Skip to comments.The Battle of Savo Island - Aug 9, 1942 _ U.S. Navy's Worst Defeat
Posted on 12/04/2002 5:37:50 AM PST by SAMWolf
In the summer of 1942, the Japanese had to be stopped in their drive to cut off Australia by severing the US shipping lanes. So far in the Pacific War, the Japanese had destroyed the US battle fleet at Pearl Harbor; destroyed the US Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines; sunk the combined Dutch, British, Australian and American fleet in the East Indies (Java); punished the British fleet in Malaya and Ceylon and pushed the Indian Ocean fleet back to Africa; captured southeast Asia, the Philippines, the resource rich East Indies, and many island chains for defense in the central Pacific, an outpost in the Aleutians in the North Pacific, and Rabaul in the Bismarks in the South Pacific. The southern advance on Australia by way of New Guinea had been stopped by Admiral Fletcher at the Battle of Coral Sea and the eastern Pacific was saved at the Battle of Midway. The Imperial Japanese Navy, even after the losses at Midway, still outnumbered the naval forces of the combined US Pacific and the Australian fleets. The Japanese continued to progress south to isolate Australia.
America had established a Germany first policy. Eighty percent of US military production, shipping and supplies was devoted to the Atlantic Theater against Germany, Italy, and their allies, and to aid England and Russia. US troops had started to arrive in the United Kingdom. The Pacific Theater was divided into North, Central, and South Pacific under command of the Navy (Nimitz) and the Southwest Pacific (Australia to Philippines) under the Army (MacArthur). These areas shared the remaining 15% of war production with the China area.
Nimitz had two major war aims in 1942.
. Protect Hawaii and the West Coast of the US with Midway Island as his first line of defense.
. And to protect the shipping lanes to Australia.
The Australian sea lanes were a line from the West Coast and Hawaii to Samoa, Fiji, New Hebrides to Sydney,Australia. The Japanese move down the Solomons would allow them to control the Java Sea and threaten America bases in New Hebrides and Australia itself. Fletcher had reacted immediately to the Japanese occupation of Tulagi where a seaplane reconnaissance base was established and had turned back the invasion force coming around to the south side of New Guinea that faced Australia. He then had to race north to the major sea battle at Midway. During this period, the Marine Corps had been building up forces in New Caledonia south of the New Hebrides. When the Japanese started to build an airfield on Guadalcanal across Savo Sound from their base at Tulagi, the United States felt it had to act before the airfield was completed.
The Solomons are a double string of eight main islands and many small islands spread along 700 miles of ocean about 1,200 miles northeast of Australia. The island chain runs northwest to southeast with Bougainville in the northwest, New Georgia in the middle and Guadalcanal in the southeast. Fighting for New Guinea is going on 700 miles to the west. Guadalcanal is 92 miles long and 33 miles wide and 700 miles southeast of Rabaul on New Britain. New Britain is part of the Bismarck Island chain which is a northwest extension of the Solomons. The waters between the Solomon Islands is called The Slot. Immediately north of Guadalcanal at a distance of about 20 miles is the 20 mile long Florida Island where the Japanese have established one of their several seaplane reconnaissance bases in the Solomon Islands at Tulagi. The eastern end of the 400 mile long Slot is Savo Sound named for tiny Savo Island. The entrance to Savo Sound from the east is Indispensable Straight leading to several narrow channels. The entrances from the west are the north and south passages around Savo Island.
The United States committed to its first land based counterattack. The Marines landed at both Tulagi and Guadalcanal on 7 Aug 1942. The installation at Guadalcanal was mostly construction workers and was an easy landing. The more established base at Tulagi involved heavy fighting, but was captured in two days. The Japanese responded immediately with air attacks from their bomber bases in New Britain (Rabaul) from the north and fighter strips in the northern Solomons (Bougainville). US carriers operating with the invasion fleet in Savo Sound defended. The IJN also sent the Eighth Fleet from Rabaul to attack the US beachhead. This fleet consisted of five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and a destroyer.
