First Deposits into “Iron Bottom Sound”

Today in History, August 9, 1942:

Two days after the US Marines had made an amphibious landing on Guadalcanal seized what would become Henderson Field, the transports that brought them still stood off the coast, protected by 8 American and Australian Cruisers and 14 destroyers.

In the early morning hours a force of Japanese Heavy and Light Cruisers moved silently into the waters between Guadalcanal and Savo Island and opened fire on the American and Australian warships, which they caught, quite literally, napping. The British commander of the Allied force, Admiral Crutchley had taken his flagship to a conference with the amphibious force commander, Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner and Marine Gen. Alexander Vandergrift, leaving a subordinate in command.

The Japanese Navy had been practicing and perfecting night time combat tactics for years, a fact the USN was not aware of, so they weren’t really expecting an assault. The Japanese also had very effective torpedoes. Several of the Allied ships managed to get off some shots that caused minor damage to the IJN cruisers, but the experienced, practiced Japanese crews poured withering torpedo and gunfire into the American and Australian ships, whose crews were exhausted from 2 days of shelling the enemy ashore in humid high temperatures.

Within an hour the USS Astoria, USS Quincy and USS Vincennes were on their way to the sea floor, making the first of many deposits that would give this passage the name “Iron Bottom Sound” because of all of the Allied and Japanese ships that now rest there with their crews. The next day, Admiral Turner would order the HMAS Canberra scuttled due to her damage.

The US aircraft carriers that had been providing air cover for the landings had been ordered out of the area by their commander, Adm. Frank “Black Jack” Fletcher. The transports and their covering surface ships could not remain with range of Japanese aircraft without air cover of their own, so they too left the area, leaving the Marines to their own devices for quite some time. Numerous battles would be fought in the waters of Guadalcanal, Savo and Tulagi Islands, and in “The Slot” leading from Guadalcanal to the enemy bases in the Solomons.

Halsey Takes Command – Its All About Attitude

Today in History, October 18, 1942:

Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey is named commander of the South Pacific forces.

Things had not been going well after the invasion of Guadalcanal; a series of losses due to indecision by the previous commander, Admiral Ghormley, had left the troops demoralized.

CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific) Chester Nimitz knew the man for the job and appointed Halsey. Halsey was a no nonsense, get er done leader.

He had issued orders to his task force to shoot first and ask questions later if they spotted Japanese ships or aircraft…on November 28, 1941, ten days before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

He was famously quoted as saying, “Before we’re done with ’em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell.” His operational order for his command was simple: “Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill more Japs!” In retrospect, this attitude made be considered harsh or even racist. But during the largest conflict in human history, it was all about winning.

The demoralized Sailors and Marines serving on and around Guadalcanal had a sudden burst of confidence when they heard Halsey was their new boss. Things turned around almost immediately. The people under Halsey’s command knew he was willing to take chances for them, and they returned the sentiment.

Iron Bottom Sound Receives Its First Occupants

Today in History, August 9: 1942 – Two days after the US Marines had made an amphibious landing on Guadalcanal seized what would become Henderson Field, the transports that brought them still stood off the coast, protected by 8 American and Australian Cruisers and 14 destroyers. In the early morning hours a force of Japanese Heavy and Light Cruisers moved silently into the waters between Guadalcanal and Savo Island and opened fire on the American and Australian warships, which they caught, quite literally, napping. The British commander of the Allied force, Admiral Crutchley had taken his flagship to a conference with the amphibious force commander, Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner and Marine Gen. Alexander Vandergrift, leaving a subordinate in command. The Japanese Navy had been practicing and perfecting night time combat tactics for years, a fact the USN was not aware of, so they weren’t really expecting an assault. The Japanese also had very effective torpedoes. Several of the Allied ships managed to get off some shots that caused minor damage to the IJN cruisers, but the experienced, practiced Japanese crews poured withering torpedo and gunfire into the American and Australian ships, whose crews were exhausted from 2 days of shelling the enemy ashore in humid high temperatures.

Within an hour the USS Astoria, USS Quincy and USS Vincennes were on their way to the sea floor, making the first of many deposits that would give this passage the name “Iron Bottom Sound” because of all of the Allied and Japanese ships that now rest there with their crews. The next day, Admiral Turner would order the HMAS Canberra scuttled due to her damage. The US aircraft carriers that had been providing air cover for the landings had been ordered out of the area by their commander, Adm. Frank “Black Jack” Fletcher. The transports and their covering surface ships could not remain with range of Japanese aircraft without air cover of their own, so they too left the area, leaving the Marines to their own devices for quite some time. Numerous battles would be fought in the waters of Guadalcanal, Savo and Tulagi Islands, and in “The Slot” leading from Guadalcanal to the enemy bases in the Solomons.

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 

Today in History, November 26:  1942 – The motion picture “Casablanca” premieres in New York City.  The movie that would become a screen classic would be released to theaters in the remainder of the country on January 23, 1943.

The film was set in Casablanca, Morocco in December, 1941.  This time frame is important to the viewer if not the players.  Rick Blaine is an exiled American who owns a high-end bar.  Between continuously matching wits with the local French authorities and Nazis, Rick manages to barter for immigration papers for those fleeing the Nazis and to deal with an old romance interest who re-enters his life…Ilsa.  “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

The film is at heart a romance, but at the same time a gritty war thriller.  Humphrey Bogart was well accustomed to playing the heavy, and did so well.  Ingrid Bergman did an excellent job playing the femme fatale, but by the time the show is over, one is hard pressed not to find Claude Rains’ portrayal of Captain Louis Renault to be the most compelling.

The plethora of one-liners definitely added to place Casablanca at the top of any “greatest” list, even 75 years later.  Near the end of the film, Rick and Louis are caught at the airport by Nazi SS Major Strasser.  Louis ends up shooting the Major.  As Louis’ troops rush up in response to the shot, Louis says hastily, “Major Strasser’s been shot.  Round up the usual suspects.”

It is important to note the film was released less than a year after the Pearl Harbor attack at a time when the question of who would be victorious was still a very open discussion.  Those viewing the movie most likely had fathers, brothers and sons fighting on a steaming, miserable island named Guadalcanal or on ships in the same theater.  Less than a month earlier (November 8) American soldiers and sailors took part in the landings of Operation Torch assaulting French North Africa.  This would include fighting the Nazis and the Vichy French (French sympathetic to or under the thumb of the Nazis.)  These battles would include Morocco and the Naval Battle of Casablanca between Allied, German and Vichy French naval forces.

All of this was the backdrop for the premiere of Casablanca.  How much more real, how much more emotion, must have been involved seeing it for the first time in 1942.

Sacrifices Avenged…One Last Attempt by the IJN

Today in History, November 14: 1942 –

The Second Battle of Guadalcanal. Late on the 14th, early on the 15th, IJN Admiral Kondo was sent with a force of cruisers and destroyers built around the battleship Kirishima to take another shot at Henderson Field and the transports off shore.

Most of the effective American combatants had been either sunk or put out of commission in the first battle, so Admiral Halsey detached a significant portion of the screening force for the USS Enterprise to protect the airfield and the transports. The Battleships USS Washington and USS South Dakota, along with the 4 destroyers with the most fuel took the job.

This US Task Force made better use of their radar and spotted the Japanese ships first. The American destroyers sacrificed themselves to fight off Japanese cruisers and destroyers; the South Dakota had nothing but trouble after losing her electrical systems. As the Kirishima and others focused on the nearly defenseless South Dakota, the Washington closed within 9,000 yards of the Kirishima and tore her apart with her main and secondary batteries.

Kondo ordered a retreat. Some IJN supply ships beached and began unloading, but when the sun came up, they were exposed to American aircraft. By the time US aircraft and an American destroyer were done with them, only about 3,000 troops were ashore…without any supplies, munitions or food…making them more of a detriment than a help.

The major significance of this battle is that it was the last time the IJN attempted an all out assault on Guadalcanal by sea; now they would only offer meager supplies with the use of the “Tokyo Express” up the “Slot”…not enough to support their armies on Guadalcanal. By December 31st the Emperor had agreed to abandon Guadalcanal to the Allies.

The most amazing thing to me is that in ’42 the Americans won or lost by scraping together a few ships to fight…at this point Enterprise was the only US Carrier in the Pacific…by this time in ’44, American combat ships were numerous and almost invincible.

Today in History, November 13: 1942 –

The First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal takes place in what would become known as “Ironbottom Sound” off Guadalcanal. US intelligence had warned US Navy forces that the IJN planned to bombard Henderson Field and land reinforcements on the embattled island. Admirals Callahan and Scott took their forces to interdict IJN Admiral Abe’s forces. In a fierce, confusing, intense night action the Japanese won a tactical victory by sinking more American ships, while the Americans won a strategic victory…Henderson was not bombarded and the American troop ships remained undamaged. But it came at a heavy cost for both sides. Admirals Callahan and Scott would be the only US Admirals to be killed in direct ship to ship combat in the war, and aboard the USS Juneau, the five “Fighting Sullivan” brothers would all be lost.

For the Japanese; surviving battleship Hiei, among others, would fall prey to repeated air attacks from Henderson, Espirito Santo, and the USS Enterprise when the sun came up. And this was only the beginning of the battle.

The Marines Begin the Legend of Guadalcanal


Today in History, August 7: 1942 – The US Marines had fought since the Revolution, incuding WWI (Belleau Wood) but it was THIS day in 1942 that began the legend of the US Marines for many. 

 The Gyrenes went ashore on a humid, muddy, malaria infested jungle island named Guadalcanal; initially to little resistance. Soon they were fighting for every inch of ground against an enemy that was more than willing to die. The battle would last for over six months, during which the Marines lived in muddy ditches, lived on what rations they could find and suffered nightly bombardment by the Imperial Japanese Navy…but they persevered, conquered and then, after buying the island with their blood, handed it over to the Army. Why was Guadalcanal so important?

The Japanese occupied Guadalcanal to build an airfield there. At the eastern most extremity of the Solomon Islands, the airfield would allow the Japanese to use long range aircraft to cut off supply lines to Australia. 

 The Marines quickly took the airfield, and named it Henderson Field, after a Marine Captain that gave his life at another pivotal battle, Midway. The Marines struggled back and forth over Henderson for months, but held it…which meant that the Marine air and Navy air forces called The Cactus Airforce could defend the island from nightly bombardment and constant attempts at reinforcement by Japanese forces.

 Both Navies lost 24 ships…most of which carpet “Iron bottom sound” off the coast of Guadalcanal and Savo Island.  The months ahead would bring many important battles for the Navy and the Marines…but on this date in history, the United States Marines began the battle that proved their place in history.