On the night of 12th-13th November 1942 an extremely violent and intense naval battle broke out off Guadalcanal. A large Japanese task force was intent on landing troops onto Guadalcanal to continue the attack on the U.S. positions at Henderson Field, while its’ battleships would be used to bombard the same positions. They were met head on by a smaller U.S. Navy force. In a pitch black night in the early hours of Friday 13th November, the two naval forces hammered into each other at almost point blank range.
Some insight into the nature of the battle can be gleaned from the citations of the five men who won the Medal of Honor that night:
Rear Admiral Callaghan:
For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty during action against enemy Japanese forces off Savo Island on the night of 12–13 November 1942.
Although out-balanced in strength and numbers by a desperate and determined enemy, Rear Admiral Callaghan, with ingenious tactical skill and superb coordination of the units under his command, led his forces into battle against tremendous odds, thereby contributing decisively to the rout of a powerful invasion fleet and to the consequent frustration of a formidable Japanese offensive.
While faithfully directing close-range operations in the face of furious bombardment by superior enemy fire power, he was killed on the bridge of his Flagship. His courageous initiative, inspiring leadership, and judicious foresight in a crisis of grave responsibility were in keeping with the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the defense of his country.
Rear Admiral Scott:
For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty during action against enemy Japanese forces off Savo Island on the night of 11–12 October and again on the night of 12–13 November 1942.
In the earlier action, intercepting a Japanese Task Force intent upon storming our island positions and landing reinforcements at Guadalcanal, Rear Adm. Scott, with courageous skill and superb coordination of the units under his command, destroyed 8 hostile vessels and put the others to flight.
Again challenged, a month later, by the return of a stubborn and persistent foe, he led his force into a desperate battle against tremendous odds, directing close-range operations against the invading enemy until he himself was killed in the furious bombardment by their superior firepower.
On each of these occasions his dauntless initiative, inspiring leadership and judicious foresight in a crisis of grave responsibility contributed decisively to the rout of a powerful invasion fleet and to the consequent frustration of a formidable Japanese offensive. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.
Lt. Commander Schonland:
For extreme heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty as damage control officer of the U.S.S. San Francisco in action against greatly superior enemy forces in the battle off Savo Island, 12–13 November 1942.
In the same violent night engagement in which all of his superior officers were killed or wounded, Lt. Comdr. Schonland was fighting valiantly to free the San Francisco of large quantities of water flooding the second deck compartments through numerous shell holes caused by enemy fire.
Upon being informed that he was commanding officer, he ascertained that the conning of the ship was being efficiently handled, then directed the officer who had taken over that task to continue while he himself resumed the vitally important work of maintaining the stability of the ship.
In water waist deep, he carried on his efforts in darkness illuminated only by hand lanterns until water in flooded compartments had been drained or pumped off and watertight integrity had again been restored to the San Francisco. His great personal valor and gallant devotion to duty at great peril to his own life were instrumental in bringing his ship back to port under her own power, saved to fight again in the service of her country.
Lt. Commander McCandless
For conspicuous gallantry and exceptionally distinguished service above and beyond the call of duty as communication officer of the U.S.S. San Francisco in combat with enemy Japanese forces in the battle off Savo Island, 12–13 November 1942.
In the midst of a violent night engagement, the fire of a determined and desperate enemy seriously wounded Lt. Comdr. McCandless and rendered him unconscious, killed or wounded the admiral in command, his staff, the captain of the ship, the navigator, and all other personnel on the navigating and signal bridges.
Faced with the lack of superior command upon his recovery, and displaying superb initiative, he promptly assumed command of the ship and ordered her course and gunfire against an overwhelmingly powerful force.
With his superiors in other vessels unaware of the loss of their admiral, and challenged by his great responsibility, Lt. Comdr. McCandless boldly continued to engage the enemy and to lead our column of following vessels to a great victory. Largely through his brilliant seamanship and great courage, the San Francisco was brought back to port, saved to fight again in the service of her country.
Boatswain’s Mate First Class Keppler:
For extraordinary heroism and distinguished courage above and beyond the call of duty while serving aboard the U.S.S. San Francisco during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands, 12–13 November, 1942.
When a hostile torpedo plane, during a daylight air raid, crashed on the after machine-gun platform, KEPPLER promptly assisted in the removal of the dead and, by his capable supervision of the wounded, undoubtedly helped save the lives of several shipmates who otherwise might have perished.
That night, when the hangar was set afire during the great battle off Savo Island, he bravely led a hose into the starboard side of the stricken area and there, without assistance and despite frequent hits from terrific enemy bombardment, eventually brought the fire under control.
Later, although mortally wounded, he labored valiantly in the midst of bursting shells, persistently directing fire-fighting operations and administrating to wounded personnel until he finally collapsed from loss of blood, and died, aged 24.
His great personal valor, maintained with utter disregard of personal safety, was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Of all the men who died that night, the loss of one band of brothers would strike hard and come to the attention of all America. The Sullivan brothers were just that – five brothers. They had joined the US Navy on the condition that they all served together. It was not US Navy policy to allow family members to serve together but it was not strictly enforced.
They all served on the same ship the USS Juneau. The light cruiser was torpedoed early in the battle and then torpedoed again as she was limping away in company with other ships. There was an enormous explosion when her ammunition magazine was hit and the ship was blown apart. Those watching believed that there could not possibly have been any survivors. No attempt was made to stop and look for them.
In fact around a hundred men had survived and were swimming in the sea, including two, possibly three, of the Sullivan brothers. None of them were to survive. The report from a reconnaissance plane that there were men in the water got lost in the heat of the battle – and a proper search for survivors did not start until much later. Out of a ships company of up to 700 men only 11 were rescued.
Amongst the men wounded on the USS South Dakota during this battle was Seaman First Class Calvin Graham, seen here pictured in May 1942, when he joined the US Navy. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his actions at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 12th/13th November 1942.
Graham was born on April 3, 1930 – he was 12 years old at the time of the battle. He was the youngest U.S. serviceman during World War II. When his mother revealed his age he was rewarded with three months in Naval custody and a Dishonourable Discharge – which meant that he was no longer entitled to his military honours. The decision was finally reversed by President Carter in 1978.