Tuesday, November 14, 2006
The Naval Battle Of Guadalcanal Ends, November 15, 1942
Today in 1942, the naval battle of Guadalcanal ended. The battle was not a single skirmish, but a three-day encounter that was the culmination of three months’ fighting in the waters surrounding the island. The outcome of the battle shaped both Allied and Japanese actions for the rest of the Second World War.
Allied forces landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. Their primary mission was to keep the Japanese from using the island as a staging point for raids against the supply line between the United States and Australia. Once secured, the island would serve as stepping-off point for other landings in the South Pacific.
The Japanese were intent on keeping Guadalcanal. The forces fighting on the island met not only fierce resistance on the ground, but in the air and on the sea as well. The fighting was so intense that re-supply missions to Allied forces could only be made sporadically, and at times, not at all. The waters to the north of Guadalcanal, once called Sealark Sound, were renamed Ironbottom Sound because of the large number of vessels sunk there. At least 45 ships met their end in the small area enclosed by Guadalcanal, Savo and Florida Islands.
In early November, 1942, American intelligence reported that the Japanese were planning a major offensive to re-take Guadalcanal. The US Navy immediately launched a massive resupply mission to the island in case future missions met with failure due to Imperial Japanese Navy activity in the area. The mission was a success and the supply ships left the area on November 12th.
At the same time, a force of Japanese warships and transports was approaching Guadalcanal and was only a day away. The force was made up of two battleships and 14 destroyers along with 11 large transport ships. The US forces in the area that day consisted of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and eight destroyers.
The two forces met in the early morning hours of November 13th. The ensuing battle was fought at close quarters and was a tactician’s nightmare. One officer later compared the fight to “a barroom brawl after the lights have been shot out.” One of the Japanese battleships passed within 20 feet of the USS Laffey, a destroyer. The larger ship could not depress her guns far enough to attack the American vessel, but the Laffey could rake the bridge of the larger ship with ease. Such was the nature of the fight that lasted almost 40 minutes.
After the two forces disengaged, the Japanese still had one battleship, one light cruiser and four destroyers in fighting condition. The American force now consisted of one light cruiser and one destroyer. A swift strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy could have ended the fight decisively and allowed the large transports to arrive at Guadalcanal. But because of confusion, or the loss of his chief of staff, or concerns over ammunition and fuel, Admiral Abe, the Japanese admiral in charge of the operation, abandoned the chase and left the area.
US Navy and Army Air Force planes harassed the Japanese forces over the course of the next day, eventually sinking the remaining Japanese battleship. However, the Japanese were busy as well. The submarine I-26 torpedoed and sank the USS Juneau, leaving barely 100 survivors. These sailors were left on their own in the open ocean for eight days before being rescued. Only 10 lived. Among the dead were the five Sullivan brothers, who had been serving together aboard the Juneau.
Another Japanese cruiser force bombarded Guadalcanal early on the morning of November 14, damaging the island’s airstrip (Henderson Field) but not taking it out of commission. In the meantime, US aircraft launched an attack on the still-approaching transports and sank six of them; one turned back with heavy damage.
A final group of Japanese ships approached Guadalcanal on the evening of the 14th with orders to once more shell the island as a cover action for the remaining transports. The force was made up of one battleship, 4 heavy and light cruisers and nine destroyers. The Americans, critically short of warships in the area, committed two new battleships (Washington and South Dakota) and four destroyers. Three of the US destroyers were sunk, but the Japanese lost a battleship and one of their heavy cruisers. The four remaining Japanese transports beached themselves at 4AM on the 15th in the hope that at least some of the men and equipment on board could be offloaded before US planes showed up. More than 2,000 Japanese soldiers made it off the transports before the American attack came, but most of their food and ammunition was destroyed along with the transports. In the end, they did not turn the tide on Guadalcanal.
After these short, intense naval battles, the Japanese posture in the Solomon Islands went from offensive to defensive. For the next four months, their forces in the area limited their actions to resupply attempts and, ultimately, evacuation of Japanese soldiers from Guadalcanal. By February, 1943, the island was firmly in Allied hands.
More bloody battles would be fought in the waters of the Solomon Islands, but the tide of war was forever turned against Japan. US naval forces in the Pacific would become stronger and more experienced, while the Imperial Navy was unable to replace her losses. Although the war would continue until September, 1945, the die had been cast.