Saturday, December 01, 2012

TFH 12/1: The Battle of Tassafaronga

American forces ashore on Guadalcanal had made great progress against our Japanese enemies by the close of November 1942. From the Japanese perspective, the situation was desperate. Their occupying forces were effectively cut off by sea and air and were slowly being strangled by lack of supplies.

The Japanese detailed a force of eight destroyers - six of which would be carrying supply barrels to be floated ashore to their beleaguered troops - to try and run past American vessels during the night of November 30-December 1, 1942. The Japanese knew it would be a dangerous mission as the ships would likely be far outgunned if discovered. The Imperial Japanese Navy units had one thing in their favor though: the Type 93 "Long Lance" torpedo.

The United States Navy assumed that enemy torpedoes could only be launched from about six miles away when in reality their range was double that. Enemy surface ships could fire torpedoes at our ships before they came into gun range - with disastrous effect.

Eleven American ships sailed into Ironbottom Sound in between Guadalcanal and Savo Island on November 30, 1942 to confront the Japanese supply attempt. That night into December 1, 1942 would later be known as the Battle of Tassafaronga (for the destination of the Japanese ships).

The American force detailed by Admiral William Halsey to oppose the Japanese attempting to resupply Tassafaronga was known as Task Force 67. The task force was commanded by Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright and had the following ships:

Cruisers: USS Pensacola (CA-24), USS Northampton (CA-26), USS New Orleans (CA-32), USS Minneapolis (CA-36), and USS Honolulu (CL-48).

Destroyers: USS Drayton (DD-366), USS Lamson (DD-367), USS Perkins (DD-377), USS Maury (DD-401), USS Lardner (DD-487), and USS Fletcher (DD-445).

Rear Admiral Wright had his flag aboard Minneapolis. His second in command, Rear Admiral Mahlon S. Tisdale, was aboard Honolulu. Just after 2300 hours on 11/30, American destroyers discovered the incoming Japanese ships via radar and fired their own torpedoes at the enemy. All their "fish" missed.

Wright's cruisers opened fire a short time later, and managed to sink the Japanese destroyer Takanami. As Takanami was under fire and going down, she, along with the other Japanese destroyers, launched their torpedoes in the direction of the American's gun flashes. It took just two minutes for the enemy to exact crushing damage on Wright's force.

At 2327, Minneapolis took two torpedoes forward, had her aviation fuel explode, 3 of four boiler rooms knocked out, and had her bow taken off. The damage and resultant fires eventually required Wright to transfer command to Tisdale aboard Honolulu. 37 sailors lost their lives.

At 2328, New Orleans was struck by two torpedoes forward between her Number 1 and 2 main battery turrets, suffered a magazine explosion, and lost the ship forward of Turret #2. 183 were killed.

At 2329, Pensacola was hit amidships and her fuel oil set ablaze. She lost 125 sailors.

Even though the enemy had struck a major blow, they feared for the survival of their ships as they knew they were outgunned but were unaware of the level of damage they had already inflicted. The Japanese commander signaled for his ships to withdraw at 2344, but not before they got one last lick in.

Northampton took two torpedo hits aft, her engine rooms began to flood, and the ship started listing badly. 50 of her crew lost their lives.

The brave crews aboard Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Pensacola performed heroic damage control efforts that night. All three ships were saved and managed to make it to Tulagi for emergency repairs. Pensacola's fires burned for 12 hours before being extinguished. Unfortunately, despite the gallant effort of her crew, the damage and flooding aboard Northampton couldn't be controlled. Northampton, a veteran of both the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of Midway, was abandoned at 0130 December 1 and sank at 0304.

Tactically, the Battle of Tassafaronga was a Japanese rout of the United States. Strategically, it was an essential victory as the Japanese realized that their positions on Guadalcanal were becoming indefensible due to lack of supplies and would have to be abandoned.

No fewer than sixteen sailors received the Navy Cross for their acts of courage during the battle and its aftermath. Of the sixteen, half were killed in action.

All links on the names of the recipients are to the Military Times' Hall of Valor. I encourage you to click through and read several of the citations.
All three of the damaged cruisers - Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Pensacola - were repaired and returned to service in September, August, and October, 1943 respectively.

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