PART THREEBattleship Night Action of 14-15 November
APPROACH OF TASK FORCE LOVE
Saturday, 14 November 1200 Task Force LOVE has reached point about 50 miles southwest of Guadalcanal. 2120 Enemy cruiser and destroyer reported in cove on Savo Island. 2130 Course changed to 090° T. to round Savo, 11 miles to starboard. 2249 Course changed to 150° T. to pass between Savo and Florida Island. 2317 Task Force reported as enemy by PT boats. 2352 Course changed to 270° T.
Task Force LOVE, consisting of the Washington (F), South Dakota, Benham, Gwin, Preston , and Walke , reached a point about 50 miles southwest of Guadalcanal before noon on Saturday, 14 November. Most of the day was spent in this area avoiding contact with enemy planes. One Japanese aircraft did sight the force, however.
As has been noted (p.45), an enemy force of 2 battleships, 1 light cruiser, and 11 destroyers had been sighted early that morning (latitude 08°09' S., longitude 157°55' E., course 130°, speed 25) preceding the transport group. Among the numerous other contacts made on the 13th and 14th was a group identified as 1 carrier, 1 Ise battleship, and 3 destroyers (or 3 heavy cruisers and 2 destroyers) sighted on the 13th about 170 miles north of Florida Island. If not a part of the enemy force defeated off Savo Island the previous night, as suggested on p.36, these ships may have been covering the north flank of the convoy, just outside the limits of our air search. On Saturday afternoon 4 heavy cruisers, 1 large destroyer, and 10 ordinary destroyers were sighted about 130 miles north of Florida Island, course 165° T., speed 17, closing Indispensable Strait.
It was probable that some of these vessels would bombard Guadalcanal during the night in preparation for the arrival of the transports. Consequently, COMSOPAC communicated with Admiral Lee at 154270 and ordered him to retire in time to be in position southeast of Savo Island by midnight that night, unless he was "profitably engaged."71
Late in the afternoon Admiral Lee commenced an approach designed to intercept the enemy bombardment group and such cargo ships and transports as might have survived the aerial pounding which the convoy had been receiving that day. In the early evening Task Force LOVE, having rounded the western end of Guadalcanal, passed between Savo and the Russell Islands. Course was 020° T., speed was 23 knots, and zigzag tactics were being employed. Savo was about 18 miles on the starboard beam.
No contacts were made in this area, and at 2110 zigzagging was abandoned. A flash of light over the horizon on the port bow was tentatively ascribed to gunfire or to the explosion of one of the burning transports near the Russell Islands. Glows and explosions continued in this neighborhood throughout the next 2 hours.
At 2120 a message from a friendly plane was intercepted which reported an enemy cruiser and destroyer hiding in a cove on Savo. The Task Force temporarily slowed to 20 knots and formed single column (Walke, Benham, Preston, Gwin, Washington, South Dakota, in that order), the destroyers keeping station 300 yards apart, with the heavy ships about 5,000 yards astern. The sole experience of the 2 battleships in division formation had been the 30 hours of high speed run in submarine infested waters which had just been completed. All ships were at general quarters. Personnel was at battle stations for 29 hours before and after the ensuing action.
At 2130 Japanese voice transmissions were picked up on the radio. Soon afterward the Force commenced a change of course in succession from the van to 090° T. Savo was now 11 miles to the south. The sky was partly covered with cirro-cumulus clouds, mostly at about 10,000 feet, with the overcast gradually increasing. The temperature was 83°. The sea was calm, with a 7-knot breeze blowing from 170° T. A quarter moon was shining, and prominent landmarks were visible as far as 25 miles. As the northernmost point of Savo was passed, a sharp lookout was kept for the hidden cruiser and destroyer.
At 2245 the enemy voice transmissions, now heard from three stations, became very excited. Shortly thereafter, the Task Force changed course to 150° T. to pass between Savo and Florida Islands, and speed was reduced to 17 knots. A glow was sighted near the beach on Savo which momentarily was thought to come from the lurking cruiser and destroyer, but it was finally identified as moonlight on a white rock.
PT boats based on Tulagi now reported the Force as Japanese. Admiral Lee informed Guadalcanal Control that "friendly PT boats are believed to be after us." The shore station replied that it had no information as to his identity. The Task Force Commander found it necessary to clear up this misunderstanding by voice radio in plain language. There is no way of knowing whether his report of his course, code name, and location reached the enemy. The Task Force began to change course to 270° T. to cut across the sound south of Savo.
FIRST PHASE OF THE ACTION--0000-0024
Sunday, 15 November 0001 Washington makes radar contact with enemy east of Savo. 0016 Washington opens fire, South Dakota soon thereafter. 0019 Washington's target apparently sinks. 0024 South Dakota sinks a cruiser.
