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USS Enterprise CV-6
The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

Rennell Island
January 29-30, 1943

"Guadalcanal never inspired much laughter."
Samuel Eliot Morison

My father kept a tiny, unauthorized, diary during his service in Enterprise. The entries are never more than a few words: "Left NC" [New Caledonia], "Enter ES" [Espiritu Santo], "Two bogies splashed." The entry for January 30, 1943 is a single word: Chicago.

Dawn, January 30, 1943 had found Chicago CA-29, a Northampton-class cruiser, under tow from sister-ship Louisville CA-28, trailing a long slick of oil and listing to starboard from two torpedo hits received the night before. Launched by Mare Island Navy Yard in April 1930, Chicago was stationed in the Pacific in 1932, where she served for all but a few months in 1934, when she operated in the Caribbean and along the east coast. Two months after Pearl Harbor, she was assigned to the ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand) force, covering Allied landings on New Guinea and New Caledonia. In May 1942, she attacked a Japanese force attempting to invade Port Moresby, New Guinea; in August, she supported the Guadalcanal landings, then survived a Japanese torpedo hit during the disastrous Battle of Savo Island (August 9, 1942). After retiring to the West Coast for repair, she returned to the South Pacific in January 1943.

On January 27, along with Louisville, Wichita CA-45, escort carriers Suwannee CVE-27 and Chenango CVE-28, three light cruisers and eight destroyers, Chicago sailed as part of Task Force 18, commanded by Rear Admiral Robert Giffen. Giffen was new to the Pacific. For two months he'd commanded a force operating off Gibraltar, and while his anti-submarine skills were polished, he was no "air admiral". Admiral William Halsey, Commander South Pacific, hoped to give him some much-needed experience with this assignment.

Morale Poster, January 1943
War Production Board poster: the end of the Guadalcanal struggle is in sight.

Throughout January 1943, Allied intelligence had indicated a sharp increase in enemy destroyer and transport activity at their Rabaul base and Buin (on Bougainville). Further, heavy units of the Combined Fleet - battleships and carriers - were known to be loitering just north of the Solomons. The concentration of force could only mean one thing: the Japanese were preparing for still another effort to drive the Americans off Guadalcanal. Or so Halsey and the American commanders believed.

In fact, Japan's intentions were just the opposite. On December 26, 1942, Japan's Imperial General Headquarters had reached the decision to abandon Guadalcanal. Accordingly, the Combined Fleet and 8th Area Army had developed Operation KE: the plan to evacuate the more than 10,000 fighting men remaining on the island. The build-up Allied intelligence noted was solely in support of the withdrawal.

Halsey, however, believing the Japanese planned to land more men on the island, marshaled his forces to meet this new "threat." Under Giffen's command, Chicago and the rest of TF 18 were to rendezvous with the "Cactus Striking Force": four Tulagi-based destroyers commanded by Captain Robert Briscoe. This force was to sweep the northerly channels of The Slot, screening a transport force carrying troops and material to Guadalcanal and relieving the long-suffering Marine 2nd Division.

Meanwhile, Enterprise's Task Force 16 was to rendezvous with Saratoga CV-3 in the Coral Sea, and along with a battleship force under Rear Admiral Willis Lee, await the expected aggressive move by Yamamoto's Combined Fleet.

On January 27, Giffen's TF 18 departed Efate, setting course for Cape Hunter on the southwest coast of Guadalcanal. A day later, the Big E, accompanied by cruiser San Diego CL-53 and five destroyers, stood out from Espiritu Santo, bearing southwest to rendevous with Saratoga's Task Force 11 in two days' time. For nearly two months, Enterprise had anchored in Espiritu's Segond Channel, sailing only on a few occasions, when it appeared Japanese carriers might be moving south. The holidays had passed quietly if unsatisfactorily as most every man longed to be home stateside. Now, Enterprise set forth with purpose not felt since the previous November.

The afternoon of January 29 found Chicago and TF 18 lagging behind the schedule set for the next day's rendezvous with Briscoe's destroyers. At 1400 that afternoon, Giffen detached the two escort carriers - which could make only 18 knots - and two destroyers from TF 18. The remaining cruisers and destroyers pulled steadily away at 24 knots.

