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That time a bad radio call won the WWII Battle of Cape Esperance

Anyone can tell you that in combat, good communications are important. But there was one time that a miscommunication helped the U.S. win a significant naval surface action off Guadalcanal.


That bit of lucky confusion happened on the night of Oct. 11, 1942. That was when Japan decided to carry out what was called a "Tokyo Express" run. These runs delivered troops, often dashing in under the cover of darkness. This was necessary because American planes at Henderson Field were very capable of taking down enemy ships in the daylight hours.

Gilbert C. Hoover (US Navy photo)

To take Henderson Field, Japan had to reinforce the troops on Guadalcanal — especially because the Americans had, in the middle of September run a substantial convoy to Guadalcanal at the cost of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV 7). During that month, at the battle of Edson's Ridge, the Marines had repelled an attack, inflicting substantial losses on the Japanese ground troops.

According to "The Struggle for Guadalcanal," Volume Five in Samuel Eliot Morison's "History of United States Naval Operations in World War II," on Oct. 9, 1942, an American convoy carrying the 164th Infantry Regiment, part of the Americal Division, departed for Guadalcanal. Three United States Navy task forces covered the transports.

One was centered around the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 8), which had launched the Doolittle raid almost six months prior. The second was around the battleship USS Washington (BB 56). The third was a group of cruisers and destroyers under the command of Rear Adm. Norman Scott, who had his flagship on the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA 38).

USS San Francisco (CA 38), flagship of Admiral Norman Scott during the Battle of Cape Esperance. (US Navy photo)

In addition to the San Francisco, the heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City (CA 25), the light cruisers USS Helena (CL 50) and USS Boise (CL 47), and the destroyers USS Laffey (DD 459), USS Farenholt (DD 491), USS Duncan (DD 485), USS McCalla (DD 488) and USS Buchanan (DD 484) were part of Task Force 64, which had the assignment of securing Ironbottom Sound until the transports finished unloading.

At 11:32 that night, the radar on the USS Helena detected a Japanese force of three heavy cruisers (the Aoba, Kinugasa, and Furutaka) and the destroyers Fubuki and Hatsuyuki. American radar tracked the Japanese force, which was covering a supply convoy. At 11:45 that night, Capt. Gilbert C. Hoover on board the Helena would send a fateful message to Admiral Scott, "Interrogatory Roger." He was requesting permission to fire. Scott's response, "Roger," was intended to acknowledge receipt of the request. But "Roger" was also used for granting permission to fire, according to Morison.

Rear Admiral Norman Scott (US Navy photo)

Hoover would assume the latter, and at 11:46, the USS Helena opened fire with her fifteen six-inch guns. According to NavWeaps.com, the Mk 16 six-inch guns could fire up to ten rounds a minute. In that first minute, as many as 150 rounds would be fired by that ship. Other American ships also opened fire, and the Aoba, the flagship of the Japanese force, took the brunt of the American fire. The Japanese commander, Rear Adm. Aritomo Goto, was mortally wounded early on.

Thrown into confusion, the Japanese force initially believed they had been fired on by their troop convoy. Eventually, they began to return fire, but the battle's result was never in doubt. The Aoba would be badly damaged, and the Furutaka and the Fubuki would be sunk by the end of the battle.

The Americans would lose the destroyer USS Duncan, while the Boise and Salt Lake City were damaged and returned to rear bases for repairs, along with the destroyer Farenholt.

USS Helena (CL 50). This ship's 15 six-inch guns each could fire ten rounds a minute. (US Navy photo)

Norman Scott had won a tactical victory, thanks to that communications foul-up, but the Japanese landed their reinforcements that night. On the night of October 13, the battleships Kongo and Haruna delivered a devastating bombardment against Henderson Field, but couldn't prevent American reinforcements from arriving.

Later that month, Japanese forces would fail to take Henderson Field, while a naval offensive would be turned back in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands at the cost of the Hornet.

The two men involved in that communications foul-up would see action about a month later off Guadalcanal when Japanese battleships tried to again bombard Henderson Field, only to be stopped by Daniel Callaghan.

Rear Adm. Norman Scott would be killed in action in that engagement. Hoover would survive, and be left in command of the surviving ships. As he lead them back, the anti-aircraft cruiser USS Juneau (CL 52) would be sunk by a Japanese submarine. Rather than try to rescue survivors, Hoover radioed the position of the survivors to a patrolling B-17, expecting a request to be relayed to the South Pacific.

It never was. Only ten men would survive from the Juneau. According to Morison, Hoover was relieved of his command. An obituary from an unknown newspaper dated June 10, 1980 available at usshelena.org noted that Hoover, a three-time Navy Cross recipient, retired from the Navy in 1947, and served in various capacities until his death.

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