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The Pacific

III: Crucial Action

III: Crucial Action

Although it left the Americans with only one damaged aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, the Battle of Santa Cruz, which the Japanese always insisted in calling ‘Santa Claus’, page 217 definitely affected future operations in the Solomons, for the enemy losses undoubtedly weakened them for the most crucial of all naval battles, the Battle of Guadalcanal, which developed from their last major attempt to reinforce and hold the island. It raged from 11 to 15 November, and on it hung the fate of the Solomons campaign. Had the American navy been defeated Guadalcanal would have been lost, thus altering the whole course of the Pacific war and jeopardising the Allied position in the South Pacific, perhaps for years. Rear-Admiral R. K. Turner reported after the battle on the night of 12–13 November, ‘This desperately fought action … has few parallels in naval history…. Had this battle not been fought and won, our hold on Guadalcanal would have been gravely endangered.’

While daily air reconnaissance reported the concentration of Japanese naval and transport craft in Rabaul and the anchorages of Southern Bougainville (where more than sixty transport and cargo ships of a vast fleet were assembled), American troops on Guadalcanal, supported by bombardment from surface craft, pressed the enemy back beyond the Matanikau River and off the high features they held inland; but Vandegrift, although strengthened by the arrival of artillery units during the first week of November, urgently required still more men to replace units exhausted by excessive heat and antagonistic country. The decision to send 3 New Zealand Division to New Caledonia to relieve the American Division provided the men required for Guadalcanal. While Halsey was planning to send in these troops, as well as extra supplies, Hyakutake, the Japanese commander, was similarly planning the landing of his 38 Division under strong naval protection, using troop transports instead of the usual destroyers of the Tokyo Express, the schedule of which had been disrupted by 24 United States submarines patrolling along the route. Hyakutake also planned to bombard Henderson Field into impotence so that his disembarkation could proceed without air interference. Halsey's total naval force was still outnumbered by the Japanese, but his air strength was greater. The American command made the first move.

A force commanded by Rear-Admiral Turner, charged by Halsey with the dual task of getting men and supplies ashore and protecting Guadalcanal from expected Japanese attacks, was divided into three groups, one of which he commanded personally. Rear-Admiral Scott and Rear-Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan commanded the other two. A force at Noumea under Kinkaid, and built round the carrier Enterprise and two battleships, was to support Turner. Scott's group of three transports, one cruiser, and four page 218 destroyers reached Guadalcanal and began unloading men and supplies on 11 November under cover of Callaghan's five cruisers and ten destroyers. Raiding Japanese aircraft interrupted the operations, but they were continued next day when Turner's own group of transports arrived from Noumea with the American Division. Again the Japanese attacked, but 30 of the 31 attacking aircraft were shot down, though not before the cruiser San Francisco was damaged seriously. These were only the preliminaries of the battle, but they enabled the Americans to get 6000 men ashore and valuable heavy supplies and munitions before the transport and cargo ships retired.

The battle increased in violence in the early hours of the morning of 13 November, when the main forces met as the Japanese battle-ships Hiyei and Kirishima moved inshore to try to bombard Henderson Field. This developed into one of the most furious of all naval engagements of the war, fought out on waters enclosed by Guadalcanal, Savo and Florida Islands, scene of the first naval encounters in the Solomons and surely one of the greatest of all naval graveyards.1 The battle began soon after midnight, when Callaghan's weaker force of 6-inch and 8-inch cruisers joined with Japanese battleships mounting 14-inch guns. In the intense darkness the ships almost collided before a shot was fired, and in the confusion both American and Japanese ships fired on each other. Twelve of the thirteen American ships were either sunk or damaged in the first fifteen minutes, but the American ships concentrated on the Hiyei, which they hit 85 times. She was scuttled next day. Admirals Callaghan and Scott were both killed during the action, but the lighter American ships saved Henderson Field—and the Solomons.

The Japanese withdrew at three o'clock in the morning without firing on the airfield they hoped to destroy. The fact that they page 219 carried high explosive shells for the airfield instead of armour-piercing shells probably saved the situation for the Americans. But this battle was not yet ended.

Despite the fact that Henderson Field was still operating and its strength increased by aeroplanes flown in from the carrier Enterprise, which Kinkaid had brought forward with the battleships Washington and South Dakota, the Japanese still attempted to bring in their transports with men and supplies. These had been sheltering off New Georgia, protected by twelve destroyers, awaiting news of the battle. There were eleven of them carrying 10,000 men of 38 Division, a naval force of between 1000 and 3000, and 10,000 tons of supplies. They were picked up by aircraft 150 miles north of Guadalcanal when they began moving south in the early morning. All that day and until night came down aircraft from Henderson Field bombed up, attacked the transports, and flew back for more bombs to maintain a relentless attack. Aircraft were refuelled by hand and ground crews serviced the planes by rolling bombs across the muddy runways.

By nightfall the invasion fleet had been cut to pieces. Seven of the Japanese transports had been sunk, including the Canberra Maru and the Brisbane Maru. Under cover of darkness that night, however, the four remaining ships continued to the Guadalcanal beaches. Meanwhile Halsey had detached the battleships South Dakota and Washington, and four destroyers from Kinkaid's force, and sent them into the battle under Rear-Admiral Willis A. Lee. Sixteen minutes after midnight, on the morning of 15 November, they joined battle with the Japanese battleship Kirishima, which had returned to the area with cruisers and destroyers to cover the landing of the four remaining transports. An hour later one of the few engagements between battleships in the war ended in favour of the American navy. The heavily damaged Kirishima was scuttled by her crew.

