Diamond Anniversary – The First Battle of Savo Island (Part 1) 1

The following information comes from the Official US Navy Records:

“The Battle of Savo Island and the Battle of the Eastern Solomons comprise one of a series of twenty-one published and thirteen unpublished Combat Narratives of specific naval campaigns produced by the Publications Branch of the Office of Naval Intelligence during World War II. Selected volumes in this series are being republished by the Naval Historical Center as part of the Navy’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of World War II.

The Combat Narratives were superseded long ago by accounts such as Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II that could be more comprehensive and accurate because of the abundance of American, Allied, and enemy source materials that became available after 1945. But the Combat Narratives continue to be of interest and value since they demonstrate the perceptions of naval operations during the war itself. Because of the contemporary, immediate view offered by these studies, they are well suited for republication in the 1990s as veterans, historians, and the American public turn their attention once again to a war that engulfed much of the world a half century ago.

The Combat Narrative program originated in a directive issued in February 1942 by Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, that instructed the Office of Naval Intelligence to prepare and disseminate these studies. A small team composed of professionally trained writers and historians produced the narratives. The authors based their accounts on research and analysis of the available primary source material, including action reports and war diaries, augmented by interviews with individual participants. Since the narratives were classified Confidential during the war, only a few thousand copies were published at the time, and their distribution was primarily restricted to commissioned officers in the Navy.

The Guadalcanal Campaign was one of the most arduous campaigns of World War II. While it began auspiciously for American forces with little initial opposition from the Japanese, the battle quickly degenerated into a contest of wills that lasted for six months during which the tide of battle ebbed and flowed as both sides injected more and more forces into the struggle. The key to the entire campaign was the control of the sea approaches to Guadalcanal. The first of many Japanese challenges to American sea power was the Battle of Savo Island, one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the U.S. Navy. That engagement provided American naval forces with a bitter lesson in the superiority of Japanese nighttime naval tactics.

The U.S. Navy redeemed itself in another action that is described in this narrative. Two weeks after Savo Island, during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, American planes sank an enemy light carrier and a damaged seaplane carrier; and the Japanese lost 75 planes. American losses were 25 planes and damage to the carrier Enterprise. The significance of this battle was that it turned back the first major Japanese effort to retake Guadalcanal.

The Office of Naval Intelligence first published this narrative in 1943 without attribution. Administrative records from the period indicate that Ensign Winston B. Lewis wrote the account of the Battle of Savo Island, while Lieutenant (jg) Henry A. Mustin authored the description of the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Both were Naval Reserve officers. Lewis was a professional historian who taught at Boston’s Simmons College prior to the war; after the war, he taught history and political science at Amherst College and later joined the faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy. Before World War II, Mustin was a journalist with the Washington Evening Star. After the war, he returned to that newspaper and later was associated with the Columbia Broadcasting System, Mutual Broadcasting, and the Voice of America.

I wish to acknowledge the invaluable editorial and publication assistance offered in undertaking this project by Mrs. Sandra K. Russell, Managing Editor, Naval Aviation News magazine; Commander Roger Zeimet, USNR, Naval Historical Center Reserve Detachment 206; and Dr. William S. Dudley, Senior Historian, Naval Historical Center. We also are grateful to Rear Admiral Kendell M. Pease, Jr., Chief of Information, and Captain Jack Gallant, USNR, Executive Director, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps WW II 50th Anniversary Commemorative Committee, who generously allocated the funds from the Department of the Navy’s World War II commemoration program that made this publication possible.”

Dean C. Allard Director of Naval History

 

Introduction

THE MARINES landed in the Solomons in the early morning of 7 August 1942.1 On Guadalcanal the Japanese, apparently believing that only a naval raid was in prospect, retired to the hills, so that our landing was made almost without opposition. On the smaller islands, however, they could not withdraw. On Tulagi and Gavutu they offered the most desperate resistance, and on Tanambogo even succeeded in repulsing our first landing. Consequently on the evening of the 8th the Marines were still engaged in mopping up snipers or in securing their positions on these islands.

