Diamond Anniversary – The First Battle of Savo Island (Part 8 – The Battle from the Japanese Perspective) Reply

Disaster at Savo Island, 1942

 by

Lieutenant Colonel David E. Quantock
United States Army

USAWC Class of 2002

U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA

These excerpts are from a Report called Disaster at Savo Island, 1942. This unique perspective of the battle is taken primarily from the Japanese point of view.

 

“Mikawa’s approach into the “Slot” of Savo Island was a feat of skillful seamanship augmented by luck. He had been sighted by submarines and different aerial reconnaissance missions on 8 August, all of which combined to give Admiral Turner an untimely and incomplete picture of Mikawa’s intentions. Mikawa was aided by the weather, as overcast skies with occasional rain squalls hid his task force, and he timed his attack to close on the Allied forces in the dark. Through the day of 8 August, he sent numerous organic reconnaissance aircraft (float planes) to compile a picture of the Guadalcanal and Tulagi area. By the time of the attack, he had nearly perfect intelligence on the disposition of the Allied force. Most importantly, he knew that the security forces were split into separate task forces divided by Savo Island. Though Mikawa was inferior in numbers, his plan created an opportunity to engage and destroy the unalerted Allied Force piecemeal.

 

Mikawa’s battle plan was drawn up and signaled to his strike force at 1642, 8 August. The plan called for his task force to sweep to the south side of Savo Island and torpedo the Allied ships off Guadalcanal. They were then to turn east and north to destroy the Tulagi landing force with torpedoes and gunfire. After the attack, the Japanese Force was to proceed around the north side of Savo Island and depart the area as soon as possible. Mikawa planned to order the attack at 0130 on 9 August 1942. The plan allowed enough time to conduct the attack and to get 120 miles away under the cover of darkness before daylight would permit counter-attack by aircraft from the U.S. carrier groups. Mikawa did not know the exact location of the carriers, but assumed they were about 100 miles to the south of Guadalcanal. His battle plan was executed nearly to perfection.

 

The weather was perfect for the attacking force. Cloud cover and intermittent thunderstorms created a screen between the Northern and Southern Forces and thus precluded mutual support.

At 1800 Mikawa received confirmation from his reconnaissance planes that all was well. At 1840 he signaled “Let us attack with certain victory in the traditional night attack of the Imperial Navy. May each one calmly do his utmost!”6

Vice Admiral Fletcher, already suffering the strain of Midway and Coral Sea, had a tough fight on 8 August. While the initial amphibious landings at Guadalcanal and Tulagi went well, his carriers lost twenty-one aircraft defending the Expeditionary Force against three Japanese air raids–air raids which could have distracted him from the sketchy and uncorrelated intelligence reports of Mikawa’s approaching 8th Fleet. These air raids disrupted the off-loading of General Vandegrift’s supplies and support equipment, and left Fletcher focused on attack by Japanese bombers and torpedo planes. At 1807, while Mikawa was approaching, Fletcher signaled Ghormley requesting permission to withdraw his carriers due to aircraft losses and low fuel state. While awaiting Ghormley’s reply, Fletcher repositioned the carriers, opening Savo Island.

Although Fletcher’s message was not meant for Admiral Turner, he received a copy of it and was immediately furious. The departure of the carrier group would deprive him of air cover and force the withdrawal of his amphibious force ships. Although land based aircraft were available from Admiral McCain’s task force, their distant bases and the obsolete, inadequate types of aircraft virtually mooted their role in defending against Japanese air raids. Turner’s forced departure placed the Marines in a precarious position; they lost both their transport ships and the warships that were providing them fire support. At 2042, Turner called a meeting with Admiral Crutchley and Major General Vandegrift. The meeting took place at 2315. The items of discussion at that meeting were of far less importance than the meeting’s very effect on the defending force. The meeting pulled Crutchley away from command of the defense force and, more importantly, took HMAS Australia from the Southern Force. This reduced the Southern Group’s combat power by a third. On departure from his force, Crutchley put Captain Bode in charge of the entire Southern Group but somehow neglected to inform the force. Bode assumed that Crutchley would return shortly and did not reposition USS Chicago to reoptimize the screening disposition, did not assert his new authority, and went to bed without issuing night orders. Crutchley, having finished the late meeting with Turner, decided to keep HMAS Australia close to shore with the transport ships because of the danger of rejoining the screening force at night, under poor weather conditions and without radio communications, which would risk a friendly fire situation or possible collision.

Meanwhile, Mikawa was heading towards Savo Island at 26 knots. At 2313, he launched two of his scout planes for a final look at the disposition of the Allied force. These scout planes were also responsible for dropping parachute flares at the proper time to illuminate the transports at Guadalcanal and Tulagi. These planes were spotted on radar and visually by a number of the Allied ships, but were assumed to be friendly because they were flying with running lights. Not a single ship took action against the planes beyond a single message from Ralph Talbot to Admiral Turner’s ship warning of the aircraft. The report, in any case, never got to Turner.

Mikawa headed toward his objective with his force in column formation. His flagship, Chokai, was in the lead. Because few of the other ships had ever worked together before, they were spread approximately 1300 yards apart. At 2230, the “Battle Warning” was sounded and the Allied Southern Force was sighted moving along the southern side of Savo Island.

 

The command “Prepare to Fire Torpedoes” was given at 0025 followed by “Battle Stations Alerted” at 0045.

Torpedoes

In the early stages of the war, no weapons system was more effective than the Japanese torpedo. It was dropped from airplanes, launched from just about every type of Japanese surface warship, and used by submarines. The Japanese torpedo caused more trepidation among naval commanders than any other type of munition. It would consume Admiral Crutchley’s defense of Guadalcanal. It would drive Fletcher’s focus to the security of his carrier group. The very threat of its presence would force Fletcher and Turner into an early exit from the landing areas.

