A Lesson in Tactics:
The Battle of Tassafaronga, 30th November 1942

  It took time for the Japanese at Rabaul, especially the local Area Army, to come to grips with the situation on Guadalcanal. Having finally determined the enemy strength was a dozen times greater than thought in August, and having reinforced the island under heavy losses with thousands of lightly armed soldiers, it now found that the way they had reinforced, they could just as well have left the island alone.

    Japanese armed forces on Guadalcanal were short on everything. (1) They had no more than five artillery pieces, and could not afford to fire more than ten rounds a day (the less, the better), for fears of being left without ammunition to repulse attacks or support counter-attacks. 

    Japan's only ships capable of lifting large boxes of ammunition or large weapons were the fast seaplane tenders Chitose, Chiyoda and Nisshin, all of which were capable of around 28 knots - a necessity to avoid being counter-attacked by Henderson-based planes during the voyage back up the Slot (and of course, the voyage down). 
But food, it was determined, was possible to be carried by destroyers, if indigenious methods could be devised. They were. 

     In the future, destroyers would carry drums formerly housing oil, gasoline, and whatever could be shipped in drums. These would be filled with foodstuffs and medicine and whatever else would be needed, though enough air would be left to leave the drums afloat. They would be made watertight, chained together, and simply dropped overboard by destroyers stopping off the friendly shore. Then, the chain or tow would be brought on land by ship's boat, the drums would be towed on land, there opened by Japanese soldiers, dinner would be held and finally, the re-strengthened Army troops would sweep away the U.S. forces in an offensive set tentatively for 22nd January 1943. 

     The first lift of these drums would be provided by the most outstanding destroyer leader the Japanese had, Rear-Admiral Tanaka Raizo, taking eight destroyers, six with some 440 drums total, from Japan's Shortland forward base to a point off Tassafaronga, beginning his voyage on November 30, arriving by midnight 30th, early hours 31st. 
For the garrison on Guadalcanal, such shipments of drums, if maintained at a rate of two every three days, could mean sustained rations. It could not build up reserves, and it could not by any means ship ammunitions, being too heavy to be moved in floating drums in any significant amounts. 

    On the other side, Admiral William Halsey was scraping once more the bottom of the barrel for vessels with which to oppose the annoying flow of reinforcements via destroyers. His idea was to use a strong cruiser force, Task Force 67, to hit the enemy in Iron Bottom Sound while he was unloading, destroy him and get on with business. To that end, he assigned cruisers Pensacola, Minneapolis, Northampton, New Orleans and Honolulu and four destroyers under the command of Rear-Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, who had commanded the TF centered on Enterprise. That flattop, still badly bruised, had entered Nouméa's repair yard to get herself fit for frontline duty again (2), and Kinkaid was free for another job. 

    His taking of command resulted in a battleplan completed by November 27th. In it, Kinkaid sought to undo the mistakes committed earlier. He wanted to deploy destroyers, including ships with the excellent SG radar, far in front of the five cruisers. Those would remain at 12.000 yards distance from the enemy, and shell him into oblivion from a distance save from torpedos (supposedly). His destroyers would take torpedo action without further notice from the Admiral. 
However, Kinkaid would not be able to try his new tactics: Nimitz wanted him in the North Pacific to retake Attu and Kiska, his replacement being Rear-Admiral Carleton H. Wright. 

    Wright had been one of Kinkaid's deputies, the other being Mahlon S. Tisdale, and was Commander, Cruiser Division 6, flag on the heavy cruiser Minneapolis. He came to command without time to prepare himself, but he knew Kinkaid's ops plans by heart. He would take TF 67 into battle. 
    Earlier than he would have liked. On the day Wright took command, he was placed on alert by Halsey, and not long after, sailed through the narrow channel leading out of Espiritu Santo's mine-protected harbor and set course for Iron Bottom Sound. The voyage was uneventful, and as luck would have it, just as Wright's ships passed through Lengo Channel and entered Iron Bottom Sound, Tanaka's vessels sighted the dome of Savo Island port ahead. 
Both sides now continued toward their objectives, but while Tanaka knew his supposed location, Wright could do what he wished to find the enemy.

