The tide of the Guadalcanal campaign was turned by one new American battleship, the USS WASHINGTON (BB-56,) CAPT Glenn B. Davis, commanding, in a brutal and near-run battle the night of 14-15 Nov 42. With the battleship USS SOUTH DAKOTA (BB-57) on fire and out of action, and the four screening destroyers sunk or crippled, WASHINGTON was the only ship left of Rear Admiral Willis “Ching” Lee’s Task Force 64 that entered Ironbottom Sound the evening of 14 Nov 1942, in a last ditch effort by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey to halt yet another major effort by the Japanese to bombard Henderson Field and land more reinforcements on Guadalcanal (it was a last-ditch effort for the Japanese too.)
WASHINGTON single-handedly took on a Japanese force of one battleship (KIRISHIMA, a survivor of the 13 Nov battle,) two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and nine destroyers. In a matter of minutes, with accurate radar-directed fire, WASHINGTON pummeled the KIRISHIMA with between 9 and 20 hits (probably 20) by 16″ shells and over forty hits by 5″ shells, which caused KIRISHIMA to sink after midnight. WASHINGTON also hit other Japanese ships with her secondary armament, including probably the destroyer USS PRESTON (DD-379) too. WASHINGTON then maneuvered to avoid multiple torpedo attacks. The loss of the KIRISHIMA caused the rest of the Japanese force to withdraw, with the exception of one sinking destroyer.
RADM Lee was the Navy’s foremost flag-level expert on the integration and use of radar, and that knowledge and technology provided the critical edge in turning what could have been a disaster into a decisive victory, that contributed in a major way to ending the last major Japanese push to re-take Guadalcanal. Disillusioned by the Army’s inability to make any progress against the U.S. Marines, and stunned by the loss of two battleships, the Japanese Navy decided to limit further action to making Tokyo Express supply runs using destroyers. The Japanese Navy would never again commit cruisers or battleships (or aircraft carriers) to the waters around Guadalcanal.
The action between USS WASHINGTON and IJN KIRISHIMA was the only one-on-one battleship action in the Pacific War, and only one of two battleship vs. battleship actions in the Pacific (the other was the Battle of Surigao Strait in Oct 1944.) Most accounts focus on the fact that the KIRISHIMA was hopelessly outclassed by the WASHINGTON. KIRISHIMA was a World War I-vintage battle-cruiser (which had received some additional armor and upgrades during the interwar years) armed with four twin 14″ gun turrets. WASHINGTON (and SOUTH DAKOTA) were both brand new state-of-the-art battleships, armed with three triple 16″ gun turrets, the latest radar, and an admiral who knew how to use it. The standard interpretation was that KIRISHIMA didn’t have a prayer, and this is arguably true ship-to-ship. However such analysis does not account for the 90 torpedo tubes (plus reloads) aboard the Japanese cruisers and destroyers and the power of the Type 93 Long Lance torpedo, the capabilities of which the U.S. was still largely ignorant. Had the U.S. destroyer screen not absorbed many of these torpedoes, at great sacrifice, and had the Japanese commander not lost situational awareness in the chaos of battle, the outcome could have been disastrous for the U.S. Halsey took an enormous risk, much more than he even knew, in stripping both his battleships from carrier screen duties and committing them to a night battle in constricted waters against so may torpedoes; the outcome could easily have been USS HOUSTON (CA-30) redux at the Battle of Sunda Strait.
As in the Battle of Friday the 13th, the ferocity of the battle was such that every commanding officer of the six U.S. ships involved was awarded a Navy Cross, two posthumously. Total U.S. personnel losses in the battle were 242 KIA and 142 WIA. The destroyers WALKE (DD-416) and PRESTON (DD-379) were immediately smothered and sunk by Japanese torpedoes and shellfire and were lost with most of their crews (80 KIA on Walke, including skipper CDR Thomas E. Fraser, and 117 KIA on Preston, including skipper CDR Max C. Stormes.) The BENHAM (DD-397) and GWIN (DD-433) were both quickly put out of action, but the skipper of BENHAM got all of his crew onto GWIN before BENHAM sank, with only 8 WIA on BENHAM, and 6 KIA on GWIN. The battleship SOUTH DAKOTA (CAPT Thomas L. Gatch commanding) suffered a massive debilitating power failure at a critical point in the battle, ending up silhouetted by the burning U.S. destroyers and taking 27 topside hits, none threatening to the integrity of the ship, but killing 39 crewmen (including one Marine) and wounding 59 more, and putting her out of the battle. Dozens of Japanese torpedoes missed both SOUTH DAKOTA and WASHINGTON. WASHINGTON came through the battle (and the rest of the war) unscathed with no casualties. Given her impact on the course of the Guadalcanal campaign and the war, why WASHINGTON did not receive a Presidential Unit Citation (or even a Navy Unit Citation or Meritorious Unit Commendation) remains a complete mystery to me.
After the battle, WASHINGTON’s skipper, CAPT Glenn Davis, made a profound observation, “Radar has forced the Captain or OTC to base a greater part of his actions.on what he is told rather than what he can see.” Naval warfare had just been revolutionized.