In the Pacific Theater of World War II, many of the battles were either curb-stomp affairs by one side or the other — either because Japan was “running wild” in the early parts of the war, or because America brought its industrial might to bear.
Many historians view Midway as an exception to that one-sided rule since America’s victory is often viewed as a pure luck.
But one engagement where the two sides stood toe-to-toe occurred during the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Henderson Field in August, 1942. (US Navy photo)
On the night of Nov. 14, 1942 — less than 48 hours after Rear Adm. Daniel Callaghan had defied the odds to turn back an attempt to bombard Henderson Field — the Japanese made another run for the airfield that was the big prize of the Guadalcanal campaign. They went with the battleship Kirishima, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and nine destroyers to do the job.
Japanese ships sailing towards Guadalcanal on Nov. 14, 1942. (Japanese photo)
Against this force, Vice Adm. William F. Halsey was scraping the bottom of the barrel. He stripped the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6) of most of her escorts, sending in four destroyers and the fast battleships USS Washington (BB 56) and USS South Dakota (BB 57), under the command of Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee.
USS Washington (BB 56), shortly after being commissioned. (US Navy photo)
Admiral Lee was an expert on naval gunnery, and according to The Struggle for Guadalcanal, written by naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “knew more about radar than the radar operators.”
That knowledge would soon be put to the ultimate test.
The Japanese force cut through the American destroyers, sinking two outright, fatally damaging a third, and crippling the fourth. The battleship USS South Dakota then turned and was silhouetted by the burning destroyers. The South Dakota took 26 hits from the Japanese guns, but the Japanese lost track of the Washington, which closed to within 8,500 yards of the Japanese battleship Kirishima.
USS Washington (BB 56) fires at the Kirishima, Nov. 14, 1942. (US Navy photo)
USS Washington was about to slug it out with a Japanese battleship in a one-on-one fight. Using radar control, the Washington opened fire on Kirishima, and scored as many as 20 hits with her 16-inch guns. The Kirishima was rendered a sinking wreck.
The Japanese tried to even the score with Long Lance torpedoes, but missed.
The Japanese made a very hasty retreat, leaving Kirishima and a destroyer to sink. Their last chance at shutting down Henderson Field for the Allies was gone.