The Battle of Tassafaronga
Putting his new ship reinforcements into quick use, Halsey ordered Rear Admiral Carleton Wright (who had arrived and assumed his command one day earlier) to head north (on November 30th) with the newly formed Task Force 67 to intercept a Japanese reinforcement group composed of eight destroyers and six transports. The source of Halsey's precise information was undoubtedly due to the "code breakers" interception of an alert sent to the 17th Army headquarters informing them to expect the arrival of troops and supplies. To meet this group would be Wright's task force of four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers.
A search plane sighted the Japanese force heading south but for some reason failed to forward a radio report. However, coast watcher Paul Mason, from a high perch on the southern tip of Bougainville, spotted the ships and forwarded a report to Wright. The coast watchers, as usual, could be counted on. As the two forces converged in the narrow channel between Savo and Guadalcanal, Wright made his first mistake. He failed to deploy any radar pickets. His cruiser float planes were now up but handicapped by a dark and hazy night.
As the SG radar operators on the cruiser Minneapolis watched their screens, they quickly picked up two pips that they plotted at 23,000 yards (time 2314). Within two minutes, they were showing eight pips. Aboard the Japanese destroyers, all hands, except the torpedo tube crews, were preparing to dump drums loaded with food supplies over the side hopefully to be picked up by Japanese shore parties. But, with the lead Japanese destroyer's lookouts now spotting enemy ships (American) and with other ships of the group also spotting the Americans, all unloading preparations were halted and the order was given "All ships attack." On all ships, torpedo men primed their weapons.
On the American van destroyers, torpedo-men swung the tubes out over the port side as radar men tracked the green blobs moving along the Guadalcanal coast. When the range on the lead destroyer, the Fletcher under command of Commander Cole (a ship named after him would be in the news in the year 2001) had dropped to 7,000 yards, Commander Cole asked permission to fire torpedoes (time 2315). After a delay of two crucial minutes, the Rear Admiral replied over the TBS radio, "Range on the boogies excessive at present." No, replied Cole, the range was satisfactory. After another pause, Wright granted permission to fire torpedoes (time 2320). The delay was fatal, the excellent firing setup with the enemy closing from ahead had changed to, at best, a marginal proposition with the enemy passing abeam giving the torpedoes a long overtaking run. Wright had made another serious misjudgment.
As the Fletcher immediately started launching ten torpedoes, the next destroyer astern (the Perkins) added a spread of eight more. Before Cole reported that his torpedoes were underway, Wright issued the open - fire order: "Roger, and I do mean Roger." As all ships started firing, their shells converged on the only ship being picked up by their radars -- the Takanami. It absorbed the attention of Wright's gunners and within four minutes the ship glided to a halt wrapped in flames. The rest of the Japanese ships sailed by untouched and unnoticed.
One of the Japanese destroyers then reversed course and commenced firing at 2322 and then began laying smoke. Two more destroyers followed and at 2323 the Suzukaze fired eight torpedoes aimed carefully at the American gun flashes. The four remaining destroyers remained on course, reduced speed to eliminate wakes and then hugged the coast allowing Wright's cruisers to pass on an opposite course. The Japanese ships were able to pass unnoticed without being picked up by radar or spotted visually. The destroyers then launched their brood of torpedoes to join the eight already on their way bringing the grand total to forty - four powerful long lance torpedoes on their way in ten-minute intervals between 2323 and 2333.
At 2327, the USS Minneapolis was firing her ninth salvo from the main battery when Wright, after spotting three enemy ships at 6,000 yards, moved over to pick up the TBS radio to order a course change. But before he could reach the TBS, two torpedoes smashed into the forward part of the ship, the first hitting the aviation gasoline storage tanks forward of turret one and the second torpedo, smashed into fire room number two. A huge column of water arched up over the ship and when it came crashing down mixed with oil, it washed topside sailors overboard and carried burning gasoline from bow to stern. The bow forward of the number one gun, in flames, dropped down at a 70-degree angle.
Following behind the Minneapolis was the USS New Orleans also firing her ninth salvo and with her crew watching with amazement as the Minneapolis was "engulfed in flames" and "demolished" by Long Lances. The watching of this spectacle was cut short as within thirty seconds the New Orleans suffered even more devastating damage. As torpedoes plowed into the forward magazines and gasoline storage area, a huge flaming spiral tore into the heavens spinning off whorls of flaming gasoline and oil and bringing slabs of water and oil crumbing over the superstructure and main deck in torrents a over a foot deep.
On the bridge, Chaplin Howell Forgy recorded: "I opened my eyes to find we were in a cave of fire.....
The great wall of flame all around me actually dried my sopping uniform in seconds." With the guns of turret one pointing skyward, the bow twisted to port and drifted off where it sank off the port quarter. Steering and communication failed on the bridge.
Dutifully next in line, the USS Pensacola caught a torpedo abreast of the mainmast. A violent shutter shook the ship as all power, communications and steering failed on the bridge. The explosion in the oil tank shot oil into the after engine room and living spaces. The oil pried open the main deck and shot a geyser up over the mainmast and covering it with a skin of oil which ignited turning it into a torch which burned control crews to death.
Alerted by the sight of the New Orleans veering out of the column and the slowing of the Pensacola, the next cruiser in line, the USS Honolulu, with Admiral Tisdale aboard, swerved to starboard, increased speed to 30 knots, and then maneuvered radically to evade "torpedo waters." Her gunners concluded a six - minute main battery barrage against a target that disappeared behind smoke billowing up from oil fires. With these violent maneuvers and a bit of luck, all torpedoes raced by the Honolulu.
The last cruiser in line, the USS Northhampton, had her fire control radar latched onto a target, probably the Takanami, and continued to pour on 8-inch shells. She did not increase speed nor did she change course but temporarily veered right to avoid the damaged cruisers ahead but then, unfortunately, returned to base course. At 2348, her lookouts sighted two torpedoes boring in heading for the port bow. The awed executive officer on the Honolulu saw the hit and described it: "A huge smoke and fire cone rose about 250 feet and the ship seemed to be aflame instantly." With the after engine room flooded, three of the four shafts ceased turning and the ship immediately took a 10 degree list to port. The single propeller still turning swung the ship around as it headed off writhed in flames. At 0304, the Northhampton turned bottom up and sank by the stern.
Four minutes before the torpedoes struck the Northhampton, the Japanese Admiral Tanaka ordered his ships to break contact and retire. When the destroyer Takanami failed to answer radio calls, two other destroyers were ordered to her aid. They found the ship mortally wounded and the ship was ordered abandoned. About a hundred men left the ship but a huge explosion killed many of them in the water. Of her crew of 244, only 33 managed to reach the shores of Guadalcanal alive. But, for the loss of one ship, the Japanese had eliminated four badly needed cruisers from service.
What the Americans had just experienced was not a defeat but a humiliation. For Admiral Wright, his thirty years of service had built him a record that had won him a coveted independent flag command. He held the command for forty-eight hours. His superior task - force of cruisers and destroyers was demolished by an inferior, cargo-entangled destroyers bent on a supply mission. If these destroyers had their usual supply of reload torpedoes, it could have been a lot worse. On the bright side, no troops or supplies had been landed.
The three crippled cruisers were saved by the "magnificent performance of the junior officers and crewmen." The planes of Henderson added their bit as they flew over the damaged cruisers the following day to insure that no air attacks would be coming their way. The three damaged ships would be out of action for nearly a year at a time they were most needed. For the thirteen heavy cruisers that had come to do battle in the Solomons, all had been sunk or damaged.
In a rare wartime comment of this type, Admiral Nimitz candidly praised the enemy's "energy, persistence and courage" with many accolades being accorded to Admiral Tanaka for his brilliant work. There would be no accolades for Admiral Wright. However, when the range and power of the Japanese Long Lance torpedoes was finally realized and when the faultiness of the American torpedoes was made known, his reputation took a turn for the better. Japanese intelligence service had provided Tanaka with the exact range, power and speed of the American torpedoes giving him a great advantage. As for the American Naval Intelligence service, they didn't have a clue.
As humiliating as this defeat was for the American Navy, it had little effect on the operations ashore and in the air. The supply route from the south was still open and planes, aviation personnel, troops, food, ammunition and everything else was coming in and in good supply. During the last weeks of November, the Cactus Air Force grew from 85 to 188 aircraft by both replacement of exhausted squadrons and by the addition of new squadrons to include search, antisubmarine, and heavier strike planes. Unchallenged over Guadalcanal, the Cactus Air Force roamed up into the central Solomons destroying barges and challenging anything in its path. The use of barges and "chain transportation" by the Japanese had to be abandoned.
"Rat Transportation" also was coming under heavy fire with Coast watchers reporting the progress of destroyers on their way down the slot and with the Cactus Air Force heading north to greet them. On December 7th, 1942, Admiral Tanaka's group moved out again with Captain Sato heading the 1st Transportation Unit as he did in the encounter with Wright's group. Spotted early, Major Joseph Sailor put his dive bombers (thirteen of them) into the air and caught up with one of the destroyers and with a near miss flooded an engine and boiler room killing seventeen men. This ship had to by towed out of action by another destroyer. This was the last flight for this great airman as the wing of his plane was clipped by a shell from a destroyer leaving him vulnerable to the attacking Japanese planes.
On December 8th, at his headquarters at Rabaul, General Imamura received what he termed a "bombshell." At a conference with officers from the Combined Fleet, 11th Air Fleet, and the 8th Fleet, the Imperial Navy delegation announced intentions of stopping all destroyer transportation runs immediately. They informed Imamura that if the losses and damage to its screening vessels continued at the pace since mid-November, the Combined Fleet soon would be unable to fight the great decisive battle. In the face of Mimamura's protests, the local Navy representatives agreed to two more runs. The 8th Army took an appeal to Tokyo: without re-supply runs by destroyers, the men on Guadalcanal and Buna would have to be sacrificed.
On this same day, December 8th, transports brought the last of the Americal Division's three regiments from Noumea, New Caldonia. The next day Vandergrift formally, but without fanfare turned the command of the American forces on Guadalcanal to Major General Alexander Patch of the U.S. Army. The U.S. 1st and 5th Marines were finally being relieved. It had been a long stint. Although the 17th Army didn't realize it at the time, this was their lucky day as Vandergrift and his pesky Marines departed for friendlier climes. General Patch and the Army would give the Japanese a much needed reprieve.
Louis Ortega was now one tough Marine, but after three months of jungle fighting he would be happy to turn over his section of jungle to any Army guy who wanted it. He remarked, "Once the Army came, they came with sea bags, brand new uniforms, food, medical supplies, M1s, new helmets, everything. We said, "Look at these candy asses!" At night, we'd sneak into their camp and help ourselves because they had so much stuff! They couldn't get it off the beach fast enough."
Louis and his buddies sat on the beach at Lunga Point at the same spot where they had arrived in what seemed like a lifetime ago. They waited patiently for their transportation out. They bore little resemblance to the Marines that landed three months earlier. "We were all exhausted. We had no clothes. All I had was my shoes, no socks, no underclothes. All I had was a pair of torn dungarees and a khaki shirt."
Higgins boats (wooden 36-foot infantry landing craft) came in to carry the tired Marines out to their ship. "We climbed over the sides into the boats. When we got to the ship we couldn't make it. We started up the cargo net and fell back into the boats. Sailors were tying ropes around us and pulling us up. I had gone to Guadalcanal weighing about 150; I left weighing about 110."
Back in the States, the NEW YORK TIMES took note of the relieving of the Marines on Guadalcanal and informed its readers with the following paragraph on its Editorial Page:
When news comes that the Marines are leaving Guadalcanal for a well-earned rest we know that this is not because they asked to be relieved of their assignment.
With this type of editorial, it should have been obvious to most readers that the news-writer's experience with combat extended only as far as the local cinema.
The last act of many of the Marines leaving Guadalcanal was to visit the cemetery were 650 of their comrades were buried. Many graves bore crude inscriptions: "Our Buddy"; "A real Marine"; "He died fighting." Thirty-one marines would be permanently listed as missing; 1,278 had won the Purple Heart. Some 8,580 had been put out of action by serious diseases such as malaria but for this, no decorations were awarded. It was just one of the many curses placed on those fighting in the jungles of Guadalcanal.
After the Japanese Navy's great success in the Battle of Tasafaronga, it might be assumed that some of this good fortune would fall upon the shoulders of the other branches of service. Not so for the Japanese troops on the island, their predicament grew progressively worse. They were rapidly starving to death. In early December, Japanese submarines managed to deliver over 20 tons of food without incident. But then, American radio intelligence succeeded in predicting the schedule for the next submarine run.
Patrol torpedo boats, PT 44 and PT 59 were waiting in ambush when the submarine I-3 surfaced between them. A torpedo from PT 59 (Lt. Jack M. Searles) crashed into the subs hull as it started unloading. This disaster caused the termination of submarine supply hauling.
Next, eleven destroyers with Admiral Tanaka in command started down the slot loaded with supplies. A personal message from Admiral Yamamoto himself underscored the importance of this mission. The convoy was able to shake off an attack by thirteen SBD dive bombers early in the mission, but ran into bad luck when PT boats 37, 40, and 48 moved out from behind Savo Island and each launched torpedoes. It was a bad day for the now famed admiral when one of the torpedoes struck the port side of his flagship, the Teruzuki.
The admiral was temporarily knocked unconscious as the explosion ripped off a propeller shaft and rudder. An oil fire quickly spread to a magazine causing a huge explosion which doomed the ship. The wounded admiral and his staff were transferred, as were most of the crew, to other destroyers. When the nosey crews of two other PT boats saw the fireworks they just had to move in to watch the goings on. PT 44 under the command of Lt. Frank Freeland moved in along side the burning destroyer for a ringside view. Not a very wise move as the other Japanese destroyers standing off a short distance quickly blew the 44 out of the water.
Of the 1,200 drums of food and supplies that were dropped by Tanaka's ships, the PT boats sunk all but 220. This was the last run of the Tokyo Express for the rest of December.
As promised by the Japanese High Command, air power was being augmented in preparation for the new offensive. It would be a more successful operation than the provision of food and supplies had been. By December 7th, the 11th Air Fleet forwarded exactly 100 operational aircraft. With their arrival, Imperial Headquarters expected the number of Zeros to reach 168 and the number of bombers to reach 100 when included in with the number of repaired non-operation craft.
The 11th Air Fleet staff was acutely aware in the serious decline in the skill of replacement crews with a significant number of the assigned fighter pilots having never flown a Zero. In the opinion of Rear Admiral Sakamaki, chief of staff of the 11th Air Fleet, the latest crop of airmen possessed only a third of the proficiency level of the men they replaced.
In a long overdue move, a new airport was being built at Munda on the island of New Georgia only 170 miles north of Henderson Field. Progress was swift and on December 23rd, two dozen Zeros fluttered in to make the airport their home. This quickly turned into a disaster as planes from Henderson created havoc for planes in the air and on the ground. The American submarine Seadragon added to the torment by torpedoing a large supply and construction worker troop ship as left Rabaul heading for Munda. The ship's escort managed to collide with the supply ship which immobilized it as well. Four destroyers moved out of Rabaul to supply rescue for these ships and one of these destroyers was seriously damaged by SBD's that arrived at the scene. The idea of an airfield at Munda was quickly abandoned.
On December 20th, another desperate attempt to aid the 17th Army was made using Betty bombers to drop food supplies at night. This was continued until the 27th and then abandoned when not even a single food container was able to be found in the dense jungle. Rations in the 38th Division fell to one - sixth for the men on the front line and one - tenth for others. On December 7th, the 8th Area Army notified Tokyo that about fifty men died each day from starvation. By mid-December, the rate accelerated so that the Sendai Division alone withered by about forty deaths every twenty - four hours. On December 18th, Major Nishiyama of the 228th Infantry recorded in his diary: ".... orders received to feed men to end of the month on food we have now. This is beyond outrageous."
The Japanese 17th Army was now teetering on the edge of disaster. At Headquarters, it was feared that if the Americans would attack along the coast using their massive firepower coupled with tanks, a catastrophe was in the making. But the 17th Army was in for a bit of luck. On December 9th, a very cautious General Patch arrived to take over command of the Army troops. He believed that expelling the Japanese from Guadalcanal would have to wait until the replacements for the Marines 1st Division and other reinforcements arrived in January.
Although the Japanese were enjoying this "breathing time," they had no way of knowing how long it would last, so to get the American attention away from the coast, the 17th Army initiated an weak offensive inland using up some of the last supplies of mortar and artillery. The Americans failed to notice. Then, by chance, a five-man raiding party came down from Mount Austin and managed to destroy a P-39 and a fuel truck located on the Fighter Two airstrip. The Americans noticed.
Patch saw that an attack on the Japanese troops on Mount Austen might be a good preliminary move to his planned January offensive and it would also deny the Japanese their excellent observation post on the mountain. However Mount Austen was not a single peak but series of ridges through heavy jungles. American patrols in early December had seen no signs of any sizable Japanese forces. On the 14th of December, a patrol from the 132nd Infantry Regiment encountered a group of Japanese equipped with four machine guns and one or two mortars. With the apparent interest of the Americans in this area, Japanese General Sano turned over his small hord of reserve supplies and food and arranged for more supplies to be brought to the area. Just in time for on December 16th, Patch ordered the 132nd Infantry to seize Mount Austen at once.
It was the job of Colonel Leroy Nelson with his former Illinois National Guard Unit to make it happen. On December 24th, the leading elements of his 3rd Battalion were climbing the grassy slopes of Hill 31 when dense machinegun fire from well-concealed positions checked the advance. The Japanese had taken advantage of Patch's delay apparently and had completed a new defenses.
Nelson had selected Lt. Colonel William C. Wright to lead the attack. Marines offered some artillery support but the steep slippery jeep trail whittled down the number of artillery pieces that could make it to the firing position. Beyond a certain point, native bearers had to hand - carry supplies forward. The natives were known as the "Cannibal Battalion," a name applied because some of the natives had a taste for human flesh that was in good supply.
In the 3rd Battalion's first major effort in the extreme jungle heat, the attack was petering out rapidly. After calling in for a bombing and strafing by SBD's, followed by five-minute's of artillery, Wright strode forward to investigate and was wounded by machinegun fire. When he tried to wipe out the gunners using grenades, he was mortally wounded. The 3rd Battalion lost any forward movement for the rest of the day.
Wright's replacement, Major Louis Franco of the 1st Battalion, pushed forward and on the 29th, the 2nd Battalion joined the attack. Soon both assault battalions were dispirited and physically failing with 53 men killed or missing , 129 wounded and 131 sick. What halted Franco's men was what proved to be the most heavily fortified Japanese position on the island, the Gifu, a little west of the summit of Mount Austen. The line was named to honor a prefecture (territory) on the island of Honshu, Japan.
The main defense line of the Gifu consisted of about forty-five interconnected pillboxes in the shape of a horseshoe. The walls were two logs thick burrowed into the ground with the roofs three logs thick covered with dirt and foliage and impervious to anything less than a direct hit by a 105mm howitzer. The staggered location of the pillboxes permitted mutual supporting fire. Many of the pillboxes were under the bases of great mahogany and banyan trees.
The first problem facing attackers was simply locating the enemy positions. In the dense jungle it was quite possible, and quite fatal, to approach a pillbox to within a few yards without seeing it. Enemy fire kept attackers from getting close enough to use demolition charges and flamethrowers were not yet available. On Christmas Day, rifle and machinegun fire from invisible outposts drove the 3rd Battalion back. Day after day any attack into the Gifu was driven back with heavy losses.
But General Patch insisted that Mount Austen be taken and on New Year's Day he replaced Colonel Nelson with Lt. Colonel Alexander George. By now, the American troops were becoming a little reluctant to charge into the Gifu. The new Lt. Colonel tried to restore confidence by using a little drama to demonstrate how poor the Japanese small-arms fire really was. Garbed only in shorts and a fatigue cap, he walked erect, rifle in hand, the length of the line. Some Japanese cooperated with George by firing repeatedly at him but all missed. What was needed here was an American version of the "Banzai charge."
By January 4th, George had three battalions on the mountain surrounding and cutting off the troops of the Gifu and after repeated counter attacks his troops were holding tight. In the twenty-two days on Mount Austen, the 132nd Infantry Regiment had lost 112 killed, 3 missing and 272 wounded. These losses, when coupled with the effects of disease and battle exhaustion, rendered the 132nd incapable of further offensive action.
The job of destroying the Gifu fell to Lt. Colonel Ernest Peter's 2nd Battalion. By January 9th, this single battalion replaced the three of the 132nd Infantry. The inaccurate and incomplete maps given to him by the 132nd estimated that the Gifu now was made up of just a hundred Japanese with two "known" machineguns. These figures were far below the actual numbers.
But the troops of the Gifu would fight with enormous courage and die where they stood almost to a man. A few would live on. On January 12th, Major Nishiyama, the commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 228th Infantry gathered his survivors, about 200 of his original 600 at the command post. There he shared his last cigarettes and, with tears in his eyes, advised them to prepare to die. Their calm acceptance of imminent death moved him deeply. A lull in the fighting the next few days however gradually transformed the mood of his soldiers. They talked of escaping the encirclement to live and fight on.
In the privacy of his diary, Nishiyama admired their spirit but knew that he could not be withdrawn on his authority. He knew a "pretext" could be fabricated but it would still be a retreat and that would dishonor not just himself but the whole unit. Two days later with things still quiet, he sent a runner to division headquarters and was summoned to appear before General Ito. The general sanctioned a withdrawal so, with honor intact, Nishiyama and his 200 survivors escaped through the jungle. General Ito would not be as fortunate.
While the Japanese troops fought with desperation at the Gifu, at Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo, the precipitous decline of the Imperial Navy's air, destroyer, and submarine forces was reviewed and the decision made that the retrieval of Guadalcanal was next to impossible. The staff of the 8th Fleet was in a quandary as they studied the possibility of a renewed offensive along with the possibility of withdrawal. The two plans were finally meshed with plans of withdrawal that looked like a grand offensive. The task of finding a way to rescue the remaining troops at Guadalcanal (at that time estimated at about 30,000) seemed more difficult than the planning of a new offensive.
Since the plan was formulated at the highest command levels and since it would be the an admission of defeat of a magnitude that the Japanese had not experienced before, it would require Emperor Hirohito's approval. General Sugiyama and Admiral Nagano presented the blueprint of the new plan to the Emperor. Hirohito was so moved by the courage and stoic suffering of his troops that the award he had planned to present in victory would be given although victory was not to be. General Sugiyama recognized the gesture boldly underscored the significance of the Guadalcanal campaign and was very moved by it. The approval of the plan meant that every effort would be made to bring home the surviving soldiers of the 17th Army.
On January 3, 1943, a delegation from Imperial General Headquarters presented the sweeping new orders to the staff officers representing all branches of service for the Southeast Area. The meeting was held at the base at Truk. General Headquarters formally advised Admiral Yamamoto to secure "important points" in the Solomons and New Guinea and to withdraw from Guadalcanal. The Imperial Army Air Force would conduct the air battle for New Guinea while the Imperial Navy Air Force would fight the battle in the Solomons and assist over New Guinea. Both air services would commit their best efforts to the "KE" Operation, the evacuation of Guadalcanal. The date was set for late January or early February.
The basic outline of the plan, as agreed on by the 8th Army and the Combined Fleet, was to forward one infantry battalion to provide a rear guard so that the battered 17th Army could start to move out without having to fight its way. Provisions for 23 days would be stockpiled prior to the beginning of the phased withdrawal to take place at the western end of the island. Army and Navy fliers would initiate an air superiority campaign about January 28th.
Three different types of evacuation would be used with a midpoint at the Russell Islands being used as a staging area where some men would be transported by landing craft for later withdrawal, others would be carried by destroyers. Submarines would be available for those not able to be picked up by destroyer or landing craft. An elaborate program of feints would be used to cover the withdrawal with heavy radio traffic at Java, a night air raid on Port Darwin, a submarine shelling of Canton Island and fake activities in the Marshall Islands. Would this be enough to fool the Americans as to Japanese intentions? It would.
There were some important Japanese Army officers however, who believed that this plan which used landing craft and submarines was just a facade masking an attempt to jettison the 17th Army survivors and that a better effort should be made on behalf of the starving soldiers on Guadalcanal. Yamamoto did have two huge and modern fast battleships sitting at Truk (the Yamato and Musashi) and the large carrier Zuikaku that were basically being used as rather luxurious living quarters.
He did detail four heavy cruisers, the two old but fast battleships Kongo and Haruna and the carriers Junyo and Zuiho as support the "KE" operations under Admiral Kondo's Advanced Force. Destroyer Squadron 2 with a light cruiser and nine destroyers provided screen for this group. The actual evacuation runs were to be made by 21 destroyers backed by 2 heavy and 1 light cruisers under Admiral Mikawa.
Unlike Yamamoto, Admiral Nimitz had no important units in reserve and all naval power in the Pacific rested in Admiral Halsey's hands. By the end of January, this consisted of the carriers Enterprise and Saratoga with 3 modern fast battleships, 13 light cruisers and 45 destroyers. Also included were 4 old battleships and 6 escort carriers.
The number of aircraft in the area gave the Americans the edge with 569 planes available versus 436 that the Japanese had assigned to the "KE" operation. January brought about a substantial restructuring of the American air command with the influx of many additional aircraft. While Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch still remained Commander Aircraft South Pacific, in the next level of command, General Harmon won the creation of a separate Army Air Force Headquarters. The birth of The 13th Air Force came into being on January 13th under the command of Brigadier General Nathan F. Twining. History was being made by the creation of a separate air force.
With the ground forces, it was the Americans that had the preponderance of power with 50,666 troops in the field on January 2nd. The Japanese had 20,671 soldiers and sailors available on November 20th, 1942 but about 4,000 to 6,000 had been killed in battle or died of disease or starvation, leaving around 14,000 to 16,000 on the island in early January. Still Halsey resisted the redeployment of the 2nd Marines to free it to prepare for future amphibious offensives "until Army combat efficiency has been demonstrated." Not much of a vote of confidence for General Patch and his boys.
The month of January 1943, found the renowned Tokyo Express in full operation with heavy traffic now in both directions. The scheme that had worked so poorly in December had been refined for January. The drums that had been loaded with food and dropped off at the Japanese shoreline only to be shot full of holes and sunk by the Henderson pilots were now placed in Kapok wrappings. To insure the drums made it to shore, Army officers dispatched in small landing craft would carry the ropes binding the drums together and hand them over to reception parties on the beaches. Instead of bringing down additional troops, the destroyers would now be carrying food and supplies down and soldiers of the 17th Army back on the first leg of their trip home.
Expecting fierce resistance, many of the Japanese destroyers were equipped with extra machine guns to fend off the PT Boats. The job of protecting these night forays from the air went to the R Area Air Force which consisted of float planes. Float planes from cruisers would augment the group while the 11th Air Fleet would contribute night bombing of the airfields and daylight fighter cover. The first run of the new Tokyo Express ran smoothly with 540 drums and 250 rubber bags making it safely to shore. This was about a five day food supply.
