Known as the First Battle of the Solomon Sea and the Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks, the Battle of Savo Island is considered by most historians to be one of the US Navy’s worst defeats.
The battle came about in response to Allied amphibious landings of the Solomon Islands. The Japanese Navy responded by mobilizing a force of one destroyer and seven cruisers under the command of Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa. His plan was to interrupt, if not completely stop, Allied landings in the area. Mikawa’s group reached Bougainville Island early on the morning of August 8, 1942. Four float reconnaissance planes were launched. One returned to report the spotting of an Allied fleet consisting of six cruisers, 18 transports, 19 destroyers, and a battleship located off the shores of Tulagi, Savo, and Guadalcanal. This fleet was divided into three groups and Mikawa felt confident he could destroy at least one group before the remaining two could intercede.
But Mikawa’s fleet too had been spotted.
His fleet had been spotted by an Allied submarine and several planes but the information US Rear Admiral Kelly Turner received painted an incomplete picture of Mikawa’s force or mission.
Despite being severely outnumbered and outgunned, Mikawa had the upper hand.
At 4:30 that afternoon Mikawa ordered, “We will proceed from south of Savo Island and torpedo the enemy main force in front of the Guadalcanal anchorage, after which we will turn toward the Tulagi forward area to shell and torpedo the enemy. We will withdraw north of Savo.”
The next day he and his forces did just that.
The USS Quincy was the first to sink, taking with it 370 crewmembers.
The USS Vincennes, hit by 74 shells and two torpedoes, was the second to sink. Over three hundred men were lost.
The Australian heavy cruiser Canberra was the third to sink, costing the lives of 85 crewmembers.
The USS Astori was the last to sink, taking with it over 200 men.
The USS Chicago, USS Patterson, and USS Ralph Talbot were severely damaged.
Japanese forces lost just over 30 men.
Although US losses were incredibly high, many historians believe the destruction that day could have been much worse had Mikawa and his fleet not used what little darkness remained to safely leave the area before the encroaching dawn. Author Mark Stille summed up what could have happened had Mikawa continued his fight in his book The Naval Battles For Guadalcanal 1942. Stille wrote, “Mikawa did not know it at the time, but he had just squandered the IJN’s best chance of delivering a knockout blow to the first American offensive in the Pacific. It is hard to imagine the Americans holding on to their lodgment following the destruction of their transport fleet and the supplies still on board. The distraction of the American transports would have been worth the sacrifice of Mikawa’s entire force.”