Opening Salvos: The Battle of Savo Island, August 9th, 1942
The news of the landing on Tulagi and on Guadalcanal threw Rabaul into a frenzy of activity. Japanese 8th Fleet Headquarters, responsible for the defense of the Solomons, the Coral Sea, and the Rabaul area, prepared for operations against the American invaders. Vice-Admiral Mikawa Gunichi, Commander, 8th Fleet, however, had a rather difficult operation before him. When the Admiral ordered his forces to assemble, he had no clear knowledge of his opposition, but a very clear view of his own strength. The main unit, and flagship, of his force was the heavy cruiser Chokai, a 13,000-ton behemoth with ten 203mm guns and 24 torpedo tubes plus reloads. Chokai was the ray of light in a force of old ships, and the only heavy cruiser available to Mikawa at this point, though four more heavy cruisers were under his command.
These four ships were part of the most capable of Mikawa's forces, Cruiser Division 6 under Rear-Admiral Goto Aritomo, consisting of heavy cruisers Aoba, Kinugasa, Furutaka, and Kako. All of these cruisers carried six 203mm guns, and eight torpedo tubes. They were anchored at Kavieng, on the north coast of New Ireland, out of range of the U.S. bombers flying from Port Moresby, New Guinea and Townsville, Australia. These were the primary forces Admiral Mikawa would take to Savo Island, but they would need several hours to arrive - for the moment, all that was on hand was Cruiser Division 18, light cruisers Tenryu and Yubari under Rear-Admiral Matsuyama Mitsuhara. In addition, there were two divisions of old destroyers deployed to Rabaul, but operations withheld all but Yunagi from Admiral Mikawa's strike force.
On the Allied side, numerical strength and the naturally favorable position of forces was impressive enough. Off to the east of Guadalcanal, Vice-Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher commanded the three available U.S. carriers -- Saratoga, which flew his flag; Enterprise, and Wasp, a recent arrival and veteran of the Atlantic Ocean, including a sortie in the Mediterranean Sea. Her captain, Forrest Sherman, was widely regarded as a brilliant officer, and soon he was to be Admiral Nimitz' Chief of Staff. In attendance of these carriers was the battleship North Carolina, with Enterprise's Task Force, six cruisers, and sixteen destroyers. A fueling group of five oilers gave the Task Forces the ability to remain on sea for the duration of the landings.
Screening the landing forces, TF 62, under Rear-Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, was the Australian Rear-Admiral Victor A.C. Crutchley's combined support/escort force, eight cruisers and eight destroyers. Another seven destroyers were attached directly to Turner, but Crutchley's units were further split. Destroyers Ralph Talbot and Blue covered the western approaches to the bay soon to be called Ironbottom Sound. Savo Island split The Slot, the body of water between the eastern and the western Solomons, in two lanes of approach. To cover both, and the eastern approach from Indispensable Strait, Crutchley divided his unit into three parts. To the east, there were the light cruisers San Juan and HMAS Hobart, plus destroyers Monssen and Buchanan, under the command of Rear-Admiral Norman C. Scott, COMTG62.4. Covering the northern approach from the west, between Florida Island and Savo Island, was Captain Frederick L. Riefkohl's Task Group 62.3, with heavy cruisers Vincennes, Astoria, and Quincy, and destroyers Wilson and Helm. To their south, Crutchley commanded his own force, TG 62.2, with the Australian heavy cruisers Australia and Canberra, and U.S. heavy cruiser Chicago. Escort and support was provided by destroyers Patterson and Bagley. Crutchley's command arrangements within his thin-spread escort force was easy, his force dispositions out of necessity and in hindsight good. His own Southern Group was well-trained. Australia and Canberra had formed a team in the Royal Australian Navy, and Chicago had been with them ever since early 1942. The Northern Group was born out of necessity: as it made no sense to split the Southern Group's experienced team up, the three remaining heavy cruisers naturally went together, while the lighter forces of Admiral Scott remained in the east to safeguard the sound from enemy light forces.
In the light of such opposition, naturally, there had to be at least one advantage playing in the Japanese Navy's favor, and indeed there was more than just one. First, there was the fact that Admiral Mikawa could hope to sortie with a complete division of heavy cruisers which had operated together often enough to be a working, powerful team. Second, his ships carried the 24", oxygen-driven, one-ton-warheaded Type 93 (called "Long Lance" in Morisonís History of United States Naval Operations in World War II) torpedo, the most devastating of all Japanese weapons. This torpedo, designed to give the Japanese ships a long-range punch, reached out to almost 40,000 yards, and could go as fast as 49 knots (though not both at the same time). Third, his units all had received the exceptional night training of all IJN forces (save, obviously, carriers), while US ships owing to the risks of night training and to the Neutrality Patrol's demands had little to no experience in this kind of fighting. These were just the advantages known to Mikawa, and there was a fourth one which he didn't know of.
