With rare exceptions, the Japanese were surprised but completely unconcerned with the American landings in the Solomons. When Emperor Hirohito inquired, he was told that it was “nothing worthy of your majesty’s attention”. The thinking went that once Port Moresby and Papua/New Guinea were captured, which seemed inevitable in early August 1942, the Japanese could retake the southern Solomons at their leisure. The one exception to the blasé Japanese attitude to the landings was the newly appointed commander of the 8th Fleet at Rabaul, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa.
Mikawa was Japan’s premier surface warfare officer, but in the 30s, he was quick to recognize the primacy of naval air power. He concluded that future surface warfare would be conducted when and where carrier air power would be limited: at night, in bad weather, and in confined waters. For a decade, he promoted and demanded Japanese perfection in navigation, surface torpedo operations, and most importantly, night gunnery. His efforts would pay off in the early morning hours of 9 August 1942.
Unlike his peers and superiors, Mikawa was gravely concerned with the American landings. On first report from the garrison on Tulagi, Mikawa gathered every surface combatant available, and within hours, his ad hoc squadron was refueled and headed down the St George Sound (soon to be nicknamed “The Slot”) to engage the vulnerable transports unloading onto Guadalcanal from the Savo Sound. Mikawa had only five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a single destroyer to attack the vast Allied armada in the area, but an attempt had to be tried: once the transports were unloaded, the Americans would be exponentially harder to dislodge. There were reports of an American battleship in the area (the new and fast USS North Carolina) but Mikawa was more concerned with the carriers. He needed to quickly strike at night and be back up the Slot out of range of their aircraft before dawn.
Mikawa’s ships were almost immediately spotted speeding down The Slot by a Kiwi search plane from New Guinea. Unfortunately, the young pilot mistook the two largest cruisers as seaplane tenders, and Fletcher’s analysts, when they received the report many many hours later, assumed the Japanese were attempting to replace the seaplane base destroyed at Gavutu with another farther up the island chain. They dismissed the report. About 0130 on 9 August 1942, Mikawa skillfully approached Savo Island unhindered and undetected by the Allies.
The evening before, Adm Turner’s escorts of eight American and Australian heavy cruisers and eight destroyers under Australian Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley were deployed in three groups to protect the vulnerable transports. One each east, north, and south of Savo Island with a two destroyer radar picket northwest of the island. About midnight, Crutchley was called to confer with a furious Turner, after Turner and Vandegrift had been informed that Fletcher planned to depart the Guadalcanal area with the carriers and the North Carolina to refuel. With Crutchley’s departure to confer with Turner, command of the escorts fell to Capt Howard Bode of the Chicago in the southern group. However, he didn’t tell the other groups.
(The reasons for Fletcher’s departure is another entire post. However, one point needs to be brought up – In one of those quirks of fate, the North Carolina, the most powerful surface vessel in the South Pacific at that moment, should not have needed to refuel and should have been present for the upcoming fight. However two weeks before, Fletcher’s tactical commander, in direct command of the carriers and battleship, arrived at Fiji a day late because his chart had an incorrect location for the Intl Date Line. This meant the thirsty North Carolina had to spend one less day in port and couldn’t fully refuel. By 8 Aug, she was running on the capital ship equivalent of fumes, and had to depart the area, thereby missing the battle. Whether or not that chart cost a lot of lives is a matter of speculation, but “The Showboat’s” nine 16″ guns, 20 5″ guns, and more importantly her powerful search radar, were almost certainly missed that night.)
Capt. Bode at the time was more concerned with a submarine threat in the confined waters of the Savo Sound. Furthermore, like everyone else in the task force and on Fletcher’s staff, he didn’t take into consideration Mikawa’s initiative and audacity, and assumed that any Japanese surface response would require at least another day. Moreover, he was an old school surface warrior, and like most American senior naval officers at the time, didn’t really understand the capabilities and limitations of the new fangled radar systems recently installed on their ships. Bode assumed that radar would give away his position (he was right, but years too early as the technology to do so hadn’t matured yet) so he forbade the use of the search radar, and allowed only a single sweep of the fire control radar, which missed the Japanese. He relied on the picket destroyers’ radar to give early warning, but their radars were seriously degraded by echoes from the nearby islands and had but 1/4 the range briefed by the manufacturer. Even so, the southern picket came within 2km of Mikawa’s force and failed to sight them. The much more vigilant northern picket spotted them at 0143, but by that time Mikawa’s torpedoes were already in the water. Minutes later, his cruisers’ big guns were raking Bode’s southern group.
The watch officers of the HMAS Canberra and USS Chicago in the southern group barely had a chance to sound general quarters. Lookouts spotted flashes in the distance that they thought were lightning or fires on Savo Island. A few seconds after the northern picket reported “strange ships” – Mikawa’s float planes dropped flares, powerful search lights illuminated the two ships, and ranging shots and torpedoes littered the water around them.
