…also known as
The Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks
August 8/9, 1942
The Battle of Savo Island, also known as the First Battle of Savo Island and known by the Guadalcanal veterans as The Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks, was the first major naval engagement of the Guadalcanal campaign. In 37 minutes, three Allied cruisers were sunk, a fourth was scuttled. One cruiser and two destroyers were severely damaged killing 1,077 American and Australian sailors. The Japanese escaped with minor to moderate damage to their cruisers with 129 Japanese sailors killed. This battle is often cited by historians as the worst U.S. Navy defeat in its history.
Guadalcanal was the first American offensive of the Pacific War after the defeat at Pearl Harbor. The Allies needed a base to operate from in order to begin their move toward Japan. Admiral Ernest King, after assuming his new position as Commander in Chief, United States Fleet in 1941, issued his vision to accomplish exactly that.
King’s vision: “to protect the line of communications with Australia but, in so doing, set up “strong points” from which a step-by-step general advance can be made through the New Hebrides, Solomons, and the Bismarck Archipelago. It is to be expected that such a step-by-step general advance will draw the Japanese forces to oppose it, thus relieving pressure in other parts of the Pacific–and that the operation will of itself be good cover for the communications with Australia”.
At the beginning of 1942, after a victory at Coral Sea and Midway, General MacArthur made a bold claim that given two aircraft carriers and an amphib force, he could take Rabaul and send the Japanese back 700 miles. Washington was listening and General Marshall agreed to this concept if the Navy supported it.
The Pacific was divided into three theaters commanded by MacArthur and Nimitz and the Navy was in no way going to give command of two aircraft carriers to MacArthur. The rhetoric that followed reached epic levels between the Navy and Army. So much so, that Admiral King threatened to conduct attacks in the Solomons with or without Army support. MacArthur claimed the navy was attempting to place the Army in a “subsidiary role” of providing occupation forces at the disposal of the Navy under the command of the Navy. On July 1, 1942, 38 days before U.S. troops landed on Guadalcanal, General Marshall proposed a plan that MacArthur and King supported. The plan was code named “Pestilence” and was adopted on July 2, 1942. The plan involved three tasks:
- Task 1: Capture Santa Cruz Islands and Tulagi under the command of Nimitz by 01 August.
- Task 2: Capture Lae, Salamaua and the NE coast of New Guinea commanded by MacArthur.
- Task 3: Attack Rabaul commanded by MacArthur.
While the plan was being finalized, Allied intelligence received information that the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal. The Allies wanted a place to put an airfield and with the Japanese building one on Guadalcanal, “Pestilence” was changed on July 5. Task 1 was changed from Santa Cruz Islands to Guadalcanal. The code name for the new target Guadalcanal was “Cactus”. This became a top priority as Guadalcanal provided the needed allied base and deprived the Japanese of another offensive platform. Capturing the airfield on Guadalcanal before it became operational required an aggressive time line.
Admiral Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Combined Japanese Fleet, initial objective was to destroy the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Defeats at Coral Sea and Midway had Yamamoto rethinking his objectives. One objective did not change: “bold military action followed by skillful diplomacy”. By securing the Solomon Islands they could position themselves to cut off Australia, which could force the Allies to diplomacy. The Japanese could than turn their attention to development of the southern resource area and the war with China. Guadalcanal would become the primary focus of the Japanese in the South Pacific.
On March 9th, 1942, the newly formed Joint Chiefs of Staff divided the Pacific theater into two commands. General Douglas MacArthur commanded the Southwest Pacific area which included the Philippines, South China Sea, Netherlands East Indies, Australia, Solomons and Gulf of Siam.
Admiral Chester Nimitz commanded the rest of the Pacific Ocean which was divided into three areas; the North Pacific Ocean, the Central Pacific Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean. Nimitz had direct control of the the north and central Pacific ocean, however, he selected Vadm Robert Ghormley to command the South Pacific Area.
