Battle of Rennell Island: Setback in the Solomons
The tactical judgment of Admiral Robert C. Giffen may have contributed to the loss of the cruiser USS Chicago
By John Wukovits
Lieutenant Commander Joji Higai could not have been more pleased in late January 1943. Touted by cohorts throughout the Imperial Japanese Navy as one of its best torpedo plane commanders, he had been handed a plum assignment that suited his reputation. He and his 15-plane unit from the 701st Air Group, in coordination with a second group of 16 Mitsubishi G4M torpedo bombers, were ordered to rise from Rabaul's airfields, head southwest, and attack American naval and air forces in the Solomon Islands in one of World War II's first nighttime torpedo attacks.
Approximately 700 miles to the southeast, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Robert C. "Ike" Giffen cautiously guided a conglomeration of carriers, cruisers, escort carriers and destroyers toward the Solomon Islands. His superior, Admiral William F. Halsey, after recharging the American defensive stand at Guadalcanal, hoped Giffen's foray would be the first of many U.S. offensive actions in the region. For months the American Marines and Navy had been knocked on their heels by the victorious Japanese, but Halsey's arrival infused renewed energy in the U.S. forces fighting in the region. A speedy series of American land and sea triumphs pushed the foe backward and gave a slim advantage to the United States.
As 1943 dawned, Halsey optimistically said: "December had shown us faint signs that the tide was turning. By January no one could doubt that it had begun to run with us." Halsey realized that victory in the Solomons had not yet been guaranteed and that he needed more reinforcements, additional ships and aircraft, and tons of ammunition. Nevertheless, he felt confident that U.S. forces were "strong enough to attempt a modest offensive." He eagerly awaited developments as Giffen's force steamed toward Guadalcanal.
The action began unfolding in late January, when American aerial reconnaissance spotted indications of a Japanese buildup at their major port of Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, and at Buin, on the island of Bougainville. An increasing number of troop transports and freighters mingled with destroyers at those locations, and Japanese carriers and battleships appeared to be on the prowl north of Guadalcanal. Radio intelligence supported the theory that a Japanese move was imminent. Since the Japanese had repeatedly poured reinforcements into the struggle for the Solomons, American planners at Pearl Harbor concluded that this was yet another such operation.
Halsey was under pressure to relieve the 2nd Marine Division, weary from months of vicious combat with crack Japanese land forces on Guadalcanal. The aggressive admiral jumped at an opportunity to combine two operations--he intended to send in troop transports to bring out the 2nd Marine Division while shielding the transports with as much naval power as he could gather in the South Pacific. By doing so, he hoped to entice the Japanese into a surface engagement.
Halsey's opponent, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, would not be tricked, however. The man who had planned the successful attack on Pearl Harbor had subsequently seen his navy face a reversal in the Coral Sea, catastrophic losses at Midway, and continued pounding in the Solomons. With fuel supplies running low, the Japanese commander could not mount a vast naval operation. Instead, he planned to send Higai and his 32 torpedo bombers--known as "Bettys"--against the Americans.
Halsey assembled a formidable force. Six separate groups headed toward the Solomons instead of one unit because each had assembled at a different harbor. Four groups steamed anywhere from 250 to 400 miles behind the two forward groups. The ships in the rear would rush in to meet any large Japanese threat that might unfold in response to the American attempt to land reinforcements on Guadalcanal. The four consisted of Rear Adm. Walden L. Ainsworth's Task Force 67, composed of four light cruisers and four destroyers; Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee's three battleships and four destroyers of Task Force 64; Rear Adm. DeWitt Ramsey's carrier group, centered on Saratoga; and Rear Adm. Ted Sherman's carrier group, anchored by Enterprise.
As for the two groups of ships that steamed ahead of the rest, the four transports and four destroyers of Task Group 62.8 conveyed the replacements for the 2nd Marine Division. Giffen's potent Task Force 18 consisted of three heavy cruisers--Wichita, Chicago and Louisville--steaming in conjunction with three light cruisers--Montpelier, Cleveland and Columbia. Two escort carriers--Chenango and Suwannee--provided air cover, while eight destroyers--La Vallette, Waller, Conway, Frazier, Chevalier, Edwards, Mead and Taylor--circled the larger ships as a screen.
Ike Giffen was not new to command. He had battled German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean and led forces in North African waters, but he had never served in the Pacific, where air assaults on ships at sea were far more common. Giffen came from the old school of naval leadership and was a favorite of Admiral Ernest J. King, commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet and chief of naval operations. Giffen commanded by the book, and he even refused to step aboard Halsey's flagship because he detested Halsey's open-necked shirts and ruffled caps.
Giffen guided Task Force 18 out of Efate on January 27, the same day the transport group departed Noumea. His orders were to rendezvous 15 miles off Cape Hunter, on Guadalcanal's southwest coast, late on January 30 with the four destroyers that escorted the transports. The combined force would then steam north through Solomon waters in search of Japanese ships while the transports dropped off Marine reinforcements at Lunga Point.
A string of mistakes and poor judgment by Giffen plagued the operation from the start. Because of his experience in the Atlantic, he focused on a possible submarine threat while downplaying the danger from the skies. His decision to keep the slower escort carriers with his faster cruisers and destroyers slowed the entire group to 18 knots, the maximum speed attainable by the baby flattops. The group also encountered delays each time the carriers had to turn into the southeast wind to launch or recover aircraft.
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