Pacific War 16 – The Ironbottom Sound

Pacific War 16 – The Ironbottom Sound

Battle of the Eastern Solomons

The Battle of the Savo Island had sent to the bottom a large number of ships. Yet it was but a beginning. For months the battles were fought in this area, the two sides being very evenly matched and unable to gain a decisive advantage. This fact made it all the more surprising that the battles always ended in a decisive defeat of one side or another – with the success in one battle being regularly negated by the loss in the next one. Success would remain unexploited, and soon negated by the enemy counterattack. This lasted for a long time, with frequent small clashes and several large battles which sent to the bottom a significant number of warships. Rare were areas where so many ships had been sunk on such a small area, earning it the nicnmame – the Ironbottom Sound.

Despite their defeats at the Coral Sea and Midway, the Japanese still wanted to take Port Moresby and threaten Australia. Victory near Savo Island only reinforced their determination. First step in this plan was to complete the conquest of Guadalcanal with “Operation KA”. For this purpose, Japanese ships sailed from Rabaul on 19 August 1942. Elite forces of 1500 troops embarked on fast transport ships were escorted by the cruiser Zincu and eight destroyers. Close by was a seaplane carrier Chitose with a single destroyer. The escort squadron was especially powerful: large fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, three battleships and eight cruisers. Finally, a separate squadron consisting of a light aircraft carrier Ryujo and a heavy cruiser had been tasked with drawing the enemy attention, hopefully enabling the Japanese fleet carriers to launch a decisive strike while the US forces were busy attacking Ryujo. Finally, there were nine large submarines deployed in the expected combat area and the fleet was to be supported by land-based aircraft.

US fleet, far weaker, was divided into two squadrons. First squadron consisted of an aircraft carrier Saratoga, two cruisers and five destroyers. Second squadron consisted of an aircraft carrier Enterprise, new battleship North Carolina, two cruisers and six destroyers. US scout aircraft noticed the Japanese ships as they were nearing their target, on 23 August at 9:50. First to be noticed were the transport group, with report stating two cruisers and three destroyers escorting transport ships towards Guadalcanal at speed of 14 knots.

The report took its sweet time reaching admiral Fletcher. Saratoga launched the attack only at 14:45, with a strike group of 31 bomber and 6 torpedo planes. An hour and a half later these aircraft were followed by a strike group from Guadalcanal air bases. But the Japanese had noticed the scouts that had detected them. Counter admiral (rear admiral) Tanaka, who was escorting the convoy, concluded that the scouts will have reported his position and direction. He kept the vector of sailing unchanged until the scout aircraft had disappeared from sight. Once they did, he sailed off in a completely different direction. As a result of this maneuver, US aircraft searching for him had completely lost track of him, with aircraft from Saratoga having to spend the night at Guadalcanal due to having spent too much fuel trying to find him.

The next day, after 9 in the morning, an aircraft discovered the Ryujo squadron which had been tasked with precisely that purpose. US carriers were now some 280 nautical miles away, and so Fletcher ordered them full speed towards the north to reduce the distance and enable the attack. By the afternoon, distance had been reduced to 200 nautical miles, and scout aircraft had also detected the seaplane carrier Chitose and her escorting destroyers.

Saratoga immediately launched her aircraft, and had reached Ryujo sometime around 16:00, just as Ryujo had turned into the wind to allow her own aircraft to be launched. Dive bombers attacked from nearly 5 000 meters (>16 000 feet), releasing bombs from low altitude in spite of the Japanese Combat Air Patrol and anti-air barrage fire. Ryujo was hit by ten bombs and set ablaze. Six torpedo bombers exploited confusion, attacking from two sides of the bow at an angle so that the carrier would be hit regardless of how she turned. Despite the thick smoke, one torpedo hit, and Ryujo sank several hours later. Her escorting destroyers managed to save only about 100 men of her crew – five times as many had followed her into the grave.

Japanese carrier Ryujo under attack

But the Japanese deception was a success. While US bombers were busy taking her apart, Japanese aircraft launched from the carriers of their main squadron. Yet US carriers were not helpless – radar warned them ahead of the time of the attack, and a large number of fighters had enough time to take off. At this point, Enterprise and Saratoga were some 10 nautical miles distant, with each carrier’s escorts sailing within 2 – 3 kilometers of their carrier.