By 0000 Task Force LOVE was 13.5 miles southeast of the southernmost point of Savo, in the location set for midnight by Admiral Halsey. At that moment a PT boat reported that three ships had "just rounded north of Savo heading west." An eyewitness on the Guadalcanal shore later identified these vessels as destroyers which were dashing back to cover after discovering the United States force. Almost simultaneously the Washington's SG and FC radars made contact with other ships on a bearing of 340° T., range 18,000 yards, about 6 miles east of Savo in the same waters through which our Task Force had recently passed. The main battery director tracked for 2 minutes and then lost the target because of land interference. Echoes were received not only from Savo Island but from Santa Isabel, 50 miles away.
A few tense moments passed before the Washington made another contact bearing 340° T. at 19,600 yards. About the same time the South Dakota made visual contact on three ships bearing 330° T., course southwesterly, which were dimly illuminated by the setting moon. Radar range was 18,300. Presumably this was the same enemy group. The leading vessel was very large--either a battleship or a heavy cruiser. The other two were light or possibly heavy cruisers. This force was probably the easternmost of several enemy columns in a disposition similar to that employed 2 nights before in the Cruiser Night Action. It very likely included elements of the northern groups sighted on the 13th and 14th (see p. 61).
Battle of Guadalcanal, Battleship Night Action
Temporary repairs being made on South Dakota
As radar contacts by our battleships multiplied, Admiral Lee ordered course changed to 300° T. and informed the South Dakota that she might open fire when ready. The Gwin, keeping station 5,000 yards ahead of the flagship, observed two ships in the target area. Bearing was 355° T., range about 14,000. They were thought to be of the Mogami type.
At 0016, before being fired upon or illuminated by the enemy, the Washington opened on the leading Japanese ship with her main battery at 18,500 yards, using radar ranges and optical train. In 3 minutes, 42 rounds of 16-inch armor-piercing mmunition were fired. At the time the first salvo landed, the secondary battery began firing on targets about 15,000 yards away, possibly three destroyers, and the main battery spotters were blinded by the flashes of the 5-inch guns. However, radar officers reported that the first salvo straddled and that the big guns were on target with the second or third. The signal of the enemy vessel, which had been coming in strong on the radar screens, flickered and became faint and fuzzy.
A minute or so after the Washington went into action, the South Dakota opened fire on the nearest ship of the main group at a range of 15,700 yards, using radar control. This vessel was not far from the targets of the Washington's secondary battery and was overlapping in deflection the more distant vessel astern of the battleship or heavy cruiser which our flagship's main battery was pounding. It seemed likely that the Japanese were not in battle formation and therefore that they had been surprised. The South Dakota's first or second salvo hit the mark. Tremendous fires blazed up both on this ship and on the Washington's main battery target. The South Dakota spotted up 100 and right 02 to get on the ship which was following the leader. This time also the first salvos crashed home.
At 0019, after the Washington's seventh or eighth salvo, her flaming target disappeared and was presumed to have sunk. The main battery stopped firing, while the secondary continued with undetermined results until it had expended 100 rounds.
At 0019 the flagship changed course to 300° T., and at 0020 speed was increased from 17 to 23 knots. Reports were received that our destroyers were opening fire. The Gwin picked one of the enemy cruisers as a target for her torpedoes. One of the tubes fired prematurely as a result of a short circuit. The ships proved to be beyond effective range for high-speed setting. Next the destroyer fired two star-shell spreads to
illuminate the battleships' targets and followed with two salvos of anti-aircraft common. The range was excessive, so fire was checked.
The Benham had been unable to see the targets at first but finally distinguished two of them. They were not observed to be firing, and indeed the Japanese were slow to reply to our battleships and did no damage whatever in this first phase of the action. The Benham did not fire torpedoes because it was determined that the enemy vessels would be behind the protection of Savo by the time they arrived.
At 0024, after the South Dakota's eighth salvo, her target was seen to sink. The other cruiser, on which she had opened originally, was now only a doubtful pip on the radar screen. Several Japanese voice transmissions had ceased abruptly. Only the weaker ones continued.
Sunday, 15 November 0022 Walke opens fire. 0025 Washington's secondary opens fire on "shore batteries" (DD's). 0025-35 Several enemy DD's set on fire. 0032 Preston sinks as a result of enemy cruiser fire. Gwin hit. Walke and Benham torpedoed. 0033 South Dakota loses all power because of shorts in secondary director and locked circuit breaker. 0042 South Dakota sinks Kuma cruiser astern and in so doing blows two of her own planes overboard.
As has been noted, the van destroyers of our Force opened fire about 0020. The Gwin was apparently the only one of them which actually fired at the targets being pounded by the Washington and the South Dakota, and her salvos were short. Excessive range and difficulty of distinguishing targets prevented the effective use of torpedo batteries against ships in this area. However, a group estimated to include 6 to 10 Japanese ships (destroyers and probably light cruisers) began rounding the southwestern corner of Savo. No doubt their purpose was to launch a torpedo attack against our capital ships, but their attention was soon fully engaged by our lighter craft, which thus saved Task Force LOVE from potential disaster.
