News of the construction project forced U.S. commanders to expedite their plans for the Solomons, known as Operation watchtower. Conceived and advocated by U.S. chief of naval operations Admiral Ernest J. King, watchtower called for securing the island of Tulagi as an additional base to protect the U.S.-Australia lifeline and as a starting point for a drive up the Solomons to Rabaul. Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, U.S. commander in the South Pacific under Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, then dispatched an amphibious force under Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner lifting Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift's 1st Marine Division from Nouméa to the Solomons. Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher's three-carrier task force provided protection. On 7 August 1942, the Marines went ashore on Tulagi and Guadalcanal and captured the airfield, which they renamed Henderson Field. The airfield soon became the focal point of fighting on the island. In all, the protracted struggle for Guadalcanal included 10 major land actions, 50 engagements involving warships or aircraft, and 7 major naval battles.
The Japanese did not send their main fleet, but rather vessels in driblets. The Americans soon had Henderson Field operating; American land-based air power controlled "the Slot" (the narrow channel through the Solomon Islands) during the day, but the Japanese initially controlled it at night. The Imperial Japanese Navy excelled at night fighting, for which its crews had been intensively trained, as was shown in the Battle of Savo Island.
When he learned of the landings at Guadalcanal, Vice Admiral Mikawa Gunichi at Rabaul immediately made plans to reinforce the Japanese garrison on Guadalcanal and to attack the vulnerable ships at the landing site. Meanwhile, Vandegrift needed four days to unload all the transports, but Fletcher replied that he could not leave his carriers in position more than 48 hours, and he began removing them on the evening of 8 August. On the night of 8–9 August, Mikawa arrived off the landing site and proceeded to administer the worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy in a fair fight. In the Battle of Savo Island, Mikawa sank four Allied cruisers (three U.S. and one Australian) and a destroyer. Three other ships sustained heavy damage. Mikawa did not suffer any losses in the battle, although one of his cruisers was sunk by a U.S. submarine in the return to Rabaul. Mikawa, however, had hauled off without attacking the vulnerable transports. The battle clearly demonstrated Japanese superior night-fighting techniques, excellent gunnery, and the effectiveness of Japan's Long Lance torpedo.
Both sides now reinforced Guadalcanal, but U.S. possession of Henderson Field tipped the balance. Rushed to completion, it ultimately boasted about 100 U.S. aircraft. At night the so-called "Tokyo Express" of Japanese destroyers and light cruisers steamed down the Slot between the islands and into the sound to shell Marine positions and to deliver supplies. The latter effort was never sufficient and only haphazard. It often consisted of drums filled with supplies pushed off the ships to drift to shore. One of the great what-ifs of the Pacific war is the failure of the Japanese to exploit the temporary departure of the U.S. Navy to rush substantial reinforcements to Guadalcanal.
The next major naval action was the 22–25 August Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Rear Admiral Tanaka Raizo dispatched to Guadalcanal a small convoy of destroyers and transports carrying troop reinforcements. Admiral Kondo Nobutake steamed from Truk toward the Solomons with a task force to provide protection. Fletcher's carrier aircraft intercepted the Japanese and sank the light carrier Ryujo and several other vessels, but the carrier Enterprise suffered damage. On 31 August, the Japanese torpedoed and badly damaged the carrier Saratoga, reducing U.S. carrier strength to only the Wasp. The Wasp in turn fell victim to a Japanese submarine on 15 September. The carrier was so badly damaged by three torpedoes that she had to be scuttled.
Another big naval encounter, the Battle of Cape Esperance, occurred from 11 to 13 October. The Americans detected a Japanese convoy off the northwest coast of Guadalcanal. In a night engagement on 12–13 October, the Japanese lost a cruiser and a destroyer and had a cruiser heavily damaged; one U.S. destroyer was lost and two cruisers were damaged. The next day, American aircraft sank two other Japanese destroyers that were searching for survivors. Although the battle was not decisive, it was the first U.S. Navy night victory against the Japanese, and it substantially lifted U.S. morale. In October there were important command changes: Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey replaced Ghormley, and Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid replaced Fletcher.
Meanwhile, Kondo Nobutake's repositioning of vessels and Halsey's instructions to Kinkaid to seek out the Japanese fleet brought on a fourth naval battle for control of the Solomons: the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. In the ensuing battle on 26 October, each side launched simultaneous strikes against the other. In the exchange, U.S. aircraft badly damaged the Japanese light carrier Zuiho and fleet carrier Shokaku. The U.S. carrier Hornet was also severely damaged and was placed under tow; but with Kondo Nobutake closing in, she was abandoned to be sunk by Japanese destroyers. Japan won the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, leaving the Americans with only one carrier in the South Pacific, but the Japanese sustained such losses that they were unable to exploit the situation.
From 12 November to 15 November, a series of intense sea fights took place off Guadalcanal. In the first, on 12 and 13 November, U.S. ships and land aircraft blocked reinforcement of the island by Japanese troops in 11 transports protected by destroyers. At the same time, Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, commanding 5 cruisers and 8 destroyers, moved to intercept a powerful Japanese force under Vice Admiral Abe Hiroaki that included 2 battleships that sought to shell Henderson Field. In a night action east of Savo Island, both sides suffered heavy losses. Abe lost the battleship Hiei (badly damaged in the fight, it fell prey to U.S. aircraft the next morning) and 2 destroyers. The Americans lost 2 cruisers and 4 destroyers. Virtually all other ships on both sides were damaged. Rear Admirals Callaghan and Norman Scott were among the dead, but Tanaka was forced to turn back, and the planned Japanese bombardment of Henderson Field was canceled.
On 13 and 14 November, Tanaka returned with his reinforcement convoy, and his cruisers shelled Henderson Field. The Americans sank 6 Japanese transports and a heavy cruiser and damaged another cruiser. During the third phase of the naval battle of Guadalcanal (November 14–15), Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee with 2 battleships and 4 destroyers met and defeated yet another Japanese force under Kondo near Savo Island. The Americans lost 2 destroyers, but Kondo lost the battleship Kirishima and a destroyer. The net effect of this 3-day battle was that Tanaka landed only some 4,000 troops. The Japanese lost 6 transports sunk, but they had to beach another 4, representing some 70,000 tons of scarce shipping. Most important from the American standpoint was that U.S. forces now had around-the-clock control of the waters around Guadalcanal.
On 30 November, U.S. and Japanese naval forces again clashed in the Battle of Tassafaronga. Rear Admiral Carlton H. Wright moved with 5 cruisers and 7 destroyers to intercept Tanaka's force of 8 destroyers carrying supplies to Guadalcanal. In the ensuing fight, the Japanese lost 1 destroyer, while the Americans had 1 cruiser sunk and 3 others badly damaged.
As the numbers of U.S. troops ashore steadily grew and Japanese strength dwindled, at the end of December Tokyo decided to abandon Guadalcanal, and the naval battles of the Solomons came to an end. The final battle of the campaign was a skirmish off Rennell's Island on 30 January 1943, a victory for the Japanese. However, by this time the Japanese had almost completely withdrawn from Guadalcanal. The sustained battle for Guadalcanal gave U.S. naval forces the initiative and led to improved U.S. Navy night-fighting and fire-control techniques that served it well in the long years of fighting yet ahead. William P. McEvoy and Spencer C. Tucker
Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. New York: Penguin, 1990.; Grace, James W. The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Night Action, 13 November 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999.; Hamel, Eric M. Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13–15, 1942. New York: Crown, 1988.; Hough, Frank O., Verle E. Ludwig, and Henry I. Shaw. History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II: From Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1966.; 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.
William P. McEvoy and Spencer C. Tucker