Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands · November 12, 1942

On this date in 1942 in the South Pacific, U.S. and Japa­nese fleets began the four-day Naval Battle of Guadal­canal, often at point-blank range and under the cover of dark­ness. Variously referred to as the Third and Fourth Battles of Savo Island, the Battle of the Solo­mons, or the Battle of Friday the 13th, the Naval Battle of Guadal­canal was the deci­sive air and sea engage­ment in a series of naval battles pri­marily between U.S. and Japa­nese forces during the months­long Guadal­canal Cam­paign in the south­ern Solo­mon Islands (August 7, 1942, to Febru­ary 9, 1943).

Both fleets suffered heavy losses, but losses by the Japa­nese effec­tively iso­lated their Guadal­canal garri­son after U.S. pilots from the is­land’s Hen­der­son Field sank 7 out of 11 resupply trans­ports carrying 7,000 troops, equip­ment, ammu­ni­tion, and food. Superior radar equip­ment allowed the Amer­i­cans to own the nights, when most of the en­gage­ments took place. The Japa­nese had the better of another night en­counter (the Battle of Tas­sa­fa­ronga) in late-Novem­ber 1942, which was a failed attempt to deliver pro­vi­sions via floating bar­rels to their Guadal­canal garri­son. How­ever by then the attri­tion of Japa­nese naval forces and their Guadal­canal garri­son (50 men each day from mal­nu­tri­tion, dis­ease, and Allied ground or air attacks) was so severe that in early Janu­ary 1943 the Guadal­canal Rein­force­ment Unit (or “Tokyo Express,” as it was nick­named by U.S. Marines), finally went into reverse—evac­u­ating rather than resupplying the island. The last of the Japa­nese garri­son was withdrawn in early February 1943.

Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt, upon learning of the results of the drawn-out Battle for Guadal­canal com­mented, “It would seem that the turning point in this war has at last been reached.” The con­tin­ual pres­sure to rein­force Guadal­canal had weak­ened Japan’s efforts else­where. The Allies’ suc­cess­ful neu­trali­zation of Japa­nese naval and air bases at Rabaul on New Britain facil­i­tated the South­west Pacific Cam­paign under Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur and the Cen­tral Pacific island-hopping cam­paign under Adm. Chester Nimitz, with both efforts suc­cess­fully advancing toward Japan. The remaining Japa­nese defenses in the South Pacific were then either destroyed or by­passed by Allied forces as the war progressed to its ultimate conclusion.

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Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 12–15, 1942

Map of Guadalcanal

Above: On August 7, 1942, 20,000 U.S. Marines landed on Guadal­canal, an island roughly 90 miles long and 25 wide, and seized a Japa­nese air­field at Lunga Point (Lungga Point on the map), later called Hender­son Field, before it could become opera­tional. (Hender­son Field, on the island’s north­ern coast­line, appears in blue lettering on the map, the air­field as a white dia­gonal.) In early Novem­ber 1942 the Japa­nese organ­ized a trans­port con­voy to ferry 7,000 infan­try troops and their equip­ment to Guadal­canal to retake the air­field. Learning of the Japa­nese rein­force­ment effort, U.S. forces launched air­craft and war­ship attacks to defend Hen­der­son Field and pre­vent Japa­nese ground troops from reaching Guadal­canal. The naval battle turned back Japan’s last major attempt to dis­lodge Allied forces from Guadal­canal. (Note: The ADAIR APA‑91 in the upper left cor­ner of the map refers to the visit of a U.S. Navy attack transport to the island in March 1945.)

U.S. Marines, Guadalcanal campaign, November 1942Japanese planes crash into the sea, November 12, 1942

Left: A large U.S. Marine patrol prepares to move out in pursuit of retreating Japa­nese during the Guadal­canal Cam­paign, Novem­ber 1942. The Battle of Guadal­canal, code­named Opera­tion Watch­tower (August 7, 1942, to Febru­ary 9, 1943), was the first major offen­sive by Allied forces against the Empire of Japan. The Allies over­whelmed the out­numbered Japa­nese defenders, who had occu­pied the island since May 1942. The Allies suffered 7,100 dead out of 60,000 ground troops. Of more than 36,000 Japa­nese defenders, about 26,000 were killed or went missing, 9,000 died of disease, and 1,000 were captured. Ships and aircraft lost by both sides were less lopsided.

Right: Smoke rises from two Japanese planes shot down on Novem­ber 12, 1942, the first day of the naval battle, as cap­tured in this photo taken aboard the USS Presi­dent Adams. All air and sea engage­ments were directly related to a single effort by the Japa­nese to rein­force their army garri­son on Guadal­canal, and are there­fore considered to be different parts of the same battle.

Japanese warships headed to Guadalcanal, November 14, 1942Japanese beached transports, Guadalcanal, November 15, 1942

Left: Japanese warships under Vice Admi­ral Nobu­take Kondō are shown on Novem­ber 14, 1942, heading for Guadal­canal to bom­bard Hender­son Field after Vice Admiral Hiro­aki Abe’s attempt to bom­bard Hender­son Field on the night of Novem­ber 12/13 failed following a naval engage­ment. The battle­ship Kirishima (back­ground) is pre­ceded in form­a­tion by the heavy cruiser Takao (center). The new battle­ship USS Wash­ing­ton, using radar-controlled guns, sank the Kirishima and one destroyer hours after this photo was taken. Just after mid­night the Japa­nese Navy was in retreat, and the attempt to bom­bard Hender­son Field, as well as rein­force the Japanese Guadalcanal garrison, was curtailed.

Right: Japanese transports Hirokawa Maru and Kinugawa Maru, two of four beached Guadal­canal-bound transports, burn after a failed resupply run to the island on Novem­ber 15, 1942. Allied dive bombers and torpedo air­craft sank most of the Japa­nese troop trans­ports, although Japa­nese escort destroyers managed to res­cue many of the men. Only 2,000–3,000 troops made it ashore. Because of the failure to deliver most of the troops and supplies, the Japa­nese were forced to can­cel their planned November offen­sive on Hender­son Field, making the results of the naval battle a signifi­cant stra­tegic vic­tory for the Allies and marking the begin­ning of the end of Japanese attempts to retake Henderson Field.

1955 Film Recounts Battle for Guadalcanal, August 1942 to February 1943