“Warning! Warning! Strange ships entering the harbor!” was the desperate call sent out by the destroyer USS Patterson at 1:43 AM on August 9th, 1942. Patterson had spotted the Japanese cruiser Kinugasa at just 5000 meters, approaching at full speed through the darkness of the night.
What would follow would be one of the worst defeats that the U.S. Navy has ever experienced.
A series of communication errors and a complacent reliance on technology without a proper understanding of its limitations would allow a strike force of Japanese cruisers to slip through the American defensive screen. This mistake was made fatal by years of meticulous Japanese planning, doctrinal and technological development, and training that made the Japanese navy the premier night-fighting force in the world in 1942.
Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, considers Pearl Harbor, Savo Island, and Tassafaronga to be the three worst defeats in U.S. naval history. This is the story of the Battle of Savo Island.
The Battle of Savo Island takes place in the context of the broader Guadalcanal Campaign, which itself is a part of the Solomon Islands Campaign of World War Two.
Guadalcanal is an island located near the eastern edge of the chain of islands. Japan already controlled a major naval base at Rabaul in New Britain and airfields on Bougainville at Buin. By the summer of 1942, the Japanese had begun construction of military bases on the eastern edge of the Solomons on and around Guadalcanal.
In particular, the Japanese were constructing an airbase on Guadalcanal at the natural harbor of Lunga Point and were also preparing a seaplane base at Tulagi on New Florida Island to the north.
This was extremely alarming to the US Navy, as American naval planners realized that the airbase on Guadalcanal would put Allied shipping lanes to the southeast within the 1800+km range of the Japanese Zero. This airbase would allow the Japanese to send escorted bombers to strike American supplies headed for Australia.
This was happening in July 1942. The previous month, the U.S. Navy had won a great victory at the Battle of Midway, sinking four Japanese fleet carriers in a single day. Despite the losses inflicted, the U.S. Navy still found itself at rough parity in the number of available fleet carriers and remained at a disadvantage in surface combat vessels like battleships and cruisers in the Pacific.
Nonetheless, American military leadership was eager to take advantage of the momentum generated by the great victory at Midway and find a place to conduct a limited offensive operation. The location chosen was the aforementioned Solomon Islands.
The Japanese did not appear to regard the Solomon Islands as a high strategic priority. The Japanese had already captured the British naval and air base at Rabaul, expanding the naval base into the major hub of the Japanese navy in this region.
The Japanese took their time expanding their control over the undefended chain of islands, building two airbases on Bougainville from March-April 1942, and construction in the Eastern Solomons at Lunga Point and Tulagi didn’t begin until July 1942.
Japanese attention was fixed on the fighting in Papua New Guinea, as the Japanese had been trying since May 1942 to capture Port Moresby leading to intense land and sea battles.
Although most of the primary Japanese fleet was based at Truk, about 1100km to the north in the Central Pacific, the Japanese placed significant land-based air power in the Western Solomons, on Rabaul and Bougainville. Furthermore, they placed a small fleet of cruisers and destroyers as the newly formed Eighth Fleet under the command of Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa, based right outside Rabaul.
However, despite beginning construction of bases in the Eastern Solomons, the construction sites were quite lightly defended.
An offensive was being drawn up by American planners to be conducted in October 1942 in the Solomons. However, news of the construction of bases at Guadalcanal dramatically increased the urgency of the operation, and the offensive was moved up to August 7th, 1942.
The operation was the most ambitious amphibious landing operation ever conducted by the U.S. military, with 16,000 marines from the First Marine Division attacking Tulagi and Lunga Point, escorted by the carrier task group, primarily built around the single fleet carrier Wasp and the screening force of eight cruisers and 15 destroyers.
Vice Admiral Jack Fletcher commanded the carrier task group and had overall command, while Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner was in command of the amphibious force (itself consisting of the transport group and the screening force of cruisers and destroyers).
The landing operation went forward with virtually no complications. The Japanese Navy had placed 2 units of naval infantry at the construction sites, but they lacked much in the way of heavy weaponry. Facing air strikes, naval guns, and a nearly ten-to-one numerical disadvantage, the 1500 Japanese defenders were killed almost to a man, while American losses amounted only to 248 casualties.
