Battle of Friday the 13th : Guadalcanal, 1942
Guadalcanal, 1942: The Battle of Friday the 13th, 1942
Battle of Friday the 13th : Guadalcanal, 1942 “It’s suicide,” was the reaction of Captain Cassin Young, new commanding officer of the task group flagship, the heavy cruiser San Francisco (CA-38), when informed of his mission. “I know. But we have to do it,” responded Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan, the commander of a force of five cruisers and eight destroyers (Task Group 67.4) assigned the mission to interdict a Japanese task group and prevent a second devastating battleship bombardment of Henderson Field and U.S. Marine positions on Guadalcanal. Based on intelligence reporting, both of them knew what they were up against: battleships. Captain Young was not the kind to shirk danger; he had been awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions at Pearl Harbor in command of the repair ship Vestal (AR-4), when he was blown off the bridge of his ship by the explosion of Arizona’s (BB-39) magazine alongside, swam through burning oil to get back aboard his sinking ship to get her underway under fire and beach her in shallow water. Young was also right: Neither he nor Callaghan, nor Rear Admiral Norman Scott, nor the five Sullivan brothers, nor a total of 1,439 American Sailors would survive the incredibly vicious, chaotic, no-quarter, close-quarters nighttime melee with two Japanese battleships, a light cruiser, and 11 destroyers—an action that naval historian Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison would describe as being like “minnows in a bucket” and others would describe as a “bar room brawl after the lights had been shot out.”
By the time the battle was over, of the 13 U.S. ships engaged, two anti-aircraft cruisers (Atlanta (CL-51) and Juneau (CL-52)) and four destroyers (Cushing (DD-376), Laffey (DD-459), Barton (DD-599), and Monssen (DD-436)) would be sunk.
Only the light cruiser Helena (CL-50) and destroyers O’Bannon (DD-450) and Fletcher (DD-445) survived the deluge of battleship shells and “Long Lance” torpedoes with minimal damage or no casualties. The Japanese lost only two destroyers, but Hiei, one of the two battleships, was so badly battered that she could not steer or clear the battle area, and was sunk the next day by U.S. Navy and Marine aircraft, flying from Henderson Field and USS Enterprise (CV-6).
Most important, Callaghan’s force accomplished its mission in preventing a bombardment, thus keeping Henderson Field operational and playing a pivotal role in preventing about 5,000 Japanese reinforcements from reaching the island, and sinking almost all the supplies and ammunition of the 2,000 who did. In conjunction with yet another brutal battle during the night of 14/15 November, this engagement turned the tide of the campaign for Guadalcanal in favor of the United States—at great cost.
The record of valor displayed by the U.S. Navy in the Battle of Friday the 13th was astounding. Rear Admirals Callaghan and Scott were both awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor (Scott was actually killed by “friendly” fire). Three Medals of Honor were awarded to crew on San Francisco, who fought on after the most senior officers were all killed: Lieutenant Commander Herbert Schonland, Lieutenant Commander Bruce McCandless, and (posthumously) Boatswain’s Mate First Class Reinhardt Keppler. San Francisco received a Presidential Unit Citation, as did Laffey, Sterett, and O’Bannon.
The crew of San Francisco alone accounted for 32 Navy Crosses (22 posthumous) and 21 Silver Stars, and there were more on other ships. The commanding officers of all 13 ships in the battle were awarded a Navy Cross, four posthumously. At least 28 U.S. Navy destroyers and destroyer-escorts were named in honor of those brave Sailors who fell in this most epochal battle in U.S. Navy history (one of these, USS Harmon (DE-678)—was the first warship named in honor of an African-American, Mess Attendant First Class Leonard Roy Harmon, killed on San Francisco). USS The Sullivans (DD-537 and DDG-68) were named after the five Sullivan brothers, all lost aboard Juneau.
Although Rear Admiral Callaghan’s courage has never been questioned, the appalling cost of the battle caused many navy leaders at the time—and many historians since then—to question his tactical judgement, in particular his integration (or lack thereof) of newer radar on some of his ships. Some of these criticisms are probably valid, but none really take into account that Captain Young’s assessment (suicide) was valid. The two Japanese battleships (eight 14-inch guns each) and 95 powerful torpedoes (not counting reloads) aboard the destroyers, all superbly trained and equipped for night fighting, had vastly superior throw weight. Callaghan’s own ships were never designed or intended to duke it out with battleships, nor could the technology of radar be a panacea for decades of avoidance of realistic nighttime training (which would be disastrously demonstrated at the Battle of Tassafaronga just two weeks after this battle). Callaghan’s only hope of success was to get as close to the battleships as quickly as possible before opening fire. Whether this was his concept is unknown, because he left no written plan and those who might have known were dead too, but that is what happened. Opening fire sooner only would have given the Japanese battleships more time to find the range before the much lighter U.S. weapons could inflict any serious damage on the more heavily armored battleships, and crossing the Japanese “T” would only have made better targets for Japanese torpedoes. Given the force disparity, there is no realistic outcome in which this battle would have turned out any better for the U.S. with or without more effective use of radar. So, in my assessment, in the face of overwhelming odds, Callaghan chose to attack, did his duty to the utmost, and, in strategic terms, he won.
