Pacific War timeline, with POD set in October 1942: Japanese carriers establish naval supremacy around Guadalcanal. Discussion thread here.
By October 1942, the 1st Marine Division, supported by the fleet of the United States Navy, had secured a large portion of the island of Guadalcanal, including the strategic airbase at Lunga Point known as Henderson Field. But Japanese Army and Navy units were putting the Americans under constant stress, and disease was taking its toll upon the Marines. During August 1942, in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, an American carrier task force led by Vice Admiral Jack Fletcher repulsed a Japanese attack led by Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto. On the ground, Major General Kiyo Kawaguchi’s attack in September at the Battle of Bloody Ridge ended in disaster.
Japanese brass planned another attempt to knock the Americans off of Guadalcanal, involving a land offensive and a sea attack simultaneously. The ground attack, led by Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakatuke, failed in its main objectives. However, the naval attack plan went ahead.
Yamamoto had five aircraft carriers at his disposal: the Shōkaku, Zuikaku, Zuihō, Hiyō, and Junyō. Many surface ships had also been amassed. With a combined total of over two hundred aircraft, many of which were crewed by the most highly trained and experienced aviators in the Japanese Empire, the task force seemed very capable.
Yamamoto, for the first time in many months, felt optimistic. The Americans only had two aircraft carriers in the area. The American forces on Guadalcanal were wearing thin. If Yamamoto could eliminate American naval forces and bombard Henderson Field, transport ships could safely pass through “The Slot” in the Solomon Islands and reach Guadalcanal with fresh soldiers, supplies, and equipment, enabling the Japanese Army to start a renewed offensive. Moreover, if the American carriers were put out of action, Guadalcanal could be isolated and blockaded.
The battle plan was as follows. Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo would act as the overall leader of the entire task force in addition to commanding the “Advanced” force consisting of the Junyō, two battleships, four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and ten destroyers. Rear Admiral Hiroake Abe’s “Vanguard” force included two battleships, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and seven destroyers. The bulk of the striking power would be contained in the “Main Body” force, with the Shōkaku, Zuikaku, Zuihō, a heavy cruiser, and eight destroyers commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. (Hiyō had been damaged in an accident and was under repair at Truk.) The ships would proceed southeast until they could engage the American fleet operating in the area.
Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, meanwhile, commanded the carriers USS Hornet and USS Enterprise along with one battleship, three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and fourteen destroyers. On October 25, a PBY Catalina flying boat sighted the Japanese fleet. Kinkaid hurriedly launched a strike force of twenty-three aircraft, but the Japanese knew they had been sited and quickly reversed direction to evade the strike.
Then at 06:45 the next day, an American scout aircraft sited the aircraft carriers of the Japanese fleet. The radio operator quickly tried to send a report to the American fleet, but the radio did not work. After several minutes of frustration, the pilot resigned to fly back to the fleet.
Then at 06:58, a Japanese scout aircraft located the Hornet and successfully relayed its coordinates. Immediately, Kondo authorized a strike. By 07:40, 64 Japanese aircraft from the three Main Body carriers were in the air.
Simultaneously, Kondo ordered the Vanguard force, as well as his own Advanced force, to move ahead at full speed towards Kinkaid’s ships. The Junyō, Shōkaku, and Zuikaku later launched additional aircraft.
It was not until 07:49 that a second American scout aircraft sighted the Japanese fleet. Since the aircraft arrived in between the first and second waves, the Americans had no indication that the Japanese were launching aircraft. Kinkaid ordered the Hornet and Enterprise to launch their aircraft.
At 08:52, the Japanese air commander sighted the Hornet and began preparing his flight for an attack. It was not until 08:55 that the Americans spotted the incoming attackers and vectored all nearby F4Fs on combat air patrol (CAP) against the Japanese. However, faulty communications and mistakes muddled the defense efforts. Several Wildcats managed to reach the dive bomber formation and shot down several, but the majority of the Japanese aircraft were unharmed.
It was at this point that the Japanese pilots realized that they had caught the Americans in the act of launching their own strike force.
The Japanese air commander could not believe his good luck. He immediately ordered fourteen Zeros to attack the climbing American aircraft. The Japanese fighters swooped in and began tearing apart the formation of low, slow American aircraft with cannon fire. The remaining aircraft attempted to get off of the Hornet as quickly as they could, but wreckage on the deck impeded takeoff operations.
The one-sided dogfight that was developing around the Hornet interfered with the planned dive bombing attack, so it was not until 09:14 that the 18 D3A “Val” dive bombers nosed down over the Hornet. At 09:16, a 250kg semi-armor piercing bomb struck the Hornet amidships, penetrating three decks before exploding. Moments later, a second Val planted another bomb near the stern. At 09:19, the Hornet was hit a third time. Fire and smoke billowed into the sky.
Meanwhile, torpedo bombers began to make their run. At 09:14 and again at 09:18, the Hornet was torpedoed and subsequently lost power. With fuel and ammunition causing secondary explosions, the Hornet was dead in the water.
Meanwhile, the American strike force had suffered heavy losses. Out of the original 29 aircraft, 15, including the aircraft of Commander R. Eaton, were shot down. The Japanese lost eight Zeros and three Vals. As the Japanese aircraft began returning to their carriers, they spotted the Enterprise, so the next wave of Japanese aircraft attacked the Enterprise.
The American aircraft from Enterprise, comprising 18 aircraft, were unable to locate the Japanese carriers. Instead, they moved to attack the heavy cruiser Chikuma and scored one bomb and one torpedo hit. They were also intercepted by Japanese fighters, however, and six American aircraft were destroyed for the loss of five Zeros.
The few surviving aircraft from the Hornet were more successful, however, and a formation of dive bombers managed to reach the Shōkaku relatively unmolested while the fighters and torpedo bombers were engaged by the Zeros on BARCAP. Only one bomb hit the Shōkaku, but it penetrated two decks and caused 81 casualties. Another bomb hit the water very close to the hull, causing additional damage.
After the Japanese aircraft departed, Kinkaid decided to withdraw his fleet, as both of his carriers were damaged and incapable of mounting large-scale air operations. He also believed that the Japanese had two to three undamaged carriers in the area. At about 09:13, the Junyo and the Zuiho launched 19 Zeros and 25 Vals towards Kinkaid’s fleet. They then scored a hit each on the Enterprise, the battleship South Dakota and the light cruiser San Juan. The Japanese also dropped two bombs very close to the Enterprise, causing further damage. The Enterprise caught fire, and several secondary explosions worsened the situation.
By this time the Enterprise was too damaged to keep up with the fleet, and the Hornet was so severely battered that she had to be towed by the cruiser Northampton. At 15:20, more aircraft from the Junyō arrived, and strikes from the Zuikaku and Zuiho soon followed. By 16:19, the Hornet had been abandoned, and the Enterprise was dead in the water. Kinkaid, aware that more Japanese strikes were probably on their way, ordered his remaining ships to depart. and scuttled the Enterprise. The Japanese launched several more strikes, but none managed to reach the American ships. The Chikuma left for Truk for repairs while the Shōkaku, Zuikaku and Hiyō had to leave for Japan for repairs as well as to training and delivering more planes and aircrew, while the bulk of the remaining Japanese fleet returned to Rabaul to refuel.
Overall, the Japanese suffered one carrier and one heavy cruiser damaged, but the Americans lost two carriers, while a battleship, a light cruiser, and two destroyers also suffered damage.
While the Japanese had scored a definite tactical victory, they had lost quite a few aviators--134--while the Americans lost 89. While it was not an enormous disparity, the lack of experienced pilots would be a significant handicap for Japan in the rest of the war. Nevertheless, the Americans now had no operational carriers in the Solomons. The Japanese could supply fresh troops to Guadalcanal and bombard the island at will. Soon 1st Marine Division’s lines would be broken. Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo was given the Order of the Rising Sun, 2nd Class for his actions in the battle.
