At dawn on Friday, November 13, 1942, burning, wrecked ships littered the waters of Guadalcanal. At a cost of five ships and thousands of lives, the U.S. Navy had blunted Japan’s drive to break the Guadalcanal stalemate.
Despite the strategic defeat and loss of the battleship Hiei, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of Japan’s Combined Fleet, was determined to try again to break the deadlock and win the war.
Three months of bitter air-ground-sea action in the Solomon Islands had resulted in a stalemate. Both the Americans and the Japanese were short of ships. Their troops on Guadalcanal, the island prize of the campaign, were exhausted. Yamamoto was now taking the offensive, and his battleships and destroyers were a powerful force.
The first move had been made the night of November 12. Two battleships, under Rear Adm. Hiroaki Abe, headed for Guadalcanal with orders to shell the American air base, Henderson Field, and destroy it. Instead they slammed into U.S. Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan’s mixed force of cruisers and destroyers.
The midnight collision saw destroyers and battleships trade salvos at point-blank range. After a wild two hours of gunfire and torpedo attacks, Callaghan was dead, and a timid and cautious Abe fled, even though he had crushed the American force.
Yamamoto acted swiftly, firing Abe and sending south a convoy of 8,000 Japanese troops under Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa. And the survivors of Abe’s group, headed by the battleship Kirishima, regrouped under Vice Adm. Nobutake Kondo, Abe’s replacement.
Kondo, however, was little better than Abe. He was described as an ‘English sort of officer,’ very gentlemanly, and good with his staff, but better suited for training command than battle.
Nonetheless, Kondo was on hand and senior, so he took over, adding the two tough cruisers of his Cruiser Division Four, flagship Atago and Takao. One light cruiser, Nagara, and six destroyers would escort this group, called the Emergency Bombardment Force. The mission was simple: sweep Ironbottom Sound off Guadalcanal on the night of the 14th, shell the airfield, cover the convoy arrival, then high-tail it home before dawn of the 15th.
The Americans knew the enemy moves, thanks to their cryptographers. But Vice Adm. William F. Halsey, the aggressive commander of the Southwest Pacific Theater, had virtually no ships to hurl at Kondo. All his cruisers and destroyers had been used up in the Friday 13th battle. The carrier Enterprise was still only partially repaired after being damaged at the Battle of Santa Cruz, but her 78 planes could screen Guadalcanal by day. The problem would be a night surface action.
All that was left for Halsey’s use were two fast, new, battleships, USS South Dakota and USS Washington. Naval War College doctrine forbade the use of battleships in a tightly confined space such as Ironbottom Sound, just north of Guadalcanal, but Halsey knew that wars were won at sea, not in a textbook. He ordered the dreadnoughts committed.
Commanding the two battlewagons was Rear Adm. Willis A. ‘Ching Chong’ Lee, a chain-smoking, approachable, bespectacled gunnery expert who relieved tension on the bridge by reading lurid novels or swapping sailor stories with the enlisted men standing watch duty.
Lee was mostly business, though. With Washington Captain Glenn Davis and gunnery officer Lt. Cdr. Edwin Hooper, he sat up many nights discussing gunnery problems, taking a mathematical approach. Lee also used more practical tools. He tested every gunnery-book rule with exercises and ordered gunnery drills under odd conditions–turret firing with relief crews, anything that might simulate the freakishness of battle.
Washington and South Dakota technically were outstanding ships: 35,000-ton displacements, able to race at 28 knots, armed with 16-inch guns. But South Dakota, despite her fiery Captain Thomas L. Gatch, had a reputation in the fleet as a jinx ship because of her habit of getting into collisions and suffering mechanical breakdowns at inopportune times. One breakdown had resulted in South Dakota‘s nearly colliding with the carrier Enterprise.
Washington, a tightly run ship, had fewer problems and sported the new SG radar. But Hooper, the gunnery officer, had noted when the radar was installed that the antenna had a blind arc of 80 degrees aft. He pointed this out to his shipboard seniors, but no changes were made.
The big ships started moving as early as November 11. Halsey cut orders for Washington and South Dakota to sail that day, escorting Enterprise to Guadalcanal. At 8:30 a.m., Washington‘s bullhorn summoned the special sea and anchor details to their stations, and just as the accommodation ladder was secured, a harbor craft sped up and deposited on Washington‘s deck a panting Lt. j.g. Bartlett H. Stoodley, freshly assigned to the battlewagon. The executive officer, Commander Arthur Ayrault, wasted no time with formalities. Stoodley was immediately given a damage control party to command.
That night, all hell broke loose in Ironbottom Sound. Next morning, Halsey realized he was down to his last trump card, the two battleships, 300 miles south of Guadalcanal. At noon, Halsey told Lee that he was to head a new unit, Task Force 64, and warned him to be ready for a flank-speed run to Guadalcanal. At 7:15 p.m., Enterprise blinkered Washington the message: ‘To Commander TF 64: Proceed north with both battleships and your four destroyers at best speed.’