To be ready for what was expected to be an upcoming Japanese offensive, seven transports left Noumea, New Caldonia in early January heading for a Guadalcanal landing. Covering this landing was Admiral Lee's Task Force 64 headed by 3 fast battleships and a newcomer to the area Rear Admiral Walden L. Ainsworth. This battle area was using up admirals from both sides at an alarming rate.
Admiral Ainsworth was not content to just cover the landing but, leaving four cruisers and three destroyers behind, went sailing off at 26 knots with cruisers Nashville, St. Louis and Helena with destroyers Fletcher and O'Bannon in the lead. His mission -- shell and destroy the new Munda airfield. Four thousand six inch and five inch shells blasted the field. Buildings went flying but it took only two hours for the Japanese to repair the runway the following morning. Ten buildings were destroyed and 32 men were casualties. Considering the small number of men working at the field, it was obvious that the foxholes should have been deeper.
At daylight, Japanese planes from both the R Area Air Force and the 11th Air Fleet, in their assignment to protect operation "KE," took to the skies in search of the ships that had invaded their space. It wasn't until Ainsworth's group had joined up with the rest of the force that they came roaring in. The surprise was complete as the "Vals" caught the cruisers as they slowed to 15 knots to recover their float planes. Near near misses on the Honolulu and a near-miss and a hit on the number 3 gun turret of the New Zealand cruiser Achilles indicated the Japanese were serious about the "KE" project. The ship damage was not serious but six New Zealanders paid with their lives and seven were wounded. Two of the aircraft (Vals) failed to return to base.
On January 10th, coast-watchers again sounded the alarm, but it was too late for the Cactus Air Force to get into the air. Nine PT Boats were ready though as the Tokyo Express came calling. Three PT Boats were quickly disposed of by the destroyers but not before they managed to get a torpedo off that hit the Hatsukaze killing 8 and wounding 23 forcing the destroyer to retire at 16 knots. However, about thirty tons of food, medicine and ammunition reached shore.
Again the Japanese feint seemed to be working as on January 23rd Admiral Ainsworth moved his task group back up into the northern Solomons to thwart any efforts in the expected Japanese offensive. The American ships were shadowed by a Japanese air group skilled in night torpedo attack techniques. Eluding the search planes after dark, the admiral took his flagship Nashville, cruiser Helena and destroyers Nicholas, DeHaven, Radford and O'Bannon into the dangerous waters of the Kula Gulf.
He left the cruisers Honolulu and St. Louis with three destroyers outside the Gulf for to keep any Japanese ships from surprising the bombardment group which then proceeded to slam nearly 3500 shells into the suspected airfield site. After daylight, the second punch was delivered as aircraft from Henderson and from the Saratoga dropped 23 tons of bombs in the same area. The ships and planes returned without incident but alas, the locations shelled and bombed were not part of the evacuation effort as Japanese headquarters had already decided these locations were to be abandoned.
As part of the feint in the "KE" program to confuse the Americans into believing a new offensive was being started, a lone "Emily" bomber made the long flight down to the rear American base at Espiritu Santo dropping its bombs as a delegation of notables, including Nimitz and Secretary of the Navy Knox arrived on the island. When this delegation reached Guadalcanal the next day, a fierce raid by nine Betty bombers, again a total coincidence, raised eyebrows as to the security of American communications.
As the Japanese Airforce's part in the feint continued, on January 25th, a massive day raid on Henderson was put into operation as 54 Zeros and 18 Betty bombers took off from Rabaul to be joined by another 22 Zeros taking off from nearby Buin. Half way down the slot, the bombers turned back to base as their roll was only to be the bait would entice the American fighters into the air as the 58 of the Zeros continued on.
However, only a paltry 8 Wildcats and 6 P-38s took to the air and with no bombers to worry about, the air battle was not all that spectacular. Four Zeros were claimed by the Americans with no American losses. However, weather entered into the picture with a storm hitting Rabaul. This forced the returning Zeros to land at the Buin airstrip with considerable losses in aircraft. These losses were reported serious enough to affect future operations.
The next raid on January 27th, to continue the feint, was the responsibility of the Japanese Army's 6th Air Division. Nine "Lily" twin-engine light bombers shepherded by no less than 74 Ki-43 "Oscar" fighters took to the air in the northern Solomons. These planes were preceded by 2 Ki-46 "Dinah" reconnaissance planes which hopefully would be able to give an accurate picture of the day's activities. 28 American planes rose to meet the challenge and the two fighter groups met over the Lunga area.
The battle continued as the "Oscars" had to fight off the Americans until they were half-way home. One American plane did run out of gas and 4 were lost with 2 damaged beyond repair. The Japanese lost 6 fighter planes but while the fighters battled, the bombers dumped their bombs on the American positions along the coast but there was little damage. The Japanese postponed the third raid, slated for the 29th, recognizing that the air superiority campaign had not materialized.
As the final phases of the evacuation of the island continued, American radio intelligence picked up information that indicated the Japanese would make a submarine supply run on the 29th of January. So, to provide a proper greeting, two of the four New Zealand corvettes now operating out of Tulagi, the Kiwi and the Moa, were waiting for the submarine I-1 as it snuck into the channel. Lt. Commander G. Bridson's Kiwi picked up a sound contact and he made two depth charge runs. A large submarine surfaced in front of the Kiwi and a wild melee ensued.
Historian Richard B. Frank, in his book GUADALCANAL, describes the struggle between the Kiwi and the I-1, as a melee with a "Rashomon" quality with swordfighting, boarding party, "fusillades" of fire and all that good stuff seen in Hollywood movies. In the end, after a ninety minute battle, the sub sank on the shores of Guadalcanal. No supplies were landed but most of the relief troops made it ashore after a thorough dunking.
As the battle for Guadalcanal was grinding to a close on the Japanese side in late January, Admirals Nimitz and Halsey pondered over the large amount of enemy warship and transport activity along with the renewed air activities and the radio intelligence that pointed to some kind of offensive operation in the Southern Solomons. Admiral King, sitting bored at his office in Washington, caustically signaled Nimitz and Halsey that the campaign "continues in current status of delay, linger and wait." With this rather stinging attitude pushing him, Halsey deployed virtually the full array of American naval power in the South Pacific.
In what could be considered as the last major naval commitment in the battle for Henderson Field, Halsey on January 29th, dispatched a task force that put all of his remaining ships on the move. Task Force 18 with Rear Admiral Richard C. Giffen would take the lead into dangerous northern waters. This force would be backed by Admiral Lee's Task Force 64 with 3 battleships and 4 destroyers. Task Group 62.8 would have 4 transports and 4 destroyers to land additional troops and supplies. Task Force 67 with 4 cruisers and 4 destroyers would be with the carrier group built around the carriers Enterprise and Saratoga. The escort carriers Suwannee and Chenango with 2 destroyers would be part of Giffen's group and were sent ahead to be in position earlier because of their slower speed.
The purpose of this excursion was twofold. The first was to sweep the slot to engage any new invasion force. The second was to land additional American troops and supplies. The Americans already had about 55 thousand troops ready to do battle with the 13 thousand exhausted and starving Japanese. Little information from American Intelligence was available to indicate what the Japanese were up to. The Naval Intelligence Group that had done such a remarkable job in predicting the attack on Midway now seemed content to rest on its laurels.
Admiral Giffen was a favorite of Admiral King and had been transferred from the Atlantic for this job. The fact that the admiral had no experience in fighting Japanese seemed not to be a problem as many of his predecessors had no such qualifications either. The newly arrived admiral was a sticker for formality though and found the open-necked shirts and garrison caps were not to his liking and disdained from appearing on his flagship in that degree of undress.
Halsey's orders to Giffen directed him to rendezvous with the famed "Cactus Striking Force" of new Fletcher class destroyers and follow them up the "slot" in a bold daylight search, looking for any attack group. The five destroyers already plowing Sealark Channel were ready and anxious to go. Just about anywhere would do if it would get them out of the oppressive heat and blazing sun of the landlocked channel.
The ships for today's mission were destined to become famous (mainly because they survived and, of course, because they were good at what they did). They were all of the new Fletcher class destroyer and could claim to be one of the best looking ships ever to sail the seven seas. They were the Nicholas, O'Bannon, Radford, Fletcher and DeHaven but the DeHaven's days were numbered and it would be remembered more as the last American ship to be sunk in Sealark Channel at Guadalcanal. This new destroyer group, now baptised as Desron 21, would be chosen to lead the U.S. Navy as it steamed victoriously into Tokyo harbor -- some two years distant.
As this magnificent force made its way up the slot, it was to have heavy air cover to insure its safe journey. However, as is often the case, Mother Nature intervened to prove that without her approval, the "best laid plans of mice and men are not worth squat." By afternoon, heavy overcast kept the large numbers of American planes from finding Giffen's group and he would not allow the combat information people to break radio silence and give the planes the necessary vectors to have them overhead. The radar screen on the cruisers showed that many planes were up there. Occasional clear spots in the overcast allowed those on deck to spot the "white stars" on the planes. This gave the onlookers great comfort but occasionally a plane sporting a "red meat ball" would be spotted. This added a little excitement to what otherwise could have been a dull day.
