If the Battle of Midway stopped further Japanese offensive expansion, it was the Battle of Guadalcanal that broke the back of the Japanese armed forces. Between August 7, 1942 and February 12, 1943, the U.S. Navy fought the most difficult campaign it ever fought. The height of this came on the nights of November 12/13 and November 13/14, 1942, with the bloodiest surface actions in U.S. Naval history, known as The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

On the morning of November 12, 1942, the Japanese were winning the struggle for Guadalcanal on points. In four naval battles - Savo Island, Eastern Solomons, Cape Esperance and Santa Cruz - the Japanese had come out ahead overall.

Fought the night of the invasion, Savo Island saw the loss of four American cruisers in a fight with Japanese cruisers. At the end of the month, Eastern Solomons saw the Japanese lose the light carrier Ryujo while USS Saratoga fell victim to a submarine torpedo and was forced to retire to Pearl Habor for repairs; USS Wasp was the victim of a submarine in mid-September, while the U.S. prevailed at the Battle of Cape Esperance in early October. USS Hornet was sunk by Japanese aircraft at the Battle of Santa Cruz, with USS Enterprise damaged at the end of October. In November, only USS Enterprise remained in the South Pacific, unable to fight.

The Americans were outnumbered in total ships, and outweighed in terms of ships available. The Marines on Guadalcanal had been largely abandoned by the Navy because of the local Japanese threat to the limited and shrinking number of assets the Navy had left. Convoys sneaked into Ironbottom Sound to offload cargo under the constant threat of Japanese air or naval attack.

In the meantime, the Tokyo Express spent September and October landing the 17th Army on Guadalcanal, bringing the troops to the island on destroyers at night. Three desperate battles against the Imperial Army saw the Marines holding their position on the island by their fingernails.

Admiral Nimitz wrote bleakly of the situation in the Solomons: "It now appears that we are unable to control the sea in the Guadalcanal area. Thus our supply of the positions will only be done at great expense to us. The situation is not hopeless, but it is certainly critical."

All Nimitz could do immediately was assign a new commander. It would be the most important decision he made in the war. He ordered Admiral William F. Halsey to take over as Commander South Pacific (ComSoPac), precisely what was needed at that moment. “America’s Fightingest Admiral” quickly and decisively took command, bringing his decisiveness and aggressive personality to the tasks before him. Word went through the fleet and the Marines ashore on Guadalcanal like a shot of adrenaline. Halsey’s fighting reputation sent morale skyrocketing. His first act was to fly to Henderson Field where he personally assured General Vandegrift that the Navy would provide all possible support.

Knowing the Japanese planned a major assault in November to retake Guadalcanal, Task Force 67, a large reinforcement and resupply convoy commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, arrived in Selark Channel - known since the invasion as ‘Ironbottom Sound’ for the ships now resting there - on November 11. The cargo ships were protected by two task groups commanded by Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan and Rear Admiral Norman Scott, with cover by aircraft from Henderson Field. The convoy was attacked twice on November 11 by Japanese aircraft based at Rabaul. Most ships were unloaded overnight, but the convoy was not able to complete unloading before the evening of November 12. Throughout the day, the fleet was at battle stations as waves of Japanese airplanes swept in to attack. American aerial defenders were hard-pressed to keep the attackers at bay.

That afternoon, the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco and destroyer USS Buchanan were both hit, with 30 deaths and 50 wounded. San Francisco’s gunners hit a Kate torpedo bomber which crashed on her after-machine gun platform. Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Reinhardt Keppler took charge of the scene, caring for the wounded and supervising the removal of the dead, saving several lives in the process. In the two days the fleet was there, 12 Japanese aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the ships or by fighters from Henderson Field.

The San Francisco underway

USS San Francisco underway (US Navy Official)

Late that afternoon, ComSoPac warned that a large Japanese task force had been sighted headed down the Slot; the warships would arrive that night. Turner combined his two surface forces into Task Group 67.4 under the command of Rear Admiral Callaghan. This was unfortunate because Rear Admiral Scott had been the victor at the Battle of Cape Esperance and had the experience to command the kind of fight that was coming. Callaghan, though inexperienced in combat, was senior in rank by two days.

