Guadalcanal 1942 : Battle of Cape Esperance

Guadalcanal: Victory at Cape Esperance (Sort of), 11/12 October 1942

Guadalcanal 1942 “Bakayaro!” (“dumb ass”) were the last words uttered by Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto as he was mortally wounded by American shells crashing into the bridge of his flagship, the heavy cruiser Aoba, just before midnight on 11/12 October 1942. Goto believed to the end that he was being fired upon by another group of Japanese ships.


So convinced was he that no American force would dare to challenge the Japanese at night after the debacle of Savo Island (9 August 1942) that he refused to believe his own lookouts, who reported American cruisers crossing his “T.”

The Solomon Islands area in the south Pacific. The Japanese base at Rabaul is at the upper left. Guadalcanal (lower right) lies at the southeastern end of “The Slot“, the route utilized by Japanese “Tokyo Express” missions.

His ship kept flashing her recognition lights and the signal “I am Aoba,” guns trained fore and aft, loaded with shore bombardment ammunition, until it was too late. Goto had some reason for confidence.

Admiral Norman Scott

At the moment that Rear Admiral Norman Scott’s cruiser-destroyer force (TF-64) opened fire, ten Allied cruisers had engaged the Japanese navy in surface combat since the start of the war and nine of them were on the bottom of the ocean, with no loss to the Japanese. In the Battle of Cape Esperance, off the northwest coast of Guadalcanal, TF-64 would put one Japanese heavy cruiser (Furutaka) and a destroyer (Fubuki) on the bottom of Ironbottom Sound, for the loss of one destroyer (USS DuncanDD-485—48 crewmen lost) lost to both enemy and friendly fire during a heroic solo torpedo attack.

USS Duncan underway in the south Pacific on 7 October 1942, five days before she was sunk in the Battle of Cape Esperance.

The light cruiser USS Boise (CL-47) was put out of action by a hit in her 6-inch magazine, and only through the discipline and heroism of the crew (107 of whom died) and a lot of luck, did the ship not suffer a catastrophic explosion.

Boise (CL-47) off San Pedro, California, 14 September 1945, following overhaul. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives, 19-N-89077.

The battle went wrong for the U.S. forces from the moment of Scott’s first command, but it went worse for the Japanese. Scott’s battle plan was a model of the KISS (“keep it simple, stupid”) principle; nine ships in a single column, and his first order was a column turn to port to reverse course. Every ship in the formation received and understood the order except his own flagship, the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA-38), fourth in line, which executed a simultaneous turn, throwing the rest of the formation into confusion.

San Francisco (CA-38) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, following overhaul, 13 October 1944. Her camouflage is Measure 33, Design 13d. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-73588 

Fortunately, the ships behind San Francisco followed the lead of the flagship instead of the admiral’s order. As a result, the four U.S. cruisers and two trailing destroyers crossed the Japanese “T.” Had the formation executed the order correctly, the inadvertent result would have been that the Japanese could have crossed the American “T,” which probably wouldn’t have done the Japanese much good given Goto’s mindset. Unfortunately, the three U.S. destroyers in the lead steamed off into the darkness, and Scott spent most of the rest of the battle trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to get his ships to cease fire because he was not certain they were not firing on their own destroyers (and sometimes they were:


Both USS Farenholt (DD-491)—and Duncan were hit by friendly fire, Duncan seriously). Because of uncertainty regarding the location of his own lead destroyers, Scott withheld giving the order to open fire until the opposing forces were within such close range that the junior radar officer on USS Helena (CL-50) commented, “What are we going to do, board them?”

Helena (CL-50) anchored in President Roads, Boston, Massachusetts, 15 June 1940. Taken by a Wasp (CV-7) photographer. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute Photograph Collection, Annapolis, Maryland. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph, NH 95815.

The Japanese, however, were pummeled by numerous U.S. shells, many from what the Japanese subsequently would call the “machine-gun cruisers,” Boise and Helena (CL-50), each with 15 6-inch/47-caliber guns in five triple turrets, which could put out a prodigious rate of fire (and the near-continuous gun flashes also made for good targets). The Aoba was severely mauled and nearly sunk.

The second heavy cruiser in the Japanese line, the Furutaka, seeing the flagship in severe distress, valiantly maneuvered to interpose herself between Aoba and the American cruisers, and for her valor was hit over 90 times and sunk. The third (and last) Japanese heavy cruiser, the Kinugasa, took a less gallant course and turned opposite to the American course and disappeared into the darkness, whereupon she succeeded in scoring several effective hits on several U.S. ships, including the one that nearly sank the Boise, before she beat a retreat with one destroyer and the mangled Aoba.

