Pacific War 15 – Fright Night at Savo Island

Pacific War 15 – Fright Night at Savo Island

While the Japanese did suffer a major defeat at Midway, they were still dangerous. Even the losses they suffered in fighting around Aleutian islands they were not significantly weakened. Fighting there did cause them significant losses, as the US navy had carried out several powerful counterattacks. At Battle of Komandorski Islands, Japanese suffered heavy losses despite having 4 cruisers and 5 destroyers to 2 cruisers and 4 destroyers on the US side.

Japanese put up a stiff defense. At the Attu island, only 29 soldiers surrendered out of the 2 300 strong garrison, all others having died. In order to evacuate Kiska, they loaded 5 100 soldiers on warships, with each of two cruisers taking 1 200 men, and each of 6 destroyers taking 450 men. By the next day, the island was empty.

Held up in the north and defeated at Midway, Japanese were nevetheless strong in the south and had no intention of abandoning the islands they had taken. Nor did they lose their desire to attack Australia. Thus they began building bases on Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands which were their southernmost possession.

Americans quickly realized that this was the most dangerous area. Majority of the US Navy, and especially all of the most powerful ships, were now sent to the southern Pacific. In July 1942., the Japanese again began landing on New Guinea and pierce towards the Port Moresby. US command meanwhile was preparing a counterattack, but its chief commanders were in significant disagreement. Admiral Nimitz wanted to attack Guadalcanal and then gradually advance. Rather impulsive General MacArthur advocated a direct attack against Rabaul, which was extremely risky as US forces were very limited while Rabaul was both heavily fortified and deep within the Japanese territory.

In the end, the final decision had to be made by the Chiefs of Staffs in Washington. It was decided to take Guadalcanal and several nearby islands, Tulagi and Santa Cruz, and to continue the advance towards the New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago. The operation received the code name “Watchtower. First group of tasks was to be carried out by forces under Nimitz’s command, while the second group was to be carried out by MacArthur’s forces. Their areas of responsibility were divided by the 159° East meridian, and so Guadalcanal was in Nimitz’ area.

US naval forces were significantly reinforced. Aircraft carrier Wasp had been transferred from the Atlantic, and Saratoga – repaired and extensively modernized – was also back in service. US command formed these ships into four fast squadrons, each consisting of a single carrier, four cruisers and 4 – 6 destroyers. Also arriving in the South Pacific was new fast battleship North Carolina, largest and most modern US battleship at the time. A special landing fleet was also formed, equipped with specialized ships, while 400 aircraft were deployed on the island bases across the southeastern Pacific.

Following the multiple successive air attacks by both sides, the American plan began to be carried out. Already at 26th July the conference had been held on Saratoga by admirals and generals commanding forces in the area. The weather was good, with clouds and rain concealing many ships that were approaching the landing areas in multiple columns. Japanese only noticed them on the dawn of 7th August 1942., when first landing ships were already approaching the shore. Within a day, 11 000 troops and significant amount of material had been landed on Guadalcanal. On the next day, Americans had already taken the Lunga Point airfield, only recently built by the Japanese. Island of Tulagi had also been taken.

Commander in Chief of the Japanese forces in the southeastern Pacific was vice-admiral Gunichi Mikawa, who was located in Rabaul. He carried out countermeasures immediately after receiving the news. Only 10 hours after American landings had begun, he sailed out with the squadron hastily assembled from the warships that were nearby on various tasks. In total, he had managed to assemble a force of 5 heavy cruisers, 2 old light cruisers of 3200 tons each, and a destroyer.

vice-admiral Gunichi Mikawa

Solomon Islands consist of two parallel rows of elongated islands stretching from northwest to southeast. Japanese squadron was sailing in the area between the rows at speed of 24 knots. Admiral Mikawa had each of his five heavy cruisers launch a seaplane. These were to scout the area 250 miles in front of the squadron. Within few hours he had very detailed information on everything relevant for the mission, including even the number and type of ships at every landing site. Mikawa’s intention was to carry out a surprise attack and sink or damage as many transport ships as possible. In the afternoon he raised the speed and sent another two seaplanes onto reconnaissance.

It was 8th August 1942., and the night was falling. Americans had no idea of the danger that was approaching them. Their scouting aircraft did notice the Japanese squadron on multiple occasions, but some reported nothing while other reports got lost in the chain of command. Mikawa for his part was not even trying to deceive the enemy, but instead sailed to his destination along the quickest route. When American command did finally receive news, these had falsely identified two of Japanese ships as seaplane carriers, making the Americans believe that they should expect the attack from the air tomorrow, as opposed to nighttime surface attack.

After the American forces had landed, Admiral Fletcher had withdrawn the US aircraft carriers from the area of operations. With this, he had left the US ships around Guadalcanal with no air cover. Later he tried to justify himself by citing fuel shortages, but it was discovered that his ships had had enough fuel for several more days of operations.

US transport ships were located near the landing area, in the Lunga bay on Guadalcanal and at Tulagi. Disembarkment of material continued through the night. Guadalcanal island itself is relatively large, some 148 km long and 48 km wide. To its north is Florida island, 30 km long and 7 km wide and surrounded by many small islands and reefs. Near its shore was 3 km long Tulagi island which formed an excellent natural harbor. Between Florida and Guadalcanal was the area of sea 30 nautical miles long and 20 wide, and this is where US warships were now located.

This group, tasked with protecting the transport ships, consisted of 5 heavy cruisers and 6 destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Crutchley. On the northeastern end was Savo island, some 6 kilometers long, which enclosed this area from the direction from which the danger was approaching. This island split the entrance into two passages. The passage between the Guadalcanal and Savo island was 8 miles wide while the one between Savo Island and Florida Island was 13 miles wide. Protective screen of warships was assigned to guard the passages. Admiral Crutchley split his forces into two groups, and each was to guard the passages from the interior side so as to meet the enemy units as they left the straits. Northern group had 3 cruisers and 2 destroyers, while southern group had 2 cruisers and 2 destroyers. Each passage was also covered by a single destroyer at the opposite side, whose duty was to provide the forewarning of any attack.

Passages were guarded by destroyers Ralph Talbort and Blue. Both ships were equipped with radar, which made men on cruisers feel safe under belief that they would have advance warning of any attack. But these were still early radars. Ones deployed on destroyers had a range of only 10 nautical miles in the open sea – close to the shore, as was the case now, their range was even lower.

Admiral Crutchley had also misdeployed his ships. Reconnaissance destroyers were too close to the main force to be effective scouting screen, especially because they had orders to avoid combat with any enemy warships. And by splitting cruiser force into two formations, he had enabled the enemy to destroy each formation independently. Lastly, he had failed to give ships any advance orders for conduct in combat.

It was nearly evening, and ship crews were exhausted from two-day combat. They had been on constant alert, in a weather that was hot and humid. Relying on the reconnaissance destroyers, cruisers were left at partial readiness, with half the crew at action stations in order to allow the other half some rest.

It was almost 9 o’clock when admiral Crutchley had been sent a message which called him at a midnight conference with admiral Turner. While other cruisers continued to sail at 12 knots, changing direction every half an hour, admiral separated with his cruiser Australia towards the transport ship that hosted the conference. There, he and other commanders were informed by admiral Turner of the aircraft carriers’ departure, which left the landing area under significant threat of enemy air attack.

HMAS Australia in 1937

Turner believed that under such conditions best course of action was to pull all transport ships from the combat zone. General Vandegrift was against it, believing that his troops on Guadalcanal had not received sufficient supplies yet, despite the all-night efforts by transport ships and having the shore cluttered with randomly thrown cargo. None of them were aware how close the danger truly was.

