© 1997 Anthony P. Tully


Death of Battleship HIEI: Sunk by Gunfire or Air Attack?

Among naval historians and enthusiasts there are few naval battles of World War II that provoke as much controversy and fascinating reconstructions as the savage night battle known as `Friday the 13th'and the `First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal ' to the Allies, and the "Third Battle of The Solomon Sea" to the Japanese. This action, which took place after the midnight hour of 12/13 November 1942, was itself part of an unfolding battle that lasted four days. However, it is the night action of the 13th and what happened to the survivors in the day that followed, that appears to provoke the most interest. The reasons are not hard to discover.

The Japanese battleship HIEI, and the American cruisers ATLANTA and JUNEAU (of the five ill-fated "Sullivan's brothers" renown) are among the famous ships that went down that night. In the years since, each sinking has raised its own set of questions and debates. Those surrounding HIEI concern her condition after the gunfire phase had ended; Namely, was HIEI already a doomed total loss, perhaps foundering already, when hit by air attack off Savo Island the following day? As recently as summer of 1992 a major undersea expedition led by the renowned Dr. Robert Ballard explored many of the celebrated wrecks. However, the mighty HIEI appears to have eluded discovery. In burial site - as in dying - the HIEI wears a tantalizing cloak of ambiguity. This article endeavors to lift that cloak at least in part by presenting and analyzing what the Japanese records reveal when cross-referenced with Allied sources.

It is outside the scope of this inquiry to describe the night battle in detail, a task left to a collaborative study to be posted by this writer and Mr. Allyn Nevitt at a future date. The basic facts are well known. On the late afternoon of 12 November 1942 a powerful Japanese battle force from Truk was closing Guadalcanal to bombard the important Henderson air field. This airfield, begun by the Japanese, and finished by the Americans upon landing at Guadalcanal in August, was judged to be key to the continued survival of the beachhead.

The bombardment was but one component of a massive Japanese effort which planned to reinforceGuadalcanal with troops of the 38th Division from eleven transports scheduled to make landfall before midnight14 November. Before this, a preparatory bombardment of American positions around the airfieldwas to take place in the early hours of the 13th. Still another Japanese force, composedof the carrier JUNYO and its escorts, would provide air cover from a holding position north of Malaita Island. Henderson Field and its plucky fliers known as the "Cactus Air Force" had already survived earlier bombings and bombardments, particularly that by KONGO and HARUNA prior, but none as determined in scale as this one. This time the Japanese had with them two battleships, the HIEI and KIRISHIMA, light cruiser NAGARA flying the flag of ComdesRon 10 Rear Admiral Kimura Susumu, and no less than sixteen destroyers. Vice Admiral Abe Hiroaki, Commander Battleship Division 11, was in overall command of the task force, designated the "Vanguard Force of the Advance Force", and carried his flag aboard HIEI. The HIEI and KIRISHIMA were both battleships of the KONGO class, and though less heavily armored than the NAGATOs or YAMATOs, were wellsuited for such assignments with their high speed and 14-inch guns. HIEI in particular was something of a special ship, unique from her sisters.This was because pre-war she had been the chosen favorite for Emperor Hirohito (Showa) to view naval reviews of Combined Fleet. Another reasonwas that HIEI carried a more modern superstructure than her sisters, having been selected to test out the new tower-mast design that would bea distinctive feature of the great YAMATO-class battleships. All this served to give HIEI a certain stature that sweltering day as she steamed throughsqualls toward Guadacanal.

As it happened, the Americans were also reinforcing the beachhead at this time with two small convoys, seeking to land 6,000 army personnel and theirequipment. The reason was that fleet intelligence had decoded the plans for the massive Japanese reinforcement. But the warning had not come soon enough. Though the ENTERPRISE and the battleships WASHINGTON and SOUTH DAKOTA had put to sea on 11 November, by the 12th they were still 700 miles southeast of Guadalcanal. Thus the only available American forces were the cruisers and destroyers that had escorted the two convoys. These had now all rendezvoused and combined to become oneforce, designated Task Force 67.4 under Rear Admiral D.J. Callaghan. His force of two heavy cruisers(SAN FRANCISCO and PORTLAND), three light cruisers (ATLANTA, JUNEAU, HELENA), and eight destroyers were thus all that were present to oppose VAdm Abe's force. RAdm Callaghan flew his flag on heavy cruiser SAN FRANCISCO.

