Dakota was the beginning of the torrent of new ships which was beginning to reach the Pacific Fleet. She was damaged at Santa Cruz and only partially operational. Washington was another of the new ships, but unlike South Dakota, fully operational. And significantly Washington was recently outfitted with advanced radar. Along with these capital ships were cruisers and destroyers. Halsey sent the battleships and smaller ships into into the narrow waters of the Slot against what could be a superior Japanese force. This violated standard naval doctrine. It was a risky decision, but he was determined to support the Marines on Guadalcanal. The result was some of the most furious naval fighting of the War and the most important U.S. Navy victory since Midway. Enterprise planes initiated the action by sinking the Japanese battleship Hiei. The Enterprise flyers had to land at Henderson field because the disabled carrier could not recover them.
The key question of the battle was, 'Where were the Japanese carriers?'. The Japanese after all had won the battle of Santa Cruz 2 weeks earlier. They had sunk Hornet and heavily damaged Enterprise, yet the Japanese task force had only light air cover from Rabaul. Enterprise deployed some of its air groups to Henderson field which meant that contrary to expectations, the troop convoys coming down the slot wold not have an easy time. This proved decisive in the battle along with Washington's radar. Apparently Yamamoto concluded that Enterprise had been sunk or so badly damaged that it could not be deployed. While only a light Japanese carrier had been sunk at Santa Cruz, a fleet carrier had been damaged and the air groups sustained heavy damage. Thus Yamamoto decided not to redeploy his depleted and battered carriers. In fact the Japanese carriers would not be deployed again for an offensive action until the 1944 Marianas campaign.) It proved to be a costly mistake.
Admirals Callighan and Scott commanded a cruiser force that had to face an Imperial Navy force with two battleships.
Hiei and Kirishima entered Iron Bottom Sound and proceeded to bombard Henderson Field. Adm Callighan and Scott had no choice but to attack with their cruiser force, an epic mismatch. Their only chance of victory was to get in close. They did and manged to destroy Hiei and prevent the shelling of Henderson Field. [Hornfischer] Both American admirals were killed and the cruiser force destroyed.
Although Hiei was now gone, Admiral Kondo continued their operation, moving the Kinshima and its battle group into the Slot at night to shell Henderson Field. Halsey detached Enterprise's fast battleship escorts.
It is at this point that Rear Admiral Willis Agustus Lee moved his Battleship Division Six into the Slot a risky operation, demonstrating the Navy's commitment to the Marines. Until this the Japanese had mastered night fighting into the Slot. This time with radar the circumstances changed. A ferocious naval engagement ensued. The Marines on Guadalcanal and the Enterprise flyers from the beach observed the fire from the big guns that would decide their fate.
At a critical moment Lee on Washington signaled the squadron, "Stand aside, I'm coming through.". (Along with 'Scratch one flattop.', this proved to be one of the most memorable signal of the Pacific War. South Dakota in the action was further damaged. Radar-directed fire was a critical difference. [Hornfischer] Kinshima was devastated by Washington's 16 inch guns and left a flaming wreck. Washington would be the only American battleship to destroy a Japanese battleship in a one on one action. The next day, the Marine and Navy flyers on Henderson Field began to pound the Japanese troop transports moving down the Slot.
The American force in the battle sank two Japanese battleships, a heavy cruiser, and seven destroyers. The U.S. Navy lost two light cruisers and seven destroyers. The Americans also sank or destroyed 10 Japanese troop transports. It was the turning point of the struggle for Guadalcanal. Halsey cabled Nimitz, "We got the bastards licked!" He signaled his men, ".... Magnificently done. May God bless each and every one of you. To the glorious dead, hail heroes—may you all rest with God." The Japanese commanders, shocked by the loss of two battleships, would continue the struggle in the Slot, but never again commit such a powerful force. They would not again deploy capital ships to retake Guadalcanal, which meant the island would remain in American hands.
While the determination of the imperial Fleet had been broken in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Imperial Army was still determined to retake the island. They demanded escorts and transports for the Tokyo Express. Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka on a run of the Tokyo Express commanded a task force of eight Japanese destroyers (November 29). Six had been converted essentially to fast transports. They were assigned the task of delivering supplies to Tassafaronga on Guadalcanal at night to avoid Marine air patrols from Henderson Field. Tanaka also has the Naganami, his flagship, and Takanami for heavy gunfire. Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright was assigned the task of interdicting the Tokyo Express. He commanded Task Force 67, a powerful combined cruiser/destroyer force. It was made up of heavy cruisers (Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola, and Northampton, the light cruiser Honolulu, and four destroyers (Fletcher, Drayton, Maury, and Perkins). They sailed from Espiritu Santo. Two additional destroyers (Lamson and Lardner) after an escort assignment to Guadalcanal joined Task Force 67,
Wright had a much more powerful force, but his failure to master the use of radar proved disastrous. The problem here was using radar in constricted waters, especially with a land backdrop. And American naval tactics even after several losing engagements with the Japanese were unchanged.
