The Battle of Tassafaronga
On 23 November, 1942, Vice Adm William, “Bull” Halsey was promoted to rank of admiral, with four stars on his collar. However, there was a shortage of four star rank in the South Pacific, so Halsey borrowed a pair of two star ranks from Marine Maj Gen Alexander Vandegrift, and had them welded together. The 1st Marine Division was recently replaced by MG Alexander Patch’s 23rd “Americal” Division on Guadalcanal, and Vandegrift was on Noumea for Halsey’s promotion ceremony. In a fitting tribute to the men who got him that fourth star, Halsey sent his three star ranks to the wives of Dan Callaghan and Norman Scott, both of whom were killed in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal the week before.
The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal delayed but didn’t end, RearAdm Raizo Tanaka’s Tokyo Express runs down the Slot. And Halsey still needed to put together another surface task force to stop him. A task force centered on Willis Lee and his battleship, the USS Washington, was the obvious choice. But when a battleship does break, it breaks big, and the Washington was still tied up for repairs. And sending a battleship admiral out without a battleship was akin to a demotion. The other choice was Thomas Kinkaid, but he was a carrier admiral, and on his way back to Pearl Harbor. Halsey had to find someone else.
Halsey reached deep into his bench and promoted his senior cruiser captain, Carleton Wright, to command the newly formed Task Force 67. However, Wright had never fought a night surface action before and nor had any of the captains of the ships that constituted the ad hoc Task Force 67, except the captain of the destroyer USS Fletcher. With the deaths of Scott and Callaghan, and the unjust sacrifice of Gil Hoover on the Helena, (Hoover was relieved of command for not stopping for survivors after the USS Juneau exploded. He felt the threat to the remaining battered and limping ships was too great. A decision even Halsey, who fired him, admitted later was the right call.) the hard won experience of the previous four months was lost. Kinkaid began rewriting American surface doctrine, but left before he was finished. Wright’s Task Force 67 might have had an impressive four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and four destroyers, but they were mostly brand new to the fighting off Guadalcanal. Raizo Tanaka was a grizzled veteran of Ironbottom Sound, and the American newcomers would pay a heavy price for their ignorance.
On 29 November 1942, the Cactus Air Force spotted Tanaka’s Tokyo Express run and Wright moved to intercept. Just before midnight on 30 November, the Fletcher made radar contact with the oblivious Japanese. However, Wright still wanted visual confirmation, and told his destroyer captains to hold fire on their torpedoes. For four critical minutes, the Japanese steamed forward unknowingly under observation from unseen American eyes. But the Americans didn’t do anything with that information. When Wright finally gave permission, Tanaka’s destroyers were already outside the optimum firing angle. Even worse, thirty seconds after “the tin cans launched their fish”, the cruiser Minneapolis opened fire alerting Tanaka to the nearby American presence.
The American cruisers hammered Tanaka’s lead destroyer, sinking it, but didn’t fire on any of the others. Tanaka quickly took advantage of the poor American fire control. He ordered a smoke screen from his flagship, and signaled to the rest “All Ship’s Attack”. His simple order not only caused every American torpedo to miss but brought his destroyers in line for a perfect torpedo run based on the American gun flashes. Tanaka’s heavily over matched destroyers put forty Long Lance torpedoes into the water in probably the most devastating torpedo spread in history.
The Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola, and Northampton were hit by at least two torpedoes a piece and put out of action. Only the lighter Honolulu remained unscathed of Wright’s cruisers due to radical maneuvers made possible by her higher agility. The Minneapolis’ bow was nearly cracked off and hung low at a 70 degree angle. The New Orleans lost her bow forward of the No 2 turret, and the shock of the explosion killed everyone forward of the superstructure. The Pensacola was struck amidships and aviation fuel for her floatplane started a fire that raged throughout the ship. The Pensacola’s crew eventually contained the fires; the same couldn’t be said for the Northampton, whose fires eventually caused her to sink.
Japanese superiority in surface torpedo warfare was well known to Americans by late 1942. Thousands of Allied sailors had died finding that information out the hard way. Hundreds of pages of reports were filed on that very subject. In fact, Adm Togo won the Battle of Tsuchima using the same tactics nearly forty years before. Americans would claim later that Wright was successful because he prevented Tanaka from delivering supplies to the starving Japanese on Guadalcanal. But even with the addition of a single lost destroyer, Tanaka sank one cruiser, put three out of commission for at least a year, killed 400 America sailors and wounded nearly thousand more. That’s a high price to pay for a couple of days’ supply of food and ammunition.
Fortunately, the Battle of Tassafaronga was the last major surface action in the waters off Guadalcanal. The US Navy’s sacrifice over the previous four months convinced Yamamoto that Ironbottom Sound could no longer be contested and consequently that Henderson Field could not be neutralized. There would be no Kantai Kessen in the South Pacific in 1942. The Tokyo Express would continue to run but would eventually be turned back by America’s “Hooligan Navy”, the unruly PT Boats operating from bases on Tulagi. Their incessant attacks on the Tokyo Express would eventually bring down the previously indefatigable Tanaka.
On 14 December Hyakutake reported that he was losing at least 50 men a day from starvation, and could not conduct offensive operations. A week later, Yamamoto decided to abandon the Guadalcanal and evacuate as many troops as possible.