The western approaches to Savo Sound were guarded by a screening force of six heavy cruisers and six destroyer (the battle fleet had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor) in two groups covering both passages. Radar pickets were the destroyers Blue (DD-387) and Ralph Talbot (DD-390) deployed west of Savo Island. The south passage was defended by HMAS Australia (flagship of RAdm Crutchley, RN), HMAS Canberra, Chicago (CA-29), Bagley (DD-386) and Patterson (DD-392). The northern group was made up of Vincennes (CA-44), Quincy (CA-39), Astoria (CA-34) and destroyers Helm (DD-391) and Wilson (DD-408). The eastern approaches also had a screening force, made up of light cruisers San Juan (CL-54 flag), HMAS Hobart, and destroyers Monssen (DD-436) and Buchanan (DD-484).
The IJN 8th fleet of fast cruisers arrived the second night and meet the US screening force for the Battle of Savo Island. At the same time, the three US carriers and their escorts, including North Carolina (BB-55), six cruisers, and 16 destroyers, were withdrawing to get out of sight of land-based bombers from Rabaul.
The enemy force of fast cruisers sent out scout floatplanes that reported the American forces. Both radar picket ships (radar range about 10 miles) were at the extreme ends of their patrols sailing away from the Japanese fleet which passed undetected about 500 yards from Blue. The enemy was lost in the visual and radar shadow of nearby Savo Island. Allied ships were faintly silhouetted by a freighter burning far over the horizon. The enemy discovered the southern force and fired torpedoes before they were detected. Simultaneously with the explosions, the scout plane dropped flares illuminating the allied fleet. Canberra was stuck by two torpedoes and heavy shelling. The US ships fired star shells and opened fire. Chicago of the southern force was torpedoed. The Jap force turned north in two columns. The northern defense force had not gotten the word, there was a rain squall in the area, and they assumed the southern force was shooting at aircraft. The two Jap columns passed on each side of the US force and opened fire on Astoria, Quincy, and Vincennes. The American captains ordered "cease fire" assuming they were Americans firing on their own ships. Vincennes caught a torpedo. Robert Talbot came charging south and was attacked first by friendly fire and then raked by the enemy escaping to the north. Quincy and Vincennes went down. During rescue operations for Canberra, Patterson was fired on by Chicago. Canberra was sunk the next morning to prevent capture as the US fleet left the waters that was hereafter called Iron Bottom Sound. Astoria sank about noon while under tow. Chicago had to undergo repair until Jan'43.
In just 32 minutes the enemy had inflicted massive damage. Four heavy cruisers were sunk and a heavy cruiser and destroyer badly damaged. 1,270 men were killed and 708 injured. The enemy had comparative scratches on three cruisers.
What Went Wrong?
A court of inquiry determined that US ships required more training in night fighting.
There were several sighting of the IJN 8th fleet by USAAF and RAAF aircraft along with several other Japanese ship movements: each report was of different ship compositions and bearings. Weather and enemy air defenses were a factor, yet a common denominator of these sightings was delay in getting the information from MacAuthur's Army zone to Nimitz's Navy zone on the scene. Japanese seaplane carriers were included in the sightings and the Allied fleet prepared for submarine or air attack, rather than surface action. Almost two thousand men paid for a chain of errors.
The 8th fleet cruiser's floatplanes were noticed and reported. Radio communication was poor that night and nobody associated aircraft reconnaissance with a surface attack. Visibility was 2 to 6 miles with rain in the area.
Both radar picket ships (radar range about 10 miles) were at the extreme ends of their patrols sailing away from the Japanese fleet. San Juan had modern search radar, but was at the other end of the Sound. Was too much or too little reliance placed on this new technology? This battle must be considered to have been fought in the pre-radar days.
RAdm Crutchley, RN, was in command of the screening force in recognition of allied unity: three of the eight cruisers were Australian. He had fought with Fletcher at Coral Sea, but was not totally integrated with the US Navy. HMAS Canberra, for instance, did not have TBS (short range radio known as Talk Between Ships) and could not hear the initial alarm issued by USS Patterson. Crutchley had left with his flagship, heavy cruiser Australia, that night to attend a conference called by RAdm Turner and did not participate in the battle. Chicago had the senior captain, but his ship was immediately torpedoed into a state of confusion that even included an exchange of friendly fire.
What went right? Well, nothing, but luck helped a little.
Fortunately the Japanese did not steam through and attack the thinly defended transports. When the lead flagship turned towards the channel, his column, intent on sinking cruisers, failed to follow and continued north, then west to avoid shoal water, but away from the transports. The flagship then turned to chase after his squadron. To reform the Japanese fleet would have taken two hours and after attacking the transports and defenders the fleet would still be in the channel as daylight exposed them to carrier aircraft and any surviving ships of the earlier battle. The flag chartroom had been destroyed so that navigation into the channel would have been dangerous. Japanese naval tradition called for attacking warships; to expose cruisers of a second attack, with no torpedoes left, to extreme risk for half empty transports may not have seemed worthy. They had already won a great victory over warships and that was enough for one night's work. The heavy cruiser, HMAS Australia, with screen commander Crutchley aboard, returning from his midnight meeting with Turner, was steaming to the battle site. Close support for the transports consisted of anti-aircraft light cruiser San Juan and light cruiser HMAS Hobart and destroyers Monssen and Buchanan.
Unaware of the nature of the battle, VAdm Fletcher's 3 carrier and 2 battleship force was withdrawing and not in range to attack the withdrawing enemy cruisers at first light. Fortunately the Japanese did not know this. Equally fortunate was that an enemy air attack of 40 bombers early the next morning could not find the carriers and were only able to finished off Jervis.
All agreed the Japanese had not lost their fighting spirit after their defeat at Midway and that the allies had lost a major fight from problems with reconnaissance, communication, and preparedness. Yet RAdm Crutchley calls our attention that the propose of the fleet was to protect the landing and that the enemy did not get through. The cost was 1,270 sailors killed, more than Marine loss in the entire 6 month Guadalcanal campaign, 1,207.
Not researched and working from hazy recollection, but I seem to remember that torpedoes and torpedo employment may have been significant factors in the outcome of this battle. Torpedoes and close-in night combat were big parts of Japanese Navy surface tactics well before radar became available, going back to the Russo-Japanese War, and pretty much every Japanese surface combat ship - heavy cruisers, even battleships - had torpedo tubes. They also had excellent and lethal torpedoes.
OTOH the US Navy had for some reason (maybe more open-ocean history and less archipelagic?) decided prior to WWII that any surface action between cruiser-and-above combatants was most likely to be a long-range (gun) battle where torpedoes wouldn't be important, and to save weight took the torpedo tubes off everything but destroyers (not sure about light cruisers but I think they were included in the removal). So you had a Japanese force with more firepower that counted at closer range, more experience and doctrinal history at using it, and better rounds (US torpedoes had a lot of problems in the early years of WWII). The US Navy wasn't altogether wrong - the really decisive WWII actions did take place at longer ranges - but it may have been a problem at Savo Island.
We were lucky in one way, the Jap commanders on Guadalcanal suffered from victory disease.
They thought they were invincible. After the Ilu and Bloody Ridge defeats, they got a taste of Marine courage.
SAMWolf-Thank you for the excellent post
USS Quincy (CA-39)
Photographed from a Japanese cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island, off Guadalcanal, 9 August 1942. Quincy, seen here burning and illuminated by Japanese searchlights, was sunk in this action.
They knew jungle fighting from the Banana Wars.
Since there was a shortage of barbed wire, they strung out shell fragments on wire to use as a listening device.
Question; Have you ever read Manchesters book Goodbye Darkness?
Not to mention wooden furniture.
After Savo Island, wooden furniture was no longer allowed aboard U.S. Navy ships.
ABOARD USS TARAWA, Western Pacific -- The Tarawa Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) stopped near the Solomon Islands recently for a wreath-laying ceremony, their latest stop on a path through the Pacific that has become a memorial trail of U.S. involvement in World War II.