Enterprise was attacked first. Her 53 Wildcat fighters were in the air, but were intercepted by the Japanese fighter escort. This allowed the Japanese dive bombers to arrive over the Enterprise unmolested. They also managed to do so undetected, and were noticed only when the dive bombers began their attack from some 5 500 meters, thanks to sun reflecting off the stabilizers. Despite three bombers being shot down in short order, others were rapidly closing in on the targets. Three more were shot down, and then the bombs started falling. While the carrier attempted to evade them by maneuvering, it simply wasn’t possible – some attackers had come to as close as 500 meters from the ship. First bomb penetrated the deck, caused a fire and killed 35 men. Second bomb killed 38 men, and further bombs followed. Flight deck was pulverized by the force of the attack.

Bomb hits USS Enterprise’s flight deck

While the attack had lasted only four minutes, it was devastating. The flight deck had been devastated, and the fire that had broken out required extreme effort to be put out. But the crew succeeded in this, and the deck was also shortly brought back into the usable condition. Ship was able to sail at 24 knots, and so Admiral Fletcher ordered the Enterprise to Pearl Harbor under escort of a cruiser and four destroyers. She would be replaced by Wasp.

While all of this was going on, Japanese transport convoy under admiral Tanaka was proceeding towards its goal. It seemed that, having avoided American aircraft, the convoy would pass undamaged. In the evening however two aircraft noticed the seaplane carrier Chitose and decided to bomb her, piercing her flank. Between the fire and the 30-degree list, crew had to throw the aircraft overboard and return to Rabaul.

This wasn’t the end, however. American land-based aircraft had come to join the party, and the sea was boiling around the Japanese ships from all the bombs. A 9 000 ton transport ship was set aflame, and destroyer Mitsuki received three bomb hits while trying to help it, sinking within minutes. Admiral ship Zincu was also heavily damaged, and the convoy turned around, disappearing into the night in direction of Rabaul.

From then on the Japanese changed their approach. No longer did they send large convoys – replenishment was carried out by fast destroyers which would charge in during the night, quickly deliver troops and supplies, bombard American positions and then disappear into the night. This happened on such a regular basis that the American troops termed it “Tokyo Express”. Japanese also sent twelve submarines into the area of operations. This caused constant psychological insecurity for the US crews in the area, but submarines also had material impact. Large fleet carrier Saratoga was torpedoed on 31 August, and had to be sent to three-month repairs. Carrier was able to make only 12 knots which was insufficient to allow the aircraft to take off and transfer to Guadalcanal air strips, and so a cruiser had to tow the carrier to the sufficient speed.

Americans suffered heavy losses on 15th September. On that day, the Japanese submarines had torpedoed the battleship North Carolina, which had to be pulled back for repairs. A destroyer was also torpedoed, but the biggest loss was aircraft carrier Wasp. This carrier was hit by three torpedoes which caused a major avgas fire, and this new ship sank. Silver lining was that the escorting destroyers had managed to save most of the crew. A month later, cruiser Chester had been torpedoed and had to be sent to a long-term repairs.

Battle of the Cape Esperance

In the October of the same year another major battle happened, known as the “Battle of the Cape Esperance”, which happened during the night of 11th onto 12th October. The reason was American attempt to stop the Tokyo Express.

For this task, the US Navy organized a task force of 4 cruisers and 5 destroyers under Rear Admiral Scott. On this day, the Tokyo Express acted with somewhat stronger forces than usual. Japanese protection force consisted of heavy cruisers Aoba, Furutaka and Kinugasa, along with twi destroyers. Behind them were fast transport ships with escort of six destroyers. Command was under Rear Admiral Goto.

Rear Admiral Norman Scott

Americans decided to use radar to surprise the Japanese in the night. Japanese, unaware of the enemy, were sailing on a straight course. They were intercepted by Scott’s cruisers near Savo islands, at almost the same place where Mikawa had destroyed the American cruisers. Here, Scott managed to cross the Japanese T, that is, to have his ships perpendiculat to Japanese line of movement. This enabled him to bring all his guns to bear while the Japanese would at best be able to use half of them – and likely fewer. Counter to this maneuver is a sharp turn that would bring lines to a parallel position, but here the Japanese were not even aware of the American presence while the Americans were able to follow Japanese movement on radar.