Assigned to escort the two dreadnoughts were four tin cans [destroyers], Walke, Benham, Preston and Gwin. None had ever operated together before. They were chosen because they had the most fuel remaining in their bunkers. All were of different classes and different divisions. Commander Thomas Fraser, Walke‘s skipper, now headed a provisional destroyer squadron.
Command difficulties would hamper the big ships, too. Even though South Dakota and Washington were administratively Battleship Division 6, they had never before operated together. But there was no time to think about those issues just then. Everyone aboard Washington was excited. Officers and crew knew they would finally see some action.
Washington revved up to 26 knots, while navigator Lt. Cdr. Ed Schanze set a base course of 0 degrees true, straight north. On the bridge, Lee did some sums, then radioed bad news to Halsey: his ships could not be in position until 8 a.m. on the 14.
After dinner, Washington‘s officers remained in the wardroom and Lee and Davis briefed their men on the upcoming battle. Lee covered everything–gunnery, damage control, navigation, even feeding the men at general quarters. Davis fretted over navigating in Ironbottom Sound’s close quarters, but navigator Schanze was calm.
Two hundred miles to the north, the Japanese were swinging into action. Admiral Mikawa split off two cruisers, Suzuya and Maya, from his convoy escort as scheduled. At 12:10 a.m., those two ships swept in on Guadalcanal. At 1:30 a.m., their 8-inch guns ripped open the night. Half an hour and 989 shells later, they ceased firing. The two cruisers had wrecked three planes but had not been able to destroy Henderson Field.
At dawn the Americans retaliated. Enterprise sailed through squalls, low clouds and rain. Ten Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers splashed across the rain-slick flight deck and into the sky. At 9:15 a.m., Lt. j.g. Robert D. Gibson reported contact with enemy ships–two battleships and two cruisers. Gibson had actually found Mikawa’s cruisers and destroyers.
He shadowed them for an hour, then swooped in at 9:30 on the heavy cruiser Kinugasa, dropping 500-pound bombs at 1,000 feet. The bombs hit the front of Kinugasa‘s bridge, killing the ship’s captain and the executive officer and blowing holes in the ship’s plating. The veteran cruiser quickly acquired a 10-degree port list.
Soon after, Ensigns R.A. Hoogerwerf and P.M. Halloran arrived in their dive bombers and pounced on Maya. Halloran clipped Maya‘s mainmast and crashed into her port side, igniting 4.7-inch shells. Thirty-seven Japanese died, but Maya was back in business soon after the attack.
Gibson’s report brought in 17 more Dauntlesses at 10:45. Cruiser Chokai‘s boiler room was flooded, the light cruiser Isuzu lost her steering, and near-misses knocked out Kinugasa‘s engines and rudder, opening more compartments to the sea. Kinugasa capsized at 11:22 with 511 of her crew.
Meanwhile, Rear Adm. Raizo Tanaka’s 23-ship convoy headed south. Early on the 14th, they were attacked by planes from Enterprise. No hits.
Around noon, Navy Lieutenant Al ‘Scoofer’ Coffin led a strike force of Enterprise torpedo bombers and Marine dive bombers from Guadalcanal. Two transports were sunk and a third was sent home badly damaged.
All afternoon the Americans pounded the convoy with Marine dive bombers, Enterprise planes and B-17 Flying Fortresses. The Flying Fortresses shoved aside intercepting Japanese Zero fighters, whose guns were too light to penetrate the American planes’ tough hides. Those contingents started a fire that sank Brisbane Maru.
Next, at 3:30, came dive bombers from Enterprise–a tough, well-trained group under Lt. Cdr. Jimmy Flatley. They crippled two freighters, which had to be abandoned, then headed for Guadalcanal. Enterprise herself turned southward. She had more than done her job.
That afternoon aircraft from Enterprise and Marine planes, both based on Henderson Field, hit the convoy, sinking Nako Maru. Zeroes shot down three dive bombers during the attack, and Ensign Jefferson Carroum spent 73 hours swimming in the sea before being picked up. Some 13 Zeroes were felled.
All day long the battle raged, creating fantastic scenes–skies full of flak bursts, destroyers spewing smoke screens to cover freighters, transports exploding from bomb hits. By dusk, most of Tanaka’s freighters were burning or had been sunk, and his destroyers were stuffed with troops. Six Japanese transports had been sunk or abandoned, and only nine of 23 transports were still in convoy. Japanese losses had amounted to 450 men.
Tanaka blandly noted that ‘prospects looked poor for the operation,’ but he plodded on toward Guadalcanal. His destroyers were so cluttered with troops that he could not fight a battle. His only chance of landing the remainder of the convoy depended on Kondo’s ability to clear Ironbottom Sound.
