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Saber and Scroll

Abstract

One month after the Battle of Savo Island, the worst defeat in United States Navy history, Rear Admiral Norman Scott defeated a surprised Imperial Navy cruiser-destroyer force off Cape Esperance with the loss of only a single destroyer. There seemed no doubt that this reversal after the August defeat was an unqualified victory for the Navy, but this writer asserts it was not. South Pacific Commanders thought so, however, and dogmatically adopted Scott’s tactics in order to snatch more quick victories on the contentious waters around Guadalcanal. In the long run, however, the legacy of Scott’s “victory” did more harm than good. The month after Cape Esperance, the fortunes of war reversed, and on 12-13 November, the Navy suffered intolerably once again. This night, four destroyers and a light cruiser joined the graveyard of ships below Savo Sound, and 739 lives, including two admirals, would be lost in pursuit of a second Cape Esperance. Unquestioning repetition of Scott’s tactics persisted throughout the Guadalcanal Campaign, into the New Georgia Campaign, and until the third quarter of 1943. As such, the misunderstood lessons of Cape Esperance were a contributing cause to the loss of more than a dozen ships and the deaths of many thousands of sailors, including Scott’s own, in November 1942.

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