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World War II: Battle of Cape Esperance

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World War II: Battle of Cape Esperance

USS San Francisco, flagship of Rear Admiral Norman Scott at the Battle of Cape Esperance, October 11/12, 1942

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

Battle of Cape Esperance - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Cape Esperance took place the night of October 11/12, 1942, and was part of the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II.

Fleets & Commanders:

US Navy

  • Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley
  • Rear Admiral Norman Scott
  • 4 cruisers, 5 destroyers

Imperial Japanese Navy

  • Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa
  • Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto
  • Rear Admiral Takatsugu Jojima
  • 3 cruisers, 8 destroyers, 2 seaplane tenders

Battle of Cape Esperance - Background:

In early August 1942, Allied forces landed on Guadalcanal and succeeded in capturing an airfield that the Japanese were building. Dubbed Henderson Field, Allied aircraft operating from the Guadalcanal soon dominated the sea lanes around the island during daylight hours. As a result, the Japanese were forced to deliver reinforcements to the island at night using destroyers rather than larger, slower troop transports. Dubbed the "Tokyo Express" by the Allies, Japanese warships would depart bases in the Shortland Islands and make the run to Guadalcanal and back in a single night.

In early October, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa planned a major reinforcement convoy for Guadalcanal. Led by Rear Admiral Takatsugu Jojima, the force consisted of six destroyers and two seaplane tenders. In addition, Mikawa ordered Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto to lead a force of three cruisers and two destroyers with orders to shell Henderson Field while Jojima's ships delivered their troops. Departing the Shortlands early on October 11, both forces proceeded down "The Slot" towards Guadalcanal. While the Japanese were planning their operations, the Allies made plans to reinforce the island as well.

Battle of Cape Esperance - Moving to Contact:

Departing New Caledonia on October 8, ships carrying the US 164th Infantry moved north towards Guadalcanal. To screen this convoy, Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley assigned Task Force 64, commanded by Rear Admiral Norman Hall, to operate near the island. Consisting of the cruisers USS San Francisco, USS Boise, USS Helena, and USS Salt Lake City, TF64 also included the destroyers USS Farenholt, USS Duncan, USS Buchanan, USS McCalla, and USS Laffey. Initially taking station off Rennell Island, Hall moved north on the 11th after receiving reports that Japanese ships had been sited in The Slot.

With the fleets in motion, Japanese aircraft attacked Henderson Field during day, with the goal of preventing Allied aircraft from locating and attacking Jojima's ships. As he moved north, Hall, aware that the Americans had faired badly in previous night battles with the Japanese, crafted a simple battle plan. Ordering his ships to form a column with destroyers at the head and rear, he instructed them to illuminate any targets with their searchlights so that the cruisers could fire accurately. Hall also informed his captains that they were open fire when the enemy was sited rather than waiting for orders.

Battle of Cape Esperance - Battle Joined:

Approaching Cape Hunter on the northwest corner of Guadalcanal, Hall, flying his flag from San Francisco, ordered his cruisers to launch their float planes at 10:00 PM. An hour later, San Francisco's float plane sighted Jojima's force off of Guadalcanal. Expecting more Japanese ships to be sighted, Hall maintained his course northeast, passing to the west of Savo Island. Reversing course at 11:30, some confusion led to the three lead destroyers (Farenholt, Duncan, and Laffey) being out of position. About this time, Goto's ships began appearing on the American radars.

Initially believing these contacts to be the out of position destroyers, Hall took no action. As Farenholt and Laffey accelerated to reassume their proper positions, Duncan moved to attack the approaching Japanese ships. At 11:45, Goto's ships were visible to the American lookouts and Helena radioed asking permission to open fire using the general procedure request, "Interrogatory Roger" (meaning "are we clear to act"). Hall responded in the affirmative, and his surprise the entire American line opened fire. Aboard his flagship, Aoba, Goto was taken by complete surprise.

Over the next few minutes, Aoba was hit more than 40 times by Helena, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Farenholt, and Laffey. Burning, with many of its guns out of action and Goto dead, Aoba turned to disengage. At 11:47, concerned that he was firing on his own ships, Hall ordered a ceasefire and asked his destroyers to confirm their positions. This done, the American ships resumed firing at 11:51 and pummeled the cruiser Furutaka. Burning from a hit to its torpedo tubes, Furutaka lost power after taking a torpedo from Buchanan. While the cruiser was burning, the Americans shifted their fire to the destroyer Fubuki sinking it.

As the battle raged, the cruiser Kinugasa and destoryer Hatsuyuki turned away and missed the brunt of the American attack. Pursuing the fleeing Japanese ships, Boise was nearly hit by torpedoes from Kinugasa at 12:06 AM. Turning on their search lights to illuminate the Japanese cruiser, Boise and Salt Lake City immediately took fire, with the former taking a hit to its magazine. At 12:20, with the Japanese retreating and his ships disorganized, Hall broke off the action.

Later that night, Furutaka sank as result of battle damage, and Duncan was lost to raging fires. Learning of the bombardment force's crisis, Jojima detached four destroyers to its aid after disembarking his troops. The next day, two of these, Murakumo and Shirayuki, were sunk by aircraft from Henderson Field.

Battle of Cape Esperance - Aftermath

The Battle of Cape Esperance cost Hall the destroyer Duncan and 163 killed. In addition, Boise and Farenholt were badly damaged. For the Japanese, losses included a cruiser and three destroyers, as well as 341–454 killed. Also, Aoba was badly damaged and out of action until February 1943. The Battle of Cape Esperance was the first Allied triumph over the Japanese in a night battle. A tactical victory for Hall, the engagement had little strategic significance as Jojima was able to deliver his troops. In assessing the battle, many of the American officers felt that chance had played a key role in allowing them to surprise the Japanese. This luck would not hold, and Allied naval forces were badly defeated on November 20, 1942, at the nearby Battle of Tassafaronga.

Selected Sources

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