World War II Day by Day World War II was the single most devastating and horrific event in the history of the world, causing the death of some 70 million people, reshaping the political map of the twentieth century and ushering in a new era of world history. Every day The Daily Chronicles brings you a new story from the annals of World War II with a vision to preserve the memory of those who suffered in the greatest military conflict the world has ever seen.


Off Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands August 8, 1942

A United States naval task force carrying Maj. Gen. Archi­bald Vande­grift’s First Marine Divi­sion arrived off Guadal­canal, in the eastern Solo­mon Islands, on the morning of August 7, 1942, and launched Oper­a­tion Watch­tower, the first Amer­i­can offen­sive of World War II. Two days later the Marines had cap­tured the uncom­pleted Japa­nese air­field at Lunga (renamed Hen­der­son Field) on Guadal­canal, the pri­mary tar­get of their inva­sion, as well as islands to the north of and around Tulagi harbor in the Florida Islands (see map below). The Lunga air­field, had it been opera­tional, would have threatened American communications with Australia and New Zealand.

On this date, August 8, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy, quickly responding to the Allied amphib­i­ous landings on Guadal­canal and Tulagi islet, mobi­lized a small sur­face fleet of 5 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and a single destroyer under the com­mand of 53‑year-old Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa. The newly formed Eighth Fleet set out from two island bases, Rabaul and Kavieng, in Japanese-occupied Papua New Guinea, racing south­east­ward down the long and narrow New Georgia Sound, soon to be known as “the Slot,” that bisected the Solomon Islands archi­pel­ago. Mikawa’s inten­tion was to inter­rupt the Amer­i­can landings by attacking not only the 18 Allied inva­sion trans­ports disem­barking troops and supplies but their protec­tive screening force of U.S. and Australian warships as well.

The Allied screen, one group guarding the northern approach to Guadal­canal, the other the southern approach, totaled 8 cruisers and 15 destroyers under 48‑year-old British Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley, but only 5 cruisers and 7 destroyers were involved in the ensuing Battle of Savo Island. In night action in the vicin­ity of Savo Island, a vol­canic cone 5 miles long by 2 miles wide north of Guadal­canal, Mikawa’s fleet ambushed and routed much of the Allies’ two screening forces, fatally damaging four heavy cruisers, the HMAS Can­berra, the USS Quincy, USS Vin­cennes, and USS Astoria, while suffering minor damage to 3 Japa­nese cruisers in the vicious 30‑minute brawl. In triumph Mikawa fled the scene of car­nage, leaving the un­armed Amer­i­can trans­ports, loaded with vital supplies, untouched in their anchorages off Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

The First Battle of Savo Island has often been cited as the worst defeat in a fair fight in the history of the U.S. Navy. The battle was one of five costly, large-scale sea and air-sea actions fought in support of the ground battles on Guadal­canal itself, as the Japa­nese sought to counter the Amer­i­can offen­sive in the Pacific. Four of the battles are con­sec­u­tively numbered owing to their com­mon loca­tion near Savo Island and occurred in Octo­ber and Novem­ber 1942. The fifth naval battle, the Battle of Rennell Island, took place on Janu­ary 29–30, 1943, 130 miles south of Guadal­canal, by which time the Japa­nese were preparing to withdraw and evacuate their remaining land forces.

The Guadalcanal Campaign (August 7, 1942, to Febru­ary 9, 1943) not only ended all Japa­nese expan­sion attempts in the South­west and Cen­tral Pacific and placed the Allies in a posi­tion of mili­tary suprem­acy, but it was a serious blow to Japan’s stra­te­gic plans for the defense of their home­land. It is safe to say that Japa­nese reverses on and around Guadal­canal, as yet under­appre­ci­ated by Tokyo’s mili­tary leaders though not by Amer­ica’s, were the first in a string of forced retreats that even­tu­ally led to the surren­der of Japan in Septem­ber 1945 and the American occupation of the Japanese Home Islands.

