On pages 24-26 is a chronological record of the experiences of all ships in the Task Force submitting Action Reports.21 Because the action was so intense and firing by all ships so rapid and simultaneous, it is impossible to relate their several stories without somewhat violating the sequence of time. It is hoped that occasional references to the chronological record and to the track chart will enable the reader to ascertain at a glance what was happening to other ships in the formation.
The first ship to go into action was the Helena, though only by a few seconds' margin. At 2345 she requested permission over TBS to commence firing. The message was misinterpreted as a request for Admiral Scott to acknowledge the Helena's last transmission reporting her radar contact on five ships. He answered her message by sending the word "Roger" over TBS. At 2346 both the Helena's batteries opened on separate but unspecified targets.22
A few seconds later the Salt Lake City's main battery opened on a ship 4,000 yards to starboard, believed to be a Natori class light cruiser, which was illuminated by starshells. from the 5-inch battery. She was followed almost instantaneously by the Boise, whose main batteries concentrated on the Salt Lake City's target, while her 5-inch battery directed its fire on a lighter vessel in the enemy van.23
Shortly thereafter, the Farenholt, from her position abreast of the cruiser column, fired on one of two heavy
cruisers clearly visible to starboard. The McCalla recorded sighting an apparently friendly destroyer 2,000 yards forward of her starboard beam. To the left of this destroyer (which was probably the Duncan), she saw an enemy cruiser and destroyer.
Aboard the San Francisco, the Helena's unexpected opening of fire caused genuine alarm. The flagship's FC radar, which had been trained out of its assigned search sector in an effort to locate the enemy vessels reported by the Helena, had by 2344 tracked a destroyer on bearing 300° T., only 5,000 yards distant. A minute later this ship was visible through the heavy darkhess, but whether friendly or hostile was not known. It was thought the destroyer might be the Farenholt, Duncan or Laffey. When the cruisers in the San Francisco's rear had been firing for a few moments, the flagship herself opened fire with both her batteries on an unidentified enemy ship 4,600 yards to starboard. After a few salvos had been fired, the target ship and another close to it were burning, one severely. Fire was shifted to an Amagiri class destroyer approaching from the starboard beam, and it was soon heavily damaged.
Just after the San Francisco joined the other cruisers in continuous fire to starboard, Admiral Scott Ordered "Cease firing" over TBS.24
His information regarding the location of the former van destroyers was still confined to the fact that they were somewhere on the starboard flank of the cruiser column, striving to regain their van position.
At 2347 the OTC asked Capt. Tobin over TBS whether the destroyers had been fired upon. He replied that none of his ships had as yet been fired on, and that he did not know on whom the cruisers were firing. A minute later, the Farenholt was hit twice in the rigging, and Capt. Tobin reported the hits to the flagship. The destroyer's peril was most grave, but Capt. Tobin had no alternative to steaming ahead and reaching the van position as soon as possible. A turn to the left would have thrown the Farenholt into the middle of the cruiser column, and a turn to the right would have thrown her against the enemy.
Following the Farenholt was the Duncan. She appears quite early to have seen the opportunity for a torpedo salvo at an enemy heavy cruiser, to have weighed the risk of fire from our cruisers against the advantage of torpedoing the Japanese ship, and deliberately to have changed her
course to starboard, toward the enemy. She apparently scored two torpedo hits on the cruiser, and was then so severely damaged by shells from both Japanese and United States vessels that she retired from the action, blazing furiously and drifting northeastward toward Savo Island.25
Within a few minutes after Task Force SUGAR went into action, at least three enemy ships were in flames. The Salt Lake City checked her fire when she received Admiral Scott's order and did not resume for several minutes. The Helena and Boise recorded that their three targets sank at about 2350. The ship reported sunk by the Helena was never identified. The Boise stated that several of her officers identified her main battery target as a Nachi class heavy cruiser. The vessel burned furiously before sinking and was identified in the light of the flames.26
The Boise's 5-inch battery target, which sank at about the same time, was a destroyer. A minute later, the destroyer engaged by the San Francisco sank. It had closed in to about 1,400, and could clearly be distinguished from our own destroyers. In less than 5 minutes, Task Force SUGAR had apparently destroyed one heavy cruiser, one unidentified ship, and three destroyers, without the enemy having fired a single shell.
