The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: The Battle of the Dead and the Cactus Air Force

When the Japanese Bombardment Group and Task Force 67.4 mutually broke contact in the early morning hours of 13 November 1942, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was far from over. As soon as the American ships cleared the Sealark Channel, the PT boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three screamed into the Savo Sound to go hunting. The PT Boat skippers, driving the smallest warships (warboats?) in the fleet, had a Napoleonic complex, and tended to shoot first and ask questions about target identity later, especially since they were quickly sunk if spotted. So when the task forces were in the area, they were kept dockside. PT boats were still a novelty in 1942, and coordination measures with the task forces were still being worked out. No coordination existed except to check in with “Cactus Control” on Guadalcanal, which MTBRON Three dutifully did. However Cactus Control didn’t know that the Portland was still trying to limp out of Savo Sound with a damaged rudder and unable to break 10 knots. The PT boats attacked the crippled ship, and fortunately missed. They wouldn’t miss the next time though. It was found that the torpedoes were launched on the wrong bearing: the thirty odd steel hulled ships sunk in battle over the last two months messed with the compasses in the wooden boats. “Ironbottom Sound” truly was.

When the sun rose that morning, the Savo Sound was a holocaust of debris, bodies, oil slicks, and burning wreckage. Several ships were adrift and on fire, and the stranded Japanese were fighting to the death. The Portland was forced to engage sailors on a wrecked Japanese destroyer firing at them as they crawled out of the Sound. The burning Hiei did the same to an American destroyer whose crew correctly surmised the Japanese weren’t taking prisoners. Two burning and slowly sinking destroyers sat the night out a few hundred yards from each other: only to continue fighting at first light when they recognized the enemy. There are several reports of survivors fighting in the water, and even Japanese killing their to own to prevent surrender. Neither side had yet to conduct any search and rescue, everything was needed for the coming day. Until the battle ended, the exhausted, and most likely wounded, survivors were written off, so the morning became known as “The Battle of the Dead”. The only consolation was for the American survivors, who could signal the Cactus Air Force as they went about the grim and coldly efficient business of sinking the remaining hulks, including the seemingly unsinkable Hiei, and attacking Tanaka’s Transport Group still coming down the Slot.

The Marines, Navy, and the Army flyers of the Cactus Air Force took to the task with a vengeance. First they swept the Savo Sound of any remaining Japanese ships, including the Hiei, which absorbed a silly amount of bombs and torpedoes before she finally sank later that night. Then they turned on Tanaka and the destroyers and freighters of his Transport Group as it slowly made its way to Guadalcanal. Every ship that unloaded on Guadalcanal meant a tougher fight for Vandegrift’s exhausted 1st Marine Division. The attacks were relentless.

On Henderson Field, the ground crews were augmented by cooks from the mess tents, headquarters staff, and even rescued sailors from the previous night’s fight that managed to make it to shore: all in the name of servicing the aircraft quicker. Some pilots did 4, 5, even 7 sorties that day. Vandegrift requested more planes, and Halsey delivered. He ordered the Enterprise to send all of her torpedo and dive bombers to operate out of Henderson Field, and she would return to port. When the carrier planes arrived, Cactus Control wasn’t expecting them, and they were initially thought to be a Japanese strike. When they were recognized, one ground controller likened them to “descending from above like angels from heaven.”

Tanaka lost a destroyer and seven transports packed with men and equipment. However, many of the troops were transferred off the sinking ships onto the escorting destroyers, but the losses in the supplies were painful. The Japanese troops on Guadalcanal were starving, and Tanaka was their only hope.

That night, the four remaining transports beached on Guadalcanal. They would never survive another day in the Slot during daylight. Tanaka managed to land 7000 more troops on the island but not nearly enough food. The commander of the Japanese forces on the island, Maj Gen Hyakutake, called it “chickenfeed”. One of his regimental commanders was reporting 70% of his men were ineffective due to hunger. The 7000 new troops made Hyakutake’s logistics’ situation even worse. The key was Henderson Field: transports couldn’t make it down the Slot as long as it was operational. Yamamoto decided to try again.

Yamamoto sent a few cruisers down the Slot that night, and Halsey got word, but Task Force 67.4 was spent. The only ships he had left were the Enterprise’s escorts, the battleships Washington and South Dakota. He sent them north. However, after unloading all of her bombers to Henderson Field, the Enterprise steamed further south to get closer to port. When the battleships got word to be in Savo Sound by midnight, Rear Admiral Willis “Ching Chong” Lee replied, “Does he think we have wings?”

The cruisers bombarded Henderson Field, and destroyed some planes, but after All Hell’s Eve it wasn’t too concerning. In fact, when Lee’s battleships couldn’t make it in time, Cactus Control unleashed MTBRON Three. The plucky little PT boats put three torpedoes into the Japanese ships and chased them off, cutting their bombardment short. In any case, only the big guns on the battleships could suppress Henderson Field long enough for Japanese transports to make it to Guadalcanal. And at that moment, there was one steaming north away from the fight, the Kirishima.

The furious Yamamoto fired the disgraced Abe and gave command of the Bombardment Force to his right hand man, Adm Nobutake Kondo. Kondo was on his way from Truk with the cruisers Atago, Sendai and Takao to reinforce Abe when he was ordered to rendezvous with the Kirishima and Nagara and go back down the Slot. Kondo was to destroy Henderson Field the next night, that of the 14th.

The prewar battleship admirals would finally get their showdown with the Japanese.

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