Americans were receiving increasing amounts of reinforcements. Air base on Guadalcanal already had 124 aircraft available, and additional runways had been built. In the Tulagi bay were the mothership and 15 torpedo boats which were highly effective in night attacks. Modern battleship North Carolina had returned from repairs, and her sister ship Indiana had also arrived to the area of operations, as did several other smaller warships.
Japanese for their part had abandoned the idea of night bombardment. It was also impossible to send transport ships to resupply Guadalcanal. Another approach had to be used. Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, a specialist in torpedoes and torpedo tactics, was selected to carry out this task with his eight destroyers. Every four days he was to speed to Guadalcanal and at Tasafaronga deploy the floating containers with food and equipment. Without pause, destroyers were to return at full speed, and island garrison would use boats to pick up the containers. Each destroyer embarked over a thousand such containers. Hope was to deliver the payload and then disappear without firing a shot.
Admiral Tanaka, realizing the importance of the task, had made a detailed plan. Assured in his crews’ excellent training, he sailed for Guadalcanal on 30th November. Counting on the cover of night, Tanaka gave strict orders to utilize only torpedoes in case of combat, as flash of the guns would give destroyers’ position away. Tanaka also lacked his normal flagship, light cruiser Zincu, which was still being repaired.
In the course of the day this destroyer group was sailing towards Guadalcanal. They chose an indirect path, hoping to evade American scout aircraft. Goal was to arrive into the area of islands at night, using darkness to carry out their mission. This was extremely risky for them, for Japanese ships had no radar and could expect to face ships did have. In dark, they could easily end up fighting blind.
Admiral Tanaka was indeed sailing blind. He had no radar, no air reconnaissance, and only few hours after leaving his base Biuno (on the southern part of Bouganville island) they had already noticed American aircraft. They could thus expect either an air attack or possibly interception by an American naval squadron. Soon afterwards Tanaka received a radio message from Guadalcanal, informing him that there were 12 American destroyers near cape Lunga, acting as a defensive screen for transport ships. Japanese scouts had also noticed American cruisers approaching the island.
Most admirals would be concerned about such news. But Tanaka merely ordered his ships to be ready for combat, and continued on his way. Most of his destroyers were new – some weren’t even two years old. They were fast, at 36 knots, and had heavy armament of up to eight 127 mm guns and 8 torpedo tubes carrying deadly 24 inch torpedoes, with oxygen propulsion and very strong warhead. Tanaka’s crews were extremely well trained, and his destroyers had worked together as a unit for a long time, thus allowing them to quickly and effectively respond to any situation and carry out any task.
Americans for their part were aware that something is going on, but not what. Scout aircraft that Tanaka had noticed that morning had reported nothing. But the American command knew something was going on. Intelligence service had reported that a large number of destroyers had left Buino, and radio-surveillance service had also noticed something was afoot. They didn’t know what exactly, but despite that, a strong squadron was sent to Guadalcanal. This consisted of five cruisers and six destroyers commanded by admiral Carleton Wright. While an experienced officer with 30 years of service, admiral Wright had no experience of the Solomones area.
During the day of 29th of November, Wright called a meeting of commanders of his squadrons where decision was made on the future actions. Next day, squadron was some 580 miles away from Guadalcanal. Due to reports he had received, Wright decided to hurry – his ships were now racing through the night at 28 knots, sailing northwest.
As the squadron approached Guadalcanal, admiral Wright – commanding from Minneapolis – ordered all cruisers to send their seaplanes airborne so that they wouldn’t get in the way during combat. Seaplanes were to illuminate the enemy with rockets before sheltering in the Tulagi Bay.
Japanese destroyer squadron was approaching from the other side of the Savo island. Not suspecting anything, Tanaka passed through the strait between the Guadalcanal and Savo island. Night was calm, with no wind and moonlight. Ironbottom sound was about to get reinforcements to its supply of iron. Tanaka’s destroyers approached the coast at an angle until it was two miles distant. From there, they continued on a course parallel with the coast to reach the place where supply boxes were to be thrown into the sea. Tanaka thus ordered speed to be reduced to 12 knots. Japanese ships approached the delivery area at around 23 hours, not suspecting presence of the nearby American squadron.
Under cover of darkness, admiral Wright arrived to Guadalcanal with his squadron. Now in the area of operations, he reduced speed to 20 knots. American ships approached the Savo island in a long column, just when Japanese destroyers had left the strait. As moon was expected to appear only after midnight, American warships were completely reliant on radar – Japanese meanwhile were unable to see anything. At 23:06, radar of the cruiser Minneapolis detected Japanese warships straight ahead at distance of 20 000 meters. Japanese fleet had already reached Tasafaronga.
