Rear Admiral Carlton H. Wright was new to his job, but he inspired confidence in his men, and he needed it badly. Just hours after being put in command of Task Force 67, in the evening of November 30, 1942, he was heading into battle. His mission: to intercept a Japanese convoy approaching the island of Guadalcanal. It was carrying supplies for the beleaguered forces there.
Everything seemed to be in the Americans’ favor. Not only were they more powerful—pitting five cruisers and six destroyers against eight destroyers in the Japanese convoy—they also had the element of surprise. Better intelligence meant they knew the Japanese were coming, whereas the Japanese were unaware that the Americans knew about their approach. And the Americans had radar, an invaluable asset in night fighting.
Even so, when the two forces met for a brief and intensely violent encounter off the area of Tassafaronga on Guadalcanal in the black night between November 30 and December 1, the result was an abject US defeat—one of the worst of the entire war.
There were multiple causes contributing to this outcome. One was the American error of launching the torpedoes too late. Even after the US radars had detected the Japanese convoy, Rear Admiral Wright hesitated for precious minutes before giving permission to fire the torpedoes.
The second error on the American side was committed by the cruisers, which opened fire with their guns while the torpedoes were still traveling towards the enemy. The Japanese were already alerted to the presence of the American task force, as it had been spotted by a lookout, but as the flare of the American artillery lit up the sky, the Japanese also correctly guessed that torpedoes were on their way.
Reacting quickly and decisively, the Japanese fleet, commanded by Rear Admiral Tanaka Raizo, immediately took evasive action to avoid the torpedoes, and not a single one of them hit. The fact that they had been fired late and at a difficult angle also contributed to this result.
Now the Japanese launched their counterattack, sending off a series of their Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes. They had proven their efficiency in the past, and now they did it again.
After moments of tense waiting, two of the Japanese torpedoes hit the cruiser USS Minneapolis, the flagship of the American task force. Soon afterwards, two other cruisers, the USS New Orleans and the USS Pensacola, were also hit.
The entire bow of the USS New Orleans was torn off. “Eighteen hundred tons of ship were gone,” sailor Herbert Brown reminisced later. “Oh my God, all those guys I went through boot camp with – all gone.”
On the Japanese side, there were scenes of jubilation. “We shouted with joy to see another enemy cruiser set afire and on the point of sinking as a result of our attack. It seemed that the enemy force was thrown into complete confusion,” Tanaka wrote in a post-war account.
Samuel Eliot Morison, the US Navy’s official historian, described the hellish conditions at the receiving end. On board the Pensacola, a Japanese torpedo “made an oil-soaked torch of the mast, where trapped soldiers were roasted to death.” As the after engine room was about to flood, a man tried desperately to escape though the hatch but he had forgotten to take off his telephone headset. He was tripped by the wire and drowned.
Shortly afterwards, a fourth American cruiser, USS Northampton, was hit and damaged so badly that abandon ship had to be ordered. While the three other American cruisers avoided that fate, they were severely damaged and in for months of repairs. The Japanese lost one destroyer in return.
There was no denying the shock to the American side. The crew on destroyer Maury were watching in disbelief as the catastrophe unfolded. “A volcano erupted astern! A column of fire rose vertically from the water a thousand feet into the sky. A moment later another column of fire rose beside it. Our cruisers were blowing up!” an officer on board later wrote.
The Japanese long-range torpedoes had shown their worth. Just as importantly, the Japanese crews had once again proven that they excelled in night combat—the result of years of dedicated training. This gave them an advantage that even the Americans’ radar could not always make up for.
The disastrous encounter had no immediate consequences for Rear Admiral Wright. In fact, he was awarded the Navy Cross. But the defeat meant that the US Navy no longer committed cruisers or destroyers to the waters between Guadalcanal and two adjacent islands—aptly named “Ironbottom Sound”—and instead deployed PT boats to intercept Japanese traffic.
Chester Nimitz, the top US naval commander in the Pacific was disappointed, expressing his frustration in remarks issued after the battle: “The fortunes of war and the restricted waters in which we were forced to bring the enemy into action caused our ships to suffer greater loss than their leadership and action merited, and prevented them from inflicting heavier damage on the enemy.”
Later assessments have been more straightforward. Historian John Prados calls the Battle of Tassafaronga “the most successful Japanese torpedo attack of the war.” According to Samuel Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, Tassafaronga, along with an earlier battle near Guadalcanal, was among the worst defeats in US naval history, “eclipsed only by Pearl Harbor.”
At the same time, however, it can be argued that in strategic terms, America was the actual victor. The battle put an end to all Japanese attempts at supplying the Guadalcanal garrison and set the stage for the Japanese decision to abandon the island. In that sense, it was a real turning point, marking the end of Japan’s expansion into the South Pacific, and heralding the rollback of its forces in a process that would end in Tokyo less than three years later.
About the author: Peter Harmsen, a foreign correspondent in East Asia for two decades, has worked for Bloomberg, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Financial Times. He is also the former bureau chief in Taiwan for French news agency AFP. His books have been translated into Chinese, Danish, and Romanian. Harmsen's latest book is Asian Armageddon, 1944–45.
Sources: Hell at Tassafaronga by Herbert C. Brown (p. 35); The Japanese Navy in World War II by the US Naval Institute (p. 70); The Struggle for Guadalcanal: August 1942 – February 1943 by Samuel Eliot Morison (p. 306 and 314); Destroyer Battles: Epics of Naval Close Combat by Robert Stern (p. 165); Combined Fleet Decoded by John Prados (p. 394); Naval History and Heritage Command