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The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal

What the Navy Learned from Guadalcanal

November 13, 2018 
By: Curtis Utz, Nicholas Roland and Guy Nasuti, Historians, Naval History and Heritage Command

The naval battles off Guadalcanal in 1942 were part of the first major U.S. amphibious offensive in the Pacific. Although the U.S. Navy’s performance in the campaign was mixed, the fighting at Guadalcanal resulted in the seizure of the strategic initiative from Japan. The Navy’s ability to rapidly adapt to unanticipated tactical and technological problems was crucial to the ultimate success of the campaign and set the stage for the ultimate defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

Following the victory at Midway in early June 1942, Admiral Ernest J. King, CNO and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, ordered the seizure of the Solomon Islands, which led to numerous naval actions off Guadalcanal. The operation was intended to protect the United States’ lines of communication with Australia and New Zealand and to set the conditions for the seizure or destruction of the major Japanese base at Rabaul, New Britain. On August 7th, the U.S. First Marine Division landed and quickly captured the airfield at Guadalcanal and several nearby islands. The Japanese quickly counterattacked, and fighting for control of the island and its vital airfield raged for several months.

Prior to the war, USN planning had assumed a decisive battle with the IJN in the open waters of the western Pacific in the daylight. Navy doctrine called for superior naval gunfire to win such a battle, but most of the Navy’s earlier assumptions on how to win were confounded at Guadalcanal. The five naval surface actions off Guadalcanal all took place at night in constricted waters. To complicate matters further, the Navy was still integrating evolving radar technology while also developing standard procedures and command, control and communication (C3) methods to effectively use the information. Inexperienced in night fighting and lacking a doctrinal emphasis on mixed destroyer and cruiser tactics, the Navy would have to rapidly adapt or risk defeat at the hands of a seasoned and skilled Japanese opponent.

The night after the Marine landings, on August 8th, an IJN force of cruisers and destroyers carried out a devastating night attack on Allied naval forces at the Battle of Savo Island, sinking three U.S. cruisers and one Royal Australian Navy cruiser and damaging another U.S. cruiser. IJN forces escaped largely unscathed. At Savo Island, the use of radar pickets did not prevent IJN ships from slipping into the Allied formation and attacking at close range. Japanese surprise was aided by the mistaken belief that the main danger was from IJN aircraft rather than surface ships. Not anticipating a surface attack, the Allied commander on the scene, Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley, Royal Navy, departed for a conference with his flagship shortly before the fighting began, failed to issue a battle plan, and split his forces into two groups which were unable to support one another.

At the Battle of Cape Esperance, on the night of October 11–12, Rear Admiral Norman Scott attempted to achieve better command and control by arraying his Task Force 64 in a close order, linear formation and turning off the radar on his flagship San Francisco (CA-38). Scott did not trust the relatively new technology after its apparent failure at Savo Island, nor did he fully understand the qualitative differences between the U.S. radars. Scott was able to intercept an approaching IJN force from an advantageous position, sinking cruiser Furutaka and setting flagship cruiser Aoba ablaze. The apparent lesson learned from his success was that linear, compressed formations aided command and control at night, and that radar was not reliable. This conclusion unfortunately ignored the fact that TF 64 had suffered a friendly fire incident and that the Helena (CL-50) had used the better U.S. radar to detect the IJN formation and deliver devastating gunfire salvoes to initiate the fighting. In fact, because Scott lacked situational awareness because of poor C3, he ordered a cease fire and failed to exploit his advantage.

Technology Comprehension Requires Communication 

The decisive naval actions at Guadalcanal took place from November 12-15. In the first action, on the night of 12–13 November, Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan, who had superseded Scott as he was senior, emulated Scott’s tactics at Cape Esperance. Although he succeeded in turning back the IJN force sent to bombard Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field, the TF suffered poor C3 and again failed to properly utilize its superior radar systems. The resulting action devolved into a close-range melee that sank several U.S. ships and cost both Callaghan and Scott their lives. This battle demonstrated that compressed formations did not facilitate command and control at night and limited the ability to use destroyers effectively. Two nights later, Rear Admiral Willis Lee confronted another IJN force. Lee was a gunnery expert and was familiar with the capabilities and limitations of the Navy’s new radar systems. He adopted a dispersed formation to allow his destroyers to flush out the IJN ships, which would then be attacked with radar-directed gunfire from the battleships Washington (BB-56) and South Dakota (BB-57). Although U.S. destroyer losses were again heavy, and South Dakota badly damaged, Lee achieved a tactical victory and mortally wounded the fast battleship Kirishima.

