Chapter 12: Arrival in the Solomons

6 August 1615 Task Force assumes "Approach Disposition."
  2400 Aircraft carriers arrive south of Guadalcanal.
7 August 0133 Guadalcanal sighted by Squadron YOKE.
  0300 Squadrons YOKE and XRAY separate.
  0430 Some transports go to general quarters
  0530 Aircraft carriers launch first flights.
  0613 Quincy opens fire on Kukum.
  0615 Planes begin bombing Guadalcanal and Tulagi areas.
  0633 Sunrise.
  0637 Signal "Land the landing force" Tulagi area.
  0650 Signal "Land the landing force" Guadalcanal.
  0709 Enterprise launches search group.

The weather of August 6th was ideal for our approach to the Solomons. An overcast sky and a mist which limited even surface visibility rendered enemy reconnaissance hopeless. At noon the destroyer Selfridge was sent ahead to make a landfall on Bellona Island, so that upon her return before nightfall she was able to provide our squadron commanders with an accurate navigational position.


At 161511 our force assumed "Approach Disposition" for entering the area of operations. This was a column of squadrons, with Squadron YOKE, destined for Tulagi, in the lead, and Squadron XRAY, which was to carry out the landing on Guadalcanal, 6 miles astern.

Our men were solemn as they approached their objective. Maj. Justice Chambers, who commanded one of the companies scheduled to make the original landing on Tulagi, relates, "I don't think that any of us will forget that last night before we landed. Officers and men realized that all their training for the last few months was finally going to be put to the test. I personally was worried to death and kept going over my notes for fear that I had forgotten some detail in the orders. As we headed up for Tulagi in the darkness of the night the men wrote their last letters home and I collected them knowing that for some of them it would probably be the last letters they would write."

At 2235, while about 40 miles southwest of Guadalcanal, Squadron YOKE changed from the northerly course on which it was approaching, to 040° T., and half an hour later Squadron XRAY followed onto the same course. At 0133 Guadalcanal could be made out, broad on the starboard bow of the Neville in Squadron YOKE. At 0224 the thin crescent of the waning moon rose and the dark shadow of the shore line could be clearly seen. A little later Savo Island was visible by its pale light.

About 0300, when they were off the northwest tip of Guadalcanal, our two squadrons separated. The Russell islands were broad on the port bow as Squadron YOKE turned onto course 058° to pass to the north of Savo and so on to the Tulagi area, while Squadron XRAY turned more sharply to the east to pass south of Savo and along the north shore of Guadalcanal.

It had been anticipated that the Japanese might have patrols in the passages on either side of Savo Island, and our naval escorts were fully alert in the first degree of readiness. However, the surprise was complete. Although the Japanese had radar equipment ashore, our arrival was seemingly undetected. There was no challenge and our ships slid through the darkness with no sound except the wash of their own propellers and the breaking of the waves from their wakes upon the shore.

Meanwhile our three aircraft carrier groups comprising Task Force NEGAT were also approaching the target area. At midnight they were


southwest of Guadalcanal, about 75 miles from Tulagi. At 0530, an hour before sunrise, the carriers launched their first flights. The weather had cleared save for a few scattered cumulus clouds. The planes showed only a dim white light on their tails until they were at least 5 miles clear of the carriers, when they were allowed to turn on their running lights in order to expedite the rendezvous. But due to the closeness of the carrier groups and the inexperience of some of the pilots, considerable confusion ensued, planes from one carrier joining up with those from another. To make matters worse, a brilliant explosion suddenly occurred in the vicinity of the rendezvous. It was later learned that a scout bomber had inadvertently dropped bomb, which exploded on hitting the water.12 However, by the time the planes were over Guadalcanal, the first rays of light were showing in the east, and nearly all planes had found their correct places in the formation.

As our two squadrons drew near to their respective objectives, our transports made ready. Some ships in both groups went to general quarters as early as 0430, while others did not follow this example until an hour later.

