Battle Of Savo Island
USS Chicago (CA-29) off Guadalcanal the day after the Savo Island action, showing crewmen cutting away damaged plating to enable the ship to get underway. She had been torpedoed at her extreme bow during the night action of 9 August 1942. View looks forward along her port side, with Number 1 8-inch gun turret in the upper right. Note life rafts hung on the turret side and destroyers in the distance (80-G-34685).
Overview : Battle Of Savo Island
At dawn on 7 August 1942, the U.S. Navy landed Marines on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and a couple smaller islands at the southern end of the Solomon Islands chain. Shortly after midnight on 8–9 August, the Japanese counter-attack came. An eight-ship (five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a destroyer) Japanese force slipped undetected past two radar-equipped U.S. destroyers and attacked two groups of Allied heavy cruisers and destroyers guarding the western approaches to the U.S. invasion force, which was still hectically engaged in landing supplies to support the Marines ashore. When it was over, four allied heavy cruisers were sunk (USS Astoria [CA-34], USS Quincy [CA-39], USS Vincennes [CA-44), and HMAS Canberra [D-33], the heavy cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29) and a couple destroyers damaged, and 1,077 Allied Sailors killed in what CNO Admiral Ernest J. King would describe as the “blackest day of the war.” Pearl Harbor was one thing, but to have suffered such a severe one-sided loss by a force whose very purpose was to guard against such an attack was a severe psychological blow.
At Savo Island, the Japanese fired over 1,800 rounds of 8- and 6-inch ammunition with some 230 hits, along with multiple devastating hits by Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes. The surprised Allied force got off 471 rounds with ten hits. Japanese casualties were minimal. The Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, did not know that only one heavy cruiser and two light cruisers were the only major ships between him and dozens of U.S. supply ships and troop transports. But, fearful of being attacked by U.S. carrier aircraft at dawn (and not knowing that the three U.S. carriers supporting the landing were already steaming away from the area), and having received wildly inflated reports about how many U.S. ships had been destroyed in three major Japanese air attacks over the previous two days, Mikawa opted to withdraw back to Japanese bases over 500 miles to the northwest. Mikawa’s decision, roundly and somewhat unfairly criticized over the years, spared the vulnerable U.S. supply ships and troop transports. Nevertheless, with no air cover, and concerned over a follow-on night surface attack, the result was an ignominious withdrawal of U.S. Navy forces the next day from the immediate Guadalcanal area, effectively leaving the Marines ashore to fend for themselves, and leading to the oft-repeated statement that the U.S. Navy abandoned the Marines at Guadalcanal (although at that time the only Japanese remaining on the island were the remnants of construction units that had been building the airfield). The only bright spot of the entire action was that the old U.S. submarine S-44 torpedoed (using older Mark 10 torpedoes) one of Mikawa’s cruisers, the Kako, as she was returning to port, the first Japanese major combatant sunk by a U.S. submarine in the war.
Immediately upon being informed that U.S. forces were landing at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the southern Solomon Islands on the morning of 7 August 1942, Japanese navy commanders on various missions in the vicinity of the Bismarck Sea (at the northern end of the 500-mile-long Solomon Islands chain) aborted their planned tasks without awaiting orders and congregated at the major Japanese base at Rabaul in anticipation of going on the attack. Meanwhile, the Japanese army headquarters at Rabaul, focused on their overland campaign in New Guinea to capture Port Moresby, dismissed the landings as nothing to worry about.