The Americans began unloading their transports while the carrier task force and screening force provided defense. Next came one of the most controversial decisions of the Pacific War.
Fletcher Leaves with the Carriers
The following morning on August 8th, the Japanese responded with a major air attack. Japanese Naval Type 1 Bombers (“Betty”) accompanied by Mitsubishi Type-0 Naval Fighters came screaming out the skies to attack the American fleet.
In the ensuing fighting, the Japanese lost 32 aircraft, but hit the Cruiser Jarvis several times, heaving and damaging it. One Betty bomber making a low-altitude torpedo attack run presumably accidentally struck the transport ship USS George F. Elliott, destroying the ship and setting it ablaze. The ship would continue to burn for several days.
However, weighing particularly heavy on Adm. Fletcher’s mind was the loss of 19 US Aircraft, including 14 of his Wildcat carrier fighters. This represented a loss of over a third of his available air superiority fighters on the Wasp. Fletcher also later argued he was concerned about his fuel levels if the fleet came under attack by Japanese carriers.
Fletcher requested permission to withdraw from the Carrier Task Force, and this permission was granted.
This left Adm. Turner, commander of the Amphibious Force consisting of transports, cruisers, and destroyers in a dilemma. The transports were unloading behind schedule, and it appeared that they would not finish unloading all their supplies for a few days.
But it was very dangerous to keep his fleet in place with only limited land-based air power from the nearby just-captured airfields.
Adm. Turner instructed the transports to hurry and unload as much as they could, before departing the next day escorted by the Screening Force.
Adm. Gunichi Mikawa’s Aggressive Response
Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa received word of the US landings on Guadalcanal and New Florida on Aug. 7th, he reacted quickly. Ordering an airstrike with maximal strength, Adm. Mikawa ordered preparations to send reinforcements by sending the 800 Naval infantry he had on hand with transports, before needing to recall them when more detailed reports on the scope of the American invasion force arrived.
Adm. Mikawa had on hand 5 Heavy Cruisers, including his flagship the Heavy Cruiser Chokai, along with 2 Light Cruisers and a single Destroyer.
His scout planes reported that the Americans had
- 1 Battleship
- 4 Heavy Cruisers
- 15 Destroyers
- 1 Seaplane Tender
Additionally, the air strike force reported back that they had encountered American carrier fighters flying combat air patrols (CAP) over Guadalcanal, indicating the US carrier strike force was in the area.
This was an overestimate of the US forces in the area. Especially after Fletcher left with the Carrier Task Force (which Mikawa knew nothing of), the US forces in the area were left with 6 Heavy Cruisers, 2 Light Cruisers, and 15 Destroyers—which certainly outnumbered the Japanese Eighth Fleet, but not by as much as Mikawa was led to believe.
Nonetheless, Mikawa resolved to strike the American Fleet with characteristic aggressiveness.
Mikawa was a 52-year-old highly regarded commanding officer of the newly formed Eighth Fleet. Well experienced having participated in the Battle of the Java Sea, the Indian Ocean Raid, and the Battle of Midway, Mikawa was well known and much beloved by the men under his command as a soft-spoken, rational, and kind demeanor that was rather atypical of many naval commanders.
However, under his gentle demeanor was a steely resolve that permitted no laxity or incompetence and a fiery aggressive tactical mindset.
Japanese naval doctrine held that Cruiser forces were to be heavily trained in night combat, and they aimed to use their advanced night combat techniques and equipment to attrit American battleship forces before the “Decisive Battle”—the clash of Japanese and American battleship forces that was assumed would decide the fate of the war.
Mikawa’s confidence was not unfounded. In addition to relentless night-time drills to prepare for combat in darkness, Japanese cruisers had 3 fearsome weapons that far outclassed their American counterparts.
First, the Japanese cruisers had the “Long Lance” Torpedo—the American term for the Type 93 Torpedo. It is undisputed as the most advanced torpedo of World War Two. Using oxygen-enriched air, the torpedo left no trace of bubbles in its wake that helped naval crews ordinarily identify incoming torpedoes.
