This bombardment misses Henderson Field entirely and does only moderate damage. At dawn, the aroused aviators from Henderson and from the carrier Enterprise retaliate to make mincemeat of the troop ship convoy heading for Guadalcanal.
They manage to sink a cruiser and damage two others and sink seven of the eleven transports that are carrying the Japanese troops for reinforcement of their Guadalcanal garrison. Of the close to 5,000 troops that end up in the water, all but 450 were rescued by their escorting ships. Oddly, this day the Japanese Navy provides little air cover for the convoy, making the job much easier for the American pilots.
November 15th — a second naval engagement occurs between the two antagonists, again in the early morning hours. For the Japanese, the object is the same as on the 13th: shell the airfield to destroy American planes then land the remaining troops that were not landed on the 13th and that survived the air attacks of the preceding day. For the Americans, the object is just as simple: keep the Japanese from shelling the airfield and landing their troops.
To clear the way for the troop transport convoy, Yamamoto sends the battleship Kirishima along with two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and nine destroyers with Admiral Kondo replacing Admiral Abe who apparently didn’t do too well two days earlier. The Americans, holding the short end of the stick, are only able to come up with the battleships South Dakota and Washington along with four destroyers for escort. The Japanese observation planes mistakenly have reported that four destroyers and two cruisers are heading North toward Guadalcanal. This gives the Japanese Admiral Kondo a false sense of security. But reports to the American Admiral Lee, indicate there may be as many as three battleships along with four cruisers and nine destroyers heading south toward Guadalcanal. So Lee undoubtedly will be a bit cautious.
This battle promises to be an unusual since the Japanese will have fourteen ships against the American’s six. However, the two American battleships are new and are equipped with the latest radar and carry 16-inch guns. Each American battleship can put out a broadside of 24,300 pounds while the Kirishima could boast only a 11,920 pound broadside. The Americans’ 16-inch shells can easily penetrate the Kirishima’s armor even below the water line and the American battleships are practically immune to anything but torpedoes and even then it would probably take at least two or more to cause a serious problem for them. The four American destroyers however are not the latest and only one has radar. They had been assigned to this quickly made up task force because they had the most fuel on board. None of the ships on the American side have ever sailed together prior to this assignment.
As in the battle two nights before, both sides are quickly closing toward Guadalcanal. The Japanese Admiral Kondo will not attempt any landings or even commence the shelling until the oncoming Americans ships are disposed of. Thinking that the enemy is composed of just two cruisers and four destroyers, Kondo sends a screening force out to flush out the enemy. And flush they did as Washington discharged its first salvo by its main battery followed about a minute later by the South Dakota doing the same. The range is about nine miles and unfortunately for the Americans—especially the destroyers, which are about two miles ahead—both ships miss.
The American destroyers commence firing at this time as the Japanese destroyer Ayanami charges into the American destroyer column. Excellent flashless powder makes the Japanese destroyer hard to spot since only one of our destroyers has radar. The American destroyers are quickly illuminated by their own firing, since they lack flashless powder. The four American destroyers are quickly smashed by gunfire from the charging destroyer and from fire from a Japanese cruiser behind the destroyer. Turned into “a mass of blazing red-hot wreckage” the destroyer Preston rolls over on her starboard side and hangs with her bow in the air for ten minutes before plunging forever to the bottom. The captain of the ship and almost half of the crew perish.
The destroyer Walke is next to go with the bow snapped off, power and communications gone and the main deck awash with several inches of oil with flames scampering along what’s left of the deck. The crew is able to get four rafts off, but as the ship sinks, the depth charges explode and kill over eighty of the crew including the captain. The destroyers Gwin and Benham are smashed but manage to head for home with the Benham traveling at ten knots. It is soon obvious that the Benham is not going to make it so, in a tricky operation, the Gwin manages to rescue the Benham crew. The deficiencies of the Mark XV torpedo are again demonstrated when the Gwin tries to sink the Benham. The first torpedo fired explodes prematurely, the second misses passing ahead of the bow, the third runs erratically, and the fourth passes astern. Finally, the Gwin hits one of Benham’s magazines with a 5-inch shell, which does the job.
The odds for the Americans just got worse with fourteen Japanese ships now opposing two American ships but the Washington finally springs to life with a salvo that turns the destroyer Ayanami into a flaming wreck and leaves her dead in the water. The cruiser that was shelling the American destroyers was unscathed however. The score is now Americans two, Japanese 13.
The battleship South Dakota is still untouched by enemy fire but this is about to change. After firing only one salvo earlier that completely misses her target, an error is made in the operation in the engine room that leaves the ship without electrical power. Deaf, dumb and blind, the South Dakota is now out of the fight. The Americans have one ship left—the Washington. The score is now Americans one, Japanese 13.
After six minutes though, the South Dakota manages to get her power back on and quickly gets off another salvo that sets her three search planes on fire on the quarterdeck. Luckily, her next salvo blows the planes over the side putting out all fires. Now, the ship’s power is lost again. After five minutes, power is again restored and the South Dakota finds she has been steaming into Kondo’s bombardment force less than three miles away. At this distance, Kondo’s lookouts shout, “American battleship ahead” and Admiral Kondo finally realizes what he is up against. Aboard his flagship, the cruiser Atago, he calls for the searchlights and they quickly fix their beams onto the South Dakota.
Gunners from all five ships of the bombardment group send salvo after salvo including 14-inch shells along with scores of long lance torpedoes swimming toward the South Dakota. Luck is with the ship as several torpedoes explode prematurely and the rest miss but 27 shells hit including a 14-inch shell. If the South Dakota is lackluster at dishing it out, the it certainly shines in its ability to take it. None of the shells threaten the ships survival but the gunfire damage knocks out radios, all but one radar, demolishes radar plot and gun directors. The ship is now permanently “deaf, dumb, blind and impotent.” There is nothing wrong with its engine rooms and its high speed capability enable it to exit the scene and outrun the destroyers trying to close in on it.
With Admiral Kondo’s bombardment group being so preoccupied disposing of the South Dakota, they completely overlook the Washington. The searchlights they use to light up the South Dakota display their positions to the Washington. With perfect visual sightings and with good radar readings, the Washington finally decides to come out of retirement. The main battery of all nine barrels as well as a pair of 5-inch shells lash out at the Kirishima.
The Japanese battleship is “buried in water columns” and sustains crushing blows from nine 16-inch shells and forty or more 5-inch shells. These hits disable the two main battery turrets, ignite internal fires, drill holes below the waterline, and jam the rudder. Incoming water causes extreme listing causing the ship to circle while belching out dense clouds of smoke. Seawater sloshes in her steering machinery compartment and the rudder is jammed 10 degrees to starboard. As flooding defies control and the fires refuse to be contained, intense blazes creep toward the magazines forcing the captain to order that they be flooded. When counter flooding fails to check the list to starboard, the captain orders the ship abandoned and at 0325 the Kirishima rolls over and sinks. The score is now Japanese twelve, Americans one. Still not a level playing field, though.
With this, the American Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee decides it is time to make a hasty exit since it will be too late for the Japanese to shell the airfield and the late hour will force them to make a hasty exit to be out of the area before the American planes take to the air. This will save Henderson Field for at least another night. Fortunately, the Washington is able to outrun the Japanese destroyers that are hell bent on getting a few torpedoes into her (although a few do come close) and the battle is over.
Since the Japanese do not accomplish their objective of landing troops, and since the loss of the battleship Kirishima outweighs our losses and damages, the Americans can claim a victory. Credit for the victory goes to Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee and the battleship Washington which dishes out most of the damage that sinks the Japanese battleship. The loss of personnel is close however as 242 American sailors and 249 Japanese sailors die.