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Worst US Navy Defeat After Pearl : Tassafaronga Point Guadalcanal

Worst US Navy Defeat After Pearl : Tassafaronga Point Guadalcanal

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U.S. Navy photo taken after the Battle of Tassafaronga off Guadalcanal shows a U.S. PT boat bringing survivors of the heavy cruiser USS Northampton (CA-26) into Tulagi harbor. In the background is the heavy cruiser New Orleans (CA-32) with her bow blown off, including her number 1 main battery turret. New Orleans survived despite losing almost a quarter of her length.

Worst US Navy Defeat After Pearl : Tassafaronga Point Guadalcanal On the night of 30 November/1 December 1942, a U.S. force of five cruisers and six destroyers (Task Force 67) under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright, ambushed a Japanese “Tokyo Express” run consisting of eight destroyers (six of which were encumbered by hundreds of supply barrels) under the command of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka.

Carleton H. Wright

The U.S. was armed with intelligence that the Japanese were coming. In addition, made excellent use of the new SG radar technology aboard U.S. flagships that detected the Japanese first (at 23,000 yards). Lastly, the U.S. carefully absorbed and incorporated numerous lessons from the previous night battles in Iron Bottom Sound, possessed overwhelming advantage in firepower, and opened fire first, the result was still one of the worst debacles in the history of the United States Navy.

TF67 heads for Guadalcanal on November 30. Fletcher (foreground) is followed by PerkinsMauryDrayton, and the cruisers (far distance).
At Tassafaronga, for the loss of one destroyer, the Japanese sank the heavy cruiser USS Northampton (CA-26) and grievously damaged the heavy cruisers Minneapolis (CA-36)New Orleans (CA-32), and Pensacola (CA-24).

The three cruisers were saved only by extraordinarily heroic and determined damage-control actions by their crews. In addition, by the fact that six of the Japanese destroyers did not have their torpedo reloads aboard, preventing them from picking off the U.S. cripples. All three damaged cruisers would be out of action for over a year. U.S. casualties included 395 Sailors killed and 153 wounded. The short version of the battle is that the U.S. ships, with their radar superiority, concentrated their fire on the closest Japanese destroyer and blew her to smithereens.

Meanwhile, the other Japanese destroyers, hidden by the flames of the sacrificial Takanami, withheld their fire and launched a swarm of torpedoes at the U.S. cruiser line, lit up by their own gunfire flashes like “mechanical ducks in a shooting gallery” as historian Samuel Eliot Morison described it.

The result was arguably the most successful surface torpedo attack in history.

Extensive recriminations occurred following this battle, but also significant learning. Rear Admiral Wright’s career as a combat commander was over within days. Wright has been extensively criticized for squandering an opportunity to fire torpedoes first due to five minutes of indecision.

The criticisms are probably valid, but had the destroyers launched torpedoes when the commanding officer of USS Fletcher (DD-445), Commander William M. Cole, requested, the result probably would have been yet another example of the notorious unreliability of U.S. Navy torpedoes, the defects of which had still not been corrected or in some cases even recognized yet. (Wright would go on to preside over another controversy, the court-martial of 50 African-American stevedores who refused to go back to work until safety measures had been improved following the disastrous Port Chicago, California, ammunition explosion on 17 July 1944, which killed 302 mostly African-American stevedores.)

Cole, who brought his ship (“Lucky 13”) unscathed through two of the most horrific battles of the war. And rescued 646 Sailors of Northampton. Was heavily criticized for his actions by Vice Admiral William Halsey.

Wright would get a Navy Cross for the debacle, but Cole would not, which Halsey later admitted was unfair. Nevertheless, Cole went on to command DESDIV 44 in DESRON 22, and his experience translated into future victories.

The other DESDIV in DESRON 22 was DESDIV 43, commanded by Arleigh Burke, and it was Cole’s experience at Tassafaronga that led to Burke’s standing orders to his own ships that “destroyers are to attack the enemy on first contact without awaiting orders from task force commander,” which were instrumental in Burke’s success in the battles of Empress Augusta Bay and Cape St. George.

Cole also influenced Commander Frederick Moosbrugger’s tactics at the Battle of Vella Gulf.

