Key Point: Until that point, every surface encounter between the Allied navies and the Japanese had ended in disaster for the Allies. But Cape Esperance was a clear-cut victory.
Both sides needed reinforcements. For the Japanese and the Americans in October 1942, the battle for Guadalcanal was turning into a bottomless pit, demanding more and more scarce resources—in the air and at sea and, most importantly, on the ground. Control of the malarial, jungle-clad island and its airfield might determine the fate of the war in the Pacific.
The problem was that neither the Japanese nor the Americans had the resources. Both nations were trying to wage the South Pacific war on the cheap—the bulk of Japan’s ground forces were committed to the endless war in China, and the United States was committed to the “Germany First” policy, which made the war in Europe the first priority. Both sides lacked troops, transports, planes, and basic supplies.
Nevertheless, as the U.S. Marines and Japanese Army units on Guadalcanal became exhausted from heavy combat and rugged conditions, it was more imperative than ever to resupply and reinforce the troops—on both sides.
As September turned to October, the Japanese moved first. The local commander, Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, using destroyer transports, ordered the delivery of 10,000 men of the tough 2nd Infantry Division to Guadalcanal’s Cape Esperance in eight nocturnal runs down the channel between the Solomon Islands chain, a route known to the Americans as The Slot, in a measure the Japanese called the Ant Transportation, but known to Americans then and forever as the Tokyo Express.
The Americans did not waste time in reacting. Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific, ordered his top sailors on the scene to take swift action.
The task fell to Rear Admiral Norman Scott, an aggressive sailor, Indiana native, and 1911 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was a champion fencer. He had been executive officer of the destroyer Jacob Jones when it was sunk by a German U-boat in 1917, naval aide to the president, commanded the heavy cruiser Pensacola, and had served in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations in 1941 where, according to Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, he “made things so miserable for everyone around him in Washington that he finally got what he wanted—sea duty, and his rear admiral’s stars.” He had been near but not present at the Savo Island debacle and learned from the disaster.
Scott’s task was twofold: ensure that the U.S. Army’s 164th Infantry Regiment and its 2,837 men, along with the ground crew of the 1st Marine Air Wing and assorted supplies, reached Guadalcanal safely to reinforce the Marines and attack the next convoy of Japanese reinforcements themselves. His orders: “Search for and destroy enemy ships and landing craft.”
On October 9, 1942, the 164th headed from New Caledonia for Guadalcanal in two battered transports, the McCawley (“Wacky Mac”) and the Zeilin, shepherded by eight destroyers. Scott’s Task Force 64 arrived south of Rennell Island the same day and readied for battle.
Task Force 64 consisted of two heavy cruisers, the San Francisco and Salt Lake City, two light cruisers, the Boise and Helena, and five destroyers, Farenholt, Buchanan, Laffey, Duncan, and McCalla.
They were a well-trained group in comparison to the force that had been annihilated in August at Savo Island. Under Scott’s leadership, Task Force 64 had done intensive night gunnery exercises, with men enduring general quarters from dusk to dawn. Scott had also laid down a carefully drawn battle plan. His ships would steam in column with destroyers ahead and astern. The tin cans would illuminate the Japanese targets with their searchlights, fire torpedoes at the largest enemy vessels, guns at the smaller ones, and the cruisers would open fire whenever they spotted an enemy ship. Cruiser floatplanes were to illuminate the battle area.
Despite the intense training and tight plans, Scott’s force had weaknesses. San Francisco had done poorly in gunnery exercises and had been used for convoy escorting duties, complete with a depth charge rack hammered on her stern. That was not too useful, as San Francisco lacked sonar. The depth charges were a potential fire hazard in battle. Boise also had a questionable history. She had missed a major battle in the Dutch East Indies when she ran aground.
