The day when great warships exchanged broadsides within sight of one another has long since passed. The development of radar and the aircraft carrier spelled the end of those comparatively close-range engagements.
The day when great warships exchanged broadsides within sight of one another has long since passed. The development of radar and the aircraft carrier spelled the end of those comparatively close-range engagements. But even after the lethality of carrier-based aircraft attacks was demonstrated at Pearl Harbor and Midway, the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal occasioned a close-quarter melee between surface vessels that only someone who was there could fully appreciate. Fortunately, a Mendon area veteran of the War in the Pacific participated in that battle and survives to share his memories of what naval historian Samuel Morison has described as “a barroom brawl after the lights went out.”
“I grew up on a farm just south of Marceline,” begins 87-year-old Lee Hunter. “I got tired of milking cows and needed more excitement, so I enlisted at the age of 16 with my parents’ permission. The Navy recruiter agreed to not call me to duty until I turned 17 in 1942, but he made a mistake on the month of my birthday—he mistook March for May—so I actually ended up going into the Navy when I was just 16.”
Assigned to the USS O’Bannon, a Fletcher-class destroyer, it was Lee’s job to “signal the engine room from the bridge.” His battle station provided a ringside seat for the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. However, since the 40-minute exchange between no less than 60 ships occurred at night, the only illumination came from the flashes of the vessel’s big guns and the few moments the Japanese searchlights were on at the outset. Radar was being employed on some of the newer ships, but because the technology was still in its infancy, it was of limited use.
“I started out on the Solomon Islands Campaign in late September of 1942 and was based out of New Caledonia,” Lee continues. “The O’Bannon was part of a task force of 13 ships known as the Cactus Strike Force.”
The enemy seamen of the more numerous and better armed ships of the Tokyo Express were to learn how painful a cactus can be when you get too close. The Cactus Strike Force was solely comprised of destroyers and cruisers. “We were out-manned and out-gunned,” Lee admits. “We were fighting in Iron Bottom Sound against a couple of Japanese battleships supported by numerous destroyers and cruisers.” The bay just off the shore of Guadalcanal was so named because it became the final resting place of many ships and aircraft during the year-long battle for possession of Guadalcanal and, particularly, Henderson Airfield. In fact, the original U.S. ships that had offloaded the Marines fighting on Guadalcanal had retreated from the area, temporarily abandoning the Marines, just a month before Seaman Hunter and the Cactus Strike Force arrived. Henderson Airfield had been secured by U.S. Marines and Army Infantry, and the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was precipitated by Japan’s determination to take it back. Although the Marines held Henderson Airfield, they were surrounded by a superior force of Japanese infantry.
“We fought a running battle with the Japs for 12 months,” explains Lee. “The first six months the Japanese were trying to get their men onto the island, and they spent the last six months trying to get them off.”