A final surface action on the night of 30 November–1 December, the Battle of Tassafaronga, saw the adoption of an effective plan that drew on recent combat around Guadalcanal. Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid decided to allow his destroyers to operate in a decentralized manner, launching close-range torpedo attacks while his cruisers stood off and engaged with radar-directed gunfire. Unfortunately, Kinkaid was relieved by Rear Admiral Carleton Wright two days before the battle and the plan was executed ineffectively, with the destroyer Takanami sunk in exchange for the loss of cruiser Northampton (CA-26) and torpedo strikes on three other U.S. ships. Effectively using an emerging and still rapidly evolving technology (radar) required commanders and their staffs to fully understand the technology and the means to utilize it in combat to provide an advantage over the Japanese.

At the tactical level, pre-war Navy surface combat doctrine emphasized three things: aggressive action to seize and retain the initiative, rapid and accurate gunnery, and decentralized command and control in battle.

Give Subordinates Operational Initiative

However, another pillar of USN doctrine – decentralized command and control– gave flexibility to commanders and encouraged rapid adaptation to tactical problems at the lowest levels. Adequate operational plans have to be in place and understood, but they still have to give subordinates substantial operational initiative; at two of the battles of Gudalcanal, US battle plans were poorly developed or virtually nonexistent and led to chaos in combat. Although their performance was uneven, Navy leaders at Guadalcanal attempted to rapidly adapt to a changing tactical operating environment, and had adopted a viable solution by the time of the Battle of Tassafaronga. Additionally, in the pre-war years the Navy had developed a learning system that relied upon constant feedback and experimentation by commanders and junior officers. This learning system meant that the lessons of combat at Guadalcanal resulted in rapid, fleet-wide adaptation to the realities of the Pacific War that would have long-ranging consequences.

Remain Flexible

When confronted with unanticipated tactics and capabilities, especially night-fighting expertise and the effective use of long-range, powerful torpedoes, the Navy had to adapt its tactics to decrease Japanese effectiveness while also enhancing and fully utilizing US capabilities.
The Navy established a more uniform organizational and tactical doctrine that permitted ships and task units to move between task forces and theaters with minimized requirements for indoctrination under their new commands. The IJN never achieved comparable modularity within its force structure, rendering the Japanese inflexible by comparison with the U.S. Navy. Recognizing the importance of destroyer torpedo tactics, Captain Arleigh Burke developed a destroyer doctrine that – combined with greater lethality in U.S. torpedoes – maximized the tactical capabilities of the destroyer force. Finally, perhaps the greatest leap forward after Guadalcanal was the creation of the combat information center (CIC) in the winter of 1942–1943 and the development of a school in 1943 that familiarized captains and their crews with effective methods for maximizing the effectiveness of CICs. The CIC centralized all of the available combat information systems on a ship into a single location onboard and was staffed by specially trained officers and sailors who were tasked with maintaining situation awareness for the ship’s captain. As with other technological and tactical developments, the Navy relied heavily on experimentation and feedback from the fleet to establish its CIC doctrine. Once implemented, CICs allowed the USN to finally exploit its radar technology advantage, and they were especially credited with enabling victories such as Vella Gulf, Empress Augusta Bay, and Cape Saint George in 1943.

The USN was confronted with unanticipated tactical and technological issues in the South Pacific in 1942. Over the course of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Navy’s emphasis on decentralized adaptation and constant feedback and learning enabled it to adapt over the course of the campaign, and ultimately to move on from Guadalcanal with doctrinal and technological-cognitive systems that would enable victory in the Pacific. The Navy of the twenty-first century must likewise nurture a dynamic learning system in order to achieve and maintain maritime dominance.

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