It was arguably worse than any 37 minutes of any other U.S. Navy defeat, including Pearl Harbor. At the Battle of Savo Island, Japan sank three American ships and killed over 1,000 U.S. sailors in addition to dooming an Australian ship and killing 84 Australian sailors while suffering 129 killed of their own.


The Australian HMAS Canberra burns off Guadalcanal after the Battle of Savo Island.

(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

While more people, 2,403, were killed in the Pearl Harbor attack, those losses were inflicted over about 2 hours and 27 minutes. And three ships were permanently lost at Pearl Harbor while four would be lost as a result of Savo Island. It would later earn the battle and the area the nickname "Ironbottom Sound."

On Aug. 7, 1942, the U.S. fleet was guarding landing forces at Guadalcanal. Australian Coastwatchers spotted Japanese planes bearing down on the landing forces, and the Navy redeployed its screening ships and carrier aircraft to meet the Japanese threat. The landings were saved, and U.S. Adm. William Halsey later said, "The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific."

But the threat to the fleet wasn't over. Japan needed the airbase it was building on Guadalcanal, and every new pair of American boots that landed on the island was a direct threat to the empire. So Japan slipped new ships through the St. George Channel and approached Savo Island where the U.S. was blocking access to the Guadalcanal landings.

Japanese Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa

(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

The next day, August 8, Japanese ships hid near Bougainville Island and launched reconnaissance planes which quickly spotted the American fleet at the Solomons. The American fleet was split into three locations, and the Japanese commander, Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa, was hopeful that he could destroy one group before the other two could assist it. He targeted the ships at Savo Island.

His fleet slipped out in the wee hours of August 9 and launched their attack.

Now, it should be said that the American fleet had received some warning that Japanese ships were still in the area. A submarine and reconnaissance planes caught sight of the Japanese fleet, but their warnings came late and were misunderstood in the larger intelligence picture. Worse, when the commander of the screening force took his ship to report to his boss, he didn't leave anyone officially in charge in his stead.

The fleet was ill-positioned to respond to an attack, and it was bearing down on them.

The USS Quincy is illuminated by Japanese searchlights during the Battle of Savo Island on August 9, 1942.

(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

The Japanese attack began at 1:42 a.m. The lookouts in the Japanese masts had already found and fixed a number of ships and fed the data to their fire control stations. Just as the first Japanese flares were about to burst into light, the American destroyer Patterson spotted them and sounded the alarm, "Warning! Warning! Strange ships entering harbor." The Patterson pursued the Japanese column, getting some hits but failing to launch its torpedoes.

But the Japanese guns were already trained on their targets, and the fleet had made it past the outer pickets, allowing it to attack from vectors and spots America hadn't anticipated. Japanese ships pumped rounds into American vessels from just a few thousand yards. They dropped torpedoes in the water, hitting American and Australian ships before the ships' crews could even make it to their guns.

The captain of the Australian HMS Canberra was killed in this first salvo, and his ship was rendered dead in the water.

The USS Chicago was hit with a torpedo, losing nearly its entire bow while the gunners continued to send disciplined fire at two targets in the dark, one of which might have been a Japanese ship.

The Japanese ships began to pull away from this fight at 1:44, just two minutes after they had opened fire. They had suffered no serious hits or damage and had crippled two cruisers and damaged a destroyer. The fight so far had been hidden from the rest of the American fleet, and Japan turned itself toward the Northern Force.

The turn was ill-managed, and the rest of the fleet now knew a fight was happening, if not the details. So Japan could not count on the same success it had managed in the opening five minutes. But the Northern Force still didn't know the details of the fight, and had no idea that the Japanese were now in two columns about to attack.

The USS Vincennes charged bravely into the Battle of Savo Island, but it was quickly targeted by Japanese forces and pummeled by two columns of assailants.

(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

The disorganized Japanese turn still left them well-positioned to launch their torpedoes and fire their guns.

The USS Vincennes, a heavy cruiser, sailed into the fray looking for a fight, finding it about 1:50. Remember, this is still only eight minutes after Japan fired its first rounds and torpedoes. And it did not go well for the Vincennes. It was still hard to tell which ships were friendly and which were foe. A gun team asked permission to fire on a Japanese searchlight, but the brass thought it might be an American ship.

Japanese cruisers slammed the Vincennes' port side with shells, breaking through the hull, setting an aircraft on fire, and creating fires belowdecks that interrupted firefighting equipment and threatened to set off the ship's supply of depth charges, bombs, and other ordnance. More shells hit the bridge and main ship, and then torpedoes ripped through the port side followed just minutes later by a hit to starboard.

By 2:03, the ship was in flames and going down. The crew fled to the sea.

Around the same time Vincennes was bravely entering the fray, the cruiser USS Astoria spotted a Japanese ship and ordered its men to general quarters. But the first Japanese shells were already flying toward it, exploding as the men were still rushing to stations.

The Astoria commander made it to the bridge and was worried that his men were in an accidental fight with friendly forces. He ordered his ship to cease firing for vital minutes. It didn't resume firing until 1:54.

The Japanese heavy cruiser Chokai kept sending rounds at the Astoria until the fifth salvo hit home, piercing the Astoria's superstructure, midships, and then the bridge itself. The Astoria would hit the Chokai once before it was too damaged to keep fighting.

Meanwhile, the heavy cruiser USS Quincy was also under fire and would get the worst of it. Its commander also worried that it was suffering friendly fire, and the commander ordered his guns silent, and the ship lit up to identify itself. Japanese shells tore through an aircraft hanger and set a plane on fire. It was too hot for the crew to push overboard, and Japanese ships leaped on the chance to fire on a lit up target.

The Japanese heavy cruiser Kako in 1926. It was the only Japanese ship lost as a result of the raid on Savo Island, sank on August 10 as the Japanese fleet left the engagement area.

(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Shells landed just short of the Quincy, then just long, and then began raining down on it. Japanese torpedoes set off the forward magazine. The ship's captain, Capt. Samuel Moore, ordered the surviving gunners to "Give 'em Hell," just moments before the bridge was hit by an exploding shell. As he lay dying, Moore ordered the ship beached, but another officer realized it was already lost and ordered it abandoned.

As the Quincy, Vincennes, and Astoria began sinking, the Japanese fleet called off the attack, beginning its withdrawal at 2:15. It had suffered no serious damage, could see that at least three U.S. ships were sinking, had rendered the Australian ship Canberra dead in the water (it would be scuttled the next morning), and had ensured the deaths of just over 1,000 American and Australian sailors.

The battle had raged from approximately 1:40 as Japan positioned itself to 2:15 as Japan withdraw. Depending on exactly which incidents mark the start and end, it lasted somewhere between 30 and 50 minutes.

America did achieve on a parting shot, though. While the Japanese fleet was able to avoid the air screen sent to find it August 9-10, the U.S. submarine S-38 spotted them on August 10, and managed to bring down the Japanese Kako with a torpedo.