Neptune’s Inferno – James Hornfischer

I made a little more progress in this excellent book on the Naval Battles around Guadalcanal in WWII, especially the surface actions near that island. I’ve mentioned these in some of the previous reading updates, but today it gets its own post.

The first day of the battle left the American fleet heavily damaged, but they had kept the Japanese from bombarding Henderson field with their battleships, possibly knocking out the airfield. Also, the attempt to land reinforcements was blocked. So that counts as a win, but the remnants of the USN cruiser force retired, too damaged to fight again.

And even worse was in store. On the way back to repair, the cruiser Juneau was torpedoed and exploded, killing most of the crew. Those that survived could not be recovered by the other ships because of the danger of further attacks. The survivors were forced to drift for days before rescue, and only a handful made it.

The Japanese resolved to try again, and Admiral Halsey decided to strip the two battleships that were escorting the Enterprise and Hornet (before she was sunk by torpedo) away and deploy them in the Slot near the island to block just such a move.

There was another difference. The first night’s action was led by an Admiral that was unfamiliar with the new Radar systems and its benefits were not exploited. The one ship, the Boise, that managed to come through the battle unhurt was one that used its own radar instead of lights. The admiral of the scratch battleship force, Admiral Lee, was an expert in radar, and was going to use it.

The Japanese had more ships than the two US battleships, but they were smaller. Even the one battleship they had, the Kirishima, was outclassed by each of the two USN capital ships.

The battle opened with the US Radar detecting a light cruiser force and quickly getting its range, scoring hits. The force scattered. Meanwhile, the US destroyer screen drew the fire of  a second column of Japanese ships, and was quickly overwhelmed. The battleship South Dakota turned to engage, but suffered a severe short circuit that disabled all her guns. She also passed in front of the burning destroyers and was illuminated from behind, forming a perfect target for the entire Japanese fleet, unable to fight back.

Admiral Lee on the battleship Washington had problems of his own. Because the radar sets did not beam all around the ship, there was a cone behind him he couldn’t see. The South Dakota was in that cone and when she emerged, Lee was unsure which return was the South Dakota and which were Japanese. He was forced to hold off firing.

So far, things looked pretty grim – one ship taking a pounding and the other unable to help. But the firing did light up the area enough that Lee was able to tell which ship was the USN battleship, which was all he needed to know.

And that’s where I left off. Quite a cliffhanger.

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