For fully 20 minutes Squadron XRAY, led by the Chicago, steamed along the silent shore of Guadalcanal. Its 15 transports were in 2 columns of 7 and 8 ships, respectively, arranged in the same order in which they would lie for the initial debarkation. The men on board were at first oppressed by the dark silence. Tense with the strain of impending battle, they did not know whether the enemy's apparent somnolence was real or feigned. no guns fired at their approach. No planes appeared to bomb or strafe. The surprise was so complete as even to surprise the surprisers.

As the squadron would pass within 6,000 yards of Lunga Point, where there were known to be antiaircraft batters, Admiral Crutchley had arranged for the Quincy to come forward from her position in the rear of the squadron and take responsibility for silencing any enemy fire from that area.

While our other cruisers were launching their spotting and liaison planes, the morning silence was shattered at 0613 by the guns of the Quincy. That cruiser was responsible for the bombardment of the area from Lunga Point west, and had started firing upon the coast in the vicinity of Kukum, where a large oil fire was seen very shortly. About the


same time a small schooner, which was crossing ahead of our squadron from the north toward Kukum, was taken under fire by the Selfridge and the Dewey.

Map 5: Disposition of our Transports off Beach Red, Guadalcanal
7 August 1942

In a moment our fighting planes were strafing it too. The intense flames which resulted indicated that the ship had been carrying gasoline.


Meanwhile the Australia13 had fired three salvos of 8-inch shells at a small village between Lunga point and Tenaru, while the Ellet opened fire on scattered houses in the same area. The Astoria, which had been assigned the area east of the Lunga River, was also firing, seeking out gun emplacements and stores, and the Vincennes was bombarding the area from Lengo Village east to Tetere.

Immediately after the ships began their bombardment our planes put in their appearance, precisely on schedule. At 0652 what appeared to observers on the President Adams to be an enemy plane was seen over the President Hayes, which was just ahead in the column. Evidently our fighters saw it at the same time, for a moment later it was going down in flames. The 24 dive bombers were meanwhile attacking enemy shore batteries, vehicle concentration, and supply dumps.

Before the naval air bombardment had closed, our transports were approaching the debarkation area, 9,000 yards off Beach RED. The signal "Stop" was executed, and, as our ships lost headway, the signal came to back. Our ships came to a halt in their assigned positions at 0647. At 0650 the signal was given to "land the landing force," the transports remaining underway but stopped. our men on the transports had been in debarkation positions for some minutes. Boats were hoisted out and lowered, and debarkation commenced. A favorable sea permitted the use of cargo net gangways on both sides of the vessels simultaneously, and the operation was rapid, smooth, and efficient.

While our transports were lying hove to, our cruisers and destroyers not designated to provide fire support for the landings formed a double protective arc about them, cruisers on the inner arc and destroyers on the outer. This gave excellent protection against both planes and submarines, as our cruisers could maneuver within the destroyer screen and yet remain close to the transport group.

Meanwhile, across the bay near Tulagi there was similar activity. At 0507, when Squadron YOKE was north of Savo, the Neville at the head of the transport group had changed course to 115° to head directly for Tulagi. According to her report, "No shots were fired, no patrol boats encountered, no signs of life were evident until Group XRAY opened fire on Guadalcanal objectives across the channel about 20 miles away, then a cluster of red rockets went off from the direction of Tulagi."


If the rockets were intended as a warning, the enemy had no opportunity to act upon it, for the bombardment of the Tulagi area began almost simultaneously with that of Guadalcanal. Our plans had provided that planes from our carriers were to strafe and bomb enemy installations 15 minutes before sunrise, which was at 0633. Promptly at 01614, while our ships were drawing close to the debarkation area, the drone of planes could be heard overhead and our fighters began strafing. Four minutes later our dive bombers started their work. The enemy replied with antiaircraft fire, but it was ineffective. The planes themselves could not be seen through the overcast, but the explosions of their bombs could be both seen and heard. Fires sprang up on and near the islands. The morning twilight was not yet clear enough to permit the distinguishing of the burning objects, but it was thought that they were aircraft. It was subsequently learned that we had destroyed 18 enemy planes on the water.14 One officer remarked that "after dropping their bombs, our planes strafed the beaches and pounded the daylights out of every building which looked as if it might be hiding some Japs."