By 2351, more certain of the location of the enemy vessels, Admiral Scott ordered the Task Force to commence firing. The Boise concentrated both her batteries on a destroyer in the vicinity of her 5-inch battery's first target. The enemy ship quickly exploded and disappeared from the radar screens. Both the Helena's batteries were trained on the 5-inch batteries' first target, then 5,000 yards distant and to the right of two other burning ships. After several minutes observers saw it roll over and sink, having identified it as a Kako class heavy cruiser. The Salt Lake City trained her guns on a heavy cruiser and resumed fire, but checked after noting several hits.
Between 2353 and 2358, when almost abreast of the San Francisco, the Farenholt received what appeared to be two 6-inch hits on her port side. Shortly thereafter she succeeded in crossing ahead of the flagship, but her hard-won position in the van could not be maintained. She was badly damaged, and fell out to port on the disengaged flank, losing
contact with the formation. She did not rejoin it until the next day, at Espiritu Santo.
The Buchanan, meanwhile, had apparently fallen in behind the cruiser column. After receiving Admiral Scott's "Commence Firing" order, she observed three destroyers on the starboard bow and a Kako class cruiser on the starboard beam, all on a course parallel to that of the Task Force. Probably this was the same Kako on which the Helena was firing. The Bachanan fired her main and torpedo batteries at the cruiser and 3 minutes later saw two explosions, presumably caused by torpedo hits. The cruiser was seen to break in two and sink, whereupon the Buchanan shifted fire to one of the destroyers. When it was observed sinking, she turned her guns on a target that was either a transport or a second-line cruiser. It was soon in flames and retired to the northwest.
Until 2353, no enemy gun or torpedo fire had been encountered. The Japanese were evidently completely surprised, and the impact of our accurate fire, concentrated into a period of barely 7 minutes, apparently prevented them from training their guns on our ships. A factor which doubtless contributed to the enemy's delay was that none of our ships had thus far used searchlights. Firing had commenced and continued either in full radar control, or, aboard the cruisers, with the 5-inch batteries illuminating targets which had initially been located by radar.
At 2353, with the Helena engaging what appeared to be a light cruiser, the McCalla firing alternately on a heavy cruiser and a destroyer, the Salt Lake City momentarily silent, and the San Francisco attempting to identify a destroyer approaching to starboard and flashing unrecognizable signals, the Boise fired with both batteries, using searchlights for illumination, on an enemy cruiser. The cruiser promptly retaliated, and a minute later the Boise received an 8-inch hit which started large fires in the area of the captain's cabin. Two or three enemy 5½-inch shells followed in rapid succession before the Boise's target commenced burning brightly. In a minute it was reported to have sunk. Capt. Moran checked fire and instituted damage control measures.
The Salt Lake City's main battery meanwhile had taken under fire, at a range of 7,000 yards, an enemy ship tentatively identified as an auxiliary. The target apparently sank, and the Salt Lake City checked fire, resuming with both batteries on a destroyer illuminated by searchlight. This destroyer disappeared after one salvo had been fired.
Between 2353 and 2358 the course of Task Force SUGAR was changed
from 230° T. to 300° T. About midnight, Admiral Scott ordered "Cease Firing" in order to rectify his formation. He stated his course and ordered all ships to identify themselves by blinker lights. A lull in the fighting did occur, largely because most of the targets which had been engaged were no longer visible.
The lull was brief. Between 0001 and 0005 the Salt Lake City fired on three burning enemy ships, increasing the fires on each before shifting her guns to the next. At 0005 the Helena resumed firing on a destroyer which was soon in flames. Ten minutes later it exploded and disappeared both from the radar screens and from sight. At 0006 the San Francisco observed at least four enemy ships on fire and trained both batteries on them in succession.