Unnoticed in complete darkness, gun barrels and torpedo tubes of American warships turned towards the enemy. Distance was being eaten up as the clock ticked away, yet no order to attack was coming. American destroyers had standing orders which allowed them to immediately attack with torpedoes any target closer than 5 500 meters. But the nearest Japanese destroyer was 5 600 meters and farthest was 8 700 meters away. Another four minutes passed, increasing the possibility that surprise will be lost. When order finally came, over 20 torpedoes were launched at the Japanese ships, who did not expect attack.
Before the torpedoes reached a distant enemy, American ships opened fire. Eleven warships rapidly shot their guns, with Japanese only noticing the attackers when the first guns opened up. But Tanaka showed his value: his calm orders and trained crews facilitating an immediate response.
Half of the Japanese destroyers continued on their way to deliver equipment to the island. The other half turned suddenly towards the enemy to mount a counterattack. Destroyer Takanami was the closest to the American ships, and thus also seen most clearly on radar screens and in the light of starshells alike. It was an ideal target, and thus all American guns turned towards it. Faced with increasing density of enemy fire, Takanami’s commander concluded that he had right to open fire. Her 127 mm guns soon opened fire, but this only provided American ships with an even better target. Fighting stubbornly, Takanami fired 70 projectiles in total, but dense American fire quickly destroyed this ship.
But other destroyers were still intact. Despite surprise, well-trained Japanese crews quickly recovered. American ships did not have flashless powder, and so their gun flashes showed Japanese ships where their targets were. It was not long before a salvo of 20 torpedoes was racing towards the American ships. Unlike the previous American torpedo attack where no torpedo hit its target – or at least, hit the target and exploded – Japanese torpedoes were scarily effective. In a span of less than two minutes, four American cruisers had been rendered combat ineffective.
Admiral cruiser Minneapolis was hit by two torpedoes. Moments later, cruiser New Orleans was hit in the ammunition magazine. Massive explosion tore off the entire bow and launched it high in the air. As the cruiser was still sailing, her own bow struck the stern while falling down before disappearing in the depths. Thus the New Orleans became the only ship ever to have collided with itself.
Meanwhile, the hell game continued. Despite being much weaker in numbers and technology, Japanese were putting up a stiff fight. Weathering heavy American fire, Japanese destroyers – excepting Takanami – fired no shot from their guns. Instead, only their torpedoes were in the water. Despite the large distance, Japanese targeting was good. Cruiser Northampton was hit by two torpedoes which holed the machinery spaces. Between flooding and fires that had consumed the rear of the ship, she sunk three hours later.
Cruiser Pensacola was also having a bad time. She was hit in the machinery spaces which were flooded so quickly that only one man from this area survived. Despite flooding and fires, Pensacola remained afloat and in the morning was towed into the Tulagi bay. There, she was joined by cruisers Minneapolis and New Orleans. Only the cruiser Honolulu had remained undamaged, thanks to her own confusion. She attempted to engage the Japanese, but the target she was firing at turned out to be a wreck of Japanese transport ships which had been abandoned and beached near the shore 15 days earlier.
Having won the battle, Japanese destroyers disappeared into the night. The delivery group managed to use the battle and throw into the sea majority of prepared floating containers with supplies. By 1:30 AM, all Japanese destroyers except the destroyed Takanami abandoned the area of operations, sailing northwest. Despite being surprised and weaker, admiral Tanaka managed to devastate a far stronger enemy which had destroyers, cruisers and radar.
Only thing Americans could now do was attempt to save the shipwrecked sailors. Special mention there should go to destroyer Fletcher, whose commander ordered floating nets to be lowered in the sea. Sailing at slow speed and dragging nets behind her, Fletcher fished for sailors, saving 700 men in the end. Tanaka’s success was recognized even by Americans.
But it was useless in the end. Despite also managing to sink heavy cruiser Chicago and a destroyer, the Japanese had lost 14 000 dead in combat and further 10 000 dead from lack of supplies. They also lost 600 aircraft and 24 warships with 135 000 tons, including 1 aircraft carrier, 2 battleships, 3 heavy and 1 light cruiser, 11 destroyers and 6 submarines.
Island had to be evacuated. In the night of 7th onto 8th February 1943., six months after American landings, the Japanese withdrew their last forces from the island. In four nights they managed to evacuate the remaining 11 000 troops with no losses at all. The Americans noticed nothing until the island was empty.
Americans had lost 6 300 troops, dead or wounded. They also lost 24 warships with 126 000 tons, of which 2 aircraft carriers, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 14 destroyers and a significant number of transport ships. But Guadalcanal was now in American hands.