After this preliminary bombing, half a squadron of dive bombers was maintained over the transport group during daylight to attack targets as directed by the Air Support Director Group.

The sun's first rays were coming over the horizon when our ships arrived in the transport area. This was about half an hour behind schedule, due to the failure of the transports to keep closed up. Capt. George B. Ashe, Commander of Transport Division EIGHT, immediately (0637) gave the signal to land the landing force, and at the same time set "H-hour" at 0800, which was strictly on schedule. This was done in order to avoid keeping the transports standing unnecessarily idle before landing their troops. Only the Jackson, which had to send off the preliminary landing force to Haleta, and later to send a force to Halavo at a considerable distance, had no time to spare, but she was able to make her first landing on time.

*  *  *

Our air attack was carried out by 85 carrier planes, 44 assaulting enemy positions on Guadalcanal, 41 those on Tulagi. The Wasp provided 16 VF, 15 VSB, and the Air Group Commander over Tulagi; the Saratoga,


12 VF, 23 VSB, and the Air Group Commander over Guadalcanal; and the Enterprise, 8 VF for strafing at Guadalcanal and 9 VSB for bombing at Tulagi. The Wasp also sent our early in the morning 7 VT to bomb enemy installations on the eastern end of Florida Island and on Malaita. In addition to bombing flights which continued throughout the day, the carriers maintained combat patrols over both the carrier and the transport areas and vectored out many search flights.

The first flights from the Wasp, Admiral Noyes' flagship, were 16 fighters led by Lt. Comdr. Courtney Shands and 15 scout bombers led by Lt. Comdr. John Eldridge, Jr. These flights had been assigned specific targets and areas in Tulagi, Gavutu, Tanambogo, Halavo, Port Purvis, Haleta, and Bungana. They arrived over their targets just as day was breaking. The Wasp fighters headed first for enemy aircraft on the ground or water, destroying 15 patrol craft and 7 seaplane fighters. The bombers concentrated their attention on antiaircraft and shore batteries, putting many of them immediately out of action. Except for 1 fighter, all planes of the first flights returned to the Wasp at 0715 and landed on board. The missing VF made an emergency landing on the Enterprise, refueled and returned home later.

At 0700 9 TBFs, loaded with four 500-pound bombs each, left the Wasp to bomb Japanese resistance centers on Makambo Island and in the prison on Tulagi Island. These centers were silenced. Thereafter planes were launched as scheduled throughout the day, while a continuous attack group of four fighters and nine scout bombers was maintained over the transports in the Tulagi sector. These planes received orders as to targets from the Air Group Commander, Lt. Comdr. Wallace M. Beakley, above the island, or through him, from the Air Support Director Group aboard the McCawley. The Enterprise furnished the personnel for the Air Support Director. On August 2d, Lt. Comdr. William E. Townsend, Lt. (jg) G.E. Douglas, Ens. P.L. Rose and three radio men had been transferred with equipment to the staff of Admiral Turner in the McCawley. These officers set up the communications necessary for direct control of the Air Support Force assigned to Group XRAY off Guadalcanal, and were given the radio call "Orange Base One." Being in touch with the Senior Carrier Group Commander in the air over Guadalcanal, "Orange Base One" soon came to control and handle radio traffic between all the ground forces and all supporting aircraft overhead. The Air Support Director Group of


"Orange Base Two" in the Neville, which was stationed off Tulagi, acted only as a stand-by unit. The Fighter Director for the entire force was stationed in the Chicago and was called "Black Base."

