13 November…fall…winter right around the corner…Thanksgiving…Christmas…egad, where did the year go? Well, mid-November is right around the corner, and every year on 13 November we recall the death of Malcolm III at Alinwick in 1093 (said to have been the model for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who nonetheless was thought to have been real); the trial for treason of teenage Lady Jane Grey on 13 November 1553 (she had been queen of England for nine days that July); Benjamin Franklin writing “nothing…certain but death and taxes” in a letter penned on this day in 1789 (he was writing about the Constitution); Louis Brandeis was born on this day in 1856 in Louisville, Kentucky (the first adherent to the Jewish faith to be appointed to the Supreme Court); the first modern elastic brassier was patented on this day in 1913 (hardly the first, but said to be the biggest influence on the modern garment); the Holland Tunnel was opened on this day in 1927 (the first underwater double-tube road traffic tunnel in the world); and in 1982 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington DC (colloquially known as “the gash in the ground”). But today, we’re going to talk about the beginning of a four-day running gunfight in the southwest Pacific, and kindness.
Daniel Callaghan had never fought a night battle before, whereas the next senior officer in the area, Norman Scott, had. But Callaghan was senior by three days, so command fell to him.
The “naval battle of Guadalcanal” has always had trouble with definition. It started, by some lights, on 12 November 1942 and ran through 15 November. Some American scholars have called it the third and fourth battle of Savo Island, while the Japanese have called it the third and fourth battle of the Solomon Sea. Regardless of what it was called, at about 01:25 on 13 November, a Japanese task force of two battleships, a light cruiser and eleven destroyers entered the sound south of Savo Island, intending to sweep away any American warships, destroy the newly-arrived transports off the beach and shell the American positions around Henderson Field. Thy were detected about 01:24 by American radar, but Daniel Callaghan, the task force commander in first contact, wasn’t informed because of communications difficulties. Callaghan’s force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and eight destroyers had no battle plan, and the ships with batter radar were not deployed in such a way that would take advantage of them. Callaghan had never fought a night battle before, whereas the next senior officer in the area, Norman Scott, had. But Callaghan was senior by three days, so command fell to him.
The two forces sighted each other a few moments apart sometime around 01:40, but Scott and his force were unprepared and uncoordinated for what followed. Japanese battleship Hiei and destroyer Akatsuki switched on searchlights, the shooting started, and the chaos ensued: one officer characterized it as “a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out.” At least six of the American vessels opened fire on on Akatsuki, which blew up and sank in a few minutes. Hiei also received close-range fire from destroyers too close for her to shoot back at. The Japanese task force commander, Abe Hiroaki, was wounded and unable to command act decisively. Four Japanese ships, including both battleships, opened fire at Callaghan’s flagship, cruiser San Francisco, killing Callaghan and crippling American command and control for the rest of the night. San Francisco got free, but Hiei was also crippled by return fire.
Unable to improvise despite superior training and experience (not to mention Type 93 torpedoes), the samurai pulled out once again to find out how the plan failed.
In the confusion that followed, three more American destroyers, Laffey, Barton and Cushing, were sunk by gunfire and torpedoes. Cruiser Atlanta was crippled by destroyers Nagara, Inazuma, Ikazuchi and Akatsuki, a torpedo hit setting Atlanta adrift. Soon San Francisco fired on Atlanta, killing Scott and making the first naval battle for Guadalcanal the deadliest battle for US Navy flag officers, with one flagship killing another. Destroyer Amatsukaze was trying to finish off Atlanta and got clobbered by cruiser Helena. Destroyers Aaron Ward and Sterett caught destroyer Yuudachi unawares and caused fatal damage. Minutes later destroyer Sterett was caught by destroyer Teruzuki and damaged badly enough to have to pull out of the fight. While this was going on, Aaron Ward got into a one-on-one tete-a-tete with battleship Kirishima which the American destroyer lost, but survived. Cruiser Portland, after helping sink Akatsuki, was hit by a torpedo from either Inazuma or Ikazuchi, knocking her out of the fighting, but not before she fired into Hiei. Yuudachi and Amatsukaze hit cruiser Juneau with a torpedo while Juneau was exchanging fire with Yudachi. Juneau stopped dead in the water and was out of the fight. Destroyer Monssen was noticed by destroyers Asagumo, Murasame, and Samidare, which smothered Monssen with gunfire and causing fatal damage. Amatsukaze tried to finish off San Francisco and did not notice cruiser Helena, which fired into Amatsukaze, knocking her out of the action. Amatsukaze escaped while Helena was distracted by an attack by Asagumo, Murasame, and Samidare. This brutal fighting took about forty minutes, after which the Japanese could have proceeded on their way. But the confusion and injuries took the fight out of Abe, who could not have known that the Americans had only one light cruiser and one destroyer left against one battleship, a light cruiser and eight functional destroyers. Once again, not knowing how well they did and the enemy failing to act as they were supposed to, Abe and his fleet withdrew. Unable to improvise despite superior training and experience (not to mention Type 93 torpedoes), the samurai pulled out once again to find out how the plan failed. The American lodgement on Guadalcanal was reprieved.
…this phase of the fighting for the eastern Solomons was a strategic victory for the Americans, but a strategic catastrophe for the Japanese.
This spate of fighting went on for another three days and nights. After daybreak on 13 November, Hiei was taken under tow by Kirishima, but Hiei sank north of Savo Island that night. Yuudachi was dispatched by the crippled Portland. The rest of the damaged survivors managed to get away. Over the next three days and nights the Japanese managed to bombard the beaches with a large cruiser force and fight their way into the transport area again, but ultimately the Japanese lost two battleships, a heavy cruiser, three destroyers and eleven transports to two American light cruisers and seven destroyers in five days. In real terms, this phase of the fighting for the eastern Solomons was a strategic victory for the Americans, but a strategic catastrophe for the Japanese. The Americans could repair their ships and replace their losses in a matter of months: the Japanese could never replace theirs, and repairs took resources that Japan simply didn’t have to spare. While superior Japanese tactics, training and torpedoes won many battles, attrition, American numbers and innovation would eventually make the Japanese advantages of 1942 less important.
The World Kindness Movement called 13 November World Kindness Day in 1998. It’s officially observed in Canada, Japan, Australia , Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Italy, India and the UK. Schools all across the Western Hemisphere mark the day with readings and random acts of kindness. Many writers, humanists and others have written and spoken much about kindness in general, but Kurt Vonnegut, in his otherwise dismissable God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, quoted the title character as saying:
“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
This, for my money, is the definitive declaration by someone in a position to know something about cruelty: be kind, now. Vonnegut’s first literary success was Slaughterhouse Five, a semi-autobiographical science fiction novel about WWII, time travel, and the nature of a reality that I believe Vonnegut wanted desperately to both alter forever and leave. He lived through the destruction of Dresden in WWII, and in one interview complained that he could still smell the burned bodies. As Vonnegut was digging bodies out of the wreckage of Dresden, an anonymous US Navy corpsman was preparing himself for the fighting on Okinawa, where he would be caught by Life Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith rescuing a newborn from an abattoir, the lead photo for this essay. Kindness amid the horror.
Hopefully, by now, most of you will have at least visited JDBCOM.COM, and by now most of you have signed up for alerts for the updates, bought all the books advertises thereon, and have studiously studied every word I’ve written. If not…what are you waiting for?