Dawn on November 13 revealed a terrible sight in Ironbottom Sound. Portland, San Francisco, Aaron Ward, and Sterett had been badly damaged but their crews were eventually able to restore power and withdraw successfully for later repair.

At 1100 hours, the badly-damaged Juneau was steaming on one screw at 13 knots, 800 yards off San Francisco’s starboard forward quarter, down 13 feet at her bow with waves washing over her forecastle. At that moment, the Japanese submarine I-26 fired two torpedoes at San Francisco. Both passed ahead and one struck Juneau in the same place she had been torpedoed the night before. In an enormous explosion, the cruiser broke in two and disappeared in 20 seconds. Aboard Helena, Captain Hoover wrongly concluded there were no survivors. Fearing a second submarine attack, he ordered the fleet to leave without stopping to try and rescue anyone.

However, more than 100 of Juneau’s 697-man crew had survived, including two of the five famous Sullivan brothers of Boston, who had gained considerable publicity before the war when they had all joined the navy and been assigned together aboard Juneau. The survivors were left in the open ocean for eight days before the ten who survived the elements and shark attacks were spotted in separate rafts and rescued on November 20. Neither Sullivan was among the survivors.

The loss of the Sullivan brothers made it into the American press and Captain Hoover’s decision to depart to save the fleet was bitterly criticized both in the press and the navy. He was relieved of command by Admiral Halsey.

The badly-damaged Hiei was discovered by planes from Guadalcanal shortly after dawn, circling to starboard at 5 knots accompanied by two escorts. Over the rest of the day, shuttle missions of dive and torpedo bombers from Henderson Field attacked, turning the ship into scrap with repeated hits. Finally, at dusk, her captain ordered the crew to abandon ship and the destroyers picked them up before finally heading north after torpedoing her again. Hiei eventually sank some time in the night of November 13/14, the first Japanese battleship lost in the Pacific War.


Wreck of Hiei (US Navy Official)

The American sacrifice only delayed the Japanese by a day. Furious over Abe’s poor performance, Admiral Yamamoto immediately removed him and directed Admiral Kondō to resume the mission. Kondō was described by other officers he had served with as an “English sort of officer, very gentlemanly, and good with his staff, but better suited for training command than battle.” He was the senior admiral in the South Pacific. Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s cruiser force from the 8th Fleet that had been originally assigned to cover the troop landing on November 13, was ordered to rendezvous with Kirishima and her escorts to finish the bombardment of Henderson Field. Mikawa’s fleet included the heavy cruisers Chōkai, Kinugasa, Maya, and Suzuya, the light cruisers Isuzu and Tenryū, and six destroyers.

That afternoon, having turned back under Abe’s decision to withdraw, Admiral Tanaka’s 11 transports and their escorts turned to again head for Guadalcanal with plans to land their troops early in the morning of November 14.

In the face of the threat, Halsey had ordered the battleships Washington and South Dakota to reinforce Callaghan on November 13, but they were unable to reach the Solomons in time. It was a dangerous move on Halsey’s part because the two battleships and carrier Enterprise were his last capital ships. Halsey was unable to give proper support since there were only four destroyers available: Walke, Benham, Preston, and Gwin. None of the American ships had ever trained together before. Task Force 54 was commanded by Rear Admiral Willis A. ‘Ching Chong’ Lee, in Washington. Considered the Navy’s leading gunnery expert, Lee was known as a chain-smoking, approachable commander who relieved tension by reading lurid novels or swapping sea stories with the enlisted men standing watch on the bridge.

USS Washington

USS Washington (US Navy Official)

When the returning Japanese were spotted, the two battleships were 100 miles south of Guadalcanal. Halsey ordered them to enter Ironbottom Sound to stop the Japanese. Following an evening meal in which Lee briefed the officers on their mission and went over his expectations of how they would fight the battle, the small force entered Ironbottom Sound and arrived off Savo Island at dusk.