The Japanese Advance group had steamed south in the hot muggy evening of 12 November in the midst of a major squall which cloaked andfollowed Abe's fleet nearly all the way to Savo. Though the Japanese were grateful for the cover, there was concern that the weather might not lift in time for the bombardment. As it was, the squall caused the Advance Force to become disorganized and its formation disrupted. Many of Abe's destroyers were no longer in their proper positions when at 0125, after having reversed course for a time to clearthe squall, Abe ordered incendiary bombardment shells loaded and came to course 140 to begin the final run-in to Guadacanal. Bombardment was now set to commence at 0145, and in the minutes that followed Batdiv 11 continuedto monitor reports of the weather from Japanese observers on shore, trying to decide if the bombardment should proceed. The night wasa pitch black tropical dark, moonless, and sweltering. Suddenly at 0142 came an alarming message from YUDACHI: "Enemy Sighted!".

This dismayed Abe, for no position had been given, and if YUDACHI was where she was supposed to be (she was not and had pulled ahead) it meant the enemy was only 10,000 meters away. Seconds later, HIEI's ownlookout sang out confirmation---enemy ships, 5 degrees to starboard, distance 8,000 meters. Frantically the Type-3incendiary shells were ordered switched to armor-piercing. A veritable "stampede" in the magazines resulted, for all knew that a hit oneither battleship before the highly explosive bombardment shells were safely stowed could turn them into infernos. But by some providencethe Japanese did not understand, Fortune gave them eight long minutes reprieve.

Admiral Callaghan knew the Japanese were coming, and at 0125 HELENA had picked up a strong radar contact 18 miles distant and closing. Seven minutes laterCallaghan ordered course set north, seeking to cross Abe's path and thus "cap the T" - the famed and coveted maneuver which allows one to deployfull broadsides against an opponent able only to use their forward guns. This should have given the Americans the initiative, but Callaghan's advantage was lost when a welter of contradictory reports confused him andYUDACHI and HARUSAME suddenly plunged out of the dark right across the head of the American line, throwing it into disarray. Ships turned sharply to avoidcollision, while at the same time wheeling guns around to open fire. But this state of affairs alarmed Callaghan who refused to give the order toopen fire despite requests, for fear of hitting his own ships. Thus, the very moment YUDACHI sent warning to Abe she was in the processof putting the American line into total chaos.

This gave Abe the vital time he needed to largely finish the switch of his main battery ammunition (though some incendiary shells were reported by the U.S. Navy), and assess the situation. Though confusion persisted about the precise location of the YUDACHI, the Japanese, unlike the Americans, could be sure the targets in front ofthem were enemy. Six minutes after sighting, Abe gave the order to illuminate with searchlights and to open fire. The action began at 0148 (Local time---Tokyo time was two hours earlier) when HIEI in concert with destroyer AKATSUKI andothers snapped on searchlights to illuminate Callaghan's approaching force.

HIEI unleashed a truly devastating opening salvo, apparentlyhitting ATLANTA at the outset. Caught in the illumination, the ATLANTA and the SAN FRANCISCO behind were all but sitting ducks, spotlighted for all the Japanese fleet to see. But they were far from impotent, and were almost at once returning fire with equal gusto. Thus beganwhat historian Paul Dull and others have referred to as "the most confused, close-ranged, and horrendous surface engagement of the war." It was alsosurreally brief. In reading of the detailed hard-fought action in multi-paged accounts, it is both startling and easy to overlook noting the fact that the time spanned from when HIEI and AKATSUKI snapped on their searchlights to the end of the action was barely a half hour.

