As luck would have it though, a heavy thunderstorm hits the area just at the time the Japanese force is moving into shelling position. This will make shelling difficult if not impossible. Knowing that these storms often dissipate rather quickly, the Japanese admiral turns his force about and slowly steams away from the area to bide his time. If the storm continues, he will head for home. If the storm clears, it’s back to Guadalcanal.
As often happens with naval forces maneuvering during the hours of darkness, his lead group of destroyers makes a wrong turn and goes steaming off to the east. This type of blunder seems to happen often in both navies, as maneuvering in pitch darkness is not an easy task. As a result of this mistake, the admiral has just lost his advance warning group as they steam off in the wrong direction. Now the admiral’s observers on Guadalcanal report that the weather is taking a turn for the better prompting the admiral to put his ships back on course for the island. Since his advance destroyers are now out of position, he will receive no early report on what lies ahead.
The two opposing naval forces are now on a collision course with a combined closing speed of about 40 knots. Shells are in the barrels of the guns on both sides with 14-inch bombardment shells for the Japanese and 8-inch armor piercing shells for the Americans. Who will be the first to fire?
Although radar is providing the American force with the information necessary to direct the guns, firing is withheld while the American admiral determines a course of action. The American admiral, Admiral Callaghan is new to this command and has little knowledge of the recently developed and very secret radar. Actually radar is so secret that very few people other than radar operators know much about it. The ability of radar to disclose the location of the enemy forces even in total darkness could give us a big edge over the Japanese.
Unfortunately for us, the Japanese second line of destroyers now sights our ships and reports their positions to the Japanese admiral. The admiral is astonished to find he is on a collision course with the Americans now only a few miles away. The Japanese light up the scene with searchlights and their destroyers fire the first salvoes. This action jars Admiral Callaghan into finally giving the order to fire. For six precious minutes Admiral Callaghan has the Japanese ship positions plotted but does not give the order to fire. The American admiral, through inadvertence or mismanagement had brought on a close-range mêlée, the likes of which had never happened before nor would thereafter in this war.
It is 1:48 in the morning. Aboard the Japanese battleship the Hiei, Japanese Admiral Abe is confused and must decide whether to switch from bombardment type shells to armor piercing shells. His decision does not take long and in less than a minute’s time the 14-inch bombardment type shells are flying toward us. It is still 1:48 a.m. Aboard the O’Bannon, we are closing with the battleship Hiei and are presently on a collision course with it. Before us are three other smaller destroyers also charging the battleship at flank speed. For us on the O’Bannon, the battle is really starting.
The first ship in line, the destroyer Cushing, manages to fire six torpedoes at Hiei before being smashed to pieces and abandoned. The second destroyer, the Laffey manages to spray the Hiei with 5-inch shells killing Captain Suzuki, Admiral Abe’s chief-of-staff and wounding Admiral Abe as well. The Laffey comes within fifteen feet of being rammed by the Hiei before the erupting into a huge orange fireball, which kills many of the crew including the captain of the Laffey. The third destroyer in line and the ship directly ahead of us is the Sterett which manages to fire 13 salvoes at a cruiser along with sending four torpedoes on their way. The Sterett directs additional 5-inch fire at other ships before being forced out of action after receiving a total of eleven direct hits, which include three 14-inch shells.
We are now leading the column, and have had to maneuver violently to avoid hitting the lead destroyers and have missed a collision with the Sterett by a scant 30 feet. The battleship Hiei is now 1,800 yards ahead with the battleship Kirishima about a thousand yards behind her. We are firing into the Hiei’s superstructure and fire two torpedoes in her direction. Both torpedoes, in keeping with the record of the Mark XVs, are duds. The Hiei, with her superstructure afire, takes aim at the O’Bannon and fires a broadside of 14 inch shells. All shells go overhead like a passing freight train in the night. The time is 1:56 a.m. The battle has been on for 8 minutes. There are five burning and exploding vessels nearby. Admiral Abe has not been able to hit the O’Bannon because of its close proximity and fast maneuvering, therefore he orders the Hiei to find other targets.
At 2:01 a.m., we maneuver to avoid hitting the sinking bow of the destroyer Barton. The Barton was originally well behind us but had managed to pass us as we maneuvered to avoid hitting ships ahead of us. Our crew throw life jackets to its sailors in the water who obviously were not expecting to be there since they have no life jackets. Unavoidably our ship plows though survivors as they thrash about trying to swim out of the way.
At 2:03 a.m., the remains of the Barton explode killing many more of the Barton crew and causing our ship to rise about a foot in the water. This disrupts communications in our main radio and knocks out our ship’s power. Lucky for us, the engine room is able to restore power quickly but our top speed has been reduced to only 28 knots.
Our crew is not able to observe the ships behind us as well as those in front but we are getting their damage reports via radio contact from Honolulu. At my battle station in main radio, I am copying these Morse Code messages and calling them out as they come in. These messages are quickly relayed to the captain. Ordinarily these messages would be encoded but because of time limitations they are being sent in plain language. These messages report the extreme damage to the cruisers in our force.
The Atlanta reports she is hit as 8-inch shells smash through its superstructure setting her afire the length of the ship killing Admiral Scott and all but one of his staff officers. Admiral Scott was the hero of two previous naval battles. The San Francisco reports she is hit by a salvo of 14-inch shells and secondary shells from the Hiei. These shells kill Admiral Callaghan and most of the ship’s officers on the bridge leaving a 31-year old lieutenant commander in command of the ship. The cruiser Portland reports she is torpedoed and hit as a salvo of 14-inch shells slam into her. The cruiser Juneau reports she is struck by a torpedo and is exiting the area. The cruiser Helena reports only minor damage so far and is pouring a continuous stream of shells into the Japanese ships.
The time is 2:04 a.m. The rear unit of destroyers are the last to get into the fray but the destroyer Aaron Ward is dishing out fire to the Hiei and a light cruiser but receives nine hits in return. All power is lost aboard and the ship drifts to a halt. Directly behind the Aaron Ward is the destroyer Monssen, which is hit and is now a flaming wreck. It is abandoned at 2:20. The destroyer Fletcher, the last in line, is firing and is still undamaged.
On the Japanese side, the battleship Hiei is aflame with 85 hits, none of which are able to penetrate her heavy armor but one 8-inch shell is jamming her rudder leaving her unable to steer. Many Japanese ships can be seen on fire and apparently sinking. The battleship Kirishima is hit and is heading out of battle. On shore, marines, sailors and soldiers gather to watch the dazzling display of sight and sound.
“Private Robert Leckie describes the night scene: The star shells rise, terrible and red. Giant tracers flash across the night in orange arches . . . the sea seems a sheet of polished obsidian on which the warships seem to have been dropped and are immobilized, centered amid concentric circles like shock waves that form around a stone dropped in mud.”
Information pouring into main radio is beyond our comprehension, those of us reading it are just numbed by it. Luckily for me, I am too busy copying the code to worry about it. This is just as well as the course we have been on has placed our ship among the Japanese ships and it is suspected that the destroyer Fletcher is mistakenly firing at us. Fortunately, she has missed, so far.
At 2:26 a.m., the battle is over with all ships exiting or trying to exit the battle area as quickly as possible. Both sides seem to have had enough. The battle lasts 38 minutes and losses on the American side are severe. Of the two American admirals in the battle, both have been killed by naval gunfire. Five brothers of the Sullivan family perish on the cruiser Juneau. Of the 13 American ships entering the battle, only one, the destroyer Fletcher, can report no damage. Our ship sustains moderate damage but from friendly fire. One 8-inch shell fragment with the San Francisco’s identifying die coloring landed between the legs of a torpedoman as he sat at his battle station on top of a torpedo launching tube. The fragment lodged itself in the torpedo tube without harming anyone.
This shell probably bounced off of the cruiser Atlanta, which is directly in line between the San Francisco and the O’Bannon. Friendly fire from the San Francisco also hit the Portland. Unfortunately, friendly shells are just as nasty as unfriendly shells. In the battle, our side has just lost two cruisers and three destroyers. Their final resting place is on the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound.
The number of American dead from the conflict is 1,439 including the five Sullivan brothers and two admirals. The number of swimming survivors collected by boat is about 1,400 seamen from our task force. (10) The five Sullivan brothers are killed as the Juneau steams away from the battle and is hit by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine.
Losses on the Japanese side are one battleship and two destroyers with two destroyers seriously damaged. Personnel loses are estimated to be at about 1000 dead or missing. Without the additional pounding by our airmen the following morning, the Japanese battleship would have survived.