Today we bid adieu to the USS Chicago. The heavy cruiser was sunk off Rennell Island, situated roughly 200 miles straight south of Guadalcanal, during the afternoon of January 30, 1943. The Chicago was part of a task force that was sent to Guadalcanal due to increased enemy naval activity in the area.
The U.S. Navy had incorrectly assumed that a flurry of recent Japanese movements were the first moves in another offensive action in the area. So Admirals Nimitz and Halsey deployed as large a force as possible. The USS Enterprise (recovering from war wounds sustained near Santa Cruz) was augmented with carrier USS Saratogo. And a bevy of heavy cruisers and destroyers, including the Chicago, was ordered to rendevouz, under the leadership of Admiral Richard Giffen.
In reality, the Japanese were getting their ducks in a row to completely evacuate Guadalcanal. Operation Ke was now underway, and the Imperial Japanese Navy was working to keep the soldiers on the ground safe.
Giffen’s force was attacked in the final hours of January 29th and, despite the cover of darkness, they gave a good account of themselves. But a couple of enemy aircraft shot down near the Chicago silhouetted her against the darkness. Japanese Betty torpedo bombers targeted her, and hit her with two torpedoes, killing the engines and leaving her listing and dead in the water.
Her sister ship USS Louisville began towing the damaged Chicago out of harm’s way (shown above), but she was found again the next afternoon by enemy torpedo planes and hit with four more torpedoes. At this point, she rolled over and sank.
Looking back, the loss of a single cruiser doesn’t seem to be much in light of the reality that the U.S. was just about to wrest its first major chunk of Pacific territory from the enemy. But the naval side of the 7-month struggle had been sprinkled with bad decisions and a tendency to underestimate the enemy’s capability while simultaneously acting with a bit too much self-confidence.
The loss of the Chicago was, in some ways, the proverbial broken record. Admiral Giffen’s push to reach his sector caused him to move his forces in predictable patterns. At one point, he even gave up the standard zig-zag movements. These tactics angered Admiral Nimitz a lot, though he didn’t replace Giffen who, despite his errors off Rennell Island, was a capable Admiral with significant experience.
The sinking of the USS Chicago, and the loss of 62 of its men, left a bitter taste to mingle with the sweet when Guadalcanal was secured a week later.