Answer Man

July 22, 2014

Answer Man: The Battle of Tassafaronga

Answer Man

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My Great-Uncle Glen Miller was a bosun aboard the USS New Orleans during World War II. I guess he was down below when a Japanese torpedo struck the ship during the Battle of Tassafaronga, killing him. I have never heard of this battle. Have they ever made any movies about it? -- Michael Clifton, of Belleville

As you know, Japan shocked the world when it delivered its brutal attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The raid temporarily crippled much of the U.S. fleet, and Japan followed up its stunning move by capturing the Philippines, Thailand, Guam and a slew of other territories. For months, the U.S. played defense until it could recover.

But after the battles of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942) and Midway (June 4-7) helped restore confidence, Allied forces planned their first offensive in the Pacific: Operation Watchtower -- the six-month Battle of Guadalcanal.

From Aug. 7, 1942, to early February 1943, Japanese and Allied forces engaged in a series of battles designed to stop the Japanese from establishing forward operating bases in the eastern Solomon Islands. Among those five or so major confrontations in the Guadalcanal campaign was the Battle of Tassafaronga, also known as the Fourth Battle of Savo Island.

The fight was precipitated on Nov. 29, when the U.S. Navy learned that a Japanese supply mission was headed its way the next day. Rear Adm. Carleton Wright was ordered to take his five cruisers and eight destroyers and intercept the eight Japanese destroyers steaming for Guadalcanal.

Some say it should have been a U.S. rout, but the Japanese skill at night battle tactics and their Long Lance torpedoes more than evened the odds.

The two sides made contact at about 11 p.m. Nov. 30 as the Japanese were preparing to dump the supplies they had brought for their 17th Army. The guns on the U.S. cruisers managed to disable the IJN Takanami, but 25 U.S. torpedoes all missed their target. While attempting to escape, the Japanese launched 44 torpedoes, and the results were devastating.

First, two slammed into Wright's flagship, the USS Minneapolis, knocking out all power and nearly ripping off her bow. Moments later, another of those half-ton, 30-foot-long monsters hit your great-uncle's boat. According to eyewitnesses, everything forward from Turret 2 -- about 150 feet of the ship's length -- disappeared in a flash.

The USS Pensacola then took a hit as she tried to avoid the crippled hulks ahead of her. Finally, the USS Northampton sustained a one-two punch that knocked out three of her four engines and caused raging fires that forced the ship to be abandoned in 45 minutes.

It all took less than 20 minutes, but the U.S. had suffered another major blow. Not only was the U.S. human death toll twice as great (395-197), but the battle left only four heavy cruisers in the entire Pacific fleet. Some call it the third worst defeat by the U.S. Navy during the war, behind only Pearl Harbor and the first Battle of Savo Island.

Even so, the Battle of Tassafaronga was a strategic victory in the Allies' Guadalcanal offensive. They had kept the Japanese from restocking their troops. By Feb. 7, 1943, Japanese forces had abandoned Guadalcanal. It would be more than two years until Japan's ultimate defeat, but your great-uncle's service helped start its downhill slide.

The USS New Orleans, by the way, had to sail backwards to Sydney and, eventually, Puget Sound for repairs, which were done, in part, by using the USS Minneapolis' No. 2 turret. It would return to battle in October 1943 and continue operations until it was decommissioned Feb. 10, 1947, and sold for scrap on Sept. 22, 1959.

She received 17 battle stars for her service, making her one of the most decorated ships of the war. However, because the battle was so brief, no movie has ever been dedicated to it that I can find. You may find it mentioned in films about Guadalcanal, including the Emmy-winning HBO series "The Pacific."

I also might recommend the 26-minute video "Return to Tassafaronga," which remembers the crew of the Northampton at www.chiseledincloth.com/NHamptonnavigation.html. If you search the Internet you can find much more at www.ibiblio.org and www.nww2m.com -- even a Japanese account by Rear Adm. Raizo Tanaka at www.destroyerhistory.org. Search for "Tassafaronga" and look for "Japanese First Person" in the results.

Today's question

What well-known band leader began in show business as a violinist for famed tenor Enrico Caruso?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: If your child wants to be a funambulist, you may want to have a talk with him or her -- unless you're a Wallenda. From the Latin words for "rope" and "amble," it's a tightrope walker.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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