Both ships paid a dire price for the use of their searchlights. HIEI and AKATSUKI were immediately targeted by most of the Americanline and hit by a deluge of shells. The result left AKATSUKI listing to port and sinking by the stern; the much stouter HIEI fared better, but scoresof her crew were killed outright as shells drilled into her throughout her length. At the same time, the ATLANTA was smashed to ruin, with Rear Admiral Norman Scott dead on the bridge, but the rest of the American line hit HIEI at will.

On HIEI almost all internal communications were severed, and fires broke outforward and amidships. HIEI and KIRISHIMA commenced a hard turn to port to prevent Callaghan from "crossing the T" but before this could be accomplished each American destroyer dashed by HIEI at truly point-blank range, pouring a hailstorm of gunfire into the towering superstructureof the Japanese battlewagon looming over them. Shrapnel shattered the bridge windows, and cut down many of the officers gathered there, includingCaptain Suzuki Masakane, Abe's Chief of Staff. In addition HIEI's skipper, Captain Nishida Masao, Vice-Admiral Abe himself, and staff officer ChihayaMastaka were also wounded, adding to the sense of confusion.

Despite all this, the HIEI certainly gave as good as she got. Finding SAN FRANCISCO only 2,500 yards away she turned left and the two flagships passed each other on opposite courses, main guns thundering. As she swung to port her guns bracketed SAN FRANCISCO at point-blank range, largely perforating the superstructure. Rear Admiral Callaghan and three of his staff were killed and Captain Cassin Young mortally wounded when the bridge was shattered by both Japanese and Americanshells, and the SAN FRANCISCO staggered out of formation and out of the fight. Before she did so, she or a comrade struck a most fatefuland crucial blow. At approximately 0154 two large shells, probably from the SAN FRANCISCO, struck HIEI on the starboard quarter and punched a 2-meter hole in the shell. As a result, water began to enter the steering gear room under the pressure of her battle speed. The water shorted outthe generators, and HIEI suddenly lost power steering.

The giant was now careering widely over the sea, but Captain Nishida quickly switched to manual steering. The brave steering gear crew stayed at their posts in the steadily rising water, holding the rudder centered while HIEI used her engines to keep course. This task was made even more difficult by the cutting of all communication other than onecritical line from the bridge to the engine room. With fires lighting her pagoda like lamps and flames rising higher than the stacks, HIEI completed her nearly 180 degree turn and began to head northward at reduced speed,leaving the battlefield astern where Japanese and American ships still dueled with one another.

At 0200 as a result of the damage to his flagship and possibly distracted by his wound and the sheer ferocity of the American gunfire, Admiral Abe quickly lost heart and canceled the bombardment. Convinced hewas facing a superior force he ordered a general withdrawal to the north of Savo. The HIEI continued to steer with her engines making about 10 knots while damage reports were assessed. While itis arguable that sister battleship KIRISHIMA should have stayed close by to lend assistance and cover, she did no such thing. Instead, despitehaving received only one 8 inch shell on the quarter-deck, KIRISHIMA was ordered north by Abe out of the battle zone at high speed. She proceeded north, passing east of Savo, while HIEI crawled around to the west of Savo. HIEI wouldhave to cope with her damage as best she could with the assistance of light cruiser NAGARA which remained close-by.

The damage was severe, but manageable. Fires burned in several levels of the bridge pagoda, and the main guns were out of action due to a disruption in theelectrical circuits. Further, the secondary battery was also crippled by the destruction of its control tower; on the other hand, despite approximately50 large and 85 smaller caliber shell hits, there was apparently little underwater damage and not much water apart from the steering room entering the hull. (However, sincethe ranges the battle was fought at were so close, it is likely that HIEI's armor was penetrated in several cases, and there is possibility that flooded boiler roomsmentioned later were products of earlier damage). Thus theHIEI could be saved if she could get far enough away by dawn which would bring certain air attacks from Henderson Field and the ENTERPRISE.

