Amid rain, lightning, and dark, the British admiral and American general picked their way through choppy seas to the transport USS McCawley, off the coast of Guadalcanal. Maj. Gen. Archibald Vandegrift of the U.S. Marine Corps was exhausted. Britain’s Rear Admiral Victor Alexander Crutchley, commanding the Allied Screening Force, an Australian-American mix of six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eight destroyers, looked “ready to pass out.”
So did the senior officer on McCawley they were going to see, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, who commanded the American amphibious assault forces that were riding waves off the invaded islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi that evening.
There was good reason for all three men to be fatigued. In the three days since they had led the invasion, none had been able to sleep. Now the three officers were losing their carrier-based air cover, and the transports would have to pull out without fully unloading their supplies. This was a grave issue, but their crisis was about to become far worse—in minutes, they would be helpless spectators to the greatest defeat at sea in the history of the United States and Royal Australian Navies.
Operation Watchtower was the first Allied Pacific offensive of World War II. In early 1942, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King was determined to drive the Japanese north through the Solomon Islands chain and up that jungle road to Tokyo.
The task was given to Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley, and the plan called for an invasion of two islands in the Solomons, the capital at Tulagi and Guadalcanal, a larger island south of Tulagi. Between them sat Savo Island, a dead volcano.
The assault was assigned to the 1st Marine Division under Vandegrift. Turner would command the invasion force of transports. The assault’s air cover would come from Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s three carriers, and its close-in defense and gunnery support from Crutchley’s group. It was the first offensive mix of British, Australian, and American naval forces in battle.
Planned for September, the invasion was moved up to August 1 because the Japanese were building a runway for land-based planes on Guadalcanal. The base was a clear threat to American communications with Australia and New Zealand. Watchtower moved into high gear. Delays pushed the assault back to August 7.
Meanwhile, the invasion’s leaders met on Fletcher’s flagship, the carrier Saratoga, at Koro on July 26. There Fletcher outlined his plans. The carrier force would stay south of Guadalcanal. Turner would take the transports in with the cruisers and destroyers to protect him, under Crutchley. Fletcher then dropped his bombshell: he would withdraw his three carriers 48 hours after the invasion.
Turner was outraged. Withdrawing the air cover would jeopardize the operation. It would take longer than that to unload all the supplies. Vandegrift agreed. But Fletcher was firm. As fleet commander at the carrier battles of Coral Sea and Midway, two of his carriers had been sunk beneath his feet.
The whole force headed for Guadalcanal and Tulagi on July 31, and Crutchley finally had a chance to operate with his cruisers and destroyers. Some he knew already. The British-built County-class heavy cruisers HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra had worked with the American heavy cruiser USS Chicago for some months, directly under his command.
But the new cruisers assigned to him, USS Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria, had not. More importantly, despite long traditions of valor, professionalism, and ingenuity, the U.S. Navy did not actually have standard operating procedures for surface naval battles. Except for disastrous actions in the Java Sea under Dutch command in February 1942, the U.S. Navy had not fought a surface battle since 1898, and that against a decrepit Spanish Navy. U.S. Navy task group commanders were expected to determine their procedures on the spot, which could lead to difficulties with tactical communication and coordination.
But at least the force could count on solid leadership. Aged 48, Crutchley was a veteran sea dog with an immense red beard, holder of a Victoria Cross from World War I, and had fought surface actions in World War II.
As the Allied force steamed north, Crutchley worked out his tactical plans in his cabin on Australia. He was reluctant to put his complex and poorly coordinated force into a single unit, fearing it would come apart in the stress of battle. Later battles would prove him right—the Americans would try that tactic in four major naval engagements in the Solomons and take harsh losses.
Instead, he chose to divide his force. His own group, used to working together, would guard the southern approach to Guadalcanal up to Savo Island as the Southern Group, while the three American cruisers would patrol the area between Savo and Tulagi. The Northern Group would be headed by the senior American officer, Vincennes’ skipper Captain Frederick “Fearless Freddie” Riefkohl. Each group would have three heavy cruisers and two destroyers.
To the east, Crutchley posted his light cruisers, USS San Juan and HMAS Hobart, to guard against a flanking move. And finally, he intended to put two destroyers on outpost duty, USS Blue and USS Ralph Talbot, which would head out before sunset and patrol, Ralph Talbot northwest of Savo, Blue southwest of Savo, all night long. They had the best radar capability of all his destroyers, a range of seven to 10 miles.
Turner approved Crutchley’s plans, and on the night of Friday, August 7, the invasion force steamed from the west into what would soon be named Ironbottom Sound between Guadalcanal and Tulagi. At 6:50 am, the Marines stormed ashore.
There was no resistance on Guadalcanal. On Tulagi and its nearby islands, the Marines ran into determined defense, with Japanese troops radioing their headquarters in Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, for help.
The messages reached Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, who commanded the Japanese Eighth Fleet. He commanded the surface warship punch in the area from his flagship, the heavy cruiser Chokai, and the four warships of Cruiser Division Six assigned to him: Aoba, Kinugasa, Furutaka, and Kako. Backing them up were the two light cruisers Tenryu and Yubari, and a single destroyer, Yunagi.
Mikawa ordered seaplane tenders and supply ships loaded with reinforcements for Guadalcanal, fighters and bombers to fly 600 miles from Rabaul to Guadalcanal to attack the enemy ships, and his own scattered warships to assemble at Rabaul for a swift counterattack. He intended to hurl his five heavy and two light cruisers in one coiled fist, making a night attack on the enemy to destroy their fleet and transports.
The plan seemed foolhardy. The Americans had air superiority and plenty of reconnaissance planes to spot and track Mikawa’s force, so it would not have the advantage of surprise. It would have a limited amount of time to get into the Guadalcanal area by night and a limited amount of time to get back out. The American warships had radar to control their guns, a major advantage in night fighting.
But Mikawa and his men were unperturbed. The Imperial Japanese Navy trained hard for night battles. The Japanese may have lacked radar, but they trained the most skilled lookouts to serve by night. They could spot targets as far as four miles—8,000 meters—away, even on dark nights. Their searchlights were superior to the American equipment.
Most importantly, unlike their American opponents, Japanese heavy cruisers were armed with torpedoes, in as many as eight tubes, the greatest in the world. Japan’s oxygen-fueled Long Lance torpedo was 24 inches in diameter, had a speed of 50 knots, a range of nearly four miles, and exploded on impact with the power of its 1,210-pound warhead. By comparison, the Americans regarded the idea of arming their heavy cruisers with torpedoes as obsolete and did not do so.
At 4:30 pm on August 7, Mikawa led his task force to sea to fight the enemy in the best samurai tradition. Mikawa’s force steamed down the gaps between the Solomon Islands chain—a route that would later be called The Slot—without interference, spotted by passing Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers of General Douglas MacArthur’s command in Australia. The American planes reported “six unidentified ships sighted,” but no more—no position, course, or speed.
Meanwhile, Japanese bombers attacked the American ships, putting a bomb into the destroyer Mugford, resulting in minor damage and killing 22 men.
That afternoon, Mikawa told his staff that his plan was a run-in by night, followed by a torpedo attack. He would take his chances with being spotted by day during the race down on the 8th.
On the Allied side, Crutchley’s ships went to their positions, and everything was quiet, the ships steaming back and forth—the Southern Force in a straight line, the Northern Force in a box patrol.
The next morning, August 8, Mikawa launched his seaplanes to check out Guadalcanal, and more Japanese bombers headed for the island.
When the raid came in at noon, the bombers were greeted by a massive barrage. The Japanese hit the destroyer Jarvis and a bomber crashed into the transport George F. Elliott, setting off a fire that soon raged out of control. The transport was abandoned. The destroyer Hull tried to sink it with four torpedoes and that failed. The George F. Elliott lay abandoned and smoking all through the night.