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 sinkingFirst 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

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