U.S. command arrangements had been put into effect shortly after MacArthur's return from the Philippines. In its pre-Guadalcanal form, Admiral Nimitz commanded North Pacific, Central Pacific and South Pacific forces. The latter's boundary with MacArthur's South-West Pacific Command ran right through the Solomons and placed Guadalcanal barely within Nimitz' command authority. Realizing this error, the U.S. high command soon edited the placement of this boundary, and moved it several degrees to the west, thereby cutting the Coral Sea, and putting Guadalcanal under Nimitz' authority. This was still an unsatisfying arrangement, though there would be no more changes.
Overall coverage of the Coral Sea, and the approaches to Guadalcanal and Rabaul, was only possible with cooperation between the commands. Or to give a more telling example: if Admiral Turner desired an air search of Rabaul, he would first have to ask Fletcher to forward this request to Admiral McCain, Commander, Aircraft, South Pacific, who in turn would have to ask MacArthur's air commander to conduct the search. Such arrangements could have but did not totally prevent the search of Mikawa's route. But as we shall see, other problems did.
For Mikawa, August 7th was busy enough even without him sortieing against the enemy. Submarines were detached to attack the shipping off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. Two transports were loaded with a few hundred men to conduct a landing to reinforce Guadalcanal, and sent off the same day. At 1430, Mikawa's assembled forces set off with him aboard Chokai. His route would take him out of Rabaul's Simpson Harbor; around Cape St. George, the southern tip of New Ireland; through the Buka Strait, between the islands of Buka and Bougainville, down the eastern coast of Bougainville, and finally through the Bougainville Strait into the New Georgia Sound, aptly named "The Slot" by U.S. naval forces. If nothing unexpected was to happen, Mikawa's units would be off Savo Island by midnight, 8th August.
By daybreak on August 8th, Mikawa's forces were in a position off the northeastern tip of Bougainville. Mikawa worried about the presence of the enemy carriers known to be somewhere in the area, but Rabaul could not give him any positive hints of enemy carriers in range of his formation. Mikawa was told that there were no enemy carriers in range - a grave mistake, which now threatened to place Mikawa within range of some 140 attack planes on three US carriers.
Here one of the ironies and inconsistencies of history writing reveals itself . No account condemns Mikawa's decision to attack - this one here makes no difference - but it must not be forgotten that the number one factor in Mikawa's success, indeed his mere survival, was extraordinary luck on his part. If truly seen from Mikawa's perspective, indeed one can not help but to question the logic of his decisions and rate them as impulsive more than thoughtful.
But in either way, Mikawa's seven cruisers and the sole destroyer were steaming through The Slot already when night stopped Allied reconnaissance. And as luck would have it, Mikawa remained an unknown factor for the defenders of the U.S. transports.
In support of the landings, a complex air search plan had been developed, involving many small elements from various bases in the area. One of the areas spared from air reconnaissance, however, was The Slot. Admiral Turner, noticing this gap in his all-important early warning system, demanded a search to be conducted on 8th August over The Slot and the waters to its immediate north. Additionally, MacArthur's SOWESPACCOM would dutifully conduct the appropriate searches over its own territory. However, despite the urgency of Turner's request, COMAIRSOPAC McCain failed to comply -- no air search would be conducted over The Slot other than some more or less coincidental patrols.
Some of these came from carrier Enterprise, having drawn search duty for August 8, and launching several SBD Dauntless dive bombers. They would barely miss Mikawa. Two planes did not miss Mikawa, however. It was a Hudson bomber from the Royal Australian Air Force, that, its patrol originating from Milne Bay, New Guinea, sighted Mikawa at 1025 on August 8th east of Bougainville. Immediately, the pilot reported the enemy ships to his base. However, no radio contact could be made with Milne Bay. The pilot decided not to follow Mikawa, and return to his base to report on the sighting as soon as possible. The Hudson's report, paraphrased, reached the invasion forces, and indicated to the Allied forces that three cruisers, two gunboats, and two seaplane tenders were proceeding south. Turner believed this force would establish a base in one of the islands to the north, from where to employ planes against the Allies. Neither he nor his captains appeared to consider the force a threat.