There was good reason to respect the huge Japanese advantage in torpedoes. Their Long Lance torpedo dwarfed any U.S. torpedoes. The biggest advantage of the Japanese torpedo was that, unlike its American counterpart, it worked. The Long Lance exploded when it hit its target. The Long Lance weighed 1,090 pounds, could hit targets out to 22,000 yards (40,000 yards when traveling at 35 knots), and traveled at 49 knots. Powered by oxygen instead of air, unlike standard torpedoes the Japanese torpedo left a nearly wakeless trail. In comparison, the U.S. Torpedo Mark XV had a much smaller warhead and could only reach 6,000 yards at 45 knots or 15,000 yards at 26.5 knots. More discouragingly, U.S. torpedoes seldom detonated, even when scoring direct hits. A Long Lance torpedo sank one of Admiral Fletcher’s carriers during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

At the outbreak of the war, the Japanese Navy possessed some of the world’s finest torpedoes, including the fabled Long Lance. The quality of these weapons was no accident, but rather the result of Japan’s intensive efforts during the 1920’s and 30’s to make good the shortcomings of her battle fleet. Laboring as she did under the unfavorable 5:5:3 ratio of capital ships imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty, Japan would most likely be at a disadvantage in any Pacific conflict with the United States. She also knew well enough that the U.S. modeled its fighting doctrine on the famous ‘Plan Orange’, which called for an advance of the American battle fleet across the Pacific to relieve the Philippines. It was anticipated that at some location in the Western Pacific a decisive battle would be fought. In Japan’s view, some means must be found to offset its disadvantage in capital ships before this battle occurred, or its inferior battle line would be destroyed by the American force. Torpedo tactics and night combat were seized upon as one way to whittle down the American battle line as it made its way across the Pacific. Accordingly, Japan worked diligently to develop the tactics needed to implement this new doctrine, and also to create the weapons with which to carry it out. The result was that Japanese torpedoes showed a steady progression of improvements throughout the 1930’s, culminating in the development of the famous ‘Long Lance’ in 1935.

Designing and perfecting the Long Lance required solving some extremely difficult technical problems, most of which centered around the usage of pure oxygen as a fuel (rather than compressed air). Compressed air is nearly 77% nitrogen, which is useless for combustion, and also contributes to the visibility of the torpedo by leaving a bubble track on the surface. The usage of pure oxygen promised far greater power and propulsive efficiency, but it came with certain costs. The most glaring of these was how to use pure oxygen safely aboard a ship or submarine, given its inherently inflammable nature. Premature detonation of the torpedo upon firing was also a problem. However, the Japanese overcame these hurdles. Further, through meticulous live-testing of their weapons against ship targets, they perfected a warhead detonator that was rugged and reliable (The U.S. Navy’s BuOrd could certainly have taken a lesson or two here). The resulting weapon, the Type 93 torpedo, was fantastically advanced in comparison with its Western counterparts, possessing an unequaled combination of speed, range, and hitting power. This weapon, coupled with the flexible battle tactics practiced by Japan’s cruisers and destroyers, led to victory after victory in the early stages of the war. Only as American radar and gunfire control became increasingly sophisticated would the Japanese advantage in night battles begin to disappear, and even then a Long Lance-armed Japanese destroyer was still a thing to be feared.

 

At 0054, the lookouts on Mikawa’s ship spotted the picket ship USS Blue heading directly at them approximately 5 miles away. Just as Mikawa prepared to engage her, Blue made a 180 degree turn and headed away from the Japanese task force. With Ralph Talbot, the other screening ship, approximately 10 miles to his north, Mikawa had slipped between the pickets undetected. Neither of the picket ships detected Mikawa’s task force.

At 0133, as his force moved around the southern side of Savo Island, Mikawa gave the order “All Ships Attack!” Three minutes later his scouts picked up the destroyers Bagley and Patterson leading the Southern Force, followed shortly by the cruisers Canberra and Chicago. At 0136, Mikawa ordered “Independent Firing.” The Southern Force was then brought under torpedo attack. USS Patterson was the first to sight the attacking force and announced “WARNING–WARNING: STRANGE SHIPS ENTERING HARBOR!” Shortly after Patterson’s warning, Mikawa’s scout planes dropped their flares, illuminating not only the transports at Guadalcanal, but Chicago and Canberra as well. Canberra was the first ship hit and ultimately received two torpedo hits and a total of 24 gun hits. Captain Getting of the Canberra was killed. Canberra sank at 0800, 9 August. Both Bagley and Patterson escaped with minor damage while Mikawa’s force focused on Chicago. Chicago took a torpedo and a gun hit with little damage, and was saved further hits when she saw the trail ship of Mikawa’s force and went after it, sailing in the opposite direction of the attacking force. Chicago then lost sight of the enemy ship and was left without an enemy to pursue. Significantly, Captain Bode never warned the Northern Group that an attack was in progress. In 6 minutes, Mikawa had severely damaged the Allied Southern Group and was turning around Savo Island headed toward the unalerted Northern Group.

Mikawa’s luck only got better. At 0144, he made a rapid course change with his leading three cruisers, Aoba, Kako, and Kinugasa. The maneuver was missed by the last three, Yubari, Tenryu, and Furutaka, but this inadvertent split created two separate attacking divisions. Although this created a command and control problem for Mikawa, it put the Northern Force between two attacking forces.

For the Japanese, it was like shooting ducks in a pond.