The words of Major General A. A. Vandegrift, USMC, commander of all Marine and Army forces on Guadalcanal, perhaps sum it up the best: “[O]ur greatest homage goes to Scott, Callaghan and their men who with magnificent courage against seemingly hopeless odds drove back the first hostile stroke and made success possible. To them the men of Cactus (Guadalcanal) lift their battered helmets in deepest admiration.”
Or perhaps the words of the skipper of USS Fletcher (DD-445), Commander William Cole, to his executive officer as Fletcher (13th ship in line of a group of 13 ships on Friday the 13th, with hull number that added up to 13 and named after Frank Friday Fletcher) entered the battle: “Aren’t you glad our wives don’t know where we are right now?”
The five Sullivan brothers on board USS Juneau (CL-52) at the time of her commissioning ceremonies at the New York Navy Yard, 14 February 1942. All were lost with the ship following the 13 November 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The brothers are (from left to right): Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, and George Sullivan (NH 52362).
The battles that took place in the sound between Guadalcanal and Tulagi after midnight on the night of 12/13 November 1942 and on 14/15 November are known by multiple names. In his History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II, Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison refers to them as the “Naval Battle of Guadalcanal,” with part one on 12/13 November and part two on 14/15 November. Other works call the engagements the First Night Battle of Guadalcanal (which is confusing since Savo Island and Cape Esperance were also night battles off Guadalcanal). Yet other sources refer to the Third and Fourth Battles of Savo Island, and Japanese sources refer to the Third and Fourth Battles of the Solomon Sea. Regardless, these two battles were the decisive engagements of the Guadalcanal campaign that turned the tide in U.S. favor.
This time, U.S. naval intelligence and code breakers provided extensive warning of the timing and force composition of the next major Japanese push to reinforce and retake Guadalcanal, occupied by U.S. Marines since 7 August (and since October, by some U.S. Army troops as well). Following the disastrous failure by Japanese army forces to penetrate the U.S. perimeter and retake Henderson Field in late October, the Japanese high command determined that yet another major reinforcement attempt take place, although the Japanese army still grossly underestimated the number of U.S. troops on Guadalcanal and how much force would be needed to evict them. As for the Japanese navy, coming off their costly “victory” in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet) determined that there was a narrow window to conduct a major reinforcement effort while there were no operational U.S. carriers in the region.
Yamamoto believed the USS Hornet (CV-8) and USS Enterprise (CV-6) had been sunk, but Enterprise was only badly damaged, and, as of early November, still had her forward elevator jammed in the “up” position and was trailing an oil slick. The Japanese, too, were shorthanded with aircraft carriers. The fleet carriers Zuikaku and the badly damaged Shokaku, with their decimated air groups, as well as the damaged light carrier Zuiho, had returned to Japan. This left only the medium carrier Junyo, with a reduced air group, available to support operations, along with about 125 operational land-based bombers and fighters, and about 25 operational float planes.
Nevertheless, Yamamoto amassed a force of four battleships, three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and 21 destroyers for the operation, under the overall command of Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo. Another four heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, and six destroyers under Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa (the victor at the Battle of Savo Island) were assigned to the operation. An additional 12 destroyers were to provide escort services for 11 Japanese troop transports with 7,000 troops and large quantities of ammunition and supplies embarked.
Believing that the U.S. carriers were out of the picture, the key to the Japanese operation was to suppress (and preferably destroy) the U.S. aircraft at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. Failure to do so would have dire consequences, as the slow transports would be acutely vulnerable to daylight U.S. air attacks from the airfield (by then, a complex of three airstrips, with 77 operational aircraft on 12 November). This critical mission fell to Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe and Battleship Division 11 (Hiei and Kirishima) escorted by one light cruiser (Nagara) and 11 destroyers.
Vice Admiral William Halsey, the commander of all U.S. forces in the South Pacific Area since 18 October, understood that aggressive measures would be needed to prevent a reoccurrence of that month’s devastating battleship bombardment by Kongo and Haruna of Henderson Field. Unlike his predecessor, Vice Admiral Ghormley, Halsey flew to Guadalcanal on 8 November to see the situation firsthand and personally experienced an embarrassing nighttime shelling by the Japanese destroyer Kagero (opposed ineffectually by three U.S. PT boats). Halsey had given his word to Major General A. A. Vandegrift, USMC, commander of U.S. forces on Guadalcanal, that the U.S. Navy would make maximum effort to reinforce and defend Guadalcanal, and, in early November, U.S. surface ships began regularly entering the sound north of Guadalcanal to conduct extensive daylight shore bombardment of Japanese positions on the island. However, Halsey’s options were limited. Lack of tankers contributed to a serious fuel shortage, he had no operational carriers, and the concurrent Allied invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) which commenced on 8 November, had left the South Pacific with resources only barely adequate to support the Guadalcanal mission—and many have argued that resources were inadequate.
On 12 November, two U.S. convoys transporting 5,500 Army and Marine troops converged on Guadalcanal. One group (TG 67.1), commanded by Rear Admiral Kelly Turner himself, included four transports escorted by cruisers San Francisco (CA-38) (with Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan embarked), Portland (CA-33,) Helena (CL-50,) and Juneau (CL-52), plus 10 destroyers. Rear Admiral Norman Scott, embarked on the anti-aircraft cruiser Atlanta (CL-51), with three destroyers escorting three transports, one of which was damaged by air attack and had to turn back with a destroyer. At dawn, six U.S. transports were off Guadalcanal off-loading troops and supplies.
At 1405, a major Japanese air raid came in over Florida Island and Tulagi from the north, and attacked U.S. ships in the sound between Tulagi and Guadalcanal. Alerted by coast watchers that the strike was inbound, the flight of 16 G4M Betty twin-engine torpedo bombers, escorted by 30 Zero fighters (which didn’t do a very good escort job), was badly mauled by Marine fighters from Henderson, while others were downed by U.S. shipboard anti-aircraft fire. Only two of the Bettys made it back to their base at Rabaul, and none of their torpedoes hit. However, one damaged Betty kept coming at the San Francisco after dropping its torpedo (which missed). Gunners on the cruiser stood their ground and kept firing at the Betty until it crashed into the after superstructure, wiping out most of the ship’s anti-aircraft guns (three of four 20-mm mounts) with a massive spray of flaming gasoline. The explosion killed 24 Sailors and wounded another 45, including the executive officer, Commander Mark Crouter (whose decision to remain aboard would cost him his life in the battle to follow, resulting in a posthumous Navy Cross). Despite significant damage, there was no serious discussion by Captain Cassin Young and Rear Admiral Dan Callaghan about withdrawing San Francisco from the expected fight that night.
By this time, both Halsey and Turner had sufficient intelligence and air reconnaissance reports to know that the major Japanese force was on the way. They did not know the exact composition of the bombardment force, but knew several Japanese battleships would be involved in the operation, and assumed there would be a bombardment. Despite the heavy odds, Turner stripped almost all the escorts from his convoy, except one damaged destroyer and two that were low on fuel, and combined them into a single task force (TG 67.4), under the tactical command of Callaghan, to attempt to stop the Japanese bombardment. Given the odds, this was an extremely bold decision, which many in the force considered to be suicidal.
Turner’s decision to make Callaghan the commander, instead of Rear Admiral Scott, who was embarked on Atlanta, remains controversial to this day. Callaghan was only 15 days senior to Scott, but Scott had combat experience and had been the victor at the Battle of Cape Esperance, where he had learned numerous lessons in night fighting the hard way. Callaghan’s choice of San Francisco as his flagship has also been heavily criticized (although Scott had made the same decision at Cape Esperance and there is no evidence he would have done differently if still in command of the task force). The cruiser was the “traditional” choice, since she was the largest ship in the task force, and was also the “sentimental” choice, having been Callaghan’s previous command as a captain.
What San Francisco lacked was the latest SG search radar carried on the heavy cruiser Portland and the light cruiser Helena, both of which would have made suitable flagships. (Two destroyers, Fletcher (DD-445)—and O’Bannon (DD-450)—and the anti-aircraft cruiser Juneau also had SG radars.) The SG radar had much better contact discrimination, was less prone to false alarms, and had a radar “scope” that provided a “birds-eye” view of the battlefield. The older (by a year) SC radar carried on San Francisco and Atlanta had none of these advantages.
Callaghan would also be criticized for not putting his SG-equipped destroyers in the lead (O’Bannon was fourth in line and Fletcher last, although Callaghan expected to make a column turn before the battle that would have put Fletcher first). Callaghan had also chosen to put his most combat-experienced skipper, Lieutenant Commander Edward Parker (two Navy Crosses in action in the Dutch East Indies) on Cushing in the lead despite an inoperable fire-control radar on Cushing. To be fair to Callaghan and Scott, neither of them had much opportunity to train or become familiar with the new radar technology, nor did any of the ships have a configuration that optimally integrated radar information into command decision making. Captain Gilbert Hoover on Helena had done the most to create an ad hoc arrangement for using radar. Callaghan also did not publish a battle plan, and whatever his plan might have been, no one was left alive who might have known it.
Callaghan chose the same line-ahead column formation that Scott had employed at Cape Esperance, a “lesson learned” from that battle, to best maintain control and avoid the confusion and “friendly fire” that damaged U.S. destroyers in that engagement. Callaghan’s force consisted of 13 ships, in a single line, in the following order: destroyers Cushing, Laffey, Sterret, and O’Bannon, followed by Atlanta (with Scott embarked), San Francisco (with Callaghan embarked,) Portland, Helena, and Juneau, followed by destroyers Aaron Ward, Barton, Monssen, and Fletcher. The down side of a line of ships is that it made a great target for Japanese torpedoes, especially since the U.S. Navy still didn’t grasp the fact that Japanese torpedoes were more powerful and had a much greater range than U.S. torpedoes (and left little wake due to their oxygen fuel), not to mention being much more reliable.
After midnight, the Japanese Bombardment Group emerged from a series of torrential rain squalls with their formation in disarray, still basically in a (very rough) circular cruising disposition. The night was very dark, even when it was not raining. The two battleships were prepared for shore bombardment, with anti-personnel, incendiary, and general-purpose high-explosive rounds (i.e., not armor piercing) in the hoists ready to fire. Like Rear Admiral Goto before him at Cape Esperance, Abe was not expecting to encounter an American surface force at night. Abe did not know for sure where all his own ships were, and he squandered precious time trying to figure it out. As a result, the Japanese were once again caught by surprise. In fact, this time, at 0124 American radar on Helena detected the Japanese (at 13.5 miles, ten miles from Cushing in the lead) before Japanese lookouts detected the Americans.