Turner's decision was partially justified. Seeing that the ships reported were as a force too weak to hurt his screen, and that given the large variety of vessels, especially the presence of seaplane carriers, it seemed unlikely that this was a strike force, Turner decided not to go to a higher alert. Nor did he specifically inform his subordinates of the presence of the enemy force, or of what he intended to do about them. Certainly Turner had his hands full with the events ashore and his own problems with unloading. Certainly, Turner could not be asked to see through the haze of the message, that in fact five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a destroyer were part of this force. However, he could well have presumed that the reported cruisers would attack him, and that the gunboats might easily be something different; and alerted his commanders accordingly, while asking Fletcher to intercept the force. He did not do all of that; it would cost the Navy dearly.
Whilst Mikawa was moving south, the Allies were compounding the failure of their intelligence by dropping their plans into the dustbin. Admiral Turner, realizing that his transports were not yet unloaded and would require another day, and that his Marines ashore would require the supplies which he could still land. However, there was a problem there: no-one had anticipated that beforehand, expecting only that five cargo ships, and not the entire 19-transport force, would remain off Guadalcanal. However, Admiral Fletcher, owing to poor radio communications, had no idea that Turner would retain his entire force (including himself) off Guadalcanal, and radioed Admiral Ghormley on the evening of the eight about his intention to withdraw. Ghormley, with no knowledge of Turner's intention either, gave his okay. Fletcher thus duly informed Turner and set about to retire, placing his refueling on the ninth within the radius of action of his fighters to Guadalcanal. He intended to cover the expected five cargo ships, and Crutchley's cover force, before withdrawing for good.
It was an unfortunate turn of events, and one for which only the Allies' inexperience in loading and unloading combat transports could be called responsible. Turner's miscalculation, and that of his subordinates, in presuming the correctness of the sighting report, and in attempting to analyze what the Japanese force would do, and not what it could do, added to the problem. As eighth turned into ninth August, all that stood between Mikawa and his prey was the thin and inexperienced screen of Task Group 62.6, under Crutchley. Or so it would have been, but for the unfortunate results of the misunderstanding between Turner and Fletcher.
It had dawned upon Turner that there were problems with his unloading when Major-General Alexander Vandegrift of the 1st Marine Division acknowledged that he needed additional supplies, and a clear view of the situation on Tulagi. Turner acceded, gave Vandegrift a destroyer-minesweeper, Southard to head to Tulagi, and summoned him and Crutchley to a conference aboard his flagship for midnight, August 8th. Darkness prevented Crutchley from taking a floatplane, or small boat (which was inadvisable given the 30nm stretch of open water between the Southern Group and the transports), and he took his flagship Australia to the rendezvous, thus depriving the Southern Force of a heavy cruiser.
Upon leaving, Crutchley placed the senior officer, Captain Howard D. Bode of USS Chicago, in charge of the Southern Group. With Crutchley's departure, the entire western line of defenses had no flag officer with it. Furthermore, Crutchley did not inform either Admiral Scott of the Eastern Group nor Captain Riefkohl of the Northern Group of his absence. Bode meanwhile decided against placing Chicago in front of Canberra, unwilling to risk night maneuvering. Bode decided that instead of making the change immediately, he might do so if Crutchley did not return before the next turn in the pattern, when placing Chicago before Canberra would be less risky. Furthermore, Bode believed Australia to be back soon, and the conference to be short.
Bode was right in assuming the latter - Crutchley's conference with Turner was short lived, and by midnight, Crutchley was back aboard his flagship. However, he did not regard night-time maneuvers as a good idea, and stayed in with Turner's force, some twenty miles from his group, again without informing the hapless Bode, who went to well-deserved and needed sleep, or Admiral Turner. Two days of continuous Condition One - the entire watch on duty - had not improved the combat readiness of the U.S. force either. By the evening, Condition Two had been declared, with only half the watch on duty. Everywhere about the force, tired Captains and men went to their bunks, to gain strength for the next day's hard work.
Admiral Mikawa's approach was made even easier when Rabaul signaled him that air strikes had already accounted for a good deal of the enemy forces in the sound, including eight transports (which may have been important in his later decision to leave the transports alone instead of going after them). At midnight on August 8th, Mikawa's forces went to battle stations. One of the most spectacular naval battles ever was commencing. Mikawa's units sighted the island of Savo at 0047, and three minutes later, lookouts spotted the destroyer Blue, on its southerly patrol leg, at a mere 10,000 yards. The destroyer had his radar operating, but failed to sight the Japanese force, coolly steaming at 22 knots, guns trained out on Blue, into the northern passage. Another false destroyer contact was made to the north, however, and Mikawa again eased his forces south, into the southern passage.
