As I'm ending this month, I'm delving into history. I'm going to go back about 65 years, to remember a moment in time that holds special and painful memories even now, to a family from the town I consider my hometown in Iowa.
In November of 1942, a series of naval engagements took place in the distant Solomon Islands, on a waterway between islands that came to be known as "Iron Bottom Sound".
The reason for the nickname was simple enough to those who were there: thus it came to be known for the number of ships -- US and Japanese -- that came to call the bottom of the Sound their final resting place.
A series of three naval battles took place between November 13-15, 1942, forever after known as the Naval Battles of Guadalcanal. When the smoke had cleared in the wake of these engagements, the Japanese efforts to retake Guadalcanal from the Americans were doomed to failure, as were their hopes of turning the tide back in their favor in the wake of the disaster they suffered during the Battle of Midway, several months prior.
But the first engagement of that trio came at a high cost: six US ships and over 1,400 men were lost. Initially, it was viewed as a disastrous tactical defeat for the US.
A Japanese task force of two battleships (Hiei, Kirishima
), one light cruiser (Nagara
) and eleven destroyers, were sent to utterly destroy the small Marine airstrip on Guadalcanal -- Henderson Field. Loaded with special high-explosive bombardment shells for the purpose, the 14" gunned battleships were intended to thoroughly devastate the field and what American aircraft were based there, preparing the way for another naval task force to bring heavy troop reinforcements to the island. After recent combat and US naval losses in the area, the Japanese anticipated little to no opposition from US surface forces.
Meantime -- and while US support and transport vessels were evacuating the area -- an American naval task force of two heavy cruisers (San Francisco, Portland
), three light cruisers (Helena, Atlanta, Juneau
), and eight destroyers, set forth to intercept and destroy what they believed to be a Japanese task force of destroyers with light cruiser escort, bringing Japanese troop reinforcements to the island. Commanding the American force was Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan (pictured at the top), along with Rear Admiral Norman Scott (aboard the Atlanta,
pictured at the top).
At approximately 0125 on the morning of November 13, 1942, the two forces made initial contact. For the Japanese task force commander, Admiral Abe, this unexpected contact was a dilemma: withdraw and replace the bombardment shells for his 14" guns with armor piercing, or continue on? After some moments of delay, he opted for the latter.
As for the American task force, Admiral Callaghan's deployment of his ships prevented his making the best use of the newer surface radar sets on some of his destroyers; and the ships that first detected the oncoming Japanese force both failed to properly notify Callaghan of the contact and to appreciate the size and firepower of the force they were sailing into.
Until, at 0148, when searchlights from the Hiei
illuminated the bridge and upperworks of the USS Atlanta.
At this point, the two task forces were the naval equivalent of eye-ball to eye-ball, at 3,000 yards or less.
And in that instant, it became a close-quarters, no-holds-barred melee.
In the confusion of the opening moments, an avalanche of shells -- Japanese and American -- descended upon the Atlanta,
killing Admiral Scott and his staff, and mortally wounding the cruiser.
With the brawl suddenly begun, Admiral Callaghan signalled all ships "Odd ships fire to starboard, even ships to port!". Moments later came a second signal from Admiral Callaghan, who by now realized what he was up against: "Fire on the big boys! We want the big boys!".
At one point in the point-blank melee, the 2,000 ton destroyer USS Laffey
came within a mere 50 yards of a leviathan, the 32,000 ton battleship Hiei
; too close for the Hiei
to deploy her main battery, the Laffey
sailed by at spitting range, firing everything she had into the Hiei.
Shortly thereafter, the Laffey
succumbed to fire from several Japanese destroyers, also at point-blank range.
Once more came searchlights from Japanese ships that illuminated the bridge of the USS San Francisco:
in the hurricane of shells that followed, Admiral Callaghan, his staff, and the ship's captain, Cassin Young, were killed, and the San Francisco
turned away, grievously wounded.
After 40 minutes of what one naval officer called "the naval equivalent of a bar room brawl with the lights out", the badly cut-up American task force retired: the Atlanta
was sinking; the San Francisco, Portland
were heavily damaged; the destroyers Cushing, Laffey, Barton
were sunk or sinking. The Juneau
would shortly afterward be sunk, victim of a wandering Japanese submarine, that led to the loss of all five of the Sullivan Brothers from Waterloo, Iowa.
On the Japanese side, two destroyers were shot up, one sinking; and the battleship Hiei
had been pummelled at point-blank range by everything the American ships had to throw, crippling her. Yet, little remained to stop the balance of the Japanese force from carrying out its mission to wipe out Henderson Field.
Except for a decision by the wounded Admiral Abe, who controversially elected to withdraw, rather than press his advantage.
And with that decision, a tactical Japanese victory became a strategic Japanese defeat: in the next few days, planes from the spared Henderson Field would finish off the Hiei,
and wreak havoc on a second Japanese task force bearing reinforcements for their beleaguered troops on Guadalcanal.
On the morning of November 15, the Naval Battles of Guadalcanal would be concluded by a clash of titans: the Japanese battleship Kirishima
versus the battleship USS Washington
(also present was the battleship USS South Dakota;
but she would suffer an untimely power failure early in the fight, leaving the Washington
to slug it out with the Kirishima).
When the smoke cleared, the Kirishima
joined the Hiei
in the naval hereafter.
But for the unexpected encounter two nights prior, it might not have wound up thus.
Nowadays, such a battle and initial result would have had a flock of ever-ready critics howling for investigations, a cut-and-run strategy, and all sorts of damnations of the military and civilian administration that sustained them.
But 65 years ago, a different view came to the fore.
Rear Admirals Daniel J. Callaghan and Norman Scott were posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. And the Sullivan Brothers were honored, in time, with two different ships dedicated in their name: one sponsored by their mother and father, Thomas and Alleta Sullivan; the other by the granddaughter of Albert Leo Sullivan, Kelly Sullivan Loughren.
65 years later, memories and honor live on.
Labels: Admiral Daniel Callaghan, Admiral Norman Scott, history, Iron Bottom Sound, Naval Battles of Guadalcanal, The Fighting Sullivan Brothers