Both sides needed reinforcements.For the Japanese and the Americans in October 1942, the battle for Guadalcanal was turning into a bottomless pit, demanding more and more scarce resources—in the air and at sea and, most importantly, on the ground. Control of the malarial, jungle-clad island and its airfield might determine the fate of the war in the Pacific.
The problem was that neither the Japanese nor the Americans had the resources. Both nations were trying to wage the South Pacific war on the cheap—the bulk of Japan’s ground forces were committed to the endless war in China, and the United States was committed to the “Germany First” policy, which made the war in Europe the first priority. Both sides lacked troops, transports, planes, and basic supplies.
Nevertheless, as the U.S. Marines and Japanese Army units on Guadalcanal became exhausted from heavy combat and rugged conditions, it was more imperative than ever to resupply and reinforce the troops—on both sides.
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As September turned to October, the Japanese moved first. The local commander, Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, using destroyer transports, ordered the delivery of 10,000 men of the tough 2nd Infantry Division to Guadalcanal’s Cape Esperance in eight nocturnal runs down the channel between the Solomon Islands chain, a route known to the Americans as The Slot, in a measure the Japanese called the Ant Transportation, but known to Americans then and forever as the Tokyo Express.
The Americans did not waste time in reacting. Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific, ordered his top sailors on the scene to take swift action.
The task fell to Rear Admiral Norman Scott, an aggressive sailor, Indiana native, and 1911 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was a champion fencer. He had been executive officer of the destroyer Jacob Jones when it was sunk by a German U-boat in 1917, naval aide to the president, commanded the heavy cruiser Pensacola, and had served in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations in 1941 where, according to Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, he “made things so miserable for everyone around him in Washington that he finally got what he wanted—sea duty, and his rear admiral’s stars.” He had been near but not present at the Savo Island debacle and learned from the disaster.
Scott’s task was twofold: ensure that the U.S. Army’s 164th Infantry Regiment and its 2,837 men, along with the ground crew of the 1st Marine Air Wing and assorted supplies, reached Guadalcanal safely to reinforce the Marines and attack the next convoy of Japanese reinforcements themselves. His orders: “Search for and destroy enemy ships and landing craft.”
On October 9, 1942, the 164th headed from New Caledonia for Guadalcanal in two battered transports, the McCawley (“Wacky Mac”) and the Zeilin, shepherded by eight destroyers. Scott’s Task Force 64 arrived south of Rennell Island the same day and readied for battle.
Task Force 64 consisted of two heavy cruisers, the San Francisco and Salt Lake City, two light cruisers, the Boise and Helena, and five destroyers, Farenholt, Buchanan, Laffey, Duncan, and McCalla.
They were a well-trained group in comparison to the force that had been annihilated in August at Savo Island. Under Scott’s leadership, Task Force 64 had done intensive night gunnery exercises, with men enduring general quarters from dusk to dawn. Scott had also laid down a carefully drawn battle plan. His ships would steam in column with destroyers ahead and astern. The tin cans would illuminate the Japanese targets with their searchlights, fire torpedoes at the largest enemy vessels, guns at the smaller ones, and the cruisers would open fire whenever they spotted an enemy ship. Cruiser floatplanes were to illuminate the battle area.
Despite the intense training and tight plans, Scott’s force had weaknesses. San Francisco had done poorly in gunnery exercises and had been used for convoy escorting duties, complete with a depth charge rack hammered on her stern. That was not too useful, as San Francisco lacked sonar. The depth charges were a potential fire hazard in battle. Boise also had a questionable history. She had missed a major battle in the Dutch East Indies when she ran aground.
More importantly, the two heavy cruisers operated the early SC (“Sugar Charlie”) radar, while the light cruisers sported the more effective and modern SG (“Sugar George”) radar among the first American ships to do so. Worse, Scott, like other admirals of the time, was not overly impressed with radar, preferring the tried and effective night optics of scopes and searchlights. As a result, Scott hoisted his flag on San Francisco, which offered flag quarters, as opposed to the smaller cruisers, which did not. He accepted reports that the Japanese had receivers that could detect SC radars in use. So he ordered them shut off during the approach to action and only used the SG radars and narrow beamed fire control radars to supplement his lookouts. Perhaps most critically, in night naval battles in the Pacific to date, the Japanese had sunk eight Allied cruisers and three destroyers without losing a single ship.