Callaghan led in his flagship San Francisco with the heavy cruiser Portland, light cruisers Helena, Atlanta, and Juneau (Scott’s flagship), covered by the destroyers Aaron Ward, Barton, Cushing, Fletcher, Laffey, Monssen, O'Bannon, and Sterett.

The threat posed by the oncoming Japanese fleet was serious. A month earlier, two Japanese battleships had shelled Henderson Field with nearly catastrophic results, completely destroying half the aircraft there, damaging most others and leaving the field inoperable for 36 hours.  Allied intelligence knew tonight’s planned repeat attack was the opening move of the major operation to retake Guadalcanal. If Henderson was knocked out this time, the enemy might just do it.

Task Group 67.4 was ordered to stop the Japanese at all costs.

The enemy force was centered around the dreadnought sisterships Hiei and Kirishima of Battleship Division 11, with Vice Admiral Hiroshi Abe commanding from Hiei, supported by the light cruiser Nagara, and the destroyers Teruzuki, Amatsukaze, Yukikaze, Asagumo, Samidare, Murasame, Harusame, Yūdachi, Ikazuchi, Inazuma, Akatsuki and Akatsuki. The Japanese had spent the previous twenty years training to defeat the U.S. Navy in night battle; the Americans were strangers to the night.

Following Abe’s force was a convoy carrying 7,000 troops of the 38th Division, to be landed on Guadalcanal the morning of November 14, after the successful neutralization of Henderson Field.

The night of November 12/13 was dark with rain squalls in all quadrants, the deep waters of Ironbottom Sound lit by flashes of lighting from all quarters; it was perfect for the Imperial Navy. Unfortunately, the inexperienced Callaghan arranged his battle line with the cruiser Helena and destroyer Fletcher – the two ships of his force with the newest SG radar capable of seeing through rain squalls - at the rear of the formation. The three oldest destroyers led the formation, with San Francisco leading Portland, followed by Juneau and Atlanta. All were equipped with the temperamental SC radar.

At 0124 hours on November 13, Helena’s radar picked up the Japanese fleet as it rounded Savo Island and entered Ironbottom Sound. Callaghan ordered his battle line to turn north to cross the Japanese “T” as Scott had done at Cape Esperance. Both formations then stumbled into rain squalls; Callaghan was uncertain of his fleet’s position when Cushing confirmed the radar contacts as Japanese due to his inexperience in using radar. Lacking a modern combat information center (CIC), where incoming information could be quickly processed and coordinated, the radar operator was reporting on vessels that were not in sight, while Callaghan was trying to coordinate the battle visually, from the bridge. Cushing requested permission to open fire, but Callaghan delayed due to his uncertainty.

Suddenly at 1030 hours, both formations emerged from the squalls. Admiral Abe was shocked to find an unexpected American fleet practically in point blank range. Fortunately for the Americans, the Japanese were even less prepared for a surface engagement. Their mission was to shell Henderson Field; thus the battleships were armed with high explosive shells full of sub-munitions, rather than the needed armor-piercing shells. Abe’s ships were not in battle formation.

Unfortunately for the Americans, though, the eleven destroyers were all armed with the Type-93 “Long Lance” torpedo - the deadliest torpedo ever created. Almost all the American losses in the battle were the result of the destroyers firing this weapon.

The Japanese illuminated the Americans with searchlights that were quickly shot out. Realizing his force was nearly surrounded by the Japanese, Callaghan ordered, "Odd ships fire to starboard, even ships fire to port." What happened next was described by one of the surviving officers on Monssen as "a bar room brawl after the lights had been shot out."

