Investigation into the events that took place on the night of Friday the 13th of November, 1942, in Lunga Bay revealed a much different story than the one told by my uncle Everett and his crew mates. They of course had no idea what was taking place on the bridge of the USS San Francisco, and in the confusion of darkness and battle they couldn’t have had a clear picture of what was happening between the many ships involved. The complete story may never be told. The battle was later described as “A barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out,” but the following is the best description I could find of the battle, from Richard Frank’s book, Guadalcanal.
On Thursday, the day before the battle, the USS San Francisco steamed into Lunga Bay, escorting a convoy of transports carrying troops and supplies for the little marine base on Guadalcanal. My uncle, Everett Gunning, must have been a little anxious that day. The week before, the San Francisco had been chosen by Admiral Callaghan as his flagship, and Everett must have known they were expecting some action. There were many more warships in the harbor than was usual for a convoy escort.
Everett didn’t mention it in his accounts of the battle, but Japanese bombers attacked the convoy that afternoon. The task force commander, Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, was warned of the attack beforehand, so he was ready, as was a fighter squadron from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. There were no direct hits on American ships during the attack due to some clever maneuvering by the Admiral, but the USS San Francisco sustained damage when a Japanese bomber, shot down by one of the other ships, crashed on the deck, taking out one of the gun batteries. Twenty-three men were killed, and forty-five injured. Everett had been on the deck manning another gun battery at the time. He knew many of the men. He could easily have been one of those killed.
After the transports were unloaded they left the harbor, but the San Francisco and the other cruisers and destroyers remained. Something bigger was coming.
That something was the beginning of Admiral Yamamoto’s final push to take Guadalcanal. His plan was to bring in a large naval force during the night of November 12 – 13 to destroy Henderson Field with big bombs from his battleships. The bombing was to be followed by convoys of supplies and troops for the final push, supported by an aerial attack from his carriers.
As in the previous battles of Coral Sea and Midway, it was superior intelligence that saved the US from disaster. American cryptanalysts managed to crack a new Japanese code just in time to alert Admiral Halsey, commander of the South Pacific fleet, about plans for the Guadalcanal attack on November 8, leaving him five days to prepare.
Even with advanced warning, Admiral Turner, responsible for defending Guadalcanal, didn’t have much to work with. He had no carriers to oppose Japan’s five, and his only two battleships were too far away to make it in time for the battle. He only had an assortment of cruisers and destroyers, none of which had guns big enough to pierce the armor of the Japanese battleships sent to bomb Henderson Field. To improve his odds, he sent his transports away unguarded, raising his tally of ships to 13, five cruisers and eight destroyers, but then he made what some consider a disastrous mistake. He retreated with his reserve forces, leaving in command Admiral Daniel Callaghan, an officer with no field experience, chosen over Admiral Norman Scott, the hero of the Battle of Cape Esperance, because of seniority. (see post of Jan. 30, 2016)
In preparing to meet the Japanese, Admiral Callaghan then proceeded to make two major mistakes. First, he chose the USS San Francisco, Everett’s ship, as his flagship. The San Francisco had not only sustained severe damage the day before, it had inferior quality radar equipment. Secondly, he failed to take advantage of Admiral Scott’s leadership and experience, placing his ship, the USS Atlanta, in the line of battle directly in front of the San Francisco.
The night of the planned bombardment, the American ships waited in Lunga Bay while the Japanese force steamed down the channel. The Japanese met with a thunderstorm early in the evening, and their commander, Adm. Hiroaki Abe, decided to abort the planned bombing. He was heading back toward the Japanese base at Rabaul, New Britain, around midnight, when the skies cleared and he decided to proceed with the planned bombing.
As a result of the change in orders, the cloudy skies and the darkness of night, Abe’s fleet then became disorganized. Standing at the helm of the battleship, Hiei, he lost track of the other ships’ positions, and most importantly, the destroyers ordered to sweep the harbor fell behind the main group of ships. Unaware of the presence of American ships, Abe ordered the big guns on his battleships to be loaded with shells intended for the bombing, instead of the armor piercing shells used for sinking cruisers. When he finally sighted the American force, it was too late to reload.
So the American fleet had an advantage going into the battle. The Japanese were caught by surprise, disorganized, and unprepared, but the inexperienced Callaghan failed to take advantage of his opportunity. As the Japanese ships approached, the images on his ship’s inferior radar equipment were confusing. He tried to communicate with the ships having better radar, but was unable to get a clear line of communication due to undisciplined chatter on the radio. Finally he ordered the column to make a 45 degree turn to starboard, probably intending to position his ships perpendicular to the advancing Japanese force, but instead he put them on a collision course.
What Everett and his shipmates believed to be a clever plan by the admiral to take the Japanese by surprise was actually a foolish mistake.
To be continued.