Battle of Rennell Island (Japanese: レンネル島沖海戦) took
place on January 29, 1943 – January 30, 1943, and was the last
major naval engagement between the
United States Navy and the
Imperial Japanese Navy during
the lengthy Guadalcanal
campaign in the Solomon
Islands campaign during World War
II. The battle took place in the South Pacific between Rennell Island and Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands.
battle, Japanese naval
land-based torpedo bombers, seeking to provide protection for the
impending evacuation of Japanese forces from Guadalcanal, made several
attacks over two days on United States' warships operating as a
task force south of Guadalcanal.
In addition to approaching Guadalcanal with the objective of
engaging any Japanese ships that might come into range, the U.S.
task force was protecting an Allied
transport ship convoy that was
carrying replacement troops
As a result of the Japanese air attacks on the task force, one U.S.
was sunk, a destroyer
was heavily damaged, and the rest of the
U.S. task force was forced to retreat from the southern Solomons
area. Partly because of their success in turning back the U.S. task
force in this battle, the Japanese were successful in evacuating
their remaining troops from Guadalcanal by February 7, 1943,
leaving Guadalcanal in Allied hands and ending the battle for the
7, 1942, Allied forces (primarily U.S.) landed on Guadalcanal,
Tulagi, and Florida Islands in the Solomon Islands. The landings on the islands were meant to
deny their use by the Japanese as bases for threatening the supply routes between the U.S. and Australia, and to secure the islands as starting
points for a campaign with the
eventual goal of isolating the major Japanese base at Rabaul while also
supporting the Allied New Guinea
campaign. The landings initiated the six-month-long
major attempt by the Japanese to drive Allied forces from
Guadalcanal and Tulagi was defeated during the decisive Naval Battle
of Guadalcanal in early November 1942.
Japanese Navy was only able to deliver subsistence supplies and a
few replacement troops to Japanese Army
forces on Guadalcanal.
the threat from Allied aircraft based at Henderson
Field on Guadalcanal, plus nearby U.S. aircraft carriers, the Japanese delivered
these supplies at night, usually by destroyer or submarine,
in operations the Allies called the "Tokyo
However, these supplies and replacements were
not enough to sustain Japanese troops on the island, who by
December 7, 1942, were losing about 50 men each day from
malnutrition, disease, and Allied ground or air attacks. On
December 12, the Japanese Navy proposed that Guadalcanal be
abandoned. Despite initial opposition from Japanese Army
leaders, who still hoped that Guadalcanal could eventually be
retaken from the Allies, Japan's Imperial General Headquarters,
with approval from the Emperor, on
December 31, 1942, agreed to the evacuation of all Japanese forces
from the island and establishment of a new line of defense for the
Solomons on New
Japanese titled the evacuation effort of their forces from
(ケ号作戦) and planned to execute the operation
beginning January 14, 1943. An important element in the operation's
plan was an air superiority
set to begin on January 28, with the objective of inhibiting Allied
aircraft or warships from disrupting the final stage of the
operation, which was the actual evacuation of all
Japanese troops from Guadalcanal.
Allied forces misinterpreted the Ke
preparations as the
beginning of another Japanese offensive to try to retake
Guadalcanal. At this same time, Admiral William Halsey, Jr.
, overall commander
of Allied forces involved in the battle for Guadalcanal, was under
pressure from his superiors to complete the replacement of the
U.S. 2nd Marine Regiment
Guadalcanal, which had been involved in the fighting since the
initial landings in August, with fresh U.S. Army
troops. Halsey hoped to take
advantage of what he believed was an impending Japanese offensive
to draw Japanese naval forces into a battle, while at the same time
delivering the replacement army troops to Guadalcanal. On January
29, Halsey prepared and sent towards the southern Solomons area
five warship task forces
to cover the
relief convoy and to engage any Japanese naval forces that came
into range. These five task forces included two fleet carriers
, two escort carriers
, three battleships
, 12 cruisers, and 25
In front of this array of task forces was the troop convoy (Task
Group (TG) 62.8), consisting of four transports and four
destroyers. Ahead of the troop convoy, between Rennell Island and Guadalcanal, was a close support group called
Task Force 18 (TF 18), under Rear
Admiral Robert C.
Giffen, which consisted of heavy cruisers
USS Wichita, Chicago, and Louisville; light cruisers
Montpelier, Cleveland, and Columbia; escort carriers
Chenango and Suwannee; and eight
Admiral Giffen commanded TF 18 from
. A fleet carrier task force, centered on carrier
steamed about 400 kilometers (250 mi) behind TG 62.8 and
TF 18. The other fleet carrier and battleship task forces were
about 240 kilometers (150 mi) further back. Admiral Giffen, along
with cruiser Wichita and the two escort carriers, had just
arrived in the Pacific after participating in Operation
Torch in the North
African Campaign. Also, Chicago had just arrived back
in the South Pacific, after completing repairs from damage suffered
during the Battle of
Savo Island almost six-months before.
In addition to protecting the troop convoy, TF 18 was charged
with rendezvousing with a force of four U.S. destroyers, stationed
at Tulagi, at 21:00 on January 29 in order to conduct a sweep up
" north of Guadalcanal the next
day to screen the unloading of the troop transports at Guadalcanal.
However, the escort carriers, under Commodore Ben Wyatt, were too
slow (18 knots) to allow Giffen's force to make the scheduled
rendezvous, so Giffen left the carriers behind with two destroyers
at 14:00 and pushed on ahead at 24 knots (44 km/h). Wary
of the threat from Japanese submarines, which Allied intelligence
indicated were likely in the area, Giffen arranged his cruisers and
destroyers for anti-submarine defense, not expecting an air attack.
The cruisers were aligned in two columns, spaced apart.
, and Louisville
that order, to starboard
, and Columbia
. The six destroyers were spread along a
semicircle 3 kilometers (2 mi) ahead of the cruiser
Giffen's force was being tracked by Japanese submarines, who
reported on Giffen's location and movement to their naval
headquarter's units. Around mid-afternoon, based on the submarine's
reports, 16 Mitsubishi G4M
from the 705
(705AG) and 16 Mitsubishi
Type 96 bombers from the 701 Air
(701AG) took off from Rabaul carrying torpedoes to attack
Giffen's force. One Type 96 turned back with engine trouble,
leaving 31 bombers in the attack force. The leader of the
705AG aircraft was Lieutenant Tomō Nakamura and Lieutenant
Commander Joji Hagai commanded the 701AG planes.
Action on January 29
sunset, as TF 18 headed northwest 80 kilometers (50 mi) north
of Rennell Island and 160 kilometers (100 mi) south of Guadalcanal,
several of Giffen's ships detected unidentified aircraft on
100 kilometers (60 mi) west of their
formation. Having previously insisted on absolute radio silence,
Giffen gave no orders about what to do about the unidentified
contacts, or any orders at all, for that matter. With the setting
of the sun, TF 18's combat air patrol (CAP
) from the two escort carriers returned
to their ships for the night, leaving Giffen's ships without air
The radar contacts were, in fact, the approaching 31 Japanese
torpedo bombers, who circled around to the south of TF 18 so
that they could attack from the east, with the black backdrop of
the eastern sky behind them. From this direction, the Japanese
bombers were hidden by the night sky, but Giffen's ships were
silhouetted against the twilight of the western horizon. The 705AG
aircraft attacked first, beginning at 19:19. Nakamura's aircraft
missed with all of their torpedoes and one was shot down by
Believing the attack was over, Giffen ordered his ships to cease
zigzagging and to continue heading towards Guadalcanal on the same
course and at the same speed. Meanwhile, a Japanese reconnaissance
aircraft began dropping flares
and floatlights to mark the course and speed of TF 18 in order
to assist with the impending attack by Higai's bombers.
At 19:38, 701AG attacked, planting two torpedoes in
, causing heavy damage and bringing the cruiser to
a dead stop. One other torpedo hit Wichita
but did not
explode, and two of the bombers were shot down by anti-aircraft
fire, including the one piloted by Higai, who was killed. At 20:08,
Giffen ordered his ships to reverse direction, to slow to , and to
cease firing their anti-aircraft guns, which succeeded in
concealing his ships from the Japanese aircraft, who all departed
the area by 23:35. In pitch darkness, Louisville
to take the crippled Chicago
under tow and slowly headed
south, away from the battle area, escorted by the rest of TF
Action on January 30
immediately took steps to try to protect the damaged
, notifying the escort carriers to make sure they
had a CAP in place at first light, ordering the Enterprise
task force to approach and augment the escort carrier's CAP, and
sending the fleet tug Navajo
to take over the tow from
, which was accomplished at 08:00. Between
daybreak and 14:00, numerous Japanese scout aircraft approached
TF 18. Although they were all chased away by the CAP, they
were able to observe and report the position of Chicago
a force of 11 Type 1 torpedo bombers from the 751 Air Group (751AG), based at Kavieng and staging through Buka, launched to attack the damaged U.S.