Artist's depiction of the sinking of USS Quincy
Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, the new commander of the newly designated Japanese Eighth Fleet, quickly formed up all major elements of his force, which had not trained together before, and by mid-afternoon of 7 August was underway with eight ships, en route to attack the Allied invasion force. The force consisted of Mikawa’s flagship, the heavy cruiser Chokai, four heavy cruisers of Cruiser Division Six (Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa, and Furutaka) and two light cruisers of Cruiser Division Eighteen (Tenryu and Yubari), and the destroyer Yunagi. With the exception of Chokai, the cruisers were among the oldest in the Japanese navy. Mikawa was aware multiple U.S. carriers were supporting the landings, but nevertheless planned to conduct a night torpedo and gun attack on the Allied force on the night of 8–9 August. Mikawa had been at Midway, so he knew what he was up against. As he was departing, Mikawa duly transmitted his plan up the chain of command, where it was initially rejected by Chief of the Naval General Staff Admiral Osami Nagano as being too reckless, but Nagano eventually acquiesced on the recommendation of the commander of the Combined Fleet (Admiral Yamamoto.) Mikawa’s plan was intercepted by U.S. Navy radio intelligence, but not decoded until a couple weeks after the battle. (The Japanese had made some call-sign and code changes both before and after the Battle of Midway, which impeded U.S. code-breaking capability.)
Based on their intelligence, the Japanese were anticipating a U.S. operation in the southern Solomon Islands (where the Japanese had just commenced construction of an airfield on the north coast of Guadalcanal) and were aware that a large U.S. and Allied force was gathering in the southern Pacific, northeast of Australia. However, they did not anticipate it so soon. The exact timing, and scale, of Operation Watchtower caught the Japanese completely by surprise. The 80-plus ships of the U.S. invasion force, including three aircraft carriers (USS Saratoga [CV-3], USS Enterprise [CV-6], and USS Wasp [CV-7], met no initial opposition at dawn on 7 August. Japanese troops on Guadalcanal, mostly construction laborers, fled into the jungle, although a small garrison force of Japanese naval infantry across the sound on Tulagi and small neighboring islands put up intense resistance that took some time to root out. Nevertheless, Japanese naval aviation units at Rabaul mounted two major attacks on 7 August and a third on 8 August, which interrupted the landing of supplies on Guadalcanal as the U.S. ships, forewarned of the incoming Japanese airstrikes by the coast-watcher network (consisting mostly Australian and European expatriate plantation owners who had taken to the jungle with a radio on various islands along the Solomons chain), dispersed into defensive formations that proved highly effective. Although about half the U.S. Navy fighters that opposed the Japanese strikes were shot down (about 20,) the Japanese bombers suffered severe losses and inflicted minimal damage, although they claimed many U.S. ships sunk (the commander of the 5th Air Attack Force claimed two heavy cruisers, one cruiser, two destroyers, and nine transports sunk. The reality was serious damage to the destroyer USS Jarvis [DD-393] and the transport USS George F. Elliot [AP-13], which had to be scuttled.) Nevertheless, the constant threat of air and submarine attack kept the U.S. ships at Condition One for almost 48 hours straight, which in conjunction with the extremely hot and humid conditions left U.S. Navy crews exhausted by sundown on 8 August.
Operation Watchtower, the first U.S. offensive of World War II, was championed by CNO Admiral Ernest J. King as a means to take the initiative following the U.S. Navy victory at Midway. Although King supported the agreed Allied “Defeat Germany First” strategy, he believed that an increase in apportionment of resources to the Pacific over that currently planned was necessary, and going on the offensive in the Solomon Islands was a means to force that. King’s approach was opposed by General Douglas MacArthur (commander of the Southwest Pacific) and many other commanders on the grounds that it was premature and that U.S. forces in the region did not have the necessary numbers, capability, training, or logistics base to go on the offensive yet. Despite intense opposition, King prevailed in the newly created Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the operation was ordered to go forward despite clearly recognized resource challenges. To make a long story short, an area was carved out of MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Region and Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Region and designated the South Pacific Region (COMSOPAC) under the command of Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley. Ghormley ostensibly reported to Nimitz, but King exercised very direct, and frequently heavy-handed, direction throughout the Guadalcanal campaign.