One in which Moosbrugger withheld gunfire until his own torpedoes hit home, surprising the Japanese. Also using lessons learned in the Battle of Tassafaronga, Rear Admiral Mahlon Tisdale (commander of a group of two cruisers) and the executive officer of Fletcher, Commander Joseph Wylie, would go on to play very prominent roles in the development of the combat information center (CIC) and U.S. Navy command-and-control doctrine that would guide U.S. Navy operations for decades (more on that in the next H-gram).

US Navy chart of the Battle of Tassafaronga based on accounts by both Japanese and US participants.

Nevertheless, the one lesson that U.S. Navy leaders stubbornly refused to learn was that the Japanese Type 93 Oxygen Torpedo (“Long Lance”) was significantly superior.

Despite the pre-war intelligence (which had been ignored), and despite the late Rear Admiral Norman Scott’s report following the Battle of Cape Esperance. In his post-battle report for Tassafaronga, Rear Admiral Wright correctly noted that “it was improbable that [Japanese] torpedoes with speed-distance characteristics such as our own” could have inflicted damage such as was observed. Rather than concluding that the Japanese had superior torpedoes, Wright concluded that the U.S. losses were due to lucky shots from Japanese submarines (none were present.) More U.S. ships would fall to the Long Lance in battles in the Central Solomon Islands in 1943 and 1944 as a result of this U.S. failure to understand the enemy.

Both the U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy were stunned by the scale of their losses in the brutal battles in mid-November in 1942 in the waters around Guadalcanal.

However, despite the losses, U.S. strength was increasing and Japan’s was not. For example, by the end of November, the strength of the U.S. Marine, Navy, and Army Air Force operating from the Henderson Field complex on Guadalcanal had risen from 85 to almost 190 aircraft, and had now achieved almost unchallenged mastery of the skies over the island and the surrounding waters, at least in daylight. Japan’s options to reinforce Guadalcanal were practically nonexistent, nor were Japan’s options to resupply its forces already on the island much better.

The runs by the “Tokyo Express” (referred to as the “Rat Transportation” system by the Japanese) could not hope to provide Japanese troops with enough food, let alone ammunition. Increasingly desperate, the Japanese began relying on submarines for delivery of supplies to Guadalcanal, and, in the last three weeks of November, 16 Japanese submarines made runs to the island; each run delivered about one days’ food supply. But even this method was dangerous, and increasing numbers of U.S. PT boats (including one that would become famous—PT-109) harassed the subs.

Although Operation Watchtower had often been referred to as “Operation Shoestring” by the Americans due to supply shortfalls.

Moreover, to the Japanese, Guadalcanal would become known as “Starvation Island.” And, by December, Japanese troops faced dying of disease and starvation in large numbers.

As the Japanese high command debated its next moves regarding Guadalcanal. Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, who had led multiple successful “Tokyo Express” runs to Guadalcanal. Received orders to do so again, arriving on the night of 30 November/1 December.

Using a newly devised system of buoyant drums half-filled with food and supplies. Which were dropped overboard to be picked up by small Japanese boats from Guadalcanal. The destroyers would be able to more efficiently complete their mission and get out of range of U.S. aircraft by first light.

For this run, Tanaka would have eight destroyers, three of them brand-new construction, one of which, the Naganami, would serve as his flagship, and another, the Takanami, would serve as a picket. The other six destroyers had their torpedo reloads and much of their ammunition off-loaded to compensate for the weight of hundreds of supply barrels on deck. Captain Sato, commander of Destroyer Division 15, would lead the first reinforcement unit of OyashioKuroshio, and Kagero with the other new destroyer Makinami attached. 

Takanami would act as a picket to seaward of this group as they hugged the northern Guadalcanal coast. The second reinforcement group of Suzukaze and Kawakaze would follow behind, with the flagship Naganami acting as picket, an unusual position for a Japanese flagship, which wwas generally expected to lead from the front. (Although Tanaka would be lionized by the U.S. Navy for his success in this battle, the Japanese would give credit to Sato.)

As the Japanese position was weakening, the U.S. position was strengthening.