Almost immediately the Canberra was dead in the water and burning, and the Chicago was holed below the water line, battered up top, and steaming west out of the fight. Neither fired their weapons, nor even reported contact. Mikawa then turned on the unsuspecting northern group.
“Unsuspecting” may be the wrong word: There were certainly indications of what was going on to the south. “Disbelieving” may be better. The northern picket’s warning of “strange ships” was missed amongst the “administrivia” chatter of the midship watch. The sounds of gunfire was dismissed as fire support for the Marines. The light show and flares were assumed to be star shells fired by destroyers, fires on the beaches, or lightning. The sound of planes overhead were believed to be non threatening. One radar operator, convinced he was seeing Japanese in his scope, was relieved and threatened with a stay in the brig for falsely reporting “echoes” on his scope. Together the clues paint a picture of incompetence, but after 48 hours of constant battle stations and air attack, there was just enough possibility for a benign explanation of each isolated report that the exhausted crews could excuse them away, especially since surface contact wasn’t expected til the next evening. The only ship in the northern group at general quarters was the Astoria, and then only because a defiant young lieutenant pulled the alarm lever in front of his incredulous captain. The young man was still standing tall getting his ass chewed by his furious superior when the first Japanese shells slammed amidships. His “mutinous actions” saved more than a few lives that night.
American crew battle drills at this point in the war were still rooted in peace time operations, in particular the move to general quarters. It was akin to a massive “game of musical chairs”. Each crew member had a watch station for normal cruising, and a battle station in the event of general quarters. Since battle stations required positions for the entire crew, chances were likely that these positions were different because the senior crew member always occupied the important positions during battle stations. If during the watch a junior crew member occupied a position, say navigation for example, during battle stations he would be replaced by a more experienced crew member. This requires a quick “change over” brief to pass the position’s responsibilities, then the junior crew member would go to his own assigned position, where it was very likely he’d be senior to the person already there, which would require another brief. This process of moving from normal watch stations to battle stations could take several minutes in the best of circumstances. In peacetime this was acceptable; in wartime when seconds mattered and the first combatant to put steel on target usually won, this was a death sentence.
Mikawa would say later that he was impressed with the tenacity and potential firepower of the northern group, especially the Astoria, and had the Americans had any warning the battle would have been much different. But the Japanese surprise was effectively complete and they were simply quicker to put ordnance on target. It didn’t help that American fire prevention and damage control were non-existent or woefully antiquated. By 0215, all three cruisers of the northern group, the Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria, were on fire and sinking.
In less than 35 minutes, one Australian and three American capital ships were out of action, the rest scattered, more than a thousand sailors were killed, and thousands more wounded and floating in the shark infested waters. The rout of the invasion force’s escort task force was complete. Adm King in Washington would call the Battle of Savo Island “the blackest day of the war” for the US Navy. Only two American cruisers remained: the anti aircraft cruiser Juneau in the eastern group, who had no gun larger than 5″, and Crutchley’s HMAS Australia which was intermingled with Turner’s transports. The Japanese suffered only two hits and a few dozen casualties.
But most disconcertingly, Turner’s transports lay naked and exposed under the harsh phosphorescent glare of the flares dropped by Mikawa’s scout planes. They were at the mercy of the Japanese.
Of the two hits suffered by the Japanese, one struck Mikawa’s flagship, the Chokai, and nearly killed him and his staff. In the confusion of that hit from the Astoria, Mikawa assumed the rest of his ships were suffering as badly. This however was not the case. Furthermore, Mikawa commanded escorts at Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, and Midway, and had a very healthy respect for naval air power. He did not want to be caught in range at first light. He calculated that he needed to commence the engagement of the transports no later than 0130 in order to be safely away by dawn. It was almost an hour later and he was still twenty miles from them and getting father away by the minute. Finally, he had no idea of the disposition of the remaining escorts, including the battleship and the carrier escorts. He felt he couldn’t risk almost certain destruction of the only Japanese fighting ships in the Solomons. So he continued back up the Slot.
The battered and confused Americans were astonished when it became clear that Mikawa was continuing north, away from the vital transports.
Turner’s transports were saved, but they wouldn’t do Vandegrift’s Marines any good, at least in the short term. Unbeknownst to Mikawa, Fletcher’s carriers were already headed in the opposite direction to refuel. With no air cover, and most of his escorts sunk, Turner had to follow.
As the sun rose, the Marines on Guadalcanal gazed out into what the Navy was now calling “Iron Bottom Sound”, they saw empty ocean.
The 1st Marine Division was all alone.