Just like Nimitz, Yamamoto’s biggest issue in the South Pacific was fuel. Tokyo is actually farther from the Guadalcanal than Pearl Harbor, and like the Americans, the Japanese lacked sufficient tanker capacity. But by October 1942, the Japanese had finally committed to destroying the Americans on Guadalcanal, and enough fuel was allocated for Yamamoto’s big battleships to operate from their anchorage at Truk. For lack of fuel, they had been sitting there for months, derisively referred to by the overworked destroyer and cruiser sailors as “Hotel Yamato” and “Hotel Musashi”.
After the battles at Coral Sea, Midway, and the Eastern Solomon’s, Yamamoto had a healthy respect for American airpower, and Henderson Field was an unsinkable aircraft carrier from which the Cactus Air Force sank everything that came down the Slot in daylight. The only option to neutralize Henderson Field was a run down the Slot at night by fast battleships which could pummel the airstrip. Then, sufficient troops and heavy equipment to secure the island could be landed on Guadalcanal from the big slow transports that Japanese couldn’t use as long as the Cactus Air Force roamed the Slot. Thereafter, Japanese troops on the island would be of sufficient quantity to be able to penetrate the Marine perimeter, and overrun the airfield. With the airfield out of action, Yamamoto could then send the Combined Fleet, spearheaded by the mighty Yamato and Musashi down the Slot without fear of air attack from Guadalcanal, and decisively defeat the American Fleet. The fast battleship run was scheduled for the night of 15 October. Until then, the Tokyo Express would put every ship it had into reinforcing Guadalcanal, and bombarding the airfield in preparation.Throughout September and October, Maj Gen Vandergrift’s Marines on Guadalcanal had defeated everything the Japanese had thrown at them, but the Tokyo Express continually poured fresh troops onto Guadalcanal. Even U.S. Marines can’t hold out indefinitely. Additionally, the poor rations, constant fighting and the debilitating effects of living in the jungle were taking their toll on the Americans. Though they would never admit it, the Marines needed help. That help would come in the form of the US Army 164th Inf Regt, from the Americal Division which was formed from the AMERIcan defenders of New CALedonia. The convoy from New Caledonia was escorted by cruisers and destroyers of Task Force 64, led by Rear Admiral Norman Scott.
When Scott took command of the American escort force, he was keenly aware of the sorry state of American surface forces. He was not about to repeat the same mistakes as his predecessor, who had been ignominiously defeated at The Battle of Savo Island in August, known amongst the crews as “The Battle of Five Sitting Ducks.” To Scott, night surface action was about one thing, and one thing only: “the first effective salvo, though the second and third didn’t hurt the cause either.”
To this end, Scott instituted a night gunnery training program that had his crews at general quarters every evening and early morning conducting gunnery excercises. He designated areas of the sea and squared his captains off against each other. During these gunnery drills the turrets were offset several degrees so the shells safely landed behind the target. But the big splash to the stern let the opposing crew know without a doubt when they were “hit”. And everyone had friends on the Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria, resting below in “Ironbottom Sound”. Battle Drills became second nature. Moreover, Scott changed the culture of his surface ships. He lobbied to have his cruisers operate independently of Adm Turner’s transports when they weren’t directly involved in actual escort missions. After Nimitz’ visit to the South Pacific in early September, Scott was granted his wish. His command was elevated to a separate Task Force, Task Force 64, on par with Turner’s transports and Fletcher’s carriers. Scott changed his mission from escort to “screening and attack”, and let his captains know that he intended to take the fight to the Japanese. The Tokyo Express had to be in and out of the waters around Guadalcanal before the sun rose. That made them predictable. Scott planned to exploit that.
Scott got his chance on the night of 11-12 Oct 1942. Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto was escorting a massive Tokyo Express Run of almost 11,000 Japanese troops, and included two sea plane tenders that carried much needed heavy equipment such as trucks and artillery pieces. Goto’s run was divided into two groups, a transport group with a bombardment group in the lead. As Scott’s task force was escorting the 164th to Guadalcanal, coastwatchers and reconnaissance planes spotted Goto. Scott sent the transports safely away with a few destroyers, and moved to ambush the Japanese north of Guadalcanal’s Cape Esperance. Just before midnight, the Japanese bombardment group, consisting of three cruisers and two destroyers, was picked up on radar and Scott ordered his column of five destroyers, and three heavy and two light cruisers, to change course in order to cross the Japanese T. Goto, whose ships relied on flares and visual identification, and had no reason to expect cruisers in the area from the so far passive Americans, had no idea what was about to hit him.
Unfortunately for Scott, the watch officer of the lead cruiser, the San Francisco, didn’t turn where the lead destroyers turned, and instead turned turned simultaneously with the lead destroyer as soon as the order was given. In Army terms, he executed a “Left Flank, March”, instead of a “Column Left, March”. The rest of the formation followed. This put the lead three destroyers out of position, and even worse, in between the Americans cruisers and the Japanese.
For several critical minutes, confusment reigned in the American formation as Scott and his captains attempted to ascertain the exact location of the destroyers in order to prevent fratricide. All the while, the Japanese closed the distance, to the point where they became visible in the darkness. One exasperated gunner complained, “What are we doing? Waiting to see ‘the whites of their eyes’?” The captain of the new light cruiser USS Boise finally said, “I know what I’m shooting at”, and opened fire. Everyone else followed suit.
American naval doctrine at the time said that distances less than 17,000 yards were “close contact”. Off Cape Esperance, they were less than 4000, and closing rapidly. At this distance, it wasn’t the big manually controlled 8” guns of the heavy cruisers that would be responsible for the bulk of the damage, but the radar controlled rapid fire 6″ guns of the American light cruisers, the Boise and Helena. The Japanese complained they fired “like machine guns”, and at a distance where it was impossible to miss. It also didn’t help that the Japanese ships were initially loaded with high explosive rounds to bombard Henderson, not ship killing armor piercing rounds. The two American light cruisers savaged the two lead Japanese cruisers.
However, not everything worked in Scott’s favor. In the confusion, fire control was lacking and the task force’s fire was not distributed properly. The lead Japanese cruiser, the Aoba, took the bulk of the fire while the rear most Japanese cruiser was initially not fired upon at all. And the Kinugasa made the Boise pay for firing first. Even worse, the American heavy cruisers lacked the new fire control radars of their little brothers, and inadvertently fired upon the wayward destroyer squadron, sinking one and damaging another. In less than 30 minutes, one Japanese cruiser and one destroyer were sunk, with the rest badly damaged, at the cost of two American cruisers and one destroyer damaged and another sunk by friendly fire.
The Battle of Cape Esperance was the first time the US Navy defeated the Japanese in a surface action in World War Two and provided a much needed morale boost to the Allied destroyer and cruiser crews, who up to this point were consistently outperformed, out-maneuvered and out-gunned by their Japanese counterparts. However, the confusion caused by the San Francisco cost the Americans dearly. In addition to the ships damaged, and sailors killed and wounded in battle, the Japanese managed to unload all of their reinforcements on Guadalcanal. Many Marines and soldiers (The US Army’s 164th Regt would land a day later on the 13th) would pay a heavy price for Goto’s successful Tokyo Express run, even if he didn’t survive to see it
The attritional battle for Guadalcanal would continue.