The battle of Savo Island (9 August 1942) was a crushing Japanese victory in the waters just off Guadalcanal that saw them sink four Allied cruisers and helped to isolate the US Marines fighting on Guadalcanal.
When news of the American landings on Guadalcanal reached Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, commander of the Japanese naval forces in the South Pacific, he decided to take a force of cruisers and attempt to destroy the transport ships. Admiral Mikawa had five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and a destroyer at his disposal. His ships lacked radar but they were highly practised in night combat, and armed with the excellent 'long lance' torpedo.
The Japanese left Rabaul early on 8 August. They then sailed south along Bougainville's east coast, until they were sighted by an Allied aircraft. They then reversed course, leading to a report that a fleet of Japanese ships had been seen 'marking time' north of Bougainville. Once the American aircraft had gone Mikawa reversed course again, and heading down the Slot towards Guadalcanal. He hoped to reach Savo Island by 1am on 9 August.
The battle took place in the seas off the north-western coast of Guadalcanal. The US invasion force had landed east of Lunga Point on the main island, and at Tulagi, a good anchorage near Florida Island some fifteen miles to the north. The coast ran west from Lunga Point towards Cape Esperance. Savo Island sat north-east of Cape Esperance and west of Florida Island.
The original US landings on Guadalcanal had been covered by a force of aircraft carriers under Admiral Fletcher. By the morning of 8 August Fletcher reported that he was running short of fuel and had lost several aircraft and requested permission to leave. By the evening in 8 August that permission had been granted, and the carriers were withdrawn. With his air cover gone Admiral Turner, commander of the invasion fleet, announced that he would have to withdraw at 6am on 9 August. The Marines would have to cope with whatever supplies had been landed by then.
Although the Americans had detected the Japanese force they misinterpreted its purpose and assumed that the Japanese were planning to launch an air strike at dawn on 9 August. The cruisers Vincennes, Quincy and Astoria moved north to a position between Savo and Florida Islands, while HMAS Canberra and USS Chicago guarded the area south of Savo Island.
The Allied fleet was thus caught by surprise when Admiral Mikawa attacked in the early hours of 9 August. His scout planes were spotted at about midnight, but were dismissed as being friendly. The destroyers Blue and Ralph Talbot were on picket duty to the north-west of Savo Island, but just before 1.00am on 9 August the Japanese force slipped past the destroyers, and headed through the gap between Savo Island and Cape Esperance.
Just after 1.30am the Japanese lookouts spotted the cruisers Canberra and Chicago and at 1.38 they fired the first salvo of torpedoes. Soon after this lookouts on the Canberra and her destroyer escorts finally spotted the Japanese force, but it was too late. The Canberra was hit by accurate 8in gun fire, lost power and was soon set on fire. She burnt all night and later had to been abandoned and sunk by American torpedoes. The Chicago was hit in the bow by a long lance torpedo, although wasn't too badly damaged. She attempted to fire star shells, but they didn't work. With no idea where the Japanese were the Chicago headed west in an unsuccessful attempt to find them.
In the meantime the Japanese force had turned north to deal with the Northern Escort Force. The second phase of the battle would be short but brutal, and ended with all three American cruisers sinking.
The Vincennes spotted a Japanese searchlight at 1.55 and opened fire on it. Soon afterwards heavy Japanese gunfire began to hit her. Early in the action her aircraft were set on fire, and the aviation fuel burnt fiercely. Just after 2.00 one or two long lance torpedoes hit and No.1 fireroom was knocked out. The Vincennes was dead in the water, and began to list. She had been hit by at least 57 8-in and 5-in shells, and by 2.30 it was clear that she was sinking. Captain Riefkohl issued the order to abandon ship, and the last men were off by 2.40. Ten minutes later she sank.
The Quincy was second in the line of cruisers, and also suffered heavy damage from Japanese gun fire. All of her guns were eventually knocked out of action, and just after 2.01 she was on fire from bow to stern.
The Astoria was at the back of the cruiser line. She came under fire at around 1.50am, and returned fire. The first four Japanese salvoes missed, but the fifth started massive fires in the superstructure. More Japanese hits set the aircraft hanger on fire and knocked out Turret I. The burning aircraft hanger provide to be an excellent target for the Japanese and the Astoria was hit repeatedly. She lost speed and then had to make a sharp turn to avoid the Quincy. Her last salvo hit No.1 Turret on the Japanese cruiser Chokai, but at 2.25 the bridge lost steering control. Control was moved to a different station, but within a few minutes all power failed.
A serious attempt was made to save the Astoria. Fire fighting parties worked all night, while the destroyer Bagley rescued the wounded. At dawn a fire control party of 325 was sent onboard the Astoria, and a number of ships played a part in the operation, but the fire below decks continued to rage and she continued to list. By noon it was clear that the ship was doomed and she was abandoned. Soon after this she began to roll, and by 12.15 she had sunk. The entire fire control party was rescued.
The Japanese ceased fire by 2.25 and retired to the north-west. On their way they attacked and badly damaged the destroyer Ralph Talbot. The Japanese didn’t have things entirely their own way - on 10 August the submarine S-44 sank the cruiser Kako, but the night battle had still been a disaster for the Americans and Allies. Four cruisers had been sunk and another damaged.
Despite this dramatic success the Japanese had failed to achieve their main aim, which was to sink the transport fleet. After the destruction of the naval forces around Savo Island the transport fleet had been totally vulnerable, but Admiral Mikawa believed that the US aircraft carriers were still in the area, and was thus unwilling to linger for too long. Aware that it might be some time before his fleet could return Admiral Turner postponed his planned departure and continued unloading until late afternoon. When the transport ships finally left they had unloaded four units of fire, with six still on the ships, and 37 out of 60 days of supplies.