U.S. Navy track chart of the battle accurately depicts the movements of the U.S. ships (lower tracks) but not the Japanese ship tracks (upper, darker line).

At a cost of 163 lives and one destroyer, Scott had inflicted some degree of revenge for the defeat at Savo Island (AobaFurutaka, and Kinugasa had comprised three of the five Japanese heavy cruisers at Savo). The results of the battle came as an enormous shock to the Japanese, which was followed by much recrimination; Goto was probably lucky he was dead.

The fact that the Japanese were so uncharacteristically taken completely by surprise caused the U.S. to learn some bad lessons about Japanese night-fighting capability, as well as the proper use of radar and tactical formations (particularly torpedo tactics), which would cost the U.S. in later battles. As one U.S. officer at the battle would later comment, Cape Esperance was a three-way battle in which chance was the major victor. Nevertheless, the victory was a huge morale booster for U.S. naval forces in the vicinity of Guadalcanal and for the Marines ashore, which would be short-lived, however.

Map showing the movements of Gotō’s and Jojima’s forces during the battle. The light grey line skirting Savo Island depicts Gotō’s planned approach and exit route for the bombardment mission. Hatsuyuki is misidentified as Murakumo.

Guadalcanal: All Hell’s Eve, 13/14 October 1942

The good news from the Battle of Cape Esperance was that, although he didn’t know it, Rear Admiral Scott had prevented the Japanese “bombardment group” from bombarding Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The bad news was that the “reinforcement group,” which was Scott’s real intended target, had already gone past Cape Esperance and during the night successfully off-loaded hundreds of troops and the first Japanese heavy artillery to reach the island, and then successfully escaped.


The even worse news was the Japanese didn’t know how to quit and, on the night of 13/14 October, two Japanese battleships (Kongo and Haruna) arrived off Guadalcanal, completely by surprise, and fired almost 1,000 14-inch shells into Henderson Field in the most devastating battleship bombardment experienced by any ground troops up to that point in history.

Opposed by only four U.S. PT-boats (ineffectively) and concentrating their fire on the airfield, the battleships killed 41 Marines (many aviation and aircraft maintenance personnel) and at one point even blew Major General Alexander Vandegrift, USMC, to the ground inside the command bunker. More than half the aircraft at Henderson Field were destroyed and many of the rest were damaged to various degrees, and most stores of aviation fuel were destroyed. Although 24 of 42 Wildcats were flyable, only 7 of 39 SBD dive bombers and none of the six TBF torpedo bombers were airworthy.

The psychological shock of “The Bombardment” was profound, and is the real origin of the “Navy abandoning the Marines at Guadalcanal” narrative. The next day—as Brigadier General Roy Geiger, USMC, commander of U.S. aviation forces at Guadalcanal, was noted to exclaim, “I don’t think we have a g**damn navy!”— the destroyer USS Meredith (DD-434) and fleet tug Vireo (AT-144) were caught alone by 38 aircraft from the Japanese carrier Zuikaku while attempting to tow a barge with critical aviation fuel to Guadalcanal. Meredith knocked down three Japanese aircraft, but was hit by 14 bombs and at least three torpedoes, sinking in less than ten minutes; 237 U.S. Sailors from Meredith and Vireo lost their lives as they drifted three days in shark-infested waters before the approximately 100 survivors were rescued.


Although there is little Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley, Commander of U.S. Forces in the South Pacific Area, could have done to stop the battleship bombardment, it effectively served as the last straw for both U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Chester Nimitz, and CNO Admiral Ernest J. King. Both were profoundly dissatisfied by the overall lack of aggressive U.S. Navy action in challenging the frequent runs by the Japanese “Tokyo Express,” which were getting ever more troops and supplies (although not nearly enough of both) onto Guadalcanal, representing a growing threat to the U.S. Marines on the island. So concerned was Nimitz with the tenuous situation on the island that he had personally visited Ghormley at South Pacific headquarters aboard the flagship USS Argonne (AG-31) in Noumea, French New Caledonia, on 28 September.

USS ARGONNE (AS-10) Flagship of Commander Base Force

Nimitz then flew to Guadalcanal (where Ghormley had yet to go), met with Vandegrift, saw the appalling conditions on the island, and then went back to see Ghormley with a long list of deficiencies that needed to be corrected. (Nimitz’ aircraft got lost on its way to Guadalcanal and then nearly crashed on takeoff from Henderson Field with Nimitz aboard for both events.) It was in response to pressure from Nimitz that caused Ghormley to issue the order on 5 October for Scott’s cruiser-destroyer task group to engage the next “Tokyo Express” run, which resulted in the Battle of Cape Esperance on 11–12 October.

Nimitz was increasingly concerned with Ghormley’s pessimistic view of the situation (which was not necessarily unwarranted), his erratic “bipolar” leadership, and apparent fatigue (which wasn’t helped by abscessed teeth). Nimitz agonized over what to do because Ghormley was a highly regarded flag officer (and had been Nimitz’s choice for the job) and was a close friend. On 16 October, Nimitz sent a message to CNO King that he was considering relieving Ghormley and asked King’s advice. King’s one word reply: “Affirmative.”

As a result, Vice Admiral William F. “Bill” Halsey (“Bull” was a press invention that he never liked), recovered from his bout of debilitating skin rash, arrived at Noumea on 18 October expecting to take over command of the carrier task force (TF-61,) was instead handed a sealed envelope that ordered him to relieve Ghormely (also a close friend of Halsey) as Commander of the South Pacific Area. “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!  This is the hottest potato they ever handed me,” was Halsey’s reaction. Halsey’s arrival was electrifying, and his aggressive fighting spirit was exactly what was needed at that time, although the cost of one of his first orders to the fleet, “Strike. Repeat. Strike,” would prove extremely high.

USS Meredith (DD-434) at Suva, Fiji Islands, 23 June 1942 (NH 89418).

Guadalcanal: Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (Japanese Pyrrhic Victory), 26 October 1942

The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October, northeast of Guadalcanal, was the fourth carrier versus carrier battle of the war, and was a victory for the Japanese at an extremely high cost in planes and aviators.

A B-25B Mitchell of the Army’s 17th Bombardment Group takes off from Hornet

In exchange for sinking the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) and seriously damaging USS Enterprise (CV-6) , the Japanese lost more aircrew than at Coral Sea, Midway, and Eastern Solomons combined, many to the new Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft guns on the repaired/refitted Enterprise and the new battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57).

USS South Dakota

Along with dual-purpose 5-inch/38-caliber guns appearing on more and more U.S. surface ships, the Bofors finally gave the Navy a reliable weapon that could knock down Japanese planes before weapons’ release. By the time that Santa Cruz ended, over half the Japanese carrier pilots who had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor were dead; more would follow in the next months in the skies over Guadalcanal and the central Solomon Islands.

As at the Coral Sea, the Japanese fleet carrier Shokaku was seriously damaged and Zuikaku was not, although about half of each carrier’s air group was lost. The losses were so severe, particularly amongst senior squadron commanders and flight leaders, that with the exception of the medium carrier Junyo, the Japanese carrier force did not choose to engage again for almost two more years, until June 1944.

USS Wasp

Despite the great victory at Midway, the U.S. carriers and carrier aircraft were outnumbered by the Japanese at Santa Cruz, thanks to Japanese submarines putting USS Saratoga (CV-3) out of action on 31 August and sinking USS Wasp (CV-7) on 15 September.

USS Saratoga

U.S. naval intelligence and code breakers provided good warning that a major Japanese push to retake Guadalcanal was coming, with a pretty accurate assessment of Japanese forces committed, but were having difficulty pinning down the date (because the Japanese naval offensive was planned to be timed with a major Japanese army attack to capture Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field, which kept getting delayed by the army).

Vice Admiral Halsey, the new Commander of U.S. Forces in the South Pacific Area, solved this ambiguous intelligence warning timeline by ordering his carriers not to wait for the Japanese to show up, but to go forth, find the Japanese and attack them first.

Paintings of the battle

Enterprise (with her damage from the Battle of the Eastern Solomons repaired in the nick of time) and Hornet, with 136 operational aircraft embarked, under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, faced off against four Japanese carriers, with 199 operational aircraft embarked, still under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, flying his flag on Shokaku. The four Japanese carriers were the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, the medium carrier Junyo (44 operational aircraft,) and the light carrier Zuiho (26 operational aircraft). It would have been five carriers, but Junyo‘s sister, the Hiyo, suffered an engine-room fire before the battle and had to withdraw.

Both sides recognized Santa Cruz as a “must-win” battle, and there were numerous acts of extreme valor on both sides. Wave after wave of Japanese aircraft threw themselves into greatly improved U.S. shipboard anti-aircraft defenses, yet never wavered despite high losses while executing probably the most effective coordinated dive and torpedo bomber attack of the entire war, with the victim being Hornet. Several damaged Japanese planes chose to crash into U.S. ships, including Hornet.