The Northern Force was caught completely by surprise and pounded by Mikawa’s force. The devastating fire brought to bear on the task force sank Astoria, Vincennes, and Quincy.

Extremely successful at his first pass around Savo Island, Mikawa contemplated another. Fortunately for the Allied Forces, Mikawa had a number of concerns. His force was divided, it would take him almost three hours to bring it back together, and daylight was not far away. Daylight meant that he was very susceptible to air attack and he still had no idea where the carrier group was located. Finally, his ships were out of torpedoes, and a second attack using only guns would be much riskier. At 0220, Mikawa gave the order to retire up the Slot.

Mikawa left 1,023 sailors killed and over 700 wounded in his wake. In addition, he sank four Allied heavy cruisers and severely damaged a number of destroyers. This defeat expedited the departure of Turner’s Amphibious Task Force, leaving the under-supplied Marines to fend for themselves on Guadalcanal.”

End of part 8

 

Diamond Anniversary – The First Battle of Savo Island (Part 7 – The Marines on Shore and the Consequences) Reply

The operation at Guadalcanal was named “Watchtower” but to the Marines involved, it would forever be known as Operation Shoestring. As history records, the entire operation was put together in a hurry with limited resources and even less intelligence. One misstep after another compounded their misery and the disastrous events of the First Battle of Savo Island would mean the Marines on shore would have to fight twice as hard with meager supplies.

This Story comes from the book

Marines in World War II,  Historical Monograph, The Guadalcanal Campaign

by Major John L. Zimmerman, USMCR Historical Section, Division of Public Information Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps 1949

The Naval Withdrawal

The burning of the Elliott had two adverse consequences, entirely apart from the loss of the ships herself. Included in the supplies aboard her had been a good shore of the material of the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines, and that was lost. The second, and more serious, consequence was the fact that the glare caused by her burning allowed enemy observers in the neighborhood of Tassafaronga to see the cruisers and destroyers which were shortly to be attacked on that night of 8-9 August, and to report their presence to the advancing enemy task force.

In the evening of 8 August, General Vandegrift was called to a conference aboard the USS McCawley, flagship of Task Force 62. While there he was told that Admiral Turner had decided to remove all transports and cargo vessels from the area at 0600 next morning, 9 August. The reason given for this decision was the fact that advice had come from Admiral Fletcher, Commander, Task Force 61, telling of a shortage of fuel and of the loss of 21 of his 99 planes, and of his consequent decision to withdraw.

This posed a new and most alarming problem for General Vandegrift and his staff. Plans made by the division had been formulated on the assumption that the ships would remain for four days in the target area so that all supplies could be put ashore. However, even with the removal of all supplies to the beach, the division would have been in a somewhat precarious position, for the shortage of shipping and the unforeseen demand for haste had made necessary a cut below the basic allowances ordinarily prescribed. The unloading process, as we have seen, had been complicated by a condition approaching chaos on the beach, and the movement from ship to shore had been stopped as a result. The withdrawal of the supply ships, therefore, was, from a troop standpoint, little short of a catastrophe, but Admiral Turner’s decision was not changed.

Shortly after midnight of 8-9 August, moreover, friendly surface forces operating in the Solomons area suffered a sudden and overwhelming defeat. The events leading up to the disastrous Battle of Savo Island are interesting.

There can be no doubt at this time that the American attack on Tulagi and on Guadalcanal came as a surprise to the enemy at Rabaul as well as to the smaller forces in the target area.

The American convoy had been sighted as it approached the area by an enemy lookout in the vicinity of Cape Esperance. There appears to have been a breakdown in communications between his post and Tulagi, for his warning did not alert the people on the latter island. The attack, moreover, cut the area off from communication with the enemy rear areas (the radio installations on Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo had been destroyed by the prelanding bombardment by the San Juan and the two destroyers which accompanied her). Captain Miyazaki, of the Imperial Japanese Navy, who was on duty at Rabaul at the time, was questioned on November, 1945, as a prisoner of war. He said, in speaking of the events of 7 August 1942, “Early in the day we lost communication with Gavutu, so did not know what happened.”

Communication must have been reestablished quickly, however, or else the enemy must have been able to deduce, from the silence that had fallen over its forces in the Tulagi area, that an attack had been mounted. By afternoon of 7 August a naval task force was being assembled from units in Kavieng and Rabaul. It was formed from elements of the 8th Fleet, and consisted of five heavy cruisers–Chokai (flying the flag of Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, CinC, 8th Fleet), Kako, Furutaka, Aoba (Rear Admiral Goto), Kinugasa, the light cruiser Tenryu (Rear Admiral Matsuyama), and Yubari–with one old destroyer Yunagi from the 4th Destroyer Division. Rendezvous was effected northwest of Bougainville, and the force came down the stretch of water which lies between the parallel chains of islands of the group and which was later to become known as the “Slot”.

This force was sighted at 1130 on the morning of 8 August by a U.S. observation plane which maintained contact with it for about an hour.39 The results of the observation were reported at once, but through some mix-up in the communication chain which has never been satisfactorily explained, the screening force of United States and Australian ships apparently was not apprised of the potential danger which the enemy task force presented.

The screening force, divided in two groups, was patrolling the approaches to the transport area on each side of Savo Island when, at about 0130 of the morning of 9 August, it was attacked and overwhelmingly defeated by an enemy force which immediately retired from the area. No attempt was made by the Japanese to pursue the advantage which had been gained, and the transport area was left unmolested. The attack had been preceded by the dropping of flares from Japanese cruiser-based planes, and information subsequently got from prisoners indicates that the attacking force was aided by observation from Cape Esperance made possible by the illumination from the flares and from the burning transport, Elliott.