Tanaka's force passed Tassafaronga point and the six fast transports (converted destroyers) prepared to deliver supplies. These supply runs were dangerous so to speed up unloading the Japanese adopted the practice of packing supplies in air-tight drums which were simply thrown overboard along the coast where they could be retrieved by the forces on shore. As they were preparing to deliver the drums, one of the destroyers spotted the American destroyers.
About the same time, radar operators on Minneapolis, Wright's flagship< detected the Japanese. The radar operator on the Fletcher 10 minutes later also detected the Japanese 7,000 yards away. At slightly after 2300 hours, three US destroyers launched 20 torpedoes at the Japanese. The American cruisers opened fire at about the same time. The Japanese destroyer Takanami was raked by shellfire. The torpedo attack, however, failed. The Japanese launched a torpedo attack at the American gun flashes, loosing 20 torpedoes and then retiring back up the slot in the darkness. The attack proved devastating. The American cruisers did not take evasive action. Two torpedoes slammed into Minneapolis blowing off the bow. Another torpedo hit New Orleans also cutting off the bow. Pensacola took a torpedo below the mainmast. The destroyer Oyashio put two torpedoes into Northampton which sank after the battle. The damaged U.S. heavy cruisers were able to put into Tulagi harbor for emergency repairs. The three U.S. cruisers were able to get back to the United States for repairs, but were out of the fight for the Solomons. The losses at Tassafaronga finally forced Pacific Fleet commanders to reassess naval tactics. The preeminent naval historian described the outcome, "It is a painful truth that the Battle of Tassafaronga was a sharp defeat inflicted on an alert and superior cruiser force by a partially surprised and inferior destroyer force." [Morrison]
The results were closely studied. The conclusions included the following. First the Japanese superiority in night fighting was seen as resulting from both torpedoes and night optics. The Navy saw the need to give greater attention training commanders and crews in the use of radar. Second was the two the need for units to train together before being committed to night actions. The Pacific Fleet not only began adapting naval training and tactics, but in 1943 American shipyards would transform the battered remnants of Pearl Harbor into the most powerful naval force in history. Tassafaronga is today remembered as the last Japanese naval victory of the Pacific War.
Tanaka made a second and third attempt to resupply Guadalcanal. Imperial Navy destroyers mauled a superior American cruiser force off Lunga Point, w, essentially another Japanese naval victory. [Hornfischer] But it did the Japanese no good in the end. These efforts proved very costly to the Japanese. American aircraft and PT torpedo-boat attacks proved increasingly effective. This significantly impeded the delivery of supplies to Lieutenant-General Haruki Hyakutake's 17th Army on Guadalcanal. One assessment indicates that only about 300 supply drums got through to Guadalcanal. The lack of supplies had a dreadful impact on the Japanese forces who were being reduced to starvation. As a result of being cut off from food and medical supplies, starvation and malaria took a serious toll. [Toland, p. 420-421.]
The Pacific Fleet made a major stand around Guadalcanal, throwing everything they had into the fight. Even after the victory at Midway, the Imperial Navy had greater naval, army, and air forces in the theater, bu did not commit everything they had. The massive Yamato was at Truck but never committed. Halsey committed his two prize battleships. Yamamoto declined to commit Yamato. Losses on both sides were roughly equal, about 25 naval vessels. This apparently unnerved Yamamoto and the General Staff in Tokyo. The basic concept of both the Imperial Navy and the U.S. Navy was to fight a climatic Jutland-style naval battle, probably east of the Philippines. Ingrained in the minds of Japanese naval officers was the great victory of Admiral Tōgō in the Tsushima Strait against the Russian Fleet (1905). Yet here they were losing ship after ship, including capital ships, in seemingly never-ending battles in the Solomons. If this continued, what would be left to fight the climatic battles? And obviously fighting the Russian Navy was not going to be like battling the Americans. As a result, the Japanese withdrew their fleet. It would be two years before the Japanese would initiate another major fleet action. This of course was national suicide. A 2-year hiatus of fleet activity could only rebound to the advantage of the Pacific Fleet given the enormous American industrial superiority. The Japanese did launch a few new vessels and deploy a new group of half-trained carrier pilots. The Unites States in only 2 years transformed the Pacific Fleet into the largest naval force ever deployed with a host of new Essex-class carriers and well-trained air crews. The result was the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot (June 1944).
Birkitt, Philip D. Guadalcanal Legacy, 50th anniversary, 1942-1992 (Turner Publishing Company).
Generous, William Thomas. Sweet Pea at War: A History of the U.S.S. Portland.
Hornfischer, James. Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcana.
Lewon, Ronald. The Chief.
Lundstrom, John B. Guadalcanal Campaign.
Morison, Samuel Eliot.
Prados, John Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campain and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun (2012).
Spector, Alan. The Eagle and the Rising Sun: The Japanese-American War 1941-1943 (Norton, 2003).
Thomas, Evan. Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945 (Simon & Schuster: New York, 2006), 414p.
Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (Random House, 1970).
Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II Guadalcanal campaign page]
[Return to Main World War II naval campaign page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology] [Totalitarian powers]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]