9 August 1942
On 7th August, 1945, the U.S. 1st
Marine Division landed on the islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi and
either killed or drove the Japanese garrisons there into the jungle.
Some six hundred miles northwest, at the major Japanese base of Rabaul,
Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, the newly installed commander of the Eighth
Fleet, immediately pulled together every warship at his disposal and
The last moments of
He arrived off of the southern shore
of Savo Island in the small hours of the morning of August 9th. Ahead of
him were several groups of Allied warships, their crews exhausted from
days of continuous combat operations. Due to the three entrances to the
soon-to-be-infamous Ironbottom Sound, the Allied forces were compelled
to divide their strength into three patrolling squadrons: Southern,
Northern, and Eastern. The Allied vessels were not alert, and their
commanders were in some cases either asleep or away from the actual
scene of the action. Beyond the Allied warships lay a transport
anchorage off of Lunga Point whose merchant vessels were still packed
with equipment for the Marines ashore. The stage was set for the most
humiliating defeat ever inflicted upon the US Navy.
Mikawa's ships slipped unseen past the
destroyer pickets at the mouth of the Sound, and soon came upon the
southern group of Allied warships; two heavy cruisers (HMAS Canberra and
USS Chicago) and two US destroyers. True to standard Japanese tactics,
Mikawa's force first launched torpedoes and then followed up with
devastating salvos of 8- and 6-inch gunfire. Canberra was in a sinking
condition almost before she was aware that a battle had been joined.
Chicago fared slightly better (she wasn't sunk), but never properly got
into action, and (even worse) never alerted the Northern Force as to the
presence of Mikawa's squadron.
Fifteen minutes later, curving
northward around Savo Island's eastern shore, the Japanese came upon the
Northern Force, still steaming sedately along in a box patrol pattern.
Mikawa's forces had become divided in the earlier exchange, and by
chance enveloped the Allied Northern force from both sides. Taken
unawares, and caught in a devastating crossfire, Northern Force's three
heavy cruisers, Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria, were quickly gunned into
At this point, having slaughtered the
Allied escorts, the transport anchorage behind him lay open for Mikawa's
taking. But the Japanese admiral's position was not as rosy as he would
have wished. He had no idea that the US carriers (under Admiral
Fletcher) covering the invasion had been withdrawn from the general
vicinity. Attacking the transport anchorage would require his slowing,
reassembling his scattered squadron, coming about, finding the
anchorage, and then attacking it. It was now close to 2:00 AM. An attack
on the anchorage, according to one of Mikawa's staff officers, would
have added nearly two hours to the operation, placing Mikawa's force in
a dangerous position when dawn broke at around 0400.
Further, Mikawa had no idea as to what
Allied vessels still remained unfought in the Sound. Consequently,
shortly after 2:00 AM, he ordered a general retirement up The Slot.
Ironically, having survived the fray around Savo, Kako fell victim to
three torpedoes from the American submarine S-44 as a portion of the
Japanese force approached the safety of Kavieng the next day. Thus ended
the first instalment in a series of grim night battles around
Guadalcanal. It was a spectacular tactical victory for the Japanese, but
it was also shorn of the strategic advantage it might have achieved.