Surprise was total. Japanese only noticed the American warships when the latter had opened fire at 23:47. First to open fire was the US cruiser Salt Lake City, firing a salvo from all 10 of her 8 inch guns. Already this first salvo hit the mark, devastating the admiral ship Aoba which turned and sailed in the opposite direction.

Extremely surprised, Japanese required several minutes to start shooting. Gun flashes told them that the enemy was strong and also had crossed their T. With two sides only some 4600 meters apart, Japanese position was precarious.

Aoba’s sudden turn caused all the Japanese ships to follow her. Only Kinugasa accidentally turned in the opposite direction, which saved her as it meant she left the combat area. American cruisers were hitting their targets already with first salvoes, and distance was reducing rapidly. Japanese ships had come to less than 4 000 meters, to the point that heavy cruiser Boise was able to attack destroyer Hatsuyuki with her anti-aircraft guns.

Before long, all Japanese ships were quickly sailing away. Distance was increasing, and destroyers of both sides found themselves mixing in the area between the cruisers. On several occasions American destroyers were attacked by their own cruisers, and many had to leave the formation. Others turned on their identification lights, and cruiser Boise even turned on her reflectors.

American squadron turned to follow the retreating Japanese. But the Japanese were slowly coming together and their return fire was growing heavier. Boise’s reflectors showed them the target, and she started taking hits. She took six heavy hits which damaged the hull and the superstructure, and the seventh projectile fired by Kinugasa penetrated deep into the ship. Explosion set fire to munitions magazines, and both forward turrets were spitting flames. Nearly everybody in forward area of the ship was burned alive, and so when the commander gave the order to flood the magazines, there was nobody left alive to carry it out. Soon the flames reached high above the decks, and it seemed only a matter of time before the ship was destroyed. But she was saved by luck, or maybe fate. Hits had also torn the hull apart like a can, and huge quantities of water were flooding the forward compartments. This water had put out the flames. Cruiser had sank by two meters by the bow, but she was saved. Most other ships of the American squadron had only surface damage.

Japanese had suffered far more. Two cruisers had been set ablaze, and the admiral’s ship Aoba had already received over 40 hits. Admiral Goto had been killed. Destroyer Tubuki sank at around 23:53, following a massive explosion which left very few survivors in the dark waters. A minute later, one of torpedoes launched by the American destroyers hit cruiser Furutaka. She developed a list but kept sailing, with Japanese destroyers rushing to protect her. But the damage was too great and Furutaka sank several hours later.

The fighting ceased some time after midnight. While it was going on, the Japanese transports had managed to deliver the reinforcements, and even the heavy artillery. Rest of the night the Japanese used to get as far away as possible, leaving only two destroyers to rescue the survivors. On the American side, the destroyer Duncan sank from the damage sustained in the fighting, while another was heavily damaged but managed to stay afloat.

At dawn the American aircraft went to search for the enemy. Two destroyers rescuing the shipwrecked sailors were quickly discovered, having managed to already pull 400 men out of the water. Murakumo was sank shortly, and her crew joined the recently-rescued men in the water. Later in the day the other destroyer, Natsugumo, suffered the same fate. Japanese had lost a cruiser and three destroyers in total, but these losses could have been far worse had Americans not also been confused and had reliable identification of targets been possible.

Both sides had made major mistakes going into the battle. Japanese ships had their gun turrets locked in the basic resting position despite ships being within the area of action. This meant that once they came under the attack, it took several minutes for the Japanese to return fire. American command and control was confused and confusing, which allowed the Japanese to escape with far fewer losses than what they should have realistically suffered. The only truly happy party was the Ironbottom Sound itself, which had received further expansion of its iron stocks.

Ships sunk Iron Bottom Sound

Kikuzuki (Kikitsku) damaged May 4, 1942 sunk May 5, 1942 salvaged 1943.
USS George F. Elliott (AP-13) sunk August 8, 1942.
USS Vincennes (CA-44) sunk August 9, 1942 Battle of Savo Island.
USS Quincy (CA-39) sunk August 9, 1942 Battle of Savo Island.
USS Astoria (CA-34) sunk August 9, 1942 Battle of Savo Island.
USS Quincy (CA-39) sunk August 9, 1942 Battle of Savo Island.
HMAS Canberra (D33) damaged August 9, 1942 at 1:45am Battle of Savo Island scuttled 8:00am.
USS Blue (DD-387) sunk August 22, 1942.
USS Colhoun (APD-2) sunk August 30, 1942.
USS Little (APD-4) sunk September 5, 1942.
USS Gregory (APD-3) sunk September 5, 1942.
Fubuki sunk October 11, 1942 Battle of Cape Esperance (Second Battle of Savo Island).
USS Duncan (DD-485) sunk October 12, 1942.
Sasako Maru sunk October 15, 1942.
Azumasan Maru (Deep Ruinin Wreck) sunk October 15, 1942.
Kyusyu Maru (Ruinin Wreck)
 sunk October 15, 1942.
USS Seminole (AT-65) sunk October 25, 1942.
USS Atlanta (CL-51) sunk November 13, 1942 at 8:15am Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Akatsuki sunk sunk November 13, 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
USS Barton (DD-599) sunk November 13, 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
USS Monssen (DD-436) sunk November 13, 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
USS Barton (DD-599) sunk November 13, 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
USS Cushing (DD-376) sunk November 13, 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
USS Laffey (DD-459) sunk November 13, 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Yūdachi sunk November 13, 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Hiei sunk November 14, 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
USS Preston (DD-379) sunk November 14, 1942.
USS Walke (DD-416) sunk November 15, 1942.
Ayanami sunk November 15, 1942 Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Kirishima sunk November 15, 1942 following Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Hirokawa Maru (Bonegi 1) sunk November 15, 1942.
Kinugawa Maru (Bonegi 2) sunk November 15, 1942.
Yamaura Maru sunk November 15, 1942.
Yamazuki Maru sunk November 15, 1942.
USS Minneapolis (CA-36) damaged Battle of Tassafaronga November 30, 1942 bow removed.
Takanami sunk December 1, 1942 Battle of Tassafaronga.
USS Northampton (CA-26) sunk December 1, 1942 Battle of Tassafaronga.
PT-44  sunk December 12, 1942 by gunfire from Kawakaze and Suzukaze.
Teruzuki sunk December 12, 1942.
PT-112  sunk January 11, 1943 by destroyers Hatsukaze and Tokitsukaze.
Japanese submarine I-1 sunk January 29, 1943.
USS De Haven (DD-469) sunk February 1, 1943.
PT-37 sunk February 1, 1943.
PT-111  sunk February 1, 1943 by destroyer Kawakaze.
PT-123  sunk February 1, 1943 by F1M2 Pete.
Makigumo damaged by a mine February 1, 1943 during Operation Ke then scuttled off Savo.
HMNZS Moa (T233) sunk April 7, 1943 by Japanese aircraft Operation I-Go.
USS Aaron Ward (DD-483) sunk April 7, 1943 at 9:35pm during Operation I-Go.
USS Kanawha (AO-1) damaged April 7, 1943 during Operation I-Go sunk April 8, 1943 4:00am.
USS Erskine Phelps (YON-147) damaged April 7, 1943 during Operation I-Go afterwards refloated.
USS John Penn (APA-23) sunk August 13, 1943 by Japanese B5N2 Kate torpedo bombers.
USS Serpens (AK-97) sunk January 29, 1945 due to accidental explosion.

Aircraft crashed or ditched Iron Bottom Sound

R4D-1 Dakota Bureau Number 01648 crashed November 12 or 13, 1942.
B-17E “Bessie The Jap Basher” 41-2420 pilot Norton ditched September 24, 1942, 7 missing.
SBD Dauntelsss ditched or crashed upside down discovered.


2 thoughts on “Pacific War 16 – The Ironbottom Sound

  1. Very nicely written article about a battle not is as well known as others in the battles around Guadalcanal. However, if I may make an observation. The Boyce I am assuming is actually the Boise, a Cleveland class light cruiser that fought in the battle. Otherwise perfection.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is. I sometimes make mistakes in names because the basic literature I’m using for this is “Pakao Pacifika” by Boris Prikril, and he adapted names as well. For example, he writes “Rjuyo” as “Riujo”, “Shokaku” as “Šokaku”… but “Boyce” is an actual English name, so I didn’t catch it.


    Liked by 1 person

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