The repaired carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) joined Enterprise (CV-6), and the repaired battleship USS North Carolina (BB-55) rejoined her sister USS Washington (BB-56) and newly arrived new-construction USS Indiana (BB-58), which had replaced the damaged USS South Dakota (BB-57). With increasing strength, Vice Admiral William Halsey, Commander of U.S. Forces in the South Pacific, was determined to challenge the next “Tokyo Express” run, and, on 24 November, Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid (who had been relieved of command of the Carrier Task Force after the defeat at Santa Cruz in late October, and none too happy about it) was ordered by Halsey to form up a cruiser-destroyer force (TF-67) to stop the next Japanese resupply attempt (which was waiting for darker moon conditions).

Kinkaid’s operation plan incorporated many lessons learned from the previous battles. The U.S. force would consist of two cruiser groups and one destroyer group with the flagships of each equipped with the new greatly superior SG radar. The SG-equipped destroyer group would lead the cruisers by 10,000 yards with the intent of conducting a torpedo attack, while the cruisers would commence firing, from longer range, only after the torpedoes hit home.

Worst US Navy Defeat After Pearl : Tassafaronga Point Guadalcanal

Based on radio intelligence, the U.S. knew that the Japanese were coming.

Although the intelligence indicated six destroyers and eight transports involved (instead of eight destroyers, of which six were acting as transports). Additional reports from coast watchers indicated that the “Tokyo Express” had left the station. At the same time, on 28 November, on orders from CNO King. Kinkaid was abruptly transferred to take command of U.S. Navy forces in the Aleutians, and Rear Admiral Carleton Wright took command of TF-67. Although Wright had commanded cruiser-destroyer groups escorting aircraft carriers, he had no experience in night surface combat. The reason for this change of command remains baffling. Although Wright decided for the most part to stick with Kinkaid’s battle plan. Except that the lead destroyers were kept closer to the cruiser line.

As Tanaka’s force approached from west of Savo Island. The Japanese expected the possibility of a surface engagement. Based on being spotted by a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. In addition, reports from Japanese reconnaissance aircraft of a large number of U.S. cruisers and destroyers off Guadalcanal earlier in the day. However, they continued onward.

From the east, Wright’s force approached. With a line of four destroyers just ahead of the cruiser line, offset in the direction of expected engagement. 

Led by Fletcher (DD-445,) the SG-equipped “Lucky 13” survivor of the November Friday the 13th Battle, the destroyer line consisted of Perkins (DD-377 and also SG-equipped), Maurey (DD-401), and Drayton (DD-366).  Leading the cruiser line was Wright’s SG-equipped flagship. The heavy cruiser Minneapolis (CA-36,) followed by SG-equipped New Orleans (CA-32) and Pensacola (CA-24).

Following behind the first cruiser group, was TG-67.2.3 under the command of Rear Admiral Mahlon S. Tisdale, embarked on the SG-equipped light cruiser Honolulu (CL-48), followed by the SG-equipped heavy cruiser Northampton (CA-26). Like Wright, none of the U.S. cruisers had any experience in night surface combat. Although to be fair, all those that did were sunk or out-of-action. Bringing up the rear were the two destroyers Lamson (DD-367) and Lardner (DD-487).

Halsey ordered for both ships to be stripped from the escort of a convoy that was leaving Guadalcanal at the last minute; the skippers of the two destroyers had no clue what the battle plan was except to “follow me.”

At 2240 on 30 November, Wright’s cruiser float planes, which had been flown off the cruisers to Tulagi so as not to be a fire hazard. Finally got airborne after struggling for hours due to the glassy sea.
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At 2306, Minneapolis’s SG radar detected the Japanese destroyers at 23,000 yards, correctly discerning as the approaching radar blips resolved themselves into eight contacts. The SG radar on Fletcher tracked the four destroyers of the first reinforcement group. At 2312, Takanami lookouts detected the U.S. ships, and Takanami radioed warning, and Tanaka ordered the unloading cancelled (some of the destroyers threw the barrels over the side prematurely, while others kept them on board) and for his ships to prepare to engage.

Japanese destroyer Kawakaze

At 2315, with range at 7,000 yards and a good target angle, Commander Cole on Fletcher requested permission to launch torpedoes.

After two minutes, Wright responded with “no.”

An argument then ensued between the two as to whether the Japanese were in appropriate torpedo range. With Cole insisting they were, although the Japanese were soon passing abeam on an opposite course. Which would result in a torpedo shot from behind as the Japanese destroyers were opening the range. At 2320, after another excruciating two-minute delay as the target angle became worse. Wright finally gave the order to launch torpedoes. 

Fletcher fired all ten torpedoes and Perkins eight. Without SG radar, Maurey and Drayton could not see what Fletcher and Perkins were firing at, so only launched three torpedoes between them. However, before the U.S. torpedoes could reach their targets, Wright gave the order for the cruisers to open fire. The Japanese destroyers assumed (based on their own doctrine). That once guns started firing, torpedoes would already be on the way and took immediate evasive action. Between evading, the bad target angle, and probably the unreliability of U.S. torpedoes, none of them hit anything.

Battleship Versus Battleship : Guadalcanal Battle 14–15 November, 1942
The closest Japanese destroyer to the U.S. force, the picket Takanami, found herself on the receiving end of concentrated radar-directed fire from all five U.S. cruisers.

She launched her torpedoes.

And, once she was on fire, she opened fire with her guns. And fought valiantly until she was smothered by the avalanche of shellfire. Only 33 of her 244 crewmen would survive to make it ashore on Guadalcanal, where their prospects weren’t good either.

The remainder of the Japanese destroyers retained their doctrinal discipline. And refrained from opening fire, or even increasing speed so as to keep their wake down.

With American gunners blinded by their own flashes and the burning pyre of Takanami. Captain Sato deliberately and calmly led his four destroyers into a course reversal. Paralleling the U.S. cruisers, and unleashed the possibly most devastating surface torpedo attack in history. 

Two other destroyers in the second reinforcement group did the same a few minutes later. 

Between 2223 and 2233, six Japanese destroyers fired 44 Long Lance torpedoes at the U.S. cruisers (and demonstrated why Washington and South Dakota were so incredibly lucky during the 14 November battle).

At 2327, two torpedoes struck the flagship Minneapolis just as she fired her ninth salvo at Takanami. One torpedo blew off her bow, which dragged alongside the ship. The other hit in fireroom number 2. As flooding spread to other boiler spaces. 33 men drowned, for a total of 37 killed and 26 wounded. Minneapolis’s main battery got off two more salvoes before she lost power, and was out of action, struggling to stay afloat.

Her skipper, Captain Charles E. Rosendall, would receive a Navy Cross for saving his ship despite crippling damage.

While steering to avoid the Minneapolis. The New Orleans was struck by a torpedo forward. It detonated a bomb-storage magazine, severing the ship in two just forward of number 2 main-battery turret, killing everyone in that turret and forward. As flaming oil from the explosion washed over the ship, the skipper of New Orleans, Captain Clifford H. Roper, quickly gave the order to abandon ship. Which was countermanded by the executive officer, Commander Whitaker F. Riggs, from aft control.

New Orleans lost 183 men.

In addition, another 20 wounded, but her crew saved the ship.

Much credit goes to the damage-control officer, Lieutenant Commander Hubert M. Hayter, who stayed at his post until the very end. Giving away his gas mask to a junior sailor as toxic gas filled the compartment. 

Lieutenant Richard Haines and Ensign Andrew Foreman also stayed at their post and perished with Hayter, after ensuring that all enlisted Sailors got out of DC Central.

New Orleans near Tulagi the morning after the battle, showing everything missing forward of turret two.
All three would receive posthumous Navy Crosses and have ships named after them: Hayter (DE-212,) Haines (DE-792), and Foreman (DE-633). The skipper also received a Navy Cross. While the executive officer received a Legion of Merit. 

Moroever, of note, the ship’s chaplain, Lieutenant Commander Howell Forgy, who had earned immortality by shouting encouragement to anti-aircraft gunners on New Orleans at Pearl Harbor with “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” survived the battle. After emergency repairs at Tulagi, New Orleans would sail to Australia, stern-first, for more extensive repair.

While trying to pass the flaming wrecks of Minneapolis and New Orleans.

The Pensacola, under the command of Captain Frank L. Lowe, steered toward the engaged side. She barely missed  Minneapolis’s tenth salvo and silhouetted herself in front of the burning U.S. ships.

Which probably didn’t make a difference given how many torpedoes already headed in her direction.

One torpedo struck Pensacola just under her mainmast, igniting severe fires and causing a dangerous list. As Pensacola’s crew desperately tried to save her, 150 rounds of 8-inch ammunition in turret number 3 began to explode, fortunately one after the other rather than all at once. Pensacola’s crew would pay dearly to save her—125 killed and 72 wounded—but they did. Her skipper also received a Navy Cross.

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US Navy Rear Admiral Tisdale : Worst US Navy Defeat After Pearl : Tassafaronga Point Guadalcanal

The light cruiser Honolulu, flagship of Rear Admiral Tisdale and commanded by Captain Robert Hayler. Steered to the disengaged side of the three burning cruisers and did not receive a hit.

Hayler would receive the first of his three Navy Crosses for his action at Tassafaronga. 

Rear Admiral Wright, aboard crippled Minneapolis, passed command of TF-67 to Tisdale, who decided the pursue the Japanese destroyers, now retreating at high speed, with Honolulu and Northampton, ordering the destroyers Lamson and Lardner to stand by the stricken cruisers.

Raizō Tanakaf : Worst US Navy Defeat After Pearl : Tassafaronga Point Guadalcanal

As they made good their escape, Tanaka’s destroyers launched most of their remaining torpedoes. Two torpedoes struck Northampton; one hit the after engine room and the second 40 feet farther aft. The damage was fatal. Although Northampton’s crew, under the command of Captain Willard A. Kitts, struggled mightily to save her, she succumbed to her damage. Northampton’s chief engineer, Commander-select Hilan Ebert, stayed at his post in after engineering until it was too late, but made sure others got out.

Ebert received a posthumous Navy Cross. And the Navy named USS Ebert (DE-768) in his honor. Captain Kitts also received a Navy Cross. 

Northampton lost 50 killed, with 35 wounded. Fletcher would rescue 646 Northampton Sailors and Drayton rescued another 127 from the waters of Iron Bottom Sound. 

New Orleans ‘B’ turret following a Japanese torpedo-initiated explosion of the forward magazine.

Thus ended one of the most ignominious defeats in U.S. Navy history, although technically Wright and TF-67 succeeded in their mission. Since none of the supplies from Tanaka’s destroyers made it ashore to starving Japanese troops on Guadalcanal.

After firing his torpedoes at the Japanese. The Fletcher’s skipper, Commander Cole, mindful of lessons from earlier battles. Immediately led his four destroyers out of the line of fire of the cruisers. However, he led them in a particularly circuitous route all the way around Savo Island before rejoining.

Which ensured that none of the destroyers received hits by either side. But which also earned him a rebuke from Halsey for not providing sufficient support to the cruisers and for exhibiting poor torpedo tactics. The torpedo fiasco, however, was the fault of Rear Admiral Wright’s delay, not due to Cole. Halsey nevertheless awarded a Navy Cross to Wright, as well as to Tisdale and all five cruiser skippers.

In conclusion, Navy Crosses were not given to destroyer skippers.

As a result of Tassafaronga, the PT boats would bear the brunt of harassing further “Tokyo Express” runs.
A PT boat carries Northampton survivors near Tulagi on the morning of December 1. New Orleans is in the background.

The U.S. Navy was through with committing cruisers to Iron Bottom Sound. By the time of Tassafaronga, every U.S. heavy cruiser fighting in the waters of Guadalcanal sank or became badly damaged. In January 1943, the repaired USS Chicago (CA-29,) the sole U.S. heavy cruiser to survive the debacle at Savo Island in August 1942 due to what some considered the less-than-heroic actions of her skipper, Captain Howard Bode (who would take his own life just before the Board of Inquiry released its results), returned for operations in “safer” waters south of Guadalcanal.

But like the plot of a bad Freddy Krueger movie, Chicago would not escape her fate. The Japanese still had one more sharp stick in the eye for the U.S. Navy at the Battle of Rennell Island in January 1943.

Pensacola (center) and New Orleans (right) (with Salt Lake City) at Pearl Harbor on October 31, 1943 after completion of repairs.

Worst US Navy Defeat After Pearl : Tassafaronga Point Guadalcanal Written by US Navy Rear Admiral Samuel J. Cox

Samuel J. Cox (SES)
Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Director of Naval History
Curator for the Navy
Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
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Worst US Navy Defeat After Pearl : Tassafaronga Point Guadalcanal Worst US Navy Defeat After Pearl : Tassafaronga Point Guadalcanal

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