    Tanaka's destroyers were ordered to proceed indepentenly to their stations at Doma Reef and Tassafaronga Point, respectively, with Takanami on the lookout for enemy ships. His own ship and Suzukaze and Kawakaze would discharge their drums at Doma Reef; Captain Sato's four ships would proceed to Tassafaronga Point. 
Upon leaving Lengo Channel, Wright marshalled his units, augmented by the destroyers Lamson and Lardner which Halsey had detached from a convoy to join Wright, and which Wright had been forced to deploy aft of his line because he could not hand them the ops plans, into line ahead but failed to get his destroyers ahead farther than 4000 yards. His ships moved up along the coast of Guadalcanal. 

    At 2306, Minneapolis' radar detected two blips off to the west, and Wright decided to head for them. The Japanese line had dispersed; Kawakaze and Suzukaze were stopped and lowering boats to get the drums ashore, Tanaka's own Naganami charged to join Takanami, and Sato's four vessels were continuing ahead at 30 knots. A further six minutes later, with the Americans approaching, Takanami sighted them, the destroyer being a few thousand yards ahead of Tanaka who could not see anything yet. Nevertheless, he ordered his vessels to stop the unloading process and join battle.

    In the meantime, Commander Cole on the destroyer Fletcher had sighted on his radar Takanami. He queried Wright to fire torpedos, to which Wright replied "range not satisfactory", and Cole, "no, the range is satisfactory", finally being granted permission to open up with torpedoes on the enemy line five minutes after his original query. The moment had passed, but Cole fired nevertheless in good spirit -- he missed.

    Wright didn't wait until Cole's fire to led his own guns speak. At 2321, Minneapolis three turrets gave voice firing at the largest target visible on her SG radar - Takanami, by virtue of her close proximity, returned the largest blip.  
Within minutes, the entire U.S. line was lighted by its own gun flashes. Wright's cruisers fired regular salvoes with normal powder, vice the Japanese's flashless, and thus illuminated themselves and their sisterships with each salvo.  
For Tanaka, the gun flashes were as good as a homing beacon. His order was simple: close and attack. His ships complied. One by one, they fired torpedos at the line of blinking fires to the north, then retired. 
It did not take long for the Japanese torpedos to find their marks. Wright didn't maneuver his ships, making targeting more easy for the IJN vessels.  

    After releasing her ninth salvo, Minneapolis was smacked by two torpedoes forward, folding away her bow, and setting her aflame. Rescue efforts were immediately started, but Minneapolis was out of the fight, despite firing two more salvos.  
New Orleans behind her had little chance to review the flagship's damage before she was hit, a half-minute later, by a torpedo in the forward magazines that completely blew away the cruiser's bow including "A" turret.  

    Pensacola, next in the line, committed a fateful blunder. Seeing both leading CAs blown away by torpedos, her exec swung the ship to port, to pass them on the engaged side. A stupid maneuver in any case, since it silhouetted the heavy cruiser against her burning friends, it also robbed her of the protection the other two ships might have offered against torpedoes. The cruiser was brought back to base course, and not long after, a deadly hit ripped open her central fuel tank on the port side, sending a pillar of oil onto the main deck and superstructure soon starting to burn violently.  
Honolulu upon seeing the destruction ahead steered to starbord, avoiding the silhouetting by the burning companion vessels, put her engine telegraph up to 30 knots, and kept firing as good as she could. However, soon no target could be found anymore and Honolulu checked fire 2336.   

    In Honolulu's wake, Northampton the last cruiser of the line followed the light cruiser and periodically fired through the smoke and flames as she passed the burning line on the unengaged side. It was at 2348, after the heavy cruiser had lost Honolulu ahead and passed the wrecked U.S. cruisers, that two torpedo tracks were sighted by the lookouts on the ship and her captain ordered the rudder left to comb them. Nevertheless, the ship was struck by two torpedoes launched by Kawakaze, and immediately the cruiser lost headway and came in a turn to the left, having lost three of her screws except for the outer starboard one. Flames were towering amidships, helped by burning fuel oil from wrecked compartments and ready ammunition from the 127mm AA guns.  

    Tanaka's ships had been ordered to retire four minutes before torpedoes impacted against Northampton, and most of his ships complied except Takanami. By virtue of her large radar return, and the faulty fire-dispersion proceedures on U.S. ships, the ship had been the target of 37 203mm guns and 10 152mm guns without counting possible 127mm fire. She was literally blown out of the water. Amazingly, however, the destroyer was the only ship to be hit by anything within the Japanese line.  

