By Christopher B. Havern Sr., Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command History and Archives Division-Emergent Response
“Wisdom comes alone through suffering.” ― Aeschylus
On August 7, 1942, Allied amphibious forces landed units of the First Marine Division and surprised the Imperial Japanese forces occupying the islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomons. In response, Captain Kami Shigenori, the Senior Staff Officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 8th Fleet based at Rabaul, New Britain, proposed a night surface attack on the ships screening the Allied landings. In short order, Vice Admiral Mikawa Gunichi, Commander of the 8th Fleet, hastily assembled a force of seven cruisers (five heavy and two light) and one destroyer from divisions based at Rabaul and at Kavieng, New Ireland. As the divisions had never served together previously, Mikawa kept his plan simple. The Japanese would rendezvous enroute on August 8 and steam southward down the New Georgia Sound (“The Slot”) in line ahead formation with his flagship Chokai leading. Upon approaching Savo Island under the cover of darkness, the ships would pass south of Savo, initiate their attack against the Southern force, then turn to the northwest in order to engage the Northern force. With the second attack completed, the Japanese planned to continue through the channel north of Savo and then steam back up the Slot toward Rabaul. Mikawa planned a quick escape to ensure that his ships avoided being caught in daylight by carrier-based aviation that was believed to be supporting the Allied transports.
At 1:43 a.m. on August 9, Mikawa’s force struck and caught the Allies almost completely unaware. No more than half an hour elapsed from the time the enemy ships appeared without warning around the southern corner of Savo Island till they ceased fire and passed back out to sea. Using torpedoes and well-aimed gunfire coordinated with searchlights, the Japanese, with minimal material damage and human loss, crossed ahead of the Southern cruiser group, putting HMAS Canberra completely out of action within minutes and damaging Chicago (CA-29). They then crossed astern of the Northern group, battering the cruisers so badly that Vincennes (CA-44), Quincy (CA-39), and Astoria (CA-34) all sank within an hour. With three heavy cruisers sunk and another scuttled, along with 1,023 Allied dead and 709 wounded, the engagement has come to be identified as the worst defeat in a single fleet action in the history of the United States Navy.
While the outcome of the Battle of Savo Island was a combination of factors which produced good fortune for the Japanese, luck does not sufficiently address the battle’s outcome. It was the relative capability of each force for night combat that was a central component in the battle’s outcome. Simply put, the Japanese were far more proficient in the conduct of night operations than the U.S. Navy.
In the years prior to the U.S. entry into World War I, the Navy, primarily the Atlantic Torpedo Flotilla under the command of William S. Sims (1913-1915), worked diligently to develop a tactical doctrine for the flotilla and its operational support of the battle fleet. A major emphasis was placed on cultivating competency in night combat. To that end, the flotilla trained extensively. After the war, however, the Navy became risk averse. Fearing losses in training, the Navy either did not conduct tactical exercises at night or those that were undertaken, were not realistic and failed to train the fleet adequately. Even worse, in the two years prior the U.S. entry into World War II, the Navy conducted almost no night training given the requirement to perform “Neutrality Patrols.” As a result, even eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was still not prepared. The early morning of August 9 provided the service with a painful lesson.
In stark contrast to the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) trained extensively on night combat operations during the Interwar period. They both understood the potential risk of accidents and deemed the losses acceptable in order to ensure proficiency. The British would see this investment pay significant dividends in a night action off Cape Matapan, Greece, on March 28-29 ,1941. Three British battleships under Adm. Andrew Cunningham closed to 3,800 yards of an Italian force without being detected. At point-blank range, the battleships turned on their searchlights and opened fire with devastating effect, obliterating two heavy cruisers and two destroyers in less than five minutes. The Japanese placed an even greater emphasis on training under realistic conditions and developed a tactical doctrine which combined surprise with night fighting in order to limit the Allies’ numerical advantage. All their cruisers, both heavy and light, and destroyers were fitted with superb long-ranged Type-93 “Long Lance” torpedoes and their crews were well-practiced in their use. The skills of their gun crews were also honed with years of practice and combat experience against the Chinese since 1937. Even after Pearl Harbor, the Allies underestimated the Japanese. They remained ignorant of the IJN doctrine and the high level of their training. The importance of night fighting for the Japanese was indicated by their identification of the recruits with the best night vision and their training with the finest night binoculars. In short, the Japanese lookout was an integral part of a weapons system. By comparison at Savo Island, U.S. radar failed to locate the approaching Japanese task force while Mikawa’s lookouts emerged from a mist and spotted the screening force at nearly 5,000 yards. The Japanese were well-trained, experienced, and confident and saw themselves as the heirs of a heritage of night combat success dating to the surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in 1904.
It was with this level of expertise, even with an exceedingly simple plan, that Mikawa confidently signaled his force before departing for the attack:
“Let us attack with certain victory in the traditional night attack of the Imperial Navy. May each calmly do his utmost!”
In his book The U.S. Navy against the Axis: Surface Combat, 1941-1945, author Vincent P. O’Hara observed, “Mikawa applied a doctrine; his men followed their training. Torpedoes hit the water before the enemy perceived a threat.” Continuing, he noted that “Ships that had never operated together before coordinated their actions effectively. The ability of three cruisers to illuminate different targets nearly simultaneously, to open fire within minutes of each other, and to hit every target within three minutes — all while rushing at twenty-six knots through a dark and squally night — was an outstanding accomplishment. The Japanese captains even turned their failure to maintain formation into an advantage, attacking the northern cruisers from both sides.”
While nothing in war is guaranteed, the Japanese attack at Savo Island exemplifies the importance of developing tactical doctrine and training your force to be able to execute it both competently and confidently. It was a lesson learned at tremendous cost by the U.S. Navy in World War II and it should serve as a reminder to the fleet as it faces continually emerging threats in the 21st century.
Links related to the Battle of Savo Island:
The Battle of Savo Island August 9th, 1942 Strategical and Tactical Analysis (U>S> Naval War College 1950)
Books related to the Battle of Savo Island:
Dull, Paul S. A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941-1945. (1978)
Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. (1990)
Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal. (2011)
Loxton, Bruce and Coulthard-Clark Chris. The Shame of Savo: Anatomy of a Naval Disaster. (1997)