A glimpse into history
December 20, 2012
“Remember Marines who fought in Solomon Islands” was an “Other Voices” column in The Union that appeared Aug. 11. It was a paean to the Marines, eminently deserved.
One of history’s great calumnies that the Navy bugged out on the Marines at Guadalcanal is obliterated by recent history unearthed by deeper, more numerous participants’ interviews as well as declassification of sea battle action reports!
Nearly three times as many sailors paid the ultimate sacrifice: 5,041 to 1,592 Marines! The casualties, human and ships and aircraft, were so appalling that even New York Times correspondent Hansen Baldwin said he understood how this knowledge would immensely aid the enemy and submitted his dispatches without giving away the parlous circumstances. Crowds lining the San Francisco waterfront were appalled by the horrendous shell damage the USS San Francisco heavy cruiser had endured in just one of the seven sea battles of the Naval Campaign at Guadalcanal.
The Japanese Navy at that time was the best in the world. They kicked the British, Dutch and, yes, our Navy’s (behinds) in night gunnery and torpedo attacks. In four months of the Guadalcanal fighting, we tactically lost four of the seven night sea battles. In August through November of 1942, our Navy suffered 23 ships sunk and eighteen damaged to the 10 Japanese ships sunk and 16 damaged. At one point, USS Enterprise was the sole American carrier in the entire Pacific, and she put to sea with shipyard workers repairing her damaged forward aircraft elevator severely constricting flight operations. U.S. carriers Wasp and Hornet were sunk during these sea battles, volunteering their pilots, airplanes and mechanics to fight alongside the Marine airmen at war-torn Henderson Field on Guadalcanal Island. The Hornet and Enterprise had survived the pivotal battle of Midway just two months earlier.
“These relative strengths dictated the operational tempo of the battles: The Americans ruled the day and the Japanese ruled the night..”
Worse than these stark numbers was the disproportionate quality of our losses: two carriers sent to the bottom with six cruisers plus two battleships heavily damaged. Comparatively, the Japanese had one carrier and battleship sunk with another damaged, and only one cruiser sunk.
These relative strengths dictated the operational tempo of the battles: The Americans ruled the day and the Japanese ruled the night. Airplanes of that era could not fly at night. Our aircraft would savage their merchant and combatant ships, resupplying their troops and bringing reinforcements in daylight hours. The Japanese battled our ships at night to bombard Marines and Henderson Field while inefficiently delivering insufficient troops and critical supplies by destroyers. Though our Navy had some radar-equipped ships, it was fragile and sailors were inadequately trained on its use, nullifying it against the Japanese.
To aid desperate Marines being pounded nightly by the Tokyo Express battleships, cruisers and destroyers, Admiral Bull Halsey ordered Rear Admiral Callaghan to attack the Japanese with his five cruisers and nine destroyers the night of Nov. 13. The Japanese countered with two battleships, a cruiser and 11 destroyers. All our sailors knew it was a suicide mission, but they sailed! The American cruisers charged into the Japanese fleet whose battleships fired their 12- to 16-inch guns for five miles farther than the American cruisers could return fire with their 8-inch guns. Battleship shells weighing a ton each wreaked havoc on the cruisers firing their 300-pound shells.
Fifteen hundred sailors died that night, virtually equal to all the Marines killed in the entire Guadalcanal battle!
Admirals Callaghan and Scott posthumously received the Medal of Honor. Two of our five cruisers and four of our nine destroyers were sunk by Japanese shipboard gunnery and the infamous Long Tom torpedo. The USS Juneau, torpedoed by a lurking Japanese submarine, blew up in an enormous explosion, disappearing in a second, taking 600 of 700 crew to the bottom! The few survivors were mostly lost at sea, including one of the five Sullivans surviving the explosion. The Japanese battleships never shelled the Marines on Guadalcanal thereafter. This was a strategic victory as the preceding bombardments of Henderson Field had destroyed a third to half of all its aircraft with the occasional bombardments.
Marines and sailors at Guadalcanal stopped the Japanese offensive, saving Australia, which provided basing to start the long reversal of Japanese conquests.
Many more engrossing details of personal anecdotes and experiences at Guadalcanal as well as detailed descriptions of the seven sea battles as they unfolded are spellbindingly written in “Neptune’s Inferno” by James D. Hornfischer. Semper Fi; Semper Fortis.
Jim Griffin lives in Penn Valley.