Kondo was steaming south to meet the light cruiser Sendai. On Atago, Kondo would directly lead a bombardment unit with Atago, Takao and Kirishima, his heaviest ships. A screening unit of the light cruiser Nagara and six destroyers under Rear Adm. Satsuma Kimura would protect the big ships. A sweeping unit of Sendai and three destroyers would comb the Savo waters for enemy ships. Kondo’s plan was simple–blast through Guadalcanal and pummel the airfield. As soon as Ironbottom Sound was secure, Tanaka would land his transports. Meanwhile, Japanese reconnaissance planes were busy. They picked up Lee’s task force steaming toward Guadalcanal and mistakenly identified the battleships as cruisers.
Lee’s sailors were having a busy day. Washington went to general quarters at 5:40 a.m., and her guns were ready in six minutes. Lieutenant Ray Hunter was officer of the deck, but he was to turn that duty over to navigator Schanze. At the last minute Davis intervened. He wanted the more-experienced Hunter to stay on the bridge, and Schanze to man the navigating table.
The task force stayed at general quarters all day, closing in on Guadalcanal. Radioman Chet Cox listened in on the continuing air-sea battle. Lee decided to wait, patiently staying 100 miles south of Guadalcanal. He noted his ships had only operated together for 34 hours of a high-speed run. Accordingly, he deployed a six-ship column: Walke, Benham, Preston, Gwin, Washington and South Dakota, with the battlewagons 5,000 yards behind the tin cans.
Both sides were bringing their favored weapons into this battle. The American edge was in their new battleships, equipped with the latest SG radar, 16-inch guns, thick armor, and an admiral who understood the use of radar and big guns.
The biggest guns the Japanese had were 14-inchers on Kirishima, a battleship that, while fast (28 knots), was also old (built in 1914). But Kondo was attacking by night with well-trained crews, lookouts whose eyesight outranged American radar, and 90 Long Lance torpedoes, the finest in the world.
At dusk Lee ordered his ships to approach Guadalcanal. Washington‘s Davis told his crew: ‘We are going into an action area. We have no great certainty what forces we will encounter. We might be ambushed. A disaster of some sort may come upon us. But whatever it is we are going into, I hope to bring all of you back alive. Good luck to all of us.’
The words settled down on Washington‘s 1,500-man crew. In the secondary battery fire control, Ensign Hal Berc later said: ‘We had gone through a million drills, but who knew what a naval action was really about? When the captain finished his speech, there was a general sense of exhilaration. No one despaired.’
At 7:20, Lee ordered Task Force 64 to head northeast, to run past the western end of Guadalcanal. Up in Washington‘s foretop Lt. Cdr. Harry Seely, main battery spotting officer, peered through massive lenses into the gathering dusk. At 7:45, lookouts saw gunfire flashes to port. Seely looked on and saw Tanaka’s transports and escorts in the distance, fighting off the last air attacks of the day.
Lee steamed northeast, passed Savo Island on the starboard side and turned east. From there on, Halsey’s orders stopped and Lee’s initiative took over. The night was beautiful, moonlit, warm, and the sea was dead calm. Lieutenant Stoodley said the ship seemed to’slide through the sea as though in heavy oil.’
As Lee’s ships sped through the night, his radio operators heard American radio traffic. PT-boats were reporting Lee’s moves in plain English, blaring, ‘There go two big ones, but I don’t know who they are.’ The PT-boats swung in to attack Lee’s ships.
Lee personally got on the TBS voice radio and called Guadalcanal, asking that the PT-boats be ordered to pull out. Guadalcanal, however, didn’t believe Lee was who he claimed to be.
Lee bellowed his Annapolis nickname: ‘This is Ching Chong China Lee! Chinese, catchee? Refer your boss about Ching Lee. Call off your boys!’ Lee’s temper did the job. Guadalcanal answered, ‘Identity established. We are not after you.’
At the precise moment that Lee turned east, Kondo’s ships swept in behind Task Force 64 and split into three units. Kimura swung off in his flagship Nagara, while Hashimoto in Sendai did the same. Just as the convoy split, lookouts on the destroyer Shikinami spotted enemy ships bearing 200 degrees, just west of south. Uranami lookouts had them in sight, too, and identified them as ‘new-type cruisers.’ Hashimoto took his ships clockwise around Savo, with one destroyer, Ayanami, heading counterclockwise to sweep for enemy vessels.
At 10:31, Atago, Kondo’s flagship, picked up the enemy. By 11 p.m., Kondo had a flurry of reports. At 11:07, Sendai flashed that the Americans were heading due west, south of Savo.
Kondo, sure that the enemy comprised four destroyers and two cruisers, ordered his light forces to attack first so that his battleship could shell Guadalcanal. Kondo was afraid that Kirishima would, as Hiei had, fall victim to enemy light forces. More important, his battleship was loaded with Type 3 14-inch anti-aircraft shells, excellent for shelling airfields, but useless for hitting armored warships. Kondo swung his ships around in a countermarch just north of Savo, back to the west.
So three Japanese daggers moved south. Kimura’s group, headed by Nagara, to the west of Savo, Ayanami on her own west of Savo, and Hashimoto’s group, headed by Sendai, east of Savo. They knew the Americans were there. They did not know the Americans had battleships.
The battleship crews were not napping. Washington gun boss Walsh sat ready in the upper conning tower and ordered his gunners to load their 16-inch weapons. The book said it could be done in 30 seconds. Washington‘s gun crews did it in 14.
At 11 p.m., Washington‘s radar located a target bearing 340 true, broad on the starboard bow, 18,000 yards away. Lieutenant Hank Seely, in his spotting tower, eyed Sendai with his main director. On Washington‘s bridge, Ching Lee took a long drag on a Philip Morris and said to Davis, ‘Well, stand by, Glenn, here they come!’
At 11:17 Washington‘s bridge ordered, ‘Open fire when ready.’ The ship’s electric bells rang twice, and blinding tongues of flame shot out of the main guns. Seconds later, the secondary 5-inchers opened up on the destroyer Shikinami.
Next, South Dakota fired on the same target. Her radiomen heard Japanese voices chattering on 13 stations. South Dakota‘s action report claimed that Shikinami sank instantly. That was not the case, however. Hashimoto’s ships were unhurt. Sendai was straddled, so Hashimoto made smoke and wheeled north, regrouping for a more favorable moment to attack.
‘It looks like he’s turned around and beat it,’ Davis said to Lee on Washington‘s bridge as they watched Hashimoto withdraw. Then Lee’s destroyers raced in to attack.
Seely watched the tin cans clash. It looked to him like the entire east coast of Savo erupted with white blobs of light. Actually, the Japanese destroyers Ayanami and Uranami were firing, and behind them were a cruiser and five destroyers, headed straight for Lee’s four tin cans.
The American destroyers lacked SG radar, night training and cohesion. Walke located Ayanami; Benham followed, while Preston spotted Nagara. Soon all four ships were firing at Nagara.
Kimura’s 5.5-inch guns, armed with flashless powder, hit back. He also fired torpedoes, but the range was too close. All missed.
Some Japanese shells did find their mark. Preston was heavily hit in the two firerooms, killing everyone there. The second stack toppled over into the searchlight platform, collapsing it onto the starboard torpedo tubes and igniting their contents. The area was soon a mass of blazing wreckage. The executive officer was killed, the forward guns jammed in train, and Preston began to settle into the sea.
Commander Max C. Stormes, Preston‘s skipper, ordered abandon ship at 11:36. A minute later, the ship rolled over on her starboard side, then hung with her bow in the air for 10 minutes before sinking. Gone were 117 men (45 percent of the crew) and her captain.
On Washington, Seaman Naamen Berman, standing next to Lee, was stunned at the speed with which Preston went down. Sailors on Gwin watched, too, but had little time to grieve, as their ship was hit at 11:32 in the aft engine room. Superheated steam drove out the crews. The concussion unlatched torpedo restraining links, and Gwin‘s fish slid harmlessly into the sea. Another shell hit her stern, splitting open two depth charges.
Shells hit Walke as her skipper, Commander Thomas E. Fraser, was swinging to launch torpedoes. At 11:38 she was hit by a Long Lance that exploded her No. 2 magazine and blew off the ship’s bow. Power and communications failed, and the ship blazed fiercely. Fraser ordered abandon ship. Four rafts got away safely, but as Walke sank, her depth charges exploded, killing 80–including Fraser.
Berman, aboard Washington, saw Walke get hit. ‘I didn’t realize what it was–just BOOM, goodbye,’ he said later.
Another Long Lance blasted Benham‘s bow, ripping off a piece of it. The ship looped to escape gunfire, then staggered back in to action at 10 knots.
All four of Lee’s destroyers were now out of the fight. He was down to his battleships. Lee swung in to attack, his ships racing by blazing hulks and shipwrecked crewmen floating in oily water.
Still, the destroyers’ sacrifice had value. Washington found Ayanami and shelled her. More important, Fraser’s tin cans took torpedoes Kimura had aimed at Lee’s battleships. ‘It was beyond admiration,’ Lee wrote in his after-action report, ‘and it probably saved our bacon.’
Washington and South Dakota raced along at 26 knots. In the engine rooms, the temperature was 112 degrees. Shipfitter John Brown felt the concussions of Walke‘s depth charges going off.