The night was dark, and thick clouds were covering the sky. It was hot and humid, despite the northerly wind, with occasional rain. Visibility was only 2 to 4 miles, with 6 miles only in one direction towards a lighter horizon. And Japanese squadron was already nearby. Mikawa’s warships were sailing in a long line. Admiral’s ship Chokai was at the head, followed by heavy cruisers Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa and Furutaka, then light cruisers Tenryu and Yubari, and destroyer Yunagi. Due to darkness and the fact that these ships were not accustomed to operating with each other, Mikawa allowed the warships to sail at mutual distance of 1200 meters, making the entire line stretch for ten kilometers.

Mikawa wanted to surprise the enemy, strike quickly and retreat just as quickly so as to be outside the range of carrier strike groups by the morning. But this required detailed information on the enemy, and so Mikawa continuously carried out reconnaissance with seaplanes from his cruisers. Reconnaissance was done even by night, as a fire burning on one of transport ships allowed Japanese pilots easy navigation.

Of course, Americans noticed the activity. Destroyer Ralph Talbert, which was patrolling the entrance to the strait, already at 23:13 reported aircraft over Savo island. But the message was ignored.

Japanese squadron was already at full combat readiness. Mikawa was aware, based on the scouts’ reports, that he will have to go up against the enemy cruisers. In order to maximize the surprise, he decided to attack with torpedoes first before opening fire. At around midnight, Chokai noticed a destroyer. But despite having radar, destroyer was showing no signs of having noticed anything, and the Japanese held their fire. Mikawa also ordered speed to be reduced to 12 knots to avoid creating waves that might give away Japanese fleet’s presence, and the Japanese ships passed only 500 meters astern of the destroyer. After bypassing the destroyer speed was again increased to 26 knots and torpedoes prepared. Mikawa’s ships had a total of 62 torpedo tubes, as well as 34 8-inch guns and 37 mid-calibre cannons.

Japanese squadron passed between the Esperance peninsula and the Savo island, leaving the strait just as American cruisers Canberra and Chicago with two destroyers were sailing towards the strait they were supposed to guard. Both fleet formations were approaching each other at a fast pace of 38 knots (26 knots of Japanese and 12 knots of American warships). Japanese noticed the American warships first, they themselves being hidden by a dark cloud in the background. Thanks to this, Japanese warships were coming from a total darkness. Attentiveness on American cruisers was not great, as they placed too much faith in destroyers in front of the passes.

Having seen the enemy ships in the dark, Japanese launched the first torpedo salvo at 1:38 from close range. At the same time, Japanese seaplanes dropped powerful light rockets which illuminated the area around the American warships. Now the Japanese warships opened up a powerful artillery fire, which happened concurrently with torpedoes striking American ships. Two torpedoes hit Canberra and one Chicago. These were the Long Lance Type 93 torpedoes of 610 mm diameter. Artillery fire, too, was devastating. The closest Japanese cruiser was 900 meters away, farthest only 8 000 meters. Canberra received 24 hits before being able to fire even once, and in less than a minute.

HMAS Canberra sinking

Chicago was somewhat better off. Torpedo had hit her in the prow without causing significant damage. While the prow was crushed, watertight bulkhead had held. After the bulkhead was reinforced, cruiser was able to sail at speeds up to 25 knots. Command was given to fire illuminating shells, but all shells failed and Japanese ships remained in the dark. Combat had lasted 6 minutes. While Japanese had launched 17 torpedoes, only three had hit their mark. American destroyers also fired their guns, but their small projectiles failed to cause any damage, and one was hit and set on fire by a Japanese shell. But Japanese warships had noticed another group of American ships as they had noticed another group of American cruisers at distance of 7 miles.

These were the cruisers Vincennes, Quincy and Astoria with two destroyers. Despite the fact that fighting should have been visible, that Canberra was very obviously burning and that seaplanes were dropping illuminating rockets, these American cruisers allowed themselves to be completely surprised. Even the message by destroyer Patterson, sent just before the first Japanese salvo,failed to wake them up.