     Tanaka's retirement concluded the battle fought with guns and torpedoes. However, the battle with water hoses and pumps against a permament berth in Iron Bottom Sound was only beginning for the crews of the U.S. heavy cruisers.  
Of those, the most severely damaged as it would prove was Northampton. A gaping hole was in her side, and attempts to prevent the ship from listing were made difficult by the flames raging on board her. Soon, the list had increased to 23 degrees, and Captain Kidds, holding it evident that Northampton had little more use for most of her crew, ordered all but a salvage crew off board, where they were picked up by Fletcher and Drayton, but at 0200, the pressure in the fire hoses neared zero, and Northampton heeled toward 36 degrees. Kitts had had enough, he ordered abandon ship. At 0304, Northampton's end came and she became the fifth heavy cruiser to go to the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound.

    Next on the list of serious damage was probably New Orleans, her entire bow blown off. It was throughly amazing that the ship still swam, but her blown-off bow may have been better for her health than a bow ripped upon may have been, for there was no way water could pull her down now, the compartments below the waterline sealed and holding tight. She entered Tulagi harbor where Maury tended to her and provided her with anchors - her own having been blown away.
Pensacola's condition was different only in so far as her peril came from flooding and fire amidships, rather than a blown-off bow. She listed to port 13 degrees, but contrary to Northampton, she would survive despite dangerous proximity to a violent death. The fires and flooding did well to seal off the after portions of the ship where heat caused the water that had been used to flood number three magazine to evaporate. Resulting explosions tore parts of the turret and barbette away, but shells were exploding one by one, and though inflicting severe damage, did not sink the ship. Slowly, the ship was brought under control, and making nine knots heading for the safety of Tulagi.

    Wright's flagship had her bow blown off as well, but compared to the New Orleans her damage was slight. Captain Rosendahl conned her toward Guadalcanal in order to beach her if necessary, but as the situation stabilized, he turned her around and berthed her in Tulagi's harbor.

    Command of the U.S. forces now rested with Admiral Mahlon Tisdale in Honolulu, who took his ship and several destroyers with him around Savo Island in pursuit of the enemy, but dared not follow him any further for fear of similiar experiences as his fellow cruisers had, and prudently concentrated on aiding the damaged vessels.  
Thus ended the Battle of Tassafaronga in a humiliating defeat for the U.S.. She had lost the services of four of her heavy cruisers, one permanently, three for over a year, and even now she had not grasped the main point in her defeat, the excellence of Japan's torpedoes.

    "Training, training and more training", Nimitz named the lesson of this battle, quite correctly in one sense, but training was not needed with the crews, but for the leaders. Wright had blundered in not allowing Cole to fire torpedoes when he wanted, for whatever it was worth (due to the torpedo problems). He had not deployed pickets, and he had opened fire to early. To his credit, he took the blame for all mistakes committed. Other important aspects in the technological deficency of Wright's force were not addressed at all. 8" guns were completely useless to track and fire at fast moving destroyers at night; their rate of fire was too slow to adequately cover the enemy.
    The famed SG radars, though providing useful spotting, were too frequently used to track shell splashes

    The battle may be called a strategical victory for the U.S. by the line of reasoning that the resupply mission was prevented. But the services of four heavy cruisers were high a price for the disruption of only one resupply mission, and thus, it must be judged that it was a defeat strategically as well - for U.S. forces never again would manage to assemble surface opposition to Japanese runs to Guadalcanal.

1: Japanese troops came ashore via the so-called ant transportation of barges, and beached transports, and destroyer ("rat") transportation. Many of these men made part of their voyage by swimming, either for shore or a rescue vessel and was lucky when he could save his rifle besides his life. In the beached transports, many a ton of ammunition and food was lost in consecutive bombings by Henderson Field planes. Lastly, a destroyer bombardement by two ships had set on fire an ammunition dump storing most of the 17th Army's ammo, causing a massive explosion that basically made further successful offensives impossible.  
2: She would reaquire this status on 4th December 1942, with Rear-Admiral Frederick C. Sherman in command of her Task Force.