Half an hour past one in the morning, Mikawa's line began to make for 30 knots, and went into battle. In another example for the luck that shone on Mikawa, even his close range sighting of the crippled destroyer Jarvis could not unbalance the admiral, who held fire.
Not too long thereafter, however, at 0130, Chokai's lookouts sighted the Southern Force, and the Northern Force thereafter, 17,000 yards distant. A minute later, Chokai's first torpedo left its tube, and five minutes into its run, the eerie silence over the sound was broken by the rolling thunder of Chokai's first eight-inch volley, aimed at Canberra.
On the latter, the sudden shock of gunfire from the north brought the bridge watch into action and Captain Getting to the bridge, but her engagement that night would be swift and violent. Turning northeast to unmask her aft batteries, Canberra was hit some twenty plus times in a matter of five minutes, lost power for her armament and pumps, and was rendered unable to fight with not a single main gun round fired. A single torpedo, fired by the destroyer Bagley, had also hit Canberra.
On Chicago, hints at the presence of enemy ships had been seen earlier but not triggered a response. Captain Bode, in tactical command, was in his cabin, and hurried up. Even as aircraft flares blossomed over the Southern Group, and Canberra started her turn, few on Chicago figured out the facts. Chicago did not get to fire her 203mm guns either, when she began a series of maneuvers undertaken to evade torpedoes. Alas, confusion reigned on her bridge. Captain Bode, who had come up from his cabin, reports came in of torpedoes approaching from starboard. Bode turned his vessel towards that direction, leading his to comb the Japanese torpedo spread. However, moments later, the bridge lookouts spotted torpedoes to port, from on the unengaged side, possibly from the same spread of Bagley that had hit Canberra. Bode swung his ship around again, trying to comb the new thread, but by doing so, exposed the entire length of his ship to the Japanese torpedoes. One slammed in Chicago, crippling her. Slowly, she swung westward (via a southerly heading), out of the battle. Captain Bode, immersed in the plight of his ship, and fighting the damages incurred, ignored his role as task group commander and failed to issue orders to his ships or to inform his superiors of what had happened. Chicago shortly rendered fire support to the destroyer Patterson, which was dueling with Japanese light cruisers Yubari and Tenryu. From Patterson, the only contact report had been made by the Southern Group, issued by Commander Frank Walker via radio at 0146.
While Chicago and destroyer Bagley steered clear of the enemy, Mikawa having turned northeast for more prizes, Patterson remained in contact until 0210. To Captain Riefkohl of Vincennes, officer in charge of the Northern Group, the actions south of him were masked by a cloudbank hiding the ships, though the fire of Patterson at the Japanese light cruisers was seen and judged as a minor engagement with light forces. Riefkohl accordingly refused to leave his position. Vincennes had in fact received Patterson's call regarding enemy ships but Riefkohl had not been informed. Now, with a slight increase in speed to 15 knots his only reaction to the presence of the enemy, he elected to wait for orders from Admiral Crutchley. His unit had just executed another of its scheduled turns, keeping course along the edges of a large box-like figure. Vincennes led, followed by Quincy, and Astoria in the rear. Destroyers Wilson and Helm had lost their positions on the flanks and were hurrying to catch up.
Admiral Mikawa, his helm already due northeast to deal with the Northern Force, now completely lost the coherence of his force. Already, the elderly destroyer Yunagi had departed the rear of his force, and now, just as the Kinugasa had aligned herself right behind the flagship Aoba, and the Kako, the Canberra drifted into the path of following Furutaka, forcing her to turn to port at once, leading her and the two light cruisers trailing her away from the main column. Now, the two separated pincers were moving at will against the outnumbered and unsuspecting Northern Force.
Riefkohl found himself, or would soon find himself, in a little-promising situation: to his rear, Chokai, Aoba, Kako and Kinugasa threatened to cross his T from the rear, a rather unusual maneuver but efficient nevertheless, while to the forces south, Furutaka and her two lighter colleagues would have to exchange broadsides with the enemy.
Mikawa could allow himself a moment of pleasure when at 0150 the searchlights of three Japanese cruisers snapped on to light the U.S. line up. A moment later, the first salvo left Chokai's gun tubes, and soon the entire Japanese line was firing, with torpedoes added for good measure.