By mid-afternoon, 32 Betty bombers lifted off from Rabaul runways and headed Giffen's way. The Japanese pilots were eager to see if their latest training in night aerial torpedo attacks was worth the time and effort. As twilight approached, Giffen set his formation with the cruisers in two columns about 2,500 yards apart with his flagship the Wichita leading the Chicago and Louisville on the starboard, with the Montpelier, Cleveland and Columbia to port. His six destroyers were spread in a semi-circle about two miles ahead. Great for submarine protection and easy to change for a surface engagement but very weak for antiaircraft protection since both sides of the force were unprotected.
At just about dark, 16 aircraft of the 705th Air Group moved in quickly across the dark waters. Spotted by a destroyer, one of the attackers was splashed astern of the Chicago in a puddle of flaming gasoline. So far so good as the planes missed the group completely except for one torpedo that hit the Lousiville and luckily, it proved to be a dud. Giffen was pleased at this and did not think it was necessary to change the speed of the group and even issued orders to stop zigzagging.
Undetected was a second group of Bettys that picked up the attack. Lead planes from this group dropped white flares along each side of the task force to act as footlights and then added a finishing touch by dropping clusters of red and green float lights that fluttered down over the American ships. These lights would provide the attackers with information and reference points to indicate speed and direction. After digesting this information, Lt. Commander Joji Higai led his 15 planes of the 701st Air Group in a brilliant attack in total darkness except for the light of the flares.
Unfortunately for Higai, his plane was the first to be hit and his bomber left a trail of flames as it careen into the sea off the Chicago's starboard bow. His plane exploded into brilliant flames that silhouetted the Chicago for all to see. Seconds later a torpedo tore into the Chicago's starboard side followed by another that brought the ship to a dead stop. At the same time, a torpedo bounced off the Wichita but luckily failed to explode. Although the Chicago was severely damaged most of the ship was intact. The Damage Control group managed to check flooding and by the time the ship had reached a 11 degree angle, the engineers were able to light a boiler, get some power back on and to shift enough oil to return the ship to an even keel.
Giffen did not see fit to change speed or direction of the task force but did give the orders that there was to be no more firing unless there was a definite target. This shook off the shadowing planes and no further damage was inflicted on the force. When it was determined that the Chicago was not able to get underway, the task force circled to remain nearby.
Morning found the Chicago creeping southward at 3 knots being towed by the Nashville with the rest of Task Force 18 huddled a short distance away. When, back in Rabaul, Japanese Admiral Kusaka learned of the task force damage and that it was withdrawing to the south, he was happy to announce that the first run of the "KE" operation to remove the troops from the island would proceed on schedule. Later in the day when Kusaka figured that the Chicago would be beyond the reach of fighter cover, he realized that sinking a large cruiser would put a feather in his cap so he decided to launch another air strike. Unknown to Kusaka however, was that the carriers Suwannee, Chenango and Enterprise were nearby.
Orders from Halsey instructed Task Force 18 move on, leaving the Chicago with its tug boat Navajo (which had taken over the Louisville's job) and 6 destroyers. Wildcats from the carriers would remain nearby to protect the Chicago. As Task Force 18 moved off, with it went the formidable antiaircraft batteries that could have provided additional protection for the Chicago. Also leaving was the fighter direction officer whose home was on the Wichita.
A coast watcher sounded the alarm that a flight of Bettys were on their way. Additional information from radio intelligence enabled Nimitz to advise Giffen that Japanese aircraft were shadowing Task Force 18 and that ten enemy submarines were deploying south and southeast of Guadalcanal. The exact time that the bombers could be expected to arrive was also given. But without the expertise of a fighter direction officer, it was thought that four Wildcats could provide the needed air cover. When the lead plane of the 751st Air Group of 11 bombers arrived just ahead of the group, the Wildcats took off chasing it and when they finally splashed it, they were 40 miles away.
When the Japanese attack group arrived on the scene, the Chicago had no air cover.
For the Chicago, it was not the best of times: sitting almost dead in the water as the 11 Betty bombers roared in with their torpedoes. But then again, it was not the worst of times: the Chicago had power on all guns and plenty of ammunition with 6 destroyers out ahead to supply their firepower to the battle.
For the pilots of the Betty bombers, it was the best of times: an important and powerful ship sitting dead in the water just ahead but, it was also the worst of times, as the young pilots and crews knew they had little chance of surviving the next few minutes. But none hesitated.
The Betty pilots kept on course, positioning themselves for the best angle of attack. Aboard the Enterprise some forty miles to the southeast, this course was interpreted as a possible attack on the Enterprise and the other carriers. The fighter directors on the carrier vectored 6 Wildcats toward the Bettys. Spotting the Wildcats, the Bettys wasted no time in initiating their attack. It was the Chicago they were after.
They swung to port, dove to gain speed and came roaring in just a few feet above the water. The attack was on. The attack was furious. The attack lasted only one minute.
As the planes closed in on their target, they had to pass over the destroyers that were shielding the Chicago. Aboard the destroyer LaVallette, the crew watched as the intense fire of her guns blasted an oncoming bomber. With a wing and a motor blazing, the bomber released its torpedo toward the LaVallette at a range of only 300 yards. With a huge explosion, the torpedo hit the port side at the forward engine room. The ship slowed to a stop but within two minutes the engineers had her underway again and limping out of battle.
Aboard the Chicago, the crew watched as if witnessing their own execution as eleven Bettys bore in from just forward of the starboard beam. Two Wildcats, after pushing their speed to the limits, arrived from the Enterprise and tried to intercept the Bettys as they made their run. Japanese pilots and the crews of the bombers watched as the Wildcats bore in and saw three of their number burst into flames and plow into the sea. They had been witness to the bomber that had caught fire and then turned to center its attack on the LaVallette.
Two more Bettys were hit by antiaircraft fire and were downed. As the remaining Bettys emerged from the far side of the ship formation, the Wildcats flamed another pair. The four remaining Bettys turned to limp back to base, three with only one engine. But five torpedoes were off and running with their wakes pointing toward the Chicago.
The first torpedo struck the forward section of the ship tossing debris and pieces of the ship as far as and onto the bridge. Seconds later, three more warheads ripped open the already mangled midsection of the ship with catastrophic effects. The damage was so severe that Captain Davis immediately gave the order to abandon ship. The Chicago, with colors still flying, rolled over on her starboard side and settled by the stern. Fifty-six men and six officers went with her but, 1,069 of the crew survived. On the LaVallette, twenty-one were killed or died of wounds.
The Japanese losses for their involvement were nine of the twelve Bettys, a staggering loss. But with that and keenly felt was the loss of Lieutenant Commander Higai who was referred to as a leading light among the Betty commanders in the Imperial Navy. For the survivors of the 701st Air Group, theirs was fame and glory for their stunning attack. The words flowered on them would be the best: brave, courageous, patriotic and the worst: expendable.
Admiral Nimitz was so angry at this loss that he threatened to shoot any of his staff that announced the loss of the Chicago. For Admiral Giffen -- not too many accolades.
February 1st was to be a red letter day in the annals of Guadalcanal. This was the day for the first run of the evacuation operation. Of course the Americans didn't know this but, they did know something was up and did know something had to be done. So they started the day with a flight of five B-17s with fighter escort raining down bombs on the Japanese base in the northern Solomons. The flight fended off five zeros and managed to head south undamaged but their bombs had accomplished little. But an angered bunch of pilots, 43 Zeros in all, lifted off just in time to run into four B-17s arriving without escort. Three of the B-17s were shot down in a hurry without much to show for their efforts. Additional air activities were in evidence the rest of the day with both sides slugging it out.
It was about this time that General Patch decided the Japanese might well be in full retreat or possibly taking up new positions to try to prolong the struggle. To block this possible effort, he sent Lt. Colonel George to assemble a battalion size force at Lunga Point to be made up of troops from the 2nd Battalion and including four 75mm pack howitzers of Battery F. 10th Marines. This group loaded onto six newly arrived Landing Craft Tank (LCTs) and the destroyer transport Stringham. The escort for this expedition was Captain Briscoe's famous "Cactus Striking Force" which had just returned to the channel minus the O'Bannon which continued with on with TF 18.
After the Stringham had landed some of the troops at Nugu Point, enemy activity near there gave Patch the inspiration to land the rest of the troops 1.5 miles north of Verahue. As Briscoe's force circled the LSTs, the activity was being carefully viewed by a very high flying Imperial Army reconnaissance plane. To the pilot, the ships below looked more like cruisers than destroyers so an alert was forwarded to the "KE" operation: it looked like trouble for the evacuation that night. Forty Zeros an thirteen Vals took to the air to make things right.
The fighter director at Cactus vectored Wildcats to cover the location of two of the destroyers (the Radford and Fletcher) off Verahue but assumed all four destroyers were together. The other two destroyers, the Nicholas and the DeHaven, therefore received no air cover. When six Vals swooped down on the DeHaven loafing along at 15 knots, the captain of the ship refused to allow fire control to open up because he assumed the aircraft were friendly. Bad decision. The more experienced captains on the other destroyers would have started firing first then would have asked questions later.