The commander of the Saratoga Air Group, Comdr. Harry D. Felt, was assigned tactical command of the air units operating over the Guadalcanal area in the first few hours of the attack. His force consisted of 12 VF, led by Lt. Comdr. Leroy C. Simpler, and 23 VSB, led by Lt. Comdr. Louis J. Kirn. According to Comdr. Felt's report, the dawn attacks appeared to proceed in accord with previous instructions. Apparently all opposition was quickly silenced. A schooner type vessel, possibly a small seaplane tender, was set afire by VF strafing. Large fires were lighted at Kukum. Soon after his arrival over Guadalcanal, Comdr. Felt made a continuous reconnaissance of the area, determining that opposition did not exist in some places where it had been expected and that existing installations often varied considerably from descriptions in intelligence reports. For example, a radio station at Lunga Field which had been consistently reported as an antiaircraft battery appeared on close inspection to be a radar. The only enemy personnel he sighted were traveling in 2 armored cars and were apparently trying to reach the cover of thick woods on the edge of Lunga Field. He made one short strafing dive on the leading car before they reached cover. Just before leaving his station at 0955 to be relieved by the commander of the Enterprise Air Group, he noticed an enemy tent bivouac in the woods and directed a strafing attack against this area.

Following the Saratoga's fighters over Guadalcanal, 8 planes of VF-6 from the Enterprise strafed antiaircraft emplacements and buildings on Lunga Field, and small boats and supplies along the beach from Tenaru to Kukum. They encountered little opposition and observed no aircraft or patrol boats.

As the Enterprise had been designated Fighter Control Ship for the three carriers and was primarily responsible for the protection of the carriers against enemy attack, her support of the land forces in Guadalcanal and Tulagi was less extensive than that of the other two carriers. By the same token, her activities in attempting to repel Japanese raids on our transport groups, which will be described later, were more formidable.

At 0709 the Enterprise launched 8 torpedo planes to conduct a search of section 270-030° to a depth of 200 miles. The only enemy contact


encountered on this search to the northwest was a small tanker which Ens. G.R. Stabelin, pilot, observed at 0740. He released a 500-pound bomb, scoring a near hit, and reserved 3 bombs for the remainder of the search. On radio instruction Ens. F. Mears, pilot, made an unsuccessful torpedo run and 2 strafing runs on the same ship. On the return flight the ship could not be located. Similarly 14 VTBs were sent out at 1347, with Lt. Comdr. Charles M. Jett as leader, to conduct a 200-mile search of section 270-015° from point XRAY (latitude 09°32' S., longitude 195°30' E.) and a 200-mile search of sector 345-090° from point YOKE (latitude 09°50' S., longitude 160°56' E.). All planes returned but reported sighting nothing.

On August 6th Admiral Noyes had amplified his operation plan by directing the Saratoga to send four torpedo planes to search Maramasike Passage and Takataka Bay, Malaita Island, as support for the seaplane tender Mackinac. This mission was in addition to assigned tasks in the Tulagi-Guadalcanal area. The planes, TBF-1s, carried eight 100-pound bombs and four incendiary clusters per plane. Torpedo Squadron EIGHT attached to the Saratoga made two flight over Malaita. The first, consisting of seven planes, took off at 0600 and, after bombing buildings at Port Purvis on Florida Island headed in the direction of Malaita. The passage through Maramasike Estuary was abandoned because of extremely bad weather. An approach was attempted over the mountains to the eastern side of the island but this also was impossible due to instrument conditions. The planes then flew north along the western coast of Malaita to Langa Langa Harbor, which they mistook for Coleridge Bay. After bombing a cluster of native huts there they returned to the carrier.

A later flight of torpedo planes from the Saratoga was, however, successful in crossing Malaita and in surveying Maramasike Passage and Estuary from end to end. No enemy ships or planes were sighted. About 2 miles south of Point Bougard on Maramasike Island the fliers noticed four substantial houses situated on a small bay. Eight white people were seen in this area, and they all waved white objects as the planes passed overhead. The flight departed from Malaita at 1350 after calling the Mackinac and informing her that the area had been searched and was apparently clear.


Map 6: Air Searches of Malaita


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[11] This and all times mentioned hereafter are Zone minus 11.

[12] Report of Lieut. Louis H. Bauer, Commander Enterprise's fighter squadron.

[13] Pilots familiar with Solomon Islands waters had been put aboard selected ships, including the Australia and San Juan.

[14] The Neville diary said that we destroyed 8 Zero fighters with floats and 8 VPB. General Vandegrift, in an oral record, said 18 float planes and 2 four-engine bombers, while Admiral Crutchley's report gives the figure as 18.

Transcribed and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation