When ViceAdm Halsey told MajGen Vandegrift that he would get him help, Vandergrift took him at his word. So much so that on 31 October 1942, Vandergrift significantly weakened the perimeter of Henderson Field to mass troops so the Marines could take the battle to the Japanese. For over a week, Vandergrift’s men mauled concentrations of stunned Japanese and pushed them back away from the perimeter. But even combined with the horrible losses taken in the Battles for Henderson Field and off the Santa Cruz Islands in late October, Yamamoto was not willing to give up Guadalcanal.
On 12 November, the tenacious Tanaka put together another Tokyo Express run with transports that departed for Guadalcanal carrying 7000 more troops and enough supplies to last 30,000 men a full month. Steaming ahead was Vice Adm Hiraki Abe’s Bombardment Group consisting of the fast battleships Hiei and Kirishima, the cruiser Nagara, and eleven destroyers. Abe was to sweep the Savo Sound of any Allied ships that night, then plaster Henderson Field.
American Naval Intelligence was reading the Japanese mail again and Halsey knew all about the plan. But knowing about the plan and having the resources to do anything about it were two different things. Halsey wasn’t completely sure it was accurate: the Japanese didn’t include any aircraft carriers. He assumed Yamamoto still had at least three carriers left (He did, just without planes and pilots). American Intelligence didn’t know that the Japanese had little naval airpower remaining after the grievous losses off the Santa Cruz Islands. All Halsey had were the Cactus Air Force and the carrier Enterprise. And he wouldn’t have the CAF if Abe got through with his Bombardment Group. But he also couldn’t risk the Enterprise.
Still at this point in the Pacific War, the score between the Americans and Japanese was kept by the number of aircraft carriers each possessed, and the Americans were losing. Yamamoto had three, Halsey just one. The loss of the Enterprise would be a blow that Halsey might not be able to recover from, if only from a propaganda stand point. (This is actually kind of bullshit: Nimitz himself was quoted saying, “I wish we had as many carriers as the Japanese say they sunk.” No one believed the Japanese broadcasts anymore. However, losing the last one would still be pretty bad.) So Halsey needed to protect the Enterprise, if only to maintain some flexibility when dealing with the Yamamoto’s moves on Guadalcanal. So when the half repaired Enterprise sortied from Noumea, it was accompanied by the only two battleships Halsey possessed, the South Carolina and Washington, for anti-aircraft protection. Abe battleships would have to be taken care of by Norman Scott’s cruisers.
On 11 November, Halsey’s promise to Vandergrift was being delivered in the form of the remainder of New Caledonia’s garrison, the US Army’s 187th Infantry Regiment. Their transports’ escorts were rolled into Scott’s Task Force 64 in order to put as many ships as possible in Abe’s path. However, the escorts were commanded by Rear Adm Dan Callaghan, Halsey’s predecessor’s chief of staff who needed a job after his boss was relieved. Unfortunately for Scott, Callaghan outranked him by 14 days. So instead of Norman Scott, the only surface warfare admiral in any Allied navy with a victory over the Japanese, command of the warships that had to stop Abe fell to Callaghan.
Task Force 64 was renamed Task Force 67.4, to show Callaghan was still subordinate to Task Force 67, Halsey’s transports, and sent into the Savo Sound to find and destroy Abe’s Bombardment Group. A month before, it would have been an impressive force: two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers, but against Abe’s massive battleships, it was “a death sentence”. Just the Hiei itself had almost as much raw firepower as Callaghan’s entire command. Callaghan thought he was being sacrificed, and this sense of doom permeated throughout the entire task force.
It didn’t help that the next day was Friday the Thirteenth, the unluckiest day of the year.
Just after midnight, on 13 November 1942, Task Force 67.4 made radar contact with Abe’s Bombardment Group steaming towards Guadalcanal in a ragged formation. To get out of a rain squall, Abe reversed course and then reversed again. The maneuver threw his formation into chaos, but he needed out of the rain in order to use his flares and searchlights. The American cruiser Helena picked up the Japanese with its powerful radar, and Callaghan ordered the task force directly at them. Abe was in two columns, and Callaghan drove his ships in a single file line right between them – like a lance into Abe’s gut.
Any advantage the Americans had from early radar contact was wasted by Callaghan, who didn’t trust the new technology. So the two forces closed with each other on the starless and moonless night: one out of ignorance, and one out of incredulity.
At 0130, Callaghan’s destroyer vanguard had to make emergency turns to avoid ramming the Japanese ships, which broke the American formation. The battle finally started a minute later when a powerful searchlight from the Nagara lit up Callaghan’s flagship, the San Francisco. Callaghan ordered the peacetime protocol, “Counter-illuminate”, but the San Francisco’s gunnery officer, a veteran of several battles in Ironbottom Sound, replied “Fuck that”, and yelled, “Open fire” into his mic.
What followed was, “a bar brawl where someone turned out the lights, and everyone started swinging.” The American ships were amongst the Japanese, and the last order Callaghan gave was “Odd ships fire to starboard, even number to port” but by then it was too late. Every ship was fighting its own battle with whatever ship it could see among the flickering light from flares, searchlights, and burning ships.
Abe was taken completely by surprise. His battleships were loaded to fire high explosive incendiaries at Henderson Field, and initially their shells didn’t pierce the American armor but it did set fire to anything exposed. And at knife fighting ranges his big 14” guns weren’t nearly as effective as Callaghan’s 8” guns on the heavy cruisers, or even the Helena’s 6” guns. No feasible amount of armor could stop the San Francisco or Portland’s shells fired in a flat trajectory at those velocities at point blank range. Within minutes, the Hiei was on fire from stem to stern, and the rest of Abe’s ships were not much better.
The Japanese surprise didn’t last long though. For the next 40 minutes, cruisers dueled with battleships, destroyers dueled with cruisers, and battleships dueled with destroyers, as the little ships darted in and out of the fight while launching ship killing torpedoes in all directions. Marines watching from shore described the exploding ships as “the opening and closing of the doors to Hell.” Visual identification was difficult, and more than a few friendly fire incidents occurred. At one point, Callaghan’s San Francisco fired at the Hiei through Norman Scott’s Atlanta, killing Scott and everyone on the bridge. Callaghan himself was killed when the battleship’s massive guns tore apart the San Francisco’s superstructure.
The battle was decided by a lowly destroyer, the Sterett. Late in the battle, she made a gun run on the Hiei and put 36 5” rounds into the bridge (She was too close for torpedoes to arm), which severely wounded Abe. At this critical juncture, the Kirishima was finally making her presence felt on the leaderless American ships. But the terribly wounded Abe thought the battle was lost and ordered a withdrawal. The Kirishima and the remaining Japanese ships turned north. Once again, the Japanese penchant for centralized command and control saved the Americans.
“Friday the Thirteenth’s Cruiser Action” left the Americans crippled. The skipper of the Helena, Captain Gilbert Hoover took command and shepherded as many of the surviving ships away from the Japanese as he could. The heavy cruiser Portland was sailing in circles desperately trying to repair a damaged rudder and engine, and the San Francisco had 26 holes in her, most 14” wide. The light cruisers Atlanta and Juneau were sunk along with four destroyers. On board the Juneau were the Sullivans – five brothers who joined the Navy together, none of whom survived the battle. The Juneau exploded in a thunderclap from a Japanese I-boat torpedo, and Hoover didn’t want to risk the remaining ships in a fruitless search for survivors. (100 men did survive the explosion, including a Sullivan. However, only ten would survive the next eight days of exposure, dehydration and shark attacks until they were belatedly rescued. The remaining Sullivan brother was not among them.) Only the Helena and one destroyer were fit to fight the next day.
But the Hiei was drifting and on fire, and the Kirishima was headed back north. The Japanese battleships didn’t get a chance to fire on Henderson Field that night. When the sun came up, what remained of Abe’s Bombardment Group and Tanaka’s transports felt the full fury of the Cactus Air Force.
And the Cactus Air Force neither could, nor felt like, taking prisoners.