By November of 1942, the Japanese supply situation on Guadalcanal was desperate. The Japanese Army pleaded with the IJN to increase efforts to supply the Army forces on the island. Ongoing resupply by submarine was barely enough to keep the garrison from starvation.
In response, the IJN began an effort to resupply Guadalcanal with high speed overnight runs by destroyers. The destroyers would jettison barrels filled with food or medical stuffs, to be towed ashore by the garrison.
On 29 November, the US Navy decrypted a message that indicated the IJN would attempt a supply run on the night of 30 November. Eight Japanese destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Tanaka would make the run from the Shortlands Islands to Guadalcanal.
Vice Admiral Halsey ordered Task Force 67, under the command of Rear Admiral Carelton H. Wright, to intercept and destroy the convoy.
TF 67 consisted of four heavy (8” gun) cruisers, one light (6” gun) cruiser, and four destroyers.
Wright had a sound tactical plan. The destroyers would scout ahead of the cruisers, make contact with the Japanese convoy with their SG surface search radar, and then launch a stealthy torpedo attack, before retiring to allow the cruisers to destroy the convoy with gunfire. The task forces cruiser float planes were to operate from Tulagi, and support the operation by illuminating the Japanese with flares.
Indeed, on the night of the 30th, the van of destroyers did make radar contact. But permission to launch torpedo attacks was very slightly delayed. What should have been an ambush was instead a missed opportunity. By the time permission was granted, the US destroyers were out of position, and all 20 of the torpedoes they launched missed.
Concurrent with the US torpedo launch, Rear Admiral Wright ordered the cruisers to open fire. Unfortunately, virtually all the cruiser gunfire was focused solely upon the IJN Takanami, leaving the other seven Japanese destroyers unmolested.
Rear Admiral Tanaka was nobody’s fool, and had anticipated a possible night action. Immediately after the cruisers opened fire, Tanaka’s first four ships slipped quietly past the American cruisers, then turned and launched torpedoes. The trailing three destroyers reversed course, laid smoke, and launched their own salvoes of torpedoes.
The cruiser gunfire quickly wrecked IJN Takanami, leaving her sinking.
But the Japanese Type 93 Long Lance torpedoes were once again cutting through the dark waters off Guadalcanal, as they had to such effect on the night of 8 August 1942.
Torpedoes would strike and eventually sink USS Northampton. USS New Orleans, USS Pensacola, and USS Minneapolis would all take torpedoes with great damage and heavy loss of life. Of the US cruisers, only USS Honolulu would escape unharmed.
What should have been a decisive ambush by US forces was instead a stinging tactical (though not decisive) defeat.
The Imperial Japanese Navy had spent 20 years planning, training, and equipping their forces to fight an win night torpedo engagements.
The US, absolutely committed to the superiority of naval gunfire, had allowed night tactics to atrophy, and fallen behind in torpedo technology.
Furthermore, US Navy leaders were still not fully cognizant of the strengths, and more importantly, the weaknesses of the nascent technology of radar.
And finally, the US Navy stubbornly refused to believe, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that the Japanese were possessed of a torpedo capable of the performance they saw time and again in the Solomons campaign.
There would be many more night engagements against the tough, capable ships of the IJN in the waters of the Solomons before the war moved on. And it would be quite some time before the US Navy was able to demonstrate a mastery of night fighting on a level approaching that of the Japanese.
As a mitigating factor, in spite of the tactical victory of Rear Admiral Tanaka, the IJN was increasingly convinced that the cost of resupplying the Army garrison on Guadalcanal was too high, and eventually convinced the cabinet and the Emperor that the garrison should be withdrawn. In February 1943, the last Japanese forces quietly left the island, leaving the US in control.