Looking westerly from Ironbottom Sound toward the Tassafaronga coast with Cape Esperance at right.
In August 1942, US Marines landed at Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands to seize an uncompleted airfield from the Japanese. Later that month and during each of the next three months, the Japanese launched major attempts to overwhelm the Marines. The US Navy decisively turned back the last of these at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 13–15 November, but the two commanders from its primary surface action group, RAdm. Callaghan and Scott, were both killed during the action of 13 November.

The chart below shows the approach of the two forces on 30 November 1942.

Tassafaronga approaches.

On the 24th, to replace them in Task Force 67, Adm. Halsey appointed RAdm. Thomas Kinkaid, newly arrived at Espiritu Santo in his flagship Northampton. (Kinkaid’s Enterprise task force had become the only carrier task force in the South Pacific and, while Enterprise was being repaired following the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in late October, was being held in reserve.)

Kinkaid and his deputies, RAdm. Carleton H. Wright and Mahlon S. Tisdale, began organizing his force of four heavy cruisers and two light cruisers to counter any night landings the enemy might attempt. On 27 November, he distributed an operations plan, which divided his force into two three-cruiser task units—heavy cruisers Northampton and New Orleans with Minneapolis and Pensacola in TU 67.2.2 under Wright, Honolulu and Helena in TU 67.2.3 under Tisdale and TU 67.4—consisting of 2,100-tonners Fletcher, Nicholas and O’Bannon, 1,630-tonner Grayson and 1,500-tonners Drayton, Lamson, Perkins and Maury—under the senior destroyer officer present.

On the 28th, Kinkaid received orders to return immediately to the West Coast (after which he assumed command of the North Pacific Force), leaving command to Wright in Minneapolis.

As soon as possible destroyers will be ordered to form and attack. It is expected that destroyer torpedo attacks will be made early in order to obtain the maximum benefits of surprise . . . All radar facilities may be used by destroyers, and the attack should be made on radar information insofar as possible. Results of radar tracking will be furnished the destroyer commanders by TBS . . . Destroyers must clear expeditiously and in such a positive manner that there is the least possible chance for mistaken identity. All ships having IFF must ensure that it is turned on well before night action, particularly when destroyers are separated from the cruisers . . . On completion of torpedo attacks and after commencement of cruiser action, destroyers engage enemy destroyers or cruisers being engaged by our cruisers, and be prepared to provide starshell illumination if so ordered.

Wright marked up Kinkaid’s OpPlan with red pencil, reorganizing the force in light of the ships present: Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola, Honolulu and Northampton with destroyers Fletcher, Perkins, Maury and Drayton.

On the 29th, Wright held a conference with Tisdale and his ship commanders at which the OpPlan was briefly discussed. That evening, he received a communication from Halsey indicating that a Japanese force was expected at Guadalcanal the following night. Shortly after 2300, he sortied to intercept.

« « «

However sound the plan might have been, the destroyers of Task Force 67 were a pickup group. Of these, only Fletcher’s CO was a commander; also, while Perkins and Drayton had the new radar, Fletcher was the only ship in the task force that had used it in a surface engagement. It was thus logical to give Comdr. Cole command of the van DDs.

The plan he had received on the 29th was clearly-written but cruiser-centric as always, as cruiser gunfire was considered the task force’s main power. The admiral retained control over maneuvering and opening fire, which would be ordered based upon radar tracking. This preserved a weakness from the battle of the 13th: however open minded and capable he was, he might never have sat at a radar console—there were few if any repeaters at that time—and learned its capabilities and limitations. This prospect apparently left Cole uncomfortable.

On the afternoon of the 30th, the commander communicated to his new admiral in an attempt to inform him of the capabilities of his new radar.