A crucible in which the very nature
of the U.S Navy and its weapons was tested.

— Capt. Russell S. Crenshaw, Jr.
Task force and ship records from the battle—presented here as PDF files—including the operations plan, action reports, track charts and endorsements.
From the Office of Naval Intelligence, 1944: a wartime assessment of the battle.
Perspective from destroyer Maury by Russell S. Crenshaw, Jr.
Three factors that contributed to the defeat.
The rightful place in history of one of the US Navy’s foremost destroyers.
The controversial Battle of Tassafaronga, fought off Guadalcanal on the night of 30 November 1942, invites study like few others. In it, a radar-equipped American task force of six destroyers and five cruisers perceived it succeeded in surprising eight Japanese destroyers, which were engaged in delivering much needed supplies to their troops ashore on Guadalcanal. The task force commenced a planned attack, conceived on the basis of experience gained at the Battle of Guadalcanal 2½ weeks earlier; yet it lost one heavy cruiser sunk and three damaged while sinking only one enemy ship.
The Battle of Tassafaronga

Capt. Russell S. Crenshaw, Jr.’s book The Battle of Tassafaronga has been republished by the Naval Institute Press.

What had happened was a mystery at the time. While destroyer Fletcher had led four van destroyers into an ideal position for a radar-informed torpedo attack, RAdm. Carleton H. Wright, the task force commander, had delayed permission to open fire; then, when the battle thereafter went badly wrong, he second guessed his destroyers for wasting torpedoes! The detailed causes of failure remained obscure, however, and four more cruisers were sacrificed at the Battles of Kula Gulf and Kolombangara in July 1943 before another task force commander* at last acknowledged the basic “fallacy of chasing Jap torpedo boats with cruisers.”

Destroyermen, meanwhile, responded on their own initiative:

  • In December, Fletcher’s officers took to their motor whaleboats and disseminated their techniques for using radar in battle among other destroyers present. The following June, Fletcher’s XO, LCdr. Joseph C. Wylie, Jr., was ordered to Pearl Harbor where he led in the development of the first Combat Information Center (CIC) Handbook for Destroyers. Soon, well-conceived installations were being fitted in warships throughout the fleet.
  • In February 1943, Comdr. Arleigh Burke arrived in the South Pacific and studied Cole’s action. His conclusions—that destroyers could be most effective if trusted to attack independently (as the excellent Japanese destroyer force under RAdm. Raizo Tanaka demonstrated at Tassafaronga)—became a tenet of US Navy destroyer doctrine.

In fact, the American force detected the Japanese only six minutes before it was detected in return. Concurrent with the opening of American gunfire, a lone Japanese picket destroyer, Takanami, fired a torpedo spread that hit and disabled the two leading American cruisers, Minneapolis and New Orleans. Subsequent torpedo salvoes hit the other two American heavy cruisers, Pensacola and Northampton, sinking the latter.

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In hindsight, Tassafaronga was a milestone of the Pacific war in two respects:
  • It was the first time Japan’s elite destroyer force went into battle while burdened with supplies on deck. This new role, born of desperation, later placed them at a great disadvantage and helped accelerate their rate of attrition.
  • Its outcome helped convince the Japanese high command that it could not hold Guadalcanal. Thus began the long retreat that consumed the rest of the war.

On the American side, after World War II when the composition and evolutions of the Japanese force became known to government historians, their analyses still did not capture the whole truth. Never mind: it seemed better simply to forget Tassafaronga as a scar on the Navy’s record.

Half a century later, however, Capt. Russell S. Crenshaw, Jr., Maury’s sagacious gunnery officer during the battle, undertook a proper reconstruction. In his 1995 book The Battle of Tassafaronga, he at last identified the real causes of failure at Tassafaronga—pointedly vindicating Comdr. Cole—and amplified these into lessons for the future.

One more chapter remained. Beginning in 2005, interviews with contemporary destroyer officers filled in additional pieces of the story of the evolution of the CIC. These plus private papers and RAdm. Wylie’s oral history and other records confirm Tassafaronga as a benchmark event with lasting implications for command and control in naval combat. (continued)

*RAdm. Walden L. Ainsworth in a letter to Adm. Nimitz, 16 July 1943.