On the U.S. ships, disbelief was the common reaction to the sudden
illumination. Captains Riefkohl and Greenman (of Astoria) were certain
they faced the Southern Group, accidentally assuming their Allies to be the enemy.
Soon, however, shells erased all hope that a peaceful conclusion could be found
with a radio call or flag hoisting (although Riefkohl tried the latter with
curious success lasting several minutes). Riefkohl ordered battle stations and
twenty knots, the latter being made impossible by untimely interference from a
torpedo from Chokai.
Neither of the three heavy cruisers put up much of a fight, though two salvoes from Quincy slammed into Chokai, destroying a gun turret.
As the battle unfolded, further problems reduced Mikawa's line, now merely a loosely connected and very broad bar instead of a neat line, but it was not later than 0220 that all three U.S. cruisers were reduced to swimming wrecks. There remained little to do for Mikawa, who kept to a new northwest course he had established during the brief engagement with the Northern Force. There, U.S. picket destroyer Ralph Talbot blundered into the Japanese path and was given an unhealthily large dose of fire. Burning and listing, only a rain squall at the right time saved the little ship from becoming another victim of Mikawa's. The Admiral, after consulting his staff, decided at shortly before three in the morning to cancel any further attacks and retire at top speed to Rabaul. Thereby, he concluded the first naval battle fought in the Solomons. The dawning of the new morning saw the vicinity of Savo littered with wrecks -- or worse, it didn't. Vincennes had slipped under at 0300 already, with her surviving crew being rescued from the shark-infested waters. Astoria had looked as if she were salvable, and energetic efforts went into her, improving her watertight integrity and keeping fires down, but uncertainty rose with regard to her ammo lockers, which were presumed to have not been flooded - correctly. Thirty minutes past midday, Astoria accompanied Vincennes and Quincy, having already sunk at 0238, down to the ground of Ironbottom Sound.
Canberra, burning fiercely in her interior, was ordered to be scuttled should she not be able to accompany Turner's retreat at 0600. With lots of fires raging around the boilers but none in a position to power the ship's engines, rudders, or even pumps, the ship was sunk by U.S. destroyer Ellet. Admiral Fletcher did not turn around to pursue Mikawa, as the Japanese Admiral had expected, but kept heading southeast. Like rats leaving the sinking ship, all ships abandoned Ironbottom Sound by the evening of August 9th. Silence fell over the sound, and no hints remained that only a day before, Allied and Japanese naval forces had fought the largest surface battle to that date in the Pacific.
Several questions need to be discussed here, even if only for the sake of completeness. The primary one to be solved is, who must be made responsible for this disaster? First on this list would be Admirals Crutchley and McCain: the first, for failing to make known his extension of his stay with Turner's force, and for going to see Turner without informing anybody but Bode of his absence in the first place. The second for failing to conduct a requested air search without any reason and not informing the commanders of failing to conduct it, leaving them in a wrong feeling of immunity.
First and foremostly culpable was Turner, whose was the plan, after all, by which the forces operated; which did consider that the Northern Force would not need flag officer with it; which had provided for the spotty air reconnaissance plans, and for Fletcher's early withdrawal.
Somewhere on the list would be Captain Bode of Chicago, not for failing to stand up to his new post as Task Group commander but for not informing the other commanders of the presence of a strong enemy force. Certainly, also, his handling of Chicago had been somewhat spotty; granted that the situation was difficult, his decision to head west, instead of east towards the transports, whose defense was his job, and where Australia was to be found, was false. Had he encountered Mikawa again, alone, he would have stood no chance.
There is, however, much more blame to spread around than could possibly be laid upon the commanders on the spot. The Allied operations plan was poor. Although the distribution of the forces could not be helped, the fact that there were only two flag officers with the three screening groups necessarily led to command problems. Captain Bode of Chicago can not be considered ill-suited for a task group command, but to control damage control efforts on his ship, designated a new course and general approach to the action for his vessel, worrying about torpedoes and the like, in addition to trying to control the rest of his force proved too much. The dogged skill of the Japanese torpedo men and gunners and the coolness of the Japanese approach added to the completeness of the victory by ascertaining that the initial blows would come out of the dark and be deadly at the same time. The engagement with the Southern Force had been decided in five minutes, and not much more time was needed to deal with the Northern Force, which had a slight advantage of strength, position and alertness over its southern counterpart. This combination of near flawless execution of a well-exercised operation by the Japanese, and the problematic layout of command and control arrangements on the Allied side led to the defeat of Savo; the worst naval defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Navy.