Rear Admiral Norman Scott led Task Force 64, consisting of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and five destroyers. Scott's mission was to protect transports carrying the U.S. Army's 164th Infantry Regiment to Guadalcanal by searching for and attacking Japanese ships. Scott's crews had just undergone three hard weeks of night training, and the admiral was fully prepared to engage in a night action, in which the Japanese had hitherto enjoyed superiority. Scott had developed simple tactics and rehearsed them, keeping his crews at station from dusk to dawn. His ships operated in a single column, with destroyers forward and aft of his cruisers.
Japanese Rear Admiral Goto Aritomo commanded a bombardment group, Cruiser Division 6, composed of three heavy cruisers and two destroyers. It protected Rear Admiral Joshima Takagi's two seaplane carriers and six destroyers, transporting some 700 men and artillery belonging to Lieutenant General Hyakutake Haruyashi's Seventeenth Army to Guadalcanal. Goto planned to shell Henderson Field to neutralize the U.S. air threat while Joshima landed the reinforcements off the northwestern cape of Guadalcanal.
American aircraft tracked Goto's force as he approached, although communication fumbles aboard the U.S. ships nearly rendered that advantage moot. Goto and Joshima did not expect opposition, and preoccupied with navigation and preparations for the Henderson Field bombardment, they ignored indications that U.S. vessels were nearby. Lacking radar, the Japanese blundered into the Americans. Their lookouts did spot the American ships and identify them as enemy, but Goto believed they were friendly and flashed recognition signals.
At 11:25 p.m. on 11 October, U.S. radar from the light cruiser Helena first picked up the Japanese, but Scott, on the flagship heavy cruiser San Francisco, did not learn of this before he ordered his ships to turn at 11:30. Eight minutes later, while his formation was still in some mild disorder from the turn, Scott received his first radar warning. Fortunately for him and the Americans, the turn inadvertently allowed the U.S. ships to cross the T of Goto's approaching ships. The Americans opened fire at 11:46 p.m. at less than 5,000 yards. Surprise was total. Goto believed that Joshima's ships were shooting at him.
American 8-inch, 6-inch, and 5-inch guns pounded the Japanese ships. Among the casualties was Goto, who was mortally wounded. Before his death, he ordered his force to withdraw, and a running gunfire duel followed. The heavy cruiser Furutaka and the destroyer Fubuki were sent to the bottom. The heavy cruiser Aoba was badly damaged and would require four months to repair. In an associated action on 12 October, Henderson Field aircraft sank the destroyers Murakumo and Natsugumo, which were searching for survivors. On the American side, the destroyer Duncan was sunk, the cruiser Boise was heavily damaged, the cruiser Salt Lake City was lightly damaged, and the destroyer Farenholt was damaged. Meanwhile, Henderson Field had been spared Japanese shelling, and American morale soared, especially as some on the U.S. side put Japanese losses at up to three cruisers, five destroyers, and a transport.
Despite their tactical defeat, the Japanese did land their troops and supplies safely, as did the Americans on 13 October. Because Japanese torpedoes had not been successfully employed in the Battle of Cape Esperance, the Americans discounted their effectiveness. U.S. Navy leaders also incorrectly concluded that using the single-column formation and gunfire was the way to fight at night. This approach slighted the destroyers' main battery, the torpedo, and effectively tied the destroyers to the cruisers' apron strings. The Americans deployed this way in another night action on 13 November, much to their chagrin.
John W. Whitman and Spencer C. Tucker
Cook, Charles O. The Battle of Cape Esperance: Strategic Encounter at Guadalcanal. New York: Crowell, 1968.; Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal. New York: Random House, 1990.; Lacroix, Eric, and Linton Wells II. Japanese Cruisers of the Pacific War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997.; Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Poor, Henry V. The Battles of Cape Esperance, 11 October 1942, and Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1994.