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Old August 9th, 2018, 06:09 AM   #1
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Savo Island


In the early hours of 9 August 1942 the US Navy suffered the worst (at sea) defeat in its history. 1077 American and Australian sailors and Marines died and 4 cruisers sank in what would soon be called Ironbottom Sound.

There were plenty of causes for the surprise and the disaster...exhaustion of the crews, over reliance on technology, underestimating enemy capabilities, lack of doctrine, the "shoestring" nature of the campaign. But much was due to command problems.

Ghormley (COMSOPAC) was probably right to place Admiral Fletcher in tactical command, but Fletcher never acted as commander of the operation. He concerned himself with the operations and safety of the carrier force, and seemed ambivalent about the amphibious force and the ultimate objective-Guadalcanal. Fletchers' withdrawal of the carriers before the transports were unloaded was the reason Admiral Crutchley (commander of the covering cruiser destroyer force) was called away for a conference with Admiral Turner (commander of the amphibious force) without telling the captain of Vincennes (the next senior officer). Misunderstandings and delayed communications between South and Southwest Pacific Commands relative to air search and contact reports also caused problems.

Actually it seems odd that it took so long (till Halsey took over in October) for the US commanders (except for Vandegrift of the Marines and Harmon of the AAF) to realize that Henderson Field was the decisive point of the whole exercise.

Last edited by Dentatus; August 9th, 2018 at 06:11 AM.
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Old August 9th, 2018, 06:59 AM   #2
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Was the Guadalcanal operation really conceived as a shoestring operation? Or did it only become a shoestring operation after the Americans realized how hard the Japanese would fight for the island? I suspect the Americans invaded Guadalcanal on the assumption the Japanese would not reinforce their island garrison and that the 1st Marine Division was adequate to capture the island in a short campaign.


If the Americans were working on the assumption that the Japanese would not reinforce Guadalcanal, then the risk of a Japanese counter-attack on the night of Aug 8-9 would seem to be low.


I agree the American command failed miserably that night.
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Old August 9th, 2018, 10:58 AM   #3
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Apparently, General MacArthur and Admiral Ghormley thought their forces were inadequate. The two commanders met on 7-8 July and sent a joint message to the JCS asking for a postponement, citing lack of amphibious troops, shipping and aircraft.

The directive from the JCS ordered three tasks:
1. Seizure of the Santa Cruz Is, Tulagi and "adjacent positions" by SOPAC
2. Capture of Lae, Salamaua, Northwest New Guinea and the Northern Solomons under MacArthurs command.
3. Capture of Rabaul and adjacent positions in New Britain and New Ireland also by MacArthur.
Ghormley and MacArthur thought they might manage task 1 with existing forces, but would be driven out by enemy air power if they didn't immediately follow up with tasks 2 and 3.

The JCS insisted the attack go forward in August regardless, and (as you say) the violent Japanese reaction to the landings and their offensive in Papua scrambled all the plans.
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Old August 9th, 2018, 05:39 PM   #4

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chlodio View Post
Was the Guadalcanal operation really conceived as a shoestring operation? Or did it only become a shoestring operation after the Americans realized how hard the Japanese would fight for the island? I suspect the Americans invaded Guadalcanal on the assumption the Japanese would not reinforce their island garrison and that the 1st Marine Division was adequate to capture the island in a short campaign.


If the Americans were working on the assumption that the Japanese would not reinforce Guadalcanal, then the risk of a Japanese counter-attack on the night of Aug 8-9 would seem to be low.


I agree the American command failed miserably that night.
They weren't trying to seize the island, just the airfield and a perimeter sufficient to defend it. They certainly expected a response. A bit of math would have told them that a Japanese surface force, if it departed Rabaul immediately, would be off Guadalcanal that night. Indeed the math was done, and the force was sighted by search planes. The terrible communications meant that the Allies were surprised regardless.
The Allied cruisers were in defensive dispositions, but the operation was hasty, ships were scarce, so the Allied force was hastily assembled and had not trained together, never mind for a night battle. That was a constant problem until 1943.
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Old August 9th, 2018, 05:52 PM   #5
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They weren't trying to seize the island, just the airfield and a perimeter sufficient to defend it. They certainly expected a response. A bit of math would have told them that a Japanese surface force, if it departed Rabaul immediately, would be off Guadalcanal that night. Indeed the math was done, and the force was sighted by search planes. The terrible communications meant that the Allies were surprised regardless.
The Allied cruisers were in defensive dispositions, but the operation was hasty, ships were scarce, so the Allied force was hastily assembled and had not trained together, never mind for a night battle. That was a constant problem until 1943.