The results of the attack were little short of catastrophic for the Allied forces. Of the five cruisers on station at the time, four were sunk and the other badly damaged. Chicago sustained damage, while Astoria, Vincennes, Canberra, and Quincy sank during the night and the early morning.

Post-war interrogation of Japanese prisoners answered a question which arose immediately after the Japanese withdrawal–why had the attacking force refrained from annihilating the then defenseless transports? It appears that one 8-inch round fired from the second group to be attacked–the Northern Group–penetrated the operations room of Chokai, destroying all equipment and charts. This together with the fact that there was some delay in resuming proper formation, impelled Vice Admiral Mikawa to withdraw rather than run the risk of being overtaken by planes during a later withdrawal.

A belated vengeance overtook another ship of the force when Kako, about to enter the harbor of Kavieng the next morning, was sunk off Simberi Island by an American submarine, the old S-44.

End of Part 7

 

Diamond Anniversary – The First Battle of Savo Island (Part 6 – The Day of 9 August and Observations ) Reply

THE DAY OF 9 AUGUST

During the battle our aircraft carriers were south of San Cristobal Island, roughly 150 miles from Savo. Although they had on the evening of the 8th requested permission to retire, it was not received from COMSOPAC until 0330 on the 9th. This was, of course, more than an hour after the battle, but our carriers withdrew without having received any real information of what had taken place. At 1000 on the 9th Admiral Kinkaid on the Enterprise noted in his diary that planes returning from Tulagi saw “no evidence of surface action there or enemy ships,” and that night, “still only meager reports of surface action today, whereas prompt reports of situation might have permitted aircraft units from task group to participate and engage enemy forces present.”

It proved impractical for our Task Force to leave at 0630 as planned. The task of transferring and caring for the wounded from our cruisers necessitated some delay. Furthermore, Tanambogo did not fall completely into our possession until the afternoon of the 9th. More Marines had to be landed there and in the Tulagi area, and it was absolutely necessary to land further supplies. At 0630 orders were issued that departure be delayed until 0700, and that transports continue unloading until that time. “About 0700,” the Zeilin reports, “after several hatches had been closed up and boats hoisted in, word was received that the ship would not get underway at 0700 and to continue with the unloading.”

At 0840 there was an air raid warning, and our ships again had to cease unloading and stand out in formation to repel the attack which did not materialize. About 1120, when our ships were returning to the anchorage, they received orders to hoist all boats as quickly as possible and to prepare to leave the Guadalcanal area. Those in the Tulagi area were told to have their boats hoisted by 1830.

All these delays had seriously retarded the unloading of supplies, which was particularly urgent in the Tulagi area. The case of the Betelgeuse was probably typical: “Although the Betelgeuse was in the unloading area from 0650 August 7th until 1440 August 9th (a period of 55 hours and 50 minutes), the major part of this time was used up in awaiting orders to land after a beachhead had been secured, ceasing unloading due to orders from the beach, getting underway and coming to anchor, underway at sea to avoid the enemy, manning general quarters stations, scattering and recalling boats, diversion of ship’s boats to assist in unloading of other ships.” As a consequence, our ships departed without having unloaded all supplies.

(The Betelgeuse estimated that 50 percent remained on board.)

The transports from the XRAY area left by Lengo Channel for Noumea at 1530. Those in the YOKE area continued unloading a few hours more and did not depart till 1900, but these extra hours were not enough and the Marines in the Tulagi area were left with meager supplies. The 6,100 Marines in the Tulagi area were left with 39,000 rations, 3,000,000 rounds of .30-caliber ammunition, 30,000 rounds of .45-caliber. The 10,900 Marines in the Guadalcanal area were left 567,000 rations, 6,000,000 rounds of .30-caliber and 6,000,000 rounds of .45-caliber ammunition.

OBSERVATIONS

 

“The fact must be faced that we had an adequate force placed with the very purpose of repelling surface attack and when that surface attack was made, it destroyed our force,” said Admiral Crutchley. After full allowance for the element of surprise and for the fact that the attacker at night enjoys an immense advantage, there remain many questions about the action which cannot be answered.

It is unexplained how the enemy managed to pass the two destroyers stationed to give warning of just such an attack. Visibility of course was very low. The enemy might have escaped radar detection for a while by approaching close to the shore of the islands, but to reach Savo Island he had to cross open water, and at this point our radars should have picked him up easily. The nature of the radar search conducted by the two destroyers was not reported. It was suggested, without any evidence, that their search may have been intermittent, and not continuous. If this is true, the enemy could have crossed the open water at a time when the radar was not in actual operation. Admiral Crutchley suggested that our failure could be explained by the enemy’s having detected our patrolling destroyers from the air and having made a wide circuit to the westward, approaching close along the shore of Guadalcanal.

Of less importance but of considerable interest is the problem of the “something” seen close aboard the Patterson at the beginning of the engagement, and the “dark objects” seen between our ships by the Chicago. They may explain the fact that both the Chicago and the Canberra were struck by torpedoes which could scarcely have been fired from the enemy cruiser line.

Because the enemy cruisers came in very close to Savo Island, their destroyers may well have been on their starboard bow, perhaps at some distance. If they failed to turn eastward quickly as did the cruisers, they might have passed through our formation. It seems probable, however, that in spite of the poor visibility, enemy destroyers would have been recognized at the close range at which they passed.

Secondly, it is possible that the “seaplane tenders or gunboats” reported in the Melbourne dispatch were in fact tenders for motor torpedo boats, and that some of these were present. The restricted waters, smooth sea, and poor visibility were well suited to their operation.