The sun was rising in the East.
With the American fleet destroyed, spirits among the Japanese on Guadalcanal were high. The island was relatively peaceful for once. The Americans were under strict orders to remain on the defensive until American naval and air power could be returned to the area, so the Matanikau Offensive and the operation at Koli Point to encircle troops under Major General Shōji were called off. Meanwhile, General Harukichi Hyakutake saw no need to launch attacks on the Americans before reinforcements arrived.
On November 2, the first transport convoy from Rabaul, escorted by destroyers, arrived at Guadalcanal. One of the nine ships that departed was sunk by a submarine, and they were harassed by PT boats along the way, but when the Japanese ships unloaded their cargo on Guadalcanal, the Marines' predicament took a heavy turn for the worse. Together, the transports carried 11,000 soldiers, ninety field guns consisting of mostly 70mm and 75mm pieces, but with a few of 105mm caliber, forty 37mm and 47mm anti-tank guns (the 47mm piece was new, modern, and capable of knocking out a Sherman at close range), a few dozen vehicles of various types, and plenty of food and ammunition.
On November 4, some preliminary air strikes were carried out by Japanese land-based D3A Val and G4M Betty bomber aircraft. In addition, some Imperial Japanese Navy destroyers shelled the American lines. Most of the fire was concentrated along the areas west of the Lunga River and on Henderson Field.
At dawn on November 5, the Japanese launched a decisive offensive towards Henderson Field. 27,000 Japanese troops, well supported by artillery and a few light tanks, participated in an all-out attack into a 1.5 mile wide perimeter in Sectors 4 and 5 of the American perimeter, along the Lunga River and just west of Henderson Field. The attack began with a ten-minute artillery barrage. Then Hyakutake's soldiers charged towards the American lines.
Hyakutake, in an odd departure from ordinary Japanese military doctrine, learned from his mistakes. The Battle of Henderson Field on October 23-26 resulted in total defeat for the Japanese because they had charged across an open ridge where American artillery power could be brought to bear for maximum effect, so Hyakutake's next attack went through denser jungle terrain. The inevitable result of this, however, was chaotic close-quarters combat, where small firefights depended on numbers and close-range firepower. The Americans held their lines as long as they could under the Japanese assault, but the frenzied charges of Hyakutake's troops led to total confusion in the dense and poorly lit battle zone. Eventually the American lines broke and by the nightfall on November 5, the Japanese attackers reached the Lunga River 2,000 yards from Henderson Field, and a mere 800 yards from the headquarters of the Marine 1st Division itself. Hyakutake could not believe his success. A large swath of strategic land had been taken. However, a staggering 8,000 Japanese troops were lost. American casualties were approximately 3,500. A few pockets of Marines were left in the newly taken areas.
Japanese offensive on November 5th
Final Japanese lines at 2100 hours with isolated pockets of Marine troops
On November 6th, the Americans launched relatively minor counterattacks aimed at dislodging the Japanese from their threatening positions near the division headquarters (which were being emergency evacuated anyway) and preventing the Japanese from being able to cut off the Marines in the west by reaching the ocean. The counterattacks were moderately successful but did not make the situation any less precarious. Meanwhile, Japanese light artillery pieces were moved to a forward position in order to accurately shell Henderson Field.
Map of American counter-offensive, led by General Vandegrift, on the 6th, with new Japanese artillery positions in black
Japanese troops walking across the river from Henderson Field
Dead Japanese soldiers
The battle would come to be known as the Battle of Lunga River.
Morale among the Americans in the Pacific was at an all-time low.
On November 8, a second Japanese transport convoy steamed down "The Slot" to land additional support on Guadalcanal. This one had fewer soldiers--only 4,000, not nearly enough to recoup recent losses--but it carried plenty of ammunition and supplies to sustain operations on the island.
Meanwhile, Japanese artillery on the island continued shelling Henderson Field through the night of the 7th/8th. By now, the airfield facilities and aircraft were so badly wrecked that there was no hope for it to become operational without major engineering support and additional aircraft, which required significant naval operations in order to bring the necessary materiel to Guadalcanal. However, by noon on November 8th, American 105mm artillery had found the range on the Japanese field gun batteries located near the Lunga River, and promptly put them out of action.
The Americans managed to hastily bring some supplies to the Americans on November 9, but retreated immediately and lost a transport, with two more damaged, in the attempt. For the Japanese had deployed the aircraft carrier Junyō, with a screening force of a few cruisers and destroyers, to the area (with 24 Zekes and 18 Vals) in order to maintain dominance over the island. Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo was commander of the Junyō and the escorting surface ships. The light cruiser Nagara served as his flagship, and he had five destroyers as well.
Air strikes and shore bombardment at point-blank range wore down the Marines on the island severely. Now the Japanese officers on the island were confident to just form a line of defense along the Lunga River, sit back and let the Navy do their thing. However, Yamamoto was worried: if the Americans sent a heavy force of surface ships, or perhaps even another aircraft carrier which they might still have, the Japanese ships could be badly outnumbered. However, the facts of war prevented him from alleviating the situation because the Japanese were suffering from a shortage of bunker fuel and of the top Japanese brass were reluctant to send more ships into the area.
In order to address the situation, Admiral William Halsey, Jr. decided to send a large force of surface ships to crush the Japanese forces. On November 10, he ordered the battleships South Dakota and Washington, the heavy cruisers Portland, Northampton and San Francisco, the light cruisers Helena, Juneau, San Juan, and San Diego, along with nine destroyers, to assemble as quickly as possible before moving towards Guadalcanal at full speed. The "big ships" were commanded by Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan on the San Francisco, with Rear Admiral Norman Scott on the Juneau in charge of the advance screen of light cruisers and destroyers. On November 14, the combined force--albeit with a few of the cruisers lagging behind--passed the northernmost of the New Hebrides. They were a mere 70 miles away from the Junyō, which was anchored off the tiny islet of Nugu, when they were sighted at 1300 steaming at 25 knots near the eastern tip of Guadalcanal.
Immediately, the Junyō launched a strike force. 12 Vals and 9 Zekes were in the air by 13:35. At 13:59, the Japanese fighter squadron leader spotted the American ships. The bombers split up into a group of six to go after the light cruisers in the front of the formation, and a group of seven to attack the battleships.
At 14:03, the first Vals began to dive towards the Juneau and the San Diego, with three targeting each ship. One bomb struck the San Diego perfectly amidships, right between the funnels. The resulting explosion, several decks below topside, rocked the ship and started several fires. The San Diego immediately lost speed. A second bomb scored a near miss that caused some of the front 5" guns to stop working. The Juneau received no hits. Three Japanese bombers were shot down.
By 14:04, five dive-bombers were nosing down over the South Dakota. Two were immediately shot down, while only one managed to score a hit. A Val planted a 250kg high-explosive bomb at the port side of the bow, significantly bending Turret A's leftmost gun. A third Val was shot down as it pulled out of its dive.
The remaining two Vals attacked the Washington. Anti-aircraft fire shot down one; the other scored a near miss. By the time that the Japanese planes returned to the Junyō, six bombers had been shot down.
When the Japanese pilots were debriefed, they reported "Two battleships damaged, one cruiser sunk, one cruiser damaged." Kondo decided that the Americans were still a threat and the Junyō to launch another strike, then start retreating from the area.
By 15:12, November 14, six Vals and four Zekes had managed to get aloft. It was a bright, clear day and by this time the American ships were almost in sight of the Japanese ships. The Junyō with her accompanying task force began to withdraw west-northwest at 21 knots.
At 15:29, the Japanese aircraft began making their runs against the American ships. All of them targeted the nearest ship, the cruiser San Francisco, which was Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan's flagship. Concentrated anti-aircraft fire claimed two Vals, while two more were destroyed as they made their way home. However, a 250kg general purpose bomb struck the San Francisco aft of the second funnel, wrecking the seaplane facilities. Three 60kg bombs also hit the ship, including one that landed square on Turret B, but did no significant damage.
By 15:34, Kondo realized that his aircraft had no chance of stopping the Americans, and ordered his ships to turn northwest and increase their speed to 25 knots. Rear Admiral Scott then ordered his force of light cruisers and destroyers (minus the San Diego, which was steaming back to Nouméa for repairs) to increase their speed to 32 knots, while Callaghan's force was trailing at 26 knots. Scott also ordered two of his destroyers to stay with Callaghan, two to follow the light cruisers, and the remaining five to head for the Japanese ships at 36 knots.
In order to escape the Americans, Junyō had to sail with the wind, which meant she could not launch her aircraft without turning around and being badly exposed to the American ships' guns.
But that afternoon, the Helena closed the distance between the opposing fleets enough open fire on the Junyō at a range of 12 miles with her forward 6-inch guns. Before long, the destroyers began firing with their 5" weapons. Soon the Junyō was hit, and small fires appeared. The shelling continued; the destroyers were approaching the Junyō fast and now the San Juan and Juneau began shooting. A gunnery officer on the Helena perfected a firing solution for the Junyō, and soon 6-inch shells began scoring punishing hits. Junyō began burning brightly. Several secondary explosions rocked the ship. Several Japanese destroyers, and the Nagara, began shooting at the pursuing American ships with their rear guns, but did only minor damage to the destroyer Monssen.
Kondo ordered the crew of the Junyō to scuttle the ship. He then ordered his remaining ships to escape at high speed, fearing the superior strength of the American ships. The crew of the Junyō detonated explosive charges in the hull before making their way to nearby Savo Island.
Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, part 1, showing fleet movements as well as Japanese air strikes.
But the battle was not over yet. Several days earlier, Yamamoto had sent several large ships to Guadalcanal to counter Callaghan's fleet. The battleships Kirishima and Hiei, the heavy cruisers Suzuya and Kinugasa, ten destroyers, and a convoy of thirteen transport vessels, all commanded by Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe, were steaming down "The Slot." Kondo had not even been informed of their presence, and narrowly missed a collision that night between the Nagara and the Kinugasa. Two of Kondo's destroyers joined Abe, but Kondo returned to Rabaul and was later demoted for "running away in a decisive battle," even though he was badly outnumbered and unaware of Abe's approaching fleet.
In the very early morning hours of November 15, Callaghan's fleet, reorganized after the scattering of forces spurred by Scott's pursuit of the Junyō, steamed close to the northern shore of Guadalcanal in preparation for bombardment come daylight. Unknown to the Americans, however, Abe's force was approaching fast and was preparing to engage Callaghan's force with searchlights in a night battle, something the Japanese navy was much more adept at than the Americans.
The ensuing engagement started with the Hiei illuminating the San Juan at 12,000 yards at 0325. The Hiei and several Japanese destroyers began shelling the San Juan. Scott, though taken unawares by the sudden turn of events, ordered all of his light cruisers to turn broadside against Abe's fleet. Callaghan then ordered all of his battleships and heavy cruisers to do the same, and Scott followed by ordering his destroyers to make torpedo runs.
Less than ten minutes later, a salvo of 14-inch shells from the Hiei ripped through the San Juan's starboard side and set off a powerful secondary explosion. By this time, all of the American cruisers and battleships were firing at the Hiei, while the San Juan, still well illuminated, had taken severe damage. Turret B had been put out of action by a shell from the Hiei and her side had been punctured repeatedly; the captain was dead, the superstructure was in shambles and fires raged uncontrollably. The first mate gave the order to abandon ship. With the San Juan burning brightly, the Hiei turned its searchlight to the cruiser San Francisco, which became the subject of the Kinugasa's and the Suzuya's guns as well. Meanwhile, the Kirishima and most of the Japanese destroyers started firing at the destroyers O'Bannon and Laffey, which were launching torpedoes at the Hiei.
At 0410, the destroyer Monssen successfully struck the Kinugasa with two torpedoes. The Kinugasa's captain then ordered the ship to fire upon the Monssen, but the Inazuma was incorrectly shot at instead; she had just launched a salvo of torpedoes at the Portland, and scored one hit.
At approximately 0420, the Hiei was struck by a 16-inch round from either the South Dakota or the Washington--no one knows for sure--which entered a powder magazine for the 6-inch guns. The explosion created a brilliant fireball, but by that time the Hiei was doomed and Abe had been killed. Dead in the water and listing to starboard, she was scuttled by her crew.
Now the South Dakota, Washington, Northampton, Juneau, and several destroyers began firing upon the Kinugasa, which blew up and sank within fifteen minutes. Then the O'Bannon, crippled by the Kirishima's gunfire and struck by a torpedo from a Japanese destroyer, began to sink.
The Kirishima and Suzuya were now firing at the South Dakota, while three Japanese destroyers made torpedo runs against the burning San Francisco. The San Francisco started to zigzag but she was hit by two torpedoes and started to sink. Callaghan boarded a lifeboat and transferred in the chaos of battle to the Washington.
The South Dakota was badly damaged by now, and Turret A was out of action.
After the Kinugasa was destroyed, the American ships concentrated all their firepower on the Kirishima. The Suzuya torpedoed the South Dakota, but she was in turn torpedoed by an American destroyer, the Barton. The Northampton was listing to port from three torpedo hits; meanwhile the Kirishima was badly damaged. The South Dakota retired from battle, while the Suzuya concentrated her efforts on the Barton and the Northampton. The Kirishima, repeatedly torpedoed, kept firing at the Washington, achieving minor damage to the battleship, and sank the destroyer Cushing before a salvo of 16-inch rounds from the Washington hit the Kirishima right at the waterline, ruptured her hull, and started large fires below deck.
By this time the Japanese transports were unloading their cargoes onto the western part of the island, and the sun was approaching the horizon. The Japanese had only a damaged cruiser, a crippled battleship, and seven destroyers still in action, while only a few American destroyers had escaped damage.
The Kirishima sank just after sunrise, while the Northampton was slowly capsizing after being hit with three torpedoes. The Japanese destroyers began firing torpedoes at the Washington and also attacked the remaining, outnumbered, American destroyers. The Suzuya, badly damaged, retreated from battle at 0710, and the destroyers, after firing their torpedoes at the Washington, did the same. The Washington was struck by only one torpedo, but the destroyer Laffey was sunk by another. The Japanese destroyer Murasame, meanwhile, after having been crippled by destroyer gunfire, became the target of the Washington and the Juneau, and she sank at 0735.
At 0815, a wave of G4M "Betty" bombers approached from Rabaul; they dropped torpedoes at the Portland but scored no hits, and four were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. However, it prompted Callaghan, after conversing with Scott, to retreat from the battle area to Nouméa.
The Japanese transports and surface ships left as well. The inconclusive Naval Battle of Guadalcanal had ended; the Japanese lost 1 carrier, 2 battleships, 1 heavy cruiser, and 1 destroyer; in addition, 1 heavy cruiser and 3 destroyers were badly damaged. 47 aircraft were also lost. The Americans had suffered the loss of 2 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, and 3 destroyers; 2 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers, and 5 destroyers were also damaged. While it was a tactical victory for the Americans, they had failed to stop the Japanese from reinforcing Guadalcanal and without air cover, they could not risk staying in the area.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was not getting along with the Imperial Japanese Army Chief of Staff, Hajime Sugiyama. Being in Truk for an unofficial conference, Sugiyama was perpetually surrounded by Navy personnel, which further fouled his increasingly abominable mood.
For the past week, Sugiyama had been berating Yamamoto for failing to maintain full naval superiority, and failing to adequately resupply the army at Guadalcanal.
"What do you propose we do?" Yamamoto demanded. "We do not have enough oil. The shortage gets worse and worse as time goes on. The operations in the past month around Guadalcanal have proved especially taxing, and many of our finest naval pilots--"
"I propose that you establish a permanent naval presence around Guadalcanal!" Sugiyama thundered. "Hyakutake's army cannot take the island until the Americans are cut off and given a thorough naval bombardment, which you have shown yourself as unable to accomplish!"
"We have reached Guadalcanal multiple times and provided ample support, but Hyakutake, like all his predecessors has proved inept and unable to take advantage of the situation, whatever his minor recent successes have been." The chief of staff sputtered; Yamamoto continued. "I suggest you replace him with someone who is--"
"WHY DON'T YOU DO YOUR JOB AS AN OFFICER OF JAPAN??" roared the chief of staff.
"Don't try to rely on the Navy to consistently defeat the United States Navy. You are remarkably foolish, Sugiyama. You once said that the Chinese campaign would be over in three months, am I wrong?" He raised his voice over Sugiyama's protests. "Idiot. You were a major proponent of war with America. How easy has it been for us? Reality has fallen far from your rosy predictions--"
"GET. OUT." Yamamoto had overstepped the line and he knew it. He bowed curtly and left the room. He hear Sugiyama mutter "baka" and proceed into a fit of rage.
Yamamoto sternly paced down the main hall of the Japanese HQ at Truk. "That was well handled, sir," said a beaming aide. "Sugiyama is an idiot."
"Do not speak of your superiors in that way," Yamamoto replied. He gestured for the fawning adjutant to leave. He strode to Nagumo, who was studying The Book of Five Rings.
"Everyone heard that," the grim vice-admiral said.
"That is of no consequence. Prepare to leave."
On November 29, the light aircraft carrier Zuihō, with the heavy cruisers Atago, Maya and Takao, light cruisers Nagara and Tenryū, and six destroyers, left Rabaul for Guadalcanal. The Hiyō and Zuikaku were close to being able to return to Rabaul; if Nagumo's task force could hold off the Americans until then, Guadalcanal would be in Japanese hands and--or so Yamamoto thought--there would be hope for a negotiated peace with America.
On December 1, the fleet steamed past Savo Island. The Zuihō launched Zeros to strafe and bomb the Marines. The surface ships participated in the bombardment. Transports continued to arrive, but with greater caution since an increase in submarine activity which occurred in late November (that corresponded with the loss of several transports and escort ships).
On December 4 at approximately 0200, Hyakutake tried another offensive. 13,000 Japanese troops, with plenty of naval and a modicum of artillery support, attacked across the Lunga River to the beleaguered Marine and Army troops on the island.
This offensive had three main goals: the Japanese wanted to take Henderson Field so it could eventually be repaired and used as an operational airfield, they wanted to decisively split the American forces to quicken their defeat, and they wanted to cause as many casualties as possible.
They came at night; on boats, in rafts, and on foot. At the stretch of river adjacent to Henderson Field, machine gun fire sprayed the murky waters of the Lunga River. Red Japanese blood polluted the river but the Japanese just kept coming.
Amid charges of Banzai! they swarmed to the opposing shore. With machine gun, rifle, pistol, grenade, bayonet, sword, and fist they threw themselves in desperate fury against the American soldiers.
Onto the airstrip itself the invaders charged; 0.50 caliber fire dropped mutilated bodies across the cratered moonscape. Seabees and personnel of what was left of the Cactus Air Force fought back with handguns and machine guns stripped from aircraft wrecks. But they could not stem the tide.
Further north, Colonel Merritt A. Edson's Marines around the Lunga River Delta were fighting hard against the Japanese who were charging through the miserable jungle. Edson's forces fought like madmen and slaughtered platoons of Japanese for every squad that was killed, but they were scattered and picked off until any semblance of a coherent unit was gone.
Route of Japanese attack in the early morning of December 4
When the situation in the area looked lost, Edson led a ragtag force of fifty men--all he could gather in the immediate area--on a desperate charge southeast to reach Henderson Field and establish a line of communication with anyone still in that area.
There was little hope from the start, but Edson's men took a leaf from the Japanese book and charged straight into the Japanese lines with mad shouts of fury. The Japanese soldiers there had assumed that all of the forces in the north had already been eliminated; thus they were taken completely by surprise. However, they quickly turned back on Edson's force and encircled it. The Americans discharged every weapon they could for as long as they could; the Japanese troops suffered massive tactical complications as well as casualties from the attack. But by 0530, Nagumo's ships were shelling the Americans, and though Hyakutake's forces were on the receiving end of this bombardment as often as not, Edson's force was quite literally blown to pieces.
Edson's men fought to the last.
By dawn, the American forces in the area had completely collapsed. The dead were dumped into mass graves. Colonel Edson's body was never found. He was later awarded his second Medal of Honor posthumously.
There were 2,400 American casualties. None were wounded.
Japan suffered 9,000 casualties, about two thirds of which were killed in action.
Yamamoto fumed. Pyrrhic victories would not win the war.
"Our troops are wearing thin now. They suffer, from bullets and bombs, certainly; but above all from disease. Most soldiers have contracted dysentery, malaria or both during the course of this campaign. Now we are surrounded and the Japanese are closing in on our territory. My men fight on bravely, but they have had enough. They want to get off this island."
-Major General Alexander Patch, commander of U.S. forces on Guadalcanal
The USS Saratoga had reached Nouméa on December 3, 1942. The Saratoga was America's last operational fleet carrier in the Pacific, with the exception of the Ranger, which had been diverted from anti-submarine operations in the Atlantic and had passed through the Panama Canal on November 30. After the Japanese offensive, Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey decided that it was time to try to coax the Japanese into battle one last time.
On December 6, the Saratoga, Washington, the heavy cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Pensacola; the light cruisers Juneau and Honolulu, and five destroyers departed Nouméa for the Solomons, under the command of the newly-promoted-to-the-rank-of-Vice Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, with the Pensacola as his flagship. Several transport ships, loaded with ammunition, medical supplies and a few troops, also tagged along.
Meanwhile, the Japanese carrier Hiyō and two more destroyers had joined Nagumo's fleet, which was anchored 15 miles north of Guadalcanal in Ironbottom Sound. Between the Hiyō and the Zuihō, Nagumo now had 42 A6M2 Zekes, 12 D3A2 Vals, 10 B5N2 Kates, and 10 D4Y Judy dive bombers brought with the Hiyō-- a new type which had maximum speed of 343mph and an internal bomb bay.
Against this, the Saratoga carried 48 F4F Wildcats, 12 SBD Dauntlesses, and 24 TBF Avengers.
On December 8, Callaghan ordered the Saratoga to launch a search-and-destroy strike at 0700. By 0745, 20 Wildcats and 12 Dauntlesses were in the air. At 1020, Japanese forces on Guadalcanal spotted the American planes, and every Zeke that was in the air was immediately vectored towards the American aircraft. At 1029, four Zekes dived out of the sun towards the American flight; they were attacked by Wildcats who shot down two Zekes at no loss, forcing them to break off the fight.
At 1033, three more Japanese fighters attacked the Americans; this time they managed to shoot down one SBD but two of the Zekes were shot down.
The SBDs started their bombing runs at 1041, all towards the Hiyō. Intense flak bounced the bombers around like toys, but they managed to score two near misses that let water into the hull and one direct hit that penetrated four decks before exploding deep within the hull, causing significant damage. However, three of the American bombers were shot down by anti-aircraft fire.
As soon as the Americans left, Nagumo ordered strike aircraft to be launched from the Hiyō and Zuihō at once. By 11:24, 19 A6Ms, 8 D4Ys, 2 D3As and 2 B5Ns were on course towards where Nagumo guessed the American fleet might be. However, the second American strike force, consisting of 12 Wildcats, 6 SBDs, and 18 Avengers was already on its way.
The aircraft passed each other over 200 miles south of Guadalcanal, and they were barely within sight of each other. In fact, Nagumo's aircraft probably would not have located the American carriers if the position of Callaghan's incoming wave did not allow the Japanese to correct their course.
Nagumo's aircraft reached the American fleet at 1331. four Wildcats on BARCAP intercepted them, and while three of them were shot down, they took three Zekes, both Vals, and one Judy with them. A pair of Wildcats managed to reach the torpedo bombers just as they started their torpedo runs, and they shot down one, but both of them were destroyed by Zeros.
The remaining torpedo bomber was shot down, so it was left to the seven remaining Judy dive bombers to attack the Saratoga. Faster than the Americans expected, six of them managed to drop their ordnance (semi-armor-piercing bombs) without being destroyed, and two of them scored hits. Both of them landed perfectly in the middle of the flight deck near the bow, penetrated several decks, and set off secondary explosions that made further aircraft take-offs impossible. One more Judy was shot down as it pulled out of its dive.
Over at Ironbottom Sound, the second American strike was being put through hell. First they were intercepted by nine Zekes, which shot down two Wildcats and two Avengers but disengaged after losing six of their number. Then the American aircraft were bombarded by anti-aircraft fire at the hands of Japanese gunners on Guadalcanal. After that, they ran into three more Zekes--that were all shot down at the lost of a single SBD--and then they were faced with concentrated anti-aircraft fire as they made their attack runs. But the strike was successful. The Hiyō, already tilting somewhat to starboard, was hit with three more torpedoes. Only one exploded, but that sealed her fate. The Zuihō was positioned at the far end of the Japanese fleet, so the Avengers that did not attack the Hiyō went for the nearby surface ships instead. The heavy cruiser Maya was struck by three torpedoes, and the Atago one.
The five SBDs went for the Zuihō. Frantically zigzagging, the Japanese light carrier suffered first a near miss, then a hit by a 1,000lb armor-piercing bomb at the stern which detonated deep within the hull, knocking out the carrier's engines and springing a few leaks.
The American aircraft soon departed, suffering more losses on the way back to the Saratoga. With the damaged flight deck, landing was dangerous, and there were several accidents. Many American aircraft, delayed for too long by the complicated landing procedures, simply ditched in the water for lack of fuel. Two TBFs, covertly disobeying orders in the confusion, survived by landing in the New Hebrides.
Callaghan kept his fleet moving, and the American pilots could not collaborate on a definitive report for hours until they were all back on board the Saratoga--and dead tired. The Hiyō and Maya had been sunk, and the Atago damaged. By that time, the crippled Zuihō, still capable of launching aircraft, had 5 D4Ys revving on the flight deck, and Callaghan's force was less than 300 miles from Nagumo's forces. Nagumo transferred his command to the Takao.
The general consensus at Callaghan's fleet was that the Zuihō was no longer capable of launching aircraft, and that there were no more Japanese carriers in the area. Callaghan ordered the damaged Saratoga to return to Nouméa, and raised his fleet's speed to 24 knots. This would be just what he was hoping for-- a good, old-fashioned naval gunnery duel.
At 0530, Nagumo ordered his aircraft to take off. Five D4Ys, seven D3As, and six A6Ms prepared to launch towards the approaching American fleet. With the range so close, Nagumo had decided to command the officers on the Zuihō to give the aircraft heavier bomb loads-- 500kg for the D4Ys, 310kg for the D3As; two of the A6Ms even carried bombs. However, this resulted in dangerous take-offs, so two D4Ys landed in the drink without being able to get aloft.
At 0626, December 9, the Japanese air commander spotted the American ships. The D4Ys turned towards the Washington; the D3As and A6M fighter-bombers went for the New Orleans.
Anti-aircraft fire blossomed into the sky. One D4Y and two D3As were shot down. The bombers dove straight and true, however, and while only one 250kg bomb struck the Washington, Japanese pilots planted four 250kg bombs and five 30kg bombs into the New Orleans. Fires broke out uncontrollably on all levels of the ship, and her speed fell to 11 knots. At 0845, the captain gave the order to abandon ship. She was scuttled by torpedoes from a nearby destroyer.
The Japanese pilots returned to the Zuihō victorious. Callaghan, caught unawares by the surprise visit, believed that Henderson Field had been fixed by the Japanese. Callaghan knew that another strike force might be on its way, and--in a decision that has been debated by alternate history buffs to this day--ordered his ships to turn around and head for Nouméa. Nagumo launched another strike but they took a long time to locate Callaghan's force, and none of his aircraft managed to cause further damage to his fleet.
Japanese fuel reserves were at an all-time low. Sending more ships to Guadalcanal would not be done except under at the utmost need. The Japanese also lost 66 aircraft, compared with the Americans' 39. In addition, far more Japanese aviators were killed than American pilots. Overall, the Japanese suffered 1 aircraft carrier sunk, 1 heavy cruiser sunk, 1 light carrier damaged, and 1 heavy cruiser damaged, in exchange for 1 American heavy cruiser sunk, 1 aircraft carrier damaged, and 1 battleship damaged. Halsey conceded that there was "a very high chance" that the American troops on Guadalcanal would be defeated before large-scale relief could arrive.
By now, it seemed that both sides had expended far more energy on Guadalcanal than it was worth.
In order to support their operations around Guadalcanal, the Japanese had to divert resources from other theaters, most notably New Guinea.
Australian forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur swept the island's jungles clear of those Japanese soldiers who were not sent to Guadalcanal. The Battle of Buna-Gona resulted in a major defeat for the Japanese soldiers on the northern coast of the island, which numbered only 3,000 by December, and the planned invasion of Wau. Rumors were whispered across the Rising Sun empire of Guadalcanal, "The Island of Death."
American brass continuously deliberated over what to do to solve the situation on Guadalcanal. MacArthur, full of praise from his successful campaigns in New Guinea, wanted the soldiers on "that damn island" to stay put until his forces could move through New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland to cut off the besieging Japanese. Had General Dwight D. Eisenhower been around, he might have had some choice words to say about this plan, but as Ike was away in North Africa, that duty was left to Admiral Halsey, who called it "a sheer miscalculation based on total disdain for the Navy of the United States" and Admiral Richmond K. Turner, who "made it painfully clear (according to Nimitz) that decisive naval action would be needed or the defenders would starve to death." Vice Admiral Ghormley was even less optimistic, chipping in from his de facto banishment at Washington D.C. that "the men on that island have no chance of surviving and should be abandoned for the sake of the war effort." His already declining reputation suffered another blow.
But however much time the Americans spent back-and-forthing in cigar smoke-filled operations rooms, there wasn't much that they could actually do. With the Saratoga in drydock at Nouméa and the Ranger steaming through the eastern Pacific, all that Halsey (or anyone else for that matter) could do was to tell General Patch to hang on and "keep Henderson Field out of operation at all costs." American intelligence also still believed that the Japanese had a fully operational carrier in the area, which they believed to be the Zuikaku-- which was anchored at Truk, her fuel tanks bone dry.
Nagumo wanted to tow the Zuihō back to Rabaul or Truk for repairs, but Yamamoto knew that there was not enough fuel for this and in any case he did not want to risk losing air cover should the Americans throw another carrier task force, or some land-based B-17s, against the Japanese. But Nagumo grew increasingly nervous as B-17s began to appear in increasing numbers trying to disrupt his operations.
On December 9, 1942, a flight of six Flying Fortresses passed Guadalcanal at 20,000 feet. Two Zeros on CAP intercepted them from below. Two bombers were damaged while one Zero was shot down and the other damaged. Nagumo ordered the cruiser Takao to tow the Zuihō so that it might evade the attackers' bombs. Nagumo also used the crippled Zuihō to launch two more Zeros, which shot one of the crippled B-17s. One other B-17s was damaged, but the two Zeros were damaged. None of the B-17s scored hits, and a second B-17 was downed by either anti-aircraft fire or Zeros as it turned around to go home.
By now Nagumo had realized that he needed Henderson Field to be operational, but B-17 raids had hindered repair operations. The Americans had tried artillery bombardment as well, but they did not have enough ammunition to sustain the barrage.
The Americans tried to sink the Zuihō again on December 13th. This time, the Zuihō was struck by two 500-pound bombs, which ripped open her flight deck and rendered her useless as an aircraft carrier. Two Zeros and one Val--the only planes that survived (because they were in the air when the B-17s attacked)--managed to land on the battered airstrip at Henderson Field, albeit in bad condition. It was some time before Japanese technicians could arrive from the Zuihō's burning hulk, and ammunition, spare parts and fuel also needed to be brought in by launch from a nearby supply ship. It was a tedious and slow process. The fires on the Zuihō, meanwhile, were actually strong enough that they sucked all the oxygen out of some of the central compartments, which meant that anyone on board who was not scorched by the flames could be asphyxiated. At 1710 hours, the slightly wounded captain ordered his men to abandon ship.
At about 1800 hours on the 13th, a secondary explosion from some 5-inch rounds ruptured the hull and set off even greater fires. The still-onboard captain stood aboard the flight deck at the bow and went down with his ship.
Yamamoto had to order for some fuel to be diverted from transport duties so that the Zuikaku--with an escort of one light cruiser and one destroyer-- could be sent from Truk to continue air support operations. She carried 36 Zekes, 18 Vals and 18 Kates.
Hyakutake led more offensives against the American troops. The American forces were repeatedly divided into pockets and enclaves. On December 12, General Alexander Patch was evacuated by submarine, quite against his will, and some other top officers received the same treatment. Soon American troops began surrendering in increasing numbers. It was not battle that was defeating them; they were slowly being emasculated by starvation and disease. On the 14th, Hyakutake led a powerful assault on the American troops which was very successful and even achieved a 3:2 kill/loss ratio.
Remaining American lines of defense with Japanese attacks on the 14th
By December 15, only a few hundred Americans remained on the island, huddled on the beaches. On December 18, a final all-out assault by Hyakutake led to annihilation of the Americans (but with heavy casualties for the Japanese). Harukichi Hyakutake was promoted to the rank of General.
The Americans had lost Guadalcanal. However, Japanese resources were exhausted, their logistics were overly stretched out, and the Americans maintained a very favorable casualty ratio through the very end of the fighting.
Now the Saratoga was close to being repaired, and the Ranger was steaming past French Polynesia. War vessels clogged Nouméa's harbor. B-17s repeatedly bombed Japanese installations on Guadalcanal.
"The Japs have herded us into a compound near Henderson Field. Sometimes they randomly shoot and stab at us. We haven't had food or water for two days. One poor kid who tried to smuggle some C-rations in his shoe was discovered and bayoneted to death."
-Journal of Corporal Allen Van Hoek, December 19, 1942.
The Japanese did not have a particularly good record for treatment of prisoners of war, and the captured Americans were no exception. Supplies were scarce and no Japanese soldier wanted to distribute food to the White Devils while he went hungry. Many Japanese took out their emotions on the POWs, and their officers had no qualms about this behavior.
On December 19, the Japanese invaded Tulagi, and the Americans capitulated within two days.
The USS Ranger reached Noumea on December 24, and the Saratoga had been fully repaired. Halsey decided to form a task force with himself in charge of the aircraft carriers and Vice Admiral Callaghan commanding the gunned warships. After a grim Christmas celebration, Vice Admiral Halsey departed with the aforementioned carriers, the battleships Washington and South Dakota (as Callaghan's flagship) the heavy cruisers Pensacola (as Halsey's flagship) and Minneapolis, the light cruiser Honolulu, and eight destroyers. A total of 147 aircraft were carried in the task force (besides seaplanes on the battleships and cruisers).
On December 26 at 0830 hours, Halsey ordered a strike to be launched of 16 F4F Wildcats (from both carriers) and 12 SBD Dauntlesses (from the Saratoga) to be launched with the mission of finding and destroying "any Japanese ships in the vicinity of Guadalcanal."
At about 1045 hours, Japanese units on Guadalcanal spotted the incoming wave. Nagumo quickly ordered the nine Zekes on CAP nearby to intercept the Americans. He then began moving his fleet to the northeast to try to dodge the attack, and launch more fighters at the same time.
Five of the Japanese fighters were shot down, in exchange for one Wildcat shot down and three Dauntlesses shot down.
Despite Nagumo's diversion, the American aircraft found the enemy ships and circled around for an attack. More Zekes intercepted them in ones and twos desperately trying to defend their carrier, and they were shot down with little loss. One, however, managed to get around the American fighter screen as the Wildcats were off chasing individual fighters, and downed one Dauntless and damaged another before it was damaged itself and broke off the attack.
At 1102 hours, the dive bombers started to make their runs. One was shot down by a lucky anti-aircraft gunner. Then seven 500-pound bombs in quick succession fell towards the Zuikaku.
Four missed completely. Two scored near misses that did minor damage, and one penetrated the deck near port amidships, dropped several levels, and exploded near the edge of the hull, opening a small leak.
As the strike was leaving, Nagumo received a report from a seaplane of the location of Halsey's force. He ordered a strike of his own to be launched. Twelve Zekes, one Kate (as a level bomber/command-and-control aircraft) and nine Vals were launched, but not long after they left, Halsey's second wave, consisting of 12 Wildcats from the Saratoga and 12 TBFs from the Ranger passed Guadalcanal. Six of the Zekes in the strike were diverted to intercept the attackers, as well as two more that were on CAP.
Four of the Japanese fighters were quickly shot down by well-coordinated defense by American fighter pilots. Those that managed to get through, however, destroyed two TBFs and one Wildcat. Two more were subsequently destroyed; the other two landed on Henderson Field.
Anti-aircraft fire battered the TBFs as they made their torpedo runs towards the Zuikaku, which was moving at 30 knots. One was shot down; one was damaged, dropped its torpedo towards the Natori, then crashed into that light cruiser's superstructure. The torpedo then struck the Natori amidships; she sank one hour later. The pilot was awarded a posthumus Navy Cross.
Of the remaining seven, only one scored two scored hits on the Zuikaku, and only one of those torpedoes actually detonated. Halsey ordered a third strike.
Nagumo's aircraft passed the third wave--six Avengers from the Saratoga and nine Wildcats from the Ranger--on their way to Halsey's ships, but they were barely within visible range.
Nagumo's strike force arrived at the American ships at 1315 hours, but were intercepted by six Wildcats on BARCAP. Three of the Wildcats were shot down in exchange for the loss of two Zekes and three Vals. The Japanese aircraft then made for the Ranger; three Vals were blown to pieces by anti-aircraft fire but one of the survivors scored a hit with a 250kg semi-armor piercing bomb which exploded three decks below topside, killing 58 men and starting a large fire. One other Val and the Kate command bomber scored near misses that did minor damage.
Then the next American wave passed Guadalcanal and were immediately jumped by three Zekes. Two of the Japanese fighters, and one American bomber, were shot down.
As Nagumo's second wave (six Zeros and nine Kates) was gaining altitude, Halsey's aircraft searched unsuccessfully for the Japanese carrier. Nagumo had turned north-northwest past the Florida Islands at full speed, while the Americans assumed that he had gone east. Unable to find their target, they turned around and headed for home.
American Wildcats on BARCAP shot down two of the Zekes and two of the Kates at no loss. The inexperienced Japanese pilots panicked and made random, uncoordinated torpedo runs. Four of the aircraft went for the Ranger head-on; one of the torpedoes struck her in the bow. Two of the bombers attacked the Washington; one Kate was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and the other one missed its target. The last bomber dropped its torpedo towards a destroyer and missed.
Halsey decided to send SBDs to find the Japanese ships, and send his TBFs to bomb Henderson Field and anything else the Japanese might have on Guadalcanal or Tulagi. Meanwhile, Nagumo prepared for another strike.
At 0635 hours on December 27, a Kawanishi H6K "Mavis" flying boat spotted Halsey's warships, about 200 miles west-northwest of Guadalcanal.
Nagumo ordered the Zuikaku to launch a full strike wave towards the enemy ships. His task force, currently 75 miles northeast of the island of Malaita, was hidden behind a light rain squall, so he did not worry about rushing the launch. Besides the Zuikaku, he had the heavy cruiser Takao (his flagship), the light cruiser Tenryū, and eight destroyers.
15 Zekes, 9 Vals, and 10 Kates took off from the Zuikaku towards the suspected current location of the American ships. They were all up in the air by 0750 hours. At 0830 hours, three more Zekes, two more Vals and four more Kates departed for the American ships. There remained merely a single fighter on board the Zuikaku.
At 0840, the Japanese aircraft encountered four Wildcats on CAP. Two fighters from each side were shot down in addition to one Japanese dive-bomber. The two remaining American aircraft dove away from the battle. Novice Japanese pilots followed them but the Americans escaped towards their carriers.
When the Japanese planes reached Halsey's force at 0849, they were attacked by ten more Wildcats. The ensuing dogfight claimed five of the Wildcats but nine Japanese fighters were shot down. Two Vals and three Kates also were shot down by the tubby Grumman fighters, and one Val and two Kates were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire as well. The surviving bombers all targeted the Ranger; she was hit by one 250kg armor-piercing bomb and one torpedo. While this caused her great damage and slowed her down significantly, she was still capable of launching aircraft.
At 0930, Nagumo's second wave reached the American carriers. This time they split up, with the dive bombers attacking the Ranger and the torpedo bombers going for the Saratoga. The two dive bombers and two fighters that were escorting them were immediately set upon by Wildcats; both bombers were shot down before they could drop their bombs, and one of the fighters was downed as well. Only one Wildcat was destroyed.
Meanwhile, the four Kates attacking the Ranger and their single fighter escort were intercepted by four Wildcats; they shot down all the bombers while the Zeke got away. None of the Kates managed to torpedo the Ranger.
At this point, Nagumo's aircraft force consisted of just eight fighters, six dive bombers, and five torpedo bombers. But now it was Halsey's turn.
28 F4Fs and 24 SBDs were launched starting at around 1000 hours. Halsey did not know where the Japanese ships were for sure, so he split up the attackers into two groups to find the carriers--one, towards the Solomon Sea, the other, north past Guadalcanal. He then launched 8 F4Fs and 12 TBFs at approximately 1100 hours to go in the same general direction before being vectored in by radio should Nagumo's ships be spotted. To extend range, the dive bombers were equipped with only one 250-pound bomb each.
At about 0055, the northern attack group, with 12 Wildcats and 12 Dauntlesses, encountered a light rain squall, which they would have simply bypassed, but the air leader, Commander Oswald W. Burke, had a hunch, and he ordered the strike force to go right under the storm. It was fortunate for them that they did, for that was how they discovered the Japanese task force.
At 0115, they were attacked by six Zekes that shot down seven Wildcats and one Dauntless before they were all destroyed. Low and slow, the American aircraft were at a disadvantage compared to the agile Japanese fighters. At 0120, the Dauntlesses dove towards the Zuikaku and released ten 250-pound bombs. Two of them struck home, igniting small fires.
Then the other SBD attack group as well as the torpedo bombers were ordered to change course and fly towards the Japanese fleet.
Nagumo ordered all of his aircraft to take off once the Americans had departed; he put his fighters on CAP and sent his bombers to Henderson Field (which by now had lost its few aircraft). He also had his ships move at maximum speed (11 knots, owing to the Zuikaku's battle damage) towards Rabaul. When the Avenger attack group arrived, they were set upon by two Zekes that were both shot down at no loss. Now Nagumo's forces were doomed. The Avengers divided into two groups; the first struck the Zuikaku with two torpedoes, which both detonated and wrecked her hull. She began to sink. The other group of Avengers then made for the Takao, and hit her with two more torpedoes; only one successfully exploded, but the damage was still significant.
The SBD pilots of the third attack wave divided to go after different targets; one planted a bomb square into the middle of the Zuikaku's deck as the final coup de grâce to the wounded carrier. The Takao was hit four times, but its 1" armored deck mitigated the damaged. By this point, Nagumo's force was in bad condition and had been split up multiple times. He ordered the sinking Zuikaku to be abandoned, and had his ships move towards Rabaul at full speed.
Crewmen salute as the flag is lowered on the Zuikaku.
Halsey then ordered another strike wave to launch towards the enemy ships, made up of eight Dauntlesses from the Ranger, and four Wildcats plus an Avenger from the Saratoga. They had little trouble finding Nagumo's ships. The lone Avenger tried to attack the Tenryū, but missed. The dive bombers attacked the Takao and hit her with three 500-pound bombs. The ship's magazines for her 8-inch guns were set off, and a powerful explosion ripped apart the forward portion of the ship. She quickly sank six thousand feet into the ocean abyss; with her were the remains of five hundred of her crew, including the late Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo.
The remaining Japanese ships (eight destroyers plus the Tenryū) managed to escape to Rabaul with only minor damage. Halsey sent the Ranger back to Nouméa for repairs, but kept the rest of his ships near Guadalcanal. The aircraft at Henderson Field tried to attack his force but were all shot down; Halsey then began bombarding everything Japanese on the island. The action would later be known as the Battle of Malaita.
Richmond K. Turner was ordered to start drafting plans for a second invasion attempt on the island.
Rear Admiral Robert Henry English was the commander of American submarines in the Pacific, but on January 21 he was killed in a plane crash. Rear Admiral Charles A. Lockwood was his replacement. Nimitz told Lockwood: "It is imperative that your submarines keep the Japanese from reinforcing or evacuating men from Guadalcanal... Starve the island and we shall have it." Unfortunately, on January 25 this resulted in the sinking of the "Hell Ship" Oryoku Maru and the death of 544 American POWs from the Guadalcanal campaign that were being held on board the ship.
On January 17, 1943, Douglas MacArthur sent a message to George Marshall:
"My forces in New Guinea have just cleared Sanananda of Japanese forces. [Australian General Thomas] Blamey wants offensives towards Salamua and Lae.... I support this proposal."
Blamey sent his own message to Marshall two days later:
"With the Buna-Gona campaign finished, we ought to put our next offensive against the Jap bases at Lae and Salamua. Naval support would be nice." The land offensive towards Salamua was scheduled for late March.
General Thomas Blamey, co-commander of Allied operations in the South-West Pacific theater
Nimitz chipped in that the Solomons were a more pressing matter. "To worry about capturing territories around New Guinea... while leaving the Solomons as a dagger pointed at our throat, could turn out to be a very grave mistake indeed." Marshall sided halfheartedly with Blamey and MacArthur, but--divided along the classic lines of service branches--Nimitz and Halsey were still adamant about getting the Solomons first.
MacArthur then told Nimitz that the capture of Lae could threaten New Britain, and if Rabaul fell, then all of the Solomons would be cut off, and they might even be bypassed. Marshall added a final persuading point: "The American press and public have heard plenty about Guadalcanal. Their sons and husbands have died there. They want to hear about something new." But Halsey soon countered that with Henderson Field in Japanese hands, and a second Japanese airstrip was being constructed at Munda on New Georgia, further up the Solomon island chain from Guadalcanal.
Halsey would not back down, as he wanted to get Rabaul in a simultaneous pincer movement from New Guinea and the Solomons, and Nimitz would not change his mind either. A naval invasion east of Lae, with possible airborne support, was delayed until October 1943 as Operation Fracture. In the meantime, the Saratoga and Ranger would step up the pressure on Rabaul and the Solomons, and a second naval invasion of Guadalcanal was to happen in May 1943, with a landing on New Georgia in July 1943, regardless of whether or not Guadalcanal had been secured.
Meanwhile, with their air power ruined and their oil reserves depleted, the Japanese were reluctant to support more operations in the area, and did not have the troops necessary to launching any sort of serious counter attack. However, they knew they had to defend Guadalcanal and Lae; as long as those two bases were in Japanese hands, Rabaul would be safe and the Allied advance would be stalled. While there were many troops on Guadalcanal, the Japanese position in New Guinea was less secure, and on February 16, six transports and seven destroyers departed from Rabaul towards Lae.
When the Japanese convoy of six transports departed Simpson Harbor in Rabaul on February 16, it was escorted by seven destroyers and carried 5,200 Japanese infantry. They were sent along the north coast of New Britain to evade attack from Allied aircraft and to hopefully deceive the Americans into thinking that the real objective was Madang, but code-breakers managed to intercept messages revealing the true nature of the Japanese operation.
On February 18, an American B-24 Liberator patrol bomber located the convoy, which was moving at about 8 knots.
On February 19, a PBY Catalina flying-boat caused minor damage to one transport, but was then shot down by a Japanese A6M3 fighter. Then a flight of eight B-17s managed to sink one transport and damage two others, while six more B-17s damaged two other transports the next day. Another B-17 was shot down by a Zeke.
On February 21 came the payoff. The weather at this point was fair, and nine RAAF Bristol Beaufort bombers from No.100 squadron took off from the airbase at Milne Bay. They located the convoy without much difficulty, and managed to torpedo two transports and a destroyer. After that, 10 B-17s arrived and scored hits and near misses on several of the transports. 13 Bristol Beaufighters from No.30 squadron then attacked the destroyers with guns, and B-25 Mitchells hit two transports and one destroyer. The last attack group consisted of Douglas A-20 Havocs, and they fatally hit the last transport, plus another destroyer.
Now all of the transports were alight or sinking, but that night a force of PT boats led by Lieutenant Commander Barry Atkins attacked the destroyers which were picking up survivors from the water. Two of the destroyers were sunk.
On February 22, the surviving destroyers were attacked again by American and British bombers. One more destroyer was sunk, and the other two were damaged.
Out of the 5,200 soldiers who left Rabaul, only 900 made it to Rabaul. Some were strafed in the water by Allied aircraft, an act which has been called a war crime. Nevertheless, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea of February 19-22 was over, and it gave a much-needed morale boost to the Allies. Six Japanese transports and four Japanese destroyers were sunk at virtually no loss. In addition, air battles fought along the convoy's route during the battle between Japanese fighters and Allied bombers and their escorts resulted in the loss of 21 Japanese and 8 Allied aircraft.
Badly Photoshopped Map
On April 2, 1943, Australian infantry attacked Japanese defensive positions near Mubo, 14 miles from Salamaua (which was on the northeastern coast of New Guinea). Two days later, more Australian forces moved to the south-west of Mubo near the Bobdubi Ridge. The forces greatly outnumbered the Japanese, but progress in the dense jungle terrain was slow.
Map of Allied thrusts towards Salamaua in early April 1943
For the Japanese defenders of Guadalcanal, April 27, 1943 began with a wave of 40 carrier bombers soaring over the eastern horizon, well defended by fighter escorts. They were not Japanese.
Barracks, gun positions, the radio station, and Henderson Field were pummeled. Fewer than a dozen Japanese fighters managed to engage the American aircraft, and for every USN plane that was destroyed, the Japanese fighters were downed in twos and threes. After releasing their death-dealing cargo over the island, the American aircraft returned to the carriers Saratoga and Ranger. More, smaller strikes were made throughout the day, including some attacks by B-17s and B-24s.
On April 28, naval gunfire joined the fray, as the Indiana, Washington, and North Carolina began shelling the island, along with their accompanying cruisers and destroyers. On that day, bombardment operations also began against Japanese forces on Tulagi, where a seaplane base was (yet again) under construction. No significant Japanese naval forces were present.
On April 29, the 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal. They encountered only some machine-gun fire and sparse mortar bombardment at first, but resistance quickly mounted, especially as the 1st Marine Regiment, commanded by Clifton B. Gates, moved towards Henderson Field. Expecting the Japanese to have been routed by the intense pre-invasion bombardment, the Marines encountered stiff resistance around Lunga Point and struggled to get off the invasion beaches. By nightfall, Henderson Field was in American hands, even though it was far too close to Japanese lines to make it safe to use and badly damaged as well. The Americans had also taken heavy casualties.
At the other invasion beaches, the Marines did much better. The 5th regiment (led by LeRoy P. Hunt), landing just to the east of the 1st, found only minor opposition in the form of snipers, light machine guns and the occasional mortar. The 7th regiment (under Herman H. Hanneken), which was the first to land (just east of Taivu Point), clashed with a ragtag force of Japanese heavy infantry of mixed quality that did a relatively poor job of defending their part of the island.
Map of landings with times
Also, the bombardment of Truk was postponed by ten days in order to make room for the landings on Guadalcanal.
On May 3, the Japanese launched a major counter-attack with their available troops against American ground forces aimed at dislodging the 1st Regiment from Henderson Field. It resulted in major defeat. Hyakutake suffered about 2,900 casualties and lost a dozen light tanks, and gained little ground; Henderson Field was still in American hands. Losses for the defending Americans were only 300 dead and 700 wounded. It would be known as the Second Battle of Lunga Point.
Meanwhile, Hanneken's 7th Regiment was pushing west to link up with the rest of the Marine forces on that island. On May 4 they launched a large assault along their two-mile-long western flank, and, amply supported by aircraft, successfully overcame Japanese defensive positions for the loss of 600 American casualties, but there were also 900 Japanese casualties. This would be known as the Battle of Taivu Point.
On May 6, the first units from the 11th Marine Regiment began to land in Guadalcanal to support the 1st Regiment. On May 7, nine Japanese G4M Betty twin-engined bombers and twelve A6M Zeke fighters attacked American troop installations where the 1st and 11th regiments were located, but they were intercepted by Wildcats. Three Japanese fighters, four Japanese bombers and three American fighters were shot down; only minor damage was done to American facilities on Guadalcanal.
Through the middle of May, the Japanese continued to attempt counterattacks on American forces. Prolonged assaults between May 7 and 12 succeeded in dislodging Marines from their more forward positions of the 1st and 11th Regiments at the cost of heavy casualties. Henderson Field was still not fully secure. However, the 5th and 7th Regiments were making rapid gains across the flat northern areas of the island. They linked up on May 31, surrounding an understrength Japanese battalion along the beach and in effect putting the nail in the coffin for the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal. Hyakutake was pressured into committing suicide.
Meanwhile, air raids on Lae and Rabaul continued, and Salamaua would be captured in August, the same month as the invasion of New Georgia would take place. By that time the operation on Guadalcanal would be handed over to General Patch and his Army forces, and all major resistance on the island would cease during September. Once again, American forces had gained the initiative, and this time, the Japanese would not take it back.
Last edited by KyleB; May 14th, 2011 at 01:48 AM..
The war would eventually end, but not without cost. Many innocent lives would be lost, such as that of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a young lieutenant, whose PT boat was destroyed and sank with all hands in night actions off Vella Lavella in 1943...
War is the tragedy of what might have been.