The pre-invasion planning conference between the U.S. commanders leading the operation was one of the most bitter and acrimonious of the entire war. The naval amphibious force (CTF-62) would be commanded by Vice Admiral Richmond K. Turner and the supporting carrier force (CTF-61) by Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (who had been in command at Coral Sea and Midway). The two immediately clashed over Fletcher’s refusal to commit to keeping his carriers in the vicinity of Guadalcanal for any more than 48 hours out of concern that doing so would leave the carriers vulnerable to Japanese land-based air and submarine attack. Departing so soon, however, would leave Turner’s supply ships and transports without air cover before they could complete unloading, which could leave the Marines ashore, under the command of Major General Archibald Vandegrift, potentially vulnerable to Japanese counterattack. Turner literally accused Fletcher of cowardice, and Vandegrift tried to stay out of the frag pattern. The fact that Ghormley did not attend the conference (he sent a staff officer) and did not adjudicate the dispute has been heavily criticized by historians (and other commanders at the time). For his part, Vandegrift had serious concerns about the Navy’s ability to get adequate supplies ashore to sustain his force.
Fletcher’s position was not completely without merit. Japanese land-based torpedo bombers had already proven themselves to be extremely dangerous (sinking the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse in the first days of the war—although those ships did not have benefit of fighter air cover). Fletcher had already had two of his carrier flagships sunk from under him, and was acutely sensitive to losing more; he reasoned that the Marines could not be dislodged by Japanese bombers, but if he lost his carriers, the whole operation would be doomed. Given the long range that Japanese bombers would have to fly (over 600 miles) to reach his carriers (before the Japanese built intermediate airfields in the central Solomons), Fletcher was probably unduly cautious regarding the Japanese bomber threat. However, his concerns regarding submarines were well-founded. When the U.S. carriers returned for sustained support in September 1942, a Japanese submarine torpedoed Fletcher’s flagship, the carrier Saratoga (CV-3), putting her out of action for months (for the second time in the war) and another sank the Wasp (CV-7), leaving only two U.S. carriers in the Pacific (essentially parity with the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku).
U.S. Naval Intelligence had reasonably accurately determined the number of Japanese cruisers operating in the general vicinity of Rabaul, but was unable to detect Mikawa’s actual departure. As Mikawa’s force commenced its transit down the northern Solomons, it was sighted by the U.S. submarine S-38, a U.S. Army Air Force B-17, and two Australian Air Force Hudson bombers, all of which were subordinate to MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific region and none of which were aware a U.S. landing was going on in the southern Solomons. Here the seam between the Southwest Pacific Region and South Pacific Region had major impact due to convoluted communication-routing paths that resulted in contact reports originating in the northern Solomons taking over ten hours on average to reach Turner’s forces off Guadalcanal, when they reached them at all. Those that did get through had conflicting courses (Mikawa would change course whenever reconnaissance aircraft were sighted, to throw them off) as well as inaccurate reporting of ship types. The report that reached Turner around sunset on 8 August stated the force included two “seaplane tenders or patrol boats” an ambiguous (and contradictory) recognition of ship type, which was not viewed as an immediate threat. Turner had also requested that U.S. Navy PBY patrol planes fly reconnaissance missions on the 8th over the central Solomons, but due to weather conditions at launch, the missions were scrubbed. However, Turner’s force was not informed of the cancellation. The U.S. cruisers supporting the landing were not ordered to launch any of their own scout aircraft due to concern that the recovery of float planes would make the ships vulnerable to Japanese submarine attack (although there were no Japanese submarines in the area at the time, the U.S. did not know that). As a result, Mikawa’s force completed the vulnerable daylight portions of its transit without being accurately identified or its intentions assessed. Thus, as of sundown on 8 August, the U.S. cruisers supporting the landing were disposed to guard against a night surface attack, but none of the U.S. Navy commanders off Guadalcanal were expecting one.
