Sunken Ships at Ironbottom Sound

Quote of the Day

Why the US Navy performed so poorly in sea battles during the early part of World War II:

  1. The United States failed to grasp that the killing weapon was the torpedo.
  2. The United States had no tactics suitable for night battle at close quarters.
  3. The United States was slow to learn. Because of the rapid turnover of tactical. leaders, the pace of the battles overwhelmed the Americans.
  4. Above all, the United States did not exploit its potentially decisive radar advantage.

— My paraphrase of Capt. Wayne Hughes from his book Fleet Tactics.


Introduction

Figure 1: WW2 Ships Sunk in Ironbottom Sound. (Wikipedia)

Figure 1: WW2 Ships Sunk in Ironbottom Sound. (Wikipedia)

I just finished watching a series of videos on the Guadalcanal Campaign by Drachinifel, whose work is superb (Figure 2). The marines derisively referred to this campaign as Operation Shoestring because of the resource limitations. Things were no better for the sailors. Unlike many WW2 island campaigns, more sailors died in the battles than ground troops (link). The Allies, and in particular the US Navy (USN), had to learn the hard way that the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) was a force that deserved respect. Many Allied ships were sunk while learning this lesson.

Ironbottom Sound was called Savo Sound before WW2, but the number of ships sunk there was so staggering that the sound is now commonly called Ironbottom Sound. This post will extract the names of the sunken ships from the image in Figure 1 using an Online Character Recognizer (OCR). I will then create some tables that look at the casualties by ship type and country of origin.

For those who like to follow along, my spreadsheet is here.

Background

Scope

I am looking at the ships listed in Figure 1. Some ships officially listed as lost at Guadalcanal are not shown in Figure 1. For example, the USS Benham is not shown but was seriously damaged on 15-Nov-1942 and ended up being sunk by Allied gunfire. The USS Jarvis and USS Juneau are also not shown. I do not know why, but their locations may not be known.

Battle of Savo Island

The video shown in Figure 2 provides a good overview of the Battle of Savo Island, which may be the worst loss in USN history and contributed four wrecks to Ironbottom Sound. The tale of this battle highlights many of the issues that the Allies would need to resolve quickly

Figure 2: Good Video Briefing on Early Guadalcanal Campaign.

This battle also shows the importance of leadership. If you want to see an example of how not to lead a naval force, read about Captain Howard Bode.

Analysis

OCR

I used the online and free Convertio tool to generate a spreadsheet of all the text in Figure 1. I needed to delete the lightly colored geographic names from the conversion.

Pivot Tables

Once the OCR was cleaned up, I augmented the image data with naval service and ship type information,  and then made pivot tables of the result.

Wrecks By Nation/Service

Figure 3 shows the number of wrecks by the naval service. Notice how the USN took a real beating.

Figure M: List of Ironbottom Sound Wrecks By Nation/Service.

Figure 3: Ironbottom Sound Wrecks By Navy.

Wrecks By Ship Type

Figure 4 shows the wrecks by the type of ship. As far as the military ships go, destroyers and cruisers dominate the losses. I should mention the loss of the oiler Kanawha. The oilers were critical to the US Navy maintaining its tempo of operations. The US Navy early in WW2 was seriously short of oilers, particularly fleet oilers capable of Underway Replenishment (UNREP). For example, the loss of the fleet oiler USS Neosho at the Battle of Coral Sea was considered almost as serious as the loss of the carrier USS Lexington.

Figure M: List of Ironbottom Sound Wrecks By Ship Type.

Figure 4: List of Ironbottom Sound Wrecks By Ship Type.

US Navy Wrecks By Type

Figure 5, shows the US Navy wrecks by type. Of the seven cruisers wrecks at Ironbottom Sound, six are from the US Navy and the seventh is Australian. The US cruisers really took a beating, particularly from torpedoes like the IJN Long Lance.

Figure M: US Navy Wrecks By Type.

Figure 5: US Navy Wrecks By Type.

US Navy Cruiser Wrecks

Figure 6 shows the US Navy cruiser wrecks. One of the wrecks is the bow of the USS Minneapolis, which a Long Lance torpedo hit separated from the rest of the ship. The USS Minneapolis was repaired and served out the rest of the war.

Figure M: US Navy Cruiser Losses.

Figure 6: US Navy Cruiser Losses.

Conclusion

While the Guadalcanal Campaign was a brutal battle, there were some lessons that probably could not be learned any other way than through enemy engagement. Here are some of the key things that the Allies had to learn:

  • Night tactics
    The IJN ruled the night in the early battles. The Allies had better radar but did not know how to properly use it.
  • Radar tactics
    Early radar was tricky to use for fire control but properly used was decisive in night battles. The Allies had a pioneer in its midst, Admiral Willis Lee, and needed to learn from him. He demonstrated his prowess during the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
  • Identify wartime leaders
    Wartime leaders are different from peacetime leaders and must be identified as soon as possible. This problem existed with both the naval and ground forces.
  • Develop tactics relevant to the time
    Night fighting, long-range torpedoes, and the need for multi-national naval forces required the Allies to develop new tactics.

I would argue the USN, in particular, did not learn quickly. However, there are people who might disagree (Trent Hone in his excellent book Learning War).

Appendix

Excerpt from Battles That Changed American History: 100 of the Greatest Victories and Defeats by Spence Tucker (link).

Figure M: Tucker Excerpt

 
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