The turning point

It has been said that hindsight is always 20/20, so perhaps there is danger of reading too much into the photograph of Admiral Norman Scott, taken shortly before his death. But I see a sadness about his eyes, as if he anticipated his fate. Or perhaps it is simply exhaustion from the strain of fighting a seemingly unequal war for too many months.

In August of 1942, the Allies discovered that the Japanese were building an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia. Japanese bombers from this field would be ideally positioned to attack Allied convoys to Australia from the United States. The field could also provide forward air cover for a Japanese offensive against the Allied bases in the New Hebrides and Noumea. The loss of these bases would isolate Australia and upset the entire Pacific war strategy. Guadalcanal had to be attacked before the airfield became operational.

Historian William Generous has documented that, in spite of the decisive American victory at Midway in June, the morale of the U.S. Navy had still not fully recovered from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December. The Marine division assigned to the attack on Guadalcanal had been told that they would not be committed to battle for several more months and had not completed their training. The operation was going to be carried out in great haste and on a shoestring.


Scott commanded a cruiser task force that provided fire support for the landings, then took up a patrol on the eastern approaches to the landing beach. This was fortuitous for Scott and his men. They would be spared from the bloody debacle of the Battle of Savo Island, where a Japanese cruiser force surprised and annihilated the Allied cruiser patrols on the western approaches to Guadalcanal.

The Japanese had trained intensively for years for night actions. Though they trailed behind the Allies in radar, their lookouts were carefully selected for their night vision and were equipped with superb nighttime binoculars. Japanese cruisers and their accompanying destroyers were equipped with the deadly Long Lance torpedo, which ran on pure oxygen and had three times the range and twice the explosive power of American torpedoes. Most of the four Allied cruisers sunk that night were sunk by torpedoes, and a fifth was crippled by a torpedo hit.

The next morning, the commander of the American carrier task force supporting the landings from south of Guadalcanal pulled out, claiming that he had lost too many fighters the previous day to ensure the safety of his ships from Japanese torpedo bombers. (In fact, while there had been losses, he still had more fighters left than the American carriers had taken into the Battle of Midway.) Scott was ordered to escort the retreating transports, which had not been able to unload all of their supplies for the Marines ashore.

The next few months would prove decisive for the course of the Pacific War. By day, aircraft from Henderson Field (the captured airfield on Guadalcanal, which was quickly completed by the Americans) harried any Japanese ships in the vicinity. By night, the Japanese closed in with their superior surface forces to shell the airfield and chew up any Allied ships in the area. On the island itself, the Marines defended a small perimeter around the airfield from fanatical Japanese attacks. On two occasions, American carriers tangled with their Japanese counterparts offshore. The Hornet was lost and the Enterprise badly damaged in these encounters, and the Wasp was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine while escoring a convoy. The Japanese were having no easy time of it, either, but the Allied soldiers and sailors didn't know that.

Scott's task force gave the Pacific Fleet its first nighttime victory of the war, at the Battle of Cape Esperance. Forewarned by Allied intelligence, Scott was able to position his task force in the right place to ambush a Japanese force bringing supplies to the island. Scott's use of radar and disposition of his ships has been faulted by airmchair strategists since then, but the fact remains that he won this battle. Scott and his sailors were learning how to fight the Japanese.

The climax of the battle came in mid-November. Allied intelligence indicated that a large Japanese convoy was headed to Guadalcanal, preceeded by a powerful bombardment force that included two battleships. The nearest American battleships were hundreds of miles to the south, escorting a carrier force. The only ships on hand were the cruisers and destroyers of Scott's task force.

Shortly before the battle, Admiral Daniel Callaghan, who had been serving on the South Pacific headquarters staff, had joined Scott off Guadalcanal. Callaghan was a courageous officer, but he had no combat experience to speak of and he was less familiar with the use of radar than Scott. Unfortunately, he was also senior to Scott, and was therefore in command. He could have given tactical command of the task force to Scott, as was done frequently later in the war, but this option seems not to have occurred to him.

The Allied dispositions reflected Callaghan's lack of experience. He chose as flagship the San Francisco, which did not have the best radar. The Helena, which did, was placed well back in the column. Radio communications between ships seems not to have been good that night, though this would shortly no longer matter.

The Allied force spotted the Japanese first, on radar, but Callaghan was slow to react. Meanwhile, the Japanese spotted the Allied ships, and frantically rushed to unload the high explosive shells with which they intended to bombard Henderson Field, in favor of armor-piercing shells suitable for attacking cruisers. But there was not enough time. Callaghan's column plunged straight into the Japanese force, producing immediate confusion on both sides. What happened afterwards will probably never be sorted out by historians. Samuel Eliot Morison likened it to a bar room brawl with the lights out. At one point, the San Francisco mistakenly directed a deadly salvo against the Atlanta, which was then struck by a Japanese torpedo. Portland was also torpedoed, but managed to sink a Japanese destroyer and severely damage the upper works of one of the Japanese battleships before drifting helpless out of the battle, her rudder jammed. Juneau was torpedoed, and would be finished off by a Japanese submarine while attempting to escape to Noumea. Of the Allied ships in the battle, only Helena escaped more or less intact.

Meanwhile, the Japanese, confused and badly mauled, and probably already nervous about risking their irreplaceable battleships in such narrow waters, retreated without shelling Henderson Field. The next day, Allied aircraft from Henderson sank one of the battleships. The Japanese would return two nights later, but by then the American battleships had arrived, and a second savage night battle would cost the Japanese a second battleship. Perhaps more important, the average American sailor began to believe that the Allies could actually win. The Japanese had lost control of the nighttime waters around Guadalcanal. It was the true turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Attacking battleships with cruisers is not a healthy occupation. Neither Callaghan nor Scott survived the battle. They were killed by the rain of shells that hit the bridges of their respective flagships. Both were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Went the day well? We died and never knew.

Today is Veteran's Day, but Friday will be the 67th anniversary of the night cruiser action off Guadalcanal. We do well to honor our veterans, including those who never had to face combat, but served their nation in other ways. My father was a veteran who never saw combat, completing his radar training just as the Korean War drew to a close. My uncle was with the first company across the Remagen Bridge in Germany, but survived the war. Both were luckier than many others, through no fault or merit of their own. The same can be said for many other veterans.