USS Salt Lake City made significant contribution in WWII
November 10, 2015
During the 15 years prior to World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy had assembled the most formidable naval armada the world had ever seen. And what they did best, what no other navy could do as well, was surface-to-surface night engagements.
Nine months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was engaged against the Japanese Navy in a struggle to hold a small air field on the Island of Guadalcanal. It was Henderson Field and was important to the war effort as one of the first of many airfields and islands wrested from the Japanese in the three-year effort to move within striking range of the Japanese home islands. Holding Guadalcanal was difficult because 20,000 Japanese still on the island were attempting to take back Henderson. It was, however, problematic for the Japanese Navy to re-arm and provision the large force. This was the setting in the South Pacific for the Seven Naval Battles of the Guadalcanal Campaign from Aug. 9 to Nov. 30, 1942.
The first battle of this campaign was the night engagement off Savo Island on Aug. 9. It was a disaster for the United States Navy and its Allies. U.S. losses included three heavy cruisers sunk, three destroyers damaged plus Australia’s loss of its heavy cruiser, HMAS Canberra. In all, 1,077 U.S. and Australian sailors were killed in action that night. The Japanese saw two heavy cruisers damaged and an unknown number killed in action.
Eight weeks later, just before midnight on Oct. 11, 1942, the United States Navy again engaged the Japanese off Guadalcanal. It was the battle of Cape Esperance, in the same area as the American loss of Aug. 9. This time, along with three other cruisers and five destroyers, the USS Salt Lake City (CA 25) was present. The battle was the first time the United States Navy purposely engaged the Japanese in night surface-to-surface conflict.
Close to midnight on Oct. 11, the search radar of the Salt Lake City first made contact with the Japanese. Following the cruiser Helena’s salvo, the Salt Lake City fired to starboard. The second salvo of the Salt Lake City scored all hits on a Japanese cruiser (probably the Aoba) at 4,000 yards. In the first 20 minutes the Aoba was hit by U.S. warships an estimated 24 times.
Minutes later the Salt Lake City was hit by an airburst anti-personnel shell that exploded high above the deck, killing four and wounding 16. As the ferocious exchange of fire continued shortly after midnight, the Salt Lake City pulled ahead of the gravely wounded cruiser Boise as it strained to move away to port. The Salt Lake City, interposing itself between the Boise and the Japanese line of fire (and at full speed), trained its 10-inch guns to starboard toward the Japanese armada. The first salvo straddled a Japanese heavy cruiser at 15,000 yards. A correction was made and the next four salvos by the Salt Lake City were direct hits. That action by the Salt Lake City probably saved lives aboard the Boise and kept her from sinking as she burned, visible for miles and with more than 100 dead. On the Salt Lake City, electrical circuits failed and steering was transferred to aft emergency. With two of her four propellers out of commission and significant damage from three major hits, she was forced to retire to Pearl Harbor for four months of extensive repairs.
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At 16 minutes after midnight, the Japanese column began to break off the engagement, which lasted less than 30 minutes.
Although this was the first night engagement against the Japanese Navy that was a decisive win for the United States, the cost was high: 163 killed, one ship sunk and three including the Boise and Salt Lake City damaged. The Japanese lost five ships, with another damaged and an unknown number killed.
Admiral Scott’s victory with Task Force 64 on the night of Oct. 11, though important, was only the third of seven naval battles for Guadalcanal. It was a milestone in the battle of the Pacific against the Japanese primarily because it was the first time the U.S. Navy beat the Japanese at what they did best. The USS Salt Lake City, after being repaired at Pearl Harbor, went on to fight many other battles in the Pacific against the Japanese.
Authors note: "Neptune’s Inferno" by James D. Hornfischer is credited asa reference for this article. Pictures and more history of the Salt Lake City may be found at USSSLCCA25.com .
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