Not long after, Giffen received word of Japanese submarines passing between San Cristobal and Guadalcanal; then unidentified aircraft appeared on the Task Force's radar, loitering to the northwest. Giffen's insistence on strict radio silence prevented the combat air patrol furnished by the Suwannee and Chenango from being vectored towards the snoopers. As dusk closed in and TF 18's CAP retired to their carriers, Giffen's fast-moving force was under observation both by enemy aircraft and submarines.

At 1930, TF 18 steamed west northwest some 50 miles north of Rennell Island. The six destroyers formed a wide half-circle, followed by two columns of cruisers. A suitable formation in anticipation of surface combat, its flanks and rear were very vulnerable to air attack.

Unfortunately, air attack was imminent. Sixteen "Bettys" - twin-engine, Japanese torpedo bombers - had circled well south of the task force, to avoid being silhouetted against the light western sky. At ten minutes of eight, the planes rushed in on TF 18's starboard quarter. No hits were scored, though destroyer Waller and cruiser Wichita were strafed, and Louisville only narrowly escaped a torpedo. TF 18 forged ahead, leaving a burning Betty in its wake.

To the interest of those topside in TF 18, prowling Japanese planes now began dropping flares: white flares which clearly delineated the Task Force's course, red and green flares apparently indicating direction and speed. Ten minutes after the first attack, a second group of Bettys attacked, again from the Task Force's starboard quarter. Again no serious harm was done: one torpedo passed just forward Chicago's bow, a dud banged against Louisville, and efficient gunnery brought down several enemy planes. But Giffen's luck had run out.

At 2008, more Bettys raced in from the northeast. Task Force guns brought down two Bettys, one which exploded off Chicago's port bow, covering her forward decks in burning gasoline. Now illuminated, Chicago was a natural target for the remaining planes, and in short order took two torpedoes in her starboard side. Engines dead, Chicago drifted to a stop, settling by the stern and listing eleven degrees to starboard.

As the attack tailed off, Giffen ordered the Task Force to turn about. Chicago's efficient damage-control teams soon had her flooding controlled, but it was clear she could not make it to safety on her own. Working in near total darkness, Louisville and her men labored for several hours to take Chicago in tow, and in the early hours of January 30 were making 4 knots for Espiritu Santo.

Chicago, minutes before sinking
Late afternoon, January 30: Chicago, settling by the stern, is minutes away from sinking.

Word of Chicago's plight traveled quickly. From Noumea, Halsey ordered Giffen's slow escort carriers to close with Chicago and prepare to provide a dawn patrol. Navajo, an ocean-going tug, with a destroyer escort, set course for Chicago to relieve Louisville. Enterprise, 350 miles south of the crippled cruiser, promptly turned north, her Task Force leaving long phosphorescent wakes as it increased speed to 28 knots. Before dawn January 30, four SBDs peeled off the Big E's flight deck, and fanned out to find Chicago. At 0715, LT(jg) Robert Gibson found the cruiser flanked by Wichita and the light cruisers. After reporting her position, Gibson and wingman ENS Russell Hoogerwerf turned away to locate the escort carriers. In their place, six Wildcats from the Big E's VF-10 set up CAP over TF 18.

At 0830, Enterprise's own four-plane CAP sighted a single Zero twenty miles west of TF 16, and peeled off in pursuit. The Zero quickly escaped, and VF-10's Wildcats continued their watchful patrols over TF 16 and, over the horizon, Chicago.

Morning turned to afternoon without further incident. Now under tow by tug Navajo, Chicago crept slowly away from danger. By 1530, Halsey felt her prospects sufficiently improved, and ordered TF 18's intact cruisers to return to Efate. Fifteen minutes later, however, eleven Bettys were reported south of New Georgia, heading towards Rennell Island. Guadalcanal Radio confirmed the sighting:


At ten minutes past four, Enterprise CAP over Chicago, now up to 10 planes, sent four Wildcats after a twin-engine plane approaching from north of Rennell island. After a long chase around the eastern end of Rennell, the Wildcats forced the enemy plane into the sea, and turned back to resume station over Chicago. By this time, the eleven planes reported by Guadalcanal were on TF 16's radar, sixty-seven miles out, bearing down directly on the Big E.