The most likely conjecture is that enemy submarines were operating on the surface in coordination with the attacking cruisers. A lookout on the Vincennes saw a submarine surface just as the action began. Capt. Riefkohl believed his ship might have been torpedoed by a submarine, and, at the close of the action, the last 5-inch gun on his ship was reported to have hit the conning tower of a submarine. The following morning several of our destroyers made sound contacts, and the Mugford believed that she sank a submarine.

The attacking ships were never seen with sufficient clarity to make identification certain. Admiral Crutchley reported, “The consensus of opinion assesses the enemy force as comprising one 8-inch cruiser (which I think might have been the Chokai) and two light cruisers of the 5.5-inch type. Probably there were three destroyers. This would correspond to the force reported in the Melbourne warning.

There is some question as to whether the enemy operated in one or two groups. The latter suggestion came from some officers of the Vincennes group who believed that they had been caught in a cross fire.

This could be explained by the fact that the enemy crossed astern of this group at such speed that the leading vessels of the enemy column might have been firing on our ships from their starboard quarter while the last ships of the column were still firing from the port quarter. Admiral Crutchley remarked, “The Vincennes suggests that the other enemy force consisted of destroyers. As the enemy had two separate transport groups to attack, there seems to be good reason for dividing his force into two sections, but if this were so, the enemy destroyer force apparently destined to be the one sent against Squadron Y at Tulagi was not intercepted by any of our patrols and it becomes difficult to explain why they did not go on to attack their real objective.” The fact that the enemy planes dropped flares over Tulagi considerably later than over Guadalcanal indicates that the enemy plan was probably for a single force to attack first one and then the other.

It seems certain that our ships scored several hits on the Japanese, but there was no evidence that we inflicted any considerable damage. None of the enemy ships was seen to be seriously on fire, and apparently all cleared the area at high speed.

The redeeming feature of the battle was the splendid performance of our officers and men. They had been on the alert for days and had had about 48 hours of continuous, active operations immediately before the battle. In spite of this, their conduct under the most trying circumstances was beyond praise, and they made it, in the happy phrase of one of our officers, “a night in which heroism was commonplace.”

End of Part 6 and End of the series on the First Battle of Savo Island

Please visit the other five parts of this series for the big picture

https://theleansubmariner.com/2017/08/08/diamond-anniversary-the-first-battle-of-savo-island-part-1/

https://theleansubmariner.com/2017/08/08/diamond-anniversary-the-first-battle-of-savo-island-part-2-attack-on-the-southern-group/

https://theleansubmariner.com/2017/08/08/diamond-anniversary-the-first-battle-of-savo-island-part-3-attack-on-the-northern-group/

https://theleansubmariner.com/2017/08/08/diamond-anniversary-the-first-battle-of-savo-island-part-4-the-xray-transports-and-the-destroyers/

https://theleansubmariner.com/2017/08/08/diamond-anniversary-the-first-battle-of-savo-island-part-5-end-of-the-canberra-and-astoria/

 

Diamond Anniversary – The First Battle of Savo Island (Part 4 – The XRAY Transports and the Destroyers) 1

Part 4

“XRAY” TRANSPORTS

 The enemy had ceased fire on the Vincennes group about 0215, and headed out to sea, briefly engaging the Ralph Talbot about 0320-23. Within half an hour both the Quincy and the Vincennes had gone down. The Canberra remained afloat until morning, when she was sunk by our own destroyers, and the Astoria finally succumbed to her wounds about noon.

No one in our forces, however, could know that the Japanese had completely withdrawn and that their entire effort had been thrown into the half-hour between 0145 and 0215. When at about 0235, while the Quincy was going down, flares were dropped over Florida Island, evidently to silhouette our transports off Tulagi and Gavutu, it seemed likely that more action was yet to come. Consequently “alarms and excursions continued until dawn, and it was only with daylight that the enemy’s retirement and our own situation became clear.

 

Back at XRAY, as soon as the first flares appeared, unloading ceased, boats cast off and headed for the beach, and all ships were darkened and got underway promptly. Under cover of darkness and rain, they moved out Lengo Channel to the eastward at about 10 knots. Some reports indicate that this was done without orders, but the truth seems to be that some of the ships failed to receive the orders issued and merely followed the others. There was great tenseness as our ships laid to, expecting attack momentarily and knowing that it would be difficult to distinguish friend from enemy. The Betelgeuse diary records that “all ships were covered at all times with our guns in case they turned out to be enemy. It is most remarkable that none of our ships in the transport group fired on any other ship during the entire period, although all ships must have had each other covered and the slightest mis-move on anyone’s part would have caused much indiscriminate firing.”

The minesweeper Hopkins, on which was the Commander of the Minesweeper Division, offers an example of the confusion which prevailed that night. After receiving from the Task Force Commander a dispatch which could not be broken down, the Hopkins could not again contact the Commander. She then failed to find the transports near XRAY. She next stood out around the northwest corner of Guadalcanal, the Task Group Commander having “received no information as to existing situation, the intentions of TFC, the disposition of own or enemy forces. He was unable to make contact with any transports and was doubtful as to the Hopkins’ position . . .” A request for a verification of the dispatch resulted in another cypher to which the Hopkins had no key.

Admiral Crutchley on the Australia had very little more success in obtaining a picture of the situation. After his midnight conference he had decided not to return to his southern cruiser group. The Australia had just begun a patrol of her own within the destroyer circle at XRAY when the flares were dropped over the beach and gunfire was seen near Savo. Admiral Crutchley at once ordered the Australia to a position about 7 miles west of XRAY to patrol on courses 060°-240°, in order to be in a position to intercept any of the enemy who might break through our cruisers. At the same time he ordered those of our destroyers not engaged to concentrate on the Australia in this position. This order, however, was sent out in a cypher not generally understood, and most of our destroyers proceeded to concentrate at the previously assigned rendezvous 5 miles northwest of Savo.

