Japanese surprised at Battle of Cape Esperance

USS Duncan underway in the south Pacific on 7 October 1942, five days before she was sunk in the Battle of Cape Esperance. Photographed from USS Copahee (ACV-12), which was then engaged in delivering aircraft to Guadalcanal. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

The battles on and around Guadalcanal continued. The Marines had fought several intense engagements to defend their base at Henderson Field since the battle at Hell's Point and the air battles over the island were equally furious. Both the Japanese and the Americans were intent on landing more troops on the island and the two Naval forces ‘stumbled’ into each other on the night of the 11th/12th.

Shortly before midnight on 11 October, a U.S force of four cruisers and five destroyers—under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott intercepted the Japanese force as it approached Savo Island near Guadalcanal. Taking the Japanese by surprise, Scott’s warships sank one cruisers, one destroyer, heavily damaged another cruiser, and mortally wounded the Japanese commander, Aritomo Gotō. It was a tactical victory to the USN but the Japanese still managed to land their reinforcements.

The USN did not come away completely unscathed. Being on the winning side might be of little consequence to some men, as this account by a sailor from USS Duncan makes clear:

The plunge overboard drove me into dark, warm waters. I fought to hold on to my senses. If I passed out, I would just keep sinking. I was 18, and I had shrapnel in both legs and my skull. I struggled to the surface and saw my destroyer, the USS Duncan, burning and adrift, struck 56 times by Japanese shells during the Battle of Cape Esperance near Guadalcanal.

It was Oct. 12, 1942. I saw a wooden spar and grabbed it. To my surprise, a Japanese sailor was hanging on to the other end. I reached for my knife as we eyed each other. We remained frozen with indecision for a long moment. I eased off my end of the spar. He eased off his end. We swam away as fast as we could in opposite directions. Both of us had had all of the fight we wanted.

As luck would have it, I splashed into someone else floating face up. It was [my shipmate] Stanley Dubiel, raving, out of his mind with pain. His legs were badly burned; I had thrown him overboard before I jumped into the ocean.

Looking back over my shoulder as I swam, I saw the Duncan chasing me. The ship was like a giant flamethrower. Still steaming wildly in a tight circle, blazing like a Viking’s funeral pyre, she bore straight down on me, growing larger as she approached, spewing fire and smoke from every opening. The ship rushed by so near I thought I could reach out and grab her.

I held on to Dubiel and his life jacket with a drowning man’s grip as the wake caught us and drove us tumbling underwater. When we surfaced, after what seemed like hours, the world had grown quiet and warm and peaceful. I thought I must have died. Then I spotted the Duncan, flaming away across the sea in the distance. I must have passed out for a minute.

We had gone into the drink about midnight. Now it was daylight. I had been swimming for hours, towing Dubiel. “Keep going” played itself over and over in my brain.

Somehow I became aware that Dubiel and I were no longer alone. I saw fins cutting the surface like blades of knives. The sharks closed in. One of the fish, larger and bolder than the others, darted in for a bite. My foot was bleeding. The shark’s fin disappeared beneath the surface. I spun in the water, my eyes searching frantically. I screamed, Dubiel screamed. His body exploded out of the water. He twisted violently, then he was gone, wrenched from my grip.

I swam like a madman. I figured by all rights I should have been dead. I heard Dubiel’s screams for years afterward.

See the Daily Beast at Newsweek.

The USS Duncan had only just entered service. En route from her builder’s yard at Kearny, New Jersey, to be delivered to the Navy, 15 April 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

From the perspective of those on Guadalcanal it was difficult to understand who was prevailing. Robert Mahood was one of the Marines on the beach:

I can say I have never witnessed a more awesome sight. We could see salvos of hot shells in threes moving across the night sky in big arcs to hit or miss unseen targets. The battle seemed to last for hours, and all of us beach defense guys sat on the front edge of the gun emplacements and watched the spectacle.

There were from two to six vessels burning at different times all through the night. We sent out rescue craft the next morning to pick up survivors. Many of both sides were found, but few japanese were brought in. Some of the Naval personnel had gaping shrapnel wounds, severed limbs, or they were burned, with oil covering their bodies.

They were all in various stages of shock. I counted over fifty American bodies lying on the beach in neat rows. These were the guys who had been recovered by our rescue teams and were either dead when found or died on the way to the beach.

We could see two or three ships out there that morning, still burning or lying dead in the water. One of these was one of our six-turret cruisers.

This account appears in Pacific War Stories: In the Words of Those Who Survived.

Rear Admiral Norman Scott was awarded the Medal of Honor partly for the “courageous skill and superb coordination of the units under his command” at the Battle of Cape Esperance

A subsequent publicity photograph. Sailor W.R. Martin points out details of the Japanese trophy flags painted on the cruiser’s pilothouse as a scoreboard of enemy ships claimed sunk in the Battle of Cape Esperance, 11-12 October 1942. The six Japanese ships (two heavy cruisers, a light cruiser and three destroyers) represented in this scoreboard greatly overstates the actual enemy losses, which were one heavy cruiser (Furutaka) and one destroyer (Fubuki) sunk and one heavy cruiser (Aoba) badly damaged. This overclaiming was typical of contemporary night surface actions.

As may be expected the U.S. Naval Institute has an excellent account of the whole battle and analysis of its significance.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

warren s craig October 16, 2013 at 3:23 pm

A Shipmate on the USS DUNCAN DD 485 Oct 11/12/1942 Jumped over the side W/Mae West Life Preserver Alone .Picked up 14 Hrs. later .Swam with Japanese
and sharks. I feel I have been given another lifetime by Two USMC/S in a landing craft.

percival ramirez April 6, 2013 at 3:22 am

thanks for the story..I indeed feel the same on what they did to my dad being be-headed right in front of my mom. They are very BRUTAL with no compassion about human lives. I dont really understand why they had to be compensated when we drpped the Atomic Bomb..they deserved it, and they keep on asking for more money till noiw..WHY WHY ???

Editor October 12, 2012 at 10:20 am

Anyone help?

Woody Sanford October 11, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Were the Japanese “Long Lance” Torpedoes used at Cape Esperance like at Savo Island?

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