For the first 8 minutes after midnight the Boise was busy with her own fires. At 0006 a torpedo wake was observed to starboard. She came right with hard rudder and the torpedo passed about 50 yards astern. By 0009 her fires were substantially extinguished, and she reentered the battle only slightly damaged. Using searchlights to illuminate the target, both batteries reopened on an unidentified ship to starboard, which promptly returned her fire. Simultaneously, she was engaged by a heavy cruiser separated from the previous enemy area and believed by Boise personnel to have been one of another enemy group hitherto not involved in the action. This latter cruiser fired "beautifully" at the Boise, hitting her repeatedly with 8-inch salvos which virtually destroyed her forward turrets and caused large personnel casualties and material damage. A succession of 5-inch, 6-inch, and 8-inch shells poured on the Boise for the better part of 4 minutes. She was soon blazing so fiercely that her sister ships feared she was lost. But she continued to mete out terrific punishment and had the satisfaction of seeing her destroyer target explode and sink. Then, while firing at the cruiser with every gun which could shoot, she began evasive action. But soon none of her heavy guns could bear, and at 0013, wrapped in flames, she fell out of the formation and retired to the southwest.
Though the heavy cruiser which had so greviously damaged the Boise enjoyed an initial advantage in being able to fire unopposed, it was not long before she was being heavily battered by the Task Force's other cruisers. The Salt Lake City was engaging a light cruiser when she saw the Boise's plight. Fire was immediately checked, in order to obtain a solution on the heavier and deadlier target. The Salt Lake City had to
maneuver frequently to avoid the Boise, which was changing course continually in efforts to escape her assailant's fire. While thus maneuvering the Salt Lake City received an 8-inch hit forward and to starboard. At 0014 her guns were trained on the enemy, and for a minute she rained 8-inch shells on the heavy cruiser. The San Francisco, meanwhile, had also brought this accurately shooting vessel under her 8-inch gunfire, and it is probable that other ships in the Task Force were also firing on her.
At this juncture the Salt Lake City received another 8-inch hit to starboard, causing minor damage and a few casualties to personnel. But the enemy cruiser could not withstand the concentrated fire of the Task Force, and at 0016 she was seen to sink.
The action was now virtually concluded, although the McCalla temporarily engaged a destroyer at 0016, and the San Francisco fired a few salvos at a three-stack cruiser at 0017. The enemy destroyer retired in flames, and the cruiser disappeared from the radar screen with no indication of the results of the flagship's salvos. The course had been changed to the right to 330° at 0016 in order to close the enemy, but after these last few minutes of desultory firing, Admiral Scott decided to retire. An eloquent silence prevailed over the area once filled with enemy ships.
Our own formation was "somewhat broken,"27 and it seemed best to rectify it should any additional enemy ships appear. Course was changed at 0027 to 220° T. Admiral Scott tried unsuccessfully to establish communication with Capt. Tobin to have him detail a destroyer to stand by the Boise. Neither Capt. Tobin in the Farenholt nor Capt. Moran in the Boise could be reached. Accordingly, the McCalla was designated to remain in the area to render whatever assistance appeared necessary. The remainder of the Task Force then retired on course 205° T.
21 The Duncan was badly damaged during the first part of the action and sank about noon the following day, 12 October. See appendix, p. 20. The Laffey was sunk during the Battle of Guadalcanal, 13-15 November. There is no official record of the latter's experience in the Battle of Cape Esperance.
22 Admiral Scott explained that he had instructed the cruisers to open fire without his prior permission.
23 Less than a minute after the Boise opened fire, one of the antenna wires of the SG radar was jarred loose and wrapped itself around the antenna mast. The SG was useless thereafter, depriving the Boise's fire directors of the visualization afforded by the SG screen.
24 The McCalla's log times this TBS message at 2346, the Salt Lake City's at 2347; the latter time seems more likely because, during the 60 seconds from 2346 to 2347, the TBS was heavily occupied with other messages, particularly the "Roger" colloquy between the flagship and the Helena.
25 The recovery of the Duncan's personnel, her attempted salvage, and final sinking are discussed in the appendix. The above information regarding her part in the battle has been gathered from various sources, and is partly conjecture. What is relatively certain is that the Duncan's brief but violent role was played during the early minutes of the action.
26 This was the same target fired upon by the Salt Lake City, which identified it as a light cruiser.
27 See track chart.
Last updated: May 28, 2003Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation