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World War II: Battle of Savo Island

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World War II: Battle of Savo Island

USS Quincy is illuminated during the Battle of Savo Island, 1942

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Battle of Savo Island - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Savo Island was fought August 8-9, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945).

Fleets & Commanders

Allies

  • Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner
  • Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley
  • 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 15 destroyers

    Japanese

  • Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa
  • 5 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 1 destroyer

  • Battle of Savo Island - Background:

    Moving to the offensive after the victory at Midway in June 1942, Allied forces targeted Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Situated at the eastern end of the island chain, Guadalcanal had been occupied by a small Japanese force which was constructing an airfield. From the island, the Japanese would be able to threaten Allied supply lines to Australia. As a result, Allied forces under the direction of Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher arrived in the area and troops began landing on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo on August 7.

    While Fletcher's carrier task force covered the landings, the amphibious force was directed by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner. Included in his command was a screening force of eight cruisers, fifteen destroyers, and five minesweepers led by British Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley. Though the landings caught the Japanese by surprise, they countered with several air raids on August 7 and 8. These were largely defeated by Fletcher's carrier aircraft, though they did set afire the transport George F. Elliott.

    Having sustained losses in these engagements and concerned about fuel levels, Fletcher informed Turner that he would be leaving the area late on August 8 to resupply. Unable to remain in the area without cover, Turner decided to continue unloading supplies at Guadalcanal through the night before withdrawing on August 9. On the evening of August 8, Turner called a meeting with Crutchley and Marine Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift to discuss the withdrawal. In leaving for the meeting, Crutchley departed the screening force aboard the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia without informing his command of his absence.

    The Japanese Response:

    Responsibility for responding to the invasion fell to Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa who led the newly-formed Eighth Fleet based at Rabaul. Flying his flag from the heavy cruiser Chokai, he departed with the light cruisers Tenryu and Yubari, as well as a destroyer with the goal of attacking the Allied transports on the night of August 8/9. Proceeding southeast, he was soon joined by Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto's Cruiser Division 6 which consisted of the heavy cruisers Aoba, Furutaka, Kako, and Kinugasa. It was Mikawa's plan to move along the east coast of Bougainville before advancing down "The Slot" to Guadalcanal (Map).

    Moving through the St. George Channel, Mikawa's ships were spotted by the submarine USS S-38. Later in the morning, they were located by Australian scout aircraft which radioed sighting reports. These failed to reach the Allied fleet until evening and even then were inaccurate as they reported the enemy formation included seaplane tenders. As he moved southeast, Mikawa launched floatplanes which provided him with a fairly accurate picture of the Allied dispositions. With this information, he informed his captains that they would approach south of Savo Island, attack, and then withdraw to the north of the island.

    Allied Dispositions:

    Before departing for the meeting with Turner, Crutchley deployed his force to cover the channels north and south of Savo Island. The southern approach was guarded by the heavy cruisers USS Chicago and HMAS Canberra along with the destroyers USS Bagley and USS Patterson. The northern channel was protected by the heavy cruisers USS Vincennes, USS Quincy, and USS Astoria along with the destroyers USS Helm and USS Wilson steaming in a square patrol pattern. As an early warning force, the radar-equipped destroyers USS Ralph Talbot and USS Blue were positioned to the west of Savo (Map).

    The Japanese Strike:

    After two days of constant action, the tired crews of the Allied ships were at Condition II which meant that half were on duty while half rested. In addition, several of the cruiser captains were also asleep. Approaching Guadalcanal after dark, Mikawa again launched floatplanes to scout the enemy and to drop flares during the upcoming fight. Closing in a single file line, his ships successfully passed between Blue and Ralph Talbot whose radars were hampered by the nearby land masses. Around 1:35 AM on August 9, Mikawa spotted the ships of the southern force silhouetted by the fires from the burning George F. Elliot.

    Though spotting the northern force, Mikawa commenced attacking the southern force with torpedoes around 1:38. Five minutes later, Patterson was the first Allied ship to spot the enemy and immediately went into action. As it did so, both Chicago and Canberra were illuminated by aerial flares. The latter ship attempted to attack, but quickly came under heavy fire and was put out of action, listing and on fire. At 1:47, as Captain Howard Bode was attempting to get Chicago into the fight, the ship was hit in the bow by a torpedo. Rather than assert control, Bode steamed west for forty minutes and left the fight (Map).

    Defeat of the Northern Force:

    Moving through the southern passage, Mikawa turned north to engage the other Allied ships. In doing so, Tenryu, Yubari, and Furutaka took a more westerly course than the rest of the fleet. As a result, the Allied northern force was soon bracketed by the enemy. Though firing had been observed to the south, the northern ships were unsure of the situation and were slow to go to general quarters. At 1:44, the Japanese began launching torpedoes at the American cruisers and six minutes later illuminated them with searchlights. Astoria came into action, but was hit hard by fire from Chokai which disabled its engines. Drifting to a halt, the cruiser was soon on fire, but managed to inflict moderate damage on Chokai.

    Quincy was slower to enter the fray and was soon caught in a crossfire between the two Japanese columns. Though one of its salvos hit Chokai, nearly killing Mikawa, the cruiser was soon on fire from Japanese shells and three torpedo hits. Burning, Quincy sank at 2:38. Vincennes was hesitant to enter the fight for fear of friendly fire. When it did, it quickly took two torpedo hits and became the focus of Japanese fire. Taking over 70 hits and a third torpedo, Vincennes sank at 2:50.

    At 2:16, Mikawa met with his staff about pressing the battle to attack the Guadalcanal anchorage. As their ships were scattered and low on ammunition, it was decided to withdraw back to Rabaul. In addition, he believed that the American carriers were still in the area. As he lacked air cover, it was necessary for him to clear the area before daylight. Departing, his ships inflicted damage on Ralph Talbot as they moved northwest.

    Aftermath of Savo Island

    The first of a series of naval battles around Guadalcanal, the defeat at Savo Island saw the Allies lose four heavy cruisers and suffer 1,077 killed. In addition, Chicago and three destroyers were damaged. Japanese losses were a light 58 killed with three heavy cruisers damaged. Despite the severity of the defeat, the Allied ships did succeed in preventing Mikawa from striking the transports in the anchorage. Had Mikawa pressed his advantage, it would have severely hampered Allied efforts to resupply and reinforce the island later in the campaign. The US Navy later commissioned the Hepburn Investigation to look into the defeat. Of those involved, only Bode was severely criticized.

    Selected Sources

  • World War II Pacific: Battle of Savo Island
  • Guadalcanal: Battle of Savo Island
  • Opening Salvos: The Battle of Savo Island

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