On South Dakota, crews were patching minor holes from 5-inch hits by Ayanami when at 11:33 the chief engineer tied down her circuit breakers, violating safety procedures. The system instantly went into series, and the big ship lost electrical power. Radar, fire control, turret motors, ammunition hoists, radios–everything went out, with her guns locked in train. Captain Gatch wrote later: ‘The psychological effect on the officers and crew was most depressing. The absence of this gear gave all hands a feeling of being blindfolded.’ It was worse than that. South Dakota was facing 14 ships scattered across a 12-mile box on a dark night, amid spurious reports of enemy batteries on Savo and motor torpedo boats.
Washington was now the only intact ship left in the force. In fact, at that moment Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet. She was the only barrier between Kondo’s ships and Guadalcanal. If this one ship did not stop 14 Japanese ships right then and there, America might lose the war.
On Washington‘s bridge, Lieutenant Ray Hunter still had the conn. He had just heard that South Dakota had gone off the air and had seen Walke and Preston ‘blow sky high.’ Dead ahead lay their burning wreckage, while hundreds of men were swimming in the water and Japanese ships were racing in.
Hunter had to do something. The course he took now could decide the war. ‘Come left,’ he said, and Washington straightened out on a course parallel to the one on which she was steaming. Washington‘s rudder change put the burning destroyers between her and the enemy, preventing her from being silhouetted by their fires.
The move made the Japanese momentarily cease fire. Lacking radar, they could not spot Washington behind the fires. Kondo had to figure out his next move.
Meanwhile, Washington raced through burning seas. Everyone could see dozens of men in the water clinging to floating wreckage. Flag Lieutenant Raymond Thompson said, ‘Seeing that burning, sinking ship as it passed so close aboard, and realizing that there was nothing I, or anyone, could do about it, was a devastating experience.’
Commander Ayrault, Washington‘s executive officer, clambered down ladders, ran to Bart Stoodley’s damage-control post, and ordered Stoodley to cut loose life rafts. That saved a lot of lives. But the men in the water had some fight left in them. One was heard to scream, ‘Get after them, Washington!’
Everyone wondered why South Dakota–whose electrical problems had her virtually paralyzed–was plodding along silently behind. She did not follow Washington when the flagship turned left, but sailed in front of the flaming destroyers, presenting a perfect silhouette. The Japanese reacted quickly, illuminating South Dakota with searchlights. Nagara and four tin cans raced in for a torpedo attack. They fired at 4,000 yards, but miraculously none hit.
At 11:36, a three-minute eternity, South Dakota restored partial power and opened fire on Nagara. The first salvo set three planes on the Japanese cruiser’s quarterdeck on fire. The next salvo snuffed out the blaze and sent the planes into the sea.
Washington opened up on the enemy searchlights. But there were dozens of blips on the radar screen, most of them Savo Island, making tracking difficult.
At 11:42, South Dakota–still having problems–fired a salvo from her No. 3 turret that set fire to one of her Kingfisher seaplanes. Once again the battleship was illuminated. Damage control crews, including a 12-year-old sailor named Calvin Graham–he had falsified his age to join the Navy–quelled the blaze.
Meanwhile, Kondo’s battleship and two cruisers were still marking time north of Savo. Kondo, fearing a repetition of the Friday 13th chaos, held his ships back. His convoy was coming behind them. All Japan needed to win the war was one good shove.
Lee, meanwhile, made his moves. He put Washington on course 282 at 11:35, then detached the battered Gwin and Benham to retire; the wounded destroyers were a hindrance.
Now Kondo moved. Takao sighted Washington, and Atago‘s lookout said the enemy vessel ‘looked like a battleship.’ Kondo disagreed, but now he figured it was time to shell the airfield. At 11:54 he set course 130, right for Guadalcanal and Washington.
Washington‘s SG radar had picked up Kondo’s force and was tracking it as it came in. South Dakota was not doing so well. Her radar had gone out again. When it came back on, it picked up Kondo forward of her starboard beam just three miles away. Kondo saw South Dakota, too, at 11:58, but even now he still did not believe it was a battleship.
At 11:40, Washington located Kondo’s two lead destroyers, two cruisers and Kirishima. The firing solution was sent to the guns, but just as the firing circuits were to be closed, Walsh yelled, ‘Check fire!’
Walsh was afraid radar had picked out South Dakota instead of Kirishima. The problem was the location of the SG radar. The 80-degree blind arc left a gap precisely where South Dakota was. Washington‘s gunners had to wait.
Down in the engine room, Johnny Brown broke out a jug that normally stored anti-corrosive gas compounds. Tonight it held illegal raisin jack. Everyone had a swig.
Lee’s ships were now 11 miles west of Savo. Kondo launched torpedoes at South Dakota, but none hit. At precisely midnight, the beginning of November 15, Atago‘s main searchlight picked out South Dakota. Kondo and his staff trained binoculars and studied the battleship’s distinctive pyramid foremast.