The Allies’ Command and Control
The plans for Operation Watchtower (the amphib assault on Guadalcanal) was finalized on July 9, 1942 and disseminated on July 17, 1942. The plans placed Ghormley in operational control over all forces in the operation. Ghormley placed the entire Expeditionary Force (TF-61) under the command of Vadm Frank J. Fletcher. Fletcher was the senior Carrier Group Commander but the plan also called for Radm Noyes to command the carriers as Air Support Force, leaving Fletcher free to focus on the overall operation as the Officer in Tactical Command.
Task Force 62, the Amphibious Force, was commanded by Radm Richmond K. Turner. As the Amphib Commander, Turner was responsible for landing the Marines on Guadalcanal including the offload of their supplies and equipment. Royal Navy Radm V.A.C. Crutchley was second in command to Turner and was responsible for providing the defensive screen around Guadalcanal. The Landing Force was commanded by Marine General Alexander Vandegrift.
Ghormley also had command of Vadm John McCain’s TF63 which included all the land based aircraft in the South Pacific Force.
Crutchley’s plan for protecting the amphib forces divided the force into four elements.
Element 1: Two radar pickets, destroyers USS Blue and USS Ralph Talbot. Both destroyers had the best radars in the force.
Elements 2 and 3: Covered the inner entrances into the amphib landing area which was divided by Savo Island. To cover both sides of the island, Crutchley divided the ships into two groups. The Southern Group, commanded by himself and included the destroyers USS Bagley and USS Patterson with the heavy cruisers HMAS Australia (flagship for Crutchley), HMAS Canberra and USS Chicago. The second group, the Northern Group, commanded by Captain Frederick Riefkohl included the USS Vincennes (flagship for Riefkohl) with the heavy cruisers USS Quincy and USS Astoria. The destroyers USS Helm and USS Wilson were also assigned to the Northern Group.
Element 4: Located farther to the east to cover the transport ships at Tulagi and was commanded by Radm Normal Scott. This element included the light cruisers USS San Juan and HMAS Hobart with the destroyers USS Monssen and USS Buchanan.
Task Force 62 Commander: Radm Richmond K. Turner
USS McCawley APA-4 (flagship ship for Turner)
Task Group 62.6 (Western Screen) Commander: Radm Victor A.C. Crutchley, RN, VC
- USS Blue, DD 387 – Cmdr. Harold N. Williams
- USS Ralph Talbot, DD-390) Lcmdr Joseph Callahan
Southern Group Commander: Radm Victor Crutchley, RN, VC
- HMAS Australia (flagship for Crutchley) – Capt. H.B. Farncomb, R.A.N.
- HMAS Canberra – Capt. Frank E. Getting, R.A.N.
- USS Chicago, CA-29 – Capt. Howard D. Bode
- USS Bagley, DD-386 – Lcdr. George A. Sinclair
- USS Patterson, DD-392 – Cdr. Frank R. Walker
Northern Group Commander: Capt. Frederick L. Riefkohl
- USS Vincennes,
CA-44 (flagship) – Capt. Frederick L. Riefkohl
- USS Quincy, CA-39– Capt Samuel N. Moore
- USS Astoria, CA-34 – Capt William G. Greenman
- USS Helm, DD-388 – Lcdr. Chester E. Carroll
- USS Wilson, DD-408 – Lcdr. Walter H. Price
Task Group 62.4 Eastern Screen Commander; Radm Norman Scott
- USS San Juan, CA-54 (flagship for Scott) – Capt James E. Maher
- HMAS Hobart – Capt H.A. Showers, R.A.N.
The Japanese Command and Control
The Japanese Striking Force was commanded by Vadm Gunichi Mikawa, a tactically competent and aggressive but not a careless leader. At the start of the war, Mikawa was second in command under Vadm Chuichi Nagumo. Mikawa continued in this capacity through Midway.
After the loss at Midway, Mikawa was given command of the newly formed Japanese 8th fleet on July 12, 1942. Mikawa was based in Rabaul, New Britain.
