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Savo Island

Digital relief map of Savo Island

Photograph of Savo Island from the air

National Archives #80-G-220760


Savo Island (159.813E 9.130S) is a small volcanic island nine miles (14 km) northwest of Guadalcanal that divides "The Slot" running down the Solomons chain into two channels. The first European explorers to visit the island reported an abundance of food and the presence of a 1700' (520 meter) volcano with a five mile (eight kilometer) wide crater at the center of the island. The last eruption of the volcano, which ended in 1850, was characterized by pyroclastic flows that virtually swept the island clean of life. The crater still had areas of boiling mud from residual heat in 1942.

USS Quincy illuminated by Japanese searchlights at the Battle of Savo Island

Naval Historical Center #50346

Following the American landings at Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 7 August 1942, the commander of 8 Fleet, Mikawa Gunichi, resolved to strongly contest the landings. He hastily gathered a force of six transports and troops from Rabaul to reinforce the Guadalcanal garrison and sent an urgent message to his scattered cruiser force to reassemble. The transport force was recalled when its lead ship, transport Meiyo Maru, was torpedoed at midnight on August 8 by S-38. However, the cruiser force steamed out of Rabaul late on 7 August for Guadalcanal, where it would hand the U.S. Navy the worst defeat in its history, off Savo Island.

The Japanese force was composed of five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a single destroyer.  Defending the Allied beachhead was a force of six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eight destroyers. However, the nominal Allied superiority in numbers was more than offset by superior Japanese night fighting tactics and training and the possession by the Japanese of the deadly Long Lance torpedo. Furthermore, the Allied force was caught by surprise, was scattered, and was effectively out of command when the Japanese force arrived.

The manner in which the Allies were caught by surprise illustrates the poor command arrangements and lack of experience of the Allied forces in the south and southwest Pacific. Mikawa's force was sighted almost as soon as it left port, by S-38, which was unable to attain attack position but radioed a contact report. The force was sighted a second time at 1026 on the morning of 8 August by an Australian Hudson patrol bomber, but the pilot mistook two of the ships for seaplane tenders and reported only three cruisers. (There was in fact a Japanese seaplane tender in the area, Akitsushima, headed more or less in the same direction as Mikawa's force.) Meanwhile, Mikawa's own floatplanes had carried out a thorough reconnaissance of the Allied forces off Tulagi.

The amphibious force commander, Turner, was expecting a Japanese reaction but had no intelligence on what form it might take. The Hudson that had sighted Mikawa's force was under MacArthur's Southwest Pacific headquarters, but Turner was under Ghormley's South Pacific headquarters. Turner's own Catalina patrol aircraft, operating from Ndeni, were covering the sea lanes to Truk, and the B-17s from Espiritu Santo assigned to cover the Slot were operating at their extreme range and just missed sighting Mikawa's force. The Hudson that sighted Mikawa did not break radio silence to make a report, and the pilot seemed in no hurry to report his sighting even after returning to base. As a result, Turner did not get the crucial sighting report until 1845 on 8 August. The misidentification of the force composition led Turner to believe that the Japanese force was planning to set up a seaplane base at Rekata Bay, and no special precautions against night surface attack were made.

Word of Mikawa's force reached Fletcher at the same time as Turner. Fletcher briefly considered launching an attack with the torpedo planes of VT-8 but was talked out of it by Saratoga's captain, who pointed out the hazards of attempting a night strike with crews lacking the necessary training. Fletcher no more expected the Japanese to press on that did Turner, and he was confident in any case that the Allied cruisers could take care of themselves in any surface action. Later that evening, Fletcher asked permission from Ghormley to withdraw his carrier task force, which was low on fuel and had suffered from worrisome attrition to its fighter squadrons. The myths that Fletcher withdrew before receiving Ghormley's permission, that he withdrew knowing a Japanese surface force was approaching Guadalcanal, or that his aircraft could have given warning had his carriers remained have been debunked by Lundstrom (2006).

Thus, Mikawa caught the Allies dispersed and unalerted. Turner had divided his cruisers and destroyers into three separate forces. The Northern Force covered the channel north of Savo Island; the Southern Force covered the channel south of Savo Island; and the Eastern Force covered the approaches to Tulagi from the east and did not join battle. Each of the two forces facing Mikawa was composed of just three cruisers and two destroyers, less than half the firepower of Mikawa's force, which invited defeat in detail. This is essentially what took place.

There were other mistakes, as well as some bad luck. Turner posted two destroyers equipped with SC radar west of the Northern and Southern Forces, but the radar would have been lucky to pick up a cruiser at ten miles under optimum conditions. The ships were at almost opposite ends of their patrol lines when the Japanese arrived, and the Japanese slipped neatly through the gap. The Japanese lookouts actually spotted one of the destroyers, which failed to detect the Japanese on radar. Reports of strange aircraft overhead (the Japanese cruiser floatplanes) were discounted as friendly aircraft. Finally, Turner called Crutchley, who was with the Southern Force, to meet with him off Tulagi to discuss what to do about the withdrawal of Fletcher's carriers. Crutchley chose to sail to the meeting in Australia, reducing the Southern Force to just two cruisers and two destroyers.

The result was that, when the Japanese came into the area, they achieved almost complete surprise. Patterson finally sighted the Japanese force when its lead ship had closed to just 5000 yards, but by then it was far too late; the Japanese had already launched salvos of Long Lance torpedoes, and at almost the moment Patterson broadcast her warning, the Japanese floatplanes illuminated the Allied force with flares. Canberra was hit by two torpedoes before she could train her turrets, and was finished with another 24 shell hits. Patterson was luckier, taking a single shell hit, but failing to get off her own torpedoes. Bagley got off her torpedoes but scored no hits. Chicago maneuvered sharply but was unable to avoid having her bow blown off by a torpedo. She also took a minor shell hit.

Mikawa then moved on to attack the Northern Force, which, incredibly, had received no warning from the Southern Force. Astoria got off a dozen salvoes, one shell hitting Chokai in the chart room and another on a turret, before the American ship was shattered by a rain of shells. Quincy was brightly illuminated by Japanese searchlights and got off only a couple of salvos before shell hits set fire to her floatplane, shattered a turret, and set off a 5" gun magazine. A torpedo hit flooded her machinery spaces, and she sank quickly. Vincennes managed to score a hit on Kinugasa, but, again, Japanese shells set fire to her floatplanes and the ship became a target for gunfire and torpedoes. Vincennes was hit by at least three torpedoes and numerous shells.

Now it was the Japanese turn for confusion and error. Mikawa had scored a tremendous tactical victory, but seems to have been rattled by the hits on his flagship. His force was scattered, all his torpedoes were expended, and his flagship had ended up at the rear of his cruiser column. He also knew that daylight was approaching and, believing that American carriers were still in the area, withdrew without attacking the transports. He likely did not wish to test his luck any further. It is also likely he believed that his mission had been accomplished, in that the destruction of their screen would force the Americans to evacuate their forces. He may have hoped that his rapid withdrawal following such a stinging blow would draw the American carriers after him into range of land-based aircraft.

As Mikawa withdrew, his force encountered Ralph Talbot as she turned to the west, and although the destroyer managed to get off four torpedoes, she was badly hit and forced to withdraw into a rain squall.

The Japanese had sunk four Allied cruisers and severely damaged a fifth cruiser and a destroyer. Over a thousand Allied sailors were killed and more than seven hundred others wounded. The Japanese suffered only light damage. The Americans drew slight consolation from the sinking of the Japanese cruiser Kako by an American submarine while returning to Kavieng. Though the Allied transports were left untouched, the loss of the cruiser cover forced Turner to pull out the transports after they had unloaded only about half their stores.  Turner made the gutsy decision to continue unloading until noon on 9 August, but the Marines on Guadalcanal were left with just four units of fire and 37 days' supply of food, and they lived for a time off captured Japanese rice.

Turner successfully deflected blame for the debacle towards Fletcher, whom Turner condemned for withdrawing the carriers at a crucial moment. The weight of evidence, however, is that it would have made no difference if Fletcher had stayed. Fletcher did not actually begin his withdrawal until the early hours of 9 August. Mikawa's force was still over 150 miles distant from Fletcher at sunset on 8 August, which put Mikawa beyond dusk search range even had Fletcher intuited a need for such a search. Communications were still fragmentary and Fletcher was not awakened to word of Allied cruiser losses off Savo until 0645 on 9 August, at which point he would have had little chance of launching even a retaliatory strike against Mikawa's retreating force. Fletcher's withdrawal did prompt Turner to summon Crutchley to the midnight conference that left the cruiser screen leaderless, but it is unclear why Crutchley needed to be called away from his command in this manner. Turner's skill at fixing blame elsewhere, together with his genuine courage in lingering to unload a few more crucial supplies on 9 August and his splendid combat record later in the war, were sufficient to let him escape serious criticism.

Japanese order of battle

Elements, 8 Fleet (Mikawa)     


CA Chokai
Lightly damaged

CA Aoba Slightly damaged

CA Kako


CA Kinugasa Very slightly damaged

CA Furutaka

CL Tenryu


CL Yubari


DD Yunagi

Allied order of battle

Support Force (Turner)


Southern Force (Crutchley)     



CA Australia
Absent on orders


CA Chicago
Heavily damaged


CA Canberra Sunk


DD Patterson
Moderately damaged


DD Bagley

Northern Force



CA Vincennes
Sunk


CA Astoria Sunk


CA Quincy Sunk


DD Helm


DD Wilson

Eastern Force (Scott)
Did not become involved in the battle


CLAA San Juan



CL Hobart



DD Monssen



DD Buchanan

Pickets



DD Blue


DD Ralph Talbot
Heavily damaged

Transport Force



DD Selfridge


DD Mugford


DD Henley


DD Hull


DD Dewey


DD Ellet


18 AP


References

Coombe (1991)

Dull (1978)

Lundstrom (2006)

Morison (1949)

Newcomb (1961)

Rottman (2002)

VolcanoWorld (accessed 2008-2-7)



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