08 August 2011

A Fatal Lethargy of Mind

Today marks the 69th anniversary of the start of what became the worst defeat at sea our Navy has ever experienced – the Battle of Savo Island.
To set the scene, it’s D+1 on 8 August 1942 and the American forces have just landed on Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Task force 62, the amphibious force led by Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, was responsible for offloading the Marines and their supplies and equipment from the Navy transports. Turner’s screening force, commanded by Australian Rear Admiral Victor A.C. Crutchley and comprised of eight cruisers and eight destroyers secured the area around Savo Island to screen the landing area and protect the transports. Savo Island splits “the Slot,” the body of water that separates the eastern and western Solomon Islands, into two lanes of approach to Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
Night disposition of the Allied screening force
on 8-9 August 1942
To cover the north and south lanes, and the eastern approach from Indispensible Strait, Crutchley divided his screening force into three elements:
To the north, there were two destroyers and three heavy cruisers; two destroyers and two light cruisers covered an eastern approach; and to the south he positioned two escort destroyers and three heavy cruisers, including his own flagship, the HMAS Australia. Crutchley also employed two radar pickets to the west as part of an early warning system.
On the Japanese side, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, commander of the Japanese 8th fleet, had already assembled a strike force of seven cruisers and one destroyer to respond to the American landings. Mikawa’s 8th fleet was based out of Rabaul, New Britain 1,100 miles to the northwest of Guadalcanal. His route to the battle would take him out of Rabaul, around Cape St. George, through the Buka Strait, down the eastern coast of Bougainville, and into New Georgia Sound, also known as “the Slot.”
Mikawa was worried about the presence of American carriers. He knew the carriers had supported the previous landings and suspected they were still there, but he had no confirmation of their positions. Being spotted by Allied planes would not only disrupt his mission, but would likely put his ships at great risk of being attacked with no Japanese air cover available to him.
Fortunately for Mikawa, the actions of the Allied commanders were poorly coordinated. They were still new at this business and nothing in their training before the war prepared them for the reality of naval combat as practiced by the Japanese.
Map of the Solomon Islands depicting the route taken
by Vice Admiral Mikawa to attack the Allied Naval Forces
at Guadalcanal
Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, had lost twenty-one aircraft from his carriers during the initial landings and feared the consequences of another Japanese air raid. Low on fuel and with the threat of enemy torpedo and dive bombers on his mind, he decided to withdraw his carrier groups from the area and head for less confined waters. By the time Mikawa was en route to Guadalcanal, Fletcher - along with all U.S. air cover - had departed the scene.
When Turner learned of Fletcher’s departure, he was understandably upset. During the landing, the Japanese aircraft had struck the Allied landing force three times and Turner felt acutely vulnerable to further air raids. Left with no air support, Turner felt he had no choice but to cut the off-loading operation short. He continued to offload supplies through the night, but would withdraw the remaining transports the next day – with fewer than half the supplies and equipment delivered to the Marines ashore.
Mikawa, meanwhile, did not go unnoticed by Turner. Reconnaissance from the previous day had reported the presence of elements of a Japanese force, but each report was either dismissed or never made its way to Turner. One report from a Royal Australian pilot described three cruisers, two gunboats, and two seaplane tenders. Another report from a B-17 described the force as four cruisers and one destroyer, while another B-17 reported it as six unidentified ships. Given the relatively small size and spotty composition of the force, Turner dismissed the ships as a credible threat. He instead focused on the two seaplane tenders and assumed the Japanese were gathering their forces in the north for another air raid. Turner and Crutchley both assumed it highly unlikely that the Japanese would risk a night attack with such a small force.  Turner was confident the assault area was secure from a surface threat and thus relaxed his fatigued crews to CONDITION TWO and would rely on his screening force to protect the transports while they continued to off-load throughout the night.
By the time of Turner’s decision, night had fallen and Mikawa’s strong cruiser force was already in the slot. Both radar pickets had failed to detect Mikawa as he steamed past them toward Savo Island. With his ships arranged in column formation, and battle stations manned, at 0131 on 9 August 1942, Mikawa gave the order “every ship attack.” Mikawa’s flagship, the CHOKAI, launched its first torpedo and within five minutes the CANBERRA was struck and the Battle of Savo Island was underway. The CANBERRA could barely react before she was struck again by another torpedo. Over the next five minutes she was hit over twenty times and eventually sank the next morning.
During the attack on the southern group, Crutchley was away from his flagship. Turner had summoned Crutchley and Marine Major General Alexander Vandegrift to his flagship to deliver the news of the next day’s departure and discuss the overall situation. Crutchley, not wanting to risk a night transit back to his position in the southern group, had decided to keep his flagship in company with Turner’s forces. He had left CAPT Bode of USS CHICAGO in charge as the task group commander of the screening force.
Bode and the CHICAGO were not spared by Mikawa. After striking the CANBERRA, Mikawa’s ships zeroed in on the CHICAGO with deadly accuracy.  As a result, CAPT Bode was pre-occupied with fighting the damage to his ship and failed to alert the other group commanders of the attack that was now underway – a fatal mistake.
USS QUINCY, seen here burning and illuminated by
Japanese search lights, was sunk in this action
With the southern group in complete disarray and largely disabled, Mikawa turned his forces to deal with the northern group, positioned to the east of Savo Island. His ships fixed their sights on the VINCENNES, ASTORIA, and QUINCY and within minutes the un-alerted ships were slammed with a barrage of torpedoes and gunfire. Like the southern group, these ships were overcome within just minutes, and all three would be sunk.
During the chaos of the engagement on the southern group, Mikawa’s force had become divided. He was very concerned about the length of time it would take to regroup the force and reload the torpedo tubes. It was at this point that Mikawa made what many consider to be a very serious tactical error - he gave the order to abandon his objective of destroying the Allied transports and at 0220 departed the area.
By the end of the first battle of Savo Island, the Japanese sank four Allied cruisers – the CANBERRA, VINCENNES, ASTORIA and QUINCY – seriously damaged a number of destroyers, and killed over 1,000 Sailors. Conversely, five Japanese ships were slightly damaged with less than 100 killed.
In less than one hour the Japanese inflicted the worst defeat at sea the U.S. Navy has ever experienced.
How did this happen?
Admiral Richmond Kelley Turner, in his post-battle report, wrote, "The (U.S.) Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence of enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the Japanese and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mindwhich induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise."
In the Solomons, we eventually adapted - we got our heads into the fight at the same level as the Japanese, and we out-adapted them. And during the battle of Cape St. George – the final engagement of the Solomons Campaign, CAPT Arleigh Burke engaged a Japanese flotilla of five destroyers with an equal force of five Fletcher class destroyers – the CHARLES AUSBURNE, CLAXTON, DYSON, CONVERSE, and SPENCE. He engaged the Japanese at night and sank three of the five Japanese destroyers with no American casualties. Burke had trained hard and not only did he out-fight the Japanese at Cape St. George, he out-thought them as well.
By the end of the Solomon Islands campaign, our forces were far superior in executing night combat operations. We had developed superior radar which enabled superior combat tactics. We learned the hard way about command and control in combat in the littoral. We learned tactics and doctrine. We learned how to fight.
The Sailors in the Solomon Islands campaign from 1942-1943 took ownership of the situation and brought the Navy from the operational depths of Savo Island to the heights of Vella Gulf and Cape St. George.
The example these Sailors and Marines set for us during the Guadalcanal and larger Solomon Islands campaign, the first offensive campaign of the war for the United States, will stand forever. We would do well to study what they did and apply the lessons they learned to what we have to be ready to do today.
All the best, JCHjr


Anonymous said...

"Neptune's Inferno" By James Hornfischer is an excellent read, and covers in detail the events of that night as well as the turnaround the Navy executed in the following months.

Anonymous said...

How would a LCS fair in the littoral Savo Island battle?
Would a module need to be changed out (sort of calling a time out during the battle to change a module)?

Anonymous said...

To know history is to know the future. History has a way of repeating itself. Call it "written in blood"[natops] or "lessons learned", you and your troops will benefit from its lessons.

Anonymous said...

Admiral Harvey, I believe one of the radar pickets DID pick up the IJN formation and passed it up the chain of command. The CoC, however, not being familiar with radar, ignored the contact.


ADM J. C. Harvey, Jr USN said...

Byron, are you referring to USS BLUE? I never saw where that report was conclusively determined to have been made. Do you have a good reference handy? Thanks, JCHjr

Towing San Diego said...

I have not saw a good reference on that. Although i don't think they took radar to seriously at the time.