At least that’s what an old Japanese proverb recommends. But had Japanese commanders paid more attention to those simple words, the outcome of the events on October 12, 1942 might have been different.
The battle between the U.S. Marines and Japanese army on Guadalcanal had been a see-saw affair for more than 2 months. The Marines held Henderson Field, Lunga Point…and not a whole lot more. Battles along the Matanikau River in late September and early October had cost the Japanese its positions there, ruining a planned offensive. The Japanese command wanted to heavily reinforce its own forces, and devised a plan to do so.
On the morning of October 11th, the Japanese bombed Henderson Field in order to divert attention from a large supply convoy heading to the island. The convoy was “shielded” from American eyes until mid-afternoon, when it was discovered by recon planes. What was not discovered was an additional force of warships following the supplies.
Hearing of the convoy, Rear Admiral Norman Scott’s force of destroyers and cruisers made for Cape Esperance to bombard the enemy ships as they unloaded late in the evening. But he ran smack into the unseen warships…in the best possible way. Just before midnight, Scott’s ships, coming from the southwest, passed in front of the Japanese line, coming from the northwest. Turning his ships 180 degrees, he passed in front again, this time with guns ready to fire. The maneuver, calling “Crossing the T”, was the most desirable outcome of any naval encounter with guns, because it allowed the “crosser” to point all the ships’ guns right down the path of the “crossee”. Yay us!!!
Meanwhile, seven miles away, lookouts on the Japanese warships spotted the American vessels, but the Japanese commander, Admiral Goto, didn’t expect enemy ships in the area, and assumed that the ships were simply part of the supply convoy. So, ignoring the advice of our title, he let them be, until their guns began hurling shells at him. Boo them!!!
Though the battle began just before midnight on the 11th, most of the action took place on the 12th. The U.S. Navy succeeded in sinking one heavy cruiser and three destroyers, with serious damage to another heavy cruiser. Among the 450 Japanese sailors lost was Admiral Goto, killed when shells from the USS Boise (shown above) raked the Aoba’s (Goto’s flagship) superstructure. American losses tallied one destroyer, with an additional destroyer and a cruiser damaged, with 163 sailors lost.
While the U.S. won a tactical victory, not all the news was good. First, the convoy was untouched and successfully finished unloading the supplies. Second, despite being thrashed earlier off Savo Island, this victory gave the U.S. Navy a somewhat distorted view of not only Japan’s fighting ability at night, but their own. These miscalculations would have disastrous consequences just weeks later.
Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea – Another of Hammel’s terrific trilogy.