It's two different things whether American leaders predicted in late July that the Japanese Navy would counter-attack vs coast watchers and search planes seeing the ships approach during the daylight of August 8. My post was about the former - Did US forces go into Guadalcanal assuming the Japanese Navy would counter-attack? Dentatus mentions US concerns of Japanese air attacks. I'm still unaware of evidence that prior to the landings US leaders considered Japanese naval attacks to be a likely threat and were concerned that US naval forces might be defeated.
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Old August 9th, 2018, 09:00 PM   #6
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Richard B Frank says (Guadalcanal pg 42) that traffic analysis and cryptography indicated "aggressive Japanese designs in the South Pacific". In July the intelligence officers had identified in Rabaul the new 8th Fleet, the 25th Air Flotilla, Special Naval Landing Force troops, 15 warships and a dozen transports; with submarines, merchant ships and possibly 17th Army headquarters en-route. This intelligence is what made Admiral King anxious to strike first; it also must have made the command aware the Japanese had the capability to counter attack.(?)
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Old August 10th, 2018, 07:24 AM   #7
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Richard B Frank says (Guadalcanal pg 42) that traffic analysis and cryptography indicated "aggressive Japanese designs in the South Pacific". In July the intelligence officers had identified in Rabaul the new 8th Fleet, the 25th Air Flotilla, Special Naval Landing Force troops, 15 warships and a dozen transports; with submarines, merchant ships and possibly 17th Army headquarters en-route. This intelligence is what made Admiral King anxious to strike first; it also must have made the command aware the Japanese had the capability to counter attack.(?)

All of this activity around Rabaul is mentioned by Morrison who further states the intelligence at the time indicated an attack toward Port Moresby. Yes, it did motivate King and Nimitz to attack first. And it certainly happened that Japan ended up diverting some of these assets to Guadalcanal.

Looking at the timeline, King must have started thinking offensively as soons as the results of Midway became known. By mid- or late June he had submitted his plan for Operation Watchtower to the Joint Chiefs who approved it in the first days of July. At this point Guadalcanal was only an unimproved island with no bases or facilities so it was not yet part of Task One. Within days, intelligence came in that the Japanese were building an airfield there so Guadalcanal was added to the plan. Then Ghormley and MacArthur communicated their concerns about Japanese air power. King and Nimitz responded that the plan had to be carried out anyway. During July and early August Nimitz deployed several aircraft squadrons to the South Pacific. I'm not sure if these completely alleviated Ghormley's and MacArthur's concerns or not.

It looks to me as if King started a process that looked relatively simple in June but became increasingly difficult in July, August, and on into the fall and yet no one wanted to delay the operation until more resources were available. I'd like to know when King and Nimitz first realized this was not going to be as easy as they first thought. I think if we can pin this down, it will be a surprisingly late date.

Last edited by Chlodio; August 10th, 2018 at 07:27 AM.
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Old August 10th, 2018, 07:56 AM   #8
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@Chlodio,

I don't think the US admirals ever thought the operation would be easy. They were well aware that the resources available to them were very thin as well as inexperienced. Admiral Fletcher withdrawing the carriers from the immediate area of Guadalcanal indicates that any early negative impact on air capability could be extremely critical.

The immediacy of protecting communication with Australia/NZ was the deciding factor IMO. Operations in New Guinea or against Rabaul would be problematic if Japan interdicted those lines of supply and communication. It was an example of Mr. Rumsfeld's comment "You go to war with the army you have."

IIRC the 1st Marine Division went ashore with 1903 Springfields and Lewis guns and Marines and Navy engineers had to improvise nearly everything ashore. There wasn't much of a cushion in either troop strength or materiel.

EDIT: There were also assessments made after the early naval actions (Admiral R.K. Turner and/or Adm. King) that there was a pervasive feeling of superiority among fleet unit commanders which may have been responsible for a lax attitude in readiness and reaction. The IJN's skill in night fighting was also not well realized and was a very nasty surprise.

Last edited by pikeshot1600; August 10th, 2018 at 08:03 AM.
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Old August 10th, 2018, 08:17 AM   #9
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@Chlodio,

EDIT: There were also assessments made after the early naval actions (Admiral R.K. Turner and/or Adm. King) that there was a pervasive feeling of superiority among fleet unit commanders which may have been responsible for a lax attitude in readiness and reaction. The IJN's skill in night fighting was also not well realized and was a very nasty surprise.

Yes, I was thinking of this earlier but didn't post it. US forces encountered many unpleasant surprises during the Guadalcanal Campaign - Japanese night fighting skill, the excellence of Japanese torpedoes, the under performance of American torpedoes, just to name a few.
But these surprises just point to unjustfyable US over-optimism at the begining of the operation. US forces went into the operation unaware of how difficult it would prove to be.


Which all comes back to Savo Island in the way that you mentioned. The Americans set themselves up for defeat at Savo Island by under estimating the Japanese threat and by over estimating their own capabilities.

Last edited by Chlodio; August 10th, 2018 at 08:30 AM.
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Old August 12th, 2018, 01:34 PM   #10
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Which all comes back to Savo Island in the way that you mentioned. The Americans set themselves up for defeat at Savo Island by under estimating the Japanese threat and by over estimating their own capabilities.
And not just the Americans - the British performance in Malaya, Burma, etc, was pathetic, and due in part to a lack of respect for the Japanese.
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