For four hours the HIEI continued to bulldoze painfully north, but at 0600 as sunrise lighted the battlefield the steady flooding forced the stubborn men to abandon the manual-steering compartment. The abandonment allowed the battleship's rudder to swing hard over to the right, jamming HIEI in a wide starboardturn so that "she circled almost in the same spot". This was a ominous turn for the worse, and HIEI's plight was now very serious. As a result, Admiral Kimura ordered the destroyer TERUZUKI and Desdiv 27 to join HIEI, and the YUKIKAZE was already en-route. Almost as if seeking relief from his frustration, at 0607 Captain Nishida ordered HIEI's aft turretsto train out and open fire on a drifting enemy derelict visible 13 miles to the south. This was the crippled AARON WARD, and again and again HIEI sent 2-gun salvoes whistling down the gap withgusto. The third salvo was a straddle, but just as the AARON WARD appeared doomed, Marine Corps aircraft appeared and commenced the first of a day-long series of air attacks. HIEI got off only one more salvo at AARON WARD before she had to turn her attention to the threat from the air. Her last opportunity to strike a blow at theenemy had passed, and a grateful AARON WARD was soon towed away to Tulagi.

The attacking planes were five VMSB-142 SBDs and four VMSB-131 TBFs from Henderson Field. They claimed one bomb and one torpedo hit, but no torpedo hitseems to have scored. As these aircraft flew away, at 0620 the YUKIKAZE arrived. YUKIKAZE was flagship of Shoji Kiichio, Comdesdiv 16, and Admiral Kimura turned over the protection of HIEI to Captain Shoji, and took NAGARA north to rejoin KIRISHIMA. At 0800 more reinforcements showed up as TERUZUKI, SHIGURE, SHIRATSUYU, and YUGURE arrived. With their arrival Abe now resolved to transfer his flag sinceHIEI was reduced to only hand semaphore to signal and incapable as serving as a flagship of any kind. At 0815 RAdm Abe forsook the HIEI (Staff Officer Chihaya Masataka gives a gripping account of how fires made escape fromthe damaged pagoda difficult) and ran his flag up on the destroyer YUKIKAZE. However, just at that timea flight of three B-17s arrived overhead making a bomb run from 14,000 feet.

Captain Nishida had stopped to allow pumping of the steering room, but now had to get HIEI back underway, quickly building up speed to 15 knots as he sought to evade the bombs coming down. Trailing a large slick to starboard,the HIEI commenced a wide sweeping turn to the right, and managed to avoid all but one direct 500 hit by a 500-pound bomb. The damage was minimal, but had caused the re-flooding of the steering room by forcing HIEI to get underway. The battleship's need for a tow was growing more likely, and at 0930the KIRISHIMA reversed course under orders to proceed back to the rescue of the HIEI. However, in the northern part of Indispensable Strait she wassupposedly attacked by submarine which hit her with two dud torpedoes. Though no damage was done, it was enough to abort the rescue, and KIRISHIMA once moreresumed her flight.

Meanwhile the HIEI had successfully weathered another series of attacks by seven SBDs, but though they did no damage, a second effort by theVMSB-131's TBFs at 1010 followed five minutes later by nine TBFs from the ENTERPRISE attacked and claimed one torpedo hit on the bow. If so, the damage was slight, but these first air attacks had been quite enough to shatter any confidence Abe had of saving the HIEI. At Midway he had seenthe power of airpower devastate Kido Butai, and known for caution, was inclined to vacate the area at once. At 1020 he ordered the battleship's skipper to beach her on Guadalcanal. However, Captain Nishida Masao's nerve and perseverance proved to be muchgreater. He flatly refused to obey the order, protesting that the HIEI was not mortally damaged, certainly not sinking, and could still be saved. Abe yielded.

But the Americans were not about to permit such salvage efforts go unhindered. At 1110 fourteen more B-17s dropped bombs, claiming one hit, followedin the hour after by six SBDs which claimed three bomb hits. At 1210 came six more TBFs, from the ENTERPRISE and Henderson Field which claimed one `certain' andone likely torpedo hit. Their attack runs were conducted in the face of the awesome blast of HIEI's main guns, as the battleship tried to swat them out of the sky with her14-inchers. Whatever the damage, it was not enough to dissuade the gallant Captain Nishida to abandon, despite another order by Abe at 1235 instructing that the crew should be removed duringthe next lull in air attacks. An hour later, Nishida's efforts received a much needed boost when six or more Zeroes from carrier JUNYOarrived at last overhead and increasing cloud cover frustrated further attacks. By this time, according to the Diary of Admiral Ugaki, HIEI had suffered serious damage to the upper deckand three of her eight boilers were unusable, whether due to air attack damage or gunfire is not clear.