Ten more fighters lifted off Enterprise's deck, as the carrier went to General Quarters and TF 16 raised speed to 27 knots. Tense minutes passed as the enemy approached and the Task Force prepared to repel an attack. At 1635, Enterprise directed six Wildcats commanded by LT MacGregor Kilpatrick to intercept. In five minutes, the fighters covered the 20 miles between themselves and incoming Bettys, and split into two groups: Kilpatrick and LT(jg) Robert Porter on the enemy's left (northern) flank, ENS Donald Gordon, LT(jg) Lynn Slagel, ENS Steven Kona, and LT Edward Feightner on the right. With a 4,000 foot altitude advantage, the fighters pounced on the Bettys below. The alert enemy commander, though, awoke to the threat and turned his planes sharply north, away from the Big E's precious deck, and directly towards crippled Chicago.

Now in front of the fast-moving Bettys, Kilpatrick and Porter turned and dove on the bombers, splashing two. Passing below the disciplined line of bombers, the two fighters scrambled to position above the enemy's right flank and struck again. Kilpatrick's guns downed a third plane, while Porter's target fell out of formation smoking.

As the Bettys entered Chicago's circle of escorts, additional Wildcats joined the fray: the four Kilpatrick and Porter had left behind, as well as four more led by CDR Jimmy Flatley. Despite the vigorous anti-aircraft fire from ships below, the airmen pressed home their attacks. Flying at masthead level, the Wildcats' .50-calibers brought down one bomber, then three more, and as the enemy fled Task Force 18's defensive circle, two or three more. By most accounts, a single Betty survived the attack.

But the well-trained enemy crews had completed their mission. Despite a desperate, last minute attempt by Navajo to turn Chicago's bow to the attackers, four torpedoes slammed against the cruiser's already-battered starboard side and detonated. A fifth torpedo struck destroyer La Vallette DD-448, killing 21.

In moments it was clear Chicago's fate was sealed, and she was ordered abandoned. In her remaining 20 minutes of service, her men calmly evacuated their wounded and then abandoned ship themselves: 1049 survivors were rescued. At approximately 1715, the cruiser rolled to starboard and slipped under the waves, stern first. Chicago was the last major American warship lost in the struggle for Guadalcanal.

The Consequences

Giffen's first lesson in naval air combat was an expensive one. Aside from the loss of Chicago, Giffen failed to rendezvous with Briscoe's Cactus Force. Nonetheless, the transport force they were to screen successfully landed at Lunga Point, delivering men and materials, and relieving the Marine 2nd Division.

The Japanese Operation KE, originally scheduled to begin evacuations on January 30, was delayed one night. But between February 1st and 8th, despite spirited American harassment - primarily from PT boats and Guadalcanal-based planes - Japanese destroyers and escorts evacuated 11,706 soldiers from Guadalcanal: most malnourished, many weakened by dysentery and malaria. On February 9, 1943, General Alexander Patch, commanding officer on Guadalcanal, was able to radio Halsey: "ORGANIZED RESISTANCE ON GUADALCANAL HAS CEASED".

The close of the Guadalcanal campaign marked the turning point of the Pacific War. From that point forward, there was no question that the initiative rested with the Allies. After six months of bitter fighting, Japan's last offensive operation in the Pacific had ended, finally, in defeat. The cost of the campaign was staggering. For 2500 square miles of jungle, tall grass and sluggish rivers, the Allies had paid the cost of two fleet carriers, eight cruisers, 14 destroyers, numerous smaller vessels and planes, and over 6,000 lives: nearly 1600 Marines and soldiers, the rest - there is still no exact figure - Navy officers and men. In their efforts to hold the island, Japan lost two battleships, a small carrier, four cruisers, 11 destroyers, and more than 23,000 men. The Allies, and particularly the Americans, could replace their losses, as horrifying as they were.

Japan, simply, could not.

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships
Costello, John. The Pacific War.
Jacobsen, Philip H. The Battle of Rennell Island
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Struggle for Guadalcanal
St. John, Philip A. USS Enterprise (CV-6).
Stafford, Edward P. The Big E

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