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Battle of Tassafaronga

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Tonight marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Tassafaronga, one of the last naval battles in the Guadalcanal Campaign. As with many of the battles in the Solomons, Tassafaronga involved an American attempt to derail the nightly Japanese resupply missions known as the Tokyo Express. And, like most of Guadalcanal’s naval battles, Tassafaronga was an American victory won at great cost.

The battle was set in motion on the 29th when US naval cryptographers intercepted a message informing the Japanese 17th Army on Guadalcanal of a resupply mission on the 30th. A force of five cruisers and eight destroyers under Rear Admiral Carleton Wright was ordered to intercept the eight Japanese destroyers steaming for Guadalcanal. On paper, the four American heavy cruisers and one light cruiser should have made short work of the Japanese force. However, as was often the case in the early years of the Pacific War, the Combined Fleet’s skill at night fighting and the excellent Long Lance torpedo turned the odds in Japan’s favor.

The two forces made contact just after 11:00 pm, as the Japanese destroyers were about to dump the supplies they brought for the 17th Army. The leading American destroyers fired 25 torpedoes, all of which missed their targets. The US cruisers then opened fire on the Japanese force, quickly disabling the IJN Takanami. As the Japanese force tried to disengage, they fired 44 torpedoes to cover their escape. The next few moments were some of the worst in US naval history.

First hit was Wright’s flagship, USS Minneapolis. Two torpedoes slammed into her, knocking out her power and wrecking her bow, which was nearly ripped off. Moments later a torpedo hit USS New Orleans, setting off her forward magazine. Everything forward of Turret 2, over 125 feet of the ship’s length, disappeared in a flash. The USS Pensacola then took a torpedo hit as she attempted to avoid the crippled cruisers ahead of her. Last to be hit was the USS Northampton, which took two torpedoes in quick succession. Three of her four engines were knocked out and raging fires broke out throughout the ship. The Northampton was abandoned 45 minutes after being hit. The USS Honolulu was the only American cruiser to escape the battle without damage.

Portside view of the USS Minneapolis, showing the hole caused by a Long Lance torpedo

USS New Orleans limps into port after losing her bow at Tassafaronga

The Battle of Tassafaronga lasted less than twenty minutes. In that time, one Japanese destroyer was sunk, but at the cost of one American heavy cruiser sunk and three others crippled. Tassafaronga gutted the US Navy’s cruiser force; after the battle there were only four active heavy cruisers left in the entire Pacific Fleet.

Despite the devastating losses, the Battle of Tassafaronga was a strategic victory for the US Navy. Wright’s force accomplished its mission of preventing the Japanese destroyers from resupplying the 17th Army on Guadalcanal. But it was a victory the US Navy could not afford to repeat.

 

Post by Curator Eric Rivet

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