The Battle of Rennell Island took place at the end of January 1943, and was a curious footnote to the Guadalcanal Campaign which – although the US did not quite grasp it at the time – had been won.
Unable to get supplies to its troops on the island, the Japanese in late December resolved to carry out a mass evacuation.
The US Navy thought the preparations it detected were in fact another offensive to recapture the island by the Japanese.
At the same time, the US wanted to replace and withdraw exhausted Marines from the island.
That is how Task Force 18, with the heavy cruisers Wichita, Chicago, and Louisville, two escort carriers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers, came to be escorting a convoy of four transports.
It was under the command of Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen, new to the Pacific, a sailor of the old battleship navy, and not at all in tune with air operations.
As his force entered the danger zone, Giffen decided to detach his slow escort aircraft carriers, and press on with faster ships to Guadalcanal.
But unfamiliar with air attacks, he sailed in a formation better suited to countering submarines.
The Japanese knew that TF18 was coming, and as dusk began to fall, radars on the US warships began to pick up many planes approaching.
Admiral Giffen thought himself safe though with night approaching. He was wrong, as the Japanese were ready to carry out their first night aircraft attack.
Thirty-one “Betty” and “Nell” bombers carrying torpedoes struck – and after twenty minutes, two torpedoes slammed into the cruiser USS Chicago.
The next day, the Japanese returned – putting four more torpedoes into Chicago as she limped away, with the rest of the US force unable to prevent the loss.
The Japanese made much of the battle, although in truth it changed nothing about the strategic tide that had moved against them.
Admirals Halsey and Nimitz pilloried Giffen’s performance, and the loss of the cruiser greatly embarrassed them.
Chester Nimitz swore that if anyone leaked the news of the Chicago’s sinking, he would have them shot.
Amid that, the Japanese were pulling off a spectacular evacuation.. But wars are not won by retreats.