Kondo split his force into several groups, with one group—commanded by Shintaro Hashimoto and consisting of Sendai and destroyers Shikinami and Uranami ("C" on the maps)—sweeping along the east side of Savo Island, and destroyer Ayanami ("B" on the maps) sweeping counterclockwise around the southwest side of Savo Island to check for the presence of Allied ships. The Japanese ships spotted Lee's force around 23:00, though Kondo misidentified the battleships as cruisers. Kondo ordered the Sendai group of ships—plus Nagara and four destroyers ("D" on the maps)—to engage and destroy the U.S. force before he brought the bombardment force of Kirishima and heavy cruisers ("E" on the maps) into Ironbottom Sound. The U.S. ships ("A" on the maps) detected the Sendai force on radar but did not detect the other groups of Japanese ships. Using radar targeting, the two U.S. battleships opened fire on the Sendai group at 23:17. Admiral Lee ordered a cease fire about five minutes later after the radar returns on the northern group appeared to disappear from his ship's radar scopes. However, Sendai, Uranami, and Shikinami were undamaged and circled out of the danger area.
Meanwhile, the four U.S. destroyers in the vanguard of the U.S. formation began engaging both Ayanami and the Nagara group of ships at 23:22. Nagara and her escorting destroyers responded effectively with accurate gunfire and torpedoes, and destroyers Walke and Preston were hit and sunk within 10 minutes with heavy loss of life. The destroyer Benham had part of her bow blown off by a torpedo and had to retreat (she sank the next day), and destroyer Gwin was hit in her engine room and put out of the fight. However, the U.S. destroyers had completed their mission as screens for the battleships, absorbing the initial impact of contact with the enemy, although at great cost. Lee ordered the retirement of Benham and Gwin at 23:48.
Washington passed through the area still occupied by the damaged and sinking U.S. destroyers and fired on Ayanami with her secondary batteries, setting her afire. Following close behind, South Dakota suddenly suffered a series of electrical failures, reportedly during repairs when her chief engineer locked down a circuit breaker in violation of safety procedures, causing her circuits repeatedly to go into series, making her radar, radios, and most of her gun batteries inoperable. However, she continued to follow Washington towards the western side of Savo Island until 23:35, when Washington changed course left to pass to the southward behind the burning destroyers. South Dakota tried to follow but had to turn to right to avoid Benham which resulted in the ship being silhouetted by the fires of the burning destroyers and made her a closer and easier target for the Japanese.
Receiving reports of the destruction of the U.S. destroyers from Ayanami and his other ships, Kondo pointed his bombardment force towards Guadalcanal, believing that the U.S. warship force had been defeated. His force and the two U.S. battleships were now heading towards each other.
Almost blind and unable to effectively fire her main and secondary armament, South Dakota was illuminated by searchlights and targeted by gunfire and torpedoes by most of the ships of the Japanese force, including Kirishima, beginning around midnight on 15 November. Although able to score a few hits on Kirishima, South Dakota took 25 medium and one large-caliber hit—some of which did not explode—that completely knocked out her communications and remaining gunfire control operations, set portions of her upper decks on fire, and forced her to try to steer away from the engagement. All of the Japanese torpedoes missed. Admiral Lee later described the cumulative effect of the gunfire damage to South Dakota as to, "render one of our new battleships deaf, dumb, blind, and impotent." South Dakota's crew casualties were 39 killed and 59 wounded, and she turned away from the battle at 00:17 without informing Admiral Lee, though observed by Kondo's lookouts.
The Japanese ships continued to concentrate their fire on South Dakota and none detected Washington approaching to within 9,000 yd (8,200 m). Washington was tracking a large target (Kirishima) for some time but refrained from firing since there was a chance it could be South Dakota. Washington had not been able to track South Dakota's movements because she was in a blind spot in the Washington's radar and Lee could not raise her on the radio to confirm her position. When the Japanese illuminated and fired on South Dakota, all doubts were removed as to which ships were friend or foe. From this close range, Washington opened fire and quickly hit Kirishima with at least nine main battery shells and almost forty secondary ones, causing heavy damage and setting her aflame. Kirishima was hit below the waterline and suffered a jammed rudder, causing her to circle uncontrollably to port.
At 00:25, Kondo ordered all of his ships that were able to converge and destroy any remaining U.S. ships. However, the Japanese ships still did not know where Washington was located, and the other surviving U.S. ships had already departed the battle area. Washington steered a northwesterly course toward the Russell Islands to draw the Japanese force away from Guadalcanal and the presumably damaged South Dakota. The Imperial ships finally sighted Washington and launched several torpedo attacks, but by the skilled seamanship of her captain she avoided all of them and also avoided running aground in shallow waters. At length, believing that the way was clear for the transport convoy to proceed to Guadalcanal (but apparently disregarding the threat of air attack in the morning), Kondo ordered his remaining ships to break contact and retire from the area about 01:04, which most of the Japanese warships complied with by 01:30.
Read more about this topic: Naval Battle Of Guadalcanal, Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 14–15
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