Nevertheless, as the afternoon wore on, hopes steadily rose. HIEI was not settling any further, her engines remained useable, and sunsetwould bring the cloak of darkness, perhaps even tow, and escape. If the use of the rudder could be restored, she could proceed on her own power. Sureenough, divers sent down to pump out the steering room reported that their efforts were succeeding, and within an hour were about 70% complete. By 1430, even Abe was hopeful. He logged that "manual steering had been made possible, thethe fire at the foremast had been placed under control, and the pumping out of the steering room was succeeding". It lookedas if Captain Nishida's faith was to be rewarded.

These hopes were dashed by "12 carrier torpedo planes" which suddenly just then appeared and swept in to the attack. Actually they were sixtorpedo planes, all from ENTERPRISE, but they may as well have been twelve. They claimed two hits scored, and this time claims were not exaggerated. The Japanese records statethat at 1435 two torpedoes hit the HIEI's starboard side amidships and at the stern. The former flooded the starboard engine room, but it was the hit at the stern that was the real heartbreaker for the Japanese. From the proximity of the hit, and the fact that HIEIhad to get back underway to avoid attack, water now re-entered the steering room with numbing force. All the hard-won gainsof the past hours were nullified, and HIEI remained unnavigable.

By 1530 HIEI was visibly listing to starboard and down at the stern. Rear Admiral Abe had had enough. He penned a writtenorder to Captain Nishida to abandon, and sent it over in a cutter. Grim faced, close to tears, Captain Nishida crushed the paper inhis hand. He still procrastinated, but not long after he received an erroneous report that the final engines had flooded. True or not, itwas finally enough. Bowing reluctantly to the inevitable, Captain Nishida gave the order to abandon ship. The evacuation of the nearly 1,300 men proceeded in an orderly dignified fashion, with Nishida directing the process from a chair atop the No. 3 turret. As the abandonment continued and destroyers moved close alongside, the last of nine SBDs launched their attack, but Captain Nishida stoicallyremained at his perch as bullets spattered around and bombs detonated alongside. No damage or losses resulted however.

As 1800 and sunset both drew on, the laborious task of removing HIEI's huge crew was at last completed. Even Captain Nishida hadbeen forcibly removed and hauled reluctantly from his turret perch to safety at Abe's command. With the battleship's stubborn skipperat last out of the way, Abe was able to proceed with the unseemly business of sinking the wounded queen by his own hand. He orderedCaptain Setoyama Yasuhide of Desdiv 27 in the soon-to-be famous SHIGURE to do the job with torpedoes, but at 1838 appeared a final roadblock to his determination. A signal arrived from CombinedFleet, from Admiral Yamamoto no less, ordering that Abe "not do so". The HIEI was not to be sunk by Japanese hands, Yamamoto instructed, but left afloat to perform the final service of drawing American fire away from the approaching transports and the secondreformed bombardment group led by her sister, KIRISHIMA. There is some question as to whether the seacocks had already beenopened, or even torpedoes fired, but in any case, Abe suspended the scuttling forthwith. (His insistence on scuttling clearly irritatedYamamoto, for he immediately relieved him of all further command.)

With that, a doubtless vexed and frustrated Abe could do nothing but circle the HIEI wearily. At 1900 he ceased to do even thatand took his five destroyers out of sight to the west so as not to cause confusion among Admiral Mikawa's incoming cruisers. The HIEI, forlorn andabandoned, was left behind in the gathering darkness alone. When last seen, she was listing 15 degrees to starboard, and the quarter-deck was nearly awash. No one ever saw her again. When Abe in YUKIKAZE finally returned with the others at 0100 14 November,the stricken battleship was nowhere to be found. He searched for half-an hour more, but still nothing. Sometime in the six long hoursbetween 1900 and 0100 the HIEI had gone with 188 of her company to her final resting place at the floor of "Ironbottom Sound". She was the first Japanese battleshiplost in World War II and the first sunk by the U.S. Navy since 1898.

As it transpired, sister ship KIRISHIMA had earned only a day's lease on life. Returning on the night of the 14th to attempt the bombardment again to cover Tanaka's transports----just before midnight she was ambushed and reduced to a sinkingwreck in a furious gunfire duel with the battleships WASHINGTON and SOUTH DAKOTA. Like sister HIEI before her, KIRISHIMA rolled over and sank in the waters west of Savo Island.

This then is the last battle of the HIEI as seen from Japanese records. These indicate that the battleship WAS NOT a `total loss' oreven mortally wounded by the night action, though some shells clearly penetrated her armor and may have knocked out some boilers . Then, what of the larger question? Which, agent - surface gunfire or air attack - should take "credit" for the sinking? The answer is clear, if likely unsatisfying. The truth is that gunfire and air attack must share the credit for forcing theJapanese to make the final disposal; whether by seacocks or torpedoes as the case may be. The gunfire - especially the two shell hits that tore open and flooded the steering room - directly initiated the events that lead to HIEI's loss by robbing her of the maneuverability that would have allowed her to escape. However, the battleship's watertight integrity and powerwas not severely affected, and left unscathed, the HIEI could probably have joined up or received a tow from the incomingAdvance Force or others. The air attacks removed this possibility by negating Captain Nishida and his crew's heroic salvageefforts.

However, another question is invariably raised. Was HIEI mortally wounded after BOTH gunfire and air attacks were completed, and wasthe Japanese scuttling action redundant? This has the potential to cause debate similar to that engendered about the BISMARCK's scuttling.Nonetheless, given the subsequent behavior following underwater damage of sister battleship KIRISHIMA it appears quite likely that thescuttling WAS redundant. Indeed, there is some question of whether it took place before Yamamoto's countermand. In any case with as manyas three or more torpedo hits HIEI was already listing increasingly and progressive flooding spreading. KIRISHIMA ultimately would founder without scuttling, and in thishistorian's opinion the HIEI would have as well.

One final mystery defies solution. Where did HIEI sink? The Ballard underwater search failed to locate the battleship's wreck. Or did they? The capsized hull of the Kongo-class battleship found was in truth, never definitively identified. A magazine explosion had demolishedthe forepart, but no marked other damage was discerned. Except one. The extreme fantail of the wreck was severed and broken. Couldthis be a result of HIEI's stern torpedo damage? Is this in fact, the HIEI, and not the KIRISHIMA as usually assumed? At present it is impossible toanswer this question. KIRISHIMA's Action Report states that she capsized and sank in a position bearing 265 degrees, 11 miles from Savo Island's summit. Ugaki's diary entry the day prior gives the same reference point, but states the bearing as 285 degrees, 8 miles.(09-05'S, 159-42'E). Thus, the onlyclear indication is that the KIRISHIMA sank at a point something like due west 8-11 miles from the summit of Savo Island. For HIEI, S.E. Morison gives a position 5 miles NNW of Savo Island. The last precisely reported position of the HIEI was "drifting in an area bearing 347 degrees, distance 4.6 miles from Savo Island". Since this was at 1305 hours, is it possible that drift might havebrought her close to the 1992 wreck site? Perhaps, perhaps not. Unfortunately, this is a question only further search can answer. However, given that the August 1992 battleship wreck was reportedly only a mile from the supposed sinking site, and some reports mention an undersea detonation after she sank, odds are that it is indeed the KIRISHIMA.

Any correspondence from readers with knowledge about the questions raised or wishing to engage in commentary and discussion would be welcome.

E-Mail: tullyfleet - gmail.com

Related Partner Sites: Combined Fleet Message Board | J-Air Forum | 3-D IJN Warships | WW2 Database | IJN Doctrine