Cape Esperance

Digital relief map of Cape Esperance

Cape Esperance is the northwest point of Guadalcanal.  Important naval and land actions took place near here during the Guadalcanal campaign.

Battle of Cape Esperance

On 11 October 1942, Scott's Task Force 64 was covering a reinforcement convoy delivering 164 Regiment, Americal Division, to Guadalcanal. His force had taken up station near Rennell Island south of Guadalcanal. Scott had been drilling his force in night operations and  felt he was ready for a fight. He planned to head north at around noon and be off Savo Island by midnight, positioned to intercept any Japanese force. On 9 and 10 August, he had moved north but turned back when air reconnaissance showed there were no Japanese forces coming down "The Slot."

Mikawa had been attempting to land reinforcements every night, but on 8 October a strike from Henderson Field had prevented any forays until 9 October, when a group of five destroyers led by a light cruiser had succeeded in landing General Hyakutake and some troops at Tassafaronga. Mikawa requested that 11 Air Fleet neutralize Henderson Field, and on 11 October the airfield was attacked by a force of 35 bombers and 30 fighters. The raid did little damage, but the air battle prevented the Marines from performing any reconnaissance up "The Slot." However, coast watchers had reported a convoy assembling in the Shortlands, and patrolling B-17s from 11 Bombardment Group detected a cruiser-destroyer force racing down "The Slot." By 1600 Scott was racing north to intercept.

Mikawa was not expecting significant opposition. Because so many previous "Tokyo Express" runs had been conducted uneventfully, the Japanese had allowed themselves to become relaxed, and Mikawa had assigned Goto to lead the Bombardment Force, while the Reinforcement Group was led by Joshima. In some respects, the upcoming battle resembled Savo Island in reverse. Scott was fully alert and expecting an engagement, and he had prepared a battle plan for his captains.

At about 2130, Scott attempted to launch four Kingfisher float planes to scout the approaching enemy. Helena did not get the word, and jettisoned its float plane as a fire hazard. Signal flares in float plane from Salt Lake City accidentally caught fire and the burning aircraft was also jettisoned. One of the two float planes that did get into the air was forced down with engine trouble by 2330.

Japanese lookouts reported flickering lights ahead, which was probably the burning float plane from Salt Lake City, but their report was discounted, and the Japanese crews were not even at general quarters as they approached the target area. Goto thought the lights might be a signal from Reinforcement Group and tried to blinker a reply.

At 2250 the remaining American float plane reported a group of small ships near Cape Esperance. This was the Reinforcement Group. Scott thought these might be friendly and continued patrolling near Savo Island. At 2325 the SG radar on Helena reported a contact at 315 degrees and 27,700 yards. She did not report for fifteen minutes, and San Francisco, Scott's flagship, was equipped only with an SC radar. Scott knew the Japanese could detect its transmissions and had ordered it turned off. As a result, Scott had already ordered a countermarch to bring his line across the likely Japanese path when contact was finally reported to him.

The ambush was very nearly spoiled. The countermarch left Scott's destroyers scattered, and when Helena opened fire on its own initiative (and in accordance with Scott's battle plan) Scott ordered a cease fire, fearing his ships were firing on their own destroyers. Farenholt may in fact have taken hits from American shells. Duncan meanwhile had spotted the Japanese on its own radar and had charged off, assuming the other destroyers would do the same.

Helena hit its target, Aoba, almost at once and Salt Lake City and Boise quickly joined in. Farenholt, Laffey, and Duncan also opened fire. Duncan fired her guns at Furutaka and Hatsuyuki but could not find a torpedo target and was soon in serious trouble, with a shell hit in one of her firerooms. Scott's order to cease fire had arrived at this time, but many ship captains were reluctant to comply with a clear enemy in their sights.

Meanwhile Goto, caught completely by surprise and fearing he was being fired on by his own Reinforcement Group, ordered a hard right turn. Seconds later, he was mortally wounded by shell hits around the Aoba's bridge. This put his force out of command long enough to prevent the Japanese from conducting their usual torpedo attack. However, the maneuver he had ordered allowed the Japanese to escape the trap while the Americans were trying to sort out their own forces. By the time Scott ordered fire to resume, at 2351, the Japanese were already racing back up "The Slot," in some confusion, since two of their ships had turned hard left instead of hard right.

The Japanese now recovered enough to return gun fire, and Duncan was badly hit by both sides. Farenholt was also damaged by friendly fire. San Francisco caught Fubuki in her searchlights and practically the entire American force directed their fire against the Japanese destroyer, blowing her out of the water by 2353.

Scott attempted to pursue, but by midnight he felt compelled to order a second cease fire while he sorted out his force. As before, several captains were reluctant to comply. A minute later Boise spotted torpedo wakes and turned sharply to avoid the torpedoes. Her searchlights became the Japanese point of aim and she was hit by several shells. Salt Lake City deliberately crossed in front of Boise to distract the Japanese gunners, then engaged in an inconclusive duel with Kinugasa. Boise meanwhile was in serious trouble, one shell penetrating her forward turret and setting off powder in the magazines. Only the rapid inrush of water through her damaged hull extinguished the blaze in time to prevent the ship blowing up.

By 0028 Scott was forced to call off the pursuit. His ships were scattered from avoiding torpedoes and he feared further friendly fire incidents. Boise  was in bad shape but rejoined Scott's column. Farenholt was badly damaged and withdrew from the battle zone at 20 knots, while Duncan was fighting for her life. The fires were completely out of control by 0200 and she was abandoned to her fate.

The Japanese had lost heavy cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubuki, and heavy cruiser Aoba was severely damaged. Captain Kijima Kikunori, Goto's senior staff officer who had taken command after Goto was struck down, was promptly relieved, apparently as a surrogate for his commander.

Meanwhile Joshima had landed his reinforcements and supplies and was racing back up the Slot. Murakumo and Shirayuki returned to pick up survivors, only to see Murakumo sunk by American aircraft from Henderson Field. Natsugumo suffered the same fate later in the day.

Scott has been criticized for the disposition of his destroyers and for failing to make effective use of radar. The Americans drew the wrong lessons from the battle, and it would be some time before they dropped the tactic of employing a long column of cruisers with destroyers in line ahead and to the rear. Furthermore, the Japanese reinforcement group successfully landed its troops and supplies in spite of the ambush of its covering force. However, the battle was a clear American tactical victory and the first Allied surface victory against the Japanese.

U.S. order of battle

Task Force 64 (Scott)

CA San Francisco


CA Salt Lake City       

Slightly damaged by gunfire

CL Boise

Severely damaged by gunfire

CL Helena

DD Farenholt

Damaged by (probably friendly) gunfire

DD Buchanan

DD Laffey

DD Duncan

Sunk by gunfire

DD McCalla

Japanese order of battle

Bombardment Group (Goto)     
Killed in action
CA Aoba Damaged by gunfire

CA Kinugasa

CA Furutaka Sunk by gunfire

DD Hatsuyuki

DD Fubuki Sunk by gunfire
Reinforcement Group (Joshima)     
Carrying 728 troops, 2 field guns, 4 howitzers, 4 tractors, an AA gun, supplies, and six landing craft

CVS Chitose

CVS Nisshin

DD Akizuki

DD Asagumo

DD Natsugumo
Sunk by aircraft

DD Yamagumo

DD Murakumo       Sunk by aircraft

DD Shirayuki     


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