The Long Lance had a high top speed of 53 knots, and a firing range of over 20,000 meters, although it rarely scored hits beyond 7000~8000 meters, and its 490kg warhead was devastatingly powerful. By contrast, the American Mark 14 frequently misfired, had a range of just beyond 4000 meters, was easily visible by its wake, had a speed of 46 knots, and its 230kg warhead was far less powerful.
Second, Japanese warships had the most advanced night optics in the world. Although Japan lagged in radar technology of the Allies, by 1942 Japan had the best low-light optical lens. Companies like Nippon Kougaku (now Nikon) and Seikoukougaku (now Canon Inc.) manufactured highly advanced low-light lenses, giving them the ability to see more than twice as far as American low-light lenses.
Lastly, Japanese cruisers were equipped with scouting floatplanes with low-light optics, who were trained for night scouting missions. These night scouting planes could be launched by catapult from cruisers at night and could make night landings on water. They were equipped with star shells that they could drop over enemy ships, illuminating them for over a minute. The US would not develop the ability to launch night fighters from the sea until Nov. 1943.
Leveraging these advantages, Adm. Mikawa intended to engage the superior American force at night, destroy the American surface fleet, then if possible attack the American transports, before returning to Rabaul before daybreak to avoid being destroyed by the American carrier task force.
Further bolstering his confidence, Mikawa received (correct) reconnaissance reports indicating that the Americans had split their forces between the anchorages at Lunga Point and Tulagi. Mikawa planned to defeat the Americans in detail, first by striking the American anchorage at Lunga Point, before swinging north to strike the ships at Tulagi, allowing him to concentrate his entire force on one part of the American fleet.
Mikawa’s plan was initially rejected as reckless, but Mikawa persisted, arguing that the American position in the Eastern Solomons would only grow stronger over time. After a few hours, Mikawa’s plan was given approval.
The Eighth Fleet began advancing down the Slot, the narrow strait between the northern and southern chains of the Solomon Islands, on the morning of August 8th. He would pause his fleet off the east coast of Bougainville for six hours, waiting for dusk. This was to minimize the risk of detection, before rapidly advancing the remainder of the distance to strike in the middle of the night.
The American Defense Plan
Meanwhile, the American Navy was battling exhaustion. The sailors on the cruisers and destroyers of the screening force had been on high alert for a Japanese attack for over 48 hours.
After Fletcher left with the carrier task force, Turner (now in command) was left with only 15 scout planes, whose pilots were utterly exhausted from overwork the past two days.
Turner was aware that any Japanese strike force was likely to advance down The Slot, so he sent a request to Adm. John McCain (the grandfather of the late Senator/Presidential nominee John McCain), asking that allied air forces take over patrols over the Slot for the remainder of the day. For unknown reasons, Adm. McCain never ordered the reconnaissance missions, but nor did Adm. McCain inform Turner that his request had been denied.
This left Turner under the impression that allied aircraft were conducting regular reconnaissance patrols over the Slot when none were taking place.
The second major error occurred later in the morning. Australian Air Force reconnaissance planes twice caught a glimpse of the Eight Fleet’s cruisers anchored northeast of Bougainville, and caught sight of seaplanes operating from that area. The pilots recognized the importance of this information and quickly relayed the information back to their commanders.
For unknown reasons, this information was not relayed to Guadalcanal for nearly six hours, and it was 9:30 PM by the time the second confirming report was given to Turner’s command staff at Guadalcanal. Turner focused his attention on the mention of seaplanes and assumed that Japanese seaplane tenders were operating from that area.
Turner was also under the impression that reconnaissance over the Slot was ongoing, so he assumed that the absence of any report of a Japanese fleet advancing down the Slot meant no attack by Japanese surface vessels could be expected that evening.
Turner left the precise details of the defensive disposition to Australian Rear Adm. Victor Crutchley, the commander of the screening force (which was primarily composed of American ships but included a few Australian ships).
Crutchley’s fleet disposition indicates a particular concern with submarine attacks on the transport fleets.
Given Turner’s belief a surface ship attack was highly unlikely, Crutchley’s forces were split into northern (3 cruisers 2 destroyers), southern (3 cruisers, 2 destroyers), and eastern (2 cruisers, 2 destroyers) forces. While this dispersed Crutchley’s combat power, it provided maximal coverage over any approaches to the 2 transport fleets. Each of the ships proceeded to rotate clockwise in line formations along the traced paths above.
Additionally, Crutchley positioned 2 highly advanced radar destroyers as pickets to detect any incoming enemy ships. The Allied command was under the impression that the radar would detect any incoming ships from great distances. They were unaware that the radar struggled to obtain clear signals when close to landmasses (like Savo Island), or that US Navy training had taught the radar operators to only turn on their radars once every thirty minutes, to avoid giving away their positions to the enemy—these two factors sharply limited the radar’s effectiveness.
Furthermore, the two picket destroyers were trying to cover too much ground, taking nearly 40 minutes to complete its 20km+ patrol route. This left a lot of room for ships to slip through the picket if they managed to avoid detection by radar. Simply doubling the number of destroyers would have done much to prevent a force from slipping past the picket destroyers.
Making matters worse Crutchley ordinarily commanded the screening force from his flagship, the HMS Australia (assigned to southern force). However, on the evening of August 8th, Crutchley was summoned to Turner’s flagship, the Attack Transport McCawley, for a conference.
Crutchley informed Captain Bode in Chicago that he was now in command of southern group during Crutchley and Australia’s absence. While Crutchley attended the conference with Turner, Australia set her anchor by Lunga Point, leaving southern force with only 2 Cruisers and 2 Destroyers.
However, Crutchley failed to inform northern group or eastern group of his absence. This would later lead to confusion in the chain of command. Captain Bode was now implicitly in command of southern group, but Captain Frederick Riefkohl, commander of northern group, was his senior.
Bode believed he was in a position to take orders from Riefkohl at northern force, while Riefkohl did not know Crutchley was absent. Because of this, Riefkohl believed he was in the position to take orders from southern force.
Even as the two commanders of the western cruiser forces thought they would be taking orders from the other group, Crutchley made another fateful decision. Believing a Japanese surface attack was highly unlikely, Crutchley decided not to return Australia to its position in the southern patrol that evening.
Furthermore, Crutchley failed to tell anybody of his decision, leaving Captain Bode in the awkward position of waiting for his commander to return and take command, but being nominally in charge of the task force until an attack occurred.
This series of miscommunications and errors left the Allies with a divided command uncertain of the chain of command. Reliance on reconnaissance that had not taken place. And an insufficient number of destroyer patrols to detect an incoming Japanese strike force.
This would lead directly to the disaster that would follow.
The Final Approach
Mikawa’s Eighth Fleet began making full steam ahead for Guadalcanal around 4 PM. The Eighth Fleet was making its final approach shortly before midnight on August 8th.
Before the ships made their final approach Mikawa ordered 3 reconnaissance float planes be launched. These began circling above the Allied Fleet around 11:45 PM, but the Allied sailors assumed them to be friendly and did not pay them any attention.
The Eighth Fleet began its final approach around 12:40 AM, August 9th. Mikawa had arranged his ships into a battle line, single file, with his flagship Chokai in the lead.
The Eighth Fleet spotted the radar destroyer Blue at 9000m at 12:54 AM. By a stroke of luck, the Eighth Fleet had made its final approach shortly after both Blue and Ralph Talbot had activated their radars and thus were able to make their approach undetected by radar surveillance. In the darkness, Blue failed to see the approaching Japanese ships.
Mikawa ordered the column to hold their fire and turn slightly north, to pass Savo Island from the north instead, to avoid Blue’s path. Mikawa hoped to pass the destroyer picket undetected.
Mikawa’s ships continued their approach, and then Mikawa’s observers spotted Ralph Talbot an astonishing 16,000 meters northeast of their position, despite the darkness.
Blue seemingly obliviously continued to travel northeast directly towards the path of Mikawa’s ships, and approached within just 2,000 meters of the Japanese ships, when it suddenly turned sharply. Blue made a turn southwest to continue its circular patrol route, away from the approaching Japanese ships. It was clear that Blue had failed to spot the Japanese cruisers.
Mikawa ordered his fleet to turn slightly south, to now avoid the approaching Ralph Talbot from the Northeast, and to pass Savo Island to the South. The Eighth Fleet successfully slipped past the Allied picket line undetected. Cautious of a trap, Mikawa detached the Destroyer Yunagi to follow Blue to prevent it from attacking from behind.
Suddenly, out of the darkness came the damaged destroyer Jarvis. The Jarvis had been hit multiple times during the Japanese air raid and was heavily damaged. It also had lost its radio communications. On its way for repairs in Australia, the Jarvis was in no shape for a major fight.
The Japanese fleet held its breath as the Jarvis passed within 1100 meters of the Japanese position, but made no sign that it had detected the Japanese fleet. It passed uneventfully to the rear—it remains unknown if the Jarvis’ crew had detected the Japanese fleet, as it was later sunk by a Japanese air attack and was lost with all hands.
After the Jarvis passed by, at 1:30, Mikawa ordered “All ships attack.”
Strange Ships Entering Harbor
Meanwhile, half the Allied sailors on the screening force were asleep, including most of the ships’ commanders. The evening of August 8th, Crutchley had informed the captains of the ships in the Screening Force that he believed an attack was highly unlikely. Almost all the ships’ captains lowered the alert level on their ships to Condition II, which meant half the sailors could sleep while the others remained on duty.
The lone exception was the skipper of the destroyer Patterson, Commander F. R. Walker. Patterson had been assigned to southern force, with cruisers Canberra and Chicago, and destroyer Bagley. Cmdr Walker had read through the reconnaissance reports in detail and believed the sighting of Japanese warships north of Bougainville was being treated with insufficient alarm. Walker believed, correctly, that the float planes may be reconnaissance planes for a Japanese surface fleet, and that the Japanese may be preparing for a night attack.
Walker instructed his crew to remain on high alert and to expect a Japanese attack that very evening, and remained on the bridge.
At 1:43 AM, Patterson’s lookout spotted numerous unknown ships entering the harbor and fast approaching from 5000m: Mikawa’s Eighth Fleet.
Patterson immediately raised the alert, radioing the famous signal “Warning! Warning! Strange ships entering the harbor!” but it was too late. The Eighth Fleet had already launched its Long Lance torpedoes and within seconds of the alarm, Mikawa’s 7 cruisers were concentrating their fire on southern force’s lead ship, the cruiser Canberra.
Japanese floatplanes began dropping star shells to illuminate the sky directly over Chicago and Canberra, leaving them well illuminated for Japanese gunners.
Within moments of the start of combat, Canberra was hit by 24 gun hits by frightfully accurate gunnery from the Japanese cruisers. Before it could even get off a salvo, Canberra lost all power, was listing 10 degrees, and could not even activate its pumps to drain it's quickly flooding compartments. For all intents and purposes, she was dead in the water.
Captain Bode was asleep when the combat started, and by the time he made it to the bridge, Canberra was dead in the water leaving his Chicago as the only cruiser of southern force still in the fight.
Immediately thereafter, Chicago was shaken by a tremendous explosion as a Japanese torpedo struck its bow. A 5-inch round from a Japanese cruiser struck the decks. The damage was minimal but it visibly shook Captain Bode. Seeing flashes of gunfire from Japanese cruisers to his north, and some flashes of gunfire from further northwest (presumably the gunbattle opening between the destroyer Blue and the Yunagiri), Captain Bode made a highly controversial decision.
Captain Bode maintained course heading northwest, passing by the Japanese cruisers, and heading away from the main fighting for the next 40 minutes. He would later protest that he believed that another Japanese force was incoming that needed to be challenged, but critics pointed out Bode’s movements took him further away from the transports at Lunga Point whose protection was his main mission.
Most critically, Captain Bode failed to notify the other forces of combat with enemy forces, leaving northern force confused, and eastern force unaware of combat.
Captain Bode’s Chicago would play no further role in the battle.
Cmd. Walker’s Patterson meanwhile aggressively pursued the main line of Japanese cruisers engaging in a fierce gun battle. The Patterson was a single destroyer, essentially engaged in a fight against 3 Japanese Cruisers, and thus was frightfully outgunned. But Walker appeared determined to disrupt the Japanese attack to prevent the development of an even worse disaster. Patterson took multiple hits, but caused some light damage to the Japanese Cruise Kinugasa, before losing sight of the Japanese column.
In the confusion of the fighting, the Japanese cruisers turned north but accidentally split into two groups. This mistake would turn out to be fortunate as it put the Japanese cruisers in a perfect position to pincer the northern force.
Northern force was in a state of confusion. All 3 captains of the cruisers in northern force were asleep when combat began. Flashes of what appeared to be gunfire and star shells began happening in the distance, but no radio report of combat was received. The officers on the ships were wary of a friendly fire incident and were awaiting further instruction, while the 5 ships continued to sail blithely at a slow 12 knots.
By 1:44, just 3 minutes after opening fire, the Japanese were already satisfied they had finished off Canberra (correctly) and had already turned north. the Japanese cruisers launched torpedoes at long range toward Northern Force. The Allies were not even at general quarters (combat stations).
At 1:50, the Japanese cruisers had pincered the Allied ships’ line from the front and rear and aimed powerful searchlights at the lead ship Astoria and began firing. This finally alerted the Allied ships of an attack and the ship’s crew (including her captain) sprung awake to begin taking positions.
The Astoria’s captain arrived on the bridge to find his ship in a full gunnery duel with unknown ships. Fearing a friendly fire incident, he ordered a cease-fire, losing valuable time. As dozens of shells continued to fall around him, the order to resume firing was finally given after a minute.
By 2:15. Astoria had lost all engine power. Her final salvo hit Chokai's forward turret, knocking it out and causing moderate damage, but thereafter, Astoria was dead in the water. She would sink about 10 hours later.
The cruiser Vincennes was faring no better. Almost as soon as she was ready to fight, Vincennes was struck by two torpedoes at 1:55 slowing her to a crawl. Vincennes found herself in the crossfire between 5 Japanese cruisers and in the next 8 minutes, the Japanese gunners hit her 74 times. At 2:04. a third Japanese torpedo struck the Vincennes, destroying the remaining boiler room and removing all power. An order to abandon ship was given at 2:16. Vincennes would sink a little more than a half hour later
Meanwhile, the cruiser Quincy’s bridge was hit, killing almost the entire ship’s bridge crew, including her captain, at 2:10. At 2:16, two torpedoes struck Quincy's bow, dealing devastating damage and silencing her guns. Quincy would sink in under 20 minutes.
Mikawa’s ships departed to the northwest, leaving 4 Allied Cruisers sinking or already sunk, and 5th moderately damaged (the Chicago). On their way out, Mikawa’s cruisers also badly damaged the destroyer Ralph Talbot, adding 2 heavily damaged destroyers (Ralph Talbot and Patterson) to the ledger. 1077 Allied sailors and officers were killed.
The Eighth Fleet suffered 1 moderately damaged cruiser and 2 lightly damaged cruisers, with 58 killed. It was one of the most lopsided defeats ever suffered by the U.S. Navy.
Mikawa surveyed the battlefield and looked at the time: 2:16 AM. He conveyed his staff to discuss whether the Eighth Fleet should reform for another attack on the Allied transports.
The Eighth Fleet had expended less than half its ammunition and had plenty of munitions and fuel to make another attack. Mikawa believed (rightly) that he had neutralized a majority of the Allied combat forces and they had insufficient forces to engage his still near-full-strength fleet.
On the other hand, most historians agree that for Mikawa to reorganize his forces for another attack, given his location and direction, it would have taken a minimum of 90~120 minutes to loop back around and begin an attack. it’s likely the attack on the transports would not have begun until around 4 AM.
Given 30 minutes to damage the Allied Transports, it would have been very close to sunrise by the time MIkawa’s fleet was underway back toward Rabaul. Mikawa was under the belief that an Allied carrier task force was in the area, and the carrier’s strike forces would attack as soon as they could take off in daylight.
Mikawa surveyed his staff. A few officers argued in favor of attacking the transports, but a majority of his staff argued the primary mission was complete, and that they should return immediately to Rabaul without risking their cruisers.
Mikawa agreed and ordered the Eighth Fleet to return to its home port.
This decision is one of the biggest “What ifs” that is discussed in the Guadalcanal Campaign. That is, “What if Mikawa had destroyed the transports, leaving the 1st Marines without most of their heavy equipment or sufficient supplies?”