Japanese 8th Fleet Commander: Vadm Gunichi Mikawa
Cruiser Chokai (flagship for Mikawa) – Capt. Hayakawa Mikio
Cruiser Division 6 Commander: Radm Goto Aritomo
Cruiser Aoba (flagship for Aritomo) – Capt. Hisamune Yonejiro
- Cruiser Furutaka – Capt. Tsutau Araki
- Cruiser Kako – Capt. Takahashi Yuji
- Cruiser Kinugaso – Capt. Sawa Masao
Cruiser Division 18 Commander: Radm Matsuyama Mitsuharu (picture not available)
- Cruiser Tenryu (flagship for Mitsuhara) – Capt. Shinpei Asano
- Cruiser Yubari – Capt. Ban Masami
- Yunagi – Lt. Se Okada
Mikawa’s battle plan was drawn up and signaled to his strike force at 1642, 8 August. The plan called for his task force to sweep to the south side of Savo Island and torpedo the Allied ships off Guadalcanal. They would then turn east and north to destroy the Tulagi landing force with torpedoes and gunfire. After the attack, the Japanese Force was to proceed around the north side of Savo Island and depart the area. Mikawa planned to order the attack at 0130 on 9 August 1942. The plan allowed enough time to conduct the attack and to get 120 miles away under the cover of darkness before daylight would permit counter-attack by aircraft from the U.S. carriers. Mikawa did not know the exact location of the carriers, but assumed they were about 100 miles to the south of Guadalcanal. Mikawa would execute an almost perfect plan.
During the afternoon of 7 August, Mikawa loaded 500+ troops onto transports and sent them toward Guadalcanal to re-enforce Japanese troops. However, after learning of the strong presence of allied ships near Guadalcanal, the transports returned to Rabaul.
During the evening of 7 August, Mikawa’s attack force gathered off Cape St George to begin their trek toward Guadalcanal. Mikawa than proceeded north of Buka Island.
USS S-38, which had been patrolling near Cape George, spotted Mikawa’s force but was too close to launch torpedoes. However, the Commanding Officer of S-38, Lcdr H.G. Munson, radioed to Guadalcanal “two destroyers and three larger ships of unknown type heading 140 true at high speed eight miles west of Cape St. George”. These warnings were considered by Turner as incomplete and the composition of the sighted ships was not considered to be an attack force.
Once at Bouganville, Mikawa launched 4 scout planes to search for allied ships near Guadalcanal.
On 8 August, Vadm Fletcher moved his 3 carriers to a position 400 miles off Guadalcanal. Fletcher was concerned about the 19 aircraft he had lost on 7 August and his fuel situation.
At 10:20 and again at 11:10 on 8 August, Mikawa’s force was sighted by Royal Australian Air Force Hudson recon aircraft. The first sighting radioed “three cruisers, three destroyers and two seaplane tenders”. They received no response to their report. The first group of RAAF aircraft returned to Milne Bay at 12:42 to ensure the report was sent and received immediately.
The second sighting at 11:10 did not report its finding via radio. They returned to Milne Bay at 1500 and made their report; “two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and one unknown type”. The report included a position of the force.
Both of the above reports were not sent to the allied fleet off Guadalcanal until 1845 and 2130 on 8 August.
Meanwhile, at 1200 on 8 August, Mikawa’s float planes returned to their respective ships. They reported two groups of ships, one group off Guadalcanal and one group off Tulagi. Mikawa organized his ships for the final run down The Slot to Guadalcanal and sent a message to his fleet; “On the rush-in we will go from south eastward of Savo Island and torpedo the enemy main force in front of Guadalcanal anchorage; after which we will turn toward the Tulagi forward area to shell and torpedo the enemy. We will then withdraw north of Savo Island.”
Back at Guadalcanal, Turner sent a request to Vadm John S McCain Sr. to conduct air patrols over The Slot during the afternoon of 8 August. However, unknown to Turner, these patrols were not conducted and McCain failed to inform Turner that the patrols were not conducted. Turner believed that The Slot was being patrolled by aircraft during the afternoon of 8 August when in fact, it had not been. Mikawa’s force made it through The Slot undetected.