Reward was not long in waiting. Japanese squadron split into two formations and encircled the American squadron from two sides. Japanese heavy cruisers sailed to the east and light cruisers to the west of American ships. From distance of only 2300 meters the Japanese warships launched their torpedoes and opened fire from heavy cannons. The first salvo caused massive confusion on American warships. Combat stations had not been taken, and alert had been given only when first salvo had already been fired.

On the cruiser Astoria, commander Greenman was woken up only when ship was already in middle of combat. Having no idea what was going on, he stormed the bridge and ordered his XO, Lieutenant Tauper, to cease fire. Japanese meanwhile had already fired four salvoes at Astoria, but with no hits. Seeing how difficult it is to shoot in the dark, Mikawa ordered use of searchlights. Only a moment later, Mikawa’s flagship Chokai caught Astoria with her searchlights. Next salvo was accurate, and a full hit disabled one of Astoria’s triple 8-inch turrets. Other hits devastated Astoria’s superstructure and caused a fire amidships. Chokai then turned off the searchlight because it was no longer necessary, while its use made flagship into a target. Astoria nevertheless managed to hit Chokai, destroying a seaplane crane, one turret, navigation room with all the charts and admiral’s quarters.

Destruction of the northern cruiser force

Other American cruisers were also having a hard time. Cruiser Vincennes had noticed the Japanese attack on the southern group, but believed that it was merely Chicago shooting at an aircraft and disregarded it. When the cruiser was caught by Japanese reflector beams, commander Reefcaul thought these were the American ships and requested them to shut down the reflectors. His request was answered by a salvo from Japanese heavy cruiser Kako. Full three minutes were required for Vincennes to open fire, having shot a star shell from one of 5 inch / 127 mm guns.

Moments later, Japanese projectiles were hitting the bridge and catapult, causing massive damage. This was compunded by two torpedoes hitting the ship and rendering it immobile. Japanese shots continued landing for a short time, and the cruiser was hit by a total of 57 203 mm (8 inch) projectiles. Rear Admiral Crutchley was killed on the bridge, and one hour later flooding caused the cruiser to roll over. Sinking was accompanied by secondary explosions which killed or injured many of the crew who were in the lifeboats nearby.

Cruiser Quincy was initially the best off. On this ship the alert had been raised as soon as the message from destroyer Patterson had been received. Still, they did not get their act together right off, and the Japanese noticed under reflector lights that Quincy’s turrets were still locked in the default position. This allowed the Japanese to get their first salvoes off without interference, but Quincy opened fire soon thereafter. Japanese fire was accurate however. Quincy soon started receiving hits from heavy projectiles. She too suffered fire from a seaplane on catapult that significantly eased Japanese targeting. Second projectile hit the bridge, killing everybody there including the commander.

USS Quincy caught in searchlights

As fire spread, shots kept landing on the cruiser. One projectile destroyed the ship’s hospital with all the wounded and the staff there, and anti-aircraft gun crews were massacred when one projectile landed among the ready-use ammunition for guns. Fire cut off the escape from machinery spaces, dooming everybody there. The ship was soon turned into a ruinous inferno, and before long it rolled over and sank, even sooner than Vincennes.

Crew of Astoria was not confused by the fires raging on Vincennes and Quincy. They still tried to fight, but only managed to fire 11 salvoes from ship’s guns. Japanese projectiles were falling onto the ship with increasing accuracy, and both bow turrets were quickly blown up. Navigation officer and the helmsman were soon dead, leaving the ship to sail completely randomly. Fire and smoke saved the lives of the machine room personnel, forcing them onto the decks. Astoria’s rear turrets managed to land several hits onto Chokai, but elsewhere the losses were mounting, fires detonating ready-to-use ammunition for anti-aircraft guns.

Japanese gradually ceased their fire and disappeared into the night. On Astoria, fires kept raging. Crew was trying to get it under control, but with no success. Nearby, Vincennes and Quincy were also burning, but fires were put out as the ships sank. Only Astoria, still burning, was still floating at the dawn. Around noon, fire reached the ammunition storage, and the massive explosion sank the cruiser.

