World War II: Naval Battle of Guadalcanal

Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
USS Washington fires during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 15, 1942. US Naval History & Heritage Command

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was fought November 12-15, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945). Having halted the Japanese advance at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, Allied forces launched their first major offensive two months later when US Marines landed on Guadalcanal. Quickly establishing foothold on the island, they completed an airfield that the Japanese had been building. This was dubbed Henderson Field in memory Major Lofton R. Henderson who had been killed at Midway. Critical to the island's defense, Henderson Field allowed Allied aircraft to command the seas around the Solomon Islands during the day.

Tokyo Express

During the fall of 1942, the Japanese made several efforts to capture Henderson Field and force the Allies from Guadalcanal. Unable to move reinforcements to the island during daylight hours due to the threat posed by Allied air attacks, they were limited to delivering troops at night using destroyers. These ships were fast enough to steam down "The Slot" (New George Sound), unload, and escape before Allied aircraft returned at dawn. This method of troop movement, dubbed the "Tokyo Express", proved effective but precluded the delivery of heavy equipment and weapons. Additionally, Japanese warships would use the darkness to conduct bombardment missions against Henderson Field in attempts to hinder its operations.

The continued use of the Tokyo Express led to several night surface engagements, such as the Battle of Cape Esperance (October 11-12, 1942) as Allied ships attempted to block the Japanese. Additionally, larger fleet engagements, like the inconclusive Battle of Santa Cruz (October 25-27, 1942), were fought as both sides sought to gain control of the waters around the Solomons. Ashore, the Japanese suffered a sharp defeat when their offensive in late October was turned back by the Allies (Battle of Henderson Field).

Yamamoto's Plan

In November 1942, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, prepared for a large reinforcement mission to the island with the goal of putting up to 7,000 men ashore along with their heavy equipment. Organizing two groups, Yamamoto formed a convoy of 11 slow transports and 12 destroyers under Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka and a bombardment force under Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe. Consisting of the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, the light cruiser Nagara, and 11 destroyers, Abe's group was tasked with bombarding Henderson Field to prevent Allied aircraft from attacking Tanaka's transports. Alerted to Japanese intentions, the Allies dispatched a reinforcement force (Task Force 67) to Guadalcanal.

Fleets & Commanders:



The First Battle

To protect the supply ships, Rear Admirals Daniel J. Callaghan and Norman Scott were dispatched with the heavy cruisers USS San Francisco and USS Portland, the light cruisers USS Helena, USS Juneau, and USS Atlanta, as well as 8 destroyers. Nearing Guadalcanal on the night of November 12/13, Abe's formation became confused after passing through a rain squall. Alerted to the Japanese approach, Callahan formed for battle and attempted to cross the Japanese T. After receiving incomplete information, Callahan issued several confusing orders from his flagship (San Francisco) causing his formation to come apart.

As a result, the Allied and Japanese ships became intermingled at close range. At 1:48 AM, Abe ordered his flagship, Hiei, and a destroyer to turn on their searchlights. Illuminating Atlanta, both sides opened fire. Realizing that his ships were nearly surrounded, Callahan ordered, "Odd ships fire to starboard, even ships fire to port." In the naval melee that ensued, Atlanta was put out of action and Admiral Scott killed. Fully illuminated, Hiei was mercilessly attacked by US ships which wounded Abe, killed his chief of staff, and knocked the battleship out of the fight.

While taking fire, Hiei and several Japanese ships pummeled San Francisco, killing Callahan, and forcing the cruiser to retreat. Helena followed in an attempt to protect the cruiser from further harm. Portland succeeded in sinking the destroyer Akatsuki, but took a torpedo in the stern which damaged its steering. Juneau was also hit by a torpedo and forced to the leave the area. While the larger ships dueled, destroyers on both sides battled. After 40 minutes of fighting, Abe, perhaps not knowing he had achieved a tactical victory and that the way to Henderson Field was open, ordered his ships to withdraw.

Further Losses

The next day, the disabled Hiei was relentlessly attacked by Allied aircraft and sunk, while the wounded Juneau sank after being torpedoed by I-26. Efforts to save Atlanta also failed and the cruiser sank around 8:00 PM on November 13. In the fighting, Allied forces lost two light cruisers and four destroyers, as well as had two heavy and two light cruisers damaged. Abe's losses included Hiei and two destroyers. Despite, Abe's failure, Yamamoto elected to proceed with sending Tanaka's transports to Guadalcanal on November 13.

Allied Air Attacks

To provide cover, he ordered the Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa 8th Fleet's Cruiser Force (4 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers) to bombard Henderson Field. This was accomplished on the night of November 13/14, but little damage was inflicted. As Mikawa was leaving the area the next day, he was spotted by Allied aircraft and lost the heavy cruisers Kinugasa (sunk) and Maya (heavily damaged). Subsequent air attacks sank seven of Tanaka's transports. The remaining four pressed on after dark. To support them, Admiral Nobutake Kondo arrived with a battleship (Kirishima), 2 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 8 destroyers.

Halsey Sends Reinforcements

Having taken heavy casualties on the 13th, the overall Allied commander in the area, Admiral William "Bull" Halsey detached the battleships USS Washington (BB-56) and USS South Dakota (BB-57) as well as 4 destroyers from USS Enterprise's (CV-6) screening force as Task Force 64 under Rear Admiral Willis Lee. Moving to defend Henderson Field and block Kondo's advance, Lee arrived off Savo Island and Guadalcanal on the evening of November 14.

The Second Battle

Approaching Savo, Kondo dispatched a light cruiser and two destroyers to scout ahead. At 10:55 PM, Lee spotted Kondo on radar and at 11:17 PM opened fire on the Japanese scouts. This had little effect and Kondo sent forward Nagara with four destroyers. Attacking the American destroyers, this force sank two and crippled the others. Believing he had won the battle, Kondo pressed forward unaware of Lee's battleships. While Washington quickly sank the destroyer Ayanami, South Dakota began to experience a series of electrical problems which limited its ability to fight.

Illuminated by searchlights, South Dakota received the brunt of Kondo's attack. Meanwhile, Washington stalked Kirishima before opening fire with devastating effect. Hit by over 50 shells, Kirishima was crippled and later sank. After evading several torpedo attacks, Washington attempted to lead the Japanese out of the area. Thinking the road was open for Tanaka, Kondo withdrew.


While Tanaka's four transports reached Guadalcanal, they were quickly attacked by Allied aircraft the next morning, destroying most of the heavy equipment on board. The Allied success in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal ensured that the Japanese would be unable to launch another offensive against Henderson Field. Unable to reinforce or adequately supply Guadalcanal, the Japanese Navy recommended that it be abandoned on December 12, 1942.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Naval Battle of Guadalcanal." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). World War II: Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Naval Battle of Guadalcanal." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).