This stubborn resistance prevented the completion of our initial operation in one day as planned. Furthermore, the unloading of our transports and cargo vessels was considerably delayed by two air attacks on the 7th and another on the 8th. This protraction of the action had serious consequences, for late in the evening of the 8th our three aircraft carriers, the Wasp, Saratoga, and Enterprise, which had been providing air support from stations south of Guadalcanal, asked permission to retire. Not only was their fuel running low but they had lost 20 of their 99 fighters. Although they had not been sighted by the enemy, it was felt that they ought not to remain within a limited area where the enemy had shown considerable air strength.

In view of the Japanese air raids of the preceding 2 days, the prospective loss of our air protection would leave our ships in a precarious position. The danger was emphasized by information which was received from Melbourne sometime during the afternoon or evening of the 8th.2 This placed three Japanese cruisers, three destroyers and two gunboats or seaplane tenders at latitude 05°49′ S., longitude 156°07′ E., course 120° T., speed 15 knots at about 1130.3 This position is off the east coast of Bougainville, about 300 miles from Guadalcanal. Shortly before midnight Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, Commander of the Amphibious Force, sent a message to Rear Admiral John S. McCain, Commander Aircraft, South Pacific Force, suggesting that this enemy force might operate torpedo planes from Rekata Bay, Santa Isabel Island, and recommending that strong air detachments strike there on the morning of the 9th.

Because of these developments a conference was held about midnight on board the McCawley, Admiral Turner’s flagship. In view of the danger of air attack it was decided to withdraw our ships as early as possible the following morning. Meanwhile the transports continued to unload and land supplies throughout the night both at Guadalcanal and at Tulagi-Gavutu. Supplies were particularly needed in the latter area because it had been necessary to land the Second Marines to reinforce our depleted forces there.

DISPOSITION OF OUR FORCES, NIGHT OF 8 AUGUST

Of the 19 transports in the Task Force, 14 were anchored or underway near Guadalcanal and 5 were in the Tulagi area on the night of 8-9 August. The latter were screened by an arc of vessels composed of the transport destroyers Colhoun, Little, and McKean, reinforced by the destroyers Henley and Ellet. The Monssen had been giving fire support to our troops on Makambo Island that evening, but with the fall of darkness had taken her assigned position screening the San Juan on patrol.

The larger group of transports off Guadalcanal was screened by several ships on the arc of a circle of 6,000 yards radius with the Tenaru River as its center. On this arc were the minesweepers Trever, Hopkins, Zane, Southard and Hovey, and the destroyers Selfridge, Mugford and Dewey. The transport George F. Elliott, which had been hit during the day’s bombing attack, had drifted eastward along the shallow water. As the fire on board could not be controlled, it was decided to sink her. In the evening the Dewey expended three torpedoes without sending her down. She was still burning brightly when the destroyer Hull, having taken off her crew for transfer to the Hunter Liggett, fired four more into her an hour before midnight. Even then she did not sink, but was still afloat and burning when our ships departed on the evening of the 9th.

The disposition of our cruisers and the remaining destroyers was governed by “Special Instructions to the Screening Group,” issued by Rear Admiral V. A. C. Crutchley, R. N., commander of the escort groups and second in command of the Amphibious Forces. To protect the disembarkation area from attack from the eastward, the American San Juan and the Australian Hobart, both light cruisers, were assigned to the area east of longitude 160° 04′ E., guarding Lengo and Sealark Channels. They were screened by the destroyers Monssen and Buchanan. At 1850 these ships began their patrol at 15 knots on courses 000° and 180° between Guadalcanal and the Tulagi area.

As a precaution against surprise from the northwest, two destroyers were assigned to radar guard and antisubmarine patrol beyond Savo Island. The Ralph Talbot was north of the island, patrolling between positions 08° 59′ S., 159° 55′ E. and 09° 01′ S., 159° 49′ E. The Blue was stationed west of the island between positions 09° 05′ S., 159° 42′ E.4 and 09° 09′ S., 159° 37′ E., patrolling on courses 051° and 231° at 12 knots.

The area inside Savo Island, between Guadalcanal and Florida, was divided into two patrol districts by a line drawn 125° T. from the center of Savo. It was upon the vessels patrolling these sectors that the Japanese raid was to fall. The area to the north of this line was assigned to the heavy cruisers Vincennes, Astoria, and Quincy, screened by the Helm and Wilson. The last-named replaced the Jarvis, which had been damaged by a torpedo during the day’s air attack. This group was patrolling at a speed of 10 knots on a square, the center of which lay approximately midway between Savo and the western end of Florida Island. At midnight it turned onto course 045° T. and was to make a change of 90° to the right approximately every half hour.