Cruiser Canberra of the southern group was also still floating come dawn. Commander Gating had died, and command was taken over by Australian Lieutenant Commander Wales. Crew was exhausted, having spent the night fighting fires as well as throwing ammunition, gasoline and other flammable materials into the sea. This was done under heavy conditions, as smaller explosions were continuously happening, there was no electric lighting and hallways were full of wounded personnel.

Canberra was assisted by a destroyer Patterson. Patterson reached the cruiser at around 3 in the night. By that time, wind had strenghtened and sea was already very rough. Wind and waves made approach difficult, and only after an hour was Patterson in position. Rain turned into a downpour, but despite this the fire kept spreading. Still, the crews persisted in firefighting, and with help of several hoses laid by the destroyer, there was some hope for the ship to be saved. But at dawn, Canberra’s fate was sealed by admiral Turner, who ordered the cruiser to join him by 6:30. If that could not be done, she was to be sunk. People who had spent the night fighting to save the ship left her, transferring to the destroyer. Around 8 in the morning, Canberra was sunk by a torpedo salvo.

USS Blue and USS Patterson attempting to help HMAS Canberra

This battle was a major defeat for the US Navy, which had lost four cruisers sunk and one cruiser and one destroyer heavily damaged, as well as 1023 dead and 709 wounded. Also lost was destroyer Jarvis which was damaged that day in other operations nearby, and sunk by Japanese aircraft the next day along with its entire crew of 247.

Admiral Mikawa had achieved a major success. In only an hour, he had caused Americans heavy losses whereas he only suffered light damage to cruiser Chokai, while cruisers Aoba and Kinugasa had neglegible damage. In total, Japanese had 58 dead and 53 wounded. But this success was wasted, as Admiral Mikawa failed to exploit the opportunity. Had he exploited the lack of defences after the battle and continued on, he could have caused massive losses to transport ships. But as combat had caused disorder, he believed it would take hours for his squadron to reorder themselves for combat again, which would expose him to attacks by US carriers. He did not know these carriers were now far away. Thus the American transport ships were saved when Mikawa sent a withdrawal order at 2:20.

The order was carried out immediately, and the Japanese ships left the battlefield through the northern passage. Speed of the squadron was increased to 30 knots and kept through the night, so that they were as far away as possible when the dawn found them. Mikawa was justifiably afraid of American aircraft carriers, and had no way of knowing this danger did not even exist. By dawn, Japanese warships were already 120 miles away.

Drunk on victory, Japanese were returning without any particular precautions. Only one seaplane was airborne, which was clearly insufficient for so large a squadron. There was no destroyer screen, as the squadron had sailed on the task with little warning or preparation and there was no time to wait for the destroyers to return. After a day and a night of sailing, Mikawa entered Rabaul with one group, sending a group of cruisers towards Kaweing at the far north of the island of New Ireland. He could not have predicted the consequences of his decision. Cruisers set sail for Kaweing. Being already far outside the danger zone, they sailed at a comfortable cruising speed of only 16 knots.

At this time present in the area was US submarine S-44. This 17-year old, slow and small submarine was commanded by Lieutenant Moore. Submarine was sailing at surface, with Lieutenant Moore and two NCOs on the tower to watch the surface for any contacts. Noticing smoke on the southwestern horizon, they soon saw the ships were sailing straight at the submarine. It was 9 in the morning, and Moore immediately ordered a dive. Within 20 seconds, the submarine was underneath the waves, and moving to periscope depth.

Before long, Moore was able to recognize the incoming ships. They were a squadron of warships – group that Mikawa had sent to Kaweing. This opportunity could not be wasted, and Moore waited until the cruisers were only 630 meters away to give a launch order. Having launched all four torpedoes, submarine immediately escaped to a greater depth. But nothing was noticed on the surface, torpedo trails escaping observation, and all four torpedoes hit heavy cruiser Kako. It sank within five minutes, taking with her most of her 625 crew.

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