To get to Guadalcanal, the Japanese launched a night raid that shocked and pummeled an Allied fleet.
My family and I were enjoying a nice meal at the local tavern when I noticed something incredible on the wall: a giant model of USS Quincy (CA-39). The cruiser was one of a handful of losses in the Battle of Savo Island on 9 August, 1942. I knew nothing of the vessel, save that Quincy was sunk by Japanese warships in a terrible night battle, and the above photo was likely her last visual record. I had once seen a copy of this picture at the U.S. Naval Shipbuilding Museum in Quincy, Mass. (Quincy was launched from the historic shipyard in Quincy in 1935.) It takes a moment for the viewer to realize that the illumination in this black and white image comes from explosions and searchlights. It left me unsettled, and years later, after seeing the model, I felt encouraged to learn about the night that cost so many their lives.
In August 1942, Japanese troops clashed with U.S. 1st Marines Division on Guadalcanal. This was prime real estate in World War II, and the Japanese wanted it badly. The proximity of the island and its incomplete airfield to Allied convoys and the Coral Sea compelled the Japanese to keep fighting here until 1943. It was no small matter for the Allies to hold this contested zone.
From the north, Guadalcanal was accessible via waterways around Savo Island, and American and Australian warships were sent to defend the area. The commander of this mixed bag was Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley of the British Royal Navy, but Crutchley was not present on the night that Vice Admiral Mikawa Gunichi surprised his ships. The veteran Japanese officer, in command of seven cruisers and a destroyer, was hunting for U.S. transports and supply ships. There are suggestions of Allied mishaps and negligence that left the door wide open for Mikawa on 9 August:
- Early warnings from an Australian reconnaissance plane were supposedly ignored or misinterpreted by American commanders.
- Japanese scout planes were in Allied airspace for over an hour with active navigation lights and likely mistaken for friendly aircraft.
- The Japanese were outside the detection area of radar-equipped U.S. destroyers.
- Vice Admiral Crutchley left no plan for his officers.
- Allied commanders expected a dawn retaliation instead of a night attack.
It all started at 0143, as Allied sailors caught up on their sleep. With flares, starbursts, and searchlights, Mikawa’s ships illuminated two cruisers, HMAS Canberra and USS Chicago, and unleashed their arsenals. Canberra was ruined by a pair of torpedoes and some 24 eight-inch shells, while Chicago‘s bow was blown off by a torpedo. An account in Clash of Titans by Walter J. Boyne describes how Chicago failed to get off a radio alert as she moved off with her escorts. Turning north, the Japanese moved accidentally into columns, only to put more Allied ships between them.
The cruiser USS Astoria was their next target. General quarters sounded at approximately 0150 after the ship was illuminated by flares, touched by a searchlight, then bombarded by shells. Sailors died on their way to battle stations. One of the primary turrets was knocked out. Ammunition exploded next to gun crews. Sailor Lynn F. Hager, assigned to sky control to watch for enemy planes, recounted:
They were scattered around the decks. One of the officers went down to take some of the men from the sick bay, but after a while he came back pretty quietly with a bewildered look on his face because there wasn’t any sick bay left. It had got a direct hit.
Astoria fired 12 salvos before the Japanese left her to burn in the water; she lost power at 0215, drifted away, and sank in the afternoon. Another victim was cruiser USS Vincennes which suffered early damage in the raid. An aft rangefinder was ruined and seaplanes were set ablaze. Lights and communications went out. After multiple torpedoes and shells, Vincennes developed a 20-degree list. At approximately 0240, a medical officer and chaplain managed to evacuate seven wounded through a blasted ammunition hatch and abandoned ship. Vincennes went under between 0250 and 0300, but left her mark regardless of time: an underwater explosion killed and wounded men in the water.
USS Quincy was caught in the same trap, her guns firing in different directions on enemies in the dark. The Japanese mauled this vessel with torpedoes and shells. A June 1943 report from the Navy’s Bureau of Ships mentions at least 36 hits to Quincy in almost every place imaginable. Plate IV of this report, a drawing of gunfire damage to Quincy, shows the destructive ability of naval gunnery. We can also make use of an account from survivor Ray Clark who escaped and was rescued by USS Elliot:
My time on the Quincy CA 39 was a very short one. Went on in April 1942 and we were sunk in Aug. 42. I jumped off the ship with nothing but what was on my back. And in the time I was in the water I kept shedding flash proof clothing, helmet etc. My money and wallet was in my locker. The only way I could get any message to my folks was I told them I had lost my wallet. See if they could get me another application. They did pick up on that, that the ship was sunk.
Quincy got her shots in—39 sailors killed on Mikawa’s flagship, the Chokai—before succumbing to battle damage and sinking at 0235. Mikawa withdrew over concerns of carrier retaliation.
Before the Battle of Savo Island, the U.S. Navy had not seen a fleet action in more than four decades. The nighttime attack, ever so brief, was their worst defeat since Pearl Harbor. The Japanese raid claimed 1,270 American and Australian personnel with minimal casualties of their own. (Of the four lost cruisers, 370 died on Quincy, 332 on Vincennes, 216 on Astoria, and 84 on Canberra.)
It can be said that the U.S. Navy has adopted major procedural and technological changes in the wake of every tragedy. Savo was a chance to learn and adapt. The 1943 Bureau of Ships report offered many safety recommendations:
- improve firefighting equipment on Navy ships
- remove flammable furniture and materials
- install backup generators (6o- or 100-kw diesels on cruisers)
- designate stowage compartments for combustible items like grease, paint, alcohol, and lubricating oil. (The compartments could be suppressed by a CO2 system if ignited.)
Had Vice Admiral Mikawa lingered to strike the transports and cargo ships, he could have crippled amphibious efforts at Guadalcanal. There were no carrier planes to harass him, since Saratoga, Enterprise, and Wasp had withdrawn the previous evening. One could imagine if Mikawa drew comparisons between Savo and Pearl Harbor, in that a surprise force had missed the U.S. carriers and some of its target objectives. (Such as Pearl’s oil supplies and submarine base.) Nevertheless, these actions spared the Allied war effort and its massive logistical network, and ultimately cost the Japanese in future campaigns.
Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Titans: World War II at Sea. (Touchstone)
Cant, Gilbert. America’s Navy in World War II. (John Day)
Dunnigan, James F. and Nofi, Albert A. Victory at Sea: World War II in the Pacific. (Quill)
Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War. (Owl)