At 0022 the Walke, which was leading the column, opened on a target 20° on the starboard bow. Eight salvos were fired at this ship, which emerged from the shadow of Savo on a westerly course. A Walke survivor identified it as a cruiser, but it might have been a destroyer, as
suggested by observers in the Benham, the next ship in line. It came about and went into action. The Benham also opened fire on it, using radar ranges and gun flashes as points of aim.72 The target's silhouette merged with Savo again, but it soon burst into flames. Other ships to the left started shooting, and the Walke and Benham checked fire and shifted to them. The Walke straddled its new target several times at 7,500 yards. Hits followed which produced clouds of black smoke, and the enemy ship disappeared behind the northwest corner of Savo.
At 0026 the Gwin opened fire on the leading ship of the enemy group hugging the shore of Savo, range 10,000 yards. The target appeared to be a light cruiser, but was probably a heavy destroyer. Four minutes later, consecutive salvos struck the Japanese ship, which was now 8,500 yards away. Only one gun replied. Soon afterward the Gwin reported that she was being fired on by a Kuma-type light cruiser on her port quarter.
A moment earlier the Preston sighted a ship off the southern shore of Savo on her starboard bow and opened fire with all four guns. The target, which seemed to be a destroyer-leader or light cruiser, was plainly visible in the moonlight, distant about 9,000 yards. The Preston scored hits after a few salvos, and her fire was soon returned. The Japanese vessel began to burn fiercely, and the Preston shifted to another ship in the shadow of Savo, range 8,000 yards. As she did so, she was struck by two projectiles, probably 6-inch, on the starboard side. One landed between the two firerooms, killing all personnel. Several fires broke out, including one in the TNT of warheads cracked open by the shock. The second stack fell onto the searchlight.
Meanwhile an enemy heavy cruiser came in on the port side of the column "virtually undetected," and the Preston was hit on the port side by part of an 8-inch salvo (probably three shells). One shell penetrated to the engine room, one landed between the secondary control station and No. 3 gun, and one on No. 4 gun. Guns No. 1 and No. 2 were jammed in train. The whole after part of the ship soon became a mass of flaming wreckage. The Preston listed to starboard and settled by the stern. The commanding officer, Comdr. Max C. Stormes, gave the order to abandon ship. In half a minute the destroyer rolled over on her side and began to sink. The bow rose vertically and remained in that position about 10 minutes before the vessel slid beneath the surface.
Shortly after the Benham shifted from the initial target which she and the Walke had set on fire, and at the same time that the Preston was being hit by the heavy cruiser, the Benham was struck by a torpedo on the starboard side, about frame No. 6. The ship rose forward, heeled about 5° to port, then rolled to starboard about 30°, settling by the head and righting herself slowly. The explosion threw up a great volume of water which rose about 20 feet higher than the director and came down with considerable force. Plates and longitudinals at frame No. 75 buckled somewhat as the ship quickly decelerated from 27 knots to 5. The stern settled momentarily so that the crew of No. 4 gun were waist deep in water.
At this instant there was a heavy explosion on the Preston, and debris, oil, and water fell on the after part of the Benham. This water and that heaved up by the torpedo explosion caused some injuries to personnel, who were not otherwise harmed.
The Benham was nearly dead in the water. She made a circle to the right and got clear of damaged ships and Japanese gunfire and then headed for the survivors of the Preston, intending to rescue them. Vessels close to Savo opened fire, however. In view of her damaged condition, the Benham changed course and steered toward Guadalcanal. As she did so, there was a terrific explosion which shook her violently. This was probably depth charges detonating. The destroyer worked her way to seaward, hugging the shore to avoid observation, and took no further part in the action.73
After the Walke's second target disappeared behind Savo, our leading destroyer shifted fire to gun flashes on the port hand of Guadalcanal. As she did so, the Preston blew up astern. Two minutes later the Walke was shifting her torpedo battery from curved fire ahead to broadside to starboard when she was struck by a torpedo in frame No. 45 on the starboard side.74 Immediately thereafter she was hit by what appeared to be a cruiser salvo. There were explosions in the radio room, near the foremast, and in the vicinity of gun No. 3. The forecastle and superstructure deck were blown off as far aft as the bridge. Fire broke out in the forward section, and the 20-mm. magazine exploded. The bulkhead of the forward fireroom buckled, as did the deck amidships. All engines were stopped, and the commanding officer, Comdr. Thomas E. Fraser, gave the order to abandon the ship, which was sinking fast by the head. Only two life rafts were in a condition to be launched. Before the crew went over the side, depth charges were double-checked and reported set on safe. At 0042 the ship disappeared stern last. The bow, detached, remained afloat. A minute later an unknown number of depth charges exploded,75 killing and injuring many of the men in the water.76
As the Preston was sinking about 0032, the Gwin received a 4.7-inch hit which entered No. 2 engine room on the starboard side about 4 feet above the waterline. It exploded in the vicinity of the control station,
killing all the personnel on the upper level. All torpedo safety links failed. Three torpedoes slid out of No. 1 mount and over the side. The Gwin came hard right to avoid the vanishing Preston and then back to course 300° T. Just after she passed, the Preston's depth charges exploded and gave the Gwin "quite a shaking up." Next the destroyer was struck by an unknown caliber shell on the starboard side at the break of the deck near frame No. 188. It left a jagged hole about 2 feet square and was evidently a ricochet. Two 600-pound depth charges were knocked open and their contents spilled on the deck.