U.S. destroyers Blue and Patterson evacuate the crew from the burning Canberra
On the night of 8–9 August, Turner divided his cruisers into three groups to protect the three approaches to the landing area. To the east, covering Sealark Channel (considered the least likely avenue of enemy approach), were the light cruisers San Juan (CL-54) and HMAS Hobart. To the west, Rear Admiral Victor A. C. Crutchley, RN, embarked on the Australian heavy cruiser Australia, divided his force to cover the two western approaches, bisected by Savo Island. Covering southeast of Savo island were the heavy cruisers, HMAS Australia, HMAS Canberra (D-33,) and USS Chicago (CA-29), and two U.S. destroyers, USS Patterson (DD-392) and USS Bagley (DD-386) (referred to as the “Southern Group”). Covering northeast of Savo Island were the heavy cruisers USS Vincennes (CA-44), USS Quincey (CA-39), and USS Astoria (CA-34), and two U.S. destroyers, USS Helm (DD-388) and USS Wilson (DD-408) (referred to as the “Northern Group”). Two SC radar–equipped U.S. destroyers were stationed west of Savo Island, the USS Ralph Talbot (DD-390) to the north and the USS Blue (DD-387) to the south, to provide radar warning of any approaching Japanese force.
Just before sunset, Turner called for a conference of his senior commanders on board his flagship, USS McCawley (APA-4), upon learning that Fletcher’s carriers were departing several hours earlier than planned, due to what Fletcher said was refueling concern as well as significant loss of fighter aircraft in the first two days of the operation. With the impending loss of air cover, Turner decided that U.S. ships would withdraw, beginning at dawn on 9 August, over the objection of Vandegrift, since many of the supplies had yet to be offloaded. (The art of “combat loading” and logistics-over-the-beach were still very much in a learning phase, resulting in a pile-up of supplies on the beach and a backlog of boats trying to reach it—a situation of significant chaos and confusion resulting in mutual recriminations among Navy and Marine Corps personnel). The landing of supplies continued throughout the night. Although Turner relented and decided to allow the supply ships and transports to remain for an additional day, the surface combatants would pull out the morning of 9 August. Like the pre-operation conference, this contentious meeting aboard Turner’s flagship impacted U.S. Navy and Marine relations for decades.
Rear Admiral Crutchley had steamed over to the meeting in his flagship, HMAS Australia, but after the meeting opted not to sail in the darkness through the poorly charted waters to resume station southeast of Savo Island. He neglected to tell anyone that he would not return that night. As a result, tactical command of the Southern Group fell to Captain Howard Bode, CO of Chicago, which was in trail behind HMAS Canberra. Bode had previously been CO of the battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37), but not aboard when she was sunk at Pearl Harbor. The Northern Group was under the command of the CO of the Vincennes, Captain Frederick Riefkhol. The cruisers had all gone to Condition Two after sunset, and of the five heavy cruiser skippers, Bode was the only one awake after midnight. However, Bode had also ordered Chicago’s surface search radar turned off out of concern it would give away her position.
Mikawa made the night part of his transit at 24 knots, intent on steaming to the south of Savo Island, attacking the U.S. ships off Guadalcanal, then those off Tulagi, and then exiting to the north of Savo Island to be 150 or so miles up the Solomons at daybreak. He had launched several of his cruiser float planes to scout the area. Although the flights aroused suspicion, darkness precluded positive identification, and at least one of the float planes brazenly showed its running lights and was therefore presumed “friendly” by some of the U.S. ships that spotted it. No one deduced that the presence of single-engine aircraft at night was an indicator of imminent attack.
As Mikawa’s force approached from west of Savo Island, Japanese lookouts sighted the pickets USS Blue at about 0044 and the USS Ralph Talbot shortly after. Mikawa slowed to minimize wake, guns trained to blast either ship at any sign of detection or alarm. However, neither ship detected the Japanese either by sight or by radar. The SC radars on the ships had an effective detection range of four to ten miles and, at the time, the two U.S. destroyers were 14 nautical miles apart on opening courses. The eight Japanese ships shot the gap unseen.
Shortly before 0130, Japanese lookouts sighted the Southern Group of U.S. cruisers, which were dimly backlit by a distant fire on one the U.S. transports off Guadalcanal, hit in an earlier air attack. In keeping with standard Japanese night-attack doctrine, Mikawa held gunfire until well after the Japanese launched torpedoes. Shortly before expected torpedo impact, Japanese float planes dropped flares backlighting the Southern Group, and Mikawa opened fire. U.S. lookouts had been hampered by lightning flashes from nearby rain squalls, but in response to what were Mikawa’s initial gun flashes, USS Patterson (CDR Frank Walker, commanding) issued a voice broadcast at 0145 via TBS (Talk-between Ships), “Warning, warning, strange ships entering harbor.” TBS had been clobbered with administrative traffic most of the night (not its intended purpose) and a few ships received the warning, ambiguous as it was, but many did not. Regardless, the Japanese torpedoes and shells were already on the way.