Allied Naval Debacle: Battle of Savo Island, August 8/9, 1942

Shipwrecks in Ironbottom Sound

Above: The Battle of Savo Island, also known as the First Battle of Savo Island, was one of four naval battles in the straits, later named Iron­bottom Sound, between the large island of Guadal­canal (2,047 sq. miles), tiny Savo Island, and Florida Island (Nggela Sule). In this map the names of Japa­nese ship­wrecks are indi­cated in red lettering (18 in all); Allied ship­wrecks (32 in all) are indi­cated in blue. (Japa­nese sources remem­ber the naval battle as the First Battle of the Solo­mon Sea.) Among Allied Guadal­canal veterans the Battle of Savo Island was collo­qui­ally known as The Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks. It took place over August 8–9, 1942, and was a Japa­nese victory over a mix of Amer­i­can and Aus­tra­lian war­ships. The Allied debacle cast a pall over the Allies’ Guadal­canal Cam­paign (Oper­a­tion Watch­tower, August 7, 1942, to Febru­ary 9, 1943) prac­ti­cally through the end of 1942, when Allied war­ships (prin­ci­pally U.S. Navy ships) fought Japa­nese naval units in one Octo­ber engage­ment (Battle of Cape Espe­rance, also known as the Second Battle of Savo Island, Octo­ber 11–12, 1942), and two Novem­ber engage­ments, the Naval Battle of Guadal­canal (Novem­ber 12–15, 1942), a stra­te­gic U.S. victory, and the Battle of Tassa­fa­ronga, Novem­ber 30, 1942, a tac­ti­cal U.S. defeat. The Novem­ber naval engage­ments are some­times referred to as the Third and Fourth Battles of Savo Island.

First Battle of Savo Island, USS Quincy sinking First Battle of Savo Island, HMAS Canberra sinking

Left: Apparently down by the stern, the cruiser USS Quincy is illu­mi­nated by Japa­nese cruiser Aoba’s power­ful search­lights and pum­meled by accu­rate torpe­do and shell­fire, the Japa­nese navy’s reward for hard training for night battles and having superior equip­ment. (U.S. heavy cruisers were not out­fitted with tor­pe­does, and the tor­pe­does on other U.S. war­ships did not match the reli­a­bility, speed, range, and accu­racy of the oxygen-fueled Japa­nese Long Lance, which carried a thou­sand pounds of deadly explo­sive.) The attack was so fast and fierce that many Quincy crew­men never got to their battle stations. The flames in the far left of the pic­ture are prob­a­bly from USS Vin­cennes, also on fire from gun­fire and tor­pedo damage. The Quincy, whose hull had been shredded, and the Vin­cennes, hit by 56 large-caliber shells and 6 torpedoes, were two of four Allied cruisers lost off Savo Island in the pre­dawn hours of Sunday, August 9, 1942. Quincy sank at 2:35 a.m., 52 min­utes after Vice Adm. Mikawa launched his well-planned night attack, and Vin­cennes sank at 2:50 a.m., 30 min­utes after Mikawa abruptly ordered his strike force to with­draw. Last of the Amer­i­can war­ships to slip under the sur­face was the USS Astoria early that after­noon, fires raging unchecked and ammu­ni­tion caches still exploding. A fifth cruiser, the USS Chicago, was hit by a Japa­nese destroyer-launched tor­pedo during the night­time battle and, spewing oil, with­drew for repairs to her damaged bow. In less than 12 hours 1,077 Amer­i­can and Aus­tra­lian sailors had been killed (some eaten by sharks) and 708 wounded, in start con­trast to the 129 the Japa­nese lost. The Savo Island debacle so over­whelmed Adm. Earnest J. King, Com­mander in Chief, United States Fleet, that he delayed relaying the news to President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt for a time.

Right: The Royal Australian Navy heavy cruiser HMAS Can­berra fired only a few rounds in her defense before being immo­bi­lized by two torpe­does (one may have been friendly fire) and a Japanese barrage of 8‑inch shells to the bridge and engine rooms, occasioning her 10‑degrees list to star­board and setting off mul­ti­ple inter­nal fires. U.S. Navy destroyers are seen here rescuing sur­vi­vors (84 had perished) from the sinking Can­berra. The U.S. destroyer Blue is along­side Can­berra’s port bow as the destroyer Patter­son approaches from astern. Despite heroic efforts, Can­berra’s crew could not save her. Wracked by explo­sions and fire, she was sent to a watery grave a little after 8 a.m., August 9, 1942, following an on­slaught of 368 rounds of 5‑inch shells and 5 tor­pe­does from two U.S. destroyers, Selfridge and Ellet.

Battle of Savo Island, August 8/9, 1942: America’s Greatest Defeat at Sea