Shortly after 2200 hours, Kondō’s ships entered the sound. The admiral split his force, sending cruiser Sendai and destroyers Shikinami and Uranami to sweep the east side of Savo Island while Ayanami swept the southwest side of the island. Lee’s force was spotted at 2300 hours, though the battleships were misidentified as cruisers. Kondō ordered Sendai and her destroyers to join Nagara and the destroyers Asagumo, Hatsuyuki, Shirayuki and Teruzuki to engage the enemy force before he brought his bombardment force into position off Guadalcanal.

Lee’s ships spotted the Sendai force on radar but failed to detect the others. Using radar-directed fire control, Washington and South Dakota opened fire on Sendai and her destroyers at 2317 hours. At 2322 hours, Lee ordered cease fire when the enemy ships disappeared from the radar. Unknown to the Americans, Sendai, Uranami, and Shikinami were undamaged.

As the battleships ceased firing, the four American destroyers engaged Ayanami and the Nagara group. The enemy responded, hitting Walke and Preston with gunfire and torpedoes. At 2336 hours Preston‘s captain gave the order to abandon ship. The destroyer rolled on her starboard side a minute later, then hung with her bow in the air for 10 minutes before she sank, taking 117 men and her captain. Gwin took a hit in her engine room at 2332 hours that put her out of the battle. As Walke’s captain prepared to fire torpedoes, the destroyer was hit by a Type 93 torpedo at 2338 in the number 2 magazine. The explosion blew off her bow. As the fires spread, power and communication failed and abandon ship was ordered minutes later with four rafts launched before she went down. As she sank, her depth charges exploded, killing 80 men in the water. Another torpedo hit Benham and blew off her bow, forcing her to withdraw before sinking the next day. Despite their losses, the American destroyers had successfully screened the battleships.

Washington steamed through the wreckage of Walke and Preston, drowning many of the few survivors as she took Ayanami under fire with her secondary battery. South Dakota, close behind, suddenly suffered a series of electrical failures when her chief engineer locked down a circuit breaker in violation of safety procedures. The circuits repeatedly went into series, and her radar, radios, and almost all her gun batteries became inoperable. She followed Washington toward the western side of Savo Island until Washington changed course to pass to the south behind the burning destroyers at 2355 hours. As she tried to follow, South Dakota was forced to turn starboard to avoid Benham, putting her between the fires and the enemy, thus silhouetting her.

Receiving reports the American destroyers had been destroyed, Admiral Kondō brought the bombardment force into Ironbottom Sound. Unknown to the admiral, his force and the two American battleships were now on a collision course.

South Dakota hit

South Dakota hit (US Navy Official)

Just before midnight, Kondō’ s ships sighted the silhouetted South Dakota and Kirishima opened fire on her while the destroyers also opened fire and launched torpedoes. Nearly blind and unable to effectively fire her guns, South Dakota managed a few hits on Kirishima while taking 26 hits that knocked out her communications and what was left of her fire control while fires broke out on her upper decks, forcing her to turn away at 0017 hours on November 15.

Concentrating their fire on South Dakota, the Japanese failed to detect the approach of Washington. At a range of 9,000 yards, Admiral Lee determined the target he was tracking was not South Dakota and opened fire on Kirishima at exactly midnight, hitting her with at least nine and possibly 20 16-inch shells and 17 5-inch hits from the secondary battery, most of which hit below the waterline. The hits disabled all of Kirishima's main battery, caused major flooding, and set her on fire while her rudder was jammed, forcing her to circle to port, out of control.   

USS Washington firing during the battle    

USS Washington firing during the battle. (US Navy Official)

Kondō ordered all ships that were able to converge and destroy the enemy at 0025 hours, but the force could not locate Washington in the darkness since they had no radar. Lee headed toward the Russell Islands to draw the enemy away from Guadalcanal and South Dakota. Kondō’s surviving ships spotted Washington at 0050 hours and the destroyers launched several torpedo attacks which Lee avoided as he withdrew from the battle. Believing the way was now clear for the transport convoy, Kondō ordered his fleet to break off at 0104 hours. By 0130 the Japanese had departed.   

Kirishima, badly battered, was still afloat. Like Hiei, her boilers and engines still worked, but the rudder was jammed 10 degrees starboard. At 0300 hours, Captain Iwabuchi ordered the emperor’s portrait transferred to Asagumo. At 0325 hours, Kirishima rolled over and sank northwest of Savo Island. She was the second battleship the Imperial Navy had lost in two days and the first enemy battleship sunk by an American battleship since the Battle of Santiago Bay in the Spanish-American War.

sunken Kirishima

Sunken Kirishima (US Navy Official)

The four transports that had survived the attacks by the Cactus Air Force the afternoon of November 14 beached themselves at Tassafaronga at 0400 hours on November 15. Admiral Tanaka and the escort destroyers departed after unloading the troops they carried and raced back up the Slot toward safer waters.

The beached transports were attacked, beginning at 0555 hours, by aircraft from Henderson Field, and by field artillery from Marine ground forces on Guadalcanal. Later that morning, the destroyer Meade crossed Ironbottom Sound from Tulagi and spent almost an hour blasting the beached transports with several hundred rounds of 5-inch fire. Meade's gunfire set them afire, destroying all equipment that had yet to be unloaded, and turned them into twisted wreckage wracked by internal explosions. In the end, only 2–3,000 troops made it onto Guadalcanal, where they offered little reinforcement since most of their ammunition and food had been lost.

The Japanese failure to land the troops meant that there would not be another offensive mounted to take Henderson Field. From November 15 on, Admiral Tanaka’s Tokyo Express could only deliver ever-dwindling supplies by destroyer, dropping them in waterproof canisters to drift ashore.       

After the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the U.S. Navy was able to supply the island. Two fresh divisions of Army troops relieved the exhausted First Marine Division at the end of November and the Marines were evacuated to Sydney, Australia.    

At the end of November, Admiral Yamamoto informed the Supreme War Council that the Imperial Navy could no longer support the Imperial Army troops on Guadalcanal.

The Imperial Navy would never replace its losses at Guadalcanal.

Within a year, a new United States Navy would appear in the Pacific, stronger and better-organized than the fleet that fought at Guadalcanal, but it was the pre-war navy that held the line in the South Pacific during the darkest days of the war, making possible all that came after.



The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was a stunning strategic victory outshone only by the Battle of Midway in importance during the Pacific War. Historian Eric Hammel sums up the significance of the battle this way:

On November 12, 1942, the Imperial Navy had the better ships and the better tactics. After November 15, 1942, its leaders lost heart and it lacked the strategic depth to face the burgeoning U.S. Navy and its vastly improving weapons and tactics. The Japanese never got better while, after November 1942, the U.S. Navy never stopped getting better.

After San Francisco returned to Mare Island, her wrecked bridge was removed and placed on display at Fort Miley in San Francisco. Back when I was a young sailor at Treasure Island, I once took the Geary bus out to Land’s End to see the bridge. Standing on the same deck where Daniel Callaghan and Cassin Young and the others had died, and where Bruce McCandless saved his ship, was an experience that has stayed with me in the years since. In 1975, when I worked as an administrative assistant to a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, I was astounded to visit the memorial and see that it had fallen into disrepair. I’ve always been proud that I found some money in that year’s budget to give the bridge a coat of paint and preserve it. Today, it is a well-preserved memorial to those who fought and died in the Pacific, and you too can stand on that once-bloody deck and consider the sacrifice of the USS San Francisco.

In 1992, the forward portion of USS Laffey was discovered by Robert Ballard, resting upright on the floor of Ironbottom Sound in 2,600ft of water, her bow guns still trained to port where they had last fired at the Hiei during the violent night battle which sank her. In April 2006, the cruise ship Clipper Odyssey came to a stop over the position of Laffey and Mrs. Cary Webb Sears, daughter of LCDR Hank, addressed passengers and crew before leading a wreath ceremony.

Under the Southern Cross is out now in paperback! You can find copies here.