USS LaffeyUSS Laffey (US Navy Official)

Laffey passed 20 feet from Hiei, narrowly missing collision. The battleship couldn’t depress her batteries low enough to hit Laffey, which raked Hiei’s bridge superstructure with 5-inch machine gun fire, wounding Admiral Abe, and killing his chief of staff, cutting off the Japanese leadership. Laffey also fired all five of her torpedoes at Hiei though without effect. With Hiei on her port beam and Kirishima coming up to starboard beam, Laffey shot out the Japanese searchlights and escaped into the darkness.

San Francisco then passed by 2,500 yards away and Hiei, along with Kirishima, Inazuma, and Ikazuchi concentrated their fire on her. In a matter of minutes, San Francisco took 15 major shell hits and 25 lesser, disabling her steering and killing Admiral Callaghan, Captain Cassin Young, and most of the bridge staff. Luckily, Hiei and Kirishima’s salvos were the special fragmentation bombardment shells, which saved San Francisco from being sunk outright.

While the other American ships fought desperate battles for survival, the crew of San Francisco began a fight for her life. The story of how she was saved can be told in the citations for the three Medals of Honor awarded for actions taken by crew members.

San Franciso damaged bridgeUSS San Francisco damaged bridge (US Navy Official)

Wounded Marine Gunnery Sergeant Tom MacGuire climbed down from his battle station on the signal bridge and entered the navigating bridge. As he told me 50 years later, “There was blood everywhere, the bulkheads looked like swiss cheese. The Admiral died as I touched him. Then I saw someone stir, and I went to him.”   

MacGuire had found Lt. Commander Bruce McCandless, the Communications Officer, who had been thrown against a bulkhead by an explosion and rendered unconscious. McCandless recovered and sent MacGuire to ascertain the situation, since all internal communications were knocked out.

McCandless’ citation reads as follows:

“For conspicuous gallantry and exceptionally distinguished service above and beyond the call of duty as communication officer of the U.S.S. San Francisco in combat with enemy Japanese forces in the battle off Savo Island, 12/13 November 1942. In the midst of a violent night engagement, the fire of a determined and desperate enemy seriously wounded Lt. Comdr. McCandless and rendered him unconscious, killed or wounded the admiral in command, his staff, the captain of the ship, the navigator, and all other personnel on the navigating and signal bridges. Faced with the lack of superior command upon his recovery, and displaying superb initiative, he promptly assumed command of the ship and ordered her course and gunfire against an overwhelmingly powerful force. With his superiors in other vessels unaware of the loss of their admiral, and challenged by his great responsibility, Lt. Comdr. McCandless boldly continued to engage the enemy and to lead our column of following vessels to a great victory. Largely through his brilliant seamanship and great courage, the San Francisco was brought back to port, saved to fight again in the service of her country.”

Command of the ship had devolved within five minutes to Lt. Commander Herb Schonland, the Damage Control Officer.

His citation reads:

“For extreme heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty as damage control officer of the U.S.S. San Francisco in action against greatly superior enemy forces in the battle off Savo Island, 12/13 November 1942. In the same violent night engagement in which all of his superior officers were killed or wounded, Lt. Comdr. Schonland was fighting valiantly to free the San Francisco of large quantities of water flooding the second deck compartments through numerous shell holes caused by enemy fire. Upon being informed that he was commanding officer, he ascertained that the conning of the ship was being efficiently handled, then directed the officer who had taken over that task to continue while he himself resumed the vitally important work of maintaining the stability of the ship. In water waist deep, he carried on his efforts in darkness illuminated only by hand lanterns until water in flooded compartments had been drained or pumped off and watertight integrity had again been restored to the San Francisco. His great personal valor and gallant devotion to duty at great peril to his own life were instrumental in bringing his ship back to port under her own power, saved to fight again in the service of her country.”