Kondo finally believed he was facing America’s newest battleships. All Japanese ships aimed at South Dakota, and soon a variety of shells of many calibers were flying at her. So were a large number of torpedoes, but once again the Americans were lucky and the torpedoes all missed. South Dakota‘s Type B armor plate defeated a 14-inch shell, but 26 hits landed on her superstructure. Many rounds failed to explode. Other incoming shells were Type 3 ammunition, which could not penetrate South Dakota‘s armor. But damage was done, nonetheless. The shells cut up South Dakota‘s radar and communications cables, shattering radar plot and disabling gun directors. Four of six fire-control radars were destroyed.
More shells hit South Dakota. A 14-incher hit outboard of the No. 3 turret’s roller, jamming her in train and ripping open a fuel line. South Dakota was in little danger of sinking, but she was virtually useless. Worse, her captain had lost touch with Washington. Lee wrote later that the effect of the shelling was to ‘render one of our new battleships deaf, dumb, blind and impotent.’
Washington watched all this as the quarter moon vanished, leaving behind darkness. Washington was still tracking the questionable target. It could not be South Dakota, could it? Then the target lit her searchlights, illuminating South Dakota and revealing herself as Kirishima. The Japanese ship was 8,400 yards away on the starboard beam. ‘Body-punching range,’ Seely called it.
In seconds, Washington‘s main battery plot had a solution from the SG radar, which was functioning perfectly. At precisely midnight, Washington fired a nine-gun salvo that straddled Kirishima. A minute later Washington‘s third salvo landed fair and square amidships, causing massive explosions.
Kirishima and Washington exchanged fire. Hooper fed the fire-control data into his range finders, and shells were hurled at the Japanese dreadnought. ‘Fire control and battery functioned as smoothly as though she were engaged in a well-rehearsed target practice,’ Lee wrote later.
Kirishima was covered with shells. Seely watched as three of the four main 14-inch turrets were knocked out and a ‘dull red glow amidships began to brighten considerably.’ At 12:07 a.m., Washington fired the last of 75 16-inch rounds. The shells disabled two of Kirishima‘s main turrets, started fires, jammed the rudder, and drilled waterline holes. Kirishima started flooding and began circling to port, coughing out gusts of smoke.
Lee was still worried about the location of South Dakota. That unhappy ship was still in Washington‘s blind arc. Lee planned to head north and attack the transports.
The destruction of Kirishima caught Kondo by surprise. He had been convinced that South Dakota was being sunk and was alone. Shelling Henderson Field was impossible. Atago and Takao were damaged. Kondo ordered three destroyers to remove Kirishima‘s crew. The rest of Kondo’s ships raced off to pursue Washington.
South Dakota now had a moment to breathe. Her executive officer, Commander A.E. Uehlinger, was surrounded by fires in Battle II, the alternate conning tower. For a time it seemed they were trapped, but determined shipmates doused the fires and closed open steam lines. With 39 dead and 59 wounded, Captain Gatch realized his ship was in no shape for battle. He withdrew at 1 a.m., ‘to the great relief of the Task Force commander,’ wrote Lee.
Davis was less charitable in his report of the action: ‘Retired? Hell, [South Dakota] just left the action. We didn’t know anything about it, and we didn’t see or hear from her until morning.’
Meanwhile, Kondo raced after Washington. At 12:11 a.m., he spotted the American ship, and at 12:13 he fired eight torpedoes at 4,000 yards–all of which missed–and then swung 300 degrees to face Washington broadside. Lee was now fighting six ships single-handed. His only advantage was Washington herself–fast, powerful, undamaged, well-protected and well-crewed. Lee swung on course 340 at 12:20 to continue the battle.
Shells were now flying at Washington. Lieutenant junior grade Bob Macklin watched’six white-hot shells as they left the enemy turrets. They seemed to float slowly toward us, picking up speed as they came, becoming bright red as they drew closer. Remarkably, we didn’t quail at the prospect of being hit, but rather the shots were subjected to professional criticism.’
Seely watched ‘between the blinding flashes of our secondary guns, splashes close aboard, which from their size could only have been made by large-caliber projectiles. By their second salvo I could see it was the usual Jap pattern: overshorton; I awaited the arrival of their third salvo with considerable interest.’
But Kondo was running out of power and time. He summoned Kimura and Hashimoto to attack, but Hashimoto was far astern of the westward-moving battle, and Kimura was racing to catch up. The only ships left were Tanaka’s destroyers Oyashio and Kagero, racing down from the north. Kondo swung his own ships on Washington at 24 knots but saw the American coming back, right for him and Tanaka’s transports. Cautious and timid, worn down from the loss of his battleship, Kondo then pulled back to cover the transports and made smoke.
On Washington, Lee watched the gray smoke mass arise ahead. He figured nothing could be gained from attacking the transports now. In any case, he had delayed the Japanese so long that the transports would have to arrive by daylight, when American air power could savage them. He had one ship left. Best not to push his incredible luck any further. He ordered Washington to withdraw.