Meanwhile Admiral Crutchley was able to obtain only the most fragmentary news of the action. The Chicago reported her damage and that the Canberra was burning near Savo, but nothing could be learned of the Vincennes group. At about 0500 Admiral Crutchley, acting upon orders from Admiral Turner, instructed the Commander of Destroyer Squadron FOUR to investigate the condition of the Canberra and Patterson (it was believed the latter might have been damaged) and to abandon and destroy them if they could not join in the withdrawal planned for 0630. At 0545 the situation remained obscure, and Admiral Crutchley sent a message to the escort forces ordering them to be prepared to give battle at dawn near the transports.

 

OUR DESTROYERS

Two of our destroyers, the Ellet and the Henley , were stationed off Tulagi. The Henley received Admiral Crutchley’s order to concentrate at 0206, deciphered it correctly, and attempted to join the Australia. She failed to find the cruiser, however, nearly collided with the Mugford, wandered about in the heavy rain and fog for several hours and finally turned to the XRAY area about dawn. On the way toward the beach she made sound contact with a submarine and dropped depth charges without positive results.

 

The Ellet had received Patterson’s warning of strange ships entering the harbor and saw the gunfire which followed. As the transports seemed safe within Tulagi inner harbor, the Ellet closed the scene of action at once. “Ceiling was low, visibility was reduced by moderate rain. Identification of own and enemy force was difficult.” The action was over before she arrived. Upon approaching a burning ship, she found it was the Astoria and began to pick up survivors who had been forced overboard, shortly moving along to rescue survivors from the Quincy. Before 0700 she had picked up nearly 500 officers and men. Of the destroyers stationed at XRAY, Dewey and Hull appear to have remained in the vicinity through the action. The Mugford, however, upon seeing gunfire to seaward, lighted off two more boilers and headed for the destroyer rendezvous at 25 knots. This was about 0210. After steaming a few minutes she encountered (and nearly collided with) the Henley. After some time near the latter and after some conversation with ComDesDiv SEVEN, Comdr. Robert Hall Smith, the Mugford moved on toward Savo. She passed men in the water before reaching the rendezvous, where she found the Selfridge.

 

That destroyer, with ComDesRon FOUR (Capt. Cornelius W. Flynn) aboard, had received Admiral Crutchley’s message shortly after 0200, misunderstood it as an order to concentrate northwest of Savo, and headed northwest at 20 knots. On the way she passed the burning Astoria and men in the water. After waiting at the rendezvous for a while, she saw the Mugford come up and fall in astern. The Helm and Wilson were also present. The Selfridge was returning to the transport area when she was ordered to stand by the Canberra. Upon arriving in the vicinity of the cruiser at 0640 she found the Patterson already removing personnel.

End of Part 4

Lessons from Guadalcanal: “The Goettge Patrol” 3

There have been many books written through the ages about fighting a war.

From the lessons of Sun Tzu to the lengthy books on modern war campaigns, we have learned better ways to achieve our goals if we are wise enough to learn from other’s mistakes. One of the ones from Guadalcanal was the disastrous patrol led by Lt. Colonel Goettge on the night of August 12, 1942.

Information about the strength and location of the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal was sketchy and difficult to ascertain. This resulted in the need for probes into the enemies defenses days after the landing on August 7. The Marines were already facing the realities of the campaign as they watched the supporting Naval fleet sail away a few days before. Their already limited rations were even more challenged by the difficulty experienced from a hasty unloading plan. Not knowing the exact strength of the enemy nor his positions led the Marines to a place where they had challenges placing their defenses in the right place.

There were several planned reconnaissance patrols set up prior to the 12th of August but fate and very bad fortune intervened in the form of a captured Japanese warrant officer. This man had been interrogated extensively and was convincing in his stories about potential Japanese soldiers and civilians who were willing to become prisoners in exchange for their lives. 

Lieutenant Colonel Goettge, Division Intelligence Officer, was already committed to accompany a patrol toward Tetere, when he was advised of the tentative plans of the Matanikau operation. He immediately assumed personal charge of the project. His knowledge of the potential surrender of many Japanese led him to believe that this was the right course for him to take.

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Goettge was in charge of the intelligence section and he seized on the opportunity to illuminate the weaknesses of his enemy. Unfortunately, he also changed the original plan which was to land in sufficient enough force to probe the perimeter and offer resistance to any counter attacks. His change in plans also delayed the launch of the patrol until well into the evening on the 12th which caused the men to be landed at a position (by accident) that had already been determined to be too dangerous for a small force to advance towards.

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The delays, the unfortunate landing, the lack of understanding about the true nature of the Japanese bushido all contributed to the inevitable outcome. All but three of the men sent to find the strength and position of the enemy were slaughtered. Patrols sent out in the next week found no traces of the scouts from the night of the 12th. Most of the intelligence personnel under Goettge were lost in the effort.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Goettge

The lessons learned were painful but were key to the long term fighting that would emerge in the Pacific.

http://web.archive.org/web/20070928215348/http://www.gnt.com/~jrube/goettge.htm

1. Know the terrain and the conditions before landing. The sacrifices made by too many men should have been better coordinated in the identification of key obstacles.

2. Know your own strengths and weaknesses. Bring enough strength to every fight to counter the ferocity of your enemy. There are no second chances.

