Chapter 18: The Air Support Retires

At 1807 on the 8th, Admiral Fletcher, commanding Task Forces NEGAT and TARE, sent a dispatch to Admiral Ghormley at Noumea, stating that the carrier fighter strength had been reduced from 99 to 78 planes, that fuel for the carriers was running low, and that because of the large number of enemy torpedo and bombing planes in the vicinity he recommended immediate withdrawal of the air support group. This recommendation was approved by Admiral Ghormley late that night and early the following morning the Wasp, Saratoga, and Enterprise and their escorts began retiring to the south.

This decision precipitated a conference just before midnight aboard Admiral Turner's flagship, the McCawley, which was attended by Admiral Crutchley and General Vandegrift. In view of the carriers' withdrawal, which left the amphibious force dangerously exposed to air attack, it was decided to move out all the other ships at 0600 the next day. This decision to retire the transport and cargo ships so disturbed General Vandegrift that he at once went aboard the Southard to go to Tulagi to confer with General Rupertus.44


Previously, the McCawley had received a warning that two Japanese destroyers, three cruisers and two gunboats or seaplane tenders had been sighted at 1127 (Zone minus 11) at latitude 5°45' S., longitude 156°07' E., course 120° T., speed 15 knots. This message was sent out by the Melbourne radio at 1821. Information is not available to explain the long delay between the sighting of the enemy surface force and its subsequent reporting to our forces at Guadalcanal.* Possibly the bad weather reported on August 8th by our search planes northwest of Guadalcanal Explains the failure of our reconnaissance to sight and track this hostile group.45 At any rate, Admiral Turner evidently believed that the most likely attack on our forces would come, as it had on the previous 2 days, through the air, because shortly before midnight he sent a message to the Commander Aircraft, South Pacific Force (Admiral McCain), estimating that the enemy force reported by Melbourne might operate torpedo planes from Rekata Bay, Santa Isabel Island, and recommending that strong air detachments strike there on the morning of the 9th.


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[>44] "As the operation had been planned with the expectation that the transport force would remain in the area until D plus 4 days, and in view of the unsatisfactory progress of unloading supplies, the decision to withdraw the surface vessels was most alarming, as its execution would profoundly affect the entire future course of operations in the Solomons." First Marine Division Commander's Report.

[45] Admiral McCain's operation plan for land-and water-based planes provided for a comprehensive search of the Solomons region before, during, and after the Tulagi-Guadalcanal landings. On August 8th the schedule for "D-plus-1 day to end of operations" was in force. This comprised 650- and 800-mile searches to the northwest from Plaine des Gaiacs, Espiritu Santo, Malaita, and Ndeni by VBs and VPs. It may be significant that the two sectors covering the enemy's line of approach to Guadalcanal from Buka and Bougainville via New Georgia and Isabel Islands were only partly covered by our search planes on August 8th because of bad weather in that vicinity.
*[Ed.: Latter analysis shows that warnings were radioed to, and received by, the Task Force on at least two occasions during the afternoon -- they were simply ignored or misinterpreted.]

Transcribed and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation