Monday, October 15, 2012

Situation critical in the Guadalcanal Campaign

The Tokyo Express was the name given by the Allies to Japan's use of its navy at night to deliver personnel, supplies, and equipment to Japanese forces operating in and around New Guinea and the Solomon Islands during the Pacific campaign. The enemy's tactic involved loading personnel or supplies onto submarines and destroyers for quick and stealthy delivery, then return to base the same night. The ploy was so successful that Allied aircraft could not intercept them.

By mid-September, the Japanese were strong enough to make another attempt to capture the Marine's Henderson Airfield on Guadalcanal. On September 12, General Kawaguchi Kiyotake led his men against Marine positions on a low grassy ridge south of Henderson Field, soon known as "Bloody Ridge." For 2 days and nights, the Japanese repeatedly assaulted the Marine line, pressing it back to the strategic airfield. The Marines held, losing 40 of their own men to 600 Japanese, and by dawn September 14, the Japanese were in retreat.

By this time, a fundamental shift in Japanese strategy had taken place. They now believed the key to success on Guadalcanal was to take back Henderson Field from the Marines and use it to fly there in planes. That would enable them to sweep the seas of the American fleet. As long as the Americans could operate the airfield, the Japanese couldn't build up a sufficient force to push the Americans out of the area.

The fighting around Guadalcanal steadily intensified. Nearly every night, the Tokyo Express landed more soldiers on Guadalcanal, while their daily air raids and nighttime bombardments continued. The Americans fought back, though. Between October 16th and 25th alone, Marine and Navy pilots downed 103 enemy planes and sank a cruiser, losing only 14 planes of their own. On the night of October 11-12, Rear Admiral Norman Scott's naval force, blasted a Japanese cruiser and destroyer force off Cape Esperance, west of Savo Island, in the Second Battle of Savo Island (Battle of Cape Esperance).

The situation was still critical for the Americans. In a bleak assessment of the American position, on today's date in 1942, Admiral Nimitz wrote:
It now appears that we are unable to control the sea in the Guadalcanal area. Thus our supply of the positions will only be done at great expense to us. The situation is not hopeless, but it is certainly critical.
That same day, Admiral Nimitz reached an important decision. Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander South Pacific Force, and his exhausted staff must be relieved. Nimitz chose Vice Admiral William F. Halsey to replace him. Ghormley, while understandably disappointed to be relieved, greeted Halsey graciously, later conceding to Nimitz that Halsey was the best man for the job ahead.

Halsey's arrival in Nouméa in New Caledonia boosted American morale throughout the region, as did his assurances to General Alexander A. Vandegrift, the Marine commander on Guadalcanal, that the Navy would give the Marines all possible support within its means. Halsey will be a man of his word.

On October 16th, the aircraft carrier, Enterprise, sailed to join the battleship, South Dakota, and together raced southwest for the Solomon Islands to meet the anticipated new Japanese offensive. On October 20th, the Japanese attacked the American position on Guadalcanal.

On October 23rd, as the American Marines and soldiers repelled a second violent Japanese assault, the "Big E" and her task force rendezvoused with the carrier, Hornet, east of Espiritu Santo, forming Task Force 61, under Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. Halsey, anticipating a Japanese move near Guadalcanal, ordered Kinkaid to sweep north of the Santa Cruz Islands to engage the enemy's fleet.

On the 24th, in heavy rain, the Marines and soldiers fought off still another Japanese assault. At dawn  the next day, the US Navy force was steaming aggressively towards confrontation with the enemy in what would be called the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26.

As the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal neared, my dad's repair ship, Vestal, was sailing for Nouméa. It arrived on October 31, almost simultaneously with South Dakota and Enterprise, which were both damaged in the battle and awaiting repairs.

Source: USS Enterprise CV-6: The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

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