The U.S. ships knew the bombers were coming,
because of a warning report from an Australian coastwatcher
in the Solomon Islands, with an
estimated arrival time of 16:00. However, Halsey ordered the rest of the
cruisers to leave Chicago behind and head for port at
Efate, in the New
Hebrides, which they did at 15:00, leaving behind six
destroyers to protect Chicago and
At 15:40, Enterprise
was 69 kilometers (43 mi) away from
, with ten of her fighter
forming a CAP over the damaged
cruiser. At this time, four of the CAP fighters chased and
shot-down a scout Type 1 bomber. At 15:54, radar on
detected the incoming flight of bombers, and
launched 10 more fighters to attack the Japanese formation. The
escort carriers, however, had difficulties in getting their
aircraft launched, preventing them from joining in the attack on
the bomber formation until the engagement was over.
first the Japanese bombers appeared to be trying to approach and
but turned towards Chicago
after six Enterprise
CAP fighters began to engage them.
Four other CAP fighters chased the 751AG aircraft as they entered
the anti-aircraft fire from Chicago
destroyers. Two of the bombers were shot down before they could
release their ordnance. Six more were shot down moments later, but
not before they dropped their torpedoes.
One torpedo hit the destroyer USS La Vallette
her forward engine room, killing 22 of her crew and causing heavy
was hit by four torpedoes, one forward of
the bridge and three others in her engineering spaces.
’s captain, Ralph O. Davis, ordered the ship to be
abandoned, and the cruiser sank, stern first, 20 minutes
and the escorting destroyers rescued 1,049
survivors from Chicago
’s crew, but 62 of her crew died. A
final attack force of Japanese torpedo bombers failed to find the
remaining U.S. ships. Navajo
took La Vallette
under tow, and all of the remaining ships of TF 18 were able
to make it to port at Espiritu Santo without further
The Japanese widely publicized the results of the engagement,
claiming to have sunk a "battleship" and "three cruisers." The
U.S., on the other hand, tried to conceal the loss of
from the public for some time, with Admiral
, commander in chief of
Allied Pacific forces, threatening to "shoot" any of his staff who
leaked the loss of Chicago
to the press. Halsey and Nimitz
blamed Giffen for the defeat and stated so in Giffen's official
performance report for the period. The defeat and resulting
recriminations do not appear to have affected Giffen's career too
adversely; he continued to lead Allied battleship and cruiser task
forces in the Pacific until 1944 and was later promoted to vice admiral
With Japanese air assets tied up in the battle with TF 18, the
Allied transports were able to complete their mission of replacing
the remaining Marine forces on Guadalcanal over the last two days
in January. During this time, the other Allied task
forces, including the two fleet carrier task forces, took station
in the Coral
Sea, in anticipation of an expected Japanese offensive
in the southern Solomons
In reality, however, the Japanese were completing the secret
evacuation of their remaining forces from Guadalcanal over three
nights between February 2 and February 7. With TF 18 forced to
retreat, very few Allied naval forces were left in the immediate
Guadalcanal area, allowing the Japanese to successfully retrieve
all of their ground forces, and the Allies did not realize the
evacuation was happening until it was over. Many of these evacuated
ground forces would play an important part in future battles
between the Japanese and the Allies in the critical Solomon Islands
- Hogue, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, p. 235–236.
- Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 526.
- Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 527.
- Dull, Imperial Japanese Navy, p. 261.
- Dull, Imperial Japanese Navy, p. 268.
- Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 541.
- Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 351.
- Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 577.
- McGee, The Solomons Campaigns, p. 216.
- Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 352.
- Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 577–578.
- Crenshaw, South Pacific Destroyer, p. 62.
- Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 352–353.
- Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 354.
- Tagaya, p. 66 says that it was a Japanese search airplane that
- Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 354–355; Tagaya,
- Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 355.
- Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 579; Tagaya, p. 66.
- Crenshaw, South Pacific Destroyer, p. 63; Tagaya, p.
- Tagaya, p. 66.
- Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 358–359.
- Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 579–580; Tagaya, pp.
- Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 360.
- Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 580–581; Tagaya, p. 67. Of the
remaining four Type 1s, three lost an engine but were able to make
it back to base. One of the bombers landed at Munda,
New Georgia and the other three reached Ballale Airfield in the
Shortland Islands (Tagaya).
- Crenshaw, South Pacific Destroyer, p. 64–65.
- Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 581.
- Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 363.
La Vallette was under repair in the U.S. until August
6, 1943. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, 
- Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 363.
- Wukovitz, Setback in the Solomons, p. 3.
- Naval Historical Center, 
- — Article originally printed in World War II