3. Know your enemy. I am not sure if Lt. Colonel Goettge ever read Sun Tzu. But I am quite sure that Sun Tzu would have probably warned him:  "know your enemy" before going into battle. For if "you know your enemy and know yourself," he wrote, "you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." But, Sun Tzu warned, "If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat."

 

The bodies of most of the patrol were never found.

The lessons were never forgotten.

 

Mister Mac

The Die is Cast; Vandegrift does the impossible 1

America and her allies were woefully unprepared to fight the kind of war they found themselves with in the Pacific. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent attacks around the Pacific Rim decimated the plans and the resources of the forces that would become allied in their opposition to Japanese aggression. Traditional forces were not readily available and even the ones that were had not been trained or equipped to fight in the faraway jungles of the islands. These small islands were to become stationary aircraft carriers of a sort and the Japanese saw them as a way to strangle their enemies lines of communication and supplies.

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The American’s had a weapon to fight this new threat but even the Generals and Admirals of their own forces were slow to see its real value in the lead up to the war. The United States Marine Corps was viewedas a “naval police force” by many of the leaders in the other services. Despite her rich history of non-traditional warfare dating back to Tripoli, inter-service rivalry and mission infringement kept the Corps at a minimal level for many decades. The Army saw little value in the amphibious war capability and felt that the priority of capturing and creating improvements to existing ports was a better way to deliver large combat forces.

The war that you plan for is seldom the war you actually get to fight.

The enemy are decidedly uncooperative in times of conflict and the war in the Pacific was no exception. Long range bombers were still a distant dream and the state of all allied forces were somewhat in question in June of 1942. As previously mentioned  https://theleansubmariner.com/2012/07/29/two-battles-that-determined-the-course-of-a-war/ the high command in Washington had barely reached a consensus on a solution.

The Navy thought that MacArthur would unnecessarily expose their carriers to risk, and that Tulagi should be seized first to lessen the danger from the Japanese and establish a base in the Solomons for future operations. They also thought that command should be through Nimitz to his subordinate, Vice Admiral Robert L Ghormley, Commander South Pacific Area and South Pacific Force (COMSOPAC). MacArthur objected as he thought he would be the logical choice since the amphibious objectives were in his area.

The Joint Chiefs decided that Ghormley would command the Tulagi part of the operation after which MacArthur would command the advance to Rabaul. The US Navy and Marine Corps would attack and seize Tulagi, Guadalcanal and the surrounding area while MacArthur made a parallel advance towards New Guinea. The boundary between Southwest Pacific and South Pacific was shifted to reflect the change and King notified Nimitz (and hence Ghormley) to start planning for an operation. Major General Alexander A Vandegrift was notified that his division (1st Marine Division) would spearhead the attack.

No one could have been a better choice for the role than Vandegrift. A southerner by birth, he was raised in the traditions that forged the men of the Confederacy in Virginia.

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He tried without success to achieve a position in the US Military Academy and was rejected. Later, he was selected as a Marine Corps Officer. When he had approached his Senator for a confirmation, the Senator said that if he was selected, he would be forever doomed to fight small wars in the southern hemisphere. For much of his career, that ended up being true.

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The strength of that experience was that when the nation found itself in need of a jungle warfare fighting force, the Marines brought the needed skills immediately to the battles. Not only that, but the Marine officers between the wars had experimented and innovated new techniques in landing against an entrenched force from the sea. They struggled against an even more entrenched way of thinking put forth by traditionalists that such a campaign would be futile.

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The Marine Corps persevered in their struggles

With a force of only about 20,000 they pushed forward with their development of new strategies and when the call came, they were the obvious choice. Unlike the other services, they remained in constant action during the years between the wars. From the banana wars to service in the far east, Marines of every rank were being built and tested for a larger role.

On March 23 1942, Vandegrift received his second star and command of the new First Marine Division. The band of brothers were being assembled in New River, North Carolina. He had already been the assistant commander practicing practice landings on Solomon’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay (prophetically enough). His task was to build a force of fighting men from the old salts around the globe from a force of roughly 11,000 men to over 19,000.

The Old Salts were joined by old Gunnery sergeants and grizzled old hands from China and the fleet

Men who had fought in the battles in France in WW1 were joined by jungle fighters and seasoned troops of every kind. They were joined by the new breed as well… Marines who had answered the call when the US was attacked by a foreign and devious enemy. This blend of men is the one that was called upon to do the impossible: sail halfway around the world to develop a new way to fight an enemy that had already been tested in blood letting battles.

After arriving with his men in Wellington, New Zealand, General Vandergrift and his staff were ordered to meet with Admiral Ghormley and his staff in Auckland. The Admiral handed Vandegrift the Top Secret orders and Vandegrift was shocked with his orders. The Joint Chiefs wanted him to prepare plans and execute an invasion of Tulagi – Guadalcanal by August 1st.

From Operation Watchtower: The Battle for Guadalcanal (August 1942-February 1943)

“For Vandegrift, the news was far from welcome as he had not expected to go into action until sometime early in the new year and his division was spread out between Wellington and the United States, with part of it on garrison duty in Samoa. In just under a month he would have to make operational and logistical plans, unload his ships and reload them for combat, sail to the Fiji Islands to conduct a rehearsal and then sail to the Solomon Islands. Reconfiguring the division’s supplies would have to be done in New Zealand’s Aotoa Quay, a confined area that could only take five ships at a time. To make matters worse, the dock workers went on strike so that the Marines had to do the work themselves and the rains came which were driven by a cold persistent wind. Some food and clothing was lost due to being left unprotected in cardboard boxes that tended to disintegrate in such conditions. Finally it was discovered after the loading was complete that there was not enough room for all the motor transport to go aboard and so about three-quarters of the heavy prime movers were left behind. Vandegrift also had the problem of a serious lack of intelligence about Guadalcanal. The division’s intelligence officer, Lt Col Frank B Goettge set up an extensive interview programme with former residents of the area to glean as much information as possible and a photo reconnaissance mission by Lt Col Merril B Twining and Major William B Kean yielded a large number of useful photographs of the north coast of the island. To protect the flanks of the main assault a number of smaller objectives on Florida Island, Gavutu, Tanambogo and others would be seized just prior to the main landing. “

The only moment of grace for Vandegrift as he tried to pull together his far flung forces in the face of such overwhelming odds was the granting of a delay of one week by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The new invasion date: August 7 1942. But Vandegrift and his staff were not about to let this chance at victory slip away. They put their hearts and souls into planning for the great struggle ahead. The fight to stop the Japanese advancement would begin on the beaches and in the jungles of these “stinking islands”.

The Marines that were to land first carried bolt action weapons that dated back to the first war. They only had supplies sufficient in the field for 60 days instead of the planned 90, a fact that would come back to haunt them in the days to come. They would be tested by the enemy, the weather, the terrain and the very nature of their characters. But the worst news was yet to come. Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was about to make a challenging situation even more challenging.

Next up: Cancel the Dress Rehearsal

Mister Mac

Two Battles that Determined the Course of a War 5

By July of 1942, the U.S. Navy had proven itself in two critical battles and a number of smaller but significant actions. The Battle for the Coral Sea and Midway proved that the American sailor was more than an equal for any naval force on the face of the planet. Despite numerical strength, the Japanese fleet was unable to destroy the American effort in either battle and their march through the Pacific was significantly slowed.

In the Solomon’s however, the biggest test was yet to be run. The supply and communications routes to Australia and New Zealand were slowly being choked off which would cause vast repercussions in the war effort. The Japanese movement southward towards these strong allies was threatening to make freedom of movement and freedom of resupply for vital war materials nearly impossible. In those hectic early days, the Japanese Navy (despite her losses) still posed a significant threat.

Pacific Theater Map

The air forces of both the Imperial Navy and Army were capable of shutting off free movements of ships and materials from a number of island bases. A small force took the island of Tulagi and started building an airbase on the larger island of Guadalcanal. The importance of the location of this new airfield was that it helped to strangle the movement of ships.

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Defeating an enemy that is entrenched on an island was already well known to strategists but lessons learned about the tenacity of the Japanese were costly  reminders about the cost of not moving quickly enough.

Two battles were already raging in early July that would determine the outcome of the campaigns ahead as well as the war

Those battles were as old as the opposing forces themselves: The fight between the War Department under General Marshall and the Navy Department under Admiral King was the key battle that was constant and ongoing.

396px-General_George_C__Marshall,_official_military_photo,_1946            454px-FADM_Ernest_J__King

 

The second battle was between two seasoned warriors in their own right; General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz.

MacArthur_Manila           399px-Fleet_Admiral_Chester_W__Nimitz_portrait

These battles had been going on for many decades. Prior to the war being thrust upon the United States, the Navy and the Army had opposing plans on how to react to the coming assault form the east. Resources were fought over, money was constantly being argued, even the priority of who would lead in the case of an attack were debated endlessly.

The Army, being the “senior” service was confident that their strategic land role would be the determining factor in any successful venture. After all, wars were always settled on the field of battle and the new air power of the Army’s air force would be able to sweep the ocean of slower moving ships. The Navy’s role in Marshall and MacArthur’s view would be to simply deliver the Army wherever their planning groups determined and make sure that there was enough logistics to support the Army

The Navy looked at the map of the Pacific and even with its numberless island nations recognized that free flowing ships were needed to fight the enemies vast and powerful fleet. Submarines would play a role in disrupting the extended supply lines. Naval air would play a vital role in supporting any island campaign since the distance the existing Army planes had to travel were prohibitive in such a combat scenario.

Complicating the matter even more was the overall war plan that had already been committed to

Despite the Japanese advances, American strategy had been pledged to defeat the Germans in Europe while trying to use the available forces in the east to try and contain the Japs form moving forward. The new base at Guadalcanal was a game changer. Time for discussions and tactical arguments was cut short by the threat of this new air base.

From the book “A World at Arms” by Gerhard L. Weinberg (Page 341), the battle lines were clearly drawn:

“The Navy, and especially Admirals King and Nimitz, was not about to let an army commander, least of all General MacArthur, control the deployment of its main fleet in an area that was so obvious an oceanic one as the Central Pacific. On the other hand, there was no way that as assertive a general as MacArthur was going to serve under any admiral.”

For weeks, the fighting between the Army and Navy delayed real action but in the end, it was the existence United States Marine Corps that finally settled the argument. The Army’s realization that it had no capacity in the Pacific do land on islands against entrenched enemies made all the difference. In the weeks to come, the adaptability of the Corps and the U. S. Navy would be tested in ways that set the stage for the remaining parts of the war.

This back and forth between the two American leaders lasted throughout the war in in the minds of many historians probably drove both the army and the navy to achieve more significant victories. As the Japanese tried to fight their way towards Port Moresby and Australia, this tension would prove to be a valuable source of energy.

There will probably never be an end to the unique battle between the Army and the Navy of the United States

Both will always see their unique roles as the ultimate winner of wars. This of course was complicated even further by the creation of the Air Force in 1947 and the advancement of missiles and the nuclear arsenal. Even now, the Marine Corps is evolving with their new role in the Global wars we are engaged in. My hope is that the tension will always drive the people in charge to find better ways to defend this nation.

Coming up next:

The Die is Cast; Vandegrift does the impossible

Mister Mac