Although U.S. lost several ships in Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Naval Force under Rear Admiral Willlis Lee, USS Washington (BB-56), turns back Japanese transports trying to reinforce Guadalcanal. The Japanese would never again try to send large naval forces to Guadalcanal.
On 13 November, Lee learned that three groups of Japanese ships—one consisting of about 24 transports, with escort—were steaming toward Guadalcanal. One enemy force sighted that morning was reported as consisting of two battleships, a light cruiser, and 11 destroyers.
At sunset on the 13th, Rear Admiral Lee took Washington, South Dakota (BB-57), and four destroyers and headed for Savo Island—the scene of the disastrous night action of 8 and 9 August—to be in position to intercept the Japanese convoy and its covering force. Lee’s ships, designated as TF 64, reached a point about 50 miles south-by-west from Guadalcanal late in the forenoon on the 14th and spent much of the remainder of the day trying—unsuccessfully—to avoid being spotted by Japanese reconnaissance planes.
Approaching on a northerly course, nine miles west of Guadalcanal, TF 64—reported by the Japanese reconnaissance planes as consisting of a battleship, a cruiser, and four destroyers—steamed in column formation. Walke (DD-416) led, followed by Benham (DD-397), Preston (DD-377), Gwin (DD-433), and the two battleships, Washington and South Dakota.
As the ship steamed through the flat calm sea beneath the scattered cirrus cumulus clouds in the night sky, Washington’s radar picked up a contact, bearing to the east of Savo Island, at 0001 on 15 November. Fifteen minutes later, at 0016, Washington opened fire with her 16-inch main battery. The fourth battle of Savo Island was underway.
The Japanese force proved to be the battleship Kirishima, the heavy cruisers Atago and Takao, the light cruisers Sendai and Nagara, and a screen of nine destroyers escorting four transports. Planning to conduct a bombardment of American positions on Guadalcanal to cover the landing of troops, the Japanese force ran head-on into Lee’s TF 64.
For the next three minutes, Washington’s 16-inchers hurled out 42 rounds, opening at 18,500 yards range, her fire aimed at the light cruiser Sendai. Simultaneously, the battleship’s 5-inch battery was engaging another ship also being engaged by South Dakota.
As gunflashes split the night and the rumble of gunfire reverberated like thunder off the islands nearby, Washington continued to engage the Japanese force. Between 0025 and 0034, the ship engaged targets at 10,000 yards range with her 5-inch battery.
Most significantly, however, Washington soon engaged Kirishima, in the first head-to-head confrontation of battleships in the Pacific war. In seven minutes, tracking by radar, Washington sent 75 rounds of 16-inch and 107 rounds of 5-inch at ranges from 8,400 to 12,650 yards, scoring at least nine hits with her main battery and about 40 with her 5-inchers, silencing the enemy battleship in short order. Subsequently, Washington’s 5-inch batteries went to work on other targets spotted by her radar “eyes.”
The battle, however, was not all one-sided. Japanese gunfire proved devastating to the four destroyers of TF 64, as did the dreaded and effective “long lance” torpedoes. Walke and Preston both took numerous hits of all calibers and sank; Benham sustained heavy damage to her bow, and Gwin sustained shell hits aft.
South Dakota had maneuvered to avoid the burning Walke and Preston but soon found herself the target of the entire Japanese bombardment group. Skewered by searchlight beams, South Dakota boomed out salvoes at the pugnacious enemy, as did Washington which was proceeding, at that point, to deal out severe punishment upon Kirishima—one of South Dakota’s assailants.
South Dakota, the recipient of numerous hits, retired as Washington steamed north to draw fire away from her crippled sister battleship and the two crippled destroyers, Benham and Gwin. Initially, the remaining ships of the Japanese bombardment group gave chase to Washington but broke off action when discouraged by the battleship’s heavy guns. Accordingly, they withdrew under cover of a smokescreen.
After Washington skillfully evaded torpedoes fired by the retiring Japanese destroyers in the van of the enemy force, she joined South Dakota later in the morning, shaping course for Noumea. In the battleship action, Washington had done well and had emerged undamaged. South Dakota had not emerged unscathed, however, sustaining heavy damage to her superstructure; 38 men had died; 60 lay wounded. The Japanese had lost the battleship Kirishima. Left burning and exploding, she later had to be abandoned and scuttled. The other enemy casualty was the destroyer Ayanami, scuttled the next morning.
Washington remained in the South Pacific theater, basing on New Caledonia and continuing as flagship for Rear Admiral “Ching” Lee. The battleship protected carrier groups and task forces engaged in the ongoing Solomons campaign until late in April of 1943, operating principally with TF 11, which included the repaired Saratoga (CV-3), and with TF 16, built around Enterprise.