The ship turned 180 degrees to starboard at 26 knots and raced toward more Japanese destroyers–Kagero and Oyashio to starboard and Kimura’s ships to port. The Japanese had poor firing positions, but they launched torpedoes anyway. One exploded, sending up a 200-foot-high water mushroom just behind Washington.
To the north, Kondo decided he had had enough. He ordered a general disengagement to the north.
Kirishima, however, was still afloat. Like Hiei the previous day, her boilers and engines still worked, but seawater had sloshed into her steering machinery compartments. The rudder was jammed at 10 degrees starboard.
Captain Sanji Iwabuchi fought to save Kirishima, but the flooding defied control. Fire ripped through the magazines. Iwabuchi flooded them, but that only worsened things. Orders to evacuate the engine room came too late, and the firemen were stranded there. Nagara tried to tow the big ship home.
It was a familiar situation for the cruiser. The last time Nagara had been required to tow an ailing flagship had been at Midway, when she tried to tow the damaged carrier Akagi, which sank anyway. Now Kirishima limped behind Nagara, but the dreadnought kept listing to starboard. Iwabuchi summoned the crew to the bow for what was now becoming a familiar ritual in the Imperial Japanese Navy, transferring the emperor’s portrait, in this case to destroyer Asagumo. At 3:25 a.m., Kirishima sank several miles northwest of Savo Island, the second battleship Japan had lost in two days and the first enemy ship sunk by an American battleship since the Spanish-American War. Kirishima‘s final explosions were watched with great interest by a horde of shipwrecked Preston and Walke sailors, still awaiting rescue.
Another Japanese victim was dying nearby, the destroyer Ayanami. Forty of the destroyer’s crew had been killed, and most of Ayanami‘s remaining crew boarded Uranami, but 30 of them, including Ayanami‘s captain, took a boat to Guadalcanal. Ayanami sank sometime after 2 a.m. after two explosions.
Another destroyer was ailing, too–the American Benham, which was staggering home. Benham‘s hull was badly fractured. Her crew lightened the ship forward and tried to repair the damage. At 3 a.m., her skipper, Lt. Cdr. John B. Taylor, evacuated the ship’s forward half to reduce strain on the keel. Taylor radioed his situation to Lee.
Lee ordered Benham and her escort, Gwin, to Espirito Santo, but gave Taylor permission to act as to abandoning Benham. All morning Taylor nursed his ship toward home, but by midafternoon, it was too much. Gwin evacuated Benham and tried to sink her–an attempt that only served to demonstrate the weakness of the American Mark XV torpedo. One exploded prematurely, the second missed ahead, the third ran erratically. Gwin shelled Benham until a 5-inch round hit Benham‘s magazines at 7:35 p.m. and sank her.
Washington was heading home, too. At 4 a.m., a weary Ray Hunter was relieved of the deck after 24 hours straight as officer of the deck, but the ship was still at general quarters, so he stayed on the bridge. At 6:49 a.m., when the ship secured from general quarters, Hunter staggered down to his bunk.
Crewmen came out on deck and found expended 5-inch shell casings lying all over the decks. Hal Berc rubbed his eyes in the morning sunlight, caught the sight of dawn rays glancing off Old Glory, fluttering from the mainmast, and felt proud. The only hit the ship had taken was a 5-inch shellhole in the air search radar.
At 9:51, Lee’s lookouts spotted South Dakota coming up, leaking oil and signaling ‘We are not effective.’ She took station ahead of Washington, and her leaking oil entered Washington‘s evaporators, polluting Washington‘s water lines for months. That evening, three destroyers arrived to shepherd the big ships home.
The battle was still not over. Kondo ordered Tanaka to get his transports to their anchorage and beach them. Tanaka complied, but Mikawa objected, saying beaching would only make landing troops more difficult. During the pre-dawn hours of November 15, discussions between the admirals filled Japanese naval airwaves. In the end, Yamamoto himself endorsed the beaching plan. At 4 a.m., four transports ran aground. At 4:30 a.m., Tanaka took his destroyers home. Most were still jammed with soldiers from the earlier battles.
The maneuvers were watched by shipwrecked Walke and Preston sailors, still awaiting rescue. At 5:55 a.m., they watched as seven dive bombers attacked the beached transports. Ten minutes later, planes from Enterprise came in, blasting transports and unloaded gear.
Finally the U.S. destroyer Meade turned up and raked the freighters for 42 minutes, starting fires on all four. After that, Meade pulled 266 Walke and Preston survivors out of the drink.
