The U.S. ships assembled at different points and then moved north in six separate groups. Three of these did not participate in the subsequent battle: one force of four light cruisers and four destroyers, another of the battleships North Carolina and Indiana, and a third force around the carrier Saratoga. A fourth group, centered on the carrier Enterprise, did see action. These four trailed the two forward groups—the first consisting of three President-class transports and the Crescent City and the second being Task Force (TF) 18, a close-support group of cruisers, escort carriers, and destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen.
TF 18 took the brunt of the subsequent fight. The force included the heavy cruisers Wichita, Chicago, and Louisville; the light cruisers Montpelier, Cleveland, and Columbia; the escort carriers Chenango and Suwannee; and eight destroyers. The transports departed Nouméa on 27 January, the same day the support group left Efate. The ships were to rendezvous 15 miles off Cape Hunter on the southwest coast of Guadalcanal at 9:00 p.m. on 30 January. To make the rendezvous on time, Giffen was forced to leave behind the two escort carriers with two destroyers at 2:00 p.m. on 29 January.
On the afternoon of 27 January, Japanese reconnaissance aircraft and submarines had located Giffen's ships. The Japanese then sent out some 30 Mitsubishi G4M ("Betty") medium land-based bombers from Munda Field, Buka, and probably Rabaul. The last combat air patrol aircraft retired at sunset, leaving the six U.S. cruisers without air protection.
TF 18 was then about 50 miles north of Rennell Island, moving northwest toward the rendezvous point at 24 knots. Its ships were in a rivet-shaped formation, with the destroyers in a semicircle 2 miles in advance of the cruisers, which were steaming in two lines 2,500 yards apart. Before sunset, U.S. ship radars identified the approach of the Japanese bombers, but Giffen did not order either a change of course or a different formation to defend against air attack.
The Japanese torpedo-bombers circled to the south of the American formation and then split into two groups for a low-level attack. The first Japanese effort was futile and cost one aircraft, but attacks continued after dark, aided by air-dropped flares. The Mark-32 proximity fuse, employed in U.S. antiaircraft shells for one of the first times, helped claim a number of attacking aircraft, but Japanese torpedoes heavily damaged the Chicago.
At 10:00 p.m., Giffen ordered a change of course. The Japanese aircraft failed to detect the change, and most then departed for home. The Louisville took the stricken Chicago in tow and began to move her toward Espiritu Santo at a speed of 4 knots. Admiral Halsey in Nouméa ordered the escort carriers Chenango and Suwannee to provide combat air patrol to protect the two cruisers, and he diverted a tug and other vessels to assist. By 3:00 p.m., the tug Navajo had the Chicago under tow, with six circling destroyers providing protection. There was as yet no combat air patrol when the Japanese struck with a dozen Bettys. Aware of their approach, the Enterprise had launched F-4F Wildcats to intercept them. American aircraft then shot down some of the Bettys, but nine survived to attack the crippled cruiser, while the Navajo made a futile effort to position the cruiser with its bow toward the attackers. Although seven of the last Bettys were shot down, four torpedoes struck the Chicago. She sank within 20 minutes, the escorting ships collecting 1,049 survivors.
Although the Battle of Rennell Island was a defeat for the Americans and demonstrated Japan's success in night fighting, the Japanese concentration on Task Force 18 enabled the U.S. transports to continue on unmolested and land their troops and supplies without incident, as did a second convoy of five transports arriving at Guadalcanal on 4 February.
Spencer C. Tucker
Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. New York: Penguin, 1990.; Morison, Samuel E. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vols. 2, 4, 5, 9, 10, and 11. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947–1952.