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The Battle of Rennell Island

Command failure in Guadalcanal’s last major naval engagement

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By the end of 1942, the Japanese Navy had shot its bolt at Guadalcanal. Unable to even get sufficient supplies to the beleaguered Japanese troops on the island, in late December the Japanese High Command threw in the towel. Operation KE, originally an offensive, would now be an evacuation. The first stage of Operation KE, launched at the end of January 1943, was a diversionary attack, part of an effort to achieve temporary local air superiority. Its first target was Task Force 18.

Task Force 18 contained the heavy cruisers Wichita, Chicago, and Louisville, two escort carriers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers, and was escorting a convoy of four transports ferrying soldiers to relieve the Marine 2nd Division. It was under the command of Rear Adm. Robert C. Giffen, and in Giffen the Japanese could not have asked for a more appropriate opponent.

Rear Adm. Robert C. Giffen

Rear Adm. Robert C. Giffen wearing a battle helmet while on board ship, circa 1942-1943. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo

The strong-willed Giffen was “old school” surface navy and such a stickler for military decorum that he refused to board theater commander Adm. William Halsey’s flagship because of the latter’s casual attitude toward open-necked shirts and ruffled caps. Giffen’s combat experience had been in the Atlantic Ocean fighting U-boats and, in Operation Torch, French surface ships. His experience with aviation, either U.S. Navy or enemy, was virtually nil. The primary Japanese weapon in Operation KE was aircraft.

Thanks to a bad decision by Giffen, the task force was in trouble even before it steamed out of harbor. Giffen’s orders called for him to arrive at Guadalcanal on the morning of January 30, whereupon he would rendezvous with four destroyers from nearby Tulagi and then take up screening position in the Slot to protect the transports as they unloaded. But instead of having the slow escort carriers depart earlier and link up near Guadalcanal, Giffen had all his warships depart on the same day. An additional complication was that the wind was light and from the south, which meant that progress was further delayed because the carriers had to turn away from their destination to conduct air operations. Chafing under the force’s snail’s pace, Giffen started referring to the escort carriers as his “ball and chain.”

On the afternoon of January 29, Task Force 18 was about 50 miles north of Rennell Island, and about 70 miles southeast of Guadalcanal. Anxious to rendezvous with the destroyers from Tulagi on time, Giffen split his command. Two destroyers and the escort carriers would remain with the transports. The rest of the task force would forge ahead at an increased speed. Giffen then made a second crucial mistake. Because he believed submarines posed a greater threat than aircraft, the cruisers were organized in two parallel columns and his six destroyers were stationed in a semi-circle about two miles in front of the cruisers, with the last destroyers on each side positioned opposite of the lead cruisers. All the ships were steaming in a zigzag course. While appropriate against submarines, this arrangement left Giffen’s cruisers vulnerable to air attack from the flanks and rear. Giffen then compounded his error by issuing strict orders to maintain radio silence.

Because submarines and reconnaissance aircraft had been tracking the task force, the Japanese air commanders on Rabaul were able to plot an accurate intercept course. As dusk began to fall, Task Force 18’s radars picked up a large number of bogeys approaching the task force from the west, but because night was approaching, Giffen did not believe they were a threat.

Giffen was wrong. The Japanese were about to conduct their first night aircraft attack.

Thirty-one “Betty” and “Nell” bombers carrying torpedoes circled around to the east so that Giffen’s ships would be silhouetted against the fading light of the western horizon. The Bettys struck first, scoring no hits and losing one bomber to antiaircraft fire. Then Giffen made his greatest mistake. Believing the attack over, and ignoring the array of white, red, and green flares and float lights dropped from Japanese scout planes that indicated his ships’ location, course, and speed, Giffen ordered his ships to accelerate and now proceed on a straight course. Less than twenty minutes later, the Nells bored in for the kill. Defensive fire downed two Nells, but two torpedoes struck and crippled the Chicago.

USS Chicago (CA 29)

USS Chicago (CA 29) low in the water on Jan. 30, 1943, after she had been torpedoed by Japanese aircraft during the Battle of Rennell Island. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo

Damage control parties succeeded in plugging the holes in her hull, and the Louisville took the Chicago under tow. On January 30, the fleet tug Navajo arrived and took over towing duty. The first series of Japanese air attacks to finish off the Chicago were intercepted by Wildcat combat air patrols from the escort carriers and the Enterprise, which was about 40 miles southeast. But at about 4:00 p.m., a flight of Betty  bombers, after making a feint against the Enterprise, set out for the Chicago. Earlier Halsey had ordered Giffen to take most of his ships back to Efaté, leaving six destroyers to screen the Chicago.

A failure in fighter direction coordination between the carriers meant only two Wildcats were above the Chicago when the enemy bombers struck. Four Wildcats from the Enterprise wouldn’t arrive until the Bettys’ attack was well under way. Though eight Bettys fell to ship antiaircraft and Wildcat machine gun fire, the Japanese pilots were successful. One torpedo slammed into the destroyer La Valette, seriously damaging her. Four torpedoes ripped Chicago’s hull apart. Capt. Ralph Davis ordered the towline cut and the cruiser abandoned. Within twenty minutes, the Chicago rolled over and sank.

“I’ve never said this in my life before, but if any man lets out the loss of the Chicago, I’ll shoot him.”

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, CINCPAC/CINCPAO

Both Halsey and Adm. Chester Nimitz, the overall naval commander in the Pacific, were furious when they received news of Chicago’s sinking. Nimitz’s ire, and unusually emotional outburst, was probably influenced by some recent embarrassing naval news gaffes and the fact that he was suffering from the onset of malaria, for which he was hospitalized. Their official reports of the battle censured Giffen. One historian called American conduct of the battle “tactical ineptitude of the first order.” Giffen would go on to command cruiser and battleship task forces and participate in a number of Pacific campaigns until May 1944, but he would never reach the highest levels of command. Promoted to the rank of vice admiral, he served out the rest of the war as Commandant of the Tenth Naval District and Commander, Caribbean Sea Frontier.

Though the Japanese highly publicized the Chicago’s sinking, the Battle of Rennell Island was a minor engagement; the last important naval action of the Guadalcanal campaign. But its real success was in helping Operation KE achieve its goal. When U.S. Army troops attacked in February, the Japanese soldiers were long gone.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...