Both sides internalized the primary lesson of Midway, which was to strike first. As at Eastern Solomons, several pairs of U.S. scout aircraft attempted to immediately attack the Japanese carrier force upon first sighting, and two such U.S. scout planes scored a bomb hit on the light carrier Zuiho, which put her out of action at the very start of the battle.

Nevertheless, the Japanese got a slight jump, launching their major strike first, with an impressively executed integrated multi-carrier 62-plane strike package, right out of their doctrinal playbook.

The first Japanese and American strikes crossed paths en route to each other’s carriers, and multiple U.S. TBF Avenger torpedo bombers were downed by Zeros escorting the Japanese strike, but which then left the Japanese strike aircraft more vulnerable to U.S. CAP fighters. But once again, as at Eastern Solomons, problems executing radar-directed CAP resulted in U.S. fighters being too low to engage many of the Japanese dive bombers.

As the Hornet was being hit by three bombs, two damaged planes and two torpedoes, U.S. dive bombers hit the Shokaku at least four times. However, improvements in Japanese damage control prevented the same kind of catastrophe as at Midway, and Shokaku made good her escape under her own power.

A Japanese Type 99 shipboard bomber (Allied codename Val) trails smoke as it dives toward Hornet (CV-8), during the morning of 26 October 1942. This plane struck the ship’s stack and then her flight deck. A Type 97 shipboard attack plane (Kate) is flying over Hornet after dropping its torpedo, and another Val is off her bow. Note anti-aircraft shell burst between Hornet and the camera, with its fragments striking the water nearby. Hornet was lost in the battle (80-G-33947).

During the attack on Hornet, extreme valor was displayed by the destroyer USS Smith (DD-378), which was hit forward by a damaged Japanese Kate torpedo bomber that deliberately crashed into the ship. As Smith‘s crew fought the fire, the Kate’s torpedo detonated, and the fire went out of control, forcing the bridge to be abandoned.

Despite 57 dead and 13 wounded and a raging fire, Smith continued to put up an anti-aircraft barrage from her aft weapons.

From the aft control station, Smith‘s skipper Lieutenant Commander Hunter Wood Jr., ordered Smith into the wake of the battleship South Dakota, which doused the flames, and Smith continued to fight, an inspiration to all who observed it. Wood would be awarded a Navy Cross. On the downside, a damaged U.S. TBF Avenger ditched alongside the destroyer USS Porter (DD-356), jarring the TBF’s torpedo loose, which then ran circular and hit Porter, causing such serious damage that the destroyer had to be scuttled, making her the third ship of the war to be lost as a result of a U.S. aerial torpedo.

Multiple attempts to take the damaged Hornet under tow were thwarted by successive waves of Japanese aircraft that hit the carrier with yet more bombs and a torpedo. A Japanese bomb hit the number 1 turret on South Dakota, with minimal damage, although it nearly killed the commanding officer, Captain Thomas Gatch, when a fragment nicked his jugular (the popular skipper felt it was “undignified” for a battleship CO to “duck” during an attack). Another Japanese bomb hit the anti-aircraft cruiser USS San Juan (CL-54), causing damage to her stern. 

San Juan (CL-54) off Norfolk, Virginia, 3 June 1942. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives, 19-N-31525.

As night and Japanese surface forces approached, Kinkaid gave the order to scuttle Hornet. Yet, after suffering three Japanese torpedo hits, seven bomb hits, two crashed Japanese aircraft, nine U.S. torpedo hits, and over 300 rounds from U.S. destroyer 5-inch guns, Hornet refused to sink, and the abandoned carrier was left behind. After nightfall, Japanese destroyers approached, close enough to read the “8” on her hull, and after briefly considering trying to tow her themselves, the Japanese put four Type 93 Long Lance torpedoes into the valiant ship, which did the job.

The U.S. lost 263 crewmen and airmen at Santa Cruz, with 118 (including 15 Marines) on Hornet, 44 on Enterprise, and 57 on Smith; 314 were wounded. 

This price would pale in comparison to the surface battles to follow. With the loss of Hornet and damage to the Enterprise, the U.S. had no operational fleet carriers left in the Pacific, giving the Japanese a window of opportunity for yet another attempt to reinforce their ground forces on Guadalcanal and drive the Marines off. This set the stage for a series of the most brutal and costly surface actions in U.S. naval history.

Guadalcanal 1942 by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

Guadalcanal 1942 by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

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