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The Sunken Japanese Battleship Hiei Discovered Near Savo

by Nov 30, 2019

Japanese battleship Hiei. US Naval History and Heritage Command photo.

It has been announced that the wreck of the Japanese Battleship Hiei has been located off the Solomon Islands by the crew of philanthropist Paul Allen’s research vessel (R/V) Petrel.

Reports say that the battleship was discovered approximately 3,000 feet below the surface, northwest of Savo Island.

The battleship was sunk during the Battle of Guadalcanal, in mid-November 1942, during ship-to-ship night combat with US Navy forces led by Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, Commander Task Force 67.4, the elder brother of Captain William M. Callaghan, Missouri’s first commanding officer.

The battleship Hiei was struck and damaged during an engagement with Callaghan’s flagship, the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA 38). The San Francisco was also severely damaged during the exchange, with Rear Admiral Callaghan among those killed.

Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan aboard the USS San Francisco in 1942

According to the San Francisco’s War Damage report (Number 26), they “fought the enemy from 0148 to 0222 at ranges varying between 1,000 and 8,000 yards with the majority of salvos being fired at somewhat less than 5,000 yards range.”

The details of the War Damage Report are extensive and insightful:

“At 0151 … an enemy battleship was sighted bearing about 30° relative and fire was immediately shifted to it using an initial range of 2,200 yards. This was probably the leading battleship of the center group. Two main battery salvos were fired. This target was also under fire at close range from another unit of the U.S. force. No fire was returned by the battleship. Orders were then received to cease firing. At 0200 SAN FRANCISCO resumed firing at an enemy battleship, probably the second battleship of the center group, on the starboard bow. At about the same time the SAN FRANCISCO was taken under fire by an enemy cruiser on her starboard side and a destroyer which had crossed her bow and was passing down her port side. At this time SAN FRANCISCO was making 17 knots. Shortly after 0200 SAN FRANCISCO was under enemy fire from three directions. The port 5" battery engaged the destroyer but was put out of action except for gun No. 8. The starboard 5" battery was put out of action by the first or second salvo which hit from the battleship on the starboard side. At the time of these latter hits SAN FRANCISCO was swinging left. The main battery continued firing on the battleship as long as it could bear.”

“All officers on the navigation bridge except the communication officer were either killed or badly wounded by these hits. Steering and engine control were lost and were shifted to battle II. Almost immediately battle II was put out of action by a direct hit from the port side and control was again lost. In the meantime, control had been established in the conning tower by the communication officer when it was found that this station was still operative. Shortly thereafter, a shell hit the top of the conning tower from the starboard side and steering and engine control were again temporarily lost. By this time all exterior communications (TBS, radio, search lights, blinker guns, and fighting lights) were out of commission and it was impossible to communicate with other ships of the force.”

“It is apparent that SAN FRANCISCO was in between two groups of Japanese ships, probably the center and left groups and that heavy fire was being received from both sides. She was also apparently under fire from the northern group as indicated by the angle of fall. By 0300 the action had dwindled to sporadic firing by both the Japanese and the U.S. force. The SAN FRANCISCO had lost all contact with the other vessels of the U.S. force. As the enemy's fire ceased, SAN FRANCISCO also ceased fire and withdrew to the east through Sealark Channel.”

“During the engagement outlined above, SAN FRANCISCO sustained approximately 45 separate hits, plus numerous small machine gun or fragment hits. The most extensive damage was apparently done by the secondary (6") battery of the second battleship in the center group. One 14" hit was made by this battleship and one was apparently made by the battleship in the northern group.”

“Personnel casualties were heavy. During the night action a total of approximately 189 casualties including killed, seriously wounded, and missing were suffered. These casualties included the Admiral and his staff who were killed early in the action and the Captain and Executive Officer who died shortly after. Men manning secondary battery and anti-aircraft stations suffered especially due to the fragmentation of shells. Previously, thirty-five trained control personnel had been lost because of the plane crash.”

The Damage Report is not specific to Admiral Callaghan’s death. He was on the bridge during the attack, which was struck repeatedly. The following descriptions of damage to the bridge caused by hits #16, #17 and #21 provide an indication of the life-threatening impact of those attacks.

“Hit No. 16: A 6" projectile exploded on impact with the after girder supporting the navigating bridge at frame 52 starboard tearing out a section of coaming. Fragments riddled the starboard bulkhead of the Admiral's emergency cabin between the signal and navigating bridges. The port flag bag, equipment, and fixtures in the vicinity of this hit were badly damaged by fragments, and a fire was started.”

“Hit No. 17: Another hit, also estimated to be a 6" projectile, struck just above Hit No. 16 at the level of the navigating bridge and tore out a 2 ft. x 3 ft. hole in the after windshield and a section of the navigating bridge plating. Fragments damaged all equipment in the vicinity of this hit including the starboard pelorus and Captain's target designator.”

“Hit No. 21: A projectile, estimated to be 5", hit at frame 54 starboard just above the upper deck. It pierced one corner of the ready service locker of 5" AA gun No. 3, continued through the exhaust blower trunk from the evaporators, through the after inboard corner of the Executive Officer's stateroom, bounced off the deck at about frame 52, through the washroom at frame 50, the forward inboard corner of the Chief of Staff's stateroom, and out through the port bulkhead of the Admiral's cabin at about frame 47. Apparently the projectile was broken in two or had a low-order detonation inside the Admiral's cabin for there were two large holes and some fragment holes where it passed out, but only one hole where it entered. Considerable damage to equipment and fixtures resulted along the path of this projectile.”

The Japanese battleship Hiei survived her initial battle damage and was reported to be NE of Savo Island by daybreak the following day. Subsequent air attacks by US Navy carrier aircraft and shore-based bombers throughout the day added to the ship’s damage and by nightfall the ship was reported afire with surviving crew transferring to nearby Japanese destroyers. By morning, the battleship had sunk.

Admiral Callaghan was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor “for extraordinary heroism and conspicuous intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on board the U.S.S. San Francisco, during action against enemy Japanese forces off Savo Island on the night of 12 - 13 November 1942.”

Two ships, USS Callaghan (DD 792) and USS Callaghan (DDG 994) were named in his honor. The DD 792, a Fletcher-class destroyer, was the last Allied warship sunk during World War II by a kamikaze aircraft, on July 28, 1945.

Two months prior, on May 25, 1945, Callaghan’s gunners shot down an attacking Japanese aircraft of the 405th Attack Squadron and then rescued two surviving aircrew members. The ship’s Doctor treated both airmen, but one died soon after. The other, Kaoru Hasegawa, was transferred to the battleship New Mexico as a prisoner of war.

Surviving the war, Hasegawa had the opportunity to be reunited with former crewmembers of the USS Callaghan fifty years later during a reunion in Washington, D.C.

USS Callaghan DD 972, USN photo