Meade missed two survivors from Walke, Seaman Dale E. Land and Machinist’s Mate Harold Taylor. After two days and nights in the water they reached Guadalcanal, but behind Japanese lines. They trekked eastward, stealing food from Japanese bivouacs. After finding a Japanese rifle and ammunition bandolier, they took up a sideline of sniping, killing a number of Japanese. Taylor lost his life in the struggle to survive, but Land, who staggered to within shouting distance of U.S. lines and was picked up, delirious, with a temperature of 106, did recover from his ordeal.
Radio commentators on both sides were delirious, too, as they claimed victory. Japan’s claims were immense: eight cruisers, five destroyers, and two battleships damaged. This alleged triumph cost Japan one battleship, one cruiser and three destroyers, with damage to seven transports.
Japan’s Domei News Agency crowed: ‘The American naval debacle in the Solomon area signified land hostilities on Guadalcanal have passed the decisive stage, having sent to the sea bottom 10,000 officers and men, more than half its battleships, almost all aircraft carriers, more than half its cruisers. The United States can no longer hope to carry out a large-scale counteroffensive against Japan.’ This report was posted on Washington bulletin boards and resulted in laughter.
The United States reported sinking one battleship, five cruisers and five destroyers in exchange for two light cruisers and six destroyers. After the battle, when Lee and Gatch discussed the after-action report, Gatch asked Lee to confirm some outrageous battle claims by South Dakota. Lee was astounded at the request and refused.
But South Dakota got most of the credit for the outcome of the battle. The ship went to New York for repairs, and Gatch described his ship’s role to The Saturday Evening Post, which published the story of ‘Battleship X’–a code name given because the Navy did not want South Dakota‘s name in print. A book about the incident followed, infuriating Washington sailors.
While all the claims made at the time were highly inflated, 242 Americans and 249 Japanese did perish in the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The United States lost three replaceable destroyers, while Japan lost an irreplaceable battleship and a destroyer.
Also lost was Kondo’s career. He claimed two battleship sinkings, but not everyone swallowed Kondo’s gun-decked report. Yamamoto and his staff looked at the mounting toll of ships and men and recommended the unthinkable to the emperor–withdrawal from Guadalcanal. Kondo was fired.
The Japanese post-mortem also outlined other problems during the battle. One was all the torpedo misses, which were the result of poor firing angles. The failure to sink South Dakota was caused by Kondo’s ships being armed with contact-fused Type 3 shells instead of armor-piercing shot. Then, too, Kondo had divided his forces (a mistake since the time of Xerxes) and refused to believe his own lookouts when they identified the American battleships. A more aggressive Japanese leader might have won that night.
There was second-guessing on the American side, too. After the battle, Lee’s planning and execution kept Task Force 64 together. The battle never disintegrated into a brawl like the one the previous night.
The American weaknesses were many, however: the heterogeneous nature of the destroyer force; poor American torpedoes; appalling work on South Dakota that made America’s latest battleship a menace only to herself; and the gap in Washington‘s radar coverage. Lee wrote: ‘We realized then that it should not be forgotten now, that our superiority was due almost entirely to our possession of radar. Certainly we have no edge on the Japs in experience, skill, training or performance of personnel.’
He did not list some other things that went right, like his own effective handling of the crisis and appreciation of radar, and Washington‘s superb crew.
Still, Washington and South Dakota sailors fought pitched battles in bars over credit for the night’s honors. Actually, the question of who deserved the credit was immaterial. There were plenty of heroes.
One thing was clear after the battle. The Japanese had sent a convoy loaded with an entire infantry division of 12,000 men and equipment to Guadalcanal, enough to turn the tide of battle. Only 2,000 soldiers, 260 cases of ammunition and 1,500 bags of rice (a four-day supply) got ashore, after much punishment. The Americans shattered the convoy, sank two battleships, and put ashore 5,500 men and tons of supplies. The Americans had gained the edge on Guadalcanal, would clear the island, start climbing up the Solomons ladder and win the war.
Heavy thoughts of this nature did not strike Washington‘s crew on November 16. Captain Davis declared ‘holiday routine’ that day–no drills, and when work was done, the crew trooped down to enjoy ice cream sodas and watch Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan in Santa Fe Trail.
At noon on November 17, general quarters sounded for entering Noumea and Washington moored at 2:20 p.m. in nine fathoms of water at the end of 360 feet of anchor chain. The officer of the deck laconically noted in his log that the tanker E.J. Henry came alongside at 5:59 p.m. to provide fuel.
A few hundred miles away, a Japanese staff officer was also penning a report, an appreciation of the Pacific war situation just before the two battles of Guadalcanal, which read, ‘It must be said that the success or failure in recapturing Guadalcanal Island, and the vital naval battle related to it, is the fork in the road which leads to victory for them or us.’
The fork in the road had been reached. After Washington headed south from Ironbottom Sound on the morning of November 14, it was clear which way the war would go.
This article was written by David H. Lippman and originally appeared in the November 1997 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!