The Gwin continued firing at the flashes in the lee of Savo with three guns. A torpedo crossed her stern, missing by about 30 yards. At 0036 she ceased firing, having lost all targets.77
While our destroyers had been engaging the enemy light forces, the battleships had not been idle. At 0024 the Washington believed she was being fired on by enemy guns on Savo Island. Group No. 3 of the secondary battery hammered about 6 of these "shore batteries" in turn until each was silenced. As action continued, it was realized that the guns were those of between 6 and 10 ships rimming the southern shore of Savo. The main battery directors were so blinded by the flashes of the 5-inch fire that at first they could not find a point of aim. But by 0029 main battery director No. I was on target, bearing 356° T. Optical ranges were soon obtained on a burning ship on the beach, range 10,200 yards, but the main battery did not fire, possibly because all cruiser targets seemed to have withdrawn behind Savo. At about this time our destroyers were hit.
At 0034 the Washington's secondary battery ceased fire. Mount No. 3 had fired wild as a result of the training motor kicking out, and it was feared that our destroyers would be damaged. Explosions, probably of depth charges, were noted aboard the ship. All secondary targets had been lost. Speed was increased to 26 knots, and course was changed to 282° T. to place one of the burning destroyers between the flagship and the enemy.
At 0035 SG radar contact was made with four enemy vessels, bearing 330° T., which had been obscured by Savo up to this time.78 Radar Plot coached the main battery onto one which was reported to be bigger than the others, and tracking was commenced by radar ranges and bearing.
Shortly thereafter the Preston was passed abeam with her stack still showing, and at 0041 the Washington steamed by the wreckage of the Walke and launched two life rafts.
The South Dakota had continued firing her main battery with unobserved results at targets in the area where the two heavy Japanese ships had been sunk in the first phase of the action. After five salvos she checked fire. At this moment (0033) she began to suffer a series of electrical failures. Gunfire had caused a short circuit on the feeder cable to No. 4 secondary director. The circuit breaker was locked in, so the overload resulting from the short was transmitted to the main circuit supplying half the power to the after part of the ship. The breaker on this line tripped, and power was lost. A switch was made to the alternate power supply. The original circuit breaker was still locked in, so the same thing happened again. All power was lost aft. Gyros and electric fire-control installations went out, and from 0033 to 0036 power was reported off in all turrets. The main battery shifted to auxiliary but did not fire. The trouble was isolated in little more than 2 minutes, and power came back on again, with the exception of mounts 6 and 8. However, isolated electrical failures continued to occur during this phase of the action, though not to the extent which was later caused by enemy hits.
The South Dakota started to turn left to clear our stricken destroyers, and then came back to starboard and steadied on base course of 300° T. She passed one of the destroyers abeam to port, and a lull in the firing enabled the cries of the crew to be heard. Course was changed to 290° T. and shortly thereafter to 285° T., speed 26. The main battery had joined
the secondary battery in firing on targets close to Savo, range 14,100 yards, eight separate ships being located by gun flashes.
At 0041 the SC radar went out and did not operate again for 5 minutes, a fact which was to have important repercussions. The ships at the extreme left and right of the enemy line had caught fire. The left-hand one now blew up and was believed sunk. Presumably these ships had also been hit by our destroyers and by the Washington's 5-inch.
At about this time the South Dakota took under fire a target astern which the reports of our destroyers indicate was the Kuma cruiser which had been firing on them. The range was 15,500 yards. The blast of the first salvo from turret III set fire to the South Dakota's own aircraft. The next salvo blew two of the three planes overboard and extinguished most of the fires. The main battery ceased firing after the fourth salvo, because the target broke in two and was lost from the radar screen.
Station keeping by the South Dakota had been complicated by the break-down of her SG radar. As the battleship passed the wreckage of the Walke, about 0045, she sheered to the right and worked her way out on the starboard quarter of the Washington. Thereafter she was only intermittently visible on the flagship's SC radar screen because she was often in the 60 blind arc astern caused by the foremast structure. The South Dakota could not be sure of her own position, nor could she detect the four ships located at 0035 by the Washington (p. 71).
