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World War II: Battle of Tassafaronga

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World War II: Battle of Tassafaronga

USS New Orleans after the Battle of Tassafaronga

Photograph Courtesy of the US Navy

Battle of Tassafaronga - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Tassafaronga was fought November 30, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945).

Fleets & Commanders

Allies

  • Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright
  • 5 cruisers, 4 destroyers

    Japanese

  • Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka
  • 8 destroyers

  • Battle of Tassafaronga - Background:

    Having stemmed Japanese advance in the Pacific at the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in late spring 1942, Allied forces began shifting the to the offensive. In early August, troops landed on Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. On the latter island, they seized an airfield that was being constructed by Japanese forces. Quickly becoming the focus of both sides, the Battle of Guadalcanal was contested both on the island and the surrounding waters. While Allied forces consolidated their position ashore, the Japanese won early victories on the water such as the Battle of Savo Island. As Henderson Field on Guadalcanal became operational, its aircraft, dubbed the "Cactus Air Force," came to control the waters around the island during daylight hours.

    As a result, the Japanese were prevented from resupplying their forces on the island using slow cargo vessels. Assessing the situation, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, commander of the Japanese Eighth Fleet, directed that light cruisers and destroyers carry supplies to Guadalcanal. These vessels were fast enough to make the roundtrip voyage from Japanese bases to Guadalcanal during nighttime hours. Dubbed the "Tokyo Express" by the Allies, this system of resupply proved moderately effective, but prevented the Japanese troops from transporting their heavy equipment and artillery to the island. As successive attempts to capture Henderson Field failed, the Japanese planned a more traditional resupply mission. This was defeated during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in mid-November.

    Battle of Tassafaronga - The Japanese Situation:

    In the wake of the defeat, the Japanese began using submarines to carry ammunition and food to Guadalcanal. While these missions were successful, the submarines were unable to carry a sufficient amount of material and a food crisis began to grow on the island. In an effort to alleviate the situation, Eighth Fleet devised a new plan which called for buoyant, supply-laden drums to be carried to Guadalcanal by destroyer and dropped overboard offshore. The drums would be strung together and could be recovered by personnel ashore. It was thought that this approach would reduce the destroyers' exposure to danger while increasing the amount of supplies reaching the troops. Planning for the first mission was given to Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka and slated for the night of November 29/30.

    Battle of Tassafaronga - Forces Involved:

    For the mission, Tanaka planned to have the destroyers Oyashio, Kuroshio, Suzukaze, Kagero, Kawakaze, and Makinami carry the supply drums while the destroyers Naganami and Takanami provided a screen. After the victory at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Allied naval commander for the area, Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, reorganized his forces. Creating Task Force 67 (TF67), he assigned to it the heavy cruisers USS Minneapolis, USS New Orleans, USS Northampton, USS Pensacola, the light cruiser USS Honolulu, as well as the destroyers USS Fletcher, USS Maury, USS Drayton, and USS Perkins. Based at Espiritu Santo, command of TF67 was given to Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright.

    Meeting with his captains, Wright outlined his approach for night fighting and stated that he wanted his radar-equipped destroyers to scout in front and attack the enemy with torpedoes when contact was made. They were then to clear the area to allow the cruisers to attack. Alerted to Tanaka's mission through radio intercepts, Halsey ordered Wright to take TF67 north and intercept the enemy. Departing late on November 29, Wright picked up the destroyers USS Lamson and USS Lardner en route and assigned them to the rear of his column. After dark on November 30, Tanaka departed the Shortland Islands and began moving down "The Slot" towards Guadalcanal.

    Battle of Tassafaronga - Contact is Made:

    Approaching from the northwest, Tanaka's destroyers spotted Savo Island around 9:40 PM. Around the same time, Wright's TF67 passed through the Lengo Channel into Ironbottom Sound. An hour later, Tanaka turned around the south end of Savo Island and slowed as his ships approached their unloading points at Doma Reef and Tassafaronga. At 11:06 PM, Wright's destroyers, led by Commander William M. Cole of Fletcher began to make radar contact with the enemy. Tanaka's ships, lacking radar, were unaware of the American approach. Six minutes later, lookouts on Takanami spotted Wright's column. Establishing a firm radar fix on Takanami and the destroyers heading for Tassafaronga (Makinami, Kagero, Oyashio, and Kuroshio), Cole requested permission to launch a torpedo attack.

    This was vetoed by Wright who believed the range to excessive. Cole protested as his ships had an ideal firing setup. Two minutes passed before Wright gave permission. During this time, the Japanese had moved into a less ideal position. At 11:16 PM, having been made aware of the American presence, Tanaka ordered the resupply operations suspended and his ships to attack. Four minutes later, Fletcher, Drayton, and Perkins fired a spread of twenty Mark 15 torpedoes at the enemy. At 11:21 PM, Wright, aboard Minneapolis opened fire. While the torpedoes failed to score any hits, fire from the American cruisers pounded Takanami. Firing star shells to illuminate the area, Cole and his four destroyers moved to clear the vicinity and began looping around Savo Island to the north (Map)

    Battle of Tassafaronga - The Japanese Triumph:

    Within four minutes, Takanami was reduced to a burning wreck. Commanding from Naganami, Tanaka turned to starboard and began laying smoke. To his rear, Kawakaze and Suzukaze turned to port and each fired eight torpedoes towards the American cruisers. As the battles rage, the other four Japanese destroyers passed inshore of Wright's force. Passing the wreck of Takanami, Kuroshio fired four and Oyashio fired eight torpedoes at 11:28 PM. Pressing on, Wright maintained his course and speed as the battle progressed and did not conduct evasive maneuvers of any sort.

    At 11:27 PM, Minneapolis was hit by two torpedoes in quick succession. These detonated aviation fuel storage tanks forward of turret one and bent the ship's bow down seventy degrees. Losing power, the cruiser was soon dead in the water. As Minneapolis was hit, a torpedo struck New Orleans in a similar location causing both a forward magazine and fuel storage to explode. This severed the ship's bow back to just forward of turret two. Steering around the two damaged cruisers, Pensacola attempted to pass to port but was hit amidships by a torpedo which caused a list and loss of power. Observing this damage, Honolulu accelerated and steered to starboard. Passing unscathed through the area, it fired on Tanaka's destroyers which had begun leaving the area.

    Moving to starboard, Northampton attempted to follow Honolulu, but did not accelerate or begin evasive maneuvers. Maintaining course and speed, it was hit by two torpedoes from Kawakaze at 11:48 PM. These caused fires to quickly spread throughout the ship. Coming under friendly fire, Lamson and Lardner retreated east. Withdrawing west, Tanaka dispatched Oyashio and Kuroshio to aid Takanami, but they were unable to do so due to American activity in the area. Aboard Northampton, damage control parties were unable to contain the fires and the cruiser was abandoned at 1:30 AM. It sank two hours later.

    Battle of Tassafaronga - Aftermath

    Though badly damaged, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Pensacola were able to limp back to Tulagi for emergency repairs. The fighting at Tassafaronga cost Wright one heavy cruiser sunk, three badly damaged, and 395 killed. Japanese losses were limited to the loss of Takanami and 197 killed. Though the three American heavy cruisers would be repaired, they were out of action for nine months. A disaster for the US Navy, it reduced American cruiser forces in the Pacific to four heavy cruisers and nine light cruisers. Despite the defeat, Wright was awarded the Navy Cross for his performance, while Halsey attempted to pin blame on Cole for launching the torpedo attack from long range and then leaving the area rather than staying to aid the cruisers.

    Though a tactical victory for the Japanese, the battle had prevented Tanaka from releasing the drums of supplies. Over the next two weeks, three attempts were made to land drums of supplies. While a mission on December 3 successfully released 1,500 drums, the majority were destroyed by Allied aircraft the next morning before they could be recovered. Subsequent missions on December 7 and 11 also failed to land a meaningful amount of supplies. With the situation rapidly deteriorating, the Japanese evacuated their force from the island in early February 1943.

    Selected Sources

  • Guadalcanal: Battle of Tassafaronga
  • Lesson in Tactics: Battle of Tassafaronga
  • World War II Pacific: Battle of Tassafaronga

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