The area to the south of the line was covered by the Chicago and H. M. A. S. Canberra, screened by the Patterson and Bagley. H. M. A. S. Australia was the flag and lead ship of this group, but at the time of the action she was absent, having taken Admiral Crutchley to the conference aboard the McCawley. Capt. Howard D. Bode of the Chicago was left in command of the group, although the Canberra ahead of his ship acted as guide. The group was steering various courses in a general northwest-southeast line–the base patrol course was 305°-125° T.–reversing course approximately every hour.

Admiral Crutchley’s instructions were that in case of a night attack each cruiser group was to act independently, but was to support the other as required.

In addition to the Melbourne warning, a dispatch had been received indicating that enemy submarines were in the area, and night orders placed emphasis on alertness and the necessity for keeping a sharp all-around lookout. The destroyers were to shadow unknown vessels, disseminate information and illuminate targets as needed. It was provided that if they should be ordered to form a striking force, all destroyers of Squadron FOUR except the Blue and Talbot were to concentrate 5 miles northwest of Savo Island.

This arrangement was to cause some confusion during the battle.

WARNINGS

There was no moon on the night of 8-9 August, and low-hanging clouds, moved by a 4-knot breeze from the northeast, drifted across the sky and added to the darkness. Occasional thundershowers swept the otherwise calm sea. Mist and rain hung heavily about Savo Island and visibility in that direction was particularly bad.

An hour before midnight the Astoria appears to have made a radar contact, but it is not clear whether it was on a ship or a plane.5 Most likely it was the latter, for about the same time the San Juan reported to the Vincennes by TBS6 that she had sighted an aircraft flying eastward from Savo Island, and this word was given the captain. At 2345 theRalph Talbot on patrol north of Savo sighted an unidentified, cruiser-type plane low over the island. She at once reported on both the TBO7 and TBS: “Warning, warning, plane over Savo headed east.” This was repeated for several minutes on both transmitters. Neither the Task Force Commander nor Commander Destroyer Squadron FOUR responded to his code call, and Commander Destroyer Division EIGHT undertook to get the warning through to Admiral Turner.

The Blue to the west of Savo received the Ralph Talbot’s warning and a moment later picked up the plane on her radar. Subsequently the plane could be heard as it apparently circled the island and moved off to the south. Some observers believed they saw its running lights. The Vincennes also heard the warning, but Admiral Crutchley did not hear of it until just before the battle started. The Quincy’s radar also picked up the plane, and the bridge reported it to Control Forward, but five or ten minutes later sent word to disregard the contact.

W. W. Johns, Fire Controlman, First Class, who was on watch in Spot I from 2000 to 2400, says that he turned over the following information to his relief: “A report had been received over the JS circuit that at about 2300 a radar contact on the Astoria SC radar had been made bearing north, distance 34 miles, no other data available.” Ens. William F. Cramer, who was on watch in Astoria’s radar plot during the same period, says that the radar antenna was operating through a 360° sweep, but that because of the surrounding land there was serious interference on all sides, except for a small arc varying from the west to the northwest, depending on the position of the ship. They were operating on a 30,000-yard scale and “nothing unusual was noticed on the screen.”

Planes continued to fly over at intervals during the next hour and a half. At about 0100 the Quincy (apparently then on a course of 225°) heard a plane pass to starboard going forward. At about the same time the watch in Astoria’s sky control reported to the bridge that a plane was overhead, and aircraft engines were heard and reported on the Canberra. Half an hour later the plane was heard, seemingly going in the opposite direction. Shortly after this, a plane crossed the Quincy’s port quarter. These contacts were reported to the bridge, but apparently were not passed on to the gunnery control stations, nor was any further warning broadcast to other ships, so far as can be determined.

The night was about to change

End of Part 1

One comment

  1. Pingback: Diamond Anniversary – The First Battle of Savo Island (Part 6 – The Day of 9 August and Observations ) « theleansubmariner

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