USS Minneapolis at Tulagi with torpedo damage a few hours after the battle on December 1, 1942.
New Orleans near Tulagi the morning after the battle, showing everything missing forward of turret two.
The Fletcher, with its modern SG radar, rode at the head of the line. If this was an improvement over Callaghan’s approach two weeks before, the urge to hesitate would once again rise as a plague. According to the Fletcher’s executive officer, Lieutenant Joseph C. Wylie, “About the last visual dispatch we got before dusk settled in were instructions stating not to commence firing without permission.”
Wylie was on the radar when strange contacts began to register. The first one appeared to the radar officer in the Minneapolis like “a small wart on Cape Esperance which grew larger and finally detached itself from the outline of the land mass.” As Tanaka’s force steamed within range of the American microwaves, Wylie reported their bearing, course, and speed to the other destroyers. With torpedoes ready, he radioed Wright, “REQUEST PERMISSION TO FIRE TORPEDOES.” Wylie would call the task force commander’s response “the most stupid thing that I have ever heard of.” It was a single word: “NO.” Wright deemed the range too long.
For four critical minutes Wright mulled the black night from the bridge of the Minneapolis. When he finally granted permission to the destroyers to fire their torpedoes, the radar showed that their targets had already passed them abeam, leaving the American missiles to pursue them from astern, a fruitless waste of fighting power. When Wright ordered the cruisers to open fire less than a minute after the destroyers had let fly, surprise became a casualty of impulsiveness, and what ensued was another confused free-for-all. As cruiser gunfire obliterated the senses, Wright lost sight of his targets behind the walls of water raised in front of them by American guns.
The spectacle was familiar to men observing from the beach. Lloyd Mustin and the others at Captain Greenman’s headquarters saw great flashes of light that were too large to be mere gun discharges. They didn’t know whose ships were out there bursting into flames, and there would be no knowing till morning. Suddenly and anticlimactically, Mustin’s radio went silent. The sober messages that trickled in to Radio Guadalcanal over the next couple of hours told the story. From the Minneapolis came a dispatch before dawn that she had been torpedoed and was under way for Lunga at half a knot. The Pensacola weighed in with a similar report. Then Admiral Wright raised Greenman, asking: “CAN YOU SEND BOATS TOWARD SAVO?” The implications of the request were clear enough. Mustin instructed the Bobolink and four PT boats to sweep the sound, while Wright’s second in command, Rear Admiral Mahlon S. Tisdale, ordered the destroyers to assist damaged cruisers northwest of Lunga Point. Wright then passed along a fuller report of the shattering damage inflicted on his task force and asked him to send it to Halsey.
The news of the rout was shocking to anyone who believed the fleet was at last on the path to victory. Wanting a clearer picture, Captain Greenman ordered Mustin to go up as an airborne observer to survey the sound. Racing to Henderson Field at dawn, the Atlanta survivor climbed into the rear seat of a Dauntless. The Marine pilot checked him out on the dive-bomber’s twin-mounted Brownings, and they took to the skies.
Gaining altitude over Ironbottom Sound, Mustin could see no ships anywhere. He raised the PT boat headquarters at Tulagi, but the mosquito fleet didn’t know much, either. Several long turns over the waters south of Savo yielded no clues until the morning sun reached the proper angle to the water, and then he saw it: a wide sprawling oil slick trailing away to the west with the friction of an eight-knot wind. It marked the resting place of yet another American ship in what some would call the Savo Navy Yard, or Ironbottom Sound. Her identity would be established soon enough. It was the Northampton, gutted by torpedoes fired by Tanaka’s surprised but quick-triggered destroyer commanders.
When Wright’s cruisers opened fire, they erred in concentrating on a single ship, the destroyer Takanami, riding ahead of Tanaka’s group as a picket. As American projectiles straddled her and she returned fire, the cruisers’ salvos, drawn to the light, converged in earnest. With memories still haunting the Japanese of what the Washington and South Dakota had wrought fifteen days before, it was easy for Tanaka to believe the American force included battleships.
Surprised but resilient, Tanaka ordered all commanders, “Belay supply schedule! All ships, prepare to fight!” The crews cast loose as many supply drums as they could when they brought their batteries to bear. Shielded by the flames of the Takanami, much as the Washington had been masked by the burning destroyers a few weeks before, Tanaka accelerated to full speed and ordered a course reversal that brought his column running parallel to his targets. His destroyers proceeded to let loose with one of the most lethal torpedo salvos of the war.
From on high in the rear seat of a Dauntless, Mustin could see the evidence of the swarm of fish that had beset Task Force 67. Washed up on Guadalcanal’s northern beaches and Savo Island, their long forms lay at angles on the sand. Many were shiny and new, recently run aground. A great many more, of both American and Japanese origin, had decayed to rust, long of residence ashore. Their numbers spoke to the great volume of underwater ordnance loosed in both directions in these waters over the past few months.
Amid the flotsam on the sea below, Mustin could make out the workaday paraphernalia of U.S. Navy shipboard life: powder cases, wooden shoring, life rafts, donut rings, and wreckage of varied kinds. There were a great many sailors in the water, too, and many more waved from the shores of Savo. The PT boats were soon among them. Tulagi’s “splinter fleet” puttered about, joining the Fletcher and Drayton in rescue duty.
Turning to pass over Tulagi, Mustin finally saw some large American ships. The Minneapolis and New Orleans were tied up close to shore, in the triage unit for wounded U.S. cruisers, mangled and nearly unrecognizable. The New Orleans had had her forecastle, about 150 feet of hull, removed clear back to her second turret by a single Long Lance. Its blast had triggered an adjoining magazine full of aircraft bombs and a large demolition charge, throwing a tower of flames and sparks twice as high as the foremast and turning the surrounding sea into a mass of flame. One hundred and eighty-two men, including the entire crew of turret two, died by shock. As the ship turned right, a fifty-yard length of the ship’s own bow and forecastle tore away to port. One end of this heavy wreckage subducted under the keel, and the other bounced along the port side of the hull, tearing holes and wrecking the port inboard propeller. Sailors stationed aft believed they were running over the sinking carcass of the Minneapolis ahead.
Confronted with this cataclysm, Captain Clifford H. Roper passed the order to abandon ship. However, the exec, Commander Whitaker F. Riggs, canceled the order from his station in the rear of the ship, and ordered the crew to “lighten ship” with an eye toward saving her. And that’s just what they did.
As the New Orleans nodded under by the bow, her broken nose plowing up a pile of foam, open to the sea, the damage-control officer, Lieutenant Commander Hubert M. Hayter, and two subordinates, Lieutenant Richard A. Haines and Ensign Andrew L. Forman, remained at their post deep below in Central Station as it filled with toxic gas. When the air became unbreathable, Hayter gave his gas mask to an enlisted man who was suffering, then ordered all hands to evacuate. Two avenues of escape were available. One, a trunk that led from Central Station to the main deck, was blocked by flooding above, and Commander Hayter knew this. The other was a narrow, three-foot-diameter steel tube that led upward to the wardroom. The plotting room crew scurried up through it, but when Hayter’s turn came, he found that his shoulders were too broad to fit through the opening to the tube, which was reinforced with a thick steel collar. Ordering “Small men first,” he returned to his desk and resumed his damage-control duties. Haines and Forman remained with him in their increasingly untenable station until all three were asphyxiated. “I wondered what he thought about in those final minutes,” the ship’s chaplain, Howell M. Forgy, would write, “but I knew one thing: he was not afraid.”
Forward, at the site of the magazine explosion, a sailor named Gust Swenning, shipfitter second class, dove beneath the rising waters to locate and wrestle closed an open watertight hatch that was causing the ship’s sickbay compartment to flood. Badly injured in the initial explosion, and struggling against heavy fumes, Swenning plunged into the dark, dangerous void at least five times, groping around until he finally closed the hatch. He remained on duty through most of the next day until, lungs poisoned by noxious elements, he died of pulmonary edema.
Tied up to Tulagi’s shore, the shattered hull of the New Orleans, truncated like a barge, lay draped in vegetation and cargo nets to hide it from enemy planes. It was an inglorious state for the ship whose chaplain, Commander Forgy, had coined the immortal phrase “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” while exhorting his ship’s antiaircraft gunners under attack at Pearl Harbor. The Minneapolis was alongside her, too, similarly coiffed, the tug Bobolink serving as a pump house to keep her leaks from pulling her under. The crews of the broken ships hauled logs out of Tulagi’s jungle to use as shoring for the forward compartments, and arranged with the Marine chaplain ashore to bury the dead.
The Pensacola was lucky to survive a battering by Long Lances. One of them shattered a full oil tank forward of turret three, tore the deck open above it, and splashed a fiery wave of oil all over the after part of the ship, topside and belowdecks. With the after fire main destroyed, her crew fought severe oil fires through the night, spreading carbon dioxide and foam compounds by hand as the ship was concussed by the deep cadence of eight-inch rounds detonating, one by one, all 150 of them, in the after magazine.
Wright might have expected better of his task force, given that he had surprised Tanaka by radar at long range. Three of his cruisers (all but the Pensacola and Northampton) enjoyed the superb sight picture provided by the advanced SG radar. But Wright understood little of the combat capability of his enemy. In his December 9 after-action report, he concluded that the torpedoings of the Pensacola and Northampton had been lucky shots from submarines. “The observed positions of the enemy surface vessels before and during the gun action makes it seem improbable that torpedoes with speed–distance characteristics similar to our own could have reached the cruisers.” Of course, Wright’s torpedoes were nothing like those of the Japanese.
Nearly a year into the war, and four months into a bitter campaign against Japanese surface forces, it seems incomprehensible that an American cruiser commander could be unaware of the enemy advantage in torpedo warfare. Norman Scott had called it specifically to Admiral Halsey’s attention in October. The reports were there to be read. Before he rode to his death in the naval campaign for Java, the captain of the heavy cruiser Houston, Captain Albert H. Rooks, turned over to a colleague in Darwin an analysis he had written three weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack. It discussed at length Japan’s prowess in torpedo combat and described their aggressively realistic night battle training. Their mastery of this specialty had been recommended to them by their experience in the Russo-Japanese War. When their diplomats agreed to constrain the size of their big-gun fleet at the Washington Conference, the Japanese, like other navies, emphasized construction of their light forces. Rooks’s prewar report, which was based substantially on existing work of the Office of Naval Intelligence, never found its way into the battle plans. Not even Halsey grasped the superiority of Japanese surface-ship torpedoes. After Tassafaronga he endorsed Wright’s view that the outcome had to have been the result of submarines. Norman Scott’s October victory over a surprised Japanese force that failed to get its torpedoes into the water might have led the Americans to underestimate the weapon and place undue importance on gunnery.
The reward for this ignorance was to see four proud ships, two of them fitted with the new radar that had proven decisive in more capable hands, “picked off like mechanical ducks in a carnival shooting gallery,” as Samuel Eliot Morison would put it. Only the Honolulu, a sister ship to the Helena, had been able to avoid the burning wrecks ahead and zigzag clear of the torpedo water. The Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Pensacola were put out of action for almost a year.
Generous in defeat, Wright recommended all five of his cruiser captains for the Navy Cross, writing speciously that each had “contributed greatly to the destruction of all enemy vessels within range.” He made the wildly inaccurate claim that Task Force 67 had sunk two light cruisers and seven destroyers and praised the Northampton’s captain for the speed with which his crew abandoned ship. The award to Captain Roper of the New Orleans would puzzle survivors of that ship—“He did nothing heroic in any sense,” one would write. Having crushed Wright’s force, Tanaka faced a predicament comparable to the one his countryman Mikawa had faced in August. As he regrouped fifty miles from Guadalcanal’s beach, he found that his ships were low on torpedoes. With only two destroyers fully loaded, he decided he was no longer in shape to risk another fight. He gave the order to return to Rabaul. Though his reputation was high among Americans, Tanaka would take lumps at home for declining to exploit his victory by delivering his supplies to the island. Here as in August, the Americans, for all their failings, could interpret a ghastly result as a win.