Yugumo-class destroyer Naganami, Rear Admiral Tanaka’s flagship at Tassafaronga.

The superiority of Japan’s pre-war Navy in night-battle tactics is, I believe, generally acknowledged. Long training and practice in this field paid off in early actions of the war such as the battles off Java and Surabaya when our ships scored heavily against enemy forces. But by the time of the battles of Cape Esperance and of Guadalcanal, the U. S. Navy was beginning to overcome our initial advantages, and these actions resulted in fairly equal losses to each side.

American progress in night naval actions is directly attributable to the installation of radar in warships, which was begun in early June of 1942—about the time of the Battle of Midway—in our opinion. At that time our radar program was still in the research stage and our warships were not generally radar-equipped until well into the following year. Radar permitted detection of targets in the dark of night and provided accurate control of gunfire. This worked an obvious and drastic change in nighttime operations. Flares were still used by both sides to illuminate targets, but radar-equipped ships of the United States Navy were able to fight night battles without the use of searchlights. The slight advantage accruing to the United States through the use of radar in naval battles of mid-1942 became increasingly pronounced as the war continued . . .

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The end of the effort to reinforce Guadalcanal found more than 10,000 Japanese troops on the island, without any regular means of supply. None of the usual methods had been successful, and our losses in destroyers were proving prohibitive. Provisions and medical supplies were needed so desperately that daring expedients were called for to provide them. Supply by air would have been tried if we had been able to claim air superiority, but this we could not even claim.

The first novel method of supply to be tried was what may be called the drum method. Large metal cans or drums were sterilized and then filled with medical supplies or basic foodstuffs such as cereals, leaving air space enough to insure buoyancy. Loaded on destroyers, these drums were linked together with strong rope during the passage to Guadalcanal. On arrival, all drums were pushed overboard simultaneously while the destroyer continued on its way. A power boat would pick up the buoyed end of the rope and bring it to the beach where troops would haul it and the drums ashore. By this means unloading time was cut to a minimum, and destroyers returned to base with practically no delay.

Transport was also attempted by submarines which would be loaded with supplies, brought to the landing point, and cruise there submerged during the day to avoid air attacks. Surfacing near the friendly base at night, the supplies would be carried ashore by motor boats. Submarine transport, however, was not new, as it had been conducted by Germany during World War I.

Yet both of these were makeshift measures and, even when successful, resulted in the provision of only a few tons—enough for a day or two—of supplies. Almost daily came radio messages reporting the critical situation on the island and requesting immediate supplies. It was indicated that by the end of November the entire food supply would be gone, and by the latter part of the month we learned that all staple supplies had been consumed. The men were now down to eating wild plants and animals. Everyone was on the verge of starvation, sick lists increased, and even the healthy were exhausted. Realizing these circumstances, every effort was directed to relieve the situation.

On November 27, two destroyers from each of Desdivs 15 and 24, which had been on transport duty to Buna, moved from Rabaul to Shortland loaded with drums of food and medical supplies. After conferences, preparations, and a trial run, the Fleet Commander issues orders for the first supply effort by the drum method to take place on November 30. Of eight destroyers that were to take part, six were to be loaded with 200 to 240 drums. To accomplish this, reserve torpedoes were removed from these six ships, leaving in each only eight torpedoes—one for each tube—cutting their fighting effectiveness in half. No drums were loaded on flagship Naganami nor destroyer leader Takanami, which carried the commander of Desdiv 31.

Preparations were completed on November 29 and I led the ships from Shortland that night. In an attempt to conceal our intentions from the enemy we sailed eastward during the next morning. Nevertheless, we were shadowed constantly by his alert search planes. Around noon we increased speed to 24 knots and shaped a southward course to Guadalcanal. Three hours later, in spite of heavy rain, speed was upped to thirty knots.

About this time we received word that a friendly reconnaissance plane had sighted “twelve enemy destroyers and nine transports.” Immediate preparations were made for action. But our main mission was to deliver supplies and, with no reserve torpedoes, it would be impossible to win a decisive battle. Nevertheless I exhorted all ships under my command, “There is great possibility of an encounter with the enemy tonight. In such an event, utmost efforts will be made to destroy the enemy without regard for the unloading of supplies.”

By sunset heavy rain began to fall, and it became very dark. This caused confusion in our formation and speed was temporarily reduced. But the rain did not last long and with its passing, visibility improved. An hour before midnight we passed westward of Savo Island and then swung southeastward in attack formation. Visibility was about seven kilometers.

Minutes later three enemy planes with lighted navigation lights were observed forward of our course circling at low altitude. Still we continued toward designated landing points off Tassafaronga (Takanami and three ships of Desdiv 15) and Segilau (Naganami and three ships of Desdiv 24). Since no aerial flares had been observed, and in view of the enemy practice of dropping them upon sighting our ships at night, we concluded that these planes were yet unaware of us. The tense silence was broken by a sudden radio blast from lead ship Takanami, “Sighted what appear to be enemy ships, bearing 100 degrees.” And this was followed immediately by, “Seven enemy destroyers sighted.”

My destroyers had already broken formation, and those carrying supplies were on the point of tossing overboard the joined drums. But hearing these reports I abruptly ordered, “Stop unloading; take battle stations.” With this order each destroyer prepared for action and immediately increased speed, but with no time to assume battle formation, each had to take independent action.

Within minutes flagship Naganami’s lookouts sighted the enemy bearing 90°, distant 8 kilometers and, raising my binoculars, I could easily distinguish individual enemy ships. In a moment it was clear that we had been recognized for the circling search planes dropped dazzling flares. The moment these parachute flares burst into light, enemy ships opened fire on the nearest ship which was Takanami. The brilliance of the flares enabled the enemy to fire without even using his searchlights.

With all possible haste I issued a general order, “Close and Attack!” Our destroyers opened fire, but numerous illuminating shells and parachute flares suddenly set off by the enemy brightened our vicinity so that it was extremely difficult to make out the formation of the enemy fleet. Takanami scored a direct hit with her first salvo and after five more salvoes had set afire the second and third ships of the enemy formation, and made recognition of enemy ships easier for our other destroyers.

Concentrated enemy fire, however, inflicted many casualties in Takanami including her skipper, Commander Masami Ogura, and the ship was burning and crippled. Flagship Naganami now caught an enemy cruiser in her searchlight and opened fire. Because she was on an opposite course from her target, Naganami turned hard to starboard and came about to run abreast of the enemy ship. Continuing her salvo firing Naganami approached the cruiser and launched eight torpedoes at a range of four kilometers, all the while a target herself of a tremendous concentration of enemy gunfire. There were deafening explosions as shells fell all around my flagship, sending up columns of water. Naganami was showered by fragments from near misses but, miraculously, sustained no direct hits. I have always felt that our good luck was accountable to the high speed (45 knots) at which Naganami was traveling, and that enemy shells missed us because of deflection error.

Oyashio and Kuroshio of Desdiv 15 fired ten torpedoes at cruisers and Kawakaze of Desdiv 24 fired eight after reversing course and coming abreast of the enemy line. Meanwhile, enemy torpedoes were not inactive. Two deadly tracks passed directly in front of Naganami. Suzukaze, the second ship of Desdiv 24, was so busy avoiding enemy torpedoes that she was unable to loose any of her own. Both sides exchanged gunfire as well as torpedoes, in the glare of parachutes and illuminating shells, and there were countless explosions.

In the ensuing minutes, torpedoes from our destroyers were observed to hit a cruiser, setting it afire, and it was believed to sink immediately. We shouted with joy to see another enemy cruiser set afire and on the point of sinking as a result of our attack. It seemed that the enemy force was thrown into complete confusion. During a sudden cessation in firing by both sides we sighted what appeared to be two destroyers which had been set ablaze by Takanami’s gunfire.

Kuroshio and Kagero, each still having four torpedoes, sent the last underwater-missile attack against the enemy. And Kagero, using searchlights, for spotting her targets, got off several rounds of gunfire. Thus did more than thirty minutes of heavy naval night action come to an end as both fleets withdrew and the quite of the night returned.

I was anxious to know what had happened to damaged Takanami. When repeated calls brought no response, and after checking the location of each of my other ships, I ordered Oyashio and Kuroshio back to find and help her. These ships, under Comdesdiv 15, Captain Torijiro Sato, found Takanami southeast of Cape Esperance, crippled and unnavigable, and started rescue work. Oyashio had lowered life boats and Kuroshio was about to moor alongside the stricken ship when an enemy group of two cruisers and three destroyers appeared at such close range that neither side dared fire. Our two destroyers were forced to withdraw, leaving many Takanami survivors who made their way in cutters and rafts to friendly shore positions on Guadalcanal.

When the battle was over my scattered ships were ordered to assemble near the flagship. Since all torpedoes had been expended it was impossible to effect any further naval action. I decided to withdraw and return to Shortland by way of the central route, spelling an end to the night naval action of November 30, 1942, which is known in Japan as the Night Battle off Lunga, and in the United States as the Battle of Tassafaronga.

We did not know what losses the United States Navy had sustained in this battle but judged, on the basis of destroyer reports that two cruisers and one destroyer had been sunk and two destroyers heavily damaged. Our loss of Takanami, with a large number of men including the division commander, Captain Toshio Shimizo, and her skipper, Commander Masami Ogura, was a matter of deep regret. On the other hand, it was amazing good fortune that all seven of my other destroyers had escaped damage in this close encounter against a numerically superior enemy, and it added to the glory of our squadron.