Sunday, 15 November 0036 Washington tracking new targets northwest of Savo. 0047 South Dakota picks up these vessels, range 5,800. 0100 Enemy illuminates and Washington opens fire on Kongo BB (Kirishima), range 8,400. 0102½ Washington ceases fire on erroneous report that target has sunk. South Dakota under triple or quadruple concentration from enemy. Main battery sinks cruiser in conjunction with Washington 5-inch. 0104 Washington resumes firing at BB and fatally damages it. 0107 Flagship ceases fire. BB and two CA/CL silenced and turning away. 0110 Damage causes South Dakota to decide on retirement. 0117 Washington tracking new targets, probably DD's. 0133 Washington retires to avoid torpedo trap. 0148-0219 Washington reports 17 torpedoes--4 or 5 close calls. 0155 Fires on South Dakota are all out. 0250 Task Force Commander in radar contact with Gwin and Benham.
A brief lull followed the sinking of the supposed Kuma cruiser astern of the South Dakota. Our second battleship was no longer under enemy fire, and only a few shorts were noticed in the vicinity of the Washington. Gun flashes had temporarily blinded most of the personnel in the South Dakota's conning tower and at other stations, and it was difficult to see the guide.
The Washington was still tracking the new enemy targets northwest of Savo. They were heading west on a course which converged with that of the United States flagship at an angle of about 15°. At 0046 the Washington noted that a ship bearing 072° T. had sunk. It was reported by two sources as a cruiser but was probably a destroyer. At this time the OTC ordered our own destroyers to retire. Only the Gwin receipted. Thereafter the battleships were entirely without screen.
The South Dakota's SG radar was now back in operation. At 0047 it reported four ships bearing 070° R., range 5,800 yards. As already pointed out, this vessel's temporary lack of SG radar had prevented her from contacting these ships as the Washington had done. She had unwittingly approached within the 7,000-yard range prescribed by the Task Force Commander, while the Washington had not.79 The comparative experience of the two ships in the next few minutes was dramatic evidence of the wisdom of remaining beyond effective searchlight illumination in order to capitalize on the advantage afforded by our fire-control radar.
Our battleships were 11 miles west of Savo, with the South Dakota on the flagship's starboard quarter, bearing about 150° R. There were at least four enemy ships in column, the first being the largest. At about 0055 the Japanese circled to the right, reversing their course and heading toward the channel between Savo and Cape Esperance at 26 knots. Again they began slowly to narrow the lateral distance between the two forces.
At 010080 the second enemy ship illuminated the South Dakota with searchlights slightly forward of the beam. There were four lights in pairs, two over two. The Washington's main battery and mounts No. 1 and 3 of her 5-inch immediately fired on the leading Japanese vessel, a Kongo battleship, at a range of 8,400 yards. The target bore 008° T.
Mounts No. 5 and 7 concentrated on the illuminating ship, a probable heavy cruiser, range 7,500, while mount No. 9 illuminated for the main battery. About 30 seconds after the enemy searchlights came on, the Japanese and the South Dakota opened fire almost simultaneously. The lights on the illuminating ship were extinguished, and the third vessel in line took over its task. The lights on this ship and those on the next one to attempt illumination were successively darkened by the secondary batteries of our battleships. The South Dakota's main battery fired two or three salvos at the second vessel in line after its lights had been shot out, and it apparently broke in two. The South Dakota was now under triple or quadruple concentration of enemy fire, and hits were soon received, the first ones probably in the 1.1-inch clipping room. Speed was increased to 27 knots. More hits were felt. The main battery shifted to the third ship in the enemy column, which was being fired on by the Washington's 5-inch.
The flagship's main battery had hit the Kongo battleship with at least three salvos, all shells exploding. Large clouds of black smoke and steam poured forth, followed by flames. At 0102½ "cease firing" was ordered on an erroneous report that the target had sunk.
The South Dakota was hit many times by battleship and cruiser shells (14-, 8-, 6-, and 5.5-inch), but only about 3 of the explosions were of a high order.81 The enemy was shooting high, which resulted in many overs, but there was also a great deal of damage to the foremast structure. Radars, directors, fire-control instruments, and other valuable installations, including TBS, were put out of action. A 6-inch shell smashed into Radar Plot, demolishing it. Another shell immediately followed and landed in almost the identical spot. There were other hits and some fires in the Battle II area. Five fuel oil compartments were ruptured. Thirty men were killed and 60 wounded.
The Washington observed that the Kongo battleship was still firing with three of her four twin turrets, so the main battery resumed after ceasing fire for a minute and a half. More hits were obtained. The enemy vessel continued to fire with one turret. At 0107 the Washington, which was still undamaged, ceased fire because the Kongo had been
silenced and was heading away.82 The main battery continued to track this vessel for 10 minutes while it performed a 500° turn. She had received about eight 16-inch hits and many 5-inch and was burning badly. Later information definitely identified her as the Kirishima, and it is known that she later sank.83
The rest of the enemy force was retiring in various stages of damage. The second ship, probably a heavy cruiser, had been seen to sink, as noted. The third was seriously injured and on fire. The fourth had suffered moderate damage from 5-inch fire.
At 0110 the Japanese had not been firing for 2 or 3 mmutes. Turret III on the South Dakota had reported difficulty in training due to a 14-inch hit somewhere near the gas seal. The ship was badly cut up topside by 6- and 5.5-inch shells, although her armor had withstood two 14-inch hits. Repair parties were fighting fires, which were reported as not serious. Damage control observed that some water was being shipped on high-speed turns. Both batteries had lost all targets and had ceased firing. The Washington could not be seen, and communication with her was impossible, due to radio damage. In view of the injured condition of his ship, Capt. Gatch decided to retire, feeling that he was more of a liability to the Task Force Commander than anything else.
At 0117 the Washington shifted her main battery from the stricken Kirishima, which was steadying on a westerly course at a speed of 18 knots, to track a new target. This was the leading vessel of a group of five (probably destroyers) heading northwest at 29 knots. The United States flagship continued on course 340° T., looking for transports or other suitable targets. At 0121 what appeared to be the South Dakota was located at a considerable distance to the southeast, pursuing a southerly course. Soon afterwards targets were reported at 048° T. (the destroyers), 147° T., and 326° T. Four more were then observed on a bearing of 240° T., possibly in the vicinity of the Russell Islands.84 The leading ship of those being tracked by the main battery began laying
a smoke screen, perhaps to hide damaged units. Smoke was also sighted ahead and fairly close aboard.
At 0133 Admiral Lee reversed course to 180° T. to avoid a possible torpedo trap and slowed to 20 knots. The Task Force Commander thought that the enemy transports had been sufficiently delayed to prevent them from reaching the beaches and unloading before daylight.
During her retirement the Washington's course was held well to the west of the probable tracks of our damaged ships so as not to lead enemy destroyers. At 0137 a heavy explosion was noted at 095° T., followed in a few minutes by an outburst of firing dead astern. There was a splash 150 to 200 feet high about 200 yards short. The bridge reported targets ahead and also dull flashes. The Task Force Commander was still unable to raise the South Dakota on the TBS. Speed was now 25 knots.
A few minutes later a torpedo was observed on the port quarter. From this time until 0219 the flagship was subjected to torpedo attacks by a single ship on the starboard bow and by several destroyers on the port quarter. Seventeen separate torpedoes were noted, some of these observations being duplications. Other "torpedo wakes" were probably light streaks from stars. But four or five real "fish" came too close for comfort. There were also reports of torpedo boats which were later believed to have been false, although there was considerable evidence that light craft had been present in Savo Sound during the action just concluded.
By 0155 the South Dakota had managed to extinguish all her fires. A few minutes later communication with the flagship was restored. The South Dakota acknowledged an order directing her to retire at her best speed, after which radio silence was maintained.
At 0220 the Washington made a radar contact with a vessel 16,000 yards off the starboard quarter. The main battery stopped tracking the five destroyers and shifted to the larger target. This was later reported to be the South Dakota. It may have been the Gwin, however.
After clearing the Russell Islands, radar contact was established with the Benham and the Gwin, and communication took place over TBS. The destroyers were ordered to retire in company to Espiritu Santo. The commanding officer of the Benham was told to use his discretion as to the abandonment of his ship.
At 0649 the Washington secured from general quarters. Orders were received from COMSOPAC to proceed toward Espiritu Santo and rendezvous with fully fueled destroyers. Admiral Lee was then to operate so
as to reach the Savo Island area by 2200 that night. However, the hasty retreat of the Japanese units from the southeastern Solomons during the day later caused this order to be countermanded.
At 0951 the South Dakota was sighted at the rendezvous set for 1000. A visual was received from her as follows: "We are not effective. Turret III out. Fire control badly damaged. Only one radar operative. Fuel tank holed." The two ships joined and proceeded eastward. Contacts were limited to eight unidentified planes at 1105 and five more 15 minutes later. At 2240 the destroyers Dale, Lardner , and Stack joined and formed antisubmarine screen. Two days later the Force reached Noumea, whence the South Dakota was dispatched to the United States for repairs.
United States losses as a result of the Battleship Night Action were as follows:
Sunk Damaged BB 0 1 (South Dakota) DD 3 (Benham, Preston, Walke) 1 (Gwin)
Enemy losses as reported by CINCPAC:
Sunk85 Damaged BB 1 1 CA 1 1 CL 1 1 DD 2 3 OBSERVATIONS
The Washington identified the first group of enemy ships as probably 1 battleship, 2 or 3 cruisers, and 3 or 4 destroyers--6 to 8 ships in all. The South Dakota reported that there were at least 3 ships, the first being a battleship or heavy cruiser and the other 2 light cruisers or possibly heavy cruisers. In the second phase of the action, the Washington estimated that 6 to 10 light craft were involved, destroyers and perhaps large MTB's. The South Dakota identified these ships as 8 destroyers. According to our destroyers, 1 heavy cruiser and 1 or more light cruisers were also present during part of this phase. They agreed that the South Dakota had sunk one of them, possibly the destroyer leader.
