Boatswain's Mate 1st Class John R. Keppler led some of the fire control efforts on the starboard side of USS San Francisco (CA 38), bringing flames under control while bombs continued to go off around him. Wounded himself, he ignored his injuries and "labored valiantly in the midst of bursting shells, persistently directing fire-fighting operations and administering to wounded personnel until he finally collapsed from loss of blood," according to his Medal of Honor citation. He was one of thousands of Sailors to die in the straights they nicknamed "Ironbottom Sound" for the dozens of ships and planes that lined the sea floor, off the coast of a small Pacific island they had probably never heard of six months before - Guadalcanal.
The island, part of the Solomon chain, was the centerpiece of a months-long campaign during World War II, an Allied effort to finally stop the Japanese in their tracks. It was home to a fledgling airfield that U.S. Marines would name Henderson after a hero of the Battle of Midway. American war planners feared enemy planes would use it as a base to disrupt important sea lanes between the States and Australia. By contrast, they knew if the Allies captured Guadalcanal, they could use it as an important first stage in their campaign to liberate the Pacific.
During the initial landing in August, known as Operation Watchtower, Marines charged ashore almost unopposed. "The Japanese did not expect them to land there," said Chris Havern, a historian at the Navy's History and Heritage Command. "It was not a landing like you would later see in the central Pacific. We all know what Iwo Jima was like. We know what Tarawa was like. This was nothing like that. The U.S. showed up. They landed against no resistance. They established a beachhead and advanced inland. The Japanese who were building the airfield were overwhelmed. They basically left everything and went into the jungle."
However, determined to hold Guadalcanal and prevent that Allied toehold in the Solomon Islands, the Japanese quickly regrouped, attacking the Allies during the Battle of Savo Island, Aug. 8 to 9, in a brutal rout that cost the U.S. three cruisers and Australia one. Japanese ships received minimal damage, according to History and Heritage Command, which cited the battle as one of the worst defeats in U.S. naval history. The Navy withdrew, accused of abandoning the Marines, but naval leaders at the time needed to preserve their limited supply of ships, said Havern.
Then the Imperial Navy began a series of nighttime supply and reinforcement runs that Marines called the Tokyo Express. Japanese soldiers called them rat transports. The U.S. Navy made it its mission to disrupt these transports, and Japan never managed to send enough men or enough food or enough arms.
However, the soldiers it did have were dedicated, willing to fight to the death, and Marines, later joined by Soldiers from the Army's Americal Division, wound up slogging it out in the fetid jungles of Guadalcanal for months. And the Japanese weren't the only enemy. Americans also faced their own supply shortages, flies and tropical diseases. Pharmacist's Mate 1st Class Louis Ortega, a corpsman with the 7th Marines, noted in an oral history that by December 1942, 4,000 or 5,000 men had been felled by malaria and dengue fever. He himself had malaria five times. Most of the afflicted fought on anyway. After all, the fierce air raids stopped for no man.
During his first air raid on the island, Ortega remembered, "everyone just sat out there and watched. 'Wow. Look at that one over there.' Suddenly, shrapnel from the antiaircraft started falling. I got into my trench. I learned two things: When you build a foxhole, build it deep. And secondly, never go alone. When you're by yourself, you think and your mind starts doing all kinds of weird things. You hear the swish of a bomb, which sounds like shaking tin foil. Then the ground shakes and then you wait for the next one. And the ground shakes again. By that time, you really want some company. With two people in there, you learn one thing: 'Look at that sonofabitch. He's scared as hell.' And he's looking at you and saying the same thing. 'Oh, I'm not scared. He's scared.' With someone else there, you're able to compensate for the fear, but when you're alone, you sweat."
Battles at Sea
While Ortega's Marines battled with their rifles in the jungle, the Navy fought a series of battles off shore. Savo Island was first. The battles that followed - the Eastern Solomons, Cape Esperance, Santa Cruz Islands, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and Tassafaronga - can be viewed as almost a series of ping pong matches as the Allies and the Japanese passed the advantage back and forth at a tremendous cost of materiel and men.
"Both sides were throwing resources in to ultimately tip the balance and win," said Havern.
USS San Francisco
The cruiser USS San Francisco saw action throughout much of the Guadalcanal campaign. After narrowly missing the Japanese bombs at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the ship would go on to earn not only 17 battle stars during World War II, but also a Presidential Unit Citation for actions at Guadalcanal.
The ship transported Marines during the initial landings, and covered friendly reinforcements over the next several months. San Francisco then took part in the Battle of Cape Esperance, October 11, when a U.S. force intercepted a major Japanese reinforcement and supply convoy northwest of Guadalcanal. During the battle, the Navy stopped a planned, simultaneous bombardment of Henderson Field, sank several enemy ships and mortally wounded a Japanese commander.
The fight itself, in which the U.S. lost one of its own ships, was "horrendous," former Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Joseph V. Whitt said in an oral history. Still, "we were pretty lucky up until November," he said, referring to the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
San Francisco was escorting American transports near Guadalcanal, Nov. 12, when Japanese planes attacked. The Americans had some warning courtesy of an Australian coast watcher, Whitt remembered, and "we were not where they thought we would be. ... They had only one shot at it and began to drop everything they had, torpedoes and everything else ... running the other way, some breaking in half, some diving to the bottom. Things like this are very short and very sweet and very deadly. ... We shot most of them down."
Unfortunately, one of the enemy pilots decided to crash his damaged plane into San Francisco, killing some 15 men "in a flash of fire," Whitt said.
The battle was only beginning.
Friday the 13th
The next day, Friday the 13th, San Francisco, together with four cruisers and eight destroyers, moved to intercept an enemy force in what would be called the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. "What ensued," according to Naval History and Heritage Command, "was a savage, gun- and torpedo-night action at close quarters," the kind of battle navies no longer fight, said Havern.
"It got dark," Whitt, who was stationed in a gun turret, remembered, "and it went all through the ship that ... we're going to fight. ... Everybody knew we were probably going to get killed."
San Francisco opened fire on a Japanese cruiser at 1:48 in the morning, then a second ship. Then another. And another.
"Right away, we started afiring and we got off about three or four salvos and all of our guns go off," Whitt said. "We could load those guns in a matter of seconds. ... We were just like a real, choreographed ballet.
"The shells started to hit us," he continued. "We're fighting them on both. ... The ship just shuddered and pounded. You could hear big chunks of steel hit the outside of the turret."
Various hits - about 45 total - took out steering, engine control and communications, as Whitt, Keppler and their shipmates fought to save the ship. A particularly unlucky shot struck the ship's navigation bridge, killing Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan, the San Francisco's captain and most of the officers.
Lt. Cmdr. Herbert Schonland was the next living officer in charge. Realizing Lt. Cmdr. Bruce McCandless had things in hand, he focused his attention on stabilizing the ship. Standing in waist-deep water, illuminated by lanterns, he oversaw the pumping of San Francisco's flooded compartments. Meanwhile, McCandless "boldly continued to engage the enemy," according to his Medal of Honor citation, an award both men would receive for the "violent night engagement," as would Callaghan.
When the guns went silent, the men of San Francisco crawled out of their battle stations to find a ship littered with shrapnel, holes, body parts and dead shipmates - more than 100 of them. In spite of everything, though, San Francisco was lucky. Four Navy ships were lost in or as a result of that night battle. The Japanese lost two. The ship began to limp back to the Allied base on the island of Espiritu Santo, in need of extensive repairs. Then there was another close call, a submarine attack that would have finished San Francisco off.
"We're trying to get all the water out," Whitt remembered. "We're trying to get our casualties, our dead, all laid out on the deck. I was helping pump out the forecastle. ... I heard someone call out, 'Torpedo! Torpedo! Port-bound.' I look out and here come this huge torpedo running right on top of the water. ... It's heading straight for us and I knew it was going to hit us in seconds. I started to get away from that point of impact. I started running aft, and I had to jump over this big gash from a shell and it caught my foot. I went sprawling amid all of that shrapnel. But it never hit us."
Instead, it struck the already wounded light cruiser USS Juneau (CL 52). The magazine exploded, tearing the ship in half. "It went into a million pieces," said Whitt. "I couldn't breathe no more. It was just a shock. I've had that flashback several times. ... Big, huge hunks of that thing went up in the air and came down right on our ship, and killed one of our men. ... There was a huge explosion out on the water and the bow of that ship raised up ... and then she went down. She was gone forever. About the only thing visible was a pall of smoke drifting away."
On the Juneau were the famous five Sullivan brothers. Four died in the explosion. The fifth spent several hellish days in the water, circled by sharks, before he finally succumbed to the dark depths below. Only 10 survivors would eventually be pulled from the water.
The Battle Continues
While Juneau and four others were gone and San Francisco, along with several other ships, was out of commission for the foreseeable future, the battle for Guadalcanal was far from over. In fact, the very next day, the Japanese began bombing Henderson Field. U.S. pilots scrambled in response, and the Navy located and intercepted the enemy bombardment group, scoring dozens of hits and leaving 12 enemy ships damaged or sunk, according to History and Heritage Command.
During the night of Nov. 14 into Nov. 15, a naval task force comprising two battleships, including the powerful USS Washington (BB 56), and four destroyers went looking for the Japanese, "risking the last significant U.S. surface units in the theater against some of the best ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy," according to History and Heritage Command. During the ensuing battle, Washington blasted the Japanese battleship Kirishima out of the water.
"The loss of that battleship fundamentally altered the Japanese perception as to whether or not they wanted to continue this campaign," said Havern. "They were no longer willing to accept the losses they had sustained, and afterward were looking for ways to withdraw from Guadalcanal, which they ultimately did in February of 1943."
Even the Battle of Tassafaronga, which the Japanese technically won, Nov. 30, didn't alter their new course. Their men were starving and they still couldn't get supplies or reinforcements through. Tassafaronga would be the last major naval engagement of the Guadalcanal campaign, a campaign that many historians consider to be one of the major turning points of World War II.
"If you're a Marine on Guadalcanal on 10 August, and you look out into the water ... and you see Japanese ships moving unopposed with transports, your perspective on your place in the world is distinctly different than what it was in February of 1943," said Havern. "The Japanese ... had extended their power well out into the central Pacific, a lot closer to the United States by mid-1942. The Guadalcanal campaign helped shape the strategic perception of the course of the war. Finally, in a toe-to-toe fight, we defeated the Japanese. ... From here on out, the U.S. basically fought to victory - a hard-fought victory, but overall, the general tide of the war had changed. From a strategic perspective, the U.S. was continually on the advance and the Japanese were in retreat."