Ceremonies were held aboard the ARGs three ships -- USS Tarawa (LHA 1), USS Duluth (LPD 6) and USS Anchorage (LSD 36) -- to pay respects to the veterans of the many air, land and sea battles known as the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Hundreds of crewmembers and Marines from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) (Special Operations Capable) gathered on the flight deck during the ceremony on the San Diego-based Tarawa. Addressing the formation with Guadalcanal in the background, the Commodore of the Tarawa ARG, Capt. A.D. Wall, challenged the Sailors and Marines present to imagine a time more than 50 years ago.
"Step back in time, with Sailors and Marines who may be your fathers or grandfathers," said Wall. "Imagine the early years of World War II when the war was not going so well."
Wall highlighted the importance of the battle, which has often been described as a turning point in the Pacific theater.
Before the Battle of Guadalcanal, which began in the late summer of 1942, the Americans had suffered a string of defeats that enabled the Japanese to expand further west. In an attempt to slow down the Japanese expansion throughout the South Pacific, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest King ordered a hastily assembled task force to make an amphibious assault on the little-known island of Guadalcanal to take a Japanese airbase.
During the next six months, isolated Marines fought desperately to defend the airfield they had taken, while at least 12 major naval engagements -- many of them surface battles at night -- raged in the waterways near the islands.
"The individual battles that made up the six months of Guadalcanal are too numerous to mention here," said Col. C.J. Gunther, 13th MEU(SOC) commanding officer, "but they include such names as Tulagi, the Solomon Islands, Coffin Corner, Ironbottom Sound and theTokyo Express. The action was so constant that every night saw some kind of fight or gun battle."
Guadalcanal was significant for several reasons. Over the course of numerous sea battles, including night surface encounters, the United States painfully learned the lessons of conducting naval operations after dark. The battle also struck at Japanese confidence and established the will and determination of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. In a campaign of attrition, American forces lost 615 planes and 25 warships but destroyed more than 680 aircraft and 24 warships. The myth of Japanese invincibility had been dealt a devastating blow.
"These gritty champions of freedom had turned the tide in the Pacific," said Wall.
After the speeches, Wall accompanied Gunther and Tarawa's commanding officer, Capt. Garry Hall to the flight deck, as a Sailor and a Marine dropped the wreath into the same waters that claimed the burning hulks of the heavy cruisers USS Vincennes, USS Astoria and USS Quincy almost 58 years ago.
"This was a good history lesson," said Yeoman Seaman Vevalyn Smith, the Tarawa Sailor who dropped the ceremonial wreath. "I didnt know anything about the battle until we had the ceremony."
The Tarawa ARG made the stop near Guadalcanal during its six-month deployment to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Since arriving in the Central Pacific, the Tarawa ARG has steamed along a route that could be easily labeled as a World War II Memorial Trail.
After leaving Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, (the site of the USS Arizona Memorial and USS Missouri -- the respective symbolic beginning and end of the war in the Pacific) the ARG stopped at the Tarawa Atoll. On the island of Betio, the primary site of the fighting during the Battle of Tarawa, local islanders greeted a contingent of approximately 100 Sailors and Marines who arrived for a memorial ceremony. The stop at Guadalcanal marks the third major World War II site the ARG has visited in less than three weeks.
"This is a lot different than just reading about it in books or hearing it told in stories," said Sgt. Pablo Cortez, a member of the Amphibious Squadron Five staff and the Marine who dropped the wreath. "When you see the island, the reality of what happened there hits home."
I met a Pearl Harbor Survivor a few months ago who served on a tin can that was sunk, possibly in this battle. I've got to dig through my papers to find the notes I took when we had our conversation. He was a very interesting fellow to talk to and I learned a lot in the short amount of time we spent together. I think I posted a comment at the Canteen about the encounter, but that was during the time that I was on the list. Now, where did I put those notes?
Just like Pearl Harbor. If he had followed on and destroyed the transports who know how much longer the war would of lasted.
Thanks for telling about your dad. Being right is seldom forgiven. Fortunately there are still people who will speak up.