As San Francisco continued her death ride through the Japanese fleet, Boatswain’s Mate Keppler - who had led the fight to put out the fire caused by the crash of the Kate - continued his heroic actions, as detailed in the citation for his posthumous Medal of Honor:

“For extraordinary heroism and distinguished courage above and beyond the call of duty while serving aboard the U.S.S. San Francisco during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands, 12/13 November 1942. When a hostile torpedo plane, during a daylight air raid, crashed on the after machine-gun platform, Keppler promptly assisted in removal of the dead and, by his capable supervision of the wounded, undoubtedly helped save the lives of several shipmates who otherwise might have perished. That night, when the ship's hangar was set afire during the great battle off Savo Island, he bravely led a hose into the starboard side of the stricken area and there, without assistance and despite frequent hits from terrific enemy bombardment, eventually brought the fire under control. Later, although mortally wounded, he labored valiantly in the midst of bursting shells, persistently directing fire-fighting operations and administering to wounded personnel until he finally collapsed from loss of blood. His great personal valor, maintained with utter disregard of personal safety, was in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

USS San Francisco Memorial

USS San Francisco memorial (US Navy Official)

As all this was happening, Laffey engaged four Japanese destroyers at point-blank range. A sudden barrage of 14-inch shells from Hiei crippled her just as a Long-Lance torpedo fired by the destroyer Teruzuki hit her just under the aft 5-inch mounts. The order was passed to abandon ship but, as the men went into the water, a violent explosion in her after magazine ripped Laffey apart and she sank immediately, taking 59 crewmen down with her. Laffey was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for her gallant performance.

Atlanta was hit by shellfire and a torpedo, cutting all electrical power. Drifting into San Francisco’s line of fire, she took hits that killed Admiral Scott. Destroyer Cushing, in the lead, was also caught in a crossfire between several Japanese destroyers; hit heavily, she stopped dead in the water.

Portland and Atlanta hit and sank Akatsuki. Portland was then hit by a torpedo from Inazuma or Ikazuchi, causing heavy damage to her stern and forcing her to steer in a circle. After completing her first loop, she was able to fire four salvos at Hiei but took no further part in the battle.

Yūdachi and Amatsukaze charged the rear five ships of the U.S. formation. Two torpedoes from Amatsukaze hit Barton, sinking her with heavy loss of life. Amatsukaze hit Juneau with a torpedo while the cruiser was exchanging fire with Yūdachi, stopping her dead in the water, breaking her keel, and knocking out most of her systems.

Monssen was spotted by Asagumo, Murasame, and Samidare who had just finished blasting Laffey. They smothered Monssen with gunfire, damaging her severely and forcing the crew to abandon ship. She sank later.

Sterett was suddenly ambushed by Teruzuki, heavily damaged, and forced to withdraw. Aaron Ward wound up in a one-on-one duel with Kirishima, which the destroyer lost with heavy damage, stopped dead in the water because the engines were damaged.

Robert Leckie, a Marine private who would later write the classic story of Marines on Guadalcanal, A Helmet For My Pillow, described the battle as he saw it from a hill above Henderson Field:

“The star shells rose, terrible and red. Giant tracers flashed across the night in orange arches. The sea seemed a sheet of polished obsidian on which the warships seemed to have been dropped and were immobilized, centered amid concentric circles like shock waves that form around a stone dropped in mud.”

After 40 minutes of the kind of brutal, close-quarters fighting that hadn’t been seen since the Age of Sail, the fleets broke contact and ceased fire at 0226 hours with Helena’s Captain Gilbert Hoover, senior surviving U.S. officer, ordering disengagement.

At that moment, it appeared that the do-or-die effort by Callaghan’s fleet had failed, since the enemy was still capable of continuing on to bombard Henderson Field and finish off what American naval force was still in the area, allowing Tanaka’s fleet to land troops and supplies safely in the morning. Admiral Abe, however, ordered his fleet to retire. Hiei was badly damaged and both she and Kirishima had expended much of their special bombardment ammunition, meaning they might not destroy Henderson Field, which would leave them vulnerable to an air attack at dawn. He did not know the American losses, while his ships were scattered and would take some time to reform.

The U.S. Navy believed they had sunk seven enemy ships. Coupled with the Japanese retreat, the battle was seen as a significant victory. It was only after the war when the Imperial Navy records became available that the U.S. Navy discovered they had suffered a crushing tactical defeat.

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was not yet over.

Stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow!