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Tassafaronga


Photograph of cruisers Minneapolis with its bow blown off following the Battle of Tassafaronga

National Archives #80-G-211215

Tassafaronga Point (159.865E 9.370S) was used as a landing area for Japanese troops and supplies during the Guadalcanal campaign.

Battle of Tassafaronga

By late November 1942, the Japanese Army units on Guadalcanal were in desperate shape, with many of the troops starving for lack of supplies. The Americans had firm control of the waters around the island during the day, and, following the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 12-14 November 1942, the Japanese Navy no longer controlled the approaches at night. Increasingly desperate measures to get some supplies ashore were being employed. The latest method was to send in destroyers loaded with barrels of supplies at high speed. These were dropped overboard in the hopes that some could be pulled ashore by the Japanese land forces.

Meanwhile, fresh American units had rotated to the island and the local commander, Alexander Vandegrift, launched a major offensive to the west of Henderson Field to drive out the remaining Japanese. The American advance went well until 22 November, when it stalled at Point Cruz. The Americans would be held up at this position for 54 days in spite of the Japanese supply difficulties.

American strength in the South Pacific was growing daily. Saratoga had been repaired and became the core of a new task force, while Enterprise continued to soldier on in spite of its damaged forward elevator, jammed since she had taken bomb damage at the Battle of Santa Cruz. Three modern battleships and two old battleships were now in the theater and a pair of escort carriers were regularly ferrying aircraft to the rear bases at New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo.

By 24 November 1942 Allied intelligence became aware that Japanese shipping was massing in the upper and central Solomons, and by 27 November Kinkaid had prepared a plan to intercept any further Japanese landing operations with a cruiser-destroyer force. But on 28 November Kinkaid was ordered to turn command over to Carleton Wright and report to the Aleutians. Although Wright adopted Kinkaid's battle plan, he had little opportunity to become acquainted with his ships' captains, and his force had never exercised together.

The battle plan was sound on paper. Wright's force would operate as two cruiser and one destroyer force, each with at least one ship mounting SG surface search radar. Communications protocols had been tightened. The cruiser float planes were to be launched before the battle to eliminate their fire hazard and to drop illuminating flares on the enemy. The destroyers were to deliver a surprise torpedo attack, then withdraw, while the cruisers were to maintain a distance of at least 12,000 yards from the enemy to reduce their susceptibility to enemy torpedoes. The cruisers would not open fire until the destroyer torpedoes reached their targets, and searchlights were not to be used. These were similar to the night-fighting tactics that would prove effective in later battles.

On 29 November Wright met with his ships' captains to review the plan. It was the only opportunity he had to meet his captains before the battle, for a report came in that same evening that an enemy force of destroyers and transports was closing on Guadalcanal. Halsey's orders to intercept were delayed for several hours and Wright's force did not arrive off Guadalcanal until 2225 on November 30. As he steamed into the area, Wright ordered two destroyers from a departing convoy to join his force, and the somewhat bewildered destroyer commanders, who did not know the operational plan and had nothing better than SC radar, tagged along at the end of the column.

Tanaka, commanding the Japanese transport force, knew he had been sighted by a search plane, but for some reason its report did not reach Guadalcanal and no air strikes were mounted from Henderson Field during the day.

Wright's force detected Tanaka on radar at 2306 and silently closed with the unsuspecting Japanese. By 2316 Fletcher had enemy ships 7000 yards distant and asked permission to launch torpedoes. According to the plan, the destroyers should have maneuvered independently at this point to make their surprise attack. Instead, Wright hesitated until 2320, when the Japanese had already moved aft of the destroyers. As a result, the launch geometry had become highly unfavorable, and many destroyers did not launch all of their torpedoes. None of those launched scored a hit.

There followed another departure from the battle plan. The cruisers should have held fire until the destroyer torpedoes arrived. Instead, Wright opened fire almost as soon as he was informed that torpedoes were being launched. Even so, the Japanese might have been slaughtered but for poor gunnery that failed to find the deflection.