The first bomb hit amidships on the DeHaven causing a "tremendous burst of flame that enveloped the central part of the ship." A second bomb hit just aft of the bridge and a third bomb hit and caused what appeared to be the explosion of the forward magazine. Under a gusher of heavy black smoke, DeHaven jackknifed and disappeared with 157 officers and men, including the captain. The Nicholas barely evaded the same fate but managed to keep one step ahead with violent maneuvering at high speeds (32 knots). Bombs exploded as close as 20 feet killing two and wounding seven. Five Vals and three Zeros ended their careers along with three Wildcats. The Nicholas and the LCTs found only 146 DeHaven survivors.
Did all of this activity have any effect on plans for the first run of rescue destroyers? It did not and the first run commenced on time at 1130 with twenty destroyers in two columns speeding down the slot. Coast Watchers sighted the destroyers at 1320 as they steamed by Vella LaVella. Henderson Field quickly put 92 planes in the air in two groups. The first group of 51 planes managed to sink one destroyer and down 7 of the 18 defending Zeros at a cost 4 planes and 2 damaged beyond repair.
The second group of 41 planes claimed two bomb hits and 10 Zeros with no losses. The remaining destroyers pushed on to face the next hurdle, the 11 PT Boats waiting off shore at Savo Island. Behind the PTs were the remaining three destroyers of Captain Briscoe's Cactus Strike force, Desron 21.
At Guadalcanal, Japanese Generals Sano and Miyazaki waited for the rescue of the troops of the 17th Army. It was late evening (2200) with the rescue ships due to arrive within the hour. Thousands of troops were pouring in to the boarding area at Cape Esperance. They were literally dragging themselves along the muddy trails with their last ounce of strength. It seemed to them that there was little organization and a lot of shouting. It seemed the shouting was needed to keep units segregated and to guide stragglers into their designated area.
Many officers and troops complained that there was little security and no organization. When the generals heard a shot ring out, they sent a staff officer to check. He reported back that one soldier who had to cling to his comrades to continue walking said he could go no farther and asked for help in suicide. His friends, with heavy heart, had obliged. Others, in similar condition, were even requested to take this way out as it would be almost impossible to get them to the rescue ships. They were assured that their end would be regarded as death in battle. Others, in slightly better condition just hung on and waited. Boarding was to start at 2100 but no ships appeared.
All eyes were seaward as the minutes passed. Suddenly heavy gunfire was heard and fires could be seen out to sea. Now it seemed that the long march and suffering might have been for nothing. At sea, the 18 remaining Japanese destroyers of the rescue force had been coming in on time at 30 knots when they ran headlong into the waiting American PT Boats. PT 48 and PT 111 sighted the incoming destroyers and each immediately sent four torpedoes heading their way. All torpedoes missed and PT 111 was turned into a fireball when it took a direct hit from the Japanese destroyer Kawakaze. PT 48 made a hasty exit to the shore of Savo Island.
The remaining PTs bore in on the destroyers but they were spotted by Japanese float planes determined to protect the convoy. The PTs were continually bombed and strafed throughout their entire run. But they continued on relentlessly only to discover that they had sailed into the center of one of the destroyer groups. PT 115 under the command of Ensign Connolly managed to close to within 500 yards of a destroyer before letting loose two torpedoes. He then swung his ship around to fire two more at another target evading gunfire all the while. He escaped by finally beaching his craft on Savo Island.
Ensign J. J. Kelly speeding along side also managed to bring his PT 37 in close before firing his four torpedoes. Not as lucky as Connolly, his boat was turned into "a burning inferno of gasoline-soaked mahogany." The only survivor, wounded and burned, was blown through the side of the boat by the explosion that killed all his shipmates.
PT 123 and PT 124 moved in quickly from south of Savo with torpedoes primed. Unseen and unheard were the Japanese "Pete" planes from the R Area Air Force that glided down and with either remarkable skill or remarkable luck planted a bomb squarely on the stern of PT 123 quickly stopping its run at the destroyers. Pt 124 continued closing in and managed to fire three torpedoes with its captain, Lt. Clark Faulkner claiming hits. These efforts cost three PT boats and fifteen of their sailors.
The R Area Petes continued on and found the destroyers of the Cactus Striking Force and proceeded to shower them with flares. Captain Briscoe with three destroyers declined involvement with the eighteen Japanese destroyers and their accompanying aircraft and lived to fight another day.
It was 2240 when the transport destroyers finally reached Esperance and 2400 when others reached Kamimbo. General Sano followed the bulk of his division into the landing craft and boats that carried them out to the awaiting destroyers. A report read by Admiral Yamamoto told their story: ....they were so undernourished that their beards, nails and hair had all stopped growing, their joints looked painfully large. Their buttocks were so emaciated that the anuses were completely exposed, and on the destroyers that picked them up, they suffered from constant and uncontrolled diarrhea... Their digestive organs were so completely destroyed that they could eat no regular food, only porridge.
After one of the screening destroyers (the Makikumo) chased a PT boat over to Tulagi, on its return it was wracked by a large explosion (possibly hitting a mine or one of LT. Faulkner's torpedoes) and ended up dead in the water. The Yugumo took off the crew and scuttled her with torpedoes. The 11th Air Fleet kept eight Bettys over Henderson Field to keep the Cactus Air Force on the ground but this failed to stop six Dauntlesses from taking off at about midnight. These planes illuminated the area but scored no hits. After daylight additional planes from Henderson took to the air but failed to score against any of the agile enemy destroyers.
At sunrise of February 2nd, the 17th Army was celebrating the success of its first evacuation run with almost 5000 troops and sailors rescued and heading for home. For the next three days, Japanese kept a large number of planes in the air over the Solomons to determine if the chances were favorable for the next evacuation run. Things did not look good as American ships seemed to be everywhere. Carriers were even spotted but the weather conditions were such as to prohibit any large scale torpedo bomber attacks. On the 3rd, an attack was attempted anyway but the futile effort sacrificed five Betty bombers. Yamamoto was determined to continue and provided two destroyers to replace the destroyer lost and the destroyer damaged on the previous run. Twenty destroyers were now available and made ready for the next attempt.
The destroyers departed from their base at 1130 and headed down the slot but at 1550 were again facing the boys from Henderson. The field managed to put up 33 bombers with 41 assorted escorts to tangle with 29 Zeros. In a furious battle, the Zeros managed to knock down 7 American bombers and 4 fighters with only the loss of one Zero and 4 damaged. The Japanese had their best Zero pilots in the fray but near misses by the Henderson bombers managed to cripple a destroyer which tied up another aiding the first. Three additional destroyers had damage but were able to continue their trip southward. At 1925 the flagship Shirayuki ground to a halt and could go no farther as its engines failed. This forced the admiral to switch his flag to the Kawakaze but no matter the losses, the destroyers would not turn back.
When they arrived at Guadalcanal, the clear sky was dark but moonless. Seven Betty bombers got the evening off to a wild start by hitting the Henderson Field with bombs and flares. Float planes were out in force scouring the channel for the pesky PT Boats but the PTs were still licking their wounds. In what turned out to be a very smooth operation, in just two hours all of the troops that were due to embark that night (3,921) were aboard and ready to go. Over the side of the destroyer Isokaze, came the Commanding General Hyakutake and his staff. And, over the side of another destroyer, the Hamakaze, came General Maruyama, builder of the once touted Maruyama Road. This bit of history undoubtedly would soon be forgotten.
As soon as the troops in the boarding area were on the ships, the destroyers set their speeds at 30 knots and headed north. Any delay meant more time ducking bombs from the pilots from Henderson Field. Aboard the destroyer Isokaze, morning was especially welcome. General Miyazaki noted the soldiers seemed to enjoy basking in the sunlight. Very little of that good stuff made it to the floor of the dense jungle. The soldiers were draped along the destroyer decks leaving little room to walk. Miyazaki found a man who had carried the corpse of a friend aboard and was insisting the man still lived. Although the troops had been rescued from certain death and were heading homeward, the general saw no smiles but he did sense some indications of happiness.
A coterie of high-ranking officers, including Lieutenant General Tanabe from the Army Section of Imperial General Headquarters, was waiting to greet the arriving convoy. It was an emotional moment with salutes that were without words. General Miyazki who had just witnessed the agony of the returning troops blurted out between tears his desire for an appointment that would give him death in battle. But Tanabe, also overcome, said: "Everything about this is the responsibility of Imperial Headquarters."
With the third and last rescue convoy now in the final stage of preparation, there was a new problem that had to be dealt with. Who would be left behind to provide cover for the rear guard troops as they moved out to board the transports. This problem fell on the shoulders of Colonel Matsuda who had now taken charge of all remaining Japanese forces on Guadalcanal.
He realized the last troops to leave would be exposed and could be mowed down when they left their final positions. With only 2000 soldiers remaining, Matsuda confided to his diary that he even doubted that the destroyers would come. "Practically speaking, he thought the sacrifice of his 2000 men would be less of a detriment to Japan than the loss of one destroyer."