Although Canberra’s radar failed to detect the Japanese, her lookouts sighted the inbound torpedoes and she managed to avoid them. However she was then hit by almost 30 shells in two minutes, killing her CO, Captain Frank E. Getting, and other senior officers, and putting her effectively out of action for the remainder of the battle. Chicago was hit in the bow by a Japanese torpedo from Kako and hit amidships starboard by a second Japanese torpedo that failed to explode, as well as a shell that hit a leg of the forward tripod mast, killing two and wounding the XO.
Of some 44 starshells fired by Chicago, all but six failed. Captain Bode ordered his ship on a westerly course toward what he thought would be the main battle, but it took him in the opposite direction. Chicago’s main battery never fired, although she did hit the Japanese light cruiser Tenryu with a 5-inch round, killing 23. However, Bode neglected to radio a warning to anyone, for which he was censured as a result of the post-battle investigation. Bagley fired a spread of torpedoes, at least one of which possibly hit Canberra; none hit the Japanese. The skipper of Patterson also ordered a spread of torpedoes, but his own guns drowned out the order, and he only discovered later that the torpedoes had not been launched.
As the southern battle developed, the destroyer USS Jarvis (DD-393—Commander William W. Graham, Jr., commanding) blundered through the area. Hit by a torpedo while valiantly interposing herself between Vincennes and an inbound torpedo bomber in an earlier air attack, Jarvis had a 50-foot gash in her hull. Through a communications foul-up, she departed the Tulagi area in the middle of the night en route to Australia with no tug to support. The Japanese destroyer Yunagi, at the tail of the Japanese column, peeled off to go after Jarvis. What happened next is not known for sure, but Jarvis appears to have successfully defended herself and Yunagi broke off, now separated from the rest of the Japanese force. The next day, Jarvis was attacked by 31 Japanese bombers, who mistook her for a cruiser, and she was lost with all 233 hands.
The action with the Southern Group lasted only about ten minutes before Mikawa headed for the Northern Group. Lookouts and bridge watches on the U.S. cruisers saw the southern action, but assessed it incorrectly as shore bombardment, depth charges on submarines, or a friendly fire incident, everything except what it actually was. The radar operator onboard Astoria detected and reported the incoming Japanese force, but was overruled by the OOD, who insisted the contacts had to be interference from Savo Island itself. Debate raged on a couple ships whether to wake the captain, when finally the searchlight from Chokai ended the discussion.
The Japanese also fell into disarray after the battle with the Southern Group, and inadvertently split into two groups (three, counting Yunagi), which by chance caught the Northern Group in-between, taking the U.S. cruisers under fire from opposite directions, but also risking fratricide with their own ships. The U.S. ships began to return fire, but the Japanese had several salvos’ jump. As the U.S. began to find the range, the Japanese began to score hits. Onboard Astoria, the gunnery officer ordered commence firing before the captain reached the bridge. Upon arriving there, Captain William Greenman first ordered his ship to cease fire, concerned that he was engaged in a friendly fire accident before continuing incoming rounds convinced him otherwise. Captain Riefkohl on Vincennes also tried signaling the Japanese, thinking he had blundered into an accidental engagement with the Southern Group. On two of the U.S. cruisers (Quincy and Vincennes,) the watchbill was written in a way that the main battery could not be fired in Condition Two, since key personnel were in the wrong place, and the rapid setting of “Zebra” (then “Zed”) hampered getting to Condition One. Quincy, recently arrived from the Atlantic with no battle experience, went to General Quarters on receipt of Patterson’s initial warning, but took almost 12 minutes to get to Condition One, which was already too late. Nevertheless, the cruiser attempted to charge the Japanese line before a couple of torpedoes from Tenryu and a direct hit on the bridge that killed Captain Samuel N. Moore put an end to that.
The Japanese fire revealed a serious design deficiency in U.S. cruisers, namely having the aviation detachment amidships. In each case, initial Japanese rounds set the scout planes, aviation fuel, and other flammable material on fire, effectively cutting the ships in two halves that could not communicate with each other. With the U.S. cruisers lit up like funeral pyres from the blazing aviation sections, the Japanese gunners had an easy time finding the range. Astoria was hit at least 65 times (219 KIA,) Quincy was hit “many” times by gunfire and by two torpedoes (370 KIA,) and Vincennes was hit at least 85 times and by one or two torpedoes (322 KIA.)
A few early U.S. rounds found their mark before the deluge of Japanese shellfire put most U.S. guns out of action. The Japanese heavy cruiser Aoba took a hit in her torpedo bank, but, having already fired 13 of her 16 torpedoes, the effect was not the catastrophe it could have been. Quincy put a shell into Chokai’s chart room, missing Mikawa and his staff by a few feet (although losing his navigation capability was one of several reasons Mikawa would break off the attack). Chokai’s aviation section amidships also went up in flames as a result of this hit (Japanese cruisers had the same design flaw), but it was too late for any U.S. ships to take advantage of the situation.
In going after the Northern Group, Mikawa missed his chance to attack the U.S. transports and supply ships. Mikawa reasoned that by the time he regrouped his forces and commenced an attack on the transports it would be approaching dawn, and there would be no way he could get very far away before being attacked by U.S. carrier aircraft. He did not know that the U.S. carriers were already opening the distance to the east. Although Mikawa’s own scout aircraft had provided a reasonably accurate reporting of U.S. force disposition off Guadalcanal, Mikawa had also been deceived by the wildly inflated claims of loss and damage to the U.S. force resulting from the earlier air attacks. Mikawa had done exactly what his years’ of training and Japanese doctrine required him to do: Seek out and achieve a decisive victory against enemy combatants. The transports could be dealt with by air attack, and the Japanese army had assured him that the U.S. forces on Guadalcanal could be booted off whenever the army decided to get around to it. Nevertheless, Mikawa later would be heavily criticized, including by some who initially considered his plan foolhardy, for his failure to sink the U.S. transports.
As the Japanese force exited the area north of Savo Island, it encountered the destroyer Ralph Talbot, which took several hits before a fortuitous rain squall prevented her demise. Quincy and Vincennes went down shortly after the Japanese departed (0238 and 0250 respectively). Attempts to save Astoria continued until early afternoon of 9 August, when she finally sank. The heavily damaged Canberra appeared to be in no immediate danger of sinking, but Turner ordered that if she could not be removed from the battle area by 0630 she was to be scuttled (although Astoria received no such order for some reason). As Chicago returned from her futile foray to the west, she engaged in a brief exchange of friendly fire with Patterson, which was standing by Canberra, fortunately with no hits. When it came time to scuttle Canberra, four torpedoes and 263 rounds of 5-inch gunfire from USS Selfridge (DD-357) failed to do so. Finally, additional torpedoes from USS Ellet (DD-398) put the stubborn ship under. Canberra lost 84 of her 819-man crew. (The U.S. would subsequently name a new Baltimore-class heavy cruiser USS Canberra [CA-70] at the direction of President Roosevelt.) As the day went on, the Marines ashore would watch as the U.S. Navy headed over the horizon, leaving them behind.
As the Japanese cruisers returned to the port of Kavieng, New Ireland, the old U.S. submarine S-44 (Lieutenant Commander J. R. Moore, commanding) got off a salvo of torpedoes. Apparently using older Mark 10 torpedoes was a blessing, because unlike other U.S. submarines that were encountering repeated torpedo failures, three of the four torpedoes fired by S-44 hit the Japanese heavy cruiser Kako and actually detonated, sending her to the bottom with 34 of her crew. This was the first major Japanese combatant to be sunk by a U.S. submarine in the war. S-44 would be sunk off the Kurile Islands in September 1943 with all but two of her crew.
The disaster at Savo Island was a profound shock all the way up the chain of command to President Roosevelt, and a huge embarrassment to Navy leadership. With the loss of over 1,000 Sailors, it is considered the worst wartime defeat in U.S. naval history, since technically the U.S. was not formally at war for Pearl Harbor. CNO King directed that details of the battle be withheld from the public, casualty notification substantially delayed, and wartime censorship enabled him to do so. Many of the details remained wrapped in secrecy even many years after the war. The board of inquiry found lots of blame to go around, but no one in particular to pin it on. The only officer to receive formal censure was Captain Bode of Chicago, and he killed himself before it was officially delivered. Captain Riefkol, commander of Vincennes and the Northern Group of cruisers, was not censured, but never held command at sea again.
In his commentary to the inquiry, Admiral Turner ascribed the defeat to a “fatal lethargy of mind” and to over-confidence. The officers and men of the U.S. Navy were convinced of their superiority to the Japanese. Pearl Harbor was not considered a fair fight, and no one expected the outnumbered and mostly antiquated U.S. Asiatic Fleet to last for long. However, Midway seemed to have shown that even outnumbered, but absent Japanese perfidy, the U.S. Navy would triumph, and in any even fight U.S. victory would be inevitable. Savo Island proved otherwise and it was a bitter lesson for the U.S. Navy to swallow. An exhaustive post-war analysis of the battle by the U.S. Naval War College listed 26 enduring lessons-learned, most of which still resonate today and are worth a read.
Rear Admiral Mikawa would later express considerable respect for the bravery shown by the Northern Group of U.S. cruisers, believing that if the U.S. ships had had only a few more minutes’ warning, the outcome of the battle might have been very different. Mikawa’s admiration notwithstanding, the outcome probably would still have been bad for the U.S. Navy, and the previously mentioned Naval War College study concluded that “valor alone was insufficient.” For most of the interwar years, the U.S. approach to night combat was to avoid it. The Japanese approach to night combat was to seek it. In the series of vicious night battles that would follow, the U.S. Navy would pay dearly in the waters of Ironbottom Sound.
Although the 1950 U.S. Naval War College study of the Battle of Savo Island by Commodore Richard Bates and Commander Walker Innis formed the basis for this H-Gram, I also need to thank James Hornfischer for his superb research in Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (2011) and Ian Toll for his The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942–1944 (2015). John Prados’s work Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II (1995) is invaluable for intelligence aspects. And, of course, Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. V, The Struggle for Guadalcanal.
Below are the Naval War College lessons-learned (the actual lessons are somewhat meaty, these are just the titles from the index). Some of these may sound like, “duh!” today, but over 1,000 Sailors paid with their lives for the Navy to learn (or re-learn) them.
- Relation between strategy and tactics
- Importance of surprise
- Correct location of the commander of an expeditionary force
- Necessity for making every effort to accomplish the objective
- Importance of correctly reporting enemy damages
- Discussion concerning division of forces
- Capabilities versus intentions in planning
- Importance of setting conditions of readiness promptly
- Influence of technological advantages on naval operations
- Commander should have operational control over shore-based aircraft assigned
- Necessity for providing land and tender-based aircraft adequate in numbers and in training
- Fundamentals in planning
- Necessity for promptly broadcasting contact reports
- Officer-in-tactical command should be informed of the various changes in situations
- Advisability of providing battle plans
- Importance of advising command of changes in officer-in-tactical command
- Employment of commanding officer as group commander as well not recommended
- Gunnery effectiveness stems from gunnery training
- Necessity for improvement of professional judgement in command
- Functions of a carrier covering force
- Importance of damage control training
- Necessity for maintenance of reliable, rapid and secure communications
- Importance of correct identification and recognition
- Importance of mobile logistics support in the operating area
- Task organizations should be flexible
- Tactical voice radio discipline should be maintaine
Battle Of Savo Island Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox