The Worst Night in U.S. Navy history at 80
Known today as the Battle of Savo Island British RADM Victor Crutchley’s Task group 62.6 cruiser and destroyer covering force, subordinated under U.S. ADM Richmond K. Turner for the amphibious landings at Guadalcanal, seemed mighty on paper: three Australian and five American cruisers, 15 destroyers, and some minesweepers.
The thing is, most were huddled around the beach and those that weren’t were separated into a number of smaller groups including:
- Two tin cans on radar picket (USS Blue and USS Ralph Talbot)
- A Southern cruiser group with the heavy cruisers HMAS Canberra and USS Chicago along with the destroyers USS Bagley and USS Patterson; and…
- A Northern cruiser group with the heavy cruisers USS Vincennes, USS Quincy, and USS Astoria along with the destroyers USS Helm and USS Wilson.
Running a barricade to defend the landing beaches and ‘phibs, this immediate force of five Allied heavy cruisers and six destroyers– equipped with radar!– seemed a good match for Japanese VADM Gunichi Mikawa’s incoming striking group from Rabaul and Kavieng of five heavy cruisers (Chokai, Aoba, Furutaka, Kako, and Kinugasa) two light cruisers (Tenryu and Yubari) and the destroyer Yunagi.
However, ineffectively deployed into three separate and spread-out forces against Mikawa’s unified squadron, the Australian-American task group was sleepwalking with fatigued crews in the dark without properly using their radar (which was so new that tactics were still being developed for its use) and largely ignoring aerial spotting reports that should have warned the force while the Japanese, skilled in night fighting and armed with formidable Long Lance torpedos, took the Allies out with almost spooky ease, pounded to the seabed while fixed under the gaze of enemy searchlights.
In the short pre-dawn hour between 01:31 of 9 August 1942, when Mikawa ordered “Every ship attack” and 02:20 when he ordered them to retire, Vincennes, Quincy, Astoria, and Canberra were all mortally wounded while Chicago and two destroyers were very seriously damaged. Only two Japanese cruisers were damaged but could still make it back to base.
It was a mauling, an execution by large caliber shells at point blank range.
Canberra was hit at least 24 times. Astoria took 65 hits. Vincennes was struck an estimated 74 times. They were the first ships to be sunk in what today is named “Ironbottom Sound.”
The Allies suffered at least 1,077 killed and missing while the Japanese a mere 58.
Some 500 no doubt traumatized survivors of the lost American cruisers would be held under Marine guard at Treasure Island for weeks with orders not to talk about the defeat– something that only hit the papers back home nearly three months later. After all, nothing stays secret forever.
James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, covers this sad tale in great detail. See chapter “The Martyring of Task Group 62.6” in particular.
An interesting conversation on the battle from the Australian point of view– Canberra was the RAN’s largest warship loss in any conflict– the Naval Studies Group at the University of Canberra held a panel of Dr. Greg Gilbert, Vice Admiral Peter Jones, and Dr. Kathryn Spurling to discuss the engagement a few years ago.