When morning broke clear the four remaining Japanese transports were beached near Tassafaronga Point and were destroyed by aircraft and field artillery. Japanese and American reports estimated that only about 4000 troops reached the shore; 3000 were drowned but some thousands were rescued from the water by Japanese destroyers. Only five tons of supplies reached the shore. In the four-day battle the Japanese lost two battleships, one heavy cruiser, and three destroyers sunk, as well as their eleven transports; two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and six destroyers had been damaged. American losses were serious—one light cruiser, two light anti-aircraft cruisers, and seven destroyers sunk, and one battleship, two heavy cruisers, and four page 220 destroyers damaged, but the American forces on Guadalcanal were never again seriously threatened, and relief troops and supplies were afterwards landed without danger or loss. By the end of November Vandegrift's ground forces numbered 39,416 all ranks.

In one last major action on the night of 30 November, off Tassafaronga, when the Japanese tried to run in six transports under destroyer protection, an American force commanded by Rear-Admiral C. H. Wright suffered grievous loss. Limited visibility was made worse by a completely overcast sky, but in the first phase of the engagement, which began about an hour before midnight, Wright's force had all the advantage, sinking four of the Japanese ships and damaging others. In the second phase the remaining enemy ships launched a devastating torpedo attack before they turned and fled, and in 21 minutes sank the heavy cruiser Northampton and seriously damaged three others—the Minneapolis, Pensacola, and New Orleans—fortunately without realising the great damage they had done.

Minor clashes occurred almost daily between these major engagements, and at times the South Pacific naval forces were reduced to the narrowest margin of safety. At one time in November, Halsey had only four undamaged cargo ships at his disposal to maintain supplies to the battlefront. The situation in New Caledonia was also worrying. Men and supplies poured into that vast base in such quantity that congestion became a problem in itself. At the end of November and in early December, as 3 Division moved in to replace the American Division, there were 91 ships carrying 180,000 tons of cargo waiting to be unloaded in Noumea Harbour.

Nevertheless, the forces on Guadalcanal were built up, and the Marines who had endured the initial fighting were relieved and sent to New Zealand and Australia to recuperate. On 9 December Major-General Alexander M. Patch took over command from Vandegrift, and soon afterwards all American infantry units were welded into 14 Corps, with which New Zealand ground forces were associated during the Solomons campaign. By that time there were between 40,000 and 45,000 men on the island, and Patch set about planning his offensive to drive the Japanese from such dominating hill features as Mount Austen, the ‘Galloping Horse’, and Gifu strongpoint. The campaign went slowly, due in many instances to the mistaken belief, current during the whole campaign among New Zealanders as well as Americans, that all Japanese snipers fired from treetops, which they did only rarely.

While major clashes at sea held off a Japanese invasion in any strength, small numbers of men and limited quantities of supplies page 221 were wastefully put ashore from submarines at night in what the Japanese called ‘rat’ landings. The garrison in the jungle, reduced by malaria and dysentery, was desperately short of food, but even so resisted stubbornly as the Americans drove them along the coast in an effort to surround them. (See Appendix XII.)

In a miserably conceived plan to get supplies ashore, the Japanese cased their food, ammunition, and materials in drums, lashed them together in rafts and threw them overboard, trusting to the tides to carry them to the beaches, but most of these either stuck to rocks or reefs or were shot up by air and surface craft. By 25 December 1942, of the 6000 Japanese combat troops on Guadalcanal, only 2500 were available as fighting troops, and 30 per cent of those who were capable of walking were employed transporting rations, but the Americans were never certain of enemy dispositions and consequently hesitated in forcing a battle which would have gone in their favour. A report on the campaign by the 17 Japanese Army commander stated that many of the garrison were mentally unfit and that medical treatment was well nigh impossible. By December front-line troops were reduced to an average of .5 ‘go’ of food a day—one ‘go’ being equal to .318 of a pint. Some of the soldiers had no food for a week and were reduced to eating grass, coconuts, and ferns.

1 Some of the more important naval units lying on the seabed of this triangle are:

  • America: Four heavy cruisers—Northampton, Astoria, Quincy, Vincennes.

  • Two anti-aircraft cruisers—Atlanta, Juneau.

  • Ten destroyers—Jarvis, Barton, Cushing, Laffey, Monsson, Preston, De Haven, Benham, Walke, Duncan.

  • Australia: One cruiser—Canberra.

  • New Zealand: One corvette—Moa.

  • Japan: Two battleships—Hiyei, Kirishima.

  • Two heavy cruisers—Kurutaka, Kinugasa.

  • Eight destroyers—Yudachi, Takanami, Natsugomo, Makigumo, Kitusuki, Ayanami, Fubaki, Akatsuki;

  • as well as an unspecified number of cargo and transport vessels, including four beached at Tassafaronga, and numbers of torpedo boats, landing craft, and aircraft.

The United States forces also lost a number of motor torpedo boats, landing craft, and several cargo boats in this area.