The battle of Cape Esperance (11-12 October 1942) was a clash between American and Japanese forces both covering supply convoys heading towards Guadalcanal. The Americans had the best of the clash, although on the following night Japanese warships were able to bombard the American beachhead.
The Americans were attempting to transport 2,850 men of the 164th Infantry (Americal Division), along with 210 from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and 85 other marines. They were onboard the transport ships Zeilin and McCawley. The transport group was escorted by Rear Admiral Norman Scott, with the cruisers San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Helena and Boise and the destroyers Buchanan, Duncan, Farenholt, Laffey and McCalla. A carrier group built around the USS Hornet was 180 miles to the south-west and the battleship Washington was also in the area, in case heavy Japanese ships attempted to intervene.
The transport fleet was to sail around the western tip of Guadalcanal, turn east to past Cape Esperance and then land the reinforcements in the Marine beachhead around Henderson Field. They were expected to reach the beachhead on 13 October. Admiral Scott's covering force took up a position near Rennell Island, west of Guadalcanal, from where he could intercept any incoming Japanese ships.
The Japanese were also bringing troops to Guadalcanal on the night of 11-12 October. Their reinforcements were carried on six destroyers and two seaplane carriers, which were protected by Rear Admiral Goto's cruiser squadron (Aoba, Kinugasa and Furutaka and two destroyers). The Japanese also planned to use this force to bombard Henderson Field.
The Japanese fleet was soon discovered by the Americans. Admiral Scott was informed of its presence on 11 October, although the reports underestimated its size. At 16.00 he began to move north into a position from where he could intercept Admiral Goto's covering squadron.
By 11pm on 11 October the two fleets were heading towards the same patch of sea off Cape Esperance, the Americans coming from the south-west and the Japanese from the north-west. Scott was aware that his fleet wasn't yet very adept at night operations, and so he arranged them in a single line, with three destroyers in the lead, followed by the four cruisers, with two destroyers at the rear. The cruisers Helena and Boise had modern radar, but Scott's flagship San Francisco had less effective older equipment.
At 23.25 the Japanese fleet appeared on the Helena's radar, but her captain wasn't sure of the information and delayed passing it onto the flagship. At 23.33 Scott ordered his fleet to reverse course and continue their patrol in the opposite direction. This turn was badly handled, and two of the lead destroyers ended up sailing between the US cruisers and the oncoming Japanese. The third lead destroyer, Duncan, had now detected the Japanese fleet and continued on to the north-east in preparation for an attack.
At 23.46 the Helena opened fire on the approaching Japanese force. The Japanese weren't expecting to find any American warships out at night, and were caught entirely by surprise. Admiral Goto ordered his ships to turn sharply to starboard and retreat to the north-west, but was then mortally wounded. All four American cruisers were now firing. The destroyer Fubuki was hit and sank almost immediately. The cruiser Aoba caught fire while the Furutaka took such heavy damage that she sank at 0.40am on 12 October.
The cruiser Kinugasa and destroyer Hatsuyuki turned to port instead of starboard. This took them away from the destruction American fire, and instead brought them onto the isolated destroyer Duncan. The American destroyer was badly damaged and set of fire. Most of the crew managed to escape, but some of the remaining crew attempted to beach her on Savo Island. This effort failed when the power went, and she sank six miles north of Savo Island later on 12 October.
At 23.55 Scott turned to the north-west in an attempt to catch the remaining Japanese ships. Just after midnight on 12 October the Boise turned on a searchlight in an attempt to identify a radar target. She immediately came under heavy fire from the Aoba and Kinugasa and suffered very heavy damage. She was only saved from a devastating explosion in the forward magazine by inrushing seawater. The fight continued for another ten minutes, before Scott decided to turn away to the south-west.
Although the Americans had had the best of the fighting between Scott and Goto, elsewhere things hadn’t gone as well. The Japanese transport group had safely reached Guadalcanal and unloaded the reinforcements. On the following night the battleships Kongo and Haruna appeared off the beachhead and carried out a destructive ninety minute bombardment with their 14in guns. Over the next few nights 8in cruisers continued the bombardment, and Henderson Field was knocked out of service. Both sides now moved stronger naval forces into the area - the Japanese in preparation for the expected capture of the airfield and the Americans in an attempt to restore some measure of control of the seas around Guadalcanal. Admiral Ghormley was also replaced by Admiral Halsey, who was believed to be more aggressive. This would soon be tested at the battle of Santa Cruz (26 October 1942), Halsey's first battle in command in the South Pacific.