Tuesday, November 12, 2019

November 14-15, 1942: Night of the Battleships

The U.S. battleship USS Washington (BB 56) firing upon the Japanese battleship Kirishima, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of November 14-15, 1942. The low elevation of the barrels shows how the close range of the adversaries, only 7,700 m (8,400 yards), point blank range for the 16 inch/45 caliber main armament of Washington. (Wikimedia commons)
By Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator

Late on the evening of November 14, 1942, two American battleships, USS Washington (BB 56) and USS South Dakota (BB 57), took on elements of the Imperial Japanese Navy (known as “The Tokyo Express”) in what has been referred to as The Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The battle would be the first time U.S. battleships fought against a Japanese battleship. Much like the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the second battle would take place at night in complete darkness. 

William "Bull" Halsey (National Archives)
It was indeed a gamble for Admiral William “Bull” Halsey to detach his only two battleships in the area from providing protection to the carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6), but Halsey had promised the Marines on Guadalcanal that he would give them all he had. So, the six-ship task force under the command of Rear Admiral Willis Lee made its way towards Savo Sound where so many of their fellow Sailors had fought and died during the first battle.
Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee, Jr., USN, Commander Battleship Division Six. Pencil sketch portrait by Commander Dwight Shepler, USNR, December 1942.  (U.S. Navy Art Collection/ National Archives)

What Lee’s task force lacked in number of ships was made up for in firepower. Both Washington and South Dakota had nine 16-inch main guns which were capable of firing a 2,700-pound armor piercing projectile at long range. This, factored in with a precise fire control system and surface search radar, made the two battleships quite formidable.
USS Washington (BB 56) off New York City, August 21, 1942. Note barge alongside amidships and OS2U floatplane afloat off her stern. (Bureau of Ships Collection/ National Archives and Records Administration 19-N-33803)
The American task force was spotted by Japanese destroyers (there were three destroyers and a light cruiser) which were screening for the Japanese advanced force at 2300 on November 14. The advanced force, which was under the command of Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, consisted of the battleship Kirishima (sister ship of the ill-fated Hiei), the heavy cruisers Takao and Atago; the light cruiser Nagara, and the destroyers Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Teruzuki, Samidare, Inazuma, and Asagumo. The objective of the advanced force was to bombard the Marines on Guadalcanal, while Rear Adm. Lee’s objective was to prevent that from happening.
The Japanese battleship Kirishima. (Kure Maritime Museum)
The evening’s silence was broken when Washington opened fire at 11:16 pm. The 16-inch salvo from the Washington was followed by a salvo from South Dakota. The first shots fired by the two American battleships at the Japanese had passed over their intended targets. Adjustments were quickly made in the gun houses onboard both ships, and 45 seconds later, the second salvo was fired. Officers on watch observing the surface search radar saw the image of the target flicker, which indicated that the 16-inch shells had indeed made an impact.
Chart of the second phase of the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 23:30-02:00, November 14-15, 1942. Key: A- U.S. warship force: Washington (solid black  line) South Dakota (large dotted line), and four destroyers (small dotted line is route of Gwin and Benham) B- Japanese destroyer Ayanami C- Japanese light cruiser Sendai and destroyers Uranami and Shikinami D- Japanese light cruiser Nagara and destroyers Shirayuki, Hastuyuki, Samidare, and Inazuma E- Japanese bombardment force: battleship Kirishima, heavy cruisers Atago and Takao, and destroyers Asagumo and Teruzuki 1- Location of sinking U.S. destroyers Preston and Walke 2- Location of sinking Japanese destroyer Ayanami 3- Location of sinking, Japanese battleship Kirishima. (Angelus/ Wikimedia Commons)
As the battle continued, Washington’s secondary five-inch batteries began to engage targets as well. The Japanese destroyer Ayanami, which was part of the sweeping unit, opened fire which revealed its position. This made it even easier for Washington to track her, and Ayanami received several hits from Washington which damaged Ayanami’s propulsion system as well as set the ship on fire. Ayanami would eventually sink.
Surrounded by an oily sheen, the beat-up battleship South Dakota after the battle and two destroyers alongside USS Prometheus (AR 3) for repairs, probably at Noumea, New Caledonia, in November 1942. The inboard destroyer, with the distorted bow, is probably USS Mahan (DD 364), which was damaged in a collision with South Dakota at the close of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 27, 1942.  South Dakota received damage in both that battle and in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 15, 1942. The other destroyer may be USS Lamson (DD 367). (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives, 80-G-36088)
Lee’s task force continued to track and fire on the Japanese ships when tragedy struck South Dakota. An electrical failure onboard the ship knocked out South Dakota’s radar, gyros, and the ability to fire her main guns. The ship became blind and incapable of being able to put fire on the enemy. The power was eventually restored to the systems, but by this time South Dakota was less than three nautical miles from the approaching Japanese ships. South Dakota was illuminated by search lights from the cruiser Atago, and the other Japanese ships along with Atago opened fire, scoring 27 hits.
Damage photograph of USS South Dakota showing shell hole in ship's side starboard, at frame 29-31. Taken after the naval battle off Guadalcanal, November 15,1942. (National Archives and Records Administration 19-N-42754)
While South Dakota kept the Japanese ships distracted, Washington was able to open fire on the Japanese ships and remain undetected. Firing a combination of five-inch shells, five-inch illumination rounds, and her 16-inch main batteries, Washington scored several hits on Kirishima at a distance of 8,400 yards. Due to the severe damage received from Washington, Kirishima eventually sank.
Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee is presented with the Navy Cross by Admiral William F. Halsey, during ceremonies on board a U.S. Navy warship in the South Pacific, circa January 1943. Rear Adm. Lee received the decoration in recognition of his achievements during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 14-15, 1942. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)
Rear Adm. Lee and his small task force had prevented the Japanese from resupplying their troops as well as bombarding the Marines. For his leadership during the battle, Lee received the Navy Cross. Halsey’s gamble of dividing what little forces he had left had paid off and the Marines were eventually able to secure Guadalcanal. For the people of the United States, defeating the Japanese in a major land battle was a much-needed boost for the morale on the homefront. For the United States Navy, the battles that took place during the campaign for Guadalcanal were a series of very bloody lessons in how to conduct naval warfare at night against a seasoned enemy.
Back in fighting shape, USS South Dakota off the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, August 20, 1943. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command)
This huge Japanese torpedo, Type 93 (long lance), fired from a submarine, failed to hit its mark during the Guadalcanal Campaign. It plunged harmlessly ashore on the beach of Guadalcanal. U.S. Navy photograph. (National Archives and Records Administration Lot-801-27 via Naval History and Heritage Command/ Flickr)
USS Washington (BB 56) and USS Enterprise (CV 6) Transiting the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic, early in October 1945. They were then en route to the U.S. East Coast to participate in Navy Day celebrations. (National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-6568)

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