In the third phase both of our battleships reported that one battleship and three cruisers were involved. The Washington suggested that part
of this force might have been east of Savo during Phase I. Later the United States flagship tracked five probable destroyers which may have been close by during the final part of the engagement. (Some observers on the South Dakota thought they saw three ships rounding Savo.)
In any event, it is obvious that the American force was greatly outnumbered, as in the Cruiser Night Action. The firepower of our battleships, however, was overwhelming, and our destroyers clinched this advantage for us by absorbing the enemy's vastly superior torpedo strength.
It is probable that the Japanese were surprised, or if they were not, that they did not open fire first because their radar equipment was inferior, or because their disposition in groups, similar to the formation employed two nights previously, made them afraid of firing on their own forces. Admiral Lee believed that the enemy expected to meet opposition but intended to arrive on the scene before Task Force LOVE. "The long range at which we opened fire," he wrote, "and the accuracy of our initial salvos, fired without artificial illumination, must have been a distinct and unpleasant surprise. On the other hand the celerity with which the enemy fell away from our attack was a distinct surprise to us."
SG radar was of great importance in permitting our forces to approach the enemy undetected. According to Admiral Lee, it also "permitted us to navigate with some confidence at high speed in restricted and unfamiliar waters, when visual ranges and optical bearings were unobtainable." The results of the loss of SG radar by the South Dakota demonstrated how invaluable this instrument had become.
On the Washington's first main battery target, radar ranges and optical train were used. On the second target, the Kirishima, radar was used for both purposes until the target was in view, after which optical train was employed. The secondary battery used radar ranges throughout and radar train in Phase I. During this same period the fall of shot from the main battery was observed by both fire control and SG radars, but during Phase III no splashes were picked up by the FC operators. It was thought possible that the Kirishima's signal was so strong that receiver sensitivity had been cut too low to see the splashes, or that nearby targets might have confused the signals.
The South Dakota used radar fire control throughout the engagement. Splash identification was most successful. According to Capt. Gatch, "on
the opening salvo the radar operator identified three targets, our splashes, and the splashes made by the Washington."86
After the action many complaints were recorded of directors and other stations being blinded by gun flashes, particularly from the 5-inch batteries. The enemy gun flashes, on the other hand, were comparatively small and dim. It was thought by observers that the Japanese were employing flashless powder or some form of flash retardant or hider. This comment was also made by officers on ships involved in the action of two nights before. In some instances our gun flashes were said to have provided almost continuous illumination of the firing vessel.
The Battleship Night Action of 14-15 November had immediate and conclusive results. Although COMSOPAC envisaged the possibility that the enemy would return the next night and attempt another bombardment and was providing against such a contingency (see p. 77), the following day found the Japanese in full retreat. On the morning of the 15th only 9 ships were sighted in the Shortland Island harbors, as against the 44 which were there on the 12th. About noon 17 ships entered, including 2 cruisers and 4 destroyers. These later moved north. Other damaged vessels had undoubtedly preceded them to Rabaul and Truk. The Japanese also withdrew their submarines from their usual advanced positions south of Guadalcanal toward Buin-Faisi, probably to protect Buka and Rabaul. A captured aviator reported that the heavy bombardment squadrons at Rabaul had been reduced by more than half. It is obvious that the enemy expected us to follow up our victory, though this would have been difficult, in view of the damage we had suffered, even if full information as to these moves had been speedily available. As it was, 15 November was devoted to the final destruction of the menace still offered by surviving Japanese transports.
70 All times in this section are Zone minus 12.
71 Admiral Halsey envisaged the possibility that Task Force LOVE had already made or would make contact with the enemy transports or their support group.
72 The Benham was our only destroyer equipped with fire control radar.
73 The Benham's own battle had just begun. Below her main deck the bow had been carried away from frame No. 14 forward. All compartments forward of frame No. 25 and below the water-line were flooded. The shell and main deck plating, as well as the longitudinals were buckled at frame No. 75. The ship was almost broken in two.
After gunfire ceased, Lt. Comdr. John B. Taylor, the commanding officer, considered coming about and heading for Tulagi, but the flashing of unknown recognition lights deterred him. Course was set to seaward, and communication was established with the Gwin, which remained nearby in case of need. At about 0300, the Benham shifted Conn and control to Battle II and evacuated everyone except necessary personnel from forward of the buckle in the deck. All possible weight was thrown overboard or moved aft.
At daybreak, about 0400, a destroyer was sighted on an opposite course near the south end of Guadalcanal. Batteries were manned, but as the light improved the ship was identified as the Gwin, which had lost contact with the Benham in the dark and was returning to pick her up. Both destroyers set their course for Espiritu Santo, making various speeds, 5 to 15 knots, to find the least motion. Backing was tried but did not improve matters. The Gwin later suggested forming an antisubmarine scouting line to deceive enemy air patrols.
At the start of the day the weather was quite calm. Every means was taken to strengthen the ship's weak points. Stiffeners, composed of turbine lifting bars and torpedo handling tracks, were bolted to the deck directly over the damaged longitudinals. But they could not be drawn up tight enough to prevent the ship from working. As she worked, the cracks at frame No. 75 grew wider.
About noon the sea began to rise, and pitching increased. Speed was reduced to 8 and then to 6 knots, but 11 knots proved best. After 4 hours it became clear that the cracks were spreading in spite of everything that could be done. At 1615 the Benham stopped and requested the Gwin to approach. The sea was too rough for direct transfer of personnel, but by 1824 all hands had reached the escort ship. Rafts, lines, and the Benham's whaleboat (for the injured) were used, and many men swam.
The Gwin then attempted to sink the Benham with torpedoes. The first one exploded prematurely, the second missed ahead, the third had an erratic run, and the fourth missed astern. Finally it was necessary to use the 5-inch battery. The Benham's magazine exploded, and she broke in two amidships and sank.
74 The appearance of our destroyers forced the Japanese to fire their torpedoes prematurely, before our battleships were within range. It is probable that the enemy thought that the targets were light cruisers.
75 These explosions were those noted aboard the Benham.
76 Further experiences of the survivors of the Walke were as follows (quotation from Action Report, U. S. S. Walke,: "The crew was organized in the water, the most seriously injured being placed on rafts. At approximately 0200 an enemy submarine surfaced close aboard the rafts and illuminated all survivors for several minutes, but proceeded without incident. An enemy destroyer later illuminated survivors on the detached bow. There was much shouting from this vessel, but she also proceeded without taking action. Survivors were sighted and signaled at dawn by friendly planes . . . U. S. S. Meade commenced picking up survivors with the aid of boats and cruiser aircraft at 1400. 151 . . . were landed at Tulagi, where 6 died of wounds received in action."
77 Later adventures of the Gwin follow (quotation from Action Report, U. S. S. Gwin):"0050 Ship is acting very tender. Took a 15° roll to port and was very slow in recovering. Repair party has not been able to determine water-tight integrity status of No. 2 engine room because of escaping steam. Boilers 3 and 4 have been secured and after bulkhead stops closed. Ammunition is being removed from No. 4 upper handling room, shell room, and jettisoned. A fire hose is playing on the 20-mm. ammunition in the after clipping room.
"0100 Ordered jettison bill placed in effect.
"0115 Gwin retiring, steaming on various courses at 15 knots to keep about 10 miles off Guadalcanal.
"0140 Repair party reported that No. 2 engine room was not making water. Ceased jettison operations. Five depth charges in port rack had been dropped, set on safe, and provisions located in FD radar compartment (vacant) had been thrown over.
"0300 Benham reported her position as 9-30 S, 159-30 E, course 160, speed 10. Gwin closed to sight contact with Benham and then took her course and speed.
"0330 Have lost sight of Benham. Called on TBS and learned that she had slowed to 8 knots. Reversed course to reestablish contact.
"0415 Took station 1,000 yards on Benham's port quarter and retired in company."
78 The Radar Plot officer described their appearance as that of "part of the island being pulled out and then separating into drops similar to the effect of planes taking off from a carrier."
79 The flagship did not know of the failure of the South Dakota's radar, nor was she aware of that ship's exact location. Admiral Lee was under the impression that the Washington's consort was farther south than she actually was.
80 The moon had set at 0058. Only very prominent landmarks were visible at more than 5 miles.
81 According to the action report of the South Dakota, the fragmentation of most of the projectiles was due to impact rather than to detonation. Many 8- and 6-inch shells entered the ship without exploding.
82 All in all, the Washington fired 75 rounds of 16-inch and 107 rounds of 5-inch at the battleship, which meanwhile was firing at the South Dakota. Sixty-two rounds of star shells were also used. When the main battery resumed fire, star shells fell short after the second salvo and blinded the main battery spotters. Apparently this made no difference, as the big guns were on target both before and afterward. The enemy caused no damage to the Washington during the entire action. She was not illuminated and was fired on only sporadically.
83 The 5 ½ minutes of 16-inch shell fire required to destroy the battleship Kirishima contrasts significantly with the extraordinary aerial and torpedo pounding absorbed by her sister ship, the Hiyei, 2 days before.
84 These may have been the four transports which reached Guadalcanal just before daylight.
85 Subsequent information made the following minimum Japanese losses seem certain: sunk, 1 BB, 1 DD.
86 Action Report, U.S.S. South Dakota.
Last updated: July 26, 2003Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation