Jan 29

Battle of Rennell Island

Tuesday, January 29, 2019 12:01 AM

By

For years, I thought I knew about World War II. Going to public school, almost every year from sixth grade to senior year had at least a few weeks discussing WWII. I did not realize the blank spot in my education until we came to the combat photos in our archive, and suddenly I am confronted with photo after photo of the Pacific. It suddenly struck me that in all that time learning about WWII, not one of my teachers had taken the time to discuss the Pacific Front in detail. Talking with others, I soon began to realize it wasn’t just me, but that most people my age somehow missed out on learning that side of history. So, in an effort to curb a general lack of knowledge about the Pacific Front, I will tell you about the Battle of Rennell Island, which began today, the 29th of January, in 1943.

By March of 1942, Japanese forces had taken control of many of the small island chains in the Pacific, including the Solomon Islands. From April 1942 onward, however, U.S. and other Allied forces had slowly progressed through the Pacific, attempting to deny the Japanese use of the islands as bases to interrupt supply routes. By August of 1942, U.S. forces had reached the southern Solomon Islands, and the six-month long Guadalcanal Campaign began. In early November 1942, the Japanese attempted their last offensive battle against Allied forces but were soundly defeated. From then onward, they were only able to send supplies by night to their forces still holed up on the islands, in operations the Allies called “Tokyo Express.”

Eventually, though, the Japanese realized the futility of this mission; by December, the Japanese were losing about fifty men each day to malnutrition, disease, and Allied attacks. The Imperial Japanese Navy, with approval from their Emperor, determined that the only viable course of action left to them was a full evacuation of the few troops left on the islands.

The Japanese codenamed the evacuation Operation Ke and determined the best way to get their troops out safely was to distract U.S. Navy forces with air strikes beginning 28 January 1943, and keep the Navy occupied while the Japanese troops were evacuated from Guadalcanal.

Unfortunately for U.S. forces, they misread the air offensive by the Japanese as a sign that they were gearing up to retake Guadalcanal. The admiral in charge of this theatre of the war, Admiral William Halsey, Jr., was also feeling pressure to give relief to the 2nd Marine Regiment, which had been in combat on Guadalcanal since August 1942. He hoped to kill two birds with one stone by using the impending Japanese offensive to draw their navy into battle while at the same time sending Army troops to relieve the Marines. On 29 January 1943, Halsey sent five task forces toward the southern Solomon Islands to engage with any Japanese that came into range, as well as cover the relief convoy steaming towards Guadalcanal.

SoPac_fixtypo

Ahead of the convoy – and the main players in this battle – was Task Force 18, led by Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen. As the TF 18 steamed towards the islands, Giffen arranged his ships in an anti-submarine defense pattern, because Allied intelligence indicated submarines were the main threat in the area. Though they were correct that they were there, these submarines only relayed the task forces’ location to the true threat – Japanese bombers – which the U.S. forces were wholly unaware existed.

Around sunset on the 29th, near Rennell Island, some of Giffen’s ships detected unidentified aircraft approaching their position. Unfortunately, due to Giffen’s insistence of absolute radio silence, he gave no orders on what to do about the unidentified craft. As the sun set, the combat air patrol (CAP) returned to their carriers, unaware that they would soon be needed.

The unidentified aircraft turned out to be 31 Japanese bombers approaching from the east, so they could be hidden by the night sky. Their initial attack on TF 18 resulted in no damage to U.S. ships, and one Japanese bomber felled by anti-aircraft guns. Believing the attack over, Giffen ordered his ships to cease defensive, zig-zagging movements, and to continue on towards Guadalcanal. Little did he know that a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft was tracking the task force’s movements by dropping flares in preparation for the next wave of bombers.

Less than twenty minutes after the first attack, the Japanese aircraft struck again, this time hitting the USS Chicago (CA-29) with two torpedoes. After shooting down two more Japanese bombers via anti-aircraft guns, Giffen ordered Task Force 18 to reverse direction, and to hide their presence by ceasing fire. The aircraft continued to circle the area for nearly an hour before departing and allowing the ships – Chicago under tow by the USS Louisville – to retreat (seen in picture below).

USS Louisville

The next day, Admiral Halsey took all steps necessary to protect the damaged USS Chicago and ordered all escort carriers to have a CAP out at first light. By mid-afternoon, Japanese scout aircraft had managed to find the damaged cruiser and report back, and an air group of torpedo bombers was sent to destroy the vessel. Unaware of the danger the Chicago was in, Halsey ordered the rest of the cruisers to push on towards Efrate and New Hebrides without the Chicago, leaving the ship with six destroyers for protection.

Nearly an hour after they left, a CAP from the USS Enterprise also left behind to protect the Chicago encountered Japanese aircraft and shot down one bomber. Though the Enterprise detected more aircraft inbound, the escort carriers in the task force had difficulty getting their planes in the air, and the aircraft did not attack until after the engagement was over.

At first, the Japanese bombers faked towards the Enterprise, before turning towards the Chicago. The Chicago’s CAP shot down one, and the escort destroyers shot down eight more, but not before six of those could release their payload.

USS Chicago riding low in the water following torpedo attack.

USS Chicago riding low in the water following torpedo attack.

One torpedo hit the USS La Vallette, killing 22 of her crew. The Chicago was also hit, causing her to be abandoned. 1,049 members of the crew survived, but 62 lost their lives in the engagement. The remaining bombers failed to hit their target, and the engagement ended.

While the Japanese widely publicized the engagement, the U.S. attempted to conceal the loss of the Chicago for quite some time. Admiral Nimitz and Admiral Halsey both blamed Giffen for the defeat, though it did not affect his overall career.

Both the Japanese and the Americans were able to help their beleaguered troops, however. Since the Japanese aircraft were focused on TF 18, the convoy was able to complete their mission. With TF 18 on the retreat, the Japanese were able to evacuate their forces from Guadalcanal. This battle eventually became known as the last major naval engagment of the Guadalcanal Campaign.

Every time I open a new folder in our collections, I’m excited to learn something new. In the case of World War II, having my knowledge of the war expand past the boundaries of Europe and into a truly global experience gives me a greater appreciation for the sacrifices made, and the victories gained. Even though losses can be difficult to discuss, they can show the perseverance of those who went through them and continued to fight despite the loss.