During the evening of 8 August, Turner called a meeting with Crutchley and Vandegrift to discuss the departure of Fletcher’s carriers and the schedule for the transport ships.
At 2055 on 8 August, Crutchley departed his flag ship, HMAS Australia, to attend the meeting, leaving Capt. Bode of the USS Chicago in charge of the Southern Group. Crutchley did not inform anyone else of his departure nor did he inform anyone that Capt. Bode was now in charge. Bode, thinking Crutchley would return right after the meeting, did not leave night orders for the Southern Group and went to bed. At the meeting, the three officers discussed the sightings of the seaplane tenders and decided the sighting was not a threat. After the meeting, Crutchley positioned his command ship (USS McCawley APA-4) just outside of the Guadalcanal transport anchorage. Crutchley did not inform his Southern Group or anyone else of his intentions or his current position. Nor did he inform Capt. Bode that he had returned but was in a different location.
At 2330 on 8 August, Mikawa started his approach to Guadalcanal Mikawa launched three float planes for a final recon flight on the positions of the allied force. These float planes also had a mission to provide illumination of the allied fleet once the attack started.
At 2345 on 8 August, several allied ships heard unknown aircraft in the area but did not report this to Turner or Crutchley.
At 0050 on 9 August, Mikawa spotted USS Blue six miles ahead of Mikawa’s force. Mikawa reduced speed and turned to head north of Savo Island. When USS Blue was 1.5 miles away from Mikawa, she reversed course and headed away from Mikawa’s force without detecting them. Mikawa, knowing he was undetected, turned back to head south of Savo Island.
At 0055, Mikawa’s force sighted USS Ralph Talbot 10 miles away and didn’t consider Talbot an immediate threat to his fleet.
At 0125, Mikawa released his ships to operate independently and at 0131 he ordered “every ship attack”. The destroyer Yunagi was detached to provide rearguard to the attack force.
At 0133, Mikawa’s force sighted USS Jarvis, who had been detached and was heading to Australia for repairs after having been heavily damaged the day before in action off Guadalcanal. Because her radios were inoperable, it is unknown if Jarvis ever saw the Japanese attack force. They passed Jarvis as close as 1100 meters and if Jarvis had spotted them, she gave no indication whatsoever of the sighting.
At 0135, the Japanese sighted the Southern force, silhouetted by the burning hulk of the USS George Elliott (on fire from action off Guadalcanal the day before).
At 0138, the Japanese cruisers began firing salvo’s of torpedoes at the Southern Force. At about the same time, the Northern Force was spotted by Mikawa’s force. The Japanese turned for an attack on the Northern Force with their guns at the ready to fire on the Southern Force.
At 0143, USS Patterson’s crew spotted a Japanese cruiser and immediately sent a radio message “Warning! Warning! Strange ships entering the harbor!”. Patterson went to full speed and fired star shells toward the sighting. Patterson’s Captain ordered a torpedo attack but the order was not heard over the noise from the guns.
At 0145, Mikawa ordered his float planes to drop their flares. They dropped directly over USS Chicago and HMAS Canberra. Capt. Getting, on the Canberra, took immediate action placing his ship between the Japanese and the other cruisers. He also ordered his guns to fire on the first target they could see. The Japanese cruisers Chokai and Furutaka opened fire on Canberra, scoring numerous hits within a few seconds. Aoba and Kako also opened fire on Canberra and within 3 minutes, 24 shells had hit the Canberra, killing Capt. Getting and knocking out both boilers and all power to the ship. Canberra came to a stop with fires raging and a 10 degree list. She was unable to fight the fires due to the loss of power. The Japanese cruisers now diverted their attention to the Northern Force of the Allies.
At 0146, the crew of the USS Chicago, seeing they were being illuminated and the gunfire at Canberra, woke up Capt Bode. Capt. Bode ordered star shells fired at the Japanese cruisers but the shells failed to work properly. At 0147, the USS Chicago was hit by a torpedo in the bow killing two men. A second torpedo hit but was a dud. USS Chicago steamed west for 40 minutes away from the battle. Capt. Bode made no attempt to take control of the Southern Fleet as he was still, technically, in command. Capt. Bode also made no attempt to warn any other ships or personnel in the Guadalcanal area of the attack on the Southern Force as his ship headed away from the battle. Also at this time, Japanese cruisers Tenryu and Yubari split off from the other cruisers, Furutaka followed. The Northern Force of the Allies were about to be attacked from two different sides.
At 0148, Mikawa’s cruisers fired their torpedoes at the Northern Force.
At 0150, the Japanese cruisers turned on their searchlights and opened fire on the Northern Force.
At 0152, USS Astoria, seeing the searchlights of the Japanese cruisers, opened fire with their guns. Astoria’s captain, having just awakened from sleep and rushing to the bridge, ordered a ceasefire because he was worried of hitting friendly ships. Within a minute, the Astoria Captain realized his mistake and ordered the guns to fire but by this time, Chokai had his range. Astoria was hit by numerous shells and set on fire.
Between 0200 and 0215, Aoba, Kinugasa, and Kako joined the Chokai and pounded the Astoria destroying her engine room, putting the Astoria dead in the water. At 0216, Astoria scored a hit on Chokai’s main turret putting the guns out of action.
At around 0200, USS Quincy’s Captain ordered open fire on the Japanese cruisers but his gun crews were not ready. Within a few minutes Quincy was caught in the crossfire of Aoba, Furutaka, and Tenryu. Quincy was hit several times and set on fire. Quincy attempted a turn but was hit by two torpedoes, causing severe damage. Quincy did get off a few salvo’s of gunfire and did score hits on the Chokai bridge, killing 36 men and nearly killing or injuring Mikawa. At 0210 incoming shells on Quincy killed almost everyone on the bridge including the Captain. At 0216, the Quincy was hit by a third torpedo from Aoba. Quincy sank at 0238.
At 0153, USS Vincennes saw the searchlights of the Japanese but hesitated to open fire because of possibly hitting friendly ships. Within a few minutes, Kako opened fire on Vincennes scoring numerous hits that caused severe damage. Capt. Reifkohl increased speed but was hit by two torpedoes from Chokai causing heavy damage and flooding. Kinugasa joined Kako with guns pointed at Vincennes. The other Japanese cruisers soon joined in the attack. 74 shells hit the Vincennes causing her to become dead in the water. A third torpedo, fired by Yubari, hit the Vincennes and with the ship on fire and flooding, Reifkohl ordered abandon ship. The Vincennes sank at 0250.
At 0216, the Japanese ceased fire and retired out of range from the Northern Force guns around the north side of Savo Island. They came into contact with the destroyer USS Ralph Talbot. The Japanese cruisers turned on their searchlights and fired at the Ralph Talbot scoring a few hits and causing moderate damage. Ralph Talbot retreated into a nearby rain squall and the Japanese decided not to chase her while they retired from the battle.
At 0216, Mikawa had a difficult decision to make. Should he turn to engage the surviving allied ships and the transports at Tulagi, or continue back to home base? Several reasons came into play for Mikawa’s decision to retire and set course for home.
- His ships would need to reload torpedoes and this task is time consuming.
- Mikawa was running out of ammunition for his guns.
- Mikawa did not know the composition of any remaining Allied ships.
- Mikawa had no air cover and did not know the location of the U.S. carriers.
- Daylight would soon be upon them and that would mean Allied air attacks.
At 0220 Mikawa gave the order to retire from the battle and proceed to home base.
At 0400, USS Patterson came alongside Canberra to assist with fighting the fires. However, Turner had ordered all ships out of the area by 0630 and if Canberra could not be saved, he ordered her to be scuttled. After the survivors were rescued, the Canberra was scuttled with guns and torpedoes.
At approx 0900, an Australian coastwatcher radioed a possible airstrike approaching the offload area of Guadalcanal. The airstrike was actually bound for a sighting of the USS Jarvis. The airstrike was successful in sinking the USS Jarvis south of Guadalcanal.
At 1000, USS Astoria’s crew were in a life and death struggle to save their ship from sinking.
At 1215, After the survivors were rescued, USS Astoria sank with fires burning out of control.
On the evening of 9 August, Mikawa released Division 6 to return to their Base at Kavieng. At 0810 on August 10th, the Japanese cruiser Kako was hit by torpedoes from USS S-44. Kako sank soon after.
At the Battle of Savo Island, the Japanese sank three allied cruisers, a fourth allied cruiser was scuttled. One cruiser and two destroyers were severely damaged. 1,077 allied sailors were killed in action. Quincy – 389 men were killed in action, Vincennes – 342 men were killed in action, Astoria, 235 men were killed in action, Canberra – 85 men were killed in action, Ralph Talbot – 14 men were killed in action, Patterson – 10 men were killed in action, and Chicago – 2 men were killed in action. All of this… in 37 minutes of battle.
The Japanese cruisers suffered some minor and moderate damage. 129 Japanese sailors were killed in action.
Mikawa was praised by Yamamoto for his actions at Savo Island, however, many Japanese officers were highly critical of his decision to leave the battle without destroying the transports at Tulagi.
With the allied Guadalcanal transport schedule changed under the threat of more Japanese attacks, both by sea and by air, and Fletcher’s decision to retire his carriers to 400 miles off Guadalcanal on 8 August, the Marines on Guadalcanal were essentially abandoned with what equipment and supplies they had, something that would not be forgotten between the Navy and Marine Corps for years to come. After the Savo Island battle, Allied transports with troops and supplies to Guadalcanal were slow and only conducted during daylight hours.
The Hepburn Investigation
In early 1943, a formal United States Navy board of inquiry, known as the Hepburn Investigation, issued a report of the battle. The board recommended official censure for only one officer, Captain Howard D. Bode of the USS Chicago, for failing to broadcast a warning to the fleet of approaching enemy ships. The report made no recommendations concerning formal action against other allied officers, including Admiral’s Fletcher, Turner, McCain, Crutchley, and Captain Riefkohl for the mistakes they all made leading up to and including the battle. Riefkohl never commanded ships again. Captain Bode, upon learning that the report was going to be critical of his actions, shot himself in his quarters in Panama on April 19, 1943, and died the next day.
The board of inquiry also saw the Navy make improvements to their ships:
- Almost all cruisers were retro fitted with emergency diesel electric generators;
- The fire mains of ships were changed to a vertical loop design where they could be damaged many times but still operate.
- Admiral King instituted other sweeping changes to ships, training, and command structure.
Admiral Turner provided his opinion on why his forces were defeated in this battle:
“The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which 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”
Historian Richard B. Frank added;
“This lethargy of mind would not be completely shaken off without some more hard blows to Navy pride around Guadalcanal, but after Savo, the United States picked itself up off the deck and prepared for the most savage combat in its history.”
In January 2015, Paul Allen and his research team, sailed to Iron Bottom Sound in an attempt to locate the ships that were sunk during World War 2 and the Battle for Guadalcanal.
“The sonar mapping produced a total of 29 wreck locations, 7 wreck debris fields, and several possible plane locations, one being confirmed (Image 5). Of the 29 wrecks located, 6 were positively identified: USS Astoria, USS Quincy, USS Vincennes, USS Northampton, HMAS Canberra, and the USS Atlanta. Eleven of the wrecks were tentatively identified using the analyzed sonar imagery with vessel measurements and location information from historical records: USS Walke, IJN Ayanami, USS Dehaven, IJN Yudachi, IJN Fubuki, USS Laffey, USS Monssen, USS Barton, USS Cushing, USS Little, and the USS Preston. The remaining 12 wreck locations were not identified and require further investigation to classify them. The 7 wreck debris fields did not provide enough information in the sonar data to classify them with any certainty beyond a debris classification.”
You can read more about this effort by Paul Allen and his team here.