65th anniversary of the Battle of Rennell Island Pt. 1

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  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    The Japanese titled the evacuation effort of their forces from Guadalcanal Operation Ke and planned to execute the operation beginning January 14, 1943. An important element in the operation's plan was an air superiority campaign set to begin on January 28, with the objective of inhibiting Allied aircraft or warships from disrupting the final stage of the Ke operation, which was the actual evacuation of all Japanese troops from Guadalcanal.

    Allied forces misinterpreted the Ke preparations as the beginning of another Japanese offensive to try to retake Guadalcanal. At this same time, Admiral William Halsey, Jr., overall commander of Allied forces involved in the battle for Guadalcanal, was under pressure from his superiors to complete the replacement of the U.S. 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, which had been involved in the fighting since the initial landings in August, with fresh U.S. Army troops. Halsey hoped to take advantage of what he believed was an impending Japanese offensive to draw Japanese naval forces into a battle, while at the same time delivering the replacement army troops to Guadalcanal. On January 29, Halsey prepared and sent towards the southern Solomons area five warship task forces to cover the relief convoy and to engage any Japanese naval forces that came into range. These five task forces included two fleet carriers, two escort carriers, three battleships, 12 cruisers, and 25 destroyers.

    In front of this array of task forces was the troop convoy (Task Group (TG) 62.8), consisting of four transports and four destroyers. Ahead of the troop convoy, between Rennell Island and Guadalcanal, was a close support group called Task Force 18 (TF 18), under Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen, which consisted of heavy cruisers USS Wichita, USS Chicago, and USS Louisville; light cruisers USS Montpelier, USS Cleveland, and USS Columbia; escort carriers USS Chenango and USS Suwanne; and eight destroyers. Admiral Giffen commanded TF 18 from Wichita. A fleet carrier task force, centered on carrier USS Enterprise, steamed about 400 kilometers (250 mi) behind TG 62.8 and TF 18. The other fleet carrier and battleship task forces were about 240 kilometers (150 mi) further back. Admiral Griffen, along with cruiser Wichita and the two escort carriers, had just arrived in the Pacific after participating in Operation Torch in the North African Campaign. Also, Chicago had just arrived back in the South Pacific, after completing repairs from damage suffered during the Battle of Savo Island almost six-months before.

    Battle

    Prelude

    In addition to protecting the troop convoy, TF 18 was charged with rendezvousing with a force of four U.S. destroyers, stationed at Tulagi, at 21:00 on January 29 in order to conduct a sweep up "The Slot" north of Guadalcanal the next day to screen the unloading of the troop transports at Guadalcanal. However, the escort carriers, under Commodore Ben Wyatt, were too slow (18 knots) to allow Giffen's force to make the scheduled rendezvous, so Giffen left the carriers behind with two destroyers at 14:00 and pushed on ahead at 24 knots (44 km/h). Wary of the threat from Japanese submarines, which Allied intelligence indicated were likely in the area, Giffen arranged his cruisers and destroyers for anti-submarine defense, not expecting an air attack. The cruisers were aligned in two columns, spaced 2,500 yards apart. Wichita, Chicago, and Louisville, in that order, to starboard and Montpelier, Cleveland, and Columbia to port. The six destroyers were spread along a semicircle 3 kilometers (2 mi) ahead of the cruiser columns.

    Giffen's force was being tracked by Japanese submarines, who reported on Giffen's location and movement to their naval headquarter's units. Around mid-afternoon, based on the submarine's reports, 32 G4M "Betty" torpedo bombers stationed at Rabaul and Kavieng and staging through Munda and Buka airfields in the Solomons, took off carrying torpedoes to attack Giffen's force. One Betty turned back with engine trouble, leaving 31 Betty's in the attack force.

    Action on January 29

    At sunset, as TF 18 headed northwest 80 kilometers (50 mi) north of Rennell Island and 160 kilometers (100 mi) south of Guadalcanal, several of Giffen's ships detected unidentified aircraft on radar 100 kilometer (60 mi) west of their formation. Having previously insisted on absolute radio silence, Giffen gave no orders about what to do about the unidentified contacts, or any orders at all, for that matter. With the setting of the sun, TF 18's combat air patrol (CAP) from the two escort carriers returned to their ships for the night, leaving Giffen's ships without air cover.

    The radar contacts were, in fact, the approaching 31 Japanese Betty torpedo bombers, who circled around to the south of TF 18 so that they could attack from the east, with the black backdrop of the eastern sky behind them. The Bettys split into two groups, with the first group of 16 bombers commencing their attacks on TF 18 at 19:19. In this attack, all of the first group of Betty's torpedoes missed, and one of the bombers was shot down by anti-aircraft fire from Giffen's ships.

    Believing the attack was over, Giffen ordered his ships to cease zigzagging and to continue heading towards Guadalcanal on the same course and at the same speed. Meanwhile, other Japanese aircraft began dropping flares and floatlights to mark the course and speed of TF 18 in order to assist with the impending attack by the second group of Bettys.

    At 19:38, the second group of Bettys attacked, planting two torpedoes in Chicago, causing heavy damage and bringing the cruiser to a dead stop. One other torpedo hit Wichita but did not explode, and two of the Bettys were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. At 20:08, Giffen ordered his ships to reverse direction, to slow to 15 knots, and to cease firing their anti-aircraft guns, which succeeded in concealing his ships from the Japanese aircraft, who all departed the area by 23:35. In pitch darkness, Louisville managed to take the crippled Chicago under tow and slowly headed south, away from the battle area, escorted by the rest of TF 18.
     

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  2. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Action on January 30

    Halsey immediately took steps to try to protect the damaged Chicago, notifying the escort carriers to make sure they had a CAP in place at first light, ordering the Enterprise task force to approach and augment the escort carrier's CAP, and sending the fleet tug Navajo to take over the tow from Louisville, which was accomplished at 08:00. Between daybreak and 14:00, numerous Japanese scout aircraft approached TF 18. Although they were all chased away by the CAP, they were able to observe and report the position of Chicago. At 12:15, a force of 11 Bettys launched to attack the damaged U.S. cruiser. The U.S. ships knew the Bettys were coming, because of a warning report from an Australian coastwatcher in the Solomon Islands, with an estimated arrival time of 16:00. However, Halsey ordered the rest of the cruisers to leave Chicago behind and head for port at Efate, in the New Hebrides, which they did at 15:00, leaving behind six destroyers to protect Chicago and Navajo.

    At 15:40, Enterprise was 69 kilometers (43 mi) away from Chicago, with ten of her fighters forming a CAP over the damaged cruiser. At this time, four of the CAP fighters chased and shot-down a scout Betty bomber. At 15:54, radar on Enterprise detected the incoming flight of Bettys, and launched 10 more fighters to attack the Betty formation. The escort carriers, however, had difficulties in getting their aircraft launched, preventing them from joining in the attack on the Betty formation until the engagement was over.

    At first the Bettys appeared to be trying to approach and attack Enterprise but turned towards Chicago after six Enterprise CAP fighters began to engage them. Four other CAP fighters chased the Bettys as they entered the anti-aircraft fire from Chicago's escorting destroyers. In all, eight of the attacking Bettys were shot down by the CAP fighters or by anti-aircraft fire, but most of the bombers were able to drop their torpedoes before crashing.

    One torpedo hit the destroyer USS La Vallette in her forward engine room, killing 22 of her crew and causing heavy damage. Chicago was hit by four torpedoes, one forward of the bridge and three others in her engineering spaces. Chicago's captain, Ralph O. Davis, ordered the ship to be abandoned, and the cruiser sank, stern first, 20 minutes later. Navajo and the escorting destroyers rescued 1,049 survivors from Chicago's crew, but 62 of her crew died. A final attack force of Japanese Betty torpedo bombers failed to find the remaining U.S. ships. Navajo took La Vallette under tow, and all of the remaining ships of TF 18 were able to make it to port at Espiritu Santo without further incident.

    Aftermath

    The Japanese widely publicized the results of the engagement, claiming to have sunk a "battleship" and "three cruisers." The U.S., on the other hand, tried to conceal the loss of Chicago from the public for some time, with Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of Allied Pacific forces, threatening to "shoot" any of his staff who leaked the loss of Chicago to the press. Halsey and Nimitz blamed Giffen for the defeat and stated so in Giffen's official performance report for the period. The defeat and resulting recriminations do not appear to have affected Giffen's career too adversely; he continued to lead Allied battleship and cruiser task forces in the Pacific until 1944 and was later promoted to vice admiral.

    With Japanese air assets tied up in the battle with TF 18, the Allied transports were able to complete their mission of replacing the remaining Marine forces on Guadalcanal over the last two days in January. During this time, the other Allied task forces, including the two fleet carrier task forces, took station in the Coral Sea, in anticipation of an expected Japanese offensive in the southern Solomons.

    In reality, however, the Japanese were completing the secret evacuation of their remaining forces from Guadalcanal over three nights between February 2 and February 7. With TF 18 forced to retreat, very few Allied naval forces were left in the immediate Guadalcanal area, allowing the Japanese to successfully retrieve all of their ground forces, and the Allies did not realize the evacuation was happening until it was over. Many of these evacuated ground forces would play an important part in future battles between the Japanese and the Allies in the critical Solomon Islands campaign.
     
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