In any event, the colonel was not going to make it easy for the Americans. He cautiously deployed another unit of to fend off Lieutenant Colonel George's task force. George was still trying to push forward but was not presenting a problem at the moment. With this good news, Matsuda could return to concentrating on his immediate problem. The senior boat engineer officer warned that any attempt to use the small boats to island hop up the coast would meet in disaster. He stated that enemy fliers would whittle the number of boats to a handful. Matsuda radioed Rabaul for at least three and preferably four destroyers to be detailed for the final run along with an adequate number of small craft to ferry the soldiers out to the destroyers.
Although the situation seemed hopeless to Matsuda, American idleness on both the south and west coast gave him a reason to hope. Although George's task force, composed of troops of the 132nd Infantry, had advanced on the 4th, there was no forward movement through the 6th. With only one more day to go, maybe there was a chance. George had read the reports of energetic Japanese activity offshore and figured additional troops and supplies were being brought in. To further this type of thinking, Matsuda shrewdly marched about a hundred men along the beach near Cape Esperance in broad daylight and had them light bright cooking fires at night. Would this be enough to fool George?
Back at 17th Army Headquarters, it was estimated that the odds on getting Matusda's men out was about fifty-fifty. With the final day of the evacuation run set for the 7th, a meeting on the evening of the 6th by senior Army and Navy commanders was going poorly. The chief of staff of the 8th Fleet expressed his doubts since American carriers were reported off Guadalcanal. The Army didn't want to hear this and went higher in the chain of command.
On the American side, General Patch went on record with the opinion that the last two runs of the Tokyo Express had deposited the equivalent of another regiment with some supplies, although conceding that on return they might have evacuated some of the depleted units. However on the west coast, Patch's the 161st Infantry had advanced to within 9 miles to Cape Esperance without encountering resistance. During the morning, a leg wound forced George to relinquish his command and Lt. Colonel Ferry took over.
When Ferry advanced to the native village of Marovovo, to his surprise he found there was no one there but villagers. They reported that the Japanese had departed some thirty minutes earlier. Japanese accounts of the situation tell of a heavy shelling prior to the American advance at which time the Japanese soldiers decided if they were going to leave the island anyway, why not a little earlier. When Matsuda learned of this, he turned the soldiers around and, after administering a stern lecture, ordered them back. They returned in time to stop the American advance with some heavy machinegun fire and, much to the relief of Matusda, the Americans dug in for the night.
On the morning of February 7th at Rabaul, it was time for a decision on whether to initiate the third and final run of the evacuation effort. Although Yamamoto suspected that major American naval forces lurked beyond search plane range south of Guadalcanal, his advance scouting submarine failed to find any naval units. For Yamamoto it was a time for decision. An evacuation force of 18 destroyers was ordered to head south at 30 knots. This was far more that Matsuda had hoped, but how many would make it to Cape Esperance.
American search planes were out early and before long one was peering down at the oncoming destroyers. Within minutes, a 36 plane strike group (15 SBDs, 20 F4Fs, and 1 F5A) roared out of Henderson and was on its way heading for the convoy. Within minutes, seventeen Zeros from the 11th Air Fleet quickly lifted into the air to intercept the attack. When the divebombers reached the scene, they desperately and valiantly dove on the destroyers with fighters planes dogfighting across a seemingly endless sky. The Zeros were at their best with only one destroyer being forced to turn back after a pair of bombs straddled her forward gun mount killing ten men and starting a fire. Another destroyer carried on after a near miss. One Zero was lost in the exchange as was one American plane.
On Guadalcanal, this undoubtedly would be the most difficult day in the life of Matsuda. A radio report informed him that the evacuation convoy was on its way. Would it be able to get through? Would there be any troops alive when the convoy arrived? The Americans commenced the day with heavy shelling and machine gun fire to liven things up but then, to Matsuda's delight, decided to stay put.
Each hour of the day passed with Matsuda waiting for the other shoe to drop and when evening finally arrived, he was beginning to believe he had received divine intervention. He still had 26 landing craft operable and the weather was near perfect with a mirror-smooth sea, a slight wind and no moonlight.
At 2130, Matsuda gave the order for the troops to move out in the small boats to wait for the destroyers to arrive. After a hectic forty-five minutes, all the soldiers that could walk or crawl were out in the boats watching as American shells slammed into the area that they had vacated. Many of the troops felt if there were ever a time to pray, this would be it. But as the hour of rescue passed (2300) without the site of any ships, hope was beginning to fade. And then there it was! the blue recognition lights of the approaching destroyers.
The small boats came along side destroyers in single file as their passengers climbed and were helped aboard. At 0003, February 8, 1943, Matsuda received word that all boarding was complete. To honor the pledge the Navy had made to the Army, boats were sent back and they traveled along the coast calling out to any that may not have made it to the embarking area in time.
By 0132, February 8, all boats had returned and propellers began turning. The destroyers moved out at 30 knots with wide wakes and flags of the Rising Sun fluttering at Guadalcanal for the very last time. When clear from the area, Matsuda radioed the 17th Army: "With the help of 20,000 souls, the recovery of 1,972 men from Guadalcanal is reported complete."
For the Japanese, in many ways this was perhaps their finest hour. They had done the impossible. They had pulled the 17th Army out from under the noses of the Americans with few casualties. When the American Navy tried to interfere they slugged it out and actually gave more than they received. And it was in a line of work in which they had little experience -- retreating. Strangely, the Japanese seemed to be at their best, not when attacking and conquering, but when trying to save their valiant comrades who tried, but could not achieve victory.
At dawn when American planes took to the sky, they found only a seascape littered with small boats and debris from the previous night. On land, patrol parties moved forward and found only a few stray Japanese along the way and they were near death. These soldiers were the "final" rear guard made up of dying soldiers left behind in an effort to hold back Americans if they had attacked the evacuation forces.
But the attack never came and these souls were denied their final moment of glory. As the Americans advanced, Colonel Dalton of the 161st Infantry noted the deterioration in the quality of the Japanese troops and ventured the opinion that the enemy was not defending nor delaying but was fleeing or had fled. He moved his task force forward at a trot with patrols lightly screening the flanks and by 1650 shook hands with Major Butler of the 2nd Battalion, 132 Infantry outside the village of Tenaro.
General Patch then advised Halsey of his conclusion that the last runs of the Tokyo Express had not been reinforcing but had been evacuating the Japanese on Guadalcanal. On the morning of February 9, 1943, General Patch, possibly in one of his more brilliant moments, announced:
"Total and complete defeat of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal effected 1625 today.... the Tokyo Express no longer has a terminus on Guadalcanal."
This clever statement makes no mention as to what happened to the opposing army. Was it destroyed? The Commanding General Hyakutake stated that he believed that resolute attacks toward Cape Esperance would have destroyed his army. Instead, the 17th Army lived to fight another day. Many of the troops were in such poor condition that they probably never could be placed in combat but there is no reason to believe that they wouldn't make top notch drill sergeants.
Many of the troops that survived were among the toughest and best. There were troops that had fought in the first battle under Colonel Kiyono Ichiki and yet had survived to board the rescue boats. They had to be good and they certainly knew the combat techniques of both Marines and Army. They would be waiting on an islands to the north.
The Americans could now boast they had the deed to Henderson Field but the price tag had been high. Hardest hit was the Navy with 5,041 casualties which included 92 members of the Australian and New Zealand navies and 49 shipboard Marines. American ground losses were 1,207 marines and 562 soldiers, for a total of 1,769 out of the 60,000 committed. Aircraft lost came to a total of 615 planes. The crew members lost came to a total of 420.
Japanese ground losses were severe. Of the 31,400 troops that came ashore, 20,800 were to die there -- a casualty rate of 2 out of every 3 that served. Most died, not in combat, but from disease and starvation. The Japanese Naval losses from surface ships and submarines were 3,200 as a minimum estimate with 343 crewmen lost on the transports. Aircraft losses came to a total of 682 but since Japanese aircraft had multiple crewmen who very rarely survived the loss of the plane, the crew losses would be two to three times greater than the number of planes lost.
Once the Japanese had departed, the field became almost worthless except as a rear base. What had cost so much was now worth so little. The action now moved to the northern Solomon Islands. As its last claim to fame, Henderson Field could boast that planes that put an end to the career of Admiral Yamamoto had lifted off from its coral runways.
Sixty years later, there are still many puzzling questions to annoy readers studying the Battle of Guadalcanal.
1. How were the American, Australian and New Zealand fighter pilots able, after a short initial period, to defeat the far better trained Japanese pilots with their superior aircraft?
2. How did the American Marines with no combat experience defeat the elite Japanese troops imported from China where they for years had been battling a resolute foe. And why did the American Army have so much trouble trying to defeat the Japanese 17th Army when it was already in a state of collapse?
3. Why did the American Navy do so poorly against the Japanese in comparison to the performance of the other branches of service, considering that it was the best prepared and manned by well trained career personnel?
4. What roll did the submarines play in the battle and why was so little reported of American sub activities?
The answer to the first question is complex. When Japanese pilots first encountered the American built planes over Henderson Field, they quickly realized that the enemy was flying inferior aircraft. One Japanese pilot wrote, "In early 1942, American planes were no match for my Zero. I was a hawk in a flock of geese -- soaring, looping, pouncing, destroying. I was truly saddened for the brave men in those sluggish planes. All too soon, the planes got better..." Naval Lt. Commander Richard H. Best described his dogfights with Zeros, "It was like taking the stairs while they took the elevator."
When it was apparent that the American planes had no chance to beat the Zero in a conventional dog-fight, they quickly came up with new strategies. The orders for the Henderson pilots was to make one attack and then high tail it out of combat. Next they adapting a procedure in use by German fighter pilots. The American version was called the "Thatch Weave" named after the American flier who came up with the idea. Using this system, two fighters would team up and use this flight pattern to protect themselves against the fast and maneuverable Japanese Zeros who usually attacked from behind. The procedure worked well and the Japanese pilots were never able to come up with a plan to counter it.
From the start, the Americans had their back to the wall and they knew it. There was no retreat and no escape. The Americans fought and gave it everything they had. Fighting almost directly over their base gave pilots a great advantage. The planes the Japanese had to use because of the long distances involved, were models that were stripped of armor. So, as fast and maneuverable as their planes were they had a serious weakness as described by an American fighter pilot, "My first burst of tracers skimmed the Val's tail. Just as I corrected my aim, he dove. I followed, and my Wildcat's cannon took his plane apart by bits and pieces. Suddenly, he pulled up and bailed through his shattered canopy. Moments later, the Val exploded..."
And perhaps, the Americans found the airplane just an extension of the jalopy that they were driving at home and they just liked to fly. In the words of dive bomber pilot Richard H. Best, "I was raw and untested in battle, like most of the people I first flew with. Perhaps that was an advantage, as I was so pumped up that I wasn't fearful in combat -- exhilarated was more like it! I can only speak for myself, but I suspect most other flyers on both sides felt the same way, and those who were scared but flew combat missions nevertheless were the bravest of the brave.
The six months I flew combat missions for the Enterprise were probably the best six months of my life. My greatest thrill came on the morning of June 4, 1942, at the Battle of Midway. As I started my bombing run on the Japanese carrier Akagi, I saw its great big tan-colored deck with a tremendous orange Rising Sun painted on the deck just forward of the bridge, and I couldn't believe I was there. I had this tremendous feeling of holding the upper hand -- it was heaven."
How the raw American Marines were able to do so well against the battle tested Japanese troops is more of a puzzle. When the Americans first met the Japanese in combat, the big question was how would American troops measure up. Would they turn and run when things got tough. Anyone who read the American newspapers knew the Japanese soldier was a tough and fanatical fighter who would never give up. How would it be possible to beat such a fighter. A quick review of the casualty figures tell the story that it was actually quite easy to defeat him. But the answer as to why he was so easily defeated, is quite complicated.
Given half-a-chance, the Japanese doughboy was quite a fighter, but often he wasn't given half-a-chance. When Colonel Ichiki sent his crack troops against the Americans for the first time, it was in a blind charge against the dug in Americans. The result was a disaster for the Japanese doughboy. Many Japanese Army officers seemed to have little regard for the lives of their troops.
Another factor that worked against the Japanese from the start was the jungle itself. The Japanese High Command never quite understood how dense the jungle really was and how difficult it could be to transverse. Its density forced the Japanese to congregate in pockets which worked well for the Americans and their heavy use of artillery. When Japanese troops tried to distance themselves from heavy concentrations of fire, they often lost themselves in the jungle where they wandered until they died.
Conversely, the jungle seemed to be on the side of the Americans. Lack of clear areas to build encampments forced Japanese troops to congregate in rather dense groups making the vulnerable air attacks. And there was a lucky break for the American Army when it found itself stuck with P-39 aircraft. This old plane found its spot at Henderson Field where it was used to fly back and forth between the field (which was near-by) for more fuel and bombs and then to go to a predetermined strip in the jungle where Marine scouts had reported heavy concentration of enemy troops. In this roll, the "klunker" worked so well that more were requested by General Vandergrift.
When the American Navy and Japanese Navy met to slug it out toe to toe without the interference of aircraft, it was the Japanese Navy that usually came out on top of the waves. One of the great advantages that the Japanese had was its use of flashless gunpowder. In night battles, American ships were brilliantly illuminated once they commenced firing. The Japanese didn't have that problem.
When it came to torpedoes, there was little comparison. It has been said that the American torpedo was perhaps one of the most unreliable weapons ever devised. Them Mark 13 torpedo was slow, inaccurate, and often defective. Its fragile guidance system would go haywire if it hit the water at a high speed or at an angle that wasn't perfectly flat. With its sluggish speed of 33.5 knots, it could sometimes be deliberately detonated by machine gun bullets. If it did hit the target, its 500 pound warhead often failed to explode.
In the naval battle of November the 13th, four American destroyers charged into the Japanese battleship Hiei little realizing that how ineffective their torpedoes really were. All torpedoes either missed or were duds. Japanese Admiral Kondo aboard the Hiei reported no torpedo hits. How the battle may have evolved if Admiral Callaghan had not been operating with such a handicap is anyone's guess. This situation continued for most of the Guadalcanal campaign causing disaster after disaster for the American side.
When it came to gunfire, both sides had good shells and great accuracy. Initially, Japanese had the edge in night fighting as their use of special night binoculars proved superior to the American Radar in sighting targets in the dark. This changed after the Americans gained experience in the use of radar.
Submarines played a crucial roll in the battle to control Henderson Field. Japanese subs were called upon to carry supplies and troops for an extended period during the campaign. Under difficult conditions they performed their duties reliably and consistently. In this roll however, they were unable to do their primary job which was to sink American war and supply ships. This gave the Americans a considerable advantage as the Japanese submarines not tied up in this assignment caused considerable havoc.
American submarines were similarly reduced in number in the combat area as many were assigned to patrol the routes of the oil supply ships between the East Indies and Japan. They did this job so effectively that in a relatively short time Japanese warship use was greatly curtailed. Undoubtedly, this was one of the reasons the Japanese relied more on their smaller and more fuel efficient ships such as destroyers and cruisers while their huge battlewagons remained at Truk.
The Field The Pilots The Planes The Ships
Readers may question the need for another detailed account of the battle for Henderson Field considering the amount of material already available. However, much of the best material is available to the public only if they are willing to pay the price (which can be considerable) and if they have the interest, which they may not have if the price is too steep. Also, not much material has been written by anyone who happened to be in the middle of the struggle for the entire battle and therefore, hopefully, would be able to give the story the proper flavor.
Readers may also question, would a Marine, Soldier or Flier want to read something written by a sailor. But in the battle for Henderson Field, all branches of service on the American side fought as one. Marines rowed out to greet us and to tell us to stick around. They bounced us around in jeeps to show us some of the island they were fighting for and welcomed us to join them in their swimming pool -- the Lunga River, but please watch out for the crocodiles. Every pilot was admired and counted as the planes of Henderson roared into the air when a "Condition Red" (enemy aircraft on their way) was reported. And everyone knew it was the Australian coast watchers who risked their lives to give the warning.
The Japanese armed forces were plagued by an inter-service rivalry as well as class distinctions that seriously affected their ability to operate as a team. But in this battle, they finally united into one branch when they realized the 17th Army would be destroyed if they did not do so. To bring home the Japanese version of G.I. Joe, the Japanese united in their finest hour. With unusual cooperation between all branches of service, they were able to bring their heroes home.
Sources of Material used in the writing of the story
THE LOST SHIPS OF GUADALCANAL by ROBERT D. BALLARD -- The story of Japanese war ace Saburo Sakai as well as a few truly great pictures were lifted from this book. For Saburo's complete story as well as other great material, this book is recommended.
GUADALCANAL - THE DEFINITIVE ACCOUNT OF THE LANDMARK BATTLE by Richard B. Frank. It was from this book that most of the facts that make up the story were taken. In many instances, Frank's exact words were used as it seemed impossible to think of any that were better. And, facts are facts, so any attempt to change them could distort meanings. For readers who desire more detail in a particular account, this book is recommended. Plus, it is a great book but perhaps not for the casual reader.
Guadalcanal Online: Four Parts, USAF monograph is courtesy of "Jack McKillop". This page maintained as part of Guadalcanal Online by John Nicholas, Derby, Kansas. These excellent sources of material can be found online at: Guadalcanal Online.
HENDERSON/ORAL HISTORY OF PHARMACIST'S MATE serving with Marines on Guadalcanal.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES by CHARLES DICKENS -- "It was the best of times, it was the worse of times,....
WINGS OF THE NAVY by Eric Brown. Naval Institute Press, 1987
JAPANESE AIRCRAFT OF THE PACIFIC WAR by Rene Francillon. Naval Institute Press, 1979.
GUADALCANAL by Edwin Hoyt. Stein and Day, 1981.
OUTRAGED SKIES by Edward Jablonski. Doubleday & Company, 1971.
BATTLE REPORT, PACIFIC WAR, MIDDLE PHASE by Walter Karig. Rinehart and Company 1977.
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