By lex, on November 13th, 2010
In August of 1942, Allied amphibious forces landed in strength upon Guadalcanal, sweeping aside a small Japanese defense and seizing the airfield under construction there. With the possession of the island and its airfield, the Allies could defend the supply lines between the US, Australia and New Zealand. From August to November, the Imperial Japanese Army made serial attempts to reinforce their scattered troops on the island and re-take the runway, but the presence of the so-called “Cactus Air Force” on the island prevented them from using expansive, but cumbersome troop ships. Such forces as could be landed from the Tokyo Express of cruisers and destroyers came ashore piecemeal, lacking logistical and heavy weapon support. The Japanese forces fought bravely under difficult conditions, but were repulsed again and again, often with shocking losses.
With their expansionist momentum checked by this thorn in their side, the Japanese general staff sent a large naval force carrying 7,000 ground troops accompanied by two battleships whose mission was to bombard Henderson Field and permit a full scale reinforcement of their embattled countrymen on the island. On 13 November, 1942, that force met Task Force 67, whose ships included reinforcements for the island and two protective task groups commanded by Rear Admirals Dan Callaghan and Norman Scott.
Callaghan’s task group consisted of his flagship, the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco, along with another heavy cruiser, the Portland. Light cruisers Helena, Juneau and Atlanta accompanied him, along with eight destroyers: Cushing, Laffey, Sterett, O’Bannon, Aaron Ward, Barton, Monssen, and Fletcher. Opposing him was Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe, aboard the battleship Hiei. Completing Abe’s line of battle was Kirishima, another battleship, the light cruiser Nagara and 11 destroyers.
Mindful of the strategic importance of Guadalcanal, not to mention the Marines lodged on the beachhead, Callaghan threw his task group at the vastly more powerful IJN fleet at 0145 on the morning of 13 November. Forty-five minutes latter, the two forces separated and the threat to Henderson Field was temporarily blunted, but not before the loss of over 1400 US sailors, the two US admirals and almost the US entire surface force: Of the 13 ships that sailed into battle that night, only Helena and Fletcher were still combat capable, the rest having been sunk or disabled. The Japanese, on the other hand, lost between 500-800 killed in action; Hiei was crippled and would later be scuttled, but Kirishima and Nagara were only lightly damaged, as were four of their destroyer escorts. Four other IJN destroyers were more substantially damaged, but were still in action as the Japanese forces – shocked by the ferocity of the action and scattered to the winds – withdrew.
Callaghan’s self-sacrifice only brought temporary respite to the besieged forces aboard Guadalcanal. It was enough. With dawn, Marine attack pilots at Henderson joined the fight, along with heavy Army Air Corps bombers from Espiritu Santo and Navy attack aircraft from USS Enterprise, 200NM to the south. A second IJN attempt was blunted on the night of 14-15 November, and of the 7000 Japanese army reinforcements that had been sent to join the fight, only 2000 made it ashore, largely without their heavy weapons and food stores.
The bravery and sacrifice of Callaghan’s task group on 13 November 1942 – 68 years ago today – turned what was an objectively tactical defeat into a decisive strategic victory. The Tokyo Express continued to deliver troops ashore in dribs and drabs, but without logistical support and heavy weaponry. By early December the Japanese army was losing up to 50 men a day from all causes, including disease and malnutrition. In late December, the Imperial Japanese Headquarters decided to withdraw its remaining forces and form a new line of defense in New Georgia, losing the initiative in the South Pacific.
The Battle of Midway in June 1942 had turned away the Japanese threat to the Central Pacific, and now the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal had checked them in the south. The tide had turned, and as it has so often done in military history, it turned on the actions of a few, incredibly brave men fighting heroically against desperate odds.