It is generally agreed that the Allies lacked sufficient forces to defend against another attack by Mikawa’s fleet. The Chicago was out of the fight, disoriented and demoralized. That left just 2 cruisers in Eastern Force and the Australia anchored at Lunga Point as the only ships with guns powerful enough to take on Mikawa’s force.
The Japanese Cruisers had already demonstrated vast qualitative superiority over the Allied Cruisers in night combat, thus it seems highly unlikely that the remaining Allied screening forces were sufficient to defeat the Japanese under ordinary circumstances, let alone the disorder and confusion that reigned in the early hours of Aug. 9th.
Thus, certain historians are harshly critical of Mikawa’s decision not to turn his tactical victory into an operational or even strategic victory, by destroying the Allied supply ships. The Pacific Fleet was operating on a shoestring in 1942 and was desperately short of amphibious assault vessels and supply ships. The loss of even half of Turner’s transports would have represented a catastrophic loss that would have crippled further American operations in the Solomons for as much as six months.
it would have left Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division utterly isolated and undersupplied in hostile Japanese territory. The artillery and firepower advantage used to devastating effect by the Marines during the coming Battle of Guadalcanal would not have existed for a lack of artillery and shells.
In retrospect, some historians argue that Mikawa should have been willing to risk the loss of his entire Eighth Fleet to destroy the Allied transports and vilify Mikawa for his inability to recognize the opportunity that had been handed to him.
In my view, such criticism lacks an understanding of the role “doctrine” plays in commanders’ decision-making.
A modern military goes to great lengths to educate particularly its general officers. This education is needed not only to ensure competence, but also to ensure philosophical consistency. A nation needs its officers to understand the overall strategy of the nation, so tactical and operational decisions can be made consistent with the strategic objectives.
For example, what role are cruisers expected to play in the overall conflicts? What is the relative importance of logistical support ships vis-a-vis combat vessels?
In Japanese naval doctrine in 1942, Mikawa’s decision was 100% the correct decision. Japanese naval doctrine held that cruisers existed to help win the Decisive Battle—the final clash between Japanese and American battleships and/or fleet carriers.
Japan was supposed to be seeking a short and decisive war with the Americans, thus logistics was viewed as unlikely to play a major role in a war that would be over in a single decisive naval engagement.
Japanese doctrine held that surface forces should aim to attrit key American vessels that could play a role in deciding the Decisive Battle: cruisers, battleships and fleet carriers.
Conversely, Japanese doctrine held that it was paramount that Japanese commanders preserve their precious Decisive Battle resources, and only risk them if the payoff would be an even greater reduction in the enemy’s key resources
In light of this doctrinal thinking, Mikawa’s decision is entirely correct. Japanese naval strategy revolved around the Decisive Battle doctrine, thus the transports were a mere secondary objective. While it would be desirable to destroy the transports and assist the Japanese Army in the coming battle for Guadalcanal, the first and highest priority for Mikawa was to destroy American combat vessels and preserve his forces.
Risking his cruisers for the destruction of mere transports flew in the face of Japanese doctrine—and thus MIkawa’s assigned strategic priorities.
As a mere Rear Admiral, Mikawa had no say in Japanese military doctrine. His only role was to achieve tactical successes and to faithfully execute its strategic priorities as it applied to the Eighth Fleet.
Any blame for Japan’s misguided doctrinal priorities should be laid at the feet of the man who was in charge of developing Japan’s strategic plan and doctrine: Marshal Admiral Osami Nagano, Chief of Staff of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
On the American side, Turner and other Allied commanders recognized the scope of the disaster that the Battle of Savo Island represented. The transports were quickly evacuated shortly after daybreak on August 9th, leaving the Marines with fewer supplies than they had hoped.
A formal United States Navy Board of Inquiry was formed to investigate the causes of the defeat. When Captain Bode learned that he would receive the harshest criticism when the Board’s findings were released, Captain Bode committed suicide.
Admiral Turner received only light criticism for his direct role in the fiasco and would go on to be the U.S. Navy’s foremost amphibious operation planner—one of Nimitz’s key commanders in the coming Pacific Campaign.
Turner assessed the reasons for his defeat at Savo Island as follows:
The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. Despite ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances.
The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise