The Solomons Campaign: Execution at Savo Island

Today’s post examines the first major response at sea, to the invasion by Allied forces on Guadalcanal a couple of days earlier.   Our guest author for this article is CDR Bill Bullard, USN.   CDR Bullard has just completed his CO tour as the 70th Commanding Officer of Old Ironsides, where Age of Sail history dominated his studies for the last two years.   This is effort marks his return to the Age of Steam and, in his words, this is his first real attempt at a major blog posting. – SJS

Arkansas’ “Old Sparky”

08 August, 1942, 1200 EST.   Herbert Haupt, Edward Kerling, Hermann Neubauer, Werner Thiel, Heinrich Heinck, and Richard Quirin six Nazi saboteurs of Operation Pastorius have just been electrocuted in Washington, DC.   It is the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.

What nobody in Washington knew was that the Pacific Fleet had just undergone an electrocution of its own.   Ten minutes earlier and nearly half a world away, about three nautical miles due east of Savo Island, Captain Frederick Reifkohl, USN entered the water and swam away from the superstructure deck of USS VINCENNES as she rolled over and went down by the head.   VINCENNES sank in 500 fathoms of water at 0250 09 August 1942, just 15 minutes after her sister ship USS QUINCY went down.   Within ten hours two more cruisers, HMAS CANBERRA and USS ASTORIA, would join them as the first warships to inhabit Ironbottom Sound.

Ironbottom Sound is a rather small piece of water space.   From the tip of Cape Esperance to the south-western coast of Buena Vista Island is around 27 nautical miles.   Savo Island (about 12 sq. mi.) is about a third of the way across, give or take.   To give a visual approximation (and very rough mirror image) for the 21st Century Sailor, take the narrowest point of the Strait of Hormuz (Larak Island to Musandam Peninsula) and plop a 3 x 4 nm island somewhere around the outbound leg of the traffic separation scheme.


On the night of 08 August Task Group 62.6 (RADM Victor A. Crutchly, RN, VC), a combined American and Australian screening force of six heavy cruisers (HMAS AUSTRALIA, HMAS CANBERRA, USS CHICAGO, USS ASTORIA, USS QUINCY, USS VINCENNES) and four destroyers patrolled the western approaches to the Guadalcanal and Tulagi landings.   Task Group 62.4 (RADM Norman Scott, USN), another combined force of two light cruisers (HMAS HOBART, USS SAN JUAN) and two more destroyers patrolled the eastern approaches.   In YOKE Anchorage, the transport GEORGE F. ELLIOTT lay burning from the day’s air attacks.   Another victim of air attacks, the destroyer USS JARVIS was limping westward out of Ironbottom Sound.   Badly damaged and trailing oil, she was heading to Australia for repairs.   Two more destroyers (USS BLUE and USS RALPH TALBOT) attached to TG 62.6 were on RADAR picket duty, to the west and north of Savo respectively, to provide early warning against any Japanese surface forces attempting to attack the transport areas.   In training, both ships had demonstrated the ability to detect cruiser-sized targets at 7-10 nautical miles. (Newcomb, Richard F., The Battle of Savo Island, Holt, 1961, pg. 67.)   Aboard the transport MCCAWLEY, RADM Richmond K. Turner was in command of the entire force as CTF 62.


(Allied Patrol Plan, Battle of Savo Island)

For the past two days TF 62 had been fending off air attacks from Rabaul air attacks that were being reported far enough in advance by Australian Coast Watchers that, with the help of fighters from USS ENTERPRISE and USS SARATOGA, they were having a relatively easy time breaking up.   Now, with the carriers withdrawing from the area, they expected the air attacks not only to continue on the 9th, but to intensify.   Facing the prospect of intensified air attacks with no friendly air support, RADM Turner made the decision that TF 62 would withdraw at dawn on the 9th.

It was just before midnight, 09 August, and little credence had been given to the probability of a night surface attack.   The only aerial reconnaissance report received that evening (about 1845) indicated a small group of three cruisers, three destroyers and two seaplane tenders were spotted at 1025 west of Bouganville, steaming south. (Bates, pg. 100)   The consensus among commanders was that these ships were likely remaining in the area to establish a seaplane base.   Furthermore, aerial reconnaissance in The Slot had turned up no surface forces.

After two straight days of supporting landings and fending off air attacks, crews needed to rest.   Safe from air attack at night with no surface threat, TF 62 was taken out of Condition I and put in to Condition II; this meant reduced manning on guns and other critical stations.   On American ships the guns remained loaded; in CANBERRA all guns were empty (Lewis, Winston B., The Battle of Savo Island, 9 August 1942, ONI, 1943, pg. 6).

AUSTRALIA was in X-RAY anchorage, awaiting the return of CTG 62.6.   A conference aboard MCCAWLEY had concluded at 2325, at which Vandegrift had just learned of Turner’s intention to pull out at dawn.   They also had agreed upon the assessment of the intentions of the Japanese surface force sighted off Bouganville that morning. (Bates, pg. 90)   Don’t count on a surface attack tonight.

Crutchley had issued no night battle plan; he had issued special instructions amounting to more than Groups act independently and in mutual support in case of attack.   It was really little more than a concept.   In the Southern Patrol Area, Captain Howard Bode of CHICAGO was in command; he had been informed by blinker tube message when AUSTRALIA departed the pattern at 2130. (Newcomb, pg. 89)   In the Northern Patrol Area Captain Reifkohl, fewer than three hours from swimming away from his ship, did not know that AUSTRALIA had even left, which means he also did not know that for the last three hours he was the senior officer in the TG 62.6 operating area.   Like the rest of the Captains in the Northern Force, he would soon be asleep, safe in the knowledge that a surface attack was very unlikely, that the aircraft flying east over Savo Island was friendly, and that he would receive word from the OTC if the situation changed.

cruiser force advance
Cruiser Force’s Advance on Ironbottom Sound, 7-9 August 1942.

To say the situation changed would be a lie; the situation, as he knew it, had pretty much never been.   Around 0130, seven cruisers (CHOKAI, AOBA, KINUGASA, FURUTAKA, KAKO, TENRYU, YUBARI) and one destroyer of the Japanese Eighth Fleet, under the direct command of VADM Gunichi Mikawa, were passing between Savo Island and Cape Esperance, entering the Allied southern patrol area.   A short time earlier they had passed dangerously close – well within demonstrated visual and RADAR detection ranges, to USS BLUE without being detected.   They should have been detected.

In fact, they had been detected at 1025, west of Bouganville, heading south.   Mikawa knew he had been detected and all but counted on being attacked by aircraft most likely carrier aircraft, he believed – at some point during the previous 32 hours as he steamed his Cruiser Force toward Savo Island with the objective of defeating the Allied screen and sinking the transports.   Yet here was his Cruiser Force, against all odds, steaming silently past Savo Island, apparently ready to strike with impunity.   He had known the Allies could exact a heavy toll on his plan.   He had launched recon flights to determine the Allied disposition and launched more aircraft at dusk to lead his force into Savo Sound and illuminate the enemy ships when the time came.   He had issued a plan to his pickup team of Captains that was both specific, yet allowed each of them the freedom necessary to fight their ships effectively.   What he did not know was that for a variety of reasons, TF 62 had unwittingly blindfolded and secured itself into this confined piece of ocean, effectively transforming it into an electric chair.   Like a lethal voltage that enters a body and destroys tissue, organs and nerves as it beats its way to its exit point, his Cruiser Force waited for him to throw the switch.   Parachute flairs burst over X-RAY anchorage at 0145 (Lewis, pg. 6) the switch had been thrown.

(ONI Diagrams of Battle of Savo Island.)

For the next 32 minutes the salt water off Savo Island would prove itself as willing a conductor of destruction as of electricity.   The Cruiser Force fired more than 1800 (3 thru 8) shells scoring 223 actual or probable hits (Bates, pg. 357), and six deadly Long Lance torpedoes hit their targets (Newcomb, pg. 264-265) as they systematically worked their way from south to north around Savo Island, crushing TG 62.6 in detail.

By 0153 the Southern Force lay savaged.   CANBERRA took the worst.   Beginning with empty guns and having no TBS radio to receive the initial radio warning, she was all but helpless as 28 8 and 4.7 shells had her ablaze and listing in mere minutes.   In return, she could only manage three 4 shells.   CHICAGO, desperately fired 5 starshells to illuminate the attackers, but most of them malfunctioned.   She was rewarded with a torpedo in the port bow, and by the time she could bring her batteries to bear she could not find a target.

For the Northern Force, the horror would commence at around 0155.


QUINCY, 0155: Illuminated, taking fire and turning to unmask batteries, she brings her stern through the enemy’s fire.   Two Long Lances hit her port side, and gun fire smashes the bridge and sets fires in turrets I and II and the aircraft hangar.   By 0215 she is doomed: all guns are out of action, fires are engulfing the ship and water is coming over the upper deck to port. (BUSHIPS, pp. 4-5)

ASTORIA, 0156: 8 projectiles begin to land, starting fires (in order) in the paint locker, boat deck and aircraft hangar, and igniting ready service ammunition in gun nr. 8.   Under withering fire, she had completely lost firemain by 0206. (BUSHIPS, pg. 3)

VINCENNES, 0156: Enemy salvos hit the bridge, carpenter shop, hangar, and several other spaces, starting fires in the carpenter shop and the hangar.   The incessant barrage ruptures all firemain risers, and at 0200 she takes two Long Lance torpedoes in her port side.   By the time the Japanese extinguish searchlights and stop firing, she is in sinking condition, ablaze and listing heavily to port. (BUSHIPS, pp. 5-6)

RADM Crutchley (exhausted like the rest of TG 62.2) returned to AUSTRALIA at around 0116 and determined to remain near area X-RAY. (NOTE NWC)   As he saw the naval gunfire around Savo Island he believed he was observing …the VINCENNES group coming into action against an enemy being engaged by the AUSTRALIA group.   He was actually observing the destruction of the VINCENNES group. (Bates, pp. 211-212)

Caught unready, uncoordinated, and completely unaware, TG 62.6’s responded not unlike the condemned man who convulses from the shocks and strains helplessly against the chair that holds him in place.   No warnings or communications between patrol groups.   Misidentifying and firing on friendly ships.   A command element unaware and completely severed from the TG.   And a pitiful 10 of 471 shells and no torpedoes finding targets. (Bates, pg. 357)

Around 0220, Mikawa gave the order to withdraw (Bates, pg. 262).   Though his own reconnaissance had found none in the area, he was still very concerned about American carriers and determined that it was more important to put as much distance between the Cruiser Force and any carriers that might be in the area than it was to regroup and attack the transports off Tulagi and Guadalcanal.   Mikawa’s Cruiser Force retired northward into The Slot, delivering its final few jolts to RALPH TALBOT in passing.   Well astern of him, two cruisers had already sunk, and two more were burning uncontrollably and would do so for several hours before succumbing to their wounds.   One damaged cruiser and two damaged destroyers would live to fight another day.


Dawn came and went on the 9th, and CTF 62 was in no shape to withdraw.   There were still much-needed supplies to offload, survivors to rescue, and one ship to scuttle.   Several air-raid warnings were received through the day, and the stopping and starting of rescue and offload operations in response to them delayed the departure even further.   All transports were gone from the X-RAY and YOKE anchorages by 1900, having put precious little on the beach to support the Marine forces at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

Though expected, none of the reported air attacks materialized over Ironbottom Sound on July 9th.   The one attack that was launched from Rabaul was to locate and sink an ACHILLES (aka LEANDER) – Class cruiser that had been seen limping toward Australia during the early morning battle (Newcomb, pg. 208).   This unfortunate mis-identification spelled doom for JARVIS, which was savaged and sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers.   All 248 aboard were lost.

There was yet one combatant from the morning of August 9th to be lost to enemy action. On the morning of August 10th submarine S-44 torpedoed and sank KAKO while she and her sister ships were returning to Kavieng.

LESSONS: The fact must be faced that we had an adequate force placed with the very purpose of repelling surface attack and when that surface attack was made, it destroyed our force. RADM R. A. Crutchley, RN, VC.

The Allies…relied on their radars and appear to have attached little importance to their visual means of detection.   (Nor were they) familiar with the limitations of the radar…or with its failure in the presence of land masses. Richard Bates

(A)llies were outfought by an enemy that had paid for the advantages it possessed in terms of torpedoes and night-fighting capabilities by years of preparation.   – H. P. Willmott

There is no shortage of lessons learned from Savo Island.   To pull out just a few of the big ones:

SOPAC SOWESPAC Communications Diagram.

Communication between supporting/-ed commanders: With the entire operation in its infancy, URR’s lesson of streamlined dissemination and obtaining of INTEL and aerial reconnaissance information is still applicable.   Allied shore-based reconnaissance aircraft were either under the command of COMSOPAC or COMSOWESPAC, with little effective communication or coordination.   COMSOWESPAC aircraft detected (and mis-identified) Mikawa’s force the morning of the 8th; by the time it reached CTF 62 it was too late to send any more aircraft to either further identify or attack them.

Capability vs. Intent: Be ready for what your enemy CAN do to you, not what you think your enemy WILL do to you.   Taking two seaplane tenders out of the mis-identified formation, there were still five ships that were capable of reaching Savo that night.   Taking this into account, had some or all of TG 62.6 been in Condition I through the night, with a real plan or set of PPR’s in place…

Trusting your Technology: Only if you understand its limitations.   On a tactical level this battle was less a case of visually targeted torpedoes defeating RADAR-directed gunnery and more a case of over-reliance on incorrectly employed RADAR leading to the complete surprise of TG 62.6.   Even though in training BLUE and RALPH TALBOT exhibited RADAR detection ranges greater than Japanese visual detection ranges, the long wave SC RADAR’s performance suffered terribly near land.   Additionally, their assigned search tracks at times left 20 mile gaps between the two ships. (Bates, pg. 350)   Interestingly, the most capable Allied RADAR, the SG RADAR, was aboard SAN JUAN and never saw action.   One wonders what the outcome could have been if, between Crutchley, Scott and their staffs, they had decided to put SAN JUAN in one of the picket stations.

Technology vs. Tactics, Training and Procedures (TTP): The action at Savo commenced with both sides well within the effective range of their preferred weapons.   This is the range at which training pays off.   Simply put: the IJN had trained; the USN hadn’t.   Of the Allied ships, only ASTORIA had conducted any recent night target practice, and it had been at least eight months (more than likely indefinite in the case of QUINCY and VINCENNES, recently arrived from the Atlantic) since any other cruiser had conducted either night target exercises or a night battle problem. (Bates, pg. 356)

(Sinkings in Iron Bottom Sound)

EPILOGUE:   Captain Reifkohl swam away from his dying ship having witnessed a mass execution – one that reached beyond his 332 crew members and the 1024 total Allied Sailors of TG 62.6. (Newcomb, pg. 257)   Those also condemned that evening:

The “Old School” of naval tactics: “The Book” was, and needed to be, the first thing to go out the window.   The IJN and USN by now had both recognized the carrier air group as the most important weapon in this new war, but only the IJN had advanced their surface tactics along with their carrier tactics.   Until this morning Allied surface forces were still looking at naval combat through a Jutland-tinted lens (Crutchley himself was a Jutland veteran), a lens that couldn’t keep up with 50-knot torpedoes, and couldn’t see in the dark.   They had just started up a painful and steep tactical learning curve that they would ascend surprisingly quickly after years of neglect.

Pre-war shipbuilding programs: Along with the tactics used, the ships were not up to the task of withstanding the damage of this new and brutal war.   Loss of power, inadequate firefighting equipment, loss of firemain, loss of fuel oil service and horrible flam stowage conditions all took their toll, and the surviving CO’s and senior officers made that point abundantly clear.   By the time BUSHIPS had published the damage report, the Navy implemented five significant improvements in all (current and building) cruisers (BUSHIPS, pp. 20-21):

1. A generator space independent of the main propulsion spaces.

2. Emergency fuel-oil service pumps.

3. Separate flammable stowage lockers with CO2 flooding systems.

4. Split and cross-connected firemain loops and additional

5. Casualty power systems.

Design features we take for granted today on modern warships were bought at the cost of three cruisers and more than a thousand lives on 9 August 1942.   Indeed, Savo Island was the first in a series of shocks that would be the death of the pre-war U.S. Navy.

What Mikawa needed to kill – but didn’t were the landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi.   His attack had been devastating; to this day it is called the worst defeat in U. S. Navy history, and the subsequent departure of TF 62 was disastrous, WATCHTOWER still had a pulse.   It was faint at first, but it would get stronger, particularly on 20 August when USS LONG ISLAND delivered 31 Marine Corps aircraft to Henderson Field.

It was 0250 on 9 August 1942, and VINCENNES foremast rolled into the water, just feet from where her captain was swimming clear. (Bates, 291)   He, like Operation WATCHTOWER, had narrowly escaped execution at Savo Island.

1. Bates, Richard. The Battle of Savo Island, Strategical and Tactical Analysis Part I.   Naval War College, 1950, pp. 290-291.

2. Bureau of Ships. USS QUINCY, USS ASTORIA, USS VINCENNES Report of Loss in Action.   1943, pg. 6.

3. Lewis, Winston B., The Battle of Savo Island, 9 August 1942, ONI, 1943, pg. 6.

4. Newcomb, Richard F., The Battle of Savo Island, Holt, 1961, pg. 67.

5. Willmott, H. P., The War With Japan The Period of Balance May 1942 October 1943, Scholarly Resources Inc., 2002, pg. 111.

Article Series - Solomon Islands Campaign Blog Project

  1. The Solomons Campaign: Geographical and Political Background
  2. The Solomons Campaign: Status of the United States Fleet and Plans After Midway
  3. The Imperial Japanese Navy after Midway
  4. The Solomon Islands Campaign: Prelude to the Series
  5. The Solomons Campaign: WATCHTOWER — Why Guadalcanal?
  6. The Solomons Campaign: Guadalcanal 7-9 August, 1942 — Assault and Lodgment
  7. The Solomons Campaign: Unleashing the Assassin’s Mace
  8. The Solomons Campaign: Execution at Savo Island
  9. The Solomons Campaign: The Battle of the Eastern Solomons, 24-25 August 1942
  10. The Solomons Campaign: Strategic Pause and Review – Japan’s Last Chance for Victory?
  11. The Solomons Campaign: THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL, Part I
  12. The Solomons Campaign: THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL, Part II
  13. The Solomons Campaign: Cactus Air Force and the Bismarck Sea
  14. The Solomons Campaign: Operation Vengeance – The Shootdown Of Yamamoto
  15. The Solomons Campaign: Ground Action – The New Georgia Campaign, June 20-November 3, 1943
  16. The Solomons Campaign: The Bougainville Invasion, November – December 1943(Part I)
  17. The Bougainville Invasion: November – December 1943 (Part 2)
  18. The Bougainville Invasion (Part 3): December 1943 – March 1944
  19. The Bougainville Invasion (Part 4): March 1944 – May 1944
  20. The Solomons Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (Part I)
  21. The Solomons Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (II)
  22. The Solomons Campaign: The Battle of Santa Cruz (III)
  23. Flightdeck Friday – MIA Edition: WWII Navy Aircrew Returns Home

1 Comment

  1. G-man

    Excellent post – you’d make a great history prof. Hard to fathom 35 ships on the bottom in that bit of Davy Jones’ Locker.

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