First American Offensive—Guadalcanal
August 6th—D minus 1 day—was the critical period of our approach. The weatherman was a friend of ours that day. The ships plowed along under a low overcast and through slow rainsqualls all day, heading for our first beachhead. We were not detected and consequently the Japs were to have a rude reveille on the next morning. During the night, the following paraphrased message was received from ComSoPac (the Navy abbreviation for Commander South Pacific Force): “ALLIED SHIPS PLANES AND FIGHTING MEN CARRY ON FROM MIDWAY, WE LOOK TO YOU TO ELECTRIFY THE WORLD WITH NEWS OF A REAL OFFENSIVE. SOCK EM IN THE SOLOMONS!” Yes, this was it.

The overcast had lifted on the morning of August 7th, giving the carrier aviators the good flying weather they had been hoping for. This was of special concern to us on the Sterett as it was something we had come to look for almost automatically in our year of operations with the Wasp. We went to “general quarters” at about 0530 and shortly thereafter the carriers began flight operations. The first strike disappeared to the north at 0600. Our group returned to our base course to wait for either our planes to return or for the Japs to return the compliment. Waiting was hard. Then our planes came back—all of them. At about 0900, we began receiving our first reports of the progress of the operation. The carrier groups had caught the Japanese in the typical embarrassing position. The Wasp planes alone had destroyed 10 Jap planes, mostly patrol seaplanes and Zero floatplanes—not a plane was airborne! More good news followed soon after H-hour, which was set for about 0830, as I recall. The first report announced that the Marines were ashore, on Tulagi Island with little opposition. On Guadalcanal, the report went on, the Japs had offered no opposition and had run off into the hills! The airstrip was quickly taken and was reported to be in good condition and lacking only a couple of days in being operational. The enemy had even strung electrical wiring around the field for lighting the strip for night landings. We could not have taken it at a better time.

Later in the day the Marines assaulted tiny Gavutu Island, a few hundred yards from Tulagi. This was our first determined resistance of our first offensive, and the going was tough during the short time required in seizing it and the casualties were moderate to heavy.* Gavutu was a small piece of rock not over 200–300 yards long and connected to Florida Island by a narrow sand spit, but it apparently had a strong, well-armed garrison of Japs on it.

The Wasp lost one plane during the day. Excitement on the Sterett was limited in the natural exuberance of success and in listening in on the fighter frequency on the radio. Snatches of conversation such as this were heard throughout the day:

“That hospital is full of Japs. They are firing on the Marines . . . .”

“Let’s go get ’em.”

“I see a Jap running like hell down there; permission to go down and get him?”

“Permission granted.”


Meeting little opposition in our original landing the ships secured from general quarters that night to rest for a repeat of the same thing on the next day. The assault phase was successful; now the planes were giving support to our ground forces upon call.

On the morning of August 9th, we received a message from the Task Force Commander sadly announcing that on the night before, the Japs had struck back. We had lost four of our sorely needed heavy cruisers: the Quincy, Vincennes, Astoria, and HMAS Canberra. The Japs had entered Savo Sound undetected and had worked our ships over without suffering a single loss, When they opened fire, our disposition was such that our ships could not tell friend from foe, and we had so many ships there that utter confusion resulted. The cruisers were severely damaged before firing a shot. The Japs could “chalk one up” for this First Battle of Savo Island. We could hardly believe it. The Quincy was an especial favorite of the Sterett; when we would go alongside to fuel, pass sea mail, or provision, the Quincy would always treat us to a few gallons of ice cream, gratis. Destroyer sailors appreciate that as one of the most noble and considerate of gestures. These ships were lost—and we were hopping mad. But here again, as at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese underestimated our losses and quickly steamed away. If they had had a picture of the situation, they could have gone on and destroyed a large portion of our transports and cargo ships. They failed to take full advantage of their success and our losses, though serious, were not critical.

In the days that followed, Task Force 18 was occupied in just steaming around to south of Guadalcanal, making dally searches and reconnaissance flights with our planes, watching for any sign of the enemy and keeping our supply lines to Guadalcanal open and unmolested. After two weeks of this with not a move from the Japanese, Task Force 18 retired to a rear area for fueling at sea and provisioning. We were gone only three or 4.days, but during that time the Enterprise (Task Force 16) had had a set-to with a flight of Jap planes and had received a bomb hit on her flight deck. She had given a sterling account of herself in a tangle with a Jap carrier group off the Stewart Islands and had inflicted heavy damage on a carrier and other ships. The Wasp and Task Force 18 had just missed out on a chance for a crippling strike against Honorable opposition. Though damaged, the Enterprise remained in operation and kept her planes going with the use of only one elevator from the hangar deck. The Stewart Islands Battle took place on 23–25 August; the Wasp came back on the line on the 26th.

The Guadalcanal campaign was going well; so far, heavy resistance from the ground forces had not been encountered. However, on the night of August 21st we got the first real indication that the Japanese were going to try to hold Guadalcanal at all costs; on that night they landed troops on Guadalcanal from a group of destroyers. The fate of that first attempt at reinforcement was eloquently explained in the following paraphrased dispatch, received on the 25th:

“A Japanese force which landed on Guadalcanal the morning of the 21st consisted of about 700 men. The Japs tried to withdraw into the forest after a hand-to-hand encounter with our Marines but were outflanked, trapped and destroyed. Jap losses: 670 killed, remainder captured; our losses: 28 Marines!”

This contingent of Japanese were landed at a point about 30 miles from our beachhead. They had made a remarkable march through the almost impenetrable jungles, dragging their equipment with them, including 70mm cannon, and arrived in the short period of four days. In their distorted Oriental minds, they must have figured that this small group of soldiers would be sufficient to liquidate the few thousand Marines on the beach at Lunga Point. They advanced to an attacking position, apparently without plan, and were apprehended by the Marines at a time that the Japs were caught on a narrow sand spit between the jungles and Savo Sound. There they wore summarily annihilated. The operation from the Japanese standpoint was a heroic gesture, but—so what?

At the same time we received word of another one-sided engagement: on the 19th a detachment of 60 Japs was wiped out; a landing party of 20 more Japs in a rubber boat wore encountered—only two escaped. Our losses in these two actions were six Marines. In the air, the Japs were striking often. The handful of Marine aviators were in the air most of the day and were doing a terrific job of stemming the tide with what little they had to do with. A typical report from General Vandergrift was received announcing that on the 24th, 10 Jap bombers and 11 “Zeros” were shot down over Guadalcanal. We lost two fighters. Although this represents one of the Marines’ better days, the ratio was what we came to expect. Plane for plane and pilot for pilot, the Japs were hopelessly outclassed in the air.

Ships can stay at sea for just so long, and even the carriers and cruisers get low on fuel and provisions eventually, so on September 4th, Task Force 18 entered port at Nouméa, New Caledonia.

We had come to expect nothing from the ports in the Pacific, but Nouméa was new to us—something to break the monotony. On the beach, I found it to be a good-sized town, run-down, dilapidated and dirty. Every once in a while a platoon of Free French soldiers would march down the street, their helmets and bayonets bedecked with flowers. The one justification for going ashore at all was that the French Officers’ Club had extended its privileges to our officers. There I managed to get a quart bottle of Australian beer and relax for a couple of hours. The small luxury of beer on the beach is the only pleasure of sailors in the South Pacific. Food ashore was scarce and the few eating places had long waiting lines of Americans and Nouméa civilians, so the only sensible plan was a quick return to the ship. That was the gist of shore leave at Nouméa.

On the 8th, Task Force 18 was at sea again and headed north toward our usual beat south of the Solomons.

On September 10th, DesDiv 15 was relieved of our duties with TF 18 by DesDiv 24. Even though the old Snafu Maru was a hard task master and a great responsibility for a division of destroyers, we were somewhat reluctant to leave her. For a full year, we had taken her through the worst submarine waters in the world without a scratch; for that length of time, the destinies of the Sterett and the Wasp were the same: Bermuda, Martinique, Argentia, Scapa Flow, the Mediterranean, Malta and the Coral Sea. She was a fine ship and a friend of ours.

We joked to each other about it. “They can’t do that,” we said, “Why the Wasp won’t last a week without the Sterett to keep her out of trouble!” The joke was not funny. We received the following message from the Task Force Commanded just before we left Task Force 18:


DesDiv 15 split up and went our separate ways in compliance with individual orders. We were to work directly under ComSoPac. The Sterett returned to Nouméa.

At Nouméa, I ran into a friend of mine who had been ordered to the destroyer Jarvis; which suggests one of the mysteries of the war. The Jarvis had been damaged in an air attack off Guadalcanal soon after our invasion. She was seaworthy and had set out for Espiritu Santo (a distance of some 500 miles) under, her own power. The Jarvis has never been heard from to this day; there were no survivors, no radio message—nothing. Not even debris was found on that well-worn stretch of water from Guadalcanal to Santo. (continued)

* Note: I later learned that one of the officers of the small Marine detachment that took Gavutu was Lt. Antonelli, ’40, with whom I had played Battalion Lacrosse at the Academy.