Callaghan did not appear to receive or react to radar contacts from Helena on Japanese force disposition, focusing his attention on what Lieutenant Commander Parker on the lead destroyer, Cushing, could see, which in the dark night was pretty much nothing. With talk-between-ships (TBS), the U.S. Navy’s relatively new means for short-range voice communications, clobbered by too many ships on the net, critical contact information was also dropped. Much has been made of Callaghan’s failure to use his radar advantage to gain surprise over the Japanese. My assessment (which is not the standard one) is that had Callaghan opened fire earlier, his 8-inch, 6-inch, and 5-inch guns would have had limited impact on the Japanese battleships, which would have then had more time to switch to appropriate ammunition and find the range to kill Callaghan’s cruisers at a distance with 14-inch guns and torpedoes. With two battleships in the Japanese formation, crossing the Japanese “T” wouldn’t have done much good either, since it would only have taken a couple minutes for the battleships to turn their broadsides to the U.S. line.
At 0142, Cushing and the lead Japanese destroyers, closing on each other unseen at a combined speed of over 40 knots to a CPA of 2,000 yards, were startled to see enemy ships so close. Cushing veered away to avoid a collision, while the three destroyers piled up behind her, resulting in a ripple effect of confusion down the U.S. line. Whether Callaghan meant it or not, the result was that the U.S. line pierced into the center of the dispersed Japanese formation like a javelin before blunting on the hard rock that was the battleship Hiei. The Japanese, despite their surprise, actually opened fire first at 0148, revealing to Callaghan that there were Japanese ships all around, leading to his famous (and much maligned) order for “Odd ships fire to starboard and even ships fire to port.” (The purpose of Callaghan’s order was to prevent U.S. ships from all targeting the same Japanese ships—which happened several times in later battles with very bad results for the Americans.) It was maligned because some U.S. ships already had targeting solutions on close-by Japanese ships, awaiting the order to open fire, and were forced to shift to targets on the opposite side to comply with Callaghan’s order. From there, the battle quickly degenerated into chaos, a bit like a multicar pile-up on the interstate in fog. The battle became individual ship versus individual ship, with such intermingled maneuvers that an accurate reconstruction or chronology is impossible. So, I will follow the methodology of Richard Frank in his excellent book Guadalcanal and give a brief synopsis of what happened to each ship in the American line.
1. USS Cushing (DD-376), Lieutenant Commander Edward N. Parker commanding. Lost in action; 72 KIA, 68 WIA.
After avoiding the Japanese destroyer Yudachi leading the van, Cushing found herself closing to within 1,000 yards of battleship Hiei to port, but in response to Callaghan’s even/odd order, targeted a Japanese destroyer with her main battery on the opposite side instead, while raking the battleship with 20-mm cannon fire and one torpedo to no effect. Cushing was hit almost immediately by Japanese shells, including her engineering spaces. Before going dead in the water, Cushing fired six torpedoes at Hiei at a range of 1,200 yards, which missed or failed to work. Cushing was then hit at least 17 more times before Parker was forced to give the order to abandon ship. The light cruiser Nagara (which had been fired upon by numerous U.S. ships, but escaped serious damage) and the destroyer Yukikaze gave Cushing the final blows as they exited the battle area.
Lieutenant Commander Parker (future vice admiral) was awarded a third Navy Cross.
2. USS Laffey (DD-459), Lieutenant Commander William E. Hank commanding. Lost in action; 57 KIA, 114 WIA.
Laffey sighted both Japanese battleships shortly after Cushing came under fire. Laffey passed under the bow of Hiei at a range of 20 yards, blasting the battleship point blank with 5-inch shells and 20-mm fire (officers on the bridge of Laffey also fired their sidearms at the battleship). Rear Admiral Abe and the captain of Hiei were both wounded and Abe’s chief of staff killed by fire from Laffey. Abe did not remember the rest of the battle after being wounded. The early hits from Laffey and Cushing set Hiei’s massive superstructure aflame (described by some as like a burning high-rise apartment building) with the result that Hiei drew fire and numerous hits (over 85) from almost every U.S. ship engaged in the battle. This resulted in massive topside damage, but none that penetrated to her vitals. In the confusion, Hiei also fired on several Japanese destroyers. Laffey escaped from Hiei only to run into the large anti-aircraft destroyer Teruzuki, which scored repeated hits on Laffey and blew off her stern with a torpedo before a salvo of 14-inch shells from the battleship Kirishima hit the destroyer. Teruzuki avoided using her searchlight and, as a result, avoided drawing fire. As fires raged out of control from more hits by three other Japanese destroyers, Hank gave the order to abandon ship just before a massive explosion tore Laffey apart, killing Hank and many men.
Presidential Unit Citation. Lieutenant Commander Hank awarded posthumous Navy Cross. Allen M. Sumner-class DD-702 named in his honor.
3. USS Sterett (DD-407), Commander Jesse G. Coward commanding. Damaged; 29 KIA, 22 WIA.
Sterett shifted her guns from port to starboard in response to Callaghan’s order and got off 13 salvoes at— probably—the light cruiser Nagara before a hit crippled her steering. Additional hits inflicted yet more damage. Sterett launched four torpedoes at either Hiei or Kirishima, which either missed or didn’t work, while hitting the battleship with multiple 5-inch rounds. Sterett also fired two torpedoes at a Japanese destroyer. By 0227, Sterett had sustained 11 direct hits, including three 14-inch bombardment rounds, knocking out half her main battery. With all torpedoes expended, steering by her engines, Sterett limped out of the battle area.
Presidential Unit Citation. Commander Coward awarded first of two Navy Crosses.
4. USS O’Bannon (DD-450), Commander Edwin Wilkinson commanding. No damage; 0 KIA/0 WIA.
O’Bannon led a charmed life throughout the entire war. Maneuvering to avoid the flaming wrecks of Cushing and Laffey, O’Bannon became the lead of the U.S. column by default, closing within 1,800 yards of Hiei. O’Bannon scored numerous 5-inch hits on Hiei while the battleship’s 14-inch shells passed within feet overhead and other fire missed. The destroyer fired two torpedoes at Hiei with no effect. O’Bannon’s only damage came from chunks of Laffey falling from the sky.
Presidential Unit Citation. Commander Wilkinson awarded Navy Cross. O’Bannon would earn 17 Battle Stars in World War II (tied for third) with no combat casualties. (The crew of O’Bannon attributed their good fortune to a St. Christopher’s medal mounted on the bridge. When O’Bannon was being scrapped, two former crewmen—who were also Pearl Harbor survivors—went onboard and retrieved the medal. They later presented it to Rear Admiral Winston Copeland, Commander of the Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group, just prior to TR’s 1999 deployment, during which its air wing (CVW-8) flew over 3,000 strike sorties in Kosovo/Serbia and 40 more in Iraq without suffering a combat loss or casualty. Rear Admiral Copeland subsequently presented the medal to then-Commander Ted Carter, now vice admiral and USNA superintendent. It now hangs in the Supe’s conference room.)
5. USS Atlanta (CL-51), Captain Samuel P. Jenkins commanding. Rear Admiral Norman Scott embarked. Lost in action; 170 KIA, 103 WIA.
Moments before the Japanese opened fire, Rear Admiral Abe ordered his ships to illuminate targets with searchlight, and Atlanta was caught in the “crossfire” of searchlights. The cruiser fired at the offending lights, while coming under Japanese fire from multiple directions. Atlanta’s forward main 5-inch gun mounts engaged the Hiei to port while her after mounts engaged three Japanese destroyers to starboard; these had crossed through the U.S. formation ahead of Atlanta, which hit the Hiei and the destroyers multiple times. One of the three Japanese destroyers, the Akatsuki, was hit by so many U.S. ships simultaneously that she became a flaming wreck and sank with few survivors. However, along with multiple 5-inch hits from the destroyers and 6-inch hits from Hiei’s secondary batteries, a torpedo from one of the destroyers crippled the Atlanta. With visibility reduced even further by smoke, Atlanta then drifted into the line of fire of San Francisco and was hit by two full main 8-inch battery salvoes, which hit high in Atlanta’s superstructure on a flat trajectory, aimed most likely for targets beyond. These shells (with telltale San Francisco green dye,) killed Rear Admiral Scott and three of his four staff officers. Atlanta was hit by at least 13 rounds from the Nagara and Hiei, and 19 from San Francisco.
Presidential Unit Citation. Rear Admiral Scott awarded posthumous Medal of Honor. Captain Jenkins awarded Navy Cross. Fletcher-class DD-690 and Kidd-class DDG-995 named in honor of Scott.
6. USS San Francisco (CA-38), Captain Cassin Young commanding. Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan embarked. Heavily damaged, 86 KIA (including 7 USMC) and 85 WIA, plus 24 KIA and 45 WIA in 12 November air attack.
San Francisco opened fire on the Japanese destroyer Yudachi, hitting her multiple times. As numerous other U.S. ships started to pummel Yudachi, San Francisco shifted fire to the destroyer Harusame, which suddenly reversed course and possibly passed behind the drifting Atlanta, which was caught in the crossfire and heavily hit by San Francisco. This prompted Callaghan to issue the order “Cease fire own ships,” which resulted in confusion about whether he meant a general cease-fire. Subsequently Callaghan had to clarify his order. San Francisco then encountered the battleship Hiei on opposite course. Both flagships fired broadsides into each other at a range of 2,500 yards while they were both being hit by other ships from opposite directions. During this brief duel, San Francisco hit Hiei with numerous 8-inch shells, one of which crippled Hiei’s steering and would be the cause of the battleship’s doom. San Francisco was hit by fire from the light cruiser Nagara and was engaged by the battleship Kirishima as well. The destroyer Amatsukaze fired four torpedoes at San Francisco, too close for them to arm, and narrowly avoided a collision. With San Francisco taking hits on both sides, Hiei’s third 14-inch salvo hit San Francisco in the bridge area, and the several hits from Hiei’s secondary batteries mortally wounded Captain Young, another hit killed Rear Admiral Callaghan and all but one of his staff, and yet another hit killed the acting executive officer, Commander Joseph C. Hubbard in after control, while the wounded XO, Commander Crouter, was killed in his bunk. The only survivors in the pilot house were Lieutenant Commander Bruce McCandless and a quartermaster. After determining that Lieutenant Commander Herbert Schonland, the damage control officer, was senior surviving officer, the two agreed that Schonland would stay below in engineering to keep the ship (which had sustained over 45 hits by this point) from sinking while McCandless would fight the ship topside. Knowing that if he withdrew from the battle, other U.S. ships might follow, thinking they were following Callaghan, McCandless chose to stay in the fight, still exchanging fire with Hiei and Kirishima, although by this time most of San Francisco’s guns were out of action. About the time Callaghan was killed (0200), Rear Admiral Abe lost his nerve and ordered the bombardment cancelled and his ships to withdraw and regroup—despite the fact that Kirishima was unscathed.
Presidential Unit Citation. Rear Admiral Callaghan awarded posthumous Medal of Honor. Captain Young awarded posthumous Navy Cross (previously awarded Medal of Honor at Pearl Harbor.) Lieutenant Commanders Herbert Schonland and Bruce McCandless awarded Medals of Honor. Boatswain’s Mate First Class Reinhardt Keppler awarded posthumous Medal of Honor. Crew of San Francisco were awarded 32 Navy Crosses, 21 Silver Stars, and 1 Bronze Star with combat V. Fletcher-class DD-792 and Kidd-class DDG-994 named in honor of Callaghan. Fletcher-class DD-793 named in honor of Young (and is now a museum ship in Boston). Gearing-class DD-765 named in honor of BM1 Keppler. Knox-class frigate FF-1084 named in honor of McCandless and his father, Commodore Byron McCandless. USS Harmon (DE-678) was the first warship named for an African-American, Mess Attendant First Class Leonard Roy Harmon, killed while shielding wounded with his body. The following destroyer escorts were named after San Francisco crewmen who were awarded a posthumous Navy Cross: William Finnie Cates—Canon-class USS Cates (DE-763); Mark Hannah Crouter—Evarts-class USS Crouter (DE-11); Buckley-class USS Damon M. Cumings (DE-643); George Raymond Eisele—Evarts-class USS Eisele (DE-34); Jacques Rodney Eisner—Canon-class USS Eisner (DE-192); George Irvin Falgout—Edsall-class USS Falgout (DE-324); Andrew Jackson Gandy—Canon-class USS Gandy (DE-764); Eugene F. George—Buckley-class USS George (DE-697); Butler-class USS Albert T. Harris (DE-447); Buckley-class USS Joseph Hubbard (DE-211); Louis Marcel LeHardy—Evarts-class USS LeHardy (DE-20); Harry James Lowe Jr.—Edsall-class USS Lowe (DE-325); Jackson Keith Loy—Buckley-class USS Loy (DE-160); Buckley-class USS William T. Powell (DE-213); Frank O. Slater—Canon-class destroyer escort USS Slater (DE-766), now a museum ship in Albany, New York; Kenneth J. Spangenberg—Buckley-class USS Spangenberg (DE-223); Butler-class USS John L. Williamson (DE-370); Jean C. Witter—Buckley-class USS Witter (DE-636); Jack William Wintle—Evarts-class USS Wintle (DE-25).
7. USS Portland (CA-33), Captain Laurence T. DuBose commanding. Damaged; 16 KIA, 10 WIA.
Following San Francisco, Portland initially opened fire on a Japanese destroyer, when at 0158 the cruiser was hit by one of eight torpedoes from the Yudachi on starboard side aft that severed the starboard screws and resulted in plate damage. This forced Portland into a starboard circle. She spent the rest of the battle churning in a circle, and, at the conclusion of the first (of many) circles, got a firing solution on Hiei with her forward batteries, hitting the battleship with 10 to 14 8-inch shells.
Meritorious Unit Commendation. Captain Du Bose awarded second Navy Cross.
8. USS Helena (CL-50), Captain Gilbert C. Hoover commanding. Damaged; 1 KIA, 13 WIA.
Helena opened fire on the Japanese destroyer Akutsuki, which returned fire, causing minor damage to the cruiser. Helena then picked her way through burning ships, engaging several Japanese vessels, including the destroyer Amatsukaze (whose skipper, Commander Tameichi Hara, would write the book Japanese Destroyer Captain shortly after the war, one of the first Japanese accounts translated into English with wide distribution and in U.S. Naval Institute book catalog even now). Helena engaged Amatsukaze while she was pumping rounds into San Francisco after sinking Barton. Amatsukaze was hit 37 times, with 43 killed, but survived the battle due to three other destroyers that distracted Helena. Helena was hit five times with minimal damage, while her rapid-fire 6-inch guns inflicted much greater damage to the Japanese.
Navy Unit Citation (combined with later actions in Solomons). Captain Hoover awarded third Navy Cross. Helena would be sunk at the Battle of Kula Gulf on 6 July 1943.
9. USS Juneau (CL-51), Captain Lyman K. Swenson commanding. Lost in action; 683 KIA, 4 WIA.
Juneau was hit by a torpedo before she even had a chance to fire more than a few rounds in the battle. Severely damaged, with her keel probably broken by the torpedo and her steering disabled, Juneau limped from the battle area after almost colliding with Helena. At 0159, the destroyer Amatsukaze claimed to have launched four torpedoes at a ship identified as Juneau, with one observed hit at 0202. However, Juneau may have been hit by a torpedo from the lead Japanese destroyer, Yudachi.
Captain Swenson awarded posthumous Navy Cross. Allen M. Sumner–class DD-729 named in honor of Swenson. Fletcher-class DDG-537 and Arleigh Burke–class DDG-68 named in honor of the five Sullivan brothers.
10. USS Aaron Ward (DD-483), Commander Orville F. Gregor commanding. Damaged; 15 KIA,38 WIA.
Aaron Ward, leading the trailing four destroyers, plowed into the mass of wrecked and burning ships on both sides. The trail destroyers could all see the carnage ahead, but none of them faltered. Opening fire on Hiei at 7,000 yards, Aaron Ward had to go to an emergency backing bell to avoid hitting a burning Japanese destroyer. The Yudachi (which seemed to be everywhere in the battle) was hit by either gunfire from Aaron Ward or by friendly fire from another Japanese destroyer, the Asagumo, which left her dead in the water. Two torpedoes passed under Aaron Ward, which probably hit the Barton. Aaron Ward attempted to launch torpedoes at Hiei, but San Francisco was then too close to Hiei and Aaron Ward checked fire before blasting her way through a couple of Japanese destroyers on both sides. Damaged by nine direct hits, including three 14-inch battleship shells, Aaron Ward lost power at about 0235 and went dead in the water.
Commander Gregor (future rear admiral) awarded Navy Cross. USS Aaron Ward would be bombed and sunk off Guadalcanal on 7 April 1943.
11. USS Barton (DD-599), Lieutenant Commander Douglas H. Fox commanding. Lost in action; 165 KIA, 31 WIA.
After firing at Japanese destroyers for about seven minutes, Barton nearly collided with an unidentified vessel. While she was momentarily stationary, she was hit by two Japanese torpedoes and exploded, broke in two, and sank in a matter of minutes, taking the great majority of her crew with her. Barton was probably hit by at least two of eight torpedoes fired by the destroyer Amatsukaze at 0154.
Lieutenant Commander Fox awarded a second Navy Cross, posthumously. Allen M. Sumner–class DD-779 named in honor of Fox.
12. USS Monssen (DD-436), Lieutenant Commander Charles E. McCombs commanding. Lost in action; 145 KIA, 37 WIA.
Monssen followed Aaron Ward and Barton into the pile-up when a torpedo went under her keel and another missed ahead. Monssen then fired five torpedoes at the Hiei at 4,000 yards, with the usual result for American torpedoes: nothing. Monssen then engaged a destroyer to starboard with five torpedoes and another to port at a quarter mile with guns, including 20-mm. The destroyer was then illuminated by star shells, which McCombs believed came from a U.S. ship. He flicked on his recognition lights before being deluged by 37 hits from multiple ships, including three 14-inch shells. Monssen was abandoned at 0220.
Lieutenant Commander McCombs was awarded a Navy Cross.
13. USS Fletcher (DD-445), Commander William M. Cole, commanding. 0 KIA, O WIA.
Triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13) ran rampant on Fletcher as the 13th ship in a line of 13 ships going into battle on Friday the 13th, with a hull number that added up to 13. However, the skipper, Commander Cole (USNA ’13) considered it a good omen, and he was right. Fletcher was the only U.S. ship to emerge from the battle completely unscathed. She fired on multiple Japanese targets. Although Cole and his executive officer, Joseph Wylie, had created a space that functioned much like a combat information center (CIC) with the new SG radar, even that did not prevent them from firing five torpedoes at what was possibly the U.S. light cruiser Helena, which in this case fortunately worked as U.S. torpedoes usually did. Wylie would go on to play a major role in the Navy’s development of the CIC.
Commander Cole awarded a Navy Cross.
By 0230, the battle was essentially over after 40 minutes of sheer hell for both sides. After determining that he was probably the senior surviving officer in the force, Captain Gilbert Hoover of Helena gave the order to withdraw and regroup. Only O’Bannon, Fletcher, and the badly damaged San Francisco were able to do so. Daybreak revealed a sea littered with sinking, burning, and crippled wrecks. On the American side, Laffey and Barton had gone down. The burning hulks of Cushing and Monssen were still afloat, but would sink during the day. Atlanta was dead in the water and slowly sinking; she would have to be scuttled late in the day despite intense efforts to save her. Aaron Ward was dead in the water. The badly damaged Juneau and Sterett limped away and were eventually able to link up with Helena. Portland continued to churn in high-speed circles. After nightfall, the tug Bobolink finally pushed Portland into Tulagi, but only after a U.S. PT-boat fired torpedoes at the cruiser. These, fortunately, had no effect. Bobolink had done heroic rescue work throughout the day. About 1,400 U.S. survivors were rescued and brought ashore to Guadalcanal, many badly wounded.
On the Japanese side, Hiei was still afloat but rudderless, slowing trying to get out of the battle area using her engines to steer, firing on the Aaron Ward, but only straddling her before the Bobolink towed the destroyer to Tulagi. The other battleship, Kirishima, had been grazed by one 6-inch shell and escaped. Akatsuki had gone down. Yudachi was still afloat and burning, although her 207 surviving crew members had been taken aboard the destroyer Samidare during the night. Samidare fired one torpedo into Yudachi to scuttle her, which didn’t do the job. However, although Portland was still trapped in her circular hell, her guns worked fine. She fired five 8-inch main battery salvos at Yudachi, the last hitting the after magazine and obliterating her in a massive explosion. The heavily damaged Amatsukase made good her escape, and most of the remainder of the Japanese ships withdrew with varying degrees of damage.
At 1100 on 13 November, Captain Hoover’s ad hoc group of survivors, Helena, Fletcher, O’Bannon, and the damaged Juneau and Sterett were headed toward the relative safety of Espiritu Santo, when they encountered Japanese submarine I-26. I-26 was the same submarine that had torpedoed and put the carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) out of action for months at the end of September (and sent Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to the States for good) and the same submarine that had failed to alert Rear Admiral Goto of Rear Admiral Turner’s force, resulting in the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Cape Esperance. This time, I-26 would get the job done, firing a spread of torpedoes at San Francisco. San Francisco maneuvered to avoid, but with all her communications gear destroyed in the battle, she could not provide warning. One torpedo that missed San Francisco hit Juneau instead, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that obliterated the ship. Parts of Juneau rained down on San Francisco. In Hornfischer’s book, the chapter title “Cruiser in the Sky” pretty much sums it up. No one who observed the explosion believed that anyone could have survived, but approximately 100 of her crew of almost 700 did, initially including one of the five Sullivan brothers (George).
With only the Fletcher capable of ASW operations (O’Bannon had been temporarily detached from the group in order to communicate with higher headquarters—and not give away the location of Hoover’s force) and an effective Japanese submarine on the loose, Hoover had no real choice but to exit the area as fast as possible. Searching for survivors was not an option unless he wanted to get more of his ships sunk. Hoover signaled a passing B-17 bomber with flashing light, which passed on the coordinates when it arrived at Henderson field, which then became lost. After ten days adrift in the most horrific conditions, only 10 men from Juneau would ultimately be rescued; these did not include George Sullivan. In total, 683 crewmen were lost. Upon Rear Admiral Turner’s recommendation, Halsey found Hoover’s conduct deficient and he was relieved of command, which Halsey later admitted was an injustice, tarnishing the reputation of an officer who had just been awarded a third Navy Cross.
The Hiei could not get away fast enough. U.S. aircraft launching from Henderson field at first light were stunned to find a Japanese battleship only a few miles from Guadalcanal. Seventy sorties attacked Hiei throughout the day, hitting her with at least three bombs and four torpedoes (with many more claimed) and still Hiei would not go down. Captain Nishida resisted two orders from Rear Admiral Abe to abandon the ship. An incorrect report that his engines had been damaged finally caused Nishida to give the order over the vehement protestations of his crew, who still believed the ship could be saved. Destroyers came alongside and rescued most of her crew, but 300 had still died. U.S. aircraft hit Hiei with two more torpedoes during the abandonment operation. Around 1830, a message came in from Yamamoto ordering that Hiei not be scuttled, so that she could serve as a diversion from the transport convoy the next day. Sometime during the night of 13/14 November, Hiei finally succumbed.
Hiei had taken an enormous beating, but the guns of U.S. cruisers and destroyers lacked the power to inflict fatal damage on a battleship, as Captain Young had predicted. Had it not been for San Francisco’s hit that knocked out the battleship’s steering, she probably would have survived. (One of the torpedoes that hit Hiei was dropped from a Torpedo Squadron Eight TBF Avenger flown by skipper Lieutenant Commander Harold “Swede” Larsen. Larsen had led the detachment of VT-8 that had transitioned from the TBD Devastator to the TBF and had arrived on Oahu the day after USS Hornet and the rest of VT-8 had left for the Battle of Midway. Six of Larsen’s det flew on to Midway and five were lost in the battle, while all 15 of the squadron’s TBD’s on Hornet were lost. VT-8 subsequently cross-decked to the USS Saratoga, participated in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, and then operated from Henderson Field after Saratoga was torpedoed. In an epic tale of endurance, only three of VT-8’s TBFs were still operational by mid-November, and Larsen’s attack on Hiei would be the second-to-last combat mission flown by VT-8 before it was decommissioned.)
At a cost of 1,429 men and six ships, Callaghan and TG 67.4 had bought one day’s respite for Henderson Field from a major bombardment, and so delayed the Japanese transport force that it would be vulnerable to daylight air attack. Whether the sacrifice was worth it remains open to debate. Even if all 7,000 Japanese troops had made it to Guadalcanal, the Japanese army forces lacked the power to drive the Marines into the sea (and U.S. forces had just been reinforced with 5,500 troops). What is not debatable is the extraordinary valor of the U.S. Sailors who went into battle against overwhelming odds and never wavered in their dedication to duty. If anyone ever exemplified the Navy core values of honor, courage, and commitment, it was the Sailors of TG 67.4.