Early in World War II, Japanese forces were superior to the Americans in almost every way. In the air, the Japanese Zero fighters were faster and more maneuverable than the US Wildcats and P-40's which protected Guadalcanal, so that the US planes had to be continually replaced. The American pilots also had to be replaced on an average of every thirty days. The jungle took its toll in dysentery and malaria, as did the stress of constant bombardment, and a shortage of fuel and ammunition. On the sea, the Japanese torpedoes were more accurate, and all their ships carried them, whereas the US torpedoes exploded only about half the time and only destroyers carried them. Also the Japanese navy excelled in night fighting, having worked out signals for communication between ships, and pyrotechnics to light up enemy targets.
The island of Guadalcanal lay in the middle of Japan’s defensive perimeter, and it straddled the supply route for the Allied forces, so both sides considered it essential to their strategic plan. Since the US marines had taken over the base and air strip there, the Japanese put all their resources into taking it back. It was up to the US navy to make sure they didn’t succeed.
In September of 1942 Everett’s ship, the USS San Francisco, was part of Task Force 18, assigned to protect a supply convoy headed for Guadalcanal. The convoy was discovered and attacked by Japanese submarines on September 8, and while they managed to deliver supplies and reinforcements to Guadalcanal, they lost the Destroyer O'Brien, the Battleship North Carolina, and the aircraft carrier Wasp.
Everett witnessed the sinking of the three ships and the rescue of the survivors. Out of a crew of 2247 men on the Wasp, 173 were killed and 400 injured. He said the sinking of the Wasp was the most horrific explosion he ever witnessed, and that was saying something. After the battle, the US was now left with only one aircraft carrier in the Pacific, the Hornet, while the Japanese now had six. The Japanese were also building up their forces on Guadalcanal almost unmolested, in night runs the marines nicknamed the “Tokyo Express.”
By October, General Vandergrift, commander of the American troops on Guadalcanal, informed his superiors that he would not be able to hold the island much longer. The US Navy hadn’t been able to stop the Tokyo Express, and it had lost 8 cruisers and 3 destroyers in the attempt. So far the US naval command hadn't been willing to commit more troops to Guadalcanal, reserving them for the capture of the island of Ndeni, where they intended to build an air base for planes on their way to Guadalcanal.
Finally, on October 8, Admiral Ghormley, Pacific fleet commander, responded to Vandergrift by sending a convoy carrying the 164th Infantry Regiment. The covering force consisted of the aircraft carrier Hornet, the battleship Washington, and the newly formed Task Force 64, made up of 4 cruisers and five destroyers, under the command of Admiral Norman Scott, aboard the USS San Francisco, Everett’s ship.
Scott’s ambition had long been to disrupt the previously invincible Tokyo Express. He had studied Japanese night tactics, and had worked out a plan of his own for night battles, utilizing the torpedoes of his destroyers and the fire power of his cruisers to the best advantage, and giving the ship captains under him the authority to fire on their own initiative. He had also given his ships nighttime firing practice. On the night of October 11, as he was preparing for the arrival of the convoy carrying the 164th Regiment, he got a chance to test his plans.
At 1600 hours (4:00 PM) an enemy convoy was sighted northwest of Guadalcanal heading down the “Slot,” the channel through the Solomon Islands used by the Japanese navy to supply their troops. Admiral Scott rushed to head them off. He arranged his ships across the channel with the cruisers in the middle and destroyers at both ends. His plan was for the destroyers to fire their torpedoes at the large ships, and also to illumine any ships in range of the cruisers’ big guns. It was a beautiful plan, but what followed was a comedy of errors.
The Battle of Cape Esperance, Oct. 11, 1942
At 2330 hours, thirty minutes before midnight, Admiral Scott received a report that three enemy ships had been sighted coming from the northeast. His original plan had been to turn north following the coastline of Savo Island heading toward the Japanese convoy reported earlier, but instead he now ordered his column to turn back to the Southwest, so as to interpose his task force between the two Japanese groups. This is where the confusion began. As the lead ship in the column, the Destroyer Fahrenheit, began its turn, the crew of the San Francisco, Scott’s own ship, began to turn too instead of remaining in formation, and the rest of the column followed them, leaving the three destroyers behind.
At about the same time they received the order to turn, three of the cruisers saw a blip on their radar to the northwest, but they didn’t report it, assuming that was the reason for Scott’s decision to turn. After about fifteen minutes, the entire column of US ships had reversed their direction, and the three destroyers in the lead had managed to sail between the cruisers and the enemy ships.
By this time all the ships were picking up the Japanese convoy on their radar, and Admiral Scott, now aware of the confusion about his turn orders, was afraid that the radar blips were coming from his own ships. With no orders, the ship captains began to take the initiative. Captain Taylor of the Destroyer Duncan accelerated his ship directly toward the enemy column. The Destroyer Fahrenheit, followed by the Laffley, chose to complete the turn, positioning themselves for a torpedo attack. The crew of the Cruiser, Helena, who had now been aware of the approaching enemy column for fifteen minutes, were now able to see the Japanese ships with their naked eyes. One of the radar operators quipped, “what are we going to do, board them?” A moment later, the Helena opened fire, shortly followed by a barrage of fire from the other American ships.
The Japanese column was caught completely off guard. In the clear night air they had seen the American ships in the distance, but the Japanese commander, Admiral Goto, believed them to be his own transport ships. As he flashed a recognition signal, his ship was hit by the first American salvo, killing him and disabling his ship’s communications.
The Battle of Cape Esperance continued for about 35 minutes, and the confusion continued. Shortly after firing commenced, Admiral Scott, worried that he might be firing on his own ships, ordered a cease fire, and radioed Captain Robert Tobin, commander of the destoyers at the head of the column:
“How are you?” he asked, to which Tobin replied that he was fine.
“Are we shooting at you?” Scott asked.
“I don’t know who you are shooting at,” Tobin answered.
Not reassured, Scott ordered Tobin’s ships to flash their fighting lights. Having identified the US destoyers, the battle resumed. The Japanese got the worst of it. Four Japanese ships were sunk, and 565 of their sailors were killed. On the American side, one ship was sunk and 3 damaged, two by “friendly” fire, and 163 men were killed. It was a landmark battle for the US Navy, their first victory in a night battle, and while many mistakes were made, Admiral Scott’s tactics were copied afterward by other naval commanders. The practical results of the battle were that the 164th Infantry Regiment was successfully landed on Guadalcanal, and the Japanese supply convoy was turned back.
For any WWII buffs out there, most of the information for this post came from Guadalcanal, by Richard B. Frank. It’s an excellent book, very readable but detailed. Other sources I used were Freedom from Fear, by David M Kennedy, good for painting the overall picture of the times, the Great Depression and WWII; Eagle Against the Sun, by Ronald H. Spector, a good summary of the military history of the Pacific Theater, and Wikipedia’s article on the USS San Francisco, CA 38.