More importantly, the two heavy cruisers operated the early SC (“Sugar Charlie”) radar, while the light cruisers sported the more effective and modern SG (“Sugar George”) radar among the first American ships to do so. Worse, Scott, like other admirals of the time, was not overly impressed with radar, preferring the tried and effective night optics of scopes and searchlights. As a result, Scott hoisted his flag on San Francisco, which offered flag quarters, as opposed to the smaller cruisers, which did not. He accepted reports that the Japanese had receivers that could detect SC radars in use. So he ordered them shut off during the approach to action and only used the SG radars and narrow beamed fire control radars to supplement his lookouts. Perhaps most critically, in night naval battles in the Pacific to date, the Japanese had sunk eight Allied cruisers and three destroyers without losing a single ship.
Nonetheless, Scott was ready. On October 9-10, he made tentative advances to Cape Esperance but turned back when aerial reconnaissance and codebreakers reported no suitable Japanese targets.
There was good reason for that. Japanese convoys down The Slot were being delayed by American bombers based on Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field, which irritated Mikawa. He complained to Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka, who headed the 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul. Kusaka said he would neutralize Henderson Field if Mikawa would run the Express.
On October 11, some 35 Japanese bombers and 30 fighters attacked Henderson Field but only managed to bomb the jungle. The Japanese lost four Mitsubishi Zero fighters and eight bombers. But they drew off the Americans, giving the Japanese ships a break to head south.
However, the naval movements caught the eye of patrolling Boeing B-17 bombers of Colonel L.G. Saunders’ 11th Bombardment Group, and they reported two cruisers and six destroyers racing down The Slot. The bombers’ messages went to Scott and his command. On Helena, Ensign Chick Morris, the radio officer, wrote about “a steady, chattering stream that kept the typewriters hopping.”
The oncoming force was actually two groups. One was the “Reinforcement Group,” consisting of the fast seaplane tenders Nisshin and Chitose and five troop-carrying transports. The seaplane tenders’ aircraft had been removed in favor of four 150mm howitzers and their tractors, two field guns, and 280 men, which jammed the two ships’ hangar spaces. The other force was a veteran group of three heavy cruisers, Aoba, Kinugasa, and Furutaka, and two destroyers, Hatsuyuki and Fubuki. Except for Hatsuyuki, all ships were the victors of Savo Island. Called the “Bombardment Group,” their mission was to escort the reinforcements and then treat Henderson Field to a dose of heavy shellfire with their guns.
In command of this force was Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto, who graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1910, 30th in a class of 149. He had commanded destroyers, served on battleships, and headed the second and successful invasion of Wake Island in 1941. It was a powerful group of well-trained sailors with victorious experience in night battles. Their job was simple: get the reinforcements in so that the Japanese 17th Army could attack Henderson Field on October 22, backed by more powerful naval and air forces.
Because of this, the Japanese cruisers and destroyers were loaded with high explosive ordnance useful for blasting ground troops and installations instead of armor-piercing ordnance needed to rip through ships’ steel hulls.
For once, the Americans had the intelligence advantage—the Japanese knew nothing of Task Force 64, and Goto’s force steamed southeast in utter ignorance of its enemy, in antisubmarine formation with Aoba and Goto in the lead, Furutaka behind, and Kinugasa in the rear. Fubuki stood guard on the starboard side with Hatsuyuki to port.
Task Force 64 steamed northeast in battle line with the destroyers Farenholt, Duncan, and Laffey in the lead. Behind them were San Francisco, Boise, Salt Lake City, Helena, Buchanan, and McCalla. Scott’s plan was to intercept the Tokyo Express west of Guadalcanal, cross the T of his advancing enemy, lay down a broadside of torpedoes and shells, and then countermarch—all the ships turning on one point and staying in formation—and double back to deliver a second dose of fire. Scott sent this plan by signal flag to the other ships, and Chick Morris and his fellow junior ensigns—they called themselves the Junior Board of Strategy—took a break from the tension to stand on Helena’s forecastle, study the plans, analyze their implications, and wonder how they would stand the fight.
Amid sunset colors, Morris wrote, “It was good to stand there and watch the ships of our formation steaming through that placid sea. And I was not alone. Other men were thinking the same thoughts. Some were sitting around anchor windlasses. Others were parked on the bitts, quietly ‘batting the breeze.’ One man was asleep on the steel deck, and another, nearby, was deep in a magazine of Western stories.”