The End of the Inferno

The U.S. Navy’s darkest nightmare, even worse than Pearl Harbor, was the sea campaign in and around Guadalcanal.

“Fantasma de Guerra,” Battle of Santa Cruz, Pacific, 26 October 1942. Artwork by Tom Lea. Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 89605-KN (Color)

Exceedingly well-told by the late (great) James D. Hornfischer in Neptune’s Inferno, while the land campaign, spearheaded by the “Old Breed” of the 1st Marines then closed out by the follow-on 2nd Marines and the Army/s 23rd and 25th Infantry divisions lasted six months and two days (from the first landings on 7 August 1942 to U.S. Army Major General Alexander Patch realizing on 9 February 1943 that the last intact Japanese force of Gen. Harukichi Hyakutake’s 17th Army withdrew two days prior), the Naval conflict was more compressed. It is generally bookended by seven deepwater sea battles conducted between the nights of 9 August to 30 November 1942– a span of just 113 days.

Seven tragic clashes in just 16 weeks:

  • Savo Island (9 August).
  • Eastern Solomons (24 August).
  • Cape Esperance (11 October).
  • Santa Cruz Islands (25/26 October).
  • 1st Guadalcanal/”Cruiser Night Action.”
  • 2nd Guadalcanal/Battle of Friday the 13th/Battleship Night Action (13 November).
  • Tassafaronga (30 November).

While three– Cape Esperance and 1st/2nd Guadalcanal– are narrow Allied victories, the other four went to the Japanese, often lopsidedly so.

Battle of Tassafaronga in Guadalcanal painting by Yoshio Shimizu, 1943, possibly showing the lost Japanese destroyer Takanami getting plastered by the American cruisers USS Minneapolis and New Orleans

As chronicled by Hornfischer, the balance sheet ended up almost balancing in terms of tonnage and warships with the U.S. and Japan each losing 24 ships apiece with a combined tonnage of 160,815 vs 155,330, respectively.

While the Americans/Australians lost six heavy (including HMAS Canberra) and two light cruisers, this compares to the Japanese leaving two battleships along with three heavy and one light cruiser behind. The U.S. lost 14 destroyers against 11 Japanese. When it comes to submarines, the Japanese lost six while American diesel boats suffered no losses in the campaign. Two American flattops (USS Hornet and Wasp) were sunk while the Japanese lost the smaller Ryujo.

Via Hornfischer. Not in Hornfischer’s calculations were 14 Japanese and 5 American auxiliaries nor three U.S. destroyers lost in the periphery nor at least six PT boats lost.

Of note, the last American warship lost during the campaign was MTBRon 3’s PT-37, destroyed by the Japanese destroyer Kawakaze, off Guadalcanal, Solomons, on 1 Feb. 1943, still fighting the Tokyo Express in the last week of the land battle.

Map of the location of World War II shipwrecks in Ironbottom Sound in the Solomon Islands. Some wreck positions are not exactly known. (Photo by Wikipedia user Vvulto)

In terms of aircraft, each side again was balanced, with both leaving over 600 airframes apiece on the bottom of the South Pacific or strewn across jungle impact sites.

The butcher’s bill amounted to over 31,000 Japanese and 7,100 Americans perished. To express how much the conflict was a Japanese land battle lost and a bloody U.S. Naval victory eventually won, of the American losses no less than 5,041 were U.S. Navy personnel KIA while the Empire suffered over 23,800 lost in ground combat or died of disease ashore.

Still Life Guadalcanal By Aaron Bohrod, 1943

As noted by ADM Halsey in 1947:

This battle was a decisive American victory by any standard. It was also the third great turning point of the war in the Pacific. Midway stopped the Japanese advance in the Central Pacific; Coral Sea stopped it in the Southwest Pacific; Guadalcanal stopped it in the South Pacific. Now, nearly five years later, I can face the alternative frankly. If our ships and planes had been routed in this battle, if we had lost it, our troops on Guadalcanal would have been trapped as were our troops on Bataan. We could not have reinforced them or relieved them. Archie Vandergrift would have been our “Skinny” Wainwright, and the infamous Death March would have been repeated. (We later captured a document which designated the spot where the Japanese commander had planned to accept Archie’s surrender.) Unobstructed, the enemy would have driven south, cut our supply lines to New Zealand and Australia, and enveloped them.

But we didn’t lose the battle. We won it. Moreover, we seized the offensive from they. Until then he had been advancing at his will. From then on he retreated at ours.

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