The Japanese reacted to the sight of torpedo wakes and gun flashes by instinct, employing the battle plan instilled by years of night-fighting training: Fire all torpedoes at the enemy gun flashes, reverse course, and do not fire back unless absolutely necessary, so as to deny the enemy an aiming point. Takanami turned right immediately after launching her torpedoes. But she was the Japanese ship closest to the Americans, who at this point in the war tended to gang up on the nearest radar pip. She returned fire, getting off 70 shells before being wrecked and left sinking.

Many of the other Japanese destroyers could not launch torpedoes until they dumped their supply barrels. In spite of this, the Japanese got off over 20 torpedoes before turning around and fleeing at high speed. Meanwhile, the American destroyers were moving off at high speed in accordance with plan. The two cruiser groups, however, steamed right into the path of the Japanese torpedoes. Minneapolis was hit by two torpedoes that flooded the bow compartments and a fire room. With sixty feet of bow nearly blown off and a 4-degree list, she managed to make it to Tulagi for temporary repairs but was out of the war for ten months. New Orleans was hit in the forward magazines and lost the entire forward part of the ship, including a turret. She also made it to Tulagi, was faced with coconut logs that protected her bulkheads well enough to reach Sydney and receive a jury bow, and sailed for Bremerton where a new bow was already completed and ready by the time she arrived. She returned to duty the next autumn. Pensacola took a hit that quickly flooded an engine room, ignited an intense fuel oil fire, and generally made a mess of the ship. She also made it to Tulagi, but her fires took twelve hours to extinguish, and she did rejoin the fleet until October 1943. Northampton was hit by two torpedoes that opened an engine room and started intense fires. Neither the fires nor progressive flooding could be brought under control, and Northampton was abandoned at 0115 and sank at 0304.

Tanaka meanwhile gathered his force and made another run to the east, dumping his remaining supply barrels, firing additional torpedoes without effect, and attempting to rescue survivors from Takanami. He then departed the area for good. Honolulu and the American destroyers were unscathed but came briefly under friendly fire from the nervous cripples. Tisdale, on Honolulu, then charged off after the enemy, directed by the cruiser float planes, which had been seriously delayed taking to the air (there was absolutely no wind to aid their takeoff) and now illuminated a derelict transport on the beach by mistake. The Japanese had gotten clean away, and Tisdale patrolled the area, picking up survivors, until dawn.

The Navy concluded that Kinkaid's battle plan was sound, though in light of later experience it became clear that the destroyers were still not operating with enough independence. Blame for the debacle fell on Wright and the destroyer commander, Cole, of whom Halsey was particularly critical. Nimitz concluded that much more training was required. Spruance believe that, since Wright was brand new to the command and was relying on another officer's plan, his acceptance of responsibility was an indication of "high military character" (Morison).

It is sometimes said that one learns more from defeat than victory. Tassafaronga dispelled the last of the false lessons drawn from the serendipitous victory at Cape Esperance, and in future actions the Americans would use increasingly effective night tactics emphasizing independent destroyer action and the use of radar to keep the Japanese beyond effective torpedo range of the cruisers.

U.S. order of battle

Task Force 67 (Wright)

 
Task Group 67.2 (Wright)     


 
CA Minneapolis
Severely damaged


CA New Orleans
Severely damaged


CA Pensacola
Severely damaged


CA Northampton
Sunk


CL Honolulu (Tisdale)


Task Group 67.4



DD Fletcher



DD Drayton



DD Maury



DD Perkins


DD Lamson


DD Lardner

Japanese order of battle

Destroyer Squadron 2 (Tanaka)     


Destroyer Patrol Unit


DD Naganami



DD Takanami
Sunk

1 Transport Unit



DD Makinami


DD Kuroshio



DD Oyashio


DD Kagero

2 Transport Unit



DD Kawakaze



DD Suzukaze


References

Morison (1949)



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