The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: The Battleship Night Action

Halsey had nothing left to stop Kondo from destroying Henderson Field except Willis Lee’s battleships, so against all doctrine and correct naval thinking, Halsey sent them in. Yamamoto was operating battleships in the confined waters of the Slot, so why couldn’t he? Lee formed an adhoc task force with four destroyers with relatively full fuel bunkers, and the newly christened Task Force 64 set off.

Just before midnight on the 14 November 1942, Lee’s battleships rounded Savo Island and just southeast, one of his commo guys picked up a faint transmission from PT boats prowling off Florida Island and preparing to attack. Lee contacted them directly. Minutes later, Kondo’s ships were spotted by radar at about 20,000 yards heading southwest. The big guns on the South Dakota and Washington roared, and registered hits, but the targets were soon masked by Savo Island. The only Japanese ship sunk was a lost destroyer that appeared alone on the west side of Savo Island. It was quickly dispatched by the 5” guns of both battleships’ secondary batteries and the destroyers. Before anyone realized what the lost destroyer meant, disaster struck.

Standard Japanese doctrine (which soon became American doctrine) called for the escorting destroyers to race ahead and launch torpedoes when an enemy force was spotted. When Lee opened fire, all nine of Kondo’s destroyers and both light cruisers launched their “Long Lance” torpedoes which had a range, speed, and reliability advantage over anything the Americans had. As Lee’s destroyer screen emerged from the shadow of Savo Island, they unwittingly advanced into a cloud of torpedoes. Two destroyers exploded and were broke in half immediately, and the other two maneuvered for their lives, effectively taking them out of the battle.

The sacrifice of the destroyer vanguard almost certainly saved Task Force 64: all 36 torpedoes missed the unwieldy battleships. The South Dakota engaged the Japanese ships, but then suffered a catastrophic electric failure. The South Dakota was always considered a “hard luck ship” and she lived up to her reputation that night. For three minutes, an eternity under fire, the South Dakota went dark, and all systems shut down. It was discovered later that a chain reaction caused by a short circuit in the after turret failed to trip a breaker because its chief engineer tied it down. She drifted out of position, and an observer on one of the destroyers said a flare popped overhead that lit her “like a spotlight on a stage”. The Japanese hammered the South Dakota.

But like the Hiei the night before last, the South Dakota was mainly under fire by the destroyers of Kondo’s Screening Force, and the cruisers of the Bombardment Force. Kondo didn’t believe the reports that he faced battleships: he thought they were mistaken for heavy cruisers, and wanted to save the Kirishima for Henderson Field. He would a heavy price for that mistake.

The Washington passed through the wreckage of the two destroyers to the cheers of the survivors in the water, and engaged the Kirishima and her escorting cruisers “at body blow range”.

The Washington wasn’t one of the old venerable pre-war battlewagons that took a pummeling at Pearl Harbor. She was one of the new fast battleships built to keep up with the aircraft carriers. Moreover, because “bigger is better” in America, she was designed around 16” guns instead of the late 1930’s standard of 14”. This upgrade caused all sorts of problems. For example, the first time the Washington fired its main batteries in gunnery without the warning bell, the concussion literally blew the surprised captain’s pants off his body, and put thirty men in the sick bay for busted ear drums and broken bones from being thrown against the bulkheads. However, nothing on the planet could stop a sixteen inch shell headed in whatever direction it was fired in. Even though in the holy trinity of speed/firepower/armor in ship design, armor took a back seat for the Washington, her speed and firepower more than made up for it. The Washington was specifically designed to sail quickly into harm’s way and hit first at long range, which her big guns and powerful radar allowed.

And Willis “Ching Chong” Lee was America’s foremost expert in exactly that.

Lee got his nickname from his fondness for being stationed in China in the 20s and 30s, and loved to sit on the bridge and trade bawdy stories with the enlisted men and junior officers. But it was just a cover to endear himself with the crews: Lee was America’s master of gunnery in the age of radar. He saw everything in terms of math. He literally wrote the book on radar fire control, and was friends with the guys who wrote the technical manuals in both fields. He flattened the Washington’s fire control so the radar plot officer could talk directly to the guns, which cut targeting time down considerably. Everything was based on the radar picture. Lee’s dedication to this new-fangled technology would pay dividends that night.

When Lee could finally ascertain exactly where the South Dakota was after her mishap, he unleashed the Washington’s full fury on the Kirishima. The nine giant phalluses on the Washington tore into Kondo’s centerpiece. The Kirishima attempted to fire back several times, but gunnery reliant on the Mark One Eyeball was in the past. The Washington pulverized the Kirishima with deadly accurate main and secondary fire before the Kirishima could even bracket. Kondo quickly called a destroyer over to transfer his flag and evacuate as many sailors as possible. The burning Kirishima capsized three hours later.

The shaken Kondo still had two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a swarm of destroyers, Lee had but the Washington. However, the Washington was given the attributes of an avenging spectre. She was out in the darkness, and no one would knew where she was until, if they were lucky, giant splashes appeared out of nowhere before the massive killing blows arrived. The biggest and baddest m*******a in the Sound was out there somewhere, and the Japanese had no idea where she would appear. The thought broke Kondo – He ordered his ships back north.

The next morning, the American PT boats and marauding destroyers would have their way with the beached transports. A few days later, Vandegrift was replaced by MG Alexander Patch of the US Army’s Americal Division to continue the fight on Guadalcanal, just over three months since the Marines splashed ashore. The US Army would drive Hyakutake and his starving troops off the island. It was only a matter of time before Guadalcanal was secured. The Marines held just long enough for the US Navy to figure out its business. Though there would still be clashes in Ironbottom Sound, and vicious barroom brawls for months between the sailors of the Washington and South Dakota, the Japanese would never again seriously threaten the sea lanes around Guadalcanal.

When informed of the results, President Roosevelt said specifically of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, “It would seem that the turning point in this war has at last been reached.”

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