The Pacific War, 1942
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 Bismarcks 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-five 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-Burma-India 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 Brisbane, 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.
On 7 Aug 1942, the United States committed to its first land based counterattack. The Marines landed at both Tulagi and Guadalcanal, on both sides of Savo Sound. 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 carrier planes operating near the invasion fleet in Savo Sound defended. Thirty-three enemy were shot down for a loss of 12 US planes, one destroyer crippled, and a transport, George F. Elliot (AP-13), set afire and lost. The IJN also sent the Eighth Fleet from Rabaul to attack the US beachhead. This fleet (VAdm Mikawa) 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 destroyers (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, USS 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.
A court of inquiry determined that US ships required more training in night fighting. Dah !
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 MacArthur'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; after attacking the transports and defenders the Japanese 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 to 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 1 battleship force was returning from the far end of their nightly fall back and would not be in range to attack the withdrawing enemy cruisers, and then turned to withdraw at 0400 on the 9th. Fortunately the Japanese did not know this. Equally fortunate was that an enemy air attack of 40 bombers carrying torpedoes early the next morning could not find the carriers and were only able to finished off Jarvis (DD-799), torpedoed during the previous day's noon air attack. This day's search for carriers keep bombers from hitting the unprotected supplies stored just inside the treeline.
AfterwardAll 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 screening force 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.
One of the oft repeated stories of military ineptitude may be wrong.
The legend has it ... an Australian long range patrol aircraft saw the
Japanese 8th fleet heading down the Slot. The pilot maintained radio silence
and continued on his patrol. On landing, he went to afternoon tea before
making his report. This story was repeated on this web page
and "this slur upon an Australian aircrew from 1942" was challenged by LCDR Mackenzie J Gregory,
R.A.N. (retired) who was watch officer on Canberra that night when the guns
blazed. He has written several papers on naval history. His reminiscence,
HMAS Canberra Lost at Savo Island
is illuminating. The specific discussion about air surveillance are
pages five and
Here is our correspondence which includes his interviews concerning the patrol plane and of how the Canberra really may have been damaged. Also a note about the wireless operator on the Australia patrol bomber. In fact, he, too, has written to us to correct the record.