Battle of Cape Esperance: A Sorely Needed U.S. Naval Victory Against Japan

February 7, 2021 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIPacific TheaterGuadalcanalU.S. NavyImperial Japan

Battle of Cape Esperance: A Sorely Needed U.S. Naval Victory Against Japan

U.S. cruisers and destroyers defeated a Japanese naval contingent off Cape Esperance during the Guadalcanal campaign.

Here's What You Need to Know: Luck, preparation, and technology had combined to give the Americans a much needed victory.

“One large, two small vessels, one six miles from Savo off northern beach, Guadalcanal. Will investigate closer.” This message, from Lieutenant John A. Thomas, pilot of the cruiser USS San Francisco’s Vought OS2U Kingfisher scout plane, could not have come at a better time. Aboard his flagship, Admiral Norman Scott received the news with relief—his Task Force 64.2 had been looking for the approaching Japanese force for the past several hours. Four Kingfishers were supposed to have been launched to find the enemy, but the cruiser Salt Lake City’s caught fire and crashed, and the cruiser Helena’s was not launched at all. Only the cruisers Boise and San Francisco managed to get their spotting planes into the air, and everyone aboard Admiral Scott’s task force waited for word from one of them. At 10:50 pm, on October 11, 1942, contact was finally made, and the Battle of Cape Esperance was about to begin. 

Maneuvers in the Dark

What San Francisco’s scout plane had found was the Japanese Reinforcement Group, which was made up of the seaplane carriers Chitose and Nisshin and their escorting destroyers. These had left the Shortland Islands at eight o’clock that morning. Commanded by Rear Admiral Takaji Joshima, the seaplane carriers were on their way to the embattled island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons, which had been contested by Japanese and American troops since U.S. Marines had landed there on August 7 and seized its vital airstrip. The Japanese ships carried two field guns, four howitzers, six landing craft, ammunition, medical supplies, and 728 troops. Guarding their flanks were the fast and nimble destroyers Akizuki, Asagumo, Natsugumo, Yamagumo, Murakumo, and Shirayuki.

Another Japanese force was also on its way, although Admiral Scott did not know it at the time. The Bombardment Group, made up of the heavy cruisers Aoba, Kinugasa, and Furutaka and destroyers Hatsuyuki and Fubuki, was heading for Guadalcanal at 30 knots under the command of Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto. Because of its speed, Admiral Goto’s fast cruisers and destroyers would reach Guadalcanal.

Admiral Scott’s ships had already formed up in a battle line. Three destroyers, Farenholt, Duncan, and Laffey, led the way. The cruisers San Francisco, Boise, Salt Lake City, and Helena made up the center of the formation, and bringing up the rear were the destroyers Buchanan and McCalla. Each ship was separated by 500 to 700 yards. Because the moon had already set, the night was totally black without any ambient light. To the young officers of the deck aboard the cruisers and destroyers, the resulting lack of visibility made the distance between ships seem much shorter.

At 11:32 pm, Admiral Scott ordered his column to turn 180 degrees to course 230. He wanted to cover the passage between Savo Island and Cape Esperance and to be in position to intercept the approaching enemy force.

Because of the blackness of the tropical night, the maneuver did not go exactly as planned. The three leading destroyers were thrown out of formation during the turn. They made the 180-degree adjustment, but they now held a parallel course with the rest of the column, on the same heading but not in line. This would lead to confusion during the coming battle.

Rehearsing for Nighttime Action

Rear Admiral Scott was a 53-year-old career naval officer who had also served in World War I. His ship had been torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1917. He had been stationed in Washington, D.C., during the months after Pearl Harbor but was given sea duty in June 1942. Scott had been at sea off Guadalcanal on August 9, during the Battle of Savo Island, but he had not been involved in the fighting. Because of the catastrophe suffered by the Allies at Savo, in which four cruisers were sunk by the Japanese, Scott saw to it that his gunners had training in night fighting—which is exactly what the Americans had lacked in the Guadalcanal campaign so far.

For three weeks, Admiral Scott drilled his task force in preparation for a night action. He kept his ships at battle stations from dusk until dawn, which simulated night battle conditions and allowed crews to acclimate themselves to a nighttime environment at sea. Scott planned to be fully prepared for the next encounter with the Japanese fleet, which he knew would not be long in coming.

Confusion on Both Sides

Helena first made radar contact with the enemy at 11:25 pm. The target was 27,000 yards away, bearing 315 degrees. Helena was equipped with the new SG radar, which allowed its operators to detect the enemy at a longer range than the older SC model and also allowed for more accurate tracking of the enemy. But San Francisco was equipped with the older SC radar and did not find Goto’s ships as readily. In fact, San Francisco’s radar did not detect any echo. The TBS (Talk Between Ships) shortly brought a message from Boise, which was also equipped with SG radar. Boise reported five bogeys at a bearing of 65 degrees. Again, Admiral Scott had to take another ship’s word for it; San Francisco’s radar was not detecting anything.

What Boise had picked up were the ships of Admiral Goto’s Bombardment Group, the heavy cruisers Aoba, Kinugasa, and Furutaka, and the destroyers Hatsuyuki and Fubuki. But her report only added to the confusion. In naval lingo, “bogeys” refers to unidentified aircraft, not enemy ships. And the bearing of 65 degrees did not specify whether this was a relative bearing or a true bearing. It was a vital difference: 65 degrees relative to Boise and the rest of the American formation would indicate that this was the same contact Helena had picked up. But 65 degrees true would mean that this was a different contact altogether. Admiral Scott, unable to draw any conclusions from San Francisco’s radar, did not know what to make of Boise’s contact.

In Scott’s mind, there was also the possibility that either Helena’s contact or Boise’s, or possibly both, might be the destroyers Duncan, Farenholt, and Laffey, which had become detached from the column during the 180-degree turn. Scott called to Captain Robert G. Tobin aboard Farenholt, “Are you taking station ahead?” Tobin answered, “Affirmative. Coming up on your starboard side.” Actually, only Farenholt and Laffey were on a parallel course with the main column. Duncan headed off on her own, charging straight toward Goto’s cruisers and destroyers.

It would have come as small consolation to Scott if he had known that Goto was just as confused. He had no radar at all and had to rely upon the eyesight of his lookouts. At 11:43, lookouts aboard Aoba detected the silhouettes of three ships almost dead ahead, about 11,000 yards away. Goto was not concerned. He made the assumption that the ships were part of Admiral Joshima’s Reinforcement Group.

“Roger”: The Battle of Cape Esperance Begins with Confusion

At this stage of the Guadalcanal campaign, this was a fair assumption. The Americans were not yet very adept when it came to fighting at night, as Admiral Goto was fully aware. After their resounding defeat at the Battle of Savo Island, which took place on the night of August 9, 1942, it was widely rumored that the Americans were afraid to come out after dark.

“The Americans ruled the waves from sunup to sundown,” naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison noted. “But when the tropical twilight performed its quick fadeout and the pall of night fell on Ironbottom Sound, Allied ships cleared out like frightened children from a graveyard.”

Goto had no reason to suspect that the ships ahead of his column were American. He reduced speed to 26 knots and ordered the day’s recognition signal to be flashed at the three silhouettes.

When the range had diminished to about 7,500 yards, the lookouts called out that the ships were enemy. Action stations were sounded aboard Aoba, but Goto was not convinced that the ships were American. He ordered the recognition signal to be flashed again.

Scott was just as confused. Even with radar, he still did not know whether Boise and Helena had made contact with enemy ships or with his own destroyers. Helena’s gunners had no doubts at all. When the range was down to 5,000 yards, lookouts reported, “Ships visible to the naked eye.” Helena’s captain, Gilbert C. Hoover, broadcast the signal, “Interrogatory Roger” to San Francisco via TBS.

Scott replied, “Roger!” meaning “Message received.” Captain Hoover thought it meant “Open fire,” or at least this is what he said. At 11:46, Helena’s main battery of six-inch guns and secondary five-inchers began shooting at Goto’s column. The Battle of Cape Esperance was officially underway. 

Scott was absolutely astonished. When Helena opened up, the other ships followed. The entire column seemed to erupt in explosions. As the warships began shooting all at once, the reports and muzzle flashes sometimes came simultaneously. The concussion from San Francisco’s gunfire literally took the admiral’s breath away and nearly deafened him.